Read the complete story about the Vandalia native killed in the line of duty alongside 201 Missourians in precursor to D-Day:
By Barry Dalton
In the early morning hours of April 28, 1944, an elite unit of the Nazi navy snuck past British warships and patrols in the English Channel and launched an unplanned torpedo attack on a small convoy of ships that the Germans had come upon by chance.
Exercise Tiger, also known as Operation Tiger, was in its sixth day when the ambush happened. The eight-day D-day rehearsal had been ordered by General Dwight Eisenhower to be as realistic as possible, including the use of live ordinance, but no one imagined it would result in a tragedy all too real.
The British navy, which was tasked with providing protection for the 30,000 military men taking part in the exercise, failed miserably, ending the young lives of 551 American soldiers and 198 sailors.
The death toll included 201 Missouri men in the 3206th Quartermaster Company, aboard tank landing ships, or LSTs, which weighed 4,500 tons each, large enough to carry tanks and troops to a beach or other landing site.
During the early morning of April 28, they were headed for Slapton Sands, Devon, on the southern coast of England, where they would deploy as part of the simulated D-Day invasion of France’s Utah Beach.
One British warship, a corvette, protected the eight-ship convoy as they traveled in a three-mile, single-column formation, at a speed of 5 knots. The Missouri unit was on LST 531.
They were attacked by nine Nazi E-boats. Not since Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, had so many Americans been killed in a single battle.
In his book, “The Forgotten Dead,” Ken Small describes German E-boats as fast-moving “hunter-killers.” They were dubbed “E” for enemy by the Allies, but the Nazis called them S boats, meaning schnell, or fast, in German.
“Schnell boote” were 35-meters long, grey and slim, and could travel at speeds of 40 knots. Crewed by about 30 sailors each, E-boats were armed with torpedoes, mines, three 20mm guns and a 40mm gun.
Although an E-boat had been spotted by the British navy before the attack, the Americans were never informed. Confounding the tragedy was the widespread confusion about what was happening—many aboard the LSTs thought it was part of the live-fire training exercise.
Eight of the soldiers lost that morning were from Audrain County: Thomas Creed Jr., Garland Donaldson, Ralph T. Earnest, D. Dean Ferguson, Harry Mettler, Wallace W. Smith, James Spurling and Lowell Renner.
Lowell Renner was born on a family farm just south of Vandalia. He had only recently graduated from Vandalia High School, and he was a charter member of the school’s Future Farmers of America Chapter in 1942. (His signature is still posted on a wall of the ag classroom at Van-Far.)
Rennie Davis, a local farmer and native of rural Vandalia, is one of Lowell’s nephews. He and his wife of 47 years, Joy Davis, sat down with the Leader and recounted the story of Rennie’s mother first receiving the news.
A telegram had been delivered to Dye’s Store, where Rennie’s mother worked at the time. Rennie’s mother was Lowell’s sister. During her heavy-hearted walk home, carrying the telegram reporting Lowell missing in action, she stopped along the way to gather others to come with her. Those present that day say Lowell’s mother knew immediately one of her sons was gone.
“When they got to the farm, Mrs. Renner met them and asked which boy was it,” relates Joy. “She had four sons in the war, three in Europe and one in the Aleutians.”
It was a sad time, Joy says.
“The Renner family was like lots of families during World War II,” Joy continued. “The older boys—J.H., Vernon and Raymond—all went into the service; they were 21. But Lowell was the youngest member of the family, and his dad had to sign for him to go. He graduated from high school, and then he went into the service. And that’s all he was interested in doing at that time.”
“His three brothers went, so he wanted to go, too,” Rennie adds.
Because of the intense secrecy surrounding D-Day, the attack on Operation Tiger was nearly lost in the vaults of forgotten history, partly because the servicemen who experienced it were warned they could be court-martialed if they ever told anyone. Eventually, though, as they began to age, they also began to reveal their stories. Today, thanks to the efforts of the Exercise Tiger Foundation in Columbia—the fallen soldiers and sailors of Operation Tiger have been honored every year for the past 33 years.
But Lowell’s mother never learned exactly what happened to him, and she never got to bury her son.
“They never recovered any remains,” Rennie said. “As far as we know, Lowell went down with the ship.”
