“One man with courage makes a majority.”
Andrew Jackson (1767 – 1845)
Johnny Kilroy dove out of the plane at a bad angle and knew he was in imminent danger of fouling his shroud lines. The snapping impact of his parachute opening jarred him breathless. He groaned as his lungs expelled his air. Despite the shock and pain, he looked up thankfully to a full canopy. Before he could feel relief he looked down to see only the wide, angry moonlit ocean. He was about to experience a paratrooper’s worst nightmare; a night water landing.
He had to work fast. He only had moments before plunging into the roiling sea with his 130-pound load. Under this extreme burden, it would only take seconds to sink like a rock.
First came the reserve chute since it was easy to unbuckle. With it went the M-1 Garand in its Griswold case. Next he slid his Schrade-Walden switchblade knife from his breast pocket, snapped out the razor sharp blade and cut one riser. The other one would be cut just above the water so his parachute wouldn’t settle on top of him and keep him submerged. He began to spin wildly, suspended by one riser, and saw the spit of ground he had nearly landed on. It was jutting out into the ocean like the pointed prow of a ship. It was a steep and high cliff with an escarpment that ran back into the Normandy countryside and he cursed his bad luck for just missing it.
No time for recrimination! He quickly cut the straps on his ammo bandoliers and they dropped into the sea. With his left hand he began pulling the heavy Gammon grenades from his pants side pockets and dropping them into the water hoping they would not somehow detonate. With his right hand he fumbled to find the pull-ring on his Mae West life jacket, careful not to pierce it with his knife. When he finally found the ring and jerked it, the vest inflated with a controlled explosion of air. He cut loose his musette bag as he neared the water and saw Buzz Buggy crash and cartwheel into the dark ocean. He took a deep gulp of air just before cutting the second riser.
The icy cold water was yet another shock to his system and in spite of the inflated life vest, he sank to the bottom quickly under the remaining weight of his load. He knew he only had thirty or forty seconds to find the surface. He desperately looked for something else to cut off of his body, only to realize that in the shock of the water landing he dropped his safety knife. By kicking his feet he would barely leave the bottom. He had neutral buoyancy at best and had to lose more weight quickly if he was to reach the surface. The water was dark and murky and he couldn’t see much. He began to work by touch.
Keep your head. Think. He willed himself to take action as he fought off the panic that was an impulse away from taking over. Grenades! He pulled and dropped six fragmentation grenades from his harness where they were hooked in by their spoons. Gas mask! It was attached to his web belt but would not come free. Trench knife! He reached down to his boot and pulled out his razor sharp trench knife. He had no difficulty slicing off his web belt, which took the gas mask and his water-filled steel canteen with it. His .45 was in a shoulder holster under his life vest so he slipped his hand beneath the vest and dropped his pistol. All the while he was kicking his feet slowly and he began to rise slightly. At least he thought he was rising. It was hard to determine his orientation in the dark waters. He felt his pockets and pulled out and dropped some K-rations as he slowly breathed out the bubbles from the deep breath he had taken before he hit the water.
He only had a few seconds before the unstoppable urge to breathe would take over and he would suck water into his lungs and drown. Hoping he was at least oriented upward, he dropped the trench knife and began to kick and pull his arms violently toward the surface. He pulled and kicked relentlessly and just before he was about to suck in a lung full of deadly seawater, he broke the surface and gasped hungrily for air.
He lay there, buoyed by his life jacket, sucking in mouthfuls of life-giving oxygen. His silk parachute had blessedly drifted away and did not obstruct his emergence. Buzz Buggy was nowhere to be seen having disappeared into the swirling waves without a trace. His thoughts went to that brave navigator who kept the plane in the air long enough to give him a fighting chance. Johnny didn’t even know his name. Someday he would find out. His family had a right to know how he died.
When he finally caught his breath he turned toward the shore. The cliffs towered above him to the height of a ten-story building and blocked out a good piece of the night sky. Looking left and right, the cliffs extended for thousands of yards in both directions from the point. The night sky was full of planes still dropping parachutists inland and returning to England over the English Channel. The gunfire could still be heard and the tracers and floodlights continued to spray the inky night sky.
