By George Morris
They all knew it was coming. It was the reason they were in Great Britain, training for the great invasion of Western Europe. On April 6, all leave had been cancelled for the invasion troops. It was getting closer. But when would it be?
Nobody knew. Even as the towns, woods and roads of southern England filled with more and more men and machines, many of the troops had no inkling of how close the invasion was.
“We were one unit in that town, and we were not allowed to go just any place we wanted to,” said Mike Simpson, a medic with the 4th Infantry Division. “So, we didn’t know the magnitude of what was going on.”
The other big question — where — had been decided a year before, but that, too, was top secret information. Sims Gauthier commanded an LCC boat that would direct other landing craft to the beach. In April, he learned that the 4th Division would attack a section of Normandy at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula. It is now known by its code name: Utah Beach.
Being in possession of such sensitive information made Gauthier nervous. He knew that the posters about the enemy having ears everywhere were no exaggeration.
“Here I was, a little ol’ ensign, going in these meetings where you had admirals and generals and all commanders of big units,” Gauthier said. “I was just concerned about the whole thing getting out. … We were handed the orders about a week before we left Dartmouth on the third of June. I had no place to even lock them up. I just put the orders under my mattress and slept on them.”
Word did not leak out. An elaborate Allied deception helped convince the German high command that the invasion would take place at Calais, 150 miles to the northwest.
Training intensified. In early May at Slapton Sands, England, the 4th Division simulated the Utah Beach assault. It was disastrous. The German Navy sunk two large landing ships and killed more than 700 men.
As June approached, troops were moved to marshaling areas. Tanks, trucks, field artillery and jeeps were loaded aboard landing craft. For those involved, it was obvious that time was short.
“That was a very strenuous thing for all of us, because we didn’t know when or where it was going to happen,” said John Wesley Alford, an infantry sergeant from Mount Hermon, Louisiana.
“They had us penned up like a herd of cattle, and they did give us this much information: They said, ‘The day the invasion will be, we will fix you a steak supper with all the trimmings.’
“When they called supper that night, they had everything out. Well, we didn’t get too hungry then.
Invasion stripes were painted on aircraft to minimize friendly fire accidents. (National Archives)
The wait, whether on land, aboard ship or in an airplane, was difficult.
“You’d sit around with friends and talk, play cards, whatever. But you knew where their minds were and they knew where your mind was,” Alford said. “It was on the next day. You didn’t know if you were going to get to land — or if you were even going to get to the ship.
“I’m a real Christian now, but at that time I wasn’t much of a Christian,” said Robert Duncan, of Crowley, Louisiana, a second-class torpedo man aboard the destroyer USS Thompson. “When we got ready to make the invasion, our skipper told us in case we were captured, just give our name and serial number. Then I realized there was a good possibility I may die. That’s why I say there are no atheists in wartime.”
“I remember having a few beers on the evening of June 5 at the noncommissioned officer’s club on the base, not realizing that the big day was next,” said Ralph Sims, tail-gunner on a B-17. “Before bedtime, the word went out: ‘This is it! Get your gear and report for briefing.’ I don’t remember the exact hour, but I know I wished I’d had a little sleep and fewer beers.”
Sleep was in short supply for everyone. The weather, which had pushed the invasion back by one day, remained far from ideal. Squalls bounced paratroopers and glider troops in the night skies. Winds whipped up the channel, making infantrymen seasick.
The rough seas were dangerous. Soldiers had to climb on rope ladders from troop ships to board the smaller landing craft, which pitched up and down on the waves.
“You had to time your jump off that rope ladder when the landing craft was coming up to you rather than going away from you,” said Leonce Haydel, of Gramercy, Louisiana, an Army engineer. “Some people got pretty badly hurt trying to transfer from one ship to the other. You had a lot of broken legs and things like that.”
They were being sent to attack coastal fortifications that had been three years in the making. For many of the troops coming across the Channel, especially Americans, this would be their first time in combat. A great number were teen-agers who a year before had been in high school. Now, they were heading through wind and waves toward an epic battle.
One of them was Murphy Whitmore, an 18-year-old Simmesport, Louisiana native who had joined the Navy a year before and become a medic. Heading toward Omaha Beach, an incident after his enlistment seemed significant.
“We were all standing in line, 17-year-olds, no clothes on, looked like a bunch of scarecrows,” Whitmore said. “One of these Navy doctors asked this old commander that was the last one to give his approval, “Commander, what in the hell are we doing with these? You mean this is what we’re going to win a war with?’ The old commander said, ‘Yes, this is exactly what it takes. They don’t have enough sense to be frightened.’
“I don’t know if he was right or not. I was scared as hell, I’ll tell you that.”
Airborne troops prepare to board gliders. (National Archives)