My name is John Hooper; 29th
Infantry Division, Headquarters Company, A&P (ammunition and pioneer)
Platoon of the 1st Battalion, 115th Regiment. This is
an unusual opportunity for me to relate a time in my life that was the most
exciting, yet most frightening, ever branded into my memory as that first
day's action on the Normandy coast in a sector known as Easy Red.
Although it is 1991, I can still recall
quite vividly those days in 1944, the endless preparations in England and
that morning of terror on the 6th June. My 19th Birthday was only 3 month's
past, and I had been assigned to the Division's 115th Regiment
as an Infantry replacement after arriving in England via Scotland in January.
We new replacements were filling voids in a Division that had been in the
U.K. since the fall of 1942. Obviously we realised this activity was to complete
the Division's table of organisation for something big about to happen. Considerable
barracks talk was of an impending invasion of France, but when and where was
Our Battalion Commander was Lt. Col.
Richard Blatt, a tall imposing West Pointer who, when forming the Btn for
a lecture would refer to us Company Headquarters chaps as "you specialists".
Each Battalion had in its HQ Company a reconnaissance or intelligence platoon,
an anti-tank platoon, and an ammunition - pioneer platoon (or the A&P
platoon), to which I was assigned. It was responsible for laying mines, finding
and removing enemy mines, laying barbed wire obstacles, supplying all ammunition
needed by the battalion, blowing up or destroying obstacles and in general
doing the work required by engineer troops.
We were not allowed to keep diaries or cameras.
About the middle of May, we were told to send home all no-essential
things that we could not, or did not want to carry. At this time
we turned in our green HBT fatigue uniforms. We wouldn't be wearing
them again. There was much activity in camp but we were told nothing
specific. We were simply moving or what?
One morning we boarded trucks that took us the ten miles into Plymouth into
a Naval Base named Sir Walter Raleigh. When the gates closed, no-one was allowed
out. We were quartered in the Navy barracks and a detachment from the 5th
Armoured Division prepared our meals on a grand scale that had not previously
been enjoyed. Steaks and delicious menus were not seen since the states. The
wags quipped, they were fattening us up for the kill. Here we were issued
French language books and paid the equivalent of four dollars in French invasion
currency. Outside we were marched one platoon at a time into a specially fenced
off building where large photo maps were displayed of a panorama of the French
coast, and we were told of the invasion some time in the next few weeks. Co.
Blatt pointed out our Regiment's objective, a little village a mile or so
from the coast. "St Laurent sur Mer", he called it. The map revealed
the draw we were to try to utilise in getting of the beach. Our platoon leader
was told to have his men set up a road block on a road leading south, just
east of the village.
We were told that our Regiment would not be the assaulting regiment, which
was left up to the Division's 116th Regiment, along with some elements
of the First Division. We would be in the second wave and would be loaded
down with extra ammo and explosives. We had a lot of invasion training on
the English coast, so I suppose we considered ourselves as prepared as we'd
ever be. The many hedgerows were pointed out and we saw they were very similar
to those in England. We checked the functioning of our gas masks in the usual
gas filled building, and were issued new OD wool uniforms that had been soaked
in a gas resistant oily chemical.
It was the ending days of May, days
of beautiful spring sunshine, and as I looked over the vast Plymouth harbour,
the sun glistened on the waves as hundreds of invasion type boats silently
rocked in their moorings. That night a lone German plane flew high over Plymouth.
The great searchlights went on and would reveal the plane for a moment while
anti-aircraft fire filled the sky. I was amazed no bombs were dropped and
the plane disappeared into the night. We thought about what a target all those
invasion ships anchored in the harbour was, yet they were left entirely alone.
Surely they'd be back, and this time with lots of friends - but the remainder
of the night was only an eerie silence.
