A Veteran’s Day Revelation: How Did I Not Know This About D-Day? [UPDATED]

After all these many years of reading about and watching movies and TV shows about D-Day, June 6, 1945,  I discovered how the US Navy saved the invasion and maybe the world only yesterday, thanks to stumbling upon a 2009 documentary on the Smithsonian channel.

If you recall the way the story is told in “The Longest Day” and other accounts, US troops were pinned down by horrific fire from the German defenses on Omaha beach until Gen. Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum in the movie) rallied them to move forward, and by persistence his infantry troops ultimately broke through. Yet it was US destroyers off shore that turned the tide of the battle at Omaha, an element that isn’t shown in “The Longest Day” at all.

Though it was not part of the plan, the captains of the Navy destroyers decided to come in to within 800 yards of the beach and use their big guns at (for them) point blank range to pound the German artillery, machine gun nests and sharpshooters. The barrage essentially wiped them out, allowing Cota’s troops to get up and over without being slaughtered. I’ve never seen that explained or depicted in any film, and according to the Smthsonian’s video, apparently was part of the story that had been inexplicably neglected. No monument to the US Navy commemorating its contributions on 6/6/44 was erected at Normandy until 2009.

Here’s the relevant part of account from the  Naval History website on “Operation Neptune,” the Navy counterpart to Operation Overlord:

..The success of the invasion seemed most dubious at Omaha Beach, where the American GIs remained pinned down, unable to move forward onto the bluffs from where German troops poured murderous fire. Successive waves of infantrymen attempting to come ashore only added to the chaotic situation. “What saved the day for the Allies was a handful of British and American destroyers,” as historian Craig Symonds asserts. Officially, the destroyers were only to screen the invasion fleet from U-boats and the smaller, faster E-boats. Yet, with the crisis on Omaha reaching a critical point, they were ordered to provide close-in fire support for the troops stuck on the beach. Rear Admiral Carleton F. Bryant, who commanded the naval gunfire support groups, radioed a message from his battle station onboard Texas to the nearby destroyers: “Get on them, men! Get on them! They are raising hell with the men on the beach, and we can’t have any more of that. We must stop it.”

…Under orders not to fire more than half the ammunition they carried in case it was needed for an emergency situation, the destroyer captains decided unanimously that chaotic Omaha Beach was such a situation. Beginning around 0800, destroyers such as Emmons (DD-457), Carmick (DD-493), McCook (DD-496), Doyle (DD-494), Baldwin (DD-624), Harding (DD-625), Frankford (DD-497), and Thompson (DD-627) began engaging German positions…. With smoke still obscuring the enemy guns, the gunners onboard the “tin cans” searched for “targets of opportunity.” Carmick arrived off Normandy with 1,500 shells for her 5-inch guns and in less than an hour, fired 1,127 of them. Her gun barrels, smoking red hot, had to be hosed down in order to keep them firing. Finally, at around noon, the destroyers established contact with spotters ashore.

Two of the U.S. destroyers, Satterlee (DD-626) and Thompson (DD-627), supported over 200 men of the Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. The Rangers’ mission involved destroying several heavy guns the enemy could use against the landing forces at both beaches. Joined later by Ellyson (DD-454), the three destroyers provided indirect fire on German positions atop the cliffs, enabling the Rangers to reach the top…

For over 90 minutes, U.S. destroyers pounded the enemy gun positions. Some of the ships were so close in to shore that they received German rifle and machine-gun bullets to their hulls and superstructures. …The Allies put nearly 132,500 men ashore on D-Day. After the beachheads were firmly established, the “primary naval responsibility [was] the landing of men and supplies…

Here is another account:

The troops were in trouble on Omaha. Many tanks and artillery pieces, expected to give the infantrymen covering fire, had not made it to the U.S. beaches. The Neptune plan had to be changed. Destroyers were ordered to risk grounding by steaming close to shore and firing their 5-inch guns as supporting fire for the men on the beach. The Emmons and other fire-support destroyers sailed as close as 1,000 yards from the beaches. (Historian Samuel Eliot Morison puts the destroyers within 800 yards of Omaha Beach.)13 Another close-in destroyer, the Jeffers (DD-621), was shelling a German position when the shrapnel of a near-miss wounded five of her crew.14

The Emmons lost contact with her shore-fire control party. Not knowing whether the men had been killed, wounded, or captured, her gunners shot at whatever looked like a good target. A spotter saw some German naval troops marching down Port en Bessin’s main street. She sprayed them with her 40-mm battery, sending them scattering. The Carmick (DD-493) aided tanks that made it ashore on Omaha. As the tanks were trying to fight their way toward an exit called the Vierville draw, Carmick spotters watched for bursts along the edge of the bluff and used these bursts as targets, figuring that whatever U.S. tanks were aiming at was worth shooting at from a U.S. ship.

