Heroes: the Army
"...They thundered and roared over our heads like a hundred express trains. On that flat plaid, walking erect, I felt naked, exposed, terrified. Once I think I almost broke. I wanted to dive in the ditch and stay in it until this war was over with..."
Over the River
by Howard K. Smith
Howard K. Smith joined United Press in 1940 as their correspondent in London and Copenhagen, and in 1941 joined CBS News. He was the last American correspondent to leave Berlin after the war was declared. He accompanied the Allied sweep through Belgium, Holland and into Germany. The following was written starting February 22, 1945.
This is Ederen, a badly smashed German village two miles from the Roer River. The sun has set now, and the sky is turning deep azure. German fighters, on reconnaissance, have been over five times in the last hour, and we have received a few German shells throughout the day. But it is now quiet. A moment ago our ack-ack opened up again, as I left our cellar to go outside and look. Wild geese &emdash; about thirty of them &emdash; and a single faint star were the only marks on the cloudless sky. The geese were flying over the Roer in a V formation and our ack-ack was shooting tracers at them. Gis, out of foxholes and cellars, bunched together and cheered. It was a bad advertisement for us to Jerry on the other side. The tracers twice broke up the V formation but none of the geese fell.
For the record, this is C Company of the first battalion of the 405th Regiment of the 102nd Division. It has been chosen to spearhead the crossing of the Roer tomorrow morning. The company commander is Capt. Harold Lozano of San Antonio, TX. He is called Pancho by his two hundred men. It sounds odd to hear them call him Pancho and then conclude what they're saying with "sir." Pancho is a short, black haired, barrel-chested and black eyed little demon. He is always grinning. Right now I am back in the cellar with Pancho.
It is a small strong-arched cellar, cloudy with smoke from our leaky stovepipe. There is a clothesline over the corner where the stove is, and on it hang a pair of dirty socks and three pair of wet pants. There are two shabby mattresses on the floor. I am sitting on one of them, writing these notes on my map case. The telephone just sounded, and Pancho is now listening to the voice on it, which I think is giving him final orders for tomorrow. After the telephone conversation, Pancho told his four platoon leaders - lieutenants all - that H hour would be three thirty in the morning. There would be a forty-five minute artillery barrage, then they would cross the river in assault boats, which were numbered consecutively. Only one boat was not to be used: boat no. 13. The platoon leaders left for different parts of the town to brief their riflemen.
I went to the house next door with one of them, Lieut. Harold L. Miller of Atlantic City. These platoon leaders, called junior officers are not the men who mold wars. They actually lead their men at all times. Their GIs do as they do. If the platoon leaders break or show fear, the GIs do too. If he keeps his composure, they keep theirs. They watch him, and he sets the pattern for everything that happens. Hal Miller, a veteran of the Pacific War, is a typical crack American combat soldier. In the next house, the GIs lay around on the straw covered floor. Hal Miller held a little map of the Roer against the wall with one hand, and focused his flashlight on Roerdorf - the site of the crossing - with the other.
"When you get across, " he told his men, "don't hang around. Move away from the bank as fast as you possibly can. That bank will be as hot as Hades. We've got the mine fields spotted, we think. Follow me in my footsteps when we walk. Get down on your hands and knees and feel your way forward on the lookout for trip wires when I do." Miller finished by telling them to get some chow and some sleep. Pvt. William Smith of Haverill, MA said to me, "How does he think that a man can eat and sleep when he's got a lump as big as a football in his stomach? I think it's my heart." I told him I thought I knew what he meant. "Wish I had a good slug of bourbon," he said. Again we agreed.
Out in the back yard, after chow, we all sat around on rubble and worried. Eventually Pancho came out, smoking a big cigar and with a big grin almost closing his eyes. He stood, legs apart, in front of us and talked about past attacks and future prospects, telling only the funny side. With slight exaggeration, he told about the attack on Beeck, when a mortar shell tossed him up in the air. "Where you heading, Pancho?" a sergeant had shouted to him. "Ain't headed nowhere," he had answered. "I'm just coming back down to earth," he had said. Everybody laughed.
