“The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.” George S. Patton
Every time I see a movie about World War II, or when I research another World War II book, I can’t imagine the courage, patriotism that those young men exhibited; even the women were active in many of the support groups. The average age of a combat soldier was twenty-six years old or less according to some sources, and they were still feeling the devastating effects of the Great Depression on their lives. Many grew to that age in a situation of what we would label today as poverty, yet when Pearl Harbor was attacked, they gathered in large groups to volunteer. Many even falsified their age in order to be accepted by the military. They then went on to win the largest and most globally encompassing war ever fought in the history of the world. The author and television personality, Tom Brokaw, called them “The Greatest Generation” and named a book about them by that title. All that knew them agree with Brokaw.
I was raised by a family of those people with a father, uncles and their friends who went into service for their country, the United States of America. Many combatants returned, but many others did not. Of those that returned, many were scarred for life both physically and mentally. As my wife and I reminisce about the past, we remember those people frequently. Nearly all of them are gone from us now, but they are still alive in our hearts. When I see the liberals and anarchists, and now the wealthy NBA and NFL players, belittle and even desecrate our flag and national anthem, I fill with anger as I remember what that generation sacrificed for us and to that flag and anthem. For the appreciation, love and admiration we have for them, we dedicate this book of historical fiction to “The Greatest Generation.” The generation that saved the world.
The 90th Division troops were referred to as “Tough ‘Ombres” a reference to the T and O on their shoulder patches which, in turn, comes from the geographical origin of the original 90th Infantry Division WWI personnel back in 1917, when the division was created. Those men had all been taken from Texas and Oklahoma. That has since changed. The patch is described in Wikipedia as “A khaki-colored square on which is superimposed a red letter "T" the lower part of which bisects the letter ‘O’ which is also in red”.
After WW2, General George S. Patton wrote in his book, War as I Knew It, that he felt that after the battle of Mayenne, and the addition of Generals Weaver and McClain into the 90th Infantry Division “was the beginning of the making of one of the greatest divisions that ever fought.”
Preparation for War
22 March 1944 – New York Port of Embarkation
After months of intensive preparation and physical conditioning, the 357th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division, still exhausted from their training, boarded the HMS Dominion Monarch, an ex-British luxury liner. The Monarch had only been in passenger service for a short time when the war started, and she was sent to the U.S. to be used as a troopship. On the following morning, 23 March 1944 at 0545 hours, she glided out of her slip into the harbor area and set sail for the open sea. Her destination: Liverpool, England, and the ultimate entry of these men into the European Theatre of World War II.
Standing as close to the bow as he could get, Sergeant Ed Crowley, a squad leader from the 357th Infantry Regiment, watched as the Dominion, with the aid of tugboats, slipped slowly out toward the harbor’s entrance and then the open sea. It began to gather companion ships as it moved. Crowley, a typical tough driving sarge, looked over his men like a mother hen but portrayed himself to them as the rugged man that he was. While not a large man, he was well built and muscular, with average height, and a mop of unruly brown hair. His face reflected the sheer grit inside him.
“It looks like we’re going to have a lot of company with our boat, Sarge. I even see a big carrier pulling out to join us.” It was Jack Hershey, a corporal, who was the medic attached to the squad. He was accompanied by Travis Bryson, the squad’s BAR man. They had spotted their Sarge amongst all the soldiers who had come out on deck to view the harbor and the Statue of Liberty as they left New York.
“They’re called ships, Hershey, not boats. Don’t let any of the naval troops running this ship hear you call it a boat. They’ll dress you down,” Crowley told him, returning his gaze to the gathering flotilla. “Yeah, lots of ships, and there will be more, about forty, I was told, and one of them will be another from our division. We’ll even see destroyers and supply ships with us out there. The more the merrier, because when we get further out to sea, and on to Europe, they will protect us from the U-boats, to a degree, anyway. Those damned German U-boats will be our greatest threat during this trip.”
“I’m sure this won’t be a smooth cruise,” agreed Jack. “It’ll be everybody’s job to look out for Nazi periscopes until we get to England.”
Hershey was an intense and quiet guy who had been at the top of his class back in Norman, Oklahoma, where he’d graduated from high school before being drafted and receiving medic training. He always seemed to be thinking and concentrating on something, about which you could never guess. You could see it in his eyes. He’d worked at a local hardware store during his first year out of school, hoping to go to college, but the war bothered him, as it did most of the young men during those days. After watching many of his friends volunteer and leave for military service, he finally began to feel a degree of guilt and decided that feeling meant it was time for him to do the same. He headed down to the local induction center and joined.
Travis Bryson, on the other hand, had received his official “Greetings from President Roosevelt” in the mail. He was born in the mountains of Western North Carolina in a little town named Sylva, but had moved to Waynesville, in the next county over, right after graduating high school to take a job. The job didn’t suit him, and he was about to return to Sylva to get into the logging industry when he received his “Greetings.” In those days patriotism was at a high level and men never felt anger about being called into the military, or try to run off to another country. It never even crossed their minds. There was a sense of allegiance that seemed left over from the American Revolution that drove them toward the need to protect their country and the flag. Even though Travis was a happy-go-lucky guy, a drive surged inside of him to do his part, a common need in this breed of men.
The women, likewise, were driven to do their share. After sending their husbands or boyfriends off to war, many sought employment in airplane or vehicle factories or went to work with the Red Cross or in a similar field that would contribute to the war effort. This was a generation like none other. Sacrifice was freely given and was a part of their loyalty and love of their nation.
“How long are you staying out here on deck, Sarge?” Travis asked. “I’ve got a card game planned with Bob Hanson after we go in. He’s an Oklahoma boy.”
“I’ll probably stay until all the other ships in our convoy arrive and we pick up speed. You men go ahead. I have to go to a platoon meeting a little later. Lieutenant Hicks caught me just after we boarded. I have to say that I think that young man will end up a good platoon leader, even though he’s a 90-Day Wonder. Don’t you guys hang out here because of me.”
“Have you had any other experience with 90-Day Wonders, Sarge?” Jack questioned.
“Yes, I have. Don’t know whether you knew the history of how I got to the 357th, but I was transferred from Sicily where I was in Operation Husky to take back Sicily and Italy. They sent me to the 357th right after the soldier-slapping incident of General Patton in August of last year. He actually slapped two, maybe even three, and the second one he called a yellow-coward bastard and put his .45 caliber handgun in his face. After that, the commanding surgeon of the 93rd Evac Hospital sent a letter up the chain, and it made it to Eisenhower. General Bradley received a copy, but he never sent a copy to Ike. Ike made Patton apologize to the men he slapped and to his entire command. During Husky, I had several 90-Dayers to deal with. For some reason, they didn’t last very long on the battlefield.”
“They try to lead their platoons in battle,” Jack remarked, “but that puts them up front if they’re any good.”
“A good leader will lead from the front,” the sergeant added, “but that puts them in the face of danger. See you at breakfast in the morning.” Crowley nodded as they left him to go back inside the ship.
27 March, 1944, 0600 hours – Aboard the Dominion Monarch
“Where’s everybody?” Crowley asked as two members of the squad settled into their seats for breakfast. All through training, they’d eaten as a single unit at meal time, but this morning only Krause Wagner and Harland Garrett had shown up.
“I passed John Haney on the way up here, Sarge,” answered Krause, “and he said there was scuttlebutt that a German U-boat might be out trying to move in and take some of us out. I guess the rest of the guys are on deck watching the action.”
“I should be out there, too,” Crowley said as he eased out of his chair. “I’ll see you men later.”
“Sarge?” Harland asked as Crowley was about to leave. “Don’t those destroyers have depth charges on ‘em?”
“Yeah, Harland, they do, but they need to know, generally, where the sub is located, and then they search with the sonar before there’s any use to dropping them. Look, I’ll see you men on deck after you eat. We’ve been surrounded by several destroyers, and they’ll try to hit one of them first, but I’m sure they’d rather take out a troop ship if they can get a shot at us. I’ll see you later.”
