- 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
For the next two hours the line pitched and rolled toward Normandy and a gradually lighter horizon as we closed with the dawn of June 6. There was no attetnpt to talk above the roar of the engine, wind, slamming of the waves, and the laboring of the bilge pump that just managed to keep up with the water washing in. We stood packed together, encased in equipment, dumb with the noise and with the enormity toward which we were laboring. I recall offering no prayers and having no particular worries other than whether we were coming in on Dog Red sector.
The line roared past a great gray battleship, either the Texas or the Arkansas , that was by then to have obliterated the Les Moulins defenses. The ship’s huge guns were silent. The naval fire-control party that was supposed to direct their fire had accompanied the first wave but had been killed or had had its radios knocked out by the curtain of German fire that had descended along the waterline.
We bore on toward this curtain still unaware that it existed. It was now as fully daylight as the overcast allowed. Signs that things were going amiss were all around us, had I been battlewise enough to read them: one was the silent battleship, indicating that it was out of touch with the assault and fearful of firing into it; another was a trickle instead of a stream of return traffic from the first wave, which told of craft either destroyed or landed badly off target. Still another ill omen was the vacant sky where we had expected to see fighter bombers diving and strafing. We were unaware that the overcast had moved air strikes inland.
A haze of smoke, barely darker than the gray morning, was the first sign of the shore, and then the line of bluffs emerged. Our craft shuddered to a halt on a sandbar two hundred or so yards offshore. We were in among the beach obstacles: big, ugly structures partially covered by the rising tide. The coxswain failed on a couple of attempts to buck over the bar and then dropped the ramp. This may have been fortunate for us as well as prudent for the coxswain—a landing closer in would probably have drawn the artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire that was knocking the first wave apart. As it was, the German gunners had too many targets close by to bother with one more distant. So, as yet physically untouched by the battle, and in automatic response to the dropped ramp, we lumbered off in three files—center, right, left—into the cold, shoulder-deep surf. The life belt lifted me to the crest of a wave, and here, flailing around to keep right side up, I caught my first full glimpse of battle, the inner sanctum of war, toward which we had struggled so long and painfully. The sight was not inspiring. Where Channel and shore met was a wavering, undulating line of dark objects. Some of the larger ones, recognizable as tanks and landing craft, were erupting in black smoke. Higher up the beach was another line of smaller forms, straight as though drawn with a ruler, for they were aligned along a bank of shingle stone and seawall. Scattered black forms were detaching themselves from the surf and laboring toward this line. Looming up between beach and bluff through the smoke and mist was a three-story house. Such a structure was a landmark of the Dog Red sector, but I could not see the beach exit road. I believed that we had come in on target, but I ceased worrying greatly over whether we had or not. There is a definite calming effect to the casting of the die, and the die had been irrevocably cast on Omaha Beach.
THE WAVE PASSED ON , and in the trough I touched bottom, to be lifted again moments later and carried toward France. Such was the pattern of my advance in the greatest amphibious assault of history: up wave and down trough, propelled forward by an insweeping tide. By now the invasion had allied itself with gravity, and there was no escape from it for either the paratroopers of the airborne assault or we who came by sea. Our voluntary act was to step out of landing craft. From then on gravity—in the form of the tide—pulled us into battle. This alliance with natural force was not entirely harmonious. The tide tended strongly eastward and carried much of the 2d Battalion far from its long-rehearsed objectives. Indifferent gravity had also brought paratroopers down in many unplanned places. All in all, the balance of natural force on D-day favored the enemy; fortunately he took only limited advantage of it.
My alternate lift and fall with the waves gave me glimpses of the battle that were like the stopped frames of a motion picture. From the crests the beach was visible, in the troughs only green-black water. Thus, early in combat I developed what was to be a lasting regard for surface depressions. Omaha Beach coming into clearer focus made the successive walls of water between me and its exploding horror more and more welcome.