The Invasion of Normandy and the Evansville Shipyard
It is almost impossible to overstate the importance and audacity of D-Day. President Eisenhower, in his message to Allied forces before the landing, called it “the Great Crusade” and this can hardly be argued; the specter of Nazi Germany was unequivocally evil. The logistics, technology, and timing of the Normandy landings remained so challenging that Eisenhower wrote a statement accepting all blame for the assault’s failure even before D-Day. Luckily, he never needed it.
Indiana contributed more than troops to the “Great Crusade.” The state’s numerous munitions plants filled rifle magazines and bomb bays. An Evansville factory supplied over a third of the 15,000 P-47s manufactured for World War II. But for Operation Neptune, the military name for Normandy, a 45-acre shipyard in Evansville would make a larger contribution than any of the Midwest’s “cornfield shipyards”—171 LST ships.
LST ships (or Landing Ship, Tanks) became an essential part of the large-scale amphibious landing needed to establish a foothold in Europe. Combined with other military advancements, such as paratroopers and the infamous Dual-drive Shermans, the LST allowed Allied forces to bring heavy equipment ashore quickly. Tanks, yes, but also support vehicles, half-tracks, ammunition, supplies, and large numbers of troops. These ships were the lifeblood of the invasion’s success.
Allied forces discovered the importance of an improved landing craft during the “Miracle at Dunkirk” in 1940, when thousands of ships, military and personal, evacuated almost 350,000 British soldiers from France to England in a week, saving them from certain capture or death by German forces. Churchill and Roosevelt met in 1941 to discuss large-scale production of these craft, based on British designs. Originally called a “landing craft” the final, mass-produced design stretched almost 300 feet from bow to butt and earned the classification “landing ship.”
The ship’s unusual (and some consider unsightly) design allowed it to serve as a sort of Swiss Army knife of naval utility. Powerful pumps allowed it to quickly increase or decrease its buoyancy, letting the LST handle rough seas while crossing the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. These pumps could remove this stabilizing ballast in minutes, increasing its buoyancy so greatly that its fully-loaded keel rested only three feet beneath the waterline, perfect for beach landings. This buoyancy also allowed them to take heavy punishment from enemy fire and remain afloat.
The open deck design also allowed naval forces to “get creative” with their LSTs. Numerous LSTs became artillery or anti-aircraft weapons platforms. The British turned several into command and supply ships, installing Quonset huts on the deck to house cooking supplies and provisions. Folding cots and medical staff took over a dozen LSTs, transforming them into efficient, mobile hospitals.
One of the most unusual and most helpful repurposing came from three LSTs stationed off the beaches of Normandy. Allied military constructed powerful radar towers on these ships, scanning the skies for German aircraft. Dozens of enemy aircraft fell in those first raw weeks on the French shore, largely because of those three LSTs. Toward the war’s end, nearly a dozen landing ships would have a short flight deck welded onboard, serving as the Allies DIY aircraft carriers.
For three years, the Evansville Shipyard cranked out ship after ship, so many that the ships only had numerical designations, not names. Workers whittled down the time needed to produce an LST from six months to only two months. The equipment and know-how came from a combination of naval personnel and the Missouri Valley Bridge and Iron Company. This shipyard employed 19,000 people and ran 24 hours a day in three shifts, with its own cafe, hospital, and recreational area.
Evansville was everywhere. The ships produced on those 45 acres served in every amphibious operation against German or Japanese forces during World War II. Along with the thousands of P-47s manufactured at Evansville’s Republic Aviation factory AND the city’s munitions plant, the River City was indispensable to the war effort. FDR acknowledged this by visiting the city in 1943, at the very height of World War II.
In December of 1945, the Evansville Shipyard completed the last of its LSTs. By then, the war in Europe no longer needed as many amphibious craft, while the Pacific Theater was fairly well-supplied, safe from most Japanese air and naval forces. During those last gritty months of World War II, most fighting was done inland on the soil and snow, not on the seas.
With the shipyard’s ultimate fate undecided, laid off workers found employment elsewhere. For two years the plant sat almost dormant, first purchased by International Harvester, then by Whirlpool. An unchecked warehouse fire in 1946 destroyed much of the shipyard, as if the yard itself made the difficult decision for the city: dismantle and decommissioned.
The remains of the yard were sold and scrapped. Today, only a marker and memories remain of the Evansville Shipyard, whose 19,000 men and women gave Allied forces the tools to battle the greatest specter of evil the world had yet seen.
Addendum—My interest in the LSTs and the Normandy invasion are as much personal as historical. Two of my great-uncles, brothers from Northwest Indiana, fought in the invasion. The eldest brother floated in with the 101st Airborne before H-Hour and slogged across Europe for the duration. He survived the war and brought home a Bronze Star…and a bag of rank insignias ripped from the collars of German soldiers (no one asked him about that). He passed away in Arizona in 2001.
The other brother, part of the 743rd Tank Battalion, drove a dual-drive Sherman from a landing craft jammed into the shingles of Omaha Beach (Dog White). He was one of the first soldiers ashore during the Normandy invasion and German defenses gnawed at his tank from sunup to sundown that day. He survived the Day of Days and fought like an iron badger through the infamous French hedgerows. Sadly, he died in the Netherlands on the eve of Operation Market Garden…but I discovered Nazi Germany needed a Panzer, an anti-tank rifle, and a company of soldiers to stop him.
One day, I will tell their stories in full. They deserve it.
Want to Know More?
Tour the USS LST Ship Memorial Page, where retired military volunteers keep the memories and mission of the LST alive, with the aid of the last operational LST in the US, LST-325. Browse the shipyard’s history, plan a visit…and strongly consider donating to their patriotic efforts.
Discover the historic significance of the LST-325 in its official inclusion form on the National Registry of Historic in this downloadable pdf from the US Department of the Interior. This comprehensive form includes the vessel’s complete operational history, systems overview from stem to stern, and a wealth of resources for amateur historians.
Understand the logistical nightmare Allied forces faced in the invasion of mainland Europe with this guide “Omaha Beachhead,” written and distributed by the Historic Division of the War Department soon after V-J Day. You couldn’t ask for a more comprehensive summary of D-Day.