Heroes: the Army
"...The cracking bullets and constant pounding of artillery kept reminding me of another episode when we were also pinned down. We had just entered the Siegfried Line and were advancing in the direction of Geilenkirchen. There had been one whale of a battle between the crack SS German Panzer troops and the forces of the 30th Infantry Division, plus some supporting elements, a few days prior to our relieving them..."
Robert M. Lira
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. F., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942-1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: 1st Sgt., Bronze Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: San Antonio, TX
My True War Story
by Robert M. Lira, 405-F
Tragic stories have been written about the sorrowful events which took place during WWII, and also the hardships of front line soldiers and the men supporting them. In this connection, I, Technical Sergeant Robert Lira of Houston, Texas am presenting my version of one such true war story, just as I saw it.
It covers several episodes which I think were the most deathlike experiences I was involved in during the war. Of course there were many other frightening episodes I encountered while serving with the Ozarks, but the most outstanding events, which I vividly still remember as the most horrifying experiences of my life are the following.
The scene was somewhere in the vicinity of Roerdorf, Germany on Feb. 23, 1945. It was approximately 2:45 am and the objective was to cross the swirling, raging and dangerous Roer River and secure the high ground on the other side.
I was assigned as Platoon Sgt. in the 2nd Platoon of F Company when about 10 pm the night before we finally got the briefing we had been waiting for. Company F and the 2nd Battalion were scheduled to jump off at approximately 3:30 am the following morning. Company C and the 1st Battalion had been designated to establish a bridgehead, plus form a spearhead for the rest of the regiment. Our job was to give Co. C as much support as possible, as well as protecting their left flank, and .then proceed on to our objective.
We moved up close to the banks of the Roer under cover of darkness and some of us were digging in while others poised along the banks of the river near Roerdorf, when all hell broke loose. The sky lit up as if the world was on fire and the ground trembled like an earthquake. Our Division artillery guns of all calibers, plus those of the tanks of the 2nd Armored Division, heavy machine guns and everything else we had that could spit fire opened up simultaneously at the enemy on the other side. It was a tremendous, heavy barrage of murderous fire that lasted a considerably long while.
Meanwhile the 2nd Platoon continued to dig in along the river bank as we waited for orders to commence crossing it. We were growing more tense by the minute, because we knew the German troops of the 183rd Volksgrenadier Division had our positions zeroed in, and they too, were going to try to blast us with everything they had -- which they did.
I thought I had witnessed heavy poundings of enemy artillery, mortars and 88s when we were first baptized into combat near Geilenkirchen, but those attacks meant nothing compared to this one.This was the most savage of them all. By far it was one of the most intensive and horrible barrages of enemy artillery, mortar and machine gun fire I experienced throughout WWII.
It was one big, blazing inferno. Everyone was petrified. Many soldiers were stunned and some were wandering around in a daze (shell shocked). Others seemed to be disoriented or lost and calling for their squad leader and platoon sergeants.
Regardless of the frantic situations we found ourselves in at times, there was always someone around who'd throw in a little humor to break the stress and the tension. While digging in, we joked about the times we'd spent in Texas at Maxey and Swift. I recall having remarked about how great it would feel to be back in Texas making a twenty-five mile hike in the hot sun. One fellow, Cpl. Hottin from Boston, popped off with "To hell with that stuff. I'd rather be back in Jersey eating spaghetti and meat balls." Another, S/Sgt. Ted Bilyk said "Shoot, I'd even trade this for a long ride in a 40 & 8 across the States." A lot of guys would blurt out something crazy just to keep ourselves in good spirits.
One guy reminded me about the time two of my squad leaders and I jumped into a newly dug latrine for cover when a German Luftwaffe bomber and a couple of Me109s bombed and strafed our staging area back in Belgium. (It was kind of messy but it probably saved our lives.) Some of us managed to sound off with a few chuckles. Deep inside we were all scared as the dickens just the same.
We also joked about the time we literally caused the whole 2nd Battalion and parts of other units to go berserk - completely - when the 2nd Platoon captured a couple of German machine guns near Brachelen. It went this way -- a bunch of us guys decided to have target practice and a little fun besides. We took turns firing the darn things at a captured pillbox until the barrels became so hot that they twisted and the bullets began flying in all directions.
We had deliberately kept on firing them for a long time at 1,500 rounds per minute, stopping only to reload, until the barrels almost melted. We got everybody so shook up and excited behind our lines that the Battalion Commander started calling for all kinds of support, including air support, because they all thought the Germans were counterattacking.
When they finally learned what had actually happened, I got called into Battery Headquarters and got a really good chewing out for that stupid stunt. I thought I was going to get busted, But that's another story. So much for the humor, if you can call it that.
Before crossing, at about 4 am, I got the bad news that our Platoon Leader, 1st. Lt. Fletcher, had been seriously wounded by mortar fire and I was to assume command of the 2nd Platoon. I passed the word down to all the squad leaders.
A few minutes a runner came over and told me to report to the Company Command Post for new orders. I then turned the platoon over to my assistant, Sgt. Bilyk, and headed for the main road leading to the CP on the double.
There were dead and wounded lying along side the road and for a moment I wondered if it might be safer on the enemy's side of the river than on our own. Finally, by a streak of luck, it just so happened that I bumped into my Company Commander, Capt. Evenson, as we both dove into a ditch at the same time when a shell landed nearby. I asked if he knew when we were going to go across. Capt. Evenson proceeded to give me a new plan of attack. He told me to try to organize my platoon as fast as possible, then get to the other side with the first wave of troops -- as best we could -- and establish a line of defense for the rest of the company. "Wow!" I said to myself. "We've had it. If I didn't get killed or wounded back in Linnich, Beeck, Gereonsweiler and all those other places, I was sure to go this time."
I took off on the double again and rounded up my platoon in nothing flat. Quickly we assembled at the loading point, a squad at a time, unaware of what was to happen next. We proceeded to cross the river in assault boats which had been provided by the 327th Engineer Battalion.
What a great bunch of brave and courageous men they turned out to be. No team can ever compare to those fellows; not even the Dallas Cowboys or the Houston Oilers put together. Lots and lots of credit goes to those fearless guys because they really did a terrific job of getting us all across. Some of the engineers even went out of their way and succeeded in stretching some thick ropes and cables across the river, which they tied to big trees on both sides. How in the world they did it I don't know. If it had not been for those ropes and cables a lot of men would have been lost. Some whose boats stalled or capsized clung to them for dear life. Others pulled and tugged their way to shore using those lines.
Meanwhile, artillery and mortar shells continued to fall all around us. I remember telling my men that in the event we got separated and drifted too far downstream, to be sure to come back and reassemble at the initial crossing point. As we crossed the river we saw GIs, parts of pontoon bridges, equipment and capsized boats floating past us. Many a boat and raft had capsized due to the swift current. When we got about half way we couldn't believe our eyes. What had once been a narrow, calm and peaceful stream, had now turned into a wide, flooded and treacherous river. The current was very swift due to the Germans having blown up the dikes and dams upstream.
Some of the men panicked one time because they were afraid the boat was going to capsize. I warned them that if we did, they were to remove all their equipment and throw the stuff away and we'd swim for our lives if we had to. Just as we were close to reaching shore, the right rear of our boat was rammed by a runaway boat, thereby damaging the motor causing it to stop. We started to drift downstream. I promptly got rid of everything except my rifle, which I slung around my neck and diagonally across my body.
Noticing that we were beginning to drift too far away from our sector -- and in our anxiety to get across -- we jumped out of the boat before it got caught in the main current again. We held onto the roots of trees and branches of fallen trees along - the bank. Some men managed to climb to safety up the steep and slippery embankment.
The water was cold and some of us had to remain in the water, clinging to the branches, for about thirty minutes. I hoped and prayed that we would not be swept away.
I could see dead GIs floating in the water going past me. At some distance away I could hear the voices of others yelling for help to save them just before the rushing current swept them past us and over a small dam not too far downstream. There was huge gapping section torn out of it at the midway point -- and a drop of about 10 feet -- as a result of it having been blown up too.
Once in a while, some of my men who had made it across would call for me. I only answered them now and then because there was an enemy machine gun emplacement to our left flank nearby. It was dug in at the base of the dam by the edge of the river. It was firing at full blast and had us pinned down.
During the time I remained pinned down, my whole past went through my mind. I thought of my wife and family back home. How I wished I could be back home in the States with them instead -- or any other place on earth for that matter.
I wondered if I'd ever see them again. I know I prayed the best way I knew how for strength and courage to survive the terrible ordeal.
The cracking bullets and constant pounding of artillery kept reminding me of another episode when we were also pinned down. We had just entered the Siegfried Line and were advancing in the direction of Geilenkirchen. There had been one whale of a battle between the crack SS German Panzer troops and the forces of the 30th Infantry Division, plus some supporting elements, a few days prior to our relieving them. It was evident that that engagement certainly had manifested a lot of shelling and bombardment by both sides because there were dead bodies scattered all over the place.
Two doughboys had evidently tried to get some cover along side or under a tank and the tank had turned suddenly and completely squashed them. As we advanced the enemy started to pound us with their artillery and 88s. I ran for cover as fast as I could toward some large trees by the side of the road. I was so afraid of those "screaming Meemies" that I wanted to crawl in a hole -- just any hole -- and I was in a hurry!. I noticed a slit trench nearby and made a mad scramble, rolling over and into the trench. To my amazement there were three ugly, wide-eyed, green looking Whermacht soldiers in the trench, all in a sitting position and in full battle uniform -- weapons, potato mashers, grenades and all.
I almost died of fright and didn't know what to do or say. The first thing that came to mind was to point my M-1 rifle at them and demand their surrender. Then I thought "Three against one? I don't have a chance." Besides I didn't know the German word for surrender. My next impulse was to get out of the trench in a hurry but the cracking sound of the bullets, 88s and mortars over me kept getting worse. I finally came to my senses and noticed that the Jerries were looking straight ahead and not moving at all. I touched them and they were all dead. I guess they must have been killed a day or two before, either by overhead artillery or small arms fire. I let out a big sigh of relief after realizing they couldn't hurt me.
I was forced to remain in the trench with my three dead "hosts" for fifteen minutes until the firing ceased, thanks to our tanks and artillery. I didn't hesitate to jump out of that hole and rejoin the men in my platoon who had been pinned down as well.
Now back to the Roer.
It must have been about 5 am when the machine gun ceased firing. The German troops began to retreat to higher ground and I climbed up the muddy bank on to firm ground. I helped a couple of my men by reaching out with a tree limb and pulling them out of the cold water.
It took quite a while before I was able to round up what few men I could find. Thank God, some of us had finally made it across the river. We could see dead Germans and GIs all about us. The first thing some of us did was to remove steel helmets, ammunition, combat packs and whatever rations the dead GIs had with them. By this time it was getting close to daylight, but I still couldn't see a thing because it was very foggy. The air was full of a thick haze, like a mixture of fog and smog. I guess it was on account of all the smoke caused by the big guns.
I reorganized the few men I was able to locate and we started creeping along the river bank. We had to be very careful of booby traps and personnel mines. I expected the situation ahead of us to be pretty rough because we had to hustle back to where we should have crossed the river. Some of us had drifted a long distance downstream.
The area was still swarming with enemy troops a short distance away. We could hear them close by directing machine-gun and mortar fire. At one point we had to lie real still in a grassy and wet area for awhile. We must have strayed too far away from the river. I could actually hear the footsteps of the Germans as they regrouped and moved very hastily back up to higher ground. I thought for a moment that if they came too close to us, we either would have to battle it out with them or be killed or captured by them. Luckily they didn't see us and went on past us.
It finally got light enough so we could see and we didn't have to creep or crawl anymore, We were able to walk through the woods, since the Germans had retreated, but we still were very cautious. I estimated that some of us had drifted down the river close to 300 yards from where we were supposed to land. As we continued in the direction of our designated river crossing, we ran into some members of Company F and several other disoriented GIs who were trying to get back to their outfits. Some were remnants of the 1st Battalion, others belonged to the 327th engineers and some were from our own battalion.
When the smoke and fog began to clear around 8 am I was able to make contact with most of my men and the rest of Company F. I don't know just how in the world t managed to reassemble as many as I did. I finally ended up with about 35 men out of approximately 42 that I had before the crossing.
At about 8:30 am I established contact with my Company CP by way of a walkie-talkie I had picked up along the way. Capt. Evenson gave me further orders to contact Company G to my right and proceed to our objective which was the high ground about a mile to our front. We later met with a great deal of opposition as we pushed forward toward Erklenz, Munchen-Gladbach and Krefeld.
We went on across the Rhine and on to the Elbe River but despite the enemy's stubborn resistance we succeeded in accomplishing all of our objective just the same and with very few casualties at that -- Thank God.
----- Robert M. Lira
(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, "My True War Story", by Robert M. Lira, Co.F, 405th Regiment, was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 57, No. 3, April/June 2005, pp. 8-12.
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 27 June 2005.
Story added to website on 27 June 2005.
September 5, 2002.
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