May 23, 2014
Airborne — Cotentin Peninsula
Infantry — Omaha Beach
Rangers — Ohama Beach
Infantry — Utah Beach
Chaplain Corps — Near Utah Beach
Rangers — Pointe du Hoc
A French Civilian — Sainte-Mère-Église
By Bob Wacker
Editor’s note: This
article originally was published in the June 1994 issue of The Retired
Officer Magazine for the 50th anniversary
“The war will be won or lost on the beaches. The first 24
hours will be decisive.” — Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander in chief,
Germany Army Group B
On a single day, half a century ago this month, 156,000
American, British, Canadian, Free French, and Polish troops — a number equal to
the population of Springfield, Mass. — landed in the province of Normandy,
France. The invasion was one of the bloodiest of the war. Allied paratroopers
filled the skies, and soldiers stormed ashore along a 60-mile stretch of beach
in what would be one of the greatest amphibious operations in military history.
It was D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the Allies had launched their campaign to
liberate France and overthrow Nazi Germany.
The Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF)
had spent nearly a year planning for this day. Three million fighting men and
women and 16 million tons of materiel had been assembled in England from all
over the free world. For months, heavy bombers had been pounding bridges,
roads, rail yards, and factories in Normandy and other locations. The plan was
to keep Adolf Hitler guessing where the Allies would strike.
Meanwhile, the Allies were busy trying to figure out when
they should strike. Originally, the invasion was scheduled to take place in
early May, but the date was pushed back until early June. There were just three
days, June 5, 6, and 7, when the moon and tides would be right for the planned
invasion. On June 5, gales lashed the English Channel with some of the foulest
weather in 25 years. SHAEF Commander Army Gen. Dwight Eisenhower postponed the
invasion to June 6, when meteorologists said the weather would be slightly
better. Even then, conditions would be barely minimal; but rather than risk a
month’s postponement, Eisenhower told his staff the evening of June 5, “We must
give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is. I don’t see how we can do
anything else. We’ll go.”
Time and distance have not dulled the memories of those who
fought bravely and survived a firestorm of Nazi shot and shell that day. Half a
century later, seven survivors recall what they did during those first, fateful
24 hours of the Normandy invasion.On June 6, 23,500 British and American paratroopers tumbled
out of the sky over Normandy. A 20-mile-wide armada of 5,000 boats delivered
132,500 infantrymen to five code named beaches facing the Baie de la Seine. The
Americans waded ashore on Omaha and Utah beaches, the Canadians on Juno, the
British on Sword, Juno, and Gold. Almost all the troops were seasick after
spending several hours pounding through the five-foot swells in the English
Channel. As the sun rose over the French coast, thousands of Allied troops
Airborne — Cotentin
“I remember the best size and weight of individual loads —
one could hardly move when everything was strapped on, much less climb into an
aircraft. The smell of all those bodies packed in there together was foul.” — Army
Capt. Robert M. Piper, 82nd Airborne Division
It was quarter past midnight London time, and the
late-rising moon was shining on the hedgerow-spaced meadows and orchards of the
Cotentin Peninsula, between Cherbourg and Caen. Some 882 Dakota transports and
gliders crossed the peninsula from west to east, at 300 to 500 feet. They
carried 13,000 men from the U.S. 82nd and 101st airborne divisions.
Though the pilots had been ordered to ignore groundfire and
fly straight to the drop zones, many zigzagged when the flak began. Aircrews
also battled a 30-knot wind. As a result, paratroopers were strewn across the
peninsula, and some landed more than 35 miles from their drop zones.
Some paratroopers landed in the surrounding swamps and
drowned. Others landed in the woods where their chutes became hopelessly entangled
in the trees. Unable to free themselves, the paratroopers swung helplessly
until they were shot by German patrols. Heavily laden gliders crashed in the
darkness, and experienced aircraft crew pathfinder teams were dropped too far
from their objectives to set up the ground lights needed to guide in other
Not all the units were so unlucky, however. Three battalions
of the 82nd’s 505th Regiment landed near their target, the market village of Sainte-Mère-Église.
Piper, who went on to see combat action in three wars, was
among them. He was regimental adjutant of the 505th on D-Day and was presented
with the Bronze Star for his actions.
“We jumped — everyone was ready for fresh air, come what may
— and landed in a farmyard,” says Piper. “We soon found other troopers and
headed in the direction of the air column flying overhead toward Sainte-Mère[-Église]. … German patrols and ground
troops were alerted, and our contact with them increased. There were strong
firelights inside the town. Our initial aid station was set up in a field just
outside Sainte-Mère where the ‘docs’ worked around-the-clock. The division had
57-percent casualties. … But the American flag was flying in Sainte-Mère-Église
Infantry — Omaha Beach
“It was just a
bloody mess. A slaughter. That beautiful white beach just covered with bodies.”
