Heroes: the Army
"...a German machine gun opened fire and shot me in the face. The bullet entered just below my left eye and exited behind my right ear. It felt as if someone had hit me in the head with a sledge hammer..."
Richard G. Smith
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. L., 407th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: S/Sgt., Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Germantown, PA
Return from the Dead:
by S/Sgt. Richard G. Smith, 407-L.
Up front with the infantry during a major WWII battle, just as I had mustered enough courage to go up and over the top of a steep embankment, a German machine gun opened fire and shot me in the face. The bullet entered just below my left eye and exited behind my right ear. It felt as if someone had hit me in the head with a sledge hammer.
Instinctively I fell down into a deep plow furrow along side of an unharvested sugar beet field, Terrified, in shock, and probably mortally wounded, I just laid there and bled -- for what seemed to be an eternity. Struggling to remain conscious, I spit out the blood.
No one followed me, but I could hear two of my men, Cobb (Roy A.) and Blank (Lloyd F.), calling to me. With the roof of my mouth caved in, there was no way I could answer them. I could also hear the machine gun continuing to fire when they unsuccessfully tried to climb over the embankment to check on me.
I was an infantry squad leader with the rank of staff sergeant, but this obviously was not a good day. As far as I knew, the four of us, including a seriously wounded day-old replacement who didn't make it, were tne only survivors of an eleven man infantry squad. At the time, I was trying to contact other elements of our company off to our left. I didn't know they were being decimated by the same type of withering machine gun fire that we had encountered from the front, the ridge and the deep tank trap over the ridge on our exposed right flank.
The foul early morning weather proved to be an evil omen. A heavy ground fog delayed the ill-fated attack until mid-morning. Our objective was to encircle the village of Welz from the south by having the second and third squads give covering fire to the first squad moving up along the creek and wooded area. The elite opposing troops of the German 10th SS Panzer Division were well positioned and entrenched to thwart any such obvious maneuver. Because of an extreme shortage of shells, there was to be no artillery support.
This operation was part of an all out American effort to penetrate the vaunted Siegfried Line north of Aachen - out of Holland. It was the first major Allied thrust into Germany.
The Army newspaper Stars and Stripes reported that it involved some of the heaviest fighting of the war. It had become a war of attrition, simular to WWI, with devastated villages changing hands several times - and with big tank battles raging about them. At the infantry squad level, though, we knew only what we could see and hear.
Little did we realize that we were walking into the valley of death. As soon as we, the first squad, entered the deep wooded draw, we lost contact with the other supporting squads. Hundreds of yards up the draw, our scouts encountered heavy enemy fire from the front and flanks, creating confusion and uncertainty among the troops spread out in the draw.
At the same time we were being bombarded with German artillery shells exploding in the trees above our heads. The shelling increased when American tanks emerged from the village of Lindern to help us.
I made it to the top of the ridge on the right with several of my men being led by Grant Miswald. Kubler (Joseph E.), Long (Arthur T.), Stamirowski (Theodore) and others were quickly cut down by machine gun fire from an enemy position below the ridge. That's when I decided to try to contact the other squads off to our left on the other side of the creek and draw - where my good friend Lee Powell was still fighting.
After being wounded, I don't know how long I laid in that plow furrow unable to even move. Afterwards I found out that my men in the draw below had given me up for dead when I didn't answer their shouts. However, the next thing that I knew someone else was in the plow furrow at my feet trying to get my attention.
It was another one of my men, a retreating scout*, who had risked a quick mad dash up the embankment to check on me. After much agonizing, my men had concluded that I would never abandon one of them without first checking to make sure that he was dead.
After seeing my gruesome bloodied face and motionless body, my rescuer also thought that I was dead - he had risked his life for nothing. When he saw my eyes open it was like the dead coming back to life - a miracle.
Hugging the ground, he cut off my field pack and equipment. He then tried to convince me to crawl forward up the plow furrow a few yards to where some bushes partially hid the brink of the embankment. Not being able to talk, I couldn't argue. But still in shock, petrified with fear and seriously wounded, I didn't know if I could do it. Once there, our only hope was to crawl quickly to the brink of the embankment and tumble over. He had even more trouble trying to talk me into going first, since the first man with the element of surprise always has the best chance to make it - which I did.
