©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
An Unpleasant and Unfortunate Incident
Early July '44 during a lull in the fighting, we happened to be near one of our artillery units, the 345th Field Artillery, which was busy throwing shells into the German positions with one hell of a racket; we were impressed by the cool and efficient way they handled those big guns – 105s – and I believe the Krauts were impressed too to their terror.
Later that day when we moved out, we saw the results of their accurate firing, what a hell of a mess – dead Germans and smashed vehicles all over the area; the carnage was complete. What was awful and weird was the uncanny silence in this "field of death," and with all this was the cheerful chirping of birds; it felt unreal, a fantasy of death and destruction and birds singing, someone said jokingly – vultures.
Everywhere we went across the fields from one hedgerow after another, the arbor was strewn with the results of that awesome barrage. I didn't see one live German. If there were any wounded, we didn't see any. Whoever said the artillery was the "Devil's Own" was right. I know how the enemy must have felt under this incessant bombardment; we went through the same dreadful experience ourselves when they hit us with those damn 88s, so we just paid them back in coin. The bastards. This was going to be one hell of a long bloody war and with no end in sight, the grieving horrible thought of continuous combat day after day was enough to make you "flip" your marbles – "go loony" as the British would say and a hell of a lot did; mental casualties can kill an army.
I passed a very moving and vivid sight today at a crossroad – a roadside shrine of the "crucified Christ" gazing on us with those sad eyes as we passed Him by – it drew tears from my eyes. He knew our thoughts truly. Since the end of the war long ago, I still recall that incident like yesterday. I have many such memories to crowd a lifetime. Every soldier who went through that war as a combat soldier, was affected in one way or another by those events, especially fighting and its effects on heart and soul.
An unpleasant and unfortunate incident of the death of two priests happened during an advance across hedgerow country some time after the Utah landing. We had had some severe fighting the past few days with a large number of casualties. Fortunately, more of the Krauts than us. In our advance, we approached a school of sorts which turned out to be a seminary for priests and brothers. Things not being sacred to the Huns, they had taken over and occupied this seminary with the purpose of defending it against American forces moving ahead, and it had to be us who had the privilege of shooting up the place and driving them out if it was possible.
An attempt was made by our company CO to contact the Germans and to try to persuade them to leave the place intact (under a flag of truce), so the innocent priests and nuns would not become casualties. We would allow the Germans to leave unmolested by us. It was not insisted that they surrender – although it was brought up. They didn't buy it. I didn't think they would and neither would they vacate the seminary, a very old 18th century building. The Germans proposed that the priests and nuns would be permitted to leave the battle area and they would defend the place against us. So that is how it ended – so much for chivalry.
The priests left in a couple of hours and no fighting broke out which was a rare thing these last two or three weeks. So the truce was honored. After that ended, all hell burst loose. Business as usual as the old saying goes. The death of the two French priests was a sad occurrence. It pains me to recount it, but this is part of the story and memory. There was considerable rifle and MG fire going on interspersed with some mortar action. As we approached the main building at a side entrance, there was a wrought iron fence all around the building with a side gate. I strayed from my company and platoon and lost contact with my pal Bill and was by myself. I ran along the fence to a clump of shrubbery which lined a good part of the fence that provided good cover and concealment. I hid alongside some bushes and a few small trees and spent some time observing a corner of the building where there was a door. I had a good view and was in good position to see any German movement out of the building. It was getting dusk. Shadows were beginning to form, especially from the tree orchards and it became hard to make out for sure anyone coming out of the building. As I watched, I made up my mind that any movement coming from that place and I would respond with my rifle. Even with bad visibility, I couldn't miss any Krauts making a break.
There was a hell of a racket going on with all that small arms fire – a real symphony of noise. It was enough to make you stone deaf. As I watched, suddenly the door opened and two figures ran out. At that moment, I opened up and fired several shots in succession. The two figures were silhouetted in front of the open door. I couldn't miss. Both figures dropped at almost the same time. After they fell, I discovered that in the excitement, I had emptied my rifle and hurriedly put another clip into the M-1and kept firing into the open door, stopping anyone else from coming out.
I stopped firing, got up and ran down the fence line to the open gate. I stopped at the entrance for a few seconds, then ran across the open grounds to the cobblestone path to the end of the building, which had the open door where I had shot the two figures, and jumped behind a big tree a few yards from the door. I could see through the haze the two crumpled shapes on the path. There was still a lot of firing going on. It would die down a little then flare up again.
From the start of this action, I saw no one. Everything must be going on toward the other side. I figured if anyone came around this side, I'd have a field day. I had enough rounds and grenades. I'd see them before they'd see me and if things got too hot, I could get away easily.
While crouching behind that big tree, I saw some of our guys coming up the other side of the seminary building and shooting as they came and breaking into the building at various places of entrance. They were attempting to kill and flush out the defenders. The Germans were firing from the windows. The small arms noise was deafening. As I crouched next to the tree, no other people came out of the doorway and I was just as happy. I was so tired despite all the noise and activity, I could have fallen asleep right there where I leaned against the tree and that could have been dangerous. Then I thought of the two figures sprawled out on the path in front of me that a short time ago I had shot. I got up, ran over to have a look and to my horror and shock, the figures were not Kraut soldiers, but Catholic priests. By a terrible error, I had shot down two innocent people thinking they were the enemy. I was in disbelief. For a moment, it staggered me. I forgot all about the war and what I was doing at the time. I thought I was seeing things and it was my imagination, but as I looked again, it was true as hell. I will not dwell on this tragedy any longer as it still haunts me to this day, but it's part of this narration. It was not my fault, but it still pains me. As they say, "the fortunes of war," but I still retain the guilt and question "why?"
After about two hours of severe fighting, the Krauts were driven out of the seminary with heavy casualties – mostly theirs – and the priests and sisters returned to their damaged buildings and through the goodness of their hearts, administered medical and spiritual assistance to us and the enemy, the very people who caused their pain and suffering to begin with. It would have been difficult for me to do that. I never believed in turning the other cheek or worse, forgiving my enemy, and after going through the battle, I still feel the same – even more so. People I have met are shocked by my philosophy. I don't forget or forgive. They say it is un-Christian to feel that way. As the Arab saying goes, "So be it." My God understands. Those two poor Catholic priests came back to haunt my mind. My anger reigned supreme.
Bill gave me a lot of much-needed support. When advancing across one field to another through the hedgerows, we came across many dead troops, German and American, laying around haphazardly in all kinds of positions. The worst ones were the dismembered bodies scattered about – arms, legs, heads, entrails, etc., everything imaginable. These were the worst sights to come in contact with. As you can guess, many of them because of their condition were completely unidentifiable and along with this picture was the unbearable and obscene stench that stretched all over the area. Hollywood, take note. It permeated your nostrils, body, even your clothes absorbed the horrible rot. It took forever to get rid of it. It caused you to vomit – even thinking about it made you wretch and sick. The same scene happening in winter with the cold air and snow would make these odors became somewhat subdued and somewhat more bearable, in opposite to this particular incident during the summer heat such as in June, July and August where decomposition is more prevalent. So the severe cold of winter has its good side. Of course, until the spring thaws come around, the severe cold atmosphere makes things appear sterile and odorless.