WWII vet’s quest to find D-Day shipwreck and build a memorial to lost shipmates

Trailer: No Roses on a Sailor's Grave

The 158-foot-long headquarters ship, one of thousands that set forth across the Channel, was part of the first wave heading for Sword Beach in Normandy.

“I had certain qualms in my stomach, but you very quickly dismissed that because you’re busy,” Patrick Thomas, now 98, recalls.

“When we arrived there initially, we didn’t get a very friendly welcome.

“The Germans were rattling machine gun bullets on the hull. I saw the infantry running up the beach and sometimes they’d get shot and go down.”

For the next two weeks, in the heat of battle, LCH185 played a key role in defending the landing beaches and saving survivors from other Allied vessels, which were taking a fearful pounding from relentless German attacks.

Then, on June 25, Patrick’s world changed forever when LCH185 was hit by an acoustic mine. The veteran recollects that cataclysmic moment.

“I didn’t hear the explosion, but it must have lifted the stern up and driven the bow under. The next thing I knew, we were underwater.”

In that one appalling moment, at least 35 of the 40 crew members on the ship lost their lives. No one was sure exactly how many died or where it went down.

For decades afterwards, Patrick, the only known survivor still alive today, felt helpless and guilty, sensing there was nothing he could do to commemorate lost shipmates.

Until a few years ago, that is. In 2015, quite by chance, he became friends with a 25-year-old archaeologist and historian, John Henry Phillips. Hearing Patrick’s story, John vowed to use his skills to find LCH185 and build a memorial to its lost sailors.

John’s quest is now captured in an affecting new documentary, No Roses On A Sailor’s Grave, which goes out on PBS America this Friday and Sunday.

Daniel Oron, the producer and director of the documentary, explains why John’s mission was so vital to the veteran.

“Patrick was completely convinced he was the only survivor of LCH185. And so the idea that the story would die with him and that his shipmates would not just be forgotten, but also the whole story would be gone, weighed on him his entire life.”

Across this story, there is a very strong echo of the poignant phrase we utter on Remembrance Day: “Lest We Forget”. As Oron stresses: “It’s important to honour those people and thank them because, although I wasn’t even born in the Second World War, my life could be completely different.

“We have to try and double down on telling these stories. Because if we don’t, we’re just going to walk right into the same trap again, and be surprised that it’s happened.”

Locating a landing craft that has been severely degraded after so many years underwater in strong currents was inevitably a highly challenging undertaking. But John put his shoulder to the wheel.

He drew on the expertise of historians, maritime archaeologists and hydrographic consultants, using vintage maps and sonar to pinpoint the likely location of the sunken vessel, three miles off the coast of Lion-sur-Mer in Normandy.

He then called up a crack team from the Southsea Sub Aqua Club to make the tricky dive in choppy waters onto the rusting, starfish-encrusted wreck.

Finally, John persuaded the mayor of Lion-sur-Mer to build a coastal memorial to those who perished on the LCH185.

When John told Patrick, who lives in Eastbourne, East Sussex, the details of the discovery, the veteran tried – and failed – to fight back the tears.

Patrick said: “After all these years, it’s brought it all to the surface. That ship was my home and, of course, the crew were part of my family.

“I always thought people weren’t interested, but it’s still very vivid to me.”

For his part, Patrick sums up the impact the quest has had on him. “My Lord, to think my name is now in France, safely in the hands of Lion-sur-Mer, and people can see it when I’m long gone, and the memorial will be there when I’m long gone. That’s marvellous.”

At the unveiling ceremony for the memorial at Lion-sur-Mer in 2018, he closed his speech by reciting a famous naval ode written by an unknown author: “There are no roses on a sailor’s grave, no wreaths upon the storm-tossed waves, no heartbroken words carved in stone, just shipmates lying there alone. The only tributes are the seagull sweeps, and the teardrops when a loved one weeps.”

  • No Roses On A Sailor’s Grave goes out on PBS America at 9.45pm tomorrow and at 8.50pm on Sunday. It will then be available on Freeview Play

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