VMI Alumni at Normandy
Of the one hundred eighty-three alumni who died in WW II in service to their country, seven are buried in France at the Colleville American Cemetery and three are buried at the St James British-American Cemetery, Normandy. This page features the stories of alumni killed on D-Day or during the subsequent campaign in Normandy.
During the Landing:
Under a bright moon at 0100 on 6 June, Lt. Freeling T. Colt '38 and the other paratroopers in the 101st Airborne Division boarded airplanes and took off from England. Approaching the coast of France, the planes encountered a heavy fog bank, then anti-aircraft fire; the pilots took evasive action which broke the formations and scattered the planes. Consequently, when the men jumped, they were dispersed over a wide area, and most of them landed far away from their designated drop zones. A number of them drowned when they landed in fields that had been flooded by the Germans - a fact that had not been detected in the aerial photographs because the grasses had grown above the level of the water. Individually and in small groups, the paratroopers attempted to overcome these problems and accomplish their missions. One of the objectives of Lt. Colt’s unit, the 506th Regiment, was to clear an exit route off Utah Beach for the troops which would be landing later that morning. The town of Ste. Marie du Mont was astride that route; it was heavily defended, and Lt. Colt was killed on June 6 in the action to take it.
At 0430 on 6 June, Lt. Benjamin R. Kearfoot '43 and approximately 200 men of Company A, 116th Regt., disembarked from their ship into seven landing craft and began the two-hour trip to the beach. Comprised of Virginia National Guard troops -- many of whom were from Bedford, VA -- these men were scheduled to be the first to land in France that morning. Rough seas made it difficult for the boats to maintain formation; many of the men bailed water with their helmets to keep their landing craft afloat; one of the boats foundered. The remainder pressed on, and the boats finally grounded, but in water that varied between waist deep to over a man’s head. The ramps dropped and as if this was a signal, German machine-guns immediately opened up from both ends of the beach, sweeping across the lines of floundering men in a deadly crossing fire. Some of the men sank and drowned; most of those who managed to get ashore were cut down. Lt. Kearfoot landed in a boat with twenty-nine other men; all were immediately killed, either by the cross-fire or from a direct hit by a shell -- precisely what happened to the men in that boat will never be known. In short order, all of the officers and NCOs were casualties, and in a span of less than ten minutes, Company A virtually ceased to exist.
After the Landings:
After six costly and frustrating weeks of fighting, the American command mounted “Operation Cobra” on July 25: a major offensive preceded by a massive aerial bombing campaign intended to literally blast a path in the German lines through which the troops could pass.
In the days following the landings, more men and equipment poured ashore and the effort shifted from establishing a beachhead to penetrating the German lines and moving inland. For many of the units, this was their first combat and their introduction was made worse by the fact that they had not anticipated the challenges presented by the hedgerows: thick high hedges, many with narrow lanes sunken between them and which broke up the countryside into small meadows and fields of an acre or less. The French term was “bocages “ which roughly translates as “’box country.”The hedges provided natural fortifications to the defending Germans, and progress was painfully slow: a squad of infantry might have to cross 30 of these “boxes” in order to gain one mile. An Army survey found that during the period between 6 June and 31 July, casualties in many of the infantry units exceeded sixty percent.
A member of the 2nd Armored Division, Capt. Dan J. Morton '41 came ashore at Normandy on 9 June. His unit supported elements of the 101st Airborne in repelling a German counterattack; it then continued general offensive operations attempting to break out of Normandy and move inland. While participating in Operation Cobra on 28 July, Capt. Morton’s unit was moving up behind the lead vehicles near the town of Vaillebauden when the column was suddenly cut by four German tanks attacking from the flank. Capt. Morton promptly dismounted from his vehicle and, assuming command of two light tanks, moved to intercept the Germans. His tank received a direct hit and he was killed. He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously, and the citation made mention of the commendable example he set, noting that as the S-2, he was not required to be in the forward element of the column nor expected to operate a tank.
The 803rd Tank Destroyer Battalion with Capt. Sydney A. Vincent. Jr. '40 landed in Normandy a week after D-Day, and on 18 July he and his troops were supporting an infantry battalion on the outskirts of the town of St. Lo. After observing an American tank shooting unsuccessfully at a suspected German observation post, Vincent approached the battalion commander - who happened to be Maj. Glover S. Johns ‘31 - and was given permission to “take a crack at it.” He moved his tank destroyer -- a large tracked vehicle with a slightly heavier gun than the tank -- out from behind the protection of a building into the open street and snapped off a shot which was immediately answered by a German 88m shell. After an exchange of several more rounds, the German 88 disabled Vincent’s vehicle and put a hole in the wall of Maj. Johns’ command post. Vincent and his crew were unhurt; however, the Germans then called in mortars and he was fatally wounded. He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.
Capt. Harold C. Sheffey '37 came ashore with the 83rd Infantry Division on 21 June, relieving elements of the 101st Airborne which were then locked up with crack German Waffen-SS and Paratroops in the Carentan sector. Holding this city was vital to the success of the invasion: the Germans had already mounted one counterattack which had almost retaken the town, and the Americans readied an offensive that would consolidate and expand their positions. The terrain favored the German defenders, who extracted a heavy toll on the Americans as they pushed ahead. Capt. Sheffey was killed on 16 July as his unit engaged the Germans on the outskirts of the village of Carentan.
Maj. Alexander C. Newton '31 landed with the 4th Armored Division on 11 July and immediately moved to support offensive operations to punch through the German defenses. Major Newton served as the S-2 and assistant S-3, and participated in the planning of Operation Cobra. On the third day of the operation, units of the 4th Armored Division met heavy resistance advancing on the town of Coutances, and Major Newton was killed in that action on 29 July.
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Situated on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel, the American Cemetery at Normandy consists of 172 acres which have been granted by France in a perpetual concession to the United States. This is the final resting place of almost 9,400 American soldiers, most of whom were killed during the landings and the ensuing campaigns in France.