Surrounded by two of his three daughters and their husbands, three of his six grandchildren, two great grandchildren, a grandson-in-law and a couple of friends of the family, Herb Bilus had steak for dinner Sunday evening. Sixty-six years ago to the day, June 6, 1944, Herb enjoyed another steak off the shores of Normandy after his Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) #96 delivered its first load of soldiers to Utah Beach as part of the greatest invasion in history.
Hard to believe Ensign Bilus and his cohorts would stop for a hearty meal while the fighting raged, but his commander had promised steak for all officers if they came through their first mission successfully, and so the officers, perhaps even the total crew of 22 Coast Guard sailors, celebrated their good fortune before going back to secure another load of 120 4th Army infantrymen bound for the beaches of France. Herb’s LCI was part of Flotilla 4, a group of 24 LCI ships. They made their initial drop during the sixth wave, roughly six hours after D-Day landings began. By the end of the day, four of their ships were lost off Omaha Beach.
It was off Omaha Beach Herb witnessed true courage, and fear, under fire. It was the task of each LCI to deliver its precious cargo of fighting men as close to the beach as possible, close enough so they could wade ashore without being sucked under by the weight of their packs. Anyone who has seen the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan may remember scenes of GI’s dropped off too soon. As they hit the too-deep water, they sunk to the bottom, drowned before firing a shot. Saving Private Ryan was closer to D-Day reality than any other movie, says Herb.
On one of their runs at Omaha Beach, under heavy incoming fire, a high ranking Navy officer ordered Herb’s ship commander, a Coast Guard lieutenant, to lower his ramps to drop off troops. The lieutenant disobeyed the direct order, arguing the water was too deep. While the Navy man dropped off his load to a watery death, Herb’s skipper steered his ship closer to the beach, giving his soldiers a chance to get to shore “safely,” if such a term can be used to describe any landing that day.
The lieutenant, Marshall was his first name (Herb recalls his last name but I’m going to leave it out for what will be evident shortly), was unusual for a couple of reasons. Jewish by birth, Marshall refused to use his last name. It was too ethnic. Even when a telegram came for him under his full name, he would not acknowledge it.
Herb also suspects Marshall was gay. He was a real dandy, going off by himself during shore leave, wearing felt gloves and carrying a swagger stick. An artist, Marshall painted a mural about Flotilla 4 in the English estate house provided to them in Dartmouth by the author Agatha Christie.
The lived in close quarters aboard LCI #96. Herb has trouble reconciling current opposition to lifting the ban on allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the armed forces.
In a few weeks, Herb will be 89. He’s considered a youngster at his independent living residence in downtown White Plains. They don’t start counting your years until you’ve completed nine decades. Herb’s full of life and stories. Those interested in reading more about Herb’s exploits can do so by linking to an oral history he provided Rutgers University: http://oralhistory.rutgers.edu/Interviews/bilus_herbert.html.
For those who don’t know, Herb’s daughters are Jane Gould, Pat Lager and Fran Bilus Feldman.