C. Smith Forward Observer, 2nd Lt, 1st Infantry Division
D-Day on Omaha from the eyes of a Forward Observerby William E. Smith
owned an insurance agency. He was a husband, and a son. Lt. William C. Smith Jr,
known to everyone as "Smitty" had graduated from Ohio State in 1937
at the age of 20, and gotten his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. He had seen war
coming from the time he entered college, and signed up for ROTC. He was assigned
to an artillery unit and was trained as a forward observer (FO) in the First Division-Big
Red One. On his first day in the army, a Captain told him that if the army lost
a box of ammunition, there would be trouble; but Second Lieutenants were expendable.
The life expectancy of a FO was less than ten months. Nice duty.
forward observer's job is simple. Just get close enough to the enemy to be able
to tell what type of toothpaste they use, and tell the artillery units exactly
where to aim their guns (and hope that they are accurate enough not to hit him).
Smitty was an expert in invasions. He had been part of the invasion of North Africa
and of Sicily and had the stars and ribbons to prove it. The early afternoon
in northern Sicily was bright and surprisingly cool. Bill had spent the morning
doing what he usually did, joyriding in his jeep through enemy territory looking
for targets. He had just come down from a small hill when Sampson, his driver,
told him they were headed back to HQ. Sampson had gotten a call from the HQ staff
to hightail it back to base. As Smitty climbed into the seat, he doubted it was
a lunch invitation from the General. They rolled back into camp about 13:30.
Sampson dropped Smitty off in front of the Generals tent, and parked the jeep.
The majority of the chain of command was already there. The General handed him
an envelope. The orders were for a new assignment when the Division returned to
Britain. As he read the orders, everyone congratulated him. This was a great honor.
He did not realize it at the time, but he had "volunteered" to be the
typical army guinea pig, doing something that had never been done before. As he
packed up to go, he figured the army must be pretty serious about this because
he had been excused from all standard duty for the entire stay in Britain. The
last thing that went into his duffel was his Bible. And it would be the first
thing to be used when he arrived at his destination.
the ship was packed prior to departure, Smitty's stuff, including his jeep, were
the last things loaded. He knew that meant his stuff would be the first thing
off the ship when it landed. The assignment would separate him from all the men
with whom he had fought-even Sampson. Since the day the First had landed in North
Africa, Sampson had been his constant companion. Smitty realized that he was really
going to miss the men with whom he had fought across North Africa and a sizable
chunk of Sicily. As the land disappeared below the horizon, he thought most about
those that had left this earth defending their families, freedom, nation, and
way of life from those that would take all that away. Those men had given the
ultimate gift they had to offer with a willingness and devotion to honor and service
that many could never understand. They had not started this war, but like their
buddies that were still fighting, they were dammed well going to finish it. They
had just done what had been expected of them to the best of their ability in the
service of their country. As the ship pulled into port, Smitty looked out
over the rail to the city beyond the dock. It was quite a change from Sicily.
As he chuckled to himself as he disembarked. It was overcast, rainy, and cold-all
in all, a nice afternoon in England. His jeep was the first thing off the ship.
Even in all the confusion, Sampson found his rider. Sampson drove the jeep through
the throng getting off the ship and almost knocked a General over getting to Smitty.
"Get in-you're late!" A typical business trip, Smitty thought to
himself. The second the ship lands, you are already behind schedule. The army
was not about to allow any sight seeing this trip. In this case the hotel was
a barracks with nine other guys there for exactly the same reason-they had been
"volunteered" for this assignment too. One end of the barracks contained
the usual bunks and footlockers. The other end had been converted into a classroom.
A gigantic blackboard covered the entire end of the barracks. "Gentlemen,
I think the only travel the army has in mind for us is from the bed to the bathroom.
From the looks of this classroom, we will need a hall pass to use it." Smitty
was exactly right.
At 23:00 hours, they got
their first briefing from the brass. The army and the navy were working together
to train just ten of them, all from the army, including him. Smitty had called
fire for everything from infantry, to tanks, to 75 and 105-millimeter howitzers.
