25 July 1944
Port Hubert, France
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.
Those 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.
Rose's 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
As 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
We same four started back in the jeep and a guard halted us
inside the city saying there was a Kraut Tiger tank running loose
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 Inf.
When 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 spot.
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 fired.
What 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.
One 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.
As 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 abattoir.
The 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 experience.
Sooner 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.
BATTLE FOR VILLEBAUDON CROSSROADS
Next 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.
Although 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
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.
On 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.
COLLIER 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.
In 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.
So 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
I 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?
Writing 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 permission from the author, Don
R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of The Marsh Family