We didn't see much of the Luftwaffe during the daytime in Normandy, but at night we could expect a rather steady bunch of anti-personnel bombs. Since we were not moving our landing strip every day, we had time to dig slit trenches, where we slept, always with our steel helmets on. Later, after the breakthrough at St. Lo, we were moving every day, often sleeping under the half-track, in a natural ditch, or in the cellar of a vacated house.
The breakthrough at St. Lo was touted as the greatest combined air-ground operation in history. On the morning of July 26, wave after wave of Fortress and Liberator bombers roared over us. According to the records, there were 1800 heavy bombers, 1400 medium bombers, and 700 fighter-bombers, all operating in a small area. It was total saturation bombing.
Col. Berry, who arrived at our landing strip almost as soon as the first wave came over, joined me as we cruised along at about 500 feet, watching the bombing. It was really awesome! The first wave of bombers dropped smoke bombs to mark the front lines so that the succeeding bombers would have a target. Unfortunately, there was a disastrous miscalculation in wind direction, and the smoke immediately started to drift back over our own front lines. As a result, many, many bombs were unloaded onto our own troops. Col. Berry and I could see exactly what was happening and radioed down to our headquarters. This uncovered the second big goof in planning. There was no direct radio contact between the forces on the ground and the air forces. Thus there was no way to stop the carnage. It was a truly helpless feeling. I have no idea of the number of our troops killed by the error, and, of course, the error wasn't publicized at the time. All that the people back home knew was that there was a great armored breakthrough at St. Lo, and that American forces had finally taken the offensive. They knew nothing about the bodies lying everywhere; about the crews loading those bodies onto 6x6 trucks, stacking them like cordwood; about the sickening stench not only from the human bodies, but from the bloated carcasses of cattle and horses, as well—also innocent victims of the bombing.
Throughout the war it was a common sight to see French and Belgian peasants carving up the cows and horses that had been killed a day or so before by bombs or ground fire. Food was scarce in the areas where fighting had occurred.
After the St. Lo breakthrough, the armored divisions were used differently, and certainly more effectively. Now the idea was to get the tanks out of the fields and onto the roads, letting them "spearhead" forward, by-passing pockets of the enemy infantry, which would later be "cleaned up" by our own infantry. This is why the Third Armored Division became known as the "Spearhead Division."
These armored thrusts, however, increased the problems faced by my air section. We had to try to keep up at least within AM radio distance of our battalion, which meant picking frequent landing spots and moving the ground crews to those new positions. Our landing fields would sometimes be ahead of the areas cleaned up by the infantry, so we felt quite insecure, especially at night.
On one occasion, near the little town of Gavray, we moved into a little pasture field surrounded by the usual hedgerows. As we started to dig our slit trenches, an excited Frenchman appeared and pointed down the path between the hedgerows, saying, "Beaucoup Boche! Beaucoup Boche!" We seemed to have no alternative but to follow the Frenchman and check out his story. When I called my crew together to talk it over, Sgt. Pearson, who was a notorious coward in the true sense of the word, said, "Lieutenant, you can have me court-martialed if you want, but I'm not going down that path." I could see how scared he was, so I told him to stay with the equipment, and the rest of us (six in all) followed the Frenchman. We soon came to a farmhouse and a large barn, at which the Frenchman pointed. We had the safety off our Tommy guns, ready to blast away any second. We checked the house and the barn and the woods back of the barn but saw no one. After a while we thanked the French farmer and headed back to our camp. There we found Pearson, shaking, and as white as a sheet, holding his Tommy gun on four German SS troopers. Pearson was too scared even to tell us what had happened, and I think that the troopers were almost as frightened as Pearson. In his condition, he might have blasted away at any moment. Obviously, they had come up to Pearson, planning to surrender. Since the SS troops were the so-called elite of the German army, it was unusual for them to surrender without a battle, but I guess Pearson (and the rest of us, for that matter) were having a lucky day. I have never, before or since, seen anyone so petrified with fear as Sgt. Pearson was. We practically had to pry the gun from his hands. At any rate, we radioed the battalion headquarters, which sent a detail to pick up our prisoners.