Henry Carl Strecker was beginning his sophomore year of high school at Mt. Healthy. when his days of youthful scouting and hunting growing up in the farm country around Finneytown, were almost over. It was early September. As he slipped through the upstairs bedroom he overheard his Mom and Dad quietly, resignedly, discussing September 1, 1939—the German invasion of Poland. News of it had just come over the radio. The threat of war had become reality. At the time, Hank wasn’t too upset by the news. He could not foresee the profound effect it would have on his life and the lives of millions—most just kids like himself. And so his life at 1038 North Bend Rd., on the seven acres his family rented, went on as usual. The brick farm house with it’s five fireplaces, dated from the 1820’s and matched a similar one found on Winton Rd. One fireplace was in the basement—possibly for servants—and the largest one was in the dining room—a huge walk in type. The home had been a horticultural paradise, full of berries, elderberry, gooseberry, blackberry and many fruit trees, apple and pear. A huge pear tree towered over the side door. No one could recall the original owners names, but Henry bicycled the rent to the new owners who lived on Corcoran Place $22.00 per month. They lived in the house over twenty years.
Henry had been born on June 19, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the eldest son of Lillie Dreier and Henry Strecker, a machinist. They had lived in a small apartment on Elgin Place in Mt. Adams and then moved to the upper floors of the spacious farmhouse in Finneytown, where Grandma and Grandpa Strecker lived. His siblings were, Lillian, Ellen, Edward and Alan. His special interests included math and social studies in school. In summer there was baseball, where he covered “the hot corner” according to the school yearbook, and swimming and playing in Haskins pond. In autumn, there was hunting on the open fields and in winter, ice skating. He loved to model airplanes, studied planes and eagerly watched planes fly overhead, but poor vision ended his dreams of ever becoming a pilot.Scouting took up much of his time and proved invaluable in keeping him physically and mentally sound in combat. He never forgot the influence of his scoutmaster, Ernie Staubach and their regular outings to Indian Lake.
In 1940, on a stormy rainy day, Lillie Dreier died during a routine goiter operation. The children were told someone had accidentally caused her death during the operation and they never got over the shock. Even as adults, they wept over her death. Lillian stepped in to become mother to all the family. She had a unique gift of love and patience with all the nieces and nephews who followed. The children were very close knit. By 1941 the German armed forces had already built Fortress Europe. The conquered could only hope that the Americans would come. The tired, toughened, down-to-mud dogfaces who finally did come, were more than just American G.I.’s to the victims of Hitler’s New Order.They were the Liberators. Henry C. Strecker would be one of them. That same year, a stunned and angry America was swept into the war. Hank knew that he would be called up after his graduation in 1942. He smiled from the graduation photos, wearing a light yellow blazer. The war was not a popular idea with the American people in 1941, despite the total commitment they mustered. They had fought in World War I as the “war to end all wars” and the depression had tightened their belts. After Henry Strecker Sr. had spent all his savings ($4000.00) to survive during the depression, the children had to get welfare for food. A truck would pull up to deliver, milk, cheese and peanut butter. It helped supplement the home grown food and rabbit meat they raised. Milk was kept outside on the window sill to keep it cool. Hot water was created by heating water on the stove. The bathroom window frosted over from cold in the winter.
When war was declared, Henry went downtown to the Marine Corp center with a buddy, Carl Rahn and applied. Carl passed the strict physical requirements, but the quota was full and he would not be needed for several weeks. By that time the army would enlist him. Henry, with a weak left eye, failed to meet the standard, so the army would get him too. Next, he went to a sparse but trim army office on 4th St. for a physical. With a group of future GI’s he was examined and then told he would have to go to Fort Thomas for a blood test.
After several boring hours of waiting, they rode across the river in a rickety army bus to the sprawling grounds and imposing red brick buildings of Fort Thomas for more waiting. Henry called Lil and told her that he would not be home that night, since they were being held over for the blood tests until doctors were available. A non-com, officious and aloof, herded the men to a barracks where they were issued a towel, razor, blanket and sheets. Henry was miserable. The bed was uncomfortable, the barracks were stark and the lights and noises were strange and cold. Some of the men hollered, groaned and talked in their sleep.
Their first army-life dawn found the new men being kept busy with classroom lectures. Night came again but there were no doctors until the following evening. Efficiently, the men were lined up and tested like pieces on an assembly line. The blood test made Henry feel dizzy so he laid down on a bench for awhile. The next two weeks would be his last days of civilian bliss for “the duration.” The duration was an indefinite time but at least it implied an end and that was what counted. It was yellow autumn. The fields and trees were lit with every shade of brown and gold and sunlight. The sweet, hard little pears were falling in the yard from the tree that towered over the house and scented the air around it, driving the bees crazy. Henry spent the time around home with the family and went hunting with Fred Erhardt several times. Fred’s family had a large dairy herd and farm down the road. (They owned a spacious brick home that still existed in 2007 and was well maintained. Fred and later, his son David, still maintained descendents of the original dairy herd when they moved to Somerville, Ohio). Lil noticed that Henry became more quiet as the days slipped away until he had to report back to Fort Thomas for duty. His Dad went with him.
