“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.
Mahmarian was the executive officer of Landing Craft Infantry-500, which landed troops at Gold Beach on that historic day 75 years ago.
He was born in Union City, New Jersey, in November 1920 to Armenian immigrants Harry and Alice Mahmarian. John was a good student and began his college education at the University of Georgia in 1939. The U.S. entered World War II after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and he enlisted in the Navy’s V7 program while in college.
As the military expanded rapidly with the United States’ entry into World War II, all service branches had a shortage of officers. The V7 program allowed college students to complete their college degree while participating in the Naval Reserve. Upon completion of the V7 requirements, the graduate was commissioned as an Ensign in the Navy.
Within a week of arriving at Norfolk, Mahmarian was on LCI-500 and in route to England. Unbeknownst to Mahmarian, he was about to participate in Operation Overlord, popularly known as D-Day, the amphibious invasion of Normandy to begin the liberation of France from Nazi Germany.
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,” he said. “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,” he continued. “I read about all of that and I was successfully able to pull it off,” he said.
On June 3 and 4, troops loaded aboard various transport, landing, and assault craft in preparation for the attack.
Opposing the Allies were approximately one million German troops. However, these troops were dispersed across all of Northern France. In one of the great accomplishments of the war, the Allies kept the invasion location secret through a combination of secrecy, deception, and misinformation. This secrecy prevented the Germans from concentrating their overwhelming numerical advantage against the invasion force during the critical first day.
The attack was delayed because of rough weather and at approximately 2 p.m. on June 5th, the men aboard LCI-500 received a message from Eisenhower that was sent to all Allied forces.
Mahmarian’s skipper had him read this now famous message over the ship’s intercom:
“Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
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. LCI-500 was one of 15 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, HMS Albrighton, and was a small part of the thousands of ships crossing the English Channel all around them.
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.
“Those sectors were just lines on a map … it was all one stretch of beach,” Mahmarian said.
At 9 a.m., Commander Patrick signaled the LCIs in Group 31 to prepare to beach and each LCI began its run ashore. A noisy, chaotic scene full of smoke and confusion awaited Mahmarian as LCI-500 approached the beach. Wrecked boats, beach obstacles and casualties were visible. Finding a place to beach and unload troops was challenging for each LCI captain. Next to LCI-500, the captain of LCI-502 ran his ship on top of a broached British 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 and the Germans were fighting to push the British back into the sea. The Germans had numerous MG-42 machine gun positions behind the seawall and these guns could fire more than 1,000 rounds per minute.
“The troops were getting slaughtered,” says Mahmarian. In addition to the machine guns, the ship’s log for LCI-502 notes that a German 75mm artillery gun was firing and that mortars were still dropping all over the beach area.
“We were getting shot up with machine guns,” Mahmarian said, “… but they didn’t waste a big shell on us … we were lucky.” However, LCI-500’s winch was damaged. The winch was necessary for the ship to pull itself back off the beach. Mahmarian remembers Russ Cope, his engineering officer, and two machinist mates repaired the winch in the middle of the battle, preventing LCI-500 from getting stranded on the beach.
It was during this early phase of the battle that Mahmarian saw the destroyer get close to shore. Mahmarian says, “First, he blew holes in the seawall, which gave our troops a path off the beach.” Then the destroyer attacked the German fortified strong points along the beach.
Mahmarian’s post during the landing was by the bow ramps and he had a good view of the battle raging in front of him. He speaks with particular admiration of the medics, saying, “These medics would come out of nowhere … a guy would lose his arm … they would tie it off … put sulfa on it … 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 unloading their troops. Many carried wounded soldiers and stranded Navy personnel whose landing craft/ships were damaged or destroyed. These LCI’s retreated a few thousand yards into the English Channel and circled near the battleship HMS Belfast for several hours. These escort ships continued to fire their big guns in support of the landing troops throughout the day.
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 recalls this vividly, “I covered them with a Thompson 45 while they were being questioned.” After the 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 noted, “That’s how my mother knew I was alive … the AP story (about the dog) was all over the country (in the papers).”
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 in 1984 and later moved near Cedartown. Mahmarian remained an avid golfer and continued playing until he was 90.