The WWII 300th Combat Engineers

Images of WWII
Captured German soldiers

History of the 300th Combat Engineers, 1943 to 1945

Engineer posing with a destroyed German tank

Liberation of Normandy Towns

When: July 1-31, 1944

Where: Normandy, France

Troop Movements:

  • July 3- Co C to La Besneville, Co A to St. Sauveur Le Vicomte
  • July 4- BN to St. Sauveur Le Vicomte, less Co C; Co C to La Rouge De Vas
  • July 5- Co A to Marcanville
  • July 6- Co C to Marcanville
  • July 10- BN to Osmansville near Isigny
  • August 6- BN moves through St. Lo
A U.S. convoy moving through a liberated town
A convoy of U. S. equipment and men moving through a liberated town after being cleared by engineers. Photo: Harold Palmer

As the American troops slowly gained control of the Normandy towns and territory in July and August, the 300th supported the liberations by keeping the main supply routes open. They cleared mines, did road repair, constructed a railroad overpass, repaired buildings, cleared debris, created and operated a gravel pit and transported equipment. They also built bridges, a rotary traffic circle and bypasses.

Possible grave of German soldiers
Possible grave of German soldiers. Note the hole in helmet. Photo: Harold Palmer

Company A left their bivouac area at 1245 hours on 4 July at St. Sauveur le Vicomte, France and moved to St. Sauveur de Perre. They cleared roads and built an 80-foot, Class 40 Bailey Bridge. The first platoon stayed to guard the bridge while the second platoon cleared mines until 2300 hours.

Sgt. Robert R. Keleher and Pvt. Mark A. McGarvey were clearing these mines when one of the mines exploded. Both men were reported as MIA at 1600 hours near Le Haye du Puits. (Morning Report of 8 July, 1944). Keleher was listed later as KIA (Morning Report from 22 July 1944). Keleher, from Carmi, Illinois, was the "best buddy" of Forest Wood. Keleher's widow would write to Wood of this death sometime later according to the daughter of Forest Wood, Marie Wood Dowd.

An abandoned German tank
An abandoned German tank with one of the men of the 300th, most likely in France. Photo: Harold Palmer

Pvt. McGarvey was assigned to the 300th from the 41st Replacement Battalion on 29 June, 1944 and his MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) was changed 4 July - interesting timing.

Both Keleher and McGarvey received Purple Hearts. (It can not be determined from records of the 300th if McGarvey was KIA, eventually returned to duty in the European Theatre or sent stateside due to injuries.)

One of the major battles was for the town of La Haye-du-Puits in early July in which the 300th played a critical role. The Germans had a great terrain advantage with a ring of hills around La Haye-du-Puits where they could defend the town while watching Allied force activity off the Allied-held beaches of Normandy.

Damaged German tank likely in France
Damaged German tank, most likely in France. Photo: Harold Palmer

The U.S. divisions of the VIII Corps led the attack on the town, each supported by an engineer battalion. In the center was the 82nd Airborne, supported by the 148th Engineers; the 90th on the east supported by the 207th Engineers and the 79th Division on the west supported by the 300th Engineers. The engineers led the attack as they moved out abreast in a drenching rain on July 3 clearing the narrow roads of mines and widening them creating two-way traffic.

The VIII Corps advanced forward in a flying wedge. The 82nd Airborne met little resistance as the German troops were eager to surrender. From these prisoners, engineers learned about German land mine use and applied that information in the area as they advanced toward La Haye-du-Puits.

A destroyed German tank in Normandy
TEC5 Alton A. Schmidt (right), driver for Co. A, 1st squad, 3rd platoon, with a destroyed Panther A tank (Panzerkampfwagen V, Ausführung A) of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy. Photo: Albert Stein

The 82nd gained its objective by July 7. The 79th was still holding the heights west of La Haye-du-Puits but had been unable to take the town as they encountered a higher caliber of German troops including the elite Waffen SS troops. Mines and booby traps planted by the Germans gave the 300th no relief.

On July 8, Col. Spengler wanted to establish if the town was cleared for engineer work and took a six-man patrol from the 79th Division entering the town from the west. He was last seen giving the all clear signal from the railroad bridge on the north side of town. Later reported captured, a search party was sent out and the colonel was found dead from enemy machine gun fire. The 300th had now lost two commanding officers in two weeks. Major Riel S. Crandall was given command of the 300th.

