By John C. McManus
The Germans had four years to fortify their conquered northern Atlantic coast, but they had not, as of early 1944, put that time to good use. For three of those years the Western Front was, to them, a place to refit formations that had been shattered in Russia or a place to station inferior troops not trusted with front-line duty. The Nazi propaganda machine boasted about Germany’s “Atlantic Wall,” but until the latter part of 1943 the wall was more fantasy than reality. Two things happened in late 1943 that lit a fire under the Germans. First, they began to realize that an Anglo-American invasion of France was a real possibility. Second, they appointed their most prominent commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the great hero of North Africa, to command in the west.
Rommel toured the beach defenses and came away appalled. In almost every area along the coast, the Germans did not have enough mines, barbed wire, obstacles, pillboxes, cupolas, concrete, guns, or troops to repel the kind of invasion Rommel expected in 1944. He strongly believed that Germany could only win the coming battle by repelling the invasion at the water’s edge. The first twenty-four hours would be decisive. If the Germans allowed the Allies a lodgment on the continent, their logistical, manpower, naval, and air superiority would inevitably overwhelm German forces. Only by turning the invasion coast into an impenetrable wall, ironically echoing the Nazi propaganda for which Rommel had little but contempt, could his forces achieve victory. The diminutive, dynamic German commander stood on a French beach one day in early 1944 and pensively told his young aide, Captain Hellmuth Lang, “The war will be won or lost on the beaches. We’ll have only one chance to stop the enemy, and that’s while he’s in the water…struggling to get ashore. Believe me, Lang, the first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive…for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”1
Rommel immediately ordered a dramatic strengthening of the beach defenses. Thousands of slave and local laborers poured millions of tons of concrete and steel emplacements. German engineers sowed millions of mines and beach obstacles. The latter mainly consisted of devices aimed at thwarting landing craft: mine-tipped logs, sharp hedgehogs, concrete tank traps, barbed wire, Belgian gates (steel contraptions designed to snare landing craft), concrete cones, even live shells pointed out to sea. Behind these initial obstacles, his commanders supervised the construction of pillboxes, observation bunkers, communication trenches, guns, and machine-gun nests with interlocking fields of fire. They made brilliant use of terrain. They even took steps to defeat an airborne invasion, denuding local forests to emplace sharpened stakes known as Rommel’s asparagus. The asparagus were supposed to tear open gliders or impale descending paratroopers.2
The problem for Rommel was that he did not have total control of German forces in the west. He only controlled the armies defending Normandy and Calais. In effect, this meant he was subordinate to one of the German Army’s elder statesman—Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, a no-nonsense sixty-nine-year-old who was not afraid to speak bluntly, even to Hitler’s retinue. Rundstedt, commander in chief of all German forces in the west, completely disagreed with Rommel. Rundstedt thought that a successful Allied invasion was inevitable. Germany could not hope to be strong everywhere along the coast. Nor could German mechanized formations, which would be desperately needed to repel the Allied Army in France, hope to survive under the muzzles of Allied naval guns. Bitter experiences at Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio had proven the potency of naval gunfire. To neutralize this Allied strength, Rundstedt wanted to concentrate German defenses inland, along defensible terrain, gradually employing powerful reserves in counterattacks, quite similar to the approach the Japanese would later take in such battles as Peleliu and Okinawa.
Hitler’s mentality was more in line with Rommel’s. The Führer usually wanted to defend every inch of conquered ground. In this case, he did not rule in either commander’s favor; instead he divided power between them and maintained operational control over vital armored reserves for himself. In so doing, he ensured a dysfunctional command setup. Consequently, in the coming invasion, while Allied commanders worked together, German commanders often worked at cross-purposes.
* * *
One month after General Eisenhower received his momentous directive from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, his plan for Operation Overlord was mostly in place. Thousands of Allied officers and enlisted men had contributed, over the course of two years, to this final plan. Their first task had been to decide where to invade. The Pas de Calais area was, by far, the most desirable. Not only was it closest to England (about twenty miles at its most narrow point), but it also contained several excellent ports necessary for supply of the massive Allied armies. Its beaches were mostly flat and could support the armor and artillery necessary to support the infantry. Beyond the beaches, the terrain of Calais was mostly flat—ideal tank country. A successful lodgment in this area would afford the Allies the chance to head straight east into Belgium and Germany. In short, Calais was the logical, even obvious, place for any invasion of France.
Given their preference, the Allies would certainly have invaded there. Unfortunately, the Germans fully understood the desirability of Calais and stationed their strongest forces there. By the spring of 1944, the powerful 15th Army, containing many of the best armored and infantry forces Germany had in the west, patrolled the area. The Germans expected the Allies to invade at Calais, not just because it was the most desirable invasion site but also because they believed the Allies would need the area’s ports.
Indeed, the invasion planners had grappled with the same thorny supply issues. The disastrous Dieppe raid in August 1942 showed the strength, even at that early date, of German port defenses. Even now, two years later, with better trained and prepared assault forces, the Allies knew that such port assaults would be suicidal. To escape such a fate, they had designed, under great secrecy and with tremendous ingenuity, a plan to build artificial harbors of their own. These ports, code-named mulberries, made it possible for the Allies to invade beaches away from heavily defended ports.
In the end, the planners decided on Normandy. Normandy was well within range of Allied air cover, not prohibitively far away from sea bases in southern England, and contained beaches suitable for heavy armor and guns. Its defenses were not quite as strong as those of Calais, and it did feature a couple of attractive ports in Caen and Cherbourg. More than anything, an Allied invasion at Normandy would probably come as a surprise to the Germans, and surprise was of paramount importance. In order to neutralize the inevitable local superiority the Germans would possess in combat power, they must be kept guessing about the invasion’s time and location.
To that end, the Allies perpetrated one of the great deception plans of all time—Operation Fortitude. Fortitude was possible because of the success of British intelligence. The British had captured and “turned” every German agent in Britain. These agents provided the Germans with just enough good information to seem valuable, for example, the location of various Allied units or tidbits of gossip about commanders. The agents also fed false, but seemingly desirable, information designed to reinforce the German preconception that the invasion would come at Calais (a preconception the Allies knew about because of their ability to read German message traffic, a process generally known as “Ultra”). The double agents, in their communication with Abwehr controllers in Germany, passed along reams of information about bogus Allied units or intentions. They created the notion that a huge army was forming in England, under the command of General George Patton, whom the Germans considered the best Allied commander. The mission of this “army” (known as the First U.S. Army Group) was to spearhead the main invasion at Calais. Another “army” was to lead a diversionary attack on Norway. The Allies reinforced the agent reports with bogus radio traffic, dummy tanks, and camps. In so doing, they made full use of the American film industry’s ability to create excellent props.3 Fortitude succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations. For the better part of two months after the invasion of Normandy, the Germans held most of the 15th Army in place in expectation of the “real” invasion.
Eisenhower originally toyed with an early May invasion date but was forced to postpone the invasion for a month because of the nagging landing-craft shortages. He finally decided on a June 5 invasion date. This was the first of three days when all necessary conditions for the cross-Channel attack would be in place. Not only would his forces have just enough landing craft by then, but they would also benefit from the low-tide/full-moon combination SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) planners deemed crucial for a successful invasion. In carrying out the planned daytime assault, the troops needed low-tide conditions to identify, destroy, or evade Rommel’s deadly beach obstacles. The paratroopers would make a night drop; they would need the residual light of a full moon to have any chance of coordinating their operations.4
The Overlord plan has been related in great detail in many other works and need not be repeated in like detail here. But, as an overview, the following invasion plan had emerged by March: Landings would take place on both the Calvados and Cotentin coastlines of Normandy. On the eastern edge of the Calvados coast, but west of the Orne River, the British and Canadians, augmented by paratroopers, would land on beaches located due north of Caen and Bayeux. First, the British 6th Airborne Division would be dropped near the Orne and Dives Rivers. There they would carry out numerous missions designed to provide flank security and hinder German reinforcements. Most notably, the British paratroopers drew the mission of capturing powerful German fortifications at Merville. These fortifications had the potential to unleash withering fire on the British beaches. The paratroopers were also ordered to capture or destroy various bridges over the Orne.
Shortly after daylight, the main forces would carry out their assault on three beaches. In the east, near the quaint port of Ouistreham, the British 3rd Infantry Division, assisted by British and French commandos, would land at a beach code-named Sword. Just to the west, at Corseulles, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, itching for action after years of preparation in England, would seize a beach code-named Juno. The British 50th Infantry Division would assault the westernmost beach, code-named Gold. Once they secured Gold beach and the town of Arromanches, work would begin immediately on the British mulberry, affectionately dubbed “Port Winston” in honor of the prime minister. In totality, British and Canadian forces planned to push inland, seize Caen and adjacent Carpiquet Airfield, cut the St-Lô-Bayeux road, and forge ahead into the inviting plains beyond.
