Voices of D-Day
Ralph Jenkins, squadron operations officer, 510th Fighter Squadron:
I was a twenty-four-year-old pilot, and I thought the German navy scarcely existed and would offer no resistance to the invasion. I was the squadron operations officer of the 510th based at Christchurch, which was west of Southhampton.
We had been confined to the base. For the past several weeks, tremendous quantities of military gear had been heading to the southern ports of England. There was little doubt that the invasion was at hand.
In the early morning hours of June 6, we were summoned by our intelligence officers to the ready rooms and were briefed on our missions for the day. We were disappointed to learn that we had not been assigned to do close air support or fighter bombing on the ground in advance of the invasion forces. Instead, we were to go out over the English Channel, out toward the tip of the Brest Peninsula, and look for units of the German navy that could menace the invasion troops. We were very disappointed. It was very boring. We saw no submarines or traces of submarines.
We did finally see a large ship heading for the Cotentin Peninsula. I descended from twenty thousand feet to ten thousand to have a better look, and suddenly the sky was filled with antiaircraft fire coming from this ship. I reported this to headquarters. I suspect it was a German ship heading for the invasion area. This was most likely the only capability left in the German navy to resist the invasion.
Allen W. Stephens, pilot, 397th Bomb Group:
We awakened at two o'clock in the morning on June 6th. This was my twenty-first mission, and take-off was at 4:20 in the morning. It was still dark. A steady rain was falling and we could hardly see to taxi, much less fly. But there was no holding back and we poured on the coals, taking off at twenty-second intervals between shifts.
By the time we cleared the end of the runway, we could barely see the lights of the airplane ahead of us. We climbed on instruments, and when we broke out on top of the cloud bank, we could see B-26s and all kinds of other airplanes circling around, and it was really a beautiful sight.
By following prearranged signals, we tacked onto our squadron leader and subsequently were on our way across the Channel. We were part of the spearhead of the invasion, entering the coast of France near Cherbourg over Utah Beach. Our targets were coastal guns and blockhouses along the beach, which we were to hit in collaboration with shelling by naval vessels. We were among the very first aircraft to hit the invasion target.
As we moved in toward the beaches, we could see an armada of invasion vessels in the channel below us, their courses converging toward the several invasion beaches. I had the surging feeling that I was sitting in on the greatest show ever staged -- one that would make world history. As we flew nearer to the target, that feeling increased to exhilaration and excitement, for it was truly a magnificent operation. We saw hundreds upon hundreds of ships below, moving toward the coast of France, and when we approached the target area, we could see the big naval guns shelling the coast. The Germans were not idle, however, as they threw heavy barrages at the landing craft. I saw one large ship going down but still throwing shells at the coast. We saw hundreds of discarded parachutes that had been thrown off by paratroopers who had landed simultaneously with the other attacks. These were quite a ways inland from the beachhead. I saw one B-26 Marauder explode in midair near the target area.
We went through the heaviest concentration on antiaircraft fire I had yet seen. Tracers and flak explosions were so thick that it looked impossible to get through without being hit, especially knowing that for every tracer there were six other rounds. The barrage literally filled the air all around us, and the flak explosions made the air alive with fire.
On the beachhead, there was a tremendous wall of smoke all along the shore where the bombs and the shells were exploding. The landing craft were moving up as we turned off the target area after dropping our bombs. Every move was timed to the split second. We went in at 4,500 feet on this first mission. Our bombs went away at 6:30 a.m., the precise time planned.
Bob Slaughter, squad leader, 116th Infantry:
I was really keyed up and so were my buddies, and we went around. I know I took my General Eisenhower message that was issued to all of us, and I got autographs of all my buddies and everybody I could get to autograph it.
