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The following letter is from John "Red Dog" Dolan, Company Commander of A Company 505 PIR, to General James Gavin.   Wriiten in 1959, at the urging of Robert Murphy, the letter provides a very detailed account of A Company's legendary actions at La Fiere Bridge. General Gavin's transmittal letter to famed author Cornelius Ryan is also enclosed.

JOHN J. DOLAN
ATTORNEY AT LAW
BOX 1272,  141 MILK STREET
BOSTON 4,  MASS.

 

March 15, 1959

 

Lt. General James N. Gavin
c/o Arthur D. Little, Inc.
30 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, Mass.

Dear General Gavin:

    Thank you for your letter of March 10, 1959. It had always been my intention of answering the questionnaire of Cornelius Ryan; but realizing that it would take considerable time to give a detailed and accurate account, I kept putting it aside and then completely forgot about it until Bob Murphy spoke to me about it a few days before receipt of your letter.

    I shall try to cover as much detail without making this letter too voluminous, leaving it to your judgment and discretion to delete any portion that you deem unfavorable to the outfit. You may recall that I was in command of Company "A", 505 Parachute Infantry, with the rank of First Lieutenant. The specific mission of the Company "A" was to seize and defend the bridge crossing the Merderet River on the road that ran East to West from Ste. Mere Eglise, with the purpose of preventing the movement of German troops down to the beach-head.

    I don’t recall exactly what time the first Battalion jumped but it was between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. on D-Day. We hit our drop zone right on the nose, because within twenty minutes to one-half hour, I knew our exact location. I was able to identify a "T" intersection, dirt roads 8 to 10 feet wide, near our drop zone. The upper arm of which ran generally east to west, the vertical arm running north to south, to meet the road running from Ste. Mere Eglise to our objective, the bridge at the Merderet River.

    We had the usual problems of re-organization in the dark; however, about an hour before dawn, Company "A" moved out from the drop zone with about ninety (90) per cent of the men accounted for. (This was not due to luck alone, but to the cooperation of Officers, Non-Coms, and last but not least, training. Men who have to fight in the night should be trained in nighttime fighting, not just taken on a night march and digging foxholes.) We moved along this dirt road which I previously referred to as being the North-South arm of the "T" intersection, and just around here, I ran into Major McGinity. He moved out with us.

    The order of march was first, Co. Headquarters, third and second platoons in that order. When we reached the road running East-West from Ste. Mere Eglise, a German motorcycle passed us going toward Ste. Mere Eglise. At this time, it was still dark, but daylight was starting to break. We crossed the road and started west toward the bridge,with a hedge row to our right between us and the road. Just about this time, contact was lost with the first platoon, so the third platoon took the lead.

    About seven to eight hundred yards from the bridge, we came upon a dirt road running southeasterly from the road to the bridge. Hedgerows were on either side of this road; and beyond it in the direction of the bridge, was an open, flat field, about 100 yards deep and about 75 yards wide. It was here that I figured the Germans would defend if they intended a defense of the bridge.

    I directed Lt. Donald Coxon to send his scouts out. This he did, and he also went out with them. He had plenty of personal courage but he didn’t have the heart to order them out without going with them.

    A few moments later, a German machine gun opened up, killing Lt. Coxon and one of his scouts, Fergueson. Their fire was returned; and, with Major McGinity and myself leading, a few men holding and returning frontal fire, the platoon flanked to the left. At the same time, I directed Lt. Presnell to re-cross the road and attack along the northern side down to the bridge. This was done, and the second platoon didn't meet with any fire until they arrived at the bridge.

    The third platoon continued its flanking move and cut back in toward the road to the bridge. Because of the fire, we calculated that there was just one machine gun crew that was in our way. It later turned out that there must have been at least a squad dug in at this point, with at least two of them armed with machine pistols. Prisoners captured later, in addition to the German dead, amounted to about the size of one of our platoons. There were no German officers captured. I don’t know whether or not any of their enlisted men escaped.

    To continue, we cut back toward the road, travelling in a Northerly direction. Major McGinity was leading and I was about three’ or four paces behind, and slightly to the right. There was a high, thick hedgerow to our left, and it was in here that I figured the machine gun was located.

    When we had traveled about two-thirds of the way up the hedgerow, they opened up on us with rifle, and at least two machine pistols. I returned the fire with my Thompson Sub-Machine Gun at a point where I could see leaves in the hedgerow fluttering. Major McGinity was killed instantly. As luck would have it, there was a German foxhole to my left which I jumped into and from where I continued to fire I could only guess where to shoot, but I had to as part of the Third platoon was exposed to their fire. Lt. McLaughlin, the assistant platoon leader was wounded and died later that day. His radio operator was also killed the platoon by now was under fire from two directions, from the point where I was pinned down, and also from the direction of the bridge.

    I can’t estimate how long we were pinned down in this fashion, but it was at least an hour. I made several attempts to move, but drew their fire. On my last attempt, I drew no fire. They obviously had pulled out. During all of this time, I could hear rifle and machine gunfire down by the bridge on the north side. This ceased about this time I returned to the rest of the third platoon, instructed the Non-Coms to re-organize and to maintain their present position. I then crossed the road and located the first platoon commanded by Lt. Oakley on the north side. They were moving toward the bridge, so I instructed them to continue and dig in on the right side. I went down to the bridge and found that we had received an assist from some of the 508 Prcht. Infantry about this time, I ran into Col. Eckman, and sent for my third platoon to dig in on the left or south side of the bridge. The first was already digging in on the north side.

 

I thought that all of the Germans had retreated; but unknown to us, there were about ten or twelve Germans holed up on the second floor of a stucco-type farmhouse. At the time they started firing. Col. Eckman and I were casually looking the situation over. It lasted about twenty minutes with about ten or twelve Germans surrendering. About a squad of men from the 508 made the actual capture.

    We dug in, the disposition of my Company as follows: First platoon on the north side of the road, the third on the south and the second in reserve, about 4OO yards back, so that it could also protect the rear.

    Major Kellam arrived at the bridge with Capt. Roysden, his S-3. He had most of his C.P. unit with him. I don’t know whether or not a Battalion C.P. had ever been set up as planned, at least, I don’t recall having had any communication with it. Down at the bridge now was most of Company "A", about one platoon or Company "B", a platoon of the Division Engineers (mission to blow the bridge if necessary), about half of Battalion Headquarters Company with mortars awl machine gun sections and several stray men from other regiments. The Company dug in well and quickly. I had just completed my inspection of the forward positions when we knew that an attack was coming. You will recall that in front of our position, west of the Merderet River, was a marsh at least 1000 yards wide at its narrowest point. The road running west from the bridge could better be described as a causeway.

    As I recall, the mission of the 508 was to occupy a position beyond this causeway. In addition to the men who assisted us in capturing the bridge at least a company of the 508 passed through our position and moved over the causeway to their objective. They were gone at least an hour when we saw several of them retreating back across the marsh. I remember that we helped several of them out of the river, which was quite shallow.

    The machine gun fire from the Germans was very heavy by now. We didn’t return their fire as there were no visible targets and our ammunition supply was limited. They attacked with three tanks, which I was unable to identify for sure; but they appeared to be similar to the German Mark IV type, or maybe a little lighter. The tanks were firing on us with machine guns and cannon.

    Just about a half-hour before this attack, a 57MM A. T. gun was assigned to Company "A". I located this gun about 150 yards from the bridge on the road where it curves to the right as you approach the bridge. Incidentally, this was my C.P. and later the Battalion C.P. This gave the gun excellent cover and a good field of fire.

    On the bridge I had three bazooka teams. Two of them were from Company "A" and the third was either from "B" or "C" Company. The two Company "A" bazookas were dug in to the left and right of the bridge. Because of the fact that the road itself was the causeway type, they were as of necessity dug in below the level of the road, so that in order to fire, they had to get out of their foxholes. The third bazooka was over more to the south where better cover was available.

    To continue, I had just completed my inspection of our defenses and was 40 to 50 yards from the bridge. Major Kellam and Captain Royaden were nearby. The first two tanks were within 15 Qr 20 yards of each other, the third was back about 50 yards. When the lead tank was about 40 or 50 yards away from the bridge, the two Company "A" bazooka teams got up just like clock work to the edge of the road. They were under the heaviest small arms fire from the other side of the causeway, and from the cannon and machine gun fire from the tanks. To this day, I’ll never be able to explain why all four of them were not killed. They fired and reloaded with the precision of well-oiled machinery. Watching them made it hard to believe that this was nothing but a routine drill. I don’t think that either crew wasted a shot. The first tank received several direct hits. The treads were knocked off, and within a matter of minutes it was on fire. Then they went to work on the second tank, and within about 30 seconds, it was on fire. They fired every rocket that they had and then jumped into their foxholes. The 57mm during this time was firing and eventually knocked out the last tank. The gun crew did an excellent job.

    My two bazooka crews called for more ammunition. Major Kellam ran up toward the bridge with a bag of rockets followed by Captain Roysden. When they were within 15 or 20 yards of the bridge, the Germans opened up with mortar fire on the bridge. Major Kellam was killed and Captain Roysden was rendered unconscious from the concussion. He died later that day. Both of the bazookas were destroyed by the mortar fire. Lt. Weir (Reg. Hq. Co.) and I carried Captain Roysden back. I then took over command of the battalion, being the senior officer present.

    Company "B" was put into reserve in the perimeter of Company "A", so that we had almost a 560 degree perimeter defense. The rest of the day we were under heavy mortar and machine gun fire. The mortar fire was very effective as against the two forward platoons because of tree bursts. It took very little imagination on the part of the Krauts to figure out just where we would be dug in. As I recall, there was less than a seventy-five yard frontage on either side of the bridge from where we could effectively defend, so they could throw their mortar fin in our general direction with good results. During the night, the fire let up, but they started early the next morning and kept it up. My third platoon took the worst beating, as they were in a heavier wooded area, (tree bursts).

    The second tank attack came on the afternoon of the second day. I was over on the north side of the bridge with the first platoon. For about an hour before the attack, they increased their mortar fire to the extent that the third platoon was just about knocked out, but not quite. I was not aware of this at the time. In addition to already heavy casualties, Sgt. Monahan, the platoon Sgt. was fatally wounded.

     I learned second hand that some other troops had retreated through the third platoon’s position, and then through my C.P. Rumors were around that we were going to give up the bridge. As a result of this, the 57MM A.T. crew took off. I didn’t have an Executive Officer at the time. Earlier that day, he (Tom Furey) was put in command of "C" Company. My First Sergeant was a jump casualty, so my Company Headquarters at the time was non-existent except for runners and radio operators. I can’t recall why, but our radios were not working. The only way that we could communicate was through runners.

    The first platoon was under heavy fire also. The platoon leader, Lt. Oakley, who had been doing an excellent job, was fatally wounded, and Sgt. Ricci was leaving the junior squad leader, Sgt. Owens, in command. You will recall that we have had some communication about Sgt. Owens in the past as to his personal courage and the way he commanded the platoon at this most critical time. I recommended Sgt. Owens and my tour bazooka men for the D.S.C. The bazooka men were awarded the D.S.C., but Sgt. Owens was not. This is a story in itself.

    The second attack was with two tanks and infantry. I was unable to estimate the size. The tanks stayed out of effective bazooka range. (We had one bazooka left.) Not hearing any fire from the 57MM, I went over to it and found it unmanned. I tried to fire it, but the crew had taken the firing mechanism. I organized five or six men behind the hedge on the southerly side of the road with Gammon grenades, and just about this time, two of the gun crew returned with the firing mechanism. They knocked out the two tanks. They were two youngsters not more than 17 or 18 years old, who returned on their own initiative. I recommended them for Silver Stars.

    The rest of our stay at the bridge was uneventful, except for the continued mortar fire, and at the end, artillery fire which damaged the 57MM. Lt. Col. Mark Alexander took over command of the battalion later that day and continued to command it for most of the operation. Without exception, he was the finest battalion commander I ever served under. My second son, Mark Alexander Dolan, was named after him.

 

  In conclusion, we held the bridge until relieved. In Co. "A" alone, in those days (three in all), we had seventeen known dead and about three times that number wounded. The rest of the battalion also had heavy casualties.

     I have tried to give you an accurate picture of what happened however, after fifteen years, the foregoing may contain some minor inaccuracies I will be glad to give Mr. Ryan any additional information he may require. You may assure him that I will be happy to cooperate with him in every detail.

 

                                                     Very truly yours,

                                          

 

JJD:eg

P.S. Since writing this Letter, I have read the account by David Howarth in the Saturday Evening Post, and I agree with you that it contains many inaccuracies. You will probably note that some of the events related tie in with what I have told you in this letter.

The most glaring inaccuracy is about the bridge being lost. For the record, this bridge was held by Company "A" from the time of its capture on "D" Day, until we were relieved.

Response from General James Gavin to Cornelius Ryan:
 

Aurthur D. Little, Inc.

Established 1886
Thirty Memorial Drive
Cambridge 42, Massachusetts

 

March 27, 1959

Mr. Cornelius Ryan
230 East Forty-eighth Street
New York 17, New York

Dear Connie:

I Just received the attached from Dolan. Frankly, it is the first time that I have ever gotten this much detail out of him. Although I was with him from beginning to end of the War, he was never much for talking about what happened. I hasten to send it off to you because I think that it is quite good. To the host of my knowledge it is accurate in every detail.

 
mhm
Enclosures (7)

 

Sources:
Copies of  the above letters and photos of La Fiere were published by the Drop Zone with the permission of Attorney Robert Murphy - 505. The letter from Dolan to Gen. Gavin detailing the account was written at the urging of Mr. Murphy.

 

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