by John Boland, Historian, US Army Retired
“I don’t care what happens as long as it doesn’t happen to me”—Robert Baskett’s senior quote in the Issaquah High School 1943 yearbook
Most people in America have heard of World War Two and D-Day; they have seen Tom Hanks storm Omaha Beach and of the herculean struggles of Dick Winters and the men of Easy Company 506th PIR. The untold story of one former Issaquah soldier is the intersection of these two tales and sheds light upon a struggle that is little remembered today. The young man was a senior at Issaquah High School, class of 1943; for some reason he had withdrawn during the second semester. Was it due to the outrage over the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or just patriotism? He had not yet reached his 18th birthday. Fifteen months later Sergeant Robert C. Baskett, an Infantryman with E Company, 2nd Battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division found himself on a French beach at 0630 on June 6th, 1944. He and his troops were among the first of the seaborne assault to set foot upon Utah Beach.
No plan survives first contact with the enemy. This one did not make it that far.
“The landing plan went wrong from the beginning. Strong currents beset the landing craft, and the area was obscured by smoke from the preceding shore bombardment. But the main problem was the loss of three of the four designated control craft to mines. The fourth control craft eventually rounded up the confused landing craft looking for directions and, using a bullhorn for communication, led them in. The force landed 1,800 metres (2,000 yards) east of the designated landing area, in the less-defended Victor sector and almost astride causeway number 2. The assistant division commander, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., quickly realized the error. Uttering his famous remark “We’ll start the war from here!” he ordered the division to advance. Three hours later exits 1, 2, and 3 had been secured, and by 1200 hours contact had been made with paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division around the town of Pouppeville. By the end of the day the 4th Division had pushed inland about 6 km (4 miles), and its westernmost units were within a mile of the 82nd Airborne’s perimeter near Sainte-Mère-Église. For an assault that had begun with such terrible confusion, the Utah Beach landings ended as a spectacular success beyond the most optimistic expectations. The 1,800-metre error had placed the landing force away from the heavily defended area of Les Dunes de Varreville and into a less-defended section of beach. Twenty thousand troops and 1,700 motorized vehicles had landed at Utah with surprisingly few casualties—fewer than 300 men.”
Although the gods of war were merciful to the men of the Eighth Infantry Regiment on that first day, their leniency soon came to an end. That afternoon, pushing inland from Utah beach farther and farther away from the auto repair shop that his father Calvin had owned in Issaquah, Sergeant Baskett may have witnessed Sergeant Elbert E. Legg, a member of the 4th Platoon, 603rd GR Co carefully hammering wooden stakes fashioned from a rations box into the ground in a field near Blosville. They would meet again.
For the next three weeks Sgt Baskett led his men, on foot, northwest from Utah Beach through the harrowing bocage, villages and towns to the critical Allied objective: the port of Cherbourg. This action made possible bringing over General Patton’s Third Army with all of its armored forces. On June 8th SGT Baskett led his soldiers in a battle to seize the French town of Neuville-au-Plain, made notable in the scene from “Saving Private Ryan” in which the French family hands over the little girl to American soldiers.
To accompany the mud and rain was the ever present smell of death and decay. So strong was stench, that it overpowered the sweet smells of the fruit orchards and baguettes.
Although neither Robert nor his men fought in Cherbourg itself, they had the unenviable mission to attack and eliminate determined German concrete and reinforced positions in the towns, hills and hedgerows on the approach to the port. The fierce German defense, withdrawing from one hardened improved position to another, made progress through the hedgerows gut-wrenching.
“On the evening of D+2, the 8th Infantry Regiment and the 505th Parachute Regiment caught two battalions of German troops trying to relieve each other and demolished both battalions, killing approximately 500 men. After the attack, we tried to get some sleep. We had been attacking for almost 72 hours. D+3 found us attacking toward Cherbourg. The count of men at the end of D+3 was fifteen left of our original forty.”—Harry Bailey, Columbia, S.C. Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, from War Stories, D-Day to the liberation of Paris, Deeds Publishing 2001, 2014, 2019 p.255
No terrain in the world was better made for defensive action with the weapons of World War 2 than the Norman bocage, or “box-country” in French. These hedgerows, mounds of earth to contain cattle and to mark borders of ownership, began in Roman times. Typically there was only one entry into the small field enclosed by the hedges, which were inconsistent in size and set at odd angles. On the sunken roads the brush often met overhead, giving Robert and his men a feeling of being trapped in a leafy tunnel. In every direction they witnessed only walls of vegetation.
