D-Day veteran: 'I think I did a good job, and I'm proud to be an American'
By CYNTHIA G. SIMISON | MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass. | Published: May 31, 2020
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — By the time Samuel James Hanna arrived off the coast of Normandy, France, on a long-ago morning in June, he’d already seen the toil and toll of war up close.
On June 6, 1944, less than a week shy of turning 20, “Jim” Hanna and his crew mates aboard the Navy Landing Ship Tank (LST) 308 were delivering a couple of hundred British troops to Gold Beach at about 11:30 a.m. It was the second wave of the D-Day landings as the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy to reclaim Europe from the Nazis in World War II.
At the time, it was the greatest amphibious military operation undertaken in history. There were 5,000 ships, backed by thousands more smaller craft, 11,000 aircraft and over 150,000 service men. Before the day was over, thousands – Allied and German soldiers, as well as French civilians – would perish. It would set the stage for the Allies to beat back the Nazi juggernaut that had gripped most of Europe since the fall of Paris four years earlier.
For Hanna, D-Day was not the first time he had experienced such a massive operation to bring soldiers, tanks, equipment and supplies to a beachhead.
Nine months earlier, Hanna and LST 308 had come face to face with the Nazi Luftwaffe and SS Panzer divisions at Salerno when the Allies invaded Italy.
And, three months before that in an assault nearly as large as Normandy, he’d helped deliver an armored division of U.S. troops to Sicily. It was there, Hanna says, that he was most afraid in his introduction to war.
Hanna grew up at 24 Hawthorne St. in Springfield’s Six Corners neighborhood, the eldest of three sons from a tight-knit Irish family who had gone off to serve their country in World War II. Today, closing in on 96, Hanna lives in the same neat and tidy red ranch house in Sixteen Acres where he’s lived since 1952 and raised his family.
Ask him the secret to his long life and a still very active Hanna will joke, “It sure wasn’t clean living. I was the rebel of the family. I sure raised hell growing up.” More serious, though, Hanna quickly adds that his father lived to 99, so he believes longevity is in his genes.
Hanna graduated from Cathedral High School in the spring of 1941, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that propelled the US into World War II. After graduation, he had followed in his father’s footsteps onto the factory floor at Smith & Wesson, but, like other young men of his generation, Pearl Harbor changed the course of his life.
Hanna, followed later by his younger brothers, enlisted in the Navy and headed off to boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island, in early 1942 and later to 16 weeks’ school for gunner mates before being assigned to the Massachusetts-built LST 308. A shakedown cruise for the brand-new ship preceded its crossing the Atlantic in a convoy with a load of tanks aboard, bound for North Africa where the Allies were battling to wrest control from Nazi Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
The 308 landed first at the port of Arzew in Algeria and then went on to Tunis in Tunisia after its capture by the Allies. It was in Tunis that LST 308 became part of the Allied forces which prepared for an assault on Sicily where the Nazis had retreated from Africa.
It was off the shores of Sicily that Hanna says he remembers being first struck by fear as an amphibious force of some 3,000 ships brought troops, tanks, trucks and war materials across the Mediterranean to the island off the coast of Italy. News reels of the day reported an air and armored battle of some 57 hours preceded U.S. Gen. George Patton going ashore to claim control of the port of Gela in July 1943.
“I was only just turning 19,” Hanna says. “You’re at the age where you think you’re immortal.” At Gela, he remembers, “That was the most scary one. It was my first real, actual combat…when you start seeing people getting killed.”
LST 308 was delivering an armored attack group to Sicily when two beaches over another LST was blown to bits by German bombers. “To me Sicily was the worst,” he says. “I mean I was really scared.” He manned a 3-inch gun and was at battle stations throughout each invasion, enduring shelling from the Axis troops on the shore and from the air. (The 308’s armaments were modified for Normandy.)
Once Sicily was secured, it became the base of operations for the Allies to prepare to invade mainland Italy. LST 308 would deliver men and materials to Salerno, the main landing area for the assault that began on Sept. 3, 1943. “It was a different type of experience,” Hanna recalls. “(The Germans) knew we were coming.”
Once its duty done in the Mediterranean, LST 308 that fall became part of the convoy that headed north to England, bound, they knew, according to Hanna, for new duty as the Allies plotted a course to reclaim western Europe from the Nazis.
