Monday, August 3, 2009
GUN NO. 3
GUN NO. 3
By Sgt. BILL DAVIDSON,
YANK Staff Correspondent
Normandy—Gun Number Three of D Battery was a slim, graceful piece of 90-mm. rapid-firing anti-aircraft mechanism, with an electrical brain so keen and exacting that the men of her crew respectfully called her "Ike," after the Supreme Commander. She was a queen among artillery weapons and looked it. Her 90-mm. shells fired at planes in the air and against tanks, pillboxes or gun emplacements on the ground with crushing authority. Yet there was something delicate and feminine about her, unlike the sturdy sweating, muddy 105 and 155-mm. workhorses at the front.
There was genuine affection between Ike and her crew. They had been together for a long time. Up here, just behind the front, the men never left her night or day, and during their waking hours, spent most of their time ministering to Ike with ramrod, bore brush and some high octane gasoline they had managed to swipe somewhere. Ike, on her part, returned small favors to the men, such as supplying, 110 volts of electricity for the radio so that it could be heard during the long, lonely hours of the night.
Ike and her crew came ashore on D plus 3, so they missed out on the 24 hours of genuine glory which came to the ack-ack men on D-Day down on the bloody First Division beach. But they all took justifiable pride in it just the same. On D-Day, two battalions of light ack-ack (40-mm. Bofors guns and.50-calibre single and multiple machine guns) came right in with the infantry. They set up on the beach to fend off the Luftwaffe. But no Luftwaffe came that day. Instead, German 20-mm. guns in pillboxes on the high ground just behind the beach played havoc with our landing craft, whipping shells into the boats the moment the ramps were lowered. So the 40-mm. ack-ack depressed to zero and went to work on the pillboxes like field artillery. Half of each of the light ack-ack battalions was wiped out, but after a long duel, the pillboxes were wiped out, too. Fewer doughboys died after that, working their way in to the beach.
The enemy's heavier artillery and tank guns further back were still causing considerable damage, however. By that time, two battalions of 90-mm. ack-ack were ashore—slim, delicate, expensive guns like Ike. It was the same as using a fine scalpel to open a can of sardines, but the 90s, too, fired over open sights, engaging their opposite numbers, the German 88s, for the first time in the west. It was a bitter skirmish, but our ack-ack won finally. General Bradley later credited the 90s with breaking up three enemy tank attacks. For many precious hours, the ack-ack was the only artillery we had on the beach. All this time a Brigadier General, commander of the ack-ack brigade, was nothing less than heroic on the beach. His tall, broad-shouldered, white-thatched figure went storming about among the shell-bursts, personally commanding the batteries and urging the infantry forward from the shelf of the beach. Once, he even wandered out up to his armpits in the water--disregarding the mines and obstacles--to jockey in three landing craft loaded with self-propelled guns.
Ike and her crew had no part in all this, but their life hadn't been exactly unexciting since they dug into their picturesque French cow-pasture to protect a vital air strip on their left and a division or two of infantry on their right. The men fought snipers along the hedgerows with carbines and hand grenades. They captured a prisoner. They were strafed and bombed by a Stuka that managed to sneak in over the tops of the apple trees. And Ike fired several hundred rounds at the enemy—60 in a single night—sharing in the destruction of an unknown number of enemy planes, and claiming four for her own.
They went to sleep in the morning when everyone else was getting up; that is, after D plus 9, prior to which they didn't sleep much at all. On D plus 6, they and the other 90s burned Jerry so badly that he didn't come back in strength again. Their working day began at sunset, when the patrolling fighters came home to rest under their protective canopy.
The sunset of this particular working day for Ike and her crew was a beautiful one.
The sun went down, red and orange, behind the poplars of the hedgerow that sheltered Battery S-2 and S-3 dugout and the deep slit trench of the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Pat Guinjpy, who once was a better-than-fair basketball forward and Plebe coach at West Point.
Ike's crew carefully removed the camouflage netting and lifted her nose to the sky. The same thing happened to the other 90s and auxiliary light guns of the battery, and in a matter of minutes, the peaceful French pasture was converted into a labyrinth of trenches and dugouts, literally bristling with weapons. A herd of white-faced cattle passed through the field on their way to bed down for the night, and right next to Ike, a handsome, gray, ex-artillery horse left behind by the Germans, kept on grazing.
