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Remembrance of Combat in Normandy

Guy Charland

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

Chapter 4

But for the Grace of God

    JUNE 8, 1944. This was a Monday and an overcast day. We were in a column marching down a blacktop after having had a bitter battle with some Krauts a while ago that we forced out of a small village and retreated. We suffered minor casualties, but we managed to kill several of them and counted about ten or more dead Germans, all from small arms fire.

    After the fight, we captured two officers and some NCOs and privates. We set up a guard for them and the rest of the company marched off to the next confrontation which wasn't long in arriving. (I forgot during this melee, we had one casualty.) One guy from another platoon tripped over a tree stump into a muddy ditch and dislocated his shoulder. Boy, was he happy. He was evacuated by jeep to the beach and then to a hospital and a nice clean bed in England. I hope he had ugly nurses. I should be so lucky. He returned to us a few weeks later and was jubilant about it. I told him, "Now you had your little rest and R&R chasing English chicks. Welcome back to the war." I'm sorry to say the poor bastard got killed in the battle in the Maginot Line sector. I'm not using the word "bastard" in a mean or derogatory manner. We were all "bastards" in one way or another. We used it as meaning someone unfortunate or a real tough soldier, or maybe a term of endearment.

    As I previously mentioned, we were in a column of ducks down this blacktop road when all hell burst loose. It sounded like all the small arms in the German army tore into us. There was a mad dive into the roadside ditches alongside the blacktop.

    We couldn't see any of the enemy except for this hellish fire and the infernal noise. We were pinned down. Every time someone attempted to get out or look up, there was instant fire, what felt like a thousand small arm weapons. Thank God, they didn't have mortars, although this was lethal enough. We had to lay there and take it. Some of us died instantly or from wounds with no medical help.. We could hear the injured crying out for help but we could not do anything to aid them. Suddenly, we heard new sounds – artillery shells, "outgoing" mail from our side – Hooray – right into our tormentors on the damn German side. Now the shoe was on the enemy's foot. Thank God for the 105s or 155s. I didn't care what they were. They saved our hides from disaster in the nick of time.

    We all jumped out of the ditches and started on a lope down the road. Except for sporadic fire, the intense fire we were subjected to had lessened considerably. Those big guns had done their job. I'll never say anything against the artillery again. We got to the end of the trail which ended at a crossroad. We crossed over to our left and into a field and orchard, what was left of it. What met my eyes was staggering; it was just covered with dead and dying Germans in all kinds of positions. The devastation was awful. Huge craters all over the place left by those awesome guns. Fires had erupted here and there, together with the heavy acrid smell of burning oil and vegetation and vehicles. The air being humid made it even worse and unbearable. I had a choking sensation and my eyes burned and teared. We hurriedly moved on across the field to a hedgerow, where we crossed over into the next field which also had been visited by our big guns with the same deadly effect, but not as severe.

    There were a large number of dead Krauts here also. It appeared by the way they were lying they were trying to escape the deadly wrath of our gun fire, but didn't make it to safety  – one good thing, it ended up as a black day for the Krauts. After giving us one hell of a beating, we gave it back to them twofold. To me it looked like we had kicked the hell out of a division. It was a consolation to me and made me feel good. No livestock had been killed; horses, cattle, goats, sheep, etc. – only the damned Germans; I didn't feel sorry for them. Having always been a strong animal lover to this day, I had a lot of compassion for them. The innocent animals had been spared. It's strange – something like these animals surviving gave me a good feeling. (I should see a shrink about this, shouldn't I?) The Army would have sent me to a psycho hospital for battle fatigue. I might have escaped combat duty if they had known this. Well, so much for lost opportunities. Next time, I'll get caught talking to a goat and they'll send me away.

