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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Friday, June 04, 2004  
Samuel Eliot Morison wrote of the Battle of Midway that took place 62 years ago today:

"Threescore young aviators . . . met flaming death that day in reversing the verdict of battle. Think of them, reader, every Fourth of June. They and their comrades who survived changed the whole course of the Pacific War."

David Gelernter's rebuke to those of us who haven't truly appreciated "the Greatest Generation" is must reading.

I know I grew up taking the service of everyone's fathers in the Second World War for granted. D-Day was a story in American Heritage or the World Book, a historical given, like Bull Run or Bunker Hill, or like Midway, a cinema epic.

Saving Private Ryan conveyed a bit of what it must have been like to have landed on the beach at Normandy, and it came as a revelation. Consider, too, these accounts.

From a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article 10 years ago on the 50th anniversary of D-Day:

Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison would later call Omaha "the best imitation of hell for an invading force that American troops had encountered anywhere. Even the Japanese defenses of Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Peleliu are not to be compared."

The Army originally planned to use green divisions like the 29th Infantry, a National Guard outfit, saving the seasoned soldiers for the follow-up wave. But in the end, nobody dared trust everything to rookie warriors.

So the Army turned again to the 1st Infantry Division, "The Big Red One," already a veteran of assault landings in North Africa and Sicily. For a third time, the Big Red One would have to stare into hell.

The hell started with the ride in - 11 1/2 cold, wet and seasick miles. The Navy wanted to keep the troopships out of range of German guns, but the choppy ride to the beach in the small landing craft was an awful way to go to war.

To support the infantry and combat engineers, 32 swimming tanks started waddling through the whitecaps. All but five sank like stones. Many of the barges hauling in artillery pieces also foundered. The GIs had only the guns aboard the warships to call on.

Clouds blinded the heavy bombers. Mostly, the bombs fell far inland, killing only dairy cattle. (Normandy's fat dairy cows would suffer terribly that summer; photos from the campaign invariably include dead Holsteins, their legs jutting skyward.)

For the soldiers, death began at the low-water mark. The Germans had assumed the Allies would land at high tide, to cut down the amount of open beach that the soldiers would have to cross. To disrupt a high-tide landing, the Germans had planted obstacles starting at the low-water mark, all to blow up landing craft, or tear out their guts.

When Allied planes spotted the low-water obstacles in February, planners swallowed hard and decided to land the soldiers at the low end of a rising tide. That would make backing the landing craft off an easier chore; more important, it would expose the high-water obstacles.

But dropping the GIs that far out forced them to cross 200 to 300 yards of open sand, under fire from the Germans on the bluffs.

Those who made it could shelter behind a strand of stones called shingle, or at least behind those stretches not under mortar fire. The shingle gave, but it also took away; it blocked the way for vehicles, at least until bulldozers could plow it away.

Next, the GIs had to work their way through the barbed wire and mines of the shelf, a strip of dry-sand beach about 200 yards wide. All the time, the Germans on the bluff were shooting at them.

Worse, the Germans had placed some machine guns along the bottom of the bluff. These guns fired laterally, down the length of the beach, with their bullets never rising more than a man's height above the ground.

Most bullets land in a pattern like water splashing from a slightly elevated garden hose; this pattern is called "plunging fire," and it's deadly for people caught in the cone. German fire from the blufftops, up to 170 feet above the beach, was plunging fire.

But the fire from those beach-level machine guns - the stream of bullets that never rose above a man's height - was of a type called "grazing fire." It's deadlier, because nothing can cross a line of grazing fire without being hit.

And from a Denver Post article on the 50th anniversary 10 years ago:

Rommel's defenses at Omaha are particularly diabolical. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison reports, "Off shore and under the water were steel frames, 7 by 10 feet, with waterproof mines lashed to the uprights. ... Closer to the beach, but under 8 to 10 feet of water, were sharpened wood or concrete poles angled toward the sea, with about every third one mined.

"At the edge of the beach and on the beach itself were obstacles made of three 6-foot steel bars welded together at right angles, looking like giant jackstones. Almost all were mined. The land between the seawall and the bluffs was crisscrossed with anti-tank ditches and heavily mined."

Scores of 75mm and 88mm mobile German guns are positioned to fire a flat trajectory of death and destruction at the landing craft and the exposed GIs. Enemy machine guns emit a nonstop chatter at anything that moves. The Nazi guns cover every square foot of the beach.

Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall writes, "On this two-division landing, only six rifle companies (about 180 men apiece) were relatively effective units. ... Three times that number were shattered or foundered before they could begin to fight.

"The churning sea runs red. Most of those who wade into the shallow water are quickly knocked down by a bullet. Weakened by fear and shock, they cannot rise and drown in a few feet of water."

Ten minutes after landing craft put ashore Able Company of the 116th Regimental Combat Team, all officers, save one, are dead, and every sergeant is either dead or wounded, Marshall says. "By the end of 30 minutes, two-thirds of the company is gone.

"Able Company is leaderless. No one gives any orders. The survivors have not fired a shot. Merely to stay alive is a full-time job. By the end of an hour, a number of survivors have crawled to the foot of the bluff, into a narrow sanctuary out of the line of fire.

"There they lie all day, some wounded, all exhausted and unarmed, too shocked to even talk to one another. No one happens by to offer water or succor."

Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, assistant commander of the 29th Division, shouts to his men, "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."

Ernie Pyle later writes in his book "Brave Men," "Men were sleeping in the sand forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead."

Other bodies, Pyle says, sprawl grotesquely in the sand along with "sad little personal belongings strewn all over those bitter sands.

"There in a jumbled row, for mile on mile, were soldiers' packs. There were socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. There were the latest letters from home.

"There were toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. There were pocketbooks and bloody abandoned shoes.

"The most ironic piece of equipment marking our beach was a tennis racket. It lay lonsomely in the sand, clamped in its press, not a string broken."


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