Reviewed by James Abrahamson
Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. By Francis P. Sempa. (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2011. Pp. x, 102. $23.95 paper.)
With more than a thousand World War II veterans dying every day, a part of the past may soon slip through our fingers and become beyond retrieval. That almost happened to Francis P. Sempa. His father, Frank, like many who had served in combat, rarely talked about the formation of his infantry unit, its training in the United States, its movement to England, and eventually fighting its way from the beaches of Normandy to Germany and the U.S. Army’s meeting with the Russians at the Elbe. As a child Sempa had seen his father’s few wartime souvenirs, his medals, and a scrapbook. Only occasionally had his father commented about his military service, as when the two men joined to watch old movies or documentaries like The World at War.
At least that was about all the author had until his sister, after their father’s death, opened a shoebox stuffed with the 4” by 5” V-Mail letters that American GIs had used to keep in touch with their loved ones. With those letters, Sempa gained the ability to recreate his father’s wartime role and place his unit—the 175th Regiment of the 29th Division—within the context provided by both the units’ After Action Reports, now available on line, and the war’s many secondary histories. From those materials Sempa has produced a little gem that brings to life the wartime experience of one European war veteran who had fought in some of its bloodiest campaigns.
Frank R. Sempa, drafted from his job as a correspondent for the Scranton Tribune in April 1941, returned to his former position four years and three months later, a discharged Master Sergeant with “memories of the terrible things” he had seen and who felt the utmost respect for the “deeds of valor, the courage and devotion to duty, [and] the hidden fears of men in combat.” (85) In this book, Frank’s son, Francis, shares with readers the sources of those feelings.
The elder Sempa’s first post, Fort Meade, Maryland, revealed a lot about America’s lack of readiness for war: unfinished barracks, often dilapidated, unpainted, and lacking doors and windows, but surrounded with “ankle-deep” mud. (6) There the draftees joined Guardsmen from Pennsylvania, two southern states, and the District of Columbia to form the 29th “Blue and Gray” Division, whose nickname symbolized “Northern and Southern solidarity in the U.S. Army.” (5-6) As initial training began, the division reorganized by replacing its two brigades with three regiments, and In short order, the division began holding maneuvers—simulated combat—at the A. P. Hill Military Reservation and various locations in the Carolinas.
With the army short of equipment for its large mobilization, the division’s soldiers often trained with “dummy equipment” or weapons swapped from one regiment to the next as they prepared for the battles to come. The mud eventually gave way to scorching heat and dusty roads and living in the field under canvas, when the soldiers did not sleep in the open in all weather conditions. As the 24-year old Sempa interpreted his experience—one meal per day, long periods without sleep, 16-mile marches through mud and snow, bouncing over rough roads in army trucks, and going for days without showering or a change of clothes—all those discomforts were part of the necessary toughening experience. Though Sempa shared these discomforts with his parents, he also told them “I’m getting used to it.” (8)
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war, the training also included operating in blackout conditions and responding to air raids. When not in the field, the 29th also guarded essential civilian facilities thought vulnerable to attack by saboteurs. Being out of the field also meant, USO shows, dances, weekend passes, and enjoying Southern food and hospitality in nearby towns. Sempa judged the latter as “great. Never saw anything like it.” (9)
Soon promoted to corporal and then sergeant in his regiment’s headquarters company, Sempa performed communications duties and learned how to lead others. Seeking to reassure his parents, soon a constant theme of his V-mail, he responded to the Japanese attack by declaring that defeating Japan would require air and naval units but not infantry divisions like the 29th.
July 1942 found the division in more comfortable conditions at Camp Blanding, Florida, but three months later, it moved to New Jersey, where it boarded the Queen Elizabeth headed to Scotland. After a five-day crossing, the 29th Division—the second U.S. division to arrive in the British Isles—moved by train to the Salisbury Plain and for a time did much of its training on the moors of Devon and Cornwall—often in wet and cold weather. Sempa’s regiment also took frequent 25-mile marches and underwent chemical warfare training. In June 1943, the 29th—frequently supported by live fire from the navy’s guns—began training for the hazards of amphibious operations, moving from the transports to the landing craft, getting ashore, and then rapidly transiting the beaches to reach interior objectives.
Consistently concerned about his parents, Sempa supplemented his many letters with money from his Army pay, provided them good reports on his own health, and predicted that the war would surely end soon. His parents must also have enjoyed learning that the division’s soldiers received frequent furloughs—to include their son’s two trips to London—and came to admire the indomitable spirit of the English people. Sempa also had good words to say for the support received from the Red Cross, entertaining USO shows for the troops, and English girls, many apparently eager to move to the States. The fun ended in May 1943 when the 29th Division moved to special assembly areas near Plymouth and Falmouth, from which its men would sail for the beaches of Normandy.
Two regiments of the 29th went ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day, but Sempa’s regiment, the 175th,, did not land until 7 June. Its soldiers immediately faced a horrible sight: wrecked boats, burning tanks, wounded and dead soldiers, some of them rolling in the surf. As one captain from the 175th reported, “death was everywhere on Omaha Beach. In seconds you realized that war was hell.” (27). Nothing at Omaha had gone well on the invasion’s first day.
The division’s situation did not improve much as it left the beach and promptly encountered the hedgerows that gave cover and concealment for German defenders supported by heavy guns and artillery. For more than a month the men of the 29th engaged in some of the war’s heaviest fighting—often with opposing units located only fifty to a hundred yards apart. While advancing only eighteen miles in three week’s fighting, Sempa’s regiment suffered 1,310 casualties, including 286 killed and 187 missing in action. Censorship prevented Sempa from reporting to his family what he was experiencing. From Somewhere France, he wrote his parents: “For heaven’s sake don’t worry so much.”(32)
By mid-July, the 29th and two other divisions had captured St. Lo, and Sempa could reassure his family: “We are giving the Jerries a damn good beating.” (33) After 43 days of constant combat the 29th went into reserve for a nine-day rest. Life’s greatest pleasures soon included a “bath, a change of clothes, a shave, watching a movie or show, receiving mail and packages from home.” (37) The 29th soon resumed its attacks and with two other divisions moved into the Brittany Peninsula with orders to seize the port of Brest, which meant more heavy fighting like that in Normandy. Taking Brest cost the 29th another 2,300 casualties, of which 320 were deaths. From Brest the 29th would head by train for Holland, where it prepared to enter Germany. Keeping the censors happy, Sempa’s letters would now bear the heading Somewhere in Germany rather than the earlier Somewhere in France.
After a relatively quiet period, while the Allied high command debated strategy for the invasion of Germany, the division took a position from which its subordinate units probed the Siegfried Line and in “rugged” combat acquired skills needed to attack successfully and hold some of the line’s many fortified villages. Meanwhile the division also trained in very miserable weather for a series of winter river crossings. In late February 1945, as part of an eleven-division attack, the 29th crossed the Roer and headed for the Rhine. Advancing rapidly, Sempa’s regiment captured the sprawling industrial city of Munchen-Gladbach in early March. After a week’s rest in the city’s “sumptuous” quarters, Sempa received a Bronze Star for his earlier service. Along with other communications soldiers he also received training on radios useful in future fast-moving operations.
By March, Sempa reported there was much talk among the troops concerning whether their service had earned them enough points for an early return home. After long writing his parents to expect an early end to the fighting, that prediction now seemed closer to fulfillment.
On 22 March, the 29th Division joined other Ninth Army units in crossing the Rhine River, after which it undertook such new duties as protecting bridges from German attack and controlling 146 camps for “displaced persons” and 89 others filled with liberated Allied prisoners of war. After seeing a German “slave labor camp,” Sempa expressed astonishment at the brutal German treatment of those workers.
By 26 April, the 29th reached the Elbe River and awaited the arrival of Russian forces. Soon thereafter the division assumed military government responsibility for the Bremen area. Having turned down a promotion to warrant officer because it meant leaving his regiment, Sempa received a master sergeant’s stripes on 25 May.
Next month he headed for home and the staff of the Scranton Tribune, feeling fortunate not to be one of his division’s 20,324 casualties, five thousand of whom died in its service. Thirteen of them had been close friends.
From Normandy to the Seigfried Line, Sempa had seen the war in Western Europe at its worst. What he most remembered was “deeds of valor, the courage and devotion to duty, [and] the hidden fears of men in combat.” (85) This excellent book by Master Sergeant Frank P. Sempa’s son will help others appreciate those who endured such risks and made great sacrifices.