Today, the road to Vierville-sur-Mer, a small farming community on the Normandy coast, is a winding, two-lane farm road bounded on both sides by the thick, knotted hedgerows made infamous during the Battle of Normandy. On many mornings in Spring and early Summer, that narrow road is veiled in a diaphanous mist, not quite dense enough to be a fog, but enough to wet everything and make its surface glisten and sparkle when the sun rises, bathing all in that wet, milky light that is Dawn. [ About the photo above: Looking west toward Point de la Percee, the photo shows the extreme western edge of Omaha. Sector Dog Green is dead-center in the photo. The National Guard Monument is at left, with the Vierville draw beyond in the left-center, just in front of the exposed cliffs. ]
The continuous hedgerows are interrupted only at the entrance to the occasional, unpainted stone farm building, standing like phantom sentinels at the boundary of someone's acreage. Large, stolid black-and-white cows, still a ubiquitous sight in this part of France, don't even glance up from their grazing to mark the passage of a car. It's an unremarkable bucolic tableau in the Norman countryside— until one reaches the top of the hill overlooking the beach — that's Omaha Beach.
The steep road that drops down from the hilltop through the Vierville draw, curves to the right as it descends past the 29th Division monument, the Blue and Gray Division of Virginia, on the right, a hotel-restaurant on the left, and the NGAUS (National Guard of the Army of the United States) monument on the beach at the very foot of the Vierville Draw, a site made famous in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. From the monument one has a panoramic view to the east of the pinkish sands of Omaha Beach — Bloody Omaha. The foundation of the NGAUS monument originally was a concrete bunker for a German 88-mm gun — a versatile, deadly, high velocity, flat-trajectory weapon capable of firing armor-piercing shells and which could be elevated to fire high-explosive antiaircraft shells as well. Travelling faster than the speed of sound, the victims never heard the round that got them. The gun is still within the bunker and can be viewed through the aperture through which it was fired.
At low tide, when the troops landed at 0630 hours on D-Day, the sand beach at Vierville would have been perhaps 250 yards wide from water's edge to the foot of a line of bluffs rising at an incline of 60 degrees to a height of about 100 feet. The Vierville gun would have had a killing field of fire covering the entire expanse of beach as far as its effective range, obscured only by the obstacles and obstructions designed by and emplaced there on orders of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox that now found himself guarding these wave-lashed parapets of the Atlantic Wall, also known as Exit D-1 or "Dog One").
It was a murky, pellucid light that dawned on D-Day when the 116th Regimental Combat Team of the 29th Division assaulted its assigned sector of the Division's western portion of Omaha Beach (Sectors Charlie, Dog Green, Dog White, Dog Red, and Easy Green) in tandem with the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division, the Big Red One, which was assigned the eastern half of Omaha Beach (Sectors Easy Red, Fox Green, and Fox Red). They were unaware that instead of the inferior and overextended static German division that military intelligence had identified, the troops were facing an additional division of tough, battle-tested German defenders, the landsers of the 352nd Division, who had been in hardened defensive positions for two months.
In pillboxes, concrete bunkers, and communication trenches, protected by mines, coils of barbed wire, and implacable metal and wooden obstacles, the German veterans waited. The German guns, despite the heavy naval and air bombardment, remained mostly intact and effective, waiting with their deadly overlapping fields of fire. Some, like the Vierville gun, aimed directly down the beach to fire point blank at the waves of invading troops. The MG-42 nests, planted with abandon amid the dunes, had complete enfilade of the sandy strand below. They held their fire until the little assault boats reached the water's edge. They waited for the protective steel ramps to drop and the enemy to come out.
Seasick, cold, wet, miserable, anxious, and burdened with more than 100 pounds of equipment, those who survived the boat trip under fire to the beach through the bodies of the living and the dead slogged off the boat ramps. The gates of hell opened in their faces, spewing smoke and fire and lead and body-thumping shock waves from mind-numbing, ear-shattering explosions and detonations. Some men drowned in three to six feet of water, while the German machine guns atop the bluffs and the artillery did their wicked work on the troopers who reached the sand. Soldiers fell in droves, all along the water's edge, killed instantly. Others, hideously wounded, screamed in agony before death erased the pain and stilled their cries.
A lieutenant in the 6th Engineer Special Brigade, which followed the first wave of the 29th to land on the western half of Omaha said, "I noticed that nothing moved on the beach except one bulldozer. The beach was covered with debris, sunken craft, and wrecked vehicles. We saw many bodies in the water ... . Then we saw that the beach was literally covered with the bodies of American soldiers wearing the blue and gray patches of the 29th Infantry Division." A captain in the 175th Regiment of the 29th Division landed the next day two kilometers east of the Vierville draw, the westernmost of the only two exits from the beach. To him the beach "looked like something out of Dantes' inferno." Another lieutenant said, "They were stepping over the bodies of the guys who had been killed the day before and these guys were wearing the 29th Division patch."
An entire company of the 29th was decimated in the Dog Green Sector, less than a third of the men surviving the walk from the water's edge to the foot of the bluffs. Many reported seeing two dead soldiers, one with his feet blown off, lying with their arms about each other, having crossed the River Styx together, locked in death.
In the smoky, hazy chaos, troops were inadvertently landed in the wrong sectors, some as many as two miles away from their briefed objectives. Soldiers of the Blue and Gray and the Big Red One found themselves hopelessly intermingled. So, there they fought and there they died, while the survivors, led by junior officers, NCOs, and, in some cases, by privates, fought their way off that killing ground and sacrificed their youth, their health, and their dreams in the great crusade against Fascism. They didn't fight for the Flag or the Constitution or West Point or the Army or Omar Bradley. They did not fight for the "objective." They fought for each other, as soldiers always do, and in so doing, their objective was met.
As one gazes at photographs of Omaha today (like the one of the beach in front of Vierville above), one invariably looks at the wide, flat, and now serene and unobstructed beach, extending as far as the eyes can see, and perhaps cannot feel but awed by the mental vision of the satanic maelstrom those soldiers had traversed to reach the foot of the now quiet bluffs. The thought that men could perform such an incredible feat is mind boggling and profoundly humbling.
They came from the sea, in little steel boats through swarms of drowning men and floating dead bodies, through a nightmarish storm of destructive forces seeking their annihilation. No words can even begin to honor their grim determination.
Their road to Vierville is very different than the one that we can travel today. As one walks down the Vierville draw to the beach, one passes the monument to the 29th Division, which during the war suffered over 20,000 casualties. And there's always the possibility now, 56 years later, that you'll meet the son or daughter of someone who died on that sand. Perhaps someone from the town of Bedford, Virginia, which gave 46 husbands, fathers, uncles, nephews, brothers, sons, and grandsons to the 29th. Half of them never came home, killed that day within sight of that little draw that was the objective.
A grim "joke" among men of the 29th was that, in reality, it was three divisions: one in the field, one in the hospital, and one in the cemetery.
In this tumultuous world, the future undoubtedly holds more roads to Vierville, not the one visitors can traverse today, but the path through hell that was traveled by the troopers of the Big Red One and the Blue and the Gray that Tuesday morning in June 1944.
I don't believe either one could have fought their way off that beach without the other.