The Island Battle of the 329th Infantry--July 4, 1944

On July 4th, 1944 the 2nd Battalion of the 329th Infantry was nearly decimated in an attack on the far right flank of the 83rd line. Captain Richard E. Randall, the Commanding Officer of F Company, although wounded three times during the fighting that day, managed to hold together the remnants of two companies to continue the attack against a hardened enemy force. After hours of fighting to continue the advance under enemy artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire, Randall and his group of survivors from E and F Companies held off successive counterattacks. At the end of the day, Randall asked for reinforcements so that they could continue the fight, but instead was ordered to withdraw. The information that follows is a brief account of that day.

On the morning of 4 July, the 2nd Battalion of the 329th Infantry was ordered to move into position at the far right flank of the 83rd Division, opposite the 2nd Battalion of the 331st Infantry. The 329th was to attack westward across a swamp to an "island." The "island" actually was a peninsula, which can be seen on the map. Its western edge was defined by the Prairies Marecaugeuses de Gorges, a large marshland. The northern tip and opposite side of the peninsula were defined by the swamp, which extended from the "Prairies" and came down the eastern edge of the peninsula. It then turned northeast toward the village of Meautis. Essentially, this gave the swamp a shape like a large V, and it dominated the geography in this area.

Just to the east of the "island" peninsula is les Baleries, the location of the 2nd Battalion/329th assembly area on the morning of 4 July. The peninsula was reported to be about 900 yards long and 500 yards wide, with the northern tip about 200 yards across. All around the peninsula was a ditch about two feet deep and filled with water. It was covered by small fields enclosed in hedgerows, and was cut lengthwise by a dirt road that ran southward to Raffoville. At Raffoville, the road intersected with another road that ran east and west. This east-west road was an obvious objective, and was about half the distance to the Carentan-Periers highway further to the south.

The 2nd Battalion's plan was to attack in a column of companies. F Company would lead off with two platoons abreast, and upon reaching the first phase line, E Company would cross the line of departure following behind F Company to the dirt road. At that point, both companies would reform, with the road acting as a boundary between F Company on the right and E Company on the left. G Company, in reserve, would cross the swamp if needed to protect the left flank of the battalion and maintain contact with the 331st further to the left.

What sounded like a solid plan of attack was encumbered with some serious problems. The recon was bad: the only information on the enemy said that the island was held by remnants of a company and some Russian volunteers and conscripted laborers. Captain Sharpe of G Company recalled that a later G-2 report, filed after the battle, showed that the 2nd Battalion had actually made their attack against much superior forces. These were most likely the 2nd Battalion/6th Fallschirmjaeger (parachute) Regiment and elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadiers. The swamp also was a major obstacle. It ran from north to south in this area, preventing an attack directly to the south to the objective. Instead, it was necessary to first attack west across the swamp over 300 yards of open terrain under direct fire from the enemy. In some places, the ground was too spongy to support a combat loaded infantryman, and prevented the use of tank support.

Finally, the lack of communications was also a serious problem, and Captain Sharpe remembers that the Germans were jamming the radios with a "dispy-doodle high and low tone." During the advance, battalion HQ did not seem to know what was happening beyond the line of departure, and platoons were moving without any coordination or direction. This added more confusion to an already bad situation.

The operation began at 0300 hours, when the battalion was alerted for movement to the forward assembly area. It moved from its bivouac area at La Granvallerie in the order of F Company, E Company, H Company, Headquarters, and G Company. Upon reaching the forward assembly area at Les Baleries they halted and consumed a breakfast ration. Then, as soon as the supporting artillery concentrations started falling, the battalion moved to the line of departure, with F Company going to the line of departure, and E Company just to the east. While F Company was waiting for H-Hour, Lt. Smith, the battalion S-2, came to the battalion commander with a new aerial photo of the objective, indiciating that a lot of new digging had been done by the Germans. But, it was too late to change the plan of attack as H-Hour had arrived.

F Company crossed the line of departure with the 1st Platoon led by Lt. George W. Stahley on the left and the 2nd Platoon led by Lt. Donald L. Richardson on the right. They had a perfect formation and looked like they were on a blank fire problem. But something happened immediately that they hadn't planned on; there was alreadly slight fog in the area, daylight hadn't arrived, and the smoke from artillery concentrations settled between the line of departure and the objective. It was impossible to see anything.

The two assault platoons dissapeared into the fog and smoke. Not wanting to lose contact, Captain Randall decided to follow them across, and took along the artillery forward observer, a group of engineers, F Company's light machine gun section, Lt. Frank R. Yukl, and two runners. The group was halfway across the swamp when the enemy opened fire with machine guns, mortars, and artillery. The enemy machine gun fire was mostly in the 2nd Platoon's zone (to the right of the 1st Platoon). The engineer officer was severely wounded, one runner was wounded, and Lt. Yukl and Captain Randall were both slightly wounded.

When he reached the island, Randall found that the 2nd Platoon had immediately veered to the right when they came under the enemy machine gun fire. Its two lead squads became pinned down in the swamp. The support squad managed to knock out the machine guns, and this allowed them to get up and move to the first hedgerow. In the process, the platoon leader Lt. Richardson was hit by machine gun fire and killed, and the platoon was now at about half strength and morale was broken.

