Interview with Lt. Ray Holmquist
120th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Assistant S-1
First weeks in ETO, Friendly Bombing at St. Lo
Photos are thumbnails
Photos from US War Department Pamphlet: St. Lo
Interview by Bret Job
The boat pulled up as far as the ship could go so it wouldnít beach and we went over the side of the boat and into these landing craft. We got on a landing craft and they took us in. At that time they had floating piers that came out quite a ways that floated, itís like something floating on a barrel, floating piers. They took us up to floating pier. We got off the landing craft, on the pier and walked up to shore. This is D +10 and the beach was absolutely secure. There was no gunfire or anything; it was just totally secure when we got of the ship. We camped not to far from the beach. The next day we were in this encampment area right close to the coast and there was a tremendous amount of artillery fire and god you knew there was a war on. It was continual bombardment night and day, both ways, in terms of Americans and German. Just continual artillery, just like thunder, always a bombing. By god the second day our camp was strafed by some German Luftwaffe planes. They came straight down on us and strafed the hell out of our camp. Then I knew I was in a war and it was the first experience I had had under fire. It was a very scary feeling, yes it is and they come down low and boy there is really a roar and they got 50 caliber guns. It was my first confrontation with the enemy. At that time we had, the American forces really had mastery of the air. So for the Luftwaffe to come out was not very common, they really took a chance to come out because we dominated the skies.
Then I got my orders to report to the second battalion of the 120th regiment of the 30th Infantry Division and I was to report to battalion headquarters. And I was to be on the battalion staff as the assistant to the S1. So I am reporting to the front line troops and this is the 2nd battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment. This is the hedgerow country. I get up to the front line on the very first day and report to my battalion commander. Well this is an experience thatís beyond, really beyond explanation. The American forces in Normandy were at a great disadvantage because basically what a hedgerow is, it is a little field thatís maybe about an acre, maybe half acre. Itís in the orchard country, a farming agricultural area in France. But largely orchards and lots of apple trees and this little patch maybe one acre. Its maybe only about a half acre, about half the size of our lake lot. Over the years they would build a hedge around their little plot of land to define the boundary. And then the hedge would catch blowing sand and debris and it would gradually build up into a mound. And then they would plant again on the mound another hedge or trees. Over the years these hedges would grow higher and higher and higher and higher and then they always keep a hedge on top. This was the boundary of their land. The hedgerows were usually at least six to eight to ten feet high. So we would be, maybe the ground would be here and the top of the hedgerow would be at about at that point up there, at the top of the door. And it would be a big wide wedge because of the accumulation of debris and dirt and the tree or hedge on top. This was a tremendous fortification for the Germans. What they would do, the Germans, would dig right through the base of the hedgerow, you get the picture now. We have this wedge, maybe 20 feet wide, six to eight feet high, and they would dig tunnels right through to the other side. They would lay down and fire their machine guns across that open space. Now you know what a field of fire is? A field of fire is, when a machine gun is sitting up maybe at that level or a little lower and they train them to point one machine gun this way and another machine gun that way. So you would get cross fire and thatís what you call a field of fire. And if anyone came out into that open area, they would open up with their machine guns and create that crossfire, and you are a dead duck, absolutely a dead duck. Every open space the Germans would be set up their field of fire and it was murder. And not only that, they would just pound you with mortar fire. You know what a mortar is? And artillery fire. The Germans had a piece of artillery that was devastating called a 88 and it was a very, very big piece of artillery and they had the 88ís time shells called air bursts. They would fire the gun and it would be timed so it would explode at a certain point in time over where their target was and it would explode in the air and just shower a field of shrapnel over a big area, oh my god they were deviating. I mean you had no defense unless you were in a tunnel. So they just pounded American troops with artillery fire, mortar fire, and then with their small arms fire. My very first day up, when I say I went to Battalion Headquarters, I mean this is just like the guys up in the front lines. I mean everything, you are just on the move and your maybe here and the battalion commander is there and maybe a S1 is over there and you are all seeking cover. You are trying to communicate in the best way you can, always being exposed to fire. And our casualties were just horrendous. I remember the first day I was on the line. I was lying at the base of a hedgerow; you get