On the Way to Omaha Beach

by Bernard Bellush an American GI

Sergeant Bernard Bellush

served in the

616 Ordnance Ammunition Company

2nd April 1944 –

7 Officers and 204 Enlisted Men

C.O. Captain Elmer W. Robison

"... Arrived Barry, Glam, Wales, 26 November 1943 and re-joined Service Platoon at this station. Entire company departed Barry Glam 6 December 43 and arrived at Glamorgan at Swansea (sic) same day."

This collection of Bernard's memories is in three parts, with the addition of his Memoriam.

Part One

616 Ordnance Ammunition Company

“Comings and Goings” (1944)

“During the absence of the First Team from Swansea twelve men from the American School Center, ETOUSA, (European Theater of Operations, United States Army) joined us on January 30th. On February 4th Lieutenant John I Hodges of Seattle, Washington, reached us and was assigned to the First Team with Lieutenant McPartland. A week later eleven men from Iceland, who had been among the first to be sent to that isolated American outpost, joined us at Singleton. Some of them had left the State two years ago, handled ammunition all that period, but still no rotation home. Officers and men went to, and returned from, camouflage, bomb disposal, water safety, and transportation schools.

On 17th (February 1944) we were attached to the 251st Ordnance Battalion for “administration, supply and training,” though it seems only the first of the three have been stressed.

On the 22nd the company reluctantly moved across town atop Manselton Hill. Camp Manselton was dreary, and less hospitable in appearance than the grass covered campus grounds at Singleton. The city of Swansea lay peacefully below us, but only when covered with a thin mantle of snow did it look clean and pretty. It was always cold and damp, and snow seldom fell on this bustling seaport...

Time to Leave for the Last Time

....Within weeks we (the 616th) bade farewell to the swell times we had enjoyed in Swansea, to the good friends we had made there, and to the beautiful countryside through which we had hiked so often.

On 23rd April 1944, the First Team left with 37th Engineer Combat Battalion and the Third Team with the 348th Engineer Combat Battalion for Dorchester in South England.

The Second departed from Swansea on 25th, finally reaching Cornwall, England on May 10th.

Part Two

I visit a Blitzed Swansea

By Sergeant Bernard Bellush, penned on November 14 1944

… We were moved by truck on December 6th 1943, to Swansea, a much larger town. Our first glimpse of the worst-blitzed city in Britain was seen from the back of a covered GI truck, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. It seemed that the city had all but been levelled by Goering’s air fleet.

After we had settled on the fair campus grounds of Singleton University, just outside of Swansea, we visited the “destroyed” city. The double-decker tram took us towards Swansea port, from which point we walked by bomb-shattered churches to the centre of the city at High Street. Looking about us we saw, at first hand, the meaning of the word blitz.

College Street, Swansea after the 1941 Blitz.

The editor: I was reliably informed by a retired Architect, that the American Army cleared the remains of many of the bombed buildings as a training exercise, before they left for Normandy.

Some 15 square blocks, the heart of the business district, had been completely levelled. Only shattered, ghostly brick walls, jutting up indiscriminately, remained of once crowded business establishments. But the “Swansea folk” did not stare at these ruins as we did. They accepted them now as a matter of cold fact, just as they did the black out and air raid drills

After a few visits to town we learned to expect fish and chips, and little more in “restaurants.” The British people, as a whole, were sincere in their endeavours to make us feel at home. Many civilians warmly welcomed GI’s into their small apartments, offering them part of their own rationed foods. But we insisted – at first – on having “…only some tea, if you don’t mind,” as we had been advised by our officers.

The American Red Cross offered us GI’s sandwiches, drinks, and reading material, as did British service organisations. Weekly dances at the adjoining ATS camp, at the American Red Cross, and nightly ones at the Patti Pavilion, helped us while away many pleasant hours. And there were sufficient “cinema” houses for those who cared for movies.

