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Ed Ruggero
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Ed Ruggero

Ed Ruggero, author most recently of The First Men In, helps organizations develop the kinds of leaders people want to follow. His Gettysburg Leadership Experience teaches battle-tested leadership lessons that endure today.

D-Day anniversary: The leaders of Omaha Beach

This Sunday, June 6, is the 66th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

By the time Brigadier General Norm Cota came ashore on Omaha Beach, an hour after the first troops, it was clear that the assault plan, more than a year in the making, was falling apart.

Lead units had suffered hundreds of casualties. Bodies rolled in the bloody surf, while more dead and wounded lay scattered amid piles of burning equipment and vehicles. GIs were packed so tightly on the sand that German defenders on the bluffs above could hardly miss. Many of those still alive were seasick or had lost their weapons in the water. Cleverly laid German defenses closed off the beach exits, which were raked with fire and blocked by mines and barbed wire.

As an experienced combat commander, Cota knew that even the best plans can fall apart; when that happens leaders on the ground have to adjust on the fly. He also knew that staying put on the beach was suicide; German mortar fire was becoming more, not less, accurate.

They could not back off the beach--there wasn't even a plan for withdrawal. The only thing left to do was to get the troops moving directly up the bluffs, right into the teeth of the German fire. There was no time to plan a large-scale assault, no practical way to communicate in any orderly fashion with commanders spread across the killing zone. The general had to show his men what he wanted.

Cota scrambled over the seawall, dodging machine gun fire, shouting encouragement and directions to the men closest to him. He showed the demolition men exactly where he wanted to blow a gap in the barbed-wire barrier guarding the foot of the cliff. When the detonation tore a hole in the obstacle, Cota was one of the first men through the gap.

Several men following were killed, but a determined few made it inside this first line of enemy defenses. Others nearby, inspired by the general's example, fought off the shock and pushed past their wounded and dying comrades. Energized and angry, GIs clambered up to positions from which they could shoot the German defenders.

Nearby, Major Sidney Bingham, who started June 6 in command of more than 600 combat soldiers, was now leading fewer than 30 up the cliff. Later, Bingham said, "Individual and small-unit initiative carried the day."

At other points on the beach a few privates and sergeants and lieutenants, though cut off by noise and smoke and stunned by the carnage around them, did what Cota and Bingham did. They took charge of their own little sectors of the war--just that area around them they could see and influence by direct action. On England's green training fields they'd been taught to act rather than wait to be told what to do. They remembered that lesson even as they stepped into bloody hell at Omaha Beach.

The Allies put some 156,000 men ashore in France on D-Day. Many of these men thought of themselves as followers before that day; some of those became leaders after the shooting started on June 6, at exactly the moment when the Allied war effort needed them to step up and take charge.

Ed Ruggero has written previously on the anniversaries of the founding of West Point, Washington's crossing of the Delaware, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

By Ed Ruggero

 |  June 4, 2010; 5:11 AM ET
Category:  Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Folks we're getting off track here as usual
fighting each other over the comments stated.
Lets get back on track and remember the honor
and sacrifice of our men and women in WWII.
We are getting to academic today and need
to just remember and be thankful for what those of the WWII gave to the world.

Posted by: simondcat | June 6, 2010 1:03 PM
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D-Day was my father's 15 bombing mission in a B-17. At 22 years of age my father was involved in one of the most important events of the 20th century. The bravery of our soldiers and the knowledge that they were truly saving Europe and the world from the evil that was Nazi Germany is something that we must never forget or fail to appreciate. My father is gone now and so are most of those that fought. But the memories of their great effort and success will never die. D-Day is an example of American concern that the rest of the world should live in freedom and that evil will be fought and defeated.

Posted by: bobbo2 | June 6, 2010 6:40 AM
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Ed,

Enjoyed the article - thanks.

I am not a historian, just a former Airborne Ranger with a Combat Infantryman's Badge.

I appreciate the heart of your story and the accomplishments and sacrifices of those represented.

Respectfully,

John
http://drjohnmcginn.com

Posted by: drjohnmcginn | June 5, 2010 1:37 AM
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I had an uncle who made it through Omaha Beach, got wounded at St. Loo and died in the Battle of the Bulge. Don't know much about his service experiences. But he is buried at Margraten, Holland. I visited there and saw these long walls with names of men the never found. It is amazing what these men and women went through for our freedom. I guess Halseys comment , "There are no great men, only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet. " is true.

Posted by: jschmidt2 | June 4, 2010 11:22 PM
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Speaker2Animals,

You are correct; it was TR's son. (FDR Jr. was a Marine Raider).

BG Roosevelt indeed had arthritis, but his heart was even more of an issue. He died of another heart attack about a week later.

Posted by: HCBerkowitz | June 4, 2010 6:43 PM
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HCBerkowitz:

It was Teddy's son, not Franklin's, who was there on D-Day. And, he was so crippled by arthritis that he had to beg his superiors to be allowed to command troops that day.

