Early Life and Basic Training

Patrolling the Coast of North Carolina

From New York to Great Britain

Invasion of Normandy

The End of the War and Leaving France

Returning Home and Leaving the Military

Service off Utah Beach

Curtis's Brothers and Reaction to Pearl Harbor


Providing Naval Gunfire Support for the Army

Unknowingly Used as a Minesweeper

Your Brother has been Captured


William Curtis was born in 1921 in a shack five miles outside of Hazlehurst, Mississippi in the Martinville Community. Curtis went through the eighth grade in Martinville then attended high school in Hazlehurst. Played football and ran track while in high school. He went to Copiah Lincoln Junior College but could not make enough money to pay off the first year's tuition so he had to borrow the money from the wife of a guy Curtis had once worked for. The next year he came up 25 dollars short again and had to go looking to borrow money again. He did not go back to the lady because she refused Curtis' attempts at paying her back. He went to the owner of a packing shed who was well known as a supporter of athletes. The shed owner took Curtis to the bank and signed a note for 25 dollars. He told Curtis to pay back the note and that way Curtis didn't owe him anything. After school, Curtis worked taking surveys of the road. He moved to Liberty, Mississippi and worked building Camp Van Dorn. He then moved to Fort Gibson when the survey company offered him a job. Curtis worked there until he was called to go into the service. He wanted to go in the Navy. His father had been in the Navy. He went to enlist in the Navy but the enlistment line was too long the first day he went so he decided to leave and return earlier the next day. When he got home he bumped into an old friend from school who was in uniform. The friend had joined the Coast Guard because every member of the Coast Guard goes to sea. Curtis got on a bus to New Orleans to join the Coast Guard. He signed up, took a physical, and was sworn in on 23 October 1942. He was not needed yet so he was sent home to wait to be called up. On 22 January 1943 Curtis received a note telling him to report to New Orleans for active duty. Curtis expected to go to boot camp in New Orleans so he packed light but was instead sent by train north to Curtis Bay, Maryland. That is where he went to boot camp. Had to put on all the clothes he had in order to keep warm but the recruits were quickly taken to the supply area to get their uniforms. Coast Guard regulation shoes were the first shoes Curtis ever wore that fit him right. While he was there all they did was march. They also did KP and walked guard duty. His guard duty was right on the edge of the base near the water and was very cold. Somehow the schedule got messed up and Curtis ended up on duty for two days straight. Curtis took six weeks of boot camp training.


From there [Annotator's Note: the United States Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland where William Curtis took his boot camp training] he was sent to Morehead City, North Carolina. On the beach was a surf station. Their job was to rescue anyone who is in danger just off the coast. Curtis rode horses for beach patrol most of the time. On his first night patrolling the beach alone Curtis was given five orders to follow. Curtis has forgotten some of them but knew that the first was to ensure that there were no lights in the village. While riding he spotted a light through an open window and tried to get the owner of the house to turn the light out. The man got sassy with him and refused to turn out the light. Curtis got one of the coast artillerymen stationed nearby to go with him. The man still refused to turn the light out. When Curtis joked that he was going to have to shoot the light out the artilleryman cocked his gun and then started searching the house. The man eventually offered to turn the light out if Curtis would get the artilleryman out of the house and it worked. After a couple of months in North Carolina Curtis was given ten days leave after which he transferred to Harkers Island, North Carolina and continued patrolling the beach. One day he was going into the beach in a little speed boat when he saw a man with three bodies on the beach. The man's wife, daughter, and the daughter's friend had stepped into deep hole and were unconscious. Curtis got onto the beach and got to work reviving the daughter. The girl felt cold and clammy and Curtis was certain that she was dead until she eventually jerked. The beach patrol from the surf station finally got there and relieved Curtis and the others and took the people to the hospital. Next morning Curtis went to the hospital but they had already been discharged. There were wild horses on the island that were beautiful. Curtis tried to corral one of the wild horses but it broke off and ran away. Curtis tried to chase after it with his crazy horse but his horse fell down and Curtis fell down as well, landing on his head. The fall made Curtis forget he was riding horses that day so he was sent to town to the hospital. He had suffered a severe concussion. The doctor ordered him to spend 17 days in a hospital bed. On the fourth night the doctors could not feel Curtis' pulse. After his 17 days in the hospital he was immediately assigned to a signal school in New York.


