June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
A soldier remembers a great battle
Three decades ago a battle was fought for St. Lô , Normandy, France, in the second of the great world wars of this century. To have been young at St. Lô and now to be old is a matter of personal amazement, for the time lapse seems instantaneous. In rank, the battle is in that heavily populated tier of major bloodlettings that have determined the course of campaigns, as opposed to the few decisive Gettysburgs and Waterloos on which history itself has turned. In keeping with this stature, St. Lô seems destined for the footnotes of history, unlikely to be remembered beyond the memory span of the First United States Army and Seventh German Army veterans who fed its flames so prodigally, of those who anxiously followed their fortunes, and of the Normans whose lives and homes were in its path. Further in perspective: St. Lô was an essential objective of the First Army’s offensive launched during that fateful month of July, 1944, to gain the terrain and road net on which Operation COBRA could coil and strike to break out of the Normandy beachhead. The overall offensive involved twelve divisions in four corps attacking on a twenty-five-mile front. It was bitterly contested at every point; losses were uniformly appalling. In this general holocaust St. Lô caught the public’s attention, possibly because the town had the largest population (eleven thousand) in the offensive and was a provincial seat of government. Even more, it acquired a symbol, “the Major of St. Lô ,” whom I knew. To the allied command the town was important as the hub of a network of seven roads and because the high ground to its east and west commanded the Vire Valley, in which tanks could operate. Both factors were essential to COBRA . The German command had an equal appreciation of road nets and terrain and, in addition, had a captured American field order designating St. Lô as a primary objective. This determined that it would be defended with all the resources that the enemy would be able to muster on its accommodating hills and ridgelines.
In the end, of course, St. Lô was taken. Operation COBRA was launched, and a general advance was begun that with some setbacks, notably the Battle of the Bulge, ended in less than a year with victory in Europe. The cost was high: in three weeks over forty thousand Americans killed, wounded, or missing—the same price, incidentally, as at the Bulge six months later. The Germans, who fought with courage and skill, had losses perhaps half again as heavy. St. Lô was knocked apart, and about a thousand citizens were killed before it was finally evacuated. Conservatively speaking, well over a hundred thousand human beings died or suffered wounds in the brief time and space that bounded the offensive.
A memoir is a public appearance, and one is inclined to stand straighter and present the best profile. Mitigating this tendency, there are no deeds of personal daring to relate, and no action of mine affected the battle one way or the other. This is personally regrettable, but it also lessens the self-consciousness of narrating in the first person. I was there; I endured, and not so well as some, also regrettable. Otherwise, I was a bookishly inclined amateur soldier with some ability at dissembling the uncertainty and irritability that the war inspired. At the battle’s start I was a captain commanding the and Battalion’s headquarters company and battalion adjutant; during its course I became battalion executive officer and a major.
My account is not thirty years of faded memories and afterthoughts. It was originally written directly after the war, when the sights, sounds, and smells of St. Lô were sharp and clear. My aim then was a history of the battle through the 2nd Battalion’s story. The result was predictably far short of the mark; I found that the great ebb and flow of St. Lô cannot be encompassed by one of its parts. Disappointed, I set it aside.
Now there is the delayed second thought that while a battalion affords a limited view of field armies locked in battle, it is unequalled for observing those who fought it personally and directly. The soldiers of the 2nd Battalion were assembled through largely random selection to perform the irrational acts of war. We were fairly representative of all battalions similarly assembled in this offensive.
The result, I believe, was an army remarkably homogeneous in viewpoint and purpose, though wide personal and group differences existed. (In a segregated army, for example, I was unaware of the vast dissatisfaction swelling among black soldiers.) This combination of shaping factors is not likely to reappear; the army they produced is gone so completely that I must look and look again to convince myself that it ever existed. In my more somber moments I think that we may have been the last great army of the Republic—one that could truly march to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This is the sketchy canvas on which my memoir is superimposed. It is largely as written so long ago. Violence distorts perception, and some sights I recount may be larger than life, and others of more significance may have been missed altogether. Memories must reflect such distortions, but on the whole I believe mine to be within the scope of what really happened during the battle for St. Lô .
An infantry battalion is a closely knit little world, and recollections of it must be heavily peopled, which poses the question of who among them should be summoned by name. There is much room for error here, and as names do not particularly serve my purpose, I shall call from the shadows only one—Tom Howie, dead near the end of the battle. For quiet and enduring reasons to be recounted in turn, the twilight of St. Lô has lingered longest on him of the entire Stonewall Brigade, and under his name I gather us all. He became the nation’s symbol—the “Major of St. Lô .”
