75 Years Later… An Oral History of D-Day

Seventy-five years ago this morning, about 160,000 American, British, Canadian, and other Allied troops landed at five beaches along the coast of Normandy, beginning the liberation of western Europe from German occupation. Our Pietist Schoolman Travel group — which formally began its world wars tour today in London — will be at Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach next week, so I’m sure I’ll be sharing some photos and maybe even a podcast then.

For now, though, let me mark today’s anniversary by sharing the D-Day section of the trip reader that I edited for our tour’s participants. Using oral history interviews with soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 1st Division, I tried to give glimpses of the “Day of Days,” from pre-dawn preparations to the chaos on Omaha Beach. You can read much more at the online Military Oral History project at Virginia Military Institute.

I know that they got us up at around 3:30 in the morning. We went to chow and then came back. They said there would be some kind of a religious service in the mess hall and I went. I think most of us went. We had been assigned certain things. Every man that went in that morning on the ship I was on, carried extra stuff… I carried a radio [that] weighed about 50 or 60 pounds…. I thought to myself, “Well, in North Africa and Sicily, the old Germans gave us a pretty rough way to go, and they’re going to do that here this morning. I’m going to get to the front of that boat and if I can get off of it before the ramp goes down, I’m going to get off some way or another.” (Frank King – Radford, Virginia)

There are lots and lots of striking moments. I would say one of the most vivid was on the troopship going from England to France. A lot of people, I mean, it just seemed to me like hundreds, were on this ship and down in the bottom of that ship the only thing you could hear was a splash of water here and there but everybody was quiet. There was no singing, no shouting. It was a tremendously moving thing to hear two or three guys from me repeating over and over the Lord’s Prayer. I assumed that that’s the only prayer that they knew. They were reading it from the little brown testament that all of us had. (Ernest Andrews – Chattanooga, Tennessee)

Everything is being pretty quiet. You couldn’t hear too much. The next thing I knew, there was a battleship Texas in that invasion and it unloaded—WAHROOM… From then on, all hell broke loose. It began to get daylight and I could see the outline of France as we went around. (King)

I went up and I’m standing up on the deck and the fellows are going overboard and then going down this cargo net… This British navy officer or NCO said to me “What are you doing, lad?” I said, “Sir, I don’t know.” He said, “Well, the war is not going to be waiting for you, you’d better get yourself over the side before somebody throws you over.” I never practiced going down a cargo net like these fellows did. I started down and I’m saying Our Fathers and Hail Marys on the way down and I’m trying to see what happens as you go down. And there’s the landing craft that would come up and then it would go down—rise up and down with the waves… (Joseph Argenzio – Brooklyn, New York)

The next thing I knew they dropped anchor on that landing craft, and the ramp started going down. What I did was just squatted down and jumped. There was a cable that came down to hold the top of the ramp and I jumped and came into water that deep. Cold, God, that English Channel was cold. (King)

Navy photographer Robert Sargent’s iconic image of soldiers from the 1st Division landing at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 – National Archives

…the guys in front got killed right away because the Germans had zeroed in with machine cross-fire with machine guns and everything. Somebody said “Go over the side” so I went over the side and I went right to the bottom. Goodbye helmet, goodbye carbine, goodbye ammunition cans. If you saw the picture Saving Private Ryan with the boys in the water, guys getting killed. That was my story, by the way.… (Argenzio)

I had a 60mm mortar and I’m afraid we’d have lost the war if it had been up to me that day… We stepped from the landing barge… I was in water maybe from here down… and I was trying to get my life preserver off. It was so tight that I had all kinds of trouble and while I was laying there like this, a machine gun fired over my leg. I was so scared that if I never moved again from that place that would be alright. (William Funkhouser – Strasburg, Virginia)

I hate to admit this but I have to tell the truth. I started to crouch down in the water that came up towards the beach and there were dead bodies all around so I laid down and grabbed two of them which were right in front of me and I pushed them in and they were taking the fire that was meant for me. They were dead. They were mutilated but they saved my life. Finally I made it to a point where I figured I could run and I did. I zigzagged, slipping on these wet stones and tripping and falling. There were guys getting hit all around me and going down and screaming and yelling and yelling for medics. But, again, God was with me and I made it to this wall and that was the only place we had cover. That’s what made all the casualties because we had no foxholes, nothing—no place to hide. (Argenzio)

Having never been in combat before, we really didn’t know what to expect, and we didn’t think it was going to be as heavy as it was because of all the critiquing we’d gone through about what the Air Force was going to do… The Air Force completely missed the beach. They’d told us there’d be craters on the beach for us to dive in for cover, but there were no craters on the beach because the Air Force missed the targets because of the low ceiling… The shells bursting and the machine guns firing and airplanes overhead and people coming in behind you on other craft and all this type thing was so confusing. (Carl Proffitt – Charlottesville, Virginia)

German artillery position at Longues-sur-Mer
German artillery battery at Longues-sur-Mer – CC BY-SA 4.0 (Chris Gehrz)

…I started crawling. You didn’t stand up… I crawled maybe twice the length of this room and to my left front was this white explosion. There wasn’t any concussion to it. Some of the men carried TNT to blow the pillboxes. A guy… was carrying this TNT and what set it off no one ever knows. As far as ten feet there were body parts…. Anyway, I chucked my 60mm mortar, shut my eyes and I crawled. I ended up at a kind of little high-water mark. My company commander and my first sergeant were on my right. I had a .45 on me so I wasn’t very effective. (Funkhouser)

…my buddies had gone and I’d lost track of them. I didn’t know where in the hell they were… As I started across that beach, that training that I had at Ft. Monmouth came into play. I couldn’t hear it, but I could see it. I could see the machine gun bullets hitting that sand and the sand would just flop up. They were after me. I’d run this way and roll a little bit, and run that way and roll a little bit and I finally got to where the tide had eroded at its highest point and started back down, and that’s what saved thousands of men that morning. (King)

You could feel and sense the rounds going through your uniform. I took four bullet wounds that day—not all at one time. In addition to that I received two almost killing shrapnel wounds—one that took a good piece of my left shoulder off and disabled my arm for years to come. And that was just the start. I got up, finally, almost to the top… up the bluff that was giving us all of this fire and that was it. I was not able to proceed further so I just called out for a medic… four medics came racing up to where I was. They raced up to me under fire. These four guys were real heroes… You could also include some four-letter military terms but they were doing the best they could under the circumstances, getting their tails shot off the same way ours were. (Arthur Schintzel – Orange, New Jersey)

I got about three-quarters of the way up, I think, and was about the third or fourth in line by this time and there were machine gun pits to my right—German machine gun pits—and they were peppering the beach. They didn’t see us they were so busy shooting. So I started throwing grenades and I got two of those son-of-a-guns. I took my M-1 and used a clip and they took off. I wanted to make sure they were gone. We got to the top and we stopped to get our breath and one guy reached in and he takes out this little flag and he holds it up and he says “Thank God we made it.” And he’s waving this little flag. That was the Army’s ceremony that the Marines had on Iwo Jima, only we didn’t have anybody taking our picture. (Argenzio)

Donald Le Due’s statue of “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” at the Normandy American Cemetery – CC BY-SA 4.0 (Chris Gehrz)