Heroes: the Army
"...It seemed as though the German gunner was giving the two men a chance to get out before firing the killing shot, yet nothing happened; they could wait no longer. Then the top hatch finally flipped over, the tank commander climbed out, got one foot on top and started to jump just as a tremendous explosion blew a three foot hole through the center of the tank, right where the gunner was sitting..."
Chester W. Edwards
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. M., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: Sgt.
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Erie, PA
The War Time Journal of
S/Sgt. Chet W. Edwards, 405-M
This journal started when Chet's sister presented him with all of the letters he had written home to his mother starting in November, 1943 and ending in August 1945. As he compiled them he added, in 1995, the rest of the story he couldn't put into the letters home.
"A week after my Nov. 9, (1944) letter home, we took off on attack that turned out badly as the Germans caught us in a trap and pinned us down for seven days. Seven days in a foxhole knee deep in mud was the most miserable time of my life.
It began as a full Battalion attack. We left the small town of Waurichen, Germany. We didn't follow the road to another town, instead we crossed a road and went straight through wide open country -- mostly level, almost treeless.
As usual, only the officers had maps, knew where we were and where we were going, or rather where they were going. We just followed along. Ahead of us, the terrain stretched for miles, no towns, houses, barns visible anywhere. It was a cool, cloudy day with an occasional light drizzle. We took off, not on a side-by-side line, like they did in WWI, it was a column advance, about two rifle squads wide so the Battalion was stretched out some distance.
Apparently the plan was to bypass some enemy held towns, circle around and cut them off. By the time we reached our target, we would have been very far out ahead of all other units of the Regiment. And as we took off, as usual, we could see no other battalion units on our left -- or on our right -- or even behind us. Since our two platoons of machine guns and one platoon of 81mm mortars were bringing up the rear -- there was not even ambulances. Which I thought odd. Was there to be no casualties?
Just fifteen minutes after we were moving along, without any signs of the enemy, we were startled as a flight of four ME-109 fighters came roaring overhead at treetop level. They crossed directly over the tail end of the column but we knew -- if we expected to surprise the enemy we could -- forget it now. The fighters didn't fire at us, apparently they were as surprised as we were and they were probably after some other target. They disappeared -- and never came back.
The advance continued without any more incidents and a half hour later we could see the dim outline of houses on the horizon, still some distance away. At this time we were going down a slight grade, nothing serious but the terrain finally ended on a slight rise in the ground, leading to another long stretch of terrain, leading into that town that was our objective, I guessed.
A few minutes before we reached the rise in ground, the Germans let us know they knew we were coming and the began lobbing an occasional 60mm shell towards us. The intermittent barrage didn't slow up but we would hit the ground, then get up and continue moving forward.
All three rifle companies reached the slight rise in ground, went up and over with a mortar round dropping in once in a while. Just as I reached the bottom of the low rise, two riflemen came staggering over the top holding up one man whose face was a mass of blood. We had no ambulances, so they set him on the ground, and waited for some help. Just as I was starting up the hill, I saw one of the four Sherman tanks supporting us start up a farm road a short distance to my left. That took care of our tank support for this attack.
By now the Germans had brought up reinforcements -- our surprise was over. With the mortars still coming in, with the enemy somewhere out in front facing us, now would have been the time for a heavy artillery barrage to support us. It never came. With the enemy now out in front of us in force with tanks and antitank guns, we didn't have a chance without artillery support. Still there was none.
We started climbing up the slight rise to higher ground and I noticed that our mortar platoon had stopped far behind us. Our machine gun platoon continued upward and as we reached the top and started forward over level ground i was surprised to see the rifle companies were hitting the ground firing at something that I couldn't see far out in front of us. We moved forward about twenty yards and as the last man cleared the top of the hill, the enemy opened up with a furious, deadly barrage.
The intensity took breath away. Machine guns, mortars, artillery, antitank guns were now blasting away in a continuous roar of firepower. It was impossible to stand up against it. I hit the ground with a shock. Lay stunned for a moment. The noise of the enemy fire was so loud it was unnecessary to give orders to dig in. I looked behind me and all I could see were men working their packs off, getting their shovels out and start digging. It was impossible to walk, or run, we had no alternative but to dig in to survive. Raise a hand up and machine gun tracers crackling two feet overhead would take a hand off you and you'd bleed to death - and no one would help.
