“I said that guy is either going to get a medal or he’s going to get court-martialed,” said John Mahmarian, an Ensign in the U.S. Navy as he observed the Allied landings at Gold Beach on June 6, 1944.
“I could see the sand his propellers were churning up,” he said as he described a destroyer captain who violated orders and brought his ship in close to shore to engage German strong points with his 5-inch guns at nearly point-blank range.
Ens. Mahmarian was the executive officer of LCI-500 (Landing Craft Infantry), a 158 foot ship that landed troops at Gold Beach on the historic day 75 years ago and one of the hundreds of thousands of men who participated in the beginning of the end for the Axis powers in Europe, then around the globe onward toward the Pacific theater too.
A journey that started for Mahmarian in Union City, New Jersey in November 1920. The son of Armenian immigrants Harry and Alice Mahmarian, he grew to be a good student. He began college education at the University of Georgia in 1939 as war was breaking out in Europe.
When the United States entered World War II just over two years later in December 1941, Mahmarian transferred to Long Island University to be closer to home. He also enlisted in the Navy’s V7 program, set up to help fill a shortage of officers slated to participate on all oceans of a global conflict.
Mahmarian graduated in 1943 and was called to active duty from the Navy Reserve that September. He was sent to the U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Northwestern University and formally entered the Navy on Sept. 24, 1943. Upon graduation and commissioning as an Ensign in December 1943, Mahmarian received orders that carried him to LCI-500 in Norfolk, Virginia and then sailed a week later to the European theater.
While on the way to England, Mahmarian became Executive Officer after his predecessor became ill and now found himself second in command of LCI-500.
Once in England, training exercises for the invasion began. As training intensified, the skipper of LCI-500 also became sick and Mahmarian was elevated to temporary command of the ship during the largest practice landing to date on April 28, 1944.
“I had never executed a beaching,” says Mahmarian. “I didn’t know a thing about beaching…I stayed up all night to read the book about landing operations.”
“An LCI is heavily dependent on its back anchor…so you don’t broach [a broached ship is one that is pinned sideways against the shore by the surf. A broached ship cannot back itself off the beach] …you have to drop the back anchor about 100 yards from shore. I read about all of that and I was successfully able to pull it off. We lost one of the other ships in our group that broached that day. I found out later that this was the mission the E-boats attacked and a bunch of boys died.”
That was part of a landing exercise called ‘Tiger.’ Elsewhere during the exercise, speedy German E-boats surprised a convoy of LSTs (Landing Ship Tank), sinking two of them and damaging two others.
Officially, 749 soldiers and sailors died during the E-boat attack. Despite the heavy losses, the invasion training continued. Months later and with more time under their belts on June 3 and 4, allied troops loaded aboard various transport, landing, and assault craft.
LCI-500 was in the port of Southampton and embarked troops from the Durham Light Infantry, 151st Brigade, 50th Northumbrian Division of the British 8th Army. The craft was headed with 156,000 other troops to Normandy and the beachhead code-named Gold, one of the five that American, British and Canadian troops would strike in the invasion of Europe.
Opposing the Allies were a million German troops spread across Northern France, waiting to begin fighting the invasion effort over thousands of miles of coastline. An additional factor in the effort was the weather over the English Channel, since that would influence both naval and air operations.
Stormy weather on June 4 and the forecast the same for June 5 meant the invasion was forced back a day by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Mahmarian remembered a small minesweeper coming through the harbor that signaled the delay. Troops remained in cramped conditions aboard the various ships as they awaited the weather to clear for the fateful date of June 6, 1944.
As the decision was made to go forward on June 5, Mahmarian’s skipper had him read Eisenhower’s famous message over the ship’s intercom. He noted that as soon as he finished Eisenhower’s message, all the chatter on the ship ceased and many of the British troops instinctively took out their combat knives and began sharpening them.
Around 8 p.m., LCI-500 pulled away from the docks and began maneuvering into the channel with the other ships in its group.The ship was one of fifteen LCI’s in Group 31 led by Group Commander W.T. Patrick.
The group traveled across the English Channel in three columns with LCI-500 in the center column, immediately behind Commander Patrick’s LCI-512. The group was escorted by the British destroyer, H.M.S. Albrighton, and was one of the thousands of vessels crossing the English Channel.
