|James W. Gabaree
Private - A Co. - 5th Ranger Battalion
THE DAY I LOST MY RELIGION.
The alarm sounded in the early hours of
A loudspeaker blazed the words "wakey, wakey, yavoe, yavoe". It
was time to board the assault craft and leave our British mother ship for
the assault on the French coast in a quest to free Europe from the grasp of
the madman, Adolph Hitler.
The seas were extremely rough,
waves so high that many times it seemed the assault craft was in
a great hole surrounded by water. Rangers were seated on low benches
on each side facing each other, and men straddled a low bench in
the center facing the exit ramp, while a British officer and a seaman
directed the craft from the front. This boat was an English design
used for commando raids. It presented a low profile, unlike the
American landing craft, and produced very little wake in the water;
therefore its presence was hard to detect.
I was nineteen years old and
was about to take part in an event that would affect the course
of history, defeating those who would enslave humanity and rule
the world by force. This day would change my life forever, if I
lived to survive it. My youth would be sacrificed.
I would be entering a world of
kill or be killed. Stress and fatigue would be tested to the limit
of human endurance, a trial by fire. The emotional strain of not
helping a fallen comrade in order to reach and accomplish your assigned
mission would take its toll. Somewhere in the catacombs of my brain
the horrible memories would lay dormant to be recalled when I would
lie awake in the dark of night.
We were lowered into the wild
waters of the English Channel in our landing craft assault boats.
Some of the men were seasick and it was necessary to use our helmets
to bail out the landing craft due to the tumultuous sea swells and
the raging storm. Because of the rigorous training we had been given
for this invasion of the Normandy coast, I was not frightened. We
boarded the landing craft 10 to 12 miles from the beach, making
us vulnerable to enemy fire from the big guns on Pointe du Hoc.
The landing area was fortified
with mines and metal barriers to repel invading forces. The enemy
had many fortifications and concealed underground connecting tunnels.
Artillery and machine gun emplacements were strategically placed
to kill men as they left their boats. German guns were also being
fired parallel to the beach to achieve the maximum kill. Our navy
and air force were bombing the beach creating smoke that concealed
our landing area from us, causing much confusion. Casualties were
heavy; American self-reliance came into play. Plans were scrapped,
and on -the -spot decisions were made by individuals who saved the
I was a Bangalore torpedo man.
A Bangalore torpedo is a long metal tube filled with dynamite. Several
of them would be connected together and slipped under the barbed
wire to blow open a passage. My job was to precede the troops and
blow up the land mines and barbed wire so the soldiers could advance.
Once I set the fuse I would dive in the opposite direction. The
subsequent explosion would lift me into the air and I would land
on the ground in a dazed condition. I didn't stay dazed long as
my life and the lives of my fellow rangers depended on getting off
The command came to drop the
ramp. I jumped into the water, which was knee deep and colored red
by blood. The bullets, mortar and artillery fire were intense. The
German 88 artillery gun was a deadly and accurate weapon that sank
many craft and killed a great number of our men. The enemy targeted
the ramp openings on the landing craft, killing men before they
could get off the boat. It was a slaughter. Men were dying all around
Explosives were going off on
the beach ahead of us; enormous sheets of fire from artillery guns,
rifle and mortar fire blanketed the beach. Machine gun bullets were
dimpled the water like rain. Our immediate objective was to get
off the beach alive. We fought our way up the hill to the cover
of some hedgerows that were practically impossible to penetrate.
Looking down at the incoming forces presented a horrible sight of
men being blown to pieces. I lost my religion. Crawling though the
hedgerows was torturous, so I threw away all my gear except my gun
We were forced to kill many Germans and in turn many of my comrades
were killed or wounded. War is hell.
Our group made the greatest penetration
into enemy territory on D-Day; twenty-three of us were officially
listed as missing in action. At one point we were ambushed on a
road between two hedgerows. The Germans were throwing hand grenades
at us from behind the bushes. Rangers grabbed the German's grenades
before they went off and threw them back before they could explode
on our side of the bushes. Their own weapons killed them.
Our assignment was to reach Pointe
du Hoc and destroy the big guns that could annihilate our invasion
forces. It had to be done, and we were expendable. These huge guns,
155 mm. canon, could cover both Omaha and Utah beaches and the incoming
landing force and were capable of destroying ships ten or twelve
miles out to sea.
