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Remembrance of Combat in Normandy

Guy Charland

2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford

Chapter 20

Unsung Heroes

    One of the things that I saw early in the Normandy campaign which left a deep impression was a specific atrocity of four men of the 82nd Airborne lying next to each other face down. Their hands were tied behind them and their heads blown off by rifle fire a deliberate murder committed by unfeeling, merciless criminals. I would address them as soldiers. They were not animals. I wouldn't insult them. These bastards were subhuman. This scene burned in my mind, and I vowed then and there I would kill all of the bastards I could and if that is not the Christian way, then so be it. When I saw this, it tore me apart and I cried like hell. I didn't know these guys. It made no difference to me. It was a foul lowdown criminal act.

    I know that in the heat of combat, bad things occur, but this atrocity was not done in the heat of combat, it was thought out deliberately and premeditated. The Krauts did a lot of this kind of thing in their run through Europe. Bill and I saw a lot of atrocities of this nature committed by the enemy to terrorize the people in spreading this "Kulture." The German Army conducted the same kind of terror warfare as in World War I. Apparently, it was a matter of national policy to wage unrestricted warfare.

    We found that many German soldiers would booby trap their dead soldiers and in other cases, even their wounded. I never heard of us or any of our allies doing this kind of thing. We spoke to German POWs about this method of waging war and they quickly said that they never did. It was American and allied lies, despite evidence. We were, in their eyes, the bad guys, the villains. I told them how mean we could get if we cared to, but that would be lowering ourselves to their level.

    Following is another unknowing and harrowing experience that happened to us in Normandy during a lull in the activity. My pal and I and a couple of other guys decided to go souvenir hunting. We took off across a field to a small town which was shot up, but not too badly. The village probably had a population of 200 or so. While in the village, we met a few people who were nice to us and they hoped we had driven the Boche off for good. We replied that we hoped so, but in war you never are sure of anything.

    I did most of the "parley vouz" as the others knew no French except for a few curse words and worse. We had to be on our guard for any possible surprises and keep our eyes open for anti-personnel mines and the evil booby traps which the Krauts were experts at. Even when nothing is going on, you can still end up dead.

    Well, we came to this large house about three stories high. We went in and checked everything out. Maybe the Germans were in too much of a hurry to leave and left this place alone, or so we hoped. Some of us went to the top floor looking around and the other fellows were downstairs emptying some Calvados, wine and cognac bottles they found in one of the closets and also some cheese and bread which made a big hit. At least we had found a place to get a good meal. Anything was better than those damned "C" rations. There was even enough for the guys to bring back to the platoon. I knew this would go over big. They found a small cart, loaded it up and dragged it back to the area.

    Speaking of Calvados, the national drink in Normandy is a fiery golden looking applejack. It's made from fermented apples and boy, it's good, but will raise the hair on your head and let you breathe fire. It kind of burns going down and let me say this, they really know how to make
that stuff. It's pretty expensive to buy in the States and it's only made in Calvados in
Normandy. If you have a bad cold and nasal blockage, this will really get rid of it. It was
also good for athlete's foot, really.

    Anyhow, back at the house the rest of them headed back to Jack Archer's Company,
Bill, I and another guy from Texas stayed in the house looking around on the top floor. We
were busy looking around when we heard some sounds from outside some place. I went to
the window, looked and to my horror, I spotted a Kraut tank, two in fact. They looked like
PZK 3s or 4s Panthers coming down a road into the village, together with a number of
infantrymen.

    I almost panicked but managed to keep somewhat calm. What the hell to do? I
called Bill and Jack over to take a look. It was too late to run down all those stairs and not
be spotted leaving the house, so we decided to stay where we were. We had no choice.
We'd have a fight on our hands if they came upstairs. We weren't going to start this one
unless forced to, so we remained quiet, and I mean quiet. I was hoping and praying they
wouldn't come to this house. I could hear my heart beat. I thought, "What a revolting
dilemma we have gotten ourselves into."

    "Souvenir hunting, eh? You and your bright ideas," said Bill.

    I couldn't think of anything to say to change the situation so I said, "Well, things
could be worse," with a sick grin.

    We peeked out the two windows. The infantrymen were heading to the house. "Oh, great," I thought. We held on and stayed quiet. As we sat and waited, we heard the first of the Germans enter the house. They were laughing and talking, completely ignorant of the occupants on the top floor. From my count, I figured there were about five of them.

    The only thing in our favor was the element of surprise if they came upstairs. Bill said nervously, "Don't forget the two damned tanks out there. We have them to contend with if the fighting starts. Well, we've got the pineapples (grenades) if these jokers try to come up here. We can get them with these and worry about the tanks later."

    Jack said, "What about the other Germans outside?"

    I had forgotten about them. Pray to God they decided not to come up here, then nobody would get killed.

    "What will happen if they come up the stairs?"
Bill replied. "They'll meet a wall of fire with a grenade shower. Let's be alert."

    "Don't worry, I haven't been this alert since D-day."

    Time felt like it was dragging. It seemed like those Germans were going to stay forever. Damn, they were leaving at last. Now we could breathe
a little easier. We heard them go out the door.

    "They probably finished off the cognac. They
sounded like a jovial bunch," said Archer.

    We looked out the window and they set off to
where the tanks were. It's funny. Those two tanks stayed there all the time, didn't move a
bit. We could see the tank commander outside his turret. Some of the tank crew were in the
bushes probably to relieve themselves.

    I wondered what the hell was up their sleeves. It
seemed strange for them to come down here for no obvious reason and leave. Well, I'm glad
nothing drastic happened for our sake. We looked at them and for a moment the temptation
to shoot them hit us. They were all together by the tanks. We could have gotten them all,
but those tanks kind of gave us second thoughts and we decided to not do anything. We
might have been lucky, but on the other hand, enough said.