In a low-roofed brick barracks Hank and the other men were given army clothes and shoes. The world outside the barracks, across the walls, lit by neon and street lights, seemed far away now. Several overnight passes were given and “the girls” as everyone called his sisters, Lillian and Ellen, took a picture of him the first day he came home in uniform. He posed, smiling, in his overseas cap, dark army tunic, light trousers and dress shoes in the corner of their small upstairs living room for the picture. In camp he was just another soldier, but at home, he was The Soldier. Within a week Henry was jouncing along in a convoy of buses which poured regularly out of the Fort to the train station and destination boot camp. The men trooped onto the train and it rolled away from the farm fields of Ohio, on through Washington, Baltimore and up to New York. The East coast was crystallized under a silent and lonely snow.
In New Jersey the train ground sleepily to a halt. Hank felt the wet air and looked out at the landscape—a dull expanse of grey sand under a blanket of grey mist that blindly felt its way around the scrawny outlines of a few gnarled oaks and scrubby pines. Row on row of bleak orderly streets stretched across the sand peninsula. A cold sea swelled and rolled off the shore in the distance. This was Sandy Hook, Fort Hancock. Here, as part of the 113th Infantry, Hank would receive thirteen weeks of basic training learning the art of being a rifleman, how to use mortars, machine guns and the M-1 rifle, along with finer arts like peeling potatoes and digging ditches. The tents where the men were quartered had plywood sides and canvas tops with five cots and a small stove in the center. Reveille was at 6:00 and Hank would tumble out in the icy black air, dress hastily (sometimes simply pulling his rubbers on without his shoes) and line up in the company street for roll call. Someone would hold a flashlight for the officer to call the roll while the men grunted their presence in the darkness. They washed and shaved for breakfast at 7:00 and then went back to the tents to make up their beds. Close order drills, calisthenics and an occasional trek out on the sand dunes learning how to use a compass etc., filled the morning.
There were more shots from the medical department—sometimes two at a time and the result was some very sore arms. After one battery of shots, the men could hardly get their heavy wool great coats off, and just had to shake them off onto the floor. Henry pulled coal duty only once. The tent stoves were supplied by a fuel box at the end of each company street and in turn this box had to be kept stocked. A truck trundled around the camp and a detail of men shoveled the coal into the boxes. There was always the danger that a tent stove would overheat and catch fire. Civil war soldiers in winter quarters had been plagued by the same hazard. Only one tent burned at Sandy Hook while Hank was there.
It was a difficult toughening up process and a severe cold Henry had on leaving home worsened. He went to the aid station finally and wound up spending Christmas in the hospital. “The girls”, his sisters, who never forgot anyone away from home, sent him cookies and rolls of tobacco. That afternoon he felt well enough to eat the traditional dinner of turkey, cranberries and mashed potatoes but later he broke into a fever again and felt much worse for having the heavy meal. At about this time a huge Italian guy on the ward who had gauze stuffed up his nose to stop his chronic nose bleeds, managed to untie his hands and pull the long strips of gauze out, cursing all the while. It created quite a bit of excitement on the ward for awhile. The next night a nurse came around carrying a tray with several 2 oz. glasses of a brown liquid. One was for Henry. All he could think of was the customary shots of castor oil given at home and he asked the nurse if this would taste like castor oil. “Oh no,no,no” the nurse pleasantly assured him and Henry gulped the evil looking brew. It tasted terrible. After almost a week in the ward, Henry still felt sick to his stomach, but was checked out. He relapsed, but by then it was good-bye to boot camp. From Sandy Hook, he would remember most of all, the time- revered army tradition for lousy food. After basic, they were shipped to a series of camps along the eastern coast.
Camp Woodbine, thirty miles out of Atlantic City was there first assignment. Here they would patrol the beaches and it wasn’t long before the men walking the boardwalks were calling themselves, “The dirty sons of the beaches.” Henry and another fellow were assigned the beach patrol from dusk until 1:00 a.m. There were no lights on the lonely stretch of coast and Henry liked to watch between the planks at the water below as it burst into a green phosphor- lit spray against the piers. As a night time guard, Henry didn’t have to rise until 1:30 for dinner and in the afternoon there was time to read, write, polish shoes and clean up. Then supper, followed by the night patrol. “The boards” of Atlantic City, jammed with people and throbbing with music at the Steel Pier were temptingly off limits to the men on patrol.Here, the company was blessed with a very good cook and consequently good food, including hand made cinnamon rolls, bread, eggs, oatmeal and even apple pie. There was also CPO duty which was nice to pull. A fellow on this duty just laid around headquarters and slept, read or smoked away the time. He was a replacement in case someone on guard duty got sick.