The next day we were marched from the Naval Base to the docks, where
rows of ships were waiting. Sleek looking craft they were, not those
boxy little infantry landing craft we trained with. These ships
had the appearance of private yachts. Long and slender but bristling
with 20mm guns. We walked aboard on ramps just wide-enough for a
single company of men. I believe it held our entire company minus
the anti-tank guns. The ship's captain greeted us from a miniature
bridge and identified his ship as a landing craft infantry (LCI),
with big white letters painted on its hull - 455. I took a special
note of this and wrote a letter to my folks mentioning the number
in the event they might see such a ship in the newsreels or papers
that would surely cover the invasion.
Once aboard and assigned to our bunking
areas, we were free to relax, read a few armed forces paperbacks or listen
to phonograph records on the portable phonographs provided by the navy. Rations
were 10-1 prepared by navy cooks. A sailor brought a case of unusual soup
cans. They were grey painted cans, made in England, about twice as tall as
a conventional soup can with the unique feature of a self heating device activated
by a pull-wire to ignite a heating mixture. I took a couple with me. We sailed
out of Plymouth and several hours later assembled at another harbour someone
said was Weymouth. D-Day was set for tomorrow morning, Monday June the 5th.
Leaflets containing a message from Eisenhower were distributed explaining
the great task ahead. I carefully folded the leaflet and put it in my shirt
pocket. I would include it in my next letter home. I still have it with the
scrap book my folks had begun to assemble.
Church services were conducted that
night of June 4th. I was assigned to guard duty which amounted to nothing
more than standing on deck for two hours at a time looking at the night. It
seemed to me a rather senseless thing to do with the hundreds of ships anchored
there. Our equipment was rechecked. Our gas masks, which included a large
green plastic bag with a clear plastic end, forming a 306° window were
folded into a compact package about 4x8 inches. When opened it would completely
cover the soldier and presumably protect against any vesicant type chemicals
the Germans might use.
In addition to the previously mentioned
anti-gas impregnated OD's, I wore a pair of smooth leather hobnailed shoes
- just like the World War I shoe. Others had the regular rough shoe. All wore
canvas leggings and the tan or khaki field jackets. Our packs were virtually
the same as the World War I infantry pack. Entrenching shovels strapped into
their canvas cases were the new folding type shovel. In my pack were 6 boxes
(2 day's supplies of K-rations) in addition to the two cans of the British
self-heating soup I scooped up earlier. We also had a raincoat, a pair of
socks, one change of underwear and a cloth bag containing shaving stuff and
a toothbrush. My pistol belt contained a carbine magazine pouch with two magazines
for my M1 carbine. (The early version with the 'L' type sight set for either
150 or 300 yards, and no provision for the bayonet, as did the later version
that was introduced at the war's end). The previous mentioned M3 was attached
to the belt along with the usual canteen and first aid pouch. I had two fragmentation
grenades attached to my pack straps. About this time we were issued waist
type Co2 inflatable life belts. They worked by squeezing a pliers - like grip
releasing the Co2 bottles.
That evening we began moving out into
the channel. The sea was quite rough and our little ship rolled and pitched
uncomfortably, but shortly we turned back towards Weymouth harbour. It was
announced that the invasion had been postponed for another 24 hours. The weather
we learned was not favourable for what we had to do. We relaxed again and
wondered about tomorrow. I sat on my bunk and wrote another letter. I guess
I slept some too.
About this time the Lieutenant in the Communications platoon made a rather
startling announcement. Addressing his platoon sergeant and all within speaking
range "Sergeant, I want you to understand you have my permission to shoot
any orders given from here on out." I thought that is hell of a pompous
statement to make. We're soldiers and soldiers are conditioned to obedience.
Why make such a remark? (I'll tell you about that Lieutenant later).
