D-Day re­mem­brance col­umn

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Ed­i­tor’s note: The fol­low­ing col­umn was writ­ten by WWII jour­nal­ist Ernie Pyle and is cour­tesy of Scripps Howard Foun­da­tion. In re­mem­brance of 75th an­niver­sary of D-day, The Sa­line Courier is re­pub­lish­ing this piece.

NOR­MANDY BEACH­HEAD, June 12, 1944 — Due to a last-minute al­ter­ation in the ar­range­ments, I didn’t ar­rive on the beach­head un­til the morn­ing af­ter D-day, af­ter our first wave of as­sault troops had hit the shore.

By the time we got here the beaches had been taken and the fight­ing had moved a cou­ple of miles in­land.

All that re­mained on the beach was some snip­ing and ar­tillery fire, and the oc­ca­sional star­tling blast of a mine gey­ser­ing brown sand into the air. That plus a gi­gan­tic and piti­ful lit­ter of wreck­age along miles of shore­line.

Sub­merged tanks and over­turned boats and burned trucks and shell-shat­tered jeeps and sad lit­tle per­sonal be­long­ings were strewn all over these bit­ter sands. That plus the bod­ies of sol­diers ly­ing in rows cov­ered with blan­kets, the toes of their shoes stick­ing up in a line as though on drill. And other bod­ies, un­col­lected, still sprawl­ing grotesquel­y in the sand or half hid­den by the high grass be­yond the beach.

That, plus an in­tense, grim de­ter­mi­na­tion of work-weary men to get this chaotic beach or­ga­nized and get all the vi­tal sup­plies and the re­in­force­ments mov­ing more rapidly over it from the stacked-up ships stand­ing in droves out to sea.

Now that it is over it seems to me a pure mir­a­cle that we ever took the beach at all.

For some of our units it was easy, but in this spe­cial sec­tor where I am now our troops faced such odds that our get­ting ashore was like my whip­ping Joe Louis down to a pulp.

In this col­umn I want to tell you what the open­ing of the sec­ond front in this one sec­tor en­tailed, so that you can know and ap­pre­ci­ate and for­ever be humbly grate­ful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.

Ashore, fac­ing us, were more en­emy troops than we had in our as­sault waves.

The ad­van­tages were all theirs, the dis­ad­van­tages all ours. The Ger­mans were dug into po­si­tions that they had been work­ing on for months, although these were not yet all com­plete. A one­hun­dred-foot bluff a cou­ple of hun­dred yards back from the beach had great con­crete gun em­place­ments built right into the hill­top. These opened to the sides in­stead of to the front, thus mak­ing it very hard for naval fire from the sea to reach them. They could shoot par­al­lel with the beach and cover every foot of it for miles with ar­tillery fire.

Then they had hid­den ma­chine-gun nests on the for­ward slopes, with cross­fire tak­ing in every inch of the beach. These nests were con­nected by net­works of trenches, so that the Ger­man gun­ners could move about with­out ex­pos­ing them­selves.

Through­out the length of the beach, run­ning zigzag a cou­ple of hun­dred yards back from the shore­line, was an im­mense V-shaped ditch fif­teen feet deep. Noth­ing could cross it, not even men on foot, un­til fills had been made. And in other places at the far end of the beach, where the ground is flat­ter, they had great con­crete walls. These were blasted by our naval gun­fire or by ex­plo­sives set by hand af­ter we got ashore.

Our only ex­its from the beach were sev­eral swales or val­leys, each about 100 yards wide. The Ger­mans made the most of these fun­nel-like traps, sow­ing them with buried mines. They con­tained, also, barbed-wire en­tan­gle­ments with mines at­tached, hid­den ditches, and ma­chine guns fir­ing from the slopes.

This is what was on the shore. But our men had to go through a maze nearly as deadly as this be­fore they even got ashore. Un­der­wa­ter ob­sta­cles were terrific. The Ger­mans had whole fields of evil de­vices un­der the wa­ter to catch our boats. Even now, sev­eral days af­ter the land­ing, we have cleared only chan­nels through them and can­not yet ap­proach the whole length of the beach with our ships. Even now some ship or boat hits one of these mines every day and is knocked out of com­mis­sion.

