Monday, June 3, 2019

Almost Like Custer: D-Day on Pointe du Hoc

"The Pointe" courtesy of artist Larry Selman.

The middle-aged physician seemed an unlikely participant for one of D-Day’s most daring missions. At forty years-old, he was almost double the age of his patients in the 2nd Ranger Battalion. Capt. Walter Block was a former Chicago pediatrician with an audacious disposition. When the war commenced, he yearned for an adventurous career in the airborne. His wife, Alice, would have none of it. Instead, Block opted to join the rangers, “who had something to do with trees,” he assured her. His clever rhetorical dupe would yield life-altering consequences for many.[i]

As one of the few medical personnel involved in the Allied assault on the imposing cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, the square-jawed doctor’s task was a formidable one. For nearly three days, the physician dodged concentrated enemy fire while leaping from trench to trench in his efforts to evacuate wounded. According to the Chicago Tribune, Block then oversaw the evacuation of dozens of maimed combatants from the 100-foot cliff to landing craft. The battle was “an inferno from beginning to end,” commented Block. “During that time our men were scrambling up the ropes and meeting Jerry hand to hand.”

Climbing over the tedious precipice, Block discovered all was in shambles. “Those --- ---- Germans did nothing but counterattack,” he recalled. “One attack right after another was repulsed. It kept up all day, and my back was plenty tired from crouching and running from one shell hole to another, rendering medical aid.”

“It was almost like Custer’s Last Stand,” he continued. “Food low, water low, ammunition very low, and fewer men. Our men began to use German weapons and I proceeded to put Heinie prisoners to work as stretcher bearers.” A captured bunker atop the Pointe served as an overcrowded battalion command post, an ammunition storehouse, a morgue, and Block’s makeshift field hospital illuminated by candlelight. Occupants heard the crackle of ricochets off the concrete. One of Doc’s medics recalled, “At times there were so many patients, the men had to lie in the command post until maybe one of the other patients would die or be patched up well enough to go back out, maybe to fight.”

In the brief interludes between attacks, Block disbursed stimulant pills to maintain the vigilance of the besieged rangers. “A constant watch was kept to insure that no sleeping man snored and gave their positions away,” reported one observer. Few of them were more fatigued than Block himself. Toiling in the blackness of the bunker and the treachery of the trenches, the doctor performed something of a medical miraclea series of benevolent deeds that earned him a Silver Star.[ii]

The cliffside fortification (frequently and incorrectly referred to as “Pointe du Hoe” in period accounts) was thought a near-impregnable objective with doomful prospects. Accented by a jagged peninsula between Utah and Omaha Beaches and spanning only a few hundred yards, the landmark brimmed with a lethal miscellany of pillboxes, trenches, machine guns, and booby traps. Intelligence indicated the presence of six 155-mm guns with the capacity to hammer landing zones miles away.

In the press, the saga of Pointe du Hoc initially appeared as little more than a sideshow of the big show. The actions of a few hundred men initially seemed trivial in numerical contrast to the sweeping episodes of Omaha Beach. A small blurb on page three of the June 10 edition of Stars and Stripes summarized the incident in surprisingly concise terms. Part of the ninety-five-word piece read, the “rugged Rangers stormed ashore, battered their way up sharp cliffs, and had captured the battery 15 minutes later. The Germans attempted to recover their strategic battery, but all thrusts were repelled by the Rangers.” A more compelling story soon emerged, illustrating the broader strategic importance of the seaside promontory.[iii]

Harold “The Duke” Slater, a handsome and ambitious captain of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, demanded exactness of his men assigned to the silencing of the guns: “I want each one of you to become so thoroughly familiar with Pointe du Hoe, so completely at home with it, that you could find your way from one gun position to another blindfolded.” The troops mentally visualized their maps and charts as they churned toward the French coast on June 6. “The long prelude was finished,” one recalled. The fourteen months of training were over.

