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.
Aaron Elson: When you hit the water, how deep did you go?
Angelo Crapanzano: I must have gone down a good six, eight feet. Because this is a 40-foot jump. You had to climb up over the railing and then jump. But itís feet first, you get down nice and clean. But like I said, I was worried, youíre looking, and itís dark, and you say, "I hope I donít hit somebody." So I come up. Then I was worried about the flames in the water, but they were further up, like I said, the whole back end was good yet. So weíre all back there, a bunch of soldiers and all the sailors. And also there is this guy, my shipmate, John McGarigal. He was a storekeeper, and he was in the wheelhouse when this happened. Well, I met him over this weekend (The day before this interview, the TV show "Inside Edition" had reunited Crapanzano, McGarigal ó whose life Crapanzano saved ó and Joe McCann, who rescued them both), and I asked him, because I wondered, I said I knew that all these guys topside had to wear helmets, and then I knew that he had a gash in his forehead and he was bleeding badly. And I said to him, "Didnít you have your helmet on when the torpedo hit?"
You know what he told me? He told me that at that moment, just before, he removed his helmet because he was sweating, to wipe his brow, and thatís when it hit, so he had no helmet, and the concussion blew him from one side of the wheelhouse to the other and he banged his head. And the other thing I learned yesterday ó this is odd ó is that guess who was sending the speeds down from the wheelhouse to me? Him. He was in the wheelhouse, that was his job. Fifty years I never knew it. He tells me.
So weíre all back there in the water, what the hell do we do now? And what the hell is going on? Who hit us? What was it? We didnít know.
Then we see these large oval life rafts that every LST carries, about 12 of them around the outer rim of the ship. In an abandon ship, the chief boatswainís mate is supposed to go around and cut them loose, and they slide right down in the water. But it didnít happen that way. Out of the 12 life rafts that we had, they said only two or three got released, and we were lucky, we got one of them. And wait till you hear this. We see this life raft drifting towards us. It had gone through all the flames in the water. It was all burnt. The whole center was gone. Now these life rafts are big, theyíre like from here to the wall, and very wide, and the outer rim is about a foot around. In the center is a wooden platform, plus they have water, fish hooks, all this crap for survival, that was gone, that was all burned away, and the outer rim was all charred. But it was buoyant and was floating. So when I saw it I said, "Letís grab this thing," and it was coming toward us. So I grabbed on, and McGarigal next to me, and nine soldiers got on it, there were eleven in all when we started.
I said, "Weíve got to kick like hell, get the hell away from the ship," because when it goes down itís gonna suck us down with it. And also, weíve got to get through all this water thatís burning. So by kicking a lot and splashing we finally, little by little, we got to the outside of the flames. It was a matter of hanging on and surviving, and we drifted. And little by little we drifted away from the ship, and I watched, I could see my ship burning and little by little going down, even from a distance. But the thing is that, the bad thing was that the water was full of bodies. I saw things that I couldnít believe. I saw bodies that were, whatís the right word, they were stuck all together and charred, they were fused together and charred, and all black. They had gone into the fire and never got out.
What killed the majority of the soldiers was the cold water, hypothermia. The other fact was that 95 percent of them had their life jackets on wrong. They had them around their waist instead of under their armpits. A lot of them jumped in with their packs on their backs, with their rifles, I donít know what the hell they were thinking of, you shouldnít carry any weight into the water. But it was a complete panic. They wanted to get the hell away from the ship.
I saw bodies with arms off, heads off, heads split open, you wouldnít believe what goes on, itís unbelievable. A lot of them were literally blown into the water. I understand that some soldiers got out of the tank deck through an opening in the side. The opening couldnít have been made by the torpedo, but it could have been made by the concussion. I donít know how many but some of the soldiers got out of the tank deck through this opening and they were burned before they even got into the water, because the tank deck was an inferno, it was unbelievable. Iíve got a tape, Friday morning on the Today show, they had a short thing on Exercise Tiger and they had the ceremonies direct from England. The reason I knew to watch it was that the doctor that was on my ship, who lives in Wisconsin, Dr. Eckstam, you see him a lot in interviews, he was like our guardian angel, and he was on his way to England last week and had a layover in Kennedy, he called my house and I wasnít here, my wife spoke to him, and he told my wife about Friday morning, he said the Today show is going to have a portion on the cremonies from England, and maybe Angelo could tape it, and make sure you tell as many of the guys as you can about it.
So what I did, I knew I wasnít going to be home, and I couldnít tape it, because [we were going to be in] Philadelphia, we went right across to Long Beach Island, where Iíve been going for 39 years, my brother lives there. So we rented a place at the Ebbtide Motel in Shipbottom. They had a TV there and I watched it there, and I asked my neighbor across the street if he would tape it, and he did.
Hereís another thing, to show you how cold the water was. I guess after I was in the water no more than an hour, I couldnít feel my legs anymore, itís like thereís nothing there. Then I was starting to really worry, because I used to read these stories about the Murmansk Run in the North Atlantic. Of course the waterís even colder up there, so a ship would get hit and if the guys are in the water any length of time, they used to have gangrene, theyíd take their legs off. I didnít like that, I mean this is what kept going through my mind.
Aaron Elson: Iíve heard of the Murmansk Run, but donít know much about it.
Angelo Crapanzano: The Murmansk Run is the North Atlantic run that they took to deliver all the goods from here to Russia. We were supplying them with tons and tons of stuff. And the German U-boats, what the hell do they call them, the wolfpacks, they had a picnic up there. You know how much tonnage we lost up there in the beginning because we didnít have a proper way to protect the ships? It was unbelievable. And the water up there is, itís got to be in the thirties, very cold, you canít survive in that too long. And if they do get you out, who the hell wants to live with no legs?
Aaron Elson: So you had some knowledge of what was going on?
Angelo Crapanzano: A lot of it is just common sense. I knew about hypothermia. When I started to feel this sensation like this, the nine soldiers are still on the raft, and I kept saying to them, "Donít fall asleep, whatever you do. If you fall asleep youíre dead. Keep kicking your legs. Sing. Talk. Do anything, but donít fall asleep." And, you know, little by little, kicking, there was conversation, but then after a while it started like into a lot of praying and yelling and, because I heard it going on all around me, guys screaming.