LCI-500’s destination was the Jig Green sector of Gold Beach. For the purpose of the invasion, Gold Beach was divided into four areas with the code-names Item, Jig, King, and Love. Each of these areas, in turn, had a Red and Green sector.
The Jig Green sector was near Asnelles, just east of Arromanches, France.
Mahmarian said “those sectors were just lines on a map…it was all one stretch of beach.”
At 7:55 a.m. on June 6, the first wave of Higgins boats landed the initial assault wave as German beach obstacles, mines, machine guns, tanks, and artillery awaited them.
Gold beach was defended by the 716th German Infantry division, comprised of 29 companies armed with more than 500 machine guns, 50 mortars, and 90 artillery guns of various calibers were joined by elements of the 352nd Infantry Division also in the area. A seawall at the top of the beach provided the German defenders excellent cover and prevented the initial wave of British troops from getting off the beach.
Allied air power was supposed to bomb the beach ahead of the invasion, in hopes defensive positions would be destroyed and craters would create positions for troops. That didn’t work out as Mahmarian noted, “the beach hadn’t been touched…I didn’t see a single bomb crater.”
At 9:00 a.m., Commander Patrick signaled the LCI’s in Group 31 to prepare to beach and each LCI began its run ashore where a chaotic scene awaited LCI-500. Wrecked boats, beach obstacles, and casualties were all around. Just finding a place to beach and unload troops was a challenge.
Next to LCI-500, the captain of LCI-502 ran his ship on top of a broached British LCT (Landing Craft Tank) and awkwardly lowered its bow ramps over the damaged ship.
While the initial wave had advanced and made progress, the beach area was still a battlefield as the Germans fought to push the British back into the sea.
Machine gun, mortar and artillery positions battered British forces from behind the seawall and all over the beach area.
“The troops were getting slaughtered,” says Mahmarian. “We were getting shot up with machine guns …but they didn’t waste a big shell on us…we were lucky.”
As the battle raged, LCI-500’s winch needed to pull the ship back off the beach was damaged. Mahmarian remembered Russ Cope, his Engineering Officer, and two machinist mates repaired the winch in the middle of the fighting and kept LCI-500 from being stranded on the sand.
It was during this early phase of the battle that Mahmarian saw the destroyer get close to shore and brought to bear its 5-inch guns.
“First, he blew holes in the seawall, which gave our troops a path off the beach,” Mahmarian said. The destroyer then moved onto German fortified strong points along the beach.
Mahmarian’s post during the D-Day landing was by the bow ramps where he watched the battle in front of him. He spoke with particular admiration of the medics.
“These medics would come out of nowhere…a guy would lose his arm…they would tie it off…put sulfa on it,” he said. “With all this action going on…bullets flying all over the place…no protection…and these guys didn’t have that much training…I don’t think a doctor in this country today could do that.”
All of the other LCI’s in Mahmarian’s group backed off of Gold Beach after troops unloaded and went a few thousand yards into the English Channel. Many of the LCI’s carried wounded soldiers and stranded Navy personnel whose landing craft/ships were damaged or destroyed.
LCI-500 wound up with a second mission, unlike the other ships in its group. After disembarking the troops from the Durham Light Infantry, LCI-500 stayed on Gold Beach.
A British intelligence officer appropriated the ship as an interrogations center. Later in the morning as fighting in the beach area died down, British infantry began bringing groups of German POW’s aboard LCI-500 to be interrogated by the British officer.
Mahmarian recalled that “I covered them with a Thompson .45 while they were being questioned.”
After interrogation, the German POW’s were unloaded from LCI-500 and marched to a large POW pen located in another sector of Gold Beach.
In the afternoon, LCI-500 winched itself back off of Gold Beach and joined the other LCI’s in Group 31 offshore.
Around 4 p.m., Group 31 convoyed back across the channel to Southampton. At the end of the day, nearly 25,000 men along with supporting vehicles and supplies had been landed on Gold Beach.
While all of the D-day objectives were not reached, the British Army was securely ashore and the Germans had been pushed inland. The Allies suffered approximately 1,000 casualties at Gold Beach on D-Day.
Mahmarian noted his crew was extremely lucky but recounted the one casualty on LCI-500.
