July of 1944 must have been a miserable time for Uncle Gene, who fought in the St-Lo hedgerows after the D-Day invasion. Infantry platoons suffered up to 90 percent casualties and second lieutenants like Gene had a high mortality rate.
The Battle of the Hedgerows, which took place July 7- 22 ended with 11,000 killed, wounded, or missing, according to accounts I have read. “There had been nothing glamorous about the First Army’s painful battle through the hedgerows,” one officer wrote. Bitter actions were often fought by U.S. and German units that stood only 50 to 100 yards apart.
“But even so, the American and German troops might not see each other in the course of a day’s fight, except for the bodies left behind in a withdrawal.”
One of those bodies was Uncle Gene Ely. But – according to family lore – he wasn’t killed by a German bullet or shell. His widow, Elma, believes he was a victim of a well-documented “friendly fire” incident. U.S. planes dropped bombs too close to our lines and killed hundreds of men.
According to one historical account: “Originally, Operation Cobra had been planned for July 24, but the attack was postponed, due to bad weather, until midday on July 25. Unfortunately, some of the bombers were launched on the 24th, before they received word to stop, and dropped bombs on American infantry. Then, on the actual day of the attack, some bombs were again accidentally dropped on U.S. troops due to badly marked targets.”
General Omar Bradley “only asked for 800 yards to buffer his troops during the attack, though the Air Force recommended a minimum of 3,000 to prevent Allied bombs from hitting their own men. Bradley was prepared to accept friendly-fire losses to achieve his objective. Friendly-fire deaths did indeed occur on the 25th at the start of the operation, resulting in the deaths of 500 soldiers and a lieutenant.” Was that Lieutenant Uncle Gene?
Gene, my favorite uncle, was a handsome man; husky, with a head of dark hair. He, Elma, and their little daughter Mary Ann lived for a time before the war with my family in a third-floor apartment on Chicago’s Southside. Gene was a good-natured man, who attended some college and worked in a bank.
Elma (my father’s sister) and my mother were like sisters. I remember them doing laundry with the old Maytag wringer washer and canning fruit together. Mary Ann was like my little sister. Gene and my father palled around together.
But the “sneak attack” Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor galvanized the nation into action. Men lined up at recruiting centers. Revenge was in the air. Germany promptly declared war on the United States. Gene didn’t have to go – he was a father – but all his friends were joining, and so did he. You had to have been there to understand the rage that gripped the nation, the fury of patriotism.
I was too young to go to war and my father was too old, but he worked in a defense plant as a quality control engineer, making tanks for the troops. Gene went to officers’ training school. Home on leave before shipping out to Europe, he took my brother and I to the circus. It was our last time together. I think he knew that he might not be back.
I have a photo showing him with three smiling fellow officers in England, taken shortly before the June 7th D-Day attack. They sat at a table with bottles of beer on the checkered tablecloth. Their dress uniforms were neat and they wore ties. Uncle Gene looked hale and hearty, but I know that in his heart he longed to be home, where Elma was pregnant with their second daughter, or had perhaps already given birth. On the back he wrote to Elma: “A picture for you of me and a few buddies from 1944, April. Your husband, Gene.”
As I write this on Memorial Day, my thoughts go back to those long-ago days, of a husband, father, and uncle. I think of his bravery and that of his fellow fighting men. They call his “The Greatest Generation” because they gritted their teeth and worked their way through the crippling Depression and with great heroism defeated the evil that gripped the world.
They call it “The Good War,” but no war is “good.” Most wars – if not all – are preventable. Could World War II have been prevented with wiser diplomacy and stronger political courage? I will leave it to the political scientists and historians to write the book on that one. But I miss my Uncle Gene very much and honor his courage and sacrifice.
Barney Brantingham served two years in the U.S. Army. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns for the Independent on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.