Onto the Beach

updated 05/30/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1994 01:00AM

No one was prepared for this scene from hell

On June 6, President Clinton and a host of other dignitaries will be in Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D Day. Even now, half a century later, celebrations are very much in order, for the day that the Allied forces, arriving by sea, established a beachhead on the coast of France marked the beginning of the end of Hitler's reign of terror.

The largest seaborne operation ever mounted, D Day involved 4,500 ships carrying 150,000 troops. On that day there were 10,000 Allied casualties as wave after wave of troops threw themselves against entrenched German positions. The bloodiest fighting of the day occurred along Omaha Beach, where German soldiers firing from trenches and concrete bunkers built into high bluffs blasted away at the Americans coming in from the sea. At first it looked as if the men would simply be cut to pieces there as they landed. But as the day wore on, the deciding factor became courage and numbers, not firepower. Here is what happened 50 years ago at Omaha, as told by the men who fought there.

Harold Baumgarten, then 19, was a rifleman with the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division. He lives in Jacksonville, Fla.: At about 5:30 a.m., the sky was black with planes. We yelled at them, "Give 'em hell"—because we didn't expect to make it. In England they told us, "Two out of three of you aren't going home." The water was rough, and in the landing craft a lot of men were seasick, puking. The water was up to my calf muscles. I had the end of my rifle covered with a condom to keep it dry.

Warren Rulien, 24, was a private with the 16th Regiment, 1st Division. He lives in Chippewa Falls, Wis.: I felt so rotten from seasickness, I was almost enthusiastic about hitting the beach. But as we got nearer to the shore, German bullets began hitting the sides of the landing craft. The ramp was lowered, and I stepped off into water up to my chest. I lost my balance and dropped my rifle. We'd been told the Navy Seabees were going ahead of us to get rid of the mines in the water. But the mines were still there, slicking six feet out of the water on steel rails, and there were Navy men floating dead in the water. I took one of the bodies that was floating—and pushed it in front of me toward the shore. I figured I couldn't do anything to help the poor guy and his body would stop bullets. Landing craft were continuing to bring in waves of soldiers and they were bunching up on shore, taking shelter behind a three-foot-high seawall. They were being slaughtered.

Bob Slaughter, 19, was a sergeant with the 116th Regiment, 29th Division. He lives in Roanoke, Va.: With all the artillery and machine-gun fire, it was like going into a hornet's nest. We were still about a hundred yards from shore and the coxswain piloting our craft said, "I'll let the ramp down here." He wanted to dump us and get the heck out of there. But Willard Norfleet, our platoon sergeant, said, "These men have heavy gear. They'll drown." When the coxswain protested, Norfleet stuck a pistol to his head. He took us all the way in.

Baumgarten: German machine guns opened up on us when the ramp went down. Several men in front of me were killed. The water was bloody. It was bright red. As I ran, bullets chopped up the water around me. When we got close to shore, I heard a thud. The fellow in front of me was on the ground, dying, yelling, "Ma! Mother!" On my left, Sgt. Clarence Robinson got hit. He staggered, kneeled down and started to pray with his rosary beads. Then the machine gun cut him in half. I mean really cut him in half.

John Robertson, 19, was a private first class in the 116th Infantry, 29th Division. He lives in Jacksonville, Fla.: They had told us the Air Force was going to bomb the beach and if there was anything left in the way of German defenses, we'd have bomb craters that we could gel into. Well, the Air Force missed. To make things worse, this was not a sand beach. It was covered with rocks.

You could see the bullets ricocheting all over the place. You were really in a dizzy frame of mind trying to figure out: "What am I going to do? If I get up, I'm going to get hit."

Charles Heed. 32, was a chaplain with the 116th Infantry; 29th Division. He lives in Brandon, Fla.: I took shelter for a few minutes between a tank and a trailer loaded with ammunition. But then the tank started up with no warning and the trailer ran over my right leg, tearing all the ligaments. The only thing that saved the leg from being totally mashed was that I was in water and sand. I called for help and the medical first sergeant, Arthur Moore, came over to help. He had his arms around me and was pulling me out of danger, when a shell fragment tore his head completely off.

I had to leave him in the water because there wasn't anything I could do for him.

Then I saw this other man 20 to 25 yards out in the channel. The water was over his head, he was floundering. He recognized me and yelled, "Chaplain, you pray for me." He needed more than prayer. I was able to swim out and bring him in. He was killed the next day.

Baumgarten: A shell went off right in front of me. I had played catcher at New York University and had been hit with a baseball bat before, and that's exactly what it felt like. The whole left side of my face was ripped open. Gums and teeth were just laying on my tongue. I kept going. I figured I wasn't going to live anyway.

Ralph Goranson, 24., was a captain with the 2nd Ranger Battalion. He lives in Gurriee, Ill.: We landed at the western end of Omaha, with about a thousand feet of beach separating us from an 80-foot cliff. I lost 23 men in the first half hour—that was one-third of my company—getting to an overhang beneath the cliff. One kid pulled out a Bible and started reciting the 23rd Psalm. I said, "Put away the Bible. We've got work to do." Lt. William Moody, Sgt. Julius Belcher and Pfc. Otto Stephens began scaling the cliff toward the lop, sticking their knifes in rock crevices and pulling themselves up. Meanwhile, Pfc. Mike Gargas yelled, "Mash potatoes, mash potatoes" (German grenades were shaped like potato mashers), and I leaped forward, away from the grenade between my legs. The force of the explosion lifted me up a little, but I had spread my legs far enough that I didn't catch any shrapnel. Then I looked up and saw Moody motioning for us to follow him to the top of the cliff using some ropes they had attached to a barbed-wire stanchion. The Germans were shooting us off the ropes as we climbed.

