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Remembrance of Combat in Normandy

Guy Charland

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

Chapter 9

Raging Bull

    While engaged in a fight with the Germans, I  temporarily strayed from my platoon and got lost in a forested area. I could hear heavy small arms fire all around me, but saw no one from my platoon. It was hard to determine in which direction it was occurring. (Again, I'm lost.) I was afraid to move for fear of being picked off by some Kraut sniper because I knew a lot of them were around in the trees or outlying houses and barns. What was scary and unnerving was – where were they?

    Well, I skulked around the surrounding hedges and shrubs which were plentiful, hoping none of them would see me, and I would try to contact my platoon or for that matter, any of our guys or anyone else. There were some Airborne soldiers around. Maybe I'd meet some of them.

    It was starting to get a little dark and I was getting more jittery and apprehensive. Being alone like this was no joke. I was hoping to God I wouldn't bump into a bunch of Germans. That would be just my luck. I could see myself up against a battalion of Krauts – me and my lowly M-1.

    Suddenly to my left, the ground erupted by shell fire, from whose side I didn't know. Then shells began crashing down all over the place with me in the middle, and what was worse, a lot of tree bursts. I wished I wasn't in these woods will all that shrapnel flying around. I was so scared I couldn't move. I felt immobilized. I just hugged the ground in a small ditch by some bushes and fallen trees. It was some protection except for a direct hit, and that would be the early end to my life. So I just lay there. It would have been suicide to move out. I had to sweat it out. Suddenly, the barrage lifted except for some sporadic small arms fire and the staccato of machine guns. It sounded like Kraut fire. Their MGs had a faster rate of firepower than our light .30s. That didn't make me feel too good, but at least this terrible artillery fire let up. I was wet all over with sweat. My clothes were soaking and besides this, I had pissed in my pants. I knew I shouldn't have had that last drink from my canteen. I was still shaking from fright. I must have smoked about six or eight cigarettes during that time, and I kept saying "Dear God, stay with me," besides invoking all the help I could of the Saints, Joan of Arc, St. Paul, etc.

    With all of this I became a confirmed complete chain smoker. You would be surprised at how much smoking helped to keep me calm, even though it was a deception. When I ran out of cigs – watch out. I even searched dead bodies, ours or Krauts, for butts. I kept away from German cigs. They were terrible. Those damn things would kill you. That thought made me laugh, what with all their other stuff they had to kill with.

    Getting back to the scene at hand, there I was, all alone, except for this small arms fire, though not as intense as earlier. I started on my way not knowing where I was going or what lay ahead, hoping to see my pals.

    Going through a hedgerow into another field, there, laying in different positions in death, were a large number of Germans who were killed during that heavy artillery fire. Some of the corpses were terribly mutilated and dismembered: arms, legs, heads, entrails and other body parts that I could not identify and in this hot June sun, it wouldn't take long before all those bodies would start to stink in this terrible heat. It all took on the look of a horrible massacre – the field of death. I felt like being in a state of unreality and disbelief of what I was seeing. It all appeared so insane and looked like an obscenity of me worst kind – a scene from "Dante's Inferno". I would see a lot of this kind of horror before this war would come to an end, if I wasn't killed in the meantime.

    I've got to get the hell out of this place of death. I crossed into the next field and it was a repetition of the last one. Getting into a fight was a hell of a lot better than this nightmare. I finally reached a well-paved road, but I didn't know which direction to go. Boy, was I completely lost, just standing there deciding what to do, in which direction to travel.

    I heard an aircraft engine. I looked up to the sky and saw four or five two-engined aircraft. I had binoculars. I pulled them out and focused on the planes. They were ours and looked like B–26 Marauders with invasion stripes on them heading north by my compass. My Boy Scout knowledge came to my aid. One plane had a smoking engine bringing up the rear. It had been hit, so I figured if they were headed north, they must be heading back from a raid, so my best bet was to travel in a northern direction. Logically, they must be heading back to their base. (I hoped I had made the right choice).

