Posts Tagged ‘Normandy 1944’

The strange coincidences that have marked our 111th journey from the start continue to occur.

Ed and I took a spur-of-the-moment day trip over the mountains a couple of weeks ago. While poking around an antiques/gift shop in a little town in West Virginia, two old books caught my eye. There were only four books in the entire shop. I walked over for a closer look, and this is what I saw:two wwii books

They were published in the 1960s. Of course, we bought both.

Although the 111th isn’t mentioned by name in these books, the ordnance battalions they were assigned to are noted. It was truly an orphan unit, belonging at various times in 1944 and 1945 to the 48th, the 177th, the 320th, the 185th, the 187th, and the 54th and 55th.

One chapter in the second volume is very interesting: “On the Far Shore in Normandy.” We learned that several ordnance units landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and more continued to come ashore in the following days and weeks, including, of course, the 111th on D+5 (which left Southampton for Omaha Beach on the night of June 10) and D+6.

On page 244, we read a paragraph that sent a chill down our spine:

“Shortly after midnight on 11 June, the headquarters of the 177th Ordnance Battalion…was ashore at Dog Green Beach [eastern side of Omaha]. When the commanding officer was able to get in touch with the command posts of V Corps and First Army Ordnance, he learned that he had lost an entire medium automotive maintenance company, the 342nd, and twenty-seven men of Detachment B of the 526th Heavy Maintenance Company (Tank) when LST 1006 was sunk in the English Channel by a German torpedo in the early hours of June 9.”

As most of you have told me, our fathers did not talk much about the war. My own father, when I asked about the dangers he faced, told me he had a desk job behind the lines and was never really worried. Of course, we have since learned that they had quite a few close calls during their time in Europe. But the unit never lost a man until the week after V-E Day, in May 1945, when two young enlisted men drowned in a boat accident on the Weser River in Germany.

This holiday season, let’s think about that for a minute and thank our lucky stars that our fathers made it safely through that horrible war. In fact, most of the men were finally back home in the States by 70 years ago this month. How thankful and happy they must have been.

Note: I just did a little research and learned that from December 1941 through December 1946, the Army Ordnance Department had 214 battle casualties (including 101 deaths) among its officers, and 3,030 battle casualties (including 1,121 deaths) among its enlisted men. (http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/Casualties/Casualties-1.html#month) This was out of a total of 24,000 officers and 325,000 enlisted men in the Ordnance Department in that period. (http://www.goordnance.army.mil/history/ORDhistory.html)

 

 

 

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A couple of weeks ago, we posted a few letters that Tom Sedlacek gave us that his father, Joe, had sent home in 1944 and 1945. When Linda Campbell, Roland Unangst’s daughter, saw them, she recalled that long ago she had saved a letter her dad had sent home (from Blumenthal, near Bremen, Germany) two weeks after the war in Europe had ended — V-E Day was May 8, 1945. After that date, the Army had stopped censoring letters and photos.

So, finally, Roland was able to tell his wife in a nutshell what the 111th had been through in the 18 months since they left New York City in November 1943. (If you recall, the 1944 letters Joe Sedlacek sent home were very carefully phrased.) Those of you who have already read Unangst’s memories of the war (see the link at top of the home page) on this site will find  additional information and observations in this letter.

Here it is — the war in Europe as experienced by the 111th — in just three pages:

page 1

page 1

p. 2

p. 2

p. 3

p. 3

 

 

 

 

Tom Sedlacek, son of 111th soldier Joe Sedlacek, has provided us with a treasure trove of artifacts and information about the unit—including the panorama photo of the company taken in 1943 and the European itinerary we posted recently, not to mention many photos. Now Tom has sent us copies of a few letters his dad wrote home to the family in Illinois, and he has agreed to let us share some sections of them here. If Joe’s wording sounds a little guarded, it is because the men’s mail was read and censored; see the stamp and signature (Lt. Errington, one of the 111th’s officers] on the envelope.

Tom dad Joe Sedlacek          sedlacek envelope

The first two letters were mailed from Normandy, France:

“Wednesday [June] 14 [1944], Somewhere in France

“Dearest Mother and Bros., Am very sorry I didn’t write sooner but I just didn’t have time. As now we are over here in France. I guess you all know what has taken place and I hope it doesn’t last long. Am just fine and tell Mother not to worry as I’ll take good care of myself. Hope you’re fine and in good health as I wouldn’t care or want to hear of anyone being ill.

“The weather is okay but nothing like back home….By the way, how are all of the boys and their families? Give them my regards and not to get mad if they don’t hear from me often….I haven’t received the package you sent me which contained the toilet articles. Sure hope I receive them as I’d  like to get some American articles. Boy, I could really go for some good meats and some good old beer. Tell everyone I said hello and please don’t worry too much, Mother. Good-bye, answer soon. Always love, Joe”

The next one is about three weeks later:

“Somewhere in France, Wednesday, July 5 [1944]

“Dear Mother and Bros., Sure good to hear from you as I received your letter yesterday (of June 19th).The first time I heard from you for over a month….We’re rather damp as it rains almost every day; otherwise I am just fine as much as possible. We get strafed nearly every day and have been also shelled. Have been over here for quite some time and the boys are doing just fine. We didn’t get over here for the fireworks, but we didn’t miss it by very far. The people seem to be okay but you just can’t trust any of them ‘cause some of them may be German as they have been over here for four years.

“We left [New York] about the first of November on a freighter and arrived in Liverpool about the 17th of November. Then we were stationed near Cardiff (largest city) till about the middle of February. We moved from there to Cardigan, Wales (western part) until we came over here.

“Guess what? Today at dinner we had white bread. The first time since we got off the boat on Nov. 17th; and what I mean is it really surprised us. In England all we had was rye bread. The rations aren’t good but we’ll make it. This country isn’t so bad for scenery but it’s no place for me as I can’t understand their language.

“Our artillery is still firing and the timber just rocks. The people have quite a few orchards and the crops aren’t so bad. Some [people] dress fairly nice while others are in rags and even wear wooden shoes. We give the kids our spare gum or candy if we have any. They held up our mail in England almost the whole month of May. That’s why you hadn’t heard sooner from me.” Joe ends the letter with the usual questions about weather and friends back home.

This one was written just three days after the war in Europe was over, from Germany:

“Tuesday, 11 May [1945]

“Dear Mother and Bros., Was sure glad to hear from you as I received three letters in the past five days. You all know about the good news so there’s no use in discussing it. Almost all of the company was on a jag for a day or so. Hello to Mother and all the rest and am in fine shape. Will be on the lookout for the package you sent….

“Guess you heard about the point system over the radio, well, I’ve only got 76 and you need 85 to get out. Got 22 months overseas, 39 months in the service, and three battle stars. Imagine by now you’ve got the place in fairly nice shape and only wish I could be there to help you….

“About ten days ago a few of us were up on the Elbe River and ran into a few Russians. Those Krauts are sure scared of the Russians. And almost all of them made for our lines. Those Russians don’t fool with them.

“Sent you two boxes today so be on the lookout. Good-bye, Love to all, Joe”

The discovery of the 111th’s European itinerary has already answered two questions we have had. The first involves the French boy the men picked up in Normandy–presumably an orphan. Last week, when we heard from the French student, Tristan, concerning the Falaise Gap, I asked him in an email if he had any idea as to how we might find out more about this lad of 1944. His first question was, “Do you know when and where the 111th picked him up?” And of course, I had no idea–just somewhere in Normandy.

Unidentified French boy the unit picked up in Normandy and took with them for six months.

Unidentified French boy the unit picked up in Normandy

Well, as luck would have it, the very next day Tom Sedlacek found his dad’s copy of the itinerary, and he faxed it to us. One line in it says “Picked up French kid 8-14-44”; they were camped in Vire, Normandy on that date. So I wrote back to Tristan with that information, and he has offered to sent the boy’s photo (I was able to send a better one than the one above) and this information to newspapers in Vire for us. Wouldn’t be amazing if the boy–now a man in his 80’s–is alive and we could find him? A long shot for sure, but stranger things have happened on this quest. Such as…

In my father’s stash of things, I found a box containing four painted Dutch tiles. I never could figure out where they came from or why he kept them or what to do with them, so I put them in a closet. In January, we got a phone call from Melissa Boaz, the granddaughter of 111th member Joseph Apple, Jr., and for some reason she brought up the fact that she had some Dutch tiles he had mailed home to her grandmother during the war–they were still in the original shipping box. I pulled out my tiles, took a picture of them with my iPad, and emailed it to her. Sure enough, same tiles, except for one. We laughed at the thought of the two men shopping for tiles while a war was going on. Here is one:

photo (37)

Then the other day we saw this on the itinerary: “…Maastricht (first inside quarters in tile factory” 9-27-44. Look carefully at the company (Ste Ceramique) and location (Maestricht) on the back of this tile:

photo (38)

I checked and it seems the company no longer exists. “Groningen” seems to refer to the girl’s village or perhaps her costume.