The XIX Corps of three infantry divisions and on occasion an armored division did battle directly for St. Lô , but for the battalion soldier a corps was a remote “they” with which he was unlikely to have contact. Not so my division. The 29th was a strong and present personality that, on the basis of its combat record, was of uncommon military merit. It was mustered for the war in 1941 and had three years of training before being committed to battle on D-day on Omaha Beach. Of its three regiments the 115th and 175th were of the Maryland National Guard, and the 116th from Virginia. All three are of long lineage; the 116th’s goes back to the French and Indian War, but its proudest days were those in the years 1861–65. It entered that war as the 2nd Virginia of General Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade at the First Battle of Manassas, and both Jackson and the brigade emerged with the title “Stonewall.”
A regiment, no less than an individual, is not inclined to forswear a resounding title won by an ancestor even if he fought on the “wrong” side. In 1944 the 116th’s ranks held as many Yankees as Virginians, but the Stonewall Brigade we were, and to those of a historical bent this was a proud and notable thing.
On D-day the 116th had led the assault on the right sector of Omaha Beach and within a few hours lost some thousand killed or wounded. This was about one fourth of its strength and an even greater proportion of the riflemen who carried the burden of its battles. At the time this memoir begins, six days later, these losses had not been replaced, and attrition had continued, yet the regiment remained in action. Old Stonewall would probably have regarded this as no more than performance of duty. Most of us, I think, felt that others should take over the war for a while.
With this perhaps excessive amount of prior circumstance, I come down to late afternoon of June 12 and a dusty road near the gray huddle of houses of the hamlet Ste. Marguerite d’Elle. It was here that I first heard St. Lô designated as another appointed place on the Stonewall Brigade’s long road of war. At the time, I and others of the battalion command post were strung out along a roadside ditch while the rifle companies, a hundred or so yards ahead, contended for a passage over the Elle River. Black smoke showed above the trees to our left front from two tanks that had been knocked out trying to cross the river.
The colonel, a big, square man, acknowledged my report and, looking us over thoughtfully, began a quiet talk on combat. He described a fire fight and how becoming intent on winning it made it something like a ball game. We listened respectfully, but since we had been under fire for the past six days, I doubt that he convinced anyone that this was a sporting event or obscured its terminal probabilities.
He got more attention by saying that our objective was St. Lô and that after it was taken, the division might well get a real rest, a possibility more important to us than what taking the town would do for the crusade in Europe.
The colonel wished us luck, which we returned, and continued down the road. Inspired by his presence if not by his words, we gathered map boards and field phone to move closer to the battle. Directly afterward the latest commander of E Company—the third since D-day—limped by toward the rear, one arm hanging loosely, bright red drops dribbling slowly from the fingers onto the dusty road. We had served together for two years, but I didn’t stop to inquire about his injury; death and hurt had become commonplace, and a wound with which one could with honor walk out of the war was a matter for congratulation rather than condolence.
We set up shop behind a hedgerow closer to the racket, one result of which was the shattered leg of the intelligence officer, a young lawyer from Louisiana who had performed bravely and well. In addition, the brief action cost two platoon leaders and, as always, a number of riflemen.
As the long evening of double daylight-saving time waned the Germans pulled out, and the 2nd Battalion splashed across the knee-deep, narrow river and headed across country for its objective, the village of St. Clair-sur-l’Elle, about a half mile away. Unknown to us, a German column was pulling back on a parallel route and just outside the village sideswiped our right flank company. There was a brief exchange of fire, and the two columns pulled apart, the effect on the war being a few more killed and wounded.
With daylight the battalion perimeter was pushed south of the empty village, its citizens having learned that bombs and artillery fire were the going price of liberation. The command post was set up in a vacant house, and here we stayed for several days, both sides remaining relatively quiet and killing very few of each other.
Our wounded, however, included the battalion executive officer, and as the senior surviving captain I took his place. It was an advancement about which I could have few illusions, for it had become apparent that the principal requirement was simply to stay alive and in reasonable mental health.
Other events of the stay at St. Clair were a visit by the divisional commander, a major general, and the arrival of the first replacements. The general came one afternoon by jeep, expected to the extent that he could be expected at any time or place. He was about fifty years old and conformed to General Sheridan’s specifications for a cavalryman, which he had been before the war: short, wiry, daring, and quick. Everything about him was explosive: gestures, speech, action, temper. He dominated the 29th by knowing exactly what he wanted done, discarding those who didn’t produce it and rewarding those who did. As with other success formulas, the trick to this one lay in its application. He tolerated only the facts of a situation, and to present him with a conjecture was fatal to a future in the division.
His rough side was reserved for commanders, and strenuous efforts were made to avoid it. His orders were simple and direct. They included the requirement that every man be able to recite verbatim a simple statement of correct sight alignment and trigger squeeze. The 29th’s tradition of wearing the helmet strap buckled under the chin rather than dangling, as was the general practice, was not to be violated under any circumstance. There were many others, unremarkable except in their total enforcement.