George Garrison in La Haye-du-Puits:

George GarrisonLt. [Archille "Archie"] Menard was our unit leader and he said to follow him into La Haye-du- Puits. We had been in Ste.-Mere-Eglise for several days and so we went over there. There were two hills to the left just as you get to the town and when we got there you could see them fighting up on those hills. It was kind of like going to a movie. By evening we were on that road and it was bad confusion waiting and wondering what to do next. The 79th division was bogged down and so we could not get into town. We were on this highway going into town on the north side and here came six or eight German soldiers riding bicycles coming over that hill. They had no idea that we were there and they rode right into us and we captured all of them and they were trying to give up anyway. So we stayed there all evening. Lt. Menard would remind me of Henry Fonda as much is any man I ever saw. He was dark complexion from New Mexico, tall and his voice was just like Henry Fonda's.

He [Lt. Menard] came over at about 10 o'clock and he said, "I hate to tell you this but we have to get A Company because we got booby-traps and mines all over this town." He said we've got to have somebody familiar with mines and booby-traps to clean up this town. So I left and he said to get A Company. That was a long ride back but I got back and got A Company. He made it very clear that I would go back and get them or he would go back and send them. I got the message to them and they went on their own. I didn't go back with them.

Col. [Daniel] Spengler went into La Haye-du- Puits and he went in by himself. I guess he thought he could take the whole town by himself. But they killed him and it took four or five days before they recovered his body. I didn't know him real well.

Jacob Reinhardt continues through Normandy:

After a little rest at camp, we got an assignment to clean up a town which was about to be cleared of mines and booby traps. Our doughboys had a hell of a time taking the town which was La Haye-Du-Puits. We waited three days and finally one night we went up to town to start our job of clearing mines and booby traps. We approached the town with mine detectors at port arms. Just as we got in the outskirts of town an artillery officer told us to get the hell out because an artillery barrage was due in five minutes. We got on our trucks and you never seen anything as fast as those trucks were going that night. When we got about two miles from the town, we saw the flashes of the big guns and gave a sigh of relief that we were away from that hot spot. Three Jerrie planes tried to strafe us that night but our ack ack fire scared them away. Upon arrival at camp, our Commanding Officer told us that we would tackle our job the next morning but the divisional engineers beat us to that job too. That morning, our Colonel [Col. Daniel Spenglie] who was one of those blood and guts guys tried to take the town with one squad of infantry men. He got through the town and on the outskirts he got killed. Up to this point we had been core engineers but we had so many casualties that we were put back in Army engineers class and got quite a bit of road patching jobs.

We cleaned up a town for about two weeks. That's where we had a hell of a time. This job was in Isigny. A pretty good size town. We had night shift for a while and every time a ration truck or convoy would come through, the MP would stop them and we would swipe a few cases of rations off the back of it. We would split it with the MP afterwards. Some racket. The only reason we stole so bad was because we were having such lousy chow or not enough half of the time. One night we had a gas alarm on guard at a water point about five miles away. I hitch hiked to camp and back that night because I had left my gas mask in camp. When they checked up on the alert, they found out someone was spreading a shithouse of rumors. In town, the MPs wouldn't let you through if you didn't have your mask. Well, one negro was arguing to get through. He said, "Mr. MP, please let me through to my truck to get my mask because I is gassed right now." All us fellows had to laugh because it sounded so funny.

Kenneth "Cowboy" Morris recalls his commanding officers in Europe:

Kenneth MorrisMaj. Crandall was a West Point guy. He would say, "Forget about your family, this is the Army and this is your family." We weren't as military as he was. We were only all just homesick. There was this Col. [Daniel] Spengler who was commander of the 1110th Engineer Combat Group where we were attached. Maj. [John] Tucker was an old buddy of his so Spengler got Crandall relieved of our command and gave the command to Tucker, his buddy. Spengler was going to win the war all by himself.

