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Remembrance of Combat in Normandy

Guy Charland

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

Chapter 27

One Memorable Morning

    JULY 1944: TWO UNFORGETTABLE INCIDENTS OCCURRING TO ME IN ONE MEMORABLE MORNING:

    During our advance through hedgerow country we came to a dreadful and hellish view of a destroyed German personnel carrier. The six-wheeled vehicle on tank treads carried German Infantry into a battle area. This particular vehicle had received a near direct hit by large caliber artillery, probably a 105 mm. Needless to say, it was an awful description of death at its worst. The vehicle had apparently caught fire and the destruction was complete and horrible. Most of the infantrymen were still in their sitting position inside the vehicle but all were dead as hell and very badly burnt and unrecognizable. The ones that got thrown clear were in no better condition. I saw them and tried not to look at the tragedy. The stench was burned flesh, smelling like badly burned bacon mixed with molten metal, jellied rubber oil and gasoline fumes so you can imagine how awful the picture of this deathly vision presented to the viewer. I have seen much of these gruesome incidents and never got used to it, I always put myself as being one of the victims of this god awful carnage.

    Despite the horror I went to get a closer look. I couldn't believe how unrecognizable a human form could be turned into charred remains. I don't know why I did this but I touched one of these unfortunate soldier's arms and it just fell apart, crumbled into ash. I then threw up. German or not, what a hell of a way to leave the world; no one would be able to identify any of these unfortunate soldiers. The report would read,'' deceased but unidentified."

    As far as I could see there were about thirty infantrymen not counting the driver and assistant that unluckily perished in this inferno in the front seat. I hurriedly rushed away from this evil scene. One thing struck me odd: All the burnt bodies looked the same; with some turned lo ashes, there'd be hardly anything left to put into a grave. For a moment I had a feeling of sorrow for the bastards, I had a mental picture of someone finding me in that awful state. I thought of the different ways of death one could receive in this terrible war, bayoneted, stepping on a mine or booby trap, get blown apart by shell fire, machine gunned into chopped meat, burnt alive to a crisp, have your brains blown out by a rifle bullet, the list goes on. All the lovely ways you can meet your maker, Hollywood would never duplicate in those John Wayne, Errol Flynn war films. If Hollywood could produce movies like that, they wouldn't find any customers. But then again, they wouldn't have the usual weirdo and unfeeling gore people enjoy seeing. I've seen soldiers drool when they killed a kraut, there's all kinds and maybe I could be accused of this type of behavior, also. I'm not excluding yours truly. After a few of these bloody encounters you sometimes get acclimated to it and it has a habit to come back and haunt you. One way or another, justified or not. A perfect example follows. ... I attempted to give a wounded German soldier a drink of water from my canteen; his damned gratitude was his attempt to kill me, lurching for me with his pistol. Luckily for me, I caught the action in time and blew his brains out with one shot at point blank range. His brains, parts of his skull and blood shot out all over me. Completely drenched, it even got into my mouth. It happened so fast, even before I realized how close I came to getting killed. My alertness and reflexes saved me. I did not realize I was covered with his gore. When my awareness returned, I threw up my guts, needless to say it created a lot of trauma, which I still have flashbacks of. I do remember saying, "If you hadn't tried that you'd be alive, you damned dumb bastard!" I was really in a state of utter stress and anxiety, I felt I had slipped into a state of unreality and it took me awhile to recover. I even forgot where the hell I was. I had slipped away in a feeling of nothingness. I developed the attitude that you can't trust anybody in this son of a bitch kraut war. All of this I've recounted occurred in one lousy morning in July of '44. It was on Sunday, "Church Day."

