February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
An infantryman remembers how it was
Victory in Europe seemed sure and near for the Western Allies in late summer, 1944, as their armies broke out of a shallow beachhead on the Channel coast of France and rolled, seemingly unstoppable, across Normandy, Brittany, Flanders, on to Paris, and up to the borders of Germany itself. But here, braked by worn-out men and machines and an outrun fuel supply, the advance slowed and halted. The dark winter of the Ardennes followed, and it was spring before Germany was finally reduced to the smoking, starving ruin that constituted defeat.
During the August progress of arms across France, however, any suggestion that the end to five years of devastating war could be so delayed seemed pessimistic, even unpatriotic. No such suggestion was made by the Allied press and radio. The liberation of towns and destruction of enemy formations (unfortunately the two often overlapped) was proclaimed in stark black and white: valor and daring versus, at best, a diabolical cunning. A sense of swashbuckling abandon was conveyed; something of a game of Allied hounds coursing the German hare.
Perhaps a distant perspective of the giant scene gave this impression. Close up, however, at the armor and infantry points of the pursuit, the sensation was not that of chasing a hare, but that of following a wounded tiger into the bush; the tiger turning now and again to slash at its tormentors, each slash drawing blood.
This is a personal account of one of those pursuing points of infantry: the 2nd Battalion, 116th Regiment (the Stonewall Brigade), 29th Infantry Division. We joined the battle on July 28, three days after the massive Allied air bombardment that launched the operation called COBRA, designed to rupture the German lines on a four-mile-wide front west of St. Lo. COBRA developed into a breakout from the beachhead, and then into the great pursuit that at its height involved upward of two million men on the two sides. On August 15 the Allied invasion of southern France added another front to the massive battle.
On a battlefield of such enormous proportions, the actions of a single infantry battalion can provide only a small, closely cropped scene from a giant canvas of fire-breathing columns, writhing and twisting across a fair French countryside, trailing behind them broken men and machines, smoking villages, and trampled fields. This battalion scene, so relatively minute in time and space, covers fourteen days and some fifteen straightline miles from the village of Moyon to the ancient town of Vire; in width it rarely measures more than two hundred yards. But it was not composed without pain, and I believe it to be a fair sample of much of the great pursuit. No swashbuckling column we, but a dogged, trudging one, at times creeping and crawling.
The Stonewall Brigade’s fifteen miles cost over a thousand killed and wounded, of which the 2nd Battalion bore its about one-third share. This cost was not excessive by Normandy standards, and it was light compared to the more than thirtyfive hundred Stonewallers left along the twenty-mile stretch from Omaha Beach through St. Lo. Yet to lose within two weeks nearly half of the battalion’s seven hundred officers and men was enough to cause an immediate hurt militarily, and a lasting one personally.
The 116th is a Virginia National Guard regiment. Its hereditary title, Stonewall Brigade, was gained at the First Battle of Manassas in the Civil War under General Thomas J. Jackson. The regiment was mustered for World War II in 1941. By August, 1944, relatively few Virginians remained; many were in the military cemetery at La Cambe; more were in hospital or had been invalided home. These losses were made good with draftees from across the country and resulted in ranks as much Yankee as Virginian.
With the seniority gained from chance survival of its battles, I had advanced from company commander to battalion major and executive officer. The battalion commander was of tested combat worthiness. He was a professional product of West Point, but unorthodox and irreverent enough to lead amateurs whose approach to soldiering was aggressively temporary.
The eight days between the taking of St. Lo and joining COBRA were spent by the 29th Division in corps reserve, refitting with men and material. The 2nd Battalion’s bivouac was among orchards of ancient, gnarled apple trees outside the village of St. Clair-sur-1’Elle, which we had taken in a night attack just over a month before. The luxury of hot meals, showers, clean uniforms, and being away from the immediate vicinity of death and destruction obscured the discouraging fact that the crusade in Europe had advanced little more than three miles during that month of hard fighting and heavy losses. (There were vague reports of the July 20 attempt to assassinate Hitler, and a momentary hope that this might mean the collapse of the German army, but nothing came of it, and it was accepted that the war would have to be fought out the hard way.)
The weather that since D-day had alternated between damp cold and sultry heat turned pleasantly warm and bright. The sickening smell of cordite with which war infected the countryside had blown away, and our orchard was green and summer-smelling. For recreation, motion pictures ran all day in a blacked-out barn, the film spotty and jerky from constant use. These wartime films, like wartime writing, projected a streak of blatant unreality, but they were enjoyed, for this was the tenor of the times and we were all attuned to it.
A Red Cross canteen truck also appeared at intervals with two representatives of American womanhood to dispense coffee, doughnuts, and paperback books. The doughnuts had the weak flavor of rationing, but some of the books were full bodied. There is a pleasant memory of lying in the orchard grass on soft summer evenings reading MacKinlay Kantor’s Long Remember , a novel woven into the historical fabric of the Gettysburg battle.
