- Historic Sites
The First Wave
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
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, I am not proud of the fact nor will I ever cease regretting that I did not take the tanks all the way to the beach.”
The bombs of the Allied air attack had overshot Omaha, and the naval gunfire had undershot it. The German defenses were fully intact. With few tanks to support them, the troops were killed as they landed on the beach or were pinned down by gunfire. In some companies more than 80 percent of the soldiers on Omaha were never even able to fire their weapons. Col. George A. Taylor pushed his men forward that day with the words “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here!” For a while it was that close. Only the sacrifice of American lives pitted against German guns eventually overwhelmed the enemy. It was a costly victory.
In 1979 the mayor of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer wrote a letter to inform the U.S. Army that some fishermen in his village had located sunken tanks off Omaha Beach. The mayor met with representatives of the Army and explained that he wanted “to return the remains of the soldier-heroes back to their families for final and decent burial.” A single Army diver with rented scuba tanks and no other equipment spent less than two days looking for the tanks. Because of the swift current and poor visibility, he did not find them. French fishermen assured the diver they had caught the tanks in their nets, and later French scuba divers actually saw them. But the chief mortuary officer for the Memorial Affairs Activity Program in Europe, John G. Rogers, called off the search. Later the program director in Washington told him not to make any further efforts because “disposition of remains funds are not available to finance the salvage of the tanks. The Army’s responsibility begins when the tanks are out of the water....” In true Catch-22 style, the Memorial Affairs Division’s position is that they will not initiate any further action to recover and bury the men of the 741st Tank Battalion until there is proof that there are bodies in the sunken tanks.
So the perhaps one dozen tanks and the men who went down with them remain where they sank, a few thousand yards from the U.S. military cemetery at Saint Laurent-sur-Mer. These were soldiers who had been asked to lead the first wave of the Allied landings on the European continent. They gave their lives attempting to reach the shores of France, but they seem destined to remain forever a few thousand yards away from their objective, their cemetery, and their countrymen.