Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Battle for St. Lo - Part 3

The Battle for St. Lo – Part 3

…and then St. Lo was freed

By Sgt. Walter Peters

YANK Staff Correspondent

St. Lo—Far back, in the head­quarters of the 29 Division from which a small task force of about 300 men began its mission to occupy St. Lo, it seemed almost as quiet as a section of the New England country­side. Only the division's own guns and the clatter of rolling Sherman tanks could be heard. The 29th had been nibbling toward the city for some time. Now the worst seemed to be over. The men had battled their way through marshlands, hills, dikes, and hedges. They had even fought through a river, shoulder-deep. Now at last had come the time for occupying the city itself.

The task force gathered in an orchard, standing in long columns of twos. They were especially picked men—infantrymen, engineers, artillery observers, medics, and even a group of MP and Civil Affairs officers.

The Division Commander—Major General Charles H. Gerhardt—stood there, holding a cigar in his right hand and at the same time whittling a walking stick cut down from a branch of a tree. "This is an historic affair," he said in a slow, clear voice. Some of the men stopped chewing gum and their faces became more serious. “I want every man to be on his mettle," the general continued. " We must be ready to meet, anything at all. We are representing the division and the American Army, and I want every one of you not to let them down for one minute. You must prepare yourself for anything the enemy may throw at you. Be on the alert. Be on your guard. We are going to carry this mission out."

The executive officer, a colonel, stepped forward. "Men," he said, “I want you to pay close attention. In case a man is wounded or if it is necessary to get a message through, only one man will leave. If there are four men on a mission, three of them must continue while the other goes back. This applies to whatever may happen. Another thing—all vehicles will be at 60-yard intervals. Anyone who violates this will be sent back and miss the fun."

A private in the line looked at his buddy. "Is he kidding?" he muttered.

The colonel conferred a moment with the general, and then turned to the men again. "It's been changed," he said. "One hundred yards is the interval. One hundred yards."

I piled into an artillery radio observation jeep with Capt. E. G. Gifford of South Orange, N.J.; T/5 Floyd McCarland, of Long Island City, N.Y.; and , Pfc. Albert Harazamus, of Chicago.

The task force had been scheduled to start out at 1500, but it didn't get moving until 30 minutes later. Meanwhile, the men in our jeep were gossip­ing with the GIs in the jeep ahead of us. "Remem­ber Puncis, the little Italian guy? " McCarland asked. "Yeah," a soldier in, the other jeep said. "He's with us now," McCarland said. "Good man," the captain said. "Remember_______” McCarland asked. “Yeah," the soldier up front said. "He got knocked off.” McCarland said. “Jees, that's awful!" the other man exclaimed.

Tanks began to pull out of the orchard. The infantrymen followed in trucks, and we followed the engineers behind the infantry. We drove at such a slow pace and stopped so many times it seemed that we wouldn't get there before midnight.

It was now 1630 hours and we were still two miles from St. Lo. All along the dusty country road was evidence of the great battles that had been fought by forward troops days before. There was the stench of the bodies of dead cows and there were skeletons of tanks and trucks. Off the road, behind a hedge­row, GI equipment was strewn all over the grass— hand grenades, .30-calibre clips with bullets, and many personal effects. At one spot was a GI helmet with three holes torn through its casing, and nearby were a number of letters scattered about in disorder.

Some of the letters were from a girl, written apparently to the soldier whose helmet had been torn. "I know you'll come through with flying colors,'' one of them read. "Please, dear, keep writing. I'll be anxiously waiting to hear from you. I'd love to see your funny face. Hurry home." Another letter, from the same girl, ended thus: "I love you more than anything or anyone in this world—always, Lilian."

There was also an unfinished letter from the soldier to the girl. "Sweetheart," he had begun, "since I left the States as per usual I have saved all your mail and I really had quite a batch up to last night. I carried them all in a little cardboard folder, all arranged in order of dates. Last night I took them and as I read each one of them, I tore them up. It hurt as far as sentiment goes, but I feel safer if I don't carry them on my person. I hope you don't mind. Yesterday the company took a little walk to a brook where we proceeded to strip and take a bath. Remember the pictures we used to see in Pathe News of boys taking a bath in the river? Well, that's just the way we looked. I hope Mom and Pop got the picture situation straightened out and that Pop won." That's the way the letter ended.

There was also a general letter from the President addressed to members of the armed forces. "Never were the enemies of freedom more tyrannical, more arrogant, more brutal," the letter read in part. Near this was a Catholic prayer book opened to page 24, which read: “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen."

As we moved to within about a mile, and a half of the city, the vehicles were forced to stop. The enemy was shelling the road heavily. Snipers were busy, too. They were shooting at the task force from hills on the right and from orchards on the left. After the shelling subsided a little, we moved on. Then the snipers fired again, the vehicles stopped, and the men scrambled out with rifles and tommy guns, looking around for the attackers. Then we moved on, and stopped again. And so it went.

