|My grandfather on Utah Beach, June 1944.|
An excerpt from my book, Longshore Soldiers:
On June 2 the 519th Port Battalion left the marshalling area and arrived at Newport, Wales. The officers directed the men to the ships. “My sergeant was there to make sure you got on the boat. He’d call out your first name, you’d call out your second.” Their packs were reviewed before boarding. “One guy had filled his gas mask with candy. He said it was his ‘shacking-up material’!” The battalion was divided among numerous waiting Liberty Ships, freighters, and coasters. They remained anchored until late in the evening of June 5th. It was only while en route to France that the men were officially informed of their destination. The 519th would be invading an area code named “Utah Beach” in Normandy. As the men were informed of this they received General Eisenhower’s Order of the Day, a letter to inspire the troops.
By 2:30 a.m., June 6th the Allied convoy was taking position to make their landing on the enemy-held beach. The ships anchored twelve miles from shore, a distance beyond the range of German artillery. The responsibility of the 519th was to transport supplies into the beach after it was taken. The unit was not expected to land on the beach until the following day.
Cortland spent that early morning pacing about the deck and chatting with the other GIs. He wandered up to a group of guys he didn’t know. “They had a ‘T’ and ‘O’ [unit insignia] painted on their helmets. I asked a kid what it stood for.” It was a group of the 90th Infantry Division. Texas and Oklahoma contributed all the men to this unit in the first World War. By WWII the 90th Infantry drew men from all across the States, so the ‘T’ and ‘O’ were then more associated with the division’s nickname, the “Tough ’Ombres.” As participants in the initial assault on Normandy, these men would have been part of either the 1st or 3rd Battalion in the 359th Infantry Regiment. “When I saw that they were infantry, I knew this was serious.”
Cortland realized he must have strayed from his unit’s area of the ship, but he decided to stick around, because the guys had offered to share their stew. They were heating cans on the ship’s hot steam pipes. As they ate an officer shouted at Cortland, telling him to untuck his leggings and pull out his shirt. Cortland was a bit puzzled, but did as he was told. “Who the hell is he?” Corty grumbled to a young soldier next to him. The soldier replied, “You better listen to him, he’s been to North Africa.” Having experienced the amphibious landings in German-held North Africa, this veteran officer knew how dangerous the impregnated uniforms could be. The treatment that made their clothes resistant to gas attack also made them watertight. When a man stepped out of the boat, water flowed over his belt, and into the legs of his trousers, where it was trapped. That weight, added to the already heavy equipment, drowned many a soldier.
Cortland looked around the combat troops and started to wonder, “what the hell am I doing here?” The public address system came on, announcing the start of the invasion. The “Tough ’Ombres” started climbing down the rope ladder on the side of the ship, loading into the small landing craft in the waters below. Cortland took this as his cue to move on. As he was walking against the crowd that same 90th Infantry Division officer spotted Cortland and ordered him into the craft. “But, I’m not infantry!” Corty protested. The officer barked back, “You are now, soldier. Get your ass in the boat!”12 Perhaps the officer was making sure the landing craft was full when it went in. Maybe he thought Cortland actually was a combat infantryman trying to chicken-out. All soldiers had removed marks of rank and unit insignia from their uniforms to aid in the secrecy of the operation, so some confusion was possible. An officer could still be identified by the vertical white stripe painted on the rear of his helmet. In any case, this officer was geared-up for battle and in no mood for arguments. Cortland followed orders and clambered down to join the soldiers in the waiting LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle or Personnel). The port company man was thrown in with the fighting men.
During the three-and-a-half hour ride all the men could do was wait, worry, and get seasick. Thankfully, Cortland did not get ill. “I was in pretty good shape, I guess.” The craft hit a sand bar and came to a sudden halt. “The officers were all swearing, because we were stuck there and the Germans were shooting at us with 88s.” The craft was meant to unload closer to the beach, but stuck on the sand bar with artillery shells falling all around as the door was lowered. The men plunged into the water. As a kid, Corty had taken swimming lessons with his church group at Lake George, New York. As a teenager he had taken life-guard training. This skill proved most useful in his situation. Some unfortunate men didn’t know how to swim at all. “We were in over our heads, but I wasn’t worried. I had a life preserver on and I knew how to swim.” That life preserver turned out to be no help. It was only after he was standing on the beach that he thought to inflate it. Cortland remembered everyone from his craft made it to shore, but “a lot of guys panicked and drowned.”
Cortland and some thirty “Tough ’Ombres” hit the beach that morning, probably no earlier than 10:00 a.m. Bullets whizzed by and explosions threw sand in the air. Corty kept pace for a while, but was left behind. “They had maps, see, and they all went off somewhere.” For a few moments Cortland was left on the beach, but he didn’t have to wait long for direction. Another group of infantry came up from behind and pulled Corty with them. “We went up on the hill and waited ’till they cleared the mines. I lobbed a couple grenades in a pill box. A guy brought up a pole charge and blew the door open. My carbine jammed. An officer told me, ‘See that GI? Take his. He won’t be needing it anymore.’ From then on it was kind of foggy.”
Corty took the weapon from the dead soldier and moved on. He hunkered down behind some cover, and fired off some rounds. Eventually the shooting stopped. “I did enough fighting for what I wanted to do.” During the fight Corty’s hand had been grazed by a piece of flying shrapnel, but it went untreated. “When I got to the medic I saw there were a lot of guys a lot worse off than me, so I just left.” It’s unclear how long Cortland was separated from the 519th. Some time later he bumped into a sergeant from his own unit and rejoined his company. He would no longer be directly involved in fighting, but that certainly did not mean he was out of danger.