Why should I record events of my World War II days? Certainly not to preserve them in my memory, for there they are etched forever. Those nearest to me have told me that they should be written down. I am certainly no author – I have no talents for writing. Perhaps it is to let future generations know what we experienced there. Those who were with me will never need to know. I leave no legacy of fame to cause others to desire my story. Perhaps it is , at long last, to empty myself of long constrained emotions of these experiences.
Marvin M. Smith
Memories occurring on the troop train ride from Camp Atterbury to the Boston Port of Embarkation: I had held my wife, Virginia, in my arms at the station, and with the last kiss bid her an optimistic farewell. I marveled at her courage – the way she held up at the last goodbye. I was glad that Company K was armed with the latest modern weapons, and they had qualified in using and firing them during our training at Camp Atterbury, N.C. I was glad we had many combat-like maneuvers behind us. These thoughts created in me a feeling of security. But it was she who motivated me to want to come back.
Gangplank fever: the North Atlantic
Boston was extremely cold, dreary, dark, and snowy. We were confined inside a camp for security reasons. There was no end of administration work. But at last the time came to board the USS Argentina, a troop transport vessel. Red Cross girls were at the gangplank biding us farewell. Gangplank fever? Some had it – a terrible fear that if they walked up the gangplank they never would return. This did not bother me. Sea-sickness? Sergeant Browning in my Company got it just being aboard while still at the dock. We all laughed at him, but he wasn’t laughing. In the middle of the Atlantic I want on deck to the first daytime opportunity and was startled to see on the horizon U.S. Nave ships – “flat-tops”, battle cruisers, troop ships, as far as the eye could see. The newspapers later confirmed this was the largest military oversees armada that had ever crossed the Atlantic.
I was quartered in the Officer’s stateroom with three other officers. We were ordered to appear for meals in the Ship-Captain’s mess in Class A Dress uniforms. Despite rumors that out ship was to move to the “graveyard” position -- I guess I was too naïve to worry. Graveyard position was the last ship in the convoy, completely in the rear – a favored target for enemy submarines. While underway, Col. Peter O. Ward, Battalion Commander, took both the non-coms and his officers out to the life boats and showed us how to unlock them to get them over the sides. Someone asked Col. Ward why we needed to know when we had all been informed that the sailors would handle that task if we were hit. Col. Ward simply replied, “Things don’t always go as planned”. He also ordered the men quartered in the lower decks (under the water-line) to scramble up the ladders to the top deck for practice. First time, they were too slow. He ordered them back down to scramble topside three more times before he was satisfied. He was tough, but we felt secure with him. The huge waves and the bitter cold in the North Atlantic made me cringe and walk with extra care near the rails.
England: Cold Weather and Warm Beer
We landed in the Bay of Glasgow after what seemed like many days at sea. What beautiful green hills overlooking the bay! How tiny are the British trains compared to American railroad cars. We rode the train at night from Glasgow through London to the coast of South England at Aylesbury, just a relative few miles from the Nazis on the coast of occupied France. Made aware of this, ‘K’ Company drew guard duty on a several mile front along the coast. They feared a raid from across the channel. The reality of war was very apparent in England. Now that we had arrived, we were in it with them as well. The terrible cold – always so foggy and damp! We could not build fires due to the scarcity of fuel, so we wore overcoats even in our billets. We lived in attractive resort town homes. We were hungry all the time—scarcity of food from America, and rationing kept us lean. At night we heard the lonely howl of air-raid sirens far off in another city. An unusual sounding airplane motor could be heard overhead. So very different from the sound of American or British airplanes. Much rougher, deeper sounding engines. I was informed it was a German aircraft. A goose-pimpled chill came over me – and I never forgot that sound. I could thereafter always tell the difference between allied and German airplanes.
Daytime, I checked my men on a rented English bike. Meeting after meeting, and no end of administration work in K Company office. I accepted an invitation from a prominent local family to dinner. They were interesting, but the food was austere. Plenty of liquor, however. Butch Williamson, former company commander of my Company K, now Battalion Executive Officer, as well as Lt. Hulbert, my platoon leader, and several of us often frequented a local pub. We played darts and drank warm English beer and talked for hours. “Time, please, gentlemen!” This meant the pub was closing. We missed our wives and I wrote to Virginia often. There was a lonely void in our hearts being so far from home. Soon we were moved to a big castle-like place 40 miles outside London. As I led K Company down the road to find our billets, I was shocked to see about a dozen civilian women following my Company, some on bikes. They didn’t look too good and seemed only interested in where we would locate. I’m sure they later sought out our men. I was quartered in Harwell House in a room with Capt. Wier. Harwell House, was a huge and castle-like mansion. It must have had close to 24 rooms. There were no fires, no hot water, and the bath was freezing. But the stay was not to be long, for we knew the expected invasion could not be too far off.
June 6th – The Invasion
One stormy day, June 6th, we started to see hundreds and hundreds of U.S. and British fighter and bomber planes, perhaps numbering into the thousands, fly over our location. Only days earlier, we had the great British General and hero, Monty Montgomery, and others come to speak to us. General Montgomery ended his speech with the phrase “Good hunting!” We suspected that the invasion was at hand. Then came that day – orders to entrain, and we were sent to the coast. There we were pledged to extreme secrecy and kept in tents and barracks which were highly camouflaged. We knew we were soon to enter into that great struggle on the continent of Europe. My first real fear came as we were briefed on a large-scale map showing our landing area, and that the enemy opposing us would likely be the 40th Panzer Division. The very word ‘Panzer’ stuck fear into our hearts – we knew what it meant.
