Read an Excerpt
Chapter 9: The Island
October 2 - November 25,1944
Easy Company, like all units in the American airborne divisions, had been trained as a light infantry assault outfit, with the emphasis on quick movement, daring maneuvers, and small arms fire. It had been utilized in that way in Normandy and during the first ten days in Holland. From the beginning of October until almost the end of November 1944, however, it would be involved in static, trench warfare, more reminiscent of World War I than World War II.
The area in which it fought was a 5-kilometer-wide "island" that lay between the Lower Rhine on the north and the Waal River on the south. The cities of Arnhem, on the Lower Rhine, and Nijmegen, on the Waal, marked the eastern limit of the 101st's lines; the small towns of Opheusden on the Lower Rhine and Dodewaard on the Waal were the western limit. The Germans held the territory north of the Lower Rhine and west of the Opheusden-Dodewaard line.
The Island was a flat agricultural area, below sea level. Dikes that were 7 meters high and wide enough at the top for two-lane roads held back the flood waters. The sides of the dikes were sometimes steep, more often sloping so gradually as to make the dikes 200 or even 300 feet wide at the base. Crisscrossing the area were innumerable drainage ditches. Hills rose on the north side of the Lower Rhine, giving the Germans a distinct advantage in artillery spotting. They had apparently unlimited ammunition (the German industrial heartland was only 50 kilometers or so up the Rhine River), enough at any rate to enable them to fire 88s at single individuals caught out in the open. All movement on the island was by night; during daylight hours, men stayed in their foxholes, observation posts, or houses and barns. The fall weather in northwest Europe was, as usual, miserable: cold, humid, rainy, a fit setting for a World War I movie.
There were whole regiments of British artillery on the Island, firing in support of the 101st. This meant that Island battles were artillery duels in which the main role of the infantry was to be prepared to hurl back any assault by the German ground troops and to serve as forward artillery observers. Patrols went out every night, to scout and to maintain contact with the enemy. For the most part, however, Easy and the other companies in the 101st sat there and took it, just as their fathers had done in 1918. A man's inability to do anything about the artillery fire added to the widespread, overwhelming feeling of frustration.
But of course it was not 1918. On the Island, the men of Easy first saw jet airplanes in action. They watched vapors from the V-2s, the world's first medium-range ballistic missile, as they passed overhead on the way to London. Still, as had been true of soldiers on the Western Front in 1914-1917, they fought without tank support, as a tank was much too conspicuous a target on the Island.
The rations added to the sense that Easy was in a World War I movie rather than a real 1944 battle. The company drew its rations from the British, and they were awful. The British 14-in-1s, according to Corporal Gordon, "will support life, but not morale." Bully beef and heavy Yorkshire pudding were particularly hated, as was the oxtail soup, characterized as "grease with bones floating in it." Most men took to throwing everything in the 14-in-1s into a single large pot, adding whatever vegetables they could scrounge from the countryside, and making a sort of stew out of it. Fortunately there was fresh fruit in abundance, mainly apples and pears. Cows that desperately needed milking were relieved of the contents of their bulging udders, and that helped, but there was no coffee and the men quickly tired of tea.
Worst of all were the English cigarettes. Cpl. Rod Bain described them as "a small portion of tobacco and an ungodly amount of straw." Best of all was the daily British rum ration. Next best was finding German rations. The hard biscuits were like concrete, but the canned meat and tubes of Limburger cheese were tasty and nutritious.
As had been true of the villages of France on both sides of the line on the Western Front 1914-1918, the civilian residents of the Island were evacuated (and Holland is the most densely populated country on earth). This gave the men almost unlimited opportunities for looting, opportunities that were quickly seized. Webster wrote, "Civilians dwell under the misapprehension that only Germans and Russians go through drawers, closets, and chicken coops, whereas every G.I. of my acquaintance made a habit of so doing." Watches, clocks, jewelry, small (and large) pieces of furniture, and of course liquor quickly disappeared -- that is, what was left, as the British had already stripped the area.
