In April 1944 I was in charge of two
squads of riflemen. We were billeted in a house in Broadstone, a village in
Dorsetshire near the southwestern coast of England. The house belonged to
a widow whose husband had been killed at the battle of El Alamein. He had
been a soldier in "the Queen's Own Boys", a British unit. We got
along well with the people of Broadstone and shared our rations and food parcels
with them. An orange was worth its weight in gold to us and to them.
We spent May 1944 in a marshalling
camp near the harbor town of Poole on the south coast of England.
Our camp was ringed with armed guards and barbed wire to keep spies
out and us in. At the end of May word came down that the invasion
was imminent. Barbers cut off all our hair so we would not need
a haircut for months. My buddies and I wanted to grow long, drooping
mustaches (like the Chinese villain Fu Manchu in movies) to frighten
the Germans, but our officers said no. By June 3 my battalion boarded
a ship (LST or Landing Ship, Tank) at Poole. There was nowhere to
go, few pastimes but card games and shooting craps, the weather
was foul, the meals were "character-builders", the ship
stank of a thousand men packed like sardines and overworked plumbing,
we slept on decks, vehicles, in passageways, maybe a bunkbed, but
only the ship's crew had berths.
We left Poole after nightfall
on June 5. Once we were out of the harbor swells in the Channel
made a lot of us "green at the gills" in spite of seasick
pills. We did not know whether there were U-boats or torpedo boats
waiting for us as had happened during Operation Tiger in April.
It turned out there were none. Nobody slept well that night, except
the Germans. At maybe 2 o'clock on D-Day morning our officers awakened
us sergeants, and we awakened our squads. We were offered a breakfast
of beans and bacon along with a hot drink (coffee or cocoa), smoked
cigarettes, and collected our gear. Each man carried 50 to 80 pounds:
his weapon, its ammo, maybe his share of ammo for a machine gun
or mortar or bazooka, pack, K-rations for three days, gasmask, entrenching
tool, raincoat, life-jacket, canteen, shelter-half, first-aid kit,
and so on. We also carried rope and toggle ropes. The latter was
a short rope with a wooden handle (toggle) at one end and a small
loop at the other end through which the toggle was pulled to make
a big noose. These came in handy. Morale was good, all things considered.
It got better at dawn when we could see our ship surrounded by others
and smaller landing craft from horizon to horizon.
My regiment, the 12th Infantry,
would be the third regiment in my division to land. After the first
landing craft headed toward shore 12 miles away I had a wait of
some hours. About 5:30 on D-Day morning the battleship Nevada opened
fire on Utah Beach an hour before the first troops landed. I remember
the thunderclap of its broadside. (After the war I learned the British
cruiser "HMS Belfast" also opened fire at 5:30 but against
Gold and Juno Beaches; as a boy I visited her when she docked in
Brooklyn and had my picture taken wearing a British sailor's cap.)
Our aircraft were carpetbombing the coast, and some landing craft
fired vollies of rockets. Our side was putting a lot more fire on
that beach than the Germans were returning.
My regiment's turn came.
My rifle company, K Company, climbed the rope netting down the side
of our ship into an LCI (landing craft, infantry) that held only
us. We landed on Utah about 10:30 in the morning, walked down the
twin gangplanks at the bow, hardly got our boots wet. The beach
had already been swept of mines and obstacles. The Germans had been
driven from the beach, and the seawall had been breached to let
vehicles reach the causeway exits from the beach. German artillery
was firing on Utah from inland batteries, and our ships were answering
this fire. Battleship shells flew overhead like freight trains,
and I actually saw the shells. Within a week the Germans would teach
us two new noises: the "88" (millimeter cannon) and screaming
meemies (Nebelwerfer). The 88's shell flew so fast that we never
heard it coming. Screaming meemies were rockets fired in clusters
of six or twelve, a second and a half apart. You could hear them
screaming or moaning in flight, and the rocket cluster landed in
a "shot pattern". Crossroads were a favorite target, and
I had a boot-heel blown off by one later. We also quickly learned
to tell other German weapons by their sounds. Their light machine
gun fired much faster than any of ours, their burp gun (machine
pistol) was unmistakable, and their mortar rounds (heavy or light)
made a distinctive "crump".
There was not enough room
on the few causeways from the beach for our full division to advance.
So after climbing the seawall and crossing the mined dunes behind
it, we waded knee deep or waist-deep or neck-deep across a good
mile of marshland or pasture that Rommel had ordered to be flooded
(by shutting drainage gates). Buddies with toggle ropes paired up.
One buddy would hold the toggle while the other wrapped the noose
around his chest. If either stepped into an underwater ditch his
flotation gear would keep him afloat while his buddy pulled him
to the next patch of higher ground. Other men roped themselves together
like mountain climbers. Some men lightened their loads as soon as
they hit the beach by throwing away gasmasks and other "deadweight",
but I kept my toggle rope, gasmask, everything.
We got soaked to our necks, and by afternoon the sun was out and
it was hot. The one blessing was that this water was freshwater.
We would not bathe for weeks, and saltwater would have been a torment
on our skin and in our clothes. After 3 hours in the flooded lowland
we reached dry ground. Here we encountered our first hedgerows,
an obstacle for which training in England had not prepared us and
which the brass had not taken into account in drawing up timetables
for objectives. Our first objective was the village of St.-Martin-de-Varreville
with its church steeple. As soon as we saw civilians in any village
in Normandy we asked them in French, "Where are the krauts
(Où sont les boches)?" If they said "No Germans
here," we asked "Do you have any eggs (Avez-vous des oeufs)?"
Compared with the powdered eggs in our rations, fresh eggs were
a delicacy. Gliders flew in that afternoon and drew German fire.
Some gliders cracked up in the little checkerboard fields surrounded
by hedgerows and spiked with stakes. We spent the late afternoon
of D-Day digging foxholes along hedgerows outside a hamlet named
Beuzeville au Plain five miles from Utah. We heard small arms fire
that night, saw some tracers. But we lay low, did not smoke, barely
talked, hoped not to draw sniper fire. It sounds odd, yet nobody
in my squad fired his weapon on D-Day or saw a German soldier, though
snipers took potshots at us.
June 7 changed all that.
My regiment advanced two miles northwest toward the town of Azeville
driving the Germans back until we were stopped by artillery and
machine gun fire from the fortification at the east end of town.
On June 8 my regiment attacked a strongpoint at Émondeville.
Strongpoints were fortified positions protected by mortars, machine
guns, and riflemen, without the casemated gun emplacements of fortresses
such as Azeville and Crisbecq. That day my regiment lost 300 men,
almost a tenth of its strength. This was a forewarning of the heavy
casualties my division would take in the war. No other American
division in Europe suffered as many. On June 9 my regiment captured
a German strongpoint at Joganville. On June 10 we almost reached
the highway east of Montebourg going toward Quinéville near
the coast. We were nearly a mile farther north than the regiments
east and west of us. On the morning of June 11, my regiment reached
its objective, the heights of Les Fieffes Dancel northeast of Montebourg,
but was then ordered to withdraw because we were in danger of being
cut off. That same day my regimental commander, Colonel Russell
"Red" Reeder, lost a foot near Montebourg. He was a favorite
both with fellow officers and enlisted men, a great athlete, a cheerful
soul all his life, and later the author of many books. We captured
Montebourg on June 19 and Cherbourg a week later. I saw Mongolian
prisoners of war with heads like basketballs.
The assistant commander of my division
was Teddy Roosevelt Jr., son of "the Rough Rider" president
and a cousin of FDR. Teddy died a month after Red Reeder was wounded
and was beloved by us enlisted men for his habit of turning the
tables on the Army. He would sometimes take officers to task in
our hearing, and at other times would ask us enlisted men for our
opinions. Teddy was no snob in spite of his illustrious background.
What a welcome relief from all the martinets and spit-and-polish
phonies in the Army! Our corps commander once chewed Teddy out for
not wearing his helmet. But as soon as the CC departed Teddy cheerfully
resumed disobeying his order. Unlike generals who never heard a
shot fired in anger, Teddy led his troops into battle rather than
following them. He was the first man ashore at Utah Beach just as
his dad had been the first man up San Juan Hill. Patton was "grounded"
in England for the better part of the Normandy campaign. He must
have envied Teddy that summer for his bravery under fire and his