A Man's Life: The Singing of Guns
by Hobert Winebrenner and Mike McCoy ’91
May 24, 2006
Excerpted from Bootprints: An Infantryman's Walk through World War II
The morning of June 8, 1944 found us off the coast of Utah Beach, prepared to enter France and World War II. Our transport vessel, the SS Bienville, treaded water while cruisers and destroyers hammered away at fortified German positions. A battleship next to us hurled 16-inch shells well beyond the coast; the wake from each broadside rocked us.
The initial landing forces had eliminated the beachfront cannons and machine-gun nests. Left with little else, the Germans lobbed large rounds from long range. Their shells continued to rain on the beach and water. Explosions of sand and sea surrounded us. It wasn’t D-Day, but it was enough to scare the hell out of green troops.
We poured over the side into the landing craft, nervous soldiers lumbering awkwardly down cargo nets. Those things always made you look like a lummox. We packed the landing craft tight and cruised for shore, a steady spray of water streaming over our heads. Scared and loaded down with gear, we chattered little and moved even less.
When we reached the shore, the door went down and we scrambled out into knee-deep water. We ran as fast as drenched clothes and oversized field packs would allow. With our path marked, we crossed the beach and ran across the causeways. Only blurred footprints remained in our sandy wake.
Before long we were in the midst of Normandy’s hedgerows. The tangled mess of trees and bushes served as natural fencing. They grew unimaginably thick and, at times, were almost impenetrable. Worst of all, they provided excellent cover for a waiting enemy.
That night, we dug in deep, two men to a foxhole. One napped while the other stood guard—not that anyone could sleep.
Things settled down. Platoon and section sergeants walked rounds to check on their guys. A short, stocky, and extremely likable sergeant from central Texas was doing just that when one of his men mistook him for a German, panicked, and pulled the trigger. The sergeant dropped. Medics worked on him for hours, but he didn’t survive. He was our first to die.
Tortured by his own regret, the young private also suffered. Within earshot of his foxhole, I listened to this broken man moan and cry all night.
The mistakes sometimes hurt the most. You couldn’t take them back. You couldn’t erase them. You couldn’t live with them, either. I know that a part of the shooter died that day. None of us slept.
The next day we crossed paths with American paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions—truly a different breed.
I remember seeing one paratrooper leaning back against the hedgerow. He manned a light machine gun. A spattering of spent shell casings surrounded him. Across his field of fire lay 10 to 20 rotting German corpses.
The paratrooper was also dead, his body riddled with bullet holes. Up to that point, my knowledge of war read like a blank chalkboard. This scene added scratches, scrawled notes. I started to fathom the true meaning of words like "courage" and "bravery." This warrior had fired until his last breath, fully aware of his fate. He knew he was a small piece of a larger picture. Seeing him, I understood that I was only one of many, with a cause greater than any of us.
Throughout the day, the Germans gave little. At dusk, we dug in. I had just finished making my home for the night when a runner brought orders. I was to follow him to our command post. I found Captain John Marsh in a foxhole covered with several raincoats. Under these drapes, he studied maps by the meager light of a small lantern.
"Sergeant Winebrenner, come in—I have a job for you," he said, pointing to the map. "Take a small patrol through these woods to Chef du Pont. There you should find a group of paratroopers. You need to make contact—let them know that we’ll be there in the morning.
"When you get close to that village, be very careful. After what these paratroopers have been through, they’ll be firing at just about anything."
I gathered my team and at 2 a.m. we set out for Chef du Pont under a moonless sky. Near the village, a stray artillery shell sent us digging for cover in a backyard garden. We clicked handheld metal crickets to signal to the paratroopers our friendly nature. We really had those babies singing!
We made contact at dawn. In a house at the village’s edge, we discussed the finer points of war with our newfound friends. One of these paratroopers had cut out the stock of his rifle and pasted in a picture of his girlfriend. In times of trouble, he rubbed his face on her photograph for good luck.
I was visiting paratroopers manning their foxholes along the bridge when I was shocked to see several German soldiers riding toward us on bicycles. We ducked down and sat in silence. They wheeled closer still. When they rode directly in front of us, two paratroopers with flamethrowers stood up and torched them.
I can still see the men burning, their tires spinning around on fire. I can still hear their screams.
The paratroopers went back about their business, seemingly unfazed. I was still na‘ve to the whole "war thing." But this was my wake-up call. It was going to get ugly, and I’d better prepare myself right now.
By mid-morning, our unit arrived, and we rejoined them. We crossed the Merderet River and continued west toward Picauville, farther inland, deeper into the war.
Crouched in a ditch between a lane and a hedgerow, I watched German artillery and mortar shells smash the open road.
We couldn’t stay there. Hunkering down felt so right, but it was dead wrong! Forward was our only alternative. I crept up the line. The horrible cries I heard along the way haunt me yet today. The terrified and dying alike, begging for mercy from God and mother. Most men moved out of my way, but one young private wouldn’t budge. I slapped him on the shoulder to let him know I was there and coming through, but still got no response. He shivered uncontrollably—his eyes empty and mind gone. With the air full of flying metal fragments, I began to crawl over his body. That’s when I noticed that his legs were gone, shredded by an enemy mortar shell. Just a boy, he waited for death as screams for "Medic" permeated the chaos.
Then enemy rounds released a colored smoke, fueling near panic along our lines. Gas masks had been discarded long ago. We had thought of them as an encumbrance—until that moment.
The word spread down our ranks like a lit fuse. Fragile psyches began to fold. Our line wavered. Then Colonel Thompson, the 358th Regimental Commander, stepped up. He used his carbine as a walking stick as he sauntered up and down the road, oblivious to the incoming rounds.
"Turn around and head back to your positions," he bellowed. "We must press on. We must fight!"
From the ditch down the lane, a courageous Californian stood up. A friend of mine, he never missed an opportunity to show me pictures of his family and girlfriend. Handsome, too, he grew loads of wavy red hair atop his head.
He worked the lines, pumped his fist, and rallied the troops.
Then a German mortar round landed at his feet. The blast blew him apart as bits of smoldering flesh littered the lane. I stared in shock, then whirled away.
I never got used to the rapid rate of war—the absolute immediacy of the killing. Men were gone in no more time than it took to flip a light switch from on to off.
Hate came naturally
Many of us privately pondered if we’d live to see the sunrise as night came east of Picauville. The Germans countered with artillery, mortars, and then men. Gun barrels smoked and flashed in the darkness, searing hot. I found a Browning automatic rifle and just kept firing at anything that came at us.
Although I’m not proud of it, killing came with the territory. They were trying to kill me. At that moment, the choice wasn’t difficult. You didn’t have time to contemplate the philosophies of war. You acted on instinct, identified targets, aimed, and fired.
I had grown to hate the German army. No longer some obscure, far-off presence, they’d touched me personally. In their quest to dominate the world, they’d killed and maimed buddies all around me. Under those circumstances, hate came quite naturally.
Unable to crack our defenses, the Germans backed off at sunrise. We rolled west toward Pont l’ Abbe. Once again, Captain Marsh rang my number. He ordered me to gather a recon squad to see what was left in town.
The town was small and appeared empty. With the exception of some shell-shocked prisoners we picked up on the town’s east side, we had yet to encounter a live German.
Across from the building we chose to set up in sat a large stone structure. The enormous crucifix in front, towering as tall as the rooftop, caught everyone’s eye.
With seemingly little cause for concern, I climbed the five or six steps to the cross. I tried to read the plaque at its base, but the inscription was in French. Another guy from my team wandered over and I trotted down to meet him. We spoke for a moment before he also ascended to the cross.
"Hey Sergeant," he turned to me and said after giving it a casual glance. "What does this say?"
As the words left his mouth, a single shot rang out. The round ripped through the back of his chest and out through the front. The bullet’s momentum pushed him into a tumble down the steps. His body came to rest at my feet.
Stunned, I grabbed him by the ankles and dragged his lifeless frame across the lane to our hangout. Once inside, I stood stiff, my mind in shock.
My squad had heard the blast and was already scanning the horizon. We located the enemy rifleman in a tree to the rear of the cross. We sent that Jerry marksman everything we had. The entire middle section of the tree, branches, leaves, and sniper, disintegrated in a hailstorm of steel.
It felt right to kill this man. But it didn’t bring back our friend.
At about 1 a.m. a runner approached with news from headquarters. The 9th Infantry Division was relieving us. We guided them into our bootprints, then filtered back through the lines to a staging area at the rear. From there, we were trucked 10 miles north and unloaded outside of Gourbesville.
A sinking feeling consumed me that morning. My gut told me that I’d be dead by sundown. I believed in God, but never put much stock into seeing or feeling the future. A little embarrassed, I tried to keep the thoughts to myself.
I was speaking with Sergeant Dean Warren when the enemy rain began to fall. Although out of my foxhole, I was lying in a prone position when a shell exploded overhead. The same red-hot shrapnel hit both of us, and I rolled on my back to see Dean’s shirt soaked with blood. I screamed, "Medic, help!" over and over again, and one arrived in short order. He patched Dean up, then turned to me.
"We’d better get you bandaged up," he said. "You’re losing a lot of blood."
As my brain registered the injuries, my body began to feel the pain. A large piece of metal had entered my left leg and cut to the bone. Another sliced particularly deep near the base of my spine.
Once bandaged, I struggled to my feet.
"You better hang here for a litter team," my medic advised. Then he packed his bag and raced to answer one of the many remaining calls for help. There were no litter carriers around, so I set out to find our aid station on my own, throwing down my weapon, an M1, as I left.
Today, when asked to describe Normandy in one phrase, I say, "Violent mass confusion." Lines lay disconnected and flanks wide open. Opposing pockets waged tiny wars all over the battlefield, all over the peninsula. No one, anywhere, was truly safe.
I soon happened on a row of fallen Americans, their corpses laying head to toe. I suddenly thought better of my decision to travel without my M1. I picked up one of their rifles.
