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Our Rich History: In Normandy, the only way to learn was the hard way — and survival was prize

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to the NKyTribune

[Part 4 in a continuing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the closing stages of WWII. August commemorates the “breakout” of Allied forces in France after the victory at Saint Lo.]

Private Arthur B. Pranger of Company A, 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion (CMB) had been in Normandy just eight days when he found himself facing the harsh realities of combat for the first time. Gone were the quiet, sunlit days before D-Day living in Port Sunlight, England. Gone were the homecooked meals, tossing baseball with the local boys and bicycling through the serene countryside with his English girlfriend. By the end of his first week in France, the 19-year old Covington native had been engaged in only small actions against an enemy he couldn’t see. As the sun set at the end of that first week, he sat in his foxhole and penned a letter to his mother back home.

Harold “Mat” Matson of Company B, 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion, poses for his photograph before heading overseas in 1944. (Courtesy of Mat Matson.)

“Dear Mom,” it began. “Since my last letter, I left England and am now in France. I’m in the fighting now but don’t worry. I’m alright so far and it’s not too bad. I sure was sorry to leave England though. Right now, I have to watch out for certain things and be on the alert.”

Cincinnati resident Harold “Mat” Matson of Company B remembered that he had been a latecomer to the fighting in Normandy, but it hadn’t been his fault. “We were in a convoy with about a hundred other ships,” he said of the June 29th channel crossing. “I was sitting there with a fella I didn’t even know, just chatting…and I looked up and I said, hey, there’s a ship over there and it’s smoking.”

Matson had barely finished his sentence, when he looked to his right and saw another ship on fire.

“We passed several other ships, when we had an explosion on our ship! I went up in the air about four feet and came down on my backpack. I was unconscious and didn’t know it for some time, because when I came to, the stern of our ship was under water…we were sinking, and they were bringing troops caught down below, some conscious, some hurt, a few were dead. But they were all covered with diesel oil…the tanks had exploded down there.”

As the transport continued to sink, an empty LST transport returning from the Normandy beaches came alongside, pulled survivors off the ship and out of the water, and took them back to England.

“The intention was to send us to the Replacement Depot,” Matson recalled of his time after the rescue. “Captain Overbeck was our C.O. and he begged, borrowed and stole equipment to keep us together as a unit so we could go back and rejoin the other three companies.”

Company A mortar emplacements on Hill 122, where Pvt. Art Pranger met the enemy in force for the first time and nearly lost his life in the firefight. 86th CMB Memorial Assn.

By the night of July 10, Company B was fully re-equipped, and they crossed the channel again, this time landing on the Normandy coast without incident. As they were briefed, Matson was surprised that the Allies had advanced only seven miles inland. The stiff German resistance they encountered was made even more difficult by terrain known as “hedgerow country.” Hedgerows were an ancient landscape of intersecting farm lanes, on both sides of which were raised embankments topped by tall hedges and trees that made a natural fencing for French farmers. Moving through this terrain was arduous and often disorienting.

Art Pranger learned early on to be careful when moving through the hedgerows.

“I found I could jump a hedgerow if I got a good running start,” he remembered. “You get a running start and up and over and down you go on the other side. One time, I jumped and when I stood up on the other side, I found myself facing four Germans. But then I saw the GI’s behind them with carbines pointed at their backs. I never did that again.”

Harder lessons were coming just ahead. On the night of July 7, Pranger was encamped with his company halfway up a slope called Hill 122, which overlooked a small valley and the town of Camp de Sesar. Below them, the 358th Infantry was engaged against stiff German resistance. The top of the hill was still in German hands, and Pranger’s mission was to drive them off and gain the high ground.

“We discovered we were firing over the Germans’ heads and actually chasing them into us,” he recalled. “Next I saw about six silhouettes of German soldiers on top of our hill. The one in the middle had a machine pistol at the ready. He started firing. The rest fanned out and came down the hill at us.”

A weary, but confident Company B mortar squad posing for a photograph somewhere in Normandy amid the hedgerows. A mortar squad consisted of four (sometimes five) men, each with a specific task that made the 4.2 mortar a deadly weapon on the front lines. Photo by Capt. Warren B. Hinchcliff. (Courtesy of Lucy Kreader.)

The 19-year old Pranger fled headlong down the hill toward the Jeep, frantically loading mortar shells onto the trailer as the four advancing Germans fired repeatedly.

“The machine pistol bullets went between my legs and hands and bounced off the shells, leaving sparks behind!” he said. “I dropped the shell and jumped in the rear seat of the Jeep.”

Amid the storm of bullets, he and the others somehow managed to escape without a scratch. But others weren’t so lucky. In the German attack on Hill 122, sixteen members of Pranger’s company were badly wounded and five taken prisoner. Their equipment was destroyed. The encounter left Art Pranger deeply shaken, but within days, he and his company were once more advancing.

On the night of July 10, fourteen new replacements arrived from HQ to fill the positions of those who had been wounded in the Hill 122 firefight.

“We were all getting acquainted,” Pranger recalled, “when everything seemed to get real quiet. All us regulars dove in our foxholes apparently for no reason. I recall – about half way down – I thought to myself, what am I doing this for?”

At that same instant, a German 88 artillery shell slammed into their position and exploded. Four of the replacements were killed instantly and the rest seriously wounded. The experience left everyone shaken and wary.

“When the thought occurred to me to jump,” Pranger reasoned, “I was already half way down into the hole. You see, I was becoming an animal. You were never fully asleep or fully relaxed. Your only education you needed was being there, and the replacements didn’t have that luxury yet. The only way to learn in Normandy was the hard way.”

Later that night in his foxhole, he penned a quick note to his mother. “I’m fine so far,” he scribbled pensively, “and I’m praying to God I stay that way.” Art Pranger would claim in later years he was very patriotic when he first went into the army.

But the close call on Hill 122 changed all that. “Maybe it was because I was part of the cause, and the uniform did help a lot. Maybe it was the day I first saw one of our own get wounded. It wasn’t a terrible wound, but for him it was. From then on, I thought about it. I threw down the flag and picked up a gun. Patriotism had dropped down to number two; saving myself became number one. I was being practical: without number one, I could no longer be number two.”

A Company A mortar squad set up and ready for business. Pvt. Art Pranger is standing at right, with his best buddy, Pvt. Lenny Sersen (without helmet), standing in the back. (Courtesy of Larry Pranger.)

Mat Matson never thought about fear that much. “I honestly can’t say that I was horribly frightened at any one time,” he said. “Things happen, but I didn’t know how bad they were. For instance, when I was in the hedgerow, we were under small arms fire and our squad leader took off, and left me with the gun! I can’t say that I was scared or frightened. You just continue to shoot!”

Matson was a gunner in a squad of five men operating the battalion’s main weapon – the 4.2 M2 mortar. “My job was to pull the safety pin and drop the mortar shell into the barrel,” he said. The 4.2 mortar was a lethal weapon of high accuracy that fired high explosive, phosphorus, incendiary and smoke marker shells. For weeks after his arrival on the front lines, he and his squad of four mortarmen fired defensive and harassing fire against German machine-gun emplacements and worked in support of Infantry units attempting to break the German line. It was all difficult work made worse by the difficult terrain.

On July 25th, both Pranger and Matson were dug in with their respective companies in an area just northwest of the city of Saint Lo. Word reached them from battalion HQ of Operation Cobra – the Allied plan to crush the impenetrable German line entrenched in the city. For days, Pranger huddled in his foxhole along the River Seves, 25 miles northwest of Saint Lo, with Matson dug in at Gonfreville, ten miles further north. On the morning of July 26th, both men awakened to the heavy drone of thousands of bomber aircraft passing overhead.

“To the left of our mortar position against the horizon, I saw five or six planes,” recalled Pranger. “As I looked, more started appearing and in less than 15 minutes, the sky was filled with airplanes. Everything seemed to become hushed except for the deep-throated buzzing of the airplanes.” More than 2,000 B-17 bombers and 1,000 light bombers streamed above them. Both men sat back and watched the show unfold above them.

“Total Destruction.” The city of Saint Lo after the bombing of July 26, 1944. Courtesy of VI Corps Combat Engineers.

“The bombing at St. Lo was horrific!” recalled Matson. “It was terrible. The ground shook for hours and hours with our bombers, B-17’s, passing overhead almost continually. Occasionally you’d see one get hit and burn, and you’d see a parachute come out. But the bombings were incessant, really. We weren’t aware of it, but some of those bombs hit the front row of our infantry. But I laid there by my foxhole and felt the ground shaking all afternoon. It wasn’t a good feeling, except it was our own bombers. It gave us a lot of comfort that we weren’t the only ones involved in the war.”

For Pranger, the bombing of Saint Lo was “total destruction.” He remembered the long drive toward the city, down roads littered on both sides with destroyed German tanks, half-tracks, artillery pieces, trucks, dead horses, and debris of all sorts. “We drove our convoy of Jeeps, mortars and trailers through this disheveled town and the first situation we ran into were German soldiers, lifeless and strung out in different positions on the road.” But amid the destruction of Saint Lo came small revelations. “The things I noticed most,” he later confided, “were the slit-trenches and the personal dugouts of the individual German soldiers. Almost every one of them contained a prayer book or a rosary.”

The bombing of Saint Lo opened up the interior of France to Allied advances in what history records as the “breakout.” It made possible the systematic “mopping up” of remaining enemy resistance in the region and facilitated the rapid movement of the Allies south and eastward, liberating city after city, including the most iconic city of all – Paris, on August 26th.

Meanwhile, the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion, now attached to Patton’s Third Army, sped across central France toward Belgium like it had wings, encountering almost no resistance. With unprecedented speed, the Americans moved eastward, giving the impression the war could be over by Christmas. But the dreamy respite would be short-lived for both veterans of this story. As American forces moved east, the German army would be waiting for them at a tiny crossroads town called Bastogne, just beyond the forest’s edge.

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and historian. He is currently at work on a history of the men of the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion. His accounts of the local veterans of the 86th are exclusive to the NKyTribune.

For prior articles, see:

Part 1: D-Day 75 years later

Part 2: Ludlow war heroes

Part 3: Letters from a Covington soldier

Route taken by the 86th CMB from Utah Beach (June 29) to Saint Lo (July 26) and beyond. (Photo provided.)

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