Revisiting Utah Beach
"I could see tracer bullets streaking toward the pilot from all directions, and I was sure he would not survive..."
Contributed by Rex Smith Lt. Col, US Army, Retired
First, let me tell you something about myself. I enlisted in the U.S. Army in August 1936, at the age of 14, at Fort Benning Ga. How did I do that? Well, I lied about my age, which I don't suggest any of you do because it is wrong. But at the time I had left home to live with my sister in Columbus, Ga., I had two brothers in the Army at Fort Benning. It was during the depression, I had no job, no prospects for a job, no skills for a job, and no idea of what I wanted to do, as any 14 year old would in that situation.
I attended the Military Police Officer's Candidates School at Fort Custer, Michigan. After graduation I was sent to Iceland for four months, then to the South of England to train for the invasion of France. My Company, the 449th MP Company, was assigned to the 1st Engineer Special Brigade (Amphibious). The 1st Brigade had made previous landings in Africa, Sicily, and Italy, so they were well experienced. From December l943 to June 1944 we trained by making practice landings on the beaches of England once a month. The last practice in May resulted in the loss of two ships and about 250 men when German torpedo boats attacked our convoy in the English Channel. One of these boats was outfitted for laying a smoke screen to cover the invasion landing.
Each time we went to our assembly areas for practice landings we never knew if it was for practice or the real thing. We would board our ships the day after arriving at the assembly area. However, on the 2nd of June we stayed in the area for three days, and no one was allowed to leave without an armed escort. So, we figured something was up, maybe this was for real. On the third day there was a briefing at which we were given our orders, and photos of the landing area in Normandy, France showing location of German pill boxes, gun placements, and an overview of the entire landing zone. Our landing area was called Utah Beach. The area in back of Utah Beach was flooded with about two feet of water, and the two roads leading inland were also under water. Utah Beach was divided into 3 sectors; each sector was 1000 feet long, and named Red, Green, and White Beaches. I was assigned to Red Beach, the one on the left. Our job was to ensure that all troops, vehicles, guns, equipment, etc., evacuated the beach area and moved inland as quickly as possible to designated areas to prepare for enemy counter attacks. Large LCT's (landing craft troops) would plow their nose into the beach at high tide, and had to be off loaded prior to the next high tide. At the next high tide they would back off, and other ships would plow into the beach to off load. There could be absolutely no delay because enough troops and equipment had to be inland to hold back counter attacks.
The 4th Infantry Division was responsible for blowing and removing underwater explosives, metal, and concrete obstacles which were hidden under water within 100 yards of the beach. They were also to destroy pill boxes and gun emplacements on the beach before the first wave of troop landing crafts arrived. They were to blow up the dam to drain the flooded area behind the beach so the two inland roads would be exposed above water.
At about 1:00 am in the morning Air Force bombers were to bomb the beach and areas behind it. At about 3:00 am the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were to parachute inland from the beach and cut off the Normandy peninsular from the city of Cherbourg so the peninsular could be captured and used as a staging area for American forces. At about 4:00 am, Air Force gliders with troops would also land to assist in this action, and at about 5:00 am Navy battleships, cruisers, and destroyers were to bombard the beaches to destroy enemy pill boxes and gun emplacements, plus enemy forces.
At about 6:00 pm on June 5th we loaded onto troop ships. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of all forces toured the area offering encouragement and wishing the men well. After loading, the ships moved out into the English Channel to form a large convoy. I heard later there were about 5,000 ships in the channel that night. The convoy moved up the English Channel for about 30 miles to feint an invasion further up the French coast, then wheeled around and anchored off the beaches we were to land on.
No one got much sleep that night, as we were too interested in watching the bombers go over, the gliders, and the Navy ships softening up the beaches with their huge shells, and watching them explode on the beaches. It was an awesome sight, and a welcome one. It was the largest land invasion force ever assembled in American history, and I was proud to be part of it, yet a little scared too, being only a twenty-two year old 2nd Lieutenant. I am sure everyone was scared to a point, but who wouldn't be, not knowing what was going to happen when we hit the beach the next morning.