The general’s first impression of a commander was apt to be final. Fortunately my company was in the midst of one of its better days when he first came upon us during training, and I purposely avoided later exposure whenever possible. I admired and respected—as well as avoided—him, for he sounded a clear and certain trumpet in baffling and fearsome situations. It is my unsupported opinion that the number of divisional commanders of this caliber that the nation can muster in a given war is fewer than the divisions that can be mustered. The combination of courage, professional ability, imagination, and ruthlessness found in these few is rare enough to make them beyond price in war. As a matter of fact, the same applies to the exceptional enlisted infantryman, who, on a relative basis, is just as rare a bird and suffers an incomparably higher casualty rate.
In any case, this divisional commander arrived with his usual pronounced impact at our command post on a damp afternoon in mid-June. Those who had not gotten away in time stood in attentive attitudes around the stained walls of the musty parlor while he and the battalion commander sat and conversed in front of the empty hearth. I do not recall exact words, but the general indicated approval of our efforts, which was gratifying if the cost of achieving it was not considered.
That night the new adjutant and I met the trucks bringing in the first replacements and hurried the dark shapes laden with packs and weapons behind guides to their companies. We had been clamoring for men, so I was surprised at a vague sense of regret as I saw them march toward the front. Their efforts to keep their places and reach a harm beyond their conception were somehow pathetic. I felt an ancient among children, knowing and dreading what they had to endure.
The way of the replacement foot soldier in that war was hard, crowded, and dull: training camp, troopship, overseas replacement depot; then, probably leaving any friends acquired along the way, by truck and foot to join strangers in facing death or great injury. On occasion he never completed the journey. I recall the sad, brief saga of a column of replacements caught by artillery fire while toiling to the front at St. Lô , and for some ten of them this proved the end of the war.
On occasion new men were fed into units actively locked in battle. They were sent in at night and placed in among dark shapes that occupied gravelike holes scooped out behind hedgerows. The resident shapes, if they spoke at all, did not slight the dreadfulness of the situation or overestimate anyone’s chances of surviving it. Sometimes a new man did die before dawn, and none around knew him by sight or name. The replacement system improved as the war wore on, but I think it remained essentially a wasteful distribution of numbers, disregarding the fact that it was dealing with the human heart.
While speaking of the emotional nature of battle one has to consider fear. I have firsthand knowledge only of my own, its chief manifestation being the stomach drawing into a cold, protective knot at the sound of shells whooping and screaming in my direction and a reluctance to leave depressions in the ground. I like to believe that I dissembled these tendencies very well; however, I knew fear intimately and believe this was a fairly general experience. When I speak of courage, I speak not of the absence of fear but of the disregard of it.
There was, come to think of it, another visit while we were at St. Clair, brief but offering a lesson to heed. I was standing in front of the command post at the time, and a jeep roared by headed for the front, a staff officer beside the driver waving as it passed. I was annoyed by the dust and noise and amazed that anyone should close with disaster with such apparent abandon. The jeep, disappearing down the road—its route traced by rising dust—halted simultaneously with a burst of machine-pistol fire just where we figured the German roadblock lay. Later I asked the Stonewallers covering the road why they hadn’t stopped him. The arrival, they said, had been too sudden. One added that he didn’t see why someone from the rear (as opposed to infantrymen) shouldn’t have an opportunity to pinpoint roadblocks for a change.
Early on June 16 we were relieved at St. Clair and struck southwest through close, wooded terrain for St. Lô , only to be brought to a bloody halt near the hamlet of Villiers Fossard. The discovery that this was a key German position cost a staff officer and thirty-four men. The officer died literally over my head. He was in the attic of a cottage, looking out over the terrain, and I was on the ground floor, trying to locate our position on a mudsmudged map, when a sudden blast of rifle fire smacked into the cottage, and three riflemen dashed in announcing that they had shot a German directly above me. At the same moment blood began to drip through the ceiling, and in the attic we found the lifeless body. The riflemen left with stark faces, and I went to tell the battalion commander that we had lost the second operations officer since D-day.
The next day the battalion clawed again at Villiers Fossard and lost another officer and thirty-five men, including two first sergeants. Clearly this place was not going to fall to a lone infantry battalion; a combined infantry, armor, and air attack was later required to crack it.
Early on the eighteenth the regimental commander arrived with word that we were to shift, that day, to the left flank of the division’s sector in a general realignment for the push on St. Lô . Our new position lay a little over a mile south of the village of Couvains and was astride an unpaved north-south road that, at its firmly held German end, intersected the main Bayeux-St. Lô artery, one of the principal stretches of macadam for which the battle was fought. Our march to it began that humid evening, and it was in the cold damp of early morning that the companies were deployed along the new line.
