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Promise Made, Promise Kept
By Fielding D. Tucker
Saint-Leonard, a name that has continually come to mind over the last five decades, is the name of a quaint little village situated in the foothills of the Vosges of Southern France.
It was not long after our encounter in this village when I made myself a promise not to be forgotten... a promise that I would keep in the many years to follow. The incident bringing about this promise I have lived with since that day, Nov. 20, 1944. It was a promise made out of both fear and anger, that some day if it be God's will, I will return.
Much has happened since the day of that incident, now 50 years ago. A marriage, a job that barely produced enough food and clothing and housing for a family of 10 with every day worries of raising such a large family. Still in the back of my mind, Saint-Leonard locked away did survive over the years.
God gave me the means to keep that promise 47 years later. On Nov. 20, 1991, I found myself once again walking those same grounds. I returned to Saint-Leonard, finding it a taste of the "bitter" and the "sweet." Not only was I so fortunate to return in 1991, but again on Nov. 20, 1994. My prayerful wish was answered twofold.
It was at Saint-Leonard during the early morning hours of Nov. 20, 1944, where we became engaged in a firefight with the Germans. Our patrol had been sent to the area to check German strength across the Meurthe River. Two close friends, Archie Taylor and Charley Holm, lost their lives as a result of this patrol on that very cold November morning. Seven of our group were wounded.
Charley Holm was the cheerful type of fellow and a good squad leader, highly interested in German weapons and their radios. He would often be seen tinkering around with one of his captured prizes.
Charley was a souvenir seeker at heart. I think his fancy for radios was a carryover from having lived with an uncle who operated a radio shop. Holm once told us that he was raised by an uncle, that his family had never seen him in uniform.
Archie Taylor, Daniel Tubb, Andrew Tessa, Tadlock and myself completed basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. We remained together throughout the Itlian campaign, except Tadlock, who was wounded at Valletri. Tessa died while on patrol in the Vosges. Tubb was captured in the Ribeauville area.
Taylor, being the Mississippi farm boy that he was, often kept us entertained by talking about his life on the farm, about his girlfriend he had to leave behind. Taylor's occupation delayed his induction into service for a year or so. He finally had to leave the farm and take up arms. Taylor was truly an attention getter and well liked by his fellow comrades.
Most of the details prior to the beginning of the patrol are somewhat hazy after such a long time, but what happened on and during this patrol, I remember well.
The 36th Infantry Division had been committed in the lines for nearly four months before being relieved a day or so before being sent out on this patrol. We were in the Saint-Leonard area, having taken over the positions of the 103rd Division in the mountains. Our entire patrol consisted of Third Platoon members. There were times when someone would volunteer hoping to pick up a souvenir or two. It is my belief that either Charley or Archie had volunteered for this mission. Hardly would two squad leaders from the same platoon be sent on the same patrol. Holm was the first squad leader. Taylor was our third squad leader with me being assistant at the time.
There were 12 on the patrol including the radio operator who carried the backpack type SCR-300 radio. Charley Hom was in the lead of our group with Taylor following directly behind him, I brought up the rear following the radio operator. Our mission was to cross the Muerthe at Leonard and seek the strength of the enemy and bring back prisoners if possible.
Having been in the lines for so long without relief most were weary and without sleep. I don't think any of us sensed the danger that lay ahead. Things had been relatively quiet for some time now. We were anxious to get it over with, to get back in time for a breather before moving out again.
Trying to remember the exact route that we followed before crossing the Muerthe that morning would be impossible. But I still recall how the terrain looked, remembering the railroad tracks and especially the building with the tall brick chimney. The most memorable site would be the railroad yard just beyond the Muerthe River where we crossed over on large chunks of concrete, the remains of the village bridge.
November 20, 1944 was a very cold morning with snow. We traveled light with our standard gear, weapons, ammunition and canteens. After drawing ammunition and filling our canteens we stood around on a path leading down to the edge of the forest waiting for orders to move out. I remember looking up into the tree branches that were weighted down with ice and bending, almost touching the ground. Taylor was doing his act in keeping us entertained as we moved about trying to keep warm. He was doing his down on the farm billy goat act, even butting a comrade or two who tried to wave him off. Taylor was our morale booster, especially at times like this.
We began moving out following the winding path down the mountain. Like other patrols that I had beena part of this was more like a group of friends walking down a street. Most were talking, laughing, smoking and carrying on. We didn't seem to keep the standard distance between one another, we walked in groups of two and threes. Remaining within the tree line, we began following a railroad track before coming to a garage type looking building. Remaining here only a short time, we then continued on later exiting from the cover of the trees into the open. We crossed over a meadow near the edge of the village, coming to a small canal with a narrow iron foot bridge. In most villages there would be civilians out and about but this one seemed deserted. Many of the buildings had been set afire by the Germans.
We approached the Muerthe in the vicinity of a building with a tall and round chimney where we found the water too deep to cross. We began following the bank looking for shallow water. What looked to be the main street and where a bridge had been blown was our crossing point. There were large pieces of concrete in the shallow water. The distance between some chunks was more than others making it difficult to span without stepping off into the water.
