There was no pause after D-Day. Easy Company was put on alert to continue the advance around 0500, but we remained in defense while waiting for the regimental order to move out. The projected route was south from Culoville through Vierville to Ste. Come du Mont, then across the Douve River into Carentan. As we were getting ourselves pulled together for another day, Captain Hester, battalion operations officer, came to see me at dawn with a message. “Winters, I hate to do this to you after what you went through yesterday, but I want Easy Company to lead the column toward Vierville.” Since Hester was speaking for my battalion commander, I immediately complied with the order.
The sequence of march was E Company, battalion headquarters, followed by D and F Companies. Since we were first in the battalion order of march, we followed 1st Battalion, but before too long they were fired on from the rear between Beaumont and Angoville au Plain. A lively engagement ensued during which our battalion destroyed two companies of enemy paratroopers. Approximately 140 prisoners were taken and 150 Germans were killed. The majority of prisoners belonged to the 6th Parachute Regiment. Their regimental headquarters had deployed them to their present area about two weeks prior to D-Day. Many were extremely young; some were overage. They did not physically appear to be first-class troops, though their ammunition supply was plentiful and their equipment was good. The majority of the prisoners seemed willing to talk. This lack of discipline changed as we began our drive toward Carentan.
On June 7, General Taylor visited battalion headquarters and complimented the troops on the excellent job they had just finished. Meanwhile, Easy Company attacked and secured Angoville with the help of two light tanks. We were now placed in reserve with our principal responsibility being defense of the 506th Regimental headquarters. Later, I was told of the hard fight around Ste. Come du Mont that Dog Company had that day, and I heard that Captain Jerre Gross, the company commander, had been killed. Gross had been conferring with his battalion commander when an artillery shell struck a nearby tree, killing him instantly. Lieutenant Joe McMillan assumed command of D Company and remained the commanding officer for the rest of the war. In my estimation, he was the best company commander in 2d Battalion. Also killed was Lieutenant Colonel William Turner, 1st Battalion’s commanding officer. When Turner raised his head out of a tank turret, he was suddenly shot dead by a sniper, in plain sight of many of the men on the forward line. Combat in Normandy was proving an extremely dangerous business.
During this time one of our major problems was the disposition of dead bodies. The countryside was now littered with dead Germans, abandoned vehicles, and smashed equipment. Dead cattle and horses lay everywhere, often with their legs grotesquely pointing toward the sky. Within days, their carcasses began to bloat and smell in the sweltering June heat. Regiment hired French civilians to burn and bury these animals, but the stench was overpowering. Work details also buried German soldiers where they found them, sometimes in mass graves. Grave registration officers collected and identified American dead, who were temporarily interred at unit cemeteries. Later many of these bodies were interred in the American cemetery that sits atop the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach.
In addition to the destruction of livestock, the Norman agriculture suffered dramatically during the campaign in Normandy. The Calvados and La Manche departments of Normandy form a richly agricultural region best known for its lush pastureland as well as its apple cider. Ample rainfall ensures that the landscape remains green for most of the year. Dairy products include milk, cream, and various cheeses like Camembert, Livarot, and Pont l’Eveque. The agricultural production declined not only because of direct destruction from shelling and bombing, but also because crops and livestock went days and weeks without proper care and attention. The dairy industry, which once characterized Norman agriculture, virtually ceased to exist in early June 1944. Once the fighting moved toward the interior of France, however, the Norman countryside returned to its pre-invasion state and today it remains one of the country’s most prosperous agricultural regions.
Another problem that we encountered in Normandy was the French cognac and Calvados, a distilled apple brandy that is usually drunk between courses to clear the palate and then as a finale to a good meal. If not aged ten to fifteen years, Calvados will take the skin off your throat, as many Allied soldiers discovered within days of the invasion. Both cognac and Calvados lay in abundance in every Norman village and farm. Lieutenant Harry Welsh had found a barrel of cognac, and I was convinced that he attempted to drink it all by himself. On one occasion he passed out in the middle of a road and there he was, lying on his reserve parachute, propped up in full view of the enemy. The Germans began zeroing in on Welsh and I had to get out there and grab him and pull him off the road. My God, he was lucky. There were times when I talked to Harry and I realized later that he hadn’t heard a word that I had said—and it was not because his hearing was bad. We got that problem straightened out in a few days.
