July, 1944: St. Lô

The ditch took the menace from the bullets that cracked occasionally overhead, and I dare say my heroes and I would have been content to sit out that hot, humid afternoon of the war there. I was successfully coping with an urge of conscience to go up and see if the battalion commander had any overlooked need of our devoted efforts when the divisional chief of staff, a colonel, appeared striding toward us. Since it was obviously improper to remain in the ditch and exchange “good afternoons,” I clambered onto the road and reported our identity. My lads, with a fine grasp of protocol, simply stood up in the ditch and looked vague.

The colonel, a big, square man, acknowledged my report and, looking us over thoughtfully, began a quiet talk on combat. He described a fire fight and how becoming intent on winning it made it something like a ball game. We listened respectfully, but since we had been under fire for the past six days, I doubt that he convinced anyone that this was a sporting event or obscured its terminal probabilities.

He got more attention by saying that our objective was St. Lô     and that after it was taken, the division might well get a real rest, a possibility more important to us than what taking the town would do for the crusade in Europe.

The colonel wished us luck, which we returned, and continued down the road. Inspired by his presence if not by his words, we gathered map boards and field phone to move closer to the battle. Directly afterward the latest commander of E Company—the third since D-day—limped by toward the rear, one arm hanging loosely, bright red drops dribbling slowly from the fingers onto the dusty road. We had served together for two years, but I didn’t stop to inquire about his injury; death and hurt had become commonplace, and a wound with which one could with honor walk out of the war was a matter for congratulation rather than condolence.

We set up shop behind a hedgerow closer to the racket, one result of which was the shattered leg of the intelligence officer, a young lawyer from Louisiana who had performed bravely and well. In addition, the brief action cost two platoon leaders and, as always, a number of riflemen.

As the long evening of double daylight-saving time waned the Germans pulled out, and the 2nd Battalion splashed across the knee-deep, narrow river and headed across country for its objective, the village of St. Clair-sur-l’Elle, about a half mile away. Unknown to us, a German column was pulling back on a parallel route and just outside the village sideswiped our right flank company. There was a brief exchange of fire, and the two columns pulled apart, the effect on the war being a few more killed and wounded.

With daylight the battalion perimeter was pushed south of the empty village, its citizens having learned that bombs and artillery fire were the going price of liberation. The command post was set up in a vacant house, and here we stayed for several days, both sides remaining relatively quiet and killing very few of each other.

Our wounded, however, included the battalion executive officer, and as the senior surviving captain I took his place. It was an advancement about which I could have few illusions, for it had become apparent that the principal requirement was simply to stay alive and in reasonable mental health.

Other events of the stay at St. Clair were a visit by the divisional commander, a major general, and the arrival of the first replacements. The general came one afternoon by jeep, expected to the extent that he could be expected at any time or place. He was about fifty years old and conformed to General Sheridan’s specifications for a cavalryman, which he had been before the war: short, wiry, daring, and quick. Everything about him was explosive: gestures, speech, action, temper. He dominated the 29th by knowing exactly what he wanted done, discarding those who didn’t produce it and rewarding those who did. As with other success formulas, the trick to this one lay in its application. He tolerated only the facts of a situation, and to present him with a conjecture was fatal to a future in the division.

His rough side was reserved for commanders, and strenuous efforts were made to avoid it. His orders were simple and direct. They included the requirement that every man be able to recite verbatim a simple statement of correct sight alignment and trigger squeeze. The 29th’s tradition of wearing the helmet strap buckled under the chin rather than dangling, as was the general practice, was not to be violated under any circumstance. There were many others, unremarkable except in their total enforcement.