Category Archives: Veterans’ Stories

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Two Brothers in the War

Brothers V. L. Auld and Joe Bailey Auld, in Piccadilly Square, London.
Brothers V. L. Auld and Joe Bailey Auld, in Piccadilly Square, London.

When Joe Bailey Auld entered the Army, he was trained at Sheppard Field, Texas, as a glider mechanic to serve in the 434th Troop Carrier Group, a C-47 transport unit for operations with the Ninth Air Force.

In August 1943, when he was stationed at Alliance Army Air Force Field in Alliance, Nebraska, his Group moved to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and prepared for overseas assignment. They boarded the Queen Mary and sailed from New York on 9 October 1943 for the British Isles, landing in Scotland. All their supplies and the Gliders (in boxes) were loaded on trucks and moved to RAF Fulbeck, England, and they were assigned to the 53rd Troop Carrier Wing, 71st Troop Carrier Squadron, 434th Troop Carrier Group.

From November 1943 through 14 May 1944, they engaged in an intensive training program with the 101st Airborne at RAF Aldermaston, England, in preparation for the invasion of northern France. On 3 March 1944, Joe received flying status, serving as glider co-pilot.

In February 1945, Joe’s unit moved to Mourmelon-le-Grand Airfield, northeast of Paris, France, where they were stationed until the end of the war. His list of battles and campaigns included Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe.

Joe’s brother, V. L. Auld, served as Liaison Pilot with the 909th Field Artillery Battalion of the 84th Infantry Division. His training began at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, where he received basic training and completed the Field Artillery Officer Candidate School. After completing the Liaison Pilot Course at Pittsburg, Kansas, his training continued at Ft. Sill and at Camp Howze, Texas. Then, the Division participated in the “Louisiana Maneuvers.”

In September 1944, the 84th Division received orders to report to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for overseas embarkation. The 335th Infantry and units of the Division Artillery boarded the Sterling Castle, an English ship. They were in a collision with another ship at sea during the first night out and had to return to port for repairs. The accident ripped a hole in the bow about 40 feet high, and all 7,000 soldiers went back to Camp Kilmer while the ship was being repaired. Then, they re-boarded the ship and headed for Southampton, England.

Since Joe was still serving in England when V. L. arrived, they met in London for one weekend. They stayed at the Savoy Hotel and managed to locate the Piccadilly Square, the Queen’s Palace, and other points of interest. They did not see each other again until they returned to Tishomingo, Oklahoma, at the end of the War.

After arriving in England, Liaison Pilots became the Air Section of the Division Artillery Headquarters, and V. L.’s job changed from Battalion Air Officer to Assistant Division Artillery Air Officer. The Liaison Airplanes (L-2s) arrived in England in crates. After assembling, they had only ten airplanes, but they had eleven pilots. The Division Air Artillery Officer, Major Paschall, did not want to ride an LST across the English Channel, so they gathered up parts from all over the United Kingdom and put together the eleventh airplane so all could fly across together.

First units of the 84th Division landed on Omaha Beach, France, on 1 November 1944 with the remainder arriving the next three days. The Germans had put up long poles on the beach to prevent the L-2s and gliders from landing. The L-2s landed on a road. However, the wind was too strong for V. L.’s plane to land, so two jeeps were sent out to help. They ran along beside his plane and grabbed the struts to pull the plane down.

Most of the units of the 84th moved through France into Belgium in less than 48 hours. They became a part of the Ninth Army and worked with the British, the 2nd Armored, and 102nd Infantry Division in the capture of a section of the Siegfried Line. After breaching the Siegfried Line, the 84th was closing in on the Roer River when the Germans launched their biggest offensive, the Battle of the Bulge.

The air strip for the L-2s was moved several times during this battle. At one point, they moved back from the front to a place just outside of Liege, Belgium, and occupied a chateau with about 20 bedrooms. The Germans were trying to hit the big ammunition dump close to Liege, and this chateau turned out to be right in the line of fire of the buzz bombs. The chateau was not hit, but one bomb landed about 15 feet from V. L.’s plane and twisted it up like you twist a newspaper.

From the Roer River to the Rhine River, it was move, shoot, and communicate. V. L.’s air strip moved several times, reaching the Rhine about 5 March 1945. Then, the plan was for the 5th Armored to drive toward the Elbe River, with the 84th Division close behind. As they moved forward, German POW Camps and camps for displaced persons were literally starving to death. General Eisenhower had made an agreement with the Russians to allow them to take the territory on the other side of the river, so the 84th sat there for several days, since they beat the Russians to the Elbe.

