I just finished reading my 1944 copy of Ernie Pyle’s Brave Men. It was a learning experience; books listed in the sidebar represent only about 25% of the biographies, and autobiographies I have read since I was nine years old. Ernie personalizes his accounts by mentioning every soldier, airman, and sailor by both name and their addresses; with a physical description, education, family, and his relationship to them during his time overseas, that he met and traveled with, from North Africa, through the Normandy Invasion. Only the book Semper Fi, Mac; personal accounts of Marines throughout the Pacific campaign hit me so close to home.
In one of the last chapters, titled Break-Through, he chronicles the events of July 25th, 1944. This was (according to Patton 360) on the 24th, and tells a very different story.
Ernie lived through this snafu, only to be killed later in the Pacific Theater, by enemy fire on Iejima (an island lying a few kilometers off the Motobu Peninsula on Okinawa Island) during the Battle of Okinawa. I can only say that unless publications such as his are kept alive, the “newspeak” Orwellian world we live in will crush any truth in favor of their filtered information. I invite those interested to spread the word. I am typing most of this chapter, providing the reader with a feel for the sights, smells, and the same anticipation of the troops involved. I have skipped few paragraphs, when I do, it will be noted by “…”
Surely history will give a name to the battle that sent us boiling out of Normandy, some name comparable with Saint-Mihiel or Meuse- Argonne of the last war. But to us there on the spot at the time it was known simply as the “break-through”. We correspondents could sense that a big drive was coming. There are many ways you can tell without actually being told, if you are experienced in war. And then one evening Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commanding all American troops in France, came to our camp and briefed us on the coming operation. It would start. he said, on the first day we had three hours of good flying weather in the forenoon.
We were glad to hear the news. There wasn’t a correspondent over there, or soldier, or officer I ever heard of who hadn’t complete and utter faith in General Bradley. If he felt we were ready for the push, that was good enough for us. The general told us the attack would cover a segment of the German line west of St-Lo, about five miles wide. In that narrow segment we would have three infantry divisions, side by side. Once a hole was broken, the armored divisions would slam through several miles beyond, then turn right toward the sea behind the Germans in that sector in the hope of cutting them off and trapping them. The remainder of our line on both sides of the attack would keep the pressure on to hold the Germans in front of them so they couldn’t send reinforcements against our main push.
The attack was to open with a gigantic two hour air bombardment by 1,800 planes – the biggest ever attempted by air in direct support of ground troops. It would start with dive bombers, then great four motored heavies would come, and then medium, then dive bombers again, and then the ground troops would kick off, with air fighters continuing to work ahead of them. It was a thrilling plan to listen to. General Bradley didn’t tell us it was the big thing, but other officers gave us the word. They said “This is no limited objective drive. This is it. This is the big break-through.”
In war everybody contributes something, no matter how small or how far removed he may be. But on the front line the break-through was accomplished by four fighting branches of the services and I don’t see truly how one can be given credit above another. None of the four could have done the job without the other three. The way they worked together was beautiful and precisionlike, showering credit among themselves and General Bradley’s planning. The four branches were: Air Force, Tanks, Artillery, and Infantry.
I went with the Infantry because it is my old love, and because I suspected the tanks, being spectacular, might smother the credit due the infantry. I teamed up with the Fourth Infantry Division since it was in the middle of the forward three, and spearheading the attack. The first night behind the front lines I slept comfortably in a tent at the division command post, and met for the first time the Fourth’s commander – Major General Raymond R. Barton, a fatherly, kindly, thoughtful good soldier. The second night I spent on the dirty floor of a rickety French farmhouse, far up in the lines, with the nauseating odor of dead cows keeping me awake half the night. The third night I slept on the ground in an orchard even farther up, snuggly dug in behind a hedgerow so the 88’s couldn’t get at me so easily. And on the next day the weather cleared, and the attack was on. It was July 25th.
If you don’t have July 25th pasted in your hat I would advise you to put there immediately. At least paste it in your mind. For I have a hunch that July 25 of the year 1944 will be one of the great historic pinnacles of this war. It was the day we began a mighty surge out of our confined Normandy spaces, the day we stopped calling our area the beachhead and knew we were fighting a war across the whole expanse of France. From that day onward all dread possibilities and fears for disaster to our invasion were behind us. No longer was there any possibility of our getting kicked off. No longer would it be possible for fate, or weather, or enemy to wound us fatally; from that day onward the future could hold nothing for us but growing strength and eventual victory…
The first planes of the mass onslaught came over a little before 10 am. They were the fighters and dive bombers. The main road, running crosswise in frontof us, was their bomb line. They were to bomb only on the far side of that road. Our kick off infantry had been pulled back a few hundred yards from the near side of the road. Everyone in the area had been given the strictest orders to be in foxholes, for high level bombers can, and do quite excusably, make mistakes. We were still in country so level and with hedgerows so tall there simply was no high spot – neither hill nor building- from which we could get a grandstand view of the bombing as we used to do in Sicily and Italy. So one place was as good as another unless we went right up and sat on the bomb line. Having been caught too close to these things before, I compromised, and picked a farmhouse about 800 yards back of the kickoff line. And before the next to hours had passed I would have given every penny, every desire, every hope I ever had, to have been just another 800 yards further back.
