July, 1944: St. Lô


Late that afternoon, as the fury abated, I reached my personal depth of the war, and it has remained with me as only the ultimate depth, and height, of one’s life can remain. I was alone at the time outside the now useless command post. The sun, setting behind St. Lô    , glowed a dull, furious red through the smoke and dust raised by the shelling. Tall trees cast long black shadows; on the road was a smashed jeep with the flayed remains of the driver fallen half out of it. In the next field a dump of mortar ammunition burned and flared. Here the shelling had stopped, but in the distance it still rumbled like far-off summer thunder.

The scene was Gotterdämmerung, an effect opera-set designers strive for but can never equal. A Teutonic heart might have found it stirring grandeur. But not mine, not then. For suddenly I was convinced that my battalion was gone, irrevocably lost, destroyed. If the Germans could threaten to overrun this well-supplied position, what chance of survival had the undermanned and undersupplied companies isolated in their midst? And if the battalion that had been the boundaries of my life for three years was gone, what chance had I? At that point I was despairing of the war and uncaring of its purpose.

After dark I was called to the regimental command post with the staffs of the battalions to meet with the divisional commander. The dimly lit bunker was crowded and the air oppressive. The general reviewed the situation; he said that the 2nd Battalion had survived the day without serious trouble and that the attack to relieve it and take St. Lô     would go on. He then delivered a harsh judgment on defeatism, racking a hapless captain who had expressed discouragement. He did not know that in the back of the bunker stood perhaps the most despairing major on the Normandy front.

Usually this dynamic man’s statement of purpose and direction lifted my spirits. But not that night; I could not believe that the 2nd had survived such a day inside the German lines, or, perhaps to justify my own funk, I didn’t choose to believe it.

The regimental commander, who had just taken over the job, assured the general that we were full of fight, and the session was over.

I stumbled back through the dark to arrive at our position just as a heavy shelling filled the night again with noise and concussion. My usually highly active sense of self-preservation was not functioning, for instead of diving into the nearest hole, I wandered aimlessly around, ears ringing from a nearby tree burst whose shower of fragments somehow missed me. My route passed the slit trench of a sergeant who had been in the first platoon of which I had taken uncertain command. He called a warning, and when I continued on, he jumped out and dumped me into the nearest hole and demanded that I stay there. So I did, and recall little of the rest of the night.

The battalion surgeon appeared at daylight to inquire about the situation but showed more interest in what he said was my loss of hearing and suggested that I go back to the division’s medical clearing station for a check. What was left of the 2nd Battalion had been attached to the 1st, leaving me particularly useless, and I made no objection. At the clearing station I was given a blue capsule and sent to a nearby tent area. The capsule, reputedly capable of stupefying an elephant, was known popularly as the blue-88, in tribute to the Germans’ dreaded 88-mm. gun. I barely made it to the tent and a blanket on the ground before falling off a high place into a deep, vacant sleep.

Eight or ten hours later I climbed reluctantly back to awareness and found the tent had been removed while I slept. Nearby was a line of hapless-looking soldiers carrying mess gear, though there was no kitchen in sight. While I was trying to sort all this out a lightly built, sandy-haired lieutenant came up and pointed shakily to a bombed-out railway station barely visible in the distance. This place, he said, was too close to that target and ought to be moved. Obviously he was at one with the dejected-looking soldiers seeking comfort in the familiar ritual of standing in a mess line—even one that offered no food.

It came to me then, with a jolt, that this was the trampled field of the defeated in spirit—the division’s way station for the emotional wreckage of the battle, called combat-fatigue cases. Here was determined those salvageable for further war and those to be discarded into the teeming rear areas.

No Gotterdämmerung this—no twilight of the gods full of the grandeur of noble death. This was a place of whimper and cringe, the skid row of the battle zone. I had heard of it, and my offhand judgment had been that it was a mistake to so cater to weakness. Finding myself there brought on a panic akin, I imagine, to that of a minister who has walked inadvertently into a brothel. Now I can see that field as a true note in the awful clanging harmony of St. Lô    . The abject spirits were counterpoint to those enduring on Martinville Ridge; their weakness accented strength as death accents life.

The answer to my shame at having slept through my battalion’s agony at such a place was to flag down a ride back to the ridge. Leaving physically was a matter of minutes, but emotionally that place remains with me; I must always wonder how truly I belonged there.