Heroes: the Army
"...Long range machine gun tracers were arching up over the river. Phosphorous shells beautiful to the eye as they exploded, were burning out the lives of men directly across from us. Tanks and tank destroyers were lined up firing blindly..."
Eugene M. Greenburg
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. F., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1943 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: S/Sgt., (2) Bronze Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1922
- Entered Service: New York
A River Crossing
by Eugene M. Greenburg, 405-F.
I was up to my armpits in the middle of the river, grimly holding on to a submerged branch of a sunken tree. I felt numb from the waist down and was wondering how much longer I would stay in the river.
Dawn was breaking, but I couldn't see more than two or three feet on either side of me because of the fog. It was not natural fog, but artificial fog that the Chemical Corps was using to cover the crossing of the river. There were a few breaks in the fog, but the shore was too far away to be visible.
I guessed that it was 0700 and I had been here for about two hours. It hardly seemed possible that only five hours ago, this catastrophe, that I hope I could awaken to find a nightmare, had begun.
It was at 0100 hours that "Red" Coudira [Richard J.]came down to awaken us. He came down the steps and cursed softly as he tripped over me while trying to get at the candle. "I'll light it, Red." I said as I sat up off the stone floor and reached for a match in my pocket. As the glow of the candle illuminated the room, I could see Coudira gently waking up the other fellows.
Usually the men swore, yelled, and gave their opinion of everything and everyone in the Army upon being awakened so eariy in the moming. This morning there was no cursing, no gripes, just the quiet efficiency of men knowing there was work to be done. Each of them folded his blanket and piled them neatly in a corner of the room. We had enough to carry tonight without burdening ourselves with blankets.
We quietly made our packs, hooked them on and started piling on everything else we might have a use for during the next two days. We had already been told we couldn't expect any additional food or ammo during the following 48 hours. My rifle belt and the two bandoleers around my neck assured me of plenty of rifle ammo. As I adjusted the straps on my ammo bag, the weight indicated enough grenades for any emergency. Six "K" rations in my pack would ease my hunger for some time.
I was set to go and sat down to await further orders. I pondered over what was supposed to happen in the next few hours. It all seemed so simple the way Lt. Fletcher [Walter A.] had explained it earlier that afternoon. He had first reminded us that the delay we had experienced in crossing the river was due to the Germans destroying dams further up the river and making it a raging torrent. The river was down a great deal now, but because of the heavy rains it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to cross. He assured us that because of our practice crossing the Maas River in Belgium a few days ago, we shouldn't have too much trouble in crossing this smaller river - - the Roer. Besides, we were all to carry life preservers.
The lieutenant further explained that before crossing we would have 45 minutes of the greatest artillery barrage ever directed against the Germans. If it were morning before we succeeded in completing the crossing, the Chemical Corps would aid in covering the whole river with artificial fog. As soon as we made the crossing our platoon was to assemble at a certain spot, cut through mine fields of which we had a faint idea as to location, meet the rest of the company and together with them capture a small town called Tetz. We couldn't expect any tanks or tank destroyers to help us for at least a day, as it would take that period of time to build a pontoon bridge over the river. It was also our job to keep contact with the 29th Division on our right. Our mission was a simple as that.
I was thinking these things over when Coudira sat sown beside me. He was older than most of us, about 35 I think he once told me. I knew all about Coudira because I used to write all his letters for him. Coudira had left France a few years before the war started and had gone to live in Louisiana. He had done rather well as a farmer before his induction.
"Do you know what, Greenie?" he asked, as I glanced blankly at the opposite wall of the cellar.
"It may sound crazy, Greenie, but I think something is going to happen to me. I don't know if I'm going to be killed or wounded, but something tells me that this is my unlucky day. Will you write my wife a letter in case anything happens?
"You're nuts, you crazy, superstitious Frenchman," I yelled at him. 'This is the tenth time before an attack that you've told me it was your unlucky day and something would happen. Meantime everyone around you gets hit and you don't even get scratched. Go 'wan, you're just plain nuts."
Coudira was about to say something in reply when Galloway (Weldon C. Gallaway, Staff Sgt, Squad Leader 2nd Platoon Co. F.) came down the steps and told us it was time to go. We grabbed our rifles and other weapons and crowded up the steps of the cellar, someone behind me blowing out the candle. We climbed the steps and stood alongside the building, awaiting the word to move.
It was dark, but the faint light of the stars prevented it from being totally black. We watched "E" Company slowly and silently file by on the other side of the road. I gave up trying to pick out my best friend who was in "E" Company to wish him luck. Our company was to follow directly behind.
Burke [John P.] moved over near me, "I wish I had written a letter home to my wife this afternoon," he said quietly.
"This is a hell of a time to think about that" I said. "Maybe the Chaplain will be waiting on the other side of the river to ask you what's you excuse this time."
Burke, on a number of occasions, had been brought before the Chaplain to explain why he didn't write home to his wife and two kids. It seemed his wife would get worried when she didn't hear from him for a couple of months and would write the Chaplain. Burke would come back from the Chaplain ranting. "God damn her," he would fume. "She didn't get any telegrams or Purple Heart from the War Department, so she knows I'm OK. What does she think I'm doing here...having a picnic? Does she think I can stop the war so I can scribble a few lines and tell her how much I dislike this damn place and how much I miss her? She knows that."
There was no use trying to reason with Burke. He just didn't like writing letters, although he became angry if he didn't receive them regularly.
As Burke stood beside me whispering, the last platoon of "E" Company passed in the darkness. Our platoon was to lead our company and as the first squad stepped out, the second moved out from behind a building and marched on the opposite side of the road. The third squad split into two parts and followed the others.
I had an eerie feeling plodding along the road in this bombed-out town. The gutted and grotesque shapes of what were once buildings could be seen outlined against the stars. It was very quiet, even the shuffle of the soldiers' boots against the frozen ground seemed muted.
We moved out of the village and the men spread out automatically to a fifteen foot interval. Now that we were out in the open it was possible to see slightly better. I could pick out the forms of three or four men walking in front of me. Brophy [James J.] was directly ahead of me, his hunched, long body, seemingly more hunched because of the load he carried .
The bazooka that Nolan [Leonard J.] clung to was sticking up against Brophy's bayonet scabbard. He shifted the bazooka to his right shoulder and his carbine to his left. I could just make out Taverez [Jesus A.] moving silently along with that heavy B.A.R. In a few minutes he would change over with Overman [Shellie J.], giving him the machine gun to struggle with awhile. Its 22 pound weight was no joke.
I considered myself lucky carrying just a rifle, although I did have two extra magazines for the B.A.R. in my jacket and a bazooka rocket in my ammo bag. The bands of the bandoleers were cutting into my shoulders. I tried to move them around to feel more comfortable, but knew from experience it would do no good.
The dirt road was very poor for walking and occasionally someone one would trip over a rut and fall. He would get up cursing the road, Hitler, the Army, while everyone else laughed and waited to see who would be the next victim. I was glad when we halted and the whisper came back that there would be a ten-minute break. I moved off the road and sad down next to Brophy. "Boy, do my shoulders hurt from these damn bandoleers," I told him.
"Same here. By the way," he said, "You'd better blow up your preserver now. You may not get another chance."
I removed the life preserver from my belt and started to blow it into shape. It was one of those type preservers that are really a round tube when fully inflated and placed around the waist. The usual manner of inflation is to squeeze two carbon dioxide capsules in the front, which crack the capsules and fill the tube with gas. These capsules are very delicate and most of us had broken them in the practice of crossing the Maas River in Belgium. Naturally in a couple of hours the carbon dioxide escapes and new capsules must be inserted. However, none of theme were available, so Brophy and I were inflating the preservers orally.
"I don't know why we're bothering with these damn things," I said to Brophy. "With all the weight we're carrying we'll sink like a rock." Brophy nodded as I placed my inflated tube around my waist. I felt silly with it there; we were not near the river and besides, we didn't expect any trouble in the crossing.
"On your feet," was whispered back to up. We stood up and started shuffling down the road again. We passed through another town that seemed exactly like the last one. I could never get over the similarity of all the small villages in France, the Lowlands and Germany. We stopped momentarily at a cross road to allow three British tanks with mine-clearing devices attached, to pass.
It was after we were out of town that I was considering the pro's and con's of a tanker's life in comparison with that of an infantryman, when it happened. It seemed as if the very ground I was standing on rocked to and fro. After a moment of fright, I realized what had happened. The artillery barrage that was supposed to be the most intensive ever directed against Jerry had started.
I could, in the light of these gun flashes, see the gun batteries and the crews working like mad around them. At various intervals, I could hear someone yell "Fire" which would be followed by a terrific blast. These big guns were practically side by side and I knew as we approached the river we would pass many more rows of guns. The nearer we were to the river, the smaller would be the caliber of the guns.
The noise was deafening and it was almost impossible to think. Because of the continuous flashes it was easy to see and the looks of awe on my buddies' faces disclosed that they were as surprised as I was by the intensity of the bombardment. We had been told many times before previous attacks that we would receive an intensive artillery barrage first. However, this usually resulted in a few shells coming over, falling nearer to us than to the enemy. But this time it was the real thing. It was the big push. We were expected to cross the Roer River and be on the banks of the Rhine within two weeks.
We moved on, leaving the roar of the big guns, but getting nearer to the noise of other guns directly in front of us. We passed through another town and saw signs in the distance. We could also see the red glow of the shell bursts.
While watching this spectacle I became aware of a jeep parked in the road. As we approached I could distinguish a man standing up in the vehicle. I recognized him as my supply sergeant who was offering bandoleers of ammo to anyone who would take it, with the advice, "This is your last chance." it's funny, but the sergeant standing there made me think of a vendor at the ball park back home, selling score cards with the warning that "You can't tell the players without a score card." However, the sergeant wasn't having much luck getting rid of the ammo as it seemed everyone was burdened down.
Long range machine gun tracers were arching up over the river. Phosphorous shells beautiful to the eye as they exploded, were burning out the lives of men directly across from us. Tanks and tank destroyers were lined up firing blindly. Because of the saturating artillery attack it wasn't necessary to have a target. No one could live through such a barrage we thought.
We approached the town that overlooked the Roer River. We stopped now, as we couldn't go on until the barrage had ceased. We were content to let the artillery blast away as long as they had ammo. Besides killing Germans, the shells were aiding us in another manner. Mine fields were being detonated by the explosions of the shells. This meant less of us would lose legs and arms as a result of shoe mines and anti-personnel mines.
However, the barrage stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The confidence that the artillery had installed in us began to drain. The stillness now seemed as deafening as did the explosions a few moments ago.
But this quiet was only temporary as things began to hum about us. Engineers carrying assault boats moved down the road to the river's edge. A bulldozer also clanked in close support of the Engineers, in case its services were needed. Medics and medical jeeps were stationed at intervals along the road, in preparation for what was about to occur. We knew Jerry wasn't going to let us cross without a struggle. The Roer River signified the end of the Siegfried Line and pillboxes wouldn't obstruct us on the other side.
The town, Linnich by name, was situated on a cliff over- looking the river. A narrow winding road about 200 yards long led down to the river's edge. There had once been a bridge here, but it had been blown up by the retreating Germans. Our Engineers had tried putting a foot bridge in its place, but it had been wiped out in the attempt.
We moved forward again, directly behind "E" company who would cross first. As soon as we reached the other side, we would fan out. The cliffs up and down the river prevented the crossing of more than one company at a time. Our platoon was now situated just atop the cliff where the road led down to the boat landings. It was at this point that the Germans made their first attempt to prevent our crossing. They knew that Linnich was the logical point where to cross and their guns that survived our terrific artillery barrage were zeroed in on that winding road. Big German mortar shells screamed in our direction. We dropped flat on our faces as a shell fell about 50 yards in front of us, another ten yards closer. Screams of dying and broken men filled the air. As the medics came dashing up, more shells came in. I decided to make a run for a nearby building. I started to move when another shell burst and I heard someone near me groan. I had dropped flat when the shell burst and now I crawled over a few feet to the fallen man. It was Galloway (Weldon C. Gallaway, Staff Sgt, Squad Leader 2nd Platoon Co. F.).
"Where are you hit?" I yelled at him.
"I think it's my foot and hip," he whispered weakly.
"Grab hold of me" I said.
I half carried and dragged him over to the shelter of the building and told him to remain there while I searched for a medic. I found a medical jeep on the other side of the building and returned to Galloway (Weldon C. Gallaway, Staff Sgt, Squad Leader 2nd Platoon Co. F.). I grabbed him again, brought him around to the jeep and sat him down in it.
