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©2014, Aaron Elson


The Falaise Gap

John Warner

©2014, Aaron Elson

   John Warner was a forward observer with the 344th Field Artillery Battalion of the 90th Infantry Division. I interviewed him at the 1995 reunion of the division in San Antonio.

    Iíve been face to face with the enemy, but itís not like the First World War; I didnít see any bayonets. You see pictures of that. I never saw a bayonet being used. Now in the Pacific itís a different story, but Iím talking about in Europe. I never saw a bayonet being used by anybody.

    I remember, in a little town Ė in fact my friend, he went back to this town Ė Distroff, at the end of France, almost going into Germany. We went in, along with four tank destroyers Ė they went in and we went in behind them. The town had maybe 500 people. There was just one street going through it. It was late in the afternoon when we got there. We just walked right in and G Company of the 358th Infantry Regiment put their outposts out.

    There were hills around the village, and during the night the Germans came in. They captured I donít know how many men out of G Company, an awful lot of men. I heard a hundred, in that neighborhood. It was about 4 in the morning, it was just gonna break dawn, and I heard all this noise.

    I was in a corner building, and I was a radio operator. I stepped out on the stoop, and thereís a German halftrack coming, and itís 50 or 75 yards away. They had a .20-millimeter cannon, and they were firing down the street. Hit my radio. I got an award there for calling fire in. This one TD right around the corner from us, a friend of mine from Ford City, Pennsylvania, was hit there. They knocked his tank destroyer out and he was hit with shrapnel.

    I saw this halftrack, and a shell hit my radio. I hurried back in the house, and my officer, Lieutenant DíAngelo, said, "Weíve got to call some fire back there." So I went back out, I fixed the antenna to where it was working, and we called fire direction. And they didnít want to take my order, because they said, "You guys are all captured." Three of these TDs took off and went back. And they told them that we were surrounded, that we were all done. Twice I called, and they didnít want to take my fire order. So finally they accepted it. And we fired over there and the Germans retreated and went back out over the hill. But we were face-to-face there. I would say I was face-to-face with that halftrack.

    As I was going back in this building Ė it was a corner building, I donít know if it had been an old hotel or what Ė there were two big plate picture windows in my corner, and the Germans up on the hill they fired an 88. I was walking in and this captain from E Company of the 358 had his headquarters down in the cellar. So I was walking over towards it and this 88 came right through this plate glass just over my head. I was just going down the steps, I was bending, and it went over my head. You could feel the heat off it. It knocked me down in the cellar. Dust. When I came to, I thought, "Where am I?" I couldnít see a thing. It scared the hell out of me, Iíll tell you. Didnít hurt me, though.

    In Dillingen, Germany, we were in this house, they were in that house, it was that type of situation. Weíd peek out and try to find a target, direct fire on it, and theyíd do the same thing. Theyíd come out once in a while, back and forth between buildings, youíd see them. You were face to face in that way, but as far as me going over and getting ahold of that guy or him getting ahold of me with a bayonet, no. But it did happen, understand. There were times that did happen.

At the Falaise Gap, we had a pilot named Matthews. He was in a Piper Cub. Now this Falaise Gap was a big wide valley, and there was a hill on that side and a hill on this side, and I was on the side of one of the hills.

And right down below was all this mass of humanity and vehicles, they were trying to get out and they were trapped. Every kind of vehicle you could picture was coming up through there. And personnel. You could look over and see fifty, a hundred men. Well, he was flying around in a Piper Cub, and then he was directing fire. And one of the things that we always remember him saying is, "Stop computiní and start shootiní." We always remembered that. And he was doing a good job. But they forget, this guy on the hillside there, it was man-to-man, seeing this guy, and subject to fire. And after the day was done, he flew back to his base, got a bite to eat, a place to sleep. My day didnít get done. Come dark, you were still on the damn hill. And you ate a K-ration. Forward observers got no credit. He got a lot of credit, and I donít begrudge him, because he did a good job, understand. But his conditions when he got back were a hell of a lot different than ours. Heís a nice guy, I donít begrudge him any of his glory. But the guy, the forward observer from the infantry there, he gets nothing.

    What I saw in the Falaise Gap was disgusting. Revolting. Iíll tell you, and Iím not ashamed to be a part of it because it was a necessity, I mean it was a job I had to do. But I donít care who you are or what type of people you are, itís hard.

    After the battle was over, I went down into the Gap. Me and a friend, we walked down in that valley. And it was a mess. Everything, all kinds of vehicles, you canít believe it. I mean, of every description. People laying around, blown up. An arm over there, a leg over there, you canít believe it. Canít believe it. There was a communications halftrack, and it was blown up, just stopped there. And I was curious. I looked in the back of it to see what kind of instruments they had. They had a lot of radios and stuff, wireless and all that. And Iím standing on something Ömushy. I looked, and see it was a body. Burnt. That had been blown up and burned. It was just a mass of flesh, burned. Itís revolting.

    I didnít throw up. I donít know, itís hard to describe. Itís just like, you could be there, that could be you. Nobody shows respect for anybody there, youíre just a piece of flesh. How one man could do that to anotherÖ

    Hey, when youíre in war, youíre in war. Itís a terrible situation. But how in hell you can do something like that to another person, I donít give a damn who they are. Terrible. Itís the type of thing, hey, I could tell you all day, but thereís no way you could describe a picture like that.

    Thatís the difference between a Matthews and me. Heís a good man, but he didnít see that. He wasnít a party to that. He can talk to you all day, about hey, I soared around there, and I directed fire and killed fifty men. I was never proud of that. And he can say he saw this and he saw that, but he didnít really see it. He didnít smell it. The smell is the most terrible, that odor of burned flesh, you canít describe that, rotting flesh.

    And some of that I was responsible for, I mean I directed fire in there. That doesnít help either, you know, when you know youíre a party to that. Then you go down and you see stuff like that, you think, what the hell kind of a man am I? It gives you a bad feeling.