Posted by: Speaker2Animals | June 4, 2010 6:17 PM
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I agree 1,000% with FBEseler: the "Band of Brothers" and "Greatest Generation" threads are played out; well beyond cliché, actually. And I agree with his other point: "articles that attempt to compare and draw some sort of lesson between a bloody battlefield ... and situations in business are ridiculous ....". Only I'd take that a bit farther: they are worse than ridiculous.

Whatever else it is or might be, military decision-making ultimately boils down to intelligence-driven risk-assessment and logistics pure-&-simple; a completely different universe. When a CEO writes or utters phrases such as "strategic planning" it's best to close your ears because the fool hasn't a clue what he's talking about. Such CEO's forget that Gen. Lee himself lamented that he'd taken a military education and unlike so many others who ring-knock with pride, he was the genuine article.

The only breed of poseur worse than this kind of faux-militärische CEO (a Scharnhorst or Gneisenau in pinstripes, if you will; pity the subordinate who must report to him) is the politician who pads his service record with false heroics and unearned awards then claims that he "misspoke" when his lies are uncovered (Blumenthal and Kirk being just the latest examples). They should be skinned .... .

Posted by: hogsmile | June 4, 2010 6:07 PM
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john33317,

If you can see Eddie Albert in a movie on the topic, he paid his dues. There are quite a few people who believe his Bronze Star was too low a recognition for his handling rescue boats at Tarawa, recovering at least 70 wounded Marines while under heavy fire.

Posted by: HCBerkowitz | June 4, 2010 4:47 PM
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Norm Cota is a study in contrasts. Brave and cool in June '44, fabled to have uttered the words to the Rangers on Omaha Beach, "Rangers- Lead the Way", he was utterly spent by the time he led the 28th Division into the tragedy of the Huertgen Forest in November '44. While his leadership on Omaha was an inspiration, his failures in the Huertgen will be his true legacy.

Posted by: centurion1 | June 4, 2010 4:39 PM
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I'm a bit puzzled about some of the complaints. BG Cota (and, for that matter, BG Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., who went in on the first wave) did the proper and necessary thing: don't hesitate, and recognize it's not going to get easier. There are corporate examples--the textbook case is Johnson & Johnson dealing with Tylenol poisoning.

European vs. Pacific theater bias? How much room is there in the article? Cota at Normandy vs. Shoup at Tarawa? It's not always ground forces doing this, as with the bomber commanders at Ploesti vs. the Action off Samar, with light ships and aircraft fighting off a force with the largest battleship afloat.

The enemy was yellow? Talked to anyone from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team? For that matter, Guy Gabaldon might have some things to say.

Ruggero, incidentally, is a West Point graduate who served in infantry. I don't think he was in combat.

Posted by: HCBerkowitz | June 4, 2010 3:48 PM
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SSTK34 wrote:
"The vets of Attu, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, or Okinawa never get moving speeches or heroic war movies."

True, Attu didn't get much coverage but...
Sands of Iwo Jima, Three Came Home, Flyng Leathernecks, Go For Broke! (not in the Pacific, but it goes to one of your statements), Operation Pacific, Submarine Command, Okinawa, Battle Cry, The Eternal Sea, Away All Boats, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Naked and the Dead, Never So Few, Hell to Eternity, None But the Brave, Beach Red, Hell in the Pacific, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Too Late the Hero, Midway, Farewell to the King, Fat Man and Little Boy, The Thin Red Line, Windtalkers, The Great Raid, and of course Flags of Our Fathers.

Posted by: observer57 | June 4, 2010 3:26 PM
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Cota's contributions went far beyond the Normandy beach. As the 29th ID(NG) moved inland, he was constantly visiting the advancing battalions, directing junior officers, correcting tactical errors, and simply providing leadership to a force in dire need of same. He is one of America's unsung heroes who proved the adage that the right man at the right place at the right time can make all the difference in the world. His contribution cannot be overestimated. I'll know the Army's done right by him if and when it names the a model IFV after him.

Posted by: observer57 | June 4, 2010 3:04 PM
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This is BS. These columns and articles that attempt to compare and draw some sort of lesson between a bloody battlefield like Normandy and situations in business are ridiculous. There is no similarity between warfare and business -- only in the minds of deluded CEOs, training department managers, HR people and other combat wannabes...This article comes off like he's seen "Saving Private Ryan" too many times. I don't know Ed Ruggero but I would guess that he wasn't at Normandy, Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima, let alone Gettysburg, etc. What the hell would he know about any of it except what he's read in a book? What business has he been involved in aside from writing these lame articles? If he wants to learn about combat, maybe he should sign up for a year in Afghanistan or Iraq. He could do better by writing about how leaders lie and withold or fabricate information to get their country into a war or their company into trouble...I'm sure he could find plenty of current examples.

Posted by: fbeseler | June 4, 2010 1:51 PM
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I'm a veteran, Marine Corps and Navy (don't ask, it's complicated). On this June 6th, I have no objection to any mention of the leadership that was demonstrated in by Gen Cota in leading the way off Omaha Beach. For the Marines in the audience, all we need to do to see the celebration of those same virtues in the Pacific is look to the Marine Corps Memorial. All who serve or served deserve credit for that service. The bravery and leadership demonstrated on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima is by no means diminished by this column.

Posted by: jamalmstrom | June 4, 2010 11:53 AM
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Both of the comments referring to people as "yellow" are offensive. I am the "white" old man, and I find calling Asians "yellow" extremely offensive.

Posted by: FLTNVA | June 4, 2010 11:39 AM
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"One was "conventionally" fought on a well defined terrain. The other was "unconventionally" fought on scattered islands in the vast geographical expanse of the Pacific ocean"

There's much more to it than that but the bottom-line is that the perceived importance of the battle or the theatre doesn't undermine the quality and level of leadership being discussed.

This is so much loser-talk, really.

Posted by: dubya1938 | June 4, 2010 11:16 AM
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"For examples of leadership and bravery againt the odds study Guadalcanal.

Doesn't sound like a real Marine, to whine like this.

Look, I'm sure that there were plenty of examples of leadership & bravery in the Pacific war. Doesn't mean that the story here isn't an example of either.

Quit your whining.

Posted by: dubya1938 | June 4, 2010 11:13 AM
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This account adds little or nothing to the Hollywood version, circa Robert Mitchum, of what happened on Omaha Beach. I can almost see Eddie Albert getting killed from a shellburst at an inopportune moment....
Why not give us something factual, fresher and more deeply researched, e.g. how the use of NKVD blocking detachments helped the Russians carry the day at Stalingrad? That was also leadership, Stalin style.

Posted by: john33317 | June 4, 2010 11:04 AM
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The first "Stormin Normin!" This was a payoff for the American military ideal that all its soldiers should take 'initiative.' Unlike many militaries at the time where the rank and file freeze if an officer or important leader was killed, American soldiers had been trained to take the initiative, from the general right down to the private.

Posted by: DPoniatowski | June 4, 2010 10:48 AM
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@SSTK34:

I'm with you there. While I still feel that all of the theaters in which the US fought in World War II were important, I also agree that the deeds of USMC in the Pacific have been given short shrift for too long.

That said, I do believe this is changing. I only hope that many others are moved to learn the stories of those who fought those battles from Burma to the 'Canal, while there are still some of those men left alive to tell them.

Semper Fi, my friend.

Posted by: Rhino40 | June 4, 2010 9:38 AM
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God bless the 29th Division and the men of the 1st Infantry division who came ashore 66 years ago to help free the world from tyranny.

Posted by: steven7753 | June 4, 2010 9:05 AM
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STK34 - You are right, so write it!

Yeah, this stuff sort of makes me sick. As a guy whose father took him to Omaha beach at age 6 to see what it looked like from the water line, and it was all overgrown back then, 1962, I have envisioned what it must have been like back then. But I also understand what a horrible job the planners of Overlord had done. Allied forces slugged it out for a month and a half before they really got off the beach areas, with the launch of Cobra, July 25. MY son and I were walking around the large cemetery there and I asked what the gold lettering on some grave stones represented. They were Medals of Honor. You write about leaders being made, but how many leaders were lost that day, due to SNAFU planning? Ike was the best clerk Mac ever had.

Posted by: jim4postnatl | June 4, 2010 9:04 AM
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SSTK34:
If I am not mistaken, there is a book and movie titled "Guadalcanal Diary" and recently a movie produced on Iwo Jima, but you are correct that more attention should be paid to the struggle in the Pacific. Even then, the Pacific war was largely ignored until Germany was contained. The men who fought in the Pacific must not be marginalized, but the differences in the struggles were much more than white versus yellow opponents. One was "conventionally" fought on a well defined terrain. The other was "unconventionally" fought on scattered islands in the vast geographical expanse of the Pacific ocean that stretched from the Aleutians in the north to Australia in the south, from Hawaii in the east to China in the west. The equipment and command structures were different, but both required innovative ground forces.

Posted by: publish | June 4, 2010 9:00 AM
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It helps the Germans were white men. The vets of Attu, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, or Okinawa never get moving speeches or heroic war movies. Why 'cause the enemy was yellow.
For examples of leadership and bravery againt the odds study Guadalcanal. Not long after the landings the US forces were isolated as the Japanese drove off the US Naval forces. For several months it was the Grunts alone against the Japanese and jungle. They prevailed.
But what do we get? Another D-Day speech where the allies had all of the advantages and the Red army attacking from the east.

Posted by: SSTK34 | June 4, 2010 7:15 AM
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