Third Squad
Chapter 1

Damn, that shelling was heavy! My squad had just hunkered down in a little lane between two hedgerows. It was June 9, 1944, and we were somewhere in Normandy. That somewhere was well advised, because our platoon sergeant was the one with all the maps, and they had been blown to shit along with him, yesterday, when that mortar round landed on top of him. MSgt. Oliver Hopkins had been the acting platoon leader ever since we got half way up Omaha beach, and he had been doing a damned good job of it, too. Lt. Sawyer had taken a line of slugs across his belly from an MG42 before he had hardly gotten his feet out of the water. I hope he was dead before he hit the ground, considering how much morphine he would have needed just to last until the medics found him.

My squad was very damned lucky—we had lost only one man, Jerry Anson, and I hoped that I could keep the rest of my boys alive until we could get rotated back to where the bullets didn't fly so damned heavy. There were seven of us, now: five riflemen, a BAR man, and me with my Tommy Gun and .45 automatic. Shit, I got tired of lugging that heavy Thompson, but it did have a hell of a stopping power, so I just put up with the weight.

Anson had been our bazooka man, and that bullet that killed him had played hell! None of the rest of us were really familiar with a bazooka, but "Harley" Davidson claimed that he knew how to use one. I sure hoped that he was right, because neither the .30 nor .45 caliber stuff we had, nor the grenades, would do us any good against a tank, or even a halftrack.

The Krauts were holed up in a cluster of trees about 100 yards down this lane, and I knew that it was up to us to take them out. The trouble was, they had at least one MG42, and that was no machine gun to take lightly. They were well dug in, and the only reason that we had spotted them was we saw that MG42 in action against a squad of GIs just 10 minutes ago. Well, like it or not, it was up to us to clear them out.

We were just getting set to sneak up on that MG42 when we heard the sound of death coming our way. There was a God damned Kraut tank headed our way. It just had to be a Panzer IV, our luck just would not have it any other way! The thing was so wide that there was no way we could squeeze passed it on the side. Our only choice was to try to take it out with the bazooka.

I sent Harley and Sam about 50 yards back along the lane between the hedgerows to set up an ambush. I didn't know what the hell we could do against the tank if the bazooka didn't work—it was not all that reliable. We had no chance of breaking through the hedges on either side of the lane, so it was up to Harley and Sam to save our beacon.

They got the bazooka and rocket set up, and one more laid out to try to use if the first shot didn't work. There weren't many places that were vulnerable to the bazooka on a Panzer IV bow because of the slope to the armor. If the rocket hit in the wrong place, it would just glance off, but if the rocket did hit in the right place and explode, the tank was probably a goner. Well, we had no real choice. Harley and Sam had to try; otherwise, we were all surely dead.

Those guys had guts! They had to expose themselves to MG34 fire from the tank in order to line up the shot, but they took the chance. Somehow, they weren't seen by the tank crew, so the first bazooka shot was a freebie. Harley got damned lucky and put the rocket in a vulnerable place. He actually didn't know exactly where he hit that Panzer IV, but wherever it was, the damned tank blew up like a stack of TNT. Sam picked up the unused rocket, and the two heroes trotted back to us as pleased as punch. Of course, we congratulated them and nearly killed them with pats on the back until I ordered the celebration to stop because we still had that MG42 to worry about.

We all thought of it at about the same time—we could use the bazooka against the MG42 nest. We were facing two men with the MG42, five riflemen with the 98K bolt action rifles, and a corporal or sergeant with an MP40 machine pistol. Our weapons were good enough against the Kraut weapons, except for that machine gun, but we had the bazooka.

Our next question was what we had for rockets. We had the HEAT warheads (High Explosive Anti Tank) and one WP warhead (white phosphorus). The WP warhead was perfect for our job if we could be sure that it would land where we wanted it. The problem was that we had only one shot. On the other hand, we had the HEAT rockets, but we really didn't know what to expect from them on the open air and not in an enclosed tank. Well, I decided to go with the HEAT rockets, since we had five of them, so we could stand to waste one or two with our experiments.

That exploding tank might have warned the Germans that we were in the vicinity, but they might also assume that one of those multitude of falling shells had done the job. We couldn't wait around indefinitely trying to make up our minds. We just had to act on our best information, even if it was damned sketchy.

We knew exactly where that MG42 was emplaced, so I told Harley to aim for the tree that they were hugging. The rocket warhead had to strike something hard to set it off, and I was afraid that hitting the ground or hitting flesh would not do the job. There were a bunch of trees near the machine gun, so he might get lucky even if he missed the tree he was aiming at.

We were approaching the machine gun nest at nearly a right angle, so they might have trouble shifting the MG42 around to shoot at us. On the other hand, five rifles and a burpgun were not to be sneered at. We got as close as we could to the nest before shooting, but finally we had to suck up our courage and let them know that we were in the neighborhood. The first shot was from Harley and his bazooka. Naturally, as we all expected, he missed the tree he was aiming at, but still hit one close enough to the Kraut squad to cause some casualties. From the sound of the screams of pain, they must have lost two men.

I yelled at him to try for one more shot while the rest of us did what we could to keep their heads down. I was scared that the Krauts would be able to get the MG42 trained on us before we could knock it out. If they did that, we all probably had our tickets punched for an early grave.

Man, that Harley is either damned brave or damned dumb, because he took special pains to line up his shot. This time, he hit the tree beside the machine gun and seemed to cause the kind of damage we had hoped for. Meanwhile, bullets were flying in both directions thick and fast, but without that MG42, I thought that the Germans were at a distinct disadvantage.

I sent Joe Connolly and Charley Winslow to sneak ahead and try to find a way through the hedge. Charley was an ex-baseball pitcher, so he was deadly with a hand grenade. Hopefully, he could get close enough to drop one in on the Krauts, and Joe was to provide cover for him. The two made a good combination, so this was not the first time I had used them for this kind of job.

The two had managed to sneak forward about 20 feet when Joe turned around and crawled back to me. "Sarge, there is a hole in the hedge wide enough for all of us to get through if Harley drops the bazooka for now."

"Great, you two go ahead, and we'll be right behind you." The shooting had become somewhat sporadic by now, so I didn't think that the Krauts would notice if our fire dropped off to nothing for a minute or so. I stayed behind to be the last one through the hole so that I could keep up the suppressing fire with my Tommy Gun. The sound it made was so unique that everybody recognized what it was, so it was a good thing to use to try to fool the Germans.

Harley dropped his bazooka and Sam dropped the satchel of rockets beside the hole. They would be easy to find if we came back for them. This gave us two more riflemen, which was good under the circumstances. Chester Mason with his BAR was the other distinctive sound among our guns, but I wanted him through the hedge as soon as possible to give the riflemen as much cover as he could manage.

I had told them not to shoot until I was through the hedge unless they were caught with no choice. I scooted through the hedge and quickly found the little ditch they were hiding in. Damned if the Wehrmacht sergeant didn't get a little careless. He was puzzled at why our shooting had stopped and was standing up to try to see through the hedge. He was too tempting a target to ignore, so every one of us fired at him at nearly the same time. We could see that most of our shots hit because he seemed to explode in a spray of blood. This really shook up the rest of the men in the squad, and they took off running across the open plot of ground to their rear. Their panicked run played right into our hands, since Chester was able to kill every one of them with a few bursts from his BAR.

Well, we had won this time, but we all knew that we had been very lucky. The next time, all of the luck may be on the other side, and then we would up up Shit Creek without a paddle. Our next job was to check on the machine gun nest to see if there was anything that we could salvage.

I did cuss a little when I saw what had happened to the MG42. I had hoped to take it for our own use, but the damned falling tree had crushed the receiver mechanism, so it would take a rear echelon repair shop to put that machine gun back in working order. We weren't interested in the rifles, etc., but the "potato masher" hand grenades were certainly useful. Also, we picked up an MP40 and a P38 pistol. I told Harley to carry the P38, since he could have trouble getting his M1 into operation in an emergency while he was carrying the bazooka. I suggested to Sam that he carry the MP40 for the same reason. Both thought that was a good idea; they had retrieved the bazooka and rockets while the rest of us were looking over the machine gun nest.

Damn! No wonder I was hungry. It was nearly 1500 hours, and we had missed lunch. We built a small fire and heated our C-rations. The coffee was especially good for men as tired as we were. I had a beef stew, one of my favorites. I smoked one of the cigarettes in my ration pack, an Old Gold which I really don't care for all that much, but a cigarette is a cigarette when you're this far away from a PX (Post Exchange).

We finished our break and policed the place before saddling up for the next hedgerow. Not two minutes before we are ready to start out, we hear the ominous noise of a tank, but this time it's one of ours. We needed news of what was going on with the invasion, so I flaged down the tank and asked a few questions. They didn't know much more than we did, but I did learn that Easy company headquarters was only a quarter-mile away, and Maj. Harris had been asking about us.

We need some resupply, so this sounded like a good excuse to check in with the CO (Commanding Officer) and pick up some more ammunition and some WP rockets for the bazooka. Besides, we needed more rations, and they might have something tasty, like canned peaches.