"How's it feel Gally?"
"I'm O.K." he said.
"You'll be going back to the States, you lucky bastard. Take care of yourself and drop me a line."
"So long, Greenie,"
"So long, Gally,"
The medics had in the meantime placed a few more wounded men in the jeep. The driver jumped in and drove away, since the shelling had stopped. I returned to the road seeking the remainder of my squad. I found White [Thomas F.] crouching in a ditch. I slid down beside him. "Who else has been hit?" I asked.
"Lt. Fletcher was hit in the head and had to be taken back. Overman was hit in the arm. We're lucky though; the whole fourth platoon of "E" Company has been wiped out. God, it's terrible."
God, it was terrible. In spite of the darkness I could see quite a bit. Medics and stretcher bearers were all over the place. Engineers were bringing down more boats. The bulldozer was filling a shell hole with apparent disregard for the bodies lying about. I prayed that there wasn't a wounded man among those bodies. Equipment was scattered about and everyone seemed confused.
However, in a crisis men band together and in a brief period of time we were reorganized with Lira [Robert M.], our platoon sergeant, leading us down to the river. We knew what to do when we were there. Each squad was to get into a different boat and move across. My squad moved along the river's edge 'til we saw an assault boat with three engineers who were to direct the paddling across and return for another load.
The nine remaining men in the squad crowded into the boat and started paddling across. As we moved out from the shore it became increasingly difficult to go straight across. We were being swept down the river as we approached mid-stream.
"We started too far down the river," one of the Engineers screamed. "We should have towed the boat up further. The current's too strong here. There's a busted dam below us. Turn back."
We tried getting back to the shore but it was of no use. The boat was hopelessly out of control and we couldn't do a thing. The outline of a dam presented itself in our path, with a wide breach in the middle.
"We're going right through the hole" someone shouted.
The war was forgotten as we were carried through the breach. There wasn't a drop, fortunately, as the dam was of small size. We were moving along at an enormous speed when suddenly the boat hit something. The impact was so great that the boat split in two and I found myself in the water. I remember going down and seeing my life pass before my eyes in a few quick seconds. The next thing I knew was my hand clutching a branch of a submerged tree.
I sputtered and gasped as I pulled myself further up on the branch. For a minute I just held on recovering my breath. Panic seized me, but left when I realized how lucky I was to be alive.
I decided to first remove my equipment, but before I could start, mortar shells started falling in the water nearby. I ducked below water every time I heard the scream of a shell. The shelling stopped, but intermittently the sharp staccato of a German machine gun forced me again to submerge.
When all was quiet again, I held on to the branch with one hand, while removing all my other equipment in a slow lengthy process. While doing this, I noticed debris and wrecked boats swirling past me in the rapid current.
I didn't see or hear anything of the eleven other men who were in the boat with me. Perhaps they drifted to shore or were holding on to some other submerged tree in this flood swept river.
It was freezing in this icy water and I could feel a paralysis creeping up my legs. I had removed all my equipment, keeping only my life preserver. And so I continued to hold on, trying to pass the cold, wet hours recollecting what had happened to me.
I guessed I had been in the water three hours because it was full daylight now. The artificial fog still bore down on me relentlessly. It was quiet except for the bubbling, frothy water that rushed past. I was wondering for the hundreth time how long I would have to remain here, when I suddenly heard a voice calling out of the fog.
For a moment I was struck speechless, but I quickly regained my voice and screamed for help. The person on shore must have been surprised hearing a voice come from the middle of the river, but he called back and asked where I was.
"Out here in the middle of the river holding on to a tree. Get a boat and get me out of here." I yelled .
"Hold on soldier" the voice answered. "I'll mark this spot and go for some help. Hold on now. I'll be back as fast as I can. By the way, are you hurt?"
"No" I answered. "Not hurt, but freezing."
"OK. Hold on."
I was happy now. I was going to be rescued in a few moments. I'd soon be on shore and be able to inquire if any of my other buddies were safe.
It seemed ages, but it probably wasn't more than a half hour when I heard a number of voices approaching. They seemed to be looking for the spot where I was. I yelled to them, guiding them to my position. A voice then called to me and said "Look here soldier. We're going to get you out, but you'll have to help us. The current is too strong for us to paddle out to you, so here's what we're going to do. We have a rope attached to a boat and we're going upstream and let the boat drift out. You'll have to yell out in case you see it. Get it?"
