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War stories

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Surrounded by his men on a rugged, woody mountain side in Italy, Lt. Michael Higgins could hear the blasts from the German 88 mm shells reverberating off the nearby hillsides.

Night was drawing in, the enemy lay just ahead and the lieutenant’s 337th infantry troops were inching forward, trying to secure another mountain top. They had already seen heavy fighting, taking one craggy hill top after another since they had relieved Rome and joined the battle toward the Gothic Line.

Suddenly, Higgins found himself on his hands and knees. An 88 mm shell had burst overhead, scattering shock and mayhem below, and piercing the lieutenant’s helmet with jagged shrapnel.

"That’s what happened. A shell went through my helmet. I could see it, I couldn’t hear it but I could see it. There was suddenly a dead silence," Higgins said.

"There was no feeling or fear for anything. I felt like I was floating. The first thing I heard was one of my men saying ‘The Lieutenant is hit.’ I saw my helmet with a hole in it, but the shock immobilizes all your emotions," Higgins said, recalling the 1944 attack.

As Steven Spielberg’s latest hit "Saving Private Ryan" continues to draw accolades for its gritty realism, the Irish Echo spoke to several Irish American and Irish veterans of the World War II European campaign about their own memories. They praised the film’s solid portrayal of the brutality of combat, and the tribute it paid to the bond and camaraderie that war forges among those who survive.

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The film’s harrowing first 20 minutes depict the June 6 amphibious landing at Omaha Beach, where more than 2,500 U.S. troops were killed or wounded in the first wave of the D-Day invasion. It is a hellish scene, with the camera running alongside troops, close enough to see torn limbs and bodies pierced by bullets. The air is thick with a metallic storm of enemy fire. In the first few minutes, the doors of a landing craft open up and a platoon of U.S. troops is mercilessly strafed by a German machine gun nest. The carnage is relentless.

Such is the realism of the film’s battle scenes that the U.S. department of Veteran’s Affairs set up a telephone hotline for veterans who see the film and suffer traumatic memories.

For the first two weeks after the film opened, the department extended the hotline to 24 hours with staff counselors manning the phones, receiving more than 200 calls from vets who asked for counseling, according to Robert Klear, spokesman for the department.

For Higgins, whose father was from West Galway and mother from Leitrim, those wartime memories found expression in a poem printed in Variety magazine before he saw the film, he said.

"It explains something, the only people up there at the front are the infantry, and there’s nothing in front of them except the enemy," Higgins said.

"When you are in combat, you don’t stop, you move. You never get that feeling again for the rest of your life. The men who went through that, they can’t forget, it’s the truest part of their live," said Higgins, who led 45 men into combat. "They knew what I was about and I knew what they were about. You trusted that and you believed it. It was a natural thing, it wasn’t heroic," he said.

Wartime command

Higgins, who was born in Brooklyn and after the war continued in a successful acting career, including several Hollywood film and Broadway appearances, took a small Kodak camera with him to the war in Europe. Last week, while flicking through an album of fading black and white photographs of the men under his command — young faces posing for haircuts or horsing around during quiet-time in foxholes — Higgins reflected on Tom Hanks’ portrayal of wartime command.

"Hanks, he was a company commander. It represented to me what has to be done when half your men are gone. You may have to make decisions, you have to move get to the high ground where all the damage is coming from. They move with the information they have," Higgins said.

"If someone is hit you don’t stop and say ‘my buddy is hit,’ you have to keep moving, you got to move or you get hit. There are medics who’ll take care of those men. In other movies it has been sentimental," he said.

Higgins received a battlefield promotion and a Bronze Star medal in Europe before being shipped home.

Jim MacDevitt, 85, another veteran of the U.S. infantry, was a captain and married with two children when he was shipped off to fight in the European theater.

"My father sent me to military school to learn how to fight for Ireland," MacDevitt , 85, said before a recent visit to an East Side theater to watch the afternoon matinee of the film.

His father, who was born in Liverpool and grew up in Ireland, was active in the 1920s raising money for Irish causes in the U.S. MacDevitt said he remembers sitting outside a soda fountain on 59th Street, in Manhattan listening to conversations about the Irish troubles as a small boy.

After school, MacDevitt reported to infantry training camp following the attack on Pearl Harbor and joined the 338th Infantry in Mississippi. After months of training in the Arizona heat, he was off to Africa.

"We didn’t know where we were going. The ship pulled into dock with a camel on the harbor," he said. That was Casablanca, North Africa.

During the three-hour film, MacDevitt watched silently through the brutal opening scenes, but let out a few chuckles about the sometimes inept army bureaucracy and a knowing nod of recognition about the German technology, the 88 mm canon shells and the Tiger Panzer division. He remembers his own amphibious landings well. Often he would carry a large radio pack, making him a conspicuous target:

"I thanked God every time I got back into shore. We never knew whether it was the real thing," he said.

Beach landing

Although he has not seen the film, former U.S. Navy veteran Neil Duggan also remembers well the fear of landing on the D-Day beaches. Duggan was part of the navy’s LCIL 508, landing on Sword Beach on June 6. His unit of 12 landing craft had been divided into two groups, one going to Sword, carrying British troops, and the other landing at Omaha. Duggan was sent with the British.

"I missed that one good," Duggan said.

But even at Sword, the unpredictable was a constant threat. Sea sickness and harsh seas did nothing to calm nerves already wracked by the upcoming landing.

"It was very frightening. You didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised actually that we didn’t get worse," he said. Although Duggan saw little fire at Sword Beach, his craft was stranded on the first run at the landing point, and the fear of enemy aircraft attacks at night was a constant concern.

For MacDevitt, once he arrived in Italy, his main assignment was collecting intelligence traveling back and forth between the front line and the rear.

"I was no hero. Every night I’d have to go out to one of the units at the front line. If there was shelling, I’d wait it out. They had to be under that stuff for 24 hours, you never really knew," he remembered

"Often, I’d see fellas I knew dead on the side of the road. I’d throw it right out of my mind. That was my defense. People had all different ways of dealing with it," he said.

Like Higgins, MacDevitt said the film’s illustration of the camaraderie reflected the reality of war.

"When they are guarding the ground around the bridge, the thing on Ryan’s mind was that this was his mission and he couldn’t leave. You soon got to know you had to rely on each other. Everyone did the best they could and that’s how you got through," he said.

One much debated part of the film is a scene which shows American troops firing on unarmed German prisoners. MacDevitt said he almost had a similar experience:

"One of my sergeants came to me and said that the men had agreed if they took prisoners they would march them in front and shoot them. I got everybody together to tell them that couldn’t happen," he said.

But even for a captain, orders were orders.

MacDevitt remembered during one incident, an American unit was pinned down by a German sniper on a road near an open field. A general ordered MacDevitt to move ahead and flush out the sniper. He and another man led the way and it was only when they were 20 yards inside an open, flat grass area that someone called out that the sniper had left already.

"I was lucky I wasn’t killed or at least wounded. You had to follow orders," he said.

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