A chasm of time and circumstance separated Gettysburg, 1863, and Normandy, 1944, but I found it bridged by the casual and mindless unconcern with which the armies at the two places and times wreaked havoc on each other and on all about them.
The tension and fatigue of the forty-five days of battle just behind us gave way to lethargy. The major general commanding the 29th, however, was a detector and eradicator of lethargy, and on the second day in reserve a training schedule was ordained that included close-order drill. The battalion dutifully and profanely tramped by platoons and companies over rough pasture sharing sweat and temper that helped meld the new men in with the veterans. This was well, for in the long stretch at St. Lo there had been instances of new men being wounded or dying as strangers without names to those around them.
Lethargy got its comeuppance on a dull July afternoon at a training session on hedgerow assault tactics. Little attention was paid to this requirement other than to assign a company to run a squad demonstration for the battalion. The company commander was new and relied on a sergeant who had been in the hedgerow fighting to stage it. The demonstration was not a model for the infantry school. The battalion, trailing along in worse array than the gallery at a golf tournament, could see little and hear less. An awareness of not having given enough direction to the assignment peaked as the general arrived unexpectedly, with his usual velocity, took it all in with a glittering eye, and delivered several pungently phrased judgments. The price for such a lapse during pre-D-day training would have been harsh and immediate, but as a battalion that had pulled its combat weight, we got off with blisters. It was enough to get us back on the job, and to give the troops further cause to wish the war over.
Other scenes emerge from the shifting memories of that eight-day interlude. One is of sending a detachment of veterans to represent the battalion at the division’s memorial service at La Cambe Cemetery. On their return, I thought I had never seen such somber young men. Each had a friend or more in the newly mounded graves; a corporal told me in a controlled voice that it looked as though a whole division were being buried there.
This seemed a possibility, for so far as we could foresee, the small, deadly battles for one hedgerow at a time would continue indefinitely. Superiority in manpower, fire power, and air power assured the taking of that next hedgerow, provided the price was paid; but then there would be another and another. This was the close-up, ground-level view of the war. At First Army Headquarters, which dealt in larger views, plans were being completed for COBRA. Central to these plans was a massive air strike that was to blast a corridor through the German defenses that fronted on the St. Lô-Périers highway. Pour infantry and two armored divisions of VII Corps were then to attack to complete the breach.
COBRA was to be launched on July 24, but, once a portion of the bomber force was airborne from England, it was decided that dangerously poor visibility over the target required a postponement. A number of formations diftnot-getthe recall signal and made their runs, some bombs falling short into the attack assembly areas and causing casualties and disruption. The next day, with better visibility and added precautions, the air strike went in again in full force. Once more, however, human error showed its amazing versatility; bombs were again dropped into the assembly areas, resulting in more deaths, including that of a ranking general.
Despite this, the infantry advanced and wedged a way into the bomb-wracked defenses. COBRA was under way and soon promised significant results. The sulphurous war of words between the ground and air staffs over fault for the bombing errors was overladen by the sweet smell of success.
I recite this well-worn history to develop a facet of the infantry battalion’s image of itself: that all things somehow work against it, even those designed to help. We had constant occasion to appreciate Allied air power, but were also wary of it; some claimed it safer to be on the bombing target than near it.
Still ignorant of COBRA, we watched the planes go over, and heard the distant rolling thunder of their carpet bombing. Then came word of the offensive, and an alert order to join it on July 28. Camp was struck early, and late that afternoon trucks arrived to convoy us to the front, the exact location not known.
I closed the rear of the motor march, and so watched the trucks pass at careful sixty-yard intervals, each loaded with serious-faced young men seated on benches on either side, rifles between their knees and packs stacked in the middle. I was again impressed by how little of the “old,” pre-D-day battalion, remained; those who did stood out by indefinable expression and posture.
The convoy trundled slowly down the dusty road that was bounded on both sides by tangles of communication wire, wrecked farm buildings, broken hedgerows, and into St. Lô, itself, a barren desert of broken masonry through which a roadway had been ‘dozed. Here we stalled in the enormous traffic that trails a major advance. The 2nd Armored Division had been committed to the growing prospects of COBRA, and the pressure of its supply train compressed the column until the trucks were head to tail, lurching forward a few yards at a time. Sitting in the middle of such a bountiful target was uncomfortable, but proved uneventful; the German artillery still within range was apparently more concerned with the forward edge of COBRA than with its rear.
After two hours, and about five miles south of St. Lô, we were deposited by the roadside, where again we waited while a warm, still, and very dark night came on, the southeastern horizon glowing red at intervals with gun flashes. It was near midnight when our destination order arrived by a jeep that crept toward us, its cat’s-eye blackout lights glowing evilly. The battalion formed up and started down the dusty road that in places stank of burned cordite. After two hours the march became a plodding column, more asleep than awake. All traffic had disappeared; we were in a dark void treading a shade lighter line of roadway; even the war had stopped growling in the distance. About 0300 the assembly area was reached and the companies stumbled off into the fields.