The Americans were responsible for two beaches, one on the Calvados coast and the other on the Cotentin coast. The Calvados landings would take place at Omaha beach, a few miles west of the British beaches, in the vicinity of Colleville-sur-Mer, StLaurent, and Vierville-sur-Mer. Assault regiments from the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions would land at Omaha, straight into the toughest terrain of the entire coast. This six-mile stretch of beach featured very little flat ground, just a steady series of ridges and cliffs ideal for the defender. On the extreme western edge of Omaha, nature had created something else for the defender—an extended bluff that jutted into the sea, flanking the entire span of Omaha beach, as well as the Cotentin landing beaches. This bluff, known as Pointe-du-Hoc, had been heavily fortified by the Germans with 150- and 155mm guns. These artillery pieces could wreak havoc on both American beaches, so a specially trained force of U.S. Army Rangers was assigned the mission of scaling the cliffs and overwhelming the German garrison to eliminate the guns.
On the Cotentin coast, slightly north of the mouth of the Vire River and the Carentan estuary, the U.S. 4th Division and one regiment from the 90th Infantry Division drew the mission of capturing Utah beach, a flat, sandy expanse similar in texture to the British beaches. Utah’s flat terrain was inviting to the attackers, but not the ground inland. This was low country, barely above sea level. The Germans had taken advantage of this to flood much of the area inland from Utah beach. The result was an inundated mess of swamps, marshes, and flooded ground just beyond Utah. Infantry might be able to splash through it slowly and arduously, but vehicles could not. The tanks, trucks, self-propelled guns, and personnel carriers on which the mobility of the U.S. Army so depended could only get off the beach over a series of four raised causeways. Those causeways, along with many bridges and crossroads to the west, could only be taken from inland.
This created a mission for the airborne, a growing but still elite component of the U.S. Army. Two airborne divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, would be unleashed along the Cotentin Peninsula, under cover of darkness in the early morning hours of D-Day. Once on the ground, they would secure the bridges and causeways necessary for the 4th and 90th Divisions and their many vehicles to get off the beach. In addition, the paratroopers were supposed to seize locks (to prevent future flooding), destroy bridges that German reinforcements might need, and generally harass any German attempt to move troops in the direction of Utah beach. When the paratroopers linked up with the amphibious forces, their mission was supposed to be finished. Events dictated otherwise, though. The Allied ground forces would be supported by a huge naval and aerial armada. These forces would provide transportation and fire support.
When the American assault forces won control of their beach-heads, they would then link up with one another, a tricky process that would be achieved only at substantial cost. The Utah force would then push west, cutting off German troops in the Cotentin, before turning north to capture Cherbourg. From Omaha beach American troops were to push inland and seize St-Lô, the key crossroads town of Normandy. The capture of St-Lô and Cherbourg, along with the linkup of Omaha and Utah beaches, was supposed to then set the stage for an advance beyond Normandy.5
* * *
All over Britain during that spring of 1944, Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen prepared to implement this ambitious plan. The American presence in Britain had been steadily growing since 1942. Total U.S. personnel in the United Kingdom had risen from about eighty thousand in 1942 to well over one million in early 1944.6 American troops, equipment, and supplies were pouring into the country every day.
Among the units earmarked to carry out the pending invasion of Europe, the 29th Infantry Division had been in England the longest. The 29’ers had arrived in Britain in October 1942 and been there ever since. For nearly a year and a half they had endured a litany of training exercises that included, for some of them, grueling Ranger training. Using British Army barracks at Tidworth as their base, they hopscotched around England for an endless series of maneuvers. The soldiers of the division especially hated maneuvers in the Bodmin Moors of southwestern England. The place was eerie, bereft of human habitation, which was, of course, quite unusual for England. Chilly winds constantly swept the land, and it seemed to rain every day. “There’s nowhere to go for shelter,” one 29’er recalled, “and we lived out in these moors in pup tents and of course when the wind’s blowing hard the stakes wouldn’t stay in the ground…so you’d have to sit up all night, wrap the tent around you, and sit on your helmet to keep from getting your rear end wet. We [would] go out and stay for two or three weeks at a time in this environment.” Inevitably they would return to Tidworth wet, miserable, and full of anticipation of a deployment to North Africa or Italy that never came. The 29’ers did not know it, but they were being held back for a special mission—the Omaha beach assault.7
The division was a National Guard unit composed mainly of men from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The blue-gray divisional patches they wore on their shoulders symbolized the reunification of North and South after the Civil War. One of the division’s infantry regiments, the 116th, traced its lineage back to Stonewall Jackson’s brigade, earning for themselves the nickname Stonewallers.
Some of the soldiers had known one another since childhood. They went to school together, played together, are together, joined the local Guard unit together, and soldiered together in peace and now in war (Company A of the 116th, for instance, contained thirty-eight men from Bedford, Virginia). Felix Branham came from a farm near Charlottesville, Virginia. His father and uncles had fought in World War I. As a boy, Branham listened intently to their tales of war against the Kaiser’s army. He soon grew to loathe Germany and everything it stood for, a hatred that hardened even more when the Nazis came to power in Branham’s teenage years. When Branham turned eighteen, he immediately joined the local Guard unit: “It was expected in Virginia that young fellows, when they became of age, would join the National Guard, which was also known as the Virginia Militia. I enlisted in 1939 [at age eighteen] and was assigned to Company K, which was also known as the Monticello Guard.”8
Charles Cawthon was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, but he ended up leading troops in the 116th Infantry. Growing up in the shadow of one of the Civil War’s most famous battlefields, Cawthon was steeped in the culture of the Confederacy and its soldiers. Cawthon’s father, born in the years after the war, became active in organizing veterans’ reunions. “The battle was still a presence in the town when I was a boy, its memory revived annually at reunions of the country’s Confederate veterans.” These meetings of “shrunken and palsied old men who huddled in their gray uniforms under the great oaks at the fairgrounds each spring to hear themselves lauded once again for long-lost battles” made a deep impression on the young Cawthon. He never forgot the smell and feel of these gatherings—the odor of roasting meat, the spring air, and the brotherhood of the veterans. “The reunions pulsed with a vitality and emotion that even a boy…could feel and long remember.”
In 1940, Cawthon earned a degree from Middle Tennessee State University. After a brief stint at the Murfreesboro newspaper, he moved on to Virginia, finally settling down as the editor of the Charlottesville newspaper. In the meantime, the first ever peacetime draft in the history of the United States became a reality. Young, unattached, and healthy, Cawthon knew his chances of getting drafted were good. He decided to join the Virginia National Guard, specifically H Company of the 116th Infantry, a unit composed largely of men from Martinsville, Virginia. Cawthon had heard that the 116th needed officers, and he wanted to be one of them. He enlisted in H Company with the intention of going directly to Officer Candidate School. He did so in late 1940 and earned a commission. Four years later, on the eve of the invasion, Cawthon was a captain in command of the 2nd Battalion’s headquarters company: “Never has the Republic leaned so heavily upon a greener reed, or on one more conscious of his greenness. Otherwise, I was healthy, bookishly inclined, and as yet unaware of a latent paternal feeling for those who came under my care.” These leadership qualities would serve Cawthon well at Omaha beach, a place of unimaginable horrors.9
Robert Miller, a Baltimore native, was the Army’s version of a self-made man. At the urging of his father, Miller joined E Company of the 175th Infantry—a unit composed mainly of Baltimore men—as a private in 1935. “My father observed to me that war in Europe was coming, that the United States would eventually be drawn into it, and that it was advisable for me to experience military training. He was emphatic that to be a soldier was not just to learn to take care of yourself, but to be prepared to lead others.” Miller’s father could not have been more correct on both points. Young Robert absorbed his dad’s wisdom, thrived in E Company, and eventually earned a commission from the ranks in 1940. In 1942, he assumed command of F Company, a unit he led into combat in Normandy.10
There were, of course, plenty of old hands like Branham, Cawthon, and Miller in the 29th Division, but the majority of the men who would fight in Normandy had come to the unit after Pearl Harbor. Gilbert Murdoch joined the ill-fated A Company of the 116th in the summer of 1943. Since the company contained a disproportionate number of men from Bedford, Virginia, Murdoch, like many other new men during the months leading up to the invasion, faced the difficult task of being accepted as a new replacement. After all, the old hands had known one another for years. How could a new guy straight from the States hope to crack their brotherhood? Murdoch and hundreds of others found a way, mainly through sharing the misery of tough, monotonous training. “We were trained in what was called assault boat teams. Thirty-two men each, including one officer. The way it was set up, each boat team consisted of a second lieutenant, who was the…assault boat team leader, two rifle [squads], a 60mm mortar team, a .30-caliber machine-gun squad with four men, a bazooka team with four men, wire-cutting team with four men, flame-throwing team of two men.” Other men handled satchel charges and bangalore torpedoes. In the spring of 1944, A Company endlessly staged mock amphibious assaults.11
The commander of the 29th Division, Major General Charles Gerhardt, would not have it any other way. He wanted his soldiers honed to a level of sharpness never before seen in the history of the U.S. Army. He wanted them lean, tough, and aggressive, all the better to maintain momentum in combat. His men must harass the Germans mercilessly—hound them, pound them, chase them, and destroy them. Combat units often take on the personality of their commanders, and this was the way Gerhardt wanted it. He was aggressive, almost hawkish. A 1917 graduate of West Point, Gerhardt was a short, lean, bald man nearing his fiftieth birthday.
