Monday, June 6, 2011

From the Pages - Omaha Beach and Beyond

For the men landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, survival was all about staying as small a target as possible and getting up the beach as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, for Sgt. John Robert Slaughter, staying small was not an option.

Standing six-foot, five-inches tall, it would be a minor miracle that this giant of a man would not come upon any physical harm on the beach, a deadly landing point with bullets flying indiscriminately in all directions and no place to hide.

In the following excerpt from Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter, Slaughter recounts his harrowing experience landing on the bloodied sands of Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

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About 150 yards from shore—despite the warning from someone behind me to “Keep your head down!”—I cautiously peeped up. I could see that the craft about twenty-five yards to our right and a couple of hundred yards ahead were targeted by small arms. Fiery tracer bullets skipped and bounced off the ramp and sides as they zeroed in before the ramps fell. I said to anyone close enough to hear above the bedlam: “Men, we’re going to catch hell. Be ready!”

Then it began to happen. Enemy artillery and mortar shells sent great plumes of water spouting skyward as they exploded in the water. Near misses rained us with seawater. I suddenly became very worried about what Jerry could do to us.

How in the hell did those sonsofbitches survive what we thought was a carpet-bombing and shelling of the beach? At Slapton Sands we trained with live explosions, but these were far more frightening. This time they were shooting to kill every one of us.

We expected A and B Companies to have the beach secured by the time we landed. In reality, no one had set foot where we touched down. Smoke and fog had prevented our coxswain from guiding on the Vierville church steeple. This, plus strong tidal currents had diverted us about 200 yards to the east of our intended landing. Mortar and artillery shells exploded on the land and in the water as we approached. The telltale screech just before impact and explosion made the incoming artillery even more terrifying. Even worse, they seemed to land in clusters.

The craft slowed as we scraped a submerged sandbar, which kept us from a dry landing. Everyone wanted to get the hell off that rocking boat, but the coxswain had trouble dropping the steel ramp. When it finally slammed and splashed down, the front of the boat began to buck like a wild stallion, rising six or seven feet, turning slightly sideways, and then slamming down again. Over and over, it went: rise-turn-slam! rise-turn-slam! The boat and the ramp became enemies in and of themselves.

The first man to exit went off about midramp. The craft surged forward and crushed the poor fellow to death. Everyone who followed went off at each side or the rear. I was about fifth from the front on the left; Platoon Sergeant Willard Norfleet led the right side. Bullets and shrapnel notwithstanding, it was especially hard and dangerous to exit the front of that boat. Many of us simply had to wait our turn.

My turn came, and I sat on the edge of the ramp waiting on the down cycle, when the ramp would allow me a clean getaway. I must have sat there for two or three ups and downs, causing a bottleneck that endangered those behind me. So I jumped off and moved away from the crazy, erratic landing craft. Luckily, I didn’t see anyone else get hit by the ramp.

I was now struggling in water up to my armpits. Luckily for me, at six –feet five, most of the time my head was above water. Later, as I crossed the beach, my height would be a detriment, making me a larger target. Meanwhile, as I tried to get to shore, shorter men grabbed my clothing to keep their heads above water. Suddenly, as fear replaced seasickness, I was no longer cold. Most of all, I feared I would drown after being shot. Snipers hiding in the bluffs hit quite a few men. But most of the damage came from rapid-firing automatic weapons.

In every war since gunpowder was invented, soldiers have experienced the dreaded feeling of being under live enemy fire for the first time. It was demoralizing to hear good men scream as bullets ripped into soft flesh and others scream as the fierce, flooding tide dragged the nonswimmers under.

Almost everyone dumped his heavy assault jackets and weapons, as getting to dry land became the prime objective. For some reason, most likely the earlier incident with Private Avolino losing a water can, I kept my jacket and its contents. It was extremely hard to shed the extra weight, and a weak swimmer could drown before inflating his life preserver. I had to inflate mine to get ashore even though I was a pretty good swimmer.