    Had another hell of a battle early one morning a few days later at a badly destroyed town that was being fanatically defended by a large force of German troops and some tanks. As I had written, the town itself was badly demolished which made it a veritable fortress. With all the blown up houses, the debris and rubble laying about made it difficult as hell to drive the enemy out. Casualties on both sides were considerable. It was a nasty, bloody fight, and the noise of the MGs and rifles was deafening. It was a delaying action on the part of the Germans so the main elements could make a quick exit.

    It seemed to take forever to break their stubborn defensive positions and capture what was left of the town. I'll say one thing: That they did a hell of a job, holding us off, during this hotly contested battle. I shot two Germans as they tried to escape from a burning house. They took me by surprise as they came out of the house in front of me. Both of them never saw me or what hit them. For their sake, they didn't suffer.

    There was an awful lot of small arms fire. The air was filled with the sharp cracks of rifles and clatter of machine guns and dodging bullets was a common activity – the name of the game. I consider it a miracle that I came out unscathed, not so for a lot of us. It was all over for many of us and the Germans. The Germans took the heaviest casualties. We killed about 150 and about 100 wounded, so I was told, and took many prisoners. I was informed that we had about three hundred killed, missing and wounded. Later, all or practically all the missing were accounted 'for, mostly wounded. All considered we came off the better but with us any killed is unfortunate even though we lost less. We lost 10 replacements killed in my company and 12 wounded. The whole scrap felt like no end. It actually lasted about an hour and a half, more or less. It felt like it lasted days. As I sat there thinking, boy, this damn war is not over by a long shot and it was going to be like this day after day, week after week, etc., till one day, it will be all over, and if I and my pals aren't killed, it'll be a miracle, and we would all leave it to the Almighty. War made me very fatalistic, religious, fear of the unknown. How I was going to get it; how badly injured would I be – the more I thought of all this and its possibilities, the more anxious and panic stricken I became. I had to force myself to control my awful fear and anxiety and keep myself under control and not break down after a bloody battle. All these symptoms and feelings are let loose on you, more so with others.

    I began looking for my pal and others that survived. Doing this helped me to keep my composure – and I prayed a lot and tried to build up my courage with divine help. Battle is a deadly game with definite results. Many times I thought I would wake up and all this horror was just a bad dream; no such luck. Other strong feelings – I had a premonition that I would never see home, family or friends again. Somewhere, someplace in this battlefield was an unchanging end to my life as the saying: "A bullet somewhere has my name on it." The odds were against me surviving. When you have that scary feeling day after day, it is most difficult to live with, even if you have strong religious beliefs. It caused a lot of soldiers to have mental breakdowns. I did, but it did not occur until the danger and combat ended, and it all rolled in on me. I had flashbacks, severe anxiety, nightmares, depression, etc. to the present time. I forgot who said this, maybe Keats the English poet, "there but by the grace of God go I."

    A good example of "flipping your mind" was this. One day, a few replacements arrived to our company. Most of them were real young, out of high school, 17 or 18 years old. Never been in battle. Today or the next day they would be men – after their "baptism of fire." Well, they were being assigned to different platoons in our company when all of a sudden, the Germans fired a couple of mortar rounds at us, with sporadic sniper fire. One or two of these young GIs jumped up and started to scream, cry – in complete loss of control. Not one of them had been struck by a bullet or shell fragment; they just went to pieces and had to be rounded up by the medics and taken out of the battle area to a first aid station. For them, the war was over (I don't know if they were lucky or not). They might have suffered severe traumatic injury. I did not blame them, that was their limit. It sometimes didn't take much to become a mental casualty and yet some soldiers went through the whole thing without being hurt and again it was just a matter of time when it would build up, even to the strongest, and that was that. Every soldier had his limit. In those days of WWII, it was called "battle exhaustion," "combat breakdown," but now we have a more intellectual title for it – PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Sounds like a Bachelor of Science degree, born of the Vietnam fiasco. A really bad military affair with more good men destroyed for no damned good reason.

