An Able Man from Able Company on Omaha Beach in the midst of hell and red water

A German bunker looks down on Omaha Beach. Photography: John McCutcheon
A German bunker looks down on Omaha Beach. Photography: John McCutcheon

I walked along Omaha Beach and climbed the cliff to an abandoned bunker in January of this year.  The beach was deserted.  The weather was cold and intermittently rainy.  The wind swept me toward the cliffs with a force that burned my eyes and made me brace myself  from falling over.  But I imagined what one ordinary, extraordinary soldier must have felt on  6 June 1944, Omaha Beach, Able Company first landing , Operation Overlord.

“Drop the ramp!” The launch started during heavy fire from the cliffs behind the beach.

The attack had started out at sea.  But the armored sides of the landing craft, ducked heads and helmets had saved us.

“Drop the ramp!” Even louder this time.  This time the door dropped hard into the sea.  Choppy  water, pings and booms of artillery, and fear.  I knew them all without knowing I knew them.

My mantra: Keep going. Look for the beach.  Breathe.  Don’t die.  Breathe.

I hit the water.  My gear dropped me to the ocean floor.  Don’t breathe.  Don’t die.  Don’t breathe.  But I couldn’t push my way up through the water. The water was sucking me, pulling me.  I’m gonna drown. I’m drowning. Get it off my back.  Drop the rifle.  Get the pack off my back.

I shot up the water and gasped air and sea.  Coughing and sputtering.

Nothing had ever felt as that moment.

McCrawley right beside me suddenly popped his head back.  A bullet had zinged into his throat and he was dead.

He’s dead. Blood squirted out a second and reddened the choppy water.

Then all the water was red.  All around men were sinking, drowning, crying, howling, clutching themselves before the waves washed them under or rolled them around.  Red water.

I yanked off my helmet.  I watched it bob on the water.

Then I felt the waves pulling me to shore.  I have to use this or I’ll be dragged back out. Geysers of water shot up all around me.  The sea washed into my eyes, but I struggled toward the shore.

Men dying all around me.  Dying.  It was too real to be real.

Sometimes I dove under the water.  It was my killer.  It was my shield.  My arms and legs and body ached from pushing myself forward against water too powerful.

I looked toward the beach.  Most times I made no progress.  But I looked toward the shore.  It wasn’t   as real as the reality of bodies in the water, dead, dying, crying out.  Others silent.

The water is red.  Why is the water red?  The water is turning redder.  But I knew.  My mind couldn’t keep up with my eyes.

My feet hit sand.  My feet are on the ground.

I trudged past bodies.  Others wounded and dragging themselves forward.  I saw men running up to wounded, one on each side, dragging them toward the cliffs.  I saw some saviors shot and falling onto the sand.  Red sand.

I reached down, picked up a rifle, and twisted the helmet off a dead soldier.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  But you don’t need this.

Run. Run. My mind screamed.  I scrambled up to the wall of the cliff.

This cliff will save me. I pushed myself further against it.  I wanted to push myself into the wall.

I looked back toward the sea, the dying, the dead.  I watched as more men fell.  Sprays of dirt, rolling smoke obscuring at times.

I couldn’t remember climbing over rolls of wire coiling up and down the beach.  I watched men step on mines, their bodies hurling in the air.  Men struggled through rolls of razor wire.  Men dying in wire.

How am I alive?  Am I alive? I see dead men all around me.  Am I dead and I don’t know it?  How did I get through that?

A Memorial on Omaha Beach in honor of those who did not make it.
A Memorial on Omaha Beach in honor of those brave soldiers who did not make it. Photography: John McCutcheon

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