The narrative below was edited from recorded conversations in July 2000 and May 2002.
Clarence Colson was in E Company, 16th Infantry, before Pearl Harbor. He enlisted at the age of 20 in early 1941 and served to the bitter end in Europe. He was awarded the Distinguished Service for heroism on D-Day.
Colson was a member of E Company's weapon platoon. On D-Day, the formation of "boat teams" temporarily made him a member of Spalding's section. Once Colson hit the beach, however, he acted on his own initiative. After the war, Colson came home to his family's farm in northwest New York state where this interview took place.
Motion picture bonus: mortar squad in action
Bookmarks in this page Enlistment and mortars / Memories of war / Africa and Hill 609 / 27 days through Sicily / D-Day / Colson's charge / Ramundo's death / Normandy to Siegfried Line / Wounded / Death of Sims / E Company men / Phil Streczyk / Captain Wozenski / War's end / Separation
My stepfather had a diary farm. About 40 cows we milked by hand. My mother, hired man, him, myself. We didn’t have electric. They didn’t have electric until after I got in the service.
I enlisted; I think it was January 17th ‘41. My stepfather come to me and said, “I can get you out of it. You wouldn’t have to go. You can stay on the farm.” But I’d be under his thumb. He was that way, see?
I was in the mortars all through the fighting, but when I first went in I was in a rifle platoon. I was in the 2nd platoon when I first went in the service. In Staten Island. When we moved to Fort Devens from Staten Island, we shoveled snow for about three weeks.
They made me sergeant and they sent me to Communications. That didn’t last with me. [Laughs] I went down to the Old Man, to the CP there, and I says, “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want that job. I don’t want no part of it. I want to be back here in the squad.”
He says, “I ain’t got nobody else to send up there.”
I says, “I don’t want it. I want be in the platoon. I didn’t like the guys up there.”
So he said, “Okay.” Says, “Can’t put you in the rifle platoon again. You go into the weapon platoon, the mortars and machine guns.”
So I went to them, and I stayed there. I liked the mortars good. I done good on them. Everything: firing them, hitting the target. So I stayed in the mortars from then on. And I got the section after a while when I made staff sergeant.
I tried to get things out of my mind. It would get the best of you if you carried it through all of your life. My buddy Zieckler, he hung onto it for so long it really bothered him. He was always watching these war pictures, which I wouldn’t do. You got to get out of your mind or you’re just going to be carrying on. It’s no good. It’s bad enough as it was without keeping it in your mind for 40, 50 years. A lot of things I forgot. But I do remember the landing and all of that stuff.
Africa, that was quite a battle up through there. Hill 609, we lost so many men there until we finally got enough artillery fire. And heavy mortars, 88 millimeters. The 60 millimeters that we had didn’t phase anything. And I think they even drop a few bombs on that hill. So we finally did take it.
Hill 609 was part of a mountain in Africa, that’s all I can remember. A ravine like. And they were right up in there, dug in the rocks. Right on the slope.
I remember we were going up this hill at night. A machine gun was raking the hill. I was laying down behind a little rock. It was big enough to protect my head but not too much of the rest of my body. There was a big stone over a bit and I hollered to Lunn, one of my men, to get over behind that rock. I said, "You're going to get hit out there."
When the machine gun fire passed, I got up and run. I made it.
Then the machine gun fire came back, and that's when I got the chip in my shoulder. A bullet hit the stone and I got a piece of bullet in my shoulder. I still got the hole.
I yelled to Lunn, “Come over here! Get over here! Get over here!” He didn’t answer me. So when the machine gun fire went on, I run over and I got him and pulled him over. He was gone. So…that was two of my good men.
[NOTE: Richard Sims was the other]
We were only 27 days going through Sicily. We went through there flying. When we hit the beach was the worst. We got in, but then the German tanks came. We were dug in, they was going all over. And [German] troops were coming behind them. We knocked off a lot of them and finally they turned tail. [Other German tanks] went down to the beach. Artillery had unloaded their guns and they knocked out a mess of them German tanks. They never got a chance to turn tail and go back, they got knocked right out right there.
