Monday, June 6, 2016 - Normandy - In search of Thomas Dry Howie

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June 6th 2016
Published: June 6th 2016
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Today was spent more in the Utah Beach and airborne operations area. Today is the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day landings, and the entire area buzzed with the activities of tourists, re-enactments, and a few surviving veterans.

As opposed to the charnel house that was Omaha Beach, Utah Beach was much more easily assaulted. In the assault at Omaha, there were scenes such as that when Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division (a Virginia National Guard company) came ashore and within minutes had suffered 96% casualties.(The city of Bedford VA, home of many of these soldiers, now is the site of the US National D-Day Memorial - Bedford lost 22 young men in that first day of action on the continent, proportionally higher than any other community in the USA for the duration of the war). There were no such scenes at Utah. To be sure, there were difficulties, such as the main force landing over half a kilometer from their assigned landing spot. But even that turned out to be fortunate, because the German resistance there was much less than would have been encountered at their assigned spot. The initial troops were accompanied by General Theodore Roosevelt, son of the President. Taking charge when they realized how far from their assigned beachhead they had landed, he famously ordered "We'll start the war from right here". Total casualties for the 21,000 men landed by the 4th Division numbered only 197.

That is not to say that there was no hard fighting and brave actions. Technically, the order of battle included the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions in Major General Joseph "Lightning Joe" Collins' VII Corps. These forces performed heroically at places such as Brevoncourt Manor, Sainte-Mère-Église, Carentan, and Saint-Lô. The paratroopers suffered grievous losses as a result of mis-drops and enemy response. But the small groups of soldiers did their jobs, and secured much of the inland area needed for the build-up from Utah Beach. The attacks of the airborne troops gave us some of the most dramatic stories of the D-Day saga, such as the children's clickers used for identification of friendly troops, the paratrooper hung up on the steeple of the church in Sainte-Mère-Église, the leader being pushed in a wheelbarrow after breaking his ankle on landing.

Although the important crossroads town of Saint-Lô was included as a target for D-Day, in fact its capture did not come until after much heavy fighting. After 41 days of nearly continuous fighting, losing 7000 men killed or wounded and out of action, the 29th Division was ready for its final push. But the 2nd Battalion was besieged, cut up, and surrounded. The 3rd Battalion, led by Maj. Thomas Dry Howie, came to their rescue. Howie, a native of Abbeville SC and a Citadel graduate, was a former teacher of English literature and athletic director at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, and had already shown his bravery in singlehandedly capturing a German machine gun position. Leading his men, they relieved the 2nd Battalion and captured the German line at Martinsville. Maj. Gen. Gerhardt got on the phone with Howie, and discussed sending the 2nd Battalion against the Germans in a final push from the highlands around Hill 192 into Saint-Lô. Howie said the 2nd was too cut up to make the attack, but that his Battalion, the 3rd, could. His last words to Gerhard were "See you in Saint-Lô". After 42 days of fighting, taking Saint-Lô had become personal with Howie. But he insisted on one thing - he told his XO that he was not going to make another attack without new boots, having worn the same ones since leaving the States. In his new boots, he gathered his officers to discuss final strategy. A mortar round went off nearby, and all the officers were thrown to the ground. None were really injured except. His XO saw him standing upright, arms clutched around his body, saying "My God, Bill, I've been hit". The XO slowly lower him to the ground as he died, and the XO could only think that he never got to use the new boots in combat. When Gen. Gerhardt learned of his death, he decreed that Howie would get to the town he had labored so hard to take. As the armored column and troops poured into Saint-Lô, a solitary ambulance accompanied by an honor guard drove into town. The body of the man who became known as the "Major of Saint-Lô" was removed, placed on a pile of rubble from the Eglise Sainte-Croix, and draped in an American flag. The photo of that sight became the most iconic photograph of World War II up until the Iwo Jima flag Raising. Today, Howie is buried in the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, there is a monument to him in Saint-Lô, and the the carillon at The Citadel is named in his honor. 12 years later, Cornelius Ryan recounted these events in a Collier's Magazine story and a theatrical recreation was aired on TV starring Peter Graves as Maj. Howie.

For many of the Allied troops, the real horror of Normandy was not D-Day, but the fight through the bocage, the farm lands with the high hedgerows forming almost impenetrable barriers. The Germans were expert at using these as protection and would set up withering crossfires. The Americans eventually learned to drive tanks outfitted with "rhino horns" off steel (ironically usually fashioned from the steel beach obstructions they had to avoid on D-Day) and then fire immediately into each corner of the field thus breached. But the nature of this warfare made it a slow fight of attrition. The Allied high command realized that something must be done to break out, and so Operation Cobra was set in motion. This involved a massive aerial bombardment immediately in front of troops positioned at the jumping off line, followed by immediate violent assault by the ground troops. The bombers were worried about taking aircraft losses, and refused to fly along the line of demarcation to drop their bombs safely. Instead, they flew overhead of the troops perpendicular to the line, and thus exposed the troops to danger if bombs fell short. This is exactly what happened to Gen. McNair. A shortfall stick of bombs exploded among the American troops, killing 111 and wounding 490. One bomb fell directly into Lt. Gen. McNair's foxhole, and he was blown apart, wth the only recognizable bit left being his collar with its three stars. However, the operation succeeded in making possible the breakout. Seven weeks of deadly bocage fighting became two weeks of rapid expansion of territory and destruction of the German armies. They were virtually completely destroyed, and the destruction would have been more complete if Allied forces had closed the gap and entrapped the entire German 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army. As it was, the Germans lost about 450,000 men, including some 240,000 killed or wounded. In addition, they were forced to leave nearly all of the vehicles and heavy weapons behind, a loss from which they never recovered. As an example, the 12th SS-Panzer Division entered Normandy with 20,000 men and 150 tanks, but after Falaise was left with 300 men and 10 tanks. The battlefield in the Falaise Pocket was the scene of great horror.

"The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest "killing fields" of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh."
— Eisenhower

Operation Cobra included the activation of Patton's Third Army, and the "great chase" across France began. Patton we through the rest of France, in his terms, "like shit through a goose".

We were able to visit all these sites today. The beach at Utah was very crowded with people, many of them members of the re-enactment groups. Everywhere you go, there are people driving Willys Jeeps, presumably many of them being modern kits. One of our chief objectives, other than seeing Utah Beach and Sainte-Mere Eglise, was to find the church where Major Howie's body was laid, an also the place where he died. We first went to the wrong church, and could not find the expected plaque. But when we went to La Madeleine too see where he had died, we unexpectedly came across a small chapel that was within a few yards of the site where he was hit. It is a small church dating back to the 12th century, and is now a US war memorial. There we found the name of the correct church and the plaque.

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