The Bedford Boys Ultimate Sacrifice on D-Day
The following is Chapter 11, "Dog Beach", from the book "The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice" by Alex Kershaw (Da Capo Press, 2004).
Captain Fellers lay with his boat team two hundred fifty yards from the D-1 Vierville draw. Jimmy Green had not been able to provide covering fire because his landing craft had bucked up and down too much in the heavy seas. There was only one thing to do — they would have to run for the nearest cover, making sure they did not bunch together to minimize casualties.
All along the bluffs above Omaha, veterans of the German 352nd Division lay in wait. They had moved into the area in recent weeks, relieving the inferior 716th Division. They totaled two regiments, almost two thousand men.
As Fellers and his men started to advance, German officers finally ordered their men to fire. Above the Vierville draw, the 352nd opened up with at least three MG-42 machine guns, firing over a thousand rounds per minute, and several mortars. Two dozen snipers lurked in nearby trenches. The slaughter was fast and merciless. Fellers and the twenty-nine men in his boat died in a matter of minutes, riddled by machine-gun bullets from several directions.
No accurate record exists of the boat roster for Company A on D-Day. It was probably lost with many others in the chaos and carnage after H-Hour. But it is thought that the following Bedford boys may have been among those who died within yards of their captain: twenty-two-year-old Sergeant Dickie Abbott; twenty-six-year-old Clifton Lee, the shy but fiercely patriotic private whose eyebrows arched dramatically above his pale face; twenty-three-year-old Gordon Henry White Jr. who dreamed of his mother's cooking; the well-mannered Southern "gentleman" Nick Gillaspie; and the ace dice player, Wallace "Snake Eyes" Carter.
Less than fifty yards away, another LCA had also approached the beach. On board were George Roach, Thomas Valance, Gil Murdock, and the Bedford boys Dickie Overstreet and Master Sergeant John Wilkes. "We're going to drop this ramp and as soon as we do, we're going to back out," shouted a British bowman, "so you guys better be ready."1
The ramp slammed down into the surf and then the metal door swung open. Lieutenant Alfred Anderson exited, closely followed by Valance and seconds later by Roach and then Wilkes. Instantly, the Germans found their range. Men began to fall in every direction, picked off at random, while others miraculously staggered unscathed through a hail of bullets and shrapnel.
John Wilkes was one of the few who managed to get out of the shallows and onto the sand, where he and George Roach started to fire towards the base of the D-1 Vierville draw. Neither Wilkes nor Roach had yet seen a German.
"What are you firing at?" asked Wilkes.
"I don't know," said Roach. "I don't know what I'm firing at."
Wilkes and Roach spotted Lieutenant Anderson, thirty yards in front of them. He waved for them to follow him across the beach. Then Roach was knocked down. The next thing he knew, the sea was licking at his heels. There was no sign of Anderson or Wilkes. According to some eyewitnesses, Anderson was cut in two by a machine gun. It is thought that Master Sergeant John Wilkes was shot and killed as he fired his M-1 Garand rifle at the defensive installations at the base of the D-1 draw.
Dickie Overstreet also made it to the sands. He had dumped his flamethrower and picked up a dead man's rifle as he waded ashore. He then took cover behind one of two American tanks that had landed at the mouth of the D-1 draw. Suddenly, the tank took a direct hit, possibly from a mortar. Overstreet realized the Germans were zeroing in on any spot where men clustered — burnt out landing craft and immobilized vehicles — knowing entire platoons could be huddled behind them, frozen with shock and panic. The ammunition in the tank started to explode. Overstreet ran for cover. "I took off, started running, criss-crossing," he recalled. "That was when I got hit."2
Machine gun bullets wounded Overstreet in the stomach and leg but he finally made it to the sea wall running along the top of the Dog Green sector assigned to the 1st Battalion. "I called for first aid," Overstreet remembered. "I finally got a guy to come to me. He was so nervous he couldn't open the first aid kit. I had to do that for myself."3 Overstreet would lie beside the sea wall until 4:30 a.m. on June 7, when he would finally be taken to a hospital ship and then to England, where he would spend six weeks recovering from multiple bullet wounds. "He wouldn't talk about the war with me when he came home," recalled his sister Beulah Witt. "He suffered from stomach problems for the rest of his life."4
Boatmate Gil Murdock had plunged into nine feet of water in one of the many tidal runnels on Omaha, and had then fought to get back to the surface, weighed down by his kit, punching the CO-2 tubes on his Mae West and even filling his gas mask casing with air to help him get buoyant. Finally, he had surfaced and gasped for air. Murdock had then made it to the shallows and was now crawling up the beach. Two men lay wounded, unable to fire a mortar. A sergeant ordered Murdock to operate it instead. Murdock got to the mortar and fired a couple of rounds but they didn't explode.
"Murdock, you dumb bastard," shouted the sergeant, "you're not pulling the firing pins!"
