VETERAN STORY
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VETERAN'S PICTURE
PERSONAL RECORDS
Name
Nationality
Pfc. Irving Smolens
American
Date
Location
June 6th 1944
Utah Beach and onward into France
Unit
B Battery, 29th FA Battalion, 4th Infantry Division
Wounded
Captured
Survived

During the Invasion of Normandy, at Utah Beach, the batteries would fire from the deck of the LCT's, with the Battery Commander issuing the "fire order". He received his orders from the Battalion Fire Direction Center, which was located on another ship, along with the men of the Headquarters Battery. Our M7's were loaded on the LCT's two in front, and two in back, each with their "active" crew. The "reserve" crews were located on other boats. As the front guns performed firing missions, the back guns also performed firing missions, actually firing high trajectory "over" the front guns! Sadly, my B Battery never did that during the invasion only in traininng exercises prior to d-day. The reason for that appears in my story below.

I was a gun crew member of B Battery 29th Field Artillery Battalion, Fourth Infantry (Ivy) Division. My entire gun battery was destroyed when the LCT carrying it into Utah Beach hit a mine. There were 60 men on board. 37 of them were killed. Twenty three of the killed were never identified or recovered and their names are engraved forever on the granite wall of the Garden of the Missing in the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

As the newest member of the battery I was on a reserve boat and did not land until much later in the day. We crossed the Channel on a larger boat (LCI) and when it came time to go ashore we had to clamber down treacherous rope ladders with our back packs and carbines onto a LCT with a 3/4 ton truck called a weapons carrier on board. We climbed aboard the back of the truck but the coxswain had not gone in close enough to the shore and the truck which had supposedly been waterproofed immediately stalled.

The tide was coming in and we might have gone to a watery grave if an amphibious truck driver (DUKW) affectionately known as a Duck had not spotted our plight and pulled along side and rescued us. When I actually got my feet on dry land I picked up some wet blankets off the beach as well as a piece of canvas that had been cushioned. I think it was part of the covering of a supply dropped from a plane for the paratroopers who had landed before daylight.

The 29th Field Artillery Battalion, along with the 8th Infantry Regiment, made up the 8th Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division, whose mission was to make the H-Hour landing on Utah Beach. A, B, and C batteries had been equiped with M-7 armored 105mm howitzers, instead of conventional truck-drawn artillery pieces which were standard issue for infantry divisions. Each gun battery was equipped with 4 guns.

They were lined up on the deck of an LCT (Landing Craft Tank), 2 in front and 2 in back. Their mission was to fire high trajectory shells onto the invaded beaches in close support of our infantry. (Similar to the model below). We could do this because the tank treads on the M-7's could cushion the recoil, whereas the conventional artillery pieces could not do this. The trails could not be dug into a steel deck.

The LCT carrying B Battery hit a mine in the water. My entire gun crew was lost. Only 2 members of the battery who had been on board ever returned to active duty. The reason I am still here to tell this story is that, in anticipation of casualties, the gun crews were stripped down to 6 men and the remaining 6 men were kept in reserve on a larger ship. Subsequently we had to clamber down rope ladders into an LCT with all our equipment for transport to the beach in the late afternoon toward dusk.

Our 3/4 ton truck (weapons carrier) flooded immediately as it drove down the ramp of the LCT. The skipper had dropped his ramp too far from the shore. It was getting dark and the tide was coming in and weighed down as we were we might have drowned had not a DUKW (amphibious truck, affectionately dubbed by the GI's as a DUCK) driver seen our plight and drove into the surf and came along side and rescued us.

When we learned of the fate of our battery mates we were dismayed to say the least. Until the battery was reformed, about 2 weeks later, I was assigned to ride "shotgun" for a battalion messenger. In that capactity, we sometimes lost our way and became great sniper targets, had flares dropped on us by night bombers, dubbed Bed Check Charlie, because they only came out at night, and suffered through a head-on collision because of driving in almost total blackout conditions.

