On Bloody Omaha
Second Lieutenant Wesley C. Ross commanded Boat Crew #8, which consisted of 24 men from B Company, 146th Engineer Combat Battalion, 4 volunteers, and the augmented Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU) 137, led by Ensign Harold P. Glean. Their mission: place explosives on mined obstacles and demolish 50 yd. wide gaps in them, so men and equipment could proceed ashore and inland on Easy Green sector of Omaha Beach.
Their clothing was impregnated with foul—smelling gunk that was supposed to protect them from chemical and gas attacks. They painted large '8's on the backs of their jackets for identification purposes. Each man carried 50 pounds of demolitions or 'Hagensen packs': foot long sacks stuffed with C2 plastic explosive fitted with hooks and lines for attachment to obstacles. The 50' landing craft, carrying 400 pounds of explosives, that would transport all personnel ashore, was towed behind their LCT. By the time they boarded their LCM, the seasick men were glad to be heading for terra firma, even the man—made hell called Omaha Beach.
'Approaching the beach we began seeing splashes from small arms and artillery fire. It was nail—biting time because a direct hit would have been very unsettling. As we came close in, our Navy gunner hosed down the beach ahead with twin .50 caliber machine guns. I'm not sure he hit anything, but it sure was a morale booster.
'We needed that boost because we saw several dead GIs floating in the surf. The coxswain of our professional boat crew promised me an easy wade ashore and he drove the craft hard aground before dropping the ramp so the water only came up to our knees.
'Boat crew #8 was one of the few that landed near its assigned sector, even though we ended up on Dog Red, only 400 yards from our objective. The strong tide pushed most other crews far to the east. While most of our men hurried inland to the only bomb crater in sight, a group of us, including Sgt. Bill Garland, Earl Holbert, Bill Townsley, some NCDUs and I, pulled the explosives—laden rubber boat off the LCM, making ourselves stationery targets. We were under heavy small arms fire and a machine gun was tracking our movements. I could see three riflemen behind the seawall firing at the enemy and looking left towards the mouth of the draw.
'After running a zig—zag course up to the bomb crater I found Bill Grosvenor busy trying to suppress the machine gun fire, so I grabbed his reel with the primacord and ran multiple short dashes around the west side of the obstacles. Sgt. Garland had gone around the other side and we tied the main strands together when we met. Then, with the rest of the crew, we began tying on the Hagensen packs and 15 lb. tetrytol packs.
'At that point I happened to look east, into the sunrise, and saw a large artillery shell hit the sand 60' away. It ricocheted 25' into the air, outlined against the morning sky, before exploding, sending a V—shaped chunk of shrapnel hurling away to the northeast.
'About 20 minutes after landing we were ready to demolish the gap in the obstacles. A short time thereafter, I noticed a soldier sitting upright on the beach, facing seaward 30 yards to my west. I yelled at him to take cover behind one of the steel obstacles. Either he didn't hear me or didn't have time to react, or was wounded. Then I saw him slump over and the water around him slowly turn pink.
'Without warning, behind me, a Sherman tank fired a round into the window of a large house 250 yds. to our left front, where German machine gunners had been giving us so much trouble. They suddenly became a non—problem.
'Sgt. Garland and I tied 45 second detonators to the main trunk line, pulled the fuse igniters, then moved inland. Some of the wooden obstacles were still standing so we tied on a 22 second detonator and tried again. Now only two obstacles remained. I ran back and used an 8 second detonator, pulled the igniter, then splashed shoreward in water up to my knees.
'We began taking casualties almost immediately but our medics were incredibly efficient, taking care of them where they lay. Many of the less seriously wounded didn't bother calling for help. Minden Ivey, a tough little Texan, took a bullet in the wrist, resulting in a compound fracture and kept right on with his job.
'Meantime, the rest of my crew prepared the steel hedgehogs for demolition. But just as Sgt. Garland I were attaching the detonators, an infantry LCVP hit the beach 150 yards seaward. Knowing they would soon be taking cover in and amongst the obstacles, I delayed the demolition order, which was eventually postponed when the incoming tide covered the obstacles.' (They were destroyed that afternoon.)
