Fifty years ago, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Company C of the 743rd Tank Battalion landed on Omaha Beach at H hour minus ten minutes. The invasion of Normandy was the first modern amphibious assault in which tanks went ashore first in order to provide fire power that would protect the infantry and engineers who followed. A Hungarian-born inventor living in England, Nicholas Straussler, made this extraordinary development possible, for he had found a way to float and move a 32-ton Sherman tank without reducing its armor or armaments.
As a nineteen-year-old gunner in Company C, I first heard we might lead the invasion in waterborne tanks in January 1944, soon after our arrival in England. The idea seemed about as plausible as going to sea in a bathtub, even apart from the fact that German forces behind the Atlantic Wall would also be shooting at us. In the next six months of training, however, most of us became used to the idea; its logic and daring and our ignorance of military mishaps and invasion disasters sustained our optimism. To be singled out for such an apparently foolhardy attempt to gain tactical surprise probably fed our egotistical fantasies of some sort of glory, the military equivalent of fifteen minutes of fame. Besides, I’d grown up on the New England coast, so that being launched 5,000 yards off the French coast in a nine-foot-high canvas boat with a 32-ton keel and twin propellers running off the tank’s moving tracks was an innovation in seamanship I could admire.
As we learned how to use this novel assault weapon, our confidence increased. It did float, although with only three feet of the boat above water. It was launched from a 150-foot-long landing craft (LCT) far from shore and churned forward slowly but steadily. So far as safety and surprise were concerned, it seemed better for us to approach the shore this way than to come close to it while packed into large naval ships that would be easy targets. The German defenders, spotting dozens of small craft, would, or so it was supposed, hold their fire until the little boats discharged soldiers, who would then be obliterated with machine guns and mortars. Instead, as the canvas screen support dropped down in shallow water, the enemy would suddenly discover tanks charging up the beach.
Yet other more ominous dangers also loomed for us. “Should your tank start to sink,” we were told, “you have only twenty seconds to get out,” since the 32-ton keel would quickly reach a depth at which the water pressure would make escape impossible. The training included the same practice as submarine crews go through, and we learned how to quickly put on oxygen masks and swim to the surface.
In a practice maneuver in the English Channel, we saw how the waves could roll over the three feet of canvas that stayed above water and swamp us, and how the channel waters in springtime could drown anyone who stayed in them too long. I suppose, however, that most of us simply believed that our strange boat-tanks would fool the enemy and get us safely ashore. We trusted the experts and their grand strategy, and had no reason to imagine that nature would take the side of the Nazis on D-Day.
Other preparations also encouraged us. A model of the Normandy beach and the terrain behind it familiarized us with every feature of the area’s geography. We knew exactly what each part of the coast we were assigned to assault looked like. Aerial photographs of the shore revealed three rows of defenses (visible at the low tide set for the landing), but pre-invasion bombing was supposed to destroy many of them. The anticipated day-by-day lines of advance also seemed to confirm our commanders’ confidence that we could move quickly off the beach and into the countryside. Why, we’d be in Paris in no time.
As we awaited our orders to board, many of us had taken some sort of lucky token along with us. The assistant driver hung a pair of baby shoes inside our tank, while I had a letter from a favorite uncle who was serving with the US Economic Mission in London. Known for his black humor, he had ended his farewell note with the hope that we would “take the Germans the way Custer took the Indians.” In a postscript, he added, “See you under a little white cross.” But virtually all the combat-bound GIs I knew assumed that whatever the odds, each of us individually would be the one that survived.
The first hint of trouble occurred on June 4 after our convoy left Portland for the landings on June 5. We were well on our way across, steaming forward, when quite late in the day the group was ordered to return to base. A communications foul-up almost let us show up off Normandy alone when the rest of the fleet had already been notified to abort the invasion until June 6.
As the armada gathered the next day, its vast size seemed to promise victory, notwithstanding the channel gale and high seas. Our LCT pitched ominously while waiting for a signal to launch its four canvas-covered tanks. Nearby we saw other Sherman tanks being launched from an LCT and almost immediately sinking, and our commanding officer knew we had to move closer in.
The scene had already become chaotic and confused, and no one seemed to be where they should have been. Our group, with canvas screens up, hit the water some 250 yards from the low tide mark on the beach, ready to fire, but our screen would not collapse. The tank commander had to get out on the hull to break the struts holding the screen in place. Just at that moment the canvas fell, exposing him standing there in full view of the enemy. The gunners on the cliffs were firing rifles and machine guns through clouds of black smoke created by the off-shore naval bombardment. On our right an 88-millimeter cannon in a concrete pillbox was knocking out other tanks. The German beach defenses all seemed to be in place, for somehow the Air Force had missed the beach and dropped its bombs inland. All around, infantry and engineers were falling in the shallow water.
If the pillbox had not been silenced, our own group of tanks would undoubtedly have been next. The Navy saved us and many others when destroyers supporting the beach assault moved in so close that it seemed they were about to go aground. Each time we fired a burst of tracers at a target, the ships poured shells on it, knocking it out. Meanwhile we fired our turret gun, providing cover for men in the water as German artillery and mortars inundated the area with high explosives.
For us the old expression “the tide has turned” only meant disaster as the water rushing toward the beach threatened to drown the wounded and even swamp the tanks. We had to move forward, yet risked running over helpless GIs we still could not see from inside the tank. The saddest relic of that advance was an almost entire pair of army issue long johns that remained entangled for days in one of our tank’s tracks.
A disaster seemed imminent. Most of the engineer units that were supposed to destroy the ten-foot-thick concrete wall blocking the road off the beach had been killed or wounded, and we soon realized the timetable for the day’s advance no longer meant anything. Luckily for our morale, we also did not know that an entire German division, the 352nd infantry, had moved into the cliffs over Omaha Beach for further training just before the attack.
Strangely, none of the four of us in the tank believed we wouldn’t get off that terrible strip of sand or that the landings would fail; but as the hours passed, the mere fact of surviving unwounded seemed miraculous and wonderful, beyond mere luck. On the sixteenth hour of D-Day, the 743rd Tank Battalion finally moved off the beach to bivouac in a pasture near Vierville-sur-Mer for the night. We learned later that twenty-one of the fifty-one tanks in our battalion had not survived the landings. (Of the 4,649 casualties among the 55,000 Americans put ashore that day, 2,000 died at Omaha Beach.)
In the deadly atmosphere of the fighting that followed in the hedgerows of Normandy’s pastoral landscape, the same feelings we had on D-Day recurred. Once again, the experts seemed confounded. No one had apparently regarded the steeply banked hedgerows as an offensive nightmare for tanks, but each field was like a jungle in which German troops could lie hidden and spring a surprise. The longstanding plans for coordinating tanks with the infantry were scrapped and new tactics had to be improvised on the spot. And before the battle for St. Lô, Allied aircraft twice bombed short of the target that the 743rd was poised to attack.
In reminiscences of combat different perspectives emerge gradually as the events deepen in memory, above all the memory of those whose lives ended in the sand. For me at least, the near catastrophe of June 6 diminished forever the credibility of the concepts of strategic planning and of tactical order; it provided me instead with a sense of chaos, random disaster, and vulnerability. But having come near death also induced a desire, which I would not otherwise have imagined, to live life to the fullest.
July 14, 1994