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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. The story below of Flowers delivered in his own words and those of the survivors of his platoon is virtually unknown in the United States.

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    Chapter 3

    Alles Kaput

     Despite ferocious artillery and mortar fire, three of the tanks in Jim Flowers’ platoon made it to the base of the next hedgerow. Jack Sheppard’s tank bogged down in a marsh at the beginning of the field. Much of K Company was at the first hedgerow in from the road, where Bob Levine’s platoon was told to dig in.

    In the three weeks since he had joined the 90th Division as a replacement, this was the first time Levine had taken part in an assault with tanks. It was a luxury to cross over a hedgerow through the rut created by a tank. Every other hedgerow he had crossed, always on his belly, had scraped his hands and arms.

    Levine found a slit trench that had probably been dug by a German. His whole body didn’t quite fit, so he scrunched down on his back and pulled his knees in to his stomach. After several minutes in this position, he looked behind him. What he saw shocked him: Germans were approaching from the road, which meant that they were behind the line.

    A hand grenade exploded nearby. Levine looked at his right leg, and saw a hole about the size of a dime from which blood was spurting.

    Levine only remembers the name of one other soldier in the platoon, his buddy Mike, and he only remembers Mike’s first name. Mike was in the foxhole next to Levine. Another member of the platoon stood up and tried to run back toward the hill through the approaching Germans, and was cut down by machine gun fire.

    A moment later, Levine found himself looking at a group of German paratroopers. They had on powder blue uniforms and helmets with leaf netting, and appeared to Levine to be about twelve feet tall. They were carrying Thompson submachine guns that had in all likelihood been taken from American paratroopers.

    Levine and Mike raised their hands in the air.

 

     The first antitank round struck the turret of Jim Flowers’ tank and caromed off. Flowers likens the sound it made to the ringing of the Liberty Bell. The jolt slammed a little wheel inside the turret into Rothschadl’s mouth, knocking out four of his teeth. Rothschadl remembers Horace Gary, the driver, shouting to Jerry Kiballa, the assistant driver, "Let’s get the hell out of here!" But Flowers was not about to order his crew to abandon tank. He got on the radio and told the other tanks that there was an antitank gun, and that he called down to Rothschadl, telling him to help look for it. Rothschadl nervously placed his eye back against the periscope and thought he saw a hazy wave that could have been caused by heat from the gun. He fired a high-explosive shell.

    Moments later the tank was rocked again. If Flowers had been sitting instead of standing on his seat, the armor-piercing round would have cut him in two instead of shearing off his right forefoot. Flames were shooting into the air.

    At the same time Flowers’ tank was hit, Titman’s and Taylor’s tanks were hit as well, and so was Sheppard’s, several hundred yards to the rear.

    When Flowers placed his right foot on the bottom rung of the ladder leading out of the turret, he slipped and fell back in. He didn’t know yet that his foot was in tatters.

    Rothschadl’s clothes were on fire, and the tendon in his right ankle was severed. His foot buckled when he when he tried to climb out of the tank.

    He reminded himself that in training he was instructed not to panic.

    Flowers grabbed the rim of the turret and lifted and pushed himself out with his arms and his left foot, and then he leaned in and grabbed Rothschadl by the shoulders and hoisted him out.

    Rothschadl dropped off of the tank and rolled over to try and put out the flames. He rolled right into a ditch or a crater that had water on the bottom.

    Before Flowers left the tank, he instinctively had grabbed his Thompson submachine gun and slung it over his shoulder.

    The driver, Horace Gary, and the assistant driver, Gerald Kiballa, got out through the hatch in the belly of the tank. Flowers looked for Ed Dzienis, his loader, but in the confusion of the battle he did not know how or even if Dzienis got out of the tank.

 

    The tank that Kenneth Titman recalls as being named Vulnerable burst into flames the moment it was hit. Titman knew that his gunner, Kenneth Cohron, was dead because pieces of Cohron’s flesh were splattered on his helmet. As he climbed out through the turret, he saw Stephen Wojtilla on top of the tank, engulfed in flames. Clarence Morrison, the driver, threw the tank in reverse and it moved a few feet, then lurched to a halt. Michael Vona, the assistant driver, opened the belly hatch and both he and Morrison dropped through it.

    Moments before the tank was hit, Vona was looking through the bow gunner’s periscope. He saw one of the tanks get hit, and he saw his buddy Abe Taylor go flying through the air.

    Titman dove into a ditch, and then saw blood coming from the top of his right boot. He looked up at his tank and remembers thinking it was like a giant popcorn factory, with ammunition exploding inside and a shower of sparks shooting through the flames. Several German paratroopers appeared at the edge of the ditch and one of them announced, "Alles kaput." Titman raised his hands in the air.

 

    Vona headed for the base of the hedgerow, just as a hand grenade came flying over the top. He rolled away from it, and was dazed by the explosion.

    Seconds later, a German soldier came over the hedgerow, and he and Vona struggled. The German had a luger, and got it flush against Vona’s temple, then pulled the trigger. Vona still can hear the click. From the corner of his eye, he could see an American infantryman S he thinks it might have been a medic S and he shouted for help. The infantryman then shot the German, who slumped over on top of Vona.

    The German was still alive, but was in shock. Vona looked around and saw a large foxhole with some sort of a cover.

    The German soldier was moaning and in shock. He was about the same size as Vona, who was only 5-foot-6 and 129 pounds. Vona dragged him over to the foxhole, and they both dropped inside. Then he pulled the moaning German on top of him for protection, because he could hear other Germans walking around outside the foxhole, firing an occasional shot.

    He went through the German’s pockets, looking for ammunition or anything he could use as a weapon. He found a knife, and a wallet with some English money. He recalls thinking, "This bastard must have thought he was going to add some American bills to his collection."

    Eventually, things quieted down outside, and Vona came out from underneath the mortally wounded German. He saw somebody lying at the other end of the foxhole, and discovered it was Morrison, who was wounded around one of his eyes, and was in shock.

    "C’mon, Morrison," Vona whispered. "We’ve gotta get out of here." Morrison didn’t respond.

    "Wait here," Vona whispered. He crept up out of the foxhole, and looked around. The three tanks were still burning, their hulls orange from the heat. He heard someone sobbing nearby.

    It was Ed Dzienis, Lieutenant Flowers’ loader. He was burned over much of his body, and lay on the ground, crying "Mommy … Mommy."

    Vona felt tears welling up. He was too weak from the grenade blast and his struggle with the German to carry Dzienis, and Dzienis was in no condition to move on his own.

    "You wait here," Vona whispered, "and I’ll send somebody for you." Dzienis continued to sob, and Vona returned to the foxhole.

    "C’mon, Morrison, wake up!" he implored in a harsh whisper. Morrison made an effort to move, and Vona got his right arm under Morrison’s left arm and lifted him up. Together, they stumbled out of the foxhole.

    Vona and Morrison began hobbling toward a wall along the road. Vona heard voices on the other side, but couldn’t distinguish whether they were American or German. He and Morrison turned the corner, and Vona passed out.

    When he came to, he was on a stretcher being carried by four Germans, and assumed he was captured. The Germans, however, were prisoners of war, and Vona was at Utah Beach, on his way to England.

Contents                       Chapter 4