Veterans of D-Day
Veterans of D-Day
Excerpt from Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion Told By Those Who Were There
Edited by Ronald J. Drez Published in 1994
The Allied invasion of the beach in Normandy remains the largest and most difficult wartime invasion ever planned. (In World War II [1939-1945] the leading Allied Powers were all of the countries fighting against Germany, Italy, and Japan, led by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.) France was heavily fortified (protected by mines and artillery) by the German military, and it had to be conquered before the Allies could advance into Germany. The beaches of Normandy, on France's northwestern coast, were chosen as the site for an amphibious (a combined land, sea, and air force) invasion of the European continent by British and American forces.
German forces in France were led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, known as the "Desert Fox" for his clever moves in North Africa earlier in the war. Under his command, German tank divisions in Africa had dealt the British one defeat after another. But by 1944 the Germans were feeling the effects of Allied air assaults on their factories, airfields, and oil refineries. The Royal Air Force (RAF) and U.S. Air Force crippled the Luftwaffe (German air force) prior to the invasion at Normandy, thus leaving the Germans more vulnerable to an invasion. Although the German army had conquered most of Europe, it was already reeling from months of unsuccessful fighting in Italy and the Soviet Union.
German military leaders knew the Allies were organizing an invasion of German-occupied France, but they did not know when or where it would occur. Rumor spread that American General George S. Patton had assembled troops and was planning to cross the English Channel at Dover and land at the French seaport of Calais. The Germans increased their forces at Calais, but the actual landing spot would be farther to the southwest, along the Caen area in Normandy.
In spite of stormy weather, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied invasion force, ordered the launch of Operation Overlord on June 5, 1944. (Operation Overlord was the code name for the Allied invasion of Normandy; see box on Eisenhower on p. 182.) A force of American paratroopers (parachute troops) landed in France that night—the night before the actual land invasion. Their goal was to scout the terrain and guide the landing of later airborne divisions from Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Heavy fire from the Germans on the ground forced the initial groups of paratroopers off course, but the multinational Allied invasion—headed by General Bernard Montgomery—went on as scheduled.
Some nine hundred planes flew over Normandy, dropping an estimated thirteen thousand paratroopers inland from the beaches. Their mission was to stall the Germans by destroying bridges, blocking roads, and disrupting communications. They also served as backup for the main invasion forces that would land on the beaches the morning of June 6, 1944—D-Day.
The invasion took place over a fifty-mile area and was divided into five beaches with the code names Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. (Sword and Juno were attacked by British regiments, Gold was taken by the Canadian infantry, and Omaha and Utah were in the American sector.) The American, British, Canadian, and French soldiers who would fight on those beaches were crammed into five thousand Allied ships. Americans of the 29th Division landed at Omaha, which met with the heaviest resistance. Germans were stationed in the cliffs above Omaha Beach. They showered the landing force with shells and machine-gun fire. Some troops never made it out of the landing craft. Others drowned in the turbulent waters of the English Channel. By the end of D-Day, there were twenty-five hundred Allied casualties on Omaha Beach alone.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion Told By Those Who Were There:
- The term "D-Day" refers to the date set for the start of an operation, in this case, the invasion of France by the Allies on June 6, 1944.
- The English Channel waters are well known for their unpredictable nature. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for the start of the Normandy invasion in the midst of tumultuous weather. Forecasters predicted a short break in the stormy conditions for the sixth of June, and those predictions determined the exact date of the D-Day invasion.
- Field Marshal Rommel oversaw the construction of an elaborate defense system to guard the Normandy shore. The coast was lined with barbed wire, mines, armed concrete bunkers (underground chambers), huge wooden posts rigged with explosives, and an underwater network of sharp steel barriers. These fortifications were known as the Atlantic Wall.
- Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion Told By Those Who Were There describes the Normandy landing in vivid detail. The personal accounts of the soldiers who took part in the invasion were collected by editor Ronald J. Drez fora special D-Day Project of the University of New Orleans'Eisenhower Center.
- The accounts of Warner Hamlett and Harold Baumgarten are taken from the chapter titled "The 116th at Omaha Beach." Robert H. Miller and Warren Rulien's stories are taken from "Easy Red and the First Division." (Easy Red was a subsection of Omaha Beach.)
- The following excerpts reveal the young soldiers' fear and bravery amid the chaos and confusion of the Normandy landing. Note in particular the sense of loss felt by the speakers, knowing that every minute could be their last, watching comrades shot down on the beach, and grappling with the harsh reality of their objective: to kill or be killed.
