35th Infantry Division Memory

For never forget...
Santa Fe
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Chapter 3

The Battle of St. Lo

Located immediately astride the center of the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, the City of St. Lo forms, with Caen, the anchor of a transportation and communication line that controls not only the section itself, but the highways to the French interior. The third largest city on the peninsula, St. Lo was well built, full of the ancient landmarks that make each French town revered, and included a number of buildings of modern design and accommodations. It was seated in a gooseneck of the River Vire and occupied the center of a natural saucer-like basin.

However, it was not the physical position of St. Lo itself that made its capture a difficult matter. Rather it was the contour and nature of the terrain which approached it. Most of Normandy is covered with rolling land that itself affords excellent opportunities for defense. In developing this land for pasture and farming purposes, the French had transposed it into a vast checkerboard of fields and meadows, each bordered by hedgerows.

These hedgerows, ran along the edge of each field, and were from five to thirty feet in height, depending on the amount of vegetation that covered it. The bases of the hedgerows were mounds of thickly-packed rocks and earth that had risen with the years. In some places these mounds had attained a height of five feet. Topping these bases were all forms of growth from tall thickets and bushes to large age-gnarled trees. This lush land, and the thickness and density of it formed a cover and concealment that no man could have devised.

But nature had been even more designing in her construction of these barriers. At the bottom of each hedgerow, on each side, were narrow trenches of varying depths. These, with a little help from man, provided excellent foxholes, machine gun and mortar emplacements and excellent screening for sniping parties. The Germans exploited these natural embankments to the utmost.

Just what the history of these hedgerows was; how they came to be there; why they were so universally present in this country; what their original use was, must remain a matter of speculation. Some declare they were primitive forms of irrigation; others that they were mere landmarks the years had built by natural erosion and growth. The more romantic observers picture them as defenses thrown up by the Normans before the days of howitzers and bazookas. But, regardless of why and how, the cold fact remained that they were there, and covered the miles to St. Lo at an average of a few hundred yards apart. Caesar had written of this type of hedgerow and said, "they present a fortification like a wall through which it was not only impossible to enter but even to penetrate with the eye." Behind each one was the dread unknown, the hidden enemy armed with all the weapons at his command, especially designed for this type of fighting and dug in to safely counter American fire. To drive the enemy from these defenses, to blast him from the reinforced and heavily bastioned forts he had constructed in each solid-walled farmhouse and church was a task calculated to test the bravest. The immediate objective of the XIX Corps was the capture of the city of St. Lo.

On the night of 9 July, General Baade issued Field Order No. 2 which directed the 137th and 320th Infantry Regiments to enter the battle positions relieving elements of the 29th and 30th Infantry Divisions in the vicinity of La Meauffe. The line ran from the River Vire above La Meauffe and extended in a southeasterly direction through La Riviere to La Nicollerie. The 137th, taking positions on the right, covered the area on the East Bank of the River Vire to the vicinity of Le Carrillon. To the left the 320th was deployed. In support of the infantry were the artillery battalions and the other various troops of the Santa Fe.

The 29th Division, still battling after having forced its beachhead landing and fighting its way inland, was on the left flank. The 30th Division, on the right, was on the other bank of the Vire. Their attack was synchronized with the 35th's.

On the night of 10 July the Division received its first casualty from enemy fire. At 1920, while Company H of the 137th was moving into position, eight rounds of 88mm artillery fire poured into the area. One was a direct hit into the foxhole occupied by Private Owen J. McBride, an ammunition bearer. He was killed instantly.

At 0500, 11 July, the Division and supporting Corps artillery opened fire on the Nazis. Over 200 guns smashed at the German-prepared positions for one hour. Then at 0600 the Santa Fe doughboys went "over the top."

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 137th, with Company G in reserve, proceeded along the area following Highway 3. Here the enemy had taken full advantage of the narrow roads and hedgerow defenses. Knowing that contact would have to be made along a small road leading from Highway 3 to the Vire Canal, they lined both sides with deep foxholes which were manned with well-armed riflemen, grenadiers and machine guns. Underground tunnels connected these emplacements so that there would be no diminution of ammunition or men. Mines had been skillfully placed in the road at points where attacking forces were certain to approach.

Despite the murderous crossfire the men maintained their attack and advance up the road, though but a few yards at a time. Many of the points had to be rushed and taken with hand-to-hand combat. Cold steel and pointblank fire had to finish the Nazis who held out to the end. The cost was not light. Many gallant Yanks fell, some never to rise. That narrow stretch of road is remembered by the men of the 137th as "Death Valley Road."

