Note:June 6, 2019, marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces invaded Normandy, France, in World War II. The following story is about a soldier from Miles who served in the invasion. The story was written by the late Robert Melvold (also a World War II veteran) and first appeared in the Maquoketa
Sentinel-Press more than two decades ago.
In 1970, Reynold and Elizabeth Erichson, a Miles area farm couple, reluctantly put off for a later time that trip to Europe that they had been planning so long for that summer.
This wouldn’t have been just another sightseeing trip to Europe by just any vacationing couple. They had some specific places they wanted to see, and for good reason.
Reynold had looked forward for years to showing Elizabeth where he had landed on Omaha Beach in June 1944. But even more, he looked forward to their then motoring slowly 40 miles inland, this time peacefully. He would show her the now-restored French villages that he had passed through decades before under far different circumstances.
And he especially wanted both of them to see the village of Mortain and its adjoining Hill 317. It was there, on Aug. 6-12, 1944, that he had played a major hero’s role in a pivotal battle won by his 30th Division forces over four German Panzer divisions.
Leapfrogged D-Day forces
It was on D-Day plus 6 that the American 30th Division, which included Capt. Erichson’s 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment, landed on Omaha Beach. They were given the task of continuing the advance inland while the troop units that made the original assault were being rested and regrouped. The 30th had a bloody assignment, advancing hedgerow by hedgerow, facing continuous fire from German artillery, tanks, machine guns and snipers.
In that summer of 1970, 26 years later, with the cattle peacefully grazing in the pastures between the hedgerows, and the grain crop maturing, it would have seemed incredible that these once were fields of mass destruction and killing.
The bodies of the men who had died in those fields and hedgerows were now in row after row of graves in both the nearby German and the several Allied military cemeteries.
And countless more, who were wounded but survived, were destined to go through life as severely handicapped, many as lifelong wards of their country’s veterans hospitals.
Mortain visit high point
The visit to Mortain and Hill 317 would have been the high point of the trip, even though Reynold and Elizabeth no doubt would have continued to follow the battlefield trails of his 30th Division comrades all the way through northern France and to within the borders of Germany itself, where the 30th was located at the time of the May 1945 German surrender and the suicide of Adolf Hitler.
It was back at Hill 317 that Capt. Erichson, as the ranking surviving officer of his 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment, held off continuous attacks by German tanks, artillery and infantry for six days and nights. It retained for the Allies the indispensable observation point from where they could direct a rain of artillery fire from more than 100 of their big guns on concentrations of German Panzer divisions armor attempting to break through the American roadblocks.
Despite being surrounded and suffering heavy losses, Capt. Erichson refused to accept a German invitation to surrender, issued under a “flag of truce,” combined with a threat of annihilation if not accepted.
Even the many wounded soldiers, some enduring pain for days without proper medical care, implored Erichson not to surrender. They did so despite the German officer’s offer, in excellent English, to provide the wounded with prompt medical care and safe passage to a “comfortable” prisoner-of-war camp.
Panzers slowed at Hill 317
In the end the Hitler-ordered thrust by four of his veteran Panzer divisions bogged down at the base of Hill 317.
Hitler’s plan to drive the Allied armies all the way back to Omaha Beach had failed. There were 700 officers and men at the start of those six days and nights who were a part of Erichson’s “lost battalion” on Hill 317.
When the German forces finally backed off, Capt. Erichson led the total of only 357, including the walking wounded, off the hill and down to the village of Mortain, which had been demolished by shelling from both sides.
Medics rushed to provide bandages, splints, morphine and evacuation for the seriously wounded scattered all over the slope, both German and American. Working parties removed the several hundred torn German and American bodies for temporary burial, many of whom died in the exchange of grenades, in hand-to-hand combat or from the frequent artillery barrages directed by both sides.
Erichson decorated for valor
The 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment was given the cherished Presidential Unit Citation for its defense of Hill 317. Capt. Erichson received the Army’s Distinguished Service Award, second only in prestige to the Medal of Honor. He also received the Croix de Guerre from the French government. For a separate deed of valor at a different time, he also was awarded the Bronze Star, and at another time he was awarded a Purple Heart for an injury when he was struck by enemy shrapnel.
Thus it is especially tragic that Reynold never revisited the now peaceful, pastoral scenes at and near a restored Mortain, and to act as a guide to Elizabeth and to their then (by 1970) adult twin daughters, Laurel and Leah.
The girls were born in 1947.
Merit leave for marriage
By January 1945, the 30th Division and its 120th Infantry Regiment had made their way, in those five months since Hill 317, all the way through northern France to Aachen and the border of Germany. It was then that Reynold was given a merit leave to come home and fulfill his longstanding goal of marrying Elizabeth Pedersen, his Miles High School classmate, the girl who was living on the farm across the road.