By 7 a.m. we were topside. The place was riddled with tunnels and trenches. Belcher threw a while phosphorous grenade into a nearby pillbox, and we killed a handful of Germans as they came out armed and coughing. Later, Moody was killed by a sniper with one bullet to the head.

John Raaen Jr., 22, was headquarters company commander of the 5th Ranger Battalion, He lives in Apopka, Fla.: The noise had become deafening by the time those of us in the second assault wave approached the beach, and the scene was one from hell: smoke from the fires on the face of the bluff, fires from the burning vessels and equipment, black ugly puffs from artillery bursting, dust and debris flying everywhere.

Joseph Pilck, 26, was a sergeant with the 16th Regiment, 1st Division, He lives in Pleasant City, Ohio: I can't say if I was scared or not. Mostly, I was worried about being captured, because it looked like the
invasion was a failure.

Baumgarten: I saw a fellow walking down the beach like he's taking a stroll, looking at all the bodies, pulling people onto dry sand. As he got closer, I could see he had a red cross on him. His name was Sgt. Cecil Breedan, and he was fearless. When he got to me and saw my face, he put sulfa powder on the wound and made me swallow 12 tablets. While he was doing it, mortar shells were coming in all over the place. I reached up with my right hand to pull him down by his shirt to protect him, but he smashed my hand away and said, "When I get hurt, you can take care of me."

Reed: My leg was totally black from the knee down. But there were a lot of men dying. The first wounded I ministered to was my organist, Pfc. Wilson McDiarmid, the only child of a Presbyterian minister. He was lying on the beach—conscious, but breathing his last. I knelt over him, and he recognized me. I said, "Mac, God is with you." A smile came over his face, and he was gone. If I came lo a Catholic man, I gave the signs but I didn't have the power of last riles. I just said a brief prayer. If I recognized they were Jewish, I'd refer to the 23rd, 27th and 21st Psalms of the Old Testament. I'd been with them all through their training in England, so they all knew me personally.

Peter Cardinali, 20, was a sergeant with the 5th Ranger Battalion. He lives in Lakehurst, N.J.: Nothing had prepared me for the terrible shooting all around, all the bodies, all the death. The situation seemed disastrous. Then I saw General Cota, the leading commander for the 29th Division that morning, standing up, waving his .45, trying to get his troops off the beach. I thought he was crazy. Our commander, Lt. Col. Max Schneider, stood up to greet Cota, who told him, "Rangers, lead the way!" We all passed the word down the line: "Rangers, let's go!" We headed over the seawall and started up a grassy bluff. We made our way to the top under heavy fire.

Rulien: No one seemed to be in charge, but I saw a figure coming toward the shore, walking straight up with a staff of officers with him. I recognized Colonel Taylor, the 16th Regiment Commander. He stepped across the sandbar and bullets began hitting the water. He laid down on his stomach and started crawling toward the shore, and I kind of chuckled to myself, a private, thinking, "Crawl on your stomach like I did." When he got closer, I heard him say to the officers, "If we are going to die, let's die up there," pointing up the hill. It seemed to galvanize people. The officers began moving their men along that beach to get up the hill.

Pilck: Two of my buddies blew a hole in the barbed wire with bangalore torpedoes. Then our company commander, Capt. Joe Dawson, called for his men to follow, and we all headed over the seawall. We got about a hundred yards off the beach, and Dawson threw a grenade into a German machine-gun nest, killing everyone inside except one soldier who came out with his hands behind his head. Farther on, the Germans were everywhere, running from hedgerow to hedgerow. They were starting to fall back.

Slaughter: I went over the seawall and gathered with about a dozen men at the base of the cliffs. M.Sgt. Bill Presley led the way up the bluff. When we got to the top of the hill, there was a German artillery unit about two hundred yards away, and we could see the screaming-meemie missiles leaving the barrel of the gun. They were raising Cain down there with the men on the beach. At the foot of the cliff, we had passed a dead naval officer who had a huge radio on his back. Presley went back down to get the radio and bring it up the hill. He got a Navy destroyer on the line and had them fire one round, then another, until he walked them right onto the target, knocking the artillery unit out and killing all those German soldiers.

Jack Ellery, 24, was a sergeant with the 16th Regiment, 1st Division. He lives in Stoughton, Wis.: I made it up to the top of the bluff with several men in the early afternoon. Looking back toward the beach, it was like watching a bunch of little ants running around. As the officers and NCOs started taking over, dots formed into lines and then they started up the hill. I fell elated. I think the most exhilarating experience you can have under any circumstances is to be shot at and missed—the missed part is important. I had made it off the beach and reached high ground. I was king of the hill, at least in my own mind, for a moment. My contribution might have been small, but I had walked in the company of very brave men.

DAVID GROGAN from bureau reports

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