At La Meauffe every house and shop had been converted by the Germans into individual pillboxes. From behind hastily constructed barricades they poured forth streams of hot bullets and flesh-ripping grenades. But the Infantry did not falter. With full confidence in the precision of their artillery fire, they advanced steadily behind each well-placed salvo and wiped out nests of resistance.

Battling against fierce resistance, through entrenched positions, the men moved up the main road to famed "Purple Heart Corner." Here, in a solid stone chateau, behind a seven-foot granite wall, had been the Gestapo Headquarters. The Germans had studded it with machine guns which covered the road with withering fire. More Santa Fe men fell. But the steady advance was not to be stopped. By now the Santa Fe's troops had tasted battle. The initial nervousness and fear that besets each man in combat had lost its newness. The Boche, they had discovered, was not an impregnable superman. He was a good fighter, but the doughboys had taken the best he had to offer and had driven him back.

Despite the loss of ground and many prepared positions, the enemy continued to fight stubbornly. A few hundred yards down the road, beyond "Purple Heart Corner," was his key defense in the area, the Church and the Chateau at St. Gilles. The Church was one of those pretty monuments that are often seen near the roadside in France. Erected in 1718 by the Corps de Denis, it stood sturdily by its quaint and well-kept cemetery, surrounded by several small buildings used by the church officials. The Church itself was built of sandstone and, like most edifices of that area, had walls eighteen inches in thickness. It was surmounted by a bell tower about fifty feet in height.

The beauty and sanctity of this haven did not prevent the enemy from converting it into a veritable fortress. It bristled with firepower and atop the bell tower was a German machine gun nest that commanded the approaches to the area. Close behind the church was a chateau, another thick-walled building with excellent facilities for fortification. To this building the enemy added embellishments of his own devising. A labor battalion of impressed Russians had been forced to build heavy reinforcements and a bomb shelter of concrete with walls three feet thick. Here the enemy was determined to make a last stand.

Colonel Grant Layng of Connecticut, Commanding Officer of the 137th Infantry, was wounded by machine gun fire during this battle, while Lieutenant Colonel John N. Wilson, Commanding Officer of the 219th Field Artillery Battalion and Captain John R. Kerr, artillery liaison officer, were killed.

Brigadier General E. B. Sebree, Assistant Division Commander, was placed in temporary command of the 137th when Colonel Layng was hit and continued in command during the day of 11 July until Colonel Harold R. Emery reported. Major Claude N. Shaver assumed command of the 219th Field Artillery Battalion.

The first enemy prisoners indicated that the Division was facing elements of the 897th and 899th Infantry Regiments, comprising the Kampf Gruppe Kentner.

Despite pounding by the artillery, the fortified strongpoint at St. Gilles could not be eliminated, and throughout the first day of combat the 137th was subjected to heavy machine gun and mortar fire as well as fire from 88 and 150mm artillery pieces.

Casualties in the regiment for this day's operations were 12 killed, 96 wounded and 18 missing in action.

The next day, the weather was cloudy and intermittent showers slowed down the attack. Finally the tank destroyers of the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion attached to the 137th, and in conjunction with the 35th Reconnaissance Troop, an assault was made. Armor drove up to the church and fired point-blank into it. At 1045 elements of the 1st Battalion stormed the citadel and captured it. Continuing its attack the battalion reduced all resistance in the vicinity of St. Gilles by 1400, while the 3rd Battalion, after capturing an enemy strong position about 1000 yards south of St. Gilles at 1600, was held up by machine gun fire, mines and booby-traps.

The positions of the enemy were now highly untenable. Further resistance would only force him into the trap that the 3rd Battalion was closing. During the night he retreated.

Casualties on 12 July were seven killed, 74 wounded and seven missing for the 137th. Among these was Lieutenant John T. Graham of Company F, the first officer of the 137th to give his life in battle.

Yankee ingenuity began to assert itself early as Americans became battlewise. One method used very effectively in negotiating the German Hedgerow was to place a tank destroyer behind the hedgerow and fire point-blank into the machine gun positions of the enemy, ordinarily in the corners of the field ahead. As this was being done, the infantry moved across the field and encircled the enemy positions. Then when the tank destroyer lifted its fire, the infantry liquidated the already battered machine gun nest.

Psychological warfare, too, was used in the attack. Leaflets were scattered over the Nazi lines, pointing out the hopelessness of the German position. Use was made of the example of Colonel General Schleiben, Commandant of Cherbourg, who himself had surrendered while ordering his men to fight to the death.

