It is well known that on D-Day, June 6, 1944, combat elements of five U.S. Army divisions assaulted German defenses in Nazi-occupied Normandy, France: the 1st, 4th and 29th Infantry Divisions and the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Less known is that combat elements of a sixth division also landed that day—those of the 90th Infantry Division.
The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 90th’s 359th Infantry Regiment, which were attached to the 4th Infantry Division, were part of the assaulting force on what was designated as Utah Beach.
Despite frequent recountings of the landings on Utah Beach, the 359th Infantry Regiment’s battalions, being subordinate to the 4th Infantry Division and not major participants in the day’s activities, have not received much attention. By the end of the war, however, the entire division was lauded as one of the “finest” combat units on the Allied front.
Utah Beach lay at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula’s eastern shore and was the westernmost of the D-Day landing beaches. Once the reinforced 4th Infantry Division had established itself and advanced beyond the beachhead, the remainder of the 90th was to follow and expand the newly liberated French territory. It would link up with elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, then participate in the northward advance on the port city of Cherbourg.
On D-Day, the infantry regiments of the 4th Infantry Division successfully landed on Utah Beach. They were followed by the two battalions of the 359th Infantry, which assembled off the beach in the 4th’s rear area. By the end of the day, the battalions constituted the 4th’s reserve and awaited the arrival the next day of the beginning of the remainder of the division.
On D-Day plus one, the remainder of the 90th began to disembark from the ships that had brought it from Great Britain to the western shores of the European Continent. However, the 8,100-ton U.S. Navy-crewed transport, the Susan B. Anthony, carrying the rest of the 359th Infantry and other 90th troops, struck a mine just offshore. Evacuation proceeded quickly; all the soldiers were removed with only minor injuries.
While the troops were able to take their personal weapons with them, they had to leave their crew-served weapons behind. The ship sank in what turned out to be relatively shallow water. It was the only troop ship that had been sunk during the invasion, and it was to prove a bad omen for subsequent events for the 90th.
The first unit of the 90th to engage the enemy was the 345th Field Artillery Battalion. On D-Day plus three, the 345th was called upon to fire in support of an attack to be launched by the 82nd Airborne Division. The 82nd was trying to force a crossing of the Merderet River and had scheduled an assault at 8:30 a.m. It was expected that the effort was going to be difficult, and fire support was essential.
The problem was that the 82nd had lost all its artillery pieces in the division’s airdrop, and the closest available artillery support was that of the 345th. It, however, had only four artillery pieces in place ready to fire and would need until 10:30 a.m. to be able to deliver its entire weight in support of the attack.
The 82nd Airborne commander, Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, did not hesitate to postpone the attack in order to gain the needed fire support.
The 345th’s challenge in bringing its howitzers on line was typical of other problems occurring within the division. Veterans of the division later said the first days of commitment to action were confusing to green, or inexperienced, units, where troops were hesitant.
It took three days for all the elements of the division to assemble away from Utah Beach, and the 90th’s higher leadership was already beginning to show lack of drive.
By June 9, the 90th’s Division Artillery was in place, and the 359th Infantry Regiment had been joined by its sister regiments, the 357th and 358th. While the 359th remained attached to the 4th Infantry Division, the latter two were about to be committed to combat.
On June 10, the 357th and the 358th attacked abreast through units of the 82nd Airborne Division. They were to constitute the exploitation of the first phase of the major corps effort to isolate enemy forces to the north on the Cotentin Peninsula. Their mission was to advance across the base of the peninsula to its west coast.
From the beginning, the 90th’s baptism by fire went awry. The 357th on the north, or right, flank met strong enemy resistance. Under intense fire for the first time, the regiment’s battalions barely got past the line of departure. The regiment lost 99 men that day.
The 358th to the south, on the left flank, initially met little resistance but then became heavily engaged. Instead of continuing to advance, the regimental commander ordered the troops to dig in. Further attempts to advance were stymied, and by the end of the first day, the lead battalion had suffered 129 casualties.
The next day, the two regiments made negligible progress. On June 10, the 359th Infantry was released from the 4th Infantry Division. It was placed in line between its two sister regiments. Only on June 13 did the infantry regiments finally reach their initial objectives.
The 90th’s performance was well below what was expected of it. Something had to be done to correct the situation, and it started at the top. The division commander was relieved without prejudice, and the 357th and 358th Infantry Regiments’ commanders were sacked.
Despite the changes in command, little changed at first. On June 14 and 15, neither the 357th nor the 359th made much progress. The 358th, which had been relieved on June 13, reintroduced a battalion to the fight on June 15, to little avail. The inexperience of the 90th continued to show, but enemy resistance also had stiffened, and the hedgerow-edged fields made the fighting all the more difficult.
With new division and regiment commanders, the 90th Infantry Division’s mission changed. While still driving westward, its subsequent mission became to hold the line to the south while VII Corps advanced north to capture Cherbourg.
The 90 Infantry Division’s misery, however, was not soon to end. Casualties mounted, progress was slow and leadership changes took place. Within weeks, the division commander and assistant division commander were replaced. Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, former President Theodore Roosevelt’s eldest son, was slated to take command of the division, but he died of a heart attack on July 12 without assuming the post.
It seemed that the division’s troubles would not end. Performance remained subpar, exasperating even the staff of Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, who was the field commander of American soldiers on D-Day. Serious consideration was given to disestablishing the 90th Infantry Division and redistributing its personnel to other commands as replacements.
‘Best Soldiers in the World’
Then, a third division commander was appointed, and things began to improve. Through many other changes in command at the lower units’ echelons, superior junior leadership began to make itself felt. The soldiers who made it through earlier ordeals had become toughened combat veterans. Assigned missions were accomplished with speed and aplomb.
The division members became known as “Tough ‘Ombres,” a sobriquet taken from the division’s Texas and Oklahoma origins. The division’s shoulder patch likewise became an “O” superimposed on a “T.”
By the end of war, the 90th Infantry Division had become one of the top U.S. Army infantry divisions in northwest Europe. Bradley said the 90th had improved to be one of the “finest” combat outfits on the Allied front. Third Army Lt. Gen. George Patton Jr. praised the men of the 90th in July 1945, saying, “Sometimes I think you don’t know how good you are. You are the best soldiers in the world. It was a great honor to command you.”
The entire division was nominated for the Presidential Unit Citation for its classic assault crossing of the Moselle River in France in November 1944. Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower initially denied the division the honor, citing a policy of not awarding an entire division such an award.
That policy no longer exists, but it still rankles the few remaining World War II veterans of the forgotten 90th Infantry Division.
The 90th was inactivated after the war, but its legacy is carried on today by the U.S. Army Reserve’s 90th Sustainment Brigade. Soldiers of the brigade still call themselves “Tough ‘Ombres.”
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Brig. Gen. Raymond Bell Jr., U.S. Army retired, is a military writer based in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. He served more than 30 years in the U.S. Army, the New York Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve, retiring from the Reserve in 1989 as commanding general of the 220th Military Police Brigade, Maryland. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. He holds a doctorate in Eastern European history from New York University.