On Omaha Beach

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I WAS A CAPTAIN in the Stonewall Brigade when I first went into battle at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Our outfit was directly descended from the famed command of Gen. Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson and proud of it, and D-day was for me much as the First Manassas had been in 1861 for a Capt. Randolph Barton, CSA, of the Stonewall Brigade, who wrote: “I think I went into that action with less trepidation than into any subsequent one. Inexperience doubtless had much to do with it, and discipline told on me from first to last.”

For me, too, in those first twenty-four hours, innocence was lost, trepidation surfaced, and discipline and training somehow prevailed. In ways D-day seems more distant from 1983 than from 1861 and, overall, like a particularly long and chaotic dream.

My command was Headquarters Company, 2d Battalion, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. The division, composed originally of National Guardsmen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, was in 1944, by reason of the draft, a cross section of American military manpower—the white part, that is; the army was still segregated. The commanding general, the three regimental commanders, and a few others, including our battalion commander, were professional soldiers; the rest of us were aggressively amateur in background and viewpoint.

For most of a year the 29th trained for this operation, first in general amphibious tactics, and finally in great secrecy all planning was focused upon a small stretch of Normandy coast at the base of the Cherbourg peninsula. No surprise assault, this. Apart from exact time and place, all the warring world knew it loomed and that its outcome would determine the course of the war in Europe.

The 2d Battalion began its preparation from a camp on the edge of the waterlogged expanse of Dartmoor, Devonshire, England, in the spring of 1943. Our commander at the time was a slightly built lieutenant colonel who addressed the battalion from a special stance—hands on hips, head tilted back and to the side. He had us formed in platoons of about thirty each, and then shouted that we were boat teams. From his posture, this cry appeared—not inappropriately—to be directed at Heaven.

Over the next few weeks, broad outlines of the plan emerged. We would cross the Channel in transports, transfer to landing craft near the coast, and storm into France, destroying all Germans and their works in the way. Practice of this grand design started off as vaguely as the first announcement of it. Outlines of landing craft were staked out between barrack huts, and cargo nets were swung from the eaves. We clambered up and down the nets and charged out of the mockups. Day and night tactical exercises were held on the soggy expanse of Dartmoor, where the rain was constant; uniforms, blankets, and food seemed always damp and cold.

 

About this time the 29th got a new commander, a demanding, uncompromising soldier. He was everywhere and into everything; his disapproval was forceful and usually final. We who were willing to make reasonable compromises with military perfection developed a marked wariness. He relieved two commanders of the 2d Battalion in turn; there was a similar shuffle throughout the division, and while deadwood was disposed of, some of his judgments were not borne out in battle: one of our deposed battalion commanders became a hero of the war in Normandy; a company commander who was relieved for not being forceful enough won the Distinguished Service Cross on the beach.

The tempo of preparation was constantly stepped up. New draftees, appearing very young, arrived to top the battalion off at full strength of nine hundred. Full-dress rehearsals were held on a Devonshire beach. We loaded into landing craft that pitched and rolled out into the Channel and then roared landward to drop ramps for us to flounder to the beach and go through assault drills.

We also practiced loading onto the U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson , a pre-war luxury liner that was to convey us to the offshore area for launching in landing craft for the beach. To foot soldiers the Jefferson , even stripped down for troop transport, confirmed exaggerated memories of the comfortable world before the war.

Another sign of the 29th’s critical role was the interest in it shown by the high command. One day General Montgomery spoke to the division assembled in a huge meadow, but from my position all I could make out was a small figure gesticulating from the hood of a jeep. We were also addressed by General Bradley, who told us that we were select soldiers and assured us that casualties would not be as heavy as forecast. Few, I believe, really contemplated being a casualty.

ALL IN ALL , something of a pre-big-game atmosphere developed, in which we, an enormous first team, were exhorted and examined for competence and spirit. On the whole I believe we were light of heart, caught up in the momentum of a mighty effort. I don’t recall questioning a frontal assault on prepared defenses from the unstable base of the Channel, even though word had come through of the cost of such assaults in the Pacific, and at Dieppe and Salerno.