Heroes: the Army
"...All of a sudden we started getting counter battery fire from 88's and they were exploding in the trees and the shrapnel was coming down like hail. I fell into the fox hole near me and dragged the phones in with me..."
Ralph G. Neese
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Cannon Co., 406th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: T/4
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Kenilworth, LA
"A Journal of Cannon Company 406th"
by Ralph Neese
We arrived in Cherbourg September 25th, debarked and traveled to the hedgerows, rain and mud of Normandy. After a day or so they formed the 102nd Provisional Trucking, the famous Red Ball Express. As a former Motor Sergeant who had a 6x6 drivers license I was elected to join our truck company.
We made several trips from Omaha Beach to Paris. My copilot had a wreck outside of Paris. Luckily we were right in front of a Red Ball Ordinance repair depot. We made it back on the road 24 hours later, not knowing where our company trucks were. We took our lives in our hand and drove like mad while other truckers ran us off the road.
When we arrived at Omaha Beach the Quartermaster told us we were 2 hours behind our company. We drove into a Red Bail service station and were told to leave the truck; someone would pick up us and take us back to bivouac. When we arrived there we were told we were going to the front.
I was also informed that my brother, whom I had not seen since November 1941, was stationed a few miles away at St. Mere Eglise. I was also informed that I couldn't leave the area. One of the boys in the company who was game for anything said "I'll go with you," so we took off saying we were visiting another company. We came out on the highway between roadblocks and caught an Air Force truck who took us past another roadblock and turned off the road and let us out in the middle of no where. Along came a truck loaded with rock that was going right to my brothers company. As luck would have it he was at a movie so we had to wait until he returned and we visited awhile but it was late so we had to get back. My brother got the company's command car and we returned to our area in style.
The next day we marched to the rail yards and began our journey through France, Belgium, and Holland into Germany.
We relieved a cannon company from the 30th Division and so got our first action. Of course we were nervous in the service. While in the little town back at our guns we spied a fraulein who was real shapely. The guy I was with said 'All that meat and no potatoes!" The girl turned around and told him "Ja, ye haf viel potatoes." The guy turned red in the face.
We stayed there a few more days and went into Holland to get ready for our first action with the whole division. While there we got a dose of V2 rockets headed for England. We also watched a P38 airplane nursed back to our lines by another P38. The pilot bailed out safely.
After bivouacking for several days we went into the old army game of hurry up and wait. We sat until after dark, then moved into a former German position in an apple orchard. We couldn't see how to put our guns into position, so we left some people to guard the guns and trucks and went to the far side of town and into a cellar. Everything was quiet and peaceful except for the hay stacks burning to the front of us. We posted a guard at the head of the stairs. I took over guard duty about eleven o'clock. About midnight all hell broke loose; the Germans had launched a counter attack which our infantry had broken up. Come to find out, we were about fifty yards from the front lines. If the Germans had been successful we would have been trapped and spent our battle time in a German prison camp.
The next morning we went back to the orchard and set up our guns. Capt. Castman had said we were going to eat hot meals, so at noon on the first day they brought the mess truck up to feed us. I don't think I will ever forget that meal. I had received my mess kit full of chili, bread and coffee. I swear the Germans must have sound ranged the noise of our mess kits. I had taken about two bites and a sip of coffee when the 88's started coming in.
I dove for the ground, spilling half my coffee and chili and then I was up and running to the nearby ditch, spilling the rest of my food. As I was going through the trees to get back to the gun position a round came in close by. I heard a scream and a soldier from another outfit who was passing through our area had gotten a million dollar wound to his arm. His sergeant jumped up and down and slammed his helmet down hollering that he had been on the front lines since Normandy and here was a soldier who had never seen a German who was headed back to England and probably home. Of course, all this ended our "hot food."
We were watching some planes diving on the front lines. They wheeled and came toward us and we said "Look at those P-47s We were shocked to hear the anti-aircraft guns break out. About then we realized they were German.
We learned one thing from our first position - don't set up in trees. I was manning the phones, relaying firing orders to our six 105's. All of a sudden we started getting counter battery fire from 88's and they were exploding in the trees and the shrapnel was coming down like hail. I fell into the fox hole near me and dragged the phones in with me. One of the men, Flemming [Donald W.], fell in on top of me. We lay there for a few minutes and then Flemming said "OH" very loud. I figured he'd been hit. The barrage let up so we got out of the foxhole and we inspected him. He started pulling off his field jacket, sweater, wool shirt, long johns and a t-shirt. A piece of schrapnel had penetrated everything but the t-shirt. All those clothes saved him from a Purple Heart with only a bruise.