As he lumbered onto the deck, he could see two of the destroyers circling in search of the sub. Reaching the rail, he scanned the horizon, noted a flash and rising smoke suddenly appearing from the other side of one of the destroyers.
“Damn ‘em, they got one of our ships, Sarge,” Jack Hershey said as he spotted Crowley and sidled next to him. “Those men will never make it to Europe now.”
“At least we have a good idea where the sub is,” Sarge assured him. “Let’s pray we can gather all those men who are on the ship before it goes down. Two more destroyers are headed out. I hope they can get over that sub and drop some charges. If they can’t, it’ll pick us off one at a time.”
The smoke from the burning vessel enveloped them, reeking mightily. Jack covered his nose as the destroyers circled the area where the sub was last thought to be, the blast of the exploded torpedoes filled the air.
“I think they found that asshole,” said Harvey Edwards in a booming voice. “I saw a drum being pitched out into the water. It must be depth charges. There goes two more. I hope they can get that fucker. He took out one of our ships.”
As Harvey finished speaking, the charges continued being thrust out from the rear of the destroyers, the explosions began breaking the water behind them. After about the fifth or sixth one, they began to notice a black sheen under the ships.
“Its oil,” said Jack. “I think they may have gotten him.”
“Don’t be too sure,” Crowley warned. “Those U-boat commanders have a trick where they’ll blow oil and trash through the torpedo tubes to feign a hit. They even send out dead bodies if they have any on board. Watch our guys. They’ll make sure it’s finished off.”
“Looks like you’re right, Sarge. I just saw another charge go out,” Jack agreed after a short wait.
Moments later, water behind the ship mushroomed up, followed by the somewhat muffled sounds of the exploding depth charge. This time, the water rose much higher and the sound was far less muffled. The destroyers continued to circle the area for a time, finally returning to the convoy.
“It must be over,” Jack said. He looked around noting that the entire squad, except for Bob Hanson, had found them.
“I hope that’s the last one of these incidents we have to worry about,” spoke Harvey (Harve) Edwards in his deep southern drawl. Harve was a huge guy from Laredo, Texas, and so tall that he stood out above the whole squad. You could spot him anywhere on the boat because of his height and his slick bald head.
“Sorry Harve,” warned the Sarge, “we have to worry about those U-boats until we get to England, and then we have to worry about the Vengeance rockets that the Nazis have been bombarding them with.”
“What?” exclaimed Travis Bryson. “Are those the ones they call the V-1 and V-2, Sarge?”
“I’m afraid so,” answered Crowley. “The V-2 is a large rocket that will blast through the sky until it gives out of fuel and then drops to earth. The V-1 Flying Bomb is the one they call the ‘Buzz Bomb’ because of the sound it makes while it’s traveling. When the buzzing stops, it falls nearby. I’m hoping that we will be based in a location far enough west, so that it won’t have enough fuel to reach us. Hitler is sending these things all over England and that includes London. The British are living a very rugged life right now.”
“You folks have anything planned for us on this cruise, Sarge?” Dieter Muller asked. He had worked in a department store before volunteering. His name was surely German in origin, but he was from Richmond, Virginia, and a family that had arrived in the states many years earlier.
“No movie shows, Dieter. I guess you were expecting a lot of entertainment.” Crowley grinned. “I hate to disappoint you, but we will continue our 6:00 AM calisthenics out on deck just like we did at the base, and you guys will probably find yourselves playing a few card games.”
“What about the men who are sea sick, Sarge?” Dieter asked. “Bob, ...Bob Hanson’s been puking his damned head off since we hit the open sea.”
“Those folks can see Hershey first, and if he feels it’s a real problem, he can send them to the ship’s doctor who’ll determine their final disposition.” Crowley turned to leave and as he looked back, he reminded his men, “I’ll see you all at 6:00 AM on deck where we’ll be doing the workouts. We gotta stay in shape. We’ll be facing some tough-ass Krauts when we hit Europe, and believe me, they want to kill us all.”
Thankfully, during the remainder of the voyage, there was only one sighting thought to be a U-boat. It was later determined to be a dolphin instead.
4 April 1944 – Mersey Docks, Liverpool England
The dock area was foggy and a misty rain fell on the troops as they readied to disembark. Some of the previous winter’s cold was still in the air as the squad lined up against the rails, watching the ship being guided in by tugboats.
“This is going to make Bob Hanson happy when we finally dock,” remarked Dieter. “He hasn’t stopped that damn puking since well before we the destroyers took out the U-boat. Doc, I mean Jack, said that if he keeps it up, he might need to be hospitalized to get IV fluids.”
“Actually, we already had to give him one unit of Ringers solution when we were about half way over here,” Jack added. “It’s okay to call me doc, Dieter. I’m not a real one but I’ve been wondering about what we’ll be doing after the war. I guess these next few months will help me decide what I want to do in life.” Jack’s voice trailed off as he seemed to be going into deeper thought.
“We want to get him back to his normal self,” Sarge encouraged. “We’ll need him holding and firing that machine gun when we hit Europe. We’ll let the doctors decide on Bob, but right now, plan on finding me and lining up near me on the dock when we debark,” Crowley added. “Top tells me it should happen about 1630 hours.”
“You got it, Sarge,” answered big Harve.
Later in the day, the troops began to debark and the Sarge’s squad found him, and began lining up as ordered. They were in full combat gear and carrying their rifles and duffle bags. Haney looked a bit pale but happy to be on dry land.
“Gentlemen, in a few minutes you’ll all be loaded onto that train over there,” Crowley said, indicating with a nod and a finger pointing to a particular assigned car. “I want you to stick together, and we’ll be taken to a place called Kinlet Park where you and all elements of the 357th, except the First Battalion, will be quartered. Those in that battalion will be taken to Camp Gatacre. Today you’ll be getting used to your new location and learning the schedules for training. Tomorrow we will initiate a system of after-hours passes into Kidderminster, which is a small town near Kinlet Park. It’s about five miles down the road. You’ll be expected to act in a gentlemanly manner at all times. Remember that you are representing your country. No one is to talk about military business of any type. There is a quote that has been handed down from on high in the government...’Loose lips sink ships.’ That goes for us in the infantry also. Another quote is ‘The walls have ears.’ The enemy, for sure, has spies here, and they like to get around places like pubs and gathering sites. They act just like us and talk just as well in our language. They seem like they’re just a part of the crowd. Be careful what you say.”
Crowley led his squad to the train and loaded them on it. They were all wondering how long they might be at Kinlet Park before the big day that everyone had been talking about...the invasion of Europe.
“When will we be sent to fight, Sarge?” asked Harve.
“Don’t be too eager,” answered Crowley, “that time will come, but until then, we need to get our bodies into tip-top shape. The Boche will be anxiously waiting for us when we arrive, and they will be ready.”
4 April. 1944 – The Chester Tavern, Kidderminster, England
After a week of heavy training and double-time marches, Travis Bryson, Krause Wagner, Bob Hanson, Dieter Muller and Harve Edwards cozied into a large booth at the busiest pub in Kidderminster.
“Damn,” Travis said, “are you’ns as worn out as I am? Sarge is workin’ our asses off. He must know a lot about those Jerries because he keeps talking about how ready they are for us.” Travis, being from deep in a “holler” in the Smokies, was pure mountain, and he spoke the language with a charming lilt, the kind only someone born and raised there could convey.
“What the hell did you ask us?” Bob Hanson asked.
“Are you’ns as worn out as I am?” Travis echoed back.
“That’s kinda like ‘y’all’ where I come from,” boomed Harve Edwards who was so tall that he had to look down on the others.
“And we say ‘y’all’ or ‘you guys’, up in Virginia,” Dieter added.
“Dieter, are you originally from Germany?” asked Bob. “Your name is totally German.”
“No, my family was a couple of generations back. I call myself an American. Krause was born there, but his parents moved here while he was young.”
“My family hated Hitler,” added Krause, “They saw all this coming and got the hell out of Germany before the killing started, and now that I’m an adult, I can see why. That son-of-a- bitch wants to kill all the Jews and take over the world.”
