Remembering Wartime Sacrifice and the Norman People
The following two stories were sent to us by William Melander, 29th Division veteran. They are both very touching and remind us of the sacrifice made by so many during World War II. Thank you for sharing these stories with us, Mr. Melander.
The Norman People Shed Tears of Sorrow For Our Fallen Comrades
by William E. Melander
115th Regt’l H.Q.Co.
Even though these events took place 54 years ago, the slightest thought evokes strong feelings that bring me back to that place and time. “Normandy.” These were tragic times for the members of the 29th Division and neither time nor years can ever erase these events from my memory.
I first noticed a bonding of the Norman people and the American soldier as we made our way up from the beach and into the hedgerow country. As we cleared out German troops from outlying farms and small villages, the Norman people would come out of concealment and reclaim their shattered homes, looted by the German troops as they retreated back to St. Lo and beyond.
Despite their sorrow for their battered homes and looted belongings, they felt their newfound freedom was worth the price paid to achieve it. They greeted us with open arms, bouquets of flowers and cider.
Meanwhile near many of the isolated farms and village crossroads, our fallen comrades would be left behind. With no one to mourn them, other than us, who knew them better as brothers in arms.
The event that I will now describe is a heart-wrenching story. It has to do with the feelings of the Norman people and how they shared their sorrow for our fallen comrades.
My duties as Regimental runner made it possible to revisit some of those locations where tragic encounters took place and we were forced to leave our fallen comrades. Their location was marked with a rifle thrust into the ground with his helmet on top. One of my duties was to record dog tag information and, in some cases, reclaim personal property to be catalogued and sent home to their families. It was not a pleasant job when the party turned out to be a close friend. This hurt me deeply and since many of my friends had been killed by snipers, I grew to hate and despise our enemy. Making me seem hard beyond my years in so short a time since D-Day.
On one of my field trips, I came across a sight that would be repeated many times in Normandy. Regimental H.Q. CP was located in the village of Monigny when Col. Slappy sent me over to Deux Juneaux to get information on three officers K.I.A. While travelling down the road, I came upon an old farmer, his mother and his wife. They were pulling three carts up the road. The carts contained the bodies of the three officers I had been sent to locate. When asked why they were moving the bodies, they explained that they were moving them out to the crossroads along with the others they had retrieved earlier that day. Here they would have a proper resting-place on the beds of newly picked flowers placed at the feet of a local patron saint of that town.
These people were deeply religious and showed a genuine display of sorrow for our many dead. I remember most of the faces of the men, women and children of these small villages. The tears streaming down their faces as they gathered around the bodies of our fallen comrades and then covering them with blankets of flowers.
Often I would choke and tears would fill my eyes, just as it does now as I write this, as I would see some elderly mother cradling the body of one of our young men to her bosom and cry over him as though it was her son. These were good people who cared.
I thought it would be comforting to let the families of those young men know that the men, women and children of Normandy were there for their sons. They did not die alone in this land so far from home.
Often when I speak to others about this tender subject, I let them know how all the families of Normandy shared this display of friendship and it should be publicized more often than it has been.
The families have a right to know this, because there is always the nagging thought that their sons died with no one to look after them and mourn their loss. This was not so because the people of Normandy did this duty from their hearts and with this last thought I conclude this story.
Charlie Spantac Gets to Fire His Rifle Anti-Tank Grenade at Last
by William E. Melander
115th Regt’l H.Q. Co.
On the day of June 16th, approximately, while the Third Battalion was still attached to the 116th occupying St. Clair, the Regt’l H.Q.’s party arrived with the wire and Capt. Parsons’ communication section, stringing up wire to the other 2 Battalions now on line.
The Division reconnaissance jeeps also came into town about this time. The town was secure and clear from all enemy action, or so we thought. Things had a way of changing when you least expected. This was one of those tragic times.
This incident unfolded around a town well and the nearby church. A group of us had stopped by this well to rest and refresh ourselves. The group was made up of Charlie Spantac, Bob Bell, A.J. Marten, Joe Quin and myself.
While we sprawled out around the well, we were joined by a rifleman from G. Co. He was a very close friend of Charlie Spantac. They engaged in idle chatter and then this fellow commented “This well may have been contaminated.” The Germans had been known to throw dead livestock into the wells in our area.
With that, he removed his helmet, so that he could better see the bottom of the well. This mistake cost him his life.
A single shot was heard and he stumbled forward. Charlie reached out and grabbed his combat pack and dragged him from the brink of the well. In that fleeting moment, Charlie lost his long-time friend. The poor fellow had a small dark hole between his eyes. It was over in a moment.
At that time, a reconnaissance jeep with a mounted 50 cal. was parked just across from the church. The driver was directing his fire into the church tower in the village square.
Charlie Spantac in a fit of rage picked up his Springfield 03A3, with the mounted tank grenade and ran over to the jeep. He found a good position and fired this grenade into the stone aperture shielding the bells in the tower. It was a very clean shot and it struck the bell inside, scattering steel fragments throughout the confined area.
At this time the rest of us joined Charlie at the church door and entered. All the pews had been moved up to the windows. The stained glass had been blown out from a previous action. There was a large gaping hole in the roof where a shell had dropped in. We moved over to the area of the bell tower. Here we found a square hole in the ceiling and a number of ropes hung down from the bells above. On one side there was a ladder. Charlie and I climbed up and found the body of a young German with a shattered rifle and scope. He had made his last shot a costly one for himself.
Spantac was still very angry and dragged the limp, still bleeding body to the opening in the floor and dropped the body to the floor below. He then destroyed what was left of the rifle and scope and dropped it down upon the broken form below.
Then all of us left this church in a very troubled state of mind. A German soldier had just shot and killed our comrade on the street from this sanctuary. “A place for the worship of God.” Thereupon we killed him and threw his body down the bell tower shaft to the stone floor beneath. All this took place in this sacred house of worship.
Just a few weeks before, we were living a good happy life in Bodmin, Cornwall, never thinking we would be capable of action such as this. But it did happen and it would continue till this war was over 11 months later.
As Capt. Parkens remarked at a later time, we, all of us, had changed. We were no longer the same young boys. All of us became hardened men in the matter of a few days.
I want to thank Bob Bell, A.J. Marten and Col. Parkens for their help in putting this story together. Alas, the others are now all gone. But we remember still the great sacrifice they made for their country and comrades.