World War II Oral History
Angelo Crapanzano of Cliffside Park, N.J., is a survivor of Exercise Tiger, a practice landing for D-Day off the coast of Slapton Sands, England that turned disastrous when German E-boats struck at 2 a.m., sinking two fully loaded LSTs and badly damaging a third.
May 2, 1994
A set of feeler gauges in Angelo Crapanzano's memorabilia book are all that remain of LST 507. Above the feeler gauges is the watch Crapanzano was wearing when it was smashed at 2:03 a.m. on April 28, 1944. The page at the right says, "Famous Last Words: Thank God we're on a flat-bottomed amphibious LST. We'll never have to worry about torpedoes."
Angelo Crapanzano: There were something like 20,000 guys involved in Tiger. They started in January having these dress rehearsals. There were two or three before us, one was Beaver, I forgot the other names.
Then we come along. One of the reasons that the first three exercises had no problems was because when they had their exercises, the English Channel was pretty rough. Rough waters not good for E-boats. They want calm water. So what happens, when its time for Tiger, the water was like a lake. And these eight LSTs, were the T-4 part of this whole thing.
Aaron Elson: I interviewed an antiaircraft gunner who was on the beach, he had been in the first wave, he said it was the most beautiful day he had seen in a long time.
Angelo Crapanzano: You know, the English Channel can be like a lake, and also it can be rougher and nastier than the Atlantic Ocean when it whips up. You can go from one extreme to the other. A lot of people dont realize how rough the English Channel can get.
So what happened, there were eight LSTs, the first five came out of another port, and they went out into the Channel and waited. Now around dusk, the three LSTs the 507 that I was on, and the other two were the 531, Im not sure about the third when it came time for us to go out and rendezvous with them, they had two British corvettes to escort us out. When we got out there and lined up, the corvettes turned around and went back to England. A lot of us were wondering why these ships were going back, where the hell is our escort?
We ended up with one escort ship. It was about a mile in front of the lead ship, so the sides are wide open in effect. My ship, the 507, is the last ship in line, which is uh-uh, bad. Thats how they hit them. But the thing youve got to remember is this: Nobody ever even suspected that a thing like this would happen. The element of surprise was devastating. Plus, what made it bad is that it was 2 oclock in the morning, and it was dark.
Oh, the day before this operation, I received a tetanus booster shot. A few of the other fellows did too, not everybody, they go according to your chart. The last time Id had a tetanus shot was when I was in boot camp, that was the first time I ever had a tetanus shot. And when I got the tetanus shot in boot camp, I ended up with a 104 fever. So they gave me this booster shot, and the next day, as were approaching this convoy, I started to feel funny and I could feel my pulse going and I thought, "Dont tell me Im gonna get sick again."
I was concerned, because I had the midnight to 4 in the morning watch in the main engine room, because I was a motor machinists mate first class.
It was approaching midnight, so I went down in the engine room, and we were under way. My engineering officer was down there, and I told him that well, I didnt tell him, you cant, when youve got two big 12-cylinder diesel engines running full speed they scream, you have to wear cotton in your ears, and you cant talk, you either read lips or motion. I told him, "I dont feel good, I feel like Ive got a fever." So he said, "Go up to the pharmacists mate."
I go up to the pharmacists mate, and he takes my temperature. Sure enough, 104. So he says, "What are you doing out of your bunk?"
I said, "Ive got the 12 to 4 watch."
He said, "Go down and tell the engine room officer I told you that you should go to your bunk."
I go back down to the engine room, and I tell him, so he says, "All right, Ill cover you." So I go up to the crews quarters now this is odd, I got this weird feeling that where the hell is my life jacket? It was like somebody told me. I never had a feeling like that before, and wed had plenty of general quarters drills. When you have a general quarters drill its mandatory you wear your life jacket and if youre topside youve got to wear your helmet. But we were down below, no helmet, just the life jacket. And I start looking for my life jacket. Theyre thrown all over the place, on top of the lockers, under the lockers, and Im looking, Im looking, and I find it, its all full of dust. My name, "Crappy," was on it, because everybody called me Crappy. Theyve been calling me Crappy since grammar school, for Chrissake. So I grab my life jacket, I take it over to my bunk, and I lay it right on my bunk. And I lay down. I must have gone to sleep. I dont know how long I was sleeping, but all of a sudden, general quarters was sounded. So I jumped up, and without even hesitating I grabbed my life jacket and started running for the engine room, and Im lacing it up, and as Im going down the ladder I hear guns going boom-boom-boom, 40-millimeter, I thought, "What the hell is this?"
I figured, well, its an exercise. So when I got down to the engine room I said to the engineer, "Whats going on?"
Aaron Elson: You went down to the engine room?
