Shortly after 7 a.m. 75 years ago tomorrow, First Lieutenant Arthur Eichelbaum was crowded into a landing craft with three dozen other men of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th U.S. Infantry Division, heading for Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Many were seasick; all of them were nervous. They were the first wave of “Operation Overlord,” the Allied invasion of occupied France; part of the “Grand Crusade” to wipe Nazi Germany off the face of the earth. By the end of the day many of them would be wounded or dead.
Precedents for Overlord were mixed. Operation “Torch,” the landings in North Africa, were disorganized, but resistance was relatively light. The British “large-scale raid” on the French port of Dieppe was a spectacular failure. “Husky,” the invasion of Sicily, had faced stiffer opposition and the fighting inland had been bloody. The “dress rehearsal” for Normandy at Lyme Bay in England went terribly awry when German torpedo boats showed up and turned the practice real. About 750 men died. Now, off Normandy, things didn’t look good.
The landings at Omaha beach, in the center of the Allied line, went wrong from the beginning. Pre-invasion bombardment didn’t create craters for cover. Strong cross-beach currents and winds swept the landing craft far away from their assigned sectors. Underwater obstacles snagged and upended boats, exposing men to withering cannon and machine-gun fire. Runnels in the beach, invisible if submerged, meant that sometimes when landing craft grounded, men would step off into deep water and drown, dragged under by their equipment. And even if their boat made it to the beach.
Many landing craft were raked with machine gun fire immediately when the bow ramp — the exit point for troops — dropped. It was murder: men were cut apart by the bursts; others, badly wounded, fell into the water and drowned because they could not rise. Those who made it out of the boat found themselves on a flat and largely featureless beach, devoid of any protection from the withering fire crisscrossing it from the German positions in the bluffs 200 yards beyond the shallow shelf at the beach’s high-water mark. Within ten minutes of the first wave landing many officers had been killed or wounded; several companies of the 116th lost so many men that they ceased to be effective combat units. Nor did the carnage stop.
There were heroics aplenty from men fueled by adrenaline: radiomen and engineers who risked death time and again to gather equipment to communicate and to fight a way off the beach; medics who, though wounded themselves, treated others throughout the day; officers who, though it was suicide, stood up and led. Lieutenant Eichelbaum was one of those, urging his men forward, off the death-trap that was Omaha Beach. He received the Bronze Star for what he did that day.
Things were far smoother and less bloody elsewhere; the British Second Army efficiently rolled up Juno, Sword and Gold beaches, and the US 4th Division pushed quickly off Utah beach toward the French town of St. Mère Elgise, already liberated by elements of the US 82nd Airborne Division. But without the grim fighting, the sacrifice and heroism at Omaha, the Normandy landings could have failed. It was the key to success of Operation Overlord.
The soldiers who fought their way across Omaha beach to push the Germans off the bluffs and establish a toehold in France were not supermen; they did not descend from a race of heroes nor were they Homeric demigods. They were ordinary men who did extraordinary and heroic things because they were necessary. Due to their efforts, at the end of June 6 Allied armies had a stable beachhead in Normandy and the death-knell had sounded for Nazi Germany. Three weeks later, 300,000 allied troops were in France. Three months later, German armies had been pushed east of the Seine; eleven months after Arthur Eichelbaum landed on Omaha beach, Adolf Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” was dead and buried.
Could we do the same sort of thing today? Possibly. Our current all-volunteer army is at least as competent as it was on June 6, 1944, if not as large. But how about the rest of us? Is our country, and are its citizens, up to the challenges that mounting and following up the modern equivalent of “Overlord” would pose?
This weekend, visit a museum offering a display about D-Day. Honor the memory of those who served, and ask yourself that question.