He took command of the 29th in July 1943 and immediately went about transforming it into an outfit on the move. Gerhardt knew that his predecessor, Major General Leonard Gerow (promoted now to command of V Corps), had done a fine job of training the 29’ers. The men were physically fit and proficient at their craft. But they were not, in Gerhardt’s view, imbued with the proper spirit of battle. Senior officers, particularly regimental and battalion commanders, had not sparked that unique spirit—aggressiveness really—that Gerhardt believed necessary for victory in the battles ahead. Like many Regular Army officers, Gerhardt did not have a high opinion of National Guard officers. He did not think they possessed the same kind of can-do professionalism as regulars.
Not long after assuming command, the general ordered his senior commanders, most of whom were not regulars, to convene at Tavistock Court House, near divisional headquarters. No sooner had his majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels shown up than he put them through a mock trial, with himself serving as a prosecuting attorney. The senior officers sat in rows in the jury box while Gerhardt stood before them wielding an M-1 Garand rifle. Suddenly he banged the rifle on a table and shouted, “A year from today, one out of every three of you will be dead, and the toll will be higher if senior commanders don’t know their stuff!”
Shocked, they stared at him in silence. One by one, he ordered them to “take the stand.” Each officer took his turn, sitting uncomfortably in the witness-box as Gerhardt strode around the courtroom firing questions like “Give me the basics of the M-1 rifle” or “How many machine guns in the weapons platoon?” Most of the witnesses stumbled over their words or flushed with a combination of embarrassment and anger. Gerhardt showed them no mercy: “How in hell can you lead your men if you don’t know what a private should know?” In the estimation of most onlookers, only the division’s senior guardsman and artillery chief, Brigadier General William Sands, held up well under the bizarre interrogation. But Sands was a lawyer in civilian life, so he probably was well used to the kind of tactics Gerhardt employed.12
The men soon took to calling their commanding general Uncle Charlie. Day after day, Uncle Charlie could be seen riding around in his jeep, the Vixen Tor, supervising training. Gerhardt believed that soldiering meant being in the field, not behind a desk. He thought that commanders should be out preparing their troops, not sitting behind a desk issuing orders. In the months leading up to the invasion, he seemed to be everywhere. “The general’s visits to the battalion followed a pattern,” Captain Cawthon later wrote, “any part of which could cause extreme discomfort. He would arrive without notice and immediately challenge any and all to marksmanship with the .45 service automatic [pistol].” Only one officer in Cawthon’s battalion could beat the general. Once the shooting contest was over, Gerhardt would tour the battalion’s training area, watching everything; seemingly nothing escaped his notice. “Any training that he judged to be complicated drew a blast; he demanded simplicity in tactics, a lot of yelling, and much shooting. The division’s battle cry, which he originated—‘29 Let’s Go!’—was a required shout in everything we did.”
Some of the soldiers hated Gerhardt and some admired him, but few doubted that he was preparing them as best he could. They also appreciated that Uncle Charlie usually saved his worst recriminations for officers, not enlisted men. This, of course, did not escape the notice of Cawthon and his peers. “Privates, and NCOs to some extent, did not look on his visits with misgivings, for the word had gotten around that he did not hold them accountable for mistakes. Not so with officers; even the brashest drew mental blanks before a cold, unwavering stare, a volley of questions, and the knowledge that there was no recourse if answers were hesitant or wrong.”13 Lieutenant Colonel John Cooper, commander of the division’s 110th Field Artillery Battalion, summed up the effect Gerhardt had on his troops: “[He] was a powerful personality, and he stamped it on the division and made it a highly individualistic outfit. He placed his mark upon it so strongly that to understand the division and its spirit, one has to understand Gerhardt.”14
* * *
Ten miles to the southwest of the 29’ers, little more than a short drive over the plains of Salisbury, another division prepared feverishly for the upcoming campaign. In Dorset County, along the southern coast of England, sometimes so close to the sea they could smell the salty air, the soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division steeled themselves for yet another battle. From the earliest days of the American war effort in Europe, they had led the way. They fought their way through North Africa, weathering such humiliating reversals as Kasserine Pass. They hit the beach at a place called Gela in Sicily in the summer of 1943. Shortly after, the Germans unleashed a furious counterattack against the men of the “Big Red One,” hoping to push them into the sea. The enemy failed, partially because of the power of naval guns but also because of the resolve of the 1st Division.
The U.S. Army in World War II was an all-encompassing force of millions of citizen soldiers. Even so, the Army’s combat divisions developed unique identities, almost a kind of culture of their own. This was especially true for outfits, such as the 1st, that had seen a lot of action. The more combat a unit had seen, the more lineage it could boast. The 29th Division might have been a cohesive unit full of men who had trained together for months or years, but it was, as yet, untested in battle. By contrast, the 1st Division was a Regular Army outfit that had seen extensive action in World War I (earning great plaudits at Cantigny) and now in World War II. The unit had already lost hundreds of men killed and thousands wounded in the bloody battles of 1942 and 1943. The men who made it through those battles evinced the kind of quiet unit pride that came from survival in combat. They thought of themselves as the best, the toughest, the most reliable soldiers in the U.S. Army. They even referred to that army as “the Big Red One and 10 million replacements.”
In October 1943, the division loaded aboard ships and returned to England, settling nicely into the little towns of Dorset. Most of the men lived in Nissen huts, crude shelter by civilian standards but luxurious to infantrymen used to living in muddy foxholes for weeks at a time. “Our camp is physically far better than we expected from past experience,” First Lieutenant Franklyn Johnson wrote in his diary one chilly night soon after his 18th Infantry Regiment antitank company arrived in Dorset. Johnson, a Rutgers University graduate, had lived through North Africa and Sicily with only a scratch. He and the other veterans soon grew to love England. “No more tents for awhile! Nissen huts form the barracks and company orderly room, while [the] kitchen and mess hall are in an empty barn across from the stone village church.” He himself lived in a small house with a few other officers. They enjoyed springy cots and crackling fires that warded off the damp English chill.15
The division received an infusion of replacements, and these new men did the best they could to meld with the combat vets. One of the replacements was Private Warren Coffman, the son of a West Virginia coal town barber. Shortly after the 1st Division’s arrival in England, Coffman and fifty other replacements joined C Company of the division’s 26th Infantry Regiment. The twenty-one-year-old private was thrilled to join this experienced unit. “If I were going to be in the invasion of France, I would rather be with these guys who had been through it twice before. The motto of the 1st Division was, ‘No mission too difficult: no sacrifice too great: duty first.’ The men of the Big Red One lived by that motto. They worked hard to be the best they could be.”
Expecting that the new men would be raw and untutored, Coffman’s commanding officer, Captain Allen Ferry, at first decreed that they must be trained as a separate group. But soon he realized that they were quite ready to take their place alongside those men who had survived the Mediterranean campaigns. “Hell, Captain, these men are trained better than we are,” one lieutenant told Ferry.
So Private Coffman and the other new men melded in with the rest of the company. “I was pleasantly surprised when I joined the second platoon. Most of the men there were older than the replacements and many of them were Regular Army men who had been in the Army prior to World War II. They didn’t treat us as rookies. They were friendly and were glad to see us. In fact, my new squad leader invited me to go down to the local pub with him that first night to have a few beers.”
