Medals Pvt. Harris probably earned

Pvt. Benjamin L. Harris Jr. was born in Linwood, Ohio in 1925. His parents were Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin L. Harris. He lived at 4795 Moore Street, Linwood, Hamilton County, Ohio. Benjamin was a 1943 graduate of Withrow High School and was a student. On October 6, 1943, at age 18, Benjamin L. Harris Jr. enlisted in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Pvt. Harris became part of the 29th Infantry Division, 116th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company G. He was probably shipped overseas as soon as he completed his infantry training and trained with the others for the upcoming Normandy Invasion.

Five stretches of French coastline in Normandy were selected as the sites for the landings that the Allies intended as the primary effort to defeat Hitler on the western front. One of these, code named “Omaha,” became the responsibility of the Regular Army’s 1st Infantry Division and the 29th Infantry Division on the morning of June 6, 1944. The 116th Infantry Regiment received the mission of leading the division ashore, the only National Guard regiment to participate in the first wave. The 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division landed to their left and the 2nd Ranger Battalion was assigned to capture the cliffs on their right. The 29th had responsibility for a section of beach 3,000 yards long, but containing only two passages inland. The unit had the task of opening both routes so that succeeding units could drive inland.

Planners counted on heavy naval and air bombardment to neutralize the defenses just before the boats carrying the first wave hit shore. Intelligence expected the Germans to use inferior quality troops along the coast and keep their best divisions inland to counterattack. On D-Day, however, fate had placed a crack unit on the cliffs overlooking “Omaha Beach” as part of a training exercise. This development cost the 29th dearly. The first assault wave of the 116th consisted of Companies A, G, F and E. This means Pvt. Harris was part of the first assault wave. They loaded into landing craft at 04.00 Hours in the morning. Difficulties began as soon as the small boats started towards shore and encountered large waves. At 0630 Hours the first craft approached the beach and came under fire from German gunners. Some boats suffered direct hits or sank when near misses flooded them with seawater. Obstacles stopped others offshore and forced the men to wade in while exposed to fire, often at locations far from their assigned sectors. Company A was hit hardest. They suffered more losses getting ashore than any other unit of the 116th. The other three companies, including Pvt. Harris’ company, in the first assault group fared somewhat better, in part because many of their boats were pushed off course or because smoke from fires started by naval gunfire hid them from the defenders. The second wave started landing troops at seven. These companies encountered many of the same problems and also became pinned down. Major Sidney Bingham, commander of the 2nd Battalion, finally organized men in the center of the zone and captured a large stone house dominating the beach near Les Moulins draw, but heavy fire again blocked further movement.

D-day landings; Company G landing at Omaha Beach, Sector Dog White

The third wave came ashore twenty minutes later and benefited from the sacrifices of those who had gone before. This element, mostly from the 1st and 3rd (pvt. Harris) Battalions and the attached 5th Ranger Battalion, finally fought their way to the crest of the bluff between the beach’s two draws and, led by Company C, became the first element of the 29th Infantry Division to penetrate the first zone of defenses. Shortly thereafter a second force punched through further east. Ten minutes after the third wave landed the last elements of the regiment started reaching shore, including Colonel Charles Canham who remained in command despite a painful wound. The 116th’s artillery support on D-Day was supposed to come from the dozen howitzers of the 111th Field Artillery Battalion. Unfortunately, all of the amphibious trucks (DUKWs) transporting the guns to the beach either swamped or suffered hits. The dazed survivors struggled ashore near Les Moulins at 0830 Hours. A sniper soon killed the colonel, but his troops assisted in the drive inland. By nightfall American forces controlled the key terrain at Omaha and plus the cliffs on the right. The drive for their next objective began, the communications and traffic crossroads in the city of St. Lo. The Germans tenaciously defended and forced the Americans to fight for each hedgerow.

Despite numerous counter-attacks by a determined German force, CT 116 weathered these thrusts superbly and maintained its positions on a line established 800 yards north of St. Andre de L’Epine (557655). Twice within the space of 24 hours the Germans launched successive blows at the right rear and front of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry. The 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, situated directly to the rear, was alerted on a 30-minute notice to counter-attack from either flank, or, in the event of a penetration, to meet a thrust through the center.

