For Those Who Outlived the Day – June 6, 1944

5 06 2016


“For those who outlived the day, who survived this high thing, this bright honor, this destiny, the memories would remain as shot-torn as the beach itself. They remembered waves slapping the steel hulls, and bilge pumps choked with vomit from seasick men making ‘utterly inhuman noises’ into their gas capes. Green water curled over the gunwales as coxswains waited for a tidal surge to lift them past the bars before dropping the ramps with a heavy clank and a shouted benediction: ‘It’s yours, take it away!’


“They remembered the red splash of shell bursts plumping the shallows, and machine-gun bullets puckering the sea ‘like wind-driven hail’ before tearing through the grounded boats so that, as one sergeant recalled, ‘men were tumbling out just like corn cobs off a conveyor belt.’ Mortar fragments said to be the size of shovel blades skimmed the shore, trimming away arms, legs, heads. The murder holes murdered. Steel-jacketed rounds kicked up sand ‘like wicked living things,’ as a reporter wrote, or swarmed overhead in what the novelist-soldier Vernon Scannell called an ‘insectine whine.’ Soldiers who had sung ‘Happy D-Day, dear Adolf’ now cowered like frightened animals. They desperately gouged out shallow holes in the shingle with mess kit spoons and barked knuckles, mouths agape in a rictus of astonishment intended to prevent artillery concussions from rupturing their eardrums.


“They remembered brave men advancing as if ‘walking in the face of a real strong wind,’ in Forrest Pogue’s image, all affecting the same tight grimace until whipcrack bullets cut them down. Above the battle din they remembered the cries of comrades ripped open, merging at moments into a single ululation described by the BBC reporter David Howarth as ‘a long terrible dying scream which seemed to express not only fear and pain, but amazement, consternation, and disbelief.’ And they remembered the shapeless dead, sprawled on the strand like smears of divine clay, or as flotsam on the making tide, weltering, with their life belts still cinched. All this they would remember from the beaten zone called Omaha.” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light