Those who were acquainted with classical and semi-classical music were able to attend concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra, and other visiting artists, at beautiful Brangwyn Hall in Swansea’s modern Municipal building. When taking the tram in the other direction we found many scenic beauties awaiting us at the end of the line. The Pier at Mumbles reminded us just a bit of Coney Island and similar sites back home.

Our days at Singleton were usually taken up with lectures presented by non-coms on every military subject… At least once every day we would be off on a hike on Clyne common… After chow most of the fellows disappeared into Swansea, in the direction of Mumbles, or up the hill to the movies at Sketty. There was always something doing somewhere…

Sergeant Bernard Bellush in 2000

An aerial view of Singleton Park, American Camp, Swansea

Part Three

On the Way to Omaha Beach

Reared as a pacifist by my mother, I was never permitted to play with a toy gun. It wasn’t until after I was drafted by the Army on November 15, 1942 — two days after I had submitted my master’s thesis on Eugene Victor Debs — that I first encountered the military and learned how to handle a rifle.

I quickly became adept with an M-1 rifle and, to my utter amazement, was designated the sharpshooter of my Army unit, the 616th Ordnance Ammunition Company.

After long months of training in Kentucky, Tennessee and on the beautiful beaches of South Wales in Britain, I soon realized that we were being prepared for the invasion of Western Europe. By June 1, 1944, we were in the environs of Plymouth, England, part of the 5th Engineer Special Brigade, otherwise known as Combined Operations. We were advised that our unit would be landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, three hours after the first infantryman had landed — or “H+3” in military parlance.

Loading an amphibious DUKW onto LST-376, before D Day.

We were to be carried across the English Channel aboard LST 376, a heavy Landing Ship Tank laden with Army trucks, military supplies and hundreds of soldiers. After an aborted start on June 4 because of stormy weather, we left Plymouth the following day, surrounded by naval vessels of every size and description. Throughout the daylight hours, our heaving, windswept LST — towing a barge-like “rhino-ferry” behind it — lumbered slowly across the English Channel.

As our Allied armada made its way through the rough waters, my commanding officer suddenly approached me on the heaving deck and hurled a totally unexpected order at me. Since there was no chaplain on board our LST, he was appointing me acting chaplain for the day, and directed me to conduct religious services for all, that very afternoon. To carry out the order, I called upon the help of a Catholic and a Protestant: one read to the gathered troops the Lord’s Prayer, the other a relevant section from the Army prayer book.

In the short space of time allotted to me, I decided to offer a sermon based upon the efforts of the courageous Jewish fighters in the previous year’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. From reading the weekly New Republic magazine, which reached me irregularly overseas, I had learned about this comparatively recent revolt long before the general public was aware of it. Surrounded by ships stretching to the distant horizons, I looked into the anxious eyes of men who knew not what to expect the next day on the beaches of Normandy. I sought to reassure them as best I could.

I reminded them that the Warsaw Jews, imprisoned within their ghetto, had finally revolted against the mighty Nazi army with a minuscule number of rifles and machine guns. Despite the overwhelming number of powerful German cannons, machine guns and howitzers, despite the huge, lumbering tanks that mowed them down street by street, the Jews of Warsaw fought to the last woman and man.

At the least, I reasoned, they could be role models for us to emulate. In sharp contrast to the ghetto fighters, I reminded my fellow GIs, we would land on Omaha Beach supported by the greatest array of armament, ships and planes ever assembled by any one group of nations in the history of humankind.

Did I calm or strengthen any of those nervous soldiers? I don’t know to this day.

In the dark, early morning hours of June 6, the ship’s engines suddenly stopped and the anchor was dropped. We had reached our designated point near Normandy. A few miles ahead, in pitch-black darkness, lay our ultimate destination: Omaha Beach. We began the laborious process of transferring trucks laden with our companies’ supplies from the LST to the rhino-ferry, which would serve as our landing craft.

But — fortunately for those of us in the 616th Ordnance Ammunition Company — a number of unexpected mishaps delayed our arrival on Omaha Beach far beyond “H+3.” Much later in the day, we finally spotted the murderous beach.

