NORMAN S. IVES, CAPT, USN
Norman Ives '20
Date of birth: March 5, 1897
Date of death: August 2, 1944
From the 1920 Lucky Bag:
His wife was listed as next of kin; he was also survived by his daughter, Jane, and son, Norman. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Ambush in Brittany
A story about an unorthodox and little-known World War II naval action in Europe.
By Bud Kane
"What the hell is the Navy doing here?" the armored division's commanding general yelled from his tank as it rumbled to a halt at a hastily improvised aid station in France during World War II.
The Navy lieutenant looked around at his temporarily nonnautical colleagues, incongruous in a setting normally expected only for ground combat troops. Some were being patched up by an Army surgeon; some were on stretchers waiting to be treated; and others were sprawled on the ground, unhurt but soaked with sweat and exhausted.
"I don't know," he retorted wearily. "But I wish I was back at sea." Then, suddenly noticing the two stars on the general's helmet, he looked sheepish for a second and added a belated "sir."
The colloquy, which took place near dusk on a hot August afternoon in 1944 in a Brittany orchard, capped the most unusual World War II Navy combat encounter in Europe. The bravery and heroism of the navymen involved has, until now, been mentioned only in a few lines by Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison in his history of the Navy in World War II.
On that afternoon of August 2, 1944, a Navy shore reconnaissance party of 97, accompanied by four war correspondents, became ground combat soldiers for several hours and battled the nazis for survival. Trapped in an ambush, the small naval party defended itself with only pistols and carbines against a task force of more than 500 heavily armed German paratroopers. The Germans were seeking to join forces with the major Wehrmacht thrust then hammering at the narrow Avranches corridor in an attempt to seal off American armor and infantry within the Normandy hedgerows.
Greatly outnumbered in men and firepower, the American sailors repulsed the heavy German attack for nearly three hours under a burning August sun at almost pointblank range. In the action, they captured two Germans and killed and wounded scores more before a task force of tanks and armored infantry from the 6th Armored Division rescued them from death or capture.
There might be no one alive today to chronicle this story were it not for the daring and quick thinking of a young Navy lieutenant (jg.) a a seaman, who together made a mad dash in a jeep under a fusillade of machine gun fire to bring help. Before help came, three officers and four enlisted men were killed.
Nine other officers and enlisted men were wounded and six men were separated from their unit for two days. Members of the French underground later guided the six back to American lines and safety.
The performance of the Navy party was sufficient to earn the Navy Cross for one officer, the Silver Star for a second, and the Bronze Star for two others.
At least half a dozen other officers and men deserved similar recognition for their heroism that day. But the action was so intense that only the correspondents, with no guns to fire, were in a position to note their bravery; so it went unrewarded. The few brief lines in Admiral Morison's history are the only recognition of their heroism.
For the four war correspondents, the episode began late that morning when the 6th Armored Division, to which they were temporarily attached, bivouacked for regrouping after the savage fighting encountered swinging around the Avranches corridor on the drive to Brest, the major port in Brittany.
The correspondents were Duke Shoop, of the Kansas City Star; Donald McKenzie, of the New York Daily News; Philip Grune, of the London Standard; and this writer, then a reporter-photographer for Star and Stripes.
While the armored division officers studied battle plans for their drive, the four correspondents and their GI driver, Private Harry Weilman of Chicago, left to check out rumors of the liberation of St. Malo, famed resort town on the north Brittany coast.
Major General Robert W. Grow, the division's able and daring commander, had just reconnoitered areas ahead of the bivouac, a few miles southeast of Dol de Bretagne, and told the newsmen not to venture more than a mile northwest unless they saw definite signs of American occupation of the area.
For the Navy party, the incident had its origin two days earlier when Captain Norman S. Ives, USN, commander of the port of Cherbourg, led a group of men from Cherbourg. They were to check the availability of ports on the north side of Brittany to land supplies badly needed by the invasion forces. Cherbourg harbor was still not cleared of mines, and supplies were still being landed on Omaha and Utah Beaches.
They cut through columns of foot soldiers slashing their way from the Periers-Lessay line through the Avranches corridor to open the door for General George Patton's Third Army tanks. At Coutances they were told that U.S. forces had captured St. Malo, but that town was actually still held by a rear-guard of German paratropers who were then probing south and east to tie up with the nazi drive on Mortain, east of Avranches.
