Just before parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe, Fayette Richardson asked himself an existential question: “My God, Most Powerful, what am I doing here?”
The thought had to be on the minds of myriad soldiers on June 6, 1944. It was D-Day, the launch of a long-awaited campaign by the U.S. and British armies to free the nations of Western Europe that Hitler had conquered.
Mounted from airfields and ports in Great Britain, it was the largest amphibious assault in history. More than 155,000 Allied troops landed at Normandy, France, that day. Code-named Operation Overlord, it dramatically changed the course of World War II.
Seventy-five years later, the ranks have thinned of those who braved machine gun fire on French beaches that were marked on their maps with American names like Utah and Omaha. Richardson died in 2010. But fortunately for us and for future generations, he and other veterans kept diaries, wrote memoirs or recorded their recollections.
Oral history was in its infancy when Stephen Ambrose began tape recording D-Day veterans, observed Toni Kiser, assistant director for collections management at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
“Ambrose, who began collecting the oral histories housed in our archives, was a distinguished historian,” Kiser said. “He recognized that official accounts couldn’t capture all the subtleties of an historic event like D-Day. He wanted to know how it looked to the GIs, who were on the beaches or dropped by parachute. What was it like to see a buddy you have trained with for months get killed minutes after they rushed out of a landing craft?”
Here, then, is the story of those beaches told by those were there — the voices of D-Day.
“I’D LIKE TO
As a boy in Machias, N.Y., Richardson was fascinated by airplanes and war movies. At 17 he enlisted, but didn’t qualify for pilot training. Instead, he was asked to join a parachute regiment’s Pathfinder team: those who jump first and guide those who follow. It was strictly voluntary, his commanding officer said.
“I think of Errol Flynn and how he and David Niven volunteered to do things in ‘Dawn Patrol,’” Richardson recalled. He told his commanding officer: “I’d like to volunteer, sir.”
Richardson and others of the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions were dropped inland, just after midnight. Their mission was to frustrate any German counter attack on the beaches where the American forces would land.
Richardson quickly realized that real-life combat is infinitely more brutal and tragic than Hollywood’s version. At dawn, he and few others set off on their assignment, only to encounter a German staff car.
The Americans froze, then Richardson yelled, “Shoot! Shoot!” Three Germans were killed in a hail of fire, and the GIs moved on. Yet Richardson couldn’t stop thinking about the incident.
“It could not be that these ordinary men, riding along an ordinary road on an ordinary day could be shot like that, killed,” he wrote. “These men who had been alive and going about life’s business a moment before could be dead. I could not accept it.”
IT WAS A JOKE.”
By then, an armada of 4,000 ships was off the Normandy coast, and landing craft were ferrying tanks, infantry units and combat engineers toward the shore.
Louis de Valleville, a teenager who then lived on a farm near Utah Beach, could scarcely believe that France’s liberation was at hand.
“Some person came through the flooded area out at about six in the morning, coming through this swamp, and said all of the sea is covered by boats,” he told Baret, the author of “I Wouldn’t Want To Do It Again.”
“And we believed it was a joke.”
Gen. Theodore Roosevelt was aboard a landing craft headed for Utah beach. The son of President Theodore Roosevelt, he was confronted with a colossal snafu upon stepping ashore.
“About 10 minutes later, after we got ourselves protected, General Roosevelt got us all together _ battery commanders, battalion commanders _ and told us we weren’t where we were supposed to land,” Joe Blaylock, who served in the 20th Field Artillery, recalled. “He gave us the coordinates of where we were, and everybody checked it on their map, and he said, ‘We’ll start the war from here!’”
“D-DAY HAS COME”
The first report of what was taking place in Normandy came from Berlin. But it said that the invaders landed farther up the French coast, which vindicated the Allies’ disinformation campaign. To throw the Nazis off the scent, they flipped German spies who spoon-fed false information to Berlin and also dropped dummy parachutists on D-Day.
The first bulletin from London was terse: “D-Day has come,” a BBC announcer said. It mirrored the mood of his audience: hope mixed with trepidation.
“LET’S GET THE HELL
OUT OF HERE!”
In heavy seas, only a handful of the tanks made it to the beach, and the bombers that were to take out the German batteries dropped their bombs too far inland.
“The plans made back in England just didn’t exist in reality when we hit the beach,” said Sergeant Harry Bare, of Philadelphia. “Fire rained down on us, machine-gun, rifle, rockets from the bunkers on top of the cliff.”
Frank Colacicco, a major in the 1st Infantry Division, saw the slaughter from a landing craft that was taking his unit in.
“We could see it all,” he said. “We knew that something was knocking the tanks out, but we kept asking, ‘Why don’t they clear the beach? Why aren’t our people getting off?’”
John Raaen from Arlington, Va., said he witnessed an indelible act of compassion when his Ranger unit landed. Others ran for cover, but not Father Joseph Lacey. “He stayed right down at the water’s edge, pulling men who were dying out of the water so perhaps they could live a bit longer.”
At his command post on the cruiser USS Augusta, Gen. Omar Bradley considered aborting the Omaha landings. But U.S. destroyers came perilously close to shore to shell German positions, and onshore a few officers slowly got the troops moving.
“There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die,” said Col. George Taylor, who was born in Flat Rock, Ill. “Now let’s get the hell out of here!”
Gen. Norman Cota, who was born in Chelsea, Mass., was told that one group huddling on the shoreline was Rangers. He shouted: “God damn it, if you are Rangers, then get up there and lead the way!”
Spotting an abandoned bulldozer, Cota asked for a volunteer to drive it. A hand went up, and James Gilligan, a combat engineer, helped the redheaded GI load the bulldozer with explosives to blow a hole in the walls the Germans built across an exit from the beach.
Tough battles lay ahead before Germany surrendered the following spring.