Thursday, May 24, 2012

The First Ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day

June 6, 1944…
0600 hours / Six o’clock in the morning…
Omaha Beach…
Easy Red Sector…
Hell was about to happen!
          I was a Pharmacist’s Mate in the Sixth Naval Beach Battalion. They assembled and trained our unit under hush-hush conditions. The reason for all the security was that our only mission was to be the first regular unit to land on the beach. They started training us before anyone even knew where the invasion would be. We certainly didn’t know when it would happen.
Our job was to support the assault troops with medical aid, communications, and boat repair. We were trained in the use of all kinds of weapons, but most of the fighting would be left to others. We were supposed to be the traffic cops on the beach, trying to land the troops and their equipment safely. Later, we would shift over to evacuating the wounded and the dead.
The invasion was a deep dark secret, so our unit had to be secret too. If the Germans knew about us, they could have tracked us to get advance info on the invasion. We trained for about fourteen months in the States, and then we were shipped to England a few months before D-Day. They put us under the command of the Army’s 6th Engineer Special Brigade. We were sailors dressed like soldiers except that we wore black T-shirts under our field jackets, and our helmets had a blue/gray band around them and a red rainbow on the front.
          The weather had been terrible that week. It cleared enough at the last minute for the ships to proceed, but we had very limited use of air power. We headed for shore between 0600 and 0630 in the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach. We were right behind the demolition teams that landed in inflated boats to try to clear some of the obstacles and mines that the Germans had set up. One set of obstacles was a series of telephone poles set into the beach angled toward the sea. They had mines mounted on their top ends set to detonate on impact by a landing craft or other vessel. The Germans discovered the demolition teams at work and threw everything they had at them. Those poor guys suffered about seventy percent losses, and there was no one else yet ashore to help them.
          Our final approach to the beach was by LCI(L). That was the designation for a Landing Craft, Infantry (Large). It was about half the length of a football field with a ramp on each side of the bow that could be lowered to discharge troops and equipment. They were manned by Coast Guard crews.
          One of the other landing craft, LCI(L)-85, that came in a bit after ours at 0735 was hit twenty-five times and later sank. Only six people got off its ramps unscathed. One of them was a friend of mine who told me later how, after a couple of the artillery hits, he had to take the fire hose and wash clusters of small body parts overboard. That violated all of his medical training, but it had to be done.
          By comparison, we were lucky. Our LCI(L) got off course because of the weather. We reached shore about four hundred yards east of our designated landing spot. Because of this, we came in under a cliff where the Germans couldn’t target us with their guns. We didn’t quite make impact with the beach, and the water was very choppy, so three of us had to swim for shore with a heavy line. We secured it to one of those tilted telephone poles that had a mine on the top end, and our men had to wade through the surf with full packs of equipment by clinging to that line. In most cases the water was up to their armpits. Most of our people made it safely to shore even though we had incoming fire from anti-tank guns and machine guns. We lost a lot of equipment when the waves knocked people over, and only two of our radios were still working when we reached the shore.
          For about six or seven hours we were pinned down at the high water mark where the beach sloped down at about forty-five degrees into the water. This area was covered with large water-smoothed multi-colored pebbles ranging from the size of a chicken egg to about four inches diameter. Whenever an artillery shell came close to us and hit in this area, the stones would start flying at high velocity. More of our people were wounded or killed by the flying stones than by the artillery shells.
          Only one tank made it safely to shore in our area. He set himself up on that slope of pebbles, and moved forward up the slope each time he wanted to fire on the German positions. Then he backed down the slope to hide from incoming fire. We thought we would be safest hiding behind the tank, but we soon realized that he was drawing a lot of fire, and we moved away from him.
          As more and more troops and equipment made it to the shore, the Germans stopped pinning us down because they had more important targets elsewhere. Then we started to do our best to tend to the wounded and get people ready for evacuation. Along the way, we saw two of our people crouched behind a half-track vehicle for shelter. A German shell hit the vehicle, lifted it into the air and dropped it on one of them. He died instantly.
          During the initial bedlam of that first day, we were so tired and the wounded had been hit so badly that all we could do was give most of them morphine shots to ease their pain. At one point a buddy and I found our battalion commander lying on the beach with an unexploded shell in his shoulder. It had entered his body through his right collarbone and now protruded through his left shoulder blade. We managed to flag down a truck and took him to one of the few field hospitals that had been set up. Only the use of penicillin, which was a new breakthrough, saved his life.
          Incoming Landing Craft and other ships were being hit by artillery and machinegun fire. Because of this many of them discharged their troops too far from shore for them to wade in. A very small number of men who tried to swim the rest of the way managed to get ashore safely. Those who did only made it by discarding their heavy packs. Most drowned, and we fished as many bodies as possible out of the water. We had to drag the bodies beyond the high water mark to be sure that they wouldn’t be reclaimed by the sea at high tide. This meant dragging the bodies beyond any hope of cover, directly toward the German guns.
          During the first day of the invasion I saw one soldier frantically signaling to me for help by waving the arm he had lost. Another had his leg blown off, and in his shock, he crawled to get it back in the hope that somehow he would walk again.  We found our Beachmaster lying shell-shocked next to boxes of burning hand grenades, but managed to get the boxes away from him before they exploded.
          The original plans called for the landing craft to evacuate the wounded on their way back out to sea, so that no craft left empty. Because of the heavy German bombardment of incoming vessels during the first couple of days, the ships were ordered away from the beaches for safety without taking on any wounded, and we ended up having to care for large numbers of wounded for a lot longer than expected.
          There were so many killed during the first day that we had to move the bodies with a bulldozer. We did this, both to keep the dead out of sight so they didn’t demoralize the fresh assault troops as they landed on the beach, and also to clear a path for the new troops to follow toward the German gun emplacements. The infantry finally managed to clear the extension of that path of mines, and they climbed up a ravine to get to the top of the cliff. Then they circled behind the German beach defenses which were all aimed toward the sea. Most of the Germans surrendered without resistance, and the troops were able to move inland off the beach.
          We didn’t join them. Our job was to handle the evacuation of the wounded and to direct traffic inbound and outbound from the beach. I was on that bloody beach nineteen days before I was evacuated back to England.
          For years afterward, I saw those beach landings and all the accompanying bloodshed in my dreams. I survived in some of those dreams, and in others I had a painful lingering death. That’s why I’ve refused to talk about it until now. I didn’t want to rouse my demons…

(Excerpt from Give Us this Day Our Daily Bread by Richard Davidson, The Lord's Prayer Mystery Series, Volume II. This is a composite memory of various members of the Sixth Naval Beach Battalion, and is historically accurate. In the book it is related by my fictional character Rob Slovitch.)

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