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D-Day was 70 years ago: The fight to get off Omaha Beach

Soldiers helping the wounded come ashore at Utah Beach. June 6, 1944
Soldiers helping the wounded come ashore at Utah Beach. June 6, 1944U. S. Army, www.flickr.com

The invasion of France on June 6, 1944 was the turning point of World War II. Its success, however, came at a very high price. By the end of the day many had lost their lives on the beaches and fields of Normandy. The landing on Omaha beach was the bloodiest of all. For those who survived the landing, the battle to get off Omaha beach alive, was the next deadly challenge.

The air bombardment was to have obliterated any coastal stronghold of the enemy. There had been much bragging onboard the ships about the accuracy of America’s B24. Referred to as “precision bombing”, the bombers could “drop a bomb in a pickle barrel.” Considering the bravado and then the men seeing the sky full of the invincible bombing machines makes it easy to understand how some young soldiers were feeling confident.

Sitting up high, however, on the cliffs of Omaha Beach, the Germans rained down on the allies with a constant blast from their machine guns and mortar shells. In less than two hours the debris of the invasion – reels of wire, supplies, heavy equipment, canteens, helmets, life preservers, wrecked landing crafts, and of course, the bodies began to mount on the beach.

On the beach, the battle was going so poorly that evacuation of the wounded was toward the enemy. The changing of the tides meant death for some of those still floating close to shore. Desperately, wishing for reinforcements, men were realizing that they were going to die.

Most of the officers had been killed, since they were the first ones coming off the landing craft. Stunned, the remaining officers were unsure of what to do. The high tide had cut off reinforcements from the landing boats and the medics were not able to get to the wounded quickly.

Some men had lost their glasses in the surf, and then, they could not see to find their units. Others lost equipment in the rough waves and despite the heavy blast of bullets at them, they were searching around the water trying to recover it. Many, however, had abandoned their equipment to save themselves from drowning. Some of the soldiers said they did not know where the targets were, and shot randomly at houses along the beach. Most expressed a feeling of being disoriented and not knowing what was behind or in front of them.

Finally, several destroyers, ignoring orders, and the dangers of the unseen obstacles; nearly running aground, came in towards shore firing at the German positions on the cliffs. Soon other destroyers also joined in, and the battle began to change. The tone of emotions from the infantrymen changed as well: “I thought I was a goner, but then, I saw the Navy in close with one of their destroyers. Damn, I was proud.” In the end, the grit and leadership shown on the beaches and the intervention of the Navy destroyers saved the day.

Much of the above narrative came from eye-witness accounts researched through books and oral histories.

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