- Chapter 3 -
TAKING THE HILL
he following account which I wrote was first published in The Times Picayune in August 1945 and was subsequently printed in History of the 313th Infantry in World War II published by the Infantry Journal. It is reprinted here by permission. Stephen Ambrose read it and stated it is a "superb account."
The following is the introduction in the History of the 313th Infantry:Lt. Bryan Bell wrote an account of that action as he and his men had personally experienced it. Probably no other account to be recorded in the 313th history tells a more graphic story of fighting men in action, and it well serves as a vivid word picture, not only of the specific action involved in the story itself, but equally of the kind of day-to-day fighting that characterized the long and difficult road to eventual victory. Lieutenant Bell's story, in its entirety, is here related.A final summary in the history of the 313th Infantry is as follows:
"There's where the enemy is supposed to be. We are to take those woods and the hill."
The Captain, a tall man with a great red beard, was issuing orders to a group of officers and noncoms. They were concealed in a clump of trees and looked out across a field to their front. The field was criss-crossed with barbed-wire cattle fences and ended in a hill, at the top of which was a wide stretch of woods. The scene was peaceful, and the woods looked just like hundreds of others the Americans had passed in crossing France. But these men had learned what innocent-looking countryside could conceal.
Company G was approaching Poussay. It was many small battles such as took place on the outskirts of this village which won the major part of France for the Allies, but by itself this attack could hardly be considered an important affair. The Germans were not numerous, and in the face of aggressive attacks by the Americans their defenses crumbled in two days. If the folks back home knew about it at all, it was from a possible tag line in the news, such as, "Poussay was also liberated." But for the members of the 79th Division, and particularly for the attacking companies, like G Company of the 315th Infantry it was a great battle. And for many a young soldier, It was the most important event in his life--and his last.
Company G had just escaped an artillery barrage. In moving forward, they had been forced to cross a series of open fields, and it was then that the "incoming mail" started. The first round splashed on a road to the rear, right beside a tank, and not far from a man who was either blown or dove into the ditch. But the next rounds were closer. They followed, or rather chased, the G Company men across the fields. The only hope for safety was in reaching a clump of woods where they could conceal themselves from observers, and no orders were required to make the men double time. They stopped often on the way, flopped on the ground, and hugged the dirt for protection. Each time an approaching shell gave its warning screech, they dove, and listened with fearful anxiety to the resounding "Cr-r-rump." Then after a slight pause to allow the flying shrapnel and dirt to settle, they sprang up and ran forward again. The men carrying the machine guns, the mortars and the heavy bags of ammunition lagged behind a little. Their faces were strained with exertion and the sweat ran off unnoticed.
Several casualties and the medics were left behind, but most of the men reached the safety of the woods. They made their way to the forward edge of them, and were preparing to meet the German infantry defending the high ground in front of the town. Their next objective was the wooded hill.
"I wonder how many Jerries there are up there?" asked one of the lieutenants.
"I don't know, but we'll damn soon find out," replied the Captain. "Let's get going."
Orders were issued in subdued but authoritative tones. It was old stuff to these men; they had done the same thing over and over in training. and in combat too. But direction was still necessary, and the officers and noncoms moved up and down issuing instructions.
The company was preparing to advance, but first, scouts had to be sent forward ahead of anyone else to reconnoiter the woods. It is tough on the scouts, going out alone like that into unknown terrain. But it is better to lose a few men that way than to have the company caught in surprise fire. The best that can be done is to have the rest of the company "cover the scouts," that is, to be in a position to take the enemy under fire and allow the scouts to reach safety.
"Spread your men out here, Sergeant. Have them crawl up to the positions from the rear. And put an automatic rifle over there," the lieutenant of the 1st Platoon ordered.
Another lieutenant was placing a machine gun. The gunner and his assistant crawled forward dragging the machine gun after them. They pushed the muzzle through a bush and made sight adjustments. Ammunition bearers lay close by, ready to bring forward new boxes of ammunition should they be needed. A sergeant from the mortar section wriggled out to a slight rise where he could establish an observation post, unrolling telephone wire as he went. Concealed behind a bush, he attached his telephone, established contact with his guns set up to the rear and prepared to direct mortar fire.
The scouts started forward. Two of them moved out together, and when they had gone 100 yards, two more followed. With rifles at the ready position, they walked boldly, their alert eyes searching the ground to their front. When one man had to climb a fence the man behind him paused. Two men together provide a tempting target. One of the scouts ran a short distance to the side to investigate a small gully, where a machine gun might easily have been concealed, but the area was clear and he returned.
To the rear, the rest of the men in the company tensely watched the movements of the scouts. Their trained eyes sought any indication of enemy, and several men were already aiming at suspicious points and gently fingering their triggers.
The forwardmost scout halted, and his hand shot up as a warning signal to the others. Warily he moved forward, apparently approaching a possible enemy position. His suspicions were confirmed, as the unmistakable sound of German machine guns filled the air. From several places along the edge of the woods tracers streamed out across the field and again and again came the savage rattle of the Jerry guns.
The first German tracers gave the awaited signal to the Americans, and all the GIs simultaneously blasted away at the woods opposite. The machine-gun sergeant yelled "Open fire" but his gunners anticipated the command, and his voice was lost in the sound of his own guns. The light machine guns, and the heavies, the slower, pounding automatic rifles, and the M1 (Garand) rifles, all in the hands of experts, poured forth showers of lead. And through it all, to the rear could be heard the hollow "pong" of the mortars as they raked the forward edge of the enemy woods.
"More ammo," called a machine gunner. And a man darted forward with a new box.
The Germans shifted their fire from the scouts to the main position, and a spent round, its force lost in ricochet, dropped in the Captain's lap.
The last scout to leave the position took advantage of the distraction caused by the covering fires of his company to make a break for safety. At a dead run he returned to his platoon. The men near him, seeing his approach, held their fire until he reached the edge of the woods. There he threw himself on the ground behind a tree and lay panting. His squad leader came over to him.
"Damn! I never thought I'd make it," said the scout. "Those bullets were buzzing round my head like a swarm of bees."
"Did you see what happened to the other scouts?" asked the squad leader.
"New but it's rough as hell out there."
A second scout was seen. First only his helmet and part of his combat pack were visible as he wriggled along on his stomach, then his whole body as he made a running dash for a small fold in the ground. After a pause he ran again, this time to the concealment of a bush. Two more jumps and a final long dash, and he was back in the woods. A machine-gun bullet had slashed across his forehead and eyebrow, and another one had completely smashed the driver's goggles which were attached to his helmet. The blood ran down into his eye.
The German fire diminished and finally ceased, and from then on there was sporadic fire from the American side. When the noise subsided, it became clear what had happened to another of the scouts. He could be heard calling from the middle of the field, "Dick, I'm hit. Come get me. I'm hit bad. Help me."
The sergeant named Dick pounded the ground with his fist and swore. The scout had a machine-gun bullet in his back, another bullet had broken his leg and he could be seen writhing about in the middle of the field. A medic started our to help him but the Germans, who perhaps could not see the red cross on his arm from that distance, opened up again with their burp guns. The mortar sergeant tried to make a dash from his observation post to the wounded man, but the ping of a sniper's bullet and a slight thud in the ground beside him drove him back.
"Dick, why don't you come? I'm hit bad. Dick! My leg and back. Send a medic" the man continued to call.
Gradually, however, his calls became less an intelligible appeal for help, and more the incoherent cries of a man in pain. Slowly he pulled himself with his arms, dragging his wounded leg, in the direction of the company and he finally reached a position where litter bearers could pick him up.
With glasses the last of the scouts could be seen, lying motionless by one of the cattle fences.
The Captain crawled over to where the communications sergeant lay behind a tree, the -300 radio strapped to his back. He used the code names in calling the battalion commander.
"Hello, Dusty to Sam. Over."
"Hello, Sam to Dusty. Over," the answer came back.
"Hello, Dusty to Sam. We hit several Jerry machine guns in that position and we haven't been able to get anywhere. It's a tough one to take across that open ground. What shall we do? Over."
"Hello, Sam to Dusty. I know it's tough, but we've got to do it. The whole attack is held up and yours seems the most likely place to punch through. Try it again and see if you can't get that hill before nightfall. Over."
"Hello, Dusty to Sam. Roger. Out."
"Well let's try it again." The Captain's voice was matter-of-fact.
"That's easy to say from back there at Battalion," the communications sergeant mumbled to himself. "The battalion commander ought to see this damned ground."
The mortar sergeant came up to the captain and said: "Sir, I'd like to show you something. Will you come up here for a moment?" The two went forward to the edge of the woods. The sergeant had been studying carefully the enemy positions with binoculars and had discovered a whole series of emplacements, many more than the previous firing had indicated. The Germans had made skillful use of camouflage, but the branches and brush placed around their positions had withered, and a slight change in color allowed the sergeant to find the locations of seven machine guns. There was also a log pillbox set back in the woods. He pointed them out to the Captain.
"It would be slaughter to try to assault that position, without further help," he said. The Captain agreed.
Another conversation with the battalion commander took place over the -300 radio, and afterwards the Captain issued his final instructions. "We'll stay here until tomorrow, and then we'll really give it to them."
The company posted security, and the men dug in for the night. Wrapped only in raincoats, they lay down in their wet foxholes and tried to forget the cold in sleep. Those who had the appetite ate cold beans in the dark.
One of the guards saw a figure approaching from the direction of the enemy lines. Concealed behind a bush and with his rifle at his shoulder ready to fire, he called out softly, "Halt!"
The figure halted. "Don't shoot," a voice said. "It's me. Nick." It was the fourth scout.
"Good gosh, man, we thought you were dead," the guard said.
Nick came up and answered "Naw, l was just playing possum. They hit all around me but never touched me once. When it got dark, I hauled out."
The guard laughed. "Those Germans can sure spray hell out of a large area, but they aren't worth a damn when it comes to a point target," he added.
"Yeah, I guess so," said Nick, "Well, maybe some other day."
A sergeant came up and overheard the conversation. Such escapes were old stuff to him and he took it matter-of-factly. "Glad to see you back, Nick. Dig in over there. We're going to give 'em hell tomorrow."
H-hour the following day was at 1000. E Company had been moved up to join the battle, and a full-scale attack was arranged. At H minus 20, the shelling started, as several battalions of artillery turned the full power of their fury on the German positions. Round after round came screaming over the men and burst at the edge of the enemy woods. Fountains of dirt, leaves, branches, smoke and shrapnel were thrown up and subsided as quickly as they had arisen. A single round would hit, then another, and after a pause, several would come over together.
The awaiting riflemen enjoyed seeing Jerry catch hell like that. They knew what it was to be on the receiving end of such a barrage. One rifleman, ready with fixed bayonet to move forward, grinned at the man next to him and said, "Keep 'em coming, brother." The man replied with the artillery chant, "Hitler, count yo' chillun'."
Shortly, the 81mm. mortars joined the artillery, and their rounds increased the noise and destruction. A lieutenant, observing for the mortars, shouted orders into a telephone. At first the rounds were short, but he made adjustments. Then he yelled into his phone, "OK, we're zeroed in. Start dropping them in, and don't spare the ammo." After that the rounds came over even more rapidly than the artillery and almost obscured the woods with their explosions.
Just before jump-off time, the small arms started. The full assembly of weapons of the two attacking companies joined the battle--light machine guns, automatic rifles, and the less rhythmic, but active M1s. Two extra platoons of heavy machine guns had been put into position on the right bank and were pumping lead at their most rapid rate. Streams of tracers arched through the air and buried themselves in the ground around the German positions or ricocheted through the trees.
Above the rattle of the small arms, and the reverberating explosions of the artillery, could be heard the antitank guns. Their crews had worked half the night to pull these heavy pieces into position through the woods where no vehicles could go. They were brought up to fire at the log pillbox, and the hills echoed with the roar of their shots and the tenor sound of the striking projectiles as they shattered the trees of the enemy woods.
It seemed as though nothing could live through that concentration of lead and explosion. But the infantrymen knew what protection a well made emplacement can give, and they still expected to hear the angry snort of Jerry guns when the assault began.
With H-hour came the artillery smoke. A shell burst at one end of the woods. Hundreds of little burning projectiles spiraled through the air followed by streams of smoke. Then a great billow arose and drifted with the wind. Methodically, other smoke shells were laid down all along the edge of the woods, until the whole area was obscured in a great cloud.
The smoke was a signal. Jump-off time had arrived. A lieutenant from G Company stood up and waved his hand above his head in the direction of the enemy, and yelled, "Come on, men, let's go." Riflemen climbed out of their holes all along the line and started forward. To the left, the men from E Company could be seen moving out in the same fashion. Scouts ran forward and cut the wire of the fences.
But the Germans also knew that the smoke meant the advance of the infantry and the Americans recognized instantly the sharp snap of the air vacuum caused by passing bullets. Two men instinctively threw themselves on the ground, but the sergeant signaled them forward, and they got up and started walking again. They could not stop there; they had to reach the woods and actually rout the Germans out of their holes. Fortunately, enemy machine gunners were blinded by the smoke.
"They aren't all dead yet," a man carrying an automatic rifle yelled to the soldier next to him. but his voice was lost in the noise of battle.
A machine-gun bullet ripped the side of a lieutenant's leg, but he continued to limp forward. One man was knocked down by the force of a bullet hitting him in the chest. His face wore a surprised expression; he did not realize he had been hit.
As the riflemen approached the woods, the artillery shifted its fire farther back in the hopes of chewing up enemy reserves or of catching men driven back by the first barrage. The machine guns to the rear were forced to cease their supporting fires as friendly troops masked the target. But the advancing riflemen themselves continued to fire, "like coked-up gangsters of a grade-B film." They paused in their advance and shot from the shoulder with hasty aim or else they fired from the hip as they continued to walk.
An artillery "short," one of their own rounds, burst in front of a platoon and several men went down. The surrounding noises had drowned out the warning screech and they had all been caught standing up. Better to lose a few men, though, from your own artillery than to allow the Germans to mow you down, unhindered, with their machine guns.
The riflemen were approaching their objective. Several yards in front of the edge of the woods was a giant German, without helmet or rifle, lying dead, his bald head glistening with sweat. His arms were still raised above his head in a gesture of supplication, but perhaps the man who shot him did not know he was trying to surrender.
"There's still someone in that hole!" a sergeant yelled. A man with an automatic rifle stepped up and the German felt the full force of 10 rounds fired rapidly into his chest.
Already the medics were on the field, giving first aid to the wounded and indicating to the litter bearers which men were to be taken back to the aid station which had been set up to the rear. Other troops were moving up the hill now. The machine guns were shifting to the new position. The Captain moved forward, followed by the communications sergeant and his messengers. As he reached the edge of the woods, he called for the -300 radio and put the headpiece to his ear. The smoke had cleared and the sun shone on his great red beard.
"Hello, Dusty to Sam. Mission accomplished. Over."
"Hello, Sam so Dusty. Good work. Be prepared for another attack order later this morning. Over."
"Hello, Dusty to Sam. Roger. Over."
The hill was taken.
Part of an enemy convoy hit by our artillery at Miracourt, France, September 15, 1944
****The preceding story as written by Lieutenant Bell represents a superlative account of the sort of fighting that characterized the infantryman's role throughout all of France. It serves as an invaluable contribution to the 313th's history, not only because it was written by a front-line officer who had personally experienced the action related, but also because it so aptly portrays the hazardous day-by-day life to which those men assigned to infantry are continuously subjected. It should be remembered when reading the history recorded in these pages, that every action, even though receiving only several lines of mention in the combat pages of this book, was accomplished only through a similar display of courage and fortitude and daring on the part of the officers and men of the 313th Infantry. However seemingly small or unimportant an assigned combat action may seem in the scheme of things, it nonetheless represents the struggles, the fears and the very lives of the men taking part in it.