By Don R. Marsh
On the night of 25-26 July 1944 Combat
Command “A” moved west and south to a new assembly area in the vicinity of
Port Hubert, France, in preparation for the St. Lo Breakout. General Bradley’s
plan for the aerial bombardment did not go exactly according to plan. The aerial
saturation bombing was scheduled earlier, but the weather postponed it until
this morning. The front line troops were pulled back a “safe distance” of
1,200 yards as the result of a compromise between General Bradley and the Army
Air Corps Bomber Command. The Air Corps wanted 3,000 yards, but Bradley insisted
on 800 yards, not willing to risk losing this ground to the enemy after the
bombing ceased. Hindsight later proved the American casualties would have been
far less had the Air Corps prevailed and increased the “safe” distance to a
minimum of 3,000 -- or more yards. It was near 1000 hours when the bombers came
over in a never-ending sky train in waves of heavy aircraft dumping their loads,
including many bomb loads that went astray killing American GIs. Immediately the
finger pointing began over who was responsible for this fratricide.
on the ground were not the only casualties as we watched a B-17 Flying Fortress
that had been hit. He was coming down with all four engines dead, is one sight I
can never forget. He was losing altitude and the props were not turning. Then
they popped out the red flares meaning they had wounded on board. The pilot was
doing all he could to glide the plane over our lines to crash land in friendly
territory. We didn’t see the exact spot he came down although they made it
inside our lines. There was a helluva lot of air activity that day. We were
watching from our foxholes and pulling for our guys to make it, knowing full
well some of those flyboys would not make the 25-missions to return to the USA.
BG Rose gave the order at 26 0200B July 1944, with Combat Command “A” leading the Division, Corps and Army in making the breakthrough. CCA crossed the Line of Departure at 0945 hours. The attack began in a line of two battalions abreast; 2nd Battalion of the 66th on the right and 3rd Battalion of the 66th on the left. Infantrymen from the 4th Infantry Division’s 22nd Regiment rode the backs of the Sherman tanks. Despite heavy resistance by all arms; the Command gained its initial objective, Le Mesnil Herman, by 27 0200B July 1944, having continued the attack throughout the night to do so.
Fer de Lance
Historians and biographers would later
claim that “BG Maurice led the fangs of Operation Cobra” – which is
accurate, up to a point. After the 30th Infantry Division made the initial
breech in the line, the 120th Infantry Regiment held the door open
for Rose and CCA. However, the venom in the fangs was led by Rose’s 66th
Armored Tank Regiment; appropriately code named, Python, commanded
by Rose’s successor, the 66th CO, Colonel John Howell “Peewee”
Collier. The tankers of the 66th Armored Regiment Companies, with the
22nd Infantry Regiment, along with the men from the 82nd
Recon Battalion were actually the true fer de lance that smashed
through the German defenses, made the penetrations and kept going! Rose’s
tactics, as important as they were, totally relied on the company and field
grade officers’ decisions at ground level. In the fog of war, in close combat,
guidance and directives from higher headquarters cannot make the split second
decisions made by the man “on the line” with his hand on the trigger.
proven combat tactical plan was to probe, find that one weak spot, penetrate and
drive forward as long as you have momentum. Rose was relentless in pursuit of
the enemy and drove us night and day without let-up.
Once we broke their line of defense open, we were facing Germans on both
flanks and in front of us. For a time, we were out in front completely alone.
The infantry had not caught up to protect our flanks. Talk about taking chances!
We had our columns to the rear cut several times, but it did not alter Rose’s
strategy of “keep pushing!”
That first day and night was one I will
never forget. The St. Lo Breakthrough had just begun in earnest and we had
already seen so much fighting that day. We passed through the carnage from the
slaughter of both German and American losses of men and vehicles. What our tanks
and artillery didn’t annihilate, our Army Air Corps fighter pilots in the
P-47s and P51s did. The sight of burning destroyed tanks, both theirs and ours
with men half draped out of the turrets. Their fellow tank crewmembers’
scorched bodies lay beside the tanks where they had fallen as they attempted to
escape. No prisoners were taken as I can recall.
General Rose never remained in the CCA Command Post while on the move. You could always find him with the lead task force. When he was out of radio communications, as he often was, messengers would be sent to locate him by jeep and motorcycle. One such night in the firefight for Canisy, the XO, Lt. Col. Bailey, ordered Lt. Moll to send four of us in the Wire jeep to find him up ahead with the lead Task Force.
Canisy On Fire
I wrote home to my folks later trying to describe what I had experienced, I
found it difficult to put into words, but here is part of my letter I wrote them
on August 7, 1944: “Another incident that occurred during that push of ours
was when we drove through a “city of fire” caused by bombing and shelling in
advance. Four of us (Jones, Hull, Veno and myself) were in a jeep as we tore
through that wall of flame on both sides of us. All this in the early hours of
the morning and we had been without sleep for over forty-eight hours at the
time. After we had passed through and got up the road some distance, without
finding Rose, we had to double back and contact the rest of our column.
same four started back in the jeep and a guard halted us inside the city saying
there was a Kraut Tiger tank running loose in town.
