Year of the Dragoon
By the time Simpson recovered from his wounds and returned to his unit several weeks later, the 45th Division had been moved to Salerno.
Amphibious assault training was held in earnest under the hot summer sun.
“We would go out in the morning to the ships maybe half a mile (offshore),” said Simpson. “Then we would crawl over the side of the ship on nets and get into invasion barges. Then we would circle and circle waiting for the other ships and then head in (to shore).”
Once on the beach, Simpson’s job was to reach the barbed wire and yell “Bangalore torpedo.” The soldiers handling the oddly named explosive charge contained in several long tubes would run up to Simpson’s position, slide under the barbed wire and blow a hole in it.
Advancing just beyond the barbed wire was one of the company’s favorite parts of training.
“We would always end up in this watermelon patch and I felt sorry for the poor Italian farmer,” said Simpson. “We’d hit the ground and see these watermelons lying there. We’d take our trench knife and slice it and eat the heart out. We only did that several days on his property but I know that farmer was glad to see us go.”
During a rare break in training, Simpson and a buddy decided to go sightseeing in Salerno. The decision nearly proved fatal.
“We rented a little boat and went out in the water and nearly got run over by an oil tanker,” laughed Simpson. “Neither one of us knew anything about boats. We paddled as fast as we could back to shore and returned the boat. Then we went and saw a movie.”
As the days of training began to mount up, so did the rumors. Many of the men began to believe they were preparing for an invasion of the Balkans.
They soon found out differently. The invasion of southern France, known as Operation Dragoon, occurred on Aug. 15, 1944.
It wasn’t until the regiment was put aboard ships and heading for France that the details of the plan were finally revealed.
Although initial resistance by the Germans was minimal, Simpson’s 12-man squad lost a man to sniper fire just minutes after moving beyond the beaches. As they reached a small road running parallel to the ocean they very nearly lost an inexperienced officer who had chosen to ignore the advice of his battle-hardened men.
“This lieutenant, he had never been in combat before, came running up with his map,” said Simpson. “He said, ‘Let’s make sure we are going in the right direction.’ But he had on his helmet this bright silver (insignia) of a second lieutenant. We had told him he should disguise his helmet some way because (snipers) look to shoot officers.”
Within seconds of opening his map, a keen-eyed German proved the men correct.
“A shot rang out and it hit him right on the silver of his helmet,” said Simpson. “It put a dent in his helmet and he fell back.”
Both Simpson and the lieutenant fell into a ditch on one side of the road while the rest of the squad remained pinned down by fire on the other side.
As Simpson looked up he realized that he was directly beneath a German position located on the top of a 10-foot high embankment.
“We were in a ditch underneath the Germans,” said Simpson. “Next thing I know, here comes all these German hand grenades, there must have been a dozen, and they bounced onto the American side of the road. I couldn’t throw a grenade because it would have come right back down the bank.”
Simpson started crawling along the ditch and advanced about 10 or 15 yards when he realized a German had spotted him.
“A piece of bush would fly off and a thud would go into the bank beside me,” said Simpson. “I looked and here was this German soldier on top of the hill where I was going up. He was looking right down my little ditch. He was on his stomach but propped up against a telephone pole.
“He was shooting at me, so, I decided this wasn’t the place to be. I fired three quick shots with my M-1 (rifle) just to make sure he put his head down. I didn’t even get the chance to aim. Then I crossed the road and kept going up the other side.”
As Simpson looked back he saw another American company had moved up the road and eliminated the enemy position. The German who nearly killed Simpson was lying dead, still propped up against the pole.
“I went up behind him and looked right down his sights at where I had been,” said Simpson. “I was 19 and I was curious.”
The teenager still had four more months of combat ahead of him to try to placate that youthful curiosity.
(The conclusion of this story will appear in next week’s edition.)