- Historic Sites
The First Wave
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
The GIs assigned to the project had little more than a month to be transformed into sailors, submariners, and navigators. D-day was scheduled for June 5,1944, but bad weather forced its postponement. Elsenhower felt he could not delay it again, and when the meteorologist predicted a short period of clearing, he decided to take the chance. The weather was still so poor that the Germans canceled their field exercises and a scheduled alert. The skies were clear enough for the planes to fly, but the seas had been whipped up into a frenzy by the previous day’s storm.
General Bradley was particularly worried about the DD Tanks assigned to Omaha Beach, but all he could do was hope that either the weather would improve or the commanders beneath him would manage to avoid a disaster. Both the Navy and his own staff had warned Bradley that the weather could doom the DD Tanks, but he failed to take action.
Bradley had insisted that the Army, rather than the Navy, decide when to launch the tanks from the landing craft. The fates of many men would be determined that day by very young Army captains. The commanding officers of the tank battalions had requested permission to accompany their men so they could make the crucial decision rather than leave it to junior, inexperienced men. The Navy turned them down.
Utah Beach was sheltered by the Cotentin Peninsula, and although the water was rough, it was not quite as bad as at Omaha Beach. The young lieutenant of B Company of the 70th Tank Battalion, Francis Songer, who had fought in Africa and Sicily, had so little faith in the DD Tanks that during training he ordered his men to reinforce all the seams in the tanks’ canvas collars with catgut and needles bought with his own money. On D-day the water was far rougher than any the men had encountered in training, and Songer’s battle experience made him wary of launching from so very far from shore. When the landing craft were still five thousand yards out, the Navy officer began to drop the ramp to start launching the DD Tanks. Songer protested that the water was too rough and they were still too far away. The Navy man screamed back that if they went any farther, they all would be blown up. Songer ordered him to keep moving. The closer in they came, the calmer the water, but the greater the danger of mines. One of the landing craft did hit a mine and sank, taking its four tanks to the bottom. But by this time they were just a mile offshore, and Songer gave the order to launch. All but one of the twenty-eight tanks was able to swim in.
The 743d Tank Battalion assigned to the western half of Omaha Beach was led by Capt. Ned Elder, an instructor at the DD Training School, who had never been in battle before. The Navy’s flotilla leader was Lieutenant Rockwell, who had issued the earlier report warning of possible hazards from the weather. The two saw the pounding seas were much rougher than the DD Tanks had been designed for. Despite all of the pressures, Elder and Rockwell decided not to launch—and thereby not only saved the lives of their own men but helped ensure that there would be tanks to fight on Omaha later that day. Ned Elder did not live long enough to appreciate fully the value of his decision; less than two weeks later he died in battle, leaving a new bride and a son he would never meet.
On the eastern half of Omaha Beach it was a very different story. The 741st Tank Battalion was led by a short, muscular Southerner, Capt. James Thornton, Jr., and a tall, aristocratic Yankee, Capt. Charles Young. As they approached Omaha, Thornton talked over the situation with the men on his landing craft. It was clear that the water was far rougher than anything they had previously encountered—the wind at the time was force three—but the men felt duty-bound to their mission. Thornton called Young on the radio, and the two men decided to go ahead and take the risk of launching. They did not consult the senior naval officer, whose landing craft had been separated from the others in the rough seas; he first learned of the decision when he saw Young’s landing craft suddenly drop anchor and start launching tanks while still almost six thousand yards from shore. The order was sent out to all the landing craft to launch, and despite its misgivings, the Navy went ahead. The senior naval officer launched the DD Tanks from his own craft, only to watch helplessly as, one after another, they sank almost instantaneously.
Twenty-nine tanks and about 145 men from the 741st Tank Battalion were thrown into the icy waters of the English Channel. Thanks to a fortunate accident, one landing craft was unable to launch its tanks and landed them safely onshore. But out of the twenty-nine tanks that were launched, just two were able to swim into the eastern sector of Omaha Beach.
The senior naval officer launched the DD Tanks only to watch helplessly as they sank.
Some of the tanks sank immediately, giving the men inside no chance to escape from the steel coffins. As the water poured in over the canvas collars and the seams burst, seconds made the difference. Those standing on the deck had to struggle with the seven-foot canvas wall that surrounded them in order to break loose. Even if a soldier did struggle free of the canvas, the thirty-two tons of sinking metal created a suction that could drag him to the bottom. One of the landing craft commanders added a personal postscript to his official report that read, “Needless to say, 1 am not proud of the fact nor will 1 ever cease regretting that 1 did not take the tanks all the way to the beach.”