By Maj. Kevin Hynes
Nebraska National Guard
LE MESNIL ROUXELIN, France (8/13/09) -- For a few moments on July 17, retired Col. James A. Huston was no longer a 91-year-old World War II veteran.
Instead, the former intelligence and operations officer from the 3rd Battalion, 134th Infantry Regiment, was once again a 26-year-old first lieutenant leading a group of people through the tangled hedgerows of Normandy in search of a special objective, just as he had 65 years earlier.
Unfortunately, much had changed over the decades. Many of the hedgerows had been removed to give the local French farmers more room to plant their crops. New houses and gardens have sprouted on what in July 1944 was a bloody, confused battlefield that would become remembered by the survivors as “Bloody Sunday.”
On this morning the sounds of battle were no longer present. Instead, the sounds of passing cars, twittering birds, mooing dairy cattle and barking dogs replaced the sounds of machineguns, mortar shells and artillery explosions.
As he walked along, Huston tried to make sense of the modernity. One of his French guides pointed toward a lane about 100 yards away. Looking at his guide, Huston said sternly with the directness of a 26-year-old infantry officer: “No, it wasn’t down there. It was right here … right here up this lane.”
His guide tried once again to point down the lane, explaining that his objective couldn’t have been where Huston was pointing because of what had most likely been at this location in 1944.
“I’m telling you I know where I’m at, where I was at back then and it’s right up there, “ he said, pointing at a driveway that wrapped around a shuttered Norman house.
“But this is private property,” the guide protested. “We can’t go up there.”
“It was private property the last time I was here, too, and that didn’t seem to bother the homeowners,” he said, smiling with quick wide grin.
Then, with a swiftness that belied his advanced age, Huston moved up the driveway and disappeared around the house. A few moments later, the rest of the contingent followed.
Standing in a shaded garden, Huston took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the filtered light of the surrounding hedges and trees and then, looking outward from the fenced yard, he smiled quickly.
Pointing first with his cane and then with his finger, he turned back to companions and announced: "Right there."
"I was set up under that tree. And over there… over near that hedgerow," Huston said, using his hand to indicate a second hedgerow about 50 yards in front of “his” tree as he turned to talk to a particular member of his “patrol.”
“That is where your dad was hit," he said.
Huston's traveler was Neal Thomsen, 79, from Indianapolis, Ind. His father was the late Lt. Col.
Alfred Thomsen of Omaha, Neb., who had commanded Huston's battalion, part of the 134th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, in July 1944 when the organization fought to liberate the strategically critical St. Lo, France.
During the bloody and confused July 15-18, 1944 battle, nearly one out of every three regimental Soldiers had been either killed or severely wounded.
It was the Nebraska National Guard regiment’s first taste of combat. It would not be its last.
After helping take the city on July 18, 1944, the regiment spent several days defending St. Lo from a near constant onslaught of German artillery and mortar shells, before it was ordered south toward the Vire River to protect the flanks of Lt. Gen. George Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army, which was already cutting through the German defenses into the Brittany peninsula.
Part of this effort would eventually place the German defenders in an unsustainable pocket between the American and British and Canadian armies.
That is what had taken Thomsen’s battalion to Conde-sur-Vire on July 30, 1944. It was here that Thomsen was mortally wounded when a German artillery round exploded above his command post as his battalion fought a bloody engagement against the entrenched Germans that would long be remember by the survivors as “Bloody Sunday.”
Thomsen died 16 days later in England from a blood clot.
Nearly 65 years later, Thomsen's sacrifice was memorialized in granite when the tiny village of Le Mesnil Rouxelin. The tiny hamlet of about 550 that lay on the right-hand border of the 134th’s Infantry Regiment route into St. Lo unveiled a monument in memory of the fallen Nebraska Guard commander on July 17.
“Lieutenant Colonel Thomsen was a hard man, but brave; respected and admired by his men, always implied with an accurate sense of duty,” said Andree Chan, president of the current 35th Division Association in Normandy, who was instrumental in getting the memorial to Thomsen created. “The admiration by his men is so deep that they informed us of their wish that an homage is owed to him here where he saved the battalion from a possible massacre without taking his life into account.”
