Irving Smolens

Melrose, MA

Memories of My Service in the US Army

I have been a resident of Melrose since 1963. I was born in Boston on November 3, 1924. I was drafted and reported for active duty on April 26, 1943 and sent to Fort Devens in preparation for being transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for my basic training as an artilleryman.

Having successfully completed basic training I was assigned to an armored artillery unit in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The Fourth Infantry Division was stationed in Fort Jackson at the time and they were preparing to ship overseas for further amphibious training to assault German occupied France. The Fourth Division needed a few additional men to round out their Table of Organization and because I was the newest member of the unit to which I had been assigned and because I was a terrible garrison soldier, I was one of the soldiers who was transferred to B Battery of the 29th Field Artillery Battalion of the Fourth Infantry (Ivy) Division.

Shortly after joining my new unit the division was transferred to Camp Kilmer, NJ to prepare for being sent to England. We sailed from Brooklyn, NY at the end of December on the Franconia, a converted passenger liner and landed in pitch darkness in Liverpool, England in early January 1944.

That night, under extreme blackout conditions, we boarded trains to take us to Axminster in Devonshire close to the English Channel coast. We then began a serious training regimen in terrible weather conditions in places such as the desolate moors and the English Channel. A terribly tragic training exercise took place at Slapton Sands. The beach there closely resembled the beach on which we were to land on D-day. As the assault troops we landed early in the morning and were back in our billets rather early in the day. Not so our support units such as graves registration and supply. Those units were still on board LSTs (landing ship Tanks) after nightfall. The British Admiralty was supposed to provide security for our convoy. They did not. The loaded ships were patrolled by a single British corvette and German E-boats (we call them PT boats) docked in Cherbourg, France attacked the loaded LSTs and sunk two of them and severely damaged a third. The result was that approximately 700 soldiers, sailors and coast guardsmen were killed. That exercise was code named Operation Tiger and a member of my division leads a memorial service for those casualties in New Bedford, MA every year on the anniversary of that tragic event.

General Eisenhower feared that some of the officers who were killed had the plans for the invasion and commanded that the bodies of all personnel had to be recovered and they were. That was very fortunate because eleven of the officers who had been killed had the D-day invasion plans. Eisenhower also decreed that anyone who talked about Operation Tiger and what had transpired would be court martialed and the families of those killed were never notified of the nature of their loss until half a century later.

Our battalion commander Lt. Col. “Tommy” Thomason had suggested to the high command that our gun batteries be given self-propelled 105 mm Howitzers instead of conventional trail drawn artillery because they would be more maneuverable on sandy beaches. The guns we received were designated M-7s and were mounted on a Sherman tank chassis but had no turret. Having the M-7s enabled us to line them up on board the deck of an LCT (Landing Craft Tank) two in front and two in back so we could provide close support fire for our attacking infantry units. The two back guns were actually firing high trajectory over the men manning the two front guns. Conventional 105 Howitzers could not do that because their steel trails could not be dug into the steel deck of the landing craft to cushion the recoil.

After the preliminary part of the exercise many of us were ordered down the front ramp of the landing craft to wade waist deep into the icy cold English Channel on to the beach. We did that on at least two occasions.

We continued our training from our base in Axminster until about a week before the scheduled invasion when we were transferred to secured camps practically on the coast. I believe it was on June 4, 1944 when we boarded the landing craft which were to take us across the Channel. The main component of my B battery and their four M-7s plus a supply truck and probably a Jeep for the captain commanding the battery were loaded on to an LCT. The gun crews were stripped down to 6 men so the total number of men on board the ship was fifty nine As a reserve I crossed the Channel on a much larger LST with reserves from the 101st Airborne Division.

Because of terrible weather the D-day landing that had been scheduled for

June 5 had to be postponed for a day. We crossed the Channel under cover of darkness as the planes carrying the paratroopers crossed overhead. H-hour was 6:30 AM and as our assault troops headed toward Utah Beach the LCT carrying my B Battery hit a mine in the water and sunk almost immediately killing thirty-seven of the men on board 23 of whose bodies were never recovered and their names are enshrined on the granite wall of the Garden of the Missing, a large rotunda, in the American cemetery in Normandy.

Over the years I have pondered that had one of the members of my gun crew gotten sick so that he could not make the landing I very likely would have been on board the sunken LCT and would not have survived to write this account.

