“Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.”
Adam Smith (1732 – 1790)
Having scaled the heights of Pointe-du-Hoc, the U.S. Army Rangers patrolled vigorously inland beyond the shell pocked and bunker laden area adjacent to the cliffs above the sea. The Ranger command post was located cliffside, behind one of the concrete casemates near a knocked-out bunker on the east side of the Pointe. By late morning, neither the Pointe area nor the inland roads and fields had been fully secured. German snipers used the trench network to pop up and take shots at the CP before disappearing into the maze. They became increasingly more aggressive as the day wore on. There were simply not enough Rangers to secure the area. Movement was dangerous and the Rangers guarding Colonel Rudder’s CP remained vigilant.
Further inland, south of the CP, the bulk of the Ranger force was probing the German positions. It didn’t take long to discover a superior German force located nearby. It was massing with the intention of counterattacking and dislodging the Rangers from the escarpment. The Americans had stirred up a hornet’s nest and had no choice but to go on the defensive. Three depleted Ranger Companies, sixty men, dug in and set up blocking positions along the hedgerows to deny the Germans use of the paved Vierville-Grandcamp Highway.
Their position formed a right angle facing southwest as dictated by the hedgerows. Each side of the angle was nearly 300 yards long. Easy and Fox Companies had dug in facing south. They had good open fields of fire in front and the paved road was behind them. Dog Company dug in facing west along a lane covered by another hedgerow. The right flank of their north-south line ended at the paved highway. The left end of Dog Company’s line touched the right flank of Easy Company’s line facing south, forming the apex.
There were inadequate numbers of men to fortify a continuous line further to the east. This gap in Rudder’s left flank was the weak link in his defense. An outpost was established and a captured machine gun was assigned to that sector. It would prevent the Germans from flanking the roadblock defensive lines. The Americans made good use of the existing barbed wire and minefields the Germans had previously set up to defend the Pointe from an inland Allied attack.
Rudder was concerned his meager force was so stretched out. Despite his doubts, he decided it was more important to maintain control of the highway. There was no mobile reserve. If the Germans broke through, Rudder planned to make his stand around the bunker complex that comprised his aid station and CP. It wasn’t an ideal defensive setup but it would have to do.
The Germans probed the American defenses during the day, mounting two attacks from the southwest. The Americans doggedly held on. They even took some prisoners. But Ranger casualties were mounting. Without reinforcements, the Ranger foothold on Pointe-du-Hoc remained tenuous at best. The officers expected a determined attack after dark.
The preparations to repulse the night attack were undertaken with desperation. All the wounded who could not fight were lowered to the beach from the escarpment. The wounded would wait for evacuation in the relative safety of the caves at the base of the cliff.
About forty German prisoners were placed in foxholes inside the apex of the angle of the defensive line. Although the Americans were running out of ammo, there were plenty of German supplies in the captured bunkers. NCOs passed out German “potato-masher” grenades to the less-than-enthusiastic Rangers who had the greatest disdain for that weapon. However, the German MG-42 machine guns were welcomed with their abundant supply of ammunition. Rangers, like paratroopers, were trained extensively in enemy weaponry.
Johnny Kilroy was at the CP bunker, having just helped bring some wounded Rangers back from the roadblock position along with Staff Sergeant Zack. Suddenly he heard gunfire. The MG-42 manned by Rangers at the outpost fired off a string of 7.92-millimeter rounds. The intruders answered with the unmistaken sound of M-1 Garands. It became obvious to the Rangers it was an American patrol once they heard their weapons. Johnny could hear the shouting.
“Hey Pal,” someone in the outpost position yelled. “We’re Rangers…Americans. Come on in.” The rifle firing stopped but no one moved.
“Fuck you, you Kraut rat-bastard,” came the distant reply from the undergrowth. “We know what a lousy Kraut MG-42 sounds like.”
“Fuck you too, you stupid asshole. We captured this MG.”
Rudder ran to the outpost. A few Rangers followed him. Johnny joined the group. The firing had stopped but the conversation continued.
“What outfit you with, Mac?” came the voice from the outpost.
“Yeah! What outfit you with, dumb ass?”
