OMAHA BEACH, Normandy — This story was first published on June 5, 1954 AP journalist Don Whitehead, known by his colleagues as “Beachhead Don,” returned to Normandy for the tenth anniversary of the D-Day invasion, which he covered when he followed the 1st Infantry Division onto Omaha Beach. The AP is republishing Whitehead’s tenth anniversary story on the 75th anniversary of the assault that began the liberation of France and Europe from German occupation, leading to the end World War II.
Between the rows of white crosses they walked hand in hand, the gray-haired man and woman who had traveled across an ocean to visit the American cemetery overlooking the invasion beaches of Normandy.
They walked slowly among their memories of the dead. And then they paused besides a cross distinguished from thousands of others only by the name and number it bore. They stood and looked for a long moment at the name. They were alone with a heartbreak that went back to that day of invasion, June 6, 1944.
Above the man and woman and the crosses rose the outlines of the cemetery chapel, on which were chiseled these words:
“These endured all and gave all that justice among nations might prevail and that mankind might enjoy freedom and inherit peace.”
They come by the hundreds – Americans, British, Canadians, French and Germans – to visit these beaches called “Omaha” and “Utah” which with the years have become symbols of man’s struggle for freedom and peace.
Never Has Symbolism Meant So Much
Never before, with another brand of tyranny rising from the ashes of world war II, has the symbolism meant so much as on this 10th anniversary of the invasion.
The visitors come to stand for a moment with someone they loved or to wonder how it was they themselves lived through the inferno of battle while others died. They come to see the historic battleground, carrying flowers in honor of the dead.
A few, like Albert Dossmann, 13, and Rene Bataille, 6, come with no memories of invasion day because they were born too late for such memories. They are there to hunt for bayonets and carbines in the sand and to play the game of war among crumbling ruins of trenches and old blockhouses.
Beyond where the youngsters play – clutching rusty carbines in their hands and peering from under battered old helmets – fishermen set their fishing lines in the sand and bait them for the incoming tide. Only battered bits and pieces of the invasion fleet and artificial harbor can be seen even at low tide to mark the landing site. Channel tides slowly are breaking these up and wearing them away.
The brown sand stretches hard and smooth to the rock-shale shelf marking the high-tide line. The sand is clean again. The tides have washed away the blood and debris of battle.
Grass, Vines Almost Hide Scars of War
Beyond the beach rise the bluffs where the Germans built their first line of defenses with trenches and blockhouses. The blockhouses still stand. The eyes of their gunports stare at the scene impotently. The trenches have crumbled. The green grass and vines almost hide the scars, but not quite. Slowly the signs of war are disappearing.
Looking at this country and standing again at the water’s edge, the memories come with a rush … memories of that terrible dawn when the Allies smashed across the beaches in the great drive on which hung the hope of peace.
Through the night the vast invasion armada rode the rough channel waters toward Normandy. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had given the signal to go. Now the decision had passed from his hands to the men riding the invasion craft. The greatest invasion gamble in history couldn’t be halted.
Gen. Omar N. Bradley, commanding the American forces, had chosen the 1st Infantry Division to carry the weight of the drive against Omaha Beach because “The Big Red One” had been hardened in the battles in North Africa and Sicily. The division was commanded by Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner.
3400 Men Composed Initial Assault Force
This initial assault force had the code name of “Force O.” It was a battering ram of 34,000 men and 3,300 vehicles plus artillery, armor, rangers, engineers and service elements. Behind them came the follow-up waves of 25,000 men and 4,400 vehicles from the 29th Infantry Division. In other waves waited tons of thousands more.
On the left were the British and Canadians. And on the right, Gen. J. Lawton Collins led his U.S. 7th Corps toward Utah Beach with the 4th Infantry Division as his spearhead.
Ahead was Omaha Beach. The first waves were under the command of Col. George Taylor, commanding the 1st Division’s 16th Regimental combat team. In his cabin aboard the USS Samuel Chase, Taylor outlined the battle plan:
“The first six hours will be the toughest. That is the period when we’ll be weakest. But we’ve got to open the door. Somebody has to lead the way – and if we fail … well …then the troops behind us will do the job. They’ll just keep throwing stuff onto the beaches until something breaks. That is the plan.”
Already the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropping from the skies into the hedgerows of Normandy. Bombers and naval guns were pounding the coastline.
Assault Boats Head for The Beach
At dawn, the men climbed over the ship’s side into the pitching assault boats and headed for the beach. Soon the roar and smoke of battle rolled over us. Our craft found an opening blown in the steel and barbed wire defenses at the beach and ploughed through. The ramp lowered. We waded to the rocky shingle where thousands of men were burrowing in the shale.
Machine gun bullets whipped across and ripped small geysers in the water. A shell screamed into an assault boat just as the ramp was lowered.
Men clawed foxholes with bare and bloody fingers. The wounded moaned at the water’s edge, and the bodies of the dead moved gently with the tide or were frozen in stillness there on the rocky shelf. The moans of the wounded grew muffled. But it would be hours before all the wounded could be removed. The incoming waves of men and machines had priority over the suffering.
During the night the German 352nd Infantry Division had moved onto the bluffs in a training maneuver. They had no hint the invasion was under way. Suddenly the maneuver was real. From the trenches and blockhouses they poured a deadly fire across the bloody beach called Omaha.
Order Formed Out Of Vast Confusion
The sands were strewn with the dead. Still the invaders came.
In the vast confusion, order began to take shape because of men like Col. Taylor and Maj. Paul Gale and Capt. Joe Dawson, and Sgt. John Griffin, and Lt. Carl W. Giles and Pvt. Vincent Dove. They were a few among many heroes on that day.
In his twangy Indiana voice, Col. Taylor said: “Gentlemen, we’re being killed on the beaches. Let’s go inland to be killed.”
And so they went inland. They fought their way from the water’s edge across the open flats, through the barbed wire and minefields, and onto the bluffs where the German guns blazed.
With only a sweatshirt as armor, Pvt. Dove climbed into the seat of a bulldozer and while bullets and shells whipped around him he bulldozed the first roadway off Omaha Beach.