There was much starting and stopping. At one halt I sat down on what I thought was a boulder, but I found it soft and yielding, the flank of a dead hog or calf. Weary, I walked on without investigating. Toward the end I became so vocal about the operation that the battalion commander suggested that I do my job and complain less, and we would all benefit. I was immediately ashamed, and am now, at adding to burdens heavier than my own.
This commander is prominent among the shadowy figures I write about. He was one of the two professional soldiers in the battalion. Usually he was relaxed and easy to serve, though minor irritations could trigger an explosion. That the battalion held together through D-day and afterward was due to his courage and energy. He was wounded after St. Lô ; I fell heir to command and followed his pattern to the best of my ability. He returned to command the regiment, and after the war he was one of the organizers of Special Forces.
Finally that night the rifle companies got into position, and the command post settled down along the road. An hour or so later we were up shivering in a soggy dawn to take stock of the place and the prospects for further survival. The date was June 19, and here we were to stay until July 11, either on line or in reserve, while XIX Corps gathered for the battle.
Any position that the German allows you to occupy without a fight is unlikely to be a bargain. This one was no exception. The lifting ground mist showed us deployed along an east-west elevation that was dominated by a parallel ridgeline to the south at about fifteen hundred yards’ distance. This higher ridge was called Martinville after the farm hamlet on its crest; its western end sloped off into the outskirts of St. Lô . The enemy held Martinville Ridge and a line well forward of it up against our own positions. To take St. Lô , Martinville Ridge had to be taken first.
During the three weeks we stayed there I had time to note that the two ridges corresponded in relative elevation and separation to Seminary and Cemetery ridges at Gettysburg at the point of the grand assault in the center. This was not a comforting comparison for a Virginia regiment, so I didn’t mention it. Martinville Ridge also culminated in a hill on its German-held right, similar to Gulp’s Hill, where the Stonewall Brigade had fought; it was called “192” after its meter elevation. To strain the comparison still further, St. Lô had its Roundtop, Hill 122 on the left flank of the German defenses. South of Martinville Ridge was another elevation, along which ran the Bayeux-St. Lô road; south of that was still another parallel ridge.
Hill 192, looming to our left front, was in the area of the V Corps’ 2nd Infantry Division, which took it on the first day of the July 11 attack. I visited its crest after the battle and was amazed that with field glasses I could look directly into some of the fieldworks we had occupied. Why the Germans didn’t use this advantage to swat us like flies on a table is a mystery.
Our first day was spent in realigning the positions that had been taken in the darkness and weariness of the night before. The command post was dug into the side of a deep depression in a field alongside the road. Covered with a camouflage net, this served very well, though the first hard rain showed that its original purpose was as a sump to drain the field.
Across the road to our left were the mortar pits of the Heavy Weapons Company, and the sharp whang of its firing was fairly constant until the late June storms damaged the artificial harbors on the invasion beaches and curtailed the ammunition supply. The reserve rifle company was also deployed along the left to cover the open flank between us and the 2nd Division. A hundred or so yards to the front, the war was fought moment by moment by the other two rifle companies. Their lines ran along a sunken farm lane until it wandered off toward Martinville Ridge, and then the positions took to the fields. The battalion’s eight heavy machine guns were posted at critical points, and our 57-mm. antitank guns were sited on a slope to the right of the command post, covering the road.
The terrain setting was completed by hedgerow-enclosed apple orchards and pastures. Even more than the ridgelines and streams, these centuries-old hedgerows dominated the war in Normandy. They have often been described: earthen banks four to six feet high, topped with trees and brush, needing only the addition of men and guns to become a ready-made fortified place. The Germans accomplished this with consummate skill.
The orchards bore small, tasteless apples for making cider and its dissolute cousin, the potent applejack Calvados. Much of the battle was fought under the apple trees, and the natural obscenity of the scene could have been greater only if it had been blossom time.
War had touched this fair and fruitful countryside before we moved in and had left two of its modern mementos in the form of a crashed British bomber and a wrecked German armored car. More traditional mementos were a number of the huge black-and-white Norman cattle lying in bloated final repose in the fields, contributing the chemistry of their decay to the already heavy atmosphere. After digging itself underground the battalion buried the dead cattle and performed the amazing amount of personal hygiene, including shaving, that a man can accomplish with a helmet of water. Memory is apt to idealize such points, but as I recall it, no matter how dreadful the day he faced, the Stonewaller shaved; whatever the state of his uniform, it was worn correctly; and his weapon was kept clean.
Even directly after the war I had trouble ordering the events of the three weeks preceding the July 11 attack. Individual scenes were vivid but tended to tumble together without sequence, as in a troubled dream. One persistent memory then and now is of a bone-sagging weariness, possibly a result of long-standing strain or of feeling that on the basis of having to fight for every hedgerow, the war would go on forever. Whatever the causes, it seemed to affect us all—I noted young men around me take on the look and movements of middle age. This physical weariness was accompanied by unrest that made sleep fitful. The effect was that of a motor racing to move a sluggish machine or of trying to run in a nightmare with much effort and little progress.
Also affected was my boasted ability to maintain outward emotional control. One afternoon a military policeman returned two soldiers who had hidden out on the transport on D-day to avoid Omaha Beach. The loss of friends on that day had now come truly home, and the sight of these two, who had skulked while their betters were being killed, triggered a great anger. They were short, scruffy men, obviously not cast in anything of a heroic mold, but I became excessively the Stonewall Brigade major in describing their moral deficiencies and expressed regret that they had not been shot. I terminated by asking if they had anything to say for themselves. Yes, said one, they would like a transfer. Spluttering, I waved them out of the command post. It would be gratifying to report that they went on to redemption through soldierly deeds. The truth is, I don’t know their fate but suspect they found their way out of the battle, as everyone who wanted it badly enough seemed able to do at some time or other.
The high points of hazard during this period were combat patrols, artillery fire that crashed into treetops and hedgerows, and mortar rounds that showered steel fragments for yards around. The combat patrols, led by lieutenants until expended and then by sergeants, reduced drastically the life expectancy of all who took part. The patrols did little more than demonstrate the aggressive posture desired by “them” and proved that the German outposts were still no more than a hedgerow or so beyond our lines, which we knew in any event.
The mortars distributed their summonses throughout the battalion area and were particularly dreaded because the shells approached with a whisper in contrast to the warning banshee scream of incoming artillery fire. I recall one remarkably fine day coming upon the body of a young runner, slightly built and looking in death like a small boy tired of playing war and asleep in the meadow, face serene and fair hair stirring in the breeze. Nearby was the fin of a mortar round in a black rupture in the sod. The two-wheeled death cart came, pulled by its two attendants, who took him away. Thus casually did death arrive and a life depart—though that is not quite accurate: death did not have to arrive; it never left us.
The battalion executive officer is important primarily through being next in line for command, but in the meantime his duties are comparatively light. I took advantage of this during the static period at St. Lô to travel to the rear on missions whose principal purpose was to breathe the safer air out of artillery range. One trip was to a field hospital to have some metal fragments, acquired on D-day, removed from my face. The wound was more spectacular than serious, and I had upgraded it by maintaining that the metal deflected a compass held to the eye for sighting. In truth, I never had occasion to make such a sighting.
Returning, I stopped to see a friend commanding the corps replacement depot. He was a topflight soldier whose family had long been connected with the regiment. Now he told me that his only son, a paratrooper, had been killed on the D-day drop. He said staunchly that his son’s unit had accomplished its mission, but his eyes were not staunch. The depot was filling with replacements for the St. Lô attack. From a distance they also looked staunch and well turned out. Up close I noted that they were already acquiring the intent frown of the front line. The nameless regret I had felt on seeing the new men arrive at St. Clair returned; these also seemed too young and innocent to pit against veteran German paratroopers.
Another remembered scene was on a Sunday. I was en route by jeep to the regimental command post and near the village of Couvains encountered a procession of young girls in white dresses, accompanied by their elders in Sunday black, headed for an ancient gray stone Norman church. My driver stopped to avoid dusting the procession, and a detail stringing telephone lines along the road ceased work to gape. Just at that moment a stretcher jeep from the front crept by with its bandaged, broken load. Here were all the elements of a contrived scene of a war movie, but this one was real, and its screaming incongruity etched it on my memory.
Romance did not surface at St. Lô . No girl of the French Resistence appeared to guide us by a secret route into the city. Our only connection with love was by letter, and this was avidly pursued. I thought we wrote more than we received, but this impression may have been gained from the disagreeable duty of officers to censor letters for mention of where we were and what we were doing.
Censorship in World War II must have made its soldiers’ letters about the dullest on record. Some showed a knack for pornography, but the only letters I recall distinctly were those of a quiet older soldier to his wife about the home they planned to build after the war. Letter after letter went into every detail, and I gathered that most of his soldier pay and of her war-factory wages were being saved toward it. He was, of course, killed.
From this one, and others I knew of, I would judge that the dreams per capita at St. Lô were numerous. Undoubtedly many were of gossamer, but at the time they all seemed possible, for this war was the Last Judgment on an old, wrong world and the genesis of a new, better one. In the event, the good and bad parts seem to have maintained about their usual ratio, and I fear that the mortality rate of dreams at St. Lô has been high.
