Heroes: the Army
"... Bullets from long bursts of machine gun fire are now cracking all around us. Mortar shells begin exploding just behind us. Sergeant Radice, who is bringing up the rear after finally leaving the shelter of the house, is hit almost immediately. His body threshes convulsively as Greenfield runs to his side..."
MEMORIES OF SERVICE IN THE SECOND PLATOON, COMPANY K, 407TH INFANTRY March 1944 - September 1945 MEMORIES OF SERVICE IN THE SECOND PLATOON, COMPANY K, 407TH INFANTRY March 1944 - September 1945
Edited by Paul N. Haubenreich and William L. Schaible
Printed September 1995
OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE SECOND PLATOON
SECOND PLATOON CHRONOLOGY
1. PREPARING FOR OVERSEAS
1.1. Camp Swift
1.2. Troop Train
1.3. Fort Dix
1.4. Camp Kilmer
2. CROSSING THE ATLANTIC
2.2. Life on a Troopship
3. MOVING TO THE FRONT
3.2. A Different Troop Train
3.3. Across the Border
4. FIRST SHOTS
4.1. Into the Front line
4.2. First Day at the Front
4.3. Events in the Nights
4.4. Making Ourselves at Home
4.5. The Island 4.6 Random Shots
4.6. In Division Reserve
5. EDEREN 5.1 First Views
5.2. Buried Alive
5.3. A Combat Patrol
6.1. Riflemen's Views of the Battle
6.2. After the Assault
6.3. A Glimpse Through an Enemy's Eyes
6.4. Civilians under Fire at Welz
7. HOLDING THE LINE
7.2. Laying Wire and Digging Holes
7.2.1. Christmas, 1944
7.2.2. An Unforgettable New Year's Day
7.3. On the Front Line at Lindern and Linnich
7.3.1. Friendly (?) Fire on a Snowy Night
7.3.2. Trading Hand Grenades
7.3.3. Frigid Outpost in the "Roer Pocket"
7.3.4. A Flood in the Night
8. ATTACKING ACROSS THE ROER TO THE RHINE
8.1. Preparations for Roer Crossing
8.1.1. A "Dry Run"
8.1.2. A Night of Confusion
8.1.3. A Night on the Dike
8.2. D-Day Crossing
8.2.2. The Crossing
8.2.3. On the Far Side
8.3. Movement and Battles
8.4. At the Rhine
9. SWEEPING FROM THE RHINE TO THE ELBE
9.1. Mopping Up Bypassed Forces
9.2. The Watch at the Elbe
10. AWAITING TRANSPORT TO JAPAN
10.1. Gross Garz
10.2. Nauendorf, Thuringia
10.3. Iggensbach, Lower Bavaria
10.4. The End
OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE SECOND PLATOON,
Company K, 407th Infantry
WELTI, Carl L.
WILSON, John E. Jr., 1st Lt
FORD, Robert E.
BURNS, Robert E. PFC
MILLER, Charles W., Sgt
MOLLICA, Tony P., T/Sgt
SHOCKEY, Eugene P., S/Sgt
MADISON, Elton, PFC
HURLEY, Ronald F., PFC
SAUNDERS, Charles R., PFC
McGUIRE, Manfore H., PFC
WHITAKER, Whyte W. Jr., PFC
LAHTI, Eljas O., PFC
VAN ATTA, Arthur H., PFC
STUMPFF, Hal N., S/Sgt
SCHAIBLE, William L., PFC
HAUBENREICH, Paul N., PFC
WANNAMAKER, Joseph E., Sgt
HARRIS, James R., Sgt
HUFFMAN, John D., PFC
DUNLAP, Wurtsbaugh H., PFC
GROTZ, Wesley H.
BARON, Matt, PFC
BOWAR, Manuel F.
DELANO, Ysidore, PFC
SMITH, Robert A., PFC
WOELKERS, Frederick J. Jr., PFC
FIORI, Frank J., CPL
BEHAN, Joseph C., Sgt
CURCIO, Salvatore, Sgt
FRANCOLINI, Sergio F., S/Sgt
LOVE, Clarence S., PFC
MANSOUR, Alfred A., PFC
GRIFFITH, Walter A., PFC
HANSEN, Vernen M., PFC
MILGATE, Robert W., PFC
TOLLISON, Loyd E., PFC
REIST, Wilfred G., PFC
POKORSKI, Stanislaus L., PFC
SCHMIDT, Herbert P., PFC
VOCCIO, Frank, PFC
SOMERS, Victor J., PFC
PHILLIPS, Roger W., PVT
TEDROW, Jack V., PFC
NOLAND, Earl J., Cpl
TOVAR, Humberto I., PFC
VALDEZ, Stanley, PFC
CHRISTINE, Carl R., PFC
ABERCROMBIE, John B., PFC
McNABB, Earl G., PFC
SAUTTER, Charles A., PFC
PEMBERTON, Robert E., PFC
GAMPO, John, PVT
JARAMILLO, Refugio, PFC
BABB, Quentin M., PFC
HANLON, Theodore T., PFC
WHEAT, Gerald S., PVT
TROCHET, Rene A. , PFC
JENNINGS, Harold R. G., PVT
IMBROGNO, Peter A., PFC
SOMOZA, Tony C., PFC
INGOLD, Russell C., PVT
GIORDANO, Frank, PFC
OLIVER, Joseph D., PFC
MUTISPAW, Robert L. PVT
ATKINS, Edward K., PVT
SECOND PLATOON CHRONOLOGY
1 July 1944
Arrive at Fort Dix, New Jersey on troop train from Camp Swift, Texas.
Move to Camp Kilmer (staging area for New York Port of Embarkation).
Depart Staten Island, NY aboard S.S. Santa Paula.
Cross English Channel from Weymouth, anchor in Cherbourg harbor.
Go ashore, move to Area M, near St. Pierre Eglise. Go into bivouac.
Hike 14 miles to Valognes, depart in 40-&-8 car in troop train.
Arrive Hasselt, Belgium, ride trucks to Brunssum, Netherlands, hike into Germany, bivouac between Brunssum and Teveren.
Hike into Teveren, take over defenses from 29th Division troops. Guard "Island," patrol, forage. Saunders killed by artillery shell.
Relieved by British 43rd Division, move to rear.
Bivouac in forest by British artillery near Dutch-German border.
Ride trucks, then hike to Puffendorf. Wait until midnight.
Hike on to Ederen, relieve 406th Infantry troops.
Combat patrol hits corner of Welz, Mansour shot.
Attack; take Welz from 10th SS Panzers. Radice, Hurley killed, many wounded
Get replacements: Love and Hansen.
Actions under fire in and around Welz. Amore, Love killed, more wounded.
Move toward Rurdorf. Return to reserve in Welz.
Replacements: Reist, Voccio, Milgate, Pokorski, Phillips, Schmidt, Summers Ride trucks to Eigelshoven, Holland for "rehabilitation." "Battle of the Bulge" starts. Pull out of Eigelshoven.
Arrive back at Welz.
Move into foxholes near Gereonsweiler. Start laying wire and digging holes.
Move into house at edge of Gereonsweiler. Continue work on defenses.
Christmas Day. Leaflets, dinner and religious services. Then back to work.
25 Dec 1944
Somers arrives, is killed. Baron, Delao, Francolini, Lahti, Phillips wounded.
1 Jan 1945
Lt. Welti sick; goes to rear, never to return to Second Platoon.
Lt. John Wilson arrives, takes over as Platoon Leader.
Move up to Linnich (Smith's birthday).
Spearhead across Roer aborted by flood.
Cross the Roer on footbridge, under artillery fire. Schaible wounded.
Fight at Erkeleaz. Phillips killed, others wounded.
Advance past Wickrath to Rheydt
Begin rest and rehabilitation near Krefeld
Take up position on Rhine
Cross the Rhine at Wesel, in trucks with lights on.
Hit by Panzers near Fallersleben. Wheat, Eller wounded. Three captured.
Move up to Elbe at Heinrichsburg.
Victory in Europe Day
Move to Gross Garz
Move to Nauendorf
Move to Iggensbach
Hear the news: Japan has surrendered! We won't have to invade!
Move to Lichtenfels for occupation duty.
5 Sep 1945
Ozark Division returns to U.S.A.
3. MOVING TO THE FRONT
At dawn on 23 September the six ships transporting the 102d Division left Weymouth to cross the English Channel to Normandy. A solid cloud cover hung low and mist from the choppy waves limited visibility. Not long after the Dorset coast disappeared behind our convoy, we saw our first heavy naval vessels. There were two of them, with bold patterns of varicolored paint confusing their details. They were larger than the destroyers in our escort; we guessed they were British cruisers. They were traveling at what seemed to be a high speed, throwing up great sheets of spray as they sliced through the waves, and soon they were out of our sight.
A few hours out of Weymouth we began to see the hazy outline of land some miles ahead. We were not allowed to remain on deck as we approached the mainland of Europe, but were ordered below to prepare for debarkation. After a while we heard the engines slow and the ship's motion subsided, indicating that we were entering a harbor. Shortly the engines stopped and the anchor chains rattled out. We lay on our bunks while waiting our turn to debark. When the order came to move out, we put on our full field packs and picked up duffel bags and weapons. Instead of ascending the ladder to the open deck, we filed aft from Compartment C-5 along a passageway. A large door had been opened low on the side of the Santa Paula and a flat-decked barge was alongside. With some assistance we scrambled down and stood packed together. By this time, it was late in the day and the light was fading. We could see however, that we were in a large port, which we were told was Cherbourg. The Santa Paula had anchored a couple of hundred yards out from the docks and we could see why. Masts and here and there a superstructure protruding from the water indicated that all along the piers there were sunken vessels blocking access for large ships. When the barge was completely covered with troops, it chugged off and threaded its way to a dock. On the way in we got an impressive first view of war damage. Bombs had devastated the once busy port, and its cranes and most of its docks were in ruins. Later we heard that ours was the first convoy of troops to sail directly from the U.S. to Normandy without changing vessels in England.
We marched from the dock a short distance along a waterfront street lined with bombed out buildings. We halted, fell out of ranks and sat on the sidewalks and rubble for a wait of unknown duration. Each man had been given a couple of sandwiches before leaving the ship and these we now consumed. Before it got dark we could see, stretching off into the distance along the street what must have been the whole Third Battalion, quietly waiting like us. We saw no civilian anywhere and no light.
After a while columns of blacked-out trucks rumbled down the street, loaded troops and departed. When our turn came, we climbed aboard the open bed of a 2-1/2 ton truck with the benches folded. We were packed in, standing room only, and the strap was fastened across the back. The truck rolled off, lurching now and then over uneven surfaces, probably hastily filled bomb craters. In the darkness we fell first one way and then the other but because the bodies and duffel bags were so tightly packed in, it was impossible to fall to the floor. A light rain began to fall, adding to our discomfort. We could only hope that it wouldn't be a long trip. Despite the blackout, we could make out that we were passing first through city streets then uphill into the countryside.
After an hour or so, the slow-moving column of trucks halted and we piled out onto a narrow country road, with the dark outline of tall hedgerows on either side. The trucks moved off and minutes later the word came down the line to move. We shuffled through the darkness a short distance along the road, then turned through a gap in the hedgerow. We found ourselves among closely spaced trees of what we guessed was an apple orchard. The Second Platoon was led on through the orchard and into an open field where we were halted and told that we were to spend the rest of the night as best we could. Proper layout of our pup tents would be determined after it became light.
Company K sets up in orchard and pasture behind, with tents along base of hedgerows. Company HQ in orchard. Apples are unripe, small and sour but we eat anyway; lots of stomachaches and diarrhea follow. Company latrine a trench near hedgerow &endash; canvas screen has been lost. Much time spent in getting back in shape after shipboard confinement: calisthenics, bayonet drills, hiking country roads and organized athletics in adjacent field (just over bank from latrine). On Sundays, civilians sit on bank to watch ballgames and comment to one another on soldiers using latrine. At reveille in mornings, 407th regimental band marches up and down road, playing in turn Star-Spangled Banner, God Save the King, and the Marseillaise.
Company K remained in bivouac in the apple orchard for a month, waiting for transportation up to the front. During that time the front moved rapidly across France, Belgium and the Netherlands as the Wehrmacht fell back to the borders of Germany. All available trucks were running day and night, trying to keep the troops pursuing the Germans supplied. We were not impatient; no one was shooting at us, we weren't having to work very hard, and the weather wasn't too bad.
We were very aware of the Normandy weather. In fact, if we had been civilians, living in houses, we would have thought the weather delightful: moderate temperatures, intervals of warm sunshine and refreshing breezes from the English Channel only a couple of miles away. However, we were not in houses. We were sleeping in our floorless pup tents and going about all our other daily activities out of doors. Riding the breeze from the sea every day came scattered clouds and rain showers, mostly of short duration but dumping enough water to keep the ground wet from one day to the next. We trenched around the base of our pup tents, putting the sod just inside to serve as a dam to help keep the water out. Needing our raincoats to wear, we couldn't spread them under our blankets. Consequently our blankets were damp most of the time. Of course our rifles were kept in the tents. So were our duffel bags, which made the little two-man tents especially crowded.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on attitudes) we have only the one shower during the month in Normandy.
When we left the States, the Ozark Division was "combat ready." That is, we were at full strength with regard to the standard table of organization and table of equipment for an infantry division and our training, as individuals and as units, was considered to be sufficient. In fact all of the non-corns and practically all riflemen of the Second Platoon had received far more training than was typical in 1944 for infantry replacements, who were shipped overseas, through replacement depots and up to the front with no more than 13-week basic training. Nevertheless, our time in Normandy allowed some additional valuable training, specific to the mission that was now planned for our division.
Without revelation of the grand plan (which included the formation of the new Ninth U.S. Army to drive into Germany north of Aachen) we were told that we would be attacking enemy in defensive positions at least as strong as the fortified zone along the coast of Normandy. Several things were done to prepare us for our mission. We were given a description of the Siegfried Line, which was not a single line of forts, but a belt some miles in depth just inside the German border. We heard about thick-walled concrete "pillboxes," which were strategically located so that attackers approaching one could be fired on from the emplacements on either side. From our bivouac area we marched several miles to the forts along the coast, where we were led through to see from inside their layout and construction, which were similar to those that we expected to come up against before long. The tactics of assault were outlined. Direct, low-trajectory fire from tanks and antitank guns would be directed at the apertures in the pillbox, until our infantry assault got close. Smoke shells would be fired to hinder the defenders' vision. Then Combat Engineers accompanying the infantrymen would run up and prop pole charges against the firing ports. We were shown exactly where explosives would have to be placed to breach the thick steel around the firing apertures. Engineers demonstrated pole and satchel charges, which were flat wooden boxes containing many quarter-pound blocks of TNT. (We heard of "beehive" shaped charges but didn't see any.) The instructors sounded confident but the whole thing sounded pretty risky to us.
We were also impressed when shown the kinds of antipersonnel mines that were likely to be hidden in the ground over which we would have to pass in attacks. Our imaginations were stimulated by demonstrations of the practically undetectable wooden-cased antipersonnel "shoe mines" and the "bouncing Betties" which come out of the ground and explode a few feet in the air. We were shown how to uncover and disarm the German "Teller" mines, which contained II pounds of high explosive; enough to destroy most vehicles and disable any tank. We were also familiarized with the German weapons that would be firing at us. Especially memorable was the first time we heard the high-cyclic-rate fire from an MG-42 machinegun. Our familiarity with the sound of automatic fire from our B.A.R.s and machineguns did not at all prepare us for the sound of 20 rounds per second from an MG-42 a few yards from us, firing into a convenient bank of earth under a hedgerow. The blast of sound was unnerving, even when we knew that the hail of bullets wasn't aimed at us.
We were taught how to identify German troops at a distance, in case we were ever in a situation where there was any doubt about identity. Helmet shape might be obscured by camouflage covers and the color of muddy uniforms would not be distinguishing. In a demonstration, as troops in German uniform approached from several hundred yards, the black leather cartridge belts became recognizable at long range. We were also told that a German rifleman, when walking or running in the field, was trained to carry his rifle in his right hand, down at his side. In contrast we were conditioned by training to carry our M-l's across our chest at the "high port" position.
[More notes follow, to be expanded]
Educational experiences in nearby village of St. Pierre Eglise: soft cheese, calvados, sidewalk urinal in front of church. Sunshine and showers alternate. Mud. Haircuts in the pasture, by Ysidro DelaO, using clippers and scissors purchased by Second Platoon before leaving U.S. DelaO, Whitaker (et al. ?) return late from village, staggering from too much calvados, fall from hedgerow onto pup tents. Smith gets sick, goes on sick call, is hospitalized with dysentery; Madison gets his B.A.R.
Hikes take us through German coastal defense network of forts and concrete emplacements. One explodes like a volcano as we approach; we flop in ditches as chunks from massive explosion of booby-trapped fort fall all around us. Four G.I.s who were exploring inside are blown to bits. Some details help clear mine fields, probing ground with bayonets to locate mines.
A Mud Bath
One of the events whose memories brought laughter at reunions more than forty years afterwards was John Huffman's "mud baptism." The tale of how it happened, as recalled by one who was involved (Haubenreich), follows.
We were a company of about 175 men, crowded into a tiny orchard and an adjacent small pasture. The continuous heavy foot traffic, especially in the part of the orchard through which we all filed to get food and wash our mess kits, turned the sodden, soft earth into mud.
"This Normandy mud was not your ordinary, garden-variety mud. It was not of a consistency that formed great, sticky globs on your feet. (We became intimately acquainted with plenty of that kind later on, in the beet fields of the Rhineland.) It was slippery at first, then, as more rain came down and more feet tramped the paths, the mud became soupy. The company headquarters area around the cook tent was soon an expanse of black muck, through which everyone had to slosh at least three times a day. In only a couple of days the quagmire was ankle deep. No doubt the mud would have kept getting deeper had not someone come up with a bright idea that gave at least temporary relief.
