A Knife in the Vitals: Omaha Beach | HistoryNet MENU

A Knife in the Vitals: Omaha Beach

By John C. McManus
2/15/2017 • World War II Magazine

A green lieutenant and a battle-hardened sergeant led the first Americans to fight their way off bloody Omaha Beach.

The 32 men in the first boat section of E Company, 16th Infantry Regiment, landed late, in chin-high water, at 6:45 a.m.—15 minutes after H-Hour, June 6, 1944. Their job, like that of the company’s other five boat sections, was to assault the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach, rapidly advance inland, and destroy any German resistance they encountered.

Somewhere up the slope in the murky dawn lurked a heavily fortified and armed strongpoint called Widerstandsnest (WN) 62—one of 15 along Omaha Beach. The German soldiers there had shelter from naval fire and a sweeping view of the eastern side of Easy Red. Their weapons covered a wide valley, or draw, that offered an invader a natural exit off the beach. The Americans dubbed it the E-3 draw. To outflank WN 62, E Company was to land a few hundred yards west of the strongpoint, where enemy fire was likely to be light. But strong tides, confusion, and, most likely, coxswain errors, landed five E Company boat sections in the shadow of the E-3 draw, right in front of WN 62’s guns.

Only the first boat section, led by Lieutenant John Spalding, landed where it should have, mainly through sheer fortune. When they got ashore, those 32 men, unaware of their comrades’ fate, constituted the entire western flank of the 1st Infantry Division. That tiny force became the first American unit to make it off the beach, and would go on to inflict irreparable damage on German defenders. But the cost was high, and in some instances did not come due until years later.

 

LIEUTENANT JOHN SPALDING, 29, WAS A NEW platoon leader from Owensboro, Kentucky. Wiry and thin, with a thick mane of black hair and a boyish face, Spalding worked as a sportswriter for the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer (he wrote a popular column, “Sports Sparks”) and part-time in a local department store’s men’s clothing and furnishings section before he enlisted in 1941. Spalding served a couple years in the ranks, then earned a commission through Officer Candidate School. He had a wife and young son back home, but the marriage was troubled by his absence.

Spalding’s second in command was Technical Sergeant Philip Streczyk, 25, who had been with the unit since North Africa. A native of East Brunswick, New Jersey, Streczyk was a classic child of the Depression. One of 10 children in a PolishAmerican family—he spoke Polish fluently—he had quit school after eighth grade to help support his family, working as a truck driver until he was drafted at 21. With a sweep of light brown hair atop a high forehead and a prominent chin, Streczyk was average in size and build but had an outsized reputation for common sense and bravery in combat. “He was fearless,” Private Stanley Dzierga remembered. “I never saw a man like that in my life. He wasn’t that big of a guy. He just… did everything and it just seems he was immune to the fire.”

With Spalding in the lead, the men left their Higgins boat and hopped into the surf roughly 200 yards from the rocky Easy Red shore. As Streczyk recalled, “the fire against the section was small in volume and erratic.” The men spread apart into a V formation about 50 yards across and began wading toward the beach, dodging mine-laden obstacles and the desultory machine-gun fire.

As was common that day, especially at low tide, the water’s depth varied step to step. Soon the men were in over their heads, struggling to stay afloat. “There was a strong undercurrent carrying us to the left,” Spalding recalled. He inflated his life belt, and lost his M1 carbine. “I swallowed so much salt water trying to get ashore. I came so near drowning I shudder to think about it.”

Private Fred Reese had stuffed a large roll of toilet paper into his helmet. As waves sloshed over and around him, the roll unraveled. Gobs of tissue draped his glasses and face until he could hardly see, but he kept going. Spalding called out to his overloaded men, ordering them to get rid of any equipment that was too heavy to carry. “We lost our mortar, most of the mortar ammunition, one of our two bazookas, and much of the bazooka ammunition,” he said.

All 32 men made it to the beach, many of them shocked and exhausted by the ordeal. Several had lost their personal weapons. “I was considerably shaken up,” Spalding wrote later in a letter to his mother. “Completely soaked, my equipment, heavy when dry, seemed to weigh a ton when I came out of the water.”