Coffman ended up having many more than just a few beers. “The bar was crowded with both American and British soldiers. They didn’t have enough glasses to serve everyone, so we had to wait until someone left, or [find] a glass on the bar when no one was looking. I liked cold American beer but this was warm and bitter. I didn’t like it, but the more I drank, the better it tasted. I was having a good time talking and drinking, when I suddenly realized that I was getting very drunk.” Coffman decided to leave the bar and ascend the hill that led to his barracks. “I vomited all the way up the hill and was sick all the next day. My squad leader told me later that I consumed about thirteen pints of beer that night. I never drank that way again all the time I was in England.”16
Private James Lingg also joined the 26th that winter as a replacement. He was assigned to I Company, 3rd Battalion, billeted at Blandford, just northeast of the battalion’s headquarters at Dorchester. He and his new buddies found plenty of opportunity for recreation in town. “Down in Blandford were probably some of the happiest times of my Military life. We would grab a bus and be there in about 10 minutes. This was a little town with teashops and nice dances every Saturday night. I am not a dancer so I just enjoyed the music and teashops.”17
More than tea shops or music, the men were interested in feminine companionship, and they found plenty of it. “A mighty stream of U.S. troops is beginning to roar into England,” Lieutenant Johnson wrote. “They noisily fill the pubs, tea shops, souvenir stores, and the hearts of English maidens.” Indeed, British women often found the brash, well-paid, well-uniformed, cocksure Yanks irresistible. Private Coffman and his buddies found girlfriends among a British Women’s Air Force unit stationed nearby or among the women in town. “I knew of at least one girl who was pregnant when we moved out (not mine). The Company had a generous pass policy. If we were not on duty we could go down town, go to a movie or to a pub.”18 The legendary British lamentation that the Yanks were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here” was never more apropos than for the 1st Division in the winter of 1943—44.
But England was a lot more than fun and games. The 1st Division had a simple philosophy: work hard and play hard. The commanding officer, Major General Clarence Huebner, was one of the most underrated American generals of the war. He had supplanted the popular, flamboyant Terry de la Mesa Allen, a maverick who had led the 1st quite well in North Africa and Sicily. More than anyone else, Allen instilled the uniquely independent spirit that the 1st Division still possessed on the eve of Overlord. He promoted an “us against them” mind-set that ultimately cost him his command. Allen was not a stickler for discipline. He cared little for such things. He cared, instead, about combat performance. His division acquired a reputation for toughness on the front lines and unruliness in the rear. In the end, this “rules don’t apply to us” outlook was too much for Allen’s superior, General Omar Bradley, to stomach. Mild-mannered and unimaginative, Bradley could not abide a nonconformist like Allen. Bradley sacked him and replaced him with Huebner, a man who had once served in the ranks of the division’s 18th Regiment as a private.
In World War I, Huebner had compiled a brilliant combat record in the 18th, leading troops in every capacity from platoon leader to battalion commander. Correspondent Don Whitehead, who would accompany the 1st Division into Normandy, closely observed Huebner before the invasion and judged him to be “one of the finest soldiers and gentlemen I’ve ever known. He was physically fit and there was an air of confidence about him that I liked. I found that Huebner had a great love for his 1st Division. He knew the job of every man in his division as well or better than the men knew the jobs—because he had once held those jobs himself. The general wanted his division to be the best in the entire Army. It wasn’t entirely a matter of personal pride because Huebner knew that the toughest, straightest-shooting division won its objectives with the least loss of life.”
Clearly Huebner was a first-rate combat officer, someone who knew how to lead troops in battle. Even so, many veteran 1st Division soldiers had trouble accepting him, mainly because he was replacing the popular Allen. In spite of that challenge, Huebner eventually won the allegiance and respect of his soldiers. He knew when to push them and when not to. What worked in the green 29th Division for Gerhardt did not necessarily work in the veteran 1st for Huebner. Huebner knew that his veteran soldiers already understood what was important and what was not in getting ready for combat. He harped on discipline more than Allen ever did, but mainly in duties that were directly useful in combat such as rifle marksmanship, fire and movement tactics, and combat leadership. “If he was stern in his discipline,” Whitehead surmised, “it was because battle casualties have a direct relation to discipline.”19
As the early months of 1944 unfolded, the division’s training intensified. Lieutenant Johnson began to push his antitank platoon especially hard. “Filling every daylight hour between larger maneuvers, we learn and re-learn about night fighting, aircraft and armor identification, street fighting, river crossings, rifle marks-manship, 57 [-mm gun] range practice, radio codes, artillery direction, and hiking sixteen miles in less than four hours.”20
Soon they started loading up on ships for invasion dress rehearsals. Valentine Miele, an H Company, 16th Infantry Regiment, soldier from Jersey City, joined his outfit in time for the Sicily invasion. “They would walk us to the beach,” he recalled, “then we’d walk out to the landing craft, and we’d circle around, then we’d invade England. Then we’d go out again. It was cold up there. Those flat-bottomed boats we had…would go up and go down, and the spray would come over. Your field jacket would be icy.”21
“The ramp of the landing craft would go down and we would pour out on the beach taking whatever cover we could find,” Steve Kellman, a replacement in L Company, 16th Infantry, remembered. “The lead men would throw themselves onto the barbed wire so that the rest of us could follow through the barbed wire and whatever obstacles there were. The bangalore torpedo men then would place their bangalore torpedoes where we felt the mine fields were and blow a path for us to approach the pill box. At that point, the man with the satchel charge, who we would give cover to, would place the satchel charge in the aperture and blow the pill box. After the detonation of the satchel charge the flame thrower man would then spray the burning fuel into whatever openings he could find.” Kellman’s job was to carry an aluminum ladder designed to cross a tank trap. He also moonlighted as a rifle grenadier.22
Eventually, the men learned that they would have the lead role in yet another invasion. Some were devastated. They felt that in return for all their sacrifices in Algeria, Tunisia, and Sicily they were being repaid with a veritable death sentence. Many others, though, took the news with a sense of pride. Sergeant Mike McKinney hailed from Brooklyn. His service with the 1st Division predated the war. He had fought with the 16th Regiment’s L Company in North Africa and Sicily. In those campaigns, he had seen plenty of bloodshed, plenty of death, plenty of tragedy. Now he found out that his regiment would lead the 1st Division’s assault on France. Like most all of the enlisted men, he did not know where or when; he just knew his outfit had been chosen for the cutting edge. He took the news with a steely equanimity. “It’s your job. You’re young. You’re invincible. Other guys are gonna get killed but not me. You’re a fatalist. If a bullet’s got my name on it I’m gonna get it; there’s nothing I can do about it. Don’t worry about it. You develop that kind of attitude. Youth plus fatalism plus faith or trust in a higher power. That kept me in good stead for a long time.”23
The swaggering 1st Division soldiers murmured rumors to one another that even though the 1st had done more than its share already in this war, General Eisenhower had personally insisted that it lead the invasion because the division was so good. Actually, this was not far from the truth. General Bradley was the highest-ranking American operational commander on D-Day. He commanded the 1st Army, under which every American ground soldier in Normandy would serve on D-Day. Bradley had been a corps commander in the Mediterranean. In the late summer of 1943, when he found out that he would command the 1st Army, he mentally earmarked the 1st Division for the main assault in Normandy. “In quality the 1st was worth the equal of several inexperienced divisions. It had become an almost irreplaceable weapon for the Normandy invasion.” Bradley well knew that many of the division’s veterans were not eager to lay their lives on the line in yet another amphibious assault. “Although I disliked subjecting the 1st to still another landing, I felt that as a commander I had no other choice. My job was to get ashore, establish a lodgement, and destroy the German. In the accomplishment of that mission there was little room for the niceties of justice. I felt compelled to employ the best troops I had, to minimize the risks, and hoist the odds in our favor in any way that I could.” The general had studied the terrain of Omaha beach. He knew that it would be the toughest place to assault. More than anything else, that’s why he chose the Big Red One to land there.24
* * *
For the Utah beach assault, Bradley chose a division that was distinctly different from both the 29th and the 1st. The 4th Infantry Division, a regular outfit, had compiled a distinguished combat record in World War I, but it was, as yet, unblooded in this war. Some of the enlisted soldiers of this unit were prewar regulars, but most had joined after the United States entered the war. By the end of 1943, the division had trained for two solid years, first as a mechanized force and later as a unit specializing in amphibious assaults. Nicknamed the Ivy Division (thanks to the Roman numeral equivalent of four), the 4th deployed to Britain in January 1944. The unit quickly settled into Devon, located in the extreme southwest portion of England. The soldiers admired the picturesque countryside and quaint country lanes of Devon. They also quickly made friends with the locals. Colonel Gerden Johnson, who later authored a fine history of the division’s 12th Infantry Regiment, wrote: “The towns in which the regiment was billeted extended a hospitality not to be easily matched. Many lasting friendships were made. During off duty hours men of the 12th explored the shops, toured the towns and surrounding countryside, visited Exeter Cathedral and the Guild Hall. Not many, however, were able to go to London 168 miles to the northeast.”
The men of the division lived in British barracks, Nissen huts, or private homes. They soon realized that the burgeoning Allied supply apparatus had selected Devon as a major storage area. Everywhere the 4th Division men went, they saw evidence of the massive buildup—camouflaged dumps of artillery shells, small-arms ammunition, supply crates containing everything from mortar shells to spare parts, vehicles parked fender-to-fender, even searchlights nestled under makeshift tarpaulins. The quality of the food declined from what the men had eaten in the States. Where before they had eaten plenty of fresh meat, vegetables, and eggs, they now subsisted on powdered fare. For recreation, they set up a baseball league, even going so far as to teach some of the locals how to play the world’s greatest game.25
Like the other two assault divisions, the 4th concentrated much of its training on invasion rehearsals. The men needed to get used to being on ships or in landing craft. They needed to know how to react to getting wet; they needed to understand how best to assault an enemy-held beach. Private Harper Coleman was a machine gunner in H Company of the 8th Infantry, the regiment that would comprise the first wave at Utah beach. Coleman had once aspired to join the Army Air Force, but he tried to enlist when he was underage and his parents would not sign the necessary papers for him. So he ended up getting drafted into the ground forces in October 1942. After a stint in the 83rd Infantry Division, he ended up in the 4th Division. Coleman and the men of H Company carried out three-day invasion exercises in which a premium was placed on transferring from transport ships to Higgins boats. “We would be required to go over the side of the ship on the rope ladders with all equipment. This was quite a task to get into the small LCVP [popularly known as Higgins boats] when the water would be rough. We would land on the beach area and head on in for two or three days, then back to the barracks and in a few days do it all over again.”26
Challenging as this training could be, the men looked forward to some aspects of it, particularly the Navy’s food. Private First Class William Jones was a rifleman/sniper in I Company of the 8th Infantry. He was born in Ivanhoe, Virginia, a town nestled into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. When Jones was three, his family moved to Greene County, Tennessee. He worked on the family farm until age fifteen, when he dropped out of school to work at a factory in nearby Kingsport. This factory work helped his family subsist during the desperate days of the Great Depression. When war came, he received a draft notice. Ten days before he left for the Army, he married his sweetheart.
Every time Private First Class Jones and his buddies boarded a ship for invasion rehearsals, they went straight to the galley. “The Navy had a reputation for being well fed. But we were not. We stole all of the white bread that we could off those ships, and camouflaged them in our pack somewhere. It was like eating cake to us. We had been used to that old English brown bread that was hard enough in the first place.”27
In addition to amphibious training, the Ivy Division soldiers endured plenty of field problems, some of them on the infamous moors that the 29’ers so hated. Usually, the soldiers did not receive advance notice of such field problems. Instead, the officers would order them to pack their equipment, load up on trucks, and move out. This ignorance perfectly simulated the chaotic nature of combat for infantrymen, most of whom rarely had any inkling of their whereabouts or the strategy behind daily orders. But in this case the fog of war caused problems (mostly of his own making) for Corporal Alton Pearson, a soldier in L Company of the 12th Infantry.
Pearson, an efficient, dedicated soldier, had been training hard for many days. His captain looked kindly upon him and issued Pearson, along with several of his buddies, weekend passes. They went to Exeter. “There was a carnival going on in Exeter where we met some girls and we were having a swell time.”
Sunday came all too quickly. Pearson was not ready to let go of the revelry and excitement of his weekend with the Exeter girls. He collared the other men. “We are having so much fun, don’t you think we should stay another day?”
The other soldiers demurred, intoning about the consequences of being AWOL. But Pearson could tell that, in spite of their reservations, they were looking for an excuse to stay. “This could be the last liberty we will ever have!” That cinched it. They stayed another day.
On Tuesday they finally returned to their company’s camp at Budleigh Salterton, only to find everybody gone. They froze in their tracks. Was it the invasion? Had they missed it? They had no idea what to do, but they did know that they were tired from their active weekend. They noticed a few bedrolls, curled up in them, and went to sleep. A few hours later a soldier named Ed Haskew woke them up and told them that the company had gone to the moors for a field problem. The captain had sent Haskew to retrieve Pearson’s group. They all hopped on a jeep and drove to the moors. Each of the miscreants speculated as to their fate, especially when the captain did nothing for three days during the field problem.
“I don’t believe [he is] going to punish us!” one of them exclaimed hopefully.
Pearson shook his head. “[He] is punishing us now, sweating it out.”
Even after they returned to Budleigh Salterton, the captain still let them sweat for another few days. Finally the day of reckoning came. The captain ordered them to report to his office. For several long moments they waited in an anteroom of the resort house the captain was using for his office.
The captain’s orderly opened the door and asked, “Who wants to be first?”
Pearson volunteered. He had sweated this out long enough. Now he only wanted to receive his punishment and move on. The captain sat behind his desk as Pearson entered the room, snapped to attention, and gave his best parade ground salute.
“Corporal Pearson reports, sir.”
The captain returned the salute. “Corporal Pearson, what do you think of a soldier who has been given special privileges and then lets his company commander down by being AWOL twenty-four hours, thirty minutes, and fifteen seconds?”
“I think it is a hell of a thing to do,” Pearson replied.
“What do you think I ought to do with you?” the captain asked.
“Well, sir, you are the captain.”
“Well, put me in your place. What would you do with me?”
Pearson gulped. He didn’t know what to say. On the one hand, if he suggested some kind of light punishment, the captain might get truly angry, accuse him once again of bad faith, and really let him have it. On the other hand, Pearson did not want to overplay his hand the other way and mention a punishment more severe than whatever the captain already had in mind.
Pearson settled on what he thought was a compromise. “I would give you a week of extra duty.”
The captain agreed immediately and called his orderly. “Call the others in.” When they entered the room he pronounced final judgment. “Corporal Pearson says I should give you one week extra duty.”
The other men were not thrilled with Pearson. “They all raised hell with me and said they wouldn’t have gotten anything if I hadn’t sentenced them.” Most likely they were wrong.28 A couple of months later, in combat, Pearson more than made up for the headaches he had caused his commander.
Not long after Pearson’s escapade, his regiment got a new leader. The new man, Colonel Russell “Red” Reeder, was something of a legend in the Army. The son of a soldier, he was literally born into the Army, entering the world just as the reveille cannon boomed at Fort Leavenworth on March 4, 1902. Reeder attended West Point and graduated with more of a flair for athletics than academics. He later coached football at West Point, in addition to serving in a myriad of units throughout the Army. He was best known for his fact-finding visit to the South Pacific. Reeder was a hands-on type of soldier, one who craved action. Instead of confining his studies to the rear areas and the insides of officer’s clubs, he continually visited the front lines in the Pacific. There he observed the realities of combat firsthand—the mud, the blood, the disease, the insects, the horrific terrain, and the terrible strain all of those things put on those who did the fighting. He authored a readable, gritty pamphlet of combat lessons learned, which he called Fighting on Guadalcanal.
He returned home with a bad case of malaria and the enduring admiration of the army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, who was quite pleased with Fighting on Guadalcanal. When the 12th Infantry’s commanding officer, Colonel Harry Henderson, an aging World War I veteran, began to experience health problems during the spring of 1944, Marshall tabbed Reeder to replace him. Reeder did so on April 4, 1944.
Following a whirlwind trip from Washington to Devon, Reeder reported to the 4th Division’s commander, Major General Raymond Barton, at his headquarters in Tivington, some fourteen miles north of Exeter. Barton, a straitlaced fifty-five-year-old infantry officer, brusquely welcomed him but began pumping him for information about when and where the invasion would take place. Incredibly enough, even Barton did not know any of this information in early April. He assumed that since Reeder had just come from Marshall’s staff, he must know something. “I need to find out when D-Day is, when and where we are going to land. It would help us all in our training if I knew. Do you know?”
Reeder shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He did know but had been pledged to secrecy. “Barton’s brown eyes seemed to bore into me. I felt I had to lie. I stared straight ahead. ‘No, sir.’ I knew General Barton had a big load on his mind, and I suspected that he sensed he had little time to get his division ready for D-Day. Nevertheless his harassed look and the question he asked bothered me.”29 It was a strange moment, for rarely was a regimental commander privy to top-secret information not available to his commanding general.
