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CCM Jerry Markham: D-Day from a Seabee’s Perspective
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Chief Machinist Mate Jerry Markham served as a Navy Seabee during World War II and was tasked with destroying German obstacles that could have prevented a successful beach landing on D-Day.
The Naval Construction Battalions, which quickly became known as the Seabees due to their abbreviation, were formed at the beginning of American involvement in World War II. They were created as an amphibious force to construct advanced bases in combat zones, and quickly became well respected because they were composed of only experienced men.
CMM Jerry Markham was a Seabee assigned to a Naval Combat Demolition Unit. On D-Day, their job was to clear German mines and obstacles that were placed in the water at Omaha. Without them, troops would never have reached the shore.
Markham was in close proximity to multiple explosions during the invasion, and began to pass blood. On the third day, he went to a hospital ship, and wasn’t permitted to return to the battle due to his injuries.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
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Today, we’ll hear from Chief Machinist Mate Jerry Markham. Markham served as a Navy Seabee during World War II and was tasked with destroying German obstacles that could have prevented a successful beach landing on D-Day.
CMM Jerry Markham:
Well, it was back in about 1943. The war had been in progress for quite some time at that point. I was in a job in a large paper company that was exempt from the draft. I had no concern about that, so I had to volunteer for the service. I was about 24 years old at the time. I'd always been interested in deep sea diving, and the Navy as a boy. I used to go down and watch the Navy ships come in New Orleans, where I was raised as the youngster. I was always interested in deep sea diving, and so I thought I'd join the Seabees and get into the diving school and make my contribution to the war effort.
So I volunteered for the Seabees in 1943, was inducted in the service, went to Camp Peary, Virginia, which was a big Seabees training base. After the induction training, I was assigned to a water purification school, which meant I would've been on an island somewhere, chlorinating drinking water. That was not my idea of a glamorous deep sea diving experience. About that time, the request for volunteers come along for the Naval Combat Demolition Units. They said, "Extremely dangerous and hazardous work, must be physically fit, able to swim strong, handle small boats," et cetera. So I volunteered for that from the Seabees along with about 90 other Seabees.
It sounded exciting, the way it was put up. I don't think any of us were concerned about the dangerous and hazardous missions. We considered all war effort to be dangerous and hazardous mission. We didn't realize how really dangerous and hazardous it was until after we got into it and got trained very well. But the swimming and small boat handling appealed to me, as far as the volunteer notice was concerned. And the actual training, we did some salvage diving, shallow water diving gear, and we did all kinds of things, hand to hand combat, obstacle courses, close order drills. The Marine Raiders had us for the first six weeks of this volunteer, separating the men from the boys. It was quite an experience. I think we had 30 volunteers left at the end of that three-week knockdown grilling we had from the Marine Raider training.
We didn't have sophisticated explosives like plastics and things of that type, we were using the old dynamite and TNT, which were very dangerous to handle them. This was what we understood to be the dangerous part, we would be handling these explosives in the surf conditions, under duress conditions. So we were extra trained in this. Safety was the keyword. Anybody that was careless was dropped out of the outfit immediately in handling any of these kind of explosives or anything else like that. We didn't visualize going up on a beach and being shot at. We thought we were going to go in and do maybe reconnaissance work and then go in and clear out obstacles and so forth, in preparation for the main invasion forces, which is what we were being trained for. That, we thought, was the danger part of it.
Well, the idea of forming the Navy Demolition Units to begin with started with an experience in the Pacific. There was a famous invasion out there on an island called Charoa, where all the marines were slaughtered because they couldn't get ashore, they were stranded on a reef. The Navy, who conducted the invasion forces, did not have the intelligence, did not have the reconnaissance, did not know about that reef, did not know that their landing craft couldn't get across to the beach. So these marines were exposed, they had to walk, that the wade 200 or 300 yards through this reef to get to the shore. So that experience said to the Navy, "We have got to have reconnaissance, we've got to have intelligence on it."
