Is Naval Aviation Culture Dead?
Naval Institute Proceedings -
September 2011 Vol. 137/9/1,303
By John Lehman
The swaggering-flyer mystique forged over the past century has been stymied in recent years by political correctness. We celebrate the 100th anniversary of U.S. Navy Aviation this year, but the culture that has become legend was born in controversy, with battleship admirals and Marine generals seeing little use for airplanes. Even after naval aviators proved their worth in World War I, naval aviation faced constant conflict within the Navy and Marine Corps, from the War Department, and from skeptics in Congress. Throughout the interwar period, its culture was forged largely unnoticed by the public.
It first burst into the American consciousness in 1942, when a few carrier aviators changed the course of history at the World War II Battle of Midway. For the next three years the world was fascinated by these glamorous young men who, along with the Leathernecks, dominated the newsreels of the war in the Pacific. Most were sophisticated and articulate graduates of the Naval Academy and the Ivy League, and as such they were much favored for Pathé News interviews and War Bond tours. Their casualty rates from accidents and combat were far higher than other branches of the naval service, and aviators were paid nearly a third more than non-flying shipmates. In typical humor, a pilot told one reporter: “We don’t make more money, we just make it faster.”
Landing a touchy World War II fighter on terra firma was difficult enough, but to land one on a pitching greasy deck required quite a different level of skill and sangfroid . It took a rare combination of hand-eye coordination, innate mechanical sense, instinctive judgment, accurate risk assessment, and most of all, calmness under extreme pressure. People with such a rare combination of talents will always be few in number. The current generation of 9-G jets landing at over 120 knots hasn’t made it any easier.
Little wonder that poker was a favorite recreation and gallows humor the norm. In his book Crossing the Line , Professor Alvin Kernan recounts when his TBF had a bad launch off the USS Suwanee (CVE-27) in 1945. He was trying desperately to get out of the sinking plane as the escort carrier sped by a few feet away. Looking up, he saw the face of his shipmate, Cletus Powell (who had just won money from him playing blackjack), leaning out of a porthole shouting “Kernan, you don’t have to pay. Get out, get out for God’s sake.” No wonder such men had a certain swagger that often irritated their non-flying brothers in arms.
Louis Johnson’s Folly.
By war’s end more than 100 carriers were in commission. But when Louis Johnson replaced the first Secretary of Defense, Jim Forrestal—himself one of the original naval aviators in World War I—he tried to eliminate both the Marine Corps and naval aviation. By 1950 Johnson had ordered the decommissioning of all but six aircraft carriers. Most historians count this as one of the important factors in bringing about the invasion of South Korea, supported by both China and the Soviet Union. After that initial onslaught, no land airbases were available for the Air Force to fight back, and all air support during those disastrous months came from the USS Valley Forge (CV-45), the only carrier left in the western Pacific. She was soon joined by the other two carriers remaining in the Pacific.
Eventually enough land bases were recovered to allow the Air Force to engage in force, and more carriers were recommissioned, manned by World War II vets hastily recalled to active duty. James Michener’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Admiral James Holloway’s Aircraft Carriers at War together capture that moment perfectly. Only later was it learned that many of the enemy pilots were battle-hardened Russian veterans of World War II.
By the time of the Korean armistice, the Cold War was well under way, and for the next 43 years, naval aviation was at the leading edge of the conflict around the globe. As before, aviators suffered very high casualties throughout. Training and operational accidents took a terrible toll. Jet fighters on straight decks operating without the sophisticated electronics or reliable ejection seats that evolved in later decades had to operate come hell or high water as one crisis followed another in the Taiwan Strait, Cuba, and many lesser-known fronts. Between 1953 and 1957, hundreds of naval aviators were killed in an average of 1,500 crashes per year, while others died when naval intelligence gatherers like the EC-121 were shot down by North Koreans, Soviets, and Chinese. In those years carrier aviators had only a one-in-four chance of surviving 20 years of service.
Vietnam and the Cold War.
The Vietnam Conflict was an unprecedented feat of endurance, courage, and frustration in ten years of constant combat. Naval aviators flew against the most sophisticated Soviet defensive systems and highly trained and effective Vietnamese pilots. But unlike any previous conflict, they had to operate under LBJ's crippling political restrictions, well known to the enemy. Antiaircraft missiles and guns were placed in villages and other locations known to be immune from attack. The kinds of targets that had real strategic value were protected while hundreds of aviators’ lives and thousands of aircraft were lost attacking easily rebuilt bridges and “suspected truck parks,” as the U.S. government indulged its academic game theories.
Stephen Coonts’ Flight of the Intruder brilliantly expressed the excruciating frustration from this kind of combat. During that period, scores of naval aviators were killed or taken prisoner. More than 100 squadron commanders and executive officers were lost. The heroism and horror of the POW experience for men such as Lance Sijan (MoH) and Jim Stockdale were beyond anything experienced since the war with Japan.
Naturally, when these men hit liberty ports, and when they returned to their bases between deployments, their partying was as intense as their combat. The legendary stories of Cubi Point, Olongapo City, and the wartime Tailhook conventions in Las Vegas grew with each passing year.
