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The men of the 186th Combat Ordnance Battalion were nearly all suffering from sea sickness after five days of being packed into a small converted freighter prior to being off-loaded into landing craft on D-Day+6,1944. The initial invasion forces had moved modestly forward under heavy German fire and repeated counterattacks along the broad front from Carentan to Caen. The job of the 186th was to do battlefield repair and retrieval of tanks, trucks and heavy weaponry that had been damaged in the initial assault. As Sgt. Seymour Fine of Brooklyn, New York put it, “Anything was better than throwing up on that damned freighter.”
The lieutenant colonel in command of the battalion effectively had prepared for this moment since he had first been commissioned in 1932 as a 2nd lieutenant in First Army. After being rejected in 1918 when he tried to enlist at 16 years of age in WWI, he had sought to be an Army officer. He saw World War II as an extension of the war he had missed. Talented in many ways (he had had a professional singing career) the Colonel was essentially a born soldier. Out of a thousand men in his unit, the Colonel had come in fourth in the difficult and dangerous infiltration course fiendishly constructed with barbed wire, exploding mines and live machine gun bursts overhead. In truth, the course actually had been designed by the Colonel himself, as close to realistic combat conditions as possible.
As the Allied forces pushed forward against German air and ground actions, the 186th moved with it. By early August the battalion had divided its operational companies to offer support to the several U.S. divisions at the point of attack. The ancient town of Vire had been taken by the 29th Division and the 186th Battalion Headquarters. received orders to assess a large supply dump just recently taken from the German 9th Parachute Regiment. What the enemy had left behind was critical intelligence. The Colonel took on the mission himself.
Driven in a jeep by the ex-truck driver Sgt. Fine, they encountered an MP corporal and another soldier at the gate to the dump. “ Sorry, Colonel, can’t go in there. No one is supposed to go in. I was told the deputy commander of the 29th was wounded there yesterday. Some sniper’s in there.” (Actually, the Deputy Commander of the 29th, Brigadier General Norman Cota, had been wounded closer to the town of Vire and it was another officer who had been hit in the dump.) According to Sgt. Fine, “The old man didn’t give a shit about no sniper. He had his orders from Corps and he was goin’ in.” The MP decided not to argue. If the Colonel wanted to get shot, it was his business. Anyhow corporals don’t say no to lieutenant colonels.
According to Sgt. Fine: “The old man and me drove up a small hill to where the dump began. It was damn big. Giant boxes lined up. He got out and told me that if I heard any shooting to take off. He had his carbine with him. He wasn’t like most officers. He carried a carbine. He loved to clean that thing. It was his baby. He was a hell of a shot.” The fact was that the Colonel had qualified “expert” in every weapon fired by an individual. The only problem was that he had no idea where the sniper might be. Fine waited dutifully by the jeep. “If you hear any shots, get the hell out” the Colonel told his sergeant. The rest happened very quickly.
An experienced deer hunter, the Colonel moved quickly, changing directions, essentially challenging the German to shoot. It didn’t take long for the sniper to take the bait. He fired at the swiftly moving target and missed. Unfortunately, the German had exposed his position. The Colonel fired after darting to a new position. The German was killed as he moved from his roost to again find his target.
It was all too much for Sgt. Fine who, contrary to orders, shouted, “Colonel, Colonel!” He received a very profane reply telling him to “shut up.” The Colonel soon appeared carrying his attacker’s rifle and helmet. Sgt. Fine telling the story when he returned stateside said, “The old man showed the damn rifle and helmet to the damned MP and told him to tell his CO that the f-ing dump was clear.” There was no way to assess what was in the dump because all the large crates would have had to be opened. Just another of those deadly wartime conundrums
At a later time, the lieutenant colonel was put up for a Silver Star by Third Army Command for his action against the German sniper. Third Army had assumed responsibility for that sector from First Army’s 29th Division. However, General George Patton, Third Army’s commander, said he didn’t give decorations to First Army people no matter what they did. That was Georgie!
The Colonel was later wounded after he was blown out of a “six-by-six” truck that he’d hitched a ride on to return to his unit after sending Sgt. Fine ahead because he had to spend the rest of the day making his report to Division Headquarters. He never really recovered from his injuries, but carried on winning high decorations from the French Army for personally leading a relief column of repaired tanks into the battle of Colmar enabling the French 1st Army to defeat the heavily entrenched Wehrmacht forces controlling that key eastern corner.
The Colonel returned to the United States after the war ended, spent the following year and a half in the Army’s Tilton General Hospital at Ft. Dix and was retired as a full colonel. He never fully recovered from the broken spinal discs he had suffered (and ignored) from being blown out of the truck. He died at his New Jersey farm at the age of 56 after years of constant pain. His obituary in the Newark Evening News noted his decorations: Combat Ribbon for European Theater with 3 Battle Stars, a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, along with the highest French decoration of the Legion of Honor and Croix de Guerre with Palme (meaning 2 Croix de Guerre) along with other lesser decorations. He couldn’t have cared less about the Silver Star he clearly earned but was denied by the quixotic George Patton.
The Colonel was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
(*The Colonel referred to above was George H. Wittman Sr., father of this writer.)