YANK 30 July 1944 British Edition
Taking La Haye du Puits
The fighting in the Town
By Sgt. Walter Peters
La Haye Du Puits, France—The G-2 colonel at corps headquarters told us that La Haye du Puits was successfully occupied this morning, so together with Jim McGlincy, of United Press, and Bill Stringer, of Reuters, I jumped into a jeep and headed for that town.
Actually, one would imagine that with the capture of a town practically all enemy hostilities there would cease. It didn’t work out that way in La Haye du Puits, just as it hasn’t in many other towns in Normandy.
The northern road to the town, which runs up and down like a Coney Island roller coaster, is pock-marked with holes from which our sappers dug mines planted by the Germans.
“Somebody said the Germans had thousands of pounds of TNT under here,” said McGlincey, as we passed over a bridge spanning a small creek.
We parked the jeep just outside of town where a number of GIs were standing by drinking cider, and from there the three of us walked on in.
The first sign of any American activity in the town itself was a notice on a telephone pole which read: “Off Limits to All Troops.” We saw nobody in front of us, and began to wonder whether or not our infantrymen had taken the notice seriously. Then as we walked along the road, stretching between wide open fields, shots came singing over our heads and the three of us dove head first into a ditch which was ankle deep with mud from a heavy rainfall.
“You guys better get the hell out of that ditch,” a sergeant, behind a bush across the road, yelled. “That side hasn’t been cleared of mines yet.”
We got out of the ditch in a hurry. Then another soldier came down the road with a tommygun in his hands.
“Where do you think the shots are coming from?” he asked us.
“From behind that tree, I think,” Stringer said, pointing.
“Give it a spray,” the sergeant behind the bush ordered the soldier.
The soldier left to “give it a spray.”
As we proceeded down the road there were more bursts of sniper fire, and the echo of shots from our infantrymen. At the railroad bridge we met more soldiers who said that their company command post was about three blocks further along. The soldiers explained that their battalion had entered the town that morning in a mopping-up mission.
The Americans had entered La Haye du Puits three times within a week, and had been forced to retreat each time. The fourth drive had succeeded and only needed mopping up to claim the final capture of the town.
From the railroad bridge we could see the skeleton of what once had been a beautiful town. As we reached the buildings we hugged them very closely so as not to provoke sniper fire. All the way to the command post, the buildings were a mass of ruins, no people were in sight and the only living creature was a cat walking out of a café where the cider barrels had been cracked open by artillery blasts.
At the CP, 1st/Sgt. Joseph O. Gunssauls, of Alexandrika, Va., was sitting behind a desk that only a few hours before had belonged to a German commander. In the back room, a bunch of GIs were eating K rations and trying to dry their clothing. The front windows of the command post were no longer there, the doors had been jarred loose from their hinges by our artillery, and one section of the ceiling had fallen to the floor—a pile of powdered rubble. Through the window frames came the smell of smoke and death—smoke from the burning American and German vehicles we had seen along the roads, and the smell of blood shed by our men who had fought their way into town and by the Germans who had opposed them.
Standing across from the first sergeant with a telephone in his hand was the company commander, Capt. Joseph Gray, of Hamilton, Ga.
“You came in at a historic time, gentlemen,” he said.
“Yeah, goddam historic,” said Pvt. Eugene Zubrzycki, of Flushing, L.I. “One of our guys just got a sniper who had shot his squad leader.”
The sniper’s bullet had hit the squad leader in the upper side of his chest and had gone through his arm. The assistant squad leader, Sgt. Hugh McCloskey, of Union City, N.J>, had spotted the sniper in a tree and had shot him with his M-1.
Rifle fire continued outside as we talked to the CO and his soldiers of the command post.
“I think there’s somebody still in that tower,” a soldier said. Pvt. Zubrzycdki looked through the window frames and read an advertising sign that was about the only object left in on piece on the building across the street.
“That sign says A. Ceron, Monuments, Funeraires et Mortuaires,” he read slowly, and pronouncing the French badly. “That guy ought to be making a lot of business. Monuments, flowers and funerals. Great racket. Lots of business.”
“Say, where the hell is Klotz?” somebody asked.
“Guess he’s out celebrating his baby,” another soldier answered.
That morning, just as his battalion had been ordered to mop up La Haye du Puits, Sgt. Syman Klotz, and assistant squad leader, from Brooklyn, had received a letter announcing the birth of a baby girl to his wife.
“Maybe he’s across the street at the wine shop,” another soldier suggested.
“Hell no,” the first replied. “There’s nothing left in there to celebrate with. He’s out looking for more snipers.”
Several bursts from German machine pistols were heard just then, followed by rifle fire.
It was now 1430 hours. Lt. Col. Earl Lerette, of Brookline, Mass., and his battalion, had entered the town at 0900 hours and small pockets of German snipers were still offering resistance.
On the way to the battalion command post I stopped inside a building where three soldiers were searching from room to room for snipers. Their names, they said, were: Pfc. Perron Rice, of Dotham, Ala.; Pfc. Claude Shepherd, of Pineville, Ore., and Pfc. Joseph Maex, of Taos, N. Mex.
There were blasts from German 88s and the mud near the railroad bridge where the shells were hitting flew high above the rubble that once was a town.
“There go the 88s.” said Maex. “And there probably goes a couple more dead GIs, I guess. Goddam those Germans.”
Colonel Lerette, sitting in an old house chair at battalion headquarters, was adjusting a kerosene lamp. Then, when he was through adjusting the lamp he took out his insignia of rank and started to pin them on his shoulders.
“We didn’t wear our insignia coming in,” said the colonel. “In fact, all the officers came in with full field packs looking the same as the GIs. Those snipers like to pick out the leaders.”
Shells from the 88s continued blasting the town. In between these explosions came the comparatively quiet singing of shots from small arms.
“That’s the kind of thing we’ve had all day,” said the colonel. “The main German forces moved out but left men planted all over the damn town. It’s small stuff they’re shooting and they’re bad shots—not so hot—but they’re a goddam nuisance. We’ll just have to keep right on until we clean every last one of them out.”
The rifle and small arms fire seemed to get closer to battalion headquarters. “Damn, that’s in close,” the colonel continued.
“We were out there and watched it twice, sir,” said a soldier. “Bullets were hitting the side of the building up high.”
“Where do you think he’s shooting from?” the colonel asked.
“I think there’s some sonofabitch up in that tall tree, sir,” the soldier answered.
Another GI came in.
“Some fellows just said we got the sniper in a tree near the railroad bridge, sir,” the soldier said. “The man shot him said the sniper was lying there with a small pistol in his hand.”
“A small pistol, you say?” the colonel asked, interestedly.
“Yes sir, a small pistol. It’s supposed to be a damn nice on, too,” the soldier said.
“Did they tell you whether the guy who shot the sniper had taken the pistol?” the colonel asked.
“No, sir. I heard that the soldier said the pistol was cocked and so he figured it might have been a booby trap,” the soldier said.
“Well, I’d sure like to get that pistol.” The colonel said. “But, hell, some GI’s got it by now. I guess there’s no use going over there. Too bad, because I’d sure like to have one of those small German pistols.”
A lieutenant, with a dent in his helmet, looked up. The dent had been caused by a sniper’s bullet that morning.
We checked the colonel’s map and pointed out the highway.
“Hell!” the colonel exclaimed. “You came in here the wrong way. You’d better go out the way my battalion came in.”
As we walked out of the colonel’s command post we heard somebody saying: “There goes a couple of guys that should’ve been ghosts by now.”