    After our regiment landed on the Normandy beach, some time later, and fighting our way inland against strong and determined resistance, we had the opportunity to occupy a chateau. I had the good luck to sleep in one of the rooms of which there were many. This large building, at one time, must have belonged to some people of means in more peaceful times. The appearance of the interior merits some description for those people who are still in doubt as to the savagery of the bestiality the Krauts were capable of attaining. The fine drawing room was a veritable dung heap, the beautiful curtains were torn, the small billiard table lay upside down in the middle of the room, a litter of rotting food covered the floor, the fine furniture was all smashed, the chairs were broken, the easy chairs had their stuffing torn out of them and the glass of the cabinets were broken. One could see that all the small objects and artistic pieces had been carried off and everything else was methodically broken up, fine linens trimmed with lace were soiled with excrement, excrement was everywhere, in the bath, on the sheets, on the floor. They had vomited on the beds and urinated on the walls, broken bottles of red wine were spilled on the costly carpets, obscene designs and drawings were traced in charcoal on the wallpaper together with filthy inscriptions. I have stated enough of the degrading traces left by a contemptible enemy which would have shamed Attila the Hun. I have exaggerated nothing; if anything, I have understated the truth. And this is the nation that was to rule the world of culture and civilization. May it stand forever as a tribute that is reduced to its true level, which is below that of a sub-human, so is this horror we are facing and fighting. The German idea of waging war would make Genghis Khan an amateur. They deserved the infamous label of "the Hun" called by the British soldiers in World War I, so it still is in World War II, a continuation of German arrogance and false superior philosophy and complete disregard for anything gentle and humane, these then were the "20th Century Barbarians."

    We passed through Amfreville. It was a nice place in more peaceful times. It had quite a history in the Medieval era. While trotting along a dusty dirt road, we passed a few shot-up and abandoned farmhouses and wrecked German vehicles with the usual dead bodies lying about in the different ways they had been killed and parts of bodies. Those dead along the road looked like they had been surprised and strafed by Allied attack planes. These Germans never had a chance to get away or into the safety of the ditches or nearby orchards. A lot of them were killed while in their trucks or attempting to get away from them. God, I was glad it was the Krauts and not us. German aircraft hardly ever showed up at all. Thank the Lord we had supremacy of the skies. Our planes were there, needed or not – a great consolation. Now I'm sure how the Germans felt when they were on the receiving end of these aerial assaults when they were having a holiday in the earlier years of the war in '39, '40 and '41. Like I told a POW, "How does it feel now that you're getting the hell kicked out of you by our planes? Ain't it fun, now, isn't it?" He looked at me with hurt feeling and my arrogance scared the hell out of him. I thought of pals of mine that were not around anymore and felt like shooting him and the rest of the bastards we had collared in a bunch. They must have seen it in my eyes by the way they huddled. They looked so pathetic and pitiful, not the typical superman I had read and heard about. I had nothing but contempt and hatred toward them. Fifty years later, I still feel the same, have not forgotten or forgiven. I guess I'll take it to my lonely grave. So be it! Sometimes I shock my Christian friends and acquaintances. They feel I have an un-Christian and a pagan philosophy and attitude and that I should forgive. Well, they are allowed their beliefs. Many of these so–called proclaimed Christians are un-Christian in other matters a lot worse than mine. So let God decide. I'm not sorry for the Germans I killed and the ones I'm not sure of. That's one reason why I enlisted in the Army – to fight for my country and the Allied cause against this German ideology to subjugate the world. This also includes the Japanese aggression. Little did I know then that there would be another ideology to replace them.

    I got ahead of myself in this narration. As I had previously written, I was wounded at the tail-end of June or so. The first time by a sniper located in the upper floor of this house located in a small Norman village we had entered, the enemy having left the place some time before. The town itself was not too badly torn up. There was a limited amount of dwellings: a church, a few stores demolished, with a few snipers left behind to harass us. This was a common German practice, and also, the usual devil's devices – booby traps which caused a number of casualties in our regiment.

