Jan. 31, 2001
This account starts with 7th July attack and ends 19th July, 1944. I have an official War Dept. Study of these 12 days prepared in 1946. It has its purpose as outlined by Gen. Eisenhower in the Foreword, "To help the soldiers who took part in these operations a chance to see the results of orders they obeyed and of sacrifices which they and their comrades made, in performance of missions that find their meaning in the outcome of a larger plan of battle."
A soldier serving on the front lines in battle, whether its defense or attack, knows what goes on in his sector and that's about all. Sometimes not all of that!
Here is a part of the big picture. In June the 1st Army and British 2nd had won the beachheads. Now they needed the area around St.-Lo to provide a jump off position to end the Battle of the Hedgerows and break out of the Normandy pocket with tanks.
Our objective was along a line [Coutances]-Masigny-St. Lo. The 30th Division was given a major role in this offensive. General Bradley placed us under XIX Corps.
Prisoners taken during the 3 week period we were preparing for the River crossing were identified as elements of the 984 Infantry Battalion, the 352 Reconnaissance Battalion, and the 17th SS Regiment. Other elements of the 7th German Army which we identified after we got going were 2nd SS Panzer (DAS REICH). In all elements of 12 divisions under 2 Corps were in our Path.
River lines are obstacles, not insurmountable barriers. The reason they are so difficult to assault is because in addition to the main problem of fighting and defeating the enemy there is another problem, that of physically making a way across the water; and the two problems affect each other. Combat infantry must do this while their supporting weapons and supplies are immobilized on the other side. The engineers, military Police, and signalmen making and maintaining a route for men, supplies, and communication must do so while they are the most important targets for the enemy.
A big problem after you get across is the counter attacks. The important thing is to get past the fixed defenses, have bridges put in and reinforcements and supplies coming up. The counter attacks coming when men are tired and the ranks depleted are often more dangerous than the assault itself.
We now had our attack orders down to company level and men like me in the field. The 117th regiment of the 30th Division would jump off at 4:30 AM July 7th, 1944. At 3:30 a.m. XIX Corps artillery would fire a heavy concentration on enemy lines using nine artillery Battalions. At 04:15 AM both Corps and 30th Division artillery with the 92nd Chemical Mortar Battalion would fire close to enemy front lines.
My regiment, 120th Infantry was scheduled to cross at 1:45 p.m. Under the cover of darkness we moved into position back of the hedgerow along the bank of the canal. The day of the attack was foggy and overcast with intermittent showers. It was a long wait. K company of the 3rd Battalion was picked to lead in the 120th Sector.
I think I was the first man to cross in our sector. Instead of foot bridges prepared by our combat engineers, I was using the timbers I had placed on concrete piers where the bridge was blown by the Germans. This worked to my advantage in some ways and a disadvantage in others. I was across before the enemy fire started raking the canal but I got ahead of the others and did not know it until later.
When I crossed the hedgerow and got down on the bank to go to my left to the bridge timbers I saw S/Sgt. Dickerson wounded in the edge of the water. He must have been coming back from a patrol. He was very pale but alert, he gave me a thumbs up signal and I kept going.
The 2nd squad was on my right where they planned to use a foot bridge. Charges were laid to blow a hole in the Hedge. I'm not sure what happened. Either a German shell set it off or the engineers goofed. It blew up before I left and threw dirt all over me Killing Sgt. Jones and delaying that bridge going in. At least 2 of his squad were killed.
Our instructions were to keep up with our artillery which would fire a heavy barrage and move up 50 yards and move on again in a rolling barrage. The smoke was still drifting from craters and German bodies littered the ground. After I crossed I was aware that I only had about 1/2 a squad with me. I went on expecting them to catch up with me. I guess we covered 200 yards before we encountered any opposition. We saw movement to our front on the right. We thought it was K company when we first spotted them. However we changed our minds in a hurry when one of them popped out of a hole just in front of me. I shot from the hip and I'm sure my bullet cleared his head by a very few inches. He threw down his rifle and put his hands over his head. This was my first prisoner and a SS trooper at that! One of the men with me was a Pollack named Henry Walneck who could communicate with him. We searched him and I sent him back with Walneck with instructions to turn him over to K company and rejoin me. That's one of the mysteries of the war. Henry Walneck was never seen or heard from again in K co. If he had been killed his name would show in the back of the 30th Division History. We had so many wounded they did not record them. He could have been wounded by artillery fire or overcome by the SS trooper if he got careless, and ended up a POW.
