The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach

The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach

by John C. McManus


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From the author of Fire and Fortitude, a white-knuckle account of the 1st Infantry Division’s harrowing D-Day assault on the eastern sector of Omaha Beach—acclaimed historian John C. McManus has written a gripping history that will stand as the last word on this titanic World War II battle.

Nicknamed the Big Red One, 1st Division had fought from North Africa to Sicily, earning a reputation as stalwart warriors on the front lines and rabble-rousers in the rear. Yet on D-Day, these jaded combat veterans melded with fresh-faced replacements to accomplish one of the most challenging and deadly missions ever. As the men hit the beach, their equipment destroyed or washed away, soldiers cut down by the dozens, courageous heroes emerged: men such as Sergeant Raymond Strojny, who grabbed a bazooka and engaged in a death duel with a fortified German antitank gun; T/5 Joe Pinder, a former minor-league pitcher who braved enemy fire to save a vital radio; Lieutenant John Spalding, a former sportswriter, and Sergeant Phil Streczyk, a truck driver, who together demolished a German strong point overlooking Easy Red, where hundreds of Americans had landed.

Along the way, McManus explores the Gap Assault Team engineers who dealt with the extensive mines and obstacles, suffering nearly a fifty percent casualty rate; highlights officers such as Brigadier General Willard Wyman and Colonel George Taylor, who led the way to victory; and punctures scores of myths surrounding this long-misunderstood battle.

The Dead and Those About to Die draws on a rich array of new or recently unearthed sources, including interviews with veterans. The result is history at its finest, the unforgettable story of the Big Red One’s nineteen hours of hell—and their ultimate triumph—on June 6, 1944.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524745509
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/21/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 409,888
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

John C. McManus is the author of Grunts, Alamo in the Ardennes, and September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far. He earned a PhD in American and Military History from the University of Tennessee, where he served as Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society and was a Normandy Scholar. As a leading authority on the Normandy invasion, he holds a Cantigny First Division Museum Fellowship. He is currently a full professor of U.S. Military History at Missouri University of Science and Technology, where he teaches a variety of courses, including one on World War II and another on the Modern American Combat Experience. He also serves as the official historian for the United States Army’s Seventh Infantry Regiment.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


Seven months earlier, almost to the day, a gloomy autumn mist blanketed the docks of Liverpool. The early November air was chilly but crisp and invigorating. By the thousands, soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, many of whom were hard-core survivors of bitter fighting in North Africa and Sicily, descended wooden gangways and set foot upon the venerable soil of England. A band played "Dixie," followed by "The Sidewalks of New York." As the soldiers made their way to troop trains, a bevy of sharply contrasting emotions pervaded their ranks. Some were just happy to be out of combat. Many daydreamed about the pleasures Britain offered-pubs, beer, liquor, sightseeing, shelter, running water, but most of all, women. Some of those who had been with the division during its pre-combat training in Britain the year before looked forward to renewing acquaintances with British friends. In several instances, men were so excited that they let out spontaneous whoops of joy. "You can imagine the crescendo that crushed the ears of all within miles," Captain Joe Dawson, a company commander, wrote to his family in an attempt to describe the exaltation of his men.

But there was an undercurrent of tension and gloom, too. The return to England could only mean one thing: the Big Red One was returning to combat, probably in the forthcoming invasion of Hitler's Europe. After nearly a year of fighting, and a slew of victories in the Mediterranean theater, many of the soldiers felt they had earned the right to go home. Already fiercely proud of their outfit, and resentful of most outside authority, they had developed a cynical world-weariness that, for some, bordered on self-pity. After the Sicily campaign, hopeful rumors had spread that the division would be rotated back to the States to train new recruits. When the men boarded ships and found out they were heading to England, and thus eventually back to action, "it caused," in the recollection of one rifleman, "a lot of trouble among the soldiers, a lot of unrest and anger." For Lieutenant John Downing and his men, "the hope of going to the States . . . died hard. We could be sure . . . if we didn't go home this time, we wouldn't go home until the end of the war."

