The Long Blue Line: “Selfless devotion to duty”—Seaman Scheuerman and the bloody landings at Salerno

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BM1 William A. Bleyer, United States Coast Guard

Although mortally wounded before he could deliver effective fire he remained steadfast at his post in the face of imminent death, thereby contributing materially to the protection of his ship against further attack. Scheuerman’s fearless action, great personal valor, and selfless devotion to duty under extremely perilous conditions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

                 Silver Star Medal citation of John C. Scheuerman, LCI-319, 1943

Posed portrait photograph of John C. Scheuerman before enlisting in the Coast Guard. (Courtesy of the Scheuerman family)

John Curtis Scheuerman was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1924 to Carl and Mable Scheuerman. Known to his friends as Curtis, he grew up in nearby Columbus with two siblings. As a young man, he had a penchant for getting into good-natured mischief, once helping his brother saw the roof off a sedan because they’d always wanted a convertible. After attending Grandview High School, where he was head cheerleader, he worked as a salesman at a clothing store and as the assistant manager at the Drexel Theater.

On October 16, 1942, at age 18, Scheuerman enlisted in the Coast Guard. Following basic training in New Orleans, he volunteered for duty on amphibious assault craft and was assigned to Galveston, Texas, to be part of the commissioning crew of USS Landing Craft, Infantry (Large)-319, also known as LCI-319, under the command of Lieutenant (junior grade) Francis Riley.

LCI-319 was a new design of amphibious assault ship, one of many such vessels crewed by Coast Guardsmen in World War II. Commonly called “Elsie Items” after the first two letters and the letter “I” in the contemporary phonetic alphabet, LCIs were unusual-looking ships–158-foot long covered landing craft with a square conning tower jutting up from the after portion. LCI-319 sailed from Galveston to Norfolk, Virginia, where it joined several other LCIs to form LCI Flotilla #4, under the command of famed Coast Guard Commander Miles Imlay. In March 1943, after amphibious assault training, Flotilla #4 departed Norfolk for a brief layover in Bermuda on its way to the Mediterranean combat theater.

Seaman Scheuerman’s home away from home, the Coast Guard-manned LCI-319 underway in 1944. (U.S. Navy)

As a seaman in LCI-319’s Deck Division, Scheuerman helped paint scrapes and dents, and repair stanchions resulting from the crew learning how to operate their unwieldy vessel. Sailors joked that LCI stood for, “Lousy Civilian Idea” and that, “An LCI would roll in so much as a heavy dew.” However, the LCIs won begrudging respect after successfully sailing across the Atlantic–the boxy vessels may have been ugly and made for a sickening ride, but they were durable. When not painting, Scheuerman handled lines, helped raise and lower the forward and aft anchors, and steered ship using its unusual lever-shaped tiller.

The LCIs were expected to land troops on hostile beaches and Scheuerman’s battle station on LCI-319 was the Number 2 gun mount located aft of the ship’s square pilothouse. Scheuerman’s weapon was a 20 mm Oerlikon automatic cannon and he served as gunner while another crewman acted as loader. Their battle station was an exposed one; its only protection from enemy fire was two square steel sheets called splinter shields fitted on either side of the gun.

Coast Guard chart showing the location of the landings at Salerno. (U.S. Coast Guard)

After arriving in the Mediterranean theater, LCI-319 saw action in Operation “Husky,” the Allied invasion of Sicily, and experienced several air raids by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and Italian air forces. On September 4, 1943, Flotilla 4 sailed from a base in Tunisia for Operation “Avalanche,” the Allied invasion of Italy. It would be the first Allied invasion of mainland Europe in World War II, with American, British, Canadian, and Polish forces landing near the city of Salerno.

On Wednesday, September 8th, while en route to Salerno, Flotilla #4 withstood enemy air raids, with flotilla flagship LCI-87 barely avoiding major damage from a pair of bombs and a sinking LCT (Landing Craft, Tank). During an air attack on the same day, Scheuerman had doggedly tracked an Italian fighter plane as it brazenly flew low through the flotilla. Scheuerman was an excellent anti-aircraft gunner trying to align it in the crosshairs of his cannon’s round “spider web” sight. Ensign Charles Green, a junior officer on board LCI-319, described him as “A real cool boy.” Scheuerman’s teeth-gritting patience was rewarded when the plane flew clear of friendly ships and he fired 20 shots at it from close range, scoring several hits. LCI-319’s crew saw the plane shudder and lose altitude as rounds impacted behind the cockpit, only to watch the lucky fighter recover and fly away.

The early morning of September 9th found LCI-319 drifting in the Gulf of Salerno preparing for the amphibious assault on the German-held Italian shoreline. Lt. j.g. Riley had set general quarters and the crew of four officers and 24 enlisted men ready for combat. LCI-319 was at the northern edge of the designated invasion beaches, which were codenamed Uncle, Sugar, and Roger, and further subdivided by color. While American troops landed at the southern beaches, LCI-319 would support the landing of the British 46th Infantry Division at Beach Uncle Red.

Coast Guard photo of Coast Guardsmen and Navy men ducking enemy shelling at Salerno. (U.S. Coast Guard)

However, LCI-319 would not be landing troops–the crew specialized in combat salvage–towing stranded landing craft off the beach and out of danger. General orders for the Salerno amphibious assault directed that it was, “To be pressed home with relentless vigor, regardless of loss or difficulty.” Ensign Green described the scene as the Allied ships softened-up enemy defenses on the British landing beaches with naval gunfire and rocket bombardment:

We stared at our watches, awaiting H-hour.–Suddenly we knew it had arrived. Countless gun flashes and explosions rent the air, both from ship to shore and vice versa. Tracer streams crisscrossed everywhere, and in several places we could see lines of fire running parallel to each other, but from opposite directions. The heavy batteries on the cruisers and destroyers opened up and displayed a beautiful yet awe-inspiring sight. You could see, following the yellow gun flashes, the path of the large projectiles as they took flight….

