TESTIMONY (Omaha Beach - D-DAY - June 1944)



Battleship USS Arkansas (BB-33) of Fire Support Group, Omaha Beach - major task - support 1st Inf Div
(picture taken prior to D-Day operations), April-May 1944

2d Lt. William G. PEPE,
Feb-Mar 44,
Training Area, near Swansea,
Wales
Click image to enlarge

… it was the night of June 5th 1944, the eve of D-DAY, the most ambitious amphibious transportation of combat troops ever conceived by the mind of man . It would initiate the first and only successful Cross Channel Invasion from either side . It would also bring together the greatest concentration of Allied troops, firepower and vehicles ever assembled for a combat operation . It was to mark an historic occasion not only in magnitude but in brilliant conception as well and I was proud to have been chosen to participate . Our group had been aboard now for two days, awaiting the order to move . The Invasion had already been postponed for 24 hours because of extremely hazardous weather conditions .

The mood aboard ship was one of nervous apprehension and the close confinement was beginning to take its toll . Tempers were short and the heightened degree of urgency was causing everyone to become somewhat edgy . We were to have absolutely no awareness of the overwhelming magnitude of this operation until the morning light . No one slept that night knowing that the following morning would find us trying to survive in an extremely hostile environment . As H-Hour (set at 0645) approached, tensions increased, exponentially to a point where breakfast became more ritual than nourishing . Although we were aware that this would probably be the last hot meal we would all enjoy for a long time, no one could concentrate on anything but the impending battle . As a solitary member of a highly trained combat team (I was assigned as a Second Lieutenant to Headquarters & Headquarters Company, 5th Engineer Special Brigade ), aboard a ship steaming inexorably toward an unknown but unquestionably perilous rendez-vous with destiny, one is consumed with a disquieting feeling of absolute isolation even though you know, in your mind, that this is the largest force of arms ever assembled . You feel alone and vulnerable in a night so dark, which moreover plays tricks with your confidence in your ability to perform with honor . We are fearful, yes, not so much in death for we have prepared ourselves for that eventuality . We fear in how we will face that final curtain and we ask God to give us the courage to die like real men . (by 0200, June 6th, it was planned to anchor the larger vessels in the transport area, some 11 to 12 miles off the landing beaches) .



"Omaha Beach" - Western Sector
(from CHARLIE Beach > EASY Green Beach),
Eastern Sector (from EASY Red & FOX Red),
the 6th E.S.B. was assigned to the Western Beaches,
while the 5th E.S.B. controlled the Eastern Beaches

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The USS Ancon, flagship of TF 124 (Assault Force “O”) drops its anchor in the transport area, off Omaha Beach, it is now 0230 . The sky then gradually begins to brighten in the east and dawn of D-Day, June 6th, 1944, the most monumental day in WWII history, is upon us . The Padre is doing his sad work of preparing men to die . We have all made our peace with God, it is now in His hands as to who will survive . It is time now to disembark and as we come above deck, we are greeted with the most incredible sight ever witnessed by mortal eyes . As far as one can see, in any direction, the waters are covered with hundreds of ships of every size, configuration and classification . There are troop transports, tankers, cargo vessels, landing craft of every description and war ships of every size from the smallest Minesweepers to the giant Battleships of all the Allied nations . A cannonade of murderous fire is being visited upon enemy installations in the beach area, i.e. Omaha Beach . Now, you are no longer alone in your insignificant little ship but a part of the greatest fighting force to visit these or any other waters on the face of this earth . Individual morale has suddenly received a massive infusion of confidence and the adrenalin is flowing in rivers throughout your body . Your enthusiasm is somewhat dampened however as you prepare to board the landing craft (mainly LCVP) . Due to an offshore storm, and strong currents, the seas are running anywhere from ten to fifteen feet . Those in the initial Assault waves were loaded directly into the landing craft, aboard ship and then lowered into the angry seas . Succeeding waves however, were to board the returning crafts by scrambling over the side of the mothership by way of loading nets made from woven ropes (a rather delicate and dangerous operation in rough waters) .