Excerpt from Voices of D-Day
WARNER HAMLETT (Sergeant, Company F): … "After we jumped into the water, it was every man for himself. I wadedparallel to the beach with my squad because the heavy fire was directed towards the boats. As I was going straight towards the beach, I saw Lieutenant Hilscher go down on his knees as a shell exploded. He fell into the hole caused by the explosion. He died there on the beach.…
"When I finally reached the edge of the water, I started to run towards theseawall under a deafening roar of explosions and bullets. I saw a hole about seventy-five feet away, so I ran and jumped in, landing on top of O. T. Grimes. As soon as I caught my breath, I dashed forward again, but had to stop between the obstacles in order to rest. The weight of wet clothes, sand, and equipment made it difficult to run. One … soldier … had run straight to the seawall and was motioning for us to come on. At the same time, he was yelling, 'Get off the beach!' Our only chance was to get off the beach as quick as possible, because there we were sitting ducks. While resting in between the obstacles, Private Gillingham fell beside me, white with fear. He seemed to be begging for help with his eyes. His look was that of a child asking what to do. I said, 'Gillingham, let's stay separated as much as we can, because the Germans will fire at two quicker than one.' He remained silent and then I heard a shell coming and dove into the sand face down. Shrapnel rose over my head and hit all around me. It took Gillingham's chin off, including the bone, except for a small piece of flesh. He tried to hold his chin in place as he ran towards the seawall. He made it to the wall, where Will Hawks and I gave him hismorphine shot. He stayed with me for approximately thirty minutes until he died. The entire time, he remained conscious and aware that he was dying.
"We were supposed to wait at the seawall until wire cutters could cut the tremendous web of wire that the Germans had placed on top of it. During this time, Lieutenant Wise of F Company was directing his team behind the seawall, when a bullet hit him in the forehead. He continued to instruct his men until he sat down and held his head in the palm of his hand before falling over dead.
"We waited at the seawall until [it was] time to cross over the path cleared by the wire cutters. As we crossed the seawall, Germans inpillboxes fired upon each man as he dashed forward. After we crossed, the ground provided more protection, with small bushes and gullies. We took time to reorganize and planned to knock out the pill-box. First we tried direct attack using TNT on the end of long poles, but this was impossible because the Germans could shoot the men down as soon as they saw them coming through the barbed wire strung in front of the pillboxes. We then decided to run between the pillboxes and enter the trenches that connected them. These trenches had been dug by the Germans and gave them mobility and a means of escape. We entered the trenches, slipped behind the pillboxes, andthrew grenades into them. After the explosion, we ran into the boxes to kill any that survived the grenade. Rows of pillboxes stood between us and the top of the cliff. Slowly, one by one, we advanced… "
HAROLD BAUMGARTEN (Company B): … "Shells were continually landing all about me, in a definite pattern, and when I raised my head up to curse the Germans in the pillbox on our right flank … one of the shell fragments from an88 exploded twenty yards in front of me and hit me in my left cheek. It felt like being hit with a baseball bat, only the results were much worse. My upper jaw was shattered; the left cheek was blown open, and my upper lip was cut in half. The roof of my mouth was cut up, and teeth and gums were laying all over inside. Blood poured freely from the gaping wound. The same 88-millimeter shell that hit me in the left side of my face hit Sergeant Hoback, of Company A, flush in the face, and he went under. I washed my face out in the six-inch cold, dirty [English] Channel water, and managed somehow not to pass out. I got rid of most of my equipment.
"The water was rising about an inch a minute, as the tide was coming in, so I had to get moving or drown. I had to reach a fifteen-foot seawall, which appeared to be two hundred yards in front of me, and I crawled forward, trying to take cover behind bodies and water obstacles made of steel. I got another rifle along the way as the Germans were zeroing in on me. I continued forward in a dead-man's float with each wave of the incoming tide.
"Finally, I came to dry sand, and there was another hundred yards to go, and I started across the sand, crawling very fast… I reached the stone wall without further injury.…
"At the wall, I met a fellow from Company B from my boat team named Dominick Surrow, a boy from Georgia about my age, a rugged fellow, who looked at my face and said, 'Stay here, I'm going to run down the beach and get help.' He got killed.
"I watched him being washed around by the incoming water, and I saw the bodies of my buddies who had tried in vain to clear the beach. It looked like the beach was littered with the refuse of a wrecked ship that were the dead bodies of what once was the proud, tough … well-trained combatinfantrymen of the 1stBattalion of the 116th Infantry."
ROBERT H. MILLER (Corporal, 149th Engineer Combat Battalion): "I was in Company B. Our Beach was the Easy Red Beach, which was situated right in front ofSaint-Laurent-sur-Mer .
