By Kevin Hymel, Historian
In honor of the 76th anniversary of D-Day—the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944—we remember one of the thousands of ordinary Americans and Allies who sacrificed their lives in the long effort to liberate Europe during World War II. In concert with their comrades in the U.S. Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy, waves of American soldiers assaulted two beaches designated Omaha and Utah, while others climbed the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and parachuted behind enemy lines.
U.S. Army Sergeant John Taylor Blacknall (Section 12, Grave 3206), was one of the men who died for his country on Omaha Beach—ironically, on his 32nd birthday. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina on June 6, 1912, Blacknall grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia. At the age of 20, he married Francis Harris.
With World War II raging across the globe, Blacknall enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. The division was a National Guard unit made up of men from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, although by the time it reached combat on D-Day, replacements from across the nation filled its ranks.
Blacknall eventually reached the rank of sergeant in Captain Charles Kidd’s M Company. When Blacknall’s landing craft reached Omaha Beach at 7:40 a.m., the first wave of Allied troops had already landed an hour earlier. More than 6,000 Americans composed the first wave, but German machine-gun fire, mortars and artillery had torn into them, leaving dead and wounded men strewn across the beach and in the water. Colonel Lawrence Meek’s 3rd Battalion of the 116th, consisting of Blacknall’s Company M, as well as companies I, K, and L—about 700 men in total—made up part of the second wave.
The soldiers of Company M arrived in six landing craft to the right of the St. Laurent Draw, one of five cuts through the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. The Germans covered both sides of the draw with a series of bunkers and pillboxes, all connected by trenches.
Each landing craft carried approximately 35 soldiers and had a front ramp that dropped for easy exit. When Company M’s landing craft ramps dropped, the men tried to charge forward but seasickness and their heavy equipment slowed them down. They landed in an area that had seen no prior landings, so enemy beach obstacles remained in place. As the men pushed forward across 100 yards of beach, the Germans opened fire.
Company M survivors’ oral history interviews attest to the chaos and destruction. Some men were hit as they made their way across the beach. Others, either exhausted or under enemy fire, crawled up the beach. One man stepped on an underwater mine. The explosion broke his leg and shoulder while peppering his body with shrapnel, forcing him to drag himself up the beach. Another man ran a zig-zag pattern up the beach to prevent German snipers from zeroing in on him. A medic ran back into the surf to rescue a wounded soldier, only to be cut down himself by enemy fire. It took about ten minutes for the men to cross the beach.
The survivors reached a shallow hill of smooth stones known as the "shingle." They then spent part of their morning laying siege to a house along the beach that the Germans had converted into a bunker. Before noon, the men ascended the bluffs overlooking the beach, where some were killed or wounded from tripped mines. The survivors eventually joined other units and pushed inland to the town of St. Laurent, which they held by nightfall.
The 116th Infantry Regiment went into combat with 3,100 men. By the end of D-Day, they had taken 1,007 casualties. Sergeant John Blacknall was one of those casualties. He fell somewhere between the beach and the French soil south of St. Laurent. After the war, his body was returned to the United States, and buried here at Arlington National Cemetery.
Sergeant Blacknall was one of thousands of Americans who fell in combat that day. He left no diary to tell his story, but his sacrifice was just as important as that of the commanders who sent him into combat. On this anniversary of D-Day, the cemetery honors Sergeant Blacknall’s sacrifice for his nation in World War II.
Image 1: American troops head into battle on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944—D-Day. Sergeant John Blacknall’s Company M landed as part of the second wave of troops and he was killed somewhere between his landing craft and the bluffs ahead. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Image 2: On D-Day, most soldiers who made it off Omaha Beach sought protection behind the shingle, a wall of smooth stones that ran the length of the beach. (Cornelius Ryan Collection, Ohio University)
Image 3: John Blacknall's grave marker in Section 12. (Arlington National Cemetery)