Wednesday, June 4, 2014 | NEWS
Frederic man’s story of D-Day rehearsal turned tragic featured in Smithsonian Channel documentary
Gary King | Editor
FREDERIC - World War II veteran Doug Harlander of Frederic has now shared his war story with millions - a story he was forced to keep a secret from most people for decades.
Now 94, Harlander was featured this week - not only on the CBS Evening News - but in a one-hour documentary by the Smithsonian Channel titled “America’s Secret D-Day Disaster.” The program aired this past weekend and is set to be shown again at 7 and 10 p.m. this Friday, June 6, and at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 7, as well as other times in the coming month.
The one-hour documentary sheds new light on “Exercise Tiger,” a top-secret rehearsal in April of 1944 for the D-Day invasion that would occur just weeks later. Friday marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the allied effort to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi occupation and the largest seaborne invasion in history.
Harlander was a 24-year-old naval lieutenant assigned to the USS LST 531, a large landing craft, and gave the order to abandon ship after it was hit by two torpedoes within a two-minute span, sinking in approximately six minutes. The 531 and another landing craft, part of the 300-vessel fleet and 30,000-strong force involved in the exercise, took the brunt of a surprise attack in the early-morning hours of April 27 by German torpedo boats and were sunk. Another LST was badly damaged.
Accounts of lives lost that day range from 638 to 749. Some historians claim the number was closer to 1,000.
“We lost 424 men on our ship alone,” Harlander recalled in an interview this week with the Leader. He said just days after the tragedy he became aware of official reports citing 749 lives lost. Out of the 424 men on the LST 531, he believes the remains of perhaps 300 of those lost remain in the sunken wreckage.
Although his story has been told in the Leader in past years and there are books about the tragedy which also include Harlander’s story, this recent flurry of media attention will bring the story to life again - with a new and certainly larger audience.
For decades Harlander and other survivors of the event could only speak of the matter with others who were directly involved.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, following the event, immediately ordered the matter “top secret” and promised a court martial for anyone - regardless of rank - who spoke publicly about it.
Harlander says he has come to terms with his own bad memories of that day over the years but still feels “very sad” for the loss of life that occurred.
“The people who died, why all their kids and brothers and sisters and grandparents didn’t know how they died - they were just given a ‘killed’ or ‘missing in action’ (notification) - nothing else - not where they died or how.”
The Smithsonian documentary includes a scene where a great-nephew of one of Harlander’s shipmates reads the only documented account of what happened - one Harlander was asked to give by the exercise’s commander, Admiral Don P. Moon, in the days following the event. That report remained classified for decades - until passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1974 when historians began to take advantage of the new law to seek answers about what has been described as one of the most enduring mysteries of World War II.
With the lockdown of information by Eisenhower, medical reports were sealed and only after a military doctor - Harlander’s friend and a fellow Wisconsinite - wrote the U.S. government decades later, documenting Harlander’s injuries from the event, which eventually resulted in the issuance of a Purple Heart medal in 2009.
New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger wrote the Smithsonian documentary “has an honesty that military documentaries sometimes lack. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who clamped a secrecy order over the whole affair, comes off as callous, indifferent to the loss of hundreds of men.”
The documentary also notes Eisenhower’s 123-page report on Exercise Tiger includes just one paragraph on the “unfortunate loss of life,” and mentions that the exercise was not only a practice for D-Day but a test to see how the Germans would react to an Allied convoy in the seas between England and France.
Harlander, LST 531’s navigating officer, said the attack by nine German torpedo boats, known as “schnell boats” (German for fast boats) - occurred at just after 2 a.m. on April 28 and the convoy of eight LSTs might have been safer had not one of their escort vessels - which had received some above the waterline damage in a collision with another craft earlier - had not been prevented from returning to escort duty by a commanding officer.
LST 531 was hit by two torpedoes shortly after LST 507 was hit. The ship burst into flames, rolled over and sank in six minutes. Several minutes later LST 289 was torpedoed.
