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D-Day: The battle began in terror and confusion but ended in Allied victory

D-Day: The battle began in terror and confusion but ended in Allied victory

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told The World-Herald in 2014. "We tried not to make friends. If you had a close friend, and he got killed, it would hurt."

Minesweepers tried to clear lanes toward shore for the landing craft. Upon landing, engineers and demolition teams were to blow up the starburst-shaped anti-tank obstacles called "hedgehogs" and clear the beach of mines.

But they had been given little time to do their jobs. And the channel winds and currents were such that most of the landing craft approached the shore some distance from where they intended.

On Utah Beach, this actually worked to the attackers' advantage. The planned landing spot for the 4th Infantry Division units turned out to be opposite two big guns that undoubtedly would have pummeled the men storming the beach.

Instead, the troops landed about a mile to the southeast, opposite a less-defended beach exit. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the deputy division commander, landed in the first boat.

Roosevelt was the son of the former president (and a political foe of the sitting president, his cousin Franklin), a World War I veteran and former assistant Navy secretary. He had to beg his commanders to let him go ashore with his troops; he walked with a cane and had a bad heart.

When he realized that his troops were massing in the wrong place, he rejected the idea of a risky move up to the right spot on the beach. According to legend, he declared, "We will start the war from here."

The Americans methodically took out the German guns, many of which were manned by Eastern Europeans conscripted from lands the Germans had occupied. They eagerly surrendered.

But the new location had only one beach exit road, which led to massive traffic jams as the division tried to move inland. The 56-year-old Roosevelt sometimes personally intervened to get things moving.

Roosevelt would earn the Medal of Honor for leading troops under fire. A month after D-Day, he died of a heart attack.

In total, the division suffered fewer than 200 killed and wounded in taking Utah Beach — though it would more than compensate in future bloody battles such as Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.

GOLD, JUNO AND SWORD

Farther east, the British and Canadian forces battled the enemy and nature.

At Gold Beach, engineers and demolition teams cleared obstacles for the British forces even as German snipers targeted them. Landing craft struggled in the heavy winds. But amazingly accurate fire from two cruisers took out three of four German guns just before the landing.

At the adjacent beach, Juno, the heavy seas delayed the Canadian forces from going ashore for an hour. The delay also meant that demolition teams had to fight rising tide.

Fortified beachfront villas, and several nearby villages, had to be cleared house to house and gun emplacements destroyed one at a time. But the Canadians had gained a foothold and even moved inland by nightfall.

A bagpiper from the 1st Special Service Brigade played Highland reels from a landing craft as British assault teams scrambled ashore at Sword Beach.

Also at Sword, the first French forces landed on Normandy shores. They seized a casino called Riva Bella that had been built into a fortress by the Germans.

Dead and wounded on the British and Canadian beaches totaled almost 3,000.

OMAHA BEACH

It is the grim fighting at Omaha Beach for which D-Day is most remembered, especially in the U.S.

War planners knew that Omaha Beach would be the toughest fight on the Normandy beachfront because of terrain ideally suited for defense. The crescent-shaped beach sloped gently upward, to cliffs that protected steep bluffs.

Attackers would be exposed for a long while to fire from three sides, then be forced to climb the steep cliffs to take out well-fortified gun emplacements. It seemed like an impossible task.

Carl Praeuner, who landed in the first half-hour at Omaha Beach, remembered the huge 88-mm shells raining down on his landing craft when it was still well out to sea.

Weighed down with ammunition and gear, he was fortunate to be let off in ankle-deep water about 150 yards from the shore.

"I decided to zig and zag to make less of a target," Praeuner wrote years later. "I did see the sand kick up just in front of my feet, but nothing hit me."

Hundreds of first-wave soldiers weren't as lucky. Many landing craft hit sandbars well offshore. German machine-gunners opened up on them as soon as the ramps on the vessels lowered. Many soldiers were slain before they left their boats.

