Killed in the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, Edward Loustalot was the first American solder to die in Europe in World War II.
By George Morris
The cross at Edward V. Loustalot’s grave is all but identical to the tens of thousands of markers that spread across American military cemeteries in Europe. Like the others, row on row, it communicates with classic military brevity: name, rank, unit, place of birth, date of death.
Only that last piece of information tells of his historical significance.
When he died, the United States had fought in World War II for less than nine months. Already, American military personnel had been killed in the Pacific, just the first of multitudes who would die there, in Asia, in Africa and, ultimately, in Europe.
For the foot soldiers, Europe’s toll came last, the carnage delayed until invasions of Italy in 1943 and Normandy in 1944. But, little remembered amidst the more epic battles of the war, a small band of Americans was part of a force that landed at the French coastal resort of Dieppe on Aug. 19, 1942.
On that day, Loustalot, a Franklin, Louisiana native, became the first American soldier to die on European soil in World War II.
Those who knew Loustalot in Franklin and at Louisiana State University remember him as a fun-loving extrovert. He graduated from LSU in electrical engineering in 1939. Having completed ROTC, he was commissioned as an Army second lieutenant upon graduation. He spent a year working for Louisiana Power and Light before being called into active duty.
Entering the war in late 1941, America was in no position to quickly turn the tide in western Europe, which Germany controlled. Great Britain had evacuated 338,000 of its soldiers from being overrun two years earlier at the French port of Dunkirk, but its losses in weaponry were staggering. German submarines hampered U.S. efforts to resupply the British.
Yet, when Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, it gave Britain a large and demanding ally. German forces pressed deeply into Russia, besieging Leningrad after nearly capturing Moscow. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin demanded a major military operation in the west to force Germany to divert its attention from the Eastern front.
Western leaders feared the Soviet Union might be forced out of the war, especially if the Japanese attacked in the Far East. A successful raid on a French dry dock facility in March 1942 encouraged the British to try something on a larger scale.
That something became Dieppe.
It was not the full-fledged invasion Stalin wanted. Still, it would provide a real test of amphibious invasion craft, equipment and tactics, could destroy enemy supplies and facilities and would draw the German air force into action, where it would be attacked. If all went well, it might indeed draw enemy troops away from the Eastern front.
Code named Jubilee, the raid involved almost 5,000 Canadian soldiers, about 1,100 British Commandos, 15 Free French soldiers and 50 U.S. Army Rangers, a newly formed counterpart of the British Commandos.
The Rangers were an all-volunteer unit, and they received no extra pay for the hazardous duty expected of them.
“Edward was the kind of guy to volunteer for something like that,” said William Maurin, a college friend of Loustalot. “He was fearless about almost anything.”
About 1,500 men signed up for the rigorous training in Scotland.
“The weather was real lousy,” said Don Frederick of Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of Loustalot’s Ranger comrades. “It rained practically all the time. We had pyramidal tents that housed six guys. We were wet all the time — our clothes were all wet. It was miserable.”
Loustalot was one of the 500 selected. Frederick was in a different company but remembers Loustalot.
“He was a very well-built little man,” Frederick said. “He was medium size. He kept to himself. I just thought he was going to be a good officer for us.”
Fifty men were picked for the Dieppe raid. Commando units were assigned to take out coastal artillery about six miles on either side of Dieppe. Loustalot was one of 10 Rangers assigned to No. 3 Commando, which would attack the battery to the east at Berneval.
Other Rangers were scattered among the Canadian units and the No. 4 Commando squad, which targeted the battery down the coast at Varengeville. The big guns threatened the ships and the landing craft bringing in the troops.
Both Commando groups were scheduled to hit the beach first at 4:50 a.m. under the cover of darkness. No. 4 Commando was right on time and accomplished its mission in textbook fashion, destroying the battery, and returning home with few casualties and a handful of prisoners.
Everything went wrong for No. 3 Commando.
A Canadian soldier lies among the slain on the beach at Dieppe.
Shortly before 4 a.m., their landing craft stumbled into a German convoy, which opened fire. The landing boats, mostly unarmed and unarmored, scattered in all directions in the darkness.
“Our craft dispersed when the fighting started,” said Les Kness of Des Moines, Iowa. “They couldn’t locate us, so we never got to shore.”
British destroyers drove off the German ships, but just six of 23 landing craft still headed to the beach. One landing craft reached the beach five minutes ahead of schedule, and its soldiers went in and attacked the battery against overwhelming odds.
The remaining boats came at 5:35 a.m. Not only was the element of surprise gone, but daylight had begun. They were sitting ducks.
British Capt. Dick Wills led this doomed group onto the beach and was gunned down. Loustalot led those who remained. Published accounts of Loustalot’s final moments are sketchy. Some mistakenly call him Edwin.
“Under withering fire, the Commando advanced and one of them, Corporal Halls, stormed a machine gun post single-handed,” wrote H.A. St. George Saunders in the book Combined Operations. “Captain Wills fell, hit in the throat, and Corporal Halls sought to drag him under cover until ordered by his officer, before he lost consciousness, ‘to get on with the battle.’”
