First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Col. Bill Gara: Leading the First Engineer Battalion in World War II, Part II

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Col. Bill Gara: Leading the First Engineer Battalion in World War II, Part II

In the second of a two-part episode, Col. Bill Gara tells stories of the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion of the 1st Infantry. Gara served from North Africa to Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge.

See additional photos and learn more about the 1st Engineer Battalion at firstengineerbattalionveterans.org.

Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Last episode, we heard from Col. Bill Gara and today we’re finishing that interview. Col. Gara led the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion during D-Day and through May of 1945.

Col. Bill Gara: We felt good. Built up to at least 25% above what they call the 'table of organization' levels. We had reports from the commandos who were going ashore on a regular basis in rubber boats at night. They brought back samples of shale on Omaha Beach. This was all very hush hush. Very few people were aware that we were going to Normandy. Remember now, Patton was creating a phantom army. Lot of radio messages, a lot of camouflaged equipment up to the north to make it look as if the landing was going to take place at Port de Calais, the nearest point to Fortress Europa. Hitler believed it. He was determined that we were not going to come in at Normandy. Rommel was sure we were coming in at Normandy. So there was a major conflict there. But we were given excellent advice. The intelligence people were supplying us with low level aircraft, pictures of the underwater obstacles that were being installed. We could watch them. They would take pictures on a regular basis so we could see what was going in. They were putting in three banks of underwater obstacles, miserable things. The first one was a ten foot high steel fence with Teller mines located so that as boats came in, they'd run into this steel fence, probably get blown out of the water. Then about 50 yards closer to the high water mark, the second line of obstacles consisting of concrete posts dug into concrete embankments and then a Teller mine on the face of this concrete post, which was about 12 inches by 12 inches, so that they were facing the sea as a boat would come in and they'd ram into that Teller mine and literally get blown out of the water. That boat would normally be handling 34 troops. Then about 150 yards from the high water mark, the third line of obstacles and these were called hedgehogs. They were steel angles with sharp edges, again embedded in concrete, facing to the sea, and as the boat came in, they would probably penetrate, if they hit these steel angles. We could watch these go in. They were being put in by prisoners and by civilians. We could see them working with horses and towing the elements of the underwater obstacles. We knew what was at the beaches. They took pictures of the pillboxes. We knew that they were very, very strong emplacements.

An entire year was spent in the Florida beaches. An entire battalion of some 750 men and 34 officers were being trained for an entire year to work with Navy elements, something like Seabees, trained in the removal of underwater obstacles, creating gaps so that the boats could get through. That was their sole responsibility. They were coming in minutes after the infantry landing and creating gaps and marking them on the underwater obstacle. That was their sole job. So we looked forward to having that job done.

Mid-April. We get word to load on busses and trucks and whatever, officers only. We have no idea where we're going. About four hours later, we arrived at a theater. Officers, we discover, from all over the 1st Infantry Division who, as I said, were spread out all over southern England, now were at a theater. And we're milling at the theater. Lot of smoking, lot of talking, and nobody knows why we're here. Then we see a little guy come up to the stage, stand in the middle, doesn't say a word. Just keeps looking around. Somebody spots him and says, “that's Montgomery.” He doesn't say anything. There was no yell for attention. Takes about three or four minutes. And now the theater as quiet, you could hear a pin drop. He waited for them to recognize that he had something to say. Now we are there, and Montgomery tells us about the plans, solely to instill the confidence in these troops that everything has been handled. "We know what we're going to do. We have forces. We've been working for months. We have 4000 ships. We've got two and a half million tons of equipment and supplies for this invasion. We have one and a half million men, and we're going to take Fortress Europa. And men, here's how we're going to do it: Fortress Europa reminds me of the department store Harrods. You guys know Harrods in London, don't you? Well, you know, the people haven't had much opportunity to buy goods, so Harrods has placed all of their goods in their windows. They've got a beautiful window display. Their goods are in the window display. Fortress Europa is like that Harrods window display. We're going to break through that window display and we're going to find they have nothing in the inventory, nothing in the storeroom. We're going to get there probably in late September." Now, this is in the middle of April. Would you believe we got there on September the 13th to the Siegfried Line? That son of a gun's prediction was terrific. But we felt pretty darn good. We had battleships that were going to blast the dickens out of those gun emplacements. We had planes that were going to drop bombs along the entire front to provide shelter for us when we came in, we'd have shell holes to get into. We were reinforced, we were trained. We had gone to Woolacombe Training Center where they had duplicated the conditions exactly as they were shown on the aerial photos. We'd run through these obstacle courses at Woolacombe in England. We felt ready.

