Saturday, July 25, 2020

Into the Moonscape

US Army Signal Corps Photo

The men were waiting, it was the Army, you always arrived early, no matter what time you had to be there. The tanks were supposed to meet them at 0400, so of course the new Platoon Sergeant had them all ready to go at 0300. It was still dark but Sgt Brandt imagined that the eastern horizon might be getting a bit paler. As he recalled, sunrise would be shortly after 0500. The squad was well off the road, no fires, the moon had set before midnight, and they were sitting in the dark, huddled together.

"Hey Sarge," one of the men whispered, Sgt Brandt was pretty sure it was Ollie.

"What is it Ollie?"

"Yeah, that Springfield we got a hold of, you know, the one with the grenade attachment and the scope?"

"What about it?"

"I was talking to a guy, to use the scope I have to take off the iron sights, which means I can't use the grenade launcher. The front sight kinda helps hold that on."

"No kidding?"

"Yeah, no kidding. I kept the scope in my pack, maybe we could use it in trade for something. Is that okay, or would you rather have a sniper than a grenadier?"

Brandt thought about it for a few seconds, "Right now the grenade launcher. Once we get out of these hedgerows I might change my mind. Anyways, TO&E says we're supposed to have a grenadier, not a sniper."


So I'm listening in, trying to learn as much as I can before we go into battle. I wonder what the heck Sarge is talking about, t o n e? What is that? Has it got something to do with music. I gotta ask, even if it makes me look stupid.

"Sarge, what do you mean by a 't, o, n, e'?"

The other guys laughed until Sarge told the guy they call Cajun to explain it to me. He couldn't, seems I'm not the only one in the squad who doesn't know what that means. I don't feel so bad now.

"Alright Gammell, a 'T. O. and E.' is a table of organization and equipment, you get it?"

I answered, "Okay, that makes sense, what's it for?"

Sergeant Brandt went on to explain that everything the Army does is written down somewhere. The Army even tells you how many t-shirts, pairs of skivvies, and pairs of socks you're supposed to have. So it makes sense that they'd also have written down everything from what a squad's supposed to have up to what a division is supposed to have.

"Of course, Gammell, it doesn't always work out that way. We've got two B.A.R.s, TO&E says we're supposed to have one. Sgt McGillvery over in 3rd platoon carries a Thompson, TO&E says he should have a Garand, like I've got. Sometimes you gotta scrounge to get what you need."

I had to ask, "So Sarge, do you want a Thompson?"

"Not really, it's a close in weapon, it would be good in these damned hedgerows, but my rifle has kept me alive this far, so I'll stick with it."

At that point I could hear vehicles coming down the road, sounded like tanks. I gotta admit, I was ready to wet myself, what if they were Kraut tanks? I had no idea at the time that they sounded different from ours. I would learn.

"Alright guys, sounds like our ride is here. Line up but stay off the road. Jack, you and your section take the second tank, we'll hop on the first."

"Got it."

I couldn't understand just why my legs were shaking, then it hit me, I was scared, real scared.

National Archives

Sgt Brandt looked to the east, the horizon was starting to lighten, not enough that he could see his watch, but light enough that he could make out the dark shapes of a platoon of Shermans coming down the road. Their taped over headlamps gave the tankers just enough light to see. Still and all, Brandt stood well off the side of the road when he turned on his flashlight, red lens in place, and waved down the lead tank.

The big beast rumbled to a stop and the tank commander leaned over the side of the turret and shouted, "You guys 2nd Platoon?"

"Yup, 1st Squad, you guys our ride?"

"Yup, climb aboard, make sure you guys come up the front of the tank, not the sides, not the back. I had a staff officer try climbing up the side last week, tank rolled a bit, he got his foot between the track and the roller. They sent him home, with one less foot than he came over with!"

Brandt turned to his squad and yelled out, "Climb up the front, Jack, you guys take the second tank, we've got this one. Okay with you buddy?" He shouted up to the tanker.

"Sounds good, let's get moving, it'll be sunrise soon."

As Brandt watched his guys climb up, he couldn't help but notice there was extra steel welded onto the front of the tank, down low. When he got up next to the tanker, he asked him, "What the Hell is that on the front of your tank?"

"Heh, you'll see, we can rip right through a hedgerow with that thing, some guy in 2nd Armored had the idea. We used cut up bits of German beach obstacles to make 'em. They work pretty damned good too. You'll see."

Checking to see that the infantry were well aboard, the tanker ordered his platoon forward.

Man, I think I'm going to throw up. I'm scared, I'm hungry, and I have no idea what's going on, and here we are rolling down a narrow road in France riding on the back of a tank. What happens if I fall off?

