©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
Death Roams at Will
A DESCRIPTION OF THE HORRIBLE AFTERMATH OF A BATTLEFIELD. For the benefit of anyone reading this narration of war, I will attempt to illustrate, in words, what a battlefield looks like after all the carnage and killing has subsided and a short space of peace has emerged -- till the next bloody battle occurs. Maybe in this very place if the Germans decide to launch a counterattack, one that would add frosting on the cake, so to speak. A little grim humor from an infantry man who has been in numerous battles, great and small, and minor skirmishes. I witnessed a lot of ugly and sad sights of numerous casualties of dead and dying soldiers, us and them. And it is an unforgettable and long lasting image to remember for the rest of one's life, and I being a victim of living to see this horror, Hollywood could never duplicate in a hundred years a description of an actual battlefield, it would be too much of a nightmare or a show in Dante's "Inferno."
To this day I suffer regenerated images of this horrible experience, filled with numerous flashbacks and nightmares in which I relive the whole thing over and over again though it's been fifty years ago. These images are quite realistic and vivid. This leaves a deep impression when you have to go out and look for your wounded comrades and report the dead. It's extremely sad and a traumatic feeling; most of the bodies are not pretty to see. We'd be accompanied by soldiers from Graves Registration to retrieve these bodies and parts of bodies picked up whole or in mattress covers (body bags) and loaded on trucks and taken to a collection station for if possible burial sites.
What war had was the awful "stink" or stench of death that had been laying about for a few days in various cases of decomposition, especially in the summer heat and humidity. It didn't take long for a corpse to have changes, physical alterations. I never knew in my life how grotesque and horrible dead bodies could look, in shape and color, etc. Many bodies had a bluish color and rotting flesh appeared like melted wax, some even turned black. The maggots and worms were busy at their work. It was truly sickening work even to the strongest soldiers who were used to the horror of dead soldiers. I puked a hundred times; even thinking about it made me retch till my stomach hurt but despite this gory job it had to done. I'd rather be in a battle than this activity. There are no more words I can use to really describe this. The reader can get a general idea of revulsion but it's not the same as seeing it first hand, or being in an actual firefight with all its killing.
One particular mission we were on, we came upon an American soldier whose body had bloated up to twice his size ... the buttons on his shirt had popped off. We had to pick him up and place him on a stretcher. How we dreaded this. His flesh had turned black like charcoal, his mouth was wide open and the flies were all over him and us. The stench was something else. I was wearing a gauze mask over my mouth and could still smell the stench like you've never experienced a "stink" before. We attempted to lift him but he was heavy, being so bloated with fluids and blood. As soon as we moved him the blood ran out of his mouth, nose and ears. When we realized this we could not go on and we moved off to some other poor bastard. We could only take so much. I felt so sorry for that guy that I cried for him. I thought of his wife, or mother, children, whoever he belonged to. In looking back at him, the dreadful thing struck me, that soldier could have been me, merciful Lord, I could not shake this from my mind.
There were so many bodies including the enemy. It was almost impossible to reclaim all of them but the job was done which took days rounding them up from distances all around. We collected bodies from ditches, hedgerows, orchards, wooded areas, in the rubble of destroyed houses, etc. After helping out in this thankless and gory job we drifted back to the Company area about half a mile away where we could wash up and take a much needed rest; it was so quiet you never knew there was a war going on. About some time later we moved out cross country to whatever lay ahead. In the meantime we enjoyed some peace and quiet, we heard the distant sounds of aircraft, looked up and saw hundreds of planes up in the sky. Four-engined bombers, B-17s or "Liberators" on their way to hit the Heinies. We also saw what looked like an escort of fighters, recognized some of them as P-38 "Lightnings" with their twin tails.
On our march we came close to a town with a sign saying "Charleville." Quiet as a tomb, we could see some destruction but outside of that nothing more than a few civilians standing about waving American and French flags and waving to us. I remember giving some kids candy and gum for which they were thankful and delighted. I also gave some older folks some of my "C" rations. They could use it. Some woman gave me a kiss and a hug which caught me by surprise. They sure were happy to see us, it made me depressed and glad at the same time, at least we liberated another town from the damned Germans. One day this damned war will end. But I asked myself when? I'll probably die of old age or a German bullet before then. When Bill saw that woman kiss me, he said, "Who was that, an old girlfriend?" I replied, "How did you know?" We both laughed. So at times there was a light side to the "world nightmare" of death and decimation.
