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2014, Aaron Elson






Omaha Beach Armageddon

Chuck Hurlbut

    Chuck Hurlbut of Ithaca, N.Y., is a veteran of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion, which was assigned to clear obstacles on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was interviewed for a documentary narrated by Dan Rather in 1994, so a part of his story may appear familiar.

2014, Aaron Elson

    We’d waited so long. Here was the big day, and we were attached to the First Division, which is one of the best divisions in the Army. We thought, "Geez, we must be pretty good for them to pick us to accompany them." There were a lot of mixed feelings.

    We’re in the boat. We rendezvous, and we’re set on our route. And it’s about a hundred miles; they said it will take a few hours. The officers said, "Try to get some sleep," but you couldn’t.

    Late that night we had a supper. Pretty good food. It was an English ship. They knocked themselves out. Then a bunch of us, old buddies, were in a little room on the ship, and we were having some coffee – they made all the coffee you could ever want – and a bunch of officers looked in. They said, "Can we join you?"

    "Sure. Come on in."

    So they joined us, and you never realized they were officers. We all became American guys. We talked about movies, automobiles and girlfriends. Anything but war. And everybody had some stories to tell. It was just a way of relieving tension, concentrating on something else. And those officers needed it just as much as we did.

    Then we went up on deck, but it was dark. You couldn’t see much. All you knew was that there were thousands of boats all around you. You could hear things. Bullhorns. And someplace you could ear a guitar being played. It carries across the water.

    Early in the morning, we were told to get ready. Not many guys showed up for breakfast, but the British couldn’t do enough for us. "How do you want your eggs?" They’d do them special, up, down, whatever you wanted. They couldn’t do enough for us as far as cooking, and they’re the world’s worst cooks. We had lots of coffee, juice. So those that felt like it had breakfast.

    Right after that, some orders came down, "Start getting ready for your trip." In the head, which is the washroom, the guys started shaving, showering, combing their hair. One guy’s going crazy, he couldn’t find any aftershave lotion. You’d think we were going on a weekend pass. I and a lot of my buddies had little goatees, and we’d take five minutes and make sure they were all just right.

    We’d gotten all new o.d.s and stuff way back at Weymouth, and we’d never taken them off, so we’re all dressed. But now we had to put on our field jacket. And then these impregnated coveralls; they would stand by themselves they were so stiff. They were impregnated to resist gas. Then on top of that a bandolier of bullets. Your gas mask. An inflatable life belt. Your backpack with your mess kit and some rations and a shovel. Your steel helmet, you made sure it was fastened. And your rifle; we all put condoms over the end of the rifle to keep the water out.

    Everybody had to carry a bag of explosives. I had fuse lighters. Another guy would have a bag of C-2 pellets or compound. Everybody had a bag to carry.

    Well, you’ve got fifty, sixty pounds of equipment, you could hardly move.

    I’m over someplace, straddling something, all weighed down, and I pull out some photographs of the family and I look at them. Eisenhower’s letter, I read that again. A guy taps me on the shoulder. It’s my good, good buddy, and he says "Look." And he opens up and here’s the wildest, gaudiest necktie I’ve ever seen in my life, and we started roaring with laughter. Somebody from home had sent it to him, and I remember him saying, "I’m gonna wear that sonofabitch on D-Day." What could they do to him, court-martial him?

    So we had quite a laugh about that, chatted a little bit. Then somebody yelled, "Get up on deck!" Then we just threw our arms around each other, still laughing, and we waddled up to the deck.

    The guys had all gathered along the rail, the different groups, and we just kidded each other, wisecracked, got a lot of addresses. Wished everybody good luck. Then we went down the cargo net. We had practiced that, and no matter how many times you practice it it’s always dangerous. The water was so choppy, the assault craft would bang up against the side of the ship and then drift away, and they couldn’t keep it there. Sometimes you were laying spreadeagled looking down at the water, then it would let up and you’d straighten up again.

    As far as I know, we all made it down into the assault craft, an LCVP [landing craft vehicles personnel], which holds about 30 men. And right in the center is a big rubber raft full of explosives. So we get situated all around the rubber raft. And in the back, the stern, is where the guy steers it, he’s a coxswain, and there were two of them. I’m pretty sure they were Coast Guard men. They’re gonna steer this thing in to the beach.

    H Hour is 6:30. We’re to be there at 6:33. It’s about a two-hour run. So it was around 3 o’clock in the morning. We were ten to twelve miles out in the Channel.

    Our boat pulled away once it was loaded up and we went to another area and circled, awaiting other craft to line up with us. Then somebody, someplace decided they were lined up and he gave a signal and we took off, heading for the beach.

    About this time the big guns open up. The big battleships are behind us. The noise, unbelievable noise. And the flash, we lit up like daylight with big orange flashes from the guns, and the noise, my God. These are big guns. And they’re presumably shelling the beach ahead of us. We heard some bombers go over, and presumably they are bombing the beach. And as we proceed, we pass a big flat barge full of rockets, and all of a sudden these rockets, phsheew, phsheew, phsheew, thousands and thousands of rockets head for the beach. And you began to realize, this is gonna be easy. How in the world can anyone survive what they’re receiving there? There’s going to be nobody alive when we get there. That was the attitude.

