National Guard Units Played Key Role in D-Day Landings

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy, National Guard BureauJune 5, 2024

The build-up of Omaha Beach. Reinforcements of men and equipment moving inland. Photo courtesy of Center of Military History. (Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy) VIEW ORIGINAL

ARLINGTON, Va. – Their waterlogged footsteps were historic.

That thought, however, most likely wasn’t on the Soldiers minds as they stepped ashore from rocking landing craft onto the French coast.

Instead, the focus for most Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, Virginia Army National Guard, was simply making it across the beach — Omaha Beach — as part of the first wave of the Normandy landings, or the D-Day landings, as they have become widely known.

They faced stiff German resistance with heavy machine gun fire as they struggled to push ashore June 6, 1944.

“They came so close,” said Elisha Ray Nance about the enemy gunfire. He served in the battalion’s Company A and landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach.

Nance was one of the few in his company to survive the landings – only a few dozen Soldiers of the 200-plus company made it, and many of those who survived were wounded. The battalion as a whole saw nearly 80% casualties. But Nance made it through unscathed.

“Suddenly, when I thought there was no more hope, I looked up into the sky,” he said in Alex Kershaw’s book, “The Bedford Boys,” which details Company A’s efforts in the landings. “I didn’t see anything up there, but I felt something settle over me. I got this warm feeling. I felt as if somehow I was going to live.”

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the landings, which set the stage for the defeat of Germany and the Nazi regime and the end of World War II in Europe. Guard units played a key role in the landings.

The 116th Infantry Regiment was only one unit of the 29th Infantry Division, made up of Virginia, Maryland and District of Columbia National Guard units, to take part in the Normandy landings. Other units of the division faced a similar ordeal as they waded ashore.

Soldiers with the 111th Field Artillery Regiment, a Virginia Army Guard unit that was to provide artillery support to 116th Infantry Regiment lost all 12 of its guns in high surf. The Soldiers continued ashore, gathering extra equipment and ammunition from the dead, and fought as infantrymen.

“The confusion was just terrible with all the equipment and men piled up along the beaches,” said Grandison K. Bienvenu in a 2019 interview.

Bienvenu, who on June 6, 1944, was a captain commanding B Company, 112th Combat Engineer Battalion, Ohio Army National Guard, landed on Omaha Beach with the rest of the battalion in support of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions.

“As we approached the beach, it was all in daylight at that time,” he said. “As I remember, we were scheduled to go in at H +120 minutes, which was the sixth wave. But we were probably the second wave that actually landed as a wave, as the others were wiped out as they approached.”

Bienvenu saw the remnants of the previous waves as the unit made its way to the shore.

“As we were going in, we could see all these sunken boats and vehicles that had run off the boats, just the top showing,” he said.

Clifton Learn, then a first lieutenant serving as the battalion’s adjutant, said in the same 2019 interview that he recalled watching enemy rounds strike the upper structure of the landing craft he was on. It was only one obstacle he faced coming ashore.

“Approaching shore, we hit a sand bar and the skipper had to back off to try another lane,” he said. “Moving a bit farther ashore, the ramps were dropped but the water was still too deep for safe discharge.”

Further maneuvering was done, he said, and eventually they made it to a point where they could exit the landing craft.

“The water was deep, and the waves lifted us off our feet as we staggered and struggled onward amid enemy shooting,” Learn said. “Some crafts had to unload in deep water. We worked our way up the beach through obstacles, assisting our casualties, keeping ahead of the tide.”

When Alfred Rasche, then a sergeant with the battalion’s B Company, exited his landing craft, he found himself in waist-deep water and continued moving toward the beach.

“There seemed to be a lull in the firing for a few minutes,” he said, also in a 2019 interview. “We ran to the first depression and took the little cover that was afforded. At this time, we came under fire again. By what, I could not tell, except that it was very rapid fire. We then ran to the high-water embankment where many GIs were taking shelter.”

Ralph Blando, then the first sergeant of B Company, also recalled the lull in firing, and when it picked up again.

“Pappy Glen Kloth, at the edge of the water, asked me to cut his life preserver loose,” Blando recalled in 2019. “I started to do so when an 88mm shell came over and exploded a hundred yards away into the sea. I found myself standing there with my knife in my hand and Kloth was gone as were all the others.”

Wading ashore was terrifying, said Bienvenu.

“We were wet and scared, hungry, insecure, didn’t know where anything was,” he said. “You’d look around you and you could see people being killed. And equipment blown up, ships being sunk.”

Despite that, they pushed forward and cleared routes off the beach and further inland.

“Under determined enemy resistance, our troops opened a roadway off Omaha Beach around the cliffs inland in vicinity of Saint Laurant-Sur-Mer, France, by nightfall,” said Learn.

That led to securing the beachhead and then being able to push further into Normandy.

The troops that landed on the beach were also assisted by National Guard units in the air, including the 107th and 109th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadrons with the Michigan and Minnesota National Guard, respectively.

The Normandy campaign lasted until the end of July, with additional Guard units taking part, all earning the “Normandy” campaign streamer.

The landings were momentous, something Rasche said he didn’t quite realize until he and his squad were sent back to Omaha Beach the day after to retrieve equipment.

“There was no firing on the beach now and one could stand up and look around,” he said. “The tide was in, and wrecked assault boats were everywhere — loaded boats trying to get in, others trying to get out. Bodies of the dead were in this bobbing mess.”

It’s a memory he carried with him long after the war and one that speaks to the sacrifices made in the landings, he said.

“Even today I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to return to the beach that day after. One does not realize how little one can see when you have to keep your head down,” he said. The day after “one could see all around, and what I saw is still in my mind as I saw it that day.”