Iron Mike – Gruntworks Contributing Author
Hey window-lickers! Drop your cocks, grab your socks, and bring it in on the double! I got some fucking inspirational shit to sling your way; so, take a knee and listen up. Today’s story is about a goddamn World War II hero most of you have never heard of, but all of you have felt his legacy. It’s also a lesson in leadership for you officers and senior NCOs who have suddenly decided your rank keeps you from leading from the front. You’re never too important to get in front of soldiers and share their hardship and peril. You’re never too old to grab your brass ones and do some righteous man shit when the world is going to hell around you. You’re never too good to start acting like Major General Norman “Dutch” Cota did on June 6th, 1944…
Norman Cota was born to a modest middle-class family in Chelsea, Massachusetts on May 30th, 1893. The son of a businessman and a school teacher his early life was pretty average for a child at the turn of the 20th Century; school, summer jobs earning nickels, doing your best not to get Polio, etc. As a standout high school athlete, he earned the nickname “Dutch” playing football and that name followed him to his admission to West Point and through his days on the gridiron there. While at the Point he made friends with a man two classes senior named Dwight Eisenhower who would call him “Dutch” for the rest of his life. He graduated 7 weeks early with the class of 1917 due to the US admission into World War I with Germany and commissioned into the most glorious branch of all: Infantry. During the first world war, he made the rank of Major in 18 months; probably through a combination of being hot shit and the high casualties among Infantry officers.
Following the First World War, Cota spent most of the inter-war years holding numerous bullshit staff and teaching positions. He got demoted to Captain due to the massive down-sizing of the military in 1919, but would pin Major again a few years later. He taught at his alma mater West Point for a while. He became the Post Financial Officer for Langley Field, VA, where he was reprimanded when $43,000 was stolen from his offices in 1922. It took an appeal to Congress to keep him from being held personally responsible for the loss. Turns out this dude was getting the green weenie in a major way for most of his early career. He attended and graduated from the Army War College in 1936. Then he went on to serve as the Executive Officer (XO) for the 16th Infantry Regiment for a while. At the start of US involvement in World War II, Cota was a Colonel and serving as a senior staff officer in the Big Red One; AKA The 1st Infantry Division. In July of 1942, Cota was made the Chief of Staff for 1st ID and spent his time helping the US push Rommel out of North Africa and prepare for the invasion of Sicily. He pinned his first star and was transferred to England a few months later to begin joint US, British, and Canadian training preparations and unit reorganization for the invasion of France, a job Cota knew well from his operational experience planning for Operation Husky in Sicily the year prior. Just before the invasion he was appointed as the Assistant Division Commander (ADC) of the 29th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit preparing to land at Omaha Beach. Now you’re probably wondering what in the fuck I’m doing telling you about a staff officer that up to this point had never held a command… I’m telling you this because of what happens next; at approximately 0930 on Dog White Sector of Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944….
Now there is a moment in every man’s life, when he is faced with a decision that will forever alter the course of his legacy; and for Brigadier General Norman Cota, D-Day was that moment. The morning of Tuesday, June 6th, 1944 was a really bad day to go to the beach in northern France. Lines of mined obstacles, barbed wire, machine gun nests, and pre-zeroed artillery made the Normandy coastline a bonafide death trap; a death trap that thousands of American, British, and Canadian grunts were about to run straight into head-first. The initial wave to hit the beach was immediately engaged by withering German fire and had to cross 500m of open space to get to the nearest covered position; a low sea wall just below the line of concrete bunkers the Germans were firing from. From his position on a ship in the English Channel observing the first wave of the invasion force being cut down and floundering on the beach, Cota made a decision… a decision that not many 51-year-old General Officers would make in his position. He was going down there; he was going to lead those men off that beach; or he was going to die trying.
Going in with an element of the 116th Infantry Regiment the ADC of the 29th Infantry Division would be the single oldest man on the beach. When he arrived there, most of the senior leaders have been killed or wounded by German fire, small groups of soldiers are organizing themselves as best they can and attempting to move off the beach. The attack is stalling, and lines of disheartened and terrified Joes are beginning to waver in the face of overwhelming Nazi lead and shrapnel. The allied invasion of Omaha beach is at its most perilous moment. Then, in the midst of hell on Earth a slightly rotund 51-year-old General Officer stepped off his landing craft armed with a .45 caliber pistol and a cigar… Norman Cota started grabbing scared men off the beach and urging them forward, moving between clumps of men stranded in German beach obstacles and organizing suppressive fire on the enemy. When he reached the seawall, he came upon a mixed group of soldiers, many of whom were already wounded. He asked the small group of men “What outfit is this?”
“5th Rangers!” came the answer from someone. Then Norman Cota uttered a sentence that would ring immortalized though the ranks of Infantrymen for generations to come:
“Well Goddamnit then! RANGERS, LEAD THE WAY!”
General Cota began organizing his men, the mere presence of such a senior leader among the ranks of fighting men had a galvanizing effect. It was one of those moments where in the direst of circumstances, leadership stops being a theory lectured in comfortable classrooms and becomes a palpable force in life and death struggle. The men looked to him to get them off that beach alive and as the most senior man on the beach he had become a de facto Platoon Leader pushing a mixed group of men to conduct a breakout that would relieve the entire struggling beachhead…
After organizing the men there he identified a route to get them off the beach. Between Cota and a breakout off Omaha beach lay 2 wire obstacle belts, open ground, and then a hill just beyond the dunes with a pillbox on top. He personally oversaw the emplacement of Bangalore torpedoes to reduce the German wire obstacles and directed the officers near him to establish suppressing fire against the German pillboxes overlooking them. Next, a few volunteers tried charging the pillbox, but were immediately cut down by machine gun fire. General Cota turned to the men there and gave a very short, batshit crazy motivational speech. “Gentlemen, we’re being killed on the beach, let us go inland and be killed!” Then, just as it appeared the plan had failed and the Americans would not be able to move due to the heavy German fire; a 51-year-old career Grunt did the unthinkable… He yelled “Follow Me!” and he started running… Running, straight into the German fire.
Now imagine being a scared shitless shell-shocked 19-year-old private in the middle of the worst day of your life and watching as a man more than twice your age takes off running into enemy machine gun fire armed only with his Model 1911 .45 pistol…
Because that image Gentlemen, is what leading from the fucking front looks like. In an amazing display of sheer will, balls of steel, dumb luck, or a little of all three; Norman Cota personally led the first men off Omaha Beach as they followed him in a charge up the hill and cleared the pillbox of Germans. Dog White was open.
Brigadier General Cota would continue leading men off the beach and into the next day, never leaving the front line. He kept doing badass shit too. The next morning, he came across a Captain and a few squads of men who had stopped advancing forward due to a German position in a house in front of them. Cota demanded to know what the holdup was; the Captain responded that there were Germans in the house shooting at them.
With what had to be the most “No shit!” facial expression ever conceived be a General Officer; “Dutch” told the Captain “I’ll show you how to take a house with Germans in it!” He then led a squad to flank the house, tossed grenades through the windows, and kicked in the front door himself. He cleared the house screaming like a madman as the surviving Germans fled out the back door and into a wood line. When the Captain brought up the rest of the men General Cota returned to him and said “You’ve seen how to take a house?” The Captain replied (probably with a fair bit of shame in his voice) “Yes Sir!” Cota responded: “Good… Because I won’t be around to do it again. I can’t do it for everybody!”
Norman Cota would earn the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on D-Day. He would later be promoted to Major General and serve the remainder of the war as the Commanding General of the 28th Infantry Division, the only Command he had ever held. He would lead them through the bloody Hurtgen Forest campaign and onward into Germany until the end of the war. He retired from the military in 1946, having earned the DSC, two Silver Stars, two bronze stars, and the purple heart along with numerous service and foreign awards for valor. He would live to see himself played by actor Robert Mitchum in the movie “The Longest Day” and passed away in 1971 at the age of 78. Major General Norma Cota lies eternal in the West Point Cemetery with his wife Connie to this day.
The lesson in this story boys and girls, is that leadership is not something you simply expect people below you to do. It’s what you do yourself, by example. No one respects an armchair officer or an armchair NCO. You have to be willing to feel the gravel in your guts and take the attack in yourself no matter how ‘privileged’ your rank makes you… because when everything is going to shit, your actions and the resolve they inspire may be the difference between victory and life or defeat and death. You as a leader are responsible for everything that your men do, or fail to do… What lengths are you willing to go to in order to prevent them from failing to do? Go out there and be seen. Even if you make a mistake, whatever you do in a leadership capacity you have to do it in front of those you’re leading. If they don’t see it, if they don’t feel it, if they don’t know it… Did it even happen? Now get off your ass and go run some hill sprints today. If a 51-year-old General can get his ass up a hill to kill Germans, what in the fuck is your excuse for not training like your life depends on it?