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Normandy After D-Day: June 7-30, 1944

The Test of Combat

Converted for the Web from "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose

The mission of the 101st Airborne Division was to take Carentan and thus link Omaha and Utah into a continuous beachhead. It took an all-out commitment from the airborne infantry. One of the critical actions was led by Lt. Col. Robert Cole, CO of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd PIR.

Cole was twenty-nine years of age, an Army brat and a 1939 West Point graduate, born and trained to lead. On D-Day, he had gathered up seventy-five men, moved out to Utah Beach, shot up some Germans on the way, and was at the dune line to welcome men from the 4th Division coming ashore. From June 7 on he had been involved in the attack on Carentan. The climax came on June 11.

Cole was leading some 250 men down a long, exposed causeway. At the far end was a bridge over the Douve River. Beyond that bridge was the linkup point with units from the 29th Division coming from Omaha. The causeway was a meter or so above the marshes on either side. On the far side of the inland marsh, about 150 meters away, there was a hedgerow, occupied by the Germans.

Once Cole was fully committed along the causeway, the German machine gunners, riflemen, and mortarmen along the hedgerow opened fire. Cole's battalion took a couple of dozen casualties. The survivors huddled against the bank on the far side of the causeway.

They should have kept moving. But the hardest lesson to teach in training, the most difficult rule to follow in combat, is to keep moving when fired on. Every instinct makes a soldier want to hug the ground. Cole's men did, and over the next half hour the Germans dropped mortars on the battalion, causing further casualties. Whenever an American tried to move down the causeway, he drew rifle and machine-gun fire. For yet another half hour, the GIs were pinned down.

Then Cole could take no more and took command. He passed out an order seldom heard in World War II: "Fix bayonets!"

Up and down the line he could hear the click of bayonets being fitted to rifle barrels. Cole's pulse was racing, his adrenaline pumping. He pulled his .45-caliber pistol, jumped onto the causeway, shouted a command in so loud a voice he could be heard above the din of the battle, "Charge!," turned toward the hedgerow, and began plunging through the marsh.

His men watched, fearful, excited, impressed, inspired. First single figures rose and began to follow Cole. Then small groups of two and three. Then whole squads started running forward, flashing the cold steel of their bayonets. The men began to roar as they charged, their own version of the Rebel Yell.

The Germans fired and cut down some, but not enough. Cole's men got to the hedgerow, plunged into the dugouts and trenches, thrusting with their bayonets, drawing blood and screams, causing death. Those Germans who dodged the bayonets ran out the back way and fled to the rear. Paratroopers took them under fire and dropped a dozen or more.

Cole stood there, shaking, exhausted, elated. Around him the men began to cheer. That added to the Civil War atmosphere of the scene. After the cheering subsided, Cole got his men down the causeway to the bridge and over it to the far side of the Douve River. There, the following day, Omaha and Utah linked up.

Cole's victory, memorable in itself, also serves as an example not only of heroism and spirit but also of the many things the Americans were doing wrong. Later in the war, in Holland and Belgium, the 502nd PIR would not have advanced over a causeway crossing a swampy area, with an unsecured hedgerow 150 meters away. It would have found a way to flank the hedgerow. Nor would the experienced 502nd have done what Cole did, make a bayonet charge over open, marshy ground. Not after having seen, too many times, what speeding bullets and hot shrapnel do to the human body. As veterans, the paratroopers would have called in artillery, and fighter aircraft, to blast the German position.

But in June, they didn't have the knowledge nor the communications capability to do any of that. No one had foreseen the need for air-ground communication, pilot to tank commander, infantry captain to forward observer over the radio; as no one had seen the need for the infantry to be able to communicate with tankers when the hatch was down.

Throughout First Army, young men made many discoveries in the first few days of combat, about war, about themselves, about others. They quickly learned such basics as keep down or die -- to dig deep and stay quiet -- to distinguish incoming from outgoing artillery -- to judge when and where a shell or a mortar barrage was going to hit -- to recognize that fear is inevitable but can be managed -- and many more things they had been told in training but that can only be truly learned by doing. Putting it another way, after a week in combat, infantrymen agreed that there was no way training could have prepared them for the reality of combat.

Capt. John Colby caught one of the essences of combat, the sense of total immediacy: "At this point we had been in combat six days. It seemed like a year. In combat, one lives in the now and does not think much about yesterday or tomorrow."

Colby discovered that there was no telling who would break or when. His regimental CO was "grossly incompetent," his battalion commander had run away from combat in his first day of action, and his company CO was a complete bust. On June 12 the company got caught in a combined mortar-artillery barrage. The men couldn't move forward, they couldn't fall back, and they couldn't stay where they were -- or so it appeared to the CO, who therefore had no orders to give, and was speechless.

Colby went up to his CO to ask for orders. The CO shook his head and pointed to his throat. Colby asked him if he could make it back to the aid station on his own, "and he leaped to his feet and took off. I never saw him again."

Another thing Colby learned in his first week in combat was: "Artillery does not fire forever. It just seems like that when you get caught in it. The guns overheat or the ammunition runs low, and it stops. It stops for a while, anyway."

He was amazed to discover how small he could make his body. If you get caught in the open in a shelling, he advised, "the best thing to do is drop to the ground and crawl into your steel helmet. One's body tends to shrink a great deal when shells come in. I am sure I have gotten as much as eighty percent of my body under my helmet when caught under shellfire."

Colby learned about hedgerows. Once he got into a situation where "I had to push through a hedgerow. A submachine-gun emitted a long burst right in front of my face. The gun was a Schmeisser, which had a very high rate of fire that sounded like a piece of cloth being ripped loudly. The bullets went over my head. I fell backward and passed out cold from fright."

About themselves, the most important thing a majority of the GIs discovered was that they were not cowards. They hadn't thought so, they had fervently hoped it would not be so, but they couldn't be sure until tested. After a few days in combat, most of them knew they were good soldiers. They had neither run away nor collapsed into a pathetic mass of quivering Jell-O (their worst fear, even greater than the fear of being afraid).

They were learning about others. A common experience: the guy who talked toughest, bragged most, excelled in maneuvers, everyone's pick to be the top soldier in the company, was the first to break, while the soft-talking kid who was hardly noticed in camp was the standout in combat. These are the clichés of war novels precisely because they are true. They also learned that while combat brought out the best in some men, it unleashed the worst in others -- and a further lesson, that the distinction between best and worst wasn't clear.

On June 9, Pvt. Arthur "Dutch" Schultz of the 82nd Airborne was outside Montebourg. That morning he was part of an attack on the town. "I ran by a wounded German soldier lying alongside of a hedgerow. He was obviously in a great deal of pain and crying for help. I stopped running and turned around. A close friend of mine put the muzzle of his rifle between the German's still crying eyes and pulled the trigger. There was no change in my friend's facial expression. I don't believe he even blinked an eye."

Schultz was simultaneously appalled and awed by what he had seen. "There was a part of me that wanted to be just as ruthless as my friend," he commented. Later, he came to realize that "there but for the grace of God go I."

Copyright © 1997 by -Tubbs, Inc. Afterword copyright © 1998 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Click to Amazon to purchase "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose.

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