Saturday, August 8, 2009

Battle for St. Lo - Part 1

South Through The Hedgerows

By Sgt. Saul Levitt

YANK Staff Correspondent

South of La Haye du Puits—the web of the war, as it reaches south through Normandy, is catching some strange flies. In the action one morning south of La Haye du Puits, Americans pushing on a few hundred yards farther through the tricky hedgerows and wooded hill country of Normandy flushed an odd assortment of prisoners; Russians, Poles, and one young Yugoslav. Later in the day, they came up with two French lads of 15, who were blithely wandering around in the midst of machine-gun and rifle fire.

The GI finger on the trigger in this nerve-racking skirmishing warfare from field to field tends to get very tight. This produces hairline decisions as to whether that gray-green tunic that shows in front of the sights is to be a German prisoner or a German corpse. There is practically no time at all in which to discuss armistice terms in this sort of fighting. Pvt. Lawrence Weihl, a thin, dark-faced soldier from Detroit, and Sgt. Nathaniel Meadows of Miami, were two of the infantrymen in one unit who got their prisoners because the opposition came out of hiding with hands held high in the air and with no weapons. The tight finger on the trigger did not relax, but it didn't let go, either.

Over the heads of prisoners and captors alike lobbed the artillery. The setting was back-country Normandy: a stone farmhouse out of which the prisoners had come, a muddy path, high trees casting big shadows on the ground. The prisoners were led back from the whistling fire of the small guns to the regimental prisoner-collection point in a clearing a few hundred yards behind the action. You entered the clearing through a break in the hedgerow. At the break there were signs of recent German occu­pancy from early this morning or last night: car­tridges, potato-masher grenades, empty milk cans, and a torn illustrated magazine. The prize picture in the magazine was of two frauleins dressed in the last stages of strip-tease costume. According to the German caption, they are talking about men and their point is that males don't want to talk to you first, they only want to make love; and afterwards they won't get sociable, either, because they're too tired.

Past this strewn German equipment came the prisoners and their flat-faced captors. In the clearing were a lieutenant and a sergeant—interrogators who, between them, knew German and French. They tried out both languages on the prisoners but couldn't get anywhere; none of the infantrymen could help either. The way things stood at first, the GIs spoke only American, the pair of interrogators could translate only French or German, and the prisoners were strictly limited to Russian, Polish, and Yugoslav. The atmosphere was very tense and very tight at first, more strained than in the ordinary prisoner-bagging operation because some of these prisoners wore civilian clothes. The infantrymen who had captured them held neutral, hard expressions on their faces, as if to say it didn't make much difference if they killed a prisoner or brought him in. They were far from home with men in front of them who were hostile, their single reflex action was the trigger-pull —and pulling it was the right way to talk to strangers ninety-nine-and-a-half percent of the time. The prisoners knew this and they had been very fright­ened when caught and were still frightened now, a little like animals sensing danger in the wind.

It was a sunny day in the clearing, and the thick green grass and the tall trees bordering this small open space bent under a warm wind. Between captors and prisoners there was now no effort at communication. The one man among the prisoners whom everybody looked at hardest was a little man dressed in a striped shirt, black pants, and a black cap. He had the broad, heavy face and compact, strong body and stubby hands of a laborer or a farmer. His face was pink and shiny with sweat. After a while a soldier from Philadelphia, who knew a little Russian, came into the clearing and tried to speak to this man. The soldier held on to his rifle and listened and then turned his head sideways and said: “The guy claims he was captured by the Germans and moved to France to work. He was working Cherbourg, he says. He managed to get away before we closed in on Cher­bourg and has been hiding away in the woods."

" I'll bet he hates Hitler like poison too," said one of the infantrymen.

“Ask him if he was a Russian soldier or a civilian when captured by the Germans.”

The little man broke into a torrent of speech and the translating soldier said: "He claims he was a Russian soldier and was captured in the Ukraine."

The little man motioned toward a sheet of paper and pencil held by one of the interrogators. On the paper he wrote, “1941.”

" Ask him what he did before he got in the Army."

The translator asked, and the little man made a motion of someone swinging a scythe and said, “Kolkhoz.”

"He worked on some kind of a big farm," said the Translator.

The soldier from Philadelphia now gave the little man a cigarette. The faintest beginning of a smile moved across the prisoner's face, but it didn't quite emerge into a real smile. For the first time since he had been marched down from the front, he felt a little easier. He had communicated with some­one. It was apparent now that he knew he wasn't going to be shot immediately. Clearly he had known no luxuries for a long time, and to be given a cigar­ette, to be allowed to sit down in the thick grass, and to know that he was not going to be shot im­mediately were luxuries of the highest category. He stretched his sturdy, small figure in the grass, finished his cigarette, and then dozed.