Across its length and breadth, above and below the high-tide level of now-turbulent waters, the Germans had built every type of death-dealing obstacle known to humankind. Along the entire crest of the cliffs looming over the beach, the Germans had constructed several levels of cement-lined trenches. It all added up to a miniature Maginot Line.

The orientation lectures we had received just before we shoved off for France never adequately described the immense overhanging cliffs just beyond Omaha Beach. They reminded those of us from the New York City area of the towering Palisades lining the western shore of the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge. From the commanding heights, the Germans decimated the waves of GIs who landed on the beach in the early hours of D-Day.

The Germans’ 88mm gun emplacements, nestled into the cliffs, also fired away with great precision at Allied transport ships. After observing German firepower set ablaze the rhino-ferry to our right and another to our left, I started shedding clothes from my overweight backpack — fearing that we would be hit next and that I would be forced to swim to shore to stay alive. The most valuable items I threw overboard were my size-14 socks, an extremely rare item in Uncle Sam’s army. Logistically, it made no sense whatsoever, but who, at this critical moment, was sensible?

As our luck would have it, our rhino-ferry was not hit, and we did not land on the beach until late on D-Day. By then, our destroyers had pinpointed and destroyed German armaments and our GIs had managed to infiltrate and capture the trenches on the top crests. The next morning, we set up the first American ammunition depot on Omaha Beach.

By December 1944, after Omaha Beach had been closed down, my Army unit was transferred to an ancient fort in the once-busy French port of Cherbourg. Once again, we were handling a steady flow of ammunition from the United States to our fighting forces on distant front lines.

And so went the war. In early May 1945, while our team from the 616th Ordnance Ammunition Company was playing baseball against another Army unit, I broke my right ankle while sliding into home plate. But I scored the winning run.

Author

Bernard Bellush

In Memoriam: Bernard Bellush

BERNARD BELLUSH (1917–2011)

Mark A. Stoler | May 1, 2012

HISTORIAN OF LABOR AND THE NEW DEAL, COMMITTED TEACHER, POLITICAL ACTIVIST

Bernard Bellush, Professor Emeritus of History at the City College of New York (CCNY), died of natural causes at age 94 on December 30, 2011 in White Plains, New York.

Born in the Bronx, New York, on November 15, 1917, Bellush attended New York City public schools, graduated from CCNY in 1941, and then entered the history graduate program at Columbia University. He was raised in a politically active leftist household and was active himself politically during his years at CCNY, and indeed throughout his life. Part of the famous Shepherd Hall "Alcove Number One" group of student radicals at CCNY during the 1930s (as discussed in the book and movie Arguing with the World), he identified with Norman Thomas's Socialist Party and wrote his MA thesis on Eugene V. Debs.

Despite a pacifist upbringing, Bellush did not apply for conscientious objector status during World War II; instead he was inducted into the U.S. Army on November 14, 1942—the same day he handed in his MA thesis on Debs and one day before his 25th birthday. He rose to the rank of sergeant and took part in the June 6, 1944, D-Day landing at Omaha Beach in Normandy—a harrowing experience that left him with a lifelong fear of cliffs. He remained proud of his service throughout the rest of his life, served on the national board of the American Veterans Committee, and often marched in uniform during the July 4th parades in the small towns of Vermont where he often spent the summer.

After the war Bellush continued his graduate studies at Columbia under the G.I. Bill, with Alan Nevins as his dissertation adviser. He received the PhD degree in 1951 and joined the CCNY faculty in that same year. While at Columbia he also met another history graduate student, Jewel Lubin. She would become his wife in 1947 and have a distinguished academic career of her own in the political science Department at Hunter College in New York. . . .

He frequently lectured on history and baseball, and often appeared together with his wife, Jewel Bellush, also a historian.

He is survived by Jewel Bellush, 87, his wife of 64 years, and their children and grandchildren.

Read Bernard Bellush’s Forward column about fighting in World War II and his column on the protests against the war in Iraq.