The war ended 8 May 1945, and the Division moved to an area near Heidelberg, Germany, and began a phase of military occupation. The Air Section (L-2s) became a courier service, more or less. In November 1945, V. L. was assigned about 200 men, and they were sent to Frankfort, Germany. From Frankfort, they traveled in boxcars to Marseilles, France, where they boarded a ship for home.

V. L., as Liaison Pilot, took part in three major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge. With an observer, he flew over the frontlines, spotted targets, and directed Artillery fire, flying 123 missions over the enemy lines.

—Submitted by Mrs. V. L. (Lorene Walker) Auld, Member 

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5 InfD’s 
Sauer River Crossing, January 18, 1945

5th INFD patch
5th INFD patch

High Praise from General Patton

A month before his tragic death in an automobile accident, General George S. Patton sent the following letter to the Officers and men of the Fifth Infantry Division on their return home. At the time, he no longer commanded the Third Army, but was postwar commander of the Fifteenth Army and all US Forces in Europe. 

HEADQUARTERS FIFTEENTH U. S. ARMY
Office of the Commanding General
A P O 408
17 November 1945 

To the Officers and men of the Fifth Infantry Division:

Nothing I can say can add to the glory which you have achieved. Throughout the whole advance across France you spearheaded the attack of your Corps. You crossed so many rivers that I am persuaded many of you have webbed feet and I know that all of you have dauntless spirit. To my mind history does not record incidents of greater valor than your assault crossings of the Sauer and the Rhine. 

Concerning the former operation, I showed the scene of your glorious exploits to a civilian for whom I have the highest esteem. After looking at it for some time he said, “I did not believe there was enough courage in the world to achieve such a victory.” Knowing the Fifth Infantry Division, I was sure you would achieve it and you did. Now that peace has been re-established I am sure all of you will continue through the remainder of your lives to stand for those great qualities of America which in war you so magnificently demonstrated. 

With affectionate regards and sincere congratulations, I am as ever;
Your devoted commander,
General G. S. Patton, Jr. 

Crossing of the Sauer,
by the Fifth Infantry division

Roland Gaul is the founder and recently retired Director/Curator of Luxembourg’s National Museum of Military History in Diekirch on the River Sauer. He is a professional military historian and Battle of the Bulge guide and has written an expert battlefield study of the 5th ‘Red Diamond’ Infantry Division’s Sauer River Crossing which so impressed General Patton. So he was just the right person to explain it to me. Here is a summary of our discussion. If you visit the National Museum, you can see a dramatic recreation of the “Sauer River Crossing” in the form of a life-size diorama. (Note: A 5th ‘Red Diamond’ Infantry Division tour is being planned for 2018. See “Tours,” p. 13)

On December 16, 1944, three German armies invaded the Belgian and Luxembourg Ardennes and soon created a 70 mile westward ‘Bulge’ in the Allied front. The Battle of the Bulge had begun.  

But Third Army Commander, General George Patton, had already anticipated the German attack and was able to react fast. On December 20, in a technically difficult and very daring maneuver, Gen Patton swung six Third Army divisions northwards from France to attack the southern shoulder of the German Bulge. He sent three divisions to liberate and secure Bastogne in Belgium from the German Fifth Panzer Army, and three divisions, one of which was 5th Inf Div, to contain and push back the German Seventh Army in Luxembourg. At that time, 5th Inf Div was on the French-German border in the middle of attacking Saarlautern in Saarland, about 50 miles southeast of Luxembourg. The 5th Inf Div immediately disengaged and within 24 hours was in Luxembourg. 

After initial tactical successes and territorial gains in southeastern Luxembourg December 16-22, German Seventh Army units were stopped in their further advance by 5th “Red Diamond” Inf Div and 4th “Ivy Leaves” Inf Div, and had to retreat to the northern bank of the River Sauer (or Sûre), which flows eastwards through central Luxembourg. 5th Inf Div and 4th Inf Div then formed an unbroken line of defense along the southern bank of the Sauer. Its pleasant river valley among forested hills is a formidable natural barrier along which the German-American frontline and southern shoulder of the Bulge was stabilized in late December 1944. Winter 1944-45 was the coldest in 100 years, and the temperature dropped to minus 15 degrees Celsius (minus 5 Fahrenheit) during the day, and even to minus 22 Celsius (minus 7.6 Fahrenheit) at night. There was thick snow everywhere.

