Angels of Omaha

Over at NRO Eric Hogan recalls “The angels of Omaha” with a focus on the heroics of Captain Joseph Dawson, Lieutenant John Spalding, and Sergeant Philip Streczyk at Omaha Beach 79 years ago today. “At the western end of Omaha,” he writes, “the first wave of soldiers was all but wiped out, barely able to shoot back against the Germans. Succeeding waves piled up on the sea wall. Chaos reigned. The Americans were paralyzed, unable to mount an attack against the German defenders.”

Hogan picks up Captain Dawson’s story:

Amid this looming tragedy, a company of roughly 150 men from the 1st Infantry Division commanded by Captain Joseph Dawson miraculously landed on the beach where there was a tiny gap between the interlocking fields of heavy gunfire coming from the German fortifications. They safely got to the sea wall and reorganized to prepare an attack on the strong fortifications as their orders dictated….

The famous historian Stephen Ambrose chronicled in his book D-Day that when Captain Dawson observed the piles of bodies to his left and right and sized up the grim situation, he decided to ignore his orders, which were to make a direct, suicidal attack against the formidable German fortifications. Instead, his company would move straight inland between the fortifications and try to pick its way between some smaller hills and ravines, with the goal of reaching the high bluffs overlooking the beach.

Captain Dawson appears to have been the first American soldier to make it to the top of the bluff overlooking the beach that day.

Hogan continues:

Dawson then waved for all the soldiers to join him at the top of the bluff to formulate a plan. He instructed Spalding and Streczyk to head west to attack one of the strong German fortifications that was savaging the men on the beach. Dawson would move his company east toward the village of Colleville-sur-Mer, to the rear of another strong German fortification. They also sent men back down to the beach to direct more American units to ascend to the bluffs and attack the Germans from the flanks.

Spalding and Streczyk successfully neutralized the strong German fortification they were after, along with several smaller positions they encountered. The experienced warrior Streczyk primarily led the attacks, which involved extensive close-quarters combat. Some more rapidly moving American troops joined Dawson near Colleville-sur-Mer in the early afternoon. They attacked from the rear and destroyed the other strong German fortification. Even as the brutal fighting continued, control of the situation at Omaha had now shifted to the Americans.

Once the invasion began and troops were landing on the beaches, the outcome of the battle was transferred from the higher commanders to the men on the beach. There was no brilliant decision that Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower or Operation Overlord Field Commander General Omar Bradley could make that might affect the outcome. It was in the greatest tradition of the average G.I. Joe American soldier that a trio of Americans found themselves in a desperate, perilous situation on Omaha Beach and recognized that their existing orders were useless. They then assessed their situation, recognized an opportunity, took the initiative, and adapted and improvised their tactics to be successful.

Captain Dawson, Lieutenant Spalding, and Sergeant Streczyk were all awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest medal for valor given by the U.S. Army. Streczyk was a highly decorated soldier. He was also awarded four Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars for bravery. He served 440 days in combat: in North Africa, Sicily, France, and Germany. He suffered physical and emotional problems after the war, tragically committing suicide in 1958, at 39.

This sounds like a punch line to a historical joke: “At the huge Normandy festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, the Army honored Captain Dawson by asking him to introduce President Bill Clinton (as the keynote speaker of the celebration).” I went looking for a clip of Dawson’s 1994 remarks. Dawson himself was introduced by the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their introductions are available on C-SPAN in a clip cut by Dawson’s proud nephew.

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