Mortar practice continued in the misty swamps and woods. One day the target was across a stretch of water. Hank was loading the shells and soon the crew was having too much fun just lobbing the shells without bothering to aim each shot. No one noticed the base plate sinking in the mud. The sinking finally changed the mortars range and as one shell soared up it burst against a tree limb above the men and hurtled back down. Luckily only one man was injured by the flying metal. This was a sobering lesson and the aiming and firing was resumed with all due seriousness. Later, ironically, this same mortar squad won a trophy for best aim in a contest at the camp.One night was marred by a tragic accident. An Italian, Sacco, was patrolling the beach with a sergeant in a jeep when they hit an iron railing after a sharp turn on the boardwalk. The jeep flipped over the railing and Sacco, the driver was killed. The sergeant hobbled around on crutches for a long time. After Thanksgiving, Hank slipped a letter into a mailbox on a desolate stretch of Beach near Seehouse City. No sooner had he done so, than he began to wonder how often the mail was actually picked up from such a lonely stretch of sand in November. The letter reached Cincinnati, with his Thanksgiving menu in it, six months later.
The home on North Bend Rd. was outside the 500 mile radius which limited leave-taking but that did not stop Henry from taking three day passes home. Once he was riding the rails back to camp and when he reported in, was told that his leave had been extended. (Lil had received a call at home—But Henry was already on the train by then). Undaunted, Hank left camp and immediately caught a train home again for his additional leave. Three days later the outfit was moved closer to Atlantic City for more patrol duty at Absecon, New Jersey. Passes were sometimes given out on weekends but several men just took off whether they had leave or not until Captain Leeman found out. Several men were missing without passes one night so the sergeant was ordered to sound the alarm—by banging on a huge iron wagon wheel hung between two posts. Everyone tumbled out for the roll call and M.P.’s were dispatched to collect the missing men who were punished by being confined to their section. The barracks could get pretty lively. A sergeant coming in from night patrol shot his rifle over the sleeping men in the barracks to hit a duffle bag hanging at the other end of the room. Some clothes and a mess kit were ruined by the shot but luckily none of the snoring sleepers were hit. Another night, a fellow in the neighboring barracks, fired through the windows to knock out a light bulb above a man who was sitting up in bed reading. The light and window were shattered. Next, someone broke one of the light- green glass shades that hung from the barracks ceiling. It was disposed of –tossed in the bushes behind the barracks. Finally, a sergeant called Buck came in drunk one night and punched his fist through several panels in the back door of the barracks.
Time came to move on to England and more camps, prior to the invasion. It took all day for five thousand men to board the English Cunard liner, HMS Cynthia. Henry put his gear in the forward part of the ship at the water level stage. Everyone was given a typed paper listing rules on board ship. One rule informed the landlubbers that they would not be excused for disobeying a rule, even if they didn’t know it was a rule. That evening, Hank watched the tugs push the liner out while the engines revved up. They headed up the coast to New York for a rendezvous with a convoy which included a small aircraft carrier. The food aboard was terrible. Burnt wheat was served as coffee and the bread was not fully baked. The only thing that the English were able to serve that was any good was tea. Once, a large pan of wieners was spilled onto the deck which was filthy. They were scooped up anyway and promptly served.
The first night at sea, Hank was supposed to sleep in a forecastle hammock but it was miserable, so he wandered to a wooden bench in what had been the dance hall, located toward the middle of the ship, where the rolling motion wasn’t so noticeable. The soldiers got dizzy, sick and retched anywhere and everywhere. The decks and hatchways were slippery from vomit. The sea was high but Hank didn’t get sick until the third day out. After four days, the ship was finally cleaned up. It was bitter cold and everyone was bundled in overcoats during the thirteen day crossing. The Limeys doubled as sailors and anti-aircraft gunners. No enemy subs were sighted on the trip but at times Hank could lean over the iron rail of the deck and feel depth charges going off below. Another time, he spotted nurse sharks swimming alongside the ship. They sailed up the Irish Channel and disembarked at Liverpool. The Queen Elizabeth, her decks lined with thousands of soldiers, was also in the harbor.
