In late December 1943 Red Toon’s division of 144 sailors and 20 officers transferred from Little Creek, VA, to Ft. Pierce, FL, for advanced amphibious training. It was intensive work. Whereas at Little Creek they had trained on boat maintenance & operations and on forming up & maneuvering in the calm, protected waters of the Chesapeake Bay, at Ft. Pierce they operated in the rough and tumble waters of the Atlantic Ocean…strong tides and currents. Day in and day out, in good weather and in bad, they were on the water. The navy was training them like their lives depended on it.
We have no letters from Red written from Ft. Pierce. The Toon family confirmed for us that Norma and Janice had travelled to Florida and stayed off-base with Red in civilian housing. What a great visit that must have been for Red with Norma and his first daughter!
During my research of the training at Ft. Pierce, I had read several accounts of two exercises that might be considered the signature drills there. They focused on perhaps the most difficult aspects of the boat crews’ job in the assaults to come: embarkation—loading marines and soldiers from the ship to the boats— and debarkation—unloading the troops from the boats to the ship.
Let’s start with embarkation. Using mock structures built along the Florida beaches, I had read that sailors (a hypothetical assault force) climbed up stairs and lined a (hypothetical) gunwale, a “ship’s” rail. Each boat then approached and its crew made fast to the ship. The troops then climbed over the gunwale, down the 40 ft. nets to the water and into the boats. When all the troops were safely aboard, the crew pushed off to join the nearby formation of loaded boats. The objective was to load the entire boat group as quickly as possible.
Imagine my excitement when I recently discovered a painting (gouache on paper) of this very embarkation drill at Ft. Pierce. It is a marvelous portrayal by artist Carlos Lopez located at the Navy Historical and Heritage Command (NHHC) web site.
Note that all personnel in this exercise, including those climbing down the nets, are wearing life jackets. Sooner than the sailors knew, the troops climbing over the gunwale would be marines in full combat gear with no life jackets; they would be descending the ropes in the barest light amidst the most hellacious preassault bombardment that anyone had ever experienced; the ship would be rocking as they climbed; and the boats below would likely be rising and falling 3-4 ft. in the waters of the Pacific. Heaven help the boat crew who lost a man overboard!
Another NHHC Lopez painting (oil on canvas) portrays the debarkation of “troops” aboard a different mock up.
This mock up simulates a “ship” with davits…a device for lowering & raising boats to & from the water. The LCVP in foreground is coming alongside the ship and—when made fast—will be hoisted aboard, while the other craft offshore stir high waves to add realism to the drill.
These drills were hard work, but the training turned out to be unexpectedly short. The boat group arrived in early January and had trained for only a month when the call to duty arrived. There was an operation in the works out in the Pacific; it would be the biggest assault yet. The fleet needed every available attack transport and crew.