Remembrances by Archer Martin—110th FA Battalion, 29th Infantry Division
In 1944, I wasn’t yet grown up. As my 18th year passed away, I sat on a massive Scottish river boat on the English Channel, awaiting my voyage to Normandy. I had a terrible, nose-draining cold, and felt miserable, yet felt adventuresome. I sensed history. I knew danger was ahead. But, being a teenager, I believed that nothing would happen to me — that I was not going to be killed, that I wouldn’t be hit.
It wasn’t long before I was disabused of that notion.
This is an account of how that happened. It describes a tiny, tiny part of the immense effort that overcame Nazi Germany. It’s an adaptation of my reminiscence for Joe Balkoski, 29th Infantry Division historian, of an incident that occurred not far from Saint-Lô.
I was among the first replacements after D-Day for the 110th Field Artillery Battalion, part of the 115th Regimental Combat Team. As such, I was practically useless, being inexperienced and immature and with virtually no training except basic training. Nonetheless, it was our good fortune that each of us was accepted by that well-commanded battalion. One of the ways we were blended in was by assignment to special tasks.
In Headquarters Battery, an example was assignment to ad hoc forward observation parties. When my turn came, it was possibly the third or fourth one like it, and was at least the second one. Each party included one of the replacements. I remember distinctly getting an earful from one of the other replacements about how much fun it was to be a member of an earlier party.
Our party was formed because of a broad attack scheduled for the morning of — I think — July 12. I was the radio man. We went up front to A Company several days ahead of time, I think all in one jeep. At any rate, we parked the jeep that I rode in quite a distance behind the line. I carefully memorized the route through woods and fields from the jeep to our positions, because being the buck private I knew who would be going back to the jeep for rations or anything else. Frankly, that probably was all I was good for, anyway.
We had plenty of time, so my companion, a veteran National Guardsman named Ferdie, and I dug a really good hole, down and horizontally into a hedgerow. I constructed a ledge just below the outer lip of the hole for the radio, with just the antenna sticking up above ground level. We settled in for the night, very close to one of a rifle platoon’s outposts, but feeling pretty secure. Our attack was scheduled to begin at 0600 the following morning.
It must have been about 0100 that all hell broke loose. Never again did I experience such intense fire. I was scared just about to death and Ferdie was literally shaking from head to foot. After a time that seemed to be forever, the fire lifted, and we whispered to each other that we thought we might have been overrun. I thought mightily about the prospect of a potato masher grenade being tossed into our hole. I tried to raise the battalion fire direction center on the radio, reasoning that our officer would certainly want to use it. (I had no idea where he was, except vaguely that he must have been with the company commander.) The radio didn’t work — which wasn’t at all unusual. It was a few minutes before I realized why. The antenna was shot off right at ground level by the German artillery and mortar fire.
For a minute or so I weighed what I ought to do — stay there in the hole and do nothing (i.e., wait for orders) or go get a replacement antenna. I decided on the latter. I made sure with Ferdie that I had the right password; I was aware of the irony of possibly being shot by one of our own. Indeed, I had to use the password several times, but I got to the jeep and back with the antenna. However, the damned radio still didn’t work. But Ferdie told me they had wire communications then and not to worry. The upshot was that it was probably our artillery that beat back the Jerries, because after several hours, things quieted down, comparatively. However, the Jerry attack upset our plans for jumping off at 0600. Some of our positions had been overrun and almost everything was in a jumble. So, we didn’t start trying to move until noon.
I was hit not long after. I think I was the second one hit in our party, the first man having been killed during the German attack the night before. I didn’t even know I was hit until I felt blood collecting in the bag of my trouser leg over my legging. A medic helped me back to an aid station, where pretty soon I passed out from morphine. The next morning, I awoke being loaded onto a C-47 and before noon I was in a hospital at Cirencester, England.
I had no idea what had happened to the rest of the party until I rejoined the 110th in August. I was told that all the others were wounded after I was. It was then, too, that I learned about getting the Bronze Star. (A Purple Heart was tossed on each soldier’s bed in the hospital by someone who went through the wards one day in a hurry.)
About half a century later, I read for the first time, in the National Archives, the reason for my Bronze Star. The Army had the wrong story. I might have spliced a wire during that run to and from the jeep, as read the citation. It would have been like me to do that. But I don’t recall doing it.
Balkoski asked me whether I had dealings with any of the 115th’s battalion or company officers: NO, not me. I was a non-entity. Just the guy who carried that damned heavy radio. . . .