Yes, I know: it should be a 48-star flag... The 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, 1943 to 1945

France (Part 7)

VITRY-LE-FRANÇOIS (Vitry-le-Francois)

It being inevitable we were not surprised when early morning of August 30th, 1944 found our five and-a-half-mile long convoy well out of reach of Sens, even beyond Troyes where a cheering mass of over-joyed people still celebrating their freshly won liberation in a spontaneous demonstration of gratitude mobbed our trucks, generously bestowing kisses, wine and flowers, actually slowed our movement through the city. In stark contrast to this warm reception was the next 90 miles of our trip between Troyes and Vitry-le-François (Vitry-le-Francois), our destination. We soon entered on a region of singular desolation and loneliness. Closing in on all sides, stretching out for miles in all directions was a low, monotonous sea of stubby scrub pine. On the large Engineer maps this deserted area is painted a fluffy green, intense in many spots but growing fainter as it spreads out signifying barer land and fewer trees. Across it in large straggling letters may be seen the word "Grand Bois" -- Large Woods. These small scrubby pines swayed in unison to the slightest pressure of the breeze; a rustle and shishing sound filled the air above the noise of our convoy. As we snaked our way along this solitary road with no sign of any human habitation a heavy sense of isolation and aloneness settled on us and we ceased our singing, our yelling and our chatter and fell silent. We missed the usual jam of vehicles of other units bound in the same direction; there were no familiar tangles of communication wire along the road to give assurance that other units had preceded us; we knew that the infantry had not yet passed this way to clean up on the heels of this spectacular Fourth Armored drive; what were these woods concealing? The tension grew with every mile and it wasn't long before we assumed an alertness never before felt nor perhaps necessary. Each man casually reached for his rifle, held it in his hands, the machine gunners in the cabs of the trucks abandoned their normal half-attentive manner; we searched the woods on all sides, carefully, and in more than one mind ran the thought that we would make a pretty fair target for any ambush the enemy might care to throw. At length the interminable woods thinned out and our destination was not too far distant. The spell was on us and our vigil toward both the air and ground increased. It was along this same route that other Armies and Conquerors, including Napoleon, had marched. Marshal Foch, in the First World War had rushed French Troops towards the enemy through this desolate country; French civilians, bombed and terrorized, had fled in their flight along this road early in this war only to be bombed and machinegunned. The pavement is pocked and there are neat slashes of dots criss-crossing its length, a grim reminder of what had been ... and what could be.

In the early evening, weary, exhausted, famished, the Battalion came to the end of the long march and dragged themselves to prepare and dig positions to be ready to carry out the mission of "Area defense and AA protection for the vital bridges spanning the River Marne at Vitry-le-François (Vitry-le-Francois)".

That first night was typical of nights to follow. Darkness had fallen by the time the guns reported "In Action". The gun crew that pulled duty that night sought out their blankets, rolled up in them and fell asleep on the floor of the gun pit. Deep silence surrounded the area broken only by the sharp staccato of the communications power generator when suddenly the gun commander received warning from the radar crew "23 enemy planes approaching west-north-west, speed 250, altitude 8,200, at 19,000 yards". "Man the guns" calls the gun commander. In three seconds the men are at their positions, the guns are manned and ready. "Match pointers and go into remote control." Radar is on target, information flows into the computer, is adjusted, passed through the heavy cables to each gun. Guns are directed automatically. The planes slowly come within range. "Fire five!" Swiftly the fuse cutter cuts the round to proper time, the round is laid in the breech, the gunner rams it home with his left hand, the breech closes automatically, he steps back and pulls the firing handle. Blam! Five times four the shells blast towards the enemy. A clear pattern of bursts forms within the enemy formation. A hit! Two! The sky lights for a moment then darkness flows in again. "Target receding" radar reports. One enemy attempt averted. Three minutes. Four minutes .... then "Go out of remote, Stand down." The raid is over. Lie down again, brother.

"It was at Vitry, too, where many of the members of Baker Battery suddenly remembered their religion, for one night 50 anti-personnel bombs were dropped in and around their area. That each and every one was a dud was more than one could credit to chance."

The enemy was full of tricks, too. Many times during the ack-ack firing they would attack our installations in small forces by ground tactics, knowing our attention was skyward. We suffered no casualties but managed to capture 169 young, hard SS troopers after several skirmishes and "sniper hunts". At a nearby railroad siding we found a trainload of factory-new German trucks which we bappily added to our respective motor-pools. Convoys would be more pleasant now. It was at Vitry, too, where many of the members of Baker Battery suddenly remembered their religion, for one night 50 anti-personnel bombs were dropped in and around their area. That each and every one was a dud was more than one could credit to chance.

Move we must, so we packed and loaded up. We hit the IP at 0900 headed for Joinville and Neufchâteau (Neufchateau). . . .

. . . It seemed as if we had just gotten settled when the word was received. "March Order", and once again we were on our way. The date was September 13th, and only two days before we had set up our defenses here around Joinville and Neufchateau. Either the Germans were retreating in a hell of a hurry, or else someone was trying to give us a bad time, for in the past few days we had been almost continually on the go. As the convoy rolled over the dusty French roads on the way to our new destination, we all wondered if we'd ever get any rest. It seemed not, for when we reached our new positions, outside of a place called Charmes, we discovered that the enemy front lines were only a few hundred yards from us, necessitating extra security guards, and hurried digging in by all. We spent an uneasy night, but when morning finally came we were still safe and sound. We spent the day completing our digging in, and when nightfall came we were prepared for anything. Now we could relax a little, for besides being fully set up, the intelligence reports were very encouraging. Our troops were massed on the Moselle River, scheduled to jump off that night. After they made their crossing, it was to be our job to protect that bridgehead. The assault crossing commenced shortly after four A.M., and almost at the same time our radars picked up a German plane heading for the bridge area. Everyone was alerted and as the plane came within range, the gun crews tensed. We all waited anxiously for the word "Commence fire", but this was not to be our night for as if he were forewarned, Jerry sheered off and hightailed for home. This was a definite disappointment for us, for the rest of the night proved devoid of action, and as September 15th dawned our crossing was pretty well secured.

Thus far this had been a relatively easy mission, but if we had any illusions about this place we were to learn how mistaken we had been. It didn't take us long to find this out, for soon after supper finished, rumors began pouring in to the affect that the Germans were preparing for a tank supported counter-attack. If they should make a break-through we learned, it would be our job to help stop them. We all held our breaths, for battling tanks was not our primary job, though we felt sure we would be equal to the task. The attack came as rumored, and although five Tiger tanks did manage to breakthrough, they were quickly disposed of, and an almost audible sigh of relief was heard from all. "Bedcheck Charley" came over shortly before dawn, but after D Battery opened fire on him, he hastily: left the premises. The rest of the day was uneventful, and as the sun set behind the horizon, we had yet to see any real action in this position. However we were not to be disappointed any longer, for that night we got more than our fill. For a change the Luftwaffe came out in strength, and made a determined bid to destroy our bridge. Time after time the German planes tried to go into their bombing run, but each time we drove them off. After eleven of the enemy had made the attempt, three of whom we destroyed, they gave up in defeat and left. No damage was done to the bridge or defiles, and after that, Jerry never sent any planes over the area while we were there. By this time, the popular feeling in the Battalion was: that the German air force had a healthy respect for the big guns of the 115th AAA, and with each succeeding mission we gave them more cause to.

The next few days were relatively quiet, and we took advantage of the break to catch up on our mail and sleep. On September 19th we had a pleasant surprise. Bing Crosby was in the area, and was putting on a show down in Charmes. We were all in need of entertainment, so we piled in the old reliable two and a halfs, and away we went to see "Der Bingle". The show was being held in a factory that formerly made airplane engines for the Germans. It was sort of ironical. Here we were seeing Bing in a place that used to keep our personal enemy, the Luftwaffe, in the air. We soon forgot about this though, for seeing and hearing The Crooner was like a breath of home. For an hour we forgot we were supposed to be hardened combat vets, and just sat back and dreamed. It was a wonderful show, and as we made our way back to the area, we all sang Bing Crosby's praises. He was one of us, and as far as we were concerned, he was tops.

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departs Sens 30 August, 1944, travelling through freshly liberated Troyes to Vitry-le-François (Vitry-le-Francois) to carry out the "Area defense and AA protection for the vital bridges spanning the River Marne at Vitry-le-Francois."

This page contains a good description of a gun crew in action.

At Vitry-le-Francois the 115th is several times subjected to ground attacks while engaged in the air, and captures 169 SS troopers.

The 12th of September, the battalion is in action at Joinville and Neufchateau, and two days later arrives at Charmes, within a few hundred yards of the German front lines, to protect the planned crossing of the Moselle River. Two days after the crossing, on September 16th, "the Luftwaffe came out in strength, and made a determined bid to destroy our bridge. Time after time the German planes tried to go into their bombing run, but each time we drove them off. After eleven of the enemy had made the attempt, three of whom we destroyed, they gave up in defeat and left."

Bing Crosby appears at a USO show in Charmes on 19 September, much to the delight of the 115th. He seems to have been big hit.
 
Updated Tuesday June 07, 2005 09:10:35 PDT
The original text of The Story of the 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, published by the unit in 1945, is in the public domain. So how, you may ask, can I claim that the contents of these web pages are protected by copyright?

The answer is that it is my own transcription of the text and images into electronic format, and compilation into these web pages that is copyrighted. In addition, the web design, art, and annotations, plus all material from my father's personal albums are copyrighted original works. I reserve all rights to how all these materials are used. You may not copy them or store them in any retrieval system without permission.