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J. D. Salinger's "Ritchie Boys" Nightmare Begins: D-Day Normandy June 6, 1944

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Normandy June 6, 1944: The Horror Begins

In the autumn of 1950, at his home in Westport, Connecticut, J. D. Salinger completed The Catcher in the Rye. The achievement was an emotional release. It was confession, purging, prayer, and enlightenment, in a voice so distinct that it would alter American culture.

Holden Caulfield, and the pages that held him, had been the author’s constant companion for most of his adult life. Those pages, the first of them written in his mid-20s, just before he shipped off to Europe as an army sergeant, were so valuable to Salinger that he carried them in his backpack throughout his trek through the Second World War.

His draft of The Cather in the Rye had stormed the beach at Normandy; they had paraded down the streets of Paris, been present at the deaths of countless soldiers in countless places and been carried through the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Holden Caulfield's story was re-written, put aside, and re-written again, the nature of the story changing as the author himself was changed. Once he made it back from the war, in Connecticut, Salinger placed the final line on the final chapter of the book.

It is with Salinger’s experience of war in a mind that we should understand Holden Caulfield’s insight at the Central Park carousel, and the parting words of The Catcher in the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” All the dead soldiers.

Tuesday, June 6, 1944, was a great turning point in the life of J. D. Salinger’s. It is impossible to overstate the impact of D-day and the 11 months of combat that he experienced as he fought his way to the end of the war.

The war, its horrors and lessons, would brand itself upon every aspect of Salinger’s personality which would echo through his work. As a young writer before entering the army, Salinger had had stories published in various magazines, including Collier’s and Story, and he had begun to create members of the Caulfield family, including the famous Holden.

As part of the 4th Counterintelligence Corps (C.I.C.) detachment, Salinger was to land on Utah Beach with the first wave, at 6:30 A.M., but an eyewitness report has him in fact landing during the second wave, about 10 minutes later.

The timing was fortunate. The Channel’s currents had thrown the landing off 2,000 yards to the south, allowing Salinger's division to avoid the most heavily concentrated German defenses along Utah Beach. Within an hour of landing, Salinger was moving inland and heading west, where he and his detachment would eventually connect up with other invasion troops and help establish a bridgehead.

Knocking on the Devils Door

Standing on the flagship Augusta, stationed off the coast of Normandy near Omaha Beach, Lieutenant General Omar Bradly plugged his ears with cotton as his command ship unleashed its massive guns toward the German troops on the beach.

To execute the attack the assault force totaled over 40,000 men and 3,300 vehicles with naval support provided by 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, 12 destroyers and 105 other ships. Just a few hours earlier more than 11,000 planes spearheaded the Allied invasion pounding German defenses all along the coast of Normandy, France.

Deeply concerned about the Allied attack on Omaha Beach, Bradly focused his binoculars on the landing craft as they sped toward the beach. It was estimated that the Nazis had planted 4 million landmines along Normandy's beaches to greet the Allied invasion.

Operation Overlord was the grand Allied plan to land more than 150,000 troops on five invasion beaches, codenamed Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah, and Omaha. The invasion was preceded by an airborne attack involving three divisions, two American and one British. The airborne troops would arrive by glider or parachute to seize key objectives to help support the amphibious landings.

Senior Allied commanders knew the entire invasion plan was incredibly risky. At worst, failure meant losing the war. At best, it meant it would take months, possibly years, to recover in order to try again.

The Second World War had already been raging for over five bloody years, and the 122 million citizens of Europe dreamed of the day when they would be free of the Nazi reign of terror.

The airborne phase was particularly dangerous. General Dwight David Eisenhower, senior commander at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), shouldered the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of Operation Overlord. Eisenhower accepted his role and wrote a brief statement that, in the event of the unthinkable, was to be released to the media. It basically stated, "If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

Senior British commander Leigh-Mallory urged in writing that the American airborne plan should be scrapped. Eisenhower weighed his options and decided it would proceed as planned.

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With the worst weather in the English Channel in 50 years threatening to disrupt the attack, Eisenhower ordered a postponement of one day to June 6, 1944, for the invasion.

Peering through the black smoke covering Omaha Beach to his horror, Bradly watched the first wave of troops wading ashore under murderous rain of machine gun, rifle, mortar, and artillery fire.

Up to a few hours before he had believed that an inferior and overextended German division, the 716th, was holding the coastal area around Omaha Beach. But just before he left England, Allied intelligence had received information that an additional German division had been moved to the invasion area. They arrived too late for Bradley to inform his commanders of the new situation.

Now American troops of the 1st and 29th divisions were quickly heading toward Omaha Beach, oblivious, that the tough, battle-tested 352nd Division now waited for them to land on the beach.

The Allied problem was to land, penetrate the Atlantic Wall, and secure a bridgehead suitable for reinforcement and expansion. If the Germans knew where and when the attack was taking place, they could surely concentrate enough men, tanks, and artillery at the point of attack to defeat the assault.

