- 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 A CAPTAIN in the Stonewall Brigade when I first went into battle at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Our outfit was directly descended from the famed command of Gen. Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson and proud of it, and D-day was for me much as the First Manassas had been in 1861 for a Capt. Randolph Barton, CSA, of the Stonewall Brigade, who wrote: “I think I went into that action with less trepidation than into any subsequent one. Inexperience doubtless had much to do with it, and discipline told on me from first to last.”
For me, too, in those first twenty-four hours, innocence was lost, trepidation surfaced, and discipline and training somehow prevailed. In ways D-day seems more distant from 1983 than from 1861 and, overall, like a particularly long and chaotic dream.
My command was Headquarters Company, 2d Battalion, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. The division, composed originally of National Guardsmen from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, was in 1944, by reason of the draft, a cross section of American military manpower—the white part, that is; the army was still segregated. The commanding general, the three regimental commanders, and a few others, including our battalion commander, were professional soldiers; the rest of us were aggressively amateur in background and viewpoint.
For most of a year the 29th trained for this operation, first in general amphibious tactics, and finally in great secrecy all planning was focused upon a small stretch of Normandy coast at the base of the Cherbourg peninsula. No surprise assault, this. Apart from exact time and place, all the warring world knew it loomed and that its outcome would determine the course of the war in Europe.
The 2d Battalion began its preparation from a camp on the edge of the waterlogged expanse of Dartmoor, Devonshire, England, in the spring of 1943. Our commander at the time was a slightly built lieutenant colonel who addressed the battalion from a special stance—hands on hips, head tilted back and to the side. He had us formed in platoons of about thirty each, and then shouted that we were boat teams. From his posture, this cry appeared—not inappropriately—to be directed at Heaven.
Over the next few weeks, broad outlines of the plan emerged. We would cross the Channel in transports, transfer to landing craft near the coast, and storm into France, destroying all Germans and their works in the way. Practice of this grand design started off as vaguely as the first announcement of it. Outlines of landing craft were staked out between barrack huts, and cargo nets were swung from the eaves. We clambered up and down the nets and charged out of the mockups. Day and night tactical exercises were held on the soggy expanse of Dartmoor, where the rain was constant; uniforms, blankets, and food seemed always damp and cold.
About this time the 29th got a new commander, a demanding, uncompromising soldier. He was everywhere and into everything; his disapproval was forceful and usually final. We who were willing to make reasonable compromises with military perfection developed a marked wariness. He relieved two commanders of the 2d Battalion in turn; there was a similar shuffle throughout the division, and while deadwood was disposed of, some of his judgments were not borne out in battle: one of our deposed battalion commanders became a hero of the war in Normandy; a company commander who was relieved for not being forceful enough won the Distinguished Service Cross on the beach.
The tempo of preparation was constantly stepped up. New draftees, appearing very young, arrived to top the battalion off at full strength of nine hundred. Full-dress rehearsals were held on a Devonshire beach. We loaded into landing craft that pitched and rolled out into the Channel and then roared landward to drop ramps for us to flounder to the beach and go through assault drills.
We also practiced loading onto the U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson , a pre-war luxury liner that was to convey us to the offshore area for launching in landing craft for the beach. To foot soldiers the Jefferson , even stripped down for troop transport, confirmed exaggerated memories of the comfortable world before the war.
Another sign of the 29th’s critical role was the interest in it shown by the high command. One day General Montgomery spoke to the division assembled in a huge meadow, but from my position all I could make out was a small figure gesticulating from the hood of a jeep. We were also addressed by General Bradley, who told us that we were select soldiers and assured us that casualties would not be as heavy as forecast. Few, I believe, really contemplated being a casualty.
ALL IN ALL , something of a pre-big-game atmosphere developed, in which we, an enormous first team, were exhorted and examined for competence and spirit. On the whole I believe we were light of heart, caught up in the momentum of a mighty effort. I don’t recall questioning a frontal assault on prepared defenses from the unstable base of the Channel, even though word had come through of the cost of such assaults in the Pacific, and at Dieppe and Salerno.
While rough winds were still shaking the darling buds of May, the battalion gave the Dartmoor camp a last policing and entrucked for the Stonewall Brigade’s assembly area in Dorset. Watching the trucks roll out the camp gate, I thought that we were as ready as an outfit could be.