— Army Cpl. Jess E. Weiss, 16th Infantry Division Regiment
At Omaha Beach, the
landing craft went in at 6:15 a.m. The time was chosen so a group of engineers
could debark at low tide to remove a forest of steel posts tipped with mines
and other underwater obstacles planted by the Germans. The plan was to have the
engineers clear the way before the tide came in, which would help push the
Allies’ landing craft closer to the beach.
But the Germans’
heavy fire killed many of the engineers as they left their boats. Rough seas
swamped many amphibious vehicles, and strong winds caused others to land in
different areas from those assigned. Worse, most of the armor to be used in the
initial assault never made it to shore.
As the infantrymen
swam and waded the long way to shore, they passed the engineers’ corpses, which
were hanging from the stanchions. Weiss was in a landing craft tank (LCT) that
debarked on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was among the second wave of troops to
“As we got nearer
to shore, 155 mm howitzer shells from a pillbox just above the beachhead began
to zone in on us, and crossing bands of machine-gun fire hit the metal of our
craft from stem to bow,” says Weiss. “My platoon had been with me through
Africa and Sicily. We knew how to protect ourselves. We hugged the floor of the
LCT. But there were other GIs in the boat, new recruits. The shelling sounded
like the Fourth of July to them. Two men stood on one of the jeeps in the
center of the boat to get a better view. I shouted at them to hit the deck, but
it was too late. German artillery decapitated them a few yards from the
“When the landing
ramp opened, there [were] barbed wire and crossed stanchions sticking out of
the water. GIs from the first wave hung on the stanchions, lifeless. Hundreds
of others were floating facedown with their knapsacks visible above the water.
The beach contained no trees, no bushes, no mounds. Just a flat, smooth, silky,
sandy beach with bodies all over it.
“I laid down there
and … I … I pulled three or four bodies over myself. I covered myself with
them. I laid there and played dead I don’t know how long — 10 or 15 minutes.
And then I heard somebody say, ‘Hey, if we’re going to die on the beach, let’s
go inland and die.’ And I got up, and we went inland.”
Weiss survived the invasion, and three weeks later, he wrote
in his diary: “Today, I stood watching the mail clerk while he went through
dozens and dozens of letters and packages. As I watched, I saw him write on
each such words as ‘deceased,’ ‘missing,’ or ‘wounded.’
“Letters from mothers, wives, sisters, and friends — I felt
so helpless. The guys we knew so well, we know so little about really. They
were our buddies, and now life and war [go] on as though nothing had actually
happened. New men are coming in, and gradually, all is just a horrible
nightmare that passed in the night.”
Weiss received the Silver Star and the Bronze Star, both
with oak-leaf clusters, for his actions in the Normandy campaign. Later, near
Aachen, Germany, he was severely wounded by an enemy mortar round and spent a
year recovering in the hospital before being honorably discharged. He now lives
in Jericho, N.Y., and is the author of several books, including Warrior to Spiritual Warrior (BookSurge,
Rangers — Ohama Beach
“We lost 50 percent of our company … during the first hour
getting through waist-deep water and across the beach.” — Army Capt. Edgar L.
Arnold, commander, B Company, 2nd Rangers
Two other companies of the 2nd Rangers and the entire 5th
Ranger Battalion went across Omaha Beach and over a sandy bluff. Arnold, who is
now a retired colonel, was presented the Distinguished Service Cross for his
actions on D-Day.
“My first platoon leader, a young lieutenant, was killed
alongside me,” says Arnold. “The two of us were hit with a burst of machine-gun
fire. The bullets hit me in several places. One round knocked the carbine out
of my hand and knocked me down. But I wasn’t wounded. Lieutenant Bryce got a
bullet between the eyes. He never knew what hit him.
“Two days later, I determined that one bullet had lodged in
my first-aid packet, and another bullet was lodged in an ammo packet that I was
carrying on my hip.”
Infantry — Utah Beach
“The water was kind of red-pinkish from the blood in that
whole area.” — Army 1st Lt. Joseph Miller, 8th Infantry, 4th Division
Miller was among the troops in the first wave that landed at
Utah Beach on D-Day. He remembers D-Day well.