Many Liverpool streets were bombed into ruins. By train the outfit was taken to Ilfracombe in Devonshire, to a tent city on the heights above Bristol Bay. Here they would toughen up. Overhead, Wellingtons and B-47’s practiced dropping what looked like white flour sacks into the bay. The homes of Devonshire were quaint and charming, the roads narrow and small. It was a beautiful countryside and the GI’s enjoyed tramping down the narrow lanes. Then came the invasion on D-Day. Replacements were needed immediately and the vast tent city was evacuated. After riding in trucks for five hours the men found that the situation was Army normal- all fouled up- orders had been mixed up and the 113th was not scheduled to leave for several more weeks.
Finally the orders to move came and the tent city disappeared within hours leaving only the barren grassy hills, the sky and the sea. There was a half hour ride to a train station and a four hour wait for the train. Everyone was anxious to move and Hank started to joke sardonically with the guys around him, “Where’s that train. I sure wish it would come… I’ll go out of my mind if it doesn’t come soon.” A lieutenant listened to him with a smile on his face, as the rain dripped steadily from their helmets. Finally the train slid in on the black wet rails, the men boarded and were off to Plymouth. Past three o’clock the next day they arrived in the port city. Cans of peaches, (a real luxury item), gas masks, rifles and suits with a stinking, wax-like, gas proof covering were issued. The suits were too tight-fitting and uncomfortable when pulled on over their uniforms.
The seas were still very high and rough as they made the trip to Normandy in a converted Channel pleasure boat. On June 19 at 0300 the attack on Cherbourg began. June 19th was also Henry’s twenty second birthday. He spent it on the channel boat waiting. Silvery barrage balloons floated above the ships and in the water floated wreckage and the swollen bodies of dead men. Two weeks after D-Day the beaches were still not cleared. After weeks of waiting it was time to go ashore onto Utah Beach. The rough sea made boarding the LCI difficult but the driver assured the men that he would put them right onto the sand of the beach. That character let the ramp down in five feet of churning water. The riflemen sloshed through it, struggling to keep their duffle bags and equipment. Wallets left in pockets were thoroughly wet by the time they reached the beach with soggy money and papers. Tufted grass grew along the line of fortifications and grey, sandy hillocks. Pup tents were set up on the beach and the men waited. A bomber attack was expected but did not materialize. They could hear the heavy guns up the peninsula blasting Cherbourg. On June 25th, Cherbourg fell after hours of fire from 155 mm. “long toms”, anti-tank units and air attacks.
Hank was moved right to the front, into the riddled city, as a replacement for the Fourth Division, 12th Infantry Regiment, First Battalion, Company C. It seemed natural for Hank to pair up with Vince Pilla. He had known Vince from the 113th in New Jersey. Vince had been in another platoon. He was a Brooklyn Italian who had told Henry that, at home, if his father didn’t like a meal his mother fixed, the old man would just dump the whole table over. Vince had two sisters—one married and a brother who was in the New York City police department. Wherever a dice game started, there was Vince. He lost a little and won a little, but was always willing to give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it. Just behind the front line, they pitched their tent for two days. They were positioned in a serene, grassy field with a stream flowing down its center and several nice shade trees. Rations were passed around that evening and Henry ate five of the chocolate bars. The next morning he woke up dizzy from the chocolate but with a handful of francs, he and Vince stopped at a nearby farmhouse and bought half a canteen of French “cognac.” It was as clear as water and very strong. Along the road, young pigs were eating the dead cattle that lay everywhere. German equipment also littered the roads.
Riding through Edmondeville in trucks, the men could smell burnt cattle, or perhaps villagers as it was rumored. The first sergeant took out some photos of his family and talked about how he wanted to buy a farm in the country for his wife and children after the war. Near the front they jumped off the trucks, moved up a hill and waited behind their first hedgerow. Rifles and the dead of the 83rd Division were strewn all over the fields and in foxholes. An 83rd man wandered up and moaned “We’re all shot up. There’s nobody left.” The man walked away. Henry did wonder from the looks of things how anyone really could be left alive. Two German machine gunners lay dead in their hole where a mortar shell had killed them. Another man lay with his side blown open. The Germans began to send in intermittent fire and the living scrambled across a concrete foot bridge looking for shelter. Scared and excited, Henry dashed over the small bridge, praying that no shells would come in as he ran. Midway he had to jump over a dead German sprawled on the crossing. He felt alert and noticed every detail and at the same time felt like he saw nothing around him. Fear was blinding. The bursting shells made him feel sure that he didn’t have a chance and this was only the beginning. Later someone told him that the “dead German on the bridge” was actually a G.I. Everyone was so covered with mud, it was hard to tell who was who.
