Publisher's note: This day, June 6, 1944, was the day the free world held their collective breath as the allied forces embarked on Operation Overlord, which was fortunately the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.
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Every year on June 6, our nation pauses to remember the thousands of brave Americans and American allies who stormed the beaches of Normandy to launch the campaign to liberate Europe from the oppression and extermination by the Nazi regime in World War II. We reflect on D Day for its devastating statistics and the casualties, but we ultimately remember the victory it helped to secure. Normandy was an American victory; it was their duty to trace the twists and turns of fortune by which success was won. But to follow that rule slights the story of Omaha as an epic human tragedy. But we sometimes we overlook the personal stories - the ultimate sacrifices of beloved sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, husbands, classmates, and neighbors..... boys. Most were mere boys, who died with a life yet unlived. Their sacrifice was and continues to be immeasurable. Their sacrifice must continue to be the basis for the ideals we hold dear.
At the beginning of World War II, Germany invaded Poland, causing France, Great Britain and Canada to declare war on Germany. By the spring of 1940, the German army was ready to invade France, defended by not only the French military, but also a sizable British force as well. Within six weeks, the Germans defeated the Allies and seized control of France. By 1944, the Germans knew that the Allies, also now including the United States, among others, would attempt an invasion of France to liberate Europe from Germany. The Allied forces, based in Britain, decided to begin the invasion by landing a huge army along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline - Normandy Beach - to fight Nazi Germany. Code-named "Operation Overlord", and commanded by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allies landed on June 6, 1944 at five beaches in the Normandy area with the code names of: Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach. Prior to the actual amphibious invasion, Allied planes pounded the Nazi defenders and dropped thousands of paratroopers behind German lines during night before the seaborne landings. Local French Resistance forces, alerted to the imminent invasion, engaged in behind-the-lines sabotage and combat against the occupying Germans. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which "we will accept nothing less than full victory."
United States's force and sheer will was best personified in the American warrior that dropped out of low flying planes over Wehrmacht occupied Normandy. Here a young paratrooper listens intently to the Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, on D-Day, minus 1: Above. American paratroopers: 82nd Airborne or the 101st Airborne preparing to drop out of the shrapnel ladened skies over Normandy: Below.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower met with the troops just hours before the allied invasion of D Day, and he gave them this message:
"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force. You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
Good Luck. And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
More than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion. 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops met heavy resistance from the German forces defending the area, but were able to punch inland, securing safe landing zones for reinforcements. By day's end on June 6, the Allies gained a foot- hold in Normandy. The D-Day cost was high - more than 9,000 allied soldiers were killed or wounded - but more than 100,000 Soldiers began the march across Europe to defeat Hitler. The German failure to successfully defend the Normandy area from the Allied liberation forces in essence doomed Hitler's dream of a Nazi controlled "Fortress Europe" and marked the beginning of the end for Germany.
US forces - US First Army - landed at Omaha and Utah beaches. In total, the First Army contingent totaled approximately 73,000 men, including 15,600 from the airborne divisions. Omaha was particularly devastating. To understand the horror and carnage of that amphibious landing under fire from German guns firmly entrenched further up on the beach, we can look at the fates of Able and Baker companies, 116th Infantry, 29th Division.
ABLE Company, riding the tide in seven Higgins boats, was about five thousand yards from the beach when it first took on artillery fire. The shells fell short. At one thousand yards, Boat No. 5 wass hit dead on and foundered. Six men drowned before help was able to arrive. Second Lieutenant Edward Gearing and twenty others paddled around until picked up by naval craft, thereby missing the fight at the shore line. It was to be their lucky day. The other six boats rode unscathed to within one hundred yards of the shore, when a shell fired into Boat No. 3 killed two men. Another dozen drowned when they forced to jump into the water as the boat was sinking. That left five boats.
His men were at the sides of the boat, straining for a view of the target. They stared but said nothing. At exactly 6:36 am, the ramps were dropped along the boat line and the men jumped off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man's head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine-gun fires from both ends of the beach.
ABLE Company had planned to wade ashore in three files from each boat, center file going first, then flank files peeling off to right and left. The first men out tried to do it but were ripped apart before they could make five yards. Even the lightly wounded died by drowning, doomed by the waterlogging of their overloaded packs. From Boat No. 1, all hands jumped off in water over their heads. Most of them were carried down. Ten or so survivors got around the boat and clutched at its sides in an attempt to stay afloat. The same thing happened to the section in Boat No. 4. Half of its people were lost to the fire or tide before anyone reached shore. All order had vanished from Able Company before it was even able to fired a single shot.
Already the sea ran red. Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits proved fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they were unable to rise again and were drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men dragged themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lay quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few moved safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then found that they could not hold there. They returned to the water to use it for body cover. They turned their faces upward, so that their nostrils were out of water and they crept toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors made it. The less rugged or less clever sought the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and were knocked off one-by-one by machine-gun fire.
Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, ABLE Company was inert and leaderless. At Boat No. 2, Lieutenant Tidrick took a bullet through the throat as he jumped from the ramp into the water. He staggered onto the sand and flopped down ten feet from Private First Class Leo J. Nash. Nash saw the blood spurting and heard the strangled words gasped by Tidrick: "Advance with the wire cutters!" But it was futile; Nash had no cutters. To give the order, Tidrick had raised himself up on his hands and made himself a target for an instant. And that was all it took. Nash, burrowing into the sand, saw machine gun bullets rip Tidrick from crown to pelvis. From the cliff above, the German gunners were shooting into the survivors as if from a roof top perch.
