Reading’s Boys #7: June-July 1944, Part 2

Sherwood Emory Collins Jr. (June-July 1944)

On February 3, 1941, Sherwood Collins Jr. got the call: the 29th Infantry Division was to be activated and would ship over to England around September 1942. Upon arrival, the entire division would undergo extensive training and conditioning. While I am certain that Sherwood was a Lieutenant Colonel by the time the division was preparing to cross the English Channel for Normandy, I do not know exactly when he was given that rank. Either way, I do know that in June 1944, Sherwood Collins was the Executive Officer of the 224th Field Artillery Battalion, 29th Infantry Division. If you are at all familiar with military history, you might recognize the 29th Infantry Division. That would be because it was the 29th Infantry Division that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. 

I do not have much information on Sherwood’s younger years, unfortunately. All I know is that he did not grow up here in Reading, but that he later moved here and lived at 27 Virginia Road. He entered what was considered active service on October 5, 1942, and would not return home until June 10, 1945. Just let that sink in for a moment…

I’d bet the thought did cross Sherwood’s mind as he was loaded onto the ship that would take him across the English Channel: would I ever come home again? He must have realized the hell he was in for. The sea was covered with ships as far as the eyes could see. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, Sherwood’s eyes probably turned skyward to watch the many aircraft that had dropped their payloads and sticks of paratroopers now returning to England. I wonder if he was filled with awe at the enormity of what he was witnessing. Or did he barely notice, too lost in his own head? Did he see some of the planes wagging their wings at the friendly infantry down below? Did Sherwood get seasick? Did he cry inside when he realized there was no going back? Write home? 

Luckily for Sherwood, it was the 116th Infantry Regiment from the 29th Infantry Division that would be landing first, alongside the 115th Infantry Regiment. The plan was to have the 224th Field Artillery Battalion come in sometime after the 116th and 115th Infantry had secured parts of Omaha Beach on June 6 with the 175th Infantry Regiment. It wouldn’t be possible, though: there was too much chaos and artillery fire coming down on the beach and the order came to the 175th Infantry and 224th Field Artillery Battalion to wait. I have a feeling that Sherwood could probably at least hear what was going on on that beach, and the fact that he was an officer may have meant he also had a pretty good idea of what was going on too. I can see him now, just running his hands through his hair, shaking his head, clenching his fists. One thing I don’t think many people realize is how horrifyingly traumatic the experience of simply watching as your comrades were loaded up into landing crafts and sent to their death. And you couldn’t go with them. Every man waiting to land knew what was happening. Every single one of them, whether it was a gut feeling or something they saw first-hand. You would be close enough to hear their screams, hear their cries, and yells for their mother, for the medic, perhaps close enough to see them, but too far to help them.

On June 7, 1944, Sherwood’s 224th Field Artillery Battalion was given permission to land along with the 175th Infantry Regiment, on the blood-soaked beach called Omaha. Though I could not find after-action reports from the 224th Field Artillery Battalion, I did find some from the 175th Infantry. According to these reports, multiple boats carrying men of Company F, 175th Infantry and one boat carrying men of Company L hit underwater mines and blew up. There is no doubt in my mind that Sherwood saw this happen. I don’t think I need to say much else here. Sherwood watched boats of men blow up.

Around 9:00 PM on June 7, the 175th Infantry Regiment, the regiment that Sherwood’s 224th Field Artillery Battalion would be supporting for the entirety of the war, was sent out to attempt to capture Insigny. As an officer, it is possible that Sherwood worked as a liaison officer during this time. A field artillery liaison officer would be a duty assigned to different officers of a field artillery unit every few weeks so they got to share the danger, and the job entailed sticking to an infantry officer like glue as he led his men into combat. This was an important job because it ensured that the infantry always had access to artillery support. The 175th Infantry Regiment got underway at 9:30 PM with the support of about a dozen tanks. It must have been a goosebump kind of moment for Sherwood if he had gone forward with the infantry. The men took Insigny on June 9 and the 29th Infantry Division crossed the Aure River that very night. In the coming days, Sherwood would move through Bricqueville and many other small hamlets that other Reading boys had visited only days before.

It was around June 12 that Sherwood and the 224th Field Artillery Battalion, along with their fellow infantrymen, would meet the most fierce German resistance as they approached a hill designated Hill 192, overlooking the French town of St-Lô. It would be the job of the 29th Infantry Division to secure the right flank for the forces that would actually take Hill 192. In order to do this, the 29th Infantry Division would have to cross a small but steep stream called the Elle, and capture St-Clair-sur-Elle and Couvains. In the early hours of the morning on June 12, Sherwood would have watched and listened as all the big guns around him lit up. Shot after shot after shot after shot was fired from the artillery, who were all firing in roughly the same area, hoping desperately to soften up the area for the 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division who was the primary attack force that day while the 175th Infantry Regiment held defensive positions and the 116th Infantry Regiment waited in the wings just in case. By June 13, after heavy fighting and high casualties for the 29th Infantry Division, their objectives had been seized. The 175th Infantry Regiment would also send a small task force of men to go assist other American troops in an area called Montmartin, and Sherwood certainly would have gone with them there.