Amphibious operations are inherently the most difficult to carry out in the art of war. Few amphibious, attacks have ever been successful. In World War II, the record got better. By the end of 1943 the Allies had launched three successful amphibious attacks, one in North Africa, and two in Italy, all under the command of General Dwight David Eisenhower.

However, none of these coastlines had been fortified. These thoughts must have been bouncing about Bradley's head as he watched his troops approach the beaches on June 6,1944.

It was estimated that the Nazis planted 4 million landmines along Normandy's beaches to stop the Allied invasion. Hitler was convinced that if the invaders could be successfully resisted in the early stages of an assault, even for a day, the attack would fail.

H-Hour Bloody Omaha Beach

Everything the Germans had learned in World War I on how to stop frontal assaults by infantry was put to work on Omaha Beach. They laid out the firing positions at angles to the beach to cover the tidal flat and beach shelf with crossing fire, plunging fire, grazing fire from all types of weapons.

No area on the beach was left undefended, and the disposition of weapons meant that flanking fire could be targeted anywhere along the beach. Steep escarpments or bluffs dominated the whole beach trapping the attackers on the beach.

The sand on Omaha Beach is golden in color, firm and fine, perfect for a weekend of sunbathing and picnicking, but overall, it is a narrow beach.

It gave the defender an enclosed battlefield and many obstacles for the attacker to overcome, an ideal place to build fixed fortifications, and a trench system on the slope of the bluff and on the high ground looking down on a wide, open killing field for any infantryman trying to cross no-man's-land.

The water offshore is too cold for swimming an extended period of time without a wetsuit. Many Americans in the first wave who's landing craft were hit by German artillery over a mile from the beach would enter the water with full combat gear.

They either drowned or died of hypothermia before they could swim to the beach. Their boots alone acted as concrete anchors pulling them to the bottom of the channel. The German defensive preparations and the lack of any defense in depth indicated that their plan was to stop the invasion on the beaches.

Three lines of obstacles were constructed in the water. The first line of defense consisted of Belgian Gates with mines attached to the uprights. The second line of defense were logs driven into the sand pointing seaward and also capped with mines, hedgehogs completed the obstacle belt 130 yards from the shoreline.

The landing area along the beach was both mined and wired creating a killing ground for the German defenses along the bluffs that lined Omaha Beach concentrated at 12 strong points.

They prepared artillery positions along the cliffs at either end of the beach, capable of delivering enfilade fire from deadly 88mm cannons all across Omaha Beach. Positions within each German strong point was interconnected trenches and tunnels, over 60 light artillery pieces were deployed at these strong points.

No fewer than 35 pillboxes lined the beach creating a deadly crossfire that raked Omaha with a deadly hail of lead which caught anyone exposed on the beach.

The strong points were further protected by large cement roadblocks. The larger artillery pieces were protected from the sea by concrete barriers. There wasn't one inch of the beach that had not been pre-sighted for both grazing and plunging fire.

The German troops defending Omaha were surprised by such an audacious attack as American landing craft approached the beach.

Along the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach German soldiers watched with disbelief as the landing craft approached their positions, their fingers on the trigger of machine guns, rifles, artillery fuses, or holding mortar round. Although they held the advantage at that moment, they gazed anxiously toward the massive Allied armada which stretched endlessly beyond the horizon.

They must have felt like the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, September 480 B.C., as the Americans unloaded from their landing craft and hit the beach.

The Landing Sites of Normandy

Map of the beaches and first day advances as Allied troops establish a bridgehead.

Map of the beaches and first day advances as Allied troops establish a bridgehead.

Hell's Doorstep

The Allied commanders disliked the idea of assaulting Omaha Beach, but it had to be done. Both Eisenhower and Rommel realized that if the Allied invaded Normandy, they had to include Omaha Beach among the landing sites.

Because the gap between Utah and the British beaches would be too great for a solid bridgehead, so the die was cast for the bloody battle on Omaha Beach.

American generals planned to take the German defenses on Omaha Beach with the use of brute force. With 40,000 men and 3,500 motorized vehicles destined for the beach there would be no shortage of cannon fodder for the Germans manning the defenses on Omaha.

There would be so many targets that the Germans defending the beach would run out of ammunition before they ran out of quarry to shoot. The first wave hitting the beach would consist of 2,000 men, followed soon afterward by another 1,000, most of them would die before they even had a chance for fire back at the enemy.

Next would come wave after wave of landing craft, bringing reinforcements on a tight, strict schedule. The Allied attack was designed to overwhelm the enemy with firepower using M-1 rifles, BARs (Browning Automatic Rifles) to 105mm howitzers, plus amphibious tanks.

During the initial assault, nothing went according to plan. Rough seas swamped the amphibious tanks which were to support the initial attack sending them to the bottom of the channel with their crews. American B-17 bombers missed the German defenses that lined the bluffs above Omaha Beach by more than 2 miles due to cloud cover.

