"If you survive your first day, I'll promote you." So promised George Wilson's World War II commanding officer in the hedgerows of Normandy -- and it was to be a promise dramatically fulfilled. From July, 1944, to the closing days of the war, from the first penetration of the Siegfried Line to the Nazis' last desperate charge in the Battle of the Bulge, Wilson fought in the thickest of the action, helping take the small towns of northern France and Belgium building by building. A member of the 4th Infantry Division, Wilson's classic saga of endurance, patience, humor, and horror is a tale for the ages. Rather than regurgitate a complete historical synopsis of the Fourth's exploits during this global confrontation, it is often more effective merely to understand how one individual was shaped by it all. Part of the following is an excerpt from Wilson's work, courtesy of Ballantine Books. His story is as illuminating as it is tragic:
"It was probably very boring for most of the men to sit quietly and wait for the attack to begin. Especially since the jump-off dates were changed several times.
All of the officers were very busy. We spent hours studying maps of our objectives. Aerial photos were very accurate. With the use of special angles in glass, the photos showed orchards so close we actually could count the trees. Some of the photos were only a few days old. I was impressed with all the information at our disposal. I hoped the Germans didn't know as much about us but felt they could not because of our air superiority.
On July 25, 1944, the big attack finally got under way. The faraway drone of planes grew to a deep rumble as hundreds of huge bombers passed directly overhead, filling the sky. We were told there would be three thousand bombers and five hundred fighter-bombers in the raid. Ours was a grandstand view just behind the front lines, and we watched in complete awe as wave after wave paraded over us. There seemed to be about two hundred planes in each formation. What was splendidly inspiring for us must have been terrifying to the Germans.
The earth beneath us shook as strings of bombs began to explode just to the front of our infantry lines. The rush of air from the blasts gave us a good push, even though we were a half mile away. Our orders were to jump off in attack immediately after the bombing to take advantage of a stunned, confused enemy. Staggering misfortune stepped in, however, with a cruel blow. One whole wing of bombers miscalculated and dropped its entire load on the front lines of one of our divisions. The losses in dead and wounded were over eight hundred, including the killing of Lieutenant General Leslie McNair, Army Ground Forces Commander. This tragedy and its confusion caused the postponement of the attack one more day. The Germans, meanwhile, used the respite to bring up reserves to fill in much of the area the bombs had knocked out. The enemy we faced thus were a mixed lot of survivors of the bombing plus newly arrived paratroopers.
My personal "longest day" began as we jumped off my first attack the next morning, July 26, 1944. As soon as we crossed the Saint-Lô–Periers Road, just west of Saint-Lô, we came upon a dreadful sight. The destructive power of those thousands of five hundred-pound bombs overwhelmed the senses. The dead from both sides lay twisted and torn, some half buried by overturned earth. Bloated cows with stiff legs thrust skyward in death lay everywhere, as did burned-out vehicles and blasted equipment. I've never been able to erase it from my mind. When the order to move out had first come, my muscles had been taut with fear. After a while I realized that somehow my body was moving forward behind the tanks as my platoon took the lead. It seemed to me like the first few moments of a football game. As we advanced I began to feel my mind and body working together again still very scared, but functioning. Our tank company was wonderfully aggressive, shooting up everything in sight. The tank commander's tactics were very sensible, it seemed to me. Since no Americans were ahead of him, his orders were to shoot and shoot. All that tank firepower blasting away kept the enemy pinned with his head down, unable to return fire, and allowed us to advance rapidly and capture many prisoners with very few losses.
Many of the Germans were still in shock from the bombing, and many had no desire at all to fight. Actually, I don't understand how any of them even survived. Bomb craters big enough to swallow a jeep were so close together in some areas it was difficult for our tank drivers to zigzag through. Once, as we rounded the hedgerow at the corner of a big meadow, one of our tanks accidentally ran over a dead cow. It was bloated, and when it burst its entrails wound around the tank treads and there was the terrible mouth-filling stench to add to the gore.
It was too much for me. I fell down on my hands and knees and was retching miserably when the sudden roar of a diving plane made me look up just as one of our P-47s let go two bombs directly above me. I dove down flat in my own vomit needlessly, for the bombs sailed on another two hundred yards ahead and knocked out a Jerry armored half-track I had not even known was there. A few minutes later I lost my first man. He stood right up in an open spot and tried to match his rifle against an enemy half-track. They machine gunned him down and fled. I shuddered at his futile death, for a rifle was not much use against steel plate, and letting yourself get caught in the open by a machine gun is fatal. Better to take cover and fight again than to take foolhardy risks. If he'd armed himself with a rifle grenade or bazooka, it might have been a different story. I felt sick.