You know Maj. Tucker got killed because he thought he could win the war by himself just like Spengler. We were trying to build that bridge at Carentan and there was a tank zeroed in on us at the bridge. When the first round came in we scattered like a bunch of quails to get off that bridge. But Maj. Tucker forced us to go right back up on the bridge and go to work. Tucker got up on the bridge and said, "You can't win a war by running." So just about that time one of those cannons just about took his head off and he was killed instantly.

A little later in Normandy we went by this little town and that town was mined and booby-trapped. Spengler sent us in there at night with mine detectors to pick up mines and booby traps in the dark. We backed the trucks in and got the mine detectors out and the Germans were all around us. You could hear the rifles and burp guns. They zeroed in on the trucks because they could hear them running. They hit nearby and our men came running back saying let's get out of here. Spengler was on the other side of town and decided to go in by himself. He went into a machine gun nest and they ripped him apart and killed him. So that's when we got Crandall back and he was our commander for the rest of the war.

You know Crandall was so much real military. Much later we were surrounded in the Bulge and were just barely able to get back out of there and to the battalion headquarters. We got back about noon and you know that man Crandall met us with tears in his eyes. I always have had a lot of respect for him after that. We thought he's not the big tough guy we thought he was. He was just like the rest of us. Later on he would say that the 300th was his outfit even though he spent the rest of his career in the Army with other outfits.

Kenneth "Cowboy" Morris recalls his encounter with cows in France:

In France, Cowboy Morris and a half of a cow
In France, Cowboy Morris and a half of a cow. Photo: Willie Hein

Well, I got to France and there were a few cows there. So I tell them I'm going to ride a cow. I chased the old cows and I was riding them. They [the French] were madder than the devil that I was riding them damn cows but they were glad we liberated them. So they called me Cowboy.

In France, Cowboy Morris, left, gutting the cow with the kitchen boys
In France, Cowboy Morris, left, gutting the cow with the kitchen boys. Photo: Willie Hein

Swartz said, "Don't you think those cows would make pretty good dinner? Well, you are a butcher." [Cowboy was a butcher stateside before the war.] So I went out and skinned it and dressed it. Some of the big brass saw that thing strung up in the tree. They got mad about that.

We cut out some steaks and cooked them up and they were great! He had that cow carcass hanging from a tree when this officer came by. He took one look at the slab of beef and made us take it down and bury it. He said it wasn't "government inspected."

Don Richter recalls his encounters with Col. Spengler:

Don RichterI recall having a couple of close encounters with Col. Spengler in England. The first was when he appeared with Major Crandall at the floating Bailey Bridge training site where we had hauled components and materials from a Bailey Bridge depot somewhere near Tent City and then proceeded to put up the bridge and take it down twice during a long night and had stopped to rest a bit before taking it down again for the third time. Spengler looked around and then said to Crandall "Riel, there are two ways to get your men to do a job. One is to lead them and the other is to drive them. You surely are not leading your men and you are doing a piss poor job of driving them." I, as well as most of the men of Company B Third Platoon, also heard all of this. Spengler turned on his heels and left and in a few days Crandall was replaced as Battalion Commander by Major John Tucker.

The other time that I observed the Colonel in action was at Tent City in England when I had gone to Personnel Section on detached duty to help Company Clerk Kenneth Funk with some paperwork that needed to be done before we could join the invasion. Col. Spengler appeared and asked Mr. Brooks, who was a WOJG at the time, "Mr. Brooks, wouldn't you like to be promoted to 2nd Lt?" Mr. Brooks replied, "Yes Sir, Colonel," which forever after became a snide remark should any member of Personnel care to make one as all knew that the Warrant Officer would never willingly trade his rank for 2nd Lt as he would suffer loss of financial allowances that WO's received not available to commissioned officers.

I remained back in England when my Third Platoon went over on LST 523 and helped man the switchboard at what had been 1110th Engineer Group as they had already arrived in Normandy so that both Major Tucker and Colonel Spengler had been killed before I arrived over there and Col. Crandall was reinstated as Company Commander of the 300th for the rest of the war.

Norman E. Pehrson, later of the 300th, recalls Col. Spengler:

You may recall the rigorous training both battalions undertook in England under the hard-fisted 1110th group commander, Col. Daniel Spengler. No tougher training was ever devised than his. One could easily accuse him of being a madman. I personally think he was. To close out the memory on this segment of the war Col. Spengler was killed trying to enter La Hay du Puits in the battle for Normandy. The officers and men of the 300th and 207th returned to a more normal life, if life in combat can ever be called that.

