After I graduated from Colgate University in June 1943, I entered midshipman school on Sept. 1 at the Chicago campus of Northwestern University. I graduated on Dec. 23 as brand new “90-day wonder.”
I reported to Camp Bradford on the outskirts of Norfolk, Va. to train as a naval gunfire liaison officer. My duties were equivalent to those of a forward observer for the artillery. The class lasted about three months and included training at Fort Sill, Okla.
With that training completed, we received orders to fly to the Navy base at Arzew, Algeria, on the Mediterranean Sea about 20 miles east of Oran. Our daily conversations invariably included “how Arzew” and “Arzew happy?”
At Arzew, we were being trained for the invasion of southern France, set to start four months later. Whenever a destroyer came into port, we would practice directing naval gunfire. Also, as part of our training, we went in pairs to Anzio, Italy to train in directing naval gunfire against German targets.
For the invasion of southern France, D-Day was Aug. 15, 1944. I went ashore in the fourth wave. The resistance was light; the Germans knew we were coming, and some sat on the beach waiting to be captured.
I would like to tell you about “my ship,” the light cruiser USS Brooklyn, which was providing fire support for the 36th Infantry Division. The ship was well-armed with 5- and 6-inch guns and 20- and 40-mm. antiaircraft guns.
After landing, we advanced to the summit of a nearby mountain. At the top, an army colonel pointed out a garage in a distant valley. He said there was a tank in the building; he challenged me to knock it out.
I called the approximate coordinates to the USS Brooklyn. The first round landed about 500 yards beyond the target. I called in, “Down 1,000” yards. Then I called in, “Up 500” yards, and the next round went right through the roof of the garage.
It was a lucky shot, and my insides were jumping with joy. I’ll never forget the look on the colonel’s face; his jaw must have dropped a foot.
On the second day I left the road and went down to the water’s edge to admire the Mediterranean. The shoreline resembled Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park. I guess I was getting a little homesick.
I was so engrossed with my thoughts of home that I didn’t realize I was standing in front of a cement German pillbox. Suddenly a voice said, “Kamerad!”
I turned around to see a German with his hands up. It took me five minutes to get my trusty .45 out of the holster; I wasn’t called “Quick Draw” for nothing. I walked the German up to the road and turned him over to the MPs.
The next day, as we approached a ravine, German artillery shelled us. Beyond the ravine was a small castle the Germans were using as an observation post. I called the USS Brooklyn; the crew could see the castle and opened fire.
The first round was about 50 yards short. The next round bounced off a thick wall, so I requested armor-piercing shells. During the changeover, the Germans ran out the back door. The first round of armor-piercing shells put a 15-hole in the wall.
When we reached the castle, we found a locked gate blocking our advance. The infantrymen wanted the USS Brooklyn to knock open the gate with a shell, but there were too many soldiers too near the target. The soldiers had bazookas, but in an argument a hard-nosed sergeant I was told that opening the gate was my personal responsibility.
This time it didn’t take five minutes to draw my .45. I ran the 50 yards to the gate and shot the lock. That opened the gate.
Only the laundry man knew how scared I was.
Robert M. Files lives in Dedham.