Monday, December 08, 2008
My Father: A Veteran's Story
Frank P. Costa, Sr. is 91 years old and resides in the Home Sweet Home assisted living residence in Kingston, NY. Quite by accident, I saw my father in a TV ad for Home Sweet Home on a local TV station. I mentioned the TV ad to a cousin of mine and we talked about possible residuals that should go to his estate for the heirs to split. Of course, this was a ridiculous discussion and we got a good laugh out it. My father suffers from dementia and many of his memories of the past are no longer accessible to him in any detail. Having a discussion with him, of any consequence, is just about impossible now.
Dad was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S Army during World War II. He was in the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. His first combat jump was on the night of June 5-6, 1944 into Normandy France - D-Day, the allied invasion of Europe. The designated landing zone was the area around the small town of Ste. Maire Egliese. It was on the only main road to the fortified city and deep water port of Cherbourg, further west. Ste. Maire Egliese was the principal objective of the 82nd so that the Allied armies could prevent any German rescue or resupply of Cherbourg.
My father was positioned as the first soldier to exit the plane when the green light, the jump signal, was given. On his training jumps he was always faint and queasy in the aircraft. He couldn't wait to get out of the plane and into the fresh air. So the jump sergeant sat him next to the door of the C47. The triple A flak (anti-aircraft artillery) was so heavy, the pilot veered to avoid the danger and gave the jump signal at a purely arbitrary moment. Many of the pilots in the following planes, with other 507th paratroopers, followed the lead pilot's right turn. They landed more than 30 km from their intended drop zone.
Dad landed in a flooded field, up to his shoulders in water. He cut himself out of the risers on his parachute with his trench knife, but he lost his M1-A carbine. With the arrival of dawn, he spotted a church on high, dry ground and made his way out of the water. He regrouped with his regiment, part of it anyway, in the tiny hamlet of Graignes, maybe 15 km from Carentan. The village church with a tall bell tower was the most recognizable feature and occupied the highest elevation in generally flat terrain. The church was of typical medieval Norman design, but I don't know how old it was. One-hundred seventy-six soldiers (176) assembled, including a few from the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles. There was one Army Airforce fighter pilot. None of the surviving vets remembers where the fighter pilot came from.
The 507th was a headquarters outfit. That meant they had mortars, 50 caliber 'light' machine guns, and lots of explosives. They also had a lot of communications equipment, but they were too far away to contact any of the allied units. They were completely cut off from all communications. They had some great officers with them - a Colonel ('Pip' Reed), a Captain, and number of Lieutenants. The first thing they did was ascertain where they were with the help of the locals. They were so far off the drop zone that their location was off their military map. After much deliberation and argument, Colonel Reed decided to stay and set up a defense perimeter, rather than try to get back to the friendly lines through unfamiliar terrain and mostly flooded fields.
The head of the French Resistance in the area was a Graignes farmer, named Regault. His second in command was the Mayor of the Hamlet. The trusted locals were instructed the night before, by Regault and the Mayor, that the invasion was coming and that they were expected to do their duty when the time came. Regault had two daughters, Yvette 18 and Marthe 12. They were to become heroes in their own right and save the lives of many of the Americans. The first thing the locals did was to scour the area for the equipment and supplies that were parachuted with the soldiers. They smuggled the equipment in their horse carts and wagons. The proprietor of the local restaurant, Mme. Brousier, organized her suppliers to bring in large quantities of food stuffs to feed the paratroopers. They had to smuggle and be discreet so as not to attract the attention of the German soldiers in the area. The Germans soon learned of the existence of the Americans, but did not know who they were, how many, or how they were equipped. Some of the young French girls ran off to alert their German soldier boy friends.
Eventually the 507th set up a defensive perimeter, dug in, zeroed in all the roads with their mortars, and then sent out patrols. The first advance by the German soldiers toward Graignes was a small patrol. They were dispatched very quickly by the mortars and machine guns. The next day it was a larger German patrol, but they were destroyed as well.
Colonel Reed decided they had to destroy a concrete bridge, the only bridge on the only road, that led straight to Graignes and the Americans. My father was part of a platoon, led by Lieutenant Frank Naughton, that was assigned to blow up the bridge. Naughton and his men set up defensive positions in the hedgerows while the demolition experts set the charges under the bridge. My father and one other soldier were sent across the bridge to set up a reconnaissance point to watch for any advancing Germans. They were positioned where the road made a 90 degree turn to the right. Among the hedgerows it was impossible to see more than about 50 meters in a straight line, at most. By this time my father had a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) instead of a carbine. Sure enough, he spotted a large German patrol comprised of several hundred soldiers and led by a half-track armored personnel carrier. He sent the other soldier back to the bridge to warn Naughton and tell them to hurry with the demolition charges.
The Germans continued a steady advance. At one point my father let go with a burst or two from the BAR. This served to scatter the Germans and slow them, temporarily. After a few more bursts, he left his concealed position and ran back to the bridge. The turn in the road and the hedgerows concealed my father from the Germans. Naughton and his platoon were concealed as well. The demolition charges were set and ready to go. Naughton and most of the platoon were to the right of the road, as they faced the oncoming Germans. My father and a few others were on the left, and had a better view of the advancing Germans. My father, trying not to give away his position, hollered over to Naughton to blow the bridge. Naughton indicated he wanted to wait until the German soldiers were on the bridge. With several hundred German troops advancing, and my father having a better view of road ahead, said again to Naughton to blow the bridge. Naughton still wanted to wait. It was very tense, all the way around. With the Germans just about on the bridge, my father YELLED to Naughton, "Goddamn it! Will you blow the fu***** bridge!"
BOOM! There were a couple of German soldiers on the bridge who were obliterated as concrete debris was blown sky high. A fire fight broke out. The Americans were concealed very well and inflicted a lot of casualties on the Germans. At least one German soldier tried to wade across the small river on my father's side of the blown bridge. That was the very first human being my father ever killed. It was always vivid in his memory over the many years he talked about it. He also talked about how he felt and that this was another soldier like himself doing his duty. Dad and his buddies, whom I met over the years, were always proud of the fighting they did, but not one of them ever took any satisfaction in the killing of another human being. When I accompanied him to the 50th anniversary of D-Day (actually it was in September of 1994) he talked about the fact that he “killed a lot of guys.” It was not a boast, but a conscious statement of what he had to do. What was unsaid, but understood, was the wish that it would never have happened.
Each successive day a larger force was sent against Graignes. From this point on, the American positions were shelled by artillery fire from a single German 88mm field piece. The Americans could see the field gun being positioned in the distance, outside the range of their mortars. Every night the artillery barrage from the '88' would last a straight hour. At daylight the German troops would advance directly on the American positions across an open field. In the words of a couple of my father's fellow soldiers (I also attended the 42nd anniversary in 1986), “The German's had to be green troops. They were inexperienced. They stood up and marched right at us and we slaughtered them with our mortars and machine guns.” This predictable scene repeated itself for a couple more days. The people of the hamlet, those who tried to leave the area, were pressed into service by the Germans to retrieve the wounded and dead soldiers from the battlefield each day.
The Americans were starting to take casualties. The local priest and a priest friend of his from another region set up an infirmary in the small school house. They and a few other locals tended to the wounded. Each morning the priest offered mass and as many GIs that could be spared would attend. The woman who owned the restaurant continued to provide food for the soldiers, but with depleting stocks. Most of the time the soldiers were fed 'on the guns', at their combat posts. One morning when my father was in church at mass, someone ran in and said, “The Germans are launching another attack.” The church emptied in a matter of seconds. Everyone returned to their combat positions.
Food was getting low. What was once a very large supply of ammunition, mortar shells, and explosives was now getting to a critical level. The Colonel felt that the next assault might render their position uncertain. In fact, the Germans were reinforcing their existing soldiers with Panzer Grenadiers and a detachment of Waffen SS. The final assault on Graignes was about 4,000 German troops. To prepare for the expected heavy attack, Naughton sent my father and one other soldier, his name was Eddie Page, to dig in and create a defensive position near the flooded field on the back side of Graignes about 150 to 200 meters and down hill from the church. It was unlikely that the Germans would attack from the water, but he wanted to cover the possibility. The shelling started at night, as usual, only this time it would go on for two hours instead of one. Not long after the shelling started, Charlie joined Dad and Eddie in the fox hole by the water. Charlie had been directing mortar fire from the church bell tower, the highest point in the area. Minutes earlier Charlie was relieved by one of the Lieutenants. Dad, Eddie, and Charlie looked up as the bell tower took a direct hit from the '88'.
This was probably the 7th night of the American occupation of Graignes. Unlike the prior sequence of night time artillery followed by a daytime assault, the Germans launched a nighttime infantry attack following the two-hour artillery barrage. The Americans put up a fierce and determined defense while under withering fire from the Germans, but they eventually ran out of ammunition. The order was given to abandon their positions, flee into the swamps and flooded fields, and it was every man for himself. I spoke to one of the machine gunners on a 50 cal 'light'. His name was Hinchliff. Before I spoke to him, I spoke to a couple of his buddies who told me about Hinchliff's actions. They described a scene that could have inspired a Hollywood movie. The German bodies were piled high in front of his machine gun position. Hinchliff told me that the 50 cal machine gun, with it's armor piercing bullets, was intended as an anti-vehicular weapon. Also, he was supposed to shoot in short bursts, only, of about 2 or 3 rounds. Otherwise, the barrel overheats and destroys the rifling inside the barrel. That night, as he described it, “You simply had no choice but to squeeze the trigger and keep up a continuous burst.”
Well, Dad, Eddie, and Charlie were in their 6 x 6 x 6 foxhole, completely oblivious to the outcome of the nighttime assault. In the morning it was all quiet. Dad got out of the foxhole and took a deep stretch to squeeze out the sleep and tiredness. As he did, he saw three soldiers digging a foxhole about 50 meters from his position. At least one was wearing a German army helmet. His reaction was as instantaneous as it was instinctive. He jumped back into his foxhole and woke Eddie and Charlie and hushed them at the same time. He had not been seen by the Germans. They were dug in next to a hedgerow. So, he sent Eddie into the hedgerow to make his way toward the center of the hamlet and see what was going on. (I've been to the hedgerows. Although the hedgerows are dense, they actually are two dense, parallel rows with a walkable path between the them.) Eddie came back and said the place was crawling with Germans. Also, he saw the Captain being led away with his hands raised.
Dad got the three of them into the hedgerow where they had very good concealment. Of course they talked about what to do next. Eddie said, “We ought to stay here and fight to the last man!” Dad and Charlie gave a surprised look at each other and then turned to Eddie and said, 'a due', “What for?” They were unimpressed with Eddie's reasoning based on the fact that they were paratroopers. So they hid for two days in the hedgerow. Dad was getting light-headed from a lack of food. Eddie wanted to stay and wait for relief, if it would ever come. Dad and Charlie decided to try to make their way back to friendly lines. Eventually, they convinced Eddie to come along. On a road they met a farmer and held him at gun point. The farmer gestured to follow him. They had no choice, but they kept a rifle on him at all times. He knocked on a farm house door; a frightened woman opened and let in the soldiers. She gave each of the soldiers a crepe, which seemed to be the only food they had in the house. The farmer and woman spoke briefly, then they were led to another farm house. It was the farm of the Regault family. The twelve year old daughter, Marthe, was there and led the three into the barn where 11 other paratroopers were hiding in the hayloft.
