NPR: These young men who went were very well trained but very inexperienced. If they had any combat experience - they would perhaps have not gone ashore. Is that possible?
Ambrose: That's why Eisenhower insisted on having inexperienced troops, inexperienced to combat. They were very well trained. In those first waves - as one of the Rangers put it later - an experienced infantryman is a terrified infantryman. He's seen what bullets can do ... . He tends to be very cautious. The guy going into combat for the first time - 18, 19, 20-years-old - is full of bluff and bluster ... ``It can't happen to me,'' is his attitude...
You tell the story of one landing boat. When the ramp dropped, the 30-man assault team was killed before it could get out of the boat.
The Germans had them locked into a crossfire from the machine guns and mortar fire. And when that ramp dropped, the Germans opened up on them. Actually the captain managed to get to the edge of the ramp before he was cut down. He fell into the water. The rest ... were just slaughtered in the boat. That company, Company A of the 116th, came from one town, Bedford, Va. They suffered 96 percent casualties in five minutes without firing a shot. It was just a massacre.
Omaha Beach, 10 kilometers wide. Every square inch has been pre-sighted and diagramed by the Germans.
For big guns, for 88s, for their heavy mortars, for their light mortars, for their machine guns, and the riflemen in the trenches. All had zeroed in on that beach and knew when the landing craft came down at this spot or that spot they call out the coordinates and drop an 88 shell on it or a mortar shell, immediately.
Now, the guys coming ashore, many of them had been told, ``Don't worry. There will be bombers taking care of this coastline. If those bombs don't work the naval ships offshore in the channel will start firing, and it will be a piece of cake...'' What happened?
The air bombardment was delayed by the pilots and the bombardiers on the B-17s. They were at 11,000 feet. There was a heavy cloud cover. They couldn't see the target. They were operating by radar. And they were afraid of hitting incoming troops. So they delayed a fatal two seconds after crossing the coastline before they hit that drop button. As a result, the bombs, which in their totality were 10 kilotons, the equivalent of what went down on Hiroshima, all fell [several] kilometers inland. They killed a lot of Norman cows. Killed, unfortunately, many French civilians. Didn't kill one German. Not a single bomb fell on that beach. Then the Naval bombardment also went high. It was too short in ... duration because surprise seemed to be more important than a thorough drenching. In the Pacific, the Navy guns would pound Japanese positions for two or three days...
Then a third thing they had been told: ``Swimming tanks are going to come in beside you.'' These were Sherman tanks that had [rubberized, inflated] skirts on them ... and they really could swim if the water was calm. ``And these tanks will come in beside you. There won't be any Germans left on that beach. You can get behind those tanks. They'll go up the draws, the ravines, and take you to the top of that bluff. And that's when your war will begin.''
But of the 35 Sherman tanks launched, 32 sank. They couldn't handle the heavy surf... So the infantrymen at Omaha were huddled behind that sea wall if they made it there - and many didn't... The first wave [was] leaderless, disorganized, exhausted, terrified. Nothing was as they had been told to expect it to be. This was a critical moment, not only on D-Day but for World War II.
And you can even go beyond that. This was a test of systems, a test of who is going to prevail in the 20th century, the totalitarians or the democracies. Hitler was certain that his youngsters brought up in the Nazi Youth, with their unquestioning obedience, would always be better soldiers than the kids brought up in the Boy Scouts, that the children of democracy would be soft and even effeminate and unable to stand the rigors of modern warfare.
These men are seasick and they've carried too much weight ashore. They're absolutely exhausted ... and 2,000 died... What happens now?
Over here a lieutenant, over there a captain, somewhere else a sergeant came to three conclusions. One, the plan is dead. Forget it. Two, you can't go back. Going back down to that beach is the wrong direction, and you're going to take a murderous fire... Three, if we stay here we're going to get killed from mortar fire. From those realizations came the conclusion, ``We've got to go forward.''
Now, had they been German officers they would have gotten on their radios and called their officers and said, ``What ... do we do now?'' It never occurred to these American kids to get on the radio and call back to [General] Bradley or Colonel Taylor... They saw what needed to be done, they seized the initiative, and they did it...
And over here, five privates that didn't even know this officer's name and over there 10 and somewhere else 15 would see him going up that bluff and say, ``Well ... if he can do that, so can I.'' We know the first man who got up. His name was Joe Dawson. He's going to be introducing the president at Omaha Beach on June 6th... Joe commanded Company G of the 16th Infantry. He came ashore with 200 men. He got to the top of the bluff with 20 men, but he got to the top of the bluff. And then there are many that we'll never know their names. It was a triumph of democracy really. It was a great moment in the history of this republic.