Ranger Alfred Baer of Memphis later speculated as to why the initial assault garnered relatively little press coverage. “What actually took place on that small portion of the Cherbourg Peninsula can never adequately be told. At best, it can merely be hinted at, and can never be completely understood by anyone who was not himself present on the Pointe that bloody morning.” Because ranger training was so specialized and the mission was small in scope, few correspondents were present. For Baer and comrades, their gutsy attack was a durable thread of a larger fabric. Their bond would carry them through even bloodier battles to come.[iv]

Invasion day began with “the biggest Fourth of July you ever saw, magnified a thousand times,” stated one astonished ranger. The dim morning sky was illuminated with every color of the rainbow by a deadly assortment of shells, rockets, and flares. The battalion’s British-operated landing craft veered significantly off course until ranger commander James Rudder ordered readjustment. The 225 rangers were over an hour late striking their objective. The delay, combined with communication difficulties, compelled reinforcements to Omaha Beach insteadforsaking Rudder’s unit to wage a headlong attack largely on its own. Vomit and saltwater puddled around the soldiers’ ankles. Men used helmets to bail out the tides. Steady ocean sprays left the seasick combatants numbly fatigued. Three of the craft sunk. Sheldon Bare and Jack Kuhn, both from the same Pennsylvania county, found themselves sharing a boat that morning. Kuhn dropped his submachine gun in the murky slop. “Bare, I lost my Thompson!” Kuhn bellowed on the congested LCA. Bare calmly reached down and retrieved the weapon, stating, “Here you go, Jack.” Few other challenges of the day would be as simply resolved.[v] 

“Keep your eyes on the Pointe, boys,” ordered a sergeant. “[A]nything can happen now!” The nausea of the journey diminished as the men tensed up. They checked ammo and firmly gripped their weapons. An incoming shell from the USS Texas gorged a massive chunk from the cliff top, raining a mountain of rock on the beach and thereby lessening the height for the rangers to scale. From 200 yards out, the stout sergeant Leonard Rubin eyed a German silhouetted atop the Pointe. “Let’s see if the sonofabitch can survive this business!” exclaimed Rubin. The sergeant spewed a hail of bullets toward the shady figure, knocking the distant defender to his death.

“Fire the rockets!” a comrade shouted. “Let’s go!” Six projectiles hissed forth from the boats with limp lines of wet rope following the forward arc. The rounds were tipped with grappling hooks to lodge into the Pointe’s crest. Bogged down with water, half the grapples fell short of their targets. Large ladders donated by London firemen were also employed. Sgt. Len Lomell pushed through waist-deep water and up the beach’s stony center. Desperation forced him to think and act promptly. The ropes and firemen ladders alone were not ushering rangers up the slopes promptly enough.

“Topside the cliff,” recalled Baer, “the ever-increasing bark of rifles and machine guns tells its story to the men below. The rope is too slow.” Germans frantically slashed lines, harshly dropping rangers back to the gravelly beach. Some desperate GIs attempted to scale the rocks with knives as climbing picks. Lomell ordered four-foot sections of steel ladders rushed up and assembled. “The Germans on top rolled hand grenades down the slopes, they tried to cut toggle lines, they threw everything they had at those men coming at thembut they didn’t stop them,” Stars and Stripes later reported. “In little groups of twos and threes they scrambled over the top and went to work.” The frantic situation presented few viable alternatives.[vi]

Twenty-four year-old Frederick Dix, a small, black-haired staff sergeant from Syracuse, was embroiled in the fatal feud. Dix later conveyed the rangers’ exploits to correspondent Hal Boyle. “We spent 11 weeks practicing that maneuver and it caught the Germans flatfooted, because they didn’t think we’d dare come ashore,” noted the sergeant. “We ran into rifle, machine gun, and sniper fire from the flanks as soon as we got within range and lost some of our medics right there on the beach. Some of them tried to plant a Red Cross flag where they were working over the casualties but a sniper put three bullet holes in it before they could raise it.” The Germans were not all that brave, insisted Dix. Many of them “ran like hell,” and for good reason.[vii]

