Last week, we left Mr. Ira Lee Taylor of Harrisburg on Utah Beach on the Normandy coast of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Today we pick up his story on the following day. Taylor served in the U.S. Army’s 4th Division, Headquarters Battery – Artillery, Survey Section.
Late in the afternoon on June 7, Taylor’s outfit joined up with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions near Ste. Mere Eglise, France. The paratroopers had dropped 10 miles inland and behind enemy lines before daylight on June 6.
Taylor told me something I’d never heard about the World War II paratroopers. Every one of them carried a cricket. If you were born in or before the 1950s, you know I’m talking about those little tin things you pressed with your thumb and forefinger to make a snapping noise.
It was dark when the paratroopers landed behind German lines on D-Day and they were all scattered out. Taylor said the paratroopers would start mashing their crickets when they hit the ground so they could identify and find one another in the dark.
Then, Taylor’s voice lowered in sadness. “I read where the Germans shot them [the paratroopers],” he said. “If their parachutes got hung up in a tree or something, they just turned a machine gun on them. And we saw, as we were going through, we saw a parachute trooper — he was hanging in a tree — and they’d set him on fire and burned all his clothes off. We saw that.
“The Germans even booby-trapped the [American] bodies, you know. When they picked them up, they’d have a trip wire on them and it would explode.”
All of the Normandy countryside looked alike. Taylor remembers lots of cow pastures. “But sometimes you’d move in a cow pasture and they’d be dead cows killed all around there and it was the stinkingest place!”
From Ste. Mere Eglise, the 4th Division went to Montebourg, France. It wasn’t a big town. “In the morning it’d be ours. That night it”d be theirs [the Germans’]. The next day, it’d be theirs and that night it’d be ours.”
I asked Taylor what happened to the people living in towns like that during the fighting. He said, “When there was a big battle going on, people moved back in the forest. They had a lot of forests over there. They moved back in the forest and stayed until that town was clear.”
Taylor said that every time his outfit moved up, a Forward Detail was sent ahead to find a site where they could set up for the night. That’s where the Command Center would be. It seemed to Taylor that he was always on that detail.
“I was always on that detail. But we’d go up there and pick out the spot where we were going to set up. And then we went back to the Battery outfit and led them back. The boys would say, ‘How is it? How is it up there?’ We’d say, ‘Boy, it’s hot as a firecracker! Hot as a firecracker! We’d get them scared,” he said with a laugh.
Taylor has a healthy respect for anyone who served in the Infantry. He said, “If you’re ever going to join the Army and you’re trying to figure out what outfit to join, don’t join the Infantry! Don’t join the Infantry because they’re under everything — small arms fire, hand grenades, artillery… They’re on the front lines.”
“We always set up close behind the Infantry,” Taylor said. “We kept communications with all the Artillery.” Every time they moved up, the wire section lay wire to the Battery.
The wire section operated a switchboard around the clock. There was also a radio section, a kitchen section, and a survey section.
From Montebourg, the 4th Division went to the deep water port of Cherbourg, France. “We ran into a whole horse-drawn German outfit,” Taylor said. “Everything was pulled by horses — great big old draft horses, you know — beautiful things, and the Air Corps and the Artillery caught them on that wide open road and annihilated them.”
After Cherbourg, they went into “the Hedgerow country.” Taylor said there were fields of one acre, two acres and some 20 acres and they were all laid out in the same way with a ditch on three sides and the other side open. The ditches were large and flat in the bottom, which gave the American soldiers some good places to sleep at night. “We called it ‘The Howard Hilton Hotel,’” Taylor said. “That was a set up. You didn’t have to worry about digging a foxhole.”
In the Hedgerow country, Taylor said there were many apple orchards and pastures without fences. He saw lots of cows and horses in the countryside.
Next, was the French town of St. Lo., where Taylor’s outfit set up for nearly two weeks. They could hear tanks rumbling night and day. A staging area was being set up. After nearly two weeks of constantly hearing tanks moving, the troops knew there was going to be a big battle.
“Patton’s 3rd Army was there with all his tanks,” Taylor said. “And after everything got in place, we had 3,000 heavy and light bombers right in that area in front of us. It took them all morning to drop those bombs, and we were so close to them. I think we were about 1,000 feet behind where they were dropping them. The ground just quivered all morning long… Well, when they dropped all those bombs, there was so much dust and smoke in the air, the last bombers couldn’t see what they were doing, and they dropped them on our own troops. They killed a whole bunch of people.”