The banter went back and forth until Rudder came up behind the outpost. He knelt down and addressed the NCO manning the captured MG-42.
“What do we have here, Sergeant?”
“I think they’re Americans but they won’t identify themselves,” replied the sergeant.
“What makes you think they’re Americans?”
“Well, Colonel, they’re firing M-Ones and they sure curse like GIs.”
Rudder nodded. He decided to take a chance. “This is Colonel Rudder, Second Rangers. Identify yourself!” His voice was loud and dripping with authority.
“Holy shit,” the hidden voice exhaled. “Wait one, Colonel.”
After a few moments another voice was heard. “Colonel Rudder, this is Lieutenant Parker, Fifth Rangers. I’m coming out, sir.”
With that, the young lieutenant stepped out into the clearing from the thick vegetation.
Rudder rushed forward with a big grin on his face. “Charlie! Am I glad to see you! Where’s Colonel Schneider?” Rudder was referring to the CO of the 5th Ranger Battalion.
Parker looked baffled. “I’m glad to see you too, sir. Are we the first to arrive?”
“You are and damned well in the nick of time. Where’s the rest of the battalion?”
Parker paused. “When we missed them at the rendezvous I figured they already left, so we left too, sir. I thought for sure they were ahead of us.”
“No Lieutenant. You’re the first to arrive.” The grin disappeared from Rudder’s face. “How many men are with you?”
“Just my platoon, sir. And a straggler we picked up along the way. Twenty-three men, sir.” Parker turned and made a hand signal and his men began filing out of the brush, past the outpost and into the CP area.
Rudder’s face betrayed his disappointment. There were so few reinforcements. Parker sensed his frustration.
“Sir, I’m sure the rest of the Fifth will be along any time now. It was dicey for a while but our forces are moving inland from Omaha Beach. We’re in France to stay.”
Rudder shook off his somber look and smiled slightly. He clapped Parker on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’re right, Charlie.” Rudder perked up a bit. “We’re sure glad you and your platoon made it through.” He put his arm around Parker’s shoulder. “Most of what’s left of my three companies are dug in around the Vierville-Grandcamp Highway about a mile from here. I know you’ve come a long way but I need your men up there right away.”
“Yes, sir. Wherever you need us, sir!”
Rudder pointed to Johnny and Zack. “These men are on their way back and will show you the way.” Rudder clapped Johnny on the back and smiled. “We picked up some stragglers, too.”
“I see,” Parker said noticing the Eagle patch on Johnny’s sleeve.
Zack looked at Johnny. “I’ll take the front and you bring up the rear. We go back the same way we came in. Okay, sky boy?”
Johnny nodded and Zack took off for the front of the column with Parker. Johnny waited as the rest of the platoon filed by. He wasn’t paying attention to each man but rather looking for the end of the column. He didn’t notice the infantryman from the 29th Infantry Division with the Ranger tab who stopped in front of him looking him squarely in the face.
“Well I’ll be…” the soldier exclaimed. “If it isn’t Jake’s buddy, Yank.”
Johnny focused on the grimy face under bloodshot eyes. It took a split second before he recognized the soldier. “Harley? Goddamn it! How the hell are you? What the hell are you doing here?” Even though they met only once, Johnny embraced his best friend’s cousin as if he knew him for a lifetime.
“I could ask you the same question,” Harley smiled.
“Hell, Harley, I got dropped in the damn drink,” Johnny flipped a thumb over his shoulder toward the English Channel. “I hooked up with these guys until I can get back to my outfit.”
Harley nodded. “Jake?”
“We got separated on the jump. I’m pretty sure he got out over land. What a goat rodeo!” Johnny winced at the memory of the night jump. Harley nodded in agreement.
“What about you, Harley? How did you hook up with these guys?”
“We came into Omaha Beach side by side. It was a slaughterhouse, Johnny. The Krauts had every inch of the beach zeroed. MG-forty-twos, eighty-eights…they threw everything they had at us. Our guys…” Harley choked up momentarily. “Our guys…didn’t stand a chance.”
Johnny reached out and grabbed Harley’s shoulder. Harley continued. “Somehow I got across the beach and hooked up with a Ranger unit. We climbed up the bluff and took out some positions. Then I got separated and met up with these guys and here I am.”
