Veteran recalls how day of training turned deadly
May 17, 2014 at 12:17 a.m.
The following essay, submitted by J.C. Brown Jr., was written to be entered in an essay contest pertaining to the military and announced around Veterans Day by the Victoria Advocate but was later called off. Mr. Brown has submitted his essay in hopes that the Advocate would still use it somehow.
A day at the beach
It was a beautiful afternoon on the beach in Southern California this 21st day of May, 1951, with a cool onshore breeze and blue skies. But this isn't a recreational beach - it's Marine Corps' Camp Del Mar, near Oceanside, where trainees learn to operate amphibious landing craft called AMTRACKS.
Our unit was composed of reserves assembled from bases throughout the U.S. and activated for the Korea situation, our mission being radar surveillance. Our training officer decided that since these things are running back and forth practicing landings, we should take advantage of the opportunity to practice storming the beach. We donned our ammo belts, shouldered our M-1 rifles and marched about a mile to the landing zone. I don't remember the number of AMTRACKS nor the number of troops boarding them on the lowered rear ramps.
The crew of three, including one trainee, gave the 14 of us a quick tour inside and life jackets, a few of which were the same as those they were wearing (inflatables), and the remainder were the bulky kapok type. They picked up the ramp and away we went, facing huge ground swells (waves) that made for a rough, damp ride though the compartment was enclosed. We were standing, and there were overhead grab bars to hold.
We attacked the beach a couple of times with all craft running abreast in a line parallel to the beach (like in the movies), adjusting the speed to stay in the trough between waves. On this last pass, a guy who was looking out a window in the ramp hollered, "Hey Brown, look at this!" I looked upward and saw the crest of one of those monstrous waves coming at us, and the trainee wasn't running us fast enough to stay ahead of it. When it caught us, we rode it like a 19-ton surfboard until the water became shallow enough for the front end to dig into the sandy bottom, and the wave turned us upside down. The ramp is hollow, so it can take on water ballast to make the vehicle ride lower in the water when not fully loaded; but this wasn't done. Full load is 24 men with a lot more gear than we had. So we are inverted, and I'm in the rear. This empty ramp is floating that area enough that an air pocket is in the corner above me, so I loaded up. The vehicle is buoyant enough that each wave changes its position, moving us closer to the beach. The next wave put it on one side, and I was under, thrashing feet and hearing lots of yelling. The next one left it upright, and we were shoulder-deep in water, the top left hatch open with two guys momentarily wedged in it - one wearing a kapok jacket. The crew had already bailed out, and I'm under the hatch when water from the next wave starts pouring in. I'm not going to allow it to close that hatch - I'm getting out. Wrong! The hatch slammed closed on my right-hand fingers, and I couldn't get loose. We were upside down again. That's when - as is sometimes said - my life passed before my eyes. The landing craft is now lying facing parallel to the beach, and the next wave rolled it up on its left side. I'm free. Still totally submerged, the sun is now shining through that open hatch and lighting the whole interior. My life jacket is floating me against the top, which is now the right side of the craft, and I need to get forward and down and through that hatch before the next wave rolls it upside down again. I made it; I bobbed to the surface and sucked in a lung full.
The worst was over, but the waves kept driving me under before it was shallow enough for me to touch bottom. Rescuers had come out as far as neck-deep water to assist in recovery. Except for those few men at the moment under the hatch, I didn't know who, how or when anybody got out. On shore there was one person lying face-down who had been revived by artificial respiration, two bodies and three missing. Two shortly washed up, and the third was later found lodged under the gunner's platform, which was like a 14-inch-high steel stool below the machine gun, aft of the driver's area. He evidently wasn't holding on to the overhead rails when the AMTRACK front end dug into the ocean floor. From what I remember, the four who drowned after exiting were wearing the "Mae Wests," and the CO2 bottles had lost their pressure, probably because of metal corrosion.
The following day a newspaper reported "the ground swells originated in an undetermined area far out in the Pacific."
J.C. Brown Jr. lives in Port Lavaca and is a Korean War veteran. To contact him, send an email to JCBrown1@hotmail.com.361-552-3009