Now the problems: you may recall that it was planned that the invasion would take place when the seas were right on June the 5th, 1944. Heavy seas. Weathermen say to Ike Eisenhower and his staff, "No can do. We'll have to postpone it. Looks like there's going to be a break in the weather on the 6th. Put it off for a day." By now, we're aboard ships. We're aboard the vessels that were going to take us to Omaha Beach. So we're very apprehensive now. "What happened?" We're out at sea, postponed to the 6th. There was going to be a break in the weather. The morning of the 6th, the HR on D-Day, 06:30. The small boats are put into the sea 11 miles from shore. They travel at five knots. It's going to take two and a half hours to get to shore. Heavy seas, 20 mile per hour winds from the northwest. Men are getting seasick as we’re bouncing in. We hear a lot of firing from our battleships, rockets being fired. Everything now is very tense. We notice that the boats are drifting with the wind away from our target areas. We have a secret weapon. Very few people know that Winston Churchill over the years developed a secret weapon: DDT, Duel Drive Tanks. We were to have 32 duel drive tanks arrive on our beach alone, on our sector. Our sector was four miles wide. We had a primary mission of knocking out the enemy walls, the pillboxes, within the first infantry division, sector four miles wide. DDT tanks were going to provide the initial artillery for us to fire directly at the pillboxes, the entrenchments, and of course, enemy troops. DDT tanks were equipped with a rubberized canvas skirt around the tracks. They had a high manifold that came out from the exhaust system. They had twin screws and they had a periscope. These DDT tanks were coming in on LCMs: landing craft mediums. They were going to be about two miles from shore. They would lower the ramp and these tanks were going to swim out with a periscope heading right for Omaha Beach, firing as they came ashore. What happened? Four of the 32 were able to get through the heavy seas. The rest were swamped. And of course, four get to shore and they knocked them out in moments. No chance at all. Now we’re without artillery fire. What happened with the underwater beach obstacles? Hopeless, not a single gap was opened up and marked. Two were opened up, but not marked, so we didn't know where they were. So the small boats are coming in with 34 men and a few officers aboard and just bumbling their way into shore. We did not have a single one of the gun emplacements, the pillboxes knocked out. The heavy fire from the battleships all went beyond the shore area. Overcast, they couldn't get a good reading on where they were firing. The air bombardment went inland. Again, overcast. There was not a single trench or shell hole created for the troops to run into when they arrived, it was almost unscarred. The beach area of Omaha Beach was almost unscarred. We were swept as much as 1200 yards from our proposed landing point. So for the first four hours, it was a fiasco. Scrambling tooth and nail to get ashore and work your way up. They were hung up on beaches at the landing points. It was really very miserable. I actually was supposed to land straight at a beautiful building right in the center of Omaha Beach. We were actually 1200 yards to the east. We had to work our way back to the area where the fighting was going on. So for the first three or four hours, it was merely a matter of holding on and scrambling with infantry fire to get at least a toehold on Omaha Beach. And at this point, my credit goes to the U.S. Navy. There were destroyers about seven to eight miles offshore. They waved them in. There were naval gunfire teams on shore by radio. They explained they had to come close enough to start firing at the pillboxes. We were hung up. They brought them in so that these destroyers were about 700 yards from shore. They lowered their five inch guns and they began shooting at these pillboxes according to the directions of the naval gunfire teams. They were our only supply of artillery for the first four hours of the battle of Omaha Beach. Slowly but surely, we worked our way up and got a good toehold. We were supposed to get - by two hours before dark, we were supposed to have established a beachhead three and a half miles deep. By nightfall, not two hours before nightfall, but by nightfall, finally we had reached about one and a half miles inland and the infantry had established their defensive positions. They dug in. They captured some prisoners. The first engineer combat battalion had the assignment of clearing from the high watermark to a transit area, one road. So that vehicles, tanks, trucks, any type of track vehicles, wheeled vehicle could get up this road, which was about a mile long and 110 feet high to transit area three.

