What I did in World War II: chapter 5
By Neilson Rogers
Jul 6, 2021
Print this page
Email this article

During the First Army’s buildup of equipment and men on the Cherbourg Peninsula I had too much time on my hands. Our doctors were busy treating a constant flow of causalities. On a rare occasion or two, I assisted in providing anesthesia before and during surgery under the strict directions of the surgeon. As I mentioned, our surgeons were having some difficulty finding small iron fragments embedded in a soldier’s body. The fragment needed to be removed and the surgeon did not want to increase the size of the wound any more than necessary.

I remember taking a pair of surgical scissors to our motor pool, wrapping a coil of wire around their tip, connecting the ends of the wire to a truck battery and magnetizing the tips of the scissors. This may have helped some of our surgeons locate fragments, because this allowed the surgeon to feel an iron particle that he could not see.

Utah and Omaha beaches joined at a narrow place at the base of the Cherbourg Peninsula where a small creek flowed into the English Channel. There had been considerable fighting there, for the Germans had resisted at the connection. A German battery of 88s had this spot within range and occasionally lobbed artillery shells into it. Foolishly, I decided to go on a sightseeing visit to Omaha Beach. On our return, as my driver and I were crossing the small creek, the German battery of 88s fired. The roof of a building about 100 yards in front of us was blown off, and another shell exploded in a deep ditch, which was close to and in front of us. We were not hurt and got out of there as quickly as possible. Our battalion commander must not have known of this foolish visit, for he never mentioned it to me and might not have approved.

The 91st MGTB, as a part of the First Army, would engage in the campaigns of Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Netherlands and Central Europe. It would make successive moves, following the front lines, for the better part of a year. After establishing its assault upon the continent of Europe, First Army would be involved in four major battles that contributed to victory in World War II. They were the Beachheads, The Breakout, The Falaise Gap and The Bulge.

The movement of the enormous amount of tanks, trucks, artillery, ammunition, gasoline, food and troops from southern England to the beachheads of France was necessary before a breakout could occur. Napoleon’s famous statement that an army moves on it stomach was not true in this war. Our army moved on gasoline, ammunition and air cover. Their supply would limit our advance before and after the battle of France was won.

As a low ranking operations officer, I had only rumored suspicions of the grand plan and learned of our strategy only after the fact. As the buildup continued, the ordinary solder worried about the delay. Although we had advanced beyond our landing zones, the advance had been slow and we felt pinned down in a small area. The soldiers generally believed that the British had stalled and failed to properly advance into Caen, and I suspect the British soldier griped because the American army had not captured St. Lo.

Now for the first time I felt that I was making a contribution to our war effort and it was extremely exciting. As our battalion’s operation officer, regularly my jeep would make its way to Army Headquarters where a medical officer maintained communication with the medical units of First Army. He became a good friend who supplied me with the details of our military operation: the location of units, the front and an inkling of future plans. Upon returning to battalion headquarters, our commanding officer would assemble his staff and I would present my report. Of course, our battalion commander would visit army headquarters, but I was a source of information for him.

We were excited when on July 25, 1500 British bombers saturated a five-mile blanket of French soil, west of St. Lo, with sixty thousand 100-pound bombs.  Friendly fire from some of those bombs caused some of the wounded soldiers in our hospitals, but the bombing had devastated the German positions. First Army and Third Army poured across this blanket and spread their units into the heart of France. The battle’s code name was COBRA and the soldiers called it THE BREAKOUT.

For more than eight weeks we had anxiously waited, during the assault of the beaches of France and while our forces had clung to a small area of French soil as it was being contained and attacked by enlarging German army units, causing doubts among the Allied Troops. Why couldn’t the British capture Caen? Why couldn’t the Americans take St. Lo? We had learned that the German tank was superior to ours. The enemy had the Buzz Bomb, the V 2 Rocket--terror weapons which we did not have. What other secret weapons would we be faced with?

 Suddenly, everything changed. An army that had appeared to be stalled was thrown into high gear and advanced beyond our expectations. No longer was there time to worry. We were busy and engaged to the limits of our strength. Casualties were heavy. Everything was fluid and moving forward. Everyone knew time was of the essence. We must move quickly before the enemy could regroup and create a defensive position.

