OSWEGO — The warm waters of Oswego Harbor that lap the sides of the U.S. Army Transport LT-5 “Major Elisha K. Henderson” could scarcely be further removed from the cold English Channel currents that carried it 75 years ago today.
June 6 is remembered as D-Day, when the combined forces of the free world descended upon northern France in the final push to end the Second World War.
More than 156,000 troops landed on beaches with names like Omaha, Utah and Juno and a piece of that “Day of Days” now finds its well-earned rest on the calm shores of Lake Ontario.
“It’s a jewel for Oswego,” said Port of Oswego Executive Director Bill Scriber in a recent interview with The Palladium-Times.
A veteran himself whose father served in World War II, Scriber said the LT-5 serves the city of Oswego as a sentinel to remind locals about the “greatest generation.”
“This is the only [vessel] in the water that is a historical D-Day vessel that people can visit and walk through and learn about our greatest men and women,” Scriber said. “For me, this is like a living memorial to those who sacrificed during that period of time to make sure we had a United States of America.”
Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower ordered the attack on Normandy, knowing he would be sending thousands of American, British and Canadian soldiers straight into the teeth of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
Along a 50-mile wide invasion area, soldiers fought their way up the beach against machine gun and artillery fire. More than 4,000 would die that day and 10,000 more would be wounded. By the end of “The Longest Day,” however, the Allies controlled the beachheads.
Within five days, more than 320,000 troops and 50,000 vehicles would begin the march towards Berlin.
It wasn’t long before allied troops began to feel the “pinch of ammunition shortage,” said Charles Dana Gibson, military historian and author, standing aboard the LT-5 at its current mooring at the H. Lee White Maritime Museum,
“The reality is that this tug, ex-U.S. Army Transport LT-5, played a highly significant and unique role in maintaining our 1944 presence in France — a presence which at one point in time was in serious jeopardy,” Gibson said.
A first-person account called “Assault on Normandy, First Person Accounts From Sea Services,” by Vice-Admiral Alan Kirk, at the time head of American Naval Forces at Normandy, recounts the discussion the winter previous between himself and General Omar Bradley.
In the entry, Bradley was credited with astute foresight that their normal supply ship — which they had to lift ammunition out of and lower it over the sides onto boats to be rowed to artificially created docks off the Omaha Beach — might not see them through the end of their mission.
“[General Omar] very wisely suggested that he might be in real trouble if we got in difficulties with the ship-to-shore movement of ammunition or if the weather got so bad that the little boats that were supposed to take it in couldn't carry it,” Kirk wrote in his diary.
“I said I thought it was a fine idea, so we commandeered from the New York Harbor and Boston Harbor and Baltimore Harbor these car ferries,” Kirk wrote. “We loaded them with what the Army called units of fire — so many rounds of small arms and so many rounds of machine gun ammunition, ammunition for antitank guns and antiaircraft guns, and 105s, bazookas, 155s, and so on. Each barge was loaded with some of each kind of ammunition. The whole thing was what they called combat loaded for each type of gun. We towed those right over on D+l and stranded them high up on the beaches, out of the way of the regular landing spots. So this reserve ammunition was available and, by God, when the great storm came in mid-June, it saved our bacon. A very well-conceived idea of Bradley’s and very well executed.”
According to records from the U.S. Naval Institute, the LT-5 left England the morning of June 6 for the coastline of Omaha Beach with a fleet of tugs, barges, aged merchant ships, concrete caissons and cruciform steel floats to create artificial harbors of the coast called “Mulberries,” tasked with offloading equipment a mile offshore.
Following the war in 1946, the large tug was assigned to the Buffalo District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There in its re-commissioned state it was renamed the John F. Nash, according to Mercedes Neiss, Executive Director of the H. Lee White Maritime Museum.
For 43 years, the vessel served the lower Great Lakes region by maintaining harbors and construction projects, including the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Port of Oswego Authority, under the authority of Jack Fitzgibbons, purchased the vessel “to assist with the general commerce of the port,” according to FitzGibbon’s son and local contractor John FitzGibbons, reached by phone Wednesday afternoon.
“The port authority, by way of the process of municipalities, acquired surplus or unused state property, and among them maritime assets,” John FitzGibbons said.
FitzGibbons said it didn’t take long for Rosemary Nesbitt, former director of the H. Lee White Maritime Museum, to realize the vessel’s historical significance before nominating it for historical recognition. In 1991, the LT-5 was named as a National Historic Landmark.