Aaron Elson: Would people try to keep each otherís spirits up?
Angelo Crapanzano: Yeah, but then the mood changed, because we started to realize that, hey, weíre gonna be here a long time. Like who the hellís coming back? Is anybody coming back? Then I started to worry about, will these E-boats come around and maybe take us as prisoners of war? All these things go through your mind.
So what happened after a while, after about two hours, three soldiers said, "Weíre gonna make a swim for it."
I said, "Youíre crazy. What do you mean, make a swim for it? You donít even know where you are. You donít know what direction youíre gonna go. Suppose you go in the wrong direction." They went, and thatís it. Those three, gone. They went. And then a little while later, I had an Army lieutenant on my raft who went completely berserk. Yelling and screaming and he lets go, and heís gone.
Now thereís five soldiers left.
Aaron Elson: What sort of things did he yell?
Angelo Crapanzano: He was out of it, he wasnít even making sense. He went completely berserk. And little by little, time went on and on and on. And in the course of the next period of time, like from, in other words, after the lieutenant went, every half hour or three quarters of an hour, one of the other guys would just fall asleep and slip off.
Now youíve got to understand that as time goes on, Iím not feeling so great either. Iím losing a lot of my strength. You lost a lot of your ability to think straight, too. And little by little, all the soldiers went. That was it. They were gone. It was just John and I.
Now itís got to be close to dawn. Itís still dark. Iím in bad shape, and McGarigalís been unconscious for two and a half, three hours already because he lost a lot of blood. He had some gash. I was holding myself to the life raft with my left hand and I was holding onto McGarigal with my right hand. And then it got to a point where I must have went in and out of consciousness myself. And then what happens is this: You see, youíve got to know something else that happened before this to get the idea of what itís all about. Are you familiar, you see, for forty years after the war, this was a complete secret. The only guys that knew were the survivors, and not even their families. Because I didnít even tell my wife about this or my kids. They knew I lost a ship and they knew I got the Bronze Star medal.
I belonged to the VFW in North Bergen. I used to go religiously, never missed a meeting. On the night that the "20/20" show is on, I didnít know about it. We were eating supper, and I said to my wife, "You know, I donít feel like going to the meeting tonight, I think Iíll just stay home and watch TV." So I get up from the table, come into the living room, and open the paper. Iím looking down the schedule, and I didnít usually stay up till 10 and the "20/20" show came on at 10, so I look all the way down, and it says "20/20. The mystery surrounding the killing of 750 GIs in a D-Day rehearsal," or something like that. And when I saw it, I couldnít believe it. Forty years now, Holy Christ, donít tell me that this is about Tiger, I donít believe it, but maybe it is. So I right away jumped on the phone because my son-in-law at that time, my daughter lived in Iselin, he had a Beta, in 1982 there was no VCR, there was just Beta, and he had just gotten it maybe six months before. So I got ahold of my daughter and I said, "Tell Russell to tape the whole Ď20/20í show, itís on from 10 to 11." I said, "I just saw this thing in the paper, and it looks like the thing I was involved in." Itís hard to believe.
Then I got ready to watch it at 10 oíclock. So I sit in the chair, put it on, and sonofabitch, they show you the ass end of the third ship, the third ship that got hit, they blew the back end of it, thatís the 289. When I saw that, I said, "Oh my God, it is!" How the hell did this happen? Whoís doing this now? I watched the whole thing. I was amazed. I was dumbfounded.
Aaron Elson: Up to this point, 40 years, had you talked about it with anyone?
Angelo Crapanzano: No.
Aaron Elson: When you were depressed, did you tell the psychiatrist anything about it?
Angelo Crapanzano: No, I never went into any details. I told him I had lost a ship. I told him I was decorated. But I didnít ó you know why, I donít know if you realize this, too ó when this thing happened, in the beginning, when they took us off the ship to a hospital after this thing happened, we were all more or less told that we should never talk about this to anybody. Even the guys in the Army, like I met this guy who lives in Forked River, he was on the lead ship, the 515, and he said that as soon as this thing started popping, they had all the soldiers go down below decks. They didnít want them to see anything or understand what the hellís going on. And the next morning, their commanding officer told them, "Nothing happened last night. Remember. Nothing happened." Itís all documented. So anyhow, I watched the show, and what happened, Iíll tell you quick because I can go on and on and on, my brother who lives down in Shipbottom, Long Beach Island, that particular night my nephew happened to be twisting the dial, he came across it and he said, "Isnít this what happened to Uncle Angelo?"
And my brother says, "Holy Christ! What the hell is this?" So he watched the whole show. Now heís a commercial artist, he works in Manhattan. Can you believe this, he commutes 200 miles a day. Heís been doing this for 14 years.
Anyhow, the next morning when he goes to Manhattan, he calls the studio and talks to the producer, a woman, her name was Nola Saffro, and he says to her, "I watched your show last night on Tiger, and my brotherís a survivor of that."
So she flipped. She says, "Where does he live?"
He says, "Right across the river."
She says, "Please, give me his phone number." And the next night, at 5 oíclock, I was eating supper and the phone rings, and it was her. She spoke to me for an hour. She wanted to know everything that happened, the way Iím telling you.
And at the end of the conversation, she said to me, "I have the names and addresses of a lot of your shipmates. Theyíre scattered all over the country. Thereís one guy in England, who stayed in England and married an English girl."
She said, "I have the name and address of John Doyle," who was the skipper who came back to save us, he lives in Missoula, Montana.
I said, "Please, give me it." And then she had the name and address of Dr. Green. Dr. Green was one of the doctors, he was a captain, in the Army field hospital where we were brought that following morning. I didnít know him then. I didnít even know he was there. Are you familiar with what happened when the head doctor in this hospital got all the doctors together before we got there? He got them all together and said, "Look, youíre gonna get a load of casualties this morning. You donít take any names. You donít ask any questions. You donít keep any records. Just treat them as they are. Anybody that gets caught talking about this will be court-martialed."
Heís telling this to guys like captains and all. And then we came in and they treated all these guys, and they wondered.
