A recommendation for your D-Day commemorative reading: S.L.A. Marshall’s brilliant 1960 account of the assault on Omaha Beach, based on notes he took as an official Army historian during the landings in Normandy.
To say that Marshall’s account is wrenching radically understates the case. He published it in the Atlantic Monthly as a corrective to what he saw as a sanitized history of D-Day promoted by Army historians and Hollywood producers who, quite reasonably, saw the day as an American victory. It was only natural that they would focus on success stories, as Marshall explains:
Unlike what happens to other great battles, the passing of the years and the retelling of the story have softened the horror of Omaha Beach on D Day. …
This happened because the Army historians who wrote the first official book about Omaha Beach, basing it on the field notes, did a calculated job of sifting and weighting the material. So saying does not imply that their judgment was wrong. Normandy was an American victory; it was their duty to trace the twists and turns of fortune by which success was won. But to follow that rule slights the story of Omaha as an epic human tragedy which in the early hours bordered on total disaster. On this two-division front landing, only six rifle companies were relatively effective as units. They did better than others mainly because they had the luck to touch down on a less deadly section of the beach. Three times that number were shattered or foundered before they could start to fight. Several contributed not a man or bullet to the battle for the high ground. But their ordeal has gone unmarked because its detail was largely ignored by history in the first place. The worst-fated companies were overlooked, the more wretched personal experiences were toned down, and disproportionate attention was paid to the little element of courageous success in a situation which was largely characterized by tragic failure.
The official accounts which came later took their cue from this secondary source instead of searching the original documents. Even such an otherwise splendid and popular book on the great adventure as Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day misses the essence of the Omaha story.
Of course today Ryan’s vision of the beaches has been supplanted by Steven Spielberg’s, to some extent a consequence of the corrective efforts of writers like Marshall. Consider a small chunk of his account of the experience of Able Company, 116th Infantry, 29th Division:
Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless. At Boat No. 2, Lieutenant Tidrick takes a bullet through the throat as he jumps from the ramp into the water. He staggers onto the sand and flops down ten feet from Private First Class Leo J. Nash. Nash sees the blood spurting and hears the strangled words gasped by Tidrick: "Advance with the wire cutters!" It's futile; Nash has no cutters. To give the order, Tidrick has raised himself up on his hands and made himself a target for an instant. Nash, burrowing into the sand, sees machine gun bullets rip Tidrick from crown to pelvis. From the cliff above, the German gunners are shooting into the survivors as from a roof top.
Captain Taylor N. Fellers and Lieutenant Benjamin R. Kearfoot never make it. They had loaded with a section of thirty men in Boat No. 6 (Landing Craft, Assault, No. 1015). But exactly what happened to this boat and its human cargo was never to be known. No one saw the craft go down. How each man aboard it met death remains unreported. Half of the drowned bodies were later found along the beach. It is supposed that the others were claimed by the sea.
Along the beach, only one Able Company officer still lives -- Lieutenant Elijah Nance, who is hit in the heel as he quits the boat and hit in the belly by a second bullet as he makes the sand. By the end of ten minutes, every sergeant is either dead or wounded. To the eyes of such men as Private Howard I. Grosser and Private First Class Gilbert G. Murdock, this clean sweep suggests that the Germans on the high ground have spotted all leaders and concentrated fire their way. Among the men who are still moving in with the tide, rifles, packs, and helmets have already been cast away in the interests of survival.
To the right of where Tidrick's boat is drifting with the tide, its coxswain lying dead next to the shell-shattered wheel, the seventh craft, carrying a medical section with one officer and sixteen men, noses toward the beach. The ramp drops. In that instant, two machine guns concentrate their fire on the opening. Not a man is given time to jump. All aboard are cut down where they stand.
By the end of fifteen minutes, Able Company has still not fired a weapon. … By the end of one hour, the survivors from the main body have crawled across the sand to the foot of the bluff, where there is a narrow sanctuary of defiladed space. There they lie all day, clean spent, unarmed, too shocked to feel hunger, incapable even of talking to one another.
Marshall also gives due time to the kind of heroism that helped win the day, lingering on the incredible case of Lieutenant Walter Taylor, who at one point led a small band of soldiers a full half-mile ahead of the beach—and the rest of the American landing force.
But on the whole, Marshall’s article illustrates something that was a theme throughout the American experience of fighting the Nazis: the Germans were typically a well prepared and tactically superior fighting force. They were beaten on the western front not so much by a better army, but by the overwhelming resources the United States could bring to bear—and by the individual valor of men like Taylor. For young American soldiers—at Omaha Beach, many were seeing combat for the first time—the experience was often one of tragedy and disaster.
You should read the whole thing.