But once Bastogne (Belgium) had been liberated and secured, it was time for Third Army to break through the southern shoulder of the Bulge in Luxembourg. Since the 5th Inf Div was considered the expert river crossing unit, it was tasked with crossing the River Sauer, recapturing towns in the river valley such as Diekirch and Bettendorf, retaking the heights on the northern side and cutting the Germans off from reaching the Our River (the Our is a tributary of the Sauer) and thus the safety of the Siegfried Line and Germany.

The Sauer River crossing was a nighttime action by 5th Inf Div’s three infantry regiments, 2nd, 10th and 11th, jumping off at 0300 on January 18, 1945, without any artillery preparation (not to take away the element of surprise). They were augmented with specialized battalions, namely, Engineers for bridging and ferrying, Field Artillery, Medics, Tanks and Tank Destroyers and Chemical Mortars. 2nd Regt’s crossing sector was Ingeldorf – Diekirch. 10th Regt’s crossing sector was Diekirch – Bettendorf. 11th Regt was held in reserve on two-hour call. 

By nightfall on January 18, the 5th Inf Div’s bridgehead was 1.5 kms (about 1 mile) deep with a front of 6.5 kms (about 4 miles). Each regiment had successfully crossed all its battalions. The Germans had been caught by surprise. Despite enemy fire and the terrible winter weather with its snow and mud, the Engineers had been able to throw one treadway bridge, two Class 40 bridges, two assault boat bridges and two foot bridges across the river, enabling Sherman tanks and M-10 tank destroyers to cross the icy waters of the Sauer.

By January 28, all the assigned regimental objectives had been achieved. After a few days of much needed rest, 5th Inf Div changed sectors in early February to take part in Patton’s Third Army strike into Germany on an 8 km (about 5 miles) front northwest of Echternach, once again across the Sauer River, but this time its lower reaches, directly facing Germany. This was the beginning of the official “Rhineland Campaign” on February 7, 1945, and the invasion of Germany.

—Submitted by Patrick Hinchy, Military Historian and Tour Director

Click here for information about an upcoming  5 INFD Tour and other planned tours of Bulge sites.

Tribute To Frank Wooldridge

Presented October 6, 1998 to The Central Mass. Chapter, VBOB, by Cliff Duxbury, historian

American assault troops move onto Utah Beach, 6 June 1944.
American assault troops move onto Utah Beach, 6 June 1944.

Frank Wooldridge is among a few WW II veterans who upstaged the draft by at least 4 years. It was in 1939 that he joined the National Guard’s 181st Infantry, 26th “Yankee” Division in Worcester and became a medic. It was a time when the Guard had limited finances, a modicum of equipment, and something less than a formalized training program.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the status of Worcester’s Guard unit changed. By December 7, 1941 the 26th Division was as Federalized and Frank’s medical detachment was sent to Camp Edwards for basic training and soon after was mobilized for assignment to Coast Patrol duty to keep a watchful eye on the East Coast ranging from the Cape to Northern Maine. It was at Edwards that Frank was raised in rank to a staff sergeant. Later moving to Sacco, Maine, Frank was among a group that established an infirmary there. He moved again to Camden, Maine where he was assigned sergeant-in-charge of another infirmary.

In October 1943, he left the 181st and was sent to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey where he joined the 315th Medical Battalion, 357th Regiment, 90th Texas-Oklahoma Division. Departing New York in March 1944, the 90th reached England and Cardiff, Wales by April 9.

Intensive training followed for the infantry covering mine detection, village fighting, road marches and obstacle courses. “Invasion Fever” gripped the 90th and true to the nature of their preparation, the division moved across the Channel on June 6, 1944 —“D Day.”
Frank recalls that it took 5 long hours from Southampton before he touched down on Utah Beach with the 357th Regiment. On arrival Frank commented that the opposition on the beach was minimal but the intensity of German shelling in his landing zone continued and the medical ranks too casualties. On D plus 1, the 315th Medical Battalion set up a temporary aid station about 1/2 mile inland where casualties kept them fully occupied.
In the earliest days of the invasion, the 90th was given the mission of containing German forces trapped in the northern tip of the Normandy Peninsula. Fighting was heavy and casualties were many. The 315th Medics were kept overworked. By the end of June, however, Cherbourg, the major Normandy port in the upper peninsula, fell and the area was cleared of Germans.