So, it looks like the men helped themselves to some souvenirs, something to send home to their wives and mothers. Have any other 111th families come across similar tiles?

We just received an email from Perkins P. Cochran, Jr., son of 111th member Perkins P. Cochran, who died in 1983. He sent the following photo and notes to share. His report is interesting because although it contains a few dates we have not known previously, it also raises more questions about two other dates—when the unit arrived in St. Dogmaels, West Wales, and when they landed on Omaha Beach after D-Day. If all reports so far from men and family members are correct, the unit left Wales in two (or more) conveys late on the night of June 6, destined for two different embarkation points—Plymouth, England, and a port near Southampton, England—and arrived on Omaha Beach on three different dates: June 9, June 11, and June 12. Then somehow they found one another and regrouped. Is this possible? We would love to hear any other accounts.

We were also sorry to learn that Perkins Cochran was wounded in late 1944 and was sent back to the States for hospitalization. (This is a first; does anyone else know of injuries sustained among the men? Let us know.) Here is what his son sent us:

“My father, Perkins P. Cochran, was drafted and entered the U.S. Army in July 1942 at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He went from there to Fort Warren, Wyoming, in August 1942, then to Fort Crook, Nebraska, from November 1942 to January 1943 for Auto Mechanic Training Course. He went to Pomona Ordnance Motor Base, California, for further training until April 1943. Then he was sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, for four days, and on April 10, 1943, to Fort Dix, New Jersey. It was probably around this time that he became a member of the 111th Ordnance Medium Maintenance Company. In July 1943 he arrived at A.P. Hill, Virginia, and in November 1943 he arrived at Camp Shanks, New York. He was a mechanic and truck driver in the Army.

Cpl Perkins P. Cochran of Senatobia, Mississippi

Cpl Perkins P. Cochran of Senatobia, Mississippi

“I found some notes that my father had written after he left Camp A.P. Hill, Virginia. I have summarized what he wrote in these notes as follows: He tells about leaving Camp Shanks November 5, 1943, crossing the Atlantic on a ship named the S.S. Examiner. The journey began smoothly, but soon they faced rough seas with hard wind and rain. One day they received word that four German submarines had been spotted about fifty miles away, so they changed course. They continued in the North Atlantic and saw a whale and some sharks following the ship even though the seas were still rough. At one point it was so rough that they lost one of the ship’s life boats. As they got closer to England, they saw patrol planes flying over them. On November 19, 1943, they arrived at Liverpool, England.

“They left Liverpool and rode all night by train to Barry, Wales, then traveled by trucks to Brynhill golf course at the edge of Barry to help build the camp up. They stayed there a few days and then on December 3, 1943, went to Sully, Wales G-40, where Dad was a truck driver at the S.O.S. Depot near Cardiff. Later in February 1944 they moved to Albro Castle near St. Dogmaels. He tells about a Captain Goode taking command of the 111th in February 1944. They left there on June 4, 1944 [we believe this date is off by two days], for Southampton, England, arrived the next day, waterproofed their trucks, loaded on the LST’s and left for France June 8, 1944. They landed on Omaha beachhead on June 9, 1944. He didn’t go into detail but wrote that they saw terrible things even three days after D-Day. They took the waterproofing off their trucks and moved up behind the Second Division about 10 miles from the coast and just over a mile from the front lines.

“He wrote about the constant artillery shelling back and forth and the enemy planes strafing almost every day. He also wrote about it raining almost every day for three weeks after they arrived in France. They had to watch out for booby traps, snipers, and land mines, and as they moved forward, most of the towns had been destroyed. They moved from Cherbourg up past St. Lo, Vire and on into the spearhead toward Paris in July and August 1944.

“They moved on to Belgium, then to Holland after this. His notes did not show the months (probably September and October 1944), but he wrote about many of the dykes, canals, and bridges that had been destroyed in Holland. He wrote that they lived in an old factory building that had been used to make pottery and tile for roofing. He mentioned that they had a nice shop and were doing a lot of work. He wrote about dreaming that the war would be over by the end of October 1944 and was waiting to see if his dream would come true. They began to see many German prisoners of war in those days.

