It was the morning of June 6, 1944, and the young man from the Forty Acres neighborhood of Wilmington was headed toward the most dramatic and traumatic events of his life. Noonan and his platoon were in their landing craft in the pre-dawn darkness, circling and circling off the coast of Normandy, France, while they waited for the rest of the 116th Regiment to climb down cargo nets and into their Higgins boats, which wasn’t easy—the men were weighed down by about 70 pounds of equipment, and the rough seas of the English Channel threw the landing craft around like they were toys.
Noonan was a 29-year-old platoon leader in I Company, which would head for Omaha Beach as part of the assault wave of the D-Day invasion. The section of beach to which Noonan’s unit was assigned was code-named Dog Red, but they would eventually land about 500 yards to the east of that in the face of lethal fire from the entrenched Germans — so lethal that stretch of Normandy beach became known as “Bloody Omaha.”
Before the day would end, several men in that boat would die and several more would be wounded. Before the end of the war, many more would die, and all of them would be wounded, some more than once, including Noonan. He would earn two Purple Hearts while fighting in Normandy, and one of his wounds would leave him partially paralyzed for life.
Like so many men and women who fought in combat, Dad rarely talked about it. Still, over the years bits and pieces of his D-Day experiences came out, and Dad did discuss the invasion in newspaper interviews for the 20th and 40th anniversaries of D-Day. But some of the most revealing information came after he died in 1998, from interviews with a couple of men in his platoon, Pfc. Russell Stover of Millheim, Pa., and Pfc. Donald Pyle of Friedens, Pa.
Before the invasion, as the men of the 3rd Battalion of the 116th Regiment—the famed Stonewall Brigade—steamed across the English Channel aboard the U.S.S. Charles Carroll, Noonan managed to get off one final letter to his young wife. Charles—a star athlete at Salesianum School and Villanova University—had married Peggy O’Neill in Christ Our King Church on Christmas Day 1941, less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor and a little more than eight months before he shipped overseas with the rest of the 29th Division, the first American infantry unit sent to England. The newlyweds would spend only about 12 days together in those eight months of marriage before the 29th steamed out of New York Harbor aboard the Queen Mary, headed for England and almost two years of practice and preparation for the long-awaited invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
The letter was dated June 5, and Charles knew it might be the last letter he would ever write. Early in it he says, “Sweetheart, the main and only reason I’m writing is to say once again that I love you with every breath I take. Gosh, Peggy, it’s so darn much, I can’t think straight. That’s why I’m so anxious to get on those beaches of France—the sooner there, the sooner we will be together. I know that you will be worrying, but please try not to. I’ll take good care of myself, honest.’’
Later in the letter, Charles wrote about the upcoming invasion, now just a few hours away. “Honestly, you would never believe this was the real McCoy—the fellows are behaving just like our other exercises. Maybe they are a little too cocky, but it’s a swell bunch, though. They all feel as I do—we were picked twenty months ago for this thing and have been training that long for it. It’s nice to know that we have everything it takes and we’re awfully proud that we will be the first troops in Europe.’’
After writing that final letter, Charles tried to get a couple hours sleep before the 1:30 a.m. wake-up call. After shoving down a hot breakfast, the men in his platoon climbed down cargo nets to assigned seats in their landing craft, just like they had practiced a hundred times before. They were about 10 miles from the French coast, and the wind was blowing at 15 knots, with waves 3- to 4-feet high rocking the landing craft beneath them. It was dark and the sea was wild as Charles took his accustomed place at the front of the boat. When the ramp finally came down on Omaha Beach, 1st Lt. Charles J. Noonan, serial number 01292048, would be the first man out.
As the sky started to lighten, the coxswain received the order to head to the beach, which was still an hour away. As the wet, cold and seasick men bounced their way to shore, their leader looked out the front of the craft to orient himself. Charles had spent hours studying aerial photographs of the beach. His main point of reference was a farmhouse just to the right—west—of the Les Moulins Draw, which was designated D-3 on D-Day maps. A draw was a path that erosion had cut through the cliffs around the beaches. Four of them led off of Omaha Beach. They were heavily fortified with German pillboxes and machine gun emplacements.
When Noonan snuck a peek at the beach he saw, to his dismay, that the farmhouse was a good 500 yards to his right, which meant his platoon was going to end up well east of their projected landing zone. He knew the D-Day battle plan had to be scrapped, that he would have to improvise to get his men off the beach.
Despite their natural fears, his men were ready to go, as Charles explained to senior reporter Bob Leary of the Wilmington News Journal before the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984.
“We were confident, because we’d practiced for so damn long,’’ he said. “It was all second nature to us. In our training we’d had huge mock-ups of the beach, plus very detailed [aerial] photographs of every pillbox. We knew just what we had to do and how to do it. The planes would go in and crater the beaches for us, to provide shelter. Then they’d shift back and knock out the obstacles and guns. Then the Navy would have a shoot. And then we’d go in.
“We came under heavy fire from about 200 yards out, and the thing that bothered me was that when we got about 50 yards from shore, I looked out and saw we were headed into the wrong beach. There were no craters, and all the obstacles were still intact.’’
As Noonan’s boat got closer to the beach, it hit an obstacle. Everyone held his breath, but it wasn’t mined. Then, about 40 yards out, the ramp wheeled down. It was time for the men of I Company to meet their fate. They saw that other elements of the assault wave were already bogged down, many of the men dead. The rest were mostly seeking protection behind hedgehogs—iron girders the Germans welded together to prevent landing craft from coming in at high tide and stop gliders from landing on the beach.