The words of Lt. George Edgar of the 989th Engineer Treadway Bridge Company as recorded by his grandson David A. Armstrong:

Abandoned German artillery, most likely in France
Abandoned German artillery, most likely in France. Photo: Harold Palmer

At about 0400 hours the following morning [July 8], Sergeant Herman woke me with the news that Col. [Daniel] Spengler [Commander of the 1110th Engineer Combat Group] was missing. The details weren't yet clear but Spengler's sergeant had returned to the 1110th's command post with some very worrisome information. As they drove to the outskirts of La Haye-du-Puits the night before, Spengler had decided that, without support, it was simply too dangerous to go into the town where a number of German hold-outs were believed to be in hiding. But it remained vital to assess what kind of engineer work would be needed to clean up the town and its roads and bridges, and so Spengler had set up an observation post outside the town, and procured a six man patrol from the 79th Infantry Division.

Spengler and the six infantrymen had finally determined it was safe to enter the town from the west, and they hadn't radioed with news of any encounters with Germans before Spengler appeared alone on a railroad bridge on the north side of town, where he was able to visually send an all-clear signal to the men waiting at the observation post. Their orders had been to wait for the colonel to return, but when he hadn't after ninety more minutes had passed, his sergeant grew worried and radioed the command post for assistance.

High vantage point of a village destroyed by bombing
High vantage point of a village destroyed by bombing. Photo: Harold Palmer
I dressed quickly, grabbed my M-1, and Herman and I drove toward the command post outside La Haye-du-Puits just as the sun began to climb the sky. The early morning was still and hushed except for the noise of the jeep, and heavy dew bent the grasses in the fields low to the ground. When we joined the infantrymen outside of town, they explained that they had become separated from Spengler and had been unable locate him again. Then, they had heard a short machine-gun blast echo through the otherwise deserted streets. I selected three of the men who'd been with Spengler to join us, and the eight of us who now went searching for Spengler again were armed solely with our pistols and M-1s. But, as it turned out, we didn't need them.

Transporting captured German prisoners to compounds constructed by engineers
Transporting captured German prisoners to compounds constructed by engineers. Photo: Harold Palmer
We didn't encounter anyone who was hostile before we found Spengler's body slumped in a narrow street, the front of his chest etched by a line of machine-gun bullet wounds. I knelt beside him, and it seemed impossible that this man who had been so vital and so constantly animated now lay utterly lifeless. His face was drained of its color and his eyes stared blankly into the morning light. I closed them, and I wanted to cry, but somehow I couldn't. Then, when I noticed that the Krauts who'd killed him had taken his West Point ring, I was hit by a wave of guilt that made my stomach turn. Surely I could have protected him if I had been there. And I was angry now, too. How in the hell had those infantrymen from the 79th Division lost track of this man? I was angry at them, at myself, and with Spengler himself. The big, gruff son of a bitch hadn't needed to die that day, I knew, and my tears finally did come when we wrapped his body in a rain poncho and solemnly carried it out of the town. I spent plenty of time trying to decide whether, in fact, the colonel had been foolhardy or brave. The one thing I was sure of was that I remained deeply sorrowful that he was gone.

By July 9, the situation on the U.S. front had greatly improved with the 79th taking La Haye-du-Puits with the support of the 300th Engineers. Although the VIII Corps had advanced only seven miles from July 3 to 14, they sustained 10,000 casualties. The 300th left the 1110th on July 9 and was then attached to the 1105th Engineer Combat Group.

Jacob Reinhardt building bridges and roads in Normandy:

After we got through Isigny, we got a job tearing out a blown up bridge and putting in culbers made of sheet metal between Isigny and St. Lo. At night when the traffic was slacked down, we got permission to block the road and we went to work. We tore the bridge out with our jackhammers and our CO thought he knew it all. He got the hammer stuck in a big piece of the bridge timber. After about three hours work and dumping about fifteen truck loads of gravel, we got the job done. We have a saw carpenter who figures out how to put a block in so the gravel wouldn't slide into the water and plug up the works. Well, he got the job finished and some jerk off sergeant got the credit for the job. That's the army for you.