The next objective would be the town of St-Lô itself, and boy, oh boy did the Germans want us out of there. I imagine that Sherwood probably would not have expected the hell that was headed his way. Yes, he had seen combat, and yes, his mind had probably drifted to his home in New York, and he had probably wondered if he would ever go back there again. But I don’t think that the boys of the 29th Infantry Division thought that it could get much worse than it had been during those lonely, blood-soaked hours on the beach called Omaha.

After nearly a month of intense training, the 175th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division would begin their thrust towards St-Lô on July 13 at 8:00 AM. It was clear to the Americans that the Germans had a much better view of them than we had of them, and German artillery and mortars began raining down on the 3rd Battalion of the 175th Infantry Regiment. The lack of tank support made it difficult for Sherwood’s artillery battery to respond. They tried everything but were unable to significantly reduce the German firepower. In an attempt to reduce the pressure on the 175th Infantry Regiment, a battalion from the 116th Infantry Regiment was moved in to assist but met increasingly heavy opposition. The attack had completely failed and everyone was pulled back to try to reorganize and recover. 

The attack was renewed on July 15 and the 116th Infantry Regiment would lead the way until they ran into a wall of German artillery fire. Again, an attempt was made to relieve pressure on the infantry in the area of Martinville but it failed. Finally, Sherwood would get the chance to help a bit. After staying in a defensive position for most of the day, the 175th Infantry Regiment (with Sherwood’s 224th Field Artillery Battalion supporting it) would be moved up to the side of the Bayeux road. It pushed forward about 400 yards until it met crippling enemy small-arms fire from the area of Ridge 101. But there was one silver lining: the friendly artillery was finally starting to hit its targets. 

As is often the case in war, though, one thing will go right and another will go horribly wrong. Sure enough, the orders to stop the advance for the night did not reach the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, who continued advancing. During the night, the Germans surrounded the battalion and cut their communication wires. The only line of communication left was the forward artillery observer’s radio. Again, I am going to reiterate this because I think it is very important: every infantry regiment in an infantry division has a field artillery battalion backing it up. The forward artillery observer was probably an officer from the 116th Infantry Regiment’s artillery battalion which was probably the 111th Field Artillery Battalion. This job would be passed around to different officers in the field artillery battalion every few weeks so that they all would share the danger since having that job meant being up on the front line. In this case, it even meant being completely surrounded. The 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment was very lucky. In the hours that followed, the Germans completely failed to launch an even slightly successful attack on the men. Had they properly executed something, it is possible that the entirety of the 2nd Battalion would have been wiped out. 

On July 17, the attack was again renewed, and the 29th Infantry Division continued its push forward. As night fell on July 18, the town of St-Lô was declared secure. The division was given eight days rest before it was put back into the line on July 26. There was no rest for these boys, and especially not for Sherwood who, as an officer, was probably charged with writing all those sad letters home, informing families of the loss of a loved one. 

Herbert Elliot Stark (June-July 1944)

When we last touched base with Herbert Stark of 98 Lowell Street, he had just traveled through Massachusetts for the last time before he would be shipped overseas, and now we find him waiting for the big day that he came all these miles for D-Day. The 30th Infantry Division, of which Herbert was a member, was scheduled to land on Omaha Beach on June 11, 1944. Unfortunately for Herbert, though, the 30th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop (Mechanized), 30th Infantry Division, would not be landing at the same time as the rest of the division. I imagine that the waiting only made Herbert and the rest of his comrades more anxious. They knew their buddies had already landed, yet here they were sitting in England. A few times, they would load up their LSTs and be told they were going, only to be told to stand down, that they weren’t going after all, and to unload all their stuff all over again.

Finally, on June 17, the 30th Recon Troop would land on Omaha Beach and move inland to their assembly area. After establishing contact with elements of the 1st Battalion, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, and 2nd Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, the troop would really enter the action.

Starting on June 20, 1944, Herbert, a member of 2nd Platoon, 30th Recon Troop, would begin patrolling the gap between the 30th Infantry Division and the 29th Infantry Division to make sure that no Germans were able to infiltrate between the lines. At this time, most of these patrols would have been on foot and not with jeeps because vehicles would attract too much enemy attention. So for now, Herbert’s ability to escape an enemy fire (and the ability of all those around him) depended on how fast he could run.

