July 20, 2000
Dear Ms. Skrocki,
I very much appreciated your recent call and interest in your Brother's old outfit. Preparing the following overview of the history of the 134th while I was with it is a labor of respect for men like your Brother who served with it and sacrificed their lives.
Let me start with a bit of personal background. I was a student at Duke University Law School during the 1941-42 school year. After being permitted to complete that year, in the Spring of 1942 I enlisted in the Infantry and went through Infantry Basic Training at Camp Croft, South Carolina. During this period I applied for an Officers Candidate School, and after finishing basic training, was sent to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, as an Officer Candidate. I graduated in early December, 1942, was commissioned a 2nd Lt. and assigned to the 35th Division. The Division then assigned me to the 134th, which, in turn, assigned me to command a platoon of "K" Company, 3rd Battalion.
With this background, I'll pick up on the history of the 134th while I was aboard.
At the time I joined the Regiment in the latter part of December, 1942, the 3rd Battalion was stationed at Ventura, California, and engaged with anti-sabotage assignments, i.e., we patrolled the beaches on either side of Ventura. During this same period, your Brother's Battalion was stationed at Inglewood, California, with the same sort of mission but, as I recall, they were guarding aircraft manufacturing plants.
In January, 1943, the entire Division, i.e., the 134th, 137th, and a new regiment, the 320th, were reassembled at Camp San Luis Obispo, California. I suspect this was when your Brother came on board. I say that because, in the meantime, the Division had lost the 140th and was in the process of putting together and training the 320th. For this purpose many new men joined us then and were spread throughout the Division. Our stay here took on the flavor of Infantry basic training.
In the Spring of 1943, the Division was transferred to Camp Rucker, Alabama. I'm sure your Brother told you about the long, hot, and uncomfortable train ride from California to Alabama. At Rucker, until November of 1943, we were put through intensive training in small unit operations, but what I remember the most was the heat and dust -one of the more disagreeable experiences during my military career. By then I had been transferred to Regimental Headquarters as Assistant Operations Officer, and was soon promoted to lst Lt.
In November, 1943, we went into the field and participated in the "infamous" Tennessee Maneuvers. I say "infamous" because, beyond anything we had experienced before, we had to live in the mud, rain, snow, and freezing weather, which at the time we didn't appreciate, but once in combat, we realized why we had been exposed to all of this. We maneuvered in an interesting area, in and around some of the battlegrounds of the Civil War, and were able to get away between maneuvers and visit Nashville and other cities in that area. This was a strenuous, period as, no doubt, your Brother must have described to you in his letters home.
At the completion of these Maneuvers, we received word the Division had passed its "final exam" and was ready for an overseas assignment. To ready for that assignment, we moved by motor from Tennessee to Camp Butner, near Durham, North Carolina, where we went through what the Army called "P. 0. M. Qualification. " At the time we did not know where we would be going -felt it would be England -but then, out of the blue, the Regiment was sent to the mountains of West Virginia for winter mountain maneuvers. To this day I have never understood this, but, by this, the rumors started that we were going to participate in an invasion of Norway.
It was also during our stay at Camp Butner that furloughs were granted to many of us before going overseas. I imagine your Brother was then able to be with his family, sadly, as it turned out, for the last time .
On May 1, 1944, we left Camp Butner by train and went into a staging area at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. I remember we went through Washington, D.C. and, for the first time, I could see the Washington Monument and top of the Capitol dome. At this stage, most of us were treating all of this as an interesting experience -little did we realize what awaited us. In this vein, while at Kilmer we were given opportunities to visit New York City. I did, for the first time, and saw a Broadway show with a free ticket furnished, as I recall, by U .S.O. One of the things I remember most about our stay at Kilmer was the training we had going up and down on cargo nets, an experience we had to use when we off-loaded at Omaha Beach.
The fun was soon over. On the evening of May 11, 1944 we went by train from Kilmer to a wharf on New York Harbor where we boarded a ferry and on it were taken across to a dock on Staten Island. When we arrived there we were greeted by a band and Red Cross people offering us coffee and doughnuts, but it seemed to me, we kept moving and started up the gangplank of the U.S.S. General Anderson, a Navy transport. I rather think that most of the Regiment was on this ship, including your Brother's Company, but I'm not sure. In any event, when it was dark we sailed, but could see nothing because for that night everyone was restricted to the interior of the ship.
