June 6, 1944. Thousands of American soldiers set out across the English Channel to conquer the German defenses at Omaha Beach sector. The beach landings were supposed to be an easy breeze. Four hours prior to the landings, Allied bombers were to bombard the German pillboxes and casemates overlooking the beach. However, the bombers waited too long to drop their payload and overshot their targets. The defenses remained intact as the Americans hit the beach at 6:00 am. The men found themselves running into severe machine gun and artillery fire. Men were mowed down on the beach and blown to pieces. Retreating was impossible. All they could do was hide behind dead comrades or small beach obstacles. The slaughter continued for three hours, and did not seem like it would turn out victorious for the Americans. However, once 51 year old 29th Infantry General Norman "Dutch" Cota came ashore, the tide began to turn.
One of the men Cota came across was 19 year old private Hal Baumgarten from the 29th Division (Seen under Cota's arm in drawing). Hal later recalled his experiences on the beach and how he was wounded by artillery fire:
"I saw all this mayhem going on all around me. It was actually chaos because it was a fight for individual survival. I was looking up at that machine gun in those zig-zag trenches which was chopping up the sand all around me. And I cursed at him. I usually don't curse, but as I was cursing him an 88mm shell hit in front of me and blew my left cheek off. If I hadn't been looking up at that pillbox, it would have been my whole face. Later, a medic told me my cheek had been hanging over my ear when he found me. My upper jaw was shot away, there was a hole in the roof of my mouth. I had teeth laying on my tongue. Couldn't spit them out, couldn't swallow them. I didn't know that they could eventually fix my face. I didn't know anything about plastic surgery. I thought I was a dead duck."
Hal also recalled what he saw on the beach. The horror of death and suffering that he'll never forget.
"We were a proud outfit. We were well trained, well disciplined, and believed that nobody could defeat us. But there were these guys on the beach, just stacked up dead on top of each other. And of course, the blood was all over the place. And the body parts. It was horrible. Horrible seeing body parts of people we all knew. You could smell the burning flesh. I heard men crying for their mothers."
General Norman Cota saw the death and chaos as well when he landed on Omaha. He knew that the operation would be a complete failure if he did not inject some leadership into the survivors. Cota, wielding just his pistol and puffing on a cigar, ran from one man to the next to organize the situation. Captain John Raaen of the 5th Rangers (seen on Cota's right in the drawing) later recalled his encounter with Cota:
"Suddenly I heard one of my men say, "Hey Captain, look at that guy down there!" And I look down that beach about a hundred yards and here was this man, waving a cigar, and he was yelling at people to get off the beach. Even at that range he looked a little rotund compared to most of us. And we all wondered who he was. But Cota was up, he was talking, he was encouraging the men. He was imparting his own bravery into them. As he was leading me, he turned and said, "I know you won't let me down.""
All Hal Baumgarten had to say about Cota was, "The man was fearless."
Cota was eventually able to get Cpt. Raaen's Rangers to blow a hole in the barbed wire shingle with bangalore torpedoes. Cota told the 5th Rangers to lead the way ("Rangers, lead the way!" eventually became the Ranger's motto). While Cota was grouping up with his surviving 29th Infantry men who were all certain that June 6th was their last day, he motivated them with his famous quote, "Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed." And from that, the Americans were able to take the fight to the Germans and conqure the defenses on Omaha Beach.
Out of the five beaches the Allies landed that day, Omaha was by far the bloodiest and had the most casualties. There is no exact number of deaths but historians estimate over 3,000 American casualties and 1,200 German casualties. Any American who fought at Omaha Beach will agree that there was never a moment that seemed as though the battle would end in a victory.
"The entire time of the battle I thought for sure we were losing. I saw dead people, wounded people all over the whole beach. It wasn't until I was raised up the side of a ship on a stretcher, and I saw this huge U.S. flag flying over the ships. It wasn't until that moment that I knew everything was o.k." -Hal Baumgarten
Omaha Beach has been portrayed in a number of movies. The role Norman Cota played on Omaha Beach was dramatized for the 1962 war epic The Longest Day in which Cota was played by Robert Mitchum. Although the movie was not bad, it incorrectly showed Cota landing on the beach in the first wave and he cites General George's Taylor's famous quote "There are two types of men on this beach. The dead, and those who are going to die! Now get moving!" instead of Cota's actual quote.
The most famous portrayal of Omaha Beach would be in Steven Spielberg's 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Although SPR correctly showed the intensity and chaos that took place on Omaha Beach, all the characters were fictitious and the layout of the defenses on the bluffs was inaccurate to the real defense layout. Tom Hank's character, Captain John Miller of the 2nd Rangers, was vaguely based on both Gen. Norman Cota and Cpt. John Raaen. Miller performs all the acts that both men did to break through the German defenses.