“The sunken roads between the hedgerows in Normandy were another dread for drivers. Along with all the above mentioned hazards, hidden anti-tank guns, zeroed in enemy artillery, dead cows, destroyed and burning vehicles, and on many occasions, bodies of those who were victims of war. Some of the dead were American. Seeing enemy dead didn’t bother me. The sight of our own was a different story. I remember one GI I thought I could help. I stopped to see but he had been hit in the head by a shot from a sniper. He was propped against a tree. I cried when I saw a snapshot, presumed to be his wife and two little girls. They looked to be about one and three years old. The picture was fastened inside his steel helmet liner. The shot up helmet was alongside him. Those steel helmets didn’t stop sniper bullets. Something like that is hard to get out of your mind.”—Former T/5 John K. Lester
Undertaking an attack in the hedgerows was risky, costly, time-consuming, and fraught with frustration—really more like fighting in a labyrinth. Robert’s squad found themselves completely lost a few minutes after launching an attack, at times becoming separated. The small fields limited deployment possibilities; seldom during the first week of battle did a unit as large as a company go into an attack as a complete unit, being forced to attack the hedgerows in smaller units.
Where SGT Baskett and his men got lost, the tenacious Germans were at home. The German 6th Fallschirmjäger (Parachute Infantry) Regiment (the concures of Crete, and warriors of north africa) had been in Normandy for months, training for this clash. Further, the Germans had formulated mechanisms of defense at capitalizing upon the redoubt potentiality of the hedgerows over the past four years. In the early days of the battle, some of Sgt Baskett’s infantrymen may have been killed or wounded because they dashed through the opening into a field, just the kind of aggressive tactics they had been taught, only to be felled by pre-sighted machine-gun fire, artillery, mines, flame throwers, or mortars.
In deciphering Robert’s journey I have set eyes and ears on hundreds of oral histories from the soldiers of the Ivy Division concerning the fighting upon the bocage of the Cotentin Peninsula. One common thread emerges: no one ever told them about the hedgerows.
As though the Germans trying their damndest to shoot, stab, blow up, or drop artillery on his head, hiding from tanks, and avoiding the plethora of land mines all while keeping a group of weary soldiers alert and moving forward through a maze of death were not enough to ask of a nineteen year old sergeant, they had to contend with the rain—the most severe experienced in the area for 50 years. Rivers escaped their banks, transforming into lakes and swamps; streams became swift moving rivers, hampering any plans of a rapid advance. The Germans knew where Robert and his troops would come from, and they were waiting.
Following the liberation of Cherbourg, Robert and his squad spent the 28th and 29th of June patrolling the streets, keeping law and order and dealing with sporadic German holdouts. I wonder if, upon passing the Théâtre de Cherbourg, Robert would regale his teammates with tales of his brief acting career: the Issaquah High all school play “Apron-string Revolt” during his sophomore year. On the next day they headed south, having been relieved by 101st Airborne units.
They loaded trucks and headed south toward Gourbesville to refit, train replacements, and issue replacement gear that had been destroyed or worn out. Their mail may even have caught up with them. I know for a fact that Robert received and sent mail while in Normandy. After 24 days in the maelstrom, they ate hot chow! They may have been temporarily removed from the fire, but life in the frying pan is still hot. They had to maintain security patrols while in the assembly area as the Germans were still in the game.
On the fifth of July, Robert’s unit headed further south to the vicinity of Appeville for one more day out of the hell that was hedgerow combat. Mailing letters, checking their new replacement soldiers, pre-combat checks, going over the plan, rehearsals, last hot meal for a while, and maybe even a warm beer or two.
I don’t know if Robert received letters from a girl waiting for him at home, but I do know that he kept in touch with his mother and father. Cal and Mazie Baskett lived at 210 Williams Street in Renton; Cal had sold his auto service shop in Issaquah and they moved, enabling Cal to be closer to his job as a plant superintendent at the ice plant. The move corresponds with Bob’s withdrawal from Issaquah High.
After moving into their attack position on the 6th of July, the 12th, 22nd, and 331st Infantry Regiments had been attacking along the Periers-Carentan Road, advancing slowly with horrendous losses; one life lost for every yard gained. To break the stalemate the 8th Regiment and SGT Baskett would conduct a night attack, in the rain, across the chest-deep marsh. The men of the 1st Battalion, attacking alongside the second, were subject to a hail of gunfire midway through the bog. They were decimated and had to return to their start point. Robert and his men, on the other hand, found a path through the rancid swamp only to discover in the growing light of dawn that they would also need to withdraw.
The almost constant rain, combined with the flooding of fields by the Germans, kept the GIs wet.
