Remembrances by Sherl Hasler, 862nd Engineering Aviation Battalion
In 1942 I took my basic training in Richmond, Virginia, and Ft. Belvoir. Those of us in the 862nd Engineering Aviation Battalion (EAB) were trained for both fighting and construction so that made it a double training. On June 1, 1943, just seven days after we left the United States, we sailed into Liverpool, England, and were immediately greeted by bombs dropping on us. We took a train to build an airport in Raydon, England, near Ipswich, that would accommodate the heavy B-24 and B-17 bombers among others. The 833rd EAB had begun this project a year earlier.
At that time, the Air Force was a part of the Army. We completed the airport in February 1944 and were sent for more training for fighting in various places throughout England. Around the middle of April 1944, detachments from our unit began to move to other locations such as Sudbury, Wide Wing, Pinetree, Snettlelon Heath, Ridgewell, Boxstead, and Oxford. My detachment went to Hiwycombe, which was the Eighth Air Force Headquarters near London. Soon our units began to come together at Birch Essex, England, for training programs and hardening process, waterproofing equipment, radio school and swimming lessons. Also we endured hikes with full field packs each day. We also trained with M-1 and carbine grenade launchers and bazookas. With a carpenter rating, I was given with others the task to crate and pack all of Company “A” equipment. It seemed like we were packing equipment for the whole Operation Overlord.
Soon others from Company “A”, the company that I was with, was sent ahead to Burlmouth, England, a marshalling area named Calis, to await the remainder of our unit and for movement orders to proceed to South Hampton Port of Embarkation. We were there several days waiting to board ship. Two things that I remember there was that General Eisenhower ate an evening meal in our mess tent. The other was that a group of us were looking up at a large formation of B-17’s that were headed over the English Channel fully loaded with thirty tons of bombs headed for France, and a plane blew up, just exploding. A few years ago I learned from the media that Joe Kennedy died in an airplane that exploded over the English Channel during WWII. My guess he was in that plane we saw explode.
We sat in the English Channel for three or four days, and on June 5, 1944, at midnight, we saw the sky full of transport planes. We could tell this by the sound of their motors. And finally we saw the last of the armada of planes and then saw that the rear plane had a flashing light signaling in Morse Code, the victory sign. We knew then that the invasion was on, and the planes were loaded with paratroopers.
We still sat in the Channel for a few more days before landing on Utah Beach just next to Omaha Beach at Point e de Hoc. Even though the archives say we landed on August 6, I know I was there on my July 6th birthday. I think what happened is that they sent the companies ahead that were building runways and other battle-ready construction while also participating in combat. Headquarters actually set up August 6. I have a bronze star for that campaign commemorating the 862nd EAB being there in front of the invasion. Our company didn’t receive it until fourteen years later. I also received a thank you note from the French government.
When we landed, we were pinned down from sniper fire from the hedgerows. We called this hedgerow country. I am not sure of the origin of these hedgerows, but somewhere along the way I heard the Romans governed that region many years back, and they had constructed them for two reasons. One was for defending the region from other armies and second to protect their crops from the cold winds coming from the English Channel.
These fields were divided up into as many as five hundred in one square mile, and mounds of dirt several feet thick, perhaps up to six feet high, bordered each field. On the sides and top of these mounds were trees growing up to twenty feet high and all type of underbrush intertwined with vines. This made it next to impossible to penetrate. It appeared that a drainage ditch on both sides of each hedgerow was constructed when the hedgerows were created. Defenders dug into the bottom of the drainage ditches, almost equal to a fort, and camouflage with underbrush and vegetation gave the defender dominant control. From the air these hedgerows looked like huge bed quilts with all their patchwork.
Most roads were wagon trails woven through the fields. Each field had an entranceway from the roads which had sunken lanes from centuries of use. This was gloomy and spooky to me since in some places, no daylight could be seen as the trees on top of the hedgerows grew together into a canopy, blocking the sun. This sort of terrain was a death trap for men and machine while tailor-made for ambush. During this time, cold rains fell in this area. I remember sometimes water being one-half shoe-top deep, thus making a quagmire condition. While we were pinned down in the hedgerows, high-ranking officers came through the ranks asking for suggestions on how to solve this problem. As the armies began to push forward, I had heard that some sergeant had found the hedgerow solution. The breakthrough was achieved when Sergeant Curtis Culin of the US 102nd Calvary Reconnaissance squadron welded pointed steel blades cut from German beach obstacles to a tank, enabling it to plow through the hedgerows with guns blazing.
With the hedgerow problem solved, we pushed ahead, never very far behind the front and a few times ahead of it. We soon approached the Saint-Lô area where one of the fiercest battles of the war occurred and where the American Air Force bombed their own troops. This accident happened because the wind blew the smoke signals the wrong way. Our unit belonged to the Eighth Air Force, and we were so close that the fly boys could not distinguish the Americans from the Germans. To my knowledge, no one in our unit was injured or killed. But others were not so fortunate. Debris from human bodies, animals, and buildings lined the road leading into Saint Lo, France. I still remember as we passed through someone saying, “We sure did liberate the hell out of this place.” In many ways, that atmosphere lingered with us long after Operation Overlord, my later trips to Holland, Germany, and Belgium and eventually through the war. But in the end, liberation from Nazi control made it worth the risk, the time, and the tragedies.
Originally published in Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies.
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