Damn it, I should have waited until I was 18 to join up, I shoulda let them draft me.

What am I doing here?

As the day grew brighter, the men noticed that the countryside was badly torn up. Here and there were ruined farm buildings with the occasional wrecked German vehicle. A lot of dead tanks and dead Krauts. To Sgt Brandt and a number of others, it looked as desolate as the surface of the moon.

As the column rumbled past one farmhouse which was near the road, Sgt Brandt saw two French men and one woman digging through the rubble of what may have been their home. The look of sheer hatred they gave him was startling, so far since they had landed the French had been friendly and welcoming.

I guess if they had bombed the heck out of my home, I'd be angry at those that did it too, Sgt Brandt thought. But still, the Germans weren't just going to leave, were they?


He was a year younger than Gammell, he wouldn't turn 17 until August. He had been forced into the Waffen SS that very spring from his home in Romania. His grandparents had emigrated to Romania from Germany before the First World War. His grandfather had been in the Romanian Army in that war. He had fought the Germans in that war.

When war had come again, his country joined the Axis powers. As things started to go bad for the Axis, recruiting parties had started sweeping through the ethnic German communities along the Donau¹ River "recruiting" men into the SS. German draftees were sent to the Wehrmacht, the SS weren't supposed to touch them, but they could accept volunteers. As that supply began to run low, especially for the newer SS units, the Volksdeutsche² were coerced into joining.

He didn't mind, he was bored and didn't want to go into the Romanian Army, they were poorly led and poorly equipped. They had suffered badly in Russia. Romania was wavering in its commitment to Hitler and the Nazis. But he figured he'd be better off with the Germans.

He spoke German with an odd accent, but in the 17th Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Götz von Berlichingen" that was hardly noticed as a great many of the men in the newly formed division were also Romanian Volksdeutsch. He fit right in.

Now SS-Schütze Andrei Hartenstein was all alone. He had been the assistant gunner for the MG 42 in his squad, but the bombing raids of the morning had killed the gunner, most of his squad, and had knocked him out cold.

He had awakened when he heard the rumble of tanks coming down the road to his left front. He wanted to run but it was too late. He pried the machine gun from the dead hands of his friend Florin Demetrescu and set it on its bipod. He made sure the drum magazine was properly seated, then pulled back the bolt to load it. Then he waited.

"Okay, hold up. You see those ruins ahead Brandt?" the tanker sergeant was getting a bit nervous as they approached what had been a crossroads village. Now it was torn up fields and ruined buildings, many of them still burning.

"Got it. 1st Squad, dismount and spread out. Jack, base of fire. My guys, on me."

As he was barking those orders, the men dismounted from the tanks. Cpl Wilson had his section on line along an embankment facing the crossroads. Sgt Brandt was getting his guys into skirmish order when a single round snapped overhead. Someone was firing at them!

"Billy, put a round into that wrecked shed. I think that's where the shot came from, the guy is either the crappiest sniper ever, or he's really stupid!"

The turret turned slightly, them the cannon barked, sending a high explosive round right where the tank commander wanted it.

SS-Schütze Andrei Hartenstein was neither a sniper, nor stupid. He was, however, extremely unlucky. His gun had jammed after he had fired a single round. The drum magazine had some dirt in it and that had caused the second round to not feed.

As Hartenstein had frantically worked the bolt of his jammed MG 42, his frantic movements had been seen by the lead American Sherman. The single round it had fired had exploded against the wall directly behind Hartenstein. The blast from the explosion killed him instantly, the fragments from the round tore his body up terribly.

His body would be dumped in a mass grave and there he would lie until 1957 when the men in that grave were disinterred, then reburied in the Marigny German War Cemetery. There he would lie as an "Unbekannter Soldat," an unknown soldier, for all of eternity. All his family knew was that he had been killed in France, the circumstances unknown.

We checked out the building that the tank had fired at. Sure enough, there was a busted up machine gun and what I thought was a pile of bloody rags next to it. The nearby helmet should have tipped me off that it was more than rags.

Sgt Brandt asked me, "First dead Kraut you've seen up close kid?"

That's when I realized that moments before, the "pile of bloody rags" had been a living, breathing human being.

I turned around and began to vomit, it was more than I could take.

"Geez, first dead guy he's seen up close and he's heaving breakfast all over France." Cajun muttered.

"Least he ain't wet his pants yet, Cajun. More'n I can say for you." Red Thomas, Brandt's B.A.R. man, whispered that to Cajun. The kid could be a bit brash at times. Red well remembered the first time they'd come under Kraut mortar fire, Pvt Andre Tremblay, aka Cajun, had indeed pissed himself. A lot of guys did the first time they came under fire.

