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Opening Omaha Beach: Ensign Karnowski and NCDU-45

By Dr. Frank Blazich, Jr., Historian, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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Omaha Beach, afternoon of June 6, 1944. In the background are examples of the beach obstacles which confronted the men of GAT-10. The wooden poles frequently had German Teller mines wired to them intended to impale and then detonate on the hulls of landing craft. Just forward of the poles are a few steel Czech hedgehogs. Courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives

During the invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, a select number of Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officers and Seabees in Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs) numbered among the first Americans ashore to clear the beaches for the ensuing infantry assault. One of these CEC officers, 28-year-old reservist, Ensign Lawrence Stephen Karnowski, Tampa, Kan., would be awarded the Navy Cross for his valor that day amid the bloodstained sands of Omaha Beach.

In early 1944, as part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defenses, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel ordered the placement of countless beach obstacles along the French coast to prevent landing craft and tanks from safely coming ashore. These obstacles ranged from steel tetrahedrons (dubbed “Czech hedgehogs”), to wooden posts with landmines attached, to large steel fences affectionately called “Belgian Gates.” All could destroy the hulls of landing craft or block entryways onto the beach.  The Allied invasion could not succeed without first clearing the beaches of these obstacles, minimizing the exposure of infantry from debarkation to reaching defilade. Mechanical means of obstacle clearance proved inadequate. The only other alternative was to use men trained in demolitions to clear obstacles by hand while under fire.

In the fall of 1943, Allied planners turned to the untried NCDUs to clear the beaches for Operation OVERLORD. First established in May 1943, the units consisted of one officer and five ratings to constitute a single boat crew. Due to the vast number of obstacles along the Normandy beaches, the planners reinforced the NCDUs with three additional seamen and five Army combat engineers. This 13-man naval unit joined with a 26-man Army combat engineer detachment, together comprising a Gap Assault Team (GAT). A total of 11 GATs were created and then divided into Force O (Omaha Beach) and Force U (Utah Beach). Allied planners tasked the GATs in both forces with the following: land at 0633 (H-Hour plus three minutes), then clear a 50-yard gap from the low-water mark across 300 yards of sand and mud to the high-water line of rocks and pebbles (shingle) on their respective beach sector using satchel charges. The NCDU half of the GAT would handle seaward obstructions, while the larger Army engineer force would clear the landward obstacles.

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NCDU-45, December 1943, prior to shipping out for England, left to right, front to back: Conrad C. Millis, Corona, Calif., killed in action; Lawrence S. Karnowski, Tampa, Kan.; Gale B. Fant, Minter City, Miss., wounded in action; Lester J. Meyers, Freeport, Ill., wounded in action; Robert L. Svendsen, Long Island, New York; and Clarence J. Hopper, Osseo, Minn.

Ens. Karnowski was the officer in charge of NCDU-45. A 1943 civil engineering graduate of the University of Kansas, he was commissioned in the Naval Reserve soon after and began his training at Camp Peary in June. Volunteering for naval demolition work together with two Seabees who would join his team, Chief Carpenter’s Mate Conrad C. Millis, Corona, Calif., and Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Lester J. Meyers, Freeport, Ill., Karnowski left Camp Peary and moved to Amphibious Training Base, Fort Pierce, Fla., for combat demolition training with NCDU-45 before shipping out to England in January 1944. Upon arrival in March, NCDU-45 was assigned to the 6th Beach Battalion, 11th Amphibious Force in Cornwall, England. From late April to early May, additional Sailors and Soldiers arrived to reinforce NCDU-45.

 After weeks of training, NCDU-45 moved to the English port of Portland and boarded a landing craft tank (LCT) on June 3, 1944. First Lieutenant Joseph J. Gregory, Elko, Nev., commanding the Army engineer force, joined the Navy unit and together the assembled force comprised GAT-10. Hours later, all the NCDU officers went aboard the USS Anson to be briefed by Lt. Cmdr. Joseph H. Gibbons and Rear Adm. John L. Hall Jr., about their assignment. Assured that a pre-invasion naval bombardment would clear the beaches and overlooking bluffs, Rear Adm. Hall proclaimed, “Not a living soul would be left on that beach.” Neither Karnowski nor 1st Lt. Gregory shared this sentiment.

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Drawn from memory weeks after D-Day, Karnowski sketched out the size of the areas cleared of obstacles, together with the times and locations of the shots detonated. Also indicated is the landing craft that carried GAT-10 to the sector, and the ensuing craft that disgorged vehicles and infantry to the beach. Courtesy of U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

For the next three nights and two days, the men endured rough sea conditions aboard the LCT as bad weather postponed the invasion. Cold and wet, often forced to sleep exposed on awash decks with poor rations, contaminated drinking water and a bucket for a head, the men waited for their rendezvous with destiny. Once word reached the team that H-Hour was set for D-Day, June 6, a grim reality settled over the men. Boarding a smaller mechanized landing craft (LCM) in the early hours of the sixth, the Sailors and Soldiers sighted their assigned beach sector and headed for shore.

Landing eight minutes ahead of schedule at 0625 hours on the beach sector code-named “Easy Red,” Karnowski led his team as they disembarked and began placing small satchel charges on the obstacles in the water. With minimal enemy resistance, they successfully blew a 100-yard line of obstacles at 0650. Almost immediately after Karnowski’s men fired their first shot, German machine guns and artillery zeroed in on the group from the bluffs above. Refusing to remain pinned down, CUC Millis grabbed a roll of primacord and sprinted from obstacle to obstacle, placing and wiring charges before being cut down. MM2 Meyers raced out to the chief’s body and continued his deadly work for a second shot. As American infantry waded past the NCDU men, Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Gale B. Fant, Minter City, Miss., took a machine gun round through his leg, and then a piece of shrapnel wounded Meyers. Another unit member, Brooklyn-native Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Robert L. Svendsen carried GM1 Fant on his back to the dune line as Karnowski waded out and rescued another wounded unit member, carrying him to higher ground.

At 0700, thanks to Millis’s sacrifice and Meyers’s quick actions, Karnowski’s men detonated their second shot and cleared obstacles up Gregory’s 26-man force. The Army engineers proceeded to detonate their first shot at 0710 and a second shortly thereafter, clearing almost the entire assigned 50-yard gap of steel hedgehogs from the surf to the dunes. Karnowski and his remaining men had begun placing charges for a third shot but advancing infantry precluded detonation.

By now, Karnowski and Gregory stood in water up to their knees in the rising tide. For the last few obstacles in the gap, the officers swam out and together cleared the remaining obstructions one charge at a time. With the gap open, landing craft infantry (LCI) moved in to unload fresh troops. Karnowski and Gregory rounded up the remaining Navy and Army personnel, and led them to the dunes for protection from increasing shelling. A short time later, a shell burst and severely wounded Gregory. Sailor treated Soldier, but the wounds proved fatal. (Gregory posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross.) Returning to his men, Karnowski learned four of his assigned Army personnel sustained shrapnel injuries. Exhausted, the ensign dug foxholes for his wounded while members of the 16th and 116th Regimental Combat Teams, 1st Infantry Division began to assault the bluffs overlooking Easy Red between 0730 and 0830, clearing them of German resistance by 0930.

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Karnowski receiving his Navy Cross, Advance Base Depot, Port Hueneme, Calif., January 1945. Courtesy of U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

For his actions on June 6, 1944, Karnowski was awarded the Navy Cross, the first CEC officer to receive the medal for actions in Europe, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. For his heroism that morning, Meyers received the Silver Star. The entire NCDU component of Force “O” received one of three Presidential Unit Citations awarded to the Navy for D-Day. Such honors, however, came at a bitter price. Navy personnel suffered a casualty rate of 52 percent on June 6, 1944, with 31 dead and 60 wounded. NCDU-45 suffered a casualty rate of more than 50 percent, with one killed, one seriously wounded and five slightly wounded.

Postwar, Karnowski remained in the CEC Reserve and served on active duty during the Korean War. He later served for the deputy public works officer, 11th Naval District, before joining the Bureau of Yards and Docks and its successor, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. For his work in Thailand during the Vietnam War, Karnowski received the Southeast Asia Civilian Service Award. He retired at the rank of Commander in the Naval Reserve, and died on March 29, 1992, in El Cajon, Calif.

During World War II, Karnowski, NCDU-45 and GAT-10 managed to clear the largest gap along Omaha Beach. This enabled Army engineers to transform Exit E-1 at Easy Red into the principle egress off Omaha Beach, ensuring an American foothold at the bloodiest invasion beach on D-Day.

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Facsimile of the Navy Cross citation, as issued to Karnowski, December 1944. Courtesy of U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

 

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