H-Hour (the appointed time to hit the beach) was 6:30 am, and our time was to be at 7:35 am, in other words about the 3rd wave to reach the beach. At about 5:30 am we started climbing down the rope netting hanging over the side of the ship into the landing craft. The channel was very rough, so it was somewhat difficult entering the boats as they bobbled up and down, and we had to time our step onto the landing craft with the up bob of the boat. Everyone made it ok though, and after the boats assembled for our wave we took off for the beach, which was about two miles away. About half way there our boat began to leak and we were soon standing in two feet of water. We transferred to another boat and continued our run to the beach. Arriving at the beach, we immediately set out to place our military police at strategic points along the beach and inland to control traffic, and to keep men and vehicles moving off the beach. To our surprise there was no firing at Utah Beach when we arrived, all enemy opposition having been destroyed by the 4th Infantry Division and Airborne troops who preceded us. The flooded area had been drained so the two roads leading inland were above water. Later in the afternoon however, we started getting sporadic 88-caliber enemy artillery fire from a gun on a hill behind the beach, and one across the bay toward Omaha Beach, which had not been destroyed. I was constantly moving up and down the beach, and inland, to check on my men to insure everything was running smoothly. The German 88 shells had a distinctive, eerie, whistling sound to them. You could tell if they were close or some distance away, and if it sounded close we had about three seconds to dive for cover. There were numerous fox holes along the beach, and I always walked from fox hole to fox hole so I could dive into one if I heard an 88 coming close. Once I dived into one and landed on top of a soldier already in there. I apologized, but he said it was ok. At the main intersection from the beach there was a large German pill box, and some soldiers had dug a hole underneath it for cover. While standing next to the pill box I heard an 88 coming in, and dove into the hole. They zeroed in on this pill box for about an hour, and every time I tried to get out another shell would come in. It took me about an hour to finally get out of there. About 8:00 pm that night I noticed a large pile of food rations pilled up on the beach guarded by a soldier. I went to ask him for some rations for my men, as I knew they were running low, but he refused, stating the rations were for his company only. I left, and when I got about 50 feet away I heard an 88 coming in and hit the sand. When I got up and looked back at the pile of rations I noticed that the 88 had hit the pile, and ration boxes were scattered all over. The soldier guarding it appeared okay. Navy guns destroyed the German 88's late on the second day.
The guides who marked the landing boundary areas for the 1st Engineer Brigade mistakenly placed the markers about 1000 yards off course. In other words, we landed 1000 yards to the right of where we were supposed to. This mistake turned out to be a blessing because the entire area to the left of where we landed was heavily mined both below and above ground. The entire beach area on which we landed and the area inland from it contained no mines at all. No one knew why there were no mines, but we guessed it was a mistake made by the Germans.
There were no counter attacks by the Germans. Sometime prior to the invasion Hitler had taken over direct control of all German military forces, and issued orders that no German units were to move except on his direct order. On the day of the invasion some of the German Generals were on vacation back in Germany, and Hitler was asleep. When the invasion became known, no one dared to awake Hitler for direction, and the Generals would not move their division for a counter attack without direction from Hitler. So, they remained in place far from the beaches.
Only one German airplane came over to bomb and strafe the beach area, which was on the 2nd day. It did no damage. On about the 6th day, which was cloudy with about a 1000-foot ceiling, we heard a plane in the clouds, which sounded as if something was wrong with its motor. It briefly came out of the clouds, and I could see it was one of ours. It went back into the clouds, then came down in a nosedive, and then a parachute came out of the clouds containing the pilot. Immediately almost every gun on the beach opened up on the pilot. I could see tracer bullets streaking toward the pilot from all directions, and I was sure he would not survive. Once the firing started it was impossible to stop it. The pilot finally landed with only a crease across his brow, which I could not understand with all the bullets around him. Fortunately for him the men firing were bad marksmen. He stated that he would never fly again after going through that experience. A couple days later, about 6:00 am, as I awoke from my fox hole, I heard a plane overhead. I could tell it was a German by the distinctive sound of the motor. I looked up to see a German four-engine bomber passing directly overhead flying in the direction of Omaha Beach. It was only about 500 feet high, and going very slowly. It caught everyone by surprise, and no one fired a shot at it. I am sure the pilot and men inside were just as surprised.
