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A red jumper & the Major of Saint-Lô: two sides of 1944

That stub of a tower part of the remains of the Church of Notre Dame

Many shattering images of Saint-Lô in 1944 cannot be erased from our memories but one in particular stands out.  It shows a young boy in a grey jumper and long trousers with his arm around his little brother.

Evocative image across time

The younger boy is in shorts and a red jumper.  Sensibly dressed and hair tidy both lads looked well cared for, if frail.  As boys do, they have clambered up a tree and are sitting on a branch, two boys whose lives should always be full of cheerful exploration and adventure.

For some reason the care with which they have been dressed on that August day, in a time we know was full of incredibly hardship, makes the image all the more poignant.  That and what they are looking at.

The sea of rubble

Jean age 8 and Max Robin 13, sit close together balanced on their branch watching military vehicles driving through Saint-Lô.  There is something of a road.  But apart from that all around them is devastation.  All.  Not a bit, or a corner, or a few streets.  All of Saint-Lô, their home has gone.  They are sitting in a sea of twisted metal and rubble.

Banner on the Saint-Lô Hôtel de Ville summer 2014 showing Jean and Max Robin, 1944
Banner on the Saint-Lô Hôtel de Ville summer 2014 showing Jean and Max Robin, 1944

The brothers are looking for their father who they have not seen for two months. In just a few days they will learn that Raymond Robin is dead, shot at Beaucoudray on 18 July for his work as a saboteur with the French Resistance.

Looking at this image, helplessly, 70yrs later the only good feeling is that they had each other.  A small mercy.

Difficult memories

It is not an easy memory for the last of the D-Day soldiers, or those from the town, that this destruction was made by their liberators.  Was there another way? Only enemy surrender and that was impossible.  After bombardment the town was nearly abandoned, but the residents would not give up and as we know it was rebuilt.

This is not Saint-Lô’s only memory.  Invaded by Vikings, sacked by medieval English knights, poisoned by plague and besieged by various ambitious armies across the centuries, Saint-Lô has an exhausting history.

But if you were in Saint-Lô this summer just gone it is 1944 the town chose to remember and the courage of its people and their liberators remembered and celebrated.   A brave choice for a town that had to start again from scratch.

An impossible vintage postcard match

We hunted for a long destroyed street to match an old postcard and walked past the Hôtel de Ville.

On the side of the Hôtel de Ville 30ft high, were two photographs for the D-Day 70th anniversary.  One was the two boys.  Next to them a portrait of an American English teacher in uniform; Major Thomas Dry Howie.

Why did Saint-Lô chose his image from the thousands who died in the summer of 1944 in Normandy? Because he was the first liberator to enter the town, although he was already dead.

Meet Major Thomas Dry Howie

Sometimes a person comes along who is just like a hero from the movies; outstandingly brave, intelligent, kind and beloved.

Thomas Dry Howie was one of those people.  His life started in the ordinary way, but became so extraordinary that he influenced one of the most famous films about D-Day ever made.

Born in 1908 into a large Abbeville family in South Carolina this responsible son helped his family out by working at a local printers through high school, and as an outdoor labourer for the Abbeville mills during the summer.  Outgoing and popular, he played baseball for the mill team.

A golden boy

Thomas excelled at the famous Citadel military college in Charleston and it was no surprise when his peers voted him class president.  Academically bright he also shone as a sportsman; slight and speedy with a brilliant understanding of the game.  Thomas was star halfback on the football team and captain of the baseball team.

Major Thomas Dry Howie, banner on the Hôtel de Ville, summer 2014 Saint-Lô
Major Thomas Dry Howie, banner on the Hôtel de Ville, summer 2014 Saint-Lô

He was such a wonderful fellow, so full of enthusiasm,” remembered Thomas Sills, a Citadel classmate. “If we had been using the word ‘charismatic’ back in those days, it would have applied as much to Tom as it did to John F. Kennedy.”

Dead flies and a strike

Many stories told about him reveal his charisma and natural leadership including the time he managed, in that strict military academy, to lead the Corp of Cadets in a strike, without losing any privileges. It was 1928 and their complaint about the appalling food was well founded with stale bread daily, and dead flies a regular garnish. The strike was peaceful, broke no laws and eventually forced the administration to make significant changes.

Col. J. G. Harrison, an English professor at The Citadel said of Thomas at this time:  “Howie believed in discipline,” stated Colonel Harri­son, “but knew there were times when, after all other means failed, drastic measures must be taken.”

Youthful success

Thomas was commissioned into the US Army Reserve in 1932, in 1934 he transferred to the Virginia National Guard’s 116th Infantry Regiment, at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia.

By all accounts Thomas was an impressive English teacher at the Academy.  He also coached boxing and football with great effect. In the eight years he was head football coach, his teams won four military school state championships. Sports writers competed to cover his games.

Paul Robey played on one of Thomas’s teams at Staunton said of him “He was one of the greatest guys that ever lived,” “I’ll always remember our pre-game talks. He used to settle our nerves with just a few words.”

A Staunton contemporary, Len Taylor, said of him “He was the type of man you wanted to call your friend, even though you had met him but a few times. His personality was such that to find its equal is almost an impossibility.”

Ready for the challenge as WW2 rages

By the time WW2 was raging in Europe, in the USA Thomas was a Second Lieutenant, he was very happily married to Elizabeth Payne and they had one much loved daughter, Sally born in 1938.  In 1941 his unit was called up for intensive training. In September 1942 the unit moved to the UK.

On 6 June 1944 Thomas D Howie and the 116th landed on Utah beach.

A pretty town in Normandy, on D-Day

In Saint-Lô, German stronghold and strategic town between Utah beach and the south, the simply named ‘night of fire’ begins.  For 20 hours Saint-Lô is bombed. Hundreds are killed as warning leaflets failed to reach the town.

It took weeks for the 116th to reach Saint-Lô, a distance of around 40km as the crow flies and now around half an hour by car.

But then every step was under fire as they struggled through the miles of ‘bocage’, the Manche Normandy countryside of small fields, hedgerows and ditches, perfectly designed to hide the enemy.

Battling through the 'bocage'.
Battling through the ‘bocage’.

he cost in human lives was horrific as they slowly claimed precious ground in one of the bloodiest campaigns of WW2.

Early in July Major Howie was promoted to lead the 3rd battalion, as they headed to Saint-Lô to relieve the 2nd as fighting in the area had been relentless.  Command under fire had tested him and revealed a true leader others were confident to follow.

17th July 1944, a day to remember

On 17 July 1944, using hand grenades and bayonets, the 3rd Battalion broke through German lines at Martinville, 3km outside Saint-Lô, at impressive speed.  By 6am they had reached the exhausted and battered 2nd Battalion of the 116th and Regiment Major Bingham. Cut off for three days the 2nd were perilously short on food, ammunition and vital medical supplies.

“See you in Saint-Lô”

Determined to hold Saint-Lô at all costs the Germans started a counter attack, aiming at the 2nd and 3rd.  Major Howie urged his men to keep down telling them “we Will get to Saint-Lô“.  He took the battle phone to explain the position to Major General Charles Gerhardt, commanding general in the region, shouting that “yes we can do it. Yes if we jump off right now.  Okay.  See you in Saint-Lô”.

He took a look around at his men to ensure they were all down and protected as a mortar barrage shook the ground.  A shell exploded a few yards away and Major Howie was hit in the back, his lungs horribly damaged.  There was nothing Captain Putenny could do but hold him as he died.

Hardened veterans of war, with tears in their eyes

News of the popular major’s death spread quickly. Capt. Darrell R. Spicer, commander, Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 116th later recalled “Word was spread immediately and even though the men of the battalion were hardened veterans of war, you could see tears in their eyes as they heard of the death of their beloved Major.”

General Gerhardt quickly made an incredible decision. He remembered the Major’s battle cry “See you in Saint-Lô” and he would give him that honour.

The 3rd Battallion were ready to take Saint-Lô and Major Howie would lead them.

Dead, Major Howie leads the 3rd into battle

The body of Major Thomas Dry Howie was gently placed on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance as the battle raged around.  Close to the town he was transferred to the hood of a jeep as the ambulance was needed for the wounded.

Major Howie under the USA flag, on the rubble of Le Croix church
‘The major of Saint-Lô’ – Major Howie under the USA flag, on the rubble of Le Croix church

The 3rd Battalion fought their way into heavily defended Saint-Lô behind the Major. Just inside the walls they lifted his body from the jeep and dodging enemy snipers ran for Le Croix church.  Here they placed Major Howie on the rubble of the shelled church, draped him with the American flag, and went back into battle.

He remained there for three days.  During that time countless soldiers passed by to pay their respects.

The major of Saint-Lô

A photograph was taken and broadcast around the world but as the family had not been told of their loss and because of wartime security he could not be named.  The picture was simply titled ‘The major of Saint-Lô’.

Major Howie was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the French Legion of Honor; he is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer..

After the battle for Saint-Lô  the 116th Division of the American Army continued its march toward the Rhine, and ultimate victory for the Allies.

Looking for shelter from the battle in Saint-Lô
Looking for shelter from the battle in Saint-Lô

A legacy

Major Thomas Dry Howie continues to inspire others to be the best they can be.  His story is not forgotten in Saint-Lô, at The Citadel military academy or Staunton were students and soldiers are told of his bravery.

A few years ago his story even reached Hollywood.  Stephen Ambrose, script consultant on the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ talked about his inspiration for the story and for the character of Captain John Miller played by Tom Hanks.  The inspiration was Major Thomas Dry Howie.

Further information

Saint Lo 1944 Attribution: Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA
Saint Lo 1944 Attribution: Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA

 

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