There are a lot of these narratives that are somewhat hazy and having happened so long ago that I have brief lingering memories of. It's just as well that I don't remember a lot of it. What I do remember makes up for what is dimmed by time. Combat is repetitive. Get killed or wounded, taken POW or missing in action, or blown away with nothing of you left, or in parts like a cut up chicken. Today even a butcher at work cutting meat makes me cringe and depressed. This might sound strange to some but that's what I relate, or even cutting grass has the smell of death. So long ago most people are not affected by what happened so long ago. Most people are not affected by that which they were not participants in. To experience deadly combat, this horror of life versus death, some of the worst magnitude imaginable. A good description of battle, death roams at will over the battle area and even after the bloody carnage ends, temporarily and then on to the next confrontation -- killed or be killed. When you have to live every minute of the day and night like this; no wonder the mind and spirit cracks, even the strongest have limits of endurance. As one British soldier said about it, "It's either death, wounded or the looney house." How true it is. I went through both except getting myself killed, so considering everything, I'm lucky to God to have survived. Do you know that of all the millions we had in the Armed Forces, only some few thousand actually laid their life on the line in dreadful combat? Not all servicemen saw action in the land, sea or air. So we survivors are "the few" that Churchill commented about during the Battle of Britain, till the war ended in 1945 and many white crosses all over the war zones. The Americans, British, Canadians and our other loyal allies.
Well after all this, back to the conflict. This combat narrative of experiences started on June 7, 1944, D + 2 and subsequent campaigns and battles to the end of my combat career at the end of October, 1944, in the Lorraine Campaign. This was in and around Metz and the Maginot line fortifications. After that I became non-combatant, from being wounded in action again, but enough to keep the brass from sending me back for further fighting. Later in December, the infamous Battle of the Bulge broke out and I missed it with no regrets I'll tell you. I had given all I could give, that was it. I felt at his point that my luck would run out. I had reached my limit. I sometimes get the feeling that I am jumping around from one event or thing after another. It's hard to keep these happenings in strict order. Some things I remember clearly and others not at all or hazy and dim so I have to carve or claw as possible in relating these countless incidents. I do not remember some names too clearly or dates, towns and cities. I remember these faces more than the names, except guys from the company or platoon that I was close to. Even the damned Germans, the interrogating Captain, Herr Hauptman Karl Krensdorf, who held me POW for a short time back in the early weeks of hedgerow fighting in Normandy. And two or three of the kraut guard we had ... Emile, Erik and Klaus or Ludwig, I forgot. Even the damned Gestapo jerk that sat in on the interrogation with us, his name was Heinrich Lindemann, a real evil sadistic looking Nazi bastard. I hoped somebody would have done him in, he deserved a long due award.
After leaving Charleville and the emotional reception we received from the townspeople we moved on to whatever was in store, which wouldn't be long. We had the krauts on the run but they were still capable of violent defense and resistance. I wished to God they would give up -- but fat chance. I told Bill I guess we'll have to kill more of them before they surrender. Little did I know it would last another bloody year with a great loss of our soldiers.
It helped my sagging moral when laying there in position, I told Bill, "Take care of yourself, don't do anything stupid or rash."
He looked at me and said, "Likewise!"
I still had a cig in my mouth, taking deep drags. I thought, "Thank God I got a lot of cigs." A false sense of security, I admit, but it was better than nothing. I checked my M-1 rifle and I had enough rounds, made sure my bayonet was secure, it gave me something to do. It helped to keep calm . I was sweating like a pig! It was real salty, my eyes got irritated. I wish something would happen, anything instead of this dreadful suspense. How many Germans were there, how many tanks if any? Suddenly I heard a roar of aircraft overhead. I looked up and what a beautiful sight! A whole bunch of A-20 "Havocs" and P-38s. It looked like hundreds of these death dealing birds coming over us right at the damned krauts. "Give 'em Hell!" we yelled, then our artillery joined in, what a racket it was, deafening, steel messengers of death came hurtling over us into the kraut positions. Maybe we wouldn't have to fight after all, but that was wishful thinking. We got the word to move out, we spread out and prepared for the dirty work before us. A cold terror gripped me. "Watch yourself!" I was talking to myself for moral support. I spotted Bill and we joined up. "Shoot at anything that moves!"
