We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


Five Years, Four Fronts

BGEN Theodore Mataxis was asked to write a foreword for Georg Grossjohann’s “Five Years, Four Fronts” and nearly turned it down. He felt he’d have little in common with the Major. They hadn’t fought in the same battles and their careers hadn’t been similar.

However, because of my keen interest in and bias in favor of “eyeball accounts” by combat participants, I finally agreed to read the draft manuscript. At worst, I thought, it would confirm my doubts, and I would simply have to decline the opportunity to pen the requested foreword. The more I read, though, the more engrossed and intrigued I became. I found this was not just another war story of campaigns during WWII, but the author’s detailed account of his experience at small-unit level during peace, mobilization and war.

Mataxis truly enjoyed the book and his foreword becomes an enthusiastic endorsement of the work. Grossjohann rose from the enlisted ranks to Major while fighting in the aforementioned four fronts, including fighting in Operation Dragoon and the Colmar Pocket, finishing as a regimental commander in mid-January of 1945.

The more I read, the more I realized that I did, in fact, have much in common with Grossjohann, although not just from the war in which we shared only a common theater of operations. Later in my Army service, I served as executive officer for – and then commanded – an infantry regiment in the Korean War and served four tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Altogether, I spent about five years in combat, as did Grossjohann. Although I gradually recognized that we had a lot in common in other ways, it was in these combat tours that I acquired the “mindset” which I think is what most closely links George Grossjohann and me across space and time – the critical importance of “bonding” in combat, and the soldier’s warrior ethos. That is what transcends our different nationalities, causes and theaters of war. Neither of us had much time for fripperies or superficialities. The trappings of things militaristic or the transient fads of the moment – be they the transparent nonsense of National Socialism for Grossjohann, the trumped-up bodycount game of my Vietnam tourss, the “Zero Defects” philosophy of my last years of service, or the “Consideration for Others” claptrap of today’s Army, none of them held or would have held the slightest interest for either of us. Indeed, because such things often get in the way of more important endeavors (training, learning, fighting), we despised them and ignored them when we could. The author’s unconcealed loathing of equivocation, moral cowardice, professional vanity, and selfishness among some of his fellow officers – the same kind of things scorned by Anton Myrer’s archetype of the Good Office, Sam Damon in “Once an Eagle” – struck a sympathetic chord with me. Been there, seen that – far too much of it! Take the time to perceive the author’s unabashed esteem for those – of all ranks – who exhibited anything approaching the unspoken passion the author had for soldiering, and you’ll discover the frank admiration of a kindred soul. All good soldiers can identify with the warrior ethos that is the basic cornerstone of espirit and high morale.

He finished with truly high praise.

If I ever get around to writing my memoirs, although they will be mostly about other wars and other times, I hope I can tell my story with as much honesty, class, and plain truth as this one.

Unfortunately, the final seven years of his life after penning this foreword appear not to have allowed Mataxis time and energy to write those memoirs, but I suspect reading Grossjohann’s work will give us the sense of what it would have been like.

Advertisements


Top-ranking posts

Being the end of the year, I thought I’d look at some statistics and share them.

My top-ranking posts since I started this blog is dominated by one post, but the top 5 are all good posts:

Thanksgiving 1944         1,413

This got a huge number of hits due to being linked at Ace of Spades, thanks to our friends at Bring the Heat. On Thanksgiving of 1944, Eisenhower ordered that all soldiers have a turkey dinner. For airborne engineer John Carter, that provided a very humorous story that I was able to post the video of. I have some further videos of an interview with Carter and a couple of other stories. He’s quite a comedian.

Young Marine Passes         297

While the Marine Corps is made up of strong men, they also have strong hearts. A couple of times recently, they’ve made young men with terminal illnesses honorary Marines. The story of Cody Green and his honor guard, SGT Mark Dolfini, can’t help but move one to tears.

Denzel Washington at the Fisher House         236

Denzel Washington is among my favorite actors. He has great range and conveys the emotions of his characters very well. Some of his roles have been as military men and he’s gotten attached to the Fisher House. Fisher House Foundation is best known for a network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment. When Washington visited the Fisher House at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2004, his generosity launched an urban legend.

