WWII diary of J.J. McAndrews: A journey to ‘hell’

In the weeks leading up to Veterans Day, Coast Guard Great Lakes has been sharing the story of Petty Officer 3rd Class J.J. McAndrews. From his journey across the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea for the invasion of Italy, then to the shores of Normandy for D-Day, the series comes from the day-to-day diary written by McAndrews, a boatswain’s mate aboard a landing ship during the war. The text that follows was taken directly from McAndrews’ diary. Many punctuation errors were retained as they were written, however, slight edits were made to enhance readability.

A photograph of the first entry in Petty Officer 3rd Class J.J. McAndrews' WWII diary. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

A photograph of the first entry in Petty Officer 3rd Class J.J. McAndrews’ WWII diary. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

This diary is dedicated to my children and my grandchildren. I hope they read it as it highlights my adventures serving aboard USS LST 326 during World War II.

My ship is called Landing Ship, Tank 175. It is a Coast Guard invasion barge. Its length is 327 feet. It has a flat bottom and, carries a crew of 75 men including 7 officers. The captain’s name is Lt. J.C. Saussey. This ship is capable of landing on beachheads. It is only about 5 months old. For protection it mans two 20mm guns and a 40mm gun in the bow. Amidship a little to the rear is two more 20mm guns and also two more of the 20mm just forward of the fantail. On the fantail we have a three inch 50 caliber gun. The ship is powered by diesel engines.

This is the first entry in the WWII diary of James “J.J.” McAndrews, a Coast Guardsman aboard LST 175, for his first trip across the Atlantic, and then aboard LST 326, for the invasions of Italy and France.

McAndrews is the second son and third child of Thomas and Maisey McAndrews of Belle Harbor on Long Island, N.Y. Thomas and Maisey had six children, but their youngest daughter, Jean, died of German measles at the age of three.

McAndrews joined the Coast Guard in the summer of 1942 after graduating from St. John’s Preparatory School in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Jim was a great man and very proud of his service in the Coast Guard,” said William Koehler, McAndrews’ son-in-law.

McAndrews began his Coast Guard career in January 1943 in Norfolk, Va., and after training was assigned to LST 175.

My first glimpse of my ship was in Providence Rhode Island. The ship was already loaded at this time. I first came aboard on July 20, 1943. I met my future buddies, the crew, and they all seems like swell fellers. We stayed in Rhode Island for two days and then we set out to sea, our destination being Norfolk.

Petty Officer 3rd Class J.J. McAndrews, U.S. Coast Guard Serviceman #7001-800. Photo courtesy of The McAndrews family.

Petty Officer 3rd Class J.J. McAndrews, U.S. Coast Guard Serviceman #7001-800. Photo courtesy of The McAndrews family.

We arrived there four days later. It was a very rough trip and you should have seen us roll. Many of the boys got sea sick, but yours truly only felt dizzy.

At Norfolk, we took on more supplies.

Up until now, I was pretty worried because the fellers said we could be on our way overseas at a moment’s notice. My main worry was trying to contact the family. We were allowed to send mail and in a few letters I hinted about going overseas. The thing that bothered me the most was how my mother would take it. I know she worries over the littlest things, so I can imagine how she’ll feel when she hears the news.

July 25, 1943: A miracle happened, at least in my opinion it was. The crew was allowed to go to church. We went to the chapel right there on base. I went to confession but did not receive, because of last minute notice; none of the fellers had fasted. After mass, myself and a buddy by the name of John Love went over to the canteen on the base. In the canteen, the first thing that came to my eyes was a telephone booth.

Quickly I entered it and hoped I could get a call through to home. Luck was with me, and I succeeded in speaking to mother, pop and Eileen. I didn’t know what to say and I knew this would be the last time I would speak to them for a while, so I tried to make myself sound happy. When I left that phone booth, I had never felt so down in the dumps. I went back to my ship and said to myself ‘well Jim, you wanted sea duty and action so let’s get into the spirit of things and make the best of it.’

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t afraid to face the future; in fact I was really excited and was looking forward to seeing plenty of thrilling adventures.

July 26, 1943: Started our journey. We anchored in the harbor last night and are now on our way. We are carrying a cargo of pontoons, which are used to make barges and different sorts of floats and we are also carrying passengers. Our passengers are 150 enlisted and 15 Navy officers.

The captain told us that our destination is North Africa, the city of Oran, Algeria.

McAndrews with some of “the fellers” on the LST. Photo courtesy of The McAndrews family.

McAndrews with some of “the fellers” on the LST. Photo courtesy of The McAndrews family.

[Oran is the second largest city in Algeria and has a large harbor that opens onto the Mediterranean Sea. At the beginning of the war, the city was held by the German-ruled French Vichy government but was later liberated by the British and Americans during the invasion of North Africa in 1942. As a prelude to the invasion of Italy, the British and American floating forces used Oran as a base of operations.]

At sea, my duty is to stand watches. I stand four hours on, eight hours off. The purpose of the watches is to keep an alert look out for submariners, airplanes, and any kind of debris or objects in view. Anything I see, I report to the bridge where an officer takes my report by phone.

My first watch station was in the turret on the stern but later I was put on the bridge, where I take reports from the various lookouts on the ship.

I like my new station, because it is very interesting to watch how a ship is maneuvered by the orders of the officers on the bridge.

