Military History

Blogging about the Battlefield since 2005

D-DAY REMEMBERED?-Part II

Posted by William F. Sauerwein on July 7, 2008

Continued from Part I

The beach remained in a confused state, with most of the troops huddled beneath the sea wall. Even the veterans of the 1st Infantry Division felt the effects of the horrendous conditions and seemed in shock. Making matters worse, the 16th Infantry Regiment’s advance command post (CP) landed under a hail of fire. The regimental executive officer died in this fire, leaving the command group leaderless as it struggled ashore. Of the 102 men in this group 35 became casualties before they reached the shore.

When the 16th Infantry’s 3rd Battalion CP landed, it found itself among members of the 29th Infantry Division. This group must traverse two thousand yards of beach, under heavy fire, before it reached its unit. Twelve men from this group arrived unscathed at their destination, leaving behind much of the equipment needed.

Officers and non-commissioned officers suffered high casualties as they tried organizing their units in the confusion. The sea wall grew crowded as follow-on waves of troops landed and mingled with the survivors of the first wave. The 16th Infantry’s Cannon Company landed one and one-half hours after the first wave for providing fire support. Unfortunately it lost most of its guns and vehicles in the landing, therefore the company commander committed it as a rifle company.

Approximately two hours after the initial landing Colonel George Taylor, the 16th Infantry’s commander, arrived amid the chaos. Taylor commanded the regiment during the North Africa and Sicily campaigns and he found a pending disaster. He assembled as many of his subordinate commanders as possible and ordered an advance. Taylor then walked among the frightened men and tried encouraging them with his leadership example. At one point he said, “There are only two kinds of people on this beach; the dead and those who are about to die. So let’s get the Hell out of here.”

By task organization A Company, 1st Medical Battalion provided medical support for the 16th Infantry. Its landing craft hit the beach at about two and one-half hours after the first wave and immediately came under fire. Although clearly marked with red crosses the Germans fired on it with machine guns and anti-tank cannon. As the medics tried struggling ashore, the Germans fired on them, killing and wounding many. The crew of the craft backed it from the shore, depriving the regiment of badly needed medical care.

In the sector of beach assaulted by the 29th Infantry Division the situation seemed much the same as with the 1st. The 29th, originally a National Guard division, presented a special problem with its casualties. Most of the men served in the same companies as their friends and neighbors, much like the volunteers of the Civil War. If one company suffered heavily, it affected an entire town, such as Bedford, Virginia. On this one day the town lost nineteen of its sons, from a population of 4,000, the heaviest proportionate rate.

At one point General Omar Bradley, the commander of the 12th Army Group, considered diverting follow-on troops to Utah Beach. The men already on the beach must survive on their own, with little chance of evacuation. Fortunately this became unnecessary as men began following the example of Taylor and other leaders.

A few Navy destroyers came so close for providing fire support that they risked grounding. More naval gunfire support teams came ashore for directing this fire and silenced many German positions. Small groups of men slowly advanced against the Germans, with many falling, but with others continuing the advance. By noon the advance took these men up the steep bluffs and astride a highway a few hundred yards inland.

Between Omaha and Utah Beaches stood the steepest bluff at a place called Pointe du Hoc. Intelligence indicated a battery of six large artillery pieces that threatened the landings on both beaches. The Allied air forces tried bombing the position, and the navies shelled it, all with no effect. The 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder inherited this mission. The Rangers landed, launched rocket-propelled grappling hooks and ropes up the hundred-foot cliff and began climbing. German troops fired down on them, while others tried cutting the ropes as the Rangers climbed.

Within five minutes the Rangers scaled the cliff and cleared the last German defenders from the gun emplacements. Rudder and his men found that the Germans removed the guns farther inland and replaced them with telephone poles. He then took his command inland, secured the guns, spiked them and prepared a defense. The Rangers fought off five German counterattacks for over two days before relieved by other American troops. During these two days the Rangers suffered almost 70% casualties and ran out of food.

