At St.-Lo, the hinge between the horrors of D-Day and the liberation of France, North Platte’s World War II heroes received their baptism by fire.
As they prepared to attack Hill 122 — linchpin to Nazi Germany’s French defenses — on July 15, 1944, the 134th Infantry Regiment of the Nebraska National Guard had been close to the city’s heart for more than three years.
Its commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Butler Miltonberger, had led North Platte-based Company D when it was called into federal service in December 1940.
He was a North Platte man. So was Lt. Col. Denver Wilson, Miltonberger’s second-in-command at the time of the callup and brother of World War II Canteen founder Rae Wilson.
When some 500 North Platte residents gathered to greet a Union Pacific troop train on Dec. 17, 1941, it was Miltonberger’s and Denver Wilson’s Company D they expected to see.
Instead, a Kansas National Guard unit (also a Company D) became the first of some 6 million service members to experience North Platte’s wartime hospitality. Rae Wilson, who had accompanied her brother’s unit to Arkansas’ Camp Robinson in early 1941, then rallied her town to open the Canteen on Christmas Day.
As the 134th prepared for its St.-Lo attack — the 115th Infantry would attack from another angle — Denver Wilson wasn’t leading his hometown unit.
But as commander of Miltonberger’s 2nd Battalion, Wilson and his old Company D comrades in the 1st Battalion would experience hell and glory together.
Both battalions moved together at 5:15 a.m. July 15 toward Hill 122, described by Miltonberger and Maj. James Huston in the 134th’s regimental history as “that spot which becomes the last lot for all infantry riflemen, where there is nothing out in front but the enemy.”
The German’s 352nd Infantry Division opened up with high-speed machine guns and shellfire. But the U.S. 161st Field Artillery answered, and as comrades fell around them, “the whole attacking wave of the 1st Battalion had run to the first German-held hedgerow and seized it with complete surprise.”
It was the 134th’s first glorious hour, but the last for Pvt. Harold G. McKay of North Platte.
The rest of his squad within Company D had been killed or wounded, but McKay, a 21-year-old heavy machine gunner, “was seized with a determination to continue the attack,” the unit history says.
“He wrapped all the belts of ammunition he could find about his neck, laid his heavy machine gun on a hedgerow and went into action. He remained at his post until a mortar shell killed him.”
McKay is buried at Fort McPherson National Cemetery near Maxwell, as is Pvt. Dale B. Horne, a 24-year-old Company A member from North Platte also killed during the July 15 fighting.
The carnage continued for hours, but the 134th maintained its presence on Hill 122 as July 15 ended. “Only one day of battle!” Miltonberger wrote in the unit history. “It seemed surely that the Regiment had been engaged for days and weeks on end.”
But the 134th was within 2,000 yards of St.-Lô’s outskirts. As July 16 opened, its other units — including Denver Wilson’s 2nd Battalion — pitched in to consolidate the 1st Battalion’s hold on Hill 122 as the Germans desperately resisted.
By midafternoon, Wilson’s men had reached the town itself. Launching one last thrust at 7:30 p.m., Miltonberger’s regiment made the breakthrough Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Allied forces had been waiting for since D-Day.
“Someone started yelling the (134th’s) old war cry, ‘All hell can’t stop us!’” Miltonberger wrote. “The Kraut was on the run, and when he was on the run he could not very well shoot back.
“Company commanders tried to caution their men to halt at the edge of the town, but the assault was now out of their hands. It swept into St.-Lô.”
By July 18, Adolf Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” was definitively breached. The Allies fanned out across France, liberating Paris on Aug. 25. Less than nine months later, the European war ended.
Miltonberger’s 134th would earn more laurels as it rolled with the Allied advance into Germany. But its first honors — the French Croix de Guerre for the entire regiment and a Distinguished Unit Citation for the 1st Battalion — were awarded for its heroism at Hill 122.
“It was an order of General Eisenhower that brought the War Department announcement that ‘two former National Guard regiments, the 134th and the 115th Infantry, have distinguished themselves in the capture of St.-Lô,’” according to the unit history.
On June 25, 1945, nearly two months after V-E Day, 20,000 people lined the streets of North Platte to honor Miltonberger and Denver Wilson — wounded two weeks after St.-Lo and sent home — with their own victory parade.
“My heart is full,” Miltonberger said in a brief speech at Cody Park, “and I am all choked up. But I accept this tremendous welcome, not for myself but for those men of the 134th Infantry Regiment.”
Rae Wilson’s brother did likewise.
“For my comrades here and for those not here, I humbly accept the honors of this day, thinking of the war that is still to be won and of the veterans who can no longer physically participate,” Denver Wilson said.