November 6-12, 2017
Transcribed and edited by
Jay Edwards and Nick Popowitch
During this year’s summer convention for the Arkansas Press Association, the keynote speaker at the Friday luncheon was Morley Piper.
Now 92, Piper is the retired executive director of the New England Press Association. Over 73 years ago, he was a second lieutenant in the 29th Infantry Division, charging onto Omaha Beach in the Battle of Normandy on D-Day. He was 19 years old. The following is what he told us about that day.
I hope you will relate a little bit to what I say. To tell you the truth, it’s not easy to go over these events from so long ago. Especially when so many of them were tragic. We did not have many good times in the infantry, in our war years. I didn’t speak about World War II for 50 years. Then, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, at the urging of my family, I went back to France to participate in the ceremonies that were being held there. When I got home, I was asked to talk about it. That sort of opened the floodgates. Now my family says they can’t shut me up.
There aren’t many of us left from WWII; we’re getting thinner. But there are still quite a few. Before I came down here, I ran into a friend of mine from WWII on the street. We hadn’t seen each other for a little while, so we decided to go into a coffee shop to reminisce a little. We sat at a booth and looked around the room, and there on the other side of the room were these two other guys, old guys, just like us sitting in a booth. I said to my friend, “Charlie, that’s what we’re gonna look like ten years from now.” Charlie said, “It’s a mirror, you idiot.”
Well, it’s hard to find something about D-Day to laugh about. It was, June 6, 1944. That’s a day that will live in history as a major turning point in WWII; one of the epic military engagements of all time.
I mentioned going back on the 50th anniversary; I also went back on the 70th, in 2014. On the 70th, my whole family went with me. It didn’t seem possible it could have been 70 years ago. To go back again, to stand on that beach at 6:30 in the morning, which was when we landed, was surreal.
My military unit was the 29th Infantry Division. In 2014 there were only six old guys like me there, six veterans of the war. So there we were, these six old guys standing on the beach. The 29th Division present-day soldiers had organized this, and it was kind of an emotional, solemn ceremony; and they concluded it with a toast to the six of us, and the experiences we had had, and the toast was in Calvados. That’s a strong local liqueur made right there in Normandy from apples. Now, if you never had a shot of Calvados at 6:30 in the morning, I would recommend it; change your attitude the whole day.
D-Day was the decisive battle. It was the beginning of the end of the long Nazi occupation of Western Europe. But it could have resulted in the worst Allied disaster since Pearl Harbor. Despite extraordinary courage from many soldiers, the battle hung in the balance for long hours. Leading up to the invasion, a lot of military analysts thought it would be a mismatch. In fact, at one point during that morning, D-Day morning, the Allied High Command thought the invasion was failing. But to me, it did not.
I was there that fateful morning, so many years ago.
I was a brand new infantry officer, a Second Lieutenant in the 29th Infantry Division, 115th Regiment. I had joined the division just a few months before the invasion, as a replacement officer, because they were trying to build up to full strength. We were doing coastal defense in Oregon. One day the brass came around and they said to a few of us non-commissioned officers that they were building up toward the invasion, and they were looking for infantry officers They said that if I accepted a commission in the infantry, they would recommend me for officer candidate school. I fell for it.
I was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, where I went through the infantry school in 90 days; 90 days of the most strenuous training I’ve ever had.
Anyway, I came out 90 days later, what they call a 90-day wonder, a newly minted second lieutenant.
I was sent to England to join the division that had been training there on the beaches and the moors of Southern England, in conditions that were similar to Normandy. I was assigned a platoon in an infantry rifle company. There were 43 of us, 43 men. We had three, 10-man rifle squads, and one heavy weapons platoon, which had a couple of machine guns in it, and a small mortar cannon, and a bazooka, things like that. And we had a platoon lieutenant, me, and a platoon sergeant, and a radioman. The company that we were part of had six officers, and 140 men. But it is questionable that any number, any company in the 29th Division ever had exactly that number. Certainly no company in battle ever stayed at that full compliment very long. The battalion, which was the next higher unit to the company, called for 900 men and 28 officers. But we buried a great many. We sent in 800 on D-Day, and we were down to as low as 240 the next day. My little unit of 43, we could only find 17 the next morning. In the entire division, there were 14,000 soldiers, a huge outfit, at full strength. But we had 22,000 casualties, killed or wounded, a 150 percent casualty rate, highest of any military unit in the war. Not a figure to point to with pride.
A stark testimony to the rigors of a year, close to a year, 11 months, that we spent on the front lines of Europe. We got reinforcements, replacement soldiers every single day; young, wide-eyed soldiers, wearing brand new uniforms. And most with terrified looks on their faces. You never got to know them, most of them. They were wounded or killed right away. It’s hard to know anyone, in fact, after D-Day, very well.