Once again in the protection of the draw, we jumped into the cold icy stream and followed it back to our lines, where luckily we stumbled onto an aid station of another battalion. The doctor, a Capt. Whitlock, patched me up, tagged me, and loaded me into a meat wagon (ambulance) for transportation back to Holland. From there I was air lifted to England, repaired, and about four months later callously returned to the front for more action. The doctors in England told me that a small fraction of an inch any way on the path the bullet took through my head and I would be dead. The wound would have been fatal.
The word in the rear that night of the battle was that L Company had been wiped out.
Not many of our platoon survived. One of the wounded, another scout, Carmen Brown (from Iowa), was shot in the teeth by a German burp gun from close range. Coughing up the slug which went down his throat, he survived by playing dead - which didn't take much acting. Another squad leader, S/Sgt. Gannon, (Vincent J.)(RI) was hit five times in one leg. Another rifleman, Martin Keaveney (MA) lost a leg.
The list of our platoon dead included T/Sgt. Hilton Harrison (OK), S/Sgt. Jakie Moran (IA), Sgt. Hamilton Walker (MA). Leonard Orzechowski (MI), Craig Kendal (UT), Arthur Long (WA), William Gamble (AR), Robert Schnoor (IL), Theodore Stamirowski (NY), Joseph Kubler (PA), Ambrose Gray (OH), Joel Krumlauf (OH), and Irving Hoffman (PA). They were some of America's best, brightest and bravest men. Orzechowski's ambition was to be a priest. Krumlauf wanted to be a minister.
Foremost on the minds of these men at the time were concerns about their buddies, the comerades, their fellow-man. There is no greater love...
The previous article was prepared by Smith and two of his friends several months prior to his death of natural causes on January 13, 1989.
Smith loved his homeland -- the mountains and woods of north central Pennsylvania where he reported bagging six wild turkeys and missing many more during his lifetime.
Although smith's wife, Kathleen, and his children knew about his war wound, he never talked about it to any of his associates at the Navy facility in central Pennsylvania where he worked after the war. Fortunately, during the last year of his life he initiated contact through Ozark Notes and greatly enjoyed renewed friendships of his war years.
Smith's unusual story, perhaps one of the most dramatic human interest incidents of WWII, was never recorded prior to this article. The article received its final editing by collaboration of the Co. L, 407th attendees at the Tucson reunion. For Smith, just being alive was glory enough.
----- Richard Smith
*15 January 2004 -- Webmaster Note:
The scout mentioned in the above story was Mr. Robert W. "Bob" Lally who has two stories listed on these web pages. We at World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words received word this morning [January 15, 2004] by e-mail from Mr. Lally who describes the duties of a scout during the Allied offensive in November 1944.
Should you care to read about Mr. Lally and his experiences in Co. L., 407th Infantry, you may do so by clicking on the links below:
"Marching Fire" by Bob Lally, Co. L., 407th
Should you be interested, you can read additional material by Mr. Lally at his web site, where he writes additional material about his experiences during the war with Co. L., 407th Infantry.
Links by Mr. Robert L. "Bob" Lally
(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.)
12 January 2005.
A photo of Co. A., 2nd Platoon, 407th Regiment, 102nd Division. This image is on a page that is dedicated to Mr. Edward Marchelitis, Sr., by his daughter Carol. Most of the men in the photo taken on December 20, 1943 are identified on the back of the image.
To view the photo of Co. A., 2nd Platoon, 407th Regiment as well as other photos of Edward Marchelitis, click on the image above.
The family of Mr. Marchelitis is seeking information on his platoon.
A special Thank You is extended to the daughter of Edward Marchelitis, Sr., Carol Marchelitis Heppner.
Interested in some background information?
Check out the related links below...
The above story, "Return from the Dead", by Richard G. Smith, 407th, Co. L., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 42, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 4 - 6.
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 31 July 2003.
Story added to website on 31 July 2003.
Story updated on 15 January 2004.
September 5, 2002.
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