134th Infantry Regiment
"All Hell Can't Stop Us"
By Major General Butler B. Miltonberger, Former Commanding Officer, 134th Infantry Regiment
and Major James A. Huston, Assistant Professor of History, Purdue University
Transcribed by Roberta V. Russo, Palatine, Illinois
The battle for France was decided among the bloody orchards and hedgerows of Normandy.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower
REPORT OF THE SUPREME COMMANDER . . .
Hour after hour, day after day and now week after week the grim, tired soldiers fight bloody close-in battles for 100 yards of shell-packed meadow. Each hedgerow conquered is a minor campaign won, each pasture and orchard a bitter epic of valor and death.
Someone once said that wars are won by the souls of men. Some day, when the full story of this phase of the French campaign can be written, some day when the Norman names of St. Lo and Pont Herbert and the forest of Mont Castre are inscribed in gold on the battle streamers and the plaques, due tribute can be paid to the men who struggled and died in the hedgerows and orchards and woods of western France.
- Hanson W. Baldwin in The New York Times,
July 19, 1944
Regimental Headquarters established its first command post in France in Transit Area 3 at 1545 on 5 July, but the C.P. moved to an area near Mercey that night, while other units of the Regiment continued to come ashore and make their way to the assigned assembly area. That night marching columns and motor convoys moved through the light of the near-full moon. Overhead an occasional Nazi plane would set off a tremendous and beautiful anti-aircraft barrage. The white moonlight lent a ghastly appearance to the crumbled stone and mortar houses of a destroyed village through which the columns moved. "It looks exactly like some of those old movies of the World War," someone observed.
First element of the Santa Fe Division to get to the front was the 134th Infantrys 2nd Battalion. Orders came at 0315 on 8 July for a battalion to move up to the sector near Deville to relieve a battalion of the 120th Infantry. Hardly more than two hours later Lt. Col. Denver W. Wilson and his 2nd Battalion were on their way. It was a defensive mission, and the assignment was to be temporary, but men of the 134th went into it with all the enthusiasm of a major engagement. The 2nd Battalion arrived at its new area by 0800, and before 1300 it had completed the relief by infiltration and assumed responsibility for the sector. Within another hour, 81mm mortars of Captain Charles C. Hakes Company H opened fire, and Staff Sergeant Dale Steckels mortar squad claimed the destruction of a German machine gun position.
Shortly after the departure of the 2nd Battalion for its special mission, the Regiment itself was alerted for movement. The 35th Division was about to be committed, but the 134th Infantry (less the 2nd Battalion) was being held out for the time being as corps reserve in Major General Charles H. Corletts XIX Corps. The two sister regiments, the 137th, under Colonel Grant Layng, and the 320th, under Colonel Bernard A. Byrne, were to make a limited attack in a zone to the left (east) of the Vire River between La Meuffe and La Nicollerie. (The Division was going in between the 30th "Old Hickory" Division, on the right, and the 29th "Blue and Grey" on the left.) The 134th now was moving up to an assembly area where it would be available for action on short notice.
In the new assembly area (the C.P. was near Les Essarts) all companies immediately set themselves to preparation for the problems ahead. For some unexplained reason (it might be explained on the basis of security prior to 6 June, but certainly not after that date) there had been no instruction or suggestions during the period of training in England concerning the tactical implications of a terrain characterized by such a system as hedgerows as was to be found in Normandy. Although the Cornish countryside was broken into small fields by systems of hedgerows, thinking had not gone much beyond the stage of speculation. But now the problem was real. It could be seen that the defender was going to have some advantages.
The hedgerows were similar banks of dirt, sometimes with stones in them, as much as three to five feet thick at the base and tapering gradually to a thickness of two or three feet. This embankment usually was four to five feet high and surmounted by shrubs or trees. The sides were covered with grass and shrubs. The origin of hedgerows remains rather obscure, though it is likely that the scarcity of building materials (many of the houses are made with wooden beams and earth), and the rich soil and climate (which makes plants grow rapidly and thickens the hedges) contributed to their development. There are said to be two kinds of hedges there, the quickset and the dry hedges; the first were by far the most important, and they, in turn, were divided into hedges of defense, shelter, orchard, and fodder. Built for the protection of property, the defense hedges usually were made up with thorny shrubs; shelter hedges also were defensive, but had the further purpose of serving as windbreaks, and their timber yielded wood for building or heating. If the trees were for producing fruit, then the hedgerows were "orchard," and the fodder hedges contained any number of varieties of shrubs and trees. The hedgerow system seems to have dated at least from the time of the Romans. Now the main purpose of the hedgerows, whatever their origin, came to be protection against shellfire and bullets. In any case those earth and plant fences enclosed fields usually meadows or orchards of irregular shapes and sizes which seemed to average toward a rectangle about 100 yards long and 50 yards wide. "An aerial photograph of a typical section of Normandy shows more than 3,900 hedged enclosures in an area of less than eight square miles."
By digging down a deep foxhole a covered one behind these hedgerows, the defender could make himself almost immune from all kinds of small arms or shellfire. But that was not his only, nor his greatest advantage. There was the observation which he had denied his attackers but enjoyed himself. He could have his guns zeroed in, put an observer up in a tree and wait. The attacker, on the other hand, usually could not see more than one hedgerow ahead, and could almost never see any enemy activity, and when he discovered the enemys presence, by suddenly finding himself pinned down by enemy fire, he was too close to employ his artillery. At the same time, the enemy found that these hedgerows provided him with covered routes for supply and evacuation and withdrawal. There were numerous roads and lanes always running between hedgerows leading away in all directions. Frequently these would be considerably below the level of the adjacent fields, while the walls formed by the hedgerows would be just that much higher. Often the rows of trees would bend toward each other overhead and thus completely conceal the route from air observation.
Rifle platoons, during those last days of training, practiced at making attacks in which the squads used their Browning automatic rifles to "spray" the hedgerow running parallel to the front while a few men with grenades worked their way up the lateral hedgerows. Sometimes a squad would remain at the base of fire while the other squads worked forward on either side of the hedgerow toward the front, or sometimes smaller groups would work forward, always with support of machine guns.
It was evident that tanks were going to have a difficult time moving across that kind of terrain the hedgerows were too strong for an ordinary medium tank to force, and unquestionably all the roads would be mined and covered by anti-tank guns. Battalion ammunition and pioneer officers experimented to see what kind of a charge of TNT it would take to blast a hole for the "iron horses." They found that it could be done, though it took a big explosion and sometimes a second; but it seemed that this might be a solution.
Other final preparations included the disposal of excess baggage. All clothing and equipment that was not going to be used was put into duffel bags, and all these were collected and placed in the custody of Captain Albert B. Osborne of Service Company. All gas masks were collected and stored there. Whenever a piece of extra or superfluous equipment appeared, the supply officers would call out immediately, "Send it back to the duffel bag area!"
There was a twinkle in the eyes of some when they heard of the instructions which had come from First Army concerning helmet chin-straps; they were to be put up over the back of the helmet and never worn fastened under the chin. (In this Regiment it had been one of those unpardonable breeches of discipline to be seen with chinstraps not properly fastened). Theoretically this order had been originated in order to avoid broken necks resulting from the sudden upward jerk of helmets when the concussion of near bomb or shell hit it. Actually, no such case has ever been authenticated, and it is quite likely that more serious casualties resulted from loss of the helmet at a critical moment than would have from any such effects of the chinstrap.
More annoying to the officers and non-commissioned officers was the required identification markings officers were to have a vertical white stripe on the back of the helmet, and non-coms a horizontal stripe. In addition, officers were instructed to wear their insignia on the front of their helmets. Nets dulled the shine of helmets and insignia considerably, but most leaders were afraid that they were asking for trouble from snipers. Many complied by putting on a strip of adhesive tape for the stripe, and then taking care to smear it with mud; another bit of mud, or a leaf in the net, accomplished similar results for the bars. After hearing some of the stories which were drifting back on sniper activity, some of the officers took their bars off their collars and wore them underneath, and several of the non-coms tore off their chevrons. Some officers began looking around for different weapons, a Tommy gun, or an M-1 rifle. Actually the carbine was not such an unsatisfactory weapon for an officer. It was not intended that an officer should engage normally in a fire fight; his weapon was for personal protection, or other emergencies; if he were off firing at the enemy it frequently meant that his men were being neglected; his responsibility was to direct the fire of many weapons.
Men of the 134th knew that their days of grace were running short. Up to this time they had not heard any enemy fire in the area, but one morning before daylight they were awakened by a series of strange but not totally unfamiliar noises. The sound, part shrieking, part whining, part whistling, would be at a relatively high pitch as it broke the silence, and then as it descended to a lower tone it would stop altogether; after a momentary pause a fairly distant explosion would make itself heard, and then reverberate for added emphasis. And then would come another, and another; but they were falling too far away to cause any real concern. Then from the direction of the front came the sharp staccato of machine gun fire. Yes, it was a German machine gun all right, just as it had been described back in England; it was firing too rapidly to be an American weapon. (The German machine gun, M.G. 34, fired at a cycle rate of 900 rounds a minute, while the newer M.G. 42 fired at the terrific rate of 1,200 to 1,500 a minute.) It sounded as though someone might be having a counterattack; but the noises of battle died away with the coming of daylight.
"By God, Sir, Im not sure how we are going to work our 81s and heavy machine guns through this hedgerow country." A heavy weapons commander was standing under an apple tree addressing his battalion commander. "I think we may have to throw away the machine gun tripods and just set the guns on top of the hedgerows," he continued, "I think well try to have a mortar observer run this light wire for our sound-powered phones right along the leading companies; Im afraid to depend too much on our 300 radios; Im not sure how good they will carry in this country, and there are lots of stories coming back from the 29th and 30th that the minute you start using them you draw artillery right in on you; they claim the Krauts have the best radio locator equipment there is." He turned to the intelligence officer and said, "Say, see how they are working that when you go up and visit the 30th this afternoon."
When the Division made its initial attack on 11 July, each of the battalions of the 134th was permitted to send a limited number of officers limited so that they would not interfere with the operations of the units to observe the action. It was that day that Major Warren C. Wood, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, remained overdue for several hours. "I hear that Major Wood may beat us all to Berlin," someone said, "They think that he may be a prisoner already." Major Wood, however, had been safe looking after Lt. John Mullin of Company C who had been injured by a near shell burst.
Now the next afternoon, parties from Regimental Headquarters and from the battalions usually intelligence and operations officers were going forward to visit units of the 29th and 30th Divisions. One group climbed into its assigned jeep and drove out of the meadow onto a gravel road, then took a broken, dusty asphalt road across the Vire River and through the nearly-destroyed village of Pont de St. Fromond. A turn down a narrow, muddy road here the driver had to shift into four-wheel drive brought them presently to the battalion C.P. of the 30th Division. Coming upon a non-commissioned officer at a mortar position, one of the officers asked where he might find the S-3.
"Sorry sir, but he was killed last night; shell got him in that foxhole right over there."
The officer tried to swallow, but his throat was dry. He asked some questions about the mortar platoon, and then walked over to an adjoining field to see some machine gun positions. There in a corner of the hedgerows, he saw for the first time a group of dead Yanks. The bodies were covered with canvas, but their neatly laced leggings and shoes protruded. "Yeh," one of the soldiers said, "they got it last night; some get it every night."
The officer talked to some of the other soldiers as they lay in their foxholes found out for the heavy weapons commander that this battalion was using light machine gun tripods for its heavy machine guns and was ready to go back. The chatter of machine gun fire over to the left did not make him regret this decision.
After four days in the assembly area, there still was no official word on how long the Regiment could be expected to remain. The 2nd Battalion had returned to the Regiment early on the 11th, but a two-hour visit of the regimental commander at Division headquarters the next night disclosed no further change in the situation.
The 13th went by much the same as its predecessors; much the same, that is, until 2030 that night. It was then that orders came relieving the 134th Infantry from corps reserve, and less than an hour later the regimental commander and his S-3 were on their way to the Division C.P. where an order awaited calling for the 134th Infantry to relieve elements of the 115th Infantry (29th Division) at once with one battalion, and to prepare to attack on the 15th!
The 3rd Battalion received the assignment to execute that nocturnal relief without benefit of daylight reconnaissance. The companies began breaking camp even while the company commanders were on their way up to receive orders.
Colonel Thomsen issued his order promptly, and then, leaving Major Foster H. Weyand, executive officer, to take charge of marching the troops down to the new area, he took his adjutant, S-2, S-3, and communications officer with him, and set out by jeep to contact the units to be relieved and to be prepared to guide his own battalion into position. "This is a hell of a time to be moving up," someone said, "its the 13th."
Minutes later four blacked-out jeeps were purring down the road through the ruins of Moon-sur-Elle, and on down to a position east of a village called Villiers-Fossard. The colonel stopped first at the 115th regimental command post to check and get further directions, and then he went on down to the C.P. of the 2nd Battalion. (Inasmuch as the relief concerned parts of two battalions, Captain Ray Carroll, 3rd Battalion S-3, went over to the C.P. of the adjacent battalion on the left to co-ordinate the relief in that sector.)
After some searching about, Colonel Thomsen found the C.P. in a deep, well-covered dugout at the edge of a field. He called down, and then his party followed him down some narrow dirt steps and crowded into the hole. The light from a gasoline lamp hanging in one corner had grown dim from want of air. This made even more dismal the heavy atmosphere. A pair of dark, tired eyes, set in a gaunt face which was covered with beard and dust, looked up to inquire the mission. The eyes belonged to a major who sat on the floor. He ran his hand through a head of dark hair which evidently had been clipped but now had grown out. He remained silent; his face did not change its blank, tired expression until Colonel Thomsen spoke.
"I understand we are to relieve you folks," the colonel said.
"Relieve us? Relieve us?" The major shook a captain who was sleeping beside him, "Did you hear that? They are going to relieve us!" It was not a very reassuring thing for the newcomers to hear this announcement greeted with such enthusiasm; it sounded too much like they were inheriting a difficult assignment. Later they learned that it was common practice not to notify a unit that it was going to be relieved until reconnaissance or advance parties from the relieving unit contacted it. This doubtless so that such a unit would not be tempted to let up its pressure while awaiting relief. This particular unit had been going, with almost no relief, since "D-Day." The battalion commander had become a casualty, and the major had taken over.
Lt. Floris M. Garner, battalion communications officer, asked someone if he could see the communications officer.
"Sorry, but he was killed; we can get the sergeant for you."
It was getting to the point that one hesitated ever to ask for any particular individual, for it seemed that so frequently that one had been killed.
Men of the Third Battalion began moving into the position as soon as they arrived, but it was a slow, cautious process, and was not completed until about 1030 the next morning.
Shortly after dawn the battalion S-2 of the 115th came into the dugout to give what information he could. After questioning some prisoners which had just been brought it, the one intelligence officer took the other on a tour of the area. "Now keep your head down," he warned, "the Germans are behind the next hedgerow." With a stiff, stubby beard, and dust in his ears and eyebrows, he had the same "beaten-up" appearance at the others. He was too tired to be nervous or excited about anything. But he was a worker, and he did everything he could to help.
He continued talking. "We have made attacks on three separate days, and each time wound up in these same foxholes. Its a rough go, but with your fresh troops you may be able to do it. The men get so they freeze to their foxholes and you cant make them go. The only way the platoon leader can make them get up and go is for him to jump over the hedgerow first and be scout and point and everything; then he gets himself knocked off and there you are."
They walked over to the right. The lieutenant pointed over to the right front. "You see those trees and hedgerows running toward the front? Well, thats the damned sunken road. A Heinie self-propelled 88 pulls up that road and just raises hell in here, and before we can do anything about it he pulls back again. We cant advance down the road because hes got it zeroed in, and that leaves our flank open."
They moved, crouching below hedgerows, back to the rear in order to find a covered approach over to the left part of the sector. The lieutenant described what a difficult time they had had in capturing Villiers-Fossard. In the corner of the field behind the C.P. they passed a pile of equipment that included practically everything GI in a battalion. It had come off casualties or had been damaged. There were packs and belts and canteens and mess kits and raincoats and clothing and helmets and weapons. There were some more dead Yanks there "They got it in yesterdays shelling."
On return to the C.P., the lieutenant borrowed a canteen of water and poured some of it into his steel helmet. He tried to wash off some of the accumulated dirt and dust. As he pulled a dirty handkerchief from his pocket to dry his face, Lt. Col. Boatsman, commander of the 1st Battalion, and Lt. Col. Wilson, commander of the 2nd Battalion arrived. They had their operations officers and company commanders with them to make a reconnaissance of the ground over which they were to attack on the morrow. The lieutenant, tired as he was, at once went over to offer his services. Soon he was touring the front again, helping them orient their maps, pointing out terrain features and indicating probable enemy positions.
"Be careful of that damned sunken road," he always would say.
St. Lo was a key to the Normandy defenses. The town was not a very large one (peacetime population: about 12,000), but it was the most important road center in the area. It was the anchor of the German defenses in Normandy. Not only did the main defense line of the Cotentin Peninsula, along the St. Lo Periers - Lessay highway hinge there, but so did the secondary line, along the St. Lo Coutances highway as well. About 47 miles southeast of Cherbourg, it lay to the west of a horseshoe bend in the Vire River at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula. It was the capital of the French department of Manche (the name which the French applied to the English Channel).
American pushes toward St. Lo from both the north and the east had come practically to a standstill at distances of two and three miles from the city. The British were meeting the same kind of resistance in the Caen area the Nazis were holding furiously all along the front. A Vichy radio broadcast on 12 July had announced that Von Kluge, German commander in Normandy, we expecting "an all-out American drive for St. Lo." Another German source added that a new panzer division had been thrown into battle in the St. Lo area. The German apprehensiveness was well-founded.
The only fresh troops remaining to influence the situation of the XIX Corps in its battle for St. Lo with the 134th Infantry Regiment, and now General Corlett had determined to commit this Regiment in an effort to break the stubborn German defenses. It was the feeling of the regimental commander that what had come to be a "normal" pattern of attack ought to be changed if the attack were to be effective. Therefore he proposed that the normal artillery preparation be omitted to avoid "telegraphing the punch," but that then a very heavy artillery concentration ought to accompany the jump-off itself, and then that a rolling barrage be laid down in front of the advancing troops. Such procedure was, of course, not new. Sometimes commanders in World War I, as in launching the great attack known as the Second Battle of Marne in 1918, had achieved initial surprise by abandoning the usual long and heavy artillery preparation; and the rolling barrage, while common in World War I, practically was unknown in World War II. The corps commander readily agreed to the desirability of the suggested procedure, and thus it was to be.
During the afternoon of 14 July (it seemed appropriate to be preparing to attack for the liberation of France on Bastille Day) all platoon sergeants of the 1st and 2nd Battalions were assemble for a meeting with the regimental commander. It was a "skull practice" in which the problems which would face the platoons during the next days attack were discussed. The purpose was made clear in every mans mind exactly what he was to do, and the importance of the part which these key men were to play in making the coming action decisive was impressed upon them.
Final attack orders arrived from the Division at 1645, and at 1900 the battalion and special unit commanders gathered in the blacked-out tent and the operations and intelligence sections at the regimental C.P. near LaChiteliere. There to receive the order that evening were Lt. Col. Alford C. Boatsman, commander of the 1st Battalion, and his S-3, Capt. Harlan B. Heffelfinger; Lt. Col. Denver W. Wilson and Capt. Frederick C. Roecker, Jr., of the 2nd Battalion; Lt. Col. Alford Thomsen and Capt. Merle R. Carroll of the 3rd Battalion; and there were the special units commanders, Capt. Thurston J. Palmer of Headquarters Company; Capt. Rodney D. Brown of Service Company; Capt. L. D. Asher of Cannon Company, Capt. J. E. Magruder of Anti-Tank Company; there were numbers of regimental staff Lt. Col. Sheppard, Captain Abbott, Major Godwin, Major Craig, Major Morton, and Major Robert B. Townley, regimental surgeon; finally, there were the commanders of the units which had been attached to the Regiment for this operation the 737th Tank Battalion; 1st Platoon, 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion; Company A, 60th Engineer Battalion; Company A, 110th Medical Battalion and Lt. Col. Douglas Dwyer, commander of the supporting 161st Field Artillery Battalion, and the commander of the attached 4.2 mortar company of the 82nd Chemical Battalion. The assembled group listened intently as the regimental commander spoke; then they studied closely their overlays and maps and Field Order No. 18:
MAPS: 1/25,000, France, ST LO Sheet.
1. a. Enemy forces entrenched along (503663) (510658) (515658) (517660) (523661) (525657), occupies high ground N of ST LO (hill #122 504652). Elmts of the 14th Prcht Regt reported vic ST LO; elmts of 897th, 898, 899 Panzer Grenadier Regts (motorized Inf) have been identified in Div. Z.
b. XIX Corps continues atk to SW 150515 July 44; Div abreast 30th on right, 29th on left.
2. The 134th Inf (w/737th Tk Bn (less Co B); 1st Plat. Co A, 60th Engr Bn; one plat 654 TD Bn; Co A, 110th Med Bn attchd), supported by 161 FA Bn amd atched 4.2 Chemical mortar Co and supported by 35th Inf Div Arty, attacks in Z, 0515, 15 July 44. Obj to destroy enemy forces in Z N of ST LO and to seize and occupy ST LO. Bndrys, LD, objectives, formation, direction of atk see overlay.
3. a. 1st Bn. 134th Inf passes through 3rd Bn in Z. atks 0515, 15 July 44 to seize and occupy obj in Z.
b. 2nd Bn, 134th Inf (w/one squad AT Co Mine plat, one 57mm plat AT Co, 737th Tk Bn (-) atched) atks 0515, 15 July 44 to seize and occupy obj in Z.
c. 3rd Bn, 134th Inf when passed through reverts to Regtl res; to remain on present location prepared to assemble on order. (sic.)
PW Coll Pt 531691.
Straggler Line 522677 531687 - 528708
5. a. Current SOI.
Impressed with the weight of the support which was to b given in this delivery of the "Sunday punch," the tanks, the tank destroyers, the tremendous artillery rolling barrage a concentration on this narrow front which would include not only the 105mm fire of the 161st Field Artillery Battalion and Cannon Company, but also the reinforcing fires of two medium battalions (a total of twenty-four 155mm howitzers), the 127th from Division Artillery, and the 963rd from corps, leaders departed the meeting with full confidence that the German defenses would break before their attack.
The noisy armor rumbled into forward assembly positions during the night, and, fortunately drew little artillery fire. The 1st and 2nd Battalion prepared to go.
At 0515 the artillery opened up and the troops started to move; the 115th Infantry, on the left, was jumping off at the same time to renew its assault from the east. Von Kluges "all-out American drive for St. Lo" was on.
But wait, the German artillery had opened fire as well as the American. Then came the chatter of small arms fire. It appeared that the enemy was launching an attack of his own! Already men of the 3rd Battalion, even as they lay in their foxholes, were getting hit.
Men of Company I could see Germans starting to move toward them. Captain Joseph P. Hartung moved up to see what was happening. As he was crouching beside a hedgerow directing measures to stop any counter-moves, the intensity of enemy shellfire was stepped up. A mortar shell burst right behind him. He rolled over on his stomach as blood began to ooze from countless wounds spread from head to toe. Mostly it was his back; hundreds of fragments had torn his field jacket to shreds. His messenger, always at his side, tried to help him. The loyal helper called for the medics, got word back to send up a litter team, and then sat down to keep watch over the captain. Hartung could hardly move a muscle, but his mind was clear. In combat less than half an hour, and already he was out of action. The thought brought a feeling of disgust. He was an old Army man; this was the day against which he had been preparing during those days of training; now he could do nothing. Hours seemed to drag by before the litter squad reached him. Shells still were falling. He wondered if they would get him before another finished him off. A squad of men from Company F walked passed the blood soaked captain. Hartung heard the squad leader turn toward the men and say, "Look at that poor bastard! Hes all done. Thats whatll happen to you if you dont take cover."
Ordinarily when the company commander is hit the executive officer immediately assumes command. However, only minutes after Hartung had been hit, a high explosive round fell in the very area being used for a company command post. Lt. Billy Guice, executive officer, was wounded, and First Sergeant Frank E. Conner was wounded so severely that at first he was thought to be dead. This was the first event of a series which was to make Company I one of the ill-fated companies of the Regiment for its company commanders.
When this news reached Colonel Thomsen, he looked around and called for Captain Philip Bauer. He had been assigned to the 3rd Battalion back at Camp Butner, and though he had been assigned "on paper" as commander of Company M (in order to satisfy the stringent requirements of the current tables of organization for the movement overseas, officers had been shifted about in their assignments to the point that an inquiry as to ones assignment was likely to draw a question in return: "Do you mean on paper and for real?") the battalion commander had retained Bauer at battalion headquarters. He had "pinch-hit" for a while as S-3, and for another while as battalion executive officer, and had proven his capabilities. Now he was handed one of the toughest assignments in combat:
"Go up and take command of Company I, and get it reorganized."
Captain Bauer hardly knew a non-commissioned officer in the company. The company was in confusion after losing its C.O., its executive officer, and its first sergeant. Indeed the company headquarters had practically been eliminated. But the companys new commander the third within the space of an hour went up immediately and got the position reorganized.
Defending the approaches to St. Lo in this sector and this meant primarily Hill 122 was the German 352nd Infantry Division, a unit which had been organized in 1943 for the defense of western France. Hill 122 (it took its name from its height in meters) did not loom as a high, dominating terrain feature from the north, but rather it consisted as a series of plateaus with the usual hedgerows and sunken roads running across its gently-sloping face. But the nature of the elevation gave the enemy an even greater than ordinary advantage in observation, and his well-co-ordinated defensive firing positions made the hill foreboding enough. Its tactical importance became more apparent with a closer study of the maps and aerial photographs; it seemed clear that here was the key to the whole situation; this terrain dominated St. Lo which nestled below in a saucer-like valley at the bend of the Vire River. Hill 122, then, was the immediate objective as the men of the 1st and 2nd Battalions moved, in well-deployed formations, throughout the area of the 3rd Battalion and through the artillery which already was falling, toward that last hedgerow short of "no-mans-land," toward that spot which becomes the last lot for all infantry riflemen, where there is nothing out in front but the enemy.
The attacking men tried to escape the thought which impressed itself upon them, that this first day of battle would be the last for some of them. They were under no delusions concerning the task which they faced, but the training, and discipline and leadership would admit no faltering now. They saw wounded men of Company I and Company K, but it hardly occurred to them that this and worse might be their own fate. Perhaps there was a trace of cold sweat at the temples and in the palms of the hands, and a tenseness in the stomach and dryness in the throat, but they pressed on with an increasing momentum toward the hedgerow which would be their last barrier to the bullets of enemy fire, and, reaching it, they began to scramble over, unconscious of the pricks and briers or even of the weight of their equipment . There hardly was a moment for adjustment of thoughts once the men were moving toward the enemy positions. The demoralizing high-speed machine guns began to chatter furiously, and shellfire mortar, artillery, high-velocity, direct-fire "88," became even more overwhelming. But there was confidence to be found in the answering chatter of the familiar Browning machine guns and automatic rifles, and of the outbursts of rifle fire (one might have likened the sound to the popping of mixed-quality pop corn, under less pressing and more peaceful circumstances). There was further reassurance in the tremendous artillery barrage which the 161st Field Artillery, and its reinforcing battalions, was laying down before them. It seemed that surely it must smother all opposition before it. Men of the 134th Infantry had trained with artillery support, and they were familiar with its sounds; but never had it been so close or so terrible.
Responsible for much of the effectiveness of this unique barrage was Brig. Gen. Theodore L. Futch, Division Artillery commander. It was an old method applied with new technique. It was a close rolling barrage with fire registered in the middle of the zone of attack; forward observers with the assault companies already had fired in the initial barrage line. Rather than the old World War I practice of using a time schedule, then, the fire was lifted 200 yards on call to successive barrage lines. In order to conserve ammunition, the rate of fire varied, but it included high explosive, smoke, and time fire. Sometimes even this, the supporting artillery, seemed to fall too close, too close, for even the calls of forward observes could not always keep pace with the enthusiasm of the rifle squads as they burst through German defenses, and then its survivors scrambled over the next hedgerow to carry on.
It took nerves of steel to stay in the fight that morning , but the men of the 134th stayed, and carried the fight to the enemy. Yes, sometimes men cracked. The men of one platoon watched their platoon leader, in the loss of all self-control, get up and run about as a man possessed, and they watched him cut down almost at once by machine gun fire. Some men of another platoon could see their platoon leader and two other men run into a foxhole as an especially heavy enemy barrage descended, and they saw a shell explode directly in that foxhole, and their leaders bodies destroyed beyond recognition. But the whole attacking wave of the 1st Battalion had run to the first German-held hedgerow and seized it with complete surprise.
Company C was leading the 1st Battalions attack on the right, and it was moving behind the rolling barrage (1st Battalion had priority of artillery fire) of the supporting artillery and the screen of bullets from its own weapons. Captain John E. Davis of North Dakota directed his company with the steadiness of a veteran sea captain in a squall, and it was steadiness in the midst of life-and-death action.
