The Last Jump: Chapter 47
“Fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
General William Tecumseh Sherman (1829 – 1891)
Sergeant Harley Tidrick peered out over the port side of his British LCA at the small armada heading toward the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach. The gusty breeze whipped the briny salt spray into his face and he wiped the sting from his eyes to get a better look at the other five Able Company landing craft in his boat section. They were lined up in formation when one was hit by enemy shellfire. Another was foundering in the rough surf. Beyond them, further to the east, the six landing craft of Golf Company, American made LCVP Higgins Boats, were headed for neighboring Dog White Beach. They were farther away than planned and continued on a course that further opened the distance between them.
His group of LCAs was ordered to use the steeple of the church in Vierville-sur-Mer as their aiming point as they fought the rip tide driving them eastward. Although the church steeple was easily visible from afar, there had been some doubt as to whether the steeple would still be standing after the B-17s got through bombing the town.
Able and Golf Companies’ mission was to capture the town of Vierville. However, Golf Company drifted eastward with the winds and strong tide and eventually lost contact with Able’s left flank. Without Golf, Able Company would be isolated and absorb much more direct enemy fire. Harley knew this was not a good beginning for him and his men. He wiped the salty film from the face of his watch and noted they would hit the beach exactly on time at 0630 hours.
The first assault wave in the Dog Beach Sector was made up of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. Four companies abreast of Stonewallers would hit the hostile shores of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall at the same time. Eight more companies of Stonewallers would follow. On the starboard side of Harley’s LCA, lagging a few minutes behind, were two LCAs carrying Charlie Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. They were headed for Charlie Beach, the western-most designated beach sector on Omaha Beach. Harley could barely make out the white painted numerals on the side of the nearest LCA as it fought through the swells and waves. LCA 1038. He absent-mindedly wondered if there was actually that many. Salt spray from a near miss mortar round snapped him back to the moment.
Beyond LCA 1038, Harley spotted the group of twenty-nine amphibious Dual-Drive tanks of the 741st Tank Battalion that were to provide fire support once the infantry hit the beach. They were specially designed M4A1 Sherman Medium Tanks with dual propellers, a rudder and an inflatable flotation collar. The thirty-five ton monster DD tanks were released from their ships three miles out and were now struggling to maintain their course in the rough waters and against the driving tide. A brisk northwest wind of eighteen knots whipped up the water into four foot swells that pushed against all the tanks. As the three-knot tide slanted their vessels easterly, the drivers tried to compensate by turning their vehicles back toward the church steeple. Eventually, as they turned to a more acute angle to the wind, the following seas began to hit them broadside. That was when they got swamped and began to sink. Harley was horrified as he watched the tankers scramble out of their steel death traps and into the frigid waters. One after the other, twenty-seven of the twenty-nine DD tanks foundered and disappeared into a watery grave. Most of the tanks that were to support the infantry on the beach were now at the bottom of the channel.
Harley yelled to his assistant squad leader, Corporal Wally Carter, who was bailing. “Wally, the tanks are gone!”
Carter stopped bailing and looked out over the stern of the LCA. He stared wide-eyed at the gruesome sight. “Holy Mother-of-God!”
Harley looked forward at the serene green bluffs rising above Omaha Beach. They were not supposed to be lush with green foliage but brown with the burnt remnants of hours of aerial bombing and naval shelling. There were no craters on the beach or bluffs either. Those were promised in the pre-invasion briefings. Everything he had been told to expect thus far had been wrong. The Krauts are probably more than a single battalion and not the fat, old, third-rate unit that they predicted, either, he thought. The brass got everything wrong!
Harley took off his steel pot helmet. “We’re gonna catch hell, Wally.” He bent over and began bailing.
The booming thunder behind them was followed by the screeching roar of artillery shells screaming overhead as the Allied armada continued the ineffectual barrage. The sky overhead was overcast and the low hanging haze clung to the sea as if to escape the storm of projectiles hurtling through the air. The clouds eerily reflected the brilliant reddish orange flashes of the bombardments. Explosions on the shore could be heard loudly along with the concussive pressure wave on the faces of the soldiers. But the shell-fall was too far inland. Rockets being fired from barges let out a loud whooshing sound as they ignited. They arched colorfully in the air and fell uselessly short of the bluffs.
The engine of their landing craft roared loudly as the flat-bottom boat plowed its way through the angry waters. The thrum of the bilge pumps added to the overall loud and continuous din. Fountains of white water plumed skyward as enemy artillery fire found the range. Waves broke over the gunwales and threatened to swamp every landing craft. Despite being issued Dramamine tablets, boys vomited from seasickness. Having long ago exhausted the brown paper vomit bags they were issued, the soldiers were forced to bail the vomit-laden seawater from the bottom of their boats with their steel helmets. Nearing the end of the ten-mile run, nearly every soldier was shivering wet, soaked to the skin, nauseous from the sea and the putrid smells of vomit, urine and the oily engine smoke. The young men were racked with anxiety and fear and exhausted from both the weight of their gear and the gravity of their mission. Suddenly the naval bombardment stopped. They were but five minutes from hitting the beach. The young soldiers were already on the brink of despair and the worst was yet to come.
The plan for Operation Overlord underwent years of detailed preparation, training and innumerable modifications as the day drew nearer. The code names for the two forces that comprised the largest sea borne invasion in history were the Western and Eastern Task Forces. The Western Task Force, on the right flank, was made up of the United States First Army divided into the U.S. V and U.S. VII Corps. The former would assault Omaha Beach and the latter would attack the westernmost beach of the invasion, Utah Beach. This attack was added late in the planning and caused considerable consternation because it was twelve miles as the crow flies from Omaha Beach to Utah Beach. In addition, the wide mouth of the Vire River estuary separated the two beaches. In order to assist the isolated 4th Infantry Division, American airborne forces were targeted to drop behind Utah Beach.
The British and Canadian Forces of the Eastern Task Force would invade across three beaches covering a twenty-one mile front. Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches would be the targets for the British Second Army comprised of the British XXX and I Corps. These forces included British and Canadian Divisions supported by three Royal Marine Commando Battalions.
German General Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B, had been given command of the defenses of the Atlantic Wall and worked diligently to improve them in the months preceding the invasion. However, a fractured command structure and Hitler’s constant meddling made a cogent defensive strategy virtually impossible. Rommel, arguably Germany’s best general, was frustrated by his inability to apply his experience and leadership. He left Normandy for Berlin on 5 June to celebrate his wife’s birthday on 6 June. The weather was poor, he reasoned, and the Allies had never mounted an invasion in bad weather.
It was 0200 hours when the alarm bells of the HMS Empire Javelin sounded general quarters and jolted the men of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment awake. Harley wolfed down a breakfast of mutton and white gravy even though he had no appetite. Eating was something to do to pass the time and he wasn’t sure when he might get his next meal.
By 0400 hours the men of Able Company, sixty percent of which came from the same small town of Bedford, Virginia, started loading into British LCAs hanging from the davits of the ship. It was a slow process. Once launched, they would circle until all six boats had been assembled and then depart for the long trip to shore. The men were weighed down with nearly seventy pounds of gear, much of which was stored in special canvas assault vests with multiple pockets for extra rations and ammo. Each Stonewaller carried enough supplies to sustain himself for three days. This load made them heavy and hampered their movement. Despite the encumbrances, they all had to bail with their helmets as soon as the boats were launched into the choppy waters of the English Channel.
From horizon to horizon the Channel was filled with ships of all shapes and sizes. There were heavy battleships and cruisers providing bombardment support. Smaller destroyers would range in close to shore to provide direct fire support to the troops. Thousands of vehicles were also aboard hundreds of supply ships, which carried the other necessary victuals of war. Small craft darted in and out of numerous transport ships bringing the troops to the beaches; soon to be returning with the dead and wounded. This carefully orchestrated waltz of ships seemed haphazard and chaotic but the small pieces meshed with the larger ones and the timing, with some exceptions, was conducted with the precision of a masterpiece.
The commander of the LCA yelled, “Ready, mates!”
The men braced for the shock of the boat grounding on the shore.
“Remember,” yelled Harley. “Disburse. Go right and left off the boat and keep moving.”
The Allied plan was to invade at low tide so the beach obstacles would be visible. The Germans had erected a wide array of obstructions to sink or damage the landing craft. Some were as simple as sturdy wooden posts built at a forty-degree angle designed to pierce the bottom of the boats or capsize an incoming craft. Others, called “Belgian Gates”, were made of steel and were taller than a man and wider than a vehicle. Finally, three iron beams welded together formed a tetrahedron called a “hedgehog”. These were often mined and placed randomly below the high water mark. It would become impossible to negotiate these obstacles when covered by high tide.
The men of Able Company had over 300 yards of firm golden colored sandy beach to cross before they could get to the smooth round stone shingles near the seawall. The LCA grounded with a loud scraping sound, the ramp dropped and the men filed out, spreading out as ordered. The entire shoreline erupted in fire as the first man stepped off of the launch. Two men on the right disappeared into a water filled crater and struggled against their load to climb out. A machine gun stitched a trail of bullets into the soft sand with a zipping sound. The unseen gunner walked the bullets right up into the LCA and more men were hit. The soldiers behind pushed their way over their dead and wounded comrades and made their way to the front of the boat and onto the spit of sand they had grounded on. A few men went over the side to avoid the blistering fire coming directly at them. Some men were running, others found their way behind steel beach obstacles. Yet others, who were killed instantly, dropped to the smooth blood soaked sand. No one was fighting back at the unseen enemy. The wounded were screaming in agony. The medics tried to attend to them and they too came under fire. Other wounded were crawling, vainly trying to find cover or get to the meager protection of the distant seawall. The ground shook with the vibrations of enemy artillery and the air cracked with the sound of flying bullets. The entire coastline was infested with German machine guns and they were all firing at the few remaining LCAs of Able Company.
Harley and Wally worked their way to the front of the boat as bullets ricocheted off of the steel sides. Once out they headed for one of the obstacles. Machine gun bullets traced a stripe in the sand next to Harley. Wally was hit and went down. Harley scrambled behind one of the wooden obstacles. There was a dead Stonewaller clinging to it. Harley hid behind the body. He was in the grip of the greatest fear he had ever known. Nothing in his life could have prepared him for this moment. Absolute terror rose up from deep within him and froze his body. It was the strongest emotion he had ever experienced. He hugged the base of the obstacle, paralyzed.
“Hey Mac, you gotta move. I gotta blow this son of a bitch!”
Harley turned. It was one of the beach demolition team who was blowing up obstacles before the tide covered them. Harley looked at the demolition soldier, or was he a sailor? How in the hell is this guy getting around the beach without getting killed? The demolition expert was wrapping some C-4 explosive around the long pole near its own explosive charge. The combination of the two would turn the wooden obstruction into splinters.
“You and your buddy gotta move, Mac. This is a fifteen second fuse.”
“He’s dead,” Harley answered.
“Then move out! I can’t stand here all day.”
Harley hesitated. The soldier pulled on the fuse and it sparked and started to burn. Harley got up and sprinted to the right while the demolition man took off left. “Fire in the hole!”
Harley’s helmet came off as he ran but he didn’t dare stop to retrieve it. He found another steel obstacle and jumped behind it. He hit the ground while the charge blew the first obstacle sky high along with dismembered body parts of the dead soldier. Harley crouched behind the steel obstacle as bullets continued to hammer the sand, the boats and the men.
It appeared the Stonewallers would never be able to accomplish their mission. There were five exits from the beach, called draws. They were the only egress from the seashore to the tableland above in the entire Normandy area. Some of these exits were simple dirt roads and some were merely footpaths. The only wide paved road was at Vierville. The Allies were well aware of this so they made the opening of the Vierville draw a D-Day priority. The only way to accomplish this was to defeat the defenses with a frontal assault. The DD tanks, that were supposed to provide some cover and firepower, never made it in. The naval and aerial bombardments missed their mark and were useless. The infantrymen were left defenseless and paid the price.
The Germans were equally aware of the high-value objectives and built an incredible series of fortified strong points to defend the exits and deny their use to the Allies. They called their strong points Widerstandnest; Resistance Nests. There were mortar pits inland with pre-sighted target areas on the beaches. The dreaded .88-millimeter and .75-millimeter artillery were sighted in hardened bunkers to shoot down the beach at an angle so as not to expose them to frontal fire. Numerous machine gun positions featuring the deadly MG-42 were sighted for plunging, grazing and enfilade fire. All five of the draws from Omaha Beach were similarly fortified but the Vierville exit was by far the most heavily defended. Able Company landed directly into the teeth of this formidable array of defensive weaponry and were being systematically slaughtered.
As Harley peered over the obstacle, which stuck out of the sand like a three-legged iron X, he watched the men of his company struggle to reach the tenuous shelter of the seawall to the left of the draw. It was flesh against steel as they scrambled forward or, like him, hunkered down in a precious protected spot on the beach. Some men played dead and others hid behind the dead. But Harley knew that was only a temporary respite as the tide would soon sweep in and cover everything on the beach to within a few meters of the seawall.
Smoke began to swirl across the beach from the burning wreckage of landing craft. Harley willed himself to move but his body wouldn’t respond. Bullets ricocheted off the obstacle with loud pings and clangs. Lying prone and fighting unsuccessfully within himself to get off the beach, he soiled himself and began to cry.
A wave washed in and temporarily covered his lower body in foamy seawater before it drained back out to sea. The relentless tide was coming in. Harley was still frozen and in an utterly hopeless state when he felt the presence of another soldier kneeling beside him. The soldier was holding a helmet in his hand.
“C’mon, Ranger,” the soldier said in a loud but calm voice. “We don’t want to die out here among strangers. Let’s get off this damn beach.” He dropped the helmet. It had camouflage netting and an orange diamond on the back. As the soldier moved away toward the right, Harley noticed he was an officer and he wore a similar helmet.
The officer ran low for about twenty yards, dropped down and looked back. Harley nodded to him and put on the helmet and strapped it tight. He decided if he were going to make a run for it, he would have to shed some of the overload he was carrying. Another wave washed up on him and receded. He ripped off his invasion vest and stripped down to a just a few bandoliers of .30-caliber ammo and his M-1. The rations he carried would not be necessary if he was dead and if he made it, he would certainly be able to find more gear than he had to throw away.
The Ranger officer motioned to him. Harley nodded again and got up to one knee. Still hugging the obstacle he willed himself to move but his body remained frozen in place. Another wave came up, higher and stronger this time and something bumped him from behind. He looked down to see the body of Wally Carter, face up with a bullet hole clear through his right eye. It was as if Wally was nudging him off the beach. He sprang up with a muffled scream and ran low, right past the officer. Harley zigzagged and headed for the bluff while falling repeatedly over the dead and dying. The bullets raked the sand around him with a zip-zip-zip sound. He kept his eyes closed and kept running. After what seemed like an eternity, he fell at the base of the escarpment totally out of breath but safe from enemy fire. The officer came in behind him and huddled next to him. He didn’t recognize Harley but then noticed the 29th Division patch on his other sleeve.
“What outfit are you with, soldier?” the lieutenant panted.
“Hundred and sixteenth Regiment, sir.” Harley took a few quick breaths. “Thanks for getting me off the beach, sir.” Harley was embarrassed but appreciated the encouragement. He was beginning to regain control of himself.
The lieutenant smiled. “I thought you were a Ranger.” He pointed to the Ranger tab on Harley’s other shoulder.
“Oh, that,” Harley smiled back. “Twenty-ninth Rangers.”
The lieutenant nodded knowingly. “We tried to get you guys but the brass wouldn’t let us.” He cuffed Harley lightly on his shoulder. “You’re where you belong now. Welcome back!”
There was no seawall here so the Rangers gathered at the base of the escarpment and hugged the cliffside, which looked to be about fifty feet high. There were more men straggling in every few minutes. They were out of the direct line of German fire, which focused on the landing craft coming ashore near the Vierville exit. The wounded were being dragged under the cover of the cliff whenever possible. Medics were working furiously on them. Harley could see there were only about thirty men left in this Ranger Company able to fight. At first he felt simple gratitude to be alive but now the anger began to swell up inside him.
“Lieutenant Moody!” a voice barked out at the officer who had helped Harley get off the beach.