Now he and these other nine volunteers were going to school to learn to do something
no one had ever done before. They were going to be trained to fire the guns of
battleships and other attack ships in support of the American, Canadian, and British
invasion of Normandy France. The best part was the assignment after their training
was complete. These 10 men would go to shore in rubber rafts in the dark of night
two hours before the invasion, find a cozy little place where they could see the
150,000 German soldiers, safe and warm in their reinforced concrete bunkers. The
Brass had totally overlooked the fact that if the FO's could see the Germans,
the Germans and all their firepower could see the FOs. At first light, the FOs
would use a radio to let the gunners on board the ships know where the bad guys
were. They were told by the Brass to take good care of the radios. "Men
are replaceable, but these are the only ten radios we have" joked one of
the instructors. Of course it never occurred to the brass that the bad guys were
everywhere and they were armed to the teeth. The Germans were not exactly representing
the Normandy Travel Bureau. The brass assured the men that the airforce would
blow up as much of the enemy's accommodations as possible in the days leading
up to the invasion. One of the FOs commented that bombing targets this well protected
would only manage to "really piss the Germans off."
were just a couple of challenges. First, no one had ever done this before. Even
more interesting, no one had ever trained anyone to do this before. The instructors
had done the best job they could to figure out exactly how to teach the ten men
how to do it. There would be a final exam. It would come as they challenged the
guns of the Germans during the actual invasion. If the professors had done a good
job, these men could save tens of thousands of Allied lives. If not, it was going
to be a long bloody day.
The training started
with the pupils learning about the guns for which they were going to be calling
fire. The FOs had to know how to instruct the gunners to retarget in a language
that the navy men would understand. The pupils also had to learn what kind of
damage each type of shell could do. They would be calling fire on everything from
a destroyer escort 6-inch shell to the 16-inch shell of the Missouri class battlewagons.
The new language that was significantly different from the way they instructed
army artillery gunners. They used parts of some of the navy books about the equipment
and targeting as texts. Both the teachers and students were learning as they went.
After a few days covering the sending part of the task, they had to learn the
receiving part of the project.
There was another
aspect of firing ship guns that did usually not occur when ordering fire from
land artillery. If a land artillery piece had been properly dug in, it would not
move. The adjustment would only be to the shot, not to a new location of the shooter.
Ships were different. Even the great battleships would move in the water when
the fired a volley from their sixteen-inch guns. There was yet another little
problem that had to be worked out. The Germans would not welcome incoming fire
of sixteen-inch rounds from the ships with open arms. The Allied Brass had a pretty
good idea that the ships would be the target of fire too. That meant that the
ships would have to change position after firing to avoid being hit by return
fire. The gunners on the ships were going to have to adjust the calls from the
FO to account for this change of position of the guns. The FOs had no way of knowing
exactly where the ships were located at any point in time.
targets the Allies would be facing were very different from the typical on land
target. When you blow up a tank or an artillery piece in the field, it does not
matter how the shell gets there as long as it hits the target. That was not the
case with the targets defending the beaches of the Normandy invasion. The majority
of enemy guns were shielded within a concrete pillbox. How hard was this going
to be? Visualize a typical sized hatbox with a slit running parallel to the rim
on one side measuring about ¼ inch tall by ten inches long. Now, from a
distance of 400 feet, see if you could toss a small stone projectile into the
hole. From a distance of 400 feet, you would be lucky to see the slit, let alone
put a shot into it. Now, to make it a more accurate example, see if you can instruct
someone wearing a blindfold to toss the projectile into the slit successfully.
This example is approximates the problem that Smitty and the others faced. Not
only did the shot have to exactly on the right spot, but the arch of the shot
had to be perfect as well to get the shell into the pillbox to knock out the resistance.
This was going to take practice. It was going to take a lot of practice.
training process started simply enough. The navy had mounted pictures of the actual
German embattlements that were enlarged to approximate the view the men would
have from the beach below the cliffs where the pillboxes were located. The men
looked at these fortifications in awe. In some cases, the pillboxes were covered
with several yards of dirt. That would protect them from the overhead bombing
that was supposed to soften up the target. Other emplacements were caves cut into
the granite face of the cliff. With the yards of cold gray foreboding stone on
every side of the emplacement, it would take a horizontal trajectory directly
into the cave to have any effect at all on the occupants.
FO would call a shot and the navy instructors would then point a flashlight to
the spot on the picture where the shell would have landed. It was then up to the
FO to call back an adjustment to the aim of the gun. This exercise on went every
day until the instructor's arm was ready to fall off from pointing to the picture.
The next step was a little more interesting.
