"Run For Your Life!" - The Epic of the USS LST 510

 

BY ZACH S. MORRIS, EDITOR

 

Editor’s Note: On June 3, 2018, the TODAY Show with Willie Geist aired a segment on NBC featuring the ferry Cape Henlopen, formerly the USS LST 510, that served in the D-Day Normandy invasion—that still operates as a passenger ferry today. The segment featured an interview with Vincent “Jim” Lijoi, who served on the 510 in WWII. Over the last few months since the segment aired, I have had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Lijoi, as well as two other veterans of the 510, Pete Zarlengo and Thomas Patton. The following article is based off interviews from the three sailors, past “Scuttlebutt” articles, and official records from the US National Archives.
The Cape Henlopen makes daily runs from New London, CT across Long Island Sound to Orient Point, NY.

 

 1 1 Jim Lijoi1 2 Pete Zarlengo1 3 Thomas Patton

LEFT: Vincent “Jim” Lijoi, Seaman 1st Class (Storekeeper)
MIDDLE: Pete Zarlengo, Watertender 3rd Class
RIGHT: Thomas Patton, Seaman 1st Class (Coxswain)

 

FOR PETE ZARLENGO, a child of the Great Depression, life was never easy. His mother died when he was only a year and a half old, so his father placed him and his older brother Dominic in an orphanage, where he would be raised for the next eleven years. As Pete explained, “him and I were in the [orphanage] together, he was older than I was. He came out before I did, and decided after a while that he wanted to join the Navy.” Pete eventually left the orphanage and decided to follow in his older brother's footsteps, enlisting in the Navy on August 21, 1943.

America had entered World War II in December 1941 and young men from every different conceivable background from all over the US were shipped to coastal Navy bases where they trained, eager to join the fight against the Axis. Several of those navy bases were located off the Gulf of Mexico, where the newly constructed USS LST 510 was stopping in early 1944 to pick up its diverse new crew in its journey down the Mississippi River. Pete Zarlengo, and his new buddies—Jim Lijoi, Jim White (who passed away), and Thomas Patton would be four of the original crewmembers of the LST 510. The 510 would be the men’s new home for over the next year.

“We were about the guys that hung around together,” Zarlengo remembered. “I know for a fact that they taught me a lot, because when I came out of the orphanage I was pretty green.” Laughing, Zarlengo added, “I was kind of lucky because I was greener than hell!”

“Zarlengo I remember very well,” Jim Lijoi said when retelling stories of his buddies. Lijoi, then a Seaman 2nd Class, was a gunner on one of the LST’s 20-millimeter machine guns. “They put me on the 20 MM anti-aircraft. I worked as a seaman and struck (trained) for a Storekeeper. So I worked as a Storekeeper all the time that I was on the ship, but of course during the war they put me on the 20 MM," Lijoi recalled.

“We were a pretty good happy crew, we all worked together,” added Thomas Patton when describing his buddies. A handsome young kid from Philadelphia, Patton would eventually become a Coxswain, assigned to a small boat where he took wounded men off the beach during the D-Day invasion. “Of course I was a young kid at 17 years old then,” Patton laughed.

 

1 4 LST 510USS LST 510 and an unknown LST anchored in an English port, circa late-May prior to the Normandy Invasion in June 1944. USS LST-510 has LCT(6)-1174 loaded on her main deck ready to be launched prior to the invasion while the unknown LST has LCT(6)-815 loaded on her main deck also ready for launch prior to the invasion. (Navsource.org)

 

The LST 510 was built in Jeffersonville, Indiana as part of the Amphibious Forces, or “gator navy” in WWII. LSTs were unique in that they were used for a critically important purpose that differed drastically from traditional US Navy ships. The official record of the ship, The History of U.S.S. Landing Ship Tank 510, summed it up best:

[The LST’s] primary function would have court-martialed the most prudent of our sea captains. This primary function being to cast itself upon the shore; then, the huge bow doors would open, the ramp would come down, and troops and vehicles would be unloaded on foreign soil."

After making its way down the Mississippi River, the LST 510 arrived in New Orleans, LA where she was commissioned on January 31, 1944. Lieutenant G. P. Andrews, the only man who had been to sea before the war began, took command of the LST 510 and its “salty” crew. The occupation of the officers and crew before the war ranged from hotel clerks to blacksmiths, to embalmers. Needless to say, many of the high school aged “sea dogs,” including the green Zarlengo, suffered from chronic seasickness. According to the ship’s official record, even one of the officers “was not able to sustain the initial evening without ‘feeding the fish.’” Zarlengo chuckled as he remembered, “I was seasick for three years, but just because I got sick, that's no reason to quit.”