After a too-brief honeymoon it was back to the 30th Division for Reynold, who by then had been promoted to major.
Daughter Laurel vividly recalls that 1970 was a bad year economically for Iowa farmers. Those engaged in raising and feeding prime beef cattle, such as the Erichsons and many Miles area neighbors, were especially hard hit.
There was a double whammy of low cattle prices and a poorer-than-average harvest.
So Reynold and Elizabeth reluctantly decided to put off the trip until a better year. Even though they could have scraped up the money, they thought it just wouldn’t have looked right to others, taking an expensive trip to Europe at a time like that.
Better year not in time
That “better year” for which they delayed the trip never came. In 1972, just two years later, Reynold began experiencing severe medical problems. The Mayo Clinic discovered a brain tumor.
There was surgery and trips back and forth during the next five years in attempts to halt the cancer. Reynold had some good spells when he was able to do farm work, and some bad spells when he couldn’t.
Laurel and Leah and their respective husbands, Don and Gregg, came to the farm on weekends from their respective occupational responsibilities at the time in Lancaster, Wis., and Dubuque, to help out.
John Mommsen Jr., a nearby neighbor with whom Reynold had always shared farm work, helped a great deal during that long period of caring for Reynold’s medical problems.
Elizabeth took care of her proud soldier at home until some final days of hospitalization in the beginning of June 1977.
Reynold died on June 14 of that year, the nation’s Flag Day.
Feats publicized in 1992 book
The feats of Captain Erichson’s command were best publicized in a book written by Alwyn Featherston and published in 1992. It is titled “Saving the Breakout, the 30th Division’s Historic Stand at Mortain, August 7-12, 1944.”
Featherston wrote that when Hitler’s blitzkrieg crashed into Poland in September 1939, the entire U.S. Army, including its then-Army Air Corps, consisted of three skeleton divisions comprising 188,000 men. Poland had 52 army divisions totaling 2.5 million men, yet its defenses lasted less than a month.
In his book, Featherston told that Reynold Erichson, who would play a major role at Mortain, was working on his family farm near Miles when Hitler first unleashed his Panzer divisions.
The former high school basketball star, was a tall, blond young man of 20, “more interested in the girl next door than in the news from Europe.”
Featherston went on to relate what several other young men were doing at the time of the 1939 blitzkrieg, who would, with Erichson, emerge as the decorated heroes of the battle of Mortain and its Hill 317.
To be more exact, Elizabeth Pedersen, who became Mrs. Reynold Erichson, wasn’t technically “the girl next door.” She was the girl living with her parents on the farm located to the north, across the road from the homestead that had been in the Erichson family for several generations. She and Reynold were members of the Miles High School class of 1937. They rode the school bus together.
Volunteers after Pearl Harbor
Reynold volunteered for Army duty a month after the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor raid. He was soon selected for an Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. After several training camp stints, he was assigned to the 120th Infantry Regiment, which became a part of the reorganized 30th Division.
Next came Army maneuvers in Tennessee, where his units were credited with “knocking out enemy battalions.” It was a part of two years of intensive training and equipping, preparing them for what they eventually would face.
In February 1944, the 30th Divison embarked on a convoy for England. Its units included several regiments of infantry, a tank battalion, a tank destroyer battalion, an anti-aircraft battalion, four battalions of field artillery, a signal company, a medical company and the headquarters organization.
The ships bearing Erichson’s 120th Infantry Regiment sailed up the Clyde River to Glasgow, Scotland, past the big shipyards that had built Britain’s ocean liners and were now busy, despite bombings, in the building of more of its ships designed for combat or for hauling cargo or troops.
Other units landed at Liverpool and Bristol further south. By April the Division was assembled together in a training area north of the London suburbs, at Chesham.
Adjusting to wartime Britain
The official history of the 30th Division comments that the men “adjusted themselves to the wartime weakness of British beer... and the endless pitfalls of trying to keep warm in the wintertime without central heating.”
They sense they were closer to the war, as they were in a land being bombed. They restored their fine edge of endurance by marching and marching.
Artillery practice firing was hampered by the limited range.
As the calendar moved closer to June, Erichson and his regiment could see more and more rows of tanks, trucks and mountains of tarpaulin-covered supplies being accumulated for the invasion.
But when D-Day arrived on June 6, the 30th Division was still held in reserve in Southampton.
The main body came ashore at Omaha Beach, on the night of June 13-14, led by Erichson’s 120th Infantry. The only casualties in the crossing or landing came when an LST (landing ship, tank) carrying some of the guns and personnel of the division’s artillery battalion struck a mine that had been laid the previous night by German E-boats.
The ship survived, but 30 men were lost and several of the artillery pieces were damaged.
Once ashore and past the shallow beachhead, the 30th found itself immediately involved in heavy fighting.