St. George • Machine gun rounds and hot metal shards buzzed through the air like thousands of lethal hornets, menacing the terrified American soldiers upon whom the fate of the Normandy invasion would be decided.
Quentin Murdock, 94, who calls Utah his home most of the year, can never forget those harrowing minutes on Omaha Beach June 6, 1944, as the 1st Infantry Division attempted to breach German coastal defenses in the first large-scale invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.
It was an operation so vital, many authors argue the very future of humanity depended on the invasion’s success.
Yet the context of this undertaking was the furthest thing from Murdock’s mind as he stepped out into the chest-deep water of the English Channel and was greeted by the explosions of artillery shells and bullets slapping around him.
“I dove under the water about three times because the firing was so heavy,” Murdock said 70 years later.
A snowbird who lives most of the year in St. George, Murdock is proud of his service in the famed Big Red One — the division’s official nickname after its shoulder patch — during World War II. Seven decades later, he remains amazed he wasn’t killed or wounded in the 19 months prior to the Normandy invasion during rigorous combat in North Africa and Sicily as part of A Company of the 16th Infantry Regiment.
A first lieutenant, Murdock was awarded a Silver Star for his role in a night attack to seize a key hill in Tunisia. He was captured in that operation, and the prisoner-of-war ship he sailed on nearly sunk in the Mediterranean.
Murdock also was part of a resolute force that fought off the Panzer-Division Hermann Goering that threatened to kick U.S. soldiers back into the sea during the early part of the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
It was enough combat for any man to endure.
And yet for the Idaho farm boy, there was more to come. The horrors of Omaha Beach awaited.
Hell-bent on fighting
In the days leading to the attack, it became doubtful Murdock would again fulfill his role of soldier in the upcoming battle. Malaria he had contracted in the Mediterranean flared up. The battalion doctor wanted Murdock to sit out the invasion.
Murdock was incensed. He had to make the cross-channel invasion — even if it meant being subordinate to an officer of lower rank.
“The First Division kind of became my home,” Murdock said, the volume in his voice lowering. “They were going to (invade France) and all my friends were going to go and I would be left alone. So the doctor and I argued back and forth about it.
“He finally relented and gave me some quinine. I guess he thought I was crazy.”
After taking the fast-acting medicine, “I was feeling fine,” Murdock remembered. His spirits, however, were tempered by a fast-approaching reality.
He had just been promoted to battalion motor pool officer, where he would oversee the loading and waterproofing of the invasion vehicles. He figured he would come in well after the initial thrust along Omaha Beach.
Murdock was slated for the second wave.
“That changed my outlook quite a bit,” he said.
And so like thousands of his fellow soldiers of the 16th Infantry Regiment, Murdock climbed down the cargo nets, timed his jump into the bobbing landing craft just right in order to avoid breaking a leg, and awaited his journey to shore.
As the boat circled in the English Channel, waiting for all the landing craft to get loaded, Murdock was mesmerized by the firepower spewing from the nearby battleships.
“It made you feel a little more comfortable seeing something like that going in with you,” he said.
Murdock had no inkling he and the rest of the early landing forces would soon feel like human targets in a shooting gallery.
To the shoreline and beyond
The seas were rough as the Higgins boats motored toward the shore.
“One minute you’d be up on top of the waves and you could see all the ships firing,” Murdock recalled. “The next minute you’d be way down in a valley of water.”
Murdock’s landing craft ground to a halt and the ramp creaked downward. Heavy machine gun fire from pillboxes rained down from the cliffs on Omaha Beach.
“It was so bad on that beach you couldn’t hardly move without being killed,” he said.
Murdock was aghast at what he saw on shore. Allied air forces were supposed to pulverize the beaches and German coastal defense casemates. Instead, those bombs landed much further inland.
And the fate of the tanks intended to provide close-in fire support? Most sank to the bottom of the English Channel.
As a result, the 16th took a beating. Nearly 1,000 men were casualties on the Omaha sector. Boats loaded with personnel were wiped out by direct hits from artillery, adding heavy amounts of blood into sea.
Murdock was able to crawl to the sea wall, which afforded him at least a tiny bit of cover — provided he lay completely flat. But what next? To charge forward meant certain death.
“I laid there for a bit, maybe 20 minutes, trying to get my mind together again,” Murdock said. “There was so much enemy fire and you couldn’t do anything. It was demoralizing how bad it was. So then you had to recover from that bad feeling and decide you got to go do something.”
The inspiration to push forward came from Col. George Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry, who stood fully erect imploring his men to get off the beach.
It was during this time groups of soldiers took initiative and gathered whatever weapons and manpower they could summon to surmount the German defenses near the beach exits.
In one area, Lt. William Dillon — who served with Murdock previously in A Company and who Murdock called, “the best soldier in the army” — scrounged up three Bangalore torpedoes and blew open a gap in the barbed wire.
Word reached Taylor that exits were being opened. The time was nigh to push forward and catch the Germans on their heels. Taylor tramped down the beach telling men in a variety of ways to get moving.
Murdock remembers Taylor’s exhortations.
“He was shouting, ‘If you stay on the beach you are dead or about to die!’ He was hitting everybody on their rears to get over the hill,” Murdock remembered. “It shook us out of the daze we were in and got us going.”
Murdock dodged the machine gun fire to reach the draw. In his excitement, he bounded off the trail through a minefield, but did not set off any mines.
Murdock’s luck continued to hold in the coming days, getting grazed in the ear by a bullet after inadvertently passing near a ditch containing approximately 50 Germans.
He can reflect on those moments now with a grin, but can get weepy when recalling the men he served with who never returned.
Murdock often questions how he could have been so lucky, able to return home and became in an innovator in farming irrigation in Idaho before retiring to St. George for the non-summer months.
These days Murdock speaks candidly of his experiences, and has shared them with students several times in recent years. One recent presentation at Dixie High School had the kids nearly silent, spellbound by the words they were hearing from a man who courted death 70 years ago, yet survived to tell about it.