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The Higginbotham Brothers of East Texas
Part III

Army Ranger at Normandy

by Maurice Higginbotham
(2 vintage photographs courtesy of Maurice Higginbotham)
Murphy with rifle and helmet
Murphy during training at Ft. Sam Houston c. 1940
Note WW I issue helmet
Photo Courtesy Maurice Higginbotham

Murphy Higginbotham landed at Normandy on June 7, 1944. He was the number one man on a B.A.R. team; his ammunition carrier was Elmer Hanson. Murphy later told about his troop ship being just a few yards (very close) to the Battleship Texas while they were firing their huge guns at the German positions. He said that no commercial fireworks display in the world could compare with the display put on by these big naval guns. He described it as awesome, fearful, and beautiful, particularly at night. He said that when the Texas gave the Germans a broadside, the whole ship moved sideways several yards from the recoil.

The first major battle they encountered against well-prepared enemy positions was when they came up against St. George d'Elle. This hard fought over town was much disputed throughout the next month and changed hands many times. Five times American Infantrymen have fought their way into the dozen or so scarred stone buildings which were the town. Four times German infantrymen and units of a crack paratroop division have retaken it.

The real battle began June 12th. After that, it became a long weird time of shuttling across hedgerows and barley fields. The Americans and Germans were separated by only two feet of matted hedgerows; a time of fighting by squads and teams of two and three men. Defensive positions had been well dug in far ahead of the attack, with underground shelters, gun emplacements and communication trenches.

By June 12, the Division had pushed 25 kilometers inland from the sea in four days of actual combat. Everywhere, the beautiful Normandy Hedgerow Country was marred with the terrible destruction of war. The dead lay all about amid the blooming gardens and the doorways of the Normandy fields and villages in the balmy June weather.

The Germans had very favorable defensive positions because of the hedgerows and terrain. Anyone who fought in the hedgerows realizes that at best the going was slow, and that a skillful defending force could cause great delay and heavy losses to an attacking force many times stronger. Seldom could one see beyond the confines of the field. The terrain prevented an attacker from using firepower effectively. German counter-attacks in the hedgerows failed largely for the same reason.

(Click here for a German soldier's last letter -- A rare and interesting look of what was going on in the thinning ranks of the demoralized Germans)

About June 13th or 14th Company I was almost wiped out when our naval artillery fire fell on our own men. Medic Beecham stated that; When this fire began falling on our men, I went to the Commanding Officer and told him to hold the navy fire. In very short order, the fire stopped and reinforcements of all kinds came pouring in. The new officers and field medics assisted Company I with trucks bringing in new men and hauling out the dead and wounded. When the navy stopped firing, some men went to sleep. The men were so tense that we had to kick them to find out if they were alive. They had made it to a fresh artillery hole, as they were trained to do. Some holes had four or five men in them covered with trash.

A German counter attack on June 15th drove our forces back slightly. The Second Division launched another attack early the next morning. They met strong opposition, but made slight gains that day. St. George's d'Elle with its lovely stone church was transformed into a place of evil. The dead, khaki, gray and green were piled so high in the gullies that a truce was called to bury them. American and German platoon fought hand to hand for 30 minutes, a very long time with bayonets and rifle butts.

Mortar shells uprooted old lichen-dappled tombstones in the church cemetery. Infantrymen dug deep in the graveyard and stirred old bones to escape the rain of fire. In the draw just south of town the dead and wounded began to pile up in the tall grass, where rain had made the smell of the earlier dead heavy and foul. This is where Murphy's best army buddy Jesse (Punk) Clifford was killed.

old stone church

Photo Courtesy Maurice Higginbotham

Old Stone Church, St. Georges d'Elle Normandy where Murphy was engaged in many firefights. The town was won and lost back to Germans several times before Americans finally took it for good. Located at base of Hill-192 on outskirts of St. Lo, France. Soldier in foreground is Dewey Lee. Lee served with the Army of Occupation in France and returned to the scene in the 1950s.

Lee said that during the fighting, large stacks of dead American soldiers were piled on the deck of the church behind where he is standing. The church was destroyed in the fighting, and the rebuilt building appears in the photo above.

