This is a repost from a few years ago that I thought I would re -share. It is part of our growing content that gets buried and lost as time goes on. Since it’s the 75th anniversary in a coupleof days, I thought I would share it again today for those who missed it.
An important anniversary is coming this year. It is not only an important day for our country, but the entire world. On June 6 1944 the fate of not only the USA , but the rest of the free world hung in the balance. It was a lot closer to failure than many people think. As most know, it was D-Day, the beginning of operation Overlord and the allied invasion of Europe. The people and industries of the free world had put their full effort into what was going to happen, The industrial feat that provided equipment and support to the men who would throw themselves at Hitler’s Atlantic wall in an attempt to establish a beach head was staggering. The men had been trained and sharpened to a fever pitch for this all out effort. It had to work. This crusade was meant not as a conquering invasion to subdue, pillage, destroy and make slaves, but to free Europe from the Nazi Empire. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history.
This is not a complete history of Overlord and Neptune, but a focus on on a small portion of the action on and around Omaha beach.Of course a lot more happened that day, but the action on Omaha was unique because of the unimaginable horror and violence the men who assaulted it had to face.
The beach is crescent shaped, about 10 kilometers wide with firm sand at low tide that stretches for about 300-400 meters from the water line. The only obstacle across the beach as they would move in was a shingle band 1 to 4 meters high that was impassable for vehicles. Beyond the shingle for a large section of beach was a sea wall of wood or masonry. Inland of the sea wall was a flatter area with tank ditches, swampy areas and then the bluff. The bluff was grass covered and offered no way for a vehicle to climb. It looked featureless, but actually had many folds. This would turn out to be very advantageous because a man could still climb the bluff. Cutting the bluff were 5 small draws that went up the bluff to the top with a small paved road leading up the bluff through the exits. All of it was heavily mined with obstacles. The Germans had strong points, pill boxes, machine gun nests and trenches for firing on the beach in enfilade so as to cover the entire beach in cross fire. In addition there were observation points for artillery from mortars up to the bigger guns further inland as well as artillery that could enfilade the beach. Ammo and men could be brought up in the trenches to reinforce quickly and form smaller counter attacks. According to Ambrose, “The waters off shore were heavily mined and along with the beaches the promenade, which had concentina wire along its length and the bluff. Rommel had twelve strong points holding 88s, 75s,and mortars. He had dozens of tobruks and machine gun pill boxes supported by an extensive trench system.”
Set to assault the beach were the 1st and 29th infantry division with companies of the rangers attached with assorted smaller units. They faced 3 battalions of the 352 Division. Intelligence reported a smaller unit of inferior troops that would be knocked out by the air and naval fire. After the pre invasion prep had let up and the landing craft were about to assault the beach, just before H-Hour, Captain Walker on an LCI took a look as the smoke lifted. “I took a look toward the shore and my heart took a dive. I could not believe how peaceful, how untouched, and how tranquil the scene was. The terrain was green. All buildings and houses were intact”.
The air bombardment was a failure, nothing on the beach was hit and the fire from the battleships was too short, though firing smoke had obscured the beach for direct fire.
As the first landing craft went in. the defenders opened fire. Mate Sears, an electrician’s mate remembered, “We hit the sandbar and dropped the ramp, and all hell poured loose on us. the soldiers in the boat took a hail of MG fire. The Army LT was immediately killed, shot through the head” Captain Taylor Fellers and every man in the leading boat of A Company was killed before the ramp even opened. It either hitting a mine or took a hit from an 88. At any rate, it was there one second and vaporized in an instant.
All along Omaha German machine gunners let loose a withering amount of fire, one German vet reporting firing 12,000 rounds that morning. Because of a strong current and obstacles, the landing craft landed in the wrong spots. When the skippers saw one LCI make it in, they followed close by leading the men to be bunched up, making easy targets for MG42 gunners. That is, if they even made it to shore to begin with. Those who did make it to shore in the first wave had to ditch their gear. Sand bars and mines kept many craft from going in closer. The men stepped out into deep water and had to drop gear to keep from drowning. The ones who did drag ashore were tired, and demoralized. Most also had multiple wounds.