I found Maj. Harris in his tent with his boots off and his feet propped up. He's smoking his perpetual cigar, so I knew that things were not as bad as they might be. "Maj. Harris, Sir, Sgt. James Haggerty reporting for orders."

"Ah, Sgt. Haggerty! I am delighted to see you. I suppose that you are the one responsible for the dead Panzer IV up the lane a ways."

"Yes, Sir, that one is ours. Pvts. Davidson and Edwards were the ones who actually took it out."

"Damn good job, that one. That damned tank was responsible for a hell of a lot of dead GIs in this sector. Tell your men that their work is appreciated."

"Thank you, Sir. Yes, I'll make a point of telling them."

"You'll be sad to hear that you are all that's left of third platoon. That makes you acting platoon leader, but your job won't change, since we have no replacements at the moment. Take the rest of the day off and pick up what supplies you need. We may be short of men, but at least we have plenty of supplies. Tomorrow, I want you to take up where you left off today and continue with a combat patrol heading northeast of here. Do you have a map of the area?"

"No, Sir. Our maps were lost when MSgt. Hopkins was hit by a mortar round. All of the maps were lost with him."

"OK, well, all I have for you is a prewar Michelin road map. It isn't much, but I think that it is better than nothing. At least, the four-star restaurants are all marked!" Maj. Harris grinned at that, and, not being a complete fool, so did I. The major dismissed me, so I went to give the rest of the guys the glorious news of our little furlough, such as it was.

Sam managed to promote six WP rockets for our bazooka, and all of the guys had stocked up on ammunition and grenades. Harley almost had a fight over his P38. Some selfrighteous MP (Military Police) private tried to tell him that he was not authorized to carry such a weapon. Sam was with Harley at the time and started fingering his burpgun. Suddenly, the MP had urgent business elsewhere. Hell, I thought MPs were not allowed in a war zone.

The next morning we headed back to "our" hedgerow and started moving northeast from there. Things were quiet for the first couple of hours, but we were moving very slowly. We didn't want to get chopped into mincemeat by an MG42, so we were very careful the way we walked. We heard shooting in the distance a few times, but it seemed to be happening well away from our path, so we wished our people well, but kept to our appointed route.

We were in the middle of an open field, a place where I was very uncomfortable, when we heard the sound of a tank headed in our direction. It was too early to tell if it was ours or theirs, so we looked for a ditch to hide in until we knew who was visiting. We found a ditch that was deep enough to hide in, so we stopped to wait for the tank to show up. There was no way we were going to outrun the tank, so it was better to meet it where we had some protection in case it was one of theirs.

Shit! It was another Panzer IV. It was not headed directly toward us but it was going to come within convenient reach of our bazooka. Unfortunately, there was an infantry screen with the tank, so we had to be prepared for a fight when they got close enough. At least, this was one without the extra metal flaps for a shield like so many of the Kraut tanks had. We had fresh rockets, so we could be reasonably sure that they would work as advertised. We were counting on Harley and Sam putting that tank out of commission so that all we had to deal with were the infantry. They were bad enough, but the tank could be very bad news.

Chester set up his BAR on its bipod and laid out extra magazines so that he could grab them quick. The riflemen did the same sort of thing with M1 clips, so now all there was for us to do was wait. It shouldn't take long.

This was almost like a textbook exercise, except that we would be facing real bullets, but Harley lined up his shot and let go at a range of about 75 yards. Good news and bad news. He hit the tank well enough to disable it, but not well enough to kill it. That turret was traversing around toward us like the finger of doom pointing out our fate. Harley managed to get off another HEAT rocket before the Kraut aimer was satisfied, and this time, the tank went up the way we had hoped on the first shot.

Meanwhile, the infantry was shooting at us with everything that they had. Chester was a real artist with his BAR and was popping off burst after burst as quickly as he could line up a shot. The riflemen were pouring out fire as well, and there was a steady musical ping! as an empty clip was ejected from an M1. I was adding my music to the concert with my Thompson chattering away in quick bursts.

Suddenly, one of my men let out a yell and sat down real hard. He had taken a bullet through the fleshy part of his upper left arm. There was not a lot of blood flowing, so none of us worried about it very much.

Some idiot among the Germans decided that they should charge us. I have no idea why, but it was just exactly what we needed to get this whole fiasco over in a hurry. Chester did the most damage with that BAR, but the rest of us put our two cents into the fight, and soon there were no more Krauts making a nuisance of themselves.

That's when I had time to check and saw that it was Hank Borders with the minor wound that he hoped he could promote into a trip back to England. I wished him well, but told him not to count on it.

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Story tagged with:
Historical / Violent / Military /