I and my fellow B Battery reserve members did not land until somewhat late in the afternoon. We had to clamber down rope ladders into a smaller landing craft. Had we fallen off the ladder into the surf we would have been crushed between our LST and the smaller landing craft. The smaller landing craft designated LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel) had a small truck on board. We piled our bedding and barracks bags filled with personal items which we did not want to carry into combat into the truck. The coxswain of the landing craft lowered the front ramp too far from shore and as a result the truck we were on flooded. It was getting dark and the tide seemed to be rolling in and we were somewhat fearful that we would soon be inundated but a DUKW, affectionately dubbed a Duck, driver spotted our predicament and pulled alongside and took us to the beach. My blankets and everything else were still on board the truck that we had abandoned in the surf. The only things I carried with me were my canteen and my carbine and some extra ammunition clips. Fortunately I was able to pick up a couple of wet blankets that had been abandoned on the beach. I also picked up a piece of insulated canvas. It was probably part of the covering for supplies dropped by air for the paratroopers.

Battalion headquarters had sent a truck to pick us up and bring us to our gun position. When I got there I received the news of the tragedy that had befallen my B Battery buddies with whom I had trained and eaten with and shared overnight passes with and slept with were all gone. I was dismayed and it took me quite some time to get over their loss. Actually I have never gotten over their loss. I wear an Ivy Leaf pin on my shirt collar and when people ask me what it represents I tell them it is the 4th Infantry Division insignia and it is my way of keepimg alive the memory of my 37 battery mates who made the ultimate sacrifice on D-day.

People often ask me if I was scared at the prospect of landing on Hitler’s well defended west wall. My reply is usually two fold. I had pondered the fact that I might not survive the landing but I told myself that many of my compatriots would probably die but I was determined that I would not be among them. I was only 19 years old at the time so I was too young to be scared and because of the rough sea I was so seasick and felt so bilious I just wanted to get off the boat and onto dry land no matter what the dangers that awaited me.

For about a month after the landing A and C Batteries operated with six guns each instead of the conventional four guns but I was not assigned to one of the gun crews. I was given the duty of providing security for a battalion agent whose job was to deliver messages between command posts. Wire lines had not yet been laid so there was no telephone communication and it was too dangerous to reveal positions by radio intercepts.

On D-day plus one or two we were delivering a message after dark. The driver was using a Weasel, a tracked Jeep, We were driving with headlights almost completely concealed except for about a pin prick of light. We were riding on a narrow road parallel and very close to the beach and a German bomber was dropping flares in the area. I told the driver to keep his eyes on the road and if one of the flares lit us up I would warn him and we would abandon the vehicle to duck into a ditch on the side of the road. Evidently he hadn’t heeded what I had told him and crashed head on into a 79th Infantry Division Jeep that had just landed. Our weasel was totaled and I was pretty banged up but we had not driven very far from my fox hole so I decided to walk back and somehow in pitch black darkness I found my fox hole in the hedgerow where I had dug it.

The previous day we were delivering a message when we came across our first German prisoner. The soldier guarding him wanted us to mount him on the hood of our vehicle and drive him down to a POW compound on the beach. We told him that our first duty was to deliver our message so we could not do what he asked. Subsequently my driver got lost and we wound up with an infantry platoon. The sergeant in command warned us that we were great sniper targets so we quickly turned our vehicle around and got out of there.

For a few days I had nothing to do but lie in my foxhole at night listening to incoming and outgoing mortar shells. During the day I sometimes got out of my hole as p 47 planes were dropping bombs on the other side of the hedgerow in which I had dug my foxhole. Shrapnel from those bombs would come flying through the leaves on the trees planted on top of the hedgerow. Their force was pretty well spent so that even though a number of pieces of shrapnel landed close to me I was fortunate and not wounded. I also witnessed bulldozer drivers clearing a runway for our fighter planes. The noise made by the bulldozers was so loud that the drivers could not possibly hear incoming mortar shells. I really feared for the safety of the drivers. None were hurt or killed during the few days I remained in the area and I often wondered if they were fortunate enough to escape injury or death.

