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75 years ago, soldiers trained to storm Normandy beaches at Fort Pierce

By ELIOT KLEINBERG | The Palm Beach Post, Fla. | Published: June 4, 2019

FORT PIERCE (Trbune News Service) — When the flat-bottomed landing craft stormed the beaches of Normandy, spilling seasick and terrified soldiers into a rain of gunfire, their drivers steered with experience gained during training in South Florida.

And the suicide squads, sent in earlier 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.

Visitors can see those evil concrete blocks and jumbles of wire designed to stop the crusaders and a replica of those boats that helped liberate a continent.

The National Navy UDT-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. Adults and schoolchildren come to see and understand.

The museum claims to be the only one in the world dedicated exclusively to "frogmen," military Underwater Demolition Teams or UDTs, and the elite SEAL — Sea, Air and Land — commando unit created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

The museum displays photographs, documents, plaques, newspaper accounts and captured memorabilia. Its grounds are scattered with several 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 obstructions 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 waterline, 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. And 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 about half its force, 31 men, on June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach, although it managed to blow five large gaps through the obstacles.

Even after D-Day, the U.S. military continued training near Fort Pierce for Pacific landings, including the invasion of Japan. It was an invasion made moot by the atomic bomb.

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.

Veterans of the base held informal reunions, and in 1982, a group combined the UDT and SEAL legacies to form one museum, dedicated in 1985.

©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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