Saturday, August 1, 2009
Taking La Haye du Puits - part 2
The People in the Town
By Sgt. SAUL LEVITT YANK Staff Correspondent
La Haye du Puits—Americans are pushing south, and where the Germans have made a stand there are ghost towns. The men call it “cowboy and Indian fighting,” and one young captain calls it a “chicken shit” war, not because it is a small war but because it has been scattered dueling of riflemen and small arms backed up on both sides by artillery lobbing. It takes place in the rolling wooded hill country of the Cherbourg peninsula, along the hedgerows and the back country roads. And even after the direct front fighting moves on, the snipers and the mines remain, and their presence stays oppressively in the atmosphere like poison gas.
In one of the corridors of that southward push through northern France is La Haye du Puits. The fluid line of the “cowboy and Indian war” is now a few miles past this town. But the German guns occasionally lob shells in, and one or two of their planes like to drop over at night to strafe and scatter a few bombs. There are lots of store-front signs and house number plates, but there are no stores and no houses behind all this printing. The groceries, drugs, hardware and draperies announced by the signs are no longer true. La Haye du Puits is a bad check; you simply can't cash in on this town.
Today is sunny as you drive through, going south toward the firing. For the military, however, the sun simply means lots of dust on the roads and better observation for the artillery. A civilian photographer pushes through the rubble of a store and finds an old postcard of the town—the kind of postcard you used to send home from a vacation place with the note, "Wish you were here." It was a pretty little place once, and the photographer thinks that the old postcard will provide quite a contrast to the shot of the town he is going to take now.
The shells of opposing armies are atheists; they have gotten the church here, too. However, the shells have discriminated in favor of the pissoir which is still standing in the center of the mountains of rubble and crumbled walls.
Overhead fly the slow-droning, slow-travelling artillery observation planes. Anti-aircraft stuff suddenly goes off sharply and it seems to be right under you. Military traffic pours on and weaving through it are the homecoming French. They keep cominginto La Haye du Puits with that special deep tenacitywhich brings people back home again everywhere. They must say to themselves that in this bingo game of war it is possible that my house is still standing while yours is gone. And after that illusion is broken, then the MPs, together with the Civil Affairs people, midwife the homeless through “channels” into habitations and food.
GI American high school French assaults the native ear everywhere. A big party of people is being moved off to what was once a German Army barracks. They are mostly women and children and a few old men. One of the women assaults a T/5 with a barrage of questions and he comes back very slowly so that you can almost see him figuring out the future tense of the verb aller. It seems that the woman's husband is working all day and how will he know where to find her in the evening? It has beenarranged, explains the T/5, hitching his rifle uneasily along his shoulder. Then one of the old men asks something about the American operations in this vicinity. Apparently, he wants us to make sure our arms will avoid some spot he regards as especially important. The T/5 explains to monsieur old man that in this matter the monsieur will have to speak to the General. “They think every soldier they see runs the show,” says the T/5 cheerfully.
Down through the center of this ghost town strolls an MP captain, a highly-intelligent, good-looking young officer from Atlanta named Louis Sohn, Jr., whose eye hasn't missed much in La Haye du Puits. He says: " The French keep coming back here. While the fighting was on, they went off to the countryside. Now they're coming back. This morning there was a whole convoy of them along the side of the road, with kids, donkeys, old women, horses, wagons and wheel-barrows. The thing that got you was this one woman of 35 or so—a little woman—who was acting company commander of the whole deal. Whenever it broke down, or a kid cried, she was there. She urged them and wheeled them and yelled at them… Then there was an old man of 61 who insisted on being taken to his old home in town. Hell, we knew there was nothing left of it, except a couple of walls. When we took him there he just broke down and cried."
The captain said: “Don't get the idea that we're sentimental, but that old man bothered you. Anybody knows that an old man needs a house and a bed more than other people need them—that's all he needs. And then to top it off, this tough, nice little lady who had convoyed them all home, made a little speech to me, thanking the Americans for having liberated her town. It was an act and yet it really wasn't an act if you can see what I mean. All the people cheered when she made the speech. And she knew and I knew that there wasn't much of a town left, but she was thanking the Americans—and she meant it, too.”
“The Germans sent over a plane last night that did some strafing and dropped some bombs. It didn't kill anybody, but it's goddam aggravating,” the captain said, and he strolled down through the rubble and the dust of his domain, which is the ghost town of La Haye du Puits.
