• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • RSS
News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Local Business Search
Stock Summary
S&P 5001660.0610.46


Cogan remembers D-Day

The strategy that won the allies a foothold in Europe was simple: clog the English Channel with craft of every description, from battleships to landing craft to two-man machine-gun mounts. Then spill a flood of tens of thousands of men on the beach until they washed the Nazis inland. Gene Cogan was there on D-Day, a drop in the flood that turned the tide. Now he's a retired schoolteacher who spends the warm months in an RV park west of Howe. One afternoon a couple of weeks back, he told the story of what happened to him in France.

By BOB CAYLOR of The News-Sentinel

For more than a year, Pfc. Cogan and his comrades had waited and waited for D-Day, marching 25 miles in a day, bobbing through the English Channel on landing craft on one "dry run" after another, wondering when one of them would turn out to be the real landing.

On the night of June 4, 1944, after he was driven from a base near Plymouth to the coast, they learned it was finally for real.

"They urged everyone to write letters home. One of the captains got up and said, 'You might just as well know this is the last letter some of you guys are ever going to write,' " Cogan said.

Cogan doesn't remember what he said in his letter; despite the warning from the captain, he wasn't scared. He was a young wisecracker, supremely confident even as he readied himself to wade into Nazi machine-gun emplacements. Nothing in his training had prepared him to be anything but supremely confident.

"They didn't prepare us for the severity of war," he said. "You didn't realize that, sooner or later, everybody becomes a casualty. I don't know of anybody from my company who didn't become a casualty."

The invasion was scheduled for June 5, but the Channel was too rough that day. The next day dawned sunny and remained that way. Cogan, soothed with pills to prevent seasickness, managed to sleep four or five hours during the crossing.

His ship was in the second wave to hit Omaha Beach, the bloodiest landing site of the invasion.

As his company's landing craft and its 120 or more soldiers neared the beach, the boat's captain raced its engine and ran it hard aground on the beach.

Its gangplank opened onto sand - not into inches or feet of seawater, as those in some ships did.

When he was halfway down the gangplank, he heard a machine gun open fire. He didn't know whether it was American or German, but he dived and hit the ground.

He turned to a man on the ground beside him and joked, "A guy could get killed around here." Then he saw the bullet hole in the man's temple. As it turns out, when he hit the beach around 8 a.m., the first wave of men that landed about an hour and a half before had already subdued the worst of the German opposition.

Compared with many, his company fared well the first day. Five of its 120 or so men were killed on D-Day. He remembers the following days as slow advances - one, two or three miles a day - punctuated by intense fighting involving small bands of Americans and Germans.

The most memorable obstacles hadn't even been mentioned in their training. For centuries, French farmers had separated their plots from one another with hedgerows - long, earthen berms studded with large rocks. They provided ready-made fortifications and cover for the German defenders, and they blocked trucks and sometimes even tanks from crossing the landscape.

These were the milestones that marked each day's progress, a mile or two or three eastward.

"We'd move up to a hedgerow, then blast the hell out of the next one," Cogan remembered. "Sometimes there were Germans behind them and sometimes there weren't."

The end of Cogan's war came less than two weeks after D-Day. He thinks it was June 15.

He and his squad were trying to cross a small river near the village of St. Lo, about 15 miles inland. He was one of two scouts in his company, and he'd gone into an apple orchard, between two hedgerows, to see whether the way was clear. He dropped to one knee behind a hedgerow, and from the corner of his eye, he saw a German soldier step out from behind a tree.

"I wasn't fast enough," he said.

The German's bullet tore across his back and bounced off his spine. Even today he has a trough in his back "big enough to rest a cigar in," he said. He fell and lay there for about half an hour, until the skirmish that had ensued tapered off.

"I was bleeding like a stuck hog," he remembered, but he was able to walk. He headed back toward the rest of his squad to find a medic.

Seconds later, as he passed beneath a tree, a sniper shot him at close range. The sniper's aim wasn't as good as his opportunity.

The rifle bullet split Cogan's left thighbone, close to his hip. He fell, crippled, and rolled down a slope into the apple orchard again. He came to rest near a few other soldiers who'd been wounded.

He doesn't know how long he lay there. He knew he had to try to hook up with his men outside the orchard. He lashed his legs together, and as he did, he felt the shattered end of his femur sticking out of his leg. He dragged himself to a hedgerow, but he couldn't make it over.

"I laid there for 23 hours."

Three of the 11 men in his squad died that day. The next day, some of the squad's survivors returned to the orchard, looking for dog tags, and found him. He was evacuated to an aid station, then to a field hospital. He spent a short time in England before he was sent back to the United States for months of rehabilitation in an Army hospital.

"That made me mad to think that I got wounded, and I wasn't going to be able to go back. I felt like I wasn't going to fulfill the job."

Some of his comrades died. Some fought on to Paris or Berlin. Others, like Cogan, lived but left their buddies to finish the fight without them.

"You never get over it," he said.


In a small village near Plymouth, England, where Gene Cogan was stationed, the locals convinced servicemen that a $1 gnome would bring good luck if it were dipped in the water of a certain well in the village.

One of Cogan's fellow GIs went there with a pocketful of bills to buy out the stock of good-luck charms. Cogan had ordered one, too.

When the gnome-buyer returned, he broke the bad news: He hadn't been able to buy enough to fill the orders.

"One of the sergeants - Sgt. Harold Miller; he was a Hagerstown (Md.) boy - gave me his. He said he didn't believe in that stuff." Cogan said he gratefully accepted Miller's charm.

Cogan's telling of the story halted there. And, for the only time in a long afternoon's talk about D-Day, his voice broke.

He put his hand over his eyes and waited a minute before he could finish. "The sergeant didn't make it back."