©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
Gone Are the Days ...
I almost became a casualty, again, in July of '44 in the vicinity of the Seves River. The morning was humid, hot and a fine drizzle drenched everybody. Everyone felt miserable and depressed and most of us were on edge. My throat and mouth were brick dry despite my drinking water from my canteen. I could tell my anxiety was fierce for what lay ahead. Another attack against Germans, no doubt. Heavily defended and death dealing positions to contend with. We were situated in a small wooded area and remained behind our defenses of brushes, ditches and hedges. I kept looking around, especially at the trees for the feared and hated snipers. I hated those damn sneaky Hun snipers! But they were efficient death merchants. The terrain was hilly and forested with the occasional marshes with plenty of fog and mist. This made for a real spooky landscape, like those horror films with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi I used to see at the local movie theater.
An artillery barrage was called for on the Kraut lines. The shells from our 105's and 155's were screaming over us by the score. We could hear some 81 mm mortars joining in, too. The ground literally shook like a quake. I thought how glad I was that they weren't falling on us. God knows we got our share of the German heavy stuff and it's something you don't want to experience. We called it the "devil's invention." That shrapnel can really tear a person up, sometimes with nothing left of human beings. I've seen foxholes and slit trenches just ripped apart by those hellish weapons, leaving nothing left of the troops. Some of the worst artillery were the ones with time fuses set to detonate above you, which threw all those chunks of red hot shards down upon you. We avoided wooded areas or near trees that when the shells exploded, hurled all the shrapnel and wood splinters causing terrible wounds. I remember one time we spotted the German infantry moving into a wooded field or forest and we opened up on them with our heavy guns. The results were beyond description. We could hear the shells falling in on them and the screams of agony from wounded and dying soldiers. I tried to shut out the sounds by covering my ears but without success. We wiped out several companies of Kraut infantry. Better them than us.
Following the barrage we advanced into the forest where there was no opposition that I know of. The exception was minor small arms fire but that's all, we didn't lose a man. We began moving out from behind our shelter. The moment of truth had arrived. Bill and I hoped our artillery had done a bang-up job, which would make it easier for us. The air was filled with shells hurtling over us towards enemy positions. Our advance continued behind the so-called rolling barrage, hoping to hell there wouldn't be any short rounds. The short ones are the projectiles that fail to hit the enemy and fall on your position. Today they call it "friendly fire." I wonder who thought of that stupid remark. Far from being "friendly," we were so close you could hear the red hot slug zip overhead as we moved out. Once the artillery lifted we'd see how many survived and what we would have to fight; so far we could see a lot of dead and dying Krauts. Then, suddenly, small arms fire broke out in our front. Through the crack of rifles and machine guns I could see some of our men go down. We didn't get them all. Those surviving soldiers were going to give us holy hell. I could see as we ran forward, yelling and screaming curses and battle cries, some of the Germans firing at us.
We pushed back the enemy, avoiding their bullets. During the assault I was struck with awe that none of us had been hit. I could hear and see the German bullets tearing into the trees and spitting up dirt in front of me. Our advance continued, we dodged behind some cover and took aim at the enemy. I remember hitting two Germans who went down and didn't move. There were a lot of Germans I could see but they seemed to be abandoning the fight, firing as they retreated. I was panting like a dog and running out of steam. I quickly developed a mad thirst but couldn't take time for a swig of the canteen. Too busy keeping alive. My adrenaline was running high, I could see Bill to my right. Thank God, he was still alive! Bill and I ran up a little path until we reached a rise or small hill. As we reached the crest we surprised an enemy machine gun position with three men inside. Their backs were to us and when they spun around we emptied our rifles into them. One of them fired back at me, his bullet just zipped by my head. I quickly dropped him with several rounds. One soldier attempted to flee running up an embankment with the machine gun but Bill caught him with a round. I quickly reloaded my rifle just as two krauts came out of the undergrowth, having heard the firefight. Bill and I killed them both. I quickly said to Bill, "That's enough excitement for me!"
Bill said, "Yeah, five or six less Germans to worry about."