Our front lines were marked by long strips of colored cloth laid on the ground, and with colored smoke to guide our airmen during the mass bombing. Dive bombers hit it just right. We stood and watched them barrel nearly straight down out of the sky. They were bombing about a half mile ahead of where we stood. They came in groups, diving from every direction, perfectly timed, one right after another. Everywhere we looked separate groups of planes were on the way down, or on the way back up, or slanting over for a dive, or circling, circling, circling over our heads waiting for their turn.
The air was full of sharp and distinct sounds of crackling bombs and the heavy rips of the planes machine guns and the splitting screams of diving wings. It was all fast and furious, yet distinct. And then a new sound gradually droned into our ears, a sound deep and all encompassing with no notes in it- just a gigantic far away surge of doomlike sound. It was the heavies. They came from directly behind us. At first they were the merest dots in the sky. We could see clots of them against the far heavens, too tiny to count individually. They came on with a terrible slowness. They came in flights of twelve, three flights to a group and in groups stretched out across the sky. They came in “families” of about seventy planes each. Maybe those gigantic waves were two miles apart, maybe they were ten miles, I don’t know. But I do know they came in a constant procession and I thought it would never end. What the Germans must have thought is beyond comprehension…
The first huge flight passed directly overhead and others followed. We spread our feet and leaned far back trying to look straight up, until our steel helmets fell off. We’d cup our fingers around our eyes, like field glasses, for a clearer view. And then the bombs came. They began like the crackle of popcorn and almost instantly swelled into a monstrous fury of noise that seemed surely to destroy all the world ahead of us. From then on for an hour and a half that had in it the agony of centuries, the bombs came down. A wall of smoke and dust erected by them grew high in the sky. It filtered along the ground back through our orchards. It sifted around us and into our noses. The bright day grew slowly dark from it. By now everything was an indescribable cauldron of sounds. Individual noises did not exist. The thundering of the motors in the sky and the roar of bombs ahead filled all the space for noise on earth. Our own heavy artillery was crashing all around us, yet we could hardly hear it.
The Germans began to shoot heavy, high ack ack. Great black puffs of it by the score speckled the sky until it was hard to distinguish smoke puffs from planes. And then someone shouted that one of the planes was smoking. Yes we could all see it. A long faint line of black smoke stretched straight for a mile behind one of them. And as we watched there was a gigantic sweep of flame over the plane. From nose to tail it disappeared in flame, and it slanted slowly down and banked around the sky in great wide curves, this way and that way, as rhythmically and gracefully as in a slow motion waltz. Then it suddenly seemed to change its mind and it swept upward, steeper and steeper and ever slower until finally it seemed poised motionless on its own black pillar of smoke. And then just as slowly it turned and dived for the earth – a golden spearhead on the straight black shaft of its own creation – and disappeared behind the treetops. But before it was down there were more cries of, “There’s another one smoking – and there’s a third one now.” Chutes came out of some of the planes. Out of some came no chutes at all. One of the white silk caught on the tail of a plane. Men with binoculars could see him fighting to get loose until flames swept over him, and then a tiny black dot fell through space, all alone.
And all that time the great flat ceiling of the sky was roofed by all the other planes that didn’t go down, plowing their way forward as if there were no turmoil in the world. Nothing deviated them in the slightest. They stalked on, slowly and with a dreadful pall of sound, as though they were seeing only something at a great distance and nothing existed between. God, how we admired those men up there and sickened for the ones who fell.
It is possible to become so enthralled by some of the spectacles of war that a man is momentarily captivated away from his own danger. That’s what happened to our little group of soldiers as we stood watching the mighty bombing. But that benign state didn’t last long. As we watched, there crept into our consciousness a relization that the windows of exploding bombs were easing back toward us, flight by flight, instead of gradually forward, as the plan called for. Then we were horrified by the suspicion that those machines, high in the sky and completely detatched from us, were aiming their bombs at the smoke line on the ground – and a gentle breeze was drifting the smoke line back over us! An indescribable kind of panic came over us. We stood tensed in muscle and frozen in intellect, watching each flight approach and pass over, feeling trapped and completely helpless. And then all of an instant the universe became filled with a gigantic rattling as of huge ripe seeds in a mammoth dry gourd. I doubt that any of us had ever heard that sound before, but instinct told us what it was. It was bombs by the hundred, hurtling down through the air above us.
