Innerviews: Two-war veteran still haunted by memories
Seventy years later, he still gets teary when he recalls the young seaman hollering for help, screaming that he didn’t want to die. He did, of course. Nine men froze to death that awful night in the frigid ocean when their landing craft sank on the way to Normandy.
Their anguished faces haunt him still.
In 1944, he landed a desk job in London, a lucky break in a time of gross misfortune.
Ralph Sigman, of Ripley, a Widen native, turned 90 in June. He remembers the war as if he were 19 again, back there clinging to that raft for dear life.
His life was interrupted not once, but twice, by war. In 1950, as a member of the Reserves in Huntington, he was called to Korea.
He earned 12 medals; six in World War II, six in Korea.
A grateful survivor, he appreciates the opportunity he had to serve. But those were different wars, different times. He’s not so sure he would feel the same way today.
“I grew up in Widen, a typical mining town. I spent the first 12 years of my life in a four-room house with an outhouse, no running water. It was primitive, but we got by. My dad was a railroad conductor. He got a promotion, and we moved into a house with running water and a bathroom. We were in heaven.
“I wanted to go to college, which I didn’t achieve. I graduated in 1942, a perilous time. In ‘43, I was drafted. I was accepted for duty in the Navy. I went to amphibious training in Little Creek, Virginia. I wound up in a gunfire support group. It was sort of secretive. It was planned by the British. They came to us at Christmas and said we had a special assignment. We had a five-day leave and then we were going to Europe.
“Our group had never had any training on this type of landing craft. It was a 109-foot landing craft. They had leased these to the British and the British had used them in Africa and Italy. We took them over and none of us were familiar with it.
“We were in Scotland at a naval base waiting for the LSTs to be outfitted. I was as an engineman. I took care of the main propulsion engines and generators. I had to start from the bottom and learn.
“We went from Dartmouth, England, to Portland Weymouth, and that’s when we knew we were going to be part of the invasion. It was scheduled for the 5th of June, and they had to delay it because of the worst storm that had hit the English Channel in 40 years. We went out about four hours to join this convoy and got orders to turn around. The next night, they said we were going. Eisenhower decided you either had to do it or not.
“They didn’t call it Normandy. The code name was Overlord for all four beaches. We had the brunt of it at Omaha and Utah beaches, of course. I was only 19. I wasn’t scared until later.
“The trip was our downfall. That was the worst storm, and these crafts were not really equipped for sea duty. We sank. I was on the first landing craft lost on Normandy. We were in the water about four and a half hours.
“There were approximately 5,000 ships and landing craft in this convoy. We hadn’t even gotten to the transport area when we lost one of our engines due to flooding in the engine room. We finally lost our other two engines and were sitting dead in the water and had to drop out of the convoy. They left us sitting there by ourselves. We were dispensable.
“About 4:30 a.m., the situation was really dire. We were carrying a battalion, three tanks to hit the beach in Normandy, but we didn’t get them in there.
“It was cold in that water. There were 22 of us clinging to a raft. Four had made it to a rubber boat. An elderly fellow, probably 25 to 30, had this kid, McPherson, only 18 years old, and they couldn’t get to the raft, and he stayed with him all the time. McPherson was one of the boys who died. We were picked up by a British mine sweep about 9 a. m.
“Out of the 27 men who were there, nine had passed away, seven from exposure to the cold. I prayed a little. I had a lot of confidence. I kept telling those guys, with all these ships around here, somebody is going to find us.
“I had men on each side of me, the skipper and a boy by name of Siebart. They both died on the ramp. In maybe 20 or 30 minutes, I would have passed away. My legs were getting numb and that’s one of the symptoms of freezing to death.
“McPherson, he was yelling, ‘I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!’ The older fellow held on to him. When they picked us up, he still had hold of McPherson, his body.
“The boy Siebart and I had become good friends. He was from Chicago. I was in transit after I came back to the States, and I had a chance to call his mother and talk to her.