I was 19, enlisted when I was 18, barely 18. I was going to be drafted right away anyway, so I thought if I enlisted, maybe I would get a little better job. And I was pretty young to have become a lieutenant. It was only through a combination of circumstances and luck, I guess. Right place at the right time when that all happened. We were all pretty young, of course, in WWII. What I liked to say is, it was an age of innocence in the country. We were ordinary young men, mostly. Ordinary, because we had led ordinary lives before the war, lives that had not been fully developed. We had grown up in the steel grip of the great depression. Now, we were called to military service. We formed what was a civilian-based army. We were sent to France, to Normandy, to go up against a professional German Army waiting on the high bluffs of the beach.
So there we were, at 3:30 on the morning of June 6, struggling down a rope ladder 30-35 feet high, to the deck of the troop ship, on the rolling sea. We got into a small boat at the bottom, on the water, called a landing craft infantry. LCI, that was the formal name of it, but most people referred to them as Higgins boats, after the man who designed them.
They held 30 in tight quarters, plus the coxswain, who was a Navy man. When we got into the small boats, we were 10 miles out in the English Channel, from France. The wind was blowing hard, the seas were rough, and the waves were cresting over the top of our boat entrenching us down below, that we had to use our helmets to bail out, we were standing in so much water. We were crowded, shoulder-to-shoulder, thoroughly lonely, uncomfortable, companionship.
Some got seasick, couldn’t wait to get off the boat, no matter what happened next. We moved up, got to three miles out, where there was what they call a staging area, sort of regroup and get in order area.
Then we moved up to one mile, where the huge battleships were all around us. Huge things, and they were firing at the coast. You could see great flashes of fire, followed a moment or two later by an enormous cloud of blue, yellow and black smoke on the coast.
We had three regiments in our divisions, the 115th, which I was in, the 116th, and 175th. The 116th was to go in first, at 6:30 in the morning, followed by the 115th about half an hour to 45 minutes later. The 175th was held in reserve until the next day.
Our mission was to establish a beachhead, to nullify the German guns on the high ground above the beach, to liberate the small towns along the beach, and to take the coastal highway, the main road, so we could get reinforcements and vehicles and tanks off the boats onto land. The 116th began the assault at 6:30, the appointed time, and they were decimated getting off the boat. We could see them, in their distress, so we, rather than waiting the half-hour as planned, were sent in right away.
Immediately we could see that we were in trouble also. As we turned to go in, we could see the low cliffs, where the Germans were. I could see a church spire from a little town, and of course, I could see the beach.
There was a lot of fire coming from the German fortifications up on the high ground. We could see other Higgins boats around us being hit in the water. One boat near us split in half, and everybody went down, we think. We saw our tanks sink, sometimes the crew clambering out, sometimes with no one coming out. Then we saw the German fire raking the beach, and we saw the troops who went in ahead of us blown nearly to bits, not behind any protection to speak of. We knew then we would have a dreadful time.
I guess we knew that all along, but until you’re right there, it’s not possible to realize the enormity that is coming. This was forcefully brought home to us before we landed, when, as we got closer, machine gun fire started hitting the side of our boat.
We didn’t land where we were supposed to. Few did. But our coxswain got us in pretty close under very difficult circumstances.
Suddenly, the ramp went down. We sprang out, hoping we could somehow make it. Some did, a lot didn’t. We had water just over our knees. But that was a lot better than some, actually, who found themselves in much deeper water.
The tide was just coming in as we were landing, so once we got out of the water, there was a lot of open beach to cross before we got where there might be any protection. And we were laden down with equipment, 50 to 75 pounds per man, and more for those carrying heavy equipment, like mortars or radios.
Our radioman was a young guy, John Rich was his name, and he was beside me as we were coming in. He was hit, and started to go down in the water. A soldier on the other side of him grabbed him under one shoulder, and I got him under the other, and we dragged him up on the beach, and called for a medic. To our surprise, one came right away. Then a second one came a minute or two later. We could see that John’s wound probably wasn’t life threatening, but it bought him a ticket, we thought, out of the war, anyway. They got him together and put him on one of these little portable stretchers they carried around and took him off somewhere. Later we heard that one of the medics stepped on a mine and they all went. There was lots of death. Soldiers were shot getting off the boat, shot wading in, and shot on the beach. Some stepped on mines, some drowned. Bodies were everywhere. Wounded men were everywhere. We were on our own, mostly.
The confusion created disorder and plans were out the window. People were running around everywhere. Here we were, on Omaha Beach, and instead of finely honed, well-trained, infantry warriors, most of us were exhausted, almost hopeless. Pinned down, so we could barely lift up, scrambling for any kind of shelter we could find. We learned that as soon as we landed, the advantage turned to the Germans. Once on the beach, we were relatively immobile, our movement by foot only. Very few of our vehicles made it to the beach that morning on those first assaults.