The next few days were rare, sunny ones that helped dry Dartmoor dampness from bones and bedrolls. In the evenings the 2d’s lanky transportation officer and I found rides to Bournemouth, where we had made friends with an English dowager who organized parties on short notice. The south of England was sealed off; troops were everywhere and every leaf-roofed lane packed with supplies. The air was charged with restrained violence.
I don’t recall questioning a frontal assault on prepared defenses from the Channel’s unstable base.
Parties ended as the 2d moved again to embarkation ports at Poole and Portland. Gradually the realization grew that no matter how many supplies were accumulated, or how brilliant the planning was, the job would come down heaviest upon the infantry. Rather than self-pity or resentment, this engendered in us what was probably an obnoxious arrogance.
Now came the final operations order, which we pounced on as the Book of Revelation. Here it was, on smudged, mimeographed sheets, with headings, subheadings, subsubheadings, and annexes, stating that we would assault the Easy Green, Dog Red, and Dog White subsectors of the beach, which we learned was dubbed “Omaha.” Our three rifle companies would go in abreast, preceded by tanks equipped with flotation devices enabling them to “swim” ashore. Directly behind the rifle companies would come combat engineers to clear beach obstacles, then our heavy weapons, battalion headquarters, and batteries of antiaircraft guns. All was on a split-second schedule, the rifle-company boats to touch down one minute after the tanks. Within thirtv minutes the entire battalion was to be ashore, followed by wave after wave of artillery, engineers, medical units, and amphibious supply trucks. It is unlikely that even under training conditions such a schedule could have been followed; in the actuality, it proved fantasy.
Their defenses seemed impregnable, our attack overwhelming. We felt the odds favored overwhelming.
The veteran 1st Infantry Division commanded the initial assault, and the 116th was attached to it for that phase. Attacking on our left would be 1st Division’s 16th Regiment. The Stonewall Brigade’s principal objectives were two roads that angle up from the beach to the crest of the bluffs, essential for moving heavy equipment inland. The 2d Battalion was to secure the road up to the village of Les Moulins.
The known difficulties were three separate bands of underwater obstacles, ranging from logs angled into the sand with mines attached to their tips, to steel gatelike structures, and giant iron jackstraws. The exit roads were guarded by concrete bunkers, barbed wire, and mines. The bluffs were zigzagged with fire trenches. An estimated eight hundred to one thousand troops manned this sector, some of them Polish or Russian defectors. Their willingness to fight to the death for the Third Reich was considered doubtful. The closest German counterattack force was believed to be an infantry division about twenty miles inland.
To destroy all this, the Allied command had assembled a force of awesome proportions: fleets of bombers and fighter bombers to saturate all known targets (and incidentally to crater the beach with ready-made foxholes), two battleships, three cruisers, eight destroyers, and rocket-launching craft.
In bare recital the defense was impregnable, the weight of our attack overwhelming. We believed the odds to favor the overwhelming. Some of our young greyhounds maintained that they were going to race across the beach so fast that if they hit any barbed wire, they might spring right back into the Channel. The operations officer, a steady and cheerful presence, vowed to keep up the spirits of his boat team by reciting “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” all the way to the beach, timing the final line with the fall of the ramp.
The last equipment arrived, and combat loads were found to be disastrously heavy. Some registered this by braying about the camp under their packs, saying that since they were loaded like jackasses, they might as well sound like them. There is a oang of oitv looking back down the years to willing soldiers struggling into such a battle under the weight—in addition to weapons—of canvas assault jackets with large pockets in which were grenades, rations, mess gear, raincoat, a special firstaid kit, toilet articles, motion-sickness pills, waterpurification tablets, DDT dusting powder, paste for boots in case of chemically contaminated areas, small blocks of TNT for blasting foxholes (never, I believe, used), and two hundred francs in invasion currency to start trade with the Normans. From a separate web belt swung an entrenching tool, another first-aid packet, and a canteen; from the shoulders were draped a gas mask and extra bandoliers of ammunition. Over sixty-eight pounds in all. All this worn over a heavy woolen uniform impregnated with a chemical to block blister gasses, giving the battalion the aroma of having been run through a sheep dip.
All of this was borne with ribald humor. But I recall one troublesome note during those last days. The evening before embarking, I returned to camp from a mission to find one of my men under arrest for refusing an order. I knew him as quiet and hardworking, and this was so out of character that I did not descend on him with the usual warnings of dire consequences. I tried to find out the reason for his refusal, which was not easy since he was not articulate. As we talked, it developed that his rebellion was not against what he termed “being pushed around” but against the insanity of the whole business. Perhaps I caught his feeling because—while never doubting that it had to be done—I, too, had a lurking sense of the insane. I could point out only that at this late date no replacement for his job was possible. He seemed relieved at having gotten his feelings across and said that he did not want to let his squad down and would do his best.
On the next day, June 3, we departed by truck for embarkation. The ride to the port was short. We stumbled out of the trucks, filed down a dockside street, were ferried out to the Thomas Jefferson , and against the pull of the heavy packs clambered up cargo nets to the deck. The closest to a send-off to war was a leathery old dock worker who croaked, ” ‘Ave a good go at it, mates!” It was like loading for a training exercise except for the mountains of equipment. Accommodations were spacious for a troopship, and I noted how the oppressive crowding, so much a part of a wartime army, thins out the closer the approach to battle. The initial assault on the two American beaches—Omaha and Utah—was to be made by no more than three thousand of the million and a half troops then crowded into southern England.
The weather was that English, month-of-June type that simultaneously promises fair and threatens foul. The harbor was spaced with craft of all the sizes and shapes developed for landing tanks, troops, and cargo on beaches. Having stowed our packs, we lined the deck to look with tolerant curiosity over the busy scene. It was, after all, for the sole purpose of getting us onto the coast of Normandy.
One officer vowed to boost morale by reciting “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” all the way to the beach.
D-day was to be June 5. We spent the night quietly, and also the next day, as worsening weather led to the decision to delay the landings. The new date was announced for dawn the next day—June 6. Ship’s signal lamps set up a frenzy of blinking, and that afternoon the antisubmarine net across the harbor was towed open and the Jefferson churned out into the wind-rough Channel. Vessels of all shapes and sizes, towing barrage balloons as if in some gigantic dun-hued carnival procession, were all around us. My view of this mightiest of all armadas was limited: my only interest was to bring the battalion command post in near the Les Moulins beach exit exactly thirty minutes after the first wave. Then we were to follow the assault to the top of the bluffs—the battalion’s first objective. All this was to be done within three hours, after which we were to await orders for further destruction of the German army, little of which, we innocently thought, would be left. I had selected on the map the command-post location and had in all confidence advised the regiment where it would be.
The last dinner on the Jefferson was quieter than usual; I recall no mention of the morrow. Afterward the chaplain tried to hold a service above the throb of the ship’s engine. There were probably more than the usual number of private prayers launched that night. Friends gravitated together; an engineer officer played an accordion, but there was no singing. I talked with a British navy frogman who had several times gone to Omaha Beach from a submarine to examine its obstacles. He could tell us little that we did not already know, but it was curious to talk with a man who had already walked on the stretch of sand we were making such a titanic effort to reach.
Reveille was to be at 0200 with assault craft loading an hour later. The prospect did not induce sleep, but most of us turned in early. In our uncrowded state I had a cabin to myself. I lay on a bunk in that strangely lonely cabin and leafed through a copy of Collier’s that was full of war stories—banal and bloody, as wartime writing tends to be. I put it down and dozed but was awake when strident gongs sounded reveille. The engines had quieted; we were twelve miles off the beach; even the big liner was registering the waves. I got into the dank, sour-smelling uniform and shaved for D-day. Breakfast in the ornate saloon was unreal: bacon and eggs on the edge of eternity. Conversation was perfunctory. Everything moved automatically, except for a brief discussion with the ship’s mess officer, who demanded that troops going into battle should first clean up after the breakfast. The troops settled this by simply ignoring him. A message from General Eisenhower calling our effort a crusade to liberate Europe was read over the address system.
I struggled into my own gear, light compared with a rifleman’s but heavy and awkward enough. The final item was a life belt of twin brown tubes to be inflated by triggering capsules of carbon dioxide. Thus clad for the crusade, I wedged out into the line of laden officers crowding down the corridor toward boat stations. There was handshaking and exchanges of good luck, all in a dreamlike atmosphere of Outward Bound. We filed out through heavy blackout curtains into the predawn dark of D-day; a cold, damp wind swept the deck and whistled through the rigging. The Jefferson ’s rise and fall in the heaving sea was more noticeable than it had been below. Darkness was not complete; one of the requirements for the assault was a full moon, and some faint light from it penetrated the overcast and showed whitecaps breaking against the ship’s sides.
