This is the 81st Chemical Weapons unit (Heavy Mortars) – who supported the Rangers advance inland from the Beach to Maisy. The Batteries at Maisy took their toll on the men of D Company of this unit on their approach to Pointe du Hoc.
Marshalling and Embarkation
After a little more than six months of intensive preparation following its arrival in the United Kingdom, the battalion was alerted on May 12, 1944, for what proved to be the greatest event in modern times the invasion of Europe.
Together with elements of the 1st Infantry Division and attachments, the battalion moved into the marshalling area near Dorchester, Dorset, on May 15, 1944. The assault group of this battalion was composed of 437 officers and men and 35 vehicles. Once in the marshalling area, it was held incommunicado from the outside world. The residual elements were moved to Bournemouth, Hants at this time, to join other residual elements of the 1st Division. Later the lead echelon was moved to Falmouth for embarkation and the initial build-up (overstrength) was moved to Tiverton for shipment so as to arrive in France and join the forward echelon on D plus 5.
The entire assault echelon was moved to Camp D-11, where it remained as a battalion until Sunday, May 28.
During this time, everyone, from the battalion commander to the private of the line, was briefed on the operation. Complete and comprehensive relief maps, recent aerial photographs, and the latest intelligence reports were used, so that every detail of terrain, location of enemy installations and underwater obstacles, etc., was learned with painstaking accuracy. Col. James gave what later proved to be his last talk to us, expressing complete confidence in our ability to live up to the words “Equal to the Task.”
On this date, the assault echelon was broken up and attached to two combat teams the 16th and 116th. Companies A and C were attached to the 16th CT, made up of the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division and attached units; B and D Companies to the 116th CT, made up of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division plus attachments; and battalion headquarters to the 1st Division Headquarters. Company A then moved to Camp D4 and D8, B to D1, C to D10, D to D1, and battalion headquarters to D5.
Beginning on June 1 and continuing through June 2, the entire assault echelon was moved to Weymouth harbor where it embarked on various craft, including APAs, an LSI, and LSTs. Company A was assigned to the SS Henrico, an APA; B Company to a British APA, the Empire Javelin; C Company to the Empire Anvil, a British LSI; D Company to the USS Charles Carrol; and Headquarters Company to the LST 83. The rear echelons of the various companies embarked at a later date in two Liberty ships, the Lucille Stone and Louis Kossuth. After leaving the marshaling areas, the battalion commander had no further contact with any of his companies until the lading on bloody Omaha Beach on D-Day. In all, the assault groups spent 96 hours on the choppy waters of the Channel.
After the assault groups had embarked, it was announced that D-Day would be June 5, but later an announcement was flashed that D-Day had been postponed 24 hours due to bad weather off the coast of Normandy. H-Hour was to be at 0630 hours, June 6, 1944. It was later learned that it had to be then or be postponed at least a month. What a decision to rest on the shoulders of one man! Yet a more capable man than our Supreme Commander, General “Ike”, would be difficult to find.
On the afternoon of June 5, one by one the craft slipped out from Weymouth harbor to assemble with similar groups somewhere in the Channel. The immensity of this mighty invasion fleet was awe-inspiring to everyone who participated in General Badley’s “greatest show on earth.” Here was the armed might of the “decadent democracies” spread out as far as the eye could see. The dry runs were over; this was the record shoot, testing whether a free people could hope to meet and vanquish the regimented power of a brutal dictatorship. It was truly to be a “battle of the giants.”
Invasion and the Beachhead
Just before dawn on June 6, as the armada approached the coast of Normandy, bright, lightning-like flashes could be seen illuminating the whole horizon. The arrival of the mightiest convoy that man had ever assembled for a single operation was heralded by a thunderous rumble directly to the front. This was the initial air and sea bombardment laid down on Omaha Beach early that day in an effort to neutralize or soften up the enemy’s prepared positions. Despite the immensity of this preparation and the gigantic losses inflicted on the enemy, the fighting forces were to learn soon enough that they would yet have to pay heavily to gain that little strip of France.
Approximately 15 miles from shore the larger craft hove to, and at 0430 all companies transferred their men and mortars to LCVPs. As the men clambered down the cargo nets in the murky, false dawn, the Navy wished them Godspeed, and the craft shoved off from the mother ships into a choppy sea for the rendezvous areas several hundred yards offshore. Here they circled, endlessly it seemed, causing the boat teams to be wet to the skin and, in many cases, violently seasick. All during this time the promised air support passed overhead, wave after wave, and faces lifted to see it were filled with gratitude.
Battleships and cruisers fired salvos into the Nazi defenses, destroyers steamed offshore battling 88s emplaced solidly in the bluff, while smaller vessels sprayed the beach defenses with rockets.