Perhaps the greatest and least known contribution of naval aviation was its role in bringing the Cold War to a close. President Ronald Reagan believed that the United States could win the Cold War without combat. Along with building the B-1 and B-2 bombers and the Peacekeeper missile, and expanding the Army to 18 divisions, President Reagan built the 600-ship Navy and, more important, approved the Navy recommendation to begin at once pursuing a forward strategy of aggressive exercising around the vulnerable coasts of Russia. This demonstrated to the Soviets that we could defeat the combined Warsaw Pact navies and use the seas to strike and destroy their vital strategic assets with carrier-based air power.
Nine months after the President’s inauguration, three U.S. and two Royal Navy carriers executed offensive exercises in the Norwegian Sea and Baltic. In this and subsequent massive exercises there and in the northwest Pacific carried out every year, carrier aircraft proved that they could operate effectively in ice and fog, penetrate the best defenses, and strike all of the bases and nodes of the Soviet strategic nuclear fleet. Subsequent testimony from members of the Soviet General Staff attested that this was a major factor in the deliberations and the loss of confidence in the Soviet government that led to its collapse.
During those years naval aviation adapted to many new policies, the removal of the last vestiges of institutional racial discrimination, and the first winging of women as naval aviators and their integration into ships and squadrons.
‘Break the Culture’
1991 marked the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War. But as naval aviation shared in this triumph, the year also marked the start of tragedy. The Tailhook Convention that took place in September that year began a scandal with a negative impact on naval aviation that continues to this day. The over-the-top parties of combat aviators were overlooked during the Vietnam Conflict but had become accidents waiting to happen in the postwar era.
Whatever the facts of what took place there, it set off investigations within the Navy, the Department of Defense, the Senate, and the House that were beyond anything since the investigations and hearings regarding the Pearl Harbor attack. Part of what motivated this grotesquely disproportionate witch hunt was pure partisan politics and the deep frustration of Navy critics (and some envious begrudgers within the Navy) of the glamorous treatment accorded to the Navy and its aviators in Hollywood and the media, epitomized by the movie Top Gun . Patricia Schroeder (D-CO), chair of the House Armed Services Committee investigation, declared that her mission was to “break the culture,” of naval aviation. One can make the case that she succeeded.
What has changed in naval aviation since Tailhook? First, we should review the social/cultural, and then professional changes. Many but not all were direct results of Tailhook.
‘De-Glamorization’ of Alcohol Perhaps in desperation, the first reaction of Pentagon leadership to the congressional witch hunt was to launch a massive global jihad against alcohol, tellingly described as “de-glamorization.” While alcohol was certainly a factor in the Tailhook scandal, it was absolutely not a problem for naval aviation as a whole. There was no evidence that there were any more aviators with an alcohol problem than there were in the civilian population, and probably a good deal fewer.
As a group, naval aviators have always been fastidious about not mixing alcohol and flying. But social drinking was always a part of off-duty traditional activities like hail-and-farewell parties and especially the traditional Friday happy hour. Each Friday on every Navy and Marine air station, most aviators not on duty turned up at the officers’ club at 1700 to relax and socialize, tell bad jokes, and play silly games like “dead bug.” But there was also an invaluable professional function, because happy hours provided a kind of sanctuary where junior officers could roll the dice with commanders, captains, and admirals, ask questions that could never be asked while on duty, listen avidly to the war stories of those more senior, and absorb the lore and mores of the warrior tribe.
When bounds of decorum were breached, or someone became over-refreshed, as occasionally happened, they were usually taken care of by their peers. Only in the worst cases would a young junior officer find himself in front of the skipper on Monday morning. Names like Mustin Beach, Trader Jon’s, Miramar, and Oceana were a fixed part of the culture for anyone commissioned before 1991. A similar camaraderie took place in the chiefs’ clubs, the acey-deucy clubs, and the sailors’ clubs.
Now all that is gone. Most officers’ and non-commissioned officers’ clubs were closed and happy hours banned. A few clubs remain, but most have been turned into family centers for all ranks and are, of course, empty. No officers dare to be seen with a drink in their hand. The JOs do their socializing as far away from the base as possible, and all because the inquisitors blamed the abuses of Tailhook ’91 on alcohol abuse. It is fair to say that naval aviation was slow to adapt to the changes in society against alcohol abuse and that corrections were overdue, especially against tolerance of driving while under the influence.
But once standards of common sense were ignored in favor of political correctness, there were no limits to the spread of its domination. Not only have alcohol infractions anonymously reported on the hot-line become career-enders, but suspicions of sexual harassment, homophobia, telling of risqué jokes, and speech likely to offend favored groups all find their way into fitness reports. And if actual hot-line investigations are then launched, that is usually the end of a career, regardless of the outcome. There is now zero-tolerance for any missteps in these areas.
Turning Warriors into Bureaucrats
On the professional side, it is not only the zero-tolerance of infractions of political correctness but the smothering effects of the explosive growth of bureaucracy in the Pentagon. When the Department of Defense was created in 1947, the headquarters staff was limited to 50 billets. Today, 750,000 full time equivalents are on the headquarters staff. This has gradually expanded the time and cost of producing weapon systems, from the 4 years from concept to deployment of Polaris, to the projected 24 years of the F-35.
