Retired Coastie reflects

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 2:54 PM

And today, like every year, as crowds gather along the waterfront for the 4 p.m. National Coast Guard Memorial Service, Billups is especially thankful.

If it hadn't been for a fluke in scheduling, he would have been aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Escanaba's fated voyage when it sank in icy waters following an explosion during North Atlantic convoy duty on June 13, 1943. Only two of the 103 aboard survived.

Billups served in the Coast Guard from 1942-45. When he was in New York guarding prisoners as part of his duties, he said the call came for six replacements to serve aboard the Escanaba on its North Atlantic voyage.

“I would have gone, but I was out on liberty,” Billups said. “It's just one of those crazy things. I lucked out, I guess.”

Less than a year later, Billups was in his own sea of danger during one of the most famous events in World War II history. He was part of a fleet that left New York on April 17, 1944, with 83-foot wooden Coast Guard vessels aboard 327-foot Navy ships. The target mission — the Invasion of Normandy.

“It was the biggest convoy to ever leave the USA,” Billups recalled. “(The ships) were as far as you could see on the horizon.”

Huge storms swept the ocean into a frenzy on the fourth day of the journey.

“The Navy crew got sick, so the Coast Guard took over,” Billups said. “The guys were welding on the ships night and day to hold them together. We lost seven ships going across.”

Billups’ excitement wasn't over. The real mission, D-Day, was about to begin after the crew had settled in England.

At midnight June 4, the men were sent to the southern tip of England, but storms canceled a planned invasion on June 5.

At midnight June 6, 60 vessels headed across the English Channel. Billups' ship was No. 49 of the Matchbox Fleet — called that because the 83-foot-long vessels were wooden.

Billups' group was also known as the Seagoing St. Bernards because of their rescue efforts.

“By 6 a.m., we were off France about a mile when they started the invasion,” Billups said. “Our job was going up and down the coast, picking up survivors. When the ships hit mines, there were a lot of broken backs and broken legs. We took them aboard our ships, then took them to a transport to take them back to hospitals in England.”

Billups, who was a strong swimmer, said he spent more time in the water than out of it.

Read the complete story in today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

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