Late in the afternoon of the 5th, the ship's
engines started again and we headed toward France. As our little
ship neared the Normandy coast we could hear the heavy pounding
sounds of the explosions. An announcement was made earlier that
no-one was allowed on deck so we imagined what must be happening
as the ship shook with each explosion, making the hull ring as if
it were a kind of giant muffled bell. The tension was growing and
our voices were ominously silent when someone over the PA system
cautioned us to hang on to something solid as the driver was going
to ram the ship as close to the shore as possible. He also said
we were off course by a hundred yards or so from the assigned landing
point and that one of the sailors would attempt wading ashore with
a rope attached to an anchor that we might use to steady ourselves
in the surf. He wished us good luck and we made for the hatches
to the deck, our platoon going up and off the starboard ramp. On
deck at last there was no mistake of this being a full blown war.
Hudge explosions seemed to be going off everywhere. I wondered if
they were mines or artillery shells. As I hastened down the ramp
I glanced at my watch. It was 8:20 a.m.
I stepped into what seemed like four
feet of water, I inflated my waist belt with the Co2 activated release, just
in case the water goes too deep. We were all carrying extra ammunition. I
had two bandoleers of rifle ammunition plus my own supply of carbine cartridges
and twenty pounds of TNT in a waterproofed burlap package we called a satchel
charge. My carbine in its green plastic waterproof envelope was not immediately
functional until I reached the shore, which worried me, some. Wading single
file through the water I remember attempting some ridiculously humours remarks
just to relieve the growing tension, I suppose. I think it went something
like "Hey Guys, we best get the hell out of here. Looks like they don't
want us!" I couldn't see much beyond the beach as heavy smoke covered
the high ground ahead. It covered the entire area blowing from West to East.
As I go to the beach, I flopped down,
not on sand as I expected, but on smooth rocks everywhere, and I crawled forward
between two tanks at the water's edge, about 50 or so yards apart. The one
to my left appeared to be on fire but both were firing their 75mm guns. Wounded
and dead seemed to be scattered everywhere. My god, I discovered I was crawling
on rocks slippery with blood, and a chap to my right seemed to be cut in half,
and held together only by his clothing. Tearing off the protective plastic
cover of my carbine, I immediately unfastened my inflated waist belt enabling
me to get an inch or two closer to the ground. I could see what were artillery
rounds bursting in a line towards me from the right in about five seconds
intervals. I decided I must get out of there, and crouching, I ran forward
about 20 feet, when a shell burst behind me. Looking back at that instant
I saw one hit the very ramp of the LCI I had left moments earlier. The utter
confusion added to the frightening situation. Here the frightening realisation
that there was a distinct possibility I might not get off the beach alive
added to my confusion. The almost continuous explosions of both incoming,
as well as the navy fire were terrifying! Which direction should I move toward?
Then I spied my platoon sergeant 50 feet or so ahead, who signalled us to
the higher ground. There, where a gap had been opened in the barbed wire,
we were attempting to reach a more sheltered spot on the rising slope of the
My next thoughts were for the mines,
and stepping through a small shell crater was one, half exposed and I leapt
over it. Another fluttering swish of an incoming shell made me dive to the
ground. It burst terrifying close behind me. As I tried to get up, I discovered
I couldn't move a muscle. I realised I was completely paralysed. I could only
hear someone shout, "Anyone hurt?" But, not feeling any pain, in
seconds I could move again. Working my way forward and still on my stomach,
something seemed to be tugging on my pack. Looking back, no-one was close
and I continued to crawl forward. (This is something I'll get back to later).
Glancing back at the beach I saw huge eruptions and smoke filled debris hurtling
skyward. I was glad to be this far off the beach. By God, this was all to
frightening a business. Our assault regiment, the 116th Infantry,
appeared to have been decimated. I felt the whole German Army was firing at
me. Some of the fire hitting us was coming directly from prepared positions
The trench works we were encountering
were producing prisoners but obviously not Germans. They resembled Orientals
and might possibly have been Japs. They were held in little groups on this
slope of the hill. A destroyer not far off in the channel was firing into
these entrenchments and the defenders were surrendering after grenades were
thrown in. It was there I noticed my right hand drenched in blood. I felt
nothing and couldn't imagine what caused it. I saw it was nearly sliced open
between the thumb and forefinger. I wrapped my handkerchief around it and
continued working my way up the steep slope. To our right was a rather deep
draw and some of us tried taking it to avoid the incoming shells, but it was
under the fire of inland artillery. I noticed one huge crater obviously made
by the navy's big guns, as there, partially buried, was the nose fuse of what
must have been a 16-inch shell. I thought then how I'd love to have it for
my collection back home. But as German artillery was falling in that area
I decided to lose interest in it. Somebody later would have a dandy souvenir.
