There were people dying everywhere. The Germans were in a dominating position and highly protected, completely hidden as they shot their guns through little slots while U.S. soldiers were easy targets as they scrambled across a wide-open beach.
There’s a reason it’s called Bloody Omaha, said John Raaen, a retired U.S. Army major general and Winter Park resident.
“It was a pretty gory landing,” Raaen said. “It was like a sea of lead. Bullets were cracking by, so many of them that it was just a continuous sound.”
But he was one of the lucky ones. Raaen was an Army captain the day his battalion landed on Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944, during World War II. Most of the soldiers that day weren’t afraid, though, he said. As Raaen jumped off a boat and pounded across that beach he was exhilarated for two reasons: he was too young to believe death could happen to him, and he was so highly trained and ready, he was bursting to put his knowledge and preparation to work.
“You don’t know how you could possibly make it, but you do make it,” he said. “When you’re excited you can do anything.”
Raaen’s new book “Intact,” which was published in May, takes readers through the hours before the invasion began, the race from his boat to shore and across the beach, and the battles he faced once inland. The name of his book comes from the fact that his, the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion, was one of few to land on Omaha Beach intact of all its members — a fact that helped in their success that day.
While Raaen has been working on the story off and on since 1984, the start of his book really began just a month after his experience, in July 1944.
He was, as he called it, a “loose cannon.” He didn’t have an exact job, and so he was given ones that seemed to fit his abilities. He was a college-educated man — a graduate from West Point — so he was assigned to write up the decorations for medals won during the invasion, then as the person to write the after-action report for the invasion month, and last as the contact person for men with the War Department Historian Team. His role was to answer any questions about what happened that day, and if he couldn’t answer them, to find a soldier who could. Raaen would sit in on the interviews, and absorbed many details of that day. All inspired the writing of his first story about what happened on D-Day, and the basis for “Intact.”
Years later he became the go-to veteran for WWII D-Day historians looking for an informed, thoughtful account from someone who experienced the invasion.
“What’s in this book is a gold mine,” said Patrick O’Donnell, an author who’s written eight books on military history, some helped by Raaen’s interviews. “It’s history trapped in amber.”
That’s because Raaen was actually there. And the book contains not just his memories decades later — Raaen is now 90 and can recall single moments and details with crisp clarity — but the fresh ones of his first story in 1944 only a month after the event.
“He’s an eyewitness and an intelligent, perceptive eyewitness,” said Tom Hatfield, an author and director of the Military History Institute at the Briscoe Center for American History in Texas.
“The fact that he actually participated in the momentous event of the invasion of Normandy … that he was at the crux, the place that the breakthrough was made from Omaha Beach, it gives him a unique perspective that other writers can’t bring to it,” author and historian Bob Black said. “The book is very revealing.”
John Raaen will sign copies of “Intact” at All Saints Church in Winter Park at 10 a.m. Sunday, July 8. There will be copies available for purchase. You can also purchase a copy online on Amazon or eBay.
What Raaen said he wanted to do was to give his fellow WWII veterans a grasp of what happened that day larger than the “15-yard war” they were fighting, and for them to remember what they did and why it was so important. Also, why it was so bloody, and how the leadership of officers made the operation successful. Several veterans who read his first draft said it was the first time they realized and understood what had happened around them.
It began as something not for the public, but turned into a book that Black said anyone’s WWII library wouldn’t be complete without.
“His book is incredibly important,” Hatfield agreed.