    We’re still going along, and all of a sudden we pull alongside this LSM [landing ship mechanized], the ones that carried the tanks. And we couldn’t believe it, because we’re still quite a ways out, but all of a sudden they start letting the tanks off. The tanks disappear. You’d think the guy would know something’s wrong here. Another one. Straight down. Unbelievable. I always thought that the commander of that ship, he got scared, confused or something, he said, "This is far enough for me. Get ’em off." That was what my feeling was.

    But as we passed, the guys started bobbing up to the surface, floating like corks, screaming and yelling. I thought, "Why don’t we stop and pull them into our boats?" We just went right by them. Right then I saw that compassion is not part of war. You’ve got a mission to do, nothing can interrupt it. And as heartbroken as you felt for those guys, you couldn’t stop. Other boats were assigned to rescue them. Our mission was to get to the beach and do our job. Nothing could distract us. So we went right by them.

    The shelling continued, and as we got nearer the beach, a wave of infantry was just ahead of us, they hit at H-Hour, 6:30, from the First Infantry Division. They were supposed to keep the snipers down while we do our work. That was the plan.

    Bit in war plans never go right. So when we get in there – our coxswain was very good, he took us right in, the water was only about ankle deep where we got off. There are other cases where they let them off way out and they just drowned, with all this equipment. But we got in good, right in the midst of the obstacles.

    Just prior to the ramp coming down we could hear the machine guns hitting the ramp, we said, "Hey, something’s going on here. We’re not supposed to get this."

    The ramp went down, and we all got off. The raft got off. And the first thing I did – the craziest thing – I took my rifle and I aimed at a pillbox and I fired. The bullet happened to be a tracer, and I could follow it. I hit that damn pillbox. Why I did that I don’t know, it was an impulse I couldn’t control, I just had to do it, I can’t explain it.

    It was the only shot I fired all day.

    The rubber raft was right behind us, so I grabbed a tow rope and started pulling. The raft was full of all our explosives, and I wanted to get it over to where we could use them on the obstacles. And as I pulled it I found it getting heavier. I look around, there’s three bodies on it. Two were face down, we’re pretty sure who they were. The other guy was face up, I know who he was. That was Charles Burton. And the two guys face down, I’m almost positive and a lot of my buddies have confirmed this, that it was probably John Spinelli and Vince DeAngelis, both two Auburn [N.Y.] boys.

    So I’m pulling, and all of a sudden a mortar comes over, hits the raft and the whole goddamn thing blows up. I remember seeing thick black smoke and debris flying, and hearing a loud bang, but I guess it blacked me out, and I somersaulted. Next thing I know I’m on my hands and knees, spitting blood, I have the worst headache you can imagine, and my ears are ringing.

    Well, there go all our explosives. I saw a bunch of guys not far away, and I got over to them. An officer was there. He said, "Look, we’ve lost our explosives. We have nothing to work with. It looks like it’s every man for himself. Try to make the beach. We’ll have to come back later in the day and do our job." So everybody took off, and we soon became separated. I was soon all by myself.

    On the way in, you would go from one obstacle, wait awhile, look around, to another obstacle, all the time getting closer and closer to the dunes. And on the way in I stumbled across this guy. He was one of my buddies, Joe Milkovic from Buffalo. He was bigger than I was, I wasn’t too big a guy, and I knew I could never carry him. But I knew if I left him there he was gonna drown, because the tide was coming in. He had been hit in the leg, and you could see the bone through the flesh. I don’t think he even recognized me or knew who I was. But I thought of everything I could do. I finally ended up getting behind him and putting my hands under his armpits. In the sand I could dig in and push myself and pull him. It was exhausting. I wasn’t making much progress. And I just hoped – I knew the Germans saw me – I said, "Whoever’s looking at me, I hope they have pity and realize what I’m trying to do, and go shoot someplace else. Let me alone." Evidently it worked, because nobody shot at me.

    All of a sudden a tank pulls up beside me, and the guy in the turret looks down, then he jumps down, unhesitating. And he said something like, "You’re in trouble here, let me help you." And he grabbed an arm and I grabbed another arm, and the two of us could drag him up to the sand dunes. And he ran back to his tank. I don’t know his name. But fate sent that guy to me. I don’t know his name, but boy, he sure helped.

    I could see Joe needed a medic bad. I had given him what sulfa I had, but there was nobody around, we were the only two within yards. Maybe we were the first two to reach that point that day. But finally I could see a medic – they all had a big red cross on their helmet – and I got him over here and he looked at Joe and said it was pretty bad. I think he gave him a shot of morphine. He said, "The best thing to do is leave him here. We’re supposed to have an aid station forming close by and there’s a hospital ship due to come in, and we’ll get him on that."

