The explosion from the detonated underwater mine blew a hole in the ship and split it in two. The LST-523, a 328-foot-long, brand-new American ship that was less than a year old, began to immediately sink. On top of the deck, four men were sitting inside the cab of a transport truck. The boat was designed to float onto the beach where the bow of the ship would fold down to form an exit ramp for the trucks and tanks onboard.
The date was June 19, 1944, just two weeks after D-Day.
Now 95, survivor Bill Allen, one of the four men in the truck, recalled the day the LST-523 went down as if it were yesterday.
“Everyone was jumping overboard that could and it was bloody… It was just a terrible sight to see and to hear,” said Allen. The Murfreesboro native has been retired for over two decades but still worked part-time at Woodfin Funeral Home, where he prepared bodies much like he did for the Navy.
Allen’s daughter, Patti, and wife, Idalee, says he tells his story the exact same way that he has for the past 50 years, word for word. They say that moments seem to be etched into his memory, but they never grow weary of hearing it.
Allen was a medic for the U.S. Navy during World War II. His role during the war was to tend to the wounded and to take back the dead. He would clean up the bloody, muddy soldiers, find their dog tag and wrap them up to be stored in a cooler. Allen joined the Navy soon after graduating from Murfreesboro Central High School in 1943.
Allen was onboard the LST-523 on June 6, 1944, and also on the day that the ship went down. The LST-523 had already made three round trips across the English Channel carrying tanks and trucks to the Normandy landing site and bringing back the dead. On their fourth trip, however, the tide pulled back and the ship sunk down. About five miles off the coast it struck a mine that killed nearly everyone onboard.
Allen’s saving grace was a friend, Jack Hamlin, from Springfield, Missouri.
“Allen, jump on,” his friend screamed from a life raft that was nearly 20 feet away from the sinking ship.
“I can’t swim very well,” Allen shouted. The crash of the waves and frenzy of other men started to grow louder.
Looking back to the ship, Allen said that he knew this was his best bet of survival and that he could drown either way.
76 years later, his hands are worn with age and full of dark-colored spots. He sits back in a wooden church chair with his United States Navy cap on and a khaki-colored rain jacket. His voice is raspy and deep as he tells his story.
Something is different about looking into the eyes of one of the last remaining sailors that stormed the beaches so many years ago. They’re blueish-gray in color, eyes that have seen more death and destruction than any person should see in their lifetime. Eyes that once had to endure seeing thousands of dead, dismembered bodies floating in the ocean waters, are now frail and loving when speaking about such tragedy.
After his life raft was picked up by another ship, Allen said that the skipper told him to grab a bite to eat and to sleep. Late into the night, Allen rolled over to see his friend Jack with wide eyes and dreadful thoughts well after midnight.
“Bill, are you asleep?” Jack asked.
“Jack, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to sleep again,” Allen sighed. His eyes open wide, staring off into the nothingness of their cabin. The two couldn’t sleep and couldn’t eat the next day. Their hearts full of heaviness and sorrow.
Allen’s wife said that the war vet didn’t speak of the horrors he faced for nearly two decades of their marriage. The pair have been married for 64 years.
In 2013, Bill and Idalee were invited to visit Normandy, France to visit the ship that had sunk nearly 70 years prior. Doug Hamilton, a PBS documentary producer, brought him there to feature his story on “Sunken Secrets.”
Allen crawled into a tiny submarine, laid flat on his stomach and spent nearly two hours on the ocean floor.
“It was just as it was the day that it sunk,” Allen stated. He was able to see the very spot where the truck was and where he nearly lost his life.
Allen believes that his faith saved him. While onboard the LST-523 he and a dozen other “Southern-boy” soldiers were a part of a Sunday morning church service.
“It lasted no longer than five to 10 minutes, sometimes we’d pray or read our Bibles or sing a song,” he said.
Of the 28 survivors, every sailor attending the Sunday morning church service with Allen got off of the boat and survived.
“Some of us were injured severely, but we all survived and got back home to our families. I thank God for that.”