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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Tales from the old-timer

Remembering Mortain

In the European Theater in World War II the American and British forces invaded Normandy in France on June 6,1944. I had been in England for about 3 months as a combat replacement in Field Artillery, and we had been having some road marches and occasional training, but knew we would soon be on our way to Normandy. On June 12, I disembarked from a Landing Ship on Utah Beach as a 4th Infantry Division Field Artillery replacement. I waded ashore with my comrades on June 12 and after a night of noisy rest I was taken by truck to my outfit, Battery B 42nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division. We were equipped with M-7 self propelled tanks with 105 mm. howitzers and fired numerous missions night and day in the hedgerow country in Normandy. Our forward observers, who called in the fire missions by radio got combat fatigue after a couple of weeks, so us cannoneers were sent up to replace them by turns.

By about July we broke out of the hedgerow country, which had held our infantry advances to a couple of hedgerows daily with lots of casualties, and we had the Germans on the run as we made faster progress. I spent about 3 days with the Forward Observer in July up with the infantry near St. Lo, and my second term was in early August at a place called Mortain two.

Mortain was well-named, as Hitler had launched an attack with 5 crack armored divisions ordered to drive the Americans back to the beachead, and the word “Mort” is Latin for ‘’death” and it was a tough experience.

Even after 68 years, I sometimes think about those experiences when I can’t sleep at night. We moved up with the Infantry and the 4th Division was ordered to attack the Germans, jumping off at about 8 AM. Our troops were running across a sunken road one at a time, and as I watched, a German machine gunner fired a burst at each man as he jogged across. Sure enough, one of them got a bullet through his lung, and toppled over on the sunken road. I was behind a hedgerow, relatively safe, and dragged him behind the hedgerow. I took his compress bandage and covered the hole. but I heard a suckling sound and rolled him over. The hole in his back was bigger than the one in front, so I took my own compress bandage and plugged that one up. He had his nickname “Blacky” written in ink on the back of his fatigue jack. My Lieutenant was scanning toward the machine gun with a pair of binoculars, and a burst put two bullets through his lung, and down he went. Bullets hit hard, and knock the victims right over. My friend patched up the Lieutenant’s holes up. I dashed across the sunken road to the aid station about 100 yards to the rear and told them about our two wounded guys.

I returned and we waited, but no litter bearers came, so I dashed across the sunken road a second time. When I got to the aid station there was a guy lying on a stretcher with his stomach laid open by shrapnel, and he kept saying over and over, “Help me, Jesus; Help me Jesus!” Nobody tended to him, as they were busy with other guys.

I went back to my place, running back over the sunken road so fast the gunner didn’t even fire at me. Finally the aid men came and crossed the road to get our two wounded guys. The Germans did not fire at them and they worked slowly to carry them to the aid station. The Germans observed the Geneva Convention and did not fire at the aid men helping the wounded guys. The convention is a dead letter now, and even the U.S. tortures captives.

After some time we started the attack and went single file along a hedgerow toward the Germans, behind another hedgerow about 100 yards away. The machine gunner opened up on us, and we hit the deck. I laid on my stomach and watched the bullets hit the hedgerow behind me. Apparently the gunner couldn’t depress his gun enough to get me, as he knew what the radio on my back was for. My buddy jumped up and ran behind the hedgerow we had started from, but I waited a good 10 minutes in the hot sun before making my dash.

After I got to the relative safety of the hedgerow I watched some bumblebees buzzing from flower to flower. In a field next to ours. I saw some artillery shells knocking over grazing cows. The surviving cows milled around a little while, then resumed grazing among their dead herdmates.

We had the same situation as the cattle, and there were quite a few dead men lying on the ground in our area.

I was glad when our relief men arrived and we could go back to the battery where we lived and worked a mile or two back. They had been bombed the night before by German planes and were not interested in my story about the narrow escape at Mortain.


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