American G.I.'s preparing to land on the Hell that was Omaha Beach: Above.
Captain Taylor N. Fellers and Lieutenant Benjamin R. Kearfoot never made it. Their boat, Boat No. 6 (Landing Craft, Assault, No. 1015), was loaded with thirty men. Exactly what happened to this boat and its human cargo was never to be known. No one saw the craft go down. How each man aboard it met death remains unreported. Half of the drowned bodies were later found along the beach. It is supposed that the others were claimed by the sea.
Along the beach, only one Able Company officer was still alive -- Lieutenant Elijah Nance, who was hit in the heel. By the time he made it to the sand, a second bullet hit him in the belly. By the end of ten minutes, every sergeant was either dead or wounded. To the eyes of such men as Private Howard I. Grosser and Private First Class Gilbert G. Murdock, this clean sweep suggested that the Germans on the high ground had spotted all leaders and concentrated fire their way. Among the men who were still moving in with the tide, rifles, packs, and helmets had already been cast away in the interests of survival.
To the right of where Tidrick's boat was drifting with the tide, its coxswain lay dead next to the shell-shattered wheel. The ramp dropped and in that instant, two machine guns concentrated their fire on the opening. Not a single man was given time to jump. All aboard were cut down where they stand.
By the end of fifteen minutes, Able Company had still not fired a weapon. No orders were being given by anyone. No words were spoken. The few able-bodied survivors moved, or not, as they saw fit.
By the end of one half hour, approximately two thirds of the company was forever gone. There is no precise casualty figure for that moment. There is a casualty figure for the Normandy landing as a whole but no accurate figure for the first hour or the first day. The circumstances precluded it. Whether more Able Company riflemen died from water than from fire is known only to heaven. All earthly evidence indicates such, but it cannot be absolutely proven.
By the end of one hour and forty-five minutes, six survivors from the boat section on the extreme right were able to shake loose and work their way to a shelf a few rods up the cliff. Four fall exhausted from the short climb and made it no farther. They stayed there through the day, seeing no one else from the company. The other two, Privates Jake Shefer and Thomas Lovejoy, joined a group from the Second Ranger Battalion and fought on with the Rangers through the day. Two men. Two rifles. Except for these, this account summarizes Able Company's contribution to the D Day invasion.
BAKER Company was scheduled to land twenty-six minutes after Able and right on top of it. Unfortunately, they were not able to see the disaster which overtook Able until they were almost on top of it. The command boat headed in and as soon as it dropped its ramp, it was immediately hit by a storm of bullet fire.
Captain Ettore Zappacosta jumped from the boat first and while he was in elbow-high tide, he shouted back to his men: "I'm hit." He was bleeding from the hip and shoulder and after staggering for a few minutes, he fell face forward into the wave and the weight of his equipment and soaked pack pinned him to the bottom. Thomas Kenser tried to jump off the boat to get to him but was shot dead while in the air. Lieutenant Tom Dallas of Charley Company, the third man, made it to the edge of the sand where a machine-gun burst blew his head apart.
Private First Class Robert L. Sales, who was lugging Zappacosta's radio, was the fourth man to leave the boat, having waited long enough to see the others die. His boot heel caught on the edge of the ramp and he fell into the tide, losing the radio but saving his life. Every man who tried to follow him was either killed or wounded before reaching dry land. Sales alone was able to reach the beach unhit.
By the end of the day, only forty-seven men made it ashore and to safety. These forty-seven immortals of Omaha, by their dauntless initiative at widely separated points along the beach, saved the landing from total stagnation and disaster. The others were slaughtered wholesale.
Thousands of Americans were spilled onto Omaha Beach. The high ground was won by a handful of men who on that day burned with a flame bright beyond common understanding." [S.L.A. Marshall, "First Wave at Omaha Beach"]
Donald Ceboll, a WWII veteran from Ohio, watched the amphibious landing on Omaha Beach from the deck of a navy landing ship about 2 miles offshore. At 89, he remembers: "The struggles of those gallant men striving to reach land just ahead..... And of the hapless who failed in their quest and turned the water red. You could see bodies all over. Even though the engines were noisy, you could hear the screams of agony. Oh God, you could hear them,"
Ceboll remembered. "You could almost tell by the pitch if they were fatal or not. It was not until near nightfall, when the initial battle was over, that the sights of war caught up with me. My mind didn't want to accept it. I was crying so hard, like a tot that was crying for the comfort and attention of my mother's arms."
After visiting Normandy in 1999, he wrote: "Peace is so quiet. Dear God, please let it stay that way. Farewell, Omaha."
It is fitting and proper that we as Americans, as well as people all over the world, honor the ultimate sacrifices of American - and British and Canadian - soldiers who were killed wounded during D Day. We should seek to earn their gifts to us by the way we view ourselves as Americans and especially by the way we conduct ourselves as Americans. As Ronald Reagan once said: "Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free."
Reagan also said: "I have seen the rise and fall of Nazi tyranny, the subsequent cold war and the nuclear nightmare that for fifty years haunted the dreams of children everywhere. During that time my generation defeated totalitarianism. As a result, your world is poised for better tomorrows. What will you do on your journey?"
Forty years after the invasion, President Ronald Reagan stood on the very spot on the northern coast of France where Allied soldiers had stormed ashore to liberate Europe and paid tribute to an audience of D-Day veterans and world leaders. He offered the following words:
"We're here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For 4 long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.