July, 1944: St. Lô

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Back on the ridge the battle was in a perceptibly lower key. Where salvos of shells had been crashing in, there were now only random rounds. I found my people still in place. No one mentioned my absence, and I didn’t bring it up.

There was much news. That morning a 3rd Battalion attack had reached La Madeleine and found the 2nd in good shape, still unaccountably ignored by the surrounding Germans. The other news was that Major Thomas D. Howie, commanding the 3rd, had been killed shortly after reaching La Madeleine. I have said that he alone among the shadowy figures in this account is to be called forth by name, and this is because he combined to an uncommon degree the kindness and courage that would have better become us all. In mourning Tom Howie I mourn all for whom life and laughter ended at St. Lô     and, by some projection, those for whom it has ended since.

The divisional commander, who was imaginative as well as arbitrary and, I suspect, compassionate in his way, had the flag-draped body taken into St. Lô     when it fell two days later and placed high on a bier of rubble in front of the town’s shattered Notre Dame, thus fulfilling Tom Howie’s vow as he launched the attack that he would reach the city. News stories and photographs followed, and Tom Howie became the Major of St. Lô    —the nation’s symbol of the battle. Many who grieved for the fallen soldier at the time may now have forgotten, and the new generations may never have heard of him at all, but the story stirred America to no small degree in that July of 1944. A dramatic tribute in the classic tradition to the dead warrior rising above the murk of a long, ugly war caught the imagination and the heart. The Major of St. Lô     inspired editorial tributes and one of the few poems of merit to come out of the war, unimportantly in error on some points. There is now a memorial to Tom Howie in the rebuilt St. Lô     and another at Staunton Military Academy, where he coached football before the war.

Ironically, the qualities that made his death mourned and marked did not serve him well in the hard climate in which we trained before D-day. In that prebattle period those who were most assertive and demanding by nature seemed to prosper most; those who were hard simply because the job demanded it had a degree of success; and those of a naturally kindly nature who underwent no war change had a difficult time.

When the caps began to pop on Omaha Beach, however, personal calm and courage took immediate precedence over all other leadership qualities, for these alone could cope with the supreme assertiveness of enemy bullets. It is my impression that these qualities surfaced fully as frequently among the kindly as among the harsh. They took Tom Howie to battalion command and to his final appointment at La Madeleine. In daring, unsparing demands upon himself and in thoughtfulness he resembled Turner Ashby, commander of Stonewall’s cavalry in the halcyon days of the valley campaign of 1862. Stonewall was harsh in his judgment of Ashby’s failure to push his troopers; but he wept, and the South wept, when Ashby was killed, as of course he was, the nature of such soldiers making death in battle almost inevitable.

Through knowing Tom Howie I feel I know Ashby and the gallant-hearted and selfless in every army in every war. They do not finally win the wars; those who are arbitrary and demanding do that. But the Howies and Ashbys add a note of grace to a generally brutish scene, and for this they are loved and remembered.

The Germans could, perhaps, not notice the fragmented 2nd Battalion at La Madeleine, but the arrival of the 3rd was large enough to attract deadly attention. The mortar round that killed Tom Howie was followed by a day of heavy shelling and attack; the last one, late in the day, was broken up by a spectacular concentration of our artillery fire and by fighter-bomber strikes. Even so, the day’s end found both battalions low on ammunition and with many dead and wounded.

Now, however, the tragedy of St. Lô     was moving rapidly to its close. For this final act the devastated town was the stage, with XIX Corps divisions gathered above it on the hills to the north and east. On the afternoon of the eighteenth a 29th Task Force broke into the ruins and raised the division’s flag. At about the same time, the Stonewall Brigade opened a supply corridor to La Madeleine, and evacuation of wounded and dead was begun, Tom Howie’s body being carried into St. Lô    .

On July 20 the 29th’s sector was taken over by the 35th Division, which had been heavily engaged on our right. As the 29th’s units were relieved they began moving back to the promised land of corps reserve near St. Clair-sur-l’Elle, where this account started. The division had been in combat continuously for forty-five days at a price of over seven thousand casualties; in effect its nine rifle battalions had been used up about twice over.

Five days later Operation COBRA was launched with a massive aerial bombardment. The breakout from Normandy followed.