Memorial To 749 Americans Closes Book On WWII Tragedy
SLAPTON SANDS, England (AP) _ For U.S. veteran Manny Rubin, Sunday’s dedication of an American memorial to 749 comrades who died in one of World War II’s forgotten tragedies is a bittersweet end to a slaughter that never should have happened.
Rubin was among the lucky survivors of what came to be known as ″The Night of the Bloody Tiger,″ a dry-run for the D-Day landings that turned terribly real when German E-boats torpedoed the exercise off southern England.
The result was one of the highest U.S. casualty tolls of the war to that point, Pearl Harbor excluded.
Because of secrecy surrounding the Normandy invasion six weeks later, the disaster of Exercise Tiger did not come to light until after the war.
Even then, it was treated as a footnote to the invasion that launched the Allied forces on the road to victory.
There is still controversy over how many soldiers and sailors perished - some say over a thousand. And nothing was done to commemorate their sacrifice.
Charles B. MacDonald, former deputy U.S. Army chief historian, was called out of retirement to research the exercise. He told a news conference Saturday he believes the death toll was probably 946 - 749 soldiers plus 197 seamen overlooked in earlier counts.
A mock seaborne invasion of Slapton Sands beach by 30,000 troops turned into a real battle when nine German E-boats - fast, light craft that harassed coastal shipping during the war - torpedoed three amphibious landing craft on the night of April 28, 1944.
Hundreds died in the attacks. Others were killed by fellow Americans who mistook them for Germans in the dark. Hundreds more drowned by putting their Mae West life vests around their waists instead of under their arms.
″The sea was on fire. It was a dreadful sight. It was just a slaughter really,″ recalled Rubin, then a 21-year-old Navy signalman on one of the landing craft.
If there had been a destroyer escort to throw up a star shell and illuminate the battle scene and if the rookie GIs had been taught the right way to put on their life vests, many lives could have been saved, he said.
″In the morning, the sea as far as you could see was covered with dead bodies, floating upside down,″ Rubin, a garment manufacturer born in the Bronx section of New York City, said in an interview Saturday.
″Then, the revelation over 40 years later, that Royal Air Force planes had spotted the E-boats heading for the coast and reported it to the Admiralty in London - but that word never reached the Americans in Plymouth - that made me hopping mad,″ Rubin said.
The crescent-shaped beach at Slapton Sands was chosen because it resembled Utah Beach on France’s Normandy coast where the American D-Day landings were planned. On D-Day, 179 GIs were killed at Utah Beach.
Rubin, who married an Englishwoman in the Royal Navy and now lives in nearby Plymouth, has been coming to Slapton Sands every April 28 since he moved to England in 1962 - dropping flowers in the sparkling turquoise waters where his comrades died.
For the last three years, he has also placed a wreath on a U.S. Sherman tank that sank during the exercise and was raised in 1984 by Ken Small, a local guesthouse owner who campaigned for 16 years for an American memorial.
It was Small’s lobbying, and his chance meeting with Rep. Beverly B. Byron, D-Md., that reaped Sunday’s unveiling of a plaque to the slain Americans.
Mrs. Byron’s father, Capt. Harry C. Butcher, witnessed Exercise Tiger as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s naval aide, and he published an account in 1946.
Said Mrs. Byron: ″The thing that I feel is that it’s something that’s been overlooked. It’s something that should have been done in the past.″
Rubin said he expects to be the only survivor of the exercise at the ceremony.
″I’m representing the boys,″ he said. ″I look at it as if I’m going to a funeral - but it’s 43 years late now.
″When I look at my wife and my wonderful grandchildren, I just feel so sorry for the unborn families of those boys who would have had such lovely lives,″ he said.
″Now, I hope the book can be closed. We’re all so old now. People involved in government now weren’t responsible for what happened then. They have nothing to hide, nothing to lose. So everything’s above board now.
″I hope the furor dies down. There shouldn’t be any more controversy. Let them rest in peace.″