Other than the 88's, and the two German planes mentioned we had no other enemy fire or activity. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions did a terrific job in clearing out the enemy for a considerable distance inland from the beach area. I saw evidence of their handy work as I traveled inland from the beach. One airborne soldier's parachute caught on the steeple of the church in St. Marie Eglise, a small town about 10 miles inland from the beach. He hung there suspended in air, unable to remove the parachute from the steeple, and watched the fighting going on in the town below him. Many airborne troops landed in trees and were killed as they hung from their parachutes. The French fields were surrounded by hedgerows, consisting of mounded dirt covered with bushes and trees, and due to this provided limited landing areas for airborne gliders. Many of them crashed into the hedgerows, killing many of the airmen. The airborne troops were known to be superior fighters with great courage. They had to land behind enemy lines at nighttime. I often look back on that day, and thank them for making our landing so easy. Their brave action prevented a lot of our men from being killed or wounded in the landing.
The two roads leading inland from the beach were only wide enough for one lane so I made one of them “one way out” and the other “one way in” to the beach area. With the thousands of troops, vehicles, tanks, artillery, equipment, and supplies arriving it was most important that both these roads, particularly the one leading inland, be kept open at all costs. They could not be allowed to stack up on the beach. If a vehicle broke down on the road leading inland, and could not be started immediately, I called for a bulldozer to shove it off the road so the vehicles kept moving. The first three days thousands of troops, vehicles, and equipment landed and moved inland. The fourth day a huge storm hit the French coast with high winds and waves, which totally stopped all operations for about four days. So, fortunately those first three days we were able to land and move enough troops, vehicles, etc., inland to withstand a large counter attack. We were confident we would not be pushed back into the ocean.
At about 11:00 pm on the first day I decided I had to get some rest and crawled into my fox hole and went to sleep, after being up and on the go since getting into the landing craft for our run to the beach at 5:30 am. There were two men on each military police post, and one slept in his fox hole while the other was on duty. This lasted for about two months, after which we moved into a large grove of trees and pitched tents.
There were other landings up the French Coast further away from Utah Beach by French and British forces, and American at Omaha Beach. The French and British had no particular problems with their landings, but Americans on Omaha Beach had a terrible time. Behind the beach at Omaha was a high cliff, which was about 150 yards from the waters edge. The Commander for the American landing forces was about to order a withdrawal from Omaha Beach, as they had not gotten off the beach and on top of the cliff by 1:00 pm, hours behind their objective. The Germans had moved a large force of men and equipment into the area behind Omaha Beach the night before the landing, which no one knew about. There were German machine guns planted on top of the cliff, and on the cliff itself, plus artillery. They were able to shoot the landing boats out of the water before they even got to the beach. Many boats let troops and equipment off in deep water before the beach. To save themselves they took off their fifty pound backpacks so they could swim ashore. They lost all their radios, machine guns, artillery, and only had their rifles with them. Only one of 12 tanks made it to the beach, and it was soon disabled by enemy fire. The Air Force and Navy spotters had no radios to call in supporting fire. The landing force was totally without communication. The entire landing force was pinned down and unable to move forward off the beach, receiving direct enemy fire from the cliff and above. Finally, the Commander of a Navy destroyer 800 yards off shore realized what was happening and decided to move his ship 400 yards off shore from Omaha Beach. While moving his ship back and forth parallel with Omaha Beach to prevent enemy fire hitting the ship, he directed gunfire at enemy gun position on and above the cliff by watching the direction of tracer bullets fired by the troops on the beach. Finally, with many of the enemy gun positions destroyed, the troops on the beach were able to get up the cliff and secure the area above the cliff. Of course while all this was going on Navy ships were hurling thousands of rounds of ammunition on enemy troops in the area behind the cliff. The valiant action by the Commander of the Navy ship, and subsequently by men on Omaha beach the landing was finally a success, preventing a major disaster taking place, not only at Omaha but at Utah as well since securing Omaha was essential to the overall invasion.
Once the Normandy Peninsular was captured, and enough troops, equipment, and supplies were assembled the Allied forces made a major attach along the entire German front on about the 1st of September with St. Low, France being the focal point. The attack was successful, and the Germans were quickly pushed back. The Allied forces moved swiftly through France, traveling as much as 30 miles a day. General Patton, Commanding General of the 3rd Armored Division moved so fast that supply trucks could not keep up with him. He stopped only when his vehicles ran out of gas, and after refueling he was off again. He was one of the greatest Generals of our time.