Good treatment was promised during the period of captivity and special safe conduct passes through Division lines were distributed for the use of those who wished to put the war behind them. It was discovered that some of the enemy units were composed in great measure of Polish, Russian and Czechoslovakian soldiers. Loudspeakers were erected for broadcasts to the enemy and many of them deserted to the lines of the Santa Fe.

On 13 July, the 137th attacked at 0800 with the 2nd and 3rd Battalions again leading. The 2nd Battalion received intense shellfire and was unable to advance. The 3rd Battalion advanced about 500 yards before being stopped by heavy machine gun fire. Enemy 88mm fire then proceeded to pin down both battalions. Division artillery, by knocking out at least two 88mm mobile pieces, eased the situation.

Toward the latter part of the day the 2nd Battalion broke through for a 500 yard gain, while a strong enemy counterattack forced the 3rd Battalion to give up what ground they had gained during the day. The 137th casualties this day were the heaviest yet. The dead numbered 21, wounded 87 and missing in action 17. Among those killed were three fine leaders: Captain Orren L. Beisterfelt, T/Sgt. Henry E. Trefry, S/Sgt. Carl F. Hancock.

Following a blistering 30-minute preparation barrage fired by the 161st, 216th and 219th Field Artillery Battalions, the 137th renewed the attack at 0800 the following day with the 3rd Battalion on the right, 2nd Battalion on the left and 1st Battalion in the center. One platoon of tanks of the 737 Tank Battalion was attached to each battalion.

By 1300 the 1st Battalion had advanced about 300 yards, meeting stiff resistance at La Pointe Ferme. After clearing the Germans out of this area they advanced to La Marel where the enemy had gathered in several fortified buildings. Here they encountered heavy minefields and 88mm fire. On this fourth day of combat the 137th lost 17 killed, 106 wounded and four missing.

Meanwhile the 320th Infantry had been operating on the left side of the Division zone. The regiment had attacked at 0600 on 11 July with Company C of the 60th Engineers attached. The initial line occupied was an inverted L-shape, and the plan of maneuver included bringing the right flank, which ran north-south into line with the left flank running east-west. The 1st Battalion, which operated on the right, initially was confronted with the problem of executing a turning movement while attacking a very tough salient. The 2nd Battalion, later replaced by the 3rd Battalion on the left flank, also met very stiff resistance, and any advance in its line created a possibility of losing contact with the battalions on its right. Led by Colonel Bernard A. Byrne, the Regimental Commander, the 320th held all lines until they were able to smash the foe and gain their objective.

Much heroism was required to maintain the regimental position during these trying days. At one time, on 12 July, an especially vicious counter-attack threatened the entire 3rd Battalion position. Although it appeared that some units were withdrawing in the face of blistering enemy fire, Company K, under the command of Captain Kenneth H. Trossen, made no attempt to pull back, but instead requested more ammunition.

Influenced by this courageous stand, and encouraged by the immediate action of Captains Albert C. Frederikson and Victor H. English, and Lieutenant James R. F. Woods, two of the units reformed and recaptured the disputed ground in a savage attack. The Germans quickly learned that the 320th was a formidable opponent.

On 15 July, the 137th Infantry attacked for the fifth consecutive morning and was met by heavy artillery fire. With the 3rd Battalion established 200 yards north of the main highway to St. Lo, Company K pushed forward to the road at 0910, but was held there by intense machine gun fire. Here the regiment paused to reorganize while the 1st Battalion turned back a strong German counter-attack.

The 137th lost 16 men killed, 100 wounded and one missing in action on the day, but took 15 prisoners and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.

15 July found the 320th in its zone smashing the Germans as it gained 300 yards and took 33 prisoners.

On Sunday 16 July enemy fire lessened. The week's attack and the heavy pounding of artillery was beginning to tell on the Germans. Reports drifted in of their units operating with insufficient replacements, or none at all, of a shortage of food, water and ammunition, due to the pounding of communication lines by American Air Forces.

On the morning of 17 July, both the 320th and 137th attacked, and for the remainder of that day and the next, a battle as furious as it was deadly, was fought on both their fronts. Pressing the attack, the 1st Battalion, 137th commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John H. Stowers, Natchez, Mississippi, broke through and was the first unit to reach a division objective. The enemy threw in everything he had, but nothing was enough to stem the tide of determined Yanks from forging ahead.