The 1st platoon had about 25 men left, so Randall decided to spread out their support squad along a thin line to fill in gap between the two platoons. He then notified Lt. Yukl, who was now in command of the Platoon, of what he had done. After a brisk fight, the first hedgerow was taken, and Randall was wounded about the face and left arm by a potato masher grenade. Members of his company insisted that he go back to the aid station. He refused, and accepted first aid from a company aid man.

At this point, the lack of communications began to take its toll: without any orders, the weapons platoon decided to cross over the swamp. They were held at the first hedgerow for further orders. Then Lt. Hansel came across with the support platoon, even though he had been told by Captain Randall to wait for further orders. For some reason, someone at battalion HQ had told Hansel that Randall had been knocked out and help was needed.

A counterattack was expected at any moment, so Randall took one squad of the 3rd platoon and added it to the thinly held line. The rest of the 2nd platoon was shifted to the right. He then sent Lt. Hopley with the light machine gun section to the left to join the 1st Platoon, and placed the 60 mm mortar section behind the 2nd platoon. Soon after, Lt. Hopley was killed by mortar fire and Lt. Yukl suffered severe concussion. Randall was wounded again, for the third time.

At about 0800 Captain Randall learned that E Company had crossed the swamp. They were not supposed to cross until F Company had reached the first phase line, but the battalion commander sent them over anyhow to help drive the enemy back. E Company suffered heavy losses in crossing the swamp including the CO, Captain Raymond Poore who was taken out by concussion. Those that had managed to make it across bumped into F Company. The result was mass confusion.

Randall tried to separate and reorganize E and F Companies and get the attack moving forward again. Repeated attempts were made to straighten out the line and move forward, only to be stopped by enemy machine gun fire. Finally, heavy mortar and artillery fire was requested to prevent the Germans from mounting a counterattack. There were only about 100 men left in the two companies. At one point Randall told battalion HQ that he would try to move forward again, but was told to dig in and wait for assistance from G Company.

Then came a series of German counterattacks. First, the Germans hit on the right flank with infantry supported by artillery fire from self-propelled 88s. This forced the 2nd Platoon of F Company to withdraw back to the last hedgerow in a daze. Then, about an hour later, a second counterattack was launched, this time on the left. The enemy drove back Lt. Bialek's flank and caused about 40 casualties. Lt. Bialek was killed and Lt. MacMurphy severely wounded. The machine gunners were removing the bolts from thier guns. It was obvious at this point that unless reinforcements were received, it would be necessary to withdraw. Randall contacted Col. Bowen and informed him of the situation. Bowen told him to begin a withdrawal.

It was decided to send Lt. Yukl and Lt. Hansel back first with what was left of E Company and F Company under the cover of heavy smoke. Some of them were relucant to leave, and elected to stay and infiltrate back during the night under the cover of darkness. Most crawled back across the swamp, either singly or in groups of two or three. Lt. Yukl was killed, but Lt. Hansel made it safely, taking advantage of a small canal ditch. He then began placing the men in firing position on the right of the line to cover Captain Randall and Lt. Zender who were withdrawing with the 3rd Platoon of F Company.

Randall returned across the line supporting the 1st Sergeant with one arm and a blinded rifleman with his other arm. He then rounded up all the men of the two companies and led them to the Battalion aid station. Col. Bowen ordered Randall to be evacuated as a casualty, but he was later found by battalion and regimental commanders back at his company. They finally had to place him in an ambulance to make him leave his men.

During the fighting that day, one of the G Company medics obtained permission from Captain Sharpe to help evacuate the wounded from the field. He then walked out into the middle of the swamp to a severely wounded rifleman, and noticed many others either wounded or dead. At that point he called to the Germans and asked for medical assistance and a truce. Two German parachute medics appeared with a white undershirt on a stick. They helped to improvise leg and arm splints for one of the casualties, but refused to assist in carrying the wounded soldier to the American side. The G Company medic then asked one of the other German officers if he would permit a litter and a few more American medics to come out and help carry the wounded. A truce was made, and the Germans allowed personnel from the 2nd Battalion aid station to help evacuate the wounded.

In his memoirs, Captain Sharpe recalled that "once the medics had done all they could, they took down the white flags and the front reverted to firing at everything that moved. It was a fourth of July which most of us would never forget."

Much of the information on this page came from a monograph written by Clarence P. Ziegler, who was a platoon leader in the 2nd Battalion/329th Infantry Regiment. Some supporting material came from the memoirs of Col. Granville Sharpe ("Sharpe's Battalion" by Col. Sharpe's daughter, Charlotte Sharpe Daly). My friend, Jean Paul Pitou, provided all of the time-consuming legwork in Normandy that was absolutely necessary for the tellling of this story. Jean Paul was in charge of the exhibition at Sainteny celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the liberation. He is an expert on the 83rd Division in Normandy, and has personally visited all of the areas where the 83rd Division began their campaign on July 4, 1944. Through these efforts, he was able to identify the "island" where the 2nd Battalion of the 329th fought, as well as the farmhouse at les Ormeaux where F Company/331st fought several battles.

While the 2nd Battalion of the 329th Infantry was attacking to the Island, the 2nd Battalion of the 331st Infantry drove south to the les Ormeaux farmhouse.

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