Then it was discovered that Headquarters Company, bringing up the rear, was missing. I told the commander that I would find it and, without going into my performance in closing the column, he observed that this was a damn good idea. I started back over our route looking for what amounted to a moving black dot in a vast expanse of darkness. Sleep was becoming the end of all desire when I literally collided with the captain at the head of his trance-walking company. There was a mumbled exchange over not having gotten the start signal at the last break, and we trudged on to the assembly area. The battalion commander was relieved that the lost had been found, and on this happier note I left the world and its foolish war for the incalculably greater attractions of oblivion.
Awakening came shortly after dawn with the blast of a rifleshot from an adjoining hedgerow, where, it developed, one of the new men had wounded himself in the foot. He moaned in shock and pain that it was an accident; whether so or not, he was our first, and inglorious, casualty of COBRA. The condition of his foot indicated poor premeditation, if such it was.
Drifting away and out of any battalion portrait are the furtive shapes of the stragglers: a few with self-inflicted wounds; many more simply quitting through physical and emotional weariness. These latter, catted combat-fatigue cases, were tolerated, I believe, to an unnecessary and disturbing degree.
By 1944 the infantry battalions were composed largely of draftees. But, given the low degree of coercion applied to keep them there, they were draftees for the army, and volunteers for the fight-as good company as a man could wish, but tragic in that so many were doomed by their own courage.
The 2nd Battalion started southward that morning, feeling its way through a milky-white ground fog that lay over fields and orchards, damp and cool. The regiment’s objective was a sector centering on Moyon, reported sparsely held by the 2nd Armored Division. Battle groups of German tanks and infantry were in front of and behind Moyon.
Our advance found one of these battle groups as we closed in on our objective south of the village. Two newly assigned lieutenants and the scouts of the two leading companies went down in the first blast of machine-gun fire. The Stonewall Brigade’s three battalions deployed along the line of opposition; we had again grappled with the enemy, and whatever our individual reluctance, corporately, we would not let go.
That night, the Luftwaffe mustered a lone plane to drone along the front, dropping flares whose white glare created a feeling of unwholesome exposure.
Intermittent shelling continued the next morning. In the midst of it we were ordered to send a company to a crossroads, called La Denisière, to the rear of our right flank where there was an uncertain report of a roadblock of German tanks. G Company was given the mission, and around that inconspicuous crossing of dusty Normandy roads waged one of those small, bloody battles that leave their mark on those in them, but hardly a whisper in history.
The day, July 30, also left its mark on me; late in its afternoon ’ I received word that the battalion commander had been hit in ’’ the forearm and was being evacuated. I was to take command. My first sensation was one of such complete inadequacy that it seemed important to share it with the regimental commander: I took a jeep back to his command post and advised him that there were undoubted officers standing around better qualified for the job. The colonel did not dispute this, but told me that I had accepted the promotion to executive officer, and I would now go back and command the battalion. My reluctance, however, must have raised doubt as to my qualities of dynamic leadership, for that evening he sent up a senior captain from his staff as executive officer and potential replacement.
So I shouldered the full weight of the war, going first to La Denisière where G Company had gained control of the crossroads. A German half-track, its radio still crackling Teutonic military jargon, was tilted into a ditch, the bodies of the crew strewn about.
The crossroads lay across the route of a new division being committed to COBRA, and the German command thought enough of its tactical value to waste scarce armor trying to block it. G Company had paid the price: lying near the half-track was a lieutenant who had joined us the week before, unconscious and breathing with the heavy snoring characteristic of head wounds. Other still forms were collected in the shade of a hedgerow.
The day’s cost didn’t end with G Company: the veteran F Company commander and another new lieutenant from H Company were also killed; wounded men and emotional casualties amounted to another squad or so. Add the loss of the battalion commander, and the toll for the pursuit was mounting, though we had hardly started.
That night the German flare plane was accompanied by a bomber but disturbed nothing in the 2nd Battalion except rest. With this second appearance, the flare plane naturally acquired the title of “Bed-Check Charlie.”
The next day was spent in place. Throughout the morning seven Panzers probed across our front, then suddenly turned and began blasting the hedgerows held by E Company. The company claimed disabling bazooka hits on one that was towed away by the others. Later a young German officer in the black Panzer uniform was brought in, his lower jaw a bloody mess of , sywSshed teeth, bone, and flesh. He was on his feet but could make only gurgling noises and hold his head in obviously harrowing pain. Compassion for an enemy, I found, diminishes as a battle drags on—in the Western theater it was to reach a nadir in the misery of the Ardennes-but enough remained that day for me to send him back to the aid station by jeep.
