courtesy: National Archives
June 6, 1944
Eastern Shore native and 115th Infantry Regiment D-Day survivor Jimmy Ewing:
“The 116th (another 29th Infantry Division regiment who had trained with the 115th in Scotland), out of the Virginia National Guard, were in the initial assault.
“If you’ve seen movies like The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, they’re pretty accurate (depicting) what they did (at Omaha Beach in Normandy). They were pinned down, slaughtered. It was bad. The Germans were dug in, had fortifications, machine guns, light artillery. (The first wave of forces) were sitting ducks.
“But they got a foothold.”
Operation Overlord, the official codename for the Invasion of Normandy, began with the landing of a large number of attack transports and the first soldiers of the 116th Infantry storming the beach at 0630. The catastrophic losses suffered by that regiment’s community on that fateful morning led to Bedford, Virginia being selected for the site of our National D-Day Memorial.
The 1st Infantry Division’s forces (officially nicknamed The Big Red One) experienced similar devastation while landing on the eastern half of the beach, and by 0830, the efforts to take the German fortifications had failed so miserably further landings were called off.
Army leadership considered evacuating the survivors and landing somewhere elsewhere but, by noon, elements of the American forces had been able to organize and advance off the beach, and the landings resumed between 1130 and 1200.
Jimmy Ewing, an 18 year old kid from Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, was part of that second wave:
“You went in on a vehicle called an LCVP (landing craft, vehicle, personnel). That landing craft had no tanks or artillery or nothing like that. Just men. And that landing craft, you’d go in and go just so far. You went in, and the front dropped down, and you went out like sitting ducks.
“I tell my children, when we talk about the service, I say now, you all like to go hunting, and I say this is a poor comparison, but I use it as a demonstration: You’re in a goose blind and you’re sitting there and you’re waiting for these geese to come in and all of a sudden here they come, they’re coming in, and you raise up and out of the blind and you start shooting. Now, the other side of the story is when you’re in the service and you’re in war, the geese have got guns, too.”
By the end of D-Day, 2,400 men from the 1st and the 29th Divisions had become casualties on Omaha Beach.
The entire 115th regiment, made up of mostly young Eastern Shoremen, was awarded a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, embroidered “St. Laurent-sur-Mer” for their gallant actions on that historic day.
In 2014, Mr. Jimmy told us:
“It was a horrible day that I don’t like to think about.”
courtesy: National Archives
“By that time (D-Day), I’d been transferred out of a rifle company into a light artillery company called Cannon Company, but I was still in the 115th Infantry. Our duty was, when our forces started to get pinned down or something, we’d send forward observers who would send back what we called Fire Missions. We’d say a nest of machine guns were here, or tanks were here (to pinpoint where artillery should be aimed).”courtesy: The Baltimore Sun
As the forces of the 29th Infantry and their brothers-in-arms fought to advance inland, a major obstacle in their progress were the fields full of huge dense mazes of hedgerows, walls of vegetation growing on man-made embankments existing since the Roman Empire. The Germans, who had occupied Northern France for more than a year, had every advantage, and they did not squander many of them.
“The Germans were very well prepared, very knowledgeable of war. The Germans were so smart. I can never stop giving them credit for how brilliant they were.
“(For instance) one of the armored divisions got in after things had been going a while, into those hedges, some of them were over six foot high, and a tank company would come in with a tank equipped with a bulldozer blade and knock this hedge row down. A tank would come through, or that first tank might be equipped with an artillery piece on it, and the Germans would let it come through. It would fan out to left. Another would come through, fan out to right. Then another would come up through the middle, and that’s when bang, (the Germans) would hit them right in that opening. And then they had (at least) two sitting ducks sitting right there. It was something else.
Bocage (hedgerow) terrain, courtesy: National Archives
Sherman ‘Rhino’ tank modified to cut through the hedgerows of the bocage countryside, Normandy 1944, courtesy: National Archives
“I remember the first little town we came to was by the sea. Small town. It looked something like Stevensville.
“We went on to St. Laurent, another small town. The French people were very good to us. They didn’t hesitate to let you know where the Germans were, or where they thought they might be.”
In July 1943, a new commanding general arrived who would lead the 29th with a spirit and vigor that carried the division through to the end of the war. Major General Charles Gerhardt, a 1917 West Point graduate, a cavalryman, and a strict disciplinarian, molded the division into one of the U.S. Army’s finest.
Major General Charles Gerhardt courtesy: 29th Infantry Division History
The 29th Division, undermanned after heavy casualties on D-Day, was even further depleted in the intense fighting for Saint-Lô, an important strategic crossroads.
“Then we went on to Saint-Lô, you’ve seen that in the movies, (our airborne troops) dropping down. One of the things I’m reminded of is those paratroopers, one of them was hung up on the spire of a church. The Germans were very heavily armored there so you can just imagine coming down in there in a parachute, you’re a pretty easy target.”
St.Lo, July, 1944 – courtesy: National Archives
Eventually, the Americans were able to capture the city in a direct assault. The Battle of Saint-Lô ended up being one of the turning points in the war in Europe.
The day after the Saint-Lô victory, the Army’s offensive advance toward Germany began.
Codename: Operation Cobra.
Jimmy Ewing and Geert den Bogaert
TOMORROW: THE BRONZE STAR AND THE PURPLE HEART
Visit Geert Van den Bogaert’s website at: http://normandyheroes.com/