Obviously chance had already elbowed onto the scene in one of its favored military roles: miserable weather. We had practiced landings in rough surf but had never risked seas such as were now rocking the huge Jefferson . The assault, however, was locked into conditions of moon and tide, perishable factors that had to be used at once or be lost. So strategically situated, chance had great sport with us all—not excepting the German commanders, who considered conditions too bad for invasion.
My boat team assembled on station. We counted off and helped each other into the open-topped, rectangular steel box that we were to ride to war. It had a motor and rudder at the stern and the bow was a hinged ramp; on a platform above the motor was the dark shape of the coxswain, hunchbacked in a bulky life vest. It occurred to me that this was the first time I had seen him. We had been told that he was in command from ship to shore, and I realized I had no idea of how well he knew his job or how determined he was to get us in at the right place. We sorted ourselves out to long-rehearsed places in the cramped, swaying confines. An awful seasickness was already immobilizing many. I was fortunate to be spared.
When the ramp dropped, we lumbered off in three files—into the cold, shoulder-deep surf.
A stream of cryptic orders flowed from the ship’s address system, and from a control launch in the Channel came unintelligible sounds amplified through a bullhorn. Suddenly, with a rattle of chains and screech of wire cable, the craft ground slowly down the Jefferson ’s side to be met by a rising sea that slacked the cables and then dropped us with a crash as it rolled on. The next move brought us fully into the waves. By some miracle we were not slammed into the ship’s side; the propeller caught, and we followed a shepherding launch out to join other craft circling as in some strange conga line, red and green riding lights appearing on the crests and disappearing in the troughs of waves four or five feet high.
BLOWING SPUME HAD soaked us before we hit the Channel. It seemed we would surely swamp, and life belts were inflated. Not only our persons but also reels of telephone wire, radios, and demolition packs were girded with these in the hope that if they were lost in the surf, they would float ashore. The expansion of perhaps a hundred belts added to the bulk already crowding the craft, and so we rode, packed in an open can, feet awash in water and altogether cold, wet, and miserable. It seemed that we were slamming into waves with enough impact to start any rivet ever set.
After about an hour of circling, the control launch passed a signal, and the craft carrying us—the second wave of Stonewall Brigade—peeled off into line and began battering through heavy seas toward Normandy; thirty minutes ahead was the first wave; twenty minutes behind would come the third.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This search through the short beachhead was at a run and half-run, canvassing stray groups of antiaircraft men without weapons, signalmen without equipment, and medics with waterlogged aid kits. None were armed effectively enough to be worth impressing into our ranks. Next I recall standing beside a small, rural hotel where the bodies of three dead Americans were sprawled. The corporal of a squad of the 16th Regiment deployed around the hotel told me that the dead had been there when he arrived. When asked if he had seen any of the 116th, he assumed that look of the solider who is asked a question for which he doesn’t have to know the answer. The look involves a trace of piety and also questions the sanity of the asker. It is acquired early in basic training.
He inquired of the squad, “Any of you seen anything of the—what was it, sir?—116th?” They all assumed the same look. “We ain’t seen them,” he summarized. In the meantime a lanky private started firing at, and missing, the insulators on a telephone pole. Everyone ducked, and in answer to the corporal’s profane question about what he was doing, the private said that these might be lines that German observers were using. The corporal threatened to shoot him.
The corporal helped me arrange the lifeless young bodies in more decent postures and covered them with raincoats. I continued a search that, in retrospect, seems aimless.
The afternoon passed into the evening of doubledaylight-saving time by which the invasion planners provided for a long day of fighting in lieu of being unable to make the sun stand still. Sometime early in that evening I arrived at a crossing of lanes and realized that after many turnings I was thoroughly lost. Around me were only green fields and hedgerows; of war there was no evidence. The sodden mass that had been my map had been discarded. I turned by chance back toward St. Laurent instead of toward the encompassing German positions and out of the war. By that time I was far into the sector of the 16th Infantry. There were boat teams of E Company probably within shouting distance, but they might as well have been on another continent.
Back toward St. Laurent I crossed a new road that the engineers had opened from the beach. Trucks, jeeps, ambulances, and weapons carriers jammed this outlet and were turning into fields on either side. The Germans west of St. Laurent were still an effective stopper, but the pressure of men and materiel was building up in the beachhead. More helpful to the cause at the moment than these thin-skinned vehicles were guns of a decimated armored field-artillery battalion that had gone into action. For no reason that I can determine, I remember their red and white aiming stakes standing out brightly against the green field.