Reeder jumped right into his new assignment. He liked the personal touch. “In a remarkably short space of time he had met and talked with every officer and enlisted man in the regiment,” recalled one officer. “He instilled in them an unshakable faith in themselves…and an unsurmountable determination to overcome whatever obstacles might lie ahead. Everyone knew instinctively that here was leadership to be respected.”30 Reeder understood that although enlisted men often want nothing more than to be left alone to do their jobs, they still needed recognition from senior officers. A simple visit from the brass could buck up morale.
General Eisenhower understood that, too. In the months leading up to the invasion, he found time to visit every Allied division, including the 4th Infantry. Alton Pearson never forgot an encounter he had with the supreme commander during his visit. Pearson’s company had been split up into platoons, each with a specific mission. The weather was cold and the men were loaded down with full field packs, ammunition, and weapons. As they marched along a country road, Pearson noticed movement up ahead. “A motorcycle and command car approached us with a cluster of stars and a flag in front.” Corporal Pearson immediately knew who was in the car. The vehicle stopped and out popped Eisenhower. The men stood at attention while Ike walked among them inspecting. The general sincerely enjoyed these moments when he got to meet and talk with soldiers. He asked each man a question, usually something pertaining to equipment or training. “As I recall he asked me when I had changed socks as the division was having foot trouble from long hiking and heavy loads.” Pearson did not record his answer, but he did notice, out of the corner of his eye, Eisenhower’s pretty driver, Kay Summersby.31
By late April, the division was nearing a state of readiness, after many invasion rehearsals and much tactical training. This was in spite of its participation in the disastrous Exercise Tiger on April 28, an operation that led to the deaths of 749 American soldiers and sailors when German E-boats sank several ships participating in a mock invasion of Slapton Sands, a British west coast beach.
* * *
To the north of the camps housing the American amphibious assault divisions, a completely different group of assault troops prepared for the invasion in their own inimitable way. These men cared nothing for invading beaches. Jumping out of airplanes was more their speed. They called themselves paratroopers. In Normandy, they would have a vital mission. The Utah beach invasion could only succeed if these paratroopers could jump into the dark Norman evening, organize themselves behind enemy lines, and secure the vistas from the beach to interior objectives. Needless to say, their task was exceedingly dangerous. Eisenhower’s principal aerial commander, Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, seriously questioned the wisdom of dropping the paratroopers into the Cotentin Peninsula amid swarms of German reinforcements. In the end, though, Eisenhower and Bradley both insisted that without the airborne drops, the Utah beach invasion was untenable.32
Scattered among a series of camps between Bristol in the west and Reading in the east, the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division were itching for action by the spring of 1944. The division consisted of three inexperienced paratrooper regiments, the 501st, 502nd, and 506th, along with one glider infantry regiment, the 327th. The soldiers may have been green, but they were well prepared. The previous two years had seen them negotiate some of the toughest training ever given to American soldiers. Each of them had volunteered to become a paratrooper. Upon doing so, they entered a world in which little quarter was asked or given.
The 506th, for instance, trained in the heat and humidity of Fort Benning, Georgia. Their training schedule was merciless. They ran everywhere, even to the latrine. On their first day, their training NCOs, sporting gaudy paratrooper jump wings, ordered them to run up and down a 1,000-foot hill called Mount Currahee. Anyone who could not make the six-mile round trip fell out and disappeared. In addition to the constant running, the men did push-ups, pull-ups, knee bends, duckwalks, and practically every other calisthenic the Army could dream up. They also ran an exhausting obstacle course every day. They carried out eleven-mile hikes with no water or food. In fact, anyone who had less than a full canteen at the end of the march received harsh punishment or was washed out of the program altogether. Not surprisingly, most of the volunteers did not make it through this difficult training. Among the 500 officers who volunteered, a mere 148 got their wings. Only 1,800 of 5,300 enlisted volunteers made it.33
One of those who made it was Donald Burgett, an eighteen-year-old adventure seeker from Detroit’s west side. Burgett had an older brother in the paratroopers and wanted to follow in his footsteps. At the military induction center, Burgett walked past busy navy and army air force recruiters to a lonely airborne recruiter, who had just been turned down by several inductees with absolutely no desire to leap out of airplanes. “Walking over to him, I said that I would like to join the ’Troops, and he looked at me in shocked disbelief—like a salesman who had just made his first sale.”
In the summer of 1943, shortly after passing his physical and completing infantry basic training, Burgett traveled to Fort Benning, a place radically different from his native Michigan. A truck dumped Burgett and a small group of volunteers off at the training area. Tall pines, swamps, and sandy soil abounded, and the heat was beyond belief. They stood under a stand of willowy pines, milling around, not quite sure what to do. “One of the best built men I had ever seen, wearing a white T-shirt, jump pants and boots, strode over to us. He had blue eyes set in a handsome tanned face, with shaggy eyebrows and close-cropped hair, both bleached blond by the sun.”
The tough-looking man confidently approached the group and noticed a volunteer with his hands in his pockets. “Gimme twenty-five!”
The recruit blinked in surprise. “Twenty-five what?”
“Push-ups. What the hell do you think? Make it right now, or you’ll get fifty the next time I tell you.”
As the miscreant strained through his push-ups, “the newcomer then introduced himself as one of the cadre, and a sergeant. The cadre sergeants were boss, law and order and second only to God in this camp. At no time was a trooper allowed to sit down, lean against anything or stand in a resting attitude when he was outside the confines of his own barracks.”
The sergeant finished his introductory speech on a threatening note: “We’re going to be tough on everyone here, and don’t expect any sympathy from any of us at any time, because we are going to do everything we can to make you quit the Paratroops.”
The next day, the sergeants ran them ragged. “Our feet beat a steady slapping tattoo on the asphalt, and with the sergeant setting the pace, we moved as a single body over the road through the early hours of the morning. After a few…miles my body seemed to be operating on its own, my legs driving in a steady rhythm, my chest sucking in and letting out deep lungfuls of air, while I retreated mentally, to an inner corner of my brain to relax in thought.”
Burgett noticed some unusual movement ahead of him. “The man in front of me began to weave back and forth a little; this brought me back to reality. In a little while he began to stagger quite a bit. Suddenly he pitched forward on his face and rolled over on his back. The men behind him spread out and ran by on either side while the sergeant yelled for us to keep going and not pay any attention to him. Two more men fell out long before we reached the center of the [drill] field, and the same orders were given. Once in the field we were immediately formed into ranks and began calisthenics starting with side-straddle hops and going the full course to push-ups and other exercises, to cool off after our six-mile run.”
Soon the jump training began. Burgett and the others who managed to adapt to the strenuous PT regimen learned how to pack their parachutes, how to leave a plane properly, and how to land properly. All of this training took place on the ground. Then they began jumping from platforms; the first was 8 feet high and the next 40 feet high. The final phase of this segment of the training called for them to parachute from a 250-foot stationary tower. “The troopers put on live parachutes, hooked the opened canopies into large rings or hoops and were hoisted, three at a time, to the top of one of the towers. One at a time they were released, to float to the ground, while an instructor ordered them to slip right, slip left or to make a body turn.”
Following the completion of four such jumps, they finished this phase of the training with a night jump from the tower. This experience could be quite disorienting and dangerous, too, because it was easy to get blown into the tower’s steel girders, with predictable consequences. “The night was so black that a man at the top of the tower couldn’t see the ground, and swinging from the single cable, it was almost impossible to tell which direction the wind was coming from.”
When they survived that ordeal, Burgett and the others could now anticipate an end to the training, for the next week they began the real airplane jumps necessary to earn their wings. On the first such jump, Burgett was at the back of his stick (the airborne reference to a squad or planeload of troopers). He watched in fascinated horror as the other men stood up, hooked up their static lines, and prepared to exit the aircraft. A surge of panic came over him. “What the hell am I doing here, I ought to have my head examined.” The man in front of him pushed himself through the doorway and out into the air. Burgett was next. “There’s still time…to sign the quit slip and go to the MPs,” he thought.