Inaction in the German high commands greatly helped the Allies avoid disaster on D-Day. Rundstedt believed the Normandy attack merely a diversion for the main attack at the Pas de Calais. This kept the German Fifteenth Army out of the Normandy fight, and awaiting Patton’s fictitious force. Rommel did not reach his headquarters until late in the afternoon of June 6th, too late for repelling the Allied landings. Hitler awoke at four o’clock that afternoon and released control of the mobile panzer reserve, again too late.

By four o’clock the troops from Utah Beach pushed across the narrow causeways and secured the firmer ground around Ste. Mere-Eglise. Only a pocket of determined German resistance prevented the linkup with the airborne soldiers. Behind them follow on forces and supplies landed on the secure beachhead and prepared for pushing forward the next day.

The British and Canadians moved about five miles inland and established contact with British airborne troops. Although they did not secure all of their objectives, they secured enough terrain for providing “breathing space” for future operations.

By four o’clock even Omaha Beach seemed secure, although at no place did the beachhead exceed one mile in depth. Although badly battered, the 1st Division occupied a solid defensive line and prepared for counterattack. The 745th Tank Battalion landed and strengthened the division’s defenses and the artillery battalions established firing positions on the beach. As the fighting died down men separated from their units in the chaos rejoined their companies.

The cost of this victory came at a high price, almost 10,000 for all Allied forces. About 2,500 of these casualties occurred in the meat-grinder of Omaha Beach. At the beginning of D-Day the 16th Infantry possessed some 3,600 personnel and suffered 945 casualties by the end of the day.

Combat did not end with nightfall, as the Germans launched counterattacks throughout the night. Bypassed Germans fired on the beaches with machine guns and others adjusted artillery as landing craft approached. It took several days of “mop up” operations for eliminating this threat, and additional casualties.

As on the other beaches, follow on forces and supplies landed at Omaha Beach, relieving the pressure on the battered assault troops. The conditions at Omaha proved so precarious that troops scheduled for landing the next day hit the beach the evening of D-Day. These fresh troops pushed forward, expanding the depth of the beachhead and blunted the force of German counterattacks. Meanwhile the Germans still held back their Fifteenth Army at Pa de Calais awaiting the “main landing” under Patton.

General Bradley surveyed the carnage of Omaha Beach and what he saw astonished him. Many veterans of the 1st Infantry Division believed that Bradley harbored displeasure with the division from an incident in the North African campaign. Some believe he assigned the 1st Omaha Beach as a sort of punishment, given its forbidding terrain. Whatever animosity Bradley felt for the division, the division’s performance at Omaha wiped it away. He wrote later in his book, A Soldier’s Story, of the 1st Infantry Division against the unexpected German resistance:

Had a less experienced division that the 1st Infantry stumbled into this crack resistance [German 352nd Infantry Division], it might easily have been thrown back into the Channel. Unjust though it was, my choice of the 1st to spearhead the invasion probably saved us Omaha Beach and a catastrophe on the landing.

MacDonald states that with the continuous flow of Allied men and materiel into the secure beachheads, the high command viewed the casualties as “acceptable.” Learning of the success in England, Eisenhower released a message broadcasting the successful landing. He supposedly tore up the other message, the one announcing the failure of the landing.

MacDonald mentions the subsequent reactions on the “home front,” both in England and in the US. Most Britons learned of the invasion while at work, and felt relief at finally launching this offensive. Many spontaneously sang, “God Save the King,” others prayed and church bells rang in celebration. At noon Churchill addressed the House of Commons, feeding German fears, he announced, “the first of a series of landings.”

In the US the news arrived on the East Coast at 3:33 A.M., June the 6th. As the news spread across the nation sleeping towns awoke, people turned on their lights, sat by their radios and knelt in prayer. Here too, church bells rang in celebration of the victory.

Despite the excellent planning and preparation, the extensive training, the landing at Omaha Beach almost failed. First, the plan proved inflexible, particularly when confronted with unexpected conditions. Air and naval bombardment failed in their mission of softening up the beaches, and no plan existed for additional supporting fires. Landing craft became disoriented, landing troops in the wrong places, and sometimes dropping them in deep water.