We got a job building an overpass which was blown out to cut off a railroad and a highway from Carentan, Isigny and St. Lo. Well, that night, a flight of Jerrie planes came in low to strafe us. Well, everyone ran to their fox holes except a few of the boys who stood there with sledge hammers in their hands and watched them. Lucky thing no one got hurt that night. By the way, Jerrie only comes out at night cause he knows he hasn't got a chance in the daytime. We finished that job in short order.

While we were up around Isigny, we had the job of graveling the road and keeping them in shape. During a break, we shot every weapon we had on the truck at a high embankment. Our squad sereant shot his German luger which he had picked up off a dead Jerrie. Well, he got caught by a Lt. Colonel who was in charge of an MP outfit. He took the luger away and couldn't get it back until the war was over. Incidentally, out platoon commander was to thank for getting the luger taken away because he was firing it also. We shot M1 rifle carbines, German rifles, French carbines and also a bazooka. We aimed the bazooka at a hill and missed it completely. Boy, what a shot.

The Move Through St. Lo

military photograph
Clearing debris in Isigny, France, 11 July 1944. Photo: Riel Crandall
military photograph
Clearing debris from the town of Isigny, France, 11 July 1944. Photo: Riel Crandall
military photograph
Clearing debris from the town of Isigny, France, 11 July 1944. Photo: Riel Crandall
military photograph
Clearing debris from the town of Isigny, France, 11 July 1944. Photo: Riel Crandall
While the First Army and the 300th Engineers were slowly moving south toward St. Lo, the Third Army, under the leadership of Lt. General George S. Patton, was moving north and west to cross the Vire River and also on to St. Lo. The Germans had destroyed all bridges in the region while barely holding on to St. Lo and the surrounding area. With the crossing of the Vire River by the Third Army on July 7, the Germans were now pressed from all sides.

On July 11, the First Army began its assault on St. Lo along a ten-mile front. St. Lo, with a peacetime population of 11,000, was located on low ground at a loop in the Vire River. It was surrounded by hills and main transportation arteries traversed it in every direction making it a vital supply and troop crossroads in the German war machine.

The attack was slow-moving and was supported by artillery and air attacks on the city. German forces held on and the fighting for every foot of ground was brutal and costly. During the 12 days from July 4 to 15, ammunition expenditure was greater than at any other period during the first two months of the European campaign.

The complete fall of St. Lo came on July 17-18. The American First and Third Armies found a shell of the former town of St. Lo. Almost no building or structure was untouched by the fierce fighting. In its place, they found gaunt walls, crumbled masonry and twisted vehicles buried in the rubble. It was as if the entire Normandy Campaign had been summed up in this one town. Enemy shells continued to hit St. Lo for several days and German planes made one last attempt to regain control by bombing the town on July 19.

Operation Cobra was a mission by Allied forces to break through German lines immediately after the total destruction of St. Lo. General Omar Bradley called for some 3000 Allied planes to blast through an opening by carpet bombing a three and a half by one mile rectangle outside St. Lo.

The area to be bombed was marked by red smoke but the wind blew it over American lines. Twenty-five of the men of the 30th Infantry were killed and 131 wounded by the Allied bombs. On the second day of the massive bombing, again the red smoke drifted toward American lines. This time 111 American infantry were killed and nearly 500 wounded. The 300th lost two men from Co. C - Pvt. Kenneth Costeel and PFC Eugene W. Hutchison. Five or six others of the 300th were injured.

Although Operation Cobra was the worst American friendly-fire incident in the entire war, it severely damaged the German forces, equipment and moral. The bombings were followed by fifty thousand artillery shells. It was only two days later that the First Army broke through the German lines and began to cover ground at a much faster pace toward Germany.

