- 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
I was following the path of some of these few, and I was not at all the happy warrior. Commissioned a leader, I was leading no one and was certainly not where I was supposed to be. Luck, however, continued with me. I came out onto a lane and here caught up with my enterprising commander, who was leading some mixed sections of F and G, and a few men of Headquarters Company. The lane led to the village of St. Laurent, about one-half mile east of our designated route. Perhaps because of the spectacular appearance of my face, I was not taken to task for showing up alone. The commander told me to bring up whatever of the battalion I could find as he was to go for our objective from this direction.
Now that I knew what I was supposed to do, it was with considerable relief to the spirit that I began a search through the shallow beachhead for men of the 2d Battalion. And here it is that I can’t remember clearly. Perhaps by this time my capacity for registering and storing sights and sounds in some order was saturated. Whatever the reason, the memory of that afternoon and night is a gray tapestry from which scenes emerge, then run together or change position, making it difficult to fix them in time and place.
I returned to the beach by the way I had left it. The burned-over area remained quiet, but toward the Les Moulins exit road the noise still mounted, and an even more distant rumbling was echoing from the Vierville exit far down to the west. The source of the noise, however, was shifting from German guns to our own. Destroyers cruising close inshore were methodically blasting the exit roads; a few surviving tanks were maneuvering in the limited space on the beach, adding the banshee screech of their high-velocity guns. The lighter debris was washed in enormous drifts along the high-water mark, and the receding tide was leaving windrows of it exposed. The seawall and shingle embankment were still lined with men, most of them wounded, others emotionally broken beyond use. I was not the only searcher for able bodies. Officers and noncommissioned officers from engineer outfits were trying to organize men and materiel for clearing the obstacles exposed by the receding tide. Fighters and workers were few; the abject watchers, many.
The aid station was still in operation and was a collecting point of disaster information on the killed and wounded, some of it wrong, much of it sadly correct. Our amiable and gentlemanly operations officer was dead, and I never learned how far he had gotten into “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” The commander of E Company was killed far down the beach; the commanders of H and F companies were badly wounded. Many others of all ranks had simply disappeared into the maw of the exit road. The next day we learned that fragments of F, G, and H companies had climbed the bluff under concealment of the smoke west of Les Moulins. There they joined a surviving part of the 1st Battalion and the regimental commander near Vierville. This was only about a straight mile west of the 2d Battalion fragments outside St. Laurent, but the mile was German-occupied. Instead of being assembled on its objective, the battalion formed a giant letter U , with the points inland at St. Laurent and at Vierville and the base running along the beach. It was, moreover, a thin, wavering U with numerous gaps.
Disaster information was collected at the ai station, some of it wrong, much of it sadly correct.
A few functioning soldiers came back with me to where the advance was stalled outside of St. Laurent. My search then turned eastward as I looked for sections of E Company reported to have landed far down in the 16th Infantry area. I met the battalion supply officer on a road along which were modest holiday cottages. On this day of history we came across three soldiers ransacking the poor contents of a cottage. We sent them on, but it was probably a brief interruption to a wartime career of looting. Further along this road we crossed a long, straight mound of dirt that looked as though raised by a giant mole with a strong sense of direction. It was a covered trench leading inland from the beach defenses. Some 2d Battalion men were there debating over whether to hunt for explosives to blow it up or try to smoke it out. The battalion commander’s need being the more urgent, they were pointed in his direction and the tunnel left to others.
CONTINUING, I ENCOUNTERED my first liberated Norman: an elderly farmer in a faded blue smock, agitatedly pacing in front of a small cottage. My high school French didn’t seem to reassure him that the battle had moved on, so I proffered some soggy notes of invasion currency as more universally soothing. This, too, had no effect, possibly because it did not resemble any currency he recognized; gold Napoleons might have calmed him. I left him still pacing.