Patrols that night found the Germans gone. The reason, though we did not know it, was that VIII Corps, on the right flank of COBRA, was breaking through to the coastal town of Avranches. Through this corridor, the U.S. Third Army was to sweep westward into Brittany, and eastward to form the southern side of the Falaise-Argentan pocket. The effect was immediate: a pullback of German tank and infantry groups began all across the front.
A departing army, taking menace with it, leaves a palpable void. Into this void the 2nd Battalion advanced the next morning encountering wrecked vehicles and freshly dug roadside graves; in retreat, we found, the Germans buried their dead where they fell.
The great pursuit was on.
The 2nd Battalion’s advance was through full-blown summer fields and orchards, and at times along country lanes marked by tank tracks that posed the constant question of where they might stop. They did not stop that day, and we covered more than two uneventful miles, digging in at dusk and hugging the shadows of hedgerows as the flare plane came over on its nightly swing.
The day had been a rare one of no casualties. My most anxious moments had come on seeing a rifle company trudging in file across the enemy side of a grassy slope, resembling nothing so much as moving targets in a shooting gallery. Company commanders’ careers in Normandy were apt to be brief and allowed little chance to accumulate experience-but this particular tactical rashness was not called to account by the German rear guard.
The next morning we started again over the rolling hills, and in a wide swale passed the debris of a tank battle. The scorched hulks of three Shermans and two Mark IVs were tumbled about, their guns tilted at odd angles. A blackened body lay halfway out of the driver’s hatch of a Sherman, arms extended and fingers crooked, clawing for escape. The passing files barely glanced at the scene; even the most morbid curiosity must have been satisfied long before.
That afternoon the enemy added to their delaying force a large-caliber, long-range mortar that lobbed its huge shells in at intervals to avoid being located by our Cub artillery spotter. The mortar immediately became a dreaded thing, its shells able to blow apart anything in a field. One of the first rounds did this to a squad and further dampened any exhilaration of the chase.
The battalion pushed on late into the soft evening of that day, and started again the next morning through a white ground mist. Along the way, German stragglers came out of holes or houses and surrendered. They supplied very little useful information, being too anxious to tell what they thought we wanted to hear about the sad straits of the German army, and their personal anti-Nazi sentiments.
Also uncovered was a young American paratrooper who had been captured on D-day but had escaped to hide out with a farm family. He wore the beret and faded blue work clothes of the French farmer, but remained unmistakably American to more than a glance.
Signs of the retreat abounded, but all the weapons and equipment we passed were smashed; there was none of the litter or usable material that trails a routed army. A farm where we paused briefly had been a depot for bicycle troops, and dozens of the heavy, cumbersome machines in various stages of repair were ranked in the barn and sheds. We admired much of the German equipment: their lower-slung tanks made our Shermans appear awkwardly high and vulnerable; the P-38 pistol was highly sought; their machine pistols and machine guns had a higher cyclic rate of fire than our Brownings and seemed more deadly. I don’t think, however, that any of our lads considered those bicycles as a desirable way to war, or practical as a souvenir. Some probably were repaired by the thrifty Norman farmers and are still in use.
Our zone of advance now centered on the town of Vire, which we found, in due time, to be on the eastern side of a deep ravine cut through the hills by the Vire River. Vire, like St. Lô, is a road and market center, its origins dating back into the Middle Ages. Also, as at St. Lô, the hills and ridges around it are adapted for defense, and the nearer we drew, the harder and more costly became the going.
Late on August 3, near the village of Landelles-et-Coupigny, a heavier than usual volume of artillery, mortar, and tank fire exploded across the front, and we went to ground. Our artillery blasted back, and the stained stretchers were carried to the rear with their loads.
So reminiscent was this of the approaches to St. Lo that I was convinced the rest of the way to Vire would be equally costly. This outlook grew darker with the evening until it developed into genuine gloom, a not unfamiliar emotion for me in the manic-depressive atmosphere of war. Usually able to dissemble it, I knew that I would have to come to grips with it now, for I had seen soldiers led forward by desperation, but I had never seen them follow gloom in any direction other than to the rear.
Even the small forward command-post group—all steady veterans—was too much company for this mood, so, with the radio operator, I went forward through the gloaming to a frontline hedgerow where a small squad of riflemen was dug in, resting or watching. Similar squads were in the fields to either flank, but so compartmented by the hedgerows that each had reason to feel alone in the war.
The evening had grown quiet except for the far-off rumble of heavy traffic as German armor and trucks pulled back from the developing pincer arms. Now and then the rumble was interrupted by the dull crash and dim red glow of shell fire as our artillery sought out the retreat. I stood for a few minutes watching this and the landscape just ahead, hazily lighted by some small phase of the moon. Then, on impulse, I told the radio operator to stay behind while I went up to the next hedgerow. He did not protest, nor did the squad leader, who probably saw no reason to object to a gratuitous outpost. After arranging return signals, I clambered over the hedgerow and crossed the narrow field to the front.