Intelligence did not properly track the movements of the German 352nd Infantry Division, the best in Normandy. This placed the troops on Omaha at a severe disadvantage, particularly since this division engaged in a defensive exercise. Despite information of the low morale of the German defenders, the morale of the 352nd proved high.

The success on Omaha Beach relied on the training, small unit leadership and individual initiative instilled in the American soldier. Colonel Taylor and his battalion commanders of the 16th Infantry “led by example” and moved their men off the beach. Captains, lieutenants and sergeants led small groups of men forward against the Germans, often losing their lives in the process. In the absence of their leaders, private soldiers took charge and accomplished their missions, despite heavy casualties.

Most Americans today when they hear of the sacrifices of D-Day often express their gratitude for those who fought there. However, do they really mean this, or is this a conditioned response when learning of such sacrifices? In most history classes today American students only receive a cursory education regarding such events as D-Day. In the last American history course I took in college the textbook (sorry I forget the title) spent one short paragraph on D-Day.

However, the textbook spent several paragraphs covering World War II era racial policies. It further covered the women working in the defense industries in a quite lengthy column. I do not doubt the relevance of articles regarding racial policies, women and other defense workers. However, what about the soldiers, sailors, airman, marines and merchant seamen who braved combat, experiences that the textbook barely covered?

It seems that many of today’s American who lack the personal experience of such sacrifices, view these sacrifices as merely statistics. Worse yet, they view them as a “nice story,” something not relevant in the “busy” world of today. They do not understand the sacrifices made by those Americans who left their families for defending their country. Without the sacrifice of those Americans on D-Day, and all American veterans, we would not enjoy our freedoms.

These disturbing analyses make me wonder if today’s Americans would undergo similar circumstances as World War II. Particularly given our partisan divisions regarding our current war against terrorism, and the public anti-war sentiment that demonizes our soldiers. Before Pearl Harbor Americans proved deeply divided regarding entry into the war and “isolationism” dominated the American policy. These divisions included pacifists (against all war), America First (defend only the Western Hemisphere), the German-American Bund (pro-Nazis) and the Communist Party USA (pro-Soviet Union) among the most prominent. However, once news of Pearl Harbor reached the American public, the debate over entering the war ended.

I thought I saw similar stirrings among most Americans after the horror of 9/11, and a determination for striking back. The only opposition I saw came from those considered the “Far Left” that seemingly supports everything anti-American. Unfortunately this resurgence of patriotism lasted only about three weeks as politicians sought advantage from the tragedy of 9/11.

At the beginning of this piece I stated that the US entered World War II on the losing side. Furthermore, we entered the war after suffering a devastating defeat at our prominent naval base in the Pacific. This defeat hindered our performance in the initial campaigns of the war, causing a continuous string of defeats. When the Philippine Islands fell about 70,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered, the largest loss in our history.

Transposing today’s circumstances and attitudes, including that of many prominent Americans, on those Americans such a loss would prompt negotiations for peace. Instead of supporting FDR, the “loyal opposition” party would clamor for this peace, and blame the President for causing the war. The news media would join this effort, sensationalizing the oil embargo that “forced” Japan into attacking us.

During World War II the nation mobilized all of its resources for winning the war. The nation mobilized 16 million men for the Armed Forces using the draft, with very few deferments. No one year tours of duty either, once in the military everyone served for the “duration plus six months.” Normally once someone deployed overseas they remained overseas, as did their assigned unit.

National policy devoted all of our industrial capacity at war production, and the American public supported it. This meant that on the “home front” Americans rationed almost everything, including fuel, food and clothing. The auto industry did not manufacture any civilian automobiles from 1942 through 1946, something unthinkable today. Those Americans endured enormous sacrifices for “our boys,” who needed our unquestioned support for victory.

This sacrifice included censorship of the media, the mail and Hollywood production companies became military motion picture units. Several websites feature the popular “war posters” of World War II, posters produced for improving morale. One of these posters shows a sinking ship with the caption, “Loose lips sink ships.” This simple poster stated that national security and our soldiers’ lives trumped the public’s so-called “right to know.”