But even more damaging, these congressionally created new bureaucracies are demanding more and more meaningless paperwork from the operating forces. According to the most recent rigorous survey, each Navy squadron must prepare and submit some 780 different written reports annually, most of which are never read by anyone but still require tedious gathering of every kind of statistic for every aspect of squadron operations. As a result, the average aviator spends a very small fraction of his or her time on duty actually flying.
Job satisfaction has steadily declined. In addition to paperwork, the bureaucracy now requires officers to attend mandatory courses in sensitivity to women’s issues, sensitivity and integration of openly homosexual personnel, and how to reintegrate into civilian society when leaving active duty. This of course is perceived as a massive waste of time by aviators, and is offensive to them in the inherent assumption that they are no longer officers and gentlemen but coarse brutes who will abuse women and homosexuals, and not know how to dress or hold a fork in civilian society unless taught by some GS-12.
One of the greatest career burdens added to naval aviators since the Cold War has been the Goldwater-Nichols requirement to have served at least four years of duty on a joint staff to be considered for flag, and for junior officers to have at least two years of such joint duty even to screen for command. As a result, the joint staffs in Washington and in all the combatant commands have had to be vastly increased to make room. In addition, nearly 250 new Joint Task Force staffs have been created to accommodate these requirements. Thus, when thinking about staying in or getting out, young Navy and Marine aviators look forward to far less flight time when not deployed, far more paperwork, and many years of boring staff duty.
Zero-Tolerance Is Intolerable
Far more damaging than politicians bureaucratic bloat is the intolerable policy of “zero-tolerance” applied by the Navy and the Marine Corps. One strike, one mistake, one DUI, and you are out. The Navy has produced great leaders throughout its history. In every era the majority of naval officers are competent but not outstanding. But there has always been a critical mass of fine leaders. They tended to search for and recognize the qualities making up the right stuff, as young JOs looked up the chain and emulated the top leaders, while the seniors in turn looked down and identified and mentored youngsters with promise.
By nature, these kinds of war-winning leaders make mistakes when they are young and need guidance—and often protection from the system. Today, alas, there is much evidence that this critical mass of such leaders is being lost. Chester Nimitz put his whole squadron of destroyers on the rocks by making mistakes. But while being put in purgatory for a while, he was protected by those seniors who recognized a potential great leader. In today’s Navy, Nimitz would be gone. Any seniors trying to protect him would themselves be accused of a career-ending cover-up.
Because the best aviators are calculated risk-takers, they have always been particularly vulnerable to the system. But now in the age of political correctness and zero-tolerance, they are becoming an endangered species.
Today, a young officer with the right stuff is faced on commissioning with making a ten-year commitment if he or she wants to fly, which weeds out some with the best potential. Then after winging and an operational squadron tour, they know well the frustrations outlined here. They have seen many of their role models bounced out of the Navy for the bad luck of being breathalyzed after two beers, or allowing risqué forecastle follies.
‘Dancing on the Edge of a Cliff’ They have not seen senior officers put their own careers on the line to prevent injustice. They see before them at least 14 years of sea duty, interspersed with six years of bureaucratic staff duty in order to be considered for flag rank. And now they see all that family separation and sacrifice as equal to dancing on the edge of a cliff. One mistake or unjust accusation, and they are over. They can no longer count on a sea-daddy coming to their defense.
Today, the right kind of officers with the right stuff still decide to stay for a career, but many more are putting in their letters in numbers that make a critical mass of future stellar leaders impossible. In today’s economic environment, retention numbers look okay, but those statistics are misleading.
Much hand-wringing is being done among naval aviators (active-duty, reserve, and retired) about the remarkable fact that there has only been one aviator chosen as Chief of Naval Operations during the past 30 years. For most of the last century there were always enough outstanding leaders among aviators, submariners, and surface warriors to ensure a rough rotation among the communities when choosing a CNO. The causes of this sudden change are not hard to see. Vietnam aviator losses severely thinned the ranks of leaders and mentors; Tailhook led to the forced or voluntary retirement of more than 300 carrier aviators, including many of the finest, like Bob Stumpf, former skipper of the Blue Angels and Stan Arthur.
There are, of course, the armchair strategists and think-tankers who herald the arrival of unmanned aerial vehicles as eliminating the need for naval aviators and their culture, since future naval flying will be done from unified bases in Nevada, with operators requiring a culture rather closer computer geeks. This is unlikely.
As the aviator culture fades from the Navy, what is being lost? Great naval leaders have and will come from each of the communities, and have absorbed virtues from all of them. But each of the three communities has its unique cultural attributes. Submariners are imbued with the precision of engineering mastery and the chess players’ adherence to the disciplines of the long game; surface sailors retain the legacy of John Paul Jones, David G. Farragut and Arleigh “31 Knot” Burke, and have been the principal repository of strategic thinking and planning. Aviators have been the principal source of offensive thinking, best described by Napoleon as “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” (Audacity, audacity, always audacity!)
Those attributes of naval aviators—willingness to take intelligent calculated risk, self-confidence, even a certain swagger—that are invaluable in wartime are the very ones that make them particularly vulnerable in today’s zero-tolerance Navy. The political correctness thought police, like Inspector Javert in Les Misérables , are out to get them and are relentless.
