Hitting the beach

Ed Snoddy, a 15-year Virginia City resident, was 19 years old when he went ashore on D-Day with the 101st Airborne to take occupied France back from the Germans.

"We were trained to go in on gliders but on D-Day there was no place for the gliders to land so we had to go in by sea," he recalled from home Friday.

After more than a year of planning and several delays, allied generals committed to invading the French coast on June 5. Troops set out in thousands of ships and boats but were forced back by terrible weather.

"We had to turn back because it was so rough so we were tied up in Plymouth," Snoddy said. Waiting for the invasion, he and thousands of American, English and Canadian troops ate rationed meals.

"I remember I had a can of soup - it was kind of a strange thing - you'd pull the top off and it heated the soup. I'd never seen anything like it."

They also ate their regular K rations from rectangular boxes: a small can of meat, some cheese, a fruit bar, instant coffee and two cigarettes.

Snoddy's unit carried heavy weapons - water-cooled machine guns and 81 mm mortars. When they finally left, they were put on a landing craft with held 40 men. They crossed a choppy English Channel at night.

"It was very rough and about everybody on board was sick. The thing bobbed around like a cork."

About three miles off shore of a beach code named "Utah," nets were thrown over the side. The men climbed down the nets to smaller landing craft called Higgins boats. These had ramps on the front for going ashore.

"(Climbing down) was real difficult to do because the sea was extremely rough."

His unit was put into two boats so that if one boat was hit they wouldn't all be lost.

Utah was the farthest beach to the right of the five landing areas of the Normandy invasion. It was a flat, marshy area on the eastern shore at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula.

After circling at sea for a while, Snoddy's boat joined two others and headed to shore.

"The craft on our right - I could just barely see over the top of the side of the boat - it just blew up and immediately sank. Either it hit a mine or was hit by a shell. We were under shell fire at the time."

There were thousands of boats in the water during the invasion.

Famous WWII news reporter Ernie Pyle described the scene:

"We surely saw there before us more ships than any human had ever seen before at one glance . . . As far as you could see in every direction, the ocean was infested with ships."

When Snoddy's boat hit the ground, he figured they were at the shore. He prepared to race up the beach as the front ramp dropped open.

"When the ramp went down, hell, we were at least 600 yards out. We had hit some kind of sand bar or a shoal, you might say. We had to wade in. We were up to our waists in water when we got out. The first man that got out on the right side, I don't know who he was - he was a medic of some kind - he stepped off and that was it, he disappeared. He was sucked back under the boat, I guess. So I got off real easy. There was no charging up the beach like in the movies. There was a lot of weight to carry. We made our way up through the surf, in between those obstacles. They were made of railroad ties, I think."

The Army's 4th Infantry Division assault teams had gone in ahead Snoddy's unit to clear mines. They strung up white tape marking a safe path for later troops to follow.

"You're pretty well zeroed in on (by German gunners) when you're in there but you can't go out of it," said Snoddy.

German artillery units located farther inland were shelling the area.

"The first dead fellow I ran into was a black fellow," Snoddy remembered.

The man had been assigned to set up balloons cabled to the ground which would stop German fighter planes from being able to attack the allies on the beach. Snoddy jumped in a hole to take cover from an attack when he found the man hunched over his cable winch.

"He had just been hit, I could tell because he was just wet with blood. His buddy was out a little ways. Only half of him was there. They may have been hit by a shell."

Snoddy's unit reached a natural sand bluff about 5-feet high. Wounded members of the 4th assault teams lay along the bluff. Snoddy was part of a team which carried a mortar in three parts: the base, the bi-pod and the tube. He was also the instrument corporal which meant he had the maps.

"My commanding officer - he was a good man - he had asked me to get out the maps. We were lost. We had landed at the wrong spot. It was kind of a strange thing if you think about it - lost in an invasion."

They moved west along the bluff until they found a road cut through it. It was filled with barbed wire. Someone had a British-made "Bangalore Torpedo" - a series of pipes full of explosives - which could blow up the wire.

"After we blew it up there was a small opening in the wire so we started making our way through. We weren't gonna stay on the beach - it was under fire. Not so much automatic machine gun fire, mostly shelling."

Behind the bluff they found a flooded marsh. Germans had intentionally flooded the area to drown allied paratroopers - a tactic that proved deadly for airborne divisions dropped on the base of the Cotentin Peninsula.

Snoddy's unit had two options: one road along a causeway headed inland, another going parallel to the beach.

"It's a good thing we didn't go (up the causeway) because that's where they were shooting at us from."

