Tauntonians Buried at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France
By William F. Hanna
On the coast of Normandy, on the bluffs above Omaha Beach, sits the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.* Underneath its beautifully manicured lawns rest the remains of 9,380 soldiers, sailors and airmen, most of whom lost their lives during and shortly after the D-Day invasion of 6 June 1944. Of the more than 9,000 graves, 411 belong to men from Massachusetts, and of those, nine hold the remains of men who went to war from Taunton. Because they died more than 75 years ago, time has taken most of the people who remembered them best, and so their stories — who they were and what they left behind — have faded with the passing decades.
Four of the Taunton men buried at Colleville were killed during the invasion itself, on a cloudy, misty, historic morning. The first to die was likely Ensign Richard J.S. Taylor, who before enlisting lived in the family homestead on Ashland Street. A 1943 graduate of Tufts University, Taylor was commissioned after advanced training at the University of Notre Dame, and he serves as an example of how the role of the U.S. Navy in the invasion has been underappreciated. Taylor was assigned to LCP-31, a landing craft built to ferry soldiers from the troop ships into the beach. So badly outgunned were the Navy and Coast Guard crews manning these small vessels that they became sitting ducks as they made their perilous way to shore. Ensign Taylor’s craft never made it; it was destroyed by German fire as it approached Omaha Beach and all 27 aboard were killed.
The seasick, scared men riding in the rolling, pitching landing craft were in for the most momentous day of their lives. Among them were the Arruda brothers, Manuel and Joseph. As the boys grew up in the 1920s and ’30s, the family home on Hart Street, in the old “Brickyard” neighborhood of Taunton, was a busy place. Over the years, their mother had given birth to 21 children, 14 of whom survived to adulthood, and four of whom went off to war when called.
Manuel was the oldest son, born in Augusta, Maine on Christmas Eve, 1916. When the family moved to Taunton a few years later Manny attended local schools before going to work at the Stiles & Hart Brick Company, just a short walk from his home. His brother, Joe, was six years younger, born in October 1922, and he also attended public schools until he was old enough to work, and then took a job at the New Jersey Rubber Company, on Arlington Street. That’s where he worked when he was called into the army.
Both Arrudas entered military service within months of each other. Manny went first, inducted into the army in June 1942, and after basic and advanced training was assigned to the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion, part of the distinguished U.S. 1st Infantry Division. The Big Red One, as it was called, saw combat in North Africa, where Manny was slightly wounded, and later in Sicily. The division was then sent to England to train for the upcoming Allied invasion of Europe. Joe entered the army in November 1942, and on the eve of D-Day found himself in England, a member of Company F, 8th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 4th Infantry Division.
As the invasion fleet left the English Channel ports for the coast of France, the Arruda brothers hadn’t seen each other in two years, and neither had any idea where the other was serving. Little did they know they were heading for the same destination, or that both were scheduled to go ashore in the first minutes of the assault.
Of the five invasion zones that had been selected along a 50-mile front on the Normandy coast, Americans had been assigned to land on the two westernmost beaches, code-named Utah and Omaha. As a member of the 4th Infantry Division, Joe Arruda was headed for Utah Beach while Manny was set to land a few miles to the east, on Omaha.
As they prepared to board their landing craft, both men watched as wave after wave of friendly aircraft dropped thousands of tons of high explosives on German positions. This was followed by a thunderous naval assault delivered by Allied warships attempting to pound the German defenders into submission and reduce their capacity to defend the beaches.
Both Arruda brothers perished that day, and Manny almost certainly died first. His combat engineer unit was responsible for clearing away the many obstacles that the Germans had erected both on the beach and in the water to hinder the Allied landings. Those men, like Manny, who arrived early, were met with deadly fire from well-sited gun emplacements, and American casualties were extremely high. The engineers who managed to get off the beach safely were then faced with clearing paths that ascended the bluffs through deadly fields of land mines, all under German fire. Here, too, they suffered greatly. Somewhere on or near the beach, Manny Arruda was killed in action.
To the west, over on Utah Beach, the landings went more smoothly, and although there were some casualties, the 4th Infantry Division made it ashore with losses that were relatively light when compared with those on Omaha Beach. As they moved inland, however, Joe Arruda and his fellow infantrymen ran into a hornet’s nest of trouble. Just behind the beach they found several well-placed German defenses that included fortified concrete bunkers armed with heavy weapons, minefields that delayed their passage inland, and farmland that had been flooded by the Germans to impede invading forces. It seems probable that Joe was killed within hours of wading ashore.
One of the 4th Division’s objectives was to link up with U.S. airborne forces that had dropped into Normandy by parachute in the predawn hours of 6 June. However, the two parachute infantry divisions, the 82nd and 101st, ran into trouble even before they jumped. Cloud cover obscured their drop zones and heavy German anti-aircraft fire resulted in scattering the troopers over a wide area, often far from where they were supposed to land. Some were shot even before they landed while others drowned, pulled under water by their heavy equipment in areas that had been flooded by the Germans.
One of those who died was Private Charles H. Coates, a member of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. The 27-year old Lynn native had moved to Taunton with his wife Dorothy in order to get a job at the General Electric plant on Weir Street. With one year of college behind him, Coates was attracted by the opportunity of working in the company’s expanding plastics department. He and Dorothy were living at 61 School Street when he enlisted in May 1942. We don’t know how or where Pvt. Coates was killed on D-Day, but he died before ever meeting his two-month old daughter Priscilla.