Our first village, Saint Gilles, now was close in front, and we approached with caution. It was just a small crossroads hamlet with about thirty buildings that seemed to go about a block in each direction from the one intersection. The buildings were close together, like stores, and built right up to the narrow street, with no sidewalk. The back yards were open country.
My platoon swung to the right across the fields and came into the village from the right, or west end, and headed toward the central crossroads. My men and I were walking on either side of the road following our lead tank into the little burg. As we approached I was on the left beside a high stone wall, and the first buildings were just ahead, not over ten yards beyond the end of the wall. Suddenly a shell exploded inside the first building beyond the wall, and instantly I hit the dirt. When I looked up a few seconds later from my prone position in the brick gutter, a Jerry Mark IV medium tank was cutting around the corner only a short block away and heading directly toward me. Our Sherman tank and the Mark IV began to fire at each other at once from point-blank range. Our tank began to back up as it was firing, apparently looking for some kind of cover. And this left me in front, actually between the two tanks.
I looked around frantically, but the stone wall appeared impossible to climb, and the buildings ahead were too close to the oncoming Mark IV, so I stayed flat in the gutter and watched the tank battle. Each tank fired as rapidly as possible as the distance closed to less than one hundred yards. The muzzle blasts shattered windows in the houses and storefronts, and each explosion knocked my helmet halfway off my head. The narrow, walled-in street seemed to act like a sound tunnel, and the concussion smashed at my ears. (My wife tells me today I'm somewhat hard of hearing, and I'm not very surprised.)"
The Fourth Infantry Division in Normandy
“I am ashore with Colonel Simmons and General Roosevelt, advancing steadily. . . . Everything is going OK. . . . Defense is not stubborn.”These were the words uttered by James Van Fleet, a regimental commander in the 4th Infantry Division to his superior Raymond “Tubby” Barton on the morning of June 6, 1944. Despite the calm demeanor of Van Fleet’s communication, many veterans of the “Ivy Division” would admit that their D-Day experiences were anything but placid.
Yet, matters could have been far worse—especially in comparison to Omaha Beach to the east.In a fortunate blunder, the troops of the Fourth accidentally landed on a section of the beach that was comparatively lesser defended. The “Ivymen” were prompt to take advantage of the error.Sustaining the least number of casualties of all five invasion beaches, these infantrymen quickly sought to link up with the U.S. paratroopers dropped into the French countryside the night prior.Of the some 21,000 men who waded ashore, less than 200 of them became casualties on D-Day.The moment was a welcomed reprieve for many.However, the long struggle toward Berlin would be a long and arduous one.
According to historian Joseph Balkoski, “Although the assault on Utah Beach ultimately became one of the most successful military operations of World War II, its outcome was anything but certain. Not only was Utah the most isolated of the five D-Day beaches, but the airborne assault was of unprecedented size and complexity. Despite the perils, American troops confidently cascaded into that far corner of Normandy and contributed decisively to the Allied triumph on D-Day.”
Like all battlefields, geography and terrain were crucial factors for Allied planners and common GIs alike.“Utah Beach, located directly east of Sainte Mere-Eglise, is a smooth beach with a shallow gradient and compact grey sand between high and low water marks. It differs from Omaha in that the terrain along the shore is not high; there is no dominating ground to assault and secure,” wrote Army historians fifty years later.Even so, the soaked GIs wading ashore were in for one of the most memorable episodes of their young lives.
Combat medic Jack Fox was a member of the division’s 8th Infantry Regiment.Slogging up the beach amidst thunderous German artillery fire, he later recalled, “I remember the bullets flying over our craft and see the ricochets of the bullets hitting the water.The landing craft’s door fell open and we all ran into the surf.We were in very deep water and I thought I was either going to drown or be shot before getting to land.By the grace of God, I made it ashore and started running through the deep sand toward the seawall.I had saved my medical equipment and stopped to help a wounded soldier lying on the beach.I turned him over and realized he was dead.I recognized him as a friend of mine.I was shocked, scared and angry at the same time.”Despite these traumatic personal losses, the division continued its advance inland.
