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The Voices of D-Day

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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 of D-Day. 

“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.”

The Voices of D-Day img

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 stormed ashore.

Airborne — Cotentin Peninsula 

“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 airborne forces.

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 on D-Day.”

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 come ashore.

“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 beachhead.

“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, 2009).

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 Utah Beach 

“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 Utah Beach.

“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 regiments doing?’

“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 in 2003.

Rangers — Pointe du Hoc 

“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 minutes.

“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.

Shortly after 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 firing. 

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 friend.” 

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 were secure.

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.

Eleven hard-fought 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.