When we got around a semicircular bend in the road the enemy began throwing shells heavier than before. "Lay down, lay down, you crazy jerks!" shouted a soldier at a couple of men who continued walking as the shells began hitting the road.

To the front of us, infantrymen were walking single file on both sides of the road, and in front of them the tanks were leading the way in. When it appeared that Captain Gifford's jeep could go no further, I excused myself and ran forward to join the infantrymen.

All along the road, from then on, it was a matter of ducking and running. I think we dove into road­side gulleys about 40 times before we reached a distillery where a road sign said we were entering the city of St. Lo.

A sniper was firing through an opening to one side of the distillery. Sgt. Thomas C. Taylor, squad leader from Tallahassee, Fla., aimed his M1 and shot at the opening. After the shot, he continued his trek through the residential part of the city.

Then a medical jeep rolled by and stopped. An officer was lying on a stretcher hoisted onto the jeep, his pants cut from his backside. After a quick glance, the men turned their heads away from the deep wounds.

A shell whistled overhead. Everybody took to the roadside, "There's a cemetery," shouted a soldier. The shell hit a monument, and as it did, little pieces of granite hit the road.

General Gerhardt was standing in the center of the crossroads. A number of infantrymen had already fanned out into the city streets, searching for Germans who might have been left behind. Somebody said there were 200 of them hiding in buildings. How many more Nazis were on the hill facing the crossroads we'll probably never know.

"Four volunteers," the colonel yelled.

Four men came forward.

"Okay, go out there and clean them out," the colonel said, pointing to a street from which a machinegun was firing.

"Four more volunteers," yelled the colonel. The men were busy elsewhere and didn't hear him. "I said I want four volunteers," the colonel shouted louder. Then, as the men remained busy, he told a sergeant to find him four volunteers.

For a while the scene seemed like one in a basic-training barracks. "All right," the sergeant walking around yelled. "Four men. All right now. Step on the double." Four men dashed over.

At 1810 one of the volunteers came in with a prisoner. Then another volunteer came in with two more prisoners.

Just at that time it seemed as though the whole German artillery had broken loose. Shells began falling around the crossroads.

"Those prisoners brought them on," a private said. "It's those goddam prisoners. They spotted them walking down here."

While shells were falling and everyone else was taking cover, the general was calmly walking around with his stick. One shell broke through the side of a building across the street from us. Then another sailed through the same spot in the wall.

"Daily double," a captain yelled.

A soldier ran over to the colonel.

"They've got an observation tower on the hill, sir," the soldier said. The colonel looked up at the hill through binoculars.

A tank pulled up to the crossroads. "Come out here," the general yelled at the tank commander.

The tank commander didn't hear. "Get that damn helmet off so you can hear me," the general shouted, at the same time banging on the tank with his stick. The commander came out.

After a few words with the general and the colonel, the tank commander took the tank onto a road leading into the heart of the city.

Wounded men were sitting or lying down with their backs to a brick building. "Bring me some water, please," one of the wounded men asked.

A captain brought some water and, while the man was drinking more shells came in, all hitting within 50 feet from where the leading men of the task force stood. Some came much closer, too close.

A shell hit a building 20 feet from us, and as it did, debris crumbling from the wall fell on some men. Inside the building, still hanging on one of the remaining three walls, was a lone picture of Jesus Christ.

Another tank commander collared the colonel.

"I can get that observation tower," the commander said.

"Well, go ahead. What are you waiting for?" the colonel asked.

"Permission, sir."

"You've got it. Go ahead. Go ahead."

The tank began moving from the crossroads toward the hill. Just then, a herd of cows slowly moved across the road. A shell hit behind the last cow. She turned her head to look and then slowly turned her head back again and continued to follow the herd.

“Stupid animal. Most stupid animal in the world except an ox," a lieutenant said.

After the cows moved out, the tank rolled over and stopped when it reached a position where it could get a "bee" on the observation tower. Then it began to lob out shells.

An ambulance moved up and I thought it had come to pick up the wounded. Later I discovered in the ambulance the body of a major, a regimental executive officer who had been killed by a shell a day or two earlier. The men said he had been determined to get St. Lo, and when he died they vowed to take his body there. They covered his body, with a flag and placed him on the altar of a nearby church. The day after we moved into the city men were still passing by, placing flowers on the flag-draped body.

At about 1900 hours, the colonel got out the division flag. S/Sgt. Gerald F. Davis, of Bellefontaine, O., gave T/5 Francis L. Beins, Jr. of Tulsa, Okla., a boost up alongside the wall of a build­ing. Beins took the flag from the colonel and stuck its pole in a chink in the wall. When the flag hung out, the soldiers smiled. One sergeant said: "Isn't it pretty? Brother, isn't that a pretty sight?”

Ten minutes later the colonel walked over to a soldier with a walkie-talkie. "Can you get
division?" he asked.

"I think so, sir," said the soldier.

“Okay, tell them St. Lo was taken at five-thirty."

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