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D-Day: Afternoon on Omaha Beach

"It Was Just Fantastic"

Converted for the Web from "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" by Stephen E. Ambrose

D-Day book by Ambrose

By early afternoon a majority of the German pillboxes on the beach and bluff had been put out of action by destroyers, tanks, and infantry, suppressing if not entirely eliminating machine-gun fire on the beach. Sniper fire, however, continued. The Germans made use of the maze of communication trenches and tunnels to reoccupy positions earlier abandoned and resumed firing.

Worse, artillery from inland and flank positions kept up harassing fire on the beach flat, some of it haphazard, some of it called in by OPs on the bluff. Even the haphazard fire was effective, because the traffic jam remained -- it was hardly possible for a shell or mortar fired on the beach flat to miss.

Capt. Oscar Rich was a spotter for the 5th Field Artillery Battalion. He was on an LCT with his disassembled L-5 plane. He came to Easy Red at 1300. "I'd like to give you first my impression of the beach, say from a hundred yards out till the time we got on the beach," he said.

"Looking in both directions you could see trucks burning, tanks burning, piles of I don't know what burning. Ammunition had been unloaded on the beach. I saw one pile of five-gallon gasoline cans, maybe 500 cans in all. A round hit them. The whole thing just exploded and burned.

"I've never seen so much just pure chaos in my life. But what I expected, yet didn't see, was anybody in hysterics. People on the beach were very calm. The Seabees were directing traffic and bringing people in and assigning them to areas and showing them which way to go. They were very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. They were directing traffic just like it was the 4th of July parade back home rather than where we were."

While the LCT circled offshore, looking for a place to go in, a mortar round hit it in the bow. The skipper, an ensign, nevertheless saw a likely spot and moved in. The beachmaster waved him off. He had forgotten to drop his sea anchor so "we had one heck of a time trying to get off the sandbar, but finally we made it," Rich said.

"I felt sorry for this ensign, who was really shook up after taking this round in the bow and forgetting to drop his sea anchor. And he asked me, 'Lieutenant, do you know anything about running ships?' and I said, 'Hell, man, I've been running boats all my life.' Actually, the biggest I'd ever run was a skiff fishing in the river, but he said, 'You want to run this?' and I said, 'I sure as hell do.'

"I got one of the sailors and told him, 'Son, you've got one job and one job only.' He said, 'What's that?' I said, 'When we get within 100 yards of the shore, you drop this sea anchor whether I tell you to or not.'"

The LCT went in again. Somehow the sailors managed to drop the bow, even as the craft took another hit in the engine room. Two jeeps ran off. To Rich's dismay, "They forgot to hook my airplane on and I didn't have a jeep." A Seabee came over with a bulldozer, hooked a rope onto the tow bar for the L-5, pulled it onto the beach, unhooked the plane, told Rich he had other work to do, wished him luck, and drove off. "So there I was with an airplane, no mechanic, no help, and no transportation."

Rich saw the beachmaster. "He couldn't have been over twenty-five years old. He had a nice handlebar mustache and he was sitting in a captain's chair there on the beach, and he had a radio and a half dozen telephones and a bunch of men serving him as runners and he was just keeping everything going. People came up to him and wanted to know this, that, or the other. He never lost his temper. He never got excited. He would just tell them and they'd go away. He was only a lieutenant, but these Army colonels and generals would come up and demand this and demand that and he'd say, 'I'm sorry, I haven't got it. You'll just have to take what you've got and go on with it.' They would shake their heads and go off and leave him.

"When he'd spot an open space, why, he'd say, 'Let's get a craft in there. Let's get a boat in there. Let's get that one out of the way. Get a bulldozer over and shove that tank out of the way. Make room for somebody to come in here.' He kept that beach moving. I have no idea who he was, but the Navy certainly should have been proud of him, because he did a tremendous job."

Rich told the beachmaster he needed a jeep to pull his 115 off the beach. "He said, 'There's one over there. There's nobody in it. Go take it.'"

Rich did, and wove his way through the congestion to the E-1 draw, his plane in tow. Then he drove up the draw. Rich was possibly the first to do so -- it had just opened.

On top, Rich found the apple orchard outside St.-Laurent where he was supposed to be and began to assemble his plane. With no mechanic to help, he was not making much progress. From time to time he would get some help from a GI who could not resist the temptation to tinker with a machine. Sooner or later a noncom or officer would yell at the soldier to get the hell back to the battle and, Rich would be on his own again. Not until dark did he get his plane ready to fly.

Copyright © 1994 Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Click to Amazon to purchase "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" by Stephen E. Ambrose.

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