My company’s (the 562nd Railhead Company) first bivouac area in France was in an orchard on a hill overlooking the English Channel. In ordinary times it would have been a beautiful, peaceful setting, but not this day. It was D Day. June 6th 1944. the day that all peaceful nations were waiting for. The greatest amphibious assault in history to the free people of Europe from the tyranny of the Axis powers of Germany and Italy had n. From here one could see the LST 500 that had been home to us for seven days, and had waded ashore from a few hours before. We were lucky; the beachhead had been secured by this time. Our luck did not last long. We were introduced to the first of many German artillery and mortar attacks. There was no place on the beach head to “get” to escape this deadly fire.
About five that afternoon we began our march to the little orchard that was to be our home for several weeks. We did not enjoy its beauty. Seven of our buddies were no longer with us. Three had been killed, four wounded and evacuated to a hospital ship. We now knew the horrors of war.
My foxhole buddy, “Smitty” and I were enjoying a smoke while sitting on a pile of dirt beside our newly dug foxholes when we noticed an elderly couple trudging up the steep trail to the orchard. Each of them was carrying a metal bucket and had a back pack. We stood up to greet them. I intended to give her a hand shake. Before I could extend my hand she threw her arms me around me, pulled me close and gave me the French style of welcome – a kiss on both cheeks, not once but twice. To this day I don’t know if I was embarrassed or repulsed by this action. I do remember pushing her away from me rather hard. Then I saw her face. Even after sixty three years whenever I remember D day, the image of her face comes to mind. It was old and wrinkled framed in a dirty scarf that covered hair. Her blue eyes were misted over from the tears that ran down her cheeks. The only way I can describe her toothless smile is by calling it a smile of pure joy and happiness. Her whole face radiated these feelings. I could not help myself. I pulled her to me and I gave her the American style of greetings a hug and pats on the back.
The buckets they carried were filled with milk. Smitty and I were given a ladle of it to drink. It was the first fresh milk we had since we left the States. Oh how we enjoyed it! There were many things we were short of on the first few days on the beach, although cigarettes, Hershey bars and gum were plentiful. We loaded our new friends with these items. We indicated to them we would take them to the area where they could share the milk with our buddies. About his time a jeep arrived with our commanding officer and first sergeant. When the officer saw the civilians he asked me “What in the hell are those people doing here.” I offered him a ladle of milk and replied “Sir these good people are treating our company to a drink of milk!” I still get mad when I think of what happened next. He yanked the ladle out of my hand and heaved it down the hill as far as he could. He then kicked the buckets over spilling the milk, giving an extra boot so they tumbled further down the hill. He then ordered the people to leave and never come back. I glanced at their faces. Looks of astonishment and hurt replaced the happy smiles. They slowly turned and made their way to the path. He then shouted to us, “What the matter with you crazy idiots? Don’t you know that milk might be poisoned?” I thought to myself, you are the idiot these good people had been under the control of the Germans for many years and existed under cruel treatment. We were their liberators and the only thing they had to welcome us with was fresh milk. To this day I dislike this man intensely. I did get a small amount of revenge several weeks later.
What a long day June 4th was! Actually is started before dusk the evening before when our LST lifted its anchor that started our great adventure. There was little sleep for any of us. We were also on double daylight savings time which made the day seem even longer. I was looking forward to going to bed even if it was just two slightly damp GI woolen blankets on the hard, cold, ground inside a two man pup tent.
I don’t think I was in bed five minutes before I heard the sound of approaching air craft. I wasn’t really concerned, after all the allies owned the air space. How wrong I was. All hell broke loose. Bombs began falling; fighter planes began strafing the area time after time. Smitty and I managed to roll into our fox holes. I remember thinking to myself I wish I had dug it little deeper. I don’t know how many planes attacked us, or how long it lasted, but it seemed like an eternity.
Sleep was impossible the rest of the night. By dawn most of were up wanderings around the area and reliving the day and night before. We were further saddened when we learned one more buddy had been killed and two wounded and evacuated.
The field kitchen would not be set up for several days. We would survive on C, K and D rations. Not tasty, but were very nutritious. I was sitting on the edge of my fox hole finishing my K ration breakfast when the company runner informed me I was to report to the commanding officer. (The very person who had called us idiots) My first thought was that I was going to be court-martialed for the milk drinking incident. While I was reporting to and saluting him I noticed he was reading my service record. “Corporal West I see you are a good typist.”’ “I would say only average Sir.” “My company clerk was wounded last night. How would you like to take his place?” Just the thought of being around this man twenty four hours a day made me sick. Although I knew it probably would do no good I replied “Thank you sir, but I would like to stay with my friends.” I was right, it did no good and I became company clerk. Lordy! Lordy! What had I done to deserve this?
There were only two things I liked about my new job. The living and sleeping conditions were much better. The large C.P (command post) tent was far superior for comfort than the small two man pup tents the rest of the troops used. I was issued a canvas cot, much more comfortable than the co hard ground. My second joy was that I had access to a Jeep to deliver reports to battalion headquarters. On my second trip there I discovered the home of the elderly French friends. On almost every trip I stopped and visited taking them some sort of treat. As we got more and different rations the gifts became came better.
Telephone communications on the beach were very unreliable. One minute they were very clear, the next minute garbled with so much static it was impossible to understand everything. One evening the phone rang. I answered it with “562nd Railhead Company, Corporal West speaking how I may help you?” You can imagine my surprise when the answer was. “Corporal, this is General George Patten. Would you please inform your commanding officer I would like to talk with him. Tell him it is very important.” I quickly replied, “Yes sir, right away.’ The officers slept in an eight man squad tent a few yards behind the CP. On the way to this tent I came up with an idea how I might get revenge on the C.O.by getting him in trouble. I called though the closed flap off the tent. “Captain you are wanted on the telephone.” “Who is calling?” With a white lie I answered “I don’t know sir, I ask twice but the line was so garbled I couldn’t understand what he said. I was sitting on the edge of my cot when he entered his office. He answered the phone with “This is Captain Black. I hope you have a good reason for calling me.” In an instant I saw his arrogant face change to a surprised and shocked one. In a very nervous voice he answered several questions with “Yes sir, no sir and I’ll take care it sir. Then he answered a question with “I don’t know sir.” Patten’s famous temper came forth. With a voice so filled with anger I could hear every word he was saying from where I was sitting. “CAPTAIN, I HAVE JUST TAKEN OF COMMAND OF THE THIRD ARMY. OFFICERS UNDER MY COMMAND DO NOT THINK, THEY KNOW. DO I MAKE MYSELF PERFECTLY CLEAR? After a weak yes sir the general hung up. Captain Black sat at his desk with a stunned look. I had gotten away with my trickery. To be on the safe side I ask “Who was that sir?” “”General Patten. The third army is going on the attack tomorrow. I want you to inform the platoon sergeants to wake their men at 0500. We have to break camp and be ready to leave by 10:00 hundred hours. The sergeants were not needed. We were awakened at dawn by the hundreds of aircraft OVERHEAD ton their way to St Lo to destroy defenses, fortifications and troops. It was the beginning of General Patten’s lightning like thrust through France. The beginning of the end of the axis powers.