Heroes: the Army
"...ASTP men were intelligent and had acquired several years of college education. They felt abused bearing a MOS (military occupation specialty) 745 rifle. Some of the army's brightest young men now served with the lowest of the low &emdash; the line infantry. The army had dealt them a raw deal..."
Richard Altobelli, Jr.
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. E., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: PFC
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Leominister, MA
The Siegfried Line
Richard Altobelli - 405-E
The 102nd entered the line, just across the Dutch-German border, in late October. Its front faced the German West Wall, the city of Geilenkirchen dominated the area.
Hitler had commenced building the West Wall, known to the Allies as the Siegfried line, following his re-militarization of the Rhineland in 1936. A large labor force had worked into 1940 building the wall, which extended about 450 miles from the Swiss frontier to Holland. Unlike the French Maginot Line, a series of large self-sufficient fortifications, the West Wall was a line of smaller pillboxes. Only in limited areas did the pillboxes form a tight pattern of clusters in a forward line supported by an additional line of clusters to the rear...from Geilenkirchen past Aachen (south) was one such area, because geography (the Cologne Plain) otherwise favored the Liegge-Aachen invasion route into Germany.
In early September 1944, the Siegfried line was an empty shell. There were no troops manning it, add all of its weapons had been removed for use elsewhere. An American unit easily penetrated the line at that time. As the Germans fell back from defeat in France, they regrouped within the line. In November, it was a formidable barrier.
When the 102nd commenced operations in late October, its objective was the west bank of the Roer River, approximately seven miles through the Siegfried line. I was assigned to the 405th Infantry and from that headquarters was brought to the line company with which I would work. My days of rolling along with the tumbleweed, days of loneliness and isolation in a throng of men, were at an end. I had been in the army more than seven months and had not been part of a continuing organization. The company CP assigned me to the 3rd Platoon, 3rd squad. My army home had found me.
&emdash;Welcome to 3rd Squad, Altobelli. My name is Hugh Winchester. I'm from Ohio by way of Texas. Fort Maxey. Where are you from? Where did you do your training?
&emdash; I'm from Massachusetts and did my training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia. I've been in the army just over seven months.
&emdash; You must be about twenty. How come you are so late getting into this fine war? Political connections?
&emdash; I'll be twenty in a few months. No political connections. I was a machinist working on war production and had deferments for nearly two years.
&emdash; I hope war production hasn't come to an end back home. You had that deferment figured, didn't you? How come you lost it?
&emdash; I had it figured; I didn't lose it. I gave it up.
&emdash; What the fuck kind of man we got here, Hugh? a man named Laurton put in. Laurton and I would be members of the same squad from this point until we reached the Elbe River.) He figures a deferment, then gives it up. You some fuckin' kind of patriot? Just was this fuckin' outfit needs.
&emdash; Let the man talk, Laurton, Winchester said. But he's right. You had it made. After two years, what happened? A failed love affair?
&emdash; No love affair, though my mother's interference with a girl I was dating didn't help. A group of us went to work in a tool shop, some a little ahead of the others. I was the only Italian in the group. We received a 5-cent raise every six months. The last raise was for 10 cents. All the others got it. When my turn came, I was offered 5 cents. The problem was, the owner had become ill and had had to take a rest. He's a fine man, but when he left, he left his son in charge. He is the exact opposite of his father. I had to deal with such a man. I was doing the same work as the other young men, but he saw no injustice in offering me only a nickel. We argued back and forth, and he finally said "You take the 5 cents, or you go in the army." I told him what he could do with his 5 cents, and here I am. This is a new division. Has it been in action? Have you seen action before with some other outfit?
&emdash; No to both questions. Winchester said. I was in ASTP. When the army ended that program, I was sent here.
Before completing training at Camp Swift, the 102nd had received an influx of 3,250 men from the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). Soldiers who had completed basic training and who attained a high score on army exams &emdash; a score higher than that required for OCS &emdash; were sent to college. It was felt that that would enable them to make a greater contribution to the war effort. With the war dragging on and casualties mounting, the army went looking for replacement infantry. As I had learned, the army had severely restricted its ASTP program.
ASTP men were intelligent and had acquired several years of college education. They felt abused bearing a MOS (military occupation specialty) 745 rifle. Some of the army's brightest young men now served with the lowest of the low &emdash; the line infantry. The army had dealt them a raw deal.