For years, Farber Police Chief Ray Bumbales wanted to find a special way to honor Exercise Tiger. After more than 30 years of service in the U.S. Air Force and in civilian law enforcement, he has seen some friends and comrades lost in the line of duty. For this reason, the story of Exercise Tiger has always been very personal to him, he says.
“One of the worst things that can happen to someone who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country is to be forgotten,” Bumbales told the Leader.
Bumbales eventually decided he could honor the men in Operation Tiger this year by conducting the first-ever memorial “ruck” to bring attention to their heroism. And what better place to do it than along Hwy. 54 the same year he turns age 54. The stretch of highway between Kingdom City and Mexico was designated as “Exercise Tiger Expressway” in 2000, with help from Sen. Kit Bond, the Exercise Tiger Foundation and the Missouri Department of Transportation.
A ruck is a military march in full military gear. Although Bumbales would make his ruck in brightly colored red, white and blue sports attire, he simulated an actual ruck by adding 20 pounds of additional weight to his already heavy rucksack. This reflected how the Operation Tiger troops were equipped while they were assembled in close quarters on the LSTs “in battle dress—with backpacks, rifles and suchlike.”
Bumbales knew he would ruck from near the Exercise Tiger Expressway sign posted on Hwy. 54 in Kingdom City to the one posted in Mexico, about 14 miles walking distance, but when to start was another matter.
On the night of Operation Tiger in 1944, the first tracers and gunfire occurred sometime between 1:20 a.m. and 1:35 a.m. Three LSTS would be torpedoed that morning, with the boat carrying the Missouri soldiers—LST 531—struck the first time at about 2:17 a.m. A brief but fierce gun battle broke out between 531 and its “invisible” attacker, but it ended with 531 taking a fatal blow by a second torpedo. The LST erupted into flames, with an explosion of bodies and debris across the sea. Survivors reported gunfire for a few seconds more.
According to The Forgotten Dead, “LST 499 spotted a long, slender, light grey craft moving at a high speed” off 531’s starboard side about two miles out. At 2:25 a.m., it issued a distress call—“SSSS-SSSS-SSSS-3WYX-V-3PQP-2800240 BT Submarine Attack BT 2800240.” But it was too late. By 2:26 a.m., LST 531 had already rolled over and sunk to the bottom of the channel.
“A few men managed to jump and swim for their lives as the 531 split and went down,” according to one eyewitness in Small’s book. “[A]s if in the blinking of an eye, it blew up and disappeared, taking most of its crews and soldiers with it.”
Finally, it came to Bumbales. He would start his ruck at exactly 2:01 a.m.—for the 201 Missouri heroes who lost their lives.
Unfortunately, there’s more to the story of the 749 soldiers and sailors who died on April 28, 1944. Not all of the lives lost came from gunfire, torpedoes or explosions. Many men drowned from improperly worn life belts. Some died in a panic trying to swim in every direction to a shore they could not see. And many more perished from hypothermia as they waited for hours in the freezing waters of the English Channel.
According to the diary of Arthur Victor, a hospital apprentice, who clung to an LST 507 life raft, “One of the first to go was a corpsman who was only 19 years old, married and the father of a 4-month-old son.” He slipped off the raft and was gone “suddenly and without warning.”
Seventy-seven years later, as Bumbales finished his memorial ruck, it was just before 7 a.m.—about the same time as the last of the surviving sailors and soldiers were finally rescued from the icy sea.
“Daylight was starting to break,” Victor wrote, “but not fully, when someone started yelling that he could see a ship. We all thought he had gone mad, when suddenly we saw the outline of a warship loom before us as though it had risen out of the water.”
The loss of life was grim. On LST 289, which was attacked but not sunk, 13 Navy personnel never made it back home. When LST 507 was sunk, 202 servicemen either died on board or in the frigid channel afterward. And of the 496 men aboard LST 531, a staggering 424 were dead or missing.
Quietly, Bumbales took off his heavy ruck and took a few moments of silence to remember the fallen and their families. Exhausted but high on adrenaline, Bumbales was already talking about plans for next year. He said he hopes others will join him for a 2022 ruck, to pay tribute to Lowell and all the other boys who died for our country that night.
Lowell’s mother, like many other mothers at the time, never wanted her youngest son to go, says Joy, “But she didn’t say anything, because it was war.”