Heroes: the Army
"...Midway through the field a German ME-109 fighter broke through the cloud cover and crossed in front of us. We could see the bomb it dropped and see and hear it explode about a hundred yards ahead of us..."
Name Witheld by Request
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: ------ Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service:
The Learning Period
The author of this piece asked
that his name not be used. He says:
"War of necessity is fought by amateurs. It can only be learned by actual combat experience. Costly mistakes cannot be avoided and there is no reason to assign blame to individuals."
On October 25,1944 I awakened in a box car that was parked in a railroad yard that I later learned was located in Tongern, Belgium. I had spent four days and five nights in that box car with some thirty other GIs from my platoon.
On an adjacent track there were railroad flat cars, each carrying an M-9 self propelled howitzer. A GI on one of these massive armored vehicles told me that he was with the 5th Armored Division which was moving up to join the newly formed 9th Army. He said that our division would also be a part of the 9th Army.
Several deuce and half trucks soon drove up and the platoon boarded them for an all day drive through southern Holland. The trucks stopped in the late afternoon on a small country road. To our left was a barge canal. To the right there were several Dutch style houses and some elderly Dutch civilians.
One woman was crying and directing her husband to give us apples he was holding. I heard thunder in the distance but the sky was cloudless. It did not occur to me that I was hearing the sound of artillery fire. I now know she was crying for us.
The trucks started moving again and after a short drive they stopped at the edge of some woods. Adjacent to the woods was a large very level field of newly mown grass. We dismounted the trucks and one of the company lieutenants told us to dig foxholes. It was such a peaceful setting that no one did. I spread my blanket roll and went to sleep.
It was pitch black when someone shook my shoulder and told me to get up. The other members of my company were also being awakened. I rolled up my blanket roll and joined the other members of my platoon in the company tent. It was lit by a Coleman lantern. There were rifle, carbine, pistol ammo and hand grenades on folding tables in front of us. I put two grenades in my field jacket pockets and took enough carbine ammo to fill my magazines.
When I exited the tent I spotted three armored half tracks, each towing one of our 57mm anti-tank guns. Each squad climbed aboard the tank towing their gun. The tracks were loaded with over 100 rounds of ammo for the guns, the gun shields, camouflage nets, bedrolls and other equipment, forcing us to ride high above its armored sides.
It was still dark when we passed through a small Dutch town and crossed a rude bridge that spanned a narrow stream. The tracks parked on the other side of the stream. It started to get light and we all climbed down from the tracks. To each side of the road rows of concrete dragon's teeth (anti-tank obstacles) stretched as far as the eye could see. Up a hill to our front were huge concrete pillboxes, their thick roofs blown askew by tons of explosive to make them unusable should we have to retreat.
We all peed, our first time on German soil, before re-boarding our tracks. We drove further into Germany until we reached what was the road that ran from Aachen to Geilenkirchen. We turned left in the direction of Geilenkirchen.
I was oblivious to the danger - we passed a house where an engineer was throwing roof tiles down into a dump truck. It would be used to patch a road, a very expensive patch job, especially for the owner of the house that was losing its cover. Several miles down the road we turned to the right onto a narrow dirt path through a farm field. The ground mist had lifted but it still remained about 100 feet up.
Midway through the field a German ME-109 fighter broke through the cloud cover and crossed in front of us. We could see the bomb it dropped and see and hear it explode about a hundred yards ahead of us. We all tried to lower ourselves to get under the track's armored sides as we continued down the path which led to a small farm village called Waurichen.
The tracks parked next to a farmhouse in Waurichen on the road that led to Immendort, which was only about one half mile ahead and still in German hands. The platoon dismounted from the tracks. Some went into the courtyard of the farm house. I saw some GIs standing in a small trench about 30 yards away and strolled over to them. "Where's the front?" I asked.
"You're here," they replied, pointing through a sickly looking hedge at a single roll of concertina barbed wire about ten yards ahead. I climbed down into the trench and motioned to members of my platoon who were on the road, oblivious to where they were, but no one paid any attention to me.
I climbed back out of the trench and went back to where the tracks were parked. The driver of our track was lying in a fetal position in the ditch besides the road. I crossed the road and went into the entrance to the farm house's courtyard. A German motorcycle lay on its side and some chickens were pecking at something I could not make out.
I moved from that spot to the front of the house and entered it. A member of my platoon, wide eyed, asked me, "Did you see him?"
"Yes," I lied, not wanting to look foolish.
"He's sitting in a chair," he said. "His legs are gone. There are maggots in his eyes."
His words were chilling. I was glad that I had not seen what he described. I thought that the dead man was the motorcycle driver shot from the bike he was driving. He must have dragged himself up onto the chair where he died, or was put there by a member of the 2nd Armored Division as a grotesque prank. His feet were what the chickens were pecking at. I also resolved not to look too closely at my surroundings but I could not avoid the bodies of two dead Germans lying in a ditch near the house.
While we hung around the farm house, our squad leaders and our platoon leader were reconnoitering positions for our guns. When they returned, the third squad's sergeant was upset. He believed that the position selected for his gun was suicide
After dark, we moved the guns into the positions selected for us. My squad's position was an abandoned German anti-tank gun site. The gun pit was already dug, as were covered foxholes for the gun crew. What we did not know was that our good fortune was too good to be true as we were to learn later.
We moved the 1st squad's gun to their assigned site and about 15 of us were rolling the 3rd squad's gun down Waurichen's main street toward their assigned gun position. At the end of the street there was a street that ran perpendicular to it. I thought that we could easily turn the gun but some members of the 3rd squad had other ideas. They deliberately forced the gun not to turn and ran it off the road into a steep and deep ditch from which it could not easily be recovered.
