FORT MEADE, Md. — As the sun rose on Utah Beach June 6, 1944, the explosions were deafening.
“There was all kinds of fire coming down on us,” said then-Cpl. Herman Zeitchik, who served with the 42nd Field Artillery Battalion, 4th Infantry Division. He was hunkered down in a landing craft with about 30 other Soldiers.
When the ramp went down, the first few to step off ended up in deep water and their heavy rucksacks pulled them under. Some Soldiers drowned, Zeitchik said.
He was about the 10th to step off the ramp and found himself in shoulder-deep water, struggling to get ashore and keep his carbine dry. His holstered .45-caliber pistol was underwater.
“I dragged one GI ashore,” Zeitchik said.
The Soldier had stumbled on the uneven sand and gone down. Zeitchik grabbed hold of his rucksack and pulled him up.
Posts had been placed in the water near the shore and Germans had fastened dynamite to them. As groups of GIs waded toward these posts, the Germans watched from defensive positions and pushed down their plungers. The detonations bloodied the water.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Zeitchik said. “I got on the beach as fast as I could.”
Howitzers reach shore
As bullets whizzed past him, Zeitchik looked for any cover he could find.
“I did my best to get into some kind of cutout on the beach,” he explained.
He raised his head from the depression and looked around, but could not recognize anyone. The entire beach was mass confusion. All the helmets looked the same, he said.
It took him a while to locate other members of his platoon. Finally, he hooked up with his first sergeant and lieutenant.
Zeitchik told his lieutenant he never had the chance to fire his pistol in training and was hesitant to pull the trigger now since the weapon was waterlogged.
“I don’t know whether it will fire or not,” he told his lieutenant.
The lieutenant curtly said, “Give it to me!”
“I gave it to him and he started shooting at the Germans.”
The Germans were firing from foxholes and well-prepared defensive positions.
“They were lucky,” Zeitchik said.
But not for long. Soon other members of Zeitchik’s unit drove 3/4-ton trucks ashore pulling 105 mm howitzers.
Zeitchik helped ready one of the howitzers and they began firing at the German defensive positions.
Meanwhile, Pvt. John Nelson with the 1st Engineer Special Brigade was approaching the beach in a Higgins boat. As other Soldiers went down the front of the landing craft’s ramp, Nelson was anxious and stepped off the side. He disappeared beneath the waves into an underwater bomb crater.
“I went down 10, or 12 feet,” Nelson said. “I had to be pulled out by one of my sergeants.”
Staff Sgt. Schultz saw Nelson go underwater and jumped in after him. Schultz lost his rifle doing it.
Ironically, in England, Schultz had lectured his Soldiers about holding onto their M-1 no matter what happened, Nelson said. “Whatever you do, hold on to this piece,” Schultz had emphasized to his Soldiers. “Before the day is over, you’re going to need it.”
“First thing he did was jump in after me and lose it,” Nelson said. “Poor Sergeant Schultz.”
As soon as Nelson made it to shore, he rushed over to a 4-foot concrete seawall. He crouched behind the wall for a short period, but said most of the opposition on the beach had been wiped out by that time.
“So we just went over the wall and headed for the timber,” he recalled.
As the engineers entered the tree line, they encountered German small-arms fire.
“You could hear them jabbering. You could smell them,” Nelson said of the Germans. “Their cigarettes is what gave them away.”
The American GIs smoked mostly Camels, or Lucky Stripes, Nelson explained, but the German tobacco smelled much different.
The engineers dug fighting positions into the tree line and remained there for a few days before moving off toward the hedgerows and Saint-Lo, Nelson said.
With howitzers and tanks onshore, it had only taken the 4th Infantry Division about an hour to clear most German opposition from the beach.
Once Zeitchik’s howitzer had eliminated German defensive positions in his sector, he began hand-carrying maps to other batteries of the 42nd FA He had brought maps of Normandy ashore in a tube.
“One of my duties was to take care of the maps to see that the gun batteries got the maps,” Zeitchik said.
He and the rest of his unit were soon on their way to hook up with 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers who had jumped during the night into the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
“Our job was to get to the 82nd Airborne,” Zeitchik said. “They had to be relieved.”
Utah Beach was considered the most successful of the five allied landings that morning with only 197 U.S. Soldiers killed and 60 missing in action.
To the east, Omaha Beach was proving to be more difficult.
The Germans had strong fortifications on high bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. Soldiers of the 1st Infantry “Big Red One” and 29th Infantry divisions who made it ashore through the 4-foot waves were pinned down on the beach until Rangers scaled the cliffs and destroyed the bunkers.
U.S. casualties on Omaha Beach that day numbered 552 killed in action, with 2,766 wounded and another 1,896 missing in action.
Cpl. Clyde Gindlesperger landed on Omaha Beach June 16 with First U.S. Army’s 504th Air Defense Artillery Battalion. Even after 10 days, a few burned out half-tracks and tanks were still on the beach.
Details of Soldiers were burying the dead on the bluffs above the beach, Gindlesperger said, in what would eventually become the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
He helped set up 40 mm anti-aircraft guns on top of the bluff to defend caches of ammunition and fuel on the beach. He and his fellow Soldiers shot down two German aircraft during the two weeks they were stationed on the bluffs.
Pvt. Robert Levine of the 358th Heavy Weapons Battalion, 90th Infantry Division, came ashore on Utah Beach June 10, or D+4. His job was to fire 81 mm mortars.
“In Normandy, without the mortars, they would have been in trouble,” Levine said of U.S. forces, explaining that mortars were key in clearing the hedgerows of Normandy where Germans were dug in.
During the battle for Hill 122 near Forest de Montcastre in Normandy, a grenade hit near Levine’s foxhole and injured him. One of Guerring’s elite paratroopers then swooped in and captured him.
That night, U.S. artillery barrages hit the German encampment where Levine was being held prisoner. He was critically injured and rushed to a German field hospital where a German doctor by the name of Edgar Voll saved his life. Years later, Levine said he was visiting Europe where he met Voll’s family and they welcomed him into their home.
Levine, 94, and Zeitchik, 95, visited the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., June 6 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of when they helped launch “Operation Overlord” to liberate Europe.