“The Hardest Decision I Ever Had to Make,” by Erwin A. Thompson, WWII Hero. Who to choose for a dangerous night patrol? And, how to get back alive?

Today is D-day. And, my parent’s 69th wedding anniversary if my mother had lived to see this day. My father’s story of “The Hardest Decision I Ever Had to Make,” did not happen on D-Day, but it seems right to post it today as we remember those dark days of World War II and the soldiers who died in the Normandy invasion who turned the tide of that war.

by Erwin A. Thompson
Sergeant “I” Company,
36th Armored Infantry Regiment, First Army


On November 8, I was told that the Company Commander wanted to see me. I went to the company headquarters, “Sergeant, “ he said, “Tonight you are to lead a patrol seven hundred yards ahead of our lines, and find out what we need to know about their strength and position.”

He went on to detail the mission. We were to go down the railroad track that ran through the town, and proceed in the direction that our higher headquarters thought that the Germans were. He told me that another squad of our platoon had gone out a hundred and fifty yards the night before and found nothing. All “friendly fire” such as artillery would be “lifted” (discontinued) for the time that we were to be out.

I didn’t like the sound of it. If there would be anywhere that the enemy would be watching, it would surely be the railroad tracks which were the most logical route ahead of us. I expressed my misgivings. “That is the order that came down from higher headquarters, and that is what you are going to do!” Was the answer that I got. The only thing that I could say was: “Yes Sir!”

So I went to my platoon leader, a lieutenant. Probably a first lieutenant. I believe that all officers in combat were at least first lieutenants. Just before we had left the States a new order had come out that a commissioned officer would lead all night patrols. I said: “I suppose that you are going to lead the patrol.” He just laughed at me.

The one good thing that they did was to allow me to plan my own personnel. There was no doubt in my mind that we were nothing more than human bait. But we had a mission to fulfill. We were pawns in what could be a much more important game. If the outfit decided to push on, that decision would be based on the nformation gathered by our trip out in front of our lines. I really did not expect any of us to get back from it. I called the men together and told them the prospect ahead. I quote from my poem, “The Portrait of a Man.” I can’t say it as well any other way.

I asked for volunteers to go
A place where no man should.
The boys just sat and looked at me
Likes statues made of wood.

‘Just pick the men you want,” said Chick.
“We’ll go, and never bat an eye.
But a man’s a fool to volunteer
To go out there and die!”

Well, the rest of the men seemed to feel the same way. It was the hardest thing that I ever did. It was a twelve man squad, including me. I did not expect that any of us would return from this mission. If there would be anywhere that the Germans would be watching it would be that railroad track. Eleven men.

During the Civil War General Sherman is quoted as saying: “War is Hell!” Anyone who has been truly involved in combat would agree. I picked Chick and his partner “Tennessee.” I thought that we needed at least three, in case there was a chance that one might get back with some useful information. That was one thing that I appreciated, they let me choose my men and the number I felt I needed.

One of the men got me aside later and told me that he had found out that the other squad had just gone out a few feet, laid down for an hour, and then come back. The suggestion was plain, but I didn’t think I could do that. Suppose we did such a thing, and the outfit pushed on and got ambushed? Suppose? No, if we were going to have any chance of winning this war, we were going to have to actually do what we were supposed to be doing, or nothing would work right!

Back in the training centers they had taught us that we should use signals, like running our fingers over the teeth of a comb, or tapping on a matchbox to signal the other members of the patrol what our intentions were as to start or stop, and to go right or left, and so on.

This had not worked worth a damn in the training center where there were no distracting influences. Here there was artillery fire coming in—and anything else might happen. I had lost about half of my patrol back there at Camp Fannin one time! This was no place to take chances. The night was as dark as a black cat. We used a tent rope, with knots in it so that we could keep our proper distance. We made up a system of jerks to indicate our intentions to the other members of the patrol.

The appointed hour arrived. We were told to contact the men in the tank that were supposed to be guarding the railroad track. One thing that confused the issue was that they had changed the password. We were to communicate this to the men in the tank. We could not get any response from them. We had learned from others who had seen this happen, that if a soldier was asleep and got awakened suddenly he usually came awake with a gun blazing! We gave up, and went on about our mission.

Our engineers had installed an M-8 anti-personnel mine by the railroad track at our foremost position. We got into the left ditch and crawled under the trip wire (which went across the track) to start out down the track away from our lines.

We had gone perhaps a hundred yards when there was an explosion, and I felt the shrapnel biting into my flesh.

A journey into “Jerryland,” (German held territory)
And hours until the dawn.
A ringing crash, and burning pain;

I knew that we were gone!
I called his name, but hand grenades
Was all that answered, there.
I found the other boy and thought
We didn’t have a prayer.
Another hail of hand grenades
Each moment brought a-fresh;
And bits of shrapnel tore their way
Into our bleeding flesh.

We never did get an answer from Chick. By this time we had gotten over the shock of the attack enough to take cover in the ditch beside the tracks. I talked to Tennessee. He told me to go on back that he couldn’t because his leg was broken. “I can’t walk,” he said.

I had no thought of getting out and leaving him. I said: “You can crawl, can’t you?” He said, yes, but it was too far to crawl. We got going in the right direction, and after awhile we ventured up onto the tracks. He put his arm over my shoulder, with his bad leg next to me. We were out of range of the grenades, now, although they were still trying for us where we had been.

We were making pretty good time when he said: “Tiger, what about that mine?” I reached my hand out, and touched that trip wire!

So, I saved his life, and he saved both of ours. A passage of scripture came to me then: “He who shall save his life shall lose it –” Had I run headlong for the comparative safety of or lines, I would probably have forgotten about the trip wire.

He crawled under the wire in the ditch at the side of the tracks as we had come in. I still had no idea how bad I was hurt. I was awfully tired! I attributed this to the exertion of almost carrying Tennessee for the distance that we had traversed with three legs doing the work of four. I was going to rest awhile, and then go see if I could find Chick.

We made it back, it must have been
That God knew our distress
His arm across my shoulders
And both a bloody mess!”

When Tennessee crawled under the wire the tankers opened fire on him with their machine gun! They had never gotten the message that there was a patrol out!

The squad that was holding the position that we had left from got them to stop. Fortunately, the night was so dark that they had missed him completely.

By this time my wounds had stiffened up so badly that I realized I could not go find Chick. In fact, I couldn’t go anywhere! Tennessee told them that I was out there, and the men from the squad came and pulled me under the trip wire and into the building that they were holding as part of the “line.”

The next morning the Germans read Chick’s dog tags over their radio that some of our troops could hear. When I got my Third Armored book after the war he was still listed as “missing in action.”

We don’t know where our buddy is,
Or even that he’s dead.
We only know we miss him so –.
‘Lost in action’, is all they said.

The hardest decision that I ever made. Sixty-six years later I would make the same one. If I had it to do over, I would make the distance between us the distance of two tent ropes. Possibly it might have helped. Otherwise the death and the injuries will have to be charged to: “The fortunes of war.”

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  1. So glad you shared this powerful piece of Grandpa’s biography here, in its entirety. I am typing this note just after midnight. However, I told one of Erwin’s great grandsons The Significance Of Today over breakfast on June 6, 2011. How, two years before D-Day, on 6-6-42, R.E.J. wed E.A.T. It will always be Their Day to me. What A Legacy they made together. Theirs is a story still being written in the lives of their children and each generation born. I sure am thankful Tennessee remembered that mine. Or I wouldn’t be here today.

  2. Janean,

    You are so eloquent.. I’m so touched how you remember these family stories and mean so much for you. You have a deep feeling:; “…a story still being written in the lives of their children and each generation born.” Yes, lineage, legacy, and heritage.

    Love you!

    Auntie J.

  3. This is a powerful story of a dilemma that weighs the value of the sargeant and his men whom he is charged to protect, balanced against the military chain of command fraught with boondoggles and lapsed communications, and the larger need for everyone to give their best in order to win the war.
    Mr. Thompson, I was right there with you, agonizing over what you had to do. I believe what is missing in our modern world is the individual and collective conscience that comes through so strong in your writing. I am not entirely sure how it was lost, but having crooks and cowards running the government and posing as role models for children doesn’t help. I wish I knew how to get it back. That’s the question.

  4. Dear Erwin:

    Unlike war movies, courage under fire cannot be fully expressed in mere words. But, you have managed to transcend this limitation.

    Your narrative of war, duty, and snafu is so simple and so eloquent that it burns into the soul with universal truth. These are the stories young minds (all ages) need to hear—freedom is won with blood, not inherited in luxury.

    God bless you and your comrades.


  5. Dear Eden and Fran,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m sharing them with my father. This story is at the heart of who he is. I love how the man he risked his life to save then saved him.

    It’s a story I’ve heard many times from him and in his writings. You see deeply into the different layers of meaning.

    Janet Riehl

  6. Dear Erwin,
    This touches home for me as I think back to the citation about my father’s actions as his troopship sank in the English channel. Fearful of death by drowning, that is how he died…with 801 other American soldiers on December 24, 1944. He died but not before cutting the tangled ropes loose that threatend to take the small boat down with the Leopoldville.
    Your bravery, leadership and compassion for your men shines through in this tale as does Chick’s sacrifice and Tennessee’s fortitude and aid to you, the rescuer.
    Thank you for this insight into a dreadful life experience.
    And thank you, Janet, for posting your Pop’s art-of-the-word.
    Love to you both,

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