The aggressiveness with which the Germans made their bids against the American troops was accentuated by his use of flame-throwers and a type of fire which can be described only as crafty. This fire apparently was employed chiefly as a delaying element and as a means to create panic among our troops.

It was discovered that the Germans went so far as to use fire-crackers, suspended from trees on long fuses. This ruse undoubtedly was used to throw the American troops off balance while meeting the counter-attacks. Further, an extremely heavy concentration of artillery and mortar fire caused no little damage to the American communications.

Spearhead of the attack throughout the entire situation was the 1st Battalion, located on the extreme right. It was at Dufayel (551678) that the Americans encountered German paratroopers, who had dug themselves in an orchard. The fighting in this engagement was waged at close range, small arms and hand grenades being brought into play.

GIs fighting in Normandy

During a lull in this engagement, Captain Heffner, carrying a Red Cross flag, ventured into German territory and completed a deal whereas American wounded could be brought back to own lines. The rules of modern warfare were complied with in this exchange for the wounded. It was in this engagement the GIs encountered full-bred Germans for the first time.

The battalion kept in reserve in the rear were on a full alert. During the period of reorganization, a plan for the rotation of the battalions was devised whereby a frontline battalion was relieved by one in reserve. This permitted the men brought back to the rear not only to clean themselves, rest and put their equipment into shape, but also to prepare themselves for further operations.

Despite the fact that they were taken to the rear, the men were kept on an alert status throughout. During the daylight hours, periods of snappy drill, calisthenics, mass commands, etc., were conducted to maintain the esprit de corps and splendid status of the units. Reorganization of the units also was begun at this time.

All in all, the men were in a happy frame of mind during their short stay in the rear. Foremost in their minds were the objectives to be taken in the drive to St. Lo. Coordination exercises also were staged in the rear. This series of exercises, formulated to season the men for the operation to come, found a platoon of Infantrymen, a platoon of tanks, and a demolition team working as one unit and advancing on a limited objective. The Infantrymen, Engineers and Tank Corps worked splendidly in completing their problem. The problem saw the Infantrymen, in a line of skirmishers, push ahead to a hedgerow to provide a base of fire to enable the tanks to advance. The demolition team then blew gaps in the hedgerow to permit the tanks to storm through the openings and knock out emplacements, which, in actual warfare, might otherwise slow up the attack. The coordination exercises proved invaluable when GI troops took up the main attack early in July.

From 0100 to 0250 Hours, July 11, 1944, the men were subjected to a terrific pounding by German artillery fire. The Germans barrage played havoc with American communications, which were rendered virtually helpless. But the communications were soon to be put in working order. At this juncture, the communications men did yeomen work in repairing the broken lines. Their task was completed in a matter of only two hours, and contact among own units was normal once again.

The Germans then put on a counter-attack which was ultimately to fail. The Germans attempted to penetrate a gap 600 yards between the 3rd Battalion of the 116th Infantry and the 1st Battalionn of the 115th Infantry . Company K had to contend with two machine guns, two mortars and an “88”. On the right, Company L opposed a patrol armed with flame-throwers. The counter-attack was partially successful until Company A of the 1st Battalion moved in and stopped the bid. At 0315 Hours, July 11,1944 all was under control and the attack was driven off.

Once the 116th Infantry halted its drive south of Couvains (560682) the Germans had time to reform his lines and fortify the already natural hedgerow defensive bulwarks. In the static positions now reached, all effects were made to determine the defensive positions of the Germans. Evacuated positions were searched, German dead called for documents, attempts made to secure prisoners. Combat patrols, recon patrols, listening posts, and etc., were in constant operation.

Dog fight

During this period, the Germans continued in his defensive position, making maximum use of artillery and mortar fire, and employing strong counter patrol measures. During the entire period, patrols and listening posts reported the Germans digging in, driving holes, sawing wood, and preparing positions in general. Although, prisoners reported scarcity of mines, scattered mine fields were laid in front of the German position.

