The son of Peleus pressed on to win still further glory, and his hands were bedrabbled with gore.
HOMER, The Iliad
Our aircraft took off on schedule at approximately 2313 hours. Second Battalion, 506th PIR, flew in Serial 12, with Easy Company in aircrafts #66–73. Easy Company’s headquarters element, led by Lieutenant Meehan, boarded plane #66 piloted by Lieutenant Harold A. Capelluto. Our three platoon leaders, Lieutenants Harry Welsh, Warren Roush, and Robert Matthews, who had assumed command from Lieutenant Schmitz, jumped with their respective platoons. I boarded plane #67 and served as jumpmaster with the stick from 1st Squad of 1st Platoon. A total of seventeen paratroopers were in my aircraft. Lieutenant Bill Sammons piloted our plane. Colonel Charles Young, the commander of 439th Troop Carrier Command, commanded all the aircraft transporting the 101st Airborne Division. Although Young was an experienced pilot and had trained extensively in low-altitude navigation for two years in a tactical squadron as an attack pilot, most of his pilots had only a few hundred hours of flying and this was their first combat mission.
As we departed the airfield at Uppottery, the aircraft climbed to the assembly altitude of 1,500 feet and flew in a holding pattern until the entire formation turned on course at 1142 hours to join the stream of planes converging on the coast of France. Descending to an altitude of 1,000 feet, the pilots maintained course until they neared the Normandy course, at which time they descended to 500 feet. The optimum altitude for a drop was 600 feet at a speed of 100 to 120 knots to preclude excessive prop-wash and needless exposure to enemy fire.
Twenty minutes out, Lieutenant Sammons hollered back and the crew chief removed the door. I immediately stood up and gazed at the long procession of leading planes. With my head out the door, I could see the planes in front and behind us in V of V formations, nine abreast as far as the eye could see. The planes seemed to fill the entire sky. I had seen rows of aircraft on the airfields in England, but now their power filled the night air. Over the coast we encountered a cloud bank that completely obscured the rest of the formation. Since the pilots were not allowed to use their navigation lights, the only visible lights were the dim blue formation lights along the top of the wings. Pilots were now flying on sheer instinct, attempting to maintain the tight formation to avoid collisions with other aircraft. I was somewhat surprised that there was so little antiaircraft fire, but within minutes the entire sky was alive with red, blue, and green tracers. It looked brighter than the Fourth of July. Later Lieutenant Bob Brewer, who commanded the battalion’s 81mm mortar platoon, claimed that he had “never seen as much antiaircraft fire as he had seen that night in France.”
Off to my right, the plane piloted by Capelluto was struck by antiaircraft fire. Capelluto immediately turned on the green light as tracers went clean through the plane and exited the top of the aircraft, throwing sparks as he fought to stay in formation and to maintain course. Though the clouds obscured my vision, I later learned that the aircraft carrying Lieutenant Thomas Meehan, 1st Sergeant William Evans, and most of the headquarters element, flew steadily onward, and then did a slow wingover to the right. The plane’s landing lights came on as it approached the ground. It appeared they were going to make it, but the aircraft hit a hedgerow and exploded, instantly killing everyone on board. If I survived the jump, I would be the company commander.
