The Battle of Mortain
By James K. Cullen, 36th Armored Infantry
When we were relieved on the line at Mortain, we went to the rear to find our half-tracks in an assembly area. From there, the company went farther back and coiled in a large field. After we threw on the camoflage net, we broke out the Jerri can of Calvados we had on the rear deck and celebrated our return to the world. We were out of the range of those god-awful mortars and big caliber shells. We had some drinks and there was a lot of laughing and giggling after that.
The next morning Lt. Almiron P. Hall called the sergeants to a corner of the field where he held a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. He said, “We found this in 1st Sgt. Eubanks bedroll when we packed his gear. He got it in the head a couple of days ago.” We passed around the bottle and said a few words about the men we'd lost. Lt. Hall told us that our entire HQ had been killed—Col. Cornog and Lt. Col. Cockefair, all gone.
The strange thing is that we, the dogfaces, still didn't know we were in the Battle of Mortain. To us, it was just another terrible fight.
The rest and recreation didn't last long. We were told to “pack up” we were moving out. The company half-tracks went in a column with some tanks, but my squad and several others were assigned to the back of a tank—we were to set up a roadblock. Once the defensive position was dug in, we sat and watched the Royal Air Force Typhoons dive on targets out in front of us. We had been told that the Krauts might be coming down the road “from Mortain”. But we guessed the Typhoons got to the German tanks first. That was the first time we heard the word “Mortain”. All those days in the hedgerows with constant shelling had just been another time in an unknown battle to us.
We had been in action from the day I was assigned to E Co. 36th Armored Infantry Regiment back near St. Lo. On August 6, our company had left their half-tracks and we were told that we were going into an attack with the 30th Division. The attack started and we worked our way through several small fields. Our 2nd Squad 1st Platoon was told to dig in alongside a hedgerow. The Germans were somewhere out in front of us, but we didn't know where. All we knew was that we were the front line.
As a replacement Sergeant I had taken over the 2nd Squad. I didn't ask what happened to the old squad leader. He was just not there anymore.
Shortly after we started digging in the first mortar shells came in, and banged into the field on both sides of our hedgerows, apparently ranging in on our positions. It was almost as if the Krauts were saying “Welcome, we know you're there, and we are going to get you.” With each barrage of mortars, we dug a little deeper. The sun was bright and hot and we were wet with sweat from the digging and nerves. One mortar shell would land and then two or three more would come walking across the field.
For many reasons, we couldn't always hear the mortars leaving the tubes. Maybe it was the wind direction or general noise, but at times the first explosion was the first warning. During one barrage, a G.I. down the line from my hole apparently didn't hear the plunk of the mortar tube. He was still sitting on the edge of his foxhole where the shell hit near him. It tore away a good part of his backside. The medics came up and took him back.
For the four or five days that we held the line, the Germans varied the barrages with mortars, artillery, and a few neblewerfers or “screaming mimis”. The screaming mimis and artillary we could hear coming in and we shouted “in-coming” but the mortars were still the usual silent killers. They kept us down in our holes and we expected an assault by the German infantry after each barrage, but they never appeared. When the shells eased up we would get up to the hedgerow and get ready, but they didn't attack.
Around the third day, our Platoon Sgt. Jim Cofer came along to my hole and told me to go back to the C.P. on some mission. I think it was to pick up two new replacements for the company. In any case, I got the general directions—“The C.P. is in that direction, just follow this hedgerow and then you'll come to a sunken road and follow that” and so on.
I started off and was thankful I was in a deep sunken road when another artillery barrage was laid down on us. These were huge shells. When the dust settled I went on and found the C.P. The hedges on top of the road joined overhead and made some welcome shade as I waited for the replacements to arrive. Across the road, really a path about 10 feet wide, was a sergeant who said he was with F Company.
I had come overseas with a good friend from Ft. McLellan, Alabama, Sgt. Bob Nelson. When we landed in Normandy, we saw that a lot of GI's printed slogans and hometowns on the backs of their field jackets. Bob knew that I could block print and he had me write “Philly Kid” on his jacket; he was from Chester, Pa. As we moved up from Omaha Beach in the replacement system, we were separated—he went to F Co. and I got E Co.
