- 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
Others of the landing team were rising and falling with the waves around me like swimmers, unaccountably wearing steel helmets. Dirty red shellbursts were walking with rapid, short steps among the objects along the waterline. Off to the left a solitary landing craft skittered back out to sea, a sailor at its .50-caliber machine gun arching tracers toward Europe. Much farther down to the left one of our rocket ships loosed banks of missiles in gushes of white smoke. These, I learned later, fell innocuously into the Channel. Overhead to the right a single flight of the twin-tailed P-38 fighter bombers streaked inland, and close at hand a solitary destroyer ploughed along parallel to the shore. These were silent scenes; the wind was toward France and carried battle sounds away from us.
The staring eyes and open mouth of the first soldier I saw struck remains with me. His name I have lost.
On his first day of battle the foot soldier probes new emotional depths, and his findings, I believe, are fairly universal. One is a conviction that he is abandoned, alone, and uncared for in the world. I looked into this depth on seeing the nearly empty sea and sky. The thought came that the crusade had been called off as a bad iob. and that we few were left to struggle alone in the great, dark seascape. The first assault wave already on the beach did not resemble a battle line so much as it did heaps of refuse deposited there to burn and smolder unattended.
Abandoned or not, the tide and our own exertions brought us in through the obstructions to where the waves were breaking and rolling up the beach. There was no evidence that the engineers had succeeded in blasting the obstacles that now formed a barrier behind us. The water was waist deep, and we were moving faster. I would judge the time to be about 0730, and the first shots directed at us, however impersonally, keened above the sound of wind and surf. To my left a high cry in hurt surprise announced, “I’m hit!” I looked around. The white face, staring eyes, and open mouth of the first soldier I saw struck in battle remains with me. The image of no one—loved, admired, or disliked—is more vivid; his name I have lost. My first words in battle were not an exhortation to the troops but a useless shout to attend the wounded man. I think he was gone before the medic reached him.
With the burst of fire we all submerged neck deep in the surf. I lay flat out supporting my head above water by hands on the shifting sands and gave attention to the fact that a few more surges of the surf would eject me onto the beach where there were many dead things, both men and machines.
It was now apparent that we were coming ashore in one of the preregistered killing zones of German machine guns and mortars. The quick havoc they had wrought was all around in incredible chaos: bodies, weapons, boxes of demolitions, flamethrowers, reels of telephone wire, and personal equipment from socks to toilet articles. Discarded life belts writhed and twisted in the surf like brown sea slugs. The waves broke around the wrecked tanks, dozers, and landing craft, thick here in front of the heavily defended exit road.
From my prone position the beach rose like a steep, barren hillside. There was a stretch of sand, being narrowed by the minute by the tide, then a sharply rising shingle bank of small, smooth stones that ended at the seawall. Against the shingle bank and wall were the men of the first wave. Some were scooping out holes; a number were stretched out in the loose attitude of the wounded; others lay in ultimate stillness. I could see only the upper portion of the house, its mansard roof gaping with shell holes. I still could not make out the exit road, but we had come in not far off our appointed place. There were luckier sites but also unluckier ones.
While I was straining to see above the debris and still stay in the dubious protection of the water, one of the explosions that were rippling up and down the beach erupted close by. There was a hard jar to the side of my face, and blood started streaming off my chin. I don’t recall any particular emotion on being hit for the first time, but I did realize that this was no place to linger; those along the embankment seemed much safer. My boat team had completely disappeared in the debris. Having decided that survival, never mind valor, lay forward, I tried to rise but seemed to be hoisting the English Channel with me. The assault jacket’s pockets, the gas-mask case, boots, leggings, and uniform all held gallons of saltwater. I had long preached the maxim that a good soldier never abandons his equipment, but now I jettisoned the assault jacket and lumbered up the beach, streaming water.