They dug in behind a hedgerow and in the afternoon, moved to another field full of dead 83rd men, into a gully over a creek and dug in behind another hedgerow. The awful stench of the dead cattle in the next field, legs stiff and bloated, wafted over them. White tape used to mark mined areas, was strewn around. It began to drizzle. About nine or ten the next morning they moved out, spaced in a single file formation, across the next field to a garden. The air was hot and clear-a nice sunny day. They crawled carefully through the garden. The sweat was pouring off Hank in hot streams on his face. No shots were being fired, but he was scared. Through a gate, they crossed into the next field which sloped up to a tree-lined hedgerow and slogged through the hay while their two scouts started over the hedge and down the hill. Their first sergeant was rattling on to his new men all the way, trying to calm them with small talk…”come on boys…let’s go…keep moving…” He was talking for their benefit. He understood. Hank peered over the next hedgerow and saw the scouts prowling carefully down near two small knocked out German tanks. Nestled among the trees in the valley, far off down the hill, was a barn with it’s dutch doors open. Suddenly a sharp burst of machine gun fire sprayed the slope. The scouts raced for cover and the GI’s began to fire toward the farmyard. The enemy was nowhere in sight. Hank took his bayonet off and jabbed it into the hedgerow. He thought the Germans might see it in the sunlight. At any rate, the Germans knew the Americans were behind that hedgerow. Hank fired several shots at the barn door and window. He urged Vince to stick his rifle over the hedgerow and fire a few shots too, but Vince was sitting tight and low and wouldn’t budge.
A machine gun was hurriedly set up at the corner of the hedgerow and blasted the farm position while German shells, machine gun bursts and bullets flew toward them. Suddenly the lieutenant yelled, “Break ‘er down.” The machine gun was dismantled And the guys raced back for cover while a hail of bullets and fiery tracers lit the air above them. The sergeant was still yelling encouragement and it charged Henry with confidence, as he headed for cover. He was hot, exhausted and thirsty when they dived into their old position at the gully. He reached for his canteen but it was gone—lost. The tight, impregnated oily suit made breathing hard, his heart pounded in his ears, and to relieve the pressure he wanted to throw away the new tobacco pouch that bulged in his pocket. It was impossible, so he just emptied the tobacco out and put back the pouch with his pipe. It was getting dark and outpost guards were needed. When the sergeant called out “Strecker”—Hank felt like dropping dead. A BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man, another fellow and Hank went halfway up the slope and dug in. At dusk, German shells howled into the main compound by the creek. Hank watched the shells spray sparks and sheets of flames and with each explosion he was grateful to be on that outpost duty. All night the three men strained their eyes in the darkness watching the front.
At dawn they moved down to the farmhouse. Hank wasn’t really sure what had happened but the lieutenant and the first sergeant were both gone. He was told that during the night the Lieutenant had shot the First Sergeant—they had never gotten along too well—but the sergeant was always easy to get along with and a nice guy. The farm yard was completely ploughed up by shells. The dead of the 83rd were everywhere, chalk grey and yellow cast faces with mud caked uniforms. Near the well in the yard, Henry found a German pistol which he very carefully picked up. The Germans were well known for booby trapping tactics but the P38 Walther was just lying there. Broken tree branches from the shelling were lying everywhere and in one of the farmhouse rooms, the Germans had left two sides of beef hanging. They smelled as rotten as the dead cattle in the fields. Mine sweepers were scanning the farm lane when some tanks rumbled up. One rolled onto a mine and its tread blew off. The disgruntled crew got out to wait for a repair outfit. A jeep pulled onto the lane and hit a Teller mine with about eleven pounds of dynamite in it. At the explosion, Hank wheeled around to see tires and metal flying almost seventy-five feet into the air in a billow of smoke.
The men dug in behind the nearest hedgerow and waited. Hank sat holding his breath as the German artillery went off in the distance and came hurtling in on them, louder and louder. The bursting shells made a ripping, crackling sound and after each explosion Hank would thank God and think, “Well, that was another one that didn’t get me.” A farm building started to burn. The shelling stopped. Water was needed so Hank and Vince were sent back to the water supply truck. They were both very thirsty and drank their fill before heading up the road with their precious cargo. On their trek, P-47’s with 500 lb. bombs on their wings, circled ominously. Hank began to frantically look around for a sheltered area just in case but no place looked safe. It was impossible to tell where those shells might land and he didn’t want one in his lap. When the war birds moved on to attack a road junction up ahead he was relieved. Back at the farm, only one cup of water was doled out to each thirsty man.
That night, one of the men moved ahead too far and found himself hiding inside a corn shock, listening as the unsuspecting Germans chatted around him. Luckily, they pulled out and he escaped. When he came back safe the next day, everyone was happy to see him. He had a family and had been given up for lost. In the fighting several weeks later, he was killed. The outfit moved onto the next hedgerow, past an apple orchard. The trees were greening out beautifully. Beneath the sprawling, budding trees was a sizeable herd of dead cows.
