- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Recently Viewed clear list
Used Trade Paper
Ships in 1 to 3 days
More copies of this ISBN
Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945by Stephen E Ambrose
Expanding the Beachhead
June 7-30, 1944
Shortly after dawn on June 7, Lt. Horace Henderson of the Sixth Engineer Special Brigade landed on Omaha Beach. Going in on his Higgins boat, "I noticed that nothing moved on the beach except one bulldozer. The beach was covered with debris, sunken craft and wrecked vehicles. We saw many bodies in the water...We jumped into chest high water and waded ashore. Then we saw that the beach was literally covered with the bodies of American soldiers wearing the blue and gray patches of the 29th Infantry Division."
Although the fighting had moved inland, sporadic artillery shelling and intermittent sniper fire from Germans still holding their positions on the bluff hampered movement on the beach. Henderson's job was to distribute maps (a critical and never-ending process — eventually in the Normandy campaign, the U.S. First Army passed out 125 million maps), but because the front line was just over the bluff at Omaha, only men, ammunition, weapons, and gasoline were being brought ashore, so he had no maps to hand out. He and his section unloaded jerry cans of gasoline, the first of millions of such cans that would cross that beach.
Sometime that afternoon, Henderson recalled, "Before the bodies could be removed, the first religious service was held on Omaha Beach. We prayed for those who had been lost and thanked the Lord for our survival. I promised God that I would do all in my power to help prevent such a terrible event ever happening again."
That evening, toward dusk, Henderson dug in at the foot of the cliff opposite the Vierville draw. Just as he lay down, four German bombers appeared. "A sea of ships began to fire hundreds of antiaircraft guns with a noise that was terrifying." That was the lone Luftwaffe foray against Omaha Beach that day.
To the west, inland from Utah Beach, on the morning of June 7, Lieutenant Wray's foray had broken up the German counterattack into Ste.-Mère-Eglise before it got started. But by noon the Germans were dropping mortar shells on the town. Pvt. Jack Leonard of the 82nd was in a foxhole that took a direct hit. His stomach was blown away. His last words were, "God damn the bastards, they got me. The hell with it."
That afternoon E Company, 505th PIR, moved out to drive the Germans farther back. Those who participated included Sgt. Otis Sampson, an old cavalry soldier with ten years in the Army, by reputation the best mortarman in the division, something he had proved on D-Day; Lt. James Coyle, a platoon leader in the 505th PIR; and Lt. Frank Woosley, a company executive officer in the 505th. In some ways the experience they were about to have — fighting in the hedgerows — typified what others were going through that same day, or would be experiencing in the days to follow; in other ways they were atypically lucky.
The company had two tanks attached to it. Lieutenant Coyle's order was to take his platoon across the field and attack the hedgerow ahead, simple and straightforward enough. But Coyle had been in Normandy for a day and a half, and he knew this wasn't Fort Benning. He protested. He explained to his CO that the Germans dug into and hid behind the hedgerows and they would exact a bloody price from infantry advancing through a field, no matter how good the men were at fire-and-movement.
Coyle figured there had to be a better way. He received permission to explore alternate routes. Lieutenant Woosley accompanied him. Sure enough, Coyle found a route through the sunken lanes that brought the Americans to a point where they were looking down a lane running perpendicular to the one they were on. It was the main German position, inexplicably without cover or observation posts on its flank.
The paratroopers were thus able to observe an unsuspecting German battalion at work. It had only arrived at the position a quarter of an hour earlier (which may explain the unguarded flank) but it already had transformed the lane into a fortress. Communication wires ran up and down. Mortar crews worked their weapons. Sergeants with binoculars leaned against the bank and peered through openings cut in the hedge, directing the mortar fire. Other forward observers had radios and were directing the firing of heavy artillery from the rear. Riflemen at the embankment also had cut holes through which they could aim and fire. At the near and far corners of the lane, the corners of the field, German heavy machine guns were tunneled in, the muzzles of their guns just peeking through a small hole in the embankment, with crews at the ready to send crisscrossing fire into the field in front.
That was the staggering firepower Coyle's platoon would have run into, had he obeyed without question his original orders. Because he had refused and successfully argued his point, he was now on the German flank with his men and two tanks behind him. The tanks did a ninety-degree turn. The men laid down a base of rifle and machine-gun fire, greatly aided by a barrage of mortars from Sergeant Sampson. Then the tanks shot their 75mm cannon down the lane.
Germans fell all around. Sampson fired all his mortar shells, then picked up a BAR. "I was that close I couldn't miss," he remembered. "That road was their death trap. It was so easy I felt ashamed of myself and quit firing. I felt I had bagged my quota."
The German survivors waved a white flag. Coyle told his men to cease fire, stood up, walked down the lane to take the surrender. Two grenades came flying over the hedgerow and landed at his feet. He dove to the side and escaped, and the firing opened up again. The Americans had the Germans trapped in the lane, and after a period of taking casualties without being able to inflict any, the German soldiers began to take off, bursting through the hedgerow and emerging into the field with hands held high, crying "Comrade!"
Soon there were 200 or so men in the field, hands up. Coyle went through the hedgerow, to begin the rounding-up process, and promptly got hit in the thigh by a sniper's bullet, not badly but he was furious with himself for twice not being cautious enough. But he had great self-control, and he got the POWs gathered in and put under guard. He and his men had effectively destroyed an enemy battalion without losing a single man.
It was difficult finding enough men for guard duty, as there was only one GI for every ten captured Germans. The guards therefore took no chances. Corp. Sam Applebee encountered a German officer who refused to move. "I took a bayonet and shoved it into his ass," Applebee recounted, "and then he moved. You should have seen the happy smiles and giggles that escaped the faces of some of the prisoners, to see their Lord and Master made to obey, especially from an enlisted man."
Sergeant Sampson saw another NCO shooting directly down with his BAR. He was the only man shooting. On investigation, Sampson discovered that he was shooting disarmed prisoners who were standing in the ditch, hands up. The GI was blazing away. "There must have been some hate in his heart," Sampson commented.
E Company's experience on June 7 was unique, or nearly so — an unguarded German flank was seldom again to be found. But in another way, what the company went through was to be repeated across Normandy in the weeks that followed. In the German army, the slave troops from conquered Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia, would throw their hands up at the first opportunity, but if they misjudged their situation and their NCO was around, they were likely to get shot in the back. Or the NCOs would keep up the fight even as their enlisted men surrendered, as Coyle discovered.
Lt. Leon Mendel was an interrogation officer with Military Intelligence, attached to the 505th. He did the interrogation of the prisoners Coyle's platoon had taken. "I started off with German," Mendel remembered, "
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like
History and Social Science » Military » US Military » General
History and Social Science » Military » World War II » Europe » General
History and Social Science » Military » World War II » General
History and Social Science » US History » General