The most intense fire came from those cliffs and high bluffs at either end of the crescent-shaped beach to the amazement of Bradley who watched horrified as the battle unfold aboard his command ship.

From two miles out the landing craft in the second wave began to take fire from the artillery from the German strong points located on the beach. The troops riding inside the landing craft became witnesses to the nightmare that was taking place on the beach.

The air along the beach was filled with desperate screams from the living, who bobbed up and down with the dead, in the ice-cold water surrounding the assault boats as they approached the beach.

The intense fire from the beach forced many of the Allied landing craft to drop their ramps too soon in order to avoid destruction. When the Americans stepped out into the surf many sank three to six feet to the bottom of the surf.

Less than on-third of the men hitting the beach in the first waves survived the bloody walk from the landing craft to the edge of the beach. The battle tested troops of the American 1st Infantry Division took over 2,000 casualties before they crossed the beach and reached the bottom of the bluffs overlooking Omaha.

The beach was littered with dead and wounded reminiscent of a First World War battlefield. The beach became a no-mans-land where nothing living survived.

Utah Beach

Carrying their equipment, U.S. assault troops move onto Utah Beach almost unopposed. Landing craft can be seen in the background.

Carrying their equipment, U.S. assault troops move onto Utah Beach almost unopposed. Landing craft can be seen in the background.

No-Man's-Land on Omaha Beach

Small islands of wounded soldiers dotted the sand across the beach. Passing troops noticed troops sitting bolt upright as though they were immune to any further injury as red-hot shrapnel filled the air. They were seemingly oblivious to the sights and sounds surrounding them.

An American medic in the middle of all this madness attempted to help the wounded, but he didn't know where to start or with whom. He suddenly ran upon a young soldier sitting in the sand with his leg split open from the knee to the pelvis as neatly as though a surgeon had done it with a scalpel.

His wound was so deep, that the medic could clearly see the femoral artery pulsing. The wounded soldier was obviously in a state of deep shock. Calmly he informed the medic he had taken his sulfa pills and shaken all my sulfa powder into the wound.

The gravely wounded soldier looked at the medic and asked, "I'll be all right, won't I?" The nineteen-year-old medic didn't quite know what to say. He gave the helpless soldier a shot of morphine and gave him some assurance he would be alright.

Then he folded the neatly sliced halves of the man's leg together, and carefully closed the wound with safety pins. This is the type of misery the men of the 1st and 29th Infantry divisions endured that day on June 6,1944.

Into the chaos, confusion and death on the beach poured the men of the third wave. The battle had been going on for three hours. Minutes later the fourth wave came in and was stopped cold. Men lay shoulder to shoulder on the surf. They hid behind obstacles and the bodies of the dead.

Pinned down by enemy fire which they had expected to be neutralized; confused by landing in the wrong sectors, dumbfounded by the absence of the shelter craters they had expected from the Air Force bombing, and overwhelmed by the devastation and death all around them the Americans still alive on the beach battled for just on more second of life.

Individual courage and leadership by the American infantryman kept hope alive on Omaha beach when it looked as if the beachhead would have to be written off. Bradley's ruthless determination to succeed turned the tide of war.

Overcome by repeated attacks German pressure finally weakened in the face of the American onslaught. German soldiers manning the strong points on Omaha Beach were crying out for ammunition and reinforcements.

Allied aircraft prevented any reinforcement or re-supply for the Germans defending Omaha Beach. Any attempt to drive an ammunition truck to the forward gun positions on the beach would have been an act of pure suicide.

The combination of naval gunfire and the desperate courage of the isolated Americans led to the fall of the first strong points on Omaha. After three hours of violent combat, the German front began to waver even on bloody Omaha. Eisenhower's gamble on the weather had paid off.

By the day's end the Western Allies had lost over 10,000 men but had put 145,000 on shore and threatened the thin German defense. The Allied beachhead was established.


Ambrose, Stephen. June 6,1944: D-Day the Climatic Battle of World War II... Simon & Schuster, Rockefeller Center 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020. 1994.

Bloom Harold. J.D. Salinger... Infobase Publishing. 132 West 31st Street, New York, NY 10001. 2008

Keegan, John. The Second World War. Penguin Books, 375 Hudson Street New York, NY USA 10014. 1989

Keegan, John. Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris. Penguin Books, 40 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10010, USA. 1983

Ray John. The Illustrated History of WWII. The Orion Publishing Group, Orion House 5 Upper Saint Martin's Lane, London UK WC2H 9EA. 2003

© 2021 Mark Caruthers


Iqra from East County on April 30, 2021:

Hi Mark this is an informative article about the history of D-Day, Codenamed Operation Neptune and often referred to as D-Day, it was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The operation began the liberation of France. Thanks for sharing

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