As time wore on, plans for the assault were refined and resources gathered. The battalions were rotated between the front and a reserve area where, in company with engineers and tanks, the tactics for attacking hedgerows were practiced. The attack was finally set for July 11. The XIX Corps designated the 29th Division to make the main effort; the 29th decided to lead with its left flank regiment, the Stonewall Brigade. The attack was to be in a column of battalions with the 2nd leading. We were to strike astride the Couvains road to the crest of Martinville Ridge, then wheel right, or west, down a farm road that ran along its crest toward St. Lô . Simultaneously, on our left, the 2nd Infantry Division was to go for Hill 192, and upon its success depended much of what we would be able to do.
As when we had been designated for the Omaha Beach assault, the news of this St. Lô assignment had a stimulating effect: it represented distinction among our peers, one to be observed with pride. Preparations were stepped up: replacements brought the battalion up to about 75 per cent of strength; rehearsal of hedgerow tactics was intensified; artillery and mortar concentrations were plotted for every possible target. The memory that even greater preparations for D-day had not prevented near disaster was still fresh, but planning acquires its own momentum, and once again we became confident of walking over a pulverized enemy.
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.
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.
The 2nd Battalion went nowhere at all on this third day, and it was evident that its bolt had been shot; it could only stand and bleed. Familiar enough by then with the results of men discharging projectiles at one another at close range, I was still aghast at the rate at which the corpse carts and stretcher jeeps were trundling away the Stonewall Brigade. The 2nd Battalion had started the attack at 75 per cent of its full complement of about nine hundred officers and men. By the end of that first day we were well below half strength, and by the end of the third day less than one third of the battalion remained. As always, over 90 per cent of these losses were riflemen. Instead of three rifle companies, we barely mustered the equivalent of one; heavy-machine-gunners suffered to a like degree.
Again the German losses were heavier. Their 3rd Parachute Division, which fought so nearly to the death, lost 4,064 men in three days. Their 352nd Infantry Division, perhaps not so do-or-die, recorded 984 casualties in two days.
On the third evening, July 13, the 2nd Battalion went back for rest and refit near St. André-de l'Epine. The kitchens sent up hot rations, and replacements arrived to bring us back to just over 50 per cent strength. However, some of the replacements were patched-up wounded from D-day, and while perhaps restored physically, they were not emotionally up to rejoining the battle.
The divisional commander visited the bivouac area that evening and spoke to representatives from each company in his staccato fashion about how well we had done. Faces lit up a bit, but I don’t know if it was because of the praise or because the general repeated that after taking St. Lô the division would get a real rest. We had been depending on this for some time, but it was good to hear it from this man.
Somewhat restored, the battalion trudged back up to its old position on the ridge on July 15. That afternoon word came down that we and the 1st Battalion, on our left, were to try before dark to break through. The way was to be prepared by thirteen battalions of artillery and a fighter-bomber strike, nearly three times the firepower of the first day of the assault. As with any prolonged battle, St. Lô proved a magnet attracting more and more metal from both sides.
Whether it was the tremendous weight of metal crashing down upon a narrow front or German command confusion, I do not know, but the attack broke through, and the companies took off in full career with an élan to which even Old Stonewall would have had to raise his cap. A squad or so of the reserve rifle company, the command post, and heavy mortars were en route to follow when word came down to halt. The effect was that of throwing a hard-running machine abruptly into reverse; we of the rear end skidded to a stop, while the front end broke loose and kept going right down to the crossroads hamlet of La Madeleine, less than a mile from St. Lô . The battalion commander took off on the run to catch them. Later we learned that the halt order stemmed from “their” not knowing or else being unable to credit our success.
Uncertainty took over while command and staff wheels ground out the decision not to withdraw from La Madeleine but for the rest of the Stonewall Brigade to fight on down and join them. In the meantime German command wheels must also have been grinding, for the gap was rapidly closed and the bulk of the 2nd Battalion was cut off.
Over the next two days the advance, won at so little cost, became progressively more ominous. The Stonewall Brigade was in a poor posture to strike effectively; instead of a clenched fist, it now had a weak finger stuck over a mile deep into hostile territory. Halfway back, well out of supporting range, was the 1st Battalion, which had been halted intact; back on the original position were the 3rd Battalion, which had been badly mauled that morning, and the remnant of the 2nd Battalion.
Compounding their hazard, the companies at La Madeleine had only the ammunition and rations that individuals had carried with them. Communication was by the artillery-liaison officer’s radio, and its batteries faded more with each transmission.
Still impressed, however, by the day’s success, I was confident that we would push on through the next morning. I knew my outfit, and with its commander there I would bet on its being able to survive one night anywhere.
Events didn’t turn out exactly that way. The next day, July 16, instead of attacking toward La Madeleine, the 1st Battalion had to fight for its life. Its right flank company along the ridge road was blasted by a tank at pointblank range and was reduced within minutes to less than platoon size. We were caught in this hurricane of fire and noise that swept back and forth across the narrow front, hour after hour.
