Private Carlton W. Barrett
Medal of Honor
Normandy, June 6, 1944
At 5 feet 4 inches and 125 pounds, Private Carlton W. Barrett was perhaps the smallest man in the 18th Infantry Regiment, if not the entire 1st Division. And on the morning of D-Day, he was in the smallest unit the Big Red One was to land— a three-man reconnaissance team assigned to determine where the men of the 18th should gather after they jumped from their landing craft and waded ashore. The team would select the assembly areas, radio that information to the command ship and await the regiment’s arrival.
The beach on which the team landed —one of five along the Normandy coast of France—was designated Omaha. Those three soldiers of the 18th were among the 156,000 men who were to storm ashore in Operation Overlord, the turning point of the war in Europe.
The plan called for the 1st Infantry Division to begin landing at 0630. The 18th was a Big Red One reserve regiment, scheduled to land around noon, proceed from the secured beach to assembly areas and then soldier on to begin the liberation of Europe. That was the plan. Intelligence briefings had sketched a picture of subdued landing beaches: Naval and aerial bombardment and a spectacular barrage of rockets, featured in every newsreel, would pulverize German fortifications. Demolition crews would blow up underwater obstacles, creating passages to the beach for landing craft. Engineers’ bulldozers would carve out exits from the beachhead.
But when the three members of the recon team landed, they found themselves wading through dead and dying men to a beachhead measured in yards and controlled by the enemy. The rockets had missed their targets. The Army Air Forces bombs and Navy shells had done little damage to the concrete German redoubts. Hidden guns raked the beach with ceaseless, murderous gunfire. Most tanks had not made it ashore. Landing craft had deposited soldiers in wrong sectors. One soldier remembered thinking as he reached the beach, “Something has gone wrong with the plan.”
Barrett had a new mission. Instead of being a guide to his comrades in the 18th, he became a savior, tending the wounded men lying on the beach or entangled in the offshore barriers and stakes. Up to his neck in wind-whipped waves, he pulled or carried wounded men across a sandbar to an empty landing craft serving as medical evacuation vessel.
Barrett was earning a Medal of Honor, not for killing Germans but for keeping Americans alive. His citation describes how he returned “to the surf again and again” to rescue men who had not made it beyond the high-tide line. “Refusing to remain pinned down by the intense barrage of small-arms and mortar fire,” he “saved many lives.” And as officers on the beach and on the command ship frantically worked to save Omaha Beach, Barrett became a courageous messenger who “carried dispatches the length of the fire-swept beach.”
Barrett’s citation limns a portrait of a 24-year-old man suddenly inspired, a private who did more than any private was expected to do: “He assisted the wounded; he calmed the shocked; he arose as a leader in the stress of the occasion.” Citations usually focus so intently on the medal recipient that we are unable to see how his deeds affect those around him. But Barrett’s citation continues: “His coolness and his dauntless daring courage while constantly risking his life during a period of many hours had an inestimable effect on his comrades.” This was the contagion of the hero, the ripple of courage that emboldens men trapped by fear. By early afternoon, troops that had been pinned down were inching up the heights behind the beaches. Omaha Beach had been taken.
Barrett was one of four men who received the Medal of Honor for valor on D-Day. He did not become famous, and his old comrades said his life darkened after the war. He died in 1986, and his Medal of Honor joined the artifacts at the First Division Museum at Cantigny [www.firstdivisionmuseum.org], in Wheaton, Ill.
He is not forgotten. In 2008 Kevin Noto, an eighth-grader at Denver’s Challenge School, won the middle school prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society [www.cmohs.org]. He chose Barrett as one of his heroes. “The younger generation knows little about the Medal of Honor,” Kevin wrote. “While teaching our history, it is important to not just relate facts but to share the stories of our human courage and sacrifice.”
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.