By Don R. Marsh


28 July 1944

St. Lo Breakout


Our Combat Command “A” was detached from the 2nd Armored Division and operated directly under XIX Corps with the 13th Cavalry Group attached. The Corps St. Lo Breakout objective was to seize the area along the route of Villebaudon-Percy-Monterey-St. Sever-de-Calvados. The road between the towns Villabaudon and Percy were under heavy fire from anti-tank guns, Screaming Meemies rocket fire and artillery. The enemy attempted to infiltrate across the road from East to West between the two towns and set up hasty road blocks along the road with numerous  anti-tank guns. The enemy had cut the road, but was driven back after fierce fire fights. Our force attacking Percy terminated the attack at 2150. Nightly attacks were made on our command by enemy bomber aircraft using flares to locate our columns.


We drove into a field for the night and set up a perimeter defense.  Small arms fire from near by fields from Kraut burp guns told us the enemy was still present and had not retreated. As soon as the vehicles were covered with camouflage nets we dug our foxholes for the night as exhaustion from the lack of sleep over-came us.


Long before dawn we were required to be up and ready to roll with a moments notice so eating a cold K-ration was the daily ritual. Coffee, cigarettes and K-rations were the staples of the day. Our Commander BG Maurice Rose existed on the same fare only with much less sleep. Each vehicle was issued a portable small single burner gasoline stove used for heating a cup of water to which we added a package of instant coffee; that is when we were stopped long enough to heat a cup. When your turn with the stove came you would wait until the water boiled and add the contents of the coffee packet, then burn your lips from the mess kit cup used to heat the water – another daily practice.


 It was during one of these early morning moments that a French civilian appeared in our bivouac area excitedly babbling in French something that I could not understand. When we got him to calm down and speak slowly I picked up on the words, “Le boche” – their hated term for the Germans. When I asked him “ou” (where), he replied, “Ici” (here) waving his arms the direction of the other side of the hedgerow behind which we were standing. Holy shit! I then grabbed my carbine expecting a Kraut to appear at the top of the embankment at any moment. Joe Elfer, our Cajun from New Orleans , who only spoke New Orleans French, asked him for details. The French civilian pointed to a path leading around the hedgerow, indicating for us to follow him.


At this point, alarms went off in my head that he might be a German sympathizer setting us up for an ambush, so it was decided to only send four of us to investigate. Bill Veno carried a Thompson sub-machine gun, so along with him, Larry Hull, Joe Elfer and I crawled up the pathway following the Frenchman. Breaking out into the open of the next field bordered by hedgerows on all four sides, we cautiously peered into the field in the direction he was pointing. About 25 yards away we spotted a lone German soldier with the upper part of his body exposed from his fox hole with his arms raised in surrender. A typical ruse used by the Krauts to sucker unsuspecting Americans out in to the open and then his comrades would suddenly pop up from hidden camouflaged holes and open fire on us. A hurried decision to go forward or not and it was decided that Veno and I would go forward part way as the others covered us – then the last ten yards I’d go alone, so as to cut our losses if it was a ruse.


I am a communications wire man, not a combat infantryman wearing a CIB and wanting to be a hero, but here was a chance to bring in a live prisoner who might render valuable intelligence. So I went for it. Crouching low and keeping my carbine aimed at him all the time, I crawled within a few feet of him and stopped. Kneeling, I beckoned for him to rise up out of his hole and as he stood up, I did as well. He still wore his helmet, which bothered me as most willing prisoners shed the helmet quickly in a show of cooperation, but he didn’t. He was wearing the triangle camouflage cape over the top of his uniform as many of the enemy infantry did. His rifle lay on the ground next to his hole, but he never looked at it nor took his eyes off of me. It was then as we stood a yard apart that I looked into his eyes and saw not fear -- but utter sheer terror. One can only imagine the thoughts racing through his mind – would he be shot, tortured or was I going to kill him on the spot. In his right hand he held a palm sized photograph of a woman and two small children, I gathered they were his wife and kids as he repeated over and over “mein Frau und kinder, bitte” – my wife and kids, please. The tears began rolling down his cheeks as I moved to get around behind him to prod him towards the way we came. I guess as the carbine poked him in the back he thought any moment this was it.


Reaching the bivouac area I was directed to take him to see Major Crust, our Intelligence Officer. Major Crust quickly summoned one of his German translators and before they began questioning him, Crust flipped up his triangle camouflage cover and there in the front of his belt was a potato masher hand grenade! Sweet Jesus, I had fucked up royal, in that I failed to pat him down. To say that Crust ripped me a new asshole is putting it mildly. If the army ever gave out stupid medals I earned one that day, and with a bonus cluster. After they questioned the new POW, they instructed me to see that he was sent to the rear with a guard to the MP’s POW pen.


Lo’ and behold, at that moment, up popped our French civilian with the Kraut’s rifle, retrieved from the field, slung over his shoulder who volunteered to take him off our hands and walk him back down to the rear to meet MPs on the road following our route.  Having passed that task off we soon mounted up and began to move out. We were not back on the road more than 5 minutes but who the hell do we see standing by the side of the road going  forward, but the Frenchman – all alone! So what happened to “Herman the German”? Did he get to the rear? Did the Frog shoot him? Did he ever make it back home to his frau and kinder? Some how I hope he did make it back home, as I did. Perhaps today somewhere in Germany , maybe Wolfenbuttel, are members of his family who might want to know that I am the guy who remembers their “Grossvater”   – the German Soldier with the unforgettable face. Just another one of those mysteries and fortunes of war to which we will never know the answer.