As the men caught their breath, they noticed that the beach looked absolutely pristine. Obstacles—concrete pyramids called tetrahedra, log barricades—many tipped with Teller mines—and steel girder antitank arrays the Americans called “hedgehogs”—were still in place. Barbed wire covered the embankment at the end of the beach and the brambled incline of gullies, marshes, and swales that led inland. Clearly, the pre-invasion bombardment had accomplished nothing. Back in England, while briefing his unit in the marshaling area, rookie officer Spalding had told his men the navy and air force would pummel the enemy so badly that all they would have to do was form a line and walk inland. “How little we knew,” he remarked later. “How great our faith!”

Machine-gun and rifle fire began hitting from somewhere on the right. Staff Sergeant Curt Colwell used a Bangalore torpedo to blow a hole through a snarl of barbed wire, and the men filtered through the gap and began to cross the rocky beach toward an embankment. There, clumps of brush gave way to a shaggy little ravine that led steadily upward to a prominent ridge parallel to the beach. Spalding did not have to give orders; the men had trained for just this situation and instinctively kept moving. “They were too waterlogged to run,” Spalding remembered, “but they went as fast as they could.”

The enemy fire worsened, wounding several soldiers. A private named William Roper caught a round in the foot, sat down, and rolled over. He attempted to give himself first aid but could not reach the laces of his leggings. Spalding paused, undid Roper’s laces, took off his brogan-style combat boot, and moved on, leaving the wounded man for the section medic.

The lieutenant heard mines exploding on the beach and mortar rounds bursting nearby. All around, men kept pressing inland. It occurred to Spalding that he ought to report his situation to Captain Ed Wozenski, E Company’s commander, who had been set to come ashore with one of the other boat sections. Spalding had no way of knowing that Wozenski was pinned down on the other side of the E-3 draw with the other five boat sections, absorbing the worst of WN 62’s wrath. (For more on WN 62, see “Things Were About to Get Ugly” in World War II’s 70th anniversary D-Day special, D-Day: This Great and Noble Undertaking, available in April.)

Spalding squatted, grabbed his SCR- 536 walkie-talkie radio, and extended the antenna. “Copper One to Copper Six,” he said. For a few seconds, he listened for a reply from Wozenski. Nothing. “Copper One to Copper Six. This is One. Come in Copper Six.” Still nothing. Spalding glanced down. The mouthpiece of the radio had been shot away.

Within minutes, the unit—now consisting of about 27 unscathed soldiers; accounts vary—had made it off the beach and reached the partial cover of demolished stone buildings the Americans came to call the “Roman ruins.” The ground around the ruins was mainly thick scrub, muddy marshland, and the foot of the ravine. A German machine-gun crew, firing from the ridge, locked in on them and began pouring accurate fire into their midst. Rifle fire also spattered around them. One sergeant, a Philadelphian named Louis Ramundo, decided to try to find the rest of E Company. He got up to run, but was hit and killed, probably by a rifleman.

The Americans returned fire as best they could, while Spalding and Sergeant Streczyk considered what to do next. They had no idea what had become of the rest of their company, little information about German defenses in the area, and almost no heavy weapons. They figured the marshy ground ahead was mined. But they had to keep moving inland and destroy German positions. Their only advantage was the cover of the ravine, and the fact that they had blundered into a spot out of reach of the enemy strongpoints.

Spalding and Streczyk decided to recon the ground ahead. The experienced Streczyk was the sort to do a job himself. He took Private First Class Richard Gallagher and began to survey the marsh. Sure enough, he spotted several mines, so the pair changed direction and set off through the thick brush. After several minutes, Gallagher returned and urged everyone to follow him up a defilade in the ravine.

“I called my men forward,” Spalding recalled, “and we cautiously moved along the defilade, keeping our eyes open for the little box mines the Germans had planted throughout the area. We made it through without mishap. The Lord was with us on that one.” In fact there were mines; Spalding’s group missed them by luck or—more likely—because Streczyk had sniffed a way around them.

The Americans ascended the ravine. The machine guns continued to fire intermittently, but less accurately because the ravine’s many dips and swales offered the Americans cover. Recalling mockups and reconnaissance photographs they had studied, the men realized the gunfire had to be coming from a trench near an unfinished German strongpoint, WN 64, guarding the west edge of Easy Red. As the Americans continued upward, an enemy gunner again opened fire. Private First Class Raymond Curley got hit, as did Sergeant Joseph Slaydon. Sergeant Hubert Blades fired a bazooka at the gun but missed and, in return, took a bullet through his left arm just above the wrist.

Blades seemed unfazed. A veteran of three invasions, he was sure his wound would earn him a ticket off the front line. He rushed to Spalding and showed him the wound. “Gee, Lieutenant, ain’t it a beauty?” Blades said. Spalding noticed envious looks on other men’s faces.

