Son of Hoke mowed down on bridge while cutting line to explosives, saving town and countless people
By Ken MacDonald •
Maggie Mae McRacken was 32 years old when she read the letter from Madame Drou of Mayenne, France, describing her husband’s death the year before.
“I am an unknown woman for you, but you are not for me, because of your husband,” Drou wrote. “Everyone here knows soldier James McRacken…Madam, everybody in Mayenne has known the self-sacrifice of Mr. McRacken; everybody is sure his courage delivered the town from a bloody battle, in its streets, from the hateful Germans, from total destruction. Everybody is grateful for his courage; everybody is sad with you because of his death, and keeps the remembrance of the soldier James McRacken in his own heart…
“I shall send you photos taken during the manifestation on the 5th of August, 1945. So you will know how we honour him and perhaps you will less suffer for his death. If you have children, you must tell them how their father was brave, how he saved a whole town and the lives of many American soldiers…”
The letter was written 75 years ago, as the town held its first annual commemoration of McRacken’s heroic deed.
James Dougald McRacken had been born in the Montrose section of Hoke County, lived in Antioch and graduated from Hoke High School, before moving to Red Springs, where he worked at Home Furniture Store just before World War II. He married Maggie “Mamie” Norris, and they had a daughter, Myrtis Ann. Then he was drafted and sent to Europe, a private assigned to the 90th Infantry Division, Company A, 315 Engineer Combat Battalion.
His unit’s baptism by fire came on June 6, 1944, when it went ashore at Normandy on D-Day.
The scene for the 28-year-old McRacken must have been surreal. Lt. Joe Abrams captured it in the Division’s history:
“As the convoys anchored off shore the sight was indescribable. In the chill of the dawn as far as one could see the ocean was infested with ships. There were battleships, liberty ships, luxury liners converted into transports, landing craft and even former yachts, river boats, tugs and barges. All were loaded to capacity with men, equipment and supplies. The battle wagons were firing round after round of high explosives into the coastal fortifications on the Isles de St Marcouf. In the sky the air force was busy with the Luftwaffe. Burning ships could be seen in the distance and frequently a flaming plane streaked downward and crashed into the water. Then the LCVP’s pulled alongside; cargo nets were lowered and the men in their gas impregnated clothing with their packs, life belt, weapons and tools and other equipment scrambled over the sides and down into the pitching and buckling little landing boats. Even before the craft thudded ashore and dropped their front doors the litter and debris of war could be seen in the water and on the beach. Overturned boats, shell shattered jeeps and personnel belongings were strewn over the sands. A floating body, another grotesquely half covered in the sand and still others lying in rows covered with blankets – like men in formation for drill – this was war for the 315th.”
McRacken’s unit survived Normandy and began to push inland. To Pretot, St. Suzanne, St. Jores, Lithaire and the Foret de Mont Castre. “Every foot of ground was fiercely defended by fire or by mines or by both,” Abrams wrote. The Division suffered seven casualties July 27-28, mostly from mustard pot mines, he wrote.
“The 90th rolled on! The citizens of St Hilaire stood in the streets and cheered and waved and yelled. Troop laden trucks and jeeps were pelted with bouquets of flowers and the men were presented, ceremoniously, with wine and cider and Calvados. On and on the 90th rolled. On through Landivy, Louvigne du Desert and Ernee – it was the same in every town and village. Here was Monsieur le Mayor in his cutaway stripped pants – waving frantically for quiet so he could make his speech. At times the welcoming committees seemed unhappy because the troops wouldn’t stop long enough to receive the keys to the city formally.”
And then Company A was attached to Task Force Weaver. According to After Action Reports of the Division, the task force, commanded by Brigadier General William G. Weaver, was to advance to the city of Mayenne, which was bisected by the Mayenne River, and capture its three bridges as Germans retreated from the invasion forces.
A Department of the Army account reads, “On August 5th the 315th Engineers were just 130 miles southwest of Paris, on a hill overlooking the small French town of Mayenne. A citizen of Mayenne warned the Engineers that the Germans had rigged Mayenne’s only bridge with explosives. If the ancient stone bridge was destroyed, it would drastically slow the Allied advance and leave the people of Mayenne without this essential fixture of infrastructure. As the Engineers fought their way into town, heavy volumes of German small arms, machine gun, and artillery fire slowed the advance.