George Garrison under bombing:

We moved our headquarters into St. Lo just after it was taken. At St. Lo there was not a building standing over a few feet tall. As you approached the town coming down the road from Normandy on the hill and you could see right over the town. They just flattened that town. A Company was removing the mines after they took St. Lo. We were out there about mid-day removing mines and here came a group of B-24s over and they started dropping bombs and we had to withdraw because they were dropping them onto us. We were lucky as anyone who went over there because we didn't lose anyone there at that time. You could feel those bombs and there was a loud noise and you could feel the ground quiver.

military photograph
Co. B constructing a culvert. Photo: Army Signal Corps
military photograph
Co. C constructing a bypass. Photo: Army Signal Corps

Excerpt from the daily War Diary of General Courtney H. Hodges, Commander of the First Army, maintained by his aide Maj. William Sylvan and approved by General Hodges:

Wednesday, 26 July 1944: Two post-mortems to the last two days' action: Casualties from Tuesday's misdirected bombings were close to 600 persons, almost 100 of whom were killed, more than 90 percent of which came from the 30th Division, including Col. "Paddy" Flint, one of the best known and beloved regimental commanders, died yesterday as the result of wounds. General Hodges said Col. Flint was so sure that "his time was coming" that he had written home, telling friends that he did not expect to survive the war.

Bombing St. Lo; from a presentation by Colonel Riel Crandall at a 300th Reunion in 1996:

Riel Crandall We built bridges over the river at St. Lo after that big bombardment of St. Lo. For about an hour, the sky was a solid mass of American and British planes dropping bombs on the Germans. Some of you might remember that three of them fell a little short and caught one of our groups. I got a hold of one of my Air Force friends later and said, "How could you do something like that? It was five miles from the drop zone." He said that plane had a green bombardier on his first trip and he was kind of... [Col. Crandall shows his hands shaking]. There was a control to release the bombs and he may have accidentally released them. There was a safety device so that you couldn't release the bombs until after the bomb bay was opened. When the bomb bay was opened he already had his shaking hands on the release and down went the load before it was supposed to go and so we got hit. That's what my Air force friend thought happened.

St Lo, Normandy after the invasion
St Lo, Normandy after the invasion. Photo: Willie Hein
St Lo, Normandy after the invasion
St. Lo after the Normandy invasion. Photo: Willie Hein

Ben L. White recalls taking of St. Lo:

Ben WhiteSoon after we landed at Normandy the Infantry was moving to take St. Lo. The first day they went into the town but were driven out by the Germans that were left. The next day the Infantry went in full force and took the town. When we went through St. Lo, it was all bombed out. Very few buildings were standing. What I noticed were lots of dead horses. The Germans were defending the town with horses pulling the outdated artillery like the horses pulling the caissons in the Civil War. I thought that if this was all they had it shouldn't be too hard to defeat the Germans.

Juke Burnham in Normandy:

When we landed and I got to the 300th, St. Lo was still being defended. I rejoined the unit on the 29th in St. Lo, I guess. I remember going through Sainte-Mère-Église. There was a lot of damage. I remember the bombing of St. Lo. You never knew what kind of damage a bomb is going to do when it goes off. When I joined up with the 300th they were bivouaced and the front line was right there where we were. They had not made much progress by then. When our tanks came on the hedgerows and they would go up in the air and their underbelly was exposed and that is where they got hit. The enemy knew so they would wait until they were almost straight up and then they would hit them at the underbelly and that would stop them. Some sergant in maintenance back behind the lines figured out to put a dozer blade on the tank and they put them on and that way they could cut through the hedgerow on the level.

Randy Hanes remembers a gentleman at Insigny:

Randy Hanes At Isigny near St. Lo, an old peasant gentleman approached me and hugged me saying, "Merci, Merci." My French was more limited at that time but I knew he was saying "Thank you." He wanted to give me a weird-looking dagger as a token of his appreciation for liberating them from the "Bosche." With help, I explained that I did not want a gift and that we were there to restore their freedom from occupation by the Germans. I knew that I would hurt his feelings by refusing so I accepted his offer. This prompted more hugging, mercis and tears.

Bridge opened for traffic
300th reconstructing a railroad bridge five miles north of Saint Jean de Daye, Normandy, July 23 1944. On the left Maj. Crandall, Battalion Commander, observes the work. Photo: Riel Crandall

By the end of July, Allied forces had made slow progress driving the Germans back. They were less than half way across France by July 24 (D-Day plus 48 days). The original objective was to be at this same position five days after D-Day. To this point, Allied forces had suffered 122,000 casualties while the Germans estimated losses at 117,000.