“My father’s notes ended after the above information. I don’t know what happened, but sometime around November 1944 he was wounded and was in the hospital. I don’t know how or where he was wounded or where he was in the hospital. He never talked about this. He left Europe on December 30, 1944, and arrived in the U.S. in January 1945 at Brooke General and Convalescent Hospital, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He remained there until April 30, 1945, when he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army.”

Our search for the men of the 111th continues to run across odd little connections. The night before we left for Florida to meet Arthur Brooks (see previous posting), we received a phone call from Melissa Boaz of Austin, Texas. Melissa’s mother is the daughter of 111th member Joseph B. Apple, Jr., and she had received one of our letters. Melissa told us that her grandmother, Margaret Apple—Joseph’s widow—had passed away at the age of 95 just days before our letter arrived.

Sgt. Joseph B. Apple, Jr., and his wife, Margaret, 1941

Sgt. Joseph B. Apple, Jr., and his wife, Margaret, 1941

One of the things Melissa told us was that her grandfather was proud of the fact he was involved in the Allied effort to weld “prongs” onto the fronts of Sherman tanks in Normandy. (More on those in a minute.) After the war, Apple continued working as a welder in civilian life. He died in Texas in 1984.

A few days later, Art Brooks told us that  one of their biggest jobs in Normandy was to fashion and sharpen pieces of scrap metal–left over from the destructive devices the Germans had placed on the beaches–into blades and weld them to bars on the front of tanks. This innovation allowed the tanks to plow through Normandy’s infamous hedgerows, “an important factor in achieving the St. Lo breakthrough,” Brooks added.

We interrupted and said, “We just learned all about that! One of your welders was Joseph Apple!” Brooks went on to say the job kept them busy day and night for a few weeks. They had to do their work under layers of camouflage netting so the Germans couldn’t see what they were doing.

In fact, Ed and I first learned about those cleverly adapted tanks while visiting the D-Day Museum in Caen, France, a few months ago. As you may know, the challenge for the Allies after they had secured the Normandy beaches was to continue to push the Germans inland. But they soon ran into the problem of bocage—the high, thick hedgerows surrounding the farm fields. The website www.tanks.net explains it well:

“In this environment, tanks and infantry became separated from one another. Axis soldiers would hide in the hedges and shoot Allied infantry with machine guns. The Allied infantry soldiers did not have tanks to protect them.

If a Sherman tank tried to ram through a hedge, it would become stuck in the hedge and the tank’s bow would get pushed up, making it the perfect target for a Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon.

“The Allies developed ram bumpers and hedgerow cutters to enable tanks to get through the hedgerows safely. The most famous of these is probably the Culin hedgerow cutter, which was invented by American Sergeant Curtis Grubb Culin III. The Culin Hedgerow Cutter was made up of sharp steel spikes that were fitted to the front of a tank. The cutter would cut through a hedgerow, creating an opening for the tank and the troops that followed.  The steel for the Culin Hedgerow Cutter came from metal obstacles that the Germans had left on the beaches.”

A Culin Hedgerow Cutter

A Culin Hedgerow Cutter

The 111th, along with other Army ordnance units in Normandy in July 1944, were put to work fabricating and welding cutters onto Sherman tanks. Generals Eisenhower and Bradley later said that these modified tanks, also known as “Rhinos,” saved many Allied lives.

This morning we drove to Caen to visit the best museum in the region, the Caen-Normandie Memorial. It is huge and very well done, but too general to learn much detail about individual units. After, we drove south to Falaise, to see where Dad’s unit had passed through after the decisive Battle of the Falaise Pocket in August 1944. The town was largely destroyed and is now a modern town, home to the imposing castle on the hill where William the Conqueror was born a thousand years ago. With nothing to see there connected with Dad, we moved on north to St. Lo.

Falaise Gap five days later

St. Lo’s destruction in July 1944 was almost total; today it is an attractive, if more modern, small city. We stopped at the tourist office to find out the location of the famed Hill 192, the location of the US victory against the Germans that was crucial to the Allied efforts to free France, but the young women at the desk had no clue. One handed us a brochure of WWII sights in the area, and after we left we noticed an entry for Hill 192 and directions to it, as well as a memorial for the Second Division. (See Dad’s photo below of a tank destroyed in the Hill 192 battle.)

img090 evidence of the price the 2nd div paid for Hill 192 in Normandy       France etc. 2013 177

Within a short time, we found both places on back roads, not too far from Dad’s base at Cerisy la Foret. As we took pictures of the historic marker on Hill 192, a rainbow appeared on the horizon toward the sea.

France etc. 2013 175