Crossing the draw to the right and
higher ground, we reached a crest with smoke from grass fires that were as
thick as fog. We couldn't see any Germans and our platoon sergeant made some
attempt to organise our group. The platoon leader was missing and I suspected
him to be a casualty. It was now mid-afternoon. Creeping forward ever so cautiously,
I tripped a bouncing Betty mine. It popped into the air and I hit the ground
expecting to be blown to bits. It fell back to earth with a thump, a dud probably
failing to explode after several years in position. We were well spread apart
some 20 or 30 yards and I hesitated to move in any direction. When encouraged
by another, I followed in his footsteps until we believed we were out of the
minefield. The people with the mine detectors were still making their way
up the steep slope. We got down and started digging in to await for the platoon
German artillery shells continued, though
sporadically, overhead on their way to the beach. From here I had
a good view of the beach area and saw one ship on fire, and some
tanks making their way up hill. There were many aircraft that seemed
to fill up the sky; fighter planes with their black and white stripes
- just as we had been told they would be marked back in the briefing
back in England. There appeared to be thousands of them flying back
and forth over the beaches and were a reassuring sight.
It was difficult to hold my shovel
to dig, and a medic bandaged my hand while asking what happened. I told him
I had no idea, and he went on. Engineers began marking lanes through the mine
field with white tape as things began to quieten down. I didn't like the way
my white bandage on my hand showed up and covered it with my blood soaked
OD handkerchief. It made too much of a target, I imagined. Greatly fatigued,
I just lay there wondering if the war would last much longer. In a short time
we were up and moving inland. Our Lieutenant appeared as if from nowhere and
our platoon seemed intact again. But confusion continued and communication
with our commanders did not apparently exist. We reached a farmyard surrounded
by apple orchards. Rifle companies on either side were not finding any Germans
and we cut through a farmer's yard on to a road leading south. We were following
some distance ahead in the vicinity of the road and an army fighter plane
dove toward the location strafing and bombing the area.
Approximately a half-hour later we
came to a German tank that had been burning, its crew scattered about the
ground. All appeared dead and badly burned. Among the bodies there on the
road was a bare white foot standing upright. It was cleanly severed from its
owner and not even bloody. How awful things were getting. This tank must have
been hit by the fighter plane strafing ahead. A German soldier called "Kameraden"
from the bushes at the roadside. Ted Schwanke in our squad spoke to him in
German and learned that he had been badly wounded and was asking for help.
We could do nothing for him. Schwanke told him the medics would be along shortly.
Rifle fire further up the road drove us into the woods prevented any determination
of just where the fire was coming from. By now the rifle ammunition was running
critically low and the extra bandoleers we carried were collected and distributed.
It was here, under a big tree growing on
the hedgerow that the Communication's Platoon Lieutenant (mentioned earlier),
took the sergeant's rifle and binoculars, saying he was going to climb up
into the tree to get the bastards. I reached up to pull the Lieutenant back,
saying "That's not a good idea Lieutenant." Or something to that
effect. Glaring back at me he continued up and found a good firing position,
and fired two or three rounds. He screamed "God, I'm hit!" and came,
crashing down on the other side of the hedgerow.