    As I trotted down the road, I ran into some guys of the 101st Airborne Division. They apparently saw me and as I approached them, they were in concealment. Then two of them jumped out in front of me. I almost had a heart attack and damn near crapped in my drawers from fright. They were glider men. I was white as a sheet and fear was written all over my face. When they saw me and the way I looked, they broke out laughing and offered me a cigarette. I had to sit down. I was all shook up.

    "Why did you bastards do that to me?" It was not my idea of a joke. The horrible thought hit me – if they had been Krauts, I would have had more holes in me than Swiss cheese.

    After they apologized for having scared the hell out of me, I asked their Lieutenant if he or others had seen any members of the 90th Division. They told me they have other soldiers of other outfits, but were not sure who they were. I asked if I could join them till I located my company. They said they could use another rifleman and would be glad if I joined them – but the pay was the same, so everyone got a laugh. No special favors.

    We stepped along single file at eight-foot intervals along a blacktop going uphill. We saw the wreckage of several vehicles. I especially took notice of a large Royal Tiger tank half out of a ditch. It was still smoking from a hit in the engine area. I could smell the odor of burning oil and burnt metal. Some dead Germans laying around looked like some of the crew that tried to escape and had been cut down. I looked up at the gun turret with a Kraut hanging half out of the opening or hatch. I took special notice as his head was half severed with his eyes staring upward and mouth open with a large stream of blood flowing from his throat. I had a fixed gaze at him. As I looked at it while moving along, I stumbled over a piece of junk and nearly fell down, but caught myself. I had a vision of this horrid scene for some time. It's uncanny how something like this sticks in your mind and becomes difficult to shake off till you see something else to take its place.

    There was also evidence of strafing by fighter bombers – British or American; there was torn-up pavement, uprooted trees, blown houses, dead Germans and Americans, etc. Complete ruin and desolation. You could sense the presence of death in the air. I had the urge to escape from this carnage as quickly as possible.

    We reached the top of the road which wound around to the left right into this lifeless village, or so it appeared. A smoky haze or mist hung in the air. As we approached the base of the road entering the village, we were met with a fierce blast of small arms fire which made all of us leap into the ditches on both sides of the road. None of the troops died on the spot or were killed as they jumped into the ditch for cover. I almost got it. Several rounds hit the ground in front of me and some slugs hit my helmet and knocked me flat. I almost met my maker but providence saved me. As I fell into the ditch, a trooper behind me got it and he never made the ditch, but as he got hit, his body fell on top of me. He was hit with a volley right in the face and head. He never knew what hit him. His face and part of his head was literally torn away leaving a bloody unrecognizable mess. His helmet was thrown to one side with part of his brain inside. Part of him was spattered all over me and my uniform. The thought I had was "Jesus, it could have been me." We lay there together and I finally tried to crawl from under him. He was pretty heavy, but I managed to move out. I was covered with gore.

    A medic rushed up to me and figured I had been hit. "No," I said to him. "I'm okay. I got spattered by this trooper who had been done in."

    As I stooped with the medic, I retched and vomited. Everything I had eaten came up. I managed to say a prayer for his soul. The battle for the village was going on hot and heavy. The troopers I joined up with must have amounted to at the start about 40 or so odd men before the day's battle ended with casualties. Must have been over half killed and wounded by the looks of things. There were more of them than us. It took us more than a day or two to capture this worthless damn town. I wish I never had gotten involved with this battle and these troopers; I didn't know anyone. I was looking for a way out to get away and find my platoon and my pals. Wherever they were, they were probably wondering what the hell happened to me. I could see the damned Army sending a telegram, "Your son is missing in action." The thought of it threw me into a state of depression.