Here, indeed, was a rare solitude that I think can be found only in the dead space between two resting armies. It could be violated by patrols, but this was unlikely considering the German posture of retreat. I felt no fear of disturbance as I leaned into the rank growth of the chest-high hedgerow and tried to think away gloom. There was no military reason for it: we were winning the war. The 2nd Battalion was a responsive command, becoming more effective by the day as the new men turned veteran. Making decisions involving lives was a heavy burden, but it was now an accustomed one, and less a moral weight in that my hide was also at stake—there is little impersonal decision making in an infantry battalion. Besides, these decisions were bounded by what we were ordered to do. For tomorrow, the order was to attack at 0530. Following a brief artillery preparation, the riflemen would maneuver forward, and if the Germans had not pulled out, some would be killed, and more wounded.
To this relentless pattern we were committed by discipline, training, pride, and by-I think-a generally held conviction that for Americans in 1944 there was no alternative. It was while groping in this dark maze of the mind that a dimly perceived movement materialized on the opposite side of the hedgerow to the left. As fiction the scene that then developed would require only ordinary imagination; to claim it as fact would be absurd. I offer it as a particularly vivid hallucination arising from fatigue long sustained and from the effect of continuing violence on an essentially nonviolent nature.
The scene that came into dim focus was a German patrol moving in my direction. This in itself would have been a sufficient shock; compounding it was a developing awareness that this patrol was not exactly of the Wehrmacht with which we had been in deadly embrace for the past two months, and its movement was as noiseless as the gathering of white ground fog in a low swale to the front.
All of this was registered under the impact of known proximity to an enemy whom I never regarded with detachment at any range. The identification that developed in more detail was with the sepia-toned pictures of the Kaiser’s army in an illustrated history of the Great War that I pored over as a boy.
Soldiers of the Kaiser’s Imperial Army and those of Hitler’s Third Reich both wore helmets described as “coal scuttle,” for their resemblance to a household implement of the era of the coal-burning stove. There were marked differences, however, between the cloth fatigue caps worn in the two wars. The cap of Hitler’s army had a long bill and low crown, while the one the Kaiser’s soldiers wore was round, high standing, and had no visor at all—looking something like a modified chef’s bonnet, but distinctively German. Each member of the patrol that I eventually made out wore the round cap of the Kaiser’s army.
Further, as the scene developed, each appeared to be shod in the calf-high jack boots which were universal in pictures of the World War I German army. Jack boots were also favored in 1944, but I had noted that most of the prisoners we had been taking wore heavy shoes and short canvas gaiters. There was another difference. The German rear guards and patrols favored the machine pistol over the rifle, and I don’t recall encountering one not so armed. But this patrol carried only rifles, the barrels slanting alternately right and left.
Old men do indeed forget; memories merge, shift, and take nonesuch shapes. So strong, however, was the impact of the antique figures and the aura they projected that they have remained with me intact down the years. It was a hallucination of uncommon power and shock effect.
I have said that the dark figures (there were seven or eight of them) materialized suddenly and silently in space that had been empty. Countering an immediate imperative to leave was a conviction that before I lumbered a few yards those rifles could be leveled for execution as if I were a condemned man tied to a stake. I don’t recall considering my service automatic adequate to the odds.
My uncalculated response was to crouch to eye level with the top of the hedgerow and stare through the rank growth at the darker figures moving toward me in the general darkness, only their upper bodies and rifles visible from my level. Seconds more and they would have been abreast. But then, without signal that I discerned, they stopped and bent below the level of the hedgerow, out of my vision. One can withhold breathing for an eternity, and I did, before the dark battle frieze again materialized above the hedgerow. But now, instead of continuing toward me they turned hard left in single file and in a predatory crouch moved the short distance into the ground fog filling the swale to become dark blobs on its white surface, and then to disappear. The turn had brought each figure into silhouette, and I got the full effect of the caps, rifles, and the jack boots that moved without a whisper through the grass.
Thus, the hallucination passed. Gradually I became aware again of the distant rumble of the retreat, and of the summer rustlings and green smells of the hedgerow. The impressionist landscape to my front, with the coal-black line of the next hedgerow drawn across it, and lighter splash of ground fog athwart its center, held mystery more haunting than menacing.
I do not know how long I stood so, and it was without conscious decision that I turned back across the narrow field to our lines, tapping the return signal on my helmet—probably unnecessarily, because the sentries and radio operator must have been able to make me out dimly the entire time.
No comments were made as I rejoined them, and selfpreservation as a commander argued against mentioning that a German patrol from another war had passed by a field away.
The radio operator and I returned to the command post where, except for the man on telephone watch, all were asleep along the hedgerow. The night had the hazy, dreamlike aspect of the glade scene in A Midsummer Night ‘K Dream ; but here a different sort of folly was afoot.
I was aware, though, that my burden of gloom had lifted; lacking another reason, I attribute it to the shock of seeing a sight that never was. None of this says much for my emotional balance, but then there is not much to say for it at that point. Wrapping myself in a raincoat against the dew, I slept.
We were up in the dawn mist, each eating whatever part of the cold field ration he could tolerate. The artillery preparation descended, and we moved forward. Here the script departed from the one I had gloomily foreseen, for the Germans had pulled out, except for a few stragglers waiting to surrender.
Now we were pointed straight for Vire, but across the path loomed Hill 219 (its meter height) dominating the western approaches. We had advanced little more than a mile when the enormously destructive shells from the heavy mortar and artillery (ire exploded along the route. More men went down, and the companies dispersed along the hedgerows. The shelling subsided, but hit us again each time we came under observation from the hill. Early in the evening we dug in, and the 3rd Battalion advanced through our positions for an attack on the hill the next morning. The evening was quiet except for tankgun fire off to the left, where the 2nd Armored was battling for a bridge over the Vire.
The next day, August 5, was also costly. The 3rd Battalion attacked, along with 2nd Armored tanks, and gained the hill. We were ordered up on the right and reached the hill’s broad, flat top just at dusk. A thin line was organized among the tanks already deployed along the eastern edge overlooking the deep, dark ravine of the Vire River and the town on the opposite side. Now and again an ear-splitting exchange of tank-gun fire cracked across the ravine.
The command post was in an ancient barn that held penetrating smells of musty hay, animals, and untold generations of mice. The seriously wounded were sent down the rough hillside by stretcher, and the lesser hurt were collected in the barn for the night.
We remained on the hill throughout the morning and afternoon of August 6, dug in against the intermittent artillery and tank fire. Late in the afternoon the tankers, after communication among themselves, abruptly cranked up and roared away without so much as a wave. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were now the battered kings of 219. Shortly thereafter came a warning order to prepare to assault Vire.
I had spent the day at the forward edge of the hill where there was a clear view of the town on the opposite and slightly lower heights. Prom here it looked like a picture postcard, the backs of the closely set houses, with red tile roofs, making a varicolored wall above the ravine.
Vire was acquainted with calamity: it had known terrible passages of the Black Death plague in the fourteenth century; innumerable local conflicts of feudal lords; and in the fifteenth century the devastation of the Hundred Years’ War. An Allied air raid had hit the town on D-day, leaving many of its citizens dead or wounded. Now, on a beautiful August evening, its ancient stones were again to be tumbled about, this time in a contention between the Stonewall Brigade, sometime of the Army of Northern Virginia, C.S. A., and a conglomerate of German paratroopers, infantry, and armor. It was, I suppose, an incident of history neither more nor less likely than any other.
I had not expected the attack order. The ravine and river, I thought, must be recognized as too formidable an obstacle for our depleted ranks. It seemed logical that the attack be made in greater strength along some less precipitous approach. This wishful logic was exploded by the arrival of the regimental commander with the order that in just over two hours the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were to take Vire and block the five roads converging there.
The colonel was not quite able to conceal his apprehension over the prospect. A big, heavyset man who had taken over at St. Lo, he was having a difficult time pleasing the divisional commander who was his opposite in stature and temperament. The clash building between the two already pointed to the colonel’s departure.
The general kept tabs on his three regiments by posting liaison officers to each to report developments directly to him without waiting for the slower staff channels. The young lieutenant with the 116th was a bumbling type, and in his zeal to hear what the colonel was telling me he stumbled and fell against him—sending maps and overlays spinning.
The colonel, anxious over the mission, and probably resentful of what he considered the general’s snooping, delivered a loud bawling out that left the lieutenant riddled. It also served as comic relief for the dark prospects of the attack.
While the rest of us brought our coughing under control, the colonel straightened out his rumpled dignity and, apparently feeling better, laid out the battalion boundaries and objectives. Then with a blessing of “Good luck, and don’t fail,” he departed with a final admonishment to keep him informed.
I went over the order with the company commanders and, in turn, assigned boundaries and objectives, which they accepted without expressed misgivings. Then, there was a surprise call from the general asking how long I had had to prepare for the attack. He actually sounded a little uncertain, and I found myself foolishly trying to reassure probably one of the most assured men in the army that all would be well.
By now, evening shadows were stretching out, leaving our west side of the ravine dark and highlighting the opposite side. Vire appeared in this light as a medieval town under siege, black smoke rising above it and artillery fire echoing along the ravine. A short stretch of the road entering the town from the southwest was visible, and on this a squat German tank lurched into view, traversed its gun, and began pumping shells down the ravine at a target we couldn’t see, possibly the river bridge. The artillery observer brought in the fire of a battery on it, the first shell hitting directly in front of the turret in a splash of flame. Through field glasses, I saw the tank rock like a poleaxed steer, its tracks shedding dust and its gun silenced; then slowly it crawled out of view toward the town; followed by more shell splashes. So we knew there was at least one tank in Vire, the crew probably with monumental headaches, but counting themselves lucky at having been hit by a high explosive rather than an armor-piercing shell.
The two assault companies started in columns abreast down the steep hillside and were immediately lost to view in the underbrush and dark shadows. The battalion command group followed, slipping and sliding, holding on to brush and trees. At the bottom, we passed one of the first wounded, a rifleman bandaged and lying beside the river. He raised himself on an elbow and asked to be helped back to the aid station. I had to tell him that none of our small party could be spared, but that the stretcher bearers with the reserve company were following directly behind and would take care of him. He sank back without complaint; a recurring and troubling wonder is whether he was ever found in the fading light.
We forded the shallow river and started up the opposite slope toward a racket of gunfire beyond the wall of houses. A number of stragglers were drifting back toward the river, each announcing himself to be the sole survivor of his squad or platoon. They were added to our party, and we entered the town through a narrow lane that opened between the houses. The scene inside was worthy of a witches’ sabbath: the night lit by the undulating red glow of burning buildings, all overhung by a pall of smoke. The only orgy under way, however, was that of destruction; parties of Germans were trying to surrender, others were trying to withdraw and doing a lot of yelling; tracer bullets crisscrossed and ricocheted off the rubble. In the general madness and confusion, some who had surrendered undoubtedly changed their minds and slipped away.
The two assault companies had dissolved in the debris, and the only usable force still in hand was the reserve company, which pushed along the main street to the eastern exit of the town. On this street was a massive, two-storied stone building, and here the command group stopped and tried to get the battalion into some sort of order. Little was achieved that night. There was no radio contact with the regiment, or with the two assault companies, both of whose commanders were casualties. Delayed word came that the executive officer had also been wounded and evacuated. This was a loss, for while he was ambitious for command, he had been loyal and energetic in helping me.
The night finally grew quiet, and with what seemed undue reluctance, gave way to the usual milky dawn. Vire by day lost its dramatic appearance and became just a dismal place of gray, smoking rubble. The scattered battalion was gradually pulled together and the roadblocks were established. The principal one, farther along the street from the command post, centered around a heavy machine gun of H Company set up in a bomb crater. I was talking with the crew about the field of fire when directly to the front a close column of German troops debouched from a wooded area onto the road and marched away eastward. In the haze of fatigue, and the uncertain visibility, we failed to react to this ideal machine-gun target, the long axis of the marching column being directly in the long axis of the gun’s cone of fire. By the time the gunner had squeezed off a burst, the column was vanishing down a slope into the mist, much luckier than it deserved to be. At the time I regretted this lost opportunity, but not now.
Returning to the command post, I found the wounded had been gathered in the cobbled courtyard, but that the battalion surgeon was not yet there to care for them. I had become accustomed to surgeons who put the job above their skins, and I only now realized that this one, who had joined after St. Lo, was not of that cut. He had been slow getting up on Hill 219, and he was now long overdue in Vire. I sent him word to get there immediately or report to the colonel under arrest. He soon faded completely, and we were assigned a young Puerto Rican doctor who remained a bright spot in the battalion throughout the war.
While I was still boiling over the surgeon’s absence, a German medical officer and his aide men were brought in as POWs. I asked him to give emergency care to our wounded. He agreed, and with the efficiency of long practice his crew cleared a table in a bright room and set out instruments and bandages from field medical kits. With assembly-line precision a dozen or more of our wounded were stanched, cleaned, bandaged, and injected. Along with everything else I had seen of the enemy, this work was professional and competent; there was a sinking feeling that the German army would take much more destroying.
It was now mid-morning. There had been quiet since dawn, but now a shell from the heavy mortar slammed into one end of the building, followed by artillery fire that stirred the rubble once again. The explosions continued walking through the ruins at intervals. The German surgeon called attention to his rights as a POW to be moved from the danger zone, and during a lull in the shelling he was sent to the rear with the wounded.
Late that afternoon the regimental commander again arrived with an order. This time it was to take Hill 251 that loomed over Vire to the east and was probably the observation post for the shelling. The 1st Battalion was to assault a similar hill to the south. A battalion of the 2nd Infantry Division arrived to take over in Vire, and we advanced to the base of 251 for the attack the next morning, August 7.
The move uncovered a German rifleman who had sniped several Stonewallers during the day: he waited too long to pull out and was cut down as he ran along a narrow garden lane. The night at the foot of the hill was quiet, although German artillery continued to rend the town.
