In September 2016, on Mike Quiroz’s 92 birthday, his son recorded him recalling his World War Two memories in the United States Army with the 134th AAA Gun Battalion, at the Battle of the Bulge.
by E. Peter Hornburg, 5 INFD 10 INF CO F
It was dawn on December, 23, 1944 in Luxembourg and we, Co F, 10th Inf. 5th Div, were about to attack in the Ardennes. The German breakthrough had been stalled and they were dug in.Most German troops wore camouflage uniforms. It was another cold day and our company had just spent a miserable night in a farmer’s barn that had little hay and was ready to collapse. We were one of the divisions that General Patton had pulled out of the line farther south and trucked to the Ardennes. This former farm, I believe called the Michaelshaft farm, was at the edge of the forest.
I had spent nearly 5 months with the 5th Division, fighting across Northern France, but still hardly knew anyone. I’d had several foxhole partners—all casualties of one kind or another. At least two were taken out with frozen feet. November and December had been extra brutal months in Northern Europe.
I was picked as one of the scouts who went ahead of the main body of infantrymen. Surprisingly, one of our Sergeants volunteered as the other scout. We had no artillery or tank support. Obviously, no tanks could operate in the forest. I did not see a tank in my nearly five months at the front. So we walked into the forest, the other scout and I, about 50 yards ahead of the others. I recall a few inches of snow on the ground. All was quiet for a while, when two shots rang out. Both the other scout and I went down.
I was shot through the side of my knee, just grazing the bone, but had very little pain. But our other scout got hit in the stomach. Any combat vet will tell you this is unbelievable pain and almost always fatal. I slithered back to a depression in the ground and saw the most unbelievable act of bravery and futility I have ever witnessed. First the medic, then at least two other soldiers, rushed over to try to help the wounded sergeant.
All were hit! Not only could our troops not advance, but now artillery and mortar rounds started coming in.
Eventually an order to withdraw was issued. I stood up and immediately was hit again …. this time a bullet through my lower jaw. Again, I had little pain yet, but I was choking on a mouthful of blood, flesh, bone and teeth. I was in shock. Two guys ran over, put my arms around their shoulders, and we headed back. Shells were exploding in the trees overhead, and the shrapnel was hitting several of our guys at a time. Chaos surrounded us. We were nearly to the edge of the woods …. I could see the farmhouse from where we had started, when a shell hit the tree above us.
I woke up a few seconds later, face down, blood running down over my forehead. I reached up, removed my helmet, and saw two holes about three inches apart. The shrapnel had left a nasty gash in my scalp. Only a fraction of a different angle would have killed me.
Still no pain—just in shock, I guess. The two men assisting me were gone. I’m sure they thought I was dead. I read later that 2/3 of my Company was either killed or wounded that day. Along with lots of others, I was taken back to a tent field hospital, where the Army somehow managed to bring up a rather special Christmas meal the next day (the 24th). I could only watch. The plans were to put me and other seriously wounded on a plane to England, but extremely bad weather stopped those plans.
I was put on a hospital train that took forever to reach the coast, then cross the Channel, and on another train to an Army Hospital in central England. I spent nearly 15 days living on grapefruit and tomato juice through a straw.
by Jan Ross, Associate Member
We, Jan Ross and Brad Peters, have created and maintained a comprehensive web site (www.300thcombatenginersinwwii.com) over the past ten years to recognize Jan’s father’s unit that fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Tech. 5 Kenneth Morris was a Company A truck driver with the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion in the Battle of the Bulge. He still carries the nickname “Cowboy” because of his time after the war on the international rodeo circuit as a champion bull rider. He continues to live in his home town of Watts, Oklahoma. He attends reunions of the 300th with his extended family in some cases with four generations. His grandson, Congressman Markwayne Mullin represents the Second Oklahoma District in the United States Congress. What follows are some of Cowboy’s recollections from interviews with him at the 300th reunions and transcribed for the 300th web site.
They had us in this old château in Belgium owned by a cousin of the King of Belgium. They made us move out of the castle. It had a moat all around it with all those fish in it and a drawbridge which was stationary. So they kicked us back out into the mud. As we went across this drawbridge, we had those hand grenades and percussion grenades. So I took a percussion grenade and got right by the rail and dropped that thing into the moat. When it hit and exploded those fish just came up to the top, all dead. That old man was really mad. About a week or so later Lt. Taylor [1 Lt. William H. Taylor, Jr.] said, “Morris, why did you kill the old man’s fish?” I said, ‘What made you think I did it?” He said, “I couldn’t think about anyone else but you that would do it.”
We had two bridges to blow, a railroad bridge and a road bridge. The 84th Division was coming out of there and they had a tank destroyer attached to them. They were supposed to tell us if we were to get cut off and we were supposed to blow the bridges and follow them out. About three o’clock in the morning on the 24th [December] the 84th just left and left us unguarded. Then there was a column of German tanks coming down our road. About a half mile before they got to us they turned to the right and all hell broke loose. Whoever was building a bridge up there really got shot up. A truck of ours later came through and they had run into an ambush and some of them got killed.
Our platoon commander, Lt. Taylor, was one of our best liked officers. I said to him, “Let’s blow these damn bridges and get the hell out of here.” He said, “Let’s wait.” So later I said, “Let me take your jeep and drive and see if I can find a way out of here.” He said, “No, we are staying right here.” Finally, way later, and I shouldn’t have done it, but I said, “Lt. Taylor, I’m responsible for my truck, I’ll load the men up and try to get them out of here. And if you don’t let me do that, I’m going to burn it up, because if we stay till morning we all will be dead. We have to get out of here now.” So he finally said, “Okay blow the bridges.”
I was driving the lead truck when we left and told my men, “If I get hit you jump up here and keep driving.” It was real dark, black, and we just had the cat eyes. I could see the horizon and just kept driving until we got out of those trees. Somebody must have been helping us. The rest of the platoon followed me and we came to another crossroad. We could see a bunch of cat eyes, so we stopped. It was about a dozen of our tanks. So, I said to the Captain of the tank unit, “Where are you guys going.” He said, “There are some engineers cut off in there and we’re going to get them.” I said, “We’re the engineers and we are getting out. There’s no one else up there but Germans.” He said, “We’re coming to fight a war.” And I said, “It would be suicide – those Sherman tanks are no match for those Tigers, don’t do it.” But they followed those tanks up there and I’ve always wondered what happened to them.
Cowboy remembers Ray Gordon. Ray was raised in a little town called Watts in Oklahoma and I was raised in a little town just 10 miles apart. I knew Ray for years before we ever came to the Army. Ray was easy to make mad. You’d tease him a little bit but he’d get over it right quick. One time, we’d been following the tanks all night through a wooded area in Germany. One of the boys built a little old fire. It was cold and wet. We had some cans of gas on the end of the truck and this guy went and got some gas in his steel helmet. Ray had his back to the fire and the guy tried to throw a splash of gas on the fire but it went all over Ray’s back. Ray was on fire. It scared him and he started running. I started after him. I had some blankets in the truck and it took three of us to get him down and throw them blankets on him to get out the fire. He never got burned anywhere but he sure was on fire. He was pretty scared.