Sleep was still tough to get at night for a variety of reasons. Actual fighting or even the anticipation of combat created constant tension among our soldiers. Equally bothersome were the huge mosquitoes that inhabited the swamps in front of Carentan. Prior to the invasion the Germans had flooded the countryside in a futile effort to discourage Allied planners to conduct airborne operations. The flooding caused large, stagnant pools of water, which proved a fertile breeding ground for swarms of mosquitoes that dive-bombed us every evening. In our advance toward Carentan, you could see pillars of mosquitoes extending several hundred feet into the air. There was no escape since our troops were not equipped with mosquito nets.
Nor was the climate overly hospitable. Days are long in June and July, with the darkness limited to six or seven hours before dawn breaks the eastern horizon. A light drizzle falls over Normandy during most of the spring and summer months, and 1944 was no exception. At night the temperatures fell so much that each trooper wore additional layers of clothing. Climactic conditions changed as rapidly as the tides that swept the Norman beaches. It was not unusual to have one dry day in five. Censorship forbade the mention of any specific town in the vicinity of the operation, but many an American paratrooper began his letters home with the origin listed simply as “Cold and Wet in Normandy.”
Higher headquarters also hindered our ability to catch a few minutes’ rest. In one case, battalion headquarters alerted the company to prepare for a gas attack that never materialized. Additionally, the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) finally appeared in the skies over Carentan and strafed our forces preparing to attack that city. Actually, we had a few precious days to catch our breath, and we needed that rest. We had been under a lot of pressure since word had come down on June 5—“We go tonight.” None of us had had much sleep on the flight to Normandy, then we were engaged all day on D-Day, caught a doze or two that night, then fought all day June 7 and half that night. In Normandy it was not unusual to have less than six hours of sleep during the first four days of combat.
The respite, albeit welcome, did not last for long. By June 10, soldiers from the 29th Division, who had landed at Omaha Beach, linked up with the 101st Airborne Division northeast of Carentan, a town of approximately 4,000 that lay astride the main road artery running to Cherbourg at the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula. To take the town, our division commander, General Taylor, devised a three-pronged assault: the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment would attack from the north; the 501st PIR would assault from the northeast, while Sink’s 506th PIR conducted a night march, swinging around Carentan to the southwest. H-Hour for the divisional attack was scheduled for dawn on June 12. To reach the line of departure, our battalion conducted a night march over unfamiliar terrain—a task that presents its own share of challenges under the best of circumstances.
Easy Company had spent months and months training at night. For all his faults, Captain Sobel had seen that the men were highly proficient in conducting nocturnal patrols and movement. The problems associated with forced marches across country, through woods, night compass problems, errors in celestial navigation, had all been overcome in the months preceding D-Day. Prior to the invasion, Easy Company had experienced every conceivable problem of troop movement under conditions of limited visibility. We had so much experience in night attacks that we had actually learned to see better at night. Not so surprisingly then, the troops were completely at ease as we prepared for the attack on Carentan. It was my observation that the leaders who experienced the greatest difficulty in handling night movement were regimental and divisional staff officers and personnel. They had “crapped out” on the training problems and did not get to the field day after day and night after night as frequently as had the troops and junior line officers. These shortcomings were evident on D-Day. These staff officers encountered major problems getting oriented and finding their objectives. The numerous hedgerows we found in Normandy only compounded their problems. The junior officers and enlisted soldiers, on the other hand, found their way around and attacked their objectives with ease. As we moved into our assault positions on the evening of June 11, this same lack of training on the part of staff officers once again led to widespread confusion.
At dusk on June 11, 2d Battalion set out across the marsh for Carentan. Our route took us over a bridge, where we turned west across the fields to railroad tracks. The going was very rough as we crossed swampy areas and hedgerows. I knew the battalion would have a difficult time finding its way to our objective. Part of the problem was that regimental headquarters assigned routes to individual battalions and companies as they traversed the countryside. During this movement, 2d Battalion continually broke contact with its organic companies. Once physical contact is lost, ill-disciplined units sacrifice noise discipline in an effort to reestablish contact with the unit immediately to their front. The primary reason for the disruptions occurred when the head of the column would negotiate a tough section of territory, and then take off at an accelerated pace, with no consideration for the rear elements traversing the same tough bottleneck. Additionally, regimental headquarters repeatedly altered the boundaries between the 1st and 2d Battalions. All told, it was a rough night. We stopped, dug in, set up machine guns and bazookas, moved out, over and over. We finally crossed the Douve River in front of Carentan around 0200 on the morning of June 12.
About 0530 on June 12, 2d Battalion was straightened out and deployed for the attack, and Easy Company was finally on its assigned road. Colonel Strayer’s scheme of maneuver called for an assault with two companies abreast. He placed Fox Company on our left flank and set up his battalion headquarters to the rear of Easy Company. Dog Company constituted the battalion reserve. The attack was scheduled for 0600. Our battalion was attacking down a road on the southwest side of Carentan. We realized later this meant we were in a position to cut off or trap the German troops that were being forced from Carentan by the remainder of the division. All in all, General Taylor had devised a well-planned attack by his 101st Airborne Division. If the 2d Battalion could take that road intersection leading south from Carentan, the Germans would be forced to use the swamps and flooded areas in their retreat or face annihilation.
With respect to Easy Company, I deployed my first platoon on the left, second on the right, and placed my third platoon in the rear. The road down which we were scheduled to attack toward that T-intersection was straight, with a gentle downward slope, and had shallow ditches on both sides. All was quiet as Lieutenant George Lavenson, the battalion S-1 (personnel officer), decided to relieve himself. He left the road and went into the field between E Company and F Company. I remember seeing a profile of his white fanny as I moved up the road toward Carentan. A shot reverberated in the distance and Lavenson was hit in the rear end. He was later evacuated to a hospital in England before being transferred to a medical facility in the United States for further recuperation. En route to the States, his plane went down. George was a smart officer, a good ex-E Company man; we hated losing him.
I positioned men on both sides of the road and prepared to move out in order to secure the intersection. Lieutenant Welsh led 1st Platoon at the head of the company column. Precisely on schedule, I hollered to Welsh, “Move out!” Just as the attack started, a German machine gun, located in a building at the foot of the hill, started to fire up the road. The German gun crew was in a perfect position, at the perfect time, to wipe out our entire attack. From the left-hand-side of the road, Welsh pushed six men toward the intersection. They went straight at that intersection and the enemy machine gun. The enemy fire, however, was very effective. Our men on both sides of the road kept low profiles in the ditches, heads down, and then they froze in place, leaving Welsh and his six men assaulting the intersection alone. To my rear, Colonel Strayer and his staff, including Captain Hester and Nixon, could see what was happening. They, in turn, were hollering at me: “Get them moving, Winters, get them moving.”
I struggled out of my harness to rid myself of excess equipment so that I could run, since it was obvious what needed to be done. Standing in the middle of the column on the right-hand-side of the road, I hollered, “Move out, move out!” This did no good; everyone had his head down. This was the one and only time in the war that I really blew my top and physically “kicked ass”. I came out of that ditch with only my M-1 in hand, and hollering, I ran to the head of the column, kicked ass on the left side of the road, then ran to the right side of the road, back and forth, screaming at the top of my voice, “Get going!” I will never forget the surprise and fear on those faces looking up at me. With me running around on the road like a wild man, the German machine gun seemed to zero in on me. I was a wide-open target. The bullets snapped by and glanced off the road all around me. For a short time, I had the feeling of being “blessed.” That feeling didn’t last too long, for I was to find out in a few minutes that I wasn’t so blessed.
As the men finally renewed the advance, Sergeant Talbert passed me and called out, “Which way when we hit the intersection?”
“Turn right,” I ordered.
Finally the rest of the column advanced, and we started to clear the houses on both sides of the intersection. Before long, we had the intersection under control when Welsh and his team tossed some grenades and killed the machine gun crew that had been firing steadily since our attack had begun. The Germans now withdrew from the intersection and headed south. They still had a surprise in store for us. Knowing exactly where we were, they fired prearranged mortar and machine gun fire at the intersection. Our casualties started to mount up fast. I received a slight wound when I picked up a fragment from a machine gun ricochet, which went through the tongue of my boot and into my leg. After the fire died down, I immediately established a company defense. Expecting a counterattack, I checked our ammunition supply and redistributed ammo. Next I walked to the aid station, which had been set up in a courtyard about twenty meters to the rear, to check on our casualties. There the medic picked around my leg with tweezers, extracted the fragment, cleaned the wound, and put some sulfa powder and a bandage on it. I left the top of my boot unlaced and went back to work.
In taking the intersection, Easy Company sustained ten casualties. Among our wounded were Sergeant Lipton, Ed Tipper, and “Burr” Smith. Another casualty was Private Albert Blithe, who was in the aid station sitting with his back against the wall when I entered to have my wound cleaned. I did not notice any wounds, so I asked, “How are you doing, Blithe?”
“I can’t see! I can’t see!” he replied.
I remember trying to comfort him by saying, “It’s okay, Blithe, relax. They’ll soon have you out of here, and they’ll send you back to England.”
As I started to move away, Blithe stood up, saying suddenly, “I’m okay. I’m okay. I can see now.”
As soon as Blithe regained his vision, he immediately returned to duty. If you think about that for a minute, that boy had been paralyzed by fear, yet he had the guts and dedication to stick to his buddies in Easy Company. As soon as he relaxed and pulled himself together, he returned to the front rather than taking the easy way out with an evacuation. Sometimes all a soldier needed was a calm voice reassuring him that everything was fine. In Blithe’s case, he rejoined the company and was wounded in action during the upcoming fight. After World War II, he served in the 187th Airborne Regiment in the Korean War, where he was awarded a Silver Star and the Bronze Star. By the time he retired from military service, Blithe was a company first sergeant.
Though the Germans were sure to counterattack, I had every reason to be proud of the work that Easy had accomplished in capturing Carentan. Later in the war, in recalling this action with Major Hester, he made a comment that has always left me feeling proud of Easy Company’s action that day. As battalion operations officer and later as 506th Regimental S-3, Hester had been in a position to see another company in a similar position caught in machine gun fire, freeze, and then get severely cut up. Easy Company, on the other hand, had moved out, got the job done, and had not been deterred by that machine gun. Far more humbling to me was a letter I received years later from Sergeant Talbert. Referring to the attack at the intersection, he wrote, “Seeing you in the middle of that road, wanting to move, was too much. You were my total inspiration. All my boys felt the same way.” “Tab” was far too generous with his compliments. His own action at Carentan personified his excellence as both a soldier and a leader. He helped clear that intersection and carried a wounded Lipton to safety. Later when the Germans finally counterattacked, Talbert was everywhere, directing his men to the right place, supervising their fire, before he himself was wounded and evacuated.
