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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 23

Bob Levine's story

    I was born in the Bronx; went to William Howard Taft High School. I was captain of the tennis team. I was a real hotshot. Eighteen. I signed up for the draft. In June I was 18, and in September I was taken.

    I went to Camp Upton, and from there I was shipped down to Camp Croft in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I had gotten into the Army Specialized Training Program. When you go to all the public schools in England and you see the list of all of those who were killed, they just lost the cream of their youth. So I gather this [the ASTP] was part of a program, maybe an elitist program, to give us some college preparation. And before that, we had infantry training. I had 17 weeks of basic and then my group shipped out, and I was going to go to the University of Georgia. At that point I guess they started to plan the invasion, and they realized that they needed all the meat they could get, so they changed their plans, and I was shipped overseas as a replacement.

    I met the 90th Division in Normandy. I think I was in the first group of replacements. I didnít know the 90th from a hole in the wall. They had come over together.

    Utah Beach was secured very early on, itís not like Omaha. They were several miles inland by the time I joined them. They marched us off the beach, into trucks, and then they just brought us out to the 90th. You walk in, and they say, "Hereís Sergeant So and So," and of a sudden I was in the fourth platoon, which was the heavy weapons platoon, the 81-millimeter mortar. You had no choice. And you didnít know anybodyís name. You never got a chance to really get to know anybody. The only guy that I really was buddy buddy with was the guy I went overseas with, he was also a replacement, he was from Houston, and his name was Mike. I canít think of his last name; itís killing me because I wanted to find him. We buddied together, and we ended up in the same platoon, same squad, and you know what a buddy is? When you dig a foxhole, you have a pick, and the other guy has a shovel. And itís the same way with a pup tent, heís got half and youíve got half. Thatís the way you develop this relationship.

    We were on Hill 122 together; we went down, and I remember distinctly when I was wounded, and they were marching us on the road, I was up front, because I was walking. Mike stayed with me because he wanted to make sure I could walk, and when the shell hit, I lost consciousness and I never saw him again, I donít know what ever happened to him.

    I carried a base plate for the mortar, and a bag with three shells on the front and three on the back, and each man carried a part of the mortar, which was in three or four pieces.

    It was like wearing a bulletproof vest. One day I looked down and I saw these three or four holes in the base plate, which was over my chest. They had to be from a machine gun, because they were in a line.

    You know, I can remember the day, you realize at some point that youíre not going to make it. Thereís a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety, and suddenly you realize Ė guys are dropping all over, and around you Ė and you make this decision, and thereís suddenly a peace, and a relaxation, you come to the realization that youíre not going to come out of it. And your whole body goes into a different state. And thatís why when you suddenly wake up Ė this is hard to explain, but when I wake up and I see my leg is off, itís anticlimactic. I mean to me, Iím alive. I was dead, in my own mind. Ö So you look down and you say, "Damn, he took the leg off." But it wasnít "Oh my God," because of the elation of just waking up.

    There were a lot of firefights, and then one night, very early on Ė I only had to go on one night patrol, which was really a panic, I mean talk about fear. I very rarely talk about that. They picked out a group. No volunteers; you, you, and you, youíre all going. They give you the password, and you go out.

    Just getting prepared for it was a whole ritual, darkening your face, and the sergeant would say, "This is what weíre going to do." And just as we get back to the line, the guy says the password, everybody just kind of flops back, and thereís a release from the mental tension and exhaustion. I only did that once, but I canít believe how many times guys did that, the pressure, going out at night.

    We just went a field or two away, it wasnít that far, but when youíre on your belly and youíre crawling Ė thatís why I was so interested in how I finally reacted to the realization that okay, the hell with it, all this tension is drained. It made the difference when I realized I survived, I couldnít believe it, that I really came out of this.

    We were the fourth platoon. The first three platoons were rifle platoons, so we would always give support from behind, and by the time we moved up, we were kind of in between, and the shells were coming over us.

    In the rifle platoons there was a big turnover, every few days youíd see replacements coming in.

    In three weeks, I didnít get that close to anybody. I donít remember my sergeantís name, it was just Sarge. I remember the lieutenant, I can see him but I donít remember his name. Sir, that was all it was. Very, very difficult to remember. And of course 52 years later itís a real struggle.

