“It was a wacky war”

2019-06-06 YogiBerraNavy
A well-circulated colourising of Yogi Berra’s formal Navy portrait.

Yogi Berra once gave a half-puckish beginning explanation as to how he became part of D-Day, World War II’s major Allied invasion of Europe from the Normandy beaches, as an eighteen-year-old Navy seaman. He made it sound like relief from boredom. As he so often did with his fabled Yogiisms, he had a knack for good humoured understatement.

Something still seems to be missing from America since Berra’s death almost four years ago, which was also more than a year and a half after his beloved wife, Carmen, preceded him. And there may be worse reasons to think about the Hall of Fame catcher and personality than remembering how he got himself aboard a Navy rocket boat in time to be part of D-Day.

Berra was a Yankee prospect playing for their Norfolk, Virginia farm in 1943. Norfolk also just so happened to be the headquarters of the Fifth Naval District. Which meant it was also the governing center of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. Which also meant Norfolk and nearby Newport News overrun with sailors and civilian defense workers, an estimated 750,000 of them in a pair of towns whose populations combined weren’t quite as large as that of the Bronx.

His biographer Allen Barra, in Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee, has written that the lad’s first real problems in Norfolk were long lines at the movie houses he loved and trying to stretch his $90-a-month minor league salary. “I never got too hooked on cigarettes, because I couldn’t afford them,” he once said. “Maybe starvation kept me from getting cancer.”

Once, knowing his team’s two other catchers were ailing, Yogi launched a unique version of a strike, telling his manager he wasn’t well for lack of food and the ploy worked toward getting him a $5 a month raise. His mother, Paulina, helped by slipping him a few extra dollars in the mail with instructions not to tell his father. And Berra became popular enough on the Tars that one ardent fan, a lady, provided him a full hero sandwich of salami and provolone every Sunday game.

That sandwich, Barra wrote, “was for Yogi what spinach was for Popeye.” After he received the first such gift, he smashed twelve hits and drove in 23 runs in two games against Roanoke. (This was the doubleheader that prompted Carmen Berra to remember, “When I heard about the 23 RBI day, I figured he had a future.”) He played well enough to be able to think an equal or better 1944 would get him a Yankee call-up. “Yogi was looking forward to an explosive 1944,” Barra wrote. That’s a polite way to describe the one he got.

Berra knew only two things: 1) He’d be in military service soon. 2) He had no idea where. Told his draft papers were drawn back home in St. Louis, he asked for and got them sent to Norfolk. After the Tars played an exhibition game with the Norfolk Air Station (some of the Norfolk players included such Show men as pitchers Fred Hutchinson and Hugh Casey, outfielder Dom DiMaggio, and Yogi’s future Yankee teammate/fellow Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto), he talked to a warrant officer at Norfolk’s Navy training station and took the man’s suggestion to enlist in the Navy.

When his boot camp in Maryland ended, his mother underwent surgery; he was allowed to be with her until she could return home. After that, Yogi went to Little Creek to train for the amphibious service. The routine otherwise was so hurry-up-and-wait that the kid relieved his boredom at the base movie theater and with the comic books he fell in love with. Then one night he was watching Boomtown, the Clark Gable-Spencer Tracy film, when the film suddenly stopped and the theater lights suddenly came back up.

Berra and all the other sailors in the theater were ordered to line up. Officers asked for volunteers—for rocket boat duty. None of the young swabbies had a clue about rocket boats but when someone called them rocket ships, Yogi perked up. The idea that volunteering in military service was tantamount to being very careful what you wish for hadn’t yet been programmed into his mental data base.

The boats, as Barra noted, “turned out to be small landing craft, LCSSs (Landing Craft Support Small), whose purpose was to spray rockets on the beach before troop landings. There were duller things to train for. Some of the men got the hint that they might be participating in a major troop landing, perhaps the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe that the papers were always writing about.”

The sailors called the rocket boats big bathtubs. If you played with toy boats in the bath when you were a small child, try now to imagine having a bath with 48 rockets, one twin .50-caliber machine gun and two .30-caliber machine guns. The boats affirmed the aforementioned hints: their purpose in life was to hammer the Normandy beaches and clear the way for the troops’ landing crafts. Yogi and his fellows had a name for them: “The landing craft suicide squad.”

The rocket boatmen first went to Plymouth, England. Once again it seemed to be hurry up and wait. Three weeks after they arrived, though, Berra’s LCSS was attached to what was thought to be the smallest transport ship in the Coast Guard fleet, the USS Bayfield. It made for Normandy early on 4 June. The Bayfield carried six LCSSs. “Just before dawn, on the morning of June 6, 1944,” Barra wrote, “their rocket boat was lifted on the davits and lowered over the side and, in Yogi’s words, ‘expendable as hell, we headed in for Omaha Beach’.”

