An interview by David Venditta
Of The Morning Call
May 26, 2003
Edward W. McElduff's ship hit two mines on its way to the Normandy coast early on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The explosions hurled the 22-year-old Navy ensign from the charthouse to the deck below, smashing his back and neck into a rack of rifles and submachine guns.
He was seriously injured, and would be injured again.
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His experiences led him to become a Catholic priest after the war.
Now 81, retired and living in Palmerton, he will mark the 50th anniversary of his ordination on Friday.
Today, Memorial Day, McElduff remembers his role in World War II and his most traumatic moments. They came several weeks after D- Day, while his damaged LST, or landing ship tank, was moored at a small naval base in England.
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They had tied us up at a place called Deptford on the Thames River. It could only accommodate two ships. There was another LST alongside of us, so close you could step across to it.
The Germans were using buzz bombs, V-1 rockets, or "Doodlebugs." They were a frightening thing. You'd hear the engine roar, then it would suddenly stop, and you'd wait a couple of seconds, because that was when it was falling with its ton of explosives.
We were in what was called Doodlebug Alley, one of the bombs' major routes. They were dropping all around us, day and night, coming out of nowhere.
So this one night in July or early August, I was the only officer aboard, because I was the officer of the deck. The crew was in their quarters below.
The officer of the deck on the other ship had been in my Officer Candidate School class at Northwestern University. His name was John something, I can't remember.
It was about 11 and we were talking, and I said, "I'm gonna get a cup of coffee," and he said, "Well, I'm gonna check something," and he went to check it.
I had just left the galley, where I went for the coffee, when a buzz bomb dropped right on the aft part of John's ship. The blast blew me down a passageway about 30 feet, and I was reaching out to try to stop myself from going over the side. My back hit the railing, making my injury from D-Day worse. I grabbed onto the railing.
A fire started over the ammunition. I was badly hurt -- my spinal column is wrecked from that -- but I had to get the fire out. The crew was trapped down below, so I worked while they were freeing themselves. I got the hose unfurled and the water going, and by then the guys had cleared themselves out.
So they took over fighting the fire, and I went over to the other ship to see what I could do about casualties.
The captain was aboard that ship, but his quarters were pretty well blown open. I heard groaning and had to get some debris off him. I tried to pull him back, because I was afraid more debris was going to fall on him.
But I couldn't find any substance to him. The concussion was so much, his bones were shattered into small pieces. When I held him, it was like holding a soft mass.
He looked like a rubber man.
I didn't want him to die without someone there with him.
Within three minutes, he died in my arms.
The next thing I remember, I looked at the life raft on my ship and saw parts of my friend's body on it. I assumed it was John, because he had been standing with me and I hadn't seen anybody else.
I took my utility knife out and scraped his remains off of the life raft into a paper bag. Anything I could find of him, I put in the bag.
I didn't want to leave him on the raft.
Someone came up to help me, and I said, "No I'll do it, I want to do it myself."
What I intended to do with the remains, I don't know, probably drop them over the side. I might have done that. It would have been a logical thing. The rise and fall of the Thames River is rather remarkable, so the remains would have ultimately gone out to sea. That would have been appropriate.
But I had a great deal of pain, and I think it was overwhelming me.
After I got done scraping, I put the knife back in my belt.
And then I blacked out.
World of the man
I was scrappy when I was a kid. I had to be.
My dad was a career Navy man, so we moved around a lot. My mother and younger sister and I followed him all over the world -- Hawaii, the Philippines, Panama, the usual places where Navy families would go.
I went to about 12 or 13 grammar schools. Every year I was the new man on the block, so I was challenged, and I got in a lot of fights. When we lived in Norfolk, Va., at the naval base, one day I beat up the admiral's grandson, and my sister beat up the captain of the yard's daughter.
My dad was an Annapolis grad with a sideline: He wrote music. He sold material to Irving Berlin. Some of his music was recorded by Nelson Eddy. At Naval Academy football games, they still sing one of his numbers, a stirring little fight song.
Dad was loaded with talent. He played piano, he was a pilot, he was a deep-sea diver, he was a New York state gymnastic champion before he followed his brother into the academy, where he couldn't participate in sports because he was already a pro: He had played basketball with the original Celtics.
After he graduated, he met my mother in Philadelphia, where she was in supply work at the Navy Yard. She was in the first group of women ever to be enlisted in the Navy, back during World War I.
I was born in Manhattan. In school I was a fast sprinter -- held records on both coasts. After we moved to Brooklyn, I boxed for the Knights of Columbus.
When I was 15, a sophomore in high school, I wanted to get into the world of the man, so I said I was 17 and joined the New York National Guard. It was a horse outfit, the 101st Cavalry on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. I had to learn to ride, and well.
The horses were big and came from the West half-trained. We had to break them in to cavalry maneuvers, which wasn't easy. And because I was small and light, I jockeyed for I Troop when the various troops had horse races.
My dad used to kid me: "Who was in charge today, you or the horse?"
I've hated horses ever since. I don't want anything to do with them.
Trouble with an eye
After I graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., in 1940, I went to Long Beach Junior College.
My dad foresaw war with Japan. I don't know why the admirals or the politicians didn't. He told my mom in February of 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor: "We'll be at war with Japan. So if you want to stay here in California, fine, or you want to go back to your hometown of Philadelphia. But maybe you ought to do it reasonably soon."
Shortly after that, we did move to Upper Darby, outside Philadelphia.
I went to St. Joseph's University for a brief period, studying physics, and then the Naval Academy in the summer of '41. But I had trouble with my left eye. It wasn't 20-20, it was 18-20. That was a big no-no back then. I lasted only about five months because of my eye.
Then I enlisted in the Navy as a white hat, a sailor, and they sent me to Officer Candidate School. I got commissioned in '43 as an ensign. They gave us a preference sheet. I wanted to be in the Atlantic Fleet on a small ship, which means the amphibious force. That's where I wound up.
I was sent to a landing ship tank. LSTs were bigger than a destroyer. You could put a monster amount of material on their tank deck and on the upper deck. They were the kind of ship that won the war, because they provided all the supplies and all the men.
I picked up the ship in Boston, and we went to Little Creek in Virginia for shakedown. The total complement was nine officers and about 110 men.
We went over to Europe early in '43. I was navigator and small boat officer. We got ready for the big event, the invasion of France.
Wandering in Normandy
In the early morning darkness of June 6, 1944, LST 981 was carrying British Royal engineers and some American engineers to the beach. I was in the charthouse, one level up from the upper deck. There was a ladder going down.
The ship hit two mines under the surface, one right after the other. It was literally lifted right out of the water.
I was blown from the charthouse to the bottom of the ladder and into a gun rack with Thompson submachine guns and rifles. I was in excruciating pain.
When you're young, you think nothing is ever going to happen to you. It was always going to happen to the other guy.
I was thinking, "I couldn't believe this happened to me.'
We got towed back to England, and I went into a British naval hospital. The doctor pointed to the floor and said, "That's a spot for you, right there."
I'm seeing these guys without arms or legs or insides, and I said, I can't take this. So I left there.
I had a friend in town, and I stayed there and was nursed.
When I got back on my feet again, I decided I wanted to go over and see what the war looked like.
I had Army clothes and a helmet with "USN" on it. I would have looked exactly as if I was in the Army except for that. I hopped a ride across the channel, then I got on the so-called Red Ball Express, trucks that would run up to the front with supplies.
Nobody said a damn thing to me.
I wandered around Normandy on my own, slept by a hedgerow for three nights.
And I did meet up with some American troops, who viewed me with great suspicion, which I guess they had reason to do: What's a Navy man doing here?
I ran out of food. Some of the infantry guys I met supplied me with rations.
There was a sniper somewhere near where I was, and he fired at me about three times. Maybe it was a French civilian who didn't want to see us there. I fired a burst from a submachine gun, and he took off, or I hit him.
Then I figured, the hell with this, I'm going back. I've seen as much as I want to see.
I got a ride back to the beach in a truck, and I went back to the ship.
