Landing In France
Le Harve Eighty-niners still shiver at the memory of their first night in the ETO. Many had been waiting on the decks of their transport ships to climb down the rope ladders to their LCTs,
weakened by the cold and, for many, hunger as the result of seasickness.
Of course, the disembarkment and arrival at docks in various stages of
destruction was done in the pitch dark. Small fires were built from the
surrounding debre and even at that time, small kids and old Frenchmen were
begging for food. Hours passed by before the promised trucks began to arrive.
They were giant trucks, completely open to the near-zero weather and we were packed into them. At first, the curious stood to get a look at devastated Le Harve but, as the trucks gained speed, chill winds penetrated to the bone. Progress through the narrow streets of the small villages along the way was slow, and more than one house corner was chipped off at sharp turns. As hills grew steeper, the trucks had trouble negotiating the ice-covered grades. Freezing men lacked space even to stump their numbed feet. The forty-mile trip to Lucky Strike, our staging area, took six tortuous hours. At the destination some GIs lined up for coffee but most, frozen and exhausted, simple unrolled blankets on the snow where they stood. The tents were almost all either blown down or never put up. It was a miserable time for 89ers but in retrospect, better than landing in the summer only six months before on D-Day.
Work on Lucky Strike had started in December 1944 when Supreme Headquarters order the establishment of coastal assembly areas for the movement of the mass of supplies, equipment and men arriving on the continent for forward areas. The usual SNAFUs (Situation Normal All "Fouled" Up) took place and when the 89th arrived, most tents were not yet up. Shivering soldiers completed the installation, dug ditches in boggy ground which froze at night and thawed to boot-top goo in the daytime. Gravel was hauled in steel helmets for mess tent floors and to keep paths from sinking out of sight. There was very little coal or wood in the first week and enterprising soldiers erected makeshift stoves. Straw was found for bedding but difficult to keep dry. A simple trip to latrine, often located near mine fields, was an expedition through seas of mud. Many of the troops had the GIs (slang for diarrhea/dysentery), which made thing even more miserable.
The food situation was the most serious problem. For the first two weeks food was at a premium. What there was served in regimental messes twice a day resulting in long lines in the cold for each meal of insufficient quantity. Hunger threatened troop morale and self-discipline. While conditions gradually improved, another difficulty had serious consequences. The Germans before their evacuation had mined the entire region. During the month stay at Lucky Strike, two men were killed and three men were wounded. Supply remained a problem because of delay in receiving the Division's full quota of vehicles but by mid-February the situation improved. A training schedule was in effect. GIs thawed out their feed on marches and problems through the surrounding countryside. Tons of organizational equipment, which had been unloaded from the transports, was trucked in and uncrated. The entire Division dug trenches in preparation for possible enemy air attack, which quickly contributed to the miserable muddy conditions. Unit contingents trekked to LeHarve to pick up vehicle and guns, etc., etc.
Eighty-niners found time to explore. St. Valery, Fecamp and Neufchatel-en-Bray, the nearest towns, boasted cafes and ill-stocked stores but an occasional loaf of French bread could sometimes be found. In the line of beverages, many a GI illusion was shattered. Those who expected rare wines, champagne, and Napoleon brandy found instead weak cider, beer, calvados and a rare bottle or two of rough cognac. Your Webmaster remembers clearly his first drink of Calvados. It couldn't have been more that three months old and I still have an ingrown toe nail from it.
The French were cordial and shared what little they had as the GIs did with them. The area had been devastated both by the Germans and allied bombings. Mine platoons from the regiments aided the engineers in locating and removing thousands of German land mines throughout the area. During February, the Division received several orders to move from Lucky Strike but each was rescinded. Expected division maneuvers never materialized. Finally, details from all units went to Paris, Cherbourg, and Belgium depots to draw the remaining trucks, jeeps and other vehicles. Ammunition arrived and every man drew his basic allotment. Within the week, the 89th received orders to move into the area around Mersch, Luxembourg, in preparation for going into the line.
Division was assigned to the XII Corps, of General Patton's Third Army. Mersch was an appropriate location for the concentration; it was the temporary headquarters of the old 89th in December 1918, when that division took up occupation duties after World War I. The first units moved March 3. Infantry regiments and artillery battalions loaded into ancient "40-and-8" freight cars for the long, tedious journey across France. Other units, after a hasty check of their trucks, moved out into convoy. The trip averaged over three hundred miles and blown bridges, ruined roads and detours delayed trucks frequently. By March 8, the entire Division closed in its assigned area. In four hectic days, the Rolling W team competed combat preparations, ready for its first combat mission. On the eve of March 9, many thoughts and memories ran through our minds, many letters were written bearing unspoken prayers. But among all the thousands of men who had worked and sweated and frozen together as a fighting team, there was never any doubt that, whatever the coming fateful days would bring, the 89th would, in the words if its Division Commander, "hit the enemy punching hard with both fists."