Cpl Robert "Dutch" Francis, Co E, 2nd Bn, 22d Inf, 1944-5
  For a 19 year old from Winnetka, Illinois in the 1940s, the idea of heading off to war to defend his country seemed the noblest, greatest,and most adult undertaking possible. It was a different time then: a time when we trusted and respected our politicians; a time when we didn't question their call to arms; a time when we were proud to put our lives and our backs behind the all-too-real cause of stopping the spread of true evil in the world. There was no media to show us boys being blown to bits by land mines or cut to shreds by machine guns. The war was only seen on the big screen, where everyone was a hero and the leading man always lived on to win the good fight.

That's how I saw it then, as I marched down to the enlistment center with my best friend Charlie Siwocki in the October chill of 1943. Within 4 months, I was on my way to England to join up with the 22nd Infantry Regiment in the 4th Infantry Division. Charlie on the other hand, filed off to the Pacific with his Marine detachment. Two kids, leaving for war together, heading opposite ways to fight for our nation.

I spent my 20th birthday (February 29, 1944) in England, training for what was eventually to be the D-Day invasion, although we didn't know it then. I became pretty much a loner in my unit, though. I think the anxiety building in me to get out to what I thought was going to be the war was eating me up inside. I was surrounded by a mix of guys fresh from the States and veterans who had seen their buddies die by the dozens in places like Messina and Anzio. I felt distant from both groups, became kind of a problem soldier, even got busted back down to Private.

D-Day: Utah Beach

I would get my wish to be part of the action soon enough. In late May, after months of hard training, we got our orders for what was to become the D-Day landings in Normandy. My battalion, 2/22 -- The Triple Deuces -- was to land just hours after the initial assault on Utah Beach. As apprehensive as we were about being among the first few waves on enemy shores, our hearts went out to the 3rd battalion, who were one of the initial landing groups heading into the unknown.

There was not much sleep for any of us in early June, and we were in sad shape when we sailed through the evening of 5 June 1944. By the time we boarded the LSTs to head for shore in the dawn of 6 June, we had heard nothing of the groups that had departed hours before us to clear the beaches, nor had we any word of the paratroopers dropped in the night before to soften the positions. At that point, all my desire to get in the action had evaporated. Men were throwing up left and right from the anxiety and the seasickness. All I could do was to focus on the rifle in my hand and pray that if there were any Germans left on that beach, that their shots would go awry.

As it turned out, Utah Beach was as much of a cakewalk as we could have hoped. Even the first landing group met with limited resistance, and by the time we hit the beaches at 0800 D-Day things were clear and it was a quick progression out of the crafts, onto the beach, and up into the hedgerows.

If you have seen Saving Private Ryan (which is a must see), you'll see how lucky we were at Utah. The movie accurately shows how some of our boys were chewed up by German machine guns and artillery trying to get ashore at Omaha. I must admit, I was terrified hitting the beach. Even though there were no Germans in sight and no immediate danger nearby, artillery shells and the distant sounds of gunfire are enough to send even the toughest new soldier trembling just a bit.

Utah was not a problem for us in terms of the enemy, but logistically it was a mess. We made our rally points quickly but had no real direction where to go from there. Most of us sat smoking apprehensively, or trying to spy a glance of General Teddy Roosevelt who was directing things from the landing sites. By noon, we were aggressively heading northwest into the mass of fields and hedgerows that was Northern France without having seen a single German.

We had advanced perhaps 1/2 mile inland when we encountered the enemy for the first time, other than a few minutes of "duck and cover" shelling. If you've never experienced this before, I can't explain it to you. The fear of death and direct combat with another human being looking to kill you, even if on the other side of a mound of dirt and hedge does something to your mind and body that you do not forget. We fired wildly at first, then more directly and succeeded in driving back the small platoon of Germans that stood in the way of our advance on Quineville.

Sleep that night was troubled and not fitful. The stresses of combat had exhausted us all but the nerves were still on edge, especially for those of us who had not seen combat before. I still recall distinctly lying under the night sky looking up through broken clouds and realizing that I was sleeping on land that 24 hours earlier had been part of the hated Nazi empire. I truly was a long way from Illinois.

My First Weeks At War

The next few weeks would find us struggling to become battle hardened soldiers. All our personal dislikes for one another faded as we came together to fight a common enemy. I found myself protecting the lives of men I previously had no love for as if they were part of my family. Sleep was something you got when you could, and was often interrupted by the distant sounds of shelling or a perceived snap nearby that could be the enemy. As a result, we were all on raw nerves.

During our first week in France, our objective was a small fortress like town named Azeville -- strategically located on the ridge line from Quineville that some general thought we must occupy at all costs. While our first 2 days were deceptively calm, by June 8th we were in heated battles with German troops intent on holding Azeville.

It was both exhilirating and terrifying, but never until later. During battle, we had no time to think, only to react and do what we needed to either advance or save ourselves and others. For two days we assaulted heavily armed and fortified German positions, seeing our friends wounded and killed for the first time. Finally, through half brilliant assault and half miracle, the German positions were overrun and surrendered. Our first real victory!

It was shortlived as several days later, we were once again pressed onward through the gap in German defenses towards the goal of Quineville, our new objective. We found ourselves again attacking fortified positions, attempting to take hills in the face of heavy fire, with only our brief training and our hardened leaders to push us on. Quineville bolstered our confidence again though, as our battalion drove the Germans from several key points on the ridge over the town. The burst of adrenaline from victory had become almost contagious for us and I found myself longing to head back into battle again.

After the capture of the town, our battalion fell into reserve duty for a while. And it gave us time to relax and think about what we had been through. This was both good and bad. Some of my fondest war memories come from this weeklong stretch of time where it was almost possible to believe there wasn't a war going on 20 kilometers away. We occupied the area in and around Quineville and spent our time on patrols and being spoiled by the few French villagers who hadn't fled. The ego boost for young 20 year old Dutch Francis from Illinois to be treated like a conquering hero was amazing. I still can play back in my mind, sitting next to a farmhouse outside the town with some old villagers listening to "Les Deux Rengaines" by Edith Piaf and smoking together as if it were the most natural thing in the world for us American boys to be best of friends with French farmers. Edith Piaf seemed to be playing everywhere in France, so this is my background music for this page: the only song of hers I could find "La Vie En Rose".

The short term goal of the Army was the city of Cherbourg, located nearly 100 kilometers away at the top of the peninsula on which we landed. The next month found us fighting our way north through resistance that seemed at times non-existant and at times invincible. I was excited to be part of the liberation of a city, but instead we fought to the east of the city, keeping open our supply and reinforcement lines and, eventually, to take the airfield there. I was already growing weary of battle, of seeing men who I trusted gunned down as they charged dug-in defensive positions, but all in all, we had it a lot lighter than a lot of the units there did. So I gutted it out and thought to the breaks in fighting that made it all tolerable. Within a month of being in France, we had cleared the peninsula north to Cherbourg of German resistance and were ready to turn towards Paris.

Riding Into Paris

The trip south to meet our fellow GIs driving the jerrys back southward was a welcome rest from the weeks of hard fighting on the peninsula. We rode like conquering heroes through lands that had been occupied by the Nazis just a month before, racing forward to keep up with the breakneck speed of our advancing armor.