    At times it was carelessness which caused a lot of damage. If you stayed on the alert for these devilish things, it cut down on getting maimed or killed. We have been on the move through this small village, going down the main street through the heart of town and toward the center of the place which always seemed to have a monument or fountain of sorts. It seems all these villages had these centers with a lot of houses and stores built around it. I remember seeing a little park with benches and foliage and small bushes in different spots. We halted for a short break before advancing on and I was so tired. I hadn't slept in two days. I was dead on my feet and I welcomed the halt for a few minutes. We were all spread out waiting for the signal to move up. It was just enough time for me to doze off, which I found out, to my dismay, was a bad mistake. When I awoke, everybody was gone. I was terrified to death. Where had everyone gone? What direction had they gone? There I was in the middle of this place near the village square without the slightest move to make.

    Then I heard a lot of firing going on and it was hard to judge in what direction it was coming from. I was completely confused and began to feel possibly the worst thing – panic. It can kill. I tried to calm down and decide what to do – go back or try to move ahead and rejoin my company?

    There were four streets leading away from the square but which one to take? So I got up and made a dash toward one of the streets I guessed they took, hoping it was the right one. I was halfway across when I heard the sharp crack of a rifle and felt something hitting me with a sharp sting in the arm or hand. At the same time the impact knocked me down and landed me on the pavement on my chest.

    I had been struck sideways. I was still clutching my rifle with my right finger on the trigger under me. My left hand was holding onto the forward part of the weapon, the small of the stock, so that my body lay right on top of everything. My helmet was still on my head with the visor on the cement pavement, so I could see in front of me to the left side. I didn't move. I heard distant footsteps coming toward me from the right side from one of the houses I had seen when crossing the street. I was very scared and very alert in my situation.

    I felt no pain but a numbness hi my right hand and forearm. I couldn't tell how badly I was injured, but at least I was alive for a while. I had the strong feeling that this was my last time on this earth. It felt like an eternity, laying there. I felt the feeling of clamminess and a tingling sensation. The steps got closer and stopped right next to me. It was a bright sunny day and as I lay there looking ahead, the enemy cast a shadow and I looked, so I knew where he stood. I held my breath.

    Suddenly, he kicked me in the hip. I still didn't move despite the pain. I expected him to put a bullet into me. This is it, I thought, but thank God, he didn't shoot. He moved away from me. I could hear his steps receding back to where he had come, so quickly, I took a chance, got up and fired hi the direction I figured him to be. I guessed right. It happened so fast he didn't know what happened. I fired and struck him in the back and he went down without a sound. At the same time, I bolted down the rest of the street to a corner of a building where I crouched and looked back at him. He was lying in the street motionless – scratch one less sniper. Then the horrible thought hit me. It was a close call, Lord, wasn't it? I couldn't believe that had happened to me and I had survived. His mistake in not shooting me was my life saver.

    Unknown to me there was more to come very shortly. After this, I took off to find an aid station. I retreated back the way we had come. I came to a place along the road to rest and took out a cigarette. When I did, I felt a very sharp pain in my right hand. It came to me that I had been hit, but the rifle shot had numbed my hand. I didn't feel a thing and could hardly move my fingers. At least, thank God, at the time I could move my trigger finger, but I could barely move it now. My thumb was the only thing I could move. My hand had swelled up like a baseball mitt.

    I saw where his bullet had struck right below the little finger above the wrist. Hardly any blood came out. It went in the front of my hand and it came out the back. I couldn't even use my first aid kit to dress it. In fact the bullet, when it went through my hand, even penetrated through the small of the stock of my rifle, the part I held when hit. It's a wonder that it hadn't shattered my hand. The pain I expected hadn't started yet. What I was afraid of was shock and panic before I could reach an aid station. I still had a lot of ground to cover with, I'm sure, more snipers. I wasn't out of the woods yet.

    I thought – Boy, what a mess I've gotten myself into. I said a lot of prayers to God and a few Saints, mostly military.

    After getting out of that damned village, it was urgent for me to reach the aid station. I trotted down the blacktop along a ditch adjacent to a lengthy hedgerow, of which Normandy is famous for, in this case, for me infamous because the Krauts used these to their advantage. So, mustering up courage,  I watched my hand swell. If any Kraut showed up, my trigger finger could still function. I started down along the ditch instead of on the road. Less conspicuous this way. After running low a ways down the ditch, I came to the end of the hedgerow. At the end was a wide wood gate, partially opened, with a dirt path. Entering a field from the main road, I looked around the gate into the field and saw a group of farmhouses and some livestock, cows and sheep grazing, but could see no humans about. If there were, they may have left to return later on when a lot of the fighting died down. Well, I got up and entered the field. I felt so tired and had a wounded hand that started to pain with some spasms, but at this stage of the game, I didn't care. If I located the aid station, I would consider it a miracle. I did not think I'd make it to one; I had the feeling of real and complete desertion. But something made me push on. I couldn't give up now. I had a strange feeling of getting light headed and giddy. The nasty thought crossed my mind of some French farmer finding my dead body in some field or orchard. That horrible feeling seemed to jolt me into reality which gave me the impulse to move along quicker.

    Crossing the field, I finally made it to the farmhouse and into a courtyard entrance. It was a typical Norman farm with granite stone walls and iron entrance gate, similar to the other farmstead with the cantankerous bull we had had a battle over with the Krauts. But this time, I didn't see a bull. I entered the house which was quite large with a large fireplace and hearth. I found the sink and being thirsty as hell, I drank a lot of water and filled my canteen. That had a good refreshing effect. It renewed to help me think clearer. I didn't realize how thirsty I was. I looked at my poor hand which now started to bleed. This gave me the energy or adrenalin, whatever, to get to that aid station.

 While filling my canteen, I thought I heard something – voices, approaching the house. I looked out the window and saw a group of figures coming toward the direction of the house. As they got a bit closer, it turned out to be Germans – five of them that I could see, maybe more.

    What am I going to do now. Don't panic. Keep calm (or as they say now, don't lose your cool) or you're dead – five against one. Not good odds. This is where I wish I had a Tommy gun. With one quick blast, I'd get 'em all. They were quite a bit bunched up. Easy targets, but I didn't know if I could get them all with my M-1.

    My best bet was to get the hell out of there without being seen. That was the problem. Quickly I ran out the back the way I had entered through the courtyard. I saw my way out when I had come into the courtyard. I had noticed a large hay wagon with high sides. With a fast leap, I jumped into the wagon to hide and hoped if they came into the courtyard and passed the wagon, they would not look in it. I was very lucky. My guardian angel came to my aid. They came out. I could hear them with those hob-nailed boots on the cobblestones, laughing and talking. As I was not familiar with Kraut talk, I couldn't tell what they said. Anyhow, they passed out of the courtyard and the Lord knows where they went – another close shave.

    I waited a good while before I got out of the wagon and got the hell out of that damn place. I headed in the direction I was originally going. I entered another field and fruit orchard. I was hungry so I grabbed a couple of apples off a tree and started on my way, with the usual cig hanging from my lips. I still had a few packs of Pall Malls to get me through. My right hand was hurting like hell now. Hurt or not, I still had to use it. I knew I had some broken bones. That much I knew. Another thing that scared me was mines. I hadn't thought of that until a moment ago. I had skirted along the ditch. The chances of mines there was not likely, at least, that's what I told myself. You kind of became fatalistic in these situations and prayed like hell. So far all the prayers I said seemed to pay off.

    I finally got to the end of the field with nothing happening. I searched for an opening in the hedge which was on the top of the embankment, of course, with the usual drainage ditch below it. Somehow I found an opening in the hedge, got up the embankment with difficulty and pulled myself up with my shot-up hand. Oh God, it hurt. Anyhow, I got over it and dropped down into the ditch on the other side and stopped to catch my breath.