During World War II the media clearly understood their stake in an Allied victory. War correspondents traveled with Allied units, similar with those “embedded” with American units today. Perhaps the most famous of these reporters, Ernie Pyle, dearly loved the American soldier. He constantly reported on the sacrifice and heroism of our troops, and even the humorous aspects in his “Willie and Joe” cartoons. At no time did Pyle belittle or defame our troops, nor did he ever falsely accuse them of atrocities.

These correspondents cleared their reports through military public relations officers before publishing them for maintaining operational security. No one reported from Berlin, Rome or Tokyo on the opinions of our enemies, or interviewed Adolph Hitler. They did not seek out the “victims” of our strategic bombing campaign as a means of labeling our side as “war criminals.”

I found no examples of prominent journalists of the time separating America into a “red state/blue state” scenario. Nor did I find any evidence where they described national policies as that of the “Roosevelt Administration.” They did not seek out “whistleblowers” leaking vital information for hindering the nation’s war effort, or jeopardizing our soldiers’ lives.

Hollywood also understood its role in the war and many actors entered the Armed Forces. Popular actresses worked in the “Hollywood canteens” that provided refreshments for military personnel in transit. Actor Bob Hope worked with the United Service Organization (USO) and entertained the troops overseas. Hope continued these Christmas shows through Operation Desert Storm in 1990, entertaining three generations of American troops.

Several websites cover the military motion picture units that provided a valuable service during World War II. One of these, www.militarymuseum.org/1stmpu.html, provides insight into the 1st Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Forces. Lieutenant Colonel Jack Warner commanded this unit and Captain Ronald Reagan served as the unit adjutant. The personnel of this unit completed basic training and returned to Hollywood, using their skills in their country’s service. The unit produced training films for the Army, which enhanced the training of our rapidly expanding Armed Forces. They also produced patriotic movies, clearly for maintaining the public morale during these critical years. At the end of these movies a caption appeared encouraging the buying of “Victory Bonds.” Teams of combat cameramen accompanied combat units into the field for producing documentaries, with many cameramen becoming casualties.

This unit proved so successful that the other branches of the service soon created their own units. Famous Hollywood director John Ford, who launched the career of Hollywood icon John Wayne, became a commander in the US Navy Reserves. Ford recorded the landing of the first wave on Omaha Beach and subsequently landed with his team on the beach. Government censors edited most of his footage, “Afraid to show so many American casualties on the screen.” Ford did not protest, nor “leak” this film, understanding his role for supporting his country’s war effort.

More than one World War II veteran told me of turning in their mail unsealed for perusal by unit censors. As an experienced combat veteran I know that soldiers sometimes embellish their stories, and these embellishments get better over time. I do know that we search captured prisoners and dead bodies for anything of intelligence value. This includes the mail found on enemy soldiers, which may reveal combat operations, troop morale and the morale at home.

At least two generations of Americans matured today without the “threat” of a draft for defending our country. Military service today becomes the responsibility of volunteers, often portrayed as those Americans with “economic disadvantages.” Today many American youth throw tantrums when speaking of a draft, responding with promises of running away or physically harming themselves. This phenomenon did not recently arise, I found it expressed during the Balkan wars during the 1990’s.

Unlike during World War II, succeeding generations of Americans did not endure “home front” sacrifices during times of war. Since World War II the only people directly affected by subsequent wars are those with family members serving. I heard one comment (sorry, I forget who made it) that we currently experience “a military at war and a country at peace,” or words to that effect. Given the self-centered attitudes of most Americans today I believe such “home front” sacrifices would cause riots. In this election year the politicians and other pundits blame the war for the nation’s “sagging economy.” They clamor for ending the war and “investing” the money spent on the Armed Forces on domestic programs.

Evidence exists, although our educators bury it, that the industrial mobilization of World War II finally ended the “Great Depression.” Unemployment virtually did not exist as most men found unfit for military service found jobs in defense industries. The shortage of men prompted the training and employment of large numbers of women for the first time in our history.