While at this position every night "Bed Check Charlie" would come over dropping flares, looking for targets. My foxhole buddy said I was plane happy because "Charlie" only came over when I was on guard. One totally black night I was on guard and here comes "Charlie" again. Before he came you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. After a dozen flares you could have read a newspaper. After him came the bombers dropping a load of bombs about 150 yards behind us. Of course it scared the devil out of us. I asked my buddy if he still thought I was plane happy, but he didn't have much to say. The outfit the Germans were after was of 105mm rifles. I never saw one, but someone said the barrel was about 12 feet long and they had a range of 15 to 18 miles, so, of course the Germans didn't like them.
We moved up to a position east of the northsouth highway which was either "Heartbreak Highway' or "Purple Heart Road". I can't remember which. It was relatively quiet there. We stayed a few days, then were relieved by another cannon company. We were changing our guns one at a time in reverse order. Number one gun was the last to be moved. As we got on the road the Germans landed a white phosphorus shell on the roof of a two story house near by. As any artillery man will tell you, they were marking target. Needless to say we got nervous as hell. We all started hollering at the driver to get the hell out of this area as we knew a barrage was coming. We later heard but couldn't confirm that a shell landed on the star on the hood of a jeep, killing a lieutenant. Once again Cannon 406 lucked out!
As we were moving back a quartermaster's truck stopped in the middle of the road blocking it. He wanted to know where some outfit was so he could deliver his load. We hollered at him to get the h--- out of the way. We told him an artillery barrage was about to happen. He didn't quite understand what was about to happen so someone on the truck said that if he didn't get out of the way he was going to shoot him. That got his attention fast and he moved. When he moved we took off fast and bounced three feet in the air when we hit railroad tracks. One of the fellows lost his helmet. Needless to say, we didn't go back to get it. We got to the next town and ran into a clogged road. There was an 8 inch howitzer outfit near the road and one guy began to kid us about "pea shooters." I told him our infantry loved them. I asked what they were shooting. He turned red in the face and said "propaganda leaflets."
We moved to the rear and went into reserve. While in reserve we were outside talking and smoking and enjoying one of the few starlit nights. We heard a distant boom and then heard a big shell come in about 200 yards away. It landed but there was no explosion &emdash; just a splat as it hit the mud. We counted eight or nine of those 150mm shells that didn't go off. Thank God for those slave laborers who sabotaged those shells.
We went back into action, going into position just west of Geronsweiler. We had passed a Sherman tank which was turned sideways to the road. It had a hole in one side of the turret and another out the other side. We all wondered what kind of gun had done that. Then as we turned into the field to go into position we saw what kind of gun had done it. It had been dug in and the only thing it had showing when in position was the barrel and the turret. Something had set it on fire when it was backing out of the hole. Later, after we had put our guns in position several of us went back to look at it. Whether the Germans had escaped or Graves Registration had removed the bodies, there were none there. We checked one of the empty shell casings and it was 5 feet tall and about 8 inches at the base. It tapered at the end like an 88mm projectile which is a little over 3 inches. We then realized why the shell had gone through the turret. The Sherman tank was only a couple hundred yards from that Tiger Royal.
We stayed in that position for quite a while. Some 155mm self propelled guns moved into our rear and opened fire. They were very long range so the Germans didn't like them and fired back, and of course we got the short rounds. We got so mad we could have shot them because all they had to do was close up their turrets and they were safe.
We were sitting around a fire about dusk. We don't know why the 88s. chose then to open up on us, but they did. The first round was over so we all dove for our holes. I almost caved in my hole, I was going so fast. The next morning I crawled out of my hole and there was an 88 shell hole by my entrance. The Cannon Company luck had held again!
The morning of the start of the Battle of the Bulge the Germans were trying to convince us they were attacking. From about 1 am until day break they threw more shells at us than we had ever seen. Of course we weren't hurt because we were in our holes. When we got out the next morning all of our camouflage nets were riddled and our powder holes were on fire. To explain the powder holes, as we were fixing our 105mm shells we had to cut extra bags of powder and throw them in the pit. This wasn't dangerous because powder in the open just burns when set on fire.
A day or two later we were to move over and take up the positions of the 84th Division. The subfreezing weather still remained and the ground was frozen solid. A gruesome sight greeted us when we arrived. For some reason Graves Registration hadn't gotten around to picking up the casualties and two Germans and one GI were still in the position they died in, frozen stiff, and had to be winched out of the foxholes.
In back of out position was a well traveled road and many vehicles had used it. Our mess hall was across the road and as we crossed back and forth someone called me and said "Come back here."
There was a 12 lb. Teller mine with the paint worn off the top of it. Needless to say, we called in the engineers who were clearing a field nearby. If it hadn't been found before the thaw someone would have been blown up!
After the 84th Division returned we saw they had taken off their patches and painted out their bumper designation. We asked them who they were, but they wouldn't tell us. That night Axis Sally came on the air and told the 84th to put their insignia back on because the Germans knew where they were. The German Intelligence knew more about us than we did.
After being relieved, we returned to our positions at Geronsweiler. We remained there until the preparations for the Roer Crossing. We moved up to a position near Roerdorf. We fired at targets of opportunity. The night before the Roer River Crossing we zeroed in on a road crossing. After dark each guard would correct the sights on the selected gun and fired a round every 15 minutes. I enjoyed it because it helped pass the time. It sure must have scared the Germans to know another round was coming every 15 minutes.
We stayed in position, firing, until the following night when it became our time to cross. We crossed the river and ran into a traffic jam. There we were, water on both sides of the road, no where to go and the Germans started shelling the road. We dove under our trucks without thinking about the 20 or so 105mm rounds just over our heads. If a shell had landed in the back of one of our trucks it would have been one hell of an explosion and half of the company would have gone with it. We finally got moving and found out what was holding us up. A 75mm antitank gun had run one wheel over the side of the bridge and hung up and couldn't be pulled over. A lieutenant was standing there looking at it trying to figure out what to do. Some colonel I didn't know told the lieutenant to throw the damned gun into the creek!
That morning we were lined up on the road waiting to find out where to go. All of a sudden we started drawing machine gun and rifle fire. The division on the right flank hadn't been able to keep up with the 102nd, which left us open. Needless to say, we got off that road and pulled into a town where we found German foxholes already dug. I chose a nice covered hole by myself. All of a sudden 88s started falling around us. It lasted awhile and then let up. Someone started hollering for a medic. I stuck my head out of the hole and asked who was hurt? He said Neese had taken a direct hit on his foxhole. I told them I was OK and then started looking around. There on the center of my hole was a hollow place still smoking! I thanked the German who had fixed up that covered hole so well. Our cannoneers luck had held again!
As we kept moving the lines were so fluid we kept getting into trouble. We were lined up on a road again. All of a sudden we were getting direct fire from an 88 on our flank. He must have been a poor gunner as he had us dead to rights. His first round hit the power line on our left. Needless to say, it didn't take long to get everyone off the trucks. Good luck again &emdash; there was a foxhole right next to our truck. I hit that hole in quick fashion; then someone came in on top of me. After a minute or two when no more shells were coming in, I told the person on top of me to get his blankety blank behind off of me! As I got out of the hole, I saw who it was. I thought I was in trouble for cursing out a lieutenant, but he just grinned at me.
The fluid situation on the way to Krefeld didn't only confuse us but everyone else. We were in position along side a road and had just fired a mission. As you know, we were short range artillery. We looked to the road and there was a 155 long tom battery stopped on the road. We asked them what the hell they were doing this far forward. When I told them our short range guns had just completed a mission, they all turned white. They sure didn't know they were that far forward. The road to Krefeld was uneventful from then on.
We arrived on the outskirts of Krefeld near a steel mill which was our sector to clear of enemy soldiers. We went from house to house checking for weapons (schnapps and loot). Most of the houses were empty but a few had people in them. I found in one house a soldier-age civilian and a young boy. I asked the man why he wasn't a soldier and he raised his shirt to show a brace on his back. Naturally the nest question was did he have any schnapps and he said "Ja." He got the bottle and offered it to me but I wouldn't take a drink of it until he drank some of it. I couldn't make him understand me, but with sign language it finally dawned on him that I wanted him to test it.
We moved into some nice brick homes for the night. First platoon drew a house with a middle aged women in it. She was as afraid of us as rattlesnakes. It seems the propaganda had told them we would rape and kill the women. We had a fellow in our platoon who spoke German. He explained to her that she was perfectly safe with us. We told her to go to the bomb shelter and stay the night. The next morning she came out while we were eating our K rations and we gave her some crackers with her jam on them and a cup of our instant coffee. She started crying that she never expected such good treatment from our soldiers.
During the night a woman came to us crying and wanting a doctor. We told her we didn't have a doctor. We said all we had was an aid man - or in German a "sanitat." She didn't care; she wanted some help so we sent our 20-year old medic, Frear. He came back later and told us that everything was fine. We was "Dr." Frear from then on.
We moved into town and stayed for awhile as control troops. In our sector we had a huge underground bomb shelter that we had to check daily, looking for soldiers. There must have been over a thousand people down in that hole.
Our next move was to a town called Uerdegan, where we set up our guns so we could control the Rhine River banks and harass the Germans. Oil refineries and manufacturing plants were just over the river. Evidently the troops had overrun a rail yard full of ammo cars. Soldiers sat up mortars and 88s and starting shooting that ammo over the river. I heard they burned up a few mortar tubes but they had plenty of them. I never did find out if the emptied all those cars.
Right behind town was a brickyard full of bomb crates. They started firing those big rockets out of those crates. They were doing alright until some bright fellow decided to build a launcher on a trailer so you could fire 8 at a time. The first time they fired it turned over the trailer and four of the rockets went over the river and four went straight up in the air. One landed about fifty or sixty yards from our C.P. You can guess it was never used again.
Our next move was to the bridge at Wesel. The crossing was uneventful as the Germans had been driven back by the paratroopers and our infantry. After we crossed we began noticing wrecked gliders that were shot up. The Germans had brought up all the Flack Wagons and fired at the Paratroopers and Glider Infantry. It must have been hell.
As motorized infantry we were assigned the shakedown of all the small towns in our area. We moved into this one small town where a German air force hospital was located. We cleaned the hospital out and loaded them on trucks and moved them out. We probably shouldn't have moved some of them as they were recuperating from serious wounds. We found some Italian prisoners of war. One of our boys could understand them when they said there were German soldiers in the next village. The lieutenant told another soldier and I to hop in so off we went like a bunch of fools. We arrived at the outskirts of the village. We ran into some civilians who talked to us in English. The man was American and his wife was German. The husband explained that before the war his wife had inherited a farm and the only way to claim it was to come in person. They were now trapped and couldn't get out. They told us the bridge into town was mined and the mayor had been instructed by the army to blow it up but they had talked him out of it.
We looked across the fields and there coming at us was two tanks. The Lieutenant and the driver took off to keep them from blowing us away. He almost got blown away by a 50 caliber machine gun. Come to find out, we were in front of a combat command of the 84th Division. A Major was leading the command and he was furious. I felt sure we were as good as court marshaled. We were still talking to the people and the major blew his top &emdash; saying we weren't supposed to be fraternizing with civilians. He told us to get the fell out of there - and of course we took off in a cloud of dust. When we got back to the company we reported the incident to the company commander. The report went all the way to General Keating. He thought it over and sent word to forget it. Since he hated the 84th, we squeezed out of that. My luck was still holding!
We didn't go into position again until we got to the town on the mountain that had housed a German tank school and a Hitler youth camp. While entering the outskirts of the village, the 406th Infantry drew fire and an officer was killed so the troops withdrew. Colonel Hurlers [Hurless, Bernard F.] called Captain Cashman [Ben] and asked how much ammunition we had. We had drawn extra rounds when we attacked the pill boxes on the Roer, and not having to fire any we had a surplus of shells.
Captain Cashman told the Colonel he had all the ammo he wanted. The next morning we started firing at daybreak and fired all day long, firing on each elevation at will. We destroyed that town, firing over 300 rounds. We also had a battery of 105s and all 4.2 mortar outfits attached to us. I have no idea how many times they fired. We were firing through a power line and one round hit the wire and exploded. Our luck held somewhat as only Corporal Rezander was hit in the heel. He was evacuated and we never herd from him again. This was the end of our combat as the next stop was the Elbe River and the end of the war.
----- Ralph Neese
(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, "A Journal of Cannon Company 406th", by Ralph Neese, 406th, Cannon Co., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 47, No. 1, Oct./Dec. 1994, pp. 6 - 11.
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 4 November 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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