After that arduous incident we just sat down, surrounded by dead Germans, collecting our wind, happy to have survived. There was still a lot of fighting as the high rate of gunfire, grenades and mortars continued. I couldn't help but gaze at the dead krauts and be thankful it wasn't one of us. I said to Bill, "I'm getting too old for this type of activity." I wished to God this God damned war would end. How little did we know how much of this fighting was left. A couple of more years. The thought depressed me. I felt I was reaching my limit of energy and courage. There must be a limit that one can reach. After a short rest we got up and moved on for what was left of the battle and what else lay ahead. At least so far we were in one piece. We were trying to locate "G" Company. I hated to think of the casualties, if any. Maybe the other guys came out OK. We had already lost some of the original guys, I wondered how many of our old guys will still be alive when this unholy mess ends. I tried not to think of it. I knew we would lose some of our guys from "G" Company, but somehow I was hoping we would all escape the "Grim Reaper" and all survive this conflict. And live to talk about it later over a few beers, but I was just fooling myself.
My worst fears were confirmed. We lost three men killed in action. Lawson, Hilton and O'Brien were from the original company. Seven wounded included Corlett, Ramsey (the Scot). We called Ramsey and Cormier the French-Canadians from Rhode Island. I forget the others. Ramsey apparently lost a leg and Corlett lost an eye. The thought hit me how many more of the old gang would become future casualties. I tried to bury it from my mind. You hate to lose any of the men, especially your old friends, the guys you lived and trained with and fought like hell with. An infantry man has a chancy job. We are called the "Infantry, the Queen of Battle." All this warfare, good and bad, for better or worse, it's the infantry that leads the way, and I'm proud I was one of them. These things may sound corny or square to some, but nevertheless it's all true. Some of these stories I relate sound incredible but did, in fact happen to me. I didn't minimize anything. I told it as it happened. You'd be surprised and shocked what a combat soldier can do when you are young. As you age, you slow down a lot, your reflexes and endurance change. If I had to do what I did as a combat soldier now I'd never make it. Most of the men in my company were older than me. I was 18 years old in 1942 and left the Army at age 23 in 1946. A lot of my buddies were in their late 20s or 30s. Some were in their 40s. Most of those men who survived the fighting have now passed into old age, reaching the late 70s or early 80s. I always picture these men as they were back in '42 - '45. No one thinks of getting older. I myself am 69 going on 70. And I'm one of the youngest of the old. I'll probably be one of the last of the surviving members from "G" Company, 357th Infantry.
It sometimes appears to me that I have been in many phases of life. It amuses me. People tell me, despite my injuries and illnesses, that I will probably outlive everyone. I don't know if that is good or bad. Hell, with everything I've gone through and all the unfortunate things which happened to me, I wonder how come I survived this long. "Luck of the Irish" except I'm not Irish, just a hard-boiled French-Canuck with Scots and Irish connections. I'm inflicted with combat injuries, both mental and physical. All had an adverse effect on my life. The experiences I went through changed me a lot. My general outlook since age 18 has been affected by this war. I learned fast and grew up quickly, more so than perhaps the average kids my age. I had a lot of ups and downs in my early years which had a dramatic effect on my life and brought on a great deal of depression. And the war. I had a tougher upbringing than my present children. In my youth, maturity had a different meaning. I had a lot of rebellion and aggression stored up in me. And a certain hardness. Life was at times most difficult to endure, both at home and at school. For the younger part of my life the Army was my family and I felt a tremendous loss when I was discharged. Then I had to be reborn to a new way of life. It was scary and foreign to me. I found it most difficult to adjust and acclimate. It came slowly. Things were happening to me, spiritually and mentally. I could not understand what was happening to me. I became distrustful and wary. I became fond of animals, dogs, etc. I showed affection toward animals and they took to me. Most people did not or could care less about my attitude. I was tossed off as being another unorientated veteran. My mother, father, sister and brother supported me. I was uneducated and unfeeling.
I still retain some of these unwanted detrimental feelings. My interests were varied and classical. Art, writing about my love of nature, animals, archeology, history, music and military affairs became the focus of my awareness. I tried to relive the last years of my life, 1942-1946. Adjustment was hard. I had a strong feeling of loss and guilt. The war influenced me a great deal. That life was not a bowl of cherries became apparent. I remember my mother telling me this as I grew up. I believed the majority of people had feelings of ingratitude towards veterans. A "So what?" attitude and short memories. And so it went ... but I'm not bitter about the war and proud of what I believed was my duty. I believe that serving my country in time of war as a volunteer was the most important and satisfying phase of my life. Knowing first hand what human beings are capable of doing in unfeeling actions and deliberate cruelty against good and honest people and other creatures. The destruction of culture and the livelihood of other nations, all the great knowledge and talent that should have been passed on for future generations was unmercifully destroyed forever. I saw and met a number of poor unfortunate inmates of some of the deadly German camps. The survivors haunt me to this day. One man I spoke to was a gifted heart surgeon in Germany. Another an electrical engineer from Denmark. Another a math scientist. The first two I mentioned were Jews, the others were Christians, the victims who had no profession, suffered most as "undesirables" and sent to slave labor camps or murdered. Maybe they were shot, or sent to the gas chambers.
