Heroes: the Army
"...There was a sudden explosion, the entire area lit up and in that instant I swear that I saw our lead scout, who was about five feet in front of me - I swear that I saw his foot hit a trip wire for a mine..."
George M. Illis (Ilisevich)
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. C., 407th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: Sgt.
- Birth Year: 1922
- Entered Service: Pittsburg, PA
Reminscences of an Infantryman -- World War II
George Illis (Illisevich, George M., Sgt.)
Co. C., 407th
This episode of Ozark Replay was written by George Illis many years after his combat experiences with "C" Company of the 407th. (In those days his name was spelled "Ilisevich" but he was called "Lucky." ) George's story is unfinished. He died Sept. 3, 1986. Had he completed it it would have told how he was wounded twice - and ended up returning as a POW. His company was sent across the Elbe River as a patrol which was to attempt to meet the Russians, and was captured.
We send our thanks to his widow, Marilyn E. Illis, who sent us the portion of his story he had completed before his death.
In retrospect, after much reading and many discussions with other former infantrymen, it would appear that I deserved the nickname I picked up in Europe of "Lucky." There was no question that I was involved in far more actions than the average dogface is permitted before being eliminated by either severe wounds, capture or death. Of course, I was wounded and eventually ended up a prisoner, but I was still involved in over eight months of action - which is a long time for an infantryman.
It would be impossible for me to relate all of the engagements I was in but I will stress the most vivid ones that are remarkably fresh in my mind - forty one years later.
The First Engagement
We entered the war in Holland, near the German border, the last week in October, 1944. In order to battle condition our division, we were attached to combat-wise 29th Infantry Div., one of the original D-Day divisions. A good indication of the odds we were facing was when the Captain of the company we were attached to, advised that he had joined the 29th, shortly after D-Day as an infantry replacement private and in four months had become the company commander. He advised that the rifle companies of the 29th had a 1,000% replacement turnover.
We were in a relatively static position and division headquarters decided that we should investigate what was in front of us. They decided to send out a patrol - the first attempt at combat by our regiment and guess who was selected. A patrol of 13 men from our platoon. Our mission? Merely to advance to the front until we drew enemy fire.
Our platoon sergeant, Nelson Buck, attempted to give us a proper sendoff. Somewhow he managed to obtain some fresh meat and a proper dinner was prepared for those of us going on patrol. I can recall the difficulty that I had eating the meal since I kept wondering if this was going to be my last meal.
We blackened our faces and hands and took off after darkness set in.
We must have advanced about a quarter of a mile and nothing was happening. In retrospect, I would have to assume that the Krauts had moved their positions to the rear. The next thing that happened is still strange in my mind. It is almost like I saw something happen after it happened. There was a sudden explosion, the entire area lit up and in that instant I swear that I saw our lead scout, who was about five feet in front of me - I swear that I saw his foot hit a trip wire for a mine.
I know that it is impossible for me to see that after the explosion, but that is how I saw it. I was hurled into the air and landed on my back. All of the sudden there was a good bit of screaming and people yelling that they had been hit. Actually eight of the thirteen had been hit only one ever returned to duty, and that was about three months later.
The ranking non-com, Sgt. Rossi [Arthur J.] , had been hit, so the next ranking non-com, my good friend Sgt. Charley Short [Charles W.] took command. He advised the remaining three of us that had not been hit to help the more seriously injured and he would stay behind to cover us with a BAR in the event there were Krauts in the vicinity. For this, he was awarded the Silver Star. I went over to aid Carswell [Allen D.], who had been hit both in the left arm and left leg. He was bleeding profusely but I managed to help him to our rear echelon. The amazing thing was that when we reached the rear echelon, the first person the medics grabbed for was me since I was completely blood soaked. Despite my protestations that I was unhit, They insisted that I strip down since they felt I was suffering from shock and proab1y did not know that I had been hit. After examining my naked body, they agreed that I had survived the shrapnel.
Well, our patrol had accomplished nothing except to possibly prove there were no Germans in the immediate vicinity. It had cost eight men to be wounded - seven severely enough not to ever see action again.
The Attack - Two Weeks Later
Shortly after our patrol action, the 102d Division was sent into the attack on the Siegfried Line fortifications. The first two regiments 405th and 406th - were committed and our regiment - the 407th - was in reserve. About ten days later one of the attack regiments was pulled back into reserve and we were ordered to replace their positions.
As we replaced the men on the line, they were quick to advise us what we were facing and that a very large portion of us would not be returning. Almost with a glee, they gave us details on the number of men they had lost and the horrors that were awaiting us. Anyone who thinks that soldiers go into combat with an enthusiasm is sadly mistaken. You go in with foreboding of disaster awaitin you and wish your stomach would quit hurting. We entered the foxholes of the replaced units and were advised we would be making a frontal attack on the pillbox in front of us the next morning - at dawn. Again, in retrospect, we were to advance from our current positions across a field of a couple hundred yards to a crest and hold that position for further orders. I can remember that, after setting up the rotation on men observing, our platoon sergeant advised us to get as much sleep as possible, as we would have a busy day ahead of us. Little did we know that the Big Sleep was awaiting a good many of us. I, for one, did not sleep at all.
Prior to the attack, it was decided that we would send out a patrol to examine the area in front of us. Selected were Sgt. Sailor Wilhelm [Henry], J.B. Baker and Joe Yonetti [Joseph A.]. Again, in retrospect as you will discover, this patrol was a blessing.
At dawn, we prepared to move forward. We started across the open field and the Krauts responded with mortar fire since, due to the terrain, machine guns would not reach us. After reaching the crest, we continued forward into the valley. At this point, the enemy positions became visible and, of course, we became very visible to the enemy. The machine guns began their deadly clatter. Suddenly Jack Calhoun [Jack T.], who was directly in front of me, let out a scream that he had been hit (fatally) and fell. Charley Short [Charles W.], next to me, hit the ground and I instinctively did the same. He yelled to dig in because of the heavy fire. I started to dig but the ground was frozen hard and I was accomplishing little. The individual with Charley Short was on his knees and digging with desperation. Charley decided to return some of the Kraut's fire with his BAR. There was a sudden tremendous amount of machine gun fire aimed directly at us. I lay flat on the ground and then the fire subsided. I looked to my right; Charlie was slumped over his BAR - dead; his digging companion was flat on the ground - motionless. I looked in the other direction and saw two more soldiers - motionless. I could hear other screaming that they had been hit and calling for the medic. Once in a while, I could hear a rifle and some screaming would stop. It developed the Krauts had a sniper in a tree and he was picking off the wounded.
At this point, I did not know what was going on. As it developed, we had been slaughtered. Our Capt. Chatfield [Keith G.] had been slain. Our platoon sergeant had been shot in the mouth but had been able to go to the rear. Our replacement platoon lieutenant had been wounded (eventually captured) All I knew was that everybody in my vicinity was dead.
I dare not move. I was in the front of the line with no one in front of me who was still alive. It was still very early morning. After a while, I decided to start moving back, but as I moved, a rifle shot sand out and a bullet landed about a foot in front of me. I froze. I decided at this point, that if I were to stay alive, I'd best pretend that I was dead.
While laying there, I was able to observe the company on the left of me attempt to attack the pillbox. They had a platoon of tanks to help them. Not much help. The tanks had 75mm howitzers and their shells bounced off the pillbox. In the meantime, the Krauts with their guns slowly eliminated each tank until there were six burning tanks. I lay there. It was quiet - all of a sudden. The Krauts had repelled the attack. I watched as our fighter planes swooped down and attempted to rake the Kraut lines. Every once in a while, I heard the sniper snap off another shot. I lay there - quiet. Soon it commenced to get dark.
During my siesta, I had noticed a very large hill of debris (it was actually a pile of manure) about 20 or 30 yards to my right. I decided that this offered some protection. Unbeknownst to me, and very fortunately. during the interim, Sailor Wilhelm had killed the sniper. I crawled over to the pile and ran into two members of the second platoon, who had been hiding there all day.
We discussed our situation. They decided they would rather stay where they were, since they were protected from enemy fire. I felt we were too close the the Kraut lines and I wanted to head back to the rear. As it tuned out, they stayed and were captured by the Germans.
As it became much darker, I decided to crawl back to the rear. The Krauts could not see me and the sniper was dead. I started to crawl back and everyone I passed was dead. My very good friend, Dutch Aremburg [Raymond H.] was slumped over the foxhole he was attempting to dig. I kept crawling towards the crest of the hill where our attack was supposed to have stopped.
Now, back to the patrol.
Sgt. Wilhelm had made the patrol and then reported to battalion headquarters. However, by the time they had made their report, the attack had started. By the time they rejoined the company, we had already made the mistaken foray into the valley and were pinned down by enemy fire. Sailor, J.B., and Joe the medic, had wisely stopped at the crest of the hill and dug a foxhole. During the afternoon, the medic, true to his profession, decided to go out and attempt to help the wounded who were screaming for help. Since he had his Red Cross insignia on his helmet, he felt safe. Sailor disagreed but he went. Joe took about two steps and the sniper put a bullet right through the center of his Red Cross insignia, killing him instantly. Unfortunately for the sniper, he revealed his position to Sailor and shortly afterwards Sailor dispatched him - to my benefit.
As I crawled back to the crest of the hill, all of a sudden I saw the world-weary face of Wilhelm. He advised me to crawl into the hole with him. If I live to be 100, I don't think I will ever see a more welcome sight than the ugly face of Wilhelm saying that everything was all right.
