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NEWS | June 6, 2024

80th Anniversary of D-Day: D.C. Guardsmen among the first Allied forces in Normandy invasion

By Capt. Andrew L. Hargroder and Master Sgt. Arthur M. Wright | D.C. National Guard

They were part of a war that many historians call one of the most influential global events of the 20th Century, changing political, social, and economic conditions at home, and abroad. It was a volatile time in geopolitical history: a destabilized Europe saw the rise of Naziism, Japan launched a devastating attack on American installations in the Pacific, and the world was fixated on the divisive shift in power between Allied Forces and the Axis Powers.

June 6, 1944, marked a pivotal shift during World War II. It’s the day nearly 160,000 Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy and laid the foundation to liberate Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Of the eight District of Columbia National Guard units mobilized for service in Europe, the Pacific and at home, at least three landed on Omaha Beach and fought in what we remember today as the Battle of Normandy or Operation Overlord (D-Day): the 29th Military Police Platoon (MP PLT), Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) of the 29th Infantry Division (29ID), and the 121st Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB).

1. What were the contributions of the 29th Military Police Platoon (MP PLT)?

The 29th Military Platoon served as an organic element of the 29th Infantry Division throughout U.S. combat operations in Europe. On June 6, 1944, the 29th MP PLT was attached to the 116th Regimental Combat Team (RCT), 29ID. Their mission was to land on Omaha Beach in the 116th RCT sector and serve as the advance traffic section, regulating the flow of foot and vehicular traffic on and off the beach.

However, as the MP PLT approached the Normandy coast in their landing craft, poor visibility threw their pilot off course. At approximately 7:40 a.m., the 29th MP PLT disembarked from Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) Number 94 on Omaha Beach, but in the 1st Infantry Division’s sector, nearly two miles east of their planned landing site. According to the unit’s after-action report, all the troops who landed in that sector “were met by continuous heavy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire…” Notwithstanding the brutal conditions and incessant fire they endured, “the military police fought with the infantry in their advance from the beach to their objectives the following morning.”

One of the D.C. Guardsmen who landed with the MPs on June 6 was SGT Rex V. Potts. Then PVT Potts mobilized with the unit in 1940 and remained with it through its reorganization, training, and deployment to England, eventually earning his stripes as a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO). On June 6, SGT Potts took charge of his unit and led them off the beach to complete their mission. Several weeks later, SGT Potts was wounded in action during the fighting to take St. Lo. For his actions on Omaha Beach and for exhibiting “extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action,” SGT Potts received a citation for valor. After D-Day, the 29th MP PLT played an integral role in protecting the 29ID’s combat power.

Throughout the Battle of Normandy, which raged from June 6 to August 30, 1944, the 29th MP PLT conducted detainment operations and conducted support to mobility and security operations. By protecting lines of communication, regulating the flow of traffic, and guarding German prisoners of war (POWs), the DCNG MPs enabled the success of the 29ID’s combat operations.

2. What was the mission of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) of the 29th Infantry Division (29ID)?

Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) of the 29th Infantry Division (29ID) mission on June 6, 1944, was to land on Omaha Beach in the 116th RCT sector and to establish and operate the division’s command post as the line units attacked from the beach. HHC landed largely according to plan at approximately 3 p.m. near the coastal village of Vierville-sur-Mer. After combat engineers had cleared the obstacles from the beach exit, elements of HHC established the division’s first command post in France in a stone quarry about 100 yards off Omaha Beach.

One of the D.C. Guardsmen of HHC who landed on D-Day was PFC Burton C. Rogers. For the next several days, PFC Rogers and his comrades operated the command post while engaging small groups of enemy resistance, eventually detaining five POWs. Throughout the Battle of Normandy, HHC continued to move and operate the division’s command post as the 29ID advanced through the hedgerow country to St. Lo. During this fighting, PFC Rogers was twice wounded in action, first on July 18 and again on July 29. HHC’s ability to rapidly establish and relocate the division’s command post proved essential to mission success throughout the Battle of Normandy.

3. How did the D.C. National Guard 121st Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB) provide critical success for the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe?

The D.C. National Guard’s most distinguished contribution to D-Day belongs to the 121st Engineer Combat Battalion (ECB). In 1940, the regiment was one of the organization’s largest and most historic units. The unit mobilized as a regiment but quickly reorganized as the Army underwent tremendous changes in its force structure and division alignment. Between Feb. 1941 and July 1942, D.C. Guardsmen of the 121st Engineer Regiment generally split into three different combat engineer battalions: the 117th ECB, the 121st ECB, and the 135th ECB. By 1943, relatively few of the original D.C. Guardsmen of the 121st Engineer Regiment remained in the 121st ECB. From the fall of 1943 through the spring of 1944, the 121st ECB deployed to England with the 29ID and trained for the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Combat engineers proved critical to the success of Operation Overlord. Generally, combat engineer units were tasked with clearing obstacles located on the beaches, the beach exits (or “draws”), and the coastal roads. By destroying or clearing these obstacles, the engineers would enable U.S. infantry and follow-on forces to rapidly advance from the beaches and to drive into Normandy. In short, the success of the Allied invasion depended upon the expertise, the courage, and the ability of U.S. combat engineers to breach Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall.”

