- Historic Sites
When I Landed The War Was Over
A veteran news correspondent recalls his days as a spotter plane pilot
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
German artillery, tanks, and flak I batteries could not avoid giving away their positions as soon as they went into action, of course, but the German infantrymen were wizards at the art of cover and concealment. From the air, they were almost never to be seen, either in attack or retreat, but I do recall one remarkable exception. Flying under a heavy overcast at about five hundred feet in Burgundy, I was astonished to see a column of some fifty German soldiers riding bicycles along the shoulder of a secondary road, not a quarter mile away. They must have heard my engine, but there they were, pedaling along at a leisurely pace, rifles slung across their backs. The road ran straight for about two miles, then bent into a horseshoe curve around a small hill. I radioed the coordinates of the horseshoe bend to the fire direction center, adjusted the smoke rounds until they were landing in the bend, then waited for the bicycle column to arrive at that spot. When it did, we fired six rounds from each gun in B Battery, making thirty-six high-explosive shells in all. An officer of the 93rd visited the area the next day and found some twenty mangled bicycles lying alongside the road.
Compared with the Germans, we were prodigal with our artillery ammunition. They had to be rather miserly, but we shot at anything that moved or even looked suspicious. On several occasions I chased solitary motorcycle riders with 105-mm. rounds that cost about ninety dollars each, without ever hitting one, so far as I know. The motorcyclists were considered worthwhile targets because the assumption was they were dispatch riders carrying orders back and forth between various headquarters, so we would pump out dozens of shells at them. I was doing just that one day north of Rome when, with that marvelous peripheral vision granted the young and healthy, I saw a horse run out from the woods with a man hanging on to its bridle, struggling to drag the horse back under cover. I was low enough to see he was wearing Feldgrau , so I called for a round of smoke in the woods. It burst, and immediately dozens of horse-drawn artillery pieces, caissons, field kitchens, and wagons came plunging out of the trees onto the road, headed north at full gallop. They had obviously holed up there waiting for nightfall before moving into new positions, but they now found themselves on a straight stretch of road in broad daylight. The horsedrawn column was thoroughly raked, and all because one horse had bolted into the open, driven berserk, no doubt, by the noise of our shells chasing the motorcycle rider.
During the week-long battle of Montélimar in the Rhone Valley, I came as close to ground combat as I ever care to get. We were operating from a farm near the village of Loriol. The farm family had fled, leaving the place in the charge of a hired hand, who was clearly not right in the head. The battle had developed when a combat command column of armor, artillery, and infantry had raced northward from southern France along roads paralleling the Rhone, then turned westward north of Montélimar, cutting the main highway. The German 19th Army was trying to go north to support the German defenses in Normandy, so this created a problem. The highway was soon littered with shot-up tanks, trucks, and artillery pieces, burning hulks strung out over ten miles. From the air we could see a German counterattack starting up from the northeast, and since the infantry was heavily engaged along the highway to the west, there was nothing to stop the German attack but artillery. The shooting was frantic and incessant: on one day I flew more than ten hours, landing every two hours or so for gasoline, but the German armored cars and light tanks kept edging closer and closer and by nightfall of that day were within about two miles of our farm. Assuming they would push on during the night, we built a hollow square of hay bales in the barn, and crawled inside it, pulling another bale over the entrance. The idea was that the German infantry, when they came, would go right on by. And sure enough, they did come, Schmeisser machine pistols burping bullets in every direction, but we were perfectly safe in our hay-bale cave. Unfortunately, however, we had given that hired hand a cup of instant coffee during the day, the first he’d had since the war began, no doubt, and he chose this moment to come into the barn with a kerosene lantern to thank us for it. In horror we watched the light get brighter through the cracks between the hay bales, then he pulled away the one covering our entrance hole, leaned in, and said, with the beautiful smile of the idiot, “Nescafé est bon!” We waited for the Germans to jump him and us, but they didn’t. By the time the night was over, we were ready to shoot the hired hand ourselves, since he repeated the same stunt four more times. Years later, my mother heard from the mother of our mechanic that he had recurring nightmares in which he woke, shouting, “Nescafé est bon!” and she wondered if my mother could ask me about it. You just don’t need civilians at a time like that.