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Arrival in France

Soldier standing in front of a street sign for DieppeRouen

A soldier in France. From the collection of Irving Mayer.

June 12 was ending when a call came for four demoliton men to accompany a platoon of Co. “D” 603rd Eng. on an unknown mission. Next morning, Capt. Rebh selected Cpl. Campbell, T/5 Haney, Pfc. Gorman and Pfc. Minutola for the job. They were told to report to Lt. Cal. Mayo for briefing. At the briefing, the Col. informed the four that it was planned to have Lt. Mason’s platoon erect dummy 155m artillery installations in France. The job of the demolition men was to operate an improvised flash device which was intended to simulate the flash of a “Long Tom.”

It was thought that these devices would have to be operated under the heavy counter battery fire that the enemy would certainly lay on the installations. After thoroughly familiarizing themselves with the devices, the four “gunners” practiced operating, them in the shortest possible time so that when the real thing came they would be able to jump in and out of their foxholes between artillery bursts.

Lt. Col. Mayo brought the briefing to an end by advising the men to be sure to ”dig deep.”

The four men were then told to change into O.Ds, as the invasion was being fought in formal dress, and report with full field equipment at 1200 hours at the front entrance to the “Castle.”

Noon saw the four pseudo cannoneers waiting outside Walton Hall with Lt Mason and his platoon. The Lieutenant told the assembled men that the group was going to fly to the continent but that weather over the channel was delaying the departure. A couple of hours later, word came that the weather was too heavy and that the flight was postponed until the next day.

The following morning, 14 June, the four “airborne artillery men” once more exchanged warm handclasps with their comrades, just before the company fell out for the morning schedule. They then returned to their tents to await the call of departure.

At 1100 hours, the word came to load up. Trucks quickly transported the group to the Wellesbourne airport. Here the men found two “C-47’s” waiting for them. Lt. Col. Beck gave the men a short briefing as to the air route and the problem of obtaining transportation on arrival in France. He explained that as soon as they arrived in France, he would have to set out on foot in search of vehicles for the group and its two well-laden half ton trailers.

The group, which consisted of eleven enlisted men and Lt. Mason from the 603rd and the four combat engineers, was divided into two flight parties. The lieutenant took charge of one party and S/Sgt Amborski assumed charge of the other. A trailer was loaded on each plane; the parties boarded their respective planes and expectantly waited the take off. It came at 1300 hours for the plane carrying S/Sgt Amborski’s men, and forty five minutes later the second plane roared down the air strip.

With eyes glued to the small windows, the men watched the patterned English countryside slip beneath them. Soon they were over the beaches of Southern England and then only the water of the channel, filled with plodding ships, was visible below.

Suddenly someone spotted a plane in the Clouds that were brushing by the windows. There was a moment of anxiety as the C-47’s were without arms or armors. But the distinctive features of the P38 were immediately identified. Quickly the others noticed three other “Lightings” circling the plane. These four welcome strangers were the escort across the channel.

Before the take off, the Major, who piloted one of the planes, suggested that a steel helmet was very handy in case the flight produced a desire to get rid of “your lunch.” Half way across the channel, T/5 Tom Haney decided to take the Major’s advice and proceeded to fill his helmet.

The escorting planes departed as quickly as they had arrived and “voila” there was the coast of La Belle France. As the plane circled Omaha beach for a landing, the men saw in the wrecked filled waters and the battle scarred beaches a panorama of invasion.

Upon arrival, the second plane found the occupants of the first with their gear all unloaded and anxiously awaiting the second, since they thought that both planes had taken off at the same time. The planes had barely halted when ambulances swung alongside. As soon as the men had unloaded the equipment, the medics converted the planes into air ambulances and transferred the wounded from their land conveyances. It was an impressive example of the attention given to the wounded, but a scene to sober the most frivolous mind.

For the benefit of future generations, students of military arts, and biographers of famous persons, it is here recorded that Pfc. Nicholas Minutola was the first of the gallant 406 men to set root on liberated France.

Upon landing, Lt. Col. Beck immediately set out in search of transportation. At. 1700 hours, he returned with two jeeps. The two trailers were hooked on and the men from Lt. Mason’s party loaded on their personal gear and then found room as best they could on the jeeps and trailers. While S/Sgt Amborski’s party waited on the beach, the others pushed onto the C.P. of the 7th Corp.

It was a “push” along the trail of very recent conquest, and the men several times nearly lost their precarious seats as they turned, twisted and craned at the debris of battle. At Carentan, liberated the previous day, a paratrooper directed the party to St. Mere Eglise. Smashed gliders and planes along the route were grim evidence of the price the airborne men had paid for this tiny strip of land.

VII Corp was found one mile north of St. Mere Eglise. Here Lt. Mason was informed that the dummy installations would be attached to the 980th F.A.Bn. On the way to the 980th, the men were given a word of cheer when an M.P. ordered the jeeps to maintain an interval of seventy five yards as the road ahead was under artillery fire.

The 980th was located about two miles west of St. Mere Eglise and was engaged in shelling the defenses of St. Savueur. Its C.O., Lt. Col. Walsh, selected a site, one mile in front of his forwardmost battery, for the installation of the dummy “Long Toms.” At this area, the men unloaded the jeeps and these quickly took off again to bring the other half of the group up. While awaiting their other half, the men started to dig in.

At 2100 hours, the vehicles returned, and then the company group began erecting the phantom battery. By 0130, June 15, the first deceptive positions of 23d Hq were in place. The only interruption that occurred, during the initial installation was caused by a guard from battery of 105s, firing at the men working the pumps. Upon questioning, he explained that he mistook the pump noises for the hissing of a snake! The incident brought home to the men the full meaning of the words “Trigger Happy.”

On their second day in the combat zone, “First on France” Minutola and “Attack” Gorman felt the urge to have a look-see at the front lines. So with Minutola acting as advance scout and Gorman furnishing the rear guard, the pair began an approach march towards St. Sauveur and its hostile host.

The march had proceeded for some distance when the sharp eyes of the scout spotted an object as big as a small pill box, inside an open barn. Cautiously covering each others every move, the two warriors moved in on the barn.

Once inside the battered building, the daring soldiers discovered that the distance that the distance had fooled them and their objective was nothing more than a huge wooden barrel filled with an amber liquid. A passing Frenchman told them that liquid was good to drink if they were thirsty. He proved his point by drawing and drinking a glass.

Although without thirst, curiosity forced the men to taste this strange drink. After a few careful swallows, their parched throats got the better of them, and they drank long and deep. When “hint and gleam” Gorman suggested that anything that was so good to drink should be wonderful to swim in, “mild and mellow” Minutola ordered a retreat to their base. However, before retiring, the two stalwarts filled four bottles with the French elixir to supplement any G2 reporting that they might write concerning their mission.

Upon returning to camp, the two heroes found their comrades waiting to hear the story of the march. As the tale was recited, the listeners, clutching the bottles, sopped it up. When the recital was finished, all joined in the discussion to what the four bottles had contained. Some said flat champagne, while others insisted that it had been sauterne. This made the men realize that in the heat of battle, a soldier, often, does not know what he is drinking and doesn’t give a damn unless it’s water.

The flash devices functioned well but because of their makeshift construction they required special attention for each loading. It was soon apparent that the powder supply was inadequate. Powder was conserved by firing the devices only at night and synchronizing them with the flashes of the real 155s. Nocturnal synchronized firing proved to be the most effect way of using the flash machines as their flashes were more conspicuous at night and the thunder of the actual rifles provided the desired sonic effect.

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