So there we were, in the Germans own enclosed battlefield. There were many natural obstacles to overcome, and above all of it, the Germans, who were heavily fortified on the high bluffs above the beach. We were on an open no man’s land, trying to do what infantry tactics had taught us. But this had very few possibilities, since the German fire was so intense. Survival was about all we could do at first. We had virtually no air support. The planes were supposed to bomb the beaches before we got there and make craters, so we could use them for shelter. But the weather was bad and the planes were late, by the time they got there we had started to arrive, so they couldn’t bomb the beach. The planes flew over the German lines, but I think they overshot them. It was largely a bust.
Friendly fire was something of a problem too. It was not uncommon for artillery shells to go astray and shell the wrong troops. We were once strafed by the Royal Air Force, who though we were Germans.
General Eisenhower said, “Plans are everything before the battle, but useless once it has joined.” That was certainly true at Omaha Beach, where almost nothing worked according to plan. Most of us didn’t land where we were supposed to, we didn’t have adequate artillery or air support, and the Germans were stronger, much stronger than expected. Aside from being pinned down, it didn’t look to us like we had enough firepower to really battle back effectively. We could see tracer bullets coming from the concrete gun emplacements that the Germans had on the bluffs, and they looked mammoth. There was no way we were going to take out a German concrete emplacement with a .30 caliber rifle. We had to get closer so that we could use heavier weapons. At the first attack, we hardly fired any kind of weapon; survival was the priority.
We were told that we should move up quickly, get off the beach in an hour or so, and move inland. But at the end of that first hour, we were nowhere. We were huddled against anything we could find for shelter, we were trying to keep control, mostly, of ourselves. But we could feel the cold fingers of fear almost getting the best of us.
After several hours, though, we managed to move up a little bit, to higher ground, and we found positions that made it harder for sniper and machine guns to reach us. But mortar shells could reach us, and we learned in short order that the Germans were pretty good at that. I think they could put a mortar shell down your shirt collar. There were many brave soldiers, who at that point were really just trying to stay alive.
Inch-by-inch, we finally got to the place where we could set up our own line of fire, late in the morning. God knows there was nothing much we could see to shoot at between the fog and the smoke, and the cliffs. But we could see flashes of German fire coming out of those gun emplacements, and so we tried to pin them down in the hopes that we could get close enough with heavier weapons.
We had improved our position slightly, but we were still in grave difficulty. The Higgins boats had gone, so we could not be evacuated. Our backs were to the sea. We were not really advancing, so we were caught in a classic losers position, facing annihilation or capture.
We were returning fire a little bit, but I think a good many of us there on the beach that day had grave doubts about making it. We began to think there wasn’t much chance for us to get off that beach. In fact, as the days on the front line through Normandy, Northern France and on into Germany lengthened, and days turned into weeks, and weeks into months of war in Europe, that feeling intensified, that we weren’t going to make it. The odds of an infantryman making it all through the war were definitely against us.
We had, of course, become hardened to combat, we’d become more wary and wily about survival, and though it’s unfortunate to say, we became ever more accustomed and casual about seeing our soldiers killed or wounded. There was so much of it, that it became commonplace. Yet, it was inexpressibly sad, which we carried the rest of our lives. In fact, those relatives of yours that won’t talk about it, that’s a large part of why. They don’t want to relive those incidents. Every day a new set of terrifying circumstances presented themselves. Fear was a strong emotion, followed by anger, sadness, determination, and the one I like to think of, a little bit of heart. We wanted to live, of course. We had, to a large extent, become fatalistic. If we had to die, we hoped we could do that well too.
About one o’clock in the afternoon, our engineers blew a big hole in a concrete wall the Germans had erected to block access from the road to the beach. When they blasted the hole, a small number of soldiers who were around it, burst through it, and we found ourselves in the small town of Vierville. Finally, the 29th Division was off the beach, but barely. And after another couple of hours, by mid-afternoon, a handful of Americans, perhaps a hundred in all, held the town of Vierville, and we were hanging on for dear life.
Later in the afternoon, we held sections of the coastal highway, and we made our way, under intense fire and bombardment, to Saint-Laurent, the next town. By nightfall, we had penetrated the outer reaches of that town. By early morning, after a night of continuous firefights, Saint-Laurent fell, and we moved inland from there.
Moving inland meant going through the Normandy farmland, and the treacherous hedgerow country, the battles of the hedgerows. We were headed for the city of Saint-Lô, a main crossroads town about 20 miles inland.
