Book Excerpt / Pittsburgher's memoir recalls GI landing on Omaha Beach

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This is an excerpt from a family's war memoir, "Brothers Three: World War II Events We Cannot Forget" by the late Jack Ziskind of Pittsburgh. He and his younger brothers, Sam and Gerald, served simultaneously in World War II. In this chapter, he describes Gerald landing at Omaha Beach in 1944. Gerald Ziskind, 93, lives in Squirrel Hill.

Gerald boarded a troop ship in Liverpool, England, with 900 troops on board, and then was transported in a wild and stormy sea around the south of the British Isles. Pelting rain and heavy gales sent the ship plunging up and down. Most of the troops were seasick, holding onto the rails. On the eastern coast of England, the troops were unloaded onto landing craft to cross the English Channel. Each craft was loaded with 30 troops. Their normal capacity was 10. It took three hours to make the trip to the French coast.

One mile off shore, the landing craft began to pass destroyers and military craft that were firing inland at the German fortifications and pillboxes. The shocks and repercussions of the ordnance increased their mal-de-mer (seasickness). As they approached shore, the troops experienced the whoosh and whine of metal firing past their craft, and an occasional strike against it. Worse yet, they witnessed both the wounding and killing of some of the troops. When the bottom of the landing craft began to strike against the ocean floor, the craft made an abrupt turn and opened the rear gate, which was the signal for the men to debark into the water. The entire debarkation took place within 7 minutes and the craft was then off for its next load.

Gerald braced himself for the impact as he leaped into the icy water. The shock as the chilling water filled his uniform and struck his body was overwhelming. His trousers and jacket ballooned out; his boots filled with ice water, and his legs felt dragged down by 50-pound weights. Every movement toward the shore was a fight against the waves that slapped him in the face from the front and against his helmet from the rear. Finally, he reached the 2-foot depth, and as he untangled himself from the underlying weeds, he fell onto the shore.

Once on land, he crept forward onto the beach. He could hear the pinging of machine gun fire, the cries of wounded soldiers and the gasping of mortally stricken GIs.

As quickly as he could, Gerald dug a foxhole, trying to use his raincoat to deflect the heavy downpour of rain. In spite of repeated bailing with his helmet, the foxhole remained flooded.

The landing had been timed to take place at dusk. As darkness fell, the Germans replied with a flurry of flares that illuminated the beach and gave an excellent target view of the approaching troops. The constant fire of the German flare guns sprayed the beach 12 rounds at a time. These weapons made a screaming sound that was capable of putting every GI's nerves on edge. With a deafening roar, the destroyers and battleships kept firing all night long at the German pillboxes. Every round shook one's being. At 5 a.m., a temporary lull in the firing of the Germans and the Allied ships at sea enabled the troops to abandon their foxholes and move closer to the cliffs.

Gerald was identified as a tank officer and ordered to report to a replacement depot several miles from the front lines. Along with several other officers, he was taken by jeep to the replacement depot, where he was assigned to a tank unit, an auxiliary arm of the 82nd Airborne Division. The tank unit's mission was to fight its way through the hedgerows to the village of Caen, a military objective. The hedgerows presented a highly combative area with a number of German tank units superior in armor and firepower to that of the Allied tanks. However, the German tanks were out-numbered 3-to-1 by the Allied forces, which forced a retreat by the Germans.

Gerald's unit was ordered to go to a small town on the eastern bank of the Moselle River at the German border. Its mission was to send tank fire across the river against the German forces. The German response was a [fusillade] of high intensity, lasting many hours, usually taking place after midnight. The crossfire continued for approximately three weeks. Then the unit received orders to proceed to the Remagen Bridge and to cross into Germany. This would require the crossing of the bridge to the eastern side of the Rhine River.

Army intelligence had reported that the Remagen Bridge had not been destroyed after the German withdrawal and was still available for Allied crossing, although it was still under defensive fire. Gerald's unit was designated to be the initial force to cross and was then to drive on to the town of Schmitt.

When Gerald's tank unit arrived at the Remagen Bridge, there were large holes in the deck of the bridge surface, preventing the tanks from passing. The Corps of Engineers was called in, and large sheets of metal were placed over the openings. The German soldiers fired 88mm guns against the tanks as they came off the bridge. Returning fire by Allied units finally silenced the German weapons, and the Allied tanks were able to proceed to the town of Schmitt.

As commanding officer, Gerald was given a jeep in order to reconnoiter the area as to the disposition and strength of enemy troops. He was also to investigate the alleged massacre of American troops that had been reported in that area. He came upon a large field where there were many corpses lying in grotesque positions in a sea of mud, giving off a heavy odor of formaldehyde. Of all the events of a gruesome war, Gerald experienced his greatest revulsion at the sight of these American troops mired in mud, a scene that has persisted in his memory for the past 60 years.

Jack Ziskind, a colonel in U.S. Army, died in April 2011, a month before turning 100. "Brothers Three" is available at coloneljackziskind.com and Amazon.com.

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