While this was going on, Sgt. Carlson of K co. joined us with about 1/2 squad of men. We talked it over and decided we were too far ahead of K company and needed to go back and get with them. Our plan of action was for him to cross to the other side of the hedge row with his men and for me to take my men back on my side. That way we were be scattered out more if caught in artillery fire and we could protect our flanks.
As soon as Sgt. Carlson crossed the hedge, several shots were fired (Both German & American by the sounds). I crossed and found Carlson shot in the neck. After he was wounded he had killed the German. I had men search the area for other Germans and set up a primitive defense while I worked on Sgt. Colson. In battle every soldier has a first aid kit on his belt with clips of ammunition for his rifle. I opened Carlson's and gave him a pill with water from his canteen. I used some gauze to wipe the blood away, glad it was just a steady bleeding instead of spurts like it would have been if an artery was cut. I took my knife and cut a strip off his shirt tail, dusted a pkg. of sulpha powder on the wound, covered it with a compress bandage which I secured by tying a strip of his shirt around his neck. I had one of his men carry his rifle and another support him and we started back to link up with K company.
Before long we found our platoon leader Lt. Nash with part of the 3rd platoon. We found out why we had got so far ahead. Murphy's law was in effect (everything that could go wrong, had). The foot bridges were too short and ended in chest high waters. In getting out of the water and up the bank we had a lot of casualties from machine gun fire. Lt. Nash told me the platoon Sgt (T/Sgt. Davis) had been shot and Capt. Smith had promoted me to T/Sgt. to replace Davis as second-in-command of the 3rd platoon.
The reason the rest of my squad who crossed the timbers with Cpl. [Houscheld] who had replaced Sgt. Helton when he got his foot blown off with a mine June 16th had suffered the same fate after crossing the canal. Cpl. Houschild was the best looking soldier in K company and planned a career in the Pros playing Baseball. One step and he needed a career change.
One of our officers was shot in the leg. Capt. Smith said he saw him putting a bandage on and he didn't thing he was hurt too bad. We were shocked to find out later that day that he died on the bank of the canal. We don't know if he bled to death, suffered shock, or was hit again.
Found out that two men from my old machine gun sector were killed in an artillery [trace] burst leaving the canal. One was James Googe, who had gone swimming with me a Christmas day at [Kirsky] Lake while we were in Florida. The other was Floyd Horserly one of the (3) K company men from Ky. He was very quite, a good soldier who never learned to dress like a soldier. He was from the Mtns of Lewis County and had never been away from Home before he was drafted. I was glad I talked him into going to London on a pass with me while we were at Aleysbury, England. It was my first time to eat Chinese food and I loved it.
The ones I have written about are from memory. My resource books tell me of other casualties in that 12 day period. Of the 12 company commanders who led companies across the canal, 8 of them were casualties by the end of the week. Co. C of the 120th lost 3 co. commanders in one four-hour stretch. The 30th Division suffered 3,934 casualties, almost 40% of its strength in that 11 day battle to St-Lo. The toll on front line platoons like I was in was even higher--close to 75% according to one surviving officer.
Now back to July 7 which was probably the longest day of the war for me with July 11 my worst day.
Soon after we linked up with K company we captured some of the High ground west of St. Jean-de-Daye and were ordered to prepare a defense position for the night. We hadn't crossed the canal until 1:45 pm and the time had gone by fast. Lt. Hulbert in charge of the Weapons Platoon (4th) was given the job by Battalion of taking a bazooka team after dark to a curve in the road about 1 mile back of the German line. He asked me if I would go with him as 2nd in command. We were not allowed to take a radio nor any tools to dig with. We were not allowed to withdraw until a runner came from Bn. We were there in case German tanks came up that road. I agreed to go knowing if a tank came up that road and we gave our position away we had little chance to get back.
Just as it got dark we moved into position. Lt. Hulbert took the right of the road with one man to fire, one to load, and another to carry extra rockets. I had the left with a three man team. We got to the designated curve and took our positions in the ditches by the road. About 1 hour after we were in place we spotted a German patrol of 7 men on foot moving towards us from the direction of the canal. They were not on the road but were crossing a field on a course which looked like it would intersect the road just to the right of the curve we were in. It is impossible to describe my feelings as we watched them approach knowing what would happen if we were discovered. Just before they reached our position they turned to the left and joined some soldiers we had not noticed until then. This later turned out to be an artillery position with an alternate firing position and ammunition stored in the field we were in. They started firing about mid-night and when the Americans counter fired they moved positions. They were now close enough for each flash from the guns to light up our ditch. We could hear them talking and the clink of the shells as they moved them from the storage area to the guns. We did not move around and about dawn a runner slipped into the ditch with us and we did not spot him approaching. This is hard to believe but that is the way it happened.
