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They were all young kids

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©2014, Aaron Elson

 

   

They were all young kids

The online version

©2014, Aaron Elson

Lieutenant Jim Flowers and the battle for Hill 122

This is the story of Jim Flowers, a brash young lieutenant from Dallas whose courage and sacrifice helped turn the tide in one of the bloodiest battles of the Normandy campaign. Flowers' story, along with that of the battle for Hill 122, is taught to French schoolchildren. Yet it is virtually unknown in the United States.

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 Chapter 13

Jim Flowers Part 2

    Later that day, I found out that the First Battalion was off to the left flank, and I took my tanks over there. I passed by a little farmhouse and what looked like a stock pond, and laying on the ground beside this pond there was a well-dressed young German officer. For all practical purposes this young fellow could have been laying out there taking a nap, laying flat on his back. He had been shot. He had died there. I think the thing that impressed me most of all was how clean and well-dressed he was. He must have been back from their division staff or something; combat soldiers donít look that good.

    The next day, July 4, I caught up with Leroy Pond and I donít remember what we did the rest of that day; probably not much of anything. We were just kind of holding in that position. The next day, we continued moving down toward Ste. Suzanne.

    Somewhere down in there I took my tanks out to mop up some opposition. Wiley and I were making a reconnaissance, and going up to a hedgerow, and just as we got there a German hand grenade Ė one of these concussion grenades, they called them potato mashers Ė came over that hedgerow and landed right beside me and my God, I grabbed it and threw it back. Fortunately it was a dud, but it scared the hell out of me.

    We sprayed the area there with tommy guns.

    The tanks were probably a couple of hundred yards behind me.

    Off to my right, I saw a bunch of German soldiers walking toward our lines. I think they had had all the war they wanted, so Wiley and I got back up to the tanks and we went over to surround these German soldiers, and by the time we got around them, the infantry had rounded them up.

    These German kids had all gone over to the edge of a little patch of woods and thrown down their steel pots Ė their helmets Ė and their rifles to surrender.

    The infantry marched these German kids back. I donít remember how many of them there were; there must have been fifteen or twenty.

    That morning, our artillery had really raised hell. They must have been celebrating the Fourth of July. They shot a hell of a lot of shells that morning.

    One place out in there Ė I call it the hill, but it was just a high place Ė the Germans were dug in pretty good, and I think Colonel Kedrovsky, who was a major at that time, he had come out and was up talking with an infantry officer. I came upon them and a few shells fell in and like to scared old Kedrovsky to death.

    We continued. I guess we got down on the other side of Ste. Suzanne, on the north side of town, and thereís a railroad that runs on the north side of Hill 122. Thereís a hard-surfaced road that goes from Ste. Suzanne, winds around and goes over toward La Haye du Puits. Then the railroad track and over on the other side of the railroad track, between the railroad track and the base of Hill 122 is another hard-surfaced road. Itís not as good a road as the one on the north side of the railroad tracks.

    I donít know whether it was on the Fourth of the Fifth, I think it was the Third Battalion of the 359, John Forest Smith, lieutenant colonel, battalion commander, if I remember right. He needed some tanks. Whoever was supposed to be working with him, it might have been Lombardi or Du Valís tanks that were supposed to be over there, whoever it was, he needed more help than he had. So battalion headquarters asked me to go over and give them a hand. That had to be the night of the Fourth. And I didnít know where in the hell they were. They gave me the map coordinates as to where he had that battalion the last time they had been in contact with him.

    I took my tanks and started up that way, and I got out into a field where I had some cover, I could kind of blend in with the vegetation and the trees, where I wouldnít be under direct observation from over there on the top of Hill 122.

    Wiley and I Ė itís getting late in the day; the nights in early July are pretty short over there, and we were still operating on double British summer time Ė we were walking around trying to find these people and we came up to a little road, and there were some American soldiers there, they were scared to death.

    I said, "Whatís going on?"

    "Weíre trying to get across the road."

    I said, "Well, thereís the road. You get off your butt, get up on your feet and you run from here to there."

    "Yeah, but a machine gun down the way hereís got this road covered. Every time anybody starts out there, they draw fire."