The crown of the Pointe resembled the pocked dreariness of battlefronts from the Great War. Once more, Yanks climbed “over the top” as they ascended the cliff’s precarious edge and into the labyrinth of smoking craters and splintered gun emplacements. “To any of the Germans dug in on Pointe du Hoe,” wrote Baer, “there could have been no plan of attack apparent from the actions of the enemy swarming up over the top of the cliffs.” Despite the German’s frenzied consternation, fierce duels were inescapable. Livid exchanges of Mk 2 and potato masher grenades scarred man and nature alike as the two sides plunged into each other with intimate animosity. Small arms fire erupted from every corner, creating small mounds of brass casings under soldiers’ sore feet. Men’s ears rang amid the echoing fury of Thompsons and Schmeissers. Sheldon Bare fell victim to the violence when a sniper’s bullet punched through his right shoulder. He screamed a flood of obscenities as he floundered backward into a crater. Unlike scores of his comrades, the Pennsylvanian survived the melee. The bitter competition swept the Germans inland, although radio failure prevented Rudder from announcing the attack’s outcome.[viii]

Lieutenant Commander Knapper and Chief Yeoman Cook, of USS Texas (BB-35), examine a damaged German pillbox at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Earlier in the day Texas had bombarded the point in support of the Omaha Beach landings. The body of a dead U.S. Army Ranger, killed during the assault on Pointe du Hoc, lies covered up at right. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

But was the feat a success? The rangers were puzzled to discover empty gun mounts and painted telephone poles where the 155-mm guns were supposedly installed. With the blessing of their lieutenant, Len Lomell and thirteen others set forth to locate and decommission their presumably relocated objective. Hunkered along a roadway heading into the countryside, the squad moved swiftly and softly through the thick growth. Following enemy tire tracks, Lomell and Jack Kuhn together inched ahead to maintain the hunt. They eventually discovered five of the six artillery pieces camouflaged a few hundred yards from the road. There, an entire company of Germans stood idle, half-undressed and inexplicably leaving the formidable guns unmanned. Kuhn was astonished by the artillerists’ lackadaisical response to the sounds of nearby combat.

Undeterred by the number and proximity of the enemy, the two American sergeants stealthily crept forward. Under the watchful barrel of Kuhn’s Thompson submachinegun, Lomell disabled two of the pieces with thermite grenadesmuted pyrotechnics that ignited briefly intense bursts of heat. Jammed into the guns, the grenades melted the machinery with the effect of white hot lava. The daring GIs fell back to their squad to retrieve more explosives and then returned to decommission the remaining guns. Simultaneously, a fellow ranger loudly detonated a nearby ammunition cache with a Bangalore torpedo. The dual feats were executed under the noses of 100 or more Germans, perhaps saving untold lives on the neighboring beachheads.[ix]

According to Dix, many Germans were concealed in a lengthy tunnel connecting their defenses to the ammo dump. “We made a hell of a noise and scared one seventeen-year-old German,” Dix declared. “He was a senior noncom. His outfit, too, was running out of his pillbox to give up.” Before the soldier could dash to the Americans, his own captain sent a slug through the deserter’s neck, killing him instantly. Dix and company thereafter captured the officer and angrily forced him to open a barn-turned-pillbox.

“You can’t trust those guys, you know,” Dix bickered. “One [German] stood up and waved a white flag and yelled ‘kamerad.’ One of our boys said ‘Let’s give him a chance,’ and stood up and hollered, ‘Come over here.’” The shouting revealed the Americans’ position and MG-42 rounds soon shredded the surrounding leaves into green confetti. The GI who made the charitable overtures to the enemy was cut down. “He was a nice guy, too,” Dix admitted. “You can’t trust those Germans. They put mortars and artillery in on us then, and wounded eight more of our men. What a hell of a trick to play.”[x]

Despite the herculean achievement of scaling the Pointe and dismembering its neighboring guns, the rangers had yet to face their most grueling obstacle: counterattacks. Undermanned, undersupplied, inadvertently neglected with their backs to the sea, the Americans dug in for a desperate defense. For fifty-eight contentious hours the rangers fiercely guarded their triangular perimeter against seemingly insurmountable odds. “Sometimes they were pinned down in the point itself with the sea on three sides and the Germans to the front,” wrote G. K. Hodenfield. “They were low on water and food. Their ammunition was rationed. Their only weapons were rifles and two mortars. At night they crouched in their foxholes and peered into the night, waiting for the attack they knew was coming.” A private asked Col. Rudder what they should do. The commander replied, “Build up your lifelines and we will hold this point.” And thus they did.