The Beast of Omaha         148

Heinrich Severloh was a German machine gunner at Omaha Beach and the horrors he helped inflict that day stayed in his dreams until his death in 2006.

The end of an era         136

For about a decade, Paul Woodadge built up a battlefield tour business in Normandy, expanding from a one-man operation, hiring several others to lead tours. Battlebus was the best tour company in Normandy and even had tours in Bastogne. Unfortunately, running a complex business and dealing with French tax and employment laws meant that Paul stopped being able to lead tours himself. While I lamented the end of an era, it meant that Paul could go back to doing what he loved. He also had time to publish Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day (Normandy Combat Chronicles) (Volume 1)



One-day Normandy tour choices: Omaha Beach sector

Earlier today, someone asked me about tours in Normandy and, while they are not using one of my three favorite guides, I provided some commentary on places to see. Most guides will tailor their tour at your request and there are some places I see as better spots to visit than others. There are some sites that are basically meaningless without a guide and others in which you’re not really using the guide’s knowledge.

If you have a single day to tour the battlefield with a guide, you want to maximize your time with the tour guide, sticking to sites that are close to each other and where the guide can provide the most impact. Each guide’s knowledge and enthusiasm is different, so I’m just providing my commentary.

I would say that due to the stark images and the general silence and emptiness of the German military cemetery at La Cambe, that it is a must, especially if your guide has stories to relate while you’re there. The small museum there is very well-done. Every guide should be able to relate some of the story of the cemetery and place it in context, so it is better with a guide. You might find it odd that I place this first, but I think that you don’t get as much of both the German perspective and a reminder of the horror that is war anywhere else in Normandy.

Now, since I’m looking at all this from an American perspective, I will only talk about the American sector in this post. My experience in the British and Canadian sector is far more limited, so I can’t speak as well to that.

Pointe du Hoc is absolutely required. If you’re not read The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion by Douglas Brinkley or watched Reagan’s historic speech in 1984 (speech written by then-unheralded Peggy Noonan), you really ought to do so before you go. Reading that will give you the structure and provide an emotive basis for your visit, but nothing really can prepare you for the level of destruction visited upon the landscape by the bombardment. Going down into one of the craters will truly give you a sense of it, but you’ll also get to see how most of the fortifications survived intact, requiring the Rangers to root the Germans out the hard way. Some guides will go with you into the bunkers and continue to explain, while others will simply let you wander. I prefer those who have more stories to tell, so it might be useful to determine in advance which kind of visit to Pointe du Hoc that the guide plans on.

Of course, as an American, you must visit the American cemetery. It is incredibly moving and feels like you’re back in the US, in a good way. You’ll note that all of our boys are facing home. The American cemetery does not allow guides to conduct tours on the grounds, so you are generally given some guidelines and advice, then explore on your own. I prefer to tour that by myself rather than using the guide’s time.

The Church at Angoville au Plainis one of the more moving stories in Normandy and if at all possible, you should try to visit there with Paul Woodadge, whose book, Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day, details the experience of two American paratrooper medics caring for the wounded between enemy lines during the battle. Since this is more in the northern, airborne sector of the American battle zone, I would suggest it only be done as part of an American airborne tour rather than combined with the American cemetery or Omaha Beach. While someone who has read Paul’s book will understand what happened here, someone who has not will have no real understanding without a tour guide to explain. Similarly, having the guide present will make one who feels familiar with the story learn far more.

On Sunday, they were showing Tom Brokaw visiting the village of Graignes with three veterans of the fight there. A number of paratroopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment were mis-dropped by about 20 miles and gathered at the village. They held off the 17th SS Division, helping their comrades secure Carentan, allowing a link up between the landings at Utah and Omaha. It would be particularly hard to experience this without a guide, even if you read Tragedy at Graignes: The Bud Sophian Story. It is also remote from much of the other sites.

If you’re only doing a one-day tour, I would recommend you visit Omaha Beach, the American and German cemeteries and Pointe du Hoc. If you manage to study Angoville au Plain or Graignes, you might seek one of those, but likely need to skip something. If you’re seriously into paratroopers or gliders, or have a veteran or other link to Utah Beach, visit those with the guide rather than thinking you can visit everything.