    So, we can beat that. I lay there a bit, and how in the hell am I gonna get across? We cut some branches off of some bushes and trees there in the hedgerow beside the road, got a bunch of these things and threw them out in the road, and as soon as these tree branches and stuff hit the road, sure enough, the machine gun back there shot at them.

    Itís getting up to be about dusk. Thatís good. So next time we do this, why, weíll throw some branches out there and draw some fire, and as soon as they stop firing, weíll make a dash for the ditch on the other side of the road. Which we did, and we got across without any real problem.

    We went over on the other side, got out in the field, and finally found the battalion commander, and we planned what we were going to do the next morning.

    Wiley and I said, "Thereís no point in going back to our tanks tonight. Weíll just stay over here with the infantry in case the situation changes," and we dug a foxhole and got in it, and the next morning we went back to the tanks.

    Whatever it was that that battalion had to do, we helped them do it.

    I havenít told this in so long. I havenít thought about it, hell, you might say in fifty years. You know, like I said a while ago, your memoryís the second thing to go.

    Whatever it was, we must have got it done because I reverted back over to the First Battalion of the 359 and we went down in the fields on the north side of that hardtop road, and somewhere down there is where, very near Hill 122, Du Val and Lombardi were; thatís where they got in that sunken road that night Ė that must have been the night of the Fifth.

    I went on down to catch up with Leroy Pond in the First Battalion, 359, and weíve moved almost to the west end of Hill 122, opposite the west end of Hill 122 on the north side.

    Yes, it was on the Fifth. I didnít know that Du Val and Lombardi had met their own little Waterloo the night before.

    I went down, caught up with Pond, and Pond and I, we were going to go down and go up the west side of Hill 122 and the Second Battalion, under the command of Colonel Don Gorton, heís another fine officer, they were going to come up the east side.

    Like I said a while ago, I liked to cover the ground on foot as much as possible before I take my tanks on it. So I got my tanks back under cover, and Wiley and I crossed the road and were walking down toward the railroad track. Thereís a little dirt road that ran from where we are down across the railroad track. According to the map it ran into this road over on the other side of the railroad track and stopped there, and one road went around on the west side of Hill 122 and the other ran along the north side of Hill 122 and eventually went around it.

    Wiley and I walked right up pretty close to this little train station, a whistlestop I guess, with a little building. Weíre approaching this very cautiously, kind of leapfrogging, and we got up there, and I said, "This looks mighty suspicious." So we stayed there a bit, and in a little bit, we saw a track-laying motorcycle approaching. It was a vehicle with a motorcycle front and tracks in the rear, that they used for hauling sections of track. It had armor up to the driverís waist, and heís sitting down in a hole, and up on the back was this box which had a nice padded seat on it.

    Thereís a kid sitting up on the back of it, and one driving it. So we looked, and we couldnít see anything past them. We just deprived them of the use of it; shot these two kids off of it. Of course, that ended the war for them. Forevermore. We didnít draw any fire, so after a bit, why, we might as well go on back. We see how to get up the road that leads us around the west side of the hill, and thatís where we want to go. No Germans.

    We walked out in the road, and of course this motorcycle thing had run down a distance and had flipped over on its side, and that stalled the engine. So we went down there and straightened it back up, pushed it back up on the road. And the kid that was sitting on the back, he had lost some blood Ė as a matter of fact that seat back there was a bloody damn mess. Wiley went over to this kid, and on his back, they carried a mess kit and a raincoat or a poncho. Wiley pulled this kidís poncho off his back and took it over there and spread it up on that seat so he wouldnít sit in some blood, and I cranked the motorcycle thing up and started back up the road toward our infantry.

    It didnít dawn on me that now Iím gonna draw fire. We drew a little bit. These kids were poor shots, because they didnít hit us. The first shot, I stopped and raised my hand, I said, "Goddamn it, donít shoot me," whatever. Anyhow, we got on back with the motorcycle, and got back up on the road where my tanks were.

    We got up there, I said, Hell, Iíd like to have this thing after I get home. So I got a piece of paper and put a sign on the driverís seat of this motorcycle that this captured vehicle is the property of Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, leave it alone because the maintenance section from battalion headquarters or somebody will be by to pick it up in a little while. Of course, I knew that was bull, but it was worth a gamble.

    After a bit, Pond and I got the word to make the assault for Hill 122. Weíre going up on the hill this time. People had been there before; some tried to get up and couldnít do it.

    The only people that were up there were those grey-green uniforms; the Germans.

    This is July 6th. When we got the word to move, I ran down this road with my tanks, and after I crossed the railroad track I got out on the road between the railroad track and the base of Hill 122. On the north side of Hill 122 itís pretty steep, and thereís no way weíre going to get the infantry or anything else up there. You donít need to, because on each end itís not all that steep. Thatís the reason we took it from the ends instead of making a frontal assault.

    Sparse vegetation on this steep slope. No place to hide anything. Maybe a bird could hide in there, and maybe a cottontail rabbit could, but certainly nothing as large as a tank. So after I crossed the railroad tracks Iím drawing fire. I canít stay there, and I canít go to the west, Iíve got to get out of there and Iíve got to do it in a hurry. The only thing I can do is run down that road toward the east end of the hill. And Iím afraid Iím under observation all the way. So I took my tanks and went barreling down there, and got down to a sort of a wooded area down between the road and the railroad, near the east side, and ran into Lombardi. Heís there, and he told me what had happened with his tanks and Du Valís tanks. [Lieutenant Henry Du Val of the Second Platoon had lost two tanks with three men killed, and had been badly wounded]. And Don Gorton with his Second Battalion is down there; theyíre waiting to get the word to move out and go up on the hill. So Gorton and I plan that when we get the word weíll just move up the east end. I wet over and told Lombardi what I was going to do, Iím going to go up, thereís a kind of a gully washed down the east side of the hill. Hill 122 had been occupied by the Roman legions back in the third or fourth century a.d. As a matter of fact, thereís a stone quarry I called it, an excavation, up there to this day, and I think thereís a building or a foundation for some buildings that the Romans had built there fifteen, sixteen hundred years ago.

    I took my tanks and ran up this gully on that east side of that hill, expecting that the next moment would be the last of me, but I didnít draw any fire. Lombardiís tanks came up right behind me, and the infantry was right with us. We got up on the top of the hill from the east side, but I canít stay there; Iím supposed to be down on the west end, where Pond is bringing his infantry people up.

    On my way up that hill, I must have wound up enough telephone wire on the tracks of my tanks to reach from here to the moon. God, there was a bunch of telephone wire. Some Frenchman could have salvaged that stuff and gotten rich off of the copper.

    I dashed on down to the other end of the hill, and some of Pondís people were already there. And right next to them was Iíll guess the Second Battalion of the 358th Regiment. Pond had gotten got out onto a gently sloping hill on the other side of Hill 122. The Germans probably let him get out there, and after he got out there they moved in behind him and cut him off. So heís sitting out there on that hill with a couple of companies from his battalion, and the Germans had moved in behind him and had cut their wire line, so the only communication he has is with his own radio. And he had his field artillery forward observer who had a radio back to the artillery battalion. Theyíd been out there awhile, and they were about to lose the power in their batteries.

    George Porter at that time was headquarters company commander of that battalion. He asked me if I could take some stuff out there. They needed rations. They needed water. They needed medical supplies. They needed ammunition. Plus they needed batteries for those radios. You name it, and thatís probably what they needed. You get the trucks with the supplies up here and Iíll load the supplies on the decks of my tanks and make a dash out there to him.

    While theyíre bringing the stuff up, we get word that Ė I donít know whether that was the Second Battalion of the 359, or it might have been the 358, which was also up on the hill by then, but they were down in the woods, and they had encountered some pretty terrific fighting.

    So I took my tanks in there to drive the Germans back. I wonít say it was raining, but there was a kind of a drizzle, and a heavy mist. I figured I canít see anyhow, so I got in the tank and buttoned up. Closed the turret hatches, and tried to see out of the damn periscope. Hell, you might as well put a blindfold on.

    Going down through the woods you canít see, and buttoned up, youíre trying to see out with a periscope, and itís raining and thereís no good way to get the water off of the front glass of the periscope. The only way you can clean it is to pull it down a bit and shove it back up, and it wipes the water off of it, but you canít even do that because youíre sure enough blind when you pull it down, even if it does take just five seconds.

    I opened the hatch back up, and I saw a bazooka team. The Germans had a shoulder-held bazooka called a panzerfaust. Itís about three inches in diameter, but when you look at it close up it looks more like a 16-inch coast artillery piece. I saw that damn thing pointing at me and fortunately we were able to get a shot off before he could get us in his sights and squeeze one off. So we eliminated that threat in a hurry, and stacked beside this little trail through there was a bunch of wooden cases. We hit those and that was their ammunition, and we blew that up.

    We continued to move around there and pushed the Germans back; they were probably as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

    In the meantime, the stuff that we were going to take out to Pond had arrived and they loaded it on the back deck of a couple of my tanks, I guess my tank and Wileyís. And there was a David Hickman, he was a staff officer in Pondís battalion; he had been out there with Pond and had managed to get back, thatís how we knew how critical his need was to get some aid out there and get it there in a hurry. So David said heíd ride out there with us.

    We tried two or three times that night, and we couldnít make it, we got turned back.

    This is the night of July 6th.

    It was a dark night. We couldnít see for one thing, and we donít know what the hell is out in front of us, and the Germans are shooting at us. So we just stopped, turned back and said we need more light.

    The morning of the 7th, we tried it again. Going around the west side of that hill, off on my right front thereís a hedgerow, maybe three hundred yards away, quite a distance, and I could see some bushes moving. Bushes and small shrubs, trees, things like that, they donít move, but these were moving parallel to that hedgerow there. This has got to be a vehicle with this stuff on it to camouflage it. So we zeroed on it and stopped it. Continued around the road a little bit further and here come a couple of German kids walking up the middle of the road. I think they turned out to be Polish. But they had their fingers laced, their fingers were on top of their head, unarmed. I donít know whatís in front of me, but those little boys know. So we got those kids and my loader, a boy named Ed Dzienis, he was Polish and he spoke the language. As a matter of fact, I think maybe his mother and father had emigrated to this country from Poland.

    Ed could speak and understand it well enough that he could talk to these kids, and we turned them around and marched them right back down the road in front of those tanks. By god, if anybodyís gonna get it, they are.

    How old were they? Hell, I donít know. Twenty years old. I was thirty, so they were little boys as far as I was concerned. I donít know how old they were. But theyíre old enough to wear a uniform, and old enough to shoot.

    I let them walk down the road in front of my tanks for maybe a hundred yards, and all of a sudden it dawned on me, "Uh, uh, Flowers, you canít do this." I donít know if this is against the Geneva Convention or whether this is against the written law or not, but itís certainly against the moral law to do this. Those kids have surrendered, and here it is Iíve placed them in a position to get killed.

    So far as those boys were concerned, the war was over. They had surrendered. So I stopped, and the kids looked back. I motioned for them to come back, and had Dzienis tell them to get their butts back up the road and somebody would find them and take care of them, some of our infantry, which they did.

    I went down this road a bit further, and off on the left hand side in front of me I sure enough did see a cannon down there that had a muzzle on it that looked like it was two feet in diameter S itís an 88 S but it looked huuugge.

    Again, the Lord was on my side. I saw this anti-tank gun dug in on the side of this road, or he was behind something where he could see us and we could hardly see him, and fortunately, I swung the turret around and had Rothschadl, my gunner, pick him up in his sight and lay one round of high-explosive on that gun, and we knocked him out before he could fire a shot at us.

    Letís see. We went around the hill, we got this anti-tank gun. Iíve got all my tanks with me now. Itís daylight hours. Five tanks. I move on around this hill, on the west side, to a road over on the south side paralleling the contour of the hill. How in the hell did this happen, now? Oh. Hickmanís still in the tank. As we come around approaching the southern side of the hill on the west side, we saw some German soldiers coming down the side of the hedgerow on this hill over here where Pond is, and these kids are coming down beside a hedgerow on the side toward me. And why in the hell they couldnít see me or hear me, only God in heaven knows, but they donít know, because theyíre not around to tell you.

    I stopped and let these kids come on down, and when they got down on this road where I am, they started up the ditch away from me, thatís fine, I can see a hundred yards or so. So after the ones that were in the front got down there and were almost out of sight, I donít know how many of them Ė there must have been forty or fifty of them strung out Ė we start shooting machine guns. As soon as you start shooting at them, they immediately hit the ground, but after a bit some of them got up and started to move again; we got several more that way.

    We moved on around a bit further, and there were two, three, four, I donít remember how many, old stone buildings that looked like barns. I went on by there. I got off the road and went out into a field and jumped over two or three hedgerows; since I didnít know what was over there, it was foolish to do it, really. I shouldnít have done it. I knew better.

    The reason that you donít want to take a tank over anything like that is youíre exposing the belly, and the belly of the tank is not very thick metal. Somebody over there with a bazooka or an antitank gun, just one shot, they could do a hell of a lot of damage.

    Iím pretty sure thatís the place where I was going over a hedgerow and for some reason, I wasnít standing up on the seat, I was standing down on the floor of the turret basket. I donít remember why. Maybe so I wouldnít get thrown out of the turret as we went over; it was a pretty rough ride.

    Rothschadl, my gunner, hadnít turned the firing switch off on the cannon, and as we went over one of those hedgerows, his foot hit the solenoid switch. He hit that thing and at the same time we went over the hedgerow, the shoulder guard around the breach of the gun came unfastened, and when his foot hit that firing switch he fired one round of ammunition and as the gun recoiled it hit the shoulder guard and the shoulder guard hit me on my left shoulder, and I still have problems with that.

    Anyhow, back to the story. We went on over a distance, three or four hedgerows, and I cut back to the right to find Leroy Pond and his battalion. I ran on to some of his boys, what the hell was that boyís name? A captain, I donít remember his name, but I got out of the tank and walked over to him and asked him if he knew where the battalion command post was. He pointed and said, "I think itís over there somewhere."

    So I said, "Captain, you ought to get the hell out of here." He was down in one of these almost a sunken road, thereís a hedgerow on either side of the road, and he had his people between them. "This is not a good place for you to be."

    "Oh," he said, "weíve got a lot of cover."

    I said, "Youíve got the wrong kind of cover. Donít stay in here. I implore you, get the hell out!"

    I got back in the tank and we went on over to find Pond, and would you believe it wasnít very long after that until the Germans shelled that position where the double hedgerow was over there and killed the captain and the fellows that were in there with him? If he had only listened and believed me that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.Ö

    I found Pond and dispersed my tanks behind his infantry and Ö I only had four tanks then. My own tank, something had happened and busted the housing over the final drive, up in the front right sprocket. Then the sprockets to propel the tank were on the front, instead of nowadays they put them all on the back. Something had happened, and I sent that tank back to have that repaired. That was my tank; in fact, I was in somebody elseís tank, probably in Taylorís tank, the platoon sergeantís.

    I leave the crew with the tank. If anybodyís going to have to make a change, itís got to be me. I probably put Taylor in my tank and I took his, for him to get my tank back so that the mechanics could repair or replace the busted part.

    I got there with four tanks. Where in the hell did I lose one? I had five tanks back there on top of Hill 122. It doesnít matter now. Maybe I got out there with five tanks, because I still had those supplies for Pondís battalion, and maybe I busted that housing over that final drive getting out there. Thatís where I sent Taylor back with that tank for repair or replacement.

    I wish it would all come back, but itís been fifty years. I found Pond and they took the supplies that Iíd brought out there to him and of course, if Iíd have been a 20-year-old beautiful blonde heíd have probably kissed me.

    They unloaded the stuff and distributed it, and he doesnít have any orders to move, heís got to sit there. And Iím certainly not going anywhere without him. Hell, itís his war as much as it is mine.

    While weíre there, a lieutenant came over and said, "Do you mind taking your tanks out in this field here and see if those Germans are still out there? I shot at one that raised up out of a foxhole. I donít know whether I got him or not."

    "No, I donít mind aítall, son."

