The Only Choice: Move or Die

The silence is broken only by the forlorn sound of taps. The notes seem to echo off the white crosses as if to plea, “Don’t let us be forgotten.” 9,376 men and four women rest there, in the Normandy American Cemetery. They rest in a serene, beautifully maintained burial ground in the high bluffs just above Omaha beach; bluffs that on June 6, 1944, housed an enemy that rained terror and death upon them. The men at Omaha encountered the most heavily defended of the five invasion beaches. Its crescent shape supported gun positions at the ends, creating a deadly crossfire for anyone landing on the beach. Anyone managing to survive landing faced artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire from the high bluffs connecting the ends of the crescent.

With years to build nearly impregnable defensive positions, the 1st and 29th American divisions walked into an unimaginable killing zone. Company A of the 116th regiment was arguably the first to hit the beach. After just 30 minutes, only two of its 252 men were able to fight. Much went wrong that day for those young 19 and 20-year-old Americans attacking that beach. An ineffective air campaign to destroy the enemy strong points. Miserable weather. Misplaced landings on a smoke obscured beach. Instead of landing ready to fight, they landed scared, wet and seasick with muscles cramped from being tightly packed for hours in a meandering landing craft fighting the stormy English Channel and dodging mined obstacles. Men whose landing crafts weren’t sunk by a mine or artillery, who didn’t drown from landing too far out to sea and who somehow survived the murderous crossfire in the water, faced a several hundred-yard run to the comparative safety of a shale ridge. But running fast in the bloody, wet sand of Omaha was near impossible for these sick, waterlogged and overloaded (wearing 90 to 120 lbs. of equipment) men.

Men died that day randomly and gruesomely. Seeking safety behind beach obstacles, enemy gunners targeted the mines on those obstacles. Tanks would suddenly back up and crush men seeking shelter behind them. A spray of machine-gun bullets would suddenly kill two men but miraculously miss the one between them. Survivors said that the English Channel ran red with blood in this inhuman meat grinder. In the end, the day was won by small groups of men, leaderless and alone, realizing they either would move up those bluffs or die on the beach.

John Spalding and Joseph Dawson found a seam between two enemy strong points and despite barbed wire, constant fire and minefields, led the first men up the bluffs beginning the process of neutralizing the enemy fire. Several Metals of Honor were won that day, but lost to history are the courage, fortitude, and bravery of many other young Americans. Many risked their own lives to save others and aid the wounded.

Every September I attend a military history tour, and this year, it was Normandy and the bloodied beaches of Omaha and Utah. I walked where Company A was destroyed. I saw where Spalding and Dawson found the path off the beach. I stood in German bunkers. But most importantly, I paid my respects to the 9,380 laid to rest in the bluffs above Omaha.

Like so many other American soldiers before them, they didn’t come to enrich themselves or their leaders. They didn’t come to rape and plunder. They came simply to free an enslaved people. People that they didn’t even know. In the name of Liberty and Freedom. Memorial Day will never be the same for me again.