"A jeep was the first off the craft, and it went down and dropped clear underwater but made it in, since it was waterproofed and the exhaust pipe was extended well above the jeep itself, up above the waterline. The trucks came off and they made it in as well. The men started unloading at that point, and I jumped off the end of the ramp and went underwater completely, over my head. I ejected all of my equipment underwater and jumped as well as I could underwater and finally reached the waterline… [I] got my head above water and started swimming in. That was a tough swim. The wet, heavy clothes were weighing me down… My body felt like it weighed five hundred pounds, and I was very tired.
"I heard a number of screams behind me and many of the men drowned trying to make their way in to the beach… I got about ten feet up the beach when I saw just a big white ball of nothingness, and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back looking up at the sky. My first thought was that my legs were blown off because I had tried to move them and nothing happened… For some reason I just couldn't move.…
"Shortly, the medics came down behind ahalf-track and picked me up, and it was there that they gave me a shot of morphine. I woke up at the first-aid station on the beach, and the doctors were going over me and the nurse cutting off clothing and that sort of thing. I passed out shortly again. The next time I woke up I was loaded on anLST, and the navy aide was talking to me and asking what he could do for me … and I could hear ackack guns, the antiaircraft guns, going off up on deck.
"I passed out again and woke up on anLCVP, and we were headed toward the dock of some town in England. A colonel was next to me with a head wound, and he was just screaming terribly, and there were wounded laying all over the LCVP. The consequences of my injury was that I became a paraplegic and lost the use of my legs entirely."
WARREN RULIEN (16th Infantry): "Eight rope nets had been hung over the side of the ship and we began climbing down into the landing crafts. This wasn't an easy thing to do with all the equipment you had on and the rifle. Waves from the English Channel would separate the landing craft from the side of the ship and then it would crash back against the hull. I got down near the bottom of the net and had to time my jump into the landing craft.
"I felt so rotten from the seasickness that I was half enthusiastic about hitting the shore just to get off that landing craft. As we got nearer to the shore, bullets began hitting the sides but could not penetrate… We ducked down low. It wasn't long after we stopped when the front of the landing craft was lowered. For a few seconds, everything seemed quiet and nobody moved. The image that flashed through my mind was 'They can shoot us through the front of the craft.'
"Someone shouted, 'Let's go!' We began pouring out of the craft, and as I stepped off of the ramp, I dropped into water up to my chest and I lost my rifle and began wading in to shore.
"On both sides of me were many soldiers coming from other landing crafts, all wading in to shore. In front of me were steel rails driven into the bottom of the sea, which extended six feet out of the water, and on top were mines. By the time I got to the steel rails, the water was up to my waist. There were many dead soldiers floating around in the water, and bullets began hitting only a few feet in front of me, so I stepped behind one of the steel rails and squatted down. A young replacement about nineteen years old that was from my platoon shouted at me, 'Hey, Rulien, here I go!' and began running toward shore. He stepped onto thesandbar, and machine-gun fire opened up, and he dropped into the water on the other side.
"I took one of the bodies that was floating in the water and pushed it in front of me toward the shore. I had only gone a short distance when three or four soldiers began lining up behind me. I stood up and shouted, 'Don't bunch up!' and walked off, leaving them with the body. I gotdown as low as I could in the water until I reached the sandbar, and then I crossed it on my belly and kept moving forward until I reached the beach, where soldiers were bunched-up behind a sandbank.
"Lying beside me, on his back, was a soldier who had been shot in the stomach. He held his hand over his stomach, moaning, but only for a short time; then he died. I picked up his rifle, threw back the bolt, and looked down the barrel to make sure that sand hadn't been jammed into the barrel. I put aclip of ammunition in and looked up the hill and saw German soldiers running along the crest. At that distance, they looked about two inches high and I began firing at them. On the shore, there were officers sitting there, stunned. Nobody was taking command. Landing crafts were continuing to bring waves of soldiers in, and they were bunching up on the beach.
"Finally, out on the water, coming towards the shore, walking straight up with a staff of officers with him, I recognized Colonel Taylor, regimental commander. He stepped across the sandbar and bullets began hitting the water around him. He laid down on his stomach and started crawling towards shore, and when he got in, I heard him say to the officers, 'If we're going to die, let's die up there.' It seemed to take effect, because the officers began moving their men from that two yards of beach to reach their objective." (Drez, pp. 208-09, 216-17, 237-38, 253-54)
What happened next …
In all, 10,000 aircraft, 5,000 ships, and 155,000 soldiers landed at Normandy. Even though the losses at Omaha Beach were extremely heavy, the Allied invasion of Normandy was considered a success. Having established a foothold in France, the Allies began their march eastward toward Germany. (See Stephen E. Ambrose entry in chapter four for more information on the Allied breakout from Normandy.)
