Interview of 2nd Lt. Ray Holmquist

Assistant to S-1 120th Infantry Regiment 2nd Battalion

Battle of Mortain

(Pictures are thumbnails)

 

We were like the walking dead.   We pull into Mortain, France which is they tell me now that I have been away from there that itís kind of a resort city.  Itís a nice, almost semi mountainous terrain, not really mountains but big hills and nice rolling terrain.  We pull into this little city and our battalion commander tells the leaders of our battalion that were going to be moving into a defensive position at Mortain, France.  We will have a chance to get rested and get some good sleep and some good food.  We pull into Mortain.   I think it was about 4 oíclock in the afternoon and I was in charge at that particular time.  I was in charge of the battalion command post.  A Command post is basically at this point kind of a communications center.  I had about 30 men with me.  We had the battalion radios and communication gear to keep in communication with our battalion.  The battalion commander and the rest of his staff were at the OP, which is the battalion observation post.  This is really the command center for the whole battalion, the OP command center.  I was, Iím guessing now but Iím pretty close, that I had about 30 men with me and I was the only officer.  I had a Sergeant with me who was kind of second in command you might say.  The Sergeant and I talked about where our post is going to be.  We find a great big residential home right downtown Mortain.  I donít know what the population of this city is but I would say it was about 10,000.  There was this big, big cathedral, one of these old traditional type cathedrals, beautiful structure.  It was sitting a top of a hill on a high piece of terrain and next to the cathedral is this big house that we picked for the place to have our command post.  Ray in front of house looking into window of bomb shelter in 1997. So we go into this house, a three-story house, itís big.  Picture of the side of the house.  You can see the entrance to the bomb shelter below the chimney.  The main street is to the photographers back and the church is to the photographs left and rear. An old French home and we go in and by god there is food on the table.  The house, it was like the French people had just walked away from the dinner table.  Really, there was food on the table.  That tells us that they had left in a hurry.  The community had abandoned the city in a great hurry.  The battle was converging on Mortain, France.  The word gets around quick.  They would come around a say get out of here.  So, yes the city was abandoned.  We had the whole city to pick from and we picked this big house because it had a lot of beds and we anticipated that maybe we could go to sleep in a bed for the first since I had been in combat.  Just think, a bed of all things.  My golly, fresh eggs in the kitchen and good beds to sleep in so we thought this is going to be nice, get a good rest, a good nights sleep and get some fresh food.  We move into this big house and the battalion commander and the rest of the battalion picked a hotel for the observation post, which again was abandoned and had just been vacated.  It was just kind of like a ghost town and they picked this big hotel.  Basically I think because it was central and the troops would be in a defensive position around the perimeter of Mortain.  It would be a good place to have the command post.  We were fairly close to the hotel where the battalion commander was.  We had really thought that we would be settled down there for several days in a defensive position and get some good rest.  We came as I said about four oíclock in the afternoon.  I donít think we had been there for over an hour before low and behold here the Luftwaffe comes out and starts bombing Mortain with incinerator bombs.  Thatís a bomb that has a whole cluster of burning devices that when they land they kind of explode and create fires.  Itís a very effective way to destroy property.  They really bombed Mortain intensively with these incinerator bombs.  Well, we of course wanted to take cover because with the in cinerary bombs there were also some very heavy concussion bombs, maybe 500lb concussion that carry a real impact and are very destructive too.  The Sergeant starts looking over this house that we were in and low and behold it happens by chance and luck that there was a bomb shelter, civilian bomb shelter in the basement of that home.  It was just like a huge culvert, a half culvert and it was heavy concrete, rounded.  It was maybe 30 feet wide and maybe 10-12 feet high.  Ray inside of bomb shelter.  You get the picture of a half culvert, concrete, perfect bomb shelter.  We were absolutely safe down there.  So we all head immediately for that bomb shelter, all of us.  In the bomb shelter there was all kinds of mattresses where the civilians would lay down and sleep for rest.  After the Luftwaffe had stop their bombing, the artillery opens up.  By that time itís dark and nightfall is coming.  This is in August now, the first part of August.  In fact it would be August 6th.   The days are long now so by nightfall the Luftwaffe really did a thorough job of bombing that city.  We knew that if the Luftwaffe came out that there was big trouble ahead.  Otherwise the Germans wouldnít risk their air force because we had control of the skies, the American forces.  When the Luftwaffe was done by nightfall, the city was just a mass of flames.  The Luftwaffe came out about 5 oíclock in the afternoon and by nightfall it was destroyed.  Then after the Luftwaffe quit around nightfall, then the artillery really opened up, massive, massive artillery fire.  We knew it was conclusive that there would be something big coming up, big offensive because the Luftwaffe came out.  We had never really seen them come out in force.  Artillery fire was just very intensive and we keep somewhat in communication with our company commander with our radio.  It was in the basement with us.  We had some communication and they were really getting blasted.  It wasnít too long really before we almost lost all of our communication because of the artillery fire.  But we got intermittent communication for quite a period of time.  After the curtain of artillery fire ceased, the German offensive started and it was massive.  I donít know the hour it really started but I would say, this is a wild guess but I would itís about 3 oíclock in the morning.  We were trying to maintain communication with the troops that were in the perimeter defense around Mortain but again it was very difficult to keep communication.

We tried to communicate and ask the others what was going on.  You must remember there was massive artillery fire and when asked howís it going out there they would reply that we under heavy, heavy artillery fire.  We got just the minimum of that kind of communication but we knew just from what we could hear that the bombing was intense.  The offensive, the German offensive started about 3 oíclock in the morning, it could have been earlier or it could have been a little later.  Thatís after the artillery fire and then the troops move in with the tanks.  The fighting goes on all night and we are in this bomb shelter.  There is only one exit, one door from the outside just like a cellar entrance in a cellar where you got a door you pick up and you walk down into the cellar.  Ray standing in only way in/out of bomb shelter.  This just had outside steps, open steps down to the shelter, one door that was our only exit.  There was no entrance into the bomb shelter from the inside of the house to my recollection.  About 8:30 in the morning or a little earlier, not to long after daylight we could hear all this commotion outside and weíre in this cellar.  We could hear all this commotion and it was in German.  They had just totally taken over the interior of the city.  By 8 oíclock or so there was a real lot of commotion, you know, voices shouting, gunfire.  By now youíre wondering what the devil should you do.  Should we try to get out of here but there was only this one exit.  There is no way your going to get out of there because there are hundreds of Germans out there.  We really couldnít provide any resistance because we are just battalion staff people and we are not in any position to put up much of a fight.  We didnít and I think most of us had carbon guns I think.  At least I did.  What do you do?  We concluded the only thing we could do is hope that they donít find us.  We will stay here and maybe they wonít find us.  The commotion was getting more intense all the time outside and pretty soon we heard a lot of people walking around upstairs.  We knew that it was the Germans so we just sat tight and hope that they would not find us.  The Sergeant posted himself at one side of this door and the door was opened.  He had posted himself at the opened side of the door and I had posted myself at the other side of the door, the other opened side.  We did that because that was our only place to look out.  If they were going to come in it would have to be through this door.  Pretty soon the Sergeant detects two Germans at the ground level entrance and low and behold there are two Germans.  The Sergeant steps out from behind the side of the door into the door opening and the Germans see him.  Right away they, see him, the sergeant.  He steps out and sees these two guys in the opening and they see him.  When he steps out, they were just about to throw in potato mashers.  Thatís what we called a German hand grenade.  Itís a hand grenade that has a handle on it and itís a nice device when throwing the grenade.  They were just about to throw in the potato masher.  They would throw in a lot of these before they would make their entrance.  Because that would pretty much take care of any resistance within this shelter.  The hand grenades in there would be very devastating because itís concrete and there is no place to the explosion to go and the explosion would be extremely intense.  They would have had a lot of casualties pretty quick with just a few hand grenades.  So he sees them, the sergeant sees them and he steps out and then the Germans motioned for him to come and they would stay ďKom, KomĒ.  Then I really realize that the Germans are really there and so I step out and they see me.  You know, they are really pretty nervous and they put up their Tommy gun and they are not very friendly, believe me.  They motioned to us to come and the Sergeant and I and of course by this time all of the men are watching the entrance, all 30 men, they see whatís going on.  The Sergeant and I started our way out with our hands up and they are waving their Tommie guns at us and they really looked vicious.  You know, they are nervous, really hyped up.  We walk out of there and walk out into the open air, all the rest of the men are with us.  All of the 30 men are behind us.  When they see us come out and that there isnít going to be any resistance, they relax a bit.  Once they get us all out they line us up in single file right by this big house.  Ray standing  in the courtyard area where he and the men he was with were taken just after capture.  The church is in the background and the house he was captured in is to his left. There are all kinds of dead Germans laying all over, I donít remember seeing one dead American but there were dead Germans, a lot of dead Germans.  When we stepped out, there were a lot of other soldiers who converged on us because to take prisoners was a big thing.  At this time the Germans hadnít taken many prisoners, kind of a rare thing.  It was kind of a trophy to get American prisoners I believe but this is only in hindsight.  They line us up and they are very menacing and they take their machine guns and they would go like this and wave their guns at us.  They were cursing us in German and waving their machine guns at us.  Well, we were prime and they could have mowed us down and no one would have known the difference.  Two of the guys fainted, just dropped right to the ground.  First of all, we are really an exhausted group of men and thatís not very comfortable to be in that kind of situation.  Itís a very scary thing because it looked like they were just going to just shoot us, absolutely going to shoot.  They were, believe me, they are all hyped up and nervous as can be and they got their Tommie guns and you start to think that maybe this is the end.  Thatís what youíre thinking inside.  Two of the guys faint and the Sergeant and I go over to them and low and behold they let us.  It wasnít too long after before the guys came to.  They stood up for awhile and they fainted again.  We went over to and they revived and stood up.  A period of time has expired it appear that they were not going to shot us.  These are just raw recruits, enlisted men and I was the only officer.  And I donít know how, this is kind of bizarre but I really, maybe I was just pleading dumb, I somehow got the Germans to let me down into the bomb shelter because I knew we had a whole case of D-Bars.  Do you know what a D-Bar is?  Itís a chocolate bar thatís about that thick, that long and about that wide and they are loaded with vitamins with energy, energy not vitamins.  I was thinking of pretty hungry days ahead and Iím not sure why they let me.  I canít remember the details of how it all happened but they let me go back down in there with a guard on my back and by god I retrieve that carton.  A big, box that long and that wide full of D-Bars.  I got the whole box.  I donít know why or how you explain something like that or account for my behavior at that time.  Itís just like I was kind of unconscious but thatís what happened, quite unbelievable.  So here I come up and join the line of guy again with a case of D-Bars.  I donít know if I passed them out or if what I did but somehow we had all those D-Bars.  Not to long after that they received orders that they would move our column and we were marched off.  I was the only officer and I was separated from the rest of them.  They took me to a shed.  All I can describe it as was a kind of shed and there I was, confronted for the first time by German officers.  The German officers I saw at that time were not officers that were what you would think.  They were almost in kind of a dress uniform with these Calvary boots, long trench coat, leather trench coats with a beat and their officer insignia.  They had their officer caps, not their steel helmets, but their officer caps.  They were almost like they were going to go to a party.  Their boots were shinned and they looked really sharp.  This is a battle and this is what their battle commanders look like.  It was quite astounding for me to see those German Officers all dressed up, neat and clean.  They discovered real quickly that there was no way that they would be able to communicate with me.  