- Chapter 6 -
EIGHT NARROW ESCAPES
estimate that about 80% of the casualties suffered in the front line Infantry were from artillery and mortars. I endured and survived many of these, but there is not much to describe about them except that we hugged the dirt and, if possible, dug slit trenches for protection. The only course of action was to wait them out and hope and pray to escape the deadly jagged pieces of steel.
Some of my narrow escapes from death are identifiable as a few feet, split second or unusual circumstance separated me from extinction. There follows an account of eight such experiences, each in a short chapter. Two were included in previous accounts but are here presented with additional material.
I NEARLY STEPPED ON A GERMAN SOLDIER
As night fell we ceased our advance against the Germans in a small town in Belgium. We found ourselves in a courtyard with buildings around us.
One of my consistent assignments was to find a place where our platoon could sleep under the most desirable circumstances possible. Most nights we slept on the ground, wet or dry, and even in snow, so the possibility of shelter in a house or any building was always welcome.
I entered the only door there was in the building next to us. It was pitch black and I just stumbled around trying to find my way. There were obstructions in every direction, tables and machinery as far as could be determined.
So the project was abandoned and another location was found in the same building.
You can imagine my reaction when, the next morning, the door I had entered opened and 14 German soldiers came walking out. Finding them early, the Belgian man who lived upstairs persuaded them they were surrounded and that they should surrender. They relinquished their three machine guns as well as their rifles and gave themselves up.
The Germans most certainly heard me knocking about in the same room where they were and knew I was an American. I had no inkling of their presence. After the war, many times, maybe hundreds of times, I have asked myself, "What would have happened if I had stepped on one of those Germans?".
An interesting aspect of the episode was it did not seem like a remarkable event. We had slept in a room previously in a house where Germans were in another room. No one said, "Man, that was close.", or any such remark. It was all part of our daily life.
The men in my platoon were much more interested in "liberating" the Germans' wristwatches than discussing events of the previous night. The Germans were going off to a safe prison camp where time was unimportant, whereas for us it would continue to be vital. It was only fitting, in the fortunes of war, for them to give up their timepieces.
The buildings in the courtyard were part of a cottage industry where the Belgian and his family made mandolins. The room I entered was the factory floor and they lived upstairs.
If I had stepped on one of the Germans or bumped into them, I doubt if I would have survived. At that time, for all they knew, the battle was still on and I was an enemy soldier.
It is of interest that a Belgian family, German troops, and my platoon spent the night under the same roof.
A NARROW ESCAPE FROM A GERMAN ARTILLERY SHELL
As we moved so rapidly with General George Patton's Third Army, we liberated many villages, towns, and cities. One day we marched 25 miles, not an unusual distance in other wars, but most unusual as we fought our way across France in World War II. We barely learned the names, even at the time, so now, close to 60 years, they, and time sequences, are a blur. But individual events will never be forgotten.
We were pushing the Germans out of Luneville, a rather sizable city and an important military objective. I was sent on a patrol to locate the enemy and bring information back to Company G or engage them in combat if that were thrust upon us. Such patrols which moved out ahead of our advancing troops were obviously dangerous assignments. The Army manual stated that the first scout would force the enemy to reveal himself. He usually revealed himself by shooting the first scout!
This patrol was ordered to search the woods in front for the enemy.
Locate the enemy we did. In this episode, as was always the case with patrols, there were two scouts ahead of me and five soldiers behind. We kept a distance between us of 15 to 20 feet so that one shell could not knock us all out at once. The street on which we were advancing came to a perpendicular intersection with a wide boulevard. The first scout looked in both directions and ran across, taking shelter next to a building on the other side. The second scout followed the same procedure.
Then it was my turn. Seeing nothing in either direction, I was just about to start across, and I do mean just about to start, when out of the corner of my eye I saw an orange flash far down the boulevard.
I paused and almost instantaneously an artillery shell exploded to my right front. Had I gone, the shot might have even hit me directly or I certainly would have been blown to bits by the exploding shrapnel.
