©2003, 2009, Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
The Greatest Show on Earth
June 4th. Bill and I and others from the 2nd platoon were on deck and spotted some whales in the distant water. What a sight, and also a school of porpoises or dolphins racing along at top speed. Some said jokingly, "Wonder if they’re going to the invasion with us as support." Everyone got a laugh and "At the rate they’re going, they’ll be there before us. Watch out Krauts. Here’s our secret weapon."
We could hear big gunfire far, far off in the distance. "It won’t be long now," said Bill.
Far off on the horizon, it looked like a hazy smoke. I wondered if that gunfire could be the advent or preliminary to the big show.
We had fire drill again and also the going over the rail drill till we knew it blindfolded. I forgot to mention the meals – not too bad. The prisoners had a hearty meal. Glad we were on an American ship – good enough to go for seconds. We watched the Navy gun crews practice with their Bofurs and Pom-Poms. It made you deaf.
With time on my hands, I tried to envision making a landing on the beach – what it would be like, running through the surf, sandy beach and sand dunes while trying to dodge the enemy gunfire. It filled me with fearful dread and foreboding. I went to see our Chaplain for spiritual guidance and security. The spiritual part helped but the security – no. One of our men said, "What are we sure of in this world – death and taxes and Normandy." I couldn’t argue about that and another corny saying, "What do you want to do – live forever?" If I ever heard that once, I heard it a million times. It ceased to be funny, being kicked around like an old football. The guy who said that had a hurt look on his kisser as he looked at me. I guess he thought he had said something profound.
June 5. The noise appears to be closer and louder. Getting closer to the appointed date, June 6th – D Day. This morning when we got up on deck the channel water was on the rough side, but no one got seasick. Too concerned about what lay ahead. It would be a cloudy day with a fine misty rain. The gunfire seemed a little louder and closer now. We could see air activity but it was staying up in the sky and we could see the distant smoke on the horizon and sometimes flashes in the sky.
I thought of a song called "Them There 90th Division Blues" – "Well you can hear my knees knocking and you think I’m scared, I guess. But that ain’t nothin' but pure patriotism that makes me shake like that. Man, I’ve got them there 90th Division Blues." Translated, Texas-Oklahoma "Tough Ombres." I was thinking how tough are we? Can we live up to the title? I was beginning to feel not too tough – maybe later on. I gave a sigh. As I spoke to the men, I found all of us had forgotten our native states and our nationalities. We were all one bunch of GIs together with one objective – to kick hell out of the damned Germans and their divine bone–headed leader, Herr Adolph, the paper hanging son-of-a-bitch who got us into this damned situation.
We were expected to arrive on June 7th, early on Thursday morning, and would lay off Utah Beach where we were to await our turn to board the landing craft from the SS Explorer and move on to Utah as scheduled follow-up units to the 4th Division who landed on D–Day. The 9th Division was to follow after us. I am not sure, but I believe June 6, D–Day, fell on Wednesday. On June 6th, we were still approaching the landing site. We were still within proximity of the English coast in the channel heading for the invasion area.
As I stated, we were expected to arrive sometime early Thursday morning and to be ready to move in the landing craft for the Normandy beach. We were minus one regiment, the 359th, which was attached to the 4th Division to land on D–Day. We were on the SS Explorer making headway toward the landing area.
We could hear the noise of heavy conflict. Guns from the battleships and cruisers distinctly could be heard and we knew the invasion was under way. We could see a lot of aircraft moving to and fro. We did see a fleet of gliders being towed across the sky by the C–47s to landings in Normandy. More were already inland. We picked up more ships – cargo ships, freighters, oilers, tankers, and warships of various descriptions. I never saw so many ships jammed with combat men. This would have to be the largest concentration of ships in history. God knows what they have at the beachheads and we are just a part of it. We are still having safety drills, calisthenics and are preparing to climb into landing crafts. By the end of the day, we are too tired out for anything except hitting the bunks and a chance finally to get the hell off the ship. I’ve seen enough water to hold me a lifetime. I hope no U–Boats show up. I never understood to this day why we never met up with enemy subs. They would have had a field day.
We kept listening to Armed Forces Radio. Not much change in what was going on with the 29th Division, still stuck on Omaha, and that idiot traitor, Lord Haw Haw. Must be a bloody mess. We hope Utah will be a hell of a lot better. Getting stymied on a crowded beach was not my cup of tea. Besides, I hate tea.