That was quite an experience too because them tanks were rolling right over [American positions] and it’s a good thing you had a hole dug or else you wouldn’t have been there, you know.
And we made it through that one and then after that we started really pushing them. And they had a lot of the Italians with them fighting there as soldiers and but they didn’t want to fight. They’d give right up. Nothing to do with them. They wanted to get it over with and get out of there. [Laughs] They didn’t want to fight nothing in Africa either.
I think it was the 3rd Armor, or the 3rd Division, that went into Italy instead of us. We stayed there, we was in Sicily for, I can’t remember now just how long. All of sudden they brought in the boats and we loaded up. And we got out of there and went back to England.
And I said to some of the guys I said, “They wouldn’t have nerve enough to send us into France.” A few of them says, “Well, they might; might not.” I said, “Well, I guess they will.” But after we were in England you could see what was up. They give us all a lot of fresh troops. But they wanted a lot of experienced troops too. Because they knew this was the big one. Normandy was the big one. They wanted enough people that had experience to fight enough so that they knew what they were doing. So that’s one of the things that really [tipped us off] …Yeah, they shoved us right in.
The invasion itself, where we landed, they were supposed to bomb so there’d be a lot of craters, bomb craters, for us to get into to. But they missed it, I guess. And [the rocket craft] didn’t get in far enough. Most of them went in the water. They wasn’t in far enough. I can remember that part.
Now some of this on that [the Distinguished Service Cross citation] isn’t true. About cutting wire and stuff isn’t true.
[NOTE: See far right column, top. Another sergeant, and DSC winner, Curt Colwell cut the wire. The citations may have been mixed up as their names are similar.]
The assault boat hit a sandbar and dumped us. “Well, let’s get out.” We had these belts on and you’re in the water clear up to your neck trying to get in. One of my gunners from the mortar section, said, “I can’t make it.” And I said, “Dump the gun!” I said, “Come on! Get in alive! Come on!” So he dumped it. Guys couldn’t make it with the load, you know, that’s quite a load to carry.
So we got into shore, get everybody spread out as far as we could. You don’t bunch up you want to get them spread out. 'Course they were firing, but there was one pillbox way over and there was nothing coming from that.
There was a minefield in front of us where we landed, but there was an old house with a stone wall. Sims was one of my main gunners. He was a good man. We got behind this wall, two of us got there. A lot of them laying back there was wounded and we pulled some of them up behind the wall.
This Phelps [indicating the section roster] got wounded on the beach. We pulled him up behind that wall.
But then there was a path. When I looked and seen that path...there was this pillbox way over here wasn’t manned. They didn’t have nobody manning that pillbox. Enemy fire was all coming from this way. So when I seen that path and all these wires I knew there’s minefields there.
I told Sims. We got a BAR from a guy that was wounded. [I asked if this might have been Phelps. Colson said, “Yeah, I think, maybe it was. Because he got wounded, I know.”] And we got a few magazines. I brought the extra magazines and we got some bandoliers of ammunition that we carried. And I said, “I’ll head for the hill.” Quite a steep hill. So I went up the path.
There was no wires across the path, that’s what I was looking for, and running as fast as I could run. 'Course I was young then, I could move pretty good. And when I got over there then I motioned him to come. And Sims came up. And he had some more bandoliers. So we got top of the hill, and that’s where all the trenches were. And here this one guy was, running back and forth in that trench and I hollered at him and he threw a potato masher, a German hand grenade. I ducked down, put my hands up, my head down. It didn’t go off right quick and I kind of glanced and I see he hadn’t unscrewed the back and pulled the string. So I nailed him.
But the one that was holding the company up, the pillbox, down there. I could shoot right down the back end. The pillbox had a door that goes downstairs, then you have your gunner slots, see. So I got the BAR. It had a tripod on it and I got it set right up and started spraying that back door. I told Sims, I says, “Just as soon as I kick that magazine out, put another one in.” There was 20 rounds, I think, in those magazines. So we shot about three or four of them. Maybe more, maybe less. I know it was more than three. We shot quite a few rounds.
All of sudden a white flag came out and we quit firing and they came out. I motioned for them to come on up and they came up. I don’t know how more many was dead in there or anything.
