July, 1944: St. Lô

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The general’s first impression of a commander was apt to be final. Fortunately my company was in the midst of one of its better days when he first came upon us during training, and I purposely avoided later exposure whenever possible. I admired and respected—as well as avoided—him, for he sounded a clear and certain trumpet in baffling and fearsome situations. It is my unsupported opinion that the number of divisional commanders of this caliber that the nation can muster in a given war is fewer than the divisions that can be mustered. The combination of courage, professional ability, imagination, and ruthlessness found in these few is rare enough to make them beyond price in war. As a matter of fact, the same applies to the exceptional enlisted infantryman, who, on a relative basis, is just as rare a bird and suffers an incomparably higher casualty rate.

In any case, this divisional commander arrived with his usual pronounced impact at our command post on a damp afternoon in mid-June. Those who had not gotten away in time stood in attentive attitudes around the stained walls of the musty parlor while he and the battalion commander sat and conversed in front of the empty hearth. I do not recall exact words, but the general indicated approval of our efforts, which was gratifying if the cost of achieving it was not considered.

That night the new adjutant and I met the trucks bringing in the first replacements and hurried the dark shapes laden with packs and weapons behind guides to their companies. We had been clamoring for men, so I was surprised at a vague sense of regret as I saw them march toward the front. Their efforts to keep their places and reach a harm beyond their conception were somehow pathetic. I felt an ancient among children, knowing and dreading what they had to endure.

The way of the replacement foot soldier in that war was hard, crowded, and dull: training camp, troopship, overseas replacement depot; then, probably leaving any friends acquired along the way, by truck and foot to join strangers in facing death or great injury. On occasion he never completed the journey. I recall the sad, brief saga of a column of replacements caught by artillery fire while toiling to the front at St. Lô    , and for some ten of them this proved the end of the war.

On occasion new men were fed into units actively locked in battle. They were sent in at night and placed in among dark shapes that occupied gravelike holes scooped out behind hedgerows. The resident shapes, if they spoke at all, did not slight the dreadfulness of the situation or overestimate anyone’s chances of surviving it. Sometimes a new man did die before dawn, and none around knew him by sight or name. The replacement system improved as the war wore on, but I think it remained essentially a wasteful distribution of numbers, disregarding the fact that it was dealing with the human heart.

While speaking of the emotional nature of battle one has to consider fear. I have firsthand knowledge only of my own, its chief manifestation being the stomach drawing into a cold, protective knot at the sound of shells whooping and screaming in my direction and a reluctance to leave depressions in the ground. I like to believe that I dissembled these tendencies very well; however, I knew fear intimately and believe this was a fairly general experience. When I speak of courage, I speak not of the absence of fear but of the disregard of it.

There was, come to think of it, another visit while we were at St. Clair, brief but offering a lesson to heed. I was standing in front of the command post at the time, and a jeep roared by headed for the front, a staff officer beside the driver waving as it passed. I was annoyed by the dust and noise and amazed that anyone should close with disaster with such apparent abandon. The jeep, disappearing down the road—its route traced by rising dust—halted simultaneously with a burst of machine-pistol fire just where we figured the German roadblock lay. Later I asked the Stonewallers covering the road why they hadn’t stopped him. The arrival, they said, had been too sudden. One added that he didn’t see why someone from the rear (as opposed to infantrymen) shouldn’t have an opportunity to pinpoint roadblocks for a change.

Early on June 16 we were relieved at St. Clair and struck southwest through close, wooded terrain for St. Lô    , only to be brought to a bloody halt near the hamlet of Villiers Fossard. The discovery that this was a key German position cost a staff officer and thirty-four men. The officer died literally over my head. He was in the attic of a cottage, looking out over the terrain, and I was on the ground floor, trying to locate our position on a mudsmudged map, when a sudden blast of rifle fire smacked into the cottage, and three riflemen dashed in announcing that they had shot a German directly above me. At the same moment blood began to drip through the ceiling, and in the attic we found the lifeless body. The riflemen left with stark faces, and I went to tell the battalion commander that we had lost the second operations officer since D-day.