Guided by Lieutenant Colonel Kentan Carris, an Army officer assigned to them for liaison purposes, the Navy party of more than a score of jeeps, "recon" vehicles, and command cars swept past the corridor through side roads and drove up the Brittany peninsula to Pontorson.
Halting there to get their bearings, they moved northwest a few miles. There they met the four correspondents coming from a forked road nearly parallel to their own and leading toward Dol.
The correspondents, who had ridden for two miles without seeing any Signal Corps wires lining the roadside—the wire would have been an indication that American troops were in the area ahead—were just about to turn back when they saw the Navy party.
"Where are you headed?" one of the correspondents asked Captain Ives.
"We're moving into St. Malo," Ives replied, adding that they were planning to see if supplies could be landed there. Upon questioning, Ives said he had been assured that St. Malo was in American hands and looked to Colonel Carris for confirmation. Carris nodded agreement.
"We'll join you, then," said Duke Shoop. "There might be a good story in it."
The Navy party resumed its journey, with the four newsmen immediately behind Captain Ives and the rest of the convoy strung out over a quarter of a mile along the road.
The convoy had moved hardly more than a mile, however, when Captain Ives' driver called out: "There's a couple of Germans ahead."
He halted the lead jeep on a rise in the road, which was bordered on one side by a heavily wooded area and on the other by a grain field. Ives jumped out and called to the two Germans, who were only about 25 yards away, to come out of the brush behind which they were partly hidden. He covered them with his .45.
The Germans stood in the center of the road while Lieutenant (jg.) Adolph Heise and Boatswain's Mate 1st Class A. L. Haubert searched them for weapons.
Meanwhile, the newsmen had jumped from their vehicle and one of them whipped out his camera to get pictures of the Navy capturing German prisoners.
Lieutenant E. Milby Burton, the Navy party's intelligence officer, also took some pictures of the capture.
Ten seconds later the picture taking was interrupted by a hail of gunfire from approximately one hundred yards up the road. One sailor fell wounded and another staggered from a shot in his upper leg.
Recovering from the surprise, the Americans quickly split up and jumped into the ditches lining each side of the road. The two German prisoners followed suit as a fresh fusillade came from the woods not more than 50 yards up the road.
Lieutenant Commander C. U. Bishop, Jr. (now a Navy captain and with the Aroostook County, Maine, Civil Defense organization) took over the firing command of the Navy unit, and ordered Lieutenant Burton, Lieutenant Commander Arthur M. Hooper, Lieutenant Beekman Cannon and several sailors to deploy in the wooded area on the right.
Captain Ives held the center point, in the right ditch against a culvert. The four correspondents were immediately behind him, and a group of sailors were strung out along the ditch. The sailors were armed with carbines, but they had to expose themselves above the ditch to fire. They were additionally handicapped by the fact that Captain Ives was right in their line of fire.
Two sailors were told to guard the two German prisoners and prevent their signaling the enemy, and three others crawled back to help Lieutenant Ewald Pawsat, the Navy medical officer. "Doc" Pawsat, with his corpsman, Pharmacist's Mate William J. Newatk, was busy treating three injured men and readying bandages and sulfa powder for other possible casualties.
Commander Bishop took Lieutenant Commander Robert Marvin and Lieutenants Stephen S. Stone, Jr., and Randall Warden, and Ensign Harry Chamberlain into the grainfield on the left to form a firing unit against the Germans in the woods across the road.
Moving through the grainfield for a better vantage point, Bishop didn't realize that the movement of the grain gave them away until the Germans sent a still heavier concentration of rifle and machine gun fire at them.
Colonel Carris, in the left ditch, put his head up to warn Bishop of the giveaway signs and was immediately killed by gunfire.
Over in the right ditch, Captain Ives had run out of ammunition for his .45 and called to sailors behind him who were unable to use their carbines to pass them up to him. As Ives exhausted the clip in each carbine, a fresh weapon was handed to him, loaded by one of the correspondents immediately behind him.
Up to that point, no one knew the size of the enemy force or the extent of its firepower. This second question was answered with emphasis a few minutes later when heavy machine gun fire, accompanied by mortars, began to decimate the vehicles in the road. The first three were nearly demolished by mortar explosions. The rest were strafed and left standing with their tires cut into hanging rubber strips, and with water from their punctured radiators dripping onto the road surface.
Meanwhile, Burton, who with Hooper had taken position in the woods on the right, met a Breton farmer, Alexandre Souffre, lying in the woods. He had been returning to his hut nearby when the firing began and had seen the German force moving through the woods toward the road.
Souffre had fortunately escaped the Germans' notice and he told Burton that the enemy force was about 500 strong and that they were encircling the area, apparently preparing to close in later.
Burton called this news to Commander Hooper, nearby. He in turn crawled carefully back to the roadway edge to relay it to Ives.
"Captain Ives," he called from the edge of the wood. "Captain Ives."
The correspondents told him that Ives had been killed a few minutes before as he had moved to get a better line of fire against the Germans. However, they relayed his information across the road to Bishop, who sent back instructions for Hooper to withdraw his men and return to the ditches.
Hooper was killed a few minutes later, but not before he was able to instruct Burton to withdraw the men and stage a retreat.
Meanwhile, more than an hour had passed under the broiling hot sun. The Americans were under increasingly heavy fire, they were about to be encircled, and there was no relief in sight.
Commander Bishop yelled across the ditch for a volunteer to try to get help. Lieutenant Heise, who had moved into Ives' position, offered to get help. Climbing over one sailor after another, past where "Doe" Pawsat was treating wounded, he picked up Seaman 1st Class Joseph Zabadal and ordered him to follow.
Finally reaching the rear of the line, they both waited a few seconds for a lull in the firing and then, under renewed bursts of fire from the Germans, they made a dash for the last jeep in line. As they reached the jeep, more firing came from the grain field, spraying the road as they tried to turn the vehicle around.
Backing and turning frantically, as the men in the ditches yelled encouragement, they finally got the vehicle turned around and drove madly toward Pontorson.
They were hardly out of sight when the roar of an airplane sounded overhead and the beleaguered men yelled in relief as an American L-5 artillery observation plane flew overhead at about 2,000 feet. By that time nearly two hours had passed since the party had first been attacked.
The pilot, apparently noticing the empty vehicles in the road, banked his plane for a closer look at the convoy. Coming in from the same direction as before, he came down to about 800 feet and drew groans of dismay from the Americans as a German machine gun found its mark and strafed the plane and sent it into a spin.
The men watched in horror-stricken fascination as the pilot lost control and the plane slued northward over a clump of trees and fell out of sight more than a mile away.
The loss of the plane seemed to spur the men into renewed efforts to retreat to safety. Drenched with sweat, they crawled over one culvert after another to succeeding trenches, sliding wounded comrades across the culverts in pairs, under instructions of corpsman Newark and "Doc" Pawsat.
The medical officer frequently exposed himself to direct enemy fire as he and Newark treated Boatswain's Mate Joseph E. Dowling, Machinist's Mate Robert W. Gladwin, and Coxwain Ralph L. Meckfessel when the movement pulled off their bandages. Others helped Seaman Joseph La Flamme, Signalman Thomas Springer, and Lieutenant Ransford, a radio expert with the party, to safer positions in succeeding trenches.
Lieutenant Warden and Commander Marvin, both injured, wanted to remain to help in the fight, but Pawsat ordered them to move to the rear.
Ensign Chamberlain, a relative youngster, directed the withdrawal of a group of sailors while Bishop and Burton, who had come out of the wooded area with Cannon and his men to hold off the attackers, volunteered to remain as the last defenders.
Lying in the fields and unable to help were Robert F. Smith, Robert L. Brunn, William G. Reed, and Wilbur O'N. Elrod, enlisted men who had been killed by the devastating enemy fire.
Noise of the gunfire was suddenly broken by the muffled clanking and exhaust roars of tanks, and a shout went up from the men in the rear.
"They're tanks." they shouted. "They're our tanks."
And they were. Big, greenish monsters with the familiar white star on the front, they looked absolutely beautiful as they moved up, their big guns moving to and fro, sweeping the field. Behind them were members of C Company of the 25th Armored Engineer Battalion, a part of the 6th Armored Division. Lieutenant Heise had obtained help.