I couldnít speak German and they couldnít speak English.  There was some conversation and talk and then they escorted me back to where the other troops and men I was with were so I was reunited with them.  I think they could see that there was no information that they were going to get out of this guy.  They were not hostile or anything they were just doing a job and they just gave orders.  They didnít take anything or they really didnít try to interrogate me.  I joined the men and they put us in trucks, open field truck with an open box in back and were going to try to haul us out.  Remember this is in the morning now, broad daylight.  We had gone just a little ways and we ran into American fire from American forces, small arms fire.  The Germans had two guards in the truck, one driving and the other in the cab of the truck.  Of course, the Germans would immediately take cover and we werenít privy to do that.  They would take cover and fortunately, we were not hit.  After the fire ceased we moved on our way and we had not gone very far and we would meet more small arms fire from American forces.  Well the German after that fire ceased or terminate they realize that there was no way they were going to get us out by truck in the daytime so they put us under cover.  When I say under cover, I mean so that we are not visible and they would keep us under guard.  They would keep us under cover until nightfall and at nightfall they would proceed to take us quite a ways to the back.  They deposited us with a German Artillery Unit.  It was I think a reserve artillery unit and they would leave us under the command or authority of this artillery unit.  They put us in quite a big shed, looked like kind of a wooden machine storage shed.  By this time, it isnít just the 30 that were with me but there are maybe 12 or 20 other guys that they had picked up and put with us.  There was another guy they had picked up that was a lieutenant and I even remember his name.  His name was LT. Miller.  He was a 1st Lt. and Lt. Miller was very, I donít know if he was fluent but he could get along very well in German.  So this is pretty much a novelty for the Germans to take American prisoners of war.  We were quite a curiosity so they would come and look us over and see what we look like.  Then the officers started coming and they wanted to see what we looked like.  Lt. Miller could communicate with them.  They were really busy talking like they were old friends.  Pretty soon the officer disappears and apparently given the orders to feed these guys pretty good.  It wasnít too long after the officer had disappeared and apparently had given the order to feed us good, they came in with a big, not a cream can but a kind of an old milk can.  It was about that wide, a foot wide, and a high aluminum type can that is maybe a yard high and maybe a foot wide.  It was full of soup that was apparently the chow for that artillery unit for that night.  It was a cream and potato soup.  Gosh, I will never forget that soup for the rest of my life.  Can you imagine how hungry we were?  We hadnít had anything to eat except for our D-Bars. We had passed them around the truck and that helped out a lot.  But this was the first food we had had and I mean it was truly delicious soup.  Thick heavy cream potato ham soup with big heavy slabs of ham in the bottom of the can.  We had pretty much all the soup we could eat.  They treated us well and they were very friendly.  The officers acted like they were almost like meeting a friend.  And they treated us that way.  They wanted us to have some good food.  Well, the next morning they put us in trucks and by this time we are quite a ways behind the line, the front lines and we are well out of harms way.  We would move along during the day in the open trucks.  They were camouflage with branches and trees.  They were very carefully camouflaged with the branches and leaves and all the soldiers had leaves on their heads and they were very hard to spot from the air.  But periodically we would be confronted with strafing from American fighter planes.  The Germans of course would all head for cover.  We almost always had two German guards in the back of the open truck and there was always two in the front, one driver and another guard.  When the planes would come they would of course plop themselves in the ditch and we were left there but fortunately we never came under fire.  Iím not sure if they ever saw us or what but we never came under fire.  We go on this way in these open trucks with intermittent stopping and starting because of the air raids they would be confronted with.  We moved on for quite a ways that day and at dark we get settled into a great big home somewhere in France.  We were kept under guard and put into this home for the night, no food.  We were all right because we had had a good meal and I think we even had some D-Bars left.  We spent the night in that home and the next day we were on the move and under cover again.  The next day we reached Paris, France.  By this time it isnít just our truck but there is a whole convoy of trucks, German trucks with prisoners of war.  I mean itís like maybe 30 trucks and Iím guessing at the number but quite a large convoy of about 30 trucks with American prisoners of war.  We were in these open trucks and there was not much room.  We are jammed into these open trucks, American Prisoners of war and a convoy of 30 trucks and itís taking us into Paris, France.  This was quite early in the day, maybe 9 or 10 oíclock in the morning when we reached the outskirts of Paris.  This is about the 3rd day and could be the 4th day but not much time had expired.  I will tell you, by this time it was apparent to the people of Paris that it would not be long before they would be liberated because word was that after we broke out of the hedgerow country there was a vast push right towards Paris.  They were moving really fast, Patton and his army.  It was a massive, massive array of force together with the Canadians and the British.  They were marching on to Paris and the Parisians knew that maybe in a matter of days they suspected that Paris would be liberated.  They knew that the war was soon going to be over for them and they would be liberated.  And here we were the first American troops to enter Paris and it was like we were the liberating army.  I mean it was unbelievable, it was like we were the liberating army.  I mean I think it backfired on the Germans because I think what the Germans had in mind was that they wanted to parade us through the heart of Paris in prime time hours to display all the Americans they had taken prisoner and it absolutely backfired on them.  Because the Parisians treated us like we were the liberating army.  I mean they just lined the streets by thousands and they cheered and they hollowed and they threw bottles of wine and loaves of bread, it was just like a victory celebration truly, truly amazing.  Well this is way out in the suburbs of Paris and we moved on a long trip right to the heart of downtown Paris.  They stopped us in a big open park.  I think they were going to display us to the Parisians people and I mean the Parisians just kept on cheering and shouting and hollering and they were just crowding in on us.  Again there were maybe 30 trucks in a kind of a circle, semicircle.  They were going to display their products and I mean thousands and thousands of people converged on this group until it was almost a tight circle.  And it looked like they were going to liberate us and it got so threatening to the Germans that they had to set up machine guns around us.  When I say machine guns, they had these machine guns that they set on the ground, maybe 30 caliber sometimes 50 caliber, they would set up machine guns.  So they had to start shooting into the air, shooting their machine guns into the air and then the crowds retreated.  Then they hastily remobilize our caravan and realized that they better get us out of there in a real hurry.  They had almost encompassed us and liberated us.  This is a beautiful summer day and this is in the heart of Paris and there were throngs of people all along the streets as this convoy slowly moved along.  And they were still cheering, hollering and throwing bottles of wine and bread at us.

