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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.

Order "They were all young kids" on Amazon.com (sold out).

 Chapter 16

Judd Wiley's story

    When I recovered, I didnít return to the 712th. My knee was still stiff. They sent me down on the Rhine River, and I stayed there for two weeks in a foxhole; the snow was a foot deep, and I tried to shovel that out, and sat there and almost froze to death. Then the lieutenant who was in charge of this group said, "Why do you put your foot out of the foxhole?"

    I said, "I got hurt in Normandy."

    " ĎHurt in Normandy?í " I was supposed to be a recruit, see, thatís all it was, recruits. So they sent me back to another replacement center at Nancy, France. And a couple of days later they took all the noncoms Ė there might have been a few corporals, but most of us were sergeants Ė and we went up to one of the godawfulest places in northern France, co-o-old. There was a machine shed. It was about a foot off the ground, all the way around, and one side was completely open. They had double bunks in there, and the bottom bunks were all taken. And to get into something like that with a bad leg, I got up there, and then just froze. It was an awful place. We didnít eat good. We had dysentery. The water was no good.

    Then one day a captain came up in a jeep and said, "Is there a Judd Wiley in here?" And I said, "Yes." And he asked me if Iíd like to be part of a tank training detachment.

    I said, "What about my stiff leg?"

    And he said, "Thereís something wrong with every one of the guys." See, they had started an overseas OCS at Fontainebleau, France. Fontainebleau; the 712th went through earlier, right through it.

    I have a picture of this guy Ė when a guy becomes a new lieutenant, the first guy that salutes him, heís supposed to give him a dollar. Thatís just tradition. Iíve got a picture showing Myles Standish, that was his name, shaking my hand, and I had a dollar in my hand that he just gave me.

    He had been in the 11th Cavalry, and thatís where I knew him. I started out in the 11th Cavalry. I was inducted in May 1941, at Camp Seeley.

    Then they moved from Seeley and built a new camp. My mother really gave me a clue. She worked for the Treasury Department in L.A., and she wrote me a letter and said, "I just read a check to build a new camp for the 11th Cavalry at Camp Lockett." So I started the rumor, and it got to Captain Chamberlin. In the cavalry, half of the officers were West Pointers; can you imagine the discipline we went through? He called me to his orderly room and he bawled me out for starting a false rumor. Well, I had the letter in my back pocket. So I folded it just where he could read about the proofreading for Camp Lockett, and I handed it back to him. And he said, "Why, I didnít know that."

    It wasnít my decision to go into the cavalry. They trucked us up to downtown L.A. and we got on a train. It took two cars to get 98 of us plus our barracks bags. We went from there to Brawleigh. You know where Brawleigh is? Itís a desert community; itís not as close to the border as our camp, but anyway, we were trucked, the dust blowing inside, oh, it was awful. We all had white faces when we got in, from the dust. And what was the first officer Iíd ever seen Ė he had these shiny boots that came up almost to the knees and his breeches were in there, and boy, he was GI, he had that campaign hat on, and I thought, "Who the heck is that?" Iíd never seen anyone dressed up like that. Well, he happened to be Captain Chamberlin, my troop commander. I was put in A Troop. We were distributed all through A, B and C. Thatís all we had. The rest of the battalion was up at Marina Lake, a beautiful lake, you could fish, swim, it was just like a vacation spot.

    Now, Iíll tell you one little interesting thing about Frank Bores, William Montoya and myself. Montoya was a Mexican but not a real dark one, and we were all in the cavalry together. When they formed the 10th Armored Division we were all put in I Company together. And then when they inaugurated the 712th, we all got in C Company. They had both been in the Army before me. William Montoya got in when they were up north; it was in the awful Depression days, thatís why guys tried to get in the Army so they could eat. Montoya was that kind. He got in when they were in northern California, at Presidio Monterrey. And when the war came on, they moved down to the desert.

    Well, it was too hot for horses. When a horse has a sunstroke, he goes to the glue factory. When a GI gets a sunstroke, he falls down, but heíll revive.

    In the cavalry, the horses came first. When you go into a bivouac, after you rode all day long, the first thing you have to do is to water your horse, feed it, put a grain sack over its head so it can eat, and then youíve got to curry him all down nice. Then you can go eat.

    I was in the cavalry when Pearl Harbor was attacked. I went in in May, and that happened in December. In fact, I saw my discharge; they were making them out, Rooseveltís one-year training program, oh boy, I was real happy. Then when we heard over the radio, oh no! So I just could see the guy in headquarters that had shown it to me, my discharge, whoosh, just tearing it up in pieces.