The tanks moved forward as their commanders yelled instructions from the turret tops to the navymen and correspondents within earshot, telling them to move to the rear under protection of their fire.
Bishop and Burton, their men moving to safety, asked for carbines and helmets from the tankers and engineers, and joined the soldiers to help rout their erstwhile attackers.
The tank guns and the concentrated fire of the engineers soon had the enemy moving back, but not before nearly a score of Germans were killed in the grainfield and in the woods.
An hour later the enemy was scattered and beaten. Back at an improvised aid station where the American dead had been brought, and where some of the wounded were still being treated, the 6th Armored Division's Commander, General Grow, brought his tank to a rumbling halt.
He greeted the correspondents familiarly and then, noting the Navy insignia on one of the officers, boomed out: "What the hell's the Navy doing here?"
Then it was that Burton, looking up from his position on the ground, dead and wounded lying nearby, blurted, "I don't know. But I wish I was back at sea."
And seeing the two stars on the general's helmet, he added sheepishly, "sir," and saluted.
Their heroism was best described in a communique by Commander Bishop—who received the Navy Cross for his own exploits—who wrote that "despite inex- perience, their excellent discipline and stubborn resistance were in the highest tradition of the Navy."
Lieutenant Burton, during both the active fighting stage and later during the withdrawal, showed ground combat strategy to rival an experienced infantry officer. He was awarded the Silver Star for his superb performance.
Commander Hooper, among others, showed bravery of a high order and was decorated posthumously.
Lieutenants Cannon, Warden, Heise and Stone, Comander Marvin, Ensign Chamberlain, and others turned foot soldier for three hours showed enough courage and gallantry to merit high commendation from the Navy.
Lieutenant Pawsat, the medical officer, demonstrated exceptional disregard for his own safety under direct fire as he treated wounded men and arranged for their withdrawal. He was later awarded the Bronze Star and promoted, only partial recognition for his actions in combat.
Most of all, the enlisted men, too numerous to mention by name, deserve the highest praise.
Faced with a situation for which they had no real training, they nevertheless displayed bravery and rare presence of mind under fire and conducted themselves like experienced infantrymen. No higher praise could he offered.
Routed by tanks, they scattered in smaller groups and most were captured several days later by infantry units following the 6th Armored on its successful drive up to Brest.
Post-battle evaluations indicate that the 500 or more Germans, if successful in breaking through to Avranches, would not have altered materially the results of the vain Wehrmacht thrust to cut the vital corridor through which American troops flowed.
However, the defense put up by the intrepid Navy party helped prevent any change in the timetable of the American Army that, two days later, threw back the German drive from Mortain to the sea.
A week later the Americans killed and captured thousands of nazis at Falaise, opening the door to the Allied drive across France and eventual victory over Hitler's forces.
From Fleet Organization:
- Captain USS Narwhal (SS-167) 25 May 1938 - 30 Apr 1941
- Commander Submarine Division Forty Three 1 Oct 1941 - 6 Feb 1942
- Chief of Staff Commander Submarines Atlantic Fleet 1942 - 31 Aug 1942
- Commander Submarine Squadron Fifty 3 Sep 1942 - 15 Jul 1943
- Commander Base Two Roseneath Scotland 20 Aug 1943 - 24 Nov 1943
- Duty With Commander US Naval Forces Europe/ Advanced Bases/Captured Ports 1943 - 1944
- Lieutenant Commander 1 Jan 1936
- Commander 1 July 1940
- Captain (T) 18 Jun 1942
USS S-4 (SS 109) had sunk following a collision in December 1927. The boat was raised and used as a testbed for submarine rescue devices and designs.
From Hall of Valor:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Norman Seaton Ives, United States Navy, for distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the submarine U.S.S. S-4 from 16 October 1928 to 1 August 1931, engaged in the hazardous duty of developing and perfecting the devices experimented with to make submarines safe for the operating personnel.
General Orders: Bureau of Navigation Bulletin 170 (January 9, 1972)
Division: U.S.S. S-4
Arthur Hooper '24 was also lost in this battle.