"To understand, you must visualize the layout. The cook tent was pitched near the gate to the road, up against the hedgerow along the side of the orchard. Close to the other side of the tent was a lane through the orchard, which the farmer had used to get his wagon back and forth between the road and the pasture field back of the orchard. Directly across the lane, behind a fringe of bushes and tall grass, the ground dropped off into a ditch or gully about six feet deep.
"The Company Commander decided to get rid of the mud by dumping it into the gully. Shovels proved inefficient, as the top several inches of mud were so nearly liquid. Then someone, probably with experience in spreading concrete, came up with the perfect device. It consisted of a sturdy, 10-foot pole with a six-foot board fastened across one end. Four men on the pole could push the board, like a small bulldozer blade, shoving a wave of mud ahead of it to the brink of the gully. An hour or two of vigorous work was enough to get rid of the soupiest mud. Of course after another day of two of rain and tramping feet, the job had to be repeated. The pool of mud in the gully got deeper and deeper, kept semi-liquid by the daily rains.
"After a week or ten days, it came the turn of the second squad, second platoon to clear mud from the mess area. Francolini, in charge of the work detail, rousted Huffman and Haubenreich out of their tent, another two privates from theirs. After working for a while, they developed an energy-saving pattern, pushing the mud over the edge then, instead of lifting the heavy rig, swinging around and pushing back along a slippery, cleared path to start another sweep. For some reason (maybe it started raining) they got in a hurry to finish. That was their undoing. As the crew swung around at the conclusion of a push, Huffman, on the outside of the turn, stepped too close to the edge of the gully. The bushes and grass had been bent over and covered with mud so that it looked like solid footing &emdash; but it wasn't. Huffman's foot went through; he slipped, lost his hold on the pole and fell backward into the pool. Witnesses swore later that it was like falling into a swimming pool, as he went completely under the surface. One thing was certain: when the rescuers drug him up to the top of the bank, he was completely covered with mud except for his eyeballs. His coverage was as complete as a gingerbread man that had been dipped in chocolate. As Francolini recalled 43 years later, "You couldn't even tell who it was." Always somewhat gloomy in appearance, Huffman was now a truly pitiful sight. While the others finished the job, Huffman somehow managed to get cleaned up and into some dry clothes. "
Like all infantrymen who live long enough, most of us later had to sprawl in mud now and then, but none of us ever equaled the record for muddiness established by Huffman in that Normandy orchard.
3.2 A Different Troop Train
Our introduction to the boxcar that was to be the Platoon's quarters for the next four days and nights took place in Valognes, the rail station nearest our bivouac area.
Transportation of the 14,000 men of the Ozark Division from Normandy to Belgium over a rail system only partially restored after extensive, devastating aerial bombardment was indeed a complex operation requiring both careful planning and a large degree of flexibility. The overall plan called for the 3d Battalion, 407th Infantry to board at Valognes during the night of October 23. Accordingly Company K filed out of our bivouac area in the afternoon to hike 14 miles and arrive with time to spare before the appointed hour for loading. We were heavily laden with full field packs, weapons and ammunition. The secondary roads over which we hiked, only lightly paved for rural traffic, had been churned into soupy mud by oil army's heavy military vehicles. Where we tramped in a single file on each side, the mud was often ankle deep. At rest breaks we were usually hemmed in by impenetrable hedgerows on both sides of the road so that our choice was between staying on one's feet or sitting down in the mire. The compromise was to drop the packs to rest backs and shoulders.
It was long after dark and civilian curfew when we reached the streets of a blacked out town that we guessed was Valognes. There was no sign of life outside the shuttered buildings. After a while we halted where sounds and the smell of coal smoke told us that a railroad was near. Tired from the hike, we were glad enough to sprawl on the sidewalks for a while, leaning back on our packs. While we waited in the darkness for our next orders, we pulled K-rations out of our packs and ate a belated supper.
We waited on the street for what seemed to be a couple of hours, during which time we heard other troops boarding a train that finally pulled out. Directly we heard a long string of cars, pulled by a chuffing steam locomotive, roll slowly into the boarding area and creak to a stop. This was the one we were waiting for and in a few minutes the platoon was being led through the darkness to the side of a boxcar. Squad leaders checked that their men were all present as each one handed up his pack then clambered up through the side door into the pitch-black interior. Long before we were all aboard those inside were protesting that there was no more room. Tough! Finally everyone managed to jam into the dark car, with Radice and Welti boarding after reporting to the Company Commander that the Second Platoon was ready to roll.
Although it seemed at first, in the darkness, that there was standing room only in the cramped boxcar, by the time the train jerked into motion, some arrangement had been worked out so that everyone was able to have a place to sit on the straw-covered floor with his back to a wall and with rifle and pack at his feet. In this way the 39 of us passed the remainder of the night as the train rolled on, completely blacked out.
Shortly after dawn someone awoke and slid open the side door a foot or two. Within a few minutes everyone was stirring, curious to see what he could. The train was rolling eastward through level farmland at perhaps 20 miles an hour. Our first glimpses were limited; no one could stand gawking at the scenery when others behind him were impatiently demanding their turn to urinate out the door.
When we looked around the interior of our car, we saw that it was made of wood and was much smaller than the boxcars we remembered back home. Bolted to the side walls at about chin height were iron rings, about 4 inches in diameter, eight in all. Eight? There were about 40 of us, eight rings; we must be in one of the "forty and eight" cars that we used to hear about when we were kids from the American Legionnaire vets of World War One. Hours later, when we had a chance to look at our car from outside, sure enough, on the sides was stenciled in faded paint "40 HOMMES &endash; 8 CHEVAUX" (40 men &endash; 8 horses). Now we knew that there must be an implied "or" between the words, not an "and." There was no way the French in the last war could have packed 40 men plus any horses in this dinky boxcar!
At intervals around the car, in the upper quarter, sections of the wall were hinged so they could be swung down to let in air and light. We wanted light in the ends of the car but found that whenever our train was moving, the air flow was too chilly for comfort. Therefore for most of our journey the windows were kept closed. Not that we were completely without ventilation; in the walls and roof were several splintered holes, torn, we guessed, by the .50caliber machineguns of one of our fighter planes. (Only later, when it rained, did we wish there were no holes in the roof.)
As we rolled along, with every turn of the wheels there were loud clacking and jounces that indicated flat places on more than one of the four iron wheels. Some of us, in telling the story later, talked about "square wheels." In the present factual account we must admit that "square" is a slight exaggeration.
As we traveled on it soon became evident to us why our old car had been resurrected from some retirement sidetrack and why we were not riding in passenger coaches. It was for lack of anything better. All along the tracks we saw evidence of the massive aerial assault on the rail system that the Germans had depended on to supply their defenses in Normandy. Several times during the first day we passed alongside the remains of a freight train that had been practically destroyed. Many of the cars had burned until little but the steel undercarriages remained. Those abandoned cars on the shoulders and in the ditches beside the tracks that had not burned had been irreparably damaged by the strafing with aircraft cannons and machineguns. Some cars had been loaded with "Jerricans" of gasoline for the Wehrmacht. Hundreds of yellowish brown rectangular cans, which closely resembled G.I. 5-gallon cans, now lay bulged and misshapen, scattered over a wide area by fire and explosions. The tracks had been cleared by simply shoving the wreckage aside into adjacent ditches or down embankment slopes.
Bomb craters along the right of way and in adjacent fields testified of many, many recent air strikes. The great majority of the craters were untouched. Only those where the bomb had blasted the railbed had been filled. The new fill, ballast, ties and rails were typically uneven. Occasionally the train would stop for a few minutes, presumably for the crew to inspect the track repairs, then creep slowly ahead over a sagging section.
When we passed through the French villages and towns, we saw few if any scars of war other than near the railroad. On the sidetracks we saw only a few freight cars, all more or less damaged. Beside many of the stations, however, there were one or more disabled steam locomotives. Nearly all had numerous bullet holes in boiler and tender. Some had been cannibalized for parts. We saw no serviceable European locomotive or passenger car. Presumably the Wehrmacht had moved them all back as they retreated toward Germany. Our own train and the trains of empty cars that we met going back toward Normandy, were pulled by new-looking steam locomotives marked "U.S. Army." Even without the markings, details of their configuration clearly revealed that they were made in the U.S.A. To those of us who had spent many boyhood hours hanging around railroads, this glimpse of something familiar among a totally foreign landscape produced a twinge of homesickness.
Sometime early in our trip a coil of stiff telegraph wire, a hundred feet or more, showed up in our boxcar. (Who obtained it and whose was the idea for its use, none of us now remember.) We ran the wire through the eight hitching rings in the car, pulled it taut and secured the ends. Now we had a way to hang up our packs and rifles, freeing more of the floor for our bodies.
When the train rounded an occasional curve, we could see that it was quite long. Our car was about 15 to 20 cars back of the engine and there were several more behind ours. We didn't see any vehicles on flatcars in the train; we guessed they were being driven up by road because of the shortage of rail cars. There was no communication to us from the train crew or battalion commander as to schedule (or if there was a schedule). When the train stopped it might be for only 30 seconds to throw a switch or for three or four hours for no reason that we could see. Whenever it started there was never any warning. We couldn't understand why the engineer didn't give the two blasts of the whistle that back home signaled that a train was about to start. Maybe the engine crew was French rather than members of an Army railroad battalion. Once going, the train might not stop again for three or four hours. Because we never knew what to expect, some emergency situations arose with respect to bowel movements.
The normal procedure when the call of nature came (or was expected) was as follows. When the train slows for a stop, get entrenching tool off the pack. Check supply of toilet paper (which each man carries atop the harness in his helmet liner). As soon as the cars screech to a halt, jump down, move quickly to the nearest soft earth and scoop out a "cat hole"&emdash;just a few shovels full. When finished, replace the earth. Now don't wander off! Stay close enough to the train to get quickly back aboard when you see the G.I.s up near the engine starting to scramble.
At every stop, especially after a long run, the shoulders would be lined with hundreds of G.I.s, squatting with entrenching tool and paper in hand. Several times it happened that the train started up again after a too-brief pause. Then one would see a dozen or more men, all up and down the line, frantically wiping, pulling up pants and running after the moving boxcars. We never lost anyone this way, but a few times one of our platoon members couldn't reach our car in time and had to be dragged on board a boxcar further back in the train by helping hands extended as he ran alongside.
It wasn't always possible to wait to relieve one's self until the train stopped. One desperate G.I. tried hanging his bare bottom out the side door while a buddy on each side held his arms to keep from falling all the way out as the car lurched along over the uneven track. When that didn't work out very well and some developed diarrhea, the Platoon Leader allowed a hole to be chopped through the floor near one end of the car.
Our food during the trip was something we had never had before: "Ten-in-One" rations. Several cartons of these had been put on board at Valognes. Instead of individual servings, packed separately, the food in each container was meant to serve ten men. Each mealtime we opened four packages for the 37 people in our car. (The two platoon runners had been relocated to the car carrying Company Headquarters, which was less crowded.) Most of the items in the ration packages required no preparation, just dividing up. An exception that we encountered the first evening was corned beef hash. It was dehydrated; a hard lump in appearance somewhat like concrete containing coarse grains of brown and white sand. Instructions in the package were to put it in a pot, add a- certain amount of water, soak for an hour or so then stir well and heat. There were two or three obstacles to our following this procedure. First, we had no pot. Second, we had no way to heat one if we had had it. Third, by the time we opened the supper package, nightfall was not far away and we had only a short time before we needed to start our bedding preparations. So what did we do? We used a hatchet to break the big lump into chunks that we divided into ten more or less equal portions. Each man took his portion in his canteen cup and poured water over it. Some waited five minutes before trying to eat; these usually wound up disgustedly dumping the sand-like contents of their cups out the boxcar door and going to bed hungry. Others, slightly more patient, waited longer, stirring all the while. The result was not much better: a slurry of brown and white particles, each with a hard core, in cold water. A few determined souls managed to swallow their entire portions, providing nourishment without enjoyment. Even they went to bed feeling a bit hungry. Those who had downed the only slightly hydrated hash, after quenching the ensuing thirst reported feeling progressively fuller as the hash swelled in their stomachs.
"Necessity is the mother of invention." This saying certainly applied to the bedding down procedure that was devised in our 40 &endash; 8 car the first day out of Valognes. The situation was not described in any field manual nor had it been discussed in any training session. What we came up with and what we did each nightfall was the following coordinated maneuver by all 37 of us. We divided up, half on each side of the car. Each man pulled out of his pack his two blankets and then stood with his back to the wall. We then kicked the straw around until there was a fairly uniform layer a couple of inches thick over the whole floor (excepting only where the 5-gallon water cans and the ration boxes sat beside one of the doors). Each man then spread one of his blankets flat on the straw, from the wall where he stood toward the opposite wall. There was of course much overlapping. Each man had only about 18 inches along the length of the car and the width of the car was not much greater than the length of a blanket. Each man then took off his helmet, cartridge belt, leggings and shoes, placing them beside where his head would be, beneath the suspended packs and rifles. We then simultaneously lay down crosswise of the car, with our feet somewhere near the armpits of the two nearest men, whose heads were against the opposite wall. Each man then spread his second blanket over himself and between himself and the bodies of his neighbors.
The bedtime maneuver was preceded, of course, by each man in turn standing in the doorway and emptying his bladder, hopefully avoiding any need to get up before "reveille" the next morning. The nights were long, however, and unfortunately each night some G.I. or another, usually someone far back in an end, would wake up in the pitch blackness with an urgent need to urinate. Most of time the man was considerate enough to crawl as gently as possible over his sleeping buddies. Others, perhaps in more haste, simply walked on the closely packed, prone bodies, his progress in the dark marked by a wave of expletives.
Throughout most of our journey we had only the vaguest ideas of where we were and no idea of where we were headed. (The assembly of the Ninth Army for a concentrated assault on the Siegfried Line between the U.S. First Army around Aachen and the British forces north of Geilenkirchen was a closely guarded secret.) However, when our train stopped in Paris we at least knew where we were. Perhaps the reader's imagination can picture how it would be to enter the "City of Light" just a few weeks after the liberation that its people had dreamed of for four years. Indeed, even though we arrived in the middle of one night, a reception was waiting for us. Well &emdash; we might call it a reception. Here's what we actually heard and saw of Paris. Roughly 24 hours after leaving Valognes, several hours after we had bedded down and were fast asleep, we waked with the realization that the train had stopped and that someone was banging on the side of the car and rattling the door. One of us unlatched the door, slid it open a bit and shined a flashlight out through the opening &emdash; right in a face that looked like our idea of a typical French hoodlum. The face smiled and spoke its only words of English: "Feelthy peectures?" as a hand held up examples of what he wanted to sell. When someone tried the French phrase for "where are we?" the answer was "Paree!" That drew several to the door to have a look. Alas, it was a pitch-black night and no light was to be seen. A few minutes later the train jerked into motion and away we went, our glamorous Paris adventure at an end.
The second and third days and nights were mostly the same as the first. After passing the rail hub of Paris, we traveled generally northward through pleasant, mostly level farmland. The tedium of travel in the crowded boxcar caused some of our platoon to take turns riding up in a sort of enclosed brakeman's seat on the end of a nearby car. There was a great, 360-degree view, as the seat was just high enough to look over the tops of the cars. The villages and towns showed little or no bomb damage, but the railroad had been blasted at several places either by Allied bombs or by German demolition charges. At such places the train crept slowly across the hastily repaired sections. At one stop an Army Quartermaster outfit had a water purification system in operation, at which we refilled our water cans and canteens. Passing through towns we saw women, old people and children but no young men; we surmised that they were all still in slave labor camps in Germany. No one seemed to pay any attention to our troop train. The few civilians who chanced to be nearby when we stopped in a town spoke only French. The place names they told us meant nothing to us.
On the fourth day (October 27) during the morning, when the train paused for a few minutes in a village surrounded by cultivated fields, civilians ran out of the houses and gathered alongside the string of cars. They seemed happy to see us and let us know that we were now in Belgium. We began handing out small items from our rations. Soap, chocolate, fruit bars, and cigarettes were gratefully accepted. When someone tossed out some wrapped sugar cubes (which had been a welcome gift in Normandy), the crowd started laughing and pointing. Then we realized that we were surrounded by wide fields of sugar beets and that there was a sugar mill in the village.
Toward mid-day the word came down that we should get ready to leave the train in the next few hours. So we rolled our packs, watched and waited as the train rolled on. After a while, the train entered a large railyard in a fair sized city and came to a stop. When we began to get down to stretch our legs, we found we had to be careful where we stepped because of human excrement. It appeared that some hundreds of people, probably a train waiting at the same spot, had relieved themselves among the tracks without digging "cat holes." We guessed it had been a trainload of displaced persons or prisoners of war, without entrenching tools. An order was relayed down from the head of the train, everyone jumped off with his shovel and soon we had the droppings covered with gravel or dirt.
After a while the train moved farther into the yard, passing a sign with the name of the city. "Hasselt." When we stopped again we were alongside a platform, beyond which we saw bumper-to-bumper lines of trucks waiting for us. Our "forty-or-eight" boxcar experience was over. From here on up to the front our transportation was to be by means more familiar to us: either in the backs of trucks or footslogging.
3.3 Across the Border
The weather was fine, unusually mild for October. After several days of togetherness, we were tired of looking at the walls of a boxcar. We welcomed the thought of a nice truck ride, with the top down so we could enjoy the scenery. Our spirits rose. If anyone felt apprehensive about getting closer to combat, it didn't show.
A reminder that we were, in fact, finally coming into range of the enemy came when we were told that we were now in a zone where a strafing attack on our convoy by German fighter planes, although considered unlikely, had to be treated as a possibility. Consequently we were ordered to designate an air guard in each truck. One man had to keep watch, standing behind the cab where he could alert the driver and the troops if he saw a plane headed our way. Each truck had a .50-caliber machinegun on a ring mount over the open seat beside the driver. Seeing the machinegunners taking off the canvas covers and readying belts of ammunition, our platoon sniper, who had been assigned the first watch in his truck, proceeded to load his scope-sighted rifle. He visualized the possibilities for an armor-piercing .30-caliber bullet damaging a Messerschmitt engine.