Many of the veterans felt this was unfair and unnecessary. They complained bitterly about the idea of going back into combat. After all, they had been fortunate enough to survive to this point; more prolonged action almost certainly meant that their chances of survival would be diminished. A man could evade the law of averages only so long before his luck ran out. "Their feeling was there must be other infantry units in the United States Army that could be utilized in the assault on Western Europe," Private Steve Kellman explained. There were, of course, other units, but none quite like the Big Red One. The division's experience in amphibious assaults made it indispensable to invasion planners (not to mention its familiarity in the very sort of town fighting, river crossings, mountain fighting, and combined arms maneuver warfare that would follow in the months after the invasion). Among the American infantry divisions available for the coming invasion of Omaha beach, none had actually assaulted a hostile shore. Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commander of the First Army, with control over all U.S. ground forces in the coming invasion, knew this all too well. "Although I disliked subjecting the 1st to still another major landing," he wrote, "I felt that as commander I had no other choice. My job was to get ashore, establish a lodgment, and destroy the German. In the accomplishment of that mission, there was little room for the niceties of justice. I felt compelled to employ the best troops I had. As a result the division that deserved compassion as a reward for its previous ordeals now became the inevitable choice for our most difficult job." In essence, they could not be spared. The task ahead was far too important and far too challenging.

At Liverpool, the troops boarded trains that took them to southern England, where they would settle in and begin a new round of training. Many were miffed at the standing order to remove, for reasons of secrecy, shoulder patches and all other indicators of their unit affiliation. The lack of identifying unit insignia made them look like newly arrived stateside replacements instead of proud combat veterans. It seemed a direct affront to their pride and status. Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Wright, the division quartermaster, was so incensed at the order that he simply refused to follow it. Military police caught him, wrote him up, and referred his case to the First Army Provost Marshal. His defiance eventually evaporated, but only after the threat of a court-martial. He and thousands of other like-minded veterans grumbled, but swallowed their pride and complied with the order.

Even worse, in the view of many Big Red One soldiers, was something else that had happened near the end of the Sicily campaign. Bradley had decided to relieve Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, the 1st Division's popular and colorful commanding officer. Allen was a soldier's soldier, a down-to-earth cavalryman who loved polo, whiskey, and earthy language. The son of a West Point graduate and the grandson of a Civil War officer, he was born to be a soldier. As a young man, Allen had washed out of West Point because of his independent nature and maverick tendencies, a dismissal that must have smarted for the scion of such a distinguished military family. True to his resilient nature, though, he rebounded from the setback to earn a degree from the Catholic University of America and a subsequent Regular Army commission. Allen's personality meshed perfectly with the independent professionalism of the 1st Infantry Division.

In combat, he was the embodiment of an inspirational commander-courageous, relentless, and energetic-the sort of general who circulated easily among subordinates from the lowest-ranking private to staff officers. On the Tunisian front, he had made a point of regularly visiting the forward positions and speaking to each man personally. "There is nothing that is more inspiring than to have a general walking about the front lines when the bullets are flying, talking with the men," one of his aides wrote about him in a letter home. "He doesn't know what the word fear is and he is just like a hypodermic to the men of his command."

He had little patience for niceties. In action, he dressed in a simple, rumpled olive-drab uniform, helmet often askew or at his side, smoking cigarettes, grinning, tossing around one-liners. He was a natural backslapper and storyteller. He enjoyed an easy familiarity with his men, yet he managed to maintain a strong command presence. Almost everyone who served in the 1st had encountered him firsthand and had come to love him, in part because of his magnetic personality, in part because of his competence, but mostly because of his obvious concern for their welfare. "Do your job," he once told his division. "We don't want . . . dead heroes. We're not out for glory. We're here to do a dirty, stinking job." Over the many months of combat in North Africa and Sicily, he had inculcated an aggressive spirit in his division. True to his cavalry roots, he believed in swift maneuvers, slash and dash, night attacks and esprit de corps.