The Fourth Division had fought up the Cherbourg Peninsula with heavy losses and turned south toward Orglandes, while the Germans had almost a month to strengthen their hedgerow lines. Since the area was swampy and rough, the 12th Regiment had to attack along a German-picked corridor. With deadly artillery and mortar fire, the 17th SS Panzer Division and the 6th Paratroop Regiment, made the Americans pay heavily for every hedgerow. On one day, the Division only advanced four hundred yards. It took a week to gain four miles and bad weather prevented air support. The infantry had to go it alone. The German 88’s were pouring shells on them one night when Hank was in a foxhole with a fellow named Treauex, who started to cry and pray out loud. Hank was praying too—but not out loud. Suddenly seized by fear, Treauex jumped up to run but Hank was able to pull him down and talk him out of it. Shells were bursting everywhere so their best bet was to stay hunkered down low.
During an intense fight in Normandy, Hank and Vince were lying several feet apart on a slope. Suddenly Vince hollered that he was hit by a machine gun burst that had ripped into his back. Hank stayed put and Vince began to cuss him out, yelling that if he ever got hit, Vince would be sure to not help him—just leave him. Finally Hank gave in and crawled over to Vince. It turned out that all the cursing had been over nothing more than a barbed wire scratch on Vince’s back. The 12th Regiment broke the German line and took LaMoisentrie, Neuville, Sainteny, Les Forges, Roffeville, La Roserie and LaMaugerie, advancing to Periers. At dusk, the men were slogging along on each side of a lane hemmed in by tall poplars and hedges. Tanks had been through and shot up one of the farmhouses, injuring a girl. Hackley, a guy from Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was walking a little ahead of Hank on the other side of the road along with a BAR man, a skinny Youngstown boy, wearing a very large, heavy cartridge belt. With a steady clankety-clank, two vehicles which sounded like half-tracks, were approaching them. It was dark. Near Hank and Hackley, the vehicles stopped. The men held their breath. A figure in the first truck stood up silhouetted against the sky and asked where the front was in German. Without a word, Hackley shot the man. The column of GI’s scrambled wildly up the hedge walls with their hands torn and scraped by the thorny wild roses The bazooka man blasted the vehicle as Hank and the BAR man made it over the hedge and through a field.
During the night, they dug in and watched a thatched house roof burn. Hank was so exhausted he didn’t care if he did get killed. A white-haired, blonde goateed sergeant told him “Get over there and watch. The Germans are right on the other side of the hedgerow! Hank crawled over and sat watching through the hole blown in the hedge by a shell. The sergeant trooped back and told Hank to get out of that hole—or he might become a target. He moved. The next day the sergeant went down to the German truck. It had been pulled to the side of the road and the men checked to see if it was mined. There was a small red cross painted on the truck. GI’s were walking at the other end of the lane. Apparently the other German truck was able to back out of the lane the night before when the shooting started.
Once, they hiked all night, stopping only ten minutes every hour for a break. The march was exhausting and the men would lean wearily against trees or just plop down along the road for the rest intervals. As morning broke, they stopped at an apple orchard for a half hour. Hank’s feet never hurt so bad before or after. The column plodded on and his legs were loosening up better with every stride. They advanced up another farm lane which was lined neatly with beautiful sentinel-like poplars. The GI’s turned left and dug in along the hedgerows and in the fields. That afternoon they took off again and by evening had moved about three or four hedgerows ahead before they dug in for the night. Guards were posted since the Germans were near. Hank took his turn at guard, posted near a wooden gate behind a hedge. Hank could hear Germans in a farmhouse just ahead of them. They were having a noisy party with music, singing and a lot of hollering and laughing. They were probably also on patrols in the area. Suddenly Hank froze. Listening in the darkness he could hear someone crawling up the other side of the hedge. His rifle was too unwieldy to aim around the gate so he slowly and carefully pulled out his pistol, clicked off the safety, aimed directly at the advancing figure’s head, ordered halt and asked for the password. From the darkness came a whispered reply. The password. A GI passed through the gate and Hank breathed a sigh of relief. He stayed at his post until his time was up, woke another man to take his place and went to his hole for a few welcome hours of sleep.
