By Ron Barry
There are a lot of places having Veterans Day ceremonies this week, but how many can feature an actual D-Day survivor among its participants?
Such was the case this past Sunday at the Veterans Museum in Halls, when 97-year-old Bill Allen – a World War II Navy medic – told the tale of his near-death experience off the coast of Omaha Beach during the June 1944 invasion of Normandy, France.
As with many veterans who saw actual battle conditions, Allen didn’t speak about his experiences for quite a while. In fact, his wife Idalee didn’t hear about it until they’d been married for over 20 years. But she says he tells it frequently now, ever since a crew from the PBS show Nova filmed a documentary for the 70th anniversary of D-Day and took Allen back to the scene.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – because, by his account, he probably shouldn’t been around for the first anniversary of D-Day.
And to this day, Allen believes the providential hand of God is the reason he’s still here.
In June of 1944, Bill Allen was 19 years old. He was on a flat-bottom ship with the mundane name of LST 523, designed to transport troops to shorelines. On this day, they also found themselves carrying several casualties back, but only after their first attempt at a landing went miserably wrong. Several members of the initial troops they carried in drowned when the boat couldn’t reach the beach, and the few soldiers who made it to shore took only a few steps before they were gunned down.
Once that happened, the LST 523 became a “death detail” boat, so named because its new task was to transport casualties back. Allen says they’d pick up dead bodies and “clean them up; most of them were bloody, muddy, and greasy. We clean them the best we could, find a dog tag and put it on their foot for an ID, and then wrap them in a blanket and put them on a cooler until we could get them back to England.”
The boat actually managed to make three more runs that day, but on the fourth, it went in at low tide and somehow collided with an underwater mine, shattering the vessel with a tremendous explosion.
“It just pulverized everything,” Allen said. “Those who could began to jump off what was left of the boat, but many were hurt too badly to even jump.” When the mine detonated, Allen was sitting around the middle area of the ship in a transport truck on the deck. The boat was still about five miles from the shoreline.
“I was on the bow, and it was going down. I stayed on it until all the others had jumped off or been washed off. It was then a matter of deciding which I wanted to drown, either going down with the ship or trying to swim all the way to the shore.”
Suddenly, he heard a voice – it was his friend Jack Hamlin, who’d somehow gotten aboard a life raft about 20 feet away. Allen, who says he couldn’t swim very well, jumped in the water anyway at Hamlin’s insistence and struggled to the raft.
He learned later that Hamlin got the inflatable life raft loose from the sinking boat and managed to keep it close enough to pick up Allen and four others. After floating for about 30 minutes, they were rescued by another small ship, which then transported them to a larger ship, which took them on board.
While he admits he struggled early on with “survivors’ guilt” – the haunting feeling that he should be dead, just like so many others who surrounded him – he relates the part of the story which he believes was a major factor somehow in his escape.
On the morning of the disaster, Allen joined “a dozen other Southern-boy soldiers” in a Sunday morning “church service” aboard the LST 523. “It was only about five or 10 minutes,” he said. “We’d read our Bibles and pray, or sometimes just sing a song.”
But here’s the kicker: Out of the 145 Navy personnel on the LST 523, only 28 survived. Among the 28? Every single member of the church service.
“Some of us were injured severely, but every single one of us made it back home to their families,” Allen said. “I thank God for that. It was really hard to understand any justice as to who was killed and who wasn’t, but I decided that night that there was no way that luck was what carried me through it. There had to be a Power far stronger than luck.”
After being discharged because a doctor blocked their reassignment orders, saying they were “unfit due to the blast of the ship, and were in no shape to go back out to sea,” Allen went home to Murfreesboro and started work with Woodfin Funeral Home in a variety of roles. He ended up retiring from the Murfreesboro Electric Department after a lengthy career, and went back to work for Woodfin.
When the PBS documentary crew found him, they took him to France (along with his wife, two daughters, and some of their grandchildren) and, after visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial – where over 9,000 U.S. military personnel are buried – placed Allen in a submersible and viewed the actual wreckage of the LST 523 on the sea floor. It appeared to be damaged in exactly the way Allen had described it.
Allen’s story was featured in NOVA’s “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets,” which aired in 2014. He is proud of the role his fellow soldiers played on that fateful day.
“Hitler had to be stopped, or else we wouldn’t have the freedom we have here today,” Allen said. “He had taken over so many countries and was rolling for more. It was a case of trying to preserve and save our lives in this country. I have no regrets with what I did to help save it. I came back, and I’ve lived a long time now. It would have never been if we hadn’t preserved it.”