Heroes: the Army
"...Lt. Harry Aitken, our mortar platoon leader, noticed that there was lots of abandoned German 80-mm mortar ammo in our area and devised firing tables allowing us to shoot the German 80-mm. ammo from our 81-mm mortars..."
Richard F. Mitchell
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. H., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: Capt., Bronze Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Saugus, CA
The Bastard Platoon of Company H-405
THE BASTARD PLATOON
OF COMPANY H-405
as told by
"MITCH" MITCHELL WITH MUCH HELP FROM
"SWEDE" LARSON AND HARRY AITKEN
The writer is deeply indebted to First Lieutenant Donald E. "Swede" Larson who took the time to write down his experiences in the 405th Infantry during World War II while they were still fresh in his mind. His DOWN MEMORY LANE WITH COMPANYH-405TH INFANTRY, 102ND DIVISION was published in OZARK NOTES during 1990. "Swede" was the "father" of the "Bastard Platoon" and also its only platoon leader.
The writer is also indebted to First Lieutenant Harry Aitken, mortar platoon leader and later company executive officer of Company "H" for reviewing this manuscript and providing valuable additional information.
The "Bastard Platoon" of Company H-405th Infantry was not a unit planned by organizational specialists in the War Department or the Machine Gun Committee of the Infantry School. It just sort of grew during combat from the need to provide services to the front-line rifle companies that a TO&E Heavy Weapon's company could not meet.
Those Ozarks that went over with the division from the states will remember that while we participated in several offensive actions, we spent much of the winter of 1944-45 occupying defensive positions in the area between the Dutch border and the Roer River along the Seigfried Line. So day after day we sat in foxholes, gun positions, and a few lucky ones in pill boxes or a house with a cellar, sweating out incoming artillery and waiting for not much to happen. On the long cold still nights we could hear the German soldiers playing music and singing. Worse, from time to time we could hear their laughing and giggling female companions of the evening which lead to much gnashing of teeth among the friendly forces. This was particularly true for our G.I.s manning the front-line positions. With the ground frozen solid, noises and voices carried great distances, particularly at night.
During this same period the American Army was building up its ammunition stockpiles for continued offensive operations. Ammunition expenditures for troops on the defense were severely curtailed. This was particularly true of artillery and mortar ammunition. For this reason normal H&I (harassing and interdiction) fires were drastically curtailed. Meanwhile our G.I.s were saying "Why can't we make it really miserable for those blankety blank Krauts out there?"but little artillery ammunition was available for just making the enemy miserable.
The troops in H company being slightly devious and very fertile of mind said, "If we can't get any artillery support for H&I fires, lets set up our own H&I program for the 2nd Battalion". We couldn't get much mortar ammo because of the restrictions but .30 caliber machine gun ammo was available. We all got into the act. The mortar fire direction center was enlarged to handle pre-computed fire data for the machine guns.
Lt. Harry Aitken, our mortar platoon leader, noticed that there was lots of abandoned German 80-mm mortar ammo in our area and devised firing tables allowing us to shoot the German 80-mm. ammo from our 81-mm mortars. Fire data for all weapons was computed for every one hundred yard square across the entire battalion front from our front lines to the maximum range of our weapons. Each square was given a letter and number. Overlays went to each front line company commander so they could call for prearranged fires that would be on their targets in three or four minutes.
Soon H Company was firing an average of 16,000 rounds of .30 caliber ammo and up to 400 rounds of Kraut 80-mm mortar each night. Things on the German side of the lines got a lot quieter.
After the front line troops got used to the overhead fire, they loved it. If the H company guns were silent for a while, the fire direction center would start getting calls "Why aren't you guys shooting?" or "It's too quiet out here."
However several problems cropped up. Higher headquarters said H Company was firing too much .30 caliber machine gun ammo and we learned we were not covering some lucrative targets that lay beyond the range of the .30 calibers and the 81 mortars. (The .30 caliber heavy machine gun had an effective range of 2,000 yards. The 81-mm mortars had a maximum range of 3,200 yards with the H.E light round. Our maximum range with the German 80-mm mortars was a bit less because of the increased blow-by as the German round was slightly smaller.)
Someone said "Why don't we take the fifty caliber off the supply truck and use it? It's got more range and we can shoot a lot farther into enemy territory." (The .50 caliber machine gun had a maximum range of 7,200 yards.) The usual reasons not to use the fifty came up. "Where will we get ammo? How we going to lay the gun? We have no fire control tables for a fifty. Where do we get the bodies for gun crews?"
The more adventurous H Company minds took up the challenge. We contacted the Artillery Liaison Officer with the 2nd Battalion who, after much scrounging around among the artillery units, came up with a complete set of firing tables for the .50 caliber machine gun. Our highly experienced H Company scroungers found that the local "ack ack" outfits had lots of .50 caliber ammo that they were happy to give us. They were only firing at friendly aircraft anyway.
