Massachusetts

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

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.

 

norman-cota-paris

Norman Cota. D-Day hero, led U.S. Army troops in the parade down the Champs Elysees celebrating the liberation of Paris.

He was highly decorated, remembered for his leadership, his courage, his ability to visualize a battle and his preparation of his men.

Norman Cota on D-Day personally led traumatized soldiers through a gap off bloody Omaha Beach.

Then he topped that performance the next day.

"<yoastmark

Norman Cota

He 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.

Norman Cota 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 earned a promotion 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 correctly warned his men of the terrible confusion they’d encounter that day. 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.

norman-cota-into-jaws-death

Photograph entitled ‘Into the Jaws of Death’ shows American infantry troops landing on Omaha Beach. Photo courtesy National Archives.

He immediately set to making order out of chaos, setting up a command post on the beach. Two of his commanding officers were killed within feet of him.

Then 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.

norman-cota-normandy

U.S. assault troops landing on Utah Beach. Photo courtesy U.S. Army.

Rangers Lead the Way

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 happened 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.

norman-cota-normandy-cliffs

U.S. Army Rangers on the cliffs of Normandy two days after D-Day.

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.”

norman-cota-willilam-holden

Robert Mitchum as Norman Cota in ‘The Longest Day.’

Can’t Do It For Everybody

Cota tried to get as close as possible to the house by leading his squad around a hedge. Then he suddenly shouted a war whoop and ran forward. His men followed, yelling as well.

Some of them tossed grenades into the windows while Cota and another soldier kicked in the front door. They threw a couple of grenades inside, waited for them to blow up and then raced into the house. The Germans who survived the explosions ran for their lives out the back door.

Then, wrote Ambrose,

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 about Norman Cota was updated in 2020.

54 Comments

54 Comments

  1. Pingback: 12 New England Military Heroes, Sung and Unsung - New England Historical Society

  2. Pingback: The 40 Angels of St. Ann, the Sistine Chapel of Woonsocket - New England Historical Society

  3. Pingback: Flashback Photo: The Battle of Point Judith - New England Historical Society

  4. Pingback: A German POW Escapes the WWII Prison Camp in Stark, N.H. - New England Historical Society

  5. Pingback: Joseph T. O’Callahan, A Claustrophobic Priest, Wins the Medal of Honor - New England Historical Society

  6. Pingback: In the Hidden History of WWII, Italian Enemy Aliens Were Interned, Restricted - New England Historical Society

  7. Pingback: A Broke Connecticut Housewife Founds Pepperidge Farm - New England Historical Society

  8. Pingback: Yogi Berra Hits His Way Through New England (Sometimes Under an Assumed Name) - New England Historical Society

  9. Pingback: The Cocoanut Grove Fire and the Kid With a Match - New England Historical Society

  10. Pingback: The Kid in Upper 4 Changes Hearts and Minds - New England Historical Society

  11. Pingback: The Bates Bedspread of Maine, America's Favorite Counterpane - New England Historical Society

  12. Pingback: Pass the Tourtiere, C’est Le Reveillon! - New England Historical Society

  13. Pingback: The Green Book Guides African-Americans to Safety in New England (and Elsewhere) - New England Historical Society

  14. Pingback: Percy Spencer and the Chocolate Bar That Changed the Way You Cook - New England Historical Society

  15. Pingback: How the Poles Came to New England - New England Historical Society

  16. Pingback: Ann Petry: Reluctant Protest Novelist - New England Historical Society

  17. Pingback: on Philippians, gold foil and grenades | Remember, My Lord

  18. Pingback: The Brady Gang in Bangor – The End of the Road for America’s Most Wanted - New England Historical Society

  19. Pingback: The Top Secret Reeducation Camp in RI During World War II - New England Historical Society

  20. Pingback: Rhode Island’s Awful Awful Love Affair: A History - New England Historical Society

  21. Pingback: 6 Hollywood Stars Buried in New England - New England Historical Society

  22. Pingback: The Vinegar Valentine That Ruined a Romance - New England Historical Society

  23. Pingback: The Sensational Surrender of Four Nazi U-boats at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard - New England Historical Society

  24. Pingback: U-Boat Attacks Of World War II: 6 Months of Secret Terror in the Atlantic - New England Historical Society

  25. Pingback: USS Squalus Rescue: World Awaits News of Sailors' Fate - New England Historical Society

  26. Pingback: The Mystery of the Hartford Circus Fire Still Lingers, 70 Years Later - New England Historical Society

  27. Pingback: The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 Shows Forewarned is Forearmed - New England Historical Society

  28. Pingback: Four New England Shopping Malls – Landmarks of Changing Times - New England Historical Society

  29. Pingback: How the Smiley Face Returned to Worcester - New England Historical Society

  30. Pingback: Brownie Wise, The Brains Behind Tupperware - New England Historical Society

  31. Pingback: Howard Johnson Goes From 1 Restaurant to 1000 and Back - New England Historical Society

  32. Pingback: The Capture of Nathan Hale, a Hidden History Surfaces After 224 Years - New England Historical Society

  33. Pingback: Rocky Marciano, the Real Rocky, Came From Massachusetts - New England Historical Society

  34. Pingback: New England’s Forgotten Puerto Rican Riots - New England Historical Society

  35. Pingback: Flashback Photos: Ashland, Maine, Memorial Day, 1943 - New England Historical Society

  36. Pingback: D-Day: The Well-known Planet War II Fight that Freed Europe from Hitler - Real News

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

To Top