Any German small arms fire and there was plenty of it now was almost sure to draw fire several times over. The hedgerows, however, were such effective defensive barriers that a single Nazi machine gun frequently could hold up a whole platoon, and there was no way of removing the obstacle many times except by direct attack. It called for heroism and initiative of the kind which Sergeant Freddie A. Sorenson of Nebraska demonstrated when he crawled, voluntarily, and alone, across an open meadow to the next hedgerow where he knocked out a machine gun with a hand grenade. Unfortunately, his bravery was hazardous, and it was a real loss to his whole company when, later in the day, he was killed in action. Similarly, Sergeant Oreste F. Bottare of Illinois, no less determined to continue the advance of Company C, crawled to another machine gun and was able to destroy it before an artillery shell snuffed out his own life. And always the squad leaders were exposing themselves in the ways that Staff Sergeant Floyd W. Hawkins of Nebraska was trying to direct the fire of his rifle squad when he was killed.
Rifle platoon leaders carried a tremendous responsibility in that action. It was the inspiration of such young leaders as 2nd Lt. Raymond Ogen who kept going, at the head of his platoon, in spite of a painful shoulder wound, which kept the company moving against such destruction. This same determination was to be found all along the line. It was to be found in men like Pfc. Joseph O. V. Beaulieu of Maine, who found himself alone with a light machine gun when all the other members of his squad were killed. There is no feeling quite like that of being alone, near death, on the battlefield. In spite of the feeling of being a part of a gigantic, overpowering army, a feeling which tends to grow during training, and even on maneuvers, on the battlefield one might feel himself quite alone when his comrades disappear into foxholes and behind hedgerows, and , particularly during lulls in the fire of his own and supporting units, he might feel that he is out there facing the whole enemy army all by himself. Doubtless such a feeling was even more pronounced for one in the position of Beaulieu who had just seen all his comrades of the squad killed. But his reaction was not one of despair, rather it was one of determination to carry on. He did carry on; he kept the light machine gun in action, spurting out the fire so necessary for the riflemens advance, until he too succumbed and joined his squad in death. There was a like action on the part of a heavy machine gunner of Company D. Private Harold G. McKay of North Platte, Nebraska, too was seized with a determination to continue the attack when all other members of his squad were killed or wounded. He wrapped all the belts of ammunition he could find about his neck, laid his heavy machine gun on a hedgerow, and went into action. He remained at his post until a mortar shell killed him.
Back in another section of the Weapons Platoon, Pfc. Anselem R. Rumpca of South Dakota, likewise found himself alone with a crew weapon but this time it was a 60mm mortar. By 0610 the whole crew had been knocked out of action with the exception of Rumpca, and even he had a wound in his left arm. Nevertheless, he too continued to fight back. He kept up the mortar fire until his ammunition was exhausted, and then went up to the hedgerow and went to work with his automatic pistol until another German mortar shell knocked him unconscious.
It was the enemy shellfire which was causing the greatest difficulty. Small arms fire, and especially rapidly-firing machine guns and the hated machine pistols ("burp guns"), to be sure were troublesome enough, but those weapons could be maneuvered against, or brought under fire, or possibly avoided, once their location was determined. But against artillery fire there was that feeling of helplessness which grew out of the inability of the infantryman to undertake any direct action against it. The only thing to do was to move forward, and that was possible only with the benefit of a trained discipline.
Casualties were mounting. But men of Company C could not be aware of how heavy they were. It was not always a picture of thin lines of advancing men growing thinner as men fell while the others continued marching. One did not really see very many men fall. Many of them were caught as they lay in foxholes or behind hedgerows. Others, of course, were caught as they moved forward, but few really saw it happen because their view was hidden again the hedgerows from those a safe distance away, and those who were close were themselves dropping to the ground in an effort to find protection. By 0630 Company C had advanced "to the second hedgerow beyond the creek," but already its platoons had suffered 60 percent casualties.
It was the same kind of slow, vigorous costly fighting for Lt. Col. Denver Wilsons 2nd Battalion over on the left, but the advance continued. There the heroism found in the 1st Battalion was being duplicated. Again there were the lone ventures through fire-swept meadows to take out machine guns, as that of Company Fs Staff Sergeant Vaughn H. Davis of Tennessee, who finished a machine gun crew with hand grenades. Another F Company squad leader, Wayne R. Palmer of Illinois, accomplished similar results with bayonet and rifle, though he was able to bring back four enemy soldiers alive. Commanding this young-spirited Company F, the right company in the 2nd Battalions formation, was Captain Joseph B. Scully of Illinois. As his company got underway, it approached a fallow mine field, a field which had been laid some two years earlier and which since had become so overgrown with grass that mine detection practically was impossible. Captain Scully, however, was able to lead his men through without a casualty. It was then that the company again came under heavy enemy fire. When men began to fall dead or wounded in such rapidly increasing numbers, when every officer except the captain himself had become a casualty, it seemed surely that the company must falter and fall back. At this critical point Captain Scully, defying the heavy fire, leaped to the top of the next hedgerow, and with a challenging battle cry that could be heard beyond the thunder of the bursting artillery shells, led his unit on to a 700 yard advance.
Company G, on the left, had run into the same kind of enemy fire, but there the barrage caught the company commander, 1st Lt. Lawrence D. Canatsey of California. He lay with a severe leg wound, but his thoughts remained on his objective. Two of his platoon leaders also had been hit, and as the men began to fall back, it fell to 1st Lt. John A. Creech of Texas, to get the company reorganized and to get it moving. Lt. Canatsey was able to orient his executive officer on the situation, and he was calling words of encouragement when a litter team arrived to evacuate him. As he was being moved to the relative safety of the aid station on one of the medical jeeps a second shell struck, and this one killed him.
Lt. Creech, meanwhile, was acting promptly and effectively to get the company back into the picture. He, himself, had been wounded by shell fragments, and blood oozed from his body, but he continued his task. With the resumption of the attack, 17 prisoners were taken and an even greater number of enemy were killed. Lieutenant William D. Brodbreck, for three months acting company commander of Company L, and now executive officer of that company, reported on receipt of orders to Company G to take command. But a few hours later, he too was hit, and with his evacuation, the responsibility remained with Lieutenant Creech.
Demonstrations of leadership seemed to be contagious, and soon the whole company was on the move again. One of the most inspiring exhibitions was that of an ammunition carrier in a G Company 60mm mortar squad. When the squad leader of his squad became a casualty, the whole squad seemed to let down into ineffectiveness. Private First Class Charles E. Kurtz of Ohio, ammunition carrier, assumed the initiative. He ran over to a disabled tank the supporting tanks as well as men were in trouble - (that he was under enemy fire and observation was apparent from the disability of the tank which he approached), removed the tanks light machine gun, and, using this as his own weapon, lead his squad in the advance (their specification numbers as mortar men notwithstanding).
Meanwhile, the fire continued in the 1st Battalions area. Undoubtedly, with an advance of 500 to 600 yards, an important penetration had been made, but in the hedgerow country defense went from one barrier to the next, and Company C had been fought almost to its limit. Shortly after 0900 Company A abreast of C, on the left, made an envelopment to gain the rear of the enemys position of the nose of the hill. Captain Davis was able to reorganize his company to make a contribution, in spite of heavy casualties, to a renewal of the attack. Such reorganization under fire was made possible by efforts like those of 2nd Lt. Michael Hanna of Pennsylvania, who, though wounded severely in the wrist, and suffering from loss of blood, remained on the scene to get his platoon organized before he would be evacuated.
Now Colonel Boatsman sent Company B on the right, and Captain Francis C. Mason of Nebraska, went forward to make his reconnaissance as Captain Lorin S. McCown, another Nebraskan, took A Company into the intensive action. Now the tanks were becoming more prominent in their support, and close co-operation opened the hedgerows for them and followed up their raking fire on the next hedgerow. Soon, Company A had 38 prisoners on the way to the rear, and the pace was being quickened. But again it was at awful cost. Lieutenant Clarence B. Bartsdh of Chicago; Staff Sergeant Wesley D. Stahlhut of Nebraska City, energetic light machine gun section leader; Private First Class Eugene E. Burnett of Wichita, Kansas; Pfc. Dewey F. Adams, Gainesville, Georgia; for these of Company A, their first day of battle was their last.
At 1250 the 1st Battalion renewed the attack; Col. Boatsman was throwing everything he had into the drive in an effort to conquer the remaining 600 yards to the highest part of Hill 122. Already his companies had moved 2100 meters from the line of departure. Twenty minutes later, leading elements of the battalion were in Emelie, approaching the objective. It was beginning to look as though the break had come. Lt. Col. Alfred Thomsen was ordered to assemble his 3rd Battalion and prepare to follow up the 1st Battalions penetration.
Entries in Major Craigs S-3 Journal suggest the attention which the project was attracting:
1320 Gen. Baade (division commander) come to CP of 134 to study plans and co-ordinate the exploitation of 1st Bn Adv
1325 Talked w/Arty Ex O authorized one arty Bn to 2nd Bn until follow-up on rt starts
1345 Gen. Corlett (corps commander) Just talked to 115 Inf and they have not advanced materially. He believes we have something here. Supplement this thing too fullest. To break this defense would save lots of casualties in units on right and left.
Continued bitter German resistance in front of the leading battalions, however, made it clear that there remained much fighting to be done before St. Lo could be reached. Subsequent entries in the S-3 Journal:
1440 516659 counterattack forming
1630 F Company held off counterattack. NCO Co F reports Capt. Scully the bravest sunofabitch they ever saw. 2nd Bn going ahead.
Colonel Thomsen ordered the companies of his 3rd Battalion to fall into a battalion column along the Villiers-Fossard-St. Lo road, and he sent ahead a party including Captain O. H. Bruce, S-1; Captain Ray Carroll, S-3; Captain Earl J. Ruby, commander of Company M, and some men of battalion headquarters to reconnoiter for an assembly area. Then he sent Lt. "L.D." Reischel, battalion motor officer, and Lt. Clyde Payne, anti-tank officer, to make contact with the first party and to select a site for the battalion motor park somewhere south of Villiers-Fossard.
These preparatory measures taken, Colonel Thomsen moved up to the head of the column which Battalion Headquarters Company was forming, and , accompanied by the remaining members of his staff, began to lead his troops over toward the Villiers-Fossard road.
A few minutes latter there were some rapid cracking sounds overhead each series followed a second later by a similar succession in a lower key. It was one of the hated "burp-guns," or machine pistols. It sounded like the noise of a redheaded woodpecker working at top speed on a telephone pole, followed by another, working on a hallow tree trunk. The first burst of noise was the sound of the bullets cracking the air overhead; the "echo," a second later, was the report of the weapon itself. This is what made it difficult especially for the uninitiated to guess from what direction the fire was coming. Sergeant Donald Buckley of Nebraska (the supply sergeant, now at the point), had his carbine at the ready position and began stalking trees which he thought might be likely locations for the sniper. The men began seeking cover behind the hedgerow all that is, except Colonel Thomsen. He stood his ground there in the middle of the trail, and then said, "Nothing but a lonesome sniper; lets go."
The headquarters column crossed a couple of fields, and then came upon a narrow sunken trail or ditch lined with foxholes. German equipment was piled high on either side. This immediately engaged the attention of the battalion intelligence officer. He turned to some of the men of his intelligence section and pointed out the weapons, "Look, there are some of those 5 centimeter mortars we were talking about the other day; see how much they resemble our 60s? And look at that neat little pile of ammunition they left."
"Boy, those Krauts must have pulled out of here in a hurry," someone observed.
The crossing of another field brought the welcome sight of American soldiers it was the left company of the 320th Infantry. Colonel Thomsen convinced himself that the questionable road was the one he wanted and turned back in its direction.
"Arent you travelling pretty heavy?" one of the 320th officers, observing all the equipment being carried, said to one of the staff officers.
"Oh, yes," was the reply, "but you see we are only moving up to an assembly area."
They re-crossed the abandoned German positions and were going through the next field when the close crackling of a Nazi machine gun sent them all down in the tall grass. They crawled a short way, hesitated, got up, hit the ground again in response to another burst. Finally, they made it over the next hedgerow by advancing in rushes: four or five men at a time would get up and run at full speed until behind new cover. This presented too poor a target to draw more fire just then.
Now Lieutenant Reischel hurried up to tell the battalion commander that he had run into German soldiers in the area where he had hoped to locate a motor park. The commanders first reaction was to suggest that the motor officer must have gone to the wrong place. Reishcel then sent out to find the machine gun. He found German soldiers moving about he fired a few times, but the only result was another burst of machine gun fire over the battalion staff. At this point Bruce, Carroll, and Ruby returned to say that they had begun to allocate company areas in the new forward assembly position when they noticed numerous enemy soldiers in the vicinity "and their actions were definitely not friendly."
Confident that the enemy troops which had been seen were only a few which the 1st Battalion had by-passed, Colonel Thomsen sent his S-2 and a pair of intelligence scouts forward to see if they could locate and neutralize the machine gun which had been making the trouble. Impatient after a few minutes wait, he called for a platoon from Company L to go up to help out the intelligence section on the right of the road, and then formed the remainder of the battalion less Company I who had become involved in a fight alongside the 1st Battalion up forward into a route column along the road. Company K furnished the advanced guard, and Colonel Thomsen took his S-3 to accompany the point.
Meanwhile Reischel had a squad from Company L up to the place where earlier he had seen two enemy soldiers along a hedgerow in some bushes. These had departed, but now the motor officer directed the fire of the squad to assist Lt. Lou Daileys platoon which had gone forward. Suddenly a burp gun opened fire from the same side of the hedgerow; Reischel quickly returned the fire, but missed, and his antagonist scampered over the hedgerow and then threw back a "potato masher" grenade. Fortunately for the 3rd Battalions motor officer, the grenade hit the hedgerow and bounced back before it exploded. Reischels reply was a grenade of his own.
Lt. Daileys platoon was going into action against the enemy which the S-2 observed in the vicinity of the sunken trail were the battalion had crossed only minutes earlier. The battalion column was approaching now, and Colonel Thomsen call up to the S-2, "Were going to move on we cant let one machine gun hold up a whole battalion; well leave Dailey there with his platoon to protect our flank."
As the point approached the vicinity where the reconnaissance party had observed the enemy soldiers, it came under intense crossfire from well-located machine guns. The head of the column was halted at a slight bend in the road, and it was under fire from machine guns in a large brick house some 150 yards beyond. And then it seemed that all hell was breaking loose. Burp guns rattled to the left and to the rear; shellfire began to drop in to add to the confusion. Small shells were bursting along the adjacent fields, on the tops of hedgerows, and then down the road . . . My God, it was those 5cm mortar shells that had been stacked so neatly; the battalion headquarters must have walked right through the German positions! Large caliber mortar and light artillery shells began to burst all around they had a way of hitting the tops of hedgerows, and, bursting in red flame and black smoke, would send fragments and dirt on the men who were seeking cover in the shallow side-ditches below. Wounded men those who could walk began moving to the rear.
Assigned the mission of going after the machine gun in the house to the front, two men of Company K climbed over the hedgerow to the left; but just as they disappeared on the other side a large caliber shell burst precisely at the same spot.
