Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944
Remember the opening scene in "Saving Private Ryan" where the officer takes over the beach breakout?
That really happened, and the guy's name was Brigadier General Norm Cota.
In World War II, (then Colonel) Cota was involved in the successful North African invasion Operation Torch. Next, he was instrumental in the conceptual planning for Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily. Promoted to Brigadier General, he served as the United States adviser to the Combined Operations Division in the UK to observe and supervise the preparations for the seaborne invasion of France, Operation Overlord.
During the planning phases, BG Cota adamantly opposed daylight landings, believing pre-dawn landings would stand a better chance of success. Made Assistant Division commander of the 29th Infantry Division, slated to land on Omaha Beach, Cota pleaded for a night time assault; he did not get his way. Despite his protests, with time running out and a run of bad weather, the Allied high command had little choice.
Most D-Day commanders assured their men that the Germans would be annihilated by the Allies' pre-assault bombardments, and that the defenders were outnumbered, inexperienced and demoralized. All of these assessments were revoltingly inaccurate. On the afternoon of June 5 Cota gave one of the few accurate estimates to the soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division:
". . . The little discrepancies that we tried to correct (in amphibious training) are going to be magnified and are going to give way to incidents that you might at first view as chaotic. The air and naval bombardment and the artillery support are reassuring. But you're going to find confusion. The landing craft aren't going in on schedule and people are going to be landed in the wrong place. Some won't be landed at all. The enemy will to some degree prevent our gaining 'lodgement.' But we must improvise, carry on, not lose our heads."
Despite his unique foresight, even Cota underestimated the utter carnage that awaited V Corps (the 29th and 1st Infantry Divisions) on Omaha beach on the morning of 6 June, 1944.
Cota landed with a part of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division, in the second wave, approximately one hour after H-Hour, on the Omaha sector known as Dog White. His boat came under heavy machinegun and mortar fire; when the ramp went down three soldiers were killed immediately.
Dead U.S. soldiers at the waterline, Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944
Cota was one of the highest ranking officers on the beach that day. He is famous for personally directing the attack, motivating the shell-shocked, pinned-down survivors into action, and opening one of the first vehicle exits off the beach. Two famous quotes are attributed to him during this time:
Encountering Max Schneider, commander of the 5th Ranger Battalion, Cota asked “What outfit is this?” Someone yelled "5th Rangers!" Cota replied “Well, goddamn it then, Rangers, lead the way!”.
"Rangers lead the way" became the motto of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Robert Mitchum portrayed BG Cota in The Longest Day
Cota is also quoted as saying to his troops, "Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed." In the 1962 film The Longest Day, Cota renders the similar encouragement. However, historical evidence suggests these words were actually said by Colonel George A. Taylor: "There are only two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are already dead and those that are gonna'die. Now get off your butts, you're the fight'in 29th!"
Killed in Action, Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944
Cota received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism on Omaha Beach. In 2004 a movement arose to have the Army reconsider upgrading Cota's decoration to the Medal of Honor.
Both Gen. Cota and his high commanding officer, Dwight D. Eisenhower knew one another from early West Point Days while playing football. They remained good friends.
Matt Damon as the fictitious Private James Francis Ryan
Although the story for the search for Private Ryan is fictional, there was a real paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division whose family apparently suffered the loss of three out of four sons in combat in a short period of time.
Sergeant "Fritz" Niland, 3rd Bn, 501st Parachute Infantry Regt, 101st Airborne Division
Sergeant Frederick "Fritz" Niland was a member of the 101st Airborne's 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, and was one of those that made the drop into Normandy on June 6, 1944. He landed southwest of Carentan in Raffoville, and he was eventually able to make it back to his unit on his own.
Niland's three brothers served in other units; Technical Sergeant Robert Niland was a paratrooper in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, Lieutenant Preston Niland served in the 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and Technical Sergeant Edward Niland was a pilot in the Army Air Force.
B-25 Mitchell in flight
Edward had been reported missing over Burma in the Pacific Theater on May 16, 1944. His B-25 had been shot down and he was reported as MIA and presumed killed. Robert was killed on D-Day at Neuville-au-Plain. Preston was killed on June 7th in the vicinity of Utah Beach.
Neuville-au-Plain, approx 3 miles north of Ste Mere Eglise (first town liberated in France, 6 June 1944)
Unlike the fictional Ryan, however, there was no need to send out a rescue mission to find Sergeant Niland. When Father Francis L. Sampson, chaplain of the 501st, learned that two of Niland's brothers were dead, and that a third was presumed dead, he began the paperwork necessary to send Niland home.
Soldiers of the 90th Inf Div linking up with 82d Airborne Division "All American" paratroopers in the Cretteville-Baupte sector of Normandy; June, 1944
Niland remained with his unit for some time, but once the paperwork cleared he was forced to return to the States, where he served in New York as an MP for the rest of the war.
Fortunately for the Niland family, Edward Niland had not been killed, but had spent almost an entire year in a Japanese prisoner of war camp before being rescued by British forces.