D-Day at Seventy (An Oral History of the Landing at Omaha Beach)

What follows is an oral history of the amphibious landings on Omaha Beach by Private George C. Gutschke of the 29th Infantry Division.  He was a member of the Western Task Force: Assault Force B and embarked for Omaha Beach – Dog Green Sector – from the USS LST 337.  This sequence of events stems from the conversations he and I had throughout his life with contributions from my mother, brother, niece, aunts, and uncles.  Whenever you see quotes, those are the actual words from my father’s recollections.  I have also consulted the 29th Infantry’s daily reports to fill gaps and confirm locations.  Many details are missing because of my father’s reluctance to talk of these events.  He died on March 18th, 2014.

 

Headline for the San Antonio Light for June 6, 1944.

Headline for the San Antonio Light for June 6, 1944.

“They dropped us in water over our heads.  My rifle pulled me under and I was scared I would drown.  Now this’ll sound crazy and you’ll think I’m lyin’, but when I didn’t drown, I wasn’t scared anymore.  I feared drowning more than being shot.” —Private George Gutschke on landing at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944

On June 6th 1944, my father was a private in the Western Task Force of the Allied Invasion.  He was not always a private.  While in New York in 1943, he earned the rank of corporal, but was busted to private for permitting soldiers on guard to warm themselves by a fire while he watched their post.  He accepted his punishment gracefully, even removing his corporal stripes before being demoted by his commanding officer.  He looked upon it as a blessing, telling his guilt-ridden friends, “I got no desire to lead men in combat.”

Now a private in the 29th Infantry Division, he waited on a LST off the French coast.  Allied commanders assigned some elements of the 175th Infantry Regiment to the Western Task Force’s Assault Force B and planned for them to land and mop up German resistance after the initial assault waves secured Omaha Beach.  These same commanders planned that Allied bombers and naval bombardment would decimate the lone battalion of inexperienced German troops manning shore defenses.

In reality cloud cover had obscured the beach and the bombers had dropped their bombs miles off target.  Rockets fired from landing craft in the early-morning fog fell short of their targets, killing fish but failing to dent Rommel’s Atlantic Wall.  The naval bombardment only succeeded in igniting grass fires that obscured landing markers for the incoming landing craft.  And instead of one battalion of inexperienced troops, the Allied assault teams faced three battalions of the battle-hardened 352nd Wehrmatch.

Early reports from the beach were not good.  The first assault teams on Omaha faced fierce resistance from a concealed enemy holding high ground.  Many of the Allied assault teams suffered heavy causalities with nine of every ten men killed in action before firing a shot.  Some were dropped in deep water and pulled to their deaths by their packs and rifles.  German snipers targeted officers or anyone taking charge in the chaos.  Amphibious tanks sank in rough seas and those making it ashore were heavily shelled.

The bluffs of Omaha Beach.

Omaha Beach Dog Red Sector.

At one point, General Omar Bradley considered evacuating Omaha and routing men and machines to beaches that were already under Allied control; there was, however, objectives that needed to be taken on a strict timetable.  And there was a German armored division lurking somewhere in Normandy.  So he decided to reinforce Omaha and hope those reinforcements, their training and their resourcefulness could turn the tide of battle.  So Assault Force B would be pressed into service not to mop, but to help bring order to the chaos on the beach.

By the time the order came to enter the LCVP, my father was seasick and reeling.  The roiling tides rocked the tiny Higgins craft.  He was so sick he jokingly said that he welcomed the bullet that would put him out of his misery.  And as he tried to steady himself, he leaned his head back and looked over the side of the landing craft.  What he saw was other troops from another LST entering their LCVPs and this made him chuckle.

“Will you look at that?”

Someone asked, “What?”

“Look who’s making the landing!”

While receiving amphibious assault training, their trainers and tormented the trainees, telling them they felt pity for all the poor sons of bitches making this landing.  And while the 29th was getting their ass shot off in Normandy, they would be back in England drinking, eating, and making merry with the local women.  Now these same trainers and tormentors were entering their LCVPs and making their preparations to assault the beach.