What scared me most was hoping we didn't have any close combat, hand to hand fighting; that did not appeal to me at all. The thing I knew was the Germans must feel the same way, hoping there wasn't any SS among them. I had nothing but fear and mortal hatred of them. Operation Cobra was all around La Haye du Puits, Perier, Foret de Mont Castre, a swamp filled with small hills, heavy foliage and forested areas with machine guns, mortars and God awful weapons. We had been briefed about this operation and fanatical German units with powerful resistance was expected. This despite the air strafing and artillery, it would be the bloody infantry to battle it out. This would be one hell of a battle, I had a strong feeling of depression and painful anxiety clutching at my gut.
As we made our way through the wooded, water-filled terrain, German fire opened up against us all along the front. The air was filled with death dealing fire. How I missed getting hit is a miracle. We just kept running and clinging from tree to tree and heavy undergrowth. I thought later it felt like the Battle of the Wilderness or Shiloh of the Civil War where thousands died. This damn battle was identical to that Civil War combat, only with more diversified weapons. We would take a short stand and then jump off again behind any cover we could get to. We still didn't see anything of the enemy. Than the mortars began to fire and I prayed, "God, get me through this!" I could see Bill slightly in front of me and I caught up to his position. We jumped behind a small rise in the ground with a lot of underbrush and vines. It looked like a water soaked marsh and we were soaking wet and bushed out. We lay there taking a look around up ahead and up in the trees for snipers ... so far, so good. Although we had sustained some casualties, the charge was pressed on. I wondered how many of "G" Company had suffered. I didn't see anyone hit, but there must have been some and this war was just beginning.
Fire had broken out at various places, probably caused by the strafing and artillery. We spotted a lot of dead and wounded Germans. Our artillery was still going strong; we were just following behind what they call a rolling barrage. Our planes were still shooting the hell out of-the kraut positions and gun emplacements. I was hoping they hadn't laid any mines around. Sgt. Wilson came up to us and asked if we were all right. "So far, so good," we answered.
I inquired, "Had we received any casualties?" He said that a number of young replacements had been hit, but no more men we knew. He had run up against a machine gun emplacement and blown it away with some replacement who joined in and wiped out another bunch of krauts. Bill and I hadn't seen anyone as yet. But I knew we'd run up against some before it was all over, which we would find out soon enough. We took hold of our rifles and scampered ahead, dodging behind undergrowth and small bushes and trees, trying to make ourselves small moving targets. It's hard to hit someone who keeps moving fast, at least some of the time unless you're swept away by traversing machine gun blasts, which we met a lot of but so far, so good. We felt so damned scared; I took stock of everything around, careful not to step into an ambush.
We finally stopped by a small stand of trees. The ground was all soaked in swampy water with a mist all around, which made it damn hard to move or see any Germans. The view ahead became very hazy and misty, but there was small arms fire all around with an occasional mortar blast from the enemy, but none, thank God, exploded near us. We could hear the shrapnel flying around in the air hitting trees and clipping branches, some falling on us but we were unhurt. We left our positions and crept along a few yards when we heard sounds to our direct front. We moved up with four or five other guys from our company who joined us. We spread out as we pushed along, dragging our rifles and grenades; we had a B.A.R. (Browning Automatic Rifle) man along. By the look of things there were kraut emplacements ahead of us but how many we didn't know yet; I hoped to hell we wouldn't be spotted, surprise was on our side, so far. I looked back and saw several of our men come up running low to join us. "We can use all the help we could get," I thought to myself. I was so tense I couldn't hear my muscles creak and sweat poured out me like a waterfall. I was so terrified I could hear my teeth chattering. The intense desire to get it over with was almost unbearable, and also hoping they'd leave (what a joke)! I knew we all had to make it quick come what may, but maybe this would be my last time on earth, but something told me we'd win out, maybe my Guardian Angel. I just hoped we weren't outnumbered, then, if not, I'd rather not think about it.
Very soon the platoon leader and Sgt. Wilson came down the line and decided upon a signal we should get up and rush them, firing as we went. First we had to check them out and their defenses. We were told that we had been reinforced with "H" Company and some others; we had a couple of mortars who would initiate the assault together with some B.A.R.s, for that extra punch.
We crept forward through the mass of undergrowth and vines, like a jungle. The sunlight was very dim much to our advantage, it felt damp and hot as we inched along, plenty of mosquitoes harassing us. Everyone was completely drenched and no breeze at all, it reminded me of the South Pacific War movies I saw back. home. Like New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the mosquitoes and flies drove us crazy and this humidity. I thought, "This is France? This jungle and marshy place?" All this made things that much more difficult. Visibility was very bad and several hours had passed since we had entered this hellish humidity-ridden terrain. You could almost use a machete to clean the way. I told Bill and the others to stick close or we'd get lost in this green hell. Bill said grimly in fun, "All we need is the Japs!" It forced me to snicker a little. Those damned krauts must be in solid position. I was deathly afraid we'd end up in hand to hand combat or bayonet work. How I wished I were someone else.
Bill said to me, "You watch for me and I'll watch for you, take care!"
"Don't worry, I will." I replied, trembling some and breathing heavy. A lot of fear for what lay ahead. I wasn't alone, we all felt this oppressive feeling. It was enough to crack your mind. The time had come, "zero hour" of World War I.
"This is it," Bill said. The signals were given by hand, no noise was permitted. Our tactical movement advanced, we made our difficult way through this jungle and marsh, tripping over vines, but no one could believe the July heat and humidity was this fierce. It made me wish we'd get in range, anything was better than this. Sloshing through muck and slime, and foul smelling aromas. Sometimes we were sinking up to our waist; I was afraid we'd drown before confronting the damned Germans.
We finally came to the edge on a rise in the ground. And there they were! I never saw so many krauts collected in one area with a couple of small hills surrounding there position for protection. Luckily we came up behind them and their defensive positions. It looked like a couple of hundred of them as we could determine, not counting the two small rises or hills.
Just as we were going to assault them we were halted. Artillery had been called up to make things a little easier. Air recon had spotted a lot of emplacements that had not been discovered. We were all informed not to move out till ordered to do so. There were, as we could see, a lot of machine gun emplacements and obstacles like wire and pit-falls and defensive protection. They were in strong defensive positions. Knowing the krauts, there were anti- personnel mines scattered about, but where they were was something else. We heard mortar fire was ordered to blow away the mines. What the big guns missed were to become targets for the tanks that showed up with flailers to blow up some of the mines. I'm pretty sure the krauts knew we were going to attack but not from which direction, they seemed to be watching. Our forces were in their rear positions -- and as yet, undiscovered. I think the terrain was too congested and heavy for them to send our patrols and scouts. At least this obstacle was in our favor.
All at once we began to hear the roar of the big guns. The air filled with the devilish shrill of shells landing on the German positions. What scared me, a lot of them detonated a few feet from us, we had to shut our ears because of the God awful noise of exploding shells and the mortars soon joined in, so you can imagine how it sounded, enough to burst your eardrums and give you one violent headache the rest of your life. To me, being so close to the enemy it sounded worse than the barrage at St. Lo during the breakout. This barrage must have lasted over an hour. I thought to myself, "No krauts could live through this carnage." I hoped when we got the sign to move in there would be more dead Germans than live ones.