When the war ended, he lives in Chicago, heís a pathologist. Ralph Green. I met him and his wife, Sylvia, in New York. After the war he goes home, back to his practice, and he was telling me, every once in a while he used to think about the thing and used to say, where the hell did all these guys come from, and why did they threaten us with a court-martial? Because nobody knew.
So what happens, in 1974, the government passes the Freedom of Information Act. As soon as he saw that, that was it. He went down to Washington, went into the archives, he wanted to see the box on Tiger. There still were certain things that were classified, but they gave [most of] it to him. When he opened that up, he told me when he started reading it, he couldnít believe it. And he says, "How the hell did they keep this thing so quiet, a disaster like this?" You know what I found out yesterday at the memorial in New Bedford? This guy, by putting figures together, this and this, I knew the figure was low. He said there were over a thousand guys killed. See, they come up with this figure seven hundred and something, thatís bullshit.
So he sees this stuff and he gets crazy. He decides heís gonna investigate the whole thing through. So he spent months traveling all over the country, finding guys, locating survivors, and when he gets enough good information together, he goes to the "20/20" show. So they looked at it, they loved it. On the "20/20" show they interviewed John Doyle, the captain. Dr. Green. Manny Rubin is the fellow who stayed in England, married the English girl. He just died recently. A couple of English people. But you know what they did? This is fantastic. I couldnít believe it. They went to Germany. They put an ad in a German paper saying, "Would the E-boat captains who remember in 1944 this attack please come forward because weíre trying to make a documentary." They did. Three of them. The skipper who sunk my ship and two other guys. His name is Gunther Rabe, they had pictures of him and everything. I saw letters that he wrote to Dr. Eckstam explaining the whole thing, their side of the story. So they got these guys, too.
When she gave me all these names and addresses, I figured the first letter that I want to write is to Dr. Green. I was so thankful that he went to this trouble to do this. So I write him a letter, and I explain who I was, what ship I was on. What happened. A brief synopsis. And he sends me back a letter a week later, he says, "Please, do me a favor. Put down on paper everything you remember from the time you left Brixham until the time you ended up in the hospital. Everything." I put together a six-page letter. He said the reason he wanted to do all this was that heís thinking about writing a book. He was going to call his book "Tiger Burning." Which was an appropriate title, too.
Then I wrote a letter to Captain Doyle and I thanked him, because if he wouldnít have come back I wouldnít be here today.
Aaron Elson: Where does McCann come in?
Angelo Crapenzano: Joe McCann was a coxswain on the 515, the lead ship where the commander was on and Doyleís ship. Some LSTs carried on davits two of these small personnel boats, LCVPs. My ship carried four of them, some had two. And he was a coxswain of one of them. Now, this guy was an expert seaman. The reason being, he lived in Washington State, he used to go out on fishing trawlers, and he knew how tohandle the tiller and all that stuff. And hereís the thing thatís gonna amaze you. He went into the Navy at age 13. He had somebody fake his parentsí name. And when he pulled me out of the water that day he was 15 years old.
Now, I wrote to Dr. Green, John Doyle, I wrote to my gunnery officer who lived in Texas, Tom Clark, he was here to visit me a few years ago. I wrote a letter to Manny Rubin in England. I wrote a letter to a lot of guys, all the names she gave me. But primarily Dr. Green and Doyle.
In the letter to Green, I explained that I couldnít feel my legs, and I was worried about gangrene, and that they were going to have to amputate my legs. Now Green takes this letter, he makes copies of it and he sends it out to a few guys. And you know who gets one of the letters is McCann, he lives in Washington State. So I write all the letters, this is 1984, í85, Iím getting ahead of myself.
Now itís four and a half hours I was in the water, and Iíd just about had it. I figured I wasnít gonna make it. And all of a sudden, Iím looking in the distance, itís still dark. I see this light, going up and down, and it seems to be getting bigger. So when I see this, I immediately assume that help is coming. And when I did that, I passed out. I figured, I saw helpís coming, I couldnít hang any more, I just passed out.
Now, listen to this. This is weird. Oh, wait a minute ó when I wrote the letter to John Doyle, the captain of the 515 who lived in Montana, he wasnít feeling well so he couldnít answer it, so he calls up this guy Floyd Hicks, who lives in California, who was on his ship, and told Hicks to call me up from California and to tell me that he got my letter, and that he was glad to hear from me, and that he wasnít feeling well. So one Sunday night I get a phone call, and I didnít know this guy from Adam, Hicks, in California. So he said, "I was on the 515 with Doyle," and an engine room guy, too. And he said, "Doyle asked me to call you up because he isnít feeling well." In the meantime, he says to me, "I have the phone number of a guy named Joe McCann."
Aaron Elson: So you had not been in contact with McCann yet?
Angelo Crapanzano: No. I didnít know who he was. But Hicks told me that McCann was one of the guys who lowered his boat and went around looking for survivors. So I wrote Joe McCann a letter and I told him about Hicks and Doyle and this and that, and I told him who I was, and I said, "I know that there were two boats lowered that went around looking for survivors," so I said, "The odds are [fifty-fifty] that you are the one who picked me up." I said this in the letter. About three, four days later, on a Sunday night again, the phone rings. Itís Joe McCann. And he says to me ó this is weird ó I told him on the phone, "You know, Joe, I wrote to tell you that being that you were one of the coxswains that picked up bodies, the [chances are one in two] you picked me up."
He said, "I did pick you up."
I said, "How did you know it was me?"
He said, "The reason I knew it was you is that you were unconscious, but you were mumbling about your legs." He had read the letter that I wrote to Dr. Green about my legs.
Oh, wait till you hear this. I couldnít get over this. I came so close to not making it. He told me that when the captain told him that they were gonna lower the boats and go around looking for bodies it was still dark, he immediately ran into his locker and he got a Navy lantern, itís got a big light on it. So he took the lantern and he hooked it onto the bow because he said he didnít want to go through the water and kill somebody that was alive. So he was just drifting slow and looking. And this is the light I saw. And he said, "The first run that I made in the area of your raft, we thought you were dead, and we passed you right up." Can you imagine? Because I went unconscious, and he thought we were dead. Well, McGarigal was unconscious for a couple of hours. But when I went out, they thought we were dead, and they went right past. Then he said on the way back he passed us again, and the guy in the boat with him said, "I think I saw one of those guys moving." And sonofabitch, I mean, how close can you come not to, after all I went through. I mean, I cried. When I hung up I cried.