The thought quickly passed, though. Now his training took over and he lunged from the airplane. “Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion; there was no sensation of falling, not even like that of an elevator ride. Before he could even count to three, as he had been taught, his parachute canopy snapped open. “The opening shock nearly sent me through the bottoms of my boots, and I could feel my cheeks pull out away from my teeth. I opened the risers and looked up; the canopy checked out—no blown panels…or snarled lines.” Seconds later, the ground loomed below him. “I looked at the horizon, took up what I thought to be a good body position and hit the ground. Pain shot through my whole body sending bright flashes across my eyes, almost blacking me out.” He had not landed correctly. Consequently, he had torn a few ligaments in his leg. Burgett had to spend the next ten days healing, even as his buddies completed their jumps and got their wings. In November, he earned his during a night jump. “Standing up, still in my harness, I let out a yell. I had made it. I was a trooper now, a full-fledged paratrooper, and would get my wings. No matter what happened they couldn’t take that away from me.”34
The reward for Burgett and so many thousands of others who completed airborne training was a ticket into combat, amid some of the most dangerous circumstances imaginable. Theirs was one of the most perilous jobs in the Army. Casualties in the upcoming campaign would be high, and the young troopers knew it. But still they persevered and endured the rigors and humiliation of airborne training. Something drove them—perhaps the desire to be part of an elite group, perhaps the recklessness of youth, perhaps personal pride. It varied from man to man, but the inescapable fact was that they had voluntarily endured hell so that they could serve in hell.
In England, the 101st settled into a predictably tough training routine to prepare them for the big jump into France. They engaged in long hikes, including one that saw them cover twenty-five miles in twenty-four hours, with full field equipment. They got used to digging defensive positions, living in foxholes, and dealing with the elements, especially the ubiquitous English rain. They refined their infantry assault tactics and crawled in the mud with live fire over their heads. They learned how to coordinate with the division’s artillerymen, a skill crucial to survival in battle. They practiced hand-to-hand combat with knives and bayonets. Glider men learned everything they possibly could about the dangerous contraptions they would ride into action. Of course, the paratroopers never strayed far from their raison d’être—jumping. They carried out several practice jumps, including a major exercise for VIP witnesses Eisenhower and Churchill in March.35
Most of the training was much more mundane than command performances for VIPs. Most of it was standard infantry stuff—misery, privation, hiking, shooting, and toughening up. On a typical field problem exercise, they would scatter themselves into small groups, simulating a combat drop. Their objective was to knock out such targets as coastal defenses or strong points. “After traipsing across great expanses of English countryside, encountering untold hundreds of barbed-wire fences, and stumbling deviously through mud holes, you become hopelessly lost,” one trooper recalled. “Then everything went against you, the compass refused to point north, the maps got wet and obliterated, and still the rain came down! But you persisted and eventually you knocked out something, set up a haphazard and hasty line of defense, and bedded down, each person finding his own choice mud hole in which to lie. Then at long last came the dawn. You returned to camp the same way you came down, ‘by foot.’ Glancing down the line you were of the opinion that everyone had that combat expression, an unshaven face showing extreme weariness and disgust, caked mud from head to foot, and every jump suit looking as though it had come out second best in the ordeal of the fences. You finally dragged your weary body those last few tortuous kilometers, and throwing yourself across the bunk, you said…combat can’t be that rough! You thought!”
The division generally trained forty-eight hours per week, a schedule that did leave some time for recreation. David Kenyon Webster was a unique trooper. A Harvard English major, he dreamed of being an influential writer. Heavily influenced by the famous British writers of World War I, Webster wanted to experience war and then write about it. He came from a wealthy family with enough connections to secure him a commission and a rear-area job, but he opted to join the paratroopers. He made it through training with the 506th. Later on, he wrote a diary and memoir that serves as a priceless historical record. He described his unit’s life in Aldbourne, a quaint village of thatched-roof cottages located about eighty miles west of London: “We got settled enough in town to become steady customers of the three bakers, who slipped us a lardy cake now and then, and to know most of the local inhabitants by sight, if not by name. Gradually the people thawed out and began to speak to us. A few men in the battalion even married Aldbourne girls.”
His unit, headquarters company, lived in one-story wooden barracks. The men painted the interior red, white, and blue, even as they acquired radios purchased in nearby Swindon. “Sanitary facilities left much to be desired. Our toilet, an unimposing wooden shanty, housed a pair of stone troughs and two rows of wooden seats on honesty buckets. The toilet paper, when it was present for duty, was coarse brown, very wartime English stuff. That latrine was no place to linger on a cold night. There were five showers for…two companies of about 250 men, but this was enough, because nobody was very shower-conscious in the cold climate. Our diet, hitherto rich in such accepted staples as fresh milk, fried eggs, and oranges and apples, suddenly dried up on us, and powdered milk, powdered eggs, dehydrated apricots, and dehydrated potatoes became the order of the day. We looked back on our life in camps in the States as a period of great luxury.”36
The soldiers frequented local pubs, but when they really wanted to let loose they went to Swindon or London. Passes were relatively easy to get. The young troopers were full of energy, self-confidence, and swagger. When they went to the bigger cities, they intended to do three things: drink heavily, pick up women, and throttle anyone who even looked at them cross-eyed. Private Burgett got roaring drunk one Saturday night and passed out. When he awoke on Sunday morning, he found, to his intense horror, that he was lying on the stage of a community house “just behind a preacher who was blistering out a sermon on the wages of sin. I looked out through heavy-lidded eyes onto a sea of blurry faces.” Embarrassed beyond description, he crawled out of there on his hands and knees.37
One night a group of troopers got into a big melee with British paratroopers from the 6th Airborne Division. Almost 500 soldiers were involved, and the fight lasted the better part of an hour. Only the arrival of three platoons of American military policemen stopped the fracas. In some ways, trouble of this sort was inevitable. The young Britons and Yanks who volunteered to become paratroopers were adventurous sorts, the kind of men who wish to prove their toughness. Their difficult training taught them to be violent, and it also gave them a great sense of confidence in their ability to take care of themselves. Unit or national pride gave them an excuse to tangle with outsiders. Plus, the American paratroopers were just plain aggressive. “The British were friendly,” one American paratrooper later commented, “but we were so young and full of piss and vinegar. I think now so long afterward that perhaps we went out of our way to cause trouble.”38
Indeed they did, but many more off-duty paratroopers, like Sergeant Robert Webb, were more interested in women than in fighting. Webb was a supply sergeant and his duties afforded him the opportunity to travel to London frequently. In 1942, at the age of nineteen, he had left his job in the stockroom of the Corpus Christi, Texas, Woolworth store to join the Army and, later on, the paratroopers. He had a girlfriend back home, but she was, after all, 3,000 miles away. “Everyone was saying the best place to find fun was Covent Gardens, an opera house, dance emporium and whatever you had in mind. It was said that a soldier could stand out in front and decide what kind of young lady he wanted to go out with and he was almost sure to find her there, every time.”
Sergeant Webb went there hoping to find someone who looked a bit like Hedy Lamarr, a popular movie star at the time. He stood in the balcony listening to the music and scanning the crowd below. His eyes wandered to the stage where a dance club from a London suburb was performing. In an instant he spotted the girl he wanted. “She was a perfect double for Hedy Lamarr. Light, white skin, blue eyes, long dark hair and a great smile, terrific figure and every thing pleasing to the eye.” When the group finished dancing, he went downstairs and made a beeline for her. “I went up to her and asked her to dance. She smiled and said she had never danced with an American before. She asked me to teach her the shag, jitterbug or whatever we did. I was glad to oblige.”
At the end of the evening, he escorted her on the train to her home in Warlingham, outside of London. “That was a long train ride but what the hell, a train ride was a good chance to get to know her.” He met her family and they got along well. It was the beginning of an extended relationship. His British girlfriend even visited him several times at his base in Ramsbury. Such liaisons were quite common that spring, at a time when not much was certain except that death could lie ahead.39
* * *
Eisenhower and Bradley had chosen five divisions to carry out the American portion of the initial assault into France. The vast majority of the soldiers in those divisions had no combat experience, the lone exception being, of course, the Big Red One. But one of the airborne divisions, the 82nd, did contain some experienced combat soldiers. The division had seen combat in both North Africa and Italy. Some of its soldiers, members of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, were still fighting at Anzio. Others, from the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, had been redeployed from the Mediterranean to England. There they joined two new paratrooper regiments, the 507th and 508th, along with the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment to form a newly constituted 82nd Airborne Division.
The division rested for a time in Northern Ireland before moving on to the midlands of England in February 1944. The various regiments spread out among the usual barracks, huts, and homes in the Leicester, Nottingham, and Market Harborough areas. The men of the 505th were survivors of bloody battles at Sicily and Salerno. Similar to the veterans of the 1st Division, they spent much of their time indoctrinating newcomers and getting their nerves straightened out.