At the end of July, one month later, St. Lo, Coutance and Avranches were behind the 90th. The Germans were pushed from Normandy totally and the 90th was among several divisions that reached the plains of France where a “war of Movement” began and continued almost without interruption.

Movement, heavy fighting and land advances followed for American forces when the formidable events of the Falaise Gap took place. In mid-August, 1945, it was at Falaise that German forces of the 7th Army began a full retreat and attempted to squirm through a narrow valley remaining open. The only remaining door located through the French castle town of Chambois was their chosen route. It was here that the 90th Division established road blocks to keep the Germans contained. Divisional artillery, 11 battalions strong, fired relentlessly on the bogged down Germans—inflicting heavy casualties, disrupting counter-attacks and simply pouring a hail of steel on the reeling German remnants.

And into this storm the unarmed medics of the 315th Medical Battalion performed their tasks under fire, evacuating American casualties as well as enemy wounded. A truce was eventually called in order that the wounded might be attended under less harrowing conditions and removed from the field of battle. Frank’s 315th, in spite of sniper fire, (clearly a violation of the truce terms) carried out their mission with gallantry. Working with unit doctors, Frank administered morphine to settle casualties in severe pain and administered plasma, as well, to those men who were suffering continuing blood losses. Additionally, his duties involved general first aid to GI’s preparatory to their movement to rear area hospital for more specialized handling.

By August 20, 1 944 – the Falaise Gap was closed on the bulk of the German 7th Army. 13,000 Germans surrendered to the 90th in a period of 4-days.

When in mid-December, the “Bulge” began in Belgium and Luxembourg, the 90th was ordered to disengage from the Saar River. On January 5, 1945, the division made a 50- mile convoy trek to an assembly area in Luxembourg. And in bitter, bitter cold began an assault along the perimeter of the attacking 7th German Army’s salient on the extreme southern flank of their offensive line. Fighting in an area just south and east of Bastogne, the 90th’s speed and power of assault surprised the Germans. On the 4th day of battle, the T/O division had fought their way onto Belgium soil along with the 35th and 6th Armored Divisions at their sides. The salient had been liquidated.

By January 16, the 90th straightened out their lines looking Eastward and by the 29th of January, 1945 stood on German ground for the 2nd time.

From the Bulge, battles bristled along the Siegfried Line, across the Rhine in March to points along the Czech border. On May 7 a final combat mission set to rescue Prague, the Czech capitol, was postponed when Divisional Headquarters was notified that the German High Command had surrendered.

Frank was returned to the States in Fall, 1945 to Ft. Devens where he was discharged on October 26. He rejoined the National Guard 7 years later when the Guard was looking for experienced veterans to fill their ranks. He served an additional 3 years and left the military behind him for good.

Our thanks to Frank Wooldridge for his long, faithful and vital service to his fellow GIs during World War II.

—Submitted by John McAuliffe, President, Chapter 22

A BROTHER’S LETTERS HOME

My dad, William J Flynn, was a Staff Sergeant with the 106th Infantry Division, HQ Co. I wanted to share some of the material I found related to his war experience.

Here is an excerpt of a letter William sent to his brother Ed, dated February 8, 1945 and titled “SOMEWHERE IN BELGIUM.”

Flynn in front of the house where he and other soldiers stayed in Belgium, February 1945. 
Flynn in front of the house where he and other soldiers stayed in Belgium, February 1945.

“After the big German Dec. offensive had been stopped, we pulled into a village in Belgium and it has been more of a rest area than anything else. Man, we really appreciated it. As Mother has probably told you, a buddy of mine and myself are sleeping in a home on a feather bed. Man, I mean it’s the best go! It won’t last long, though, as we will probably move back again in a few days. They don’t let a combat infantry division rest very long. There were a couple of girls in the home where we stay and I really have a lot of fun. These Belgian gals are not bad at all . . . .