IN THE STREAM OF MEN and materiel flowing in from the beach was the 115th Infantry, a sister regiment in the 29th Division. The day hadn’t killed deep regimental instincts, for I recall passing it with the feeling of superiority of a combat veteran of several hours’ seniority. Near St. Laurent I met a squad of our 3d Battalion that was surprisingly knowledgeable of the situation. I was advised not to go into the village that had been shelled a short time before by either our warships or German artillery. The 2d Battalion was reported to be to the right along a farm road leading to Les Moulins, and to my amazement, that’s where it was. I found the battlion, about ninety strong, deployed around farm buildings facing German positions that we should, according to the plan, have long since occupied. The battalion commander was in a barn across a cobblestone-paved yard from the farmhouse. I told him that aside from the few men retrieved from the beach, I had found nothing but the dead, wounded, and emotionally crippled. He exhibited no dismay; such news was standard that day.
One of my duties as battalion adjutant was to keep a journal of combat orders and actions. Early in the evening I remembered this but could find neither dry paper nor anything for writing other than a grease pencil used in marking maps. The entries would probably have been as inexact as much of the information of the moment. Perhaps I should have made a greater effort; instead, I posted the Headquarters Company men (about a dozen, I believe) for command-post security and then washed my automatic in the barn’s horse trough. There was no gun oil and no certainty that it wouldn’t jam again after the first round.
Word continued of death and disaster: the 111th Field Artillery Battalion, the longtime fire-support teammate of our regiment, had lost all its howitzers in the Channel, and its commander lay dead on the beach. The regimental commander and some of his staff were inland near Vierville—he and his adjutant wounded, his supply officer dead. There was a vague report that A Company of our 1st Battalion had lost all officers and most of its men in front of the Vierville exit road. This proved all too nearly true. (Many of the fragmented reports of that night are now verified by names on monuments across the United States. The memorial in Bedford, Virginia, the original home of A Company, bears twenty names under June 6, 1944.) Midnight found the Stonewall Brigade far-flung and hard used. First reports set losses at about one thousand men killed, wounded, or missing. This figure was scaled down, but not greatly, as some of the missing were gathered in. It had been one of the most costly days in the regiment’s history since Chancellorsville and the wounding unto death of Old Stonewall himself.
Of all the capacities that the years diminish, none leaves a greater void than that of the youthful ability for easy friendships without the questioning and restraints that complicate those of later life. I feel a void now in looking back upon friends gone that day. Together we had been through months and years of wartime discomforts and strain; marched countless tedious miles; lived in mud and dust, heat and cold. The battalion dominated our time and efforts. Then it all came down to this brief first day of battle, and for them it all ended, and for the rest of us I believe that what has been since has not been exactly the same.
Sorrow had its beginnings that night, but it was still a dim presence. We were weary, for twenty-four hours of flat-out physical and emotional effort had elapsed since reveille on the Jefferson . But neither weariness nor sorrow was the dominant presence. Overriding both was a sense of life forced to a hard, bright flame to survive. It is this, and its illuminations, I believe, that burnishes the memory of battle. Soldiers who have experienced this have tried to describe it and at the same time the dread that accompanies it. Dread and exhilaration from the same source at the same moment are difficult to reconcile and impossible to convey convincingly. It is common for visitors to war to note the increasing cheerfulness encountered on approaching the front. I believe that they are witnessing this phenomenon of intensified, illuminated life.
Nothing was further from my mind that night than speculation upon whether the shade of Stonewall Jackson might be drawn from the shadows to this unlikely place where the current bearers of the name of his famed command were in deep travail. History indicates that he would have given his usual abrupt order: “Close up, press on.” I cannot imagine disputing that awesome individual in person, but from this safe distance, I quote his less known pronouncement at the end of a hard and confused day at White Oak Swamp in the Seven Days’ Battles before Richmond, when he told his commanders, “Now, gentlemen, let us at once to bed and see if tomorrow we cannot do something. ” I believe that the day on Omaha Beach was as hard and confused as at White Oak Swamp, and rest from it was equally needed. In any event, in the early morning, I retired to a corner of the barn, cradled my swollen face, and slipped into a troubled sleep. The last sounds I recall were far-off artillery and machine-gun fire.
It was about two hours before dawn of the second day.