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Carusi's Thieves  


"We were the Sixth Beach Battalion - dumped in with orders to play Traffic Cop on the main street of Hell." With Normandy D-Day approaching, Commander Eugene C. Carusi makes a final inspection of his 6th Naval Beach Battalion (NBB) troops. Note the young Beach Master "BM" in the foreground, to the right of the Army photographer, wearing the standard NBB paratrooper boots. Army troops of the Engineer Special Brigades painted the amphibious "white rainbow" on their steel helmets. As naval elements of the Engineer Special Brigades, the 6th and 7th NBBs painted the USN "red rainbow" on their helmets. The May 1944 photo taken in the UK is courtesy Lalitte Carusi Smith.


Commander Carusi's 400 Fighting Thieves ©
By Manuel Perez

The guy was sitting on the beach at the water's edge, leaning up against a disabled tank that was broadside to the enemy fire. His eyes were glassy. Both his legs were broken, and he held his guts in his two hands. He was dazed - I didn't know whether he could feel the pain yet or not. His mouth hung open in a hideous grin.

I crawled over to him, broke a surrette of morphine and jabbed it in his right leg. There was no need to cut his clothing; it was ripped off him. Then I pulled him away from the tank so that he was lying in his back instead of sitting up fully exposed to the raging hell of artillery, rocket, automatic-weapon and small-arms fire that swept across Omaha beach. After that I started dragging him over the sands toward the near end of the tank. He was completely inert, giving no sign of life save for an occasional moving shadow in the depths of his shocked eyes. Everything seemed out of sync that terrible morning of June 6, 1944. You'd think the lee of a disabled tank would be a place of relative safety. It wasn't though. Tanks, even disabled ones, were prime targets drawing enemy artillery and rocket fire. You were almost safer out in the open. The same dislocation applied to time. It stood absolutely still for terrifying seconds, then it raced madly through blood-drenched hours. All was spinning, careening chaos!

What in the world was a navy yeoman doing on the beaches of Normandy at this moment of catastrophic confusion? If you think of a navy yeoman as a guy who mans a hot typewriter, then there's no explanation. But if you ever have worn a uniform, you'll understand. That's how it was.

I was assigned to the Sixth Beach Battalion, commanded by Commander Eugene C. Carusi, USN, and known as "Carusi and his 400 thieves." There was another yeoman in the outfit to start with: Al Shorb, of Silver Spring, Maryland. When the call came for one yeoman to be detached and sent to a record center which was being set up at Plymouth, and another to hit the beach and help direct traffic from the invading armada to the shores of Normandy, we tossed a coin to settle the matter. The coin fell heads; I won, and Al went to Plymouth. So now I was crawling down omaha beach looking for a radio or a communications man, or some instrument that would enable our skipper, Commander Carusi, to start untangling the chaotic mess of vehicles, weapons, and dead and wounded men that was piling up on Easy Red, due to a time schedule that went haywire and an eastward drift that took half of the landing units to the wrong places. I, for instance, should have been on Dog Red. Instead I found myself on Easy Red - and maybe that's what saved my life.

The specific mission of a Beach Battalion was to sit at the very heart of this incredibly complex effort and direct the traffic coming in - men and munitions, tanks and trucks, self-propelled weapons, whole field hospitals. These would have to come in to the right places on schedule, or the confusion might lead to unimaginable slaughter, or even failure of the assault.

With thousands of small craft scheduled to hit the beach, the loading of this or that boat by as little as one gun was planned to achieve maximum efficiency; schedules were timed by seconds to anticipate every possible contingency.

There were two outstanding people in the story of Carusi's 400 thieves: The first was Commander Gene Carusi; the second was "Lame Brain" Smith, the skipper's alter ego.

Commander Carusi was 38 or so, over six feet, slim, with light grey eyes and prematurely gray hair. The commander had been graduated from the Naval Academy, had subsequently gone into civilian life and become a lawyer; now he was back in uniform. In addition to courage, his outstanding characteristic was concern for the men of his command. He was contemptuous of petty regulations which impaired morale, and often he took the rap for his men when they ran afoul of superior base authority. We loved him for it, and we would have followed him to hell and back.

Lame Brain Smith - well, Lame Brain was just one of those things that have to be seen to be believed, and even then you wouldn't trust yours senses. He was tall, lanky lad from some little town in Kentucky, and so far as I know he'd never been 100 miles from home before. His name was William B. Smith; he had an unusually ruddy complexion; and he was under the delusion that, in order to make himself understood, he had to raise his voice. Lame Brain was always screaming. We got used to it.

Smith was the skipper's driver, and when you first met him your invariable reaction was: "where on earth did this dumb cluck come from?" Which was all right with Lame Brain; he wanted it that way. Actually, the boy was one of those complex personalities combining native shrewdness and incredible perception. He used the outward semblance of stupidity as a sort of cloak to cover the most involved machinations, and the phrase,"He gets away with murder," could have been invented for this character. He spoke to the skipper in a manner none of the rest of us dared to imitate. He not only talked to high brass out of a sedan for Commander Carusi - partly on the plea that the skipper was a nervous wreck from the bouncing around in a jeep, partly by pointing out that all the Army COs had sedans, and "What about the dignity of the Navy?"- but when the car, a Terraplane, turned up a beautiful salmon color with spots, Lame Brain arranged to have it painted black overnight, although there wasn't a quart of paint in the outfit.

We got the name Carusi and his 400 thieves by induction - "the process of reasoning from a part to a whole"- and Lame Brain was right in there pitching all the way. There were 333 men and 40 officers in our outfit, and despite the fact that we were a regularly commissioned navy unit, the navy supply system seemed never quite to catch up with us. As an example, we never did get foul-weather gear, although we fought plenty of foul weather. We were formed up on an army TO - Able, Baker, and Charlie Companies, with a Headquarters Unit - and during our training Stateside we coursed back and forth across the country from New York to Florida like a bunch of little foxes just one jump ahead of the hounds. We were always a "bastard unit" brigaded with army types, and in the natural course of events we took on a sort of protective coloration. We wore army coveralls, carried the basic weapons of the infantry, and scrounged for most of what we needed. We needed a lot of things, of course, and very soon after we descended on some big base training area we found that we were about as welcome as a horde of 17-year locusts. Commander Carusi and his 400 thieves - that was us, for sure!

We finally sailed [December 1943] from the Port of New York on the Mauretania, unescorted and turning up a good 20 knots or better. After an uneventful passage we went to the little British town of Swansea, where we were attached to an army unit, the Provisional Engineer Special Brigade. As the name implies, this was an outfit composed of specialists - demolition men, Engineer combat teams, regular Engineer units - and its mission was a tough one: to tear up the enemy's beach defenses when the time came, open safe approaches for the landing craft, and build "hurry up" roads to get our tanks, artillery, trucks and infantry off the beaches and into the back country where they could engage the enemy on something like even terms.

We trained with these people and we trained in earnest. We loaded landing craft, brought them in, unloaded them - and did it again and again until we were letter perfect. For communications we used a hand-crank generator and transmitter built into one instrument that weighed maybe 40 pounds, and was designed to handle both voice and CW. Communications, we knew, would be the heart of our operation come H-hour, and we didn't spare the horses working out with this stuff. Finally, one night in the second half of May, 1944, we shoved off for a staging area on the Channel coast.

The night of June 4th I hopped into a truck along with members of the Headquarters Unit and Charlie Company, and we lumbered off to Weymouth, where we boarded an LCI just before daylight. Because of the weather it was not until about 0300 on June 6th that we reached the rendezvous area.

What a sight! APs - attack transports - were spread almost as far as a man could see when a stormy, hazy dawn lifted the black veil of night from the scene. Landing craft of all sorts were churning in all directions. The APs were unloading into LCVPs and LCIs, and as the small ships received their cargoes of weapons and fighting men they'd drop away and start circling until they formed themselves into the proper patterns, each ship in its wave station to hit the beach. Local sunrise was at 0558; H-hour was 0630; the preparatory bombardment began at H-hour minus 50 minutes. Up to that point, so far as I know, things went reasonably according to schedule. Then everything went haywire!



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