“Well I’m glad you made it.” Johnny looked over as the last man in the Ranger column filed by. “I have to bring up the rear. C’mon. Stay with me.” Harley nodded and they set out trailing the snaking column.
Sergeant Zack led the Rangers back along the same rock strewn trail they came in on. They weaved around bomb craters and empty bunkers as they navigated the pock marked area near the exit road to the Pointe. Rangers were known for their speed and they moved silently and quickly as they made their way toward the intersection of the exit road and the highway.
Thirty minutes later the front of the column reached the paved highway. Parker met with the Ranger officers in charge. The officers interspersed 5th Ranger men into the line of 2nd Ranger troops. The critically needed reinforcements were heartily welcomed. As darkness closed in, roughly eighty American troops manned the forward defensive line of Pointe-du-Hoc.
Harley and Johnny brought up the rear of the column and were the last men placed into position. They started digging a fighting hole deep within the double hedgerow. The digging was rough, as they had to tear out large roots with a borrowed entrenching tool and their bayonets. After an hour of sweat-laden work, satisfied the hole was deep enough, they settled into their firing positions angled toward the highway. The hole provided cover and the hedgerow good concealment. Their orders were to take out any enemy that came down the highway.
“Hungry?” asked Johnny as he fished into his pocket and pulled out a scrounged D-bar.
“Starving! I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Lost all my stuff on the beach.”
“Yeah, me too.” Johnny placed the D-bar on the lip of their fighting hole, cut it in half and gave half to Harley. D-bars were four inches long, an inch and a quarter wide and an inch thick. They were made of a sweet chocolate compound that defied all but the strongest teeth. It was a high-protein, high calorie virtually indestructible shot of pure energy that could sustain soldiers if they couldn’t get anything else to eat.
“Thanks.” Harley peeled off the heavy coating of wax paper and took a small bite. “I never thought it would be like this. Not in my wildest dreams.”
“Like what?” Johnny asked, also looking straight ahead along the highway.
“All those guys…my friends…cut down like that…never had a prayer of a chance.”
Johnny just listened. Harley needed to get some of what he saw off his chest.
“And they just kept going in, one after the other, getting shot up, blown up…yelling for their mothers…screaming for help… and there was no help!”
Johnny remained silent, chewing his D-bar while straining to keep his eyes on the highway in the fading daylight.
“I grew up with most of those guys…there won’t be anyone left to go home to Bedford. They’re mostly all gone…their poor mothers.”
There was nothing Johnny could say. He knew from Jake most of Able Company came from Bedford. And now they were all butchered on a foreign beach in a distant land thousands of miles from home.
“Tell me, Yank. Why do some guys live and others die? Is it just dumb luck or is God’s hand at work?” Harley was fatigued and weakening.
“I don’t think God, if there is one, has anything to do with who lives and who dies. It’s random. All pure luck.” Johnny hesitated a moment. “The real problem is the survivors will be haunted by that question for the rest of their lives.”
“You don’t believe in God, kid?”
“No. How can a decent God let all this happen? Everything I’ve seen of the War, the killing, the maiming, the misery and heartache just confirms to me that there can’t be a God.”
Harley shook his head in disagreement. “Most guys wouldn’t admit that, Yank. Not out loud sitting in a foxhole, anyway.”
They sat in silence as the sky continued to blacken. Harley finally said, “I’m not that brave or foolish. I’ll say a prayer now and again. Right now I just want God to give me the strength and enough time to get even…to get my revenge. Maybe even get me home but if not, at least let me avenge my friends.” Harley paused, still looking out over the darkened field. “I wasn’t the bravest guy out there on Omaha Beach today, kid. But I’ll do better from now on.” Harley popped the last morsel of his D-bar into his mouth.
Johnny chuckled, still looking forward. “I didn’t see any fearless guys today or back in Sicily. All I remember is a bunch of scared kids trying like hell to fight their fears, do their jobs and not let their buddies down.” Johnny paused. “Bravery isn’t the absence of fear. It’s action in the face of fear.”