A round of time fire burst overhead leaving a ridiculous little cloud of black smoke. Men crouched against the hedgerow. When they looked up, doom appeared to be on its way for some of them. A rapid-firing, direct fire gun was searching down the shoulder of the road. In quick succession shell bursts were creeping toward their positions. Each burst about three or four yards nearer than its predecessor. Ray Carroll had his .45 caliber pistol drawn. "What is it?" a fellow officer called across the road to him.
"Looks like some kind of damn tank coming down the road!"
No longer could Colonel Thomsen be seen up ahead. Finding an opening in the hedgerow, he had disappeared into the meadow and made his way farther forward. There he saw this armored vehicle, but there was a group of four or five soldiers in front of it not 50 yards from where he stood. Traditionally one of the best marksmen in the Regiment, he drew his Colt .45 and took aim; he fired and missed. He fired six more rounds and missed every time.
The men down through the columns were hearing of an approaching tank, and they began drawing back. Down in this narrow cut for such was the nature of a sunken road strung out in a column where it could not fight back, with an armored vehicle approaching which was capable of laying down a devastating enfilade of fire, and automatic weapons and mortar playing on every side, the battalion faced the prospect of near annihilation without having even been committed to action. The column turned back toward Villiers-Fossard and the companies moved off the road to take up defensive positions north of the creek which ran across the zone about 400 yards south of the village. Inasmuch as the whereabouts of Colonel Thomsen were, at this point, unknown, the reorganization was undertaken under the supervision of Major Foster H. Weyand..
Reorganization had become a difficult enough task in itself. Company I was still on the flank of the 1st Battalion as it fought for Hill 122. Captain Richard Melcher of K Company tapped in his company telephone on the regimental wire to inquire of the location of the 3rd Battalion. Captain Carroll remained forward long enough to check the positions of the companies, and then he made his way back to the battalion C.P. - a line of foxholes behind a hedgerow just south of Villiers-Fossard. But no one had seen Colonel Thomsen since he had gone up to get into that pistol-tank duel. Carroll called some men, and , forming a patrol, went back to look for him. They returned an hour later with no word of the battalion commander.
It was dusk when Carroll got back to his battalion C.P. At 2025 a telephone call went through to the 3rd Battalion. It was Brigadier General Edmund B. Sebree, assistant division commander, and Carroll, out of breath and still not fully oriented on the battalions new position, took the call and tried to explain the situation. The general was blunt and to the point. "Be in Emelie at 2200 tonight," he said.
Colonel Thomsen appeared at his battalion C.P. shortly thereafter. Cut off for a time behind German positions, he had made his way back by creeping and crawling through mortar and machine gun fire to safety. Now, after learning what he could of the situation in a few minutes, he called regimental headquarters to give a vigorous explanation of what had happened. He thought, nevertheless, that his battalion would be able to give some assistance when the 1st Battalion renewed its assault at 2045.
For the 1st Battalion it was Companies A and B in that twilight assault against the final defenses of Hill 122. Captain McCown of Nebraska seemed to be everywhere, urging his platoon on, co-ordinating the welcome support of Sherman tanks, personally directing artillery fire against key enemy positions. His example extended to others and carried the company with it. Such an example was that of 2nd Lt. Constant J. Kjms of New York, a rifle platoon leader, a junior officer whose stature grew to command the respect of his whole company and the admiration of all who learned of his actions. Shell fragments had torn into his arms and face, but it would take more than that to put him out of action. He continued at the head of his platoon throughout the days fighting.
On the right, Captain Mason of Nebraska, after bringing his Company B in to make effective the initial penetration, maneuvered to carry the struggle to the last defenses of the battalions objectives. Like Kjems in Company A, 2nd Lt. Leeta L. Casner, Jr. of Illinois, in Company B, remained to inspire his 1st Platoon in spite of an earlier wound.
Other men of Company B were fighting furiously against ever mounting casualties. Again there was the selflessness of daring to keep up a fire power which would continue the advance. Again there was gallantry in protecting each other from the destruction of enemy fire. When Corporal Robert W. Godfirnon and Pfc. Mitchell R. Helton, both of Nebraska, saw two of their comrades lying wounded in a field where danger of continuing machine gun fire remained, they crawled out to the wounded men, and, blinding the enemy machine gunners with smoke grenades, were able to return them to safety.
The 2nd Battalion launched no less than five separate attacks during that day to keep unrelenting pressure against the right of the German defenses. Thus busied, those defenders could offer no assistance against the overpowering thrusts of the 1st Battalion against their left. Some men of Company B were able to fight their way to the top of the hill at 2150. Half an hour later both Companies A and B were on the hill, but they could not hold it; a counterattack drove them back 200 yards. But by 2305, they were back on Hill 122, and the uncertain situation persisted through the night, with sporadic firing and Nazi infiltration adding new question marks to the situation.
It was only certain that with the close of its first day of battle the 134th Infantry, though suffering heavy casualties, had made itself felt. Already it had achieved success where veteran troops previously had thrice failed.
A War Department account of the results of the days action concluded:
The 29th Divisions effort had produced results only at the very end of the day, and then by an advance which left the spearhead battalion dangerously isolated, 1,000 yards ahead of the rest of the front. The 134ths advance to Hill 122 was promising; it threatened to cut off the enemy salient north of the Vire bend, and put the 134th Infantry only 2,000 yards from the outskirts of St. Lo.
. . . The 35th Divisions advance should now be giving the enemy as much concern as did the battle east of St. Lo.
Only one day of battle! It seemed surely that the Regiment had been engaged for days and weeks on end. All of the violence and death and tension and sweat that the Regiment had known in its illustrious history seemed to have been re-enacted within the space of an hour; but so to was all the heroism of its tradition re-enacted. And it seemed that the completeness of participation on the part of the men of the 134th was something unparalleled. In any battle it is only a small proportion of the men who actually deliver any fire and contribute to the units advance or defense. (Colonel S. L. A. Marshall found from post-combat mass interviews with approximately 400 infantry companies in the Central Pacific and European Theaters that "In an average experienced infantry company in an average stern days action, the number engaging with any and all weapons was approximately 15 per cent of the total strength. In the most aggressive infantry companies, under the most intense local pressure, the figure rarely rose above 25 per cent of the total strength, from the opening to the close of the engagement." Interestingly enough, the tactical situation, the terrain, enemy fire, or combat experience seemed to have little bearing on those figures.) Yet, the "green" 134th Infantry, in its first day of battle, delivered such a volume of fire that it used more ammunition that day than any two divisions had used on any previous day of combat.
The Regiments task for July 16 was mainly one of consolidating on the 1st Battalion. That this would be no mean task was indicated by Colonel Wilsons report at 0600 that a sizable enemy group had moved in behind Company F. The 1st Battalion still had a problem of clarifying its situation around Hill 122 in doing so, further evidence of the previous days heroism was found: Captain Leslie G. Wilson of Omaha, Nebraska, 1st Battalion adjutant, and a group of men had fallen victim to a Nazi machine gun, but around them they had left unmistakable signs of a terrific fight and they had taken a high toll of German dead.
For the 3rd Battalion, consolidation meant a full scale attack along the right of the regimental zone in an effort to come up abreast of the 1st Battalion. A platoon of tank destroyers was attached to that battalion, and the time for the attack was set for 0730. Colonel Thomsen had been hoping to make use of some of the tanks which had been working with the 1st Battalion, but shortly after 0700 they indicated that they were going to pull back, and his effort to hold them were to no avail, for they were acting on division order. At 0715 Lieutenant Davoe, artillery liaison officer with the 3rd Battalion, called in to request artillery support for the attack. This had to be refused because the location of the 1st Battalion was not known precisely enough. Colonel Thomsen had his company commanders at his C.P. awaiting the final word. It was 0720 and the attached TD platoon had not appeared. The battalion commander, in an understandable vexation, grabbed his field telephone and called Regiment. "I cant have any tanks; I cant have any artillery; Ive got no TDs. Just how the hell am I supposed to make an attack?"
It was after 1000 by the time the TDs arrived and the battalion moved off. It met immediate and intense opposition, but small groups began to move forward slowly. Again there was such individual heroism as that of Pfc. Darwin Mohovich of Company K, who removed on obstacle to his platoons advance by creeping along the edge of a field until opposite the right flank of an enemy machine gun, and then hurling two grenades into its position for an effective elimination. Around 1400 hours the TDs were getting up there and firing their powerful 3-inch guns into the hedgerows with telling effect. Late in the afternoon there was another pause in the driving through the hedgerows. It was to be resumed in a co-ordinated attack by all three battalions at 0430 the next morning (July 17).
With a company of tanks, a platoon of tank destroyers, and a 4.2 in. chemical mortar company attached, the 3rd Battalion was ready to make the main effort on the right.
Fog delayed the coming of dawn, but the battalion commanders were determined to attack on time. At 0415 the men were finishing their breakfast unit of K ration (unless, finding the cheese of the dinner unit more savory in the early hours than the small tin of cold, ground ham and egg, some were making substitutions) and were beginning to form up preparatory to the jump-off. It was not necessary to begin to stir very much before zero hour. Sleeping in a foxhole (or more accurately, a slit trench) fully clothed the helmet for a pillow and the rifle for a bedfellow and with hair clipped short, there was little else to making ones toilet than simply getting up.
The battalion hardly got beyond the line of departure before they drew withering machine gun fire. The fog was still on and it was impossible to use the tanks with any effect without observation. The fog likewise made it impossible for the artillery liaison planes the little L-4 Piper Cubs to get into the air. Unquestionably these observation planes were highly effective in directing fire; but the doughboy came to attach an almost phenomenal importance to them. He wanted those "Grasshoppers" up there all the time he felt that the enemys artillery would be less intense if those spotters were watching for gun flashes. (That there was justification for this feeling is indicated by notes of a conference between the commander of the German Seventh Army and Field Marshal Kluge in which the former requested that the German air forces combat the "particularly obnoxious artillery liaison planes, and the heavy bombers and fighter bombers, at least once in a while," as a needed boost for troop morale.)
Some further excerpts from the S-3 Journal give a graphic description of some of the action that morning:
0615 Col Wilson Rt held by pillbox
E go on by now
Col at C.P.
Have adv about 450 yds
0635 Col Boatsman reports that his Bn is getting plenty of arty fire this a.m.
Overhead B Co messenger report to Col Boatsman that B Co CP had been raided.
This is a . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
0700 Blue 3 still having a hard time w/position
adv. 400 500 yds by L & K Co. Co I to right of K. Plat on rt tks to help clean up MG who have been holding them up. Putting TD on left L right away.
0725 Col Thomsen reports tanks being used to overcome MG fire.
0728 Col Boatsman reports some friendly arty fire would help doughboys morale.
0730 Sun is up and fog may clear allowing arty planes to fire.
0755 Capt. Mason reports he must have tanks to do any good up there. Enemy dugouts are impossible to get out as it stands at this time.
0810 Col. Thomsen pushed on left very much. Asks if this is "Hold at all costs" affair. Co L being c/atk on left at this time.
0835 Having difficulty with TD but are moving now.
Co L men coming back.
Lay mortars lay on draw just in case.
Shall we move switchboard back w/o breaking commo.
A temporary lull at this time
Col states he must reorganize and try something else. He has a plan that may work.
He sure needs (one).
0915 15 tanks moved by Col. Thomsen.
Co I & K pinned down on LD.
0930 Mine field being worked on.
1045 Calling Col. Thomsen to give new instructions.
1045 Ordered tanks of 2nd Bn to join 1st Bn as quickly as possible.
At last the tanks were roaring into action. Demolition crews from the ammunition and pioneer platoons and from the engineers the men who knew how to blast a hole through the hedgerows boarded leading tanks, and they rumbled on up toward the enemy.
Bang! A leading tank halted in a flash of flame and smoke. It had hit a mine. The tank was burning, and with it members of the crew and a demolition team.
Other tanks were able to get into the meadows, and the TDs got into firing position. A tank tried to blast its way through a hedgerow with its 75mm gun, but it was no use. A well-placed charge of TNT, however, did the trick, and the tank crashed through the opening to begin covering the opposite hedgerow with machine gun and high explosive fire.
Company L was approaching the same large brick house where the 3rd Battalions column had been held up two days before. Captain James Lassiter, redoubtable company commander, called for the 4.2-inch chemical mortars to put some white phosphorous shells on the troublesome stronghold. Minutes later the mortar officer called "on the way!" and huge billows of thick white smoke began to rise over the target. As a matter of fact, this mortar unit Company C, 92nd Chemical Battalion accounted for four machine guns with 26 rounds of ammunition; and the elapsed time from "target sighted" to "mission accomplished" was just 11 minutes.
As the battalions started to move forward again, the number of prisoners in the regimental cage began to swell. These PWs looked like beaten creatures. They were bareheaded or wore soft caps (according to the rules of land warfare a prisoner was supposed to be allowed to retain his steel helmet until he got out of artillery range; but the Germans coming in to surrender almost never wore a helmet; this is how they were recognized as giving-up), their green-gray uniforms were dirty and wrinkled, but they almost always wore good boots. Most of them carried the cylindrical gas mask container, but it usually had some rank cheese and stale bread in it. Many of them came in saying "me Ruski," or "me Polki." It was no surprise to encounter a number of Russians and Poles, for intelligence personnel long had been aware of the formation of "East Battalions" commanded of course, by German officers, and including a strong cadre of German soldiers. However, their cries of "me Ruski" did not always win the sympathy of the combat infantryman. His view was that this fellow had been shooting at Americans, whatever pressure had been brought to bear in that direction; it was difficult to conceive that Russian armies ever ran into groups of Americans fighting against them on the Eastern Front. There as a striking contrast between these prisoners, and the haughty, arrogant SS man. Most prisoners babbled like children in giving all the information they could (sometimes they were obviously painting the picture rosier for American eyes than it really was), but not the SS man; he would say nothing. They illustrated their devotion to their families by displaying dozens of photographs. One little German who looked to be about 40 years old said that he used to live in Chicago out by the stockyards but that he had returned to Germany in 1933.
As the afternoon wore on, there seemed to be no diminishing of the enemy resistance. There would be lulls, to be sure, and sometimes there would be minutes of silence so complete as to be almost frightening as the loudest noises. But each time the companies would begin movement, they would find themselves "stirring up a hornets nest."
Over on the right, the 3rd Battalion was moving again, but as platoons moved through and area thick with trees and bushes, burp guns seemed to be everywhere. Many soldiers declared that enemy snipers transmitted signals by systems of regular long and short bursts of these machine pistols. However that might have been, the Nazis were demonstrating a clever co-ordination between automatic weapons and mortars. The machine guns and pistols would open up, pinning the troops to the ground, and then the mortars would traverse and search over the whole area to exact casualties among soldiers who were held on the target by the streams of bullets cracking over their heads.
To remain in such a position was to invite disaster, but to overcome the inertia of natural fears which tended to spread among the men required courage and leadership of the highest order. Again it was for junior officers and non-comes in half a dozen local areas to assume the initiative for an advance. One of these in the 3rd Battalions zone was the same 2nd Lt. Lou Dailey, Nebraska, of Company L, who had been so busy with the right flank during that long first day. Dailey was able to lead his platoon in driving a wedge into the enemy position, but in doing so, he died in an enemy mortar barrage.