One time Ray got mad. We had just gotten packages from home and it was after Christmas. We were stopped and everyone was opening up his packages. I was opening mine and it had a safety razor. It had a little handle that screwed into it. The handle broke off so the razor was no good. I didn’t say nothing and put it back in the box. We got to swapping boxes and I swapped with Ray. When Ray opened it up and saw it was broke he was really mad and jumped up. I said, “Ray, if you was smart, dammit, shut your mouth like I did and you’d have swapped it off to somebody else.” That was Ray. I liked Ray.
We were on this trip south to southern Germany and the war was practically over. We had gone over to the Third Army. It was 1 May and it was snowing. There was this general there and you could tell he had not been there long. He had this red board up there with two big stars shining. So he stopped right beside me and said, “Soldier where are you going?” I thought this must be some kind of joke or something. So I said, “We are attached to this armored division.” So he said again, “Where are you going?” I said, “Hell, I don’t know we are just following those tanks.” So he said, “Have you got a trip ticket?” So I knew he had just got up there because you know damn well you don’t have any trip tickets in a combat mission. So I said, “We haven’t had a trip ticket since we left England.” So he said, “Don’t you have a map?” So I said, “What would we be doing with a map?” So I said, “You got a map?” He said, “No we are just following you boys. We are lost.” And I said, “Obviously if you’re lost I guess we are lost also.” A two-star general asking a truck driver where to go.”
This is an excerpt from Fague’s book of the same title, published by The Shippensburg Historical Society, 2008.
The plan was for us to attack the hill in front of us. The battalion moved out from the road in basic training fashion, leaps and bounds and rushes, everything according to the book. We charged across the open ground and up the hill until we were ordered to stop. And now the officers decided that we were attacking the wrong hill! The Krauts were not up there. Somebody had made a miscalculation. I was told later that the tank commander yelled to battalion commander, Lt. Col. Hoffman, and asked him if he felt qualified to lead his men. His reply was, “I guess not.”
Later I understood that Col. Hoffman accidentally let the tank hatch drop on his shoulder and he had to be evacuated. That took care of that problem. Col. Hoffman was succeeded by Major Tansey, a dashing West Point officer. I remember him walking around with his 45-caliber pistol strapped to his waist, screaming orders in his high-pitched voice, walking where the fighting was the thickest.
Since we had blundered in attacking the wrong hill, Major Tansey and Capt. Fabrick led our company along a railroad track around the hill. We walked down the railroad tracks in a column of two for several hundred yards and then cut cross-country up over the hill. I noticed several knocked out American tanks on the hill, but nothing more. Although I didn’t know it then, we were heading toward the town of Chenogne, Belgium, which I presume was our original objective. This town was to witness the bloodiest fighting of our campaign in Belgium. Our company came across the hill in scattered formation, the first platoon leading the way. I remember wading through snowdrifts and crawling under several barbed wire fences. As I came over the top of that open hill, I little suspected the trap into which we were to be caught. Several times, shells burst in the pine trees 150 yard to my left and some shrapnel hit the snow around me. I couldn’t figure out then if that was close support from our artillery or enemy fire. I guess it was the Jerries because they had spotted every move we made.
Suddenly I had an experience of horror. Again I got that sudden sickening in my stomach. There in front of me were two-man foxholes. I could make out the forms of American boys, C.I.’s slumped over in a sitting position, dead. The snow had drifted over their bodies so I could hardly distinguish their features. I then realized there was something wrong with this place. Someone yelled that the 9th Armored Division had been driven out of here a few days before.
As we walked along, Capt. Fabrick yelled for someone to fire a few rounds into a haystack in front of us. Someone fired a few rounds, and this turned out to be very fortunate. The Jerries figured we had spotted them and they opened up with their machine gun. The sound of that gun I will never forget. The German machine gun has a much faster rate of fire than our gun and so they are easily distinguished. The sound of that gun echoed across the snow and everything in me seemed to stop. There were six of us in the first rank as we passed over the crest of the hill. We could see the town of Chenogne 300 yards in front of us. All of us instinctively dove for cover in the snow. I looked for a hole to crawl into, but there was none.
The first burst of gunfire had killed two men and wounded three, leaving me the lucky one. As I raised my head to look around, I saw boys to the left kicking and writhing in the snow. I knew they were hit and I wanted to get to them but I couldn’t. I knew approximately who they were, although I could not see their faces. Sgt. Carl E. Petersen from Oregon and William Kidney from Toledo, Ohio were dead. Bill Bassert and Charles Hocker from Philadelphia were badly wounded. Johnny Kale, who was lying near me, began to whine in pain. He yelled to me that he was hit. I crawled on my stomach through the snow to him. I found a bullet had hit him in the calf of the leg but it wasn’t bleeding badly. It looked like a clean wound. I took the Carlisle bandage from his belt and bandaged his wound. I gave him his sulfa tablets to prevent infection, but the water to take the pills with was frozen in his canteen. I told him to eat snow with the pills. Remembering my basic training, I took the clips of rifle ammunition from his belt and told him to crawl to the rear. As soon as Kale was gone, my attention was again drawn to that Jerry machine gun. It was still spitting out death across the snow. I knew I had to get into a hole somewhere or that gun would get me. I spotted a hole 20 yards down the hill and made a run for it. It was filled with snow, but I flopped in.
My protection was just a shallow slit trench. Every time I heard that machine gun rip off a burst, I tried to draw my buttocks more into the hole or pull in a leg. At this time I experienced the loneliest and most desolate feeling I had ever gone through. I looked back and could see none of the rest of the platoon behind me. The few boys on my right had either been killed, or were lying face down and very still. On my left and in front there was nothing but Krauts. A few yards to my right lay a dead German. He must have been killed the day before, as he was frozen stiff.
The idea came into my head that maybe the company would withdraw and leave me there. I thought to myself, “Well Fague, it looks like the end is very near.” My morale was at the lowest it had ever reached.
I had a weapon in my hand and I was determined to use it whatever happened. I saw some activity in the house ahead, Krauts running around. I opened up with my rifle. I fired one shot and my rifle jammed. While I had been giving Kale first aid, I dragged my rifle through the snow and got snow and dirt in the receiver. I had trouble drawing back the bolt, but I could still operate my rifle one round at a time. I doubt if I hit anything but it made me feel good to be shooting and doing something.
My isolated little battlefield soon came to life. I heard machine gun fire coming from my rear, and it was a wonderful sound. I saw those beautiful red tracer bullets from our guns arch across the snow into the Jerry position in front of me. I heard our tanks coming from the rear and I knew I was no longer alone. What a wonderful feeling the sight of our tanks gave me! I felt like jumping up and charging the enemy position alone. I was so excited I was no longer afraid. Behind me I heard voices yelling, and commands. I saw buddies from my platoon moving over the bodies of those who had just been killed. They were moving in leaps and bounds from bushes to snowdrifts. When they came abreast of me, I went along with them. I rushed to an abandoned German tank 75 yards in front of me and took cover behind it.
At the tank I was soon joined by Frank H. Holquist. He brought his machine gun and set up for business. The next arrivals were Robert A. Fordyce, from Erie, Pennsylvania, and Paul L. Gentile. They were carrying ammunition for the machine gun. The sergeants soon joined us. Holquist now gave us a tune on his machine gun. He was keeping the Krauts busy, who were dug in around the house 50 yards in front of us. I decided this was the time to take my rifle apart and get the snow out of it.