Medical Detachments personnel,
pertaining to Engineer Special Brigades,
embarking for the Invasion, note Stretchers,
Medical Pouches, Assault Gasmasks, Life Belts,
and special Helmet Markings, June 5, 1944
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"USS Augusta",
Flagship of Western Task Force
(i.e. Control Force),
off Omaha Beach, and circling landing craft,
June 6, 1944
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After the perilous offloading operation, the landing craft went off to a staging area (approx. 7 miles offshore) where we bobbed around in an incomplete circle until the twelve boats comprising the Assault Wave were assembled . Those of us who survived the ordeal of disembarkation were immediately seized with gut wrenching waves of nausea precipitated by the violent tossing about . Crowded, as we were, in such extremely tight quarters, we were soon wearing each other’s breakfast . Barf bags were not standard issue !



Omaha Beachhead scene, taken from shore,
June 10, 1944
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1st Lt. William G. PEPE,
23 Feb 1946, picture taken upon returning to the States,
after a 6-months stay in the Philippines
(in view of the pending Invasion of Japan),
promoted to 1st Lieutenant,
just before leaving France for the Far East
Click image to enlarge

Despite months of rigorous intensive training, none of us, at this point, could be considered as "combat ready" . But just when we started thinking that nothing could be worse than the hell we were experiencing, shells from onshore enemy batteries start falling in and around our Assault wave . The full impact of our immediate danger is not immediately apparent until the landing craft on our right disappears in a fireball of human and other debris that only a nano second ago was alive with frightened but eager young men .


5th ESB, 61st Med Bn Ambulance unloading patients for air evacuation (C-47 transports furnished by IX Troop Carrier Command), July 1944

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5th ESB medics treating casualties - note special helmet markings (red cross outlined white)

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5th / 6th ESB, Captain belonging to either 61st / 60th Med Bn (see special red cross helmet markings)

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Seasickness is all but forgotten now and all we want is to get off this waterborne death trap . Shortly before hitting the beach (EASY Red, Omaha Beach), there is a lull when all friendly artillery fire is suspended to give the assault troops the opportunity to land without danger of being hit by friendly shells . This is the time when you are most vulnerable to enemy fire since they can shoot you without retaliation . We were however, not entirely without artillery support . The larger Battleships standing far off shore had not the capacity to fire with the pinpoint accuracy required for close combat support . On the other hand, the smaller more maneuverable Destroyers were traversing patterns parallel to the beach, heaving shellfire into known enemy positions . At times, they ran so closely to the shoreline, it seemed they had to be scraping the bottom with their keels . I have nothing but the greatest admiration and pride for the brave seamen who exposed themselves to murderous enemy fire in order to provide us with an element of artillery support during this critical phase of the invasion of Omaha Beach . After an excruciating lifetime of apprehensive uncertainty, nakedly exposed to enemy fire, our landing craft finally hit sand . The ramp was lowered and we were able to scramble ashore, taking minimal losses . Our overall Commander Brigadier General William M. HOGE had insisted that ALL Brigade personnel be on the beach before 1200 hours, and since my mission was critical for the well being of HQ personnel, I went in fairly early, i.e. at 0830 (first Brigade landings took place at 0700, involving elements of the 37th and 348th Engr Cbt Bns). Of course, due to the unexpected heavy enemy resistance, I spent most of my time trying to stay alive . I was not assigned to any specific Fire Team, so I was pretty much on my own . The 5th E.S.B. ’s main job (under command of the Provisional Engineer Special Brigade Group) consisted in supporting the 1st Infantry Division which was to assault the eastern beaches, i.e. EASY Red, FOX Green, and FOX Red. Here again, I should like to commend the naval personnel who piloted these small craft . For the most part, they performed exemplary fashion, with courage and determination, repeatedly running back and forth with fresh troops and trying hard delivering them to the proper landing zones . Some, unfortunately, were reluctant to come close enough and discharged their troops in water too deep for survival . Once ashore, we searched around for bomb craters, they were vital for survival for there was no natural cover on the beach and the craters were to provide some basic form of protection from enemy small arms fire . But, there were no craters on the beach other than those formed by naval gunfire and they were much too shallow for adequate cover . The beach area had not as yet been secured and without the craters, survival was rather tenuous . Army Air Forces had promised us 100 tons of bombs for every 500 square yards of beach . Sure enough, we found the craters 2 days later, 3 miles inland ... (bombers assigned to hit the coastal fortifications had to bomb by intruments because of the overcast – moreover there was a deliberate delay of several seconds in the bombs release to avoid hitting the assault waves – the result was that almost 13,000 bombs dropped by a force of 329 B-24s did not hit enemy beach & coastal defenses, but were scattered inland)



