‘If somebody gets hurt, you keep going.’
The cacophony was ear-splitting. Mortar rounds exploded, sending hot metal shards in all directions. Machine gun bullets snapped through the air and into flesh. Wounded men howled and chaos permeated the beach. Death lurked as thousands of infantrymen stumbled toward the shore, their fate uncertain.
This was Omaha Beach, where the American fighting spirit faced its most daunting test on June 6, 1944.
Allied forces began the invasion of Normandy, France, on a cold, dreary morning, attempting to oust Adolf Hitler’s German forces and breach his vaunted Atlantic Wall. Known as D-Day, this complex operation involved the Army Air Corps, Navy and Army forces as the enemy lay in wait in the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach.
“I never did think I’d see home again during all that,” remembered Quentin Murdock more than seven decades later. Murdock, who wintered in St. George during his retirement years, was a lieutenant with the 1st Infantry Division. He was part of the second wave on Omaha Beach. “Somehow I stayed alive. It was a miracle.”
This is the story of the assault of Omaha Beach as remembered by four men with Utah ties. Seventy-five years later, it is difficult to track down veterans who experienced that murderous morning. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are fewer than 500,000 World War II veterans still alive. The men whose stories are recounted here are no longer with us. Their courage and sacrifices made that day — the most consequential day of the bloodiest war in human history — lives on.
The stage is set
The spring of 1944 blossomed with hope. After many setbacks, the Allies were firmly on the move. Triumphs, though painful, in North Africa and Sicily were followed by the liberation of Rome on June 4. But, the toughest part was still to come: a successful invasion of France would be the next step in wresting Europe from the Nazis. To push the stubborn German forces back would require a vast amount of resolve, machinery and manpower — and blood.
Code-named Overlord, the operation involved five invasion beaches on a 50-mile stretch of France’s Normandy region. Gold Beach and Juno Beach were to be invaded by England. Canada had Sword Beach. The Americans would storm two beaches: Utah and Omaha.
On Omaha, there would be a heavy price to pay.
To the beach
For Murdock, the prospect of the invasion did not appear overly dire. The lieutenant had proven himself in heavy combat in North Africa. In Tunisia, he was taken prisoner and held captive for nine days, and less than three months later was back in battle at Sicily.
His division, nicknamed the Big Red One, seemed to get the tough assignments. Murdock, however, thought he’d catch a break this time. Following the Sicilian campaign, he was transferred to the 1st Battalion Headquarters Company of the 16th Infantry Regiment. He figured he’d join the fight after the beach was taken. He should have known better. His new unit was scheduled for the second wave.
On the morning of June 6, under a gray sky and heavy seas, Murdock’s landing craft bobbed in the English Channel as men carefully descended the rope ladders into the Higgins boat. His stomach in knots, Murdock was nevertheless mesmerized by the firepower spewing from the nearby battleships. Here, he had reason for optimism.
The pre-invasion bombardment was supposed to create bomb craters to make reaching the beach exits easier. The U.S. Army had also designed the new waterproof Duplex Drive tanks that could swim to shore. The tanks, along with overpowering air and naval support, would knock out German strong points along the six-mile crescent-shaped beach.
The reality was far different. The beaches were untouched. Most of the tanks sunk to the bottom of the English Channel, and overly cautious air strikes hit much farther inland than what would have been useful. The soon-to-be liberators would be facing a slaughter.
As H-Hour approached, minesweeper William Rice, an East High graduate, had orders to clear the mines away from the shallow areas near the beach prior to the invasion. His ship was expected to take 75% casualties.
“The Germans were very clever with mines,” Rice recalled. “There were floating mines. There were acoustic mines that were set off by the noise of a ship going over. There were magnetic mines set off by the metal in a ship. There were pressure mines. There were snag mines.”
As Murdock’s boat approached the shore, his heart felt as if in his throat. The landing craft ground to a halt on a sand bar and the ramp creaked downward. The Idaho native jumped into water about shoulder high as the buzz of machine gun fire filled the air. “It wasn’t easy getting to shore. But once you were there, you weren’t any better off.”
Bodies were strewn along the beach, giving the Atlantic Ocean a reddish tinge. Pillboxes rained fire from above on the cliffs. Murdock crouched low and scrambled to a small berm resting perhaps 12 inches tall. Gripped by terror, he pondered what to do next.
“I laid there for a bit, maybe 20 minutes, trying to get my mind together again,” Murdock said. “There was so much enemy fire that you couldn’t do anything. You can’t imagine the confusion. It was demoralizing.”
The other assault division, the 29th, included Sergeant Steve Poulos from Salt Lake City. He leaped from his landing craft into water well above his head. Others in his boat would drown, but the former lifeguard quickly used his bayonet to cut everything weighing him down. That included a machine gun, ammunition —even his shoes.
Finally, he surfaced. Arriving ashore with nothing, Poulos prowled the beach trying to find replacement gear. He took a rifle and ammunition from soldiers who would no longer be needing them.
“They were hammering on us from the cliffs,” Poulos recalled in 2005 during an interview for the documentary “Utah’s World War II Stories.” “Everybody was going down and they told us, ‘You’ve got no time to save anybody. If somebody gets hurt, you keep going’.”
Do or die
Omaha Beach was a jumbled mess. Elements of the 1st, 29th and some Army Rangers fought an enemy they could hear and feel, but not yet see.
William Shanley, who spent his teenage years in Orem, was part of the 5th Engineering Amphibious Special Brigade. Attached to the 1st Infantry Division, Shanley’s unit was tasked to help remove beach obstacles such as Belgian gates, log ramps and hedgehogs.
“There was nothing but bodies — and parts of bodies — all over the beach,” Shanley said. “In the first couple of waves hardly anyone made it. They just shot them down.”
Meanwhile, as Murdock gathered himself, Colonel George Taylor emerged. The commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment, Taylor realized the gravity of the moment. The Americans had to get off the beach and up the steep valleys leading to the top of the cliffs.
“He was shouting, ‘If you stay on the beach, you are dead, or about to die!’ He was hitting everybody on their rears to get over the hill,” Murdock recalled. “It shook us out of the daze we were in and got us going.”
Small bands of Americans, typically led by junior or non-commissioned officers, scored minor breakthroughs as the morning progressed. Among them, a lieutenant in Murdock’s battalion used bangalore torpedoes to blow up the concertina wire blocking the beach exit. Heroic actions like this gave hope to the beleaguered men of Omaha Beach.
Survival and a devastating toll
Later in the afternoon, U.S. forces were firmly on French soil. The Germans were on the run — and would be for most of the next 11 months.
The toll was heavy. Of the American casualties on D-Day, approximately 2,400 were killed, wounded or missing on Omaha Beach. The soldiers fortunate enough to survive were mentally and physically exhausted, yet grateful they lived to fight again.
Poulos had worked his way inland and linked up with his unit. He found sleep, sort of, behind a dead animal. “You had to keep one eye open and one ear open,” he recalled. “We didn’t sleep too well.”
Murdock recalled the view from atop the bluff: hundreds of ships visible with the naked eye. With that type of firepower supporting them, how could the Americans lose? And yet with the peril they faced in the invasion’s early hours, how could they have won?
“It is impossible for anyone who was not there,” Murdock later wrote, “to understand the selflessness and courage these very few men displayed to make this landing a success — despite the weather, confusion and odds against us.”
WWII Talks: I was There is a series of first-hand stories of WWII veterans written for VALOR Magazine. These personal accounts are from interviews with some of Utah’s “Greatest Generation.” This account was complied by David Cordero.
1. Quentin Murdock: Six interviews with author between 2013 and 2018. Murdock talks about his adventures in his self-published book “Quentin C. Murdock: World War II Experiences and Memoirs.”
2. Steve Poulos and William Shanley; KUED, Utah’s World War II Stories
3. William Rice from “Voices of War: The Experiences of LDS Servicemen during the D-day Invasion.”
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