 Immediately the companies of the 91st MGTB had to be relocated with First Army’s advancing corps, requiring constant communication with First Army’s Headquarters. I will never forget the day the headquarters of the 91st MGTB, loaded in jeeps and trucks, drove through St. Lo. The town had been reduced to dust, mostly powdered brick and stone. The road we followed had been created when bulldozers pushed the debris to the side. Humans could not have survived the assault on the town.

First Army advanced toward Paris, containing the German defensive line on its left flank while a Third Army Corps preceded it into Argentan. At the same time British troops pushed forward past Caen and into Falaise. This partially encircled the German Army in a pocket with only a narrow area that could be used if it had to retreat. The left shoulder of the pocket was maintained by the British at Argentan and the right shoulder by the Americans at Falaise. Retreat it did and as the pocket collapsed, the effectiveness of the German army in France was destroyed. The American soldiers called this the battle of Falaise Gap.

 While all this maneuvering was taking place the companies of the 91st MGTB, a part of the United States First army, was establishing its field hospitals. Each company moved forward with each army corps and it seemed to us that our casualty load was heavy until well after the Battle of Falaise Gap.

 The decisive victory there presented the Allies with two problems. The first was assembling and containing the large number of prisoners of war. A group of these prisoners was delivered to the 91st MGTB. They had apparently been classified as less dangerous than the average prisoner. They were all former Russian soldiers who had surrendered to the Germans on the Russian front. After being re-trained, they became German soldiers and were sent to fight the Allies in France, where they were captured-- this time by the Allies. Since none of the officers and men of the 91st MGTB were supposed to possess firearms, and while we were hardly a proper garrison for a prisoner-of-war camp, we were chosen anyway.

Never during the entire life of our battalion had we known such luxury. The Russians dug our foxholes, tore down our tents when we moved and then erected them at our new locations. They were so happy to be alive and with us that they were eager to do any task we assigned to them. After a few delightful weeks of this, some high-ranking officer took away our servants. 

The second problem confronting the Allies was Paris. There were no German troops between the U.S. First Army and Paris, and the small German garrison there wanted to surrender. All supplies sustaining the Allies (principally ammunition, gasoline and food) were landed on French beaches and then trucked to the troops. Failure to adequately supply our troops would ultimately halt our advance. Four million hungry people resided in Paris and supplying their needs would tax the already stressed army supply system. I believe the Allied generals considered bypassing Paris (several towns and ports were bypassed) as we advanced toward Germany.

As an insignificant operations officer who was receiving constant intelligence at First Army Headquarters, I was beginning to form strategic opinions. The best German troops in France were now retreating, in disarray toward Germany. Their supplies were severely restricted (gasoline, ammunition, food, transportation). It would never again be as easy to destroy and capture them. Any day lost in continuing our advance would cost us countless casualties if the Germans were given time to create defensive positions. Our troops were exhausted and needed rest, but I believe we should have bypassed Paris and pressed forward. 

First Army drove to near the outskirts of Paris and came to a screeching halt. Political and propaganda considerations controlled the situation. First Army would wait and let a small French division liberate the city. It seemed to me that many days were wasted as we camped in the fields south of Paris. Only after this ceremonial entry were we permitted to enter the City of Light. In addition to politics and supplies, Paris presented another military problem. No invader has ever elected to destroy Paris and no troops who entered the city would ever want to leave.

A convoy of trucks carrying much needed ammunition to the front in Belgium upon entering the city might find excuses for lingering. Agencies of all Allied governments would find reasons to open field offices there. The supreme headquarters of the Allies would move into Versailles, a famous palace near the city. All hotel rooms were quickly booked. In wartime this lovely city, which had been a magnet to the conquering Germans, would in only a few days attract and be consumed by the Allies. Everyone who visited the city was affected by it.

Neilson Rogers practiced law in Sherman for almost 60 years, from 1938 until 2002, except for the five years he was in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 2007 he was recognized by the Grayson County Bar Assn. for seven decades of service to the legal and judicial communities. In retirement he wrote this memoir, which will be serialized in the North Texas e-News. Before his death, Mr. Rogers asked Dr. Jerry Lincecum to edit the memoir and gave him literary power of attorney to make decisions about publishing his writings.