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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 4

    Friendly Fire

   Lieutenant Harlo J. "Jack" Sheppard watched the three tanks disappear over a hedgerow, as he stood looking out of his mired tank. He had his carbine at his side.

    Suddenly, the tank rocked violently. A round had struck the turret near the gunner’s periscope, only a few feet from Sheppard, and blasted straight on through. It shredded "little joe" S the tank’s generator S and shrapnel pierced the recoil cylinders of the 75-millimeter cannon. The radio was full of shrapnel and didn’t work. The tank wasn’t on fire, and Sheppard saw no point in waiting for another shell to hit. He gave the order to bail out.

    A jagged piece of shrapnel had penetrated Sheppard’s cheek and knocked out one of his teeth. Louis Gerrard, the gunner, had blood all over his face. His right eye was out of its socket and hanging down over his cheek. Earl Holman, the assistant driver; Bailey, the driver; and Clarence Rosen, the loader, were not seriously hurt.

    Holman picked up a carbine and wanted to fight, but a medic implored him not to use it because the small group of GIs and tankers was outnumbered. Sheppard told the crew members to stay with Gerrard, and said he would go back for help.

    The medic told everybody to play dead. Then the Germans arrived.

    Gerrard felt himself being dragged by the feet and propped up against the side of a hill. He felt his wristwatch being removed. He had on a ring with the word "Oran" that his brother Jack had given him. A German was tugging on the ring, but it wouldn’t budge. Gerrard expected the finger to be cut off, or that he would be shot at any moment, and he thought about how terrible it would be for his mother to receive a second telegram. On D-Day, when the 712th Tank Battalion was still in England, he had gotten a letter from home telling him his older brother, Jerry, had been killed in North Africa.

    But the Germans didn’t kill Gerrard, and they didn’t cut off his finger. Instead they propped him up against an embankment and left him there.

    Holman, too, played dead, and felt his pockets being searched for cigarettes. Bailey tried to play dead, but he didn’t succeed. Gerrard could hear him pleading for his life, and then he heard shots. (Years later, Holman suggested that the Germans may have found a luger that Bailey had boasted of having, and executed him because of that.)

    After a while, Holman cautiously opened an eye. The Germans had gone, and had taken the medic with them. Holman checked on Gerrard, who was still conscious, and then headed back for the American lines.

  

     When Jim Flowers talks about Hill 122, he tells how the shell came through the right sponson and clipped off his right foot, and ignited the powder in some of the 75-millimeter ammunition. He tells how he leaned down and pulled Rothschadl out of the tank. He tells how a German patrol passed by that evening and a German medic bandaged his fingers, but didn’t give him any water. He tells how he and Rothschadl and an infantry soldier lay in no man’s land for two days, waiting to be rescued, and he tells how a piece of shrapnel from an American artillery barrage severed his left leg several inches below the knee.

    There is one element of the story about which Flowers is vague. The first time he told me about Hill 122, he simply said that "some things" happened in a ditch that he preferred not to talk about.

    From a hospital bed in 1946, however, Flowers wrote an account of the actions involving his platoon on Hill 122. In it, he says that he had just used his belt for a tourniquet when the German paratroopers attacked.

    "Despite burns to my hands and face and the loss of my right foot, I was fortunately able to organize a defense among the few surviving tankmen and infantrymen," he wrote.

    "We fought the paratroops with any weapon in our possession. Tommy guns, rifles, carbines, knives and fists were used to kill them. When my own tommy gun was out of ammunition, I had to use a knife on one paratrooper who was choking a wounded infantryman. Most of my small force was killed or wounded in a short time."

    He then told the men who were not seriously wounded to try to get back to Colonel Bealke’s battalion. Horace Gary didn’t want to leave the badly wounded lieutenant, but Flowers insisted that he go and try to send help.

 

    As night fell, Lt. Jim Flowers, Corporal Jim Rothschadl and the gravely injured infantryman lay at the base of the hedgerow. On the other side, the tanks continued to burn.

    Sometime during the night, Flowers heard a German patrol approaching. He whispered to the two men with him not to make a sound; not to even breathe deeply. As the patrol passed, a German medic came up to the three wounded Americans. He bandaged Flowers’ fingers individually, and checked the tourniquet on his leg. He also looked at Rothschadl and the infantryman. Flowers asked him for some water. Rothschadl says the medic took a canteen and turned it upside down, to show that he had none.

    The rest of the night passed uneventfully. On the morning of July 11th, however, a German platoon dug in within sight of the three wounded men, but didn’t disturb them.

    A short while later, the area was subjected to an artillery barrage.

    Little in war is as terrifying as being on the receiving end of artillery. While the Germans pressed the earth at the bottom of their foxholes, Flowers, Rothschadl and the infantryman clung to the open ground. But if it was the scythe of the grim reaper that tore off Flowers left leg several inches below the knee, the reaper didn’t know who he was dealing with.

    When the barrage subsided, Flowers removed the tourniquet from his right leg and applied it to the left leg. With his burned hands and bandaged fingers, it was difficult and painful to make it tight.

    Rothschadl had escaped further injury in the barrage, but the infantryman was wounded anew in several places.

    Less than a thousand yards away, Louis Gerrard, who had spent the night propped against the an embankment, was caught in what might have been the same artillery barrage. He clutched the embankments and began crawling toward the top, when he heard an American voice say, "Get over here!"

    There were some GIs in a slit trench, and they pulled him in. When the barrage was over, they put Gerrard on a stretcher and sent him on the back of a jeep to a field hospital on the beach.

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