That’s why we got all the troops up, pretty soon, on that part of the beach.
Ramundo got killed. In fact, he was the first guy. When they came up the same way we did up the hill. He came up right after we got the prisoners.
He said, “I’ll go back down to get the company.”
And I said, “Don’t go down there, there’s snipers and stuff around there, too.” I says, “Ramundo, stay here. They’ll come up through.”
But he said, “No, I’m going after them.” He went down, I heard one shot, I said, “Yeah, he’s had it.” Sniper got him.
The company got up. But out of the whole company we only had, oh, 20 men or so left. The boat next to me on the right, none of them got out of it. We was on the further left. As I say, that was a good thing for us because this pillbox up here wasn’t manned. They didn’t have nobody in it. Good thing for us.
From then on we just scattered out and moved forward. That was all we could do.
Well, after that, we tried to get organized and everything. I think E Company and G Company went together, and we made a couple platoons out of two companies.
Wozenski was our leader then. He was a good man, a good man.
From then on it was just getting replacements and fighting, hitting little towns. I couldn’t tell you how many we get. But, man, they came out when we go through there. They’d come out, you couldn’t hardly get up through, there would be so many. Wanting to hug you and kiss you and everything else, you know.
But then you had to be careful too. [The Germans] were dropping pamphlets. Pens. Don’t ever pick one up. Blow your fingers off.
We kept fighting through all the towns. Another big one was St. Lô. There was some others up through there, I can’t tell you them all, there was many.
And we got to the Siegfried Line in Belgium. They had pillboxes but they must have had a bunch of old men manning them pillboxes; when they seen us coming they must have moved out. We took over the trenches and got up on the hill. We could look right out on the valley on the other side.
So after that we stayed right there for a day or so. And here comes the Germans back. They was going to man [the pillboxes and trenches] but we beat ‘em to the shot. So we just laid low in the trenches.
That’s when I got knocked out. I’d been up on the hill, observing for the mortars and seeing if there was anything in reach. Course we didn’t get no orders from the Old Man. He knew what was going on: everybody hold their fire wait until they got right where we could take care of them. So I went back down to the pillbox and I heard that artillery shell come.
Cause you could hear them. You can’t hear a mortar. Them Screeching High-eemies [Colson’s pronunciation] and them artillery, watch out. Them High-eemies, you can hear them screech for awhile but then you don’t know where they’re going to land. But the artillery you got an idea after you’ve heard enough of them.
I had a runner. I used to take with me if I had to have guns set up. He was in front of me and we were right by this [pillbox] doorway. So I pushed him in the doorway and hollered, “Get out of the way!” And he went in the door and bounced off the wall.
Well. When that [artillery shell] hit, it was just outside the doorway. I didn’t get a chance to get inside. When I pushed him I knew it was coming fast. I hit the cement and lay right down flat. And I heard it when it hit. The shrapnel was hitting [inside the pillbox doorway]. My runner was safe cause I pushed him in far enough. And I didn’t get any shrapnel or anything cause I was laying flat on the ground. But I was out [from the concussion].
Scottie [Zieckler] said, “Colson’s dead. They got him.” And he came running upstairs. Then he seen that I was alive all right. Two or three of them grabbed me and took me downstairs and laid me on one of the bunks. He took care of me for two or three days. When I come out of it, they wanted to send me back to hospital. "Nah," I says, "I want to stay with the men." And I was pretty edgy. A little noise, I was on the ground. [Laughs]
We got into this place. It was kind of a wooded area, as I recall. And we dug in. Sims was about [about fifteen feet away]. And I was over here dug in and the other guys was dug in all around. And this shell landed close enough to his foxhole so it killed him. And I hollered to him. He didn’t respond. It was a mortar shell that landed. Cause we didn’t have no warning it wasn’t like an artillery shell. You just…you got it. So I jumped over to his hole and I check him and I says, “Sims, you all right?” And I see that he’d been hit and he was dead. I jumped, run back and got into my own hole before another shell come. So that was the end of him. And, well, they picked him up and went back.