Before our introduction into combat, some ASTP men had noted that because of them, the 405th Infantry had, on average, the highest IQ of any outfit in the line. That may have been true, but the non-ASTP men were not impressed. For us, men who had a high IQ, whatever that was, were college types. Smart, maybe, but not likely to be fighters. After we entered into combat, each group became more appreciative of the other. In time, it seemed clear to most of us that the educated ASTP men made a difference in our performance.
Our personal estimate of the contribution made by the ASTP men is confirmed by other sources. One writer notes, "The new divisions being committed in the autumn of 1944 often contained large quotients of men transferred from the Army Specialized Training Program...To the extent that divisions liberally laced with ASTP men performed exceptionally well, this outcome amounted to a tacit rebuke of the usual American practice of consigning only the least promising and least intelligent soldiers to the infantry. For an army that depended on its infantry for its sustained combat power to have used the infantry as a dumping ground for its least desirable personnel should, of course, have raised questions long before this demonstration of the contrary possibilities."
Another author writes, "A distinctly encouraging aspect of the campaign was the performance of the new divisions. In Normandy it had become almost routine for a division in its first action to incur severe losses and display disturbing organizational, command, and communication deficiencies for at least the first week of combat indoctrination. Yet in no case was this tendency present to a similar degree among those divisions receiving their baptism of fire during the Siegfried Line Campaign.
"Almost all the new divisions...possessed a high percentage of men transferred from the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which had contained men of proved intelligence studying under the Army sponsorship in the nation's colleges and universities."
As for myself, I was elated. The army had sent me to ASTP after all.
Winchester had been in college for three years, had traveled to Europe before the war with the Vienna Choir Boys, and spoke some French and German. He believed that war was man's natural calling. War, he said, brought out the best in men. War produced natural leaders. Society required leaders because all men were not created equal. The best society is one led by men tested in battle, men of proven strength and bravery. With my background, my lack of education, and my lack of confidence as a soldier, I found little appeal in such ideas.
The pleasure of Winchester was the wide range of his interests and the great amount of learning he brought to bear in all our discussions. His mind, ever operating at a high intellectual level, stimulated, encouraged, and furthered my own education.
In a perhaps not contradictory way, he was less at ease with some subjects related to military affairs. For all his education, Winchester, for example, was no scout.
The 405th was the first unit of the 102nd to enter combat. This occurred at Frelenberg, just south of Geilenkirchen, on October 26. The day's work done, supply sent to the line its usual measure of food, ammo, and water. We didn't get enough water. After our first day of action, supply underestimated the demand for water created by battle. Winchester came over to my hole: "Let's go the CP and get a couple of jerricans (five gallon containers) of water."
We went back, got the water, and headed back to the line.
&emdash; Winchester, I think we're headed the wrong way.
&emdash; No, we're going the right way.
&emdash; Winchester, on our way out, we didn't pass any dead. We're headed in the wrong direction.
&emdash; No, we probably just missed them.
&emdash; For Christ's sake, Winchester, we're looking at barbed wire. There sure as hell was none of that on our way out.
Screaming a hushed scream at him, I again said, We're going the wrong way
&emdash; If I had known you would be so jumpy, Altobelli, I wouldn't have asked you to come along.
Brrrrup, brrrrup, brrrrup. German machine guns to our immediate front.
&emdash; Goddamn you, Winchester, we're headed
&emdash; Yes, yes, I know. We're headed in the wrong direction.
Turning tail, we sought depressions in and crouched closer to the ground. We dashed to the rear, hauling those damn cans of water.
When we were safely back in our own area, my fear and tension were eased by some small laughter. Winchester was laughing, too. Then I realized he had been laughing all along.
Misadventures aside, I was content. I had my army home, among good men, and had lucked out. So many of them had an education that they shared. I could learn from them. Given the small savings I was accumulating, this was about as close to a college education as I was likely to get. Following the motto of my senior high school, I would "make the most of today."
----- Richard Altobelli
(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.)
Interested in some background information?
Check out the related links below...
United States Army, 102nd Infantry Division
102 Infantry Division
History of the 102nd Infantry Division
Attack on Linnich, Flossdorf, Rurdorf - 29 Nov -- 4 Dec 1944
Gardelegen War Crime
Gardelegen: April 13, 1945:
Massacre at the Isenschnibbe Barn
American Battle Monuments Commission: WWII Honor Roll
National World War II Memorial
The above story, "The Siegfried Line", by Richard Altobelli, 405th, Co. E., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 54, No. 2, Jan/March. 2002, pp. 11 - 13.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of the 102d Infantry Division Association, Ms. Hope Emerich, Historian. Our sincerest THANKS for 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 28 October 2003.
Story added to website on 18 November 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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