In my aircraft, Sammons accelerated to evade the enemy fire as I stood in the door with my head down, searching the ground below. This was the first time that I had been under fire and my adrenaline was pumping. As we got closer, I could see the pilots were experiencing difficulty maintaining their formation. Initially the Germans were leading us too far and did not realize that we were flying around 125 miles per hour, but soon they began adjusting their fire. Instead of looking pretty, the fire began to crack as it got closer to our aircraft—and it cracked louder and louder until it hit the tail of our plane. Glancing at the light panel, I waited until Sammons turned on the green light. I yelled, “Go!” just as another burst of 20mm fire hit our aircraft. Within seconds I was out the door, screaming, “Bill Lee,” at the top of my lungs. The initial shock of traveling at nearly 150 miles per hour tore my leg bag off, along with virtually every bit of equipment that I was carrying. Jumping immediately behind me was PFC Burt Christenson, carrying one of Easy Company’s machine guns. Following Christenson were Private “Jeeter” Leonard, Private Joe Hogan, Christenson’s assistant gunner PFC Woodrow Robbins, PFC William Howell, Privates Carl Sawsko, Richard Bray, and Robert Von Klinkin. Luck plays a big role in life. Consider that fact that because plane #66 was overloaded, T/4 Robert B. Smith and Private “Red” Hogan were transferred at the last moment from ill-fated plane #66 to jump with me in plane #67. The last man exiting my aircraft was “Bull” Randleman, my “push man.” You always pick a big husky guy as your last man to make sure he is a good “push man.” If anyone wanted to change their mind, Bull’s job was to give him one push out the door whether he wanted to go or not. No one in stick #67 needed any encouragement.
Our regiment’s after-action report described the chaos that resulted from accelerated flight resulting from the heavy enemy antiaircraft fire. According to the report, out of eighty-one planes scheduled to drop their men into 1st and 2d Battalion’s drop zone, only ten had found their mark. Three of the planes had missed their DZ by twenty miles. The planes carrying Lieutenant Colonel Strayer’s battalion had simply overshot the mark. “The paratroopers knew it when it happened. Many of them saw three large green ‘T’s’ formed of electric lights pass under us and they recognized the zone markers that had been set up by the regiment’s pathfinders. Still, the beacon did not alarm the pilots and they must have flown straight on for several minutes after crossing the drop zone, for when the men at last got their jump signal,” the report continued, “the battalion came to earth with its center about five miles from our drop zone.” Not one of the 506th Regiment’s battalions had a drop pattern that “was as good as the lowest mark that it had established during any training operation. Whether the great spread of the drop pattern contributed materially to the casualty figures was something of a question, but it undoubtedly slowed down assembly and acted as a drag on local operations.” Only later did we discover that our planned drop zone had been strongly covered by the enemy with rifle pits and automatic weapons all around its perimeter. Had the drop taken place as planned, it was quite possible “that the greater breadth of the target would have given the waiting Germans a greatly enhanced opportunity for killing.” Planned or not, Easy Company was scattered across a wide dispersal area several miles west of our objective.
How the remainder of the regiment was faring was the furthest thing from my mind as I descended to earth. I hit the ground with a thump. This was the only jump I ever made that I ended up with black-and-blue bruises on my shoulders and legs for a week afterward. As I lay in a field on the edge of Ste. Mere-Eglise, I could hear the church bell tolling in the night, summoning local citizens to fight a fire that had broken out on the edge of town. Worse yet, I had no weapon because my M-1 and grenades had been ripped off from the shock of the prop-blast as soon as I had exited the plane. In the distance a machine gun was firing into the night sky as other paratroopers descended into the Norman countryside. Fortunately, there was more sound than fury in the reception that greeted me as I landed. My initial thought was to get as far away from that machine gun as possible. Armed only with the knife that I had stuck in my boot, I struck out in the general direction where I thought my leg bag had landed.
Despite this deplorable situation of landing in enemy territory without a rifle, I still wasn’t scared. Don’t ask me why. Fear paralyzes the mind but I needed to be able to think clearly, especially when men’s lives were at stake. Though I had been apprehensive whether or not I would measure up, the long months of training now kicked in. Before jumping, I’d thought of cutting the top of my chute off and using the silk as a raincoat, both protection against the cold and for camouflage. But now, the only thing on my mind was to get the hell away from those machine guns and that town. Just as I started off, trench knife in hand, another paratrooper landed close by. I helped cut him free from his chute, then grabbed one of his grenades, and said, “let’s go search for my equipment.” He was hesitant of taking the lead even with his tommy gun, so I said, “Follow me!”
