In the prologue to The Dead and Those About to Die, his new account of the 1st Infantry Division’s D-Day landing on the Easy Red and Fox Green sectors of Omaha Beach, veteran military historian John C. McManus describes the place where the soldiers arrived: “Death lurked everywhere—in the rough waters, on the ramps of the wobbly landing craft, amid every wet grain of sand, behind every log or steel obstacle, alongside every mine….” He shows a sure hand in explaining the big-picture strategies, conditions, logistics, and leadership in this epic struggle, but his characteristic strength lies in his steady focus on the details of the individual soldier’s step-by-step, minute-by-minute experience of the sights, sounds, smells, and feeling of unrelenting mortal combat.
This excerpt describes the division’s costly fight to break out of the killing ground on the beach up through a draw in the bluff, code-named Exit E-1.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL JOHN WILLIAMSON’S RADIO COMMUNICATION with the beach was good enough that he understood two things: his battalion was needed immediately and he was to land a few hundred yards west of Exit E-1 so as to outflank German strong point WN-65. After experiencing some reluctance from his naval colleagues to head for the beach—at least according to the 18th Infantry Regiment’s records; the naval records are mute—Williamson made it clear that it was time to land. “We were told that no channels were marked [as free of mines and obstacles] and that it was not safe to go in,” the battalion after action report stated. “The Battalion Commander then told the Navy Officer to take the boats in regardless of channels.”
As they sped and bounced over the heavy waves, they began to take enemy artillery and machine gun fire. When the LCVP skippers dropped their ramps in water ranging from two to five feet in depth, the troops scrambled ashore. The clouds and mist began to clear and the men now saw the terrible reality of Easy Red. “The beach shingle was full of tanks, vehicles, tractors, bulldozers and troops,” the same after action report chronicled. The shingle was also inundated with the bodies of the living and the dead, a shocking scene of carnage for the newcomers to behold. “What I saw gave me a chill,” Captain Robert Murphy, commander of H Company, recalled. He was especially discomfited by the sight of stationary vehicles and men huddled for cover against the shingle bank.
Captain Richard Lindo, an artillery liaison officer, literally had to step over a dead body to make the beach, prompting a disengaged feeling that “somehow we weren’t there and somehow all this was happening around us.” Lindo’s experience was a microcosm for Williamson’s entire battalion—they were landing and advancing over the bodies of those who had already fought and bled for this hellish beach. Captain Murphy came upon a man lying in the water, rolling back and forth with the incoming surf. “I went over to him to see if he was one of my men,” Murphy said. As the captain watched, horrified, the body lolled toward him—“his head was gone.” He was not from Murphy’s company.
Lieutenant Richard Conley, a brand-new platoon leader in E Company, stumbled off the ramp of his Higgins boat and pitched face first into the water. Soaked to the skin but otherwise okay, he gathered his platoon along the shingle and told them to get rid of their bangalores and pole charges since he could see that the 16th Infantry had already blown enough holes in the barbed wire beyond the beach. He happened to glance back in the direction of the water line and noticed a lone American about one hundred yards away, walking parallel to the sea. “[I] heard an extra loud explosion, and when I turned and looked where he had been, it was nothing but a tall plume of smoke going up in the air.” Conley and his soldiers figured the man had touched off a submerged Teller mine, but they never knew for sure.
In spite of a watery, sloppy landing under fire, Williamson’s battalion made it onto Easy Red more or less intact, although most of the men came in on the east side of Exit E-1 which exposed them to fire from WN-65 and positions on the bluffs overlooking the draw. Inevitably, there was confusion as boat sections landed separately and commanders lost contact with one another. The shock of seeing the carnage and facing enemy fire only enhanced the sense of discombobulation. Moreover, the 29th Infantry Division’s 115th Infantry Regiment landed almost in its entirety right in the 2nd Battalion’s wake on Easy Red, adding to the disarray of the moment. Williamson spent most of his initial minutes on the beach making contact with his company commanders, organizing units, dispensing orders. His plan was for E Company to hook right and hit WN-65 from the west, while the rest of the battalion attacked up the draw.
AT THE FOOT OF THE DRAW, a 50mm gun inside a reinforced concrete H677 casemate pillbox continued to fire unabated. The narrow embrasure of the fortification faced east and was angled in such as way as to make it difficult to hit from anywhere but directly to the front. The gun had already destroyed numerous vehicles and inflicted an untold number of casualties on the invaders of Easy Red, even though the German defenders inside the pillbox were probably now cut off from their comrades farther up the draw. If the Americans were to take the draw and truly begin their inland advance, the pillbox had to be neutralized. Sure enough, throughout the late morning, it began to attract the fire of nearly every American weapon with a feasible shot. Individual soldiers sprayed the area with rifle grenade, rifle and machine gun fire. At least two Shermans from the 741st Tank Battalion peppered the edges of the concrete embrasure. The tanks were vulnerable to return fire, not just from the 50mm, but also from mortars. One shell exploded right next to Staff Sergeant Walter Skiba’s tank, killing him instantly. His crewmen dragged his prostrate body out of the commander’s hatch and onto the embattled beach but found that there was nothing they could do for him.