    I was at Camp Seeley at the time. I think two days later, we rode up to Lockett. We were going to do it on that same day, but when they heard the news they postponed it, because the commander didnít know what to do, to send us out of the cavalry or what. Two days later they found out, and we moved up to our new camp. That was wonderful. We had big day rooms, they had pool tables, ping pong tables, mountains of books on the wall, all kinds of comfortable chairs to sit in; it was a wonderful place. We had been in tents down at Seeley.

    They had a church. Not that I ever went. Sometimes we went in a company when somebody said we had to go to church. But at any rate, I have a picture of when we were at Camp Lockett, somebody took a picture of me on a horse. Once you learn to ride, then you kind of like it. Of course, they had these McClellan saddles, your hind end gets sore after a while. The old cowboys hated those, but they were in the Army then and you have no choice. But I really liked to ride. You could take a Sunday pass, if there was no duty that day, and you could go riding.

    I remember when the yellow jaundice broke out at Lockett, and the hospital was just full of guys. We had a general hospital there also, and that included all the guys at Camp Marina, because they didnít have a hospital there.

    It must have been two or three months after we moved up to Lockett that they had the yellow jaundice outbreak. Then the order came through, and said that we had to go to Fort Benning, Georgia. The San Diego and Arizona Eastern Line came right through our camp, so all we had to do was load into the cars. There was also a tunnel that started on the American side and ended on the Mexican side, and they had a post down there Ė two tents I think Ė it was a two-week stretch, and I just loved it down there. We could go through and weíd trade beer for tecate; not tecate, tequila. That town just around the bend from the tunnel was called Tecate, and weíve been through there several times since, and have gone up to Camp Lockett and watched it deteriorate.

    I didnít get yellow jaundice, but I did have a problem: I had hemorrhoids. When I got back from the hemorrhoid operation, they said, "Donít ride for at least a month." So they put me planting poplar trees down along the south fence of our stables, and I can remember we had a horse whose name was Huey, he was a mean horse, and here was a recruit trying to bridle him. See, you touch a horseís ear and boy, they donít like that at all. So I crawled under the fence, and I said, "Give me your reins, Iíll show you how to treat Huey." I reached up and grabbed his ear and oh, boy, did he come down and I gave him the bits in the mouth. I said, "Youíve got to do it quick."

    Weíve been back to Campo many times, and the poplar trees are still standing. They would have almost fifty rings in them now. The trunks are huge.

    I was in the cavalry eight months before the war. Then we were shipped from Campo to Fort Benning, in the Sand Hill area. The old camp is made out of brick, itís still there. Iíll bet that every old barracks that was standing there is down now, but anyway, when we went back there, they averaged from about 18 to 20 per company. Well, I donít know what made me throw my hand up, but Sergeant Spearman Ė he was our first sergeant Ė he came out one morning at reveille and he said, "We need one volunteer to go to Fort Knox gunnery school." And I donít know what, the Lord must have took my hand up, because I didnít know a thing about it. Bob Hagerty and I, they took a jeep and took us down to Alabama somewhere and we caught a train for Louisville, and then there was a jeep waiting for us and it took us out to camp, which was just beyond the gold repository. And most of the guys that I talked to had some college, so I thought, well, Iím going to have to study. I mean, I never left that place to go anywhere, I just studied, studied, studied, and I did all my homework. So when we graduated, they put all the guysí names outside on a bulletin board, and we all crowded around and were looking and I started looking way down at the bottom for mine, and I looked, looked, looked; I was fifth from the top. And Iím not pointing any fingers but Hagerty was down about in the middle. But I just didnít have as much education as most of those guys, I think Hagerty was one of them at least went to junior college.

    The day I got back from gunnery school they made me a sergeant. I was just a corporal before that.

    I stayed with Jim Flowers through many problems. One time, we were walking up toward the hill to talk to some officers that we just couldnít get the tanks up to, on Hill 122. We came to a road, and there was a medic that was laying in the road over on the other side and he had been hit in the legs by a sniper that was back up the road. So Flowers says, "Iím going!" And he jumped and got over to the other side. And I thought, this will alert the damn sniper, if I go next. So I waited only a minute, then I went. I guess the guy was taking a shit, because he didnít fire. So after we got into foliage of our own, we pulled this medic up there, and more medics were already waiting to take him to the hospital.