“Are you a fuckin Nazi?” asked a non-familiar voice. A sergeant from another Company stood behind Krause and appeared to be ready to take him on.
Harve Edwards bristled but he stayed seated and held his calm.
“No, are you?” Krause answered with a chuckle, “are you?” trying to add a little joviality to the moment.
“Get smart with me ass-hole and I’ll whip your ass. I heard your buddy here say you were from Germany.”
With that, Harve stood up, and his massive six-foot seven frame towered over the sergeant. His face and bald scalp seemed to glow red. “I think you need to calm down, Sarge,” he said in his deep Texas drawl. “Krause is as much an American as you are, and we don’t want anyone, not anyone, trying to change that.”
“Well, PFC, I’ll remember that, but if I see anything out of him, I’ll be deeply interested.”
“I’m sure that would be the same thoughts of our Sarge,” responded Harve. “Take it easy, and all of this will work itself out.” He completed his remark with a cold stare at the man as he turned and walked away.
“Come on,” urged Travis, “I’m ready for some brew. My belly’s been on far wait’n to get some of this English beer in it.”
“Damn, Travis,” Bob said, “I gotta teach you to talk.”
“Come on, Bob,” Harve said, “Travis wants a beer, and his belly has been on fire wanting to try the English kind. I agree, let’s get a round of that beer they call Guinness.”
They all agreed with a toast and a round of Guinness. Thus began a comradery that would last through the war, if they could all survive.
13 May 1944 – Camp Race Course, Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales
On this date, the regiment was transported over sixty miles down to Monmouthshire, an area located near the apex of the Bristol Channel. It was here that they first heard the sounds of war as they listened to the vengeance rockets bombing in a nearby town.
On the 15th of May the commander of the 357th, Col. Sheehy, was moved up to the 90th Division HQ, and Colonel Phillip Ginder was placed in command of the 357th.
Approximately three weeks later, on the 4th of June, the 357th was boarded onto trains again, and transported thirty miles further southeast to Cardiff Wales, on the north side of the Bristol Channel. It was there that they were loaded onto two ships, the SS Explorer and the SS Bienville.
“Krause, I think we’ll be seeing Jerry very soon,” warned Bob Hanson.
“I believe you’re right, Bob. I can’t wait to take them on. They are the scum of the earth. I hope the French will help us. I know that’s where we’re headed from all the scuttlebutt. The Nazis have taken everything from France eastward over to Russia. We’ve kicked their tails out of Africa, but some of our guys are still trying to clear them out of Italy. They have plans to take over the world if the Japs let them.”
Two days later, on the 6th of June, they assembled a convoy, leaving the Bristol Channel at 0200 hours and setting sail for France. They spent the next two days cleaning their weapons, checking their life jackets for tears or leaks, and resting up for whatever lay ahead. They were not aware of what was to transpire in a few hours on Utah Beach, their newest destination.
Campaign in Normandy
8 June, 1944, 0930 hours - (D-Day+2) Off Utah Beach
“My God,” said Jack, his voice barely a whisper. He nearly choked up as they gazed across the water at Utah Beach, and the chaos that had been left behind from the battles two days earlier.
“The word I hear,” Crowley spoke grimly, “is that Omaha Beach was a slaughter house on the sixth. As soon as the ramp would drop on the Higgins boats, the machine gun nests above the beach would open up and drop over half of the guys as they tried to get off. Some of the boats let their load try to leave, but the water was too deep. Those guys did their best to remove their packs, but a hell of a lot of them drowned. The sand was red with the blood of our men.”
“Are we going to run into the same?” asked Harland Garrett.
“No,” answered Sergeant Crowley, “This beach was assaulted and cleared at the same time as Omaha, but it was not as well defended, so the casualties weren’t as numerous, but there were plenty of them.”
The squad heard a heavy splash as the ship dropped anchor.
“Crowley squad,” barked the Sarge, “in about two hours we’ll be leaving the comforts of this fine ship and loading onto an LCVP.”
“What’s an LCVP, Sarge?” asked John Haney.
“A Landing Craft for Vehicle and Personnel, but we mostly call them Higgins Boats. They work pretty well for getting thirty or forty men from the big ships close to shore. The 4th Division came through here on the sixth, and the 101st dropped in behind the beach on the same morning, so the main body of the Nazi defensive should be gone. That said, there are probably scattered groups or individuals that didn’t get out. There will be snipers as we move on. Hang together until we’re ready to load. That’ll make it easier to find each other.”
At noon, the troops began scrambling down the rope netting and loading onto the Higgins Boats. It wasn’t easy, and the sounds of weapons being dropped and falling into the boat were heard several times. One of the infantrymen slipped as he descended and fell from the side of the net into the water between the Higgins and the troop ship.
“Damn,” said Crowley as he looked down. “He’ll either drown from the weight attached to him, or be crushed between the two vessels.”
Someone quickly threw a rope to him, and he grabbed it as he was going under. A quick pull helped bring him out of the water where he was able to be dragged up into the boat.
As they were waiting to load into the second boat, John Haney saw a Colonel that he didn’t recognize. “Who’s that colonel in the first boat?” asked Haney. “I’ve never seen him before” Haney was a red head, and the rest of the squad had decided that was the reason he was always asking questions. Actually, John Haney was just a very intelligent, observant and inquisitive young man who was at the top of his college class in Oklahoma when he quit to enlist.
“Hell, I don’t know,” replied Dieter Muller who was standing beside him. “Hey, Sarge, who’s that colonel in boat one?”
“I’m no ‘Haysarge’, Muller, just Sarge. That’s our new regimental commander, Colonel Ginder who replaced Colonel Sheehy two or three weeks ago when Sheehy was moved up to the divisional headquarters. I hear Ginder can be hardass tough, but he leads his men.”
Those in the first boat waited until it filled and began to move out towards the beach. When it got there, a ramp fell forwards and, true to his reputation, Colonel Ginder was the first to start out, leading his troops from the boat onto the beach. Many of the men jumped from the side of the ramp into what turned out to be five or six feet of water. The use of the Life Jackets probably saved numerous lives that day.
Crowley’s men arrived from the ship in the second Higgins Boat. When they hit the beach, it was littered with debris and some helmets that had been left by fallen soldiers who were lost on the sixth.
Jack Hershey was scanning the area when he saw a helmet with a bullet hole in the front of it. He couldn’t imagine the fear of those men two days earlier on the sixth. Large areas stained with blotches of blood could be seen all around them as they lumbered up on the sand. Any bodies from the first assault had already been removed by the Quartermaster Corp. They saw debris being salvaged to be used as the war would continue. The helmets and even weapons that had been dropped as men were killed or injured during the assault were being organized for removal. M-1 rifles were stacked like posts in a teepee along the beach.
During the time they were getting on the beach, and eventually marching away toward the assembly area, they were hit by an occasional barrage of German 88mm artillery. They seemed to be randomly placed and not specifically aimed, but it caused the 357th to move out of there at double-time and head inland about three and a half to four miles to their assembly area. As the troops marched, they caught a glimpse of their first images of the Nazi.
“Son of a bitch,” Krause remarked, “there comes a line of prisoners. That’s a pretty large number of ‘em. I never thought about it before, but they’ll have to be setting up prison camps somewhere around here.”
“Yeah,” Dieter chimed in, “and cemeteries too, from what we saw back where we landed.” He turned as they passed by the prisoners who were studying them as they marched by. Dieter watched one staring straight at him. He stared back and was surprised to see the anger and sadness in the Nazi’s gaze. There was an eerie silence as they glided past each other, except for the shuffling of their feet against the broken road.
“You can see the disappointment in their eyes,” Dieter remarked after they had passed.
Krause nodded. “They were angry as hell too. I’m afraid they’ve been told that they are the best and unconquerable. Rather than victors, they’ve been turned into POWs. I hate ‘em, especially their leaders. I think of my uncle and his family every time I see them.”
“Keep marching men,” Crowley barked, “and let’s keep the jawing down. Most of this area has been cleared but there may be some out on the periphery that were missed. Could be snipers out there, too, so keep alert and watch the trees and brush.”
