- Chapter 2 -
THE FIRST ALLIED TROOPS
TO CROSS THE SEINE RIVER
We were not told why we were moving or what the mission was; we rarely were. It was not that valuable information was being withheld from us; probably our immediate superiors did not know either, and we did not expect such explanations; one village or town was like another; one field and stretch of woods were like many others we had seen. The concern of those of us in the front line in the Infantry was always the immediate, our immediate surroundings and the immediate assignment before us.
It came as no surprise to us that we were to march off into the night. We undertook many activities in the dark, with the help of the fact that our night vision had been well developed, or at least as much as was possible for a human being.
However, on this occasion we were tested to the limit. In a book published after the war, History of the 313th Infantry in World War II, the circumstances of that night were described, Quote.."It was almost midnight and raining hard . We had to proceed in the midst of the rain and in pitch darkness." End of quote.
Despite this accurate description, we were able to discern the form of the man in front of us, and that was all that was necessary to march off into the night. For the next hours we slogged forward for a period of time, halted, then picked up the march again. Part of the time we were on a road, but mostly on rough terrain.
When there was a longer pause than usual, I became aware of a river to our left and presumed this was our destination. Then, as we moved forward the dim outline of a dam appeared. Getting closer, and as we received quiet but firm orders, it became clear we were to cross the river, single file, on a "cat walk" on the crest of the dam. The cat walk was well named, because the presumption was that only a sure-footed cat could cross it safely, and then in the daylight. It was very narrow. There were no railings, no points of reference. There were no lights - ever. We still had to accomplish our military objective in the pitch dark, in the rain.
No enemy appeared. No shot was fired. But it was a very dangerous maneuver. We were high above the water; there must have been open sluice gates, although I never saw them, because we could hear the sound of the water far below us. The height was such that one misstep, one fall, would have been fatal, and, even if a soldier did survive the fall, the chances of swimming ashore were quite impossible. Not many men in G Company could swim anyhow. Coming from Midwest farms, steel mills, or crowded cities, these GI's had no background of country club pools and summer boys' camps.
But, more importantly, our dress and equipment would have dragged us down. Each of us had on a uniform, and on top of that what civilians called coveralls but for us specially made "fatigues", then a field jacket, and on top of that a raincoat. Each had a steel helmet tightly buckled under the chin, heavy combat boots with leather uppers buckled around our calves, a rifle tightly strapped to the shoulder, and an ammunition belt filled with .30 caliber bullets. Also attached to the ammunition belt was a canteen with water in it, a bayonet and a first aid kit. Finally there was the "entrenching tool" (shovel) to dig for safety. So laden down, if he fell, a soldier would have had little or no hope of safely reaching shore.
It came my turn to mount the cat walk and follow the man in front of me. I was placed behind him, and, due to the nature of the activity in the pitch dark, I could not recognize which of my fellow soldiers of G Company was before me. So, there I was following an unidentified man on whom my directions, my safety, indeed my life depended. I literally had to keep in touch. He was as far as I could see. When he stopped, I stopped. When he moved again, I moved. We did not walk; we shuffled. There were some right angle turns in the cat walk, and from a murky figure ahead of us would come a quiet but firm command, "Turn right." The man in front turned right, and I turned right. I was aware of the man behind and his dependence on me, and the man behind him, and the man behind him. With outstanding leadership and very well disciplined troops, not one soldier was lost.
I have no idea how long it took us to cross the dam, but it seemed like hours. As we reached the ground on the other side, we did what we had been trained to do. It was clear that if we all stopped at the end of the dam there would be a bottleneck for those following, to say nothing of the danger of having men closely congregated in case of an artillery attack. So we aggressively moved out into the terrain and took up positions with the proper separation from each other. There was no possibility of assembling my platoon; that had to wait for morning. We lay down on the wet ground to sleep, for what was left of the night.
If the Germans had attacked us, this relatively small group of Infantry soldiers, we would have been easily driven back into the river. Our only arms were those which each man could carry with him. We had no tanks, no heavy weapons, and the Artillery had not been organized and put in position to support us. Fortunately, we had moved so quickly the Germans just did not know we were there.
As we crossed the river, those of us who were first on the other side, and it was my Battalion, did not know that we were participating in an historic event of World War II. Of all our forces, we were the first troops to cross the River Seine.
The Baltimore Sun reported: Quote. "It can now be revealed that an Infantry Regiment of the 79th Division was the first American outfit to cross the Seine River after the German line had been broken in Normandy and General George S. Patton's Third Army swept across France." Unquote. (We were a part of Patton's Army.) Other troops crossed the Seine after we did. Orders came through that the troops that had done so, including the 79th division, should enter Paris. It was logical that we should have done so, not only because we were close to the city, being only a day's march away, but also we were a combat Division of outstanding reputation as a fighting force and could be relied upon.
The 79th rivaled any American Infantry Division; even German intelligence reports confirmed that. We had driven the Germans across the Seine, causing them to leave behind a vast quantity of supplies and material. We had been the first Division to establish ourselves on the Northern bank, and had devastated the counterattacking forces leaving them crippled and withdrawing.
The 79th Division received a Croix de Guerre with Palm from the French Government, the highest honor the French can offer, with Palm meaning that there was a second such honor. A Distinguished Unit Citation was given to our Division by Order of the U.S. Secretary of War.
The order to enter Paris was rescinded - for political reasons. It was decided that an event of such historical significance had to be a joint operation of the French and the Americans. We were given the assignment of keeping the German Army occupied so they could march into the city unopposed.
We were familiar with the French Armored Division. With limited training as a unit, and arriving late on the scene, they were considered a joke by us and then a menace. We said we were more afraid of those crazy French drivers barreling down the narrow roads in big American trucks than we were of the Germans. A revealing Mauldin cartoon depicted a sergeant telling Willie and Joe and other dogfaces, "Some of you are not coming back. The French have arrived."
So the French Armored Division was moved up through the excellent American 2nd Armored, which had reached the Seine, and the American 4th Division was moved into position so the French and Americans could enter Paris. The only physical threat was an excess of alcohol. When I read about a brave Frenchman who had driven a tank to "liberate" Paris, I nearly lost my lunch.
The American 4th Division had historical credentials which caused it to be deemed more worthy of the honor than the 79th.
The Germans withdrew their troops from Paris and the surrounding area in an attempt to throw our Division back across the Seine. So we sat in a defensive position anticipating the inevitable attack. They failed.
As quoted in the battalion history book: "Our artillery was zeroed in on the enemy territory and we were waiting for the Heinies to start something. You could never tell when they might attack, and life was a peculiar contrast of peaceful conditions at one moment and one hell of a battle the next.
The 1st Platoon of A Company had gone to get chow and to be paid at the company kitchens. Most of the men finished eating and several were being paid when suddenly word came through that we were being attacked. The men ran like hell for the their positions, carrying the newly received money in their hands. The enemy was attacking in force with fixed bayonets, but as fast as they came toward our positions they were mowed down like flies. We were ready for them and they didn't have a chance. Those that we failed to get with machine guns and small arms were sure to go down under the artillery we dished out a few minutes later.
"The morale of our men was good. Our company had a few losses, of course, among them Joe Scorn and Jim Turner. You always lose a couple of men in any action of that kind. But we felt pretty good knowing that the enemy had been badly beaten, and we continued cracking jokes all the time. "We remained in our positions after that, and that night we could hear the rumbling noises of motors and enemy movement. We knew that the Jerries were either planning another attack or else they were getting ready to withdraw. We could hardly wait until morning to get the verdict, and when morning came all was quiet. The Jerries apparently had enough and by the looks of the terrain to our front, we all understood why. Never were so many dead Jerries piled up in so small an area." End of quote.
So, after we repulsed the German counterattacks, we marched by Paris before its great "liberation", and I could see the Eiffel tower in the distance. A slight turn would have taken us into the city. I suppose I understand this was a great international event which had to be carefully orchestrated for maximum effect, and it gave the 4th Division permanent bragging rights as to how it entered Paris, but I think it is logical that I should have some feeling about the matter.
I had a friend, Andrew Carter, a lawyer with Monroe and Lemann, who was in the 4th Division and who displayed a giant picture above his desk of their marching down the Champs Elysee, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. I told Andy, "I should have been there."
Such are the fortunes of war.