Port Charlotte man survived WWII torpedo attack

Steve Sadlon, originally from Little Falls, N.Y., was 20 when his landing craft was sunk during an attack by a German E-boat only 39 days before the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Photo provided

Nine German torpedo boats attacked eight American transport ships in Lyme Bay off the southern coast of England near the village of Slapton Sands in South Devon, during the wee hours of April 28, 1944. By dawn, 749 Americans died and 1000 more were casualties of war.

Radioman 2/C  Steve Sadlon of Port Charlotte, Fla. was the radio operator aboard LST-507 when she went to the bottom. This is his story.

Each Landing Ship Tank (LST) was loaded with more than 500 U.S. soldiers and all their equipment: Tanks, trucks, fuel and ammunition together with scores of sailors who were all taking part in a mock invasion called “Exercise Tiger.”

In a few minutes, 551 soldiers and 198 sailors were killed. In addition, there were nearly 1,000 casualties caused by the German E-boat attack, the German version of an American P.T. boat.

Almost 550 more American servicemen died in this early morning attack on the transports than would die on Utah Beach during the real D-Day Invasion 39 days later.

LST-507 was bringing up the rear of the troop convoy when, at 2:04 a.m., a torpedo from one of the enemy E-boats hit amidship. The transport burst into flames.

Moments later LST-231 was torpedoed and sank in six minutes. LST-289 opened fire on the attacking E-boats and took a torpedo in her stern, but was able to reach port.

“I was asleep in my sack when I was awakened by a scraping noise along the side of our LST. It was a torpedo that didn’t explode,” the 82-year-old Sadlon said. “General quarters sounded a moment later and I ran for the radio shack. I sat down in my chair in front of my typewriter and was starting to get the radio going when a second torpedo hit right below where I was in the auxiliary engine room.

“I was thrown out of my chair by the concussion from the exploding torpedo. My head hit the overhead bulkhead and knocked me out. One of the radio transmitters that was as large as a refrigerator toppled to the floor beside where I was sprawled,” he said.

Sadlon’s LST was to take part in a giant, secret war game involving thousands of soldiers, scores of ships and lots of live ammunition and heavy artillery fire from big guns on ships offshore.

Some time before the mock invasion of the beach at Slapton Sands, the residents were evacuated to keep the secret invasion under wraps.

Early the previous morning, his transport and two others sailed out of Brixham, England, and rendezvoused with five more LSTs that left from Plymouth and sailed for Lyme Bay. They had two British escort ships, a battered World War I destroyer and a Corvette, smaller than a destroyer.

Radioman 2/C Steve Sadlon was aboard LST-507 when she was attacked while in convoy off the coast of England by nine German E-boats. LST-507 lost 175 men who were aboard. When daylight arrived a total of 749 American servicemen had been killed in the attack and 1000 more were listed as wounded. National Archives photo

The E-boats sailed from the port of Cherbourg, some 20 miles across the English Channel in Nazi-occupied France. The enemy torpedo boats, on routine patrol, eluded the British picket ships and happened upon the eight LSTs cruising the placid waters of the bay like a gaggle of sitting geese.

“When I woke up after the torpedo hit us, sometime later I staggered from the radio shack through a companionway into the wheelhouse. All of the ship’s officers were gathered in the wheelhouse,” Sadlon said. “All hell was breaking loose aboard ship. Fire was everywhere, ammunition as well as gas cans were exploding. Sailors were running all over the place.

“The skipper couldn’t get any of the pumps or the engines going because we had lost all electricity. We had nothing, we were a floating, burning hull of a ship. Finally the skipper yelled, ‘Abandon ship!’

The assistant navigator was in the wheelhouse with Sadlon . The two of us headed to the stern of the ship to escape the inferno. The stern was bedlam, with scores of soldiers and sailors all trying to figure out what to do next.

“Our signalman was standing in the stern with the rest of them. He told me, ‘Steve, I’m not going to jump into that cold water.’

“I pointed to the fire and explosions behind us on the ship and told him, ‘Take your choice: You either burn to death on the ship or you freeze to death in the sea.’

“That was the last I saw of him. He stayed aboard ship and apparently burned to death.”

Sadlon and the assistant navigator jumped over the side of the LST into the near-freezing water 25 feet below. He took off his shoes before he took the plunge.