There was one day I'll never forget. Like many others in this bloody conflict, it was a warm day with a cool breeze as we lay there along a ditch adjacent to an orchard with heavy shrubs. We were taking a break, smoking a cigarette, when suddenly we heard a rush of air and a God awful shriek overhead. I started to rise to my feet with other men in the squad when we heard this huge thud and the ground erupted in a blinding flash. All sorts of debris was flying around, tearing up the trees and spewing rocks. With that blast I was flung up into the air and thrown a few feet onto the ground with a huge impact. I was temporarily stunned and unable to move. It came to my mind, "What the hell struck or hit us?" I was conscious of bleeding badly in my mouth, a salty thick taste which frightened me. I heard screams and groans from the others. A German mortar projectile had struck just a few yards away. The concussion blew over our position. Most of us were laying around, dazed, unable to move. I thought every bone in my body was broken, it had happened so quickly. I couldn't get orientated and an awful pain gripped my insides. Am I dying? I looked up and some of my pals were not moving. The thought came to me that most of us had been killed! There was a hazy mist all around and an acrid stench in the air. I noticed the grass was on fire. I managed to get up and stagger to my feet. I was covered with blood but I couldn't tell how or if I had been cut up or injured. My head and body hurt like hell. I thought sure I was hurt bad. Quickly I looked for Bill. He was standing nearby, walking around dazed, his rifle in his hands. We both cried out, "Are you OK?" We were so glad we survived the shelling, we went to check out the others who were doing likewise.
The enormity of the blast did not strike us right away. We were in a complete daze following the explosion. There was only one shell that blasted us and we were damn lucky we weren't all killed. In looking around the area we found some casualties, wounded from the shrapnel. We also found some soldiers who were killed, replacements who were with us for only several weeks. Maybe they never fired a shot. "Boy!" I remarked to Bill. "There's nothing safe in this war, just out of the blue! Damn it was close. God must have made them drop a bad shot!"
Someone else added, "Today is Sunday, a day of rest ... nothing is sacred, even in war!"
What a hell of a war this is. "Up here it don't matter," I replied. "Let's get out of here before they send over another shell for good measure."
Mortar fire is deadly frightening. Upon exploding it scatters much of its shrapnel at ground level or just above. You can always tell mortar fire is coming by the sound the projectile makes when it leaves the tube. We all dreaded it, but then I dreaded all of it. And the mines! Boy! You had to be on your guard with those things. The Germans laid a lot of mines in their fields. They were there long enough to do a good job against the Allies. We lost quite a few men to the damned mines and booby traps. You couldn't be cautious enough. And still being careful was not a safeguard. The only non-lethal mines to the infantry were the ones meant for vehicles and tanks, because only they were heavy enough to set them off.
The Germans employed a dirty trick against anti-tank patrols. Occasionally the Germans would put a mine into a foxhole and then one of our guys would jump into the hole during combat and, goodbye pal, nothing. A deadly joke.
As I jogged along I thought, "If it's my time to be killed, let it be quick. None of this lingering on". Men who were killed outright were the lucky ones. So were the million dollar wounds. I saw these guys that were badly hit and still alive, decimated and in ungodly pain. Nothing could be done for them. Some were missing parts of their bodies and still clinging to life. You can't comprehend it but there it is, until he expires which could be hours. Some wounded that were not attended to immediately received aid too late and didn't survive anyway. This scared me the most, or any of us in fact, or the poor bastards that burned alive in a tank hit by shell fire. Trapped and no way to save them from the horror of being burned alive. The God awful screams coming out of the demolished vehicle, all this was enough to flip your mind. As it is, I suffered a lot of physical injuries so in the long run most of us soldiers suffered some effects of that war. With all the trauma present, the constant dodging of death and horror, I can consider myself luckier than some. And I don't regret having done my part making history. But am I damn glad I came out of it alive? It did, however, have a profound traumatic effect on my life, causing me to grow up before my time.
