D-Day is to World War II what Gettysburg is to the Civil War… at least from the American perspective. I could argue, with much justification, that Guadalcanal and the Bulge should occupy that place… but, with good reasons, the mountain of books focused all or in part on June 6, 1944 outweighs the other subjects. Yes, movies catering to the general audience hit theaters to show us Gettysburg and D-Day. But scenes from Vicksburg and “Starvation Island” are rare.
With that focus, we see the smallest details… minute to minute, minutest details… analyzed to a degree not allocated with other subjects. We have experts who can walk us through every regiment’s experience at Gettysburg, at the step by step level. Likewise for D-Day, though at the battalion level allowing for tactical shifts. With that detailed focus, we see so may decisions analyzed and assessed. Decisions that often proved pivotal within a larger pivotal historical event. Decisions in focus… and under “fire” or review by historians… much more so than for other times in history.
If I recall an incident from my own experience here… one morning while chatting with a company first sergeant (senior NCO on the base in particular), he lamented the morning report was past due, again. I remarked, half in jest, “you know, Top, some day a historian will find your morning report most valuable.” The old sergeant responded, “I doubt it. Most times historians are more interested in the things that don’t get into the reports.” And as an example he referenced a “oh-five-hundred” decision by the Captain to dispatch men to a “hot spot.” Point well made.
We, the historians, have the task of explaining what happened. But we have the luxury of detachment from the happening. We, and the consumers of history, live through the written word to gain appreciation for those times. And with respect to places like D-Day and Gettysburg, the appreciation requires us to look at details of decisions made.
Thinking, as the day calls for, to D-Day, I look towards the actions of two generals on the beach – Brigadier-General Norman Cota and Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
Consider Cota’s situation on Omaha Beach. Leading the 29th Infantry Division (the “Blue and Gray” division, alluding to Civil War heraldry among the division’s regiments), Cota was with the second wave ashore but one hour after the first landings. The situation was a shambles. Pinned down under direct and indirect fire, the division simply could not attain more than a finger-hold on the beach. It was “bloody Omaha.” Within that grim situation, Cota made a decision. And as with any major decision within a battle which has been depicted on the silver screen, we have the moment dramatized in the film “The Longest Day”:
At one part, Robert Mitchum, playing Cota, rallies his men:
I don’t have to tell you the story. You all know it. Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the Fighting 29th.
As with any good Hollywood adaptation, the facts are conflated to make a good script. The quote by Mitchum was actually the rally of Colonel George A. Taylor, 16th US Infantry. Likewise, Cota’s line, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.” was given to Eddy Albert, playing Cota’s aide, in the movie. Such is the work of screen-writers wrangling with the facts to make an entertaining story less accurate….
My point is not that Hollywood provides misleading history, but to use that movie scene as a prop to illustrate a decision made. Cota had options. None of which were really palatable. Still, he selected a course of action – that of trying another assault up from the beach. Historians can, and have, analyzed that decision, after the fact, in detail. And Cota’s decision was vindicated.
To the west of Cota and Bloody Omaha, Roosevelt’s landing on Utah Beach met with much less resistance. Roosevelt was the assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division. And, famously, he was the only general officer landing in the first wave of the assault. Again, another episode dramatized in “The Longest Day”:
While not facing a murderous fire, Roosevelt, played by Henry Fonda, likewise faced a critical decision. Although meeting scant resistance, the 4th Division was in the wrong place. They secured one causeway off the beach, but they were supposed to have two… and those a mile down the beach. Such threw all plans into disarray. Roosevelt’s decision? Move inland, to heck with the plan. In the movie, we hear, “The reinforcements will have to follow us wherever we are. We’re starting the war from right here. Head inland. We’re going inland.” Not far off Roosevelt’s actual words… or so the historians say. And again, historians have been able to analyze and review Roosevelt’s decision in light of information at his disposal at that time, as well as information Roosevelt would never know, and have determined the decision was correct… and what’s more was decisive to the outcome of the battle.
Consider, in the cases of decisions made by Cota and Roosevelt on June 6, 1944, historians have the luxury of spending years, if not decades, to ponder. The information gathered to explain those decisions might fill a book all by itself. Thousands of words have, over the years, related the story of those decisions. Yet, in it all, we have to remember those decisions were made under fire in an instant. The “participant” of history often has but a moment to act. Historians have forever afterward to discuss.
Still, we must keep the nature of the moment in mind. Cota and Roosevelt among others on June 6, 1944… just like Buford, Chamberlain, Cushing, and others at Gettysburg some eighty years before … made quick decisions under fire. As we review these episodes, we should not forget how little time the participant has to make those decisions.
These decisions under fire are often made within the space between half-seconds on the clock.