Fort Pierce, founded 75 years ago, helped military train for D-Day
By ELIOT KLEINBERG | The Palm Beach Post, Fla. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 24, 2018
Editors note: Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Fort Pierce Amphibious Training Base on Jan. 26, 1943. This is a 2001 feature about the base.
When the flat-bottomed landing craft stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and spilled seasick and terrified soldiers into a rain of gunfire, their drivers steered with experience gained during training in South Florida. And the squads sent in on the first wave to destroy hidden obstructions planted to impale landing craft, also had trained at a teeming base on a quiet stretch of beach near Fort Pierce.
The Navy SEAL Museum, at Pepper County Park on North Hutchinson Island, is one of St. Lucie County’s largest tourist attractions, with more than 90,000 visiting annually. The museum displays photographs, documents, plaques, newspaper accounts and captured memorabilia. Its grounds are scattered with several actual Vietnam War patrol boats, but also a replica of the boats that ferried troops ashore in France on D-Day.
In those same types of boats, men practiced such landings on the deserted beaches. Cargo nets were draped over scaffolds so troops could practice climbing down the sides of battleships to the landing boats.
Also on the property: some of the obstacles placed offshore so boat drivers could practice eluding them and teams could practice blowing them up. They are exact copies of the obstacles America knew, from reconnaissance, that the Germans had planted to repel the invasion. Set just below the water line, they would impale landing craft, sending weighed-down soldiers to their deaths in deep water.
There are concrete pyramids the size of dishwashers, with tangled metal bars jutting from them. There are the dreaded “hedgehogs” — assemblies of metal bars that looked like gigantic children’s jacks but were deadly in their efficiency.
One Fort Pierce-based unit lost 33 men, about half its force, at bloody Omaha Beach, although it managed to blow five large gaps through the obstacles.
More than 140,000 military personnel trained at the St. Lucie County base from 1943 to 1946. Then, all of St. Lucie County had fewer than 20,o00 residents.
Even after D-Day, the U.S. military continued training near Fort Pierce for Pacific landings, including the invasion of the Japanese homeland that everyone knew would be a bloodbath.
After the war, the Fort Pierce base shut down and stood dormant. The military left the obstructions in the water, where they stayed until the federal government fished them out during a 1991 nationwide cleanup of former military sites. At the museum’s request, the items were handed over and displayed on the grounds.
The state owns the museum and leases it to St. Lucie County, which then subleases it to the museum’s foundation. Private donations are its major support.
NATIONAL NAVY UDT-SEAL MUSEUM: www.navysealmuseum.org/