On a windswept Normandy expanse then most familiar from Impressionist beachscapes by Eugene Boudin and Claude Monet, Jacob Cutler viewed the chaos and carnage that stretched to the horizon on June 6, 1944.
His back pressed against the base of a cliff at the beach's edge, his breath coming in taut gasps, death spread to the horizon on that D-Day afternoon.
"We literally had to zigzag around the bodies, there were so many of them," Cutler, now 91, recalled of his arrival at Omaha Beach, the scene of the most intense fighting during the D-Day invasion.StoryLI vet cleared mines in waist-deep D-Day surfPhotosPearl Harbor anniversary: Newsday during WWIIPast coverageNewsday coverage of WWII
The corpses of soldiers littered the bomb-sundered sand, meters from where the Brooklyn recruit took sanctuary. Waves that pounded the water's edge seemed to spit more fighting men ashore with each undulation.
Cutler, who served as a private first class with the Army's V Corps, was among the 156,000 U.S., British, Canadian, French and other Allied troops who were sent ashore on D-Day. On that one day, 4,413 Allied troops perished, including 2,499 Americans, according to the D-Day Museum & Overlord Embroidery, in Portsmouth, England.
Known as Operation Overlord, the World War II invasion avenged the failed 1942 amphibious assault farther up the French coast at Dieppe, and gave the Allies a critical foothold on Germany's western flank. With Russian troops pressing Germany from the east, the Normandy foothold became the noose the Allies tightened steadily until the Nazis' defeat less than a year later.
But on that long afternoon, just surviving the day was no certainty for Cutler, let alone the outcome of the war.
Fate actually spared him from the worst of the fighting, which had taken place in the first hours of the amphibious landing. Scheduled to land at Omaha beach about 9 a.m., Cutler was delayed by about four hours when the Higgins boat he was to ride shoreward sprang a leak and had to be replaced.
But from where he found refuge under the cliffs, the awful extent of the American casualties became apparent.
Within sight of shore, the 160-foot hull of a landing craft -- LCI 91 -- listed in the waves. Seventy-three of its soldiers were killed when the vessel hit one of the many mines the Nazis had placed to thwart an Allied invasion, then was riddled by German guns firing from shore.
Thwarted by mines and obstacles, Higgins boats dropped troops farther from shore than planned, causing scores of drownings. Strong currents pulled many of them hundreds of meters east of their intended destination, disrupting plans to attack specific German defenses.
Of the first 29 amphibious tanks launched toward shore, 27 sank when their canvas skirts, designed to survive 1-foot waves, were swamped by seas that reached 6 feet. With no tanks to protect them, the first infantry soldiers who arrived at the beach faced withering fire from German positions that featured the lethal "88" anti-aircraft guns.
"There were more boats and landing craft coming in, but the German 88s fired and hit the boats as they dropped off their crews, hit the guys coming in on the beach," Cutler recalled. "It was a total disaster."
"Nothing went as it was supposed to be," he said. "The battleship Texas and some destroyers went back and forth, firing into the Germans from offshore. That was the only artillery we had on the first day. It meant the Germans were freer to attack us with machine guns and 88s up on the cliff. It was a tough day."
Cutler said that for most of his life, he put aside thoughts of D-Day as best he could. Having fought across Europe and surviving uninjured, he was honorably discharged in 1945.
Three years later, he married Charlotte Handleman, his best friend's little sister, with whom he had exchanged letters during the war. They moved with their two children to Valley Stream in 1972, 16 years before he retired as purchasing manager for Olden Camera. His wife died three years ago.
He says the passage of time has finally made it easier for him to share eyewitness accounts of D-Day. At times, he says, he is awed by what was accomplished by the men who came ashore.
"We were 19, 20, 21 years old, kids sent to war," he said. "But we did the job."