Veteran of the Week: French received Purple Heart injured in LST 523 sinking
Published 10:13 am Wednesday, January 6, 2016
By PHOEBE DONALD ROBINSON / Community Columnist
Bill French grew up in Wedowee farming cotton with his father. In 1943 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 with his parents’ permission even though he could not swim. He graduated, became a helmsman steering ships, but never learned to swim.
French was assigned to Landing Ship Tank (LST) 523, which was part of D-Day invasion on Utah Beach, June 14, 1944, transferring jeeps, tanks, soldiers, ammunition and supplies to the beaches of Normandy.
“I went to see ‘Saving Private Ryan’,” said French. “I cried for it was so real. Our LST could not get to the beach like in the movie and so many men drowned and tanks sunk.”
After the invasion, LST 523 returned to England with 175 allied casualties and returned to France taking supplies and soldiers. On June 19, 1944, LST 523 on its fourth trip hit an underwater German mine and the ship was blown in half.
“I was in my quarters,” said French. “It was around lunch time and most of the men were eating in the dining hall which was in the middle of the ship. The mine hit there and so many men instantly were lost. I do not remember anything except pulling the gas cartridges that inflated my life belt and then being pulled out of the water. I hit my head and was transferred to the hospital in Birmingham, England, till I recovered. Then I was assigned to LST 139 and made 45 more trips across the English Channel till the end of the war.”
LST 523 sank rapidly in the English Channel after being blown in half. 94 soldiers of the 300th Combat Engineers and 117 Navy sailors lost their lives. Seaman First Class William “Bill” Homer French was one of only 28 survivors and was awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries. For her actions in WWII, LST 523 earned one Battle Star.
Today French, age 91, lives at Ridgeview at Meadowbrook in Shelby County. He was married for almost 68 years to late wife Carolyn. They have three daughters including Janice and Richard Skinner of Riverchase, deceased son Phillip, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“I love my country and it is a great country to raise a family,” said French. “I would do proudly risk my life again for the United States.”