I got a letter from a guy, Crowter [Emer S. Crowter], I remember him. Meduri wrote to me once. He had quite a problem. I wrote to him back, and I never heard from him after.
[NOTE: I had tried to find Meduri without success. I later found that he died a month after this conversation with Colson.]
In the States, Sergeant Betancourt [Arthur Betancourt], had the mortar squad.
Ray Rady, he got killed. He was a machine gunner. There’s another guy that lives not too far from here—Lowry Ball. He used to get so sick when he got on the Goddamn boats. He couldn’t breath. He was throwing up so much, he was just kind of eerrp, oorrp, all the way. Hit the ground, all over with. He lived down here in Sugar Grove. And I know he came home. He was in the rifle platoon. See, some of these guys in the rifle platoon I lost track of because, well, we were spread out. We weren’t connected.
A lot of these guys, [referring to his original roster of E Company men from Fort Devens] I don’t remember anyway. We got so darn many replacements, you know how it is. And it’s been a long time, you know.
Eddie Vaughn was a good cook. He even killed a cow in Germany. [Laughs] Had to take it out of the Goddamn fund there to pay the old farmer who caught him. It wasn’t too good a meat. It was pretty tough, you know, right out the pasture.
I remember Streczyk. I knew him all the way through. We had an awful time keeping a helmet on him. He didn’t want to wear a helmet. [In Africa] He snuck up around somehow got a hold of a German motorcycle [Laughs] and came riding that thing into the place [Laughs harder]. I remember that very distinctly. I can see him— brrrrrmmm— coming like a wildman. But, boy, he just didn’t seem to care. Or he just figured the Good Lord was taking care of him, I don’t know. Ordinarily, you’d keep your head down and peek a little. You don’t just stick it out like robin, shoot me, you know. I heard he was supposed to get the Medal of Honor. They tried getting it for him. But anyway they wouldn’t give it to him. As I recall, now I won’t swear to this, but I think he got a Russian medal. A medal from the Russians after the war.
[NOTE: Colson was thinking of Bieder]
Wozenski was a good man. He treated the men right, you know what I mean? He wasn’t [easy going], he was strictly G.I. You either do it or you got it, that’s all. He was a good man, a good officer. One of the best.
One time, Wozenski had two of them SS troops took in [for questioning]. Of course, I wasn’t there, this is what I heard from guys who were there. Wozenski asked them questions. And this guy spit in Wozenski’s face. And he lifted [the German] right off the ground with one pop. And when he come back up he could talk [Laughs]. He didn’t want no part of it. ‘Course Wozesnki could speak German and Polish cause he was a Polish guy himself.
When they got ‘crost the Rhine or whatever ‘twas, they were sending guys home for 45 day leave. I come home for 45 days. When I got back, and landed in Le Havre, all hell cut loose. Down there the boats were shooting we couldn’t figure out what was going on. And they came over the sound system that the Germans had just surrendered.
I was two months getting caught up with my company. And when I walked into the CP. Lieutenant Hicks was company commander at the time. And he looked at me and he says, “What in hell are you doing here?” He says, “Why did they send you back here?” I said, “I been down in Le Havre for a couple months, the day the war ended, and I been that long getting here.”
I didn’t know hardly any of the guys that was in the company in just that short length of time I was gone. They sent so many guys home on this point system and got recruits, see. So I didn’t know a lot of them.
And so Hicks wrote my name above the one who was supposed to go home next. I was the next one to go because I had a lot more points and everything. And then I left it. And that was it.
I got home in September ’45. I had quite a time coming home. I don’t know how many different outfits I went to. Finally got up in an airplane that was shipping us out of Le Havre. And we flew to South America. [Laughs]. That’s a long ways home. I figured anyway. We spent two days there. Boy, even the cold water was hot. Must have been cold water but it was hot. So we finally got out of there. We was up in the air about two hours and they called us back ‘cause a storm was heading for Florida. Went back and spent another couple days. Then the storm was supposed to be cleared, the airport was clear, so we could get home.
I got to Florida. We spent one night in barracks then got on the train and come to New York. And they had another one of them storms in Florida, blowed all the barracks down. You think God wasn’t with me? [Laughs]