July, 1944: St. Lô

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The battalion executive officer is important primarily through being next in line for command, but in the meantime his duties are comparatively light. I took advantage of this during the static period at St. Lô     to travel to the rear on missions whose principal purpose was to breathe the safer air out of artillery range. One trip was to a field hospital to have some metal fragments, acquired on D-day, removed from my face. The wound was more spectacular than serious, and I had upgraded it by maintaining that the metal deflected a compass held to the eye for sighting. In truth, I never had occasion to make such a sighting.

Returning, I stopped to see a friend commanding the corps replacement depot. He was a topflight soldier whose family had long been connected with the regiment. Now he told me that his only son, a paratrooper, had been killed on the D-day drop. He said staunchly that his son’s unit had accomplished its mission, but his eyes were not staunch. The depot was filling with replacements for the St. Lô     attack. From a distance they also looked staunch and well turned out. Up close I noted that they were already acquiring the intent frown of the front line. The nameless regret I had felt on seeing the new men arrive at St. Clair returned; these also seemed too young and innocent to pit against veteran German paratroopers.

Another remembered scene was on a Sunday. I was en route by jeep to the regimental command post and near the village of Couvains encountered a procession of young girls in white dresses, accompanied by their elders in Sunday black, headed for an ancient gray stone Norman church. My driver stopped to avoid dusting the procession, and a detail stringing telephone lines along the road ceased work to gape. Just at that moment a stretcher jeep from the front crept by with its bandaged, broken load. Here were all the elements of a contrived scene of a war movie, but this one was real, and its screaming incongruity etched it on my memory.

Romance did not surface at St. Lô    . No girl of the French Resistence appeared to guide us by a secret route into the city. Our only connection with love was by letter, and this was avidly pursued. I thought we wrote more than we received, but this impression may have been gained from the disagreeable duty of officers to censor letters for mention of where we were and what we were doing.

Censorship in World War II must have made its soldiers’ letters about the dullest on record. Some showed a knack for pornography, but the only letters I recall distinctly were those of a quiet older soldier to his wife about the home they planned to build after the war. Letter after letter went into every detail, and I gathered that most of his soldier pay and of her war-factory wages were being saved toward it. He was, of course, killed.

From this one, and others I knew of, I would judge that the dreams per capita at St. Lô     were numerous. Undoubtedly many were of gossamer, but at the time they all seemed possible, for this war was the Last Judgment on an old, wrong world and the genesis of a new, better one. In the event, the good and bad parts seem to have maintained about their usual ratio, and I fear that the mortality rate of dreams at St. Lô     has been high.

As time wore on, plans for the assault were refined and resources gathered. The battalions were rotated between the front and a reserve area where, in company with engineers and tanks, the tactics for attacking hedgerows were practiced. The attack was finally set for July 11. The XIX Corps designated the 29th Division to make the main effort; the 29th decided to lead with its left flank regiment, the Stonewall Brigade. The attack was to be in a column of battalions with the 2nd leading. We were to strike astride the Couvains road to the crest of Martinville Ridge, then wheel right, or west, down a farm road that ran along its crest toward St. Lô    . Simultaneously, on our left, the 2nd Infantry Division was to go for Hill 192, and upon its success depended much of what we would be able to do.

As when we had been designated for the Omaha Beach assault, the news of this St. Lô     assignment had a stimulating effect: it represented distinction among our peers, one to be observed with pride. Preparations were stepped up: replacements brought the battalion up to about 75 per cent of strength; rehearsal of hedgerow tactics was intensified; artillery and mortar concentrations were plotted for every possible target. The memory that even greater preparations for D-day had not prevented near disaster was still fresh, but planning acquires its own momentum, and once again we became confident of walking over a pulverized enemy.