He wasn’t that far off shore and with the help of his Mae West and his lightened load, he would make it in. Despite his relief, he had to remind himself he was disembarking on a fortified enemy shore and if not careful, he could be killed or taken prisoner. He had no weapon and no plan. What a way to invade Europe, he thought.
The tide was out and he crawled up onto the sandy part of the beach on the east side of the promontory. He continued to crawl on his belly until the sand turned to shale at which time he stood up in a low crouch and skulked to the base of the cliff. The huge craters on the shale part of the beach looked deep enough to devour a man so he carefully avoided them until he came to the base of the vertical cliff. There was no cover or concealment so he worked his way eastward until he came upon a hollow cleft in the steep bluff partially covered by some wild growth of shrubbery.
It wasn’t exactly the cover he would have liked but it was nevertheless some concealment. Johnny stepped inside the cleft and sat down on the hard ground. His teeth were chattering and his body was shivering as he held himself and tried to draw some heat from the stone cliff face. He pushed his wet hair back off of his forehead, tried to wipe his face with his still wet hands and braced against the chilling breeze. The seawater dripped slowly from his stiff clothes as he waited helplessly for the Allied invasion from the sea. At least he was still alive.
The C-47 transports droned overhead for two more hours as the empty planes made their way home. Shortly after the last one passed above at no more than 500 feet, he began to hear a more distant, deeper drone of engines, higher, obscured by the clouds. The rumble of bombs dropped from invisible bombers shook the landscape. Loose stones and small rocks tumbled down the side of the cliff and peppered him with sandy debris. He looked for a safer place and scrambled higher up to an outcropping loosened from the side of the bluff by previous bombings. He climbed twenty or thirty feet up and while no longer being covered by the shrubbery, he was not easily visible to anyone on the heights or the beach because of the overhang directly above him. The bombing continued but Johnny wondered why they were targeting so far inland. He knew Omaha Beach lay just a few miles to his right as he looked out toward the sea. On his left, blocked by the high escarpment, was Utah Beach a few miles in the opposite direction. Thus far, none of the bombs had come close to either of the beaches or the heights overlooking them. The inaccurate bombing went on for what seemed like hours. Then there was near silence, just the sound of the angry surf slapping against the peaceful shore.
Johnny looked out toward the east. The sky was just beginning to brighten. Out over the northern horizon there were bright orange flashes of light. At first he thought it might be lightning but a few moments later the shells roared overhead and exploded inland. Then he heard the sound of the booming naval guns. Each salvo, sounding like a huge thump, sent 2,000 pound artillery shells onto the headland above. He could feel the pressure waves on his face. More bright lights lit the horizon as more ships joined the fusillade against the shoreline. The far horizon glowed red as more ships added to the barrage. Low clouds reflected the flashes in a kaleidoscope of colors. Many of the artillery shells landed well inland beyond both Utah and Omaha Beaches. The sky was filled with the screeching sounds of shellfire. Each salvo sounded like a runaway freight train crashing into a mountainside. The ground shook repeatedly and violently under the enormous barrage.
From his perch up the side of the cliff he could see the small dots on the horizon become slightly larger as the vast invasion fleet became more visible. It sent a chill up his already frigid spine. Before long, the sea between the horizon and the shoreline filled up with all types of small craft bringing soldiers to establish the beachhead. There were more than he could count. The great invasion from the sea had begun.
Johnny glanced at his watch. It was 0610 hours. Bombers appeared, came in low and began dropping bombs on the plateau above. They were American B-26 Marauders, and they were dropping their bombs from low altitudes. Meanwhile the large shells continued to pour in from over the horizon and two destroyers ventured closer to the shoreline, adding to the firepower pounding the cliffs. Smoke and dust swirled everywhere partially obscuring the massive fireworks display of rockets, tracers and gun flashes.
