The 2nd Infantry Division was first constituted on September 21 1917 in the Regular Army. It was organized on October 26 1917 at Bourmont, Haute Marne, France. At the time of its activation, the Indian Head Division was composed of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, which included the 9th Infantry Regiment; the 23rd Infantry Regiment and the 5th Machine Gun Battalion; the 4th Marine Brigade, which consisted of the 5th Marine Regiment, the 6th Marine Regiment and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion; 2nd Brigade of field artillery; and various supporting units. Twice during World War I the division was commanded by US Marine Corps generals, Brig Gen Charles A. Doyen and Maj Gen John A. Lejeune (after whom the Marine Corps Camp in North Carolina is named), the only time in US military history when Marine Corps officers commanded an Army division. The division spent the winter of 1917–18 training with French and Scottish veterans. Though judged unprepared by French tacticians (sic), the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was committed to combat in the spring of 1918 in a desperate attempt to halt a German advance toward Paris. Maj Gen Edward Mann Lewis Commanded the 3rd Brigade as they deployed to reinforce the battered French along the Paris to Metz road. The Division first fought at the Battle of the Belleau Wood and contributed to shattering the four-year-old stalemate on the battlefield during the Château-Thierry campaign that followed.
On July 28 1918, Marine Corps Gen Lejeune assumed command of the 2nd Division and remained in that capacity until August 1919, when the unit returned to the US. The division went on to win hard-fought victories at Soissons and Blanc Mont. Finally the Indianhead Division participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which ended any German hope for victory. On November 11 1918 the Armistice was declared, and the 2nd Division entered Germany, where it assumed occupation duties until April 1919. 2nd Division returned to US in July 1919. The 2nd Division was three times awarded the French Croix de guerre for gallantry under fire at the Belleau Wood, Soissons, and Blanc Mont. This entitles current members of the division and of those regiments that were part of the division at that time (including the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments) to wear a special lanyard, or fourragère, in commemoration. The Navy authorized a special uniform change that allows hospital corpsmen assigned to 5th and 6th Marine Regiments to wear a shoulder strap on the left shoulder of their dress uniform so that the fourragère can be worn. Major operations : Third Battle of the Aisne; the Belleau Wood, the Château-Thierry campaign, St Mihiel; the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the Aisne-Marne offensive.
This interview was done on Jan 13 2004. Jesse was 80 years old at this time. That’s the transcript of the interview : I’m a World War II veteran. I was a combat rifleman in the infantry. And this is now January 13, 2004. I’m 80 years old now, I’ll be 81 next month, on February 22. I thought I’d put a few things on here to have as a record for people that might be interested in years to come about war and what it’s like and I’ll tell it like it is.
I went in from Nicholasville, Kentucky, at 19 years old. I went to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, took my basic training with the 75th Infantry Division, but then was transferred, went on maneuvers there with the 75th and took my basic and advanced training there. That was a new division. It was just activated. We helped activate that division. I was in Service Company then, but then I was transferred out after maneuvers in Louisiana and put in the 2nd Infantry Division. I went to New York City and left from Cameshakes, New York, sailed into Glasgow, Scotland, which was thirteen days and nights, and at that time the German submarines were sinking a lot of ships, and we had a large convoy and had destroyers and cruisers protecting us, but we was attacked, but nobody – so they said. We seen them dropping the depth charges and things, but they didn’t hit any of our ships or anything.
Landed in Glasgow, Scotland. Went from there to England and took training there in Flatlet Sands, getting ready for the invasion of France, which they were planning on D-Day. I didn’t know it then, but the Second Division had been selected to make that invasion, and it was in Ireland, but I was in England, and I was to be with a forward force that would go in with the First Infantry Division on June 6, 1944, and establish a headquarters for the Second Division there.
