Casualties of War

Blue and Gray symbol of the 29th Infantry Division

Blue and Gray symbol of the 29th Infantry Division

When John Gallaher McConnell was old enough to go to war his father told him two things: one, he would be going to England for the drive on France, and two, be careful of Scots, they anger quickly.

John’s father, Alfred, was a coal miner who had experience with Scots. He had married one. Together the elder McConnells raised John and his three older brothers in Moundsville, West Virginia. The town was tight knit, and diverse. Native West Virginians lived with and intermarried people from Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary.

John's letter to his mother January 2nd 1944: Dear Mom, If you do not get this letter let me know and I will mail it. I cannot tell you where I am because I am not there. I can't tell you where I am going because I haven't gone yet. I am not back yet because I haven't gone yet. I don't know what I am going to do because I haven't done it yet. Well all joking aside, I am in New York City on a pass. I am stationed at Camp Shanks N.Y. and don't know where I am going nor when. I hope I go where Paul is but I am not that lucky

John’s letter to his mother January 2nd 1944:
Dear Mom,
If you do not get this letter let me know and I will mail it.
I cannot tell you where I am because I am not there. I can’t tell you where I am going because I haven’t gone yet. I am not back yet because I haven’t gone yet. I don’t know what I am going to do because I haven’t done it yet.
Well all joking aside, I am in New York City on a pass. I am stationed at Camp Shanks N.Y. and don’t know where I am going nor when. I hope I go where Paul is but I am not that lucky

When John joined the army he was sent to the Infantry. He spent New Year’s 1944 in New York City. By February he was sailing overseas. John’s father’s guess was correct. John went to England. John wrote his family. He saw his brother in London and experienced the wartime blackout. He sent his money home and invested in war bonds. He wanted the money to start his own small business when he was back in West Virginia. He wrote his father asking him join him in business. He didn’t want either of them to worry about someone else telling them what and how to do things anymore. The nineteen year old had  plans for his future. He just had to survive until he could make them happen.

Private McConnell was assigned to Company C, 175th Infantry Regiment of the  29th Infantry Division. They wore a blue and gray yin-yang symbol on their shoulders and helmets. The blue and gray represented the Union and Confederate background of the states from which the men came. The 29th Division had been in England since 1942. The 29th impressed the generals in training enough to be picked for the first wave of the D-Day assault. The generals weren’t worried about the beaches anyway. The navy and air force would destroy any defenses before the men got there. The tough battles would be inland.

John McConnell landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus one, June 7th. The 175th was the reserve regiment. They had waited offshore as other two regiments of the 29th landed on June 6th. The day after D-Day Omaha Beach was still not secured. Machine gun and sniper fire came in on the men and landing craft exploded when they hit underwater mines. The shore was covered with metal remnants from the invasion. Bodies floated in on the tide and littered the shore. The dead were 29th Division men. Men who had trained two years to fight and died within minutes. They lay in contorted forms in their own blood. The only thing the men of the 175th could do for their comrades was try not to step on them.

The helmet John McConnell wore through the war

The helmet John McConnell wore through the war

In Normandy, the nineteen year old from Moundsville was thrown into small towns like Gruchy and Isigny.  He fought his way across the Aure River. As the army advanced from the shore towns to the hedgerow country, the terrain changed to sunken lanes and massive walls of brush that blocked out the light. Dead cattle lay bloated in the sun alongside bodies of soldiers. The Germans waited in the hedgerows until the Americans were at point blank range before opening fire. The 29th took heavy losses; some companies losing almost every man within weeks of the invasion.

29th Division men rest during the battle for Brest, France

29th Division men rest during the battle for Brest, France

John learned how to act in combat. He learned the hard way: making assaults on towns and flanking farmhouses through open fields under machine gun fire. He learned to kill or be killed. He survived. By July he was promoted to Private First Class and took part in the attack on St. Lo. He fought in the French port of Brest in September. By October he was a Staff Sergeant, one of few original men left. The kid whose brothers used to tease him about being a brat was a squad leader. The “brat” now commanded men in battle.