The thing I remember best about July 8th is how weary I was after fighting all day and watching for tanks back of the enemy line without any sleep. some how I stayed up as we continued the attack. Complications set in. XIX Corps committed combat command B of the 3rd Armored Div. and its long heavy columns crossed the Bridge just put in at [aurel] to operate on the 30th's left joining the 30th net and cutting our telephone wire with its treads on the heavy tanks. I found out later that Tibby's brother Bige Eversole was with them but we never saw each other.
The sights, sounds and smells of battle! One of our tanks came in a field where we were fighting. It was close to me when struck by an armor piercing shell and set on fire. I'll never forget the sight of tankers coming out their upper turret with hair and clothes on fire and screaming with pain. Instead of rolling on the ground as they were supposed to do, they tried to run making it worse. I only saw two get out, neither close enough to tackle. Both were dead by the time we reached them.
I thought about the week I spent in Scotland with one of our tank outfits. They were rough to ride in, hot and smelled of gasoline and cordite. The infantry isn't the only branch of military service that had it bad in combat.
Arrangements were made for 3rd Armored Div. to be attached to the 30th Div. for the July 9th attack even though our General Hobbs had requested that we be allowed to attack without armor.
One of our officers writing the "after-action report" calls it the "Lesson of the day." The best way, even under favorable conditions to completely immobilize troops in a small area is to put an armored outfit there too. People think of the infantry as a line on a map. Actually the infantry has all kinds of activities going on back of that line! Supply, wire lines, mortar positions, vehicles, etc. I don't recommend trying to keep field telephone lines in operation with tanks all over the place.
Another complication was that the enemy had brought up the 2nd SS Panzer Div. (DAS REICH) to attack us on the high ground north of [La Desert] and South-west of St. Jean-De-Daye.
The fury of 30th Division's response to the counter attack particularly our artillery had hurt the enemy badly. This was the 3rd day of this attack and the third day of intermittent rain. The 9th of July went down in 30th Division books as one of their worst days in France. I think July 11th was mine. Statistics for July 9th reflect only in part the severity of the action. 30th Div. casualties for that day alone were 267. Co. B of 743 tank battalion lost 9 tanks, and one dozer destroyed and three more tanks damaged and abandoned. We don't know the extent of enemy casualties but we had 123 prisoners. XIX Corps artillery had expended 5,000 rounds of 105-mm ammunition and 4,000 rounds of 155-mm. The 230th Field artillery had fired 3, 282 rounds.
At the end of the day July 10th, we stopped in an apple orchard on top a hill north of Le Dessert. The 3rd Platoon was given the job of setting up the perimeter defense around K company for that night. Lt. Nash and I set up 3 man strong points on three sides with a stronger one on the road near the top of the hill. While they had time to dig in, Lt. Nash and I were busy. There was one of our tanks with mechanical problems in our field near the road block. I told Lt. Nash I would be under that tank or near it while he went back to the Command Post.
I checked with the tank crew and told them of my plans. They had just heated some C rations and were about to have a meal. They said if they were going to have an overnight guest they had better feed me. It was the first hot food I'd had in a long time. In an attack infantry has to carry its food so we are issued K-rations which are more dehydrated. They also gave me a Thompson Sub-machine gun and some ammunition.
After midnight Lt. Nash asked me to help him check the out post on the road. Thus starts the day of July 11th. We were standing by the road block talking in low voices and we could hear the clink of armor and the sounds of men moving on the road. They were coming from the direction of I Co. and Bn. Headquarters. Tom Dobbs one of our men on the roadblock stepped out to find out what was going on. he discovered it was Germans and stuck one in the shoulder with his bayonet about the time they discovered that they had walked right into us. A fire fight developed and Lt. Nash sent me to the CP to have bazooka teams and the machine gun to support us. Before I got back with them they hit again.
A flame throwing tank was spraying fire on our positions. Most of it was going over my head and taking effect deeper in the orchard. It was a scary time. I'm sure some of our casualties were caused by shooting our own men. I did very little firing. My effort was getting the bazookas into action. We knocked out a German armored car. Some of the raiding party got as far as our Bn CP and captured some officers and men. However they didn't get out with them. I company came to help us. Between the 2 rifle companies we captured 60 prisoners, knocked out five enemy tanks and 4 armored cars. Not bad for about 2 hours of action.