    I was an inch away from entering the state of insanity. Each day repeats itself. Contrary to the saying death does not take a holiday. ... In war one is filled with dread and resignation. When would I receive that bullet, shell fragment, bayonet or whatever? Being scared to death daily in war is an accepted fact, you just kept moving on from one field of hedgerows to the next and to the next encounter against the damned f____g enemy. And if I was to die then please God let me take some of the f___g sons of bitches with me! And not die in vain. The damned lousy thing of all this is you most times never see your S.O.B. enemy. I remember a time we assaulted some German positions in this wooded field. They were deeply dug in and it was one hell of a battle and they resisted like the demons and all I could hear was this god awful dreadful noise, like all the devils were let loose at once. The voices and gunfire was frightful. I was by myself moving through this heavy undergrowth and bushes, bullets spattering the trees all around, it's a miracle I was not struck down and killed, I had no time to be scared, just the f___g urge to get it over with. I came across this young German trying to move away. When I came upon him by surprise he spotted me and he made an attempt to bring his rifle up to shoot. I came into him so fast I drove my bayonet right up to the hilt in his stomach. I had a hard time extricating the bayonet out of his stomach. He was down on the ground, screaming. I still could not pull my bayonet out so I fired my weapon into his body. He literally burst open and even with that he refused to die. I fired again and with the blast I pulled my bayonet out of his body. With that he lay still. I was amazed how long it took him to die; with that I ran like hell through the woods and brush, yelling. I was running along with the others and looking for Bill, I was praying he had not gotten hit. We finally spotted each other. We didn't say anything, it was no time for talking. Everyone was yelling and pushing through the German defenses, casualties were running high, and krauts were yelling "Kamarad!" and throwing up their arms in surrender. I could see other German soldiers offering resistance and shooting at us, it was one hell of a scrape. I saw one kraut drawing a bead at Bill or me, but Bill saw him first and dropped him. One less opponent as we ran through the German positions. Resistance appeared to collapse as whole groups of enemy troops threw down their weapons and cried, "Kamarad!" Even the officers came out to surrender. I breathed a sigh of relief, I was just plain bushed out. This assault seemed to last forever, I said to myself. I'm too old for this kind of crap.

    I don't know how many Germans we killed, but we captured a big bunch of them. I wondered how we had come out of this. I'm pretty sure we had a lot of our guys hit, nobody could have charged through that area of hell without getting hit, except for the lucky ones like me and Bill, and some other guys I recognized form "G" company. After driving the enemy out we fell to the ground, all out of breath. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cigs and lit up one and took a real long drag; blowing out a smoky sigh of relief I looked around at Bill. We suffered a lot of stress and great anxiety. Many of us got through unscathed. It took an awful long time to calm down from this trauma assault we all had gone through. I heard that some of the men had mental breakdowns from their ordeal, and at the same time we all had great elation in kicking the shit out of the damned krauts and kicking ol' Hitler in the balls. General George S. Patton would have been proud as hell of the 357th. Bill and I got together for a few words of worldly wisdom.

    "Well, how did you enjoy the festivities, you damned old Irish bastard?" I inquired.

    "Well, I was not going to use that kind of crude uncouth language, like one would expect from a French-Canadian reprobate from New York City!" Bill replied.

    "But it was fun while it lasted," I added. We were both lying like hell.

    "Until you showed up!" Bill said.

    Despite the joking we were both scared as hell to death and considered ourselves extremely fortunate to be still alive. "Thanks be to God," Bill often remarked with his old Irish accent. Any Irish Catholic I knew used this favorite saying. I think both of Bill's parents came from Ireland but I know he was born in Pennsylvania. I told him once, "You are more like a lower east side dead end kid from New York City."

    "Bite your tongue!" he replied.

    I grinned at him, adding, "The truth hurts, don't it, ha-ha!"

    This damned war, justified as it was ... I don't wonder the trauma I suffered severely from its devilish and deadly effects it had on my life and even after the war came to an end, the same war in my mind continued on, never giving me much chance to escape it. I'm still in inner conflict. I said to someone, "If I visit Europe and Normandy again, this time I will have to pay to come."

    He had a perfect answer to my statement, remarking, " It's true, you'll be paying in money, but you paid the first time you went ... with blood."

    I looked at him and added, "You know, I had never thought of it that way at the commerce of the government."

    A fellow soldier in my regiment said with a lot of truth, talking about hell, "After all this fighting, we've earned our hell on Earth." He wasn't far from wrong. I hear talk of the MIA's in Viet Nam which is a terrible and unfortunate thing for our brave guys. But in World War II the figure of the missing soldiers was in the thousands, tripling the amount who will never be accounted for at the U.S. Military Cemetery in Normandy overlooking Omaha Beach. As far as being wounded, I would rather die in battle than lose my sight or have my arms and legs shot away. Doomed to an existence of a useless, disfigured monstrosity. I would rather die or shoot myself. Although it would be morally wrong, I would not relish a life where I would be sneered and jeered at and made fun of the rest of my life ... no way Elway. I saw a lot of the unfortunate soldiers that being killed in battle would have been a more merciful and more honorable way. That's the way I feel about it. Bill and I talked about this at intervals and he concurred.