Others scrambled over the sides only to find themselves in water neck-deep or higher. Those who didn't quickly jettison their heavy packs drowned. Those who did shed their gear faced a slow slog to shore under withering fire — in some cases, without their weapons.

They hopped over corpses bobbing at the water's edge, the tide red with blood. Soldiers huddled behind destroyed tanks and beach hedgehogs for some limited protection from the machine-gun fire, gathering strength for a hazardous dash across the beach.

Drained and terrified, Ed Morrissette and two other 1st ID soldiers hid behind a concrete pillar for about 20 minutes, smoking cigarettes wrapped in cellophane to keep them dry. Then they crawled up the beach under heavy fire to rejoin their unit.

The lucky ones reached the seawall. It offered shelter against direct fire — but also proved an attractive area for Germans to lob mortars.

Almost every unit in the early waves came ashore in the wrong place. Along the seawall, desperate men tried to find soldiers they knew. Some units lost all of their officers and sergeants. The men literally didn't know what to do.

The limited view fromcommand ships offshore made Omaha Beach look like a resounding defeat — and sometimes it felt that way to the soldiers pinned down ashore.

Over time, soldiers realized that staying on the beach meant dying there, even if the prospect of climbing the fortified hillside didn't appeal much, either.

Small groups, often ad hoc, began the ascent. They used explosives to blow up concertina wire guarding the foot of the bluffs. Engineers crept over the wall to clear mines, followed by infantrymen to clear out pillboxes with grenades and flamethrowers. They proceeded slowly, with heavy losses.

But eventually, incredibly, they reached the top of the bluffs. By noon, about 600 soldiers had made it.

Praeuner vividly remembered reaching the ridge. He stepped on amine. Luckily, his foot slipped off without detonating it.

But a mile inland, Praeuner stopped to set up his mortar at the edge of a ditch. Nearby, he saw someone squatting in the tall grass. Moments later, he saw a puff of smoke. A bullet ripped through his leg, from his knee to his crotch.

Praeuner's buddies left him in a field, sure that medics would arrive shortly to take him to an aid station on the beach. No one came.

"I prayed most of the night while tracer bullets flew just over my head," he would later write.

The next morning he was loaded onto a stretcher for a ride to the beach. He recuperated for months at a hospital in Southampton, England. The following spring he was medically discharged and returned to his life as a farmer in Battle Creek.

A LOT OF FIGHT LEFT

By the evening of D-Day, the Allies had somehow established a tenuous hold on Omaha Beach.

The famed combat reporter Ernie Pyle would describe the taking of Omaha Beach as a "pure miracle."

"Our men were pinned down for awhile, but finally they stood up and went through," Pyle wrote. "We did it with every advantage on the enemy's side and every disadvantage on ours."

Many of the men who landed on D-Day thought the war would end within weeks, that they would march on to Berlin in quick triumph. But the Germans had a lot of fight left in them. It took almost a year of brutal combat, and tens of thousands more Allied casualties, to bring down the Nazi regime.

Chuck Davis returned to his hometown of Adrian, Minnesota, and the floor-covering business he had worked in before the war. He would live in South Dakota and Utah before moving to Omaha in the early 1990s to be near his son. Davis died in 2016.

A few months after D-Day, Bob Tabor's transportation unit moved to Antwerp, Belgium, a shipping hub for U.S. forces.

There he met a lovely young woman named Carmen. She followed him toAmerica after thewar and became his wife. For years he worked as a millwright and steelworker in Ohio. The couple moved to Omaha in 1984 to be nearer their three sons. He died in 2017.

The horror of war still sticks with Carmen Tabor. She described it as "four years of misery, four years of hunger, four years of fear."

And she remembers the joy of liberation that Allied troops like Bob Tabor brought with him.

"I married him because he's my hero," she said. "I'm so proud of him. He brought us freedom."

sliewer@owh.com, 402-444-1186

twitter.com/SteveLiewer

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