On the right flank Captain Richard D. Melcher of Omaha had been able to achieve an advance of 500 to 800 yards beyond the creek with his Company K. Progress continued as far as the road which ran across the front between the villages of LaMesnl-Rouxelin, on the right, and Emelie, on the left. Then it was another of those wicked machine guns. Firing from the right flank, the German 42 had the whole company pinned down. Captain Melcher moved up to determine the trouble. He saw the machine gun fire was coming from the edge of the village (La Mesnl). His whole company frozen in place, Captain Dick started after the machine gun himself. He found himself going through a real "infiltration course" more trying than those of Camp Rucker and Camp Butner combined for when he saw that the fire was coming from a church, he had to creep and crawl through an open field under the machine gun fire in order to get to it. He got out three hand grenades and laid them on the ground. He lay quiet for a moment. He was breathing rapidly, and sweat was running through his dirty four-days growth of beard. Dragging oneself across a field like a reptile, was exhausting enough in itself not to mention the nervous strain of stalking a deadly machine gun. Captain Melcher raised himself up, and, in rapid succession, hurled the three hand grenades through a church window. Result: complete destruction of the enemy.
Company Ls Private First Class Buster E. Brown of Omaha was out to repeat his heroic action in destroying an enemy machine gun position the preceding day. Company L still was under all kinds of enemy fire, but prominent locally was the fire of another cleverly-located machine gun. Again Brown, now armed with an automatic rifle, advanced alone toward the dangerous obstacle. While he was yet 150 yards from his goal, a bullet struck him. This only increased his determination. He opened fire with his B.A.R. and advanced quickly behind its stream of bullets. Once again he was wounded. Nevertheless, he was able to deliver a fire that was so effective that it destroyed the German machine gunners.
At least the machine gun platoons of the heavy weapons companies all down the line practically had become the front line troops. Often their risks were considerably greater than those of riflemen, for they shared the front lines, but had the additional disadvantage of having to man-handle their heavy weapons and ammunition. More than that, a machine gun was likely to draw enemy fire very soon after it had opened fire. One of the officers making sure to keep that support available was 2nd Lt. Halley Dickey, Kansas City, Missouri, of Company M. He remained on the job in spite of a wound earlier in the day, in order to see that his weapons were prepared for defense against a counterattack. Then he noticed a wounded man lying in a position where he was exposed to enemy fire. Dickey crawled to the wounded man and started to drag him to safety, but then he found himself in a field of deadly anti-personnel S mines. A litter team, accompanied by Major Foster H. Weyand of Nebraska, 3rd Battalion executive officer, arrived to carry out the more seriously wounded man. But one of them stepped on a mine, and it meant death for Lt. Dickey and one of the litter bearers, and a painful wound for Major Weyand, who carried a wound stripe from World War I, and was a veteran of the "old" 2nd Battalions expedition to the Aleutians.
Over on the Regiments left, Lt. Col. Denver Wilson too, was throwing everything into the battle, and Company E had joined Companies F and G in advancing the attack. Again the action was characterized by acts of individual heroism. Thus, an important factor in the advance of Company F, was the contribution of Technical Sergeant R. D. Drennan of Illinois. After personally driving a jeep several times over a hazardous thousand-yard trail the day before to bring up water and ammunition, Sergeant Drennan now assumed command of the platoon when his platoon leader was wounded and led it in the capture of the small village of Bourg dEnfer.
Private Robert L. Heberling of Pennsylvania was one of those whose exploits made possible the advance of the small units concerned. He crawled across a field, gained the enemy side of the hedgerow, and delivered an accurate shot with his M-1 rifle which silenced a machine gun which had been holding up the platoons advance. In other cases, squad leaders took it upon themselves to perform the only kind of action which meant advance. Sergeant Rodman Davis of Illinois, a Company E squad leader, duplicated Heberlings feat. Another squad leader, Staff Sergeant Louis J. Hirschman of Nebraska, in similar circumstances, achieved satisfactory results by creeping up near an enemy machine gun and hurling hand grenades into its position. A slightly different problem faced one of the platoons presently as it tried to continue its advance. This time it was mortar fire mortar of uncanny accuracy which was holding the advance. Staff Sergeant Bernard G. Hemperly of Nebraska, platoon guide, saw that about the only way to fight mortar fire is with other mortar fire. He made his way up to a position, then, where though exposed to enemy fire, he could find the location of the enemy mortar doing most of the damage. It only remained for him to direct the 2nd Battalions mortars on to the target. In doing so, he obtained a direct hit, and once more it was possible to advance.
For the 1st Battalion it was a renewal of the warfare of the first days attack. The opposition seemed to be as strong and determined as ever, but so was the drive and determination of the 1st Battalion as strong as ever. Captain Mason, with Company B, still was dominating the scene on the battalions right. A close shell burst had jarred him with its concussion, but he had been able to remain in action to watch an exposed right flank and to direct personally the movements of the attacked tanks in the final drive that afternoon. Captain Mason had capable assistance in his executive, 1st Lt. William O. White, Jr., of Georgia and South Carolina. White seemed to be covering the whole company area and sometimes the whole battalion area. Already he had distinguished himself with such achievements as reconnaissance into enemy territory to locate hostile gun positions and routes of approach for the battalion, and the removal , by himself, of seven enemy mines which he discovered in the route of advance. In spite of his wound two days earlier, Lieutenant Leeta L. Casner, platoon leader, remained in action. At the 1st Battalions drive for complete control of that part of Hill 122 in its zone reached a climax, Casner was playing a leading role with his platoon. He hurried back to guide three tanks up to a position where they could be effective in supporting his platoons attack. Casner climbed into the open turret of the leading tank as it roared toward the next hedgerow. An enemy shell struck it, however, and all but one member of the crew were killed; Casner was dazed by severe concussion, but he was still present when the company reached its objective. Another of Company B was 2nd Lt. Edward K. Hum of Ohio. This evenings war was only one of many close calls which featured the diminutive lieutenants service. On this particular occasion his platoon had become isolated from the remainder of the company. Hum, however, turned the precarious position into an advantage when he salvaged some telephone wire and then slipped through to establish communications with the battalion command post; then he was able to lend some valuable assistance in adjusting counter battery fire. Dramatic rescues were being made all afternoon. Company Bs Staff Sergeant John E. Wieck dragged an unconscious comrade back across a meadow; several times he had to stop during heavy artillery concentrations, and then he would shield his comrade with his own body; finally he was wounded as he tried to lift the man over the hedgerow.
Captain Lorin McCown "Larrupin Lou" as all-state tackle on Beatrice (Nebr.) high school football teams back in 1929 1931 was carrying his A Company right with him in his drive to reach the objective. Repeatedly he would leap onto a tank, and shout words on encouragement to his men as they drove unwilling bodies forward. He led the final phase of the attack from the open turret of a tank. Defiant of direct artillery fire, mortars, machine guns, he breathed a determination which seemed to spread to all those who could hear or see him. As they were driving the task to completion, however, a burst of machine gun fire caught him in the abdomen. It was a severe wound, but the captain insisted on staying up with the fighting until Colonel Boatsman ordered his evacuation. Lieutenant Kjems was carrying on with an aggressiveness which had become habitual.
By early evening the 1st Battalion had established itself well down on the forward slope of Hill 122, and the regimental command post moved up to the vicinity of Villiers-Fossard. But the Germans were not yet ready to call it a day, for at 1810 they delivered a strong counterattack against the 1st Battalion. Fortunately, the battalion still had enough left to meet any threat. Its defense was successful because, just as in the attack, there were heroes there that evening who refused to give in. Private First Class Virgil D. Reimers of Nebraska, was an ammunition carrier in a Company D machine gun squad. He had been working hard all day to keep ammunition chests on hand for the hungry, heavy machine guns supporting the 1st Battalions attack. Now, at the time when every gun was needed most, enemy guns found the range and delivered a barrage which killed every member of the squad except Reimers and one other soldier. Reimers saw how perilous the position was, but he also saw how important every bit of support was. With the help of the other survivor, he got the machine gun back into action and remained there to cover a local withdrawal of some of the rifle troops he kept the gun in action until he too was killed in a succeeding barrage.
Much of the burden of any defensive action fell upon the machine guns and 81mm mortars of the heavy weapons company. The commander of Company D, the one responsible for the co-ordination of this fire, was Captain Donald C. Rubottom of Nebraska (he had been a member of the University of Nebraskas Rose Bowl squad for the game with Stanford on New Years Day 1941).
It was growing dusk, but the 3rd Battalion moved on another two hedgerows before consolidating for the night. It occupied a part of Hill 122 on the right of the 1st Battalion. Colonel Thomsen moved up with his command group to a sunken trail near some farm buildings which Company I had overrun. One of the buildings was on fire. Almost immediately an enemy direct-fire gun a dreaded "88" began firing. Its shells, bursting every few feet on the ground, and sometimes overlapping, pockmarked the whole field. Most of the men could recognize the "88" (88mm gun tank gun, anti-tank gun, or dual purpose , anti-tank, anti-aircraft gun) now for its loud "zip-bang!" There was no long whistle of the shell; in fact the shell arrived ahead of the sound. At first every enemy bursting shell mortar, howitzer, gun was attributed to the "88." But the effectiveness of the gun was second only to the stories about it.
The hard fighting was finished for that day, but that did not mean that the work was finished. There were supplies ammunition and rations and radio batteries and water to be brought up. Preparations had to made for attack on the morrow. No, no orders had been received, but there was no question about it it would be attack, attack, attack, until St. Lo had fallen.
Twilight was adding its shadows of gloom to the already grotesque pattern of shelled and torn Villiers-Fossard when someone came up the road near the 3rd Battalion C.P. to say that there were some wounded men in a disabled tank about a thousand yards to the front. The tank was still exposed to enemy fire. Private Edward W. Thill, one of the medics, volunteered to go after them. Without allowing time for any refusal, he jumped into his jeep and took off. Once a Milwaukee taxi cab driver, "Mouse" Thill now drove his jeep with as much disregard for enemy fire and mines as he would have given to yellow traffic lights. Two considerations demanded speed: to get the wounded men back to the aid station as soon as possible, and to limit the time of exposure to enemy fire. Thill felt no reluctance to apply speed. Flying a red cross flag over the radiator, the jeep sped down the road to the vicinity of the tank. Then, disregarding enemy fire, he raced to the tank, and was able to extract two wounded men. He got them into the jeep, and then, half standing, half sitting on the back of the seat, he came speeding back to safety. His work was typical of the medics. All of them had won a high regard for themselves in the hearts of the doughboys. This regard was especially keen for the company aid men (one for each platoon when they were fortunate enough to be at full strength) who, unarmed, went right along with the rifle platoons and crawled from one wounded man to another to administer first aid. They were men like T/5 John S. Bradny of Ohio, who had been working unceasingly with Company A and the 1st Battalion in the most advanced positions. (At one time, in fact, he had been the only aid man present with the elements of three companies which were pinned down by enemy fire).
As night fell the periphery of the glowing light from the burning house up near Emelie extended farther and farther outward. The flames became a reference point which could be seen for miles in the clear night. Ammunition in the house began to explode, and a brilliant fireworks display continued sporadically almost all night.
Engineers and members of the Anti-Tank Company Mine Platoon were working on the road (the Villiers-Fossard-St. Lo road) to remove mines from an area where one burned out American tank still set. Supply officers and kitchen personnel were at work moving up supplies to the 1st and 2nd Battalions; leading columns of jeeps and trailers (usually one for each company), they picked their way through dark sunken trails and shell-plowed fields to reach the battalions. The 3rd Battalions supply train likewise set out from its motor park, but it soon discovered that mines remained in the vicinity of the knocked-out tank, for as Company Is jeep started to pull around, it set off an explosion which completely enveloped it, and left maimed bodies and wrecked vehicles where moments before only the quiet purr of motors had broken the quite. (Anti-tank Company also lost a jeep there.) Engineers and anti-tankers tried to find an alternate route, but they met with no success. Finally the 3rd Battalion was able to get supplies forward by detouring over the route being used by the 1st Battalion.
The attack on July 18th largely was a repetition of the previous days. The first big objective, the corps objective, appeared to be within striking distance and the Regiment, now with a battalion of the 320th Infantry attached, jumped off at 1100. The battalions were able to advance two or three hedgerows, and then it was the old story of confronting those well dug-in, co-ordinated positions.
The regimental commander was at Colonel Boatsmans 1st Battalion C.P. during the first hour and a half of the attack, and while he was there, a call from high headquarters came to Major Craig at the C.P. in which there was expressed a desire for the 134th Infantry to halt its attack at the edge of St. Lo. A second call came after the regimental commander had returned to his C.P. The corps commander asked that the 134th Infantry hold up at the outskirts of St. Lo in order to permit the 29th Division, who had that for its objective from the beginning, to enter the city. Naturally such a request was accepted without question.
Already at 1430 the 2nd Battalion reported that it had a patrol approaching the outskirts of the town, and by 1645, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were consolidating their positions along the north-northeastern edges.
In the 3rd Battalions zone, the heart of the city lay about a thousand yards beyond the battalions position. Now Colonel Thomsen was as anxious as higher headquarters to push on and complete this big initial assignment; he could look down and see shattered roof tops and spires beckoning to him. He notified the companies to reorganize and go for St. Lo at 1930, cautioning them, of course, to hold up at the edge of the city.
Captain Melcher and Captain Lassiter faced a difficult task in getting their companies, fought to near exhaustion, on the move again. Men were freezing to their foxholes. There was that tremendous inertia of fatigue and protection to overcome. Days of fighting were beginning to tell. Weariness had taken the edge off that discipline which had forced men to go forward without regard to themselves. But now one of L Companys platoons was leading out. First Lieutenant Francis Greenlief of Nebraska had his platoon on the way. They went over the hedgerow and started across the next field. When a man hesitated, Greenlief called out to him. His voice could be heard above everything else. Suddenly, a German machine gun 42 opened up with a long burst from an opposite corner. It caught most of the squad. Four of them fell dead. The remainder of the platoon hit the ground and froze in place. The husky lieutenant urged them on, but they could not face that machine gun. He crawled to a wounded soldier and picked up his Browning automatic rifle always a favorite weapon. The big platoon leader, still shouting to his men, jumped up and opened fire firing from the hip. He stood up and sprayed the whole hedgerow ahead of him, and then, still firing to keep the Germans heads down he knew that they would "freeze" under automatic fire as much as his own men he rushed to the corner where the machine gun had been firing. He went in fast and destroyed the entire enemy crew. With this immediate danger removed, and such an example of heroism as this, the men no longer could remain down.