Murdock managed to get off several more rounds, which actually exploded, then began to crawl towards the sea wall. He tried to fire his rifle but it was jammed with wet sand. Then he came across a soldier with a gaping wound in his arm. The soldier asked for a shot of morphine. Murdock gave it, wished him luck, and kept crawling, this time towards an antitank obstacle. Murdock found two men already cowering behind the obstacle. To advance seemed suicidal but to stay where they were only marginally less fatal: Men were now being picked off by a score of snipers along the bluffs.
Murdock suddenly spotted George Roach crawling towards them.
"What happened?"5 said Roach.
It looked like all A Company's officers were dead, and every sergeant either dead or wounded.
They tried to catch their breath. Suddenly, tracer fire sputtered towards them: A German machine gunner had spotted them. Fortunately, the tracers crackled above their heads. Every few seconds, another burst went high by just a few feet. Murdock couldn't understand why the German wasn't lowering his aim. Then he looked up and saw the German's target — an antitank mine strapped to the obstacle. A direct hit would blow anything within several yards to pieces.
They had better get the hell away, thought Murdock, before that German finds his mark. As the group left the obstacle, Murdock noticed that one soldier's left leg was soaked in blood. "You're hit!" he shouted.
"You damn fool," the soldier replied. "So are you."6
Murdock looked down. Two machine-gun bullets had pierced his leg and ended up in his right ankle.
"Look, I'm a good swimmer and you're not that badly hurt," said Roach. "Let me swim you out to that knocked-out tank in the water out there."
Murdock kept a photograph of his fiancee in the liner of his helmet. He looked at it. Roach grabbed the helmet and threw it away angrily.
"Let's get going."
Roach propped up Murdock as they swam out to sea. They finally got to the knocked-out tank. A few yards away, three men's heads bobbed up and down. They looked closer. It was the tank's crew, their faces disfigured by powder burns.
The tank commander sat behind the turret. His left leg was missing from the knee down. His shin bone dangled in the water. His men were useless. They wouldn't carry out orders. Could they give him a morphine shot?
Murdock crawled inside the tank turret, found a first aid package, pulled out some morphine and gave the commander the shot.
The commander said he wanted to get to the beach. It would be safer there. Murdock and Roach disagreed. But the commander was insistent. Finally, he persuaded his crew to do what he told them. They helped him into the water and began to swim in a group towards the beach. The tide was coming in.
Murdock watched as they got closer to the shore. Suddenly, the current snatched them, pulling them eastwards and then under.
Murdock and Roach sat alone on the tank. Shells started to land nearby. To make matters worse, the tide was starting to submerge the tank. Soon, they stood behind the turret, and then actually on the turret to avoid drowning.
Roach insisted he could swim out and reach a landing craft. Murdock shook his hand, wished him good luck, and thanked him for getting him off the beach. He watched Roach swim furiously away and then lost sight of him. Murdock would soon be picked up by a landing craft from a later wave. Roach would also be rescued, by an army control craft, and would also survive the war.
Back in the shallows, their boatmate Sergeant Thomas Valance cowered in knee-high water, scanning the bluffs. He couldn't see a single German. But the enemy was there, hidden in bunkers and trenches all along the bluffs. The air crackled with bullets. It seemed as if Company A had walked onto the wrong end of a firing range. Suddenly, tracer fire spat from the concrete pillbox at the mouth of the D-1 draw. It had not been immobilized by the naval barrage after all. The pillbox actually faced eastward, allowing machine gunners a clean sweep across the mouth of the draw and the entire length of Dog Green beach.7
Valance fired at the pillbox and several beach houses shrouded in smoke. They too were supposed to have been flattened by American bombers. All around Valance, Bedford boys were dying. In some spots, the sea ran red. Valance struggled to keep his balance. As he threw off his kit and sodden pack a bullet pierced his knuckle and exited through the palm of his hand. Valance felt only a small sting but his adrenaline surged as blood spurted from the wound.
Not far away, Company A's Private Henry G. Witt rolled over in the surf and faced Valance. "Sergeant," he cried hopelessly. "They're leaving us here to die like rats. Just to die like rats."8 Valance didn't feel abandoned. He was determined to get out of the water, to push forward, to find cover, and then get Company A's objectives achieved, whatever the conditions. There was still a job to be done.
Valance crawled towards the sea wall at the western edge of the beach, where he finally collapsed, blood gushing from several bullet wounds. He would lie there for the rest of the day along with a small group of other badly wounded Company A survivors.
Back in the shallows, the few dozen men from Company A who were still alive were having a hell of a time simply keeping afloat or moving forward without exposing themselves to withering fire. The smartest lay with their nostrils just above the water so they could breathe but with every other inch of their bodies submerged. Now the Germans were shooting at anything that resembled a body, exploding the heads and bellies of the prostrate, turning areas of the beach into a bloody slaughterhouse.
By 6:45 a.m., the first wave boats had deposited Company A on the beach and pulled away.9
The next wave to approach the shore included an LCA carrying Lieutenant Ray Nance and seventeen other headquarters staff, including the medic Cecil Breeden and Bedford boys John Reynolds and John Clifton. They came in exactly as planned, nineteen minutes after the rest of Company A.
Nance's craft hit bottom. The British bowman, standing a few feet to Nance's right in a steel compartment at the front of the craft, pulled a lever to let the ramp down. The ramp lowered but then stopped. "Get it down!"10 shouted Nance.
The bowman yanked the lever again and again. Finally, the ramp started to fall. Nance gave it a shove.
"Up and at 'em mates,"11 cried the bowman.
Nance took two steps down the ramp and jumped into the water. A wave crashed down, almost submerging him. He began to wade forward, his sodden pack pulling him down, rifle above his head. The next thing he knew, he was lying winded on the cold sand. Nance looked around. He couldn't see any other men from Company A. Feeling terribly isolated, he struggled on up the beach. Soon he realized what had happened to Company A — corpses lay strewn across the sands and bumped against each other in the shallows.
Suddenly, he was not alone. Men appeared nearby. To the right: one of Nance's runners; to the left: his radio operator, John Clifton — Company A's Cassanova — crawling, his radio still on his back. The radio was useless, and it made him a sitting target. He should dump it fast, thought Nance.
"Keep moving, keep moving," shouted Nance.
"I'm hit," cried Clifton.
"Can you move?" asked Nance.
Clifton didn't answer.
Nance ducked and then looked up again. Clifton had disappeared.
Nance spotted four other men huddled down behind a steel tank obstacle. "Spread out!" shouted Nance. The words had barely left his mouth when a mortar round landed, killing three of the men and severely wounding the other.
Nance couldn't see a single German. He fired a few rounds towards the bluffs but then another mortar shell exploded nearby. A piece of shrapnel took a chunk out of his rifle, just a few inches from his face. "The Germans were so accurate with those things," Nance recalled, "they could put one in your back pocket if they spotted you."12
Tracer fire spurted towards Nance, kicking up sand, ricocheting off the stones, stitching the hard beach with bullets. The Germans had spotted him and were zeroing in. The machine gun snarled again. He was definitely the target. The fire came from a bunker just to the right of the draw, half way up the bluffs.
Nance positioned his body so he was facing the machine gun head on, providing less of a target. If he did get hit, it would be over quick — a shot to the head. He looked at his rifle; it was useless. Wet sand had gotten into the workings.
Nance held his breath as the sound of the bullets got louder. Then his body began to shake with terror. Another burst of bullets. He looked to his right — a Company A rifleman was up on his feet and sprinting, trying to escape the machine gun volleys. Nance recognized the runner. It was twenty-two-year-old John Reynolds. Reynolds stopped, knelt down and raised his rifle to return fire. He never got to pull the trigger. Nance saw him fall dead.
Finally, the bullets stopped spitting across the beach towards Nance. Perhaps the Germans had found another runner. There was no retreat for any man on D-Day — he had to push on. Nance crawled forward, aiming for a cliff-face three hundred yards away. Suddenly his right foot felt like Frank Draper Jr. had hit it with a baseball bat. Part of his heel had been shot away. Bullets again stitched the sand, again heading in his direction. "They came so close," recalled Nance. "Then, suddenly, when I thought there was no more hope, I looked up in the sky. I didn't see anything up there. But I felt something settle over me. I got this warm feeling. I felt as if somehow I was going to live."13
Nance lay as still as he could, hoping the machine gunner would think he was dead. But even corpses were now targets for the Germans above Dog Green. "That machine gunner just wouldn't let me be. He'd send a line of bullets my way, pass on to another target then come back for me again, like he was playing cat and mouse."14 Nance tried in vain to dig a shallow foxhole in the sand and shingle with his hands. Then he spotted a tidal pool. It looked deep enough for a man to disappear beneath its surface.
Nance crawled as fast as he could, slithering into the pool's tepid waters. He filled his lungs and ducked down. Suddenly, a bullet pierced the strap on his World War I binocular case. Nance ducked down again and again. Some time later, when he came up for air, there was a soldier from New York not far from him. The machine gun bullets returned. Nance again turned to face them head on. He told the New Yorker to do the same. The bullets moved away.
Nance and the New Yorker scrambled across the last yards towards the cliff. At last, they felt shingle beneath them. Nance collapsed, blood pouring from his foot. But at least he was safe. He looked out to sea. "I recognized two [dead] officers. They were face up, lying in the water. A lot of men were caught by the tide. Had we been on dry land, a lot of men would have made it."15
The tide had crept up behind Nance, drowning Company A men who no longer had the strength to crawl. Among them, it is thought, was Raymond Hoback. Nance had trained them. He had tried to be good to them. He had read their last love letters. As he now lay on the blood-stained pebbles below Vierville sur Mer, he still felt responsible for them, every last one. "I was their officer. It was my duty. . . . They were the finest soldiers I ever saw."16
Copyright © 2004 Alex Kershaw. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web by special arrangement with the publisher.