“You guys okay?” The loud whisper came from behind them. It was Dog Company’s CO First Lieutenant George F. Kerchner.
“We’re fine, sir,” Harley answered.
“Here,” Kerchner pushed a burlap sack through the undergrowth. Johnny grabbed it.
“On your toes, men. Jerry will be attacking tonight.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Johnny replied as he unwrapped the bundle. In it were a few German potato-masher grenades and a loaf of black bread. It felt hard and stale but Johnny cut it in two and began chewing on it.
“So, Harley,” Johnny began after chewing a few mouthfuls of hard bread. “You finally got to fight with the Rangers. Funny how things work out.”
Harley considered that for a moment. “You’re right, kid. I wanted to be a Ranger so bad and fight with them more than anything else before today. But now…I’m as happy as I can be just being a Stonewaller in the Twenty-ninth Infantry Division.” He coughed and choked back another tear. “Just as damned proud as I can ever be to have known and served with those boys!”
Johnny nodded his understanding. Harley could no longer see Johnny’s face in the shadows of the hedgerow.
“Yup. I’m proud of my Bedford boys…and I’m thankful that I won’t die among strangers if my time is up tonight.” Harley reached out and gently slapped Johnny on the back.
Before Johnny could respond, an earsplitting whistle broke through the darkness. It came from the apex of the angle and was followed by flares and men shouting in German.
The unmistakable sound of a thundering American B-A-R shattered the night and immediately all hell broke loose. The distinctive sounds of the weapons of both sides could be clearly heard. All of the firing was taking place at or near the angle. Even though there was a full moon, the shadows and blackness of the trees in the surrounding orchards and hedgerows made visibility nearly impossible. The sounds, gun flashes and exploding grenades were all coming from their left, at the point of the angle. Tracer rounds flashed through their position and both men ducked lower into their holes. The rounds were high and rip-sawed the leaves and branches above their heads. The noise was deafening.
Johnny fingered the trigger guard of his M-1 Garand. He didn’t have much ammo for the weapon, just a few eight-round clips, so he would choose his targets carefully. Harley sighted down his barrel and scanned the field in front of him. Nothing! They held their positions amid the chaos and confusion and waited for the enemy.
Suddenly, someone pushed through the shrubbery. It was Lieutenant Kerchner. “Make some room, men,” he ordered as he slipped into the hole. Johnny and Harley moved to the sides of the now cramped foxhole.
The lieutenant seemed dazed. He was breathing heavily.
“What’s going on, sir?” Johnny asked first.
Kerchner tried to respond between gasps. “Krauts broke through…at the angle…between us and Easy. If Easy retreats, we’ll be cut off!”
The Germans now occupied the angle position and set up an MG-42 to provide enfilade fire down the Easy Company line. The sound of the battle drifted in a different direction away from Dog Company whose men turned to face east but still maintained their fire discipline.
Shortly, the deafening noise and firing stopped. The Germans pushed through the angle but could not further exploit their breakthrough in the dark. They could be clearly heard barking orders and moving about in the field behind the apex to the rear of the Ranger lines.
One nearby voice in particular stood out. It was both high pitched and gravelly and had the authority and gruffness of an NCO. Johnny listened carefully to the distinctive voice, which could be heard above all others.
“That’s a prisoner, sir,” Johnny whispered to Kerchner. “He’s telling his comrades where our lines are.” Johnny continued to listen. “He’s telling them that they’re already behind us.”
“Bastard,” growled Harley.
“He doesn’t know we’re here, sir. He’s pointing his pals to where E and F are.”
“I knew we should have sent those prisoners back to the Pointe,” Kerchner lamented.
“Or shot ‘em,” Harley added.
The three American soldiers could hear the Germans moving about in the field to their rear. They were organizing for another attack to roll up the flank of the Easy-Fox Company line. Kerchner had no choice but to hold his fire. If he opened up, he was just as likely to hit Rangers as Germans. He passed the word down the line.
