‘Hop-Scotch on Omaha’ YANK magazine, 8 July 1945 – the ships in the distance are D-Day wrecks
First printed in Yanks magazine on 8 July 1945, this is part 2 of a visit to Omaha and Utah Normandy beaches just one year after D-Day 6 June 1944. In part one we heard why D-Day was so important and the memories of veterans, still raw one year later. In part two we hear about the bravery of comrades, and from the newly liberated French.
D-Day +365 (part 2)
By Sgt. Dewitt Gilpin, YANK Staff Correspondent
For Janicki and the men on Utah beach the invasion went pretty much by the book: on Omaha they had to throw the book away and get ashore through the guts of men who made a beachhead where everything went wrong from the weather to the fact that the Germans had an extra, unexpected division looking down their throats when the first thin waves of Yanks staggered from a sea filled with sinking boats and drowning men.
Pfc. Herbert H. Adams is a drawling, six-foot Texan who landed with B Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion on the right flank of the 29th and 1st Division units. In England the special training given the Rangers had prepared him physically for the ordeal of the beach; his body kept going and carried him through it, but there are some blank spots in his memory on those things that people like to read about after the battle is over.
He knows that his company lost 11 killed and 24 wounded out of 68 men before they got off the beach, because an officer told him so later. He remembers the explosion when his boat hit a mine, and he remembers the relief that he felt when he found that his gas mask kept him afloat. Then he was firing at the slots in a pill-box and pretty soon he was going up a road with a sergeant who was walking on an ankle with a bullet hole through it. Somewhere along the road the first sergeant was hit, and it was days later before they finally got to the other Rangers who had been cut off when they went after the coastal guns.
“I didn’t eat,” says Adams. “Just drank some coffee along the way. Our boys were out of ammo when we got to them and they had been fighting with German guns and knives. And don’t ask me what I said when I got to the first Ranger. All I remember is that he got out of his hole and shook hands with me and was damn glad to see me. There wasn’t many of them left.”
Armentrout has been around the Army awhile: he talks and thinks like the infantry platoon sergeant he was on D-Day. The first thing he tried to do was get his men dispersed because they were all bunching up behind the seawall. Then he chewed some of them out because they had dropped the bangalores that he needed to blow the seawall on the beach. He went back to get the bangalores and figured that his number would come up when he used them. But his lieutenant, a new man who had come in from the Air Force for some reason, took the bangalores away from him and blew the wall.
“He sure had guts,” Armentrout says. “And some kraut put 10 bullet holes in those good guts of his a little later.”
Armentrout believes that the 29th men froze on the beach momentarily because casualties had broken down the chain of command and not because they were afraid to move. It was a day where the brass had to show the stuff they were made of, and Armentrout remembers “Col. Cannon and Gen. Coda walking up calmly and giving us the push we needed.”
“I’ll never forget Col. Cannon,” says Armentrout “He had his two wounds tied up with handkerchiefs and was waving that pistol of his around like it was a 105 howitzer.”
They went up the steep hill towards their objective of Vier-Sur-Mer, and Armentrout noticed that his old men kept moving and shooting while some of the replacements let themselves become sitting ducks. When he stumbled over his first German in a shell crater he beat him viciously with his rifle butt before he realized the German was already dead. On top of the hill where they reorganized the platoon they saw other Germans lying motionless in the open ground they had to cross. When they began their advance the apparently dead Germans came to life and pumped burp guns at them.
“And that was the way it went,” Armentrout relates. “I lost some of my old men on the beach and more going across the field. Every time a boy went down who had been in the platoon along time he would call for me. Usually I couldn’t stop. Before St. Lo they knocked out practically all the old men who were left. That’s where I blew my top. There was just something about them calling for me and me not being able to do anything about it that got me.”
Oh the beach to the left of where Armentrout landed, the wounded of the 1st Division suffered too, for the high waves of the incoming tide drowned some of them before medics could make it through the machine-gun fire to get them. T-5 Rafael T. Niemi of the 16th Infantry’s 3rd Battalion, a replacement, was there, and he knew enough to do what the invasion-wise NCOs and officers of the Red One told him to.
His boat driver had taken a direct hit by a German artillery shell as they were embarking and shrapnel had killed eight other men. Other boats coming in with enough troops to build up the assault wave snafued their schedule and jammed together to make perfect targets for the Boche. The waiting men dug in cautiously as best they could because a mined beach is no place to sink a careless shovel.
Finally Brig. Gen. (then Col.) George A. Taylor organized the men for the assault with his practical order that they would go inland and die instead of waiting for death on the beach.
