THE BLOG
05/30/2010 05:59 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

An American Hero

It's Memorial Day, so I'm going to do something different, but, I feel is appropriate. I'm going to nominate someone for the Congressional Medal of Honor, and by so doing, try to give credit to an overlooked American hero.

When I was eleven years old, my mother took me to see The Longest Day, the best movie ever made about June 6, 1944. Yes, Saving Private Ryan has that epic scene, but it is isolated. Longest Day tells the entire story, better than anyone has done before or since. And the actor who stole the picture, for me was Robert Mitchum, who played Brigadier General Norman Cota. If there was one character who sent chills up my spine, it was this one. I kept asking, for years after, who was this guy?

I'm a lot older more, and I know a lot more--about the battle and about Cota--and I am even more impressed. Cota was the Assistant Commander of the 29th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit. The Allied high command understood that Omaha Beach would be the tough nut to crack. But they had to take it anyway, as it sat right in the middle of the landing areas; without it, the Brits and the Americans would be cut off from each other, and could be cut up, piecemeal. Because it was so difficult, so heavily manned and fortified by the Nazis, this was the only beach assigned two, instead of one divisions. The first of these was the 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One, the most experienced outfit in the U.S. Army. The other was the 29th, which had never been in combat before.

It was as bad as they expected. Omaha Beach was a killing field, carefully set up to stop the Allies at the waterline, and kill as many of our soldiers as possible. I have visited this site, and despite all that I had read and seen in movies, was stunned. Standing by the German guns, you recognized how well each had been cited, to rake down as much of the beach as possible. No one should have made it through that alive.
The Allied plan centered on getting to the exits, or draws. Generals recognized that one of the American Army's great strengths was its incredible mobility, the most advanced in the world. If they were going to put that mass of tanks, halftracks, trucks, and jeeps to use, they had to take those pathways.

Doing so, however, was not going to be easy. The Germans knew the same thing we did, and poured twenty foot thick concrete to block these roads, and put mortars, cannons, machine guns and infantry to guard them. We tried again and again, and couldn't do it.

While we were failing, more and more troops came ashore, and died. They piled up on the beaches, or on a seawall, and got torn to bits by shells or rifle fire.

Many of those who got hit drowned. When I visited I discovered that the tide on those beaches moved at an incredibly fast pace. I had stopped on the beach for a brief conversation, suddenly discovered the tide had passed me by, and that I was now standing on a sandbar. I had to get my feet wet to reach safety, and if I had dawdled, it would have been much worse. If you were shot and couldn't get up, the water swept in over your head and you died.

Cota had previously decided that the men would need leadership early on, and went in early that morning, the highest ranking officer on the beach. He found chaos, and began to organize and inspire. Amidst heavy fire, he rallied his men; it was Cota who called out to one special unit, "Rangers, lead the way," a line that is now the official motto of that elite force.

But he did a lot more than that. In one of those "Eureka" moments that seems simple--after the fact-- he realized that the only way the Americans could win was by attacking the bluffs. These were the elevations, rolling hills, that linked the draws, only about 100-150 feet high, and relatively undefended. Once they took these positions, the soldiers could work their way along the ridgelines, then take the German fortifications in the flank. Cota grabbed a bunch of troops and then he, not the Rangers, lead the way. Up and over they went; at one point the general got far ahead of his men, and when they caught up, he was standing, twirling his .45 pistol on his forefinger, admonishing the lower ranks that they couldn't always depend on him to show them how to do things. We took the bluffs, then the draws, then Omaha Beach.

Put as bluntly as possible, D-Day succeeded because of Norman Cota.

In time he was promoted to Major General, and installed as CO of the 28th Division. This was sent into the Hurtagen Forest, one of the great hell-holes of the Second World War. Dense forest--trees so thick it was dark under their awning--blocked the use of mechanized equipment. The Germans had sown fields of mines, including the horrible Bouncing Bettys, that popped up when struck, then exploded at crotch height. German artillery shells did not even have to be precise to kill; they exploded amongst the trees, showering soldiers with sharp wood fragments that cut through them.
The 28th was chewing up German units, but it had come to a standstill. Eisenhower was prepared to relieve Cota. Till he saw the casualty figures. No general could have been expected to do more. Cota kept his job.

Cota left the Army in 1946, died in 1971, and is buried in the cemetery at the United States Military Cemetery at West Point.

Douglas MacArthur won the Congressional Medal of Honor, not for storming a machine gun nest, but, according to his citation, for "conspicuous leadership," how, "His utter disregard of personal danger under heavy fire and aerial bombardment, his calm judgment in each crisis, inspired his troops...."

Cota received the Distinguished Service Cross, and there was some discussion of upgrading this to the Medal of Honor, but no one ever followed through on this.

It is long overdue time to correct that omission. Norman Cota served his country well under fire, leading troops when no one else could. Above all, he saved the Second Front.
I call for a national effort to get the military and Congress to award, posthumously, the Congressional Medal of Honor to Norman Cota, for his outstanding service in World War II.