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NORMANDY - AN ERUPTED HELL
-- View From My Pastures --
by
Dick Goodie
486th AAA Bn, 3AD
  This essay appeared in The Maine Sunday Telegram on Veterans Day 1979. On July 24, 2004 it was revised for this website.

 

The best approach to tell about Normandy is to mention a single soldier whom I talked to soon after coming ashore on Omaha Beach. It was June 1944; I was twenty-one.

Because of the storms that churned up the English Channel our Third Armored Division wasn't able to land on Omaha until after the infantry had established a foothold. By that time the dogfaces were hoarse yelling for armor to help hold the green pastures they had crawled forward to capture.

In an apple orchard above the beach, we removed the waterproofing from our armor and found ourselves on the firing line that afternoon.

Once in position against a tall impregnable hedge the first thing I did was to dig a large trench and even cover the opening with logs to shield against the heavy artillery and tree-bursts.

Only fools feigned bravery at Normandy. It would have inconsistent with the situation: The new army from the streets of America was untried; the front lines were ill-defined in a tangle of hedge-rowed pastures; and the German army had the psychological edge, having gained a ruthless image in the world press.

I can remember the skies over Normandy that first night were aglow with pulsating war lights. Two of the world's largest armies wanted to move in opposite directions. The deep rumble of artillery seemed to come in shockwaves from the core of the earth.

With darkness came a light drizzle - it rained often in Normandy. We lowered our guns so they rested on a hedgerow.

My equipment was an M-15 half-track that mounted an automatic 37 mm cannon and twin .50-caliber machine guns. We had great firepower and could take on aircraft as well. We carried a crew of seven. Later, after we got moving, we sometimes "worked over" a hedgerow prior to the infantry moving forward.

But now, soon after D-Day, it was a stroke of luck to land in the same pasture with the First Infantry Division. They were real veterans. In Stars and Stripes, the forces' newspaper, we had followed their campaigns in North Africa and Sicily, and all of us knew that a few days earlier, as the veteran division, the Big Red One had steadied the massive assault on Omaha Beach while the world stopped breathing.

But, God, how they suffered. Most of us, naive to battle, looked upon Red One as royalty, but were quick to notice they enjoyed no comforts of that lofty status.

My gun crew stood almost at attention as they filed through a break in the hedgerow to set up in our pasture. Harnessed under Browning automatics, bazookas, .30-caliber machine guns, mounts, and packs containing ammo, grenades and their scant possessions, at once they began digging foxholes in the rich, dark earth along the length of the pasture.

Throughout the night's drizzle, without motion or sound, they sat like surfaced field animals on piles of dirt near their individual holes.

One of them sat a few feet from my position against a tall hedge, a blanket draped over his shoulders so as to protect the working parts of an M1 cradled on his lap. During the several hours I watched him, not once did he move. Finally, around midnight, I slung my own rifle muzzle down and jogged around the shell craters to talk to him. I offered him a dry shelter-half.

"I could use it," he said quietly.

He sounded not at all savage as I had expected after Omaha, but weary, withdrawn, insensible to the sane world we both had known in England a few days earlier, before we were quarantined in the exit pens.

Between incoming shell bursts, we talked soldier talk. He mentioned the task ahead would be free from worry once the belief was firm that there would be no way of coming out of it alive. He taught me the importance of this. It was the beginning of my gradual process of transforming terrifying combat into a form of high-risk adventure.

Then we talked about the rain and were pleased it had come, if only to put down the rotten cabbage odor of enemy corpses and bloated cows that were scattered about. I asked him about Omaha, but didn't press when he became strangely silent.

From his accent I couldn't tell if he was from Maine or Colorado, but the anguish in his voice was unmistakable. He'd been benumbed from the carnage of battle. He removed the wet blanket from his shoulders and dropped it near his foxhole. Then he placed my dry shelter-half over his shoulders, collaring it up under his steel helmet. You'd have thought I'd given him a fur-lined London Fog. I noticed he moved his left arm awkwardly.

"Maybe you should go to the rear."

"Oh, no," he came back warily.

But he brought his arm out from under the canvas, rolled up his sleeve, took a field dressing from a kit hooked to his ammo belt, poured something onto it, then pulled down his sleeve. He was not a large man but his arms were thick, and the shot had ripped open a fleshy part.

"You go back you'd get the Purple Heart."

"I already have that with two clusters. If I go back they'd transfer me to a different outfit. I'm used to this one."

The light rain made metal-like tappings on our helmets and formed shiny pools in boot prints cast in the mud near his foxhole.

He said: "You haven't been in combat long."

"It shows?"

"Your chin strap is buckled. Concussion could tear your head off." I unbuckled the strap.

"Did you get a Purple Heart at Tronia?"

"My second one."

"Ever see anything to match these hedgerows at Tronia?" (Sicily.)

"Never seen anything to match these hedgerows anywhere," he said accurately.


For a week the attack had been going badly because of the hedgerows, built through the centuries along property lines, and now high enough to shield the crops from damp channel winds. The generals had promised Paris would be liberated that summer, but the English and Canadians hadn't even taken Caen yet.

I was to learn that combat was more tolerable when the army moved; but at Normandy the army cringed and grew ponderous from the realization of being part of a deeply committed Crusade that was unable to cut its way through the hedgerows. Many tanks brooded against the hedgerows like grounded sea monsters, their powerful guns lowered in a posture of futility. In such battlegrounds a frontal attack with tanks and infantry was impossible.

"Do you think we'll ever get through these hedges?" I remember asking.

"If they don't gas us we will."

Occasionally, a shell landed nearby and exploded in a shower of sparks. In the pastures behind, 105s and Long Toms pounded the German army incessantly.

I can still remember how, in the lights of the explosions, the infantryman's whole being was shown alerted, transfixed in a posture of readiness, his tired eyes probing the dark hedge where the enemy lurked, reconnoitering for weak spots or artillery targets.

When an .88 scraped through the wet air, he wouldn't flinch, but read the enemy pattern passively, knowing shrapnel tends to spray forward and to the sides, not to the rear.

During a lull in the bombardment there came from the jammed-up battalions behind us the careless crash of a mess kit on armor. In the heavy air, it sounded like a shotgun going off in church. The veteran turned in disgust, indicating the noise would attract more artillery - a concentration. But his speech was limited to tactical essentials.


I wasn't sure what to expect when I first went across the pasture to visit that soldier. My lasting impression was his capacity to absorb punishment. Had it been necessary for him to pass through some sort of celestial gateway, where physical appearance determined heavenly caste, certainly he could only have qualified for God's human junkyard.

And if through the magic of then unknown satellite TV, his image, for example, could have been flashed to his wife or girlfriend back home, she would have screamed with horror. In Normandy, however, he was infantry and therefore what was known as "the queen of battle." He belonged to "the goddamned infantry" as they referred to themselves. He was of The First Infantry Division and as professional a soldier as the American army had.

That night I remember searching his lonely stoicism for some heroic feature that would make it all balance. There was none. He wasn't brazen, swashbuckling, or grandiose; nor was he hyper or the type to strut around. I have never encountered a more miserable human, and wonder today if his sensibilities ever allowed him to become whole again - if he survived, which is doubtful. Yet, there he sat in the rain holding the front, paradoxically contented, his courage and fear locked in numbed counterbalance.

In the pasture that night, the Germans eventually had found what they had been probing for and dropped in heavy artillery. I can still see geysers of dark earth spraying the hedge before us. Shells whistled in and exploded in a bracket around the pasture. Behind us, our artillery responded.

"Run for your foxhole," the veteran warned before, like a spooked woodchuck, he dropped out of sight into his own burrow. Shells were landing in our pasture as I dived into my hole near the hedgerow. The shelling continued all night.

By morning when I crawled out of my hole, it had stopped raining. In the early light the pasture was badly shell-torn. Of more interest, the pasture was deserted. At dawn, under the umbrella of the artillery barrage, the First Infantry Division had moved up.


After a few weeks into the battle, many of our tanks had been fitted with "hedgerow cutters" - tusk-like devices made from metal bars, sharpened, then welded to the lower front frames that enabled them to smash through an earthen hedge, rather than lifting their soft underbellies to the waiting German '88s.

Then, with the support of saturation bombing by 2,500 planes - a sight that no one who was there will ever forget - the tanks and infantry began to move over the ravaged landscape until we helped forge a major breakthrough at St Lo with Paris and the Seine River only days away. The 49-day invasion battle of Normandy was finally over.

Our Third Armored Division emerged from Normandy bruised but efficient enough to be chosen by VII Corps to spearhead with Big Red One across France, Belgium and into Central Germany. At Mons, Belgium, the two crack divisions (with P-47 Thunderbolts of the 9th Tactical Air Force in support) destroyed or captured 25,000 of the enemy within three days.


But when I think of how inexperienced and fearful our gun crew was the first few days in Normandy (yet, not so scared that we couldn't do our jobs for which we were well-trained), I often think of how fortunate we were to have landed in the same pasture with the First Infantry Division. They were veterans of North Africa, Sicily and Omaha Beach; we joined the battle as neophytes. Their presence made me feel a little more secure, and over the years I have come to believe that that initial encounter with the Red One at Normandy can only be remembered as a rare stroke or luck.

Andy Rooney, a correspondent for Stars and Stripes during the conflict, put it best: "The Big Red One," he wrote, "was so good it was heartbreaking to see it being given the toughest assignments . . . as a reward for its excellence."

During the sixtieth anniversary celebrations of Normandy, my daughter asked: "What was it really like at Normandy, dad?"

I told her about the weary infantryman, sitting at his foxhole, a wet blanket over his shoulders so as to protect the working parts of his rifle cradled in his lap.

In my symbolic portrayal, I mentioned the frustrations of the infantryman's struggle: of his incredible resilience that transcended agony: of his day-and-night vigil at the tide line of an erupted hell: his perseverance in his quest for the next hedgerow.

I went as far as to mention that his M1-rifle was pivotal in the thin difference between freedom and enslavement.

I told my daughter: "That shot-up dogface that I encountered one rainy night at Normandy, helped give the Free World another chance, and it's a proud feeling knowing that our Third Armored Division came out of Normandy battered but skilled enough to thereafter run with the First Infantry Division as a tank/infantry strike force that historians have since proclaimed to be invincible."

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