The bocage, is what the French call the hedgerows. They were in conditions we were not accustomed to or prepared for. A hedgerow is big mound of earth about three to five feet wide and about four feet tall, with thick, tall, foliage on the top. The farmers used them as fences. They were impenetrable. We couldn’t see through them or around them, had no idea what was on the other side. It was great for the German defenses, but very dangerous for us, trying to move to Saint-Lô.
It was low, treacherous going. It took us months to go those 20 miles. Hills were especially difficult. We would take a hill, and the Germans would retake it the next day. It was yard by yard through that terrifying labyrinth. There were unthinkable casualties, as bad as D-day, only longer and more strung-out.
We finally made it to Saint-Lô, where the Germans were massed, and where they hoped to prevent a breakthrough to the interior of France. Their plan was to engage us in a prolonged stalemate, right there in Normandy, and they came close to succeeding. But Saint-Lô fell on July the 18th. I didn’t see much of the city at the time; it was leveled anyway. I didn’t see much of it because coming in I was hit with shrapnel, mortar shells, struck twice, an hour and a half apart. They were basically superficial wounds, the Army kept me out in a field hospital for six weeks, and I rejoined the 29th Division in September as they were on their way to Northern France, and not long after, Germany.
Our first battle in Germany was Aachen, near the French border, an old cathedral city. We fought through western Germany, where our sector was a coalmining region, a bleak area. The winter was spent trying to cross a small river called the Roer. Normally it’s a very small stream, but the Germans had flooded it at the dams above the river, so everything was flooded, making it much more difficult to get across. It was a terrible, terrible winter. They hadn’t had one like it in Europe for 100 years, and they haven’t had one like it since, so we were pretty miserable.
I wanted to mention to you before I get off stage here, one of the towns we went through along Omaha Beach was a small town called Colleville, and it is now the site for the U.S. Military Cemetery. It is a place, truly, that never fails to move visitors, more than anything else. It is the emotional center for the Battle of Normandy. There are 9,386 graves there, row after row of the 29th Division. It is a beautiful place. It speaks to you, at once saddening and liberating. It overlooks the beach, Omaha Beach. Now it is white sand and pebbles, pristine, a far cry from the carnage of so many years ago.
The graves all face westward, toward home. Here, it is always Memorial Day. This quiet cemetery holds a place of reflection and a retreat for the spirit. Returning for the 70th Anniversary that I mentioned in the beginning, was especially meaningful. Visiting that cemetery meant that we were together again with the soldiers that fell in Normandy.
Our band, we had a nine-piece band, a brass band, and the 29th Division said they couldn’t send the full band. A hundred people would cost too much, so they sent a nine-man brass ensemble. They told us they were a concert band; that they didn’t march. So, what we had was a band that couldn’t play and march at the same time. Anyway, they were wonderful. They played at the cemetery, and they played "Eventide," and "Nearer my God, to thee." And looking out over those graves to Omaha Beach beyond, just beyond that, the water ... I’ll tell ya, it brought a vision to me of our young soldiers coming in on those small boats, many of them in the last moments of their lives.
Omaha Beach was truly a heart-stopping experience. When I got back from the Army I did not have nightmares, and I didn’t jump at loud noises, but I thought about it, and I thought about the war. I thought about it every day. I thought about how I made it through that terrible day, D-Day, the whole war actually, and so many didn’t.
Those days have lived with me forever. They have shaped my life. At last, at that 70th Anniversary, when we were in France, there on Omaha Beach, I think I finally got to the place in life where I can say without shame that those nights I spent in the foxholes and ditches, and in the bombed-out building of Europe, I shook and I trembled and I cried at some of the things that I saw and had to do that day.
My contribution in World War II was very small. I was honored to serve with some very brave soldiers. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. He, who today sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.
We just had July 4th, didn’t we? I thought about that just a minute ago, I thought about that’s the time when we sing patriotic songs of all kinds. I thought how about closing today with our singing this little patriotic song together? It’s very short, just a few lines. It’s an old song you’ll instantly recognize. It goes like this.
"My country, ‘ tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From every mountainside let freedom ring!"
Bless you, God bless you.
Photo 1. As Veteran’s Day nears we honor all our troops with a memory from a man named Morley Piper. Now 92, Piper was a 19-year old lieutenant on June 6, 1944 when he and many others like him stepped off their landing crafts into the shallow waters of the North Atlantic to face the German army. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Photo 2. Morley Piper, age 92. (Courtesy photo)
Photo 3. Morley Piper was a 19-year old second lieutenant in the 29th Infantry Division during the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach. (Courtesy photo)
Photo 4. Morley Piper with the Air Force Color Guard during the Arkansas Press Association 2017 Summer Convention in Little Rock. (Photo by Ashley Wallace)