Those of us who have never experienced combat are hard-pressed to understand the kill-or-be-killed necessity of eliminating the enemy. We do, however, understand democracy, for most of us have never lived under any other form of government.
The following is an excerpt transcribed from Stephen E. Ambrose’s “The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II.”
It is the story of one man’s stand against tyranny – one man’s charge against Adolph Hitler.
The setting: D-Day, Normandy, Utah Beach. Moving inland.
Inland, by about a kilometer from Saint Martin de Vierville, there was a group of buildings holding a German coastal artillery barracks. Lt. Col. Patrick Cassidy, commanding the 1st Battalion of the 502nd, short of men and with a variety of missions to perform, sent Sgt. Harrison Summers with 15 men to capture the barracks. That was not much of a force to take on a full-strength German company, but it was all Cassidy could spare.
Summers set out immediately, not even taking the time to learn the names of the men he was leading, who were showing considerable reluctance to follow this unknown sergeant.
Summers told Sgt. Leland Baker, “Go up to the top of this rise and watch in that direction and don’t let anything come over that hill and get on my flank. Stay there until you’re told to come back.” Baker did as ordered.
Summers then went to work, charging the first farmhouse, hoping his hodgepodge squad would follow. It did not. But, he kicked in the door and sprayed the interior with his Tommy gun. Four Germans fell dead. Others ran out a back door to the next house.
Summers, still alone, charged that house. Again the Germans fled. His example inspired Pvt. William Burt to come out of the roadside ditch where the group was hiding, set up his light machine gun and begin laying down a suppressing fire against the third barracks building.
Once more, Summers dashed forward. The Germans were ready this time. They shot at him from loopholes, but what with Burt’s machine gun fire and Summers’ zigzag running, failed to hit him. Summers kicked in the door and sprayed the interior, killing six Germans and driving the remainder out of the building.
Summers dropped to the ground, exhausted and in emotional shock. He rested for half an hour. His squad came up and replenished his ammunition supply.
As he rose to go on, an unknown captain from the 101st, misdropped by miles, appeared at his side. “I’ll go with you,” said the captain. At that instant, he was shot through the heart, and Summers was again alone.
He charged another building, killing six more Germans. The rest threw up their hands. Summers turned the prisoners over to his men.
One of them, Pvt. John Camien, called out, “Why are you doing it?” “I can’t tell you,” Summers replied.
“What about the others?”
“They don’t seem to want to fight,” said Summers, “and I can’t make them, so I’ve gotta finish it.”
“OK,” said Camien, “I’m with you.”
Together, Summers and Camien moved from building to building, taking turns charging and giving covering fire. Burt, meanwhile, moved up with his machine gun.
There were two buildings to go. Summers charged the first and kicked the door open to see 15 German artillerymen, seated at mess tables eating breakfast. Summers never paused; he shot them down at the tables.
The last building was the largest. Beside it were a shed and a haystack. Burt used tracer bullets to set them ablaze. The shed, used for ammunition storage, quickly exploded, driving 30 Germans out into the open, where Summers, Camien and Burt shot some of them down as the others fled.
Another member of Summers’ makeshift squad came up. He had a bazooka, which he used to set the roof of the last building on fire. The Germans on the ground floor were firing a steady fusillade from loopholes in the walls, but as the flames began to build, they dashed out. Many died in the open. Thirty-one others emerged with raised hands to offer their surrender.
Summers collapsed, exhausted by his nearly five hours of combat. He lit a cigarette. One of the men asked him, “How do you feel?” “Not very good. It was all kinda crazy. I’m sure I’ll never do anything like that again.”
Summers got a battlefield commission and a Distinguished Service Cross. He was put in for the Medal of Honor, but the paperwork got lost.
D-Day was a smashing success for the 4th Division and its attached units. Nearly all objectives were attained, even though the plan had to be abandoned before the first assault waves hit the beach. Casualties were astonishingly light, thanks in large part to the paratroopers coming in on the German defenders from the rear. In 15 hours the Americans put ashore at Utah more than 20,000 troops and 1,700 motorized vehicles. By nightfall, the division was ready to move out at first light for its next mission, taking Montebourg, then moving on to Cherbourg.
Harrison Summers was a 26-year-old West Virginian coal miner turned paratrooper that day on Utah Beach. He died of lung cancer in 1983. Friends’ efforts to have the Medal of Honor awarded posthumously failed. This was just the beginning of Summers’ WWII service. Read more about his outstanding record HERE.
Ambrose’s book is filled with heroes. One could argue that every foot that landed on Omaha, Utah, Sword and Gold beaches that fateful day belonged to a hero. But, the historian makes no attempt to romanticize war. “The Victors” captures the chaos and catastrophe of war. The overall theme of the book, which I highly recommend, is the perseverance of democracy over a totalitarian regime.
This was just one day in the history of that continuing struggle - and one man's bravery in the face of it.