U.S. Navy medic Bill Allen and his wife, Idalee, stand before a large Normandy Beach invasion photograph in their Murfreesboro family residence. (D. Whittle)
It was the day after D-Day, June 7, 1944, when U.S. Navy medic Bill Allen and three other shipmates held Bible study and said prayers while on their way to Omaha Beach.
Aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel converted into a medical ship, they were on their way across the turbulent English Channel to take on wounded and dead one day after the biggest wartime invasion in world history.
“We had been scheduled for the invasion a few days earlier, but stormy seas and weather caused us to postpone it to June 6,” Allen explained. “We went in close to the beaches to retrieve dead and wounded from that first invasion.
“One man in our unit was the son of a preacher, but he was not anything close to following the life of a gospel-preaching man. We designated the preacher’s son to read scriptures.”
That was the first trip his unit made to Omaha Beach, where they witnessed blood, gore and hundreds of floating bodies of fallen American soldiers.
Their vessel could only get close to the beach due to high waves and German defense barriers in the water.
“Many of our dead had drowned from the waves and the weight of their packs and weapons,” said Allen, a Murfreesboro native who joined the Navy soon after graduating from the old Murfreesboro Central High School in 1943. “Some of the waves were more than 10 feet high during the invasion … It took your breath to witness this.”
It was another Murfreesboro native, shipmate Ed Phillips, who persuaded Allen he could help in the “death detail” of retrieving soldiers’ corpses.
“Initially, I told Ed I couldn’t do that,” Allen recalled. “But Ed said, ‘Yes, come on, come on, you can help,’ and we began moving stretchers, lifting and cleaning up bodies, and wrapping them in blankets.”
The second trip to retrieve the dead and wounded was to Utah Beach. The prayer group assembled again as they crossed the turbulent channel.
“We had transported our first shipload of dead and wounded back across the English Channel,” Allen added.
Similar tactics were taken on the third trip back and forth across the channel.
“We read scriptures each trip,” he said. “We counted it a miracle that none of the German artillery shells, so far, had hit our vessel.”
It was on the fourth danger-laden trip across the channel that Allen’s world exploded.
It was a tremendous explosion that blew Coast Guard LST 523 in split pieces. The explosion lifted both sections of the ship’s hull high into the air, tossing dozens of sailors and soldiers helplessly into the huge ocean waves and strong currents.
“We were headed to Omaha Beach when we were hit by a submerged German mine, which caused our vessel to split in half there in the choppy ocean waves. The explosion pulverized everything,” Allen said. “I was in shock like everyone else but clearly recall trying to decide whether I wanted to jump in the water, where I’d certainly drown … or stay and go down with the ship. Either way, I was going to drown.”
Events began happening that Allen said he considers “miracle after miracle.”
“In a life raft was one of my prayer partners manning the oar,” Allen recalled. “I remember his shouting to me not to jump, but let him attempt to steer the life raft over close to the hull of the ship that was now sinking fast under my feet … I recall him shouting out that I couldn’t swim in the turbulent sea.
“Miraculously, he was able to guide the rescue raft close enough … I backed up a few steps, took a deep breath, and ran and jumped as far as I could.”
And he almost didn’t make it.
“I could not jump far enough or high enough to land in the life raft, but I got close enough to wrap one arm over the raft’s edge,” Allen said, as he traced back across seven decades.
He was pulled aboard by another sailor.
“It was Jack Hamlin, who saved my life, by steering that life raft close enough to take me on board,” Allen said. “Jack’s not in best of health, but still lives down in Baldwin, Miss. We stay in contact. One man died there in the life raft.”
War records show that out of 145 men aboard the Coast Guard cutter, only 28 survived that trip.
Allen counts it as a miracle, surviving multiple trips across the English Channel to retrieve wounded and deceased fallen comrades as German artillery shells rained down all around them.
“Miraculously, all four of the guys in our little prayer group were among the survivors,” he shared. “That night, the survivors boarded a Liberty Ship and headed back to England. The skipper cleaned out a room and put us in there. I remember Jack, the man who saved me, asking during our trip back to England if I was awake. It was around midnight.”
“Presently, as far as I can determine, only four of the total survivors are still living,” Allen, now 88, noted.
Seventy years later, Bill Allen and his wife, Idalee Tomlinson Allen, daughters Patti Hutchinson and Linda Allen, and their grandchildren Will and Emily Hutchinson recently returned from a weeklong journey back to Normandy Beach.
“It’s my first time back to France,” he said. “There’s seven to eight names on grave markers there at Normandy that I wanted to locate.”
For decades, Allen never shared details of his perilous wartime experiences.
“It wasn’t until Bill and the other survivors began having reunions in the 1970s, that my husband opened up and shared those terrible wartime experiences,” Idalee said. “It sends chills down me when I realize Bill had only one chance to catch onto that life raft.”
To this day, Allen said he recalls the anger from the war.
“I remember initially being mad and angry with God, allowing all that to happen,” Allen described. “I recall questioning how a just God had spared my life. But then, as I prayed and recuperated, an understanding and peace came to me that, really, I wasn’t in control of my life.”
The possibility existed that Allen would see more carnage as a wartime medic.
“After the defeat of the Germans in Europe, the war raged on in the South Pacific,” he said. “It was back in England, a doctor blocked me from going to the Pacific war theater, diagnosing my nervous system had been shattered – diagnosing that I could no longer serve in combat conditions.”
The war was over for Allen, the son of Bill and Nora Harris Allen.
Today, Bill Allen, a true American patriot, is one of two still active charter members of the Murfreesboro Exchange Club, which dates back to 1951.