Fletch Burton, hero of the D-Day landings
[By Theodore L. Bracken]
Born in Providence, RI on August 19, 1922, Fletcher P. Burton, Jr., also known as “Fletch,” was the youngest of four children and an only son. Her father was a coal merchant, and the family lived in a wealthy neighborhood of East Providence in a house with eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms.
During his early years, Fletch was a decorated track and field athlete who competed in strength events, including the shot put, discus, and hammer throw. In the hammer throw, he set the New England Prep School Track Meet record. Fletch attended Dartmouth College for a year, but enlisted in the Coast Guard in his second year after the outbreak of World War II.
After basic training, Fletch was assigned to USS LCI(L)-94 (Landing Craft Infantry/Large). He was a first-class sailor whose battle station was in the wheelhouse. The ship was a 158-foot troop carrier with a Coast Guard crew of four officers and 26 enlisted men.
LCIs were the smallest Allied seagoing vessels of World War II. The ship’s armament included four 20 millimeter cannons, with one forward, one amidships and two aft, as well as two .50 caliber machine guns. Crews joked that LCI stood for “Lousy Civilian Idea”.
The LCI ships were relatively large landing craft compared to the smaller wooden Higgins boats built in large numbers for the war. The 94 was built in Galveston, Texas in 1942 and in 1943 crossed the Atlantic from the Norfolk naval base to the Mediterranean where it was commissioned during the invasions of North Africa and Sicily. With its flat bottom, an LCI was designed to deliver troops directly to the beach. However, since there was no keel to keep the LCI stable while underway, even the slightest sea would rock it from side to side.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the 94 was part of Coast Guard Flotilla 10. LCI-94 mission was to land nearly 180 troops in the second wave of the assault. These men included 42 medically trained members of Company B, 104th Medical Battalion; 36 men from the 29th Military Police (MPs); and 101 soldiers from the 112th Combat Engineers. Initially, B Company’s job was to provide first aid and evacuate the first casualties on Omaha Beach. Deputies were to bring order to the chaos on the beaches, and engineers were to clear mines and help clear obstacles from assault routes.
The captain of 94 was 27-year-old Lt. Gene Gislason. Despite his relative youth, Gislason was a colorful person and an experienced sailor known affectionately by his crew as “Popeye”. Originally from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, his maritime career began on merchant ships on the Great Lakes. After joining the Coast Guard in 1942, he commanded the 94 during amphibious landings in North Africa, Sicily and Salerno, Italy.
Fletch’s shipmate, Charles Jarreau, a 19-year-old motor machinist from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, recounted the time leading up to the D-Day mission. Jarreau described Gislason’s unorthodox leadership style as as captain of the 94 and how Fletch and his shipmates spent their last hours on the LCI in Weymouth Bay before setting sail. According to Jarreau: “The captain’s rules were his rules, not the Navy’s. He didn’t like the rules of the navy.
Two days before the arrival of the soldiers aboard the 94Gislason said to Jarreau: “there is no one who will leave this ship [before D-Day], so you go get whatever booze you want and we’re going to have a party. The party, according to Jarreau, “started at 7 a.m. and boy, by the end of the day everyone was just pissed off, but that sure eased the tension. After a night’s sleep, we sobered up and started to embark troops, so thanks to his captain’s policies unlike those of the Navy, some of Fletch’s last hours were spent “tying one up” with his buddies before the D-Day race.
After the long and eventful journey across the English Channel, the flat-bottomed LCI approached the French coast. By this time most of the soldiers were seasick, a lot of vomiting in their helmets. At 07:15, as the ship approached the hostile beach, headquarters rang out as shrapnel and machine gun fire slammed against the ship’s hull and smoke poured from the burning ships they passed on the way to the landing site.
The 94 and her sister ships, LCI 91 and 92, approached Omaha Beach approximately 1,000 yards apart to the designated Dog Red area. Despite earlier shelling and shelling of the landing zone, the mines and obstacles remained largely intact.
At 7:40 a.m., the bow of the LCI-92 receives German fire. The enemy then hit the LCI amidships and it exploded. Those not killed instantly were thrown into the surf slick with hot oil and the German gunners raked them with machine gun fire.
LCI 91 was in the same area and as the vessel approached the beach it was hit by rifle and machine gun fire as it attempted to maneuver through obstacles. The 91 then struck a wicket mine and was hit by 88 millimeter bullets causing an explosion that lifted the 91 completely out of the water. A sheet of flames burst from the forward hold. Forty-one soldiers in the forward troop compartment were trapped in the fiery furnace and most killed instantly.
A damaged photo of the chaos on the Omaha Beach landing zone (USN)
Seeing all of this, it was clear that the same fate awaited his ship if it maintained the same course, so Gislason maneuvered his ship around many mined obstacles. Gislason turned east to a point between Dog Red and Easy Green beaches near Saint Laurent and Colleville-sur-Mer. At 7:45 a.m., 94 the troops were called to their beaching stations and two minutes later began wading towards the beach in shoulder-deep water with even heavier swells.
Many soldiers swam part of the way to shore, sometimes underwater. At this time, as the 94 was beached, three 88 millimeter artillery shells hit the LCI’s wheelhouse, killing Fletcher and two of his shipmates and wounding three others. The pharmacist comrades immediately set to work on those injured by the explosion in the wheelhouse.
Like the cripples 94 was about to leave the beachhead, famed Life Magazine photographer Robert Capa asked permission to board. He had landed on Omaha Beach with the second wave and waded back to the ship with his cameras overhead. Moments before Capa boarded, Fletch and his shipmates had been killed and one of Capa’s iconic photos captured medics on the ship’s deck tending to Fletch’s injured shipmates.
Due to the bombardments, the ship’s communications and steering were cut off and only one of the two screws worked. Another landing craft became entangled with a line from the 94. Moreover, even though the unloading of troops and their equipment had lightened the ship’s load, the crew still had great difficulty in freeing the ship from the sand. After sitting on the beach under heavy fire for 50 minutes, the damaged and inoperative harbor ramp was finally cut and the skipper was able to manually steer the vessel off the beach and back to his mother ship. Of the nine LCIs that successfully grounded on Dog Red that day, only four remained functional. In recognition of this action, Gislason was awarded the Silver Star Medal for outstanding leadership and seamanship during the landings.
The bodies of Fletch and his deceased shipmates were put aboard an LST with other wounded to be transported to the Coast Guard attack transport USS Samuel Chase. They were then buried on the beach before finally being reinterred at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. He was one of 15 Coast Guardsmen killed on D-Day.
This article appears courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Long Blue Line, and it can be found in its original form here.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.