My first combat flight, originating from a pasture near Isigny on June 27, was a reconnaissance mission to locate German lines. On the next day, according to my log, Lt. Scholtz and I flew a firing mission, but the 67th was not really committed to active combat until we moved to Ste. Marguerite on the 29th of June.
The first days, everyone was a little scared because of the occasional sniper firings on our positions. I recall vividly a frightening moment for me. I started out in my jeep to locate battalion headquarters, and as I drove down a narrow road between hedgerows, around a curve some 20 yards ahead, there suddenly appeared a German Tiger tank. My jeep driver and I both hit the ditch, but as it turned out, the tank was a captured one, which was being driven by one of the guys in our outfit. I was probably never more scared than at that moment.
It was at about this time, too, that an event occurred that has always made me wonder about life and about destiny. Bob Brook, who had been my roommate and closest buddy at Indiantown Gap and in England, was riding in a jeep with three others when the jeep ran over a land mine. Bob was killed by the concussion, or so they said, but there was not a mark on his body, and not one of the others in the jeep was hurt. Killed on the second day after we landed, he was the first casualty in our entire division.
Fighting in Normandy was not suitable to an armored division. The terrain was flat, with lots of poplar trees and high, earthbound hedgerows around the small fields. It was almost impossible for our tanks to break through the hedgerows, and if they did, they'd be hit immediately by a bazooka or by an anti-tank gun. The tanks would burst into flame and black smoke, giving the crews inside no chance for escape. Burned bodies are neither pretty nor easy on the sense of smell. When pulled out of a cooled tank, the bodies of six-foot-tall men would be half that size. We left a lot of tanks and crews in Normandy.
Because of the terrain, it was difficult for our ground forward observers to see targets, so our Cub planes directed most of the firing. The success of the fire direction from the planes quickly made a believer of Colonel Berry and other battalion commanders who might have had misgivings about the use of liaison planes in directing artillery fire. They began to depend on the Piper Cub, not only to spot targets and direct artillery fire, but also for reconnaissance in locating new gun positions and battalion routes of advancement.
By the time the city of St. Lo was taken on July 18, I had flown forty-eight missions, sometimes as many as five in one day. By the end of July, both Lt. Eddie Golas (391st air officer) and I had been recommended by our commanders for the Air Medal.
Sometimes we didn't see things we thought we saw, and sometimes we saw things the staff on the ground wouldn't believe we saw. One time when I had a Captain McKee flying with me as an observer, he was convinced that a French peasant in a two-wheeled cart, pulled by an ox, was a German anti-aircraft gun.
On another occasion, with Lt. Scholtz as observer, we saw a German Panther tank moving down a road toward a battery of our light tanks. We called for a fire mission, but our ground fire direction center told us that we were crazy and that there was absolutely no German tank in that area. They refused to give us the artillery barrage we requested. We saw the Panther lumber on down the road, blast one of our jeeps into oblivion, and hit three of our light tanks with direct fire, exploding them into big puffs of black smoke. While we were still calling for artillery fire, the Panther turned around and retreated out of range. For some reason our Sherman tanks were much more vulnerable to the armor-piercing shells used by the Germans than their tanks were to our fire. I seldom saw a German Panther or Tiger tank burst into flames. The Germans had 88-millimeter guns that were more effective than our 105's.