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This is a story about two men in World War II, which began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland without a cause and England and France declared war on Germany. Before the war ended about 58 years ago, it had become truly a global war. America entered the war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
By the time Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, the United States alone had put 16 million men and women under arms, had suffered more than 405,000 deaths and more than 671,000 wounded. America was only one of the allies of that global conflict which included England, France, China, Russia, and others.
The 35th Division was made up of the 134th infantry, 137th infantry and 320th infantry, together with headquarters, artillery, engineer, medical, tanks and other specialty troops. Sometimes a task force that spearheaded the troops was made up of a mixture that was essential to the missions. This story is focused on the 320th Infantry Regiment, part of the 80th division in World War I and was made a part of the 35th to bring it up to combat strength in World War II.
To complete the brief history of the entire 35th Division before dealing specifically with the 320th Infantry, the 35th Division as such suffered 85 percent casualties in 10 months of combat duty in France and Germany in World War II with only 10 days rest. Of the 35th original strength of 13,000 men, only 15 percent remained. A total of 15,800 men, replacements and originals were killed, wounded, missing or captured.
This true introduction is given as history of a tremendous and gigantic operation that can also show what a very small part in comparison that can be performed by one individual infantry foot soldier.
There were long and tedious battles by names of St. Lo, Mortain, Chateaudun, Troyes and others lumped together to be known as the Battle of Northern France as part of the Third Army commanded by Gen. George C. Patton. Besides battles, there were skirmishes and rear guard actions that the Nazis became skilled at, intended to slow the American Advance to allow the Germans to retreat to move advantageous ground with their main forces.
A first lieutenant replacement for Company C, 320th Infantry had joined his unit at Mortain after experiencing several nights of visits from "bed-check charlies" near the Normandy beach. He was brought to the infantry unit he was to command, by a captain and a sergeant from Headquarters company, who complained that they were never allowed to see action. They pointed to the area where the lieutenant's units were fighting and drove away. Immediately the lieutenant and two others came under heavy artillery fire, but remembering his training, had sought protection in the rugged landscape.
The 320th helped rescue the trapped 30th Division troops at Mortain and moved on with encounters along the routes of northern France. In the meantime, several days later, the captain and sergeant who complained of no action were sadly found dead in their jeep having been ambushed by a Nazi patrol.
Company C of the 320th Infantry continued through most of northern France in battles and pursuits of the Germans crossing the Loire, Marne, Rhine, Seine and Mosell rivers not necessarily in that order.
On two occasions, the company was honored by French towns they had freed. At last, Company C was allowed a brief, one day respite in the woods of a mountainous area about 40 miles from the German Border.
The lieutenant was called upon to take out a patrol, and having been seasoned in patrolling, asked for volunteers, and picked six out of the group. It was mountainous country, and using what they had previously learned, the patrol got cautiously to the top of a high ridge, took positions and scanned the countryside.
In the distance about a couple of miles below was a town or village nestled in a scenic valley. As the patrol was preparing to return, a sergeant from headquarters drove up in a jeep. He consulted with the lieutenant and finally asked him if he would care to authorize him to take him into the town in the valley below. That battle seasoned lieutenant, against every precaution he had learned militarily, agreed on the spur of the moment to go with the sergeant to the beautiful town in the valley. First, he sent his patrol back to the company to make their report, told them he would join them later, got into the jeep with the unknown sergeant, shouldered his weapon and told him to proceed....
The jeep was quickly turned around and as it headed back, from nowhere a shout went up "L'Amerique!" repeated several times from several sources. People seemed to come out of everywhere, surrounded the jeep and began talking at once, touching them, shaking hands with the amazed pair, laughing, crying, expressing emotions and joys that were uplifting and contagious. They had thoughtfully sent those who spoke English to the front to inform the soldiers of what had happened.
The two Americans stood beside the jeep as the crowd began bringing eggs, vegetables, 17 bottles of wine; piling all the cherished, scarce provisions, into the back seat of the jeep. These jubilant people showed the warmth that only sudden freedom can bring. They even brought before the Americans a young girl whose head had been shaved because she went with the Nazis....
Back to the jeep and saying farewell and saluting, the two American soldiers, a lowly lieutenant and sergeant, left but not before vaguely realizing that they had not only represented all the service people of America to these freedom-starved French people, but for a sacred glorious few moments, two infantry soldiers had represented the whole United States of America.
The sergeant from headquarters with the long forgotten name took the welcomed provisions to the lieutenant's company, where they were distributed quickly and left into the unknown future, hopefully still alive and well.
The lieutenant reported that the unnamed town, that he could still locate, was clear. The rifle company proceeded toward Germany the next day, by passing the town.
This happened to me over 58 years ago. I do not recall the name of the sergeant to whom I owe this experience, nor the name of the town or any of the French people who gave us those brief, wonderful feelings of elation.
It seems like a dream to an old man, but it was true and writing the remembered details is now more personally appreciated than in those tired, war-weary days, for there is still a certain thrill in recalling those fleeting moments of accidental glory 58 years after the end of World War II.
©2003 George A. Thomy
-11/26/03- All rights reserved.