    Marching along the debris-ridden dirt road at wide intervals it made a difficult target to catch enemy artillery shells. All along the route were many German and American vehicles of all descriptions in various positions of destruction, some completely engulfed in flame and oily smoke together with their occupants who were caught in it and didn't escape death. Some of these soldiers were badly burnt, and unrecognizable or heaps of ashes which were once living beings. The smell of burnt flesh, burning oil and the acrid smell of mangled steel from demolished tanks and self-propelled guns invaded your senses and caused a lot of nausea. The heat of this mess was so intense in certain places. The terrible work of artillery and strafing by fighter-bombers like A-20's, A-26's, Spitfires, P-47's, Typhoons and P-38's was vividly apparent. These aircraft devastated and pulverized these German vehicles and personnel. I'm sure glad we had them with us. The Germans captured were in mortal fear of these planes; I wonder how they felt being paid back after all the times they caused carnage against us and our allies when they were winning. They sang a different tune during the fighting, there were whole German units surrendering when the flyboys hit them. I tell you we owe a lot of thanks to the U.S. Air Force and R.A.F. for the valued welcome help in ending the damned war and giving us timely assistance in combat situations. They sure helped to lower our casualties. I never had a bad word for those guys.

    Another German weapon used early during the invasion was the six-barreled mortar on a carriage called "nebelwerfers." When they fired this infernal thing it gave an unearthly wailing sound like all the freight trains in the world were hurtling through the air. The first time after the invasion we heard these things I looked at Bill and said, "What the god-damned hell was that?"

    Bill replied, "I sure as hell don't know but it's scaring daylight out of me!"

    He wasn't alone. It was a real psychological weapon which was meant to terrorize you, it was known as "moaning minnie," and it sure succeeded. The Germans used them all through the Normandy Campaign. One time we captured some of these weapons and used them on the Germans, I'm sure as hell they got a shock. The damned krauts didn't like anything better than to scare and try to terrorize us and the civilians. In that way it was a real nasty weapon. We found German soldiers using our weapons against us and vice versa. For the longest time I carried one of their weapons called a "burp" gun, a Schmeiser auto machine pistol. I really enjoyed using this weapon against them, as a sub-machine gun it was pretty good. I wish I could have gotten it home.

    The damned Germans were good at scaring the shit out of you, such as the "moaning minnie" and other devilish means of destruction. Booby traps made not so much to kill but to maim, requiring several guys to render first aid and take you to an aid station. The psychology of that is if you're dead, you don't need any care, but if you are wounded, you weaken your manpower by taking care of you, if you get the idea.

    The German soldiers were deathly afraid of the bayonet. So showing the fear encouraged us to put them on our rifles making them feel that we liked bayonet work, which was false, but we didn't tell the krauts that. My experience with German POWs was that I found them to be very gullible and would believe most anything you told them. I had a lot of fun with that! As an example, one German asked me what I did before getting into the army. I asked him, "You've heard of Al Capone, the Mafia and John Dillinger the bank robber?"

    He said, "Ya, I know of them."

    I figured this was going to be fun. I remarked, "Yeah? I knew them personally and had been accepted into the gang. We robbed banks and shot a few people for fun if they got in my way. We made a lot of money and we weren't caught!" As I told him this I had a cig hanging at the corner of my mouth and my helmet posed at cocky angle. The German and his companions just about crapped in their pants, they believed me. Anytime they spotted me they avoided me, it soon got around to the other POWs. I had the reputation as a tough American gangster from New York City and Chicago, a friend of Al Capone. After hearing this they classified me as a "verdant S.S. Soldier". Just as bad as an American gangster. Most of the POWs thought all GIs were gangsters, cowboys or Indians, real unsavory characters. After telling this I laughed so hard I got cramps. Bill and some other men came over to see why I was laughing so hard. I told Bill and the other guys what I told those Germans, they all cracked up. One guy grinned as he said to me, "You're giving the Americans a bad name! I'm not surprised, knowing you're telling those dumb gullible Germans a story like that. I only wish I had been here when you told them."

    Bill said laughingly, "If any of those POWs are alive today they all probably remember that episode about Al Capone and Dillinger."

    An awful lot of krauts believed that the American GIs were actually gangsters, baseball players, cowboys ... typically soft and lousy soldiers, lazy band players, well they sure found out in a damned short hurry we were different than that and we were as good damned soldiers if not better than they were. We took a lot of starch out of them. And their F___G arrogance and superman shit, we sure as hell proved that to the lousy bastards. There was a saying, "Krauts were at your throat or at your feet." A true statement.

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