©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
After the Killing
I was wounded once already in the early stages of the Normandy Campaign and was returned to combat and what was left of the original "G" Company. Sad to say it was cut down quite a bit with some killed and wounded and the ones who being wounded, never returned. I was happy for them, so far I have survived but have a feeling I will never see my family or good ol' NYC again and the Statue of Liberty. There's a law of averages and this is what I felt back in June of 1944. I felt this from the first time I landed on Normandy Beach, known to us as Utah Beach, until the last time in combat in October '44. A short time after this vicious battle members of the Graves Registration arrived with their trucks and ambulances to pick up the dead soldiers from both sides. They will have some terrible job in store for them which they should be used to, since the days of the beach landings in early June. Normandy is clogged with numerous grave sites with complete bodies and numerous parts of bodies, blown apart by small arms, mines and the big guns from both sides. Identifying them will be a time consuming job, if they're lucky, and a stinking one to boot, especially in hot weather where decomposition is swift.
I believe that the worst part of a battlefield is after the killing is over. I tell you the truth. It takes a special breed to be with the Graves Registration Unit. Those guys following the war will probably be morticians, embalmers or funeral directors. This is their "on-the-job" training. A little grim humor here. I mentioned earlier I had strong feelings of not surviving this war. Bill and I discussed this, he entertained the same hair-raising feelings of not getting back home alive. I guess most of us had the same awesome feelings. What bothered me and Bill most was how we would get killed or badly wounded, that scared us most of all.
Bill jokingly said, "I don't mind dying so much or laying in the grave so long."
I looked at him and said, "You might not end up in a grave! Just a grease spot, especially from one of those f-----g mortars or German 88's!"
Bill added, "Let's talk about something else, it's getting spooky."
"You know. Bill, you've been such a good loyal pal that if I had a clean pair of good socks, I'd give 'em to you! How do you like that?"
"Oh yeah? You're a damned good liar, too!" Bill laughed as he said it.
Let me tell the reader about the combat narratives of the area we were fighting in called Normandy. A very beautiful and ancient province of France, many wars were fought here against the Viking raiders, The Hundred Year War, and other internal battles between the Nobility and the Kings. More or less, all through French history up until the Normandy Beach assault. We found the province well suited for close combat due to the farmland, hedgerows, orchards, wooded areas, swamps or marshes, creeks and rivers, etc. All these varieties of terrain made for ideal warfare tactics. It reminded me of the French-Indian conflict for the mastery of earlier North America by the French and their Indian allies against the forces of the British in the 1600s to France's defeat in 1759-60, the American Revolution and the Indian wars. I remember reading the history of these wars and New France by the American historian Frances Parkman, the first and foremost writer of this period. I also enjoyed the fictional work of James Fenimore Cooper, such as "The Leatherstocking Tales," "Last of the Mohicans," "Deerslayer," and "Drums Along the Mohawk," which kids in my generation learned and read about. The terrain of the province of Normandy proved to be bad tank country but an infantry and artillery battleground. This was mostly an infantryman's nightmare. As an example, you could be on one side of a hedgerow and Germans on the other side, and neither would know the presence of the other. This area was infested with hidden machine gun emplacements, mines, booby traps and hundreds of German snipers high up in the trees. We encountered small hamlets and villages ideal for defensive warfare, so it was a green hell, a nightmare. These areas were excellent for surprise attacks and ambushes, instant death by a sniper. A quiet sunny day was misleading for an infantry soldier, unwary of the danger. The foreboding loomed ahead of something about to erupt. And all hell would break loose by the bullet from a well hidden foe. So the German in the occupation had a lot of time to fortify himself in the preparation of an ambush. The inevitable conflict gave the Germans an advantage over us. This will give the general reader an idea of the region that I was fighting in. Both deadly and beautiful, a death-ridden land where war had been waged throughout the ages. This province had been a witness to battles between the English and the French for domination up until the French and German Antagonism in deadly warfare in later generations reaching the beginning of World War II in 1939 until 1945. I have included pages of this Normandy warfare from a history of the 90th Division of which I was a member, to give the reader a good idea of the battle conditions. I have written about my part in it. The Normandy Campaign was my "baptism of fire." The later Campaign of Northern France and Lorraine added to my bloody and deadly experience, adding stress and constant danger to the horror of combat.