    At a signal from the lieutenant, we all got up and in a rush we all advanced into the entrance to the town in the face of this Kraut rifle fire. I don't see how we all escaped getting hit by this intense fire. I believe there were two or three casualties. I joined up with two other troopers. We kicked in the door of the first house we came across firing our weapons and we heaved a couple of grenades into the shattered windows. We heard screams of some of the Huns that were inside when the grenades exploded. We rushed into the door where we were confronted by three Krauts standing by the rear door in the kitchen. They were armed with rifles. We were glad they didn't have any burp guns (Schmeiser machine pistols) or we would have been killed. We caught them in a moment of surprise. They fired at us but their shots went wild. Before they could reload, I fired, hitting one in the cheek that spun him around, knocking him over a table. Another made a run for the rear door and got hit in the shoulder and he dropped. Everything happened so fast but it felt like an hour. There were more than three, but at first, that's all I saw. One soldier that entered with me accounted for two others but was winged by one of them in the leg, but not seriously. The second Kraut I hit threw up his arms yelling "Kamerad" (I give up), but in the heat of the engagement his sudden movement made me think he was going to shoot at me and I fired two shots into his body. He shuddered once and lay still. I jumped over him and ran out the rear of the house into a large courtyard, together with the three other troopers who were with me in the house including the fellow with the leg wound.

    Some of the Germans ran into this large barn which had some cows and horses in it. There was one hell of a donnybrook with rifle fire, yells. horses neighing, chickens running around cackling madly. If it wasn't so serious, it would have been a comedy. Later on when it was all over, we all laughed over it. One good thing, there were no casualties among the animals. In fact, one Kraut ran into a bull who proceeded to knock him down and trample and hurt him pretty bad. We all agreed to reward the bull with the Silver Star for his aggressive action. That bull was browned off at everyone and I didn't blame him. He created more fear of him than the Krauts.

    We counted our losses but no one was killed. We did have four wounded but not seriously. We accounted for as far as we could see about fourteen dead Germans and a few wounded. The rest had fled but I don't know how many of them there were. The main thing I wanted most was water. God, I was thirsty. We did find a well and I filled up my canteen.

    In our own group, we had about 30 or so of the 101st guys. We had three wounded and two men killed. We buried them. It was so sad. I didn't know them but I cried and said some prayers. I looked at them and thought one of those men could have been me. Every time I did see any of our men dead, I pictured myself with them. I never saw myself wounded, always fatal. I never felt optimistic.

    After this furious battle, we regrouped our forces outside the village. We had had a tough time of it but thank God, we won out – at least for now. We all merited a much-needed rest. We all looked for a spot to lie down.

    I still didn't know where the hell I was. I wanted so desperately to locate my buddies wherever they were. I thought for a moment to leave these men of the 101st and strike out alone to locate my comrades of "G" Company. Fighting is tough enough, but if at least I was with the men I knew, especially my pal Bill McDermott, I wouldn't feel so lonely and abandoned. If I got killed, at least I'd be with my company. There's a big difference. So, with that thought in mind, I'd pull out the first chance I got and notify the lieutenant of my intention.

    There wasn't much difference between the 101st Airborne and the 90th except for the fact that they jump out of C-47s and we don't. Once they are on the ground, we're all the same, but there's nothing like being with your own kind. Loyalty is a damn strong bond amongst soldiers. That's why I had to take off on my own for parts unknown.

    I tried to find the officer, Lt. Anderson, but found out he had been killed in the assault. So I made up my mind to take off first chance I got. They'd never miss me anyhow. Most didn't even know my name. I was getting ready to leave when we were hit with an artillery barrage. No doubt a counterattack. This would have to happen. I guess I was destined not to get out of here. Well, at least not now. Shells came in by the dozens. The air was filled with thousands of pieces of death-dealing shrieking shrapnel clipping the branches and leaves together with chunks of rock and dirt. It felt and sounded like a book I read once in high school – Dante's Inferno. The ground shuddered and shook after each detonation which was one after another. It felt just like the place I got shelled in earlier that morning or was it the other morning. But this felt even worse. It felt like they were using more and bigger guns. I got up and ran for cover to one of the small buildings. It was better than staying out here in the open catching all this German garbage.

