©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
Bill Saves My Life
Late in June or the beginning of July we received a number of replacements right out of the States, "band new cannon fodder." Most of them as the expression goes "full of piss and vinegar" or a more polite form, "gung ho," "Sgt Alvin York," etc. Boy, would they get a damned rude awakening.
They were sorted out to the various companies and we got a few. Some knew it all, but a lot were deathly scared and were willing to listen to the "Old Timers" like me and Bill anyway. After a couple of days, the Heinies decided to introduce our "Greenhorns" to the art of war with one hell of an artillery barrage which lasted like forever. A few shells hurtled over us with God awful shrieks and it still scared the hell out of us vets. This was a royal welcome to the war and the shells screamed over four of these replacements. They immediately hit the ground, covering their heads with their hands and crying something awful. I was standing near them and said, "What the hell are you guys ducking for? These ones you heard are harmless. They've already passed by."
They looked at me in disbelief and as a mad man. "It's the ones you don't hear you should worry about. Those are the ones that will get us."
"How do you know all this?" they asked.
"We've been up here so damned long, we're used to these cannon balls being thrown at us. They sound like they're falling on you, but they've passed by."
I don't think they were convinced. Well, experience is a better teacher. One night there was a God awful rainstorm with lots of lighting and thunder. The sound of thunder and lightning was very similar to an artillery barrage and almost as loud. It had us all ducking from fear it was an actual shelling. That's how alike they were. Today, though the war is so distant, it still makes me jump and shake something awful, the same terrible symptoms with great relief when I realize it is just a thunder storm. But boy, it sounds real. If you had ever been under an actual artillery barrage, you'd know what I mean. These celestial occurrences still get my attention and fright. My old pal, Bill, God love him, we had some good and bad times together and shared all kinds of danger. We also had a lot of laughter from Ft. Dix, New Jersey, to Normandy's battle grounds. I can't say enough for him – a damned good partner. He personally saved my life two or three times that I can remember. Thanks to him, I'm around and alive.
The first time – I recollect clearly, we were going through this deserted small Norman town. The name doesn't matter. We were walking along in single file adjacent to some group of houses. Bill and I were the last two in the square. We were at about five or six foot intervals. We had learned earlier not to bunch up. You can understand why. When you are bunched up, you can get more men killed or wounded. As I said, I was in front of Bill. I remember passing by a door to a house. Unknown to me, an enemy sniper leaned out with his rifle intent on putting me out of commission. Bill, being behind me, saw him and yelled at me, "Watch out!" At the same time he shot the German, hitting him in the back and he fell out the door onto the sidewalk. This happened so fast, it took me completely by surprise. When the shot rang out, by instinct, I dropped to the ground. As the German soldier fell, I looked up at Bill and asked in fright, "What the hell happened?"
"The bastard almost killed you."
"Damn, you saved my life. Thank God you saw him in time. I don't know how to repay you for your quick thinking."
"I'll just charge you a week's pay." Bill laughed as he helped me up. We caught up with the rest. This taught me a lesson – to be more alert. Seeing that German meant there were a lot of snipers around. You have to be on your toes against things like this. One error could be your last in situations like this. You had to be on guard. There were a lot of things besides snipers. There were mines, boobytraps, walking into ambushes, sudden mortar attacks, etc. So there were a lot of things that could kill or maim you and I forgot, being taken prisoner.
We were making our way along when I heard something from this house. Cautiously, I stood next to the door, kicked it open with my rifle and to my amazement, saw two little French kids – a little boy and girl about four or five years old huddled behind a table in what looked like the kitchen. They were frightened at seeing me and started to cry. They thought I was going to harm them. I stepped in and spoke to them in French and told them not to be afraid. I was an American soldier. I saw then that they were no longer afraid. Their eyes lit up when I spoke to them in French and they came to me. I gave them some candy and gum and right away, I became their friend. They told me their parents were taken away by the Germans some time ago. There had been a big fight and the Germans left the town taking the parents with them. They couldn't tell me why and then they started to cry. After I spoke to them again, they stopped crying. I then had the problem of trying to find someone in our troops to take care of them. Luckily, I saw one our ambulances nearby and spoke to the medics and asked if they could take care of the children. They said they'd take them to a medical detachment to the rear. I thanked them. I gave the kids the rest of my candy bars and gum. That seemed to cheer them up. I must have made a big hit with them. They wanted to go with me. I told them I had to go to fight in the war against those big bad Boche (Germans) and they could not go with me. I then walked away. I looked back and they were waving to me. It kind of choked me up. I caught up with the squad and Bill said, "What the hell happened to you?" I told him of my finding these two little French kids in one of those houses. Bill said, "You're lucky there wasn't a sniper in the house."
"Yeah, well, I took a chance and everything came out okay. That was my Boy Scout good deed for the day."
Bill said, "For that we'll give you a merit badge."
I said, "See that, Bill. I'm not that bad a guy. I even like kids."
During a battle in this same engagement, we were fired upon by some Germans holed up in these houses who were trying to hold our advance. The day was very clear and warm. Bill, myself and two companions had the honor of searching them out. We were not elated to carry out this mission. There is nothing pleasant in the least in house cleaning. It is deadly work. Casualties can be high. We headed toward two of the buildings. We finally reached the houses and were fired upon by the defenders. A battle of this sort can be at the point of a bayonet and hand to hand which I was deathly afraid of. Of course, the Germans could always toss in the towel and surrender, which would be okay by me. We went through this type of deadly work before and always knew what it entailed. Sometimes being careful and cautious wasn't enough. This was largely a game of chance. If we suspected someone inside, we usually threw a grenade in first, that being the safest way to make sure. Then we'd go in and if there was an enemy, it would be us who shot first unless the grenade had gotten him or them. If the place was empty, consider yourself lucky and if the grenade did it's job. Bill and I tossed a grenade or two into the house, waited a few seconds and jumped in, rifles ready. We went quickly into one of the rooms. The place was clean. We went out the back door into the yard and then ran to the next house, keeping low. We heard sounds indicating there were occupants in this one. I looked into the corner of the window. I dropped my head and indicated to Bill with my hand showing two fingers, two Krauts with machine guns were at the left corner window. We quickly moved to the back door. Lucky for us, the back door was open. The two victims did not see us. We jumped in firing our rifles with several rounds. They turned toward us as we fired. They never had a chance. They died almost at once. We did not take souvenirs as they had Luger pistols on their belts. We did destroy the machine guns so it would be useless and left at a trot down the street. I thought later I should have taken those pistols. Oh well, there'd be other times.