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.
While the intelligence officer was collecting material from the motorcycles, I offered the captain a field ration and we talked about the war, he speaking heavily accented but adequate English. I handed him one of the leaflets that had been showered on the Germans pointing out the hopelessness of their situation and urging surrender. He said, pleasantly enough, that it was silly to expect an army that had fought as the German army had fought for the past five years to surrender to such pieces of paper.
I observed that as far as he was concerned, this was academic. He agreed, but advised me not to expect the German army to fall apart. He complimented the field ration, and I said that if he found that palatable, his army was in worse shape than he realized.
The conversation was drifting into banter as the S-2 arrived with maps and papers from the sidecars. The captain looked at the bundle ruefully as he was carried away by the other POWs on a stretcher improvised from a door. I warned him that our rear-area people often stripped POWs of watches, medals, and anything else removable. He said that German troops did the same, and that I should get the good Luger that had been taken from him. It would have been hard to wish so pleasant a fellow reduced to another lifeless heap on a dusty Normandy hilltop. One of the motorcycles was undamaged, and I used it for a few days, until regiment heard about it and ordered it turned in.
The rest of the day and night was quiet. The next morning, August 9, patrols found no sign of the enemy other than fresh graves and wrecked equipment. We did not know that two days before, some fifteen miles to the southwest, the last German offensive in Normandy had been launched to sever the breakthrough corridor at Avranches through which the U.S. Third Army was rolling. This futile effort was drawing all their resources.
The battalion that had relieved us at Vire now took over Hill 251, and we marched back to join the rest of the regiment in corps reserve in an area southwest of the town, the whole battalion on the march looking like one full-strength company. There was a hot supper waiting, and the next day clean uniforms were issued to replace those we had sweated, fought, and slept in for the past ten days. Current editions of the Stars and Stripes arrived and told of a booming Allied war effort. The German counterattack had been stopped at Mortain after hard fighting, with never a pause in the Third Army columns that were pouring into Brittany and also curving in toward Falaise.
New men arrived to bring the companies up to over half strength, and training was resumed. A white-haired lieutenant colonel from a reinforcement depot also came by saying, very businesslike, that he wanted to observe at first hand the “maintenance job” on the battalion. I am sure that he meant well, and was dedicated to his job of fairly allocating badly strained infantry manpower. The inference, however, that those we had left along the road to Vire, so many of whom I knew so well, were simply worn-out parts to be replaced, struck me as intolerable. I have an unfortunate tendency to sputter incoherently when angry, and I did so then to the astonishment of the well-meaning officer, who must have left thinking that his maintenance work would soon have to include a new battalion commander. But if he reported this unmannerly reaction to his innocent jargon, the regimental commander never mentioned it.
During these few days in bivouac we were visited by the divisional commander, and at a formation the regimental commander presented Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars. They told us that we had done well, and I don’t recall any disclaimers.
There had been losses in all ranks, and reorganization was constant. The one remaining captain was moved up to executive officer, to be killed the following month at Brest. A new operations officer, the fourth in two months, arrived and was to prove a mainstay and a friend. We were both wounded the same day near Aachen, he losing a leg, but never a warm and generous nature. Two surviving lieutenants, and one returning from the hospital, became company commanders. (Newly assigned lieutenants seemed to be mostly Texas A & M graduates.)
Such a litany of change must run through any account of a battalion in combat. It is remarkable that through it all the battalion’s personality remained so constant. The reason must be that despite the losses, enough of the past always remained to provide a continuity of character. New men tended to regard the veterans with respect, and adopted their attitudes and actions. Thus, even a relatively few veterans in a battle-worthy battalion had great influence in keeping it so; by the same token, a hard-luck outfit with a background of failure was very hard to turn around.
The third day in reserve ended in a spurt of activity as we were ordered back to Hill 251, some higher command having decided that the Germans might turn and strike at Vire as they had at Avranches. This proved a farfetched concern that might better have been saved for the Ardennes situation four months hence. Some of the old men pointed out that being deployed had its advantages, for had we stayed in bivouac another day we would have been doing close-order drill.
The battalion marched back to the hill that evening and was dug in by midnight, ready for a counterattack that became more remote by the day. Training was resumed in the form of rerunning the attack on the hill. Doubtlessly, the tactics were embellished with practice, and each veteran probably gilded his part a bit, also. I did not re-enact my leap through the window. The new men seemed impressed and intent on learning from so recent an action.
Meanwhile, the war rolled eastward, taking along its fancy lady, Glory, who has never been any better than she should be. Little of the German Seventh Army escaped; their Fifteenth Army was nearly routed in Flanders; the Parisians rose against their occupiers; and the Allied invasion of southern France gained momentum. For the 2nd Battalion, I think, this was all one; our small, violent scene in the giant canvas of the pursuit was done; we were in no rush to start another.