Long before becoming a popular cartoonist for The New Yorker and other top magazines, Joseph Farris shipped out to World War II from his home in Danbury, Connecticut, as a young Army Private aboard the U.S.S. General Gordon in October 1944, bound for France as part of Company M, 398th Infantry. Here, he found time to hone his craft through dozens of wartime sketches and paintings while sending over 400 letters home. He recently published an illustrated memoir of his wartime experience — A SOLDIER’S SKETCHBOOK: From the Frontlines of World War II. We are happy today to give you an excerpt. Enjoy….
Our morale couldn’t have dropped much lower than on that fateful day of November 20th, 1944. The Company M morning reports coldly reported that Lt. Gray, our platoon leader, had been killed in action. He was tall, slender and handsome, probably in his 30’s. We were all fond of him and more importantly, we had full confidence in his leadership.
We were a heavy machine gun squad assigned to Co. L rifle company and because of the bulkiness and weight of our weapons, we lost contact with them. Hill 578 was steep and forested and Lt. Gray ordered us to pause while he tried to connect with Co. L. We smiled as he crawled past me. He knelt behind a tree and peered ahead when suddenly a shot rang out. It left a small, almost inconspicuous hole in the side of his head. We had suffered our first KIA during our first combat with the enemy. We heard that when the Germans retreated, they left behind one out of every ten as sniper. We now had to be alert in every direction-front, side, back, above and below for hidden mines.
Tech. Sergeant Ted Lederer immediately took charge, made contact with the rifle company and led us to the top of Hill 578 where we commenced to dig in when all hell broke loose. We quickly full-loaded my machine gun and the first gunner sprayed the area indiscriminately. I, the second-gunner, was feeding the ammunition belt. I looked up at the first gunner and was startled to see that he was covering his eyes with one hand and firing wildly with the other. I quickly pushed him aside and took over the gun. We didn’t expect to come out of the battle alive but after much firing, we finally wiped out the enemy. The first-gunner shamefully crawled down to the foxhole in front of us to see if the rifleman who had dived into his unfinished hole to escape our “friendly” fire was safe. The rifleman turned out to be a friend from the same hometown as the first gunner! The squad leader had also lost control of himself and both he and the first gunner were taken off the front lines and sent back. We never saw either again. I became squad leader. I was a battle hardened twenty-year-old.
Three enemy snipers had been captured and it was quite certain that one of the three had killed Lt. Gray. One of the rifle platoon leaders, a close friend of the Lieutenant’s, marched the prisoners into the woods. We heard three shots. Lieutenant Gray had been avenged.
Joseph Farris is has been a contract cartoonist with The New Yorker since 1971, and has done covers for The New Yorker, Barron’s, Harvard Magazine, ABA Journal, Indiana Alumni, Industry Week and many others. For almost twenty years his cartoons were featured in Stern magazine in Germany. Visit him at www.josephfarris.com.