Milo G. Flaten: the Battle of Saint-Lô, July 7-19, 1944

Milo G. Flaten service photograph.

Milo G. Flaten was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, shortly after the start of World War II. After graduating high school, Flaten received a draft notice. Following basic training, Flaten was sent overseas aboard the RMS Queen Mary to England, where he learned he would be a part of the upcoming D-Day Normandy invasions. The Army assigned Flaten to E Company, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. A year to the day after his high school graduation, Flaten landed on the shores of France.

After clearing the beaches of Normandy, the Allied Forces began to pursue their true objective in war-torn Europe: liberation. At a strategic crossroads in the countryside of Normandy lay a small town called Saint-Lô. Having fallen under Nazi control in 1940, the town's inhabitants lived under tight restrictions. On the night of July 6, 1944, the American forces began a bombardment of the town's railway station and power plant, hoping to cut off German reinforcements passing through the city.

Flaten's 29th Infantry Division was one of three assigned to capture the town. A month after D-Day, Milo Flaten's regiment arrived on Martainville Hill, just northeast of Saint-Lô. Continuously showered by German bombardment, the 29th attacked through the hedgerows. The advanced German artillery covered the terrain in shrapnel and fire, causing Flaten's regiment to dig deeper into the hedgerows for cover.

Flaten recounts the experience of surviving the oncoming German fire:

FLATEN: It was oh, it was, we became animals by then. We were under constant artillery, and the Germans had good artillery. They had a gun called a 170 and an 88, and they were just marvelous artillery. The only thing they didn't have, they didn't have a proximity fuse and by this time radar had been invented, and they put radar in the nose of our artillery shells, and when they'd get, they could set the fuse, and they'd get ten feet off the ground, the artillery shell would explode. And so, there was-- into the hole, so the Germans couldn't get-- there's no place to hide. And if you could, the German artillery would hit the bushes and the trees on the hedgerows and explode, sending shrapnel down into the holes where we were, but after the trees were all shot off, and they were all shot off in that area just outside of St. Lo, we were in holes, everyday we'd dig deeper into the, into the side of the hedgerow and then down. And our faces were covered with dust, you couldn't see anything except our eyeballs and our teeth. And we were just literally like animals.”

The terrain of the French countryside itself proved to be a challenge for the American troops. Flaten said the soldiers' training hadn't accounted for the hedgerows, pushing the 29th soldiers to adapt and improvise. The hedgerows became major obstacles during combat, catching on soldiers' gear and funneling offensive direction towards a gate, usually covered by German fire. Because of the limited range of attack mobility, soldiers like Flaten would often climb or fire their guns over the hedgerows instead, trying to avoid taking incoming fire:

FLATEN: But, all of them had bushes growing on top of them with thorns, at least as a scout, I thought they all had thorns, because my helmet, the net on my helmet would catch on those thorns as I tried to go through. They had a gate, I think those were trees or high bushes with thorns, and I believe, I have no reason to know why, but they had a lot of cows and I think it was to keep the cattle in those fields, because they would get scratched on those stickers and stuff. At any rate, at each corner, they usually had a gate, there would be a hole cut in the hedge row and then there would be a gate to allow the cattle to get in and out and the farmers, after a while I saw that's what they do, they would drive their cattle in there in the morning after milking and at night they'd take them out. But, Germans always had the hedgerow gate covered 'cause that's the way most guys would go through so when we would attack, as a scout, I would go over the middle of the hedgerow 'cause I didn't want to get shot, although you'd go over many of those and it was hot, the weather was getting hot, during the daytime, after awhile you would go through the gate and hope you wouldn't.

The division's assistant commander assigned Flaten's squad to enter the village. Accompanied by a tank, Flaten's squad moved into St. Lô, where they stayed overnight. Flaten remembers the whole town, buildings, houses, and churches being intact. By the next time that he passed through St. Lô, artillery and bombardment had utterly decimated the village:

FLATEN: Then we got into the valley where St. Ló was, and we took a little, or a good size patrol with a tank and they, this guy, the assistant division commander, General Cota, I think his name was, he came up and a bunch of engineers and a bunch of unfit soldiers, guys that hadn't been in combat and he took a squad from my company, my squad, the squad I was in, we went into St. Ló that night about dark. The town was in good shape and it was, I mean relatively speaking, because the next time I went in there it was just pulverized, it didn't even have a whole brick, and they had some good size buildings, churches especially and we screwed around in there for a couple of days and then we were told to get out.

The German bombardments continued after Flaten and his squad returned to the reserves back in Martainville. The soldiers of the 29th continued to shelter in their dug-out foxholes in the ground. The continuous explosions on the surface rattled the small caves underneath, where men slept in pairs underneath raincoats for warmth. Items lined up on the parapets underneath the hedgerows would fall from the shaken earth. The dying flora, fauna, and soldiers left the foxholes clogged with a smell of rot and death.

After several days of taking cover underground, the soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division received word that United States Army Air Forces' Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses would bomb St. Lô. On a particularly sunny day, the first squadron of aircraft thundered overhead. Flaten on the bombings:

FLATEN: All of a sudden you could hear this droning of airplanes. You couldn't see any. You'd look up in the sky and it was a clear day, you couldn't see them but you could hear this sound of thousands of engines and I think the earth shook from those too. You could sort of feel the whole place tremble and you'd look up, when you can see rain coming out of a sky, that's what you could see. And you could see the little blimp, blimp, blimp, like twinkle stars up in the sky which was the sun shining on the fuselages of these planes but you couldn't see the planes unless you got binoculars. And none of us had binoculars. But then it looked like actual rain coming out of these planes and this was from horizon to horizon, the air was filled with these airplanes and the stuff that looked like rain that was coming out of these clouds was bombs and the first one landed behind us. I mean we had come from West to East anyway, boom, boom, boom, but it was a long way behind us. It wasn't in our particular hedgerow and we found out later that they had bombed it.

After a week of air raids, the B-17s bombed St. Lô into nothing but ruins and rubble. Though the American forces had tried dropping warning pamphlets over the town before, high winds had carried them off, leaving local residents in the dark. Over 300 French civilians living in the city died during the battle.

The XIX Corps, including the 29th Infantry Division and Milo Flaten, moved into the town. A series of skirmishes and firefights broke out throughout the remnants of the village. Machine guns, fed by bandoliers full of regular ammunition, tracer rounds, and armor-piercing rounds, filled the air with flying metal. Lack of ammunition was a constant struggle for the soldiers at St. Lô. While still targeted by German mortars, Flaten reloaded empty weapon cases using the bullets from a downed machine gun, an action later awarded with a medal. By the end of the battle, the empty rifle clips and bullet casings filled large artillery craters.

WWI German medals brought back from Europe by Milo G. Flaten. WVM V2006.14.2.

WWI German medals brought back from Europe by Milo G. Flaten. WVM V2006.14.2.

Through waves of heavy artillery and combined machine guns and small arms fire, the Americans continued pushing forward. Twelve days after the initial bombardment of the city, American forces won the Battle of Saint-Lô. With the main German troops driven out of the town, the XIX Corps spread out, eliminating what pockets of German resistance remained. Though the Germans tried mounting a counterattack into the city, the Americans repelled it and forced the Germans to retreat a kilometer south of the town.

Even though American forces won the Battle for Saint-Lô, the town was 90 percent destroyed. Where there used to stand homes, stores, and churches only two weeks prior now lay only dust and debris. The field of bodies and buildings provided an open range for German snipers to fire on. Total United States casualties amounted to over 11,000, with over 30 percent of those losses from the 29th Infantry Division. The Battle of Saint-Lô was an important stepping stone during the Normandy Campaign, and in post-war publications, the town would come to be known as the "Capital of Ruins."

Milo Flaten continued to fight in the Battle for Brest later that summer, where Germans captured him. After escaping, Flaten returned to his unit and got injured by a German grenade. Assigned to military police duty in Paris, Flaten later re-enlisted and aided in the capture of Aachen. Flaten left Germany and returned to the United States on Christmas Eve, 1945. He brought back multiple tokens of memorabilia he collected in Europe, including two German Luger pistols. After the war, Flaten attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps to receive his commission. He would go on to briefly serve during the Korean War. After he returned, he practiced law in Madison, Wisconsin, until 2012.

Hitler Youth garrison cap brought back from Europe by Milo Flaten. WVM V2006.14.3.

Hitler Youth garrison cap brought back from Europe by Milo Flaten. WVM V2006.14.3.