Finally, the craft straightened out into waves and headed for Omaha Beach with all the speed and power they could muster. All the companies were in either the fourth or fifth wave of the assault echelon. Soon empty LCVPs passed, returning to the APA. Seeing the empty craft relieved the strain a bit, for then it was known that the first wave had managed at least to disembark. The din of the battle came closer and closer, and to the sides and rear could be seen spouts of water where enemy shells were landing. Looking through the slit in the ramp one could see the smoke, wreckage, and carnage of the beach rapidly coming closer. The staccato rattling was soon recognized as machine gun bullets impacting as the craft threaded their way through the various lanes cleared by the shore engineers, but which were often lined with underwater obstacles and mines. Finally, with a last surge of power and a lurch that sent the unprepared hitting against the bulwarks, the craft grounded, and the ramps flew down spilling men, guns, and equipment on to the hell that was the shore of France. Many say now that it was a good thing most were “green” troops, for many a veteran “froze” that day. The constant drilling at the ATC resulted in doing automatically what was supposed to be done, without stopping to think of what was being faced. Heavy seas and the fact that some craft hung up on underwater obstacles made it impossible to make a dry landing.
The companies landed in the following order:
Companies A & D: H plus 50 minutes
Company B: H plus 90 minutes
Company C: H plus 9 hours
The LCT of the forward battalion command group was heavily shelled as it approached the shore. Enemy artillery pierced the starboard side of the craft amidship, killing T/Sgt. Cook of Headquarters Detachment and seriously wounding Col. James. The engine room was flooded and the rudder hit, leaving the craft with its dead and wounded adrift and floating out to sea. Aided by the current, the boat drifted toward shore and finally at about 1030 hours, beached itself under the protection of a steep cliff, where, under covering fire from the craft, the wounded were transferred to shore. Col. James was evacuated to England later that day in a hospital ship. Major Johnson (then Captain), being the senior officer ashore, took command of the assault echelon until the rear echelon arrived.
Company A, in support of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Division, landed at Easy Red Beach. Several mortars and carts were carried away by the heavy seas. After a hard struggle, the equipment was rescued and the company remained on the beach the entire morning, subjected to devastating machine gun fire which made it impossible to move. The company commander, Captain Moundres, was severely wounded while making his way through the surf to the beach. First Lt James P. Panas, who had already rescued a wounded doughboy from the water, ran back across the beach and, under heavy enemy machine gun, artillery and mortar fire, carried his wounded company commander ashore. Captain Moundres died as a result of his wounds, so Lt Panas, being now the senior officer, took command of the company, reorganized the platoons, and got them safely off the beach into firing positions along the slope of the bluff. For his leadership and gallantry in action, Lt Panas was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The only enlisted man lost by A Company on the beach was Pvt George Baumgartner who was killed when an enemy artillery shell exploded near him. Pvt Kidwell distinguished himself by retrieving several men being carried away by the rising water, giving them first aid in complete disregard for his personal safety, and in spite of a wound he himself had suffered. Kidwell was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his gallantry and self-sacrifice.
After the infantry had broken through the beach defenses, the platoons took up positions by a tank trap in a field about 500 yards in from the beach. The enemy had direct observation on these positions and subjected the company to a severe shelling.
B Company’s mission was to land on Dog Green Beach and provide direct support for the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry. Because the water obstacles had not been cleared and the beach was under heavy mortar, small arms, and artillery fire, the control boat ordered the wave to land instead on Easy Green, the left flank of Omaha Beach. As the boats were running along parallel to the beach, about 1,000 yards offshore, two of the LCVPs were hit and disabled by artillery. Despite an extremely heavy sea and the continual harassing fire from enemy machine guns and other direct-fire weapons, all personnel and equipment were safely transferred to an empty LCT. At approximately 0930 hours the entire wave was safely beached. Here the company was reorganized and moved inland about 100 yards.
At this time only a small section of the beach was held by American troops, and enemy fire was still inflicting heavy casualties. It was not until late in the afternoon that part of the company was able to move to a bluff overlooking the beach and fire its first mission. The first round was fired by Sgt Florio’s squad at 1700 hours at a machine gun nest in the woods near St. Laurent-sur-Mer. Later in the evening it was found that nine men and two officers were missing; otherwise the company was intact. It was larned later that Lt Walton, Cpl Grob, and Pvt Skaleski died of wounds received on the beach.
In order to accomplish its mission, the company was forced to advance through one of the uncleared mine fields found everywhere about the beach. During this move, PFC Rone was injured by an anti-personnel mine and later died.
The wave containing C Company’s LCVPs bore in towards the beach on schedule, but since the infantry was still pinned down within a few yards of water, the control boat moved them back to sea where they rendezvoused. Another attempt was made at 1000 hours, and still another at 1200 hours, the latter being met by machine gun fire as it reached the beach. As a last measure the wave moved down the beach to the mortar fire. The platoons, separately attached to battalions of the 16th Infantry, 1st Division, moved along the beach to their sector and initially set up 200 yards inland. Mines and sniper fire were ever-present dangers and again the medics distinguished themselves when Sgt Linnea Freda worked for hours treating and evacuating wounded with complete disregard for his own safety. He was later awarded the Silver Star.