Did you know …
- General Eisenhower had prepared a press statement in case the D-Day invasion failed. It read, in part: "I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack … was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."
- The 1998 motion picture Saving Private Ryan is set against the Allied landing at Omaha Beach. Many of the real-life soldiers who invaded Normandy were in their late teens and early twenties—much younger than Tom Hanks and the other actors who portrayed them.
- A huge tank still sits on the sand of Normandy beach as a reminder of the horrible battle that took place there on June 6, 1944.
For More Information
Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day, June 6, 1944. New York: Simon & Schuster,1994.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. Crusade in Europe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday,1948.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. Garden City, NY:Doubleday, 1967.
Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. New York:Simon & Schuster, 1985. Reprinted, 1993.
Ryan, Cornelius. The Longest Day. Originally published in 1959.Reprinted. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Webster, David Kenyon. Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper's Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich. Introduction by Stephen E. Ambrose. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
D-Day Remembered. "The American Experience." WGBH-TV (Boston)/Direct Cinema Limited, 1994.
Normandy: The Great Crusade. The Discovery Channel/Discovery Enterprises Group, 1993.
The War Chronicles: World War II. Volume 2: D-Day … The Normandy Invasion. Produced by Lou Reda Productions. A&E Home Video Presents History Channel Video/New Video, 1995.
The 50th Anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy. [Online] http://www.nando.net/sproject/dday/dday.html (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Britannica.com presents Normandy 1944. [Online] http://www.normandy.eb.com/normandy/ (accessed on September 6, 1999).
Dolan, Edward F. America in World War II: 1944. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.
Drez, Ronald J., ed. Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion Told By Those Who Were There. Foreword by Stephen E. Ambrose. Originally published in 1994. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Hargrove, Jim. Dwight D. Eisenhower: Thirty-fourth President of the United States. "Encyclopedia of Presidents Series." Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.
Newsweek, March 8, 1999, pp. 48-9.
Sandberg, Peter Lars. World Leaders Past and Present: Dwight D. Eisenhower.New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Stein, R. Conrad. Cornerstones of Freedom: D-Day. Chicago: Children's Press, 1977. Rev. ed., 1993.
Sweeney, James B. Army Leaders of World War II. New York: F. Watts, 1984.
Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969; nicknamed "Ike") was born October 14, 1890, in Denison, Texas. When he was just a baby, he moved with his family to Abilene, Kansas, a town once known as the end of the line on the Kansas-Pacific Railroad.
Money was tight, but a deep religious faith and strong family ties kept the Eisenhowers going. Young Ike and his five brothers worked together to help their mother with the household chores. The boys gardened, learned to do the laundry, and could cook a good meal on their own.
In his school days Eisenhower excelled in competitive sports. He also developed a keen interest in war history and mathematics. After graduating from the U.S.Military Academy at West Point in 1915, Eisenhower served as a second lieutenant at Texas-based Fort Sam Houston. He married Mamie Doud the next year.
During the final phase of World War I (1914-18) Eisenhower instructed American troops in tank warfare. World War II (1939-45) erupted in Europe in 1939. As tensions escalated worldwide, the United States began gearing up for military involvement in the conflict. Eisenhower was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1941, directed Operation Torch (the code name for the invasion of North Africa) against the Germans in 1942 and 1943, then oversaw the assault on Italy. As supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, he launched Operation Overlord (the secret Allied invasion of Normandy, France, which took place on June 6, 1944).
Eisenhower accepted Germany's surrender on May 8, 1945, the date that marked the end of World War II on the European front. Three years later he retired from the U.S. Army as a five-star general.
While serving for a few years as president of New York's Columbia University, Eisenhower began thinking about running for the office of U.S. president. He won election to the nation's highest office in 1952. The two-term president served during a tumultuous time in U.S. history: the Korean War (1950-1953) was in full swing, anti-Communist sentiment was strong in the United States, an arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States was escalating, and the civil rights movement was born. (Communism is a system of government in which the state controls the means of production and the distribution of goods. It clashes with the American ideal of capitalism, which is based on private ownership and a free market system.)
In 1961 Eisenhower and his wife retired to a farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The former president wrote several books and tried to stay out of the political limelight, favoring the role of avid golfer to that of political consultant. He died March 28, 1969, in Washington, D.C.