Moving Beyond the Town
South of La Haye Du Puits: When you leave behind the confused, strange web of soldiers, French civilians, bulldozers and rubble of the town, everything becomes simpler. Everything simplifies into the word War, which speaks in the single language of the guns. We move slowly southward now because the action here is a matter of yards of ground. The muddy road is shadowed by big trees and high hedges. The jeep gets into deep ruts and fights out again. Along the ditches you pass the yellow-green wax figures of the German dead awaiting burial. We go through a path into a small clearing. This is the unit CP with the foxholes, slit trenches and the more ambitious dugouts for switchboard and commander. On the edge of the clearing is the medical unit with ambulance, doctors and medics. A matter of hundreds of yards away, perhaps less, are snipers in the surrounding woods. An infantryman is brought in, shot through the leg by a sniper. The face of the infantry hereabouts is watchful, unemotional, flat and tired, but the mention of snipers always brings a quick cursing tide of anger.
In the middle of the clearing a demolition team of two men, Pfc. Stanley Morgan, of Poughkeepsie, New York, and Pvt. Thomas Bourke, of Baltimore, listen to a captain explain a couple of jobs to them. First, they are to probe for an unexploded 88 shell in the clearing which fell here last night. Then, they are to go forward to the ammunition dump.
Young Morgan is a boy with a fine, thin face. He is fully under control and completely aware of the danger. Bourke, the other half of the team is not quite as articulate, and he lets Morgan take the lead both in operations and in conversation. When the captain is through explaining the jobs to them, Morgan says without the slightest trace of self-pity, " I've got one of the unluckiest jobs in the Army.'' He gets over to the white taped square on the ground inside and under which is the unexploded shell. He moves toward it in a slow, unhurried stride like a man whose daily job it is to test an electric chair. When he gets over to the white-taped square he gets down on his knees and then stretches out until he's flat on his stomach and then he probes with his fingers for the shell. The dirt comes up in small puffs. Then he and Bourke look down for a moment, straighten up, and Morgan announces sardonically to no one in particular: "OK, gentlemen, it's a dud."
As the demolition team moves out of the clearing, Morgan turns his head and says very gravely to me: “Keep your noggin down.”
Two men are brought into the clearing on stretchers. They have been tagged for wounds and identification. They lie in the grass under the hedgerow, covered with blankets—wounded, alive, and quiet. One of them is ours, and the other is a young German of 18, who, before he closes his eyes to rest, announces: “My father is a prisoner of war, too.”
The doctor is Captain Abraham Jacob, of Brooklyn, New York, a husky, stocky, calm young man. The German, bandaged and in good shape, but moaning, lies on his stretcher, face turned to the side. He has a pair of big hands that clutch the grass. A soldier standing nearby says: “He ain't hurt that bad, but he's moaning like that because he thinks maybe we're going to kill him." A photographer bends over to take a picture. The German boy stiffens. “Probably thinks he's going to be shot,” says the nearby soldier. “One of them Hitler Youth babies—nasty stuff.”
Now the captain's fingers work up and down the back of the American very gently, and he says: "You'll-be all right, you're not hurt very bad at all." The soldier groans a little but the doctor is not too interested, for the mercy of Army medicine gives priority to the seriousness, not the pain of wounds. The American had been picked up on the road only a little while ago; he had been captured two days before by the Germans after being hit by shrapnel, and their doctors had taken care of him and then, when retreating, had left him lying on the road, so that he might be clearly seen by our advancing troops and picked up. This morning our men had picked up the wounded German—a Panzer SS Grenadier.
A medic came over and held the German's pulse and said: "He's OK." The soldiers around the clearing stared at everything uncritically and without any special emotion, except a flat, constant watchfulness. A stray bullet, perhaps a sniper bullet out of the nearby woods, whined by and everybody nose-dived to the ground. Again there was the cold whiff of anger across all faces. Then the medics got busy again; the K-ration boxes were opened. The slow observation planes were sailing across the sky. And wire chief S/Sgt. Miles D. Wright, a big, slow-talking soldier, from Syracuse, said: " We'll be packing up and moving some time today."
The unit was moving up. Along that strange cowboy and Indian front the push goes on, and the Army along this corridor of Northern France lifts its massive body of men and materiel, and moves on. Tomorrow this will be a quiet empty clearing, a small historic place through which American soldiers in France passed.