Lt. Charles Edward Potter dashed for the shell hole, figuring the crater would shield him from the deadly fire coming from German-held Colmar, France, on Feb. 2, 1945.
What the 28-year-old infantry officer did not know almost killed him. Anticipating some GI might seek shelter in the hole, the enemy had mined it.
The booby trap’s blast tore off both of Potter’s legs. Even so, he survived to become a double amputee congressman and senator from his native Michigan.
The 28th Division landed in Normandy a little more than a month after D-Day but in time to help the Allies push the Germans out of the region’s historic hedgerow country. Afterward, the division fought across France and in late 1944 and early 1945 took part in the Battles of the Huertgen Forest, the Bulge and the Colmar Pocket.
Born in Lapeer, Mich., in 1916, Potter served in the House of Representatives from 1947 to 1952 and the Senate from 1952 to 1959. He also wrote Days of Shame. Published in 1965, the book detailed his role in the Senate’s ultimate censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy ultimately discredited himself for recklessly and without proof accusing people in the government and the military of being communists or communist sympathizers.
Potter had joined the army in 1942 and rose from private to officer. When he lost his legs at Colmar, he was a veteran combat soldier in the First Battalion of the 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division.
Loyalty pays off
Pvt. Tom Hickman, Potter’s favorite scout, heard the explosion in the shell hole and rushed to his lieutenant’s aid. In November 1944, Potter had saved Hickman’s life in the long, bloody fight for the Huertgen Forest in Germany, according to the WWII 109th Infantry Veterans’ Facebook page.
Hickman had suffered a concussion and a minor hand injury from the explosion of a German 88-mm shell. Potter told him to seek medical aid and ordered him off the front line. Hickman balked at going to a field hospital and went no farther than the regimental command post.
Hickman spent two nights at the command post before returning to his outpost with some of the other soldiers. He was stunned to discover that a mortar shell had killed every man in the outpost. Hickman was sure that if Potter had not ordered him to the rear, he would have died with his buddies.
When Hickman tried to pull Potter out of the crater, he saw the officer’s legs were gone. Potter managed to find one of his severed limbs and clutched it to his chest as Hickman hoisted him up. The private grabbed Potter — still holding tightly to his leg — and ran through enemy fire all the way back to a field hospital, “praying that the man he admired and fought alongside since Normandy would survive,” according to the Facebook page.
For the regiment’s bravery in the capture of Colmar — the town fell to the Americans late in the afternoon of Feb. 2 — the 109th became the only American army regiment to earn a French Croix de Guerre with Palm. Gen. Charles De Gaulle personally bestowed the honor, according to the Facebook page.
Fitted with artificial legs, Potter was discharged with the rank of major in 1946. His courage and the loss of his legs earned him a pair of Silver Stars and a Purple Heart.
Standing up to McCarthy
Stateside, Potter went to work for the US Labor Department’s Retraining and Reemployment Administration. He switched to politics in 1947 after the death of Republican Congressman Fred Bradley, who represented Michigan’s 11th District. Potter resigned his government post to run for Bradley’s seat in a special election.
Potter won and was elected twice more, in 1948 and 1950. He was elected to the Senate in 1952, two years before the Senate formally rebuked McCarthy, whose actions gave rise to the term “McCarthyism,” meaning to use bullying tactics and false allegations to discourage dissent.
“Sen. Potter did the American public a very great service by telling the truth about his experiences serving on the same Senate Committee with Sen. McCarthy from his memoir ‘Days of Shame,’ in which he reminds us all to never forget the dark and dangerous path of a McCarthy perspective, and he indirectly reminds us all to never forget the legacy of heroes, whether they fulfilled that role during WWII or if they are fulfilling it today in the Middle East to secure the legacy of a future American leader,” according to the Facebook page.
Potter was defeated in 1958 by another decorated World War II Army officer, Democrat Philip Hart. A lieutenant colonel in the Fourth Infantry Division, Hart was wounded in the arm on Normandy’s Utah Beach on June 6, 1944 — D-Day — and earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Croix de Guerre.
After he left the Senate in 1959, Potter went into private business. He had been living in Queenstown, Md., before his death in 1979 at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. The 63-year-old Potter was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.