D-Day Part II

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 5, 2003

What they don’t indicate in the movie, &uot;Saving Private Ryan,&uot; is that Omaha Beach is at least four miles wide. Part of that landing was just like the movie, but by 11 o’clock that morning the German machine gunners had been thinned out and most casualties were the result of artillery and rifles in the hands of snipers. The enemy’s most devastating weapon was the 88, a rifle that could shoot a four-inch shell several miles and explode it in the air above us. Our job there on Omaha was to clear the water of the obstacles placed in the channel at low tide to keep our boats from landing. Many were made of lengths of railroad tracks welded together planted deep in the sand. We were to blow them up, remove what we could, and clearly mark any remaining so incoming ships could avoid them.

Floating bodies washed in the surf and dozens more, most wounded, and were using the obstacles for protection. It was not easy to get them to leave that relatively safe position. There was no &uot;safe&uot; area for miles and our engineer company was greatly reduced by day’s end. It is amazing how fast one can get used to seeing death and devastation but you never forget it. Other engineers had blown away the barbed wire and concrete defenses so that the Infantry could get off the beach and go inland. But no one had knocked out those 88s and they kept coming in at a steady rate. The work continued in spite of them. There were no ambulances, no hospitals on the beach, just a few medics who put those still alive back in undamaged boats headed back to England. We almost envied them.

Our bellies were long empty, but the noise, excitement and bloody destruction allowed no thoughts of food. There seemed to be no night or day and the work never stopped. If you slept it was because of sheer exhaustion and you slept where you dropped. In five days the picnic was over. The artillery stopped, cleanup began, and millions of tons of war materials began to flow onto the beaches. Then the hard work began and we stayed there three weeks. Omaha Beach was the bloodiest of them all. On some beaches English and Americans walked ashore with but a few casualties. A month before we had lost nearly a thousand soldiers and sailors killed while training for the landings on similar English beaches. We had been told to keep silent about those &uot;errors&uot; and we always suspected those deaths were added to those on Omaha. We will never know.

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What few know about Omaha is that the English had built huge floating concrete sections and they towed them over to France where they were sunk in line to create a harbor at Omaha beach. That enabled us to bring in tanks, trucks, and many kinds of heavy equipment needed for the march across Europe. But during the third week of the invasion a vicious storm destroyed the harbor in a few hours, making it even more difficult to bring in supplies.

At the end of the experience of three weeks of the American and English invasion I was much older than on June 6. I had lived through a strange period of impossible activity, seen destruction on an unimaginable scale, and witnessed the end of life for hundreds of American boys. A year before I had been a high school graduate in a small town with not a clue as to what I would do for the rest of my life.

As I looked around at what was left of our outfit I could hardly believe the difference between it and the 120 of us that had eaten steak at two in the morning the day before. Who the hell was going to write all those letters? Our captain, who had beer-partied with us many times, was suddenly a very old man at 45. He could not even talk about what he had led us to and through. I’m sure he was not ready to think about what was to come when we would leave that beach and head across a country we had only read about in geography class.

We wondered if it could get worse. It did. There was a long way to go to meet the Russians near Berlin. We headed northeast across France, joined up with the British 2nd Army and the American 9th. We would learn much about Aachen, Trier, Belgium, the Ruhr Valley, the Ardennes Forest, the so-called Bulge, the Rhine River, and the &uot;camps.&uot; We would become familiar with the many kinds of soil in the European land mass and dig a hundred holes in it.

If my brothers were still alive I could still curl their hair with stories.

And to think I would have missed the whole thing if someone had &uot;pre-empted&uot; Hitler.

Robert Pocklington is a resident and regular News-Herald columnist.