The night of the final attack, the Americans were wandering aimlessly in the dark trying to flee the Germans. Regault and his two daughters went out into the night to find the American soldiers and lead them back to his farm. They did not go together as a trio. Instead, Regault sent each of his daughters in different directions, and he covered a third area, himself. They would find the soldiers, hide the soldiers in their barn, and then sneak them out of the area at night on a canal boat. My father, Eddie, and Charlie were the last ones to be found and hid in the barn. The Germans were patrolling the area. Young Marthe and Yvette had to go about their farm chores in as normal a way as possible so as not to arouse any suspicions. As they could, they passed a little food and drink to the soldiers. At one point two German soldiers came into the barn to inspect it. The Americans had their weapons trained on them the whole time. Fortunately, they did not go further than inside the door and then left to resume their patrolling.
That night a canal boat was brought up to get the soldiers out. The French felt it was too dangerous to accompany the Americans so they tried to give them directions and let them pilot the boat themselves. After a short way out, the Americans were lost. So my father had them return, to the horror of the locals, and begged for a guide. A young man agreed to pilot the boat. He safely navigated the canals and let the Americans off on a road and pointed in the direction of the allied lines. Before they left the boatman, my father collected all the French Franc money the soldiers had and gave it to the young man who piloted them to safety. The young man refused, but my father was insistent on his taking the gift of appreciation. They made it back. The first thing they did was eat pork and beans from a can and then slept, propped against a small house, for 12 hours straight. After getting a hot shower, new clothes, and weapons they were united with the rest of their regiment, the 507th. They went right back into combat for a total of 39 straight days 'on the line.'
After the war, it was determined that members of the 507 Parachute Infantry Regiment killed at least 800 and possibly as many as 1,200 German soldiers in the Battle of Graignes. The local priest and the visiting priest stayed with the wounded soldiers in the school house infirmary. They intended to minister to their wounds and plea for them with the Germans. When the Germans secured the small hamlet, they went into the school and bayoneted the wounded Americans. A number of the captured Americans were shot. The two priests were singled out, shot inside the ruins of their church, and their bodies dowsed with petrol and burned on the spot. Eventually, Regault, the Mayor, and other members of the resistance were captured and executed by the Germans. The boatman who piloted my father and 13 others to safety was found with all of the money my father insisted he take. The Germans put two and two together and shot the hero who saved their lives. You can imagine how my father felt about this when he found out more than 40 years later. More of the locals were scheduled to be executed, including Marthe, Yvette, and the restaurant owner, Mme. Brousier. Without explanation, a German officer said there had been enough killing and ended the reprisal executions.
Lieutenant Frank Naughton stayed in the military and retired after a distinguished career as a full 'Bird' Colonel. He returned to Normandy and Graignes in 1984, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. He realized that the local farmers of the hamlet of Graignes were never thanked nor shown any other appreciation for what they did, fighting side-by-side with the American paratroopers, in the Battle for Normandy. So Colonel Naughton spent the next two years researching and documenting the actions of the residents of Graignes. The Department of Defense, led by John Maher, Secretary of the Army, returned to Graignes in 1986 to recognize the people of that hamlet. A number of the surviving residents, including Marthe, Yvette, and the restaurant owner, were given the highest award that the DOD, Department of Defense, can bestow on a civilian. Others received their medals posthumously. Many other medals were awarded to the people of Graignes, as well as to the surviving American soldiers. I accompanied my father on his return to Graignes in 1986, along with many of his surviving buddies from the 507th. I had the honor of serving as interpreter for the GIs with the locals. Armed with my high school and college French and a pocket dictionary, we managed to communicate quite well. I had to invent a few terms (fusile automatique Browning) but everyone got the gist of my stories. We learned that one year after the war, Yvette was married. She sewed her wedding dress from the white nylon fabric of a parachute she salvaged from the Battle of Graignes. She showed us the pictures of her wedding. She still has the wedding dress.
At another time I'll tell you about his fighting and wounding in the Battle of the Bulge, and his last battle, the 'Jump Across the Rhine', the invasion of the German homeland.
Posted by Norman Costa at 12:01 AM | Permalink