German mortars were always a danger for us and we managed to dig deep into foxholes burrowed into the headgerows. When the battery was finally reformed with Captain Lorton Livingston in command, I became the #1 Cannoneer on the Number 2 gun. My job was to set the elevation and altitude on the gun, close the breech block once the shell was loaded, and fire the piece when given the command to do so. In this capacity, we burned out 2 gun barrels and finally had to have our M-7's replaced with conventional artillery pieces.

The second most important battle of W.W.II was the St. Lo Breakout (Operation Cobra) that was spearheaded by the Fourth Infantry Division. Despite being bombed by our own planes our 8th Infantry Regiment was able to attack as scheduled and gain 8-10ths of a mile. That was quite an advance because during a month of fighting in the hedgerows after we liberated Cherbourg we measured our gains in yards.

There were six of the best divisions in the US Army involved in that attack. General Bradley had decided to launch the attack with three infantry divisions instead of armored divisions because of the nature of the terrain. The Fourth was flanked on one side by the Ninth and on the other side by the 30th. The back up divisions were the 2nd and 3d Armored Divisions and the 1st Infantry Division which had been motorized for the attack. In a recent book, "After the Breakout" the author writes that after several days of fighting the 4th was the only division of the 6 that had reached all of its objectives. Once our 8th Regiment had made the initial penetration our 22nd Regiment jumped on the backs of the 2nd Armored Division and they helped to widen the breakout and turn it into a breakthrough.

The reason I say that it is the second most important battle in Western Europe in WW II is that it resulted in the liberation of Paris and all of France and Belgium and Luxembourg. After that battle there was no possibility that Germany would win the war.

Our 4th Infantry Division along with the 9th and 79th Divisions, liberated Cherbourg. We then were designated to spearhead the St. Lo Breakthrough from Normandy. Despite a horrendous bombing from our own planes, our 8th Infantry Regiment made a deep penetration of the German lines, paving the way for expansion of the breakout by the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions of the VII Corps of the 1st U.S. Army.

We were then designated as the division to liberate Paris, along with the 2nd French Armored Division. Our forward units, according to infantrymen with whom I have spoken, could have entered the city before the French, but were told to wait for the French. We penetrated to the heart of the city, around Notre Dame, the Place de La Concorde, the Hotel de Ville, and the notorious Police Headquarters.

We were denied the honor of parading down the Champs Elysee. Our job was chasing Germans across the Seine River and Belgium, and into Germany. And, besides, we were considered to be too dirty. We advanced through Houffalize, St. Vith, and Bastogne, towns which later became famous in the Battle of the Bulge, and crossed the German border on September 11, 1944. We were the first division to penetrate the German border in force. We also penetrated the Siegfried Line in some depth before being forced to stop our advance because of our extended supply lines.

The horrendous blood-letting of the Hurtgen Forest and our defense of the area in front of Luxembourg City, with a badly depleted division, during the Battle of the Bulge were actions deemed worthy of feature stories in consecutive issues of Life Magazine.

Of course, there is more that I have not included, such as helping to repulse the German counter attack at Mortain, helping to clear out the German troops west of the Rhine River, crossing the Rhine at Worms, and advancing deep into Bavaria to within 6 miles of the Austrian border.

Irving Smolens

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PERSONAL PICTURES
Shoulderpatch of the 4th Infantry Division.

Irvin drove a similar vehicle as the one on this picture during WWI.

This picture of a crew firing its 105mm Howitzer was taken in the Schnee Eifel region of Germany, east of Prum. The gun crew member facing the camera is Irving. Having just fired a round toward Prum in support of our attacking infantry. The tube of the gun looks to be transparent because it is still in recoil.

If you look closely you will see Irving standig under the camouflage nets.

Above is a photograph of me as a "one man gun crew" in the Hurtgen Forest in November, 1944. During this period we would fire interdictory rounds at staggered times at suspected German positions and road junctions that they used. The gun would be set at a fixed deflection, altitude, and range. One of the crew (mostly it was I) would interupt whatever he was doing to go tom the gun, pick up a round, load it in the breach, close the breech, then jump over the right trail, grab the lanyard and fire the round!
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