 

THE TREACHEROUS ATLANTIC

After completing their shakedown cruise off Panama City, FL, the LST 510 headed back to New Orleans. On March 1, 1944, the 327-foot long 510 loaded the 115-foot long Landing Craft Tank (LCT) 709 onto her main deck by two loading cranes for their trip to New York City. While there, the crew loaded 600 tons of ammunition onto the ship’s tank deck, then departed for Boston, MA, then to Halifax Nova Scotia.

At last, on March 29, 1944, the USS LST 510 and her crew made for the open sea for their trip across the Atlantic Ocean, embarking on a cause none could yet comprehend. She was part of a 64-ship convoy made up of LSTs and merchant ships. The journey was turbulent, violent, and full of terrors. According to the ship’s records, it seemed as though just about every disastrous condition happened; “a three-day fog, sleet, ice berg flows, and wind that brought fifty-foot waves over the bow.”

“We crossed the North Atlantic in real rough waters I can tell you that much,” Patton remembered as he let out a laugh.

“They claim the waves, as we were going across, some of them were over 50 feet high,” Zarlengo confirmed.

 

1 5 John McGlew

The LST 510’s Engineering Officer, Ensign John McGlew. As he recalled in 1990, “the convoy trip across the Atlantic Ocean included several days bumping against icebergs with 600 tons of ammunition aboard and 300,000 gallons of diesel oil. The vessel then encountered severe storms with waves that were higher than the total height structure of the whole vessel. It was during these days that prayers were regularly said in the crew's berthing quarters.” (LST Scuttlebutt, December 1990 issue; page 17)

 

But more dangers loomed. The ship’s records went on; “aside from the weather, the LST 510 had troubles of her own, too. As she travelled in the convoy, four ships were torpedoed, one of them just 400 yards off [the] port quarter.” Nazi submarine raiders had found the convoy and were attacking—and the LST 510 was loaded with 600 tons of ammunition. Then, all fouled up in a dense fog, her engines broke down.

“I remember I was on top deck. And I presume the Germans found out that we were carrying a tremendous amount of ammunition on the ship, the whole tank deck was full, from the bow to stern with ammunition,” Lijoi added as he described the perilous situation. All hands realized that if a Nazi submarine fired torpedoes at their “floating bed pan,” they were goners.

“Back in those days, and the time of year it was, the roughness of the water ... there wasn't a damn thing you could do for survivors ... It was really a shame, something you never figure could happen, but it did ... There was no survivors from the ships that were sunk in the convoy,” Patton sadly remembered of the men who perished. To the great relief of the crew, the 510 arrived safely in Londonderry, Ireland on April 13, 1944, where they discharged all of the ammo.

 

SCUTTLEBUTT OF INVASION

As the LST 510 made its way from Ireland to Milford Haven, Wales, the crew played basketball on her empty tank deck. When an LCT was chained down to their ship, the crew used the small landing craft as a boxing ring on their way to Plymouth, England.

Lijoi remembered, “On the top deck with the LCT we were carrying, we had the room there and we'd put ropes around it and have boxing matches.”

“Oh yeah, I remember there was some boxing, too, yeah," Patton laughed as he recalled. “We had a lot of different experiences waiting for the invasion to come along I guess.”

The LST 510 pushed on to Plymouth, England, where the crew prepared for the Normandy Invasion that would soon take place. They spent the month of May 1944 being outfitted at Falmouth and Fowey as rumors of the upcoming invasion raged. According to the ship’s official record, “In Plymouth, orders were received to take on vehicles and personnel and everyone moved around a little faster than normally. ‘This is it’ began to be the byword among the crew.” Then on June 1, the LST 510 took on two hundred men of the “cocky” 29th Infantry Division, their equipment, and about seventy of their vehicles. From that moment on, for the next four days, no one was allowed off the ship.

After unfavorable weather conditions caused a delay on June 5, the invasion was postponed by one day. However, in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the LST 510 and her crew would sail through the opening in the Plymouth Harbor submarine nets as part of the most massive invasion force the world has ever seen. The ship’s official record poetically illustrates the mood of those hours:

So at 0355, June 6, the 510 again went ... embarking on a pilgrimage that will always live in the minds of the men present that will forever be written in the history books as the greatest invasion ever undertaken up to that time. The night was crisp and the moon shone down through the eerie black sky on the ship ahead like a spotlight on Hamlet during his soliloquy. By daybreak, the 510 had formed in the 4000 ship Western Task Force Convoy B-1 ... Just before dawn of June 6th hundreds of planes could be heard droning overhead on their way to blast hell out of the large gun installations along the invasion beachhead at H-Hour."

