- 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
The last equipment arrived, and combat loads were found to be disastrously heavy. Some registered this by braying about the camp under their packs, saying that since they were loaded like jackasses, they might as well sound like them. There is a oang of oitv looking back down the years to willing soldiers struggling into such a battle under the weight—in addition to weapons—of canvas assault jackets with large pockets in which were grenades, rations, mess gear, raincoat, a special firstaid kit, toilet articles, motion-sickness pills, waterpurification tablets, DDT dusting powder, paste for boots in case of chemically contaminated areas, small blocks of TNT for blasting foxholes (never, I believe, used), and two hundred francs in invasion currency to start trade with the Normans. From a separate web belt swung an entrenching tool, another first-aid packet, and a canteen; from the shoulders were draped a gas mask and extra bandoliers of ammunition. Over sixty-eight pounds in all. All this worn over a heavy woolen uniform impregnated with a chemical to block blister gasses, giving the battalion the aroma of having been run through a sheep dip.
All of this was borne with ribald humor. But I recall one troublesome note during those last days. The evening before embarking, I returned to camp from a mission to find one of my men under arrest for refusing an order. I knew him as quiet and hardworking, and this was so out of character that I did not descend on him with the usual warnings of dire consequences. I tried to find out the reason for his refusal, which was not easy since he was not articulate. As we talked, it developed that his rebellion was not against what he termed “being pushed around” but against the insanity of the whole business. Perhaps I caught his feeling because—while never doubting that it had to be done—I, too, had a lurking sense of the insane. I could point out only that at this late date no replacement for his job was possible. He seemed relieved at having gotten his feelings across and said that he did not want to let his squad down and would do his best.
On the next day, June 3, we departed by truck for embarkation. The ride to the port was short. We stumbled out of the trucks, filed down a dockside street, were ferried out to the Thomas Jefferson , and against the pull of the heavy packs clambered up cargo nets to the deck. The closest to a send-off to war was a leathery old dock worker who croaked, ” ‘Ave a good go at it, mates!” It was like loading for a training exercise except for the mountains of equipment. Accommodations were spacious for a troopship, and I noted how the oppressive crowding, so much a part of a wartime army, thins out the closer the approach to battle. The initial assault on the two American beaches—Omaha and Utah—was to be made by no more than three thousand of the million and a half troops then crowded into southern England.
The weather was that English, month-of-June type that simultaneously promises fair and threatens foul. The harbor was spaced with craft of all the sizes and shapes developed for landing tanks, troops, and cargo on beaches. Having stowed our packs, we lined the deck to look with tolerant curiosity over the busy scene. It was, after all, for the sole purpose of getting us onto the coast of Normandy.
One officer vowed to boost morale by reciting “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” all the way to the beach.
D-day was to be June 5. We spent the night quietly, and also the next day, as worsening weather led to the decision to delay the landings. The new date was announced for dawn the next day—June 6. Ship’s signal lamps set up a frenzy of blinking, and that afternoon the antisubmarine net across the harbor was towed open and the Jefferson churned out into the wind-rough Channel. Vessels of all shapes and sizes, towing barrage balloons as if in some gigantic dun-hued carnival procession, were all around us. My view of this mightiest of all armadas was limited: my only interest was to bring the battalion command post in near the Les Moulins beach exit exactly thirty minutes after the first wave. Then we were to follow the assault to the top of the bluffs—the battalion’s first objective. All this was to be done within three hours, after which we were to await orders for further destruction of the German army, little of which, we innocently thought, would be left. I had selected on the map the command-post location and had in all confidence advised the regiment where it would be.
The last dinner on the Jefferson was quieter than usual; I recall no mention of the morrow. Afterward the chaplain tried to hold a service above the throb of the ship’s engine. There were probably more than the usual number of private prayers launched that night. Friends gravitated together; an engineer officer played an accordion, but there was no singing. I talked with a British navy frogman who had several times gone to Omaha Beach from a submarine to examine its obstacles. He could tell us little that we did not already know, but it was curious to talk with a man who had already walked on the stretch of sand we were making such a titanic effort to reach.