Heroes: the Army
"...The resulting explosion caved in the cellar allowing the brick wall above the cellar to collapse into it. The heavy truck was blown backward a number of feet and its driver was blown out of the machine gun mount and deposited none to gently on his feet..."
John S. Rieske
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. H., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: PFC
- Birth Year: 1923
- Entered Service: Orem, UT
New Year's Day, 1945 in Beeck
by John S. Rieske, 405-H
The article, RETURN TO BEECK, by Glenn W. Fisher in the April/June 2000 Ozark Notes reinforced my memory of an incident that my fellow soldiers and I experienced in Beeck. It had little significance, tactical or strategic, to the war effort, but it did illustrate that even during the wartime violence and tragedy, ridiculous if not humorous incidents can occur.
I was a member of an 81 mm mortar platoon that was assigned to defensive positions in the then subdued Beeck during the battles of the "Bulge" occurring to our south. Our mortars were set up in the backyards of heavily damaged houses that not only provided protection from flat trajectory fire from tanks but also cellars as shelters from the winter weather and German artillery and mortar fire.
New Year's Day, 1945 enters my memory as a crisp, clear day, clear enough to entice a German plane to circle overhead like a buzzard seeking roadkill, its drone disturbing the otherwise quiet winter landscape. In retrospect, it matters little whether the plane was on a reconnaissance mission or was searching for targets to harass. We were packing up to move to Regimental Reserve several miles behind the front lines and paying little attention to the plane.
An exception was the driver of the truck that was to haul our store of mortar ammunition. These mortar shells were stored in a large room directly above the cellar and separated from the truck by an outside wall with a large blown-out window, through which they were being transferred to the bed of the truck.
Just as I was entering the storage room from a doorway opposite the window to help in the loading process, all hell broke loose. A cloud of smoke, dust, and other debris enveloped me together with a concussion that pushed me against a wall opposite the doorway. I don't remember hearing an explosion. I must have been momentarily deafened by the shock wave. My immediate thought was that the German plane had dropped a bomb, with possibly others to follow. I instinctively ran to the cellar followed by several of my colleagues. When I stopped suddenly at the cellar doorway and those behind me wanted to know why I had stopped, all I could answer was that the cellar wasn't there, only a pile of bricks. Another member of our platoon staggered down the cellar steps moaning that he was dying. He looked as if he had just finished a shift in a coal mine with his face blackened and his shirt collar hanging by a thread. A cursory check by a medic found his only injuries besides shock were facial dust burns.
An investigation soon revealed a sequence of events leading to the explosion. The German plane had not dropped a bomb although its presence without the knowledge of its pilot initiated the chain of events leading to the explosion. Perhaps to relieve boredom, the driver of the truck mounted the 50 caliber machine gun attached to a ring above the truck's cab to fire at the plane.
Finding the gun's mechanism jammed he requested a brick from my colleague inside the storage room. He happened to be the colleague who suffered dust burns. At that time, loose bricks were plentiful in Beeck. The truck driver tapped the gun's receiver with the brick, loosening the jam, and then nonchalantly tossed the brick over his shoulder.
This guy would have made a champion basketball player because without even looking he managed to dunk the brick on top of several antitank mines stacked against the wall of the building directly above the cellar and about fifteen feet in front of the truck. The mines were linked together with a rope that enabled them to be drawn across the street in the event of an enemy attack. Someone in Battalion Headquarters, located in a building across the street, devised this tactic. Apparently, the mines were armed, making the whole setup a disaster waiting to happen. Even the jarring associated with pulling the mines across the street could possibly have detonated them.
The resulting explosion caved in the cellar allowing the brick wall above the cellar to collapse into it. The heavy truck was blown backward a number of feet and its driver was blown out of the machine gun mount and deposited none to gently on his feet, with only minor injuries, on the street behind the truck.
To paraphrase the driver's experience; "Without warning he was floating in a cloud of smoke and dust, not knowing whether he was going to heaven or hell." Only two other minor injuries were reported. The truck driver's assistant, who was directing the loading operation from behind the truck, received a metal fragment in his leg, and a member of our platoon occupying a building a few hundred feet down the street received minor cuts when the shock wave shattered an improvised window.
For those injuries he received a Purple Heart Medal. I suppose this medal was awarded legitimately because an enemy plane initiated the events leading to his injuries. Our only material loss was our sleeping bags and personal gear buried under the bricks. Our rush to seek safety in the cellar in retrospect was foolish considering that the cellar was under several hundred pounds of explosive mortar shells.
The year 1945 that began for me with a bang ended with a whimper. The war was over and I was serving with a Graves Registration Unit in Holland while waiting to come home.
(Added February 28, 2007) Now you can read an additional part of the story above by Mr. Robert Tinkelmann, Co. H., 405th, who was in the same unit at the link below:
"New Years Day, 1945 in Beeck, the Rest of the Story", Robert Tenklemann, Co. H., 405th
----- John S. Rieske
(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, "New Year's Day, 1945 in Beeck", by John S. Rieske, Co. H., 405th., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 53, No. 1, Oct/Dec. 2000, pp. 12-13.
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 2 November 2004.
Story added to website on 6 November 2004.
September 5, 2002.
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