The FOs got to play with model houses. Based on aerial photography, the army had
built a scale model of the city that would also be a target for bombardment. They
were given binoculars that made the town look farther away than normal. This was
also to give the pupils as close an approximation to the view they would have
in action as possible. The practice routine was similar to the pictures on the
wall. The FO would call the shot and the instructor's flashlight would pinpoint
the spot where it would have hit. They practiced in the rain, the cold and even
the dark. They practiced for days and days. The process was effective. One of
the FOs talked in his sleep. He was calling fire between snores.
was in some ways similar to the other members of the team, but in other ways he
was different. He was a little older, at 27 than most of the others. He smoked
a pipe. That was a strategic choice. Most of the men smoked cigarettes and found
it difficult to get a reasonable supply. Because there were far fewer pipe smokers,
pipe tobacco was much easier to get. Beside, the pipe smokers were much more introspective
than cigarette smokers. That also said a lot about the man. While he was very
personable and very much at ease when talking to individuals or groups, he was
also very introspective. There were only three activities Smitty was committed
to outside of his study. Sleep had to take third place on his list of priorities.
Sleep, when it came at all, occurred only after he had completed the other two
tasks. Smitty's first priority was his time reading the Bible. He did this every
night without fail. The second was writing letters. His letters to his wife and
father showed the depth of both his intellect and his concern for his fellow soldiers.
In a letter to his father, he could not disclose what he was going to be doing,
but did write about his total focus to do his job well enough to save the lives
of his buddies. He understood what an overwhelming responsibility he and the other
FOs had been given. He had seen the cost in human life, both Allied and Axis,
of the invasions of North Africa and Sicily. He was trying to prepare himself
and the group for the carnage they would face. The more he learned about the German
defenses, the clearer became his imagination about how costly this invasion would
be. The Germans had been assembling their defenses for three years. There would
be thousands of good men that would pay the ultimate price to help free France
from the clutches of a mad man.
combination of bad weather and an angry English Channel made the choice of an
invasion day difficult. The team of ten kept practicing eighteen hours a day every
day for weeks. Once the training was over, they were assigned to Military Police
duty. They could not be involved in any other preparations for the invasion. They
would not be part of the invasion. They would get on the beech first. Smitty and
the other FO's continued to study on their own right up the day of preparation
for the invasion. They finally got the word, the invasion would be on June 6,
1944 known forever more as D-Day. The group met one more time as they waterproofed
everything they could and packed for the trip. There were precious few words exchanged.
The group shook hands and wished each other good luck. Smitty prayed for this
group to be successful. If they were, it would be because God had helped their
The ride to the point of departure
was anything but smooth. The relatively shallow Channel was so choppy that even
experienced navy men were dangling over the rail of the depositing a portion of
their most recent meal with extreme prejudice. Smitty was deep in his own thoughts
reviewing each action in his mind. The commander of the LCI from which the raft
would be launched walked over and put his hand on Smitty's shoulder. "It's
time. God be with us all." He patted Smitty on the back and left. The ink
black night showed no signs of either moon or stars. No exterior lights were permitted
for security as Smitty made his way across the deck and down the rope ladder to
his ride. What had been described as a raft was an overgrown truck inner tube
with a thin rubber bottom and a cheap electric fan converted to what was supposed
to be a motor. Four men were in this "boat". The other three were navy
frogmen whose assignment was to remove the anti-ship steel barricades installed
by the Germans. These were designed to hang up the Landing Craft Infantry (LCI)
and Landing Ship Tanks (LST) that would be bringing both men and equipment onto
the beach. Smitty checked to make sure he had his sidearm and extra shells. Then
a thought hit him like a truck. What good is a pistol going to do against all
those Germans with all that heavy firepower? It seemed to take hours to get
to the beach. In reality, the trip was only about twenty minutes. The entire trip
was made in total silence. Each man was deep in thought and prayer about completing
his individual contribution to the effort to come. The instant the rubber raft
bounced onto the beach, Smitty jumped off and got off to the side of the landing
area and away from the base of the cliff as he could while getting a good view
of the bunkers which were his targets. He dug a shallow foxhole in the sand that
would be his only protection from the fire of the enemy. As Smitty looked up,
he could see a few lights in the bunkers. He felt somewhat more comfortable because
of the similarity between the training pictures and the actual targets. Now, all
there was to do was wait. He flattened the sand in an arch around his position.
He marked a line from the source of each light back to his position. He would
later be able to use these to target the enemy.
morning of June 6, 1944 was so gray that the sky would not disclose where it ended
and the sea began. When there was finally enough light so that he could see, he
took one glance out to the Channel. There were so many ships assembled that one
observer would later note that 'it looked like you could walk across the Channel
stepping from one ship to another.' He could only afford the time for a single
glance toward the Channel. He then looked up at the embattlements. THEY WERE
PERFECT-UNTOUCHED BY THE BOMBING! The bombing that had taken place the night
before was supposed to destroy the German's ability to fend off the invasion.
