NEW BEDFORD - Deep below the deck of a hulking Navy transport ship in a windowless engine room, Vincent Ricciardi can still remember the moment he knew something had gone terribly wrong.
It was April 28, 1944, six weeks before D-day, and Ricciardi, an engineer on the Landing Ship Tank 54, was in the midst of Exercise Tiger, one of the most secretive training missions of the war. In preparation for the Normandy beach landing, a convoy of eight transporters loaded with tanks, personnel, and gear sped toward a wide, rocky beach in southwest England called Slapton Sands, where they were to practice maneuvers under live fire.
“At the time, I wasn’t frightened at all, until after, and I found out what happened,’’ said Ricciardi, 90, who recalled the message that came abruptly from the ship’s captain over the intercom: Turn around; go back to port.
Unbeknownst to him, nine German E-class warships sailing from Chambourd, France, had found the training group and let loose a flurry of torpedo fire. The barrage began about 1:30 a.m., when without warning the flotilla of Nazi sailors sent torpedoes crashing into the hulls of three of the ships, sinking two, and leaving a third crippled.
In all, 749 American servicemen died in a little more than an hour of fighting, many of them trapped inside the sinking vessels or drowned in the icy water, weighed down by soaking gear, according to a Navy account.
“I was there, but I didn’t know it,’’ said Ricciardi, whose boat escaped unscathed. “I could have been buried with those guys.’’
Ricciardi, who now lives in Dennis Port, is one of a dwindling handful of survivors from the ordeal left alive and the only veteran on hand in New Bedford on Saturday who had been aboard one of the ships.
During a somber ceremony at Fort Taber Park, he and New Bedford residents and D-day veterans Jayme Rego, 85, and Normand Chartier, 89, a medic who treated the wounded from Exercise Tiger, laid a wreath in memory of their fallen friends and commemorated the 68th anniversary of a military disaster that was kept secret for decades, even after the war had been won.
Only in the 1970s and ’80s, when Ricciardi and other veterans like him, began to gather and talk about their combat experiences, did the former servicemen begin to piece together the truth.
“The tragedy of Exercise Tiger is that it was kept quiet for so long,’’ New Bedford Mayor Jonathan Mitchell said during a brief ceremony that included an artillery salute. “What’s inspiring today is that all those years later we still remember.’’
Before Exercise Tiger, five similar training missions went off successfully, each larger than the last, according to Lieutenant Eugene E. Eckstam, whose recollections of the disaster were recorded for posterity by the Navy.
Although historians disagree about the circumstances that led to Tiger’s failure, most accounts agree that it was a confluence of mistakes and mishaps that led to the slaughter.
Because of a typo in the mission orders, the American ships’ captains communicated on the wrong radio channel, alerting the German ships anchored less than 100 miles from the training waters, said Peter Clark, a New Bedford veterans official, describing the calamitous error.
The Germans, keen to sniff out Allied naval activity across the English Channel, sent the torpedo boats to investigate.
Exercise Tiger was also conducted without protection escorts, usually a British or US destroyer, that would have watched over the training missions.
“It was a screw-up,’’ Ricciardi said.
Chartier, a surgical technician stationed in Taunton, England, near the fateful beachhead, said he helped treat dozens of sailors injured in the attack, but was given express orders not to speak to the men or question how they were wounded so far from the front lines.
“The surgical head of the hospital said ‘Don’t talk to them, treat them as if you were a veterinarian,’ ’’ Chartier recalled. “We were sworn to secrecy.’’
Although information about Exercise Tiger was officially declassified near the end of the war, the shroud of military secrecy was not lifted until the 1970s, when a beachcomber living near the Slapton Sands site was told by a local fisherman about an object off the coast in about 60 feet of water.
About a decade later, in 1984, a 32-ton Sherman tank that was on board one of the landing craft was raised from the seabed and placed on the shore as memorial to the men who died there, according to an English group that maintains the tank.
The New Bedford memorial, which hosts the same model of period armor, was created in 2004 and moved in 2007 to the waterfront site where it now resides next to a local military museum.
The long quiet about the training exercise has not helped survivors like Ricciardi. When the English memorial was first erected and interest around Exercise Tiger was at its peak, he counted about 30 other living members of his unit who helped him piece together his place in history.
“Now,’’ he said, “I’m the only one left.’’