All riflemen in the platoon had been issued bandoliers of the black-tipped, steel-cored ammunition, which was standard in the European Theater of Operations instead of the leadcored ball ammunition that we had used in training back in the States. Everyone also got a clip or two of tracers. All the available rifle ammo was in 8-round clips for the M-l rifle. The sniper wanted ammo in the 5-round stripper clips for bolt-action rifles, which would have been a bit more convenient. In any case he had to pull cartridges out of the clip and slip them, one at a time, under the telescope sight and into his 03A4 magazine.
Some of his buddies scoffed at the sniper, saying that a bolt-action rifle was useless against a plane streaking down the column at 300 miles an hour. "Maybe so," replied the 19-year-old Tennessean, "but I ain't gonna let him go by without my shooting at him." Perhaps he was thinking of his hunting experiences, when before witnesses he had made a few almost incredible (spelled L-U-C-K-Y) shots on running game with his single-shot .22 rifle. A Messerschmitt, flying low and straight down the convoy toward him ought to be easier to hit than a squirrel running off through the treetops. Off course the squirrel wasn't blazing away at the hunter with multiple machineguns. So, like everyone else, he hoped we didn't see a hostile plane. In case we did, having in his hands a loaded rifle whose range and accuracy he knew well from weeks of sniper school, comforted him with the feeling that he wasn't just a defenseless, passive target.
No low-flying plane was seen and the only time during the ride that we waked up one another was when the convoy drove by, without stopping, a control point at the border of Belgium and the Netherlands. The rolling terrain didn't fit our mental picture of Holland not a canal or windmill to be seen. If we had had a map, we might have seen that we were crossing into the hilly southern panhandle of the Netherlands, in Limburg province.
At one point we got a close-up view of the U.S. Army's heaviest field artillery: a 240mm howitzer. Stopped beside the road were three large pieces of equipment. The massive tube was cradled on one trailer. On another was the mount. The third unit was a mobile crane for emplacing the mount and lifting the big barrel onto it. We guessed that these were part of the heavy artillery being emplaced around the besieged city of Aachen, where a big battle was being fought according to the Stars and Stripes newspaper that we sometimes got to see.
A few miles after crossing the Dutch border, our convoy entered a small city, which we later learned was Brunssum. There were people walking and on bicycles, but no civilian motor vehicles. As our trucks rumbled through the streets, people turned or came out of the buildings to smile and wave to us. As we continued on into a residential area, we were impressed with the neat houses of brick, most of them two-story, with shrubs and trees in tiny gardens. Holland struck us as a nice place to spend some time. That was not to be, however.
At the far edge of town the convoy halted and we dismounted. Before we moved out on foot, we were informed that the border of Germany ran through the midst of a dense forest of young pines that loomed just ahead of us. The battle lines along this sector of the front were only a few miles farther on. British and American troops, stretched over an ever-larger front and with supply lines overextended after breaking out of Normandy and chasing the retreating Wehrmacht, had been halted by determined resistance at the edge of the Siegfried Line's fortified zone, which began at the first villages inside the German border. Tonight our battalion was to wait in the forest, while other Ozark units went on up to begin relieving troops of one of the Normandy invasion divisions along part of the sector that our division was to take over.
When we moved out it was in an extended file on either side of the street. Shortly the street turned into a narrow, unpaved forest service road. With a sense of history in the making, we watched for the border. Alas; if there was a marker where we stepped into the enemy's homeland, none of us noticed it. We saw no one. After we had hiked a mile or two, Company K was directed to turn out of the lane into a section of the woods designated for our bivouac. By then it was late afternoon. When we halted, in the ensuing quiet we could hear the occasional distant rumble of artillery. We guessed that we were within earshot of the siege of Aachen. (Unknown to us, the siege had ended a couple of days earlier with the surrender of its defenders.)
We were told that we were now within range of enemy artillery and that we were to pitch our tents over holes deep enough to provide some protection and spaced several yards apart. Sentries were posted around the company perimeter and areas were assigned to each platoon and squad. Except for the interlaced tree roots, the digging was easy. Before darkness each pair of G.I.s had a hole about three feet deep, with their shelter halves buttoned together and erected over it. Some were deeper. Bob Walker remembers his. "I must admit that the hole I dug in those woods was deep and commodious. I had a hole with poor old Saunders. He had gone AWOL before we left the States and was still on company punishment. We dug a hole that was in keeping with a strong old custom in the German Army: the deeper the hole, the higher the rank. Saunders and I were Field Marshalls that night."
The second squad's B.A.R. team &emdash; Baron, DelaO and Woelkers &emdash; came back from somewhere with a portion of the framework of a roof and the tiles to cover it. They dug a hole large enough for the three of them to sleep side by side and laid the tile roof over it. Over the tiles they piled the sand from the hole and scattered pine needles for camouflage. From a few yards away, in the dim light, their hole was practically undetectable. Huffman and Haubenreich weren't quite as resourceful, but they made themselves comfortable. Huffman's shelter half was the old style, with a triangular tip on only one end. They found a long pine pole that they used as a ridgepole for the two shelter halves buttoned together and staked down crosswise of the hole. (See accompanying sketch, drawn in the late 1940s.) In the open end of the hole, which extended beyond the shelter halves, they constructed access steps, reinforced at the edge with sections of the pole. The pine needles that covered the forest floor were fairly dry and everyone gathered plenty to spread on the sand under our blankets. After a supper of K-rations, we went to sleep, enjoying the elbow room after four nights of close quarters in the boxcar.
The next day, after calisthenics and cleaning our weapons, there was free time. We were allowed to stroll around, but only within limits. One limit was the edge of the forest, which we learned was only a short distance to the east. We were not to approach the edge so closely that we could be seen by someone out in the open country beyond. Haubenreich, the Second Platoon's sniper, decided to practice the stealthy approach to a firing position that had been practiced in snipers' school. When he had crawled forward far enough to get a broad view between the last trees, an open landscape, miles in extent greeted his sight. He was struck by how peaceful the land looked. Then he began to have an eerie feeling that the quiet was that of a graveyard, that out there something was lurking, waiting for him and his buddies to march into a cleverly concealed trap. Nowhere was there a sign of life, no person, no vehicle, no smoke, no sound.
From the border forest, the land sloped gently downward in broad, open fields in various shades of green. Straight out in front, at a distance of about a mile, lay a small village, its red-tile-roofed houses huddled close together. Around it stretched open fields with no outlying farmhouse or barn. Several small roads radiated out from the village, all empty of traffic. Haubenreich searched in vain for any sign of military activity. There must be some of our troops out there somewhere, he knew, and beyond them the German army. Distance and camouflage must be concealing them all. Then he saw, in a field off to the left of the village, two tiny figures. Through the telescopic sight of his rifle he could barely make out a man walking behind a harnessed horse. They seemed to be raking or perhaps disking a field. Pondering the mystery of why only this one farmer was out working, Haubenreich slipped back into the forest and returned to the company area.
4. FIRST SHOTS
4.1 Into the Front Line
We were not destined to remain long in the pine forest. On the third day, October 29, we get the word that we have been expecting. Tonight our Company will move up into the front line, relieving the units that are dug in on the far edge of Teveren.
Along in the short afternoon, we fold our blankets, take down the shelter-halves from over the holes and roll our packs. In a departure from the Army's practice in the States, we do not refill the holes that we have dug. After all, we are no longer in a training area that will be used again and again. We are in Germany and if the Germans want the holes filled, let them fill them themselves! That philosophy, which means less work for us, suits us fine.
We are told that higher echelons have decided that the Jerries are not about to start using poison gas. Thus our gas masks, which we have kept with us up to now, are now officially regarded as an unnecessary burden, which we are to put aside before moving up into the line. We are all glad to shed a few pounds, and so dismiss any worries about the possibility of a surprise gas attack. When called, our platoon files by a point in the woods where each man drops his bag with gas mask in a growing pile. We hear that they will be transported back to Brunssum and kept with our duffelbags, to be brought up to us if the outlook changes.
Following the old army rule for the lower echelons &emdash; "hurry up and wait" &emdash; we settle down to wait for dark, sitting and lying on the ground, dispersed among the dense growth of pines. Not any of the company's officers much less any of the men receive any detailed information about the positions we will occupy and the nature of the enemy's positions in front of us. No map is available. We hear only that we will be in sight of the enemy and that we cannot get out of our holes in daylight. Our imaginations take over to visualize a situation in which the enemy lines are so close that we cannot stick up our heads for a peep without getting them blown off. We feel our guts tighten as we realize that after months of training and moving toward combat we are finally about to get shot at.
Along in the afternoon, someone comes by with the message that the Regiment's protestant chaplain is nearby and invites all who wish to do so to join in a prayer meeting. On the eve of our first front-line exposure, he is visiting as many companies as he can. It appears that a lot of us feel we need all the prayers we can get: the majority of the Protestants and quite a few Catholics elect to attend, gathering around the chaplain in a small clearing. The chaplain speaks briefly of God and country and offers a few words of encouragement, after which we sing "Onward, Christian Soldiers." The chaplain closes with a prayer for our courage and survival. We return to our packs, feeling somewhat less tense about what may await us on the front line and glad for the chaplain's visit. (Some days later, when we moved back into reserve positions, there was some indignation among the Catholics when the Catholic chaplain advised soldiers with a "C" on their dogtags not to participate again in "a Protestant service.")
At twilight, as the time for our departure approaches, the Platoon assembles near the edge of the forest. In a final "pep talk," Lt. Welti talks tough, warning us against shirking our duty or even thinking about deserting in the face of the enemy. Many of the riflemen are angered by what we feel is an unnecessary slur on our courage, whether intended or not. Anger helps to displace fear, at least for the moment.
The weather is cloudy and when night descends, it is pitch dark among the trees. Soon the word comes to "saddle up" and in a few minutes our platoon is somehow connected up with the rest of K Company in a single file that begins to move slowly through the darkness, threading its way downhill through the dense pine thicket. Each man holds onto the pack of the one just ahead, shuffling along while unseen pine boughs slap our faces.
Soon we reach the edge of the forest and are ordered to "lock and load." From here on we carry loaded weapons. We assume that as we move out into the open, there is a possibility that we might run into an enemy patrol. It is not quite so dark in the open and we can make out the shape of a weapons carrier, a low-profile, all-wheel-drive truck. As we file by, someone thrusts into each man's hands something extra to carry &emdash; mortar shells, bazooka rounds, boxes of machinegun ammunition &endash; to be deposited at the Company command post just behind the defense line that we are to occupy. Since our packs are already heavy with our own extra bandoliers of ammunition and grenades, the added burdens are unwelcome to say the least.
Now we march in two open files, along what we feel must be a farm lane. We are warned not to get off the road because of the danger of mines. We are relieved that the front ahead of us is very quiet, with only the occasional rattle of machinegun fire or the thump of distant artillery, well off to one side or the other.
In a little while we begin to make out the dark shape of a cluster of houses. It must be Teveren. As we file along a street, we pass here and there glowing embers and a few flickering flames where a house has been gutted by fire. At one point our adrenalin pumps as we see, silhouetted against the glow, something move. We relax as we realize that we are looking at the biggest rabbit that most of us have ever seen. As it hops off into the darkness, we conclude that when the residents of the village evacuated, they turned their animals loose to fend for themselves.
We pause briefly by a wall to lay down the mortar and machinegun ammunition that we have been carrying and complaining about. The Second Platoon moves on, then halts by a larger building, which we hear will be our CP. When we move again, it is by squads, following guides who have materialized from somewhere in the darkness to take us on up to the foxholes. Each of the three squads is led out to orchards bordered by a thin hedgerow that marks the edge of the village. Every few yards the guide halts and, in the darkness, the column comes to a stop by running into the man in front. The squad leader assigns two men to get into each foxhole.
The G.I.s in the holes have been waiting for us and quickly scramble out upon our arrival. There is time for a few whispered words. We find out that this is part of the 29th Division and there are some men here who were pulled out of the 102d nine months earlier and joined the 29th as replacements in the first day or two of the Normandy invasion. Many of the replacements are no longer around, victims of the close-quarters fighting through the hedgerow country of Normandy. They add that here the situation is very different, with open fields about a mile wide between our lines and the Germans in Geilenkirchen. In a "small world" encounter, Bob Walker runs into an old friend, who had lived just down the street in Pennsylvania. A few years older than Walker, he is now a combat veteran. (It doesn't take long in a rifle company to become "one of the old guys!") Conversations are cut short and the other outfit moves off into the darkness toward the rear.
Our anxieties somewhat allayed, we lay our rifles on the edges of our holes, pointed in what we have been told is the general direction of the enemy. We strain to hear or see anything ahead of us, but the darkness is impenetrable and there is no sound from the broad field that we are told is out there. After we cool off from the exercise and our nerves settle a bit, there begins what will soon become a very familiar routine: one man standing watch while the other lies down in the bottom of the foxhole and tries to sleep.
4.2 First Day at the Front
Up to now we could only imagine what it would be like when we finally got up to where there was nothing between us and the enemy. Some of us had heard stories from uncles or family friends who had fought in World War One about the trench warfare in 1918. As a result we had had bad dreams, in which the slightest exposure drew sniper fire and every day was an ordeal of artillery bombardments. In contrast, the quiet of our first day on line at Teveren is amazing.
As daylight approaches, we are awake and anxious to see what lies between us and the German lines. The grey light reveals behind us orchards and the dark, silent brick buildings of the village. In front of us, as far as we can see through the low lying mists, are broad, grassy meadows. We relax a little and bring the K-rations out of our packs for our first breakfast in front-line foxholes. As the mist gradually clears, we see that the fields are almost level and far wider than we had been led to expect. There seems to be about a mile of open terrain, completely without cover, between us and the houses and trees of a sizeable town. We conclude that we are looking at Geilenkirchen, where we have been told the German front lines are located. The holes that our platoon has inherited are located along the edge of the open fields to the left of a cobble-stone road that leaves Teveren in the direction of Geilenkirchen. "I" Company is to our right. A short distance in front of our holes is a strand of barbed wire. At intervals we see triangular, metal signs that warn of a mine field, which we presume was laid out by the troops that we relieved. Except for a few big, white and black Holstein cows grazing in front of us, there is no sign of life, no sound, no movement, not even a smoking chimney. There is an ominous feeling about the stillness, however, for we know that the enemy is over there, right across the open field, concealed but ready, presumably watching through field glasses, with his heavy weapons trained on our positions.
From our left a mile or more distant, come sounds of a battle: the crump of mortar shells, the heavier concussions of artillery and the rattle of small arms fire. In our vicinity the front is silent. As the day passes, our fears of being seen and fired on begin to fade. By the afternoon we begin to venture out of our foxholes. Besides answering the calls of nature, we want to find materials to improve the rudimentary holes that we inherited. We suppose that we are likely to spend the next several days here and if, as we expect, we are shelled we want some kind of cover over our holes to provide protection from fragments of shells that might explode overhead. Tree bursts seem likely, at least for the second squad, whose holes are located in a small orchard. A few at a time, we slip back to the nearby houses and barns and return with doors and boards. We lay them over one end of our foxhole and cover with a foot or so of earth. We fetch armloads of straw from the barns to lay in the covered ends of our holes to add insulation against the cold earth. In the grass of the orchard we see many big, red apples that have fallen from the untended trees. When we bite into one we find that they are juicy and sweet, quite unlike the hard, green apples that we tried to eat in Normandy. They are a welcome departure from the C-rations and now the K-rations we've been living on, and we enjoy eating our fill. By the time the light begins to fade (about 4 o'clock) we are reasonably comfortable.
Shortly after darkness falls. Sergeant Ford, the Platoon Guide, makes the rounds of the Platoon's foxholes. Lieutenant Welti, Sergeants Radice and Ford, and Privates Burns and Wilson &emdash; the Platoon Leader, Platoon Sergeant, Platoon Guide, and two runners &emdash; have established the Platoon Control Point in the cellar of the brick schoolhouse that is at the edge of the village just back of our line. Ford tells each squad leader to send a couple of men back to bring up a 5-gallon can of water that has been hauled up to Teveren. Upon their return, they go from hole to hole, filling canteens and passing on the new password and countersign that will be used in challenges for the next 24 hours. After consuming our Supper K-rations, we settle into the routine that we will follow through the two weeks that we will be in this position. In each hole, one man is always awake, standing listening and peering out into the darkness over no-man's land. The other man lies beneath the overhead cover, wearing his overcoat and wrapped in his two blankets, trying to sleep for a couple of hours before his recurring turn to watch. Both rifles are kept loaded and ready, supported out of the mud on forked sticks thrust into the low parapet in front of the hole. At least a couple of fragmentation grenades are set on the edge of the hole, handy for use in case an enemy patrol comes close. As on the first night, the hours drag by slowly and without incident until the grey light of dawn.
4.3 Events in the Nights
The first night we were on the front, firing broke out just to our right, along the I Company positions. Walker, who was in a hole beside the road, saw someone coming on a bicycle and just in time recognized a runner from I Company, who went speeding past toward the rear to report what was happening. The story we got later was that an enemy patrol had penetrated the line of foxholes before retreating. With this exception, our sector of the front remained rather quiet while we were at Teveren.
There must have been at least one machinegun across the way that remained aimed our way. We became familiar with the sound: first a rapid series of cracks as a string of bullets, still supersonic despite the long range, flew past. A couple of seconds later would come the sound of the distant muzzle blasts. There was no mistaking the 20-rounds per second cyclic rate of fire: only an MG-42 sounded like that. At night we could see the bursts of German tracer bullets Streaking low across the fields, their light a bright white, quite different from our own red tracers.
We seldom got out of our foxholes at night. One reason, of course, was to keep watch for possible enemy action. Another very practical consideration that discouraged unnecessary nighttime excursions was the danger of being shot by a nervous neighbor. Not that any of us was particularly "trigger-happy" &emdash; hardly a shot was fired by any of us at night during our whole stay in this place. But we were keyed up, especially at first. The following story was later recounted by Haubenreich as an example of funny things that happened.