Things were crowded on the ship to say the least. As I recall, 17 junior officers were my cabin mates in a cabin probably intended for two, but compared to what our men had to put up with, we had nothing to complain about. They were all quartered below deck in very disagreeable conditions. I'll bet your Brother had something to say about that in his letters.
We crossed the Atlantic in a huge convoy stretching as far as you could see in all directions. The swells in the ocean were so big there were times when we couldn't see any other ships and there was much seasickness among us. We were glad to reach England. I'm not sure when we landed, but think it took us almost two weeks to cross the Atlantic.
As we neared Ireland we left the convoy and went into the harbor at Belfast for a brief time to evacuate one of ours who needed emergency surgery .The harbor was full of American, British and Free French battleships, including the U.S.S. Texas and U.S.S. Nevada. In retrospect, we realized these ships were gathering for the invasion of France.
When we left Belfast, we made a night run down the Irish Sea to Avonmouth at the Port of Bristol. As we came into this port area we could see craters here and there from German air raids. At this point, things began to get very serious.
We were met at dockside by some sort of band, but immediately moved on to board British trains and off we went to the invasion marshalling area in Cornwall.
The various units of the 134th were scattered over the Southwest comer of Comwall. Your Brother's Ist Battalion had the lucky draw -they were stationed in the most interesting and quaint city of Penzance. The Regimental Headquarters was at Camborne where I spent most of the time while in England, although I did get to Penzance on a couple of occasions. I imagine your Brother told your family in one of his letters that on one occasion the Ist Battalion was visited by Generals Eisenhower and Patton -I was Regimental Duty Officer that day and missed seeing them.
After D-Day, and on July Ist, the Regiment received its movement orders, with some of us going to Plymouth and some to Falmouth to board ships to cross the English Channel. I do not remember which port the Ist Battalion left from, but I believe they went to Plymouth and went across on the same British transport the Regimental Headquarters group was on, the HMS Javelin. I could very easily be wrong about that.
Our crossing was uneventful except as we neared Omaha Beach there was much excitement on the part of the British crew -never will know whether they were serious or pulling our leg, but the word was a nearby British corvette had hit a mine and gone down immediately.
Officially we landed on Omaha Beach on July 5th, but I will always think it was July 4th. Be that as it may, we had to go down cargo nets into small crafts and then on to a pier extending to the beach. Barrage balloons were suspended above the entire area and wrecked ships were still very much in evidence. It was exciting and sobering to see. We "walked up the hill" at the west end of the beach and on to an assembly area. After dark, with anti-aircraft guns firing on the beach, we started marching southward toward the front line. There was a full moon and as we walked through deserted and wrecked villages, with the rumble of artillery and the flashes from such guns, in front of us -well, it was unreal, like some of the old World War I movies.
After we landed until about July 11th, the 35th was in a reserve position. On the morning of July 14th, however, (and I will always remember that date because if was my birthdate) after relieving units of the 29th Division, the 134th jumped off in the mammoth effort of the American Ist Army to take St. Lo. This and the following days until about July 27th were very costly. We were in the hedgerows of Normandy where every field was surrounded by earthen walls -as we would use fences -on top of which shrubs and trees, etc. were growing. Each field then became a fortress and on top of that, the Germans had zeroed their artillery and machine guns to cover most of the road intersections and openings in the hedgerows. The Battle of St. Lo, then, was a bloody experience for the 134th, and as I have previously advised you, your Brother's Battalion was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation for its role in taking Hill 122 which was one of the key German defenses in its efforts to protect St. Lo. During this battle I was still at Regimental Headquarters in relative safety and I have great respect for your Brother and the many others who must be given the credit for taking St. Lo. We lost many in this effort, with many of our units badly depleted -it was a sad and sobering victory.
After St. Lo was taken and the 3rd Army under General Patton was able to "break-out," the 35th continued to move southward along the Vire River. I suppose the best way to describe this period would be to say we had the Germans moving south and we were pushing them hard. Yes, we had some vicious fights, but not on the magnitude of St. Lo, but to those who had to do the fighting, I'm sure they would disagree with this assessment.