“Lieutenant, Plan A is no dice! We’ll never get through that draw. Take a few men and find another way up.”
The mission of Charlie Company, 2nd Rangers was to proceed through the Vierville draw, through the town of Vierville and head west to Pointe-et-Raz-de-la-Percee. After cleaning out any enemy emplacements, they were to proceed further west to link up with Colonel Rudder’s Ranger Force A on Pointe-du-Hoc and complete that mission if they failed to scale the cliffs. The entire plan depended upon the successful landing of the DD tanks, which were to support the opening of the draw. With the tanks at the bottom of the English Channel and Able Company all but wiped out, Charlie Company had to find another route to complete their mission.
With that, Lieutenant Moody took some men and worked his way westward, away from the draw, and searched for a place to climb the bluff. Harley went with them. After a few hundred yards they came across a crevice in the bluff and Moody began to free climb. Using his trench knife to carve out handholds and footholds, he reached the top of the bluff unseen. Once there, he attached a toggle rope to the base of a sturdy stake, which held a sign warning of mines. The remainder of Charlie Company made its way up the toggle rope. It was 0730 hours.
From the top of the bluff, Harley had a bird’s eye view of the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach. Subsequent waves had landed and the carnage continued. Along the seawall, dead, wounded and frightened soldiers of the 116th Infantry Regiment were stacked up like cordwood. No one was firing back at the enemy. The onrushing tide was collecting dead bodies from the sandy beach and floating them toward the seawall. The water was red with blood and the Germans kept firing their MG-42s until their barrels glowed red. His friends and neighbors in Able Company were being massacred with brutal efficiency just as their namesake, the Stonewall Brigade, might have been savaged in the Civil War. Harley shook his head in disbelief. The horrendous sight was fueling his rising anger.
Captain Ralph E. Goranson was the CO of Charlie Company, 2nd Rangers. The temptation to strike out to the west and complete his mission was great. However, he could not ignore the bloodbath that was taking place right before his eyes. His small unit had managed to breach the defenses undetected and he was in a position to suppress the killing fire by taking out some enemy positions. He called Lieutenant Moody over and changed his mission.
“Lieutenant, change of plans.”
“Sir?” Moody queried.
“We’re going to stay here and take out as many of those damned machine guns as we can.”
“Yes, sir!” Moody acknowledged enthusiastically.
“Get some teams together to take out those Kraut positions. It’s payback time!”
An angry and superbly trained killing force was about to be unleashed. There was a stone farmhouse to their east overlooking the Vierville draw that was pouring murderous fire onto the beaches. That would be their first target.
Harley joined Moody and a sergeant named Julius Belcher as they worked their way closer to the stone building. There was an elaborate trench system around the farmhouse that concealed the Rangers’ movements. The Germans were too busy spitting out death to notice them approaching. Moody kicked in a door and tossed a white phosphorous grenade into the room. The MG-42 stopped firing and the Germans burst out of the door screaming from the burns. The Americans mercilessly gunned them down as they ran out. There would be no prisoners this day.
The Rangers didn’t have enough men to hold the farmhouse. They were also afraid the navy might decide to bombard it so they took the MG-42 and all the ammo they could carry and retreated back to their temporary CP. If the Germans reoccupied it, the Rangers would do it all over again. The three men then set out to destroy another firing position. They located what the Allies called a “Tobruk”, an open-top circular slit trench lined with concrete from which a machine-gun or mortar could be deployed. This particular one was firing mortar rounds onto the beach. The telltale thump of the rounds leaving the hollow tube gave the position away. The three soldiers crept up on it from behind. They lobbed fragmentation grenades into the open pit and it went up in a blazing sheet of flame. The Ranger force atop the bluff was just getting started.
Moody, Belcher and Harley returned to the CP and occupied a shallow shell hole overlooking Omaha Beach. Harley was astounded by the continuing butchery. No troops were advancing beyond the seawall; the beach was littered with bodies and clogged with the twisted wreckage of vehicles and sunken craft. Landing craft were no longer approaching the beach. The invasion at Omaha Beach had been halted!
Captain Goranson was scanning the beach with his binoculars. He spotted a single LCA well off course and headed for the shoreline directly under their cliff. He looked to Harley.