The Ger­mans had masses of those great six-pronged spi­ders, made of rail­road iron and stand­ing shoul­der-high, just be­neath the sur­face of the wa­ter for our land­ing craft to run into. They also had huge logs buried in the sand, point­ing up­ward and out­ward, their tops just below the wa­ter. At­tached to these logs were mines.

In ad­di­tion to these ob­sta­cles they had float­ing mines off­shore, land mines buried in the sand of the beach, and more mines in checker­board rows in the tall grass be­yond the sand. And the en­emy had four men on shore for every three men we had ap­proach­ing the shore.

And yet we got on.

Beach land­ings are planned to a sched­ule that is set far ahead of time. They all have to be timed, in or­der for every­thing to mesh and for the fol­low­ing waves of troops to be stand­ing off the beach and ready to land at the right mo­ment.

As the land­ings are planned, some ele­ments of the as­sault force are to break through quickly, push on in­land, and at­tack the most ob­vi­ous en­emy strong points. It is usu­ally the plan for units to be in­land, at­tack­ing gun po­si­tions from be­hind, within a mat­ter of min­utes af­ter the first men hit the beach.

I have al­ways been amazed at the speed called for in these plans. You’ll have sched­ules call­ing for en­gi­neers to land at H-hour plus two min­utes, and ser­vice troops at H-hour plus thirty min­utes, and even for press cen­sors to land at H-hour plus seventy-five min­utes. But in the at­tack on this spe­cial por­tion of the beach where I am — the worst we had, in­ci­den­tally — the sched­ule didn’t hold.

Our men sim­ply could not get past the beach. They were pinned down right on the wa­ter’s edge by an in­hu­man wall of fire from the bluff. Our first waves were on that beach for hours, in­stead of a few min­utes, be­fore they could be­gin work­ing in­land.

You can still see the fox­holes they dug at the very edge of the wa­ter, in the sand and the small, jum­bled rocks that form parts of the beach.

Med­i­cal corps­men at­tended the wounded as best they could. Men were killed as they stepped out of land­ing craft. An of­fi­cer whom I knew got a bul­let through the head just as the door of his land­ing craft was let down. Some men were drowned.

The first crack in the beach de­fenses was fi­nally ac­com­plished by terrific and won­der­ful naval gun­fire, which knocked out the big em­place­ments. They tell epic sto­ries of de­stroy­ers that ran right up into shal­low wa­ter and had it out point-blank with the big guns in those con­crete em­place­ments ashore.

When the heavy fire stopped, our men were or­ga­nized by their of­fi­cers and pushed on in­land, cir­cling ma­chine-gun nests and tak­ing them from the rear.

As one of­fi­cer said, the only way to take a beach is to face it and keep go­ing. It is costly at first, but it’s the only way. If the men are pinned down on the beach, dug in and out of ac­tion, they might as well not be there at all. They hold up the waves be­hind them, and noth­ing is be­ing gained.

Our men were pinned down for a while, but fi­nally they stood up and went through, and so we took that beach and ac­com­plished our land­ing. We did it with every ad­van­tage on the en­emy’s side and every dis­ad­van­tage on ours. In the light of a cou­ple of days of ret­ro­spec­tion, we sit and talk and call it a mir­a­cle that our men ever got on at all or were able to stay on.

Be­fore long it will be per­mit­ted to name the units that did it. Then you will know to whom this glory should go. They suf­fered ca­su­al­ties. And yet if you take the en­tire beach­head as­sault, in­clud­ing other units that had a much eas­ier time, our to­tal ca­su­al­ties in driv­ing this wedge into the con­ti­nent of Europe were re­mark­ably low – only a fraction, in fact, of what our com­man­ders had been pre­pared to ac­cept.

And these units that were so bat­tered and went through such hell are still, right at this mo­ment, push­ing on in­land with­out rest, their spir­its high, their ego­tism in vic­tory al­most reach­ing the smar­talecky stage.

Their tails are up. “We’ve done it again,” they say.

They fig­ure that the rest of the army isn’t needed at all. Which proves that, while their judg­ment in this re­gard is bad, they cer­tainly have the spirit that wins bat­tles and even­tu­ally wars.

ERNIE PYLE

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