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President Obama is on the coast of Normandy, France today to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe. It was a major turning point in World War II, leading to the defeat of Nazi Germany. But it came with a high price: thousands of American troops were either killed or wounded when they landed on the beaches on June 6, 1944.
They sloshed ashore under withering fire from the Germans in their heavily fortified positions on the cliffs. Ultimately the Allies were able to overcome the enemy, thanks to the incredible bravery of soldiers who responded to the chaos around them and simply kept moving.
The Army's 1st Infantry Division was particularly exemplary, and is the subject of historian John McManus' book "The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach" (excerpt below).
The soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division (known as The Big Red One) had already fought from North Africa to Sicily before landing on Omaha Beach.
Three members of the 1st Infantry Division received Medals of Honor for their actions on Omaha Beach that day, but there are many lost stories of heroism.
"There's hundreds [of soldiers] you'll never hear about, because they were killed and no one saw what they did, or whoever saw what they did never talked about it," McManus tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "It never made it to the records."
Part of writing the book, 70 years later, McManus said, is so that we don't forget.
"I visited the graves of nearly 100 1st Division soldiers who were buried at the amazing Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach today," McManus said. "What I hoped to do is to bring these guys to life again as real people: that they were young, that they were scared, that they were just ordinary Americans in this circumstance."
Book Excerpt: 'The Dead and Those About to Die'
by John McManus
“Because it’s too damned complicated,” Taylor replied curtly.
He was a thinker and a doer, the sort of soldier who felt equally comfortable in a front-line foxhole or a seminar room at an Army staff college. “He was a good officer and really should have been a general by then,” Private Pete Lypka, who had served under him since Sicily, said, “but he had a habit of saying what was on his mind in as few words as possible. He was no apple-polisher.” Taylor knew that the true antidote for slaughter on Omaha beach was rapid movement, though he admitted that maneuvering against powerful defenses “was almost impossible in modern combat.”
The forty-five-year-old West Pointer had spent more than half his life in the Army. Shades of gray crept over his close-cropped hair now, and crow’s-feet spidered from the corners of his penetrating blue eyes, though his face retained a boyish sheen. Like many other effective combat leaders in the Army, he was diminutive in height at five feet seven, but somehow large in physical presence. An infantryman to the core, he was steeped in the commonsense world of field soldiering, both peacetime and wartime. “Beneath all the officer veneer,” Corporal Sam Fuller wrote, “Colonel Taylor had a heart of gold. I loved the guy.” Taylor loved the Army, though his fertile mind had generated several dozen ideas about how it could be, and should be, run much better. One idea stood above the others. Taylor believed that senior officers were too distant from soldiers, too reluctant, or perhaps unable, to teach and show their subordinates what to do, especially in combat. “What we lack, and need more of, is the worm’s eye view of leadership,” he once wrote. “No one ever tells the junior officer just exactly what he should do, and how he should do it.”
As Colonel Taylor approached Easy Red with the rear command post at 0815, he was determined to do just that—in this circumstance, he was certain that this would mean getting them to move, so this notion preoccupied his mind. He knew he would be greeted by sights of carnage, destruction, confusion, and inertia. Indeed, the evening before, aboard the USS Samuel Chase, Taylor had told war correspondents Don Whitehead, Robert Capa, and Jack Thompson, “the first six hours will be the toughest. This is the period during which we will be the weakest. But we’ve got to open the door.” His words were prophetic, probably more so than even he himself appreciated. When he and his command group landed, the various inland fights were raging in full force. Thus, much of the beach was still under intense fire from German artillery, machine-gun nests and mortars.
Taylor’s rear CP consisted of two boats, an LCM and an LCVP. In stark contrast to the forward CP under Lieutenant Colonel Mathews, the two boats landed without loss, though they were under machine-gun fire. Taylor and the others waded, under fire all the way, about fifty yards through chest-high water to the beach. “It was a helpless feeling wading while shot at,” Taylor later said. When he reached the beach, the scene that greeted his eyes was even more grim than what he had expected. Wrecked Higgins boats floated aimlessly on the crashing surf. The water was colored a muddy pink from blood; the sand was dotted and splotched with lines and circles of crimson. Body parts—everything from arms and legs to heads and fingers—littered the sand and stones. Angry-looking obstacles still honeycombed the beach, seemingly oblivious to the prodigious and costly efforts of the Gap Assault Teams to clear them. Blood-soaked bandages, discarded equipment, and sand-choked rifles lay in random clusters. Dead and wounded men—some facedown, some faceup on arched backs—littered the waterline and the sands. Other figures lay huddled at the shingle. Some looked dead. Others howled for medics. Several tanks were burning or immobilized. Mortar and artillery shells exploded—oily puffs of smoke, dust, or sand floated in the wake of the explosions. Bullets snipped against the sand and stones of the beach.
Taylor emerged from the water and, in the recollection of Private Warren Rulien, a member of the I&R platoon, the colonel came under accurate machine-gun fire. “He laid down on his stomach and started crawling towards shore,” Rulien said. The young private chuckled at the sight of the mighty colonel crawling ashore. He overheard Taylor say to one of his officers, “If we’re going to die, let’s die up there,” and he pointed at the bluffs. The colonel and the men around him got to their feet and crossed the beach. The natural tendency of nearly every person who was entering this inferno, including many in Taylor’s command group, was to gravitate toward the faux safety of the shingle. Not Taylor, though. He remained upright and strode purposefully to the left in the direction of the E-3 draw, where he and Mathews had planned to situate their CP. “It soon became evident that no such command post existed and most elements [were] pinned on the beach,” a post-battle report stated.
Taylor was not surprised. All that really mattered now, he knew, was getting his people into motion, off this beach. He was consumed by this idea; he understood what to do and he knew he must tell them in no uncertain terms. He moved west along Easy Red beach and roared at his men to get moving. As he did so, he gathered members of his headquarters into a veritable entourage, following him everywhere he went. Major Charles Tegtmeyer, his regimental surgeon, was lying against the shingle bank, wet and shivering from the landing, catching his breath and gathering his medics, when he spotted Taylor. “He passed us walking erect, followed by his staff and yelled for me to bring my group along,” the doctor recalled. Major Tegtmeyer had become very seasick during the ride to shore. The rocking of the boat, combined with the stench of exhaust fumes and the sight of Captain Lawrence Deery, the regimental chaplain, munching contentedly on an apple, had caused Tegtmeyer to throw up the entire contents of his stomach. He was worried that the invasion was a complete failure and that any minute the Germans would come down from the bluffs and overwhelm them. Even in the event of that disaster, the idea of retreating back into the icy sea was repugnant. “I’ll be damned if I go back into that water even if Hitler himself should order me,” he exclaimed sardonically to the men around him.
The sight of Taylor and his demeanor galvanized the weakened physician into action. He and many of his medics stood up and followed the colonel along the beach. Under heavy fire, Tegtmeyer and the others pulled wounded men from the surf, treated their wounds, and deposited them in open spots along the shingle bank. Major Tegtmeyer bound up more wounds (and probably saved more lives) than he could count; he was dismayed to find, though, that many soldiers were beyond his help. “The number of dead, killed by mines, shell fragments, machine guns and sniper bullets was appalling.” The doctor was especially surprised to see that “a great percentage were dead from bullet wounds through the head,” since this was unusual in modern war. Father Deery trailed along and kept very busy administering last rites or just comforting the dying. In Tegtmeyer’s estimation, “every man who moved along the beach had utter disregard for his own personal safety.”
The mere act of movement was exhausting, and not just because of the enemy fire. The sand was wet and sticky. The incoming tide made that problem even worse. It was easy to stumble over the shingle bank’s fist-sized stones, as well as the bodies of the living and the dead. At one point, Tegtmeyer tripped and fell over the inert body of an engineer. Tegtmeyer was so tired he needed to rest for several minutes before he could get up and move again. To make matters worse, Nebelwerfer rockets—generally called “Screaming Meemies” by the troops—shrieked overhead and exploded closer to the waterline. The rockets originated from batteries just west of Saint-Laurent and only added to the terror experienced by the men on the beach. Tegtmeyer watched with fascinated admiration as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Skaggs, commander of the 741st Tank Battalion, stood near the waterline, and swung his life preserver in the air, like some sort of magic wand, to gather several of his tankers. He ordered them to get back into any abandoned tanks they found and then resume firing at the Germans. Somehow Skaggs did not get hit.
Colonel Taylor, during his trek, succeeded in gathering three functional radios. Most likely this was the same equipment for which T/5 Joe Pinder had sacrificed his life to drag ashore. The raised antennas of the radios and Colonel Taylor’s erect posture began to draw heavy small-arms fire. “For Christ’s sake, Colonel,” Tegtmeyer cried, “get down, you’re drawing fire!”
Taylor grinned at the doctor, ordered the radioman to pull the antenna down, and said, “There are only two kinds of men on this beach, those who are dead and those who are about to die. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Corporal Sam Fuller, a thirty-two-year-old former newspaper reporter, novelist and Hollywood screenwriter turned combat soldier, flopped down next to Taylor. During the Sicily campaign, the two men had bonded over their mutual love of cigars. Fuller had run through a gauntlet of fire to reach Colonel Taylor. A discarded cigar butt had actually helped him locate his colonel. “Even in the eye of that tornado of bullets and explosions, there was no mistaking a Havana,” Fuller wrote. “Taylor smoked them. He had to be somewhere nearby.”
The talented writer had been ordered by his lieutenant to tell the colonel about the Spalding group’s success in blowing a breach in the wire and getting off the beach. “Who blew it?” Taylor asked.
“Streczyk,” Fuller replied.
“All right,” Taylor replied with a smile. He reached into a bag, removed a box of cigars and handed it to Fuller. “Enjoy ’em, Sammy. You earned them, running over here.”
Fuller barely had time to thank the colonel and register his pleasure at receiving the cigars, when Taylor stood up, amid heavy fire, and shouted to everyone around them. “There are two kinds of men out here! The dead! And those who are about to die! So let’s get the hell off this beach and at least die inland.”
For Taylor, obsession was now combined with simplicity. Seemingly oblivious to danger, he roamed Easy Red, repeating these words, or some variation of them, to practically anyone he encountered. There is no way to tell how many men saw him, heard him, or were affected by his presence, but the number must have been substantial, probably in the hundreds. Jack Thompson, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who had parachuted into Sicily the year before, landed with Taylor’s command group and followed the colonel as much as the situation permitted. He remembered Taylor saying, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beach, let us go inland and get killed.” Thompson was struck by the colonel’s use of the word “gentlemen” amid such chaotic and deadly circumstances “when the world was exploding around us . . . to say nothing of the machine guns up on the bluff.” Captain Thomas Merendino, commander of B Company, was on the receiving end of the same phrase, probably at the same time, and remembered that “men surged forward” as a result of hearing Taylor. In another spot, Private Frank Ciarpelli heard the colonel say, “It’s better to be shot to death than drown like rats on the beach.” Private First Class Harold Saylor was focusing on staying alive from one moment to the next, when he noticed someone running by and screaming, “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach: the dead and those who are going to die! Now let’s get the hell out of here!” Only later did Saylor realize that it was Colonel Taylor. Private First Class John Bistrica, a rifleman in C Company, had gotten separated from his squad. As he pondered what to do, he heard Taylor yell the same phrase. The colonel’s words prompted Bistrica to get moving in the direction of a gap he saw in the barbed wire. Private Rulien, who witnessed the colonel’s landing, felt that his words had a significant effect on the men around him. “The officers began moving their men along that . . . beach to reach their objective.” Taylor passed right by Captain Richard Lindo, an artillery liaison officer. Lindo heard the colonel make his famous statement. One of Taylor’s aides was an officer with whom Lindo had competed for the affections of the same barmaid in Weymouth. As the colonel’s group passed Lindo, the young aide looked directly at him and said forcefully, “She loves me!”
Naturally the colonel’s influence was not limited to his own 16th Infantry soldiers. T/5 Albert Sponheimer, a bespectacled medic, landed with the 197th Anti-Aircraft (SP) Battalion, a unit equipped with machine-gun-laden halftracks whose primary job was to ward off German air attacks on the beachhead. Sponheimer was hunched over a wounded man, trying to save his life, when he heard Taylor roaring about the dead and those who were going to die. “I clearly heard the statement,” Sponheimer said. “I looked up and saw the officer and went back to work on the wounded. It was an impressive moment.” Pharmacist’s Mate Richard Borden was an eighteen-year-old corpsman with the recently landed 6th Naval Beach Battalion, an outfit whose mission was to mark safe sea and beach lanes for incoming craft, assist in the removal of mines, and provide medical care. Borden was in a state of shock. The carnage of the beach was overwhelming to such a youngster—so many jagged, bloody wounds, so many cries for medics. A mortar shell exploded nearby, bouncing him in the air but otherwise leaving him unhurt. The same could not be said for his littermate, a young man with a brand-new baby daughter at home. Several times Borden tried to rouse him. Finally he turned him over and was greeted by the sight of “glazed eyes and sandy face in that awesome fixed expression. His helmet . . . rolled upward . . . exposing a handful of gray matter surprisingly clean!” Having never seen death, Borden began to administer a vial of human serum albumen before the terrible truth dawned on him. “Tears gushed. I begged my God with all my heart to allow me to exchange places with [the] youth before me.” Angry and devastated, Borden stood up and roared at the unseen Germans on the bluffs, “God-damn you, everyone!” He also raged at God. “What is life about that you should do this to my friend?!” Soon thereafter, he noticed a gray-haired colonel—Taylor, he later realized—walking by and hollering like a madman. “Get off the beach! You are going to be killed here if you stay! Move it on, boys! Let’s go!” The words helped him snap out of his grief-stricken trance and begin caring for men he could save. Elsewhere, Private First Class Earl Chellis heard Taylor urging him and several other members of a small pinned-down group to get off the beach. “Then everybody seemed to get up and we all went,” Chellis said. Watching Taylor and trailing along behind him, First Sergeant Raymond Briel thought his actions were “as heroic and memorable a sight as any soldier would want to see.” Staff Sergeant Kenneth Quinn, another member of his headquarters group, never forgot “the manner in which Col. Taylor . . . took over the situation on the beach, got the men organized and off the beach.”
It is impossible to say with any precision how much impact Taylor’s actions had on salvaging a bad situation and turning the momentum of the Omaha beach battle, but they were undoubtedly a significant factor. He was the first senior officer on the 1st Division side of the beach. His presence, his force of personality, and the simplicity of his orders—not to mention the colorful, stark nature of his “dead or going to die” phraseology—stirred many soldiers into positive action. At a time of deep crisis, Taylor made two major contributions: he saved the lives of many men by motivating them to get off the beach where they were vulnerable and nearly helpless, and in so doing he reinforced the groups that were already infiltrating the draws and bluffs even as he stalked Easy Red. Both contributions did much to wrest control of the battle away from the Germans in favor of the invaders.
Excerpted from the book THE DEAD AND THOSE ABOUT TO DIE: D-DAY: THE BIG RED ONE AT OMAHA BEACH by John C. McManus Copyright © 2014 by John C. McManus. Reprinted with permission of NAL Hardcover, an imprint of Penguin.
- John McManus, military historian and author of "The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach."
This segment aired on June 6, 2014.
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