At 0720, D Company’s craft beached on Easy Green in support of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, under an incessant hail of machine gun, mortar, and artillery fire. Of necessity the boat teams were landed in water up to their waists, and the precaution that had been taken to attach inflated life belts to the carts proved a wise one. Machine gun bullets ripped into the belts on several of the carts, however, deflating them and causing the carts to sink. Sgt Raymond Nicoli, T/R Felice Savino, Pvt McLaren, and Pvt Benton L. Porter were wounded while rescuing this equipment and refused medical aid until this was accomplished. These men were justly awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their bravery. The preceding wave of infantry was lying only a few yards from the water, pinned down by the fire raking the beach. Lt Mohrfeld, platoon leader, 2nd platoon, was hit within a few minutes by machine gun fire and died shortly thereafter. Lt Costello assumed command of the platoon and, knowing that too much longer on the beach was certain death, reorganized the squads and infiltrated them off the beach amidst the heavy fire impacting there. Lt Costello later received the Silver Star for his gallantry. Captain Gaffney, company commander, was instantly killed when the craft in which he was riding struck a mine. Lt Marshall, platoon leader, 1st platoon, took over command. The bravery of the medics in taking care of the wounded under fire was again proven by T/5s White and Marrin.
Number four mortar of the 1st platoon, Sgt Miller’s squad, fired two rounds of HE, from the initial landing place, at a machine gun emplacement 500 yards away. Lt Sabbione directed the fire from the mortar position. Although the target was at too close a range to hit, it is believed that these were the first rounds the battalion fired on the continent of Europe.
C Company changed positions three times after the initial landing on Easy Green. One of these movements involved a hand-carry of all equipment across a waist-deep, muddy marsh under fire. At 2200 hours the company moved northwest along a sea wall 800 yards inland through les Moulins to St. Laurent-sur-Mer, arriving at 2400 hours. Here the company dug in for the night and concealed its equipment.
All the assault vehicles of A Company were landed safely later that day, and those of C and D Companies were also landed with the loss of only one jeep apiece. B Company was unfortunate enough to have one of the vehicle personnel killed and two others and an officer wounded. Only one B Company jeep was landed, although another was later salvaged; all other vehicles were lost.
The next day A Company passed through Colleville-sur-Mer and made slow but certain gains, supporting the infantry whenever called upon. On D plus 3 the company was detached from the 16th Infantry, 1st Division, and attached to the 3rd Battalion, 9th Infantry, 2nd Division.
The nights were still cold, strange, and restless; the tension was felt by everyone. The sight of new units passing on the road gave everyone a sense of exhilaration.
The trek inland was slow and exhausting. C Company moved through Colleville-sur-Mer and St. Honorine des Pertes, still supporting the 1st Division. This company fired its first rounds on D plus 2 at enemy positions near Fosser Sancy. On D plus 3 the attachment was changed to the 2nd Division. At this time, Lt Robert Mann and his platoon accomplished a magnificent feat. Under enemy observation and sniper fire, Lt Mann led his platoon down a steep hill, over an open field, and across a creek, in order to furnish the infantry with the close support it so badly needed. It was necessary to wade the creek and hand-carry all equipment. The doughs were so happy to have the 4.2s that they lent a helping hand and later saw that the platoon was supplied with rations.
On June 9, B Company, seriously handicapped by the loss of its vehicles, acquired two 6 x 6 trucks from the field artillery. The acquisition of these vehicles solved the immediate transportation difficulties. At the time, B Company was supporting the 5th Ranger Battalion in an attack to clear out the coast fortifications.
On the morning of June 7, D Company fired its second mission near St. Laurent-sur-Mer at a machine gun nest only 800 yards from the gun position. A concentration of HE completely neutralized the installation. The company then moved northwest, cross-country over difficult terrain, subject to intermittent sniper and machine gun fire, and arrived at Vierville-sur-Mer at 1600 hours, where the commanding officer of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division, assigned it the task of providing security fire.
It was here that the company was subjected to one of the heaviest shellings it ever experienced. Several batteries of enemy 150mm artillery, firing from the vicinity of Pointe du Hoc, pounded the center of town and the road leading to the beach. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the regimental OP group and on a field artillery battalion coming from the beach. An ammunition dump was blown up, scattering small arms ammunition in all directions. This action caused a withdrawal for the time along the highway.
At 0530 hours, on June 8, D Company aided in the bloody attack on Grand Champs les Bains and was credited with another enemy machine gun nest. On June 9 the company was relieved from attachment to the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, 29th Division, and attached to the 175th Infantry, 29th Division, making a long road march to join this latter organization at la Fotelaie, beyond Isigny.
In clearing the enemy from the beachhead, the companies expended a total of 6,807 rounds of ammunition. Casualties for this period were 11 killed (five officers and six enlisted men), 25 wounded, and one captured.
58th Field Artillery Battalion -D-day After Action Report.