The next day fresh baked bread came from supply. It had been loaded into burlap bags and trucked to the front. Eagerly, Hank sank his teeth into the beautiful crust of the soft white bread. What luck! The bread crust was full of miserable grit and sand from the bags. It irritated his teeth to no end as it settled between his gums but the men ate it nonetheless. They were hungry and the bread was good. Mail—a huge morale builder was also brought up that morning. After eating, they moved forward down a hill and up another to a hedge and a little barn with a decorated tile roof. Two scouts, the sergeant, BAR man and Hank, started to crawl over the hedge. Machine gun fire stopped them As Henry wrote later: “The Germans opened up on us with their machine guns. Their bullets would kick up the tile on the roof of the shed behind us as they aimed their machine guns back and forth. We were going over the hedgerow and I was behind Richard Engle. As he climbed up on the hedgerow, the Germans opened up with their machine guns. Engle flipped back off the hedgerow like you see in the movies, right on his back. A couple of us immediately tried to find out where he was hit. It didn’t take long. The bullet entered the top of his shoulder and came out his back near his shoulder blade. The bullet came out sideways, leaving an opening in his back in the shape of a .31 caliber German bullet. I checked his backpack after cutting the straps loose from his shoulders. The bullet entered the pack and hit a button on his raincoat. It bent the point on the bullet in an L shape. I gave it to him and said, “Here’s a souvenir, keep it.” He grinned and clutched it in his hand.
I could see his lung moving up and down through the hole in his back. There was blood coming from his mouth. The aid men arrived shortly and carried him away. I said goodbye to him not knowing whether he would live or die. I took the BAR and began firing back at the Germans. Not used to firing the weapon, I held my finger on the trigger until it stopped firing. The BAR spit those bullets out so fast, I thought it had jammed on me. I finally realized the magazine was empty. I then removed the empty and jammed a full one in the receiver. I finally had the gun so hot, I couldn’t touch the barrel. I thought, I better oil this thing before it does jam. We carried a small can of oil in a pouch on our cartridge belt. I poured some on the receiver and it was like pouring water on a hot stove. They brought up more ammo from the rear and I had to start reloading my magazines from the bandoleers of new cartridges. Our bazooka man fired a round into the corner of the farmhouse on the other side of the hedgerow near the Germans. After awhile, the firing subsided.”
The fighting continued. German machine gun fire ripped and splintered the tile off the quaint barn roof all afternoon as the Americans returned fire. At one point, Hank saw a cloud of thick black smoke after an explosion near the hedge. He was afraid it would be a German mortar adding to their misery but later realized it must have been a hand thrown “potato masher” going off. Hank took his BAR, laid it over the hedge and kept firing bursts until it jammed. The magazine was empty before he realized it. He re-loaded and kept firing into the gate across the field, the farmhouse and the trees. A bazooka fired at the house and took a corner out of it but the machine gun kept chattering. One of the younger GI’s was scampering back and forth along the line passing out ammunition, which was running low. He raised up too high when the Germans sprayed along the top of the hedge. A bullet cut through his helmet and liner, grazing his forehead and he joked it off saying “the Germans can’t kill an ol’ Irishman.” That afternoon an air strike was called into their sector. The GI’s had to roll out an air IG (identification marker). It was a pink, luminescent paper about ten feet long and thirty six inches wide, rolled in a canvas bag. They would have to spread it out and pin it down with rocks to indicate to the pilots where their own lines were located. There was only one hitch. No one could find it. There was a frantic search and it was laid out as the air attack started too close to the American lines for comfort.
Finally some weapons platoon men crept across the field toward the farmhouse, peered into a hole by the house, lobbed a grenade into it and hurriedly ducked. Two German machine gunners were in that hole. One was wounded and the other lost several toes in the explosion. The GI’s dragged them out and hustled them across the field. One particularly jaded American held his .45 against the wounded German’s head and threatened him angrily. Those two Germans had held the company up all day. When they got back behind the hedge the scene changed. The Americans became solicitous and politely offered the Germans cigarettes and a light before the aid man took them to the rear and out of the war. The outfit stayed there for the night and dug in. It was quiet. At dusk, Lieutenant English took a patrol up around the farmhouse. He never came back. A sniper had shot him between the eyes. Everyone missed him. The grey-haired, grey-eyed Lieutenant was very well liked.
K-rations were passed around the next morning for breakfast and the men started over the hedge again. No shots were fired. They walked down a hill to another farmhouse. There was a wounded French girl inside and the aid men took her back for medical help. The outfit continued down through the fields, came to a road and were slogging up it when some of the men heard motorcycles coming. They took cover in the woods and before long two motorcycles roared into sight from around the hillside. Machine gun fire knocked the two Germans from their cycles. One was already dead as the anxious GI’s pulled them off the road. The other was severely shot up and stunned. His tunic was soaking wet with blood and there didn’t seem to be much hope for him. An ominous clanking grew steadily and threatening louder. It was a German Tank. As it clattered around the corner, a bazooka team fired on it and the creaking black panzer exploded into flames. This sent the platoon scurrying back through the woods. They thought the sheet of flames was the tank firing on them and they weren’t about to face it with rifles.
