The Invasion of Europe
a conversation about June 6, 1944- Omaha Beach
Mr. Rozell: This is
John Webster. John Webster was a 19-year-old first lieutenant at Omaha Beach.
John was a member of the 20th Engineers. The 20th Engineers would see a lot of
combat, but their primary job was to build.
John, you said you were in the third wave on June 6th, 1944,
I remember you telling me last week that you felt that if you had to be in an
early wave, it might as well have been the third wave, rather than one of the
later ones. Why was that?
MR: Jess, bring
that slide up, the Atlantic Wall.
JW: Our mission,
going in early on the third wave, in my case, was we had the job of clearing
lanes in the beach so that succeeding waves, boats could come in and discharge
soldiers without hitting the obstacles and running up. When the tide came in
these obstacles would be underwater and then the Navy and
Coast Guard couldn’t see them, it would be very hazardous in the
operation of trying to land troops when the tide was in. So we were landed
early so we could accomplish our mission,
which was an engineering mission removing obstacles, removing mines, and
clearing lanes and marking them so that following waves could come in safely.
Now the reason why I felt that coming in on the third wave, thirty
minutes after H-hour, was almost preferable as being in the seventh, eighth,
ninth, tenth, eleventh wave would be that we did catch the Germans by surprise
and the first thirty minutes while they showered us with small-arms fire,
machine gun fire they hadn’t zeroed in their artillery and their mortar fire
too badly. I mean we had some, but not anywhere near what it was like later on
when they had a chance to bring out more equipment and more troops when the
surprise was gone. The latter part of the morning the Germans really got the
range, so they could drop mortar fire and drop artillery fire, not only on us on
the beach, but on the succeeding waves coming to the beach out in the boats. You
could be on the beach and look at what was happening in the water and say
“I’m glad I got in when I did” rather than be brought in later on. So I
answered your question.
from six o’clock it was low tide, at twelve o’clock noon it was high tide,
and six o’clock in the evening it was low tide again. It was that continual,
gradual change of the water level on the beach at first. So that actually when
it got late in the morning, ten to twelve, there was much less beach exposed
than was covered up with water. And some of these slides that you have here
(looking at the PowerPoint slide show) with water around the obstacles and
soldiers when they were dead in the water, those weren’t H-hour, they
weren’t second or third wave. Those were later on when the tide was in washing
around these obstacles maybe around nine, ten o’clock in the morning. I
can tell you this, I don’t think there was ever an operation that was so
extensively planned as Normandy. The
military had lots of time to plan because it was almost a full blown conclusion
that we were going to have to land on the continent of Europe. So it was
actually thoroughly planned. After we loaded on the boats in the English
Channel, only then were we told what our mission was. We knew after we got on
the boats. The boat went away from the shore so that security could permit the
soldiers to know what we were going to be up against. We were told just about
every single thing imaginable about the operation; how many paratroopers were
going to land and where, how many bombs the Air Corps were going to drop and
where, and all different sizes. We were told exactly what the Navy was going to
do. We knew the names of each ship, practically, and the number of shells they
were going to fire.
We were going to try to
eliminate obstacles. We were given all kinds of information carefully laid out
to us. Our mission was to remove obstacles and mines and to mark lanes, but like
so many things in war, things didn’t go the way they are supposed to. There
were a lot of instances at Omaha Beach where missions couldn’t be carried out
any where near successfully like they were supposed to and our mission was one
of them. Landing as we did, thirty minutes after H-hour, the minute any of our
men got around these obstacles to demolish them, or whatever they did,
they’d get shot with machine gun fire and rifle fire immediately.
I mean it was just something you couldn’t do, you couldn’t
accomplish it without a complete loss of life, no protection or nothing to hide
behind, you were exposed to the beach. The Germans were on the high ground
shooting at you,
MR: Thank you, John.
Do you remember what time you got off the beach?
JW: Well, it was
very late morning, maybe eleven o’clock. When
tide came in almost full, there was very little beach left and most of American
troops, whether they were infantry or engineers or whatever, were still seeking
protection behind the first dune, which gave us protection from direct fire from
machine guns and rifles, but by that time the Germans had got their range where
there were mortars and artillery, so that they were dropping the shells right
where we were and this meant that the time came on D-Day morning when it was
safer not to be on the beach but to be off the beach and inland, pressing harder
against the enemy. So it’s just a matter of self survival. Lots of
units started in small numbers to go over the dune and start inland because it
was a safer place to be than to be on the beach where the Germans had the range.
This wasn’t a case like Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg, this was a case where
no one person got up and said, “follow me men” and went over the dune, it
was just small independent groups of soldiers that decided with their officers
this was time to go forward get off on the beach-for all these guys-
not really much of a heroic action, but save our own skins. We went in
there and pushed the Germans back.
click here for John Webster's recon photos
interview originally recorded on 11/09/01
transcribed by Ashley Hritz, '04
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