Halftracks from the 197th Anti-Aircraft (SP) Battalion and the 467th Antiaircraft AW Battalion maneuvered into position either in shallow water or at the slope of the shingle bank to unleash a steady cadence of .50-caliber machine gun bullets and 37mm shells. Sergeant Hyman Haas, who commanded a pair of halftracks from A Battery of the 467th, found a suitable spot at the waterline from which to shoot at the pillbox. As he looked around Easy Red, he was stunned at the carnage. “I saw mutilations that I never expected…pieces of bodies, heads loose…a bloodied man…so bloody that he looked like he was painted.” Sergeant Haas was breathing heavily, his eyes darting to and fro. He was dangerously close to Condition Black, the physiological state of shock and paralyzing fear that can lead to panic and incapacitation. Nonetheless, he focused on his job and gave the command to open fire at the pillbox. The adjacent M15 halftrack was equipped with .50-caliber machine guns. Haas could see tracer rounds zipping in every direction as the gunner fired. His own 37mm gun shot several times but the rounds fell short. He and the crew adjusted the range. “The next ten shots went directly into the port hole of the pillbox. We…fired one full clip and part of a second clip…and they went directly into the pillbox.” Lieutenant Wallace Gibbs, a platoon leader in the same battery, remembered it as “thirty to forty rounds…fired into the opening.” Puffs of dust, smoke, and concrete billowed from the pillbox as the shells scored hits.
The destroyer USS Frankford added to the overwhelming firepower. At 0950 Admiral Carleton Bryant, commander of the navy’s bombardment force, had radioed his destroyer group and ordered them to sail close to the beach and do whatever they could to support the hard-pressed troops; throughout the day, they were to provide crucial assistance. The Frankford’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander James L. Semmes, responded to Bryant’s order by sailing his vessel straight at the E-1 draw for a point-blank confrontation with the pillbox. Like many other destroyers that day, the Frankford was not in touch with its fire control party, probably because that group was pinned down on the beach alongside so many other invaders. In order to get any kind of decent shot, the ship had to get close—very close. “The tide was in our favor at the moment,” Lieutenant (jg) Owen Keeler, the gunnery officer, wrote. “Navigating by fathometer and seaman’s eye, [Commander Semmes] took us in close enough to put our optical rangefinder…on the bluff above the beach…300–400 yards away.” There was a very real danger the destroyer could run aground and become a stationary target for German artillery, but Semmes was willing to take that risk.
On the beach, Tech Sergeant Jim Knight, a pinned-down member of a gap assault team, watched in fascination as the ship glided inexorably toward the E-1 draw. “Even though she wasn’t listing or smoking, my first thought was that she had either struck a mine or taken a torpedo and was damaged badly enough that she was being beached.” Instead, the sleek ship turned parallel to the beach and prepared to open fire. In the words of Captain Harry Sanders, the destroyer group commander, the ship thus “assumed the role of mobile artillery in direct support of the troops.” However, the enemy camouflage, in addition to the smoke and chaos on Easy Red, still made it difficult, even at this incredibly close range, for Frankford’s spotters to see their targets. Eventually, Lieutenant Keeler noticed the direction in which one of the tanks was shooting and simply followed suit with a salvo of 5-inch shells. “For the next few minutes he was our fire-control party,” Keeler said. “Our rangefinder optics could examine the spots where his shells hit.” Several of the 5-inch naval shells smacked into the top of the pillbox, sending shards of concrete flying in every direction. Tech Sergeant Knight watched in awe as Frankford’s guns blazed away. “I saw smoke leave the gun barrels, shells landed a few yards above my rock cover.” The noise and concussion of the naval gunfire and the ensuing explosions was immense. “I remember being just lifted up when some of these shells went over us, and kind of slammed back down in the ground after the shell had gone by and exploded,” Sergeant Alan Anderson, a halftrack section commander in the 467th, recalled. “It was an awful experience and the concussion was beyond belief. We were showered with debris, and with sand and smoke.” By the time the Frankford was finished, Anderson’s hearing was gone (it would not return for several more days).
