By Patrick J. O’Donnell
In the early morning of June 6, 1944, LCA (Landing Craft, Assault) 668 was gliding across the choppy, green waters of the English Channel, transporting First Sergeant Len Lomell, Staff Sergeant Jack Kuhn, and most of the 2nd Platoon, 2nd Ranger Battalion. As the small flotilla of British-crewed craft carried the Rangers toward Normandy, something seemed off. Then Lomell saw it: through the mist and spray, the dark, rocky cliffs of what appeared to be Point et Raz de la Percée came into view.
But Point et Raz de la Percée wasn’t their objective. Lomell and his men were supposed to be headed toward Pointe du Hoc instead.
Pointe du Hoc sat atop a 100-ft sheer cliff overlooking the English Channel. An important position during the D-Day Invasion, it sat at the highest point between Omaha and Utah beaches. The Germans heavily fortified the area, filling it with concrete bunkers and gun pits. The men of Rudder’s Rangers, the U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group, were given the nearly impossible mission of taking the Pointe from the Germans and taking out their guns.
The mission was difficult enough, but the group faced so many setbacks and bad-luck situations that the mission might seem like a comedy of errors, were it not for the intensity of the fighting they endured.
“Are you sure you are right about this?”
Lomell turned to his close friend Jack Kuhn. “Hey, Jack! Look at this. That’s not the Pointe. That’s C Company’s target.”
Lomell moved across the crowded landing craft towards the British coxswain who was piloting the craft and asked him if they were headed in the right direction. The coxswain nodded affirmatively.
Lomell pressed the issue. “Are you sure you are right about this?”
From the photos that Lomell looked at during the training exercise, he was sure the 10 landing craft, three DUKWs, and other small boats in Force A were at least two miles off course from Pointe du Hoc and heading in the wrong direction.
The operation’s entire timetable was now blown. The follow-on force known as Force C—which included Able and Baker companies and some elements of Headquarters Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion and Lt. Col. Max Schneider’s Fifth Ranger Battalion—would all not be heading to Pointe du Hoc because they never received the appropriate radio signal from Force A.
As it was, Force C headed to its second objective, Omaha Beach. Dog Company, along with the rest of Force A, was now on its own and outgunned, heading straight for Pointe du Hoc with no follow-on reinforcements.
As rocky a start as this was, it didn’t get easier when LCA 668 finally came near the shore.
“Harry, you sun of a bitch. You shot me!”
On board, the loud explosion caused by the coxswain’s firing the grapnel rockets jarred Lomell as he stared at the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, now looming in front of him.
The ramp dropped, and the coxswain barked, “All right, everybody out!”
Lomell’s boat had stopped several yards short of the shoreline. “We had amphibious DUKWs but [there were] so many underwater craters they couldn’t get in too close to the cliff.”
Lomell led the group. As he stepped off the ramp, he completely disappeared from view. A massive underwater bomb crater had swallowed up the first sergeant. The icy water, just 42 degrees, rushed around him as he quickly submerged eight feet below the surface. Bullets pierced the silence underwater as he swam out of the crater and joined the other men, who had avoided the hazard.
“Ow!” Lomell then felt a sudden sting of pain through his right side. A German machine-gun bullet barely missed his ribs and went through the fleshy portion of his torso. Not realizing where it came from, Lomell spun around and came face to face with Private Harry Fate.
“Harry, you sun of a bitch. You shot me!”
Face pleaded his innocence. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t try to kill you!”
“I was about to kill him for doin’ it,” Lomell admitted later. After all, Lomell had busted Fate from sergeant to private just a few weeks prior. After losing his stripes, Fate had made a veiled threat to Lomell: “That’s all right. You know all first sergeants get their due in combat. I’ll see you in combat.”
Breaking the standoff, Bill Geitz, Lomell’s medic, socked the first sergeant in the jaw and knocked him down, yelling, “Len, he didn’t do it! He didn’t do it!”
The altercation lasted only a few seconds before Lomell snapped out of his rage and focused on assaulting the cliff towering in front of his men.
Minutes later, George Kerchner’s LCA 858 touched down next to Lomell’s boat. Before the craft landed, Kerchner thought about their half-hour delay and felt an overwhelming sense of foreboding.
“Holy hell,” Kerchner thought, “someone made a hell of a big mistake sending us in here. We’ll never get up there.”
Kerchner looked in front of him. Twenty feet of murky water stained with a reddish mixture of Ranger blood and clay from the cliffs lay between them and the shore. Kerchner looked back at his men, “OK, let’s go!”
PHOTO AT TOP: Army Rangers climb the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, France, June 4, 2019, to honor the 135 Rangers killed or wounded 75 years earlier as they captured and held the German artillery positions at the site on D-Day.