Just after dark, three days and seven villages up the road from Lemestroff, we leave the burning village of Chemery-le-Dieux and move out through the darkness toward the next town. A platoon of light tanks ranges ahead, followed by a company of medium tanks and a company of armored infantry. My R.O. half-track follows the first medium tank. I ride the turret, my machine gun swung well around to cover the right of the road, and Lt. Fox covers the left, sitting on top of the radio and cradling a Browning automatic rifle in his arms. (Lt. Moore has been evacuated, two days back, with a bad case of trench foot.) Temple stands in the rear of the half-track, an anti-tank grenade ready on the muzzle of his rifle. We creep slowly up the dark road, holding the roar of tank and half-track engines down to a minimum.
Friestroff, our objective for the night, is a town the size of Reedy, W. Va. It has about the same size creek and the same kind of a railroad running through one end of the town, and like Reedy, the road runs around the side of a hill and down into the main street, it lies within artillery range and almost within sight of Bouzonville, division objective for the entire operation. We wind down the hillside and into the town, expecting to find road-blocks, anti-tank guns, machine guns, and bazookas in the cellars, and tanks in the side streets. But there is nothing. We roll into a town as dark, silent, and deserted as a country churchyard. We stare into the darkness, sweating, then, when the lead tank has crossed the railroad track and is ten yards from the bridge, a civilian runs from the shadow between two houses, waving a white handkerchief and shouting shrilly. The column halts, and machine guns swing in their ring mounts. The civilian jabbers desperately and waves his arms. There are no linguists on that lead tank; a Tommygunner brings the civilian back along the column calling softly: "Anybody here can talk this guy's language?" Vachon leans over the side of the half-track, and speaks to the civilian in rapid French. The civilian spits words like a machine-gun, and waves his arms; he points through a gate into a courtyard. Vachon grins and translates: the bridge is mined, and the only Germans remaining in the town are two engineers who were to blow the bridge as the lead tanks started across. This Frenchman knows where the two engineers sleep and will gladly lead us to them.
Nazi Engineers Captured
Vachon and three riflemen with fixed bayonets go through that gate into the courtyard. In a moment they return, prodding two bewildered and nervous German engineers. Our interpreter talks to them; they tell him that they had not expected us until dawn, and had therefore gone to sleep in a barn. After a little prompting they add: there are German tanks in the next town, pill-boxes on the next hill, and infantry in the woods. They had planned to allow part of our tanks to cross the bridge before they blew it; then their anti-tank guns would destroy our tanks, and their tanks and infantry would counter-attack and re-enter the town. Now the senior American officer presenta very large lieutenant colonel of infantry with fists like small hams, very cold and fishy blue eyes, and an inherited dislike for Germansdoes a thing which shocks these two Herrenvolk to the core. He marches them down to the bridge. There he tells them that they will, with their own hands, remove all explosives from that bridge; they will do it without lights and without making the slightest noise. The smallest Germana lance corporalprotests; he knows all about the Geneva Conventions, and he quotes them. The big lieutenant colonel says one short, adequate word, and reaches out a long arm. He grasps a generous handful of the little corporal's tunic-front, hauls him in close, and lifts him straight into the air so that the Kraut may gaze into his fish-like blue eyes. In one succinct sentence he tells that German what he can do with the Geneva Conventions, and drops him. "Where's Sergeant Hays?" he asks, looking around. "Here, sir."
The sergeanta short, broad, very callous man from Harlan County, Kentuckymoves close to his colonel. "Sergeant," says the lieutenant colonel. "I want you to watch these two Krauts. They are going to pull the explosives out from under the bridge. When they get through, bring them down to my C.P." The sergeant draws his bayonet from his scabbard and fixes it; the steel makes a cold, deadly sound as it clicks against the locking stud of his rifle. He lets go a generous blob of tobacco juice, and stares fixedly at the Kraut corporal. The lieutenant colonel turns to his interpreter: "Tell those two Squareheadsjust in case they get ideasthat they will ride the first tank to cross that bridge." He walks back up the street into the town. The two Germans and the sergeant from Harlan County move down under the bridge.
