“I am the only survivor off that landing craft and I have never, never told anybody that Captain Zappacosta pulled his gun on that coxswain and told him to take that boat in. It did not happen.”

–Bob Sales, B Company, 116th Regiment, 29th Division

Article byKevan Elsby, February 5, 2002.

Did Ambrose err in lifting dialogue from the work of S.L.A. Marshall?

Stephen Ambrose and the British coxswains

Stephen Ambrose, in his book, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II, penned several unsubstantiated comments demeaning the performance of British sailors of Combined Operations, Royal Navy.

Especially galling and completely erroneous are his statements on pages 337 and 343. On Page 337 Ambrose wrote:

On the command boat for B Company, the CO, Capt. Ettore Zappacosta, heard the British coxswain cry out, “We can’t go in there. We can’t see the landmarks. We must pull off.” Zappacosta pulled his colt .45 and ordered, “By god, you’ll take this boat straight in.”

The coxswain did. When the ramp dropped, Zappacosta was first off. He was immediately hit. Medic Thomas Kenser saw him bleeding from the hip and shoulder. Kenser, still on the ramp, shouted, “Try to make it in! I’m coming.” But the captain was already dead. Before Kenser could jump off the boat he was shot dead. Every man on the boat save one (Pvt. Robert Sales) was either killed or wounded before reaching the beach.

In 1999, Bob Sales, the only survivor on D-Day from this landing craft (and radio operator for Captain Ettore V. Zappacosta) stated that the captain did not pull his gun on the British coxswain. Sales said (in a tape recording sent to Kevan Elsby):

I want to tell the story of what happened going in at Normandy concerning Captain Ettore V. Zappacosta. I was his radio operator. I know what I am telling you to be absolute facts. I am the only survivor off that landing craft and I have never, never told anybody that Captain Zappacosta pulled his gun on that coxswain and told him to take that boat in. It did not happen.

When we left the Empire Javelin and boarded the landing craft, Captain Zappacosta was the first man at the front. I was behind him, being his radio operator. He was very quiet going in. He was not a talkative man anyways, but he was very, very quiet on the trip in. About a thousand yards or so off the beach, the only words he spoke were, “Sales, step up there and see what’s going on on the beach, if you can see anything.”

I looked over. I could not tell anything. I said, “A Company. I can’t see ’em. It looks like bodies laying on the beach, but I cannot tell.” And I sat back down.

It wasn’t but a brief while after that and the only words from the coxswain were: “I cannot go in any further. I’m going to drop the ramp.”

There was no argument about it. There were obstacles in the water. The water was up to my neck when I finally got my feet on the ground. He could not do any better.

We were headed into Vierville, where it was the most heavily fortified area on Omaha. Then the ramp went down and these were the only words I heard the coxswain speak, and I do not know to this day whether he got out alive or not, but when that ramp went down mortar shells were hitting on both sides of us. Machine guns were all over top of us, just like you were in a bees’ nest.

The Captain was the first man to get off the boat and he was hit on the ramp and fell into the water. Sergeant Wright was next off, followed by the first aid man. I was fourth off the boat. The sea was rough, the ramp banged up and down, and I caught my heel and went over the side into the water.

When I got up, Captain Zappacosta was up and calling to me, “I’m hit!” He went down and I did not see him come up. His body was washed up on the beach later.

The first time I saw the Zappacosta incident about pulling his gun was back in the early sixties in a magazine called Stag. I think some writer just dreamed it up. According to your papers, S. L. A. Marshall said it, but I just don’t see how Marshall could have said it. I did not tell him. I was the only survivor off that landing craft.

There is no way it happened. I did not tell it. There was nobody else living who could have told it and it could not have happened, and if there is one thing I want, it is for that British sailor, if he is alive or dead or whatever, I want him cleared of this. It did not happen.

In a more recent statement of February 4, 2002, Bob Sales stated:

I told Stephen Ambrose it was absolutely wrong. He just laughed it off and said, “I can’t do everything.” I met him up there in Washington just a couple of years ago at a press conference. He just laughed it off.

Captain Zappacosta never moved out of his position all the way in. He was not the kind of man to pull a gun to the head of a sailor. If we had gone in any further, we would have hit the mines on the obstacle. I want this thing cleared up.

Stephen Ambrose not only ignored Bob Sales, Ambrose also ignored the account of Joseph Ewing in 29 Let’s Go! A History of the 29th Infantry Division in World War II (1948). On page 43, Ewing refers to the boat report of Zappacosta’s craft and quotes from it as follows:

About seventy-five yards from the beach the ramp was dropped, and the enemy automatic fire then beat a tattoo all over the boat front. Captain Ettore Zappacosta, the Company Commander, jumped from the boat and got ten yards through the water. Pfc Robert Sales saw him hit in the leg and shoulder. He yelled, “I’m hit.” T/5 Kenser, a first-aid man, yelled: “Try to make it in!” Zappacosta went down and they did not see him come up again.

