‘Now Utah beach is a quiet expanse of peaceful and monotonous sand. An abandoned, crippled landing craft, baking in the sun, is an invasion souvenir.’ YANK magazine, 8 July 1945
First printed in Yanks magazine on 8 July 1945, this is part 1 of a visit to Omaha and Utah Normandy beaches written while the memory of D-Day was still very raw. The journalist describes graphically all that he sees while reflecting on the campaign. He also interviews a veteran who, injured in the fighting, is now working on patrol nearby and has a poignant story to tell.
D-Day +365 (part 1)
By Sgt. Dewitt Gilpin, YANK Staff Correspondent
A visit, a year after, to Omaha and Utah beaches, hotspots of the June 1944 invasion of Normandy, shows how time changed the scene to calm seaside, pocked with war’s wreckage.
Omaha Beach, Normandy — Only the sun and the wind now rake the long beaches of Normandy, and kids with toy shovels play in the sands where a year ago great armies came by sea. From scarred pillboxes silent coastal guns point aimlessly down the beaches that on June 6, 1944, were covered with dead Americans. A year has passed; the beaches where the invading armies landed are quiet now.
In front of Omaha Beach are the rusted hulls of ships sunk by the Allies themselves to make a breakwater. Some day the Navy will come and salvage the ships. In the meantime, two rammed together freighters close to the shore are used as a rendezvous by couples at night.
Fishermen and peasants in need of fuel have dismantled most of the shattered beachside houses that the Germans used for emplacements. At the back of Omaha Beach the brick chateau with its tiny Norman towers still stands. And the faded inscription written on the chateau by a doughboy long ago attests to the fighting that occurred there. The inscription states: “This ain’t no USO.”
Stretching away from the beaches are green fields and apple trees, lush and inviting. No one goes into these fields. There are signs which read: “Achtung! Minen”.
German soldiers still walk along the beaches which they once defended. But now these soldiers are prisoners and they cut sod for the cemetery where Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt rest with their men.
In two-wheeled carts drawn by gaunt horses, the people of Normandy come to the beaches on Sunday afternoon. Fathers explain to their children how the shell-twisted landing craft were used. When men and women speak of the fighting on the beaches, they speak quietly. They recall that it was from these beaches that the long march started — the march that ended 11 months and two days later, May 8. 1945.
People point to the twisted landing craft, the bent pillboxes, the hushed cemeteries in the distance, and they tell again the story of the armies that came from the sea and fought on the beaches. Now children slide down bomb craters, where grass is beginning to grow.
These invasion veterans are now in MP units and they patrol the coast they helped liberate. They left their combat units because of wounds or combat exhaustion following the landings; one MP’s eyebrows turned white in the hospital: another MP speaks with a stutter that followed a wound and concussion.
Some of the men have gone back to the beach and laboriously reconstructed their route and plotted the spots where buddies were killed. Others haven’t bothered because they would rather forget.
D-Day’s big picture, went as follows;
After the terrific naval and air bombardment, the 4th Division, supported by elements of the 90th Division, landed at Utah on a strip of beach behind which lies Ste. Mere Eglise. St. Martin-du Mont and Varouville.
Already ashore and waiting for the seaborne infantry was the 82d Airborne Division. To the left of this beachhead on the V-shaped coast, the 1st and 29th Divisions made their landings between Colleville and Vierville. Already ashore in front of them was the 101st Airborne. Sandwiched in between the two beachheads were the 3rd and 5th Ranger Battalions who scaled the cliffs near Pont de Hoc to attack six coastal guns. Further to the left on the coast in front of Caen the Canadian and British made their three beachheads.
Once astride the beaches, the American troops jumped off from the beachheads at each end of the V-shaped coast and drove towards the base of the V, effecting a juncture near Carentan. Control of this strip of coast and the road net within it set the stage for sealing off the Cherbourg peninsula and the push into St. Lo.
He wasn’t particularly scared. The worst thing was sweating out the C-47 which was set a-fire by ack-ack while still over the sea. He jumped while still over water and the drift carried him and his four buddies into the waist-deep water that the Germans had let into the fields. He never found out what happened to the other paratroopers on the plane.
Naval guns were shelling the area where the men came down and they were more afraid of our shells than the Germans. After shooting their way through a German ack-ack crew, the troops holed up in the farmhouse of the Jules Bourdet family, who then as now boarded a pretty schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Barbier. Between the troopers’ forays out to cut German communication wires, the schoolteacher taught Clausen his first words of French and he still goes back to see her “ever so often.”
“On the fourth day,” Clausen says, “I saw one of our tanks coming up the road and it made me feel good. Then I saw his gun go off and wondered who he was shooting at. A second later I knew; the bastard nicked me in the leg with a piece of his shell. So we hunted around until we found some Rangers who knew what paratroopers looked like.”
The first juncture with the 82d Airborne was made by the 4th Division from its Utah beach-head. Coming in with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Infantry was S/Sgt. Walter A. Janicki of Pittsburgh, Pa. He is a short, husky GI who used to work at a Jones & Laughlin blast furnace. The 88s were still whooming in when Janicki hit the beach and MG fire was raking their positions. He was a bazooka man then and he had a job to do.
“I missed the pillbox with my first shell,” he recalls. “But I got the sonovabitch with my second. I can take you down to the beach and show you where it was if you want to go.”
After cleaning up the coastal pillboxes, Janicki’s battalion pushed down a secondary coastal road and joined up with the 82d near Varouville.
“One thing I’ll never forget about the beach,”Janicki says, “is going back to get a buddy I knew had been hit. It was after I got the pill-box. But I don’t want you to print who he was or how he looked. An 88 had hit him bad.”
“But you can print that I’ve lost half of my hair. I’m not like some of the guys about things like that. And I stutter now too. But I’m not ashamed of it. And print that!”
YANK magazine, 8 July 1945
YANK, the Army Weekly‘ was published by the United States military from 17 June 1942 to December 1945.