EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of the many interviews conducted by Chuck Knox for his book, The Sound of Distant Drums. The Sound of Distant Drums contains writings and interviews of many soldiers from the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Viet Nam, Panama and Gulf Wars. It makes a great book to leave out for casual short readings. You can type “Chuck Knox, The Sound of Distant Drums” into your search engine to find Amazon and other sellers who carry this book.
Story compiled by Bradley T. Wells, son of Nathan, July, 2003.
Prior to his entry into the Army, Nate (my father) had attained a tenth grade education and was working as a Trackman for the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad in Villa Grove, Illinois. He worked as a laborer on the railroad tracks. His responsibilities included inspecting the tracks and replacing defective ties and rails. He also helped repair switches and clear the right of way of weeds and bushes.
|Nate (in bib overalls) and his family wave for a picture to his brother, Carroll who was already serving in the Pacific Theater. A year later Nate would enter and participate in the D-Day landings in France.|
On 24 March 1943, twenty-three days following his nineteenth birthday, my father entered the United States Army at Camp Grant, Illinois. He trained with the 78th Infantry Division “Lightning Division” at Camp Butner, North Carolina. There he received three months Basic Training and ten months Rifleman Training as a Private. He also received three months Heavy Machine Gunner Training as a Private First Class. Dad used to tell the story of a time when he was training as a Heavy Machine Gunner that his unit of almost two hundred soldiers were out on maneuvers. At the end of the last day of maneuvers they were told they would have to do a forty mile forced march back to the base. They were all in full pack and dad and his partner were supposed to switch off in carrying the 50 caliber machine gun during the march. Dad told us with a chuckle, that every time dad tried to hand off the machine gun to his partner, the partner would duck his head so as not to look dad in the face and fall back a little in the march so that dad could not hand over the gun. Dad ended up carrying the gun the whole way back to the base. Dad also said that out of the entire unit he was only one of three that completed the entire march. Dad said that his partner dropped out very early in the march. According to dad, the march took them all night to get back to base.
On 12 May 1944 dad departed from the United States to enter the European Theatre of Operations. He arrived in England on 25 May 1944. During his time overseas he became a part of the 175th Regiment of the 29th Division and was assigned the duty of second machine gunner for the Browning M2HB (Ma Deuce Heavy Barrel) fifty caliber machine gun. According to my brother Chris, while in England, dad received more training in beach assaults using the “Higgins”, which was a Landing Craft Vehicle for Personnel (LCVP). The Higgins could carry 36 combat-equipped infantrymen from ship to shore. During World War II the United States produced 23,398 of the craft for the purpose of delivering personnel and cargo to the beaches of France.
Dad recalled an incident to my brother Chris when he told this story of his experience. During his training, Dad said he never learned how to swim and while training for beach assault he stepped off the end of the Higgins and found himself in water over his head. He said it was a good thing he was in full pack and carrying his M1 rifle at the time. The weight of his gear took him straight to the bottom and without panicking he just held his breath and walked on the bottom toward the shore until he had his head above water.
According to dad’s separation record, he was assigned as a Heavy Machine Gunner. He was a gunner in a heavy machine gun crew in France. His duties required that he fire on enemy in tactical support of advancing forces. Nathan was familiar with use of automatic rifles, carbine, hand weapons, and hand grenades.
Dad told us about the day when his Regiment crossed the English Channel. He said that it was the only time he became sea sick and he believed it was because the ship was much smaller than the one he came to England in and the trip was much more rocky.
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When dad shipped out, he was assigned as second machine gunner which meant he handled the feeding of the ammunition. Each box of ammunition contained 100 rounds of ammunition and the Browning has a firing rate of 450-600 rounds per minute. Dad’s Regiment landed in France on schedule at 0630, 7 June 1944. But it arrived about one mile east of its intended target, the Vierville exit. They were then ordered to march to the exit. They marched in loose formation while sniper fire continued to zing down. The worst part about the experience, according to dad, was seeing all the dead American soldiers, who were all wearing the blue and gray 29th Division patch. He remembered having to step around and over their corpses and seeing trucks with wooden sides piled high with the dead bodies of other soldiers. He saw soldiers walking along with the trucks picking up more bodies and just throwing them in the back of the trucks. This was the first real exposure dad remembered of the reality and the horrors of war.