The history of naval aviation is one of constant change and challenge. While the current era of bureaucracy and political correctness, with its new requirements of integrating women and openly queer individuals, is indeed challenging, it can be dealt with without compromising naval excellence. But what does truly challenge the future of the naval services is the mindless pursuit of zero-tolerance. A Navy led by men and women who have never made a serious mistake will be a Navy that will fail.
John Lehman was the 65th Secretary of the Navy and a member of the 9/11 Commission.
An account of the “epic human tragedy” that unfolded when Allied troops landed on the shores of Normandy on D-Day
Photograph of American troops approaching Omaha Beach, Normandy, on D-Day (Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty)
Updated at 12:06 p.m. ET on June 22, 2020.
Unlike what happens to other great battles, the passing of the years and the retelling of the story have softened the horror of Omaha Beach on D Day.
This fluke of history is doubly ironic since no other decisive battle has ever been so thoroughly reported for the official record. While the troops were still fighting in Normandy, what had happened to each unit in the landing had become known through the eyewitness testimony of all survivors. It was this research by the field historians which first determined where each company had hit the beach and by what route it had moved inland. Owing to the fact that every unit save one had been mislanded, it took this work to show the troops where they had fought.
How they fought and what they suffered were also determined in detail during the field research. As published today, the map data showing where the troops came ashore check exactly with the work done in the field; but the accompanying narrative describing their ordeal is a sanitized version of the original field notes.
This happened because the Army historians who wrote the first official book about Omaha Beach, basing it on the field notes, did a calculated job of sifting and weighting the material. So saying does not imply that their judgment was wrong. Normandy was an American victory; it was their duty to trace the twists and turns of fortune by which success was won. But to follow that rule slights the story of Omaha as an epic human tragedy which in the early hours bordered on total disaster. On this two-division front landing, only six rifle companies were relatively effective as units. They did better than others mainly because they had the luck to touch down on a less deadly section of the beach. Three times that number were shattered or foundered before they could start to fight. Several contributed not a man or bullet to the battle for the high ground. But their ordeal has gone unmarked because its detail was largely ignored by history in the first place. The worst-fated companies were overlooked, the more wretched personal experiences were toned down, and disproportionate attention was paid to the little element of courageous success in a situation which was largely characterized by tragic failure.
The official accounts which came later took their cue from this secondary source instead of searching the original documents. Even such an otherwise splendid and popular book on the great adventure as Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day misses the essence of the Omaha story.
In everything that has been written about Omaha until now, there is less blood and iron than in the original field notes covering any battalion landing in the first wave. Doubt it? Then let’s follow along with Able and Baker companies, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. Their story is lifted from my fading Normandy notebook, which covers the landing of every Omaha company.
Able Company riding the tide in seven Higgins boats is still five thousand yards from the beach when first taken under artillery fire. The shells fall short. At one thousand yards, Boat No. 5 is hit dead on and foundered. Six men drown before help arrives. Second Lieutenant Edward Gearing and twenty others paddle around until picked up by naval craft, thereby missing the fight at the shore line. It’s their lucky day. The other six boats ride unscathed to within one hundred yards of the shore, where a shell into Boat No. 3 kills two men. Another dozen drown, taking to the water as the boat sinks. That leaves five boats.
Lieutenant Edward Tidrick in Boat No. 2 cries out: “My God, we’re coming in at the right spot, but look at it! No shingle, no wall, no shell holes, no cover. Nothing!”
His men are at the sides of the boat, straining for a view of the target. They stare but say nothing. At exactly 6:36 A.M. ramps are dropped along the boat line and the men jump off in water anywhere from waist deep to higher than a man’s head. This is the signal awaited by the Germans atop the bluff. Already pounded by mortars, the floundering line is instantly swept by crossing machine-gun fires from both ends of the beach.
Able Company has planned to wade ashore in three files from each boat, center file going first, then flank files peeling off to right and left. The first men out try to do it but are ripped apart before they can make five yards. Even the lightly wounded die by drowning, doomed by the waterlogging of their overloaded packs. From Boat No. 1, all hands jump off in water over their heads. Most of them are carried down. Ten or so survivors get around the boat and clutch at its sides in an attempt to stay afloat. The same thing happens to the section in Boat No. 4. Half of its people are lost to the fire or tide before anyone gets ashore. All order has vanished from Able Company before it has fired a shot.
Already the sea runs red. Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors make it. The less rugged or less clever seek the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and are knocked off by machine-gun fire.
Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless. At Boat No. 2, Lieutenant Tidrick takes a bullet through the throat as he jumps from the ramp into the water. He staggers onto the sand and flops down ten feet from Private First Class Leo J. Nash. Nash sees the blood spurting and hears the strangled words gasped by Tidrick: “Advance with the wire cutters!” It’s futile; Nash has no cutters. To give the order, Tidrick has raised himself up on his hands and made himself a target for an instant. Nash, burrowing into the sand, sees machine gun bullets rip Tidrick from crown to pelvis. From the cliff above, the German gunners are shooting into the survivors as from a roof top.