William Curtis departs for New York and heads for Manhattan Beach Training Station. Learned the alphabet in Morse Code and learned how to use the lights. Spent one hour a day doing exercise under Jack Dempsey [Annotator's Note: Jack Dempsey was a heavyweight champion boxer during the 1920s]. Curtis and his fellow guardsmen had to learn several martial arts. He spent two and a half months in signal school and was later sent to Little Creek, Virginia where he got on a ship called Coast Guard Cutter Number 3 which was designed to chase submarines. Both the Coast Guard and the Navy had destroyer escorts at Little Creek, both looking for submarines. Curtis spent about 30 days at Little Creek then got orders to go to New York. Three boats shipped out for New York. Curtis got out his flasher and started talking to the other two boats. He found out that a bad storm at Cape Hatteras made it impassible for small boats. One of the boats requested permission to go into port to wait out the storm. The captain refused to wait and made it into New York. The Coast Guard took everyone but the officers off the boat and shipped the enlisted men to Ellis Island. They had no contact with outside world while on Ellis Island. Curtis spent about three weeks taking some classes before getting orders to board the RMS Queen Mary for a journey to Scotland. He got to Scotland in three days and spent about a week there before being sent to London. In London, Curtis spent about a month doing nothing. He then transferred to the Thames River where a Coast Guard cutter was waiting. Six cutters were modified into a rescue flotilla for the Normandy invasion. Two Merchant Marine captains imbedded with Curtis' unit. Curtis witnessed the building of enormous concrete blocks but had no idea what they were for. They went to the small port of Bournemouth and stayed there about five weeks. They then got orders to go to Southampton, England. There, they met up with some Marines. Curtis spent his days in Southampton going from ship to ship and meeting people. On the fifth day they couldn't leave the boat. Armed guards made sure no one could leave.


At about nine that night, the captain told William Curtis and the rest of the crew to put their gas gear on and they set sail without the crew knowing where they were going. Finally, they pulled up alongside an LST [Annotator's Note: Landing Ship, Tank] When they got to the invasion area they left the LSTs and joined a group of rocket ships and went in with them. After the rocket ships fired their rockets and left the area they went out to a ship that was transporting DUKWs [Annotator's Note: an amphibious cargo truck]. A DUKW could carry 12 men and explosives. The first DUKW to hit the water capsized and 11 men surfaced but the driver never made it up. Eight of the men swam back to the boat but three were injured. Curtis jumped into the water and pulled the three injured men back onto the boat's scramble net. The cutter's role was to lead the DUKWs to shore. That is what they did all day long. The English had barrage balloons on all of their ships attached to 1,000 feet cables. Lightning would strike the balloons and burn the cable all the way to the ship. Curtis saw three ships struck this way during the storm on the first day of the invasion [Annotator's Note: the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, D-Day]. On the second day, Curtis was volunteered to be the signal man. He spent most of the second day directing LSTs into the slips they were assigned to. Curtis occasionally forgot letters but the day proceeded without much difficulty. He spent much of the third day doing the same thing. They had a radio which linked them to the naval gunfire spotters ashore that could not be left unattended. In the first days, the ships would act as artillery. One day, while working the radio, a request for fire came in and the cutter opened fire. They scored hits on the emplaced guns but didn't do any damage to it. Then, the cruiser USS Philadelphia (CL-41) came in and fired on the gun position. The Philadelphia fired five turrets and obliterated the emplaced battery. Later, Curtis witnessed a Coast Guard cutter come under fire from a shore battery and narrowly avoided being struck. Throughout their time on station they rescued men and took care of the DUKWs. Curtis’s cutter was supposed to spend ten days off the Normandy coast but their relief didn't come so they spent ten more days there. One day they were assigned to pick up a British Rear Admiral off of a cruiser. The Admiral was assigned to survey the ships along the coast to make sure everything was working properly. They found a ship that had been torpedoed and went aboard to make sure there was nothing sensitive that needed to be recovered. They did not find anything so they decided to go down to the British beaches. Once they went searching for a submarine but could not find it. They heard a report that bodies with explosives tied to them were being sent into Le Havre but they never did find any. They ran errands for about a week while waiting for the relief to arrive. They could not get supplies from the Army or the Navy. They were forced to eat whatever was on the boat. By this point the only thing left was pears. After two days the captain said they were headed back to base whether they were relieved or not. The captain called an LST who was willing to feed them pancakes but the British had already stolen all of their forks and spoons. After that the ship returned to Bournemouth.