As our teams were called, we assembled on the landing craft and were lowered into the water, and it was tremendously rough and the spray from the sea was cold, and it came over the sides of the landing craft and nearly everybody got soaked. We were taking water from the rough sea over the bow, and we were bailing to try to keep afloat. Some of the landing craft sank before they got in because of the rough sea. In fact, we picked up some of our buddies who had floundered eight or nine miles from shore, and we had taken them on as extra cargo; and some that we should have picked up or would have liked to have picked, we left because we didn't have room. We hoped somebody else would.
It was a terrible ride to the beach. Over to our right, the battleship Texas was firing into the cliffs, and every time that big fourteen inch gun went off, a tremendous tsunami swamped our boat, and the water would come over the side and just soak us and make our seasickness worse.
As we got in to one thousand yards offshore, we started taking some mortar shells and some artillery. They were just over our bow and exploding off to our side, and we could also hear the small arms as we got in a little closer — the small arms were firing at us.
Thomas Valence, rifle sergeant, 116th Infantry:
We proceeded toward the beach, and many of the fellows got sick. The water was quite rough. It was a choppy ride in, and we received a lot of spray.
Our boat was one of six of A Company in the first wave, and when we got to the beach, or close to it, the obstacles erected by the Germans to prevent the landing were fully in view, as we were told they would be, which meant the tide was low.
I was the rifle sergeant and followed Lieutenant Anderson off the boat, and we did what we could rather than what we had practiced doing for so many months in England. There was a rather wide expanse of beach, and the Germans were not to be seen at all, but they were firing at us, rapidly, with a great deal of small-arm fire.
As we came down the ramp, we were in water about knee high, and we started to do what we were trained to do -- move forward, and then crouch and fire. One of the problems was we didn't quite know what to fire at. I saw some tracers coming from a concrete emplacement which to me looked mammoth. I never anticipated any gun emplacements being that big. I attempted to fire back at that, but I had no concept of what was going on behind me. There was not much to see in front of me except a few houses, and the water kept coming in so rapidly, and the fellows I was with were being hit and put out of action so quickly that it become a struggle to stay on one's feet. I abandoned my equipment, which was very heavy.
I floundered in the water and had my hand up in the air, trying to get my balance, when I was first shot. I was shot through the left hand, which broke a knuckle, and then through the palm of the hand. I felt nothing but a little sting at the time, but I was aware that I was shot. Next to me in the water, Private Henry G. Witt was rolling over towards me. "Sergeant, they're leaving us here to die like rats. Just to die like rats." I certainly wasn't thinking the same thing, nor did I share that opinion. I didn't know whether we were being left or not.
I made my way forward as best I could. My rifle jammed, so I picked up a carbine and got off a couple of rounds. We were shooting at something that seemed inconsequential. There was no way I was going to knock out a German concrete emplacement with a .30-caliber rifle. I was hit again, once in the left thigh, which broke my hip bone, and a couple of times in my pack, and then my chin strap on my helmet was severed by a bullet. I worked my way up onto the beach, and staggered up against a wall, and collapsed there. The bodies of the other guys washed ashore, and I was one live body amongst many of my friends who were dead and, in many cases, blown to pieces.
A.L. Corry, bombardier on a B-26 Marauder:
I was a bombardier on a B-26 Marauder for the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
I was awakened at two o'clock in the morning from a sound sleep. The officer of the day came running, shook me, said, "Come on, get up, time to get up." So we went around and started waking the rest of the guys up, two o'clock in the morning. We're going to have breakfast in about half an hour, and then briefing. Breakfast at that time of morning and briefing? There was something going on. So we did it. We all got up and dragged our butts out the door.
At the briefing room, everybody was real quiet that morning. Normally, there was a lot of mumbling going on, guys talking on the way to the briefing room, just discussing various little things -- what we did the other night, girlfriends, it's all talk going on. This morning, it was real quiet still. I think everybody sensed something. I know I did.