At the rendezvous point near
a French farmhouse we were shocked to find that we only had 23 men,
having started at the beach with 72 men in Company A. The combined
forces should have equaled 560 men. We had a problem. The question
was "Were we the only ones that got off the beach, did the
invasion fail?" There was no time to ponder. Our mission was
to destroy the big guns at the point so we took off at a run.
The dirt country roads were lined
with hedgerows making them seem like tunnels affording cover for
the enemy to trap us so we took to the open countryside. There were
many firefights and in the process we captured about twenty prisoners.
Our fighting force practically equaled the number of captives, what
should we do, take them with us, kill them or turn them lose? We
disarmed them and chose the latter. We ran like hell, fighting and
dodging battles until we heard that sweet sound of an English-speaking
voice that demanded the password. We had arrived at Pointe du Hoc
and joined the 2nd ranger band.
To our dismay, we learned that
the big guns were not in place on the cliffs but had been moved
elsewhere. Telephone poles were put in their place in the pillbox
to deceive the allied reconnaissance. Fortunately, members of the
2nd ranger band found the hiding place of the big guns and destroyed
their firing mechanisms. Hurray!
Our men were deployed with the
2nd band to secure the point and block the German advance. Night
fell and the enemy attacked with vengeance and enormous firepower,
shouting and blowing whistles. At one point they were within fifty
yards of us. To our men in the foxholes it was practically hand
to hand combat; we were in a survival mode. Food or water had not
passed our lips in days. Our ammunition supplies were very low.
On D+1 our combined forces of the 5th and 2nd ranger battalions
consisted of only 90 men able to bear arms. We held out.
The situation was becoming desperate.
We were running out of food, water and just about everything plus
the batteries were dead in our radios. Seven of us, led by Captain
Parker, volunteered to try to make contact with the main force on
the beach. The patrol advanced, only to discover we were in the
middle of a land mine field in open ground with 20 yards to go before
we could reach the shelter of a small mound on the cliff's edge.
German machinegun fire opened up on us before we could reach the
berm, killing one man my best friend. While trying to make
the run for shelter I was shot. My comrades pulled me into a crevice
in the cliff but had to leave me to continue on with their mission.
I realized that my chance of coming out of this alive was practically
nil. The primeval will to live kicked in.
The cheek of my left buttock
was blown open; it looked like a big red bowl of Jell-O. The army
provided us with two first aid kits to use in the event of being
wounded. Sulfa drugs were included. I spread all of the drugs on
the one wound and applied the bandage. After taking off my canteen
belt I found another wound where a bullet had entered my back.
An unknown force told me to exchange
the first bandage with the drugs on it and apply it to the newly
discovered wound. I put the new bandage on my buttocks thereby having
the sulfa drug on both wounds. I also spit on the wounds for some
A decision had to be made. Do
I stay here and hope they come back for me? Not very likely. I chose
to start crawling back towards the point. Sometimes I would try
standing part way up until I could not stand the pain then I would
drop to my knees and crawl.
At one point on my journey a
bullet went by my ear. The nearest shell hole was my refuge. I put
my helmet on the end of my rifle and raised it, hoping to draw fire
- no shot. A sniper was in the tree and waved for me to surrender.
I started towards him half-walking, half-crawling but decided I
would rather be dead than a prisoner, so dove into the bushes. The
expected bullet never came; he let me get away. Not all Germans
are bad guys.
Somehow I kept going and eventually
came to an open field. I did not hear or see anyone or anything.
A sixth sense told me to turn and fire my weapon. I killed a German
lying in wait for me. He had fired his rifle but missed his mark.
By this time I was pretty well out of my head having had no food
or water for days and having lost lots of blood.
The German foxhole looked like
a pretty safe place to be, so I crawled in. I lay next to the dead
German, ate his black bread and promptly threw up. I then started
to hallucinate, seeing Mickey Mouse and Goofy on a large screen
in full color. I decided to wait four hours, and then kill myself,
as I did not relish a slow death. Luck was on my side; a U. S. patrol
picked me up.
I had cheated the grim reaper.
The clothes on my left side were coated with dried blood, I was
filthy and hadn't eaten, shaved or bathed since the landing. In
my delirious state I insisted on rejoining A company. The medics
picked me up and carried me to a landing craft to evacuate me to
a hospital ship.
My recollection of the hospital ship was
a scene of blood with maimed and dying men everywhere.
I was alive.
James W. Gabaree (February 23, 2007)