‘The first wave went through hell’ – how the heroism of the 16th Infantry Regiment helped lead to victory on D-Day

Among the many Allied military units that stormed the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, was the 16th Infantry Regiment of the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division. Its members faced a particularly daunting task: as part of the first wave of the largest amphibious assault in history, the regiment was tasked with clearing landing sectors on Omaha Beach, codenamed “Easy Red” and “Fox Green”.

This was no ordinary attack. Omaha would become the deadliest of the five D-Day landing beaches as the US, Britain and allied nations attacked Nazi-occupied France in World War II. The liberation of Europe hung in the balance.

As members of the regiment sat down to a steak dinner the night before the invasion, they no doubt thought about their unit’s legacy. As a military and oral historian, I researched this regiment’s service in Vietnam and became fascinated with its earlier history as well.

The 16th Infantry fought in the Indian Wars, pursued Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill that made Theodore Roosevelt a national hero, and saluted the Revolutionary War commander, the Marquis de Lafayette, at his tomb in Paris, at the entrance of the USA. First World War. By D-Day, the regiment had already participated in the World War II invasions of North Africa and Italy in 1942 and 1943.

The regiment was so well thought of by the American public that when author F. Scott Fitzgerald created his infamous anti-hero Jay Gatsby in 1925’s The Great Gatsby, the main character was described as a veteran of the 16th Infantry .

That steak dinner the night before D-Day, recalled Charles Hangsterfer, then a captain in the 16th Regiment, was “just like giving a condemned criminal his last meal on the night of his execution.”

A map labeling the military units and geographic locations of the Normandy landings.
A map of the plans for the D-Day landings shows the mission of the 16th Regiment on the east side of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.
Archives New Zealand via Flickr, CC BY

A dangerous attack

The invasion plan called for heavy bombardment by warships and aircraft to weaken the German defenses, and amphibious tanks—which could travel through shallow water and on land—to support the infantry as they hit the beaches.

But as dawn broke on June 6, 1944, bad weather intervened. Low clouds meant that the bombings mostly missed their targets. Rough seas — swells of 3 to 6 feet and winds of 25 mph — covered most of the reservoirs.

The troops themselves were seasick from the heaving and rolling of the small boats they used to reach the beaches from larger ships at sea, and learned on landing that their arrival was later than expected and often far from their intended destination .

Ted Lombarski, a sergeant in Company F of the 16th, recalled:

“We were the first wave to hit the beach, Companies E and F of the 16th Infantry. Almost all the tanks that had entered before us were sunk. The tank crews had a hard time and so did the Navy personnel who drove us in… As we went in I knew that the Air Force had dropped their bombs too far in and that the Navy bombers had done the same. The first wave went through hell that day.”

As they approached Omaha Beach, the men of the 16th Infantry Regiment were met with a wall of enemy fire. Bullets and shrapnel made the ocean appear to be boiling, according to an oral history of the regiment.

The landing craft did not go as far ashore as the soldiers had hoped, Captain Everett Booth recalled:

“They didn’t take us very close to the beach, I tell you. … I ran into water almost up to my chest. We were met with machine gun bullets hitting the water all over. … The enemy was pounding the beach with machine gun fire.”

And Lombardski told:

“Being in the first wave was like killing yourself. If you exposed yourself, you were dead.”

Loaded with weapons, ammunition, equipment and heavy knapsacks, many soldiers were overcome by the sea and drowned. Those who reached the beach faced the Nazi Army’s 352nd Infantry Division, a unit with significant experience fighting the Soviets in Eastern Europe.

Men in uniform wearing bandages on their heads, chests and arms stand by a rock wall.
Wounded members of the 16th Infantry Regiment await evacuation from the beach on D-Day.
National Archives

Heavy losses

Despite heavy casualties and a strong German defense, as the day progressed it became clear that the 16th Infantry Regiment had secured a foothold on Omaha Beach. The soldiers fought their way through concrete and wooden obstacles that the Nazis had placed on the beach, destroyed machine gun emplacements and removed enemy troops from key locations one by one.

There was no shortage of heroes that day – there were almost too many to name. Two of the four Congressional Medals of Honor awarded for the actions of June 6 were awarded to the men of the 16. Early in the morning, 1st Lt. Jimmie Montieth exposed himself to enemy fire several times, including driving tanks through a minefield. He led his troops from the beach, organizing the various companies to hold the enemy positions won by the 16th. Just a few hours later, he was killed in a German counter-attack.

Technician 5th Class John Pinder Jr., although wounded several times, made several trips into the fiery surf to collect communications equipment. He helped establish radio contact with his commanders at sea before succumbing to his injuries.

They were among the nearly 1,000 16th Infantry casualties killed, wounded, or missing on D-Day. Despite these heavy losses—about a third of the unit’s troops—the regiment’s relentless assault began to break through the German defenses, allowing the pursuit forces to push further and further inland. Victory was not guaranteed, but it was within reach.

Their courage and sacrifice were honored in a ceremony on July 2, 1944, at a castle 15 miles inland from the beach. The regiment had earned a Presidential Unit Citation for its role in the invasion. During the presentation, Allied commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower told the regiment:

“I’m not going to make a long speech, but this simple little ceremony gives me an opportunity to come here and, through you, thank you. You are one of the best regiments in our army. I’ve known your record since the day you landed in North Africa and through Sicily. I am beginning to think that your regiment is a kind of praetorian guard, accompanying me and giving me luck.”