All men react differently in the presence of violent death. Sadly, it didn't take long to become inured to it. Cajun and Red had seen plenty of dead people, Americans, Germans, French, they'd even come across a downed Spitfire a few weeks back, pilot still inside. They'd just moved on, nothing to see.

In years to come, those dead would haunt their dreams. But they were young, they had much to learn.

Marigny German War Cemetery

¹ The Donau is the German name for the Danube.
² Volksdeutsche, people of German ancestry but not citizens of the Greater German Reich


  1. I count myself very fortunate that my military service, work in heavy industry, and life in general didn't ever bring me up close and personal to violent death. Fingers crossed that my experience stays that way.

  2. I was fortunate to in my army service. Germany in the early 70s.

    Great job you’re doing Sarge

  3. Hey AFSarge;

    I see pictures of my self and others back then and I think..."Man we were Kids" and the people that fought were kids, but I guess that is the nature of it.

    1. It's always the young who have to fight and die to satisfy the egos of old politicians.

  4. Your story reminded me. When I was in the reserves, our Bn CSM retired and moved out of state. Looking to lighten the load, he gave me some books, and an M7 grenade launcher--

    Also found this link--

  5. I was 16 when I watched a man burn to death in a race car, with an empty fire bottle in my hand.

  6. The advantage of Navy service is stand-off weaponry, but sailors aren’t entirely protected from the reality of casualties.
    Tin cans get to do a lot of clean up after aircraft mishaps.

    1. My son had some personal experience in that regard, S-2 Viking went down in the Caribbean. Son's ship found what was left.

  7. One wonders, what leads a single man, surrounded by his dead squad-mates, to keep fighting. It's not like the whole squad engaged and he was the last survivor, but to wake up surrounded by the dead, yet to keep going.

    We humans are very strange, very strange indeed. Great and Fell.

    Very sobering story today.

    That moonscape? After the analysis of Tarawa, Bloody Tarawa, was what the US Navy and US Army and US Marines did to every island in the central Pacific. Smash the small semi-uninhabited islands around the main target and land, setting up huge artillery depots of 155mm and larger guns. Then just bomb and gun the island, from air and sea and land, starting at one end and working to the other end, smashing everything. Stop when the planes come and resupply and clean out the empties. Start again. Do it for a day or two and then send in the troops. Yet still meet stiff opposition. (But not as stiff as Tarawa, Bloody Tarawa. Never again another Tarawa, beaches and shallow water full of bodies, the water turned red or dark green from blood...)

    1. Humans can be very hard to kill. Especially if they can find a hole to crawl into until the bombardment is over.

    2. I remember reading about an army moving up into Germany. If they took any rounds, they would call in artillery, then attempt the maneuver again. If they took fire again, they would fire for effect. I don't remember who that was, tho.

      In regards to the M7, I have the sight that screws to the left side of the garand in it's web pouch around here somewhere. Also, did you know that the Yugoslavian SKS has the US style grenade launcher permanently affixed to the muzzle? I saw one of those back in the day..... Lots of lessons learned by everyone that was in that mess.

    3. Yesterday's and today's installments are excellent, Sarge. No one truly knows what their reaction will be when seeing a dead body for the first time, especially one that is barely recognizable, or that has been terribly wrecked by whatever killed them. You mention that combat veterans get inured to seeing horrible things, a defense mechanism and a way to prioritize worrying about survival and not dwelling on what you can't do anything about.
      Oh yeah, nice way to write around the sniper/grenadier conundrum!

    4. STxAR - Had to have been Americans, Russians were also lavish with artillery.

    5. Tom - I had to fix that error, I figured a newcomer to the Army would be as ignorant as I about such things!

  8. (Don McCollor)...The US Army could lay down awesome artillery concentrations. I believe the US Army adopted the doctrine of TOT (on Time, On Target) in the 1930s. All artillery in range would concentrate on a single target, with the firing timed so all the shells arrived at once. When the target was destroyed, they would switch to the next one...

  9. Like Gammell, I've had the "why are my legs shaking" experience. It's a somewhat reassuring and maybe even warmish memory from my present perspective. At the time it kind of sucked.

    I like that kid.

  10. It does, and you have. In these passages, you have written a lot about the psychological aspects of warfare, from the initial gut wrenching fear, to the horror at first seeing mangled flesh that used to be humanity, to the numbness that comes after repeated exposure and just plain physical and emotional exhaustion. Yeah, it's a really accurate depiction you be giving here, Sarge.


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