    So here I was, alone again. I kept wondering how my company and platoon were doing. I entertained the hope that most of the company was intact. I tried to be optimistic, but you know in a war, any war, even this one, it's a hard thing to do or think (I think if I live through this mess, I am going to become a philosopher and teach in some big university. The topics would be "How to avoid minefields," "How to stay away from snipers," "What type of soil makes the best foxholes" and include types of European soil to make them in. You may laugh at this but these thoughts ran through my mind. Funny, the things you think about when you are scared, even corny jokes become funny and other things. If I live through this – an example – "I will never talk back to my parents" or "I will treat policemen with respect" and "I will attend Mass at church every Sunday and not use the name of God in vain," etc.

    As I crouched there looking through a busted window, I wondered what to do next. There was a lot of hot action and other activity coming from the beat-up houses in my front, but I was not too anxious to leave my hiding place to jump into the fire. For one thing, I did not know who was who. With my luck, I would probably have jumped into a German company and the idea was not the least appealing. I really would have felt stupid. But I had to do something. The idea of surrendering came to me but that would have been more stupid then the other thought. I said to myself, I enlisted in this war to rid the world of Krauts and if I gave up I'd be defeating my purpose. These escapades are taken from notes I kept and from searching into my memory like opening a door. It all comes out. I sometimes find it hard to find where I laid my car keys or my eyeglasses, but something that occurred 40 or 50 years ago, I remember. So from my hiding place in that house, I ran out the front door, crouched at the entrance and made tracks back to the barn where we had the last fight and the bull who kicked the hell out of the Kraut rifleman. I got up and ran as fast as I could and covered the distance from the house to the barn in record time without being shot at. I was so scared and ran so fast, they probably couldn't hit a moving target. Well, I like to think they couldn't.

    I entered the barn and found it pretty much shot up but still standing. Those stone walls could sure take a beating. I was all out of breath from that run and sat down on a bale of hay, when I heard a sound near me coming from the other side of a partition which probably held a horse in a stall. I quietly checked my M-1 and slowly made my way toward the stall where I heard the sound. As I got to the stall, I cautiously looked round and was startled to see that same bull that attacked and stomped the German soldier earlier. Needless to say, I was I surprised to see him there and still alive. He calmly stared at me while he chewed on some hay. I thought about getting gored by a bull. I just stood there in a sweat hoping he wouldn't attack. I didn't want to startle him. I slowly moved away from the stall and retreated. As I went back further I saw two dead Germans who had been manning a machine gun. They both were pretty well mangled up and the machine gun was a twisted jumbled mass of wreckage. It looked like they had been hit by shell fire, but no shell fire fell on us.

    Then at that moment, the bull came out into the open looking at me. I knew that this massacre was caused by this very same bull we had encountered earlier that stomped that Kraut to death. I better get the hell out of here before he had ideas about me as one of his victims, Kraut or otherwise. Well anyhow, better safe than sorry. I believe he was mad at everybody. I thought about the owners and what had happened to them, but like most of these large farm areas, everyone had evacuated the places and would come back later to see what was left. I did see some farms that were untouched and the occupants were still there with the livestock. The Germans took everything they could, even some of the people. What happened to them is anybody's guess. There were a number of collaborators and some did not have much choice but to cooperate or else. But a lot fought back and helped us a great deal with information and sabotage activities with the FFI (Free French of the Interior).

    There was one incident where the FFI attacked a German detachment and liberated a couple hundred GIs, so they were of invaluable service to us. But the biggest thing on my mind right now was to locate my company. God knows where they were. I'm probably listed as missing. This was, I think, quite some time after the beach landing. Right now, I didn't even know what the hell day it was.

    After leaving the barn and farm area, I walked down this dusty dirt road. I could not locate the blacktop road we had been on. Again this tinge of fear hit me. I lost all sense of direction and I had lost contact with the Airborne guys I had been with. I had a compass, but that was of little use to me right now. The one thing that came to me was to head back to that village where we had had that first encounter when I joined up with that trooper bunch. I figured this was my best choice. At least I knew I had a better chance to locate those Airborne troops.

    I knew the general direction of the village so I backtracked down the dirt road and into the woods and toward the farm area. I finally came to the hedgerows and the field with the dead Krauts laying around. Nothing had changed. I got to the entrance to the town where we had had that heated battle and got to that group of houses and barns. Then I saw the bull again. He was chewing grass and he saw me, but we didn't exchange any words and I kept moving across the field. I think I did wave to him in recognition and kept going (a little humor here). In a few minutes, I began to hear sounds of gunfire, so I knew I was on the right course (I kept saying to myself).