It took a long time, but little by little, a spoonful of dirt at a time, I had a "book type" foxhole, nice and square and just deep enough to be protected from everything but a direct hit by a mortar. You start out digging by tossing a little dirt out in front of you as you dig to provide some protection so by the time the hole is deep enough, you have a sort of mound of earth shield in front. By now, It was dark, tracers were still cracking overhead together with an occasional 88 tracer. You knew it was an armor piercing tracer because it didn't explode. Obviously they were to let our tanks know they didn't have a chance if they tried to get up on high ground. So they stayed behind us.
I expected we would be in for a long night but that in the morning our support artillery would lay down a heavy barrage to pin the enemy down, and we would get up and resume the attack. The next morning - nothing. Before dawn the Germans opened up with a minor barrage of mortar fire traversing the entire battalion front. After a two hour barrage the night before, they let up and dropped in a few rounds of mortar fire just to keep us from going anywhere.
None of us realized the full extent of the dilemma. Our tank support was in a bad vulnerable position and couldn't help. If we had an artillery forward observer -- and I don't believe we had one -- we couldn't get artillery support because no one knew exactly where the enemy was. The low cloud cover kept spotter aircraft and fighter bombers away.
During all the time we were pinned down, we never got a single order. During the first night, all the officers pulled back behind the ridge to discuss what to do next. Again, I expected to have the attack resumed the next morning under cover of an artillery barrage. Again, nothing happened, -- and it continued to rain and my foxhole slowly got muddier and muddier.
The Germans went on a routine of harassing us with a barrage of mortars traversing the entire battalion front. First in one direction, then back again in the other direction, back and forth, hours at a time. Then they would let up for a couple of hours, then start again with the same routine, 24 hours a day. Every round that hit close by got me a shower of dirt and mud, kept me busy cleaning my rifle. Once a day I fired my rifle -- no targets could be seen -- just to make sure it would fire when needed.
You couldn't get out of your foxhole. Try it and burst of machine gun fire would drive you back to more dull, miserable life in a foxhole. There was nothing anyone could do in a foxhole 24 hours a day. I used up my only K rations slowly to make it last. Then it was all gone and there was no more. The third day I made an important discovery. We were in a turnip field. Ripe turnips. I pulled one out of the ground, wiped off as much mud as I could and ate my first turnip. It was delicious -- I never got hungry -- not with a supply of turnips.
On the fourth day, still no signs of relief or resuming the attack, the enemy had resumed the practice of dropping 60mm mortars around us. I was slumped down in my foxhole as far as I could to keep away from near misses, when I was startled to hear a voice, "Hey, Sarge ----"
I looked up, dazed. It was Private Holbrook (James S.), our platoon runner. Shells were dropping all around. I jumped up, grabbed his jacket, pulled him into the hole just as a round hit near the edge of the foxhole, half burying us.
As we struggled to dig out, I yelled, "Are you crazy -- what are you doing out there?"
He was a shaken man. He always had the appearance of needing a shave. Now he was white faced. "The lieutenant (our platoon leader) wanted to know if you wanted anything hot to eat."
I was too angry to reply. We sat in the mud for an hour, then the soldier said "guess I'd better get, Sarge." Mortars were still coming in. I grabbed his arm. "Sit down. You aren't going anywhere until it's safe." It was starting to get dark -- late afternoon. Little by little the mortars let up. Finally I said "OK, if you want to -- take off." Cautiously he crawled out with me right beside him. I looked around to see if there would be any problems for him to get back to the rear. It seemed like a good time so I told him to take off. He was on his knees, starting to get up, bent over so he wouldn't be a good target. "What am I going to tell the lieutenant?" "Tell him to forget the food -get us out of here." I had a soldier's vocabulary in mind but this man had gone through enough without his being caught in the middle. He got back safely.
Days on end of cold, penetrating cold rain, mud, nothing to do, unable to do anything, no signs of any changes made for the most depressing, demoralizing time. After the runner left, I went back to the practice of taking off my boots, socks and rubbing my feet to get some feeling back. Trench-foot was a real stark fact. My feet never dried out, never got warm. And even worse, there was a serious burning feel that worried me.