the picture of the hedgerows? There was a guy lying right ahead of me. Many of the guys I never knew, I had just got there. There is this other guy there and jeez here came an 88. You donít here them. The artillery shell that gets you, you donít hear. But he got hit point blank in his head and was killed just like that. He was right, right next to me. Wow! Jeez my first day at the line. Thatís a pretty harrowing experience. Shit, it wasnít long after that that we started taking sniper fire. The Germans would at nighttime, sneak over the hedgerow into the little orchards; climb up lets say an apple tree. It was a nice perfect cover to get into one of these heavily grown apple trees. And they would cover nicely. They would sneak into these apple trees and come daylight they would open on you, with sniper fire. We would start taking really heavy sniper fire. This was my first day. I hadnít even receive any orders; I didnít even know what I was supposed to do. I had just met the Battalion Commander and he could care less about me, we were just fighting for our lives you know. The sniper fire was really taking its toll. Here we are out there laying in an area about half the size of this place here and the Germans would be firing direct at us, with rifles. Boy they were taking dead aim and they were picking guys off like you couldnít believe. Well finally the Battalion Commander got communication to the Regiment. The Battalion always has light tanks that are available and called in some light tanks. They came around into the orchard and took care of those snipers. That ended and real quickly. And that very first day they took some German prisoners, the snipers. Right in our little Battalion, I saw them, Germans soldiers. This was day one. Well Iím giving you a little capsule of what itís like to be there. I mean your life is turned upside down. I had concluded almost after the first day, Ray, you are going to be either killed or you are going to be wounded. For sure! I reached that as a solid conclusion. They were being killed off all around me like you canít believe. Now that is a pretty traumatic experience.
Iím a replacement officer and I didnít know any of the other guys in line with me. I was a total stranger to them. I didnít talk to them much at the beginning but as time went on I got to know them. I got to get to know the Battalion Commander and the Battalion staff officers a little bit. I got to know who they were but really we were so harassed and so busy we were just trying to survive. There was no time for comradeship or anything else. We are all trying to do our job, trying to survive. At this time, we are very thankful for any guy thatís around. You donít know his name but you are god damn thankful that he is there.
I donít even know how many troops are in the area when I came into this battalion. I donít know because I was so busy trying to take cover. I donít have the vaguest idea. We were not even trading fire; we didnít have any way of returning fire. I was carrying a carbine rifle. When you donít see the enemy, there is no target. You hope the enemy doesnít see you. You donít fire. The first enemy soldier I saw was a prisoner of war. I think there was three of four of them. It was the first enemy I saw.
When I saw my first German prisoners of war, I thought those poor bastards, you know, those poor bastards. It was kind of awesome to see the enemy right in front of you, from where you are to me. I wasnít angry or anything but it was an event. You donít really have time to think about anything except to survive and to do the job. You donít really contemplate anything. The only thing I contemplated on was the fact of the matter that I was either going to killed or wounded. I just knew that.
Communication and organization is difficult under these circumstances. It is hard to know where to go and what you are supposed to do. I was on the Battalion Staff and the Battalion commander is a Lt. Colonel. A battalion is about 800 men, full strength and he has a staff of second in command, and he has an S1, S2, S3, and an S4. S1 is administration, S2 is intelligence, S3 is plans and training, and S4 is supply. They are his officers that are his chief assistants. Then we have a group of enlisted men with us to help us with our work. The staff is maybe 30 men including the communications people. You understand that we are in this hedgerow country that I have described and we are a group or a battalion of 800 men who are organized into a company. There are four companies and each company has a company commander. Each platoon has a 1st Lt. hopefully. There are 48 men in each platoon. Each squad has a squad leader who is a sergeant. Thatís how it is organized. The battalion commander gives the orders and prescribes the missions and directs the operation of the whole battalion. The company commander moves the orders to the battalion commander. Communication is basically by radio and sometimes by word of mouth and other times by hand message with runners. You try to keep the communication by radio communication. The battalion commander gets his orders from regimental commander. The battalion will have a mission and the regimental commander will tell the battalion commander what the mission is. He will organize his companies to carry out the mission. He gives his orders to his company commanders and they follow the orders of the battalion commander. You donít even see anyone.
