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Saint-Lô
Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow III
*Click images below to view larger versions.
Saint-Lô
Maj. Thomas D. Howie
Saint-Lô
Leland Stanford Hobbs, Commander 30th Infantry Division.
Saint-Lô
Communications through Saint-Lô were opened only with difficulty.
Saint-Lô
Dietrich Kraiss, Commander 352nd Infantry Division, wearing Knight's Cross at throat and Iron Cross on left breast.
 
THIS WEEK, 70 years ago, soldiers of the 29th Division captured the 1,400-year-old French Town of Saint-Lô, in Normandy. It had been occupied by Germans since June 17, 1940, was an important crossroads and currently has a population of 20,000. It had been an objective of the 29th Division, commanded by Charles H. Gerhardt, since the division landed on Omaha Beach, on June 6, 1944. However, the supply situation forced the division to halt its attempts to capture the town, on June 18, two miles from its northern outskirts.
The town was defended by the remnants of the 352nd Infantry Division and the 3rd Parachute Division, commanded by Dietrich Kraiß and Richard Schimpf. The 352nd, which had met the 29th Division at Omaha Beach on D-Day, was composed of boys from Hannover and was rated, by the Wehrmacht, as a first-class unit. One American officer described the soldiers of General Schimpf’s Parachute Division as, “...the best soldiers I ever saw. They’re smart and don’t know what the word ‘fear’ means. They come in and keep coming until they get their job done or you kill ‘em all.”
In the lull before the advance, the Americans had attempted to shell the Germans out of the town but that didn’t work. They then attempted to bomb the Germans out of the town. One of the soldiers, James Edward (“Snooks”) Lynch, from Berlin, said that when the planes flew over, there were so many that the sky was darkened and the earth shook, just from their passing - not the bombing. Although the town was utterly destroyed, the Germans were still not dislodged. So on July 3, the offensive was renewed. 
Dominating the surrounding countryside, and allowing the Germans to observe movements of the 29th Division, was Hill 192. It got its name from its height in meters. On July 11, the 2nd Infantry Division, commanded by Walter M. Robertson, finally captured Hill 192, after an intense artillery barrage.
By July 15, the Second Battalion of the 116th Regiment - from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia - had been surrounded and was running low on food and ammunition. General Gerhardt ordered the Third Battalion, commanded by Major Thomas Howie, to the rescue. Major Howie, a 1929 graduate of The Citadel, had held that command for two days. His battalion rescued the Second on July 16. The next morning, the Major, who, before the war, taught English and coached football at Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia, telephoned General Gerhardt, told him the Second Battalion was “too cut up,” and that he was proceeding to Saint-Lô with his battalion. He ended the conversation by saying, “See you in Saint-Lô!” Shortly thereafter, he was killed by mortar fire.
The next day his battalion entered the town with, on General Gerhardt’s order, the major’s body on the hood of the lead jeep, so that he would be the first American in Saint-Lô. His flag-draped body was placed on the rubble of St. Croix Cathedral. That photograph was widely circulated in the American Press. Because of wartime censorship it was identified only as “The Major of Saint-Lô.” Andy Rooney, then a reporter for Stars and Stripes, recounted that it was, “...one of the truly heartwarming and emotional scenes of a gruesome and frightful war.” The Major was awarded a Silver Star, posthumously. In the September 18 issue of Life Magazine, appeared the following poem, by Joseph Auslander:
“They rode him in, propped straight and proud and tall
Through St. Lô's gates...He told the lads he led
That they would be the first at St. Lô's fall --
But that was yesterday -- and he was dead: Some sniper put a bullet through his head,
And he slumped in a meadow near a wall
And there was nothing further to be said;
Nothing to say -- nothing to say at all.
 
"Ride soldier in your dusty jeep,
Grander than Caesar's chariot! O ride
Into the town they took for you to keep,
Dead captain of their glory and their pride!
Ride through our hearts forever, through our tears
More splendid than the hero hedged with spears!”
 
On June 20, at 7:00 p.m., Gearhart informed his Corps Commander, General Charles Corlett, that, “I have the honor to announce to the Corps Commander, that Task Force C of 29th Division, secured the City of Saint-Lô, after 43 days of continual combat from the beaches to Saint-Lô.”
The 29th Division was supported on its flanks by the 30th and 35th Divisions, commanded by Leland Stanford Hobbes and Paul W. Baade. All three divisions were National Guard units. The 29th Division was composed of the 116th regiment, from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the 175th from Baltimore and the 115th from the rest of Maryland. The 30th Division contained two regiments from Tennessee and one from North Carolina and carried the nickname “Old Hickory,” although the Germans called those soldiers “Roosevelt’s SS.” Two of the 35th’s three regiments were composed of men from Kansas and Nebraska, while the third was filled with draftees. Saint-Lô was their first combat experience.
The defense of Saint-Lô, combined with the losses sustained in the defense of the beaches resulted in the destruction of the 352nd Division. General Kraiß died on August 6, from wounds he had sustained two days earlier.
Because of the destruction visited upon the town - 95 percent - it earned the sobriquet “The Capital of the Ruins.” As one G.I. noted, “We sure liberated the hell out of this place!”
 
NEXT WEEK: MAJDANEK
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own.  Mr. Wimbrow can be contacted at wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.
 
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