In 1776, a group of men in Philadelphia did the unthinkable when they declared independence from Great Britain. These men risked everything for the freedoms we enjoy today. And, in the 243 years since, countless men and women have given their lives to protect those freedoms.
If you had to pick one day in that 243 year history that defines the sacrifices made for those freedoms, June 6th, 1944, better known as D-Day, would rank highest on most historians list. The carnage suffered that day to defeat tyranny and protect freedom was truly horrendous, as the firsthand accounts of the soldiers who lived it prove.
On D-day, more than 156,000 troops, made up of mostly American, British, and Canadian service men, converged on a single 50 mile stretch of coastline to commence the Normandy invasion known as “Operation Overlord.”
The bloodiest of all the landing areas was Omaha Beach, roughly 3.5 miles long. This section of beach was surrounded by sheer cliffs and heavily defended. More than 2,000 U.S. troops would turn up dead, wounded, or missing along this single stretch of beach.
In total, on this single day, more than 4,000 U.S., British, and Canadian soldiers died and another 6,000 or so were injured and missing on the Normandy Beaches. And historians agree, the true number may never be known.
From the very beginning, the Omaha Beach landing looked doomed. Only 2 of the 29 amphibious tanks made it ashore. The aerial bombardment did little damage to the German fortified positions before and during the landing. Weather and a very rough surf caused all kinds of chaos. German machine gun fire basically wiped out the first wave of soldiers landing on the beach. The few survivors from that initial wave tell a nightmarish story.
“When we got to the beach, I said to one of my men, Cpl. Meyers, ‘If there’s a hell, this has got to be it,'” recalled American Army Sgt. Ray Lambert. “And it was about a minute later that he (Cpl. Meyers) got a bullet in his head.”
Colonel George Taylor led the first wave of troops onto Omaha Beach. What met Col. Taylor on that beach was a carnage hard to imagine. Taylor and his men waded about 50 yards under intense fire just to get to the beach. Taylor later said, “It was a helpless feeling wading while being shot at.”
They waded passed Higgins boats wrecked and floating aimlessly in the surf, through water colored a sickly pink from blood and body parts – including arms, legs, heads, hands, guts and many other horrors – that all littered the water and the beach, all the while enduring the howls of the injured screaming for help.
While walking upright to the beach, Taylor came under intense fire and threw himself to the ground. “He laid down on his stomach and started crawling towards shore,” recalls Private Warren Rulien – while chuckling at the memory of Taylor crawling. Taylor didn’t crawl for very long. He knew that to survive, he needed to get his men moving. He stood back up and started moving west.
Major Charles Tegtmeyer, Taylor’s regimental surgeon, was hunkered down, catching his breath when he saw Taylor approaching and dragging an entourage of men, recalls Tegtmeyer, “He passed us walking erect, followed by his staff and yelled for me to bring my group along.”
As Colonel Taylor kept directing troops, he again started drawing the attention of the Germans. “For Christ’s sake, Colonel,” Tegtmeyer cried, “get down, you’re drawing fire!”
Taylor looked over at the doctor and grinned, “There are only two kinds of men on this beach, those who are dead and those who are about to die. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The bloodbath was so severe that U.S. Lt. General Omar Bradley, who commanded the Omaha Beach forces that day, almost abandoned the operation. In his memoir written 40 years later, Gen. Omar Bradley, would write, “Omaha Beach was a nightmare.”
It is hard to say exactly how Taylor’s leadership impacted the outcome of the events of that day on that bloody beach. His actions were most definitely significant. But we do know this for sure, Taylor and the men who followed him eventually cleared the only exit off the beach during the earliest parts of the invasion. The only way for allied soldiers to get off the beach and escape death.
On that day, June 6th, 1944, Taylor exemplified what you want in a leader, someone who can look critically at a given situation, while under fire, and coolly galvanize a bewildered mob into a coordinated fighting force.
Colonel Taylor did it on Omaha Beach.
Our founding fathers did the same 243 years ago when they galvanized a loose confederation of states (a mob), declared independence, and became a true fighting force for freedom.
Let us not forget their sacrifices and all those since, as we celebrate the 4th of July!
Be safe out there….