- Historic Sites
Half a century later, an American writer in France tries to recapture the unforgettable experience of his father in the greatest battle fought by the doughboys “over there”
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The day before the y8th relieved them, the 77th had filtered some men across the Aire, and in a fierce houseto-house brawl had temporarily cleared the east-west main street. Yet every man in the first patrol of the 78th that ventured into Grandpré on the sixteenth of October was killed or wounded by fire from the Citadel and the rooftops. It was obvious that an assault would have to be made in force, and the entire 3iath Regiment crossed the Aire River later in the day. The rains had raised the normally rather narrow, tepid stream, and in some places the men had to wade through water up to their necks. The water ruined almost every gas mask. They had barely reached the northern bank when the Germans laid down a gas barrage. The Americans could do nothing but watch in horror as the poisonous cloud boiled up less than fifty yards away. Then what seemed to them a miracle happened. A breeze sprang up, and the deadly vapor moved down the river valley instead of enveloping them. The regiment went to work on Grandpré.
The Citadel could not be taken by frontal assault. But assailing it from the east was equally impossible. Bellejoyeuse Farm protected that flank, and the Loges woods in turn protected Bellejoyeuse Farm. The only hope seemed to be an assault that swung west of the town, up a narrow valley to a village called Talma. According to division headquarters, the French were in possession of this little town. But before the men of the 78th could move, they learned that a German counterattack had sent the French reeling back to the main road, where my father’s C Company maintained an uncertain liaison with them. Machine guns were rushed to this flank, and instead of an attack, the Americans found themselves fighting a desperate defense. It was probably here that my father almost got himself court-martialled. They were dug in beside the main road, which the Germans periodically sprayed with machine-gun and shell fire. They had it zeroed in, and nothing human could live on it. To my father’s astonishment, he saw a lone figure strolling casually toward them in the twilight. “Get off that road, you goddam idiot,” my father roared in his best sergeant’s voice. But the racket drowned him out. Another ten steps and German machine guns would cut the fool in half. With a curse my father dove out of his foxhole and went sprinting across the road to hit the stroller with a flying tackle that sent them both somersaulting off the road into a shell hole half full of rain water. An instant later the German machine guns laced the road with bullets. In the shell hole the stroller surfaced, spluttering with rage, and my father blanched to discover that he had tackled a major from division headquarters, sent out to check on the liaison with the French. The major roared about courts-martial and executions for a moment, and then looked out at the swarm of bullets tearing up the road where he had been standing a moment before. “Sergeant,” he said, extending a gooey hand, “thanks for saving my life.”
At Talma, as elsewhere in the Argonne, it is not so much the stories as the ground itself that makes the most eloquent history. Again and again the men of the 3i2th’s ist Battalion tried to push up that narrow valley, dodging, twisting, crawling from shell hole to shell hole, finally capturing a German machine-gun nest at Talma Farm, about halfway to Talma village. I walked up the valley, staring at the dark mass of the Bois de Bourgogne ahead on the left, and the steep angle of Talma Hill on the right, thinking of the morning when, their hopes raised by the capture of Talma Farm, two companies tried a surprise assault on Talma village. Shrouded by heavy fog, they moved forward and were within 300 yards of their goal when the winds of chance, which had rescued them from the gas attack, betrayed them. The fog suddenly lifted and the Germans poured in fire from the front and both flanks. Almost every man in the advance platoons was killed or wounded; the few that survived did so by playing dead through the agonizing day. At nightfall, this handful crawled back to the foot of Talma Hill.
Often men cracked in the face of such carnage. One captain, after seeing a patrol shot to pieces, asked to be relieved, claiming that his “heart” could no longer stand the strain. My father was not by nature a bitter man, but he never forgot or forgave another captain who panicked as they moved out to an assault. “I looked over my shoulder and saw him going the other way,” my father said. “I would have shot the son of a bitch, but he was already intermingled with the next wave and I was afraid I’d hit one of our own men. The guys saw him later in Paris wearing a wound stripe. They walked right by him without saluting or speaking. He looked the other way.”
He was less bitter about a corporal and three privates whom he had sent out one dark night to patrol the no man’s land ahead of them in Talma Valley. The Germans were pouring shells into the narrow valley at regular intervals, and between barrages the smallest sound, a cough or the chink of a helmet against barbed wire, brought storms of machine-gun fire. “We had to send out these patrols because we never knew when the Dutchman might counterattack to knock us out of Talma Farm,” my father said. But he admitted thinking, as the men crawled into the darkness, that it would be a miracle if they returned.
Not one came back. Sergeant Fleming returned to the grim task of keeping himself and the rest of his men alive. Five years later, he was walking down Thirty-third Street in New York. There, strolling toward him, was the corporal. Finally convinced he was not seeing a ghost, my father grabbed him and said: “I thought you were dead and buried someplace in the Bois de Bourgogne.”