    That was one scrape we got into. Another time Major Kedrovsky was walking way up ahead of us, and there was a Mexican behind him. Youíre supposed to not walk close together. The Mexican was twenty or thirty feet behind Major Kedrovsky, and then came Lieutenant Flowers, and I was in the back. And I just happened to be looking at that Mexican, and his head just disappeared. Just disappeared! They sniped at him with an 88 gun, and knocked his head right off! And naturally, Flowers ran up and Kedrovsky ran back to see if he could help him, but with no head? It was completely gone! Just blown to pieces! Just in a second I saw that.

    Another time, we were told to work with a 90th Division infantry company. The day before the Germans had counterattacked and made a big bulge in the line. So they called for tanks. There was a captain of the company that was on his knees talking to me all the time, go on this road over here, go on that one over there, because he had been there, it was all recaptured ground. And I mean I had those guns going almost all the time; if there were any Germans in the area they sure got out. And we gained more ground than he lost, by two or three hedgerows Ė thatís quite a distance, it might be half a mile. So then it made a bulge in the line instead of a hole. It was just about dusk. The captain crawled down off the tank, and I got down off the tank, and he came over to me and he said, "Sergeant, I thank you a lot. We got all the ground back and gained more." Then he stuck his hand out, and we were still shaking hands when a sniperís bullet came right through from the side and took out both of his eyes Ė I can hear those screams right now, that poor guy. And the medics came and hauled him away immediately and gave him a shot of morphine and did everything they could.

    He was shaking my hand. Our hands were still together. It could have been me. And he was such a good guy, a nice guy, or he wouldnít want to come up and shake a sergeantís hand. And his company told me later that they all just loved him because he was such a good officer.

    I donít know if he survived. I did know his name, briefly, but Iíve forgotten it. He was a company commander.

    The motorcycle. Let me tell you about the motorcycle, because thereís a little more involved than you might think. Itís big enough for one man to sit, itís got a motorcycle steering and then itís got two tracks behind, to haul light artillery with. It was at a railroad station, and there was a dead German in the back; thereís a thing where he can sit on, looking back.

    The infantry said, "If you go out there, youíve got less than a minute" before these damn mortars will be coming down on you. Well, that put a little spice in it for Flowers.

    I said, "Youíre crazy."

    He said, "I want to get that thing. Weíll use it for company communications."

    I said, "Weíll get killed on it because itís a German machine!" But anyway, I got caught up in the excitement. So he said, "The first time we run out there, you turn the ignition on to see if the batteryís good, and Iíll throw the German off the back."

    Well, we had just gotten back when boom-boom-boom-boom, mortars.

    He said, "The next time we go out, you try to start it, and get it warmed up," and he wasnít going to do anything but just go out with me. So I did. Got back, boom-boom-boom-boom. I was afraid theyíd hit it and that itíd be worthless, but they didnít. So he says, "Okay. The third time Iíll get on the back, and you gun it out as fast as you can."

    There was a road that turned and went behind the station and went down past some trees, but all those dirt roads in France are horribly crowned. They couldnít function with roads that were flat, because it rains every morning in France, in the summer. So I jumped on it and put it in first gear and it was just going "rrrrrrr," and he said, "Get it going!" So I brought it back to third gear. It shifts just like a jeep. And away we went, down into this road, and the mortars started coming in. The road was so crowned, this damned awful steering system was terrible, and I couldnít control it. I looked back, and Flowers had jumped off into a ditch. I was still going about 30 miles an hour, itís a wonder he wasnít killed from falling off. Then I jumped, and my left foot got stuck under the clutch, and I couldnít get it out. I was half in and half out of the damn thing, and my knee was just about killing me. When it hit this low spot it turned up on its side, and my foot was still on the clutch. Fifteen minutes later it was swelled up so big you couldnít believe it, as big as my head. I donít know where all that stuff comes from. So Flowers says, "Are you all right?"

    I said, "I guess so." I figured maybe it would go away. I was walking with a stiff leg; I couldnít bend it. I let Flowers go first, so he wouldnít see me limping.

    My fingers had been injured three days before, and Flowers kept redoing them because they bled like they never were gonna stop. My fingers were injured when the tank hatch slammed down on them. That was about three days before the motorcycle incident. The hatch covers have latches on them that youíve got to press before they close. I had my hands on this turret rim, to hold on while weíre backing over this hedgerow, and when the track hit it went "Bang!" And the latch broke loose and the hatch cover came down and hit my fingers; see, I was holding on for dear life, with all those bumps. My fingers got all crushed. The nail was gone on my little finger, and the fourth finger was mutilated, the bone was just crushed. But I would never have left the front with that.