On Dec. 16, 1944, German General von Rundstedt made his famous counterattack into Belgium, starting the Battle of the Bulge, which was to be the biggest, bloodiest and most decisive battle of World War II.
Our tent hospital, located on the outskirts of Liege, was one of the closest hospitals to the fighting lines, and the destination for the German army to reach in order to cross the Meuse River there and head for the Port of Antwerp, where they could cut off all Allied supplies.
The week before Christmas, a sudden heavy dense fog fell over all of Belgium, creating an eerie, gray silent landscape. The only sounds we could hear were the muffled sounds of buzz bombs dropping as they flew over every twelve to fifteen minutes, twenty-four hours a day, each one carrying 2000 Ibs. of explosives. Our hospital had already suffered two hits and was to soon receive a third, creating casualties among patients and hospital staff. This fog was so thick we couldn’t see five feet in front of us, but the German tanks and infantry were able to move forward on the ground, and our planes couldn’t get off the ground to bomb them.
Two days before Christmas, the Germans were ten miles from Liege and German paratroopers had already been dropped into the city. Many of the American hospitals in the area had already evacuated to France or Luxembourg, and we felt like sitting ducks, hoping and waiting for orders to evacuate that never came. Instead, we nurses were ordered to pack our musette bags with the warmest clothing we had and any first aid supplies, in the event we were captured by the Germans, and to be prepared to move out with ten minutes notice.
Of course we were scared. I was a little more so than the other nurses, because I had an “H” for Hebrew on my dog tags, the very ones Hitler wanted to annihilate. Our patients were furious that American women were so far up front. When we did get orders to evacuate our sickest bed patients to the rear, as we loaded them into trucks and ambulances, they begged us to change places with them.
One of my patients who was so concerned about my possible capture by the Germans constructed a blackjack for me to carry with me at all times, and believe me, I did. You can see it in the enclosed photo, in my right hand. This was a ten-inch length of hosing, stuffed with lead sinkers and suspended from my wrist by a leather thong. His instructions were as follows: “If a Kraut gets near you, take this blackjack, slam it across his face and aim for the eyes.”
Another patient gave me a spring-blade knife, which you can see outlined in my left pocket, and his directions were: “If a Kraut approaches, take this knife blade, plunge it into his belly and then run like hell.”
On Christmas Eve, the fog that had hung over all of Belgium for the past week had dissipated, and a full moon arose, lighting the sky with an almost daytime light. A lone German plane flew over our hospital tents and the enlisted men’s tents that night, dropping anti-personnel bombs and strafing the tents, killing and wounding scores of patients and hospital personnel. Our planes were out in full force the following morning and soon outnumbered the German planes.
No, I never had to use my “weapons of protection,” though I kept them in my possession for years, mementos of our wonderful, caring G.I. Joes.
Russell Hathaway from Ada, Ohio, spent 15 months in European Theatre and fought in The Battle of the Bulge. Russell went across the English Channel in LST (flat open barge) to Normandy November 1, 1944. Back home in Ohio, a son ( Larry) was born to Russell and his wife Mable November 5, 1944.
Russell was a Private First Class with the “Railsplitters”—Anti Tank Company, 3rd Platoon, 335 Infantry Regiment, 84th Infantry Division. He had seen a lot of destruction from the war, but had not been in combat until they got orders December 24, 1944 to “get out the best way you can.” His unit had been held up in Bastogne, Belgium. They had been staying in a basement of a deserted house with their truck backed into the garage, out behind the house. He had one trip to the garage and no time to take his duffle bag. The truck radiator had two holes from shrapnel. Russell whittled wood plugs to fill the holes. Two men rode on the front bumper to keep filling the radiator with water. They had gotten the order at 4p.m., and at 5p.m. six men plus the driver drove the truck out of the garage (pulling a 57 millimeter anti-tank gun like a trailer) while under fire from the enemy. A German tank (60 ton) had made deep tracks. This was Russell’s first time in a combat situation.
The men got out of the truck and into the tracks. Russell was laying in the track, head to head with Mac McQuin. Mac was shot in the head with a 30 caliber machine gun. Russell and other soldiers got him to back to the command post. They never heard anything more about Mac. They followed half-track tracks until until dark, using black-out lights to travel after dark. Lt. Kelso got injured in leg (his driver was killed). Kelso ended up on Russell’s truck.
This battle continued until January 31, 1945 and Russell’s unit was there until the end. The unit crossed the Rhine for the final offense in Germany, ending up in Heidelberg, with temporary headquarters.
While waiting to return to the U.S., Russell competed in sharpshooting contests and qualified for several medals. On November 23, 1945, Russell headed for home from France on a small victory ship. A terrific storm was on them for three days after leaving the Mediterranean Sea and entering the Atlantic Ocean. The ship tipped 37 degrees during those days. (They capsize at 45 degrees). Most of the men were sick, but Russell was not. Russell received Honorable Discharge December 8, 1945.
Russell had never talked much about his wartime experiences until he acquired and read the book: The 84th Infantry Division in the Battle of Germany from Nov. 1944-May 1945, by Lt. Theodore Draper. With the help of this book, Russell could track his unit at different locations and time periods, and this made it easier for him to share his own experiences.
Russell went on the Honor Flight from Columbus, Ohio to Washington, D.C. on April 21, 2007.
On December 12, 2011, Russell and his wife Mable celebrated 69 years of marriage, shortly before his death on December 25, 2011. He passed away in their Ohio home at the age of 92. He was surrounded by his family on that Christmas evening—67 years after spending his Christmas in The Battle of the Bulge.
—Submitted by Drena Hathaway Metzger, his daughter, and Mable Hathaway, his wife, Associate
I was a part of Task Force Ezell. This TF was organized and ordered to proceed to Bastogne to render assistance to the 101st Abn Div as needed. The TF consisted of the following units of the 4th Armored Div:
CO A, 8th Tank Bn
Co C, 10th Armd Inf Bn
Battery C, 22d Armd Field Artillery Bn(My Btry)
All of TF Ezell’s action was done on the 20th Dec. 1944. We proceeded to Bastogne early morning on the 20th Dec 44 without meeting any enemy resistance. I believe we arrived about noon. After Capt Bert Ezell reported to officials in Bastogne, he received an order to return the TF to their battalions. A strange order indeed. We returned to our parent battalions without meeting any enemy resistance again. However, we did see large tank tracks across our road on the way back. This turned out to be the closing of the circle around Bastogne which the TF avoided. On 26 Dec 1944 elements of the 4th Armored Division broke the siege of Bastogne.
We built a Bailey bridge across the Rhine River before the battle … so Patton could get his tanks over there. On the day the Ludendorff bridge collapsed, ten days after its capture, the 148th Engineer Combat Battalion, with the assistance of a company of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion, began building a floating Bailey bridge at Remagen, downstream from the Ludendorff. The 148th started the bridge at 0730 hours on the 18th and completed it in 48 hours. It was the first American Bailey bridge across the Rhine River. The 148th Engineer Combat Battalion was assigned to the 1110th Engineer Combat Group.