When Taylor’s outfit moved up, they were sent through an open field. “I did not see a thing alive!” he said.
After the war, Taylor read about the French Resistance Movement in the St. Lo area. An 18-year-old woman was a leader in The Resistance. She and other women rode bicycles everywhere. The German sentries paid no attention to them.
At night, the women would ride their bicycles and find German Army trucks, crawl under them, let the oil out of the axles, and replace the oil with an abrasive powder. This tore up the whole front end of a truck as soon as it was cranked up the next morning.
Taylor’s next stop was Paris. “We were supposed to go south of Paris and cross some river there,” he said. “And I believe it was the French 2nd Army Division that was supposed to take Paris… We ran into them… and those Frenchmen had those tanks going up the road there a-hollering and a-shouting. Man, we said, ‘Boys, just wait. Just wait till you get in Paris! Those Germans will straighten you out!’
“And so they got into Paris and they had to pull us out and send us to Paris because they got bogged down and the Germans were beating the tar out of them,” Taylor said.
After Paris was liberated, Taylor’s outfit set up in a big park about a mile from the city.
They stayed in that park for three weeks. In the evenings, when there wasn’t anything to do, the GIs would sit on the curb and watch the people.
Taylor remembers crossing the Seine River and seeing Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower, although the tower was stripped down during the war.
The most shocking part of French culture Taylor saw was men using the bathroom in front of women at designated places on the sidewalk. He said the American GIs never got used to seeing that.
Taylor said the French people live in little villages. He said they don’t live scattered throughout the countryside like people do here. He found Germany to be the same way.
Cow stables were connected to farm houses in France. If a house had a basement, the cows would be down there. The houses all faced the street. Each house had a cement enclosure in which to put manure. By summer, the manure piles were fairly large. Taylor said, “We’d go through some of those towns in July and August and it would take your breath!”
Taylor had a couple of close calls in the war. One day in Normandy, he and the other men had parked their truck under a tree in an apple orchard and covered it with camouflage net. No sooner had Taylor walked out in the orchard, across a ditch, and to a little knoll than he heard a German fighter plane, strafing.
“I looked up and saw him and, man, I hit the ground there,” he said. You just automatically hit the ground if you heard artillery or anything coming. You don’t think; you just land flat on your stomach. That thing came right over me and those bullets were kicking up dirt about eighteen inches on the side of me!
“And I said, ‘Well, he’s gone now.’ And that bugger went on down and turned around. He came right back… I was so addled, I didn’t know whether he’d hit me or not. I just lay there. I was scared to reach back there, you know, to see if I could find any blood.
“I finally got nerve enough to reach back there and I didn’t find anything. It took me a long time to get over that. I could feel my hair standing straight up.”
From France, Mr. Taylor’s outfit moved into Belgium. One poignant moment near Waregem, Belgium was when they came to Flanders Field. The Flanders Field American Cemetery is the final resting place for 368 American soldiers who died in World War I. “Well, we were going through Flanders Field — we were moving up — and it was just acres, acres, acres, and they [the poppies] were in full bloom,” he said. “Every one of them was in bloom and there was a light breeze blowing and it just looked like an ocean wave.
“We stopped in our trucks and looked… We saw a monument over there — a 4th Division monument — World War I. And that was close to the beach.We just couldn’t get over the cemetery, though. I tell you it was so well-kept.”
But next came Bastogne, Belgium. “That’s where we got surrounded,” Taylor said. “We’re going to run into the biggest tank battle there ever was, I reckon!”
As Taylor’s outfit entered Bastogne after the battle, there was nothing but rubble from the bombs. “Every field and road was covered with German and American tanks,” he said. “I mean, there were hundreds of them!”
His convoy stopped and some of the soldiers got out of their trucks to investigate the wreckage of tanks. “That was the most American tanks I’d ever seen that were knocked out,” Taylor said.
Look for the “Did You Know?” column in two weeks to follow Ira Lee Taylor from Bastogne to V-E Day and back home to Harrisburg.
Interviews with Mr. Ira Lee Taylor, February 24 and March 2, 2007, and telephone conversation on May 18, 2007