“Utah was a much easier invasion [than Omaha Beach], but it
still … it was something, I’ll tell you,” says Miller. “There were shells
coming in all over the place, and we had barges of ammunition. One barge, 100
yards away from us, was hit by a shell. … It exploded and exploded for a long
time. There were a lot of dead bodies lying in the shallow water. …
“Our mission was to establish the beachhead, of course, but
then we had to fight our way inland to meet the paratroopers and the glider
troops that had come in during the night. They were scattered all over the
place. I saw paratroopers that were shot by the enemy hanging in the trees. And
there was this paratrooper lieutenant colonel, he had his .45-caliber pistol in
his hand. There was a German kitchen train pulled by horses. He had shot both
horses and a couple of guys, and then somebody got him. He was just lying there
on the road.”
Chaplain Corps — Near
“What he wants to hear, you can’t tell him.” — Army Capt.
William S. Boice, Chaplain, 22nd Infantry, 4th Division
Fifty years have passed, but the images and words spoken by
the troops who lay wounded or dying on D-Day remain vivid to Boice. On the
evening of D-Day, he tended to the wounded in a farmhouse a quarter mile from
“An old couple, still using a fireplace to cook with, were
huddled round that fire,” says Boice. “American soldiers, including a captain,
a friend of mine who’d been shot, were in some of the rooms. Wounded German
soldiers were in one of the bedrooms. We didn’t have many facilities, only what
the aid men could carry ashore.
“Mostly, the Germans did not understand us, and we did not
understand them. But we treated their wounds. Among our men, the question was
always, ‘What’s the big picture? Did we take our objective? What are the other
“But we had no information. None. There was nothing you
could say at that time, and particularly, you know, when it’s a friend of yours,
like the captain, there are no surgical teams ashore, and you know that he’s
not going to live through the night.
“What he wants to hear, you can’t tell him. What you can do,
and what I did promise to do and did, you can tell him that you will write to
his wife and to his little boy, and you can tell him not to give up hope and
keep in there. But you know very well that by the time the hospital ship
arrives, he’s not going to be alive.”
Fifty years after D-Day, the Rev. Dr. William Boice lived in
Phoenix, Ariz., where he was affiliated with the First Christian Church. He died
Rangers — Pointe du
“I will never forget my first sight of the five big guns.” —
Army 1st Sgt. Leonard G. Lomell, D Company, 2nd Rangers
Midway between Omaha and Utah beaches stood Pointe du Hoc, a
100-foot-high cliff, believed to be topped by a cluster of 155 mm coastal
howitzers. Three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were assigned to scale
the cliff, destroy the howitzers, and cut off a blacktop road that could be
used by the Germans to bring reinforcements to the beachhead.
A force of 225 Rangers went up the face of the cliff while
the Germans dropped grenades, fired down on them, and cut their scaling ropes.
Just 180 men made it. Three days later, 90 of those Rangers were still fighting
— 81 had been killed in action, and nine had been taken prisoner or wounded.
“The guns were about a mile inland from the cliff,” says
Lomell. “I had never seen howitzers that big before. They seemed huge — high
wheels, large, long barrel pointed skyward, too high to reach. I was on a
two-man patrol with my platoon sergeant, Jack Kuhn. It was about 8:15 D-Day
morning. The guns were in an apple orchard, completely camouflaged with netting
and trees. Although Pointe du Hoc itself had been cratered by a long period of
heavy bombardment and shellfire, this inland position showed no craters. It was
obviously an alternate position for the guns.
“A heavily armed German combat patrol, about 40 Germans,
passed us not 20 feet away. We looked in the gun position and couldn’t see a
German in it. Across the field, however, about 100 yards away, about 75 Germans
were assembling around one of their leaders, their backs to us. Jack concealed
himself on top of the hedgerow, to cover me, while I went in with our two
thermite grenades — silent weapons capable of generating intense heat that
melts metal gears and moving parts. I disabled two of the guns and damaged
their sights with my submachine gun butt.
“Then, we both ran along the sunken road behind the high
hedgerows back to our men at the roadblock 200 yards away. We gathered several
more thermite grenades and rushed back to the guns. Finding that the Germans
had not returned, Jack resumed his guard position, and I finished destroying
the remaining three guns. All told, I don’t think it took us more than 15 or 20
“Those guns were aimed at Utah Beach and were capable of
swinging around and firing on Omaha Beach, as well as on boats miles away. When
the Germans returned to their gun position to commence firing on Utah Beach,
they found the guns were inoperable because of what a couple of Rangers did.
“I’m convinced we saved thousands of American lives. The
beaches were swarming with men all morning D-Day. Troops and equipment passed
over those beaches for days thereafter.”