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Now, back to Col. Gara.

BG: As you might expect during that two and a half hour trip from the point where the small boats are lowered into the sea and the rendezvous and then move forward, there was a great deal of apprehension. We heard a lot of firing. We wondered whether or not the boats were going to get to their proposed landing sites. It wasn't until about maybe 300 yards from shore that we could see that things were not going well. We could see that the underwater obstacle paths and gaps had not been opened. So we recognized that we were very likely to get blown up. We knew what those three rows of underwater obstacles were like, we could hear the enemy firing at us. We thought that perhaps by now, the firing from our battleships and the cruisers and the rocket ships and the Air Force had done the job. We discovered that it wasn't so. They kind of hunkered down until this was all over. Obviously, all the firing from the vessels in the air must stop when the friendly troops begin arriving, so now they come out of their holes and there they are waiting to give us a hard time. The small boats on arriving toward shore - the objective was to get as close to shore as possible and then drop the ramps so that the troops don't come in with water up to their shoulders, they’re carrying equipment, they have gas masks, they're carrying 40 pound satchel charges. They have a rifle, they have extra ammunition, they have their rations, they’re loaded down. So the objective is to try to get those small boats as close to shore as possible once they get by the underwater obstacles. Well, of course, it didn't happen. By the way, the small boats were totally under control of the Navy personnel. We have no say. The officer in the boat has no say whatever about what happens. He'll lower the ramp and you just start running and swimming and wading yourself ashore. And that's exactly what happened. Except, of course, as I explained, they were swept 1000 to 1200 yards away from where they were destined to land. So as I explained, our job was to do what we could to advance the infantry. The infantry was terribly worried with anti-personnel mines. The Germans had developed a mine called a Schu-mine, and these were made out of wood and very difficult to detect with mine detectors, so they had to be literally blown up. Our job was again, using Bangalore torpedoes, creating gaps so that the infantry troops who were pinned down and afraid to run up through these anti-personnel mines - to open up gaps and mark them so that they could scamper on up. And that was what was done, oh, starting at about H plus two hours. Instead of 6:30, it wasn't until about 8:30 or 9:00 before we were able to open up gaps and get infantry troops ahead of us so we could get on with the job of clearing a 15 foot deep tank ditch, removing obstacles, removing mines, and get that road open because now the beach was getting cluttered with vehicles that are coming ashore. They're on a schedule and the beach is cluttered with vehicles and they can't get off. The first engineer combat battalion had Exit E-1 to open on Omaha Beach, removing all obstacles from the path and get up to that transit area so that the vehicles can get up there and remove their waterproofing materials and then get ready to get on with the battle. There were four engineer battalions involved on Omaha Beach. The 1st Infantry Division had Exit E-1. The 29th Infantry Division had a road of their own, and there were two independent combat engineer units assigned to open similar roads. There were four roads to be opened by nightfall on D-Day to get all the vehicles up into different positions. As I said, we were very fortunate in getting a number of these paths open so that the infantry could get up and provide some protection for us. We really didn't get organized until about 11 a.m. By that time, I was able to move that 1200 yards back, we were able to radio in one of the reserve companies or a C company to help us. By 11:00, we were getting our troops organized. The officers now finally made contact with their people. We actually commandeered a bulldozer that happened to be there without a driver. We filled in that tank ditch, we removed the mines, and by nightfall, we had Exit E-1 open. Actually, by 17:00 hours, 5 p.m., I had radioed and said you could start sending vehicles up Exit road E-1 to the transit area. By nightfall, Exit E-1 was the only road open on Omaha Beach. The others were still bogged down with the troubles that I just described also in the very same areas that were creating problems for us at Exit E-1. For that particular accomplishment, the 1st Engineer Battalion was awarded its third presidential unit citation. We had earned one in North Africa, and another one, and this was the third for that work.

