Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Praxis from "Day of the Panzer" -- "The isolated and terrifying world of a combat rifleman."

While in Ohio, I picked up Day of the Panzer: The Story of American Heroism and Sacrifice in Southern France by Jeff Danby, Casemate, 2008, at my favorite Columbus-area bookstore, the Village Bookshop in Linworth. My days are pretty hectic up here, helping out my mother as she needs some spring cleaning done, but my nights are still insomiac, and I just finished the book last night.

In late August, 1944, Company L, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, commanded by a dynamic combat leader, CPT James "Red" Coles, was ordered to advance through Allan, France, in attempt to flank and cut off retreating elements of the German Nineteenth Army. At Allan, the Germans stopped running. Stripped of key supporting elements because of a lack of fuel and transportation SNAFUs, Company L and its supporting armor elements were traveling light. The result was a very tough fight for Allan in which Company L was quickly in danger of being cut-off and overrun. That they weren't was entirely a matter of leadership, training and the realization by enlisted men that, in the words of Jeff Danby, there was "no way to go but forward."

Back at Allan, meanwhile, the Panther tank no longer posed an imminent threat to the the village. Like a restless and distracted predator, the mighty panzer backed farther into the northwestern fields of town where its crew could better obsevre the territory south of the village. Even with this repositioning, the furious gun battle raging along the north creek did not lessen in intensity. The Germans had established a small network of machine gun positions that pinned down the men of L Company in the fields, and kept American reinforcements frozen in the village. Two of Coles' men, however, decided independently to take drastic personal measures to break the impasse.

Cpl. Dominick Delmonico, a strong and husky twenty-nine year old from Cincinnati and an assistant squad leader in 3rd Platoon, crawled out alone from the safety of a nearby house toward chattering German machine gun positions 100 yards away. Delmonico had a reputation as a talkative guy, but on this afternoon he was all action. An avid amateur basketball player before volunteering, Delmonico brazenly decided to rely on some of his court footwork for survival. With bullets whizzing overhead, hed maneuvered to within twenty-five yards of the nearest machine gun and tossed two grenades in quick succession. Both landed and exploded directly in the nest, killing the two-man crew instantly and seriously wounding two supporting riflemen.

The audacious attack drew unwelcome attention in Delmonico's direction, especially from a second machine gun nest 100 yards to his left. A heavy shower of automatic and rifle fire kicked up the soil around his prone body. Rather than lie and wait for the bullets to eventually find him, Delmonico scampered for cover along the banks of the dry creek. Once there, he discovered to his dismay that he was still exposed to enemy fire. The unrelenting rain of bullets continued snapping past his face and peppering the ground around him. When he realized that waiting for his squad mates to catch up with him and silence his tormentors was a poor choice, he took matters into his own hands a second time. Using the north bank of the dry creek as cover, Delmonico crouched and crept toward the second machine gun nest. At times along his perilous journey he was fully exposed and forced to scramble ahead of the German bullets trailing his every move. By sheer luck or the grace of God, he made it within thirty yards of the nest. Though better protected, he had no way to go but forward.

Delmonico was just beyond the range of an accurate grenade toss but he figured he could still use one as a distraction. He pulled the pin and hurled the bomb toward the second nest. After waiting a couple of seconds, he leapt to his feet and charged the position with his raised M-1. Locking his gaze on the nest, he spotted the distracted machine gunner in his sights and shot him dead just as the grenade exploded. Three other Germans at the position, stunned by the grenade blast and Delmonico's looming figure, raised their hands in surrender. Shortly afterward, Delmonico's squad and other L Company men moved in to secure the territory the native Ohioan had single-handedly cleared.

Another 3rd Platoon man, Pfc. Donald Sigrist, a nineteen-year old kid from Altoona, Pennsylvania, also decided to take matters into his own hands. A German machine gun nest positioned no more than seventy-five yards, not only kept he and his squad mates pinned down with frustrating efficiency, but maintained a clear field of fire across most of the north side of Allan that prevented the arrival of reinforcements. The enmy gunners knew it, too, and flaunted their superior position with zeal.

The chaos of battle often makes the coordination of effort impossible. Men drilled ceaselessly to act as a team, think like a team, and automatically follow the commands of a team leader, often abruptly reduce to mere individuals once the shooting starts in earnest. A man hugs the ground, lifts his rifle from time to time, and attempts to return fire on an enemy he usually cannot see. his action adds little more than a whisper into an already hellish cacophony -- a din that he ceaselessly prays will just go away. He sees a squad mate a dozen yards away in the same situation -- embracing the ground and struggling with shaking hands to pop a fresh ammo clip into his rifle. He wonders if his own eyes carry that kid's same petrified and bewildered stare. Often he doesn't even know his battlefield companion's name, only that he's a replacement from West Virginia. He no longer tries to learn names for fear of losing another anolther friend. He listens for, but never hears the voice of his sergeant. He wonders if his sergeant is even alive. This often the isolated and terrifying world of a combat rifleman.