Angelo Crapanzano: Oh yeah, I had to. When they sound general quarters, I mean youve got to be dead not to go. I went down. So now its about twenty minutes to two.
My job in general quarters was up in the front of the engine room where they have the enunciators for the wheelhouse. When they change the speeds, that was my job, noting the change of speeds and then recording it in a log. That log is very important in the Navy, in case two ships have an accident, the first thing they want to see is the log and the speeds. And Im getting all these changes of speed, and thinking, "What the hells going on?" Full speed. Half-speed. Stop. Quarter speed. Im writing all these things, and the last thing I remember writing, I know exactly when we got hit, I was writing 2:03, everything went black. There was this terrific roar, and I got this sensation of flying up, back, and when I came down I must have bumped my head and must have been out for a few seconds. When I came to, I felt cold on my legs. And it was pitch black, because the torpedo went in the auxiliary engine room which is just forward of the main engine room, and the only thing between the auxiliary and the main is a steel bulkhead about an inch thick.
I knew the engine room like the palm of my hand. I knew I had to go forward and to either corner, and there was an escape ladder on either side. Thats what I did. I ran to the ladder and I went up. When I got topside, I couldnt believe what I saw: The ship was split in half and burning, fire went from the bow all the way back to the wheelhouse. The only thing that wasnt burning was the stern. And the water all around the ship was burning, because the fuel tanks ruptured, and the oil went into the water. On the tank deck we had fifteen Army ducks [amphibious vehicles], and every Army duck had the cans of gasoline on them, and all that was going into the water, so it was like an inferno.
And then the soldiers were panicking. You couldnt blame them because theyre not trained for disasters at sea. Theyre trained for land, for fighting. A lot of them were jumping over the side immediately without even waiting for the captain to say abandon ship. The ship was so crowded with personnel, because every LST had two or three hundred Army personnel with all the vehicles, this was a real dress rehearsal. They had to do that for the guys to get used to the ships, where the heads were, how to go to eat. Also, how to dog down their equipment so it doesnt roll and slip. It was so crowded that a lot of the soldiers were sleeping topside on their vehicles. When the torpedo hit, a lot of these guys got blown right into the water. There were even small jeeps that got blown into the water. It was an inferno, and the only place that wasnt burning was the stern. So I ran back there.
Now theres a bunch of guys back there, and everybodys wondering what happened, what the hells going on? In the meantime, while were standing there, the 531 gets two torpedoes and it goes down in about ten minutes. They claim that maybe ten or twelve guys got off of that ship. It went down fast. Two, I mean two, thats bad.
Now the captain yells to the gunnery officer, "Empty the magazines of all the 40-millimeter shells!" He was worried that it was gonna get so hot it would blow the whole thing. So we formed a line and they were passing the cans with the shells, and we were throwing them over the side. That lasted about ten minutes. Then he said, "Abandon ship!"
So this is tough, because a thousand things are running through your mind at one time. Oh, wait a minute, while were standing there, the gunnery officer says, "Here comes another torpedo!" And we look over, and theres this thing coming right toward the ass end of the ship, it missed us by no more than twelve feet. You know what kind of feeling that is? Your blood freezes.
Aaron Elson: Do you remember what went through your mind? Was it terror?
Angelo Crapanzano: No, your mind goes like blank. Because youre almost saying to yourself, "Whats this going to feel like when it hits? Im dead. Were dead."
Now weve got to go into the water, because its getting worse. There were a lot of guys on the front end of the ship, and the tank deck was burning right under them. I had guys telling me that they hesitated, a lot of guys didnt want to jump in the water right away. I didnt want to either. It got so hot on the deck that their shoes started smoking, because the tank deck was burning fiercely, and thats all metal. Its just like a gas jet stove, and all the heats going up to the top deck.
All right, so youve got to jump. And I run to the railing and I look down and I see all these guys in the water already. Now I say, "What am I gonna do? Im gonna jump and Im gonna hit somebody."
Then Im saying this is all in a split second when I jump in the water somebodys gonna jump on top of me. When I jump in the water how deep down do I go before I come up? Or do I come up right away?
The thing I didnt realize is this. And nobody did. I knew, because in the engine room you had to take readings of a bunch of gauges, like seawater temperature, oil temperature, because the seawater cools the engine. I knew that the reading on the salt water coming in was 43 degrees. What I didnt know was what 43 degrees felt like. So when I hit the water, it took my breath away, thats how cold it was. It was frigid. It was unbelievable, unbelievable cold.
It was cold, but you werent thinking too much about cold. Youre thinkng about how do I save my ass? So I went for the back of the ship, and everybody was going to the back because that was the only part of the water that wasnt burning yet.