On Omaha Beach

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Word continued of death and disaster: the 111th Field Artillery Battalion, the longtime fire-support teammate of our regiment, had lost all its howitzers in the Channel, and its commander lay dead on the beach. The regimental commander and some of his staff were inland near Vierville—he and his adjutant wounded, his supply officer dead. There was a vague report that A Company of our 1st Battalion had lost all officers and most of its men in front of the Vierville exit road. This proved all too nearly true. (Many of the fragmented reports of that night are now verified by names on monuments across the United States. The memorial in Bedford, Virginia, the original home of A Company, bears twenty names under June 6, 1944.) Midnight found the Stonewall Brigade far-flung and hard used. First reports set losses at about one thousand men killed, wounded, or missing. This figure was scaled down, but not greatly, as some of the missing were gathered in. It had been one of the most costly days in the regiment’s history since Chancellorsville and the wounding unto death of Old Stonewall himself.

Of all the capacities that the years diminish, none leaves a greater void than that of the youthful ability for easy friendships without the questioning and restraints that complicate those of later life. I feel a void now in looking back upon friends gone that day. Together we had been through months and years of wartime discomforts and strain; marched countless tedious miles; lived in mud and dust, heat and cold. The battalion dominated our time and efforts. Then it all came down to this brief first day of battle, and for them it all ended, and for the rest of us I believe that what has been since has not been exactly the same.

Sorrow had its beginnings that night, but it was still a dim presence. We were weary, for twenty-four hours of flat-out physical and emotional effort had elapsed since reveille on the Jefferson . But neither weariness nor sorrow was the dominant presence. Overriding both was a sense of life forced to a hard, bright flame to survive. It is this, and its illuminations, I believe, that burnishes the memory of battle. Soldiers who have experienced this have tried to describe it and at the same time the dread that accompanies it. Dread and exhilaration from the same source at the same moment are difficult to reconcile and impossible to convey convincingly. It is common for visitors to war to note the increasing cheerfulness encountered on approaching the front. I believe that they are witnessing this phenomenon of intensified, illuminated life.

Nothing was further from my mind that night than speculation upon whether the shade of Stonewall Jackson might be drawn from the shadows to this unlikely place where the current bearers of the name of his famed command were in deep travail. History indicates that he would have given his usual abrupt order: “Close up, press on.” I cannot imagine disputing that awesome individual in person, but from this safe distance, I quote his less known pronouncement at the end of a hard and confused day at White Oak Swamp in the Seven Days’ Battles before Richmond, when he told his commanders, “Now, gentlemen, let us at once to bed and see if tomorrow we cannot do something. ” I believe that the day on Omaha Beach was as hard and confused as at White Oak Swamp, and rest from it was equally needed. In any event, in the early morning, I retired to a corner of the barn, cradled my swollen face, and slipped into a troubled sleep. The last sounds I recall were far-off artillery and machine-gun fire.

It was about two hours before dawn of the second day.