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ALLIGATOR, MISS. — Half frozen to death, crouched in a foxhole on the French side of the Rhine River, U.S. Army infantryman Jimmie Pierce gingerly raised the bayonet attached to his rifle toward the black sky.
“The bullets hit it,” said Pierce of the relentless hail of ammunition wrought by German troops as he and members of his 10th Army Division, 20th Infantry, Company C fought to see another morning.
They were low on men, low on bullets and low on fuel for their “half-tracks,” vehicles with wheels in the front and treads on the back. “We’d been pushed back by the Germans, and we were disorganized,” Pierce said.
When it was time to climb out of the hole, Pierce realized to his horror that his heavy woolen overcoat was stuck to the ice where he knelt. “But as the last American vehicle was pulling out, I got out of there, and I fell into the back of one of those trucks.
“I thought you were supposed to die standing up. That was the most scared I’ve been in my lifetime.”
Jimmie Pierce lived to see many more days, to raise four children and lose one soon after her birth, to enjoy 65 years of marriage with his sweetheart from Marks, Miss., and to farm cotton and soybeans and corn in the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta where he has dwelled most of his 96 years.
The home he shares with son Ricky is near Alligator, Miss. For his Nov. 15 birthday, he renewed his driver’s license, although he really only needs it when he gets behind the wheel of his truck, not his four-wheeler or one of the tractors.
Pierce lives life fully, knowing his time could have come over and over again as the Allied Forces launched into World War II’s Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, Luxembourg and France, which began 69 years ago Monday. But from the time he waded ashore onto Omaha Beach in France, as Germany prepared to make its last push to conquer the Allies in the waning months of the war, Pierce made it his business to forge ahead, and to ensure no enemy lived long enough to follow.
Training for the beaches
Pierce enlisted not long after he and Cordie Lee went down to the Quitman County Courthouse in Marks on Jan. 18, 1941, and got married. “We had $5, and the license was $3,” he remembered.
They were listening to the radio with his grandfather on Dec. 7 of that year when they heard the news: Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. “When I volunteered to go, they had so many that they couldn’t process us all,” Pierce said. “But in November 1942, I got greetings from the president saying I’d been selected.”
He kissed his wife and baby son and got on a Greyhound to Camp Shelby, Miss. There, he was asked, What branch of service do you want? “I said, ‘Anything but the infantry,’ “ Pierce said.
He was promptly placed in the infantry and soon found himself at Fort Benning, Ga., then Camp Gordon, Ga., and Camp Shanks in New York. He had no idea at the time, Pierce said, that “they were training us for the beaches.”
He and his “boys” sailed from Camp Shanks in late May 1944. He only knew he was headed to battle. “They didn’t tell us nothing,” he said.
Finally, “we pulled into the English Channel. We stayed there for a few days, and we went out on the deck one morning, and there was smoke on the water. They said that when it was our turn, we’d be going out on two beaches. Right before sunset, it was our turn.”
At 5-foot-6, he fought to keep his footing in the choppy, cold waves as he waded to shore, his rifle held high. Judging by what was in the water, Pierce realized what lay ahead.
“We had to let the dead ones float by,” he said. “It was a terrible scene.”
Fighting alongside Patton
Pierce sometimes held his face in his hands and had to pause to collect his emotions when he spoke of combat and having no choice but to kill or be killed. But on June 6, he knew what he had to do.
“Our mission was to get on shore and get our instructions,” he said of the 156,000 troops that entered France via five beaches and marched across the Normandy countryside toward Germany. “All I could see were the American boys on shore, making room for the rest of us.”
Piece manned a machine gun as he and his company rode half-tracks or walked into French villages.
His division fought alongside Gen. George Patton and his 3rd Army Division during the Battle of Saint Lo. “We didn’t leave a building standing,” he said. “The Germans had a big presence, but we took it.”
Pierce described helping to move bodies of Allied dead, at least to the side of the road so the Germans wouldn’t run over them, and digging rows of temporary graves for comrades who ultimately died. “I could have been digging my own grave,” Pierce said.
Injured in battle
From Saint Lo, they pushed on to Paris, then closer to the German border and what was called the Siegfried Line, a system of bunkers and fort-type defenses -- some of them underground — set up by the Germans along that country’s western boundary with France.
“We’d been there about a month, and we were taking a bad beating,” Pierce said. “Gen. Patton was mad. It was November of 1944, and those Germans would come out of the mountains with those clean clothes on. We had frozen clothes.”
Pierce said, “The Germans were moving their tanks almost on top of us boys. They were regrouping for the Battle of the Bulge, but Gen. Patton said we didn’t bring you over here to run backward. You run forward.”
On Nov. 14, the day before his birthday, “we all thought that was our last day on planet Earth. We were outnumbered, out of ammunition and about frozen to death.” They took bullets off their dead to reload the half-track machine guns.
Pierce jumped off his half-track to help a wounded soldier. As he crawled back on, “everything around me blew up. All I can remember is going through the air. And when they came back through to pick up the dead, I came back alive again.”
Full of shrapnel, he ended up in a partially destroyed London military hospital as the Germans “were making that big push in the Bulge,” Pierce said. There, he found the man he’d helped, whose legs had been blown off. “He didn’t live but about two weeks,” Pierce said. “He just wanted to go home.”
The war's last days
Pierce healed enough to be sent back to his company a few weeks later. At long last, they crossed the Rhine River then moved on to Berlin in January 1945. “American soldiers were coming in from everywhere,” Pierce said. “The Germans were giving up.”
Just when he thought he’d get home, Pierce was sent to Japan. He was on the ship when American forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima, then Nagasaki. “They stopped the ship and said they were sending us home,” Pierce said.
His three late brothers — Flavis, Red and Dempsey — also fought and were injured in the war, although he had no contact with them overseas. But all returned home.
Sixty-five years later, Pierce returned to France. He toured the underground bunkers. He walked up and down Omaha Beach, collecting sand and shells that today bring tears to his eyes when he touches them in memory.
Ricky Pierce knows the carnage of war still haunts his dad and that Jimmie Pierce never received the recognition he’s due for his valor.
“He’s never talked about the war. He doesn’t watch war movies,” said Pierce, 62. “That’s why he stays busy all of the time. Never have I seen him lying in the bed after 5 in the morning.”
David Koons, Pierce’s pastor at Rena Lara Baptist Church, said “I’ve tried on two occasions to see if I can get him a Purple Heart. If there’s anybody that deserves one, it’s Jimmie.”
“I believe we saved the U.S. from Germany,” Pierce said. “I know the price of freedom. I pulled it over to the side of the road.”