Photo showing enlisted Coast Guardsmen operating a 20 mm gun during the Normandy invasion. Position to the right was the same as Seaman Scheuerman’s during the battle at Salerno. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The landings at Salerno began as a near-disaster for the British and Americans. Landing craft and their debarking troops were raked by heavy machine gun and artillery fire turning the beaches into scenes of destruction. The ensuing combat was vicious and often hand-to-hand, with German tank-led counter-attacks nearly pushing some landings back into the sea. In the air, German and Allied aircraft tangled in dogfights as the Luftwaffe made hit-and-run attacks against the beachheads and Allied vessels.

At 6 a.m., after the first wave of British troops landed at Beach Uncle Red, LCI-319 moved in to begin salvage operations. Several landing craft had been hit by German artillery fire and LCI-319 was tasked with assisting two American LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks). The commanding officer of one of them, LST-314, had been ordered to beach his vessel at “Utmost speed” and it had come to rest with its bow high and dry on the sand. German dive bombers began to target the stranded LST, blasting holes in its forward compartments.

Despite the enemy fire, Scheuerman and the other men in the deck division worked topside handling tow lines and cables, and dropping the anchors. As they worked, cruisers and destroyers closed in to blast German targets with direct naval gunfire. Making LST-319’s combat salvage operations even more hazardous, the waters off the beaches had not been fully cleared of mines. Allied ships began to lay smokescreens to conceal the beach and landing craft from German artillery observers. LCI-319, LCI-233, and a U.S. Navy tugboat eventually pulled LST-314 free after several hours of effort, most of it while German artillery shells rained down nearby.

The Silver Star Medal posthumously awarded to John Scheuerman. (Courtesy of the Scheuerman family)

In the air over the beaches, fighter aircraft still battled. While the Allies had achieved air superiority over Salerno, the Luftwaffe still attempted attacks throughout the day and night. LCI-319 set battle stations several times for incoming enemy aircraft, with Scheuerman running to man his 20mm. No other Allied landings in the European theater faced enemy air attacks as intense as those at Salerno. During the landings, the Luftwaffe would even use some of the world’s first guided bombs against Allied ships.

By 4:15 p.m., with combat operations ashore calming down, Lt. j.g. Riley ordered LCI-319 off the northern flank of Beach Uncle Red and dropped anchor. Another LCI anchored just to the north. An hour-and-a-half later, at 5:40, a German Bf-109 fighter plane was sighted heading toward Beach Uncle Red. Armed with machine guns and a 20 mm cannon, a strafing or bomb attack by the fighter could be devastating to the crowded beachhead. On LCI-319, general quarters was sounded and crew members again ran to their battle stations, determined to protect their ship and the British soldiers on shore.

The German fighter dove toward LCI-319. Manning his 20 mm, Scheuerman coolly willed a clear shot, but his aim was obstructed by the nearby LCI. The fighter began to draw anti-aircraft fire from the other ships, sustained damage, and pitched downward. The aircraft cleared the top of the adjacent LCI and plunged toward the sea and out of control. However, its pilot sprayed LCI-319 with cannon and machine-gun fire in a final act of defiance before crashing between the two ships.

The German fighter’s shells exploded as they hit LCI-319, with bullets and shrapnel wounding six crewmen. Four men received non-lethal wounds, including Scheuerman’s shipmate Seaman 1/c Stanley Radwanski, who was permanently blinded by fragments. But Scheuerman was severely wounded in the chest as he resolutely stayed at his gun, determined to hit the enemy aircraft.     





Telegram received by Mrs. Scheuerman informing her of her son’s combat loss. (Courtesy of the Scheuerman family)

With the threat eliminated, LCI-319 got underway and pulled alongside LCI-324. The Flotilla #4 medical officer, Lt. Cmdr. Romeo Gentile, of the U.S. Public Health Service, came aboard with Pharmacist Mate 3/c Samuel Ellis to treat the wounded. Later in the evening, Scheuerman and Radwanski were transferred to the British hospital ship HMHS St. David for treatment. However, Scheuerman’s wounds were too severe to treat and he was pronounced dead after arriving at a British field hospital.

In his ten months and 19 days in the Coast Guard, 19-year-old Seaman 1/c John Scheuerman commissioned a ship, sailed across the Atlantic, served on three continents, and saw combat in two invasions before being killed in action. His commanding officer, Lt. j.g Riley, would write his parents, “Your loss is shared by the Officers and Crew of this ship.  During Curtis’ service aboard this ship he was held in the highest esteem by all, that esteem having been won by his pleasing personality, high ideals, and devotion to duty.”  He was later posthumously awarded the Purple Heart Medal and Silver Star Medal for valor in combat. After the war, his remains were returned to the United States at the request of his mother and he was buried at Sunset Cemetery outside Columbus, Ohio.

Plaque dedicated to the Clintonville, Ohio, men lost in World War II. John Scheuerman is listed sixth from bottom, far right. (Courtesy of the Scheuerman family)

John Scheuerman’s courage and coolness under fire stands as an example to the men and women of the Coast Guard who still man their guns, determined to defend their shipmates and the allies of the United States. He is one of many distinguished combat heroes of the Long Blue Line and a Coast Guard Fast Response Cutter will soon be named in his honor.

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