"John Huffman and I were in a hole together. Both of us were taking our situation pretty seriously, but John had extra reason to worry. He had a girl back home in Ohio that he hoped to marry if he got home in one piece. At any rate, he was perhaps a bit more nervous than most. Sometime after midnight, John was standing guard and I was trying to sleep, when he suddenly crouched over me and whispered "There's somebody out there in front of us!" I was awake and on my feet in an instant. A cold breeze was blowing from across the field in front of us. After a minute or two, both of us heard again the faint sound that had alerted him. It sounded like metal scraping on metal. Our minds raced. Maybe it was somebody burying more mines. Or could it be Germans, removing the mines in front of us for some reason? Surely we would have been warned if a friendly work party was going out right in front of us. So we agreed that it must be the enemy. But where were they? Then Huffman saw movement! He pointed out, just above the dark horizon, what was surely the head and shoulders of a man silhouetted against the slightly less dark sky. In the darkness our best weapon would be grenades, but the figure looked to be farther than we could throw. After a bit of indecision, we decided that we would both start shooting at the same time. The problem was that could hardly see the silhouette, much less our rifle sights. Then for some reason, maybe the clouds breaking or perhaps a searchlight back of us coming on, it got a bit lighter and through my 03A4's scope sight I made out what we were looking at. It was a triangular metal sign on the minefield wire, a few yards in front of us instead of a man much further away! The sound we heard was the creaking as the sign swung slightly in the breeze. What a relief! We heaved a sigh and shoved our rifles' safeties back to the locked positions. Our pulse rate didn't come back down for a while, though."
Haubenreich was involved in another near-shooting, this time as the target. He had spent the day out between the lines (at "the Island") on sniper duty and had returned after dark to the platoon CP that was set up in the concrete walled cellar of Teveren's schoolhouse. Because he had not slept during the day, instead of being sent out to his foxhole, he was allowed to bed down on a pile of mattresses that presumably was left from the cellar's use as a civilian air raid shelter. Sometime in the middle of the night. Sergeant Ford (the Second Platoon Guide) decided that someone ought to make a round of the Platoon's foxholes to see if everyone was OK and alert. Because our Platoon Sergeant, Canio Radice, refused to budge out of the cellar after dark. Ford took it upon himself to go. He woke up Haubenreich to accompany him. Everything went well at first; as the pair approached each hole they were challenged, gave the password and were allowed to come close for a whispered conversation. As they left one hole and went onward through the darkness. Ford was concentrating on his mental picture of where the next foxhole was located. Suddenly a voice, almost under his feet barked "Halt!" and demanded the password. For a moment the startled Ford was speechless; immediately there came the familiar sound of a rifle safety being clicked off. Before the unseen sentry fired, Haubenreich, right behind Ford, blurted, "Whoa! I know it!" and gave the password. It turned out that Ford had forgotten that the supporting tank destroyer outfit had a .50-caliber machinegun dug into the hedgerow between two of the Second Platoon's holes. The man standing watch must have been dozing and didn't challenge Ford and Haubenreich until they were practically on top of him.
Most nights we saw tracers and heard machineguns, rifles and mortars firing off to one side or another as a patrol from one of the other outfits along the line encountered the enemy's defenses. We could visualize what was happening from the sounds. Our patrols were armed mostly with M-l rifles and a B.A.R. or two. The German machineguns were mostly the MG42's, and the ripping sound of 20-round-per second bursts from them contrasted with the much slower hammering of automatic fire from the B.A.R.s. An episode would begin with an initial outburst of fire as contact was made. The typical firefight would taper off after a few minutes, ending with a few final rounds of mortar fire and sporadic bursts of machinegun fire from the Germans, unanswered because the patrol had gotten away and was now on their way back, hidden by the darkness.
On several clear nights we were spectators to much larger scale battles, when British bombers attacked the industrial cities which were in front of us, about thirty miles away across the Rhine plain. The shows began with the roar of many, many planes coming up from our rear and passing overhead in a stream lasting hours. (The Stars and Stripes newspaper that we occasionally saw reported raids involving a thousand planes or more.) As the bomber formation penetrated enemy air space, German searchlights began to comb the sky and antiaircraft explosions began to flash. As the planes reached the industrial target zones all hell broke loose. Over the dark horizon we could see the glow of flames from the fires ignited by the bombs. In the sky, the searchlight beams crisscrossed, antiaircraft flashes were continuous and occasionally a flaming torch appeared and plunged downward as a bomber was hit. One night we counted 24 planes that went down in flames and we knew that many others must have been shot down without burning.
We also saw something that puzzled us. On several mornings when it became light we were mystified to see, scattered on the field in front of us, long strips of tinfoil. One wild guess was that they had been placed by an enemy patrol to mark our positions. This became even less credible when we found some strips behind us as well as out front. It was more than a year later, after the war ended and secrecy was lifted, that we learned what we had seen. It was tinfoil "chaff' that had been strewn from planes with the intention of confusing radar that the Allies thought the Germans had in service.
When the cloud cover wasn't too dense, the U.S. Air Force made daylight raids deep into Germany. When the heavy bombers passed over the front lines they were always at very high altitude, tiny specks leaving vapor trails across the sky. Usually we would hear faint sounds of diving fighter planes and distant rattles of heavy machineguns, indicating that the bombers and escort fighters had been intercepted by the Luftwaffe. On a few occasions we watched American medium bombers attack targets not so far behind enemy lines. Once a two-engine B-26 Marauder returned, smoking and with one engine dead. He was low and still losing altitude as he passed over. We saw that the bomb bay doors were open and as soon as the doomed plane was behind us, a string of parachutes blossomed behind it as the crew bailed out
4.4 Making Ourselves at Home
Although nighttimes were sometimes tense and at other times plain dull, the daylight hours on the quiet front at Teveren were usually the opposite: relaxing and even pleasant.
The first pleasure we experienced was the apples. The Second Squad had the good fortune to be located along the edge of the orchard to the left of the road leading out of Teveren toward Geilenkirchen. All the big, red apples we cared to eat lay within a few feet of our foxholes.
By the second day or so, it was clear to everyone that if the enemy should launch a daylight attack, we would have ample warning because his movements would be spotted while he was still almost a mile from our lines. Therefore the squad leaders began allowing their men to take turns leaving their holes for visits to the nearest part of the village, whose houses began a few dozen yards back of our line of foxholes. At least a couple of holes in each squad's area were manned at all times, keeping watch all day.
In the absence of bothersome artillery bombardments, most of us spent no more effort on improving our holes after the first two days. VanAtta and his foxhole buddy. Roth, were an exception. They continued throughout our stay at Teveren to work on their hole, adding a totally covered room, reached from the fighting hole by a dogleg trench, also covered. Van always had an abundance of energy and initiative!
When we first began to explore the village, we exercised caution for fear of booby-traps that the Jerries might have left for us in the deserted houses. When none was encountered, we become more relaxed about poking about. There remained one danger zone that we learned to avoid: Geilenkirchen Street, which was in line with the German machinegun across the fields. To harass us the gunners would occasionally fire a burst and the bullets would crack and the ricochets would whine all down the street between the houses that came up to the sidewalks. With this exception, we felt safe enough to prowl the streets and explore the houses.
Just back of the Platoon's line of foxholes, on Geilenkirchen Street, was a low house of brick with a tile roof. Like most of the other houses, it had shell holes in walls and roof and the windows were broken. We found, however, that the roof over the kitchen was still intact. So, too, were the big, coal-burning cookstove and its chimney. Naturally we soon built a fire to enjoy the unaccustomed warmth. Then we dragged in a sofa and upholstered chairs from the front room. Thus the Platoon came to have a "clubhouse," where we spent many of our daylight hours from then on. It wasn't long before our "clubhouse" began to offer food as well as a warm daytime shelter.
From the time we left the Normandy orchard until we got to Teveren, there had been no opportunity for the company kitchen to provide hot food to the troops. On the train we had eaten the Ten-in-One rations. Thereafter it was C- and K-rations. For the first couple of days in Teveren, we subsisted on fresh apples and the increasingly familiar Breakfast, Lunch, and Supper K-rations that we had brought up in our packs. Then two changes occurred: the company kitchen began operation and we began to supplement our diet by foraging.
At least one person had begun foraging on the very first day in Teveren: our Platoon Guide, Sergeant Bob Ford. Schaible remembers going on a mission for Sgt. Cox and encountering a remarkable sight. Ford came walking along the street, leading a chicken by a string tied around its leg. Schaible remembers that Ford had him hold the chicken's leash while he went into the houses to find a cookpot and other kitchen utensils he needed in order to fix a chicken dinner.
The mission that Schaible was on was to get some gasoline from a tank destroyer outfit that shared the defense of Teveren with us. Cox wanted it as fuel for the First Squad's one-burner gasoline stove. On his way back, carrying the gasoline in an open bucket, Schaible dove to the ground when he heard incoming artillery shells. After more running and hitting the ground, Schaible delivered the bucket to Cox, unfortunately with very little gasoline left in it.
The Platoon's members began foraging in earnest after their "clubhouse" cookstove became available. The departing Germans had stripped the grocery store and had carried off most of the food from the houses, but searches turned up overlooked jars of preserved vegetables and fruit. There was no meat to be found, but that was soon remedied. Someone shot a pig that had been abandoned when its owner fled. The carcass was reduced to manageable cuts by "Swampy" Madison, who had had some experience with hog-butchering back home in Louisiana. While using the facilities and tools of the butcher shop for this job, he learned that the tank destroyer outfit had more fresh beef than they could eat, from a big Holstein that somehow had managed to get shot. A trade ensued that resulted in our having all we could use of both pork and beef. Thenceforth we kept improvised but hearty stews simmering on the cookstove most of each day. This became our main meal of the day, enjoyed by each G.I. when it was his turn to relax in the warm kitchen.
Bread was the critical item. Foragers found no usable flour: before evacuating Teveren the Germans had systematically thrown all the flour from the bakery and households into the filthy gutters. After the company kitchen got into operation, army-baked bread became available. We were supposed to take our messkits and slip back, a few at a time, to the house where we had been picking up our cans of water, to get the standard chow that the kitchen was providing. After the first few days, however, most of us declined to go back, preferring to get by on a Breakfast K-ration in our foxhole until the "clubhouse" stew was ready. So each morning the men who went back to get water for our canteens also brought up all the leftover bread that the cooks would give them. So it was that we began to enjoy bread with our daily stew.
Mornings and evenings we continued to eat K-rations, heating the instant coffee and bouillon in our canteen cups over a burning K-ration box or an improvised burner consisting of a tin can filled with gasoline-soaked soil.
The residents of Teveren had evidently carried away or securely hidden their best silverware when they had been evacuated. However, we did find enough plain tableware so that we didn't use our messkits to eat our stew. Some of us found little demitasse spoons which were just the right size for eating out of the K-ration cans the ham-and-eggs in the Breakfast ration and the corned pork loaf in the Supper ration. The little spoons were also handier than the big messkit spoons because they could be-comfortably carried in a shirt pocket. After use, we simply wiped the spoon on a sheet of the olive-drab toilet paper in each K-ration box, then slipped the spoon into our pocket until next needed. Since it was generally impractical to wash our hands before eating, we didn't worry about unwashed spoons adding to the risk of diarrhea.
4.5 The "Island"
"The Island" is what we called the place where, throughout our stay in Teveren, we maintained an outpost in no-man's land. Out in the fields about halfway between our line and the enemy's in front of Geilenkirchen stood a substantial, two-story brick house. Around it was a small yard, crowded with trees and shrubbery. Just outside one corner of the yard was a ruined machinegun emplacement or "pillbox," part of the Siegfried Line fortifications. Large portions of its thick, reinforced concrete walls had been blown outward by a demolition explosion and its massive roof slab, still in one piece, now slanted. All around, for hundreds of yards in every direction, there was nothing but open, gently rolling meadows and fields. A paved drive led toward the Teveren-Geilenkirchen road and an unpaved farm lane followed field boundaries back to Teveren.
Regiment and battalion command had assigned to K Company the responsibility for holding and using the Island. The routine that was established was to keep one rifle squad there at all times, with each squad staying about twelve hours. The guard was changed just after nightfall and shortly before dawn. The Company's three rifle platoons took turns providing the squad. Our riflemen were deployed at night in shallow slit trenches around the perimeter of the yard. During the days only a few kept watch while the others took it easy inside the house.
After the first few days, during the day shift, besides the rifle squad there was an observer from the Company's mortar section and a two-man sniper team. At least one was always one of the three privates in the Company who were armed with telescope-sighted, bolt-action 03A4 rifles.
The observer's post and the snipers were in the second story, where they stayed back in the shadows and looked out through the shattered windows toward the enemy's lines. The nearest houses in Geilenkirchen were about 800 yards away and the only visible fortifications were foxholes and communication trenches a short distance out from the houses.
During the two weeks that we occupied the Island, the Germans made no attempt to drive us out or even to spend an artillery shell on us. Nevertheless there were some exciting moments, whose ludicrous aspects were later the subject of yarn-spinning and laughter. Several fully met the definition of the Army term SNAFU: "Situation Normal &endash; All Fouled Up!" One occurred the first day that the Company put snipers on the Island. Haubenreich was one of the pair. He recalls his experience that day as follows.
"We went out from Teveren an hour or so before daylight, walking in single file along the farm lane. It was almost pitch dark, but evidently somebody in the lead knew the route, because we kept moving. In fact, we went faster and noisier than I felt like going. This was my first venture into no-man's land and the sounds of our shuffling feet and creaking gear seemed awfully loud to me, even though reason told me that the nearest German was probably hundreds of yards away, well out of earshot. I also thought of all we'd heard about "Bouncing Betties" and other kinds of anti-personnel mines that the Germans might have planted in our path. My fears were not realized, however, and in ten or fifteen minutes we arrived at the Island.
"The First Platoon's sniper was along that day, with his 03A4. Our orders were simple: "Keep a Close watch for Jerries around Geilenkirchen and shoot any that you see!" (The assumption was that, as in Teveren, all civilians would have been evacuated.) As soon as it began to get light, we went upstairs to see what we could see. The trouble that first morning was that we were completely surrounded by fog. Moreover, since we had not been provided with a map or compass, we didn't even know which direction to look for Geilenkirchen. So we kept moving around from one upstairs room to another, looking out while the grey light became stronger and the mists began to thin out.
"After a while we noticed something odd out in the field at the limit of visibility, which by now was maybe two or three hundred yards. As we strained to make out the shape, we saw movement. In a minute or two we realized that we were looking at two men and something else, perhaps a vehicle. They seemed to be digging or maybe unloading something. Excitedly we discussed what we should do. We knew that whoever it was, they weren't at either our lines or the enemy's, which were both farther from the Island. We hadn't been told to expect any of our troops in the vicinity, so we concluded they must be Jerries. Then we guessed that they were planting mines. With that conclusion it hit us: "This is it!" After months of sniper school, this was the real thing. We were finally being called on to fire at a man, not just a paper target.
"Once we decided that we were looking at the enemy, we didn't hesitate any longer. Shooting was what we had been brought to Europe to do and what we now needed to do quickly before the Jerry soldiers finished their work and disappeared into the mists. Because of the poor visibility, we were uncertain of our estimates of range. So we agreed that I would fire tracers while the other sniper watched through the field glasses in hopes of seeing where the bullets went. I rested my rifle on the window sill and was taking up the slack in the trigger when my partner barked "Hold it!" He had just been able to make out through the glasses that the men did not have on the black boots and belts that were a giveaway sign of the German uniform. In fact they appeared to be wearing cartridge belts and leggings like our own. Those were G.I.s I had my crosshairs on!
"We watched as visibility continued to improve and could see that the two were loading hay onto a small wagon, no doubt to use in their foxhole. In a few minutes they had a load and, pulling the wagon, disappeared, in what we presumed was the direction of our own lines. We relieved our tension by cursing the stupidity of anybody who would go so far out in front to get hay. Then we cursed our own lack of map and orientation, which lack had brought us so close to shooting at least one of them.
"The next day I was back out there, with the Third Platoon sniper. This time it was the people on the Island whose turn it was to be endangered by 'friendly fire.' This was the first day that the mortar section observer was at the Island. He, of course, had a map and his first job after daylight was to pick out some reference points along the edge of Geilenkirchen and fire a few rounds to determine the true azimuths and ranges from his 60-mm mortars' position back in Teveren. So he picked a prominent target and radioed back the map coordinates, with a request for one round for him to spot. He noticed on the map that the Island was right on the line between mortars and target, but didn't worry because we were only half the distance so the high-trajectory mortar shell would pass far above us. Shortly the mortar section sergeant radioed that the round was on the way. We were intently watching the target area when we were startled by an explosion in the field a few yards from the Island. It was our shell; something was wrong! After some heated conversation the gunners were adamant that the elevation and number of powder increments on the shell had been right for the range to the target. So it was agreed to fire another round with the same settings. We scrunched down when the mortar was fired, but this time we were gratified to see the shell explode satisfactory near the target."
Ours were not the only snipers who were in action in this sector; the Jerries had some who were evidently watching the Island for targets. On clear days, if anyone carelessly exposed himself for very long, a bullet would crack by him, followed by the report of a rifle several hundred yards away. (Our rifle range experience had taught us to judge distance from the interval between the sounds.) Luckily none of us were ever hit. On the other hand, at the range of close to a half-mile, we probably had no better success than did the German snipers.
Bob Walker recalls impromptu sniping from the Island (probably one of the first days, before the practice of assigning the platoon's snipers for that duty). "While I was there, the Company Commander came out to see what was going on. He had me take a shot at some stupid Kraut who was obviously delivering food to his section or platoon. The Captain and I made some azimuths on the places where this German stopped. Captain Rhodey marked them on his map. He also gave me hell for sitting in the window in the house. He was very right of course. I often wondered if he had those holes mortared later on. I know that he had me take a shot at the German (servant or KP) who disappeared when I fired. It must have been 700 yards! I never saw that German, or any other German delivering anything thereafter. Maybe he was hit (I really don't know) but more than likely he was scared to death." The other snipers could say the same thing about their experiences: our targets were usually standing in a foxhole and when we fired the target would disappear; but we never knew that we ever hit anyone we fired at.