The sea around the ship was covered with an oil slick from the badly damaged LST, and the surface was on fire. They had to escape the burning oil.

“There were hundreds of guys all around us in the water screaming for help. There were dead bodies floating everywhere. We got past the burning water, the dead people and the people yelling for help,” Sadlon said.

“I floated by this officer who told me to save my breath and stop screaming for help like the rest of them because nobody is going to help us.”

When Sadlon jumped ship, he was wearing a CO2 charged flotation belt that he credits with saving his life.

During all the yelling and screaming and people dying all around him in the water, he lost his assistant navigator buddy. He never saw him again.

“I quieted down and my flotation belt slipped up under my arms. My head fell on one shoulder and kept my face out of the water as hypothermia started taking control of my body in the 42-degree water.

“Just before I passed out, I can remember seeing my mother’s face. She was holding me in her arms and protecting me; l was a little kid again,” he said.

TOMORROW: What happened to Petty Officer Steve Sadlon and the rest of his war.

Part one of this story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, April 23, 2006 and is republished with permission.

Rescued U.S. sailor becomes pariah after E-Boat attack

2/C Radioman Steve Saldon of Port Charlotte, Fla. was the radio operator abroad a troop transport, LST-507, when their convoy was attacked at night by nine German E-boats off the Southern English coast while practicing for the D-Day invasion almost seven weeks later along the cast of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944.

Dubbed “Exercise Tiger,” 30,000 troops were involved in the elaborate practice run. Sadlon’s LST (Landing Ship Tank) was sunk along with another LST. A third ship was severely damaged. Some 749 Americans were killed in the attack–551 soldiers and 198 sailors, plus there was almost 1,000 casualties.

This was nearly three times the number of Americans who died on Utah Beach during the real Allied invasion of Europe 39 days later

After jumping with a buddy from their doomed ship, LST-507, into flaming water 25-feet below. Sadlon remembers swimming through the fires and the dead while listening to the cries for help from the living. He passed out a few minutes later from hypothermia in the frigid 42-degree water.

An inflatable life belt that slipped up under his arms is what kept him alive. Sheldon’s head rested on his shoulders and his face was out of the water while he bobbed around for hours unconscious in the darkness in Lyme Bay, several miles off he English coast near Slapton Sands in South Devon.

In 1954, the U.S. Army presented this obelisk as a tribute to the sacrifices made by 3,000 residents of the area around Slapton Sands, England, who “generously left their homes and their lands” to allow mock landings ahead of D-Day. Paul Segner/msnbc.com

“I woke up on another LST. I was lying on a mess table in the crew’s quarters with 10 Army blankets over me,” Sadlon said more than six decades later.

“A corpsman patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re a lucky guy. We were piling up dead people from your ship and you were foaming at the mouth. So we picked you up and started working on you.’

“The next thing I know I was in an American military hospital in England. I got rough treatment from the medical staff,” he said. “One of the pharmacist mates told me, ‘The order from the doctors were to treat all of us who survived the torpedoing like they were vets.’ In other words, we were considered dogs.”

The old sailor is still mystified about their treatment all these years later. He can’t understand why the U.S. government would treat its servicemen like that.

There’s no question Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and his staff, clamped a tight lid of secrecy on the debacle at sea. The general’s staff was concerned the Germans would learn about the Allied plan for invading Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” just before the D-Day Invasion.

In recent years, some members of the national news media in Britain and the United States have call the operation, “Exercise Tiger,” an “American Army cover-up.” Some media representatives also charge that relatives of the dead men killed aboard the ships were never told the truth about their loved ones and that they were buried in a mass grave on a farm near the village of Slapton Sands.

According to the U.S. Naval Historical Center: “On Aug. 5, 1944 Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force released statistics on the casualties…associated with the German E-Boat attack.” The same information, “…was published in the Aug. 7, 1944 issue of The Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper of the U.S. Armed forces in the European Theatre.”

Sadlon found out years after the war that the captain of LST-515 disobeyed orders and returned to where his ship sank and picked up survivors. The former sailor said Adm. Don Moon, commanding the naval operation, ordered: ‘Pick up no survivors.’

“I only found this out through the efforts of Dr. Gene Eckstam, our ship’s doctor, who had been researching the incident for years.