Sometimes you're in for a rude surprise and a nasty bloody fight would greet you. There was still enough opposition for a battle. After the barrage the aircraft came in for their part in the devastation. Fighter-bombers of all sorts dove in and hit anything in sight, including objects of suspicion. P-47's, P-51's even, Typhoons of the R.A.F. joined in. I believe everyone was in on this massacre. Those damned planes were wonderful to watch. What a field day they were having. The Germans didn't have an anti-aircraft gun which proved to be their deadly error. The final assault should be somewhat easier but we are still going to have a lot of losses. There will still be enough of the krauts to cause us trouble. The planes and artillery can only do so much. It's us infantry soldiers that will have to finish it, as an old saying went ... "It's the infantry that wins the war."Suddenly, after all the air activity and artillery, we got the word to move out. At that moment I forgot my fear temporarily, and started running towards the enemy. My mind was too busy concentrating on what I was doing. At the same time, our machine guns, B.A.R.s and rifle grenades and mortars began their offensives. Everyone was running and yelling and firing their weapons at the same time. I could tell the surprise assault caught them off guard, some started to retreat and run back. Others began firing back from their gun emplacements. The air was thick with slugs ripping overhead, some hitting targets. So far, I wasn't hit. I kept dodging from one tree or foliage growth to another. I stopped to catch my breath and I looked for Bill, but I didn't see him. I hoped he was doing OK. The dreadful thought occurred to me that he was wounded or worse, killed. As I lay behind some cover in a ditch, I spotted him and yelled, "Hey! Bill! Over here!" He then saw me and ran like hell towards me and leapt into the ditch with slugs hitting the ground around him and tearing into the trees, scattering bark and wood splinters like shrapnel, which could be lethal.
Some Germans nearly spotted us and raked the area in front of us with a deadly swath of fire, kicking up dirt, stones and tree branches. A dreadful fear gripped me, too much time to think. My gut felt empty and hurt, I just felt all washed out. I could have stayed here and slept, despite the war all over. I don't think anyone would have missed me, not my platoon. Maybe they would've considered me a casualty. We were pinned down with the kraut machine gun zeroing in on our position. We had to decide what to do.
"I almost forgot, I got grenades! How stupid of me. We'll fix their asses!" I said. "I know about where they are. Bill, you cover me with rounds from your rifle. At the same time I'll lob the grenades into their position! I can reach them, maybe I'll get two grenades off in short order. Right after that, lets jump out and finish them off, if they're alive! At least we'll get the jump on 'em."
Bill agreed, adding, "It's worth a try but be careful and quick, damn it!"
Bill opened up at them with his M-1 to keep their heads down. At the same time I leapt, pulling the pins on both grenades and let go, then I charged down following the dreadful detonation. Flash and smoke! There was no sign of movement, so I yelled, "Let's go first!" as we ran to their emplacement. The grenades did the job. But for insurance, we emptied our rifles into them. I got scared, my heart was beating like a trip hammer. We both sat down and laughed in hysterics while a general battle war was raging against the German positions. We got up and ran ahead; the area was loaded with German corpses from our aircraft strafing and the artillery barrage. The guys from both G and H Companies had experienced a real bloody day. As we continued our advance, some guys from the other units caught up to us, and they had gotten some of their men killed and wounded in isolated skirmishes. A lot of replacements were casualties. It was a deadly war for them to gain experience in. Three or four men from "G" Company were with us, I forget their names. I remember one was Sgt Wilson. We were both glad he had survived. But the battle wasn't over yet, there was still a lot of enemy about the area. The bombardment and artillery didn't get them all as we had figured. But they did take a heavy toll and we were thankful, for that made our job easier. We all agreed that if they had tanks, we would have been in a hell of a mess. I said that we heard the treads of a tank, "Oh no, they're bringing up the Panzers! Are we prepared for this?" Two of these tanks turned out to be M-4's, "Shermans". We breathed a sigh of relief. That episode had about scared us to death.
After all we had gone through ... as we all lay there under the cover of underbrush and shrubs, we heard sounds and yells directly in front of our position. Sgt. Wilson grabbed his binoculars and gazed. It was a German counterattack, more fighting for us as their vague forms took shape. The kraut soldiers were advancing towards us well within range. "They are in for a real shock," I thought. "Load up your rifles and wait until they are closer, but wait till I open up. Everybody join in! We should kill the whole F___G bunch of the bastards! Pick your targets, there's enough to go around!" So we waited impatiently until they moved in closer. It felt like hours. The suspense was fierce. It was all I could do not to open fire but I held on till Sgt. Wilson opened up. "We should get most of them with the first volley." Before anything happened, we heard the sounds of tanks on our right flank. Behind us, our tanks showed up. I almost forgot about that. Thank God they showed up! The tanks began firing their cannons on the advancing Germans. All hell broke loose! Within just a few seconds I heard Sgt. Wilson yell, "Fire at will!" and we all began firing like hell. The noise was deafening. It looked like one hell of a lethal fire on the enemy. The German Infantry fell by the dozen. Between the 75's of the Shermans and our rifles and machine guns it was too much for them to oppose. A lot of the enemy that had not gotten hit started to fall back. Now it was just a matter of time. Some of the attacking krauts got pretty close but we cut them down in short order. I spotted some SS bastards among them. Those are the Germans we hated most of all. The infamous Waffen SS indicated to me that the F___G bastards were the last ones left to fight in the kraut army. It's not the first time we showed the damned SS they weren't king shit! They could be beaten! We always had orders from our C.O. and Company Officers ... No SS prisoners! And we didn't take any if we could help it!
There was still some hot and heavy fighting. There were more of them than we thought. I just burned out my rifle. The shooting was so intense. Two or three krauts came up pretty close to me and Bill. They came no closer, I remember I shot two of them within a couple of feet and that was too close! Bill and some other soldiers accounted for a few more of them. What Germans weren't hit began to retreat. It was just about all over, the tanks kept firing at the remainder of the survivors of which there were still plenty. They had enough and we did, too. We were sure glad it ended in our favor. Until the tanks arrived I wasn't sure of the outcome. We had a number of men wounded but no one killed. The thing I was happiest about was that hand to hand and bayonet fighting was avoided. Although some of those forward German elements came pretty close to using this type of warfare. I'm glad I didn't run out of ammo at that time. As I think about it now I didn't have many rounds left. I know by personal experience with close in fighting and dread it with horror and I never was in favor of this type of combat. And I always hoped it was not that common an occurrence but at times it was unavoidable and could not be helped, especially in clearing out opposition in houses or other buildings sometimes called "House Cleaning Operations." I always dreaded that type of fighting. You never knew who or how many were there or behind the door, waiting to kill you. The strong possibility of booby traps existed, which the Germans excelled at, they were masters at this type of dirty work, including mines. They even booby trapped their wounded and dead! Shows you what kind of bastards we were dealing with.
There were many times like this previous battle. We were attacking heavily defended enemy emplacements and other defenses. I have a real fear and terror visualizing it and I'm actually getting in personal contact with the enemy -- hand to hand. It didn't always go to the strongest. There was a lot of quick reflexes and agile soldiers. Not all were in top physical strength. And, of course, "good luck" and an overflow of adrenaline helped.
After the battle ended we all organized and started our advance across the battle site to count our losses and take a much needed rest until movement to the next objective. I think it was going to get worse before it got better and my thought and Bill's thoughts were correct. I told Bill we were lucky to God to live through another fracas until it would end in total German defeat. Bill replied, "Yeah, when? We kill a lot of Germans and destroy their tanks, artillery and aircraft but they always have the means to replace it with fresh equipment!"
"They are a fanatical and tenacious brutal bunch, I'll grant them that!" I remarked.
"God willing we'll get through it alive," Bill added, "But before that time comes, we'll get a lot more losses, POWs and wounded."
"The men like you and me left in the Company and a few others are all that is left from our original Company. It's just about an all new "G" Company now ... Not many of us old original guys left," Bill observed and I reluctantly agreed.
"You know, it almost seems like yesterday we were all together in Texas, the California desert and Fort Dix. Now we are practically all gone." Bill said.
"I guess we never thought there would be a day of reckoning. It's not the same old Company G," I replied.
"Well, there's me and you," and we sort of laughed but not in joy. We could be the next ones on the list. We both were resigned to that.
"You were born in Pennsylvania and I was born in Canada, brought to New York City and we are ending our earthly lives in France, kind of funny in a way," I remarked.
"And tragic at the same time. What will all the girls do if we don't make it back?" Bill added,
"Yeah, it's their loss!" And we got a laugh about it. "It's seldom that there was any laughter at all since D-day," I remarked.
"It's not a laughing matter," Bill replied.