Miniature ships at Pearl
After the buzz bomb hit and I was hurt the second time, I went up to London and stopped at an American Army hospital. They gave me a shot and some painkillers.
Our LST was wrecked, it had no power. We were towed back to the States, across the Atlantic in tandem with another LST by a seagoing tug called the Choctaw. It took 37 days.
There were dead rats in our water, so it was contaminated, so we had no water. We got the desalinization machinery working enough to keep body and soul together.
We lived in filth. If you wanted to bathe, you had to throw a bucket over the side and just clean yourself off with sea water.
The British had given us some rations, which were horrible. A lot of it we had to throw over the side because it wasn't edible.
In New York, the ship was repaired. Then we went out to the Pacific, and that was kind of uneventful because the war had wound down.
My dad was in the Pacific, too, as captain of the attack transport USS Pickens. During the invasion of Okinawa, the assault commander's vessel was hit by a kamikaze, so my dad said, "This is no time to worry about who's got date of rank. My God, we've got to get these guys on the beach quick."
He took charge, and the landing was successful, for which he got the combat Legion of Merit, which is quite an award.
I left my ship in Guam because I was reassigned, and went to Pearl Harbor, where I worked in the plotting office at CinCPac -- Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. It was difficult for me, because of my back injuries. I had to climb up on a plot and crawl across it to move the miniature ships.
But I didn't want to be a wimp. I never wanted to be a wimp.
Giving the Lord a try
When I got back to the States, the war was over, and I didn't know what I was going to do. I volunteered for a cruise up to the Arctic on the Midway, which was a large carrier just built, for test- flight operations.
Up in the Arctic, I had a lot of time to think. It was boring, cold, and the days were long and dark, and I started to reflect.
When that buzz bomb hit, I was the only topside survivor. How come other guys died, and I didn't?
The Lord had saved me for something. He saved me, and he took care of me in so many other ways.
So I decided, I'm going to give the Lord a try. I decided to enter the seminary.
In the spring of '46, I came back and was discharged. My folks were in Upper Darby. My mother was pleased when I told her about my plans. My father thought I was crazy. He knew I wanted a family, a wife and children, and he said, "How are you going to live without them?" I said I'll try.
I went in the seminary, St. Charles Borromeo, within months. On May 30, 1953, I was ordained at the Cathedral of Ss. Peter & Paul in Philadelphia.
As a priest, I haven't moved around a lot. I've only been in about a half-dozen parishes in 50 years. I spent 20 years at St. Nicholas near Walnutport, and before that, 15 years at St. Richard's in Schuylkill County, halfway between Hometown and Mahanoy City.
I don't mind admitting I kind of hid from reality all these years, until I realized there are certain things that happen to you that you have to acknowledge -- good, bad or indifferent -- whether they're war experiences or anything else.
People would talk to me about World War II, and I didn't want to hear about it. That was history.
But I was only fooling myself partially, because I still suffer from a lot of flashbacks, a lot of bad memories. I couldn't escape everything. You can't when you live in a real world.
You can only run so far, so fast.
I've had a full life, I've missed absolutely nothing, and I'm grateful for that. I'm glad I am what I am, because I love this work.
I want the Lord to give me time so I can serve him and his people, as long as he wants. And I will do that. I want to walk with him. I don't want to be selfish. I don't want to hurt anybody.
I just want to walk with him.
McElduff received a long-overdue Purple Heart in 2000.
A shelf in his apartment holds a model of his LST, a model of a V- 1 rocket embedded with a chunk of metal from the buzz bomb that damaged his ship, and the knife he used to scrape his friend's remains off the life raft.
He has tried but had no luck finding John's last name.
His sister is Pat Garrahan.
Though retired and still pained by his war injuries, McElduff continues to "help out where I can" in the Allentown diocese, and helps the needy in Central America.
He is overseeing the work of charitable clinics in Guatemala and construction of an addition to a maternity hospital in Nicaragua. He raises money for these projects.
McElduff will say all of the Masses on Saturday and Sunday at St. Nicholas Church in Lehigh Township. He'll say the Mass marking his 50 years in the priesthood at 1 p.m. June 8, also at St. Nicholas. An informal reception at the church will follow.
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