The Germans, with their commanding view of the boulevard, had obviously seen my scouts cross and had fired to hit those that followed. I held up the patrol and the artillery gun was ultimately silenced by our troops advancing from another direction.
IT BLEW MY HELMET OFF
The best accommodations we ever had, as we lived a life on the ground and in the woods, were prepared for us by the Germans. That is, they prepared them for themselves and we captured them as we moved forward. Two stand out in my mind, very well built dugouts.
They dug down about three feet for an area of about seven feet square, then built log walls and a roof with an entry. The evacuated dirt was piled on top and around the sides for protection. It accommodated four of us comfortably, maybe five or even six.
It was at the site of one of these dugouts that I made an interesting discovery. The Germans had a terrifying weapon they called a Neibelwerfer which projected a large rocket. As it was being propelled, it gave off terrible screeching sounds - so naturally we called it The Andrews Sisters, a popular singing group of the day. When it hit there was a giant flame and smoke which could be seen for miles, which had considerable psychological value.
Since it was shot from far behind the enemy lines, I learned I could see where it was headed, a big identifiable rocket. And I was convinced, rightly so, that if it was coming toward us, I would have ample time to seek cover.
So, when The Andrews Sisters piped up, all the men jumped in their holes or in the dugout. I, on the other hand, jumped out to watch the proceedings. I could see the rocket as it arced through the sky and that it was not headed in our direction. I waited until the explosion was over and calmly reentered the dugout. This was not an act of bravery or bravado, I just learned something others hadn't. No one asked me about my action and I never explained.
It was also at the site of this dugout that there was a demonstration of how thin the line was between life and death. Pvt. Chenault was about to enter our dugout. I was fond of him, particularly as he came from Louisiana, and was just about to tell him to come on in. But a split second before I could speak, Sgt. McConeghy, who had the authority to do so, said we had too many there and Chenault should go elsewhere. He was sitting beside the hole which he dug for himself reading a letter from home when a mortar shell hit and killed him.
It was at the site of another dugout that I had one of my very closest escapes from death. The entrance to the dugout was in the direction of the enemy which was understandable because they had built it to be away from the direction of our approach. One night I was climbing out of the dugout when there was a brilliant yellow, orange flash to my immediate right front. I can still see it now.
The explosion threw me back down in the dugout and blew my helmet off. As I lay there stunned I can remember Captain Du Monde's feeling my body, in the pitch black dark, to see if I was alive.
It was a German 88 shell which traveled faster than sound so that we had no warning. An 88 has a reported killing radius of 17 yards and I am sure it was not more than five yards away.
The fact that it blew my helmet off was significant, because we always kept our chin straps tightly buckled. Many Infantry soldiers wore their helmets at a jaunty angle and chin straps hanging. Not in Patton's Army. Not only because it was regulation from old "Blood and Guts" himself to have them buckled, but more for self protection. We had to be ready any moment to throw ourselves on the ground with force because of artillery, and to have a helmet roll away would have been the height of idiocy. (With GI humor the soldiers said Patton meant, "My guts and your blood.")
It is always fascinating to me to learn what is interesting to other people, the students at different schools where I lectured on the Infantry in World War II for example, and what was important to me then and now. I recounted once how we stood up all night in the woods in the rain. We certainly weren't going to lie down on the wet ground, and there was no shelter anywhere. We did not know where the enemy was or where the rest of our company was. And, because we were spread out we could not see or speak to each other - a platoon of men each standing, waiting through the night, in the rain, waiting for the morning.
The children thought this was a horrible experience. For us, it was a commonplace type of event. At least there were no exploding artillery shells.
Another incident about which there is a variation of opinion relates to a time I was digging a hole during an artillery barrage and I was stung 14 times by wasps. Children think that was so terrible, but I was so busy trying to save my life I hardly noticed, although I have to let it be known that French wasps were not as virile as our American home grown wasps.
THERE WAS A BIG HOLE
Any discussion of the Infantry in World War II brings up the subject of foxholes. This method of protection can generally be described as a hole deep enough so that a man could stand up in it. He also could get down in it for protection from small arms fire and artillery. When the 3rd Armored Division under General Patton had to stop because they had outstripped supplies of fuel and ammunition, the men dug fox holes in a holding action against the enemy and even dug shelves in them to hold K Rations and shaving equipment.
In company G we never dug fox holes. We never had time to do so because we were moving so fast. In all my time in Europe I saw one such hole that would have qualified for being a fox hole, dug by someone in another Division in an area through which we passed. What we dug were "slit trenches" and were always so called. These were body length and body width and usually only deep enough so that when we were in them we would be below the surface of the ground around us. This provided protection against rifle and machine gun fire and a good amount of protection against artillery. A casual observer might think they looked ominously like graves, but we never thought of then that way. To us they were life not death, protection and security. We loved our holes, our slit trenches.
We carried short shovels, called an "entrenching tool" by the army, in our back packs. The metal spade part could be used as a shovel, but it was also on a swivel so it could be locked in a 90 degree angle and be used as a hoe to hack at the ground.
Now it came as a great surprise to me and a source of consternation that the men of G Company could dig holes so much more rapidly than I could. One would not think that digging a hole was such a complicated process that there would be varying degrees of skill. You stuck the shovel in the ground, got a spade full and put it off to the side and repeated the process. My Ivy League education did not include hole digging and those other fellows must have had more training and experience in that field, and maybe they were more muscular to boot. So I was always somewhat behind in my frantic effort to save my life. (My education and background provided me some other advantages as I did graduate #7 in a class of 200 from Officers' Candidate School.)
When I had time, I did provide for myself what I called my private fortification, a term I invented for an internal chuckle but never announced it to the other members of G Company. Come to think of it, this recording of the phrase is the first time I have ever told anyone about terminology for what I was doing.
I carefully dug a good slit trench, putting the dirt somewhat off to the side. Then I cut boughs off of trees, using my bayonet and a Boy Scout type of jack knife, a personal possession unique in the company because it was not Government Issue. This was the only use I ever heard of for a bayonet. My raincoat was laid over the boughs and the dirt piled on top, the raincoat keeping the dirt from falling through the cracks. This covering provided extra protection from shrapnel.
One night I slithered down through the entry left at the end into my personal fortification, cocked my helmet in a way which allowed me to keep in on but having it act as a very satisfactory pillow, and felt safe and warm, even protected from the rain which I could hear outside. Then I felt a drop run down my neck, then another, then another. There was nothing left for me to do but to retrieve my raincoat and spend yet another night, until daylight, standing in the rain. I looked at my personal fortification the next morning and it was half full of water.
My limited ability to dig might have saved me life. When we stopped an advance the first thing we did was to prepare a defense in case of a counterattack, and that meant digging in. I was working on yet another slit trench, but it was slow going. The ground seemed especially hard, even rocky. Had I been more skilled at digging, or more persistent, I might have completed my task, but without letting my men know what I was doing, or why, I looked for softer ground and was successful.
The next day I passed by the location where I worked at the hole and abandoned it. An artillery shell hit and exploded so close that I would not have survived.
This is revised in another account
MACHINE GUN BULLETS AND BARBED WIRE
We were speeding down a French road in a Jeep not knowing that the Germans had advanced to a position between us and our destination. They saw us coming and opened fire with a machine gun. Suddenly, bullets were whistling around us.
Miraculously neither we nor the Jeep were hit. German machine guns poured out a volley of bullets with a sufficient spread so that they were most effective in reaching their targets. Certainly a Jeep with soldiers in it on an open road should have been an easy target.
The driver immediately turned off the road without much opportunity to reduce our speed. We bounced through a drainage ditch, up an incline, and headed toward a barbed wire fence.
The windshield of the Jeep was turned down on the hood, and I could see a strand of barbed wire coming toward me. As quickly as possible, I slumped as much as I could in my seat and with my right hand pushed the barbed wire up over my head as it tore through my hand. If I had not responded so quickly, it would have decapitated me or mangled my face and head.
My hand injury was not serious enough to justify my going to the rear, and I never thought of such a move. But with continuous efforts to avoid shrapnel by digging holes, I kept opening up the wounds and they took a long time to heal.
My jeep driver and another officer.
THE TANK DUEL
This account has been previously described but it is recounted here with additional comments.
Like other Infantry companies, Company G was helpless in the face of enemy tanks. We had no weapons or resources to stop them.
During training in the States we were equipped with a so-called anti-tank weapon, a "bazooka" named after an odd instrument a radio comedian used. Of course, the Army had some long technical name, but we knew no other one than bazooka. It looked like a section of stove pipe, somewhat over five feet long, with a shoulder mount to be used by a single soldier. It fired a rocket which penetrated armor on impact.
Except for the bazooka, the only hope of our Company soldiers in the face of approaching tanks was to lie flat and hug the earth to avoid being hit by the blazing machine guns and the 88's being fired point blank with exploding artillery shells, then to be prepared to move if we were in the direct path of a tank in order not to be run over. The noise was terrifying. Of course, if a member of the platoon had a bazooka and the opportunity to fire it, one tank might have been stopped, but this never happened.
An embankment with railroad tracks on top ran along the edge of a small French town we were occupying. The men of Company G lay on the protected side ("defiladed" is the Army term for such a position) with our heads just enough over the top to observe an enemy tank that was approaching us across a field. There were no orders I could give my men. We could only wait.
To my great surprise a tank destroyer pulled up right next to me with just the turret and its anti-tank gun visible to the enemy over the embankment. I realized I had the best seat in the house to watch a tank duel, but subsequent events demonstrated I should have moved to a different position to observe the action.
A tank destroyer had many characteristics of a tank but had only light armor. The theory was that they were faster, had more flexibility of action and could out-maneuver a tank. The mortality rate was great as the German tanks knocked them off readily.
Our TD had the advantage that being behind the embankment so there was little for the enemy to aim at, just the turret and the gun, whereas the enemy tank was in full view in an open field.
Suddenly there was a tremendous noise. I turned to see a third of a two story building behind me disintegrate and crash to the ground. The enemy's shell had missed the Tank Destroyer - and missed me as well - and hit the building. Their projectile had passed between the TD and my position. The fact that the destroyed building was right behind me indicated how close it came. A very small faction of a millimeter in the aiming device of the German commander would have eliminated one platoon leader. Or if the shell had hit the embankment itself, instead of passing over it, it would have exploded and sent jagged pieces of steel in all directions, including ours. We were in the killing radius of a German 88 shell.
The TD fired one round, and, true to its name, destroyed the enemy tank.
There was another occasion during my service with Company G that we had time to call up a tank destroyer from Battalion Headquarters. A German tank stopped in a field perhaps 150 yards from where we were dug in along a wooded area.
The tank commander opened his turret and stuck his head up to look around. We could have shot at him, but the last thing we wanted to do was to reveal our positions or they could have directed their 88 toward us and fired point blank.
We were all taken completely by surprise when five men jumped out of the tank and ran toward their lines into the woods. They either had motor trouble or ran out of fuel. We summoned a tank destroyer, from higher headquarters, to destroy the tank before the Germans could sneak back into it - perhaps with a can of fuel!
THE BULLETS CHEWED UP THE TREES ABOVE ME
We heard the machine gun bullets passing by us and over us, and it was clear the gunner had spotted us and was aiming specifically at us. Such bullets made loud cracking noise, and with the number of them poured forth from a German machine gun - far more than our comparable weapon produced - the sound was deafening, and terrifying.
All we could do was hit the ground and hug the earth.
Just above me the bullets were chewing up the trees. There would be a thud and a large white gash would appear as the bark was torn away revealing the wood underneath.
Just waiting, with nothing else I could do, I observed an interesting phenomenon. German machine gun ammunition included, as did ours, special bullets called "tracers". About one in twenty of the shells contained a chemical, probably phosphorus, which created a visible stream in the air and which allowed the gunner to see whether or not he was hitting his target. We could actually see the course taken by tracer bullets, some of which hit trees and some of which went beyond.
Once, a tracer hit a tree to my right, ricocheted (bounced) on other tees in such a manner that it made a semi-circle and headed back to my left in the direction from which it came toward the enemy, although obviously with its force spent.
Had I stood up I would have been killed, another example of having a very short distance separating me from death. Or a more likely event for a fatality would have resulted had I been hit by the first machine gun burst before I could hit the ground.
We could only wait until a sufficient period of time had passed after the machine gun fire had stopped, and with the hope that the gunner had found another target or with a preferable hope that our artillery had silenced the machine gun. Then I got up and ordered the men into the attack again with myself in the lead.
Students ask me, "Were you afraid?" Of course I was. We all were. It would be impossible for a human being to be so devoid of natural emotion to not know fear under such circumstances. On another occasion, when pinned down by machine gun fire, since there was nothing else to do, I decided to take out the book which by design fit neatly in one of my pockets and read it. (The Army kept us with a constant supply of good ones.) The one at hand was Somerset Maughm's "Summing Up ". But I couldn't concentrate and anyhow my hand visibly shook.
We never voiced our fear. There were certainly degrees of fear, and a very few were so fearful they failed in their duty. This happened to two men in my platoon, in separate incidents, under circumstances I would rather not recount.
"LIEUTENANT, I CAN'T MOVE MY LEGS"
We hated to be caught in an artillery barrage in a wooded area for two reasons. The first was because the trees muffled the sound of artillery shells coming toward us, called "Incoming Mail" with typical GI humor. Since sound traveled faster than the shells, except for the dreaded German 88's, on most occasions, we could hit the ground before the shells hit. In addition, shells hitting in the trees above us caused a much wider dispersion of those jagged pieces of steel which caused most of our casualties.
I was standing up in the most vulnerable position possible when several shells arrived, some bursting in the trees and some on the ground. One of them hit so close to me that it three dirt into my eyes. Taking into account the killing radius of an artillery shell I will never understand how dirt could be thrown in my eyes without my being hit by shrapnel.
Sgt. Papadakos, next to me, was not so fortunate. On his back, he was propped up on his elbows as best he could and called out, "Lieutenant, I can't move my legs." Some men turned him over and there was a gaping hole in his back. His spine had been severed.
Pvt. Pitts had as narrow an escape as I had. A piece of shrapnel about three inches in diameter had ricocheted until there was only enough for it to tear through his clothes and lie warm on his stomach. He showed us the shrapnel which elicited much amusement, but which was one of so many similar events it was not considered of special importance. I certainly did not mention getting dirt in my eyes.
We left Sgt. Papadakos and moved on. We had to move on. The attack could not wait to care for one wounded man. The expectation was that the medics who followed an attack would reach him, and this clearly took place.
An officer read the mail of all the men before it went out to censor any information which might be helpful to the enemy. (There never was.) We signed the front of each envelope to indicate it had been approved. Papadakos's brother picked up my name from mail he had received and wrote me, knowing, of course, the company address, to ask what I knew about his brother. I wrote back that there was little I could tell him, as we moved on so quickly and I had heard nothing further, but I certainly did not indicate the gravity of the wound as I knew it.
My censoring mail might well have saved a young man's life. A newly arrived recruit had recently gotten married and was madly in love with his wife. He wrote letters which consisted of "I love you. I love you." over and over for four pages. I was so touched by his devotion that I made a point of never selecting him to be a scout, that most dangerous of assignments for which he was a logical prospect. We chose the new men to be scouts, because we did not want to lose our valuable experienced soldiers. Of course, he never knew how he escaped the assignment. What an incredible thing it was that at the age of 25 I had such control over life and death!
In describing eight identifiable occasions when I had such close brushes with death, there is an important point I feel strongly I want to make. Not one of them was the result of my volunteering for some special dangerous assignment, nor were they what might be called acts of valor. They were all in the line of ordinary duty, what we did every day. As I repeat over and over, "We did what we had to do." I was just one of the fortunate ones who survived them all, and I thank the Lord for that.