Brigadier General Norman Cota, known to his friends as Dutch, was one of the most senior officers who went ashore with the assault troops on Omaha Beach. There finding a disorganized, shell-shocked, pinned-down American assault in danger of foundering, he reorganized and reinvigorated it, and personally took charge on the beach.
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his personal bravery and was credited with uttering the now-famous motto of the United States Ranger Regiment. He was later portrayed on film as one of the heroes of D-Day.
Leading From the Front
Cota was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1893 and was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1913. His class of 1917 graduated seven weeks early because the United States had just entered into World War I. In his class, nine of his classmates (including himself) would become General Officers. They included Matthew Ridgway, J. Lawton Collins, Mark W. Clark, and Ernest N. Harmon.
Because of the war, he rose quickly through the ranks going from second lieutenant to major in less than two years. By the end of WWI, he was an instructor at West Point. Between the wars, he served in Virginia, Hawaii, and was an instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School.
When World War II broke out Cota was the G-2 (intelligence), G-3 (plans and operations), and later the chief of staff for the 1st Infantry Division. After the invasion of North Africa, he rewrote the task organizations for assault divisions and his plans were used in the invasion of Sicily.
After being promoted to brigadier general, he was assigned to England for the preparation of Operation Overlord, the invasion of France. He was given the assistant division commander position of the 29th Infantry Division from Maryland, the famous “Blue and the Grey.” Cota was an outspoken critic of a daylight landing in France, arguing for a nighttime assault.
But his, and other officers’, concerns were shot down by the senior Allied command. The massive naval and air bombardment, it was argued, would annihilate the German defenses. And as was the case in several other amphibious operations of the war, those arguments were shown to be totally wrong.
Cota told his staff to expect the worst. Yet, even his warnings would pale to what actually transpired on Omaha Beach.
“This is different from any of the other exercises that you’ve had so far. The little discrepancies that we tried to correct on Slapton Sands are going to be magnified and are going to give way to incidents that you might at first view as chaotic… You’re going to find confusion. The landing craft aren’t going in on schedule and people are going to be landed in the wrong place. Some won’t be landed at all… We must improvise, carry on, not lose our heads.”
Cota went ashore with the second wave, one hour after the initial assault on the Dog White sector of Omaha Beach, with part of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division. Omaha Beach and the Vierville Draw were concave, therefore, the natural outline allowed the Germans to pour fire down in a cone on the assault troops.
The first wave was ineffective and pinned down. Cota’s landing craft came under heavy machine-gun fire and the first three men to disembark were killed as they exited. Mortar and artillery fire was also raining down on the troops.
Due to failed communication with other Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, elements of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions didn’t receive a signal that the cliffs were secured so they went ashore on Omaha and reinforced the 29th.
Cota tried to rally his shell-shocked men. He strode upright and willed them to fight. He uttered the words, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.” Another quote, attributed to Cota, but actually uttered by another 29th Division officer was, “There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Well Hell Rangers, Lead the Way!”
With the situation on Omaha hanging in the balance, Cota walked up to a group of men huddled in the sand. “What outfit is this?” Cota asked still standing upright. “5th Rangers,” he was told. “Well Hell Rangers, Lead the Way!” That phrase became the Ranger Regiment’s motto and history was born.
Cota supervised men placing a bangalore torpedo under a barbed wire obstacle, blowing it up and creating a path for the men to get off the beach. The first soldier to attempt it was killed by a German sniper. The rest of the men froze. Cota, however, jumped into action.
Joseph Balkoski, a soldier from the 29th, who wrote the book Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy recalled, “Cota leaped up, dashing across the road, and through the gap.” Eventually, a steady stream of soldiers followed him up the beach, and he led that column into the village of Vierville-sur-Mer, shouting at the last men, “Where the hell have you been, boys?”
The next day, the troops were driving inland and he came across a unit pinned down by German fire from a farmhouse. Stephen Ambrose in his excellent book, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany describes what followed next,
“Cota asked the captain in command why his men weren’t trying to take the house.
‘Sir, the Germans are in there, shooting at us,’ the captain said.
‘Well, I’ll tell you what, captain,’ said Cota, unbuckling two grenades from his jacket. ‘You and your men start shooting at them. I’ll take a squad of men and you and your men watch carefully. I’ll show you how to take a house with Germans in it.’
Cota led his squad around a hedge to get as close as possible to the house. Suddenly, he gave a whoop and raced forward, the squad following, yelling like wild men. As they tossed grenades into the windows, Cota and another man kicked in the front door, tossed a couple of grenades inside, waited for the explosions, then dashed into the house. The surviving Germans inside were streaming out the back door, running for their lives.
Cota returned to the captain. ‘You’ve seen how to take a house,’ said the general, still out of breath. ‘Do you understand? Do you know how to do it now?’
‘Well, I won’t be around to do it for you again,’ Cota said. ‘I can’t do it for everybody.'”
In the epic film The Longest Day Cota was portrayed by Robert Mitchum.
Cota’s and the Rangers’ exploits will forever be remembered.
Cota died in 1971 and was buried with his wife Connie at the cemetery in West Point.