Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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Preparation for the attack was automatic: One rifle company-now about fifty men-and the heavy weapons would form a fire base on the right, while the other two companies—with a combined strength of less than one-attacked on the left along a farm road. The morning mist cleared by jump-off time at 0630, and the hill’s great round shape reared above us in the light of another bright August day. The artillery and fire base opened on the moment and created their own haze around the crest. The two assault companies started up and had not gone far before machine-gun fire clipped the hedge tops. Among the first casualties was an Indian from the Southwest, naturally called “Chief,” who had been at the front of every attack starting with D-day. I had tried several times to talk to him as one of the remaining veterans, but got only monosyllables in answer. What his thoughts were on fighting at the front of what was essentially white America’s war I was unable to determine. Now he stumbled down the slope blinded by blood streaming from a scalp wound. He did not return to the regiment and became another of the hundreds who shed blood in its ranks and then disappeared.

 

After this show of opposition the defenders pulled out and the attack went up with a rush to find the hill’s broad top divided into fields and orchards. The riflemen coalesced along the hedgerows fencing in a brick farmhouse where a number of German wounded had been left behind-something that had not happened before.

Suddenly, from a field beyond the house, came sounds of a loud argument in German, apparently between those who wanted to surrender and others who wanted to retreat and shoot at us another day. More artillery fire was called in to encourage surrender, and one of our men promoted the idea in Milwaukee German.

Apparently the die-hards among the arguing enemy prevailed, for the loud voices faded. The communications platoon labored up with the latest extension of a telephone line that they had started laying on Omaha Beach two months before. I got through to the regimental commander to tell him that the objective was taken, and he sounded surprised and relieved. There is a flamboyant tradition that on such an occasion one announces that his command awaits further orders. Not wanting further orders, I didn’t ask for any.

Checking around our perimeter, I stopped at a post that looked across another ravine to Hill 203, taken by the 1st Battalion that morning in an action that won for it a presidential citation. A stretch of farm lane along the ravine was in view, and as we watched three or four Germans appeared trudging along it in single file, apparently in retreat from Hill 203. Very much as in a shooting gallery, one of our riflemen crumpled them into gray bundles. Presently, another figure appeared on the lane, as if from the wings of a stage, waving a large Red Cross flag. He examined the bundles and, apparently finding them lifeless, exited slowly again into the wings, still waving his flag. The rifleman who had done the sharpshooting was grinning; the rest looked on without speaking.

I continued around the perimeter and toward its northern part followed a high stone wall that ended ahead in the side of a farm building. Laboring along this wall, vastly weary, I became aware of thumping sounds behind me, and just before reaching the building there was a louder thump in front and stone chips flew from the impact of a bullet. Only then did it dawn that I was being tracked by a distant sniper; the next shot would likely be on target. The only exit from the situation was through an open window directly in front of me in the side of the building. The sill was at least shoulder high; without conscious thought and from a standing start I dove through the window into the building-the outstanding athletic achievement of my life, and not a mean one by any standard. A sergeant and some riflemen in the room where I landed in a heap were apparently beyond surprise, for they did not comment on this unorthodox entrance by the battalion commander. I cautioned them about the sniper and left by the other end of the building, following the protected side of the wall, and on down to the command post on the western slope of the hill.

It was early afternoon. I was certain that we had reached a stopping point; that nothing more could be asked of the now truly decimated 2nd Battalion other than to hold where it was. With this comforting conviction-for which there was no basis in experience—I lay down in the cool grass and drifted into a half doze. This pleasant state did not last long: sharp explosions of M-I rifle fire from the top of the hill brought me up with a start, and set the field phone buzzing. In a few moments word came down that two German motorcycles with sidecars had been driven into our lines and had been promptly bushwhacked. Shortly afterward four POWs were marched into the command post carrying a young staff captain wounded in the foot.

The captain looked the part of a German war poster: handsome, blond, and tall. He and his party had been on reconnaissance and had driven into our lines unaware that the hill was no longer German-held. This happened often enough on both sides to constitute a prime hazard to staff service.