    As I ran ahead keeping low, I came to a ditch adjacent to a hedgerow. I found an opening and crept and crawled through it into a field and down into a ditch right on top of two dead Germans who were in pretty bad shape. It looked like they were victims of heavy machine gun fire and were stinking like hell. With that I knew I was back in the war. The small arms fire was consistent and getting heavier in the direction I was moving. If I contacted any troops, I had the fear that they might be Germans, considering the luck I had been having lately. As I moved along the ditch in the direction of the firing, I was praying to God they were on my side or their side, whatever. As I jogged along the ditch to the end of the hedgerow, I realized there was one good thing. I had gotten this far without being spotted by any snipers. They must have been busy elsewhere. The noise had been fierce. The small arms fire seemed to be coming from all over the area.

    I leaned up against an embankment and peered through the hedgerow and saw some soldiers moving about but couldn't tell who they were and there were dead bodies laying about from some previous engagement. There was the usual torn up vegetation and fallen trees, etc. smashed vehicles, some German personnel carriers, a demolished jeep that had been hit by artillery fire, two dead Americans inside, one hanging over a light .30 MG and one other man laying a few feet away with one leg and arm missing – an unpleasant sight.

    After seeing so much of this violence and carnage, I was convinced I'd never see the good old U.S.A. and my parents again. I know I've no doubt repeated this many times in this narrative or saga, whatever, it bothered me continually and 50 years later, it is still hard for me to believe I'm still around and survived it all, except for a few wounds, physical and mental. It is even harder for me to believe that there were soldiers who never as much as got a scratch and had more combat time than me. Next to them, I'm a novice or amateur. I've talked to guys who were in a dozen campaigns and all sorts of invasions and were never wounded or psycho cases. Hell, I have a close pal from Alabama who is deceased now since the war, who was in the North African Campaign, Sicily, Normandy, the air landing in Holland, the Rheinland Campaign and the Battle of the Bulge and was never a casualty. He died of old age and heart trouble. He was a paratrooper, 82nd Airborne. I told him I'm ashamed to tell you I was in that war and have only three campaigns under my belt, but we both had seen enough. I said to him that he led a charmed life and the Good Lord had a good part in it and he had earned his time in hell – it's true it was hell on earth and no one knows it better than me. I had more than my share of close calls, etc, but my time hadn't come up – shot at and missed and shot at and hit. It comes down to the old "law of averages."

    Getting back to whom I was gazing at through the hedge. I decided to crawl around and try to identify them. I ran along the ditch to a small elevation and went up to the top. When I looked, it turned out to be an American artillery unit. Now I had the problem of trying to contact them without being mistaken for a Kraut and shot. It would be just my luck.

    I rustled up some courage, threw both hands up in the air with my helmet on my M-1 rifle on one hand and walked down the hill holding my breath. As I got to the base of the hill, I had not been spotted yet. I yelled out "Hey Guys! Don't shoot. I belong to the 90th Division, 357 Infantry. Don't shoot."

    At that point, they heard me and brought their weapons up in a menacing fashion. I was praying to God there were no trigger-happy ones among them. I kept shouting "Don't shoot – I'm one of you."

    They lowered their rifles, but I kept my hands up. This was the longest walk I ever had the horror of walking. It felt like an eternity, expecting any moment to be cut down. When I got close to them, one of them said, "You can lower your arms. We know you are on our side." With that I let out a sigh of relief and asked for a cigarette as I had run out. This sergeant gave me a couple of packs. He asked me my outfit and I told him the 90th Division and asked if he had seen them and if so, whereabout?

    "The 90th Division – yes, a pretty good distance from here. I saw them about two or three days ago. We had been in some pretty hot action up around a place called St. Sevier or something like that. We were giving them some fire support for a while and had driven the Germans out as far as I know. They are still around there or near it. We were ordered this way for another mission. Don't know where, just waiting for orders."