It wasn’t long before we were far enough away from that machine gun that we started to feel a little more secure. To retrieve my equipment would have taken us near the road where another machine gun was shooting down, so I said, “The hell with it, let’s go.” We started to move north away from the town of Ste. Mere-Eglise, which we identified a few minutes later when I cricketed and received an answer from one of my platoon sergeants, Staff Sergeant Carwood Lipton. Lipton had run across a sign post that read STE. MERE-EGLISE. I studied my map and as soon as I realized where Ste. Mere-Eglise was with respect to our drop zone, I ascertained our approximate location. With that in mind, I looked at the direction of the flight of the rest of the planes and determined the fastest route to Utah Beach. We then hooked up with Lipton’s crew, so our group now numbered about twelve men as we started down the road in the direction where our objective lay astride causeway #2. Before too long we merged with a larger group of about fifty men from the 502d Regiment with a colonel in charge, so I attached my group to his. The rest of the night was spent walking down the road while the senior officers tried to find the way to their objective. My intention was to remain with the 502d until we reached the beach, then cut loose and head south to our own objective. To separate now and travel with twelve to fifteen men would be foolish if I could stay with fifty more. The only real excitement during the night was when we ran into four horse-drawn wagons of Germans carrying additional harnesses and saddles. Most likely the saddles belonged to the reported Russian cavalry in the area. We destroyed two wagons and killed several Germans before the others escaped into the darkness. We traveled on until we came across some more dead Germans astride a destroyed wagon. I was still looking for a weapon and soon discovered an M-1 under the wagon seat. Finally armed, I was happy once again. I picked up a few more combat essentials as we moved a little farther along. By the time our body eventually joined the battalion, I had a revolver, belt, canteen, and lots of ammunition, so I was ready to fight, especially after I bummed some food from one of the men.
About 0600 in the morning, we bumped into Captain Jerre Gross of Dog Company from our battalion. He had approximately forty men, so we joined forces and headed south toward our objective behind Utah Beach. In a few minutes we encountered our battalion staff, so 2dBat- talion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was once again a fighting unit, though it was considerably under regular strength. The fact that Colonel Strayer had been successful in assembling over 200 men was largely the result of the work of his operations officer, Captain Clarence Hester, Easy Company’s first executive officer. Hester had landed with the leading elements of the battalion. He rapidly ascertained that his stick of paratroopers had spread over about 1,000 yards during the descent, so he walked back 500 yards in the direction the planes had come, thinking this would put him at about the center of his small group. There, he put up a string of amber bundle lights in a tree. The signal did its work: officers and men began to find their way into the position. Still unsure of his precise location, Hester dispatched Lewis Nixon to prowl the nearest village. A considerable group had gathered around Hester while Nixon conducted his reconnaissance. In a little over one hour, Hester’s force included a communications platoon, a machine gun platoon, approximately eighty men from 2d Battalion Headquarters Company, ninety men from D Company, six men from Company F and eight men from E Company. By 0330, Strayer arrived and he took command from Hester.
After we linked up with Strayer’s force, Easy Company now consisted of nine riflemen and two officers (myself and Compton) armed with two light machine guns, one bazooka (no ammunition), and one 60mm mortar but no base plate. Since we still had received no word from our company commander, I immediately assumed command of Easy Company. We ran across a lot of dead Germans as we moved toward our objective, but very little fire. Suddenly some heavy artillery rounds landed near the head of the battalion after they moved into a small town called Le Grand Chemin, several kilometers behind Utah Beach. The column stopped and we sat down, content to rest after traveling cross country for the past several hours. In about ten minutes, Lieutenant George Lavenson, the battalion adjutant, came walking down the line and said, “Winters, they want you and your company up front.”
So off I went, still not sure of the whereabouts of our commander, Lieutenant Meehan. Up front I discovered most of the battalion staff including Captain Hester, Lieutenant Nixon, and Lieutenant John Kelly from D Company in a small group talking things over. Kelly had deployed his platoon forward to a position where he could observe the suspected German artillery position, but he could do nothing about stopping their fire. As battalion operations officer, Hester pointed to where an enemy machine gun was located and approximately where a four-gun battery of 105s was situated. That was all he knew. Captain Hester turned to me and said, “There’s fire along that hedgerow there. Take care of it.” That was the sum of my orders—no detailed battle plan, no intelligence summary, nothing but a specific task to be accomplished without delay. Easy Company’s mission was to silence the battery.