The LCSSs were the tiniest boats on the waters heading into firing position.

“It was scary,” Yogi would remember, “but really something to see. I was only eighteen, and I didn’t think anything could kill me. I didn’t know enough to be scared. I had my head up over the side of the boat all the time, looking around like it was the Fourth of July in Forest Park and after the fireworks we were going to go over and get some hot dogs and Cokes.”

Bless his innocent soul, Yogi probably had no idea how vulnerable the LCSSs were. The sides of those boats weren’t exactly thick. One errant enemy shell, especially one hitting any of the boats’ rockets, would have made not the Fourth of July hot dogs but them into duck soup. Berra’s peekings over the edges to see the show ended when his lieutenant advised him to put his head down if he had plans to keep it.

The LCSSs waited for their lead boat to fire a test and see if it reached the beach. If it did, the other boats would move in close. It did. And inimitably, Yogi described the boats moving in “closer than the hitter is to the left field [wall] at Fenway Park.” One and all of them began firing. “I couldn’t see all the bloodshed that they showed in the movie [Saving] Private Ryan,” he remembered years later, “but I did see a lot of guys drown.”

Berra’s and all the LCSSs did what they were sent to do. Well enough that by D-Day’s afternoon they could actually relax, though they were under orders to remain through 9 June for cover fire in the event the Nazis had ideas about the counterattack that never came.

They had more trouble from an anticipated storm smashing in on 8 June, battering the boats and even flipping Yogi’s over. Before that they had trouble through no fault of their own—a friendly fire incident. Three fighter planes appeared above and the LCSSs were under orders to shoot down anything flying below cloud level. The LCSSs fired and hit one plane. The pilot bailed and parachuted before the plane hit the drink. Yogi ordered his boatmates to keep him covered, expecting to hear a stream of German.

What he heard was a stream of English language swearing. The crew had shot down an American plane whose markings they couldn’t see in the murk of the storm. When the storm worsened, Berra’s boat flipped over. Try to resist the temptation to say that only Yogi Berra and his boat crew could survive D-Day just to get thatclose to drowning after the artillery stopped.

They hung on until they were rescued and returned to the Bayfield. A Nazi bomb fell near the ship but no serious damage occurred, according to Barra and others. Berra said later he was too tired to be scared. Years later, when he met D-Day’s mastermind, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, he couldn’t bring himself to ask Eisenhower about the invasion. “I never talked about D-Day,” Yogi remembered. “It didn’t seem right, but now I wish I had.”

With good reason. Numerous sailors believed Eisenhower was aboard one of their ships on D-Day. This was because of Eisenhower’s soon-to-be-immortal radio message (You are about to embark on a great crusade) that was actually recorded at the 101st Airborne’s headquarters while watching the first Allied aircraft reach for the skies on that day. Even today, it sounds so clear that when you play it it sounds as though Ike’s telling it to you side by side as you’re about to hit the links.

Berra and his squadron got a break to rest at Portsmouth before going to Bizerte, the coastal North African coastal town, and by 15 August 1944 he was part of the LCSS force hitting Marseilles and strafing hotels and other facilities co-opted by German forces. Berra’s boat was almost hit by mistake by a British shell that turned out to be a dud.

Berra himself got close enough to death when ships of the British Royal Navy behind the LCSSs fired at targets past the hotels and, while holding a rocket, one of his crew hollered to hit the deck. As he ducked under a gun mount, Yogi accidentally dropped the rocket. “It did not go off,” Barra wrote, “or you wouldn’t be reading this book.”

During a furious barrage, Berra got nicked by a bullet from a German machine gun before he manned his twin .50s and fired to cut down fleeing Nazis. As American troops landed, the locals swarmed the sailors with gifts and song. “It was a wacky war,” Yogi would remember. “A half hour after we were getting shot at by the Germans, the French were welcoming us.”

He rarely talked about his World War II experiences in the decades to follow. On the rare occasion he did so, even that provoked a little humour, as in the Los Angeles Times overhearing Berra talking to Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer and Hall of Fame broadcaster Tim McCarver. Wrote the Times: “Yogi survived D-Day and George Steinbrenner, and all in forty years.”

He had to survive a more sensitive customer, though: his mother. After receiving a month’s leave for the Christmas holidays, Berra went home and showed his family his hard-earned decorations: a Distinguished Unit Citation, two battle stars, a European Theater of Operations ribbon, and a Good Conduct Medal.

Paulina Berra was already in tears as it was. Her boy also earned the Purple Heart when he was nicked by that Nazi bullet, but Yogi didn’t dare make the formal application for that medal. He figured that if Mama Berra knew what the Purple Heart really meant, she’d suffer a purple heart attack.

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