On Omaha Beach

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Unaware of these workings of fate, I splashed down the waterline through the debris in the direction the battalion commander had taken and acquired a second bloodying. This time I didn’t hear the shell, but there was another jar to the side of my face—opposite to the first one—and again I started leaking blood. My injuries, though much less serious than most, were spectacular by being so visible. Two soldiers advised me I’d been hit and guided me to a busy aid station. A medic looked over the wounds on both sides of my face and announced with professional authority that here was a rare case of a shot having gone cleanly through one cheek and out the other without damage to teeth or tongue. Most of those around the station were 2d Battalion men who knew me, and they seemed to look on this as extraordinary on a day of wounds. I didn’t take the trouble to deny the diagnosis, and so, without intent, abetted one of the minor tales of Omaha Beach: that of the cantain shot through the face while open-mouthed, suffering nothing more lasting than dimples. The story turned out to be harder to shed than the wounds. It gained wider currency through Ernie PyIe, who was on the beach later in that day and reported the “miracle” wound. When I tried to correct the story, people were reluctant to accept the more mundane truth.

Back to the beach: The aid man applied sulfanilamide power to my face, and, having an excuse, I rested and worried over what to do in this nightmarish circumstance so different from any I had ever imagined. Out among the breakers two large infantry landing craft were broached sideways to the beach, gushing black smoke. And all the while, the clouds hung gray and low, and waves crashed with a slow-paced roar, reaching up the beach to roll the bone-white shingle stones. All around were dead and dying, and I wonder more and more at the amount of life borne so quickly away.

Reluctantly rousing myself, I ran down the beach, coming to a stretch vacant and quiet except for the wind, waves, and beach birds swooping and crying. Omaha Beach was of this pattern: violent swirls of death and destruction with areas of quiet in between. It was as if the funnels of multiple tornadoes were touching down at spots, whirling men and materiel into broken pieces and moving on to touch again.

I was about one thousand yards east of the Les Moulins exit road and in the area where the brush-fire smoke had concealed the first penetration. The face of the bluff here was blackened, but the fire was largely burned out and little smoke lingered. I could see American uniforms slowly near the top. A barbed-wire entanglement between the shingle and bluff had been blasted open, and machine-gun fire from a distance was whining through it. To the left was a bigger gap in the wire, where a party of soldiers was starting up the slope. I joined them and found that they were from our 3d Battalion and had landed by good fortune in this smoke-covered area.

The trail, traced through the ash and soot, wound between small personnel mines with which the slope was sown. We came out on top onto a plateau of green fields, bounded by the embankments of earth and brush called hedgerows. There was no indication on this first encounter of the life and death role that these were to play in the battle over the next weeks. Here the hedgerows were not defended, the Germans being concentrated along the bluff line. But soon, pushing inland, we would encounter German reserves using them as ready-made field fortifications, and their deadly potential would become shockingly apparent.

Commissioned a leader, I was leading no one and was certainly not where I was supposed to be.

Directly across the path at the top of the bluffs lay the first German soldier I had seen in two hours of battle. He was lying face downward, very dead, a stocky figure in complete uniform from boots to helmet. I recall no particular emotion on stepping over the body; in the brief course of that morning dead bodies had become commonplace; this one differed only in uniform and in title of “enemy.” The time was about 0930. I had spent two unproductive hours on the beach. Ahead, small groups were moving inland, single file, along a hedgerow. I debated whether to return to the beach and bring up more of the battalion along this route or to find my commander to see if this was what he wanted. I certainly didn’t want to return to the chaos below. I was a thousand yards off our appointed route, in the middle of another battalion, and in what I suspected was another regiment’s sector. In training this would have raised serious questions about my leadership. Now it seemed trivial. Our plan did not provide for high waves, winds up to eighteen knots, and an extra German division in the defenses. The shock, inertia, and confusion of this was countered by the initiative and courage of a few (one study numbers them at no more than forty-seven) who rose above the circumstances. They are largely unknown; the republic is considerably in their debt.