After they reached Vierville exit, they continued to Saint Lo and later onto the Vire area France where dad was wounded. Dad used to recall two humorous stories about this part of his journey. The first was when the soldiers were getting some rest while they were in their foxholes. Dad said that the unit was under strict orders not to fire their weapons for any reason until ordered. He was on watch in his foxhole and he noticed some movement. It appeared as if the enemy was approaching his location. As they continued to get closer and closer dad was preparing to shoot while he wrestled with the orders not to fire their weapons. Just about then a cow crested the rise next to dad’s foxhole. He breathed a sigh of relief. My mother and dad’s sister Joan both told me about another story of his experience that he related to them. When dad’s unit was moving through the hedge rows of Saint Lo, the Sergeant in command of his unit would ask for volunteers to scout ahead with strict orders not to engage the enemy thus exposing their position. All in dad’s unit were reluctant to volunteer because of fear. Dad said that when the Sergeant asked for a volunteer he would look directly at him and when dad looked around everyone else was looking at him too. Dad always thought he had no choice but to volunteer. One time when dad was scouting the enemy position he took his hands and parted one of the hedge rows and came face to face with a German scout. He said that the look of the surprise in that soldier’s face made him feel like he was looking into a mirror because he was sure that he was looking the very same way at that moment. They both turned and bolted back to their units. Dad dove face first into his foxhole. When he realized what had just happened the whole incident struck him so funny that he started laughing uncontrollably.
When dad’s unit moved through the Vire area, France, on 14 August 1944, he was wounded as a result of enemy action. Dad told me that he was second machine gunner for the Browning MDHB 50 caliber machine gun and they were under heavy fire from German artillery. When the artillery made a certain sound they knew it was going beyond their position. Therefore, they would continue on and not try to take cover. On one occasion, the artillery sounded as if it was going over head but instead it landed near their location spewing shrapnel everywhere. When dad looked at the first machine gunner he saw that his head had been blown off. Dad continued to man the machine gun alone until another shell hit right beside him.
After it hit, dad found himself lying on his back. At that point dad was not aware of his injuries so he tried to get up and when he rose up he realized that he could not stand up. He looked down at his legs and all he saw were two bloody stubs down to the mid thigh level. His first thought was “Thank God I am out of this!” He then passed out. The wounds he sustained included complete severance of his right index finger, near complete detachment of the Right Middle finger (hanging by the skin – according to dad), almost complete amputation of both legs. Shrapnel went through both legs at the mid thigh level and dad’s legs collapsed under him. When he rose up to look at his legs, he did not even realize that they were still attached by some muscle and skin and that his legs had folded under him. Both femurs (thigh bones) were shattered, and he had a piece of shrapnel embedded subcutaneously on the inside of his left elbow.
I can remember asking dad if I could push on the piece of shrapnel in his arm when I was young and I was always amazed at his missing index finger. He would sometimes grin at us kids and play tricks on us by acting as if he was removing his finger from his other hand. Dad never allowed us to be aware of the suffering that he had to endure as a result of his wounds or sacrifices he made for his family. Several members of our family can remember dad saying that there was one thing he was thankful for and that was the fact that he never actually saw any man fall as a direct result of his actions.
After dad was pieced back together in at an aide station in France he was flown to England where he spent the next three months in an army hospital under morphine sedation. On 26 November 1944 dad was placed on the St Mihiel, United States Army Hospital Ship, and sent back to the United States.
… This story continues in the in the Chuck Knox book, Sound of Distant Drums. You will enjoy reading all the stories. Before we end this article, let’s pay tribute to another great soldier.
- Purple Heart
- Bronze Star Medal (Meritorious Achievement)
- American Campaign Medal
- European American Middle Eastern Campaign (2 Bronze Battle Stars
attached to this medal for participation in the Normandy, and Northern France Campaigns)
- Victory Medal WWII
- France War Aid Patch
- Good Conduct Medal
- Combat Infantryman Badge, 175th Regiment
- Lightning Division 78th Patch
- 29th Division Patch