Patton's Third Army was now openly operational. His role in France had been kept secret for some time as his supposed presence in England continued the hoax of another pending Allied landing near Calais, France. A 12th Army Group was formed with General Omar Bradley in command. The First Army (including the 300th Engineers) was under the command of Lt. General Courtney Hodges. Although Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower was in overall command in Europe, the First Army at that time was under the operational control of British General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery.

The sancuary of the large church in St Lo after the invasion
The sancuary of the large church in St Lo after the invasion. Photo: Willie Hein
What was left of large church in St Lo after the invasion
What was left of large church in St Lo after the invasion. Photo: Willie Hein

By the time the 300th moved through the city of St. Lo around August 6, the city lay in ruins from the heavy bombing and fierce battles. Although sustaining heavy damage, the only building left standing was the Cathedral of Notre-Dame with its tall spires rising above the smoking rubble.

Jacob Reinhardt on the move again:

We went through St. Lo. It used to be a city but at that time it had been flattened by our bombers. In fact, if they ever rebuild the city, they will have to find a new site. Every building was blown down except for a few. We could also smell the dead which were buried in the rubble and never dug out.

While working on the roads, a few of the fellows in the squad would recon up some spuds, chickens and anything they could find that was good to eat. We were getting such lousy chow that's why we did it it. We also had civilian clothes, hats, comforts, etc. for souvenirs. By the way, that word recon is a new word for stealing in the army. Whenever our outfit moved, everyone would call us the gypsies because we had everything imaginable on our trucks. Finally our officers made us get rid of everything that wasn't GI or court martial us.

We hit a section up around Bellem where we cleaned ditches which didn't need cleaning, moved wrecks off the road and cleared the shoulders of the roads for mines. The people were so glad to see us that they gave us cider and cognac to drink, also apples, plums, grapes, pears and tomatoes to eat as we worked on the roads and ditches. The people went as far as to stop the convoys and give the drivers something. That's how glad they were to see us. The girls, some of which were very beautiful, would even kiss the boys. Wow! What a time we had. They would use the men as human mine detectors by lining four of us abreast and walk down the shoulders. Luckily there were no mines there as they would of killed the whole bunch of us. Funny part is an order was sent down that everyone would stay off the road shoulders and out of the ditches. Then they make us walk on them as human mine detectors. This just gives you an idea how the army works. We had a sergeant who we called Sunshine because he had a bald spot on his head and boy did that make him mad. He helped build the Alcan-Highway and thought he knew everything about road work but come down to the time he didn't know anything. We cleaned up a town named Malone that had been bombed a few nights before we came and the boys all got drunk that night.

Kal Lutsky begins water supply:

Kal LutskySo as we left Normandy we were in a four people group of Headquarters Company of the 300th Combat Engineers. We got through the battle of St. Lo and after two or three days from St. Lo we were doing 40 to 50 miles a day going through southern France. And then it was through the middle of France and we headed toward Paris.

Our first job when we went south from St. Lo was to set up a water supply. Sgt. Ross was a super conscientious guy. He never had a temper and he never was angry with anybody and he loved his job. He loved the water purification and he knew it forwards and backwards. So we set up our first water point and it was near St. Lo and we would find a little stream or a little river and we would set up a water supply with two big tanks of water. I can see Sgt. Ross every day looking at the little glass tubes and the chlorine that went in and had to meet a certain standard and he was always following it and it was his job and his responsibility to make sure that the tanks filled with water with the proper purification. And everybody in the Army, with their trucks and filled up their five gallon tanks. I think our first stop just below St. Lo. And then our second spot was in southern France. And all of a sudden we turned and started to go toward Paris.

Now Scoop Shelton and I were very adventurous. We didn't have great food and we were always on K rations. We would get three K rations and it was morning noon and night and we would get a supply of three days of K rations. It was a can of Spam and a chocolate bar and toilet paper and coffee and sugar and a thing that was like a can opener. We got that for about three months. And that is what we lived on. Scoop Shelton and I would always go into the countryside and we would find a chicken farm and we would pick up some eggs and so we always brought back eggs for the four of us. So we would have eggs. The only way we would have eggs was when we would make hard-boiled eggs. And that's what we had because we never had any grease to fry them in.