“Lieutenant E.V. Loustalot, of the United States Rangers … then took over and displayed much coolness and gallantry, for the first and unhappily the last time. He was shortly afterwards killed.”
“Wills covered 150 yards before he died,” wrote Terence Robertson in Dieppe: The Shame and the Glory. “Edwin Loustalot dashed straight at the right-hand machine gun and died on the run, the first Ranger and U.S. infantry officer to be killed in Europe …”
A 1967 article by G.B. Sylvester in the magazine Man’s Conquest provides the most colorful account, but it does not clearly attribute its source for the details.
“Lt. Edward Loustalot … threw himself across the first wire, tore himself loose and raced up the gully.
“‘Come on,’ Loustalot said, ‘Let’s get the bastards.’”
“The Commandos clambered up behind him. A German machine gun stuttered from the right. The heavy slugs pounded into the men and tossed them back down to the beach. When Loustalot reached the crest, only nine men were left, and then a bullet hit Loustalot in the neck. As he fell, his last grenade exploded in his hand, He was dead by the time he hit the ground.”
Almost four decades later, a Ranger, Marcel Swank, sent Loustalot’s brother, Albert, a copy of a letter he received from another participant in Dieppe, Walt Bresnahan. In the letter, Bresnahan made a crude sketch that showed where he had been pinned down near Loustalot, whom he noted was “very dead.”
Unlike those who had landed in darkness, this group never got near the battery. Loustalot was one of 38 in his unit killed. Eighty-two others were taken prisoner.
British Capt. Peter Young, who had led the Commandos on the first boat ashore, called Loustalot “a charming chap” in comments long after the war.
“Ed Loustalot was killed very soon after the landing — which was in daylight — giving a lead in the best Commando-Ranger style,” Young said. “The Germans were ready and waiting for them — and no doubt they had sent to meet them the men who were not available to meet me … so their sacrifice was not altogether in vain, I hope.”
There was little hope for the rest of the operation. Kness said his landing craft moved down the shore but never entered the attack. From there, he watched the aerial battles and exchanges between naval shells and coastal artillery. He narrowly avoided being killed when a shell went through the boat and when a German fighter plane strafed it.
“I was standing in an anti-aircraft turret that was abandoned because the gun wouldn’t move,” Kness said. “Somebody told me I ought not to stand there, so I ducked. A moment later, two men were killed.”
By staying at sea, however, Kness and most of the others probably avoided death or capture. When the Royal Regiment of Canada landed east of Dieppe, only 67 of 650 men returned to England that day. An attack west of town experienced less carnage but little success. The main thrust on Dieppe was easily beaten back.
“I’m glad I didn’t get to shore,” said Gino Mercuriali of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who also was on a landing craft that dispersed when the German ships attacked. “The boys on that end had a tough time getting out.”
Many factors contributed to the rout. Naval and ground operations were run separately, with no overall commander. German snipers focused on radio operators, disrupting communication. Smoke screens used to hide landing craft from shore gunners also kept officers at sea from assessing what was happening.
Of the roughly 5,100 troops who actually landed, 3,648 failed to return. The Royal Navy lost a destroyer, 33 landing craft and 550 men. The Royal Air Force lost 133. German losses totaled less than 600.
“It was a disaster,” Frederick said. “After the men came back, when we talked to them they didn’t have much to say. They thought it was hell.”
Incredibly, initial press accounts of the raid were overwhelmingly upbeat. An Associated Press dispatch the day of the raid said “the chief objective of this great raid of the war had been achieved.” A follow-up story the next day, referencing unidentified sources, continued to claim success and labeled German reports to the contrary as “grandiose.”
“London advices said the entire machinery of the German defense plan in the west apparently was set into frenzied action, and declared the Allies not only achieved every major goal but completed the vast operation within six minutes of schedule,” the AP reported.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Along with the staggering casualty figures, the Allies failed to inflict serious damage on the German air force.
Stories on Dieppe soon disappeared from newspaper pages, replaced by the intense battle for Stalingrad — the actual turning point in the war in Europe — and the American invasion of the Japanese-held Solomon Islands in the Pacific.
If there were any benefits to the Allies — and British leaders insisted there were — it was in hard lessons learned. Surprise alone could not replace the value of heavy pre-invasion bombardment. Ports should not be attacked directly. For every man lost at D-Day, Combined Operations Chief Louis Mountbatten said, 10 were saved at the Normandy invasion nearly two years later.
“It taught us that you’d better have superiority in everything — troops, armor, air,” Frederick said.
It took a long time for the Loustalot family to learn of Edward’s fate. His mother, Emma, received a May 7, 1943, letter from the U.S. Army Adjutant General still classifying him as missing in action. That came almost six weeks after Mountbatten wrote Loustalot’s uncle expressing sympathy for Loustalot’s death.
Loustalot was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by King George VI.