July 2006

Norman Beecher, World War II

The following are excerpts from an article from the town of Concord Oral History Program. The full article can be found at the Concord Free Public Library.

Norman Beecher participates in the Memorial Day parades in Concord and regularly attends the town's annual Holocaust Memorial program. His regiment participated in the opening of the Dachau concentration camp in World War II.

I was in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and in the ordnance department, which is the department that does repair tanks, guns and equipment. I was sent down to Aberdeen Proving Grounds where the ordnance department was trained. I went down first for 3 months of basic training, back to school for 3 months and then went down finally. At that time, I had the option of whether I would be going to officer candidates school or going simply into the service somewhere. I had a number of tests and interviews, and about half of our ROTC group went to officer candidates school, and the other half got assigned to somewhere else in the service as enlisted men. So I went to officer candidates school and from there was sent down to Camp Campbell in Kentucky and was assigned to the 14th Armored Division. Each armored division has a battalion or ordnance that carries all the equipment. One ordnance company goes with each combat commander into battle and stays right behind him and takes care of the tanks and getting them off the field and preparing them.

We went overseas within a couple of months. We landed in Marseilles. Marseilles was the second front opened in Europe and had been opened in about August or September 1944. The first invasion was in June, the Normandy landing. Those troops were spreading out in Europe and driving inland, but they hadn't gotten anywhere near the German border. So they opened this other front. The attack on Marseilles was not nearly as costly as the one in Normandy, because a lot of German troops were off fighting the people in Normandy. So it was a relatively small battle. It was done by troops before I got there.

We got there in early November. Then we spent a month putting our equipment in shape. When you ship tanks and guns overseas in ships, you have to load them up with grease or they would be ruined by the ocean spray and salt water. So we had to clean all that off and assemble the weapons that had been disassembled for packing purposes, including trucks. Then, after a month, we headed north. As we headed north, we went to the main road through the Rhone Valley behind the German army, which had been destroyed by the people ahead of us. Every armored division has three combat commands, combat command A, B and reserve command. One or two of them took part in some of the final battles with the Germans to destroy this division. What happened was the Germans were retreating from Marseilles up the Rhone Valley, and the Americans sent a force over the mountains around the main road, a very difficult route, but they managed it with tanks and infantries and blocked off the road north at the top end of the Rhone Valley, so the Germans were trapped. So then we were pounding them from both sides and that took several weeks. But by the time we came up, the roads along either side were just piled with dead horses, broken trucks, artillery pieces, small weapons and even a lot of dead German soldiers, so that you could see there had been a great deal of destruction.

I did have a good deal of interaction with the German population after the war. I had a good deal of interaction with the French because we spent until early spring of 1945 in France trying repeatedly to break through the Siegfried Line, which was the defensive line at the German border. Every time we tried, we got driven back. There were lots of block houses that could come up from the ground and go back in. There were lots of block houses that were disguised as houses, and when you fired a shell, the house parts fell off and you saw 7-foot thick reinforced concrete with cannon and machine guns firing. It was a very difficult thing to get through. We did finally break through in late spring. The way it was done was the engineers, combat engineers, strapped 50-pound packs of TNT on their backs and crawled across open fields at night with smoke blowing over them to decrease visibility and went up to the dragon's teeth which were in front of the block houses. Dragon's teeth are odd-shaped pieces of concrete which tanks can't climb over. They blew those dragon's teeth up and created paths for us to get in. Then the division attacked. The way they neutralized the block houses in general was someone who was able to get up close to them would throw a grenade into one of the firing slots. It was the only way they could get in. The artillery shells were totally ineffective.

I probably should mention the battle of Hatten, which was the biggest battle we were in. Hatten is a town in France near the German border. It was in the middle of the Marginot Line which was the French defensive line, much less impressive then the German Siegfried Line, but there were a number of block houses. As we advanced, we were met by German forces and these German forces were probably a spillover from the Battle of the Bulge, which had started in Belgium earlier and made the 101st t Airborne famous. But that battle did continue for a long time, and the Germans did advance and they spilled over to the south and came over to us. So we were met by a German armored division and two infantry divisions. We had essentially the same line up of divisions, and we met up in Hatten and fought for about 10 days. Of course, Hatten was leveled to the maximum of about 3 feet. It was a very bloody battle, and we lost every tank. We had an armored division with 256 tanks, and every tank was put out of action. And we lost, of course, a certain amount of infantry although casualties were not as high as you would expect. Our total casualties during the war were only about 5% to 6%, whereas wars like the Civil War had a 50% casualty rate.

Anyway, we had a very bloody battle. I was in a forward recovery station. I was given the assignment to go forward with the attacking units and bring the tanks back for repair. So I was in a forward unit and I was right in the middle of the artillery. The artillery was 17 battalions, ranging all the way from 75 millimeters up to 240 millimeters, and they fired continuously for 10 days. The result was I ended up taking over a German farmhouse for my troops to use and the barn for some of our equipment and that farmhouse had every tile fall off the roof, but it was never hit by anything. It was just the shock of the percussion of all the artillery. So that was what damaged my hearing considerably. I have not since been able to hear very many high notes.

For more information contact Dick Krug, Veterans Agent for the town of Concord. He can be reached by email or by phone at 978-318-3038.