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“One man with courage makes a majority.”
Andrew Jackson (1767 - 1845)
Johnny Kilroy went 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 blackish sea with his 130-pound load. Under this extreme burden, it would only take seconds to sink like a rock with no chance of escape.
First came the reserve chute since it was easy to unbuckle. With it went the M-1 Garand in its Griswold case that he had jammed behind his reserve chute. 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 get cut just above the water so his parachute wouldn’t settle on top of him and keep him submerged. Then he quickly cut the straps on his ammo bandoliers and they dropped into the sea. 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! With his left hand he began pulling the heavy Gammon grenades from 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 safety knife. When he found the ring and jerked it the vest inflated with a small controlled explosion of air. He cut loose his musette bag as he approached the water and then 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 leave the bottom but not by much. He had neutral buoyancy at best and had to lose some 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 trench knife. It was razor sharp and 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 from the depth. 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 decided, he would find out. His family had a right to know how he died. With so much going on in the dark skies and shadowy waters around Normandy this day, too many families would never know the circumstances in which they would lose loved ones. At least he could fill in the blanks about what happened to the brave crew of the C-47 named Buzz Buggy.
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 keep in mind he was disembarking on a fortified enemy shore and if not careful, he could be killed or taken prisoner. He had no food, 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 here 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 cold 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 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 big naval guns over the horizon. Each salvo, sounding like a huge thump, sent 2000 pound naval 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 at 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 fighting the tide and running westward 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. As time went on, their destination appeared to be the narrow shale shelf under the high cliffs. But where would they go from there? The 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 easily bring men and supplies from the water to anyplace on land they were needed. This indicated to Johnny these were probably Americans.
The first LCA of the nine abreast 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 first 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 and communicating on their radios. The other soldiers on the shore 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. Johnny thought he must have looked like a drowned rat. “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 with the war correspondent 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?”
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