Well anyway, this experience the Navy had out in the Pacific and trying to land on this island with Charoa brought attention to the Navy that they had to do a job of getting intelligence, advanced intelligence, of possible invasion sites. They could never expose the invasion forces to such open gunfire as positioned as that. They had to have someone, a group that could go in and make the reconnaissance, at the same time, identify the obstacles and the mines in the reefs and blow a path through them so the invasion forces could be conducted safely. Therefore, Naval Combat Demolition Units were created out of that need.
A forerunner to that was when they contemplated and get ready to invade Africa, North Africa, they picked 13 men from the Seabees who were in the mine disposal, dynamite, and construction units because they were mature, experienced men at handling explosives. They gave them a special training program of how to cut a submarine net that was across a channel into a harbor that they had to get into to knock out on airfield in order to conduct an invasion with some safety. These men were sent to Africa, North Africa, it was off the French coast of Morocco. They went in the channel the first night and they got caught, so they had to back out and get out of there. They went then two nights later and he made it and they blew that net out of there. Now, one of the men, a fellow by the name of Freeman, who was also in the invasion of Normandy with me, so he's been in around a long time.
Now, these men were brought back and they got 13 Seabees then and trained them for Naval Combat Demolition work for the invasion of Italy, Sicily. They went to Sicily. Fortunately, they had no reconnaissance to do and no demolition work to do on the beaches, but they did go inland and do a lot of work in blowing down tank traps and things like that. So they proved their value in that sense.
Then, Admiral King of the North Atlantic Forces issued an order. He wanted a formal organization of Naval Combat Demolition Units. Therefore, he appointed a Lieutenant Commander by name of Kauffman, who is now known as the Father of the Seals, to organize and train these men. Kauffman picked the first men from Camp Peary, Virginia and I was one of the first guys that went into his group. We took the other men that he'd used in Italy and in Africa, were sent to Fort Pierce, Florida as instructors and to help build a base down there. So when we finished our first induction training at Camp Peary, Virginia, we went to Fort Pierce, Florida and helped finish building the base.
I would say that of 192 men that made up the Naval Combat Demolition Units at Omaha Beachhead, 80% of them was were former volunteers from Seabees, former Seabees who volunteered for him, and about the same ratio at the Utah group.
Their original concept of taking Seabees was, it was because they were mature, because they had experience in construction, they had experience with explosives, rather than taking the raw, 17, 18 year old Navy seamen and training them how to spell rat and cat as always blew up a... They picked men that were seasoned, experienced, and they picked men who knew the meaning of dangerous and hazardous duty from the Seabees.
Utah Beachhead, which was part of the Normandy invasion, was relatively safe. We had less than 10% casualties in our group there. In Omaha, we had over 52% casualties. So it was very devastating at Omaha Beachhead because of a lot of foul-ups in the terrain and the contrast of the beach and so forth and so on.
Give you an illustration: the Omaha Beachhead was over 300 yards wide at mean low tide. It had a 27-foot tide. It changed about every six hours. It came in at a foot every eight minutes when it started running in. They had bands of obstacles, mined obstacles, at different tide levels to catch the incoming landing craft, to stop them from beaching. Now the 300 yard beach with eight bands of mined obstacles will catch them at any tide level, even with a four-foot draft, they couldn't escape hitting an obstacle. Our job was to blow a 50-yard path from the tide low level all the way to the high watermark through those mined obstacles and put buoys there so that the landing craft coming behind us could navigate through those paths and those buoys. Now you think about it, we're exposed now to enemy gunfire from HR on, till we got to the high watermark. So that was pretty damn dangerous and that was…
As I read later, that General Bradley, who was in charge of the Normandy military forces, was just getting ready to call off the Omaha Bach sector, divert it down to Sword Beach, which was a British beach that they'd been established east of us. When four destroyers come in and laid their keels on the bottom to get in as close and fired at a low level into these gun positions into the low level that the heavy guns couldn't get to and knock them out, and that enabled the engineers and infantry to get off the beach, to get into those ravines and get up above and knock out those guns that were just wiping us out on the beach. So the little destroyers did the job for us there that day.
There was such strong security on our organization that when we first shipped out in December of '43 to England, there were 11 units of us, the units comprised of six men, one officer and five men. That was known as a Naval Combat Demolition Unit, compact men, men trained where one man could do the whole job if necessary. It was very glamorous, esprit de corps.
When we got to England, they didn't know who we were, the security was so great. We went into an amphibious space in Plymouth, England and they put it on guard duty at ammunition dumps because of our name, Naval Combat Demolition. Finally, after a few weeks of this, the word come down to who we were and we were assigned in part of an amphibious space to do our own training and organizing for the preparation, punchline.
About two months prior to D-Day, we were finally made privy to the intelligence reports of the various sections of the Normandy coastline that might be available or used for invasion purposes. We then saw what we were confronted with, these mean low tides, 300-yard beaches, mined obstacles, all of these things. We knew immediately we were seriously undermanned. Six men could not, in the time allowed, blow a 50-yard path through any of those.
So we then began to combine our strength with the combat engineers, army engineers. We got some more manpower. We had five combat engineers, army engineers assigned to each of our units, and we had three additional Navy men volunteered to come out of Scotland. So we wound up with a 14-man unit and the army put together a 26-man combat group, and we all went in as a combat team to start at this base to blow that path. And that's how we were manned.
Now, we were carrying specially-designed explosive packs that we called a Hagensen Pack, a little sausage-shaped thing about 13, 14 inches long, but filled with plastic explosive with a primer cord through it, with a loop on the end to where we could fasten it on an obstacle on a beam or what have you, and just tie it together. Then my job, my officer's job, was to carry a reel of primer cord and carry the detonators. We would go behind them in as they would tie these charges and tie them into this long line, this reel, because this primer cord would fire at the rate of 22,000 feet a second, now that's pretty fast. So you didn't have any false detonations on that. And the thing about it is, it was absolutely... you could fire a gun right into it and it wouldn't detonate it. It took a special cap to do it, so it was very safe to use. But that was what we were carrying with us.
The Germans had built a thing called Belgium Gate. It was about 10, 12 feet wide. It was about eight or eight feet high. It had steel beams facing it like this. The face of the gate, come up, with mines in the middle and on each end of it. Then the back of it was A-frame, supported like this, to keep it up upright, facing the ocean like that. It was built on rollers so the Germans could move it around at different places on the beach, which they have damn little success in doing it because once you'd settled into that wet sand, it wasn't going to move.
But this steel Belgium Gate created a hazard itself, in addition to its purpose, was to put high explosives on that, you create one hell of a hand grenade, flying steel everywhere. So that's where our ingenious, little sausage plastic Hagensen Pack. We would place that at the different joints of this thing and then blow it and it would just flatten it out and it'd fall right flat down. It didn't spew all over the place because we only had about two pounds of tetrytol in those little packs. The others were wooden ramps, like a log goes up like this, like that. The log and the boat would slide up that and the mine was on the top of it. Then you had the tetrahedrons, that's a big concrete block with steel beams stick it out like this, which would snare at the bottom of any landing. Tetrahedrons, they call them. Those were not mined but those log ramps were mined and the Belgium Gates were mined, and some of the tetrahedrons were mined. Most of the mines were Teller mines, or explode on contact, those kind of mines.
Then we carried in our landing craft, we had a rubber boat filled with extra explosives. We couldn't possibly physically carry enough explosives to load all of those obstacles. So we carried extra explosives in the rubber boat, which we launched when we hit the beach. That proved to be disastrous because many of the mortars hit those rubber boats and killed a lot of men and demolished the explosives with it. That's what happened to my boat with rubber explosives, and my officer got killed at the same time when that mortar hit that rubber boat with explosives in it.
So we kind of went in with a tide and there was a strong cross-current and part of the units on the left and the right of me began to drift into each other and they were all pretty bad as shot up. We blew a partial gap with what explosives we had. Then we were spending most of my time, half of my people were done, we were getting the wounded men, carrying them with us as far as we progressed up this beach. We had to hide behind these mined obstacles for protection from the crossfire machine fire. More explosives would come by from the team on the right of us, his rubber boat drifted over and we got some explosives out of that and that's how we got some additional explosives.
But that was pretty much... What we were supposed to do in 30 minutes took us four hours to get to the high water mark that day.
We were in the water, but not in a deep water. We were coming in with the tide. Remember, the water was coming at a foot every eight minutes. So we landed at 6:33. So eight minutes later, there was a foot of water there. Eight minutes later there, there was another foot of water there and we had to move with the water.
The water was pretty cold that day. I understood it was 58 degrees and that created a lot of hazards for the wounded, with shock and so forth and so on. But our uniform was army fatigues and regular GI shoes and helmets and a garrison belt. I wore long winter underwear because it was cold. We didn't carry a weapon because what the hell would you do with it? You couldn't carry a weapon. So our job was to blow the paths through these obstacles, not to swim. There was no swimming involved. We didn't do any swimming at all over in Europe except for where we fell overboard, maybe.
When the landing craft dropped its ramp on the beach, it was at the foot of the first band of obstacles. Prior to dropping that ramp, we could feel the machine gun bullets, we could see them hitting the water and splattering across the bow of the landing craft. So we knew we were under small arms machine gun fire. I saw a couple of landing craft get hit with mortars and just blew them right out of the water and killed most of the people are in it.
When our ship hit the ramp, we dropped the ramp, the first group out was the army engineers with their rubber boat, which they all portage out into the sand and then off to the side and let the water, the tide, bring it in. By this time, half of them were getting shot, all the pieces. We followed them and we pulled our rubber boat out to the left side and put it down. Some of my men went ahead and I turned around and looked and the mortar had hit... My officer was standing by the rubber boat when the mortar hit at him and one of the seamen, and they were just obliterated with explosions. There must have been 500 pounds of assorted explosions in that rubber boat.
So it was my job to take command because that's what I'd been trained to do as a second in command. I was the chief at that time. But regardless, it could have been a second class petty officer, if I'd been number two in a unit, I'd have taken charge. But taking charge doesn't mean that I want to stand up and start directing people. We'd all been trained to do a job and everybody knew his job. All I was to do was to utilize what men I had left to do as much as I could in loading these obstacles and blowing them, get them the hell out of the way. I had the detonators and the reel of detonated primer cord to detonate them with, so I was very essential. My officer had the other reel, so he was gone.
No you didn't have time to be afraid. The chaos around you, the fury of what you were into, you had to... There's no place to hide. You couldn't take a taxi home, you couldn't go back out to sea. The only place you could go was forward and you had a job to do. You knew damn good and well if you didn't do that job, a hell of a lot of people wasn't going to get off of that beach or get on that beach. That's the way we'd been trained to do our jobs and that's what we did the best we could.
Well, we got a Presidential Unit Citation for it and there were eight Navy Crosses and 12 Silver Stars, about 60 Purple Hearts. We blew eight gaps and three partial gaps through 16 possible gaps. We had 52% casualties. With the help of four destroyers, the mission was successful.
I didn't realize I'd been in several explosions that day, D-Day, around some major explosions. So about D-Day plus three, I began to pass blood. Now, I had a case of the GIs from eating out a greasy mess kit, so there was nights on that slippery wet deck, and the doctors later told me it probably saved my life, it stopped from having internal concussions from the explosions. So I was passing this blood with the GIs and it got pretty bad.
About the third day, we finished mopping up the beach. We cleaned it all, everything up. I went out to a hospital ship that had been beached, LSTs, to get some chalky substance to stop this. Then he slapped my can in the bed and he wouldn't let me go back ashore because I'd lost a lot of blood. So anyway, I wound up two weeks later, back at my old base in England because they ran me out of the hospital because I recovered very quickly and I was trying to date the nurses and drink up all their scotch. They wouldn't let me donate blood, because they give you a big double of scotch if you donated blood. They said, "You bastard, you haven't got enough blood now. Get out of here
Well, what happened on the Omaha Beachhead the morning of D-Day, in my mind, was never comprehended that anything like that could happen. I could visualize machine gunfire and mortar fire, but never with such intensity, never with such thoroughness. Every inch entry of that beach was zeroed.
