As the country celebrates Memorial Day, all those who died for our country are remembered. This is a story about a young man from Brooklyn who gave his life for our freedom.
Joseph Henry Frank was born in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, one of six children. His favorite sister was his youngest, Beverley. Despite being partially blind in one eye, Joseph enlisted in the military in 1942, eager to fight for his country.
Joseph was stationed in the UK in the US Army as a quartermaster and would often write to his little sister. But one day those letters stopped, until a few months later, when Joseph's family received a notification that he was Missing in Action.
In August, another notification received saying that he was Killed in Action. Four years later, another communication came, also with no further information. He received a Purple Heart for dying in the line of duty, sacrificing his life for our freedom.
Joseph's last sibling passed away without knowing anything more about his death. Until one day a niece became curious about the Purple Heart. The circumstances didn’t make sense—there were no major battles of any kind, around the English Channel, on or around that date of Joseph's death. How did a quartermaster, blind in one eye, get killed in the line of duty?
The Hidden Tragedy of Operation Tiger
In 1944, the US and Allied Forces were in preparation to invade Nazi-held Western Europe. Exercises for the invasion were of the utmost secrecy. In the days without drones, internet, and other cyber-surveillance, a large-scale military exercise was underway. The exercises were nicknamed Operation Tiger or Exercise Tiger.
The shores of southern England, so similar to the beaches of Normandy, were filled with 23,00 Allied soldiers and ships. Simulated landings began, with ships landing onto a mock warzone. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower watched the exercises, which were not going as planned. All were hoping for a better day on April 28.
Instead, the unthinkable happened. A flotilla of eight landing ships caught the attention of Germany's “fast boats,” small boats equipped with torpedoes, which soon began firing on the American ships.
The crew on the boats were startled by the gunfire. In another sad twist of fate, British forces monitoring the seas were operating on a different radio frequency and could not communicate with the Americans. The flotilla’s main escort had returned to port for repairs, and the fleet was protected only by a 200-foot corvette.
The ships were hit by fire, burned, and sank. Survivors threw themselves into the frigid waters of Lyme Bay. Reports vary on how many perished that day, from 846 to approximately 1,000. These brave young men sank with the ships, drowned, or succumbed to hypothermia. Among them was my Uncle.
Fears of letting the Germans know about the upcoming invasion caused an intense need for secrecy, and the disaster was not made public. Survivors were threatened with court-martial if they spoke to anyone about the tragedy.
Operation Tiger prepared the Allies for D-Day, which led to the end of the War in Europe. And while the US military publicly acknowledged the losses from Operation Tiger in the following months, the tragedy remains a little known event. The families of those lost servicemen were not notified, and knew nothing of the magnitude of their sacrifice.
“ The attack, which happened in the midst of an Allied dress rehearsal for the Normandy landings, killed hundreds of men. Some of them succumbed to blast injuries and burns, others to drowning or hypothermia.”
I obtained my Uncle’s military file, which also made no mention of Operation Tiger. His death, along with so many others, remained shrouded in mystery—until Ken Smalls came along.
Ken Smalls was an ordinary civilian who moved to the area near Slapton Sands and began strolling the shores. One day, after a severe storm, he began to find shrapnel, bullet cases, and tunic buttons. He spoke to local residents, and they told him of live fire that took place in 1944.
Another friend told him of an object sitting on the seabed off the coast. What they found was a Sherman Tank, leading Smalls on a mission to find out exactly what happened on the shores of Slapton Sands.
Through intense research, Smalls uncovered the circumstances that led to the tragedy of Operation Tiger. He made it his mission to honor these forgotten heroes. Smalls purchased the tank from the American government, and wrote a book on the events, ”The Forgotten Dead.”
Thanks to his efforts, a memorial was finally placed on the shores of Slapton Sands, containing the names of those who perished that day, including Joseph Henry Frank.