Captain Taylor N. Fellers and Lieutenant Benjamin R. Kearfott never make it.* They had loaded with a section of thirty men in Boat No. 6 (Landing Craft, Assault, No. 1015). But exactly what happened to this boat and its human cargo was never to be known. No one saw the craft go down. How each man aboard it met death remains unreported. Half of the drowned bodies were later found along the beach. It is supposed that the others were claimed by the sea.
Along the beach, only one Able Company officer still lives—Lieutenant Elijah Nance, who is hit in the heel as he quits the boat and hit in the belly by a second bullet as he makes the sand. By the end of ten minutes, every sergeant is either dead or wounded. To the eyes of such men as Private Howard I. Grosser and Private First Class Gilbert G. Murdock, this clean sweep suggests that the Germans on the high ground have spotted all leaders and concentrated fire their way. Among the men who are still moving in with the tide, rifles, packs, and helmets have already been cast away in the interests of survival.
To the right of where Tidrick’s boat is drifting with the tide, its coxswain lying dead next to the shell-shattered wheel, the seventh craft, carrying a medical section with one officer and sixteen men, noses toward the beach. The ramp drops. In that instant, two machine guns concentrate their fire on the opening. Not a man is given time to jump. All aboard are cut down where they stand.
By the end of fifteen minutes, Able Company has still not fired a weapon. No orders are being given by anyone. No words are spoken. The few able-bodied survivors move or not as they see fit. Merely to stay alive is a full-time job. The fight has become a rescue operation in which nothing counts but the force of a strong example.
Above all others stands out the first-aid man, Thomas Breedin. Reaching the sands, he strips off pack, blouse, helmet, and boots. For a moment he stands there so that others on the strand will see him and get the same idea. Then he crawls into the water to pull in wounded men about to be overlapped by the tide. The deeper water is still spotted with tide walkers advancing at the same pace as the rising water. But now, owing to Breedin’s example, the strongest among them become more conspicuous targets. Coming along, they pick up wounded comrades and float them to the shore raftwise. Machine-gun fire still rakes the water. Burst after burst spoils the rescue act, shooting the floating man from the hands of the walker or killing both together. But Breedin for this hour leads a charmed life and stays with his work indomitably.
By the end of one half hour, approximately two thirds of the company is forever gone. There is no precise casualty figure for that moment. There is for the Normandy landing as a whole no accurate figure for the first hour or first day. The circumstances precluded it. Whether more Able Company riflemen died from water than from fire is known only to heaven. All earthly evidence so indicates, but cannot prove it.
By the end of one hour, the survivors from the main body have crawled across the sand to the foot of the bluff, where there is a narrow sanctuary of defiladed space. There they lie all day, clean spent, unarmed, too shocked to feel hunger, incapable even of talking to one another. No one happens by to succor them, ask what has happened, provide water, or offer unwanted pity. D Day at Omaha afforded no time or space for such missions. Every landing company was overloaded by its own assault problems.
By the end of one hour and forty-five minutes, six survivors from the boat section on the extreme right shake loose and work their way to a shelf a few rods up the cliff. Four fall exhausted from the short climb and advance no farther. They stay there through the day, seeing no one else from the company. The other two, Privates Jake Shefer and Thomas Lovejoy, join a group from the Second Ranger Battalion, which is assaulting Pointe du Hoc to the right of the company sector, and fight on with the Rangers through the day. Two men. Two rifles. Except for these, Able Company’s contribution to the D Day fire fight is a cipher.
Baker Company which is scheduled to land twenty-six minutes after Able and right on top of it, supporting and reinforcing, has had its full load of trouble on the way in. So rough is the sea during the journey that the men have to bail furiously with their helmets to keep the six boats from swamping. Thus preoccupied, they do not see the disaster which is overtaking Able until they are almost atop it. Then, what their eyes behold is either so limited or so staggering to the senses that control withers, the assault wave begins to dissolve, and disunity induced by fear virtually cancels the mission. A great cloud of smoke and dust raised by the mortar and machine-gun fire has almost closed a curtain around Able Company’s ordeal. Outside the pall, nothing is to be seen but a line of corpses adrift, a few heads bobbing in the water and the crimson-running tide. But this is enough for the British coxswains. They raise the cry: “We can’t go in there. We can’t see the landmarks. We must pull off.”
In the command boat, Captain Ettore V. Zappacosta pulls a Colt .45 and says: “By God, you’ll take this boat straight in.” His display of courage wins obedience, but it’s still a fool’s order. Such of Baker’s boats as try to go straight in suffer Able’s fate without helping the other company whatever. Thrice during the approach mortar shells break right next to Zappacosta’s boat but by an irony leave it unscathed, thereby sparing the riders a few more moments of life. At seventy-five yards from the sand Zappacosta yells: “Drop the ramp !” The end goes down, and a storm of bullet fire comes in.
Zappacosta jumps first from the boat, reels ten yards through the elbow-high tide, and yells back: “I’m hit.” He staggers on a few more steps. The aid man, Thomas Kenser, sees him bleeding from hip and shoulder. Kenser yells: “Try to make it in; I’m coming.” But the captain falls face forward into the wave, and the weight of his equipment and soaked pack pin him to the bottom. Kenser jumps toward him and is shot dead while in the air. Lieutenant Tom Dallas of Charley Company, who has come along to make a reconnaissance, is the third man. He makes it to the edge of the sand. There a machine-gun burst blows his head apart before he can flatten.
