Forging Ahead onto the Shores of Hell

Category : Regiments

The 116th Regiment at Omaha Beach

The sand was gold in color, firm and fine. It was the ideal beach for playing in the sun, frolicking with a summer love, or dipping your toes into the clear, ever wavering waters. It is enjoyable as a summer destination, but not as the scene to play out one of the most dramatic shifts in World War II. 

The Germans were smart. They knew if they were going to stop the war anywhere it would be on the shores of Omaha Beach. The beach geography made it difficult for those coming onto the shore to catch their enemies before fire broke out. The beach was constricted due to its crescent shape. At low tide, there firm sand stretch 300 to 400 meters in distance. At high tide, the distance from the waterline to the bank was just a few meters. Covering that distance was shingles, or small round stones. In 1944, the shingle made it impossible for vehicles to pass. Beyond the shingle, on the western third of the beach, there was a part-wood, part masonry seawall that stood one to four meters in height. All around the beach held high grass-covered slopes that appeared to be featureless from a distance. Up close however, they contained small folds and irregularities that made it easy for enemies to hide undetected. This feature proved to be critical to the war as it progressed upon these shores.

Even the best tactician could not have devised a better defensive situation. A narrow, enclosed battlefield dissolved of any possibility of outflanking it. There were many natural obstacles for the attacker to overcome without a lot of hope of devising quick backup plans and new tactics. The Allied planners did not enjoy the idea of invading Omaha Beach although they understood the importance of it. Rommel and Eisenhower knew that they would have to include Omaha Beach in the landing sites if they were to invade Normandy. Had they not, the gap between Utah and the British beaches would be too significant.

Private John Barnes, Company A, 116th Regiment

Pvt. John Barnes was in an LCA approaching the shore when someone out shouted, “Take a look! This is something that you will tell your grandchildren!” A less than optimistic Barnes thought, “If we live.”

Barnes later recalled the moment he made it onto shore. “Suddenly, a swirl of water wrapped around my ankles, and the front of the craft dipped down. The water quickly reached our waist and we shouted to the other boats on each side. They waved in return. Our boat just fell away below me. I squeezed the CO2 tube in my life belt. The buckle broke and it popped away. I turned to grab the back of the man behind me. I was going down under. I climbed on his back and pulled myself up in a panic. Heads bobbed up above the water. We could see the other boats moving off toward the shore.”

Barnes and his assault team were the lucky few to have survived. The event went from a battle to a slaughter in just a matter of hours as the Germans poured the machine-gun, artillery, and mortar fire upon them. Of the 200-plus men that came upon shore that day, only a dozen survived to tell the tale. 

Private John Barnes went on to tell his story of that fateful day in a book entitled, “Fragments of My Life.” His courage and honor assisted the rest of his surviving team to make it home to their families. Every effort was needed that day, every moment of endurance and strength assisted another. Barnes was no exception. He stuck with his men on that fateful day to live to tell the tale for years to come. Without his recollection, we may never have the insight of what it was like to be on that shore where the waves danced with fire, blood, fear, but above all courage.