Seventy-five years ago, Steve Besse was second-in-command of a troop transport ship during D-Day.
The 99-year-old Corvallis resident figures his infantry landing craft, the USS LCI-420, made seven or eight trips to shore against heavy resistance, shuttling roughly 1,500 soldiers onto Omaha Beach — nearly 1 percent of the Allied forces that crossed the English Channel.
“On the first wave, the guys were being shot just coming off the ramp. After our first landing, we went back out to pick up 200 more troops,” Besse said.
As he returned for each subsequent landing, he could see that soldiers, under relentless fire from the Germans, hadn’t made much progress up the beach. Allied bombers had wiped out the Axis armament on other beaches during the night, but didn’t destroy much of the German defenses at Omaha Beach, Besse said.
“The noise was so tremendous. There was gunfire all over. You couldn’t really hear,” he added. But LCI-420 kept moving, and the soldiers that he dropped off kept inching forward.
Besse is proud of his role in D-Day, a pivotal battle of World War II.
More than 160,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops invaded France on June 6, 1944, to fight against Nazi forces that were occupying the country and much of the continent. The victory on D-Day gave the Allies a foothold in Europe and paved the way for them to win the war.
The Allies suffered heavy casualties during D-Day, but Besse beat the odds.
During the battle, he was hit in the head and knocked to the ground by a piece of shrapnel that dented but didn’t penetrate his helmet.
LCI-420 was in a group of five amphibious troop transports in an early attack wave. “Ours was the only ship that got off the beach. We lost the other four,” Besse said.
His ship also was pressed into service as a tug boat to bring a barge with tons of infantry ammunition in to shore. The Germans keyed in on the barge. “It was like the Fourth of July. It was really rough,” Besse said. “One tracer would have wiped us out. I was really doing some praying.”
During a break in the action, while LCI-420 was loading troops from a larger ship, Besse spied a chef in a galley carving up roast beef. The 25 members of Besse’s crew had been surviving on K-rations for days, and the chef made them each a sandwich.
“It still gets me,” Besse said, tearing up. “That was so fabulous. I can still taste it.”
In another surreal moment, Besse went below deck to tell an Army captain that his troops were disembarking in five minutes. The captain asked if it was raining outside, as there was a pitter-pat sound coming from the deck. Besse explained to the captain that what he was hearing was shrapnel.
Besse, like many young men in the Corvallis area, decided to enlist immediately after Pearl Harbor.
“I remember with my dad, we were standing in the living room listening to the news. It made us upset, very upset,” he recalled.
At the time, Besse, a 1937 graduate of Corvallis High School, was enrolled at Oregon State College.
He joined the Navy because he liked water, and that branch of the armed forces put him in a special program where he was allowed to finish college. Besse got a degree in farm crops, graduating in 1943.
Next, it was off to midshipmen’s school, and he trained with landing craft in the waves off Maryland.
Besse became executive officer on a 156-foot-long landing craft, which went to the United Kingdom in a convoy of more than 100 other ships on a 26-day journey. “We went up and over every wave, all across the Atlantic,” Besse said.
They continued training off the coast of England. “We knew we were there to invade France, that’s all we knew. We were working with troops, loading them, unloading them. … It was exciting,” Besse said.
The men learned that they were expected to cross the English Channel on June 5, but then the invasion was pushed back a day due to poor weather.
“We took off the night of the fifth. It took all night practically to get to the coast of Normandy,” Besse said.
After three days at Omaha Beach, LCI-420 went back to England, picked up a load of nurses and brought them to Normandy.
Besse spent the later part of the war as a liaison officer on a British base, then was transferred to San Francisco at the Pacific command of the U.S. Navy.
After the war, Besse stayed in California and became the international manager for Ferry-Morse Seed Company. He then joined the Oregon State University Extension Service, working in Ontario, Eugene, and at OSU itself. He retired from the university after a stint as OSU’s director of international agriculture.
Besse and his wife Dyna Besse — they met at Oregon State — have three daughters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“The 24th of June we’ll be married 74 years,” Besse said. “I listen to her. We’ve had a wonderful marriage.”
In 2015, Besse was inducted into the French Legion of Honor for his actions during D-Day.