We had halted in a town square,
which was encircled with buildings on fire. The infantryman came out of the
shadows of a building with his rifle leveled at us. Jones gave him the password
and got out of the jeep to ask him if he had seen General Rose. Veno, driving
the jeep, with Hull and myself in the back, knew we were silhouetted in light of
the fires, decided to back into the shadows in the direction we came from.
Jones, seeing the jeep leaving ran over and in his best southern Alabama twang
said, “Veno, I will swat you up- alongside- your- head with my Tommy gun if
you ever think of leaving me behind again!”
So instead of playing tag with that big
baby, we moved up the road some more, found an empty house and slept til dawn.
Four of us walked into the house that night, but there were five of us there in
the morning. A Kraut had slept in the room next to us all night! He walked out
in the morning and surrendered to one of our officers, Captain W. W. Lawler, 41st
you’re part of a Spearhead in a drive you feel like the guy who put his head
in the lion’s mouth. You never know when the jaws will swing shut and some of
the pockets of resistance that we have to bypass enroute can sure cause some
hellish nights for all concerned. We were moving up a road one night when one of
the “small pockets of resistance” proved to be a little stronger than first
expected. There were ten Tiger (Panther) tanks supported by infantry and they
cut off our column. In general, everyone remained calm and we dug in on the
We coiled in the field and set
up a perimeter defense. Those of us in the wire section were assigned to a
two-man listening post for guard duty. Sitting back-to-back we watched the
fields of grain wave back and forth with the light breezes in the bright
moonlight, expecting any moment to see a German crawling towards us. No movement
was detected and no alarms were made. The night passed without a shot being
made things tough when darkness was about to fall was that is when the Kraut
bombers came over. You can almost set your watch by them nightly. Just around
ten-thirty you can hear that heavy approaching drone that sounds like an
overloaded truck crawling up a steep hill in low-low gear, cutting in and out.
Anyhow they came over, dropped their flares, and began their run. Then they hung
around to strafe us. The longer they stayed the more inspiration they gave me
for digging in.
day I dug three foxholes and each time we’d stop I’d dig in next to a
hedgerow the first thing. I’d no sooner get the damn hole dug down and then
back under when we’d get the order to move up again. Most of the time that
advance was only a couple fields over, or a thousand yards or so.
I later wrote, it was all an unforgettable scene. In the aftermath, there was
nothing alive on that single stretch of road. A lot of the time you saw the dead
and dying, but not this time. Anything, man or beast that had been alive once
was now dead with bodies torn, dismembered, disemboweled, burnt, decapitated,
flattened from tanks driving over bodies and mutilated beyond one’s
imagination. One tank stands out more than all others in my mind: the turret had
been blown off, the charred remains of what had been the driver was all that was
left in the tank. I could see a pair of burnt hands grasping the controls. Only
the hands. The arms and torso were gone. The man’s head was missing. What was
left of his hips, pelvic area and legs were burnt black and charred in his seat.
This was one of our tanks and one of our men. An unforgettable battlefield
nearby fields were littered with dead animals, more innocent victims who
happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can never forget the
horse-drawn German gun carriages and the wagons of all descriptions that were
shot to pieces on that one stretch of road. The ghastly look on the face of the
horses is still etched in my memory. Their eyes held that look of the horror of
war. I looked away from the pitiful sight for fear I would see the same
reflection of my eyes. The beast of mankind killed the innocent beasts. Rigor
mortis sets in rapidly and soon their legs would be pointed to the road of
death, their bellies bloat from the gas in decomposition and contribute to the
aroma of death. This is the stench we remember all too well. The odor of burnt
flesh is the worst. You want to shower to get the smell out of your clothing,
hair and mind, but showers are a luxury soldiers in war seldom get to
or later you get to wash your clothes, but how do you cleanse your mind of such
horrible memories? You don’t, you bring it home with you, among your souvenirs
you can keep in a special place in a far corner of your mind. The door is never
locked so you can visit the memory, if you are so inclined. Some do, some
don’t. Years go bye and you have never given it any thought, then out of the
blue something clicks in your brain and the whole scene appears again in
Technicolor. To me the burning question is always “why?” If I ever figure
out an answer, I’ll write it down so that others don’t forget.
for Villebaudon Crossroads
came the battle for Villebaudon and the vital crossroads. The Krauts put up
fanatical resistance and hammered us with “screaming meemies”, the name we
gave their Nebelwerfer rockets. You might question their pinpoint accuracy, but
not the impact nor the terrifying noise they made coming in. Rapid firing of six
rockets and mobile, they launched them with several batteries firing
simultaneously without let up. Between the rockets, mortars and the 88 mm
artillery pieces they employed they had their effect and took their toll.
our pilots were eliminating a lot of obstacles in our path when they come down
to bomb and strafe … well, they too sometimes pull boners – I know. One guy
let go a 500-pound egg (bomb) right above us. I was in my hole at the time and
heard it coming. I rolled over and flattened out as much as possible in those
cramped quarters. It seemed like a lifetime before it hit and as its whine grew
in volume I could have sworn it was coming straight for my hole. I felt the
rabbit in me and I wanted to get up and run anywhere – do anything to get out
of that hole. There was nowhere to go and it would have been fatal mistake. I
felt a strong concussion and then as the dirt began to cover me I thought each
clod was a piece of the bomb fragments and I was about to die. I thought my
number was up. It all happened in a few seconds and when the rumpus died down I
shook the dirt off and got up. I was wringing wet with cold sweat. We were
pinned down in an open field of hedgerows when it exploded less than 10 yards
from us. What a relief to learn that I wasn’t scratched and I was still very
much alive … it was really a terrifying experience to say the least.
Afterwards, we laughed about it and I had a few words to say to our fellow Air
Corps liaison tank crew, named Cut Break, under the command of 1stLt. Philip B.
Reisler, assigned to CCA for “Air-to-Ground-Close-Coordination!” Attacks
were made on the Command by enemy bomber aircraft each night without letup.
On 28 July, the Combat Command was then
detached from the 2nd Armored Division and operated directly under
XIX Corps with the 13th Cavalry Group attached. On 29 July, the
Command continued to move south to secure the Corps objective along the route of
Villebaudon-Percy-Montery- St. Sever-de-Calvados-St. Pois.
On 31 July 1944, the Combat Command was
attached to the 29th Infantry Division to secure the left flank of
the XIX Corps by attacking East along the high ground towards Tessy-sur-Vire.
3 August 1944, on XIX Corps order, the Command attacked south towards Vire in
its mission of securing the left flank of the Corps. Stubborn resistance,
minefields and artillery fire were met after the first 5,000 yards of advance.
Very heavy fighting followed at Vire, which was destroyed and leveled by heavy
concentration of our artillery fire as the high ground West of it was secured
and the attack progressed.
Takes the Reins
On 6 August 1944, Colonel John Howell
Collier, relieved then Brigadier General Maurice Rose, the latter becoming the
Commanding General of the 3rd Armored Division, of Combat Command
“A” of the 2nd Armored Division. On the following day, CC”A”
was placed in XIX Corps reserve.
my ten page letter home to my parents, on 7 August 1944, I wrote: “Up until
last night I’ve never had my shoes off for little better than two weeks. I
slept just as I was in my foxhole with just my raincoat on. There were a few
nights I didn’t get any sleep at all. The first three nights of our last push
I had only a few hours sleep all told. The third day I felt like I was out on my
feet. By that time, I had been bombed, strafed, shot at and what not. I went
into that push twenty-one years old and I feel like I’m now thirty-one
instead. It was a bit on the rough side all the way.”
After the experience that just occurred,
you have to take time out to think this over and ask the unanswerable questions
of yourself: Is this worth it? Why are we killing each other? The other guy, for
all I know is a good Christian, and like me is also only 21 years old, not a
member of the Nazi Party but an ordinary soldier “just following orders,”
but we are enemies by an act of Congress, none of whom are in danger -- or here.
Are we really the pawns of war? The generals and politicians move us around as
in a chess game, but war is not a game and the stakes are higher here on the
battlefield. None other than General Dwight Eisenhower wrote to his John, then a
cadet at West Point, on March 12, 1943, following the catastrophe at Kasserine
Pass in North Africa after the US forces, under his command, when he had
casualties exceeding 6,000 troops at Kasserine. Eisenhower wrote, “Modern war
is a very complicated business and governments are forced to treat individuals
as pawns.” True --
however, only the pawns are expendable, except for very few generals. In
North Africa the US Army lost 2,715 killed, 8,978 wounded and 6,528 missing.
is death the final solution? Is there an afterlife after death? Or is there an
emptiness of nothing that follows? That remains to be learned, but if that is
the case, then religion is the creation and mind control of a superstitious cult
motivated by the fear of the unknown after death. Why should a 21 year old
secular skeptic be subjected to making this rationalization instead of the great
theologians and philosophers? Does it really matter?
close my eyes and drift off to sleep in exhaustion; in my thoughts I am safe at
home once again. The war is far away and temporarily blocked out of my mind.
Fifty years from now will any of this have made any difference or will the world
have forgotten what we did here today?
letters home has become challenging. Do they really need to know all my inner
thoughts and fears? But how else can I make them aware of a soldier’s life
without telling the truth? I’ve decided to tell it like it is.
Publication or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited without written authorization from the author, Don R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of
Marsh Family Trust.