    I didnít say anything about my knee to anybody. I thought maybe it would go away. I tried to get in my tank. No way can you get in a tank with a stiff leg. Itís impossible, I can tell you that right now, because I tried twice before I said anything.

    My tank crew was cleaning the guns. They were cleaning the big cannon when I got back, so I called to Eugene Tannler Ė heís the loader Ė he was sticking his head out of the tank doing something. I said, "Tannler, will you throw me my musette bag?" You know, youíve got a change of socks and shaving material, and I had an old box camera that I took a lot of pictures with in combat. He threw it down to me, and I said, "Iíve got to go to the medics," and I held up my hands, but they were all so busy nobody noticed me, not even Jim Flowers, when I limped away.

    As soon as I got out of sight of these guys I pulled my pant leg up and I couldnít believe it. It was just so swollen. I got to the medics and they unbandaged my hand. Flowers used to dress it every night. He did it pretty good for just an officer, not a medic. They took the bandage off, and the bone in one of my fingers was shattered. The medic said, "When you get down to the doctors" Ė they had a hospital unit set up on the beach Ė "donít let anyone cut that finger off, it can be saved."

    When I got down to the hospital unit, I said, "Can you fix me up so I can go back to my outfit?" You get that way. I loved my men. I didnít want them to be without me. And the doctor took the bandage off that the medics had just put on, and he put a new bandage on it, and I pulled up my knee, and he said, "Oh my God!"

    I said, "Can you fix me up so I can go back to my outfit?"

He said, "You see that big ship out there in the harbor? Thatís a hospital ship and youíre gonna be on it."

    In the turret, Harold Gentle was my gunner. Eugene Tannler was the loader. He was a big, tall guy, as tall as I was.

    The driver and the bow gunner down below were Paul Farrell and Laverne Patton.

    Gentle had a dead eye. They offered him a commission when he first came in. He had an IQ of something like 150. What was that book, there was a thick book, it was about during the Depression and the dust bowl? "The Grapes of Wrath." Gentle read that in two hours. And I said, "How could you read it that fast?"

    He said, "Oh, itís easy."

    I said, "You mean, you could relate that whole story to me?"

    He said, "Yeah."

    So I read it, and it took me five days.

    I can tell you something kind of funny. When our tank went to heck, we hunted all over for our company motor pool, and finally, at a road junction, I asked an MP, "Do you know where the 712th C Company motor pool is?"

    And he said, "I never heard of it, but thereís an ordnance outfit five miles down this road, you donít have to turn at all."

    We went down this road, and, oh, it was wonderful! They had all the good equipment to fix a tank right. However, we got in there so late in the afternoon they couldnít do anything with it. We had showers. We washed our clothes. We had a nice bed to sleep in. I had had my socks on so long that when I took them off, some of my skin came off with them. But anyway, that was real nice. However, when Stars and Stripes came out, on the front page it showed General Patton standing on my tank with my .50 caliber machine gun, winning the damn war all by himself, at least ten miles from the front.

    I knew it was my tank because it said "Incinerator" on the side. We named it that not because we loved that name, but because Captain Cary said that all of the first platoon would have to name their tanks starting with an I. We were I Company in the 10th Armored Division before we became C Company of the 712th. When they named the tanks, we were out on the gunnery range and we didnít know anything about it, so when we got back they already had Invincible and Indestructible and all that. The other guys all had their tanks named real nice names, and we didnít have a name. Even Gentle, my "brain," said, "Come on, letís get a name!"

    So I said, "How about Incinerator?"

    "Good!"

    So we had it in bright letters on the side, Incinerator. Thatís what it turned out to be. Thatís the pity of it. It wasnít the name that did it.

    As soon as we got our tank fixed the next day, we took off and went back up to Hill 122. Then, the next Stars and Stripes that came out, there was the picture of Patton. I had that for years, and when we moved to Vista, a lot of stuff got lost. Here he is, ten miles from the front, big brave Patton. Your blood and my guts, thatís what we used to call him, Blood and Guts. He couldnít take orders from anyone. In Italy, down in the boot, the islands, he couldnít follow orders there. I read an article about it in Readerís Digest. That was Pattonís life, he couldnít follow orders. But he could get a .50-caliber machine gun Ė that was my gun Ė and I used it several times.

