It was late August 1944, and Patton’s Armored Divisions were in a mad dash to the Seine River, trying to catch the rapidly retreating Germans before they could escape. I was flying in a flight of four Thunderbolts patrolling the Seine to do everything we could to prevent their crossing.
Up to this time most of the Germans had been crossing at night to escape our attacks, but on this particular day – with Patton’s tanks rapidly approaching them – the Germans were forced into trying to cross during the daytime. It was late afternoon near the town of les Andelys when we suddenly spotted them. What happened during the next 10 minutes will stay fixed in my memory as long as I live.
The German troops were crowded on barges, in small boats, just anything that would float. We caught the barges in midstream, and the killing began. I was the third plane in the attack, and when I pulled in on the target a terrible sight met my eyes. Men were desperately trying to get off the barges into the water, where large numbers of men were already fighting to make it to shore. My eight .50 caliber machine guns fired a hundred rounds a second into this hell. As the last P-47 pulled off the target, the first plane was making its second strafing pass, and the deadly process continued. In about three passes we had used up our ammunition, so we pulled up and circled this cauldron of death.
I don’t know how many men we killed that day, but the numbers had to be very high. All of the pilots were quiet as we flew back to our base in Normandy – there was no radio chatter. We each shared the agony of what we had just done. We were traumatized, but there had been no other option. If we had let them go, we knew that they would be killing American boys in a couple of days.
In my nightmares I still vividly picture that scene. After more than 50 years, it still haunts me. I deal with it, but think for a moment what it must be like to have to deal with it.
There is no glamour in war. You kill people – and you see your friends die. The only honor involved is what you yourself bring to the process. You try to do the job you know you must do – and you try desperately to keep your sanity. But you are forever changed. You are no longer young; in a matter of months you have aged years. Though you have physically survived, you have lost more than life itself; you have lost part of your soul.