Lt. "Swede" Larson volunteered to run the firing tests. He selected a town several miles behind German lines that held some German Army facilities. The test was a rousing success The initial fire data put the striking bullets right on target. Besides making a lot of Germans miserable, it set the town on fire. H Company's "Bastard Platoon" of .50 caliber machine guns was born.
The lone .50 caliber machine gun soon grew to six and "Swede" Larson created a new slot for himself. Platoon Leader of the fifty calibers. In H Company we just called them the "Fifties".
Before joining the Army and the 405th, "Swede" had been a varsity basketball player at The University of Washington; gone through the British Commando School in England and was a weapons instructor at The Amphibious Warfare School in Florida. Well liked and respected, he had little trouble getting eager volunteers for his non-TO&E outfit. His acting platoon sergeant was sometime sergeant, sometime cook but at that moment Pfc. "Cue Ball" Miller, who was an expert with .50 caliber machine guns.
After a short intensive training period the "Fifties" took their place in the H Company arsenal. With their maximum range of 7,200 yards they gave the 2nd Battalion the ability to reach targets deep in the enemy rear and there was no shortage of .50 caliber ammunition, thanks to the anti aircraft units. "Swede" and his lads set fire to many of the towns on our front that the Germans were using for shelter. (The .50 caliber ammunition came belted for the anti aircraft defense units with incendiary and armor piercing rounds as well as regular ball rounds.)
Lt. "Swede" Larson writes how targets were located for the H&I firing:
"Harry Aitken and I would journey back to the prisoner of war interrogation center about once a week and the cooperative interrogators pumped the prisoners for supply routes, battalion and company CPs, machine gun and artillery positions. With this information we returned to our headquarters, plotted this data on our maps, applied all fire data and transferred the data to our guns. We would harass these areas 24 hours a day with 5Os, .30s and 81mm. mortars The next trip to the interrogation center would prove that we had excellent results. One prisoner stated that they hadn't been able to use the same route twice and several times supplies wouldn't get to them for three our four days."
Lt. "Swede" Larson relates an event that happened while the Company was in Wurm. The enemy lines were quite close to ours. One Kraut strong point was a graveyard on the north outskirts of town. "Swede" wrote:
"This New Years Eve was undoubtedly the driest but noisiest, that 152 men and officers of HCo. ever spent and we had a wonderful time. A German graveyard was situated about 200 yards from the front of our lines; and dug into each plot, was about a squad of the German Wermacht, making an excellent target for our mortars. One night one of our patrols went out near the graveyard, and during the skirmish, we lost one of our squad leaders. We plotted dire revenge immediately, and for 48 hours the graveyard was under terrific and continuous 81-mm mortar and 60-mm mortar fire. We made an agreement with M Co. and all the 60-mm mortar sections of the rifle companies to alternate - that is, H would cover the area from 0800 1200, M from 1200 to 1600 and then we would take over for four hours. We captured several Krauts who had been in this graveyard and they emphatically admitted that they had one helluva time for that 48 hour stretch."
Mitch, who was present for a preliminary interrogation of one of the prisoners from the graveyard recalls this. The most senior prisoner was a Wermacht Master Sergeant who had been in Russia for three years. He was no longer one of Hitler's arrogant Aryan supermen. He had become totally unglued from his recent experience in the graveyard. He said that he had been sent back to Germany from Russia and then on to the Westem Front to get a rest.
He went on, "This is madness! We can't move anywhere without being shot at. As I was coming into this sector we were moving through a little town and out of nowhere we were hit with all this large caliber machine gun fire. At night our mess wagons are shot up and we don't get fed. The road to our positions isn't safe to travel because of all the mortar and machine gun fire and no one comes to relieve us. The last two days have been the worst experience of my life. Its so bad we can't get out of our emplacements to relieve ourselves. No soldier can be expected to fight under these conditions. I fought in Russia for three years and it was never like this. You Americans are mad! I quit!"
The 2nd Battalion companies in Wurm posted sentries where the road from the graveyard entered town, to either capture the German relief troops for the graveyard who got lost and walked too far past the graveyard or were just quitting like the master sergeant. We usually got one or two a night. H Company was really achieving its goal of making the opposing German troops' lives truly miserable.
Until the 405th moved from defensive positions to prepare for crossing the Roer River the "Fifties" of the "Bastard Platoon" continued to make life miserable for the German troops unlucky enough to be in front of the 2nd Bn 405th.
Harry Aitken recalls the care taken to keep the .50 caliber machine gun's fire precisely on target while the Bastard platoon was firing a mission. "I believe it might add possible interest to former weapons crew men to outline the problem of maintaining alignment and elevation of the guns during firing caused by the flimsy ground mount tripods we had to use. The bursts of fire were kept short, usually three rounds - then the gun had to be relayed, at which our crews soon became exceedingly proficient. Using just one clinometer which we had gotten as a gift from a friendly artilleryman, the crews tossed it from gun crew to gun crew throughout the firing. This to me was one of the most fascinating parts of the operation."