In 1999, not long after my mother’s death, my brothers and I found a box of letters with a note on top in my mother’s handwriting: “Letters to a War Bride.” The box held a collection of nearly all the letters my father wrote to her during his 20 months in Europe during and after World War II. That discovery led to a quest to uncover his wartime history which would culminate in a book I published in 2015 called “Letters to a War Bride”. My father was Captain Robert James McKay Jr. and he was Battalion Surgeon for the 275th Engineer Combat Battalion of the 75th Infantry Division. They landed at Le Havre in early December, 1944, and soon were thrown into the Battle of the Bulge on the northern flank. Here is an excerpt, from Christmas week, 1944.
23 Dec 1944 . . . We are in a country village [Chardeneux] so small that there is not even a store. It makes the last one practically seem like a city. I can’t say I mind though, because it just makes it that much less a probable target. The Medical Detachment is set up in a small barn. We have a central part with a clear floor about thirty by fourteen feet. On one side is straw stacked from the floor up with several levels on which the men can sleep. On the other side we are separated by an eighteen-inch stone and brick wall, which separates us from the stable where the cows are. Over the cows is a hayloft, which is reached by a ladder from our central part of the barn. We have rather a dim electric light (twenty five watt bulb), but our Coleman lantern gives off a pretty good light. We have our trailer with us, containing most of our supplies. Fletcher and Mirando sleep on the truck some distance away.
The old Belgian whose barn we are using is friendly and hospitable as anything. Unfortunately he only possesses a three-room house (all small) or we could have a real inside dispensary. However, the boys can go in and warm up from time to time.
Chardeneux remains a small village to this day. I spent a magical month in 2014 tracing the places and people my father encountered 69 years earlier. When I visited Chardeneux, it was clear that the whole village knows well the story of Christmas 1944, when every building in town housed soldiers of the 275th.
It is a beautiful, clear, cold day. We have been watching the U.S. Army Air Force’s Christmas present to the German People go over and believe me, no one is unhappy about it. When you get over here and undergo the discomfort and unpleasantness of what this war has forced upon us and think of how different it is at home, you really boil. You feel that truly nothing is too bad to wish on the people who have wished this on us. I’m sure that the cold and discomfort of a winter campaign are going to make the fighting just that much more vicious. From our standpoint it is a good thing, because we have been, if anything, too easy on them.
The family whose barn we are using have invited us in to share their warm front room with them. It is certainly appreciated, because it does give us a chance to get really warm now and then. The family is farmers. There are the father, mother, and eighteen year old daughter. They are very nice, simple, straightforward, hardworking people, who are scared stiff of the war and the Germans. I can’t say that I blame them. . . .
Christmas Day, 1944
Dearest Liz: Well, Christmas Day turned out to be another beautiful clear day. Your husband, contrarily, has been in a terrible humor all day. I suspect that it’s because he is upset and fed up that he is not with you. Also there is a certain amount of nervous strain connected with this war business. . . .
The war is funny. The destruction of war is as remarkable in its absence as in its presence. The impression we have at home of a countryside completely laid waste is not true at all. There is always a great deal more time and space where it is safe than there is where it is not. . . .
Our Belgian farmer continues to be very cooperative and hospitable. Most of us are sleeping on the floor of his two small front rooms. . . . All the boys are impressed with how hard the daughter, Angéle, works.
The farmer and his wife and other old people in the town have never seen a typewriter and are now busy watching Hanna type out a requisition on it. . . .
I had hoped to meet Angéle on my visit. A Belgian friend helped me search, found the family, and the two of us paid them a visit on a lovely April evening. Unfortunately, Angéle died in 2012, but her son Marc Breda was there, living in the house where my father and his comrades once stayed. The barn my father described has been converted into a community café, but retains the original structure. Marc called Suzanne, a longtime friend of his mother, who joined us at the barn/café. Suzanne was only eight at Christmas in 1944. She remembers the chocolate the soldiers gave the children, which was momentous because they had not seen chocolate since the Germans invaded in May of 1940. And she remembers the room in her house where no civilians were allowed, which must have served as battalion headquarters that week. Small children at the time, Suzanne and a friend were able to sneak a peek and saw the walls lined with maps.
Marc disappeared into the house and emerged with a framed photo of his mother as a young woman, and another of her in later years tending sheep. As I read them the description my father had written of Angéle, Marc and Suzanne confirmed her sunny disposition, which she retained all her life. I was thrilled to make this connection to my father, sitting in the barn/café and easily able to picture it as it was, with stacks of hay filling one end and cows just on the other side of the wall.
26 December, 1944 . . . It is now nine o’clock and I have been going continuously since about seven thirty this morning. I organized an SOP (standard operating procedure). . . . Afterward I had sick call. Then went up to the front lines to see how the aid men were doing in the companies. . . . Getting back here was like getting completely out of the war. We really have it made where we are. . . .
The whole aid station gang has been watching Angéle all evening. She is spinning wool yarn with which she knits herself socks and sweaters. She has also knitted herself a dress!
A few days later, the 275th departed Chardeneux and moved to La Forge, close to the front line between Grandmenil and Hotton. On the 28th, the battalion suffered its first casualties, three men who were killed by a German machine gun while laying mines. The 275th and the rest of the 75th Division fought their way east from Grandmenil to Vielsalm and then on to Commanster.
Through my father’s letters, his memories, and my own research, I was able to trace his activities throughout the 20 months he was in Europe. I’d love to hear from anyone connected with the 75th Division, particularly the 275th Engineer Combat Battalion. I’m sure you’d be interested in “Letters to a War Bride”, available on Amazon and elsewhere. Check it out at www.letterstoawarbride.com
“Your mission is to enter this territory, which may be infested with the enemy, and see that the tanks get their gas, ammo, rations and water. It is imperative that they get it tonight, because a counterattack is expected tomorrow morning.” And with these few words, the Colonel had dismissed me, and I was on the way, with four trucks, into the blackness of a sporadically-lit sky, filled with the blasting roars and unknown terrors that accompany the front line.
Service Company again would brave the dangers, which even Armored Vehicles would hesitate to encounter. Two and a half ton GMC trucks laden with precious supplies for the tankers were driven by unsung heroes, and their only comfort was an assistant who carried a machine gun, and was later seared to death.
Traveling on a dirt road under blackout conditions; training eyes on the vehicle in front; watching every spot of moving brush; and depending on the leader, who is going into territory he has never seen before in his life. A map was the only guide, but it was too dark to see it, and I could not chance showing a flicker of light. Depending on memory, not only as to where the roads were, and which turn to take, but also where the tanks were located according to the last report.
A Heinie burp gun goes off. It sounds close. Yes, darn close. If anything else can be heard, it’s the pulling back of belts as each man becomes more alert and strains his eyes even more.
“Halt!” A figure with drawn rifle jumps out into the center of the road. Next, came a screaming of brakes, and the cursing of the drivers. Thank God, it’s a doughboy. “Give the password”, ask him if he has seen any tanks. The directions he gives are not the same we had received. But they could have moved—they’re always moving.
I’ll have to chance it. Can’t afford to take a cumbersome truck through unexplored fields. “Joe, come with me. We’ll take a recon on foot.”
Stumbling along in the blackness, it seems like miles. Is that the outline of a tank? Maybe it’s just a bush. Always seems like one in this damn darkness. “Sure, Joe, that’s a 76mm sticking out. Better holler out, or they’ll mow us down.”