Many times you donít have any idea what is going on. Itís total chaos; itís total chaos. You know I know there were 800 men in our battalion and you have 4 company commanders and I donít think I ever saw them, hardly ever. Once in awhile when they would report into battalion headquarters. You would never see them! With me, I was part of the battalion and I just moved with the battalion. When they moved, I moved. I had my assignment to do but basically we were all so confused, we donít really know what to do. Itís total chaos.
We all tried to carry rations with us as much as possible. You know you are supposed to have a hot meal, I never had a hot meal as long as I was there. I would just pick up rations wherever I could. I would maybe find some on the ground or wherever. It was such chaos, so totally unorganized you wonder how anything ever happened. Total chaos. It was that way on the other side too. You wonder how any battles can be won. The Generals always have this big plan and they have their grand scheme their battle orders, great battle plans. But by god when that battle starts, itís totally out of the Generalsí hands. He could just as well go to bed because there is nothing he can do. Again what I am describing now is pretty much the first days, this is maybe D-day plus 15 or so. You are barely entrenched there and we were in a very precarious position. I mean, I didnít know this at that time but now when I read some history, it could have been a disaster. They almost, General Omar Bradley was almost ready to call off the landing at Omaha Beach, pull the troops back. It was that bad. It was very much touch and go. And believe me now, the Generals worked very hard and are very capable, wonderful men and great leaders but it is out of their hands. My god it seems sometimes that itís out of the hands of the company commanders. They have a little bit more control but they are only company commanders. You have some control but really, when the battle starts it comes down to these guys. The first sergeants, the sergeants, the captains and lieutenants, they are the ones trying to carry out their orders. Somehow these guys find ways to accomplish their mission.
Itís hard to remember when we got our first break when there was a stop in the action. To get off Normandy was next to an impossible task because of the German defense. The Germans had such a tremendous advantage. If you get just a little bit of the picture of the hedgerow country, natural fortifications and somehow we had to get across that open plain, like crossing that porch there. And that fence is the hedgerow, how would you like to go out of these rows and see machine gun fire in there. You are dead duck. Itís hopeless.
They finally brought in tanks. Here is what they did. They knew it wasnít going to work to send troops across, they tried that and the casualties was horrendous. They were trying different ideas. I had read that there was some Sergeant with the engineering company who said why donít we mount these great big pronged forks in front of a big heavy tank. Just go in here with that forklift with that scoop and just lift up the hedgerows and plow our way through the hedgerow. We donít have to go right to the bottom but we could go up a ways and plow up a part of it and then go over it with our tanks. We would then go after them with tanks. Then other tanks would follow. Thatís what they started and that was one more effective. Even with this, they realized that the losses were very, very heavy, so then the generals decide to adopted some strategy of previous wars. Some of the German strategy was what they called a pincer movement. The idea there is that you line up vast array of forces, tanks, and other armed vehicles. It was a long, long line, miles long. You precede or the mission is for this long column of heavily armed forces to go down a highway for like ten miles. Then you would spread out and get behind the enemy troops and surround them. Instead of spreading out your forces over a big area and trying to penetrate a little area you get this big, big wedge of troops. You just shoot down that highway for like ten miles, you know as fast as you can go. Then penetrate and spread out and surround the enemy. This is called a pincer movement and they did that. First was what they called the St. Lo Breakthrough. They organized and by this time we had a really a great fighting force assembled. Thousands of armored vehicles, tanks, infantry, and the air force, very powerful. The idea there