Navy gunners, aided by the highly classified top secret Bigot maps, knocked out eight gun emplacements covering Omaha Beach exits. Firing over the heads of troops, a destroyer silenced an 88-mm gun by putting two rounds through the gun shield.

The Harding (DD-625), Satterlee (DD-626), and McCook (DD-496), supported the Ranger assault on Pointe du Hoc, the 100-foot cliff believed to hide long-range German guns that could be aimed at landing craft approaching the Utah and Omaha beaches. As the craft carrying the Rangers neared the shore, the McCook raced ahead and, near the breaking surf, let loose on cannon atop the cliff. Witnesses said they saw an enemy gun fall to the beach. The guns the Rangers sought had been removed, but the strongpoint was well defended; of the 250 Rangers who landed, only 90 could still bear arms when the battle for the bluff ended two days later.18 The Harding put a boat ashore to pick up wounded Rangers—and Germans who had surrendered after a salvo from the McCook.Shortly before noon, Colonel B. B. Talley on Omaha Beach sent a message to Major General Leonard T. Gerow, commander of V Corps on Omaha: “Troops moving up slope of Fox, Green, and Red Beaches. I join you in thanking God for our Navy.”

Well, Dad was an army guy, and never inclined to give credit to the Navy (and especially the Marines) without prompting, so I won’t blame myself for missing this part of the story in my World War II tutoring from my father. Still, I am astonished that the popular conception of the heroic Allied effort to take the beaches on D-Day have left out such an important aspect of the victory, and humbled that someone like me, who places such importance on the appreciation and knowledge of American history as a crucial aspect of life competence, could have been misinformed for so long.

UPDATE: Here is the 2009 memorial and the inscription…

19 thoughts on “A Veteran’s Day Revelation: How Did I Not Know This About D-Day? [UPDATED]

  1. I am like you. As many accounts of the D-Day landings as I have read, I don’t recall reading about our destroyers shelling the German positions and enabling our infantry to advance off the beaches.

    Those destroyer captains had to know they were risking their careers by doing so, but put the success of the mission first (you know if they had run aground — the captains would have been cashiered).

    Amazing.

    • Yes, it was such an enormous struggle that there are bound to be any number of stories that got little or no mention. Not so many with the potential impact of this one, though.

      Here is a little factoid that I was recently made aware of: Did you realize that the victors in WWII suffered far more deaths than the losers (and agressors)? Leading the way by far was the Soviet Union with, I believe, China in 2nd place.

  2. Rick Atkinson in his terrific Liberation Trilogy mentions this destroyer action as the only thing (along with the Rangers’ fortitude) keeping the Rangers from being overrun.

    • Let me offer up a secondary recommendation for Rick Atkinson’s trilogy. All the books (I’ve read the first two and half of the third) are fantastic!

      I knew I had read something about the destroyers coming in close to shell enemy positions, but couldn’t remember where. Maybe it was in Rick’s book, though I have several on D-Day. If I could make another shout-out, it would be for Ambrose’s short work called “Pegasus Bridge”. It chronicles Major John Howard’s mission to capture the Orne River Bridge – possibly the very first target in Overlord.

  3. I knew about this, but only because the Emmons was named after some distant relative of my ex-wife. Her maiden name was “Emmons”.

    • I’ve read mentions of this in several D-Day books. Usually it’s a passing mention of the destroyers moving up close to shell, or maybe a specific call-out to the ships that supported the Rangers. Rarely have I seen the whole story specifically laid out as in this post, but the image of destroyers blasting away at the Germans from point-blank range is fairly common in recent D-Day histories.

      In books, that is. I’ve never seen a mention of it in movies. Of course, in movies about D-Day, it’s all about the action on the beach, with very little time spent on the ships and boats that got ’em there.

      It is astonishing that the Navy’s role in D-Day wasn’t commemorated at the Normandy memorial until 2009, though. Did all those guys swim across the Channel?

  4. Do not forget the USS Texas and USS Arkansas.They aimed mostly at the ridge line.The troops were impressed with the power of their 14 inch shells.The Texas did drop a marker shell next to Lt. Col. Rudder’s shell hole Hq on Pointe de Hoc covering everyone with yellow dye.

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