Johnny became aware he was in danger and scrambled down the rubble pile to the beach as shells continued to whistle overhead and bombs cratered the land above the cliffs. He found his former hiding spot and, determining it was not safe enough, moved farther west to the base of the steep cliff. He came upon a small cave and hid in it. At 0625 hours the bombers abruptly stopped. Five minutes later the sea bombardment ceased. Small arms and cannon fire could still be heard coming from the east. Flares, rockets and bursting shells lit up the sea around Omaha Beach but it became eerily quiet where he was. He stepped out of the cave and looked out to sea. Normally, when a barrage stopped a landing was close behind. No ships were visible off the beach. He strained his eyes to scan the horizon and then he saw them. A small flotilla of nine landing craft was running parallel to the beach. He recognized them as British Landing Craft Assault vessels, called LCAs. He watched them for a time as they slowly closed the distance to the small narrow spit of land he was standing on. They were running westward and fighting the tide until they were only a few hundred yards away from the beach. The fingers of the tracer rounds from high above on the cliff probed at the defenseless line of small boats. Machine gun fire opened up, rippled the water and peppered the landing craft. They were under heavy and accurate fire and taking casualties as they struggled westward through a rip tide and an angry, pounding surf.
Time seemed to stand still as the men on the small ships returned fire. Clearly, they were late to their target. Their destination appeared to be the narrow shale shelf under the high cliffs. But where would they go from there? The sheer vertical walls were at least a hundred feet high and appeared unassailable.
Finally, the nine landing craft turned toward the beach. They came in roughly abreast and slightly staggered. Johnny noticed four more craft hovering out to sea seemingly waiting for the initial nine to clear the beach. Some of them looked to be American DUKW amphibious vehicles. This ingenious design married a boat hull to the standard General Motors deuce-and-a-half truck to create a unique vehicle that could bring men and supplies from the water to anyplace on land.
The first LCA of the nine neared the beach and fired a rocket-propelled rope up toward the cliff. It fell short and the rope came crashing down on the sand. The ramp dropped from the front of the landing craft and men came pouring out. Johnny glanced at his watch. It was 0710 hours.
The same LCA moved in closer and fired another rocket-propelled rope ladder and this one held. Immediately, soldiers were scaling the rope and heading up toward the heights.
As more landing craft neared the shore, they too fired ropes up to the top of the cliff. Some landed to his left and others to his right. They covered a stretch of beach nearly 400 yards wide. Scruffy looking soldiers stormed out of the boats, avoided the water-filled shell craters and began to climb. Others added to the ropes already dangling from the cliff by firing hand-held rockets with attached ropes tipped by grapple hooks. Still others were assembling scaling ladders as they ascended the cliff face. Johnny couldn’t believe his eyes. They were scaling the precipitous cliff walls like spiders.
The Germans on the top of the cliff fired on the climbers. They also dropped concussion grenades into the mass of men at the base of the cliff. The soldiers returned fire. This counterfire, along with a barrage from two destroyers, maneuvering in close, gave the first climbers a chance to get over the top and establish a small bridgehead. The covering fire, however, did not prevent some of the soldiers from being killed or wounded by sporadic German fire. More than just a few bodies crashed back down to the narrow beach from their ropes and ladders.
Johnny stepped out of the small cave. A soldier, a grimy looking staff sergeant, carrying a machine gun immediately challenged him. He was wearing a Ranger tab on his sleeve. Johnny instinctively raised his hands over his head. The soldier shouldered his weapon and took aim at Johnny’s chest.
“I’m an American,” Johnny yelled over the din of gunfire and began to drop his hands.
The Ranger looked confused and motioned for Johnny to keep his hands up.
“I’m an American paratrooper,” Johnny yelled again.
“This way,” the Ranger motioned with his weapon. “Keep those hands up.”
Johnny locked his hands on his head and walked in the direction the staff sergeant had indicated. The soldier fell in step behind him. In a few moments they came to a group of officers huddled under the base of the cliff giving orders while other Rangers continued to send ropes up and over the cliff and began to climb them.
“Look what I found, Colonel,” the soldier prodded Johnny in the back and pushed him toward the officer. He was a large man with a map case and binoculars hung around his neck. He stared at Johnny for a moment and before Johnny could speak, said, “Why Sergeant, can’t you tell one of our own men from the Krauts?” He studied Johnny for a moment. “What outfit are you with, son?”
“Private John Kilroy, Five-oh-six,” Johnny snapped a quick salute and pointed to the Screaming Eagle shoulder flash on his left sleeve.
“Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder, Second Rangers,” the officer casually returned the salute. He seemed calm and very much in control despite the chaos around him. “What the hell happened to you, soldier? Where’s your gear?”
“Bottom of the Channel, sir. I got dropped into the water.”
Rudder shook his head and laughed. “You airborne guys are crazy. Stay right here and we’ll get you onto one of those LCAs taking our wounded back to the ship.”
Johnny interjected. “Sir, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to rejoin my outfit.”
Rudder paused and turned back to Johnny. “Fine, Private.” Then he looked at the sergeant.
“Sergeant, let’s get this soldier a weapon and some gear. He’s going to be our guest. Take him up the ladder after we secure the cliff. See that he gets back to his unit.” He turned back to Johnny.
“Like I said, you guys are crazy.”
Johnny snickered. He pointed up toward the hundreds of Army Rangers scaling the steep cliffs like ants on thin slippery ropes under enemy fire. “Sir, you think we’re crazy?”
Rudder’s mission was to silence six large 155-millimeter captured French artillery pieces deployed on Pointe-du-Hoc. From this vantage point, the large guns, with a range of ten miles, could interdict Utah and Omaha Beaches as well as the ships and landing craft off shore. It was the highest Allied priority to destroy these guns. Since the landside of the Pointe was heavily defended with bunkers and minefields, a sea borne attack was planned. The 2nd Rangers had been practicing this assault in England for months. After destroying the artillery pieces, they were to take up positions astride the coastal road between Grandcamp and Vierville, and deny its use to the Germans. Here they would remain until relieved by the 116th Infantry Regiment coming in from Omaha Beach.
The Rangers had 200 men up and over the cliff within fifteen minutes of landing. Thirty more lay dead or wounded at the base of the cliff. It was a marvelous tactical feat carried out under the most extreme and difficult circumstances. Once atop the cliffs the Rangers spread out quickly. The entire plateau was pockmarked with bomb craters and eerily resembled a moonscape. Rangers moved quickly and silently, without verbal orders. They were experts at fire and maneuver and were trained to use speed and stealth to make up for their lack of firepower.
The first order of business was to eliminate resistance against the Rangers still climbing so the Rangers on the Pointe cleared the cliff sides and overhangs of all opposition. The Germans grudgingly retreated toward the landside of Pointe-du-Hoc using the single exit road. Rangers pursued until they reached the casemates that held the long guns and detoured to destroy them. Much to their surprise, the guns were not there. They found only long telephone poles under camouflage netting used as decoys. At this news, the Rangers were ordered to move inland and continue to look for the guns.
The Germans never expected an assault from the sea and didn’t have enough soldiers to thwart the attack. As they withdrew toward the landside of the Pointe, they took up positions in bunkers and craters and harassed the Rangers moving inland. Ambushes flared up and had to be dealt with. Pockets of resistance formed and had to be cleaned out. The random isolation of these battles further delayed the advance southward toward the Normandy countryside.
The sergeant who had captured Johnny now took a personal interest in him. He retrieved an M-1 Garand rifle, ammo and a helmet from a dead Ranger and gave them to Johnny. They both then climbed to the top of the cliff on a tubular steel ladder. The action was still going strong when they reached the top. Johnny and the sergeant jumped in a crater from which they both began firing at German soldiers and snipers.
Another soldier, a first sergeant, jumped into the crater and addressed the staff sergeant. “Zack, we gotta take Second Platoon inland and block the road. What are you doing here?” He nodded toward Johnny.
“Sorry Len, but Big Jim got me baby-sitting this airborne guy. He wants back to his unit.”
Johnny answered quickly. “I don’t need a damned baby-sitter. Just show me the way out of here.” He was not about to be intimidated by these shabby looking Rangers.
“Calm down, son,” Len said. “Our mission comes first. We’re headed out that way so just tag along with us for now. We’ll get you on your way.” Len turned to his friend. “Zack, the guns ain’t here…just some long black poles. We gotta find them guns.”