On November 19th, 1944, the 29th Infantry Division was fighting through West Germany. The 175th was attacking the town of Schleiden. John’s Company C gave fire support to other 175th men who moved forward with chemical mortars and tanks. The enemy was not eager to surrender. It had taken two days of killing before Schleiden was in U.S. hands. The town was no different than the dozens of small towns the 29th had gone through in six months of fighting. It cost the lives of friends and exterminated those of the enemy. The shattered streets and smashed houses held mangled bodies or death from a hidden enemy. Schleiden was no different from the towns before and the towns after. They all smelled of death.  For Staff Sergeant McConnell, Schleiden was the last fight. After six months at the front he was labeled a non-battle casualty and was sent to a hospital off the line.

GI's advancing in towns walk by dead comrades

GI’s advancing in towns walk by dead comrades

When the war was won, John went back to Moundsville, West Virginia. He got married and took a job at Columbia Southern Alkali. America was entering a new age of prosperity but John McConnell had a hard time settling down. Maybe he had trouble at home or perhaps he could not forget what he had seen and did as a nineteen year old in Normandy, Brest, Northern France and the Rhineland. In 1952, at age twenty seven, John McConnell hanged himself.

A picture of John's captioned "My Squad"

A picture of John’s captioned “My Squad”

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Gunshot

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The war was almost over. Germany in March 1945 was cold and crisp, with a pale gray tint over the ruined countryside. It was quiet as Lieutenant Hecker’s jeep drove down the road. Europe was a hulk of shattered cities. The Third Reich was in ruins, its soldiers surrendering by the thousands to the American Army, but still Germany fought on. Lieutenant Hecker rode with his men, Private First Class William L. Piper and James Wardley.  They had been together through Northern France, the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Now they drove in the enemies heartland. Hecker knew the end of the war was in sight. He knew all they needed to do was stay alive a little longer. What he didn’t know was his jeep was driving toward a buried land mine.

Norbert A. Hecker

Norbert A. Hecker

Norbert A. Hecker was a not a soldier by trade. He hadn’t planned on knowing things like range, targeting and trajectory. He was a clerk who compiled reports on factory labor costs and production. When  he graduated college he thought he would be behind a desk not leading men into battle. He entered the army in 1942, and was assigned to the 8th Infantry Division’s 28th Field Artillery code named “Gunshot” .

Lieutenant Hecker was a Forward Observer. His mission was to report where artillery strikes landed and find new targets to attack. Forward Observers had a short life span on the front lines.  It wasn’t just the enemy that was dangerous, if the observer made a mistake and the coordinates were wrong, or someone else was careless, the called in artillery could land short, right on him.

When the 28th Field Artillery sent out fire, they radioed “Gunshot on the way!”. “Gunshot on the way” was friendly artillery that stopped the advancing waves of enemy armor and infantry, “Gunshot on the way” took out gun emplacements slaughtering pinned down American GI’s. It was that call that could make the winning difference on the battlefield. It was men like Norbert Hecker who brought the gunshot down on the enemy. He knew men were counting on him, that he must complete his mission at all cost. His radio calls could mean dozens or hundreds more men going home alive. It was men like Norbert Hecker who made small towns all over the United States proud of their boys.

Lieutenant Hecker in Dress Uniform

Lieutenant Hecker in Dress Uniform

In Hecker’s home town of Menasha, Wisconsin, the local paper followed news about its 1,384 residents serving in the World War. The daily paper got the residents atuned to where its boys were fighting and what they were doing. It gave folks the little picture they wanted to see of the big show; the news about the boys they used to see on the streets and in church. The paper spread news of men and women who had been promoted or seen action in big battles. When a local boy got a medal for heroism, the whole town knew. They also heard when a man was wounded, or when a someone’s son would not be coming home.

If Norbert Hecker and his men had been walking, they would have been safe. The mine in their path was a teller mine; a circular, anti-tank device filled with five and a half kilograms of TNT. It had a high pressure fuse and needed a vehicle to set it off.

Hecker’s jeep exploded when it ignited the weapon.  James Wardley, by some miracle, was unhurt. Bill Piper, was wounded but alive. They found Hecker covered in blood with his eardrums blown out. But he was breathing. The three men helped each other up.  Hecker’s helmet had a huge dent on the top from the exploding debris. Their jeep was destroyed and two of them were wounded. Hecker put his helmet back on, looked at his men, and they continued to the front.  The war wasn’t over yet. Until it was finished, Norbert Hecker would see his mission to the end.

Norbert A. Hecker's wartime mementos.

Norbert A. Hecker’s wartime mementos.

The dent on Lt. Hecker's Helmet

The dent on Lt. Hecker’s Helmet

Jitterbug goes to war

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

Avengers on their way to Wake Island

The greatest thrill of his life came as he landed for the first time on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. Two years before in 1941, Elton Dale Snodgrass was a kid who read everything in the library and lived to go bowling and dancing. In the summer of 1941 he had just graduated high school in Terre Haute, Indiana. The summer after graduation is always memorable, the last vacation before friends got jobs or went off to college. The summer of 1941 was not special for that reason alone. It was the last summer before the storms in the East and West reached the isolationist beaches of the United States; the last summer where an eighteen year old from the Midwest would only have to worry about being a teenager. In December of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and changed the face of America.

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

CVL 22, USS Independence at sea

Elton Snodgrass joined the Navy and went to Boot Camp in Great Lakes Illinois. He applied for pilot training but they made him an aerial gunner instead. Leaving Indiana, he carried two things from home, a pair of black converse sneakers he bought in high school for $9, and his nickname: “Jitterbug”, after the dance step he loved.

By November 1943, he was an Aviation Ordnance Man 2nd class, and a turret gunner on a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo plane in Torpedo Squadron Twenty-Two (VT-22) on sea duty aboard the USS Independence. He had already seen action in the Marcus Islands, and flown raids on Wake and Rabaul before VT-22 was given a new task. The Independence, along with the carriers USS Essex and Bunker Hill, was now part of Task Force 50.3, providing air support for the US Marine landings at the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

On November 18th the flight crews of the Independence, along with other carrier and land base planes launched 910 sorties against Betio, bombing the airfield and other installations, flying 170 sorties the day after.

At dawn on November 20th, Task Force 50.3 again launches its planes at the island, the focus is ground targets in preparation for the invasion.  The planes land, and the naval bombardment of the island begins, and the first of the Marine assault force climbs into their landing craft. At nine in the morning, a half hour later than planned, the Marines make their way toward the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

The men of Torpedo 22 (VT-22)

VT-22 too heads toward Betio, flying continuing close air support missions.  Below, landing craft shepherd the 18,600 Marines invading the island.  The 1,900 horse power radial engine vibrates the airframe. The plane dips and climbs slightly as it navigates the tropical air.In the front of the Avenger, the pilot sees what is coming and reacts to it.  The airplane responds to his touch, his desire. Below him, the radio operator has the most room, space to man the radios and the ventral machinegun, things to keep him occupied. The turret gunner’s world is confined to a metal seat with a 50. caliber machine gun, a thin veil of Plexiglas separating him from the blue sky. He is almost like a passenger, having no control over where he is going, just knowing whatever lies ahead will be dangerous and that he cannot see the danger because he faces the rear.

Jitterbug watches the sky and waits.  He thinks of stuff from when he was a kid back in Indiana, things he carries with him in his mind. Stuff like selling strawberries in grade school, and waking up before the sun rose to work a milk route with his mother. His sister Doris, bowling with friends, the things that keep him going, things from the past he wants a future with. He thinks of Mary, the girl who waits for him. He retraces the steps of their last dance on the metal turret, the rubber soles of the black converse shoes muted by the engine noise. He carries his nickname with him too, written on his flight helmet and goggles.

Tarawa Atoll

Tarawa Atoll

There is another thing he carries, something he shares with every man on the plane and the men down below: fear. Fear as the ground at Betio flickers when the Japanese defenses open up, fear when black puffs of anti-aircraft buffet the plane, as tracer bullets fill the air with bright glowing streaks; fear that would change Jitterbug’s full head of black hair almost bald.

When they drop their bombs, they head back to the carrier. Below them the Marines are engaging the Japanese. There is smoke over the task force, and it is from the Independence. A torpedo from a Japanese plane struck its starboard side. The ship is badly damaged, its flight deck closed. Jitterbug’s Avenger makes an emergency landing on the USS Essex. The Independence sails to Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands for temporary repairs.

Two days later, the fight for Tarawa would be over. In three days, 1000 Marines and almost the entire Japanese garrison will lay dead on the island. There will be a documentary film about the battle that for the first time would show the American public the uncensored carnage of war.

Without a ship, Jitterbug’s crew flies raids with the Essex against Kwajalein before going to Pearl Harbor to catch up with the Independence as it heads to San Francisco.

In February 1944, Jitterbug would marry his sweetheart Mary while on a 30 day leave in the US. His crew would train for night flying before orders came for them to be shipped to the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS Cowpens.  On a stop at Pearl Harbor, Jitterbug’s application for pilot training is approved with orders back to San Francisco. His Avenger crew head to battle in the Pacific without him, where, on their first mission they are shot down and killed.

Jitterbug would never become a pilot with the US Navy. He was honorably discharged after a week of pilot training. He returned to Terre Haute, Indiana, the place he had left in 1942. He read in the library, bowled with his friends and danced with his wife. But things were never the same as they had been that summer long ago in 1941, when high school had finished and life was waiting to be found.  Jitterbug had gone off to war and come back and life had moved on.

Elton Dale "Jitterbug" Snodgrass

Elton Dale “Jitterbug” Snodgrass

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug (right) and fellow gunner

Jitterbug's flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

Jitterbug’s flight helmet, goggles, shoes and other mementos

The Sinews of War

The landings at Omaha Beach

The landings at Omaha Beach

When the darkness fell in Normandy on June 6th 1944, it gave time to reflect on what had happened that day. In the East, the British had secured their beachhead sectors at Gold and Sword, with the Canadians in the middle at Juno. To the West, the Americans had taken Utah and Omaha beach and scaled the steep cliffs of Pointe-du-hoc. Further inland, British and Canadian Airborne soldiers were dug in around the Orne Bridge. American Paratroopers banded together around towns like St. Mere-Eglise and St Come-du-Mont. Nearly 160,000 Allied soldiers had landed in France, another 197,000 were offshore. Now they waited for daybreak.

 
In later days, some people would call June 6th the “Beginning of the end of the war in Europe”. On this Tuesday night, that end was still a long way off. The Allies had gained a foothold, but completed few of their objectives. Hitler’s Armies had not been brought into action yet. His Armored Divisions and elite units of SS and Paratroops were still alive and well, lurking somewhere in the darkness. They too waited, to see what the next dawn would bring.

Helmet of Chief Carpenter's Mate Kennedy, 108th Naval Construction Battalion

Helmet of Chief Carpenter’s Mate Kennedy, 108th Naval Construction Battalion

On that night, Chief Carpenter’s Mate Bruce Kennedy pondered his fate around Omaha beach. He and his men had arrived in Rosneath, Scotland in October 1943. Over the next eight months they traveled from Rosneath, to Plymouth and Netley in England. They knew why they were there. All of South England was alive with men and material bound for the assault on Europe. They also knew they would be a part of it.They had painted their helmets with a blue band to identify personnel on the invasion beaches. Bruce and his group would come ashore on Omaha Beach, becoming part of the 73,000 Americans to land in France on D-Day.

 
The job given them was not glamorous or romantic or even heroic. They would not storm beaches and fight for ground inch by inch. Their task was mundane, a thankless job, but a dangerous and vital one. They were the men of the 108th Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees), and it was for them to feed the invasion, overpower the enemy not with brawn but with supplies.

 

Seabees watch trucks roll onto an Rhino ferry in Normandy

Seabees watch trucks roll onto a Rhino ferry in Normandy

Today, on D-Day, their work was curtailed by heavy seas, mines and beaches not cleared of enemy action. Tomorrow they would land more vehicles and material on flat ferries called “Rhinos” and set up piers and bridges along the shore. Tomorrow too, the Germans would start to shell them with 88mm guns, and the Luftwaffe would strafe them on the beaches.

 
As the Allies moved farther inland in Normandy, the men of the 108th Naval Construction Battalion stayed on Omaha Beach; spreading the thin trickle of supplies to the flood that eventually pushed Hitler back to Berlin. In October of 1944, the 108th was sent back to the USA and inactivated. Chief Carpenter’s Mate Kennedy would be transferred to Saipan and serve with the Seabees until November of 1945. He and the men of the Seabees were not the men in the foxholes and trenches, the men winning awards and adoration. They were the men that made the war go, made it move in a mechanical fashion ever forward, men without which battles would not be fought, and wars could not be waged. They were the men who provided the power behind the spear, the arm to the fist. They were the body without which an army could not move and support itself: the sinews of war.

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to Echoes of a War. I have had a keen interest in the Second World War since I was a child. In my blog I hope to share history, personal stories and artifacts that will be of interest to the historian, collector and anyone who likes to learn about and share history.

I am new at this so I hope to learn more about blogging as I go along and connect with some interesting people.

Thanks for reading.