In the meantime, the Division zone of operations had been extended and on 13 July, the 3rd Battalion, 134th had replaced the 2nd Battalion of the 115th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division, taking up positions along a streamline just south of Villiers Fossard.

The 134th attacked on the morning of 15 July with the mission of destroying the enemy forces in their zone, capturing Hill 122, and seizing and occupying St. Lo. To do this, they had to drive down the left flank between the zone of the 320th and the main road leading to St. Clair sur Elle. The enemy, so far as was known, consisted of elements of the 14th Parachute Regiment, 897th and 898th and 899th Panzer Grenadier Regiments.

The terrain through which the 134th had to pass was quite like that of the 137th and 320th - rolling country with large hedgerows and high bush. In the center was Hill 122, not an ordinary hill, but a long series of gradually elevated plateaus across which were fields, sunken narrow roads and hedgerows, all excellent defensive positions held by the enemy, standing as the dominating terrain feature before St. Lo.

Attached to the 134th for the final St. Lo drive were the 2nd Battalion of the 320th Infantry Regiment, elements of the 737th Tank Battalion, Company A of the 60th Engineers, Company A of the 110th Medical Battalion, and the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The plan was to attack with the 1st and 2nd Battalions abreast with medium tank company attached to each, and a light tank company was held in reserve. In order to achieve tactical surprise, an artillery preparation was not to be fired.

At the town of Emilie, the surging 134th was halted by the enemy fighting behind stone walls. Each house had been converted into a fortress. Finally, in the early afternoon, the 1st Battalion, 134th Infantry Regiment, following a rolling barrage, swept away all remaining opposition and in a hand-to-hand fight took the town. They had lived up to the 134th battle cry, "All hell can't stop us."

At 2100 the 134th had advanced as far as the north slope of Hill 122. Colonel Butler B. Miltonberger, commanding the Regiment, credits the success of his men in taking the reaches of this Hill to the close support given them by the attached tank company, and by the artillery barrage. This barrage was controlled entirely by the front line observers with the rifle companies, and was moved on their call. It is a matter of record that the infantrymen followed the barrage as close as 75 yards.

Storming Hill 122 became the next combat assignment of a newly committed 1st Battalion, 134th commanded by Lieutenant Alford C. Boatsman, Beatrice, Nebraska, supported by the following units: 161st Field Artillery Battalion reinforced by the fire of the 127th and 963rd Medium Battalions and the 92nd 4.2 Chemical Battalion. The supporting plan of fire was unique in that it provided continuos rolling barrage during the entire operation. Just prior to the 134th's assault on Hill 122, the entire mass of fire was placed on the target at the maximum rate of fire for 15 minutes. A thin curtain was then hung in front of the hill while hasty defensive installations were prepared.

The next day, with the 2nd Battalion of the 320th in reserve, a coordinated assault was made toward Hill 122 and St. Lo. While the P-47's sprayed and bombed the Hill, the tank-infantry combinations struck at machine gun nests and other strongpoints of enemy positions. Each use of the infantry-tank teams required close coordination and amounted to separate small actions in themselves. In many cases the infantry commanders rode on, or walked by the tanks, directing them personally.

Tank destroyers overrode and smashed dugouts and strongpoints after the infantry had passed through. The advance of foot troops under artillery power-drive proved effective in shoving back the enemy.

The Germans had dug in, around and through the hedgerow. As learned from experience and verified by prisoners, machine guns were along the hedges, and, as a rule, observers for the mortars were in one field directly in rear of the machine guns. The mortars were then emplaced in streambeds or low ground in the rear of the observers.

When our infantry launched an attack, the dug-in machine guns were employed against them. As our artillery fire was brought down on the machine guns the Germans would drop mortar fire on our advancing infantry, hoping both for casualties and to cause our infantry to believe that their own artillery fire was falling short. Because of these tactics the Division Artillery fired on German machine guns, mortar observers and mortars simultaneously.

Just before dawn, 16 July, the 1st Battalion started across the minefields under enemy fire toward Hill 122 itself. As the battalion started up the slope, the hill spewed lead like an exploding ammunition dump, but the doughboys pushed on.

The Germans counter-attacked the steadily moving line and were thrown back. Despite the mounting losses, the 1st Battalion edged uphill against the apparently impregnable enemy defense line. Finally Hill 122 fell.

The advance was slowed down by insistent infiltration of small parties of frantic enemy. It took a series of hand-to-hand engagements to subdue these parties. This was a typical Nazi maneuver. The men in these suicide squads meant nothing to their leaders; it was time that counted.