While looking for water to fill my canteen, Bill and the others came to a dirt road leading to a cluster of farm dwellings, surrounded by a large granite wall. When I turned the corner to the entrance of the cobblestone courtyard, I saw a grim and obscene site. A number of American soldiers, I forget how many, apparently had been taken prisoner and lined up against the wall and shot to death, murdered is more like it. It made me retch and cry. My anger and grief were beyond words. I stood for a moment, spellbound by this atrocity. I was hoping some were still alive but all the soldiers were dead and mutilated. It looked like it had been committed a couple of hours ago in their fast retreat. This is the handiwork of the cultured Huns we had to deal with. No humanity or compassion. I hoped to hell they met their just reward after this outrageous crime. This war without compassion and demonic cruelty was the truth. This was the German mentality and "kulture" to inferior nationalities. I sure as hell will remember this scene of wanton cruelty. I made a vow ... that this atrocity will be avenged. I am, by nature, a decent soldier, but no more. At times I understand that Canadian, British and other allies got the same treatment. I saw numerous civilians, old men, women and children and sick cripples murdered in cold blood, not just by the SS either. The regular Wehrmacht also committed atrocities on a large scale, bringing harm to innocent people. These bastards were not animals but sub-human perhaps is the right title. It's an insult to animals, I hope we devastate and destroy the whole damned nation when we finally invade this accursed Germany. The Russians and the Poles will show them their wrath. What the damn Germans inflicted on Europe during WW I and WW II would make Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane look amateur. The Krauts had it down to a science. They all had that race superiority and overall arrogance and a cruel streak toward other nations. The Germans showed no compassion and cried that the Americans and the British were the barbarians picking on the poor Germans. What a joke, a sick joke! Maybe I'm wrong in my feelings but I cannot forgive or condone the barbarians! Christians say I should forgive my enemies -- not by a long shot. I've seen too much. I've seen enough of these brutalities and atrocities. In this man's war, it's bad enough to destroy your enemy in justifiable combat without killing innocent civilians and POWs.
Violence brings out the worst in soldiers. I am guilty of a number of things, which in most cases, I'm truly sorry for. Such is war. One time I found a chaplain with a cross on his helmet beside two dead GIs. He attempted, I guess, to give them their last rites and some damned German shot all three of them. It's a lovely war.
An example of how close combat can be follows. We were dug in inside an orchard awaiting further orders. At about 10 to 11 o'clock at night we heard the sound of tanks approaching to our front. The word came up that enemy tanks on a recon patrol were rolling by and were expected to come through our positions. We were told not to fire, to remain in our foxholes so not to give away our positions. This was one very scary experience. Our anti-tank force would deal with them, we hoped, with the 105 mm guns. I hoped they would destroy them. I hoped to God I wouldn't get crushed by one them while in my hole. I said my prayers. They stopped for a few minutes and soon started out again. It felt like ages waiting for the awful anxiety and suspense to pass. I had a frantic motion to get up and run but stayed in my hole. The tanks came closer and finally crashed through the trees and undergrowth, rumbling through our position. One came clattering so close to me I could have touched it. It was terrifying as they proceeded through. Soon enough the enemy tanks crashed into our tank destroyers and were dealt with. All of them were hit, there were six or seven Panther tanks. Mark Ill's or IV's. When those anti-tank guns erupted it sounded like all hell broke loose. The noise was damned hellish. Within seconds the enemy tanks were engulfed in flames, no Germans escaped, and we didn't see anyone. When we left our dugouts, the entire area was in flames, the heat worse and nearly unbearable. All of us moved out of the area to the next field and dug in or hid along the ditches in the orchard. Here we waited, again, for the next God knows what. This was July, hot and humid, in more ways than one. A lot of firefights, attacks and counterattacks. The 8th Air Force and the RAF had a very busy time, thank God for the fly boys. The Krauts must have had stiff necks from looking up. A lot of their movement took place at night where the fighter-bombers couldn't spot them to Hell, so we had a lot of infantry fights, patrols and ambushes.