Survivor recalls disastrous D-Day rehearsal

FREDERIC, Wis. - This week, as the Allies commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, there is one story from the invasion most people don't know.

It happened during the rehearsal, but the U.S. military kept it secret, long after the war.

In the waters off a peaceful stretch of beach in southern England, the U.S. military lost more lives practicing to land on Utah Beach than actually died there on D-Day.

Doug Harlander, now 94, was there. He was a 24-year-old ensign aboard an American landing ship called an LST.

April 28 was to be the full dress rehearsal.

"The middle of the night, it was 1:30, real dark," Harlander recalled.

Eight landing ships loaded with thousands of troops assembled in the bay. But in a major error, the convoy's well-armed escort ship was forced back to port for repairs.

Eight landing ships loaded with thousands of troops assembled off the southern coast of England on April 28, 1944, for a rehearsal of the D-Day invasion.
CBS News

German patrol boats spotted the LSTs and just after 2 a.m., the unprotected convoy came under fire. LST 507 was struck by the first torpedo.

"All I saw was the big flash," said Harlander. "All of a sudden it's on fire."

Minutes later, Harlander's ship was ripped apart by two torpedoes that struck in quick succession. It sank in about six minutes.

"I got in the water. The thing was cold, 44 degrees and that is cold, cold water," Harlander said. "I could move my elbow, my knees, but I couldn't move my fingers. They were just straight out."

Harlander hung onto a life raft for hours until a British ship fished him out of the water.

"They have me a cup of hot tea, but I couldn't hold the cup with my cold hands. I spilled more of it than I drank. It was still the best drink I ever had," he said.

He was among the lucky.

"I know so many people didn't get off the ship and I am sure there are many people on the ship now, dead," Harlander said.

All told, more than 700 died in the convoy.

Last month, hundreds gathered at a small beachside memorial to finally give those who died some measure of the honor they too deserve.

"Were we heroes?" said Harlander. "I don't think we were heroes - just doing our duty."

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.