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The service of General Norman Cota

Norman Cota (right) with Eisenhower during the battle of Hürtgen Forest (Photo: U.S. Army)

Norman Cota (1893-1971) was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His father, George William Cota, was a railroad telegrapher turned merchant; his mother, Jessie Mason, a school teacher born in Croatia. He got his nickname "Dutch" in the early 1910s from his football teammates at Worcester Academy, where he was studying. Cota studied at Worcester for three years, then enrolled at West Point to pursue a military career. He found himself in an illustrious class. Matthew Ridgway, future commanding officer of the 82nd "All American" Airborne Division; Joseph Lawton Collins, one of the few generals who would serve both in the Pacific and Europe, and several other of Cota's classmates would go on to serve as general officers in World War II. "Dutch" also became good friends with Dwight Eisenhower. The class graduated seven weeks ahead of schedule, on April 20, 1917, due to America's entry into World War I.

Norman Cota as a cadet (Photo: ww2gravestone.com)
Norman Cota as a cadet (Photo: ww2gravestone.com)

Newly-minted Second Lieutenant Cota's first assignment was with the 22nd Infantry Regiment. The regiment gained a unique distinction less than a month before Cota's graduation as the first American military unit to see action in the Great War. On April 6, 1917, moments after the country's official declaration of war, troops from the 22nd boarded Coast Guard cutters and seized German-owned ships and shipping terminals along the Hudson River in New Jersey and New York Harbor. The seized terminals became part of the New York Port of Embarkation, from where tens of thousands of troops left for Europe; the seized ships served as troop transports.
 
The regiment itself remained Stateside for the duration of the war. Cota reached the rank of major and racked up some experience as a West Point instructor by the war's end, though he was reduced to captain amid the massive downsizing after the war. He was assigned to the position of Post Financial Officer at Langley Field, Virginia. In 1922, $43,000 was robbed from the post, and Cota was held personally responsible. It took many years and an appeal to Congress to clear him of the obligation to repay the loss from his personal finances.

Airships over the main base at Langley Field, 1921 (Photo: Joint Base Langley-Eustis)
Airships over the main base at Langley Field, 1921 (Photo: Joint Base Langley-Eustis)

Cota served at a number of posts during the wars, until he was finally assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, the famous Big Red One, in the fall of 1940. He was promoted to Colonel less than a week after the America's entry into World War II in December 1941, and he became the division's chief of staff under General Terry Allen (Read our earlier article – "Terrible" Terry, the bad boy general) and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. The three men made a great team. Allen was impulsive, aggressive, had a personal leadership style and neglected formalities. Cota offset him with his common sense and his focus on discipline and regulations.
 
Cota learned much from Allen, including the latter's faith in the value of nighttime operations. He also started focusing on the role and importance of amphibious landings during his time with the 1st Division, and his recommendations were adopted into the plans of Operation Husky, the liberation of Sicily. By early 1943, he was considered an expert in amphibious operations. He was removed from the 1st Division, promoted to Brigadier General, and sent to Britain as Chief of the American section within the Combined Operations Headquarters. His job there was to develop the doctrine and training methods for American amphibious operations.

Norman "Dutch" Cota (Photo: HistoryNet.com)
Norman "Dutch" Cota (Photo: HistoryNet.com)

Cota declared that any amphibious landing has three stages: securing the beach, exploiting the landing (moving inland), and maintaining the beach (keeping it secure and allowing freshly arrived reinforcements to go inland as fast as possible). He also leaned heavily on Allen's lessons about night combat, and insisted that landings should always be launched at night to increase their chance of success.
 
Cota was chosen as the assistant division commander of the 29th Infantry Division, the "Blue & Grey", in October 1943, and his expertise and advice was also sought for the planning of Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in Normandy. While much of his work was appreciated, his emphatic point about night landings was discarded under the assumption that aerial and naval bombardment will suppress the German defenders enough to allow a successful landing even in daylight.

Norman Cota in Europe (Photo: alchetron.com)
Norman Cota in Europe (Photo: alchetron.com)
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Cota knew that a lot of things were going to go wrong during the landings, and that the troops coming ashore would need all the help to overcome the organized defense the Germans were going to put up during the day. He organized a "Provisional Brigade", nicknamed the "Bastard Brigade", a group of officers whose job would be to land on Omaha as soon as possible and provide assistance and guidance to troops in the early stages of the battle. Naturally, he was going to lead the brigade in person. On the afternoon of June 5, the day before D-Day, he warned the staff of the 29th Infantry about the upcoming difficulties:  "This is different from any of the other exercises that you've had so far. The little discrepancies that we tried to correct on Slapton Sands are going to be magnified and are going to give way to incidents that you might at first view as chaotic . . . You're going to find confusion. The landing craft aren't going in on schedule and people are going to be landed in the wrong place. Some won't be landed at all . . . We must improvise, carry on, not lose our heads."

Cota presenting awards to his men in Europe (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Cota presenting awards to his men in Europe (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

However, even Cota himself underestimated just how bad things would get on Omaha. Due to an overcast sky, the bombers couldn't see where the incoming Allied landing ships were. Afraid of releasing their bombs too early and hitting their own men and vessels, they've held their bombs for a little while longer while over the target. This resulted in the bombs being dropped behind enemy lines, causing minimal damage to the beach defenders. Naval artillery support, meanwhile, was not sufficient to knock the wind out of the Germans. As a consequence, the first wave of American troops encountered an alert, organized and well dug-in defense.