Conducting a mental estimate of the situation, I viewed any infantry assault on the battery as a high-risk opportunity since our air forces had failed to destroy the artillery battery in the preliminary bombardment prior to the seaborne invasion. Our key would be initiative, an immediate appraisal of the situation, skillful use of the terrain, and our ability to destroy one gun at a time. The first thing I did was to have everybody drop all equipment except ammunition and grenades, for that was all we would need if things went from good to bad. While the noncommissioned officers prepared the men for the assault, I conducted a hasty reconnaissance of the enemy position. A leader gains an advantage in combat if he is able to appraise the terrain and the situation quickly and correctly. Crawling along a hedgerow, I moved to a position where I could get a better view of the enemy position. The guns appeared to be set in a trench in a hedgerow covered by machine gun fire from across an open pasture. The battery was firing directly down causeway #2 in the direction of Utah Beach, where the initial waves of the 4th Infantry Division were already landing. Anticipating that it would be too costly to conduct a frontal attack across an open field, I determined our chances of success would be greatly enhanced if we could hit the enemy on the flank and silence one gun at a time.
Returning to the company, I assigned specific missions to each man. First I placed one of Easy Company’s two machine guns in a position where they could provide us covering fire as we moved carefully into position. Next I divided our detachment into two units, one led by Lieutenant Buck Compton, the other remaining with me. Compton moved down one hedgerow with Sergeants Guarnere and Malarkey to get as close to the first gun in the battery as possible, while I led my unit down a parallel hedgerow. Compton also sent Sergeants Lipton and Ranney to a concealed position to put flanking fire on the enemy while my detachment crawled across the open field to approach the first gun. When my group, consisting of Corporal Joe Toye, PFC Robert “Popeye” Wynn, and Private Gerald Lorraine from regimental headquarters, reached the hedge that led to the enemy position, we stopped. Here I placed a second machine gun to engage the first gun that was firing point-blank at us. I gave the gunner instructions not to fire unless he saw a definite target so he would not give his position away. Then we worked our way up to Compton’s hedgerow. Here, I spotted a German helmet and I squeezed off two rounds. I later found a pool of blood at this position, but no Jerry (German). Next I sent Compton with two men along the hedge to throw hand grenades at the enemy position while the rest of us supported him with covering fire. I fired occasionally to fill in spots when there was a lull in the covering fire due to putting in new clips. Compton took too long getting his detachment into position and we spent more ammunition than we should have, but in return, we received no enemy fire.
Just as Compton was ready to hurl his grenades, I started across the field with the rest of the assault team so that we jumped into the position together as the grenades exploded. Simultaneously, we hurled additional grenades at the next position. In return we received substantial small arms fire and grenades from the enemy. As we approached the first gun, “Popeye” Wynn was hit in the butt and fell down in the trench. Rather than complaining that he was hit, he apologized, “I’m sorry, Lieutenant, I goofed. I goofed. I’m sorry.” My God, it’s beautiful when you think of a guy who was so dedicated to his company that he apologizes for getting hit. Now, here was a soldier—hit by enemy fire in Normandy on D-Day, behind the German lines, and he is more upset that he had let his buddies down than he was concerned with his own injury. Popeye’s actions spoke for all of us.