We sat there in the briefing room with our maps. We picked up all our map packets and had them on our lap, and momentarily, in comes the colonel from the back door, Colonel Story. He was a real hot jockey. He had his hat cocked back on his head and a short stubby cigar in his mouth. He said, "Hey guys, good morning, good morning, good morning. Well, here we are. This is it." This is it? What do you mean? He said, "This is the big day we're waiting for. That's what you all came here for. That's what we're here to do." He hadn't said a word yet about what we're doing, but finally he says, "We're going in there at six in the morning in France as air support for the Allied forces invading the Normandy coast of Europe. This will be the invasion."
That's when the quiet erupted into a big roar, you know. "Oh boy," everybody yelled. "Yea botz!" Yea botz, all right -- they hadn't seen us yet. We were all pretty glad. The TAC officers got up, pulled the charts down, and we took a grease pencil and marked our maps over some isinglass so we'd have a red line on our map and the bombs -- no bombs would be falling this side of that line. This side of the line would be all Allied troops, and beyond that line would be enemy territory.
Leonard Lomell, acting platoon leader, 2nd Ranger Battalion:
Lieutenant McBride, Captain Slater, and one-third of our company went down as their boat swamped. We landed and fired off our rockets, the ramp goes down, and I'm the first guy shot in the company, a machine gun through the right side. Then I stepped off into water over my head, and the guys pulled me out and we just rushed to the base of that cliff and grabbed any rope we could get, and up the cliff we went just as fast as we could go. The wound wasn't bad; it had gone through the muscle on my right side.
Captain Baugh of Company E was the first person I ran across on top. He had been shot and had his hand practically blown off, and wasn't in such good shape. We kept right on going saying, "Captain, we'll send you back a medic." My platoon couldn't wait for nothing; we had our assignment, and we in Company D depended on a lot of speed. My second platoon went ahead in a rush. We had some confrontations coming out of shell craters, and one of my sergeants, Morris Webb, as we were charging out of a shell crater, a machine gun opened up, and he jumped back into the crater right on top of one of his men's bayonet that went right through his side.
We didn't stop; we played it just like a football game, charging hard and low. We went into the shell craters for protection, because there were snipers around and machine guns firing at us, and we'd wait for a moment, and if the fire lifted, we were out of that crater and into the next one. We ran as fast as we could over to the gun positions -- to the one that we were assigned to. There were no guns in the positions!
We decided that they must have an alternate position, and we thought, well, we'll hear them. Maybe we'll see some evidence of the movement, but we never did hear them.
There was an anticraft position off to our right several hundred yards, and a machine gun off to the left, and there was another machine gun that we had gotten on our way in. The antiaircraft gun was firing flat trajectory at us, and by the time we got to the road, I only had about a dozen men left. We were up on top of the cliffs around 7:30.
The road was our next objective. We were supposed to get into the coastal road and set up a roadblock, which we did. We were the first ones at the coastal road. We were in the midst of doing this when all of a sudden we heard this noise and clanking, and we laid low in our ditch on this side of the road, and here came this very large force loaded with heavy equipment, mortars and machine guns, and it was a real, armed, large combat patrol of Germans, and here I've got ten or twelve guys and I was about to take on fifty or sixty when we've still got our mission to accomplish. They were headed in the other direction toward Utah, so we let them go. They went around down to the left. Then Jack Kuhn, who was my platoon sergeant while I was the acting platoon leader, and I saw these markings in this sunken road that looked like something heavy had been over it, and we didn't know if it had been a farm wagon or what.
Sergeant Koenig destroyed the communications along the coastal road by blowing up the telephone poles, and then Jack Kuhn and I went down this sunken road not knowing where the hell it was going, but it was going inland. We came upon this vale or little draw with camouflage all over it, and lo and behold, we peeked over this hedgerow, and there were the guns. It was pure luck. They were all sitting in proper firing condition, with ammunition piled up neatly, everything at the ready, but they were pointed at Utah Beach, not Omaha. There was nobody at the emplacement. We looked around cautiously, and over about a hundred yards away in a corner of a field was a vehicle with what looked like an officer talking to his men.