The German gun crew, of course, was even worse off. Every direct hit from a 5-inch shell felt like a combination of an earthquake and an explosion. Their hair was full of dust and concrete chips. Most likely, some bled from the nose and ears. Emboldened by the copious supporting fire, groups of American soldiers worked their way close to the pillbox, around it, behind it and added their own close-range fire. The surviving Germans surrendered. As T/5 Albert Sponheimer, the medic from the 197th, saw them emerge from the pillbox with their hands up, he thought to himself, “I hope the hell none of those sons-of-bitches are wounded, because I’ll have to work on them!” Some must have been wounded, but Sponheimer still got his wish. He did not have to treat any of them. Tech Sergeant Knight believed that the Frankford had saved his life and those of many other soldiers on the beach. “If you had not come in as close as you did,” he wrote years later to veterans who had served aboard the destroyer, “exposing yourselves to God only knows how much, then I would not have survived overnight.” Colonel Stanhope Mason later wrote to Rear Admiral John Hall, commander of the naval forces at Omaha beach: “Without that gunfire, we positively would not have crossed those beaches.”
THE CAPTURE OF THE PILLBOX occurred some time between 11:40 and noon. With the objective taken, and the Germans mostly expunged from the E-1 exit, Brigadier General Willard Wyman, the assistant division commander, knew he could now push the newly arriving 18th Infantry soldiers through the draw and inland. What is more, the engineers, many of whom had been pinned down by the pillbox’s 50mm fire, could now get to work constructing an exit road at E-1. Wyman ordered Lieutenant Colonel Williamson to take his 2nd Battalion, move up the draw, and reinforce the battered 16th Infantry soldiers who had managed to make it off the beach. Starting at 1223, almost the same time Wyman gave these orders to Williamson, the 1st Battalion of the 18th Infantry, under Lieutenant Colonel Bob York, approached Easy Red. Because of the dangers presented by untrammeled mines and obstacles, York’s people had laboriously transferred from LCIs to LCVPs. For these men, and those of the 3rd Battalion who followed the 1st Battalion about an hour later aboard LCIs, the apprehension of what lay ahead was nearly unbearable. They knew enough about the landing timetable to understand that they were several hours behind schedule. In the minds of most, especially the veterans, this meant only one thing—something was wrong. Other than that, their ignorance about what was happening on Omaha beach was near total. They had spent the morning hours in brooding anticipation, their minds plagued with dreaded thoughts of gruesome worst-case scenarios. It all amounted to a terrible fear of the unknown—possibly the worst, most dreaded form of terror, if for no other reason than the feeling of intense, powerless anticipation.
Lieutenant John Downing, making his third invasion, said he began to “get a sickening feeling in my stomach.” He passed the time pacing back and forth from the deckhouse of LCI-489 to the deck, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, muttering worriedly with other officers. “We didn’t like the delay in landing plans, but we couldn’t appear concerned before the few men who were on duty on the deck.” The apprehension was probably the worst for officers like Downing and Lieutenant Charles Ryan, a platoon leader, if only because of their immense responsibilities and the fact that they could not betray their inner fear or misgivings in front of their men. “There were about sixty men looking to me for leadership,” Ryan said. “I knew that if I did my job properly, more of these men would survive than if I [failed]. For me it was duty first. I was affected by the spirit of the Big Red One.”
The combination of inactivity, nervousness, and the monotonous rocking of the various landing craft produced a sickly feeling in many others too. One soldier remembered that “most men were half sick and couldn’t keep their food down.” Such was the case for Staff Sergeant Donald Parker who had gorged himself the previous evening on candied citron, a tart, sweet, fruit confection. “Never again have I eaten citron except in minute quantities,” he wrote drily decades later. As he struggled to keep his stomach in check, a palpable sense of dread permeated the men around him. “Most of the faces were pretty sober. Men would glance at each other and shake their heads. Occasionally someone would try to tell a joke. There would be a few polite chuckles. No one felt like laughing. Some read prayer books, others, their New Testament. Some recited the rosary over and over.” The pervasive, and nearly overwhelming, stench of diesel fumes did nothing to help queasy stomachs. In Private First Class Howard Johnson’s recollection, the smell was strongest near the heads. “When I smell diesel fuel today, I am immediately transported back in time to the LCI,” he said.
Sergeant Dean Weissert, heading into his first invasion, was surprised at the fear he noticed on the faces of the veteran soldiers around him as they talked about wives, sweethearts, and home. “I suddenly found myself living my past life over, starting from the time I started in a little country school in Gosper County, Nebraska. I thought about the many nights my father, my two brothers, and I sat around the kitchen table playing cards using a…kerosene lamp for light. My mother would be sewing or baking something good to eat.” Weissert closed his eyes and began praying earnestly. Another rookie, Private First Class Ralph Burnett, also saw his young life flash before him. “Everything really does fly through your mind…everything you’ve ever done, everything you ever loved, everyone you’ve ever loved.”
The fear was almost a physical presence. It had a smell, almost like sweaty body odor but more pungent. Everyone dealt with it differently—some tried to pretend it wasn’t there; some became introspective; some fought the urge to panic; some just tried to think of other, more pleasant things. Few could forget it, though. “There is no way to describe that dreaded feeling of fear that persists,” Corporal Edward Steeg, a mortar gunner, said. “It has to be experienced.” Private First Class Elmer Seech had been with the outfit since North Africa and he had seen plenty of intense combat, to the point where he was surprised he had survived this long. A moody fatalism overtook him (and many other veterans that morning). As Seech waited for the order to hit the beach, he turned to a buddy and said, “I’m so disgusted, this is my third invasion already and it’s like I’m playing baseball, three strikes and you’re out. I just wish they could take my right leg from the knee down, just to send me home.”
Over the long months of training, and during previous operations, many of the soldiers had befriended the sailors and coastguardsmen who manned the landing vessels. Aboard LCI-487 one sad-faced veteran who had become friends with 18-year-old Seaman First Class Robert St. John offered him a beautifully adorned plate—probably his most cherished possession—that he had been carrying since North Africa. The soldier was convinced he would not survive the invasion and he wanted St. John to keep the plate. St. John refused, but the soldier was so insistent that he finally relented and took it, but only with the assurance that the man would be fine.
In the early afternoon hours, the 1st and 3rd battalions landed on Easy Red amid largely similar circumstances to their comrades in the 2nd Battalion. “The gaps blown by the engineers in the underwater obstacles were few and narrow and the beach was under heavy concentrated artillery, and some machine gun and scattered sniper fire still fell in the sands,” the regimental history chronicled. What is more, mines and enemy shells inflicted significant damage on several of the LCIs carrying the 3rd Battalion. The 3rd suffered 80 casualties just getting ashore (numerous casualties among the LCI crewmen only added to the toll). Among the 3rd Battalion dead was the soldier who had given his plate to Seaman First Class Robert St. John.
Once ashore, the newcomers gravitated toward the recently taken E-1 exit. They were wet, cold, scared, queasy, and exhausted from their many hours of tense waiting as well as their imperfect landing. Many waded through the flooded antitank ditch or the marshes. Commanders moved them along as best they could. Captain William Russell, the commanding officer of K Company, had taken some fragments in the head when his LCI was hit by shellfire; his face was a bloody mess, but he could not have cared less. He stood in knee-deep water waving his men forward in the direction of the draw. “Blood was all over his face,” Private Burnett recalled, “but he still was worried about his men getting across that beach.” In the estimation of another man, Russell led the way “with utter abandon.” Leaders like Russell probably saved many lives by promoting such a sense of urgency.
With disorienting rapidity, the troops came face to face with the horrors of the beach. “I saw hundreds of dead and dying,” along the shingle, Lieutenant George Duguay later wrote. “I saw amphibious tanks, unable to get traction on gravel and rocks, get blown to bits by German artillery.” Lieutenant Hyrum Shumway almost stumbled over “a fellow on his hands and knees…in a kneeling position looking at me. His face was white and his hair fiery red.” Shumway was so stunned at the dead man’s lifelike appearance that he jerked backward and nearly stepped on a nearby mine. Private Lewis Smith, a rifleman and demolition man, took cover at the shingle and happened to glance at the men on either side of him. “On my left…he had a hole blown out of his back. It looked like had taken a direct hit from a mortar shell. On my right…the top of his head had been shot off, it looked like by machine gun fire. And this was my first combat.” Private First Class James Furey was transfixed by the sight of a foot lying randomly on the beach. With morbid incongruity, he asked the man next to him. “Is that a left foot or a right?” Staff Sergeant Donald Parker, fresh from the nauseous aftermath of his citron feast, was following the rest of his company across Easy Red, stepping over the bodies of dead and wounded men alike. At one point, he came upon a young soldier in his death throes. Parker got down on his hands and knees and leaned over the man. “Get a chaplain,” the soldier said softy.
“I won’t be able to find one now,” Parker replied. “Our line will move any second.” The dying soldier reached out and grasped Sergeant Parker’s arm. “Do something. I’m dying.”
He paused a few moments and then spoke again. “Let’s repeat the Lord’s prayer together.” “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” they said in unison.
A shell screamed in and exploded nearby, prompting Parker to flatten himself on the ground beside the praying soldier. “When I raised up again, the war had ended for him,” Parker later said.
An authority on the Normandy invasion and other World War II battles, John C. McManus is author of The Americans at D-Day (2005), Alamo in the Ardennes (2007), and September Hope (2013). This story is excerpted from The Dead and Those About to Die, by John C. McManus. Reprinted by arrangement with NAL Caliber, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House company. Copyright © John C. McManus, 2014.