The Army’s 2nd Infantry Division landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day +1, June 7, 1944, near St. Laurent-sur-Mer. After crossing the Aure River to liberate Trevieres on June 10, the 2nd Infantry Division started a trek across France that would take them all the way into Germany.
The infamous Battle of the Bulge would be part of their 303 days of combat. The 2nd Infantry would suffer 3,031 killed in action, another 12,785 wounded and 457 would perish from wounds.
Rockdale resident James Fleming landed with the 2nd Infantry Division on Omaha Beach. A buck private at the time, he would be in continuous combat until 88mm shrapnel and frozen feet during the Battle of the Bulge sent him to the sidelines.
Born into a farming family on July 28, 1925, in Kansas City, Mo., Fleming called to mind the Great Depression. “It was rough,” he said. “And we lived without any luxuries.” Fleming was attending a movie with his brother when a news flash on Pearl Harbor was announced over the theater intercom system. “We heard the news, but frankly we were too young to fully understand the consequences.” The entire nation soon understood the aftermath.
Fleming graduated from high school in June 1943, turned 18 in July, was drafted in September and arrived at Camp Blanding, Fla., for basic training the same month. “It was in the middle of nowhere,” Fleming said. “But thousands of soldiers were there.”
Camp Blanding, 50 miles west of St. Augustine, became the fourth largest city in Florida during World War II.
Fleming trained and became a BAR man (Browning Automatic Rifle) and used it exclusively during combat. “It was heavy,” he said. “The BAR weighed more than 20 pounds and I carried 20 pounds of ammunition.” A BAR team usually consisted of the gunner and an ammo carrier, but Fleming said, “I didn’t find out until after I was out of action about a ‘team’ concept. Shoot, I humped it through basic and most of France by my lonesome.”
Granted a 10-day leave before deployment, Fleming boarded a ship at New York’s Port of Embarkation with thousands of other soldiers and sailed across the pond to Belfast, Northern Ireland. The 2nd Infantry Division would train extensively for 10 months in Ireland and Wales in preparation for the Invasion of France on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.
June 7, 1944 – D-Day +1: The 2nd Infantry Division had been held in reserve for deployment on D-1. “The sea was rough,” Fleming said. “We crawled down rope ladders from the big ships to the smaller landing craft. One guy slipped and fell, broke both his legs.” Packed like sardines in the landing craft, Fleming and his group landed on Omaha Beach near St. Laurent-sur-Mer. Fleming said, “It was mass confusion. The beach was crawling with activity; men didn’t know where to go, a German plane buzzed us and strafed the beach...he didn’t hit much though.” When asked about the enormous invasion fleet and the tens of thousands of allied aircraft swarming overhead, Fleming said, “Well, to tell you the truth, we didn’t care about the ships and planes. We waded in waist-high, got to high ground and concentrated on our own safety. A ground-pounder just couldn’t take it all in.”
Asked about his activity with the BAR, Fleming said, “Don’t know how many times I fired it the first few days. The BAR lever offered three rates of fire: single shot, burst and fully automatic. I kept mine on ‘burst’ to save ammo and get the best results, but as the heavy weapons guy, I was always called up for support.”
Replying to a question as to his “scariest moment,” Fleming said, “Everyday.” What he feared the most? “The German 88mm artillery; we hated it. But without a doubt, the most feared weapon we faced was the Maschinengewehr-42.” (Machine gun-42).
Of the many nicknames for the MG-42, “Hitler’s Buzzsaw” was one due to the sound it made in combat. Fleming said, “It sounded like ripping cloth. The MG-42 fired 1,200 plus rounds per minute. In comparison, my BAR fired 600 rounds per minute.”
Assaulting an airport near the town of Brest, Fleming survived a deadly encounter with the MG-42. “The 88s forced me out of a hanger so I took cover behind some hedgerows. Then a MG-42 opened up on us from a pillbox. A young lieutenant who had been with us two days raised up to take a look... well, his war was over. He survived, but the MG-42 ripped his body.” Fleming, squad leader Cody, and a fresh replacement were ordered to outflank the pillbox to hopefully silence it. “That didn’t work out too well,” Fleming said.
In tall grass with limited visibility, Fleming got off several rounds at the pillbox but the MG-42 quickly returned fire and hit the new replacement. He said, “I heard a popping sound as the boy hit the ground. He was dead before he fell.” Fleming and his squad leader carried the dead soldier back to friendly lines, but the MG-42 gunner spotted the Americans crossing a road. “He was about 300 yards away,” Fleming said. “I took two rounds in my legs. Just nicks, though; no big deal.”
After a brief respite, the 2nd Infantry Division moved in a defensive position at St. Vith, Belgium, and entered Germany on Oct. 3. Then came the snow. Fleming said, “I remember one day it was -30 degrees; we almost froze to death.”
In the middle of one of the worst winters in European history, Hitler launched his Ardennes Offensive, better known as the Battle of the Bulge.
When asked to depict the Battle of the Bulge, Fleming replied, “Fighting, fighting, nothing but fighting.”
With more than 1 million men (including the Germans) engaged in fierce combat, survival was the foremost thought. “We were shelled by 88s, German panzer tanks machine-gunned us and hurled shells at us; their infantry was on the attack, and we fought for our lives in freezing temperatures without the benefit of winter clothes.”
Fleming took shrapnel in his legs, witnessed air strikes and tank battles, held his ground and did what he had to do. Wounded twice in two separate battles, he never received a Purple Heart.
The Battle of the Bulge ended Fleming’s ordeal of combat. “My wounds weren’t that bad,” he said. “But my feet turned black and blue from the cold. There was still a little color in my feet, but my toes are numb to this day. Luckily, I still have them.”
Fleming was sent back to England. “While I was there, I married Joyce, my wife of 67 years.” (A native of Bristol, England, Joyce passed last year).
A veteran of heavy combat, James Fleming elected to stay in the military but decided to join the newly created United States Air Force in 1947.
“I guess I had enough ground-pounding,” he said. Fleming retired from the Air Force in 1967 with the rank of Chief Master Sergeant. He’d worn a military uniform for 24 years before serving another 21 years with the Army/Air Force Exchange Service.
After having a photo taken with his dog Nipper, Fleming asked, “Would you like to see a photo of me and President Truman?”
It seems this remarkable man not only knew Harry Truman, but played poker with him on a regular basis at the American Legion Hall in Independence, Mo.
But that’s another story.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his website ataveteransstory.us.