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Part 2, The Allies Return

A RAMPAGING DAY

Back on the Cotentin, at the La Fiere bridgehead, Major Frederick Kellam, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 505th PIR, had fortified the bridgehead with mines and additional troops. A disabled German truck was pushed onto the bridge to become a roadblock. Meantime, a 57mm anti-tank gun which had come in on the second wave of gliders was deployed at the manor house at 8.30 that morning. This had been followed by three more guns, plus troops.

At 4 pm, ante began to rise. Heavy firing was heard to the west and Dolan saw a patrol from the 508th PIR which had gone out earlier running back across the marshland. It was clear they were under pursuit. Three German tanks hove into view from around the causeway from the direction of Cauquigny. A small American force which had been deployed at the hamlet had been routed. But these were not the big beefy German tanks that Allied troops had come to begrudgingly respect. These were some French lightweights captured in 1940.

Then, the Americans at La Fiere saw something which made their stomach turn. The Germans were using a group of 12 to 15 captured American paratroopers as human shields. The tank commander was ordering the troopers to pick up the mines that Kellam had laid and throw them into the fields, explained Sgt. Elmo Bell of C Company, 505th PIR.

Major Frederick Kellam

Major Frederick Kellam

Half an hour later, as suspense reaching tipping point, the German force drew closer to the bridge. The Americans, their hearts in their throats, held fire, unwilling to hit the captive paratroopers. Just then, one of the German tanks lobbed a shell at the manor. Like a hornet’s nest roused, the American defenders hurled heavy fire at the Germans. The captured paratroopers threw themselves onto the ground.

“When the lead tank was about forty or fifty yards from the bridge, the two Company A bazooka teams got up just like clockwork to the edge of the road. They were under the heaviest small-arms fire from the other side of the causeway, and from the cannon and machine-gun fire from the tanks,” Lt. Dolan said.

In one of the bazooka teams, Privates Lenold Peterson and his loader Marcus Heim, took aim at the lead tank. Before they could fire, an American machine gun fired a burst and killed the tank commander who was standing up in the turret. Peterson then launched his rocket at the same time one of the 57mm guns fired. The bazooka round appeared to miss but the gun round blew the track off the tank, bringing it to a halt. The turret swung around, took aim at the 57mm gun and blasted it, killing the crew. A furious fusillade erupted from the German infantry following the tanks. Mortar rounds began to tear into the hellscape.

As the gunners died, paratroopers rushed to take their place. According to one paratrooper, seven airborne men died while manning the guns.

Private Heim saw the first crippled tank start to turn sideway while blazing away. A round hit a cement telephone phone near the bazooka team. Both men scrambled to avoid being pummeled. From a new position, Peterson and Heim began to pump shell after shell into the tank until it ceased moving. Another paratrooper ran over and dropped a grenade into the open turret hatch. The tank ceased firing.

The remaining 57mm guns began to blast the remaining two tanks. The second tank attempted to push the first tank out of the way but failed. The American guns hit this second tank repeatedly until it blew up in flames. Peterson and Heim then knocked out the third tank.

Dolan was full of praise for his bazooka men. “To this day, I’ll never be able to explain why all…of them were not killed. They fired and reloaded with the precision of well-oiled machinery. … I don’t think that either crew wasted a shot,” he said. The German attack had failed, but soon intense mortar fire began to saturate the area.

Back on “Utah Beach,” the 8th Infantry was pushing off the coastline. Within an hour of landing, Sergeant Salinger and other in his Intelligence unit were moving along a causeway west where they would eventually link up with Salinger’s home regiment, the 12th Infantry, which was to land five hours later.

Under Colonel Russell Reeder, the 12th found itself facing a confounding defensive position they had ill-trained for – flooded marshland which extended up to 2 miles long. The troops found they had to wade through the waist-high water while under sporadic German fire. In spots, the ground dropped abruptly, submerging soldiers who for decades after would fear open shallow water. By the end of the day, despite these travails, the 12th Infantry would reach village of Beuzeville-au-Plain, five miles inland from the beach. It would be the deepest penetration made by any American unit on D-Day. They dug-in and waited for orders.