We decided that nobody was here so let's take a chance. I said, "Jack, you cover me and I'm going in there and destroy them." So all I had was two thermite grenades -- his and mine. I went in and put the thermite grenades in the traversing mechanism, and that knocked out two of them because that melted their gears in a moment. And then I broke their sights, and we ran back to the road, which was a hundred or so yards back, and got all the other thermites from the remainder of my guys manning the roadblock, and rushed back and put the grenades in traversing mechanisms, elevation mechanisms, and banged the sights. There was no noise to that. There is no noise to a thermite, so no one saw us, and Jack said, "Hurry up and get out of there, Len." and I came up over the hedgerow with him, and suddenly the whole place blew up. We thought it was a short round from the Texas.
What it was, was another patrol from Company E, led by Sergeant Rupinski, had come around to the left of us, and came upon the ammo depot of this gun emplacement, and blew it up. I never saw it. It blew up, and we went flying, and dust and everything was settling on us, and we got up and ran like two scared rabbits as fast as we could back to our men at the roadblock.
We had the guns out of action before 8:30 in morning, and Sergeant Harry Fate volunteered to go back to Colonel Rudder and report the mission was accomplished and that we had the roadblock set up; and Sergeant Gordon Luning volunteered to take the message via a different route.
Those guns had not been recently moved to that position. They'd been there a long time. There wasn't one bomb crater near them, therefore they were so well camouflaged that the air force and whoever did the bombings of them never saw them, and their photos never saw them. The rest of the Pointe was perforated. They'd been blowing the hell out of that for four months. No wonder they'd moved those guns. You couldn't find a straight piece of land to do anything on at the Pointe.
Sergeant Lomell received the Distinguished Service Cross.
German Soldier Franz Rachman:
It was in the night and I was sleeping, and my sergeant came running and said, "There are a thousand different ships coming in the English Channel."
There was thousands of ships, and we could see landing boats of American troops. Then came thousands of men at one time coming on land and running over the beach. This is the first time I shoot on living men, and I go to the machine gun and I shoot, I shoot, I shoot! For each American I see fall, there came ten hundred other ones!
The final company in the first assault wave, Company E, landed its six boats between a mile and two miles left of its designated beach, which was Easy Green.
German Soldier Franz Gockel:
The heavy naval guns fired salvo after salvo into our positions. In the beginnings, the ships lay at twenty kilometers, but the range slowly decreased. With unbelieving eyes we could recognize individual landing craft. The hail of shells falling upon us grew heavier, sending fountains of sand and debris into the air. The mined obstacles in the water were partly destroyed.
The morning dawn over the approaching landing fleet exhibited for us approaching doom. Bombs and heavy-caliber shells continued to slam into the earth, tossing tangles of barbed wire, obstacles, and dirt into the air. The fight for survival began. The explosions of naval gunfire became mixed with rapid-fire weapons. I attempted to seek shelter under my machine-gun position.
Our weapons were preset on defensive fire zones, thus we could only wait. It appeared that the enemy would land in the approximate center of the beach. We had planned that he should land at high tide to drive the boats over the open beach, but this was low tide. The waterline was three hundred meters distant.
Surprisingly, we had not suffered heavy casualties. We used every available minute to contact one another throughout the rain of shells, and although we saw no possibility to escape from this chaos, we clung desperately to every minute won.
Suddenly the rain of shells ceased, but only for a very short time. Again it came. Slowly the wall of explosions approached, meter by meter, worse than before — a deafening torrent — cracking, screaming, whistling, and sizzling, destroying everything in its path. There was no escape, and I crouched helplessly behind my weapon. I prayed for survival and my fear passed. Suddenly it was silent again.
There were six of us in the position, and still no one was wounded. A comrade stumbled out of the smoke and dust into my position and screamed, "Franz, watch out! They're coming."