by Leon Pantenburg
Ahead of the soldiers lay “Fortress Europe.” Behind them was the rising sea. At stake, was the final outcome of World War II.
June 6, 2010 marks the 66th anniversary of D-Day. Today, I hope to honor my friend, Bob Shotwell, 86, of La Pine, Oregon, by posting his recollections. As a member of the 149th Amphibious Combat Engineers, Private Shotwell landed in the first wave of the Dog Red section of Omaha Beach.
Soldiers head for Omaha Beach from the Higgins Landing Craft.
I was priviliged to interview 12 World War II veterans for a Bend, Oregon, Bulletin Special Section “Vanishing Heroes,” which was published on Veterans Day, 2007. Here is an excerpt from Private Shotwell’s story as he heads toward Omaha Beach at dawn in a Higgins landing craft.
“The noise was deafening. Big guns fired, engines on vehicles roared, men shouted and gysers of water errupted around our craft. It seemed like mass confusion.”
Still, Shotwell said he wasn’t really scared.
“I felt excited, probably because I had no combat experience at all,” he said. “Like most kids, I had this feeling of invincibility and I though nothing could happen to me.”
Images of Omaha Beach
That feeling “evaporated” as the boat stopped and the front ramp went down. The Germans had every inch of the beach presighted for accurate firing of mortars, machine guns, and 88mm cannons. The slaughter started before the soldiers disembarked, and the first wave was almost decimated.
“The guy in front of me had his head blown off by an 88 before we even got off the boat,” Shotwell said. “We started running for shore as soon as the gate flopped down.”
The survivors waded about 20 yards through waist-deep water, and ran and crawled about 200 yards inland and took cover behind a “shingle,” a one-to-three foot tall bank of small, rounded stones. The shingle was covered with concertina wire and offered protections from machine gun and small arms fire, but not from mortars.
“We were supposed to secure the beach and take out the mines,” Shotwell said. “But to lift your head above the shingle was almost certain death from a machine gun or sniper bullet.”
A few soldiers who tried to advance were killed immediately.
“We were desperate to move forward, because then the guns on the cliffs couldn’t be depressed enough to fire on us,” Shotwell said. “But until we got re-enforcements with bangalore torpedoes to blow the wire, all we could do was stay put.”
Shotwell’s images of that part of D Day are fuzzy.
“Bits and pieces pop into focus…a hand. An arm with no body around it. A foot. A helmet with a head still in it,” Shotwell said. “I wondered if the next shell would be mine.”
By late afternoon, enough equipment had come ashore that the engineers could start clearing the wire. In the face of heavy fire, Shotwell and other engineers blew holes in the wire and advanced to the bluffs.
They stopped at nightfall, and Shotwell, exhausted, “slept fitfully” about halway up the cliff.
By nightfall of June 6, about 175,00 Allied military personnel were ashore in France. But the cost had been very high – some 4,900 died on the beaches and in the battle further inland that day.
Of the 40 combat engineers who landed at Dog Red in the first wave, only four were alive at the end of the day. The next morning, Shotwell reached the top of the cliffs.
He looked out to sea, over the armada of 5,00o anchored ships, with a sense of disbelief, and surprise that he was still alive.
The day after the battle, Shotwell looked out over the Allied Armada from the cliffs over Omaha Beach. He still couldn’t grasp the enormity of what he had been part of.
“So this is France, I thought,” he said. “I had no idea of what I had just been a part of.”
Shotwell went on to fight in four major combat actions before the war was over. He was recommended for the Silver Star for his part in the crossing of the Rhine River in Germany.
Like many veterans, Shotwell rarely mentions his service, and initially, was reluctant to let me interview him for the “Vanishing Heroes” project.
His memories have “thankfully softened,” he said.
“War memories are best held in limbo,” he said. “They take on a softer glow that way. Most of my memories of World War II are of the pleasant things. I try to forget the bad things.”
But Shotwell does remember an attitude which helped him and his buddies get through the hell of Omaha Beach.
“We didn’t want to make a D Day type landing on some American beach, and we didn’t want to make a combat crossing of the Mississippi, and we didn’t want that kind of fighting going on in some small town in America,” Shotwell said. “We were thankful we could be the line of defence between our enemies and our homes.”
We can’t thank these servicemembers enough, so on this anniversary of D Day, let’s thank ALL veterans of ALL American wars for their service to this country! God bless you!
ABOUT LEON: Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and a wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker, two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships, and a freelance writer for the Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Or.