Don Ross described his experiences in France:

 Donald Ross July 12, 1944 [France] - The fields are all lined by hedgerows, with a drainage ditch on either side, most important roads are paved. They [the Germans] sure are a bunch of stubborn buzzards. They had poles and every kind of obstacle imaginable stuck out in the open fields to prevent our planes from landing. There is a load of souvenirs lying around. The old M1 is never move than an arm's distance away at any time. When I sleep it comes right to bed with me. In almost every field there are a few cows or horses, what are left. A lot of them were killed and lying dead in the fields. There was also a hell of a load of damn good Germans or what was left of them - I mean dead. There's about 10 cows in the field now and one of the boys was riding them a while back.

military photograph
Operating a water point. Photo: Army Signal Corps

July 31, 1944 [France] - Contrary to public opinion, I don't sleep in a foxhole, got a whole damn trailer to myself and I've made a little home and office out of it. When the guns start a roaring at night the damn thing waltzes around the field. If the stuff gets to coming too close, I just hit the ditch. Usually don't hear it until it gets right on top of us as our engines are running all the time.

Badly damaged German tank
Badly damaged German tank, most likely in France. Photo: Harold Palmer
American soldier checking inside a disabled German tank
American soldier checking inside a disabled German tank, most likely in France. Photo: Harold Palmer

From the Stars and Stripes:

The Stars and Stripes is a Daily Newspaper of the U.S. Armed Forces. James Kennedy, 300th veteran, provided three original publications, July 13, 14 and 15, 1944. The following are excerpts from the newspaper published in France that was read by members of the 300th soon after landing in Normandy.

They Smell a Bad Egg, Cheat Nazis of a Cackle, Southeast of Bayeux

The latest in German booby traps was a real egg left at the side of a lane. British soldiers, rationed to one egg a month almost rushed for a the prize. Then some sixth sense warned them. They held back, sent for a mine detector. The detector showed it conclusively - that egg was a bad one.

Nazi Booby-Trap Hides Thermite in Candy Bar

Army authorities told today of a new and diabolical booby-trap being used by the Germans - candy with a piece of thermite buried in the center. When eaten, the candy melts away and the thermite flares up in the mouth and throat.

The Germans also are exploiting the Allied troops desire for cleanliness in devising other traps. Liquid soap dispensers are filled with sulphuric acid and a cake of soap when the outer coating is worn away explodes and is strong enough to blow off both hands.

Even German Dead May Cloak a Wired Invitation

Germans are very rough and tough and no respecters of the dead. They'll booby trap the bodies of their own soldiers just as quickly as those of the enemy if they think it will cause another Allied casualty.

Allies Join French They Freed in Bastille Day Observances

Amid the ruins of battle-ravaged towns and villages, Allied troops joined yesterday [July 14, 1944] with the liberated people of Normandy in celebrating Bastille Day, France's equivalent to America's Independence Day. Cherbourg saw the largest demonstration. French, British and American troops marched together in a parade that led to the Place de la Republique, where they were cheered by a gathering of 3000.

Members of the French underground as well as French troops fighting on the Normandy front, were paid high tribute by Gen. Eisenhower in a Bastille Day message over the American Broadcasting station in Europe. "Our common victory will permit you to bring back that liberty born in France 155 years ago today."

Public worship and simple ceremonies at war memorials decorated with wreaths and the flags of France, Britain and the U.S. for the most part marked the observance of the day throughout liberated Normandy.

The following letter was sent to Major Crandall after the Bastille Day event in Isigny, France on 14 July 1944:


20 July 1944
Major Riel S. Crandall
Commanding Officer
300th Engineer Battalion

Dear Mr. Commander,

I must thank you very much for the help that you offered by putting at my disposal one of your machines and the personnel necessary to clear the town square on the eve of our National Holiday the 14th of July.

This work could not have been accomplished in time without your collaboration for which I thank you again very sincerely.

Mr. Commander, Very truly yours,

The Mayor

Letter sent to Major Crandall
Bastile Day at Insigny
Bastile Day at Insigny, France. Photo: Frank Neuhauser