It happened on a dark night off the coast of Normandy, France, in June of 1944. Claude Pike stood strapped to a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun on the bow of his naval ship.
“I could see the German plane in my gunsight,” he said, “but I couldn’t do anything. I was out of rounds.” Pike’s magazine loader had laid down, hiding from incoming fire.
“I could see the blue tracers on every bullet,” he said, “so close I could reach out and catch them.”
Pike was barely eighteen, having been pulled from his high school class that January. It’s the first thing he talks about when remembering the war. “A close call, but every time I got in a tight place, the good Lord carried me through.”
The 94-year-old, who lives 150 miles north of Port St. Joe, remembers D-Day clearly.
“A lot was happening,” he said. “It was after dark before we could go in.” His vessel, a landing ship designed to go onshore and unload troops and equipment, had to wait for permission because the Germans had welded a barrier line in the water. “Iron and tires … all sorts of things,” he said.
Pike recalls heart-wrenching scenes, like a small boat that came alongside his LST-543 with 12 wounded soldiers from the front lines. “They were bleeding and going from ship to ship, looking for a doctor. We were one of the few that had one.” Those men nearly drowned—minutes after they were safely on board the little boat sank.
There were 284 warships in the water and hundreds of planes overhead on D-Day. As a gunner, he was on duty 24 hours and friendly fire was a reality. He said a nearby battleship, unloading 16mm rounds at German targets on shore, sent them right over his bow where he was strapped to his gun.
Dubbed a “large slow target,” the 328-foot-long ship, about the length of a football field, moved at a speed of roughly 10 miles per hour.
Because it could carry up to 500 men and 20 Sherman tanks, the crew was always in danger. In fact, German torpedoes sank a sister ship, the LST-314, on June 9, 1944, three days after the D-Day invasion.
Pike would make 23 trips across the English Channel, but there was more to worry about than German planes, friendly fire, and torpedoes. Pike remembers his ship full and anchored in a fierce storm. “The stern anchor would not hold, and the bow anchor chains snapped. It threw the ship into other LST’s knocking holes into the vessel so big you could walk through them. We wound up broached on the beach.”
The Navy wanted to scuttle the ship, but the skipper wouldn’t agree. Everyone remained inside for 19 days, hoping the Germans would think it was a dummy ship and leave it alone. It worked.
According to Navy Times, the LST's were “remarkably hard to navigate… ‘with a horrible snow shovel snout’…and flat bottoms, they thumped down jarringly on every wave,” inducing seasickness on troops and crew alike even in gentle waters. One sailor’s memory of the LST is that they “stank of diesel fuel, backed up toilets, and vomit.” Pike said you had to sleep strapped to your bunk.
“Once we pretty much had Hitler whipped,” he said, “we were ordered back to the States.” They passed through the Panama Canal, reloaded on the West Coast, and headed to the Philippines and the war at Okinawa.
While he was in Okinawa, the atomic bombs exploded. “It was like someone turned off a faucet,” Pike said. “Everything stopped.”
But danger did not end with the war. Months later, the LST met a typhoon, splitting the ship below the water line. The crew was saved by running it aground on the China coast.
Upon discharge, Pike finished high school and graduated from college with three degrees.
His mother had given him a New Testament when he left home, which he carried every day during those war years. “It holds a precious place in our home,” his wife of nearly 60 years said.
“I never would have gotten through WW2 without the Lord,” Pike said. “I never doubted that I’d come back. Jesus looked out for me.”
Copyright © 2020 R.A. Mathews. All rights reserved. The Rev. Mathews is a faith columnist and the author of “Reaching to God.” Contact her at Letters@RAMathews.com or on Twitter @RA_Mathews.