July, 1944: St. Lô
A soldier remembers a great battle
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
As a generation we inherited a world that had blown itself up in the great war of a quarter century before. We had come of age in the vast uncertainties of the Great Depression, and we had a largely bankrupt legacy from the great illusion that America could do all to make the world right. As soldiers we were overwhelmingly amateur. We had neither revolutionary fervor nor the greed of empire building to obscure the insanity of the killing and destruction to which we were put. We accepted beyond question, however, that the threat to our country’s existence was real and had to be defeated; the challenge of Pearl Harbor was unqualified. No soldier I knew was even remotely interested in dying in the process; that so many went directly into death’s way as duty is a measure of the generation.
The result, I believe, was an army remarkably homogeneous in viewpoint and purpose, though wide personal and group differences existed. (In a segregated army, for example, I was unaware of the vast dissatisfaction swelling among black soldiers.) This combination of shaping factors is not likely to reappear; the army they produced is gone so completely that I must look and look again to convince myself that it ever existed. In my more somber moments I think that we may have been the last great army of the Republic—one that could truly march to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This is the sketchy canvas on which my memoir is superimposed. It is largely as written so long ago. Violence distorts perception, and some sights I recount may be larger than life, and others of more significance may have been missed altogether. Memories must reflect such distortions, but on the whole I believe mine to be within the scope of what really happened during the battle for St. Lô .
An infantry battalion is a closely knit little world, and recollections of it must be heavily peopled, which poses the question of who among them should be summoned by name. There is much room for error here, and as names do not particularly serve my purpose, I shall call from the shadows only one—Tom Howie, dead near the end of the battle. For quiet and enduring reasons to be recounted in turn, the twilight of St. Lô has lingered longest on him of the entire Stonewall Brigade, and under his name I gather us all. He became the nation’s symbol—the “Major of St. Lô .”
The XIX Corps of three infantry divisions and on occasion an armored division did battle directly for St. Lô , but for the battalion soldier a corps was a remote “they” with which he was unlikely to have contact. Not so my division. The 29th was a strong and present personality that, on the basis of its combat record, was of uncommon military merit. It was mustered for the war in 1941 and had three years of training before being committed to battle on D-day on Omaha Beach. Of its three regiments the 115th and 175th were of the Maryland National Guard, and the 116th from Virginia. All three are of long lineage; the 116th’s goes back to the French and Indian War, but its proudest days were those in the years 1861–65. It entered that war as the 2nd Virginia of General Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade at the First Battle of Manassas, and both Jackson and the brigade emerged with the title “Stonewall.”
A regiment, no less than an individual, is not inclined to forswear a resounding title won by an ancestor even if he fought on the “wrong” side. In 1944 the 116th’s ranks held as many Yankees as Virginians, but the Stonewall Brigade we were, and to those of a historical bent this was a proud and notable thing.
On D-day the 116th had led the assault on the right sector of Omaha Beach and within a few hours lost some thousand killed or wounded. This was about one fourth of its strength and an even greater proportion of the riflemen who carried the burden of its battles. At the time this memoir begins, six days later, these losses had not been replaced, and attrition had continued, yet the regiment remained in action. Old Stonewall would probably have regarded this as no more than performance of duty. Most of us, I think, felt that others should take over the war for a while.
With this perhaps excessive amount of prior circumstance, I come down to late afternoon of June 12 and a dusty road near the gray huddle of houses of the hamlet Ste. Marguerite d’Elle. It was here that I first heard St. Lô designated as another appointed place on the Stonewall Brigade’s long road of war. At the time, I and others of the battalion command post were strung out along a roadside ditch while the rifle companies, a hundred or so yards ahead, contended for a passage over the Elle River. Black smoke showed above the trees to our left front from two tanks that had been knocked out trying to cross the river.