©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
A Painful TaskOne of the worst assignments I ever had the misfortune of attending to was one time after a fierce fight, myself and some other guys of "G" Company had to go out to the battlefield and collect the dog tags (identification tags that soldiers wore around their necks on
a piece of cord or necklace) and give them to the CO. This collections of tags was then sent to the nearest medical station so that the next of kin could be notified of their death in combat. It was the saddest and most traumatic thing I had to do. Some of the soldiers were so badly shot up and at times, it became quite a gruesome and horrible thing to remove the tags from a badly torn up object that was once a human being. It just made me sick to the core to keep at it. Someone had to do this sad and thankless job. I had strong mixed feelings
that kept my eyes in tears. Even fellows I didn't even know was bad enough but coming across a soldier that you knew or one in your company -- that had to be the crowning misery doing this dirty job. I could not continue and I had to drop out with overwhelming grief.
Can the reader of this particular event comprehend the awful feeling
one has in performing
this obscene assignment? There are no proper words to describe it. This description is the best I can do. If you can visualize in your mind's eye, I'm sure you can get a general impression. This awful duty still comes back many times since to haunt me harshly. Life in battle becomes such an expendable and cheap object, it doesn't matter how few or how many that die on the field of battle to what purpose, even when it is necessary.
We came along this dirt road with high hedges on both sides
interspersed with tall
trees. Ditches ran along the sides of the road littered with all type
of debris -- newspapers,
broken rifles, ammo clips and occasional cadavers, mostly German
soldiers and some
civilians. Most of them were in a state of decay. Mixed with the June
heat and dirt was the
smell of rotting flesh. Outside of that, the daylight shone and there was a bright blue sky, and even some birds were singing. The whole scene was macabre or unreal. Something out of the surrealistic paintings of Salvador Dali or some other painters.
As we approached a
bend in the road (we were marching double file), after turning the
bend, we came to a scene
that was macabre to say the least. The road on both sides was littered
with wreckage of all
kinds, smashed up German trucks, light vehicles of all descriptions,
trailers, horses and
wagons, the usual dead bodies which seemed like hundreds as we moved
along. Many of the
vehicles were still smoking. Some were still on fire and smoldering and a thick smoky pall hovered on the road and in he ditches. A pungent and sweet smell. Soldiers in gray green uniforms or fieldgrau were sprawled out along the way hanging out of tank turrets. A bunch of bodies in an eight-wheeled tracked personnel carrier were dismembered in all kinds of positions. It looked like the convoy had been surprised by a lot of fighter bombers, P47s and Typhoons. Some Germans sat upright, black in color and unidentifiable as human beings, some having been turned into human torches only hours before.
were a lot of tanks, a
large number of PZKW IVs and Tiger 5s or 6s and some giant Royal
Tigers. These fighter
bombers must have attacked this convoy some hours before we got there
for we had seen
formations of aircraft, P47s, Typhoons, Spitfires, Beaufighters, and I
think A-20 Havocs. Being a spotter, Lt. Brotherton asked me if I could identify the
aircraft that struck. They
must have used every aircraft they had for this mess. God help the Krauts. When they
struck, they left nothing but a jumbled pile of twisted, mangled, smoking ruin. What a
junkyard and so many dead Germans. Kind of made me feel sorry for them, but as I said to Bill and others in the squad, "But damn it all, they started this whole damn war to begin with."
Added to this inferno and dreadful scene were whole units of bedraggled and sad looking Germans filing in a makeshift prisoner of war cage just off the road near a small village, guarded by combat military MPs. All day long they came, hands on top of their heads, eyes glazed from the horror of the fighter attack. They were herded in by a few grimy GIs or came in on their own holding white flags. Some of them tank troopers, some SS and ordinary Wehrmacht infantry.
As we moved along, almost every vehicle was smashed and burned, riddled with machine gun and cannon holes and ripped by rockets. Looking around, I saw two deep black kettles, one full of spaghetti and another containing two big hams. This lay amid the litter of a kitchen truck. Near the trucks were some dead bodies, maybe cooks or chefs caught while they were preparing the meal when these allied aerial visitors showed up. There were helmets, rifles, ammo, boxes and shell craters everywhere, overcoats, boots, personal things, notebooks, wallets, and cartridge belts.
While I thought of it, I picked up one of those hams in one of the pots and stuck it grease and all into my empty gas mask pack. We would all get a good meal with that ham.
With all this mess, we
came across quite a
number of Krauts wandering aimlessly around or lying down in a complete daze and shocked. Some were badly wounded and crying in pain. This together with German curses and oaths.
It was complete carnage. Medical people were giving first aid to them. There were also some German medics. All I can say is that I'm glad it wasn't us that got clobbered.
this was going on, we had, amid this ungodly scene, halted for a rest.
You would have to see
this to believe it. Hollywood couldn't have depicted this; no one
would have believed it. As
I sat there on a blown-up truck tire, we saw a bunch of Germans from a field next to us making their way toward us, stumbling and weaving about, dazed and seemingly not knowing where they were or what hit them, some wounded and some helping others. They were coming in to surrender. Some of them had weapons. The officers had side arms which were taken from them. I was too late to get mine. I thought, Oh well, I'll have other opportunities.
We directed them down the road to the POW enclosures. They marched away docilely with
arms still upraised, moving like stunned robots. There were still some of the enemy resisting. We could hear concentrations of fire off and on, but this finally subsided to a few random shots. So went the day. It's going to be a long war. I figured we still had a long way to go in France before we got to Germany unless they surrendered first, which was unlikely.
While walking along, I said, "Well, another day and we survived."
"Yeah," Bill replied. "From one day to the next if we're lucky."
"You got a girl back home?" I asked Bill.
He said, "Yeah, but she probably gave up on ever seeing me again. She's probably going around with a 4F guy or a damned draft dodger."
I said, "Or maybe a dirty 80 year old man -- hell, no danger there, Bill."
He said "You never know about those old bastards. How about you? You got a gal friend?"
"Not now," I said. "I got a Dear John letter from her back in England before the big invasion. Besides, there's a lot of fish in the ocean. Maybe I'll grab me one of the French ooh-la-la broads when I have the time and settle down in Paris or New York City."