Aaron Elson: Your wife was telling me that the LST that turned around didnít want to come back, that somebody risked a court martial.
Angelo Crapanzano: Oh, God. What happened, after the third ship got hit. Hereís another thing. We were lined up, eight LSTs, one behind the other, with 500 yards between each one. The front one to our ship, we were way the hell back, now they knew these were maneuvers, when we got hit they saw flares, with the E-boats thereís all flares to light up, but they still thought this is part of the maneuvers. But then when the guy saw the second one go and the third one, thatís when the commander said, "This is not maneuvers." So he told all the LSTs to get the hell out of there, go back to England. So they took off, five LSTs took off to go back. And an LST only goes, top speed, loaded, five knots. They had these Mercedes engines in them, very powerful engines. So all right, they take off, and theyíre heading back to England. So theyíre under way for quite a while. In the meantime, this Captain Doyle, he must have been thinking about something, he says to the commander, "Iím gonna turn this ship around, Iím going back. Thereís got to be a lot of guys in that water alive yet."
The commander said, "If you turn this ship around and go back Iíll have you court-martialed." Now this guyís a commander, and Doyle was a lieutenant JG. Doyle said to him, "This is my ship and Iím going back." He wasnít concerned about the Navy crew, but he had all these Army guys. He made an announcement over the PA system. He said, "Iím going back. Would you rather stay or go back and fight?"
So they all yelled, "Letís go back and fight!" So now he starts back, what, like I said, five knots. But see, the reason the commander said "Iíll have you court-martialed," this is normal procedure in the service. You canít jeopardize a ship loaded with guys to go back and pick up guys. But Doyle knew that when he got back to that area it would be dawn, and once it gets dawn, E-boats donít hang around, they like it at night, sneaky, hit and run. And he was right. So when they came back, they lowered the two boats. McCann was in one of them, and heís the guy that pulled me out of the water.
Aaron Elson: What can you remember about that moment?
Angelo Crapanzano: I was out.
Aaron Elson:. When did you come to?
Angelo Crapanzano: I came to on the 515 in a bunk. And the guy who was working on me, the first thing I asked him was, "How are my legs?"
"Oh," he says, "youíll be all right. Weíre gonna take you back to a hospital this morning." They still had to travel up to Dorset. So when we got to the hospital, like I told you, Green supposedly was there and all these guys, and they were threatened, "Donít ever talk about this thing." See, itís five weeks before Normandy, and they donít want the Germans to know how much damage they inflicted. There was a shortage of LSTs already, because they sent most of them to the Pacific. Now we lose three more, plus we lose all these crack Army troops that were in all the campaigns. North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio.
Aaron Elson: These troops had been veterans of other landings?
Angelo Crapanzano: Oh yeah. I saw a couple of soldiers on my ship, they were laying down, and they were shivering. I said to a guy, "Whatís the matter with them?"
He said, "Theyíve got malaria."
Oh, I didnít tell you this part of the story, wait a minute, I donít want to get ahead of myself. Where was I?
Aaron Elson: You were just coming to.
Angelo Crapanzano: Oh yeah, right. And I said to the guy, "How are my legs?" All right, weíre going to the hospital. This is the comical part of the story. When I woke up, I was awake for a little while, my executive officer was one of the few officers that survived, James Murdoch, and he was a professional baseball pitcher for one of these Southern teams. Lefthanded. He was really good. He used to walk around the deck a lot of the time with a glove and a ball, bouncing it, and he was a rebel. He was from Virginia, one of the southern, you know how they talk. Nice guy. Iíve got a picture of him. And he smoked cigars. But good cigars. He used to buy them in a box. So I wake up, and after a while I see him, heís standing there in his underwear, and you know what he said? Iíll never get over it, I couldnít believe what he said.
"Sonofabitch," he said. "I had six good boxes of cigars on that ship."
And I said, "You sonofabitch! Youíre worried about your cigars? All these guys got killed." Yeah, I never got over it, I couldnít believe it.
Aaron Elson: Youíve just nearly lost both your legs, youíve been in the water for four and a half hours, how did they get you back in shape to send you out on D-Day?
Angelo Crapanzano: Oh, you know about that?
Aaron Elson: It said in the book ("Exercise Tiger," by Nigel Lewis), it said forty trips, but you made 23?
Angelo Crapanzano: It says forty? I donít know where the hell they got that. Thatís another thing thatís in my memorabilia book. It was in the vicinity of 23 or 24 or 27, Iím not sure. Iíll tell you what happened. I went to the hospital. They checked me out and treated me, and said, "Youíll be all right." They said there was no permanent damage.
So hereís what they did. They took the survivors and split them up in small groups. And they put us in, they called them rest camps, but I called them isolation camps. Because we werenít even allowed passes or to talk to anybody.
Aaron Elson: The book said that one thing that kept a lot of guys going was the thought of getting survivorsí leaves.
Angelo Crapanzano: Oh yeah, Iím coming to this. This is the payoff [chuckling]. Oh man, I couldnít believe what I heard. Sonofabitch. So we go to this rest camp, and naturally we all know that the rule in the Navy is this: If you lose your ship, you have to go back to the States for 30 days survivor leave because you have to get all your gear back again. We lost everything. Because when I got there, they gave me Army fatigues, a towel, toothbrush, a piece of soap. Thatís it. And we all knew that you have to get survivorís leave.
So after weíre there about two, three weeks, this same guy, Murdoch, he was the executive officer ó by the way, my captain was alive when they pulled him out of the water, and when they brought him up to the officersí quarters he had a heart attack and died. Then Murdoch took over.
Aaron Elson: The captainís name was?
Angelo Crapanzano: Schwartz. I think he was from New York. He had been on a destroyer in the Pacific, on two destroyers and lost both ships. This guy saw a lot of action. He was a real old salt. And he liked his drink and he liked his women.
Aaron Elson: He survived all that time but then he had a heart attack and died?
Angelo Crapanzano: Yes.