“Damn,” said Harve in a deep whisper, “that’s a helluva big tank up there. It’s a Kraut tank, so I wonder if that’s one of those Panthers that we’ve been hearing about.”
“I don’t know,” Dieter responded as they passed the behemoth that sat destroyed on the side of the road. One of its tracks had been taken apart by American weaponry, which made it unable to move forward. They could see tracks where it had swiveled furiously before it was seized.
“There’s that Nazi insignia cross on the side of the tank,” Krause said as they inspected the iron monster. They were on a sunken dirt road lined by hedgerows with small trees were growing out of them.
“Are you scared?” Dieter asked looking at Harve.
“Why hell yes,” he answered, “you’d have to be crazy or lying not to be scared. Those Germans out there want to kill us. They’ve had it really good here, and they don’t want to lose it.”
The march continued along the hollowed roads of the bocage country. They came up on Sherman tanks that had been modified by adding improvised metal instruments on the front of them. The tankers were ramming the hedgerows, digging into them, acting like dozers to push through the dirt and brush, thereby clearing openings for troops and vehicles to pass through.
They kept a steady clip toward the assembly area, along the way, witnessing remnants of the battles of the previous days. Areas of the ground had been soaked in blood, and trees had been blasted by machine gun fire or uprooted from explosives. There were ditches along the road, littered with the occasional C-ration container. They soon arrived at the assembly site, about 1900 hours on 8 June 1944.
The men were tense when Crowley called them together to let them know what was about to happen. “Orders for the regiment came through, men, and we have been given the mission to leave here early in the morning and head through the 82nd Airborne Division area near the French village of Amfreville. We are to seize and secure crossings at the Douve River.” Crowley looked over his squad, the strain was obvious. “I’d suggest that you guys get some early sleep because we plan to pull out at 0400.”
The soldiers silently glanced at each other. They were about to enter their first battle, and most understood that some of them might, and probably would, be killed. There was low level small talk, but they knew this was the beginning of a series of battles that would be their lives for the foreseeable future. They could never have guessed how significantly everything would change, and how quickly they would grow into manhood, that is, if they survived. They soon paired off and set up their tents in the sleep area after finishing their C-rations.
Harve looked over at Dieter Muller as they were putting up their pup tents. “Dieter, things might be getting a little rough tomorrow.”
Dieter nodded solemnly in agreement. “Considering what we saw back on the beach and along the way here, maybe there is no tomorrow or very little of it, anyway.”
“No, Dieter, we’ll both be going back home. Some say maybe before Christmas.”
It looked like the war had begun for the 90th Infantry Division. The 359th Regiment was still attached to the 4th Division until they released them. During the landing, the 359th was on board the Susan B Anthony when it hit a mine, but it went down slow enough so that the men were able to be safely picked up by a ship carrying the 4th Division. They were, temporarily, remaining with them.
Dieter and Harve lay down to sleep, about six inches of Harve’s six-foot-seven sticking out of the tent.
Sarge passed by, grinning at Harve’s feet protruding from under the tent flap. His grin faded as he looked toward Amfreville and the explosions lighting up the sky. He knew all too well that there would be hard times ahead for him and his squad.
9 June 1944, (D+3) – The first battle
“Saddle up, men. We’re moving out in ten minutes.” Crowley was a little gruffer than usual that morning. He had learned from his tenure in Sicily that this was no time to sweet talk his soldiers or try to get too close to them.
“Oh, hell, it’s pitch-black outside,” Haney complained as he pushed back a lock of red hair.
“It ain’t too bad,” said Harland Garrett, “I been up this early a lot of nights back in Texas when I was tryin’ to get to the lake for a guide trip.”
“You’re a fishing guide, Harland?” Jack Hershey asked, slipping out of his tent.
“Yeah, Doc, they built a lake near my home in Burnet a few years ago, and I guess I been on it every day since it opened. Once I learned it, I decided I might as well make some money from it if I’m gonna spend all my time there.”
Dieter glanced toward the front of the tent as he pulled his boots on. “Sarge seemed uptight this morning.”
“I guess he’s like the rest of us,” agreed Harve. “Today is the first day of what we’ve all been preparing for. It’s time to go destroy Hitler.”
This would be the first entry into battle for Crowley’s squad. He had seen it before in Sicily, and he could remember his first battle in Northern Africa before heading across the Mediterranean. There was always apprehension before a battle, and a soldier had to take control of it and man up. There were those who could handle it in the very first combat, or at least it seemed like it, and there were those who took a while to get it somewhat controlled. It was always tough every time, and the tension never really left. Looking death in the face bothers all men. Occasionally, cowardice would rear its ugly head.
They soon took off down the road, slowly migrating through the nearby fields and forests. The sound of artillery fire taking place in the direction they were headed filled the air. In between the bombardments, machine gun bursts could be heard from the German MG42s.
The men were laden with heavy loads. Typically, they wore a steel helmet called a steel pot over their head gear, and on their backs were knapsacks with C-rations, rain gear, a shelter half (half of a pup tent), a blanket, a mess kit, and a gas mask. Off the knapsacks hung an entrenching tool that they would use to dig foxholes for their protection. They had ammo belts around their waists and also attached were their canteens filled with water and more eating gear. They also carried extra ammo and grenades, in addition to the couple that were hooked into the front of their uniforms for immediate use. Their weapons were either carried in their arms or slung off their shoulders. Crowley’s squad was armed with a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) carried by Travis Bryson and an M1919 Browning .30 caliber medium machine gun carried by Bob Hanson. Another soldier was required to carry the tripod mount. That duty was passed about through the squad, but whoever bore it had to stay close to Hanson. The remainder were armed with M1s, except Crowley who carried a M3 .45 caliber “grease gun”. Their clothing was treated with chemicals tin an attempt to make them resistant to poison gas, but it also made them stiff and hot to move around in.
“You take point, Krause, while we’re in these woods,” ordered the Sarge, “and get your ass back here if you see or hear anything out of the ordinary ... anything.”
“Right, Sarge,” Krause answered and hustled out in front of the squad holding his M-1 in front of him in an almost horizontal position to the ground.
About ten minutes into the move, they heard a rifle shot ahead and seconds later Krause came running back.
“What’s happening?” asked Crowley in a subdued voice as he raised his fist to stop the squad.
After grabbing a nearby sapling to slow his gait, Krause was breathing hard, and pointed a shaky finger ahead. “Must be a sniper up there, Sarge. I couldn’t see where the shot came from, but he barely missed me. I tripped on a root sticking up just as he fired. That damned thing saved my life.”
“We need to flank him and hit him from behind,” explained Crowley. “We can’t go in there on the same path that you took. Harve, Travis, Dieter and Harland, you come with me, and the rest of you go together and flank to the left. My group will head around to the right and hopefully one of us can find him, get in behind him, and take him out. They’re usually up in trees, and the trees have leafed out by this time, giving them a good bit of cover. Watch for any moving leaves if the wind isn’t blowing to make out their location. Keep alert.”
Both groups proceeded quietly though the woods, staying near large bushes that they hoped would hide them from the Nazi. Heavy weapons fire and explosions could be heard in front of them as they moved with as much stealth as possible through the brush. After a few minutes they heard rifle fire erupt again, along with the thud-like sound of something heavy hitting the ground.
It was Krause, who crept slowly over to the fallen body, keeping his M1 cautiously pointed in its direction. He saw no movement and rolled him over face up, removing his rifle and throwing eight or nine feet away.
“Good work,” commended Sarge with a quick nod.
“I hate the Boche,” Krause replied. “They took one of my uncles and his family out to a field, stood them along the side of a ditch, and shot and killed them. My people fell, and they and whole batch of others who’d been executed were then covered over by a bulldozer.”
“If your people were German too,” Harve asked, “why did they kill ‘em?”