The lines of battle precariously ebbed with every German rush. The enemy congregated in massive waves and screamed with each advance to intimidate the rangers. The GIs patiently awaited the approach, taking careful aim to conserve every round of precious ammunition. In methodical fashion, the defenders blunted enemy rebuttals with skilled marksmanship and grim determination. Sgt. Eugene Elder, a six-foot mortar man from Missouri, knocked out a dozen German machine guns with his 60-mm. “I never saw such shooting,” a comrade marveled. When Elder expended all his rounds, he fired colored flares at the enemy out of pure spite. “These really scared the hell of the Germans,” Dix commented. “They were perfectly harmless, but they make a hell of a flare and sparks.”

After each relentless counterattack, the rangers resumed their original placements and vigilantly maintained the line. Wishing to continue the fight alongside their pals, many of the wounded refused evacuation. They actively scavenged for ammo and appropriated the many Mausers littering the ground. The company welcomed much-needed artillery support by the Navy circling offshore, which took its cues from the American command post above. “Whenever the Germans tried to concentrate any sizable body of men, a destroyer opened up and chased them away,” wrote Hodenfield. “And as they left their position the rangers cut them down with rifle fire.”

By morning of the third day, reinforcements doggedly pushed their way to Pointe du Hoc and swept remaining resistance from the immediate vicinity. The ragged American defenders joked that they were the lucky survivors of their own “Little Bataan.” Unlike their less fortunate Pacific counterparts in 1942, deliverance was at hand.

“I never saw anybody more welcome,” Dix said of reinforcements. The moment of victory was bittersweet for the New Yorker. “Out of my own group, 65 men, we had lost six killed and 17 wounded and we were the lightest hit outfit in the battle,” he remarked. “But it was worth it. We held that point for them and the boys we have got left are willing to take another any time our side wants it.” Regardless of casualty figures, nobody could strip the men of their achievement. One concluded, “Our job was to take and hold that neck of land and we did it and are damn proud we did it.”[xi]

U. S. Army Rangers show off the ladders they used to storm the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, which they assaulted in support of Omaha Beach landings on D-Day. Photograph was released for publication on 12 June 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 

[i] O’Donnell, 25.
[ii] “Saves 50 Amid Hail Of Fire In D-Day Hell,” Chicago Tribune, August 30, 1944, p. 7; G. K. Hodenfield, “How Rangers, Cut Off, Held On Grimly in Own ‘Little Bataan,’ Stars and Stripes, June 12, 1944, p. 4; O’Donnell, 106.
“Battle Sidelights,” Stars and Stripes, June 10, 1944, p. 3.
Baer, 30. Alfred Baer, a member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion’s D Company, offers a concise yet lively account of the Pointe du Hoc assault in this rare album compiled for his fellow veterans of the unit.
Baer, 32; O’Donnell, 67; Ryan, 211.
Beevor, 102; Baer, 34-35; G. K. Hodenfield, “How Rangers, Cut Off, Held On Grimly in Own ‘Little Bataan,’”

Stars and Stripes, June 12, 1944, p. 4.
Harold V. Boyle, “Rangers, When Ammunition Gone, Use Enemy’s Weapons,” Waterloo Daily Courier, June 11, 1944, p. 6.
Baer, 35-36; O’Donnell, 74-75.
Baer, 36; O’Donnell, 86-88.
Harold V. Boyle, “Rangers, When Ammunition Gone, Use Enemy’s Weapons,” Waterloo Daily Courier, June 11, 1944, p. 6.
G. K. Hodenfield, “How Rangers, Cut Off, Held On Grimly in Own ‘Little Bataan,’ Stars and Stripes, June 12, 1944, p. 4; Harold V. Boyle, “Rangers, When Ammunition Gone, Use Enemy’s Weapons,” Waterloo Daily Courier, June 11, 1944, p. 6.

No comments:

Post a Comment