SOUTHAMPTON, England -- On the night of June 5, 1944, about the time that Allied paratroopers were landing behind German lines in Normandy and several hours after the largest invasion force in history had set out across the English Channel, a fleet of civilian-operated U.S. Army tugs pulled away from the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England.
Their mission was to guide selected U.S. merchant ships into positions off Omaha Beach, where they would be intentionally sunk to create a breakwater.
Inside the breakwater would be assembled a network of concrete platforms and floating piers that would make up the fully operational harbors code-named "Mulberry," where the invasion forces would come ashore until a real harbor was liberated.
Just as the tugs were leaving England, the "blockships" that were to be sunk were getting under way from several locations in England and Wales. Also crewed by seamen of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the doomed vessels were an assortment of damaged Liberty ships and rust buckets still in service from World War I.
Before they set out, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower told the men on the blockships, "Sons, you have to be swept out and sunk. God bless you," one seaman remembered.
About 800 U.S. merchant mariners volunteered to crew the blockships, while another 1,000 civilian seamen were among those manning the 158 tugs of the Army Transportation Service (ATS). When some of the original tug crews, who were non-combatants, refused to go into action, the ATS had to replace them shortly before the mission.
"It was hard to explain that you were a merchant mariner, sailing with the ATS, under the command of the U.S. Navy," said Lester E. Ellison, a retired nuclear quality control expert who was the first officer aboard Army tug ST 761.
The merchant marines were also the backbone of the invasion's supply operation, manning some 800 other merchant vessels that were used as troop and cargo transports. Six days after D-Day they could claim credit for a large portion of the 54,000 vehicles, 104,000 tons of supplies and 326,000 troops that had been deposited at Normandy.
One of those vessels was the Liberty ship Jeremiah O'Brien, which is scheduled to be anchored off Pointe du Hoc, between the Omaha and Utah beaches, in honor of the merchant marines' presence.
Fourteen merchant mariners buried at the Normandy cemeteries, along with the fallen soldiers and sailors of the U.S. armed forces, are a permanent reminder of their service's role there.
The Army tugs made their way across the 90 miles separating Normandy from the Isle of Wight. They stopped 10 miles off Omaha Beach at midday on June 6 -- as troops of the 1st and 29th U.S. Army Infantry divisions were experiencing their bloodiest hours on the beaches -- and remained there, within earshot of the action, until just before dawn on June 7, D-Day plus 1.
By the end of the following day, D-Day plus 2, two ships had been maneuvered into position at the beach and scuttled to form the first sections of the outer breakwaters.
Over the next two weeks, the harbor, code-named "Gooseberry," was constructed and then obliterated by the worst gale in 40 years.
Although none of the merchant mariners at Normandy were given veterans' status when they got home because they were not officially in the armed forces, Eisenhower did not overlook their contribution.
Later in 1944, he said: "Every man in this Allied command is quick to express his admiration for the loyalty, courage and fortitude of the officers and men of the Merchant Marine. When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine." They received veterans' benefits in 1988.