“Baker Company?” “Who goes?” comes the reply. We answer.
“Goddamn, you guys, always coming around in the middle of the night!” We know he doesn’t mean half the profanity that’s thrown our way—it’s the strain. Anyway, we are so happy to have found him.
I doubt the Battle of the Bulge could take a back seat in the military career of any soldier. Being a part of this battle was the most memorable event of my military career. It came at Christmas time in 1944 and was Hitler’s final offensive of the war. After it, the Germans were on defense, fighting and withdrawing deeper into their homeland.
Hitler’s plan was to come out of the Ardennes in a swift move, break through the Allies line, turn north and capture Antwerp. This would cut off the English Army from that of the American one. The Ardennes is an area where Germany and Belgium join along the Our River. Luxembourg and Belgium are to the south, and Aachen, Germany to the north.
Somehow, Hitler thought he might take Antwerp and negotiate some kind of peace. We had our gasoline stored at Liege, one of the German’s main objectives. Hitler thought that by making such a wedge in our lines he could create another Dunkirk. The battle started on December 16. I remember most the cold and snow. The temperature was about 10 degrees above zero. We did not have air support for several days because our air force was “souped in” over in England. General Eisenhower had not expected a German offensive in this area, so many of the units there were unseasoned. One needs to understand the terrain of this area to properly imagine the battlefield. The terrain consists of forested hills, steep twisting valleys, rushing streams, and tiny quaint villages. There are few good or straight roads.
During the Battle of the Bulge, we were rushed to defend St. Vith, Belgium. I have always thought St. Vith was the most important town, even more so than Bastogne. In stopping the Germans at St Vith, we had denied them an important objective. If the Germans had a chance of success, it had to come in a lightning thrust. There was no room in their game plan for delay, and yet we stalled them.
Harrison Salisbury, writing in History of World War II, noted: “All but cut off, the Americans failed to yield St. Vith on the right shoulder of the German breakthrough. The Germans drastically needed to overrun St Vith because it guarded the Allies’ oil and gasoline supplies. In their quick strike the Nazis couldn’t carry enough fuel on their own to fight a long battle. Unable to take St Vith, the Germans finally split their force and went around, which brought them to the crossroads town of Bastogne.”
Bastogne was due west of us. The Germans encircled Bastogne and had it besieged when Patton and his Third Army arrived from the South on a dead run. But oddly it was the 101st Airborne Division, fighting a ground war, arrived first by an hour or so and beat the large German Panzer force of General Heinrich Von Luttwitz. Patton’s forces came right behind them. Later, Von Luttwitz wrote, “II still don’t understand how General Patton and the airborne leaders moved so many men and so much equipment as far as they did in no more time than they had.”
Eisenhower was quick to realize that this was a major German offensive. “Tell George to send two divisions (of his 3rd Army),” Eisenhower told Omar Bradley. At that moment, Patton was poised to strike into Germany’s coal bin, the Saar. Patton’s Army was intact, not having been shot up like the First Army, whose infantry, armor and artillery had really been hit hard. Discounting Patton, the only reserves that Ike had other than troops in England, which were too far away to be a factor, were the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions that were recovering from earlier fighting in camps located around Rheims. Both airborne divisions were told to move out and fight as foot soldiers. Meeting with Patton, Bradley and Jacob Devers, Eisenhower asked how soon Patton could wheel his army 90 degrees and strike north into the southern flank of the Bulge? “Two days, “Patton answered. “Sure you don’t need three?” asked Ike. “Not my style,” said Patton. ”Me and my men can do anything, even change direction. But,getting on with it is what we do best. ” With a salute, he was gone.
There are many things I recall about the Battle of the Bulge. One thing was that our Christmas presents were either lost or confiscated by the Germans. Another thing I remember is the severe cold that never rose above 10 degrees. We had fur-lined combat boots, which made your feet sweat. Often the perspiration froze and caused trench foot disease. Because my group was equipped with armored vehicles, we could remove our damp socks and dry them on warm equipment. The infantry outside did not have this luxury. Instead, they would sometimes take off their wet socks and wrap them around their waists or shoulders, hoping to get them dry. We had many cases where the nails would turn blue and then the feet white as trench foot set in. A number of men lost their toes, feet up to the ankles as a result.
Not only were we fighting seasoned German troops, but adverse weather. In hot weather, at least you usually got cool nights. But in ten-degree day temperature, the nights are even colder. The ground was frozen, so you can imagine how tough it was to dig foxholes for protection. Luckily, we had armored cars, so during the Battle of the Bulge, I recall we slept under our vehicles. But we just couldn’t get warm. And the snow! One could have made a small fortune selling sunglasses because the glare on the endless snow was unbelievable.
I really didn’t realize we had a segregated army until I got in combat. The blacks in our area were mostly in the transportation corps. This was what we called the Red Ball Express, which hauled endless loads of ammo, food, supplies, etc. Why the name? The maps were poor and printed in the metric system. So we devised a system of painting red dots on poles, trees and landmarks for them to follow. That is how the name Red Ball Express came about. There were many heroes among those black fellows driving, hauling and fighting. At St. Vith, they got out of their trucks and fought side-by-side with us.
At the Bulge we also had to worry about English-speaking German troops who dressed in captured American uniforms. They infiltrated our lines, cut phone lines, turned road signs the wrong way, directed American columns down the wrong road, and used other ruses to disrupt us. These counterfeit troops were the idea of SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny and the undertaking was designated Operation Grief .At the time, the Allies called Skorzeny “the most dangerous man in Europe”. Their activities got so bad that MPs were stopping everyone and asking them questions that they believed only real Americans would know. Two of the questions were: “How many home runs did Babe Ruth hit?” and “What’s the capital of Maryland?” A correspondent said “Baltimore” and was waved on before he could correct himself However, MPs locked up Brigadier Bruce Clark, of the 7th Armored briefly because he kept insisting the Chicago Cubs were in the American League. The German infiltrators dressed in American uniforms were eventually all captured and shot. Wearing an enemy uniform is considered spying and totally against the rules of war. Once a soldier takes off his uniform to avoid discovery, he loses his rights as a prisoner of war under the Rules of the Geneva Convention.
One tragedy of this battle was the massacre of 140 Americans at Malmedy, just up the road from St Vith. The men, all of Battery· B, 285th, Field Artillery Observation Battalion, ran into a tank column commanded by SS Colonel Joachim Peiper. Not equipped to fight, the spotters surrendered. Suddenly, several German machine guns opened up, massacring the men standing there with their hands in the air. Some of the Americans survived by feigning death.
Both Peiper and Skorzeny survived the war. Peiper was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death, but the conviction was later commuted to life in prison. He was eventually released. Skorzeny was tried by a military court and acquitted. The massacre at Malmedy had a sobering effect on the American troops. Until that time, none of us were particularly mad at the Germans. They were doing their jobs and we were doing ours. But after Malmedy, there was a change in the attitude and behavior of our soldiers. It was hard to hold back some of our guys when they encountered prisoners.
When the Germans went on the surprise offensive even airborne troops were rushed into the breech. Private First Class Kurt Gabel of the 17th Airborne was fighting near the village of Houffalize when he saw two medics shot as they crawled forward in the snow to try and drag a wounded American to safety. Gabel, born in Germany but raised in California, was guarding a half dozen German POWs nearby when he witnessed the shooting. He promptly herded his German prisoners ahead of him at gunpoint to use as a shield while he rescued the three fallen Americans.