The LST 510 headed toward Omaha Beach near Vierville as bodies and life jackets floated in the bloody water. Sounds of shells whizzing overhead and Allied ships pounding German 88 MM emplacements was deafening. The men could see the obstacles placed on the beach through glasses. Smaller landing craft were having a hard time with mines.

Patton remembered D-Day as a hectic day. He had one of the most dangerous jobs of all. “The only thing I can remember was taking wounded off the beach. I was a Coxswain on a small boat. I went on the beach and took the wounded off the beach,” he said.

Zarlengo had similar recollections. “Going in on D-Day, we were on the beach unloading our personnel, the army, and then we took the wounded aboard—German and American—they needed operations and, I think, if I remember, we had about eight doctors onboard. We went back-and-forth to England and loaded up a number of times, and we took the wounded back to England,” he remembered. The men aboard the 510 could see the steady lines of infantrymen as they inched inland over the coastal foothills. “Medic tents were sprouting up like instantaneous mushrooms,” according to the 510’s official record, “The ship began taking on casualties even before she was unloaded as she was also acting as a hospital ship.” Records went on to describe the lifesaving operations the doctors performed in the face of horrible conditions throughout the night. The tank deck became known as the “Hall of Mercy” because of its operating room.

That night was the 510’s first encounter with enemy air raids from the Nazi Luftwaffe. It looked as if the entire sky had been set ablaze with all of the streaking tracer bullets from all of the ships, planes, and barrage balloons firing from all directions. According to the 510’s official record, “it truly resembled the lighting displays of a World’s Fair. The crew gave up on the idea of sleeping. Still wearing life jackets and helmets, some played bridge between the air raids, which lasted all night.”

With each dreaded air raid that came that night, Lijoi had a front row seat to the action, firing furiously at the Nazis from his 20 MM gun below. “After the air raid, the captain came over and he broke out some liquor for my particular gun and said to us, ‘good job,’ so I presume my gun may have knocked down a German airplane,” Lijoi remembered about D-Day. Luckily for the 510’s crew, no bomb fell within a thousand yards of their LST.

 

1 6 LST 510 NormandyUSS LST 510 beached at the Normandy beachhead, circa June–August 1944. (LST Scuttlebutt, December 1990 issue; p. 16)

 

The LST 510 actually touched French soil for the first time on Tare Green sector of Utah Beach on her third trip across the English Channel. According to the ship’s record, “For the next three months, the 510 shuttled across the rugged channel ... transporting vehicles and troops with one hand and nursing the wounded with the other.” Incredibly, the 510 would make 28 cross-channel trips total before her service was complete. Zarlengo confirmed the official record, “According to a sheet that I kept, we went back-and-forth 28 times.”

 

THE COLLISION – FEBRUARY 5, 1945

Many of the LST 510’s deliveries of troops and supplies had been to Le Havre, France, a port on the east side of Normandy that the 510 had just finished making another delivery to, and would set sail from, for her 28th time back to England. Though the crew had no idea of knowing at the time, the evening of February 5, 1945, was to be their last trip across the channel. And for one of the young new crewmen, this dark and foggy night was to be his last night on earth.

As the 510 steamed ahead at flank speed in the dark, dense fog toward England, Lijoi stood at his battle station next to the 20 MM machine gun at the front of the ship, acting as the bow lookout on the port side. Joining Lijoi on the midnight watch was a brand new crewmember, Seaman 2nd Class Mack Henry Warren, on the starboard side. Warren had just joined the crew thirteen days earlier on January 23. According to Lijoi, “he was brand new. He just came aboard. That trip to France, on the way back, that's the first time I met him. Nice young man, too.” However, Warren was not an experienced veteran like Lijoi and the others. “He was only 17 years old, I don't know why they put him on watch at that time, because there was a lot of danger in those waters," Lijoi added.

Lijoi was on the port side when he heard something. It sounded like another ship. “I had good ears at that time,” he clearly remembered. He reported back to the officers several times about the noise. It started to get louder, until suddenly, Lijoi spotted the silhouette of a ship in the darkness dead ahead.

It was the SS Chapel Hill Victory, a type of cargo ship operated by the US. Like the 510, the Chapel Hill Victory was also steaming full speed ahead into the blinding fog. Neither ship spotted each other until it was too late.

“I see this liberty ship coming towards where I'm sitting. So I yelled to the kid ... ‘Run for your life! The ship is gonna to hit us!’” Lijoi recalled. Lijoi stampeded toward the back of the ship as the two ships collided head on. “The liberty ship hit us where I was sitting, and cut my chair into pieces. And the kid didn't move, he froze,” Lijoi sadly remembered, “and of course, he was killed.”

Meanwhile, Patton, who had just been relieved by Lijoi and Warren as the bow lookout, hadn’t even gotten back to his bunk yet, when he felt a jarring quake. Patton remembered, “I was on bow watch, and I just left, and was going through the hatch and down the ladder when we got hit. Yeah, I was almost at the bottom of the ladder, and it got hit and felt the ladder on me, not serious, but quite a bit of confusion there for a while.”

Zarlengo remembered the exact moment of the collision. “I'll tell you I know one thing, it damn near knocked me out of the bunk!” he soundly recalled, “I had the highest bunk—there were three bunks, and I took the top one—and it damn near knocked everybody out, I mean that was a head-on and we just stopped. Period. If I remember right that was pretty close to midnight. So we had to be towed back to England because it tore just about the front end completely off."

After colliding with the LST 510, the Chapel Hill Victory immediately collided with the LST 389, causing the 389 to lose a man overboard. Aside from the loss of life, the damage suffered by the LST 510 was crippling. According to official war diary of LST Group Forty Nine, the crash with the Chapel Hill Victory left the LST 510 with a severed bow, a ramp cut in half and torn away, a crushed winch, a crushed port bow-door, a crushed hawse pipe, a torn tank-deck, valves punctured and flooded, two crushed mounts for two bow 20 MMs, and a damaged 40 MM mount.

 

1 7 LST 510 Feb 1945
USS LST 510 after a bow-to-bow collision, due to heavy fog, with SS Chapel Hill Victory, in the English Channel, 5 February 1945. One crewmember from USS LST 510, Mack H. Warren, S2c. (575 42 06), the bow lookout, was killed in the collision. (LST Scuttlebutt, November/December 1992 issue; p. 45)

 

“If I didn't move fast enough I would've been a goner myself," Lijoi concluded before adding, “and the youngster of course froze and he was killed and we had to bury him at sea." Tragically, 17-year old Mack Warren would never get to see another sunrise.

The wrecked LST 510 was towed to Falmouth, England where they were placed into dry-dock until the middle of May. After six years of total war, ravaging the entire continent of Europe, Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945. The war in Europe was over. Nazi Germany had finally fallen.

Exactly one year and one day after D-Day—June 7, 1945, the LST 510 bid farewell to Europe and sailed back home to the US, where she would be stripped and outfitted for the Pacific. Luckily, all plans to fight in the Pacific Theater were cancelled when Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945. For the crew of the LST 510, the war was finally over.

 

CAPE HENLOPEN

Four decades later, in 1983, Cross Sound Ferry Services Inc. bought the LST 510 and converted it into a passenger ferry. Seventy five years after D-Day, the quiet passenger ferry now known by the name Cape Henlopen is still in service today, chugging across Long Island Sound daily, like any other ferry. But unlike other ferries, each passenger that steps onto the Cape Henlopen steps onto a unique piece of marvelous history. Those lucky passengers get the satisfaction of not only enjoying a pleasant ride in peacetime, but also knowing she once fought for their freedom during America’s darkest hours in wartime.

1 8 Cape Henlopen(Navsource.org)

Lijoi, Zarlengo, and Patton were among the lucky ones to survive the war, and for that they are extremely grateful. Each man expressed interest in revisiting his old ship for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June 2019, God willing. In his interview with the TODAY Show, Jim Lijio concluded by saying simply, “We actually saved the world. Thank God for America.” 

 

1 9 Pete Zarlengo Omaha1 10 Vincent Jim Lijoi

LEFT: Pete Zarlengo returns to Omaha Beach Nov 1, 2015. It was the only time he had seen Omaha Beach since the invasion. (Collection of Pete Zarlengo)
RIGHT: Jim Lijoi featured on the Today Show.

 

 

 

SOURCES:
• The History of U.S.S. Landing Ship Tank 510 (pp. 1–8); National Archives Records Administration, College Park, MD.
• War Diary – Month of February 1945, LST Group Forty-Nine (pp. 1–4), 17 March 1945; National Archives Records Administration, College Park, MD.
• Author’s Interview with Vincent Lijoi (6/16/2018); Pete Zarlengo (7/1/2018); Thomas Patton (8/25/2018)

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