Before the town has been completely outposted, German stragglers and deserters begin to come in to surrender. At first they come singly, then in twos and threes, then by squads and platoons. They are docile and cooperative, eager to get back to our prison cages. A sergeant and three men, going into a house to see about billets, find six Germans changing from SS uniforms into civilian clothes. These Germans do not reach the prison cages. I billet my section across the street from the café in which the lieutenant colonel has set up his CP. Lt. Fox works with the team commander in the CP, planning a system of defensive fires for the night. Vachon and I run a telephone line down the street to the infantry outpost near the bridge, and loan them a telephone. As soon as I get the dope from Lt. Fox, I encode the D Fires, and send them back to Fire Direction over the radio. I call the sergeant at the infantry outpost, and tell him what numbers to ask for in case he needs artillery fire out there during the night. I arrange reliefs in my section so that one man will be on the radio at all times during the night, and we bed down. Outside in the street, a tank generator engine hums and whines; the boots of passing patrols scrape on the cobblestones: occasionally a yelp emanates from some unhappy German prisoner as he is searched and assisted down into the cellar beneath the CP. It is a very quiet night.
Before 0500 German mortars and 88s begin shelling the town. Mortar shells land near the bridge and on the railroad tracks, but the 88s scream up through the middle of the town and crash in the street. I go out and climb into my half-track and call the infantry sergeant at the outpost by the bridge. He reports that he has picked up flash from mortars, and that the 88s are firing from positions beyond the hill across the creek. "Be down and see you as soon as it is light enough to shoot," I tell him and wake up my section. We breakfast on K Ration eggs and coffee. I cross the street to the CP and talk to Lt. Fox about those mortar flashes. "How about me going down to the outpost and having a look?" I say. The lieutenant grins, knuckles his close-cropped head, and blinks at me. "All right, Sergeant," he says, "take off. Only don't shoot up all the ammunition in the battery. Leave a few rounds for me. I'm going to take Vachon and see if I can find a good spot for an O.P."
Shell Lands Nearby
I follow our telephone line down the street and across the railroad tracks. I hear an 88 coming, and flop in the street. The shell bursts 25 yards behind me, spraying the back of my neck with brickdust and sand. This stings and makes me mad. I work my way down along a wall to the outpost which is a low embankment to the left of the bridge. The infantry sergeant lies behind the embankment, looking through his field glasses. I crawl over beside him and he points out the point of woods on the next hill, where he thinks the mortar shells are coming from. I study the terrain through my glasses.
From the bridge the road runs straight for a thousand yards to a crossroads, where another road angles in from the left along the base of the nearest hill. The main road curves gradually to the right up the slope and disappears through a cluster of small buildings on the hillcrest. All the near hills are wooded, but on the horizon the hills are bare and I see freshly dug trenches on them. I look again at the point of woods where the German mortars are, then at the crossroads at the base of the hill. I estimate ranges, consider the terrain, and reach for the field telephone. Manning answers. "Fire Mission," I tell him. "Concentration 352 is 400 left, 800 short; mortars: will adjust." Manning repeats it back, and I wait for him to send it back over the radio to Fire Direction. In a moment he gives me, "On the way!" The shell whispers over. It bursts short and to the right. "Two hundred right, four hundred short," I send back. The shell burst sends up black smoke in the woods behind the mortars. "Two hundred over, fire battery." Six black smoke puffs blossom beautifully on line just short of the target. "Sheaf correct, one hundred short, battery three rounds." Eighteen rounds of H.E. whisper over and tear up that point of the woods.
The infantry sergeant beats on my back and pints to another spot along that line of woods; "Somebody moving around in there," he says. I speak to Manning on the phone and my battery combs the edge of that woods with battery rights. An 88 begins firing at the buildings a hundred yards across the road from us and a flying splinter cuts my telephone wire. We lose five minutes finding the break, splicing it, and re-establishing communications. Then we spot people moving around in a patch of woods on the near slope on the next hill. I adjust on them with time fire and put three battery-five-rounds into that woods. When the smoke blows away we see small figures running back over the crest of the hill. The infantry sergeant is excited and happy and he stands up so he can see better. I curse and drag him down quickly; he shouts that he has spotted a Jerry pill-box. I study the spot where he says the pill-box is and through my field glasses it does look like a pill-box. I call Manning and tell him to send somebody down with my 20-power spotter-scope. In a moment Temple flops, panting, beside me with the scope. I set it up and take a good look. It is a pill-box-a big one. And from the right rear of the pill-box arises a faint blue haze, such as comes from a field gun being fired rapidly. Across the road from me 88mm shells are tearing up houses. Well, I think maybe that's the baby that's having all the fun.
