Heroes: the Army
"...German artillery already has us zeroed in and is lobbing everything they have at us. Halfway down the road, the weapons platoon loses half of their men to the shelling, and countless others remained on this side for one reason or another..."
Samuel D. "Don" Egolf
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. E., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: Sgt.
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Spring City, PA
Roer River Crossing
Don Egolf, E Co. 405th
This feature was initiated in 1985 in an effort to recapture the experiences of our fighting men and document their feelings of cambat for posterity. We all know that experiencing combat is the real teacher, but documenting it is the next best medhod of educating our heirs. Horror, dispair and humor all played their part in our experiences.
In this episode Don Egolf, E Co. 405th, tells of the anxiety of making the Roer River crossing.
22 February 1945, Approximately 1800 hours
"Just a few yards from the high bank of the Roer River at Roerdorf, elements of Co.E, 405th Inf. Rgt., huddled in the cellar of a bombed - out house. A final detailed briefing of the river crossing had just been given to His men by "Egghead", Capt. Raymond Flaherty, E Co. Commander, who encouraged his men to get some rest as it may be their last for a long time to come.
With the future at stake, and trying to relax, the silence is broken by the strains of "Shine on, Shine On Harvest Moon Up In the Sky"...others chimed in, creating a very pacifying envirionment. I later learned that Byron Riggan, our medic Epstein Dave Reeder, and Dave Dunlap were the revelers who had attempted to calm the nervousness that grips everyone prior to an attack. The singing continued for an hour or more, then silence, until early the next morning when our artillery opened up.
23 February 1945, 0245 hours
Some slept, most did not. However when our artillery started to blast the other side of the river, everyone was alert and getting ready for the push to the Rhine. I was handed a satchel charge (to ease supply - line problems) to carry acrross the river and deposit for use, as needed, by the Engineers. That piece of TNT must have added 20-25 pounds to my already over - weighted frame carrying my BAR and an extra supply of ammo. What would one do if the boat would capsize on the way to the other side? Would I, at a time like this, blame my platoon sargeant for taking my
M-l from me and issuing the Browning Automatic Rifle to relieve the previous bearer of his burden? I later learned that all reinforcements are blessed with this menial task. I also learned that the BAR gave one a much warmer feeling of support and power than any other of Uncle Sam's inventory, and I even kept it as my basic weapon when I was promoted to squad leader.
Assembled on the high bank, at the top of the road that leads down to the river's edge, Egghead and Co. head down toward the river where our combat engineers are waiting to ferry us across in boats that carry 6 or 8 personnel - add one more for the engineer who issued oars to the men and uses one oar in the rear to steer us to the other side. German artillery already has us zeroed in and is lobbing everything they have at us. Halfway down the road, the weapons platoon loses half of their men to the shelling, and countless others remained on this side for one reason or another.
The crossing was difficult. The swollen river had dissipated somewhat. However, the current was still very swift and we finally reached the other side with the fore section of our boat imbedded in the bank. Our engineer in the aft section had his oar pointed in the bottom and was pushing as hard as he could to bring the port side of the craft to the bank. Observing his dilemma, I began to push in an effort to ease his load when I lost my balance and knocked our combat engineer into the icy water. We threw our oars back into the boat for the return trip and hurriedly assembled to continued our attack on Tetz. I never looked back to see what happened to our helmsman. Lucky for me our combat engineers were not armed to better carry out their mission. If he had been armed, I am sure he might have been tempted.
Not too many yards from the river, as we head towards Tetz, a large ditch confronts us - it is about 6 - 7 feet deep, wedged shape to the bottom where approximately a foot of water flows, and is about three feet wide. It is impossible to hurdle the water without getting at least one foot wet, which will freeze if one doesn't keep moving.
E Comany somehow survives one dry foot, so on to Tetz. However, just prior to entering the small village, which was practially unopposed, the Company separated itself after crossing the ditch, but a short time later entertained themselves with a pincers movement, firing upon each other until someone finally recognized their comrades and ceased fire. Fortunately, no one was injured.
I can't recall if anyone suffered trench foot or frozen feet, but a short time later we were reconnoitered in Tetz and were given a rest before our next attack. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you - I dumped that TNT satchel charge just as soon as I left the boat!
A few nights later we dug in for the night to hold our line. After the holes were dug and what was left of our company, we tried to settle down to some kind of guard duty to prevent penetration of our lines. A couple of miles forward and approximately three miles apart, two small villages were burning as a result of our artillery which preceded us earlier that day. It was pitch dark, except for the silhouettes that stood before us - between the burning villages and our line. Upon receiving the password, we tried to relax and settle down to two men in a hole - one sentry and the other to try and get some sleep - no smoking, not even under your poncho. A bit later, as the flames continued to light up the sky, I heard, then I saw the outline of a figure between me and the fire ahead. I challenged what to me was an enemy trying to penetrate our defenses, but there was no response to my challenge; therefore, I readied by BAR to combat any situation that might occur. My second challenge was also unanswered, so I felt a show of force was inevitable. I figured a burst from my BAR would command some attention, and I pulled the triggeer but only fired one round. Why? I will never know. Fortunately, that round penetrated the neck of one of our men - nothing more than a million - dollar wound.
I often think of what might have happened if I would have held down the trigger. I was detailed to go back to the aid station with Pfc Pineda. I never did see him again, and hopefully, he returned to the states and has forgiven me for that one round from an automatic weapon.
I was discharged and received my Lame Duck in January 1946. In Sept. 1947, I returned to the Army and completed 20 years of service in the Regular Army, retiring in May 1966.
While stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, I took leave in July 1958 and visited the combat area where E Company had trudged in 1945. I recently found an old letter describing my thoughts of that trip with my family, dated 20 July 1958, which reads as follows:
0835 hours 20 July 1958
"Just left the Autobahn and have 21 kms to Krefeld. Just before leaving the Autobahn we saw a convoy of British trucks on manuevers, indicating that we were in the British Zone of Occupation. In Krefeld we will see territory that should be familiar to me from 1945.
Drove through Krefeld and looked for familiar sites but didn't recognize a thing. I sure was disappointed. Left Krefeld and am now following signs to Munchen Glabach.
There is an airport there and I remember how Dave Dunlap first knew he had trench feet there - that was the last time I saw him, March 1945. NORTHAG is situated in the city - General Headquarters for the British Army Forces and the seat of government for the British Zone of Occupation.
We are traveling in the opposite direction from the route I walked in 1945. I started in Aachen and went northeast to Krefeld - today we are going southwest.
We are driving through many small towns that I remember only by name. As yet, I have not seen a familiar sight. It is quite a contrast driving through this country in a modern automobile with all the beautiful scenery we now see compared to walking through the fields and roads looking for an enemy soldier and his weapons.
I just asked a young German boy the way to Tetz and he motioned with his finger. I told him thanks (Danke Shon) and we are again on our way.
We just passed a small trestle on our way into town and I recognized it immediately. I saw this trestle in shambles from a field on the opposite side of the tracks one evening just after taking the town of Tetz. I can recall lighting a cigarette under a blanket, the first real chance for a smoke that day. The town was just ahead of us and in flames, creating a beautiful silhouette. Only now can I see anything that was beautiful about war - Udo is one of my best examples of this. He is the son of Karl Kiscka, one of my best German friends and a 1st Lieutenant in the German Army during the war.
As we entered the town of Tetz, I looked down the main street and recognized it right away. Heavy artillery had it in bad shape when I had last seen it, but today every house had a window box filled with bright red flowers. Even though there were signs of scars left on the homes, the town had recovered fast and looked pretty good.
Retracing the road we came in, we are now on our way to Linnich, a small town up the river from Tetz. Someone said they were hungry so we stopped at the town hotel and had a beef roll, which was very good. As we sat and ate dinner I watched curious people of the town looking over my car - a black and white Buick is a rarity here in this part of Germany - so are Americans.
After dinner we started out again and this time we traveled 2 kms south along the Roer River that will take us just opposite the town of Tetz to Ruhrdorf, the spot were we jumped off on the morning of 23 February 1945 - a morning I will never forget.
As we drove into town I saw a street that I remembered walking down that morning with a satchel charge on my back, a BAR in my hands and many rounds of ammo in my bags. When we neared the dirt road, just prior to reaching the river, I knew that this was the spot because this was the place we lost almost half of our company when the road was zeroed in by the German 88's as they retreated. Yes, this was the spot where I tried to dig a hole before we moved out by boat but the dirt was too hard. So I just had to wait in the open until it was my turn to get in a boat and cross to the other side of the Roer.
I parked the car just around the bend in the road and walked to the small bridge that crossed the river. Floatinq beneath the bridge was a boat just like the one that we used that day, but it was modified now for other use."
From here on, the following paragraphs are Jean's version of the walk to the Roer. Jean and Don were married in July 1940 and until this moment Jean knew of Don's experiences in combat only from his letters.
"I followed Don down the little dirt toad (the girls sat in the car and waited because it was starting to rain) and walked up on the bridge and stood and listened while he told me about crossing the river in the same type of boat that was drifting back and forth in the water below. As we stood alone and looked at the Roer River, which at this point was now only a stream running through a meadow (the Germans had flooded it just before the Americans crossed in 1945), it seemed unbelievable that so many boys had lost their lives right at this spot, where today the stillness is broken only by the sound of Don's voice. I could only stand there and wonder just what were Don's thoughts at this moment, and just what did he see and remember. I felt the urge to hurry away because I had the feeling that I shouldn't be here. I was an intruder from the past and was anxious to be on our way.
We walked slowly toward the dar, hesitating to glance back at the peaceful scene and to look across the bridge at the other side, a meadow with a sad, sad past behind her. I knew then that Don was ready to leave - he had wanted to return to this scene for a long time, but now he had seen it and the book was closed.
Just at this moment an elderly gentleman crossed the bridge on his bicycle and as he passed he tipped his hat and said "Guten Tag." I could not help but wonder if he knew the reason for our visit - but I also marveled in the greeting of "Good Day" between a German and an American. Today it is 1958 - yesterday, 1945, it had been so different."
----- Samual D. "Don" Egolf
(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, "Crossing the Roer", by Samual D. "Don" Egolf, 405th, Co. E., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 41, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 4 - 7.
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 29 October 2003.
Story added to website on 29 October 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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