‘The enemy defended organized log and sandbag emplacements with rifle and automatic weapons, utilizing good fields of fire and covering the narrow corridor through which the leading elements had to pass.”—4th ID AAR (After Actions Report)
For the past 31 days Robert had led his men from the beach, through the hell that is hedgerow fighting. The rain and flooding had created a muddy morass that not only kept their feet sopping but, more alarmingly, it severely limited the effectiveness of the armor and air force. The hedgerows themselves stifled the use of observed artillery fires. This was a medieval infantry fight, and SGT Baskett and the men of the Eight were the infantry. The follows is an extract from the Eighth Infantry Regiment’s 1946 yearbook describing the battle of the hedgerows:
“The hedgerow campaign, where some of the grimmest battles fought by the Eighth Infantry were unfolded, were recorded for American newspaper readers by a grey and gentle reporter, known to hundreds of ‘doughs’ as ‘Ernie’, the late Ernie Pyle. Hedgerows are earthen fences around fields and orchards. Roughly four to eight feet high and three to six feet thick, covered with tangled bushes, they form an obstacle surmountable only with the greatest of courage and the stoutest of heart. Once burrowed under these hedgerows, hidden like rats in the earth, not even a direct hit with a large artillery shell would convince the fanatic Nazi defenders that their positions should be abandoned. Only a grenade in the foxhole or a bayonet in the belly furnished the proof. Each field required an individually planned and coordinated attack. Every Nazi’s foxhole was a miniature fort, to be reduced by grenade and bayonet. A scant hundred yards separated the opposing forces during the infamous hedgerow fighting. From Utah Beach to Cherbourg, from Periers to the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, it was yard by yard, field by field; fire as fast as you could and run like hell to the next hedgerow. Get the supplies and repeat, repeat the grinding sequence, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.”—Eighth Infantry Regiment 1946 Yearbook
“15 July 1944 – D+39
The 17th SS Panzer Division withdrew under the covering of the 6th Parachute Regiment.
Considerable shelling of the rear areas and increasing numbers of mines found which had been
hastily laid by the retreating enemy. The 8th Infantry launched an attack at 1015 in conjunction
with the 12th Infantry. Upon reaching the objective at 1800, the regiment organized positions for
defense. The 12th Infantry did the same at 2100. The 22nd Infantry remained in assembly area
as a division reserve.”
—4th ID AAR
During this attack, after enduring 39 days in combat, Sergeant Robert Calvin Baskett was felled by German airburst artillery shell fragments, somewhere northeast of the small French village of Raids along the Carenten-Periers road. His body arrived back at Blosville Temporary Cemetery (pictured below), the location he had fought through on route to his initial objective on June 6th. He was laid to rest in a grave, dug by German prisoners, in the cemetery laid out on D-Day by Sergeant Elbert E. Legg. His parents were notified by telegram on August 4th, 1944.
He would lay in rest in the French field until the repatriation of his remains in 1948. He now rests in Issaquah’s Hillside Cemetery beside his father, who had passed away less than six months after receiving the news.
Cal and Mazie Baskett were not alone; 82 other men from E Company, 8th Infantry Regiment, would pay the ultimate price. No man gives his life for his country, he has it violently torn away from him.
Ernie Pyle summed it up in a most fitting manner:
“Some of the men carried grenades already fixed in the ends of their rifles. All of them had hand grenades. Some had big Browning automatic rifles. One carried a bazooka. Interspersed in the thin line of men every now and then was a medic, with his bags of bandages and a Red Cross arm band on the left arm. The men didn’t talk any. They just went.
They weren’t heroic figures as they moved forward one at a time, a few seconds apart. You think of attackers as being savage and bold. These men were hesitant and cautious. They were really the hunters, but they looked like the hunted. There was a confused excitement and a grim anxiety on their faces.
They seemed terribly pathetic to me. They weren’t warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice.
They were good boys. I talked with them all afternoon as we sneaked slowly forward along the mysterious and rubbled street, and I know they were good boys.
And even though they aren’t warriors born to the kill, they win their battles. That’s the point.”—Ernie Pyle
***For an interactive map which details Robert Baskett’s journey from Issaquah to Normandy and back again, click here.
Many thanks to the following historians:
- Bob Babcock CEO of Deeds Publishing LLC; Past President/Historian, 4ID Assn
- Michael Belis, DMOR 22nd Infantry Regiment, 22nd Infantry Regiment Society Historian
- Jérémy Andersen Bö, Reenactor in Paris, France
- Gerry W. Howard, Past President, National 4th Infantry (IVY) Division Association
- Wesley Johnston, Historian, 7th Armored Division Association