“This very important hero among heroes has sacrificed his life for our liberty,” said Chan, who, as a young girl, hid with her parents as the battle raged near their home near St. Lo in 1944.
She addressed a crowd of several hundred people, who had gathered in a drizzling rain near the town square, to dedicate the granite memorial standing beneath the French and American national colors and a field of waist-high corn.
“The honor given to him today is more than justified,” she said.
The mayor of Le Mesnil Rouxelin agreed, saying that the men of the 134th Infantry Regiment that Thomsen led helped end four years of terror at the hands of their German occupiers.
“During four years of trying to obey the orders of the enemy invaders, we were deprived of the liberties of cars, radios, but also food, clothes and most of all… freedom,” said Roland Lerouge. “For four terrible years, until the sixth of June 1944, we waited.”
“This period of our history will remain forever in our memory and will be commemorated every single year,” Larouge said. “The fights were awful and murderous. Step by step you conquered back our land. And for our city, thanks for the 35th Division (Santa Fe) we got back our freedom.”
For Neal Thomsen, who was 14 when he opened a telegram informing his family of their Soldier's death, it was a moment he'd waited to see for much of his life.
"This may sound funny, but he's at peace now," said Thomsen, who had been near tears as he thank the villagers for the honor given to his father. "This brings closure to what I didn't know about his passing. He's got the monument he's waited for for 65 years."
Huston was also visibly moved by the memorial. "In dedicating this monument to the memory of Colonel Thomsen, we dedicate ourselves to the principles for which he fought and died," he told the crowd. "He was the embodiment of bravery, of a sense of purpose, a sense of humor. And those principles and those traditions honor both his family and all of the Soldiers who served with him."
Prior to the late afternoon ceremony, Thomsen spent most of the day touring some of the significant sites of the 134th Infantry Regiment's battle into and out of St. Lo in July 1944 with Huston.
For Huston in particular, the day’s events were extremely meaningful. A native of Indiana, he had not only served as the fallen commander’s intelligence officer, but had developed a friendship with the Nebraska Guardsman during their training in the United States and England.
He said the honor given to Thomsen was long overdue. “The 29th Division came in from one direction and we came in from another. They had their major of St. Lo – Major (Thomas) Howie – who was a very fine officer. But in our battalion we had our Colonel Thomsen who led his battalion all the way from Villiers Fossard into St. Lo,” said Huston.
“He was mortally wounded south of St. Lo, so in a way I thought the 35th Division ought to have somebody symbolizing their spirit and contributions in coming from the other direction into the area.”
Huston remembered his former commander as not only a brave Soldier, but also as a man who loved to invent things and tell jokes. “You look at him in on instance and he was very tough and very vigorous and so on,” said Huston, who after the war became a noted historian and wrote extensively about Thomsen in his 1950 book, “Biography of a Battalion.”
“Other times, he loved to sit around and exchange stories … jokes,” he added. “He had this thick notebook and any good joke he ever heard, he would put it down. Then he and the executive officer would sit around and talk. We would say that they sounded like two old maids chit-chatting back and forth. He would always like a good story like that.”
In Huston’s book, he also recalled how the 46-year-old Thomsen, who served as a blacksmith for the Union Pacific railroad in Omaha before the war, loved to invent things. For example, he developed away to send messages up to a truck from a jeep during a convoy by devising a stick with a clothespin. He developed an all- purpose glue he used to repair nearly everything. He also created his own clothing.
“Disgusted with the perpetual shortness of raincoats, he obtained two of the waterproof garments and had the lower half of the second sewed onto the bottom of the first,” Huston wrote in Biography of a Battalion. “It fell all the way to the heels of his shoes; when he wore it he looked as though he were peering out of the tope of a pyramidal tent.