    He asked me how come I got over here and I told him what had happened to me up until now, having got lost from my Company a couple of days past. They had a battery of 105s and a battalion of anti-tank outfits out of the 7 Corps. The anti–tank boys had shot up a detachment of German Panzers earlier that morning comprising a number of Panthers and motorized artillery vehicles plus some SS infantry men.

    A tank destroyer, incidentally, had tracks and armored sides like a regular tank but is completely open at the top with a 105 mm gun. This gives the crew a clear view of the enemy targets, but of course, no overhead protection. A great thing about the war was its 105 or 155 mm gun, the only ones we had capable of knocking out the fearsome "Tiger" and its six or eight inches of armor plate. Our Sherman and those 105s could handle the Mark V Panther tank or other light or medium armored tanks, but was no match for the Tiger and Tiger Royal. The TD was indispensable for us especially against gun emplacements and machine gun sites. It also had been used against infantry formations to good effect, as well as concrete bunkers and pill boxes and barbed wire entanglements.

    I said, "I guess you boys got the better of the argument."

    The sergeant replied, "Yeah, well we got some welcomed help from some of the flyboys in P-47s and R.A.F. Typhoons. We had a number of casualties, but we gave more than we got. The Krauts left a lot of dead SS and a few of their tanks. For once, we got the better of them."

    The sergeant's name was Donald Frazier and he was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. He was about 22 or 23 and had joined the Army before Pearl Harbor and went to a heavy artillery unit. He spent a year in the Pacific and transferred to England in time for the Normandy Landing at Utah Beach D+3 in 1944. His home was New York City. Unknown to. me, we were neighbors. We both lived in Manhattan, within a few blocks of each other. He went to a different high school. He spent one year at Fordham University majoring in history and was unmarried. We had a lot in common. A man after my own heart. We became real friends, even though it was a short meeting – small world. I was with him and his outfit for a short time. One day I decided to pull up my traces and start again to look for my own Company. I told him I was going to try to make it, God willing. He wished me luck and I thanked him for his friendship. Maybe we'd be lucky enough to get through this damn war and meet again in N.Y.C. and celebrate with a couple of beers. But sadly, I never saw him again. I have always hoped he got through it okay. I tried locating him at the end of the war but was not successful.

    When I took leave of Frazier and his artillery boys, I again tried to get back to the 357th wherever they were. Since losing them days ago, they probably gave up on me, either killed or captured or met some French girl and was shacking up till the war ended, or as the Army says "for the duration." (It seems in this narration that I was always getting lost.) It seems that way – a one man army.

    I finally caught up to my outfit after being lost for three days and nights. I located my company. Sure was glad to see my buddies and the 2nd platoon. Those were the longest days of absence I ever had to live through – like a bad dream; nightmare is more like it. By the looks of things, I had seen more action than the 357th did in those days I was away. I sure missed Bill. The regiment had seen a lot of artillery fire and patrols against the Krauts, but not much more. Things were fairly static but big events were taking shape as far as something big being planned. My squad and I were happier than hell to see each other. Bill had had misgivings and premonitions that something bad happened to me, but had some optimism that I'd show up. As it turned out, I had worried about him also, hoping everything was okay and no damn German had terminated his life. Though he said he had had a couple of narrow escapes, especially one night when he went out on night time patrol to gather information. On the way back he ran into an ambush. There were only eight of our guys in the mission. Two got wounded and four killed who were replacements. The wounds of the two were slight. They never got much information; just an expensive waste of time – the way a lot of patrols amounted to most of the time. If you survive a patrol, especially in daylight, you can consider yourself lucky. Nighttime patrols are a little different. You have a false security of it being dark. It has its disadvantages. You could very likely step on a mine or contact a booby trap. Germans were very good at that, deadly efficient. The other feeling I would get when it was dark was that I can see them but they can't see me, a false feeling, but I tried to look at it different. When you get down to bare facts, daylight or nighttime patrols were bad news. I and a lot of others could do without them. You could call it a "necessary evil."

Contents                   Chapter 10