We were catching the wine and bread.  Well you see this was just unbelievable and it was a sight to behold.  I really, I mean itís like New York welcoming the New York Giants after they had won a World Series, it was comparable to that.  The Germans didnít dare do anything because they were losing control and they were on retreat.  They Parisians had totally taken control.

I tell you, right away when I got into the heart of the city, these are narrow streets and not these wide boulevards like you have in the suburbs.  I was really tempted to jump and I thought of it many times.  Iím sure we all were thinking the same thing.  Maybe I should jump and give it a try but you figure you would get picked off too quickly.  The Germans had the guards on the trucks and I was afraid they would pick me off.  Believe me I was tempted.  I mean the Parisians we right next to the truck and they would just follow the trucks and I mean I was tempted to jump right into the crowd, really many times.  Boy you know itís tempting.  Again I was afraid the guards would pick us off so I didnít do it.  None of us did and Iím sure we all were thinking the same thing.  We arenít talking you know we are just sitting there, every man for himself.  Yes, it was very tempting to jump off into that crowd but I didnít.  Well they successfully got us out of Paris and put us into what was an actual prison in the outskirts of Paris, an actual prison.  When I say that there were bars and it was an old structure.  And one of the surpassing things was when they put us into this prison, the next morning, the Germans actually passed out French Red Cross Parcels.  We each got a French Red Cross Parcel.  That was the first food we had got in quite some time, other than what the French had thrown us.  It was a wonderful lift.  One of those Red Cross parcels will provide decent nourishment for at least a week.  So you are really well fed or adequately fed.  I shouldnít say well fed but adequately fed for at least a week but of course we would string them along much longer than that.  We were in that prison there but it was real dirty.  The latrine facilities were deplorable.  I didnít see any rats but it was the kind of the place where you could say it was rat infested with lice.  It was lousy and we were in a bad, bad facility.  And we were kept there for I would say maybe at least a week.  We had water, portable water and we had the French red cross parcels and we got along.  When I say a week again I have to be kind of liberal in that in retrospect Iím guessing a week or so, little less or more.

