Months after D-Day and all’s quiet on the Western Front. The parades are over, the stories told. The parachutists who reenacted their jump over France landed safely. The Yanks came marching home and Americans moved on to other issues.
But things weren’t this calm in 1944, when days after the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, the danger ran as high as the tide on the beaches of Utah and Omaha.
The French town of Cherbourg, overlooking Omaha Beach, still lay in German hands. German gunners manned the Channel Islands between England and France. And E-boats tried to torpedo their way into French harbors to reinforce the German army.
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.
My father, Radioman 3rd Class Robert Widmer of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, was on board PT 512 that blustery day in June. He and his crew had seen the bodies washing onto shore, the firefights with E-boats and the bigger German R-boats. They knew there would be high-ranking officers on board their vessel that day, maybe even a general, to observe the beaches. What they didn’t know was that instead of a routine patrol, they’d be taking the supreme Allied commander, Gen. Omar Bradley, and other Army and Naval brass for a ride.
Dwight D. Eisenhower came aboard early, smiled at the men and assumed a position behind the cockpit in the middle of the boat. “We were topside, except for the motor macs (the motor machinist mates),” my father 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.
“Most of the brass stood behind the cockpit — it was protected from the waves splashing over the bow,” he said. “They tried to stay dry and hold on.”
With three Packard marine engines, the PT (patrol torpedo) boat could hit speeds of 45 knots, fast enough to lift the bow from the water. They raced across the channel to Cherbourg, then north to the beaches.
The view of Omaha sobered everyone. “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 their country from attacking the beachhead and resupplying their troops. “No single German convoy got through that line from the invasion on,” my father said.
The squadrons lost two boats.
Like others in the armed forces, Dad wrote to his mother and father, the late Kathryn and Arthur “Shorty” Widmer. And like other letters, his were censored. 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 is 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.”