    I looked over the ditch to the field. It looked clear except for a demolished German six-wheeled personnel tractor carrier and a couple of Jagd (hunter) Panther tanks, still smoking. I could smell the burning oil flowing my way, the victim of an air assault.

    I got the feeling I'd make it providing there would be no more obstacles. I had enough of this for the day, but it was not to be. The devil was against me, an ally of the Germans. As I started to make that final run to the other side of the field, there was a hedge running the length of my run; as I moved along, suddenly a Kraut stepped on the embankment of the hedge. I saw him first. He was looking to the right. I put on some speed to pass him and gain the end of the field to a ditch past the destroyed vehicles. Why I didn't fire at him has been an enigma to me. I could have killed him. He turned around with an astonished look on his face. I'll never forget it, with his mouth open, he watched me run like a fox by him. In high school, I had been on the track team; half- mile runner. I never broke a run record then, but I guarantee I made a new record now. But I didn't get to the ditch untouched. He regained his wits. He had a machine pistol (Schmeiser) slung over his shoulder. By the time he shot a burst, I got to the ditch and made a mad dive into it as he fired the first burst and missed. But on the second, he struck me in the right rear thigh. I felt the sting and burning sensation, but thank God, it didn't strike any bone.

    I lay in the ditch and moved my leg. It was okay. I discovered the ditch was one mess of muddy and stinking water. On top of that, there was the corpse of a Kraut soldier I had landed on and he was not in good shape – pretty well mangled up. I was just covered with bloody gore. It made me retch. God knows how long he had been laying there. His whole face was discolored. It was a purplish black color. I still can see it. I was in severe stress, anxiety and damn pain. I could have screamed. So without waiting a minute more, I crept along the muddy ditch until I got to a point where I got behind my enemy. I looked over the top and there he was. He had dropped into the face of the embankment looking in the direction I had jumped into the ditch. I raised my rifle. I didn't even take aim. I placed it right in the direction he was lying. I don't know how many shots I fired but I put him out of this life. He'd never shoot anyone any more and with this, I became hysterical and began laughing like I had heard a good joke, like a hunter – the best shot I had made. I saw the bullets pucker up his jacket and put a hole in his helmet. I crawled out and went over to him to take a look. I thought he moved so I placed a couple more rounds into him. He was a bloody mess and I was ecstatically joyful. I think shock was setting in or had already set in. Earlier I felt dizzy as hell. Anyway, I crossed into the next field at a dog trot, still clutching my rifle.

    As I proceeded along, I looked ahead to the next hedge and to my horror, there was a figure directly in front lying down. At this distance, I didn't know for sure if it was another German or one of our guys. As I got closer to him, I thought "three strikes, you're out," but to my welcomed relief, it was a signal corpsman laying telephone line. I reached him and just collapsed in front of him. I told him what had happened to me and when I saw him, I felt sure he was a German and he thought likewise, and it was do or die – my last time on earth. He treated my hand wound and it was a mess. By looking at it, I couldn't tell if I would lose my hand or if gangrene had set in.

    He directed me to a field aid station about half a mile down the road. I thanked him no end for helping me. We wished each other luck and I was on my way. I got to the aid station. There were casualties all over the place and in part of the yard were some GIs who hadn't made it.

    After this terrible ordeal, I finally reached help. I just collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Despite the pain, I fell asleep thanking God I was alive. Anybody going though tins ordeal must believe in a Supreme Being watching over you, so I believed. These front line doctors are something else. In my estimation, they were the top and also the nurses. This one doctor woke me up and helped me to the operating table. He kept calling me son. I looked so young he asked my age. I told him I was twenty but he said I looked so much younger, like seventeen. I told him he flattered me, but I really was twenty. He operated on my hand. It was badly hurt, but I would not lose its use.

    I was a walking wounded. They put me in a jeep with other badly wounded men on stretchers. I sat in front with the driver with my M-1 to protect us on the drive to the evacuation field hospital to put me on a sea-going jeep to a hospital ship bound for Southampton, England.

Contents                   Chapter 5