As an organic element of the 29ID, the 121st ECB’s mission on D-Day was to clear obstacles in the division’s sector that blocked the beach exits, particularly at the Vierville Draw. The plan was for the 121st ECB to land with elements of the 116th Infantry Regiment (IN), 2nd Ranger Battalion, and 5th Ranger Battalion in the first and second waves, assault across the beach, and then clear the Vierville Draw with the support of infantry. Once the engineers cleared the Vierville and the other exits, the 29ID would quickly move off Omaha Beach. Successive waves of 121st engineers with heavier equipment and bulldozers would then advance beyond the beach with motorized elements and clear the inland roadways.

However, before the first landing craft arrived ashore, many aspects of the plan quickly deteriorated and enemy resistance proved fiercer than anticipated. Many units landed in the wrong place at the wrong time; obstacles on the beach remained intact, preventing large landing craft, vehicles, and equipment from landing on the beach; and most notably, the torrent of direct and indirect fires from German artillery, mortars, machine guns, and small arms trapped Americans in a gruesome and chaotic kill zone. Between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., the elements of the 121 ECB that landed on Omaha Beach suffered approximately 50% casualties and nearly 75% of its equipment was lost or destroyed. The carnage that they and their comrades endured would mark June 6, 1944, as one of the bloodiest days in American military history, second only to the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.

Despite the onslaught, many combat engineers of the 121st ECB assaulted through the kill zone, scaled the bluffs alongside the 116th IN and the Rangers, and fought their way inland to secure a foothold. Many others who remained on the beach worked tirelessly and courageously under fire to consolidate equipment and explosives. One of these combat engineers, and a D.C. Guardsman, was LTC John T. O’Neil. John O’Neil lived in College Park, Maryland, and had served 10 years in the 121st Engineers, before the outbreak of WWII. MAJ O’Neil commanded 121st ECB in 1942 after its reorganization and on June 6, 1944, LTC O’Neil commanded a joint task force of Army and Navy combat engineers.

The mission of this joint task force, the “Provisional Engineer Group,” was to land at 6:30 a.m. with the first wave of infantry and to clear 17 50-meter gaps in the obstacle belt along the entire length of Omaha Beach. LTC O’Neil commanded and led the Provisional Engineer Group throughout the harrowing events of June 6. He survived that day and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his “intrepid actions, personal bravery, and zealous devotion to duty.” By the early afternoon of June 6, U.S. troops had successfully infiltrated German defenses and fought their way inland at several points. At the same time and in the 116th RCT sector, the 121st ECB had gathered enough equipment and set conditions to destroy the most formidable obstacle on the beach: a concrete wall that blocked the exit. No vehicles could advance up the Vierville Draw from Omaha Beach until it was destroyed. Between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., Soldiers of the 121st ECB destroyed the concrete wall with explosives and cleared the road of debris, finally opening an exit from that sector of “bloody Omaha.”

4. During World War II, the Armed Forces was comprised of many ‘Citizen Soldiers’ who trained and prepared for war efforts. Explain.

Even before the official start of World War II, on Dec. 8, 1941, eight D.C. National Guard units were mobilized in Sept. 1940, and would eventually serve in all theaters of the conflict, in Europe, the Pacific and at home.

- 121st Engineer Regiment – 121st ECB in Europe with 29th ID
- 260th Coast Artillery Regiment - Stateside
- Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), 29th Infantry Division – Europe with 29th ID
- Military Police Company, 29th Infantry Division – Europe with 29th ID
- 104th Ordnance Company, 29th Infantry Division – serves in Europe, though reassigned to a different division
- 104th Quartermaster Regiment
- Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 372nd Infantry Regiment – Stateside
- 121st Observation Squadron – Europe (Italy predominately)

Of the units in the D.C. National Guard that served in WWII only the 372nd Military Police Battalion (121st Engineer Combat Battalion), the 104th Maintenance Company (104th Medium Maintenance Company), and 113th Wing (121st Observation and Liaison Squadron) are still active today.

5. Why is it important to recognize the contributions of the D.C. National Guard on D-Day, and how can the public learn more?

Founded in 1802, the D.C. National Guard is one of the oldest and most unique organizations in the U.S. Armed Forces with two primary missions: Defend national interests at home and abroad and protect the Nation’s capital. The D.C. National Guard’s contribution to D-Day is profoundly important to our organization, the District, and to the nation. It’s significant for several reasons: First, this history of service and sacrifice provides the city and organization with not only a sense of pride, but an untiring source from which to draw important lessons, insight, and purpose. Second, the D.C. National Guard of today is the legacy of those D.C. Guardsmen who paved the way and there’s an obligation to honor their memory and sacrifice. And lastly, it is important because the cause of democracy and the just and lasting peace for which our ancestors greatly sacrificed is in peril. Our adversaries are resolved to subvert and weaken the international order that the Allied Nations created in the wake of WWII. If our nation calls, it will fall upon Capital Guardians to defend the cause of democracy. The District of Columbia National Guard Museum is home to an array of historic and authentic artifacts honoring and representing the Capital Guardian's military tradition.

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