Symphony in B-Flak
Second Movement: FRANCE
II. NORTHERN FRANCE (Part 5)
Sept. 21st brought a new assignment -- a position near Luneville. The primary position was not accessible so the 22 mile convoy ended at an alternate site south of the city. We emplaced near a company of T. D.'s, while an advance party, led by Captain Beer, investigated surrounding roads. As they entered the town, a few German mortarmen were seen and a Mark IV tank raced down a side street, so they decided to return and wait until it was safe.
After two days we moved a few miles to Herimenil, four kilometers (2.5 miles) from Luneville. Here we had a dual mission -- AA protection of roads and bridges, and more important, we played a part in the artillery attacks on strong points in the "Foret de Parroy", a dense wood northeast of the town. The Germans had strongly fortified, underground positions there which could never have been taken without this support. Not all the shells were outgoing, so we dug in immediately, in spite of a driving rain. Naturally, this was met with something short of complete satisfaction on the part of the men.
We contributed our 90's to a heavy barrage from pieces ranging from 75 to 240 millimeters. Our air bursts alone numbered 1087. We shelled at approximate fifteen minute intervals around the clock. Several 240's, just a quarter of a mile away, kept the ground shaking and our pup tents heaving, often making sleep impossible. Imagine Jerry on the receiving end! Our fire was termed accurate, and the results pronounced very effective by forward observers. Whenever possible, we were notified of the nature of each objective, and in spite of fortification, it was always destroyed.
Air activity was comparatively light, but it remained our regular mission; so constant vigilance was maintained. We tossed up 99 rounds, warding off occasional raids and safeguarding transportation routes.
On their way to the rear for a rest, battle-weary infantrymen often stopped to visit. They related experiences and asked about different outfits in the hope of finding friends.
Activity diminished after the first week, and since our work was completed, we began to receive passes to Luneville. The town offered little or no excitement, but we were satisfied to get away from army life for a short time. At first there was little to do but walk through the cobblestone streets in search of quaint little shops with suitable souvenirs, or a cafe where one could buy cognac. Later the Red Cross provided more recreation -- GI movies, ping pong, magazines to read, and best of all, coffee and doughnuts.
We learned at this position to appreciate Colonel Fraser. His inspections, his thoughtulness and consideration, his firmness and discipline seemed to us to be in the highest tradition of the army. Even now the mere mention of his name evokes feelings of deepest respect and admiration.
It was here that we were transferred to the 7th Army [September 28]. General Patton sent a personal note of regret at the loss of our services and recommended us to our new commander, General Patch. [The 115th was transferred back to 3rd Army by October 15th. - ed.]
Leaving Luneville on 15th October the convoy rode through the little village of Herimenil. Here we were now well known, for we had associated with the people rather freely, especially in the matter of laundry. Since we were on the move, it was almost of necessity, a Sunday. People were out in all their finery and gave us a royal farewell. The roads were fairly good, and we could see that most of the traffic was going in the opposite direction. Our destination, Commercy, 60 miles away, was far behind the line. Our mission was the protection of the road junctions and bridges of Commercy. Aside from this the most important accomplishment was the replacement of the worn out gun tubes with new ones.
As we expected, action was practically nil, but one night, our 90's with their new tubes sang a sharper tune than usual. We fired 34 rounds. No activity was had by the machine gunners. While engaging this target Gun 3 exploded and the breech block and retaining ring were blown out. Sgt. Staudinger was injured and was awarded the Purple Heart. Pvt. Ricci was also injured. Both were hospitalized.
Our quarters were undoubtedly the best we had since we left England. At a rock quarry which was situated about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the city and which had been a Nazi slave labor camp, we found refuge. The buildings were fairly comfortable because Jerry had left his beds behind, much to our liking.
Despite the lack of activity, "trial fire" went on nevertheless, and even today the words "trial fire" bring moans and groans from all of us.
There was not much of interest in Commercy except a photographer, stationery stores, and much to our glee, a bakery that would sell us all the bread and cake desired. Each truck that came back from the 6 hour pass always had at least 15 to 30 loaves of bread and other foodstuffs. Our rations were good despite the fact that we were in a rear area; and the town supplied most of our extra wants. It was here that we had our first pseudo-ice cream.
It was at Commercy that Lt. Ray, who had been Reconnaissance Officer on the Battalion Staff, was transferred to our Battery, where he eventually assumed the duties of Range Officer. At this position, also, the Rev. Daniel C. DeCourcey was assigned to the Battalion as Catholic Chaplain. From that time on, the Catholic fellows were enabled to attend Mass and receive the Sacraments every week.