“My uncle married a Jew,” he answered. “Krauts don’t like Jews. They’re killing as many as they can find, or sending them off somewhere on trains where we never hear from them again. One of my family was able to get out and get to safety to send word to us about a lot of bad shit. It seems that there was a meeting outside of Berlin a couple of years ago, and they planned to get rid of all the Jews. They referred to it as ‘The Final Solution.’ The guy that ran the meeting was a high-ranking Nazi named Reinhard Heydrich who was the mastermind. Thank God he was assassinated near Prague a few months later by a couple of Czechs.”
“That’s terrible stuff for your family,” said Crowley, ‘I hope you get to take out all the Nazis that you can, Krause. Right now, I think we should move out toward our mission. We have a long and dangerous trip ahead of us.”
“Thank you, Sarge. I'll sure be trying.”
Very soon the platoon began to pick up random fire and responded as best they could. Moments later, they entered an area dense with the enemy. There were nests of MG42s and even some mortar positions.
“Okay,” Crowley instructed, “you men hunker down, and let’s set up teams to take out these machine guns. The weapon of choice will be the hand grenade if you can get close enough. Otherwise, well placed rifle fire can do a lot of damage.”
“Sarge,” interrupted Harve, “I see a lot of fire over there to our right. Shouldn’t we go after them?”
Sarge studied the scene in front of them. “No, Harve, I see our first squad moving into there. Let’s head more in front and to our left. There are several MG nests out there.”
Just as Crowley finished, a mortar round dropped about fifty feet away from them, blowing dirt and debris everywhere. “Hit the deck," he barked. “Stay on your bellies, and Harve, I saw a flash way down past that big tree there. I think that might be where the mortar round was fired. Take Haney and work your way there as close as you can, and take it out. Did anybody get hurt by the mortar?”
“Will do, Sarge, looks like everybody made it through the mortar hit,” Harve added as the two of them began a crawl in that direction.
“Look at that Harve, Sarge. He’s the size of a tank,” Dieter said with a grin as big Harve and redheaded Haney moved out and to around twenty feet in front of them. “He better keep his big ass down, or he’ll get it shot off.”
“Sounds like you might have just renamed Harve, Dieter,” Crowley added.
“Yeah.” Dieter laughed quietly. “He is forevermore to be known as Tank.” The rest of the squad that heard him nodded in agreement; most were smiling.
After Tank and Haney took out the mortar, the order to dig in for the night came in, and the shovels came out, with the men pairing off and hollowing out two-man foxholes. It was not the safest location, but darkness was arriving, and it would be too dangerous to continue forward in the black of the night.
10 June, 1944 – D+4
After dawn, the Nazis began to drop shells onto the 357th as it moved toward its mission. It was a heavy barrage of 88s and the first casualties of the war were happening at this point in the 90th. The cannon strikes seemed to go on all day, and the Crowley squad was able to move along, but not without some close hits. The air was thick with smoke, and the ground was littered with craters from the artillery strikes.
The 357th crossed the Merderet River on a causeway near La Fiere to the left of the 358th, who passed over near Chef du Pont toward Cauquigney. Gunfire was intense, and the squad saw many of their platoon fall either KIA or with injuries that would remove them from action. They fought all day trying to reach Amfreville in the end. About noon they approached the Nazi defense lines. It was about to quickly get even more dangerous, if it wasn’t already in that category. The number of mortar strikes on the platoon and the rest of the regiment became more numerous.
“Damn, Tank, I think those Jerries want to kill us,” Dieter said as they lumbered through the woodlands.
“What did you call me?”
Dieter grinned. “We saw you crawling with Haney to take out that mortar and noticed that you almost made him look like a dwarf. We all agreed that you were as big as a tank, and the name stuck.” Harve's wide smile disappeared as a rifle shot rang out nearby. “We need to be really careful, Dieter; I’m scanning those trees around us the best I can, but there are patches of limbs and leaves that you just can’t see through. Like Sarge said, we have to look for movement.”
At that very moment, a volley was fired from a tree in front of them, striking a tree about one foot from Tank’s head. He turned and looked at the debarked area at the exact level of his forehead. Both men hit the forest floor, and Tank could make out the Sarge, who’d thrown up a fist to stop the squad, pointing down to keep them on the ground. They watched as Crowley and Bob Hanson crawled toward the general area of the sniper. Sarge went to the left and Hanson went right, where he wedged himself behind a tree, raising his machine gun. Another shot rang out from the sniper zoomed just above Bob’s head. He steadied his weapon and fired a burst of four or five shots. The leaves and limbs in a tree about 20 yards from him began to rustle and shake. A German fell through the branches, trying to hold on to some of the higher ones to no avail. Bob ran over to him and kicked his rifle away. Using his bayonet, he stabbed the Nazi in the heart. The Jerry moved very little as the blade went in, so he was likely already dead from the shot. The bayonet became lodged between two of his ribs, and Haney had to put his foot on the Nazi’s chest as he jerked back to dislodge it.
Most of the squad circled Haney to be sure he was safe. Harland Garrett, continued his slow crawl effort to see what he had been hearing just before Bob took out the sniper. He was positive it was an MG42 but he wasn’t sure of the location. About sixty yards in front of him, a squad member from another squad in his platoon was getting up on his knees, only to fall as the MG42 fired another round. Garrett could see the muzzle flashes and began a flanking movement to the left, away from the gun. He shifted gradually and was able to do it without being spotted. He made it to about fifteen yards from the gunner’s flank, pulled a pin on a grenade, and lobbed it into the nest around the MG42. It blew gun and body parts in every direction. Harland jumped up and ran to the nest, surveying for any evidence of life. Finding none, he barked, “Clear”.
The day wore on, and as night approached the 357th found itself facing an enemy well camouflaged. They were fending off mortar sites, machine gun nests and artillery. The hedgerows, ditches and sunken roads were all difficult to navigate when the dark hit. They had to stop attacking as last daylight waned, but the regiment was receiving heavy casualties because of all the mortar, MG42, and cannon fire.
The squad remained viable and free of serious damage, except for Harland, who had a shallow gunshot wound that Jack referred to as ‘only a flesh wound’ while dressing it. Harland was quick to remind him, “It hurts like hell either way, Doc.” All the men had begun to call Jack Hershey ‘Doc.’
Crowley gathered his men and told them to dig in. They spread out six to ten feet apart and shoveled two-man foxholes where they would spend the night. Despite the darkness, the enemy continued to send mortars, bursts of machine gun fire, and even zero in on the regimental lines with their 88mm cannons. There were Panzers out there, but they had continued to hold their defensive position.
11 June, 1944 – D+5
Daylight finally broke, and with all the 88s dropping close by, the Tough ‘Ombres had not been able to get much sleep. They ate some C-rations and pulled out, continuing toward their objective, but the Germans continued their bombardment, trying to hold their defensive position. Enemy fire never ceased to erupt all around them, as had been the case all night. They had spent it buried in foxholes, in groups of twos or threes. But as the sun rose, they were back up and attacking into the forests ahead, toward Amfreville. The enemy defensives were well dug in.
“We just got the 359th back,” Sarge informed them. “They’ve been attached to the 4th Division since their ship sank on the eighth. They were finally released today. Lieutenant Hicks said they were being transferred in between us and the 358th. As they advanced here to get back with the division, the Nazis shelled the hell out of them. They have a lot of work to do putting themselves back together in order to move out with us tomorrow morning, but we need all the help we can get.”
12 June, 1944 – D+6
The full 90th Infantry Division moved together this day, headed for their mission goal. Sarge had his men driving straight toward Amfreville with the rest of the 357th, but progress was slow and they were constantly running into groups of Germans.
About thirty minutes into the march, Tank hustled over to Crowley. “Sarge, I started noticing back a piece that there’s some muzzle flashes like weapon fire coming from that big clump of bushes up ahead. I’ve seen three men from another squad dropped as we’ve moved along. It was distant, but it sounded like an automatic weapon, maybe an MG42.”
Crowley held up his fist to stop the squad and had them seek cover so he could observe the spot. He soon saw the muzzle flashes. Harve was right. He motioned for his men to come closer to him to setup his plan.