    Right after that, I’m sitting there wondering what the hell am I gonna do; the sand dune is about three feet high, and I’m sitting against it. It gave you protection from small arms fire, but not from mortars. So I’m crouched up there, shaking, cold, freezing to death, you’re soaking wet, wondering what the hell, what’s going on? What happened to our plan? Trying to make some reason out of this chaos. And all I could see was chaos, catastrophe. Boats burning, smoking, dead men all along the water’s edge, floating bodies. Craft getting hit. It was awful, awful, awful. I said, "Oh, Jesus, something’s not going right here." And during that time this guy goes staggering along about fifty, sixty yards from me, staggering, I don’t know how the hell he was walking. His backpack was hanging down his back, his clothes were in shreds, one arm dangled, it must have been hit. And he looked towards me, I don’t know why but somehow he looked back towards me and half his face was gone. And something said, "I know that guy." It was his stature, his walk, something about him. I said, "I know that guy."

    And when he turned, through all that blood and gore, I was able to see the necktie.

    I’m petrified. I try to shout to him, I didn’t have any voice. I try to motion, I couldn’t move. The only thing that worked were my eyes. I just kept watching, watching, and he finally turned away, staggered, staggered, and disappeared into a cloud of smoke, and that’s the last I ever saw of him. And I lay there and I just cried like a baby for a while.

    Then finally I said, "Well, Jesus, this is gonna do no good. I’ve got to try to find some of my guys and try to put some order to something here." Off in the distance, to my right, I could see a congregation of guys and a big Red Cross flag, and I said, "Geez, that might be a place I should go. I’ll try to get down there and see what’s going on." Because there seemed to be a lot of guys congregated in that area. So there’s one tank not too far away, burning. I decided I’ll make it to the tank. I made it to the tank, sat down behind it. Pretty well protected now. And this gave me another chance, a few minutes, to look out at this confusion all around me. I had a cigarette. I smoked back in those days. There were some other vehicles between me and this congregation. I’d pick one out, make it to that, sit and rest a while. One was a jeep. The other one was another tank. The tank had smoke pouring out. I didn’t want to go up and look to see if there were dead guys. I just hoped they got out. And there’s dead bodies all over the place, all along the water, dead. A lot of knocked out vehicles, overturned landing craft. Just chaos.

    I made it to this congregation, and there was quite a bunch of guys there. Now the sand dune has petered out to nothing, but some big cliffs have taken over. It’s the far western end of the beach. Omaha Beach just sort of abruptly ends, and these cliffs come right down to the water. For that little section there, these cliffs were giving quite a bit of safety. And there were hundreds of guys crowded behind it. Some were bandaged, some were wounded, some with their arm in a sling. But they were all dazed, confused. Some didn’t have helmets. Some didn’t have rifles. You couldn’t imagine, these are American soldiers who a few hours ago were full of spirit and energy and here they are so disarrayed and astonished and stunned they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And in the flat area there were dozens and dozens and dozens of stretchers. It was a pickup aid station. And it seemed like every third guy on a stretcher was one of my buddies, and I said, "Well, that’s why I couldn’t find anybody back there. They’re all down here; they’ve all been wounded." And those that recognized me, I would shake their hand and wish them well and say, "You’re going home, Joe, it’s good," and all this. Some recognized me and some didn’t. Those that did said, "Be sure and tell my wife, tell my mother I’m OK," and all this stuff. I helped – a lot of us helped – carry them out to the hospital ship which was just offshore. They were carrying them piggyback, in their arms, on stretchers.

    This is still early in the morning, maybe eight, nine o’clock. But they’d already set up an aid station for the wounded, and they were trying to get them back to the hospital ship which would rush them back to England.

    There was a big Red Cross sign, and evidently the Germans recognized the Red Cross. They’d lob one in once in a while, but not a heavy concentration. They acknowledged the Red Cross flag. So it’s sort of a semi safe area.

    I finally found a rifle. There were hundreds of them to select from, all over, because I’d lost my rifle when the rubber raft exploded. And all I could think was, "Boy, I’m gonna catch hell for losing my rifle." I finally did get one but it was all full of sand so I had to sit down and disassemble it and clean it all up. Then I spotted two or three guys I knew. They weren’t from my company but they were from my battalion and I roughly knew who they were, so I went over and joined them. And one of them was a sergeant, so I thought, now at least we’ve got some leadership. And his advice was, "Stay close, guys, our instructions are not to leave the beach, we’re to stay here, and chances are at low tide in the afternoon we’re going back out and do the job clearing these obstacles. That’s a hell of a thing to look forward to." But he was right, that’s what happened.

    The Omaha Beach invasion was a coordinated effort by the allied forces.  The ocean water off the coast of Normandy, France was the setting for one of the most crucial offenses in World War II.  The D-Day objective involved thousands of soldiers, a number of battleships, destroyers, cruisers and other forms of boats.  The heavy seas and rough water off Normandy made it difficult and it was not like being on a luxury yacht charter for the soldiers and sailors involved.  However, Omaha Beach was successful in gaining a foothold in France, which led to victory in Europe for the allies.

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