“If it wasn’t for that captain that disobeyed orders I wouldn’t be talking to you today. He almost got court martialed for his actions,” Sadlon said.

After getting out of the hospital a week or two later, he was taken to an abandoned British Army base and told to go into an old Quonset hut and pick out some Army clothes from the piles of pants, shirts and boots dumped inside the hut. From there he was taken to Plymouth. He met a couple of other survivors of the ship attack. They were all being cloistered.

“They made the three or four of us unload ammunition at night from ships in Plymouth Harbor in our borrowed Army uniforms,” he said. “They kept us isolated, unloading ammunition only at night for a month or more.

“A couple of weeks before the D-Day Invasion, they told me to pick up my stuff and they sent me to LST-500. When I went aboard, the executive officer immediately took me below.

“‘Here’s your Purple Heart,’ he said as he handed me my medal. ‘You’re supposed to get a ceremony, but you’re not getting nothing.’

“I leaned over and pointed my finger at him and said, ‘You get me off this boat as quick as possible!’

“He said, ‘Guess what? You’re going with us on the invasion.'”

This Sherman tank, which was recovered from the sea about a mile off Slapton Sands, England, serves as a memorial to the U.S. servicemen killed while preparing for D-Day, weeks away. Paul Segne/msnbc.com

Sadlon was the radio man aboard LST-500 on D-Day. His LST was one of  the first on Utah Beach.

“In comparison to the E-Boat attack, Utah Beach was a walk in the park.

“However, we were maybe a mile or two off the beach and our LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel) were circling waiting to hit the beach,” he said. “There were German mines floating in the water everywhere and one of the destroyers hit two of these mines and blew up close by. Some of our guys on the LCVPs went over and picked up the bodies from the exploded destroyer. They brought them back to our LST.”

This was the first of many trips Sadlon made in LST-500 across the English Channel to France. His ship kept bringing supplies into French ports until Allied forces reached Paris.

It was about that time he was given his 30-day survivor’s leave. He went home to Little Falls, N.Y. to see his parents and friends.

Sadlon returned to Norfolk, Va., where he reported aboard the USS Yukon, a refrigerator ship, that carried 100-freight cars loaded with food to the fleets around the world.

Shortly after a couple of almost pleasurable trips to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Cuba, the skipper of the Yukon told the crew he wanted action and had the ship reassigned to the Pacific for the final few months of the war. The Yukon and Sadlon toured the Pacific bringing crates of refrigerated food to ships and cities in the Pacific Theatre of Operation.

They were on there way to Auckland, New Zealand to pick up a load of food when he received the radiogram they all had been waiting for.

“‘The War is Over,’ is what it said. When I gave it to our skipper he turned our ship around and headed back to Pearl Harbor.”

After the war Sadlon became a union carpenter and worked for a firm that built freeways and turnpikes throughout New York State.

“I joined the VFW after the war at Little Falls. I put the tile in the men’s and ladies’ bathrooms at the post,’ he said. “When I told them my story about the nine E-‘Boats that attacked our LSTs they called me a liar.”

Sadlon waited for decades for his day to arrive. On the 60th anniversary of the E-Boat attack off the English Coast, on April 28, 2004, he and his wife, Helen, were guests of honor along with a handful of other survivors of that terrible day so long ago. The whole village of Slapton Sands turned out for the ceremony.

U.S. and British military bands played martial music and dignitaries gave speeches. Steve and Helen Sadlon laid a wreath at a rusty WW II Sherman tank salvaged from his ship, LST-507. that now has a place of honor as a war memorial in the town’s square commemorating the disaster.

Former Radioman 2/C Steven Sadlon had finally been vindicated.

Sadlon’s File

Name: Steven Dusan Sadlon
D.O.B: 16 May 1923
Hometown: Little Falls, NY
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 12 Jan. 1943
Discharged: 3 June 1946
Rank: Radioman 2nd Class
Unit: LST-507
Commendations: Purple Heart, European-African-Middle-Eastern Medal w/1 Battle Star, Asiatic-Pacific Medal, American Theatre Medal, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: European Theatre, D-Day on Utah Beach

Part two of this story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Tuesday, April 25, 2006 and is republished with permission.

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Click here and here to hear Sadlon’s tell his own story in his own words.

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