By Bob Faw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/28/2004 7:28:17 PM ET 2004-04-28T23:28:17

Sixty years later, two American veterans of World War II confronted the past — and exorcised demons.

At a wreath-laying ceremony Wednesday off the coast of England, 80-year-old Steve Sadlon of Ilion, N.Y., and Charlie Brubaker, also 80, of Reading, Pa., put to rest the ghosts of "Exercise Tiger."

Sixty years earlier, a little after midnight on April 28, 1944, the two Americans were part of what was a top-secret military exercise, a dress rehearsal for the upcoming Allied invasion of occupied France.

Practice landings off the British coast were meant to prepare the U.S. military for the real thing on Utah Beach in Normandy.

Dress rehearsal goes terribly wrong
Suddenly, in the 2 a.m. darkness, the maneuvers became all too real when nine German gunboats sliced through the lightly guarded convoy and torpedoed three lumbering American Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs).

Seven hundred and forty nine servicemen died as a result of the German attack.

"It was a very dangerous place to be," said military historian Ronald Drez, who described the  servicemen as "sitting ducks."

From an engine room, Brubaker, then a 20-year-old motor machinist's mate, scrambled to safety.

Third-class radioman Sadlon, on another LST, jumped into the icy waters of Lyme Bay, keeping himself alive, he said, only by "remembering his mother and the green, green grass back home."

All around him, shipmates were dying. "They would be screaming 'help, help,'" he recalled. "And then, after a while, you would hear 'help' no more."

Tragedy never recognized
Some survivors insist the operation was so secret, they were threatened with court-martial if they ever discussed it. Others complained the losses were so disastrous — and embarrassing — the military hushed up Exercise Tiger for more than 40 years.

Even though Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the time supreme commander of the Allied forces, did acknowledge the incident, and many of the bodies were buried with honors in Cambridge, England, what happened that terrible night was dwarfed by the enormity of nearly 40,000 American casualties on D-Day.

Exercise Tiger went unheralded and was virtually forgotten, embittering some survivors. "What bothers me is that all those who died, they got no recognition," said Sadlon, adding, "I can't get over it."

Ceremonies 60 years later
But in ceremonies that started this weekend and ended Wednesday, the wounds of Exercise Tiger finally started to heal for Sadlon and Brubaker.

First, there was a memorial service in an 11th-century Anglican church in Stokenham followed by a wreath-laying ceremony near a World War II Sherman tank, where the two veterans were cheered by several hundred onlookers.

"Words just can't express how happy I am at all this," Sadlon said, choking back tears.

For each, it was a way of saying thanks and of acknowledging the guilt they felt after surviving when so many of their shipmates perished. "It is a kind of closure, " Brubaker said, looking into the shimmering waters.

Bob Faw is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Slapton Sands, England.

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