There was one exception to the long-range nature of the sniping. Almost every morning, as the relief squad walked toward the Island in the hour before dawn, they would be fired on from rather close range. In the darkness we would be filing along the farm lane as quietly as we could when there would be the startlingly loud blast of a rifle a few dozen yards away, sometimes from the right, sometimes from the left of the lane. Reflexively we would drop to the ground, looking for the muzzle flash in case he fired again. He never did. In the ensuing silence we would usually hear the sound of a rifle bolt being worked, but the sniper was too smart to give away his exact position by firing again. After we had been alerted to his general direction, another shot would have drawn concentrated return fire. Since he fired from beyond hand-grenade range, the only thing we could do was to stand up and go watchfully on, leaving him to slip back to his own lines before daylight. We concluded that someone familiar with the fields was coming out each night and lying in ambush where he knew we could be silhouetted against the sky as we came out the lane. Although his potshots never hit any of us, they made our morning walk more exciting than we would have liked.
One morning we drew a lot more fire than the usual single shot. Haubenreich has a clear recollection. "We were relieving a squad from the First Platoon that had spent the night on the Island. Their Platoon Sergeant, a Carolina redneck named Hill, who was known for his occasionally unpredictable behavior, was with them. As his squad assembled in the darkness in front of the house, I happened to be standing next to Hill. When the squad was ready to move out, I heard Hill say out loud, 'Let's wake up them Jerries over there" Before anyone could reply. Hill rapidly emptied his M-l in the general direction of Geilenkirchen. Well, the Jerries were already awake and they spotted the series of muzzle flashes. As soon as Hill started firing, I looked for cover, but had time only to drop flat on the driveway. Before I got my head down I could see more than one string of white tracers arching our way. The Jerries must have had mounted machineguns trained on the house because they were right on target. For a minute or so, splinters and brick chips were raining on me as long bursts tore into the garage door and wall. When quiet settled, no one had been hit. Hill whispered hoarsely, 'Let's get out of here!' Which they did, and in a hurry." [A week or so later, shortly after our regiment was pulled back into Division reserve, Hill was replaced as Platoon Sergeant by Sergeant Ford from the Second Platoon.]
One day we offered the enemy a tempting target, but for some unknown reason he held his fire. The episode was unplanned; it began when a squad leader from the Third Platoon, too nervous and not cautious enough, kept scurrying around the yard from post to post. It was a clear day and the distant sniper fired at him several times. The sergeant of course heard the sharp cracks of the bullets, but was either too startled to listen for the far-off muzzle blast or he refused to believe that the firing was coming from a half-mile away. Instead he convinced himself that the shots were coming from a sniper hidden under some of the hay that lay in the field as close as a hundred yard from the Island. He then decided on action that Haubenreich (and probably every other private) thought was hare-brained. The B.A.R. man and two or three riflemen were to walk out and poke into every possible hiding place while the rest of us lay in positions where we could support the scouts with fire if necessary. Haubenreich was sent to the corner of the yard nearest the ruined pillbox. The sergeant's idea was that when the sniper saw that he was about to be discovered, he would stand up and surrender.
The search party covered the ground thoroughly, with the sergeant shouting orders from the yard. Of course, they found nothing. Reluctantly the sergeant called in the scouts. As they were returning, he latched onto the idea that the sniper must be hiding in the pillbox, so he yelled for Haubenreich to go out and throw in a grenade. Haubenreich thought the idea ridiculous, but got out a grenade and crawled along under the shrubbery to the side of the pillbox. There he discovered that the whole interior was visible and uninhabited. He called this information back to the sergeant, who yelled back, "Dammit, throw the grenade! Throw the grenade!" So in it went and exploded. Harmlessly.
All this took place in full view of the enemy observers across the field. They were either laughing too hard to shoot or they may have thought it was a clever ploy to get them to fire and give away the locations of their machineguns. For whatever reason, they fired not a shot during the whole performance.
The Island also served as the point of departure for the reconnaissance patrols that the Company sent out some nights. The nominal mission of the patrols was to scout out the enemy's defense positions without being detected. If detected, the patrol was to try to get away without a fire fight. We suspected that another purpose was to keep us occupied and to give us green troops some experience of coming under hostile fire. In any case, we didn't learn much except that the Jerries stayed awake at night and if we got close enough and accidentally made enough noise, they would begin sweeping the field in front of them with machinegun fire.
The Second Squad got the assignment one night to make a reconnaissance patrol over to Geilenkirchen via the Island. In preparation for spending the night on the move, they all tried to get some extra sleep during the day. All except Haubenreich, that is. He was already out at the Island, having drawn sniper duty that day. At nightfall, when the guard detail showed up for the night, the sergeant told him that instead of coming back to our lines with the daytime guard, he was to stay. Lieutenant Welti, who was to lead the patrol, thought that since Haubenreich was a member of the Second Squad, he ought to go with them. Tired and cold, without even a K-ration for supper, he didn't like it but had to lump it. While waiting, he was ordered to leave the house and take one of the perimeter positions. Unlike the night guard members, Haubenreich did not have his heavy overcoat with him and soon he was chilled to the bone. Therefore he jumped at the chance when the nearest sentry, a few yard away in the darkness under the shrubs, proposed that they cooperate; one sitting up and watching, the other lying on the straw in his slit trench. He agreed on the condition that the one lying down got to wear the one overcoat.
Back in Teveren, the patrol members blackened their faces with charred cork and dressed for quiet movement. About midnight, they arrived at the Island. To his great relief, Haubenreich was told that he didn't have to go with them after all; someone had realized that without preparation or rest and with his bolt-action rifle, he would likely be a liability rather than an asset to the patrol. The patrol then moved on, out across the field toward Geilenkirchen. They were on the alert for barbed wire or evidence of mine fields and took care to move quietly. Nevertheless, while they were perhaps one or two hundred yards from the dark shapes looming up at the edge of the town, something must have alarmed the enemy, and at least a couple of machineguns began firing, raking the field with grazing fire. At the first shot, the patrol dropped to the ground and lay low in the furrows as the tracers streaked by a foot or two above their backs. When the outburst of firing stopped, whispers determined that no one had been hit. Considering their reconnaissance completed, the patrol silently withdrew without drawing more fire and reached the Island without further incident.
4.6 Random Shots
During the first few days at Teveren, a few scattered shots were heard in the village; one did in the pig that we ate. In the whole two weeks we were there, if anyone in the platoon besides the snipers on the Island fired a single shot at a visible enemy soldier, we don't remember it.
On one occasion, Lt. Welti got a kick (literally) out of firing at a target suspected of concealing an enemy, namely a haystack a couple of hundred yards out in front of the schoolhouse. It was a fact that we sometimes heard the crack of a bullet when we exposed ourselves to view. The report of the rifle came from far out across the field, but we had no idea where the sniper was. Welti concluded that he must be hidden in one of the dozen or so small haystacks nearest the schoolhouse. So he ordered the Platoon sniper to have a try at setting the stacks on fire with tracer bullets. Haubenreich and Welti went up into the attic where some missing roof tiles gave a good view of the hayfield. The hole in the roof was too high for the prone position, so Haubenreich squatted and fired several tracers with no apparent effect. The trouble was that the hay was wet and the tracer bullets zipped through the stack without igniting it. They gave up the attempt, but before leaving the attic, Welti wanted to try firing the scope-sighted 03A4. Haubenreich handed it to him with the warning that it kicked a lot harder than the little carbine that Welti carried. This was demonstrated when the lieutenant touched off a shot from an unstable squatting position and the sharp recoil knocked him on his backside on the floor. From the private's point of view, that made the otherwise unsuccessful exercise worthwhile after all.
While we were at Teveren, we were shelled only a few times. We thought that the Germans were probably hoarding their artillery shells to use in repulsing the expected attack on Geilenkirchen. Schaible remembers some coming in when he was fetching gasoline the first day we were in Teveren. Walker recalls the barrage that killed Charles Saunders, who was the first casualty in the Second Platoon and probably the first in Company K. When the shells started landing around his hole, Saunders jumped out and started running for the shelter of a building. He didn't make it. Walker said later "I still can't believe that he panicked. The artillery fire wasn't enough to bother with that day. He was just a 'good old boy' who got excited. He wasn't alone in getting scared. We all were."
4.7 In Division Reserve
By the time we left Teveren, we had become accustomed to the routine of standing watches in the foxholes during the night. We enjoyed being left alone to sleep or loaf during the days (except when we had duty on the Island). The "clubhouse" became almost like home. Nevertheless, after two weeks, when the time came for our relief, we were not reluctant to move back from the front line. Despite the death of Saunders, we knew that the situation in Teveren had been quieter than we had any right to expect and we felt that the quiet was about due to end. Since our arrival in Normandy, we had been hearing about and preparing mentally for attacks on fortifications of the Siegfried Line. The descriptions sounded formidable and the assaults were bound to be bloody even if everything went according to plan. Now the rumors were that the long-expected offensive was about to start. So we were not unhappy when word came down that we were to be relieved that night. We felt some relief that we had been granted at least a few more days reprieve from the expected carnage.
In the predawn hours of November 12, our fourteenth night on the front line, we turned over our positions to troops who quietly appeared out of the blackness behind us. To our surprise, they spoke with unmistakably British accents. We had known that the Ozark Division was the northernmost division of the U.S. Army, but this was our first contact with any of the "Limeys" on our left flank. There was no time for getting acquainted, however. After telling them what little we knew about the situation in front of us, we gathered by squads and moved back into the village, to a rendezvous point in a dark street. In a few minutes Company K was all present or accounted for. Immediately we moved out, along the village street and then out into the open country.
The night remained quiet and our withdrawal from Teveren was uneventful. Loaded down with weapons, ammunition and heavy packs, we were soon panting. Our relative inactivity during the previous two weeks had left us out of condition. To our relief, we had not gone far until we came upon a dark line of trucks, waiting on the roadside for us. We scrambled up into the high beds and packed ourselves on the benches. Soon the convoy cranked up and rolled slowly away, cloaked in darkness, with only the dim identification lights on the truck next in line being visible.
As the sky began to lighten and surroundings became visible, we found ourselves on an uninhabited road cut straight through a dense forest of young pines, whose branches came all the way to the ground to form an impenetrable screen. The convoy stopped and we dismounted. The trucks rolled away and with the familiar barked order "Fall in!" K Company formed ranks in the road. The Company Commander announced that our location was near the Dutch-German border, several miles from the front lines. For the time being, he said, the 407th Infantry was to be held in reserve while the Division's other two infantry regiments were beginning the big push toward the Roer River, alongside other divisions all along the front north of Aachen. The 407th's turn would come if and when the offensive was unable to punch through the fortified zone and reach the river within a few days.
This was the first time in weeks that we had been able to see the whole company at one time. Up to this point, the company had received no replacements. Nevertheless the ranks appeared to be about normal, indicating that K Company's losses had been quite light. The only outward evidence of our Teveren experience was the condition of our uniforms, which were more wrinkled and dirty than ever before. Inside we were probably more confident of our individual readiness to face the enemy but we each knew that he had not yet been put to the bitter test of courage that we knew we would soon meet.
After a few minutes the company filed along the road a short distance then halted where guides were waiting. Platoon leaders and sergeants went with them to reconnoiter the area that we had been assigned for our bivouac. That didn't take long and soon we were pushing our way through the interlocked, low-growing branches of the pines. When we were a short distance from the road, we were halted and told "This is it!" We were ordered to pitch two-man tents over holes a couple of feet deep. In the interest of hindering aerial observation, we were not to cut any tree and to minimize the cutting of branches. A work detail from each platoon dug a straddle trench for a latrine while others trimmed branches to create a path from the platoon area to the clearing where the kitchen tent was pitched. Some of the cut boughs we laid on the tents for camouflage; the softer tips we put in the bottoms of the holes under our blankets.
Sentries were posted around the company perimeter. Everyone, whenever out of his tent, had to wear steel helmet and a loaded cartridge belt and carry his individual weapon. When chow time came, the platoons took turns filing down to the cook tent. Beside the tent was the old familiar field serving line, with pots and pans of hot food and the line of three G.I. garbage cans sitting on gasoline burners, ready for washing and rinsing the messkits. After getting our messkits filled, we moved back to our squad's area and pushed back among the trees to find sitting places. The hot, full meal was a welcome change and there were few if any complaints.
The first day in bivouac there was no straying from the company area as we were busy setting up tents, cleaning weapons and visiting with friends in other platoons to swap stories about our first two weeks on line. With nightfall, we were blacked out. Cigarette smokers had to light up under raincoats. Warming fires were out of the question; fortunately it wasn't very cold.
During the night (and every subsequent night while we were there), a Jerry reconnaissance plane came over, dropping flares. Although the plane was hidden above the glare of the flares, the engine sounded about like one of our own "Cub" artillery spotters, rather slow and not very high. An antiaircraft outfit just up the road opened up with its quadmounted .50-calibre machineguns, sending streams of red tracers up toward the sound. This didn't seem to bother the Jerries, as they puttered around overhead for a while before moving on. The show over, we crawled back into our pup tents and, except for the few taking turns on sentry duty, everyone slept soundly through the night for the first time in two weeks.
"First Call" in the morning was a blast! Literally. We were shocked out of our sleep by a thunderous sound as several nearby artillery pieces fired a salvo. It seemed as though they were right in our company area &emdash; and that wasn't wrong by much. Only a few dozen yards away, screened from view by the pines, was a battery of British artillery, with long-barreled guns much like our American 155-mm "Long Tom" rifles. They had quite a muzzle blast; our tents quaked visibly each time one fired. With their range of about 15 miles, they could reach the German positions all the way to the Roer and they remained in the same position even after the Allied offensive had taken Geilenkirchen and pushed onward.
Once the big battles started the artillerymen had to really work, sometimes firing dozens of rounds as quickly as they could load projectiles and powder bags. We imagined that they were either supporting one of our attacks or trying to break up an enemy attack. One afternoon as we were watching, the English had been firing for a long time when a shrill whistle sounded. The cannoneers all stopped and sat down on the trails of their guns to rest. Immediately several soldiers appeared with cans of hot tea, which they poured for everyone. After a few minutes they had finished their cups of tea, the whistle blew again and the heavy firing resumed. We wondered what the Jerries and our foot-soldiers up front must have thought about the intermission.
For some reason, perhaps because we were cautioned not to get in the way of the artillerymen at work, most of us had little or no contact with the Englishmen. Bob Walker, the First Squad's B.A.R. man, was an exception. He not only talked, he traded with them for something he coveted. Walker had long suffered from an inability to function well until some time after being roused from sleep. Consequently he sometimes fell in in the morning with his leggings not laced or improperly laced. (We had not yet gotten the new combat boots with buckled cuffs to replace our shoes and leggings.) Walker admired the short British leggings that had buckles instead of laces. One day he traded something for a pair. The trouble was that our G.I. shoes were not as high as the British boots, so Walker's new leggings usually hiked up to expose his socks to rain and mud. As it turned out, it didn't much matter. A few days later we were all issued 4-buckle "arctics" &endash; rubber boots that went on over our shoes. They were heavy and bulky, but at least they kept our feet dry.
During this time, three of our platoon's members were transferred out and one man was transferred in. The Company Commander decided to replace the Platoon Sergeant of the First Platoon with our Sergeant Ford. Ford, who had worked for months to train and prepare the Second Platoon for combat, didn't want to leave it. But he had no choice. (Later Ford received a battlefield commission, then stepped on a mine and was returned to the United States for treatment.) John Soroka, who was one of the Platoon's "old" guys (over 30), was judged physically unable to keep up in an offensive situation and was transferred out of the Second Platoon. Al Mansour was transferred from Company Headquarters into the Second Squad as Soroka's replacement. Bob Walker was transferred out of the Company, passing on the First Squad's B.A.R. to "Swampy" Madison.
Walker, who played the baritone, was the only man from K Company who had been chosen for the 407th Infantry Band that the Regimental Commander, Colonel Reed had organized before we left the States. While we were in Normandy, the band got together for practice and played the national anthems of the U.S., Britain and France upon occasions. At that time the band member were told that they would be trained as Military Police and be required to guard prisoners of war and transport them to rear areas. They were also told that they might be required to go up front to get the POW's and that they would be required to guard the regimental CP, direct traffic and in general make themselves useful. However, band members remained in their line company assignments until after the 407th's first time on the front. When Walker was transferred from K Company, he was assigned to Regimental Headquarters Company, to the newly formed Military Police platoon. His first job was to accompany the Regimental Commander in his rounds. Whenever Colonel Reed traveled, Walker rode "shotgun" along with the jeep driver and a radio operator.
Unlike Walker, who got to see and hear a lot, we in the line companies had no access to the big picture of what was happening outside of our immediate surroundings. During this period in reserve, surprisingly little time was spent on orientation of the troops. In fact no one in the Company, including the platoon leaders, seemed to have any specific information about the situation at the front only a few miles away as the shell flies. We spent a few hours each day on calisthenics, cleaning and inspecting weapons and eating. Otherwise we had quite a bit of free time.
One day the nine snipers of the Third Battalion were loaded up in a truck and taken out for some practice firing at long range, such as we had encountered at Teveren. The day was dark under heavy clouds and we could easily watch the tracers bullets all the way out to the slag heap, about 800 yards away, where our makeshift targets were set up. Haubenreich was a loser that day. When the officer in charge inspected rifles, he noticed a small crack in the pistol-grip stock of Haubenreich's 03A4, and insisted that it be sent to Ordnance for repair or replacement. Haubenreich protested but was handed an M-l when he got back to the Company. (His 03A4 was returned to him while he was in a foxhole at Ederen.) The best he could do about zeroing the M-l was to fire it at a range of about 50 yards, at targets set up at the base of a long slag heap. Then, challenged by his buddies, he put a bullet through the head of an anti-tank grenade that happened to be lying unexploded on the bank. Perhaps it was just as well that the impact of the bullet did not detonate the grenade, but then we wondered if our rifle grenades would explode if we had to use them.
