BM1 William A. Bleyer, United States Coast Guard
[Editor’s note: This article was inspired by a story written by PAC Matthew R. Schofield for Coast Guard Magazine in 2010.]
“We were sitting ducks and the Germans clearly had us in their sights.“
Steward’s Mate 2nd Class John Noble Roberts, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve
The most iconic photograph from D-Day is titled “Into the Jaws of Death,” which was shot by Coast Guard combat photographer, Chief Petty Officer Robert Sargent, from a landing craft approaching the beaches of Normandy. The picture’s name is horrifically apt as the morning of June 6, 1944, found Steward’s Mate 2nd Class John Noble Roberts and the crew of USS LCI(L)-93 (a.k.a. LCI-93) running into that hotly-contested piece of French shoreline.
John Roberts was born in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, on November 1, 1924. He was the oldest of 15 children whose parents were cotton farmers. He was working as a clerk at a grocery store and a waiter at the Silver Moon Night Club in Alexandria, Louisiana, when he was drafted into the Coast Guard.
Roberts attended Coast Guard basic training at Curtis Bay, Maryland, from June to July 1943, and then headed to St. Augustine, Florida, for Steward’s Mate training. In January 1944, he embarked a troop transport destined for the European Theater. On January 27th, he disembarked in England and was assigned to Coast Guard-manned LCI-91. He later transferred to Coast Guard-manned LCI-93 under the command of Lt.j.g. Budd Bornhoft.
LCI-93 was a new kind 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 phonetic alphabet, LCIs were unusual-looking ships—only 158-foot long with a square conning tower jutting up from the after portion of the vessel. Essentially, they were small troop transports that could land troops on hostile beaches.
LCI-93 had seen action in the Allied invasions of the North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Now, with Roberts on board, LCI-93 would sail with the joint U.S. Navy-Coast Guard Flotilla 10 for Operation Neptune, the naval operation supporting Operation Overlord–the Allied assault on Nazi-occupied France.
As an African American, Roberts had experienced discrimination throughout his life. And, even though the United States military would not fully desegregate until 1948, cracks in its segregationist policies appeared during World War II. The Coast Guard led the way in having integrated crews on its ships and Roberts got along well with his shipmates.
The feature film “Saving Private Ryan” has allowed the world to comprehend the carnage that was Omaha Beach on D-Day. This was the reality faced by LCI-93 that morning. Awaiting LCI-93 at its sector of Omaha Beach, designated “Easy Red,” were layers of beach obstacles, mines, machine gun bunkers with interlocking fields of fire, and pre-registered enemy artillery. Manned by capable German troops, including some battle-tested men, these fortifications had escaped significant damage from Allied air and naval bombardment.
LCI-93 made its first D-Day run to shore at 9:45 a.m. with Roberts manning his battle station as an emergency messenger. Roberts’s combat role would be vital to shipboard communications if the LCI’s sound-powered phone system failed. When LCI-319 approached Easy Red beach, heavy German artillery and machine gun fire covered it with dead and wounded. The landing vessel ground over beach obstacles and the crew dropped ramps on either side of the bow sending into the fray 200 soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division (a.k.a. “Big Red One”). One soldier was caught shirking in the crew’s quarters and Roberts escorted him up to the bridge to face Lt.j.g. Bornhoft. Soon after, LCI-93 recovered wounded soldiers, backed off the beach, and steamed to the Coast Guard-manned transport USS Samuel B. Chase to embark more troops.
It was during LCI-93’s second run to Easy Red beach that everything went to hell. On final approach, the LCI hit a mine and the explosion damaged the engine room. German artillery and machine gun fire peppered the ship as soldiers scrambled to disembark. Survivors from LCI-487, beached 100 yards away and badly damaged, began running and swimming through the heavy fire to climb aboard. Observing that men were abandoning LCI-487, the Germans concentrated their fire on LCI-93.
On the bridge, Lt.j.g. Bornhoft realized he had to get his ship off the beach before it was blown to pieces. Communications with the engine room had been knocked out, so Bornhoft ordered Roberts to relay a message below. Roberts later described what happened next:
“I was taking a message from the skipper down to the engine room; he told me to go down and tell them to rev the engines up so we can try and get off. I didn’t make it down to the engine room; a shell came through the bulkhead and exploded right underneath me. I knew I’d lost my leg before the medic got to me. The foot was gone, all the muscle, just the skin and bone hanging from my knee down; and my other leg was burning like I was in a fire or something. I thought I wouldn’t make it.“
Coast Guard Pharmacist Mate Charles Midgett and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Francis Abbott found Roberts severely wounded in both legs. They quickly applied a tourniquet to what was left of his right leg, saving his life. Abbott stayed with Roberts when he was evacuated by boat with other casualties to USS Doyle, a destroyer that had come keel-scrapingly close to the beach to blast German positions with pointblank gunfire.
Meanwhile, German guns continued to target LCI-93 with artillery shells blowing holes in the bow and wounding several more crewmembers. The tide had receded, leaving the ship high and dry. After hours of punishment, the survivors were evacuated by boat to the Doyle and destroyer USS Emmons. LCI-93 was a total loss, along with three other Coast Guard-manned LCIs from Flotilla 10.
Roberts was shipped back to England where he underwent surgery and was awarded the Purple Heart Medal for combat wounds. His right leg had to be amputated above the knee and he received further medical treatment at naval hospitals in Charleston and Philadelphia. In January 1945, after recovering his health and receiving a prosthetic leg, he was honorably discharged from the Coast Guard.
After his discharge, Roberts settled in Los Angeles, California. There, he started a business developing prosthetic limbs and orthotic devices to improve the quality of life for other amputees. In addition to his Purple Heart Medal, he received from the French government the prestigious Légion d’Honneur medal in 2010 for his role in liberating France from Nazi German occupation.
John Noble Roberts was proud of his Coast Guard service. He passed away in November 2017 at the age of 93. He was one of many distinguished Coast Guard combat heroes of the long blue line.