But this costly delay, for which the Germans paid a high price, allowed them to complete their lines and be in position to launch a counter-attack also on July 16. As the 3rd Battalion started moving down the right flank of the 134th, opposition was fierce, for the enemy was well aware that once his flank was penetrated he would not again be in a position to drive the Yanks from the dominating hill.

As the day passed, the Americans could not be dislodged, the German attacks slowed down, but the enemy's artillery fire continued in intensity. While the 1st Battalion held tenaciously to Hill 122, the 2nd Battalion, in a sunset push, attacked at 2000 and gained about 600 yards.

The cost in men and equipment had not been low. The 134th had lost 102 killed in action, 589 wounded and 101 missing. The expenditures of sweat and blood can never be measured. But Hill 122 had been taken and the road into St. Lo was open.

Already some agents of the Division Counter Intelligence Corps team under the command of 1st Lieutenant Warren Colgan had wormed into the city and assured a group of citizens herded together in the L'Ecole Normal, that shortly the American Army would arrive to liberate them. Penetrating almost to the center of the city to assure other groups, they made their escape only a few minutes ahead of a Nazi patrol.

The city, which for days had been subjected to the bombardment of American air forces, and more recently to the precision of American artillery, was a mere shambles. Hundreds of citizens, unable to escape, had been caught between the two armies and lay buried beneath the mounds of rubble. The enemy still held the city, but used it mainly as a defense point while their troops shifted to high ground to the south.

About 1950 on 18 July Major Dale N. Goodwin, S-2, and the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of the 134th entered St. Lo from the northeast. The Platoon, under the command of 1st Lieutenant John F. Tracy of Brooklyn, New York, consisted of T/5 Charles N. Piercy, Elgin, Tennessee; Corporal N. Stefansky, Cleveland, Ohio; Pfc. Eutimio Espinoza, Blanca Colorado; Pfc. Arthur E. Peck, St. Louis, Missouri; Pfc. Robert E. Lee, Newberg, Oregon; Pfc. Elgin A. Wilkinsen, Venie, California; and Pvt. Edgar C. Hale, Little Rock, Arkansas. Under constant mortar fire they advanced to the center of the city, reconnoitered and returned by the northeast route.

On the same day elements of the 29th Infantry Division, attacking from the east while the Santa Fe was attacking from the north, closed in upon St. Lo. The Stars and Stripes now floated over the objective of one of the most bitter battles on French soil. On the night of the 19th, the 134th relieved the elements of the 29th Infantry Division and completed the occupation of St. Lo.

Three weeks before, the 35th had been made up of green troops still in an English training camp. Now, scarred but battlewise, they were the veterans of their first bitter campaign of World War II. Unheralded, they had entered a situation which ranked with the beachhead landings and had emerged the victors.

For this battle the first Distinguished Unit Citation in the Division was bestowed upon the 1st Battalion, 134th Regiment. The citation says simply . . . "The gallantry, heroism and will to win of the 1st Battalion, 134th Infantry Regiment contributed immeasurably to a major victory for the United States."

The Division could well be proud of the following commendation:

Office of the Corps Commander

A.P.O. 270,
c/o Postmaster
U.S. Army
19 July 1944

Subject: Commendation.

TO: Commanding General, 35th Infantry Division
A.P.O. 35, c/o Postmaster, United States Army.

1. The capture of St. Lo climaxes an operation of major importance to the American cause, and brings to a successful conclusion the initial combat action of the 35th Infantry Division.

2. It was marked by repeated instances of personal and group heroism of the highest order and has earned for your division a place among the great organizations of American military history.

3. Please convey to the veteran officers and men of your division my pride in their achievements, and my sincere congratulations on a job well done.

/s/ Charles H. Corlett
Major General, U.S. Army

This letter General Baade indorsed to the units of the division, adding his own "sincere and personal appreciation, satisfaction and congratulation" to each member of the command for his fine performance in the brilliant victory.

When a copy of this letter reached the United States, President (then Senator) Harry S. Truman, a Captain in the 129th Field Artillery Battalion of the 35th Division during World War I, asked for and received permission to have it inserted in the Congressional Record.

General Baade also sent a message to his men on the same day through the medium of the "Santa Fe Express," the Division newspaper, as it published its first overseas edition on French soil. In the paper the General said:

"Men of Santa Fe:

You are now combat veterans. You have proven yourselves capable of taking your place in the line with the fine soldiers of our own Army and the Allied Nations. As we continue on the positive path to victory, I congratulate you for the glorious start you have made."

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