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Our War: Belleville man remembers horror, heroism of WWII

Warren Briesacher in 1942, when he was a member of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.
Warren Briesacher in 1942, when he was a member of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.

Warren "Breezy" Briesacher hasn't slept on his right side or back since 1944.

A molten chunk of metal, looking a lot like coal slag, in his hip prevents him from getting comfortable. He knows what it looks like because three other pieces an Army doctor dug out of his arm and side were taped to his dog tags for the rest of the war.

Briesacher invaded Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, the Ardennes and the Rhineland. He made it through H-Hour on D-day -- a member of the spearhead 1st Infantry Division known as "The Big Red One."

No injuries.

Then on that quiet, sunny September day when he was coming back from getting hot chow near Eilendorf, Germany, there was a flash. He suspects it was a German scout tossing a "potato masher," one of the German grenades on the end of a handle, that got him on Sept. 23, 1944.

"What saved me, one of the fellows said, 'Breezy, bring me back a cup of coffee,'" Briesacher said.

Because he had his arms extended to carry the coffee, it caught shrapnel that would have gone into his chest. A gas mask on his hip also took much of the punishment.

"I was mighty, mighty fortunate that I didn't get hit in the ribs or I could have been killed right there on the spot."

Briesacher, 86, of Belleville came home with a Purple Heart and the shrapnel in his hip. He also was awarded three Bronze Stars.

One of those included an oak leaf cluster for risking his life on April 28, 1943, in Tunisia. He went out in the open under mortar and artillery fire to repair communication wires damaged by enemy fire. But he's no hero, he said.

"I just wanted to get out. I never was a soldier. I was a civilian in uniform," Briesacher said.

The war gave Briesacher, who was a private first class, a deep reverence for buddies lost in the war. It also gave him a bitter dislike for many officers.

He was with the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division and among the first to land on Omaha Beach in Normandy. As they were gathered on the ship the night before the invasion, a commander stood on the steps and was making a speech.

"He was saying, 'You have the distinct honor to be the spearhead in the liberation of Europe.' 'Uphold our honor.' 'Good hunting,' and all that bullcrap," Briesacher said.

After the officer left, Briesacher's buddy, Pvt. William B. Laskowski Jr., got up on the steps.

"He said, 'If you don't mind, sir, we'd rather you spread the honor around a little bit. We had Tunisia. He had Sicily. We don't want to hog all the honor,'" Briesacher recalled.

Some of the noncommissioned officers were going to stop Laskowski, but one of the sergeants said to let him keep going. The GIs were rolling and roaring.

Briesacher said he found himself at 2:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, heading down a cargo net and trying to get into a landing craft that was rising and falling 10 feet on the swells. They spent hours on the landing craft, getting so seasick they didn't care about the Germans waiting on the beaches at dawn.

"It was like a cork in a washing machine. I didn't care if the devil himself was on the beach. I just wanted off," he said.

When the gate dropped, a machine gun was firing right into the landing craft. Briesacher went over the side with the officer he was assigned to help with the radio. He landed in cold water up to his neck, weighed down by an invasion jacket loaded with ammo, rations and extra batteries for the radio. A cold wind was blowing.

Foxholes they expected from preinvasion bombing and artillery weren't there. German guns shot parallel to the beach, creating a crossfire. Shells, mortars, bullets came at them.

They were pinned down. Only the German obstacles offered cover. Invasion jackets soon littered the beach. So did the wounded. So did the dead.

He saw the Allies' secret weapon, a submersible tank, head to the bottom because they'd never been tested in rough seas. He saw National Guardsmen with the 29th Division massacred, their blue and gray patches everywhere.

"I asked an officer why they were putting green troops in the spearhead."

He saw a British destroyer pull in close to try to protect the infantry.

"He was blazing away at the German flashes of gunfire. They threw everything at him. It amazed me he didn't run aground."

Briesacher crossed flat, open beach. Then the sand and pebbles pushed up by the tides offered some cover. Men started piling up behind them as more troops landed.

His regimental commander, Col. George Taylor, said, "There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here."

He crossed an anti-tank moat. Then signs stating "Achtung: Minen" warning of the foot mines and "Bouncing Betties" that jumped into the air before exploding.

They saw some Germans retreating, so they followed their path.

They eventually made it up a draw and that night were outside Colleville-sur-Mer. The detailed invasion plans -- as thick as a metropolitan phone book -- had called for them to be off the beach and up the hill by midmorning.

Briesacher doesn't know whether he shot anyone, either that day or anytime during the war. He was always aiming at smoke and flashes. He was nearly out of ammo that night.

One of Briesacher's strongest memories from D-Day came while looking down at the beach when there was a terrific explosion from an artillery piece being brought ashore. A roll of marking tape was thrown up by the explosion, and that tape -- curling, unraveling, floating down-- stuck with him.

They found a place to bed down in an abandoned German emplacement on a hill outside Colleville. He remembers a German plane going over the channel and dropping flares, and every gun in the armada opening up on those flares.

"We spent millions of dollars to hit those flares. When they opened up, there was a sheet of red tracers -- and you know there were four more bullets between every tracer. The shrapnel came down like rain," Briesacher said.

Days later Briesacher found out his buddy Laskowski, who satirized the officer's pep talk, died during the invasion.

"He had all these plans for us," Briesacher said. "We were going to go to school at Notre Dame together. He said, 'I've got this big house up there' that his family had left him."

As bad as D-Day was, Briesacher's worst memories were from the slaughter at the Falaise Gap in mid-August after D-Day. The Allies used thousands of bombers to batter the German Seventh Army as they tried to retreat from near encirclement at Falaise, France.

"The Germans were using lots of draft animals to pull their equipment out through this narrow area they had to come down," he said. "They were under horrendous bombardment and our fighters strafed them. Horses, men, equipment. It was the worst sight."

During the war, Briesacher operated a radio, was valet to Lt. Col. Charles T. Horner and ticked off Horner to get himself shipped up to a machine gun squad where he caught the German grenade. He learned to dislike officers by war's end.

"You only see officers at the front when the medals are being handed out -- the medals won with the blood of their men," he said.

He holds special disdain for Gen. George S. Patton. He saw Patton twice.

Once was when the general who wanted to be killed by the last bullet of the last battle of the last war went whizzing by in his car, protected by troops including Jeeps in front and behind each with double machine guns.

The other was when Patton apologized to the 1st Division for the infamous slapping incident. Pvt. Charles Kuhl was suffering from malaria when Patton, visiting wounded soldiers, asked what was wrong with him. Kuhl responded "I guess I can't take it," and Patton slapped him and kicked him out of the tent. Kuhl had a 102.2-degree fever at the time.

"When he apologized, you could tell he wasn't sorry and was just saying what he had to. And he didn't sound anything like that actor who played him in the movie. He had a real high squeaky voice," Briesacher said, imitating him.

He saw Bob Hope, who pretended not to know any better and had the GIs move down into the area reserved for officers.

He remembers being frustrated that the Big Red One had to pull over to let Gen. Charles DeGaulle liberate Paris.

He remembers making $60 a month for combat, minus $6.60 for insurance.

He remembers the officer jumping up, cussing and shaking his fist after young American pilots in P-51s accidentally strafed the officer's jeep and tracers ignited the liberated French booze in its trailer.

He remembers his radio at 2 a.m. in Sicily pulling in Frances Langford singing "He's My Guy" live from New York City.

He remembers recovering the body of a Jewish replacement officer named Lt. Katz, who made it a week and was shot through his helmet -- either a German sniper or an execution.

He remembers guys taking the booze out of officers' bedrolls, emptying the bottle into another and sprinkling broken glass and water from a canteen on the roll.

He remembers refugees and surrendering Germans flowing into their lines, and then stopping once his division met the Russians at the Ohre River in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia.

He remembers medic Wayne Palmer, the bravest man he's ever known; Sgt. Bill Williams, the pup tent mate who recovered from a bullet in the neck; Pvt. George Hornecheck, killed probing for mines; and Pvt. Laskowski.

"You'll never find more closeness, the way the world should be," Briesacher said. "War is a strange thing. I don't know how to explain it. It's something you know you'll never experience again in your life, or want to. It leaves a certain something, a closeness of people who are equally homesick, equally hungry, equally filthy, equally as miserable as you are."

Contact multimedia editor Brad Weisenstein at bweisenstein@bnd.com or 239-2470.

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