Private First Class Robert L. Sales, who is lugging Zappacosta’s radio (an SCR 300), is the fourth man to leave the boat, having waited long enough to see the others die. His boot heel catches on the edge of the ramp and he falls sprawling into the tide, losing the radio but saving his life. Every man who tries to follow him is either killed or wounded before reaching dry land. Sales alone gets to the beach unhit. To travel those few yards takes him two hours. First he crouches in the water, and waddling forward on his haunches just a few paces, collides with a floating log—driftwood. In that moment, a mortar shell explodes just above his head, knocking him groggy. He hugs the log to keep from going down, and somehow the effort seems to clear his head a little. Next thing he knows, one of Able Company’s tide walkers hoists him aboard the log and, using his sheath knife, cuts away Sales’s pack, boots, and assault jacket.
Feeling stronger, Sales returns to the water, and from behind the log, using it as cover, pushes toward the sand. Private Mack L. Smith of Baker Company, hit three times through the face, joins him there. An Able Company rifleman named Kemper, hit thrice in the right leg, also comes alongside. Together they follow the log until at last they roll it to the farthest reach of high tide. Then they flatten themselves behind it, staying there for hours after the flow has turned to ebb. The dead of both companies wash up to where they lie, and then wash back out to sea again. As a body drifts in close to them, Sales and companions, disregarding the fire, crawl from behind the log to take a look. If any one of them recognizes the face of a comrade, they join in dragging the body up onto the dry sand beyond the water’s reach. The unfamiliar dead are left to the sea. So long as the tide is full, they stay with this unique task. Later, an unidentified first-aid man who comes wiggling along the beach dresses the wounds of Smith. Sales, as he finds strength, bandages Kemper. The three remain behind the log until night falls. There is nothing else to be reported of any member of Zappacosta’s boat team.
Only one other Baker Company boat tries to come straight in to the beach. Somehow the boat founders. Somehow all of its people are killed—one British coxswain and about thirty American infantrymen. Where they fall, there is no one to take note of and report.
Frightened coxswains in the other four craft take one quick look, instinctively draw back, and then veer right and left away from the Able Company shambles. So doing, they dodge their duty while giving a break to their passengers. Such is the shock to the boat team leaders, and such their feeling of relief at the turning movement, that not one utters a protest. Lieutenant Leo A. Pingenot’s coxswain swings the boat far rightward toward Pointe du Hoc; then, spying a small and deceptively peaceful-looking cove, heads directly for the land. Fifty yards out, Pingenot yells: “Drop the ramp!” The coxswain freezes on the rope, refusing to lower. Staff Sergeant Odell L. Padgett jumps him, throttles him, and bears him to the floor. Padgett’s men lower the rope and jump for the water. In two minutes, they are all in up to their necks and struggling to avoid drowning. That quickly, Pingenot is already far out ahead of them. Padgett comes even with him, and together they cross onto dry land. The beach of the cove is heavily strewn with giant boulders. Bullets seem to be pinging off every rock.
Pingenot and Padgett dive behind the same rock. Then they glance back, but to their horror see not one person. Quite suddenly smoke has half blanked out the scene beyond the water’s edge. Pingenot moans: “My God, the whole boat team is dead.” Padgett sings out: “Hey, are you hit?” Back come many voices from beyond the smoke. “What’s the rush?” “Take it easy!” “We’ll get there.” “Where’s the fire?” “Who wants to know?” The men are still moving along, using the water as cover. Padgett’s yell is their first information that anyone else has moved up front. They all make it to the shore, and they are twenty-eight strong at first. Pingenot and Padgett manage to stay ahead of them, coaxing and encouraging. Padgett keeps yelling: “Come on, goddam it, things are better up here!” But still they lose two men killed and three wounded in crossing the beach.
In the cove, the platoon latches on to a company of Rangers, fights all day as part of that company, and helps destroy the enemy entrenchments atop Pointe du Hoc. By sundown that mop-up is completed. The platoon bivouacs at the first hedgerow beyond the cliff.
The other Baker Company boat, which turns to the right, has far less luck. Staff Sergeant Robert M. Campbell, who leads the section, is the first man to jump out when the ramp goes down. He drops in drowning water, and his load of two bangalore torpedoes takes him straight to the bottom. So he jettisons the bangalores and then, surfacing, cuts away all equipment for good measure. Machine-gun fire brackets him, and he submerges again briefly. Never a strong swimmer, he heads back out to sea. For two hours he paddles around, two hundred or so yards from the shore. Though he hears and sees nothing of the battle, he somehow gets the impression that the invasion has failed and that all other Americans are dead, wounded, or have been taken prisoner. Strength fast going, in despair he moves ashore rather than drown. Beyond the smoke he quickly finds the fire. So he grabs a helmet from a dead man’s head, crawls on hands and knees to the sea wall, and there finds five of his men, two of them unwounded.