“That’s not in the Geneva Convention Rules, ” yelled his lieutenant from behind a fallen tree. “Neither is shooting medics, ” retorted PFC Gabel.
There was no further firing as Gabel proceeded forward. Speaking in German and holding his rifle steady, Gabel had his POWs carry the two medics and one fallen infantryman to safety.
One of my good friends was Captain Barrett Dillow, who commanded Company “C” of the 24th. He was one of the best, most fearless men I met during my time in the service. Wounded three times, he was awarded two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and a Distinguished Service Cross.
As we were leaving the Ardennes Forest, Barrett was shot through the stomach. He sent for me and I arrived to see him bandaged from his hips to his armpits. “You are lucky, Barrett, because they. will send you stateside to recover. By time you’re well, the war will be over, ” I told him. He gave me a wan smile, saying, “maybe, Gus, maybe.” A day or so later, I looked up from my armored car and there stood Dillow. He had gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) from the hospital and rejoined us. “Barrett, what are you doing here? You had a ticket home, ” I said in astonishment. Dillow answered, “Gus, I had to come look after you. Those fellows on the other side are tough soldiers and mean! You are still green. ”
I left for Europe from Boston two days after my 19th birthday on February 25, 1944. We set sail off the coast of New England and my young mind raced with manifestations of the old world waiting for me across the pond. Like the very ship I sailed on, I seemed calm and steady on the surface but had propellers of nervous excitement violently churning below. I had never lived outside my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and the thought of leaving the only place I had ever known was already intimidating enough without adding to it the thought of war.
After seven days at sea, we landed safety in the British Isles (at the Firth of Clyde in Scotland) and from there we took a train to Solihull, England. Then off to Northwich, England where I did my initial training. My training involved learning how to maneuver a ’45 Harley because I was a ‘lightweight’. I remember the roars of our military-issue Harley motorcycles competing with the bed check Charlies (German bombers) that flew over the English terrain during the late afternoons. Over the next year and a half, I took in enough sights and sounds to last a lifetime- including landing on the Normandy beaches (Operation Cobra, 26Jul1944), to the Cotentin Peninsula, to Brittany (Brest Peninsula), through Paris and Northern France to Neufchatel (near Bastogne) and then the Battle of the Bulge. I was attached to the First Army in the Cotentin Peninsula and the Third Army while in the Battle of the Bulge—and both Armies saw plenty of action.
Even with all my military accolades (including the Bronze Star), the fondest memories I have from my time at war stem from the two quiet months I spent living with a family in the small Belgian town of Gouvy during the fall of 1944. As part of a unit assigned to guard the divisional food ration depot of Gouvy, I handled police duties as well as kept traffic flowing through the town. I stayed in the home of a local family called the Lallemands. I will never forget the kindness shown to me by Joseph and Ida Lallemand and their daughter Gabriella.
They put me up on the third floor of their flat in the middle of the town and I eased into their home like a long-lost American family member. They cooked me meals and embraced like as one of their own. Occasionally I would escort Gabriella to her various social functions and would fraternize with her friends and my fellow US soldiers in the houses of the local townspeople. We were embraced more as acquaintances rather than soldiers … Foreign law enforcers tor a community that had never really needed policing in the first place. The father, Joseph, ran a sort of bistro outside of the building and was popular among the townspeople. He took a liking to me and was happy when I would take Gabriella out for the night. I believe he secretly wanted me to marry her, but my role was reserved to that of a guardian… A big brother to the young 14 year old girl growing up war-exposed and restless, in what should have been the sleepiest of small towns.
I remember eating wild boar from the neighboring Ardennes Mountains, expertly prepared by local chef, and drinking Belgian beer with Gabby’s friends and my fellow soldiers as we sang songs into the autumn night. The best times were the accidental moments when they forgot we were strangers and we forgot we were, too.
Like me, the Lallemand family was Catholic and attended mass on a regular basis. I would go to church with Gabby and felt comforted by the fact that the mass was the same in Belgium as it was in the United States. We may not have shared a language, but we knew how to follow the Latin proceedings of a Catholic service. If nothing else, this bit of familiarity would set my 19-yea-old mind at ease, if only for an hour of the day.
On the chilly nights during that autumn of 1944, the cold air would creep into my room on the third floor of the home, Gabriella or Maria would be bring me a hot brick from the fireplace wrapped in a towel to put in my bed. These little comforts made me feel at home and homesick, all at the same time. I truly was lucky to find a peaceful refuge during these violent times in Europe.
After one of those chilly nights in Gouvy, I awoke to new orders that we had to leave. My time in Gouvy had come to an end and as we were on the German-Belgian border, we had to evacuate in such a manner that the Germans could not get access to any of the rations that had been stationed with us. We were ordered to destroy all the rations in Gouvy. It was indeed devastating, but necessary in such a violent time. After leaving Gouvy, I was sent to Bastogne, Belgium. This was the location of the 8th Corp Headquarters before, during and after the Battle of the Bulge. I was sent to various roads around the Bulge area and patrolled for enemy soldiers dressed as GI’s. They would speak English and drive captured Gl vehicles. I would also direct traffic for military vehicles making their way through the town. I received my Bronze Star Medal Citation for withstanding enemy artillery fire and blizzard weather to insure the safe and speedy movement of essential traffic through the besieged town of Bastogne.
After Bastogne we crossed the Rhine river and liberated the Ohrdruf concentration camp. We pressed across Germany, continuing to guard large concentrations of POWS. I was in the town of Zeulenroda, Germany when the war ended. I made one trip back to Gouvy before leaving to go home. I had left a duffle bag of items in my old room on the day we had evacuated. I hoped to retrieve it and catch up with the Lallemand family. When I arrived at my former home, I was informed by Mr. Lallemand that Gabriella was off to school and that my belongings had been burned, along with other items, so as not to be seen as a threat to the Germans who had taken over. I thanked Mr. and Mrs. Lallemand for all the kindness they had shown me, and hopped a train to Marseille, France. Marseille would be the last city I would see in Europe.
NOTE: George Merz continued to correspond with the Lallemands for many years after the war. He still keeps in touch with Gabriella’s son (who lives in the Briton Peninsula). Currently, George lives in Louisville, Kentucky and has a family of seven children and 12 grandchildren—one of whom is named Gabriella.
Exactly 70 years later (December 2014), while participating at the commemoration of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and Luxembourg, George returned to Gouvy for the first time since he left Europe after the War.
He and his grandson Steve visited the exhibition of the local tourist information center, trying to discover any souvenirs of his time in Gouvy. He was very surprised to find a photo of him and three of his fellow soldiers, standing at the remainders of a V1 rocket. He shared his personal story about the Lallemand family with the staff of the tourist information center. They were very grateful to George and his family for visiting and sharing his story.
submitted by Patrick Brion, Associate, Belgium
I am a World War II Army veteran who served in Europe from the Cherbourg peninsula beach landing near Saint-Lo France, to the Battle of the Bulge.