“Sergeant, that looks like some of your boys. Get them over here and up the rope before they run into a wall of lead. We could use the help!”
“Yes, sir.” Harley scrambled down the rope and ran out and signaled the LCA. The LCA pulled in closer to the bluff as the tide was rising and Stonewallers from Baker Company scrambled out of the craft. Harley directed them to the toggle rope. Twenty thankful soldiers made it up the bluff. The rest of the men on that LCA, as well as the rest of Baker Company, were slaughtered just as their Able Company brothers were earlier in the morning.
Harley climbed back up to the top of the bluff and returned to the shell hole. He was anxious to exact more revenge. Belcher was climbing out of the hole. Harley found Moody lying dead, a bullet through his forehead. In a day filled with indescribable emotions of fear, anger and regret, Sergeant Harley Tidrick found himself welling up at the death of the stranger who had helped him off the killing sands of Omaha Beach.
“Sniper,” answered Belcher to the unasked question.
Harley reached down and closed Lieutenant Moody’s eyes. “Are you ready to get some?”
Having become aware of an American force on the bluffs, the Germans began to counterattack. Their communication trenches fed back beyond the beaches. The defenders were able to funnel in far more reinforcements than the Rangers could muster. Mixed squads of Rangers and Stonewallers clashed with Germans all morning as the Americans fought to eliminate the killing fire and the Germans sought to replace their losses.
Harley and Belcher worked their way inland. They were planning to interdict the communication trench that led to the stone farmhouse and intercept any reinforcements. The further inland they got, the more separated they became from the main force.
They stumbled upon a branch in the trench that seemed to lead nearly all the way back to Vierville. They took covered positions on each side of the north-south trench and waited patiently. Soon, a dozen German soldiers carrying boxes of ammo came down the trench. Harley tossed two grenades into the trench. After they exploded, he and Belcher finished off the squad with small arms fire. No one was left alive. Suddenly, the two soldiers came under fire. Another squad of Germans was coming their way. They split up, Belcher heading back north to the beach and Harley starting west. He soon had to turn south as German infantry slipped in behind him. They were in hot pursuit. He came upon a paved road. If he remembered his map study, this coastal road ran from Collevile through Vierville-sur-Mer to Grandcamps Les Bains. The road was only one-quarter mile from the beach. He decided to continue further south.
The noise from Omaha Beach faded as he moved inland. As soon as he lost his pursuers he would retrace his steps back to the beach. He crossed bordered fields in the shadows of the hedgerows that surrounded them and kept to the countryside, avoiding trails and lanes. The distinctive ripping sound of a German MG-42 broke the silence and he became aware of it before he could see it. He could either skirt the position or scope it out. The chugging 500 round per minute rat-tat-tat sound of a Browning M1919A6 .30-caliber air-cooled machine gun indicated Americans were returning fire. He decided to investigate.
Crawling through one hedgerow he came to an open orchard. The sound was further south still. He crossed the orchard quickly and peeked through another hedgerow. About a hundred yards away was a German MG-42 machine gun crew. They had their backs to him and were spitting 7.92-millimeter rounds at Americans. There was the gunner, a loader on his left feeding the belt into the twenty-five pound weapon and two riflemen guarding each flank. The flankers were about twenty yards to each side and carried the standard German Mauser bolt-action rifle. They were spotting for the MG-42.
Harley had one grenade and could not get all six Germans with it. They were too spread out. He had to devise a plan that would allow him to take out all of them without giving them a chance to return fire. But first he would have to get closer.
There were four rounds left in his clip and he ejected them. The metal clip popped out with an audible ping and he caught it in the air. He collected the rounds from the grass before inserting a fresh eight round clip. He hooked the grenade’s spoon into a high buttonhole on his battle blouse and slipped out of the hedgerow.
Harley crawled slowly and deliberately. The Germans were focused on their targets. He had to get close enough to use the grenade, perhaps thirty yards. No further if he was to make an accurate throw. But he needed an edge, something to keep some of them busy while he took out the others. If he threw the grenade at one target and fired at another, the third pair would get him. No matter which sequence he played out in his mind, the third pair would get a shot at him.