Several economic historians call this period an “economic boom,” as employers offered unprecedented incentives for a shrinking labor force. This included not only high wages but, for the first time, the massive increase of employer provided medical care. Fleming states that this forced a “wage cap” on industry and the elimination of overtime pay for weekend and holiday work.

Fleming further credits the “economic boom” for the exodus of rural Americans into the cities, where most defense industries existed. This included a migration of blacks and poor whites from the economically depressed South, seeking better opportunities. These people not only competed for jobs, but the insufficient housing in these cities as well.

This proves that even in the best of “economic times” problems exist, and not everyone benefits equally. For example, when the Southerners, both black and white, moved North, they took their racial attitudes with them. Fleming describes the problems this created in Detroit, a city not previously known for racial harmony. In June of 1943 (June again) the tension erupted into a full-blown riot, including sniper firing by rioters. Only the deployment of 6,000 federal troops stopped the riot, leaving 35 dead and almost 700 injured.

While news of this incident inflamed racial tensions across the nation, no evidence existed that it harmed the war effort. No one called for dodging the draft, work stoppages or withdrawal from the war. Instead, black Americans heralded their service and rightfully used it for demanding acceptance as equal American citizens.

Regarding “domestic programs,” the almost non-existent unemployment drastically reduced the numbers needing assistance, then called “relief.” FDR, the “Father of the New Deal,” reduced domestic spending by thirty per cent because he made military victory the priority. Today, the Defense Department battles for funding on an equal basis with other federal agencies. Our politicians currently buy our votes with “earmarks” and other projects for ensuring their reelection. These projects contribute little toward victory or homeland security, however they do take badly needed funding from our troops.

Suppose those Americans, sometimes called the “Greatest Generation,” held the same attitudes as many Americans today. They would deem the cost of the war too high for even striking back at the enemy that attacked us. Hemmed in on all sides by the aggressive Axis nations, we would be at their mercy economically. Instead of reaping the benefits of our independence and economic prosperity, we would be a helpless vassal state.

Many Americans, including some that possess presidential ambitions, demand that we seek United Nations (UN) authority before launching military actions. They further demand that we seek the approval of our European “allies” and only act when they join us. During World War II the “UN authority” rested with five nations at the most: the US, England, the Soviet Union, France and (Nationalist) China. Most of our European allies, including France, suffered under German occupation and held little influence over Allied strategies.

Today the UN seems as impotent as its pre-World War II predecessor, the League of Nations. It further seems that our European “allies” forgot the lessons learned from the harsh German occupation. Instead of confronting threats from Islamofascists and the “rogue nations” that support them, our “allies” ignore them. They also forgot that American troops and equipment liberated them from Axis occupation and American dollars created their post-war economies.

Again transposing today’s most publicized attitude on World War II, finds those Americans protesting FDR for acting “unilaterally.” They then demean Churchill as FDR’s “lap dog,” succumbing to the “bribe” of the “lend-lease” program. Protesters cry “unilateralism” when we invade French North Africa, the territory of a neutral country that did not attack us. The blunders and horrendous casualties suffered in this campaign would precipitate the demands for peace negotiations. Politicians of the “loyal opposition” would declare the Axis armies too powerful, and the estimated cost too high.

In the Pacific this attitude would call for negotiations for ending the bloody campaigns in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. The Allies suffered in these bloody campaigns about 11,000 and 9,000 battle casualties, respectively. Here the troops fought the inhospitable jungle conditions as well as fanatical Japanese soldiers, suffering about 27,000 malaria cases. We obviously sent these men into combat unprepared for the conditions, and must launch a congressional investigation. Besides, no one cares about this faraway region outside our “national interest” that “posed no threat.”

Since the European “imperialist” powers claimed these territories, let them liberate them from the Japanese. Regarding the Philippine Islands, we promised them their independence anyway, this Japanese occupation provided the opportunity for granting it. Why spend American blood and treasure liberating a nation we planned to leave anyway? Let them stand on their own if they really desired independence and fight for it.