'The water was now lapping at our feet. We gathered our wounded and transferred across the gully (now filled with 3' of water) to the shingle. Just as I was preparing to follow, I noticed Sgt. Roy Arnn lying off to my right. He'd been horribly wounded in the shoulder, chest and thigh by an artillery shell that landed so close that his hands and face were gray from TNT residue. His arms and legs were useless so we began hunching forward toward the gully. Just as we neared it, a machine gun splattered sand all over us, so we ducked behind an obstacle with a charge still attached. The machine gun soon found another target and we managed to slip into the 4 foot deep gully and cross it with just our eyes and noses above water. Several of our men had congregated behind a Sherman tank dozer just above the waterline, and helped carry Arnn up the bank, where he was given further medical attention.
LT Ross soon joined the ranks of the wounded when mortar shell fragments caught his right leg.
'Despite what I had heard, mortar wounds from close—in bursts are quite painful, and, once a mortar crew is zeroed in, they usually fire more rounds in rapid succession. So I immediately dug a foxhole in the sand with my helmet and bare hands. Max Morris, our medic, soon found me and we enlarged it into a 2—man job. He then poured sulfa powder into the wound and bandaged it.'
Morris told Ross that the unit had suffered 60% casualties, the lieutenant being especially worried about Arnn and Grosvenor.
For the rest of the morning, LT Ross was 'an interested spectator with a front row seat as the battle unfolded.' Late that afternoon he was taken to an aid station and at dusk out to a hospital ship.
LT Joe Gregory from C Company, 146th Engineer Combat Battalion, was Officer—in—Charge of Boat Crew #10, to which was assigned Ensign Lawrence Karnowski's NCDU—45. They made the crossing on LCT(A) 2425, with its 3 Sherman tanks. Like other men preparing to land on Omaha Beach, they were encouraged by the massive pre—assault bombardment. Then it was time to go. Two miles off Easy Red Beach sector Boat Team #10 boarded their 50' LCM in foggy conditions at 2:30 a.m. for the run ashore. During the boat transfer, Ens. Karnowski lost his helmet. He would go through D—Day bareheaded. Motor churning and fog rising, Easy Red was sighted in faint outline at 6:10 a.m. Fifteen minutes later they were on the beach. Ens. Karnowski's war diary tells the rest:
'LT Gregory and his men pulled off their rubber boat, let it go, then headed for the dune line and their obstacles. We disembarked as two 88mm. shells dropped near our LCM and got busy tying charges to our assigned obstacles. Two of my men tied the rubber boat with our demolitions to a piling. The first (detonation) shot, fired at 0650 hrs., went magnificently; smoke billowed and the obstacles were blown to bits. Machine gun fire erupted immediately, keeping us on our bellies. My top man Chief Conrad Millis couldn't resign himself to crawling; too slow for him. So he took off running with a roll of primacord and quickly placed several more charges, but machine gun fire cut him down. He was the only man I lost that day, the best one I had. It took a lot longer to prepare and detonate the second shot because the tide was coming in fast, and infantry, 10 minutes behind schedule, were filtering through us. I just had enough time, as our danger flare went up, to grab a soldier from behind one of the charged pilings before our second shot went off at 0705 hrs. During this time Gunner's Mate Bob Svendsen carried wounded fellow Gunner's Mate Gale Fant all the way to the dune line with machine gun fire chasing him the whole way.
'Now in water up to our knees, we were almost to where LT Gregory and his men had started. They'd done a great job, clearing the entire 50 yd. wide gap. Several pilings remained between our two sectors and LT Gregory insisted on getting them. A tall man, he waded and swam to each piling as we threw the charges to him. Triggering each one separately, he destroyed all three. Jerry shellfire was now really pouring in. Coming in on the almost high tide were bodies. Jeeps, tanks and small boats were piling up on the beach. Three LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) spotted our gap and came on in. While they unloaded, we loaded out our wounded. (By this time Millis had been lost and 5 others from NCDU—45 wounded) The situation became worse as we lay behind the dunes.
Then one of the soldiers spotted a Jerry to our front on a footpath and took off after him. His fellow infantrymen followed. LT Gregory and I rounded up our remaining men and sent them ahead to the hillside for protection. An emergency first—aid station had been set up near the path and wounded were being treated. We were nearing it when a large shell scored a direct hit. Gregory, 5' in front of me, was hit badly in the stomach and legs. I rolled him over to attend to his wounds. He kept saying he wouldn't recover. We talked about the beach job. He was happy that we had completed our assignment. Then he collapsed and died.'
For their selfless valor and extraordinary heroism on Bloody Omaha, LT Ross and Ens. Karnowski were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor. LT Joe Gregory was awarded, posthumously, the Distinguished Service Cross.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian