Biography of Victor J. "Baseplate" Miller

Sgt., Co. E, 5th Ranger Battalion, U.S.A.

The Following is an Article Submitted by Mr. Miller to the 29th Infantry Division Veterans Association Newsletter.  Mr. Miller's full WWII biography can now be found at the page located here

Your D-Day Ranger Comrades

by V. J. 'Baseplate' Miller

   I have enjoyed reading through the March 1998 'The Twenty-Niner'. As I saw the many stories involving D-Day and Omaha Beach, I wondered if you knew what the Rangers there with you were supposed to be doing. Each unit thinks his was the best, which is natural. I have read the arguments as to who got to the top of the bluff first and other such competitive events. I was only a lowly GI who can describe a bit how we Rangers came to be there and what we were assigned to do. Our motto, 'Rangers lead the way', was given to us by your General Cota. Steven E. Ambrose describes it in his 'D-Day' book as Cota finding our Col. Schneider and saying: "We're counting on you rangers to lead the way". Or as Sgt. Vic Fast remembered it, "I'm expecting you rangers to lead the way". I called Vic last night to check on this and that is the way he still remembers it. Why was I there? I was in the 78th Division Reconnaissance Troop in September of 1943 when volunteers for forming a Ranger Battalion were solicited. We had just had all our men shipped out and it was obvious we would go through another round of training. The Rangers offered a few weeks of training and then overseas to be in on 'The Big One!". Several of us volunteered and were accepted.

     Camp Forest in Tennessee was our training area. We had several weeks of intensive work, then went to Fort Pierce, Florida, for two weeks of amphibious training. We learned to launch 7-man rubber boats through the surf. Then it was off to Fort Dix, New Jersey a few days, Camp Kilmer, and then embarkation on the Mauritania. We landed in England and spent the month of March in Scotland. We were bunked in rooms in private homes and enjoyed the month in spite of the constant training. Almost every day we embarked on assault boats, circled a headland on the ocean, came in and plunged into the ice-cold water to wade ashore. We then hiked about five miles and attacked. One time we had reached our attack point and were hidden, waiting for the appointed time. When it came, we all fired. An unsuspecting farmer over to one side was leading a horse toward a barn. When the explosion came, they both raced for the open door! I'm not sure which reached it first! I was the Special Weapons Section Sgt. in Co. E of the 5th Ranger Battalion. We had light machine guns and 60mm mortars. One day one of my men kept one mortar shell and carried it back to our room. He asked the Platoon Sgt. if he could fire his mortar and he of course said yes. George then dragged out the shell and set up his mortar outside the door. Finally he was convinced he shouldn't fire from there and took the barrel down by the Firth of Clyde where we were and dropped in the shell. A lone fisherman was placidly holding his rod when water erupted some 50 yards from him! He sat a record in rowing to shore! The next morning at breakfast we heard of the submarine which blew up the night before!

     In April it was back to southern England and more training. I had a march fracture in my foot and spent several weeks of that time in the hospital. I just got back in time for the invasion! We were put into a camp with armed guards patrolling outside with orders to shoot anyone leaving. Our D-Day assignment was then given to us. Scale models of the French coast showed every house and tree. Through some strange lack of intelligence, it was never mentioned that the hedgerows there were much different than the hedgerows we hiked among in England. Our assignment was to knock out six 155mm guns on Pointe du Hoc.

     These were the only ones along the coast capable of firing out some 12 or so miles into the transport area. Three companies of the 2nd Ranger Bn. were to attack this from the sea. They had special ducks with mounted extension ladders, mortars to fire grappling hooks, etc.. They were to assault at H-hour. If they had taken the point by H plus one, we were to go in there following them and do what needed done. If they hadn't taken the point in an hour, we were to land some five miles further east, in the Vierville sur Mer area. By that time the troops which landed at H-hour would have moved up the hill and would have a good beachhead. We would simply go up the hill, leave the beachhead and head for the point. We would then attack it from the rear, the very operation we had practiced for a month in Scotland. One company of the 2nd would attack Pointe de la raz perce, and two companies would support us.

     The morning of D-Day found us up shortly after midnight. We had a good breakfast on our ship. We climbed into the assault boats and were lowered to the heaving ocean. Each of us was provided with two puke bags. I think all but a handful of us used both! We were jammed in so there was no space at all between us. The sea was extremely rough. Most of the tanks which had been fitted with flotation devices simply sank when driven off of the ships which carried them. As dawn brightened the sky and we neared the coast, things didn't look like they should have. Tracers were still flying along the beach. Smoke obscured the hill. Steel tripods threatened us as we got even closer, each holding a large mine. Sand bars offshore had many wounded on them. The sea was rising and they were screaming for help. There would be no help for them. GIs huddled along a seawall. Now it was nearing time for us to disembark.

     We sailed on a British ship and so had a British crew taking us ashore in our LCA. Our coxswain stopped our boat, screamed we were aground, and dropped the front ramp.Our Lieutenant jumped out and disappeared down into the ocean! While he was dragged back in, one Sgt. stuck his tommy gun in the Coxswain's ribs, and suggested that he had better get us ashore! With the chance of death greater if he didn't get us close to shore than the chance of being killed by bullets or shells, he got us so close we didn't get wet above our knees!

     The other boat carrying the other half or our 65 man company pulled in alongside. I watched them disembarking in much deeper water as I waited my turn to get off. One of my ammunition carriers was quite short. He leaped out and was in water almost to his armpits. He stood there unable to even move. Sgt. Beccue dashed back in the ocean and dragged him in! Now we were in France!

