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D-Day: Afternoon on Omaha Beach

Landing on Omaha Beach

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

Rich was lucky. German artillery and mortar fire concentrated on the exits; without spotter planes, the Navy could not locate the sources of the fire. As the afternoon wore on, the shelling got heavier. Adm. Charles Cooke and Maj. Gen. Tom Handy of the War Department, observing the action from the deck of Harding, decided they needed a closer look. They off-loaded onto an LCI, closed the beach, transferred to an LCM, and went in through a gap in the obstacles.

"The beach was strewed with wrecked landing craft, wrecked tanks, and various other vehicles," Cooke recalled. "It was also strewed with dead and wounded."

Handy went to the right, Cooke to the left. Shells burst all around them, throwing sand in their faces, forcing them to hit the beach -- in Cooke's case inflicting some slight shrapnel wounds. After a couple of hours, they rejoined and decided to get out, because, as Cooke said, "the shelling was getting very much heavier, increasing the casualty toll and it appeared highly desirable to leave."

Lt. Vince Schlotterbeck of the 5th ESB spent seven hours on an LCT cruising just out of range of the German guns, waiting for an opportunity to go in. Like most others, the skipper had cut loose the barrage balloon -- there were no German planes strafing the fleet, and the balloons gave the Germans a target to spot and zero in on. Schlotterbeck spent the time perched atop the landing ramp, watching whatever caught his eye.

"The underwater obstacles could be seen plainly, since the tide was not all the way in. The wreckage on the beach and in the water was greater than anything I had ever imagined. Tanks were strewn along the beach, some half submerged. We could see that there were only two or three tanks on which we could depend."

At 1830, the LCT tried to run in. "We headed for a likely spot but ran onto a sandbar and had to back off because the water was too deep. Just as we cleared, a shell threw up a spray in the exact spot where we had been grounded." The skipper tried again. He found a gap in the obstacles "but a big ship loaded with ammunition was grounded and burning fiercely. The almost continuous explosions made it too dangerous to land there, so we sought again." Finally the skipper saw a good spot at Fox Red and turned toward it, but an LCI raced him to the gap, cutting in front of the LCT and causing it to land on another sandbar. This time it was stuck, period.

"Our engines throbbed at top speed, and our craft seemed ready to disintegrate from vibration. The stern anchor had been dropped and was being pulled in, but instead of pulling us off the anchor just dragged along in the sand. The engines screamed with power, never ceasing."

Meanwhile, the LCI that had beat the LCT to the gap had lowered its ramps and men were wading into shore. "Suddenly, a shell burst in their midst and we never saw any of them again. Then the Germans sent a shell into the front of the craft, one in the middle, and one in the rear."

Schlotterbeck's LCT finally floated free on the rising tide. The officers on the craft held a conference to decide whether to wait until after midnight, when the tide would be full, or to continue to attempt to get ashore.

"Everyone was in favor of going in as soon as possible because we did not like the idea of hitting the beach after dark, so we kept on trying. And at about 2000 we found the right spot." Schlotterbeck waded ashore.

"My mind had already been made up to the fact that a horrible sight would greet me, and it is a good thing that I had prepared myself because the number of casualties was appalling. The number of dead was very great, but what struck us hardest was the boys who had been wounded and were trying to hitch rides back to the transports. Wounded were walking along the beach trying to pick up a ride. Those who were more severely wounded came in pairs, supporting each other, when they rightfully should have been stretcher cases."

Schlotterbeck had to walk on dead bodies to proceed up the bluff. "At one point I was ready to walk on a body face up when the soldier slowly opened his eyes and I almost twisted myself out of shape to avoid him. Luckily, I missed him."

Pvt. M. C. Marquis of the 115th Regiment had his own unnerving experience. On his LCVP going in that afternoon, he had of all things exchanged shoes with Corporal Terry: "We thought we got a better fit." Going up the bluff, Terry was in front of Marquis. He stepped on a mine. It split open his foot and shoe. "As I walked by," Marquis reported, "I said, 'So long, Terry.' I still wonder if he made it to the hospital."