As I said before, if all of the preparations had been successful prior to actual beach landing, this would've been greatly minimized, but not completely eliminated because the Germans had caves dug into those cliffs and gun placements. One German could fire four machine guns at one time, and they were using wooden projectiles, wooden, bullets because they didn't go around the metal, and these were anti-personnel weapons. Every one of them was zeroed in on different sections of the beach. All he had to do was look at a chart and push a button and that gun would move here and move there and move there, wherever he wanted to move it. That's how much time they had to prepare for the defense of that beachhead.
So your question about how do you grasp something like that? I've obviously just proven, I can't grasp it because I keep going back to the details, which is, I couldn't comprehend that would ever be that way. As I've said before, I wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience, I wouldn't give you a nickel for any more of it. I don't know how to grasp that one.
I think the best moment I had was, I was able to save three men's lives. They'd been buried in a mortar cave-in. I went out and dug their heads out of that, it was a soft sand, fortunately, and finally wiggled them out of there. They had been in this foxhole with a high banks and a mortar hit behind and just caved it in on top of them. I happened to be laying over to the side when I saw it and I just jumped up and went over and started digging their heads up so they could breathe. When they got out, I felt very satisfied with myself. At least I'd done something constructive that day.
In the heat of stress and battle and you see your friends being shot, the pieces and so forth? You're disturbed, there's no question about it. But you've got two fears: the fear of becoming a victim like they did, and the fear of not doing your job that you were supposed to do. That's a very individual thing, those two fears, who's going to win? I think the training we had, the physical disciplinary training, we had the stress and so forth, paid of. I don't recall anyone shirking his duty, anyone that... There wasn't any place to hide, anyway. But I never saw anyone that didn't get up and do everything he could possibly do.
Let me give you an illustration about how physically fit these men were. We laid in the English Channel on the English side for three days and nights on a steel deck, sleeping on a steel deck, eating cold rations in rainy weather. We made a false attempt on June 5th and had to go back into the Channel and red dock and come out again the next night. We crossed the Channel on an LCT, that's a tank carrier, flat bottom tank carrier, goes about five knots an hour. The damn thing sunk two miles off of the coast of France. We had to pull a landing craft in and unload the crew off of that and take the crew from... we had three tanks on this thing... take the crew over, put them on a transport ship and get back in line and make our invasion site. Half of the men were green with seasickness. Now can you imagine three days and nights of that? And if you weren't physically fit, brother, you wasn't going to make it. I think that illustrates how strong and fit they were and how dedicated these men were.
Let me explain something, too, about the volunteers. You volunteered to get in and you had to prove yourself to stay in. You could get out anytime you wanted to, all you had to say was, "Uncle," and they sent you to the transfer pool.
At the end of the Hells Week, the final knockdown training, if you passed, you were in. The officers got together in a group, the other men got together in another group. The officers picked their second in command. They then went to that man, this was an enlisted man... there's only five men in an officer in the first unit. He then went to this first man and said, "I've picked you. Do you want to serve with me as my second man?" The man had the option of saying no and going back in the pool if he didn't like the officer. The officers took the same training with us, shoulder to shoulder, so there's no question about knowing who he was or what he could do. If the guy said yes, then him and the second in command went to four more men and gave them the same option. So when that unit was finalized, it was six guys together because they wanted to be together.
The other thing was that these men always trained in a buddy system, always two together. We never lost one man in the whole history of the organization from drowning, never, because there was always a buddy system. If one guy got wounded or something, his buddy was there to help him. But that was the way that was put together.
Let's say after the Normandy thing, what was left of us, we'd come back to the states, they disbanded the units. They then went to Underwater Demolition Teams because there were 100-man teams. At that point in time, these men had an option of going anywhere in the Navy they wanted to go, to go back in the Seabees and some of them went back in the Seabees. Two of my men went back in the Seabees that were in my unit that survived.
After what was left of us had come back to the States, disbanded the units and folded the men who wanted to go into newly formed teams or old, existing teams. The teams were called UDTs, Underwater Demolition Teams. They comprised of 100 men and they were autonomous. They had four combat platoons. They had a ship's company. They had their own motor max. They had their own cameramen. They had their own medics. They had their own destroyer assigned to them. They were very autonomous. They had come of age, so to speak, see.
Now, I put together a team with my top commanding officer in Omaha, a fellow by the name of Walter Cooper. We put together a team 25. I was a Senior Chief on that team.
Of course, I've got mixed feelings about the whole concept of war. But at that particular time, what was left of us we're pretty proud of the job we'd done and we didn't think any of it was in vain, even for those that lost their lives, I agreed for those men, a lot of them are young, young boys and as teens, 18, 19 years old, that was the curse of being a mature man at 24 at that time. But I didn't think it was in vain.
The question came, would you do it again if you knew you were facing the same conditions? And my classical answer is no, because we would first eliminate those conditions. This was the attitude, the spirit in which our people were trained and functioned in. We took no unnecessary risks. We took risk, but we didn't take stupid or foolish ones.
If all the plans had been carried out on Omaha Beachhead that had been planned, if the bombs had not had 32 delayed fuses on them and hit behind the beach instead of on the beach, if the Navy heavy guns had not bounced off of the heavy gun placements, convex concrete, if the thousands of rockets that were fired under that beachhead had done the job of clearing out those mines and those booby traps and machine gun nests, we would've had a nice, easy job of doing our job. But none of this was helpful. That's why those four destroyers saved the day. They come in and opened up one of those exits from the beach and when our men got off of that beach, they got behind the Germans and they knocked the living hell out of them. That's how we got off of that beach.
As I told you, I'd come back and help form a new team, Underwater Demolition Team. I was successful in getting 33 of the men from Omaha to join me in that new team. We were out in the Pacific, training base was out in Maui, and we were off the coast of California. There was 17 destroyers laying off the coast, 17 Underwater Demolition Teams, all there for the purpose of cold water training and preparation for the invasion of Japan proper. Being the Senior Chief in my team, I was privy to the intelligence, much more than I had been in Europe. I knew that the invasion of Japan proper would've had been worse than Omaha. Because, number one, we were invading a homeland, not an occupied country. They would've fought us with broomsticks, with those people. Number two, most important, we would've not have had air control, we could never have had complete air control. Number three, we could never wipe out, swipe out, all the mines that the Japs had placed on different parts of their coast. All kinds of sophisticated mines that we couldn't have gotten through.
So when they dropped the A-bomb and the Japs surrendered for peace, I went to Cooper, my Commanding Officer, and I said, "I want you to shake hands with Number One." He says, "Number one what?" American citizen, I'm getting the hell out of this outfit." I said, "You take these kids and go to Japan," and they took the team and they went to Japan. They put the occupation forces right on the same logistics that we used for the invasion purposes. And I went home.
I'm very proud, as I obviously demonstrated, to have been a part of that organization. I've never in my lifetime found such compatibility and esprit de corps with a group of people or men as I did in that organization. In my civilian life, I've had some pretty top executive jobs. I was the president of the company one time and vice president of several other companies, so I know about the line of chain of command and so forth and so on. But that was the greatest pride I had within the military was that esprit de corps, those men. When we looked at one another, we knew why you were there and why you could stay there if you wanted to be there. There was no question in your mind about it. It had nothing to do with your personal life, it was just what you were doing together at that time.
If it was part of the function, the mission, whatever it was, they didn't hesitate in face of danger to do their job, to help you or help take a sacrifice, what have you. I don't think they deliberately took a sacrifice that nobody felt optimistic about his abilities. But, no, never, any backing down, never.
That was Chief Machinist Mate Jerry Markham.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
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