Recalling a fight for a forgotten hill

Aging former GIs want a bloody World War II battle in France commemorated

Veterans Day

November 11, 2008|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

They have never forgotten Hill 108.

It wasn't much of a hill - more of a gentle slope dotted with apple orchards, pastures, wheat fields and hedgerows - the four World War II veterans said jokingly during a recent interview in Baltimore. But they fought for three days on this patch of land in France, which got its name because it is 108 meters above sea level, and they suffered some of the highest casualty rates of the war until they finally wrested it from the Germans.

"Every time we took one of these fields, we lost men," said Steven Melnikoff, 88, who was shot during the fight for the hill. He recovered from that wound but was injured by shrapnel in a later battle.

In their 80s and 90s now, they have been bothered by the lack of a memorial for the sacrifices that hundreds of Americans made on Hill 108, which was dubbed "Purple Heart Hill."

Memorials abound for other battles in the Normandy region, where the Allies launched the invasion against the entrenched Germans on June 6, 1944. But there is none for Hill 108, where there were 600 casualties, including at least 164 killed.

This group of veterans, however, is trying to change that by next summer.

They are a little less than halfway toward raising the $18,000 they need for a marble-and-bronze monument that they hope to dedicate at next year's 65th anniversary commemoration of D-Day. The veterans are counting on donations - and the efforts of younger military veterans - to help make the monument a reality, as the older group's numbers continue to dwindle. The veterans figure a little more publicity for their efforts this Veterans Day might help them reach their goal.

The design for the monument calls for a block of French marble nearly 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide, with the symbol of the 29th Infantry Division and a bronze plaque inscribed with a short history of the division and the battle for Hill 108. The monument that the veterans aim to build would not be on the hill, which is difficult to reach and out of the way, they said. Instead, it would be in a square at a nearby village, Villiers-Fossard.

They know of only about a dozen veterans - members of the 175th Regiment in the National Guard's 29th Infantry Division - who are still alive and who fought on Hill 108. Many of those who died were from Maryland and Virginia.

"You ask why we won?" George E. Linthicum III, 72, a retired lieutenant colonel with the 175th, asked during an interview at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore. Pointing to each of the veterans, he answered: "Well, he's why, and he's why, and he's why, and he's why."

The four men were William Doyle, 94, and Melnikoff, who were technical sergeants; William Douglas, 89, a staff sergeant; and Samuel R. Krauss, 91, a private. The men, who all live in the Baltimore area, remembered vividly the importance of seizing Hill 108 and the great sacrifice it took.

The battle for the hill started June 16, 1944, 10 days after about 130,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

The Allies needed to control the high ground around St. Lo, a town that was a strategic crossroads in the region. A few miles north of St. Lo, the hill was a gently sloping piece of land interrupted by high hedgerows.

The hedgerows made it difficult for tanks to operate and offered the Germans cover. The veterans recalled how the Germans, who were difficult to spot behind the hedgerows, would let them come into the fields before opening up with automatic weapons.

The veterans said the battle was fought at close range. They watched many of their friends die or get wounded over three days, as American infantry advanced on German positions, and then the Germans launched punishing counterattacks. At one point, the Germans offered the Americans the opportunity to surrender, but Lt. Col. Roger S. Whiteford, who had been wounded, rejected the offer and hung on for victory. His relatives made a donation for the monument, the veterans said.

Krauss said that at one point, he went to scout German positions with four men. Thinking one wheat field was clear, he waved the men in - and the Germans promptly opened fire.

The four men were mowed down. Krauss was shot in the shoulder.

To this day, he said, he can't hold his right arm high enough to comb what little hair he has left.

On the first day of fighting on the hill, Melnikoff, who grew up in Rhode Island, saw his best friend, who was from New Hampshire, killed.

On the second day, he watched as the Germans suddenly opened fire on the U.S. position. He was shot in the neck. But his lieutenant did not duck in time, and he was riddled with bullets.

"He didn't get down. I hit the deck," Melnikoff said. "The fire was directed toward him instead of me."

The Allies closed in on St. Lo and eventually took control of the town in mid-July, about a month after the battle of Hill 108. Allied warplanes and artillery destroyed the town with constant bombing. In honor of its stand on Hill 108, the 1st Battalion, 175th Regiment earned a Presidential Unit Citation.

"We didn't quit. We didn't stop fighting," said Doyle, when asked about why he and his men succeeded on Hill 108. "We just kept going."

Rodricks: A death

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