In this place we had more inspections in one week than in any other in a month. Life could not continue this way, and we felt the old restlessness for a movement. It came on December 6.
The 118th AAA Gun Bn. replaced us at Commercy on December 6th. We began the slow, long trip to Sarreguemines. It was to be a trip of 93 miles but only a small part of it was covered the first day. The route carried us through the long disputed province of Alsace-Lorraine. Here the reaction of the people was puzzling, as if they themselves weren't sure whether they were being liberated or conquered.
It was growing dark as we pulled into Chateau Salins, so it was chosen for our overnight stop. The trucks were lined up for the regrouping of the convoy in order to speed up the departure in the morning. We found a thoroughly modern hospital unoccupied, and since it was spacious, clean, and untouched by bombs or shells, we chose it for our quarters.
The town was large and fairly modern. Roofless buildings and battered walls told the tale of destruction that it had undergone. Save for about five people, the town was miserably empty -- truly a modern ghost town. Signs written in both French and German made it difficult to determine whether or not this was friendly territory. Souvenir hunters had the opportunity to rummage through the debris seeking out rags or ribbons bearing the Nazi Swastika and similar mementos.
Next morning with a good meal ("D" ration) under our belts we set out for the long, arduous trip ahead. The roads were congested, and bad roads in worse weather made the journey seem immeasurably long. Battered and burnt tanks (mostly enemy) could be seen on the side of the roads and in the adjacent fields. Road blocks were constructed at the entrance to towns and even the smallest hamlets. These blocks, intended to protect the town, ironically hastened their destruction, because our tanks, in an effort to advance, were prone to blast away at these obstacles. Since our ultimate destination, Sarreguemines, was inaccessible, we made another overnight stop at the town of Puttelange.
The advance party in search of quarters for the battery selected a church that had been badly damaged and deserted. One of the boys, seeing four large boxes, casually opened one of the lids and exclaimed, "Look there are statues in 'em". One of the sergeants being dubious opened the lid and quickly closed it saying, "Then why are they wearing socks?" The four corpses were the victims of bombing.
Half of the battery slept in the church with the deceased and the remaining half across the street from a cemetery. In order to complete the cheery situation it rained that night. The guard in the graveyard complained of loneliness. "Lonely? What about the Jerry in the Tiger Tank? What if his corpse was a bit charred?"
Upon entering the vicinity of Sarreguemines or Saargemund, on Dec. 8, we were under observation and within easy artillery range of the Germans across the narrow Saar river. Our orders were: avoid the skylines, select reverse slopes, seek the valleys.
Weeks of rain had made the low, protected position we were to take a mass of sticky clay mud. All equipment had to be dragged or winched in. This miserable wet weather never let up during our stay. It rained, snowed, or hailed nearly every day. The sun never shone, and the mud became wetter and more sticky each day.
The Germans were counter-attacking desperately to put the clamp on the 3rd Army's expected drive, or possibly as a feint to divert attention from important action elsewhere.
We had no action here at all, but were ever on the alert for paratroopers, as well as infiltrating enemy troops, for each night German patrols were discovered on our side of the river.
The second night in position we found out that artillery was incoming, and the unmistakable whine of shells was easily heard. Their objective was a crossroad nearby. The shots were poor ones, but their spasmodic firing had us worried, for these wild shots were unpredictable. They did succeed in routing "A" Battery with several casualties. One landed approximately 30 yards from the Range Section's tent, but fortunately it burrowed itself harmlessly into the soft, sticky clay.
News of trouble up north arrived, serious news at that -- a counterattack! The next day, all 3rd Army vehicles jammed the roads going north; in the opposite diirection came a trickle of 7th Army vehicles. Then the roads were really congested -- the 7th Army relieving the 3rd.
We wanted to get out too, and the time came. Much to our dismay we found ourselves actually "landlocked". On the radar we used 75 tons of tracked vehicles (5 cats) and the towing for two hundred feet required three and a half hours. Each gun had 2 or 3 cats to pull it out. This March Order was the slowest on record: 7 hours, at least. On the next day, Dec. 22, at 0900 hours we struck our tents. The rest of the mired trucks were then pulled out. At 1100 hours we were ready to leave. Hot "C" rations were distributed to each vehicle. We were off to the Bulge.