Like Campbell, Private First Class Jan J. Budziszewski is carried to the bottom by his load of two bangalores. He hugs them half a minute before realizing that he will either let loose or drown. Next, he shucks off his helmet and pack and drops his rifle. Then he surfaces. After swimming two hundred yards, he sees that he is moving in exactly the wrong direction. So he turns about and heads for the beach, where he crawls ashore “under a rain of bullets.” In his path lies a dead Ranger. Budziszewski takes the dead man’s helmet, rifle, and canteen and crawls on to the sea wall. The only survivor from Campbell’s boat section to get off the beach, he spends his day walking to and fro along the foot of the bluff, looking for a friendly face. But he meets only strangers, and none shows any interest in him.
In Lieutenant William B. Williams’ boat, the coxswain steers sharp left and away from Zappacosta’s sector. Not seeing the captain die, Williams doesn’t know that command has now passed to him. Guiding on his own instinct, the coxswain moves along the coast six hundred yards, then puts the boat straight in. It’s a good guess; he has found a little vacuum in the battle. The ramp drops on dry sand and the boat team jumps ashore. Yet it’s a close thing. Mortar fire has dogged them all the way; and as the last rifleman clears the ramp, one shell lands dead center of the boat, blows it apart, and kills the coxswain. Momentarily, the beach is free of fire, but the men cannot cross it at a bound. Weak from seasickness and fear, they move at a crawl, dragging their equipment. By the end of twenty minutes, Williams and ten men are over the sand and resting in the lee of the sea wall. Five others are hit by machine-gun fire crossing the beach; six men, last seen while taking cover in a tidal pocket, are never heard from again. More mortar fire lands around the party as Williams leads it across the road beyond the sea wall. The men scatter. When the shelling lifts, three of them do not return. Williams leads the seven survivors up a trail toward the fortified village of Les Moulins atop the bluff. He recognizes the ground and knows that he is taking on a tough target. Les Moulins is perched above a draw, up which winds a dirt road from the beach, designated on the invasion maps as Exit No. 3.
Williams and his crew of seven are the first Americans to approach it D Day morning. Machine-gun fire from a concrete pillbox sweeps over them as they near the brow of the hill, moving now at a crawl through thick grass. Williams says to the others: “Stay here; we’re too big a target!” They hug earth, and he crawls forward alone, moving via a shallow gully. Without being detected, he gets to within twenty yards of the gun, obliquely downslope from it. He heaves a grenade; but he has held it just a bit too long and it explodes in air, just outside the embrasure. His second grenade hits the concrete wall and bounces right back on him. Three of its slugs hit him in the shoulders. Then, from out of the pillbox, a German potato masher sails down on him and explodes just a few feet away; five more fragments cut into him. He starts crawling back to his men; en route, three bullets from the machine gun rip his rump and right leg.
The seven are still there. Williams hands his map and compass to Staff Sergeant Frank M. Price, saying: “It’s your job now. But go the other way—toward Vierville.” Price starts to look at Williams’ wounds, but Williams shakes him off, saying: “No, get moving.” He then settles himself in a hole in the embankment, stays there all day, and at last gets medical attention just before midnight.
On leaving Williams, Price’s first act is to hand map and compass (the symbols of leadership) to Technical Sergeant William Pearce, whose seniority the lieutenant has overlooked. They cross the draw, one man at a time, and some distance beyond come to a ravine; on the far side, they bump their first hedgerow, and as they look for an entrance, fire comes against them. Behind a second hedgerow, not more than thirty yards away, are seven Germans, five rides and two burp guns. On exactly even terms, these two forces engage for the better part of an hour, apparently with no one’s getting hit. Then Pearce settles the fight by crawling along a drainage ditch to the enemy flank. He kills the seven Germans with a Browning Automatic Rifle.
For Pearce and his friends, it is a first taste of battle; its success is giddying. Heads up, they walk along the road straight into Vierville, disregarding all precautions. They get away with it only because that village is already firmly in the hands of Lieutenant Walter Taylor of Baker Company and twenty men from his boat team.
Taylor is a luminous figure in the story of D Day, one of the forty-seven immortals of Omaha who, by their dauntless initiative at widely separated points along the beach, saved the landing from total stagnation and disaster. Courage and luck are his in extraordinary measure.
When Baker Company’s assault wave breaks up just short of the surf where Able Company is in ordeal, Taylor’s coxswain swings his boat sharp left, then heads toward the shore about halfway between Zappacosta’s boat and Williams’. Until a few seconds after the ramp drops, this bit of beach next to the village called Hamel-au-Prêtre is blessedly clear of fire. No mortar shells crown the start. Taylor leads his section crawling across the beach and over the sea wall, losing four men killed and two wounded (machine-gun fire) in this brief movement. Some yards off to his right, Taylor has seen Lieutenants Harold Donaldson and Emil Winkler shot dead. But there is no halt for reflection; Taylor leads the section by trail straight up the bluff and into Vierville, where his luck continues. In a two-hour fight he whips a German platoon without losing a man.
The village is quiet when Pearce joins him. Pearce says: “Williams is shot up back there and can’t move.”
Says Taylor: “I guess that makes me company commander.”