I’ll tell you some of the experiences that I had on Omaha Beach. It might be interesting to somebody. We were put on ships and aimed to make the invasion on June 5, 1944, but the bad weather, Eisenhower called it off, and then they upped it until the 6th, but we were on the boats at that time, and a lot of the troops got seasick because the channel was real rough. And it was cold. It was in June, but the water was icy cold. And finally, on June 6, why, our ships that we was in went out, and within about eight or ten miles from Omaha Beach, then we went over the sides into the little Higby boats, I guess they were, with the drop-down ends, and it was really rough, because those ropes were swinging back and forth, the sea was so rough it nearly knocked you off, and some of them did fall off and get hurt. But we went into the little boats and started in. And I couldn’t see anything because I was hunkered down in the boat as we went in, but I do remember seeing the looks on the faces of the young men, most of them was 18, 19 years old, we had kidded in life like soldiers do, but all at once it got complete silence, and young men looked like old men. You could see their lips moving; we were praying, all of us was praying. I was praying. I didn’t know whether I’d get hit and lose my legs or my sight or I’d get killed quick, or I’d make it. And I thought of my home, and my mom, and my dog, and my friends, and then I wondered how in the world this come me to be here in this situation, a young man, realizing that probably I didn’t have much chance to live because I knew what was ahead of us there.
And we had barrage balloons on the ships – I forgot to tell you that – to keep the German fighter planes from running down and strafing us too close. But we could see the gliders going in, being pulled. All the planes come out that morning with white stripes around them. We didn’t know this. We had never seen this before. It was really a secret; it had been kept a good secret. All the American planes had white stripes around them, the gliders and all. The planes started going over, and we had battleships and destroyers flying over our heads, and I think there was 5,000 ships in that invasion. Everybody had a gun was shooting, and they were shooting back.
But somehow my boat got hit. I don’t know what happened, whether we hit a mine or whether a shell hit us, and all I could feel was a tremendous heat on my body. Anybody who’s been around dynamite or done a lot of dynamiting knows what I mean. You is — seems like you inhale the smoke fumes from that and it makes you sick. But my body heated up. I could feel the heat in my body and the sickness feeling in there, but I was plumb out of it. And I come to, I hit in the water, and the water was icy cold, and it brought me to my senses, and I realized I survived. But I began trying to swim, and I was an expert swimmer because I was raised on the Kentucky River and had swam all my life, but I knew with all the equipment that I had on that I couldn’t make it that far out, so I dumped everything I had, my FULL pack with everything I had in it, my raincoat, my extra shoes, socks, and everything, and tried to make it in with my rifle and gas mask.
I made it to the obstacles there, and I was tired and give out because I had a lot of clothes on. Well, these clothes that I had on was impregnated with a chemical in case the Germans gassed us, it would be protection. I had on long underwear, and then I had on OD pants, which is a wool dress pants, and then over top of the dress pants I had the regular fatigue pants, and I had, of course, the field jacket on top of that, and all of that, and they was treated with these chemicals that made them real heavy, and you know how clothes are when they get wet and heavy, it’s hard for you to swim. And I was give out, and I hung onto an obstacle there in the water, a metal obstacle, and the bullets was whizzing by me. I could feel the heat, they was so close to my face. I could feel the heat from the bullets. They were splattering all around me, but luckily none hit me, and after I kind of rested a while, I made it in to the beach, and I would run a while and then I’d have to fall because I was give out, and finally got into behind the — as well as I remember, it was kind of a hill there, and I got in a rise there on the ground on the beach, and I got in behind that, and most of that then to me is a nightmare.
There was bodies all over the place, and there was blood and everything. You were stepping over your American soldiers, and some of them were begging for help and crying for help. I seen them with their face half blowed off and some of them with their intestines hanging out, and they’d just look at you with a pitiful look because you couldn’t do nothing for them.
Another thing I seen there was, those battleships firing over our head and everything, they would make big craters in the ground, deep. I saw a cow, a French cow, blew right up in a tree. The tree was halfway just leaning over, and she was blew up in there. I didn’t know anybody, I wasn’t with anybody. I was completely separated from anybody that I knew, but I fought there that day until night come, and I got in a German foxhole, and I remember hunkering down in there, and then I got to wondering if the invasion had been a failure, and they had pulled out and left me and I was by myself, and I expected Germans to come down and kill me at any minute while I was laying in my hole. There was flares going up which would light the beach up, and you could see a pin. There was mortar shells coming in on us, artillery shells coming in on us, machine gun fire, everything imaginable, right on you. You could see the tracer bullets coming right at you. But I laid there in my foxhole with my bayonet on the end of my gun and put it in between my legs and let it stick up in the air in case they jumped in on me they would hit the bayonet. That’s all I knew to do.