Around him were the other prisoners. Several men stood guard over them, but the other infantrymen went over to the edge of the clearing and, like the prisoners, stretched in the thick grass. For captors as well as prisoners it was a moment of peace. The tautness could go out of muscles, the eyes could shut. You could imagine anything while lying in the tall grass of a Normandy clearing, even the im­possible like maybe it wasn't Normandy at all, but the tall grass of the Susquehanna Valley. The in­humanly flat expression went out of faces. The sound of gunfire and of the artillery overhead seemed odd suddenly, and Weihl, the boy from Detroit who had captured two men by himself a little while before and had marched them down a muddy road with his finger tight on the trigger of his rifle, said wonderingly: " Will somebody tell me the sense in this business?'' Nobody answered him. One or two men had already dozed off.
In a little while, as soon as the MPs came to take the prisoners down the line, the men who had cap­tured them would be going back to the front, but that little while was full of long, big, juicy minutes. The choice of relaxations in front of the men was un­limited: they could wash, shave, talk, or go to sleep in the sun. Two bearded, grimy characters, who hadn't slept for three days, wavered between sleep and a shave, and ended up with a bath and a shave out of a helmet. Another man got his shoes and stockings off and flexed his toes, and his mouth curved up in a big, slow grin.

Sgt. Meadows and Pfc. Melvin E. Preston, of Richmond, Calif., a good-looking lad through the streaks of mud along his jaws, talked about this morning's fighting and their weapons as against the enemy's. They didn't think much of the German machinegun pistol, nor of the German sharp-shooting in this vicinity. They thought the machinegun pistol was inaccurate after a few rounds and the barrel burned out too quickly. Our fragmentation and phosphorus grenades were very good, but Meadows said in his soft voice that he didn't give a damn for our concussion grenade. Only last night he had come on a German doing his duty under a tree and had thrown a concussion grenade straight at the man. The German, Meadows said, flew into the air after the explosion, but came down running and took off through the woods while pulling his pants up.

“But their 88s,” said Preston, “that thing scares (the) hell out of you. Anyway, our 81 scares (the) hell out of them."

The minutes were ticking away. Soon they'd be back in action? Though none of them would have said he was anxious for the action, still they all fretted in the way of soldiers who are separated from their company and know that they should be with it. They hated the front, but that aggregate known as the company was up there and they had to find the company and that was all there was to it.

An MP Captain came into the clearing and said there would soon be vehicles for the prisoners. The captain and Preston the infantry Pfc. got into a discussion about front-line action. Preston's platoon leader had been killed the day before while advancing over open ground and Preston said angrily that his lieutenant had been a brave man but was he a good soldier, advancing over open ground like that ? Was he supposed to follow the lieutenant, even if he knew for sure they wouldn't get anywhere except killed?

The MP Captain, whose name was Louis Sohn, Jr., and who hails from Atlanta, Ga., had been an infantry officer and didn't agree with Preston. "You have to advance," said the captain. "You have to make the Jerry understand that you'll keep coming in. Otherwise everything piles up, your materiel, your men, are all piled up all the way into the rear.I know that you're the guy who has to do it and I'm the guy who's talking, but I know that you have to advance. Your lieutenant was right and you weren't."

“I'll go somewhere but you've got to feel it'll get you somewhere," said Preston stubbornly. “I want to know that it gets something, that's all.”

There was the sudden whining of the 88s over­head. Everybody dived into ditches and foxholes, everybody, that is, except the prisoners and their guards, who stayed in the middle of the clearing, flat on their stomachs. You could hear that strange whin­ing sound, like a huge mosquito around your ear, and you could only lie there and hope the big mosquito wouldn't bite you with his big steel bite, and then the whining died away and up popped Capt. Sohn and called to Preston in the next foxhole: “You have to advance, that's all.”

"I want to know that it means something, not only getting killed but something gained at the same time," said Preston.

The infantrymen who had brought the prisoners in were ready to go back to the line. Some more prisoners were brought in, two very frightened young French lads who had been found around the front. The boys talked very rapidly to the interro­gator-sergeant. "I guess you might as well bring them down too," he said to an MP. "After all, they do live in this country and they say they had friends up there and were visiting their friends.''

The soldiers stared non-committally at the young Frenchmen. A young Yugoslav prisoner, at last found somebody who could talk his language and explained that when he got home he would kill Germans. By the way he swung his arms, the idea seemed to be that he wanted to hunt and kill Germans every day and twice on Sundays and that this was all he wanted to do. But this didn't excite the infantrymen, either. Neither the languages nor the state­ments nor the geography meant anything to them; all they knew was that they were in the line and they had to find their company.

The soldiers who were sleeping got up and rubbed their eyes. Only a boy from New Jersey, a boy called "Jersey,'' kept lying on the ground. He said, " When you're on your feet and fighting you don't even know what it is to be tired. You never think of it. The minute you lie down you can't get up any more. How much longer are they gonna keep us in the line?"

“I reckon a few more days," said Sgt. Meadows.

"I wonder if I'll live that long," said Jersey. And he said it without gloom and without worry, but only in a tone of speculation—the way you might wonder if your horse was going to win that afternoon.

“Well, let's get back," said Preston. “Our boys are moving up and we don't know where to find them.”

“Just a couple of seconds more," said Jersey.

He lay there in the grass, tired but alive. He was a trained, toughened young soldier from New Jersey, resting in the thick grass: And his friends stood around him, giving him a few seconds more in the sun before they went back to the line.

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