I have arrived at a point in this narration of exploits and personal incidents of mortal combat to the person or persons who read these actual happenings of the fighting I was involved in. A retrospect of feelings, fear and hatred, acts of honorable deeds and dishonor, a mixture of rashness, compassion, heroics, feelings of unreality, murderous intent, etc. As a child, I was infatuated with anything military. Being a soldier or airman was the highest achievement for me. A call to glory, adventure, dedication to patriotism bordering on a religion. I still have the same feelings although subdued. War and soldiering ain't what it used to be, the romance is kind of lost to much modernization. It's not an honorable dirty business. Now it's a refined scientific business where close in fighting is minimized. I think WW I and II, Korea and Viet Nam were the last of the old time conflicts. Gone are the days of two men or armies who went at it with swords and lances. Now you have progress to a multitude of ways to kill someone. The old heroic warfare is obsolete.
I will attempt to tell the reader of some the most terrifying and frightening things I felt in combat, not necessarily in exact order. Artillery always scared the hell out of me. Besides killing you outright it could inflict a serious wound. And still leave you alive, barely. I remember under an intensive German artillery barrage, of which I was lucky to survive, but it terrorized me so badly that I fell into an uncontrollable state of fear. A fear that made me cry incoherently and pray out loud, looking for a way to escape possible death but had to sweat it out. How I feared and hated artillery! Machine gun fire was also devastating and deadly. It could chop you up into chopped meat or cut you in half. I had a guy in my Company have his face shot away and would have been better off dead. Sniper war was something else. You could expect them to show up anytime. These guys were the supreme experts at killing. There are no bad snipers, only those too anxious and miss, lucky for you! It happened to me once. A sniper shot at me and the bullet struck a tree about an inch from my head. I thought to myself, "How could he have missed me?" but he must have been off that day, by rights I should have been killed. As an example, how one lived from day to day, never a dull moment.
Beyond the regular dose of rifle fire and ambushes, which scared the hell out of you, the anti-personnel mines posed as a deadly threat, too. You only have to step on one of those and that's all she wrote! One would be better off dead than to survive a mine explosion. Imagine your legs torn off, your body mangled to hell ... the horror of it terrorizes me.
Another lovely method of death was encountered while crossing a stream or river with all your equipment to weigh you down in case you lost your footing or stepped in beyond your head. Consider the danger involved in having a building collapse on you during shell fire. How about being crushed to death by a rolling tank? These are some of the wonderful ways you can come to a bad end in war. Sometimes soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Although rare, it was sometimes encountered during a general assault on a defensive position. If you weren't cut down by small arms fire or the Germans surrendered or were overrun, then this type of warfare was possible, but not favorable.
We didn't worry about enemy aircraft as we had air superiority of the air and the krauts had to worry about that! How they were scared to death of our fighter- bombers who were patrolling the skies almost daily like birds of prey. P-47's, Mustangs, P-38's and the Spitfires, Typhoons, Mosquitoes and A-20s, etc. The list goes on. Both the U.S. Air Force and the RAF had a field day against German ground movement. The Germans dared only to move out at night, and even that was dangerous.
I always had the dread feeling I wouldn't see the end of the war. That somewhere in France stood a wooden cross waiting for me. This was where my life would find its end. I could see my mom and sister placing flowers on my grave and me as a ghost witnessing this final gesture. If only I hadn't been there when that sniper fired or that I had missed that mine. It still makes me shudder. The only consolation I would have is that I took some krauts with me for company. Combat is an existence of anxiety, fear and suspense which in itself can cause you to go to the funny farm, sooner or later. Sometimes guys make it all the way, but as I found out later, after the war, the whole thing catches up with you. The memories, the pain of living through the horror of combat, the killing and the carnage of the whole sordid heart breaking experience. It's bound to have an adverse effect on you if you have any sensitivity at all. Even the strongest flipped their senses. Tough guys who you think nothing could affect them might be the first ones to break under the stress and strain.
I developed combat fatigue or battle exhaustion after I got wounded and it all came to a head. That I still suffer with grief today means it will probably last an eternity. I will always see men dying horribly at my feet, friends of mine, including those from back home. The cruelty and the barbarism and continual slaughter and carnage envelops my consciousness. The decimation of my company to a surviving few original members, the heroism I've seen and the morbid incidents, the innocent people slain and the poor animals hurt and destroyed...
The next installment which takes place in August, September and ends at the end of October 1944 at Metz and along other places in the Maginot Line area in the Lorraine Campaign. Here we served next to Patton's Third Army where my combat days came to an end.
(Unfortunately, this is where Guy Charland's unfinished memoir ends, except for some poetry which will be posted soon.)