So to get to my story: our artillery training in Fort Bliss, Texas was completed in 1943. Now that our training was completed, we were transported to Camp Myles Standish in Massachusetts by troop train. The troop train ride was quite a long and exhausting ride from El Paso, Texas. I will never forget we were nearing the end of our transport from Texas. It was very late. I was seated at a window seat and in the distance I could see a bright, light on the horizon. Soon we came to a platform dock at the train station in Alliance that was very brightly lit. When the train stopped and we left the train, we were greeted with coffee, donuts and sandwiches by a group of women who told us that they were Gold Star Mothers, wives and others. There was plenty of food and we ate until we all had our fill. After we were finished eating, they told us to take anything that was leftover with us. While we were leaving, they were telling us, “God’s blessings”, and “We have lots of love and pride for you soldiers”. This send off was something that I have never forgotten over all of these years. It meant so much to me and all of the troops on the train.
I am now ninety-one years old, and I can remember and still see that shining light shining ever so bright for us on the horizon. About fifteen years ago, I wrote to the Alliance mayor and this wife of this ever-meaningful event on that evening in 1943. They were very happy to hear the story and they even called to talk with me one Sunday. During our conversation, they mentioned that the platform in Alliance had just been replaced.
So in closing “THANK YOU ALL” and God bless all for the wonderful welcome that the community of Alliance gave to the troops who were heading overseas to fight for our country.
by Robert Thompson, 2nd ID (“Indianheads”)
Who else remembers the great April 1945 POW March from Nuremberg to Stalag VII-A Moosburg? It’s strange how ex-POWs can have sharply different views about the same wartime experience. For me the 100 mile POW march from Stalag XIII-D in Nuremberg to Stalag VII-A in Moosburg in April 1945 was “the best two weeks of captivity”. So much so, that I am taking my family back to Bavaria in April 2016 to retrace this historic POW march with them. (This time, however, not on foot, but traveling in comfort and staying in good hotels.) Why do I feel this way?
What was so special (about the march)? Well, (1) the end of boredom and confinement, (2) beautiful Bavarian scenery, (3) the friendliness of the German farm families, and (4) and finally, and the most important, was the sudden availability of plenty of food. The Krauts provided bread stations at various places and times along the route, but the primary source of our good fortune was the Red Cross boxes, which also contained Swan soap and cigarettes, which we traded (with the local German frauen) for eggs and other edibles.
But in the Nov/Dec 2015 ‘Ex-POW Bulletin’ of AXPOW (American Ex Prisoners of War Organization), two 8th AF (Airforce) ex-POWs said that “the march was not ‘the best of times’ in captivity”, and “Robert Thompson must have been on a different POW march from Nuremberg to Moosburg, Germany, Stalag VII-A, because my experience was not a scenic tour with plenty of food, guards who let you fall out and join the march a day later, bread stations along the way.”
That’s a big difference in our recollections! What about other ex-POW VBOB veterans on this march? What did you experience?
What I related is not an old veteran vaguely recalling distant wartime memories. It is based on my contemporary wartime diary which I painstakingly kept on scraps of paper and old cigarette packets. Together with my wartime letters to my parents, which my mother faithfully kept, they form a true personal wartime record which I have privately published for my children as part of our family heritage. I can only conclude that the 8th AF POWs were unluckier than me.
I was captured in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in December 1944. This ended my time as a 2nd ID (“Indianheads”) combat infantryman, which had begun in Normandy and Brittany in Western France nearly six months earlier. As a POW I traveled six days on foot and by train to my first POW camp, Stalag XIII-C in Hammelburg (between Frankfurt and Nuremberg).
In the neighboring Oflag (officers camp) XIII-B in Hammelburg was Colonel John Waters, General Patton’s son-in-law. In March 1945, a Third Army task force attempted to liberate Oflag XIII-B and Col Waters. But it went disastrously wrong (Patton always denied all knowledge and responsibility). Although we were not aware of the raid, it was enough to persuade the German Army administration to send all of us POWs in Stalag XIII-C by boxcar train from Hammelburg to Stalag XIII-D in Nuremberg, about 90 miles away. This huge camp belonged to the Nazi Party Rallies area, and was originally accommodation for the thousands of SA stormtroopers who participated in the prewar Nuremberg rallies.
Stalag XIII-D in Nuremberg was also the destination of many AF POWs from Stalag Luft III in Sagan (in present day Poland). They had to evacuate Stalag Luft III ahead of the rapid Soviet advance from the east. They certainly had a far longer and harder winter journey on foot and by train than I had from Hammelburg. Then as Patton’s Third Army advanced on Nuremberg from the west, once again the German Army administration ordered us to evacuate Stalag XIII-D and march southwards about 100 miles to Stalag VII-A in Moosburg just north of Munich. It was reputedly the largest POW camp of all.
From what the 8th AF ex-POWs said, the lead group of the march column were AF POWs. They were tragically strafed and bombed just outside Nuremberg by P-47s thinking these AF POWs were German troops on the move until they were identified as POWs. By the time I marched out, the P-47 attacks had fortunately stopped.
The never ending column of POWs was huge (some estimates exceeded 100,000) and the German guards were vastly outnumbered. So, as I recorded in my diary, a simple, strict and effective rule and routine operated, which certainly resulted in making life on the march much more tolerable for the POWs. You can take your time, but stay on the march route and you will be fed. Leave the march route and you will be shot.
It seems very likely that the AF POWs in the lead group of the march column would have been under continual supervision of the guards. So these AF POWs could unfortunately never have enjoyed the much more relaxed conditions farther back in the POW column which I experienced, and which made the march for me “the best two weeks of captivity”. Anyway, I am very much looking forward to taking my family back to this beautiful part of Bavaria to retrace the historic route of this famous POW march, and also to visit places like Munich, Berchtesgaden, Dachau and Salzburg.
One thing is certain. We are going to have a really big welcome and party in Moosburg. Good Bavarian beer will undoubtedly flow. Anita Meinelt, Mayoress of Moosburg, has written me [and she also includes all other ex-POWs, their families and friends]: “It is a great pleasure and honor for us that more than seventy years after the end of a terrible war, former prisoners of war and their families now want to come back as friends. We welcome you most heartily to Moosburg and very much look forward to being able to greet you and receive you in our town.”
If you wish, you are very welcome to join us and other ex-POWs with their families and friends too. For more information on this and other 2016 veterans tours, see POW MARCH COMMEMORATIVE TOUR April 13 – 20, 2016 on Tours page.
VBOB Member Roger Boas has a new book entitled Battle Rattle: A Last Memoir of World War II. The following is an excerpt from his book. Read more about him and the book at: www.BattleRattleMemoir.com
The shooting began again the following day, and I very nearly lost my life. The objective of this battle was to capture Lorient, a strategic seaport where the Germans had their U-boats in pens. But before committing troops to the battlefield, the U.S. command tried another tactic. Ordered, I believe, by General Patton—I don’t think he would have had the hubris to do it on his own—General Wood sent a radio message to the German commander at Lorient demanding his surrender. When no affirmative response was received, we attacked their emplacements outside of the city.
My artillery battalion went into position not far from Lorient, near a very small town called Caudan (population 2,000). Our job was to support Colonel Creighton Abrams’s blistering 37th Tank Battalion, which was leading the attack. The job of the artillery was to set up our eighteen howitzers in range of the enemy’s guns or enemy troop movement. We’d need a forward observer to spot these positions, of course––and as luck would have it, it was my turn.
