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MY PRINCETON ROTC program and the courses I took later at Officer Candidate School did a good job of preparing me for most of my combat experiences as an artillery forward observer during World War II. What I never imagined was that at times I would be fighting a war in the midst of civilians who were trying to carry on their normal lives. Farmers did not plow on the rifle ranges at Fort Benning, Georgia; kindergarten classes did not stroll across artillery target areas at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Today some of my most vivid memories are of French citizens coping as we fought around them.

In August 1944, I was a 21-year-old second lieutenant of artillery with the 28th Infantry Division as it swept out of Normandy. When we approached Elbeuf, perhaps 50 miles from Paris, I was told that my artillery battalion would be part of a task force, including infantry and tanks, with the mission of liberating the city. “ It is only a mopping-up operation,” was the summary. I had already learned to dread the phrase, as my experience with the Germans thus far indicated they were firmly opposed to being mopped up.

August 25 was a clear, sunny day. Infantrymen in a single column on each side of a dirt road were moving forward through rich farmland, accompanied by Sherman tanks. There in the fields were a few farmers plowing.

As we got closer to a crossroads surrounded by a few houses, the Germans opened up with rifles and machine guns, and our infantry and tanks returned fire. Forgetting the farmers, I walked along with the two men who carried my radio equipment near the rear of the infantry and behind the tanks. One of the Shermans reached the crossroads, only to be knocked out by a German tank. My captain ordered me forward to direct artillery fire on that tank, and by radio I called our 105mm howitzer into action, which accomplished the mission.

An infantry major told me to catch up with an advance company of our soldiers. My two men and I dogtrotted up the road to narrow the gap, feeling more than a little nervous and lonely. We were alongside a prosperous farmhouse surrounded by a wall when a camouflaged German machine-gunner suddenly opened fire. We dropped to the ground and quickly crawled around the corner of the farmhouse. As we caught our breath, we heard voices coming from behind a bricked-up window. A brick was pulled inside, and a woman asked, “ Would you like a piece of cake?” I knew enough French to say, “ Yes, thank you,” and three glad-to-be-alive Americans took a quick “ cake break.”

We moved on around the back of the house and caught up with the infantry company at the edge of Elbeuf. As we walked through the outskirts of the city, a pattern began to develop with the very friendly French. Anxious to welcome us, they would come out of their homes and offer us fruit or glasses of beer. Then the Germans would begin firing, and the French would just disappear, all of them experts by now at this survival technique.

We reached the center of the city as the sun began to set. As we moved forward, we came upon a crowd of French civilians marching toward us. Members of the French Maquis, or underground, were in charge, and they were herding a group of women, naked to the waist, their heads shaved. Collaborationists, they were being driven out of town in disgrace, and French citizens along the road jeered and shouted at them.

Beyond the square we entered a street with affluent homes and yards surrounded by walls. As dusk approached, the atmosphere became more eerie. Suddenly a German machine gun in an alleyway just ahead of me fired tracer bullets perhaps 18 inches in front of my eyes and killed a soldier across the street. Everybody scattered, and I rushed into the house I’d just passed. I was immediately welcomed with great enthusiasm by an older couple who were just sitting down to dinner. Nasty street fighting at close quarters is not an artilleryman’s business, so I stayed inside for a few minutes while the infantrymen went to work. The man of the house responded to my efforts to communicate by rushing upstairs to bring down his medals from World War I, which he proudly showed me. We had a few minutes of awkward conversation, and when the firing outside subsided, I left to rejoin the infantry.

With darkness at hand, our company moved into a warehouse, and we slept as best we could. We guessed the Germans were withdrawing their last men across the Seine River bridges. We did not know they were positioning their artillery to hinder our pursuit the next day.

Conditions seemed calm in the early morning of August 26 as we left the warehouse, but at about 9 the Germans began firing medium artillery similar to our 155mm howitzers. We threw ourselves on the ground as the first barrage screamed in, and a shell hit 10 yards from us, wounding one of my artillerymen. Luckily, first-aid men quickly gathered several injured soldiers and drove them off in a jeep. I shall never forget my man, ashen white, waving a feeble good-bye.

After the first explosions, I began to time the German rounds, which were coming in at three-minute intervals. One of our tanks was parked across the street, close to a stone wall, and I decided that getting between the tank and wall was the best available cover.

My remaining artilleryman and two infantrymen joined me behind the tank. My watch indicated we had 45 seconds until the next shelling. And then suddenly I saw them — two women coming down the street, escorting about 15 children perhaps 5 or 6 years old. Frightened by the first barrages, they must have decided to go to the nearest air raid shelter, signs for which I had noticed about 150 yards back at an intersection. The children were in extreme danger and could not possibly reach the shelter or retrace their steps in time. I yelled Venez ici tout de suite and the two teachers began to run toward me, scurrying behind the children like mother hens protecting their chicks. When the women and kids reached us, I told the men to pack all of them in, one on top of another and on top of us, forming a human pyramid. I heard the screams of approaching shells as we lifted the final child into place. There were four thunderous explosions, the middle two about 30 or 40 yards on either side of the tank. Razor-sharp shell fragments blanketed the street, but not a single person behind the tank was hurt.

When the smoke cleared, I told the women they had a little over two minutes to get to the air raid shelter. We helped the children get out on the street, and off they went, some crying, some stunned, some holding hands. Finally they reached the corner and disappeared. We looked at each other, shook our heads and smiled.

Three days later the 28th Division was selected to be in the Paris liberation parade. It was August 29, 1944. An estimated 1 million French cheered us as we went down the Champs-Elysees and saluted the top generals at the Arc de Triomphe. It was a thrilling experience, but it was no more satisfying than my feelings of relief and thankfulness when I saw those children and their teachers reach the shelter before the next artillery barrage at Elbeuf.


Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.