           We were with other POWís but there wasnít a lot of conversation.  Most of it was that here we were in a place where we could rest and recuperate.  It was mostly resting and recuperation.  It was nice, as we would lay out in the sun and rest.  We really just rested and recuperated not much conversation.

           The Germans who were handling us didnít change much from the previous Germans who handled us.  I donít think they changed.  I would have to say up to this point our captors were very civil.  And there wasnít any display of hostility either.  We were all human beings and they treated us that way.  We all looked alike, Iím blond and kind of looked German and they treated us fairly.  There were no grounds for hostility.  These are just regular army soldiers and almost everyday we had different guards.  You would have to say that the soldiers that pulled this kind of duty were the kind of the drakes, a bit older and maybe not as smart.  You know the ones that were strong, agile, young, intelligent; they were up in the front lines.  The guys pulling guard duty were the drakes you might say, not the brightest.  Iím talking about the guards in our trucks but the artillery units now thatís a different group of men.  They were not the drakes but sharp guys, good health and they were young and capable people.  They were the first real Germans that we came in contact with, closer with.  The rest of these guys, once we got behind enemy lines, the type of German guard became different.  The further back you got; a lower grade of soldier was encountered.  They were just ordinary people.  They had a job to do and they were not hostile.  I really suspect that if we could speak the same language you could have probably developed a friendship real quick with almost all of them, any of them.  There wasnít any hostility and they were more a friend than enemy.  I suspect, even though I didnít have that experience, but when I would see Lt. Miller speak German, they were more like friends than enemy. 

           At this time I was not with the men I was captured with in Mortain.  We had been separated for some time.  By this time you know there were a lot and a lot of prisoners.  There just werenít the 30 of us but many hundreds and we were separated.  When we get to the prison they separated the officers from the enlisted men.  When we get to that prison for the first time we were desegregated, officers separated and enlisted separated.  I think they even separated the non-com from commissioned officers.  The idea there is to take away the leadership.  I also think it had something to do with the Geneva Convention, separating officers from the enlisted men.  I really donít know the basis for that but they did that.  Yes, so now Iím in this prison and we are all officers.  There are a lot of us at this prison and my god, I donít know how many but I would say there were at least 50 and we were all beat and tired.  We are physically all worn out.  We were able to shave, as there was some water so we could clean our selves up.  We also had these French Red Cross parcels so it was a time to recuperate.  From that time on now, all the movement is by train and these are the kinds of trains you would see in the war films where they would load you in box cars and there is straw in the bottom of the car.  You have two doors on each side of the boxcar, sliding doors.  One on each side.  The area on each side of the doors is fenced off with some heavy chicken wire from the ceiling to the floor and the guards would sit in that open spot and we were in the areas on both sides of the doors.  You have the box car and you have a sliding door here and here and you have a space forward and back and they would fence off each area on each side of the sliding door from top to bottom with a kind of heavy chicken wire.  We were back here and back here and the guards were here. 
 

Ray's letter HOME after Capture: