An American Airborne Epic Part 1



First Lieutenant Ken Christianson, Pfc. Sam Porter and Pfc. Don Arminio were the first third battalion men to arrive at the road bridge. At this point in time there should have been around two hundred and fifty men at the position, but by the time Capt. Shettle and his group arrived the total was around forty! The bridge area was surprisingly quiet and the officers wondered if the invasion had been postponed, leaving them stranded behind enemy lines. Second Lieutenant Pete Madden was looking at the men around him when suddenly a damaged P-47 came screeching overhead and crashed in flames 2km due north at Les Rats farm (the same aircraft seen by John Gibson).

Sergeant Bennett and his squad had set up their mortar 350 metres north of the bridge on the western side of its access road. At that point the road, which ran along the top of a berm, turned west through 90 degrees and ran for about five hundred metres towards the farmhouse owned by Théophile Fortin. The berm provided excellent protection from German fire coming from the opposite bank of the Douve. Peering through the early morning mist Bennett could just make out the church tower at St-Côme-du-Mont some 5kms away. Two hundred metres of open ground lay between his position and the riverbank and he recalls, "A little later on somebody sent out a couple of machine gun teams who dug in nearby."

From around 0500hrs Christianson had been asking for volunteers to scout across the bridge - he had devised a rough plan to test the enemy's strength by drawing their fire. No one showed any interest until Don Zahn stuck his hand in the air and got the ball rolling by taking the position of lead scout. Christianson noticed Hank DiCarlo nearby and ordered him to join the group. At that very moment (about 0530hrs) the north-eastern horizon lit up, followed by a deep rumbling noise. The Allied naval bombardment of Utah beach had begun, signalling that the invasion was underway - everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief. At about the same time a solitary ME109, throttle wide open, passed low overhead and made off in the direction of Carentan.

Impatient for action Bennett approached the bridge to see Christianson. The Lieutenant was somewhat preoccupied so Bennett decided to take a look over the berm with his field glasses. Before he had a chance to steal a glance Christianson shouted, "mind your own god damned business sergeant. Get back to your squad and wait for further orders".

Christianson eventually sent five 'H' Company men across the bridge. They were DiCarlo, Zahn, Arminio, Montilio and S/Sgt. Bahlau, who was in charge of the patrol. DiCarlo followed Zahn along the left bridge rail whilst the others worked their way along the right. DiCarlo recalls, "As I got onto the bridge I realised it was built of heavy timbers and absolutely flat. I followed a little way behind Zahn and we made no conversation. When I got about halfway across he jumped over the rail onto the bank below. I then noticed movement in the bushes and fired a couple of rounds. There was no response and I followed him off the bridge. Looking back I could see the others who one by one dropped into the mud and made their way upstream. Zahn, who was moving in the opposite direction, had disappeared around a bend in the river and I set off after him".

While DiCarlo and the others were crossing the bridge Lieutenant Christianson ordered Cpl. Tom Bucher and Pfc. Andy Bryan, who had arrived earlier with Capt. Shettle, to set up their machine gun and provide covering fire. "We clambered up the berm just to the right of the bridge and began to fire short bursts at the opposite bank," recalls Bucher. "Just then a burst of machine pistol fire from across the river tore into the bank spraying dirt into our faces, which forced us to relocate".

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, the men were struggling to make progress through the soft exposed mud banks. As DiCarlo followed Zahn downstream he suddenly noticed movement above him. Looking down from the berm was a German soldier who was kneeling and pointing a Walther P38 pistol. The German fired and the bullet struck DiCarlo in the upper right chest, knocking him to the ground. Flat on his back he watched helplessly as the enemy soldier peered over the embankment and fully expected him to fire again. Meanwhile Zahn, who had heard the shot, was making his way back upstream. As soon as DiCarlo spotted him he pointed at the German. Only a couple of seconds had elapsed since the pistol shot, but it seemed like forever. As soon as the German soldier saw Zahn he panicked and started running towards a line of trees. Zahn leapt up onto the berm and killed him with a burst of fire from his Thompson submachine gun.

The rest of the group had heard the commotion and leaving Montilio in position, Bahlau and Arminio made their way downstream to see what was going on. Finding DiCarlo they started dressing his wound whilst Zahn, who was about 40 metres away, gave covering fire. It was clear that DiCarlo's wound was serious.

There was a lot of German small arms fire coming in their direction but they were protected by the berm and it was going high above their heads. The problem now facing them was how to get DiCarlo back across the bridge. After about ten minutes they came up with a solution. Nearby was an eight-foot wooden plank left over from the bridge's construction.  Although Hank was finding it very difficult to walk he could crawl on his hands and knees. Ten prefabricated trusses supported the bridge. The plank fit perfectly between these and there was just about enough room for a man to get through. The berms on either side were higher than the bridge trusses and unless someone was actually standing on a berm the bridge was out of view. They thought Hank could use the plank as a kind of shuffleboard and crawl along underneath.  It soon became apparent that this was going to be the only way the rest of the group would get back, as the Germans had started firing mortars and the shells were dropping all around.

Whilst this was going on Bennett had been instructed by Christianson to target his mortar onto an area just to the right of a farmhouse. This action was to support Bahlau's small team. He began to fire and Bahlau shouted corrections from the far side of the river, which were relayed to Bennett. In the meantime Christianson was organising another group, led by 2Lt. Pete Madden, to cross the bridge and help the stranded men. The enemy soldiers were getting nearer and nearer. Knowing that Bahlau's team could not hold off a larger scale attack Shettle and Christianson ordered that the bridge be rigged for demolition.

Bennett was now moving his mortar in small increments so that the rounds fell at about twenty-five metre intervals between the farmhouse and the bridge. All this was done blind, as the berm obstructed his view, but he hoped it would disperse the approaching enemy forces.

Lieutenant's Christianson and Madden were concentrating on the problems facing Bahlau whilst Capt. Shettle was keeping the rest of the force occupied. Ed Shames was looking after defence and recalls, "Shettle ordered me to go and scout around and find out what the ammo state was. He said 'If you find anybody with 60mm mortar ammo, who's not part of a mortar squad, then get them to drop it off next to that C2', and pointed to a large pile of explosive that had been brought in earlier.  He then continued, 'Hold the line and make sure everyone knows it. Oh yeah, don't forget to tell everyone to keep their heads down, we don't want anyone getting them blown off do we?'"

Whilst Ed was scouting around he found a 60mm mortar tube, minus its base plate, and also came across Trino Mendez. He was with another soldier and neither man had a weapon! Ed returned to Shettle, reported his findings and left the tube beside the C2 explosive and some mortar ammunition.

Bennett was struggling to support Bahlau's group and Ed decided to give him some assistance. He ordered Stan Stockins to throw blocks of C2 across the bridge towards the Germans, telling him to keep well below the cover of the berm. It was an unenviable job. Stockins had to insert slow burning waterproof fuses into the ends of each heavy (0.5kg) C2 block then pause momentarily before throwing them as far as he could. Unfortunately all the explosives fell short and most ended up in the river.

Suddenly Stockins stopped throwing the explosive. He had been hit in the face by a German bullet and died instantly. Pvt. McCann was nearby and saw what happened, "Stockins had stayed in the same position for too long and the Germans had a bead on his location. I think the bullet hit his submachine gun in the breach area and ricocheted up through his face". Ed Shames was the first person to reach him. "I think the shot came from a two-storey house across the river. I turned him onto his back and dealt with his dog tags. Then Father McGee came across and said a few words. Later in the day Stockins' body was moved to Fortin farm for temporary burial. The explosives idea was essentially sound and I used it again after dark, this time much more successfully".

Within seconds of Stockins' death Tom Bucher had been hit. "As I traversed the machine gun to the right", remembers Bucher. "A burst of enemy fire bounced off the barrel jacket of the gun severely wounding me. One bullet went into my shoulder and the other hit me in the neck just missing my jugular. It was as if I'd been electrocuted - that's the best way I can describe the pain. My fingers clamped so hard on the trigger that Andy Bryan had to prise them off one by one. By this time blood was spurting from my neck and I was paralysed. Andy placed a field dressing onto the wound and kept it under pressure, which saved me from bleeding to death. Then one of the medics gave me a blood transfusion before going for help. As I lay semi-concious on the berm waiting to be evacuated, I clearly remember Father McGee trying to give me the last rights...I had no intention of dying and yelled at him to get lost! Shortly afterwards three or four guys turned up with a stretcher and I think Andy helped them carry me to the aid station."

After Stockins' was killed Shames got permission to use the 60mm tube he had found. Shettle thought it was worth a try even though the mortar's base plate was missing. Placing the tube on the ground Ed used his left hand to adjust the angle and his right to drop the shells into the tube. He had no idea where they were landing but hoped it would keep the Germans away from the bridge.

In the meantime DiCarlo was beneath the bridge sliding along on the plank. He stepped off as he reached each wooden support and pushed the heavy board towards the next truss. It was a painful process as he inched his way slowly across the bridge's one-hundred-and-twenty-metre span - all the while his colleagues were doing their best to give him covering fire. As he crawled forward Hank could see his blood dripping into the murky water below. Nearing the friendly bank Pfc. Bill Briggs ('H' Co.) and another soldier hauled him up and dragged him off behind the berm, leaving him beside Stockins' body. "A medic turned up to check me over", recalls Hank. "I didn't recognise him but he said I was going to be OK and told me to remain still until he could get someone to take me down to the aid station". DiCarlo's attention was then drawn in the direction of Ed Shames who was still working the mortar. With each shot the tube sank a little further into the soft earth until the muzzle was three inches or so below ground level. At that point Shames sensibly decided to stop firing.

A few minutes later Shettle and Christianson decided to send Madden and his group across the bridge. Their job was to protect regimental demolition engineers who were rigging the crossing with explosives. As the group reached the far side they broke right and joined up with Bahlau and his men. The group, which was now about a dozen strong, formed a defensive line along the berm upstream of the bridge. Madden spotted a German some distance away and fired, the soldier fell and became the one and only man he shot during the entire war!

Because of overwhelming enemy fire the demolition team had to abort their mission. Madden could see that there was no point in his group staying any longer and during a brief lull withdrew. Had it not been for Bennett continuously firing his mortar the withdrawal would have been almost impossible. Most of the enemy had fallen back but one German remained and despite the mortar barrage positioned himself on top of the berm. He was trying to get a bead on Madden's group as they moved back under the bridge. Madden was leading and had three M1 rifles slung over his back (they belonged to some of the men who had been wounded). Using the same route as DiCarlo he set off across the bridge but the rifles slipped throwing him off balance and for one terrifying minute he was left dangling below the bridge trusses.

Bull rushes obscured the German's view but he heard Madden struggling and opened fire. As Madden pulled himself back up five rounds slammed into the woodwork just in front of him. The German stood up for a better view and Madden tried to shoot, but his weapon was clogged with mud and it misfired. In a moment of desperation he threw the gun at the enemy soldier, who promptly picked it up and ran off. Getting across the bridge was difficult enough, but climbing over the exposed northern bank would be suicidal. However, Christianson's men had an idea and threw their jump ropes over the berm. One by one Madden's group grabbed hold of the ropes and were pulled over the bank to safety. (Montilio won the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in the action, the first man from the battalion to do so, whilst Bahlau and Clawson were awarded the Silver Star for their efforts - Author).

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