When Noonan and his men finally reached the beach, they hid behind the hedgehogs, too. But it didn’t take him long to realize that it meant certain death to stay there—they were being raked with pre-sighted machine gun and mortar fire.
So many machine gun bullets hit the girders that sparks bounced onto the T-shirt under Noonan’s G.I. shirt and started to smolder. He had to snuff it out with his hand.
Despite all those months of training, it appeared Omaha Beach was a disaster for the Americans. As Pfc. Russell Stover related, “It was chaos on the beach. We mis-landed, it was all mixed up, and we were several hundred yards away from where we were supposed to be. There were dead bodies everywhere. It was hell.’’
According to Stover, that’s when Noonan took action. He rallied his men, yelling and pushing them toward the protecting cliffs that were more than 100 yards in front of them. Then he led the way, charging across the beach.
As Charles led his men across the beach—weighed down by his equipment and a wet uniform full of sand—bullets kicked up at his feet. He knew a German machine-gunner had a bead on him, but was just off his mark. Charles also knew that any second those bullets could start tearing into him. All he could do was run as fast as possible and trust in God. It must have been like one of those nightmares where you’re running in slow motion as a monster chases. This, of course, was real.
Finally, he reached the cover of the shingle and collapsed onto the sand as his surviving men did the same thing all around him. And that’s when Lt. Charles Noonan did what many of his men had done earlier in the day—he threw up.
The men of the 116th had crossed the beach, but it was early and there was still a lot of fierce fighting ahead. The fight would become known in history as The Longest Day. In 1964, in an article written by Bill Frank in the Wilmington News Journal that commemorated the 20th anniversary of D-Day, Noonan said, “The first day, we didn’t get more than half a mile up the beach. Some of the fellows were seasick, drenched and, like all of us, scared. And we were lost for a while.’’
The Germans held the high ground, their pillboxes still streaming death on the American troops that huddled beneath the bluffs. The troops had to eliminate the positions and get to the top of the bluffs, where they were supposed to hook up with other elements of the 3rd Battalion. At one point, a pillbox armed with machine guns blocked their way. In the 1984 interview with Leary, Noonan related what happened next.
“A sergeant [Ozias Ritter] from Winchester, Va., was my rocket man,’’ he said. “He was deadly. He fired one shot off, and the next one went right through that little [pillbox] aperture.’’
After that one-in-a-million shot cleared the way, Noonan’s platoon, as well as some stragglers who had joined it, started moving single-file up the bluff. Some men were killed or wounded by personnel mines. Noonan decided to cross the road and attack on the left side of the Les Moulins Draw. That’s when they saw a group of men, arms in the air and smiles on their faces, headed their way. They were Russians who had been forced to serve in the German army, but were now happy to surrender to Americans. Soon after that, Noonan’s men engaged in a firefight with some entrenched Germans. They rushed their positions, killing some of the Germans and taking others prisoner. It was soon after that skirmish that Charles had one of the most traumatic experiences of his life.
The sun was beginning to set as his platoon engaged in intense fighting in the hills that led away from the coast. They were approached by a man who appeared to be in civilian clothes, but who also carried a rifle and came from an area where Noonan’s platoon had been taking murderous fire. Charles was torn about what to do. He didn’t want to kill an innocent civilian, but his men were his primary concern. He eventually gave the order: Take him. And so they did, shooting and killing the man on the spot.
Charles couldn’t resist. He ran to where the dead man’s body lay, pulled down the front of his blood-splattered overalls and, to his great relief, saw a German uniform underneath it.
The sun eventually went down as Noonan’s platoon advanced a yard or two at a time. They eventually regrouped with other members of the 3rd Battalion and decided to cross a road near the head of the Les Moulins Draw so they would be in position to defend the entrance to the beachhead if the Germans counter-attacked during the night. They fought their way to the other side, west of the draw, losing more men in the process. About 11:30 that night, after almost 18 hours of intense non-stop combat, they finally dug in and ate some K-rations. For them, The Longest Day was over.
Still, relief was fleeting, as Noonan recalled 20 years later for the News Journal. “That’s what I had been praying for,’’ he said of the coming darkness. “Then I started praying for daylight.’’
After D-Day, Noonan was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions on June 6. This is his citation: “1st LT CHARLES J. NOONAN, 01292048, 116th Inf., U.S. Army, for heroic achievement in military operations against the enemy in Normandy, France. On the morning of 6 June, 1944, Lt. Noonan landed with his boat team on Omaha Beach in the face of intense machine gun, mortar and artillery fire. He exhibited, throughout the day, outstanding qualities of courage and leadership and, against overwhelming odds, reorganized and led his men in the systematic reduction of enemy positions. By the morning of June 7, 1944, he affected a linkup with other elements of the Battalion atop the high ground overlooking the beach. Lt. Noonan’s initiative and devotion to hazardous duty were an invaluable asset to the securing of the beachhead and reflect great credit to himself and the Military Service. Entered Military Service from Delaware.’’
I’ve always been especially struck by the phrase “led his men in the systematic reduction of enemy positions,’’ which makes it sound so clinical when it was all blood and guts.
Before he was honorably discharged in 1948, Noonan would be promoted to captain and receive the unit badge Bronze Arrowhead, the ETO Ribbon with three battle stars (for the major battles on Omaha Beach and in the villages of Grandcamp and St. Lo), the Croix de Guerre from France, two Purple Hearts with Oak Leaf Cluster and perhaps the most important one of all, the Combat Infantry Badge, which confirmed that he was not only in the Army, but that he had risked his life in combat against the enemy. There is no more meaningful citation in the armed services.