“We had a dog by the name of Buffy,” he said. “That dog ran ashore with the troops and we thought we had lost it…about five or six hours later the dog returned…with all the firing and the shells, it was in bad shape…and on the way back to England, the dog died.”
With sadness in his voice, Mahmarian said, “That was our only casualty that day – we put it in a US mailbag and sank it off the ship.”
“When we got back to port, all these reporters were waiting for us…asking us what happened,” Mahmarian said. “One asked ‘Did you have any casualties?’ and I said, ‘no, the only casualty we had was the dog.’”
Mahmarian added “That’s how my mother knew I was alive…the AP story [about the dog] was all over the country [in the papers].”
Mahmarian estimates that he made 25 to 30 trips back to Normandy on LCI-500 during the next few months as they ferried additional troops and supplies to the Allied armies during the campaign to recapture France.
On one return trip to England, Mahmarian was on the bridge at night for his turn on watch when he said he saw a flash in the sky.
“About fifteen minutes later, I heard someone yell ‘help’ from the water,” he said. “I sounded ‘man overboard’, the crew came up and we turned the ship toward the voice.”
They found a Luftwaffe pilot in the water and when he was pulled aboard, Mahmarian and the crew provided the POW flyer with care.
“We took him down below, gave him coffee, gave him a blanket, and he pulls a gun on me and goes to fire…and it misfired,” Mahmarian said and then paused. “I gave him a whack in the jaw and that was the end of that.”
In December 1944, LCI-500 was transferred to the British Navy and Mahmarian was transferred to the Pacific after a short leave. He was promoted to Lieutenant, Junior Grade (LTJG) on April 6, 1945.
He reported to LCI-677 under command of Lieutenant Cyril Stroker. There, he and his crew began training and preparing for the invasion of Japan, code-named Operation Downfall. This invasion was projected to result in a million U.S. casualties and even more Japanese casualties.
Before the invasion was ready on August 6, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and in the aftermath Japan surrendered a few days later.
In early September, LCI-677 was ordered to transport Army and Navy personnel to the island of Yap to receive the surrender of the Japanese garrison there.
After the surrender of Yap, LCI-677 was on patrol outside of the U.S. Naval base at Ulithi Atoll and Seaman 1st Class Frank Mowyer fell overboard one day.
Mahmarian and Coxswain Leon St. Cyr reacted immediately, getting a small boat in the water as LCI-677 turned around. Mowyer’s pulse and breathing had stopped when Mahmarian and St. Cyr pulled him out of the water.
Mahmarian performed artificial respiration, something he had learned as a Boy Scout, and saved Mowyer’s life.
Lt. Stroker recommended Mahmarian and St. Cyr for a medal for saving Mowyer.In his recommendation, Stroker wrote, “Lieutenant Mahmarian immediately started administering first aid and artificial respiration under difficult conditions, and after an hour and half succeeded in restoring Mowyer to consciousness.”
Mahmarian states that he never got the medal and was told it was denied because the episode did not occur in combat.
Following the surrender of Japan, many U.S. troops began to receive orders to return home for discharge. Mahmarian was given command of LCI-677 on October 17, 1945 after its skipper transferred back to the states.
Eventually Mahmarian was ordered back home in March 1946 while at Iwo Jima.
“I wasn’t flying home…one of the mechanics at the airfield at Iwo said ‘Don’t fly…all the good pilots are out already,’” he said.
Heeding that advice, Mahmarian got a ride to Guam on a minesweeper and then sailed home on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hancock. He separated from active duty in April and remained in the Navy Reserve until 1953 when he was honorably discharged.
Following the war, Mahmarian went to work in his father’s business, refurbishing cruise ships for the now-defunct U.S. Lines. He met his future wife, Dorothy Barry, while playing in a golf tournament and they married in 1950.
Fondly remembering his time in Georgia as a college student, Mahmarian moved to Villa Rica, Georgia in 1984 and later moved near Cedartown.
He remained an avid golfer and continued playing until he was 90.
During his senior year in college, Mahmarian applied to medical school. Just a few days after he was called to active duty, he learned he had been accepted. Reflecting on his Navy service, he says, “I wouldn’t have given it up for anything. I’m glad I didn’t become a doctor.”