My Military Police Company remained at Utah Beach until early December l944, then moved to Antwerp, Belgium, then to France in January 1945 to join the 21st Army Corps for the balance of my time during the war. Attached to the 21st Corps were three Army divisions. With the 21st Corps we traveled to Nancy, and Colmar, France, crossed the Rhine River into Germany near Frankfurt, then through several German cities, ending up at a small town called Degendorf, Austria when the war ended on May 8, 1945. While at Degendorf I got to see Hitler's Hideout at Berchtesgarden when I escorted the Secretary of War there to see it. There was nothing spectacular about it, except the view of the surrounding mountains. In June, our company moved to occupy the city of Leipzig, Germany (later to be part of East Germany) for a month until Russian troops arrived to take over the city. Leaving Leipzig I got my first view of Russian troops as they passed us on our way out of the city. They were in bad shape, the worst troops I had ever seen, dirty clothes, horse drawn wagons loaded with hogs, chickens, and pulling cows, which I assumed they used for food. I felt they must be in bad shape, but then realized they had been in war longer than we had, and had had a rough time of it for a long time. Maybe they were not as well supplied with food as we were.
In July 1862, I retired after 26 years of service. I enjoyed every minute of it. Would do it over again if I could. My service career made a poor farm boy rich a million times over.
In June 1994 my wife and I went back to Normandy, France to attend the 50th Anniversary of the D-Day landing on Utah and Omaha Beach. It was a momentous occasion, though very emotional, as I had never been back since the invasion. Viewing Utah Beach, the monument which had been erected at the beach to honor the 1st Engineer Amphibious Brigade, all units assigned to it, the men lost in the action, and the museums built for the Airborne Divisions brought back many memories, pleasant and sad as well. I felt proud to have been part of it all. Thousands of veterans were present at the reunion that lasted three days. We visited the American cemetery in back of Omaha Beach containing the graves of 10,000 Americans. I became very emotional at the cemetery, looking at graves of many soldiers so young that they never had a chance for a happy long life as I did, never got a chance to marry, love, or say goodbye to their families, nor their families to them. There were many heroes during the war, but the true heroes were those buried in this cemetery. I saw for the first time the landing area at Pointe du Hoc, where 225 Rangers landed and destroyed several large German coastal guns, which were in position to fire on Utah and Omaha Beaches. The area consisted of a gravel beach, and a shear cliff about 300 feet high, which the Rangers had to go up to get at the guns. They fired grappling hooks with ropes attached, which they used to climb to the top of the cliff. Of the 225 men only 25 survived. About two months prior to going to the 50th Anniversary I met a survivor of the Rangers while living in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was working for the Cadillac Agency where I took my car for service. He told me that they trained for the mission in the Far East, and flew into England on June 5, 1944, the day before the invasion of France. On June 6th they landed at Point du Hoc, and two days after the operation the survivors returned to England and flew back to the Far East. While at Pointe du Hoc I took pictures of the beach landing area, the surrounding area, of the monument erected in their honor, and gave him copies when I returned to Williamsburg. He was most appreciative. He stated he had never been back to Normandy. The Rangers were a well-trained special forces, which carried out difficult missions during the war, especially behind enemy lines. Their action at Pointe du Hoc undoubtedly saved many American lives.
About 20 retired members from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, all in their late 70's or early 80's, jumped by parachute behind Utah Beach on the day of the D-Day ceremony to honor their fallen buddies who died on D-Day. After their jump I approached and thanked them for the job they did for us on June 6, 1944, which I never had the chance to do before. Each of them were still in very good physical condition.
I hope you have enjoyed this summary of my service during the war. War is a terrible thing; there are no clear winners on either side. Yes, the winner comes out ahead, but also looses in terms of men lost to enemy fire. America, even with its faults at time, is the greatest nation on earth, and is the most free and democratic society in the world. In some countries there is no respect for human life itself, and being put to death is considered the only punishment. Many countries are constantly fighting among themselves, and with their neighboring country in order to gain power. Some like Russia, China, and North Korea, which are still under communist rule, still think about starting global wars. That is why America must maintain a strong military force to counter those who wish to step across the line and challenge us. We are indeed fortunate to be American, and being able to live in this great country of ours. Never show disrespect for the American flag, as it is our symbol of freedom, always be a patriotic American, and never lose your love for our country and our way of life.
Rex A. Smith
Lt. Col, US Army, Retired