Because our vehicle had been wrecked I was designated to join a group of artillerymen who would become members of B Battery when it was reconstituted. Air to ground communication had not been well established and our advance up the peninsula toward the port of Cherbourg was more rapid than the Air Corps realized so pilots seeing movement in an area that they thought was enemy held territory proceeded to strafe us. We dismounted our vehicles and ducked under some trees. The lieutenant told us to put out bright orange identification panels which we did. The pilot of the P-38 fighter plane evidently did not recognize the panels and continued to strafe our area. The lieutenant, who was later killed in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany along with Ray Sanders, one of my buddies, thinking that the P-38 might be one that had been captured by the Germans and was being piloted by a German ordered the panels pulled in. Nobody moved from under the trees. After repeating his order several times I finally decided to retrieve the panels. After that, the lieutenant treated me with more respect and would counsel me about situations which might cause me to get into trouble for doing things that I should not do. When I got the chance I ducked into a hole in a nearby gully that afforded me over head protection and the P-38 flew over me and riddled the wall on the opposite side of the gully with 50 caliber machine gun bullets.

After Cherbourg was liberated on June 25 and completely cleared of Germans on the 27th B Battery was reformed and I once again became a member of the number two gun crew. Because many of the members were replacements I felt that I was the most qualified to become the number one cannoneer. My job was to set the elevation, open the breech block, close the breech block after the shell is loaded and pull the lanyard to send the shell on its way. Because we were the number two gun and B Battery was situated between the other two batteries my gun adjusted the fire for the entire battalion. Once the forward observer or other officer who had identified a target and requested artillery support was satisfied that we were zeroed in on our target an order was given to fire (usually 5 rounds) for effect and we would fire them off so rapidly that captured Germans often asked to see our “automatic” artillery.

After we liberated Cherbourg our attack bogged down. The hedgerows in Normandy are decidedly not like hedgerows in our country. They are mounds of earth on which trees have been planted and the roots of the trees grow into the hedgerows making them resistant to tanks. The Germans dug into the hedgerows and it was very difficult to get at them. The infantry forward movement was measured in yards. We had to break out of our small beach- head. General Bradley decided that a massive air bombardment was needed to be followed by attacking infantry and tanks. Three infantry divisions were to launch the ground attacks to be followed by two armored divisions and a motorized infantry division. My Fourth Infantry Division was to spearhead the attack, code named Operation Cobra. The Ninth Division was on one of our flanks and the Thirtieth Division was on our other flank. The air attack began in the morning with P-47 fighter planes dropping smoke bombs to mark the targets for the big four engine bombers to follow. The wind blew the smoke back over our own front lines obscuring the road that was the demarcation line so that the bombers that followed began dropping their bombs on our own troops. The Lt. Col. commanding the attacking battalion of our Eighth Regiment contacted General Bradley and asked him to postpone the attack because his troops had been too decimated to mount an effective attack. General Bradley told him that he had to jump off as scheduled because too much preparation had gone into planning and executing the attack.

Following the air attack by three thousand planes I was to fire an artillery barrage in support of the attacking troops. I watched in trepidation as the bombs began falling. Our troops jumped off as scheduled supported by our artillery and despite the losses suffered in the bombardment they gained about 8/10 of a mile that first day. An advance of that magnitude had never been achieved in the hedgerows where we measured our progress in yards. The troops of our 22nd Regiment mounted the backs of the tanks of the Second Armored Division and proceeded to exploit the breakout. The 30th Division suffered even greater casualties from the bombardment. Lt. General McNair who was with that division as an observer was killed by our own bombs. He was the highest ranking American officer ever killed in a combat zone. Over the next few days we kept moving forward and reached all our objectives and then the rout of the German Seventh Army was on. With the British and Canadians attacking from the North we surrounded the Germans but because Bradley was fearful of firing on them a gap was left through which much of the German troops were able to escape. About 50,000 German troops were forced to surrender however.

On August 7 General Patton’s Third Army was committed to combat and he sent a pincer movement into Brittany and another attacking force down the Loire Valley. Hitler ordered Panzer Divisions that had been held back around Calais because Hitler believed that was where our main assault would come to mount a massive counterattack toward Mortain in an effort to cut off the Third Army from our First Army. Our Thirtieth Division, despite the heavy losses they had suffered, held off the German attack long enough to enable my artillery which had been detached from my Fourth Division to come to the aid of the Thirtieth Division troops. I fired fire mission after fire mission to blunt the German attack. Our artillery position was on high ground overlooking the battlefield. British rocket firing Typhoon fighter planes were being used to help knock out the attacking German tanks. The German attack failed and we began chasing the Germans across France. In retrospect I considered Operation Cobra to be the second most important battle of the war in Western Europe because it resulted in the liberation of Paris and the rest of France and Belgium and Luxembourg. After the success of our breakout the Germans could never win the war.