For many of us, the event during our stay in division reserve that we remember best was the bath at the coal mine. All of us (except for a few sentries, who got their turn later) were trucked from our bivouac area the mile or two back to the town of Brunssum, Holland. We unloaded at the schoolhouse and were led to a big room where our duffel bags and gas masks were stored. Each man pulled out clean long underwear, woolen socks, shirt and trousers and a clean towel. Then we got back on the trucks and were taken to a coal mine in the flat land on the outskirts of the town. Passing the typical mountainous slag heap and the hoist machinery, we entered a building where the miners changed clothes and showered at the end of their shift underground. When we filed into the big, central room, we saw that instead of lockers for the miners' clothes, each miner had a wire basket suspended near the roof by a chain that went over a pulley and down to a bar where it was padlocked. Arrangements had been made for us to come between shift changes, so there were no miners around. We peeled off the garments we had worn continuously for more than three weeks, luxuriating in the unaccustomed, steamy warmth while awaiting our turns in the showers. Once in, we found plenty of hot water and were allowed several minutes to enjoy it before we had to get out. We put on the clean clothes we had brought and piled our dirty clothes in a heap to be washed. We never saw them again. From the next six months, until after V-E Day, clean clothes were occasionally brought up to each platoon in "grab-bags" containing underwear, shirts and trousers of a wide range of sizes, which each man searched through to find something that fit more or less.
Bathed and in clean woolens, we somewhat reluctantly put on our sweaters, muddy arctics, field jackets, overcoats, helmets and cartridge belts, picked up our rifles and went back out into the wet and cold for the ride back to our bivouac in the pines.
Not long after the showers, most of us had a turn at visiting Brunssum on our own for a few hours. It was a rewarding experience simply to walk the street and encounter civilians who greeted us with smiles and words that were obviously friendly. We were impressed with Dutch dedication to cleanliness when we saw, all along the streets, women scrubbing the steps at the sidewalk in front of their homes. Some of us witnessed the spontaneous response of the American soldiers to the friendly reception by the Dutch people: several G.I.s passing out clothing from the back of a U.S. Army truck. They had seen the deprivation of the Dutch by the Germans and had gathered clothing from the deserted German villages just across the border to give to the Dutch.
The biggest need of the Dutch was food; the Germans had stripped Holland of all foodstuffs in the last weeks before they were forced by the advancing American and British armies to retreat across the border into the Siegfried Line. Relief supplies by the Allies were relatively meager so grocery store shelves were bare. Some of us went into the finest hotel in Brunssum to try to get a meal. The waiter apologetically let us understand that the best the kitchen could offer (to us or anyone) was soup, thick with barley but with only a faint taste of meat. It was, however, served in style: from a gleaming silver tureen, into fine china, on a snowy linen tablecloth. To our agreeable surprise the hotel did not try to profiteer at our expense: for a tureen of soup, holding more than enough for four hungry G.I.s, the price was less than one Dutch guilder (about 35 cents U.S.).
Our freedom to roam from the company area came to an end on November 16 with an announcement by the Company Commander. Our regiment, the 407th Infantry had been placed on alert, ready to move out within two hours. We had been incorporated in a mobile combat team, with trucks standing by 24 hours a day to rush us up front to any critical situation such as a gap developing between attacking British and American forces or a major counteroffensive by the enemy.
The weather continued cold and rainy. We later read in the Division's history the following. "Average precipitation for this region in November is 2.25 inches but in 1944 3.75 inches fell. During an average year rain falls on the average 15 days but in 1944 precipitation was recorded for 28 days. Fields became bogs, foxholes turned into wells, trenches into stagnant canals. . . Weapons were clogged and jammed with mud in spite of all precautions. And always the troops were wet, miserable and cold." So true! Thanksgiving Day was on November 23. For Company K the day was memorable on several counts. First was the big dinner. After a morning of anticipation, which the muddy paths and falling rain could not discourage, we lined up with our messkits at the kitchen tent. This time each man's serving included cranberries and a large piece of turkey on top of a pile of dressing. Shortly after the chow line started moving, however, the mood changed suddenly when the Company's First Sergeant, Tony Monda, appeared and called for attention. He announced that we must finish eating as quickly as possible, then strike our tents, roll our packs and be ready to move out by a certain time &emdash; back to the front line! It would have been hard enough to really enjoy the Thanksgiving feast even without the news and the haste. We were standing in the mud, with rain falling, weighted down with a wet overcoat, a ten-pound rifle hung muzzle down from one shoulder, juggling messkit and canteen cup in one hand while gnawing meat off the bones and shoveling in mashed potatoes already cold and watery from the water dripping from our helmets and collecting in the messkits. The barking of the non-corns' "Hurry up! Get them tents down!" made the meal almost miserable. Dumping the uneaten remains and washing our messkits a last time, we went back to our squad areas and rolled damp blankets and wet shelter halves into full field packs. Then we waited, standing in the cold rain among the dripping pines. And we waited. After a long time came the word: put the tents back up, we're not moving up today after all!! By now, of course, the holes where the tents had been were soaking wet. Almost enough to make a man cuss! What is the best use of the raincoat? In the bottom of the hole under the blankets or worn over the overcoat? "It's a rough old go in the ETC)!" Too true!
The day after Thanksgiving, November 24, we were again ordered to prepare to move up. This time it was for real. The 406th Infantry, its strength seriously reduced by heavy casualties and exhaustion from a week of almost continuous combat, was still two miles from the Roer. We were going up to take their place at Ederen. Again we struck our tents and rolled our packs.
Around mid-day we boarded a waiting column of trucks for the first leg of our move up to the front. (We later learned that the airline distance from our bivouac area to Ederen was about ten miles; about 13 miles by road.) The weather was cloudy but not raining, which meant that enemy aircraft were a potential threat to the convoy. Many of the two-and-a-half ton trucks, on whose benches we sat tightly packed, carried a .50-caliber machinegun mounted over the open cab. A G.I. stood at each machinegun, ready for action &emdash; which never came. Throughout the trip there was no sign of the Luftwaffe. Thankfully. As we rolled out of the forest into the open countryside, our convoy took its place in a seemingly endless procession of trucks, tanks, and artillery that slowly ground forward. The column stopped and started, slowly progressing along tree-lined roads and through blasted villages, whose brick buildings were now mostly heaps of rubble. Sometimes we could see, in the distance across the flat, open fields, other roads, also clogged with vehicles. The Ninth Army was massing its forces for a knockout blow to the stubborn defenders who clung to the west bank of the Roer. We thought, "What a target for fighter-bomber aircraft!" Clearly our Air Force had run the Luftwaffe out of the skies; otherwise such a massive daytime movement within a few miles of the front would be unthinkable.
Our personal experience of battlefield aftermath grew with each mile. All along the road we saw evidence of destruction inflicted by our artillery and air bombardments. Besides the riddled trucks that had been pushed aside into the ditches, we saw surprisingly many dead horses, some of them still hitched to broken-down wagons loaded with military supplies. Our own army had no horses or mules. We surmised that the Wehrmacht, short of motor fuel and with many of its vehicles destroyed, had commandeered the farm transport of the region. Out in the fields we saw dozens of knocked out tanks, both American and German, many of them burned. At the Gereonsweiler-Puffendorf crossroad, one could count 43 knocked-out armored vehicles of all types. Eight of these were 60-ton Tiger Royals, Königtiger, the world's heaviest and most formidable tank. Later we learned that the tank battles here were the biggest that had been fought in Europe.
We saw only a few enemy dead and none of our own. The U.S. Army had teams who came up right behind the front-line troops to identify and remove our dead. (We learned later that the bodies were taken back into Holland for burial.) We presumed that the Germans likewise had removed their soldiers' bodies except those who had died during the last battle and retreat. The bodies were inglorious in death. Their uniforms in disarray, all dirty and muddy, some dark with old blood, the bodies lay slumped in or sprawled beside foxholes near the road. We noted that the holes were all alike, L-shaped and open topped. We recalled having been told that the civilian population had been compelled to dig thousands of holes of this type, long before the battles, at strategic points along the roads of Germany over which our invading forces might be expected to come.
Traffic was confined to the roads because the deep soil of the flat fields had become too soft from weeks of rain for any vehicles, even those with tracks, to travel without great risk of getting stuck. (Besides, there were uncleared mine fields in many places.) By now the roads had almost succumbed to the punishment of the incessant stream of heavy vehicles. At best the cobblestoned surfaces were deeply rutted. In many places, as the underlying soil was worked into liquid mud beneath the excessive loads, the square, fist-sized cobblestones had been pushed into total disarray. At those places where the road had been cratered by heavy shells or bombs, truckloads of brick rubble had been dumped to enable our all-wheel-drive vehicles to get across.
The column of vehicles was frequently at a dead stop and at best moved at what seemed to us to be a snail's pace. Finally someone in command must have said, "To hell with this!" The battalion dismounted and continued our advance on foot, in open files along each side of the road. We were heavily loaded and as we slogged along through the mud, our pace was slower than normal. Nevertheless we moved faster on the average than the vehicles that were creeping and stopping in the endless line.
After hiking for an hour or so, as the early nightfall closed in, we entered the ruins of a small village. This turned out to be Puffendorf, where the plan called for us to wait for full darkness before moving on the last mile to the front at Ederen. In the battalion column, Company K's Second Platoon happened to be halted in the center of Puffendorf, right beside the brick church, now roofless, windowless and incredibly battered. Although the front was quiet except for distant rumblings of artillery, we were easily within reach of enemy howitzers, so we were ordered to dig slit trenches for shelter during our wait. As darkness fell, we each picked a spot between the looming walls of the church and the crowded markers of the village graveyard. Our holes finished, we pulled out our K-rations, ate, and lay down to wait in the dark. We had become sweat-soaked during the march and now, inactive, we shivered despite our heavy woolen overcoats. At last, toward 'midnight, we were ordered to get ready to move. Struggling into our packs, we filed out of the village along a dark road, in the direction of flashes and heavy thumps of shells exploding near our destination.
5.1 First Views
We reached Ederen sometime in the middle of the night, after a hurried hike through the darkness from Puffendorf along a rough, cobblestoned road. As we stumbled along, we were thankful that at the moment our destination was quiet, with only an occasional flash and rumble of artillery bombardment off to one side or the other. We had heard that Ederen had been taken by the 406th Infantry in bitter fighting, with heavy casualties among both attackers and defenders. As the Platoon filed silently through the streets, despite the darkness we were aware that most of the houses had gaping holes in walls and roofs, evidence of pounding by artillery. Permeating the air was the characteristic odor, with which we were becoming familiar, of front-line villages. It combined the smells of sulphurous coal smoke, burnt wood and half-burnt, wet featherbeds, shattered plaster exposed to the rains, cow manure, spoiled food, and dead bodies &endash; an odor that one never forgets.
Led by a guide to the forward edge of the village, we reached the foxholes that we were to take over from the outfit that we were relieving. The G.I.s who climbed out of the holes seemed uptight and wasted no time in conversation before getting together and heading for the rear. The few words that were exchanged reinforced our expectation that we were in for a rough time in the days and nights ahead.
With the slow coming of daylight, we found ourselves in a line of two-man foxholes, at intervals of about ten yards, most of them just behind a sparse hedge along the border of the orchards that fringed the village. In front of us, to the north, we saw almost level fields of bushy-topped sugar beets, unharvested because of the daily battles that had been creeping closer in the past several weeks. On the other side of the fields, just visible through the morning mist, was a cluster of tile roofs in the next village. We had been told that we would be facing Welz, which was occupied by the enemy, and we had guessed that soon it would be our job to capture it. Beyond Welz the land rose across open fields to an even skyline. The high ground continued around to our right front, beyond a tree-fringed watercourse running from the right (east) edge of Ederen to the right side of Welz. Peeping over the high ground back of Welz was the roof of a distant building, with a large red cross painted on it. We learned that this building was in Linnich, a small town on the Roer River.
Welz and the German lines in front of it were not so distant as had been the case in our earlier front-line experience at Teveren. The enemy remained concealed, so that from our ground-level point of view we never saw any movement across the way. His observers were evidently watching us closely, however, as anyone getting out of his hole during daylight hours was very likely to draw machine gun fire. (Some of us kept a German messkit or helmet in our foxhole, into which we urinated so we wouldn't have to climb out.)
Later, when we had occasions to go back the hundred yards or so from the line of holes to the village streets, we discovered that, as at Teveren, the residents had been evacuated by the Wehrmacht so that the village was totally deserted. The streets were empty except when a steel-helmeted G.I. with his rifle moved quickly from the shelter of one doorway to another. Typical of the villages of the area, Ederen was a tight cluster of tile- roofed brick buildings, many with house and barn under one roof, arranged around a walled, cobblestoned yard.
The big difference between our stay in Ederen and our previous front-line duty was the enemy's artillery fire. In the two weeks that we spent on line the first time, about the only shelling most of us remember was the bombardment that panicked and then killed Saunders. In Ederen, at any hour of night or day, we were likely to have to dive for cover as powerful explosions made rubble of another house or ripped more of the apple trees behind our foxholes. It soon became all too familiar an experience &emdash; crouching in a foxhole, stomach tied in a nervous knot, trying to guess from the whistling approach of each shell whether this was the one with your number on it.
Nights were the worst. Especially just after nightfall and as dawn approached. Those were the times that some of us had to move around between foxholes and the houses behind us, carrying up water, ammunition, and the inevitable boxes of K-rations. No doubt the Jerries figured that we were probably stirring around; at any rate, their shelling was heavier at those times. Even then the shelling wasn't continuous &emdash; they were hoarding their shells for use when we attacked. But at random intervals there would come two or three shells. You got the feeling that the enemy artillerymen were guessing at the best time &emdash; just as we were whenever we had to get out of our holes. For us the question was "Is now the time to start across the orchard, or is a big one on the way?"
After a while we realized that a significant fraction of the shells were not exploding. At first we thought they might be armor-piercing shells, without an explosive charge. That seemed unlikely, however, because they were big, high-trajectory howitzer shells, not the flat-shooting 88's. Somewhere the rumor appeared (maybe it was in the Stars and Stripes newspaper that were sometimes brought up with our rations) that slave laborers in munitions factories were sabotaging the fuses so they wouldn't explode. Whatever the reason, the whistle of a shell plunging in behind us would sometimes end with only a heavy thump and maybe the sound of falling tiles and brick instead of the usual ear-splitting blast of high explosives. (As related a bit later, Haubenreich and Huffman had special cause to be thankful for duds.)
Casualties in K Company were surprisingly few, mainly because everyone took such care to stay under cover as much as he could. Bob Walker, by then in the Regiment's MP Platoon, was wounded by a mortar shell in Ederen. The Second Platoon had a house in which Lieutenant Welti, the runners, and Radice, the Platoon Sergeant, spent most of their time while at Ederen. Each of the three squads took turns spending 24 hours in the house, "in reserve," while the other two squads manned the fighting holes along the edge of the orchards. (This was standard Army practice at all levels from platoon to division: to have two units up and one back, available to be thrown in wherever needed.)
"Our" house was quite substantial &emdash; thick brick walls, two stories, an attic and a cellar. There was also a garage, in which now sat an abandoned German half-track. Others used it: artillery observers watched from the attic every day and one of K Company's 60-mm mortars was set up in the courtyard.
When we looked at our cellar's reinforced concrete overhead, walls and floor, we concluded that the house, in the "Siegfried Line" fortified zone near the border, must have been built in anticipation of the war. When we were in the cellar we felt secure. By comparison with life in the foxholes we even felt comfortable. The cellar was unheated but dry and, after the daily rain and mud of the foxholes, it seemed like luxury simply to be able to stretch out on the smooth concrete. The floor was hard, of course, but we were young and toughened, so we had no trouble sleeping. Haubenreich remembers that he felt fortunate one night even though he had to sleep in the coal bin because he came in late from sniping and the floor was already covered with the rest of the squad.
The forward observers for the artillery battalions in our rear occupied the attic every day and sometimes at night. They would sit back in the shadows, with binoculars, spotting scope and telephone, looking out through a gaping hole in the tile roof. The stairs by that time were more like a steep ramp, filled as they were with rubble. But that didn't slow the artillerymen when they had to come down in a hurry. Whenever shells began landing nearby, they would come bounding down the three flights to join us in the cellar.
We didn't stay in the cellar all the time we were "in reserve." The only light down there came from the smoky, German army-style candles. These were really sort of a lamp, consisting of a shallow metal cup, with support for a flat wick at the center and filled with wax that melted when the wick was lit. (We learned that when the original wax was consumed the wick remained and we could refill the cup with the dubbing that we were supposed to put on our shoes to make the leather water-repellent.) During the short daylight hours we liked to come upstairs where we could see to clean our weapons, write a V-Mail letter home, or sometimes to bathe in our helmet and shave.
If we were upstairs and heard a shell coming in, we would dive to the floor against a wall, then scamper down to the cellar after the explosion. The rule was to stay away from the „windows at all times. But the sills were handy places to lay out a field-stripped rifle or to spread out a lunch K-ration. One day one of our guys was at a window and didn't move in time when a shell landed right across the street. At the blast he staggered, then clutched at his chest. It was cold and, like the rest of us, he was wearing: long underwear, woolen shirt with gas flap in front, sweater, field jacket and the heavy, double-breasted woolen overcoat. When we got through unbuttoning, we found that a small shell fragment had pierced his overcoat and layers of clothing and had barely broken the skin on his chest. He bled a little but went on about his business with only a bruised rib after Greenfield, the Platoon's medic, had put on a small bandage. Later he heard that if he had gone back to the Battalion aid station he might have been put in for the Purple Heart. At the time it didn't seem worth the effort.