When the ramp let down, the Germans raked the front of the boat with Machine gun and artillery fire. Entire craft of men where killed by machine gun fire or hit with mortars and exploded, killing everyone. The men in the water found that if you stood up, you would get hit, so many floated in with the tide. Sgt Valance was one such men. “I abandoned my gear which was dragging me down into the water. it became evident rather quickly that we were not going to accomplish much. I remember floundering in the water with my hand up in the air, trying to get my balance, when I was first shot through the palm of my hand, then through the knuckle. PVT Witt was rolling toward me. I remember him saying they were leaving us to die like rats, just die like rats…” Valance continued, ”…and staggered up against the seawall and sort of collapsed there and spent the whole day in that position. Essentially my part of the invasion had ended by having been wiped out as most of my company was. The bodies of my buddies were washing ashore and I was the one live body in among so many friends, all of whom were dead, many cases very severely blown to pieces.”
On another boat, LT Tidrick was first off. While jumping from the ramp to the water he was shot through the throat. Getting up to the sand he fell and said to a PVT “advance with the wire cutters” As soon as he said it, a machine gun ripped the LT from groin to the top of his head. On another boat coming in, every man in a thirty person assault team was killed before they could get off.
Survivors huddled together and helped each other up to the sea wall. Medics did what they could with what little was left. Most men had little left from having to ditch earlier. Gear was strewn all over Dog Green sector of the beach. Though the first wave was slaughtered, the gear would be proof they had not died in vain for the follow up waves.
As the men tried to cross the open beach to the single and sea wall, their wet clothes and gear weighed them down and made it seem as if they were running in slow motion.
As SGT Warner Hamlett of F company made his way up the beach, he found the weight of the wet clothes full of water and sand really made it hard to run. He could hear men and officers shouting the only chance to live was to get off the beach. While he was resting in a shell hole a young private fell in beside him. “I said, Gillingham, lets stay apart, cause the Germans will fire at two faster than one. He remained silent as I ran forward”. A shell burst between them and he looked back, “It took Gillingham’s chin off, including the bone, except for a small piece of flesh. He tried to hold his chin in place as he ran toward the shingle. He made it and Bill Hawkes gave him a shot of morphine. We stayed with him for around 30 minutes until he died. The entire time he remained conscious and aware he was dying.”
Private Parley landed a kilometer off target. “As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell. I shut everything out and concentrated on following the men in front of me down the ramp and into the water.” Another man reported “Sgt Robertson had a gaping wound in the upper right corner of his forehead. He was walking crazily in the water. Then I saw him get down on his knees and start praying with his rosary beads. At that moment German machine gunners cut him in half with their crossfire.”
The same man then had an 88 go off beside him,hitting him in the cheek. “It felt like being hit by a ball bat. My upper jaw was shattered. The left cheek blown open. My upper lip was cut in half. The roof of my mouth was cut up and teeth and gums were laying all over my mouth.”
Despite all of this, junior officers and NCOs were starting to organize the survivors who made it to the sea wall. They started to make the men believe their best chance to live was off the beach. Men ran back to the beach, stepping over bodies and equipment to get what they needed to work their way up the bluff. All of the armor, truck, jeeps and bulldozers floundered or were being knocked out by 88s. From one end to the other the beach was full of blown up and burning vehicles with only a very few working tanks supporting the infantry. Men had to step over bodies and in some cases walk over them to start to get up the bluff. The invasion plan and fallen apart. The infantry would be alone with no artillery support on the beach and only a few tanks firing at strong points. Later in the morning some of the destroyers off shore got dangerously close to the beach to place direct fire at pill boxes to relieve the withering fire.