    Bill said, "If those SOB tanks weren't there, we could have got them all. Bad luck for us - good luck for them."

    A few nights later, while the company was dug in in a large orchard awaiting orders for the next move, we all were in for a good rest which was a great relief. We had been in some pretty heavy and lively fighting for some time without much of a break or letup. We had to fight for every inch of ground or hedgerow and it had been a bloody and deadly business. We gained ground, but at a price. We suffered quite a lot of casualties, especially
among the new guys. Some of these replacements never had a chance. It is a cruel thing for
me to say, but better them than us old timers and I don't mean agewise, more battle wise. It
hurt me more when one of us vets got hit than the new fellows. We older guys in the
company were a close-knit bunch. Maybe that's why we survived taking all things in. Some
of those poor young replacements had only two or three weeks' training. That is not enough
time to get seasoned or qualified soldiers. I felt real sorry for those kids. At least I had a
couple of years' training under my belt. It did some good. I thought I had a better chance of
staying alive.

    Well, as I said we were parked in this orchard when the lieutenant came to us and said, "I need two men to go out on outpost guard to keep a sharp watch to see if any Kraut patrols
are trying to infiltrate our position. Who will volunteer?"

    Lt. Brotherton smiled as he said this. He looked over at me. I saw this and tried to look the other way and became busy lighting up a cig trying to avoid his gaze. He must have read my mind because suddenly he said, "Charland."

    "Sir!" I replied looking surprised and appearing not to understand him.

    "You know what I said soldier." He was still smiling, as I said, he was a hell of a nice guy.

    "Okay," I said. "I'll volunteer."

    "You're a good soldier, Charland."

    "Yeah, yeah," I said. "You
say that to all the girls" and I added, "You'll miss me when I'm gone, Sir. There's a law of
averages to this outpost business and I feel my number is coming up."

    "You'll be okay. I'm sending two guys to keep you company up on that small rise of ground with those tree clumps around. I'll let you know how good a friend I am, I'll let you choose who you want
to go with you."

    I looked over at Bill. He gave me a sick look. He knew I wanted my best pal. The other guy was this tough Polack from Pittsburgh, a coal miner, tough as nails and besides, he had a tommy gun, Hank Cieply. Hank looked at me and said, "Thanks pal.
With friends like you, who needs enemies?" but he gave a big laugh anyhow, so I said, "Here
we are, the three musketeers."

    "Remind me to hide your damn Pall Malls," Hank threw back at me.

    Bill added, "Shut up, Charland. Hanging around you is bad news," and he finished with, "You're still my best pal and you couldn't do without me anyway. You need me for protection."

    I said, "We are pals to the end and this is the end."

    "You're breaking my heart," replied Bill.

    There always comes a time to an infantryman or ground pounder when a bit of humor, or horseplay, keeps up the morale of the outfit. Yea! The Infantry. Without us guys you can can't run a war. Whoever said the infantry was the "Queen of Battles" was righter than hell.

    That hill was quite a few hundred yards from "G" Company's rest area, away from the protection of the hedgerow and wooded cow pasture. From the top of the hill, we had a pretty commanding view of the surrounding countryside. We could see pretty far all around. During daylight hours, we couldn't miss anything trying to get by us. What we had
to worry about was when darkness would settle in, so we had to keep a sharper lookout for possible German patrols in darkness. It appeared that our hearing became more acute, at least I felt it to be so. We were aware of the slightest noise or movement of an enemy. We could not smoke for fear of giving away our position. That just about killed me as much as I liked to smoke. We talked in whispers. Also, we had a pistol that we could fire in the air in the event of German patrols trying to infiltrate our lines of defense. What it would do when we fired one off was that a flare would bathe the whole area like daylight, exposing any enemy
soldiers moving in. It was a great weapon to have for this kind of operation and this would warn us of what was happening that would enable us to take proper measures.

    We were up there about an hour, and so far, nothing was happening. Everything was quiet except for occasional small arms fire in some other area, maybe the short sound of a machine pistol
(burp gun). The Germans would use the burp gun for signaling from one place to another. At times you could hear some big gun fired with a low muffled sound and flashes in the sky like lightning. All of this to let you know there was a war in progress.

    As we sat there with our ears tuned, we were all aware of some small sounds from the base of the hill. Then it stopped for a few minutes and then it happened again, then it stopped.

    "If this sound starts up again, let's fire the flare gun and see what the hell is going on down below us in that open field, or wherever it is, so we can warn the men if a Kraut unit is coming through and we can catch them with their pants down, so to speak." With the area all exposed with the light, we
could cut them down before they could do anything. There -- that sound again. We fired
the pistol and waited for a few seconds. Then it exploded. The whole field became bathed in
a green light exposing this big German patrol trying to get inside the Company position. We were all ready for them. Everybody opened fire, including us on the hill, and before the light died out, we wiped out the whole damned Kraut patrol. We didn't lose one man.

    Early in the morning we moved into the field. The place was just littered with dead Germans. We
counted about 18 or so of the enemy, a sizable bunch. Most of them had automatic weapons,
so they really planned on doing a lot of damage.

    After this fracas, the Lieutenant congratulated us on our quick thinking and alertness which could have been a disaster for "G" Company if we hadn't been wary of something and acted on it.

    I said, "Isn't the motto of the 357th "Siempre Alerta? I guess we all lived up to it."

    I told Lt. Brotherton as long as we saved "G" Company's asses, how about a commendation for our trouble? He said he'd see what he could do. Maybe he did but nothing came of it. So we were the "unsung heroes."

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