The Island was most like World War I in its stagnated front. Easy spent nearly two months there, in daily combat. It sent out almost 100 patrols. It repelled attacks. It fired an incredible amount of ammunition. It took casualties. But when it was finally relieved, it turned over to the relieving party front-line positions that had hardly moved one inch.
The company moved onto the Island on October 2, by truck, over the magnificent bridge at Nijmegen (still standing) that had been captured by the 82d on September 20 at 8:00 P.M. Once over the Waal, the trucks took the men some 15 kilometers, past dozens of camouflaged British artillery pieces, to the village of Zetten.
They arrived at night, to relieve the British 43d Division. The 506th regiment was taking over a stretch of front line that had been held by a full division. It was over 6 miles in length. The 2d Battalion of the 506th was on the right (east) end of the line, with Easy on the far right with the 501st PIR to its right. Easy had to cover almost 3 kilometers with only 130 men.
British soldiers met the company in Zetten and escorted the leading elements to their new positions. "What's it like up here?" Webster asked.
"It's a bloody rest position, mate," was the reply. The numerous craters from 105s and 88s looked fresh to Webster, who doubted that he was being given straight scoop. After a three-hour march, the patrol reached its destination, a clump of houses nestled beside a huge dike. The Lower Rhine was on the other side of the dike, with a kilometer or so of flat, soggy grazing land between it and the dike. The area was littered with dead animals, burned houses, and empty machine-gun belts and ammo boxes. This was no-man's-land.
To cover his assigned section of the front, Winters put the 2d and 3d platoons on the line, along the south side of the dike, with the 1 st platoon in reserve. He did not have sufficient troops to man the line properly, so he placed outposts along the dike at spots that he calculated were most likely enemy infiltration points. He kept in contact with the outposts by means of radio, wire, and contact patrols. He also sent three-man patrols to the river bank, to watch for enemy movement and to serve as forward artillery observers. He set up his CP at Randwijk.
At 0330, October 5, Winters sent Sgt. Art Yournan out on a patrol, with orders to occupy an outpost in a building near a windmill on the south bank of the dike. With Youman were Pvts. James Alley, Joe Lesniewski, Joe Liebgott, and Rod Strohl. The building was beside a north-south road that ran to a ferry crossing on the river to the north, back to the small village of Nijburg to the south.
When the patrol reached the road, Youman told Lesniewski to go to the top of the dike to look things over. When he reached the top, hugging the ground as he had been taught, Lesniewski saw an unexpected sight, the outline of a German machine-gun set up at the point where the road coming from the ferry crossed the dike. Behind it, in the dark, he could just make out a German preparing to throw a potato-masher grenade at Youman's patrol, down at the south base of the dike.
Simultaneously the other members of the patrol heard German voices on the north side of the dike. Liebgott, who was trailing, called out, "Is that you, Youman?"
The German threw the grenade as Lesniewski called out a warning. Other Germans pitched grenades of their own over the dike. Lesniewski got hit in the neck by shrapnel. Alley got blown to the ground by a blast of shrapnel that left thirty-two wounds in his left side, face, neck, and arm. Strohl and Liebgott took some minor wounds; Strohl's radio was blown away.
They had run into a full company of SS troops. It had come across the river by ferry earlier that night and was attempting to infiltrate south of the dike, to make a diversionary assault in support of a major attack the 363d Volksgrenadier Division was scheduled to launch at first light against the left flank of the 506th at Opheusden. Although the patrol did not know it, another SS company had crossed the dike and was on the loose behind American lines. Although division did not yet know it, the attack on 1st and 2d Battalions of the 506th was much more than just a local counterattack; the German objective was to clear the entire Island area of Allied troops.
After the skirmish with the first SS company, the E Company patrol fell back. It was a full kilometer to Winters' CP. "Come on, Alley," Strohl kept saying. "We've got to get our asses out of here."
"I'm coming, I'm coming," the limping Alley replied.
At 0420 Strohl got back to the CP to report the German penetration. Winters immediately organized a patrol, consisting of a squad and a half from the 1st platoon, which was in reserve, plus Sgt. Leo Boyle from HQ section with a radio.
Sergeant Talbert ran back to the barn where his men were sleeping. "Get up! Everybody out!" he shouted. "The Krauts have broken through! God damn you people, get out of those beds." Webster and the others shook themselves awake, grabbed their rifles, and moved out.
Winters and his fifteen-man patrol moved forward quickly, along the south side of the dike. As they approached the SS company, he could see tracer bullets flying off toward the south. The firing made no sense to him; he knew there was nothing down that way and guessed that the Germans must be nervous and confused. He decided to stop the patrol and make his own reconnaissance.
Leaving the patrol under Sergeant Boyle's command, he crawled to the top of the dike. On the other (north) side, he saw that there was a 1-meter deep ditch running parallel to the dike. It would provide some cover for an approach to the road. He returned to the patrol, ordered two men to stay where they were as rear and right flank protection, and took the remainder up and over the dike to the ditch on the north side. The group then moved forward cautiously down the ditch toward the road.
When he was 200 meters from the road, Winters stopped the patrol again and moved forward alone, to scout the situation. As he neared the road -- which was raised a meter or so above the field -- he could hear voices on the other side. Looking to his right, he could see German soldiers standing on top of the dike by the machine-gun position, silhouetted against the night sky. They were wearing long winter overcoats and the distinctive German steel helmets. Winters was about 25 meters from them, down in the drainage ditch. He thought to himself, This is just like the movie All Quiet on the Western Front.
He crawled back to the patrol, explained the situation, and gave his orders. "We must crawl up there with absolutely no noise, keep low, and hurry, we won't have the cover of night with us much longer."
The patrol got to within 40 meters of the machine-gun up on the dike. Winters went to each man and in a whisper assigned a target, either the riflemen or the machine-gun crew. Winters whispered to Christenson to set up his 30-caliber machine-gun and concentrate on the German MG 42. Behind Christenson, Sergeant Muck and PFC. Alex Penkala set up their 60 mm mortar.
Stepping back, Winters gave the order, "Ready, Aim, Fire!" in a low, calm, firing-range voice. Twelve rifles barked simultaneously. All seven German riflemen fell. Christenson's machine-gun opened up; he was using tracers and could see he was shooting too high, but as he depressed his fire Muck and Penkala dropped a mortar round smack on the German machine-gun. Sergeant Boyle was "astounded at the heavy, accurate fire that we delivered at the enemy." He later told Lipton he thought it was the best shooting he had ever seen.
The patrol began to receive some light rifle fire from across the road running from the dike to the ferry. Winters pulled it back down the ditch for about 200 meters, to a place where the ditch connected with another that ran perpendicular to it, from the dike to the river. Out of range of the Germans, he got on Boyle's radio and called back to Lieutenant Welsh.
"Send up the balance of the 1st platoon," he ordered, "and the section of light machine-guns from HQ Company attached to E Company."
As the patrol waited for the reinforcements, Sgt. William Dukeman stood up to shout at the men to spread out (as Gordon Carson, who recalled the incident, remarked, "The men will congregate in a minute"). Three Germans hiding in a culvert that ran under the road fired a rifle grenade. Dukeman gave a sigh and slumped forward. He was the only man hit; a chunk of steel went in his shoulder blade and came out through his heart, killing him. The survivors opened up with their rifles on the Germans in the culvert and killed them in return.
While waiting for the remainder of the platoon to come forward, Winters went out into the field between the two lines to be alone and to think things through. Three facts struck him: the enemy was behind a good solid roadway embankment, while his men were in a shallow ditch with no safe route for withdrawal; the enemy was in a good position to outflank the patrol to the right and catch it in the open field; there was nothing south of the bank to stop the Germans from moving down the road unmolested to the 2d Battalion CP at Hemmen. Under the circumstances, he decided he had no choice but to attack. It was now full daylight.