As they moved along the beach road, Germans fired at them with machine guns and rifles. But there were more serious concerns. German signs read "Achtung minen!" The area was heavily mined.

"The main thing that I, personally, was concerned about more than anything was the land mines. You couldn't see them and they were everywhere."

"Bouncing Betty" mines would spring out of the ground and blow up at chest level.

They could take a few guys a once," said Snoddy. "That was my personal main concern."

He said a number of them went off around his unit. In order to avoid them they crawled along and probed with knives, trying to feel mines without setting them off.

Down the road they found the second half of their unit. They studied the coastline, trying to get their bearings. Finally there was something familiar: a big, white barn they had seen in training. A "sand board" 3-D map back in England showed them were they were supposed to land. It was based on aerial photos, as were many of their maps.

After finding the white barn they headed inland.

"We felt good that we knew we were going in at the right spot."

Although Utah Beach was less heavily protected than beaches such as Omaha, Snoddy's unit did run into German soldiers.

"There were groups you might say, at defense posts. There were machine gun crews set up in the hedgerows. First when you saw them they really didn't look any different than anybody else except for the uniforms. We captured a few of them and they were just soldiers like us, farmers and city people, they weren't S.S. troops (Hitler's secret service) - just regular Army - the Wermacht, they called them. They were completely overwhelmed because we had dropped two airborne divisions on them - the 101st and the 82nd."

Adolf Hitler refused to allow German tanks stationed inland to respond to the invasion at first because he thought it was a decoy.

"He didn't think that was the real invasion," said Snoddy. "He held his armor in reserve. That gave us a few days to get some armor of our own. If they had released their armor we wouldn't have had a chance. We had nothing to fight them with."

Snoddy's unit was assigned to secure a field. The Germans had erected poles there to stop allied gliders from landing.

"We set up our equipment around the perimeter of this field and took the poles down."

The next morning at sunrise four gliders full of American troops landed on the field.

The captured Germans were sent to the rear after a few days.

"They helped carry American wounded back to the beach."

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Then Snoddy's unit moved about 17 miles inland to the French town of Carentan.

"We set up our final defense there. They were organized by then so we set up our regular lines. It was more conventional warfare, we set up our mortars and machine guns. We had a good battle right there outside Carentan."

Snoddy and his mortar team would stay about 600 yards behind the infantry troops. A forward observer would call back over a wire phone to give firing coordinates.

"We could get 18 rounds in the air at 2,000 yards before the first one went off. We were pretty damn good at it."

The mortars proved effective at disabling German artillery and armored vehicles.

"We used smoke shells which burn phosphorous to disable their armor. The smoke got sucked into the air intake on the tanks and would start fires. Besides that, they couldn't see well. And the infantry didn't like them either because when you get that phosphorous on you it burns right through your skin."

Army Rangers used thermal grenades to melt the breaches of captured German artillery. Allied naval officers came forward in Jeeps to give firing directions to battleships off shore.

"We were using them as our artillery. It was pretty tricky. They were a big help but we still had a pretty tough battle there."

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Snoddy was in France for 25 days, then sent back to England on an LST landing craft. On Sept. 16, 1944, he was part of the airborne invasion of Holland and was later surrounded by German forces during the horrific Battle of the Bulge.

After a narrow escape Snoddy was assigned to guard art and gold treasures hidden in bunkers at Hitler's personal retreat in the Bavarian Alps.

He was ordered to go see a liberated German concentration camp for political prisoners.

"They looked like ghosts walking around," he said of the starving inmates.

Only one member of the unit Snoddy went ashore with on Utah Beach is still alive. Roy Neff lives in Matton, Illinois.

"Every June 6 I phone up Roy Neff and we talk for awhile and that's about it," Snoddy said.

He's modest about his part in the liberation of France.

"When you think about it, it's kind of overwhelming really. At the time you don't realize how important it is - what you're doing. You're trained just to do a little thing. But you don't know what's going on everywhere else. It's not like the movies or anything. You're on the ground and that's it. You're either being shot at, at that moment or you're not."

Snoddy went back to France two years ago to see his daughter who married a Frenchman. He visited the Normandy beaches where he went ashore as a 19-year-old on June 6, 1944.

"They have a nice museum now," he said.

He wandered among the 9,386 American graves atop Omaha Beach.

"I lost quite a few buddies there."

Another feature on the coast brought back a flood of memories from the day of the invasion.

"I found that big, white barn," he said. "It's still there."

After the war Snoddy wet to school on the G.I. bill and got a degree in engineering. He helped design and build several astronomical observatories, including a few in South America and the one right here in Carson City at Western Nevada Community College.

Contact Karl Horeis at khoreis@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1219.


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