The sergeant and
I dove through the hedge and pulled him back in the cover of the
hedge. Shot through the chest we called for a medic who gave him
some morphine. The company was moving out and we had to leave the
Lieutenant with others. What a thorough waste, I thought. All the
money spent on commissioning this guy and he's trying to act like
a sergeant York! Didn't last a day. What a terrible waste. He died
It was late afternoon as we followed a hedgerow
in a single column of squads. We were all very tired. It had been
an exhausting day and we had eaten nothing, although I do not recall
being hungry. An explosion some yards to the rear of the squad caused
a now instinctive flop to the ground. After a minute or so we got
going again. Word passed that a grenade dangling from a man's pack
strap had come loose releasing the safety pin. Several casualties
and a cry for medics immediately followed. I thought, my God, they'd
come this far without a scratch and now a stupid accident has probably
killed someone. There was an awesome quiet as we made our way along
a sunken road bordered by high hedgerows. It was getting close to
dusk and we rested a few minutes. The Battalion commander came up
indicating to our Lieutenant that he was looking for a place to
set down the weapon company's mortars. They went through an opening
in the hedge, and while scouting the adjacent field, German mortars
began falling where Colonel Blatt and the mortar section were. The
Germans must have had the field under observation. The Colonel was
mortally wounded by the mortar fire. We were now some three miles
inland and we were told the Colonel was carried on a litter back
to the beach where he died that night of June 6th.
It was now dark and our company crawled
into a kind of ditch beside the hedgerows that concealed us with overgrown
trees and bushes. Dead tired, I lay there but sleep wouldn't come. Just where
did this road lead that we were lying alongside? Would the Jerries be using
this road in an attack? Listening for tanks, and excepting for my buddies
near me in this ditch, I felt very much alone in this awful place. A few pulled
their jackets over their head for a smoke. The familiar sound of incoming
shell broke the stillness and I braced for the explosion. Feeling the impact
when it thumped into the earth, I was relieved that it must have been a dud.
Perhaps sabotaged by the forced labour we heard about. That one would surely
be followed by more, but nothing came and complete silence continued.
God, what a good feeling I thought
after such a miserable day. Sleep came in little doses as the night wore on.
First, German planes flew low heading for the beach and their bombs suggested
that the beaches were getting a hell of a pasting. Much better to be here
in the front lines for now. Later a lone plane flying along the very road
we were next to, unloaded a terrifying load of anti-personnel bombs that exploded
with a staccato roar, apparently hitting no-one as I listened for cries for
medics. Again, silence and more dozing. Footsteps on the road now startled
me. I imagined they were Jerry's hobnailed boots coming down the road. "Christ
sake" I thought is everyone asleep? Somebody, or maybe the whole German
Army is marching up the road. I poked a couple of my buddies
"Ya hear that?" I asked.
"Oh hell, it's probably some damn Frenchman in his wooden shoes"
was his reply.
Yep, it was the sound of two feet, nothing more,
as they faded away. How could this be? I thought. The biggest invasion
in all history has taken place and now in the middle of the night
some French farmer clomps nonchalantly along the pavement as he
probably done for years.
This then ended my first
day for a combat infantry soldier - trying to get some sleep in
a ditch a few miles inland from a beach known hereafter as Omaha.
A post Script. Now to a promise made
earlier while attempting to get the higher ground on the beach. Some days
later, rain called for me to open my pack and remove my carefully folded raincoat.
What a surprise! It had been shredded into ribbons! It appeared that two or
three bullets had entered the top of my pack almost parallel to my prone body.
Entering just below my mess can pouch where I stored my K-rations, passing
through the folds in my raincoat. Yep, there were pencil sized holes just
under the flap that secures the mess can pouch. We had stored our mess kits
along with blankets, an extra pair of shoes and a shelter-half in our barracks
bags back in England to be trucked by the Battalion Headquarters people. I
got soaked locating a raincoat from one who would no longer need it.
This ends my recollections of the long preparation
for my being just one of the thousands on Omaha Beach that morning
of June 6th, 1944.