Brooding clouds scudded across the lowering skies of Omaha Beach. June 6, 1944; the salt tang of the English Channel hung heavy in the air as the landing craft’s (LCA’s) churning wake misted the GIs packed shoulder-to-shoulder within the boat’s cramped interior.
The LCA neared the beach and the world erupted in flame and thunder; German mortar shells, machine guns. In the time it takes to draw a breath, the dead and wounded — many of them officers positioned near the front of the boat — outnumbered the uninjured.
With the boat’s pilot dead, Private Ed “Johnny” Johnson of Greenville, who had never before piloted an LCA, figured it out in a hurry and headed back to the transport ship. There, the injured and dead were removed from the landing craft and replaced with fresh GIs.
For the second time in a day, Johnson turned his face toward the beaches of Normandy. Though, like so many veterans of that great war, Johnson is no longer around to tell the tale (he died in October 2012 at the age of 93), his son, Bill Johnson, 63, remembers hearing him talk about that day.
Bill is a life member of the Fighting Falcon Military Museum in Greenville and dedicated to keeping his father’s story alive.
“They got hit right in the landing part with the German .88s,” Bill says. “The craft started on fire and dad’s first thought was to put the fire out and patch up those guys who could be saved. The next thing he did was figure out how to drive the craft back to the mother ship.”
Johnson himself had received fairly extensive facial burns in the attack, but managed to help save those of his fellow crew members still alive.
“He had to land on Omaha Beach again that same day,” Bill continues. “They had a heck of a time when they first got in. Nothing came out the way it was supposed to. Guys were jumping in the water too soon and being pulled under by their heavy packs. There was a lot of confusion because so many of the commanding officers were shot dead.”
History tells the same tale. Nobody was expecting the sort of resistance allied troops met at Omaha, a five-mile wide beachhead. The German 352nd Infantry Division — many just teenagers, but under the command of veterans of the Eastern Front — were encamped in strongholds along the waterline, where Hitler planned to repel any invaders who attempted to breach the area by sea.
In the allies’ favor was the fact the Germans had been mislead, intentionally, into thinking the invasion would take place in a different location and on a different date. Even so, the loss of life at Omaha Beach was staggering.
With few commanding officers and no clear objective, the GIs who made it ashore were forced to develop battle plans of their own.
“American ingenuity, I guess you’d call it, took over,” Bill says. “The guys decided they could get shot where they sat or they could get shot doing something. Finally, they stormed those positions and went up the beach where they could do something.
“It’s amazing those troops were able to land at all. The Germans had the most deadly machine gun in the world and they had every inch of that beach covered.”
Somehow, Private Johnson made it through the melee that claimed the lives of so many other young men.
In the fullness of time, VE Day and VJ Day came and went, the war ended and all those American boys came home to start families and buy homes in the suburbs, but Johnson never forgot those moments when life and death swung above him like the mythical Sword of Damocles. One man lived, another died, all seemingly on the brittle whims of fate.
Johnson’s story is one that could be retold a thousand, ten thousand times over by the multitudes who left their homes, their families, their lives, to protect this American way of life.
Years later, Johnson spoke at schools in the area, trying to help younger people understand the debt this country owes those young men. Was he successful? Sometimes, maybe. But according to Bill, not often enough.
“Kids nowadays,” Bill laments. “They just can’t quite understand the reason we’re all speaking English instead of German or Japanese. It’s really a shame. If it wasn’t for those heroes, we wouldn’t be, in any shape or manner, the country we are today.”
The Normandy American Cemetery in St. Laurent, France, built on the site of a burial ground established by American troops three days after June 6, 1944, overlooks Omaha Beach. In that cemetery are the headstones of 9,387 U.S. soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the landings and operations which followed. Another 1,557 are still missing in action.