The Baseball Superstar Who Was on the Front Lines at D-Day
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Yogi Berra had a way with words, including when it came to relating his own wartime experiences.
By Sean Braswell
“It looked like the Fourth of July. It really did.”
Every Yogi Berra story contains a good quote. This one has several. The one above is the colorful Hall of Fame ballplayer describing the Allied invasion of Normandy, 75 years ago today, on June 6, 1944. Back then, the future New York Yankees catcher was just Seaman 1st Class Berra, a 19-year-old minor leaguer who had volunteered to serve his country and found himself on the front lines of the most remarkable invasion in modern history.
Berra, who died in 2015, was a class act, a consummate storyteller and a walking quotation-maker (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”). And he had such an honest, unfiltered way of observing the world around him that to witness the D-Day invasion through his eyes and his words is to hear a war story like no other.
“I was sick of hanging around all day. I wanted to be doing something.”
Lawrence Peter Berra was signed by the Yankees as a 17-year-old and assigned to the team’s affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, near the U.S. Navy shipyard. The 5-foot-8 prospect quickly demonstrated his prowess behind the plate and in the batter’s box, once driving in 23 runs in a doubleheader. But with his country at war, Berra, like so many other ballplayers of the day, including major leaguers Ted Williams and Bob Feller, put his baseball career on hold, enlisting in the Navy when he turned 18.
We called it landing craft suicide squad.
“I kind of enjoyed it. We had our own boat.”
The young Berra signed up to join the “amphibs,” even though he didn’t really understand the concept. “They asked for volunteers to go on a rocket boat,” he later put it. “I didn’t even know what a rocket boat was.” As it turned out, a rocket boat, also known as a landing craft support small (LCSS), was a 36-foot wooden-hulled vessel with steel plating. The seamen referred to them as “big bathtubs” — bathtubs that came equipped with 48 rockets, one twin .50-caliber machine gun and two .30-caliber machine guns. It would be the LCSS’ job to fire on the beaches at Normandy to help clear the way for the landing crafts. “We called it landing craft suicide squad,” Berra said.
“I’d have to say I was involved.”
Berra was next stationed in Plymouth, England, where for three weeks he and his fellow seamen waited. They didn’t know when they were going out or what was coming next — and they weren’t allowed to share details of anything in their letters home. Early on June 4, Berra’s LCSS set off aboard the USS Bayfield, a Coast Guard transport that was the smallest craft to take part in the invasion, the largest amphibious assault in history.
“I never saw so many planes in my life. It was like a black cloud.”
Berra’s boat was lowered from the Bayfield at 4.30 a.m. on June 6. Most stories about the invasion focus on the troop-filled landing crafts that poured their contents onto the Normandy beaches, but the tip of the spear for the invasion was actually the 24 LCSS crafts, including Berra’s, that approached the German fortifications first and were the most vulnerable to enemy fire. Berra manned a machine gun and helped load the rocket launcher, but he couldn’t help marvel at the spectacle of it all. “Boy, it looks pretty, all the planes coming over,” he said at one point about the Allied planes overhead. “You better get your head down in here, if you want it on,” the officer on his boat retorted.
“Nothing happened to us. That’s one good thing.”
Berra’s boat received little fire from the Germans on the beach, and the crew spent the next two weeks helping relay messages and direct new arrivals. At one point, Berra’s gun crew was directed to fire at enemy planes. They shot one down … an American plane. “The pilot was mad as hell, and you could hear him swearing as he floated down in his parachute,” Berra recalled. “I remember him shaking his fist and yelling, ‘If you bastards would shoot down as many of them as us, the goddamn war would be over.’”
“Being there at Omaha may have changed my life a little.”
Berra later participated in the invasion of southern France and was discharged from the Navy in 1946, making his major league debut for the Yankees on Sept. 22 of that year. Of all his many accomplishments, he was most proud of his time in the Navy. “If we knew only that Berra had served at D-Day, he’d still be an American hero,” says Eve Schaenen, executive director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center, an organization devoted to preserving and sharing Berra’s legacy. “But because he went on to become one of the most beloved sports figures of his generation, he became not only a hero to many but an American treasure for us all.”