As soon as the regiment and the division assembled, we began to pursue the retreating Germans. For the first two miles, there was little or no resistance. Then we ran smack into heavy enemy fire. The Germans had established a defense on the high ground to the west of Carentan. They had excellent fields of fire and heavy hedgerows for protection. Under fire, the 506th was committed to the right-hand-side of the road, with 2d Battalion on the right flank, and with Easy Company on the right side of the flank. Our mission was to anchor the railroad tracks that ran along the edge of the flooded area, southwest of the town. Other than at Bastogne, the confusion in getting our men into position was as bad as we were ever to see. At one time I found Easy Company troops firing into troops of another battalion. Later we had some tanks show up for support, and they began firing into our own line. By dark, however, order had been established. We were immediately resupplied with food, water, and ammunition.
As had occurred on D-Day, our lines witnessed wild confusion that evening. The retreating enemy hollered and shot bursts from their burp guns throughout the night. Shortly after midnight, a German patrol crossed in the middle of the field between the two lines and fired their weapons. The sound scared the hell out of me. For a few minutes I half expected a full-blown night attack. On one of our outposts, Sergeant Floyd Talbert took his pistol and gently tapped Private G. H. Smith on the head to wake him. Smith was so confused and scared to be awakened so suddenly that he turned and bayoneted Talbert. Needless to say, Talbert’s wound became the subject of another of Walter Gordon’s poems when we returned to Aldbourne. In later years Gordon recalled that when Talbert referred to “The Night of the Bayonet,” he would always say, “I could have shot the bastard six times as he lunged toward me, but I didn’t think we could spare a man at the time.”
At approximately 0530, all hell broke loose as we prepared our final attack to drive the enemy from the outskirts of Carentan. Both sides opened up with artillery, mortars, machine guns, and rifle fire—everything we had, and I am sure everything they had. There was a hail of firepower going in both directions. Under that intense fire, our sister company broke and ran. They did so without permission from battalion headquarters. Their withdrawal exposed Easy Company’s left flank, as well as Dog Company’s right flank. With their flank in the air, D Company also retreated. Easy Company was now alone on the front line, with the flooded area on our right flank, nobody on our left flank. We held fast. A German tank attempted to break through the hedgerow on our left, where Fox Company had initially been positioned. Lieutenant Welsh and his bazooka man, Private John McGrath, ran out in that open field, right in the path of the oncoming tank. As the tank exposed its belly as it penetrated the hedgerow, Welsh and McGrath sent a bazooka round through its unarmored underbelly. In the meantime, battalion had pulled F and D Companies together and pushed them forward about 150 yards, closing the gap somewhat on the left flank, but still leaving us isolated. By mid-afternoon we were finally relieved by the 2d Armored Division, consisting of approximately sixty tanks and fresh infantry. What a wonderful sight it was to see those tanks pouring it on the Germans with their heavy .50-calber machine guns and then plowing straight into the enemy hedgerows with all those fresh infantry soldiers marching alongside the tanks as though they were on a maneuver back in the States.
Over the course of the war, 2d Battalion, 506th PIR, participated in many battles, but without a doubt the toughest fight of the war was the German counterattack on Carentan on June 13, 1944. On this day the regiment was pushed back and almost overrun by the enemy. A friend in the States had once written that “if you’re ever in a tight spot, remember you must come back.” June 13 was about the “tightest spot” of the war for Easy Company. That we held our position when the other companies ran served as a tribute to the fighting spirit of the American paratrooper.
Now that we were relieved, Easy Company returned to Carentan. As our column reached the main road back to town, we marched up a gradual slope, still within long-range distance of the enemy machine guns. Corporal “Bull” Randleman was immediately in front of me when an enemy machine gun crew found their range. After another burst from the machine gun, I could hear bullets hitting the road. Randleman let out a yell, “Damn, I’m hit!” With that, he fell out of line and started to tear off his harness and musette bag. Bull soon felt moisture running down his back. Naturally, he assumed it was blood and he prepared for the worst. It turned out that a spent bullet had penetrated his musette bag and the extra canteen of water inside it. That was a break for Easy Company because we could ill-afford to lose any more good men, and “Bull” was a good man.
