Early life and military career
Cota was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the son of George William Cota, a former railroad telegrapher (later a merchant), and Jessie H. Mason, a school teacher. He attended Worcester Academy for three years beginning in the fall of 1910. While playing football there, his teammates nicknamed him “Dutch,” and the name stuck with him, although its origins remained unclear.
In June 1913, he was accepted to the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York. He and the rest of his class graduated seven weeks ahead of schedule, on April 20, 1917, because of the American entry into World War I. His classmates included Matthew Ridgway, J. Lawton Collins, Mark W. Clark, Ernest N. Harmon, Laurence B. Keiser, Bryant Moore, Charles H. Gerhardt, Frederick Augustus Irving, and William Kelly Harrison, Jr., all of whom become general officers.
Cota (West Point class of 1917) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (West Point class of 1915) got to know one another while playing football at West Point. They became and remained good friends.
Cota was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Infantry Branch of the United States Army, and his first assignment was with the 22nd Infantry Regiment. Due to the outbreak of war Cota was quickly promoted to first lieutenant, then captain after only a few months. By the time he had accumulated 18 months of active duty, he was a major. He was assigned to become an instructor at the USMA shortly before the end of the war on November 11, 1918, serving there until 1920.
Between the wars
In 1919, the now peacetime army underwent “massive downsizing” and he was reduced in rank to captain. While Post Financial Officer at Langley Field, Virginia, in 1922, he was held personally responsible when the post was robbed of $43,000. It took an appeal to Congress for him to be absolved of having to personally repay the stolen funds.
He later served in Hawaii (1924–1928) and graduated from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in June 1931. His student paper “Study of the dispositions of the Turkish 9th Division on the night of April 24–25 and its operations to include the night of April 27–28” was about the Gallipoli Campaign in World War I. He was an instructor at the U.S. Army Infantry School (1932–1933) and graduated from the U.S. Army War College in 1936. He was an instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School (1938–1940). He then became the executive officer (XO) for the 16th Infantry Regiment at Fort Jay, Governors Island, New York.
World War II
At the outbreak of World War II, he was the G-2 Officer (Intelligence) and then G-3 Officer (Plans and Training) of the 1st Infantry Division from March 1941 until June 1942. In June 1942, he was promoted to chief of staff of the division, a position he held until February 1943.
In February 1943, right after his involvement in the Allied invasion of North Africa, under the command of Major General Terry Allen, he prepared a report which included suggested revisions to the task organization of assault divisions, and his recommendations were adopted during preparations for Operation Husky, the codename for the Allied invasion of Sicily. He was promoted to the one-star general officer rank of brigadier general and was quickly sent to the United Kingdom, where he served as the American advisor to the Combined Operations Division of the European Theater of Operations. In that capacity, Cota helped supervise the training for amphibious landing operations.
As a major advisor in Operation Overlord, he was made the assistant division commander of the 29th Infantry Division, which was designated to land at Omaha Beach during the Battle of Normandy. The 29th Division, a National Guard formation nicknamed the “Blue and Grey”, was commanded by his fellow West Point classmate, Major General Charles H. Gerhardt. During the planning for D-Day, he opposed daylight landings, believing a pre-dawn assault would stand a better chance of success. A year before the invasion, at the Conference on Landing Assaults, Cota had argued in favor of striving for tactical surprise:
. . . It is granted that strategical surprise will be impossible to attain. Tactical surprise is another thing however… . tactical surprise is one of the most powerful factors in determining success. I therefore, favor the night landing. I do not believe the daylight assault can succeed.
Cota was not alone in his opposition. Major General Leonard T. Gerow, commander of V Corps, and Admiral John L. Hall, Jr., commander of Amphibious Force “O” (the naval force responsible for delivery of the 1st Infantry Division to the beach), both fought to change the Operation Overlord plan, pleading for a nighttime assault.
However, the high command decided otherwise, concluding that naval and air bombardment would hopefully neutralize, or in the best case, eradicate, enemy opposition. The plan for Omaha essentially called for hurling infantry directly at a prepared enemy position, a position that was enhanced by the concave shape of the beach (effectively promoting enemy crossfire into the “basin” of the concavity), natural and man-made obstacles, bad weather and other factors.
Most D-Day commanders assured their men that the Germans would be annihilated by the Allies’ pre-invasion firepower, and that the defenders were, in any case, outnumbered, inexperienced and demoralized. All of these beliefs were to be proved woefully inaccurate. On the afternoon of June 5, Cota gave an accurate assessment to the staff of the 29th Infantry Division:
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.
While Cota had a far less optimistic view of the plan than the high command, even he underrated the extent of the near-catastrophe that awaited V Corps (composed of the 29th Infantry Division and the famous “Big Red One” 1st Infantry Division) on Omaha Beach and the 4th Infantry Division on Utah Beach.
Cota landed with a part of the 116th Infantry Regiment, part of the 29th Division, in the second wave, approximately one hour after H-Hour on the Omaha sector known as Dog White. His LCVP landing craft came under heavy machine-gun fire as well as mortar and light artillery fire; three soldiers were killed immediately upon leading the disembarkation.
Cota was one of the highest-ranking officers on the beach that day. After landing on the beach, he personally rallied shell-shocked, pinned-down survivors to open one of the first vehicle exits off the beach. Cota and his men advanced to the seawall, where they used bangalore torpedoes and wire cutters to punch through. They then destroyed a machine-gun nest, after which they made a breakthrough from Omaha Beach. Two quotes Cota spoke during the initial fighting later became famous:
• In a meeting with Max Schneider, commander of the 5th Ranger Battalion, Cota asked “What outfit is this?” Someone yelled, “5th Rangers!” In an effort to inspire Schneider’s men to leave the cover of the seawall and advance through a breach, Cota replied, “Well, God damn it, if you are Rangers, then get up there and lead the way!” “Rangers lead the way” became the motto of the U.S. Army Rangers.
• He was also credited with calmly rallying his troops with the statement “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.”
Men of the 28th Infantry Division march down the Champs Elysees, Paris, France.
Norman Cota Square in Bourscheid, Luxembourg.
With the coast of Normandy eventually secured, Allied forces advanced toward Paris. On August 14, 1944, Cota was relieved as assistant division commander by Leroy H. Watson and assigned to command the 28th Infantry Division, succeeding Brigadier General James Edward Wharton, who had been killed in action. After attempting to trap the retreating Germans at Le Neubourg and Elbeuf on the Seine River, Cota and the 28th Division were assigned to represent the U.S. Army in the parade celebrating the liberation of Paris. Later that year, while in the field, he was promoted to major general.
As the commanding general of the 28th Infantry Division, Major General Cota’s division was involved in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, conceived by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, the U.S. 12th Army Group commander, as a direct assault on established German positions in the heavily forested region, positions which significantly favored the defenders. Cota was not pleased with the operations order he was given. It required him to send three regiments on diverging paths to three different objectives. Further, his division would be the only unit attacking on a 150 miles (240 km) front. His complaints were given little weight by his immediate superior, the V Corps commander, Major General Leonard Gerow.
The northern and southern thrusts achieved little. The center regiment, the 112th Infantry, captured two villages and a town, but was eventually driven back by German counterattacks. In an article written for the U.S. Army Combined Center, Lieutenant Colonel (ret) Thomas Bradbeer identified “three crucial mistakes” that Cota made. First, neither he nor his staff ordered reconnaissance patrols. Second, he selected, sight unseen, an extremely narrow trail as the division’s main supply route. Finally, he chose not to employ the extra armor units he was given in support of his infantry, believing the terrain and road system to be unsuitable for their use, whereas much of the forest was in fact accessible. Instead, the tanks were used as supplementary artillery. Furthermore, Lieutenant General Bradley criticized Cota for remaining in his command post, visiting the front only once late in the fighting, by which time he had already lost control of the situation.
Cota’s division sustained heavy losses and failed to secure its objectives. The 28th Infantry Division and its attached units suffered 6,184 casualties; the 112th Infantry Regiment alone had 2,316 casualties out of a total strength of 3,100. While Cota retained command of the division to the end of the war, during which he led it in the invasion of Germany, he had lost his sterling military reputation and the confidence of his superiors, despite the fact that, before commencement of operations, he had voiced concerns regarding the plan to those same superiors.
Court martial and execution of Eddie Slovik
Cota also reviewed and approved the death sentence handed down by a court-martial on Private Eddie Slovik, who refused combat duty on October 8, 1944 and was executed on January 31, 1945. Cota said that the execution, the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War, was the “toughest 15 minutes of my life”.
Cota retired from the army on 30 June 1946 as a major general. In August, he was hired as administrator for Zone One of the War Assets Administration.
In the late 1950s, he was the civil defense director for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.[
He died in Wichita, Kansas, on 4 October 1971, and is buried with his wife Connie at the West Point Cemetery, USMA, West Point, New York.
Cota married writer and teacher Constance Martha “Connie” Alexander at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in New York City on November 1, 1919.
The Cotas were the parents of two children, Ann (23 October 1920 – 31 August 1996), the first girl born at the cadet hospital at West Point and Norman Daniel “Dan” Cota Jr. (15 December 1921 – 18 March 1988). Cota’s son was a U.S. Army Air Corps fighter pilot and provided reconnaissance for the 28th Division during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.
After his first wife’s death in 1969, in October 1970 Cota married Alice Weeks-McCutcheon.
Awards and decorations Cota was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Silver Star for his heroism on Omaha Beach. Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery pinned the DSO on Cota. He received a Purple Heart and a second Silver Star for his heroism on Omaha Beach. Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery pinned the DSO on Cota. He received a Purple Heart and a second Silver Star in the attack at Saint-Lô.