Battle's survivors plan a monument in France Eldersburg man devotes energies to WW II memorial SOUTHEAST--Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber

April 13, 1993|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

Nearly 50 years ago, in the days following the Allied invasion of France, an 18-year-old U.S. Army soldier fought with the 79th Infantry Division and built lifelong friendships.

"Once you are in combat, not much else can scare you," said Richard T. Yates, recalling the battles from his Eldersburg home.

"We took Cherbourg and then moved on to La Haye du Puits. It was a killing field. You shot at people, trying to wound them if you could."

Now he wants to honor the almost 3,000 men of the 79th who lost their lives in France. He and other survivors have devoted their energies to placing a monument at the site of one of the fiercest battles: La Haye du Puits.

"The battle was a breakthrough, the first time we broke through a major German line," he said. "After our victory, Patton raced across the rest of France with little resistance."

The soldiers had landed in France about a week after D-Day, June 6, 1944. After taking Cherbourg later that month, the 79th moved south. For several days, the men were engaged in a battle outside La Haye du Puits.

Taking the small French town was pivotal to Gen. George Patton's strategy, Mr. Yates said.

The Allies' success was not without cost. Private Yates was one of thousands of casualties.

On July 3, 1944, he lay wounded and near death in a field outside the town, hit by fragments of an artillery shell aimed at a nearby tank.

"I had been hit in nine places and sustained enough injuries to kill 30 men," said Mr. Yates. "Only minutes after the artillery shell hit me, I was looking into the dirty dogfaces of medics who came to rescue me. They looked like angels."

The medics took him to the battalion aid station, where he "was away from the front but still heard the constant shells."

At 68, he still considers himself fortunate to have survived those injuries. He never forgot those who lost their lives in the battle, and he vowed to return to France one day.

Next week, Mr. Yates fulfills that vow as he and several survivors of the battle of La Haye du Puits reunite to dedicate a monument to the comrades who lost their lives there 49 years ago.

The 79th Infantry Division has held many reunions since its combat days.

"It's like a brotherhood of men who share the same experience, frights and nightmares," he said. "Now, we only hear the funny stories and none of the gory stuff we all want to forget."

Many of those stories involve lost friends. He smiled as he recalled an American Indian soldier, who called him "Jates." The two were on guard duty one night, when the friend swore he heard something. "Jates" told him to shoot.

The soldier fired, emptying his magazine into the night. Daylight revealed a horse grazing a few feet from the two fearful young guards, who for days were the brunt of the unit's jokes.

"My friend got killed a few months after I was wounded," he said wistfully.

At every reunion, the veterans discussed building a monument in France. Discussions never made it to the drawing board. Two years ago, they decided it was time to act.

"Father Time was taking over the ranks," he said. "We knew we had to do it soon."

In 1991, several veterans returned to France. They scouted a site for the memorial by retracing the 79th Division's route.

"We kept coming back to the town where I was wounded," he said. "We walked down the main road; it still has the same sign: D900.

"Almost 3,000 men died in that place, and it just seemed like the right place for a memorial."

Many of the French residents felt the same way, he said. While the Americans were searching for a location, "young people in their 20s came out and thanked us. I think they realized what the consequences would have been if we hadn't done what we did."

The mayor of La Haye du Puits offered the veterans a two-acre site valued at about $10,000. The town also offered perpetual care of the land in a town park. That sealed the veterans' resolve.

"We felt our own expense was worthwhile," he said. "Not only those living but all the guys who died there all should be remembered."

With money from their treasury and several donations, they commissioned a 10-foot, $22,000 concrete monument on the site. Dedication day, set for April 20, will be a municipal holiday. The French officials are closing schools and businesses, and townspeople are providing transportation to the ceremony for their visitors.

About 120 American veterans and their spouses will attend, said Mr. Yates. They, too, are making a holiday of the trip.

"We will meet in Paris and tour other old battle sites," he said. "They all look about the same now. The fellows love it, and the women hate it."

This trip is quite a contrast to his first visit, when he was a teen-age draftee, only a few months removed from basic training, he said.

"Many of the survivors are not physically able to go back this year," he said. "We are doing this for all of them."

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