Excerpt from From The Bronx to Berchtesgaden:
The Combat Memoir of a WWII Hero
by Murray Soskil
Chapter Five: Invasion
As we steamed towards the French coast, we could see the ships accompanying our vessel. There were gunships, other transport ships, cargo ships, even a battleship. The sky overhead was full of planes. We knew the time for jokes, false bravado, and loud talk had passed. It was time for prayer. I felt that I was completely alone and I kept thinking of things I should have said and done before I left home. But I was soon brought back to reality when I heard bombing off in the distance.
Before we loaded onto the landing craft, we were given new M1 rifles, combat clothing, and combat boots. These items lasted me for eight hundred miles, the distance I walked in Europe. We were also loaded down with two bandoliers of ammunition, a bayonet, a first-aid packet, all of our own personal items, a raincoat, a blanket, two days' worth of rations, and a D bar. The D bar contained sugar, chocolate, skim milk powder, cocoa fat, and vanilla. This ration alone was able to sustain a man for a short period.
When I entered the Army, I weighed 175 pounds. Including all this equipment, I must have weighed at least 250 pounds. Then we climbed aboard the LSTs and we were on our way.
These transports were designed to deliver troops, tanks, and supplies right to the beach. The water was rough and we were all having a pretty bad time. Our ship kept hugging the coast to avoid German aircraft. Then, along with fifteen other boats, we headed toward shore in a straight formation.
As we neared the beach, we could hear the firing of shells in the distance. This was the real thing. We were entering the battle zone. One of the soldiers, a hillbilly from Tennessee, started to sing, interrupting my thoughts of home. I still remember the song he sang. "Send me a letter, send it by mail, and send it to the Birmingham jail."
My thoughts did not stray for long, seeing bodies floating in the water and many others on the beach. The sand was littered with burned-out tanks.
Approximately one hundred and twenty men of my group were joining the 7th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division as replacement riflemen.
As we disembarked, we were taken to the headquarters of the 7th Infantry Regiment to hear a briefing about the "Glorious Seventh." We were informed that the 7th Infantry was the oldest regiment in the U.S. Army, going back to the days of Andrew Jackson. They were also known as the "Cotton Bailers", having gained the nickname because of the use they made of cotton bales in the battle for New Orleans during the War of 1812.
A colonel came to speak to us. "You are going up as replacements to the best damn regiment and division in this man's army," he said. "You will be expected to live up to that tradition. You will suffer and you will take it like men. You will learn to do your very best. Everyone is scared in his first battle. If he says he is not, he is a liar. The real hero is the one who fights even though he is scared."
In all the time I spent in battle, I never saw a colonel close to the front line of combat. Even so they wrote themselves up for many medals. They really could give the best damn speeches, though.
There were three men from the replacement depot still in my company. One of them was Jim Smith, who always thought everything was a joke. The war was a joke, in his opinion, but once he heard his first barrage, he changed his opinion fast. Most of the men sat and prayed. Then the group was broken up to join different companies. As we marched off, the sky was lit up with the continual flashing of an artillery barrage. We passed a stream of men returning from the front and heading to the reserve. They were filthy, unshaven, and most had a vacant look in their eyes. Their comment to us was:
"It's hell up there."
The division was given a day off to reassemble so we had a chance to meet some of the veterans. Anyone who made it past their first encounter with the enemy was considered a veteran. They were a haggard bunch. The younger ones looked like school boys. Their jackets and trousers were filled with mud, which made us, the replacements, stand out in our clean uniforms. They were not anxious to mingle with us. After I had some combat experience, I understood why the veterans were not anxious to make friends with the newcomers. I felt a little conspicuous in my new clean gear until I had a bit of mud splashed on it. I took out my clean shovel and I started to dig my first foxhole.
The following evening we had our baptism under fire. When the attack started, we were a group of inexperienced and scared men. Fortunately for me, I was in a reserve platoon. We had not gone more than one hundred yards when our point platoon man stepped into an area of Schu mines, nicknamed Bouncing Betties. These mines were designed to wound soldiers instead of killing them. They were planted beneath the ground in metal containers that held hundreds of steel balls. When stepped upon, they exploded and flew into the air at waist height. We could hear the agonizing screams of wounded men and their calls for medics. There was nothing anyone could do to help them. The wounded soldiers were markers for the rest of us. They showed the rest of the company where the mines were so we could skirt the minefield and go on.
One of the fellows with me right from the beginning at the induction center was Bob Silver. He was even more frightened and homesick than most. He clung to me like a shadow. Bob did his best to get into the same company I was in. Unfortunately, he was put in the unlucky platoon on his first night in combat. His platoon was the one that was caught in the minefield, and Bob was killed.
It was dark so we stayed close to the man in front of us. As I jumped into a ditch, there was a GI lying in the hole. Thinking he was stalling, I pushed him to move. He turned over and I saw he was dead. Then I took off and kept running until I was ahead of the company. When I was transferred from Ordinance to the Infantry, I thought to myself that since there were 180 men in the company, I would be the 179th. Here I found myself at the head of the company. The Germans all seemed to be shooting at me, and the next shell could blow me to hell. I panicked, wanting to run back, but it was dark and I didn't know which way to run so I stayed where I was and prayed.
A few hundred yards ahead we were stopped by enemy resistance. This consisted of scattered strong points supported by artillery fire. The barrage of German shells was constant. They launched with a regular hammering rhythm. The ground trembled on impact. The vibrations were frightening. This sensation, however, was also reassuring because it meant the shells had missed you.
There was nothing we could do but lie there and take it. One shell in particular seemed to have my number on it. Its whine was high pitched and continued longer than any I had heard before. I thought it was coming for me. I prayed furiously and kept my body as flat as possible. When the shell finally hit, my entire body bounced up into the air as my breath was knocked out of me. Thank God I was otherwise unhurt.
That evening when I opened my pack, I discovered that my blanket was full of holes. The shrapnel from the near miss had passed completely through my pack. The shell had my number on it, sure enough, but its calibration had been off by a hair. It wasn't my time to go. Even though the ground was hard, I continued to dig furiously with my shovel, pounding away to make sure the hole was sufficiently deep to protect me.
The shelling continued for three hours. It felt like an eternity. All you could do was lie there and anticipate the moment that would end your life. No amount of training could really prepare a man for combat. Training got a person physically fit and prepared to use a weapon, but it did not prepare you to lie helplessly under a barrage of artillery bombardment and machine-gun fire for hours on end, listening to the indescribable sounds of war. But after your first battle, if you still lived, you had proven yourself. You had a good idea of what to expect and what was expected of you. You and your fellow soldiers were no longer strangers thrown together randomly by war but hardened veterans of battle.
Peering over the lip of my foxhole, I saw a movement in the bushes. I sighted down the barrel of my M1 rifle and squeezed the trigger and the German soldier became still and I realized that I had killed a man.
I told myself that he was a German and that Germans were the enemy. I knew that if I hadn't shot him first, he would have killed me, and I knew that I would do the same again when I had to. He was the first man I ever killed but he was not to be the last.
My platoon leader, a first lieutenant, approached me and said they were short of noncoms. He'd noticed that I had handled myself well and thought that I had leadership ability so he was going to put in a request to promote me to sergeant. Soon I was in charge of a twelve-man squad. I could not figure out whether to be happy or frightened about taking on this responsibility.