Another major difference regards the treatment of captured enemy combatants during World War II, versus today. As American and Allied forces advanced they captured hundreds of thousands of Axis prisoners of war (POW). The website, www.traces.org/germanpows.html, states that about 400,000 of them ended up in camps in the US. None of them received lawyers, nor did the US Supreme Court confer upon them the Constitutional rights of citizens. We held them until the war ended and without charging them in the criminal courts. Without “due process” we punished them by making them work on our farms, build roads and bridges and other manual labor.

Today we find almost everyone concerned with our treatment of the terrorists we captured in combat. We classified those captured as “unlawful enemy combatants,” meaning that they did not wear uniforms or serve in any military force. As terrorists deliberately targeting civilians, the Geneva Convention labels them as war criminals, outside the normal protections of the Convention. However, early in the war our leaders publicly extended Geneva Convention rights on these people. Now, between our Congress and our Supreme Court, we went beyond the Geneva Convention, granting them the rights of American common criminals. Lobbied heavily by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and other “human rights” organizations, our government gave these terrorists lawyers.

I found no record of the ACLU protesting the treatment of the POW’s captured during World War II. Nor did I find evidence of ACLU protests regarding the military tribunals of eight captured German saboteurs in June, 1942 (something else about June). German U-boats landed these men on the East Coast with explicit orders about sabotaging American industry. They damaged nothing or killed no one, not even a lone Coast Guardsman who discovered them landing. Six of these men received the death sentence and the remaining two, who voluntarily surrendered themselves, received lengthy prison terms. Coincidentally, the US Supreme Court conducted a special session for scrutinizing this case, and upheld the military tribunal.

Nor do I hear any protest from the ACLU and other “human rights” organizations when these terrorists torture and murder our POW’s. Instead they blame us for conducting an “illegal, immoral” war, or as retaliation for something we did, like the Abu Ghraib incident. The difference, we prosecuted those who conducted the Abu Ghraib abuse, unlike our terrorist enemies. Furthermore, I found no evidence that any of those “abused” by us died or suffered any physical harm from this experience.

The media that kept the Abu Ghraib story in the forefront of its stories barely covers the treatment of American POW’s. They show graphic pictures of the tortured and murdered Americans, including their names, yet never blame the terrorists. Regarding one such incident Senator Richard Durbin (R-IL) blamed the “Bush Administration,” instead of the terrorists.

What transpired between the “Greatest Generation” that won World War II and the Americans waging the war against terrorism? Truthfully, I do not know the answer and use my perceptions based on my experiences. I asked historians from several “think tanks” about this, and only one responded, stating that he did not know.

In the popular attitude of today, if something seems too difficult and too expensive, you avoid it. Do nothing that may anger aggressive “rogue nations,” and do not threaten them with military force. Instead, we must understand why these people hate us and then alter our behavior for currying their favor. Under no circumstances must we increase our military readiness; that only threatens these nations, and creates domestic problems. Continue endless, and ineffective, diplomacy and ignore it when they violate treaties and resolutions. These attitudes prevailed in the 1930’s and the world paid the price through the carnage of World War II.

As previously stated, two generations of Americans matured without experiencing the national sacrifice of World War II. Except for those directly involved in the post-World War II wars, most Americans enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle. They only know of the US as a superpower and therefore, visualize nothing that threatens our national survival.

Unfortunately a growing number of Americans, including many with political ambitions, believe we do not deserve superpower status. Even former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, stated that, “America doesn’t want to be the lone superpower,” or words to that effect. Many radical leftists state that America is “too big and too powerful,” which implies America must suffer defeat and dismemberment.

Unfortunately, I believe many of the people who feel this way achieved too much influence over our nation. Gradually they dominated our media, Hollywood, educational system and the liberal wing of the Democrat Party. Many of these people began their anti-American attitudes during the Viet Nam War, and suffered no consequences for their actions. They declared that war “illegal” and “immoral” based on their propaganda, and bury evidence of atrocities committed by our communist enemies. Furthermore, they launch personal attacks against anyone who disclose these atrocities, or disagree with their viewpoint. Since then America became the enemy and American military power the reason for all of the world’s trouble.

Continue to the Final Part

2 Responses to “D-DAY REMEMBERED?-Part II”

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