July, 1944: St. Lô

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Across the road to our left were the mortar pits of the Heavy Weapons Company, and the sharp whang of its firing was fairly constant until the late June storms damaged the artificial harbors on the invasion beaches and curtailed the ammunition supply. The reserve rifle company was also deployed along the left to cover the open flank between us and the 2nd Division. A hundred or so yards to the front, the war was fought moment by moment by the other two rifle companies. Their lines ran along a sunken farm lane until it wandered off toward Martinville Ridge, and then the positions took to the fields. The battalion’s eight heavy machine guns were posted at critical points, and our 57-mm. antitank guns were sited on a slope to the right of the command post, covering the road.

The terrain setting was completed by hedgerow-enclosed apple orchards and pastures. Even more than the ridgelines and streams, these centuries-old hedgerows dominated the war in Normandy. They have often been described: earthen banks four to six feet high, topped with trees and brush, needing only the addition of men and guns to become a ready-made fortified place. The Germans accomplished this with consummate skill.

The orchards bore small, tasteless apples for making cider and its dissolute cousin, the potent applejack Calvados. Much of the battle was fought under the apple trees, and the natural obscenity of the scene could have been greater only if it had been blossom time.

War had touched this fair and fruitful countryside before we moved in and had left two of its modern mementos in the form of a crashed British bomber and a wrecked German armored car. More traditional mementos were a number of the huge black-and-white Norman cattle lying in bloated final repose in the fields, contributing the chemistry of their decay to the already heavy atmosphere. After digging itself underground the battalion buried the dead cattle and performed the amazing amount of personal hygiene, including shaving, that a man can accomplish with a helmet of water. Memory is apt to idealize such points, but as I recall it, no matter how dreadful the day he faced, the Stonewaller shaved; whatever the state of his uniform, it was worn correctly; and his weapon was kept clean.

Even directly after the war I had trouble ordering the events of the three weeks preceding the July 11 attack. Individual scenes were vivid but tended to tumble together without sequence, as in a troubled dream. One persistent memory then and now is of a bone-sagging weariness, possibly a result of long-standing strain or of feeling that on the basis of having to fight for every hedgerow, the war would go on forever. Whatever the causes, it seemed to affect us all—I noted young men around me take on the look and movements of middle age. This physical weariness was accompanied by unrest that made sleep fitful. The effect was that of a motor racing to move a sluggish machine or of trying to run in a nightmare with much effort and little progress.

Also affected was my boasted ability to maintain outward emotional control. One afternoon a military policeman returned two soldiers who had hidden out on the transport on D-day to avoid Omaha Beach. The loss of friends on that day had now come truly home, and the sight of these two, who had skulked while their betters were being killed, triggered a great anger. They were short, scruffy men, obviously not cast in anything of a heroic mold, but I became excessively the Stonewall Brigade major in describing their moral deficiencies and expressed regret that they had not been shot. I terminated by asking if they had anything to say for themselves. Yes, said one, they would like a transfer. Spluttering, I waved them out of the command post. It would be gratifying to report that they went on to redemption through soldierly deeds. The truth is, I don’t know their fate but suspect they found their way out of the battle, as everyone who wanted it badly enough seemed able to do at some time or other.

The high points of hazard during this period were combat patrols, artillery fire that crashed into treetops and hedgerows, and mortar rounds that showered steel fragments for yards around. The combat patrols, led by lieutenants until expended and then by sergeants, reduced drastically the life expectancy of all who took part. The patrols did little more than demonstrate the aggressive posture desired by “them” and proved that the German outposts were still no more than a hedgerow or so beyond our lines, which we knew in any event.

The mortars distributed their summonses throughout the battalion area and were particularly dreaded because the shells approached with a whisper in contrast to the warning banshee scream of incoming artillery fire. I recall one remarkably fine day coming upon the body of a young runner, slightly built and looking in death like a small boy tired of playing war and asleep in the meadow, face serene and fair hair stirring in the breeze. Nearby was the fin of a mortar round in a black rupture in the sod. The two-wheeled death cart came, pulled by its two attendants, who took him away. Thus casually did death arrive and a life depart—though that is not quite accurate: death did not have to arrive; it never left us.