D-Day: Three Quarters of a Century After 'The Great Crusade"
76 years ago, today, 156,000 men descended on a 50-mile swath of the Western French cider-producing region known as Normandy. These men were from farms, big cities, scenic beaches, small towns, infested tenement apartment buildings, rugged mountains, elegantly appointed stately homes, and sooty inner cities. They came from England, Canada, and the United States of America. They came from Denmark, Ireland, Australia, and the Netherlands. They came from France, Scotland, Poland, and Belgium. They came from Norway, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and New Zealand. These brave men comprised the largest seaborne invasion in the history of the world.
The bravery displayed during this bitter fight have been recorded into the annals of history. These stories have been told and retold, ensuring that each successive generation learns these hard lessons of the true sacrifice required to fight actual evil and tyranny. In this blog we are going to discuss two of the lesser known elements that participated on that ‘day of days’.
Ironically, the first training class of the newly formed Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU) began training on 06 June 1943. Developed by the legendary Lieutenant Commander Draper Kauffman, this was the first US Navy course to subject students to the rigorous ‘Hell Week” process, a staple used in modern Naval Special Warfare Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. Six sailors comprised a NCDU team, and 32 had arrived in England by May 1944.
Once paired with US Army engineers the NCDU’s formed gap assault teams (GAT’s), whose main objective on D-Day was to clear obstacles from the waterline, and detonate mines, and other ordinances. The incredible volume of fire into Omaha Beach prevented the GAT’s from fully reaching their directive of clearing 16 gaps (each approximately 50 yards). The intensity of the enemy fire caused soldiers to bunch up and scramble for any available cover (depicted in the classic film Saving Private Ryan). This often resulted in groups of soldiers sheltering behind the very obstacles the GAT’s were attempting to destroy. Landing after low tide the rapidly rising tide rose one foot every ten minutes! However, these men were able to clear five of these gaps. An incredible feat under such arduous conditions and withering fire. **
Casualty rates for the NCDU/GAT’s was astronomical. NCDU 23, known to other teams as “Vetter’s Vandals,” was decimated en masse out when a German shell struck their inflatable rubber boat, while they carried 300 pounds of explosives. On Omaha Beach alone, NCDU suffered 31 KIA and 60 wounded. This was nearly a 70 percent ratio. Things were much better at Utah Beach, but this was still D-Day. There were 6 KIA and 11 wounded NCDU men from this action**
The United States Army likes to give the United States Marine Corps a bit of good-natured inter-service teasing regarding the fact that Marines did not storm the beaches of Normandy, this is factually inaccurate. While it is true that the world’s premiere amphibious assault force was not utilized in a large-scale capacity on 6 June 1944, there was Marine Corps involvement. This was at a level far above the more well-known advisor capacity that has so often been noted. Snipers and sharpshooters were employed to shoot floating as a means to clear a path for the Navy ships. There were at least 50 Marines who actively worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessors to the Central Intelligence Agency) in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the invasion. Many of these Marines took part in direct action operations, as well as intelligence gatherers, saboteurs, and resistance band leaders. Colonel Peter Ortiz was awarded two non-consecutive Navy Cross Medals (only the Medal of Honor is a higher-rank award) for his efforts supporting the resistance. Col. Ortiz parachuted into France and was instrumental in coordinating and assisting the local resistance fighters. Evan Andrews writes, “All told, roughly 6,000 Marines took part in the European and African Theaters in some capacity during the war.” *
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*Andrews, Evan 7 Things You May Not Know About the U.S. Marine Corps History Online. Retrieved from: https://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-u-s-marine-corps
**Nasuti, Guy J. Operation Neptune The U.S. Nay on D-Day, 6 June 1944 Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved online from: https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1944/overlord/operation-neptune.html