    One time, well, you can see a tracer bullet coming, but it comes so fast you canít blink your eye, and all of a sudden I felt something hit my face, and I slumped down into the seat that I was standing on. I said, "Tannler, is there a hole in my forehead?"

    And he said, "No, but youíve got blood all over your face."

    Well, you know how the Army is, paint today, paint tomorrow, paint, paint, paint. The sniper hit the tank right in front of my eyes and a paint chip hit me in the face. When I got back up, I turned that machine gun around Ė I knew which tree it came from because it was a tracer bullet and you could see it coming Ė and I started firing and I saw that guy come falling out of the tree. A 50-caliber machine gun will go right through a tree like that.

    That was as close as I came to getting it. A lot of tank commanders were killed that way, by snipers.

    Another time, we were going up a dirt road, and down in the low part of the road was a German that had a white barracks bag about as obvious as if he had a searchlight on him. He was running along trying to stay ahead of us until he could find a way through the hedgerow. I used my turret sights and put them right on him, and Gentle fired a 75 shell at him.

    The guy went all to pieces, and his clothing was everywhere, stuck on the hedgerow and everywhere else.

    I said, "Gentle! Couldnít you have been a little merciful, just given him a couple shots from the 30-caliber machine gun?" That would have done the same thing.

    He said, "I know, I pushed the wrong button." Heís got two buttons on the floor, theyíre separated several inches, and he just fired without thinking. Thatís the only thing Gentle ever did wrong.

    The first bad time we had Ė and I learned this in gunnery school; when youíre going down to where a road turns and youíre going to have to turn, turn your gun that way before you get to the corner. Then youíre ready to fire, but if you have to turn the turret after you get to the corner, youíd be dead.

    We came down a road that turned to the left Ė we were going to try to find some infantry that had been left behind, so I looked at the map and I saw this road, and it seemed like the right way to go Ė so I turned the turret as we came around the turn, I could see an explosion. There was an 88 gun in the road and it hit the side of our tank; broke the heavy tow cable, you couldnít have pulled a jeep with it. It just cut the tow cable in half and "Whoooom!" went out into the air.

    By the next three shots there were three dead Germans there and ammunition all over the road.

    That was three Germans, so now weíve got four Germans killed: the guy with the sack, and these three gunners. Then we were called to go out and try to find a sniper. There were dead infantrymen laying everywhere. One was a Mexican, and he was draped right over a treeless hedgerow. I thought his parents should get that acre of land, free, because of their sonís dying trying to free it for the French. It made me mad. In that area, the farmers made their silos out of rock, and they have a little hole on the top and a bigger hole on the bottom. And they have probably built-in rungs that go clear to the top.

    When we first pulled up there I saw a movement up in that little hole; itís only about a foot and a half square.

    I said, "Gentle, aim carefully and put a round right through the hole up there."

    He did. Fired one round. And "Plop!" That big hole that faced us, and you could see all the dust. That was the sniper who had been shooting at all these guys. Gentle was a good gunner, one of the best, and he put that round of high-explosive right through that hole.

    That was German Number 5. Letís see, the first one was the one with the sack, then the three gunners, thatís four, and the one that I shot at and killed that almost got me, and then there was the guy in the silo. So thatís six dead Germans.

    This is within our first two days of combat.

    There was another incident. This involves a Frenchwoman, an older woman. The day we first went into combat, we were down on the flats, and there was a Frenchwoman who was safely going into the town, and coming back. She lived in a house just barely outside the town. In town the houses were all together, and hers was separate; she had about a block to walk to get into town. But every time she would leave and come back, we would get shells all around us. And I thought, thereís got to be something wrong here. She came out again, went back, and shells were falling everywhere around us.

    I could see the church tower there. So when we drove into town where I could see it, I told Gentle, "Put a round up in that damn church tower." And there was a dead German laying in it when we got done. So thatís what, seven? That was the first one.

    The woman was probably making signs to him. I felt like shooting her. I know this is happening. But how can you kill a Frenchwoman? I just couldnít do it. We were fighting against men, we werenít fighting women. I damn near thought I should just turn the .50-caliber machine gun out there and tear her to pieces, but I just couldnít do it. But I killed her lover who probably was up in that church tower.

Contents                       Chapter 17, Judd Wiley, Part 2