Research Days

I’m so excited! Today and tomorrow, I’ll be up in Carlisle to see Dr Geoffrey Megargee give a talk on the German High Command in World War II and conduct some of my own research. The Army Heritage and Education Center is located in Carlisle, so there are loads of records stored there. I’m going to start by looking at records from Fort Bragg in regards to his time in the Special Forces. I’ll also be doing some research on LTG William Pelham Yarborough, who commanded the 509th later in the war and, like so many airborne officers, had his future in the Special Forces.



Weekend Wanderings, Columbus Day Weekend 2011

If you stood in the right field near Le Muy in southern France or near Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, you could have seen paratroopers rain down upon you in 1944. This week, I felt as if I was having a similar experience with paratrooper books.

  • Jim Broumley’s The Boldest Plan is the Best: The Combat History of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII just arrived on Amazon and I’ve ordered my copy. I’ve been trying to find a copy of Stand in the Door: The Wartime History of the Elite 509th Parachute Infantry Batallion by Charles Doyle and Terrell Stewart, but there are few copies available, so the prices are exhorbitant. Broumley draws the extensive veteran recollections included in Stand in the Door and adds a great deal of material from other sources. He’s blogging, so you can catch up with his activities any time. Since he’s in Pennsylvania, maybe we can get him to drive down for the Dragoon event next year (2-5 August 2012).
  • On Tuesday, I got my much-delayed copy of LIONS OF CARENTAN, THE: Fallschirmjager Regiment 6, 1943-1945, which I’m very excited about. One of the challenges for me in studying WWII has been that I’ve read so little that comes from the Axis perspective. In my studies of the American Civil War, I’ve looked at both sides, examining the available forces, the tactical and strategic decisions and the aftermath. That allows a level of understanding that examining only one side can never give you. The Lions of Carentan is one of the ways I’ve been expanding my knowledge so that I can understand both sides and relate the events more effectively.
  • In the steady collapse of Borders bookstores, I often raided the sales. It was perhaps the most liberating book purchasing experience I’ve had as, with prices slashed, I simply gave a book a brief once-over and put it in my stack to buy. Normally, I take hours and read multiple reviews before committing my hard-earned cash to purchasing a book. So, I purchased a book titled “Overlord: The Illustrated History of the D-Day Landings”. It’s honestly a great book. It uses a lot of images from the Osprey series to di splay uniforms and equipment in action while providing some truly excellent maps. In each sector of Normandy, it also lists the order of battle and commanders (down to regimental level). None of the Allied-centric works I’ve read provide that information, so I find it immensely useful.
  • There’s a new American Civil War magazine out, The Civil War Monitor. It has an experienced editor (Terry Johnston, who had edited North and South for many years) and comes highly recommended (by Eric Wittenburg).


The Beast of Omaha
4 May 2011, 19:21
Filed under: German Perspective, Normandy | Tags: ,

In reading Richard Hargreaves The Germans in Normandy to learn the German perspective on the Normandy invasion, I came across a passage that simply rattled me. After the bow ramps came down on the first boats landing in front of WN62 on Omaha Beach….

They jumped into the cold water up to their chests and shoulders. Some disappeared under the water for a moment, and half swimming, half wading, they began to move slowly on to the beach in front of our strongpoint. At this moment there was complete silence in the bay; not one shot was fired. We had strict orders to wait until the GIs were only about 400m from the edge of the beach and were wading in water up to their knees….

Once the Americans had firm ground under their feet, they waded in two long lines, one after the other, through the water, with the left hand firmly on the pack of the man in front. Everything was so calm, so organized, that you had the impression that they were merely carrying out an exercise.

The Americans struggled forward with their weapons and packs through the high surf of the cold sea, slowly and utterly unprotected. We were well aware that the GIs below us were being led like lambs to the slaughter.

Then the firing commenced and all hell broke loose. Heinrich Severloh, who wrote that passage above, fired thousands of rounds from a machine gun and hundreds from his rifle. While his own estimates of how many men he killed and wounded is nearly as many as the total American casualties on Omaha Beach, one can be certain that he witnessed and took part in an absolute horror.

By 1959, his story was known in the US and he was nicknamed, “The Beast of Omaha”. Terrible dreams afflicted him until his death in 2006.




%d bloggers like this: