Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rangers, lead the way!

At the annual Conneaut D-Day event

This past weekend, some buddies and I traversed to the shores of Lake Erie for the annual D-Day reenactment at Conneaut, Ohio - the largest such event in the country. Hundreds of reenactors were present to recreate the airborne and amphibious landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Friday evening and Saturday morning witnessed skirmishes between paratroopers and German infantry. However, the main event takes place on Saturday afternoon when U. S. Infantrymen board landing craft and "storm" the beaches. Unlike most of the participants, I was portraying a war correspondent, armed with only a camera and pencil. (The pen is mightier than the sword anyway, right?) Throughout my adventures, I was snapping photos all along the way. Many of them are included here for your viewing pleasure.

Joining the men of the 5th Rangers Infantry Battalion during embarkation of the landing craft (LC), I suddenly heard a roar in the skies above and all present peered out toward the lake. . .

. . . When multiple WWII era aircraft began flying over and began "bombing" the German defenses on the Atlantic Wall further up the coast. One B-24 Liberator flew especially low to the ground, low enough that I could see the pilot's face. Naturally, the GIs began to wave their helmets, rifles, and cheer loudly.

Eventually, we worked our way closer to the water's edge where we began to board the boats. Multiple Higgins Boats were present as well as a DUKW ("Duck") and a Landing Vehicle Tracked (LVT). Simultaneously, P-51 Mustang planes continued to fly over. At the actual embarkation in 1944 England, over 130,000 Allied troops were being prepared to go in on the first wave of the invasion. Having spent many months in England, countless GIs formed great friendships with locals. One American engineer billeted with a British family before the invasion noted, "When we left, [they] cried just as if they were our parents. It was quite a touching thing for us. It seemed like the general public seemed to know pretty much what was going on" (Antony Beevor, D-Day, 9). Understandably, many of the British families envisioned their own sons and brothers going off to war when the witnessed the Americans' departure.

I and about fifteen other GIs climbed into the Duck and were launched out into the water. Luckily for us, the waters of Lake Erie were much calmer than the choppy and gray waters of the English Channel. The LCs were originally so crowded that few men could see over their helmets to the landing ramps. Soldier John Raaen of the 5th Rangers noted that the assault craft was "buckling like an unbroken horse," creating much seasickness amongst the passengers. In a short time, the crafts "reeked of vomit" (Beevor, 93). But sick stomachs and puking were about to become the least of their problems.

The radioman on our boat looks out toward the other landing crafts as we approach the beach. 6th Naval Beach Battalion radioman John Gallagher once joked that the first "beach party" should have been greeted with "wine, woman and song." Rather, he was greeted with shot and shell, being struck in the gums by a piece of shrapnel - which remained there unknowingly for nearly two decades. Despite this wound, Gallagher continued to relay communications back and forth to the ships to establish beachhead operations.

After jumping out of the side of the Duck into the sand, we ran to the dune only yards away from the shoreline. There, we regrouped and waited for the next push up the beach. The Germans continued to fire on the previous waves of men which had already worked their way inland. War correspondent Ross Munro wrote of Allied troops, "From dune to dune, along the German trench system and through the tunnels . . . the troops fought every yard of the way" (Ronald J. Drez, Voices of D-Day, 290).

Off we go up the beach. First Sergeant Leonard Lomell of the 2nd Rangers said of his experiences on Omaha, "We didn't stop; we played it just like a football game, charging hard and low. We went into the shell craters for protection, because there were snipers around and machine guns firing at us . . ." (Drez, 269-70).

Needless to say, your adrenaline surely gets going when you're doing something like this. Obviously, it compares nothing to the actual sense of fear or anxiety of war. Corporal Robert H. Miller of the 149th Engineer Combat Battalion recalled, "I got about ten feet up the beach when I saw just a big white ball of nothingness, and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back looking up at the sky. My first thought was that my legs were blown off because I had tried to move them and nothing happened. . . . [But] for some reason I just couldn't move and couldn't operate at all" (Drez, 237). Fear proved just as able of injuring or stalling a man as easily as a bullet could.

Throughout the beach were "impact craters" meant to represent the holes created by naval shells during the pre-assault bombardment to weaken the German defenses. These holes became impromptu foxholes for the infantrymen slugging their way across the beach. For both us and for them, the craters became spots to catch our breathe before another mad dash inland was made.

Scores of GIs make one final rush to the "shingle," a stone embankment anywhere between three and eight feet high at the end of the beach and the base of the German defenses. Though it provided cover for Allied troops, it became quite easy to become pinned down or even trapped there. Beyond the shingle were usually rows of barbed wire and landmines. In many cases, however, this was the last obstacle Allies faced before they broke into the German trench systems in the Atlantic Wall.

The shingle, in many ways, became the rallying point for troops on the beach. Offering at least some protection against enemy fire, the shingle itself became a trench of sorts. It also became the location to accumulate ammunition and additional gear needed before the final push into the enemy lines. Here, a Tommy gun-toting GI makes a mad dash toward the shingle as medics run out to drag the wounded to the base of the wall.

Here, explosives were also gathered - including Bangalore torpedoes. Bangalores were the high explosives used to break through the shingle and create gaps in the obstacles below the Nazi fortifications. In the photo above, the Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 5th Rangers shouts out for his men to keep their heads down before he yells, "Fire in the hole!"

After an explosive charge was detonated, the GIs made sure all was clear before they rushed uphill to exploit the breach in the German lines. Things got very loud here as the Americans yelled as loud as possible during their charge, coupled with the close range firing between the two lines of troops. Soon, the Germans began to capitulate.

After the German lines were broken through and the enemy was pushed back, the beachhead was finally secure and the GIs sat down for a weapons check, a welcomed rest, and a canteen break.

But it would be another seventy-five days before the Allies broke out of Normandy's hedgerow country and make the final pushes into the hearts of France and Germany. However, the actions of the 175,000 Allied troops who traversed the English Channel that early June initiated a turning point of the Second World War. As a "reporter," (above) I enjoy retelling some of their stories and will have some more tales and photographs to share very soon. Until then, "hang tough."

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