We had a dead medic laying across our foxhole, but we had about ten rifles and a tremendous amount of ammunition. Unbeknown to the Krauts, the four of us represented the entire flank. Sgt. Wilhelm, the finest soldier I ever knew, kept a calming influence on the three of us. We cleaned all the rifles and made certain that the ammuntion was ready. We took turns observing the action two at a time.
Late that night Sailor and I were on lookout. Suddenly we saw a German patrol examining our lines. We watched and they were only about 26 yards from our position. Sailor whispered to me to await his signal he would commence firing from the left side and I would from the right side. However, he advised to keep firing even if you could not see a target, but in the vicinity. We watched the Krauts. Pretty soon they got overconfident as they saw nothing but dead bodies. They commenced to stand up and discuss the situation. Sailor nudged me and said "Now." I immediately zeroes in on the furthest Kraut on the right and quickly emptied my rifle. I grabbed another loaded rifle and kept shooting in the same area. I don't know how many rifles we emptied, but we eliminated the patrol. After the battle had progressed, rear echelon investigated the scene and reported, in addition to the dead Americans, there were eight dead Krauts.
Sgt. Wilhelm decided that not only were we in a precarious position, but so was the battalion. After all, our foxhole with four occupents represented our entire platoon front and, to the best of our knowledge, the remainder of the company front wasn't much better. He dispatched Joe Yonetti and me to get to battalion headquarters and advise of the conditions. Now Joe and I had a battlefield to get across. Unless you've been there, it is impossible to describe the absolute horror of a battlefield. The noise, with riflefire, machine gun fire, mortars and artillery, is deafening. Even more, the constant screaming of the wounded and the dying (the movies always overlook this item.) We crawled along the ground towards our right and rear. Eventually we ran into a dougout of another company. They advised us that they were sending out a group of medics under a Red Cross flag, and we could go with them. Remembering our dead medic, we declined and advised that we would go on our own. Of course, the further we crawled, the safer the situation and eventually we reached the outposts of batallion headquarters. We were stopped by the sentries, who immediately asked what was going on - were we winning or losing? What's a poor dogface know. As far as I had seen, we were not winning.
We reported the situation to Battalion Hqtrs. and they immediately dispatched reserve units to complement our position. Joe and I were dead tired - we were fed some good rear echelon food with hot coffee and promptly sacked out in a nearby barn.
What was the net result? The pillbox was knocked out that day but the most we had accomplished was gain of a few hundred yards. The cost out of 220 men in our company we had about 45 remaining. The rest, with a large portion killed, were either killed, wounded or captured. We had lost four of six officers and two of four platoon sergeants. My own platoon was decimated - there were only four of us remaining.
Sgt. Wilhelm was promoted to platoon sergeant, J.B. Baker, Joe Yonatti and I were promoted to sergeants and made squadleaders. In J.B.'s and Joe's case, it was richly deserved. In mine, it was strictly a matter of being a survivor.
We rested that day - the attack was to continue the next day.
Capture of Roerdorf - The Next Day
We huddled together in a cellar that night and listened as Lt. Almar J. Mann, acting company commander, advised our objective the next morning was to capture Roerdorf and take the ground up to the Roer River. "A" company would attack Linnich along with companies from the 2nd Battalion. "B" Company would assist us. We were advised that this was the big move of the day for the division and it was imperative that we were successful. We were told that we move to the outskirts of Roerdorf early in the morning and attack at 6:00 AM. For ten minutes prior, we would have full artillery support all the ways through Division, including Corps artillery. In order to have more manpower, people such as cooks, trucks drivers, etc., from the rear echelon were assigned to our platoons. They were of a little value.
During the early hours, we moved up - the Germans had retreated back into Roerdorf. However, as we approached Roerdorf, the Krauts opened up with a mortar and artillery barrage. Fortunately we were relatively protected and then, suddenly, our artillery opened up. Never in my life did I ever hear a more thunderous noise. They rained artillery shells on this small village unrelentingly for ten minutes - blowing up ammunition dumps, destroying a large portion of the buildings, rendering the few tanks in town useless. Just as suddenly as it began, it suddenly stopped. Lt. Mann [Almer J.]and Lt. Dent [Richard G.] called for us to follow them into town. A good many of the Krauts had been killed or wounded by the artillery. Many others had no desire to fight. But there was still sufficient numbers showing fight. As we entered the town, both Lt. Mann and Lt. Dent were killed. Sgt. Gault [Vactor J.] of the first platoon took over as company commander. I stayed close to Sgt. Wilhelm. We finally got a chance to practice street fighting. You are trained to proceed on both sides of the street, hugging the buildings and watching the upstairs windows on the opposite side. You proceed cautiously - using hand grenades into doorways and windows.
As we approached the center of town, I saw a German in an upstairs window directly opposite - I raised my rifle to take a shot just as he raised his rifle. I pulled the trigger - nothing - the bolt had jammed. In that instant I suddenly thought - what a way to go - I had the drop on him and I end up with a malfunctioning weapon. Just at that instant I heard a rifle go off along side of me and saw the German stagger back out of sight. Sgt. Wilhelm merely said to get another rifle.
By now Company B was moving into our positions and their function was to drive to the river while we cleaned up the town. As with us, they had lost their Captain the previous day. Their overall casualties had been extremely high.
We were instructed to take positions outside of Roerdorf on the banks overlooking the Roer River. One thing that we had been taught was once you had chased the Krauts out of position and their people were gone, you could expect a ferocious artillery and mortar barrage. And, being lazy Americans, we looked at the beautiful World War I type of trench, properly reinforced by lumber that the Germans had built and decided - why dig foxholes when we could use it.
Well, the Krauts correctly guessed about the lazy Americans and since they had built the trench they knew exactly where it was. Their mortars zeroed in on the trench. This was the worst mortar barrage I ever went through. The ground literally shook. We sustained more casualties during the barrage than we had sustained in capturing the town. Finally, it was over.
We had learned our lesson. The remainder of the day, under Sgt. Gault's instructions, was spent in digging foxholes - since it was evident that we would be on this side of the river for some time.
I'd rather dig. A moving foxhole attracts the eye.
PURPLE HEART TIME
We remained in a quiet position for the next several weeks, sending out patrols and exchanging mortars with the Krauts. It was necessary that the entire American Ninth Army and the British Second Army move up to the Roer River before we could proceed across. It did not take long for the Americans to get there, but, as usual General Montgomery was being cautious and was not moving. A further delay was caused by the Germans suddenly attacking the First Army to the south of us, in what became the Battle of the Bulge. Many units of the Ninth Army were sent south to aid the First and Patton's Third Army in repulsing the German attack. We were forced to extend our lines and put all units on line.
It was during this time that I was wounded in a rather dull way. I had been at the observation post all day. My relief finally appeared to relieve me but had neglected to bring a clean BAR. Lt. Wilhelm (recently battlefield commissioned) insisted on this, and rather than have my relief go back and delay another hour, I told him I would go back and bring a clean one. As I was returning, the Krauts lobbed a few mortar rounds and I hit the ground. I felt a stinging sensation near my right hip and upon my return to platoon headquarters, reported it to Lt. Wilhelm. The medic examined me and advised that I had, indeed, been hit. From that point, I spent the next two and a half months in hospitals in Belgium and France.
By the time I rejoined the company, they had crossed the Roer River and moved towards the Rhine. Their main objective had been the city of Krefeld, and this was where I rejoined the company.
By now, we had emerged as a good fighting unit. Our new commanding officer was Capt. George Morrison, an old national guardsman. In addition, due to casualties, all four of our platoon lieutenants were battlefield commissioned ex-NCOs, all of whom were from the regular army. All the current NCOs had either retained or earned their stripes during the past combat situations. The men in command had the full respect of their soldiers.
There was an old saying in the Army - "old infantrymen never die, just fade away." And to a degree, this is true. You can train an individual for months, but he will never learn as much as he will learn in one or two combat experiences. It is amazing how your mind and body learn to react.
You can almost smell a Kraut mortar barrage coming. At the first sound, your body reacts and you hit the dirt, near some protection. It is dificult to explain, but I can remember that after every engagement when we reported our casualties, we normally lost a good many of the new replacements, but very few of the, by now, old timers.
The principle reason for battlefield commissions was that the Army learned in a hurry that soldiers who had faced combat were disinclined to accept orders from a fresh faced lieutenant just out of OCS. It was far better to battlefield commission the senior NCO, since the men would follow his orders. Sailor Wilhelm was a good example. He was the finest soldier I ever knew and no one took better care of his men.
----- George Illis
The material above,
Reminscences of an Infantryman -- World War II,
was attributed to Marilyn E. Illis, the late wife of
the late, Mr. George Illis (lisevich)
Additions, and corrections are courtesy of their daugther, Susan J. E. Illis.
(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.)
12 January 2005.
A photo of Co. A., 2nd Platoon, 407th Regiment, 102nd Division. This image is on a page that is dedicated to Mr. Edward Marchelitis, Sr., by his daughter Carol. Most of the men in the photo taken on December 20, 1943 are identified on the back of the image.
To view the photo of Co. A., 2nd Platoon, 407th Regiment as well as other photos of Edward Marchelitis, click on the image above.
The family of Mr. Marchelitis is seeking information on his platoon.
A special Thank You is extended to the daughter of Edward Marchelitis, Sr., Carol Marchelitis Heppner.
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The above story, "Reminiscences of an Infantryman -- World War II", by George Illis, 407th, Co. C., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 41, No. 2, Winter, 1989, pp. 10 - 16.
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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