Aaron Elson: Did any of the guys actually get gangrene?
Angelo Crapanzano: No, not that I know of. Iím not sure, but I donít think it really could happen in 43 degrees. Because I couldnít feel my legs anymore I was thinking about it, but actually I think it would have to be like the North Atlantic water, which is down in the thirties, then youíve got something to worry about.
Aaron Elson: How did they break it to you that you were going to be part of D-Day?
Angelo Crapanzano: After weíre there about three weeks, [Murdoch] comes out one morning, lines us all up, and heís got papers. I said to the guy next to me, "This is it. Weíre all going back to the States." So he starts reading them off. He says, "You guys are all petty officers, and all experienced, all went to Navy schools, and youíre all going to be reassigned to LSTs to make the invasion of Normandy."
I could feel my blood getting cold. Theyíve got to be kidding. I said, "What the hell are they trying to do, kill us? Chrissakes, itís only three weeks ago we were out there, and now weíre gonna go back?" I couldnít believe it.
You know how they work. I need six motor machinistís mates. They donít even know your name. They just give you the serial number, thatís it.
Aaron Elson: I guess they must have been short of crews for the LSTs.
Angelo Crapanzano: Not necessarily, because the LST we were going on had a full complement of men. The problem is this, though. When I did go aboard the 294, these guys all knew what happened. I guess word got around, even though nobody was supposed to be talking about it.
When I went aboard, I went to the engineering officer, and he was a hell of a nice guy, he was from Chicago, and I could see right away that the guy was decent. He said to me right off the bat, "You want to get down in the engine room?"
So I said, "All right, letís go." So I went down in the engine room with him. But when I got down there, oh my God, he took one look at me, he said, "All right, letís go up topside.
I couldnít, I said, "No, I canít, I canít stay down here."
You know what I learned Sunday? I was the only guy who got out of the main engine room alive. I just learned that now. Not many guys get out of engine rooms.
Aaron Elson: Now, the officer who told you to go up to your bunk...
Angelo Crapanzano: Thatís my engineering officer, Smith.
Aaron Elson: Was he killed?
Angelo Crapanzano: Yes. And my friend was killed, we were very close. He was a radioman, his name was Joe Grecco and he was from West New York, and he was chronic seasick. I couldnít see why they didnít take him off the ship. He used to stand his radio watch with a bucket next to him. Sick as a dog. He should have never been on that ship.
Iíll tell you something else. When we went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, they made up the convoy. There was about 40 or 50 ships, and it took us about 11 days to go from Nova Scotia to Ireland, and rough. And LSTs have no keel, theyíre flat-bottomed. And Iíd say that 30 percent of the crew was sick. I mean they got green-looking in the face. And when we got near Ireland, and somebody spotted land, they yelled. All these guys came up, they looked like rats coming out of holes, they were that sick.
You know whatís bad about it? A lot of people donít realize this, when you go below decks, like in the quarters and stuff, the ventilation isnít that good. A lot of guys are throwing up, and with the odor, you get sick, even if youíre not prone to it.
Aaron Elson: Iíve talked to a lot of infantrymen who dealt with combat fatigue, and itís probably the same type of symptom that you experienced going into that engine room. What did it feel like going down there?
Angelo Crapanzano: Itís a funny feeling, I guess itís like claustrophobia. I didnít have it before, though. See, I used to go down in the engine room and read, and even lay down and take a little nap, while the engines were running. Nothing bothered me. And kid around. But then it was different. I went down and it was a terrible feeling. Itís hard to explain. It was liike the whole thingís gonna come down on top of me. And I knew that itís a terrible place to be when something like that happens, that I was very lucky that I got out of there. He said to me, "Letís go topside." So I went in his office.
Aaron Elson: Did the other sailors press you for details?
Angelo Crapanzano: Yes, but I only told them what I knew. At that time, what did I know? I didnít know anything, really. All I know is my ship sunk, a lot of guys got killed, and I saw the 531 get hit. I saw the 289 get hit. Other than that, I donít know. The Germans didnít even know accurately. The next morning, where was it, in the hospital, somebody had ahold of an English newspaper, and on the front page there was a report, the Germans reported they sank a couple of oil tankers. Oil tankers. Theyíd seen all the flames. But it doesnít make sense
When the E-boats approached us, itís quite a distance away, they see silhouettes, so the E-boat captain who sunk my ship, they fired two torpedoes at my ship, and then they watch, and they know how long it takes, nothing happens. The first two torpedoes they fired went under us. We didnít even know it. One of them scraped the bottom. I never heard it. See, this is in the book. I never knew that they heard that noise, but some of the Army guys that were on the tank deck thought it sounded like we were making a landing or were hitting a beach, they heard noise. Thatís what it was. They were depth torpedoes set for ships with keels. Then he knew right away, he said all right, the next two, surface torpedoes, right on top of the water. They fired two more, and one missed us, but thatís not the one that I saw. We got hit with one, and one missed us. The one I saw could have come from a different E-boat.
A lot of the LSTs reported hearing these loud engines, and then the complete panic took place, and the one ship was firing on the other ship, and there were about 25 guys got killed that way, one guy got his testicles shot off. Yeah.
The engineering officer said to me, "Wait in my office. I want to speak to the exec." So he did. He came back. He said, "Look, donít worry about it." Because he knew I could type. He said, "Youíre gonna take care of all the records for the engine room and work with me in the office, and your general quarters stationís gonna be on a gun, topside."
So I said, "Oh boy, what a break!"
What a break. When we went into the invasion, right, we were there the first morning, among the first LSTs going in to Utah Beach, and we were on the beach when, this was not a German plane, I think it was an English plane that got hit, thereís this plane flying over, I look up and I see this planeís coming down, I said "Holy Christ! Heís gonna come right down on top of us!" And he didnít miss us by much. And as soon as he hit the water, Iíll never forget, the water got all green around it, they had this special dye so when they dunk in the ocean they can spot them to pick them up. The water got all colored.
Aaron Elson: What happened to the pilot?
