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This picture of Omaha Beach at the end of the invasion's first day shows the bluff Cota's men had to climb under fire. Note the bunker the men are walking past. (National Archives)
Maj. Gen. Norman 'Dutch' Cota

General cajoled, threatened and led troops on Omaha Beach from defensive to offensive

On June 6, 1944, Col. Max Schneider and his Fifth Ranger Battalion were near Vierville Draw on the coast of Normandy, pinned down by heavy fire, when Gen. Norman "Dutch" Cota, the assistant division commander of the 29th Infantry Division, came striding down the beach, upright. Schneider stood up immediately to speak with Cota. "Colonel, we are counting on the Rangers to lead the way," Cota said, and turned back east, towards Omaha Beach.

As Schneider dropped back down to the sand, Sgt. Herb Epstein asked, "Sir, what the hell were you doing?" "Well, he was standing, and I wasn't going to be laying down here!" Schneider said.

Cota had a galvanizing effect on most of the men he encountered on D-Day. In fact, his words to Schneider have been adopted as the Ranger motto: "Rangers lead the way!" Yet it wasn't actually Rangers who led the way, but Cota himself. The first American general and perhaps the oldest man to set foot on Omaha beach that day, he "never wavered, never hesitated, never thought twice" in his resolve to get his troops off the bloody beaches, according to journalist C. Brian Kelly.

Although accounts of the day vary somewhat, Cota apparently found some soldiers who blew through a wire fence with a Bangalore torpedo, creating a gap. The first man to try racing through was gunned down on the spot, causing his comrades to freeze. Cota realized he had to act, and in the words of Joseph Balkoski -- a soldier that day and author of "Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy" -- "[Cota] leaped up, dashing across the road, and through the gap." Eventually a steady stream of soldiers followed him up the beach, and he led that column into the village of Vierville-sur-Mer, shouting at the last men, "Where the hell have you been, boys?"

Cota's gap allowed more men and more equipment to be moved off the beach and out of enemy fire. His heroism is even more remarkable when one considers the middle-aged general could have opted for a desk job, but he once said, "My [West Point] contract was to die for my country." Maj. Gen. Cota was not killed in combat, however; he lived to see his D-Day deeds recreated on the silver screen in "The Longest Day."

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