“Oh well it’s a lot of fun and we sure needed a little of it after the hell we went through during the German offensive. Ed, everyone was called on to help stop that big push. We were taken to a hillside at night and had to dig foxholes in the dark. You couldn’t see a thing and you couldn’t even think of lighting a match or flashlight or anything else. We spent several nights in those holes and I’m telling you I [almost] froze. We also knew the Germans were all around us, and that didn’t make you feel any better. Buzz bombs going over, airplanes fighting, artillery and machine guns firing, the sky full of flares and tracer bullets. It was like nights in hell. I saw sights, Ed, I can’t write about and I may see more before this mess is over, but I hope not. Believe me, Ed, when I say “war is really Hell.” When fellows you have known a long time are killed, wounded and taken prisoner, it really gives you a funny feeling. You will never know until I come home how close I was to being among some of those. Ed, the Germans are just as bad as the Japs. There isn’t anything they won’t do. I know, I’ve seen what they have done. I’ve talked to these Belgian civilians and heard their stories. I’ve seen dead Germans laying around frozen stiff, but it just doesn’t affect you like it would seeing a dead person in the States. Especially when you know what they have done to your buddies and then, too, if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be over here. I could tell you a lot of stories about them, but I guess I had better not.” The letter is signed “Love to a swell brother, Bill.”

And here is an excerpt from another letter Dad sent from Germany on April 28, 1945. His Division had been assigned POW duty in the Bad Ems area. The Bulge was over, of course, but I found the first person observations to be interesting:

“Well Ed, I am now in Germany. It is really pretty through the rural districts, but a lot of their towns and cities are really leveled. The country reminds me of the States, with the pretty farms and neat homes. We do not associate with the civilians in any way. We do not even speak to them. We have to be on the lookout all the time and we always travel in pairs. The people try hard to be friendly but we know that in their hearts they hate us, and we are not taking any chances with these babies. Every one of their books and magazines has Hitler’s picture in it. Yesterday we raised Old Glory over this place and our band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” They just stopped and stared as our Flag waved in the breeze where the swastika once flew. They really thought they were a super-race, and it hurts their pride when we have conquered them and then just ignore them. They just gaze in amazement as tanks, trucks, jeeps, guns and other vehicles of war rush by, while overhead great fleets of bombers roar. They all symbolize the might of America and the downfall of Germany. These people don’t look like the people of France and Belgium. They are well fed, well dressed, and seem to have plenty of everything. Their homes are nice and are nearly all modern. We often take over one that is intact, with all the furniture, including dishes in the kitchen and coal in the basement. We build a fire, cook a meal, and take a bath. In this particular place, there is a washing machine in the basement and that comes in handy for laundry. As we pass through towns and cities, there are white flags hanging from the windows. Germany is really getting a taste of what She dished out to other countries. She will be a long time recovering from this.”

—Submitted by Bill Flynn, Associate

Claude Barnett Motley Sr (1922-2005)

Claude Barnett Motley Sr
Claude Barnett Motley Sr

Claude Motley’s record from the  Official Roster of South Carolina Servicemen and Servicewomen in World War II documents his brief participation in World War II. What it does not do is capture the details of this short  but eventful period in Claude’s life on Earth. The record notes that he was born in Blaney (now Elgin), South Carolina on 1 November 1922. He still lived near Blaney when he entered active duty in the Army on 8 August 1944. He served overseas in the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater from 8 January 1945 until 12 June 1945. He was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with service stars for the Rhineland Campaign and the Central Europe Campaign, and the World War II Victory Medal. He was honorably discharged as a corporal from Company M, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division on 13 February 1946.

