“We were about two hundred feet from the beach when a shell blew off the front of our landing craft, destroying the ramp,” recalled Ray Alm from B Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which landed on Omaha’s deadly Dog Green Beach at approximately 7:40 a.m. on D-Day. “My two best buddies were right in front of me, and they were both killed. I was holding a .45 pistol and carrying a bazooka with eight shells; it was so heavy that I just went right under the water. So I had to let everything go except the shells.”
He continued, “When we were on the beach, there were two other Rangers and myself running, and a German machine gun was firing at us. We hid behind an anti-tank obstacle. The three of us ducked behind it. We then headed towards the front again. It was terrible; there were bodies all over the place. They wiped out almost the entire 116th Infantry Regiment; they just murdered them. They were floating all over the place, there was blood in the water—it was just dark.”
This June 6 marks the 73rd anniversary of D-Day. Nothing captures the drama and action of that day better than the words of the men who actually took part in the assault. Particularly poignant are the voices of the elite Army Rangers who led the way off bloody Omaha Beach.
Sadly, most of the men who remember that day have passed on. But their voices are immortalized in Beyond Valor: World War II’s Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat. For nearly twenty-five years, I’ve been interviewing American veterans from WWI to Iraq, and I have captured more than 4,000 oral histories from WWII veterans in elite units such as the Rangers. These men were my friends, men my daughter called uncle. In many cases, these great Americans did the impossible. Their individual actions changed history, and they did their duty in the face of tremendous odds.
On the morning of D-Day, members of the 5th and 2nd Ranger Battalions were making their way through the choppy waters off Normandy to their D-Day objectives. They were divided into three different groups, each focused on specific military targets. Their primary focus was the guns of Pointe du Hoc and the deadly German mortars on the high ground to the extreme left of Omaha.
For the bulk of the Rangers, including the 5th Battalion, their secondary objective if Pointe du Hoc failed was Omaha Beach. Faulty radar and failed radio transmissions led to a chain of events that put the 5th and several companies of the 2nd Rangers on their secondary objective: Omaha. At the right place, at exactly the right time, they led a crucial breakout.
Here are two of their stories:
“We went up on toeholds and by digging our fingernails and bayonets into the ninety foot cliff. . . . When we got up on top we had only nine men left in my platoon,” recalled my dear friend Lt. Sid Salomon.
Salomon was one of the first Rangers on the beach. C Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion landed at 0645. Dodging mortar and machine-gun fire, the men scaled ninety-foot cliffs of Pointe-et-Raz-de-la-Percée. Under fire, the Rangers made it to the top and attacked the Germans in an effort to deny them crucial high ground over the Charlie sector of Omaha Beach.
“We had two platoons, each in its own landing craft,” Salomon said. “I was in charge of one, and the other platoon leader was in charge of the other. Our goal was to cross the beach, climb the cliff, and neutralize the mortars and machine guns that were positioned on top of a beach that intelligence had indicated could threaten the landing at Omaha Beach.”
The fight began even before the Rangers reached the shore. “The trip was tough coming in,” Solomon said. “Keep in mind, it was postponed due to rough seas. The men started getting sick. We were issued paper bags, like you get in airplanes. The men filled them up and threw them over the side. Some men started using their helmets. We could hear the ping of the machine gun bullets hitting the side of the landing craft, and mortar shells were landing near the landing craft. I could see the concentric circles formed by the shells hitting the water. It was quite something, of course. One of the men joked, ‘Hey, they’re firing at us.’ It added a little humor to the situation.”
When the landing craft hit the beach, Solomon was the first to exit the vessel. “When I jumped off, I held my tommy gun over my head. I jumped into not-quite-chest-high water, and it took a few seconds to get my feet on the ground. In the meantime, the second man, Sergeant Reed, jumped off to the left. I always figured that the first man out would be hit. Fortunately, the Germans didn’t know when the ramp would lower. But they had us zeroed in with their machine guns, and the second man, Reed, was hit. He had fallen down, wounded, and had slid underneath the ramp.”
Solomon dragged Reed to the water’s edge and told him, “Sergeant, this is as far as I can take you, I have to get along.”
Then he took off running. “A mortar shell landed right behind me and killed or wounded all of my mortar section. I got some of the shrapnel—it hit my back and I landed right on my face. I fell down in the sand and thought I was dead.” Solomon remembered.
But he refused to give up. “Right then and there, I said to myself that I wasn’t going to die. This was no place to be lying, so I took my maps, I got up, and ran toward the overhang of the cliff,” he recalled.
“An aid man came over to me and took my field jacket and shirt off and started digging shrapnel out of my back. These were the days before penicillin, and each man carried a sulfa pack, and he put it on my back.” The medic told him. “That’s all I can do for you now.”