A wounded man receiving blood transfusion on Omaha on D-Day (Photo: history.com)
A wounded man receiving blood transfusion on Omaha on D-Day (Photo: history.com)

Cota arrived on Omaha with the second wave, about half an hour after H-Hour. His landing craft came under machine gun and mortar fire during its approach, and three of its occupants were killed immediately upon disembarkation. Once he waded ashore, Cota found men pinned down and hiding behind anti-tank barriers on the beach. Understanding the critical importance of getting the assault going, Cota walked up and down the shore, seemingly oblivious to enemy fire, exhorting the men the stand up and advance. He famously rallied some men by calmly declaring "Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed." On another occasion, he found Max Schneider, commander of the 5th Ranger Battalion, hiding in the cover of the sea wall, and asked "What outfit is this?" Someone replied "5th Rangers", at which he burst out: "Well, God damn it, if you are Rangers, then get up there and lead the way!", giving the Rangers the motto they still use today, "Rangers lead the way."
 
It should be noted that one particular quip on Omaha is sometimes falsely attributed to Cota. "There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here." This was actually uttered by Colonel George Arthur Taylor, who also landed on Omaha, though in a different sector. The reason for the confusion is that the classic 1962 war movie The Longest Day gave the line to Cota, played by Robert Mitchum.

Robert Mitchum (left) with producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who also played an uncredited role in The Longest Day (Photo: IMDB)
Robert Mitchum (left) with producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who also played an uncredited role in The Longest Day (Photo: IMDB)

Cota's rallying and personal courage gave the men the strength to advance to the sea wall. A man managed to blow a hole in the barb wire defenses with a Bangalore torpedo (an explosive charge within connected tubes designed to clear obstacles), but the first soldier to jump into the gap was shot dead by a German sniper. Cota risked his own life to spur the shaken men to action: he jumped into the gap himself and led the men up the steep bluff to overtake a German position. At one point, he got ahead of his men, and when they caught up with him, they saw him whirling his pistol on his finger while waiting.
 
Cota spent the rest of D-Day directing troop movements and leading soldiers in securing the area. At one point, he came upon a group pinned down by German fire from a nearby house. He asked the outfit's captain why they didn't take the house. When the captain told him that the Germans were keeping them under fire, Cota said "Well, I’ll tell you what, captain. You and your men start shooting at them. I’ll take a squad of men and you and your men watch carefully. I’ll show you how to take a house with Germans in it."

Cota with soldiers of the 28th Division near Witts, Luxembourg, late 1944 (Photo: U.S. military)
Cota with soldiers of the 28th Division near Witts, Luxembourg, late 1944 (Photo: U.S. military)

Cota led his men around a hedge to get closer, then charged the house. He and his men threw grenades through the windows, then entered, quickly and aggressively clearing the building of Germans. He then went back outside and asked the captain "Do you understand? Do you know how to do it now?" The man answered in the affirmative, and Cota acknowledged the reply thus: "Well, I won't be around to do it for you again. I can’t do it for everybody."
Cota's leadership and personal courage on D-Day earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and the British Distinguished Service Order. He spent the following weeks fighting among the hedgerows of Normandy, leading from the front and getting wounded in the arm on one occasion. He was assigned to lead the 28th Infantry Division, the Keystone Division. On October 29, 1944, the division had the honor of parading down the Champs-Élysées in recently liberated Paris (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Paris).

The 28th Infantry Division on parade in Paris (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
The 28th Infantry Division on parade in Paris (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

D-Day was Norman Cota's finest hour; his bloodiest came at the head of the 28th, along the German border, in the Hürtgen Forest (Read our earlier article – America's bloody blunder in Europe). The long and short of it is that Cota was stuck with General Courtney Hodges, an extremely inflexible superior, and a fundamentally flawed plan which forced him to send his troops into an extremely heavily defended thick forest, with no other Allied offensive occurring anywhere else to take some of the heat off of him. Admittedly, it's been argued that Cota himself had also made mistakes, including not scouting the area properly and staying uncharacteristically far from the front, allowing himself to drop out of touch with events. The debacle at Hürtgen cost Cota his shining reputation and the confidence of his superiors. As an interesting note, it should be added that Cota's son, Norman Daniel Cota Jr., was a fighter pilot and flew reconnaissance missions for the 28th Division during the battle.

Cota greeting General George C. Marshall in Belgium, October 1944 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Cota greeting General George C. Marshall in Belgium, October 1944 (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Cota also had to swallow one more bitter pill in the fall of 1944. It fell to him to review and approve the death sentence of Private Eddie Slovik, the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. It was a contentious case: 2,864 army personnel were tried for desertion between 1942 and 1948, 49 were sentenced to death, and only Slovik was executed. It has been suggested that Slovik had to die not because he was in any way worse than all the others, but because the Army wanted to make an example to deter further desertions, and Slovik's criminal record made him "less valuable". Cota himself stated his reasons for approving the sentence: "Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944, I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn't approved it — if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose — I don't know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face." However, he later also said that the execution was the toughest 15 minutes of his life.

Eddie Slovik's execution (Photo: U.S. military)
Eddie Slovik's execution (Photo: U.S. military)

Norman Cota retired from the army in 1946, though he stayed close to military matters. He worked as an administrator in the War Assets Administration, the organization set up to dispose of surplus war materiel and properties after the war; he was also the civil defense director for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in the late 50s. He is buried with his wife, writer and teacher Constance Martha "Connie" Alexander, at West Point Cemetery.

Norman Cota's grave (Photo: West Point Tours)
Norman Cota's grave (Photo: West Point Tours)
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