    I got my tank and Wileyís, and we jumped over the hedgerow and went out there, and there was a German kid down in this big foxhole; the war was over for him. We went on by, and out in front of us we flushed a few Germans out, kind of like flushing quail out of the brush. Did you ever go quail hunting? Dogs will flush the birds out and they jump up and fly and then they come back down. I use that analogy for the way these Germans would jump up and run a bit and then fall down so you didnít get a good shot at them.

    We took a swing back over in front of the First Battalionís position and saw some kids in a ditch over there, and I thought Iíve come on a bunch of Germans trying to hide from me, so I thought, boy, this is going to be easy. Iíll just pull up to this ditch and I can mow íem down.

    I ran over there, and just as I got up there, a lieutenant jumped up and started waving his arms. "Donít shoot! Donít shoot!" An American. He had a patrol out there.

    Then we go back and jump over a hedgerow, to get back where we came from, and as we were coming back over that hedgerow, the turret hatches are in two pieces, and half of the turret hatch on Wileyís tank came unlatched and hit Wiley on his fingers, and it crushed them.

    Wiley didnít want to say anything about it. Blood was squirting out. Get back, go to the medics. I sent him back. I think somebody there bandaged up his hand to stop the bleeding until he could get back to an aid station. No Ö Iím getting ahead of the story. Thatís not when that happened.

    We came back over and this lieutenant that had asked me to go out there in the first place says that one of his sergeants had followed my tanks out there when I went to see about the German that he thought he had got in the foxhole, and he says, "He didnít come back."

    Well, Iíll go back out and get him. The lieutenant said, "Iíll go with you this time if you donít mind." So, get in, letís go. We took my tank and Wileyís and we went back out there, pulled up on each side of this foxhole, and sure enough, this American soldier was down in it, but he hadnít been killed, he just had been scared half to death. While we were sitting there, we let him scramble up over the side and get into the tank. I think we put him over in Wileyís tank.

    We pulled up a little bit, and a German bazooka team Ė two men Ė raised up out of some weeds off to my right. The first inkling that I had there was anything over there at all was I could see this damn rocket coming at me. Head-on. To my right side. Itís unbelievable that you can actually see those things flying through the air. It must have had a little trail of smoke, I guess it did, but when that damn thing came, of course thereís nothing I can do. I saw the thing and saw the kids, and it was just instinct that I swung my turret-mounted machine gun around, but that damn rocket hit on top of my track. I had rubber track blocks, and it hit one of the track connectors. Each track block is six or seven inches wide, and on each side it has a steel pin, about an inch or an inch and a quarter in diameter that runs through it, and thereís a kind of a U-shaped connector that goes around this pin on this block to keep them together.

    When that rocket hit, there was a blinding flash of light and I just knew that it was all over. That was the end of it.

    I shot at these kids that were running and I donít know, maybe we got them, maybe we didnít. But when that thing hit that track and didnít come in S of course, all this happens almost instantaneously S I realized that it didnít come inside, that the damage is outside, I had Horace Gary, my driver, to try to move forward slowly to see what happens, and the tank moved. Both sides of it moved. I said well, the trackís not completely off. I had no idea what the damage was. If it had been on the trackís suspension system, it could have been on a bogey wheel, it could have been almost anything. But when he moved forward, that was a good sign that we could move, anyhow. Very slowly, letís turn to the right.

    So we came around, and got headed back to where we had come from over where our infantry was. I got back over the hedgerow, and Wileyís tank Ė I think when Wiley came over that hedgerow, thatís the time that the turret hatch slammed down on his fingers and crushed them. Thatís when it was instead of the first time we were out there.

    I get back over behind the infantry, to where my other three tanks are sitting. I get out and take a look and the only visible damage is that track.

    I had the boys then to break the track. We carried spare track blocks with us just for that purpose, to repair a damaged track. And while theyíre doing that Iím having Wileyís fingers bandaged to get him out of there. I wish I had a clear picture of it, but I donít.

    That must have been the tank that had to go back to repair the final drive housing. It must have been. I wish I could bring it back but I canít. Maybe I will tomorrow or next week or next year, or never. Probably never. But Iím left with four tanks.

Contents                       Chapter 14, Jim Flowers, Part 3