With that Len jumped out of the crater and headed down the exit road followed by Zack and Johnny. They dodged and weaved through sporadic enemy fire until Len pulled up next to a bunker and called out for his platoon. Slowly and deliberately, Rangers began to appear on the sheltered side of the bunker. When he had about twenty men, Len took half and Zack took the other half and they made their way down both sides of the road, heading south toward the countryside. They used skillful covering fire and maneuver all the way down the road.
By the time the group reached the paved highway that ran perpendicular to the exit road, they had lost almost half their men to skirmishes along the way. Len deployed his remaining men to block the highway and decided to scout further south for the guns.
“Zack, follow me. Bring your friend,” Len ordered. “Let’s find out what we got up here.”
They moved quietly west along the paved road until they came across a sunken lane, with hedgerows on both sides, heading south and inland. Len led them a short distance down the lane and spoke to Johnny. “If your buddies are anywhere, they’re inland. Just keep heading south and you should run into them sooner or later. We’re going to scout a little further down this lane.”
Johnny was no longer keen on crossing Normandy in broad daylight but he nodded. The three men proceeded cautiously down the sunken lane until Len noticed some camouflage netting hung high on the other side of the hedgerow. He raised his index finger to his lips and crawled up the hedgerow to peek through. He could not believe what he saw.
“Zack, here they are! We found them. Here are those goddamn guns!” Len whispered loudly. Zack and Johnny climbed the hedgerow. Straight ahead were the five large artillery pieces they had been looking for on the Pointe. The guns sat silently in an orchard under camouflage with no artillerymen near them. Their deadly ammunition was stacked neatly in piles well behind the guns. At the other end of the field, well over 200 hundred yards away, were about a hundred German soldiers listening to an officer addressing them from atop a vehicle. It was a golden opportunity the fortunate Rangers needed to seize.
“Zack, you cover me. I’m going to take care of those guns. Watch the Krauts across the field. Open up on them if they make a move toward the guns.” Len handed Zack his Thompson and fished two thermite grenades from his pockets. “I only have two. There are five guns.”
Len needed Zack to cover him and Johnny quickly figured out he was the one that had to fetch the needed grenades. It was too long a trip back to the command post at the edge of Pointe-du-Hoc but Johnny had an idea.
“Do all you guys carry these grenades?”
Zack shook his head. “They only issued about ten per company.”
Johnny slid his M-1 rifle over to Zack. “Then some of your guys should have one. I’m going back to the roadblock.” He looked at Len. “Will three do?”
Len smiled. “Three is perfect. Hurry back. I’m not sure how long those Krauts will stay away from the guns.”
Johnny slipped out of the hedgerow and ran back up the sunken lane. An adrenaline rush from finding the guns fueled him. He reached the roadblock out of breath.
“Thermite grenades. We found the guns. I need three,” he gasped.
A few of the Rangers pulled grenades from their packs and Johnny stuffed three of them into his slash pockets.
“Hey, where did you come from?” Two soldiers stepped up to him wearing a Screaming Eagles patch.
Johnny was surprised to see other paratroopers. “Five-oh-six,” he answered.
“Five-oh-two,” one of them answered for both. “We dropped south of here last night. Got separated. Saw the Rangers and decided to join them. It’s crawling with Krauts south of here.”
“Good to know, thanks.” He slapped one of them on the shoulder. “We’ll catch up when I get back.” With that he took off down the highway.
When he got back to the hedgerow he handed the grenades to Len.
“I got two of them,” Len said. “These will take care of the other three.”
Johnny and Zack covered Len as he slipped down the other side of the hedgerow. The Germans were still on the opposite side of the orchard. The smell of melted steel was perceptible even over the smell of cordite that permeated the air. Len picked a big gun and slipped a thermite grenade into the traversing mechanism. He pulled the pin and the chemical reaction was instant. The extreme heat melted the metal, which began to flow in a molten stream fusing the gears irreparably. Len took care of the last two guns in turn and retreated back undiscovered.
“Hurry up, Len. Get out of there!” The three soldiers slid down the other side of the hedgerow smiling like kids who just got away with playing hooky from school.
“Didn’t you want to find your unit?” Zack asked when they returned to the roadblock.
“Changed my mind,” Johnny answered. “I think I’ll hang with you guys for awhile.”
“Glad to have you,” said Zack and Len at the same time.