 

AS STAFF SERGEANT GRANT PHELPS SPRAYED THE bluff with fire from a Browning Automatic Rifle, Spalding and several others rushed the enemy nest and overran the lone gunner. Terrified, the man shot his hands into the air, pleading “Kamerad!”— German for comrade. “We could have easily killed him,” Spalding recalled, “but since we needed prisoners for interrogation I ordered the men not to shoot him.”

The prisoner said he was a Pole—probably from the 716th Infantry Division, into which the manpower-impoverished Germans had pressed many Eastern Europeans into duty. In Polish, Streczyk interrogated the hapless man, who told the sergeant there were 16 soldiers behind him who were supposed to defend the strongpoint’s flank. They were out of sight somewhere in the trenches. He claimed that unit had voted that morning not to fight, but were forced by their German NCOs to stay put and resist.

Streczyk was not in a forgiving mood. He smacked the Pole in the head. “So why are you shooting at us now?” he asked. The prisoner cowered. Spalding was equally dubious; the man said he hadn’t fired on any Americans, but “I had seen him hit three.”

At that moment, up in the trenches but unbeknownst to Streczyk and the others, a sergeant, Clarence Colson, and other first boat section men had overrun at least one of the enemy positions. That opened up a key route of advance—for the section, and for the 16th Infantry Regiment as a whole.

After the fight at the machinegun position, Spalding’s group at last made contact with other GIs from their regiment. Captain Joe Dawson and his G Company had landed about 20 minutes after Spalding and followed much the same path off the beach and inland—where Dawson had personally destroyed a machine-gun nest. His company had suffered 63 casualties on the beach, primarily from mortar and machine-gun fire, but the unit was more or less intact and in good condition to fight. Dawson and Spalding briefly discussed the possible whereabouts of the remainder of E Company— Dawson didn’t know either—and decided to proceed in different directions.

Dawson and his men would go straight over the destroyed machine-gun nest on the bluff and head for Collevillesur-Mer, the nearest town. Spalding would bear west toward WN 64 and another beach exit—the E-1 draw—clear the trenches there, and destroy any fortifications. Both men knew that the penetrations they had made were tenuous and vulnerable to counterattack—especially if, as they figured, most American invaders were still pinned down on the beaches. Even so, their small teams were a threat to the Germans. An American on a beach was a target; an American roaming inland was a hunter. So, like knives probing in the Germans’ vitals, the two groups resumed their advance.

 

FOR MUCH OF THE MORNING AND AFTERNOON, Sergeant Streczyk and Private First Class Gallagher led the way for the first boat section. Somewhere along the way, Lieutenant Spalding picked up a discarded German Mauser rifle to replace his lost M1 carbine, and soon after traded in the Mauser on another found carbine. Behind them the unit spread over nearly 500 yards, which made it hard to coordinate their movements. They swept through a network of well-camouflaged trenches protecting the eastern approaches to WN 64. Streczyk spotted a machine-gun team. He shot the gunner. The two other enemy soldiers surrendered. The Americans tried to interrogate them, but they would not talk. “We continued to the west with them in tow,” Spalding said.

Several hundred yards inland, they warily crossed an orchard and several hedgerows. They navigated two minefields. Sergeant Fred Bisco, a combat veteran and former soccer player from New Jersey, warned everyone to avoid dead grass, which usually meant the presence of mines. Sticking to a well-worn trail, the men kept going until they saw at a distance the trenches, machine-gun pits, and concrete bunkers of WN 64.

They began taking inaccurate small-arms fire, so Spalding and Streczyk organized the men into a defensive semi-circle, while Sergeant Kenneth Peterson fired a bazooka into a construction shack. Nothing happened. Spalding and Streczyk scouted ahead. “We found an underground dugout and an 81mm mortar emplacement, a position for an antitank gun, and construction for a pillbox,” Spalding said. The unoccupied mortar position was equipped with vivid range cards—visual aids intended to guide gunners’ fire—accurately showing what seemed to be every inch of Omaha Beach. Streczyk fired a few shots into the dugout, then yelled in Polish and German for the occupants to come out. This rousted seven enemy soldiers, three of them wounded. Streczyk recalled: “Germans inside the work were caught flat-footed.”

