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The men who first came ashore on D-Day

The first four to land

Aerial view of the Saint-Marcouf islands, four miles off the coast of France
(Photo: www.isigny-omaha-tourisme.fr)

Here's a quick question for you: where did the Allies make the first landing from sea on D-Day?
If you've remembered Theodore Roosevelt's famous "We'll start the war from right here" and answered "Utah Beach", you were wrong. The correct, if obscure, answer is "the Saint-Marcouf islands."

A 1798 engraving of the islands under British occupation
(Photo: Wikipedia)
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The Îles Saint-Marcouf (Saint-Marcouf islands in English) is a pair of small, uninhabited islands 4 miles / 6.5 km off the coast of France, almost directly in front of Utah Beach. The two islands are île du Large and île de Terre. They were collectively named after Saint Marcouf, a saint who died there in 558 AD. He was born in the nearby Bayeux and was said to be able to cure scrofula. The islands held a monastic presence until the 15th century, and were later used as a shelter by pirates. The Royal Navy captured the islands and used them as part of the British blockade of France after the French Revolution of 1792. In 1798, a British garrison of 500 men beat back a French attack ten times their size, demonstrating the islands' value as a defensive position. The French Emperor Napoleon later had both islands fortified, and Île du Large, the northeastern island, was also used as a prison.

A 1918 photo of île du Large, the larger island of the Saint-Marcouf islands
(Photo: Facebook, Ile Saint Marcouf)

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When the Allies started planning Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, they were greatly concerned about the two islands. A May 1944 aerial recon photo showed German troops in the Napoleonic fortress that occupied much of the ground on Île du Large. Military planners believed that the Germans were either using the island as a forward observation post, or a control center for electrically detonated sea mines in the Bay of Seine. Either would have been bad news, as the islands lay right along the route of the landing fleet bound for Utah Beach. An observation post would have detected the Allied force ahead of time, giving the Germans time to prepare. A mine control center would have allowed the Germans to cause significant damage to Allied fleet. A third option, that of an artillery battery hidden on the islands, was also considered; such a battery would have been able to fire at troops coming ashore at Utah. If the invasion was to go off smoothly, the Saint-Marcouf islands had to be secured – before the invasion force got there.

The central part of the Napoleonic fortress on Île du Large
(Photo: www.starforts.com)

A force from the U.S. 4th Cavalry Reconnaissance Regiment was assembled and placed under the command of Lt. Col. Edward C. Dunn. The tip of the spear, the very first men to wade ashore on D-Day, consisted of four volunteers: Sergeant John W. Zanders, Cpl. Harvey Sigurd Olson and Pvts. Thomas C. Killeran (spelling varies in sources) and Melvin F. Kenzie. They were to go aboard Île du Large at 4:30 a.m., two hours before H-hour and the arrival of troops at Utah, recon the island, and mark the beach for a follow-up landing of 132 men who would secure the islands. Since stealth was of the essence, the four men were only armed with knives, and they were to approach the islands by two small rubber boats. Training for the mission involved regular boat trips miles out from shore, then being dumped in the water and having to swim back.

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Olson (right) and Killeran (center) posing with an unknown soldier
(Photo: www.normandy1944.info)

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Before dawn on D-Day, the men paddled to about 100 yards of the island, passing over the sea mines surrounding it. They slipped into the water and slashed the boats with their knives (cutting off their own means of escape) to make sure they'll sink and will not be noticed by any German guards on the island. Swimming ashore, they quickly realized that the island was completely deserted. No observation post, no control center, no artillery. Nevertheless, the island was far from safe, as the German have left behind numerous mines on the beach. The men crawled inland, prodding the sand with their knives for mines, then used their flashlights to signal for the follow-up force. The rest arrived in half an hour and quickly secured both islands.

Harvey S. Olson
(Photo: www.findagrave.com)

Taking the islands might have ended up being relatively safe and easy, but staying on them during D-Day proved to be much harder. At 5 a.m., with dawn breaking, the German observation post at the Crisbecq battery on the mainland spotted both the Allied fleet and the men moving about on the islands. (Somewhat confusingly, the same battery is also known as the Marcouf Battery, named after the nearby village of Saint-Marcouf.)

Two of the three 8.25 inch guns at the Crisbecq battery
(Photo: www.uss-corry-dd463.com)

The battery started firing at 5:52, and was soon engaged in a heavy exchange with the cruisers USS Tuscaloosa and USS Quincy, and the battleship USS Nevada. Half an hour later, the battery hit and sank the destroyer USS Corry. During the battle, several shells landed on the islands, detonating some of the mines. The explosions killed two of the islands' liberators and wounded another 17. Even though the Germans had no installations on the islands, the Allies had no way of knowing that in advance, and had to be prepared for every possibility during the greatest naval landing in history. Cpl. Olson was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Silver Star for being the very first Allied soldier to approach France by sea and set foot on her soil during D-Day.

Olson receiving the Silver Star
(Photo: www.findagrave.com)

Neither of the Saint-Marcouf islands are accessible to the public today. Île de Terre has been a nature reserve since 1967. Île du Large was declared off-limits for safety reasons in 1991. A Carentan-based association called the Friends of Saint-Marcouf Ile du Large (Amis de l’île du Large Saint Marcouf in French) have been lobbying to reopen access to Île du Large since 2003. In 2009, they have received permission to carry out preservation work on the defenses there. In 2014, the association installed a commemorative plaque on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

The inauguration of the commemorative plaque on the 70th anniversary of D-Day
(Photo: www.ouest-france.fr, Camille Ferronniere)

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