 And now, the rest of the story: Claude enlisted in the Army on August 8th, 1944. Claude went to basic training at Camp Blanding near Starke, Florida and arrived on August 18th. He trained as a member of a heavy weapons company and trained on heavy infantry weapons, the heavy machine gun, the 81 millimeter mortar, the rifle, the carbine, the pistol, and grenades. Claude completed his training and moved to Fort Meade, Maryland to await transportation to Europe in early January of 1945. In Europe on January 8th, he was assigned to Company M, 119th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division. He was assigned to a machine gun platoon. When he joined the 30th Division, they were engaged in the final days of the Battle of the Bulge. On January 13th, the 30th Division launched a counteroffensive and began their push east toward Germany. On February 23rd, the 30th Division crossed the Roer River. On March 24th, they crossed the Rhine River in Germany. On April 12th, the 30thDivision reached the Elbe River forty miles Southwest of Berlin in eastern Germany. On April 13th, Company M crossed the Elbe River near Grunewalde. The Germans mounted a counterattack and captured 22 members of Company M including Claude, his Company Commander, Captain Romulus Mann, and his platoon sergeant, Technical Sergeant Paul Schreck, as they took cover in the basement of a farm house. Claude was imprisoned in Stalag IIIA near Luckenwalde, Germany. Like other prisoners at the end of the war, Claude suffered from poor nutrition and care. Rumor in Stalag IIIA was that the Russians were about to liberate the prisoners. Claude managed to get a map of Germany and he and a friend, Wilton Outlaw, escaped on May 5th. Their plan was to reach a crossroads and to use the map to find their way west to American lines. The plan hit a snag when they reached the first crossroads, because the Russians had come through the area and had changed all the road signs to Russian, which was unintelligible to Privates Motley and Outlaw. They revised their plan, put the map away, and simply headed west. They were given a ride for part of the way on a wood burning truck by people they could not communicate with. Claude returned to the 119th Infantry. Victory in Europe was achieved on May 8th when Germany surrendered. On 12 June, the 30th shipped back to the United States aboard the RMS Queen Mary ocean liner. After a visit home, Claude was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington ,where he served as a driver until his discharge on February 13th, 1946.

Post war, Claude returned home and to logging and farming. He also taught agriculture in a veterans program for a couple of years. He raised a family, was active in his community and his church. He was truly one of America’s greatest generation.

—Submitted by his proud son-in-law, Nelson McLeod, Associate

A TEENAGER IN THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE

by Julian Lee Gelwasser, 90 INFD, 358 INF REG, CO B 

World War II started in 1939 when I was 13 years old. When Pearl Harbor was attacked Dec.7, 1941 I was in high school, age 15. Our home room teacher said it would be over in 6 weeks. Sure. Three years later in 1944 I turned 18, graduated and the draft board was waiting. Before that my classmates formed a Victory Corp. , bought “uniforms” and tried to prepare ourselves for service. There was an urgent need for trained riflemen in the army so I was inducted at Ft. Meade and took basic training at Camp Fannin, Tx. I quickly learned to use the M1 rifle, Mi carbine, BAR, 60mm mortar, 30cal MG, Bazooka, grenades and bayonet. We marched 25 miles with full packs in 100 degree weather. It was perfect training for the future snow and cold of the bulge. We should have trained in Alaska. In a matter of months I was on a troopship that landed in Marseilles, France. The bulge started Dec.16th and I was sent north as a needed replacement to the 358th of the 90th INFD. I became a platoon runner for LT. Julius Hebert. He and his non-coms were a wonderful group of men. My teenage mind was still active when Lt. Hebert let me carry his Thompson SMG. Wow, a Tommygun just like the ones carried by G-Men! I also carried his handy talkie radio.

There was much slogging through snow and cold. Food came in small K ration boxes. We were lucky to replace our boots with waterproof shoe pacs.

I was soon introduced to the nearness of death and I began to wonder if I would ever see my 19th birthday. At one time shots were zinging overhead. Lying prone next to a soldier, I poked him to get his attention. I got no response and realized he was dead. Another time, we were working our way through a wooded area in a fire fight when I was blocked by a smoking Jeep. The driver was lying on the hood bare footed. The Germans had taken his boots to replace their own.

After weeks of this we were near Wiltz, Luxembourg pushing the Germans out of a large farm house. To get out of the snow and cold we entered the barn. Big mistake. The Germans had zeroed it in and dropped a mortar shell on top of us. A large piece hit me in the left leg and another one of our men in the platoon was hit in the arm. We both started shouting, “MEDIC!” (I had a compound comminuted fracture and went into shock.)

I was soon covered with a blanket and put on a litter which went onto the fender of a Jeep. First stop was an aid station in ArIon, Belgium. I just missed an amputation. Next I was sent to a hospital in Paris where a Red Cross lady wrote a letter to my parents. This followed with a cross channel boat trip to England on the St. Olaf. At a hospital in Cheltenham I was put in traction for over a month, after which I returned to the US via a C54 hospital plane by way of the Azores, Newfoundland and Mitchel Field, LI. Months of rehab followed in Virginia until I could walk again.

I thought the medical treatment was very good, for those times. I was one of the first to get penicillin in the field.

