A new exhibit at southwest Virginia’s Salem Museum commemorates the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion with a unique look at one World War II troop transport, the USAT General George W. Goethals, and its role in that epic campaign.
Used to ferry men and equipment in the Atlantic during and after WWII, the Goethals was operated by the United States Army and for the most part carried out routine and uneventful voyages during the war. In June 1944, however, the Goethals took part in the D-Day invasion, one of the most dramatic and well-remembered moments in the war.
The June 6th D-Day landing in Normandy was one of most difficult seaborne invasions in history and contributed significantly to the Allied victory in World War II.
“The fact that much of the ship’s story survives is by sheer coincidence, and the fact that we have such significant artifacts to tell the story of the Goethals is even more of a coincidence,” said Salem Museum Director John Long. It was a series of chance encounters that made the exhibit possible.
The first coincidence: a ship flag, logs of the Goethal’s activities, and photos of the vessel were donated to the Salem Museum many years ago by the widow of an officer who served aboard the ship. Her husband had attended Roanoke College, but had no other particular connection to Salem.
However, it was only recently as Long began to research the ship and relics that the full story, and the ship’s forgotten connection to one of WWII’s most important operations, was uncovered.
“The flag was described in our records simply as a navy flag, no other explanation,” said Long, who also teaches WWII history at nearby Roanoke College. “But we discovered, among other interesting data, that the Goethals was not a naval vessel; it was a ship of the United States Army. It is a little known fact that the army operated more ships in WWII than the navy did!”
More poignantly, Long noted, this ship was significant because it was involved in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy in June, 1944, more commonly known as the D-Day invasion.
“The Goethals served in that campaign by bringing elements of the 2nd Infantry Division to Omaha Beach on June 7, the second day of the fight,” said Long. On that day, the ship’s personnel came under fire and witnessed, among other things, the sinking of the Susan B. Anthony, another troop transport in the flotilla.
The Goethals was credited with being the first troop transport to arrive at Omaha Beach (earlier troops hit the beach only from smaller landing craft).
The other coincidence leading to this exhibit involves something the crewmen of the Goethals never imagined: Youtube.
After the Salem Museum posted a video describing the ship’s flag online, Rick Pitz of San Jose, CA, contacted the Museum. His father, William Pitz, had served on the Goethals, and as a signalman likely hoisted the flags in the Museum collection. After a flurry of email correspondence, Pitz made the trek to Salem with his mother to see the Goethals collection and meet with Long. In his father’s memory, Pitz made a donation to fund the new exhibition.
“Of course, this summer marks the 70th Anniversary of D-Day,” noted Long. “It’s the right time to tell this compelling story.”
After WWII, the Goethals was tasked with ferrying European “war brides” and the children of American servicemen to the US to begin their new lives. When the maritime arm of the Army was discontinued, the ship was transferred to the Navy, continuing to serve in the Atlantic through the Korean War period. She was inactivated in 1959 and scrapped in 1971.
In another interesting local coincidence, Long discovered that the Goethals had a sister ship named for a Salem native. The USAT David C. Shanks was another army transport of the same class, serving in the Pacific Theater, and was named for the celebrated general, raised in Salem, who commanded the embarkation point in New Jersey that sent American soldiers to Europe in WWI.
The exhibit features flags from Goethals, excerpts from the ship logs, period photographs of the ship and crew, and snapshots taken during the Normandy campaign.
The exhibit, located in the Logan Library of the Salem Museum, continues through the summer. The Salem Museum is located at 801 East Main Street in Salem, VA and is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 to 4, and Saturday from 10 to 3. No admission is charged for the Museum galleries.