The invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, was one of the most decisive moments of the twentieth century. More than 150,000 Allied troops surged into Nazi-occupied France on that momentous day, overcoming the profound challenges of assaulting a coastline the enemy had fortified for nearly four years. Of the five D-Day seaborne invasion sites, the one with the toughest terrain and most formidable German defenses was Omaha Beach, which was assaulted shortly after daybreak on June 6 by the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions of the U.S. Army’s V Corps.
The 29th Division’s 116th Infantry was assigned the arduous mission of gaining the initial foothold on the eastern half of Omaha Beach starting at H-Hour, 6:30 AM. According to the voluminous Omaha invasion plan, the 116th, supported by the 121st Engineer Combat Battalion and the 743rd Tank Battalion, would overcome the enemy’s coastal defenses and seize the sector’s two critical beach exits, the D-1 (Vierville) and D-3 (Les Moulins) Draws. Engineers would then assume the vital task of clearing both draws and preparing them for the inland movement of hundreds of U.S. Army tanks, trucks, and jeeps.
On the Dog Green sector in front of the Vierville Draw, the 116th Infantry’s 1st Battalion and its attached tanks and engineers encountered fierce German resistance at H-Hour and were decimated. Enemy strongpoints on either side of that crucial beach exit remained operational for several hours and prevented the 121st Engineer Battalion from carrying out its essential mission of opening up the Vierville Draw to vehicular traffic. Elements of the 116th Infantry and the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions, however, eventually worked their way up the steep bluffs between the draws despite severe casualties and overcame the stubborn enemy’s defenses. Around 11 AM, the 29th Division’s assistant commander, Brigadier General Norman D. Cota and a handful of men from the 116th Infantry and 121st Engineers successfully worked their way down the draw from Vierville to the beach. The Americans now had a tenuous hold on the key beach exit, but that achievement would be meaningless unless the 121st Engineers could begin the clearance work they had practiced so thoroughly in England.
At the mouth of the Vierville Draw, the enemy had erected a 100-foot-long concrete wall across the beach road that completely blocked the inland movement of American vehicles. The commander of the 121st Engineers, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Ploger, grasped that his unit’s first priority was to demolish the wall, clear away the rubble, and repair the road so that the 29th Division and its attached units could push inland with all possible speed. Despite a painful ankle wound, Ploger proceeded to organize the effort to demolish the wall. Around noon, he and General Cota located several bulldozers, each loaded with a ton of explosives carried on special overhead racks, and ordered their drivers to proceed to the Dog Green sector. This order was promptly adhered to, and as Ploger remarked, “I’ve always marveled at the guts of the operators in driving onto a beach under fire with a load of enough TNT to blow the dozer into a hole in the ground. All it would have taken was one mortar round.”
Although enemy snipers remained active and mortar and howitzer rounds still impacted on the beach with deadly effect, under covering fire by 116th infantrymen, some twenty engineers from the 121st hauled the explosives from the bulldozers to the base of the wall. Directed by Sergeant Noel Dube of Company C, the engineers piled up more than one dozen cases of TNT on an ad hoc platform and prepared the primers and leads for the imminent detonation. Around 3 PM, Sergeant Dube triggered the massive explosion, and the results were spectacular. “I was astonished by how completely the wall was destroyed,” Ploger recalled. “The wall was demolished over the entire roadway. There was a dent in the pavement only about one and one-half inches in depth. There was a substantial amount of broken concrete lying all about, but no pieces were larger than one soldier could remove… It turned out the Germans had not reinforced the wall with steel rods. That was a fatal mistake.”
The engineers worked frantically to clear the road of debris and by early evening American vehicles were moving up the draw from the beach to Vierville. The 121st Engineer Combat Battalion had fulfilled its critical D-Day mission. The U.S. Army would soon cite both the 121st Engineers and the 116th Infantry for outstanding performance of duty and their substantial contribution to the success of the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach by awarding both units the highly prestigious Presidential Unit Citation. Only three more Presidential Unit Citations were granted to 29th Division units throughout the remainder of World War II. The blue streamers signifying that award, labeled “Normandy Beachhead” for the 116th and “Northern France” for the 121st, would be attached to the units’ colors in perpetuity to denote both outfits’ heroic accomplishments on D-Day.