The platoon did yeoman service during the Roer River crossing. The initial phase of the attack would take place before daylight and the "Fifties" were given the task of marking the regiment's right boundary with tracer fire so that our attacking troops could see their right boundary and also have the big .50 caliber tracers show them the direction for their attack as they advanced.
On the day following, the "Fifties" truly earned their keep. The attack which had crossed the Roer River and advanced to Boslar, essentially going due east, now became a huge turning movement with the direction of the attack being north. As the attack turned to the north a gap developed between the 3d Bn 405th and the 406th Infantry on the 405th's right flank. The 2nd Bn 405th was committed to move to blocking positions and dig in to cover this gap. Captain Don Evanson, F Company commander, kept a watchful eye on this exposed flank. He spotted a column of enemy troops composed of fighting vehicles and walking troops approaching his position from the east. He got on his radio and attempted to get artillery fire on the approaching German force with out any luck.
Again from Lt. "Swede" Larson's account:
"Before the 50s crossed over, Flip Wyont, picked up a call for overhead support fire from some rifle troops but none of the artillery units responded. Over our 300 radio Flip broke in and told the riflemen that the 50's could help. They gave him their coordinates, he plotted the fire data and told them to get down in their holes; we started a slow traverse of the area in which the activity was taking place at a little over 2000 yards. We asked them how we were doing, and the riflemen responded by saying it's coming in about three feet over our heads and they are running like hell away from here. "
Later that day I ran into Captain Evanson who thanked me profusely for the "Fifties" support. He said he was watching the Germans approaching through his field glasses when the "Fifties" barrage hit them. "It was beautiful. Vehicles were set on fire, the men that weren't hit scattered in all directions. It stopped the German attack dead in its tracks. Later we saw a few Germans and a vehicle headed back east. "Swede" and his men really saved our bacon. Be sure and thank them for us."
The platoon in the above action had "A machine gunner's dream" target. That is the opportunity to engage long column of troops frontally rather from the flank. The long beaten zone, the area where the bullets struck the ground, covered the target in depth so the almost every bullet fired had the probability of hitting personnel or vehicles.
This attack to the north terminated for us in Krefeld. We stopped to rest and get ourselves ready for the next push. We occupied a very nice residential section of town and located a large, well equipped garage where our mechanics and drivers really got H Company's eighteen jeeps in top condition. While here the Regiment was hit by an unannounced Division Ordnance inspection. One company in the regiment passed, H Company, thanks to the very hard work of our great mechanics and drivers.
In Krefeld the "Bastard Platoon" acquired a much needed vehicle to haul its guns and ammunition. "Swede" tells about it:
"Stanfield, Block and Cue Ball were out riding in the country one day, when they spotted a German half-track parked beside a barn. Carefully looking it over, they found it was in good condition, except for a few broken wires. They then towed it into town with great haste. Keller, our company chief mechanic, worked on it, and soon had it in excellent working order. We painted it olive drab and painted prominent white stars wherever there was space.
"We mounted one fifty caliber on a pedestal mount and planned to carry all of our own equipment on our very own half-track. We were really becoming a very exclusive outfit. Block became the driver because of his German background. He was the only one who could read the manuals that told how to operate and run the machine. It would actually go over 50 MPH on smooth roads."
"Swede" understated the top speed of the half track. After it was put in shape, part of its road test was to see how fast it would go. They asked to use my jeep, because it was the fastest in the company. The plan was to have the jeep follow the half-track and determine its speed in miles per hour. My jeep would do 62 MPH. An unused section of autobahn was selected as the test site. The two vehicles headed down the autobahn lickety split. When my jeep hit 62 miles per hour, Block in the half-track was still pulling away from the jeep which was going wide open. Block was in fifth gear and had two more gears to shift up to when he slowed down. He wasn't sure how well the tracks would hold together if he achieved top speed in 7th gear. So we really never knew how fast the halftrack would go.
From Krefeld we moved out into the countryside to be part of a huge deception plan to mislead the Krauts as to where the Americans would make their Rhine River crossings. While here "Swede" and his lads acquired some more firepower as he explains:
"In this area, "Capt. Mitch" located two abandoned 20-mm. ack ack guns, mobile and in good condition. He wouldn't rest until it was decided to attach one behind our half track for use on German troops. Our small platoon now possessed three jeeps, one Kraut half-track, two German 20mm ack ack guns, eight fifty caliber guns and ammunition for all. This gave us enough guns for each man in the platoon to have either a .50 caliber machine gun or a German 20-mm."
From this idyllic setting in a rural area, the 2nd Battalion moved to Rheinhausen, a city on the Rhine across from the huge industrial center of Duisberg.
Here we occupied the west river bank and watched the huge defunct blast furnaces and other big industrial structures for signs of enemy activity and waited for the word that we would cross the Rhine. The "Fifities" found a large beer hall overlooking the Rhine. Its large picture windows, the glass long gone, made an ideal location for the platoon to try out their new toys, the 20-mm flak guns. We found them to be well made and extremely accurate.
It wasn't long before Lt. Harry Aitken, now Company Executive and Reconnaissance Officer found a mission for them. The German snipers in the industrial wrecks of Duisburg were making life miserable for 2nd Battalion troops manning positions along the river bank.
Aitken, himself a superb marksman whose personal weapons was an 0-3 Springfield with scope sights, decided to set up an anti-sniper operation using the 20-mms. He quickly set up a series of observation posts along the battalion's river front and connected them to the 20-mms in the beer hall with sound powered phones. The observers located the precise spots from which the sniper fire was being received and passed them back to Harry who was seated in the gunners seat of the 20-mm.. The 20-mm had an excellent scope site and could be fired on full automatic or by single shots.
The upshot was that in less than two days the German snipers were no more. They were either dead or decided to practice their skills somewhere in a less hazardous location. Harry had methodically fired at each location until the sniper fire stopped.
On the dash from the Rhine to the Elbe the "Fifties" ran motorized patrols and participated in battalion sweeps rounding up straggling Germans and reducing isolated points of resistance. Fittingly the "Fifties" short but very effective life as the "Bastard Platoon of Company H" concluded in a blaze of all night glory.
It was a major participant in the last Ozark battle of World War II. Col. "Bull" Frazier, commander of the 1st Bn of the 405th was given the mission to clear out a small pocket of stubborn resisters holding the west end of a railway bridge across the Elbe River. Frazier, who had been G Company Commander and battalion executive officer in the 2nd Bn asked for and received permission to use H and G companies to assist in the operation. I will again defer to "Swede"Larson, the able chronicler of Company H:
"Before V.E. Day we had this one last chore. Up in the First Battalion area, small pocket numbering about 175, were stubbornly holding out. H Company was sent to reinforce the 1st Bn with our fire power, particularly the .50s and the 20mm ack ack gun. The pocket held by the Krauts consisted of several buildings and an acre or two of land, next to a railroad bridge. Our 20 mm set fire to several of its buildings with its incendiary shells. It was sort of fun to fire the gun, so we all took turns. Col. "Bull" Frazier, CO of the 1st Bn. came by to observe and took a turn of firing German shells back at the Germans. We set up our .50's near a farm house about dark the night before the attack was to take place. H hour was to be about 4 AM. -- We shelled this pocket all night. When dawn came we moved in with little resistance."
WITH THE 102d DIVISION THROUGH GERMANY notes in part on page 220: "On April 21 it met its doom when Companies C and D, reinforced by the fires of G and H companies of the 405th Infantry killed 60 Germans and captured 125, including two nurses, after a short but spirited fight following a surprise attack in the early morning hours. This was the last Ozark battle operation in World War II."
After the operation was over our medics told the writer there was not one of the prisoners from this operation who did not have wounds from the tiny shrapnel from our 20-mm fire. 'The Bastard Platoon" had once again done its part in making defending German soldiers lives very miserable indeed.
In this year's (1997) July-September issue of OZARK NOTES is a fine article by Maxwell Martin who was a sergeant in Company C 405th. He describes this final Ozark operation from the point of view of the riflemen who made the final assault on the Germans who were holding the west end of the bridge.
Near the end of May the Ozarks moved from the Stendal area south into Thuringia. Higher headquarters requested that the "Bastard Platoon's "trusty and beloved" half-track be left behind. We left it and our last 20-mm with the British who were relieving us and the .50 caliber machine guns were returned to their property book owners. During the next move farther south into Niederbayern, Mitch very sadly left H Company sleeping in a beautiful forested little valley in the Thuringerwald and reported to the 76th Infantry Division. "Swede" Larson was H Company Commander when the company was finally deactivated some months later.
The writer commanded a Heavy Weapons company and served as a battalion operations officer in the Korean War where he noted with considerable satisfaction the extensive use made by infantry units of the quad fifty caliber anti aircraft guns and the self propelled twin forty millimeter anti aircraft guns against massed enemy attacks. These weapons were extremely effective against the human wave tactics of the Communist Chinese Army.
----- "Mitch" Mitchell
(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, "The Bastard Platoon of 405-H", by Richard "Mitch" Mitchell, Capt., Co. H., 405th, was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 50, No. 2, July/Sept. 1998, pp. 4 - 9.
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 March 2004.
Story added to website on 30 March 2004.
September 5, 2002.
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