Bracketed by Fire
I send the fire mission to Manning and just as he gives me an On the Way, I hear an 88 coming; I know its going to land close and I duck. The 88 bursts thirty yards behind us. I get my head back up in time to pick up the smoke from my own shell; short and to the left. I yell the sensing into the phone, get an "On the Way" from Manning and hear another 88 coming in. It lands just across the creek, forty yards in front of us. The sergeant and I look at one another, each of us thinking the same thing. That 88 has us bracketed! That Jerry is shooting at us! I take a quick look over the embankment and see smoke drifting just short of the pill-box. I grab the phone, request fuse delay, repeat range. Then we hear the 88 coming. We hear it for perhaps two seconds but it seems hours, because we know this one is going to hit. There is a flash and a jar and a roar and I feel myself picked up and slammed down again.
My mouth is full of dirt; my right hand, clutching the telephone receiver is bloody; my hip stings and burns. Gray, nauseating smoke seeps from a hole in the embankment, ten feet to my right I notice that the telephone cord has been cut and I throw the receiver away. Beside me Temple and the sergeant stare at that smoking hole. "You hit?" I ask them. "We're all hit!" answers the sergeant. "Let's get the hell out of here!"
We make it to the wall and hug the ground beside it as the next shell lands. We work our way along the wall, through a ditch and around the corner to safety behind that house. I sit down and lean back against the wall of the house and pant a little. My hip is numb, but I feel warm blood running down. I pull my clothing away and see a jagged, blue-ringed hole with blood welling out of it. "We're going on up to the CP," says the sergeant. "I'll send an aid man back down here." He and Temple move on up the street, both limping. A tanker climbs down out of his M4 and runs over to me. "You hit, Joe?"
"Not bad," I tell him. I start to break open my first-aid packet, but he stops me. "Hang onto that; might need it later. I'll get a dressing out of my kit in the tank." He ties a dressing over the wound, and reminds me about taking my wound tablets. I gulp them down, swallow a little water and the tanker lights a cigarette for me. "You're OK, Joe," the tanker says. "Take it easy, now." "Thanks for the dressing and the cigarette," I tell him. I move over to the corner of the house. The 88 is shelling the other side of the street again. I look back down the embankment by the bridge. Where we had been lying is a close group of shell holes and I see what is left of my carbine, telephone, and spotter-scope. Nothing down there worth going back after. I work my way up the street toward the Infantry CP, keeping a tank or the corner of a building always between me and Germany.
Halfway up the street I meet Lt. Fox and Vachon. Both are running and the lieutenant's face is very white beneath his red hair. "Boy," he pants, grabbing my hand and pumping it. "I thought you had been killed. How bad you hurt?"
"Not bad," I tell him. "Where's Temple?"
"He's up at the house. Chapman's patching him up. He's not hurt much. What got you, anyway?"
"Eighty-eight. If you got a map I'll show you where it is." His map is at the CP and we go over there. My battery commander is in the CP and also our colonel. I show them on the map where the pill-box and the 88 are and report what I have seen and shot at. The colonel notices the blood seeping through my pants-leg and on my hand and says, "You're hit, Sergeant?"
"Caught a little one in the hip, sir, and a splinter grazed my head. Nothing serious." The colonel grunts. "Better let a doctor decide whether it's serious or not. There's an Aid Station moving in up the street. You hang around here half an hour, and then go up there and let them look at you." He draws a small red circle on his map where I have pointed out the pillbox and 88, lights a cigarette and goes out to his half-track. I borrow a cigarette from my battery commander, find a chair in one corner, and listen to the 88s coming in just down the street. This town is not so quiet after all, I decide.
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* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.