- Historic Sites
On Omaha Beach
Along this narrow stretch of sand, all the painstaking plans for the Normandy invasion fell apart. One of the men who was lucky enough to make it past the beachhead recalls a day of fear, chaos, grief—and triumph.
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
This search through the short beachhead was at a run and half-run, canvassing stray groups of antiaircraft men without weapons, signalmen without equipment, and medics with waterlogged aid kits. None were armed effectively enough to be worth impressing into our ranks. Next I recall standing beside a small, rural hotel where the bodies of three dead Americans were sprawled. The corporal of a squad of the 16th Regiment deployed around the hotel told me that the dead had been there when he arrived. When asked if he had seen any of the 116th, he assumed that look of the solider who is asked a question for which he doesn’t have to know the answer. The look involves a trace of piety and also questions the sanity of the asker. It is acquired early in basic training.
He inquired of the squad, “Any of you seen anything of the—what was it, sir?—116th?” They all assumed the same look. “We ain’t seen them,” he summarized. In the meantime a lanky private started firing at, and missing, the insulators on a telephone pole. Everyone ducked, and in answer to the corporal’s profane question about what he was doing, the private said that these might be lines that German observers were using. The corporal threatened to shoot him.
The corporal helped me arrange the lifeless young bodies in more decent postures and covered them with raincoats. I continued a search that, in retrospect, seems aimless.
The afternoon passed into the evening of doubledaylight-saving time by which the invasion planners provided for a long day of fighting in lieu of being unable to make the sun stand still. Sometime early in that evening I arrived at a crossing of lanes and realized that after many turnings I was thoroughly lost. Around me were only green fields and hedgerows; of war there was no evidence. The sodden mass that had been my map had been discarded. I turned by chance back toward St. Laurent instead of toward the encompassing German positions and out of the war. By that time I was far into the sector of the 16th Infantry. There were boat teams of E Company probably within shouting distance, but they might as well have been on another continent.
Back toward St. Laurent I crossed a new road that the engineers had opened from the beach. Trucks, jeeps, ambulances, and weapons carriers jammed this outlet and were turning into fields on either side. The Germans west of St. Laurent were still an effective stopper, but the pressure of men and materiel was building up in the beachhead. More helpful to the cause at the moment than these thin-skinned vehicles were guns of a decimated armored field-artillery battalion that had gone into action. For no reason that I can determine, I remember their red and white aiming stakes standing out brightly against the green field.
IN THE STREAM OF MEN and materiel flowing in from the beach was the 115th Infantry, a sister regiment in the 29th Division. The day hadn’t killed deep regimental instincts, for I recall passing it with the feeling of superiority of a combat veteran of several hours’ seniority. Near St. Laurent I met a squad of our 3d Battalion that was surprisingly knowledgeable of the situation. I was advised not to go into the village that had been shelled a short time before by either our warships or German artillery. The 2d Battalion was reported to be to the right along a farm road leading to Les Moulins, and to my amazement, that’s where it was. I found the battlion, about ninety strong, deployed around farm buildings facing German positions that we should, according to the plan, have long since occupied. The battalion commander was in a barn across a cobblestone-paved yard from the farmhouse. I told him that aside from the few men retrieved from the beach, I had found nothing but the dead, wounded, and emotionally crippled. He exhibited no dismay; such news was standard that day.
One of my duties as battalion adjutant was to keep a journal of combat orders and actions. Early in the evening I remembered this but could find neither dry paper nor anything for writing other than a grease pencil used in marking maps. The entries would probably have been as inexact as much of the information of the moment. Perhaps I should have made a greater effort; instead, I posted the Headquarters Company men (about a dozen, I believe) for command-post security and then washed my automatic in the barn’s horse trough. There was no gun oil and no certainty that it wouldn’t jam again after the first round.