We traveled across the ocean in a convoy, which consists of 87 ships total. There are 10 other LSTs besides our own.

July 27, 1943: Conducted a general quarters drill, in other words a man your battle stations drill. During general quarters I stand on a catwalk on the fantail of the ship and help pass ammunition for the three-inch 50 caliber gun.

I stand right out in the open; I am in for plenty of thrills if we do meet the enemy.

The second night out to sea, we ran into a terrific storm. The ocean was very rough and the rain came down in buckets. I was on gun watch at the stern of the ship from midnight to 4 a.m. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think we would last the night. The ship rolled constantly and at times seemed as if it was going to capsize. It was so rough, windy, raining and black as tar. I wrapped my arms around the muzzle of the gun and just prayed that I would not be blown overboard. How we succeeded in getting through the night, God only knows. Boy, was I glad to hit the sack at 4 a.m.

Crew of the LST. Photo courtesy of The McAndrews family.

Crew of the LST. Photo courtesy of The McAndrews family.

July 28, 1943: Got a really good surprise today. Met a feller from Rockaway, N.Y., named Ted and we became the best of friends. We have a canteen aboard the ship and I was able to buy him a carton of cigarettes, which he was really thankful for being that the Navy men are not allowed to shop there. We talk about home.

On our voyage over, we had a few scares.

One night, while I was on watch on the bridge, a very serious thing happened. We had been going along pretty smoothly when all of a sudden the ship sailing abreast of us seemed to be getting closer. We had lost control of our ship and were headed straight for them. I just stood there startled and frozen. We kept getting nearer and nearer to the other ship until we were practically on it. By luck we missed hitting it by about 20 feet. Boy, was that close.

Most of the trip, the sea was calm except for the two days before entering the Strait of Gibraltar.

One of the ships in our convoy was hit by a submarine but did not sink and was able to continue the trip. It was two rows over from our lane. We were called to general quarters that night but did not fire a shot. Our escort destroyers dropped a few ‘cans’ and the merchant ship fired its bow guns. We had three general quarters on our trip across.

‘Can’ was the nickname given for the can-shaped anti-submarine weapon intended to destroy or cripple a target submarine by exploding under water near it. The depth charge was dropped into the water by a ship or plane.When we entered the straits, our American escorts left us and we were further escorted by British corvettes.

[The British corvette appeared during WWII as an easily built patrol and convoy escort vessel. The corvette was a small, single-shafted vessel that small shipyards not familiar with shipbuilding were able build.]

Aug. 12, 1943: Passed the Rock of Gibraltar but very disappointed I was unable to see it since it was night.

The Mediterranean is fairly calm water, so we do not roll as much as in the Atlantic.

Aug. 14, 1943: We have arrived at our destination and dropped anchor. The city of Oran is located on a beautiful mountain and it looks like New York from a distance. Boy was I surprised as I expected to see nothing but jungles.

We have made it, thank God and everyone is feeling great.

That evening the Navy passengers left us and I wished Ted lots of luck. He is an aviation radioman and is being sent to an airfield in Oran.

McAndrews and some of “the fellers” on the LST. Photo courtesy of The McAndrews family.

McAndrews and some of “the fellers” on the LST. Photo courtesy of The McAndrews family.

Well, here I am in North Africa. Little me. I wrote a few letters on my trip across and as soon as we arrived. Here is to hopping that you get them soon, as you all must be pretty worried. The trip took 17 long days.

The city has been bombed a few times. Our American soldiers occupy it and it now belongs to the good old U.S.A.

There are many ships sunk in the harbor and their masts are visible on top of the water. A few months ago the French scuttled some of their ships and the English air force sunk many too.

Well now to tell you about my first liberty trip in Africa. It was awful!

I picked up a couple of post cards and souvenirs. This city is inhabited by French and Arab people. The people are very poor and some live like dogs. When you get up close to Oran, you see it is very dirty itself. We were told not to buy any food here and they do not have beer, only wine but I didn’t touch it. I did manage to buy a glass of African lemonade.

A lot of the troop ships and hospital ships come to port in Oran from the fighting front. It is an awful scene to see the wounded men. There are also many Italian prisoners of war carried by transports here.

Aug. 20, 1943: We stayed in Oran until today and are now on our way to Bizerte, Tunisia. Our trip to Bizerte is a dangerous one, as we are now entering the real theatre of war.

[Bizerte is the northernmost city in Africa and is very close to Sicily and Sardinia. The city was occupied by the German army until May 1943, when it was captured by American soldiers, though bombing by German planes continued.]

As we sailed along the Mediterranean, general quarters was sounded twice that night.

The first one was sounded because German planes were bombing the hell out of some small city on the coast. Luckily, they didn’t see our convoy. It was pretty exciting to see the bombs flashing lights as they hit the ground.

The second alarm was for German aircraft nearby. They did not see us either. Luck was with us for there was no moon out that night.

The next day, our radio man heard a German broadcast reporting that Bizerte had been bombed the night before and all allied ships were sunk.

Aug. 22, 1943: We have arrived in Bizerte and dropped our anchor. We have found out that the broadcast was true. The only word I can think of when describing the port and city of Bizerte is “hell.”

For the rest of McAndrews’ diary – including tales of German snipers, souvenirs and a volcano – head over to Coast Guard Great Lakes.

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