Late that afternoon, as the fury abated, I reached my personal depth of the war, and it has remained with me as only the ultimate depth, and height, of one’s life can remain. I was alone at the time outside the now useless command post. The sun, setting behind St. Lô , glowed a dull, furious red through the smoke and dust raised by the shelling. Tall trees cast long black shadows; on the road was a smashed jeep with the flayed remains of the driver fallen half out of it. In the next field a dump of mortar ammunition burned and flared. Here the shelling had stopped, but in the distance it still rumbled like far-off summer thunder.
The scene was Gotterdämmerung, an effect opera-set designers strive for but can never equal. A Teutonic heart might have found it stirring grandeur. But not mine, not then. For suddenly I was convinced that my battalion was gone, irrevocably lost, destroyed. If the Germans could threaten to overrun this well-supplied position, what chance of survival had the undermanned and undersupplied companies isolated in their midst? And if the battalion that had been the boundaries of my life for three years was gone, what chance had I? At that point I was despairing of the war and uncaring of its purpose.
After dark I was called to the regimental command post with the staffs of the battalions to meet with the divisional commander. The dimly lit bunker was crowded and the air oppressive. The general reviewed the situation; he said that the 2nd Battalion had survived the day without serious trouble and that the attack to relieve it and take St. Lô would go on. He then delivered a harsh judgment on defeatism, racking a hapless captain who had expressed discouragement. He did not know that in the back of the bunker stood perhaps the most despairing major on the Normandy front.
Usually this dynamic man’s statement of purpose and direction lifted my spirits. But not that night; I could not believe that the 2nd had survived such a day inside the German lines, or, perhaps to justify my own funk, I didn’t choose to believe it.
The regimental commander, who had just taken over the job, assured the general that we were full of fight, and the session was over.
I stumbled back through the dark to arrive at our position just as a heavy shelling filled the night again with noise and concussion. My usually highly active sense of self-preservation was not functioning, for instead of diving into the nearest hole, I wandered aimlessly around, ears ringing from a nearby tree burst whose shower of fragments somehow missed me. My route passed the slit trench of a sergeant who had been in the first platoon of which I had taken uncertain command. He called a warning, and when I continued on, he jumped out and dumped me into the nearest hole and demanded that I stay there. So I did, and recall little of the rest of the night.
The battalion surgeon appeared at daylight to inquire about the situation but showed more interest in what he said was my loss of hearing and suggested that I go back to the division’s medical clearing station for a check. What was left of the 2nd Battalion had been attached to the 1st, leaving me particularly useless, and I made no objection. At the clearing station I was given a blue capsule and sent to a nearby tent area. The capsule, reputedly capable of stupefying an elephant, was known popularly as the blue-88, in tribute to the Germans’ dreaded 88-mm. gun. I barely made it to the tent and a blanket on the ground before falling off a high place into a deep, vacant sleep.
Eight or ten hours later I climbed reluctantly back to awareness and found the tent had been removed while I slept. Nearby was a line of hapless-looking soldiers carrying mess gear, though there was no kitchen in sight. While I was trying to sort all this out a lightly built, sandy-haired lieutenant came up and pointed shakily to a bombed-out railway station barely visible in the distance. This place, he said, was too close to that target and ought to be moved. Obviously he was at one with the dejected-looking soldiers seeking comfort in the familiar ritual of standing in a mess line—even one that offered no food.
No Gotterdämmerung this—no twilight of the gods full of the grandeur of noble death. This was a place of whimper and cringe, the skid row of the battle zone. I had heard of it, and my offhand judgment had been that it was a mistake to so cater to weakness. Finding myself there brought on a panic akin, I imagine, to that of a minister who has walked inadvertently into a brothel. Now I can see that field as a true note in the awful clanging harmony of St. Lô . The abject spirits were counterpoint to those enduring on Martinville Ridge; their weakness accented strength as death accents life.
The answer to my shame at having slept through my battalion’s agony at such a place was to flag down a ride back to the ridge. Leaving physically was a matter of minutes, but emotionally that place remains with me; I must always wonder how truly I belonged there.
Back on the ridge the battle was in a perceptibly lower key. Where salvos of shells had been crashing in, there were now only random rounds. I found my people still in place. No one mentioned my absence, and I didn’t bring it up.
There was much news. That morning a 3rd Battalion attack had reached La Madeleine and found the 2nd in good shape, still unaccountably ignored by the surrounding Germans. The other news was that Major Thomas D. Howie, commanding the 3rd, had been killed shortly after reaching La Madeleine. I have said that he alone among the shadowy figures in this account is to be called forth by name, and this is because he combined to an uncommon degree the kindness and courage that would have better become us all. In mourning Tom Howie I mourn all for whom life and laughter ended at St. Lô and, by some projection, those for whom it has ended since.