Returning to the patrol, he found that the reinforcements had arrived. Now he had some thirty men. He called Lts. Frank Reese and Thomas Peacock and Sgt. Floyd Talbert together and gave his orders: "Talbert, take the third squad to the right. Peacock, take the first squad to the left. I'll take the second squad right up the middle. Reese, put your machine-guns between our columns. I want a good covering fire until we reach that roadway. Then lift your fire and move up and join us." He told Talbert and Peacock to have their men fix bayonets.
As his subordinates went off to carry out his orders, Winters called the 2d squad together and explained the plan. Private Hoobler was standing right in front of him. When Winters said, "Fix bayonets," Hoobler took a big swallow. Winters could see his Adam's apple move up and down his throat. His adrenalin was flowing.
"My adrenalin was pumping too," Winters remembered. On his signal the machine-guns began laying a base of fire, and all three columns started to move as fast as they could across the 200 meters of level but spongy-soft field between them and the road, doing their best to keep low.
At this point, Winters had no firm idea on how many Germans were on the other side of the road running from the dike to the ferry, which was just high enough to block his view. Nor did the Germans know the Americans were coming; inexcusably, after losing their machine-gunners and riflemen in the first volley, they had failed to put an outpost on the road or up on the dike.
In the lead, Winters got to the road first. He leaped up on it. Right in front of him, only a few feet away, was a German sentry with his head down, ducking the incoming fire from Reese's machineguns. To his right, Winters could see out of the corner of his eye a solid mass of men, more than 100, packed together, lying down at the juncture of the dike and the road. They too had their heads down to duck under the machine-gun fire. They were all wearing their long winter overcoats and had their backpacks on. Every single one of them was facing the dike; he was behind them. They were only 15 meters away.
Winters wheeled and dropped back to the west side of the road, pulled the pin of a hand grenade, and lobbed it over toward the lone sentry. Simultaneously the sentry lobbed a potato masher back at him. The instant Winters threw his grenade he realized he had made a big mistake; he had forgotten to take off the band of tape around the handle of the grenade he kept there to avoid an accident.
Before the potato masher could go off, Winters jumped back up on the road. The sentry was hunched down, covering his head with his arms, waiting for Winters' grenade to go off. He was only 3 yards away. Winters shot him with his M-1 from the hip.
The shot startled the entire company. The SS troops started to rise and turn toward Winters, en masse. Winters pivoted to his right and fired into the solid mass.
Winters described what happened next: "The movements of the Germans seemed to be unreal to me. When they rose up, it seemed to be so slow, when they turned to look over their shoulders at me, it was in slow motion, when they started to raise their rifles to fire at me, it was in slow, slow motion. I emptied the first clip [eight rounds] and, still standing in the middle of the road, put in a second clip and, still shooting from the hip, emptied that clip into the mass."
Germans fell. Others began aiming their rifles at Winters. Others started running away from him. But all their movements were awkward, hampered by those long overcoats. He dropped back to the west side of the road. Looking to his right he could see Talbert running crouched over leading his column. It was still 10 meters from the road. Winters' own column, in the middle, was struggling through the field. Peacock's columm on the left was 20 meters short of the road, held up by some wires running across the field.
Winters put in a third clip and started popping up, taking a shot or two, then dropping back down. The Germans were running away as best they could when the other American columns reached the road.
"Fire at will," Winters called out.
It was a duck shoot. The Germans were fleeing. The Easy Company riflemen were shooting them unmolested. "I got one!" Webster heard Hoobler call out. "Damn, I got one!" According to Webster, "Hoobler was in his element; he ate this stuff up."
A bunch of Germans were cut off, hiding in some tall weeds. Christenson spotted them. "Anybody here speak German?" he called out. Webster came up. "Heraus!" he yelled. "Schnell! H,nde hoch! Schnell! Schnell!" One by one, eleven Germans came out. Husky, hard-boiled, they claimed they were Poles. Christenson motioned them to the rear.
Webster went back to the road to get in on the shooting. A German turned to fire back. "What felt like a baseball bat slugged my right leg," Webster recalled, "spun me around, and knocked me down." All he could think to say was, "They got me!" which even then seemed to him "an inadequate and unimaginative clich,." (Like all writers, he was composing his description of the event as it happened.)
It was a clean wound. The bullet went in and out Webster's calf, hitting no bone. A million dollar wound. I got it made, he thought to himself. When medic Eugene Roe got to him, Webster had a big grin on his face. Roe patched the wound and told Webster to retire. Webster gave his bandoliers to Martin, "who was still very calm and unconcerned, the calmest, most fearless person I ever saw," and his grenades to Christenson. He kept his pistol and M-1 and began limping to the rear.
Winters could see more German soldiers about 100 yards away, pouring over the dike from the south side, the previously unnoticed SS company. They joined their retreating comrades in a dash to the east, away from the Easy Company fire. This made the target bigger. Lieutenant Reese had brought the machine-guns forward by this time; Private Cobb set his up and began putting long-distance fire on the routed German troops.
The surviving German troops reached a grove of trees, where there was another road leading to the river. As Winters observed, they swung left and began to follow that road to the river.
Winters got on the radio and called for artillery. British guns began pounding away at the main force of retreating Germans. Winters wanted to push down to the river on his road, to cut off the Germans at the river, but thirty-five men against the 150 or so surviving Germans was not good odds. He got on the radio again to ask 2d Battalion HQ for support. HQ promised to send a platoon from Fox Company.
Waiting for the reinforcements, Winters made a head count and reorganized. He had one man dead (Dukeman) and four wounded. Eleven Germans had surrendered. Liebgott, slightly wounded in the arm, was a walking casualty. Winters ordered him to take the prisoners back to the battalion CP and then get himself tended by Doc Neavles.
Then he remembered that Liebgott, a good combat soldier, had a reputation of "being very rough on prisoners." He also heard Liebgott respond to his order with the words, "Oh, Boy! I'll take care of them."
"There are eleven prisoners," Winters said, "and I want eleven prisoners turned over to battalion." Liebgott began to throw a tantrum. Winters dropped his M-1 to his hip, threw off the safety, pointed it at Liebgott, and said, "Leibgott, drop all your ammunition and empty your rifle." Liebgott swore and grumbled but did as he was ordered.
"Now," said Winters, "you can put one round in your rifle. If you drop a prisoner, the rest will jump you." Winters noticed a German officer who had been pacing back and forth, obviously nervous and concerned over Liebgott's exuberance when he first got the assignment. Evidently the officer understood English; when he heard Winters' further orders, he relaxed.
Liebgott brought all eleven prisoners back to battalion HQ. Winters knew that for certain, as he checked later that day with Nixon.
The ferry crossing the Germans had used to get over, and now would need to get back, was at the end of the road Easy Company was on. Winters wanted to get there before they did. When the platoon from Fox Company arrived, bringing more ammunition, Winters redistributed the ammo and then gave his orders. He set up a base of fire with half the sixty or so men under his command, then had the other half move forward 100 meters, stop and set up its own base of fire, and leapfrog the first group down the road. He intended to repeat this maneuver the full 600 or so meters to the river.
About 200 meters short of the river, Winters' unit reached some factory buildings. German artillery had started to work. The SS troops, desperate to get to the ferry, mounted a seventy-five-man attack on the right rear flank of the Americans. Winters realized he had overreached. It was time to withdraw to be able to fight another day. The unit leapfrogged in reverse back to the dike.
Just as the last men got over the dike, the Germans cut loose with a terrific concentration of artillery fire on the point where the road crossed the dike. They had it zeroed in perfectly. The airborne men scattered right and left, but not before suffering many casualties.
Winters grabbed the radio and called battalion HQ to ask for medics and ambulances. Doc Neavles came on and wanted to know how many casualties.
"Two baseball teams," Winters replied.
Neavles knew nothing about sports. He asked Winters to put it in clear language...