Especially if you were hit and going under, it was extremely tough to shed the sixty to one hundred pounds of weapons and equipment in time. I remember helping Private Ernest McCanless, who was struggling to get closer in. He still had one box of precious .30-caliber machine gun ammo. I remember him shouting to me, “Slaughter, are we going to get through all of this?” I didn’t know how to answer him, so I didn’t say anything. To tell the truth, I thought we were all going to die.

A body with its life preserver inflated floated by. The face had already turned a dark purple. At first I thought it was Private Richard Gomez, who had a dark complexion. But I later found out that Gomez had survived the day. The fellow I saw was just one of thousands who died. There is no way to be sure if I had known him. Many of our company were hit in the water and drowned, good swimmers or not.

I came ashore surrounded by the screams of men who had been hit and were drowning under their ponderous loads. All around me, dead men floated in the water, along with live men who acted as if they were dead. The Germans couldn’t tell which was which. The flooding tide washed everyone in.

I finally washed in to the water’s edge and took cover behind a log bipod obstacle. I looked up and saw a large round teller mine tied to its top. It was suddenly clear that this was not going to be the easy “walk-across-the-beach” operation we had thought it would be. Jerry was either very clever or very lucky. No one thought he would give us this kind of opposition coming off the landing craft at the edge of the water.

At that moment, we sorely needed our officers and senior noncoms, but many of them were already wounded, dying, or dead. Tracer machine gun bullets raked the beach and, as we got closer, the puffs of white smoke changed into accurate target patterns along the shoreline.

Lying at the edge of the high water mark, I watched a GI trying to cross the beach. He had a hard time running. I believe he was from the craft to our right. An enemy gunner cut him down and he staggered and fell to the sand. I can still hear him screaming. A well-marked medical corpsman moved quickly to help him. He was also shot. I will never forget seeing that medic lying next to that dying soldier, both screaming for help. Within minutes, as I watched, both men fell silent and, mercifully, died.

I saw men vomit at the sickening sights, and others cry openly and unashamedly. All of us had to find it within ourselves to get across that sandy no man’s land. This is where the army’s strict discipline and rigorous training took over. Individual pride had a lot to do with it, too.

The tide was rushing in and later waves were due. I couldn’t retreat, and I couldn’t stay where I was, so I signaled my depleted squad to follow. Before disembarking, I had stripped the plastic from my rifle, designed to protect it from salt water and sand, and fixed my bayonet. I wanted to be ready. For what, though, I wasn’t sure.

It was a bad mistake.

I gathered my strength and my courage, and then I just came up out of the water and started running. I ran as fast and as low as I could, to make myself less of a target. I had a long way to go: 300 to 400 yards. I was loaded down with gear, and my woolen clothes were soaked and heavy. As I ran through a tidal pool six or eight inches deep, I began to stumble, which caused me to accidentally fire my rifle. Luckily, no squad members were in front of me when it went off. I caught my balance and kept on running. I ran and ran for what seemed an eternity, and finally made it to a five-foot-high sea wall to take cover and catch my breath.

After I fired my M1, it jammed. To clean it, I slipped out of my assault jacket and spread my raincoat, only to discover bullet holes in my pack and coat. Suddenly overwhelmed with fear, I became weak in the knees. My hands shook as I tried to wipe sand from my weapon. I had to catch my breath and compose myself.

I believe I was the first from our craft to reach the sea wall. Following me were Private First Class Williams, Private Augeri, and Private McCanless. Augeri lost the machine gun receiver while struggling to get ashore. Williams was still carrying the 50-pound tripod, and McCanless had a box of machine gun ammo but nothing from which to fire it. We were pinned down over halfway across Omaha Beach without a weapon capable of firing. At that point we were essentially helpless. I felt like a tasty morsel on a giant sandy platter just waiting for the Germans to chew us up.

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