At 0300 hours the Germans attacked again. They came right at Easy Company’s line along the open flank. The attack was furious and again was accompanied by shouts, screams and whistles. The tracers ripped through the air and the German mortars plastered the ground. Then, silence. The distant shouts of Kamerad in a deeply American accent told Kerchner some soldiers had just surrendered. After a few minutes, the sound of a B-A-R from a slightly different direction indicated other Rangers were still fighting. Kerchner recognized it immediately for what it was; covering fire for a withdrawal. E and F Companies had retreated. Dog Company was now alone.
When the Germans pressed with another attack, Fox Company and what was left of Easy Company withdrew to the exit road and the bluffs above the sea. The forty men who were able to extricate themselves withdrew to Rudder’s CP to form the nucleus of the Rangers’ last stand.
At sunrise Kerchner realized they were surrounded. The Germans had not discovered them burrowed deep into the double hedgerow. The Dog Company Rangers had not eaten or slept for nearly forty-eight hours when the sun set on 7 June. Kerchner had decided he would fight his way out at dawn.
Sunrise on 8 June brought Kerchner a welcome surprise. The German force had abandoned the field. He strode up and down the hedgerow and rousted his men out. The men who survived the German attacks and Allied strafing unfolded their cramped and aching bodies from their overcrowded holes and stretched their way out into the open. The Rangers greeted each other silently but warmly having shared a survival experience as fortuitous as it was unbelievable. Some lit cigarettes and others swigged the last drops from empty canteens as they formed up on Lieutenant Kerchner. The small group cautiously worked their way to the paved coastal highway.
“Lieutenant!” a scout pointed east. Far off in the distance was a group of men and vehicles proceeding warily along the road from the village of Auguay. “Looks like our guys, sir.”
“Spread out. Take cover.” Kerchner was not taking any chances. He waited alongside the road as the column approached. He could hardly contain his elation at meeting another larger American force. He stepped out and revealed himself.
The scouts at the head of the column approached Kerchner. Right behind them was a colonel. He stepped forward and extended his hand. “Colonel Charles Canham, Hundred and sixteenth Regiment, Twenty-ninth Division.”
“Are we glad to see you, Colonel!” Kerchner replied as he shook Canham’s hand and whipped off a smart salute. “Lieutenant George Kerchner, Second Rangers.”
Canham looked around and saw only a handful of men coming out from behind cover. “Where are the Krauts? Where’s the rest of Ranger Force A? Colonel Rudder?”
“Krauts are gone, sir. Pulled out overnight. As far as Colonel Rudder, I don’t know for sure, sir. We’ve been isolated out here for two days now. If any are left, they’re on the Pointe.” Kerchner pointed to the exit road that led to Pointe-du-Hoc. “We were on our way to find out.”
Canham looked at the ragged remnants of Dog Company. “Let’s get your men some food and water. I’ll bring up medics to treat your wounded. We’ll take ten right here.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Canham issued the orders and the Stonewallers brought up rations, water and ammunition. Canham then pulled a map from his case and he and Kerchner discussed their dispositions.
The sight of soldiers from his regiment buoyed Harley. Some of them had persevered across Omaha Beach and came up through the bluffs to relieve the Ranger Force. He was about to join them when he heard a commotion behind him.
“Look what we got here!” One of the Rangers was escorting a single German prisoner at the point of his M-1. “Found him hiding out in the weeds.”
The soldier pushed the prisoner down to the ground in a sitting position. He aimed his M-1 at the prisoner’s genitals and started asking him questions in English.
Harley and Johnny walked over to the prisoner near to where a medic was treating a nearby wounded GI. The German looked defiantly at his captor. He pointed to his genitals at the end of barrel of the rifle and shouted loudly in a high-pitched gravel-like voice, “Nicht hier, nicht hier.” He then pointed to his own forehead. “Hier!”
Harley and Johnny looked at each other. It was the same voice that had betrayed the Ranger positions the night before last. It was just as arrogant and defiant as it had sounded in the blackness of the night.
The medic spoke. “Jesus Mac, don’t wound him. I don’t have enough supplies to treat them all. If you’re gonna shoot him, kill the bastard!” The medic turned to treat his casualty.
The German continued to stare defiantly at the soldier, pointing to his forehead. His steel-blue eyes were piercing and insolent. The soldier lowered his M-1. Just then Harley stepped in and nudged the soldier aside. He pointed his own M-1 at the prisoner and shot him through the forehead, exactly where he was pointing. The prisoner’s eyes held the insolent glare until the instant the back of his head exploded in a bloody gore of bone and red fleshy pulp.