Either the bombing had missed the targets all together, or it had no effect what
so ever. He realized in an instant that unless he could call enough fire to
silence the guns in those pillboxes, this part of the invasion would not succeed.
He registered his first target and gave the order to fire when ready. The second
the first shell hit, the Germans began looking on the beach for anything that
looked American. Since he was going to be the only American on Omaha Red for while,
he thought he might be the target for the entire German army in this sector on
the beach. He had long ago resolved himself to the near certainty of his own death.
He was going to call fire as long as he had a single breath in his body. He would
leave his own fate, and thus the fate of many of those coming ashore in his sector,
to God. In that second, he asked only that God look out for them. As usual, there
was no thought of his personal safety. On this day God certainly had more important
things to think about than him. On this day, Bill had more important things to
think about than that. The Germans chose to send most of their focus to the ships.
He had to move several times during the morning.
the next eight hours, he called one shot after another pausing only to see where
the shot hit before registering the next volley. One emplacement was still pristine.
Because it had not returned any fire, Smitty had ignored it. Suddenly, every orifice
of the embattlement spouted a gun blasting the hell out of our men. He called
a shot and the arch was just short. The shell fell just below the opening in the
cliff from which the fire was coming. As he started to register his next shot,
the voice on the other side of the radio said the second most beautiful phrase
he had ever heard. 'We see it. Stand by!' The only other phrase that was more
beautiful was the words "I do" that his childhood sweetheart, Berniece
Kissinger, had said at their wedding. This one-second recall of the best moment
in his life was over. At that instant two streams of tracer shells painted the
opening for the larger fire. In the next second nearly a half a dozen shells seemed
to converge on a single spot-the exact location of the offending gunfire. A glorious
rain of concrete dust, gun parts, and chunks of medium well German gunners fell
down on the sand at the foot of the cliff. But there was no time for celebration.
There was only time to register fire on the next target.
were thousands of deaths all around him. So much Allied blood flowed that the
water and the beach it touched turned red with the essence of the brave men that
had fallen in the cause of freedom. Each death took a little piece of his heart
with them. But there was no time to even grieve. There was not even time to notice.
There was only time to register the next shot. While the tanks supposed to add
fire to the ships sank in the Channel because the LST's could not get close enough
to the beach, he called fire. While the units that had landed on the beech were
pinned down by fire from the cliff, he called fire. While his position was strafed
again and again with machinegun fire in retribution for the navel shells that
he had directed at the Germans, he called fire. Although he was totally exhausted
and almost hoarse, he called fire.
fire until the return fire stopped completely. This did not happen all at once.
It occurred over time as one by one, the enemy emplacements were destroyed or
abandoned. There were three targets, then two, then only one. It was over. The
Allies had taken the beach, despite the horrible losses. He turned his radio off
and for the first time since first light, looked around him. In that second, he
first said a prayer for those brave, brave men that had fallen in service to their
nation, and their God. He then said a thank you prayer. Not a prayer to thank
God for his own survival, but to thank God for allowing him to do his job to save
as many lives as possible. He moved out and rejoined his unit. The fighting
would go on for nearly a year. Many more would die on both sides. But on this
one day, these men, both living and dead, had turned the tide of the war toward
the victory of the Allies. They had accomplished what the Germans felt was impossible.
They had accomplished what even many of the Allies brass had feared was impossible.
But they had accomplished it, despite the fact that the bombing had missed the
targets, despite all the other obstacles that had been in their way.
his bravery, Smitty was awarded the Bronze Star with a V for valor. One day he
would mention it to his family. That day occurred 45 years after the day it was
won. Is he proud of what he did during the war? Probably, but he still will not
admit that. "Just like thousands of others during the war, I did what
needed to be done. I just did my job." This was as close as he ever came
to blowing his own richly deserving horn. In a speech before a committee of military
and civilian leaders, he joked that he was 'glad to be here. Hell, I'm glad to
be anywhere.' He lived to see the end of the war. Just after he got into Germany,
he received the orders that would send him home. As he was preparing for the flight,
he smiled. Hitler had said that the only way any American would ever stand on
German ground was as a prisoner of war. He sure as blazes was not a prisoner.
He was going home to help in the preparation of the invasion of Japan. Before
he was shipped to the Pacific Theater, the A-bombs were dropped and the war was
over. He used the same level of dedication and effort to build a family business
that supported over 80 families. Today, at 86, Smitty can still wear his 1945
uniform. He is a remarkable man. He is and always has been my hero, my mentor,
and my idol. I am lucky enough to be his son.
you Dad for everything you have done for all of us. Love, always and forever,