Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Soldier's Sacrifice

"This just ain't our day" 
by Robert A. Waters 

On a hill overlooking Omaha Beach, a cemetery sits bearing row after row of white marble crosses and an occasional star of David.  It's the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.  Beneath those simple headstones lie the remains of 9,386 soldiers, most of whom died during the Normandy invasion. 

More than 70 years ago, at 0645 hours, on June 6, 1944, D-Day began. 

A big, strapping 26-year-old redhead from Virginia, Jimmie Waters Monteith, Jr., was in the first wave of soldiers who stormed onto Omaha Beach.  First Lieutenant Monteith commanded a platoon of 51 men from Company E, the 16th Infantry unit of the U. S. Army's 1st Division.  Before they even reached shore, disaster struck—their landing craft got stuck on a sandbar 75 yards from the beach.  Weighed down with supplies and weapons, many advancing soldiers drowned while others were picked off by the withering German fire. 

Within minutes of their ill-fated landing, half the men in Monteith's platoon were dead. 

Several dozen amphibious tanks had been assigned to provide support, but almost all bogged down in the mud.  As Monteith, who had miraculously made it to shore, looked back and saw the tanks floundering and exploding after being hit by shells, he exclaimed, "Man, one thing's for sure, this just ain't our day." 

Sgt. Aaron B. Jones, a squad leader in Monteith's platoon, described the scene, and Monteith's heroism: 

"When we hit the beach the air was thick with machinegun, rifle, and shell fire.  Lt. Monteith brought his men together and they faced the first obstacle, layers of heavy barbed wire.  After selecting a place where it could be blown open, he led men with a Bangalore torpedo in blasting the wire open. 

"Beyond this were two mine fields and he led the way through these.  The field was traversed by machinegun fire from two enemy emplacements and from a pillbox, and when the men took cover, he stood studying the situation and then ran back to the beach. 

"On the beach were two tanks, buttoned up and blind because of heavy machinegun fire that was directed on them.  [Lt. Monteith] walked through all that fire to bang on the sides of the tanks and instruct the men inside to follow him.  Then, walking in front, he led the tanks to the pillbox, where they put it out of action.  He then led his men against two machinegun positions and knocked them out and then set up a defensive position to hold until more units could be brought from the beach. 

"In that sector the enemy was not fighting from fixed positions but was moving around in the hedgerows and setting up automatic weapons.  In this manner, a fairly large group started an attack on [our] position and set up machineguns on the flanks and rear.  The Germans yelled to us to surrender because we were surrounded.  Lt. Monteith did not answer but moved toward the sound of voices and launched a rifle grenade at them from 20 yards, knocking out the machinegun position. 

"Even with a larger force the Germans couldn't break through our positions, so they set up two machineguns and started spraying the hedgerow.  Lt. Monteith got a squad of riflemen to open up on the machinegun on the right flank.  Under cover of fire he sneaked up on the gun and threw hand grenades, which knocked out the position. 

"He then came back and crossed a 200-yard stretch of open field under fire to launch rifle grenades at the other machinegun position.  He either killed the crew or forced them to abandon the weapon.  Back on the other flank enemy riflemen opened up on us again, and Lt. Monteith started across the open field to help us fight them off but was killed by the fire of a light machinegun that had been brought to our rear." 

In his article, "Agony at Omaha Beach," Pete Lamb wrote that Monteith "single-handedly turned defeat into victory on that bullet-swept, corpse-strewn beach-head called Omaha." 

Jimmie Waters Monteith, Jr. is buried at Colleville-sur-Mer, Section I, Row 20, Grave 12.  Among other awards, he received a Medal of Honor and Purple Heart. 

NOTE: Much of the information about Lt. Monteith came from an article by Clara B. Cox in Virginia Tech Magazine.  Monteith attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University  (now Virginia Tech) for two years. 

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