Despite the pain, Solomon began to climb the ninety-foot cliff. “Each man had a six-foot piece of rope that had a noose at the end of it and, ideally, we were to link the ropes together and scale the cliff,” he explained. “We didn’t bother with that since, of course, so many men had gotten killed and wounded. . . . We went up on toeholds and by digging our fingernails and bayonets into the cliff.”
But of the 37 men in the company, only nine would survive the climb.
Those nine had overcome tremendous odds, but the fighting — and the dying — weren’t finished yet. Salomon and a fellow platoon leader lay in a shellhole from where they could see the German trench they next needed to assault. “We were there only a minute or two and all of a sudden Bill Moody, the 1st Platoon commander, fell over on my shoulder. He had been killed by a bullet hole through his eyes,” Salomon recalled.
Without pausing to mourn, Salomon grabbed another of the Rangers who had made it to the top and said, “Let’s go!” They ran and jumped into the trench, following it until they came to a dugout. “I threw a white phosphorous grenade through the entrance and waited a minute,” Salomon explained. “We then sprayed the entrance.” With no one inside, they continued moving through the maze of trenches.
“We went a little further around a curve and were face to face with a German soldier. We were both equally stunned, but I grabbed him, and I figured this might be a good time to have a prisoner instead of killing him right then and there. I said, ‘Let’s send him down to the company commander,’ who was down at the beach with dead and wounded men maintaining order.”
“I sent the prisoner down the cliff,” he said. “I don’t know if he got down on his own or if they pushed him down—that was immaterial to me.”
It quickly became obvious that it would be silly to move much farther inland with so few men, Salomon said. “We proceeded to knock out a machine gun section and a mortar section. . . . We knocked out the German position and figured that we were doing our best by still holding our ground.”
“We could see the action from the landing craft as we came in,” recalled Ellis “Bill” Reed, a member of the U.S. Army 5th Ranger Battalion who fought at Omaha Dog White on D-Day. “There was a tremendous amount of firepower coming from both flanks. Machine gun fire and artillery fire was pouring in.”
Already, the beach in front of Reed and the other Rangers was littered with the bodies of Americans who had landed only to be gunned down by the Germans. Reed “had to run across about 150 yards of beach” with his platoon leader and his buddy Woody Doorman, who was a bangalore torpedo man. “Our job was to place the torpedo under the wire and detonate it, ripping a hole in the wire for the rest of the troops to move through.”
But before they could carry out their mission, they first had to reach the wire. “When we exited the landing craft many people had flotation belts, and if the water was over your neck you would turn upside down,” Reed remembered. “When we got off the boat and into the wet sand we had to run for the seawall. Men were dying around us, lying in different positions, and tanks were burning.”
Dashing behind the seawall, Reed heard General Cota, the commanding officer on the beach, utter the fateful words that became a motto for the Rangers: “Rangers, lead the way!”
Doorman and Reed did just that. “Woody and I had to assemble each piece of the torpedo, get up from behind the seawall, push the bangalore torpedo across the road on top of the bluff and put it under the concertina wire,” Reed explained. “Once we had the torpedo in place, we took the fuse wire out, pulled the fuse, and yelled, ‘Fire in the hole!’ and jumped back over the wall. The result, if it worked, was a hole in the concertina wire.”
With a laugh, Reed added, “They [the Germans] didn’t stop firing while we were doing this, if you know what I mean. They were firing down the line, and there was a lot of machine gun and mortar fire. I don’t know if I was so scared or what, but I moved as fast as I could to get everything set.” Still chuckling, he continued, “I made sure the fuse lighter went off, since we were told in our training that if it didn’t go off we were to sacrifice our bodies and lay on the concertina wire as the men stepped on us. So I made damn sure that the torpedo detonated.”
The torpedo worked as intended, blasting a hole in the German defenses and creating a crucial exit off Omaha Beach. “As the men moved through our holes in the wire, one of our scouts got cut in half by a machine gun,” Reed recalled. “I was told to fire the rifle grenade at a machine gun nest, but like everything else in the U.S. Army, it was a big dud. So at that point Lieutenant Dawson got up and charged it with his submachine gun and kept blasting. When we got up close they put their hands up. I remember that one German had his arm dangling by only a piece of flesh. That was our first visual face-to-face contact with the enemy.”
That was far from the last time the Rangers would meet Germans face-to-face. The elite American forces led the way across Europe, their sacrifices ensuring that freedom and democracy would continue to thrive, as they do to this day.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of eleven books, including seven books on D-Day and WWII. Washington’s Immortals is his newest, which has just been released as a soft cover and has been named one of the 100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time by the Journal of the American Revolution. The book is featured on the History Makers table nationwide at Barnes & Noble. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. Follow him at PatrickkODonnell.com and @combathistorian.