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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
Gasping for air and retching salt water, I reached the embankment. All around were familiar faces from F, G, H, and Headquarters companies. Those who had arrived with me were in about my condition; others were more recovered. All were quiet. The embankment was in the eye of the storm, and no one was inclined to leave it without some compelling reason. Minutes later a tall, very composed colonel knelt beside me and said calmly that we must get the assault started inland. My work at the moment was for breath and against nausea, and I must not have looked a very hopeful source of dynamic leadership. He departed, walking upright down the embankment. I have no idea who he was or what became of him. Incredibly enough—and this may be a trick that memory has played—I recall his uniform as dry and clean, while the rest of us were soaking wet and sand encrusted.
With the burst of fire, I lay flat out, supporting my head above water by hands on the shifting sands.
Gradually my lungs and stomach stopped heaving. I took my .45 service automatic from its plastic bag and found it sticky with salt and gritty with sand. When I pulled the slide back to load a round into the chamber, it stuck halfway. The embankment was strewn with rifles, Browning automatics, and light machine guns all similarly fouled. Except for one tank that was blasting away from the sand toward the exit road, the crusade in Europe at this point was disarmed and naked before its enemies. The Germans clearly lost Omaha Beach by failing to assemble a single company of riflemen to descend and sweep us up. Looking down onto our obviously helpless condition, they still stuck to their bunkers. We may have sensed that this was all they would do. On no other basis can I account for the fact that I had no feeling of defeat and saw none exhibited around me.
About this time the battalion commander came over the embankment with some half-dozen soldiers in tow. He had been trying to get up the bluff at this point but was balked by weapons that wouldn’t function. His first words, “This is a debacle,” delivered in his volley fashion, remain with me; and debacle suited the scene as well as any word could. He told me to sort out the boat teams and round up some firepower, and then he left on the run down the embankment to find a way up the bluff. Those who could move were already drawing together into familiar squads. But to organize firepower was another matter, for not a functioning weapon could be found. Nor could anything of the enemy be seen from the embankment. I left some of the able-bodied trying to clean weapons and ran down to the waterline, taking cover behind a blown-over tank dozer. From here the face of the bluffs and the exit road were visible, and I expected to see flashes and smoke from German guns. The only smoke visible on the enemy side, however, was in separate areas far down to my right and to my left, where brush fires were rolling up the slopes. While I did not know it then, those common brush fires, started inadvertently by the naval cannonade, were the salvation of the assault on Omaha Beach. Under their smoke a few brave souls were climbing the bluff. Nothing else accomplished by naval guns could have exceeded the value of this act, which demonstrated that a few smoke shells would have served as well as all the weight of high explosive. This was chance’s second intrusion, the invasion planners having ruled out deliberate smoking of the beach as a hindrance to naval fire direction.
The Germans lost Omaha Beach by failing to send a single company of riflemen to descend and sweep us up.
We were not aware of it, but chance, with inexhaustible ingenuity, had made a third major entry onto the scene. The German counterattack division, which Intelligence reports placed twenty miles inland, was, in fact, in the coastal defenses. In addition to fortress troops, considered unreliable outside their bunkers, we were hitting first-class German infantry, than which there is none better. While we coped with the weather and took advantage of the smoke, the enemy, for his part, passed up the opportunity of wiping out the feeble beachhead with troops that happened to be at the right place at the right time.