That night, I slept in a hotel between sheets. The men were billeted in houses. For the next five days I took it easy as my leg had grown stiff and sore. The medics cleaned the wound again and kept me on sulfa tablets. While I recovered, Harry Welsh temporarily assumed command of the company.
On June 20, Easy Company returned to the main line of resistance south of Carentan. We remained on the line for the next eight days, but our only action was to send out patrols every evening. The Germans did the same. On one of our daylight patrols led by Sergeant Guarnere, Blithe was point man when he spotted a German sniper in a tree. Just as he did in training, he automatically said, “Bang, bang,” instead of dropping to the side of the road and putting his rifle on the sniper. The German reacted first and shot Blithe through the collarbone. The rest of the patrol recovered Blithe and then withdrew to Easy’s lines.
After a week of patrolling aggressively, Easy Company was pulled off the line and placed into a reserve position on June 28. On the June 29, we moved to a position near Cherbourg, where General Taylor visited the company. He mentioned how pleased he was that Easy Company had held the line outside Carentan. We appreciated his comments, but the company was far more appreciative to no longer be under direct fire from the enemy. The respite from combat also allowed us time to reflect on our initial engagements with the enemy and to take stock of our losses. Three weeks of continuous combat had exacted a heavy toll on Easy Company. We had ten casualties on June 12 in the attack on Carentan, and another nine on June 13 in the defense of Carentan. All told, our ranks had been reduced 47 percent, having incurred sixty-five casualties, either killed, wounded, or sick since D-Day. On June 30, Easy Company numbered only seventy-four officers and men present for duty. Normandy had been an extremely costly campaign.
Being pulled from the front line also gave us a chance to collect our personal thoughts. The French people, for instance, had become friendlier as the Germans were pushed farther back. To those who had lost everything, it must have been hard to feel anything but hatred. Everyone had lost at least a little by our invasion, yet all seemed to take great pride in flying their national flags after four years of occupation. They waved to us as we went by and called, “Viva la France!” or they gave us the thumbs-up or “V” for victory sign. It seemed like the feeling was the same the world over. On the whole, however, we did not sense that rural Normandy suffered much under the German occupation. The occupation was far worse in the cities like Caen and Cherbourg, where the Nazis routinely executed members, real or imagined, of the French Resistance. In the country, dairy products were still plentiful, and few soldiers experienced problems in procuring fresh eggs and milk. Overall, the French natives we encountered as we moved toward Carentan had all the meat and butter they could use. Bread was one of the few commodities that were rationed.
Easy Company also had its share of visitors during our final weeks in Normandy. Colonel Sink arrived to congratulate Easy Company on its achievements. In tow with Sink was Colonel Joseph H. Harper, the commander of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment from the 101st Airborne Division. Sink was proud as hell and wanted me to explain how his regiment had silenced the battery at Brecourt. I simply replied that we had laid down a base of fire and then maneuvered against the artillery battery, knocking one gun out at a time.
Another visit to senior headquarters was not so pleasant. Supreme Allied Headquarters’ combat historian S.L.A. Marshall immediately began conducting after-action reports on the combat in Normandy as soon as there was a lull in combat. In publishing his subsequent Night Drop, he alleged that less than 20 percent of the soldiers actually fired their weapons in combat. Marshall obviously had not visited Easy Company, because all its troopers had been decisively engaged. Moreover, Marshall concentrated on the experiences of West Point officers and paid scant attention to those front-line officers who had not graduated from the U.S. Military Academy. Had he spoken to a more comprehensive group of junior officers, he might have drawn different conclusions. My personal encounter with Marshall was relatively brief. He pulled me into a tent with all the senior officers to discuss Easy Company’s role on D-Day. There was a hell of a lot of brass in that tent, all anxious for Marshall to make them famous. I couldn’t have cared less. I simply related how we established a base of fire and attacked one gun at a time. Because the interview meant absolutely nothing to me at the time, I told my story as quickly as I could and departed. As a result, Marshall didn’t say anything special about Easy Company—and what he did say was totally fabricated. Marshall down-played the contribution of the men and claimed that Strayer’s 2d Battalion had kept the German battery “entertained at long range while Captain R. D. Winters hiked to Utah Beach, borrowed four Shermans (tanks) from the 4th Infantry Division, and sicced them on the enemy guns.” I don’t know what action Marshall was describing, but it sure wasn’t the destruction of the battery at Brecourt Manor.
