The online edition
©2014, Aaron Elson
Jule Braatz, of Beaver Dam, Wis., was a sergeant in A Company, and later received a battlefield commission.
A platoon was made up of five tanks. There were five men in a tank the driver and the assistant driver, and then up in the turret were the loader and the gunner, and behind the gunner stood the tank commander. There were five tanks like that in a platoon, and there were three platoons to a company.
Our first day in action, we left our bivouac area and we got to someplace. I was platoon sergeant, I rode the fourth tank; the lieutenant was in the first tank. It was raining. In Normandy there are a lot of sunken roads, and we went down this little dirt road and we stopped. I dont know what happened, and all of a sudden the corporal was calling me on the radio, and he said, "Lieutenant Tarr has been hit."
I finally found him, because they were around a bend, or on another road. He had been to the headquarters there, and he was coming back to the tank and some German artillery fire came in and killed him.
As platoon sergeant Im supposed to take over, so I went into his tank, and got orders from headquarters. They told me where to go, to go right down this road.
In the meantime, one of the tanks in front of the tank that Id normally be in got stuck, so consequently the last two tanks couldnt come through, so then I just had two tanks.
We moved up the road and we met this infantry company that we were supposed to work with. Then this tank that I was in got hit by a mine, blew it up, killed one of the guys. So I took the other tank, basically, we went down the road. That was around La Haye du Puits.
I cant remember how many days it would be, but we had sort of been put into an immobile situation for a while. We were sitting in reserve there, waiting for a call, when your father [the authors father, 2nd Lt. Maurice Elson] came and joined our company. Battalion headquarters would assign replacements, and at that time I was the only one that had lost an officer, so they assigned him to my platoon.
Lieutenant [Ellsworth] Howard brought him over and introduced him to me and said, "This is your new lieutenant." Your dad was very candid and said, "Hell, I dont belong here. Im an infantry officer. I dont know anything about tanks."
And I said, "Well, Im gonna start to teach you."
So we got up on a tank and we got inside and I showed him this and that, and we got out, and we walked down the front of the tank, and I said, "Now be careful when you jump off, because you dont have a flat space, and you could twist your ankle." And so help me God, he did. So then we took him over to the medics. The battalion had two doctors.
I have no idea how long it was, but in that length of time we got orders to move out.
From there on, its more or less hearsay, or secondhand information, in that he came back and we were gone, and instead of maybe waiting, he was anxious to get up there. So about that time the first platoon got orders to move, and he went with the first platoon tanks because he figured hed be up somewhere near where we are, and then he could join us.
He rode in what they called the bog, or the assistant drivers seat. The driver was Pine Valley Bynum [Quentin Bynum], who later was killed. And the story is, your father wanted to get out of the tank to look for his platoon, and Bynum kept telling him no, because they were getting a lot of mortar fire, but he insisted. So he got out. Bynum said he hardly was out and Bang! A round came in and some of the shrapnel from it hit him.
Captain Clifford Merrill, of Springfield, Me., was a company commander with the 712th. He spent 32 years in the military, serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and retired as a colonel.
I was the commander of A Company, which was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Normandy. The rest of the battalion went to the 90th Infantry Division. I worked with the 82nd until the 8th of July, when the 82nd was replaced by the 8th Infantry Division.
They had to break those people in. It was tough, theyd shoot you as quick as they would the Germans. They were scared. I was, too.
They didnt advance much. In fact, they lost ground.
I had one platoon leader who was extremely good, a chap named Ed Forrest. I talked to Ed, and the artillery commander of the 8th Division, and we decided that wed stir things up a bit. So I had Eds platoon advance. In the meantime, Ed had a small receiving set in his tank and he was in contact with a spotter plane.
He made an advance, I guess about two and a half miles, knocked out a couple of tanks.
One place the story was told to me, at that point I wasnt there one of the tanks came around this turn in the road, and theres a bunch of Krauts, they had a hogshead of cider. Thats about 20 barrels of cider in one huge container. They hit the hogshead of cider, and the Krauts as well.
Hundreds of gallons of cider, it was too bad to spill all that. But Normandy had lots of cider, and Calvados.
I was back and forth across that front line all the time. Hell, I never got to sleep. Id go to sleep standing up. I traveled in a jeep mostly. Id have a tank following me.
One of the leading infantry battalions that was supposed to have been engaged with the enemy lost an assistant division commander, he got killed trying to lead a platoon. Imagine a brigadier general leading a platoon. He went out where he shouldnt have been. He got hit, heck, the Germans laid down such fire that the other members of that platoon, nobody could break him out. He bled to death. So the next day I went up in that area, and one of the first people I came across was this battalion commander digging a hole.