“Travis,” Crowley alerted, “Tank just spotted a MG42 nest in that large bushy area straight ahead. I want you to take your BAR around to the left and use that underbrush that you can see over there as cover. Try to get around and in behind them and take that group out of action. The rest of us will come as backup when we hear you firing.”
“Okay Sarge, this baby should do the job for us,” he said patting his weapon. I coulda used it back home in the mountains when I was out bar huntin’.
Hanson shook his head as he stepped back, grinning and mouthing “bar”.
Travis moved strong to the left, trying to put more of the greenery between him and the Germans to give him cover. When he reached what he thought would be a position to their rear, he quietly crawled in behind the large group of bushes and trees where they’d seen fire. When he’d moved as close as he safely could, he raised his head to survey the scene ahead of them.
“Shit,” he whispered to himself, “There’s probably five Jerries in that hollowed out area and they’re using two MG42s.”
After thinking about it for a short moment, he decided to use a grenade, keeping his BAR for backup. He pulled the pin on one and counted to two, then, threw it into the midst of them and fell back to the ground. The grenade took out three of the Germans, injuring the other two. Both reached out for the machine guns to turn toward him, but Travis stood up immediately, hitting them with a shower of 30-06 ammo that ended it. Within 20 seconds or so, his squad arrived to give him Sarge’s promised backup.
They followed the urging of their Sergeant, by the end of the day, the village of Amfreville had been taken by the 357th on D+6. They had run into, and confronted several enemy squad groups, MG42 nests, and snipers, but they were able to “take ‘em out” according to Sarge. The casualty rate for the regiment was high. The total of the casualties was seven hundred and three men with one hundred and three listed as KIA. The Crowley squad made it through with only minor injuries.
13 -15 June, 1944 – D+7 – D+9 - Gourbesville
“What’s on the menu for today, Sarge,” Dieter asked. “I’m about ready to shoot me some Boche in the ass and boot ‘em the hell out of France.”
“You sound a bit cocky this morning, Dieter,” Crowley replied, “Well, we’re getting a new Division Commander according to Lieutenant Hicks. He said that Major General Eugene Landrum would be taking over the division, and he expected more battles today. They’ve decided that now we need to take Gourbesville. It has remained in enemy hands even through the past few days’ battles, and it’s in our path after we finish here.”
All day, the 357th had battled the Germans as they fought their way through Amfreville and followed the road to Gourbesville. Approaching the village, Crowley and his men used ditches, logs, and standing trees for cover as they fired on the nearby buildings.
“Let’s move in closer,” ordered Crowley, “There’s a stone wall up there nearer to the buildings that we can get behind.”
Soon there was a break in the firing, and Crowley gave the signal to move to the wall. He didn’t have to warn them to move fast. They were now experienced combatants who could anticipate their own needs, but Sarge let them know he was still in charge, and he soon saw a possible way to take out at least a few of the enemy. He spied a building very near them that had a large double window from which they were receiving considerable automatic fire.
“Harland, didn’t you tell me that you played baseball in high school?”
“Yeah Sarge, I did, what do you want from me.”
“See that large window there?”
“Do you think you could reach it with a grenade?”
“I think I could, Sarge,”
“Okay, go to it.”
Harland pulled the pin on a grenade and drew back a muscular arm, pitching it as hard as he could. It sailed through the air, but it slammed into the brick wall of the building no more than six inches to the side of the window. It fell to the ground and exploded, only damaging the outside of the structure. On the second try, he hit almost dead center of the opening. There was a tremendous burst inside and the guns were silenced.
“You keep that arm warm, Harland. We may need it again. By the way, what position did you play in school?”
“I pitched, Sarge.”
“Damn right, keep it warm and ready.” Crowley had a slight smile as he spoke. He was beginning to like the guys in his squad, but it wasn’t necessarily a good idea to get too close to your men during combat. Crowley cared about them, though, and he was willing to risk it to a certain degree.
“Okay, let’s clear some of these buildings. The 357th has the duty to take the town.”
As Sarge ended his urging, all hell broke loose from within Gourbesville with machine gun fire, mortar bombardments and explosions sounding like the German stick grenades that the men had nick named ‘potato mashers’. Soon a barrage of 105s were dropping in among the 90th Division troops, who immediately began to withdraw to a position back outside of the town.
Hunkered down in the woods behind a large log, Haney looked over at his buddy, Dieter, and chuckled. “Hey Dieter, what the hell happened to you? You said you wanted to kick some Heines in the ass and boot ‘em out of France. You’re going in the wrong fuckin’ direction.”
“Kiss my ass, Johnny boy,” he said with a slight grin on his face.
The squad lay in that area along with the rest of the platoon, waiting for orders until a private scurried into the area and found Crowley.
“Sergeant Crowley?” he questioned as he fell to a prone position near him.
“Yeah, what can I do for you?”
“Lieutenant Hicks wants to see you,” he said and pointed to the left of the squad. “He’s over there.”
Crowley took off just as a 105 dropped in between them and the town. He fell to the ground quickly and waited a few seconds before getting back up in a crouched stance as he ran toward Hick’s position. Shortly, he returned to his squad and passed on the orders that had come down to him.
“You men go ahead and dig in and make your foxholes. We’ll be here tonight and make another assault tomorrow morning.”
“You’uns better hope those Nazi bastards decide to leave during the night,” Travis Bryson said, “They were loaded for bar today.”
“I love to hear Travis talk his mountain talk,” Haney said to Dieter with a chuckle as he shoved his entrenching tool into the ground. “I’m sure he meant bear rather than bar, but that’s mountain talk. I’d like to visit him up there in those tall hills after the war. They say they’re a beautiful sight, especially in the Fall.”
They are,” replied Dieter, “I’ve been there. We drove down from Richmond as far as Asheville one time. It was Fall and some of the mountain views looked like the woods were afire. Different trees’ leaves turn different colors as they die out.”
“Well Dieter, I guess we need to dig in and get some rest.”
“Let’s do it. We can savor some of the exquisite C-rations after we have protection.”
“Damn Dieter, you want to swap C-rations. I don’t have anything like that.” Dieter cackled at Haney’s remark.
As morning broke, the 357th headed out to take the next objective. Gourbesville had been secured, at least that was everybodys’ impression, but they had to move slowly while Colonel Reimer, who was in charge of the 343rd Field Artillery Battalion blasted the town with the 105 mm howitzers to be sure it was clear.
After the howitzer assault, the squad moved through the town, and Travis noticed that many of the vehicles he had seen the day before were gone. “I think a lot of the Jerries got the hell out of here,” he said. “Those 343rd boys, they been a good help.”
The men in the 357th proceeded cautiously through the remaining buildings, following a road that some of the commanders were using to lead the assault. They began to hear the sound of a jeep and looked back to see a vehicle carrying several men.
“That’s Colonel Ginder,” said Harve, who was the first to recognize him. “He better hope that there are no more Nazis in there. We’re gonna give ‘em hell, Colonel,” he continued as his voice morphed into a yell. Ginder threw up a fist in similar defiance as he saw and heard Harve.
A few yards further up the road, a sudden burst of German machine gun fire erupted from buildings on both sides of it causing the jeep to speed up. It flipped on its side as the driver was struck, losing control of the vehicle. The occupants, including the Colonel, fell from their seats onto the ground.
“A damned ambush.” barked the Sarge. “Let’s hit both of those buildings and fast. Haney, you take three men and attack the one on the left, but approach it from the rear, clearing as you go through it. Tank, you take the one on the right and get three men as well. We have to be able to get in there and help those guys. That’s one of our commanders lying in that ditch.”
“The Colonel is probably dead, Sarge,” Harve said as he and his support were about to head out to clear the ambushing Jerries. “He slumped back into his seat, and then they flipped.”
Haney and Tank moved in quickly, entering their buildings from the rear with grenades first, then using rifle fire as they proceeded to the front where the machine gunners were located. Before entering the room, they each took no chances, each tossing a grenade into it, which solved the problem.
“Cleared,” yelled Haney as he exited the front of the building.
“Cleared here, too,” said Harve.
