Military History, World War II, U.S. Army, ETO





Then Mollica ordered “Fix bayonets!” We began slowly
advancing in a line with leveled bayonets.

Riflemen — Life & Death in WW-II Infantry

by Paul N. Haubenreich, Sr. and William L. Schaible

Moving to the Front (excerpt)

At dawn on 23 September the six ships transporting the 102d Division left Weymouth to cross the English Channel to Normandy. An unbroken blanket of cloud hung low and mist from the choppy waves limited visibility. Not long after the Dorset coast disappeared behind our convoy, we saw our first heavy naval vessels. There were two of them, with bold patterns of varicolored paint confusing their details. They were larger than the destroyers in our escort; we guessed they were British cruisers. They were traveling at what seemed to be a high speed, throwing up great sheets of spray as they sliced through the waves, and soon they were out of our sight.

A few hours out of Weymouth we began to see the hazy outline of land some miles ahead. We were not allowed to remain on deck as we approached the mainland of Europe, but were ordered below to prepare for debarkation. After a while we heard the engines slow and the ship's motion subsided, indicating that we were entering a harbor. Shortly the engines stopped and the anchor chains rattled out. We lay on our bunks while waiting our turn to debark. When the order came to move out, each soldier put on his full field pack and picked up his duffel bag and weapon. Instead of ascending the ladder to the open deck, we filed aft from Compartment C-5 along a passageway. A large door had been opened low on the side of the Santa Paula and a flat-decked barge was alongside. With some assistance we scrambled down and stood packed together. By this time, it was late in the day and the light was fading. We could see however, that we were in a large port, which we were told was Cherbourg. The Santa Paula had anchored a couple of hundred yards out from the docks and we could see why. Masts and here and there a superstructure protruding from the water indicated that all along the piers there were sunken vessels, which blocked access for large ships. When the barge was completely covered with troops, it chugged off and threaded its way to a dock. On the way in we got an impressive first view of war damage. Bombs had devastated the once busy port, and its cranes and most of its docks were in ruins. Later we heard that ours was the first convoy of troops to sail directly from the U.S. to Normandy without changing vessels in England.

We marched from the dock a short distance along a waterfront street lined with bombed-out buildings. We halted, fell out of ranks and sat on the sidewalks and rubble for a wait of unknown duration. Each man had been given a couple of sandwiches before leaving the ship and these we now consumed. Before it got dark we could see, stretching off into the distance along the street what must have been the whole Third Battalion, quietly waiting like us. We saw no civilian anywhere and no light.

After a while columns of blacked-out trucks rumbled down the street, loaded troops and departed. When our turn came, we climbed aboard the open bed of a 2-1/2 ton truck with the benches folded. We were packed in, standing room only, and the strap was fastened across the back. The truck rolled off, lurching now and then over uneven surfaces, probably hastily filled bomb craters. In the darkness we fell first one way and then the other but because the bodies and duffel bags were so tightly packed in, it was impossible to fall to the floor. A light rain began to fall, adding to our discomfort. We could only hope that it wouldn't be a long trip. Despite the blackout, we could make out that we were passing first through city streets then uphill into the countryside.

These paragraphs open Chapter 3 of Riflemen — Life & Death in WW-II Infantry. Buy this book today to read the entire first-person account of Company K’s journey from basic training, through the European Theater of Operations, and (for some, at least) home again.

Copyright © 1997, 2008 by Paul N. Haubenreich, Sr.