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Requiem for a Fiasco

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Sunday, Nov. 15, a day Ken Small had long anticipated, dawned to gale force winds and torrential rains lashing the bleak seafront of Slapton Sands, England. The gray beach in South Devon was a mournful setting for the commemoration of a nearly forgotten tragedy. Just after 12:30 p.m. in the nearby village of Torcross, as Small stood proudly by and a group of 500 people huddled under umbrellas, a band struck up Amazing Grace. A U.S. Army color guard presented arms, and a small stone memorial was unveiled beside a WW II Sherman tank that had been pulled from the seabed offshore. In that moment, 43 years of dark rumors and official neglect surrounding the deaths of at least 749 American GIs and 197 Navy men in an ill-fated battle drill called Exercise Tiger were formally laid to rest. The ceremony also was the culmination of Small’s one-man crusade to honor the victims of a disastrous misadventure by the U.S. and British wartime military. “Call my role what you like, it seemed fate, destiny,” says the 51-year-old Englishman and owner of a local guest house. “This has taken 16 years and a lot of money, time and frustration, a lot of dreams and nightmares. But I never even remotely considered giving up. I knew that I just had to do it.”

Until Small grabbed Exercise Tiger by the tail, the incident had remained wrapped in obscurity. In the predawn hours of April 28, 1944, a flotilla of U.S. LST troop carriers, loaded with thousands of troops and live ammunition for a rehearsal of the D-day invasion of Normandy, were surprised and attacked by German torpedo boats. A series of command blunders had left the troopships so inadequately protected that more men died on this training maneuver for the Utah beach landing than on the actual D-day assault. The bodies of hundreds of drowned servicemen washed ashore on Slapton Sands, but since seaside communities in the area had been evacuated to make way for the invasion rehearsal, there were few civilian witnesses to the catastrophe. The pressing need for secrecy at the time—and official embarrassment later—kept the disaster out of the public mind, if not out of some history books. After the war, rumors that there had been an official cover-up and that GIs had been buried in mass graves became the stuff of local legend, though both rumors were repeatedly denied by U.S. authorities and seemed to have no basis in fact.

Concern about the incident was swamped at the time by the bigger news of D day and, in the years that followed, by time and the gray sea breaking on Slapton Sands. And then Small happened to stumble on evidence of Exercise Tiger while walking the beach near his home. A former police officer who had gone into the women’s hairdressing business, Small had bought the guest house and moved to Torcross in 1967. He subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and after being treated with Valium and electroshock therapy was befriended by a local fisherman who got him interested in beachcombing as a relaxation. Early in 1972 he came across unexpended bullets, mines and shells washed up on the shore. Neighbors told him about Tiger’s tragic outcome, but the only official acknowledgment was a monument put up by the Americans thanking the local people for leaving their seaside homes, which were frequently damaged by the elaborate invasion rehearsals. In the midst of his own troubles Small felt compassion for the fate of the American GIs whose lives were unnecessarily lost. Says he, “I thought to myself, ‘Why did the American government put this here in 1954, 10 years after they had lost all these lives, with no mention of the lives?’ It didn’t seem right to me.”

Small’s budding interest found a focus shortly thereafter when he joined a local fisherman and two divers who were investigating an underwater object that had been snagging trawler nets a mile offshore. The sunken mystery turned out to be an American Sherman tank. “Of course I thought, ‘Well, if I could acquire this thing and recover it, it would be a really fitting memorial to the men who had died,’ ” says Small. “But thinking that was one thing, and doing it was another thing entirely.”

For Small the memorial was becoming an obsession. He spent the next 2½ years trying to wrest the tank from both the sand and the Pentagon bureaucracy, which refused to consider it abandoned even though the hulk had been left 30 years on the seabed. A U.S. government official visited, trying to dissuade Small from the project, while the British War Office warned him that it was illegal in the U.K. for private individuals to own or import a tank. In 1974 Small nevertheless succeeded in purchasing the sunken Sherman from the U.S. Treasury for $50. He next spent 10 years and $28,000 to have the tank salvaged. Just before the 40th anniversary of D day, the Sherman was finally floated to the surface and towed ashore. “Water was gushing from the hulk,” recalls Small, “and a lady commented that it looked like the tank was crying.”

The tank was restored and placed on a plinth, and the town affixed a plaque dedicating it to the dead of Exercise Tiger. Still, Small wasn’t satisfied. “Having done the tank,” he says, “I decided that the ultimate must be the official American government recognition of this whole thing. I really took the bull by the horns.”

Ex-U.S. Army Major Attlee Wampler, whose tank battalion had operated the Sherman, invited Small to the U.S. and introduced him to Congresswoman Beverly Byron (D-Md), whose father, Captain Harry Butcher, had participated in the Tiger maneuvers as naval aide to the Allied Supreme Commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Last January, Byron introduced a bill in Congress for a U.S.-sponsored memorial. Thinking to do some lobbying of his own, Small called the Pentagon and was eventually connected with the office of Deputy Defense Secretary William Taft. Two days later he was invited to meet with Taft at the Pentagon, which he did last May. Taft offered his full support. Recalls Small, “One colonel said to me, ‘Man, you’ve climbed one mountain of bureaucracy, and you’ve gone up and down the second, and now you’re halfway up the third. How the hell you’ve done it I don’t know.’ ”

Though the Slapton Sands ceremony was a tribute to Small’s tenacity, he was by no means alone in his wish to remember the men of Exercise Tiger. Among the mourners that Sunday was Manny Rubin, 64, an American-born clothier who had married an English girl and made his home in nearby Plymouth after the war. He was a signalman second class aboard a landing ship the night of the disaster. “According to sailing orders, we had a British destroyer on our starboard flank,” he says. “I didn’t learn until 40 years later that it never left port.” The destroyer had been disabled, apparently after hitting another vessel, but the Allied Command nevertheless allowed the operation to go ahead. A British radar station detected German torpedo boats in the operations area, but the warning never reached the ships because their radios were tuned to a different frequency.

At 2 a.m. the fast-moving German E-boats fell upon the flotilla in a surprise attack, and Rubin saw two vessels explode after being hit by torpedoes. In the confusion the frightened soldiers on Rubin’s ship even fired on one of their own troop carriers. Two of the troop-packed ships had sunk, and Rubin’s ship was eventually anchored near shore, when the light of dawn revealed a horrible tableau. “There were hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies,” says Rubin. “Most of them didn’t have a mark on them. They were just bobbing up and down, up and down. Some were black with oil, some were black groups burnt together. It was something out of hell.”

Many of the GIs drowned because they were wearing inadequate lifebelts instead of life jackets. Burdened by heavily loaded packs, they toppled helplessly into the sea. It was a costly lesson for military leaders. Six weeks later the use of life jackets saved untold lives when GIs hit the French beaches.

When the histories were written, however, the men of Tiger got very short shrift indeed. Ike and his generals never had much to say about the bungled operation. In fact, it’s not clear that Ike ever knew exactly what had occurred. According to Captain Butcher’s memoir, My Three Years With Eisenhower, the general was aboard a ship observing the rehearsal from a distance. He was disturbed by delays in the maneuvers, yet left for his headquarters unaware of the tragedy. The scale of world war, after all, dwarfed even the losses at Slapton Sands.

A fitting tribute was therefore left to a more peaceful time, and in Ken Small’s view even 43 years later was not too late. “I have done it all for those young men—scared, ignorant, untrained—who lost their lives,” he says. “More so, I have done it for their friends and relatives back home in America.” It was clear, as the final notes of Taps died away in Torcross village, that the men of Exercise Tiger had finally received their due—and Ken Small had done his duty.