I said, "What are you doing?" I was standing up.
He said, "Were being fired on."
I said, "Theyre not hitting me." Oh, you could hear bullets, but that was everywhere youd hear them. If they hit a tree thirty feet over your head youd hear the snap. I didnt pay any attention to those.
I said, "I dont see any Krauts around. Lets see whats going on." So I left him and I went along the front-line hedgerow. Everybody was hiding down behind the hedgerow, and I said, "What goes?"
Well, the Germans are right over there, at the next hedgerow. And someone said theres a machine gun on the other side.
There was a captain there. I asked him about it, and he explained where the machine gun was, and I said, "Well, Ill go have a look at it." I had a tank with me, it had a 105-millimeter gun on it.
I went on foot up this little trail, armed with a tommy gun. I went up there and I couldnt see anything. I got down and kind of crawled along, and I looked up, and there was this damn Kraut looking right at me. To this day, I dont think he saw me. There was no look of surprise or nothing. He didnt do anything.
Instinctively, I brought that tommy gun up, and I ripped him up. Then I heard the machine gun. I could see where the muzzle blast was moving the bushes, and I said, "Well, I found the machine gun. I guess Ill get the hell out of here." I started back, and they dropped either mortar or grenades, Im not sure, and the first one caught me right in the back, knocked me down, and as I was laying down another one went off and got my right leg. I had a broken back and two inches knocked out of the small bone in my leg.
After a while, somebody came up and put a patch on me. I made believe I was out. It was a German medic.
I waited. They left. The tommy gun was laying in the leaves, they hadnt seen it, and I had a pistol inside my shirt in a shoulder holster, they didnt find that either, but they put a patch on my back. They figured I wasnt going to go anywhere. They jabbered awhile and then they left.
I picked up my tommy gun. Hell, I could walk, I hobbled a little but I didnt realize I had a broken leg, and my back didnt hurt. I walked a couple hundred yards back to the front lines. Then the medics took over.
I saw the tank commander of the tank that followed me up there, and I told him what to do. I heard him shooting after that.
I gave him my tommy gun, too. I said, "Take it into Berlin."
That was the 13th of July. That was all the combat for me.
Morse Johnson, of Cincinnati, was a sergeant in A Company, and later received a battlefield commission.
I was the tank commander to whom Captain Merrill said, "Take it into Berlin." I dont recall firing after that, but he might have heard fighting, because we were in the hedgerows.
One time when we were with the 82nd Airborne, there wasnt much going on. It was a stable place, and I walked over and was talking to Sam MacFarland and a couple of his men, and a couple of 82nd Airborne infantry people were there, we were talking to them, there was really sort of dead silence, and one of them said, "Hey, I think wed better..." and the other said, "I think so." About three minutes later, they started to shell. And it shows, theyd been there for twenty days before we got there, how you get to sense what might be happening. You can feel it.
While I was in the hospital I got several letters from my first sergeant, Charlie Vinson. Ive kept them all. He told me about who was wounded and this and that.
The way he got around the censors, the first man in the battalion to be killed was a lieutenant, George Tarr, Charlie would say so-and-so joined Tarrs platoon. He couldnt come out and say somebody got killed, theyd cut the letters, or black it out.
We were going down this hill. The Krauts had been shelling this area periodically, interdiction fire I guess youd call it, and then something happened, George got down off his tank for some reason. I dont know why, I wasnt talking to him then on the radio. He was curious about something, I guess. But he didnt get down all the way. A shell hit on the deck, knocked him down, and then another shell went close to him. He just had a brand new baby. A little boy.
I couldnt write that letter. I think I let Ellsworth Howard take care of it, or maybe Vinson did, because I knew him well. A nice guy. Methodical. And slow. Hed do anything you told him, do anything for you.
In fact, Ellsworth Howard and I were talking about George the other day. What we commented about was a train ride from Fort Jackson up to Camp Myles Standish. We had old George all excited about keeping track of the troops. We said, "George, go count noses." Howard, his nickname was the Gremlin, he was a real needler that guy, still is, but he was worse then. Hed say, "George, get up there and count noses," and George said, "Well, I did that just about an hour ago," and Howard said, "Yeah, but you know, were going to combat, and you never know when one of these guys might just take it into his head and jump off this train." We wanted to get him doing something, rather than worrying about his kid, his wife.
"Okay," he said, "Ill go count noses." Well, he got it organized, he got it down by car, the number of soldiers in each car. Lord, I laughed about that. I didnt interfere, because Ellsworth Howard was the executive officer, let him go ahead and take care of things. I can still hear him, "George, go count noses."
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