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The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General
By Bill O'Reilly, Martin Dugard
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
All rights reserved.
The Hills above Metz, France
October 3, 1944
Private First Class Robert W. Holmlund is scared. He believes his life may be over at age twenty-one. The American assault is just two minutes old—two minutes that feel like twenty. The private serves as an explosives expert in the Third Army, Company B, Eleventh Infantry Regiment, Fifth Infantry Division. Holmlund is a student from the American heartland who left trade school to join the war. His senior commander is the most ferocious general on the Allied side, George S. Patton Jr. But unlike Patton, who now oversees his vast army from the safety of his headquarters twenty-five miles behind the front, Holmlund and the men of Baker Company are in grave danger as they sprint toward the heavily defended German fort known as Driant.
German machine-gun bullets whiz past Holmlund's helmet at twice the speed of sound. Heads and torsos shatter all around him. U.S. artillery thunders in the distance behind them, laying down cover fire. The forest air smells of gunpowder, rain, and the sharp tang of cordite. The ground is nothing but mud and a thick carpet of wet leaves. Here and there a bramble vine reaches out to snag his uniform and trip his feet. Over his broad shoulders, Holmlund wears a block of TNT known as a satchel charge. Grenades dangle from his cartridge belt like grapes on a vine. And in his arms, rather than carrying it by the wooden handle atop the stock, Holmlund cradles his fifteen-pound, four-foot-long Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, as he would an infant. Only, this baby is a killing machine, capable of firing 650 three-inch bullets per minute.
Though he doesn't show it, Robert W. Holmlund is scared, despite all that firepower, just like every single man in this lethal forest.
But there is no time to indulge his fear right now. No time for homesickness or doubt. Fort Driant looms four hundred yards distant. Everything about the fortress is a mystery, from the location of its big 150 mm howitzers to the maze of tunnels deep underground where its Wehrmacht inhabitants eat, sleep, pray, clean their rifles, plan their battles, and then suddenly poke their heads out of secret openings to kill.
Patton has ordered Baker Company to get inside Driant. The best way to do that is to climb on the roof, which is concealed by mounds of earth. From there, it's a matter of finding a doorway or some other hidden opening that will allow Baker to descend and wage war in the tunnels.
Baker is part of a two-pronged assault. On the opposite side of the fort, the men of Easy Company are also on the attack. But they do so warily, for Driant has already bloodied them once.
It happened six days ago. Skies were clear. P-47 fighter-bombers screamed in low on the morning of the assault, dropping napalm and thousand-pound bombs. American artillery then pounded Driant, shelling the Germans with deadly accuracy.
Easy Company launched their attack alongside the men of George Company at 1415 hours under a heavy smoke screen. They had no way of knowing that the aerial bombing and ground artillery had no effect on the Wehrmacht fighters, nor that the enemy was snug and secure within Driant's fifteen-foot-thick walls and in hidden forest pillboxes.
Step by step, thinking themselves unseen, the U.S. soldiers advanced. Fingers were on triggers as the men scanned the forest, waiting for the muzzle flashes that would expose the enemy. But the Germans did not shoot. Not yet. So Easy and George crept closer to Driant. With each passing moment, they became more convinced that the smoke screen had completely concealed them. They marched closer and closer, and still no German gunshots. Soon a thick tangle of barbwire loomed before the Americans, marking the outer perimeter of Driant's defenses. There was no way through the razor-sharp coils. The advance ground to a halt.
The Germans opened fire.
The autumn afternoon was rent by a terrifying sound the Americans knew all too well. Their slang for the high-speed ripping sound of a German MG-42 machine gun is "Hitler's Zipper." To the Wehrmacht, this killing tone is simply the "Bone Saw." MG-42s opened up from every direction. Bullets tore through the woods at twelve hundred rounds per minute, capable of killing a man from more than a half mile away.
But the machine guns were just the beginning. Soon mortars, rifles, and even heavy artillery pounded the Americans from every direction. And just like that, the American attack was over. Soldiers hugged the ground for four long hours as German gunners pinpointed their positions and took slow, deliberate aim. It was only after darkness fell that the men of Company E and Company G crawled back to the safety of the American lines.
September 27 was a bad day for the men of Easy. By the end of the fight, eighteen soldiers had been either killed or wounded.
Today will be even worse.
