A day of courage and death seared into the memories of all who fought there NORMANDY LANDINGS

June 05, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

First light, June 6, 1944. The distant coast of Normandy seems strangely tranquil as it rises above the Bay of the Seine. Odd for a place where so many will die in one of the most decisive battles of World War II.

"It was serene, pretty and green," remembers Waverly B. Woodson Jr., then a 21-year-old staff sergeant in the US 1st Infantry Division.

It drizzles that night as the landing craft carrying Sergeant Woodson crosses the choppy English Channel and heads for a beach that would come to be known as "Bloody Omaha" to men like those of the Maryland-Virginia 29th Infantry Division who met the enemy there.

The Tuesday morning dawn raises the curtain on an extraordinary military spectacle. More than 5,000 vessels carrying 175,000 men -- the largest armada ever assembled -- stretches beyond the western horizon as it moves resolutely toward the 59-mile length of the Normandy coast.

More than a year in the planning, D-Day for Operation Overlord -- the massive air and sea assault against Hitler's Fortress Europe -- is under way.

Sergeant Woodson's reverie is shattered by bursts of gunfire from unseen concrete bunkers atop the Omaha cliffs. Several rounds of German 88 mm artillery smack into the landing craft. Men are killed. The wounded cry out.

"That beauty didn't last long when the Germans starting messing with us," he says. "They were shelling the devil out of us. At the same time, we went over two submerged mines. The whole thing jumped up out of the water."

The heavy barge shudders and its engines, damaged by the mines, suddenly quit. Sergeant Woodson crouches on the deck beside a truck packed with medical supplies as a shell explodes on the other side. "That thing went ba-lang. Then another one came and another one came and another one came."

Sergeant Woodson feels a sharp pain near his groin and reaches into his pants. His hand comes out covered with blood.

Five miles to the east, a group of smaller landing barges noses close to the shoreline. Inside one, Army Sgt. Carl L. "Kie" Tyler shouts to the men in his platoon to get ready to move.

Unlike most of the GIs headed for Normandy, Sergeant Tyler has seen battle. He was with the Anglo-American forces that landed in North Africa in 1942. He and other seasoned soldiers are

mixed in with green Overlord troops to help leaven the impact of their first experience under enemy fire.

The landing craft slides onto a shoal a hundred yards off the shore. Slugs from German machine guns play a deadly tattoo against the sides of the boat. The heavy bow ramp drops. "Go!" orders Sergeant Tyler.

"When I hollered go, they went with me," says Mr. Tyler, an Eastern Shoreman, now 76. "When we went off that damn ramp, the guy in charge of the boat backed off. There he went. You had no feeling. You had to go forward. You couldn't go back. It weren't nobody taking you back."

Under fire, Sergeant Tyler and his men scramble across the shallow reef. The chilly water suddenly gets deeper. Some of the men are dragged under by the sheer weight of their carrying packs and heavy equipment.

"We got rid of our ammunition so we could swim," says Mr. Tyler. "I had eight bandoliers on me besides the hand grenades. I got rid of those but some of them boys never come to the top."

Sergeant Tyler slogs his way onto the beach and crawls across the sand to the protection of a low sea wall. He looks back and sees men falling as a firestorm of bullets and shrapnel roil the water and kick up the sand. A quick head count of the men around him reflects what a killing ground Omaha Beach will be that day. Of the 48 men who had jumped off the landing craft with, only 16 have made it to the sea wall.

Out of range of the shore batteries, Pfc. Samuel R. Krauss climbs over the railing of the troopship that brought him and 1,000 other men across the channel. He clambers down the net into a waiting landing craft.

At age 27, Private Krauss is older than many of the men in the 29th Infantry Division's 116th Regiment. Drafted in late 1941, the Baltimore native could have stayed out of the military because his job as a welder at Bethlehem Steel was considered vital to the defense industry. But he willingly put on a uniform.

"I saw so many accidents at the plant I thought I'd be safer in the Army," says Mr. Krauss.

With the landing craft jammed with men, the Coast Guardsman at the helm starts for the shore. No one says a word. They know what's waiting.

"We knew there was firing on the beach," says Mr. Krauss. "There was a helluva racket. Of course, as we got closer, we could see what was going on. By then, we seen a lot of bodies floating around in the water."

Wood and concrete obstacles -- many of them capped with explosives -- stick out of the water menacingly between the beach and the invasion barges. A nearby landing craft bumps into a mine. "That damn thing went up and over. There were bodies everywhere," Mr. Krauss recalls.

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