was that we would mobilize this great offensive mass and push down various sectors or highways in these pincer movements and breakout out of Normandy and get out into the open country, on the way to Paris. You know, once you get out of the hedgerow country it is pretty open field. The goal is to break out into the open country and take off and thatís what they did and it was called the Saint Lo Breakthrough. Our battalion had a mission of going down a big highway about 8 miles the first day. We were to go to this little village. That was our mission. Preceding us was best array of armored vehicles and tanks with infantry and we just pushed down the road. Before that, the German forces ahead of us would be absolutely pounded with bombs, 500-lb. concussion bomb. In theory, it was that first they would pound them with the bombs and then the artillery would go and really plaster them like you canít believe. And then the tanks would take over with their firepower and then the armored vehicles would follow and they would punch right through and thatís exactly what they did. But unfortunately our battalion which was the 2nd battalion was suppose to be a lead battalion, to lead infantry troops down our sector but the bombers erred and pounded our battalion with 500 lbs. concussion bombs. Just like the enemy was suppose to get. Iím not sure how many casualties we had but I guess at least half the battalion was killed or wounded. We were probably above strength at this time as we had with us some supporting troops. Remember that the basic strength of a battalion is about 800 men. It was a beautiful day, partly cloudy and there was really good visibility. We had big, big orange panels spread out in front of us on the ground and all the tanks to the rear had big orange panels on them to mark that they were American tanks. The big orange panels on the ground in front of us were supposed to mark the line. Irrespectively, we were clobbered. It just so happened that in battalion headquarters there was Lt. General Leslie McNair. He was an army commander I think; I forget his true title. Anyway he was a Lt. General. That's a three star general, a high, high-ranking officer. He was up in our battalion headquarters and I was there. I was always with the battalion commander and his staff and he was with our battalion commander at this time. General McNair was like from me to you away and I saw him. Gees we were all looking at this general, our model, it was just unbelievable. I mean the bombers were flying over in formation, it was a site to behold. And we were up there watching this fantastic armada. And my god I was looking up and here you could see a few bombs come out. I thought my god I have to take cover and I took cover in our battalion Headquarters. Our battalion headquarters had a heavy log, a fortification built into the hedgerow kind of wedged shaped and you get in through the side, just one small entry. Itís heavily timbered and its really good protection. And fortunately for me, that was the shelter I jumped into. It happened to be right next to me. Gees, I took the first cover I could get which was that shelter. I crawled in there and I think there were 7 others and I just laid on top of them. And by god, that shelter was hit with a 500-pound concussion bomb and the whole thing collapsed. The whole thing collapsed and there were big mounds of dirt on top of the timbers. The whole thing collapsed and somehow I was on top of the guy who I had been laying on top of. And they were buried and there was one other guy with me, just two of us. I could hear them, I think there was seven guys in the shelter, seven or nine, and they were buried. I could hear them down there and I tried to dig for them but it was an impossible task. I found my way out and got help. We got Captain Skier (sp?) out, he was the S1, and he was still alive and he was put in an ambulance but all the rest of them were dead. As luck would have it or as bad luck would have it for Captain Skier the ambulance that he got into was bombed by our own troops and Captain Skier was killed. I mean that is a pretty hairy experience and there was so much confusion in our battalion I donít know how we ever did take off. I got totally separated from the battalion. I was trapped there for quite awhile and digging for these guys and by the time I got out of there the battalion commander and all of his staff were gone. I was just kind of rambling, roaming around there, didnít know really where I was or anyone else was.