However, LST 289 managed to limp back to shore but only after suffering a number of deaths and casualties of its men aboard.
Trapped below decks, hundreds of soldiers and sailors went down with the ships with little time to launch lifeboats. Some succumbed to hypothermia in the cold water.
When the first torpedo hit LST 531, Harlander said it felt like sledge hammer had slammed into the bottom of his feet, tossing him in the air. He fell against a pole which supported the upper deck and his leg was injured.
“I thought it was broken but I felt of it and it wasn’t,” he recalled. “I got up and began to move around.”
Harlander said he ran down to his stateroom to alert a captain.
“I said, ‘We’re torpedoed - get a life jacket on.‘ I no sooner stepped out and a second torpedo hit. It blew a hole in the ship where the head (toilet) was and knocked me back down again.”
Harlander said he eventually went deaf in his right ear due to the explosions.
With no PA system, no electricity and both engines gone, the situation was grim. He had seen the damage done, and the fire fueled by the gas in 21 amphibious vehicles - known as “Ducks” - aboard the ship, creating a fire which engulfed the entire main deck - flames shooting 10 feet or more into the air.
Harlander, as the remaining senior officer, gave the order to abandon ship.
“Both torpedoes had hit us on the starboard (right) side and we were tipping over and sinking at the same time - when it got to an angle of 10 or 15 degrees, it was hopeless - I had to give the order to abandon ship.”
Harlander helped 15 or 16 men over the port (left) railing before jumping into the 44-degree water to avoid getting sucked under by the sinking of the ship. He had to swim around burning fuel on top of the water and found a lifeboat. He hung on to the side of that boat for 4-1/2 hours, fighting hypothermia.
“The first half hour it was real cold and then my legs got numb and after that they didn’t feel quite so bad - then as it got colder and my blood temperature dropped, it became hard to stay awake.”
Harlander was just about “out of it,” he noted, when a British ship, the HMS Onslow, found him and pulled him aboard, giving him a hot cup of tea. Harlander said he could barely hold it, his hands were so numb - he drank half and spilled half, but, he noted “It was the best drink of my life.”
Harlander’s official account of what happened that night, previously classified, provided firsthand details to family members of the dead, who read for the first time how their loved ones perished.
Harlander went on to be assigned as a courier - delivering highly classified messages between main military bases - traveling by train back and forth from Plymouth, England, to London on a regular basis and was in London when D-Day occurred. He would lock himself in a train compartment on the train during those trips and was unaware of the content of the messages - and packages - he delivered.
“I once was handed a 15- by 15-inch package and told it needed to be delivered to France - there was a plane waiting for me,” he recalled. “I exited the plane and an officer took the package from me. I always wondered what was in that package. And it was the only time I made it to France.”
Harlander’s illustrious military career took him worldwide. Before Exercise Tiger, he was part of the Allied invasion of Italy at Salerno, and was awarded a Bronze Medal. After his courier career he was stationed on another LST in the Pacific. He would visit Africa, Cuba and the Panama Canal before he left the military for civilian life.
During his service to his country Harlander lost his brother in a plane crash and both his parents died. They had not learned of what their son had endured in Exercise Tiger.
The Smithsonian documentary (future air times of the film can be found at smithsonianchannel.com) examines the logistical problems of Tiger and allegations of other measures the government took to keep the events of April 28, 1944, under wraps.
It sums up the tragedy this way:
“Without the ultimate sacrifices of the D-Day disaster, no one knows how many more would have died on the sands of Normandy.”
Editor’s note: The CBS Evening News segment featuring Harlander can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Oqf7K303ts
During the 2009 Memorial Day service held at the Maple Grove cemetery in Frederic, Doug Harlander was presented with a Purple Heart for his service during World War II. Harlander served as a naval lieutenant aboard the LST 531 when it was torpedoed by German E- boat on the English Channel back on April 28, 1944. Harlander, one of few to survive, was injured. The government had kept the incident secret and it took decades for the information to be released, allowing Harlander to be issued the Purple Heart. - File photo