Friday, February 4, 2011

James E. Baker on Omaha Beach

I've been talking to Dr. James Baker, a veteran medic of the 494th Port Battalion. A couple years ago James self-published a memoir, which includes his time in the Army. It's not for sale to the general public, but he sent me a copy and gave me permission to reproduce some of the text on my website. Today I'm posting his chapter about hitting Omaha Beach on D-Day:

"After a few days we were loaded aboard ships. We sailed to rendezvous with other fleets headed for Normandy Beach in France. We were to land on June 5th but the waves were too rough. The invasion was postponed until the next day, June 6th, 1943 – D-Day. As we met with the chaplain for his last sermonette aboard ship, he said that even though we could see the shore of France, many of us would not live to get there.

I remember going down to the deck below topside and sitting down to eat a box of c-ration (a boxed meal about the size of a cracker jack box). Suddenly, there was this tremendous explosion. All of the lights went out. The ship tilted, as if were going to turn over, but instead it began to rock and remained upright. The ladder, which I had used to come down from the topside deck, was gone. It was knocked loose. However, we soon found the ladder and replaced it. We began scrambling out like rats scurrying for cover. Coming mostly from the rear of the ship were several fellows who had fallen among various vehicles below them. Some soldiers used the floodlights and went down to free the soldiers who were tapped. Soon the cry for medics was heard all around. Our unit, the 494th Port Battalion, appeared to be the only unit aboard with medics. Racial segregation existed in the military then, but the fact that we were black did not seem to be an issue. While we became busy administering first aid, an announcement was made that our ship had struck an acoustic mine in the water.

We were told that the ship was sinking slowly. This took place on D-day. The next morning, D+1, a detail of four of us who were medics, was assigned to accompany the major, who was our medical officer, to take ashore four bodies of the soldiers who had died in the incident. The major was a white surgeon, Paul Warner, MD, from Nashville, Tennessee. We were instructed to take the bodies to a site that would be used until the bodies could be buried. This site was in the section on the beach designated as “DOG RED”. We were told to report there in three days to rejoin our unit. The transfer of the four bodies, which we were to take ashore occurred according to a plan that had been developed. Essentially, each body was secured to a stretcher. A pulley type of arrangement was made between the ship, which we were now on, and the landing craft brought along side the ship. One by one a stretcher was fastened to the rope serving as a pulley. When a wave came, a stretcher was swung from the ship to the landing craft. After this process, it was time for our detail to make the transfer.

Major Warner said that he would be the first to make the hazardous “trip”. He made his jump successfully. I volunteered to go next. Some of the fellows asked if I had on my “dog tag” just in case. I stood on the rail of the ship holding on to a vertical rail with my left hand. When the wave brought the landing craft up a bit closer, I was told that as soon as the command to jump was given I had to make the jump. To hesitate could mean getting baptized between the ship and the landing craft. Of course I was apprehensive (scared). When the moment came, someone yelled, “jump”. I let go and jumped. The naval fellows on the landing craft broke my landing. The other three comrades successively made their jump. There were no casualties that resulted from this event. When the naval fellows reached a point where our detail was to be put ashore, one of them said to us, “Fellows, this is as far as we go. Good luck.” With that said, the front of the landing craft was lowered.

Our detail landed on the beach carrying a stretcher bearing the body of a fellow soldier awaiting burial. Bodies were in the water and on the sand for broad sections of the beach. Germans were up in the hills. Cannons, machine guns, booby traps, and rifles all seemed to be firing. Barbed, wire to resist advancement, was strewn over the beach. Again, calls for medics could be heard. After a while of running here and there to help someone in need, I got tired of being scared. In training we were told that we were going to encounter people for whom we could not do anything. We were instructed to give them morphine injections and let them die without pain. In a classroom, far removed from a battle situation, that sounds logical. However, in a real scene, this was not so easy. If one came upon a person bleeding, by stopping the bleeding, the person’s life may be spared. We were told to keep that focus.

Along this line, I was attending an officer who was white. He had been shot in the left knee. I was attempting to stop the bleeding. He said, “Get your damn hands off me n*****.” I was tempted to comply with his request! There were plenty of other people in need of help. However, I said, “Sir, somebody’s got a problem and it’s not me. Whether you want me to work on you or not, I’m going to.” He was in pain and he was still bleeding. I said, “I’m trying to stop the blood because by the time you get picked up, and taken to the hospital ship, you could die from bleeding. So whether you want me to work on you or not I’m sorry.” Again I said, “I’m going to work on you anyway.” He just kept telling me to get my black hands off him. One part of my nature was to accommodate his request, but I could not. We were still down on the beach. We hadn’t been able to push too far inland. There were fellows all around hollering for medics. I patched this officer up, put a tag on him. He could not fight me, at least not then. His fighting seemed to be over. Some other medics picked him up to return him to England for treatment.

At night, the Germans would send small planes over to strike the beach. It seemed to be more or less “nuisance raids” to keep us from sleeping. It appeared as if anyone with a gun was shooting. We were told to lay parallel to the beach so at least you had less of a chance of getting hit by a bullet from the strike fire."

See part 1 of James Baker's wartime experience: enlisting in the segregated Army


  1. My grandfather Delmas E. Green was in the 494th Port Battalion. He was a T. Sgt. Papa never talked about the war......if for some reason he did he could not do so without crying. We were always told that he was at Omaha Beach and just took his word for it. My father still has all his paper work, dogtags, and ID bracelet. I regret never asking him about his place in the War and exactly what he did or what he saw. But reading these stories from the heroic men, I can see why.

    Reading this stories explains a lot of Papas' qualms about water......Thank you all for the ultimate sacrafice made so I can sit here and type this post. I am lucky, and proud, to be able to say that my Grandfather Delmas E. Green, volunteered to fight for his country!

    Delmas E. Green
    U.S. Army
    494th Port Battalion


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