At the same time, a Jerry potato masher [hand grenade] sailed into the middle of our group. We spread out as rapidly as possible, but Corporal Joe Toye of Reading, Pennsylvania, just flopped down and was unlucky enough to have the grenade fall between his legs as he lay face-down. It went off as I was yelling at him to “Move, for Christ’s sake, move!” He just bounced up and down from the concussion, but he was unhurt and ready to go. By now, a couple of the men had tossed grenades at the Germans, so we followed up our volley with a mad rush, not even stopping to look at Wynn. Private Gerald Lorraine and Sergeant Bill Guarnere accompanied me as we pounded into them. Both troopers had tommy guns and I had my M-1 rifle as we moved into position. Just then three Jerries left one of the guns and started running in the direction of Brecourt Manor. It took only a yell to alert Guarnere and Lorraine, and each immediately fired on his respective man. Lorraine hit his man with the first burst. I squeezed a shot off, which struck my man in the head. Guarnere missed his target, who now turned and started back toward one of the guns. He had only taken two steps when I put a round in his back that knocked him down. Then Guarnere settled down and pumped him full of lead with his tommy gun. We had just finished off these three men when a fourth German emerged from the wood line about one hundred yards away. I spotted him first and had the presence of mind to lie down and attempt a good shot. I killed him instantly. This entire engagement must have taken about fifteen or twenty seconds since we had rushed the initial gun position.
Expecting a counterattack, I flopped down and gazed down the connecting trench to the second gun position, and sure enough, there were two Germans setting up a machine gun. I got in the first shot and hit the gunner in the hip; my second shot caught the other soldier in the shoulder. By that time, the rest of the men were in position, so I directed Toye and Compton to provide supporting fire in the direction of the second gun. Then I retraced my steps, looked over Wynn, who was still sorry he had “goofed off,” and told him to work his way back toward battalion headquarters since I couldn’t spare anyone to help him.
When I returned to the assault team, Compton, who had been fooling around with a grenade, yelled, “Look out!” We all hit the ground for cover, but there was no protection from the grenade. None of us could get out of the trench, and right in the middle of our position was a grenade set to explode. It burst, but for some reason nobody was hurt. Then, a Jerry, scared to death, came running toward us with his hands over his head. We had captured our first prisoner. We were too busy to escort him to the rear so one of the men hit him with some brass knuckles, and he lay there moaning for about a half an hour. No sooner had this occurred than I spotted three Germans, who for some reason were walking to the rear of our hedge, in a very informal manner, swinging their mess kits. These soldiers were obviously machine gunners protecting the rear of the 105mm cannon crews. I got two of our men into position and we set our rifle sights for about 200 yards. Somebody must have yelled at the Germans because they stopped and tried to listen. That’s when I gave the order to commence fire.
It was now time to assault the second gun, so we reorganized for the assault team. In our initial attack, I noticed that as we approached the gun position, German machine gun fire from across the open field behind the battery slackened as we got closer to the actual gun position. Call it a sixth sense, but I decided that if we moved quickly and laid a strong base of fire support, the assault team would only be exposed for a minimal amount of time. Leaving three men at the first gun to maintain supporting fire, we then charged the next position with grenades and lots of yelling and firing. Within seconds we had captured the second gun. I don’t think anyone got hurt that time, but we did pick up those two Germans I had injured when they tried to put the machine gun in operation. By now we were running low on ammunition and I needed more men since we were stretched far too much for our own good. Those machine gunners whom I had requested from battalion had never arrived, so I sent a runner to headquarters for some additional firepower.
The sixth sense that had kicked in while taking the second howitzer helped me develop the plan to charge the next gun. After about half an hour, the machine guns from battalion finally arrived, and I put them in place and prepared to assault the third gun. Two soldiers from another company joined us for the assault. On this attack, one of those men, Private First Class John D. Hall of A Company, was killed. We took the gun position, capturing six prisoners in the process. As the German soldiers advanced toward us down the connecting trench with their hands over their heads, they called, “No make me dead!” I sent all six prisoners back to headquarters and at the same time asked for additional ammunition and men. Finally, I spotted Captain Hester coming forward and went to meet him. He gave me three blocks of T.N.T. and an incendiary grenade. I had these placed in the three guns we had already captured. Hester then informed me that Lieutenant Ronald C. Speirs of D Company was bringing five men forward to reinforce Easy Company.
While waiting for Speirs to arrive, I went about gathering documents and stuffing them in a bag. I discovered a map in the second gun position, showing all 105mm artillery positions and machine gun emplacements on the Cotentin Peninsula. I immediately sent the map to battalion and supervised the destruction of the radio equipment, range finders, and other pieces of German equipment. We also discovered belts and belts of machine gun ammunition that contained “wooden bullets.” This was the only time I remembered seeing wooden bullets. Perhaps the Germans were short of ammunition, but that was the least of my concerns.
Finally Speirs came forward with a contingent from Dog Company and led the assault on the final gun in the battery. Joining Lieutenant Speirs was Sergeant Bill Guarnere, one of the most consistently brave men in Easy Company. Having just been informed that his brother had been killed in action in Italy, “Wild Bill” Guarnere fought like a man possessed. In a savage attack, Speirs captured the gun and promptly disabled it. In the process he lost “Rusty” Houch, who was killed when he raised his head to throw a grenade into the gun position, and Leonard G. Hicks, who was wounded. With the entire battery now destroyed, we now withdrew because the machine gun fire that we were receiving from the manor house and other positions remained intense. I pulled our own machine guns out first, then the riflemen. I was last to leave, and as I was leaving, I took a final look down the trench, and there was this one wounded Jerry trying to put a machine gun into operation. I drilled him through the head. On our way back, I came across Warrant Officer J. G. Andrew Hill, who had been killed working his way up to help us. In all, we had suffered four dead, six wounded, and we had inflicted fifteen dead and twelve captured on the enemy. German forces in the vicinity of the battery had numbered about fifty. About three hours had passed since I had first received the order to dispose of the battery.
Even though Easy Company was still widely scattered, the small portion that fought at Brecourt had demonstrated the remarkable ability of the airborne trooper to fight, albeit outnumbered, and to win. This sort of combat typified the independent action that characterized the American airborne divisions that jumped in Normandy. Once the battle began, discipline and training overcame our individual and collective fears. As the bullets cracked overhead, our natural adrenaline, coupled with the elements of surprise and audacity, compensated for some foolish mistakes we had committed during the conduct of the assault. At times we had needlessly exposed ourselves to fire and we had charged through a hedgerow without having a clear picture as to what was on the other side. Carwood Lipton later characterized the battle as “a unique example of a small, well-led assault force overcoming and routing a much larger defending force in prepared positions.” Don Malarkey, who manned the 60mm mortar, concurred, stating that the success of the day’s battle undoubtedly saved numerous lives on the beach. Lipton later gave me far too much credit for our success. Long after the war, he stated that the action at Brecourt was the most outstanding example of a combat leader reading a situation, forming a plan to overcome almost impossible odds, organizing and inspiring his men so that each would confidently handle his part of the plan, and leading his men in the most dangerous parts of the operation. Our success, however, was due more to our training and the unflinching courage of Easy Company than to my personal leadership.
For the action at Brecourt Manor, Compton, Guarnere, and Lorraine received Silver Stars for their role in destroying the German battery that we later discovered was the 6th Battery, 90th German Regimental Artillery. Thirty dead horses in the area confirmed the fact that the battery had been horse-drawn, which was not unusual in the German Army at the time of the war. Bronze Stars were awarded to Toye, Lipton, Malarkey, Ranney, Liebgott, Hendrix, Plesha, Petty and Wynn, all members of our little band. What pleased me most was that every soldier who participated in the assault was duly recognized by senior headquarters. I received the Distinguished Service Cross from Lieutenant General Omar Bradley at a ceremony the following month.
Years later, I heard from a junior officer who had come off Utah Beach on the very causeway that had been under fire from the German battery. The officer was the commanding officer of a medical detachment that landed with the fourth wave. Upon landing, this officer found a wounded Captain John Ahearn, the commanding officer of Company C of the 70th Tank Battalion. Ahearn’s tank had been disabled by a land mine. As Ahearn left his tank, he inadvertently stepped on another mine. The medical officer found Ahearn behind a barbed-wire fence, his legs mangled, lying in a mine field, and calling for help. Walking through the mine field, the medic picked up Ahearn, threw him across his shoulders, and carried him to safety. Years later this same medic took time to write me a nice letter in which he admitted that he had always wondered why the artillery fire on the causeway had suddenly stopped so early in the morning. He graciously thanked me and said he would have never made it from the beach had Easy Company not knocked out those guns. That medical officer was Eliot L. Richardson, who later became attorney general in the Nixon administration and who was one of fifteen Americans to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
Another soldier who noticed that the enemy artillery fire slackened considerably was Sergeant H. G. Nerhood, a platoon sergeant in the 4th Infantry Division, who landed in the second assault wave. Each time he moved his men forward, the artillery fire fell right on top of his platoon. Nerhood’s platoon leader figured there was an enemy forward observer calling down the artillery barrage on his position. He looked in vain to see if he could determine where the observer was hiding. Nerhood recollected, “I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Another barrage came down and my platoon leader was hit. I called for the medic to tend to the lieutenant and ordered the platoon forward. We ran thirty or so yards and the barrage came down again, killing five more men in my platoon.” After another shell exploded so close that it shook the ground on which Nerhood was laying, “Slowly the shelling stopped and we were able to move inland. Later in the day our operations officer told us that some fellows from the parachute infantry had taken out the guns firing on us.”
Nerhood seldom discussed the war in his later years, but his grandson persisted until the Normandy veteran finally acquiesced. His grandson recorded the conversation and wrote me in 2005, “My grandfather was on the beach getting his butt kicked. Your men were at the guns, kicking butt and saving his, along with hundreds more. Had you not succeeded, I might not be alive this day to tell you how deeply grateful I am that Easy Company accomplished its mission and saved the lives of a lot of men that day.” H. R. Nerhood and Eliot Richardson were but two soldiers who survived Utah Beach because of the destruction of the Brecourt battery.
When we left the field in front of Brecourt Manor, I took my first shot of hard cider. I was thirsty as hell and I needed a lift, and when one of the men made me the offer, I shocked them by accepting. I thought at the time it might slow down my train of thoughts and reactions, but it didn’t. Soon Lieutenant Harry Welsh and Lieutenant Warren Roush came down the road with about thirty more men. I organized them into two platoons and had them stand by until I could direct the armored forces coming from the beach. When the tanks arrived, accompanied by Lewis Nixon, I directed them to the field that had witnessed our baptism of fire. Climbing aboard the lead tank, I pointed out the location of the enemy machine guns to the tank commander. The tankers then swept the hedgerows and the manor house with their .50-caliber and .30-caliber machine guns. Armed with superior firepower, they made quick work of the enemy positions.
By mid-afternoon Brecourt was secured and the Germans began withdrawing in the direction of Carentan. For the first time since the action had begun, I took time to reflect upon what Easy Company had accomplished. No longer confined to the trench, I could now walk across the open pasture in front of the manor. I remember very clearly promising myself that someday I would come back and go over this ground when the war was over. As I was making myself that promise, I became conscious that there was somebody behind me. Turning my head to see who was following me, I saw Lipton, with a smile on his face. Probably the same thought was going through his head.
Now that the enemy had left the premises, the de Vallavieille family led by Colonel de Vallavieille, a sixty-nine-year-old World War I veteran who had fought at the Marne and Verdun, emerged from Brecourt Manor. Wounded three times during the Great War, Colonel de Vallavieille had already lost two sons to the Germans during the 1940 campaign. Accompanied by his wife and two sons, Michel and Louis, the family was ecstatic at their liberation after four years of living under Nazi occupation. Stepping into the entry of the courtyard, Michel raised his hands over his head, alongside some German soldiers who had remained behind to surrender. Regrettably, an American paratrooper shot Colonel de Vallavieille’s son in the back, either mistaking him for a German soldier or thinking he was a collaborator. Carted off to the nearest aid station, Michel received a blood transfusion and became the first Frenchman evacuated from Utah Beach to England. Michel de Vallavieille not only survived the war, but he later became mayor of Ste. Marie du Mont, as well as the founder of the museum at Utah Beach. He repaid his liberators a hundredfold by honoring their memory.
In one of my subsequent visits back to the farm of Louis and Michel de Vallavieille, they asked me if I had seen any civilians in the field on D-Day. I responded, “No,” and they took me to the center of the battlefield and showed me a huge sinkhole, probably forty to fifty feet deep and full of trees and bushes. It seems that a farm worker, his wife, and three children, went into the hole when the battle began and remained there for two days, huddled out of sight. That haven was one hot spot—fire going overhead from all directions, but the family was safe and snug as long as they kept their heads down. What a nightmare it must have been for that poor family on D-Day morning.
With the fighting over, Easy Company soon departed for its next objective just a few miles south of Ste. Marie du Mont, where General Maxwell Taylor, our division commander, had established his command post. Easy Company settled in for the night outside the small village of Culoville, which now served as our battalion headquarters. After seeing to the men and placing outposts on our perimeter, I went on a night patrol by myself, if for no other reason to collect my personal thoughts. Approaching a tree line, I heard enemy troops marching down a path directly toward me. The sound of hobnailed boots told me they were German soldiers. I hit the ditch and as they passed, I smelled the strong odor of German tobacco for the first time in my life. Even though I didn’t smoke, I clearly recognized the difference between American and German tobacco. The entire episode was too close for my comfort, but I gave the U.S. Army a vote of thanks for giving us good boots with rubber soles and heels, and not the hobnailed footwear of the enemy.
At long last, D-Day was over. Our success had been due to superb leadership at all levels and the training we had experienced prior to the invasion. Add luck to the equation, and Easy Company comprised a formidable team. On reflection, we were highly charged; we knew what to do; and we conducted ourselves as part of a well-oiled machine. Because we were so intimate with each other, I knew the strengths of each of my troopers. It was not accidental that I had selected my best men, Compton, Guarnere, and Malarkey in one group, Lipton and Ranney in the other. These men comprised Easy Company’s “killers,” soldiers who instinctively understood the intricacies of battle. In both training and combat, a leader senses who his killers are. I merely put them in a position where I could utilize their talents most effectively. Many other soldiers thought they were killers and wanted to prove it. In reality, however, your killers are few and far between. Nor is it always possible to determine who your killers are by the results of a single engagement. In combat, a commander hopes that nonkillers will learn by their association with those soldiers who instinctively wage war without restraint and without regard to their personal safety. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that casualties are highest among your killers, hence the need to return them to the front as soon as possible in the hope that other “killers” emerge. This core of warriors survived, at least until the fates finally abandoned them, because they developed animal-like instincts of self-preservation. Around this group of battle-hardened veterans the remainder of Easy Company coalesced. Other leaders emerged as the war progressed, but the best leaders were those who had endured combat on D-Day and matured as leaders as they gained additional experience.
As for myself, I never considered myself a killer although I had killed several of the enemy. Killing did not make me happy, but in this particular circumstance, it left me momentarily satisfied—satisfied because it led to confidence in getting a difficult job done with minimal casualties. Nor did I ever develop a hatred for the individual German soldier. I merely wanted to eliminate them. There is nothing personal about combat. As the war progressed, I actually developed a healthy respect for the better units we faced on the battlefield. But that was all in the future. For the time being, I was just happy to have survived my baptism by fire. I had always been confident in my own abilities, but the success at Brecourt increased my confidence in my leadership, as well as my ability to pass it on to my soldiers.
Evening allowed a few minutes of quiet reflection. With our outposts in place, I stretched out to catch a few hours sleep, even though the rattle of German small-arms fire continued throughout the night. The Germans were evidently not as tired as we were because they fired their machine guns all night and hollered like a bunch of drunken kids having a party. Before I dozed off, I did not forget to get on my knees and thank God for helping me to live through this day and to ask His help on D+1. I would live this war one day at a time, and I promised myself that if I survived, I would find a small farm somewhere in the Pennsylvania countryside and spend the remainder of my life in quiet and peace.