As the Americans took control of their latest prisoners, small-arms fire began raining from the right. This launched a running firefight with well-armed enemy soldiers occupying communication trenches leading over the bluff and down to the beach. The two sides hurled grenades back and forth. One German soldier was able to throw three grenades at the Americans before they overran him and forced him to surrender. “We should have shot him but we didn’t,” Spalding wrote to his mother a few weeks later. “He was a young Nazi, the type which is crazy about Hitler.”

Spalding himself came close to being a casualty. He had never checked the safety lever on his salvaged carbine. During the firefight in the communication trenches, he encountered an armed German and tried to open fire. But the safety was on and the carbine would not shoot. He reached for the safety catch, hit the clip release instead, and the clip hit the ground. Fortunately for Spalding, Sergeant Peterson had the German covered and he surrendered.

Elsewhere, Private Vinny DiGaetano, a flamethrower man, approached a dugout. As Streczyk covered him, he unleashed a stream of fire. Enemy soldiers “were hiding in the back or something,” DiGaetano said. “If you get them, they know about it. In thirty seconds, or a minute, the tank was empty.” Several smoldering Germans emerged and surrendered. Streczyk clapped DiGaetano on the back. “Good going, Dig!” he exclaimed.

By early afternoon, the Americans had captured WN 64’s only antitank gun, along with mortar emplacements, several concrete dugouts, and a half-built casemate that would have housed the antitank gun. None of Spalding’s men had been wounded. They had killed two or three Germans and taken at least 17 prisoners. Spalding’s stalwarts had neutralized a substantial portion of the German defenses at Omaha Beach and significantly diminished the amount of fire directed at Easy Red. Without their efforts, the Omaha landings would have been even more costly.

 

THE SPALDING-STRECZYK SECTION FOUGHT AMID the hedgerows around Colleville-sur-Mer for the rest of the afternoon and early evening before finally linking up outside Colleville with the remnants of E Company. Around that time, the first boat section lost another man: Late in the day during a close-quarters firefight among hedgerows, machine-gun fire struck Fred Bisco. “He had half his face blown away,” Private First Class Walter Bieder remembered sadly. Of the 32 men who stepped ashore that morning, eight had been wounded and two were dead.

Those who made it through D-Day without a scratch came to think of that as something of a miracle. “No man had a right to come out alive,” Spalding said. In July, seven of the section’s men, Spalding and Streczyk included, received the Distinguished Service Cross for their actions that day.

 

BUT ALTHOUGH SOME MEN HAD ESCAPED WITH their lives, their intense experiences marked them all—none more so than the two leaders.

John Spalding spent three more months in combat, was wounded in Germany on September 27 during the battle for Aachen, and spent about two months recuperating in a hospital before returning to the front lines. In February 1945, during the 1st Infantry Division’s push to cross the Roer River, he was medically evacuated with combat fatigue. The war had wrecked Spalding’s confidence. He was irritable, nervous, and depressed. He hated guns and feared being around them. He had terrible nightmares and feelings of guilt over the death and wounding of his men. He felt he had let them down. “I didn’t have any unusual experiences,” he told a reporter at home in 1945 just before his discharge. “I didn’t do a thing. My men did it all. Don’t give me the credit.”

Back in Owensboro, Spalding returned to selling men’s clothing. But he and his wife divorced. He remarried quickly, in October 1946, and seemed to flourish, fathering three more children, winning election to two terms in the Kentucky legislature, and advancing to manager of men’s clothing and furnishings at the department store.

But trouble lurked. On the evening of November 6, 1959, Spalding’s wife shot him with a brand-new .22 caliber rifle. The bullet entered his left side below his ribs, tearing his aorta, and he bled to death on the bedroom floor of their modest one-story home. Spalding, a hero of history’s greatest invasion, was dead at age 44.

Like Spalding, Phil Streczyk paid a heavy price for his valor on D-Day. Company commander Ed Wozenski, who also survived that bloody day, wrote of the courageous New Jersey native, “If [he] did not earn a Congressional Medal of Honor, no one did.” By November 1944, when Streczyk was fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, he had logged 440 days of frontline combat. After suffering multiple wounds and dodging numerous near misses throughout the war, he was permanently evacuated with combat fatigue.

After his discharge Streczyk became a builder in Florida. He married and became father to four. But he could not leave the war behind. His physical wounds deeply pained him; his emotional wounds might have been worse. At night traumatic battle dreams tormented him. In 1957, Streczyk took his own life— another casualty of D-Day, albeit 13 years after the fact.

 

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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