    Now that we were ashore, what should we do? Our orders were given immediately--stay down while the officers got together and decisions were made. I lay on the rounded rocks trying to get as low as I could to escape the bullets flying overhead. One tank was ashore and was lumbering back and forth. All it seemed to accomplish was making both well and wounded GIs scramble out of its way. Shells were exploding along the beach occasionally. I was next to our Company Clerk. I looked at him and was rather surprised at his activity. He was carefully reaching under him, pulling out one rock and placing it to the side. If he had been able to work long enough, he would have lowered himself down into the rocks out of harms way. Soon orders came to us--forget Pointe du Hoc. There was no beachhead, and we were assigned to take one! A bangalore torpedo under the barbed wire fence which had the many defensive strands blew a gap in it. Off through a gap in the seawall went our line platoons. We special weapons people followed to be ready when called upon. Up the smoky hill we went. Signs all along warned that the area was mined. I missed one of my squads and went back to find it. The squad leader said he was told the area was mined. Yes! But, forget that and get up here with the rest of us. The first dead German soldier I saw I didn't really believe. He was so white and waxen that I thought they might be fooling us with a dummy. I'm sorry that he wasn't the last dead soldier I saw during the war. We continued until we were on top of the hill.

     Shortly we heard a 'whoosh whoosh whoosh whoosh' and four rockets flew over us heading for the beach. We were much safer there. Soldiers without as much training as we had received refused to leave the beach and so there they died. Had they just attacked, they would have lived longer. The invasion was quite a sight from the hill. Ships were as far as one could see. Each had a barrage balloon flying above it to deter dive bombers. While I watched, a Landing Craft Infantry was unloading men down gangways on each side of it. Suddenly it was covered with fire. A later report was that a GI carrying a flame thrower had received a direct hit! Death came to many.

     We had crossed the coast road when a counter-attack came. We had been moving up a ditch, and my squads were keeping as well covered as possible. Just then Col.Schneider came up alongside of us. People were reporting to him there. One boat of F Co.had swamped. It fortunately turned out that they were all rescued. Of the two companies of the 2nd Bn. who were to support us, only about a platoon had been found. A Lieutenant of artillery reported and said they had one gun ashore. Col. Schneider asked for some fire just in front of our lead troops, only to be told that was too close! He then asked for mortar fire so we sat up and fired rounds which helped repel the attack. We now moved West through the town of Vierville. We special weapons people were really just tagging along through town. We had reached the far side when it became time to settle in for the night. I dug a good slit trench and had a good night's sleep.

     Early the next morning I was awakened by our Captain calling 'Baseplate'! (This moniker was given me by the 1st Sgt. since the one who carries the baseplate of a mortar doesn't need to know anything, he only needs a strong back!) Our Captain was Edward Luther, recently deceased. He was an excellent officer and very supportive of our Company Reunions in recent years. He asked if there was room in my trench for him and I said no, so he said I had better come to him. Stray bullets were flying around occasionally. He told me the Germans had infiltrated back into Vierville and we should go back and clean it out. We all went and I'm happy I lived through it. I was outside the wall around that part of town and was being fired on by a sniper. I was trying to find him when a newly arrived GI called over the wall demanding to know who was there. He then demanded I get up and come in or he would throw over a grenade. Stand up and get shot or stay down and get a grenade? Finally I talked him out of throwing one.

     Later in the day we headed on West. Sometimes we had to be on the road. In one area there was a gap in the hedgerow we had to pass by. Back in the distance was a sniper dug into a hedgerow with a good sight at that gap. Some 3 or 4 dead GI's there attested to his accuracy. It was a relief to dash across and find you were still alive!

    Once during the day as we were waiting in the road Captain Petrie rushed up. He was our Doctor. He asked if the ammunition we had was mortar shells. We said it was, and he said he had to take some to D Co., they were running out. I told him that D Co. had 81mm mortars while all other companies had 60mm ones. He said that didn't matter, he was taking some of these to D Company! I had a time dissuading him.

    We spent a cold, showery night. The next day we continued and reached Pointe du Hoc. Along the way, quite a few prisoners had been taken. When areas were cut off, the soldiers often surrendered. Several captive nation personnel seemed to be there and seemed happy to surrender. You never knew, though, for it might well be a ruse also. They had fortifications which were almost impregnable. I examined one mortar emplacement after it surrendered to us. I could have held off the entire American army if I had been in it. Only a manhole sized opening was visible above ground. The mortar was mounted inside a cistern-like hole on a pedestal. All surrounding landmarks as crossroads were painted on the side to aim at with the elevation needed to hit them. You could shoot any direction, and there was a great store of shells.

      The 2nd Bn. had found the guns moved from the emplacements of which we had been shown pictures. They were back in an orchard, but some of the men sneaked in and disabled them while the operators were nearby. The guns were knocked out, the goal of both Battalions on D-Day. They had taken the Pointe; but not in the one hour allotted to them before we were to land somewhere else. Perhaps that is well, for had we not landed at Vierville and helped take the beachhead there, the entire operation might have failed.

     A few days later, after different experiences, I penned a poem I would like to share with you:

      A Ranger's Prayer (Click to Go There)

       Later I was taken prisoner. When a big POW camp we were in a bit was evacuated and all started marching East, a large group of Italians were there. One of our men, Al Ceccanti, was Italian. He got in with the Italians. One night the rumor was that the next day we would deparate. Italians and some others would march back West, the rest of us would continue East so we would be picked up and liberated by some nationalityother than our own. The Italians fixed Al up with a uniform and the next day he hiked away with the Italians.

      -----   Victor J. 'Baseplate' Miller



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