Chester Taylor (no kin to Archie) carried the BAR at the time. Keeping his balance on the rocks was difficult. It was no surprise to us to see Holm shoulder the weapon and carry it over to the other bank.
Holm had made it across and up the bank. We were still below searching for a way up, when I noticed him standing above and looking down at us with a silly grin on his face. He had just finished taking a drink of water and was holding his canteen. The water from the Muerthe was dripping from his boots. It was freezing, but he showed no signs of being cold.
Not long after the crossing of the Meurthe, we approached a railroad yard coming to a factory of some sort or maybe a machine shop with many windows. It had been gutted by fire, the windows were shattered. A large crane spanned these tracks. I seem to remember this section of tracks more than the others, maybe because of the large crane and walking in the deep bed of cinder rocks between the rails.
It was here where we crossed over the tracks and out into an open field moving parallel with the village and in the direction of the hills. As we progressed, we began following a border line made up of small saplings and dense brush that divided the fields. This provided us with no cover at all. A very narrow and shallow ditch zigzagged through the field that looked to be a drainage ditch.
We were close to the ditch when the Germans began firing on us with rifles and machine guns pinning us to the ground with nowhere to go. Taylor was the first hit while walking beside Holm. I am not sure that the radio operator was one of the wounded, but the radio was on the ground a short distance from where I lay. I feel the Germans had been following our every step as we crossed the field waiting for just the right moment.
Charley was kneeling at Taylor's side and using his sweater he always carried looped over his pistol belt. He too was hit and fell beside Taylor. Most were pinned down and not able to move. The Germans kept firing with no letup. Our return fire had little effect on the non-visible target on the hillside. Bullets sounded like a whip popping close to your ear. Some had used their limited amount of ammunition and were holding empty weapons.
Someone talking over the abandoned radio could be heard, it was the artillery observer trying to get our attention. He was telling us to withdraw. I reached for the receiver and asked for smoke to conceal us from the Germans. I repeated my request over and over only to hear the observer keep repeating his message. I could hear him, but he could not hear me talking. The observer's O.P. was probably on the ground to our rear looking down into the valley where we were. In the confusion, I didn't see the butterfyl switch on the receiver that had to be turned. Correcting this I repeated my request, hoping to get through, then there was a reply. I repeated again a request for smoke and H.E. for the Germans.
The first round of smoke landed far beyond us, my range was off. About the fourth try a round of smoke landed between us and the foot of the hill. My reuqest for the H.E. was into the hillside. I was asked if we needed medics and my reply was yes.
We reached Taylor and Holm under cover of the smoke. Taylor was still conscious and bleeding badly from a wound in his chest. He was also struck in the thumb of his right hand. Most of us were carrying weapons at "port arms" and I would guess a single round passed through Taylor's thumb and into his chest. Holm lay dead nearby. A bullet had entered his helmet where the chin strap is attached, passing through his temple.
It wasn't long before a medic reached our position and we laid Taylor on the stretcher. Others wounded, but not seriously were able to make it back on their own. We had no choice but to leave Charley where he fell. Taylor was in a lot of pain, the medics cautioned us several times to stay in step so as not to jolt the stretcher. I could not help but noticed his thumb, there was no blood coming from the wound. Maybe because of the severe cold it jelled. We made the return to our lines without further incident. It seemed a much longer struggle back.
The same morning, Daniel Tubb and his squad attempted to recover the body of Holm, but were turned back by the Germans before reaching the point. I am not sure about these being of the same group that fired on us.
On the 23rd word came that Taylor had died of his wounds. For those of us who had been together for so long it would be a dark day. There were only a few remaining of us now who had begun a lasting friendship at the beginning of our days of training in the red clay hills at Fort McClellan. Seeing Holm laying in the field and now with Taylor gone this would leave a big void. Tubb, Taylor and I had been together for a long time.
The Army did everything by alphabetical order. I think that we were the oldest T's in the company. Tubb and his squad would become prisoners of the dreaded SS in the Ribeauville area where they were in the path of the Germans' last big push.
During my return to Saint-Leonard on Nov. 20, 1991, I stood near the site where we crossed the Muerthe where a new bridge spans the water. Some pieces of concrete from the blown bridge could still be seen below. I tried hard to visualize Holm standing on that bank as he looked down at us with that silly grin on his face, holding his canteen with water seeping from boots.
Then again on November 21, 1994, for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Saint-Leonard, I was blessed with my second return to this quaint little village. Once more to stand at the river, to walk the railroad tracks and go back into the field where our patrol encountered the Germans that very cold November morning in 1944. As I walked those same grounds that day, I wanted to image Holm and Taylor were just up ahead...
Although Charley Holm was officially listed as Missing in Action, with the help of my daughter-in-law, Marie, I managed to locate his grave at Saint-Avould, France. Charley was buried where he fell by the people of Saint-Leonard. It was not until 1947, when he was removed from his grave and carried to the beautiful Saint-Avould American Military Cemetery.
The records at the cemetery state that among his numerous citations including two Purple Hearts, Holm was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest decoration for his courage at Saint-Leonard.