Sometimes some of us would get caught in the open when shells started coming in. Then we would dive for the nearest cover &emdash; a convenient shellhole or perhaps only a tank track in the soft earth. On especially dark nights, there was nothing one could do but flop flat on the ground. Art Roth in particular had trouble at night. He was what we called "night blind," which meant that Roth couldn't see a thing even on the average night, when there was enough light for a person with normal eyesight to make out landmarks and large moving objects. When we had to move around in groups on a dark night. Roth always had to hold onto someone's pack and be led like a blind man. On one such night. Roth and VanAtta were headed back from their foxhole, through the orchard to pick up rations or water. Suddenly there was the sound of a shell coming in and they threw themselves down just as the explosion showered them with clods of wet dirt. Almost deafened by the blast. Roth, who had lost hold of VanAtta, groped about for him in the dark. He felt woolen cloth and grabbed hold, only to find that the leg inside flopped lifelessly. There was a moment of near panic for Roth before Van spoke and Roth realized that he had grabbed one of the two German corpses that lay just back of our holes all the time we were in Ederen. Everyone later had a good laugh when VanAtta told the story. Roth bore up remarkably well, considering his handicap.
April 5, 2008: We have just received an account by Mr. Arthur "Art" Roth with regards to his accounts of his time with Co. K., 407th and you can read Mr. Roth's memoirs here:
Memories of Service in the Second Platoon, by Arthur "Art" Roth
Our artillery fired back, of course. At night, especially, we could hear the heavy thumps as our big guns fired from somewhere a mile or so behind us. Seconds later would come the whoosh of the shells arching over us on the way to Welz. Once our artillery fired from much closer than we would have liked. Haubenreich recalls the incident as follows.
"For some reason, which I cannot remember, Van Atta and I were sharing a foxhole that day. Sometime during the daylight hours, we heard the unmistakable sounds of a tank, engine rumbling and tracks creaking, moving toward us from the village. Then, turning into the orchard through a gap in the hedge, came a self-propelled gun &emdash; a long-barreled 155-mm cannon mounted in an open-topped tank hull. We watched with interest as the crew jumped out, lowered the spades that take the recoil, and proceeded to load with a heavy projectile and power bags. They did not announce their intentions; indeed seeming not to notice our presence. However we could follow with our eyes the barrel's alignment and guess the target &emdash; the church steeple in Welz. The spire projected well above the rooftops and, we thought, was almost certainly being used by the Jerries as an observation post.
"About that time it suddenly occurred to Van and me that we were almost directly in front of the low-trajectory cannon and only twenty or thirty yards away. Too late to do anything but to duck down and clap our hands over our ears, we were caught in the tremendous blast as the big gun fired. Standing up groggily, we looked out and saw the steeple apparently unscathed &emdash; a clean miss! Already the crew was reloading and as we knelt down in our hole, a second round went off. This time the target was damaged but still standing. Quickly the loading and firing process was repeated. When we looked again the steeple had disappeared from our view.
"As soon as their success was evident, the gun crew hastily pulled up the recoil spades and jumped into the vehicle. The engine had been kept running and in a moment the machine had backed out of the orchard and was roaring off along the lane to the shelter of the houses.
"As we stood there, with ears ringing and heads aching, we suddenly became aware of the familiar sound of shells coming in, lots of them. We dropped and lay in the bottom of the hole, with the earth shuddering, clods and tree branches showering down, as heavy explosions ripped our orchard. We cursed the cannoneers who had chosen our position from which to fire. Evidently the enemy observers had had time to spot the flash of the gun and directed counter-battery fire at our precise location. After a terrible few minutes, it was all over and quiet again settled.
"My ears have never been the same since that incident. Surprisingly, no one in our platoon was even scratched. Just one more close call to remember and tell about. (To the right audience, that is: while revisiting Welz 38 years later I did not correct the German fanner when he proudly pointed to the new village church and told me that the old church had been blown up by the SS while they were there in 1944.)"
5.3 Buried Alive
Haubenreich's recollection of artillery at Ederen continues as follows.
"Taking the shelling meant for the self-propelled gun was bad enough, but it wasn't my closest brush with death by enemy artillery.
"One black night, when a slow, cold rain was falling, my regular foxhole buddy, John Huffman and I were in our hole in the edge of the orchard. More precisely, our two-man fighting hole was just behind the thin hedge, with just a few bushes cut out to enable us to fire to the front, standing shoulder to shoulder in the open end of the hole if that should be necessary. Our rifles, pointing out across the field, rested on forked sticks to keep them out of the mud. As usual, the other end of the hole was less deep by about a foot and was covered, providing a space about five feet long and three feet wide where we could lie or sit. The straw was damp, but at least our feet were out of the mud. Our foxhole cover consisted of some boards and a foot or so of earth. A shell burst in a nearby treetop would send deadly fragments downward, so we felt exposed in an open hole. Another reason for covering our holes was to keep off the rain, which effort was usually only partially successful. At Teveren, Huffman and I had found a couple of doors and some linoleum and had made us a waterproof cover. Here the roof leaked.
"About midnight, I had waked up Huffman to take his turn at standing watch, while I lay down in the covered end of the hole to try to sleep for a couple of hours. Because of the constant dripping of water from overhead, I had spread my raincoat over me, including my head, which was cradled in the harness of my helmet, and drew up my legs to keep them from getting any wetter than they already were. Soon I was asleep.
"After what seemed like only a short time, I suddenly awoke, aware of a strange sensation. I could not move because of immobilizing pressure down and around my body. Then I felt a yanking on my feet and in moments some relief from the pressure. Soon I was able to move, then to throw off the raincoat. All was pitch dark. I started to sit up and promptly bumped my head on the roof, which was a lot lower than it had been. Feeling around, my hands found only a bank of wet earth where my pack had been lying in a corner of the hole. I became aware of Huffman's tense whisper and responded I'm OK!' Only then I fully realized that I had been buried and that he had clawed away the dirt from over me.
"I did not remember hearing any noise before I woke up. I therefore assumed that our foxhole had just caved in. Huffman told me in excited whispers what he knew. He had been standing, staring into the darkness when he heard the mounting sound of a shell coming straight in. He had ducked down in the open end of the hole, hoping that the shell would go over and explode behind us, as most of them usually did. Instead it hit close enough to cave in our hole. The strange thing was, he said, that he had not heard the shell explode. There was just a ground-shaking thump and a shower of dirt. He realized that the covered end of the hole had caved in. Getting no answer from me, he groped around and felt my foot sticking out of the dirt. Not knowing whether I was dead or alive, he desperately started digging with his bare hands.
"Fortunately for me, there was enough air trapped under the raincoat over my head so I could keep breathing until Huffman could free me. Even so, the ability to move and the feel of the cold air and falling rain felt mighty good to me.
"The purely good feeling lasted for a few minutes. Then we realized that the crumbled hole didn't leave enough room even to stand up side by side and provided no protection at all from tree bursts. The thought came that we could move in with the G.I.s in the holes a few yards to either side of us. There was room enough for three men in each hole, two in the covered end. Then Huffman and I decided that one of us would have to stay where we were, to avoid leaving a gap in our line through which an enemy patrol might find its way. (That seems now to be very unlikely, but at the time it didn't.) Huffman, bless his heart, insisted that he would stay in what remained of our hole, while I moved in with neighbors. I don't remember if I argued strenuously or not. Anyway, taking my rifle, I moved cautiously through the dark, hissing the names of the guys in the next hole until they halted me. Of course they let me come in and for the rest of the night I alternated between standing watch and lying down with the unaccustomed luxury of a body next to mine to ward off some of the chill that penetrated the folds of overcoat and raincoat. Huffman spent the rest of the night awake, standing in the rain.
"When the grey light of dawn finally came, it turned out to be one of those mornings when we didn't have to worry about the enemy spotting us moving around. The typical mist lay over the fields so that we could barely make out the outlines of the buildings in Welz. So then, as soon as we decided that there was not going to be a dawn attack by the enemy, Huffman and I climbed out to survey what had happened to our foxhole.
"The reason we hadn't heard an explosion was because there hadn't been one. The shell had been a dud! Evidently a big shell had plowed into the ground right at the hedge, only a couple of feet to one side of our hole. It was the shock of the impact that had caved in the dirt walls on me. To our surprise, we saw that the shell, instead of burying itself, had come back up out of the ground and traveled farther. We looked back through the orchard in line with the long, deep furrow that the shell had ripped. About thirty yards back, we spotted the projectile, lying on top of the ground. It was a big one, from a 150-mm howitzer, we judged. If it had exploded on impact, as it was designed to do, what would have happened? We could well imagine. There would have been a crater where OUT foxhole had been and scattered around the orchard would have been OUT bloody remains for someone to gather up.
"How did Huffman and I feel about our close call? I don't remember very clearly, but I seem to remember that Huffman became more depressed about his chances of ever seeing his fiancee in Ohio again. On the other hand, I think it was about that time that I more or less subconsciously began to believe that somehow I was destined to come through the whole war unscathed. As it turned out, both Huffman and I were wrong."
5.4 A Combat Patrol
Sergeant Mollica and his Second Squad volunteered, more or less, for a combat patrol out of Ederen. We didn't exactly jump at the opportunity. None of us was eager to go out across no-man's land and tangle with the enemy in the dark at close quarters, with him in his trenches and us exposed. We weren't crazy. What encouraged the squad to volunteer was the prospect of what might normally seem to be a rather modest reward for risking one's life: those who survived the patrol were promised that they could spend another 24 hours in the dry, concrete-roofed cellar instead of out in the rain in a muddy foxhole.
On November 27 the squad was just winding up its allotted 24 hours in the cellar, mostly sleeping and cleaning its rifles before going out to relieve the Third Squad in the holes just after dark that day. Sometime in the afternoon the order came down from Company Headquarters that the Second Platoon was to carry out a mission that night. Lieutenant Welti was to organize and lead a combat patrol that would go out from our lines and penetrate the German lines in front of Welz. The stated objective was to capture at least one of the enemy who could be brought back with us for interrogation about the defenses of Welz. It made sense that the Second Squad, who was caught up on its sleep, go instead of other squads, who had been in the holes for the past day or two. The mission was clearly dangerous buf did not seem suicidal and the thought of returning to the cellar was inviting. So there was general acceptance among the squad of our assignment. Dewey Smith had been feeling sick and his reliability was questionable. This dilemma was resolved when Al Mansour, who had a week or two before moved from Company Headquarters to the First Squad, volunteered to go in Smith's stead.
The patrol would consist of Lt. Welti and the ten men of the Second Squad, Mansour, and a second two-man B.A.R. team. Wannamaker recalls, "Hal Stumpff and I were the Third Squad B.A.R. team and when the patrol was formed they wanted an extra B.A.R. to go along. Hal was a very feisty guy and jumped right in there with 'Wannamaker and I'll go!' I didn't mind very much but I believe it set us both up for going on lots of patrols down the road." To further increase our firepower we would borrow from Company Headquarters two .45-caliber M-3 submachine guns. VanAtta would get one; Wannamaker, the other. Haubenreich would take VanAtta's semiautomatic M-l rifle on the patrol instead of his slower, bolt-action 03A4 sniper rifle.
The route the patrol was to take was fully visible during daylight hours to both us and the Germans. About two hundred yards to the right of the road from Ederen to Welz was what we called in those days "the draw." It was mostly a broad, gently sloping swale, with steep banks along only part of its course. There was flowing water in a ditch or channel that one could step across almost anywhere. [Many years later we learned from a very detailed German map that the little stream has a name: "Willibrordtbrunnen" &emdash; the Willibrordt Spring.] Alongside the channel was a row of trees, with here and there a few low bushes. The flats along the watercourse varied in width up to about 50 yards. Along the edges, banks sloped up more or less steeply to the beet fields on either side. The "draw" was significant because the rest of the terrain between Ederen and Welz was so lacking in cover and concealment. It ran from our lines northward then curved northeast to the comer of Welz, a distance of about a thousand yards. A path followed the watercourse on the east side. It was a logical route for a night patrol, but as far as we knew the Germans had not yet planted their usual antipersonnel mines. ("Bouncing Betties" or "Shoe Mines" were two kinds.)
The night before, we were told, a reconnaissance patrol from another platoon had slipped along the draw and crept near enough to the German lines to hear sounds of digging in a little meadow at the comer of Welz. Our higher command had decided that a combat patrol could follow the same route, then rush into the enemy's positions and grab a prisoner. It wasn't clear to any of us in the cellar just how the opportunity would present itself for us to get our hands on a live German that we could force to come back with us. Nevertheless, if that was our mission, we would try. (Although it wasn't mentioned to us, our intrusion was no doubt also intended to provoke a response that would tell our Intelligence something about the strength of the enemy's defenses
As soon as the decision was made that the Second Squad was it, we began to get ourselves ready. We realized that if the enemy heard or saw our approach before we were in position to rush him, the outcome would probably be disastrous for us. We therefore earnestly discussed how we could best improve our chances of moving silently and invisibly. One potential noisemaker, our dogtags, had already been silenced. Back in Normandy, before we ever entered combat, we had cut up German gasmask hoses and stretched a convolution around the pair of metal tags that hung from a chain around each man's neck, effectively preventing them from clinking together as they would otherwise do with each movement. Now we questioned whether or not we should wear steel helmets on the patrol. Normally we wore them everywhere, day and night. On silent reconnaissance patrols, they might be left off to minimize the chance of accidental noise. This night, however, since we fully expected that grenades would be thrown at us, we wore our helmets. We decided to take off our heavy, 4-buckle overshoes, partly to make it easier to step quietly and partly to improve our speed if we had to run. For the same reason we left off our heavy overcoats.
Visibility was a concern because we couldn't count on total darkness. Even though tonight, as usual, clouds obscured the moon and stars, we knew that occasionally one side or the other would turn on banks of antiaircraft searchlights, beamed up against the low-hanging clouds, which reflected enough light to make objects visible in the fields between the lines. Therefore we took care to blacken our faces and hands, using bottle corks that we had charred over the flame of the candle that feebly illuminated the cellar where we were getting ready. The old-style field jackets that we in the 102nd Division still wore were a lighter color than the woolen sweaters that we wore underneath them. However, since a sneeze could give away our presence to the enemy, we decided to wear the jackets against the chill of the night. (At the time we didn't think of the trick of turning them wrong-side out to expose the much darker lining.)
These preparations were soon finished and Lt. Welti went over the plan once more, this time in detail. We were to move out in single file on a path along the draw. VanAtta and Al Mansour were to go first, with Mollica and Welti close behind them. Corporal Francolini was to bring up the rear. When we reached the low bank at the foot of the meadow, we would lie there until our artillery, which had already zeroed in on that corner of Welz, fired a brief but intense barrage. Then, while the enemy's heads were still down in their holes, we would jump up and rush across the meadow, holding our fire and trying to get amongst the Jerry's foxholes before we were fired upon. If the opportunity presented itself, we would try to force a live German at gunpoint to come out of his hole. If we saw only dead or dying Germans, we were told to try to get their Soldbuchs, which each German soldier was supposed to carry in the inside pocket of his tunic and which identified not only the individual but also his unit. As we came out of the cover of the bank, we were to be in a skirmish line, with a B.A.R. team on each end to protect our flanks. Baron and DelaO would be on the left; Stumpffand Wannamaker on the right.
The signal to start our rush was to be a single white phosphorus shell, which would be the last round of the artillery barrage. The decision when to start to make our way back would be up to Lt. Welti (or to whoever was in command if he were hit). The lieutenant carried a flare pistol, loaded with a green flare that he was to fire straight up as soon as we had fallen back to the cover of the draw. That was the prearranged signal for our artillery observers, watching from the attic in Ederen with a phone line open to the waiting howitzer batteries, immediately to call in another heavy barrage right on the corner of the village where we had just been. That was supposed to stop enemy fire and delay pursuit long enough to allow us to run back along the draw toward our own lines, bringing our wounded and any prisoner we might have taken.
We fully expected that some of us would be wounded or killed. Since everyone dreaded the thought of being wounded and left behind to be captured or slaughtered, we reassured one another that we would not leave anyone behind. We were determined, if need be, to carry back any of our wounded who were unable to walk. We knew that coming back we would be challenged as we approached our own lines, so we took extra pains to memorize the password and countersign for that night.
Grenades to go
The final preparation came some time after nightfall, when a carrying party from Company Headquarters came down the cellar stairs with the two submachineguns and a case of handgrenades for us. We already had grenades, of course. Each of us usually carried a couple of fragmentation grenades, with heavy, cast-iron body. For defense at night, they were perfect, blasting heavy fragments in all directions. For the same reason, they were not what we wanted to carry on our patrol. With us out on top of the ground, throwing in the dark at holes we couldn't see, that kind of grenade was at least as great a danger to us as to the enemy. The book called for us to use the egg-shaped, offensive grenades that had a powerful blast but a thin case and that is what we expected to be brought to us. When the case was opened, however, we saw to our dismay that it contained white phosphorus grenades. This kind of thin-skinned grenade burst to scatter flaming, smoking particles that we knew would bum into a person's flesh. They were used on pillboxes by dropping them down the ventilator shaft to smoke out the occupants. However they did not have nearly the concussion of the "eggs" that we wanted. Nevertheless, it was now too late to try to get anything else; we had to take either phosphorus grenades or pineapples. We chose the phosphorus and each man took several.
The time came to leave the cellar. The opening barrage had been scheduled for 0100 hours and we needed to be in position well before then. At about midnight we filed up the stairs into the darkness. We stumbled along the dark street until our eyes became adjusted. We then followed a guide through the line of foxholes and into the draw, where he left us. At first we moved rather quickly, not taking time to tiptoe. The night was still and it seemed to us that the sound of our footsteps was alarmingly loud, although in fact we certainly could not be heard very far across the fields.
As we got nearer to the enemy's line, the now silent column slowed and slipped furtively along, with frequent pauses to listen and to make sure that we were still all there, no stragglers. At each pause we sank silently to the ground, where we could see the black silhouettes of the trees against the cloudy sky. No sound came to us from the looming blackness that was Welz. In OUT mind's eye, however, we could visualize the German sentries, listening intently and peering into the darkness, as we ourselves did on other nights.