I labored to maintain bearings and balance. Directly across from me was a tiny barn with a huge tree in back. While I climbed over a locked gate to reach it, a wide-shouldered GI popped out of the ditch. Soon a wounded corporal and private joined us. We gathered in a "V" formation and headed to our right. The road took a sharp turn to the left about a mile down, and, as we approached, the air popped with machine-gun fire.
The bullets ripped through our two men in the lead. I saw their shirts puff out and then tear as the shells exited their backs. Intense fire kept them standing for seconds. When they finally fell, both were dead.
I scrambled into the ditch. The private raced back down the middle of the lane. He didn’t draw any fire! I was shocked. Maybe their guns had jammed.
I rose to my feet and hobbled after him. Once more, the guns didn’t fire. To this day, I don’t know why.
By the time I reached the gate, I was exhausted. My saturated bandages no longer stemmed the flow of blood. My pants were soaked, and my left boot filled. I limped around the back of the barn and sat with my back against the big tree. Between gasps for air, I tried to collect myself. How I wished I’d waited on those litter carriers!
I began to hear German voices in the distance, steadily increasing in volume. They were searching for me. I crouched low in the thigh-high grass and tried to hide. But they closed in.
I quietly removed the clip from the carbine I’d taken off the dead American. Down to my last chance, I retrieved the oiler from the stock. I wanted to make sure that thing worked. But the oiler was empty.
I quietly shucked the shells from the clip, one by one. Only five remained. I grasped each separately between my fingers and rubbed my hand through my greasy hair. After several days of sweating profusely, it held natural lubricant to spare. I returned four shells to the clip and put one in the chamber.
The enemy squad beat the bushes along the lane. I raised my carbine, took aim and sighted in the first. Then I felt a strange sensation, like being watched. I turned toward the barn. Not more than 10 feet away, a German sergeant leveled his weapon at my head.
I carefully laid my rifle on the ground in front of me and put my hands on top of my head. He calmly walked over, kicked my gun away, and called to his crew. They all seemed younger, and less in control. One fresh face, surely no older than a teenager, wanted to kill me outright. He slapped my face, then booted me hard several times in the chest and stomach. I doubled over and sucked for air. Fortunately, the sergeant stepped in and pushed the teenager aside.
Others approached with my former companion, the wounded private. Whether they had shot or beat him within an inch of his life, I don’t know. But he was near death.
Before we moved out, the teenaged enemy soldier clubbed me in my right eye socket with the butt of his rifle. The blow turned me out like a light. Of all my wartime injuries, this wound gives me the most trouble today.
I awoke some time later in the middle of a field, the private sprawled out beside me. Our captors fought from a nearby hedgerow. They were battling for their lives, and we had become the last thing on their minds.
My companion died by my side in the middle of that anonymous field in Normandy. Able to do little else, I closed his eyes. I never learned his name.
I drifted in and out of consciousness. In one of my more lucid moments, I recognized the song of our 81 mm mortars. As evening approached, I realized this might be my last chance for escape. The grass stood tall, maybe a couple of feet high. I used it and the impending darkness for cover. I began to crawl toward the familiar sounds of our launching tubes.
I came to a hedgerow and poured myself through. I dropped several feet into a deep, sunken side ditch and once more lost consciousness—out cold, but free.
Among the dead
An explosion woke me from my stupor. A medical team from one of our sister regiments had driven their jeep down the lane, past my position, and hit a land mine. The driver and a captain in front lay dead. The two medics riding in the rear survived and were helping each other back to their aid station.
Moonlight and a nearby house fire illuminated the scene. I rested in a ditch full of dead Germans and American GIs. Several corpses, cold and stiff, nudged my frame. Rigid arms draped over me with dead eyes wide open. I panicked, flailed about like a drowning child, and screamed, "Help! Help me!"
The two aidmen made their way through the corpses and pulled me out, sandwiching me between them. Each supported one of my arms, three wounded men limping along in the darkness.
It seemed like we stumbled on forever, but they knew the way. We finally arrived at an old farmhouse. It was their aid station. Blankets covered the doors and windows to black out the glow from the coal-oil lanterns inside. Busy arms grabbed me just before I hit the floor.
What felt like a lifetime in Normandy had only been a few days. During my first week of war, I had slept and eaten little, if any. I experienced enough carnage to last an eternity. Friends had died unimaginable deaths before my eyes. I had taken human life, while being spared my own.
A German sergeant, in protecting me from his own men and allowing me to live, had saved my life. I didn’t know his name, but I would never forget his actions.
Most of the men in my outfit left the battlefield within one or two days, either by stretcher or body bag. In eight days, the 358th Regiment suffered 200 men killed and 806 wounded, almost a third of our Utah Beach landing force.
In Normandy’s hedgerows, it wasn’t a question of if you’d get hit, but rather when, and if you’d survive. I was one of the fortunate ones; I lived to fight another day.
Photo: Hobert Winebrenner (pictured circa 1944)
Hobert Winebrenner lives in Merriam, Indiana and retired in the 1980s from work as a welder and maintenance man at General Electric. He and his wife, Marian, have two sons and a daughter. Mike McCoy is a freelance writer working in Indiana. For more information or to purchase Bootprints, contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org