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Americans Killed In D-Day Rehearsal Honored With Tributes, Tears

November 15, 1987

SLAPTON SANDS, England (AP) _ With tears, tributes and a bugler playing Taps, the United States and Britain on Sunday finally honored 749 Americans killed in a rehearsal for the D-Day landings of World War II.

About 300 people prayed for the soldiers and sailors who perished off southwest England’s Devon coast on what came to be known as ″The Night of the Bloody Tiger.″

In driving rain overlooking the slate gray English Channel, Rep. Beverly Byron, a D-Md., and Peggy Verniquet, chairman of the local South Hams District Council, pulled an American flag off a plaque commemorating the deaths.

″May these men rest in the knowledge that the lessons in this tragedy added significantly to the ability of the Allies to carry out the successful invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944,″ it says.

For Ken Small, a local guesthouse owner, it was the end of a 16-year battle to gain official recognition for the young recruits who lost their lives the night of April 28, 1944, when Exercise Tiger turned into real combat.

At the end of the 40-minute ceremony, his eyes brimming with tears, the former Royal Air Force corporal placed a wreath of poppies at the base of the plaque, which was cast in Colorado and mounted on a boulder of Devon granite.

He was unable to speak.

″I gave 16 years. These young men gave their lives. May they forever rest in peace,″ says the handwritten card on Small’s wreath.

He placed a second wreath on the nearby Sherman tank that sank during the exercise. Small recovered it in 1984 as his personal memorial to the men.

Exercise Tiger started as a mock assault on Slapton Sands beach by 30,000 American troops, but turned real when nine German E-boats - fast, light boats that harassed coastal waters during the war - torpedoed three amphibious landing craft.

Hundreds were trapped and killed on the landing craft. Others died when some Americans opened fire on their own boats, thinking they were German.

Hundreds more dead were found the next morning, floating upside down in the water because they put their Mae West life vests around their waists instead of under their arms.

Charles B. MacDonald, retired deputy chief historian of the U.S. Army who researched the exercise, said Saturday he believes the death toll was 946 - 749 soldiers and 197 seamen.

For Manny Rubin, born in the borough of Bronx, New York City, who was on one of the landing craft that fired on fellow Americans by mistake, the ceremony was like a family funeral - an ending for a disaster he believes should never have happened.

Rubin said it only recently came to light that the E-boats were spotted by Royal Air Force planes but word never reached the Americans at the beach.

″I feel peace of mind at last,″ said the 64-year-old garment manufacturer, who has lived in nearby Plymouth since 1962 and comes to the beach every April 28 to lay flowers.

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Theodore Liska, 68, of Chicago, said he also took part in Exercise Tiger, but was in the advance wave and didn’t find out about the casualties until after D-Day.

″I came over just for this, to pay homage to the ones we left behind who actually won the war,″ he said. ″They gave their lives.″

Exercise Tiger marked one of the largest U.S. losses of life of any incident in the war to that point. Because secrecy surrounding D-Day, details were not made public until after the war.

Even then, it remained a footnote to the Normandy invasion, which spearheaded the eventual Allied victory in Europe.

Slapton Sands’ crescent-shaped beach was chosen for the exercise because it resembled Utah Beach on the Normandy coast where the U.S. D-Day landings were planned. On D-Day, 179 GIs died at Utah Beach.

″So many argue that the lives of those 749 soldiers and sailors ... were lost in vain, that it was merely a tragic accident that could have been avoided,″ said Congresswoman Byron, whose late father, Capt. Harry C. Butcher witnessed Exercise Tiger as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s naval aide.

″What disturbs me about this particular line of thinking is that it belittles the supreme sacrifice that was made by those men,″ she told the crowd of Americans and Britons.

″There were mishaps, military bungles, tragic accidents incurred during the war. ... The Alliance made their share of the mistakes, but we prevailed ... because men like those commemorated on this plaque believed in liberty,″ she added.

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