On the fifth day, impossible tragedy.
I called it murder; the Army called it an unfortunate military incident.
In mid-afternoon, the enemy lifted the usual mortar harassing fire. As I usually did when they lifted their fire, I got to my feet and looked over the front to see if there was any threatening action. There was a small town off to our right about a mile away, the town being in line and somewhat behind the line of battalion positions.
As I looked around, some movement near the town caught my eye. It was too far away to make out, but any movement on a battlefield is unusual. I continued watching over the front and before long I could make out two tank destroyers moving in a direction toward us. Tank destroyers are built on a tank chassis, have a long barreled, very powerful 90mm gun, equal to the German's 88mm gun. But the TD has very thin armor and usually would take part in a battle from a somewhat protected position.
As the two TDs moved toward our position, they were screened for awhile by a growth of trees, However, this terrain in front of us had no tree protection. I expected the two TDs were going to a position in the woods and start firing at what I was certain, were enemy tanks of antitank guns far out on the horizon, dug in, hardly visible. And what about "division artillery"? Where was it to give the TDs cover?
In the cold wet drizzle, the TDs moved slowly through the mud, and kept coming. Finally they were beyond the cover of woods and out in the wide open plain of the battlefield. The TDs might have been screened by the woods but the Germans to our left on a line that curved, had to see the TDs all the time they were concealed from enemy tanks by trees.
The lead TD kept moving, gun barrel still aimed straight ahead in the direction the TD was moving, until it reached a point directly in front and about 25 yards away from me. I was tempted, before the TD moved away from the cover of trees, to get up and wave them back. But all I could think of was that they had come directly from headquarters and must have known more about the situation than I did. So, I stayed where I was. So did everyone on the front -- Americans and Germans -- for the only thing moving was those two TDs. Four men in a TD, two of them, moving, I was certain of disaster.
Then it happened, An explosion just a few feet in front of the TD. The Germans had the TD in their sights and there was absolutely no way to escape. It would now be only moments until the end. The German gunner knew what he was doing. For heavily armored tanks, armor piercing shells would be used. For lighter tank destroyers, high explosives.
As soon as the first shell hit, the tank driver tried to escape by putting the tank in reverse, and got stuck in the deep mud. As soon as the tank stalled, the front hatches flipped open, the driver and the assistant driver bailed out and started running, slipping and sliding in the mud back toward the town they had just left.
So did the TD following. Strangely, that TD made no effort to help the doomed TD in front. Their long gun tube remained straight ahead, didn't make a move in the direction of the enemy gun which by now was obviously on a direct line with me and the TD in front of me.
The German gunner knew he was bout to kill the hapless TD, so he let the two running crew members get past the rear of the tank, then another huge explosion a few feet behind the tank, bracketing it.
I wondered why the tank commander and the gunner had made no move to get out. Surely they must have known time was running out. Those last few moments must have been terrifying.
It seemed as though the German gunner was giving the two men a chance to get out before firing the killing shot, yet nothing happened; they could wait no longer. Then the top hatch finally flipped over, the tank commander climbed out, got one foot on top and started to jump just as a tremendous explosion blew a three foot hole through the center of the tank, right where the gunner was sitting.
I ducked as searing heat passed overhead. I started to climb out of my foxhole to help if possible but all that I could see were small fires covering the ground between me and the tank. No signs of a person. Two men killed for no reason. Apparently no one at Headquarters had any idea of where the German guns were and sent the two TDs out to find out -- at the cost of two lives. I was certain I knew. Why didn't the officers in command know? What I did know was that there were no targets off to our left in the direction the two TDs were heading. Why were they going in that direction? There were never any answers. The incident was never written up, quickly forgotten.
By now it was late afternoon, growing dark, still a light drizzle, a cold miserable day and thousands of men on both sides watched in silence as the tank burned and shells inside continued to explode for hours. There was no more firing for the rest of the day or that night and by morning the tank that had glowed red all night had become a smoking blackened wreckage. With all that remained of the two men.
There were to be two more days living in a mud hole. During the entire week we had never gotten an order, seen an officer, were told what was going on and how long or why we had to be kept in the position. I felt sure that we could have been out the first couple of days. Apparently, the division headquarters finally decided they had to get the battalion out or lose the entire battalion to trench foot and trench mouth disease.