I never spent — I spent some bad nights, but I think that was one of the worst nights of my life. The next morning, not knowing anybody or whether anybody was living or whether they was all been killed, there was an officer, an American officer then that hollered for people, and he said, we’ve got to get in, we’ve got to go in or we’re going to be killed here. So we started in. It was just make-up troops as you could find, it was different outfits, and we fought our way in through a pillbox, and it was mined. They had mines all over the place, and shoe mines all over the beach there. They were firing at us point blank. They had concrete bunkers there and their machine guns and everything, they had that beach zeroed in. They didn’t have to even look at you, they could just fire every so often and cover the whole beach. The beach was covered with dead, and you had to climb over them, and the wounded. But we got in a little bit, and seemingly for the next three days or so, I don’t know how long, I just didn’t remember much of anything, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I don’t know how long. It went that way for a long time, anyway, and finally, finally, I dug a foxhole one day and just fell off. I guess I just passed out and went to sleep. I remember waking up, and I said, well, it was quiet, and some of them said, what are you talking about ? They plastered us. All night long they fired on us. And I could find the pins out of the mortar shells all around my foxhole. The ground was like walking on mulch, if you can understand what I’m talking about, from the shell blast and things, when you walk on the earth, it’s just like it would be a plowed field, nearly. It was like walking on mulch. It was tree bark and stuff all together, and it had just churned it up that way. There was cattle walking around with their hips sticking out and their legs blown off. The awfullest mess I ever seen. We fought through that, and then into the hedgerows we went, and some of the hardest fighting I think could be anywhere in the world was in those hedgerows as we fought hand-to-hand there, a hundred yards apart. Sometimes in all day of fighting we’d gain a hundred yards. We’d have to walk right into them and then hid behind the hedgerows. We dug into them hedgerows like rats, and they called us hedgerow rats. We would dig into the hedgerow and carve a place back, and as long as we stayed there, we’d keep digging. You’d never stop digging, you’d dig deeper, deeper, deeper. You think you got a hole deep enough, and then when the shells come in on you, you’d get — you’d dig deeper and deeper. And I fought through the hedgerows like that, which was nearly suicide.
And then the night patrols we had to go on, and walking through the minefields, getting trapped behind the German lines, and all of that stuff, and I ended up on hill 192 there on — beside St-Lo, and that hill controlled all the roads coming into St-Lo, and it had to be taken before St-Lo could be taken, so they told us then. I think that was in July, I can’t remember the date exactly, that we was going to try to break through, and I was in the First Army now, and if we could break through the lines, that General Patton was going to come in with his Third Army and the Armored Division, and the Armored — the country was flat in there, and you’d be able to move a lot faster and gain a lot more ground than what we had been gaining in all that time, but we had to take that hill 192, which we named Purple Heart Hill because we tried to go up it several times. Every time we’d failed, and everybody was wounded or killed, but we finally taken it on that morning.
And I remember seeing St-Lo as I looked down on it, and it was pretty. The sun was shining on it one morning, and the white stucco buildings showed up, and I remember of a church that I looked at and I seen the steeple sticking up and it reminded me of the Lord, and I remember that. But we finally, through a hard fight, had took that hill possession, and then they was able to go through St-Lo. You can find that in a book called St-Lo, in which it tells about it, and my outfit is in there, Second Division, 38th Infantry Regiment, Company L. We won a lot of awards, and also had the Presidential Citation, 303 Clusters, Combat Infantry Badge, and many, many others.
But I fought through that and through all five campaigns in Europe, and seen the Battle of the Bulge in through there, seen the dying of the troops, and some of the things that I could put on here, maybe, that a lot of people don’t think about that’s not been in war, but after the Battle of the Bulge there, it snowed, and we fought through the cold and zero temperature and froze our feet and our ears and had to lay in the snow and freeze, and then when the snow started falling, you could — you could see a hand sticking up through the snow, or maybe a foot, and as the snow went down, you’d see three or four American bodies or German bodies laying there in the snow who had been killed and it had snowed over the top of them, and then the snow had to melt before they’d be found.