Sgt John Slaughter relates that the incoming fire was horrible. “this turned the boys into men.” “Some would be very brave men, others would soon be dead men, but all those who survived would be frightened men.” Some wet their pants, other cried unashamedly, and some had to find it with themselves to get the job done.” When he reached the sea wall. “The first thing I did was take off my assault jacket, and spread my raincoat so I could clean my rifle. It was then I saw bullet holes in my rain coat. I had to rest and compose myself because I had become weak in the knees” “Colonel Canham come by with his right arm in a sling and a .45 Colt in his left had. He was screaming at the officers to get the men off the beach. ‘Get the hell off this damn beach and go kill some Germans!’ There was an officer taking cover from mortar fire. Colonel Canham screamed, ‘Get your ass out of here and show some leadership!’ To another Lt he roared ‘Get these men off their dead asses and over that wall!’”
This was the battle started to turn as the US Army recovered from the brutal, murderous unrelenting fire. The men found what it took to start up the bluff. They cleared the wire and went through the thousands of mines and up the bluff taking out enemy pill boxes along the way and taking prisoners that they sent back down the bluff. When men saw others make it to the top, they thought to themselves ,”Hell if they can do that why can’t we?”
Most of the troops to hit the beach in the first wave had no combat experience, and it was purposefully designed this way. Th commanders knew that experienced troops who knew what high velocity bullets and shrapnel could do to the human body would not be as fast to assault the beach. The 16th Regiment of the 1st Div was an exception in the first wave. One of those was Pvt Romanaski. As his boat came in, he looked to his right and saw a boat blow up and then he looked to the left and that boat hit a mine. He saw a man blow about 10 feet into the air, arms and legs covered in flame. The ramp dropped and he was in the water. “There was already men there, some dead, some wounded. There was wreckage. There was complete confusion. There was a body rolling in the waves. And his leg was holding on by a chunk of meat about the size of your wrist. the body would roll and then the leg would roll. Then the leg would roll back and then the body would roll back.” He joined an unknown officer and started up the bluff.
To the commanders offshore in the invasion armada, it looked like a total disaster. Bradley considered putting follow up waves on the other beaches and suspending the landings until they knew was what going on. But the men on the beach had made it to the top and were making penetration into and behind the defenders. As D-Day went on, the infantry were fighting in mixed units. sometimes with Navy beach master, clerks, tank crewmen with no tanks, and HQ soldiers fighting as infantry. Toward the end of the day, the exits were opened by the engineers and extra paths made, mine field trails cleared and the vehicles stated to get a foot hold inland and into the battle. The men at the top started to encounter the normal hedgerows and the expert defensive line positions the Germans had prepared. All D-Day objectives were not hit, but there was a beachhead and there would be no gap between Utah, Juno and Gold.
It would turn into a long slog in the hedgerows in France, but the Allies had a foot hold. The decisive moment was over and the US Army had assaulted and taken the most effective defenses the German Army and its best General could think up. It was the US Army’s finest hour. They accomplished an amazing feat. The cost in terms of men and equipment was appalling, but the USA flung its best at the Atlantic wall, and they did achieve success.
PVT Wiehe, on his assault had found himself crying for what he thought was hours, before pulling himself together and doing his job perfectly. But on reflecting back on it he said in his oral history. “To this day I have never shed another tear. I would give anything to have one good cry or one good laugh. I hurt inside but I cannot get my emotions out since that day. I have never been able to.” The people freed by these men, and those of us that live in the world that they secured, can never imagine the cost these men paid to win.
In 1964 while visiting Omaha, Eisenhower told a reporter while looking down on the beach, ”It is a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows twenty years ago were fighting for and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of our own. But to make sure Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world.“
“I think it is just overwhelming. To think of the lives that were given for that principle, paying a terrible price on this beach alone, on that day, 2,000 casualties. But they did it so that the world could be free. It just shows what free men will do rather than be slaves.”
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking. — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower