July, 1944: St. Lô


Crowning this confidence was a massive air raid that thundered out of a clear sky late one afternoon, about a week before the attack, to dump streams of black specks on and around the town. The specks translated into a constant rolling thunder. Everyone watched as the majestic trains of bombers, trailing white contrails like cloaks, crisscrossed the target. To the soldier fighting in the dust and mud this seemed a safe and clean way to wage war until smudges of antiaircraft fire blossomed among the formations, sullying the white-on-blue patterns of contrails and sky. First one, then another, then still others of the caravans merged with the black smudges and tumbled toward earth. Still, it was all so far removed from the war we knew that I had trouble realizing that men were being burned and broken in those far-off machines. The thunder and concussion of the bombs were more familiar, and the knowledge that the enemy was caught in them gave a macabre lift to the spirits.

Altogether it was a recharged 2nd Battalion that made final preparations to jump off at 0600 hours. A forward command post was dug in behind the line of departure, which was the present front line; tanks were fitted with metal tusks to rip through hedgerows; five battalions of artillery were to lay down twenty minutes of preparatory fire before the jump-off and then lead the advancing force with a continuing barrage.

By dark on July 10 all plans were complete, all resources assembled. I was confident that a battle-proven battalion could not fail its task. German artillery had been more active than usual that day, but I gave it little thought. When I crawled into my slit trench under a hedgerow in the assembly area about midnight, my main concern was what the tanks might do to our new telephone lines laid along the ground, and I had the belated thought that the lines should have been strung overhead.

The sleep was brief, the awakening abrupt. For a source of early-morning nausea I give you an unexpected German barrage, crashing and quaking earth and air. My first resentful thought was “Where did they get all those guns?” The sound was that of ton after ton of brick being dropped from great heights, and I looked out from my hole expecting to see the assembly area erupting in fire and smoke. Instead, the tumult was all off to the right; the trees around us were carrying on their timeless dripping in the ground mist.

Regiment could tell us only that the 1st Battalion of the 115th, about a thousand yards to our right, was under attack. The artillery swelled, died, and swelled again. The lulls were filled by the tearing bursts of machine guns; tracer bullets streaked in crazy patterns across the sky.

This clangor continued at varying pitches for over three hours; except for an occasional shell our sector was never hit. Later we learned that the German attack had a local objective and was made in ignorance of our own effort. The 115th had a very bad night before containing and driving it off. Our loss was limited to the few hours of rest we might have had before what was certain to be a long stretch. Then, too, it was a sobering demonstration of the artillery the Germans could concentrate. It also cost us, indirectly, a rifle-company commander who came streaking into the command post about daylight, carrying a lightly wounded soldier on his back. This strongly built young lieutenant had been propelled by attrition to command and, I thought, had done very well. Now he insisted that he must carry the wounded man to the rear, and from his eyes it was clear that he would not command that day. We did not see him again.

Word came that the attack would go in as planned; and, bent as though under tremendous burdens, the files moved forward through the ground mist. All remained quiet until a rapid volley of thuds behind us announced the departure of the preparatory barrage. The shells sighed overhead to end their brief careers in noise, smoke, and flying fragments on the German positions. From then on, salvo after salvo crashed along the front. The tanks moved up and, sure enough, tore up the telephone lines as they went. The ear-shattering blast of high-velocity tank guns and the beat of machine guns joined in until it seemed that noise alone would destroy everything.

Not so. At 0600 the artillery fire lifted to the German support positions, and the rifle companies starting forward were met by the blast of machine guns that had somehow survived the bombardment. The futility of charging machine guns had been proved often enough, so the slow process of erasing these guns began.

The telephone line to regiment was re-laid, and along it came incessant demands for reports. The lines up to the attack kept going out, and, to get away from questions to which I did not have answers, I went up to see the battalion commander, passing a swath of dead Stonewallers who had been caught by the machine guns as they topped the first hedgerow.