June 7th, Utah Beach. The roar of aircraft and artillery woke me up. Bill and I jumped out of our bunks. The platoon sergeant yelled, "We’re here, finally! Let’s see what’s going on." We all headed for the steps to get up on deck to see the big invasion. What we saw you wouldn’t believe. Ships looked like they were in the thousands all over the channel. We couldn’t see the horizon for the ships, large and small. We saw the battlewagon, the Texas, the Nevada, another battleship, some cruisers, some British support, all blasting away with their big guns at German defenses and positions – the planes like a shuttle service, fighters, bombers. I never saw so many. Being a spotter, there were P–51s, P–47s, Grumman "Avengers" hitting blockhouses, casements, and pillboxes with torpedoes coming in low level to their targets. With my binoculars I saw A20s and B–26s. I think they had everything flying here including some British planes, Spitfires, Beaufighters, Typhoons, etc.
We were anchored in position, everyone was in the act, but no orders yet. We were told to wait our turn to go in. The excitement we felt was at a fevered pitch.
I said to Bill, "This has to be the Greatest Show on Earth." We must have been watching this panorama of fantastic fiery activity for about half an hour. The greatest invasion in history and despite the horror of war, I was damned proud to be a part of it, at least right now. The serious business was just ahead for us when we would board those landing crafts and head out for Hell’s acre. God be with us. We all heard Mass: Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and I guess, even atheists. It didn’t matter this day of all days. We had our chaplain saying Mass. I have forgotten his name, a real brave guy. Everyone liked him. One of our guys in the squad said, "When this damned mess is over, I’m going to become a Catholic." It brought on a chorus of laughter, but he looked real serious.
For the last couple of days, the weather was cloudy and downcast. A slight drizzle was falling which made for a depressive day on top of everything. I said to Bill, "It wasn’t meant for the sun to shine. It would be inappropriate for it to show itself." We gave agreement to that.
After some time, we went down below deck to our bunks. Everyone had breakfast in the dining hall, but I believe no one ate, but drank coffee and the weeds were out. After that, we got our equipment in order, checked to see if we had everything was okay, and made last minute preparations, and waiting. The old Army expression "Hurry up and wait" was what we were told. The suspense was murderous, like waiting to see the dentist. We did hear that the ship, the Susan B. Anthony, that carried one of our regiments, the 359th, struck a mine on D–Day and sank, but no lives were lost and they had to make their way to the beach with just their rifles as everything else had gone down with the ship.
With this awful waiting, everyone was on edge. It felt like a wire being stretched to its breaking point. Intensive German fire kept coming in. I believed I aged a lot.
Some of the gunfire was shaking the ship. Things were falling down on the deck. Bill said laughingly, "Guy, we’re the Tough Ombres. Let’s see how tough we’ll be."
I said, "I wouldn’t touch that statement with a ten foot pole," and we shared a grim laugh. It has always been a puzzle to me how one can find something funny in a damned serious situation. It seems to keep your morale or spirits up if anything. We had no choice. I said to Bill, "The Saints preserve us," an old Irish saying.
A troopship in an invasion can be a damned lonely ship. Down below deck, you sit and sweat and tremble some with dry mouth and throat as the time gets nearer for the big move. Nobody says anything because there is nothing to say. You look around at your comrades and the dread feeling hits you and you wonder who will be dead soon. Will it be that tough looking Pfc., Ortiz, from Texas, the BAR man checking his Browning automatic rifle and counting his ammo clips, or the squad Sgt, Olson, checking his M-1 carbine, or Robinson from Montana, stretched out in his upper bunk reading his Bible and praying out loud, or LaTour, the French Canuck from Quebec, Canada, next to me reading a paperback? Who will be dead soon? Rafferty, the Irishman from Boston seriously thinking with his head in his hands or Johnston from some town in Texas playing a tune on his harmonica and he was good with it. These names of my pals came back to me. I hope I’m not boring the reader. Bill McDermott from Larksville, Pa., my best pal and comrade in arms, who will die in action in July, and me, the New York City Dead End kid, the prankster, by way of Montreal, Canada. These are just a few of us warriors (apologies to Shakespeare) "for the working day" of "G" Company, 357th, with the motto "Semper Alerta," always alert – we had better be.
