©2014, Aaron Elson
Retired Colonel Arnold L. Brown of Owensboro, Ky., was a company commander in the 90th Infantry Division. I interviewed him on Sept. 8 of this year, just a few months shy of his 80th birthday. This is the fifth in a series of incidents he described. If you would like to read them in order, begin with the story titled "The statistic."
They say that the infantry is cannon fodder. Well, this is true. They are. And I was in this specific situation that would bring this out.
There was a certain village that apparently division or regiment thought it was important to capture. They knew that it was occupied and filled with Germans, and it would be too much for an infantry force alone, so they were going to use an armor and infantry team. But there was some critical terrain on the left of this village that they wanted to capture before the attack.
My mission was to cross this open field in front of this village that was filled with Germans, and go over a little bridge, this main road that I had to come down went along a little ridge that went into the village, this was the critical thing where they wanted these tanks to come down when they attacked. And I was to cross that and go and take those woods over on the other side.
Well, I donít know what is there, but I knew that here Iíve got to make this attack with my right flank exposed, and close enough that the Germans can fire at us. Of course, weíre going to have it under artillery fire. And we were so close that some big hunks of shrapnel from our own artillery fire fluttered across, but thatís the chance we had to take.
I organized the attack with my two platoons forward, and I said, "When we leave this covered position, weíre not going to stop until we take our objective." Because I knew if we ever stopped in that open field, weíd be under a crossfire.
I knew that somebody is going to get it, but this is strictly an old infantry assault standing up, marching fire to the front, my other platoon was in line where they could march and fire sideways into a building on the right. So we launch this attack and sure enough, here comes some fire from the village, but we had enough artillery fire on it to make them kind of inaccurate, they couldnít enjoy their shooting. And then on this little ridge where this road came down a couple of Germans jumped up and ran back to those woods which was our objective.
As we come over this ridge where this road was, in those woods out there, maybe a couple of hundred yards away, I could see some white smoke rings coming out of the edge of the woods. So I started yelling to the men, "Fire everyplace you see those smoke rings!"
One of them said, "Thatís our own artillery."
I said, "Thatís enemy artillery."
And it was. Because then they depressed those guns and started firing at us point blank. They fired at my right platoon, and they missed the men and the projectile went into the ground and exploded, the ground was soft. Now remember, these were guns placed there to knock out tanks, it wasnít the regular 88 artillery type, itís a type strictly for knocking out tanks, so they donít let out as much shrapnel. Then that gun that fired at that right platoon swung over. Iím still moving forward, and I was close enough that I could look down the muzzle of that gun. If Iíd have been a private I would have hit the ground, I would have disobeyed the company commanderís orders, Iíll tell you, Iíd have hit the ground until he fired anyhow. And what could I do? As the commanding officer I could never show any fear to my men, I had to make them think I was brave, regardless. So I just stood up and moved forward. But ours was a small group, apparently, so the gun swung over and fired at my left platoon. It got a direct hit on a man, blew him all to pieces. The biggest part was a leg from midcalf down with the combat boot on, blew it up in the air a few feet and it fell, and when it hit there it looked to me like it kind of quivered, I can close my eyes and see it today, too.
When the Germans saw they were not going to stop us, that gun crew that fired that put their hands up, well, they donít do it that way, they always put their hands on top of their head. And I said, "Shoot the sonofabitches!" At the time I was so damn mad that I wanted to. But my men didnít do it. They took them prisoners. The other German gun crews had left their guns and ran right down through the woods, and my men were chasing them and trying to shoot them down, and I finally had to stop them because they were getting scattered and disorganized, and the Germans might be going to attack us. So I had to stop them and then bring them back.
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Arnold Brown is one of the veterans featured in "9 Lives"