Excerpt from The Victors by Stephen Ambrose, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Victors

Eisenhower and His Boys - The Men of World War II

by Stephen Ambrose

The Victors by Stephen Ambrose
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  • First Published:
    Sep 1998, 396 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 1999, 255 pages

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USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont, destroyers, saw what was happening and came in close to fire with all guns at the Germans. That helped to drive some of the Germans back from the edge of the cliff. D Company had been scheduled to land on the west side of the point, but because of the error in navigation Rudder signaled by hand that the two LCAs carrying the remaining D Company troops join the other seven and land side by side along the east side.

Lt. George Kerchner, a platoon leader in D Company, recalled that when his LCA made its turn to head into the beach, "My thought was that this whole thing is a big mistake, that none of us were ever going to get up that cliff." But then the destroyers started firing and drove some of the Germans back from the edge of the cliff. Forty-eight years later then retired Colonel Kerchner commented "Some day I would love to meet up with somebody from Satterlee so I can shake his hand and thank him."

The beach at Pointe-du-Hoc was only ten meters in width as the flotilla approached, and shrinking rapidly as the tide was coming in (at high tide there would be virtually no beach). There was no sand, only shingle. The bombardment from air and sea had brought huge chunks of the clay soil from the point tumbling down, making the rocks slippery but also providing an eight-meter buildup at the base of the cliff that gave the rangers something of a head start in climbing the forty-meter cliff.

The rangers had a number of ingenious devices to help them get to the top. One was twenty-five-meter extension ladders mounted in the DUKWs, provided by the London Fire Department. But one DUKW was already sunk, and the other three could not get a footing on the shingle, which was covered with wet clay and thus rather like greased ball bearings. Only one ladder was extended.

Sgt. William Stivinson climbed to the top to fire his machine gun. He was swaying back and forth like a metronome, German tracers whipping about him. Lt. Elmer "Dutch" Vermeer described the scene: "The ladder was swaying at about a forty-five-degree angle -- both ways. Stivinson would fire short bursts as he passed over the cliff at the top of the arch, but the DUKW floundered so badly that they had to bring the fire ladder back down."

The basic method of climbing was by rope. Each LCA carried three pairs of rocket guns, firing steel grapnels which pulled up plain three-quarter-inch ropes, toggle ropes, or rope ladders. The rockets were fired just before touchdown. Grapnels with attached ropes were an ancient technique for scaling a wall or cliff, tried and proven. But in this case, the ropes had been soaked by the spray and in many cases were too heavy. Rangers watched with sinking hearts as the grapnels arched in toward the cliff, only to fall short from the weight of the ropes. Still, at least one grapnel and rope from each LCA made it; the grapnels grabbed the earth, and the dangling ropes provided a way to climb the cliff.

To get to the ropes, the rangers had to disembark and cross the narrow strip of beach to the base of the cliff. To get there they had two problems to overcome. The first was a German machine gun on the rangers' left flank, firing across the beach. It killed or wounded fifteen men as it swept bullets back and forth across the beach.

Colonel Rudder was one of the first to make it to the beach. With him was Col. Travis Trevor, a British commando who had assisted in the training of the rangers. He began walking the beach, giving encouragement. Rudder described him as "a great big [six feet four inches], black-haired son of a gun -- one of those staunch Britishers." Lieutenant Vermeer yelled at him, "How in the world can you do that when you are being fired at?"

Copyright © 1998 by Ambrose Tubbs, Inc. Reproduced by permission of Simon & Schuster.

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