An interesting demonstration of German regularity was the appearance of smoke coming from a chimney in St. Andre de L’Epine (554655) each morning at 0800 Hours. Each morning artillery fire was placed on said chimney; immediately the smoke would stop, not to be seen again until 0800 Hours the following morning. This continued until the final attack on St. Andre de L’Epine, (557655). PW’s from the 6th Company, 9th Para Regiment were identified on the GIs right front.

The night of July 10, 1944, the first sign of German patrolling was noted. A counterattack followed early on the morning of July 11, 1944. The Drive towards St. Lo was slated for 0600 Hours, July 11, 1944. Plans were devised in which American artillery was to fire intermittently to drown out the noises of our tanks moving up. The Germans aided in this plan, unknowingly. By the time the tanks had moved into position at Couvains (560682), American artillery and that of the Germans had ceased firing.

At 0600 Hours, July 11, 1944 the troops set out to take their objectives, HILL 147 (545645), and HILL 150 (555644). At the outset, progress was slow. This was due to the fact that the Germans were in a position to follow the movement of the GI troops from HILL 192 (571561), a high and advantageous observation point.

It was the lot of Companies E, F, and G (Pvt. Harris’ Company) of the 2nd Battalion to proceed to St. Andre de L’Epine (557655). American tanks experienced considerable difficulty crossing the high and ever-present hedgerows and the sunken roads enroute. On the night of July 11, 1944 the 3rd Battalion was ordered to take HILL 150 (555644). The 2nd Battalion (Pvt. Harris’ Battalion), which had HILL 147 (545645) as its objective, was just short of reaching its goal.

As a result of its breakthrough on July 11, the 116th Infantry Regiment was on the two northern ridges, with its leading Battalions facing west for the drive to St. Lo. The 2nd Battalion (Pvt. Harris’ Battalion) was on the Martinville Ridge, close to Hill 147 (the Martinville Ridge, the crest less than a mile from the highway; Hill 147, labeled as its high point, was not a feature of any prominence. Between the second and third ridges was a steep-sided draw, followed by a small stream); the 3rd had reached the middle ridge, on the big highway; the 1st Battalion during the night was moving up in the center to attack west, down the draw between the ridges. General Gerhardt’s plan for this zone was to push the 1st Battalion ahead as far as the ground between la Boulaye and la Madeleine, while the other two 116th battalions finished cleaning up their objective areas of the previous day. Meanwhile, the 175th Infantry (3d and 2d Battalions) was coming in behind the 116th IR, ready to pass through and attack toward objectives south of the line la Madeleine-St. Lo.

But the day proved disappointing, and it became increasingly evident that the Germans of the 3rd Parachute Division had organized a new MLR, slanting across the highway near la Boulaye and over the Martinville Ridge. Elements of three German battalions were estimated holding this line on the 116th Infantry Regiment-front.

Map of positions of the 29th Infantry Division on July 12, 1944
(Click on picture to enlarge)

However, at 1300 Hours, July 12, 1944 the 2nd Battalion (Pvt. Harris’ Battalion) came through to capture HILL 147 (545645) on the Martinville Ridge after hard fighting. The 1st Battalion fought into the draw south of HILL 147, then became involved in a series of small battles in the hedgerows along the stream. The Germans counterattacked with three tanks and two self-propelled 88’s which moved along the draw blasting at the fields. The men of the 1st Battalion countered with bazookas and brought in supporting artillery fire, knocking out two German tanks. But the 88-mm guns were elusive; the crews changed positions constantly, and their heavy fire caused many casualties. By the end of the morning the 1st Battalion was astride the draw just east of la Boulaye, but it made no further progress. To its left rear, the 3rd Battalion fought all day to secure the ridgeline south of the highway, and had not entirely succeeded in this by night.

Some of its difficulties, and many of its casualties, came as a result of intense artillery and mortar fire, made accurate by observation from the German positions on the RIDGE 101 to the south, paralleling the St. Lo highway. Pvt. Benjamin L. Harris Jr., age 18, was Killed in Action on July 12, 1944 in Normandy, France probably while fighting to capture HILL 147 on the Martinville Ridge.

A letter from Pvt. Harris to his family back in the USA

Memorial certificate