* * *
Private Holmlund can go no farther. Nor can the rest of Baker Company. The mountain of barbwire surrounding Driant blocks their path. Thirty feet tall and just as thick, the impenetrable tangle waits to trap any man unlucky enough to snag his uniform or his body within its tendrils. Clipping at it with hand cutters will take days—which is why Holmlund's company commander, Capt. Harry Anderson, has given the order: blow the wire to hell.
Behind him, Holmlund hears the low rumble of a Continental R-975 air-cooled engine. The telltale crunch of steel treads soon follows, announcing the arrival of an M-4 Sherman tank. Even as the German machine gunners continue to fire on Baker, the Sherman weaves through the trees and takes aim. Its 75 mm gun belches smoke as it fires a round of M-48 high explosive into the wire. A direct hit is soon followed by another, and then another. Within moments, the barbwire parts just enough for Baker Company to sprint through.
Captain Anderson splits the soldiers into three groups. Holmlund's squad continues toward Driant in a straight line, while the other two squads flank to the right. The landscape is pocked with shell craters, like a man-made lunar surface. Trees and shrubs grow randomly, offering just the slightest bit of camouflage from the German defenders.
The private is in the first wave of American attackers. He dives into a shell crater, presses himself flat against the lip, then pokes his head over the top and fires his BAR at the enemy. Holmlund then sprints forward to a row of small elm trees, where he once again takes cover and seeks out a target. The ground is cool and damp, moisture seeping through his uniform. He fires and moves forward, always forward, never taking his focus off the flat roof of Driant. Despite the cool October temperature, Holmlund is now drenched in sweat. His face and hands are flecked with mud. He hurls himself into another shell crater and hugs the earth. This close to the ground, he is eye level with the fungus and bright green mold sprouting up through the fallen leaves. Bullets whiz low over his head. He reloads and listens, waiting for the chance to fire.
The sounds of the battlefield are familiar: the chatter of machine guns, the screams of the mortally wounded, the concussive thud of hand grenades, orders barked in short, terse sentences. Screams for "Medic" fill the air.
Holmlund fires a burst from his rifle and then runs forward. He races past fallen comrades. He knows them all. They did push-ups side by side during basic training in Alabama. They sailed together for Europe in the hold of a troopship. They sat in an English pasture just hours before D-day, listening to General Patton deliver the greatest speech any of them had ever heard. And then, after D-day, Holmlund and Baker fought their way across France, rejoicing as they captured one small village after another, following Patton's order that they kill Germans in brutal and relentless fashion—lest they themselves be killed first.
Now many of Holmlund's buddies lie dead or dying. And so ends the sound of their laughter, their rage, their boasts, their tales about that special girl back home, and all that talk about what they're going to do with their lives once the war ends.
Holmlund doesn't even give them a second glance.
And he doesn't stop moving forward. To stop is to become a target. Holmlund's fighting squad dwindles from twelve men down to six. The squad leader is hit, and Holmlund takes command without thinking twice about it. Slowly, in a form of progress that is measured in feet and inches instead of yards, Baker Company moves closer and closer to the German fortress.
Two hours into the battle, PFC Robert W. Holmlund of Delavan City, Wisconsin, finds himself standing atop Fort Driant.
* * *
"The real hero," Holmlund heard George S. Patton say just four months ago, "is the man who fights even though he's scared. Some men get over their fright in a minute under fire. For some, it takes days. But a real man will never let his fear of death overwhelm his honor, his sense of duty to his country, and his innate manhood."
As Holmlund watched, General Patton drew himself up to his full six-foot-two-inch height. His shoulders were broad and his face ruddy, with a strong chin and an aquiline nose. His uniform was a marvel, with four rows of ribbons, four shiny brass buttons, a polished helmet bearing his three general's stars, tan riding pants, and knee-high cavalry boots. Most vividly, a Colt .45-caliber pistol with an ivory grip was holstered on his hip, sending a strong signal that Patton is no bureaucrat. He's a warrior, and everybody had better know it.
Patton continued: "Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best, and it removes all that is base. Americans pride themselves on being He Men—and they are He Men. Remember that the enemy is just as frightened as you are, and that they are not supermen."
George Patton delivered "the Speech" in the British countryside, to the men of his Third Army, on June 5, 1944. Some of the soldiers watching were combat veterans. Most, like Holmlund, were brand new to the war. They found hope in Patton's words. They found a belief in their own courage. And most of all, each man sitting in that pasture under a glorious blue English sky found strength in the knowledge that he was being commanded by the most audacious, forthright, and brilliant general on either side of the war.