Major Parker ordered me and my support team to find the highest available perch for an observation post (OP). I surveyed the area and spotted something in the distance––a church steeple at the center of the nearby town. Perfect.
Or at least I thought it was perfect. You got up there with a pair of field binoculars and could see the entire panorama. The Germans had to survey a huge landscape, so even though it was probably the highest structure, they wouldn’t necessarily know we were there. Sure, there was the risk that, with only one way in and out of a bell tower, a rapid evacuation might not be easy. And there was always the danger that my binoculars or another piece of glass could catch the sun and give us away. But every place has its risks. I was totally preoccupied that morning with wanting to do a good job in my debut as forward observer in an actual battle (putting aside the disheartening realization that I had somehow fallen into one of the most dangerous jobs in the army).
Once we went into action any fears seemed to disappear. Excited to be taking up our first observation post, my team drove furtively to Caudan’s main square in our jeep. After parking quietly in an alley, the three of us—Sergeant Plas with his radio, my corporal with his telephone, and me with my map and binoculars—climbed the dusty, winding steps of the timeworn tower to emerge at the thirty-foot top of the church steeple.
The view was breathtaking. And I could easily make out the Germans’ artillery positions from their gun flashes. Keyed up, I got to work, plotting out coordinates and barking them out to Plas, who radioed the firing orders back to our three batteries of six guns each.
Of course, as soon as we began shooting, my German counterpart (wherever he was hiding) would observe the flashes of our guns and would start telling his gun batteries where to shoot back. Pretty soon the entire valley was filled with the booming thunder of artillery. And that’s how it was all morning. Fire. Counterfire. Fire. Counterfire.
The OPs all had one constant: the focus was on the enemy, and not the slightest attention was paid to the civilians in the area or their habitat. We’d often find that the enemy artillery and mortars were next to farmhouses or village homes or in streets or town structures in which civilian noncombatants might be living or working. Yet during the war, I cannot recall anyone ever giving any thought to protecting enemy civilians; our role was to rout the enemy military. If enemy civilians (collateral damage, in today’s jargon) lost their lives––so be it. We never stopped adhering to our mantra: a good German is a dead German.
By mid-afternoon, my shots were improving. I had a pretty good fix on where to aim, but just as I was feeling confident that we could soon take out some of their batteries, it got dark. Major Parker ordered us to stop firing. After nightfall, firing your artillery makes you an easy target––as the muzzle flashes can be seen easily for miles. Thus, we had a de facto ceasefire till dawn.
My team and I snuck back to the jeep and returned to our unit to bed down for the night. I threw down my bedroll in the corner of a barn and shut my eyes, both exhausted and exhilarated. Even though the artillery bombardment had ceased, there continued to be small arms fire—the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun burst or a solitary sniper shell ricocheting off a wall. But my mind, amazingly, was able to tune all of that out––to label it “distant danger,” not imminent––allowing me to slumber in peace. We had been at this for three weeks, and, while certainly not grizzled like the Fourth Infantry, we were now actual combat veterans.
The following morning Sergeant Plas shook me awake with a cup of coffee. It was an hour before dawn––time to get going. I reported to Lieutenant Colonel Graham, who asked me where I planned to set up today’s OP. I told him I intended to return to the bell tower, which, in my view, had been an ideal position from which to observe the action. The thought seemed to intrigue him, and Graham announced suddenly that he was going to join us.
While artillery commanders tend to stay behind the front lines so they can supervise the guns, I could certainly see why Graham might have wanted to get an overview of the battlefield—to see the actual impact of our shelling and the counterfire from the enemy guns. Though he was more than ten years my senior and far higher in rank, it occurred to me that this was Lieutenant Colonel Graham’s first time in front-line combat, just like me. He wanted to observe the battlefield to glean information that could improve both his understanding and skills as an artillery commander.
So off we went—six of us, including the two drivers––moving through the pre-light of dawn to the town square in Caudan. Darting quietly up three stories to the top of the bell tower, I unfurled my map and got to work. Feeling proud to have the colonel at my side, I pointed out the landmarks that I had spotted the day before––the places I had calculated as likely enemy artillery positions. Graham nodded and, after checking them out with his own binoculars, ordered me to begin the bombardment.
The shooting began and, once again, the plain erupted in artillery explosions. Trying to stay calm under the added pressure of having the CO breathing down my neck, I adjusted my firing coordinates and within short order felt pretty certain to have taken out at least one enemy battery. But that’s when, suddenly, the tables turned. They started firing at us! German shells began coming in from an artillery battery I hadn’t spotted earlier, one with a closer vantage point––which meant I could easily see its muzzle flashes.
Since their rounds were missing us, I decided to return fire, quickly calculating coordinates and having Plas radio them back. My first shot missed. They fired back at us. It was harrowing having shells fly in our direction, whizzing by the steeple.
I quickly shouted out an angle correction, which Plas radioed back to our battalion. These firing exchanges were hair-raising. Who would blink first? Then one of their shells grazed the outside of the steeple, causing bits of masonry to fall, crashing thirty feet to the ground.
“Abandon post!” I shouted suddenly, allowing Sergeant Plas and my corporal to descend the narrow stairwell before me. I gestured to Lieutenant Colonel Graham to do likewise, and we hightailed it as fast as we could down the winding steps, spurting to safety in the nick of time. The German artillery struck a direct hit on the upper part of the steeple, which came crashing down into a pile of rubble.
My eyes widened as I tried to catch my breath, adrenaline coursing through my veins. That was close. My mind began deconstructing the sequence of events, wondering how they had spotted us in the first place, since we certainly were not firing any weapons from the tower. Then it occurred to me: the Germans must have picked up a flashing reflection of the sun off my binoculars. It had been a close call, but the fact that it took the enemy over twenty-four hours to figure out where I was observing them from illustrates how difficult it can be to find the correct target.
The next day my division received orders to leave the Brittany peninsula and move east toward Orléans. I was told that Alex Graham had put me in for a Silver Star decoration for the church steeple action. And Alex was himself put up for his own Silver Star by Colonel Bixby. But the division’s adjutant general, Lieutenant Colonel R. M. Connolly, arbitrarily reduced them to Bronze Stars, supposedly saying: “I’ll be goddamned if I’ll recommend a Silver Star for an artilleryman.” On the Silver Star application sent in by Graham, Connolly had simply printed: “Bronze Star Award directed by C.G.”
Nasty comments were made in my battalion about the adjutant’s attitude and the fact that, as a rear echelon staff officer, he had never even seen action. We were offended: “We’re getting shot at and this desk-jockey has the nerve to criticize us.” Certainly, getting out of the steeple unhurt had been a close shave; another minute and I’d have been a goner. Our artillery battalion had taken causalities steadily since going into war and, in our parochial view, being an artilleryman was dangerous. But, looking back, I’ve changed my mind: the divisional adjutant was right. Being a field artilleryman firing the howitzers several hundred yards behind the front lines was much less dangerous than being an infantryman or tanker on the front lines, a fact none of us considered. What Colonel Connolly failed to realize was that an artillery forward observer, like me (and Colonel Graham that particular day), was stationed at the front line, right alongside the infantry—a fact that would soon cost Dude Dent his life.
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