Ambrose relied upon the account of S.L.A. Marshall who wrote in “First Wave at Omaha Beach” (The Atlantic Monthly, November 1960):

A great cloud of smoke and dust raised by the mortar and machine-gun fire has almost closed a curtain around Able Company’s ordeal. Outside the pall, nothing is to be seen but a line of corpses adrift, a few heads bobbing in the water and the crimson-running tide. But this is enough for the British coxswains. They raise the cry: “We can’t go in there. We can’t see the landmarks. We must pull off.”

In the command boat, Captain Ettore V. Zappacosta pulls a Colt .45 and says: “By god, you’ll take this boat straight in.”

Stephen Ambrose’s text bears a distinct resemblance to S. L. A. Marshall’s writing (a similar article appeared in the April 1961 issue of Stag), but discards earlier accounts and disregards the concerns expressed by Bob Sales, the only survivor from this landing craft.

The story of Captain Zappacosta and the coxswain is not the only one of its kind in Ambrose’s D-Day. On Page 343, Ambrose writes:

At 100 meters from the shore, the British coxswain said he had to lower the ramp and everyone should get out quickly. Sgt. Willard Northfleet told him to keep going: “These men have heavy equipment and you will take them all the way in.” The coxswain begged, “But we’ll all be killed!” Northfleet unholstered his .45 Colt pistol, put it to the sailors head and ordered, “All the way in!” The coxswain proceeded.

The Account of D Company 116th Infantry Regiment from the 29th Infantry Division “Group Critique Notes” (interviews with 116th members less than two months after D-Day), states:

The first section put off from their ship, but the landing craft shipped water much more rapidly than the pumps could care for. The British coxswain applied to his ship for relief but was told to continue the mission…. Four hundred yards from the shore the British coxswain insisted that he could take the craft no further. He started to lower the ramp but the platoon sergeant Willard R. Northfleet blocked the mechanism and insisted that the boat was going in farther ….

Whilst there were obvious difficulties on this landing craft, there is no mention of a Colt .45 being pulled to the head of the British coxswain. It is a fact that D Company 116th Infantry Regiment was a heavy weapons company and, in the rough seas on the morning of D-Day, the landing craft were too heavily laden. Many soldiers carried more equipment and ammunition than on training exercises conducted in calmer seas. Each landing craft was equipped with two pumps, but there was a limit to their capacity to keep the landing craft high in the water.

It is also a fact that the average angle of slope of Omaha Beach was less than one degree to the horizontal, with the surf running at two to four feet and very strong tides. Two huge sandbars ran parallel to the beach, with deep tidal runnels also running parallel to the beach.

Veterans have described this particular landing craft of D Company 116th Infantry Regiment as rocking up and down with the ramp flapping violently in the air, with deeper water in front of the boat. The coxswains on all landing craft were trained and under orders to gun the engines and drop the ramp as soon as the landing craft grounded on the tidal flats of Omaha Beach.

In 29 Let’s Go! A History of the 29th Infantry Division in World War II (1948), Joseph Ewing writes on page 44:

Losses in D-Company, due in at 7:10 A.M., prevented their heavy weapons from contributing much to the fighting on the beach. One of the boats was abandoned far out to sea after shipping too much water. Another was sunk by a mine or an artillery shell a quarter mile from land. A third boat dropped its ramps 150 yards from the beach, and when the men saw others in front of them staying in the water, they followed their example.

Since the publication of D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II, American and British veterans from Omaha Beach have expressed their deep concerns about ineffectual research and the gross inaccuracy of accounts to Stephen Ambrose, but to no avail. Their objections have been laughed off and ignored.

Would General Eisenhower have expected US Army officers to pull a gun to the heads of British sailors on D-Day?

Should American officers be portrayed as thugs, and should British sailors be portrayed as cowards?

Are these the type of men who put their lives at risk on D-Day?

The reputation of Captain Ettore V. Zappacosta of B Company 116th Infantry Regiment has been besmirched.

British sailors from 551 Assault Flotilla, Combined Operations, Royal Navy have been dishonoured.

This bad reporting and blatantly poor research has caused great bitterness and resentment amongst American and British veterans.

Popular history it may be, but accurate certainly not!

As a world-wide recognized authority on World War II, historian Stephen Ambrose is morally obligated either to document from official sources the validity of his statements, or to correct them and publicly apologize to the veterans he has so shamefully defamed, before they go to their graves with bitter resentment towards what has been so falsely written about them and their comrades. Why should veterans allow any historian to desecrate the graves of their comrades in arms?