As Marquis climbed, a dozen German prisoners guarded by a GI descended. "These were the first Germans we saw. They didn't look so tough."

An American went down, hit by a sniper. A medic hurried over to treat the wounded man. The sniper shot the medic in the arm. "Hey," the medic shouted angrily, "you're not supposed to shoot medics!"

Marquis got to the top and moved forward with his squad to join the fight in St.-Laurent. Just as he arrived, naval gunfire came in. He got showered with bricks and mortar, but a helmet he had picked up on the beach protected him. The squad retreated and dug in beside a hedgerow.

Down on the beach men went about their work despite shelling. The demolition teams were making progress in their vital task of clearing paths through the obstacles. As the tide dropped in the afternoon, they methodically blew up Rommel's Belgian gates and tetrahedra, ignoring sniper fire. They completed three gaps partially opened in the morning, made four new ones, and widened others. By evening they had thirteen gaps fully opened and marked and had cleared about one-third of the obstacles on the beach.

The engineers, meanwhile, were opening the exits for vehicles. This involved blowing the concrete antitank barriers, filling in the antitank ditch, removing mines, and laying wire mesh on the sand so the jeeps and trucks could get across. By 1300, they had E-1 open to traffic.

Movement began at once, but within a couple of hours new trouble loomed; the vehicles coming up on the plateau were unable to get inland because the crossroad at St.-Laurent was still in enemy hands. For an hour or so vehicles were jammed bumper to bumper all the way from the beach to the plateau. At 1600 the engineers pushed a branch road south that bypassed the defended crossroad and movement resumed. At 1700, the Vierville exit (D-1) was opened, further relieving the congestion on the beach.

Tanks, trucks, and jeeps made it to the top, but almost no artillery did. By dusk, elements of five artillery battalions had landed, but they had lost twenty-six guns to enemy fire and most of their equipment. Except for one mission fired by the 7th Field Artillery Battalion, American cannon, the queen of the battlefield, played no part in the battle on D-Day. The two antiaircraft battalions scheduled to land never even got ashore; they had to wait for D plus one. Over fifty tanks were lost, either at sea or on the beach.

Planners had scheduled 2,400 tons of supplies to reach Omaha Beach during D-Day, but only 100 tons got ashore. A large proportion of what did arrive was destroyed on the beach; precious little of it got up to the plateau. Troops on top had to fight with what they carried up the bluff on their backs. They ran dangerously low on the three items that were critical to them -- ammunition, rations, and cigarettes. Some did not get resupplied until D plus two; the rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc had to wait until June 9 for fresh supplies.

Despite the shelling, the congestion, and the obstacles, all through D-Day afternoon landing craft kept coming in, bringing more tanks and infantry. Lt. Dean Rockwell of the Navy, who had brought his LCT flotilla to Omaha Beach at H-Hour and landed the first tanks, made a return trip at 1400. His experience was typical of the skippers trying to get ashore in the follow-up waves.

"We cruised along the beach parallel for hundreds of yards," he recalled, "looking for an opening through the obstacles. One time we tried to nose our way through but made contact with one of the obstacles, which had a mine that detonated and blew a hole in our landing gear, which meant that we could not let our ramp down."

Rockwell finally made it to shore, but the damage to his LCT prevented him from discharging his tanks and trailers. "We were able, however, to put the poor soldiers ashore." They were from a medical detachment. "Let me say," Rockwell went on, "I have never seen anybody who liked less to follow through on an assignment than they. The beach was literally covered with military personnel backed up, held down by the fire from the enemy. The enemy was bombarding the beach from mortars back over the bluff. The Germans had predetermined targets, and bodies and sand and material would fly when these mortars went off. Anyway, we put the poor soldiers ashore and we felt very, very sorry for them, but we thanked God that we had decided to join the Navy instead of the Army."

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

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