I had been cold and wet for so long it was finally getting to me. Despite the attention I gave my feet, they seemed to be getting worse, The burning sensation increasing. The enemy mortar harassment ended late in the afternoon of the seventh day and after a couple of hours, I heard the platoon runner standing over me saying "Come on, Sarge, we're getting out." I didn't need a second invitation.
I didn't realize how weak I was getting. I threw my rifle on top of the ground, started crawling through the muddy sides of the hole, finally got out on my hands and knees, and stared at my "home" for the last seven days.
It had been a nice square cut, book type foxhole. Now it was a mud filled bomb crater 10 feet in diameter. There were a dozen smaller shell holes surrounding it, showing how intense the enemy mortar fire had been. For the first time I wondered how many foxholes had received a direct hit. I never found out the answer.
I tried getting to my feet but they were on fire. There was no blood circulating. In the dim light I could see my men staggering off toward waiting trucks, carrying their equipment. I was getting out, even if I had to crawl all the way.
I kept testing my feet. After crawling ten feet I could finally get up and stay on my feet as blood was finally beginning to circulate. It took quite an effort but I, like many other men, managed to stagger a mile to where trucks with engines idling quietly waited, drivers impatient to get away before the Germans started an artillery barrage.
When we left that battlefield, it was every man for himself. I didn't have the strength to go around to check, see if all my men had gotten out of their foxholes. Once the platoon runner had alerted us, he wasn't about to come back again.
It was understood that no man would ever be a burden on another, unless so badly wounded no one else could help. It was also an accepted fact that in the majority of situations, the wounded were passed by to be taken care of only by medics. A search of the battlefield for men unable to get themselves out of their foxholes would have endangered all the men struggling to withdraw.
I needed help to get up on the truck and the drivers didn't waste time getting out at slow speed, engines quiet, keeping noise down to a minimum so the Germans wouldn't hear noise that carried well in the quiet, windless night. Half an hour later we pulled into a small German town and stopped along side of a long narrow building. I jumped off the truck, my feet gave out, and I landed flat on my face, my feet burning. After a moment I painfully climbed to my feet and heard an officer nearby say softly, 'What the hell have you fellows been through?"
We staggered through a door and entered a large room, for the first time in a week a room with lights. A chow line was set up and we could smell hot, delicious food. We got out from our packs our mess kits and cups, made our way down the line, exhausted, dirty, unshaven but starting to recover. On the other side of the chow line cooks served us, all clean shaven, clean clothes.
I got only half my way through the line and couldn't stand up any more. Took my cup of coffee and a little food, walked over to a wall, set my rifle against it, sat down, drank the coffee, ate most of the food, slipped down and went to sleep for the first time in days.
Three hours later the platoon runner shook me awake, "Let's go, Sarge, we're moving out" Moving out -- where -- to a rest and recreation area? Particularly one with USO shows. No way would an outfit looking so repulsive be allowed into a USO show with uniforms covered with mud, faces that didn't get shaved in weeks, bodies that hadn't had a shower or clean clothing in weeks. No way would MPs let us mingle with high ranking officers and their girl friend nurses and WACs. In all the time we were in combat none of us ever saw a USO show and I never heard of anyone ever attending one of those shows that was to "bolster the morale of our fighting men." Only rear echelon men got to those shows. We were not suitable representatives of "our fighting men" and we never had any interest or use for USO shows.
All the time we were suffering in those mud filled foxholes I always thought we were in such a vulnerable position, without tank and artillery support, that we were ripe for an enemy attack. It never came. Only later were we to learn that the Germans were pulling men and equipment out and sending them south for the Ardennes campaign that became the Battle of the Bulge.
Perhaps if that flight of ME-109s had not spotted us -- if our surprise attack had been a success -- cutting off large segments of German troops, capturing men and documents, there might not have been a Battle of the Bulge four weeks later.
----- Chet W. Edwards
(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, "Saddle Up", by Chet W. Edwards, 405th, Co. M., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 55, No. 1, Oct. / Dec., 2002, pp. 5 - 9.
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 7 July 2003.
Story added to website on 8 July 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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