He continued to crawl. If they discovered him at this distance, they would get him for sure. He had to get closer. When he was about thirty yards behind his targets lying flat in the grass, it came to him. In order for his idea to work he had to be patient. The German machine gun continued to fire while the four riflemen held their fire. What was it he learned in Ranger school? The German infantry squad was built around the machine gun. The rest of the men were there to carry ammo and support and protect the machine gunner. They needed all of these ammo carriers since the superbly designed weapon could fire an astounding twelve hundred rounds per minute at a muzzle velocity of twenty four hundred eighty feet per second. It had a voracious appetite for ammo. But it had one weakness and Harley relied on that flaw to execute his plan. He slid his M-1 out in front of him and slipped the fragmentation grenade from his buttonhole. He pulled the pin and held the spoon tightly and waited.
Then it happened. The machine gunner yelled something in German to the four riflemen on his flanks. They began firing at the Americans. The assistant machine gunner came up on his knees with a large rag in his hand. He grabbed the barrel of the MG-42 and twisted if off. Harley was up in a flash and hurled the grenade at the pair on his right. Before it exploded, he put two shots into each flanker on the left. He ducked down as the grenade went off. When the smoke cleared, the assistant machine gunner was still holding the replacement barrel in his hands. Harley had caught them in a barrel change, a process the Germans were trained to execute in under seven seconds after 250 rounds were fired through the gun.
“Kamerad!” The loader yelled holding the barrel above his head. The gunner had a stunned look on his face but was helpless without a barrel in his MG-42. If Harley had not waited for that precise moment, the gunner would have turned the MG-42 on him and cut him in half.
Harley moved in and from the hip fired two shots in each chest. The empty clip hit the ground with a ping and Harley jammed another full clip into his M-1. All six of the Germans were dead. It didn’t make up for what he witnessed that morning but it was a start.
“American GI,” he yelled. “I got the bastards!”
The Americans approached cautiously, fearing German treachery. They came through a cut in the hedgerow. When the point man saw Harley, he waved his officer up to the front.
“Nice work, Sergeant,” the lieutenant said. He was a young, boyish looking lieutenant, but then again they all seemed so young. He was wearing a Ranger tab. “What outfit?”
“Hundred and sixteenth regiment, sir, Twenty-ninth Division,” Harley answered. “What outfit is this?” There seemed to be a little over twenty men coming through the hedgerow.
“I’m Lieutenant Charles H. Parker Jr., Able Company, First Platoon, Fifth Rangers. What are you doing here, Sergeant? Where’s your outfit?”
“They’re all dead on the beach. I hooked up with the Second Rangers. We were fighting on the bluffs above the Vierville draw when I got separated.”
Parker pulled out a map. “Show me!”
Harley pointed. “They’re here.” Then he pointed to the beach area directly in front of the draw. “My company was wiped out here on Dog Green. Most of the second wave, too.” Harley looked at the lieutenant. “They stopped sending landing craft in. Did the invasion fail?”
“No,” Parker answered. “We came across the beach near the border of Dog White and Easy Red right between two strong points.” Parker was fingering the map as he spoke. “Between the Vierville and the Les Moulins exits. We took some fire but we made the seawall, crossed the road and came up the bluffs.” Parker paused. “Seems like the Krauts fortified the beach exits up the ass but not so much in between them. Took us a while to find the soft spots. Things are kind of fouled up down there and it’s rough in places but the landings are still on.”
Harley exhaled loudly. Parker continued. “Rangers from the Second and Fifth Battalions and soldiers from the Twenty-ninth made it up the bluffs and got behind the beach defenses.” Parker looked to the north toward the beach. “What’s over there?”
“Charlie Beach and plenty of Krauts between here and there. Where are you headed, sir?”
Parker pointed. “We’re headed west for Pointe-du-Hoc. We missed the rest of the battalion at the assembly area. They’re probably way ahead of us by now.” Parker took a sip from his canteen. “We’ll probably catch hell for being late. We got three or four more miles to go. Our guys may need our help taking out those big guns up there. Care to join us, Sergeant?”
Harley looked around. What choice do I have? It’s a miracle I’m still alive and hanging with the Rangers has been good to me so far. He slung his rifle. “Count me in, sir.”