“The men would refer to things of the colonel’s in making comparisons in the superlative: an especially large tent or balloon was ‘as big as Colonel Thomsen’s raincoat’; a massive pack or bulky load was ‘as heavy as Colonel Thomsen’s bed roll’; a big collection of papers was ‘as thick as Colonel Thomsen’s notebook’…”
At one point during their tour of the battlefield, Huston directed Thomsen and his wife Doris along the road where Thomsen had led his battalion into its first battle on July 15, 1944. Also following along were Brig. Gen. David Petersen, current assistant commander of the 35th Infantry Division, and seven members of a Nebraska Army Guard color guard from the 1-134th Cavalry Squadron (Reconnaissance and Surveillance), who had traveled to France to represent the current historical lineage holders of the 134th Infantry Regiment.
Huston said the 3-134th Infantry had initially moved into position on the outskirts of Villiers Fossard to relieve two battalions of the 29th Infantry Division’s 115th Infantry Regiment.
On the morning of July 15, 1944, the 3-134th Infantry held the line as the regiment’s two other battalions passed by to launch the attack toward Hill 122, a prominent plateau overlooking St. Lo that the German’s had turned into a key observation point that had allowed them to defeat several earlier American attacks.
Several hours later, the battle was already raging with mounting casualties when Thomsen received the order to move forward to expand upon the progress that the regiment’s 1st Battalion was making.
Within a short distance down the road, however, Huston said the battalion realized that 1st Bn. had bypassed many of the German defenders, who were now moving in to cut off the offensive.
Nearing a bend in the road, barely a football field length away from the start of the march, the battalion began receiving incoming artillery rounds. Huston said he was sent forward with several other Soldiers to see what lay in front of them.
Climbing atop a hedge, he saw Germans moving in the fields in front of them.
“There are Germans running all over the place,” he said. “The sergeant says, ‘Should I fire at them, and I said, ‘Yes fire.’ They were clear across the field… I don’t think he hit anybody, but they all ran away.”
Continuing his observation, Huston said he soon received a message that Thomsen was impatient and had ordered the battalion forward. Rounding the bend, the battalion – which was marching along in a column on either side of the road – suddenly saw a German tank move out of the field in front of them. As the rest of the battalion scrambled for cover, Thomsen jumped up into a raised meadow, pulled out his .45 caliber pistol and fired five bullets at the tank.
“And the tank turned around and fled,” said Huston laughing.
Because the battalion was spread out on the road and was in danger of running into a potentially disastrous ambush against tanks, the executive officer – who was now out of contact with Thomsen – ordered the battalion to return to its starting point.
Thomsen would finally make his way back to the battalion command post several hours later after crawling through the frontlines under near constant bombardment. He then called the regimental and division headquarters – which were insisting upon a resumption of the attack – and insisted that the Germans were still in front of them very much in force.
Without American tank support, he argued, the attack would be suicidal.
“He was never afraid of anything and he had a sense of purpose,” said Huston. “When he was given an objective, he tended to reach the objective and people never questioned his judgment.”
“He looked out for us,” he added. “If he received an order that was not practical because of the situation, he always wanted to know what we were doing for reconnaissance. He would protect us that way.”
In the end, Thomsen won the argument, gaining permission to delay the attack until the next morning when armored support arrived.
Huston remembered how on one occasion, Thomsen was wounded when one of his Soldiers mistakenly fired a rifle grenade using live ammunition instead of blank. Exploding at the end of the barrel, the grenade peppered Thomsen and several other Soldiers with shrapnel.
“’Ahh, that won’t stop anyone,’” Huston recalled Thomsen saying about his wounds. “’Let’s go.’”
Neal Thomsen said having the opportunity to spend time with Huston was an experience of a lifetime.
“It gives me a sense of closure after 65 years of not knowing the details that I’m now getting. It’s quite an experience,” he said.
Thomsen said he was equally impressed by the citizens of the French communities he visited. “I’ve got a greater appreciation for what the French citizens suffered and gained as a result of what we did,” he said.
Thomsen’s wife was equally impressed. “What has been the most revealing to me is how revered the French hold the Americans,” said Doris Thomsen. “I wasn’t expecting that… I am just overwhelmed by the love they have shown the Americans.”