MacKenzie from Kentucky, the Scot we called him, from "G" Company was killed in action as he stepped into the surf from the landing craft. He never had the chance to fire his M-1, never made it to the sand dunes. All this way to die in the surf – a bloody shame, I hope not in vain, and Bertoli from Jersey City – the first one wounded as he stepped off into the surf. It's funny – made the landing at Utah, got wounded, and back to England – all in one day. How lucky can one get? He never saw combat again I heard tell. From now on he could hear of the 90th’s progress through Armed Forces Radio. He never returned to "G" Company.
While the SS Explorer lay anchored off Utah Beach, we were waiting for orders for our time to leave the ship and assault the beach. Needless to say, there was quite a lot of activity going on again. Again, I was amazed and flabbergasted at all the ships of all sorts. I never knew we had all this powerful force in the Channel. With all this power, there was no way we could fail; even if the Luftwaffe with their fierce gunfire did show up, they never would have stopped this armada and the landing – not in a thousand years.
I couldn’t help but feel that the Allies had pulled off the biggest bluff in history. The stupid Germans still felt it was a feint and that the real assault would be in the area of Calais. Well, let them believe it, all to our credit and cleverness over Kraut arrogance.
I will now attempt to relate my feelings at the moment when very soon we would come to grips with the Germans. It was a long time ago, but I still can recall how I felt on that memorable day. It still makes me shudder and get dryness in my mouth and throat whenever I think of it. The feeling hits you like a swelling inside of a huge ball of fear, hits you socking at your guts, hammering and hammering – God, the suspense is murderous. Death is standing next to me, my unwanted partner. Maybe this is it for me – oblivion. All this combat training for this day. Maybe all for nothing if I should die before getting at my enemy. My life seemed to be flashing before my eyes. They say before someone is to die, they experience this feeling; if it’s to be, let me die quickly. Don’t let me suffer needlessly, or if wounded, be a living vegetable or maimed where death would be preferable.
Suddenly, I came back to reality. The sergeant came to tell us to get our gear ready and prepare to get off the ship and into the landing craft.
"This is it, Bill. God be with us. Let’s stick together, Pal."
We go up on deck in single file and line up along the ship’s rail. I notice how cold the rail is. We stand three files deep. Bill and I are in the first file and first over the side. I look down at the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel). It is bobbing up and down in the Channel banging against the sides of the ship making dull sounds, with the Navy guys looking up at us. I get the feeling it’s fifty feet down into the craft, so far down.
We had with us at the time a number of airborne soldiers, I guess from the 82nd or 101st. The only reason I figured out that they were going with us to land on the beach is that they had been injured in some training exercise and were not in shape to jump, so they were assigned to us for seaborne landing. These troops expressed a lot of fear climbing over the ship’s rail and down the rope ladders. They were trained to jump out of a C-47. This time they were going off a ship in a landing craft new to them. They were scared as hell. We had to guide and help them down. Some of them froze up on the ropes and we had to force them down. There was nothing to it really. We were all loaded down with our packs, rifles, and machine guns. I felt I weighed a ton. It was difficult as hell descending down to the craft. I was afraid of getting hung up in those hemp ropes. I finally got down low enough to let go of the ropes and drop onto the steel deck with a crash but intact.
When we were all loaded up, we pulled away from the ship and said goodbye to the SS Explorer and headed out to the beach with the rest of the U.S. Infantry. As we proceeded, a few German shells hit the water near us sending up geysers of water into the air and getting us all soaked. One shell shook the hell out of the landing craft and I thought we would capsize. We were drawing a lot of fire, hoping we wouldn’t get a direct hit. As we approached the shore, we hit a couple of sandbars that jarred the hell out of us and the LCVP. I was too concerned to get seasick.
Everyone was jostled around like sardines with all our equipment. I told Bill it was ridiculous our being all bunched up like this. We were all joking a little, trying to keep our morale and courage up for what lay ahead. The trip felt like forever, hoping we’d make it without getting blown away into oblivion. We hit another sandbar and came to a sudden stop. Then the gate started to open, letting light in bit by bit.
Everyone was getting ready to make a quick exit out of the craft as the gate dropped. I noticed right away we had not hit the beach. As a matter of act, it was quite a way from us and we had to wade ashore in waist high water the final distance.