“That night at 9, we were all back in England. They always say there is a little bit of luck that comes into your life. They asked for 10 volunteers to go to London for temporary duty. They had a lot of supplies coming. When we got to London, a yeoman from headquarters took us to the Golden Square Red Cross Club where we would be billeted. This boy’s name was Sipes. His grandparents lived in Princeton. He used to come to West Virginia in the summer and fell in love with West Virginia. Due to that, I guess he took a liking to me.
“They asked if anyone could type. I said I’d had it one year in high school but I wasn’t very good. I was a diesel engine mechanic, but he got me transferred out of gunfire support to headquarters company in England. I worked with a guard mail courier out of the American embassy. I stayed there until October of ‘44.
“When he found out they had transferred all these guys from gunfire support to the States for a leave and reassignment, he said he could get me back to the States. I had a girlfriend. So naturally I wanted to come home.
“Luck. It’s one of those things that happens. They say it’s not what you know but who you know. Because he took a liking to me, he got me transferred.
“I came back to the States in November on a 30-day leave. I went back to Boston. Then I went to another school on diesel engines. They transferred me to the west coast, and I ended up in the Philippine Islands with another landing craft group. I was in the Philippines until February of ‘46 when I came home.
“The war had ended on Aug. 15 of ‘45 when we were tied up in Manila. There was a gigantic celebration. All these ships were firing their anti-aircraft guns. Our skipper had whiskey. He brought it out and we all had a toast to the end of the war.
“I had a job when I went in, so I worked there for about three months, then I enrolled at WVU. The Navy had a recruiting trailer to sign up for the Reserves. Word got around that they were passing out free beer. So we went up and had a beer, and I signed up in the inactive Reserves. That was Dec. 3, 1946. The recruiter said we probably wouldn’t ever have to go back in, that we weren’t going to have any more wars.
“I didn’t get a degree, but I got a beautiful wife. I moved to Huntington and worked for a towel and linen company. In Huntington, they had an active Reserves unit. I joined because you did get some pay. And lo and behold, on Aug. 8 1950, our group got orders to report.
“They sent us to the west coast, and I went to Japan and caught this ship, the Kermit Roosevelt. Our ship was in the invasion of Wonsan in North Korea. I came out on deck one morning, and I was looking over at North Korea and I said, ‘That lying SOB said we’d never have to go back again, and here I am on the 30th parallel in North Korea.’
“We got back to Japan on a Sunday. On Monday, they said we were going back to war. We went to Hungnam where they made the evacuation. When the Chinese came in on the Yellow River, we helped pull a lot of troops and civilians out of there. We were on a ship in the harbor. When we left, we could see the lines of vehicles coming off the mountain. We could see them dropping those napalm bombs on the Chinese.
“We came back and operated out of Japan. That was a great experience. I got to visit many places in Japan. I don’t regret my service time. I was married with two young sons then, and that made an awful difference when I had to go back in. But I was only gone 15 months.
“You signed up for a year. My time was up, but they put a year extension on all enlistments, which made me have to stay in until Dec. 3 of 1951.
“The linen service didn’t have any opening in Huntington, so I went to Ohio and helped set up a branch in Washington Courthouse and then spent two years in Athens and transferred to South Charleston in 1959. I spent 38 years with them, the F.W. Means Co., and retired in ‘86.
“After my wife died, I met another lovely lady. We’ve been married 20 years. I moved to Ripley where she’s from.
“The National D-Day Memorial was built in Bedford, Virginia. We went for the dedication in ‘91. Every five years, we go back. We’ve attended 13 naval reunions, nine for the Roosevelt and four with my group from World War II.
“In a way, I’m thankful. I got to do a lot of things I know I would never have done. I’ve traveled the world. I got to see places I read about in books. The only dark spot was in Normandy where I lost my friends, six in our crew.
“I guess I helped a little bit. I will tell you this. I’m not in favor of all this stuff we are doing now. Instead of going forward, we are going backward.”
Reach Sandy Wells at 304-348-5173 or email@example.com.