Where I was to go. There wasnít one to do anything about anything. (Laughing) It was total chaos like you canít believe. There is all kinds of dead and many wounded we had to take of. You have to take care of the wounded and the dead. So I was really on my own. The battalion staff had disappeared and I didnít know where they were. And here there was big take off and we were supposed to go 8 miles down the road to this city. Here I was wandering around in this hedgerow country basically all alone. Shit all I know is that our mission was to go down this road; I didnít even know where the road was. I was just roaming around there all the rest of that day. I didnít go out at night I took cover. I just search the next day. I knew the direction of the battle and I followed the direction of the battle and it was destruction like you couldnít believe. It was utter, utter destruction. There was nothing that lived, burning tanks and burning vehicles, dead animals, dead Germans, dead Americans. I was just alone. I mean there were troops all over but I didnít know where my battalion was. There were other American troops all over the place but they were all part of an organization and they didnít care about me. There were vehicles and troops all over but I didnít know where is my battalion.
Several days earlier, I had seen Roy. Roy was assigned to Regimental Headquarters of the 120th infantry, on his request. I didnít know but I came to France first and Roy came two weeks later. I accidentally happened to meet Roy in an orchard and Iím not sure what I was doing. They would send you on some mission all the time like they would ask me go find us a good observation post for battalion headquarters or other odd missions. And here I was on some mission, I donít remember the mission, and by god, low and behold who do I meet but Roy. I mean it was unbelievable. Here I am alone and here Roy is and donít remember what he is doing out there. And here we meet. We recognized each other right away and I looked like hell. I mean I hadnít shaved and I looked like I was a ghost, living ghost. There was a lot of incoming artillery fire so we were not very anxious to stand around very long. I remember Roy saying god Ray, how is it? I said Roy; ďItís hell, its hellĒ. We didnít have a chance to exchange many words but I found out where he had been assigned. At least I knew he was alive and he knew I was alive. That was a very dramatic meeting, here these twins that dearly love each other accidentally meet in this orchard in France. You almost think my god that it was just a God sent meeting you might say. But at least Roy knew I was live and I knew Roy was alive. There is hardly any time for reflection. You have to realize you are lucky to get three hours of sleep any night. You hardly have any time to shave, to eat and your absolutely dog-tired. You are so tired that you could almost sleep standing up. Your just physically exhausted and I looked that way. And Roy looked at me and he tells me now, Ray, boy, I canít remember the words now but you looked pretty beat and exhausted. These combat soldiers, itís a sight to behold. They are ashen gray and bearded and they are like they are moving in a trance. Itís like they are amongst the living dead. They are living but they are really dead, thatís how it is. When you get in the condition I was in and they were in too, theyíre just like the living dead. Believe me they are ashen gray and exhausted and they can hardly pick up their feet, one foot after the other. This is after a real terrible, terrible battle. Naturally, there is time when you get some rest. Anyway, late that evening, I think is the second day after the bombing by our forces, I found our battalion headquarters. The battalion commander said Ray, ďWhere have you beenĒ. I told him that I was in the bunker where Captain Skier was killed. ďWere you there RayĒ, he said to me. I told him yes, I was there. He said, ďHow did you ever come out alive.Ē I told him I didnít know.
This was the same bombing in which General McNair was killed. I didnít know that until I came back to the United States. I might have known but I not really sure when I found out. It might not have been until I got back to the United States. He was killed in the attack; there was no question about that. I donít think anyone told me. I donít think I knew that until I got back. All I know is that General McNair was there because I saw him and he was killed.
Well, anyway, after the St. Lo Breakthrough, the American troops basically broke out of the hedgerow country. Our battalion was in a depleted state, I bet we lost half our battalion. We were put into a defensive position in Mortain, France. There, we were suppose to get some rest and get our battalion replenished with replacement troops. In fact we had received a lot of replacement officers before we got to Mortain. We were put into a defensive position in Mortain, which is in a nice mountainous area. It was not really mountainous but quite hilly, rough terrain. It was, this is in retrospect, suppose to be a resort city. This is where I was captured and this is where the story really begins.