I asked the F Co. Sgt. if he had seen Sgt. Robert Nelson. He took out his little black book and went through the pages. “Nelson, yeah. He didn't make it. He got it in the head from a tree burst over his foxhole. He was asleep.” I thanked him, then got the two replacements and started back to our line. I told them to follow me and watch exactly what I was doing. If I ran they were to run. If I hit the ground, they were to hit the ground, and if I crawled, they had better be down there with me.
We made it to the line, and Sgt. Cofer took them and assigned them somewhere. I got into my hole and thought about what had happened to Bob Nelson.
The next barrage of mortars stopped those thoughts as some of the shells landed a few feet from the edge of my foxhole. Shell after shell came in and I knew that the next one was coming right into my hole. That feeling, a mixture of horror, fear, and terror will never be forgotten. Every front-line infantryman knows what it is.
On the fourth day, Cofer came along to my hole and told me that he wanted a recon patrol beyond our hedgerow to see what was happening in the next field. It was broad daylight, and there was no cover in the field—only long grass about two feet high. I decided to go myself and picked one man to go with me. He was an "old timer" meaning he had been in the 3rd Armored in the States. Leo Deering was a southerner, a friendly guy with a big smile. We nicknamed him "Chowhound." I told him what we had to do and said that we would run as fast as we could since there were no bushes or trees to conceal us. With just rifles and belt with a canteen, we crawled over the hedgerow side and got into the field—then we started to run across.
Halfway across the field, a German machine gun opened up. The bullets snapped and cracked all around us, and we both went to the ground. The gun kept firing in short bursts. I shouted to Chowhound, but didn't get an answer. I kept yelling for him, but stopped when I heard a snoring, rattling sound. I couldn't see him in the tall grass, but I knew he must have been hit. After a few more bursts, the German machine gun stopped and I shouted back to our lines "I'm coming back." Jumping up and running for our hedgerow, I hit it at full speed and tumbled over. That was the end of our recon patrol. Later that night, Sgt. Cofer crawled out into the field and retrieved Leo's canteen and ammunition. Leo had been hit in the head and died quickly.
I left the Division at the end of the Bulge and ended up in a hospital in England. From there I was assigned to the M.P.'s in Normandy. One day in Normandy I went to the military cemetery near Omaha Beach where I took a picture of Leo's grave and also Bob Nelson's. At that time, April of 1945, the crosses were made of wood, but later they were replaced with crosses of white marble. The names and serial numbers were stenciled on the cross in black paint and luckily I still had the picture of Leo's grave when, two years ago Charlie Corbin sent me an inquiry that had come in to his 3rd Armored website. It was from a family looking for information on their grandfather.
The E-mail read:
I was extremely happy to come across your wonderful web page today, and I thank you for sharing the reports and interviews with the public.
My grandfather was killed in France during the war , but there seems to be some confusion about his unit.
His name was Leo Everett (E) Deering enlisted out of MO and when he died, personal effects arrived at his wife's home, but they belonged to someone else named Deering.
…with your expertise we were wondering if there is a way that you can confirm if there was actually 2 L E Deerings from MO assigned at the same time, to the same unit?
Signed Marcus Leo Hedrick
I contacted them by E-mail and told them about Leo's death. We dug
Into the records and sure enough, there were two Deerings, Leo E. Deering, and Lee E. Deering, both killed on August 10 and both from Missouri. The Army had mixed up their personal effects, sending Lee's wallet and pictures to Leo's family. For years the families wondered what had happened.
Through the National Archives, we were able to get the right information and send it to the Deering relations. Leo (Chowhound) Deering was brought back by his family and buried in Missouri, but his wallet and family pictures were sent to Lee E. Deering's family, and Lee's family got Leo's personal effects. I made inquiries but nobody remembered Lee Deering. He was a 19 year-old replacement who joined our E Co. and was killed before anyone knew he was there.
Photo of Lee from his family
This happened many times. It also happened to my friend, Bob Nelson. He had joined F Co., had moved forward with them, dug his foxhole that night before he went to sleep, and the tree burst got him before anyone really got to know him. He was just a name in a little black book.
Mortain faded as we ran north to meet the British to help close the Falaise Gap. This time we were in our half-track "E 12" doing our work in an armored column. We roared along the French roads, went through little villages, and met some resistance. That was easily overcome with our firepower. We finally saw the British search lights in the night sky ahead. They used anti-aircraft searchlights bounced off low clouds to illuminate their battlefield.
When we met the English, the offensive the Germans had started at Mortain was finally finished and wrapped up.