They began moving all along the line. Each took confidence as he saw his comrades moving with him. Now they were moving in short rushes, now in long rushes from hedgerow to hedgerow. No longer was it a pair of scouts or half a squad working forward along the hedgerow it was fire and movement all along the front. Tired men forgot their fatigue. Frightened men forgot their fear. All of them brave men now, kept shooting and moving forward.
An L Company man leaped over the next hedgerow, but he dropped his rifle on the wrong side. When he looked up he saw three Nazi soldiers standing beside him. They were as surprised as he; but they had one important advantage they were armed. Acting quickly almost by reflex action he grabbed a burp gun from the hands of the nearest adversary and with a single burst shot all three of them.
A frightened German jumped up and scampered over the hedge. "Get the rabbit! Get the rabbit!" men began shouting. Two or three riflemen paused for shots; he fell on his face with such violence that his helmet rolled out ahead of him, and his long hair (hardly a German was to be seen with a "German haircut"; most of them were wearing the long "Hollywood" style)strung out in front.
Someone started yelling the old war cry, "All hell cant stop us!" "Lah We Lah His!" The Kraut was on the run, and when he was on the run he could not very well shoot back. Company commanders tried to caution their men to halt at the edge of the town, but the assault was now out of their hands. It swept into St. Lo. After some effort the company commanders were able to recall their men back up to the edge of town and organize a defensive position. During the night the keeper of the regimental S-3 Journal made these entries:
2400 Blue 3 wants to be sure liaison planes will be in the air at daybreak.
0115 Capt. Heffelfinger (1st Battalion S-3) reports Strader (C.O., Co A) tied in on to Lassiter in St. Lo cemetery on outskirts out of the boundary. Strader is requesting AT guns to be there by daylight.
0130 Called Blue 6 Lassiter is tied on a church about 1000 ft due N of St. Lo K is on right. Strader and Davis on left.
FO # 7
XIX Corps defends along line Vire R. St. Lo in zone. Establish limiting point on MLR, RRL. Tie in w/29th Div.
As a result of the St. Lo action, the 134th Infantry and the 115th Infantry became the first two regiments in the European Theater to be mentioned in the press by name. It was an order of General Eisenhower that brought the War Department announcement that "two former National Guard regiments, the 134th and the 115th Infantry, have distinguished themselves in the capture of St. Lo" (in Stars and Stripes, ETO edition, Aug. 9, 1944). Further honors came in the form of a Croix de Guerre with palm from the French Government for the Regiment, and a unit citation for the 1st Battalion (see appendix).
It was habitual in times of pause in close proximity to the enemy to undertake active patrolling. First Lieutenant John Strader, now commanding Company A (Strader had been wounded in the shoulder earlier, but had left the aid station to return to his company on learning of the wounding of Captain McCown) led one patrol himself down around the western section of St. Lo, but in doing so he was wounded a second time; this time it was a bullet hole in the leg from the rifle of a sniper. (The command of Company A now devolved upon the dependable 2nd Lt. Constant J. Kjems when it developed that no other officers remained who were able to take command).
A few hours later another patrol all officers set out from the 3rd Battalion to reconnoiter the bank of the Vire River and determine points of reference for contact with the 137th Infantry on the right. The five lieutenants met along the sunken trail which served as a front-line trench, and, getting into patrol formation, started toward the right flank. They moved quickly, but cautiously, along the sunken trail to a small church where they entered a gravel road and followed it a few yards west to the asphalt paved St. Lo-Pont-Herbert-St. Jean de Daye highway. The afternoon sun shown brightly, and as they turned their back on the debris that was St. Lo, the countryside was most beautiful. Though they walked back to the north nearly half a mile, they were not free from the marks of war. There were wire obstacles, and there was a strong suspicion of mines. They paused once while one lieutenant went up to investigate a tank-looking vehicle which turned out to be only a huge truck. They made a left turn to follow another gravel road on to the west another half mile. A lone steel helmet lying along the road bespoke of a tragedy that had preceded them -yes, at the road junction there was a jeep in which someone had ventured too far forward. They turned into a meadow and soon found themselves on a bluff overlooking the horseshoe bend in the Vire River. They located themselves on the map. The view below looked like a skillfully tinted enlargement of the aerial photograph in their hands. They just lay there to take in the view. It was the first time that they had been able to see beyond a hedgerow or two. Some 81mm mortars were adding to the color of the scene by sending out a few rounds of white phosphorous shells which burst like fiery fountains and then sent heavy white smoke mushrooming upward from the railroad buildings a thousand yards away. Finding a trail down the bluff, the lieutenants made their way down to the river, and then followed it back toward the town. Foxholes in the side of the hill commanded the valley, but the officers were relieved to find them abandoned. They noted landmarks along the trail which might serve as connecting points for regular patrols. Soon they were back amongst the rubble of St. Lo. They climbed up on some broken masonry that once had been a house and tried to find some of the streets which were shown on their map. But the streets were as unrecognizable as the house on which they were standing. Buildings had been flattened to spill rubble into the streets to a level equal to that remaining above the old foundations. A map was of little use in this sameness of destruction. About the only reference point was the church (the Church of Notre Dame, once a cathedral dating from the 14th Century); it was damaged severely, but the tall steeple was yet standing. Enemy artillery began to fall; it was doing its bit to make rubble of the rubble. They waited beside a garden wall until it subsided, and then started on up to find the highway. An automatic weapon opened up to their rear it sounded like a B.A.R. No one was hit, fortunately, and, hugging the wall, they kept moving.
It was dusk which meant it was past 10 oclock by the time the patrol got back to its area. As they entered the mouth of the sunken trail they heard aircraft overhead. Just then a bright flare caught members of the patrol in a brilliant yellow light. They felt as though they were standing naked; it seemed that the flare never would burn out, and that these particular individuals were the only persons in the world whom the Nazi pilot could see. They were flat on the ground by the time they heard the first bomb explode some distance to the rear. Then machine guns started to chatter. Red and green tracers could be seen racing across the now darkened sky. At first it seemed that the machine guns in the rear were sending up anti-aircraft fire, but no, those red balls of fire were coming down he was strafing the hedgerows. Nine men of the 2nd Battalion were injured in the attack, as well as two men of the 3rd Battalion, and eight in Service Company. One man was reported killed in the Service Company area.
First Lieutenant G. I. Stoneburner was in the kitchen area (Service Company), and, like everyone else, ducked for cover behind a hedgerow and lost his steel helmet. Groping about in the dark to try and find his helmet, he started crawling back along the hedgerow. He bumped into someone and looked into the spectacled face of 1st Lt. Joe Friedel of Nebraska. Friedel was crouching low as the machine gun bullets cut through the thick leaves. Stoneburner looked up quickly and said, "I cant find my damned helmet."
Friedel yelled into his ear, "Here Rocky, you can share mine!" His head alongside Stoneburners Friedel lifted his helmet to cover partially both heads.
Staff Sergeant Harry P. Saali was killed in action that day. And that broke up a pair of twins from Peru, Nebraska, which almost never had been separated. Harry and Carl had formed a winning battery on Company As championship softball team; onlookers never were really sure which was pitching and catching. Their military career had been spent together in A Company. Their promotions always had come simultaneously company commanders had protested that when one was promoted, the other had to be, for they could not be sure which they were promoting. But each had demonstrated his responsibility and dependability in his own right, and as staff sergeants and squad leaders they had been assigned to different platoons, but that was as far as separation ever had gone. Now, with one sudden blow the separation was made complete and permanent, as far as physical comradeship on this planet was concerned. Friends tried to keep the news from Carl, but he sensed it that very day. He knew that Harry was gone.
While the 3rd Battalion was organizing its position on the right flank, the 2nd Battalion was making contact on the left, the 1st prepared to move into St. Lo itself to relieve elements of the 115th Infantry. Artillery fire continued to move in as the 1st Battalions companies marched down dark streets to shattered houses to complete the readjustment. Colonel Boatsman took over the battalion C.P. located down in the safety of a well built tomb where wires and lanterns and maps and K ration cans had accumulated on the burial vault, and where the atmosphere was heavy from overcrowding, demands of continuous artificial lighting, and the lack of ventilation. But it offered protection from shellfire, and that was a highly important consideration in St. Lo.
Holding to the high ground south of St. Lo, the Germans seemed bent on rendering St. Lo untenable by artillery fire. Supply parties moved up at night from a quarry a mile or so north of town, and "ran the gauntlet" up "88 alley" to the companies.
Casualties continued to mount during the artillery barrage which frequented the area. But there continued to be examples of individual selflessness in the face of danger almost beyond the realm of common comprehension. On July 21, for example, Acting 1st Sgt. Richard S. Butterfield of Omaha, 1st Battalion medical section, was helping a concussion victim into an ambulance when an artillery barrage descended upon the old winery which was serving as an aid station in the valley behind the 1st Battalions cemetery command post. Butterfields first thought was for the safety of the patient. They dropped to the ground and he threw himself over the patient, holding him down, and protecting his body with his own. As a result the patient received only light fragmentation wounds, but it cost Sergeant Butterfield both legs.
It was possible, however, during this pause at St. Lo for men to shave for the first time helmets were efficient wash bowls, and water from Norman wells was cool and even to have hot chow a part of the time.
A thankless, but necessary, task fell to the grave registration officers who worked eight to ten hours a day all during this period to clear bodies from the battlefields. Jeeps came in from all three battalions pulling trailers loaded with the bodies of comrades who had fallen and of equipment which had been left by the casualties or simply had been dropped.
Now it was possible to recognize how much ingenuity and initiative had been required on the part of certain specialized personnel to support the Regiments drive into St. Lo and to keep it there once that goal had been attained. The expenditure of ammunition, the lose or destruction of weapons or equipment, the difficulties of combat feeding were problems which Major Thomas S. Morton and his assistants had to meet, or it would have been impossible for the Regiment to have accomplished its mission. No less important was the establishment and maintenance of communications, and here, it was Captain Robert W. Karlovich and the regimental and battalion communications platoons which performed an indispensable service. The problem was complicated somewhat by stories which had come down concerning the dangers of using radios, and they were used sparingly at this time. Almost continuous artillery during many periods made it necessary to patrol wire lines almost constantly, for a heavy barrage meant broken lines. It required superhuman effort to keep the wire communication effective. Platoon and company runners, operating in the most dangerous situations, often were the only means of communication in the companies.
Rotation of battalions in the defensive position at St. Lo sent the 3rd Battalion to relieve the 1st in the city, and the 2nd Battalion took over an additional sector on the left (east) on the night of 22 23 July. Three days later the 1st Battalion returned to the line to relieve the 2nd.
General Omar Bradley, commanding First Army, had seen as his immediate problem during July to be the extension of his area in order to permit maneuver, build-up, and accommodation for ever-increasing traffic. The unrelenting infantry attacks through the hedgerows had been expanding beachhead all right, but the ground attack had fallen considerably behind schedule. It had been hoped that Cherbourg would be taken by D plus 8; actually that port had not been captured until D plus 28. The V Corps had hoped to take St. Lo by D plus 9, but already it was D plus 39 when the 134th Infantry launched its initial attack toward St. Lo.
General Bradley was anxious to get the terrain which would permit the mounting of a big attack a try for a breakthrough. He had hoped for the capture of St. Lo Coutances line, but, with time running out, he had decided that the terrain along the St. Lo Periers road would be satisfactory for mounting a new offensive. Target date for the operation operation COBRA had been set for July 18. St. Lo had just been captured by that time, however, and then a siege of unfavorable weather had set in. "Give us a clear day of flying weather," General Bradley is reported to have said, "and well break out of the Norman peninsula." The days of delay were not wasted, however, for they made possible greater attention to plans and organization. The date then was set for 24 July, and planes took to the air for preliminary bombing, but bad weather forced a 24 hour postponement. That night Lt. Edgar Keltner, Jr., assistant S-3, telephoned the battalions to say, "The snake is going to begin to uncoil soon."
Men of the 134th watched in awe the next morning as nearly 3,000 airplanes flew overhead and began dropping their bombs. Bombs, 6,000 tons of them, fell at a density of ten per acre on a narrow area in front of the 30th and 9th Divisions (the 30th was on the immediate right of the 35th Division). It appeared to members of the 134th that some of the bombs were falling short, and unfortunately, this was true. In spite of casualties from the short bombs, the infantry in that zone was able to start moving at 1100. Reports came in that evening that the attack was making progress against strong resistance, but the next morning it appeared that the defenses had been penetrated; the armored divisions were going into action.
Obviously it would be necessary to maintain pressure in the zones adjacent to that of the major attack in order to prevent the transfer of enemy troops to the area of break-through.
It appeared, briefly, that the 134th Infantry was going to be relieved, perhaps for duty elsewhere, by the elements of the 28th Division. That possibility vanished, however, with an order at noon (July 27) for the Regiment to attack in its present zone that afternoon. Attachments to the 134th, making the main effort, were the 1st Battalion, 137th Infantry; Company A, 737th Tank Battalion; and artillery to the extent of 19 battalions were available for support. The regimental plan called for the 3rd Battalion to jump off at 1500, with 2nd Battalion to follow in reserve, and 1st Battalion, 137th Infantry, would attack on the left on order. There was greater distance for the 3rd Battalion to cover, because it was to execute a change in direction to the left after advancing half a mile southwest of St. Lo.
Passing the old, once beautiful Church of Notre Dame, men paused to point out to those who followed an inspiring curiosity of the ruins; stone dust had clouded what was left of the beautiful blue and white and gold of the interior; most of the roof was demolished; the walls were crumbling; but in the center of this destruction, resting upon the only opposing pillars which had been spared, rose the great crucifix, intact.
In a thin single file the 3rd Battalion moved over the deep rubble which filled the streets, wound down narrow steps to get to the river level, and then moved along the highway to the southwest. A small field of teller mines laid on the road surface near the edge of town suggested that the German withdrawal had not been well organized. Company L deployed on the left of Company I, and the 3rd Battalion moved warily ahead more than a thousand yards before it ran into any trouble. Here, after a brief firefight, Company I knocked out a machine gun and took some prisoners. Now leaving the highway upon which it had been guiding, the 3rd Battalion moved southeast through orchards and hedgerows. Here and there it would run into pockets of resistance and then move on. Prisoners in groups of four or five to 20 were taken, and, of course, men of the 134th were being wounded.
Attached tanks were unable to move through the rubble of St. Lo. A tank reconnaissance officer went down to look over the situation and estimated that it would take two days to get any armor through the town. Division engineers went to work with bulldozers and shovels and trucks - and mine detectors. They worked through the night to open a vehicular route in record time.
The 1st Battalion attacked straight south at 1800. Half an hour later it was involved in the same kind of firefight which had been delaying the 3rd Battalion. At 2110 Colonel Boatsman reported than an assault platoon of his battalion had reached the high ground which was the immediate objective.
Division orders were to continue the attack until 2230, and then dig in. At that hour, however, the 3rd Battalion was in another brisk firefight, and darkness had applied its own envelopment before quiet returned. The battalions, separately, formed "wagon-wheel", all-around defenses for the night.
Hardly had the men dug their foxholes before that bothersome German airplane was circling overhead. Again came those brilliant yellow, everlasting flares, and then the bombs, and then the machine gun bullets. It was awe-inspiring to watch as long as he kept at a safe distance, but when he came over ones own orchard it was more comforting to hide the head ostrich-like in the foxhole and shut out the disrobing light. This night he seemed to be interested particularly in the area of the supporting 161st Field Artillery. One bomb tore a huge crater in the very center of a field which scattered thick mud - happily nothing more than that - all over the trucks and guns around the edges of the field. So regular had this visits become - 11 oclock each evening - that everyone referred to the hostile airman as "Bed-check Charlie." And men were asking where was the famed "Black Widow" night fighter?
A regrouping of troops during the night (27 - 28 July) brought the 29th Division out of the line and shifted it, by motor, to a sector on the right; withdrawal of the 29th brought the 2nd Division to the Regiments left. The 35thDivision was now in Major General Leonard T. Gerows V Corps.
At 1000 the next morning (July 28) the Regiment resumed its advance generally to the southeast. The 3rd Battalion, on the right, near the Vire River, deployed on both sides of the road leading to Ste. Suzanne sur Vire and Conde sur Vire, and met only scattered, light opposition in its advance. It reached the high ground north of Conde just before sunset and reported "on objective."
One of the sergeants, happening upon a very-recently knocked out German platoon wagon and horse (the German infantry battalion at full strength was supposed to have 45 horse-drawn vehicles and 1120 horses) had discovered some tall bottles in the cargo, and, with a slight twinkle in his eye, had inserted a pair of bottles in the bosom of his shirt. Now, as the battalion prepared for its night defense, he dropped to the ground and leaned against a hedgerow. He withdrew one of the bottles and smiled eagerly as he removed the cork. He lifted the bottled to his lips with a deep breath and prepared to take a long draft. It was cut short very quickly, however, in wild sputtering and violent language.
"White lighting!" he said.
"Sure, its Calvados," added an expert on the subject.
On the left, the 1st Battalion was guiding on the St. Lo - Torigni sur Vire highway, and it found greater obstacles to its advance than did the 3rd. This meant a considerable gap in depth, as well as in width, between the 1st and 2nd Battalions (the "normal" frontage for a regiment in attack was supposed to be 1,000 to 2,000 yards; the regimental zone in this attack was more than 3,000 yards wide). Accordingly, the 2nd Battalion, in reserve, was ordered to move up on the left of the 3rd and take over the objective originally assigned to the 1st Battalion.
In moving up, the 2nd Battalion encountered some real trouble in the area immediately to the left of the route which the 3rd Battalion had followed. The firing became intense on both sides. Again it was Company Fs Captain Scully who was the central figure in the attack; but this was his last action, for a mortar shell burst above and killed him.
Not until the next morning were the three battalions able to make contact with each other. By that time the Germans, now following a more or less regular pattern, had withdrawn. But there was no intention of permitting the enemy any respite.
While the 3rd Battalion, from its position on the objective north of Conde, sent patrols forward for reconnaissance and to the right for contact with the 30th Division, the 1st and 2nd Battalions resumed their advances at 0900 that morning (July 29) in order to come up abreast of the 3rd. Third Battalion patrols destroyed a tank, or a self-propelled 88, in Conde sur Vire and captured the crew which had taken refuge in the village church.
An afternoon meeting at the Division C.P. brought orders for a renewal of the attack at 1700. With Torgnisur-Vire now the regimental objective, the 1st Battalion was again to be in the attacking echelon with the 3rd Battalion, while the 2nd was to revert to reserve once more.
Anxious to cover the ground in the quickest time possible in the few hours of daylight remaining, Colonel Thomsen decided to send out a platoon ahead of the battalions attack. If the platoon could reach the objective without a fight, the battalion could march quickly up and garrison it; if, on the other hand, the platoon should encounter enemy resistance, it as least would have determined something of the location and strength of the enemy forces, and the battalion would be able to apply its fire power with more effectiveness. Assigned the special mission was 2nd Lt. Jack Campbell of Chicago and his platoon from Company L. Moving out an hour before the general attack was supposed to be made, the platoon proceeded through Conde sur Vire and continued southward until encountering a high railway embankment. Campbell sent his sergeant one way to look for a trail crossing or underpass, while he went the other. As he left the platoon, the lieutenant noticed a German soldier walking ahead of him, but thought that it must be only some straggler. Soon, however, he discovered that he was in the midst of a German bivouac area - complete with tanks! He hurried back a few steps in order to see his platoon and, with downward motions of his hand, signaled "Hit the ground." His men saw him, all right, but they interpreted his signal as meaning "withdraw!" and they lost no time in executing it. It was a rather embarrassing moment for Campbell, but apparently the Germans had caught glimpses of the Americans and had determined to apply similar caution. Happily, a contingent from the 35th Reconnaissance Troop arrived in the vicinity, and Campbell could radio back "all clear."
By 1900 the 3rd Battalion was passing through Conde sur Vire, and the 1st Battalion was approaching the road which ran between Conde and St. Lo-Torigni highway. Nor did opposition develop during the next two hours while the battalion advanced another two thousand yards. When the 3rd Battalion reached a small cluster of farm dwellings and barns noted as "le Bust" on the map at 2130, enthusiastic French people were out to greet the Yanks. It was about the first time since entering combat that French families were found occupying their homes. Villiers-Fossard had been almost completely abandoned; St. Lo was a ghost town; Ste. Suzanne and Conde sur Vire practically lifeless.
At 2200 both attacking battalions were encountering heavy volumes of machine gun and mortar fire, but it ceased when they stopped to prepare defenses for the night. There was some indication from division headquarters that the attack ought to continue during the night, but a call by the regimental commander, pointing out that there had been no opportunity for reconnaissance of the ground beyond the present position and that serious opposition could be expected upon renewing the attack, was successful in having further operations postponed until 0900 the next morning.
While the 1st and 3rd Battalions were moving into position in the vicinity of le Bust, the 2nd was moving along the road south of Conde sur Vire beyond a railway underpass.
Some headquarters men were walking through Conde. "Its almost 11 oclock," one of them said, "Were going to have to step on it to beat "Bed-check Charlie."
They quickened their pace, but darkness was upon them when they reached the group of buildings - a large farm house and out buildings - about mid way between Conde and le Bust which had been chosen as the new site for the regimental C.P.
"Here comes Bed-check!" someone called, "dont you hear that old washing machine motor? Its Kraut all right."
"Get cover before the flares come!"
In this vicinity men were scattering among the buildings; the 2nd Battalion began dispersing among the hedgerows. A string of flares cast its bright yellow light over the landscape. There was a burst of machine gun fire from across the railway. The airplane answered by swooping down with its machine guns strafing over the 2nd Battalion. A bomb sent tremors through the earth.
Some of the headquarters men found themselves in a half-wrecked room of the big farmhouse.
"Well, I have read in the papers how English civilians get under a heavy table during an air raid," one said.
"Heres a table."
A communications sergeant began throwing refuse aside. The others joined him to push the table up against the most substantial looking wall, and dived underneath. They grasped each other to cultivate the reassurance of comradeship, and sat quietly. They could hear an occasional burst of machine gun fire; the slow-turning motor began to sound louder. They could hear a high pitched screaming whistle; it was a crescendo, violent tone whose intensity heightened as it came closer. Then the shrillness was lost in an engulfing reverberation. Bits of masonry fell onto the table over their heads; plaster dust fell down their necks.
"Boy, that must have got the house."
They waited a few minutes and then, as the overhead drone became faint, crawled out for a look around. Apparently no one was hurt in the vicinity of the farm buildings, but news came that the 2nd Battalion had suffered rather serious casualties during the air attack.
Someone interrupted some exchange of criticism of the Air Corps for failing to provide night fighter protection against such a regular adversary. "Say, he got a bulls eye; did you see what he did to that bridge?"
The bomb, rather than hitting the house, had made a direct hit in the center of the bridge over the railroad. Crumbled stone from the demolished span lay amongst the twisted rails below. To cross the railroad now it was necessary for one to climb down into the deep cut and out again over the rubble on the other side.
A system of green flares, apparently fired from the ground, practically had outlined the area of the forward battalions just prior to the air attack; men wondered if some of those friendly people were disguised Germans or German sympathizers.
The drone of an airplane overhead interrupted the sleep of those members of the 134th who had been able to recline for a few hours in a grass-lined foxhole. As they looked about they could see green flares bursting in all directions. Now "Reveille Pete" was joining "Bed-check Charlie" in making a nuisance for the 134th. Units were well-concealed, however, and "Pete" retired without bringing any further casualties.
Lt. Col. Alfred Thomsen, plastic map case in one hand, long field coat slung over the back of his belt, walked up to the corner of the field, paused momentarily to collect his command group, and moved up a hedgerow to a sunken road where he paused to direct the 3rd Battalions attack. The companies jumped off at 9 oclock, but the German withdrawal pattern had been altered - there were immediate bursts of hostile fire all along the line. The enemy added artillery to his small arms fire. Companies K and L unable to advance, Colonel Thomsen sent Company I around to attack on the left of L; but there was no flank, and "I" was under fire before it even came abreast. All companies were suffering casualties, and were gaining nothing.
A barrage hit the corner of the orchard which was the 3rd Battalion C.P. Lieutenant Flory M. Garner, communications officer, was seriously wounded; a tank officer who had come up to coordinate the employment of tanks was hit; a company messenger was killed; the battalion clerk was wounded in the leg and side; Captain Ray Carroll, acting as executive officer, had gone forward to contact Colonel Thomsen, and he returned to find his field coat torn to shreds. Later Captain O. H. Bruce, battalion adjutant, was put out of action by a near shell burst.
Meanwhile, the companies were trying to go forward, but neither the 3rd or the 1st Battalion was able to make any substantial advance. Local gains developed from time to time through the sheer heroism and determination of small unit leaders, or of men who assumed the initiative in those trying circumstances. There was, in Company K, Technical Sergeant Paul Forney of Nebraska who, finding himself in command of his platoon when the lieutenant was hit, rallied his men to cross through enemy fire to the next hedgerow, and went on to throw grenades over the next obstacle before a burst of fire killed him. And there was Pfc. Edward Abraham of Ohio who leaped over a hedgerow, and, though wounded, crawled up to destroy a German machine gun with his grenades. Or there was such heroism in Company L as that of Pfc. Luverne Strand of Minnesota and Robert Hanlon of Washington D.C. when they ran up to take over a B.A.R. whose crew had been wounded, and kept the automatic riffle going in a vital position until a direct hit from an enemy mortar killed both of them. And then there was the action of Technical Sergeant Leonard Oseik of Ohio who grabbed a light machine gun, and fired from the hip to cover a withdrawal of his platoon, only to be killed as he turned to climb over a hedgerow.
Over in the 1st Battalion, there was the same determined resistance. Colonel Boatsman looked for every possible way to bring additional firepower to influence the situtation, but at times it seemed difficult enough to hold the present position let alone try to advance. Here again there were similar individual exploits. One outstanding example was that of Staff Sergeant Orville J. Cox of Indiana and Pfc. Vincent J. Kline of Ohio. A particularly troublesome enemy machine gun was holding up the advance of the units which Sergeant Cox and Pfc. Kline, machine gunners of Company D, were supporting. They decided to undertake an enveloping action with their own machine gun. Before they reached this objective, however, they discovered that a farm house near their route of approach was occupied by the enemy. They turned their machine gun fire upon it with such effect that they killed or wounded ten of the enemy, and the remainder fled from the house. The path clear now, they crept toward their original objective, and were able to get close enough to destroy that machine gun position with hand grenades. Unfortunately, as they crawled back to rejoin their unit, enemy fire caught them, and Pfc. Abraham was killed.
There was no sign of the enemys weakening as hour followed hour in this life and death struggle. A jeep was going up toward the 3rd Battalions C.P. after a contact mission to the Regimental C.P. (wire communication was out during much of this time). The men in the jeep heard shells coming in again. They jumped to a side ditch along the road while the driver backed into a meadow. Another shell came close. They lay there and mentally dared one to come closer. It did. It left their ears ringing and their nostrils filled with the odor of burnt powder. They glanced up the road to a group of farm buildings on the left. A long whistle announced the approach of another shell. It burst on the barn. Members of the Ammunition and Pioneer Platoon - several of them wounded - came running out of the old building.
The 3rd Battalion Medical section, with its aid station in a small building about a hundred yards to the left of the road, was having its busiest day. Now a barrage hit the aid station. One man was holding out his hand to have his finger bandaged; a big shell fragment took off the hand. Wounded men lying helplessly on the floor were wounded a second or third time; medics were wounded so that they could not care for the others. Captain John R. Matthew of Indiana, battalion surgeon, decided he must move the aid station to the rear. It was a pathetic group which emerged from the damaged building and filed out to the road. Bloody bandages binding arms or heads or shoulders . . . wounded medics carrying men on litters who were unable to walk . . . everyone in a hurry, but no one able to run, out to the road to join a stream of God-forsaken human beings. Walking wounded from the Pioneer Platoon, and others from the companies, added their numbers to the battered column. French civilians from the little hamlet - the ones who had been so gay only the night before - now contributed to the general confusion by coming down the road with carts stacked high with bedclothes, utensils, what foodstuffs they might have. It was a motley assemblage that trudged down the road in the warm afternoon sun.
Company aid men were performing with their habitual heroism. With Company K, Pfc. Julius P. Morrison was wounded as he crawled up to give aid to men in pinned-down squads; nevertheless he kept going, and continued giving first aid until a second wound left him unconscious. Similarly, Private Louis T. Albertini of Pennsylvania was wounded in the right leg as he worked among the men of Company L, but he remained on the job for two hours to administer first aid to men lying in an open field under enemy fire.
Efforts to get the 2nd Battalion into action to relieve some of the pressure were not immediately effective. Colonel Wilson, suffering from the effects of the preceding nights air attack, had to be evacuated and the 2nd Battalions executive officer was nervous exhaustion. It was not until the battalion S-3, Captain Frederick C. Roecker, Jr., of Washington, a young West Pointer, was reached that any action could be obtained. Presently, Captain Carlyle F. McDannel of Nebraska approached the 3rd Battalion C.P. with Company E. The company was moving up in single file. McDannel called up to the men to keep under cover, and then directed the leading men to the area where they should contact the 3rd Battalions left flank. But another barrage was on the way. Tree bursts sent leaves and boughs fluttering to the ground, and send steel fragments among the men below. A shell hit in the midst of an M Company mortar squad in the field to the right. Other shells burst on top of the hedgerow and on the ground beside it; they cut down that column of men from Company E. Wounded men were writhing all along the hedgerow. One man lay mortally wounded in the back, but he remained conscious, and he called out in a loud voice until death relieved him a few minutes later. Others died more quickly.