As Murphy's squad jumped off on an attack, Sgt. Overbaugh the squad leader was hit in the leg by a ground burst. Murphy stopped for a few seconds to see how bad he had been hit, then moved on with the rest of the squad. Elmer Hanson stayed behind and put a tourniquet on Overbaugh's leg, and marked him for the medics. Norman Rapert, assistant squad leader took over as squad leader. (He was later killed on July 27th.) Elmer Hansen went on and found dead and wounded all over the place. He couldn't find Murphy, so he decided to pull back and report his findings. He found Murphy with a group of men and told them what he had found. He said Murphy was "as mad as a wet hornet."

Company "I" had penetrated the German lines, but, met a fierce German counter attack, and had to withdraw. A second lieutenant came up about then and informed them that we were going to pull back to a hedgerow, redistribute our ammunition and prepare for a counter attack within an hour. We knew our company commander was dead, and at least two of our lieutenants. The new lieutenant told us that heavy equipment was in position and ready to fire, but, he didn't want to lay down artillery fire until they got the wounded out. The medics didn't know the area they were in, so the lieutenant wanted someone to guide them. I didn't like the idea at all said Elmer, but thinking of those fellows out there, I knew I had to go. I handed Murphy my rifle and shook hands with him, and he wished me well. The last thing he said was "Damn it, be careful. When you get back, we have lots of work to do." I was proud to have served with him. We got along like twins. I remember how he did snore. I found out one night that we spent in a double foxhole. I think he had sore ribs in the morning, from me giving him the elbow.

The way we got captured was a damn shame, says Elmer. You know Soforra and I had to guide those medics. We got one bunch out and loaded our litters again, when about 20 Jerrys had us surrounded with burp guns. After we were captured, I had our buddy Punk Clifford in my arms. He was pretty badly cut up with about four holes in his belly. He was still conscious and recognized me. I told him that he wasn't hurt bad, but he should take it easy. He asked how Murphy was right away. I told him that Murphy was as mad as Hell the last time I saw him. He laughed a little and didn't say much after that, but kept getting weaker until he took his last deep breath. He said he had no pain, but was getting cold from the waist down. I thought about his wife and twins about then. I remember how tickled he was in Wales when he found out that they were born.

Sergeant May Mendoza had been shot in the leg twice within an hour, he said he was hiding in a foxhole when he saw the medics coming. The medics didn't have a stretcher available on which to carry Mendoza, so a German sergeant and a blond headed boy helped Mendoza to the group of medics. The German boy looked at Mendoza when they were all in a group. Mendoza looked back at him straight in the eye. The German kid smiled at him and gave him a drink of cider from his canteen.

An attack jumped off on June 19, but quickly ground to a halt. All efforts to penetrate the German defense line failed. The offensive was met head on, and pushed back by heavy machine gun, mortar and artillery fire.

The next important strategic position to take was Hill 192. The Germans knew it was important for them to hold the town of St. Lo and they threw everything they could muster into the fight. This ugly eminence dominated and afforded an excellent view of Allied landings and operations, not only northward to Omaha Beach, but westward to St. Lo, about three miles away. The hill rising 192 meters above sea level was honeycombed with massive defensives, both above and below the ground.

The entire front was ablaze with fire, as the artillery lay down the mightiest preparatory barrage it had yet been called upon to deliver. More than 25,000 rounds fired by the artillery hit the small area occupied by Hill 192. The American infantrymen occupied Hill 192 by the end of the day.

(See A German soldier's last letter -- Found after the Battle for Hill 192 in Normandy.)

After many tough battles later, Murphy was wounded on August 1, 1944, and eventually returned to a hospital in England. He was wounded by a German 88mm shell. Victor Barrouk was by Murphy's side when they heard the shell whistling, and could tell by it's sound that it would hit nearby. They hit the ground together and both were wounded. This same shell also killed at least two other men and wounded several more.

Murphy was awarded the following medals:
The Bronze Star Medal
"for exceptionally meritorious achievement in performance of outstanding service against the enemy"
The Purple Heart
E.A.M.E. Campaign Medal with one Bronze Star.
Combat Infantryman's Badge
Oak Leaf Cluster to Bronze Star
Belgian Fourragere.
Presidential Unit Emblem.
Honorable Service Lapel Button.
W.W. II American Campaign Medal.
W.W. II Victory Medal.
American Defense Service Medal.
Good Conduct Medal.

I. Introduction
II. Merrion Higginbotham, Thunderbolt and Mustang Pilot
III. Murphy Higginbotham, Ranger at Normandy
IV. A German Soldier's Last Letter
V. The Home Front: anecdotal stories, sample letters and photos

July 2001
Copyright Maurice Higginbotham

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