I returned to my squad's position. The squad was totally disorganized. The ammo for the gun was not broken out. The bazooka and its ammo rounds were not ready. The men were just standing around with no assigned tasks.
Suddenly there was a tremendous roar that sounded like a large airplane's engine revving up just before starting its take off run. My squad leader yelled at me to find out what was happening. I ran along a hedge toward the sound, my carbine at ready. To be honest, I was glad to get away from the squad. At the time, I thought my chances of surviving were better if I was alone.
Suddenly a massive M-4 Sherman tank appeared before me. The tank's commander was standing exposed from the waist up from a hatch on the top of the tank's turret.
"Where are you going?," I asked.
"Back," he said. "You're relieving us."
I went back to the squad which was still disorganized. It was beginning to get light. I was sitting on the gun's trail talking with a friend. Another member of our gun crew was standing nearby. I hadn't noticed, but half of the squad had disappeared and only four of us remained with the gun.
Suddenly, without warning, all hell broke loose. About half a dozen mortar bombs rained down on our position. I ran for a foxhole and lay there cringing until I heard our newly assigned assistant squad leader ask me if I was Ok. I replied that I was and he asked, "Aren't you going to help us?"
I climbed from the hole to find my friend lying on the ground, hit in both legs. Another member of our crew had a small piece of shrapnel sticking out of his skull above the bridge of his nose. I was directed to help him but I saw that he was walking wounded. The two of us who weren't hit carried my friend back into town.
When we got close to the aid station, a burly medic ran up and gathered my friend in his arms like one would carry a baby and carried him into the aid station.
My squad gathered together and drew straws to see who would go back to man the gun. Another squad member and I lost and we returned to the gun. This time we remained under cover.
About an hour later we were joined by an artillery forward observer who wanted to know if I knew where the German observation post was. I blew my stack and yelled at him, "How the hell would I know?" He left shortly thereafter.
After dark we moved our gun position. We parked the gun on a dirt lane. A replacement we received from the 1st squad spooked our squad leader into believing that we were being attacked by a German patrol. Our squad leader began to indiscriminately throw grenades that exploded close to us. I hugged the ground as grenade fragments whizzed by my head.
I yelled for him to stop as there was nothing out there. He finally came to his senses but still chose to abandon the gun and head for the 1st squad's gun position.
Once there I ran into the 1st squad member who had asked me if I had seen the dead German soldier at the farm house. He was muttering incoherently that he had just shot his best buddy. Fortunately, it was only a flesh wound in his rear end which did not require him to be evacuated. He was later to get hit in the other cheek by schrapnel which did get him a trip to an army hospital in England.
The following night we went back to the gun and dug our gun pit and crew foxholes about 20 yards from the dirt lane. We gathered the entire platoon with harnesses but were unable to move the gun across soft plowed soil to the gun pit. We finally gave up and decided to dig a pit adjacent to the dirt lane. This meant another night of digging a new gun pit and crew foxholes.
By the end of the fourth night we finally were in position. However, at first light I found that our position was located in a concave dent in the terrain. This limited our field of fire to less than fifty yards. When I pointed this out to our platoon leader, he walked away in disgust.
As I looked around I spotted a dead German about ten feet from my foxhole. About 20 yards to my left there was a column of about a dozen dead Germans, some wearing naval uniforms. The 2nd Armored had mowed then down as they were moving up to take defensive positions. Like us, they were apparently not properly trained to be infantry.
Later on that morning we were paid a visit by a squad leader from one of the rifle companies. He had liberated a German burp gun. It was so called because when fired the bullets came out so fast that it made the sound "burrrp."
He began firing at the German corpses around us. They had been decomposing for over a month and turned to dust when hit. After he left, I dug a shallow grave and pushed the dead Jerry who was closest to my hole into it. I covered him up and stuck his rifle and bayonet into the ground with his helmet on top of the stock as a grave marker. This was a mistake.
When I was awakened to pull guard duty that night, I forgot what I had done. I spent over an hour staring at what I believed was a German soldier. Later on, I had a similar experience with an upright hand plow.
The next day the Germans began to shell our position. Clods of dirt rained down onto our open topped foxhole. I would tremble uncontrollably. When the shelling stopped for a short while, the man that I was sharing the hole with said that the Germans were relaying their guns. As our hole was crumbling in on us, we ran for the squad leader's foxhole. I was astonished to see that he had used the gun shields to provide roof cover for his hole. I blew my stack again , and called him every foul name that I could think of.
The next morning a self propelled 155mm rifle called a "Long Tom" moved into position about 100 yards behinds us. It fired two shells, taking out the church steeple in German held Geilenkirchen. Hopefully it also took out the German forward observer who had directed the guns that had fired on us.
We moved from that position shortly thereafter. Our introduction to combat was traumatic. We made all mistakes that were possible. My squad suffered 25 percent casualties; we were unaware that the Germans had the coordinates of their old gun positions and would fire on them hoping that inexperienced troops would use them; we put our gun in an open field in full view of the German forward observer; we did not organize our squad, assigning responsibilities to the men; our squad leader unfairly used our gun shields for his own protection, ignoring the safety of the rest of the squad.
We survived the first week of combat and we learned from our mistakes. We became a cohesive squad in a cohesive battalion. While we were never the equal of the 2nd Armored Division or the "Big Red" infantry division, we did not disgrace ourselves and those of us who survived became old soldiers who are slowly fading away.
----- Name Withheld
(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
The above story, "The Learning Period", by Unknown Contributor, 40-th, -. Co., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 47, No. 4, July/Sept. 1995, pp. 9 - 12.
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 5 November 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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