Lieutenant Jack Isaacs was a Topeka, Kansas, native who joined the Army straight out of high school in 1940. He served stints with the 7th and 3rd Infantry Divisions before earning the chance to attend Officer Candidate School in 1942. He graduated in July of that year and went to infantry school and then jump school. He commanded a platoon in G Company of the 505th during the Mediterranean battles. Casualties ascended him to the position of executive officer. But in England, once his unit received several officer replacements, he was just as happy to go back to being a platoon leader.
In the spring of 1944, he was determined to teach his new men everything he could about survival in combat. “Our training intensified with small-unit and company and battalion field problems, and several practice drops. We knew that the invasion of the continent was imminent and that we would be part of it. We began studying French phrases, most of which didn’t stick with us.” He and the other officers implemented new jump techniques. “For one thing, in Sicily and Italy we had dropped our mortars and machine guns in bundles, and then we had to find those bundles and assemble the weapon in order to use it. By the time we got ready for the Normandy invasion, we had perfected techniques in which those weapons were actually dropped on the man that was to use them. They were placed in a bag that had a thirty-foot riser which was attached to the man’s harness; after his chute was opened and as he approached landing, he let that bag down still attached to him so that it would hit the ground ahead of him and lighten his own weight when he landed.” They also developed techniques that allowed men to land with their rifles intact, ready to fire, instead of the folding stock or disassembled weapons that other units sometimes employed.40
Just down the road at Nottingham, the 82nd Airborne’s fresh-faced newcomers also prepared for war. Operating from a cluster of small bases in and around Nottingham, the 507th and 508th soon became a dominating presence in the area. Day and night, they could be seen training. Captain Roy Creek, commander of the 507th’s E Company, made sure that his troopers understood that their mission was special. Creek came from Portales, New Mexico. Several years before, he had earned a degree from New Mexico State University. Now he found himself leading more than 100 tough but unseasoned soldiers. “The training emphasized principles peculiar to airborne units such as speed and initiation of combat immediately upon landing; retention of initiative until the mission is accomplished; recognition of isolation as a normal battlefield condition; readiness of all units to attack and defend in all directions at any time.”
Each day Captain Creek stressed improvisation to his men. He knew that once they dived from their airplanes and into combat, little would go according to plan. More than anything he wanted his men to be prepared to “conquer or die.” This emphasis served them quite well in the hours after their jump into Normandy.41
Like the 507th, the 508th had been training together for the better part of a year. They were also eager to test themselves against the Germans. They lived at a new camp at Wollington Park just outside of Nottingham. “It was a beautiful location with green grass and lots of trees,” Private Dwayne Burns, a nineteen-year-old trooper from Fort Worth, Texas, later recalled. “This was enclosed by miles of redbrick fence and iron gates. In the center stood the [Wollington] home. It was a huge four-story building with turrets and lots of ornamental ironwork. By our standard, I guess it could have been called a castle. Behind this were rows of eight-man tents located at one end of the park. Although we were living in tents, it wasn’t bad. We had a stove in the middle of the tent, and the floor was paved with concrete stepping-stones.”
In spite of continuous training, they found time to explore Nottingham, as well as meet some of its residents. “It was a very modern city, with theaters, good restaurants, fine public buildings. Lots of fish and chips places, and pubs located all over town. The townspeople were very friendly and receptive to Americans, especially the girls. Although we didn’t speak exactly the same English, we did make out extremely well. Some made friendships that would last a lifetime. Others would find the girl of their dreams and marry.”42
Generally they got along well with the British, but being paratroopers, they sometimes could not resist the urge to start trouble. Bud Warnecke, a platoon sergeant in B Company, was drinking in a Nottingham pub one night when a fight broke out. “There were a bunch of British soldiers and a few troopers drinking. A Brit raised his glass and in a loud voice shouted, ‘God save the king!’ A dumb trooper raised his voice, yelling, ‘Fuck the king!’ The damnedest fight broke out. I might have been a little crazy but I wasn’t a fool. I did not stick around to see how the brawl turned out.”43
One could argue that such brawls were reasonably good-natured, the product of rivalry, youth, and plenty of excess energy. However, some of the 82nd Airborne’s brawling that spring resulted from something much more sinister, something that originated from America’s greatest flaw—racism. In the mid-twentieth century, the armed forces were segregated, reflecting civilian life at that time. Moreover, African-Americans were almost entirely prohibited from serving in combat, mainly because military leaders believed the fiction that black men were incapable of serving bravely in combat.
Before the arrival of the All-American division, the only American troops in the midlands of England were African-American units operating in a support role for the Army Air Force. These men had been in the area for many months; they had forged ties of kinship with the locals, including many relationships with British women. Some of the white troopers of the 82nd were none too thrilled about this. Conversely, some of the black support troops were eager to test the toughness of these combat types who wore funny-looking “jump” boots of which they were ostentatiously, enormously proud. Almost immediately violence broke out. “The first night one of our combat units got in there,” the 82nd Airborne’s outstanding commander, General Matthew Ridgway, recalled, “one of my men was stabbed in a fight with one of these service troops. He didn’t die, but the rumor spread among the division that he had, and I knew the situation called for instant and energetic measures to prevent a serious outbreak.”
Ridgway oozed army from every pore. Born in 1895 to a distinguished colonel, Ridgway grew up at a succession of army posts. He breathed the fading dust of the closing frontier, as his father’s military career had taken the family far and wide in the western United States. Ridgway never considered any other path in life but to be a soldier. He was born to it and took to it magnificently at West Point, graduating in 1917. He was one of the solid coterie of promising officers who stuck with their army careers in the 1920s and 1930s in spite of public scorn and a dearth of promotions. Along the way, he impressed General Marshall. On the eve of World War II, Ridgway was serving on the general’s staff. Later Ridgway commanded the 82nd Airborne in its Mediterranean campaigns. He was an excellent leader, a hands-on combat general.
Ridgway understood all too well that he had to take decisive action to quell the racial animosity between his troopers and the service troops. “Immediately, I visited every unit bivouacked in the area. I called the officers together, and laid down the law to them. I told them that the troops who were there when we arrived were wearing the same uniforms we were wearing, they were there under orders of competent authority. They were performing tasks just as essential to the war as the tasks we were performing.” To Ridgway, the issue of race might have been one of the great problems American society faced, but “it was not our responsibility to try to settle it three thousand miles from home in the middle of a war. I doubled our MP patrols and personally spent the early hours of the next few evenings riding and walking through the streets to see that my orders were being carried out.” His proactive approach worked. The violence ended, if not the animosity.44
When the troopers weren’t cavorting around Nottingham, they concentrated on practicing night jumps. Private Paul Bouchereau served in the regiment’s headquarters company. A native of New Orleans, he joined the paratroopers shortly after graduating from Louisiana State University. One night in late April, Bouchereau and the other men of the 508th loaded up on planes. They had been waiting around for several days hoping for rainy weather to pass. “After about thirty minutes airborne, word was received to return to base. A few minutes after, we deplaned and returned to our quarters in one of the hangars. Several of us found a small radio and tuned in our favorite program, ‘The Bitch of Berlin.’”
Bouchereau was talking about “Axis Sally,” otherwise known as Margaret Gillars, an American woman who had married a German and, over the years, begun to identify with Germany. Her program was strictly propaganda, bravado aimed at undermining GI morale, but the American soldiers still liked it, mainly because she played popular music. That night the troopers listened to music for about ten minutes before Axis Sally broke in with a short message: “We extend our regrets to the men of the 508th who were to make a practice jump this evening but could not do so because of inclement weather. Come on over, paratroopers; Hitler’s panzers are waiting. You will all be killed.”
The men stared at the radio in stunned disbelief. How could she know that? Some of them felt a shiver run down their spines. “This message was broadcast less than an hour after the very secret jump was canceled. It was a frightening thing.”45
Axis Sally undoubtedly got her information from one of the “turned” German agents who provided German intelligence with interesting tidbis that seemed important but were actually of very little value in the long run. Combat soldiers like Bouchereau did not know of any of that kind of cloak-and-dagger intrigue. They only knew that the enemy seemed to know their every move and it spooked them. They could not help wondering if, when the time came to leap into combat, the Germans would be ready and waiting for them.
The Germans certainly knew the Allies were coming, but they did not, as yet, know when and where. Eisenhower aimed to keep it that way.
Excerpted from The American at D-Day: The American Experience at the Normandy Invasion by John C. McManus.
Copyright © 2004 by John C. McManus
JOHN C. MCMANUS is author of The Americans at D-Day; The Americans at Normandy; American Courage, American Carnage; and The 7th Infantry Regiment: Combat in an Age of Terror. He is a professor of military history at the University of Missouri who has traveled extensively in researching his books about the American experience in the Second World War.Tags: D-Day, WWII