You’d see bodies of dead Americans, it’s hard on you when you see an American soldier laying in the filthy mud with his face down in the mud and the head caked with mud and blood, and I’d think, well, they’ll send his parents — excuse me — they’ll send his parents a notification that he died in battle, but — but they don’t tell you that he was laying there covered in blood and how he had died or maybe been run over by a tank. You’d see American bodies fighting in Normandy there in June and July that would be — would be laying out in the sun and swelled up and bust. The clothes would pop off them because the bodies got so big. That’s American soldiers.
I remember once going back to get water after a battle and seeing what we called the meat wagons. That was the trucks, two and a half tons, Army trucks, picking up our dead, and they would just throw them on the truck, one on top of the other one, and I seen this good-looking kid, a blond-headed boy, looked like about 18, perfect specimen of a man, with his arm — one arm hanging off of the truck and the other one off. Some of them with no head or part of a head or part of a face. A truckload of them. They’d just pitch them on there like that. And it takes something out of you.
You can see the enemy dead, but when you see your own troops, that hurts. I remember those things. They’ll always be with me now. I’m 80 years old, nearly 81 right now, and they never left me. I made a — the University of Kentucky made an oral history of my life and my combat experience for the University of Kentucky Library which they have there, which I give all of my experience on there. But that’s some of the things of war that you don’t think about, when you see little children running around the streets and their parents dead, and nothing to eat and no water to drink. That’s French towns, I’m talking about, that we were liberating. We were driving the Germans out, but we had to do that, we had to destroy their town to do it.
And you go through the horrible experience of those things, hungry people and people starving and people dying, and then you — you — you remember what peace you had in the United States, growing up, you remember the wonderful feeling it was to be able to get out, and I thought how good it would be if I could lay down one night without thinking somebody’s trying to kill me, if I could just go to sleep one night and sleep in peace, I could just rest. I’d sleep in my foxhole with the rain coming down on me and my clothes wet, that you couldn’t get dry for days, your clothes would mildew on you. You laid in the mud. Sometimes you had to go to the bathroom in your foxhole and shovel it out with your shovel. People don’t think about that. They don’t think about the stuff you go through. They say, well, a major battle is a major battle, but we fought a battle every day. My outfit was in combat, starting from Omaha Beach there, I think it was out of a year, 337 days — you can look that up on the record, but I think that’s right — that we was in combat, and that was every day. We was fighting every day of our lives.
And a combat infantryman don’t last that long, and how I lasted, I don’t know. I was hurt, and I guess maybe that saved my life for a while. But it’s — it’s a terrible thing, this thing, war, to see young men in the situation that we was in. And I prayed, and I prayed an awful — an awful lot, and I think everybody did. And finally, I seen the end of the war in Germany, and I thought, Lord, I’ve lived through it. And then they started talking about Japan, and my division had been selected to make the invasion of Japan.
I thought, I can’t make it no more. I just can’t bear it no more. I can’t go through no more than I’ve went through, the suffering I’ve been in and everything. But thanks to the Lord, it ended in Japan. And they criticized us for dropping the atomic bomb, but if you’d been in our shoes, all of us, our soldiers all over there, everywhere that American had them, in the Pacific and in places like that, and then you’re wanting it to be through with, and all at once you could have peace and you could go home, and if it took that, to drop that bomb, then it took it, and I stand by the President then and his decision that he made, because we didn’t start this thing. And they would have done the same thing to us.
I had a friend, Marsh Collier, who was in the Bataan death march. He went in, he was in the National Guard in Harrisburg, Kentucky, Marsh was, he was captured by the Japanese there, the first to be captured was in the Bataan death march, and he told me how they treated him, how they shot them in the head when they would fall out, and marched them barefooted sometimes on the blacktop until the meat come off of their feet, and they didn’t give them any food or any water, and they had been cut off and didn’t have anything but what they had to surrender.
Put them on death ships, down in the hull, where there was no — nothing for them. And some of them tried to drink their own urine because they was dying for the water. And most of them died. And how he got in Japan, how they worked him and mistreated him and told him they was going to kill him, and how finally they had set a date that they was going to execute his — the group that he was with there, and just before the execution is when they dropped the atomic bomb. How do you think he felt and those boys felt if we hadn’t done that and they had been executed there ? So you see, it saved a lot of lives. It saved not only American lives, but Japanese lives, because we went in, we would have had to have killed every man, woman, and child there or they would have killed us, so I think it was the right decision, what they done. It was a terrible decision.
First thing, this is war, and in war you have to accept anything that would happen, anything you can win with, you win with. But I think of these things sometimes when I hear people talk, and they don’t know what people go through in war and what it really is. The American people are fortunate people, you’ve not had bombs dropped on you, you’ve not seen the dead that I’ve seen, you’ve not seen the slaughter that I’ve seen, you’ve not suffered the things that we have suffered. I’m talking about the ones that died and the ones that are still living, we’ll never get over it.
Every night, when there’s a thunder at nighttime, it wakes me up. I have nightmares, and sometimes I tear up things in the house. I have to sleep now with a mattress on the floor in case, so I won’t come out of the bed and things like that. After all of these years now, all of these years since 1944, that has hung with me that way.
I’ve raised six children, and done real well, but I still have the — I still have the flashbacks that they call it now, the flashbacks of the things that happened to me and the things I seen happened. But I’ve tried to dedicate my life to the Lord and do the best that I can do with it, and I have tried to do that. But this is some of the things that I just wanted to put on record so it will be put down what war is and what you’re sending your young people into when you send them into it, and this is — this is some of the things that I think needs to be told.
I think the American people needs to know what war is. They don’t know. They don’t really know. Only the ones that’s lost sons, and they don’t know what they went through with, they don’t know all the suffering they put up with. I’ll try — that’s the reason I’m putting this on here, in the hope that it will be a help to somebody.
I was over in — in France and Germany and Belgium and Holland and Czechoslovakia for quite a while after the war ended before I got home because they had so many of us over there, they didn’t have enough ships to get us out, and a few other things happened that delayed my coming to the United States. But what a wonderful day it was, the 7th day of December in 1945, when I got on the boat in Marseilles, France, and they said, you’re going home. And how I thanked the Lord when I walked up the gangplank that I was alive.
We come out through the Straits of Gibraltar, through the Azores Islands, run into a tremendous storm that nearly destroyed our boat, and I thought, Well, I’m not — I haven’t made it home yet. But I landed in Newport News, Virginia, and on to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where I was discharged December 28, 1945.
And I’ve lived a good life since then. Had a hard time trying to make a living, but I’ve raised a family and been a good citizen of this country. I spoke all over the place, the University of Kentucky, different schools and high schools, and churches, giving my testimony, telling some of the things that happened to us, some of the horrors of war. I remember in fighting in Brest, France, we captured some German soldiers and one of the soldiers had been wounded. We fought at Brest, France, there, I think 30 days before they would surrender, and they only told us they’d surrender then if we wouldn’t let Adolph Hitler know it. He had ordered them to hold out until death.
That was terrible fighting there, and they finally surrendered, and this one German soldier was wounded. Some of them didn’t have any shoes on. They had been wounded, took their shoes off, and I guess didn’t never get them back. And this one was wounded real bad and he couldn’t walk, and his buddy was trying to pack him piggyback on his back. We had to march them about seven miles to put them on a train and was going to take them to Marseilles, France, and then they was going to send them to the United States as prisoners of war. And I had some new fellows come into my outfit that hadn’t been in combat, and they had told us that if any of these fell out, that they can’t fall out, we’ve got to get them in there dead or alive, but as we started out, this one soldier trying to pack this wounded one, and I remember this wounded German soldier looking at me, and I looked at him. Our eyes locked together. He was pale and he was dirty, and he was — his eyes was pleading for help. And I felt about as bad — we was about as bad as they were, we were tired, and we were beaten, too, but he was helpless, he was crippled.
And the guy who was packing him had to go down, he couldn’t pack him, and one — this new guy in my outfit said, I’m going to shoot him. And I said, No, you are not going to shoot him. If you do, I’ll shoot you. He’s whipped. And I know they had killed our troops, I had seen that happen, they had lined them up in the field and shot them in the head. I had seen that. But I — I didn’t want to do that to a man that was helpless. I could see myself in him, and I said, No.