Six days after D-Day, our turn came. We loaded on a LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) and headed for France! Our battalion commander had orders to go to Omaha Beach. The ship captain had conflicting orders to go to Utah Beach, 20 miles from Omaha Beach. Par for the course, SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fouled Up). In case of conflicting orders the ship captain’s orders are superior, so we went to Utah Beach. We talked to the beachmaster while an enemy shell or two landed nearby. He told us to land here and walk to Omaha Beach, partly through enemy-held territory, or we could remain on ship and he would countermand the ship captain, to take us to Omaha Beach by sea. We chose the ship route. As we neared Omaha Beach, we saw wrecked ships protruding out of the water, and low flying blimps moored to ships to prevent low-flying enemy attacks. There was debris of all kinds from initial landings six days earlier. Most of the bodies had been removed by this time.
I noticed a large cliff on our right, overlooking Omaha Beach. An occasional enemy shell landed in the area. Then the large ramp was let down in the front. We stepped out into the water three or four feet deep, waded ashore, and started up the canyon road, marching inland. We stopped at the first town, Isigny, where there was a canteen. We loaded up on cigarettes and other supplies. There I was surprised to see my good friend, John Carbin, with Division Headquarters. There were hundreds of GI’s jeeps, trucks, tanks, etc. We were ordered to move forward on foot up a narrow blacktop road. It seemed to me Company K was all alone. Or perhaps we were leading the battalion up the road. I remember an eerie dark forest on my left for several miles.
It soon grew dark. We could see to our front great fireworks lighting up the sky in places. We knew we were approaching the front lines. We moved into an assembly area, a place where troops are assembled to prepare for battle, to plan, or to get supplied with ammunition, a meal, or sleep if possible. I hadn’t slept much the last 48 hours, so was dead tired and sleepy. I tried to bed down for a night’s sleep. I had just fallen soundly to sleep when my orderly was shaking my shoulder to get on the telephone as Battalion headquarters was calling. Sound-powered telephones can be strung up in no time. We avoided our radio communication because the enemy might pick it up. Battalion headquarters informed me of a company commanders meeting immediately. We were to move out the companies immediately towards the front, only six to eight miles away. The next day we were to launch an attack with the line of departure to be a railroad track
We were passing through elements of an air-borne division (101st or 82nd). We walked along excited (frightened) as this was the real thing, and not just another training exercise. The darkness was eerie, but welcome protection from the eyes of the enemy. Even so, as we walked over a bridge an enemy sniper fired, adding to our fear. Nearing our destination, we heard the unmistakable sound of a German plane. The plane dropped a flare over our column of troops, which lit up and exposed us. In no time we heard the terrible whine of the enemy plane going into a nose dive down upon us. We automatically scattered unbelievably fast toward the ditches on either side of the road. A bomb screeched down toward us, but luckily, it hit just to the left of us. The concussion was terrific, and Sgt. Queen’s helmet was blown off his head. Sgt. Queen was a completely bald man. What a laugh we had when morning came to see Sgt. Queen’s bald head shining like a billiard ball without his helmet - but what an excellent target for the enemy! As it grew daylight, our apprehension mounted. Several sniper bullets whined by. I thought how easy it would be to get picked off! Just as the attack started, large guns from the U.S. Navy to our rear opened up on the enemy with extremely large shells that sounded like freight cars rumbling through the air. They seemed to be passing by just over our heads.
We were all tense and apprehensive. American Airborne soldiers had been in this area before us, and had fought against strong resistance. The evidence of hard fighting was everywhere. A chill came over me when I saw the first dead American soldier (not from our outfit) with a bullet in his forehead. Death could come to any of us at any time. I remember thinking: how different the dead looked compared to the dead seen at a funeral back home. Ahead, sporadic firing broke out, and I knew ‘L’ and ‘I’ companies had found the enemy and were engaged. I set up headquarters near a tree with my runner (messenger), the radio communication sergeant, and the executive officer (second in command of Company K). ‘L’ Company was not moving forward, but was stopped in a fight with the enemy. It seemed in no time, perhaps only ten minutes of L Company fighting, until the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. McCollum, ordered K Company out of reserve by sending my second platoon (Lt. Pearsons) with an American tank to the right flank and rifle platoons into an assault on a group of old stone houses where the enemy appeared to be dug in around the houses.
One K Company rifle platoon became bogged down and did not move forward, but lay highly exposed in a small field approaching the enemy positions. Battalion Cmdr. McCollum pointed out their vulnerable position of being seen easily and exposed to enemy fire with no walls or depressions in the land to protect them. I knew I had to get them on forward without delay to engage the enemy. I ordered Sgt. Waker (machine gun sergeant) to set up a machine gut in a corner of a field and fire constantly to the front into enemy positions to keep them pinned down. Then I ordered that he was to stop firing when I gave the hand signal, so that we would not be running into our own fire. I ran onto the field and ordered the men to run forward with me into the enemy lines. They really moved fast and in unison. We overran enemy foxholes and knocked house doors to engage the enemy at short range. I jumped over and enemy foxhole, and uh-0h, there were those black boots and German helmet ! He was lying face down in a foxhole. I fired into his leg, because I thought he was playing possum, and recoiled from firing a fatal bullet. This leg would put him out of action, and on I went! Then came a decision I made which has haunted me ever since. One of the finest, most loyal, efficient sergeants I had ever worked with ran up to me and asked if he should search a German soldier just killed for any papers or letters that would reveal the name of the enemy outfit we were opposing. This information, when pieced together with other information back at the Intelligence Office, would be vital in fighting the enemy. I said, “Yes, search him, but be careful.” Within minutes the awful news came to me that this wonderful sergeant was KIA (Killed In Action). I was shocked. I walked forward and saw Sgt. Kaliff’s body slumped over the dead German. What a terrible loss to me personally, and to the Company! I remember walking past him on forward expecting a shot or shots to hit me any second. This action caused Company K to be committed fully on the right of L Company – going forward in attack formation.
Rifle bullets began cracking over our heads, and I took cover behind a log. We couldn’t see the enemy, but I detected the rifle fire was coming from our left. It is amazing how depressions in the ground and lying flat will protect you from bullets. Because of the loud crack I heard, I’m sure several bullets were only inches from my head. I walked out near a narrow blacktop road and was amazed to see a French farmer wearing wooden shoes and leading a cow by a rope. He was coming form the direction of enemy lines through ours, but no one fire upon him. I recall wondering, why would he risk his life in full view of the enemy and all this shelling when he didn’t have to? Now, I think he was probably getting his remaining livestock the heck out of there! Another time two U.S. Air force airmen showed up in our area. I asked them why they were up on the front. They said, “Oh, we just wanted some excitement and to be able to say we had been to the front lines.” I wondered why anyone would risk his life if he didn’t have to. Just one enemy mortar round could kill you. You can’t hear them coming. They come in straight down from above and then bursts into steel fragments and can take you straight into eternity. We pushed onward toward the Vire River. During the march, two of our men had stepped on anti-personnel mines, severely wounding their legs and feet. However, with little further opposition we finally reached our objective. I ordered K Company to dig in – they needed no prodding. We buttoned up for the night exhausted, and vowed to shoot anything that moved outside our foxholes. The company had accomplished their mission and our troops were now in position to deny the enemy any ground north of the river-canal toward the beaches.
A storm on the English Channel now was delaying the arrival of ships from England bringing essential ammunition, fuel, and supplies. As a result, the further attack across the river-canal was postponed as well.
On the Vire
All along the Vire River-Canal the “Krauts” (as we called them) were well hidden in the vines, trees, and bushes, and were well positioned to “defend unto death”, as ordered by their “Für her”, Adolph Hitler . A huge shell came into our location, sounding like a locomotive flying just overhead, and hit one of our jeep trailers full of ammunition and setting it on fire. It burned all night, but it was off to our left 200 yards or so. I was so very exhausted and could not get any undisturbed sleep. But alas… Word came that K Company was to send two platoons to patrol forward after dark, beyond our lines to a bridge on the Vire River. The mission: To see if the bridge was still intact. Two platoons of 50-60 men were needed because it was feared that there were many Germans between us and the canal, and we might have to fight our way through. I selected the platoons and gave my instructions. Our fear was great. To be ordered to patrol beyond enemy lines after dark was a devastating task. Regardless, we got started and I had the great Sergeant Dickens to assist me.
I had not prayed to God before because lacking in faith, I felt that it wasn’t right to have nothing to do with God and then suddenly begin calling on Him in battle. I felt it was cowardly, and that any real God would show little mercy toward anyone who had doubted Him. But fear my won out. I prayed, “Oh God - if there is a God - please protect us now ws we go into the enemy area in this darkness. Help us now, oh God!” As we all moved forward together, I never heard a sound. We walked slowly with rifles and ammunition through fields and over hedgerows toward the canal about a mile to our front. How could 50-60 men advance in the dark so silently and undetected? Could it be that God had answered an agnostic’s prayer? As we continued onward, a German plane approached, (I could tell by the sound) and a flare lit up the whole countryside. We froze in our positions, as we had been trained to do. The plane passed over us, flying low, but never a bomb nor gun fire was released on us. The flare died away and on we went, carefully and silently. Sgt. Dickens was first to reach our mission objective and reported back that the bridge was destroyed and impassable. With this knowledge, we quietly crept back to our lines. We never once ran into any opposition that night. The vital information about the bridge was phoned back to Battalion headquarters, and another “well done” was chalked up for Company K.
I slept a only few short hours and then was awakened to hear orders from Battalion Headquarters that K Company would again be called upon to clear out any enemy to our front down to the canal. We were to “jump-off” within the hour. One of my Sergeants came up and informed that one of the men had shot himself in the foot and was recommending an investigation into the incident. There was little time for investigations. The motive for a self-inflicted wound was clear: fear of death in combat could dive a man to the brink of insanity. Then more bad news: an artillery shell had hit, tearing off the canteen and ammo belt of a Company K soldier. He somehow escaped harm, but it killed his buddy in the same foxhole. I felt a crushing sadness. I had lost, on our first day in combat, my best Sergeant Kaliff – then this sad news of yet another of our own killed. With heavy hearts Company K assembled once more and started moving again through deadly hedgerows, sunken roads, and swamps. A snipers shot rang out. Before I knew it, the whole company was blindly and wildly firing into a clump of trees – now everyone wasting ammunition with no target to be found. This was an over-reaction, but everyone of us had the jitters. Shortly thereafter, I saw one of our best soldiers pumping bullets into a ditch covered with grass and cursing wildly as he fired. He had found the sniper.
Along with advancing our lines, I our task was to reconnoiter the whole canal area to our front, an area about two miles wide, and gather as much information as possible. I took my Weapons Platoon Leader, Lt. Hansen, two platoons of men, and my “runner”, Private Raymond Boker and moved toward the river. As we carefully felt our way through this area, I really didn’t think any enemy troops would be observing us, as we were in a nearly impassable swamp. But when we approached within 200 feet of the canal, we heard two or three rifle shots coming from across the water. I looked in the direction the sound came from and saw two figures just beside some bushes on the opposite side of the canal. They were hard to see, and barely discernible inside the thick foliage. Because our mission was to gain intelligence and report back, we were told to avoid a fire-fight if possible. We retreated gradually and returned to our previous position. But upon seeing the enemy so close – my hair stood on end! Being, often, only fifty feet or so from the Germans across the canal had kept everyone on edge for days. We could not talk out loud or move freely about. Our essential-to-survival foxholes were always cold, wet, and muddy. No showers or hot meals. Sleep was rationed in shifts, and we had to be constantly on guard against night-time enemy incursions. After several days of close encounters along the line, I was most happy to receive orders that ‘I’ Company would relieve ‘K’ Company along the canal front.
When ‘I’ Company relieved us, and as we were moving toward the rear, German 88’s began firing on our positions. Apparently they had detected our movement despite our efforts at concealment within the hedges. Each incoming shell with its screeching and screaming seemed as if it were destined to come right down my neck! Luckily, they hit to our left front and rear and not a man in our company was hit. But then as we walked, crouching carefully, and spread out through a field one-quarter mile behind our former position (now held by ‘I’ Company) a previously by-passed German machine gun opened up on us. I saw dirt flying up around me where bullets hit. Our training paid off because every man immediately hit the ground and then turned to return fire on the source. The enemy machine gun was silenced quickly and only one man was hit – wounded in the leg. It could have been worse, but we were spread out well and reacted rapidly. Once relieved, our company rested in a reserve position to the rear about one mile. We were dug in the middle of a beautiful French orchard. I found a nice “home” under an apple tree, dug-in, and set up camp. Being off the front, we were to get hot meals brought up in a company jeep trailer. But apparently a German observer had seen the jeep come over the high ground to our rear and they shelled the area just as the cooks got the pots set out. The cooks, never before under fire, ran in all directions. The rest of us “hardened and experienced” combat veterans doubled up with laughter to see the cooks in their clean white uniforms making tracks – although it was really no laughing matter.
In my headquarters foxhole I propped a newly arrived photo of my wife, Virginia, onto a dirt shelf. She was the girl I married and loved. I was filled with apprehension and dread now that we were in “reserve” and actually had time to ponder the days and weeks ahead of us. The picture had arrived just in time. I needed the assurance and comfort the little photograph provided me. I looked at and into her face. Out of the picture she spoke to me. She seemed to tell me she loved me, she trusted I would be okay, and she believed in me… She seemed to say “You can do this! – and remember our motto: “We never miss!” That was the personal slogan we had created together from realizing each could rely on and depend on the other, absolutely and completely to keep our word. We had never once failed, ever, to be at the appointed time and place we had said we would be… Hence we would often greet each other with: “We Never Miss!” This picture somehow gave me great comfort and solace at this crucial time, because – with this leisure time to reflect -- I had developed a somewhat fatalistic attitude about my survival. Because of her picture, I was greatly encouraged and finally got much needed sleep and rest.
The brief respite was good for all of us, but all-to-soon came the inevitable orders to press the attack forward, which for us meant returning to the front. The month of June was drawing to a close and each of General Bradley’s divisions were clawing for ground on every front. The battle for control of the Carentan Peninsula was raging to the west of us, and the bloody days of stalemate at St. Lo still lay ahead. All this was unknown to us however, as we were locked in our own one-little-acre-of-hell-at-a-time in a horrid maze of endless hedgerows, and seemingly thousands of deadly fields to cross for miles upon miles ahead. How they all looked the same! And the endless rain! Always cold, and ever soaking wet and muddy. Would we ever survive to break out of this place? Germany seemed so far away – and home, even further. Everyone knew the attack across the Vire would be heavily defended. Our job now was to hold ground won and secure a route for the next push beyond the canal southward. We needed a better map of the terrain and find the best potential crossing point. With this objective in mind, I formed a small, lightly armed reconnoissance party consisting of Lt. Hulbert, Lt. Nash, my “runner” Pvt. Boker, and myself to return again to the river bank and locate the best route around swamp land to the river shore. The four of us set out and carefully traversed around hedgerows between the swamp and the bridge, making our way south.
Approaching with great care, we reached the canal safely and started walking parallel to the waters edge under cover, hidden by thick bushes. When we came upon an open gap about three or four wide, which would expose us, we paused. I was thinking, “okay, each of us will run quickly across this opening one at a time…” Just then, Pvt. Boker said to me, “wait, I’ll cover you Captain…” Meaning, he would cross the gap first and then aim his rifle across the canal to cover us while we crossed. Just as he was saying this, he jumped out into the gap and raised his M-1 into position. In that instant, a shot rang out from across the canal. Boker screamed once and slumped to the ground. I knew it was a fatal shot just by the way he fell. We were stunned. Raymond J. Boker was posthumously promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Purple Heart. In my mind, that could never be enough for what he did that day. He is interred at Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. I have visited his grave numerous times in the years since the war. When I remember Private Boker, I always think of the scripture verse, “Greater love hath no man than this: that he would lay down his life for his friends.” Despite my shock and sadness, the fighting continued around me day and night. We anxiously waited the word to move out on the expected crossing attack, but were ordered to hold our positions and wait for a specifically timed, coordinated effort. As I visited K Company men and walked around there positions going through lonely fields and crossing hedgerows alone, I fully expected a sniper to strike me down. When July 4th came and everyone was told to fire one shot simultaneously – everything from 155mm artillery to the smallest caliber rifle – all together at precisely 01:00 hours. We did ! Wow-- I wonder what the enemy thought.
July 6th – one month had passed since D-Day . My telephone rang and I was told to report to Battalion Headquarters for an extensive briefing regarding the next phase. The time had come – the attack was on! Nervously, I grabbed my 30 caliber carbine and trudged off to the HQ meeting. Tomorrow, would be D-Day for us.
It was decided that our Battalion was to attack across the Vire at a point to the right of the bridge, and to the left of the swampy area where we had encountered the enemy during that last reconnoissance. The First Battalion was to strike across the canal to our left with the main road between us. Battalion commander McCollum told me K Company was to lead the assault. I knew for sure the Germans would be in abundance in this area. We had encountered them daily since our arrival there. But, I was a bit more encouraged when Col. McCollum said in his deep southern draw, “See heah Smith, I’ll get any weapon you want up there for you. Ya’ll just tell me what you want, because you and your company will be the assault company -- ‘I’ and ‘L’ companies will follow once you’ve secured the other side.” I replied, “That’s good, (referring to his offer) because I want ‘M’ Company’s heavy water-cooled machine guns there for us, plus we’ll need some kind of foot bridges -- or ladders to cross on, and the engineers will be needed to open gaps and move the ladders into place…” The orders further specified that, following the crossing, the battalion objective was to be to take, secure, and hold the village of St. Jean de Daye, and there await further instruction. Returning to the company, we held a briefing and steeled ourselves for what lay ahead. The road and bridge would be on K Company’s left flank, with the First Battalion to the left of the road. This was the main road back to the beaches not so many miles behind us. We knew we could expect a major counter-attack at anytime, with a strong attempt to divide us, and push us back to the coast, only ten of twelve miles to the rear. Col. McCollum made clear that failure was not an option.
By July 7th, we had been in a holding position, trading pot-shots with the enemy for approximately two weeks. All this time, they had been dug in just across from us, hidden by the thick foliage of trees and bushes, only a few yards away. We assumed they were well dig-in and waiting for us in force. The time of attack was set for 1300 hours, July 7th. As I had requested, Company M’s heavy machine guns had been positioned under darkness the night before, as had the crossing ladders. The plan called for a feint by the regiment three mile to our right at another likely crossing point. American artillery and mortar fire would pound that area prior to our attack, in effort to cause the Germans to shift resources there, and thereby decrease enemy strength opposite our immediate front. Whether or not this feint had any of the desired effect, I may never know. I set up my command post, radios, telephone and runners about 100 feet behind the canal. At 1300, the commence attack signal was given. I heard several loud explosions and soon received word from a platoon leader that the engineers had dynamited part of the hedgerow to make a place for the ladders and that this blasting had stunned many of our men, and they were unable to proceed. Furthermore, the ladders, intended for use as foot-bridges across, were to short to complete the span. I told them we must cross anyway, an I turned to Lt. Hulbert, my executive officer, and told him “Lets go. We must lead them across.”
We ran forward and found the far end of the ladders in the water. They were indeed too short! Across I went anyway, followed by Hulbert. We jumped into the water, and struggled on across. I remember I fired a round into the bank from my carbine (to assure myself it would still function when wet) and scrambled up the slippery enemy side. We emerged into a small field, where we spotted an enemy machine gun firing towards us. I opened fire on it. At about the same time, I saw two German soldiers running to their rear. I opened fire on them, and they threw their rifles down and surrendered. I had wounded one by creasing his neck. When I got near their machine gun, it was gone, but I saw Lt. Huffman, my platoon leader, lying on the ground. He was bandaging a wound himself. Medical aid men were following to assist. We progressed rapidly forward, being severely shelled by enemy artillery or perhaps short American rounds, resulting in several of our fellows being wounded. I came upon them being attended by a German medic who wore a white sheet in front and back with a large red cross on it. By contrast, our medics wore only small Red Cross armbands which were soon covered with dirt and mud. Consequently, many medics must have been killed by the enemy, believing they were combat soldiers. This German medic spoke fluent English. One of my men brought him to me, and he said he had been on the Russian front also. He wanted to go back to his lines. I was very suspicious that he would give away our exact position to his soldiers, so I had him escorted to the rear Battalion headquarters.
Then Sgt. Browning came to me, just as I saw several enemy soldiers running wildly around some long trenches to my front. Browning was asking what to do about them. I suggested capturing them if possible. If not, “Do what you must…” We rushed on to the western edge of St. Jean de Daye. Resistance had crumbled, and we entered the western outskirts of the town, while the First Battalion attacked into the center. We claimed our objective and buttoned up (dug in) for the night. St. Jean de Daye was ours! We saw no French civilians in our zone. Apparently they had left the battle area.
Beyond St. Jean de Daye
Early next morning, the battalion companies in column advanced down a dirt road in a southwesterly direction with no opposition. An enemy shell screeched in, killing a battalion soldier. After considerable penetration, the lead companies encountered the enemy, and the battle was joined. Company K was in reserve. I vividly remember coming upon a destroyed enemy tank with parts of the dead crew scattered about in pieces. I saw a human arm hanging in a tree. An American soldier was sprawled in the middle of a field, apparently dead. Upon examination, I found he was sound asleep instead, exhausted. Soon Company K was called out of reserve and committed in direct action against the enemy. I sent one platoon down one side of the field and another down the other side. An enemy machine gun opened up on us, pinning down the leading troops. I watched one of our privates, the only one with very thick glasses, crawl over a hedgerow to go forward. As he got up on top, the machine gun let go a burst into him. He crumbled and lay on top.
Sgt. Willy found me and told me he was using the mortars (overhead trajectory) on the machine gun. My runner, as our own artillery fired over our heads towards the Krauts, came to me to say the enemy artillery was behind us and firing at us. I assured him it was our own artillery, as the rounds were going over our heads to our front. A few days later, I sent him for medical attention, as he kept seeing things that weren’t there. He never came back. I always wondered what ever happened to him. Night had arrived, and we held our position. I chose a tree right on the front line under which to set up my command post. I was exhausted and dropped off to sleep. For another day or two we held our position. Finally, the order came to move laterally toward the east several miles. After a walk of several miles though fields and friendly territory, we were committed into another offensive action into enemy territory. We passed through a battlefield, and I was shocked at the debris left there – steel helmets, ammunition, rifles, belts, clothes, Band-Aids, canteens, shoes. Evidence showed they were in a desperate battle, and many were wounded and killed there. After two or three days, we were very tired, and we got orders to go to the rear for a shower and rest. We visualized a week or two of rest. After one day, showering and cleaning rifles and equipment, I was bitterly disappointed to get orders that we were to proceed towards the front lines because we were desperately needed. In our clean clothes we trudged forward in long columns on the long hike back to the front. How much longer could we live?
I remember seeing long columns of returning troops coming out of the front. I studied their faces. You could tell whether they had been on the front or whether they were fresh troops by looking into their faces and seeing their clothes. The returning troops had drawn, strained faces. The fresh troops looked relaxed but serious.
Our battalion was ordered into the breach, and we pushed steadily forward Here, opposition was light. Soon we were far forward, far beyond other friendly troops with our flanks exposed. We pushed on even father, alone, into enemy territory. Night came on, and we were ordered to halt. I placed K Company in a field in reserve position. I and L Companies were forward about 200 yards, and Battalion headquarters was just to my front. I placed a guard at the entrance to the field and scattered my men around the perimeter. A telephone line was laid between my command post and Battalion headquarters. My runner dug me a foxhole. I was exhausted. The nights were cold and wet. It seemed I was constantly on the phone with Battalion. Finally, Lt. Harnden, my executive officer and second in command, and I fell into the hole together and cuddled to keep warm. Another body is better than an electric blanket! I was awakened with much commotion and noise of battle to our front. I heard terrible screaming come from the enemy side, as the night battle was joined. We were behind the front in reserve, so there was no engagement for K Company at this time. In a few minutes, we were all awake and watchful. A German tank or half-track on the road approached our hedgerow, and its flame-thrower barrel was lowered. I saw a soldier coming from the tank’s direction, and I opened fire. He stumbled to the ground, but it was dark and I couldn’t see him because the flame-thrower had ceased to light the area. I phoned Battalion headquarters to report the flame-thrower, but soon it retreated.
That same night a K Company guard saw a soldier approaching in front of a tank. Thinking they were friendly troops, he ran over and grabbed him and asked, “What outfit are you with?” The soldier responded, “Aach, Americans!” Both the enemy solder and the K Company soldier turned away from each other and walked into the darkness. Such is the confusion of combat. I and L Companies to our front were battling it out in the darkness. There was much firing and screaming from the German tanks, because the tanks were hit by our fire and anti-tank guns and some were set on fire. Finally the dawn came, and I began walking around the area. With surprise, I recognized the German helmet and odd uniform on a soldier who was lying on his stomach, either dead or asleep. It was a Kraut. I asked Sgt. Adams, who was with me, if he had shot this enemy, and he answered no. Shaking, the man slowly raised his arms. We disarmed him and sent him to the rear with another one of our men. Since we arrived in the fields late the night before, the men didn’t get well dug in. I ordered everyone to dig in promptly. In a few minutes, an enemy mortar shell came down silently, with a little swish, and hit with a great explosion. When the dust cleared, I walked over where the shell hit and found a K Company man dead, hit in the temple by a fragment. He had not dug his foxhole as ordered, but was in the open, cleaning his rifle.
Attack and Counter Attack
I visited Battalion headquarters to get orders for the day. We were ordered to attack at 10:00 a.m. We were exhausted from the night’s ordeal. How could we even move? But such is war. I was surprised to see about twenty enemy solders at the Battalion headquarters who had surrendered. They were smoking American cigarettes. They all looked about fifteen or sixteen years old. Ten a.m. rolled around, and K Company was in the lead this time in the attack. We had two American tanks assigned to us. I was glad for that. I had radio contact with their leader at all times. We started the attack. I was watching Lt. Hulbert run across a field, and suddenly he looked down and grabbed his arm. He had been hit. I lost a good weapons platoon leader that day due to his wounded arm. The attack by K Company and another rifle company proceeded on towards the enemy, making progress of about 200 yards. Heavy enemy artillery fire and small arms fire was concentrating on our lines. I knew we had penetrated up to heavy enemy resistance, but I was not prepared for what happened! I turned toward friendly tanks and saw one of them on fire and a man on fire scrambling out of the hatch. I was with my most forward men, and as the enemy fire concentrated on us, we could not move forward at all. I looked around and saw no men. They were retreating on their own! It seemed we were being counter-attacked. We had simply lost all momentum under the heavy enemy fire.
Being all alone with only my radio operator and runner, we retreated back 200 yards to our previous position, as did the other company (either I or L Company). However, the heaviest counter-attack was against them. Much firing of rifles and machine guns was occurring to my right. I expected enemy troops and their tanks to come through the gate to my front at any moment, so I grabbed my rifle and I think a bazooka (an anti-tank rocket), and jumped into a foxhole. To my mind this would be a last ditch effort and a fight to the death.
Several K Company men were around me. We waited for the enemy to come. The next thing I knew, I heard an extremely heavy concentration of artillery shells screaming down upon us, coming from our rear from our own friendly sector. There must have been hundreds of shells crashing all around. The noise was terrible. It was devastating. I expected death. In five minutes, it was all over. When the dust, smoke and debris disappeared, I looked to see what K Company men has survived, if any. I found no K Company men dead. Or alive! They had all disappeared. Battalion headquarters over the hedge from me had also disappeared! I found a jeep burning with several bodies. There was no radio or telephone or equipment either. The shelling had destroyed them. Col. McCollum (Battalion Commander) was alive! His second in command had been captured. Most of the men of Battalion headquarters had been killed or wounded. Soon K Company men began straggling back. They had simply fled the devastating shell fire. They looked very sheepish, but were ready to perform again whatever orders they received. But they probably had saved their own lives. K Company was soon ordered into yet another field with orders to defend.
My father had made for me a special 8 inch knife, which I kept in a sheath on my belt. He had mailed it to me just before D-Day as his contribution to my safety. He had made it by hand from an old steel file. After the previous artillery bombardment, I remembered I had it on the edge of a foxhole about 200 yards from my front. I started to go after it, but due to the counter-attack of the day before, I was not certain if the enemy lines were clear of that area. I decided why risk my life for a knife, so I did not go after it. I valued it greatly, and of course now I wish I still had it for a keepsake. That night I probably heard enemy tanks milling around about one mile to our front – probably refueling under cover of darkness. I dreaded these steel monsters, which could fire machine guns and larger armor piercing shells directly into your foxhole. Some have flame throwers, and they could run over and crush you, if not stopped. We did have an anti-tank company with large armor piercing shells to try to stop them, as well as our won tanks to engage them, and our own K Company’s bazookas (armor piercing, hand-held weapons). We felt safe with our own tanks near us, but yet because of the noise, height and large bulk, they could be located by the enemy and so brought dreaded fire on our position.
Later, one of my men came running up to me and said, “There is an enemy tank in the woods behind us, see it?” I looked and looked, but couldn’t see it. Finally I told him he was seeing things. No enemy tank ever showed up behind us. I had instructions that another regiment would pass through the lines and press the attack into enemy lines. We were of little use due to our losses, the devastating artillery fire, and exhaustion from the counter-attack. How wonderful it was to see fresh troops pouring through our devastated and depleted ranks. Regarding the artillery barrage, I personally believed our own artillery had fired on us in error. But our superiors told us we had bypassed a German artillery unit, and it had turned its guns around and fired on us. I had several reasons to support my views. First, it came from our right rear; the enemy is supposed to be in front. Second, the German artillery simply did not have these many shells. We had never experienced over four or five shells at a time from them. Third, American artillery timed their guns so that all the shells hit simultaneously or within a few seconds of each other. For example, several guns would fire from three miles to our rear, another unit from five or six miles back, and another maybe eight to twelve miles farther. All units timed fire so their shells would hit the target simultaneously so as to avoid tipping the enemy off that shelling was coming. The Germans called it “automatic artillery” and it drove many of them crazy if they were exposed to it.
The way the artillery aimed at us hit, I’m sure it was timed by several artillery units – of Americans. Of course, our superiors would never want it to get out that our own artillery was responsible for such a devastating loss. On the other side of the picture, it is true that our Third Battalion had pushed far forward ahead of all other friendly units, and it could have been enemy artillery fire, although the enemy had never punished us before with such a concentration as this. Soon we had orders to move laterally amongst friendly lines westward to a new sector. We walked miles through a sunken road in hedgerow country and received orders to attack to our front (south) into enemy territory. K Company was to attack to the left of a blacktop road with L Company on the right and I Company in reserve. Battalion headquarters, having been replenished with new jeeps, radios and men, set up in a woods to our right rear with its guards all around. I ordered Lt. Nash’s platoon to go into action in the fields to the left of the road and another platoon to their left. This platoon was led by a sergeant. I had lost the platoon leader, an officer. Those left in the other two rifle platoons were to follow by 100 yards in reserve. Weapons platoon, headed by Sgt. Willy (Lt. Hulbert was lost to a wound), with its two 60 mm mortars and light machine guns, was to follow and be prepared for firing on targets that were requested by platoon leaders.
I set up my command post two hedgerows behind the leading platoons and kept in contact by radio. The forward platoons progressed well, and they must have penetrated 300 yards ahead of my command post. They were getting out ahead, so I moved the K Company command post forward. Just after we had moved about 100 feet, an enemy mortar shell hit exactly where we had been before moving. Had we stayed, there is no doubt we would all have been killed or wounded. I could hear the “whrrrr” of enemy machine guns. You could always tell the enemy’s guns by their sound. I had radio reports of stiff enemy opposition, and a German tank had been spotted behind a French house.Here we go again! Another battle joined! I was on the front lines. I received word that Lt. Nash had stepped on a mine, and his foot was mangled. He was being evacuated. Our troops had been stopped. I went to the lead troops. As I walked, crouched low, an enemy machine gun, or burp gun, opened up at me, missing me but kicking up dust at my feet. Some of my men I found dead.
Later, I called for our artillery to fire toward our front, where I thought the enemy was. After many rounds, I stopped it. Not wanting to expose many more men to the enemy, I ordered Sgt. Byers and his squad of four or five men to penetrate beyond our lines to test the enemy after our artillery shelling quit. It was with great shock that word come that the enemy was still very much active and had opened up machine gun fire, killing Sgt. Byers. The rest of the squad made it back to safety.This was a hard jolt for me. In another field we had several wounded men who could not get out due to enemy fire. Someone called me and asked what to do. I said the wounded had to come out. In a gallant effort, they were evacuated, not by litters but by our men carrying them on their backs, or however they could.
The enemy tank was still behind the French house! I could see its barrel! A call came from Battalion headquarters that we were to pull back that night under cover of darkness, preparatory to heavy bombing by American Air Force bombers. Then we could attack after this “carpet” pulverizing of the enemy by our bombers. I was relieved and was making my plans to get the men back to safety as soon as night came. Suddenly I heard it – the one second “swhish” of a mortar shell before it hit! It exploded right next to me. Someone, I thought, had hit the back of my wrist with a rifle butt as hard as they could. It was a fragment of a mortar round. Blood was spurting from my wrist, and I knew I was hit bad. I grabbed the wrist above the wound to slow the bleeding. Several company commander’s men ran for a medic. I had to put on my own bandage from the first aid kit. Battalion headquarters called and said they would send a litter for me, but I said, “Nope, I’ll make it out alone.” Soon a medic aid man came to my rescue. He placed a tourniquet and sulfa powder on the wound. I called my second in command, Lt. Harnden, and explained the planned withdrawal that night and the reasons for it. I also found that two or three other men had been wounded. They were to my front about sixty feet when hit. No one had been killed. Corp. Koch was my administration clerk, so I asked him to accompany me back to the battalion aid station, about two or three miles. I feared I might faint, or be attacked by enemy patrol, so he grabbed his M-I rifle, I bade farewell to those around me, and we started out, passing the body of a Kraut on the way.
After many minutes of hard, tortuous walking, we arrived near the Battalion headquarters. I saw a jeep with litters on top of it and was told to climb in, as they were headed for the regiment aid station. As I lay in the back seat, another jeep approached with an officer in the front seat. Lo and behold, it was my friend, Lt. Shaw. He asked me what had happened. I told him, and he saluted me. I noticed he had genuine sorrow for me, and this really touched me. We must have had four or five wounded on the jeep. By now my arm was throbbing. I groaned, but someone said, “Be quiet, and look at that poor guy above you on the stretcher.” I looked. He had such bad wounds, I just gritted my teeth and hung on. After several miles, maybe ten, we arrived at the regimental aid station. There I was given a shot, probably morphine, and we were placed into an American Red Cross ambulance, which sped us on to a large field hospital about ten to fifteen miles to the rear. There we were unloaded, and an Army chaplain said a prayer over each of us. Then we entered the large tent area. I was placed on a table with a doctor and nurses standing around. The doctor said he was going to operate because I had a severed artery and thumb tendon, and a severed nerve with a gash down to the bone. He gave me a shot, and I began seeing less and less, and soon was out. The next thing I knew it was morning. I was missing all personal articles – pants, shirt, underwear, shoes and socks. I was clad in only a G.I. olive drab wool shirt – a very efficient U.S. Army hospital garb for the wounded. I was glad to be alive!
After a few hours, we were told we would be flown back to England. We were loaded on a litter, which was strapped into a C-47 transport plane. We were airborne quickly. I felt secure and doubted if enemy planes could or would attack us. It seemed in no time we were landing at an English town near a U.S. Army hospital. There we were met by a crew and a chaplain and were bedded down in a round-top building. We were examined and treated by doctors and attended well by nurses. The first day after arriving at this hospital, I awoke from sleeping one day and heard little children laughing and playing near a playground next to the hospital. I tell you, this was like Heaven – I just loved their soft, innocent voices. It was wonderful to awaken to those voices instead of the noises and horrors of a battlefield.I spent several weeks in that hospital, and even got a pass o go to town a time or two. I still had a cast on. Then word came to be ready to go by train to another hospital.
I arrived at a new American hospital there in England, which was housed in buildings, not tents. There I was fully ambulatory. Doctors examined me. I had passes into town, ate fish and chips, went to a movie, visited a pub, visited a church in another town, wrote letters home. Then the head doctor called me into his office. I was expecting to return to France and the front in two or three months. But he told me the severed nerve would take at least six to eight months to heal, and I was being recommended to the Medical Board for return to the United States for an operation and await the eight months of healing process. I just couldn’t believe it!
Homeward Bound – Mixed Emotions
I began saying, “Oh, well, I’m sure the Medical Board won’t okay my returning to the States.” I wanted to go home and see my wife. In fact, I could hardly wait. But I also wanted to rejoin K Company. I thought I needed to be there helping them; in fact, I felt guilty being in a hospital and not serving them. I was like a yo-yo. I wanted desperately to live, to go home, and see Virginia and love her. And I had heard that most officers, if wounded and later returned to the front, would eventually be killed. I really expected to die, if I returned to my unit! I had that settled in my mind. But I wanted Virginia to have happiness, too, by my living and returning to her.
The Medical Board met and ordered me home to the good old U.S.A.! It would be two to four weeks before we would leave. The waiting was terrible. Soon I had word and orders to proceed to the dock, and, of all things, to board the Queen Mary for the states. Wow – what a luxury liner, homeward bound! The time finally arrived, and I was quartered in a nice stateroom for officers. I had only one roommate, a fellow wounded officer. The mighty Queen Mary pulled out of the harbor, and I noticed as it got out to see a few miles, it would zig-zag. It would go a half mild in one direction, then turn slightly and head that way for half a mile. The purpose was to prevent enemy submarines from zeroing in on it. The Queen Mary had no escort of war ships. She was very fast for a ship, and by zig-zagging at high speed, it was thought to be safer.
Just down the hall from our quarters was Bing Crosby, who had been overseas to entertain American troops. I swear, Bing was always humming a tune or whistling when I saw him. He always greeted me when we met in the hall and asked how I was. In three or four days, we spotted the Statue of Liberty. What a thrill went through me! We were docking and saw hundreds lining the dock to welcome us home. We were taken out on the dock to await transportation to a holding area. There, the first thing I purchased was a quart of milk and gulped down the whole thing. We had no milk since leaving the States, except for some powdered milk in England. After downing the milk, the next thing was a phone call to Virginia. We talked a long, long time. What a thrill to hear her voice! In a day or two, I was on a train, headed for O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Missouri. After many hours, I arrived, and she was on her way there, coming from Independence. The time arrived! I spotted her, and after a long embrace and kisses, we walked to our hotel room! It was like a dream! I had imagined all kinds of bad things – a bus wreck or train wreck. But here she was, with tears of joy, meeting me. I had lived! I had her again! I can’t describe how wonderful it was!
We rented a cottage in Springfield while I visited the hospital for treatment and the operation. Live was precious and sweet! But the guilt feelings swept over me again. Here I was with my wife in safe, warm comfort in the winter of 1944-45, while my comrades fought and died in zero degree weather in snow and ice in Europe. At night I would awaken to the slamming together of freight train cars, which sounded like shells crashing, and I was again on the battlefield in my mind.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
The days passed, and I was being sent to another hospital, a convalescent hospital at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. I had trained there months before. After several months there, I was released and ordered to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to the Army-Navy Hospital and Returnee Station, where I was assigned to limited duty as commanding officer of the station. Hot Springs was a lovely spot. The first sergeant did all the work, and I mostly signed papers and took my rightful positions in the Saturday parades held on the grounds. For several days before reporting for duty, I was a “Returnee.” We were treated as heroes, given free steaks and the finest hotels to stay in. Ginny and I often had steak and all the trimmings in a park on the mountain. Life was wonderful with her, and combat memories began to fade. It was spring in 1945, and the war was over in Europe now – VE day was one of the happiest days of my life. Then Japan surrendered. General McArthur accepted their surrender on the battleship Missouri, and Americans cheered and celebrated the war’s end. I was extremely happy and relieved. Now the burden was over for sure – no more war for me! Now, Ginny and I would always be together.