He cared little for his own promotion or his postwar military career. Command of the unit was the limit of his ambition. The men sensed that they were his first priority, and they loved him for it. "General Allen was loved by his soldiers because he really cared about them," Corporal Sam Fuller once wrote. "He didn't give a damn about playing politics or being famous." Allen had no tolerance for anyone who messed with his boys, whether that meant the Germans or higher command. In combat, this attitude contributed to success, but when the unit was off the line, it sometimes led to disciplinary problems. In the Mediterranean, the 1st earned a reputation as a hard-fighting outfit on the line, but a hard-drinking, rebellious, troublemaking group away from combat, contemptuous of rear-echelon troops, higher authority, and, for that matter, anyone who wasn't affiliated with the division. Allen seemed not only to tolerate this attitude but to encourage it, at least in the view of Bradley, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, and other senior officers in the theater. The most notorious example occurred in the spring of 1943, after the Tunisia campaign. The combat-weary men of the division yearned to visit the bars and brothels of Oran, a city they had actually captured during the initial invasion of North Africa back in the fall of 1942. However, only soldiers in rear-echelon-style khaki uniforms were allowed into the city. The Big Red One soldiers were still clothed in the same filthy olive-drab wool uniforms they had worn all winter during the hard fighting among the hills of Tunisia. The combat men felt that if anyone should enjoy the pleasures of Oran, it should be the front-line soldiers who routinely risked their lives. Therefore, they deeply resented being excluded from the city at the expense of the "typewriter commandos," as they often referred to the service troops.

Allen was clearly sympathetic to the views of his men. He defied the off-limits order and issued passes for his soldiers to enjoy some R&R in the city. A substantial amount of brawling, drinking, and mayhem ensued, involving both officers and enlisted men. "I can still remember the feeling I had when I landed a punch to some fat major's belly," Captain Edward Kuehn said. "We had taken Oran before, and we had lost a lot of good men doing it. Rearguard troops were not going to keep us from taking it this time, either." When Patton complained to Allen about the behavior of his soldiers, and demanded that he rein them in, Allen backed them to the hilt. "The troops have been in the line for six goddamned months," he exclaimed. "Let them celebrate getting back alive. It will stop soon." This was a revealing reaction and decision on Allen's part. A more career-conscious officer would have been eager to do the bidding of his superiors, regardless of what his men might have thought about that. Allen was different. Certainly his soldiers came first on his list of priorities, but perhaps he was also eager to remain popular among them even if that meant alienating the higher-ups.

In the view of senior officers, the Oran clashes represented more than just the usual tension between combat soldiers and rear-echelon types. Bradley, for instance, came to believe that a distinct whiff of parochialism, self-pity, and disregard for discipline and the chain of command emanated from the Big Red One. The soldiers had become a little too loyal to Allen and his equally charismatic assistant division commander, Ted Roosevelt, son of the former president. "Roosevelt was too much like Allen," Bradley wrote. "They looked upon discipline as an unwelcome crutch to be used by less able and personable commanders." The intense loyalty the troops held for these two generals was, in Bradley's estimation, coming at the expense of the greater loyalty soldiers owed to the Army as a whole. "Under Allen the 1st Division had become increasingly temperamental, disdainful of both regulations and senior commands," Bradley wrote. "It thought itself exempt from the need for discipline by virtue of its months on the line. And it believed itself the only division carrying its fair share of the war. Allen had become too much of an individualist to submerge himself without friction in the group undertakings of war." For the low-key Bradley, a duty-first man who disdained talented mavericks and nonconformity as a whole, the only sensible course of action was to remove Allen. In August 1943, near the end of the Sicily campaign, he fired him. Roosevelt also got the ax, in part because Bradley felt that he, too, had failed to enforce proper discipline and also because "Allen . . . would feel deeply hurt if he were to leave the division and Roosevelt were to remain." Both Patton and Eisenhower concurred with the decision.