After getting the attention of their tormentors, the heckling began.  Someone from my father’s LCVP shouted, “I don’t know if y’all know, but these boats ain’t going to England!”  The insults shot back and forth until one soldier told the 29ers that he would “see you greenhorns on the beach!”

An LCVP or Higgins boat makes it way toward Omaha Beach.

A loaded LCVP makes it way toward Omaha Beach.

The tiny Higgins boat pulled away from its LST and began maneuvering towards the rally point.  My father kept hearing a splash.  Someone had seen fit to saddle the smallest man in the boat with Bangalore torpedos; every so often he would pitch part of the bangers over the side.  When he made eye contact with my father, he said, “I’m not carrying all this shit on that beach,” then continued pitching the equipment.  No one said a word.  Seasick soldiers were not bothering to use the bags high command had provided in the boats—they simply threw up on the deck.  Sea spray mixed with the vomit, making the deck slick.  The cold water soaked uniforms and haversacks.  If being sick, scared, and cold were not enough, their equipment had just become heavier.

As their LCVP moved toward the landing target, my father’s sergeant, a man in his forties and a combat veteran of WWI, ordered every man to undo the chin strap on his helmet: “You don’t want a shell ripping your helmet off with your head inside.”  He then ordered every man to undo the webbing on his haversack and pitch both his pack and gas mask.

“All you need is your helmet and your rifle.  Drop the rest of the stuff—it will only drown you.”

“But Sarge,” asked my father, “they’re takin’ us up to the beach.”

“No,” he said, “they’re droppin’ us in the water.”

Standing behind my father in the LCVP, his sergeant said, “George, that ramp is a murder hole and if we go through it we’re going to be slaughtered.  When I tap you on the shoulder, you go with me over the side.” He gave them the men in the boat their orders; their first order was to survive so they could fulfill their second order, which was to fight.

As the landing craft had reached its target in Dog Green Sector, it hit a sandbar hundreds of yards from the beachhead.  As whistle blew and and the ramp dropped, the sergeant hit my father on the shoulder then both men scrambled over the side of the landing craft.  The water was deep and my father’s Browning Automatic began to pull him under.  He panicked thinking he was drowning.  He let the BAR go to the bottom of the channel.  Finally, he emerged, gasping for air with no pack, no helmet, and no weapon.

But he was alive.

As he floated in the bloody surf, he tried to get his bearings.  He could see through the smoke the enemy moving along the bluff and the muzzle flashes from their machine gun nests.  The vehicles that had not foundered in the channel were burning on the beach.  Equipment was strewn everywhere.  Men huddled behind beach obstacles for cover.  Some men cried.  The wounded cried for medics and their mothers.  Bodies floated everywhere.  He said it was as if you had chopped up a thousand men and threw their parts in the sea—a boot with a leg, a wrist with a watch, a torso without a head, all manner of slaughter.

As he swam towards the beach, machine gun fire ripped the water.  When he could finally touch bottom, he staggered for cover behind a beach obstacle.  From behind the obstacle, it seemed as if the whole damned invasion was off the beam.  Failing to find anyone from his squad or his company and having escaped death by drowning, he was determined to methodically move forward.  Still without a gun or a helmet, he moved to an obstacle where several men were seeking cover.  A radioman was in contact with someone on a ship wanting a progress report.

“They’re fuckin’ butchering us—sir!”  A pause.  “Very little movement forward, sir!”  This time there was a longer pause.

“What’d they say?” my father asked.

“They say there are two ways off this beach!  We move forward or we go off in body bags!”

“Then let’s go.  Let me find a rifle.”

As the radioman moved, machine gun fire ripped through him, killing him.  Another soldier yelled at my father, “You’re in charge now!”

I cannot imagine my father’s disbelief.  He was without a helmet, a compass, a map, and most importantly a weapon.