Now, what did we discover? Beside all these miseries that I just described, with failure to provide Naval gunfire to knock out the pillboxes, failure of the U.S. bombers to provide shelter for us, at least along the beaches and knocking out some of the emplacements. The good part about the Air Force, not a single German aircraft was anywhere in the area. Can you imagine what that could have - just one plane alone? I told you, in North Africa, there were two planes up there. We couldn't even put a motorcycle on the road. Can you imagine what enemy air would have done to our troops who were spread out along the beaches? The Air Force did a heck of a job to keep the German air from getting to the front. The Navy did its job by bringing in those destroyers and giving us the fire to knock out the pill boxes. The artillery units attached to the first division were unable to get in. They were coming in on docks. They were swamped like the DDT tanks were swamped. We discovered on capturing German prisoners, another great surprise. Unfortunately, not a very good reflection on our intelligence. I told you intelligence was doing a great job on providing us with info prior to the invasion, but they didn't tell us that a German infantry division, 352nd German division, had been brought from the Russian front to the Normandy beaches to rest up. They’d gotten themselves beat up, they thought that was going to be a quiet sector. They were at a city called Saint-Lô, 25 miles from Omaha. The night before the landing - we landed on June 6th - on June 5th, that entire 352 was brought up to Omaha Beach to participate in anti-invasion exercises. And they were there, 10,000 men and some of the prisoners said "For a few minutes, we were hesitant to fire on you. We thought that the Germans were putting on a very realistic exercise." So we had 10,000 more troops there than we anticipated. So the word was this was bloody Omaha, and it was a miracle that we were able to get in that one and a half miles by nightfall, and to get that one road open and get ready to continue the advance in the morning. But the next day, the advance did continue and as you may recall, within a week, the 1st Infantry Division had reached the deepest penetration, a city called Caumont, 23 miles inland, and we hung in there while Patton's third army was brought ashore. We just stayed in place until the middle of July when that entire Normandy area had been built up tremendously. Then the attack out of Saint-Lô took place with a third U.S. army under Patton, where they just went like gangbusters all the way. Now, the 1st Division had the toughest job of all. Their casualties were less than half of the adjoining division that came in, a green unit- the 29th. And they had a lighter job than we did. But all of that illustrates what effect the baptism of fire, what effect experience and having gone down the road, what a difference it makes and how wise the commanders were in choosing units that were trained properly, that had been in battle before to exercise these assault landings. Eisenhower and Montgomery knew what they were doing. Montgomery also in his sector brought ashore nothing but experienced units that had fought for him in North Africa and in Sicily.

OK, I want to mention one other thing. I told you earlier about Bob Capa. Bob Capa came ashore from the Sammy Chase for the Normandy invasion. He took about 100 snapshots, according to the history, and about three hours after he landed - and he landed early - Bob Capa, this brave son of a gun, decided that we weren't going to hold the beach and he didn't want these pictures that he took to go to waste. He got on one of the boats returning. He returned to the ship. Now, this is a gutsy guy that I told you about. He decides he's going to get killed. He left the beach. He returned with the pictures. Unfortunately, only about a third of the pictures that he took got through the water and whatever - he didn't have them properly wrapped - and they appeared in Life magazine of the Normandy invasion- the very first pictures that were taken. But Bob was not very proud of the fact that he abandoned the troops and went back to the ship. It began actually when we came ashore 1200 yards from where we should have come ashore. We scrambled up the bluff. Tom Crowley. The operations officer, Major Tom Crowley, and the telephone and radio operator and I got out of a small boat - the same small boat, by the way, that Al Smith was in. He was coming in with one of the battalions of the 16th Infantry Reserve Battalion. We scrambled up the bluff and when we got top of the bluff, we couldn't believe it. There were signs there: "Achtung Minen". We'd come through a minefield! We knew the mines there, but we didn't think they were as far spread as where we landed. So we were very fortunate. We scrambled up the bluff and found that at least the Germans had put signs up for their own troops, saying "Achtung Minen" in the area that we had just left and then we worked our way back. It was miraculous, it's very difficult to explain how it was that we were able to overcome all these miseries that took place. The weather, the failure of the bombing, the failure of the naval gunfire, the 10,000 man German divisions sitting on Omaha Beach... The good Lord first tested us and then he decided "Enough already" and he protected us. It’s a situation that if I try to analyze it scientifically as an engineer would, I'd say can't be done. People have remarked that that Omaha Beach landing was truly unbelievable.

Our division took light casualties. The entire division reinforced, remember, suffered only 2,500 casualties out of some, oh, 17,500 that came ashore. I told you at the outset that you can anticipate 30 to 40 percent casualties. And because of the experience and knowing when to keep your head down and knowing when to move out and good leadership, they were able to get this job done and still experience relatively low casualty rates. The 1st Infantry Division took its lumps. They always were in the vanguard. It was remarkable that, as I said, they reached Caumont, the city of Caumont, the deepest penetration - stuck out like a sore thumb. Montgomery told the American forces "Back up, we would like to make a straight line." Our commanding general said "Forget it. We fought to take Caumont. We're going to hold it!" And we stayed out there. They set fire to the city. They destroyed all the water lines. Our engineer troops under a fellow named Fred Finlay, Captain Fred Finley, hooked up our pumps - we have pumps for water distribution - to wine vats in the city. Every French city has huge wine vats. We put out the fire using wine. So that the enemy couldn't see where to drop their bombs and where to fire their artillery. So we had to put the fires out. The 1st Division then broke open Saint-Lô so the third army could go through. The 1st Division was moved from Caumont down to Saint-Lô with orders to break through the enemy resistance at Saint-Lô, open the roads, and now, Patton took off and we followed. Third army on the right, first U.S. Army now, of which the 1st Infantry Division was an integral part, following to the left and in rapid order why, the move was made as Montgomery predicted. We arrived in Germany on the Siegfried line by early September, several weeks before. Aachen was one of the toughest battles. It was a major city, the first German city to fall. John Cawley had a big part of that. The 3rd Battalion of the 26th took Aachen. A lot of losses. Rough going. Hürtgen Forest, one of the worst periods in the winter, roads impassable, slugging through heavy forest. Germans using a very unusual kind of shell. The idea would be that they burst in the air, break up and then come down on the heads of the troops instead of firing into the earth and then exploding. They were timed artillery shells. Hürtgen Forest was a bad time for us. I think it was the first major German city where there was hand-to-hand and house-to-house fighting, and the engineers' major role during all of that period was removing these terrible antipersonnel mines that were booby trapped. The Germans were so clever about creating booby traps, you open a door, there was a blast. If you thought that you might like a souvenir, they would leave a beautiful German bayonet. You go to lift the bayonet up, it'll blow you up. Very, very clever and quick. They had far superior weaponry than we did. Their 88 millimeter guns. We had nothing like them. We had a crummy grenade. They had this potato masher grenade. They had a machine pistol that fired *brrrrpppppp*, and we had nothing to compare with it. They had a Mark V tank and a Panther tank. Our tanks couldn't begin to match. They were absolutely superior. It was remarkable. And their soldiers! Those son-of-a-guns were trained. Those were fighters. To kill a German soldier was an accomplishment. They were beautifully trained. Tough going. We didn't do all that really should have been done. We lacked material to get through the forest floor. It was muddy. We had to cut down trees and create essentially roads made out of tree limbs with the branches cut off to allow the tanks to move. There wasn't much we could do. It was a very miserable time. The Germans knew that taking Hürtgen Forest was going to be tough and they withdrew very slowly, firing these shells that were new to us, causing a lot of head injuries, causing a lot of casualties across the board. And it was tough slugging our way through the Hürtgen Forest.

We still meet. The 1st Engineer Combat Battalion meets annually. They have tremendous esprit de corps. I can't always go to the reunions because there are other things, but they meet every year. They gather together and they talk about old times and they have a good time. They're a great organization.

KH: That was WWII veteran Col. Bill Gara.

Next time on Warriors in Their Own Words, we’ll hear from Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy, an Army veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury from an IED in Iraq.

Make sure you’re following the podcast to see this interview in your feed as soon as it’s out.

If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.

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