‘We were lucky’ - Baseball legend Yogi Berra experienced combat in U.S. Navy during WWII
The son of Italian immigrants, Lawrence Peter Berra grew up in the historic Italian district of St. Louis known as “The Hill,” where he was given the nickname of “Yogi” by a friend noting his resemblance to a snake charmer seen in a movie of the era. Berra spent countless hours of his youth playing baseball in the sandlots of St. Louis, enjoying the company of neighbors such as Joe Garagiola, who himself earned a World Series ring as a St. Louis Cardinal in 1946. Berra went on to establish himself as a celebrated player after entering the New York Yankees farm system in 1942, but his career was initially delayed when he entered the Navy in World War II, and went on to participate in the famed D-Day landings.
In the 1952 book written by Joe Trimble and aptly titled “Yogi Berra,” the late baseball icon noted that he was playing baseball for the Norfolk Tars—a New York Yankees affiliate—near the U.S. Naval shipyards along the coast of Virginia, when he received orders to take his military examinations at the Army Induction Center at Richmond, Virginia. Passing his physical, Berra explained that the inductees were asked what branch of service they wanted to join, with the Yankee prospect finding the U.S. Navy the most appealing.
“But when we finished the physical and knew we passed, the officer told us that anyone who took the Army got a three week’s extension of time before being sworn in but that the Navy guys would only get one week,” noted Berra in the aforementioned biography. He added, “So I took the Army, because I wanted to go home for a while. It didn’t quite work out that way, however.”
A warrant officer who coached the Norfolk Naval Training Station team heard about Berra, and needed replacements for his players who had been shipped to overseas assignments. He was able to wield some influence and change Berra’s branch selection. Separation papers accessible through the Missouri State Archives note Berra was inducted into the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, on September 23, 1943, a little more than four months following his eighteenth birthday.
Completing his initial training at Bainbridge, Maryland, a twist of fate ensured that Berra never played for the Norfolk team despite the wishes of the warrant officer who changed his assignment. Berra soon received orders for the Navy Amphibious Training Center at Little Creek, Virginia, arriving in January 1944.
“The Amphibious Training Base (also known as ‘Little Creek’) was the center for all types of amphibious training and the training of ship's crews …,” noted an article on the website of the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. The article went on to explain, “In a commendably few months the trained men who were to land fighting forces from Africa to Normandy were ready for sea. During World War II over 200,000 Naval personnel and 160,000 Army and Marine Corps personnel trained at Little Creek.”
In March 1944, following two weeks of additional amphibious exercises at Lido Beach, Long Island, Berra was aboard LST 508 (Landing Ship, Tank). Traveling in a convoy to Glasgow, Scotland. Following his arrival, Berra spent the next several weeks training for amphibious assaults and, prior to D-Day, was assigned as a gunner’s mate aboard the attack transport USS Bayfield. An article by the Naval History and Heritage Command explained, “… (The) Bayfield and the other transports reached their designated positions early on the morning of the 6th (June 6, 1944, D-Day) and debarked their troops. Once the troops left Bayfield, she began service as a supply and hospital ship in addition to continuing her duties as a flagship.”
As part of a group of vessels launched from the Bayfield, Berra was aboard a 36-foot rocket boat operating off Omaha Beach prior to the landing of ground troops, firing upon and neutralizing German shore batteries. Berra noted in his biography, “There wasn’t time to be scared. My job was loadin’ the gun, which was mounted on a little deck toward the back of the boat.”
Surviving a major amphibious assault that cost the lives of thousands of his fellow service members, Berra went on to serve with the Navy in Italy and, in July 1944, arrived in North Africa. He went on to participate in the Allied invasion of Southern France known as “Operation Dragoon.” While aboard a rocket boat, a couple hundred yards off the coast of Marseilles, Berra and the group of boats in his attack group began firing upon a resort hotel used to conceal a German machine gun nest. During the exchange of fire, Berra was nicked in the hand by a German bullet—a war wound he never reported. When later asked about the wound, Berra responded that he did not apply for a Purple Heart because “I didn’t’ want to scare my mother,” he recalled in his 1952 biography.
Berra spent the next several months in Bizerte, Tunisia, before returning to the U.S. in January 1945, where he was assigned to the Navy base at New London Connecticut. It was here that he was placed in “Welfare and Recreation,” and began to play baseball for the Navy. He received his military discharge on May 7, 1946.
In the years that followed, Berra entered the annals of baseball legend not only because of his abilities as a player, but also for his colorful and unique quotes such as, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” As was common with many veterans of the WWII era, the Hall of Famer did not boast of his time in the military despite the pride he maintained for having served his country.
In a June 1, 2005, interview with the Academy of Achievement, the former Yankee slugger known for his simplistic descriptions, said of his D-Day experience, “Fortunately enough, nothing happened to us. We were lucky.” Berra added, “I wasn’t scared. Going into it, it looked like the Fourth of July.”
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America
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Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.