War and remembrance: day Ike rode the PT boat

The day after D-Day and all’s quiet on the Western Front. The parades are over, the stories told. The parachutists who re-enacted their jump over France have landed safely. The Yanks came marching home and Americans have moved on to other issues.

But things weren’t that way in 1944, when days after the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy the interest, and the danger, run as high as the tide at beaches like Omaha and Utah.

The French town of Cherbourg, overlooking Omaha, stayed in German hands. German gunners also manned the Channel Islands between England and France. And E-boats tried to torpedo their way into French harbors to reinforce the German army.

Bob Widmer, front, far right

Bob Widmer, front, far right

On a day of gray skies and choppy seas, PT 512 set sail from its base in England toward the French coast to survey the damage and observe the German gun placements. Sixteen young men, some just out of high school, took the 80-foot wooden boat across the channel into enemy waters. On that blustery June 12, 1944, Radioman 3rd Class Robert Widmer of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, was one of them.

They’d seen the horror, the bodies washing onto shore, and had survived firefights with E-boats and the bigger German R-boats. They knew there would be brass onboard that day, maybe even a general, to observe the beaches. They hadn’t expected Gen. Omar Bradley and the supreme Allied commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who smiled at the men as he came aboard and took up a position behind the cockpit in the middle of the boat.

“We were topside, except for the motor macs [the motor machinist mates],” Widmer said. “It was very crowded, and we were extremely nervous. Ike was very talkative. He said the usual things: ‘Where are you from, sailor?’ But it was obvious he was the boss. He had that bearing.”

Once they got underway, the talk subsided.

PT boatWidmer’s boat was similar to the more famous PT 109, commanded in the Pacific Theater by future President John F. Kennedy. With three Packard marine engines, the PT (short for patrol torpedo) boat could hit speeds of 45 knots, fast enough to lift the bow out of the water. “Most of the brass stood behind the cockpit—it was protected from the waves splashing over the bow. They tried to stay dry and hold on.”

They raced across the channel to Cherbourg, then north to Omaha and Utah beaches. Widmer said the view sobered everyone quickly. “It looked like plowed land from the bombardment. It was filled with damaged vehicles and landing craft.”

Over the next few weeks, four PT squadrons formed the Mason Line around the beaches, keeping the Germans in the harbors and preventing them from attacking the beachhead and resupplying their troops. “No single German convoy got through that line from the invasion on,” he said.

The squadron lost two boats. In the end, the sailors were told to turn over the fleet to the Soviets.

Like others in the armed forces, Widmer wrote home to his mother and father, Kathryn and Arthur “Shorty” Widmer. And like other letters, his were cut up by the censors. His parents had to guess about the events overseas.

But on July 20, 1944, he was able to tell his folks what had happened.

“Now it can be told,” he wrote. “Shortly after the invasion began our boat and crew was bestowed quite an honor. We had several top-notch admirals and generals aboard and among them was the big boy himself—General ‘Ike’ Eisenhower. He was a very likable person and very friendly with everybody, and you can see why he is noted for his smile. He got a kick out of riding on a PT boat and we showed him plenty of speed.”

And pride.