The medic was shocked! “Holy shit, Mac. I wasn’t serious. I was just fucking with you.”
Lieutenant Kerchner and Colonel Canham came running over. Kerchner saw the dead German and spoke first. “What happened here?” The Ranger who captured the prisoner had already walked away and the medic, busy dressing a leg wound, never looked up.
“What happened here, men?” Canham asked again. There was a moment of cold silence before Johnny spoke up. “The prisoner made a move, sir. We thought he was armed.”
Canham looked at Johnny suspiciously, then to Harley and back to Johnny before staring at the wide-eyed prisoner lying on his back. “All right, men, just calm down. We need prisoners.”
Abusing prisoners was not condoned and soldiers were constantly reminded to adhere to the Geneva Convention. Officers, however, were aware of the strain mortal combat placed on a human being. Some GIs momentarily lost control in a frightful moment of intense anger. The stress of seeing one’s buddies torn up by enemy fire and the anxiety of surviving a firefight placed a huge emotional burden on young boys barely out of their teens. Sleep deprivation and combat fatigue also contributed to a loss of composure. Those factors contributed mightily to a normally disciplined soldier committing a rare repugnant act against a helpless enemy prisoner. The trauma and chaos of D-Day saw an unusual rash of such incidents. American officers used scrupulous discretion and prudent judgment when adjudicating cases of prisoner abuse that came before them.
Canham chose to accept the explanation of the airborne paratrooper and ignore the incident. He also noticed the Blue and Gray patch of the 29th Division on Harley’s shoulder.
“Twenty-niner? What regiment, son?”
“Your regiment, sir. Stonewallers. Sergeant Tidrick, Able Company.” Harley snapped a proud salute.
Canham raised his eyebrows. He knew Able Company had been nearly wiped out on Dog Green Beach. He placed his arm around Harley’s shoulder. “First Battalion is down the line.” Canham pointed to the rear of the column. “Go join them. You’re home now, son.”
Canham turned to Kerchner. “Lieutenant, you take your Rangers to the Pointe. I’m going inland to hunt Krauts.”
“Yes, sir,” Kerchner replied. He marched his ragtag unit toward the exit road
Harley walked over to Johnny. “Thanks for covering for me.”
“No problem, Harley, but if you don’t mind my saying so, you need to get under control.”
“That bastard gave away our positions last night when he was a prisoner the first time.”
Johnny took a deep breath and looked away. “I just don’t want to see you get into hot water because of scum like that.”
Harley nodded and touched Johnny’s shoulder. “Thanks. Where are you headed?”
“I’ll stay with the Rangers for now until I can locate my outfit.”
They parted. Johnny slung his M-1 over his shoulder and marched away with the Rangers toward the Pointe.
History would record that of the 230 Rangers who assaulted the cliffs of Pointe-du-Hoc, plus the twenty-three reinforcements from Lieutenant Parker’s platoon, barely fifty men survived unscathed. Despite heavy casualties, the Rangers had accomplished their mission. The big guns were never fired onto Utah or Omaha Beaches. They cut the paved Vierville-Grandcamp Highway for a time and denied its use to the Germans for all of D-Day. They drew German forces into mortal combat that would have otherwise been sent to either of the two invasion beaches.
In spite of heavy casualties, they never surrendered Pointe-du-Hoc to the enemy. The Rangers of the relief force would eventually make their way to the enclave at Pointe-du-Hoc that was doggedly guarded by the paltry survivors of Rudder’s Rangers. There they would relieve the desperate men who held on stubbornly for two days and nights without much hope or reinforcement. But the history of Pointe-du-Hoc would be written at some future time. For the present, the young boys who kicked open the door to occupied Europe were still in grave danger.
After a few minutes Johnny turned to see Harley marching away. From a great distance their eyes met. Harley nodded his understanding of a bond forged and of a debt owed. Johnny nodded back.
Suddenly a single shot broke the morning silence. Johnny Kilroy spun around from the impact and crumpled to the ground.