From D-Day to Saint Lo: Nebraska Army National Guard Soldiers journey to France for 75th commemorative staff ride

A close up view of one of the statues that accompanies the Higgins Boat Monument at Utah Beach in Normandy, France, July 18, 2019, during a 75th D-Day Anniversary tour of Normandy’s beaches. The boats were invaluable for the invasion and were designed by a former Nebraska National Guard Soldier by the name of Andrew Jackson Higgins of Columbus, Nebraska. (Nebraska National Guard photo by Spc. Lisa Crawford)
June 06, 2020

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, 1st Lt. Richard Winters was acting company commander of Company E, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

His company commander was dead. Members of his unit were scattered across the countryside following a chaotic nighttime drop. He had 13 men available.

A battery of German artillery was raining down shells on Utah Beach, only three miles away. For the invasion to be successful, that battery had to be taken out.

Winters’ battalion commander had few options. He assigned E Company (Easy Company, using the World War II era phonetic alphabet) the job.

“The battalion commander didn’t say, ‘How many men do you have in Easy? What’s your force strength?’” said retired British Army Maj. Tim Kilvert-Jones to a group Nebraska National Guard Soldiers, overlooking the treeline where the German guns fired on D-Day.

“He just said, ‘Can Easy take it on?’ And Dick Winters said, ‘Yep. No problem.’”

On July 16, 2019, Kilvert-Jones led about 30 members of the Nebraska Army National Guard on a D-Day focused staff ride as part of the Guard’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Saint Lo.

The D-Day staff ride was important to the Saint Lo mission because the June 6 landings in Normandy were a key precursor to the Saint Lo battle, where the 134th Infantry Regiment of the Nebraska National Guard helped liberate the city about six weeks after D-Day. A staff ride is a historical study of a battle, ideally done where the battle occurred.

During the staff ride, Kilvert-Jones repeatedly returned to a central theme: “Free men fought here,” and the multi-national nature of Operation Overlord. While the Americans landed at Omaha and Utah beaches, the British landed at beaches codenamed Juno and Sword, while the Canadians landed at Gold Beach.

The invasion was controlled by a united U.S./U.K. chain of command, with British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery commanding all land forces, including those of the United States.

The morning portion of the staff ride focused on the U.S. Airborne landings behind Utah Beach.

Winters’ action, portrayed in episode two of the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” was one of several examples of decisive, small-unit, initiative and leadership paving the way to victory.

That day, despite daunting odds, Winters’ team, part of the 101st Airborne Division, successfully assaulted the battery of four guns, arranged in an L-Shape at a farm called Brecourt Manor, destroying the guns, allowing the 4th Infantry Division to advance inland from Utah Beach.

Winters, who had never been in combat before that morning, used his extensive training to perform a quick reconnaissance, direct his men into the German trench system, defeat the German defenders and use TNT to wreck the guns.

“It’s just a classic case of a really, really, good tactical action by a brilliant young tactical commander, who followed battle procedure, got it right, and was able to take on a much more, significantly stronger, force,” Kilvert-Jones said.

Winters’ actions and the destruction of the Brecourt garrison also exemplified another theme touched on by Kilvert-Jones: that of a well-planned operation repeatedly going wrong but with individual soldiers – ranging in rank from private to general – adjusting on the fly, making key decisions and taking action in the midst of chaos.

Maj. Clayton Engelman, a native of Beatrice-Nebraska, was selected for the staff ride as a legacy family member of the Nebraska Army National Guard. Engelman’s great uncle, Charles Stevens, served with Company C, 134th Infantry Regiment during World War II, and died in the Battle of Saint Lo on July 16, 1944, at the age of 31. Engelman said those decisions-making skills in action were his big takeaway from the D-Day staff ride.

“There (were) a lot of individual soldiers that, when they ended up in a place or a location where they weren’t necessarily supposed to be, they were able to overcome and seize an opportunity when it presented itself,” Engelman said. “Those were the things that made the operation succeed.”

In the afternoon the Nebraskans visited Utah Beach, including the memorial to Nebraska-born Andrew Higgins, builder of the so-called Higgins Boats that took so many troops to shore in the amphibious operations of World War II.

After that came Pointe-du-Hoc, the National Guard Memorial on Omaha Beach (at the landing site of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the Virginia National Guard) and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where the Nebraskans looked at endless rows of the of graves of fallen soldiers in silence.

The Nebraska Soldiers on the staff ride would spend the next two days continuing to explore the history of the 134th Infantry’s advance through the Norman countryside, culminating in the liberation of the town of Saint Lo, France on July 18, 1944.

(Nebraska National Guard article by Maj. Andrew Nelson)