I got another soldier or two more of the German soldiers, had to pack him that way, one at a time, until we got him to the train and put him on there. And I wondered if he ever thought, Now, here’s a man that had been shooting at me, had killed my buddies, for days there had been horrible fighting, and yet, yet I spared his life. But I’m saying that in these words because I believe if a man is defeated, he’s defeated. I believe if he’s surrendered, he’s surrendered. Then he should have a right to life. And I told this young man that wanted to kill him, I said, You’ll get your chance. You’ll get your chance when one of them’s got the same chance that you have, and it will be a lot different then. But anyway, that stuck with me. I never got over it. And these are some of the things that I’ll put on here that I hope will give you some idea of how war is and what it is.
In 1999 I went back to France, to Omaha Beach, I took my oldest daughter with me to see the cemetery there where they were buried at Omaha. And what a feeling that was when I walked up there and seen all the crosses there, and the beautiful cemetery on the beach there, where we’d fought so hard so many years and years ago. It was a long time. I had went in there in ’44, and now this was ’99; I was an old man. But I got to see that, and went back to the battlefields where I had fought at St-Lo, and the Siegfried Line, where the Germans had their Siegfried Line, I went to Holland and Belgium, Luxembourg, and all of those places where I had fought or seen the battlefields (?bread fall?).
The trees had grown back and the grass had grown. I seen towns that was torn up that now was people working and children playing, and that made me feel good. I felt like maybe we accomplished something there. And I remember the — I can’t explain to you how it felt to walk on the same ground that I had walked on and fought on. You know, I was 19, 20 years old, and then to go back as an old man and see some of the bullet holes still in the places. At St-Lo, the church that I had talked about previously seeing, I saw it and went into it and saw the scars on the outside. Still seen some of the shells in some of the towns that I had fought in. I was a B.A.R. man and a rifleman, but where I had set my B.A.R. up and fired around the corners and at the buildings, I could see the buildings where I had hit with my Browning automatic. The bullet holes were still there. Went through the — I took my daughter through the — all of the defense places that the Germans had there, you know, the Siegfried Line, we seen the Maginot Line, the French line, which I had seen, and the pillboxes that the Germans would have been in. She was amazed at how big they were, concrete and steel, and underground, where you could cook, eat, sleep, have everything in there and look right out on us wherever we was attacking them to come in.
I remember all of those things vividly in my mind, but I enjoyed that trip, going back there and taking my daughter with me, and had to — the French people were good to us. They met us with their bands in the towns that we had liberated, and they would have wine for us and meals for us. And in St-Malo, I believe it was St-Malo, the mayor of St-Malo adopted us all. He said, You all are citizens of St-Malo, you can come here and live the rest of your lives if you want to as citizens of this town. We’ll take care of you. I thought that was great for him to say that. It made you — it made you feel good. Also, later on, then, and just last year, I think it was last year, in 2003, they called me to the State Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, and the ambassador of France was there, and they had the ones that made the invasion of France there at D-Day, and the French ambassador awarded us with a certificate from the French government thanking us for the liberation of France in 1944 and 1945.
So I have that little thing on my wall here. I have a thing from General Eisenhower that he give us when we went in. It’s really a nice piece that he told about and what was expected of us and what was in front of us, that the whole world depended on us that morning, on June 6, 1944, that was the balance of the war, that was the beginning of the end of Adolph Hitler and his regime. And a bunch of kids, 18, 19, 20 years old, had met the greatest German army of all times, and defeated the supermen that Hitler had. We come from the country, we come from the city, we come from the backwoods and the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, and places like that, but we had won the battle. We had stood for our country and fought for our freedom, and I hope that freedom stands, and I hope people understand what it takes to get freedom, what some people has to go through.
Now we’re going through the war in Iraq, and young men are dying again over there, dying terrible deaths, but we have to keep our faith and believe in what we believe in and keep our country strong and all. We have to have some — young people sometimes has to step up and go in and take the charge and take the cup that delivers.
I remember and give thanks this day for all my buddies that died in that war and all the sacrifices of the ones that are still living, because the ones of us that are still living has wounds that will never heal. And some people think, Well, you were lucky, but you don’t know what we go through with in our lives sometimes, what it done to our lives. We come out and done the best we could do, made a living, raised a family, were good citizens of this country.
So I’ll shut this off and hope and pray that whoever listens to it, put your faith in the Lord and believe in your country, and I ask this with all fairness and all goodness from my heart. Peace be with you.
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