How lieutenants and sergeants saved the day at Omaha

If you’re a newspaper editor, you know that if you don’t say something about major historical events on their anniversaries, you will catch hell from some readers. And good for those readers; ignorance of history is one of the many things wrong with our country.

I don’t have to worry about that these days, but I hate to let June 6 pass without an acknowledgement. Some would call that day in 1944 the pivotal point in the past century. To some extent, that’s just Western-centrism. The Russians were keeping the Germans pretty busy on the other end of the continent. In fact, many of the “Germans” on those bluffs defending Normandy were from Ost battalions — conscripts from Eastern Europe forced into their conquerer’s service. But even Stalin had impatiently waited and nagged us to open our Second Front, because he expecte it to make a monumental difference. And it did.

But even if you set aside the huge strategic significance, it was an impressive feat. To put 175,000 men on the beach in one day (at least that was the plan, I’ve seen different numbers as to how many did land, but the lowest I’ve seen is 133,000). I’m no great scholar of military history, but I don’t think there’s anything in the annals to match it. Anyway, there was plenty of hard fighting ahead after that day, but the Germans were basically on the retreat from then on.

So I certainly wanted to say something. But it seemed corny to put up yet another clip from Band of Brothers, as much as I love that show.

Then I saw a tweet from Richard M. Nixon (one of my favorite feeds on what’s left of Twitter), and was moved to answer it, so I thought I’d share it here:

What Ike was talking about was the fact that all that planning that he and so many others labored over for two years was essential to winning Normandy. But the effort would have failed on that first day — at least on the one beach, which would have had a terrible effect on the overall operation — if not for the fact that American junior officers and non-coms could think, and act, for themselves.

Once the action starts, you can ball up the plan and toss it. Because not only does the enemy get a say in what happens from that point, but you have an uncountable number of other unpredictable factors that change the situation radically from moment to moment. You have to deal with those, not the events you had anticipated.

At Omaha, especially on Easy Red Sector, the defenses were just too strong for the plan. All those guns, presighted upon every square inch of sand. By midmorning, the landing was a shambles, our men were either lying dead at the water’s edge or cowering and confused behind any bit of cover they could find.

Out on the cruiser USS Augusta, Gen. Omar Bradley watched and listened in horror as the reports came in: “disaster,” he heard, along with “terrible casualties” and “chaos.” He began to consider, privately, withdrawal. But that would have been impractical, and perhaps impossible. “I agonized over the withdrawal decision, praying that our men could hang on,” he would later say.

The guys on the beach were stuck there, with death and confusion all around them. They knew their only way out was forward, and the lower-ranking leaders started giving commands based not on any plan, but on what they were facing. And their men got up and followed. A few at a time at first, they got off the beach and triumphed.

You can draw all the lessons you’d like about American initiative and ingenuity, and there would be a lot to that. American infantry troops are trained to think, and improvise as necessary. Not all armies train that way. And obviously, flexibility and initiative are not words you think of to describe Ost defenders standing at their guns with German sergeants pointing pistols at their heads to ensure they stayed at those posts and kept firing.

So “Nixon” was right in his tweet. And so was his old boss Dwight Eisenhower, all those years before…

5 thoughts on “How lieutenants and sergeants saved the day at Omaha

  1. James Edward Cross

    “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach: the dead and those who are going to die! Now let’s get the hell out of here!”
    –Colonel George A. Taylor, commanding the Sixteenth Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division, on Omaha Beach.

    (There are actually several variations of this quote, all of which he may have said in urging men off the beach)

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And it was possibly a captain who first led men to the top of the bluff overlooking the beach. An excerpt from Stephen Ambrose’s book about the day:

        You may note some similarity to the way Tom Hanks and his men got up the bluff in “Saving Private Ryan.” I suspect the writer of the film was inspired by Dawson’s feat — although, unlike Hanks’ “Capt. Miller,” Dawson was not a Ranger. He commanded Company G, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.

  2. Scout Cotham

    My great uncle George was in the Army Air Forces. I think he might have been involved in D Day somehow. I’ve been trying to find out. I filled out a record request to get his service records but they said his records likely burned up in a fire. In any case, they were unavailable. But what makes me think this is I have a letter he wrote to my grandfather (his brother). It is dated June 4, 1944 “somewhere in England.” And it talks about really nothing – just mundane things like the weather and food, but includes “just a line or two to let you know I am OK”. I got the feeling he knew something was about to happen and wanted to make contact in case it turned out bad but couldn’t actually say anything. He did come back and had 4 kids and died in 1982, when I was 12. So yay Uncle George. I had recently watched Masters of the Air which was very good and was about the 100th some kind of group (I get very confused with all the various military groups) who flew some kind of bomber planes from bases in England into Europe on bombing missions. And D Day was part of that story too. And that made me wonder if my Uncle George was part of that group since he was in England and in the air forces, but I think I have determined that the place he went to basic training trained for different kinds of planes. I know this from articles in their small hometown newspaper that mentioned when he was back in town and where he had been and where he was going next. He trained at Deming, New Mexico where they apparently trained bombardiers for B-25s. But my dad always thought his job was something mechanical – like perhaps keeping the planes running. But I also know from the newspaper when he returned that “George has four battle stars and the meritorious service plaque. The stars were earned in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.” So that would suggest he didn’t just stay on the base in England and repair planes. So I will continue to research. But in any case, personal stories like these and the stories in shows like Masters of the Air really help me visualize and appreciate these things.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Do you have an obituary for him? That could help fill in the blanks a little. And if you want to email me his full name and birth and death dates, I’ll try looking him up on Ancestry.

      The most obvious use of bombers on D-Day involved the B-26. They were supposed to pound the beaches just ahead of the troops coming ashore. That would not only have seriously damaged the beach defenses, but would have left craters for the landing troops to use as cover. It didn’t work out very well. At the last second, the bomber crews hesitate to drop because they were scared of hitting our troops in the water. They dropped a second or two late, and the bombs fell a hundred yards or so inland, BEHIND the defending Germans.

      But I don’t think your uncle was involved in that, if he was on B-25s. I don’t know of any particular role they had on that day, although they did plenty later.

      I had an uncle who flew out of England in B-17s with the Eighh Air Force. He flew with all sorts of crews, because his wife was expecting their first child, and he wanted to get his 25 missions done as soon as possible, rather than just going on the missions HIS plane was assigned to.

      He was shot down three times. Once, I think, was in the Channel. The last time was behind German lines. He was missing in action when my cousin was born. He got back to England with the help of the Resistance. THEN he got to go home, because men who had been in contact with the Resistance weren’t allowed to fly again and risk compromising those networks if shot down again.

      I think he avoided flying, for any reason, for the rest of his life…


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