As dawn broke on June 6, 1944, Allied forces were conducting their first wave of landings on Utah Beach—and quickly realized that a part of their plan had gone very, very wrong.
Boarding the landing craft was difficult. In near-darkness, the men had to clamber down rope netting while carrying everything they would need for the next few days—backpack, weapons, food, and radios.
The task of guiding them to shore fell to Howard Vander Beek, who we met in an early Unknown History podcast. He had been warned of his responsibilities by Brigadier-General Teddy Roosevelt, the only high-ranking general scheduled to land in the first wave on D-Day.
“Well, my boy,” he said to Vander Beek, “my life is now in your hands.” So were the lives of the 620 men scheduled to land in the opening minutes of the invasion. Just a few minutes later, Vander Beek’s little craft pushed off into the damp night. When he looked to his rear, he could see the shadows of the ten landing craft packed with the men of E Company and F Company. Further away were many more landing craft.
'The heavens seemed to open,' said one, 'spilling a million stars on the coastline before us, each one spattering luminous tentacle-like branches of flame in every direction.'
Vander Beek’s flotilla was just the first wave. It would be followed by hundreds of vessels laden with jeeps, tanks, and armoured vehicles, as well as 21,000 troops of the 4th Infantry Division.
Vander Beek was studying the distant shoreline when wave after wave of bombers cut through the sky. As they crossed the coastline, they dumped their high explosives on to the German bunkers.
No one had ever seen anything quite like it. “The heavens seemed to open,” said one, “spilling a million stars on the coastline before us, each one spattering luminous tentacle-like branches of flame in every direction.”
The sun had just risen, at 5:58 a.m., but it was a gloomy dawn.
Vander Beek guided the giant flotilla to within 500 yards of the coast. He felt desperately sorry for the men in the landing craft. “Some were using helmets to bail out seawater.” Others, suffering from acute seasickness, were vomiting over the sides. “Most, however, stood pressed together, motionless, chilled by fear and cold.”
In the bleak haze of dawn, the first wave of landing craft approached the shore in V-formation, exactly as planned. Some of the craft got stuck on sand bars. Others were almost swamped in the surf. Leonard Schroeder’s landing craft had fared better than most. Leading from the front of the V, it had made it all the way to the shore. The underside scoured the shingle then crunched to an abrupt halt.
“For God’s sake, get off!”
The ramp was shoved downwards and Schroeder jumped into waist-deep water. He was followed by his men, who surged through the waves, dodging mines and barbed wire. Schroeder was in the lead. There was small arms fire. His sights were fixed on the low sea wall, which offered some sort of shelter.
The water grew shallower, the sand underfoot firmer. A few more paces and Schroeder hit the beach. He had just made history. He was the first Allied soldier to land from the sea.
“Goddam, we’re on French soil!” The air was filled with grit.