John C. Raaen Jr. retired in 1979 as a U.S. Army Major General. Thirty-five years earlier, as a 22-year-old captain 17 months out of the U.S. Military Academy, he made his first amphibious landing under fire at Omaha Beach. He received a Silver Star for gallantry that day in actions for which the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion was awarded a unit citation and which he recounts in his 2012 book, Intact. He later served in Korea and in Vietnam. Raaen, a widower, lives in Central Florida.
You’re a soldier’s son.
My father and namesake was the son of a Norwegian immigrant and a Philadelphia socialite. He grew up in Wisconsin and Illinois. My mother, Alexandra Hoffman Raaen, was raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas; her childhood friends had included a rascal named Bill Darby. Dad graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1918, two and a-half years early and 10 days before the Armistice. I was born in 1922. We lived mostly on army bases: Fort Benning and West Point, but occasionally in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. I loved it.
Because of the nature of the interwar army, I knew the Eisenhowers, the Cotas, the Gerhardts, the Bradleys, and many others as family friends. I played with officers’ kids. I dated their daughters. When Dad was stationed at the Military Academy in the late 1920s, he and my mother would invite cadets for Sundays, which let young men like Bill Darby enjoy a few hours of being human beings, drinking Cokes and listening to the radio. Later I realized what an advantage it was to have known these men from boyhood. I didn’t quake in my boots around them, although it could be awkward. In uniform, I once addressed a lieutenant general by his first name; he gave me a hard look but replied, “What is it, John?”
You took up the family trade.
I entered West Point in 1939, figuring to follow my father into ordnance and the infantry. Many of my classmates were also army brats; Dan Cota’s father was a general. We graduated early, in January 1943. My degree was in engineering.
But you became a Ranger.
As soon as I heard what Bill Darby was up to with the Rangers in North Africa and Sicily, I wanted to join. I thought being an engineer would kill my chances, but the Rangers wanted engineers to teach demolition, fortifications, and so on. They took me—and immediately made me a platoon leader in the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion. Never taught a single class.
You made your combat debut at Omaha Beach.
My battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Max F. Schneider, landed in three waves. I came in on our third wave aboard a British LCA from the HMS Prince Baudouin. We were very crowded, crammed onto three benches. The chop was six to eight feet; water was coming over the gunwales. At least half of us were seasick, though I wasn’t. The rest were bailing with helmets; the pumps weren’t keeping up with the spray. When the USS Texas started firing, the concussion practically blew us out of the water.
Where were you headed?
We were supposed to land at Pointe du Hoc following an assault there by three companies of the 2nd Rangers. But when we hadn’t received word of those companies’ progress by the appointed time, we headed, as planned, for Vierville-sur-Mer. There, landing control waved us off. Our first wave, two companies of the 2nd Rangers, had been nearly wiped out landing on Dog White Beach, so Colonel Schneider had the rest of us diverted to Dog Red. We came ashore at 7:50 a.m., very dry. The water wasn’t to my boot tops. A seawall and breakwaters afforded cover once we got across about 50 yards of beach. A road ran atop the wooden seawall, which was four or five feet high and parallel to the water’s edge. The breakwaters, which slanted slightly to the west, were wooden frames filled with rocks. They made wonderful little forts where we could organize ourselves while German machine gun and rifle fire passed over our heads. Part of the 29th Infantry Division also had landed there.
Where was the enemy?
All the firing was coming from our right. To the left a nose in the bluffs was keeping Germans there from shooting at us. On the bluffs, wet brush was burning. It was raining, so there was a lot of smoke, so much that at first we thought the navy had laid smoke. The flames had chased the Germans in front of us out of their trenches and Tobruk armored emplacements. They left their machine guns, so our sector wasn’t quite the slaughter that happened elsewhere.
Troops at the breakwaters quickly went on offense.
We hadn’t been there three minutes when an old engineer sergeant—I recognized his affiliation by the white circle on his helmet—walked past me carrying the tripod for a heavy machine gun. He set the tripod at a gap in the seawall and came back with a water-cooled .30-caliber. A tall, thin engineering lieutenant in a green sweater carried in water for the gun’s reservoir and boxes of ammunition. They commenced firing.
Mid-assault, you had a reunion.
We noticed a figure on the beach 100 yards east. He was waving his arms, screaming, making a scene. I thought he might be an officer encouraging his men or perhaps a reporter who didn’t know how to behave in combat. He approached our position amid terrible fire, waving the stub of a cigar. I was starting for him, thinking that I might have to tackle him, when I noticed a silver star on either his shirt collar or shoulder strap. He was a brigadier general. I stopped and saluted. He returned my salute very carefully. “Captain Raaen, 5th Rangers, sir,” I said. “…Raaen, Raaen…” he replied. “Aren’t you Jack Raaen’s son?”
And he was…
General Norman Cota, deputy commander of the 29th Division and my classmate Dan’s father. I answered, “Yes, sir!” and we chatted. He asked where my commander was. I could see Colonel Schneider three bays over, sitting on the seawall kicking his heels as he talked to men. “I’ll take you to him,” I said. “You will not,” General Cota said. “You will stay with your troops.” He took a few steps and turned toward me.
“You men are Rangers. I know you won’t let me down,” he said. A few minutes later, after talking with Schneider, he yelled, “Rangers, lead the way!” That was just before we moved off the beach, and how we Rangers got our motto.
Now you confronted hedgerows.
The coastal plain extended 50 or 100 yards to the bluffs, from which the Germans were firing. Once we reached the foot of the bluffs we were out of range. But we were in the smoke, making it hard to get our bearings. The hedgerows were 20 to 50 feet further. I wanted to find Colonel Schneider and Major Richard Sullivan, the Ranger troop commander. Captain Wilmer Wise, who commanded C Company, told me they were in the hedgerows. He said to go right, not left, where the Germans were firing. I still got shot at a lot, both enemy and friendly fire. By the time I found Schneider and Sullivan, the Germans mostly had been cleared out. Sullivan sent me on patrols into the hedgerows. I went alone—not the best idea. Very lonely. You keep low, duckwalking until your legs feel like they’re going to fall off. I was carrying an M1 loaded with armor-piercing rounds—remember, I’m an ordnance man’s son—but never did fire a shot, because I could not tell where the enemy was.
Your day ended comically.
At a farm by the Vierville crossroads, headquarters took one building and my company took the other. A Ranger company was between the Germans and us, but I still placed men in defensive positions. I had them dig slit trenches to protect from artillery fragments. When I reached for my entrenching tool it was gone, probably snagged. I tried digging with my helmet, but centuries of animals grinding straw and grain into it had made that Norman clay like brick. I saw a hay pile and thought, “Oh, that would be nice.” I climbed in; it was warm. I was a city boy, and didn’t know the difference between a haystack and a manure pile. Every biting insect in Normandy had a chance at me before I jumped out, to the amusement of the men in my company. They were happy to give me their flea powder, which stopped the biting but didn’t do anything for the itching. And that was my D-Day.