Sad note: I had written Lt. Hebert a letter and it came back marked “DECEASED.” Nice man — I still think of him.

I received my Honorable Discharge just as the war ended in 1945. The GI Bill was in effect, so I received a college education.

There is an interesting side note to my story. Some 14 years after the war ended, I was 33 and had risen to a mid-level position in the defense industry. I became involved with a major sub-contractor whose chairman of the board was Five Star General Omar Bradley. So former PFC me had a friendly chat in his office with the general. I invited him down to the Cape in Florida to witness a test firing of a prototype missile, after which he sent me a very nice thank you note [shown below] which I have kept all these years.

In retrospect, we 18-year-olds were very patriotic. We loved our country and were ready to fight for it, in the face of fanatical German Nazis who were terrorizing so many people. We did what we had to do to end their threat and end the war.

Hard to believe. Those of us still around are in our 90’s.

Letter from Omar Bradley
Letter from Omar Bradley

Attacking South of the German Bulge

by E. Peter Hornburg, 5 INFD 10 INF CO F

E. Peter Hornburg, 5 INFD 10 INF CO F
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.

Kenneth “Cowboy” Morris Remembers the Battle of the Bulge

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.

Kenneth “Cowboy” Morris at a rodeo in Paris, Texas, 1953.
Kenneth “Cowboy” Morris at a rodeo in Paris, Texas, 1953.

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.”

“Cowboy” Morris travelled to Tahlequah, Oklahoma to receive an honor from his heritage, the Cherokee Nation. Travelling with him was  family including his grandson Congressman Markwayne Mullin. The award reads: The Cherokee Nation presents the Medal of Patriotism and the Warrior Award in Appreciation of Military Service to Kenneth Morris U.S. Army.
“Cowboy” Morris travelled to Tahlequah, Oklahoma to receive an honor from his heritage, the Cherokee Nation. Travelling with him was family including his grandson Congressman Markwayne Mullin. The award reads: The Cherokee Nation presents the Medal of Patriotism and the Warrior Award in Appreciation of Military Service to Kenneth Morris U.S. Army.

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The Battle of the Bulge: One Small Corner, by John Fague, 11 ARMDD, 21 AIB

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.

From left to right: S/Sgt John Fague, PFC Donald E. White, PFC Dock E. Deakle, and driver of the “BAT,” T/5 Orvin P. Rasnic
From left to right: S/Sgt John Fague, PFC Donald E. White, PFC Dock E. Deakle, and driver of the “BAT,” T/5 Orvin P. Rasnic

 

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Warriors Turned Worriers, by Muriel Phillips Engelman, 16th General Hospital

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.

Muriel Engelman
Muriel Engelman

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.

 

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His whittling skills helped save radiator

Russell Hathaway
Russell Hathaway

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.

EPSON MFP image
EPSON MFP image

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

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Task Force Ezell by John H. Harris 4th Armored Div., 22d Armd FA Bn, Battery C

John H. Harris
John H. Harris

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.

This tank is an M7 self-propelled 105mm Howitzer Artillery piece. (There are 6 of these in an Armored Field Artillery battery, or 18 to a battalion.)
This tank is an M7 self-propelled 105mm Howitzer Artillery piece. (There are 6 of these in an Armored Field Artillery battery, or 18 to a battalion.)
Our beloved commander, Major General John S.(Tiger Jack) Wood. We would go to hell and back for him, and we did!!!
Our beloved commander, Major General John S.(Tiger Jack) Wood. We would go to hell and back for him, and we did!!!

Harris4sm

 

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BUILDING BRIDGES by Fred Natzle, 148 ENGR CMBT BN, Co B

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.

American troops building a floating Bailey Bridge, similar to the one the 148th Engineer Combat Battalion built.
American troops building a floating Bailey Bridge, similar to the one the 148th Engineer Combat Battalion built.

 

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LETTERS TO A WAR BRIDE, by Tim McKay, Associate

Robert McKay
Robert McKay

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.

RJMJr., Fletch, Smitty, Plettenberg 1945
RJMJr., Fletch, Smitty, Plettenberg 1945

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.

Christmas Eve!

Fletcher at the wheel, Sgt Hanna behind him, McKay smiling, Wilbur standing
Fletcher at the wheel, Sgt Hanna behind him, McKay smiling, Wilbur standing

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