The outfit was pulled west of Carentan to assemble for the needed breakthrough in the Southern sector. They were tented on a hill until then. One morning while shaving and washing up, a dogfight started in the summer sky above them. It would be the only one Hank saw overseas. The machine guns of the planes purred high above the startled infantrymen and through the clouds Hank saw a P-47 chasing a Messerschmitt and loosing ground fast. A second Messerschmitt flicked into a tailspin and crashed hard into an open field about a mile and a half down the slope. (Later “Stars and Stripes” reported that the downed Luftwaffe pilot had been a noted German major.) The men on the ground froze, when what appeared to be another Messerschmitt started to dive straight at them. A 40 calibre AA gun was quickly manned but a sergeant yelled “Hold fire.” Too late. The men on a nearby machine gun didn’t hear him and began pouring rounds into the swooping fighter. The plane crash landed on their flank. Too late the machine gunners realized their prey was a Spitfire.
On July 3, at 9:00 or 10:00AM, the men boarded the Sea Bass and at 5:00 in the evening pulled out. Hank watched the shores of England disappear in the dusk. That was the last of foreign lands for him. The trip home lasted seven long days. The men could hardly wait to get Stateside. Two days from New York harbor, a storm swept the seas and made the homeward bound soldiers sick. Hank stood on deck watching a glorious yellow-cast sunset streaked with grey clouds. The water was black. Another man was sitting at the back of the ship and the reflection off the water made him look green Hank thought he was probably sick too.
The ship arrived in a New York harbor fog. Only horns could be heard and the buoys were the only things close enough for the anxious dogfaces to see. When the sun burned away the fog, most of the men rushed to the side of the Sea Bass where a ship carrying some USO girls was passing. Hank went to the port side. The ship was listing and besides he wanted to see a different lady. He stared at the Statue of Liberty until it was out of sight. He thought he might never see it again. They sailed up the Hudson and under the Brooklyn Bridge. From the ship, they boarded trucks as a band played. On the way to Camp Shanks, Hank was in the last two and a half ton truck with twelve other men. They asked the driver to step it up. He did. Hank looked ahead and noticed the line on the road swerve away in an odd direction as the truck hit a concrete abutment near a fifteen foot drop off. Everyone was piled up in the back but only one man was slightly hurt—he had a cut near his eye from broken sunglasses.
The men jumped out. They had lived through the war only to have this life threatening accident at home. The left front wheel of the truck was sheared off—luckily the back dual wheels had hit the concrete abutment, stopping the truck from going over the embankment. The convoy commander yelled at the driver about the close call and another truck had to be sent out. At the Camp, the men were given a feast of steak, all the milk they could drink, peas, gravy, mashed potatoes and ice cream. Hank thought it was wonderfully unbelievable real food after all the K-rations. That night in the barracks, there was a de-briefing and some entertainers gave an outdoor show. The men were restless and began to leave in the middle of the show until an officer got up and yelled at them to stay seated or get extra duty. Some had already left.
Hank couldn’t wait to get home and took a train to Camp Atterberry and from there to Cincinnati. From the terminal Hank hurried to Mabley & Carew, the department store in the Carew Tower where his sister Ellen worked. He asked a saleswoman to call his sister for him but not to tell her who it was. Her supervisor told her to come to the office. Ellen was worried that something was wrong or that she might have made a mistake at work. Henry waited impatiently in a small office. When Ellen walked in Henry stood up and she burst into tears from relief, shock and excitement. Her supervisor let her borrow a hat, which was de-rigueur for going to a restaurant at that time. They went out for a drink and then home in a cab. At age eighty-one Ellen could still remember vividly her excitement at seeing Henry home again. Henry was getting ready after a thirty day leave to attend Officer Training School, but the war in the Pacific ended and the Division did not re-assemble as planned. It would be hard to get used to a simple, quiet life and there was so much that he would remember forever. He would never be the same. When Henry retired his daughter gave him a lot of note paper with a leather binder to write his recollections. He just could not write down all the memories which had consumed his thoughts and family conversations for so many years. It kept him awake at night. In his papers, she did find this brief note.
- “Ricochet in thigh in Normandy at Mortain.
- Concussion from potato masher grenade two feet from head in Hedgerow country in July 1944.
- Shrapnel against BAR magazine on approach to Siegfried Line.
- Buddy Vince Pilla killed at same time.
- Shrapnel against pistol butt in Huertgen Forest.
- Concussion in Huertgen Forest from shell burst three feet over hole.
- Wounded April 12th, 1945 in Germany, three weeks before war ended.
Shave every day think of apple blossom time in Normandy every day. Some day I’m going to quit shaving.”
P.S. Ths above story is an exerpt from the whole document.