Almost a week before D-Day, Seaman 1st Class Jim Kolka was waiting in the English Channel aboard a liberty ship, the USS Ezra Cornell off the coast of France, along with tens of thousands of other American servicemen, for the Invasion of Normandy to begin.
The 78-year-old resident who lives in Lazy Lagoon Mobile Park, east of Punta Gorda, Fla. was a gunner aboard the ship carrying material for building a new airfield along the coast of France once Allied forces landed in Normandy. It was his job to help protect the Ezra Cornell against marauding German fighters, bombers and E-boats.
“Our ship dropped her hook a half-mile off the coast at Omaha Beach. Our captain refused to go any closer to shore,” the old salt recalled. “They brought LCTs alongside and they unloaded her that way.”
Before the main Allied invasion force left England for the D-Day Invasion, Kolka and the other sailors aboard ship floated around in the English Channel four or five days waiting for the weather to break and the other ships to catch up. By the time the appointed day arrived he estimated there were about 5,000 boats of all sizes in the channel involved in the invasion.
Marauding German E-boats were in the area. These fast crafts were equivalent to our PT boats. They were armed with torpedoes capable of sinking Allied ships. Kolka and the Ezra Cornell were lucky.
His ships made a dozen or so trips back and forth from England to the French coast, during and after D-Day, delivering goods to Allied forces. They survived the multiple channel crossings without a scratch. It was his job to do whatever he could to protect his ship from enemy forces. Guards on these ships were trained to fire all of the armament including: 5-inch guns, .50 caliber machine guns, 20-mm and 40-mm anti-aircraft guns.
Like thousands of other kids of his generation, Kolka enlisted in the Navy when he was 17, with his family’s permission. He took boot camp at Great Lakes Reception Center and from there went to Armed Guard School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We took a captured German tanker, the Franz Klaffen, out of New York Harbor in August 1943 on our first trip. We went in a convoy of 60 ships across the North Atlantic hauling 40,000 gallons of aviation gasoline and 13 P-37D and P-38 fighter planes to Liverpool, England. It took us 15 days.
“We were lucky, we didn’t lose a single ship in our convoy. We came back with a convoy of 176 ships, the biggest convoy of the war,” he said.
After that, they took the Franz Klaffen across the Atlantic by way of the southern route to North Africa.
“The convoy in front of us and the one behind us were attacked by German subs. They both lost quite a few ships. We were lucky again,” Kolka recalled.
It was at this point he transferred to the Ezra Cornell, a liberty ship. By this time in the war U.S. shipyards were turning out liberty ships in a matter of days. The all-time record in WW II for building one of these ships was the USS Robert E. Perry, completed on Nov. 12, 1942. She was built in four days, 15 hours and 29 minutes!
About the time VE Day (Victory in Europe) arrived, Kolka was taking American POWs home. They sailed out of Le Havre, France where the Americans had been recouping at Camp Lucky Strike, one of the big French embarkation ports. He said that he talked with a couple of the POWs who were members of U.S. bomber crews shot down over Nazi occupied Europe during the war.
After a 90-day leave to come home, Kolka was reassigned to the Pacific Theater of Operations. Before he left the U.S., Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets dropped the first atomic bomb in a B-29 named for his mother, the Enola Gay, and World War II was soon over.
It made no difference. He was assigned to the patrol craft PC-600 stationed in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. Most of the time he and the sailors aboard the 180 patrol craft fished for sharks. In 1946 he returned aboard PC-600 to California where she was decommissioned.
The war was over for Seaman 1st Class Jim Kolka.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, April 5, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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