The Men and Guns of D-Day

posted on May 9, 2009

On D-Day, Tuesday, June 6, 1944, thousands of American soldiers struggled on the beaches, the drop zones and in the hedgerows of Normandy. They fought with the steel of Pittsburgh and Birmingham in their hands-steel that had been fashioned into the guns of D-Day. Each rifle, pistol and submachine gun that fired shots in anger had a story associated with it. These are just a few of those stories.

It was approximately 0130 hours when the 2nd platoon of F Company, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division began jumping from C-47s. As fate would have it, the pilots overshot the assigned drop zone, resulting in paratroopers descending directly over the crossroads town of Ste.-Mère-Église. German units throughout the area had been alerted to the coming invasion by 1100 hours on June 5. In addition, the center of the town was alive with activity as German soldiers and French civilians struggled to extinguish a house fire. Among the 505th troopers who came down on Ste.-Mère-Église during the pre-dawn hours of D-Day, two men landed on top of the town's 13th century Roman Catholic Church. Pvt. John Steele snagged his parachute on the bell tower and Pvt. Ken Russell came down hard on the slate roof of the nave.

A third man, Sgt. John Ray-born and raised in Gretna, La.-landed hard in the church square just below Steele and Russell. While Ray struggled to free himself from his parachute harness, a German soldier rounded the corner of the church and shot him in the stomach with a burst from his MP40 submachine gun. Assuming he had killed Ray, the German turned toward Steele and Russell, both of whom were helpless targets.

As the German shouldered the MP40 to shoot Steele, Ray drew his M1911A1 .45 ACP pistol and shot the German in the back of the head. Steele and Russell both survived the Invasion of Normandy thanks to the actions of John Ray, who left a young widow back in Louisiana. Within a few short hours, additional 82nd Airborne paratroopers entered and occupied Ste.-Mère-Église, making it the first town in France liberated on D-Day.

At 0710 hours on June 6, 1st/Sgt. Leonard "Bud" Lomell exited his landing craft onto a narrow beach shingle at the base of a cliff that loomed above him almost six stories. As the senior NCO of D Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion, Lomell was a part of one of the most daring D-Day missions-to neutralize the guns at Pointe du Hoc. Despite enemy rifle and submachine gun fire, he slung his M1A1 Thompson and began to free-climb a runnel on the east side of the point.

A rocky promontory a few miles west of the main landing area for Omaha Beach, Point du Hoc was where the Germans had built one of the most powerful artillery batteries in the entire Seine River estuary. The battery consisted of concrete tables for six French 155 mm long-range guns called GPFs (Grande Puissance Filloux). The Germans had captured large numbers of GPFs when they invaded France in 1940. Redesignated as the model 15.5 cm K418(f), the purpose of the GPF battery was to defend occupied France. Because the guns at Pointe du Hoc were capable of placing accurate, long-range fire on both Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, the Allies planned for a special assault force to scale the cliffs and destroy the guns. This mission went to Lt. Col. James E. Rudder's 2nd Ranger Battalion.

Using ropes, grappling hooks and ladders, the Rangers carefully worked their way up the cliff face and into a lunar-like landscape. For weeks leading up to the invasion, Allied bombers pounded Pointe du Hoc, leaving massive craters all over the battery site. Then, on the morning of the invasion, the battleship U.S.S. Texas (BB-35) fired dozens of 14" shells at it. When 1st/Sgt. Lomell crested the top of the cliff, he found German infantrymen using the craters as fighting positions, and he immediately plunged into an intense close combat environment. Moving from one crater to another in search of the GPFs, it was soon obvious to the Rangers that the guns were not there. The Germans removed them a few weeks prior because of the relentless Allied aerial attacks that had so battered the site....


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