Until that day, Holmlund had never seen Patton in the flesh, and had only heard stories about the legendary general—the man who'd never lost a battle, hero of North Africa and Sicily, but who was temporarily relieved of his command for slapping two privates convalescing in a military hospital whom he considered cowardly.
Neither Holmlund nor any of the thousands of other soldiers seated in this pasture had any idea that their feelings for the general would come to vacillate between love and hate. In fact, Patton's nickname is "Old Blood and Guts," with the understanding that the guts of Patton rode on the blood of his soldiers.
"You are not all going to die," Patton reassured the men whom he would soon lead into combat. His voice was high instead of gruff, which came as a surprise to Holmlund. "Only two percent of you right here today will die in a major battle. Death must not be feared. Death, in time, comes to all men."
* * *
One half mile north of where Private Holmlund and the men of Company B are making their stand atop Fort Driant, death, as predicted, is coming to their fellow soldiers in Easy Company. The hope of Patton's speech is long forgotten.
Unlike their first attack on Driant six days ago, Company E made it through the barbwire this time. But the Germans turned that into a fatal accomplishment, for once inside Easy was pinned down with precision mortar fire. Going forward has become impossible. Even worse, enemy shells are exploding to their rear, meaning that retreating back through the wire is also out of the question. Easy Company tries to solve the problem by calling in an artillery strike on their position, but this "Danger Close" barrage does nothing to stop the dug-in German gunners. Instead, friendly fire kills one of their own in a most gruesome fashion: the soldier's head is sliced cleanly from his body by a piece of flying explosive.
Easy Company digs in. They have no choice. Two-foot-long portable shovels scrape troughs in the earth as German machine gunners continue to rake Easy's position. It is every man for himself.
The terror continues. The Germans of Kampfgruppe Petersen take aim with 8 cm Granatwerfer 34 mortar fire and MG-42 machine guns. The Americans are defenseless. Killing them is as easy as finding the target and patiently squeezing the trigger. The Germans are in no hurry. The Americans are going nowhere. One after another, the young men who comprise Easy Company are cut down in the prime of their life. The company medics race from foxhole to foxhole to tend the wounded. But soon, one after another, they die, too.
Hours pass. Rain drizzles down. The nightmare chatter of the Maschinengewehr accompanies the sounds of Company E digging their trenches deeper and deeper. Each man squats as low as possible, careful not to lift his head above ground level. Doing so would be an act of suicide. Easy's foxholes become filled with water, mud, blood, and each man's personal filth. Trench foot, from prolonged exposure to cold and wet, has become so common since the autumn rains arrived that it makes standing in yet another puddle a time of agony. But the men are beyond caring about the stench and squalor of their fighting holes.
All they want to do is stay alive.
* * *
"Americans despise cowards," Patton continued all those months ago, putting his own spin on U.S. history. "Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.
"All through your Army careers, you men have bitched about what you call 'chickenshit drilling.' That, like everything else in this Army, has a definite purpose. That purpose is alertness. Alertness must be bred into every soldier. I don't give a f-ck for a man who's not always on his toes. You men are veterans or you wouldn't be here. You are ready for what's to come. A man must be alert at all times if he expects to stay alive. If you're not alert, sometime, a German son-of-an-asshole-bitch is going to sneak up behind you and beat you to death with a sock full of shit!"
A handful of the senior officers listening to the speech disapproved of Patton's coarse language. Patton could not care less. He believes that profanity is the language of the soldier, and that to speak to soldiers one must use words that will have the most impact.
Few can deny that George Patton is entitled to this belief, nor that he is the consummate soldier. He is descended from a Civil War Confederate colonel, and has himself been in the military since graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1909. Soon after, he fought in Mexico against Pancho Villa. He then fought in the First World War at Saint-Mihiel, the legendary battlefield west of Metz where he walks now. Patton was the very first officer ever assigned to the U.S. Army tank corps, and is renowned for his tactical brilliance on the battlefield. He lives by the words of the great French general Napoléon, "L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace"—"Audacity, audacity, always audacity"—a motto that works well on the field of battle, but not so well in diplomatic situations. Patton has damaged his career again and again by saying and doing the sort of impulsive things that would see a lesser man relieved of his command for good.
"An Army is a team," he continues; "it lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don't know anything more about real fighting under fire than they know about f-cking!"
Patton was forced to pause, as he knew he would be. The waves of laughter rolling toward the stage were deafening.
Excerpted from Killing Patton by Bill O'Reilly, Martin Dugard. Copyright © 2014 Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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