The tiny craft were nicknamed rocket boats, but the young sailor who liked almost nothing more than reading comic books thought he heard “rocket ships” and volunteered. Who wouldn’t want to set off in a rocket ship, even on a dangerous mission? Besides, Seaman 2nd Class Lawrence Peter Berra, from St. Louis, was bored.
Months before, just after his 18th birthday, his hometown selective service board had notified him that he would soon be drafted. Berra had just recently begun playing baseball for the Norfolk, Va., Tars in the Class B Piedmont League, and he was concerned that his first professional season was about to be truncated. Shrewdly, he asked his draft board to transfer his paperwork to Norfolk, and the gambit worked. The papers took months to arrive in Virginia, and Berra finished the season with the Tars, batting .253 in 111 games.
During the summer, the team played an exhibition game at Naval Station Norfolk. Berra spoke with the manager of the station team, who said that if Berra enlisted, he would try to get him assigned to the station where he could play ball. After the season, Berra passed his physical in Richmond and joined the Navy. He endured six weeks of basic training, but a summons from Norfolk never came.
After a short trip home, Berra went to Little Creek, Va., for amphibious training. That’s when he encountered the rocket boats — named Landing Craft Support, or LCS, 36 feet long, carrying a crew of one officer and five seamen, and armed with twin .50-caliber machine guns, two .30-caliber machine guns, 48 rockets, and a dozen smoke pots for deception. “I didn’t think about it being dangerous,” Berra remembered. “I was sick of hanging around all day. I wanted to be doing something.” And he did, learning to fire one of the boat’s machine guns.
After further training, the crew joined a convoy off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and sailed across the Atlantic. Eventually they reached Plymouth, England, where Berra and his mates waited. Soon, they knew, it would be D-Day.
For Larry Berra, already sometimes called Yogi, the Atlantic voyage was a distant mirror of the trips his parents had taken several decades earlier. Berra was the son of Italian immigrants. His father, Pietro, had arrived in the United States in 1909, eventually settling in the St. Louis working-class neighborhood called the Hill.
At some point, Pietro Berra saved enough money to return home to escort a young woman named Paolina Longoni to America.
Remembering his perilous trip across the Atlantic aboard LST 492, Berra called it “awful. You would lie in your bunk and think what would happen if you hit a mine or were hit by a torpedo. … We were cannon fodder. I can now understand why old men send young men to war.” In fact, German U-boats did attack the 80-ship convoy on its way from Halifax and sank two tankers. Once the LCS crews arrived in England, the sailors knew they would soon take part in Operation Overlord, the massive Allied invasion of northern France destined to liberate Western Europe from the grasp of Hitler’s Germany.
Very early on the morning of June 6, 1944, their crew and several others boarded the Bayfield, an attack-class Coast Guard transport that carried them and their boats toward the Normandy coast. At 4:30 a.m., the rocket boats were lowered over the side and, in Berra’s words, “expendable as hell, we headed for Omaha Beach.” The rocket boats’ mission was to rendezvous with other boats near the coast and then head west toward Utah Beach.
“We had maps showing where the German machine gun emplacements were,” Berra said. “Our job was to let them have it with rockets so that the GIs on LCVPs [Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel] following us would have a better chance making it onto the beach.” As the rocket boats approached the beach, one launched a test firing to see if they were close enough to the shore. “Then we all joined in,” Berra said, “and it was like nothing I had ever seen before in my life.”
Steven P. Gietschier is an associate professor of history at Lindenwood University and the editor of “Replays, Rivalries, and Rumbles: The Most Iconic Moments in American Sports.”