Brig. Gen. Norman Cota may have been the oldest soldier to set foot on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was certainly the baddest.
His command of shell-shocked troops through enemy fire earned him the honor of leading U.S. Army troops down the Champs Elysees in the parade celebrating the liberation of Paris. Cota had come a long way from a Chelsea, Mass., storefront.
He was highly decorated, remembered for his leadership, his courage, his ability to visualize a battle and his preparation of his men. He is best remembered, though, as the D-Day hero who personally led traumatized soldiers through a gap off bloody Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
He topped that performance the next day.
Pals With Ike
Norman Cota was born May 30, 1893, in Chelsea, Mass., to George William Cota, a telegrapher and later a storekeeper, and Jessie Mason, a schoolteacher from Croatia. He got the name Dutch from his friends while working in his father’s store.
He graduated two months early from West Point in April 1917 when America entered World War I.
At West Point, Cota and Dwight Eisenhower became good friends playing football. Commissioned a lieutenant, Cota was promoted to major by war’s end.
On D-Day he was a 51-year-old brigadier general, assistant commander of the 29th division. He was also one of the highest ranking officers on Omaha Beach that day and possibly the oldest person.
On Omaha Beach
Cota had warned his men of the terrible confusion they’d encounter that day, and he was right. Troops landed in the wrong places and the German defenses were stronger than anticipated. The Allies couldn’t get a foothold on the beach under intense enemy fire and around obstacles and mines.
About one hour after the invasion started, Norman Cota rode a landing craft into a crossfire of bullets, artillery and mortar. He strode upright across the beach toward a group of soldiers pinned down by enemy fire next to a sand dune. It was then that he may have uttered his most famous words:
Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.
He asked the commander of the 5th Ranger Battalion, ‘What outfit is this?’ When told, he replied,
Well, God damn it then, Rangers, lead the way!
"Rangers lead the way!" is now that elite unit's official motto -- but it was Norman Cota who led the way that day.
The Germans had put up wire fences to obstruct the Allies' path off the beach. A soldier placed a Bangalore torpedo – a tube filled with high explosives – under one fence and blew it away. The first soldier through the breach was killed by sniper fire. The men following him froze.
Cota saw what was happening and raced into the breach. He led the surviving soldiers through the gap in the fence and up a steep bluff to overtake a German gun embankment. At one point he got ahead of his men and stood waiting for them, twirling his .45 on his finger.
Opening the gap allowed men and equipment to be moved off the beach to safer places inland. Norman Cota earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership that day. An effort is underway to upgrade his decoration to the Medal of Honor.
This Is How You Take A House
The next day the Allies tried to broaden the beachhead, fanning out in vulnerable spots. The Germans continued their fierce defense. Many fired on the Allies from behind stone walls and from within stone barns and farmhouses.
Cota came upon a group of infantry pinned down by some Germans in a farmhouse. Stephen Ambrose in Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany recounts what happened.
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."
Before Norman Cota died on Oct. 4, 1971, he got to see himself played by Robert Mitchum in the film, The Longest Day.
This story was updated from the 2015 version.