That did not alter my personal admiration of Easy Company during the Carentan campaign. At Brecourt Manor only a small portion of the company had fought the Germans. In destroying that battery, we undoubtedly saved hundreds of American lives on Utah Beach. Carentan was the first battle in which Easy Company had participated as an intact unit. There, Easy had spearheaded the attack into the city and maintained their line when other units withdrew. The enemy counterattack had struck as we were still moving into our defensive positions. We were ill-prepared to meet their attack, but our training and discipline allowed us to repel the German attack. The other members of Easy Company and I were now seasoned combat veterans though I was careful not to make any false assumptions concerning our battle worthiness based on a single campaign. Our collective experience, however, led to confidence—a degree of self-confidence, despite the fact that operations around Carentan had frequently resulted in mass confusion.
From a strictly personal perspective, my self-confidence increased immeasurably as the men gained confidence in my ability to lead and to think under pressure. On several occasions, they mentioned to me, “God, I am glad to see you!” During most of our time on the front line, our line was stretched very thin. Individual soldiers were under tremendous pressure and intense fire. Just showing up and asking, “How’s it going?” meant a lot to them—just reminding them every once in a while you needed to lift your head and to return fire. Success breeds confidence, and Easy Company’s success in Normandy instilled the confidence that they would succeed and live to fight another day. At the same time, I could not help but think that had I trained the men harder, if I had done a better job, maybe more of my men would have come home.
On July 1, I received notification that I had been promoted to captain. Gratified as I was, the promotion seemed secondary to the opportunity to take a warm shower and to visit Cherbourg. Later I found a laundry and had everyone’s clothes washed. I footed the bill. The next day General Omar Bradley, the First (U.S.) Army commanding general, presented me the Distinguished Service Cross. On the July 10, the company moved to the vicinity of Utah Beach to be evacuated back to England. Seeing the beach for the first time with that vast armada of ships as far as the eye could see in every direction, and seeing the American flag on the beach, left me feeling weak in the knees for a few moments and brought tears to my eyes. I have never looked at our flag since without that memory in my mind. Today, I think of that moment when I hear people debate and demonstrate over the right to burn the flag. That night we camped in a field near the beach, before climbing on board the LST (Landing Ship Tank) on July 11. We arrived at Southampton the evening of July 12. The next morning we boarded a train and by noon, we were back in Aldbourne.
What a wonderful feeling it was to see friendly English faces! It was like returning home. Awaiting us was all our back mail that had been held while we were in Normandy. That afternoon we distributed new uniforms and weapons to each member of the company. Our old weapons had been left in Normandy. On July 14, I delivered a short lecture to the company about keeping their feet on the ground and avoiding trouble while they were on furlough. Within fifteen minutes, there was not a single soldier in camp, as each departed for a week’s furlough. My leg was still sore and stiff, so I remained in Aldbourne a few days, visiting my adopted parents and simply resting in the laziest manner I knew. The Barneses, of course, greeted me as if their own son had returned. Having heard about Easy Company’s exploits on the BBC and about my receipt of the Distinguished Service Cross, Mrs. Barnes hugged me and said, “I’m so proud of you. I just knew you would do good.”
Still, England required time to adjust from no longer being in a combat zone. At times I was awakened at night by church bells that made me stop a moment. The sound brought back memories of the last time I heard church bells ringing: that had been in France, on D-Day, around 0100 in the morning. What had followed of course was history, but the bells sure gave me a funny feeling. Machine gun fire and rifle fire didn’t scare me, but those bells, and the memoruy of being all alone with only a knife for protection, gave me an eerie feeling of being hunted down by a pack of wolves.