During such times, an individual has nothing to draw upon but his training and an inner strength that lies dormant in every man, but untested in most. He must squarely confront those fears that have been his constant companions. Usually he tries to alleviate the fear by telling jokes, horsing around, or drinking alcohol.

Captain Coles had long since realized that the true enemy in battle lurked in one's own mind. A dark, elusive demon peddles incessant anxieties and doubts about pain, maiming, death, and failure -- anything to ensnare and parayze an imagination and lead a man to ultimate ruin. To some, Coles' mastery of battlefield fear seemed superhuman, other-worldly, and frustratingly unattainable. To others who saw him daily for the flawed and mortal man he was, they grasped his simple secret of success. It was the sliver of light in the pitch-black maelstrom. In order to have a chance of surviving the day, winning the war, and making it home alive, a man had to surrender everything for the chance to win it back again.

Pfc. Sigrist suddenly saw that light. He no longer feared a bullet ripping through his head or his chest. He no longer thought of his parents or his three sisters at home. He had no future or past. His whole focus became the eternal present dominated by a single reality; an intolerable machine gun nest seventy-five yards away had to be eliminated, and the nine-pound rifle in his hands was the instrument of deliverance. Sigrist stood up in clear view of everyone and locked his M-1 on the two men manning the gun and feeding the ammo ribbon. He emptied an eight-round clip into the two before they had any chance to react, then popped in another clip and emptied that for good measure. Courage was all that was needed to silence the gun, and Sigrist's bravery left the seemingly invincible two-man crew sprawled out dead next to their machine gun. Before Sigrist could slip in a third clip, two remaining German riflemen supporting the position scrambled away into the brush. Either man could easily have shot Sigrist as he stood to fire, but their fears got the better of them. They were still overly worried about what he was not.

That afternoon at Allan, L Company bent and twisted under pressure but did not break. The company's first real battle since the bloody Anzio breakout escalated into another surprising test of survival. Despite a swarming counterattack, a stubborn string of machine gun nests, and a marauding panzer with a veteran crew, the men of L Company not only held their line but also fought back with grit and spirit; a summer filled with endless training, the stability of the veterans as mentors provided for the replacements, the "follow-me" example and bare-knuckled discipline of Captain Coles -- all were factors that helped avert disaster. Above all, individuals like Sigrist, Delmonico, Leithner, and others overcame their personal fears and risked their lives to regain the initiative. Their unselfish actions saved the company and helped break the German stranglehold north of Allan. (pp. 218-221)

Danby reports in his Postscript:

Cpl. Dominick Delmonico was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Allan, France. He was later promoted to staff sergeant, survived the war, signed up for occupation duty, and remained in L Company. One year after the liberation of southern France, the people of Besancon invited their liberators to return for a parade and celebration. During the drive back to base, the truck he was riding in broke an axle, slid off the road, and overturned on top of him, killing him instantly. In his last letter home to his wife, Delmonico had written about how excited he was to return to Besancon as an honored guest. (pp. 262-263)

Of Sigrist, Danby writes:

Pfc. Donald R. Sigrist was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions at Allan. Seriously wounded in October, he returned to L Company and was eventually made a sergeant and squad leader. Sigrist was wounded again on December 26, 1944, and returned to L Company a second time. On January 12, 1945, the 20-year-old was killed leading a night patrol. Donald left behind his parents and three sisters in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He now rests in Epinal, France. (p. 268)


Anonymous said...

Individual bravery. Without any orders or anyone telling them what needed to be done. How very American!

Let's hope we see that resurgence in the months and years to come. For there is now no doubt what is happening in our world and time.

Mickey Collins said...

Sounds like the sort of situation rifle grenades were made for.

Dedicated_Dad said...

IT seems to me that - as I said on (IIRC) AP's blog: We're already dead.

Accept that fact, DO something, and I *MIGHT* get to live. Do nothing and I WILL die!

Seems as though these men had it figured out...

aughtsix said...

May we be such men now.

If we want Liberty for our children's children, our own lives are forfeit.


Scamp1776 said...

People in Altoona still have Garands... and the warrior spirit... we will not let Freedom & Liberty pass from this land ~ not on our watch.

Anonymous said...

An unrelated book I noticed, but one you might be interested in:

IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets: a History of Deadly Ingenuity by A.R. Oppenheimer

Might be a good read for an ordnance man.