“I can still hear that colonel telling us we were going up the hill,” says Niemi, who didn’t know it was Taylor. “And at first I felt likes hooting him with my M1. But now I feel different about it. I wouldn’t be here if I had stayed on the beach.”
And that was D-Day as the men remember it who patrol the roads along which the troops drove towards each other to join near Carentan.
Most of the American troops and French civilians had the same split-second relationship on D-Day as occurred when Raymonde Jeanne, who works in the general store at Ste. Mere Eglise, looked out of her bedroom window the night of June 5 and saw an 82d paratrooper in the street. She threw him a rose and, unless Raymonde is romanticizing the incident, he kissed it and walked out of her life with the rose in one hand and his grease gun in the other.
The French remember. In Ste. Mere Eglise, as in every village, the families go to the American cemeteries and place flowers on the grave of their “adopted” son each Sunday. Often they write to the wife or mother and enclose a picture of the grave as it looks with the flowers.
Gone, of course, is the pre-invasion conception of some Normans that our coming would be a costless thing that would not disturb the economics of life on the rich farms along the coasts. The peasants and townspeople paid for their liberation in lives, in wrecked homes and depleted dairy herds. Some grumble about these things, but the majority think the bigger sacrifice was made down on the beaches. And the same majority seem to understand why most of the GIs, unlike Raymonde’s gallant trooper, were very rough with them on D-Day.
“All evening on June 5,” says Monsieur Remand, the mayor of Ste. Mere Eglise, “we watch in the trees, on the houses, on the church. And all night the four machine guns that the Germans had in the church steeple keep shooting. But we are happy, because the Americans have come and we want to help them so much.
“But in the morning when I go out and find the captain of the paratroopers and speak our welcome to him in English, he refuses to shake my hand. I felt very bad. Now we understand that the Americans at first could not trust anyone. But the people felt very bad.
Mademoiselle Andrée Manoury of Carentan wanted to help the Americans too and she secretly took exactly 72 lessons in English before one of the American bombs that blew up the German gas dump also wrecked her home and forced the family to take to the fields. But while Andrée wasn’t there to welcome the Americans when they came, one of the town’s richest citizens was, and his wine flowed free.
Now the positions of Andrée and the rich citizen are somewhat different. She is the interpreter for the MPs in Carentan and he is in jail charged with making too much money from the Germans.
Not all of the problems of liberation, including collaborators, have been solved in Normandy. Those peasants who during the occupation sold butter and eggs to the German black market are selling them now to French racketeers. On another score the traditional Catholicism of agrarian Normandy expresses itself in some talk about the Russian displaced persons who are lusty rather than genteel and who seldom go to mass. And the good food fed to both Russian displaced persons and German prisoners causes some comment among persons with anti-American axes to grind.
The mark of the Boche, in the opinion of Mademoiselle Barbier, the schoolteacher that the paratroopers go back to visit, isn’t something that can be wiped out of Normandy in a day or a year.
“We no longer use the books that we had when the Germans were here,” she says. “And now we can sing the Marseillaise and Chant du Depart, and I have taught my children America. But the older children who learned to sing when the Germans were here still sing in that awful way the Germans do. It will be some time yet before they sing like the French again.”
For the Normans who were poor the liberation has brought economic benefits along with liberty. Madame Furor who lives in Colleville with her blind husband and her daughter Bernardine will tell you proudly that she has gained many pounds since the 1st Division ran the Germans out. And while few 1st Division men know it, the Furor family was as much in D-Day as they were. The Furors lived in the house across from the little red brick chateau with the Norman towers on the road that leads up from the beach to Colleville. When the naval bombardment started they watched it until all the windows in the house shattered and then went to the trench they had dug in the front yard.
When the Germans withdrew from their positions around the road the family kept to the trench which was now in the target area of enemy artillery. Several times Americans saw them and discussed shooting them for snipers and Bernardine recalls, “Oh, I am frightened.”
Eventually some doughboy came along who offered Bernardine chocolate, but she was as suspicious of them as they were of her because Germans had told her that the Americans considered all French on the coast to be traitors and would offer her poisoned candy. It wasn’t until D plus-1 that she decided to eat some, and her admiration of Yanks dates from the first bite.
There isn’t even an MP in Colleville now but Bernardine, who doesn’t speak English very well, remembers the days when the road up from the beach was alive with troops coming in to help finish what the D-Day boys began.
And standing by the beach Bernardine will look up to the hill that once seemed so high to the boys of the Red One, clasp her hands to her breast without at all looking like a bad actress and say:
“Up here go many Americans. Many! All ride trucks that make dust and all say to me, ‘Haylo baybee. Comment allez-vous?’ It is sad they no come back.”
YANK magazine, 8 July 1945
Read part 1 of D-Day +365