He sarcastically shot back, “No thanks! I’m doing well to take care of myself at the moment. You can pass that responsibility on to someone else.”

Omaha Beach, Easy Read Sector. Photo by Robert Capa.

Omaha Beach, Easy Read Sector. Photo by Robert Capa.

He again picked his way methodically from beach obstacle to beach obstacle.  As he came closer to the shore, the machine gun fire increased.  He took cover behind an obstacle in reach of a Browning Automatic Rifle.  Each time he reached for the rifle, bullets ripped the surf near him and clanked against the metal obstacle.  As the bloody surf washed in and out, it pushed and pulled the head of a soldier that had been severed from its body.  And as my father hid behind the obstacle, the head bobbed in the surf next to him.  There he waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Then as more landing craft brought reinforcements, they drew the enemy’s fire.  He grabbed the BAR then ran across agonizing yards of open beach and threw himself down by other troops hiding behind the shingle.

One time my aunt asked him, “George, how did you survive on that beach?”

He answered succinctly, “I was running like Hell.”

The shingle afforded cover from machine gun fire, but the German’s had zeroed every inch of that beach and their artillery was murdering the troops hiding there.  All the officers were dead.  No squads were complete much less any companies.

Finally a young lieutenant organized everyone into a makeshift unit.

He told the men, “Alright, let’s get the Hell outta here!”  He called for the Bangalore torpedoes.  The problem was that in order to blow up the rows of concertina wire behind the shingle, someone had to assemble and fuse the bangers without cover.  Several men tried and several men died.  Finally the lieutenant, frustrated with having lost too many men, removed his pack and crawled across the sand to assemble and fuse the banger.  Under constant machine gun fire, the lieutenant assembled the Bangalore and fused it.  He was killed as he tried to reach cover, but he had opened a path through the wire.

Beyond that breach in the wire lay more beach.  And beyond that stretch of beach lay a minefield, which the Nazis had thoughtfully marked with a sign reading, “Achtung Minen.”  And beyond that lay the base of the bluffs and an exit off the beach.

Now it was time to run like Hell once again.

Across the open stretch they ran avoiding the minefield.  At the base of the bluffs, this makeshift unit found a path that would get them up bluffs and into the network of trenches the Germans had built behind their pillboxes.  The fighting was claustrophobic compared to the beach with the enemy sometimes popping out of a trench not 10 yards away.  The fighting was fierce and brutal—it was time for the men that endured the horror of the beach to inflict pain on their enemy.  And they did.

Later my father would reunite with members of 175th, those who made the D-Day landing and survived and those that that were lucky enough to come ashore on June 7th.  My father would not eat or sleep for the next three days.  The adrenaline that saved him on the beach sustained him for days.  In the battle for Normandy, Company K would draw some the toughest assignments and fight with distinction, capturing Isigny and Hait and a bridge over the Vire River that allowed elements of the Invasion to link up.  My father’s participation in WWII ended when a German mortar shattered both his legs on a bridge somewhere between Isigny and Hait on June 9th, 1944.

The telegram letting my father's mother know he was seriously wounded in action.

The telegram letting my father’s mother know he was seriously wounded in action.

Field doctors fought desperately to save both his legs and when doctors wanted to amputate one leg at a military hospital, he begged them to wait and to see if his legs would heal.  He spent two years rehabbing in that military hospital, but one leg never properly healed.  After being discharged from the Army, he would go jitterbugging all night and his leg would split open and bleed.  He took no painkillers and simply wrapped it in gauze until he went dancing the next week.

He was the toughest, most remarkable man I have ever known.

New Yorker cartoonist Al Ross drew my father while in the hospital.

New Yorker cartoonist Al Ross drew my father while in the hospital.

Basic training 1943: My father, Eller, and my father's best friend, G.W. Hall.

Basic training 1943: My father, Eller, and my father’s best friend, G.W. Hall.

 

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