"OK" was all I could say.
I could hear voices moving upstream and then stop. After a few minutes I heard them yell that the boat was drifting down the stream and that I should keep my eyes peeled.
"Damn that fog," I thought as I strained my eyes. "I can't see anything," I called to them.
"Don't worry. We'll move up further" the reassuring voice answered. A number of times this trial and error method was attempted 'til finally I saw coming out of the fog a most beautiful sight. It was an assault boat coming straight at me. I grabbed hold of it and at the same time yelled to my rescuers "I got it, I got it!"
I pulled myself into the boat and at my signal was pulled toward shore. In a few moments the boat hit the bank and a lieutenant and some enlisted men were pounding my back, congratulating me on my escape. The lieutenant then directed two of the men to lead me to the Aid Station.
I discarded the life preserver and started moving along the bank, up the river to the town I had started from. The two soldiers told me that a successful river crossing had been made, but that a large number of casualties had been suffered by the Infantry and the Engineers. One of the soldiers asked me for my story. I told it to him.
"Too bad" was all he said.
I never realized that our boat had drifted so far before our mishap, as it seemed we walked a mile before reaching our starting point. The Engineers pointed out the winding road that led up to the town and explained where I would find the medics. I thanked them both and shook hands with them.
"If you're ever in the middle of the river again, don't fail to call us." one of them joked.
"Sure will" I answered.
As I walked up the winding road it was not difficult to see there had been action here recently. Equipment was strewn all about and in places the ground was dark and sort of clotted. Plenty of blood around here", I thought. At the top of the hill I looked around and saw Engineers working on a pontoon bridge.
I hurried to the building that signs lead to and disclosed as being the Battalion Aid Station. I entered the building and found it a beehive of activity. There were wounded men all about, awaiting transportation to a field hospital for further treatment. I told a tired medic my story and he pointed to the door of a cellar. "Go down there." he said. "Maybe you'll find your buddies down there. You can warm up and get some dry clothing."
As I entered the cellar, I could see a stove in the middle of the room, surrounded by naked men. They were trying to keep warm while awaiting dry clothing. I started looking at the faces of the men in the dim light when I heard my name called.
"Greenie. Over here."
I looked around and found Skene [John M. "Dick"], Tideback [William, Jr.], Rackie [Frank A.] and Thompson [Walter L.] of the second squad. After the initial greetings I asked if they had seen anyone else of my squad. Yes, they had seen Brophy. He had drifted to shore but lost his glasses and had been sent to the rear for new ones. Brophy and I were the only survivors that they knew of. They told me of their experiences, which were similar to mine. They had lost eight men. My assault boat had lost ten.
I took off my wet clothing and boots and moved over to the fire to warm up. I was surprised to find I was hungry and finished two "K' rations that were lying about. I moved back to my friends and we further discussed what had happened. They all marvelled at my being in the water for four hours. They had simply drifted to shore. The medics had told them we might be given a few days rest to recover from our experiences. This was too much to expect, but we all silently hoped for it.
A couple of medics came down with dry clothing, distributed them and told us we would have to put our wet boots on again. New ones were not available. Also a lieutenant would be down in a few minutes to discuss what was to be done with us.
My buddies and I gave each other significant glances as if to say the rumor of us getting a rest might be true. In a few moments, a lieutenant came down the steps, stood in the middle of the room and spoke.
"Here's the deal, men. I know you're all tired and wet and deserve a rest. But Regiment just called saying they need every available man across the river. Their orders were to send every man who can walk. Up stairs you'll find rifles and helmets belonging to the wounded men who have been brought in. They won't need them. Be ready in half an hour. You'll cross the pontoon bridge and be directed to your respective companies. That's all."
I looked at my buddies and they at me. "Here we go again" I said quietly.
----- Eugene M. Greenburg
You can now read the Diary of Eugene M. Greenburg as found in the section of this web site dedicated to "Those Doggies in F" -- Co. F., 405th Regiment where you will find another 27 additional stories of the men in the 102d Infantry Division.
(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, "A River Crossing", by Eugene M. Greenburg, 405th, F. Co., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 49, No. 4, July/Sept. 1997, pp. 13 - 18.
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 4 November 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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