The skipper went ashore [Annotator's Note: in Bournemouth, England] and went to headquarters but told William Curtis and the rest of the crew nothing about why they had not relieved. They cleaned up the boat and resupplied everything and after about ten days received orders to pick up Admiral Waesche [Annotator's Note: Admiral Russell R. Waesche, Sr.], the Commandant of the Coast Guard. Waesche and two captains came aboard and wanted to go to Cherbourg. The officers and several non commissioned officers went down to lunch and Curtis took the wheel with orders to maintain present course. The ship went over a wave and Curtis saw timbers right in the path of the ship. He made a quick turn to get around the timbers then returned to his course. This happened several times and the maneuver rocked the boat quite badly. Some seamen went up on deck and told Curtis to keep the boat steady because the admiral was eating lunch. Before he could explain he was forced to dodge another group of timbers. After this time the chief boatswain's mate came to the bridge and saw what Curtis was doing. They finally arrived in Cherbourg and dropped off the admiral and two captains and did not see them anymore. A major came and spoke with the skipper asking him to take the boat down a canal at full speed, turn around, and come back at full speed. Curtis took the wheel for this exercise. After returning, the major revealed that he had used the cutter to see if there were any mines in the canal. The next day they went back to their base at Bournemouth. Then they got orders to go to Le Havre, France. The harbor was surrounded by walls with only one way in. The Germans had sunk a ship at the entrance to the harbor and the French had been unable to raise it. They had towed it so ships could pass between it in the wall. Le Havre had two harbormasters, one American and one French. Curtis spent three weeks leading ships into the harbor until they got orders to go to Rouen, France. They were to maintain a radio control. The harbor at Rouen was not very big. The three cutters could not all fit in the harbor so one would be moored in the harbor, one would be at the mouth of the Seine River and the third would be about halfway between the other two. The only exciting thing to happen was when they had to put in for rations for 24 people aboard three cutters. The Army assumed a mistake had been made and shipped them rations for 240 people. They spent about two and a half months in Rouen. There were no more ships coming up so they were sent back to Le Havre to work with the port captains. They spent six or seven months leading ships into Le Havre harbor. The ships were primarily troop transports heading back to the United States. One day Curtis saw troops coming up one ramp and Germans going up another ramp. Curtis later found out that the Germans were the rocket scientists that settled in Huntsville, Alabama. The scientists had worked on the buzz bomb [Annotator's Note: German V1 Flying Bomb]. The scientists preferred to go with the American than the Russians. Curtis got access to his 201 file [Annotator's Note: a 201 file is a file kept by the government containing the information of the members of the armed forces.] Shortly thereafter Curtis was sent home.


William Curtis packed up his stuff and went to the naval base. He reported to Coast Guard section officer there who offered to get him on a ship. After a few days Curtis was assigned to the Thomas H. Berry [Annotator's Note: USAT Thomas H. Berry, a United States Army Transport]. The ship was full so Curtis ended up bunking in the brig. The brig was right over the machines that controlled the rudder so it was loud and shook violently. Curtis tied his cot to a post to make it stop shaking. Instead it would go up and down. It took nearly a month for them to get back to Boston. After arriving in Boston, he was sent to New York on a train. He was then sent to Ellis Island. He did not have anything to do except report in every other day. This went on for a month. Finally, he was ordered to report to a Coast Guard base in New York for one day and from there he was sent to New Orleans. When he got to the Coast Guard base in New Orleans an officer tried to get Curtis to reenlist. He was offered a promotion to Signalman 1st Class but turned it down. Curtis was discharged and returned to Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He had turned down the promotion to first class signalman because he discovered in his 201 file that he had red-green color blindness and was suitable for work only below deck.