On June 21 the 1st and 2nd Platoons of the 30th Recon Troop began drawing fire from German patrols in the area. Though the gunfire wasn’t very accurate, it must have served its purpose because the 30th Recon Troop was unable to return fire. It almost sounds like it’s being described as though this fire was kind of like a fly buzzing around one’s head, but for many of these young men, this was probably the first time they’d been fired upon. I remember listening to a podcast about the landings on Omaha Beach and hearing the voice of probably a 90-year-old man crack up an octave when he explained that as he was coming into land, he started to realize that the Germans were firing at him. That realization is one that every man and woman who has ever been in combat will eventually come to understand. Herbert’s mind was probably racing: “They’re trying to kill me. They don’t even know me, why are they trying to kill me?” 

On the 23rd of June, members of Herbert’s 2nd Platoon were sent to reconnoiter a few thick hedgerows that blocked our view of the fields nearby. Today, if you go on Google Maps and search for Saint-Gilles, and you find where road D54 intersects with road D92, and then look to the field that is behind D54 at that intersection, that is where Herbert was on June 23, 1944, if he was sent on that patrol. Unfortunately, that patrol was spotted by the Germans and came under crippling small-arms fire, holding them back. The same patrol from June 23 was sent out again on June 24 to pass through that same area but they were again stopped.

After being constantly on patrol for just under a month, the 30th Recon Troop was relieved by the 125th Cavalry on July 4 and the men were allowed to go rest in a small encampment until July 7 when they were again sent into action. On July 14, Herbert’s 2nd Platoon was maintaining communication with the 39th Infantry Regiment and 47th Infantry Regiment (both of the 9th Infantry Division) when one of the platoon’s tanks was taken out by artillery fire. I imagine it must have been terrifying for Herbert. Thankfully, all members of the crew were okay, but I can imagine that that image of the tank going up in flames probably stuck with Herbert. 

On the night of July 20, 1944, the 2nd Platoon was again sent forward, under cover of darkness, to establish an outpost on the high ground overlooking the Vire River. When I think about it, I can almost hear the echoes of what it might have sounded like. Everything is still except for the occasional sound of gunfire. The wind is blowing through the low grass and rippling across the hedgerows. There is dirt on my face and body. I am tired and my limbs ache. My weapon feels like it weighs much more than I know it truly does. Everything is dark. I see the outlines of the men around me, hear their breathing. I am an American soldier in the Battle of Normandy. Luckily, Herbert’s platoon would reach the high ground and establish a lookout there without too many issues.

Shortly after being pulled back for some rest, Herbert and the rest of the 30th Recon Troop would receive their first showers since England, fresh uniforms, and warm food. Some of the tension in Herbert’s muscles might have started to dissipate. His thoughts might have drifted back to his home on Lowell Street. Perhaps he wondered silently, “What is happening in Reading, Massachusetts today?” 

If Herbert thought that this day of warm food and rest was going to continue, then he had thought wrong. On July 27, 1944, the 30th Recon Troop’s involvement in Operation Cobra would begin. The 2nd Platoon would move into St-Samson-de-Bonfosse on that day and would establish a roadblock there the very next day. I will warn you, though: August was a horrible month for the 30th Recon Troop and an especially horrible month for our Herbert. You will just have to wait and see what exactly it is that happens.

Joseph Warren Keenan (June-July 1944)

Now, I would like to offer you a disclaimer here: it is my understanding that Joseph Keenan simply died in Reading. He is not buried here and he did not grow up here. Chances are good that he lived out the last few years of his life here, but he is not really, at his core, a Reading boy. Let me say this, though: his story is still 100% worth telling. I debated removing him from my roadmap once I realized my mistake, but I decided that I had gotten too attached to him to take him off of my roadmap. So, without further ado, I give you the beginning of the story of Joseph Warren Keenan, mostly of Roxbury and a little bit of Reading. 

Born on July 4, 1916, Joseph would come into the world on a date that all Americans know as Independence Day. How fitting for the man he would become. As a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, Joseph would be called into active service on January 16, 1941, along with the rest of our national guardsmen but for some reason, Joseph would not end up serving with the Massachusetts National Guard. He would instead be assigned to the 83rd Infantry Division, 329th Infantry Regiment.

By the time that the 83rd Infantry Division had landed on Omaha Beach on June 25, 1944, Joseph would hold the rank of first lieutenant. My heart smiles at that. I am proud of him for some reason. After landing, though I’m sure Joseph probably saw some combat, he would not really experience it until he was moved to Company L, 3rd Battalion, 329th Infantry Regiment from the headquarters company. As a first lieutenant, he would have been commanding a platoon from Company L.

On July 17, two days after he had been attached to Company L, Joseph would be wounded. I have no idea how it happened. But I can just picture him laying in the grass, calling out for a medic, yelling out, “God damn it!” What horrible luck the poor guy had. He had just gotten there, he was probably just starting to get to know his men and earn their respect, and then he was gone. 

Joseph was moved to the custody of the 96th Evacuation Hospital a few miles inland from Omaha Beach and Utah Beach and would not be able to return to Company L, 329th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division until August 23, 1944, after the intense fighting in the area of Saint-Malo had finished…but he was alive, and I think that’s what matters to me. 

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