Hanna recalls it as a “horrendous trip,” not just for having to navigate through Nazi submarine patrols but also encountering a major storm off the Bay of Biscay in Spain. “There were waves 60 to 80 feet high. You’d go down in the trough and lose sight of the ship beside you,” he remembers.
The 308 unloaded its cargo at Plymouth, England, before continuing on, first to Milford Haven, Wales, and then to northern Ireland. “That was a real joyful situation,” Hanna remembers. His immigrant father hailed from Belfast so landing at the port of Londonderry meant a family reunion.
“I got to see the whole family,” Hanna says. When his grandmother died during his time here, he was granted leave and spent 10 days with an aunt, eating well and meeting his extended family. “It was great,” he says.
It was during the stop in Londonderry that the 308 was outfitted with new guns for the coming invasion codenamed Operation Neptune. After a stop in Scotland on the Firth of Clyde, the ship headed back to the south of England.
“We knew weeks before (D-Day) we were preparing for it. We had all kinds of training with the British troops,” he says.
Hanna can still remember the day the British troops came aboard 308. “The sound of their hobnail boots on the steel deck would give you a headache,” he recalls. Once aboard, it was a waiting game as inclement weather paused the operations, sending his boat to drop anchor off the Isle of Wight to wait out the delay.
“Nobody got off once we started loading. Nobody was in or out, there were no liberties,” he says. The about 100-mile crossing that morning was choppy but not too rough, he recalls. The crew was at battle stations for the entire trip.
“I don’t think there was any real fear,” Hanna says. “It was more a sense of ‘this is it,’ we’ll wait and see what happens.” LST 308 landed in the Jig Green section of Gold Beach, an area that bumped up against Omaha Beach, one of the two beaches along with Utah, where American troops were landing that day to face a far more bloody confrontation with the Nazi forces.
“(Gold Beach) was not like other invasion beaches. It was 100 yards or more from the seawall, so we were letting guys out and they’re running across a hundred yards or so of sand,” he explains. As a gunner’s mate assigned to a station in the aft section of the LST, Hanna says he did not see the action on the beach but knows the success of his ship’s delivery. “We had no casualties…we lost nobody going onto the beach, all the British soldiers we landed made it.”
Over the ensuing two months, his LST would make more than a dozen trips back and forth between England and France, ferrying wounded and prisoners of war one way and then returning with more supplies and equipment for the war effort.
“There was a sense of accomplishment after you get the troops on the beach (that) we’ve done it,” Hanna remembers. “And, then you bless yourself one more time, saying, ‘Thank God.’ I had had enough of blood and guts at that point.”
By late September 1944, Hanna was bound for home aboard an ocean liner to Lido Beach, New York. He’d have 30 days leave before reassignment to another brand-new LST, the 1079, built in Hingham and bound for duty in the Pacific. As with 308, Hanna went aboard as a “plank owner,” a member of the commissioning crew and sailed through the Panama Canal and on to Pearl Harbor and the Pacific islands. The 1079 did not see combat, rather ferrying troops and equipment among the islands and to the Philippines. At the war’s end, he found himself at Treasure Island Naval Station in San Francisco.
A cross-country troop train would bring him and hundreds of other troops from San Francisco to Boston. He’d arrive at Springfield’s Union Station to be greeted by his youngest brother. Hanna remembers adjusting back into civilian life, working first briefly for the city in its building department but later joining New England Telephone & Telegraph for a nearly 40-year career in installation and repair work.
All three Hanna brothers came through the war unscathed. He was the only one to see combat. “How lucky can you be,” he says in reflection. “The good lord was watching me, and I can say the same for my brothers.” His brother, Thomas, was a Navy aircraft mechanic who worked stateside, and youngest brother, Clark, enlisted at the tail-end of the war and was assigned to the Pentagon.
His own children, particularly his son, Kevin, a retired state trooper who’s helped him assemble documents that track the path of his service, have encouraged Hanna to share his memories in hopes they will help new generations understand what happened during World War II and the lessons that can carry forward.
Hanna feels today’s younger generation of Americans are “too spoiled” and may not appreciate what past generations have accomplished to ensure democracy survives. “We had nothing back then. Today, the youngsters have so many things that have progressed,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with progress, but they don’t realize how hard it can be.”
Of his own service, Hanna says simply, “I think I did a good job, and I’m proud to be an American. That’s for sure.”
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