Angelo Crapanzano: I donít even know. I mean, there was so much going on. Because we were all on our guns, and you couldnít really like take notes. Hereís the thing, too. Oh, this is funny. See, with LSTs, when you go up on the beach, especially in France, the tide drops 17 feet, so when you go in in high water, as youíre going in, you drop the rear winch all the way out, with a long cable and itís on the back end, and that lays there. When you go in you discharge your load, if you get in real good. Sometimes you donít get all the way in. And then it takes awhile to unload, like a lot of tanks and equipment. And by that time the tide starts running out, and then you catch it all the way in to the low tide. You wouldnít believe this, I have pictures, the tide goes so far out, the whole ship is dry. You could walk all around your LST, you could look at the propellers, the screws, everything. Thatís a 17-foot drop. Now you have to wait until the tide starts to come back in. So this first day, the way it worked out, we got stuck on the beach, then it got dark. Now itís dark. So all these LSTs are sitting on the beach. And this is D-Day, thereís a lot of stuff going on. Everybodyís trigger-happy. Weíre all at general quarters. Every guyís at his gun. All the LSTs. So one of the LSTs way up on the other end, all of a sudden you see all the tracer bullets going up, theyíre all firing. So everybody starts. And weíre firing the guns. All of a sudden we see this big flash, and a guy says, "We got him! We got a plane!" Right. Captain gets on the PA system, he says to us, "You know, you guys just shot down your own barrage balloon."
I didnít think that could happen, because all these guns are supposed to be fixed that you canít point it to the wheelhouse where the captain is. Also there are certain positions that it wonít go.
Aaron Elson: What was your impression on D-Day at H-Hour when that artillery barrage came from all the ships?
Angelo Crapanzano: Oh yeah, are you kidding? I always tell this story, we were about a half a mile or a mile from the battleship Nevada. So the Nevada is anchored broadside, with the 16-inch guns. And Iím watching them, everybody was. And youíd see the big flame, and then about four seconds later the whole ship goes, the vibration for a mile. They told me they fired a two thousand pound missile eighteen miles. Can you imagine? Itís like a Volkswagen or something. Eighteen miles, thatís like from here [West New York, N.J.] to Paterson. Unbelievable. I was so impressed. You see movies and documentaries of it, it doesnít do anything. I said Holy Christ, how about the guys on the battleship? They must have all had earplugs and stuff. Look at that disaster that happened on the Iowa. You know, somebody told me, this is true, thereís nothing more devastating than Naval power. Iím not talking about aircraft, big, two, three thousand pound bombs. Iím talking about ground stuff. Thereís nothing more destructive. We were firing at pillboxes, constantly, and the battleships, and still, when they went in on the invasion, them frigging pillboxes were still there.
Aaron Elson: Did you get a Purple Heart?
Angelo Crapanzano: I wasnít wounded, physically. Mentally. They donít give it to you for that.
Aaron Elson: Did you ever talk about it with doctors?
Angelo Crapanzano: The only one I spoke about it with is my psychiatrist.
Aaron Elson: This was before 1984 or after?
Angelo Crapanzano: Before I had mentioned it to him, and he didnít seem to think that that was the problem then.
Aaron Elson: Now when this "20/20" thing came out, did you then tell the psychiatrist more?
Angelo Crapanzano: Yeah. And then, letís get this straight, Iím thinking about what year. Vietnam is where they gave it a name, and found out that this actually happened. Iíll tell you something else, my psychiatrist got into treating all the policemen, a lot of them in Bergen County who have this post traumatic stress disorder from their experiences on the job. A lot of them.
He didnít pump me much. He just said, What was it all about? I told him. I broke down and told him what happened, that was it.
You know what I realized, too, Sunday, up in New Bedford? That these TV, Inside Edition, theyíre all trained, I figured out myself, they know how to ask you certain questions, they wanted to make me weep. And Joe said the same thing. They know exactly the questions to ask you, and you fill up. And if you donít, they ask you another, and sooner or later theyíre gonna get you. They want to see this on the camera.
Aaron Elson: What was the fellow like, your buddy, Joe Grecco?
Angelo Crapanzano: I didnít know him till we went into the same crew, and he was from West New York. We hit it off right away good, and we always went out together. In December 1943 we went to Chicago, the whole crew went to Chicago to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station for antiaircraft training, where the plane pulls the sleeves, and when it was Christmas eve, he and I went walking through the town of Chicago because we were never there, and we said it looks like New York. And then we went to midnight Mass together.
Aaron Elson: Was he from a big family?
Angelo Crapanzano: He had one brother. Whereís that article I have about him?
Ida Crapanzano: Christmas eves were always sad for him. Even with the little kids, we would get their toys together, but itís always very sad for him. Iíll tell you, the "20/20" show did a lot for him, because they started to talk about it, and he started to get a lot of correspondence, and he would sit up and write letters.
Angelo Crapanzano: This article, whatís bad about this is that my mother and father knew that we were on the same ship, and this article was put in the local paper I guess about a week after our ship was sunk, so when they saw that, then they really started to worry.
Aaron Elson: (reading) "Killed in action, Joseph Grecco. Former Dispatch carrier. West New York athlete was radio man..."
Angelo Crapanzano: He was a terrific basketball and baseball player.
Aaron Elson: Now it says "Buried Overseas." Was he...
Angelo Crapanzano: No, that was done because they couldnít do anything else with the bodies, it was too near D-Day, there was a lot of confusion, so they temporarily put them over there. But his body came back, I went to see in a funeral parlor over here, he came home about three years after I was married, I guess 1947 or 48. I met his mother and father and brother.
Aaron Elson: (reading) "A telegram from the Navy Department received last Friday by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Grecco, 5400 Madison Street, West New York, notified them that their son, Radioman third class Joseph G. Grecco, was killed in action. The telegram read, ĎThe Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son, Joseph Gabriel Grecco, radioman third class, USNR, was killed in action in the performance of his duty and the service of his country.í"
Angelo Crapanzano: They gave her some details, right...
Aaron Elson: "The department extends to you its sincerest sympathy in your great loss. His remains were interred in Allied territory outside continental limits of the United States pending cessation of hostilities. If further details are received, you will be informed. To prevent possible aid to our enemies, please do not divulge the name of ship or station." It was signed by Vice Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of Naval personnel. Grecco, a former Hudson Dispatch carrier boy, was inducted into the Navy on March 18, 1943, after having graduated from Memorial High School in February. He received boot training at Newport, R.I., and was then sent to Boston, Mass., for training as a radio man. After 22 weeks at school, he was graduated and attained his present rank. He was home on leave and upon returning he was assigned as radioman aboard an LST. In March Grecco was sent to England. Born in West New York, he was graduated from School 3, and while in high school played with the Memorial championship basketball team of 1942. He was also on the Build Better Boys team of West New York .
"Besides his parents, he is survived by a brother, Patsy, 14. His father is a veteran of World War I."
Angelo Crapanzano: Nice looking boy. He reminded me of John Garfield. He was a cocky type, too. He knew he was good looking.
Aaron Elson: Your wife tells me that Christmas Eve is always a tough time.
Angelo Crapanzano: Itís sad. Itís crazy, I mean, to me it was a sad holiday all the time. It was always like that.
Ninety percent of the LSTs were built in the middle of the country. We went aboard our ship New Yearís Day of í44. Brand new. You could smell the paint. But it wasnít fully equipped. A nucleus crew got on, and they had two pilots that had to take it down the Mississippi, a couple of days, you go through all the locks. When you get down to New Orleans they put on the guns, the wheelhouse, the mast. They start putting in ammunition, supplies, all that stuff. And then two General Motors engineers came on and we went on a shakedown cruise. And then we made practice landings in Panama City, Florida. And then went back to New Orleans for something else, oh, we took on some more guys, thatís where McGarigal got on, and other guys too got on, small-boat guys and stuff. Then around Florida. This is January. I was standing watch in my trunks, thatís all., and guys were sitting on the tubs tanning themselves. I used to get sunburnt. And as you come up the coast, itís getting colder and colder. The next stop we laid overnight in New York, they camouflaged the ship there. I got home just for the night. Then the Boston fish pier. Then Halifax, Nova Scotia, and thatís where the convoys were being formed.
And what happened to us, too, this ship had, it was like ill-fated, because a lot of crazy things happened. When we were in Halifax, weíre tied up to a pier that had just the pier and a long metal railing, and they had all the bow ropes and stern ropes tied to the railing, and when it came time to leave, they never unhooked the ropes, and pulled the whole goddamn fence off the pier.
That was No. 1. No. 2, we were in a convoy of 50 ships, and we had the coffin corner. Of all the ships, this is the last row, and youíre over here. The worst. Thatís how they pick off ships, from the back. So none of us were crazy about that. After we were under way for a couple days, something breaks on the rudder, they canít steer it now. So we drop out, and we were in the North Atlantic alone. A nice piece of action that is. But we were young, and we didnít worry about things like that.
The favorite expression on my ship was this: We never had to worry about torpedoes because weíve got a flat bottom. I donít remember this, but they said it did happen, it could have happened while I was sleeping, because the watches go on continuously. But they said that something broke on the rudder, and they couldnít steer the ship. So they go down into where the screws are, and they go back where the mechanism is, and you know what they fixed it with? A paper clip.
Then, what also happened before we went overseas, oh, this happened down in New Orleans or near Norfolk, theyíre maneuvering the LST to go into a certain area, and theyíre backing the LST in, and they run over a buoy and they strip the one screw, and that was it, we had to go in for repairs on that. Screws are what you call propellers. Like the stairs they call ladders. The bathroom they call the head.
The first thing we did when we got to Milford Haven, Ireland, every LST that made that trip had full capacity, all the tanks except the ones theyíre using to fill their own engine were all filled with hundred octane gasoline. Every LST that went over was carrying gasoline for the airplanes and stuff. And when we got there they pumped it all out. You put in seawater to take its place.
Oh, also, most LSTs that went over, and we had it too, carried an LCT on the deck, and this thing was rigged on weights and stuff, and listen to this, you had to discharge this LCT because they needed it for the invasion. You go up into this bay, and then they pump the ballast out of the one side, and the whole ship tilts, boom, they cut the thing and this thing launches right into the water. Most LSTs carried an LCT over. They were small, I donít know if they were capable of crossing the channel. I guess they were.
Aaron Elson: What was the catharsis in this whole thing? When you finally started to talk about it, how did that affect your outlook on life?
Angelo Crapanzano: Oh, I think it did a lot for me, because the last time I was in the hospital was 1982, and I havenít been in since. So thatís 14 years. Oh, it made a big difference, I know it did.
Aaron Elson: Does it make you feel like all of it was not in vain? Or did you ever feel like it was? Just shut the whole thing out?
Angelo Crapanzano: You mean, like, did I think it was necessary that it happened? See, I sort of have a belief that things happen usually the way theyíre supposed to happen. You think you have control but you donít really have control. Because thereís so many things that lead to the fact. Another one of the facts is this: We werenít supposed to be in that convoy. You know what happened? The 508 was supposed to have been in, and two days before she hit something, I donít know, a minesweeper or something, and instead of her being there, we went in her place. We were meant to be there, right?
Aaron Elson: You said you have two daughters. Do they take an interest in this?
Angelo Crapanzano: Not really.
Ida Crapanzano: Now they do. Before they never knew about it. You never spoke to them about it. You never told them stories.
Aaron Elson: How about grandchildren?
Angelo Crapanzano: Well, now the situation with the grandchildren is that, with my oldest daughter, who got married in 1969, I have a grandson whoís 22, heís at St. Johnís University, and I have a granddaughter whoís 19. Now my granddaughter whoís 19 seems to be more interested than anybody, although my grandson did bring it up in high school or college.
Ida Crapanzano: I think it was in college he wrote, he had to do something, in college or the last year of high school, Iím not sure.
Angelo Crapanzano: My other daughter, Nancy, got married pretty late, like 34, and her children are too young.
Ida Crapanzano: One is going to be eight, one is five, and one is three.
Angelo Crapanzano: You want to hear something weird again about this thing? In Union City, on the block where I was born, my father had a barbershop. Next door there were people who had a fish store, and then there was a dry goods store, a Jewish couple, Danny Pirkle and the girlís name was Romilda Metrany, and she had a brother. And when I went overseas, right around the time that this happened, she dreamt she saw all these Navy uniforms floating in the water, and she went over ó she didnít tell my mother, she said to my mother, "Have you heard frojm Angelo lately?" I guess she said no. Then she didnít tell her. She probably told her later.
Aaron Elson: Who was this?
Angelo Crapanzano: A neighbor, a young girl. I played with all these kids, see, when we were small. And the other funny part is, this has nothing to do with the war, when my mother took me to school, to kindergarten, I cried so much and carried on the teacher said, "Take him home. Bring him back the next semester." Now I played all the time with this Jewish kid, Danny Pirkle. So the next September, he went to school, I went with him. The first Jewish holiday he stayed home, I stayed home. I grew up with a couple of Jewish boy friends. Irving Metzger, I grew up with him. He went into the Air Corps. He was a small guy, right. He was thin, he went into the Air Corps, he became a pilot, Iíve got him in a book, too, an article, he was a B-17 or a B-something pilot, first mission over Germany his plane gets hit. They were up 40,000 feet. When he gets hit, all their equipment flies off, gloves, right. He tells the guys to all bail out, and he stays with the plane and he brings it down. When his gloves got blown off, his fingers froze. They had to amputate all his fingers.
Aaron Elson: It was that cold up there?
Angelo Crapanzano: Forty below. Unbelievable. I went to his wedding, after the war. And then they lived in Union City for a while, then they moved out and I lost track of the guy, and that was the end of it. I mean, everybody got their lumps.
Aaron Elson: Let me see this here...
Angelo Crapanzano: This article was put in the Hudson Dispatch by McGarigalís mother after he was home on leave.
Aaron Elson: (reading) "Storekeeper 2/c McGarigal home/ Life saved by Union City boy. Storekeeper second class John T. McGarigal, 20, U.S. Navy, son of Mrs. Louise McGarigal of 619 Palisade Avenue, Cliffside Park, and the late John G. McGarigal, a former patrolman of Cliffside Park, is home on a 30-day furlough after combat duty in England during which he was severely wounded. In telling of his experience following the torpedoing of his ship in the English Channel on April 28 last, young McGarigal attributed the saving of his life to a fellow seaman, MMM 1/c Angelo Crapanzano of Union City. For four and a half hours after their ship was hit early in the morning of April 28, Crapanzano clung to a small life raft with one hand and with the other hand held onto John, who was unconscious from loss of blood from a deep wound in his head. When the torpedo struck the ship, the concussion was so great that McGarigal was hurled from one side of the watchtower to the other. As the ship was going down, he and several of his buddies managed to get onto a burned raft, where they clung until a rescue ship arrived five hours later. All around them men were dying. Taken to an Army hospital in England, McGarigal was given blood plasma, and after being hospitalized for three weeks, he was returned to active duty. He arrived home on his rest furlough Nov. 1. He has been awarded the Purple Heart. McGarigal has been in the service 19 months. He received his boot training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Ill., from where he was sent to storekeeper school at Toledo, Ohio, and from there to the amphibious base at Solomons, Md., for assignment to his ship. He was born in Englewood and lived most of his life in Cliffside Park. He graduated from Cliffside Park High in 1942."
Aaron Elson: I notice that this was the Naval Reserve. How did you come to be in the reserve? Did you enlist, or were you drafted?
Angelo Crapanzano: I was what they call a selected volunteer. I went to Newark ó when I took my physical the guy says to me, You can have whatever you want, Marines, Army or Navy. So my father was in the Navy, and he was on a sub tender, and he always said to me [choking up], "If you have to go in the service, go in the Navy, because you have a clean place to sleep and good food." But he never told me about the torpedoes. [Laughing]
Aaron Elson: Was he in World War I?
Angelo Crapanzano: Yeah. My father was in World War I, and his brother, my uncle, was in the Army in World War I and he was in France in the big battles, he was gassed a little, too. He was in this outfit, in fact, he was one of the orderlies for Frank Knox, who was a colonel or whatever in the Army, and Knox eventually ran for president or vice president with Roosevelt, in the Thirties. In fact, my uncle and father, one time he was in Journal Square campaigning, and my father and my uncle went, they got to him, and he remembered my uncle.
Whereís that thing I got of his that was made in France? This is a picture of me in New Orleans.
Where were we? In the water or out of the water? My legs are getting cold. Iíll tell you something, in my memorabilia book, I have about eight or ten pictures of that category. I have a picture of Ernie and me, where Ernie gets up on my shoulders and holds onto the palm tree.
My mother wrote this. This is my motherís handwriting. Because I lost everything I had on the ship.
Aaron Elson: What sort of things did you lose?
Ida Crapanzano: My letters.
Angelo Crapanzano: I had about eight dollars in English money, and I had two mandolins. My father gave me one, and I picked up another one. I have two now. Oh no, I sold one. I played by ear, pretty good. In fact, I used to play, see, my uncle played mandolin and my father played guitar, and I used to love to hear that. I used to watch my uncle, and I picked it right up. No lessons or nothing. I liked it. We had a lot of fun on the ship, donít get me wrong. Before this thing happened, it was like one big happy family.
Iíll tell you, a lot of horsing around goes on on a ship. Plus thereís a lot of card playing, dice playing, guys playing cribbage. All kinds of stuff. And no matter where you go on any ship, you always end up with some rebel who plays the guitar and keeps playing "You Are My Sunshine" over and over, to drive you bananas.
Aaron Elson: What was the food like?
Angelo Crapanzano: Excellent. I mean, I thought it was excellent. I had a very good appetite. Meatloaf. I loved this dish they made, baked salmon, and then they put a crust of dough over it. They give you a lot of fruit salads. But you know the thing that people donít realize is this, too. When you go up in the chow line with your tray, on our ship the chow line was up there and you had to go up a ladder on this side, you start here, you walk across, you go down this ladder, but when it was rough, and then you walk and the guy goes ping, and you got your fruit salad, and then when itís rough, you go down the ladder with your tray and you hope you donít kill yourself, Iíll tell you something, youíre not gonna believe this, but I used to sit next to a lot of guys who I knew they were sick and they wouldnít eat, and Iíd eat my chow and Iíd eat some of theirs. And there were a lot of guys got very squeamish up in their stomach, theyíd go in line and then when they sat down, theyíd walk away.