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Norman Cota, Overlooked Hero of D-Day (And the Next)

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.

Norman Cota

Norman Cota

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.

The bluff climbed by Norman Cota and his men.

The bluff climbed by Norman Cota and his men.

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."

Robert Mitchum as Norman Cota.

Robert Mitchum as Norman Cota.

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?"

"Yes, sir.”

"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.


  1. Gary Spencer

    Now that is a deserving man or a crazy.

  2. Marie Catanzaro Cialdea

    How amazing! This General from Chelsea MA

  3. Daniel C. Purdy

    I vote for The Medal of Honor.

  4. Alfred "Ed Moch" Cota

    Though I never met him, or if I did… I probably were far too young to remember, but if it’s in the genes like me… he had acute foresight and a moral compass in regards to making sure his soldiers worked together to protect and cover themselves in a team effort.
    There are many that still feel, that he should have received an “MOH” at Normandy Beach. Unfortunately… History written can be a cruel mistress. It is rare to get it accurate every time. Some people are at the right place at the right time. I guess “Dutch” did have his moments… nice to know he not totally forgotten.

    Edward Moch (aka: Alfred Cota)

    • Are you related to General Dutch Cota? My father was his aide de camp and he and Connie were close to my family for many years. Susan Gallagher Freeman.

      • Ms. Freeman, my step-father, Lt Jack Shea, was also an aide de camp for Gen. Cota when he was the Deputy Commander of the 29th Infantry during the D-Day invasion. I am trying to piece together their movements as they pushed inland and plan to go there after my retirement next year. I am not sure if Shea was still with Cota after Cota was made Commander of the 28th Infantry in late 1944 or if he stayed with the 29th. Cota came to visit my step-father in Tennessee in 1969 and I feel very fortunate and honored to have met him.

  5. I do wonder how he would have felt about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, since I’ve seen a few officers that would rather their men got awards than themselves, some that worked hard to get many medals for others, and then some that very conservative and nominated very few for awards.

    General Eisenhower wore the minimal number of ribbons he could,while Patton wore as many as he could. There are very many extremely brave men and women that will never be recognized with medals,for many reasons (no one saw enough of what they did to write it up for one thing, and others deserving of the highest awards were involved in operations too secret to reveal by drawing attention to their acts. We look upon the recipients as a sample of the bravest, sometimes a bit burdened by representing the others they know who deserve as much or more (Ira Hayes). We respect both the celebrated and the uncelebrated, even the superior feeling braggarts, and especially the quiet ones that I sometimes wish could be more publicly recognized though we will never know enough about most of them.

    With that in mind, we (my family of Veterans, including wife and WWII Vet mother-in-law) would be among those supporting a CMOH for General Cota. General Teddy Roosevelt (who did receive a CMOH for D-Day actions) was older, was in the first wave, but landed at Utah Beach instead of the much tougher Omaha Beach. Each displayed uncommon courage and encouragement of the troops near them, but Cota did it in surely tougher conditions.

  6. william m phillips USN ret.

    MOH for sure.

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