It grew dark slowly. In the half-light of dusk, the battery's gun mechanic, Sgt. James Sporter, of Georgetown, Louisiana, came over to take one last look at Ike, He carefully inspected her breech mechanism and daubed about with a screwdriver. Then he patted Ike affectionately on the rump.
Ike's gun commander, Sgt. Lewis Siegel, of Brooklyn, came over anxiously. “Anything wrong?" he asked.
"Nope," said Sporter. He grinned and walked away.
But Siegel wasn't convinced. He called for a test. Ike swung round and focused on a Mustang casually passing at 300 miles an hour and at 6,000 feet. Siegel opened the breech and, crouching down, looked straight up the barrel. The Mustang was caught perfectly in a set of cross hairs placed across the muzzle of the gun. The Mustang stayed there.
"Okay," said Siegel. He closed the breech.
It was dark now. Ike's crew lay stretched out in their slit trenches around the gun. They were listening to their radio. Two members of the crew, Pvt. Loren Christman, of Fresno, California, and Pfc. Lawrence Jappe, of Big Sandy, Montana, were on guard on the gun platform, which was partially underground and ringed solidly with sandbags. Both Christman and Jappe had been ranch hands before the war, and they stood there leaning on the sandbags, professionally studying the sturdy French cattle.
“I wouldn't like to handle them babies at branding time," said Jappe.
"Yep," said Christman, and his attention shifted to the far end of the field. He was looking at the scraggly green apples on the trees, and thinking of the Sacramento Valley at this time of the year.
The BBC had closed down for the night, so the rest of the crew was listening to Dirty Gertie on the German's Radio Calais. "You are dying in Normandy by the thousands," said Dirty Gertie, “so that the Jews back home can dominate Europe."
“Turn that crap off," said Pfc. Lewis Gappae, who used to be a street car motorman in Denver.
‘Leave her alone,'' said Siegel.
“She’s only good for five minutes, and then they play music again. ” Siegel was a quiet, authoritative little guy in his middle thirties, who had kicked around from one job to another in New York. He had a thin moustache, and for a good number of years he had driven a taxi around Flatbush Avenue.
He rolled over and carefully removed a hard lump of earth which had wedged itself between his back and the floor of his slit trench. He looked up at the sky. “Good night for Jerry” he said. Scattered clouds were rolling in over the horizon. There was no moon. Just then, on the horizon, beautiful red
tracers arched up from a .50--caliber machine gun. Immediately, the sky was filled with thousands of red tracers and the slower, more deliberate 40--mm. flashes. It was ten times more impressive than any Fourth of July celebration. There was a solid dome of moving red lines all over the sky. “Trigger-happy bastards,” said Siegel. “One of them thinks he sees something and starts firing, and all the rest open up.” He yawned and turned over on his side. In a few minutes the firing subsided.
The night wore on. In a computing van, rolled into a dugout scooped out for them by the engineers, C/4 Albeit Duschka, of Tecumseh, Nebraska, and Pfc. Reuben Shlafmitz, of New York City, sat at the controls. Over in a corner, under another light, their relief, Cpl. John Werner, of Madison, Wisconsin, was reading a pocket edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace.
The battery CP was dark and quiet, but over in the sealed air-conditioned computing van, Col. Guiney was writing a letter to his wife, and Lt. James Spencer, of Weathersfield, Conn., and S/Sgt. Fred Pluhar, of Glasgow, Montana, were dosing. After a while, Pluhar went out and came back with a pot of boiling water he had heated on the exhaust of the generator. We all had coffee, with cheese and jam spread on K-ration biscuits. Then the colonel went out to look over the gun crews.
On Gun Number Three, Pfc. George Andrews, of Paso Robles, California, was on guard, with Pfc. Howard Louie, a young Chinese high school boy, from San Francisco. They were arguing quietly about a poker game they had had the day before. Louie was by far the best poker player in the crew.
“If this keeps up,” complained Andrews in the darkness of the gun pit, “you'll be owning half the chop suey joints in San Francisco.”
