July, 1944: St. Lô

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The attack had progressed only two or three fields. Marking its limit was the turret of a tank, and while I watched, a soldier climbed up behind it, apparently to see what lay ahead. As he raised up, a burst of fire swept the turret, knocking him backward as though jerked with a rope. A pall of smoke was over the fields, holding in it the sweet, sickening stench of high explosive, which we had come to associate with death. The green covering of Normandy was gouged by shells and tank tracks; blasted limbs hung from the trees. The attacking riflemen, visibly shrunk in numbers, crouched behind the farthermost hedgerow while volumes of artillery, mortar, and tank gunfire flailed the fields beyond.

The battalion commander told me to keep up pressure on the heavy mortars, to maintain the fire on the ridge, and to tell regiment that the advance would continue when it damn well could. I walked back to the command post heavy with the thought that this was Omaha Beach all over again in a different setting. German counterfire was hitting in considerable volume onto some empty fields to my right, and I judged that our own efforts must be just about as effective.

I had, however, misread the battle. Soon came the message that the battalion had broken into a sunken lane that was the anchor of the German position. Part of the cost also appeared: two badly wounded company commanders. One was a firebrand lieutenant of the type that made the gray-clad 1860’s brigade a terror in battle, the other a captain who had joined as a replacement. Of the four company commanders at the dawn’s early light there now, at high noon, remained only one. Perhaps half of the platoon leaders and sergeants were casualties. The losses in riflemen were heavy but uncounted; the battalion commander was now leading all that remained.

Whatever we had suffered, the Germans had fared worse. Once past the sunken lane, their defense crumbled, and the attack moved rapidly up the ridge. The command post gathered map boards and radios and, trailing telephone wire like an umbilical cord, moved after it, passing through the area of the battalion’s suffering and into that of the Germans’.

Advancing into territory denied you by an enemy is like setting foot on an unexplored shore; you look around, wondering at the evidence of a strange and hostile people. In the lane and beyond, all was devastation, blasted and burned. German paratroopers, whole and in parts, lay about, difficult to reconcile, in their round helmets and blood-soaked camouflage smocks, with what had a short time before been among the most dangerous fighting men of the war.

A long-barrelled assault gun on its low-slung armored chassis that had taken a heavy toll along our front was blackened and smoking. The battalion commander’s orderly was nearby as we paused in the shambles of inert flesh and shattered equipment. He remarked in puzzled sadness, more to himself than to anyone around, “I don’t understand it. I just don’t understand what it is all about.” His words must have echoed those on many a battlefield and in many a language; there could be no elation in a sight so brutal and pitiful.

We went on in the wake of the destructive force that had swept up the ridge and to the road that ran down its spine westward. The rifle companies had made their sharp right turn astride this road and in doing so exposed their flank to the two German-held parallel ridges to the south. Evidence of what this was going to mean was near the turn in the form of stinking shell craters and more dead.

Shortly after making the turn we halted to let the crews toiling under heavy reels of telephone wire catch up. While we were so disposed a tall young lieutenant in a clean uniform and the then highly sought combat boots (we still wore leggings) strode by; he was obviously a general’s aide from some remote “they” area. Someone behind me muttered that there went another bastard to collect his medal. I don’t know that this was his mission, but it was not uncommon for “them” to make a quick visit to the front and be decorated for “voluntary exposure to enemy fire.” Medals can be acquired in ways that are passing strange. The nation recognized the majority of the dead and wounded with Purple Hearts for their hurts and with the Combat Infantryman Badge; in a postwar spasm of conscience the Bronze Star went on application to holders of the combat badge. Measured against this, I take a jaundiced view of claims of valor for fleeting visits to the front on the basis of a job that did not require exposure. That in war some should be subject constantly to death and dismemberment while others should not be—and should be rewarded if they are momentarily—is as hypocritical a form of segregation as exists.

In any event, the command post continued on down the ridge road to where the rifle companies had come up against exhaustion and a German stand, still about two miles short of St. Lô    . As the long evening darkened, the command post was dug in alongside a stone wall next to the road, and here we remained for nine days as the battle reached a peak of dull red fury.

During the night the Germans dug in their new line. The next day, July 12, we made little progress. The 1st Battalion, committed in the deep draw to our left, had much the same experience, as did the 3rd Battalion attacking south against the Bayeux road ridge. On the third day the 175th Regiment attacked through our 1st and 3rd Battalions and made small gains at heavy cost.