Crowley had moved in closer so that he could gauge the progress. He headed immediately toward the overturned jeep, where all of the occupants were lying on the ground. As soon as they got there, Doc Hershey checked for carotid pulses in their necks. His eyes met Crowley’s, and shook his head. “None of them made it, Sarge.”
“I wish we could’ve gotten through here before they came along,” Sarge said, his jaw clenching.
Haney glanced over to their left and saw a church. “Sarge, let’s put the bodies over in that church. I hate to leave ‘em out here in this ditch.”
“That’s good, Haney. You and Travis go make sure that the church is clear, first.”
Shortly, Johnnie boy Haney and Travis returned. All clear, Sarge,” Travis advised.
After taking the bodies into the church, the squad made their way up the road.
As they shuffled along, Haney, the inquisitive redhead, questioned his sarge, “Who do you think they’ll put in command of the regiment?”
“Not sure, Haney. The guys up top will have to figure that out.”
“Sergeant Crowley.” The voice came from just behind them. It was Lieutenant Hicks.
“Yes sir,” he answered.
“Sarge, I heard about Colonel Ginder. I hate that; he was a good man and leader. We need to clear all the buildings in this town as we move through. The Germans left a fair number of troops behind to slow us down and allow them to move on out. Take your men and clear them on both sides of the road as we go forward. I’ll have the other squads in the platoon handle the rest of the town that’s assigned to us.”
“We’ll take care of it, Lieutenant,” he assured him.
“Good, you can tell Bryson that he was right, a lot of these Heines left during the night. The ones that remained were left to support the pull out and were apparently non-essential personnel to the Nazis. They had to know they were on a suicide mission. These Jerries will sacrifice anybody to kill us if they can.”
Crowley grinned. “Travis will be proud to know that.”
“Gather around me, squad,” Crowley barked, “I want you to split into two groups. You can use the same groups that we used to clear the first buildings, but clear both sides of the road as we go through. Haney, you and Tank get your men and start working.”
The squad moved to the buildings and began the dangerous job of clearing out the Nazis. The first structure that Tank reached was a single story, and Harland, who was in that group, waited for Harve to get in position. Throwing the door open, he allowed Tank to rush in, following behind him. That room was clear, but when they entered the next, a potato masher grenade flew through the door landing at their feet. Luckily, both men were able to back out the door that they’d used to enter before it exploded.
“We were damned lucky with that one, Harland,” Harve said with an almost breathless voice. “We need to get a short count grenade into that front room.”
The two crept slowly toward the door, and Harve pulled the pin on a grenade, keeping the clip from falling to the ground and making noise. He counted to three and pitched it into the front room. As soon as it blew, they rushed in and found two dead Nazi, both with MP 40 sub-machine guns near their bodies.
“Damn,” exclaimed Harland, “That’s a funny looking gun. It looks like a mix between a grease gun and a pistol.
“Yeah” said Harve. “I’ve heard them called Schmeissers. It fires a 9mm ammo. Whatever they’re called, they can do some real damage.”
While Tank and his group were clearing their side of the road, Haney and Crowley’s men were moving in to clear the next building. Out of nowhere an MG 42 opened fire from a small window in the second story of a dwelling a few doors down.
“Hell fire,” Haney said. “Sarge, that would be hard as hell to get a grenade into that small window.”
“Well,” Crowley said as he pondered the situation. “We’ll just have to take it hand to hand.”
As he finished speaking, they heard the sound of a heavy motor and the clanking of what they hoped was a U.S. tank.
“I sure hope that’s a Sherman and not a Panther,” Haney said, and they both waited anxiously as the sound grew louder. Soon they caught the familiar shape of a M4 Sherman with a comforting white star on its side rounding the curve in the road. The Nazi firing the MG 42 opened up on it, and it slowed.
Crowley and Haney sought cover behind the building they had been clearing. The sarge, who was in plain view of the approaching Sherman, waved to get the tanker’s attention and pointed toward the weapon protruding from the small window on the second floor of the structure. While the machine gun fire continued, the tank gunner slowly moved the 75 mm howitzer over and up, aiming toward the Nazi position. He fired, and shards of the building scattered everywhere.
“Look at the destruction that gun caused,” Haney observed. “It took the whole corner of the building out.”
“That’s a 75mm cannon sticking out there,” Crowley said as he waved again at the tanker making a fist to thank him for his help. “Let’s move on,” urged Sarge.
The squad fought constantly clearing building after building, often running into machine gun and small weapons fire, taking them out the best way they could. By dark on the 15th of June, the 357th had finally secured the town of Gourbesville and removed all the Germans that had remained.
They headed for the new assembly area feeling good about their work that day. As they moved out, a single shot rang out, and Bob Hanson dropped his machine gun, grabbing his chest as he fell to the ground. A large expanding red stain grew on his chest.
“A damned sniper,” yelled Crowley as most of the squad scattered for cover. “Did anybody see where the fire came from?”
While he was asking, another shot rang out, this time from within the squad It was Harland, and the gunfire was followed by a heavy thud as the body of a German fell from a tree in the wooded area next to them.
“I got that son of a bitch,” Harland announced in his typical Texas accent, and he ran to the German’s body, thrusting his bayonet into it.
“Bob’s dead,” Doc Hershey said with sadness in his voice as Sarge approached him.
“Damn, he was a good soldier,” replied Crowley, in an exhausted tone as the full squad rushed over. “Krause, you get his machine gun and let Haney tote the tripod.”
“Yeah, Sarge, I’ll get it.” He grabbed the gun and glanced back at the body of Bob Hanson. Turning, he came to attention, saluting his heroic friend.
Reaching down, Crowley jerked the dog tags from around Bob Hanson’s neck. He put one of them in his shirt pocket, leaving one for quartermaster. Krause took his rifle and attached Bob’s bayonet, plunging it into the ground beside him. Tank grabbed his helmet and placed it atop the butt of the rifle. As he stepped back, he and all of the men who had been with Bob since basic training stood and saluted him as he lay lifeless before them.
Later that evening, after they had dug in, Lieutenant Hicks came by looking for Crowley. “Sarge, we think we’ll get a short rest here in the Gourbesville area. They have us in a line with the rest of the division across the base of this Contentin Peninsula in order to block any Nazi trying to flee from Cherbourg, where they are clearing out the Germans. And by the way, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we have a new regimental commander. He’s Colonel George Barth. He used to be chief of staff of the 9th Division. They say he’s good, but I’ll miss the hell out of Colonel Ginder. He was a good man.”
“So will we Lieutenant. I guess I’ll never forget seeing them ambush him the way they did. As for settling here for a while, a day or two of rest will be greatly appreciated.”
Little did he know that the Crowley squad would soon be out frequently, patrolling to stop the enemy’s escape from Cherbourg.
16 – 29 June 1944 – Blocking the Cherbourg escape
Just before Crowley fell asleep, the flap on the front of his tent lifted, and Lieutenant Hicks peeked in.
“Sarge, sorry to bother you, but it looks like there won’t be a rest here like we thought. There’s a lot of heavy combat up around Cherbourg, and the Nazi are retreating down the peninsula in fairly large numbers. We have Allied troops moving toward them, but the only way we can be assured that the Jerries don’t slip through our lines is to monitor the area constantly. So, tomorrow you’ve been assigned to patrol the line between us and the unit to our west. There’s a squad out there now, but we want you to get yours on patrol at 0400 hours.”
“Yes, sir, Lieutenant, I guess I’ll wait to tell my men when I wake them at 0400 hours in the morning. They’ll like that.”
Hicks chuckled as he walked away.
“Okay, Tank, up and at ‘em, and get the rest of the squad out and ready to go on patrol. Tell ‘em to hustle over here, and I’ll give them some idea of what’s going on.”
Crowley watched as Tank roused the rest of the squad. There were three corporals under him, Travis Bryson, Doc Hershey, and Tank. It would have been four, but the fourth was Bob Hanson, who’d been killed by a sniper back in Gourbesville.
The men gathered around Crowley as he explained their new mission. They soon set out to patrol the area.
“Let’s move along,” Sarge urged, “we have to replace a squad that’s been patrolling all night. What are you doing with that bazooka there, Muller?”
“Lieutenant Hicks handed it off to me a few minutes before we left,” answered Dieter. “He said we might need it when we’re patrolling, and that there are tanks and Half-tracks moving as fast as they can trying to escape our guys up north.”
“Did you get any ammo for it”
“Yeah, Sarge, he showed me where to get it.”
After about a half hour of traveling through forests and fields, the squad found the men they were replacing, who seemed a little bit leery of their approach.
“Who goes there?” yelled the sergeant in charge. “What’s the password?”
“Mississippi,” answered Crowley, “Why the itchy fingers, Sarge?”
“I guess we do seem a bit nervous,” he replied. “I’m Harrison. We’ve been busy all night. There are sometimes platoon-size groups that come through, but mostly squad size, thank goodness. Some give up easily, but some try to fight it out. We’ve had one firefight after another, and we’ve sent quite a few Nazis back to the base camp as POWs. I’m sure you can understand that we are mighty pleased to see you and your men.” There was a relaxed smile on Harrison’s, face as he reached out to shake Crowley’s hand.
“I’m Crowley. Well, Sarge, you can lead your men back to the camp, and I hope we can take over and do as good a job as you guys have done.”
“Johnson, get the fellows ready to pull out,” Harrison said, glancing momentarily to his nearest squad member. “Crowley, be cautious, and you need to keep your men quiet and alert. The enemy is stealthy and ready to fight. They’ll get up on you before you know it if you aren’t careful. I don’t know how so many of them were missed by our troops as they traversed the peninsula.”
“Will do, Sarge. You and your men have a safe trip back to camp.”
Harrison nodded, motioning with his hand to have his squad follow him. They moved out. The soldiers looked rugged and tired, but determined, as well.
“You men spread out along the same lines as Harrison’s men had covered,” Crowley ordered. “Use their foxholes if you need to. Keep it quiet, and stay alert. It sounds like a lot of Nazis are coming out of Cherbourg.”
The men moved out quietly along the line of the foxholes dug by the previous squad. Bryson had his BAR, Krause Wagoner had the machine gun, Haney the tripod, and Muller was holding a bazooka across his left shoulder, a bag of bazooka ammo hanging from the other. He carried his M1 in his other hand. They were a well-armed squad.
About twenty minutes into the patrol, they could hear movement ahead of them and small limbs cracking.
“I hear ‘em coming, Sarge.” It was Harland Garrett, speaking low with his Texas inflections.
Crowley nodded and shifted his M3 into a more usable position.
Moments later, Tank barked out in his deep voice. “Pause!” He was able to give the well pronounced order in a German accent. When he spoke, each of the members of the Crowley squad brought their weapons out of the foxholes and used the mounds of dirt in front of them to support and aim their weapons toward the Germans, which appeared to be a squad sized unit.
“Anyone speak English?” he asked.
One blond haired, blue-eyed Nazi spoke up. “Nein,” he responded in an arrogant manner, “Sprich Deutsch.”
“Lass deine waffen fallen, you asshole,” yelled Krause Wagoner. “Drop those weapons and be damned fast about it,” he growled. One of them pulled his weapon up to fire on Tank and never even got it to his shoulder before four of the squad fired on him. The remainder of the Germans realized that the squad members were kneeling in the foxholes and were poor targets with easy shots at them, so they dropped their weapons and put their hands on top of their heads.
“Harland,” Crowley ordered, “take these prisoners to base camp and then come straight back here. Don’t take any chances with them. Use your gun if need be; they’ll try anything, including sweet talk to find a way to get to you.”
“I got it, Sarge. I’ll be back soon,” he replied as he rounded up the men.
An hour later, after Harland Garret returned, the squad hunkered down in their foxholes. Krause stilled, certain that he’d heard something to the north west in the general direction of Cherbourg. He motioned with his raised hands toward Crowley, pointing to his ear and then out in front of them. Crowley nodded; he too could hear something. It was metallic and getting louder. Soon, the entire squad could hear the rhythmic clanking of the metal tracks of a tank. It was still a bit in the distance but closing.
“Sounds awful big,” Travis said in a low voice. “That scares me. I haven’t felt like this since I was huntin’ in the mountains, and my dogs were running a big ole wild boar towards me.”
“Did you get him?” asked Haney, who was in a foxhole with Krause a short distance away.
“Yep, but two seconds more and I’d a been running my ass off in the other direction. He had a snout full of tusks that looked too sharp for me to stand and fight.”
“You guys cut the talk,” Crowley barked, also in a muted tone. “That tank will be here soon, and we need to be ready. Tank, check and see if Muller has his bazooka good to go in case it’s a Nazi vehicle. In fact, get in the foxhole with him and be ready to load the bazooka for him.”
“And protect that radio you’re carrying, we may need it later,” added Sarge.
As they sat still and silent, the tank got louder and louder. Soon, it could be seen a good hundred yards away through the trees as it rolled along, crushing the vines and saplings under its tracks.
“Is that one of those German Panzers?” whispered Harland.
“Hell no,” answered Haney. “That’s one of those damned new Tigers, and that’s a 88mm cannon on the front that can do some real damage.”
“That is one monstrous son-of-a-bitch,” Harland said, shaking his head.
As the vehicle advanced, the squad kept their heads down while Tank loaded the bazooka ammo. He tapped Muller on the shoulder to let him know it was ready to go. They continued to watch the approaching tank and realized there was at least one enemy squad with it, possibly more, following behind the behemoth. Their weapons had fixed bayonets.
“Let ’em get closer,” Crowley said in a loud whisper. “Don’t start firing until I do.”
Haney and Krause already had the machine gun set up and had it aimed toward the infantry who, so far, hadn’t spotted them.
The clanking of the large tracks on the Tiger got louder until it was about thirty-five or forty yards away. At that point, Crowley brought up his M3 and began firing short bursts into the squad of infantry following behind it.
Muller aimed his bazooka and blasted the Tiger, but it didn’t cause any visible damage. Tank immediately reloaded, but it had plenty of time to bring the 88mm cannon into position to fire at them. A loud explosion occurred as the cannon’s aim was a little too high and the shell went just above Tank’s head, hitting a large oak tree fifty yards behind them.
“Dieter, hold your fire,” Tank suggested as rifle and machine gun blasts erupted all around them. “He’s about to go up a rise there. When you can see his belly exposed, fire away. while he’s going up that rise, he can’t drop his cannon low enough to hit us. Wait till he gets to the top and that should show enough of the underside to take him out.”
Dieter Muller held his aim on the bazooka as firmly as possible, and at the right moment, he fired, nailing the tank in just the right spot on its underside, where the metal was thin enough to be penetrated. The hit caused it to explode internally, and they watched as it stopped, and one of the crew was able to throw open the top cover in an attempt to escape, but he was on fire and fell forward only half way out. He continued to burn, effectively blocking the exit of the others inside.
The air was pungent with the odor of the explosions and searing flesh.
While they were dealing with the Tiger, the rest of the squad was battling the oncoming infantry. Krause was firing bursts from his .30 caliber M1919 Browning machine gun into the group.
The attack ended when Travis Bryson pitched a grenade toward the three or four that remained. It took out all of them. Travis leaped from his foxhole and ran into the area, checking out the bodies.
“Clear!” he yelled back at his team as he held his hand over his nose to ward off the smell of the burning Nazis.
The men of the 357th continued to patrol and be involved in skirmish after skirmish. The Germans persisted in their bid to escape toward the south and were moving as much of their armor as possible with them. They had been in Cherbourg when the 79th Division and other units took siege of that town, but the line created by the men of the 90th Division that stretched across the Contentin Peninsula held strong, and by the 29th of June, the peninsula was cleared of enemy. The next day, they made camp in the general vicinity of Houteville for a much-needed rest.
In July, the 357th Infantry Regiment would be given a new mission: to begin advancing on Beaucoudray, a small town which, at the time, seemed like just another battle. Little did they know, it would be one of the most difficult of the war for their battalion.