The divisional commander, who was imaginative as well as arbitrary and, I suspect, compassionate in his way, had the flag-draped body taken into St. Lô when it fell two days later and placed high on a bier of rubble in front of the town’s shattered Notre Dame, thus fulfilling Tom Howie’s vow as he launched the attack that he would reach the city. News stories and photographs followed, and Tom Howie became the Major of St. Lô —the nation’s symbol of the battle. Many who grieved for the fallen soldier at the time may now have forgotten, and the new generations may never have heard of him at all, but the story stirred America to no small degree in that July of 1944. A dramatic tribute in the classic tradition to the dead warrior rising above the murk of a long, ugly war caught the imagination and the heart. The Major of St. Lô inspired editorial tributes and one of the few poems of merit to come out of the war, unimportantly in error on some points. There is now a memorial to Tom Howie in the rebuilt St. Lô and another at Staunton Military Academy, where he coached football before the war.
Ironically, the qualities that made his death mourned and marked did not serve him well in the hard climate in which we trained before D-day. In that prebattle period those who were most assertive and demanding by nature seemed to prosper most; those who were hard simply because the job demanded it had a degree of success; and those of a naturally kindly nature who underwent no war change had a difficult time.
When the caps began to pop on Omaha Beach, however, personal calm and courage took immediate precedence over all other leadership qualities, for these alone could cope with the supreme assertiveness of enemy bullets. It is my impression that these qualities surfaced fully as frequently among the kindly as among the harsh. They took Tom Howie to battalion command and to his final appointment at La Madeleine. In daring, unsparing demands upon himself and in thoughtfulness he resembled Turner Ashby, commander of Stonewall’s cavalry in the halcyon days of the valley campaign of 1862. Stonewall was harsh in his judgment of Ashby’s failure to push his troopers; but he wept, and the South wept, when Ashby was killed, as of course he was, the nature of such soldiers making death in battle almost inevitable.
Through knowing Tom Howie I feel I know Ashby and the gallant-hearted and selfless in every army in every war. They do not finally win the wars; those who are arbitrary and demanding do that. But the Howies and Ashbys add a note of grace to a generally brutish scene, and for this they are loved and remembered.
The Germans could, perhaps, not notice the fragmented 2nd Battalion at La Madeleine, but the arrival of the 3rd was large enough to attract deadly attention. The mortar round that killed Tom Howie was followed by a day of heavy shelling and attack; the last one, late in the day, was broken up by a spectacular concentration of our artillery fire and by fighter-bomber strikes. Even so, the day’s end found both battalions low on ammunition and with many dead and wounded.
Now, however, the tragedy of St. Lô was moving rapidly to its close. For this final act the devastated town was the stage, with XIX Corps divisions gathered above it on the hills to the north and east. On the afternoon of the eighteenth a 29th Task Force broke into the ruins and raised the division’s flag. At about the same time, the Stonewall Brigade opened a supply corridor to La Madeleine, and evacuation of wounded and dead was begun, Tom Howie’s body being carried into St. Lô .
On July 20 the 29th’s sector was taken over by the 35th Division, which had been heavily engaged on our right. As the 29th’s units were relieved they began moving back to the promised land of corps reserve near St. Clair-sur-l’Elle, where this account started. The division had been in combat continuously for forty-five days at a price of over seven thousand casualties; in effect its nine rifle battalions had been used up about twice over.
Five days later Operation COBRA was launched with a massive aerial bombardment. The breakout from Normandy followed.
There remains a brief epilogue. The 2nd Battalion departed the battle by foot from La Madeleine to the ridge road. While waiting for it I took a last look around the now quiet field. The salvage crews were at work, and much of the wrecked equipment and weapons had been removed. But the deep wounds in the land were undressed and gave the appearance of verdant desolation. Every hedgerow was scalloped with holes, for no man had stopped without digging in. Practically every hedgerow had been fought for, plowed by shells, and gaped with raw passages for tanks. Whole trees were blasted down, and shattered limbs hung from others. The sickening smell of high explosive persisted.
While I looked and wondered at all this the battalion, in column of twos, commander leading, appeared toiling up the slope. The column was pitifully short; at first I thought that it was only one company and the other would follow. Then I realized that this was all there was, and the memory of it still dries the throat and stings the eyes.
I had seen the great, gray ships of the D-day armada stretching to the horizon in every direction, and I had often seen majestic fleets of Flying Fortress bombers returning from Germany. These were scenes awesome in power and portent. But for a sight to grasp and hold the heart forever I give you a decimated infantry battalion lurching out of battle, bowed with a mortal weariness and with all it has endured. This is not a drama of machines but of ordinary men who have achieved an extraordinary triumph over their fears and vulnerable flesh. For me all sights must pale beside it. I joined the commander and told him of arrangements for the bivouac. The column trudged on toward the Couvains road. Behind us the mists of onrushing time and events began to gather over St. Lô .