Robert W. Lally’s dream was to fly for the Army Air Forces, but a childhood injury to his left arm disqualified him from heading into the wild blue yonder to crush America’s enemies in World War II.
Yet everything happens for a reason, so they say. And had it not been for that injured left wing of his, Lally’s heroic actions on Dec. 1, 1944, in a German farm field would never have happened, and his wounded sergeant would have been left for dead.
Lally, as it turned out, served as Sgt. Richard Smith’s guardian angel, wings and all.
It happened in the weeks before the Battle of the Bulge, in another lesser-known battle, Operation Queen, designed to push through the Siegfried Line across the northern plains of Germany to Berlin. It failed and took with it many of Lally’s beloved comrades, a fact that he still mourns decades later.
But Sgt. Smith would not be among the dead.
Around midmorning on that first day of December, when the fog had lifted, the battle began. Almost immediately, the sergeant suffered a machine-gun wound to the head as he crested a steep embankment. Lally later discovered him lying facedown in a field of bushy, unharvested sugar beets.
“I had been further ahead as a scout and was crawling back from the point of the attack when I saw him. I then encountered a couple soldiers who had been with him, and they told me what had happened. They tried to get back up to him, but the machine gun drove them back. They yelled to him and, of course, he couldn’t answer. They were sure he was dead because they’d seen him get hit,” Lally recalled.
Behind the embankment in the safety of a flowing stream ribboned by woods, Lally said, his heart would not allow him to retreat without knowing for certain that his sergeant was truly dead. Smith was someone he had admired.
“He was one of the few noncommissioned officers that treated me fairly.”
Mustering his courage, Lally, who held the rank of private at the time, moved upstream some 40 yards and then scaled the embankment out of view of the German machine-gunner.
“I crawled in a deep plow furrow alongside the unharvested field that provided some cover and found him lying facedown in a pool of blood, apparently dead.”
Lally got the shock of his life, though, when he touched one of Smith’s boots.
“I just shook the boot a little, and his eyes opened. He couldn’t talk. He was still in shock. He wasn’t about to move. I was exhausted and couldn’t drag him. It took me about 10 minutes to convince him to move. I told him that if he could get up enough energy and just crawl, our two comrades were down below in a big shell hole beside the stream, and they could move him.
“I told him to go first because I knew the first guy always had the better chance of making it without being shot. It’s a surprise. He did, and he tumbled down into the wooded draw that was being bombarded with shells bursting in the treetops.”
The miracle, Lally said, continued.
“We were half-carrying him, supporting him, and after two or three hundred yards we stumbled on a forward first-aid station of the 2nd Battalion. The doctors there patched up his face and put him out on a stretcher, and he was loaded into an ambulance and was transported back to Holland.
“A doctor in Holland realized how badly he was hurt, and he was airlifted to England. The doctors in England told him he would have been killed if the path of the bullet had varied even slightly. The bullet had entered just below his left eye and left behind his right ear.”
After four months of recuperation, Smith returned to the front lines.
“We gave each other a big hug. There wasn’t too much conversation. The war was raging on, and you don’t have time for conversation.”
Long after the war, in their later years, Lally and Smith, who lived in Mechanicsburg, Pa., rekindled their acquaintance with plenty of time to reminisce about the war they helped win.
In a 1988 letter, shortly before he died, Smith wrote to Lally expressing his gratitude for his service to Company L “and especially to me. I may not have had the chance to go turkey hunting … if not for your heroic deed. God bless you and your family.
“Always Your Friend, Sgt. Smith.”
Robert W. Lally, 90
Hometown: Springfield, Ill.
Residence: Orchard Park
War zone: World War II, European Theater
Years of service: 1942–1946
Rank: staff sergeant
Most prominent honors: 2 Bronze Stars, Combat Infantryman Badge
Specialty: infantry scout