Reared as a pacifist by my Forverts-reading mother, I was never permitted to play with a toy gun. It wasn’t until after I was drafted by the Army on November 15, 1942 — two days after I had submitted my master’s thesis on Eugene Victor Debs — that I first encountered the military and learned how to handle a rifle.
I quickly became adept with an M-1 rifle and, to my utter amazement, was designated the sharpshooter of my Army unit, the 616th Ordnance Ammunition Company.
After long months of training in Kentucky, Tennessee and on the beautiful beaches of South Wales in Britain, I soon realized that we were being prepared for the invasion of Western Europe. By June 1, 1944, we were in the environs of Plymouth, England, part of the 5th Engineer Special Brigade, otherwise known as Combined Operations. We were advised that our unit would be landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, three hours after the first infantryman had landed — or “H+3” in military parlance.
We were to be carried across the English Channel aboard LST 376, a heavy Landing Ship Tank laden with Army trucks, military supplies and hundreds of soldiers. After an aborted start on June 4 because of stormy weather, we left Plymouth the following day, surrounded by naval vessels of every size and description. Throughout the daylight hours, our heaving, windswept LST — towing a barge-like “rhino-ferry” behind it — lumbered slowly across the English Channel.
As our Allied armada made its way through the rough waters, my commanding officer suddenly approached me on the heaving deck and hurled a totally unexpected order at me. Since there was no chaplain on board our LST, he was appointing me acting chaplain for the day, and directed me to conduct religious services for all, that very afternoon. To carry out the order, I called upon the help of a Catholic and a Protestant: one read to the gathered troops the Lord’s Prayer, the other a relevant section from the Army prayer book.
In the short space of time allotted to me, I decided to offer a sermon based upon the efforts of the courageous Jewish fighters in the previous year’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. From reading the weekly New Republic magazine, which reached me irregularly overseas, I had learned about this comparatively recent revolt long before the general public was aware of it. Surrounded by ships stretching to the distant horizons, I looked into the anxious eyes of men who knew not what to expect the next day on the beaches of Normandy. I sought to reassure them as best I could.
I reminded them that the Warsaw Jews, imprisoned within their ghetto, had finally revolted against the mighty Nazi army with a minuscule number of rifles and machine guns. Despite the overwhelming number of powerful German cannons, machine guns and howitzers, despite the huge, lumbering tanks that mowed them down street by street, the Jews of Warsaw fought to the last woman and man.
At the least, I reasoned, they could be role models for us to emulate. In sharp contrast to the ghetto fighters, I reminded my fellow GIs, we would land on Omaha Beach supported by the greatest array of armament, ships and planes ever assembled by any one group of nations in the history of humankind.
Did I calm or strengthen any of those nervous soldiers? I don’t know to this day.
In the dark, early morning hours of June 6, the ship’s engines suddenly stopped and the anchor was dropped. We had reached our designated point near Normandy. A few miles ahead, in pitch-black darkness, lay our ultimate destination: Omaha Beach. We began the laborious process of transferring trucks laden with our companies’ supplies from the LST to the rhino-ferry, which would serve as our landing craft.
But — fortunately for those of us in the 616th Ordnance Ammunition Company — a number of unexpected mishaps delayed our arrival on Omaha Beach far beyond “H+3.” Much later in the day, we finally spotted the murderous beach.
Across its length and breadth, above and below the high-tide level of now-turbulent waters, the Germans had built every type of death-dealing obstacle known to humankind. Along the entire crest of the cliffs looming over the beach, the Germans had constructed several levels of cement-lined trenches. It all added up to a miniature Maginot Line.
The orientation lectures we had received just before we shoved off for France never adequately described the immense overhanging cliffs just beyond Omaha Beach. They reminded those of us from the New York City area of the towering Palisades lining the western shore of the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge. From the commanding heights, the Germans decimated the waves of GIs who landed on the beach in the early hours of D-Day.
The Germans’ 88mm gun emplacements, nestled into the cliffs, also fired away with great precision at Allied transport ships. After observing German firepower set ablaze the rhino-ferry to our right and another to our left, I started shedding clothes from my overweight backpack — fearing that we would be hit next and that I would be forced to swim to shore to stay alive. The most valuable items I threw overboard were my size-14 socks, an extremely rare item in Uncle Sam’s army. Logistically, it made no sense whatsoever, but who, at this critical moment, was sensible?
As our luck would have it, our rhino-ferry was not hit, and we did not land on the beach until late on D-Day. By then, our destroyers had pinpointed and destroyed German armaments and our GIs had managed to infiltrate and capture the trenches on the top crests. The next morning, we set up the first American ammunition depot on Omaha Beach.
By December 1944, after Omaha Beach had been closed down, my Army unit was transferred to an ancient fort in the once-busy French port of Cherbourg. Once again, we were handling a steady flow of ammunition from the United States to our fighting forces on distant front lines.
And so went the war. In early May 1945, while our team from the 616th Ordnance Ammunition Company was playing baseball against another Army unit, I broke my right ankle while sliding into home plate. But I scored the winning run.
Bernard Bellush is a contributing editor to the Forward.