On the Randerath deal, he had met the same sergeant on the other side of the stream. The sergeant had complained, "Got my behind all wet coming through that dam creek." Pancho said "That's funny. That creek hardly comes up to my ankles:' And the sergeant had answered, "Yeah, it was the same when I crossed it. But you know how low my behind is a-hanging today." Everyone laughed again, and soon the other old-young veterans of Beeck and Randerath were telling their oft-told tales, well embroidered. Then the replacements, the new fellows sent to take the place of those who got it at Beeck and Randerath, found themselves laughing and enjoying themselves. I don't know if Pancho meant it that way, but he had broken an awful tension.
In the smoky cellar we went on chewing the rag. Photos of wives and family were passed around for inspection. Then, one by one, the other sat down and tried to get some sleep. When their eyes had been shut for a good while, I went over to the corner and removed hand grenades from above the stove and placed them in a far corner. Now I'll try to sleep.
The mess sergeant came in and woke us up. That is, he woke the others up, if they were sleeping. I was not. Outside, in the cold night air, helmeted shadows sloshed about in the mud. From where we were dealt out pancakes, cereal and coffee, I was surprised to find myself hungry. In the cellar and houses the GIs were packing to move. They put on waders. Around their bellies, already fat with ammunition, they wrapped life preservers, then inflated them with air. K rations were stuffed in their pockets. Everything else: overcoats, mess kits, blankets, were piled in a corner to be picked up later by follow-up squads. Back in the cellar again, Harold Miller wondered where we would all be tomorrow at this time. Pancho, lacing his boots, started singing, "What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours." Everybody laughed.
Pancho is assembling his men in the muddy trough of a road outside. In a quarter of a hour, we will start marching up the road across the flat lands to the Roer River. We will march single file on either side of the road. The barrage, Pancho said, would open just about when we were halfway to the river. Then when Jerry started responding, we might have to leave the road. If we did, follow him, for there are still mines in the fields. I am going outside now, with a prayer on my lips for all these brave men and for me. It is unusually clear outside in the moonlight, and you can see distinctly over the plain for about a mile.
This is Roerdorf on the Roer, and I am in a deep strong cellar, thank God. I don't think I shall ever again witness a spectacle as terrifying as that I have just seen. We marched over the silent road to a village called Welz, halfway to the river.
When we were leaving the village, our barrage opened up at precisely 0245 hours. Almost instantly the navy blue sky turned into a dome of yellow fire as a thousand guns blasted forth. And they kept on firing, dotting the horizon behind and in front of us with momentary patches of red from the blasts of the guns and hits from our shells. They thundered and roared over our heads like a hundred express trains. On that flat plaid, walking erect, I felt naked, exposed, terrified. Once I think I almost broke. I wanted to dive in the ditch and stay in it until this war was over with. But I looked on ahead and saw Pancho strutting like a bantam rooster, and I was ashamed of myself. That is what I mean by saying that company and platoon leaders mold the shape of war. If Pancho had shown any sign of breaking, I'd have gone into the ditch to stay. And I think a lot of the soldiers would have gone with me.
Jerry was apparently stunned by the sudden blast. He did not respond for a full quarter hour. Then he cut loose. Among other things, he lined our road with mortar bursts. Three times I hit the ditch. Once I lost my helmet and spent a terrible minute groping in the mud for it. We left the road and cut across the fields, a long twisting snake of moving men, all following Pancho. Then our long range machine guns opened up from a thousand foxholes behind us, firing shoulder level weapons, chains of bright purple lights, toward Jerry's lines on the river. We had to crawl on hands and knees to escape our own murderous fire.
At the road running parallel to the river, I shouted an inaudible "Good Luck" and ran down the road to the first House in Roerdorf. I was in the cellar in nothing flat. It turned out to be the headquarters of the combat engineers, who were out there in that inferno, trying to put up a pontoon bridge. Meanwhile the first wave of infantry is crossing in boats - all of them except no. 13.
Col. Robert Anderson of Boise, ID is the commander of the 327th Engineers, who are doing a fine job and whose headquarters is this cellar. Yesterday, when I interviewed him about his plans for bridges, he was the picture of poise. Now he chain smokes and drinks mug after mug of hot black coffee, He has a hard job &emdash; probably the hardest job to do today. His men must but up bridges to supply and reinforce the infantry. He must do it on sites zeroed in by German guns for months. The army manual says you cannot build a pontoon bridge in a river with a current of more than five miles an hour. The current in the Roer is more than six miles an hour. The bridge in the vicinity of Roerdorf is not doing well, to understate the situation. The engineers on the flaming river bank are losing boats which are to be used as pontoons, and the boats are cruising off down the river. Some of the boats Anderson had loaned to the infantry to use as assault boats have been capsizing in the driving stream and floating off. There is now a shortage of boats for pontoons. Col. Anderson has sent for more. Meanwhile, crews are out farther down along the river, trying to salvage the runaway boats. Anderson himself has put on his helmet and gone down to the river bank. His communications are shot to hell. Most of his wires have been cut by German artillery, which is plowing the river bank and the village. Col. Anderson is a very young man for his job of chief division engineer. He can't be more than thirty five. But tonight he looks ten years older.
I tried to write this in a medical aid station I just visited down the street. But the little house was overflowing with wounded and I had to leave. The floor of the main room was sticky with blood and dust. Men with legs broken and purple were lying on stretchers. There were others with their sides gashed open. Were it not for the tension, I think I would be sick. Being tired, scared and confused has some advantages, and this is one of them.
Outside the streets a deep black night is closing in. I ran from cover to cover until I reached the place where this is being written &emdash; the command post of the 405th Regiment in another cellar. This front line village has certainly altered appearance during the last hour. I noticed more and more great gaps where houses used to be. And I can hear others rumbling to rubble following blasts over town. If the infantry doesn't soon push Jerry back to where his mortars can't reach this town, there will be nothing left above ground.
Here in the CP I have run into a combat fatigue case. His name is not Walt, but that will serve. He was out on the river bank, repairing telephone lines when an 88 hit his buddy right in the back. Walt, a giant of a man, is now sitting on the floor here, crying like a baby. His jacket is splashed with blood and tiny bits of flesh. He is uncontrollable and should be evacuated from the zone of fire. The medics say, though, that there are other men who may die if they are not evacuated immediately, and Walt must wait. I tried to talk to him, but he didn't hear a word I said.
Though it involves no physical wound, combat fatigue is one of the most awful features of war. The medics tell me that it has no relation to bravery or cowardice. It can happen to anyone. Oddly, it doesn't happen to new men. It gets the old timers, the "saturated veterans." And it come on I very gradually. The veteran gets more and more cautious, until one day he cracks. There is nothing I you can do except get him away from the noise, give him a good rest, and keep him in the rear, away from the fighting lines. Walt looks as though he may fall asleep soon. He is crying only at intervals and looks very tired.
I have spent an hour with the commander of the Regiment, a gaunt white-haired colonel named Williams. His eyes are inflamed from lack of sleep. He planned this attack last night and is making it tonight. Big hands tremble as he points to places on the map.
"It's the damned bridges," he told me. "We can't get one to stay in that current. It cuts them to pieces like a hand saw. We've got a battalion of infantry on the other side, without supplies and not enough ammunition to last the day out." There is one bridge up now, but it can't stand the load until an auxiliary cable is thrown across. The infantry is still crossing in what boats they can get. And they are still capsizing and finally reaching shore a mile down the river, wet, cold, uncertain of mines in that unreconnoitered area.
Col. Williams had called for alligators, the big blue amphibious tank-like vehicles, to carry his men over faster, before the Germans could counterattack. Eight Gators were on their way. Not enough. But there were other crossing sites, and they too were clamoring for Gators. There is no word from C Company and Pancho.
This is an artillery observation post in Roerdorf, in the shattered attic of a three story house. Though it is dawn, I can see nothing but the vague outlines of the high ground across the river, and flashes and tracer bullets. A rather thick ground haze covers the horizon.
Capt. Jack Potts of Corsicana, TX, the regiment's frontline artillery observer, asks me why the hell I stay out in this if I don't have to. Now that I think of it, it does seem rather silly. I am no hero, and every minute of this has been torture to me. But it is also fascinating. Lest I should become proud of the implied compliment in Jack's question, let me record the exploit of Ernie Leiser, correspondent for the Army paper, Stars and Stripes. Ernie crossed the river in the first wave with Pancho. When he came back the river bank was lined with wounded. And Ernie volunteered as a litter bearer. I met him a few minutes ago down in the regimental CP and I casually said that I hoped he would give his paper the full account of this experience. "Nope," Ernie replied. "I'm afraid my readers wouldn't be very impressed. They're the guys who are fighting on the other side:'
The mortar shelling let up a little and I went down to the bridge site. It was not hard to find, for the zigzag road was marked by great patches of plowed earth, by smashed canteens, ripped jackets, splintered rifle butts and general destruction. It has been an awful night out here. But the bridge is up. The second cable is being fastened on the other side now. Troops are lining the streets in town, waiting to cross. Meanwhile, upstream, the Alligators are taking others over. We have lost two Alligators this morning.
The worst has happened. When the bridge was almost complete, one of the Alligators upstream got out of hand in the current. It smashed the bridge and broke both cables. That is not all. The liberated pontoon boats rushed downstream, where they collided with another pontoon bridge a mile away, and shattered that one as well. Col. Anderson is in misery. My head aches and I am going to try to sleep in the engineers' cellar. There is one heartening thing, though, for the first morning in weeks, the sky is cloudless. The air is roaring with fighter bombers. We can see them peeling off into dives, see their guns flashing and hear their tattoo. They will help those weary battered infantrymen on the other side.
I thought I would have trouble sleeping, for a new barrage began falling on the town as I lay down. But I fell asleep like a rock falling into water, and I slept about two hours. I feel better now. Col. Anderson has come in and is sitting on a blanket in this cellar room. He says German artillery ceased hitting the river bank an hour ago. The bridge will be completed within a couple of hours. Work has already begun on another, heavier bridge. It will carry tanks and heavy guns to support the infantry.
My day of war is over. I'm going back to headquarters now to prepare a broadcast. It's a warm day outside. I walked back down to regimental CP without fear. Jerry's mortars have been pushed way back and can't reach us anymore. His artillery can, but apparently the infantry on the other side are giving it enough to do over there.
Col. Anderson was grinning when I left him back in the engineers' CR The bridge is up. Col. Williams was over the river. The whole 102nd Division was over. It was the first division to get all it's units over the river. In his general report back to division and army, Col. Williams said progress has been extremely good and casualties very low. That is one of the amazing things about war: when you're right up among it everything seems to be confusion, chaos and failure. A single dead or maimed man conjures up images of complete failure. But back in the rear with perspective on the whole front, it all fits smoothly, neatly and economically into the big picture that counts.
Before bidding Col. Williams good bye, I asked about Pancho & Co. I was told that Pancho reached his objective hours ahead of time and was knocked out cold by concussion from a German shell. He was not wounded, though, and was brought to in an hour. He resumed command of the company and was working on his second objective.
I want to hear what form that concussion yarn takes when Pancho tells it a week from now.
*** THE END ***
----- Howard K. Smith
(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, "Attack on Gardelegen", by James "Jim" Hansen, 405th, F. Co., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 51, No. 1, October/Dec. 1998, pp. 6 - 8.
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 13 November 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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Updated on 17 February 2012...1351:05 CST