One day, William Curtis [Annotator's Note: aboard a ship off Normandy] watched a German plane come in dropping bombs on the invasion fleet. Luckily, the plane ran out of bombs before he reached Curtis' ship. At night the Germans would send a plane out and all the ships would fire their antiaircraft guns. One night they received orders to not fire back. That night, Curtis heard a plane fire and saw another plane burst into flames. An American P-38 [Annotator's Note: Lockheed P-38 Lightening fighter aircraft] had shot down a German plane. It was the first time a plane shot down another plane using radar. During the invasion they patrolled along Utah Beach for the most part. They helped the Army troops get to shore in the DUKWs [Annotator's Note: amphibious trucks]. Curtis only saw one of the DUKWs flip over. Only the British ships had barrage balloons on them. Six Coast Guard cutters made up the section Curtis was in [Annotator's Note: Rescue Flotilla 1]. The Coast Guard apparently only showed up right before the invasion as a sergeant in a barroom made a crack that it was time to invade when he saw Curtis' uniform. The timbers Curtis had to avoid in the English Channel would have torn his 83 foot boat up. When Curtis returned to Boston he was on a boat full of Army soldiers. The Coast Guardsmen did not mix with the soldiers and the soldiers did not mix with the Coast Guardsmen. Curtis left Le Havre on 4 November 1945 and was discharged 4 March 1946. He had been in the service for three years, four months, and 13 days. When Curtis was off the coast of Normandy he watched as the ships had to wait for the beach to be cleaned up so they could go in. They men in the DUKWs were going in with explosives to clear the beach. Curtis’s boat could get in pretty close to the beach, into about six feet of water, but he was never near enough to be able to see how bad things were on the beach. The Navy built a pontoon that ran all the way in to the beach. When they were building the harbor Curtis got a little closer to shore but still never saw the bodies of the soldiers stacked up on the beach. At dawn, Curtis looked over the invasion fleet and could not see either end. The line of bombers over head was almost unbroken from England to France. Enemy shore batteries never hit Curtis' ship but he did hear shells hit the water close by. Curtis did not have a bad time during the invasion. He recalls just going blank and going about his business. The cutter he was on, CG2, had a wooden hull and a 12 man crew. Only the skipper, the first class boatswain’s mate and first engineer had quarters, the rest had folding spring bunks. Curtis got along well with everybody except the first class boatswain’s mate. The skipper showed Curtis how to land the boat. Curtis felt good about his boat handling skills. One day after the boatswain’s mate went in too quickly Curtis jokingly offered to show him how it is done. From then on there was a rift between the two of them.


William Curtis did not keep up with the other men on his boat after the war except the boatswain’s mate. He worked at a bank in Boston and would talk to the men about fishing. He moved to California and became a farmer after the war. Curtis had two brothers who were also in the war. He was unable to talk to his brother who was in the Army because he was a prisoner of war. His other brother was in the Navy serving on the carrier USS Hornet (CV-12). He would send Curtis copies of the ship’s paper that would let Curtis know he was alright. That was the only time he had contact with his brother during the war. Curtis found out from his mother that his brother had been captured. His brother had been shot in the leg and shot in the throat. He was captured seemingly out of pity and brought to a hospital. The following day doctors and nurses spent much of a day just looking in his mouth. Finally, a doctor who could speak English explained that they were all looking at his teeth. None of them had ever seen such a perfect set of teeth before. Curtis’s brother was an infantryman in the 83rd Infantry Division. He was captured shortly after his division jumped off into combat. Curtis believes that he never even fired his rifle. Curtis got back to Mississippi on a Wednesday. The following Monday he was back at his old job as a surveyor for the highway department. He does not believe the war changed him in anyway. Curtis was at Copiah Lincoln [Annotator's Note: Copiah Lincoln Junior College] when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Many of the students dropped their studies right away and joined up but he wanted to finish school so he waited. He did not understand what it meant at the time. The day the war in Europe ended, everyone aboard left except Curtis. He decided to stay aboard. He went to the next boat and found no one aboard on that or the other boat tied to the dock. The chief boatswain’s mate had been run over during the partying and cracked his pelvis bone.


William Curtis believes that people should study World War 2 in the future because it is part of history. Curtis did not talk about the war after he came home. His brothers did not talk about what they saw either. One day Curtis and his brother were out hunting when his brother showed him where he had been shot. The German doctors had taken good care of him. Before this oral history, Curtis had never told his full story to anyone. Curtis has his discharge papers from Hazlehurst but they only show his location for every six months or so. They did not show many of the stops that he made during his time in service. He had to recall many of the dates and places on his own. [Annotator's Note: Someone present expresses his shock that the government could keep track of 16 million people in uniform all around the planet in an age before computers.] The mail took about a week to reach Curtis when someone wrote to him. Curtis does not have any regrets about his military service. After the war Curtis took a test to get his government driving license. He failed the test completely because he is color blind. Instead he worked laying out a course up the Yazoo River. To do so, Curtis got a survey party to help him mark off the distances. The survey party used piano wire and red flags to mark the boundaries and starting points.

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