Visit to beaches of D-Day recalled

Published 11:02 am Wednesday, June 12, 2024

By Gene Hays

USMC Msgt. (Ret)


The overall objective of D-Day was to liberate Normandy and all of western Europe, to begin the march to Berlin. Omaha Beach, second beach from the west among the five landing areas of the Normandy Invasion of World War II, was assaulted on June 6, 1944 (D-Day of the invasion), by units of the U.S. 29th and 1st infantry divisions. 


Many of those soldiers drowned during the approach from ships offshore or were killed by defending fire from German troops placed on heights surrounding the beach. Whether by parachute, glider, or amphibious assault craft, in all, nearly 160,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy on D-Day. By nightfall on D-Day, Allied assault troops across Normandy had suffered over 10,300 casualties—killed, wounded, and missing— of which approximately 2,400 were on Omaha Beach.


Formally part of the Omaha invasion area was Pointe du Hoc, a promontory situated to the west of the landing beach. On D-Day it was the object of a daring seaborne assault by U.S. Army Rangers, who scaled its cliffs with the aim of silencing artillery pieces placed on its heights. 


The largest of the D-Day assault areas, Omaha Beach stretched over 10 km (6 miles) between the fishing port of Port-en-Bessin on the east and the mouth of the Vire River on the west. The western third of the beach was backed by a seawall 3 meters (10 feet) high, and the whole beach was overlooked by cliffs 30 meters high. 


There were five exits from the sand and shingle beach; the best was a paved road in a ravine leading to the resort village of Vierville-sur-Mer, two were only dirt paths, and two were dirt roads leading to the villages of Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. 


The Germans under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had built formidable defenses to protect this enclosed battlefield. The waters and beach were heavily mined, and there were 13 strongpoints called Widerstandsnester (“resistance nests”). Numerous other fighting positions dotted the area, supported by an extensive trench system.


The defending forces consisted of three battalions of the veteran 352nd Infantry Division. Their weapons were fixed to cover the beach with grazing enfilade fire as well as plunging fire from the cliffs. Omaha was a killing zone. The Americans suffered 2,400 casualties at Omaha on June 6, but by the end of the day they had landed 34,000 troops. The German 352nd Division lost 20 percent of its strength, with 1,200 casualties, but it had no reserves coming to continue the fight.


In June of 1973, my wife Barbara and I, visited my parents who lived in Paris, France for 2 years. We walked across Omaha Beach, visited Point Du Hoc, and the German gun placements. Most of the German bunkers were closed off due to the possibility of live ordnance. 

As I looked out from the gun turret inside a bunker that was open to tourists, I could see the field of fire – I imagined at daylight looking out from the slit windows of the bunker what the Germans thought when they saw the armada of Allied ships and aircraft from the horizon. 


The most sobering moment for me was seeing the hundreds of American graves, over 9,387, buried at the Normandy American Cemetery. The cemetery reflects and honors the sacrifices that the USA made for the liberation of Europe. France donated the land of over 172 acres to the United States of America and it was maintained by the  American Battle Monuments Commission. 


Some notables such as Quentin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt III, the youngest and oldest, respectively, sons of President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt. Quentin Roosevelt, U.S. Army Lieutenant, was the youngest son who was killed in aerial combat on July 14, 1918, over France. U.S. Army, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., AKA the III, was the oldest son. 


There was great concern about allowing Brigadier General Roosevelt to make the initial landing. The fact he was the son of a former U.S. President and a distant cousin to FDR, it was thought that they should err on the side of caution. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. requested three times to lead the first wave of the assault on Utah Beach before permission was granted. 


Under a barrage of artillery fire, he proceeded to lead the men across the beach, returning for the ensuing units. He greeted each newly arriving regiment, pointing them towards their changed objective. His humor and confidence encouraged and inspired all, calming the nerves of the young troops. 


Thirty-six days later, on July 12, 1944, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. died in his sleep of a heart attack, at the age of 56. General Omar Bradley later said Roosevelt’s action on Utah Beach was the bravest thing he had ever seen, and, in a letter to his wife, General George Patton wrote, “He was one of the bravest men I ever knew.”