Wishing to capitalize off this momentum was Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.The ambitious son of the warrior president and armed only with a .45 Colt and a wooden cane, the arthritic brigadier defiantly exclaimed to his officers, “We'll start the war from right here!”For seizing the moment, Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor—posthumously.The fatigued Roosevelt died of a heart attack one month later.
As the Ivymen mourned the loss of their assistant division commander, they continued to brutally cut their way through Normandy’s dense hedgerow country.The ferocity of this combat left a lasting imprint upon those lucky enough to survive it.Lieutenant George Wilson later wrote, “The destructive power of those thousands of five hundred-pound bombs overwhelmed the senses. The dead from both sides lay twisted and torn, some half buried by overturned earth. Bloated cows with stiff legs thrust skyward in death lay everywhere, as did burned-out vehicles and blasted equipment. I've never been able to erase it from my mind.”
Among the first of Allied troops to liberate Paris that August, the soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division yet had many battles to fight.They continued through northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes, and into Germany—fighting 200 straight days. Suffering over 34,000 casualties throughout the Second World War, some 5,000 Ivymen paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of liberating Europe.The terror of the conflict long resided with men like George Wilson, who wrote that the only way avoid the horrors of war is to learn from them.
4th Infantry Division History of WWII Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History
The 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division was one of the first Allied units to hit the beaches at Normandy on D-day, 6 June 1944. Relieving the isolated 82d Airborne Division at Ste. Mere Eglise, the 4th cleared the Cotentin peninsula and took part in the capture of Cherbourg, 25 June. After taking part in the fighting near Periers, 6-12 July, the Division broke through the left flank of the German Seventh Army, helped stem the German drive toward Avranches, and by the end of August had moved to Paris, assisting the French in the liberation of their capital.
The 4th then moved into Belgium through Houffalize to attack the Siegfried Line at Schnee Eifel, 14 September, and made several penetrations. Slow progress into Germany continued in October, and by 6 November the Division reached the Hurtgen Forest, where a severe engagement took place until early December. It then shifted to Luxembourg, only to meet the German winter offensive head-on, 16 December 1944. Although its lines were dented, it managed to hold the Germans at Dickweiler and Osweiler, and, counterattacking in January across the Sauer, overran German positions in Fouhren and Vianden. Halted at the Prum in February by heavy enemy resistance, the Division finally crossed 28 February near Olzheim, and raced on across the Kyll, 7 March.
After a short rest, the 4th moved across the Rhine 29 March at Worms, attacked and secured Wurzburg and by 3 April had established a bridgehead across the Main at Ochsenfurt. Speeding southeast across Bavaria, the Division had reached Miesbach on the Isar, 2 May 1945, when it was relieved and placed on occupation duty.
Click here to purchase George Wilson's classic memoir of life with the 4th. As impressionists of the average GI in this division, such firsthand accounts serve as invaluable research tools.
Men of the 4th crowd aboard an LCT on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Having received a full meal before heading ashore, many of these men were bound to be seasick in the rough and cold waters of the Channel.
Assistant Division Commander Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. lived up to the fierce reputation of his father on Utah Beach. Plagued by arthritis and fatigue, he died of a heart attack one month after D-Day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Because the Allied armada required a deep harbor port, the 4th Division was assigned to capture the key port city of Cherbourg, France (above). This would allow the Allies to maintain a greater flow of supplies to enter the Cotentin from the sea. From there, the 4th continued the drive inland with its fellow American divisions.
A soldier of the 4th ID shaves in his foxhole outside Cherbourg.
Following Operation Overlord and the capture of Cherbourg, the 4th became engaged in fierce combat in the hedgerows of Normandy.
In Normandy and throughout the war, the 4th was joined by the gung-ho novelist Ernest Hemingway, who served as a correspondent, observer, and scout. He is seen here with Colonel "Buck" Lanham, who was later fictionalized as the character of Colonel Cantwell in Hemingway's "Across the River and Into the Trees," published in 1950.
J.D. Salinger, future author of the classic "Catcher in the Rye," was in the 4th's 12th Infantry Regiment. Haunted by the war for much of his life, the conflict profoundly shaped his career as a writer.
Sgt Mike Ala with Grease Gun, 4th Infantry Division, Hurtgen Forest - 18 November 1944.
Charles Chibitty was one of several Native American code talkers who served with the 4th ID.
A private of the 4th ID offers his farewell to his wife and child.