The five other Taunton soldiers buried at Colleville-sur-Mer died as American forces fought to break through the German defenses in Normandy and then penetrate more deeply into enemy-held territory. Private First Class Robert J. Wilson died of his wounds on 9 June. Like Joe Arruda, Wilson was a member of the 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, and like Arruda, he had landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. A native of Connecticut who had moved to Taunton as a youth, Pvt. Wilson was 27-years old when he died.
When the 29th Infantry Division landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, one of its three regiments, the 175th, was held in reserve on its troopship out in the Channel. When these soldiers landed on 7 June they went directly into combat amongst the notorious hedgerows of Normandy. Well-entrenched German defenders made the GIs pay dearly for every yard of pastureland they took. George J. Treano, a Taunton soldier serving in the 175th Regiment, wrote that “Day after day same thing, jump through the hedgerow and run through the open field to the next one. Like a shooting gallery at the carnival. . . .”
It was in this environment that two other Taunton soldiers serving in the 175th Regiment lost their lives. Sergeant James J. Rusconi, one of the city’s best-known athletes and a star on the 1941 Taunton High School football team, was killed on June 15th. At first listed as missing in action, Rusconi’s friends and family waited anxiously for word of his fate, and when the bad news finally came, it threw a pall of sadness over the city.
Two weeks later, on the last day of June, Sergeant Romeo Dumont was killed in action. Thirty-years old, Dumont was inducted into the army in February 1942. As a child, he had attended St. Jacques Grammar School in the Whittenton section of the city. He worked for a while at the Whittenton Mills and later took a job with a Pawtucket, R.I. contractor before reporting for the military service. On the day he died, Sgt. Dumont had written home, asking for prayers. “We need them now,” he told his family, “although I am safe and well so far.” Mercifully, what Sgt. Dumont would never know was that his father had died on 12 June. The young soldier was killed before he could be notified.
Private Harding A. Eddy is also buried at Colleville-sur-Mer. This 23-year old Tauntonian was a member of the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division. Eddy, who had enlisted in September 1943, most likely joined the regiment in England as a replacement in the weeks before the invasion. The 60th entered France through Utah Beach on 11 June, and it pushed into German territory so far and so fast that for awhile it was feared that the regiment had been wiped out. It had not, but Pvt. Eddy had been killed in action on 23 June.
The last Taunton soldier to be buried at Colleville-sur-Mer was Corporal Edmund Costa, a member of the 330th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division. The men of the 83rd entered Normandy through Omaha Beach on 18 June 1944 and moved immediately into combat among the hedgerows south of Carentan. After taking that city, the Americans moved farther south, to Sainteny, which fell on 10 July. Cpl. Costa was killed in action six days later. A resident of Grove Street in Taunton, Costa, who had worked at the Taunton Dog Track before induction, was a month away from his twenty-third birthday when he died.
Well in advance of the Normandy invasion, American military officials had anticipated heavy casualties among the landing forces, and a plan was in place almost immediately to bury the dead. On 7 June, under the thunder of heavy artillery and amidst the carnage of the previous day’s landings, a mass grave was excavated in the sand of Omaha Beach. Under the bluffs at St. Laurent, within the Dog White sector of the beach, German prisoners of war buried 457 American dead. Among them were Ens. Richard J.S. Taylor and Pfc. Manny Arruda.
Officials quickly recognized that this location was a mistake; the sight of a mass grave right on the beach was certain to adversely affect morale among the tens of thousands of fresh troops who had even then begun to arrive in Normandy. Interment stopped on the beach on 10 June and the bodies were relocated to the top of the hill at St. Laurent. That became the first of at least a dozen temporary U.S. cemeteries in Normandy.
When the Normandy Campaign ended in late August 1944, the tide of battle in Western Europe turned in the direction of Germany as its army fell back across France, Belgium and the Netherlands and ultimately made its last stand behind the West Wall. The war against Hitler ended in May 1945 and Japan fell four months later. In all, 15 million Americans had served in uniform, and of those, approximately 359,000 perished.
Following the precedent set after World War I, the United States government offered a choice to the families of dead GIs. In 1947, after considerable delay, the army’s Quartermaster Corps polled families asking whether they wished to have the body of their loved one returned home from either Europe or the Pacific, or instead buried in a permanent United States military cemetery overseas. Approximately 60% opted for repatriation from the ETO, leaving about 58,000 to be buried in permanent military cemeteries in Europe. Among those were the nine Tauntonians whose stories have been told here.
In Normandy, army officials decided that the permanent cemetery would be established on the site of the temporary St. Laurent graveyard. Bodies buried there during and after the fighting were exhumed and moved to a collection center where their identities were confirmed. The remains were then casketed and held until the permanent cemetery, which by then straddled the seaside communities of St. Laurent and Colleville-sur-Mer, was ready to receive them. Burial at the permanent site began in early 1949 and was mostly completed by the end of that year.
On 19 January 1949, the body of Manny Arruda was buried in what is now called the Normandy American Cemetery. Six days later his brother Joe was buried beside him. Together again, they are one of 45 pairs of brothers buried at Colleville. The bodies of the other Tauntonians, disinterred from temporary graves, arrived shortly thereafter.
If the passing of so many years has dulled the pain caused by the loss of these young men, it can be approximated today by a walk through the quiet cemetery. Many of the one million visitors who come to Colleville-sur-Mer each year recognize the more than 9,000 immaculately-kept graves — marked by marble crosses and Stars of David — as an absolute forest of grief; mute testimony to the enormous sacrifice of the men who never went home.
*(Ed. Note: This is the cemetery featured in “Saving Private Ryan,” the 1998 motion picture depicting the D-Day invasion.)