After the war, Lomell worked as an attorney and retired to
Toms River, N.J. He died in 2011. He was presented with the Distinguished
Service Cross for his actions, while Kuhn received the Silver Star.
A French Civilian — Sainte-Mère-Église
“ ‘I am French,’ I
said, laughing, ‘your friend.’ ” — Alexandre Renaud, mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église during the D-Day invasion
Location made Sainte-Mère-Église an important objective for the
Allies. The town, only a few miles inland from Utah Beach, sits astride the
main highway between the port city of Cherbourg and the rail yards of Caen.
midnight on D-Day, a fire, probably caused by an aerial bomb, was consuming one
of the largest houses in Sainte-Mère-Église.
Renaud was on the pump brigade trying to put it out when the first C-47s flew
overhead. He described the scene in Sainte-Mère-Église
— D-Day 6 June 1944, a book
first published in France and published in the U.S. in 1986.
A big transport plane, all lights ablaze,
flew right over the treetops, followed immediately by others and yet others. …
Suddenly, what looked like huge confetti dropped out of their fuselages and
fell quickly to earth. Paratroopers! The work at the pump stopped, all eyes
were raised, and the Flak
[German antiaircraft troops] started
By the light of the fire, we clearly saw a
man manipulating the cables of his parachute. Another, less skillful, came down
in the middle of the flames. … The legs of another paratrooper contracted
violently as they were hit [by
bullets]. His raised arms came down. The
giant parachute, billowing in the wind, rolled over his inert body.
A big white sheet hung from an old tree
covered with ivy. A man was hanging from the end. Holding onto the branches, he
came down slowly like a snake. Then he tried to unbuckle his belt. The Flak
were only a few yards away. They saw him. The machine guns fired their sinister
patter. The poor man’s hands fell, and the body swung loosely from the cables.
A few hours later,
Renaud was in his garden by the side of a stream. While he was there, a
paratrooper glided down. His chute became tangled in a tree, and the soldier
landed in the water.
Weighted down by
his supplies, his munitions tangled up in his cables, the poor fellow was
drowning without a cry, without a murmur. Thanks to the parachute, I had no
trouble pulling him to the bank. He had lost his helmet, and was half
unconscious, coughing, spitting, trying to clear the water from his eyes. Then
he looked at me, and I saw an expression of surprise in his eyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said in English.
Then he looked at me again, and then, I
don’t know why, he felt my hat, my jacket.
“I am French,” I said, laughing, “your
He quickly freed himself from the ropes.
“I must go,” he said.
Dripping water, without a gun, he stepped
out of his parachute. I took him up to the embankment. He wobbled like a
drunkard, but before disappearing, he turned to me.
“The parachute is for you,” he said. “Good-bye.”
Renaud learned the
paratrooper died sometime afterward over Arnhem. At that, the paratrooper was a
little luckier than many of the men who landed in Normandy during the first 24
hours of the invasion. Many credit Cornelius Ryan’s authoritative chronicle, The Longest Day with having the best
one-day estimate of Allied casualties.
According to Ryan,
“American casualties are put at 6,603. … The U.S. 1st Army gives the following
breakdown: 1,485 killed, 3,184 wounded, and 26 captured. Included in this
compilation are 82nd and 101st Airborne losses, which alone are estimated at
2,499 killed, wounded, and missing. The Canadians had 946 casualties, of which
335 were killed. No British figures have ever been issued, but it is estimated
they had at least 2,500 to 3,000 casualties, of which the 6th Airborne suffered
650 killed wounded, and missing.”
By noon on D-Day,
the U.S. 1st and 29th Divisions were taking such heavy losses on bloody Omaha
Beach that Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. 1st Army,
contemplated evacuating Omaha to put more pressure on Utah and the other
beaches. But he stuck, and so did the GIs. By nightfall, all five beachheads
Field Marshal Erwin
Rommel, commander of the Germans’ coastal defenses in northern France (who was
in Germany on D-Day), had often told his subordinates that if the Allies were
not thrown back into the sea within 24 hours of their invasion, it would all be
over. Germany would lose the war.
months later, Rommel’s prediction came true. On May 7, 1945, in a small red
schoolhouse in Reims, France, delegates of a new German government signed
papers of unconditional surrender to the Allied commanders whose troops had
parachuted and stormed into Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
About the author:
Bob Wacker, a frequent contributor to The
Retired Officer magazine, was living in Cutchogue, N.Y., at the time of
this article’s original publication in 1994.
Copyright Bob Wacker and Military Officers Association of America. All rights reserved.