Over in the slit trenches, the Jerry radio station had gone off the air, and Pfc. Pete Radonich, of Anaconda, Montana, and Pfc. J. W. Nolan Smith, of Stockton, California, were discussing the relative shortstop merits of Joe Holey and Leo Durocher. Finally, they called on Cpl. Jerry Gardner for a decision. Powerful, 22-year-old Gardner had played catcher for the Sacramento Senators in the Pacific Coast League, and was on his way up to the Saint Louis Cardinals before the Army grabbed him. “I don't know," said Gardner. He adjusted his gas mask under his head and went back to sleep.
Suddenly, an electric spark leaped through the outfit.
"On target,” said Duschka.
“On target,'' repeated Shlafmitz.
The message went by telephone to the CP and all parts of the battery. Schlafmitz worked furiously.
"Lock," said Schlafmitz.
"Lock," said Duschka.
Thousands of volts of electricity passed through hundreds of amplifiers in the computing van, automatically calculating ponderous mathematical equations. On top of the computer cabinet rested a photograph of Lt. Spencer's wife. Into the computer went the pertinent information—the height, distance and direction of the enemy plane. Out of the computer came all the corrections—wind velocity, the speed of the plane, height, weather, even the distance of the battery's guns from the computing van. In this way, the fuse length and the amount of lead necessary for the guns to take on the target was calculated to the fraction of an inch. That is, if the target came within range.
The target came within range.
The telephone rang at Gun Number Three. Siegel answered it. "Action stations," said the voice on the other end of the line. The voice belonged to Capt. John De Master, the battery commander, speaking from the CP.
"Action stations!" yelled Siegel, and the men scrambled out of their slit trenches. In ten seconds, they were over next to Ike, looking up at the sky.
Siegel hung on to the telephone. “Stand by," said the voice.
"Stand by," said Siegel.
Cpl. Billy Noble, the gunner, of Somerton, Arizona, nervously fingered Ike's trigger. Gardner, the ammunition corporal, frantically checked the ammunition, even though he knew the position of every shell by heart.
“Target," said the voice on-the phone.
"Target," said Siegel.
Noble flicked a switch, and Ike swung into remote control, automatically leading the enemy plane.
"Right between the eyes now, baby," said Siegel to Ike.
The voice on the phone spoke again, “Five rounds," it said.
“Five rounds," said Siegel.
“Load," said the voice.
"Load," said Siegel.
A heavy shell whipped out from under the sandbags and passed from Gardner to Radonich to Louie to Smith to Jappe to Gappae to Andrews to Ike. Andrews, the loader, slapped the shell into the fusecutter and then into the breech.
"Fire,” said the voice on the phone.
"Fire," said Siegel.
Andrews pulled the trigger, and a tremendous wave of blast stopped our ears and sent us reeling back against the sandbags. Five times the pit became bathed in orange light as if a huge neon sign were being turned on and off. Each time, Ike kicked back furiously, like Henry Armstrong bouncing off the ropes in a rally. A cluster of tiny orange specks popped suddenly in one section of the sky.
"Cease fire," said Siegel.
The men sprang erect and stared at the sky.
All the specks disappeared except one. That remained and suddenly grew larger. Then there was a big golden-orange flash. The flash disintegrated into a series of individual fires which drifted slowly to the earth like so many tired comets. Everyone watched the fires without saying a word. The fires hit the ground miles away. The men chattered all at once, and lit up cigarettes.
"You got yourself a flamer, baby," Siegel said to Ike.
“A flamer,” explained Gardner, “is a bomber that gets hit while it's still carrying its bombs.”
We noticed for the first time that dawn was beginning to break in the east.
It grew light slowly, and the eastern horizon became pink-hued. The men relaxed, but stayed close to the gun. Off in the next field, a fighter plane began to warm up. The men stretched and yawned.
"Now we get ready to go to bed, baby,'' Siegel said to Ike. He assigned Louie and Jappe the job of giving Ike her daily cleaning. The other men wandered back to their slit trenches, They crawled in and pulled their blankets over their heads to shut out the light.
Then the sun came up, and Ike sank back from her position of attention to rest.