Like most of my soldiers, I visited London where I discovered what it was like to hear and to be on the receiving end of those V-1 buzz bombs. We had seen Hitler’s latest “wonder weapons” in Normandy outside of Carentan. At the time they had looked like falling stars, only the falling stars were traveling the wrong way. In Normandy we had been told that when you see one, note the time and take an azimuth reading to determine its origin. In London we were now told that was okay if you could hear the motor running, but to run for an air-raid shelter if the motor had turned off. After what we had experienced in Normandy and when you are dead tired, lying in a bunk on the third floor of a Red Cross building, that part about running for shelter in the middle of the night was for the birds. London was relaxing, but before long I was back in Aldbourne to catch up on some correspondence before the troops returned from furlough. I had asked Staff Sergeant James L. Diel, who had been serving as acting 1st sergeant when the company command group was killed on D-Day, to compile a list of men who had either been killed in action and wounded, along with their home addresses and next of kin. I wrote a note to each, but it was a very difficult job.
As for myself, I relaxed the best I could. Combat had made me tense, particularly since my decisions now meant life or death to the members of my command. Commanding soldiers in combat requires a personal detachment from the men themselves. In a sense, command is the loneliest job in the world. Looking at myself in the mirror, I could see how much I had changed. I could sense it. Another thing that affected me was the importance of discipline—the necessity of instilling discipline in my troops and getting the job done in combat. One thing about combat was that a lot of men you thought were men were just petrified mummies and when they were not petrified, they shook like bowls of jelly. With that in mind, I directed Easy Company to smuggle back from Normandy all the .30-caliber ammunition they could find because I knew that when we returned to England, I would have to train the replacements. I wanted live ammunition, which I could not obtain for training purposes. And I wanted to use that ammunition, to put those replacements under live fire. The only way to gain experience for overhead fire was to maneuver under realistic combat conditions. To instill fire discipline and to prepare the replacements for combat, I conducted company live fire field problems. It was dangerous business that scared the replacements and veterans alike. Had anyone been hurt, it would have been my neck. But the training paid huge dividends and fortunately we did not suffer any casualties as we prepared for the next operation. Later on, during the Holland and Bastogne campaigns, time after time Easy Company maneuvered under fire very effectively.
In an attempt to escape the tension that combat had caused, I developed a heavier than usual exercise regimen and I attended church on a regular basis. There were only a few days that I didn’t run two to three miles, do eighty push-ups, sixty sit-ups on a foot locker, a couple of splits, and some leg and trunk exercises after the day’s work was over. As a result I kept in pretty good shape—not what I’d call wrestling shape, but good enough for army work. Physical activity kept me mentally alert, built up my endurance, and kept me supple.
Another thing I noted about being overseas and away from home was that I found myself not giving a damn about trivial things. Maybe I was spoiled. If I received mail, good, but it didn’t bother me one way or another if I didn’t. The only value about receiving mail is that it temporarily took my mind off my work and back to the land I dreamed of all the time. Writing was no longer a high priority. Then, what was there to do when I would get home? What I needed instead was to get out and run, or walk, or sing, or do something to alter my frame of mind. It usually resulted in a run. On Sundays, I prepared for church, buttons shined, boots polished, and ribbons in neat rows on my tunic. I considered it a very special privilege to be able to go to church and I didn’t want to miss the chance. If combat had taught me anything, it taught me what was essential in life and what wasn’t. In my prayers before D-Day, I had always thanked God for what He had done for the world in general and asked that others would be given a break in the future. I had also thanked Him for a lot of things that I now found to be insignificant. The only thing I asked for now was to be alive tomorrow morning and to survive another day. That was all that mattered—that was the only thing as far as wanting anything for myself. All other things had become extra, nonessential, and I could not be bothered or burdened with nonessentials. Not when battle was the payoff.