Map of planned Battery Bombardment,
by Air & Naval elements,
dated May 18, 1944
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Grim cargo from the Invasion Beachheads -
casualties being transferred to Hospital Ships,
June 7, 1944
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As you might well imagine, things were in a rather chaotic state of flux for a good part of the morning of June 6th, with neither side giving much ground . We were pinned down without much hope of relief until the Engineers could clear "beach exits" (i.e. E-1 “Easy Red” draw to St. Laurent – E-3 “Fox Green” draw to Colleville – F-1 “Fox Red” draw to Cabourg) . Being a 2d Lieutenant, commissioned in the Corps of Engineers, I got assigned to H & H Co – 5th Engr Spec Bde commanded by Colonel Doswell GULLATT (CO) and Colonel William C. D. Bridges (XO), as a Mine & Booby Trap Officer, with the specific duty to locate and deactivate any anti-personnel and anti-vehicular exploding devices, I personally used nitrostarch to get rid of them . On coming ashore I was armed with a .30 caliber M1 Carbine, which I must say, I immediately discarded for a .45 cal Thompson SMG – if I was going to meet the enemy, I wanted firepower for sure ! Once our men would be ashore, and get the ‘Big Red One ’ people off the beach thru the ‘beach exits’, our next assignment was to establish supply depots in the beach area …

The EASY Red Sector of Omaha Beach was particularly hard hit because of two basic conditions :
1 - as previously stated, terrain features of this stretch of beach offered no natural cover - we were totally dependent upon the non-existing bomb craters for defensive and command positions
2 – in order to avoid compromising the integrity of the landing areas, all aerial surveillance was discontinued for a period of two weeks prior to the Invasion – consequently no fully up-to-date data on enemy troops and reinforcements were available

So here I am, with a bunch of other civilians, in olive drab garb, playing at soldiering, facing an adversary tenaciously determined to deny us free access to his territory . It is a time for introspective contemplation . It is understandable, that in a wartime environment, vast numbers of people are infused into the Armed Forces with a proportionate number of people directed into positions of leadership . All too frequently, the selections of who will be chosen to lead are influenced by the candidates intellectual acuity with little or no consideration directed towards his emotional stability, mental disposition or personality characteristics .



"MARS" CP of the Provisional Engineer Special Brigade Group,
set up in captured German pillbox, WN65,
overlooking Exit E-1, EASY Red Beach,
Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944
Click image to enlarge

Apparently, the same group of people who have determined that an IQ of 110 should be the criteria for administering life and death decisions must have established 90 days ( hence, the OCS ‘90-days wonders’ ) as sufficient time for transforming passive, innocent adolescents into cold-blooded killing machines ! Unfortunately, neither of these criteria is consistent with the desired conclusions . Most of my contemporaries were in the same boat, so to speak, Yet none of us enjoyed the luxury of developing naturally into responsible young men. We were unceremoniously removed from a comparatively sheltered, protective atmosphere and ruthlessly projected, with a minimum amount of training into a frenetically belligerent world, determined to destroy what was left of Humanity ….In truth, no amount of training could adequately prepare us for the unspeakable horrors that lay ahead . Almost every responsible person in a Command position, has at some time, felt woefully inadequate to the oppressive demands of combat leadership . There is forever present, in the back of your mind, the haunting realization that, at a critical moment, you might take the wrong decision that could result in the complete decimation of your entire Command ! You never feel fully trained or competent enough to do the job that has been entrusted to you ! (I imagine, IKE, more than anyone else, carried the weight of this awesome responsibility with a large measure of apprehension) .
(William G. PEPE, 2d Lt, H & H Co, 5th Engr Spec Bde, USA, O-1113882, recollections)

Notes :

5th ENGINEER SPECIAL BRIGADE (5th ESB)

The 1119th Engineer Combat Group arrived in England November 1, 1943 (> CO Colonel W.D. BRIDGES, consisting of Headquarters & Headquarters Company, and comprising 37th – 336th – 348th Engr Cbt Bns), and was redesignated 5th Engineer Special Brigade November 11, 1943, at Swansea (South Wales) absorbing all troops of the 1119th Gp . First CO was Brig. General William M. HOGE who established his CP at Penllergaer, S. Wales . Almost immediately, Quartermaster, Ordnance, Medical, Transportation, Chemical Warfare and Signal units began arriving for incorporation into the new Brigade ! Both the 5th E.S.B. and the 6th E.S.B. were organized especially to support the Normandy assault landings. It is important to note, that they did not operate their own landing craft, the Navy being assigned this function . As a basis for organization during the assault phase of the Landing, when it was anticipated that communication would be difficult, the Brigade was divided into 3 Engineer Combat Battalion Beach Groups – each Beach Group had as its nucleus an Engineer Combat Battalion to which was attached service troops necessary to support the landings of a Regimental Combat Team of an Infantry Division . When the Provisional Engineer Special Brigade Group was activated (Feb 17, 1944) Brig. General HOGE became its overall Commander on March 8, 1944, while Col. Doswell GULLATT officially took over the 5th E.S.B. on April 16 . Total strength according to T/O was 6,756 men (with attached units, total reached 21,928 men) . ‘Exercise Fox’ already took place March 11-12 in Cornwall (at Slapton Sands), with Brigade Headquarters, 37th Battalion Beach Group, and including elements of the 1st Inf Div . Another training phase culminated in ‘Exercise Lion’ in South Wales (at Oxwich Bay) which was held April 4-6 . Between May 3-7, 1944 additional dress rehearsals for the Invasion of Normandy occurred in England, called ‘Exercise FABIUS I’, also involving 1st ESB and 6th ESB . The long awaited embarkation only began on June 1, 1944, and would last till June 3 ! D-Day was announced as June 5 – and LCTs weighed anchor and started moving to sea in convoys during the morning of June 4 – but then D-Day got postponed until June 6 … The 5th E.S.B. assaulted ‘Omaha Beach’ June 6, 1944, and first landings were made around 0700, June 6, by members of the 37th Engineer Combat Battalion, followed by elements pertaining to the 348th Engineer Combat Battalion … All ESB troops closed out Omaha Beach November 19, 1944 completing unloading operations . HQs were later transferred to Paris, while various attached units departed for assignment to forward units – by December 31, the Brigade only consisted of HH Co, 1 QM Battalion HQ, and a single QM Service Co . On January 4, 1945 the 5th E.S.B. was supervising construction activities in the Seine Section, and training newly arrived Engineer units . On February 8, the Brigade assumed control of all Engineer Depots in the Paris area, which it passed on to the 1409th Engineer Base Depot on March 27 . It then subsequently moved from Paris to Le Havre, April 1, 1945 to take over the supervision of all engineer work in the northern district of the Normandy Base Section . Part of the work consisted in the development of Redeployment Camps in the Le Havre area for about 170,000 men (it was engaged in work for the Lucky Strike-Philip Morris-Twenty Grand-Herbert Tareyton-Old Gold-Pall Mall and Wings (Cigarette) Camps ! The 5th E.S.B. celebrated V-E Day at Le Havre . After settling there for over a month, the 5th E.S.B. was relieved of its construction missions on May 25, 1945 . Their last task was to operate Camp Home Run as a staging area, which they started on June 1 . First elements left France on July 4, 1945 (on board the USS West Point), bound for Carrabelle (Amphibious Training Center, Florida) and thus returned to the ZI July 11, 1945 (NYPE), after having moved to the staging area at Cp. Kilmer, N.J..The Brigade was finally completely re-assembled August 25, and officially inactivated at Cp. Gordon Johnston, Florida October 20, 1945 .

TF 124
Rear Admiral John L. HALL Jr. commanded Assault Force "O", his Flagship was the USS Ancon, Cdr Mead S. PEARSON (which reached Omaha Beach transport area and dropped anchor at 0250, June 6) . Admiral Hall also commanded the Eleventh Amphibious Force, including all US Amphibious Forces afloat .

OMAHA BEACH (Force "O")
The main assault waves consisted of following units ; 1st Infantry Division - 741st Tank Battalion (C Co, B Co, L Co, I Co, F Co, E Co), Special Engineer Task Force (299th Engineer Combat Battalion), 741st Tank Battalion (A Co), 16th Infantry Regiment (2d & 3d Bns – K Co, M Co, G Co, H Co) other 16th RCT attachments, 16th Infantry Regiment (1st Bn – A Co, B Co, D Co, C Co), 18th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Regiment, 5th Engineer Special Brigade, 6th Naval Beach Battalion 29th Infantry Division - 743d Tank Battalion (C Co, B Co, E Co, F Co, G Co, A Co), Special Engineer Task Force (146th Engineer Combat Battalion), 743d Tank Battalion (A Co), 116th Infantry Regiment (2d & 1st Bns – H Co, B Co, D Co, C Co), other 116th RCT attachments, 116th Infantry Regiment(3d Bn – L Co, I Co, K Co, M Co), 115th Infantry Regiment, 175th Infantry Regiment, 6th Engineer Special Brigade, 7th Naval Beach Battalion.
(note : Force "B" was the follow-up force of the US Invasion component) .

FIRE SUPPORT GROUP – Force "O"
Under command of Rear-Admiral Carleton F. BRYANT
USS Augusta (CA-31) 9 x 8" guns, 8 x 5" guns
USS Arkansas (BB-33) 12 x 12" guns, 10 x 3" guns (support 1st Inf Div)
USS Texas (BB-35) 10 x 14" guns, 6 x 5" guns, 10 x 3" guns (support 29th Inf Div)
HMS Bellona 8 x 5 ¼" guns, 12 x 2pdr guns
HMS Glasgow 12 x 6" guns, 8 x 4" guns (support 29th Inf Div)
FFS Georges Leygues 9 x 6" guns, 8 x 3 ½" guns (support 1st Inf Div)
FFS Montcalm (9 x 6" guns, 8 x 3 ½" guns (support 1st Inf Div)
Destroyers USS Baldwin (DD-624), Carmick (DD-493), Doyle (DD-494), Emmons (DD-457), Frankford (DD-497), Harding (DD-625), McCook (DD-496), Satterlee (DD-626), Thompson (DD-627) ... , and HMS Melbreak, HMS Talybout, HMS Tanatside ...

MAIN TRANSPORTS – Omaha Beach
HMS Empire Javelin (LSI (L) – 1/116th Inf Regt
USS Thomas Jefferson (APA-30) – 2/116th Inf Regt
USS Charles Carroll (APA-28) – 3/116th Inf Regt
USS Samuel Chase (APA-26) – 1/16th Inf Regt
USS Henrico (APA-45) – 2/16th Inf Regt
HMS Empire Anvil (LSI(L) – 3/16th Inf Regt
USS Anne Arundel (AP-76) – 2/18th Inf Regt
USS Dorothea Dix (AP-67) – mixed elements
USS Thurston (AP-77) – mixed elements
HMS Prince Charles (LSI(S) – 2d Rngr Inf Bn
HMS Ben Machree – 2d Rngr Inf Bn
HMS Amsterdam – 2d Rngr Inf Bn
HMS Princess Maud – SETF
HMS Prince Leopold – 5th Rngr Inf Bn
HMS Prince Baudouin – 5th Rngr Inf Bn

LCVP
Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel
(US) capacity 36 troops or 6,000 lb vehicles or 8,100 lb cargo – length 36’ – weight 9 tons – speed 9 knots – armament 2 x .30 cal MG – crew 3.


LCVP – Higgins Industries, New Orleans, Louisiana,
23,358 built (1942-45)

LCVP – Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (improved landing craft with steering control and gunners’ cockpits, superseding LCV production, lowered when loaded only from ships’ davits)

37th Engineer Combat Battalion
supported the 16th RCT (1st Inf Div) on EASY Red and FOX Green Beach sectors .

348th Engineer Combat Battalion
supported the 18th RCT (1st Inf Div) on EASY Red and FOX Green beach sectors .

OFFICER-CANDIDATE SCHOOL (OCS)
Officer-Candidate Schools
provide the additional number of Commissioned Officers required for the expansion of the Army . The first group of Schools (different disciplines) began operation in July 1941 . After the Declaration of War, additional Schools were started . Each Warrant Officer and Enlisted Man who can qualify will be considered for attendance . The primary quality sought is proven leadership capacity. The length of all courses is three months and successful graduates are appointed as Second Lieutenants and assigned to duty at once with the Arm or Service with which they received their Training . There were 24 Schools in 1942, and more than 240,000 soldiers graduated from OCS in the United States and overseas by February 3, 1944 ! The peak of the entire program was attained in December 1942, in which month more than 23,000 Officer-candidates were graduated . Since then (end 1944), the number of monthly graduates has decreased consistently to an estimated total of between 2,500 and 3,000 in January 1944 … By April 1944, the designation and location of the different Officer-Candidate Schools had been reduced and reorganized to 16, and prior to 1945, courses were equally reviewed and consequently reorganized to last four months in lieu of only three !


OCS – Officers Candidate School
shoulder sleeve insignia, introduced in 1941

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