Word of the firings hit the division like a sledgehammer. It was hard for the men to understand why such a successful commander had been cashiered. Some were resentful over Allen's relief; their bitterness hardened into anger at the brass and, ironically, an even more insular attitude about their division's greatness and the uselessness of all outsiders. Those who were a bit more even-tempered, like Lieutenant John Downing, simply thought of it as "a bad omen. If a new general took command, we could be sure we would continue on somewhere in combat." These suppositions were, of course, absolutely correct. Other men were simply mystified or sad. "He was the best liked commander that we ever had," Captain Charles Murphy, a company commander, told an interviewer decades later. On the evening Allen left to go home, Captain Dawson, who had worked closely with him, wrote to his family about the melancholy mood that pervaded the ranks: "Terry left tonight, and with him went a record unequaled by any general officer in the divisions of the U.S. Army. We've been through a lot and we all feel keenly sad about his going."

Under these circumstances, a lot was riding on Bradley's selection of a replacement for Allen. Fortunately, he made a very wise choice in Major General Clarence Huebner, a man whose personality could hardly have been more different from Allen's, but whose competence and courage were every bit his equal. Whereas Allen was born to soldiering, Huebner was drawn to it. While Allen's success was a testament to resilience and charisma, Huebner's was a testament to the Army's culture of meritocracy (at least for white men). Born to a non-military Kansas wheat-farming family, Huebner was educated in a one-room school of the sort that pervaded frontier lore. Hardened by an outdoor life of farm chores, he was an athletic youth, though he was only of medium build and height. He played football, baseball, and basketball in high school. During track season, he was a pole-vaulter. At the age of twenty, with a high school diploma to his credit, he went to work as a railroad secretary. He had no desire to spend his life as a clerk, though. In 1910 he left the job and decided to join the Army, enlisting as a cook in the 18th Infantry Regiment, a unit that became part of the 1st Division seven years later. Huebner discovered that he was a natural soldier. Over the next seven years, he rocketed from private to master sergeant. In 1916, he passed a competitive examination to become an officer and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in November of that year. By the time the division deployed to France in the spring of 1917, he was a first lieutenant. His combat record in World War I was one of the finest of that or any other war. In eighteen months of frontline leadership, he rose from a first lieutenant, leading a platoon, to a lieutenant colonel, leading a regiment at the tender age of thirty. He earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor, as well as the Distinguished Service Medal, for outstanding service. He also received a Silver Star, the Purple Heart (for a bad shrapnel wound above his right eye during the Battle of Soissons) and numerous French decorations. Huebner's success as a commander came from personal bravery, his calm demeanor, and a keen intelligence. After the war he served in a variety of battalion and regimental commands, within the 1st Division and other outfits. He also attended numerous Army training schools including the Command and General Staff School and the Army War College. By the summer of 1943, the fifty-five-year-old Huebner was a two-star general serving on British Field Marshal Harold Alexander's Fifteenth Army Group staff in the Mediterranean theater. His hair had thinned out and gone gray, but his square jaw and bright blue eyes hinted at a remnant of youth.

Table of Contents

Foreword 1

Prologue: Shock 7

Chapter 1 Background 19

Chapter 2 Intentions 55

Chapter 3 H-Hour 67

Chapter 4 Survivors 119

Chapter 5 Brass 177

Chapter 6 Reinforcements 199

Chapter 7 Inland 217

Chapter 8 Support 241

Chapter 9 Beachhead 271

Chapter 10 Meaning 289

Acknowledgments 305

Selected Bibliography 313

Endnotes 317

Index 359

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“[A] simply magnificent narrative of one of the most famous and gripping events of modern military history.”—Paul Kennedy, New York Times bestselling author of Engineers of Victory

“This is gripping history—beautifully and masterfully told by one of America’s premier historians.”—Patrick K. O’Donnell, national bestselling author of Dog Company

“Magnificent! I could not put this book down!”—Joseph Balkoski, author of Omaha Beach and Utah Beach

“A gripping account of the desperate battle for Omaha Beach on D-Day by the legendary 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.”—Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War


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