Many times I’ve heard bombs whistle or swish or rustle, but never before had I heard bombs rattle. I still don’t know the explanation of it. But it is an awful sound. We dived. Some got into a dugout. Others made foxholes and ditches and some got behind a garden wall – although which side would be “behind” was anybody’s guess. I was too late for the dugout. The nearest place was a wagon shed which formed one end of the stone house. The rattle was right down upon us. I remember hitting the ground flat, all spread out like the cartoons of people flattened by steamrollers, and then squirming like an eel to get under one of the heavy wagons in the shed.
An officer whom I didn’t know was wriggling beside me. We stopped at the same time, simultaneously it was hopeless to move farther. The bombs were already crashing around us. We lay with our heads slightly up – like two snakes – staring at each other. I know it was in both our minds and in our eyes, asking each other what to do. Neither of us knew. We said nothing. We just lay sprawled, gaping at each other in a futile appeal, our faces about a foot apart, until it was over.
There is no description of the sound and fury of those bombs except to say it was chaos, and a waiting for darkness. The feeling of the blast was sensational. The air struck us in hundreds of continuing flutters. Our ears drummed and rang. We could feel quick little waves of concussion on the chest and in the eyes. At last the sound died down and we looked at each other in disbelief. Gradually we left the foxholes and sprawling places and came out to see what the sky had in store for us. As far as we could see other waves were approaching from behind. When a wave would pass a little to the side of us we were garrulously grateful, for most of them flew directly overhead. Time and again the rattle came down over us. Bombs struck as far as half a mile behind us. Everything about us was shaken, but our group came through unhurt.
I can’t record what any of us actually felt or thought those horrible climaxes. I believe a person’s feelings at such times are kaleidoscopic and indefinable. He just waits, that’s all- with an inhuman tenseness of muscle and nerves. An hour or so later I began to get sore all over, and by midafternoon my back and shoulders ached as though I’d been beaten with a club. It was simply the result of muscles tensing themselves too tight for too long against anticipated shock. And I remenber worrying about War correspondent Ken Crawford, a friend from back in the old Washington days, who was several hundred yards ahead of me. As far as I knew, he and I were the only two correspondents with the Fourth Division. I didn’t know who might be with the divisions on either side – which also were being hit, as we could see. It was not until three days later, back at camp, that I learned that Lieutenant General McNair and AP Photographer Bede Irvin had been killed in this same bombing and that Ken was safe.
When we came out of our ignominious sprawling and stood up again to watch, we knew that the error had been caught and checked. The bombs again were falling where they were intended, a mile or so ahead. Even at a mile away a thousand bombs hitting within a few seconds can shake the earth and shatter the air. There was still a dread in our hearts, but it gradually eased as the tumult and destruction moved slowly forward.
Two Mustang fighters, flying like a pair of doves, patrolled back and forth, just in front of each oncoming wave of bombers, as if to shout to them by their mere presence that here was not the place to drop – wait a few seconds, wait a few more seconds. And then we could see a flare come out of the belly of one plane in each flight, just after they had passed over our heads. The flare shot forward, leaving smoke behind it in a vivid line, and then began a graceful, downward curve that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It was like an invisible crayon drawing a rapid line across the canvas of the sky, saying in a gesture for all to see: “Here! Here is where to drop. Follow me.” And each succeeding flight of oncoming bombers obeyed, and in turn dropped its own hurtling marker to guide those behind.
Long before, the German ack ack guns had gone out of existence. The ack ack gunners either took to their holes or were annihilated. How many waves of heavy bombers we put over I have no idea. I had counted well over 400 planes when personal distraction obliterated any capacity or desire to count. I only know that 400 was just the beginning. There were supposed to be 1,800 planes that day, and I believe it was announced later that there were more then 3,000. It seems incredible to me that any German could have come out of that bombardment with his sanity. When it was over even I was grateful in a chastened way that I had never experienced before, for just being alive.
I thought an attack by our troops was impossible then, for it is an unnerving thing to be bombed by your own planes. During the bad part a colonel I had known a long time was walking up and down behind the farmhouse, snapping his fingers and saying over and over to himself, “g——-t”, g——-t!”
And I said, “There can’t be any attack now, can there?” And he said “No,” and began snapping his fingers and tossing his arm as though he were throwing rocks at the ground. The leading company of our batallion was to spearhead the attack forty minutes after our heavy bombing ceased. The company had been hit directly by our bombs. Their casualties, including casualties in shock, were heavy. Men went to pieces and had to be sent back. The company was shattered and shaken. And yet Company B attacked – and on time, to the minute! They attacked, and within an hour they sent word back that they had advanced 800 yards through German territory and were still going. Around our farmyard men with stars on their shoulders almost wept when the word came over the portable radio. The American soldier can be majestic when he needs to be.
The “360” video tells a completely different story; especially the supposed recall of the bomber stream, and one flight “not hearing the recall”, which then dropped on the troops.
If Patton were nearby, Ernie would have made a record of it.