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D-DAY INVASION / June 6, 1944 : THE INVASION OF NORMANDY : THE BATTLE

May 31, 1994|RICHARD E. MEYER and TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The men stormed a seawall and climbed to the top of some dunes. What they saw looked like nothing in their briefings. Roosevelt strode up, wearing a wool-knit hat. The general hated helmets. He ignored fire from German trenches in the dunes. Leaning on his cane, he studied the company commander's maps.

By now two tanks had landed. German 88-millimeter guns were pounding the beach, and the tanks had begun firing back. Cane in hand, Roosevelt walked back through the fire, ducked into a shell hole behind the tanks and told Col. James Van Fleet, commander of the 8th Regiment, that his men were a mile south of where they should have been.

They faced a crucial decision. Should they try to shift more than a mile to the north and follow their original orders? Or should they attack where they were?

Some men say Roosevelt declared: "We'll start the war from right here!"

It made him a legend.

But, in an unpublished memoir, quoted by Ambrose, Van Fleet says that, in fact, he was the one who decided.

" 'Go straight ahead,' I ordered. 'We've caught the enemy at a weak point, so let's take advantage of it.' "

It matters little, Ambrose says, who decided or what was spoken. Far more important, he says, is that the decision was made without opposition or time-wasting argument--and that it was right. The decision and how it came to be made, he says, demonstrated the flexibility and initiative that were so distinctive of the American command.

Engineers and demolition teams followed the first wave. They set their charges around Rommel's obstacles.

"Fire in the hole!" they shouted, like dynamiters in a mine.

They blew the obstacles apart.

Within an hour, Ambrose says, the demolition teams had cleared eight 50-yard gaps in Rommel's beach obstacles. More Higgins boats arrived. The boats unloaded more infantry, and the demolition teams on the sand were forced forward. They ran into Bouncing Bettys--mines that jumped and exploded groin-high. The men screamed, Ambrose says. Some were blown apart. Others ran back to the beach, blood flowing.

Still more tanks arrived. They rolled through openings in the seawall and drove along a beach road that turned inland toward Pouppeville. As reserves began piling up on the sand, the 4th Division advanced onto the fields behind it.

The men turned a farmhouse into a medical aid station. They put two wounded Germans in one room and three wounded Americans in another. One was a redheaded captain named Tom Neely. He had been hit in the stomach by machine-gun fire, triggered accidentally by an American soldier.

The Rev. William Boice, 27, a Protestant chaplain, spent the night trying to comfort Neely, who told him about his wife and his 6-year-old son.

"Why me, chaplain?" Neely asked.

Boice had no good answer.

At 3 a.m., Neely died.

Boice prayed for him. He prayed for the other Americans, and he prayed for the Germans.

By the end of the day, the Americans had put more than 20,000 troops and 1,700 vehicles ashore at Utah Beach.

It had fallen to the Allies.

ASSAULT ON POINTE-DU-HOC

Between Utah Beach on the west flank and Omaha Beach in the center of the invasion stood a promontory on a cliff. The French called it Pointe-du-Hoc.

On this promontory, intelligence agents said, were massive German fortifications and a battery of 155-millimeter cannons large enough to deliver unspeakable horror to both beaches.

Allied ships bombarded Pointe-du-Hoc, Ambrose says, with 10 kilotons of explosives, cumulatively equal to the destructive force of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. But the gun emplacement still stood.

An elite American force, the Army Rangers, was sent to silence the guns.

They were led by Lt. Col. James Rudder, 34, whose landing craft was steered in the wrong direction by a British coxswain. Rudder turned it, but the error cost his flotilla 30 to 40 minutes and gave the Germans at Pointe-du-Hoc time to rally.

They fired mortars and machine guns as the Rangers approached. The U.S. destroyer Satterlee and the Royal Navy's destroyer Talybont shot back, but the Germans on the high ground hardly winced.

From their boats, the Rangers fired rockets carrying grappling hooks to the top of the cliff. Some of the hooks had plain, inch-thick ropes attached. Others had toggle ropes, with wooden rungs tied every two feet. Still others were fastened to rope ladders.

Sgt. William (L-Rod) Petty, 23, watched as the first of the hooks fell short.

The next one made it. Then others.

Machine-gun bullets from the cliff hit scores of men, including 1st Sgt. Leonard Lomell, 24. As his boat beached and he jumped into the water, a volley tore through the muscle on his right side. It spun him partway around.

The bullets burned.

"I've got to get up there," he said to himself. "I've got to get those guns."

Bleeding, he stumbled through shell and bomb craters to the water's edge.

L-Rod Petty fell into one of the holes. Water covered him. He took two steps and came up.

"Get under the cliff!" he yelled.

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