I have always been confused as to the date I was sent to Company " A " as its C.0. , but it had to be during the last week of July. In fact, by being on the line and not at Regimental Headquarters, I no longer had access to the "big picture" so my memories relate to what Company " A " was involved with -I lost track of days.
Shortly after I joined Company "A", we had a day's rest at the conclusion of which we learned the 35th had been transferred to Patton's 3rd Army. We were put on trucks and were taken from near Vire, as I recall, on a ride eastward to Avranches. According to our Regimental history, on August 6th, the Germans launched a counter-offensive pushing southwest through Mortain with the objective, we've since learned, to isolate the 3rd Army from the rest of the U .S. troops in Northern France. In doing so, as we were also told at the time, they took the town of Mortain but couldn't overrun units of the 30th Division which were surrounded and holding out in Mortain. This is an altogether too simple explanation, but essentially correct.
In any event, late on the afternoon of what must have been August 7th, our truck convoy was stopped on the outskirts of Avranches. We were taken off the trucks and on a walk-awhile, ride-awhile march into the night, the 35th headed toward Mortain to relieve the men of the 30th who were then cut off. I believe I am correct in saying that when we were so diverted we "reverted" to the Ist Army.
By the afternoon of what must have been August 8th (or possibly August 9th) the German attack had been stalled and the 35th was in the battle to retake Mortain. The 134th was attacking toward Mortain, not too many miles away, but still many casualties away.
Our Regiment was moving in what must have been a southeasterly direction, straddling a two lane paved road with hedgerows on each side, or at least that was often the case. At the time, Company "A " was the Battalion's reserve Company. We could hear the sound of battle in front of us, we could watch our planes, and I assume, enemy planes overhead -waiting for the call for us to join the attack, but ---
In what I remember as the middle of the afternoon, we became aware that the Ist Battalion Motor Pool, some half to three-quarter miles in our rear, off to the side of the road we had come up, was on fire and there was the sound of a battle going on there as well.
Before dark we realized that German troops and armor were in our rear -how many troops and how many tanks I'll never know, but before it was too late to see, we saw two German tanks coming toward us on the same road we had come up. We spent the evening digging in. With the rest of the Regiment engaged in front of us, including our Ist Battalion, the stage was set for what I have referred to in describing this situation as "Company A's Private War."
We spent an anxious night and at first light realized these two tanks, together with supporting troops, had come closer to us on and along this paved road. Company "A" was spread out behind "U" shaped hedgerows on each side of the road with the open end of the "U's" facing the road. Our worry then was the possibility, or more likely the probability, that these tanks would come on up the road, split us, with freedom to fire into the open "U's" of the hedgerows we were defending. The Regiment's anti-tank weapons were otherwise engaged in the battle in front of us -so, except for our bazooka which was used to no avail -we had to hold our own until anti-tank weapons could reach us. In the meantime we were taking casualties from cannon fire from these tanks, among whom was 1st Sgt. Gump, who was killed by a tree burst of a high explosive round fired by one of them. Probably the most damaging loss Company "A" could suffer .
As the morning progressed, I was wounded and the Company's Executive Officer, Connie Kjems, saved my life by pushing me over a hedgerow. I later learned that Connie succeeded me as C .O .and was killed some week or two later. I was hit by two or three bullets from a German automatic weapon. I'll never know for sure, but have always felt it was from the turret of one of these tanks. I have since learned the Germans were trying to fight their way back to their line and that in this whole area, for several days, the two armies were mixed up so that many private wars were fought.
I have since learned these two German tanks were destroyed later that day or the next, but during the rest of that day and until around midnight or so, I remember I was in a small French house a hedgerow or two behind our defensive positions being used as our Battalion aid station. This ended my military career. I spent the rest of the War and a bit longer, until February, 1946, in and out of Army Hospitals .
I'm sure your Brother would remember our private war and I'm also sure I must have worked with him during that war -for him, however, just one of many battles.
I hope this will be of interest to you and the other members of your Brother's family I regret I cannot tell you anything specific about him.
Edgar H. Keltner