During one long pause, when we were perhaps 150 yards from the outskirts of Welz, a strange thing happened. Haubenreich, who was near the rear of the file, remembers it this way. "I was lying on the ground right beside the path, listening and waiting until I could see Huffman, who was next ahead of me, get up and start moving again. Suddenly I became aware of the dark figure of a man, silhouetted against the sky, moving back along the path in my direction. My first thought was that it must be Mollica, coming back to check with Francolini that we were all present. Strangely, though, the figure did not pause or seem to be searching for anyone, but strode quickly along the path. (We, of course were invisible as we lay in the blackness on the ground.) While I was puzzling over this, the figure passed by, almost stepping on me, and disappeared to the rear. Feeling the proximity of the enemy sentries, no one had made a sound or a move to stop whoever it was. About then, I saw Huffman get up and I followed, forgetting about the mysterious figure for the time being." Later we found out who we had seen.
Silently and ever so carefully now the patrol moved on along the watercourse. Fortunately for us, the way was clear of brush and the rains had made the twigs sodden and quiet underfoot. At last those in the lead detected the dark form of a house looming ahead and slightly to our right. They then knew that the meadow must be along our left flank. If our information was correct, we had to be literally within a stone's throw (or a grenade's toss) of the enemy. Feeling around, we discovered that the bank to our left was less than two feet high. It would have to do for cover, so with utmost caution to be silent, one after the other of the fifteen raiders sank to the ground, to lie prone at the foot of the bank.
Now there was nothing more we could do but wait for our artillery to fire. So we waited. We lay there motionless but tense, gripping our weapons and listening intently. It seemed that we could sense the enemy's presence nearby, but there was no sound from the darkness; no voice, no cough, no rustle of motion. The minutes dragged by. With our bodies inactive, our minds raced. Some of us began to doubt that the accuracy of our big guns was good enough for what they were asked to do. The howitzers, located a mile or two away, would be trying to drop shells right on the other side of the little meadow without having a stray round explode among us. We thought of the moment when we would have to jump up and how exposed we would be; we were thankful for the darkness that concealed us. After a while, the cold, damp ground began to drain the heat from our bodies. We shivered and exerted will power not to sneeze. Discomfort, unfocussed anger, and desire to do anything but lie here much longer began to displace fear and anxiety.
Finally there came the sound we had been waiting for. From far back of our lines came the thump, thump-thump of artillery. Seconds later we heard the rising shrieks of incoming shells. They were going to be awfully close! We ducked our heads and pressed our bodies to the ground, feeling it shudder with each blast and occasionally hearing a big fragment scream over us.
The barrage was fierce but brief, stopping as suddenly as it had begun. Raising our heads we saw light from a white phosphorus shell &emdash; our signal! Without a word, we all rose to our feet. Beyond the meadow we could now see the trees of an orchard and a cloud of white smoke, illuminated by the dying light of the burning phosphorus. There was no enemy in sight. Suddenly we realized that we could also see one another more distinctly &emdash; the moon had just begun to appear through a rift in the clouds. Tough luck!
We began walking rapidly across the meadow, toward the black shadow of a lane and an orchard beyond. Before we were had gone more than a few yards, the silence was split by the sharp report of a rifle, seemingly right in the middle of our skirmish line. A second later there was another single shot. Our instant reflex was to hit the ground. A few seconds later there was a muffled blast as a grenade went off. Light and smoke began coming from a foxhole only a few feet in front of our line. This was followed immediately by rifle shots from the edge of the meadow toward which we had been moving.
Our position was perilous. We had been detected while we were out in the open meadow, only a few yards in front of the concealed enemy. No doubt, if we stood up we would be visible to them as dark figures in the moonlight. Several of the patrol had the same idea: grenades. In a few seconds three or four phosphorus fires were blazing in a line fifteen or twenty yards in front of us. By their light we could see that most if not all of our grenades had fallen in the meadow, not in the lane, which was now hidden from us by the glare and smoke.
We began blazing away with our M-l's, firing through the smoke toward where we guessed the enemy might be. For a moment we felt an instinctive impulse to do as we had so often practiced in Texas, to jump up and rush the last few yards into the enemy positions, firing to keep their heads down. That impulse instantly evaporated as we realized that if we ran through the smoke, putting the light behind us, we would be easy targets for the enemy riflemen a few yards beyond. Instead we moved forward only a few yards, individually running up near the circles of burning phosphorus particles, throwing another grenade as far as we could before hitting the ground and opening fire through the smoke. Mingled with the rifle fire, from the right flank we heard the unmistakable stuttering blast of a German MG-42 machine gun, answered by bursts from the B.A.R. at that end of our line. Suddenly on the left. Baron's B.A.R., which had been silent, opened up with a sustained burst that sounded like the whole 20-round magazine.
The din of bursting grenades, rifle shots and the machine gun duel on the right had been going on for what seemed a long time but must have been only a couple of minutes when a shout went up: "Tank coming!" From somewhere up in the village, we could hear a heavy engine coughing and then roaring into life. We had no antitank weapon of any kind, there was practically no chance of our penetrating further and, if we stayed where we were, the tank could wipe us out in short order. The decision was clear: Lt. Welti shouted for us to keep shooting but start falling back to the draw.
Our skirmish line began an orderly withdrawal, still hidden from the enemy by the billowing smoke from the line of our last grenades. From both sides of the smoke, rifle fire continued unabated. Before we had fallen back more than a few steps, however, there intruded upon our consciousness another sound. It was the familiar whistle of incoming artillery shells; lots of them &emdash; and close! Instantly OUT withdrawal turned into a sprint for the scant cover of the bank that we had left a few minutes before. Most of us covered the last several feet in a dive, landing on the ground just as the first shells began exploding. We cursed the Lieutenant, whom we assumed had too soon fired his flare, calling in the barrage that was supposed to cover our retreat along the draw. Surely some of us must have failed to reach the bank.
The cannoneers were pouring it on as fast as they could. It seemed that dozens of big shells were exploding almost simultaneously and &emdash; a new experience for us &emdash; they were airbursts! We had seen from a distance bombardments by 105- and 155-mm howitzers of Division Artillery, using timed fuses or proximity fuses to cause the shells to explode 50 to 100 feet in the air instead of on impact. We bugged the bank as shell fragments thudded into the ground nearby. The center of the impact area seemed to be about 75 yards away, over the far edge of the meadow. If any of the Germans had left their holes to pursue, or even if they were still in open holes over there, the effects must have been devastating. Close behind the first, simultaneous salvo came a second and a third.
It took a few moments to realize that suddenly the explosions had ceased and there was no more sound of incoming shells. The order was passed down the line in hoarse whispers: "Don't fire, get going, but maintain contact!" As we got to our feet and started quickly back along the draw, we realized that two G.I.s were supporting a third between them. It was Mansour. "Hit in the leg," VanAtta whispered. Everyone was accounted for and, amazingly, no one else was wounded. Others took Mansour's rifle and the rifles from those who were taking turns half-carrying, half-dragging Mansour along. Stumbling occasionally in the dark, we hurriedly retraced our route along the path back toward our lines.
Behind us sporadic machine gun fire continued as the Jerry gunners thought they heard or saw something moving in front of them. Then mortar shells began bursting in the draw behind us. The Germans undoubtedly guessed we would be traveling the draw and were trying to inflict punishment. They had misjudged how rapidly we had gotten away and none of the shells was even close. We laughed with relief as we realized that we had gotten away without their knowing it.
Taking turns helping with Mansour, we were able to keep up a rapid pace and in ten minutes or so we arrived, sweating, at the outskirts ofEderen. The orchards and houses here were as dark and silent as those at Welz had been, but when an unmistakably American voice challenged us from the darkness, we felt as if Ederen were home, sweet home. Quickly the password and countersign were exchanged and we came on in.
As we passed, a voice from the first foxhole said, "We couldn't take no chances. Right before y'all started shootin' there was a Jerry come up through here and we took him prisoner. Didn't you see him?" Then it dawned on us that it must have been a German deserter who had walked through the patrol as we were lying alongside the path. How ironic that while we were risking our lives in an unsuccessful attempt to take a prisoner, one had walked right into the hands of the people behind us
The Rest of the Story
Another mystery was explained a few minutes later. On the way back, Lt. Welti had insisted that he had fired his green flare only after we had started to fall back. But that meant that the shells that almost did us in must have been fired before his flare went up. Why hadn't our artillery waited for the signal? We were still wondering when we were led down into a candle-lit cellar where, we were told, we would be questioned by a G-2 (Intelligence) officer. As we came down the stairs, however, we were met first by an Artillery officer, quite agitated. He anxiously asked if any of us had been hit by the bombardment at the end of the fire fight. He seemed greatly relieved to hear that none of us had been scratched, just scared. In response to our heated comments, he hastened to relate what had happened. He had been up in the attic, where he had a grandstand view of the phosphorus fires and the white and red tracer bullets streaking back and forth. When a green flare went up right over the action, he passed the word by phone and the ready batteries immediately fired. As the first shells arched over Ederen, he was astonished to see another green flare! Seconds later the shells began bursting over the target. The second flare must have been the one that Lt. Welti had fired. Obviously the first one must have been fired by the Germans for some unknown reason.
As soon as we entered the cellar, medics examined Mansour's bloody ankle. The bullet had smashed it. There was no doubt that he would require hospitalization. The medics tried to cheer him up as they applied a bandage &emdash; if they had thoughts about the likelihood of permanent disability, they kept it to themselves.
Meanwhile cups of hot instant coffee were passed out. Then came questions by the Battalion's Intelligence Officer about what we had run into. We responded by telling our individual experiences.
VanAtta told how the firefight had started. He and Mansour had just stepped across a wire and started advancing across the moonlit meadow, near the center of the skirmish line, when the first shot was fired. Instinctively VanAtta hit the ground, but not before spotting the Jerry and seeing Mansour start to fall. A split-second later a shot was fired by somebody among us. The Jerry was in a foxhole that they had not noticed and they were almost on top of him before he fired. VanAtta saw that the German had ducked down in his hole when the shot was fired at him, whether hit or only taking cover, he did not know. Before the Jerry reappeared Van had grabbed a grenade, pulled the pin and let loose the handle, counted to three and tossed it in the hole, where it immediately exploded. At the same time, the defenders back in the shadows beyond the field began firing. VanAtta told that he tried to return the fire with the borrowed submachine gun he was carrying. To his dismay, the gun fired one shot and the bolt slammed down on an empty chamber. Van jerked the operating handle back and tried again, but the magazine was jammed and would not feed another round into position. VanAtta had then moved ahead with the crawling skirmish line, throwing white phosphorus grenades like the rest of us. By their light he saw that Mansour had gotten himself into a shell hole. When the order came to fall back. Van grabbed Mansour and, with someone pulling on the other arm, dragged him back to the bank just as the shells arrived. As he was telling this story, VanAtta, who was usually rather moderate in his speech, called down damnation on anyone who would thoughtlessly send up a weapon to someone going on patrol without having cleaned it and made sure that it was in perfect working order. [Forty years later. Art could still get indignant when recalling this episode. Wannamaker, who had the other "grease gun," had the same thing happen to him &emdash; one round and a jammed magazine &emdash; and ever after blamed the supply sergeant for issuing a dirty weapon.]
Amazingly, the very first shot fired by the Germans was the only one of theirs that had drawn blood. As expected, Mansour wound up with a permanent disability and, of course, unable to return to the Platoon. After he was carried up the cellar stairs to a waiting jeep, the next time any of us heard from him was years later, back in the States. Only then did we learn that it was Mansour who had fired the first return shot, at the instant he fell forward to the ground. Mansour also told that he saw VanAtta stand up before tossing the grenade in the hole. When the rest of us moved ahead, between him and the enemy, Mansour had rolled over into a shallow shell hole, where he remained until someone took his rifle and dragged him back out of the field as the shells came in.
Stumpff and Wannamaker also had a story to tell. They had been watching out to the right flank when the MG-42 machinegun opened fire from somewhere in the darkness in the vicinity of the watercourse. They saw the muzzle flash and tracers and began returning the fire. To his dismay, Wannamaker's submachine gun fired only one round and failed to feed from the magazine. Stumpff's B.A.R. worked fine and he sprayed 20-round bursts in the direction of the machine gun. The machine gunners replied with a burst every time Stumpff fired, but for some reason their bullets were all high. Wannamaker remembered that with every burst from the machine gun, showers of big splinters came flying from the tree at whose base they lay. Stumpff kept up a steady fire, running through all his magazines and some from Wannamaker's belt before the order to fall back was given. At the debriefing, Stumpff mentioned that now they would need some more B.A.R. magazines. Years later Welti recalled that the Company Commander sharply reminded him that B.A.R. magazines are not classified as expendable items and threatened to send Stumpff and Wannamaker back to Welz after the ones they had left lying on the ground. The Company Supply Sergeant tried to tell Wannamaker the same thing when he demanded more magazines. They did not have to go, of course. Welti defended them and, more importantly, no one really thought it credible that anyone could return that night to the hornets' nest that we had stirred up.
There had been a German machine gun over on the left flank as well. What happened there, however, was quite different from the prolonged exchange of fire on the right. The German crew did not get off a shot. Matt Baron, with his B.A.R. and with Ysidro DelaO beside him, had moved out into the meadow with the skirmish line. When the phosphorus grenades began burning. Baron and DelaO had dropped to the ground, with their rifles pointed toward where the enemy would appear if he tried an "end run" around the line of fire and smoke. And that is exactly what happened.
The firing had been going on for a minute or so, without Baron and DelaO firing a shot, when suddenly they saw two Germans run into view in the perimeter of the light from the burning grenades. They carried a machine gun with its long belt of cartridges and their intent was clear as they flopped on the ground, in perfect position to rake our line from end to end with deadly enfilading fire. Fortunately for us, they never saw Baron and DelaO &emdash; or if they did it was too late for them. The machine gunners were directly in front of the B.A.R. at a range of only fifteen or twenty yards. Before they could get off a shot. Baron emptied the 20-round magazine into them in one long burst. Neither moved and no other enemy ventured into view on that flank.
The other patrol members had little to add to the description of the fight. That we had returned with only one casualty was clearly due to a combination of factors, including a large measure of good luck. For example, Haubenreich never forgot one incident. As he was lying with the others, firing through the smoke, a "potato masher" grenade came looping over from the other side and rolled to a stop only five feet or so in front of him. He knew that the 5-second fuse would cause it to explode before he could jump up, grab it and throw it back. He bowed his head behind his helmet, flattened himself even more on the ground and waited. And waited. The grenade never did go off. It was either a dud or, more likely, the Jerry who had thrown it was so excited that he had failed to jerk the string to light its fuse. Years later Haubenreich always counted this as one of his list of providential, narrow escapes from death.
Elated by our safe return after inflicting at least three casualties on the enemy, we assured the questioning officer that when K Company attacked, we would overrun the defenders of Welz &emdash; "Like cutting butter with a hot knife," we said. The officer seemed unimpressed. He even acted disappointed that we hadn't brought back a prisoner or, at least, the machine gun to prove that we had really killed the crew. Nevertheless he did agree that we were probably right about taking Welz without much trouble. Then he told us why he thought so.
The German who had walked over and surrendered had been interrogated and was already on his way to prison camp somewhere to the rear. His story was as follows. He had been in the Wehrmacht only a few weeks, having been deferred for years because of a physical disability. After brief training, he had been put into an outfit consisting of others from the bottom of the manpower barrel with only a few experienced non-corns. His company had just a couple of nights before moved up into Welz, relieving an outfit that had been badly chewed up in the heavy fighting of the past weeks. Morale was very low; everyone knew the war was lost, he said, and were only trying to stay alive until Germany capitulated.
According to the deserter, that night he and two other enlisted men, with one officer to watch them, had gone out in front of their lines to dig another listening post. An American artillery barrage had come in on them, badly wounding the officer. The other two men had carried the officer back for first aid, leaving the one man behind with the rifles and shovels. Sitting there alone in the darkness between the lines, he came to the conclusion that this was the best chance he would ever have to surrender without being shot, either by attacking Americans or by his own officers if he were caught trying to desert. So he simply got up and walked along the draw until he was halted. In response to the challenge, he shouted "Kamerad! Kamerad!" and was allowed to come on into the hands of infantrymen. The G-2 team waiting to debrief our patrol had interrogated him. They were convinced that he was not a "plant" to mislead us but was telling the truth.
We never learned whether the deserter was lying or not. If he was telling the truth, the situation in Welz changed after he left. Two days after our patrol, our regiment attacked in force and found that Welz was being held, not by a ragtag outfit, but by fanatical Waffen-SS troops. Elements of the 10th SS Panzer Division, which had won honors in Russia and more recently had played a major role in the battle at Arnhem (depicted in the movie One Bridge Too Far) had moved into Welz shortly before we attacked on November 30.
-----End Part #2
Click on the link below to read the second installment...
Memories of Service in the Second Platoon, Co. K., 407th Infantry - Pt 3
(Editor's note: Attempts were made throughout the text of the following story to place full names to the men listed in the story. For the most part, this is an educated guess and some names may very well be mistaken in their identy. The names were all taken from the division history book: With The 102d Infantry Division Through Germany, edited by Major Allen H. Mick. Using the text as a guide, associations with specific units were the basis for the name identifications. We are not attempting in any to rewrite the story. Any corrections are gladly welcomed.)
The above story, "Memories of Service in the Second Platoon, Company K, 407th Infantry -- March 1944 - September 1945" was originally edited by Paul N. Haubenreich and William L. Schaible and printed in September 1995. The story was forwarded to World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words, by the son of Paul N. Haubenreich, Joe Heubenreich as a follow-up to an original e-mail sent in December 2006.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of Mr. Joe Haubenreich. Our sincerest THANKS for the men of the 102d Infantry Division Association allowing us to share some of their stories.
We would also like to extend our sincere THANKS to Mr. Edward L. Souder, former historian of Co. F., 405th Regiment. His collection of stories of the "Kitchen Histories Project" series entitled, Those Damn Doggies in F, were responsible for bringing the stories of the men of the 102nd Division to the forefront.
Original Story submitted on 19 April 2007.
Story added to website on 19 April 2007.
September 5, 2002.
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