Kevin M. Hymel wrote for the Warfare History Network that the task force approached Mayenne with a hero’s welcome.
“People lining the streets threw flowers at the advancing soldiers. When the columns slowed, the locals ran forward and offered bottles of wine. Members of the French Resistance offered information on enemy positions.
“Around 2:30 pm, the task force reached the outskirts of Mayenne where two reconnaissance vehicles blew up at a mined roadblock. German infantry opened fire with machine guns and antitank weapons from the woods on either side of the road. (Col. George B.) Barth rushed forward through enemy fire to direct his mortar teams, then followed with a company-strength assault. The men quickly took the roadblock. The battle to capture Mayenne was on.”
The force quickly found that the Germans had destroyed two of the town’s three bridges. An officer shot the locks off doors leading to an attic of a house on the river to get a better vantage and discovered the remaining bridge was indeed rigged with explosives.
The bridge, known as the “Pont de la Caisse d’Epargne” or Savings Bank Bridge was wired with a 125-pound bomb and 15 cases of dynamite. Another account, described the explosives as eight 500-pound bombs. On the opposite side of the bridge, Germans had placed two 88 mm guns, a 20 mm weapon and a few tanks.
The plan was to attack the Germans across the river with a 10-minute artillery barrage, and then send infantry across to secure the bridge for American forces.
But following the artillery, the infantry platoon “froze and would not move,” Hymel wrote.
According to his account, Lt. Burrows Stevens called, “Follow me!” and ran out behind a tank, firing his only weapon, a German Walther P-38 pistol.
And then McRacken ran. The Hoke boy ran from behind a tank, sprinted across the bridge to reach the explosives, and, hit by the 20 mm fire, collapsed on the bridge, using his dying strength to cut the wire to the bombs. “Though his body was shattered by gunfire, Private McRacken continued forward and found the main control wire for the German explosive charges. He snipped the wires, then fell and died on the ancient stone bridge,” according to the official Army account.
He “momentarily seemed to disappear,” a witness said.
As the infantry then advanced and began to reclaim the east side of the town, Mayenne citizens made their way to McRacken’s body.
“The French people who watched Private McRacken’s death from a hillside came to the bridge, shrouded his body, and covered it with dahlias. He was officially declared the “Savior of Mayenne,” the account read.
A year after the incident, the town of Mayenne organized an event to honor McRacken, and erected a monument to him on the bridge. That’s when Madame Drou composed her letter.
“Madam, please excuse me for my poor language. I learned English when I was a pupil, long ago. I cannot write everything I think because I do not find words to express my feelings; I should like to console you. It is very difficult for me, but I can say you Mr. McRacken’s name is written for ever in my memory. I hope you will understand you are a friend for me and if, one day, you come into Mayenne, my house will be yours, because if I have a home now, is because of our hero James McRacken.
26 Place Cheverns
Eventually, Maggie Mae did make it to Mayenne to see the town where her husband died. In 1961, she and Myrtis, then 18 years old, boarded a state-owned airplane with a send-off from Gov. Terry Sanford, and attended a ceremony at the bridge. The Charlotte Observer organized a campaign to raise funds so that she could accept the invitation.
“Seventeen years have passed but everyone remembers the heroic deed of your husband,” the mayor told her before a crowd of 2,000, according to a United Press news account of the day.
“Townspeople began arriving for the ceremony on the bridge long before Mrs. McRacken and Myrtis arrived,” the article read. “They came in twos and threes, some carrying children. Many left flowers before the plaque on the bridge.
“An old woman in black paused to kneel before the plaque as she placed a bouquet there.
“A brawny French truck driver braked his vehicle on the bridge and got out and placed a large bouquet of dahlias with a ribbon reading, ‘A mon camarade,’ (To my comrade).
McRacken’s body was returned to Red Springs, where he is buried in Alloway Cemetery. For his service he received two Bronze Stars, a Presidential Citation and the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1994 Red Springs erected a monument in his honor.
The story of McRacken’s sacrifice attracted the attention of President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt. “He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die so that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives – in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.”