Reading’s Boys #7: June-July 1944, Part 3

Raymond William Hillman (June-July 1944)

When we last heard about Raymond Hillman, he was traveling all around the Atlantic aboard the USS Susan B. Anthony. Sometime in late May or early June, all that was going to change, though. The invasion of Normandy was looming just overhead, and the Susan B. Anthony was to be a part of it. It must have been a fantastic sight to see for Raymond. The armada was so large that to a kid from a small town in Massachusetts, it must have almost seemed like a little piece of America was out in the channel that day. Raymond probably heard the planes pass overhead, heard the disturbed ocean underneath him. I wonder if he exchanged any words with the soldiers that were on board the Anthony. He probably saw them at the very least. I wonder if he felt any concern over what might happen to them once they had landed. 

On June 6, 1944, Raymond Hillman and the rest of the crew of the Anthony were perched off of Utah Beach carrying 2,500 reinforcements. The reinforcements they were to bring in would not be landed on June 6, though. These men were to be landed on June 7 and in the morning, the Susan B. Anthony began moving closer to the coast. At 7:00 AM on June 7, 1944, the USS Susan B. Anthony hit a mine as she was making her way through a swept channel on her way to the beach. Almost immediately, the ship lost all power and her rudder went hard to the left and was stuck. The ship quaked. Wherever Raymond was at the time, whatever he was doing, his eyes would have widened. He may have been below-deck at the time, and perhaps he was slammed into a bulkhead or simply knocked over. Perhaps he was on the surface and nearly fell overboard, or fell where he stood and scrambled to get back up. I can picture him a little bit, slumped on the ground, eyes wide, frozen for a moment. 

A lot of people like to think that in a situation like this, they would immediately spring into action, or that the people who were there when something like this happened stepped up to the plate and did what had to be done. The truth is that you don’t know what you will do until it happens. Whether Raymond stayed where he was for a few minutes, frozen in terror or he jumped up and immediately began trying to get people to safety, I do not know.

Sailors started appearing on the top deck from below with dressings on their heads. The holds of the ship were still taking on water. By 8:05 AM, Anthony began listing starboard. The ship’s commander began ordering the embarking soldiers to move to the port side to try to keep the ship as even as possible. I imagine many of those soldiers (most of them from the 90th Infantry Division and some from the 101st Airborne Division) were cursing their bad luck. Raymond would have probably abandoned his job as Radarman at this point, adapting to the needs of the ship and the situation as most sailors would. At 8:22 AM, the USS Pinto arrived next to Anthony, preparing to tow her to shallower water. Not long after, though, fires began breaking out in the engine rooms. There was no saving the USS Susan B. Anthony. The order was given to abandon ship. By this point, two destroyers had joined the Pinto to help rescue the troops and sailors. 

The seas were rough, and the situation was dire despite being relatively straightforward. Sailors and soldiers aboard Anthony were to make their way to one of the three other ships in the area. Many of the soldiers there did not know how to swim and in acts of selflessness, were given life jackets that belonged to the sailors. They only had one. The first priority was to get the soldiers off, the sailors would go last. Once they had all been moved to another ship, it was the sailors’ turn. I wonder what it looked like. How high above the water was Raymond when he jumped? Was he one of the first sailors off or one of the last? Did he get hurt? Was he scared? Which ship did he go to? 

By 9:05 AM, the top deck was awash at the stern and the last members of the ship’s salvage crew hit the water around 10:00 AM. At 10:10 AM, the USS Susan B. Anthony slipped beneath the waves. Every single crewman and an embarked soldier was rescued and only about 45 men were wounded. Raymond was safe. Our boy was safe. 

Unfortunately, Raymond’s name does not show up on any muster rolls after June 1944. Regardless, Raymond William Hillman was discharged from the US Navy on September 30, 1945, as a Radarman Second Class. He came home after the war and worked for an insurance company for twenty years before retiring. In 1978, Raymond moved to Maine but I believe, was a member of the Reading Lions Club. He passed away on May 22, 2004, and our world lost a very brave sailor. But I know the town of Reading will always remember him.

Robert Colbert Rooney (June-July 1944)

Much like Raymond, as June 1944 began, there was an extra amount of tension hanging in the air, hanging over the heads of the crew of USS LST 209, grabbing their vessel by the rudder and steering it towards Normandy. In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Robert would be surrounded by young British men who were to be landed on Gold Beach. There is truly not much information about who these troops were (other than that they were probably from the British 8th Army) and there is even less information about exactly what the crew of USS LST 209 and their disembarked soldiers encountered. But I can assure you one thing: it was still terrifying. He must have known that he was walking into something important. The number of ships, the energy of the men around him, the roar of the planes overhead, the sound of gunfire, and the smell of a dying sense of humanity…

One thing that many people don’t know about LSTs is that they have completely flat bottoms. This is because they are designed to be beached so that vehicles, men, and materials can be unloaded or reloaded. The ship is then able to back off the beach when desired and return to sea. When a ship has a flat bottom, being on board it is like being on top of a cork. There’s nothing to stop the ship from jumping to and fro. The morning of June 6 was, as many sailors would probably agree, a morning plagued by rough seas. And our Robert was on the equivalent of a cork during all this.

When H-Hour came, the British troops on board Robert’s LST disembarked and were probably all too happy to do so. I wonder if Robert got a chance to watch them as they went if he picked one and followed him with his brown eyes. Shortly after Robert’s participation in Operation Overlord was done, USS LST 209 was reconfigured to lift railway cars and carried out the job of supplying the troops in France this way up through November 1944. 

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