It was nearing 1700 hours now, and Colonel Thomsen was worried about the situation. He chafed at being unable to advance; he was impatient that neither tanks nor the 2nd Battalion had been able to give any assistance, and he was concerned about the loss of men. Already their had been over 100 casualties in his battalion alone. Captain James Lassiter of Company L had been seriously wounded in the abdomen; names of platoon leaders and noncommissioned officers were prominent on the growing casualty lists. Colonel Thomsen was standing in the sunken trail near a large tree. A barrage burst among the trees to scatter its lethal fragments along the hedgerows below. Pfc. Joe Morahan, intelligence scout, shook his head and coughed. He looked up and saw that almost everyone in the command group had been hit. A 300 radio on his back, he began running up and down the trail - when artillery has been coming in, any place feels safer than the present position. He saw that Colonel Thomsen had been wounded. Morahan sat down to report on the radio what had happened. He knew that Captain Melcher of Company K was near and he called to him. Captain Carroll hurried up to get things reorganized. Medics were at work quickly, but they had a big job to do. Colonel Thomsen had a very serious head wound. All the members of the artillery liaison section had been hit, and their radio was destroyed. The battalion sergeant major was killed as he sought cover in a foxhole beside the hedgerow. The intelligence sergeant was wounded, but he refused evacuation until the others had been cared for only to die when another shell struck and killed him as well as the litter bearers who were carrying him away.
Enemy shelling subsided as dusk approached, but there was little fight left in the 3rd Battalion. The immediate problem was to get the 2nd Battalion into the line to relieve the 3rd. Fortunately, friendly night fighters were in the air this night and the relief went on without any interruption from "Bed-check Charlie." Lieutenant Earl J. Ruby had posted all available members of his Company M, as well as the survivors of Headquarters Company, along the road to act as guides in order that riflemen would not go wrong as they marched through the cool, clear night to an assembly area in an orchard about a kilometer east of the Regimental C.P. It was the end of a day which survivors of the 3rd Battalion always would remember as "Bloody Sunday."
In the assembly area, Lt. Col. Albert D. Sheppard, regimental executive officer, was on hand to supervise the reorganization until the new battalion commander should arrive. And the new commander was to be none other than Lt. Col. Robert E. Moore, formerly executive officer of the 137th Infantry, and close friend and associate of Colonel Sheppards from the days of national rifle and pistol matches at Camp Perry, Ohio back in 1929 and 1930, and executive officer, under Colonel Sheppard, in the Missouri State Police. Colonel Moore was expected to arrive at 8 oclock the next morning. Other changes took Captain Harlan B. Heffelfinger, 1st Battalion S-3, to the 3rd Battalion as executive officer, and Lieutenant Frank Snyder went from 1st to 3rd Battalion as communications officer.
With a turnover, in the Regiment as a whole, of about 35 percent since the beginning of combat, men of the 134th began wondering when their turn would come. Percentages looked well enough when figures were given dealing with the whole Army, for most of the Army does not fight, but in the fighting elements of infantry regiments, men began to see that they had no odds in their favor. It was becoming a question not of if they were going to get hit, but when, and how badly. During these two weeks the Regiment had suffered 1,333 casualties 61 officers and 1,272 enlisted men, and of these, 283 had died.
In spite of the difficulties growing out of the "Bloody Sunday," the Regiment prepared to move on. The watch word was "push, push"; the enemy must be allowed no respite. Apparently, the previous days action had hurt the Germans even worse than the Americans; for there was no real opposition during most of the day. Down the sunken trails, over unused highways, across hedgerows, through meadows and orchards, the thin battalion columns the 2nd on the right, the 1st on the left, the 3rd following the 2nd moved through the Bocage country. By about 1300 the leading battalions were on their objectives "B" (for Boatsman), and "T" (for Thomsen).
This success soon brought another division order. It changed the regimental boundaries to place Torigni sur Vire in the zone of the 320th Infantry, on the left, and called for a new attack southward toward the Vire River to be launched at 1600. This time Colonel Boatsmans 1st Battalion was in the assault, with the 2nd and 3rd Battalions following in column.
Reports came at 1545 that the 320th was passing through Torigni without opposition. The enemy seemed to be withdrawing all along the front. The 1st Battalion was able to continue its advance, practically unmolested, until about 1800. Then it was the old story again.
Small arms fire criss-crossed in front of the 1st Battalion, and mortars began working over its pinned down companies. Once again Company C found itself in a difficult situation. Pressure on the flanks was relieved somewhat, however, when Sergeant James T. Walton of North Carolina, light machine gun squad leader, picked up his light machine gun, ran forward and opened fire with such effect that he forced the enemy at that particular spot to withdraw. (Later Sergeant Walton was killed in action.) In the midst of the action was C Companys First Sergeant Thomas R. Coates of Nebraska. He was moving all along the line to assist in coordinating fire and to keep up the Companys determination to hold its ground and keep moving forward; but enemy rifle fire caught him and he was killed in action. (He had been recommended for a battlefield commission as second lieutenant.)
The firing subsided with the coming of darkness, and a division order at 2100 directed the 134th Infantry to continue its attack until 2130; Task Force Sebree (the 137th Infantry plus attachments), on the right, and the 320th, on the left, were to continue their attacks an hour longer. Patrols were to be maintained to the front, and in case of an enemy withdrawal, the attack was to be resumed. Otherwise, the 134th was to renew its attack at 0800. Regimental C.P. opened in a new location 400 yards west of Torigni.
The pattern of advance for the column of battalions was much the same the next day (August 1). There were strong points to be eliminated here and there, but, in the main, it was continuos infantry advance. For the 1st Battalion, leading the advance, there were the difficulties of stiffening resistance in the late afternoon, and once again it was costly in the loss of leadership. This time Technical Sergeant John G. Meints of Nebraska, platoon sergeant of Company Cs 1st Platoon, crawled up to the right flank of a machine gun position to destroy it with hand grenades; but it was at the cost of his own life. Shortly after 1800 the Regiment deployed out of column to send the 2nd Battalion to the right of the 1st, and 3rd to the left rear of the 1st. It was in this general formation that the Regiment was digging in for the night when Lieutenant Haugen arrived at the C.P. (now located a mile and a half south of Torigni) with a new division order. It indicated that V Corps (including the 2nd Division on the left) was to attack during the night for the Vire River. (There was a change in direction of the Vire at Pontfaroy so that it lay across the zone of advance in the area three or four miles south of the Regiments present position.) The 35th Division was to continue the attack throughout the night. The Regimental order called for a renewal of the attack, in the same formation, at 0200.
A successful night attack is a difficult thing under the most favorable circumstances, but without benefit of planning or reconnaissance, it becomes especially hazardous. (The field manuals had taught that "Night attacks are seldom justified without ample time for daylight preparation," and "a battalion should have a minimum of 3 hours for daylight preparation.") Yet, if such an attack could catch an enemy in the act of withdrawing, it might be well worth while. In any case, real activity that night was confined principally to the groupings of combat patrols. Daylight disclosed that the enemy was making no immediate defense, but there were mines and other obstacles to be eliminated before vehicles could get through.
Ambitions of higher headquarters grew with the advance. Initial objectives (north of the highway which led to Villedieules Poeles and Avranches) taken during the morning, a new order at 1120 announced a new Regimental objective, the city of Vire, another 10 or 12 miles away. A visit to the regimental C.P. by the corps chief of staff resulted in the demand for an immediate crossing of the Vire River. Telephone calls from division G-3 and a visit by the division commander backed up this project. Once again there was some cause for concern because of the lack of consideration for the necessities of planning and reconnaissance in demand for an immediate effort against the dominating terrain commanding the Vire River.
Battalion commanders did find enough time to make a brief reconnaissance before their battalions the 2nd on the right, the 3rd now on the left, followed by the 1st moved through a quiet, sunny afternoon toward the river.
Moving out in front, the 3rd Battalion, in a long column, marched toward a big military bend in its zone; the axis of advance beyond the river was to Pont Bellenger - Hill 203 - La Masure Le Lange. The men moved down through shoulder-high grass to the waters edge.
"Is this the Vire River?" someone said. "Hell, I can spit across this." Nevertheless there was a general feeling of dread as they looked at the high, commanding hills on either side of them and started up the valley.
"What just one machine gun on each of those hills could do to us," they thought. It might have been just like being with Custer at Little Big Horn. It was difficult to imagine why the enemy should not defend these heights.
Still, without any kind of enemy opposition, the column followed along the side of the valley toward Pont Bellenger 1,500 yards to the south. As Companies I and K uncovered from behind the nose of the hills and began to approach the town, the enemy opened up. Machine guns and rifles sent bullets cracking through the valley and shell fire quickly followed. Mortars searched the column all the way back to the crossing site. Fortunately the enemy had failed to set the trap at his disposal, and there was no direct fire from the tops of the riverside hills. However, that fire from the vicinity of Pont Belllenger was sufficient to be costly. Company I, in the lead, had 25 casualties within a few minutes. Nearly the whole battalion was pinned down. Captain Dick Melcher crawled up to his radio, but as he reached for the handset, a shell fragment tore away the mouthpiece and killed the radio operator.
Colonel Moore and most of his command group were pinned down in a little shed. Just outside in the meadow lay Private Elton Ridge of Missouri, one of the new battalion intelligence men; he had come up with replacements the day after "Bloody Sunday," and now he was getting his initiation. Company I men were falling back, and Ridge was crawling toward the relative safety of the little shed, where he would join the other members of the command group, when an I Company sergeant came upon him.
"Where the hell are you going?" the noncom yelled. "Stay up there and shoot!"
Naturally all the new men in the companies had not had a chance as yet to become aquatinted with each other and the sergeant obviously thought Ridge was one of his own replacements. At any rate the new intelligence scout found himself on the I Company firing line blazing away. Men were still falling about him; rapid bursts of machine gun fire were grazing over his back; a shell hit within a few feet and set his ears to ringing. He glanced up and saw a wounded man lying a few yards ahead of him out in the meadow. In spite of all the natural fear which was crushing down upon him, Ridge crawled out under that machine gun fire and amidst that shell fire to drag the stricken man back to safety.
The wounded comrade looked up and said, "Whats your name, soldier? That was a great thing you did."
The companies of the 3rd Battalion withdrew around the nose of the hill to reorganize. Company I was again without a commander - Captain Howard E. Craig of Ohio had been killed in action, and 1st Lt. Walter R. Bickford, second in command, had a severe wound in the leg. In these circumstances Captain Ray Carroll, battalion S-3,volunteered to take over a strange, disorganized Company for a resumption of the attack. Some confusion resulted from the coincidence of two hills designated on the map as "203," but ultimately this was clarified, the 3rd was ready to go again at 2030. It moved up about 200 yards before stopping for the night.
Meanwhile Captain Roecker, commanding the 2nd Battalion now, had led his troops across the river, and moved up to the ridge line to advance toward Hill 203 in their zone. They too encountered some of the heavy fire from the hill, and in this instance it was Company E which was pinned down. And here another element - air attack - came into the picture.
Bridging difficulties made it necessary for carrying parties to take up ammunition, water, and rations during the night. "Bed-check Charlie" made his regular visit, but inflicted no local damage. Artillery fire - friendly, that is - maintained continuos rumbling and a reddened southern sky. The sister regiments continued to advance; the 320th came up on the high ground to the left - amidst some confusion of challenges with sentries - and before 0700 it reported that it had men on the second Hill 203, southeast of Pont Bellenger; and the 137th had elements on Hill 193 to the southwest of Pont Bellenger. Now it did began to appear that enemy resistance had been broken.
That now familiar odor of broken tree limbs and phosphorus which associated itself so closely with death among the hedgerows lay heavy in the air as the battalions moved forward again at 0630. Half an hour later the 2nd was well beyond Hill 203, and the 3rd Battalion soon was making similar progress on the left. No opposition appeared until after 1500, and after failing to move far beyond Annebecq, the battalions stopped for the night. The advance moved on at 0630 (August 4) without difficulty.
Soon there were rumors that Vire no longer was to be a 35th Division objective; there were indications that the 2nd Division and the British were to take it. Men of the 134th had heard so many rumors about being "pinched out" that the term had become a popular by-word. Now, however, as the battalions advanced, queer-looking British vehicles began to appear along the roads to the left. Before noon orders came to hold up the advance; elements of the 2nd Armored Division were approaching from the right. On reaching their preliminary objectives, the battalions went into defensive positions in the orchards and the meadows. The Regimental C.P. opened at 1350 at La Metairie.
It was as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from the shoulders of all concerned. Men washed and shaved, and built small cooking fires, and got fresh water (always putting in the purifying halazone tablets, of course), and basked in the warm afternoon sun. For the first time in three weeks there was something beside enemy out in front. For the first time in nine days it looked as though there would be no order calling for the resumption of the attack within a few hours. It was known that the Third Army was now racing across Brittany; the situation called for a change in sector for the 35th Division, and officers and enlisted men alike speculated on the possibility of mounting trucks and returning to the Third Army to follow General Pattons armor.
Looking through the clear night which succeeded the bright day, men of the 134th could see Vire burning and they noted the flashes of artillery barrages, but the sounds scarcely were audible. They munched on chicken and rabbit and contemplated on the end of the campaign in Normandy.
To a vet of St. Lo a remembrance of juiceless unripe apples, abandoned combat packs, a jug of the white-lightning Calvados, a dead GI still standing behind a hedgerow, Spring onions plucked gingerly from a booby-trapped garden, a ransacked peasants bedroom, a bevy of bees kibitzing over a can of 10-in-1 jelly, may cause the complete picture of Normandy to unreel in his mind. Again he will see vividly the dense green foliage of the hedges; the bright petite fields and orchards checkering Purple Heart Hill; the sunken roads, foxhole-ridden.
Or perchance hell recall a green-uniformed, blackened Jerry carcass, a great barrel of cider in a cool barn, the fried spuds of the first hot chow, the swim in the Vire, the fourth foxhole dug in rocky ground in one day, the first clean clothing, a bloated and putrid dead horse, and again the Normandy drama will enact itself swiftly. Hell jump off in the attack. Hell hear the burp guns and the 88s and the startling mysterious sounds of the endless night vigils. Hell watch the wind-whipped Red Cross flag as the litterbearing jeep carrying his wounded comrade disappears down the road.
- Story of the 320th Infantry
|"St. Lo . . . at a bend in the Vire . . . in the hedgerow country"|
|"By digging down a deep foxhole . . . behind these hedgerows . . . "|
|"And there were sunken roads"|
|"Maps of St. Lo"|
|"The burning house became a reference point"|
|"Soon they were amongst the rubble of St. Lo"|
|"St. Lo . . . this sameness of destruction"|
|"Holding the high ground to the south, the Germans still could look down upon St. Lo"|
|"unable to advance . . . and a barrage burst among the trees (Lt. Col. Thomsen)"|
|"Message center in a typical French village north of the Vire"|
|"1st Battalion Anti-Tankers - first across the bridge over the Vire River"|
|"Men washed and shaved . . . "|
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