Capt. Smith our K co. commander wanted me to show him and describe the action that had taken place on the road during that night. As we approached a German in the weeds who was on the ground said "Help me, I am wounded" in perfect English. It was the man stuck by the bayonet. We had our first aid men put him on a stretcher to carry to a jeep which was taking some of our wounded out to the Bn. aid station. Among them was our executive officer Lt. Carl Hornden who had been so good on patrols. he was only wounded in the hand and joined us again in a few days.
Our orders were to attack Le Roches, a little town on the north west edge of a long ridge stretching South, parallel to the Vire river. The counter attack in the early hours of July 11 had left our nerves in poor condition for an attack. Just before we moved out I heard word passed for medics. Sgt. Frank Wylie was shot in the foot. I suspected it was self inflicted but I didn't try to pass judgment. He was a friend of mine and I rated him as one of the toughest sergeants in the Training Cadre that gave us basic training.
As we moved down the hill following a water ditch I had a close call from a sniper. I had just passed Lt. Hulbert who was tracing a telephone wire hunting for a break. We exchanged a few words in passing. Before I got far I heard a shot and saw Lt. Hulbert grab his arm. We dived into a ditch. Before I could spot him he shot two of the men with me wounding Grigorovic and Coyia. When I spotted where the shots were coming from I sprayed a tree with the Thompson Sub machine gun the tankers had given me and the sniper fell out. That when I found out why the Infantry did not carry Sub machine guns. You can't carry enough ammunition when you fire an automatic. I left the Thompson with one of my wounded men and took his rifle. I had got behind K company's advance while taking care of the sniper. When I caught up with them, I found out a Sgt [xxx] a replacement and Sgt. Browning had been killed. Later we found out Sgt. Browning was wounded and was being carried out by Lt. Fox and one of his men from I company when another shell came in and hit him again. The 2nd artillery shell killed Lt. Fox and badly wounded the other I co. man. Others wounded were Sgt. May and Tippit. (After the war I received a letter from Browning about this.)
We were down in the valley and the fields were larger between the hedgerows. Lt. Nash told me to take half of our men and cross the hedgerow in the field to our left so we could cover both our flanks. While I was in the other field about 5 or 6 Mark V Tiger tanks over ran my position. I got a call on my radio to return. I told him there were Tiger Mark V tanks between us. He said to make my own way and go back to the hill where we had spent the night before. While I was rounding up my men and giving them our new instructions I was with John Caligary who had a bazooka. His loader who was a replacement I did not know had been killed. Another tank came in the field and I loaded and he fired getting a tread and stopping the tank. About that time another tank spotted our blast and fired at us getting a shell burst on a stump about 10 ft. high. John fell against me. I know he was hit bad. I couldn't find a pulse and thought he was dead so I left him. The ones of us left cut to the left hoping to get out of the tank area and then cut left again when we could see the hill where we had spent the night before. The next day when we got the wounded out, I found out I was wrong about John Caligary. He died at the Bn. aid station. That is what makes July 11, 1944 the worst day of the war for me as an individual. When we were attacking we left our wounded for the medics who were behind us. In a retreat we tried to take the wounded with us. Sometimes we couldn't do that.
"The Normandy Campaign" by Stephen Patrick lists July 11, 1944 as the day the famous Panzer Lehr Division moved from its reserve near St. Lo and entered the battle. It lost 25% of its effective fighting strength in that day's fighting.
We got back to the hill without any more fighting. Thus ends July 11, 1944.
Lt. Nash stepped on a mine and blew part of his foot off. I took over as acting Platoon leader. We spent the next few days in a defense position trying to regroup and fill our ranks with replacements. Capt. Smith told me he would rather move one of our replacements which had proved his self under fire to be my platoon Sgt.
At mid-night July 15, 1944 General Bradley placed the control of 30th Div. under VII Corps to continue the attack on St. Lo and prepare for operation "Cobra" which would be the break out. It was in this period of time when we had a "false" gas attack. All of us had been trained in the use of gas masks and issued one for personal use. Like most of the front line soldiers I had thrown mine away so I could use the bag to carry rifle grenades in.
Some one shouted "Gas" and men went wild. I never saw worse confusion, not knowing what to do I just stayed in place. The rumor got worse as it reached our rear echelon than it was at the front. Fifteen miles back they used a sound truck to advise that no gas attack had taken place or was expected.
At 7p.m. July 19th, 1944 St. Lo was captured by 29th Infantry Division with the help of the 30th Division.
This is a good place to end this account. Events of July 19 will be in next letter.
Chad--I have a file of correspondence with some of the survivors of the things I wrote about in this letter. I will keep it to help show that what I have written was not made up but actually happened.
Your Grandfather, John