Answers Pearce: “This is probably all of Baker Company.” Pearce takes a head count; they number twenty-eight, including Taylor.
Says Taylor: “That ought to be enough. Follow me!”
Inland from Vierville about five hundred yards lies the Château de Vaumicel, imposing in its rock-walled massiveness, its hedgerow-bordered fields all entrenched and interconnected with artilleryproof tunnels. To every man but Taylor the target looks prohibitive. Still, they follow him. Fire stops them one hundred yards short of the château. The Germans are behind a hedgerow at mid-distance. Still feeling their way, Taylor’s men flatten, open fire with rifles, and toss a few grenades, though the distance seems too great. By sheer chance, one grenade glances off the helmet of a German squatting in a foxhole. He jumps up, shouting: “Kamerad! Kamerad!” Thereupon twenty-four of the enemy walk from behind the hedgerow with their hands in the air. Taylor pares off one of his riflemen to march the prisoners back to the beach. The brief fight costs him three wounded. Within the château, he takes two more prisoners, a German doctor and his first-aid man. Taylor puts them on a “kind of a parole,” leaving his three wounded in their keeping while moving his platoon to the first crossroads beyond the château.
Here he is stopped by the sudden arrival of three truckloads of German infantry, who deploy into the fields on both flanks of his position and start an envelopment. The manpower odds, about three to one against him, are too heavy. In the first trade of fire, lasting not more than two minutes, a rifleman lying beside Taylor is killed, three others are wounded, and the BAR is shot from Pearce’s hands. That leaves but twenty men and no automatic weapons.
Taylor yells: “Back to the château!” They go out, crawling as far as the first hedgerow; then they rise and trot along, supporting their wounded. Taylor is the last man out, having stayed behind to cover the withdrawal with his carbine until the hedgerows interdict fire against the others. So far, this small group has had no contact with any other part of the expedition, and for all its members know, the invasion may have failed.
They make it to the château. The enemy comes on and moves in close. The attacking fire builds up. But the stone walls are fire-slotted, and through the midday and early afternoon these ports well serve the American riflemen. The question is whether the ammunition will outlast the Germans. It is answered at sundown, just as the supply runs out, by the arrival of fifteen Rangers who join their fire with Taylor’s, and the Germans fade back.
Already Taylor and his force are farther south than any element of the right flank in the Omaha expedition. But Taylor isn’t satisfied. The battalion objective, as specified for the close of D Day, is still more than one half mile to the westward. He says to the others: “We’ve got to make it.”
So he leads them forth, once again serving as first scout, eighteen of his own riflemen and fifteen Rangers following in column. One man is killed by a bullet getting away from Vaumicel. Dark closes over them. They prepare to bivouac. Having got almost to the village of Louvières, they are by this time almost one half mile in front of anything else in the United States Army. There a runner reaches them with the message that the remnants of the battalion are assembling seven hundred yards closer to the sea; Taylor and party are directed to fall back on them. It is done.
Later, still under the spell, Price paid the perfect tribute to Taylor. He said: “We saw no sign of fear in him. Watching him made men of us. Marching or fighting, he was leading. We followed him because there was nothing else to do.”
Thousands of Americans were spilled onto Omaha Beach. The high ground was won by a handful of men like Taylor who on that day burned with a flame bright beyond common understanding.
From: Naval Commander, Western Task Force
To: ALL HANDS
1. We of the Western Naval Task Force are going to land the American Army in France.
2. From battleships to landing craft ours is, in the main, an American Force. Beside us will be a mainly British force, landing the British and Canadian troops. Overhead will fly the Allied Expeditionary Air Force. We all have the same mission — to smash our way onto the beaches, and through the coastal defenses, into the heart of the enemy’s fortress.
3. In two ways the coming battle differs from any that we have undertaken before: it demands more seamanship, and more fighting. We must operate in the waters of the English Channel and the French coast, in strong currents and twenty-foot tide. We must destroy an enemy defensive system which has been four years in the making, and our mission is one against which the enemy will throw his whole remaining strength. These are not beaches held by apathetic Italians or defended by hasty fortifications. These are prepare[d] positions, held by Germans who have learned from their past failures. They have coastal batteries and mine fields; they have [illegible] and E-boats and submarines. They will try to use them all. We are getting into a fight.
4. But it is not we who have to fear the outcome. As the German has learned from failure, we have learned from success. To this battle we bring our tested methods, with new weapons, and overwhelming strength. Tides and currents present a challenge which, forewarned, we know how to meet. And it will take more than the last convulsive effort of the beaten “master race” to match the fighting spirit of the American Navy. It is the enemy who is afraid.
5. In this force there are battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. There are hundreds of landing ships and craft, scores of patrol and escort vessels, dozens of specials assault craft. Every man in every ship has his job. And these tens of thousands of men and jobs add up to one task only — to land and support and supply and reinforce the finest army ever sent to battle by the United States. In that task we shall not fail. I await with confidence the further proof, in this the greatest battle of them all, that American sailors are seamen and fighting men second to none.
6. Captains will please publish this letter at quarters on the day that the ships are sealed; then post on bulletin boards; and remove and burn prior to sailing.
A.G. Kirk (Commander, U.S. Navy)