We struggled our way slowly toward land, all of us loaded down with weapons. We moved as fast as we could, holding our rifles over our heads. Claude Mitchell in my squad was jumping up and down like a schoolboy yelling "Whoopee, just like Coney Island!"
I yelled at him, "You’ve never been to Coney Island."
"Okay," he said, "Atlantic City in Jersey."
Mitchell was a short guy, I think the shortest guy in the squad. His M-1 was almost as tall as he was. When he jumped into the water, he went in over his head and we had to pull him up sputtering like a drowned cat. "You’ll drown before you get to the beach," said Bill. (Poor Claude, he was KIA later on.) We all were in a hell of a hurry, but try running in surf, loaded down. It’s impossible. As we struggled on, there was all kinds of debris in the water, mangled and smashed vehicles of all kinds, half–tracks, tanks, weapons carriers or 1/4 tons, with dead occupants. I had to push one poor bastard face down in the tide out of my way. It was so tragic. There were quite a few unfortunate GIs in the swirling surf that didn’t quite make it. As I looked at them I pictured myself in the same way, but lady fortune was with me or I should say, my guardian angel. Bullets were striking near me. It gave me a sick and desolate feeling, a macabre scene, a nightmare. Machine gun and other fire was hitting the area around us. Why a lot of us didn’t get hit is a miracle. We were doing our damnedest to stay alive.
I finally got to the beach and we started to move inland through the soggy sand, and again, it was hard as hell trying to go uphill through those damned sand dunes. It was just as hard going through sand as in the surf. Your feet kept slipping and you would get nowhere with all this equipment we were carrying. I was tempted to shed this junk. We jumped behind sand dunes and waited to reach the causeway leading over the flooded area, like salt marshes, so I figured the worst part was over. We were all soaking wet which made our clothes heavier and going up the road was hard moving. The whole area was inundated, flooded. We are still catching stray slugs and mortar fire. To make things worse, we reached the entrance to the causeway which would end up at Ste. Marie Du Mont. It would be the first town we would enter since leaving the beach.
Ste. Marie Du Mont had supposedly been captured by the airborne guys of the 82nd including the causeway leading to the town, but someone forgot to notify the Germans of this for as we ran across it, we began to catch sporadic and heavy fire from the other end of the causeway. What the hell was going on? Things got to be in a state of confusion for our company. Was the causeway secured or not?
Apparently, the causeway had been secured but the Germans got it back in a counterattack, but of course, unknown to us at the time until we moved into it. Voices cried out, "Let’s get the f------ hell over the causeway," so off we ran despite the vicious gunfire.
As we moved forward, we hugged the sides of the wall on both sides of the pathway trying to dodge the Kraut bullets directed at us.. We could hear the rounds rip and zip by us. Men got hit. We could not stop but had to keep going, the faster the better, right into the hail of fire. Several men fell in front of me, but luckily they missed me. As we made the exit, the Germans fled. We managed to kill some of them as they retreated in a hurry together with their field pieces and machine guns. I fired at them but don’t think I hit anyone.
So ended the battle of the causeway and into Ste. Marie Du Mont. The area was inundated together with existing salt marshes. There was no other way across the marshes than by the causeway. The Germans, unluckily for them, had failed to blow it up to their chagrin and sorrow.
This was my baptism of fire as far as I’m concerned and Bill’s too, and of course "G" Company, we engaged the enemy for the first time and won out. We earned the title of "Tough Ombres" and I’ll add the other title "Second to None." These titles sound corny and like bravado to the layman and the guy who never was in battle and faced death and has no understanding or comprehension of what it’s like to be in this type of situation facing death, but that’s how it was. You really have to feel how it is to understand the horror in battle, but despite this, there was a certain pride with it that you survived to talk about it.
Since having landed and our first engagement with the Germans at the causeway, our work was now cut out for the 357th. We met Mr. Hun for the first time. This is all I remember at this point of the story. From notes I kept and my memory, I remembered quite a lot. This was the first step in our objective to crush the German war machine. I have more to relate but this is the first part of the long battle and I knew there would be more hard fighting and losses before it would all end, and despite the suffering and sacrifice, I would not exchange any of these events for anything in the world. It was the most important and cherished experience of my life. It was one of the greatest military events in history and I was a part of it. Although I wouldn’t want to do it over again. One time is enough and the main thing is, I was alive.
We entered Ste Marie and were cheered to no end by the people and kept going on to the outskirts.