    We werenít under fire going up Hill 122. It was during the day. We must have been the only ones who made the summit. Thatís why we were encircled.

    I remember bivouacking up on the hill, and chatting. We were laying around, and then when they said there are tanks, tanks always had a connotation of a major action.

    We spent the night on the hill. That must have been the night of the Ninth. When we went down, it was late in the afternoon. It must have been somewhere in mid-afternoon on the 10th when we went down, because when we were finally captured and marched back, it was fairly late in the day, although itís very deceptive, because the sun in Normandy is so late.

    I didnít see the tanks arrive. They got us out of the area, and we congregated behind them. Then they said, "Youíre going to follow the tanks," and at that point I said, "Uh-oh."

    I had never followed tanks before. I had never seen a tank group.

    We were going down away from the beaches. I would say we were going northeast, toward Perier, now that I know where Perier is, and away from Haye du Puits.

    It took an hour maybe to get down the hill. First of all, even just walking down there would have been a trek. There were a lot of low shrubs. There was a lot of shell bursting going on up in the trees, and one of the guys very close to me was caught by shrapnel. So it was not only stuff coming from in front of you, it was coming from above. He just collapsed, like snuffing somebody out.

    You know, itís interesting; I was just trying to figure out when and where I had gotten that feeling, because I was not that excited, I had no fear going down the hill, so it must have been at that point where I had come to grips with my fate. And even when I was down at the bottom of the hill and we were surrounded, I just lay there, and stuff was going all around me; this guy next to me got up and took off and ran and they cut him down, and I just got up and raised my hands. Thatís a moment, in the life of a prisoner of war, thereís a moment in your life when raising your hand in surrender, thatís the trauma. Iíve never seen anything written about it, but suddenly you realize youíve gone from here, to there, I was never prepared. Thatís when I first began to think about the H on my dogtag.

    I had lost sight of the tanks. The tanks were at least another field away. We crossed the road and went to the next hedgerow. But Flowers went through the hedgerow right along the road, and thatís the hedgerow that we went through. That was the first one I didnít have to crawl over; every time you came to a hedgerow you had to climb up and climb down, my hands were all scraped and swollen. So when he went through it, here suddenly we come across the road and we walked right through the hedgerow, because he had plowed through it.

    And then we got to the next hedgerow, so hereís the hill, the road, the hedgerow. We get through this first hedgerow, and get over to the next hedgerow, and dig in. I didnít hear the tanks, I didnít hear anything at that point. The sergeant said dig in.

    Thatís when I crouched down, and suddenly, maybe fifteen minutes or a half-hour later, suddenly the gunfire was coming from the hill, where we had just come from. The gunfire came in from behind us.

    I was in a slit trench. I had just discovered it, so maybe the Germans had used it. It was not long enough for me, so I was scrunched up.

    When the grenade hit, I knew it came from the wrong direction, so I knew at that point that something was very, very wrong. We were not in a very healthy position. And I was prepared, I mean I wasnít surprised, at suddenly seeing these guys behind us instead of in front of us. They were all carrying Thompson submachine guns that they had captured from the paratroopers. They all had that camouflage, and their helmets were filled with foliage, they looked like they were 12 feet tall. And they had that different uniform, it was powder blue, they were the 5th SS, an elite, specialized unit.

    One of them motioned with his hand for me to stand up. Then I showed him my leg. And do you know whatís interesting? There was a hole in the thigh, and I could look down and I could see the artery pulsing, but there was very little blood. I had the sulfa powder, and he let me open it up and I poured the sulfa and I just wrapped a thing around and tied it. There was a thin, clean hole, and you looked in, and you could see the thing pulsing.

    I never realized that in training I was absorbing all of this information until when the time came, I automatically reached for the packet. You do things without even thinking, I guess. But I do remember very clearly seeing the hole in the pants, opening it up, and looking into this clean hole, and just watching the artery go. A German medic took the shrapnel out, and it left a big crater, about the size of a quarter. That was done on the table, probably when he amputated my leg.

    I donít know how many were captured with me, it was a pretty good-sized group. Mike was with me. We were buddies, and he was going to hold me up. He wasnít wounded.

    The Germans didnít search us. As a matter of fact, they just left us alone, maybe figuring that the next day they were going to march us out and blow us up or whatever, who knows. They marched us back about a half a mile behind the lines. And that night we bivouacked with their group. They marched us away from the hill, towards Perier. It wasnít a very long walk, but we were a distance away from the point of capture. And that night, I was aware of the Germans, how they operated, because they moved everything at night; all their equipment was being moved, you heard marching, and our artillery went all night, boom, boom, boom, never gave up. I donít know how these guys could sleep. They moved at night, and they fought during the day. When did they get any rest? At daybreak they got us up, and then we got on another road; it was a dirt road. From that road I went into an aid station, and from there I was moved. I donít remember what they did there; they gave me a shot of something, but they didnít do anything to the leg. And then I was all alone, but all the guys around me were wounded Germans.

    In the aid station, there was a German corpse leaning against the wall; his whole gut had been opened, and a guy came up and looked and me, he made some kind of remark and said youíre lucky youíre not him; he pointed him out to me and this guy was just ashen. Then a truck came and picked all the wounded up and took us out. And then they took us to the farm, where the operation was.

    This is the day of the 11th. I went to the aid station in the morning, so by the afternoon I was at the farm.

    The morning of the 11th I was still with Mike. We were marching in a column. The dust is the thing that I think made us a target. And suddenly I heard boom-boom-boom, and the whole line was hit, it came right down the line.

    I lost consciousness. I can remember going up, but I donít remember coming down. I was blown off the road onto the side, in a ditch, and I woke up, and I just looked around, and then I looked down at my foot and I could see my ankle was just sort of hanging off; the concussion had just come right along the ground and crushed the ankle. So I looked down. And when these guys came over, they were gong to lift me up and walk with me, and I said I canít.

    I donít think they were Germans. I think they were satellite troops, Austrians. They were definitely not the paratroopers. And they were definitely not sober. I think that they all had been drinking Calvados. They were having kind of a good time. Maybe thatís why they picked me up. And at that point, when I realized that I wasnít going to be able to hike, this little farm wagon came over and they threw me into the wagon and drove me right to this little aid station. They must have given me a shot while I was laying there, and the next thing I knew the truck had come, and I was moved on to the MASH unit basically.

    At that point, I hadnít eaten. I donít know if we had had any breakfast. I remember we had some rations that we had with us, before they put us out on the road, and I had nothing to eat after the operation, but sometime after the operation I was given some sort of a liquid or some sort of soup.

    They amputated just above the ankle. And then after the schoolhouse at Rennes was liberated I came back to England. In England they closed it off and shipped me back to Walter Read, and then at Walter Read they re-amputated seven inches below the knee.

    Do you remember Harold Russell? The Army did a training film with him. I was in the same ward with him. So they gave us a still photo.

    Every year, as the beginning of July would roll around, Iíd start to imagine where I was, and start getting into the combat mode. Iíd be very aware, very conscious of every day. Comes the Eighth and Ninth of July Iíd find my body really going into a definite low mode. Iíd be very distracted. So for several days there, when the 11th came, I really kind of was just aware that it was July 11th. And then of course, when I met Henri, it was almost like therapy [When Levine returned to Normandy in 1984, the French historian Henri Levaufre helped him locate the family of the German surgeon who had amputated his leg]. And in 1994, when we went back for the big celebration I really came home on a high. So comes July 11th of í94, we had friends visiting from Washington, we were sitting out in the yard, it was a beautiful afternoon, and Edie said, "How do you feel?"

    I said, "I know itís July, and Iím feeling very good. I think I licked it. Letís go see a movie." We went to see "Forrest Gump." It was supposed to be a comedy. And here we go into "Forrest Gump," and Forrest Gump ends up in Vietnam in this horrific firefight, his lieutenant loses both his legs, and they did such an incredible job, through the imaging that they can do now with the computer, he just lost his legs, there was no question about it, they can do that, and here Iím sitting in this theater in a state of shock.

    And I said, "I donít believe it, Edith, what are we doing here?" She got so upset, and she started to cry. Of all days, the crucial day, we go see this thing. But what really made it painful was that it was so graphic.

    It was very similar to Hill 122. It was real wild, sheer chaos. Going through the woods, down the hill, was like that. Shellbursts, and guys yelling and screaming, you could hear the tanks of course, crashing down.

    I realized at that point that maybe traumas like that just donít go away forever.

Contents                       Chapter 24, Coming soon