As a tank landing ship, the USS LST-391 didn’t need a deep port or bay to unload its cargo. It dropped its anchor in deeper water and sailed up to the beach. When it was time to go, it cinched the anchor and tugged itself out.
A ramp opened from its belly, and the tanks, trucks, ammunition, gasoline or battle-hardened soldiers rolled, walked or were hauled out. An elevator lowered a platform, and down came a second deck of cargo.
George Odde remembers one of his first days at Sicily, during the ship’s first invasion. The crew unloaded cargo at sundown, working under the bright lights of the tank deck.
A battlewise beach master came down. Turn off those lights, he told them, or they’d shine like a beacon for miles around. Use the battle lights instead.
“Not over five minutes later, a plane came down and just laid five bombs right along the side of our ship. He knew just exactly where we were. They landed near enough that it threw sand and gravel on the deck,” Odde said.
“We weren’t too smart then.”
By the next two invasions, the crew knew better.
In December 1941, Odde was a cowboy, working at the Padlock Ranch. He was 21 and all the other guys in Thermopolis were leaving; he wanted to do something, too. He joined the Navy.
He trained as a diesel mechanic in San Diego and was assigned to an amphibious ship, the LST-391. He boarded in Norfolk, Va., and sailed for the Mediterranean. Because of engine trouble, by the time they arrived in Africa with a load of tanks, the soldiers were just finishing the campaign in Tunisia. The LST-391 embarked for Sicily.
The invasion was code-named Operation Husky, a crucial stepping stone to Italy and, eventually, to cutting off the Germans. It started with a large-scale assault from the sea and air, followed by six weeks of ground fighting.
The LST-391 arrived in July 1943. A huge sea force was waiting, barrage balloons attached to cables floating above the ships to protect against low-flying, strafing attacks.
Odde remembers that American ships were told not fire between certain times. Allied paratroopers would be jumping behind the Germans, and the planes flying overhead then would be American. Germans intercepted the plan, and a single enemy plane joined as the American planes flew over the fleet. The German plane shot at a single ship.
“And of course, everyone thought it was enemy planes and they lost several paratroopers that way,” Odde said.
For a month the ship supported the campaign, running supplies between Africa and Sicily. Odde’s battle station was in the engine room, working the throttles. He heard the battles more often than he saw them. During one, an engineer came down and wouldn’t leave.
“He’d just walk around and light a cigarette and he’d throw it down and light another one. He was buck wild ... I never saw a person act like that.”
In September 1943, the LST-391 sailed to Salerno, Italy, for its second invasion: Operation Avalanche.
With no air cover, the anti-aircraft guns fired constantly. Odde could walk to the deck and see the bullets and shells overhead; at night, they’d streak across the sky. The large ships behind the LST waylayed the mountains beyond the beach; Germans in the mountains bombarded the ships behind the LST.
“We were just in the middle,” Odde said.
By the time the LST sailed for England, in December ‘43, Odde figures he had hardened, all the crew had. They knew better than to use the tank deck lights on the beach. And they could spot preparations for an invasion when they saw them. In Ireland, all of the LST’s anti-aircraft guns were replaced. The men ran drills and went through training exercises. Equipment was checked and fixed. Supplies stocked. Only thing the crew didn’t know was where they might invade.
Odde developed severe pain his abdomen while loading and unloading ammunition. A doctor accused Odde of being scared of the upcoming invasion. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve made it through two of them, I think I can handle another one.’”
It turned out to be a hernia. After the operation, he had to stay in bed for 21 days.
“It kinda made (the doctor) eat crow.”
In the hospital, Odde heard the air raid siren. He couldn’t make it to the shelter, so he and other patients grabbed their gas masks and hid under their bunks. He was back on ship, though, before its third invasion: D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The LST carried soldiers who would storm Omaha Beach. To Odde, hauling men was scary. The sailors would get to know them a little, talking about hometowns and what they’d seen. Everyone knew what the LST was taking them to. For some, their deaths.
Planes dropped bombs all along the beach. One big gun kept firing from land, no matter how many ships tried to take it out.
After Omaha, the LST went to Utah, a long, sandy beach. When the tide went out, you could walk around the ship.
The ship supported the Normandy Invasion for about a month. They welded railroad tracks inside the tank deck so that they could transport train cars from England. They returned to Normandy with a load just as tide was going out. A mine in the mud exploded under the ship’s main engines.
The blast threw Odde out of his bunk. He pulled on his pants and shoes and ran for his battle station. Since the tide was out, the ship wasn’t sinking, but they were told to abandon it anyway. Odde ran back to his bunk instead.
At home in Thermopolis, a cowboy friend had a thing for long-tooth spurs. Odde found a pair in Europe with teeth so big, they looked like nails radiating out of the wheel. Odde couldn’t let those sink when the tide came back. He planned to out-spur his buddy.
Normandy was the LST’s last invasion, and the war ended while Odde was stationed in Newfoundland. He returned to Thermopolis just as they were starting construction on Boysen Dam. At some point, he hung his spurs on the wall. They hang there still.