- 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
Reveille was to be at 0200 with assault craft loading an hour later. The prospect did not induce sleep, but most of us turned in early. In our uncrowded state I had a cabin to myself. I lay on a bunk in that strangely lonely cabin and leafed through a copy of Collier’s that was full of war stories—banal and bloody, as wartime writing tends to be. I put it down and dozed but was awake when strident gongs sounded reveille. The engines had quieted; we were twelve miles off the beach; even the big liner was registering the waves. I got into the dank, sour-smelling uniform and shaved for D-day. Breakfast in the ornate saloon was unreal: bacon and eggs on the edge of eternity. Conversation was perfunctory. Everything moved automatically, except for a brief discussion with the ship’s mess officer, who demanded that troops going into battle should first clean up after the breakfast. The troops settled this by simply ignoring him. A message from General Eisenhower calling our effort a crusade to liberate Europe was read over the address system.
I struggled into my own gear, light compared with a rifleman’s but heavy and awkward enough. The final item was a life belt of twin brown tubes to be inflated by triggering capsules of carbon dioxide. Thus clad for the crusade, I wedged out into the line of laden officers crowding down the corridor toward boat stations. There was handshaking and exchanges of good luck, all in a dreamlike atmosphere of Outward Bound. We filed out through heavy blackout curtains into the predawn dark of D-day; a cold, damp wind swept the deck and whistled through the rigging. The Jefferson ’s rise and fall in the heaving sea was more noticeable than it had been below. Darkness was not complete; one of the requirements for the assault was a full moon, and some faint light from it penetrated the overcast and showed whitecaps breaking against the ship’s sides.
Obviously chance had already elbowed onto the scene in one of its favored military roles: miserable weather. We had practiced landings in rough surf but had never risked seas such as were now rocking the huge Jefferson . The assault, however, was locked into conditions of moon and tide, perishable factors that had to be used at once or be lost. So strategically situated, chance had great sport with us all—not excepting the German commanders, who considered conditions too bad for invasion.
My boat team assembled on station. We counted off and helped each other into the open-topped, rectangular steel box that we were to ride to war. It had a motor and rudder at the stern and the bow was a hinged ramp; on a platform above the motor was the dark shape of the coxswain, hunchbacked in a bulky life vest. It occurred to me that this was the first time I had seen him. We had been told that he was in command from ship to shore, and I realized I had no idea of how well he knew his job or how determined he was to get us in at the right place. We sorted ourselves out to long-rehearsed places in the cramped, swaying confines. An awful seasickness was already immobilizing many. I was fortunate to be spared.
When the ramp dropped, we lumbered off in three files—into the cold, shoulder-deep surf.
A stream of cryptic orders flowed from the ship’s address system, and from a control launch in the Channel came unintelligible sounds amplified through a bullhorn. Suddenly, with a rattle of chains and screech of wire cable, the craft ground slowly down the Jefferson ’s side to be met by a rising sea that slacked the cables and then dropped us with a crash as it rolled on. The next move brought us fully into the waves. By some miracle we were not slammed into the ship’s side; the propeller caught, and we followed a shepherding launch out to join other craft circling as in some strange conga line, red and green riding lights appearing on the crests and disappearing in the troughs of waves four or five feet high.
BLOWING SPUME HAD soaked us before we hit the Channel. It seemed we would surely swamp, and life belts were inflated. Not only our persons but also reels of telephone wire, radios, and demolition packs were girded with these in the hope that if they were lost in the surf, they would float ashore. The expansion of perhaps a hundred belts added to the bulk already crowding the craft, and so we rode, packed in an open can, feet awash in water and altogether cold, wet, and miserable. It seemed that we were slamming into waves with enough impact to start any rivet ever set.
After about an hour of circling, the control launch passed a signal, and the craft carrying us—the second wave of Stonewall Brigade—peeled off into line and began battering through heavy seas toward Normandy; thirty minutes ahead was the first wave; twenty minutes behind would come the third.