Beyond Valor: World War II's Ranger and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combatby Patrick K. O'Donnell
Previous books have promised to describe the combat experience of the World War II GI, but there has never been a book like Patrick O'Donnell's Beyond Valor. Here is the first combat history of the war in Europe in the words of the men themselves, and perhaps the most honest and brutal account of combat possible on the printed page. For more than fifty years the individual stories that make up this narrative -- shockingly frank reflections of sacrifice and courage -- have been bottled up, buried, or circulated privately. Now, nearing the ends of their lives, our WWII soldiers have at last unburdened themselves.
Beyond Valor recaptures their hidden history. A pioneering oral historian, Patrick O'Donnell used his award-winning website, The Drop Zone, to solicit oral- and "e-histories" from individual soldiers. Gradually, working from within the community, O'Donnell convinced some of the war's most battle-hardened soldiers to tell their stories. The result is WWII seen through the eyes of the men who saw the most intense of its action. O'Donnell focuses on the elite units of the war -- the Rangers, Airborne, and 1st Special Service Force -- troops that spearheaded the most dangerous operations and often made the difference between victory and defeat.
From more than 650 interviews O'Donnell has chosen oral- and e-histories that form a seamless story line, a pointillistic history of the war in Europe from the first parachute drops in North Africa through the final battles in Germany and the long trip home. It is the story of the war not discussed in polite company. O'Donnell presents the wreckage of entire battalions nearly annihilated, invisible personal scars, and haunting revelations of wartime atrocities. But more important are the men who recount lives risked without hesitation for comrades and cause, and those who did not return: the friends who died in their arms. Their stories remind all of us that victory came only at the highest price.
Remembering the infamous cliffs at Pointe-du-Hoc, bloody Omaha Beach, the bitter fighting at the Battle of the Bulge, and Hill 400 in the Hürtgen Forest, the soldiers reveal war as seen, heard, and smelled by the GIs on the front line. Also included is the unique story of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, and the trailblazing African-American "Experimental" Test Platoon that had to fight its own battle behind the lines.
Beyond Valor captures the truths that exist among soldiers. It is one of the most inspiring accounts of the war ever produced.
General Henry H. Shelton former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff An extraordinary book. The unselfish actions of these incredible men will serve to inspire future generations of Americans whenever our nation's security is threatened. Their sacrifices and accomplishments will live through the ages.
Douglas Brinkley director of the Eisenhower Center and professor of history at the University of New Orleans The pioneering oral historian Patrick K. O'Donnell has done a wonderful job of making the experiences of America's elite troops come alive again.
USA Today Captures what the average soldier went through during combat.
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Read an Excerpt
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
-- Laurence Binyon, "For the Fallen"
In 1939, just twenty-one years after the end of a war more destructive than anything humanity had dreamed possible, Europe began a war that proved even more horrific and more widespread, bringing all the intervening technological advances to bear against civilians and soldiers alike. In December 1941, the United States joined a battle in which the stakes were enormous and the outcome by no means certain. But the story of war is familiar. Less familiar is the very personal and human side of war, a side often purposely hidden from easy view: war as seen, heard, smelled, and felt in the day-to-day front-line experience of the combat soldier. This book tells that hidden story, through the oral and e-mail histories of America's elite infantry troops who fought in World War II's European theater -- paratroopers, glidermen, Rangers, and the 1st Special Service Force.
Throughout the war, America's elite troops often played a key role in the war's most important battles, leading the breakthrough off bloody Omaha Beach; fighting to help save the Sicily and Salerno beachheads; cracking the stalemate on Italy's Winter Line; spearheading the invasion of Holland; turning the tide in the Battle of the Bulge; and making the final plunge into Germany. On the home front, the little-known sacrifices of America's first African-American paratroopers were an important step toward integration of the United States armed forces.
Underlying these important victories are the countless individual experiences of the men who made them possible. Their stories go far beyond casualties taken, hills won or lost. In nine years and over six hundred interviews, I found that beneath the war of official documents and carefully composed memoirs lies a bottled-up, buried version shielded even from family members, because many of the memories are too painful to discuss.
The hidden war includes the love that these men had for one another. Friendships and bonds forged in the heat of battle are so strong that they survive today. These men were willing without hesitation to lay down their lives for the men next to them. Time and again, they describe submergence of self within the spirit and pride of these elite units. Wartime experiences, however horrific, were often the most complete and most memorable in these soldiers' lives. Not one of the six hundred men I interviewed ever complained about his war experience, though most of these men were only temporary citizen soldiers, not professional military men.
As these men delve into their recollections, three major themes emerge: their hidden war, the story of the elite units, and the broader story of World War II's Western Front, since their war is largely a reflection in miniature of the European Theater. A bit of background on these units shows how they fit into the picture of the war.
The great armies of history all had their elite units, including Rome's Praetorian Guard, Napoleon's Imperial Guard, and the Civil War's Iron Brigade. As one historian stated, "In battle they were the ultimate reserve if things went wrong, and the exploiting force if things went right." Nevertheless, America's elite ground troops in Europe in World War II -- the Rangers, airborne troops, and the 1st Special Service Force -- were different and special compared to the elites of other eras as well as to the regular troops of their own.
The largest elite unit was the airborne. The first practical plans for employing parachute troops in combat were conceived in the waning months of World War I by a U.S. aviation pioneer, Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell. Mitchell proposed outfitting troops of the 1st Division with a large number of machine guns and parachuting them behind the lines on the German-held fortress city of Metz. A ground attack would be coordinated with the paratrooper assault, known as a "vertical envelopment." But the war ended before Mitchell's innovative plans could be tried.
After the war, the concept of vertical envelopment was neglected in the United States. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, pushed ahead with large-scale airborne exercises in the 1930s. Germany took notice of the Soviet exercises and began building its own airborne program, made up of paratroopers and infantry that would ride in gliders.
With the outbreak of war, the Germans successfully used paratroopers to seize critical military objectives in Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium, where a small band of paratroopers and glidermen seized Fort Eben Emael, which many had considered impregnable.
These victories spurred the creation of the U.S. airborne program, and a fifty-man test platoon was formed on June 25, 1940. On August 16, Lieutenant William Ryder became the first member of the test platoon to make a parachute jump. In one demonstration jump, the famous airborne phrase "Geronimo!" was born when Private Aubrey Eberhardt yelled it after exiting the plane.
Over the next few months, parachute tactics and techniques were developed and techniques borrowed from Germany and Russia. The fledgling program expanded as volunteers formed the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion. A special Élan was part of a program that stressed the role of the individual and the necessity that he be capable of fighting against any opposition. As the parachute program evolved, men were taught that they were the best, a lesson reinforced by rigorous training that had a high washout rate. Beyond the rhetoric, the troops began demonstrating their worth by smashing previous army training records.
Parachute training culminated with the individual completing five parachute jumps. The successful trooper earned the right to wear a pair of small silver jump wings designed by a young airborne officer, William Yarborough. Special leather jump boots and jump suits were also issued to paratroopers. An unofficial ceremony known as the Prop Blast, in which new paratrooper officers drank a secret concoction and toasted their success, marked the completion of airborne training. The recipe was then encoded into an old M-94 signal-encrypting device with "Geronimo" as the key word. The Prop Blast survives today.
The U.S. airborne program remained relatively small until a pivotal German airborne operation in May 1941, when the Germans captured the British-held island of Crete in the largest German airborne operation ever. Losses were enormous and Hitler was persuaded never again to launch a major airborne operation. Not privy to the magnitude of German losses, however, the U.S. command looked at Crete as a success and began building up its airborne.
The buildup was led by General George C. Marshall, who foresaw large-scale American airborne operations. A Provisional Parachute Group was created along with three new battalions. After the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into the war in December 1941, six new airborne regiments, consisting of roughly two thousand paratroopers, were authorized, and most of the men were handpicked.
The first division to be activated was the 82nd, at eight thousand men about half the size of a normal army division. A cadre of men from the 82nd later was set aside for the formation of the 101st Airborne Division. The army would create three other airborne divisions, the 11th, 13th, and 17th, plus several independent battalions and regiments, such as the 509th, 517th, 550th, and 551st. The units serving in Europe eventually became part of the First Allied Airborne Army, formed in the summer of 1944.
Gliders gradually became part of the airborne program, the glider program slowly taking shape in 1942. Nicknamed "canvas coffins," the flimsy gliders had plywood floors and a steel tubing frame covered with a canvas skin. The standard Waco CG-4A Glider had a troop capacity of fifteen men and the capability to carry a jeep or small artillery piece. The engineless glider was towed by a C-47 transport plane until over its landing zone, when the tow plane would release a three-hundred-foot nylon towrope, and the glider made what amounted to a crash landing. Gliding was a dangerous and thankless job. In training alone, from May 1943 to February 1944, there were 162 injuries and seventeen deaths due to glider accidents. Many more men would die when their gliders cracked up on the landing zones of Europe.
Looked down upon by the paratroopers, the "glider riders" were not issued jump boots or wings and did not receive hazardous-duty pay like the troopers; nor were they volunteers. A poster designed by the glider troops that began circulating around the barracks explained their plight: "Join the Glider Troops! No Jump Pay. No Flight Pay. But Never A Dull Moment." Eventually, glider regiments were formed and attached to the airborne divisions, proving their mettle on many occasions. Not until July 1944 would the glidermen receive their well-earned hazardous-duty pay and the right to wear glider wings.
The Rangers, based on the British Commandos, were born in the summer of 1942. They were created to conduct deep-penetration raids behind enemy lines and amphibious raids on enemy-held coasts. General George C. Marshall was again the primary figure behind their formation as a means to get more Americans involved in the fighting in Europe, sending Colonel Lucian Truscott to Britain to implement the creation of a commando-type organization.
At the time, two U.S. divisions were training in Northern Ireland: the 1st Armored Division and the 34th, a National Guard division. Three thousand men from the units volunteered, and 520 were selected for Ranger training. Major William O. Darby, an aide to the commanding general of U.S. Army Northern Ireland, was given command of the new unit.
Major General Dwight Eisenhower, who then headed the War Plans Division of the War Department, stated that the term "Commando" belonged to the British and suggested that Truscott find another title. The title "Ranger" was selected, Truscott later writing that the legendary actions of the colonial frontiersmen Rogers's Rangers in the French and Indian War were his inspiration.
The Rangers received their training at the Commando Training Depot at Achnacarry Castle in Scotland, where Commando recruits carried logs on their shoulders, learned hand-to-hand fighting, climbed cliffs, practiced amphibious assaults, had countless long-distance speed marches, and became skilled on a variety of weapons. Rangers followed a similar regimen, even using live ammunition to make the training close to real combat. One obstacle that each trainee had to overcome was the famous "death slide," for which men climbed a forty-foot tree, then slid down a single rope that was suspended over a raging river, all while under fire.
Under Darby's inspired leadership, Darby's Rangers grew to three battalions (the 1st, 3rd, and 4th), yet they would always remain a provisional outfit. Another battalion, the 29th Ranger Battalion, was formed in December 1942, but after conducting several small raids, it was disbanded in September 1943. After successfully spearheading amphibious assaults in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy and participating in numerous battle campaigns, Darby's Rangers were tragically destroyed in a doomed attack on Cisterna. Before D-Day, two more battalions, the 2nd and 5th, which had been training Stateside, arrived in England to play a significant role in the invasion and remained fighting in Europe through the end of the war.
Of all of the elite units, the 1st Special Service Force had the most bizarre beginning. The Force was the brainchild of Englishman Geoffrey Pyke, an inventor, propagandist, statistician, financier, economist, and foreign correspondent. Pyke rarely bathed, shaved, or cut his hair, did not like to wear socks, and dressed in a badly stained, crumpled suit. Pyke's personality matched his appearance.
But for all his shortcomings, Pyke was a brilliant man, and many of his ideas became the basis for important advances in a variety of disparate fields. Most important, Pyke had the ear of several powerful people, including Winston Churchill and Lord Louis Mountbatten, who introduced Pyke to General George Marshall.
One of Pyke's schemes was built on snow -- the simple realization that, for nearly half the year, much of Europe was covered in snow. Pyke theorized that whatever country mastered the snow would control Europe. He devised the Plough Project, which involved parachuting men and "snow tanks" into snow-covered areas. The men would ride the tanks across the snow and destroy strategic Axis targets such as hydroelectric plants in Norway and Italy. Just how they would get out remained a mystery. Nevertheless, the plan captured the imagination of Churchill and Mountbatten, who convinced a weary Eisenhower and Marshall to move forward on the idea. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Frederick was given the task of creating the specialized unit for the Plough Project, surely a surprise to Frederick, who had written a War Department report against its feasibility.
To form the unit, calls were put out for lumberjacks, prospectors, game wardens, and forest rangers, basically all men who felt at home in the outdoors. The Canadians also wanted to be involved in the Plough Project, and with Churchill's backing, Canadians were integrated into the Force, which became known as the North Americans. All together, three six-hundred-man regiments were created along with a service unit. The Force hovered around twenty-three hundred men and was staffed with roughly equal numbers of Canadians and Americans, with Americans slowly coming to outnumber Canadians as time went by.
The skills needed to carry out the Plough Project demanded rigorous training in a wide variety of disciplines. Men learned every available weapon, becoming masters of demolition, qualified skiers, and paratroopers, and learned how to drive and repair the Weasel, the tracked "snow vehicle" developed for the project. Hand-to-hand fighting was taught as well as personal initiative. Thus one of the toughest fighting units of the war was born, and the modern U.S. Special Forces, considered by many the elite of the elite, trace their lineage to this group.
By September 1942, political interest in the project had waned and the bombers needed to transport the Force to Norway were not available, so the Plough Project was canceled. Pressure began to mount to disband the unit, but Marshall felt the unit could be deployed elsewhere. It was first shipped to the Aleutian Islands, where it made a bloodless landing at Kiska Island in August 1943. Shortly after the operation, the North Americans were transferred to Italy, where they would play a decisive role, and from there they went on to southern France, where the unit was finally deactivated.
All of these men and units can rightfully claim to be among World War II's best, and I am humbled by the men I've had the pleasure to interview and know. Sadly, it is a generation dying at a rate of at least a thousand a day. But this book is not really for romantics or war buffs. It is for those who are unaware of these stories and of a hidden history that is quietly slipping away. My work has been that of preservation, done in gratitude for a generation that sacrificed so much.
Copyright © 2001 by Patrick K. O'Donnell
Chapter Ten: WINTER HELL: The Battle of the Bulge
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
-- Wilfred Owen, "Anthem for Doomed Youth"
Eerie reminders remain for those who survived one of the greatest battles of World War II. The sight of snow-covered pine trees or the tingle they get in their once blackened and frozen feet as they walk down a snow-covered driveway takes them back to the Bulge.
Six months after D-Day, the war in Europe seemed to be nearing its end. A series of victories had brought Allied forces onto German soil west of the Rhine River, and the Allies believed the German army was on the verge of collapse.
Hitler, however, was determined to gamble one last time to reverse the Allied advance and force the Allies into a negotiated settlement. On December 16, 1944, he struck back in an effort to split the Allied forces, cross the Meuse River, and retake the critical Belgian port of Antwerp that he had lost just three months earlier to the British. The result was the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and one of the bloodiest battles ever to include U.S. soldiers. More than one million men fought on both sides. Casualties were enormous; the United States alone suffered more than eighty thousand troops killed, maimed, captured, or missing in action.
The bulge of Hitler's desperate final assault that ripped through American lines extended from the German town of Monschau in the north to Echternach, Luxembourg, in the south. The offensive, roughly in the shape of an arrowhead, sprawled across several rivers and cut through dense pine forests until the tip extended sixty-five miles to the Belgian town of Celles. Then the Allies started pushing back.
U.S. airborne troops played a key role in stemming the German attack and a leading role in the counteroffensive. For three days the Germans poured divisions into the Ardennes, advancing along a sixty-five-mile front, while initially, winter weather prevented the Allies from enjoying their overwhelming superiority in the air. The Allies had few units in reserve to reinforce the area under attack. The 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division began to arrive on the third day of the German offensive; the 17th Airborne Division came later.
Because the airborne units were among the few reserves available during the early stages of the German attack, they were deployed in some of the most strategically important areas. The 82nd Airborne Division and several independent units, for example, the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, were deployed in the northern portion of the Bulge in towns near the Salm River, close to the strategic crossroads city of St. Vith. It was this portion of the Bulge that initially bore the brunt of the German attack, since it lay in the path to Antwerp. Towns such as Trois-Ponts, Cheneux, Soy, and Hotton would become synonymous with the airborne units that held off some of the most powerful divisions of the German military.
The 101st Airborne Division was deployed in the south at the crucial crossroads town of Bastogne, the hub for most of the road network that fed the southern portion of the Ardennes. Surrounded, the Bastogne garrison, which consisted primarily of the 101st Airborne Division and an assortment of artillery and armored units, held off determined attacks from numerous German tank and infantry divisions, the commanding general, Tony McAuliffe, delivering the famous "Nuts!" in response to the German demand for surrender. For these heroics, they later received the honor of becoming the first full army division to receive a Presidential Unit Citation. The battle was fought in the small farming villages that ring Bastogne -- Wardin, Hemroulle, Flamierge, Noville, and others. Like the 82nd in the north, the 101st Airborne in the south was able to stop the German advance for a few precious, precarious days.
On December 26, 1944, elements of General Patton's U.S. Third Army linked up with the 101st fighting in Bastogne, exposing the Germans' southern flank and ending the Germans' drive for the Meuse River bridges and Antwerp. But rather than retreat or concede defeat, Hitler shifted the focus of his offensive to eliminating Bastogne. Three SS panzer divisions, two panzer grenadier divisions, one parachute division, three volksgrenadier divisions, and two panzer brigades, along with elements of the Panzer Lehr Division, squared off against the American units in and around Bastogne.
Meanwhile, the Allies were planning their own counteroffensive to clear the Germans out of the Bulge. Eisenhower favored a broad front that would push the Bulge back at all points.
The Allied counteroffensive began January 3, 1945, and it proved one of the most costly and horrendous offensives of the war. The terrain and the snow made maneuvering all but impossible, so the Allies used brutal head-on attacks to clear the Germans out of well-prepared defensive positions and push the Bulge back to the German border. British forces were responsible for pushing back the western tip of the Bulge arrowhead, but the primary focus of the counteroffensive was a massive two-pronged attack by U.S. forces: the First Army from the north and the Third Army from the south. About twenty-five miles of difficult terrain and tens of thousands of Germans separated the two armies, which eventually would link up in the Belgian town of Houffalize.
Spearheading the First Army's attack in the northern portion of the Bulge was the XVIII Airborne Corps (82nd Airborne Division and attached units), which went about driving the Germans back from positions near the Salm River towns of Fosse, Bergeval, Dairomont, and Rochelinval, to name a few. The attack developed slowly, the Germans bitterly contesting every inch of ground in the worst weather in fifty years. Knee- to waist-high snow and wind chills of fifty below zero at night froze arms and legs and killed wounded men left untended. But the men pushed on, the fan-shaped attack stretching twenty-three miles wide and ultimately recapturing the strategic town of St. Vith and pushing the Germans back to the positions they held before their offensive.
On the first and second days of the southern counteroffensive, the Third Army collided head-on with an all-out German assault to capture Bastogne. After stopping the German attacks, units from the Third Army along with the depleted 101st Airborne Division and 17th Airborne Division went on with the difficult task of clearing the towns around Bastogne and driving through dug-in German positions reinforced by tank units to link up with the U.S. First Army at Houffalize. The 17th Airborne Division attacked on the second day of the counteroffensive, moving into position approximately twelve miles west of Bastogne where the green unit sustained appalling losses along a heavily defended ridgeline known as Dead Man's Ridge.
Eventually, after a high cost on both sides in men and equipment, the southern counteroffensive was successful and the Germans were cleared out of the area around Bastogne. The Third Army, including the 17th Airborne Division, linked up with First Army forces from the north in Houffalize.
For many men and their units, the Battle of the Bulge was the defining moment. Infantry companies and battalions that came into the battle at full strength were reduced to a handful of men. For most individual soldiers, the battle was the ultimate test of mental and physical endurance. The price they paid was immense, but worth it nonetheless. The Bulge broke the back of the German army, taking from it some of Hitler's most dedicated troops, whose transfer from the east to the Ardennes had weakened German positions on the Eastern Front, allowing for a massive Russian breakthrough. For the rest of the war America -- often led by her elite troops -- would push inexorably east.
327th Glider Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division
When the Germans attacked, numerous American units made heroic stands, but the sheer size of the German counteroffensive created holes in the Allied lines. On December 18, the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions, recovering from more than fifty days in combat in Holland, were directed to the Ardennes to plug those holes. The 82nd Airborne arrived first, moving to the northern shoulder of the Bulge, in the town of Werbomont. Following closely behind was the 101st Airborne, which moved into Bastogne, in the south, as Robert Bowen remembers in this e-history.
"All platoon leaders report to the orderly room immediately. That means now!" Matt Pass sang out as he went through the barracks right after morning chow on that fateful morning. Red Adkins had one of the few radios in the company. All morning it had been blaring out about a German offensive in the Ardennes, a place along the Belgium frontier; it was a hundred miles north of us and I couldn't imagine how it could involve the 101st. In the orderly room I soon found out.
We weren't a very happy group. Instead of the passes to Rheims and Paris I expected, it meant another trip to the front. With memories of all those we had lost in Normandy and Holland fresh in my mind and with a body run down from too many sleepless nights, improper nutrition from the greasy British rations, and the stress of performing in a job which I had little training for, I certainly wasn't looking forward to more of the same.
Besides, the company was much understrength, with three of the four platoons being led by NCOs. First Lieutenant Robert Wagner still led first platoon, but First Lieutenant Martinson had moved up to executive officer, with senior Sergeant Cecil Caraker taking over the platoon. No replacements had come from the repo depot aside from the few with minor wounds like Andy Mitchell. There should have been forty-five men in my platoon, with a platoon leader and platoon sergeant. Instead we had twenty-eight with no officer to lead us. Some of the other platoons were worse off.
Captain Towns's face was abnormally grim as he began telling about the situation in the Ardennes, so sketchy and convoluted that even he was puzzled by it. There had been a breakthrough by the Germans but troops were being rushed up to counter it; those included the 82nd and 101st. He asked for questions and got plenty, most of which he had no answers for. He concluded by saying, "That's as much as I know, or anyone else here, for that matter. I do know we'll go in corps reserve to be used only in the event of an emergency." He paused thoughtfully, actually, I believe, thinking that was true. Then, as an afterthought, he said, "I know you've got men in your platoons that are beat. I don't think we should take them. Give me their names and we'll leave them behind."
"What'll happen to them, Captain?" Claude Breeding said.
"It's my understanding that they'll go to the rear-echelon outfit. You know, the quartermasters or something similar. Anyway, they won't see any more combat. You can draw ammo and rations from supply. Instruct your men to take overcoats and overshoes. There could be snow where we're going. Trucks are supposed to pick us up at 1800. If there're no more questions, I suggest you get cracking. We've got a helluva lot to do and no time to do it in."
I assembled my platoon and told them the unwelcome news. They took it a lot better than I imagined. However, when men are programmed to follow orders and accept the inevitable, in most cases they'll do what is asked of them provided they have faith in their leaders. At least that was my experience in situations where normal people would say "No way." Being trained to be a warrior is not what most Americans look forward to. Men get killed and maimed in wars, especially in the infantry, where about 80 percent of the casualties occur. My thoughts drifted to John Aspinwall, Howard Kohl, and Howard Hill, now dead, leaving children which they had never seen. And there was Frankie Demarco with two children. Ted Feldman in my first squad had four children and another on the way, and the odds against him escaping death or wounds were about one hundred to one. Sentimental notions about war are for the writer who can work plots to suit his fancy. In reality, war is much different.
I asked the squad leaders to pick men who they thought should be left behind. It was a hard choice to make. The platoon was only half-strength to begin with. Three men were obvious picks. Private Morris Zion, a vet and an old friend, was an older man from Chicago who had pushed his body to the limit to keep up with the younger ones. When I hear antisemitic jokes, I think of Pop Zion, the Jew who gave everything because he was willing. George Damato, another older man who should have been in the kitchen instead of rifle platoon, a clown whose humor kept sanity in insane situations. The last was Ken Schenese, an outstanding high-school athlete whose nerves had reached the breaking point. Later I called the three to my room and told them their new assignments.
While all were sorry to be left behind, I could detect relief on their faces. However, Utopia wasn't to come that easy for them. Because of the horrendous casualties in the Bulge, nineteen thousand KIA, more than fifteen thousand MIA and over forty thousand wounded or disabled by the bitter weather, all three men were pulled from the repo depot and sent to the front as replacements; Zion and Damato died among strangers.
We packed everything, as if we would never return to Mourmelon. I insisted that every man take an overcoat and overshoes. Most men detested both and would discard them at the first opportunity. The overcoat seemed to weigh a ton after being soaked by rain, and the overshoes were like anchors, especially in deep snow. I insisted on taking an extra blanket in the bedrolls. We left behind two platoon sergeants, Irving Turvey and Cecil Caraker. Turvey had reported to the aid station with a pulmonary infection. A spot was found on his lung. Caraker was in jail in Rheims, a victim of a con game by a civilian.
Latrine rumors were circulating like water in a whirlpool. Radio reports from the fighting front were grim and confusing. There was talk of a massive breakthrough by the enemy, a monumental Allied defeat. We formed on the company streets, where Turvey said goodbye, tears flowing on his cheeks. I envied him. We marched to a waiting convoy of open-bodied trucks as darkness fell. Jammed aboard like olives in a jar, we left for Belgium.
It was a long, cold ride with a biting wind chilling us to the bone. The headlights of the trucks were on despite being in a combat zone, blackout regulations be damned. We raced through small towns as we headed northeast, civilians with anxious faces cheering and waving to us. Were we to be their saviors again? After two wars, I was sure they had had enough.
Bastogne was our destination -- inadvertently. Actually, we were supposed to defend Werbomont, twenty miles north of Bastogne. It was cold, rainy, and foggy when we passed through the town near daybreak. We took a main road to the west, over rolling hills, through sleeping hamlets and patches of woodland and farms. The trucks pulled on a side road just west of the hamlet of Mande St. Etienne. Cold, hungry, and stiff from hours of cramped riding, we unloaded silently, moving off the road to await orders. In the distance I could hear the boom of artillery, really not that far away. Corps reserve? Hell, that wasn't more than a few miles to the north, I thought. It was. No sooner had the 501st unloaded than it was engaged in a firefight with an enemy column.
501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division
The 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment was the 101st Airborne Division's first unit to arrive in Bastogne, and it was sent immediately to find and link up with friendly forces east of Bastogne. I Company was dispatched to a friendly roadblock at the small farming town of Wardin. Instead it ran into a reinforced battalion of the German 901st Panzer Regiment and several German tanks, as William McMahon reports.
I'd been in Normandy and Holland, where everybody is talking about going home, and here we are in the midst of another battle. As we were coming into Bastogne, all these tanks and troops [were] leaving. I thought to myself, "What the hell was going on here?" If you've never seen a retreat, you can't imagine what it is like; it is kind of wild. All the tanks were leaving, all the infantry were leaving, even the support troops were leaving.
As we started into Bastogne and these troops were leaving, some of our guys were running over to them and they were giving our guys some of their weapons and ammo because they had no use for them. A lot of the guys got their helmets, weapons, and ammo from them.
We had one-track minds: We were going in and staying. We had just come back from Holland a few weeks before, we weren't re-equipped yet, but I was one of the lucky ones -- I had an overcoat, a rifle, and galoshes.
As we went into Bastogne and started down the main street, God knows where we were going, I think it was towards the direction of Foy, but something must have happened because they held us up. All of a sudden we came to a halt and they turned us around, making us the lead company. They paired us off and gave orders to check these wood lots [pine forests] out in front of us. We got in there and it was very exhausting carrying all your ammo, and galoshes, and overcoat, and everything, and going through forests like that.
Well, we searched and searched and didn't find anything, so we kept on going. We came out to a road and this little town, that turned out to be Wardin, was in front of us. As we came into Wardin, there were two American tanks [Task Force O'Hara] sitting there, and we didn't pay any attention to them; we went on by them. We went across a little bridge and got into town and they hollered "break," so we took a break, when all of a sudden at the end of the village we heard firing. Our lead platoon was out front, then 1st Platoon, 2nd Platoon, and then my platoon, 3rd Platoon, was in the rear.
The order came down and they told me to take the machine gun section up on the top of the hill because the Germans were trying to flank us. This put us further away from our lines. We got up on top of the hill and we saw some heads pop up. We opened up on them and they disappeared. We heard cannon fire in town.
Suddenly, tanks started firing and we heard the bogeys -- you know how the tank makes that certain noise, it is unmistakable. One of the guys said, "That's our tanks, that's our tanks." And I said that our tanks wouldn't be coming down the street blowing the hell out of the buildings where our guys were hiding in. But that's what they were doing, they were coming down the middle of the street. At this point, we realized we were on the wrong side of the action. We were on the side towards the German line.
One of the guys said we got to go down and help, and I said we can't go down, we are ordered to stay here or they'll try to flank us. We stayed there about a half-hour and the lieutenant came up and said, "If you guys want to live, follow me now!" We picked up the machine gun and pulled back.
Smoke was pouring out of houses that were burning, and a couple of the guys had knocked out the first two tanks and that blocked the road. The German tanks were right out in the road. They looked like Tigers or Panthers. They were coming down the street just firing at everything. In fact that's where most of my friends were killed, out in the street. If I Company hadn't gotten to that village, in ten minutes they'd have been in Bastogne. We were the only thing between the Germans and Bastogne, and I think that they thought there were more of us than there were.
Before we went up on the hill, when the bullets started to fly, I ran into this yard. I took my pack, gun, overcoat, and galoshes off and left them in the yard. I figured I would get them on my way back. But, unfortunately, during war you don't always come back the same way you went. Men with rifles and machine guns can't do much against tanks.
The order came to pull out and, hell, there was hardly anyone left. We ran between the houses down towards a stream that goes by a little bridge. There were a couple of strands of barbed wire to keep the cattle from straying, and I ripped the ass out of my pants as I crossed the stream. That was the coldest goddamn water I had ever felt in my life.
We made it to the top of the next ridge and we started to dig in. There were only about ten of us left. I said to the guys with me, "Jesus Christ, this can't be all that is left of my company." We started to dig in and for some reason they didn't pursue us. I don't know if they thought we were stronger than we were or what.
We couldn't figure out why those American tanks didn't come to our aid, but they didn't, they just sat. After we got out of there, they asked for volunteers to go back down and withdraw those guys, so I volunteered to go back down the hill. They, of course, were all buttoned up, so I got a rock and started pounding on the side of the tank. A guy stuck his head out and I said, "I got an order to pull you guys out of here."
We stayed on the hill until dark because we thought they were going to attack us, but they didn't. Then they pulled us back into Bastogne. We got there, and I think we had fifty or sixty men left, and they took us to this school. I'll never forget it. There was a church where the 101st Airborne had set up a kitchen. Actually, it was a Catholic school, and there was a big statue of Christ in the middle of the hall there, and we had just candles for light. We started counting the men who started filtering in, and then we realized how many men were gone. Some drifted in during the night, but that was practically the end of my company.
504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
"Only four more shopping days until Christmas," one trooper joked as he passed the 504th's regimental headquarters in Rahier, Belgium, as the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 504th moved toward the town of Cheneux on the north side of the Bulge. On December 20, the 504th's two battalions launched an attack on Cheneux, which held a crucial bridge spanning the Ambleve River. Cheneux was defended by elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper (1st SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment), which was assigned to spearhead the German attack through the Ardennes, but leaving the bridge in German hands would have given the Germans an opportunity to attack the 82nd Airborne Division's base at Werbomont. The 504th's mission was to destroy the SS garrison and capture the bridge. Bob Kinney, a machine gunner, describes the attack.
We were called out at dusk and we lined up in the road. Word came in that we were going to attack lead elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division that had killed those [captured American] soldiers at Malmédy. Word came down from upstairs that we don't want any prisoners from that outfit. We were all pretty fired up and ready to exact revenge.
I was a member of a machine gun squad and ammo carrier. I never made corporal, though I acted as a corporal. Pauley, our squad leader, had been wounded in Holland, and he had not been out of the hospital long when we began this mission.
We started toward Cheneux on a pretty good road, well built with gravel. We were going up the road and [Pauley] said, "Man I can't go, I'm hurting so bad." I said, "I'll take the gun and you drop out." He did, and I had a couple of guys [Emmons and Zogelman] left with me and I said, "You guys have a new squad leader." We all laughed about it because I was more of a funny guy than leader.
We headed up the hill and had a burst of phosphorous mortar shells. There were some brand-new troops with us and they were screaming, "Gas!" and running. We were saying, "No, no, no! It's phosphorus, come on!" So we were going up the hill, and I went to the left of the road with my squad, and as we got to the top of the hill we met the German armor. I can't tell you how much armor, but there was at least one or two tanks, at least three half-tracks, flak wagons with a 20-mm weapon on them. The fire got heavy then. It was blistering. I was with B Company and I didn't dare shoot that machine gun because I knew I'd shoot some of our own people. The rest of our machine gun platoon got off to the right side of the road, and they were in a wooded area, and I could hear a lot of fire over there.
I went down to go across the road and I said, "Zogelman and Emmons, are you guys with me? We're going across that road." They said, "Sure." We ran down and jumped in a ditch and one of our corporals, one of our newer men, came down and said, "You guys can't go across that road, you'll all be killed." I said, "We are going across that road because we got guys in trouble down there!" So we took a sudden lunge across that road, jumped over a barbed-wire fence, and we got down into where that shooting was going on. The firing was coming from behind an old farmhouse built up on the bank of the road.
A half-track [flak wagon] had our guys pinned down there and they were just laying it in heavy. One of our boys was shooting a .30-caliber machine gun at that half-track and I could see the tracer hit it and go towards the sky. I hollered, "Stop shooting! Whoever is shooting over there, stop! You can't hurt that half-track!" About that time, somebody said Haden got it. I hollered and said, "Everybody here throw me an extra hand grenade." I took four or five and stuffed them in my jacket. I was wearing one of those tanker jackets, the zipper type.
I had a pistol and I ran up by the house. I knew I had to go by the door and I didn't know if there was anybody in there, so I stopped and put three or four shots into the door and went around the house. I was right on the road and that half-track was on the [opposite] side of that house from where I was. I went around there and the guys just kept shooting. I threw hand grenades in that thing. It started booming and banging as their ammunition blew up and they were yelling. Some of the Germans started moving back down the road. I ran back and hollered, "Somebody bring a machine gun up here, let's get the son-of-a-guns as they are going down the road!" Lopez brought the machine gun up and we just covered that road with fire.
Later, these 90-mm tank destroyers had pulled up late in the night and Lopez and I decided we'd have a cigarette. We got down to the bottom by the house, got down by the ground and pulled an overcoat over our heads. We lit the cigarettes, and about that time that doggone antitank thing let go of the 90-mm and shot through the house above us and scared us to death! I thought the Germans had seen us and fired on our position. I think I swallowed the cigarette!
The night got quiet. At dawn, the Germans had moved back up in front of our position and they started shooting 88s [artillery] from the trees above us. My buddy Zogelman and I took a machine gun and dug in on the side of the road. Somebody came by and threw some K rations. I sat there opening K rations and I heard that 88 screaming. I yelled, "Get down!" It hit a tree right above us, and we both were hit. A lot of our guys were hit. The medics set up an aid station down over the hill in an old barn, and we went back there.
I helped Higgins; he got hit in the back of the neck, he was all bloody and came crawling in on his hands and knees. I said, "Higgins, are you all right?" He said, "Man, just wipe the damn blood out of my eyes so I can see where I'm going."
I got hit in the ribs but I didn't realize it. Zogelman jumped right in the air and screamed and I thought he got it in the stomach the way he doubled over. I picked him right up and took him down through the woods to the aid station. There were a lot of guys at the medic station; we had several men killed.
I got back up to the top of the hill and it was daylight by then. As I said, many of us got hit and we were streaming back to the aid station. On our way down, I saw our colonel, Willard Harrison, and I said, "Colonel, get on those damn antitank buggers out there, they don't know what the hell they're doing. They're shooting at us down there!" He said, "Never mind, you guys go back up there and get bandaged up and we'll take care of this end of the war." We went back to the aid station and I saw the big lieutenant of ours, Kimbell, and he was digging a hole, and I said, "Dig it deep, Lieutenant!" He said, "Yes, sir! You boys go on there and take care of yourselves now."
505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
On December 21, 1944, E Company of the 505th held a bridgehead at Trois-Ponts, on the east bank of the Salm River, against a fierce attack, led by armored elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division, that hit E Company at dawn. Greatly outnumbered and outgunned, E Company fought skillfully and held its ground until overwhelming numbers of Germans forced it to withdraw across the Salm, losing many men in the crossing. Further German assaults to cross the Salm failed, dooming any chances of a German linkup with SS Colonel Peiper's kampfgruppe trapped in La Gleize. Bill Meddaugh, the captain of E Company, describes in his e-history the efforts to slow down the 1st SS.
During the morning of December 20, 1944, we pulled out of a bivouac area and began an approach march along a narrow mountain road leading to Trois-Ponts. I was in command of E Company 505th. No maps were available, and I wasn't sure where we were headed. I was asked to send one platoon forward by truck as an advance force to occupy the town and reconnoiter the immediate area around the town. I selected the second platoon under Lieutenant John Walas, who boarded the trucks and headed for Trois-Ponts. The rest of the company [and battalion] continued the march. As the column approached the town, I went forward to meet with Lieutenant Colonel Ben Vandervoort, 2nd Battalion CO [commanding officer].
Lieutenant Walas had set up the platoon as a base of fire along the Salm River, on both sides of the damaged bridge, to cover the area across the river directly opposite the town. The terrain rose sharply across the river, giving the appearance of a cliff or bluff. A narrow road wound up the side of the cliff and disappeared in the woods to the left of the top of the mountain. A patrol under the command of Corporal Putnam had reconnoitered and waved that all was clear.
Colonel Vandervoort ordered me to move E Company across the river to the high ground and to establish a defensive position denying enemy troops and vehicles the use of the road. I sent for the rest of the company and ordered Lieutenant Walas to move the 2nd Platoon across quickly and set up a defensive position straddling the road, inside the woods, just over the crest of the mountain. When the balance of the company arrived, we moved across the bridge and up the winding road to get into position. I then ordered Lieutenant Jack Bailey's 1st Platoon to move into the woods and dig in on the right flank of the 2nd Platoon. Lieutenant Howard Jensen's 3rd Platoon was kept in reserve and located in the immediate vicinity of the Company CP [command post], which I established in a small home located on the road about a hundred yards from the 2nd Platoon positions.
At 2000 hours, the 2nd Platoon reported mechanized activity to their front. Bazookas were dug in, covering the road, and at this point several land mines were placed on the road. Shortly after that, two armored half-tracks approached the 2nd Platoon positions. The Germans were noisy and shouting back and forth, apparently unaware of our presence. The first vehicle struck a mine and was disabled. Almost immediately, the second half-track was hit by bazooka fire and was destroyed. A brief firefight developed, and several enemy soldiers were killed. We had no casualties. There was no further activity that night.
It was obvious we were facing some sort of mechanized unit. At dawn, the Germans attacked straight down the road into the 2nd Platoon's positions. Their infantry was accompanied by armored vehicles.
Walas called me at the CP and said, "The Krauts are all around us." The 2nd held their positions and the 1st Platoon began to fire at the flanks of the enemy force. I was able to get immediate 81-mm mortar support from the battalion in front of the 2nd Platoon area, which was getting the most pressure. The mortar platoon did a tremendous job and was mainly responsible for slowing down the attack.
I went forward to check on the situation in both the 1st and 2nd platoon areas and realized the attack was on a wide front. I went back to the company command post and committed the 3rd Platoon. The terrain wouldn't allow direct reinforcement of the 2nd Platoon, so I put the 3rd on the right flank of the 1st to get more enfilade fire on the enemy forces.
As the morning wore on, the situation was becoming more serious. Second Platoon was suffering heavy casualties, and it appeared [it was] not going to be able to hold on much longer. The 1st and 3rd platoons were also being pressured badly, and casualties were mounting. Part of our 2nd Platoon area was overrun, and Germans were occupying foxholes dug by our men. They had captured two or three men in the process. They were last seen being moved to the rear of the enemy lines.
About the time it looked like we would literally be pushed off of the hill, I received orders to withdraw back across the river. I got the word to my platoon leaders to bring their units out independently and as orderly as possible. F Company was moved up on my right flank, and [its] support enabled us to break contact and covered our withdrawal.
The withdrawal was disorganized as men formed small groups in the attempt to get out. I had the company headquarters group and some stragglers from 3rd Platoon who had become separated and drifted back. As we started down the winding road, we came under automatic weapons fire. The Germans had been able to break through at some point and put fire on the road. We considered dropping down the side of the cliff to avoid the fire on the road, but the 20- to 30-foot drop discouraged us from that. By moving single file and staying close to the bank on the side of the road, we managed to work our way down the road to the bridge. Due to the small-arms fire directed at the bridge, we were forced to run across one at a time to the other side.
The rest of the company made [its] way back by similar means and drifted in over the next hour or two. In spite of our traumatic experience, we quickly reorganized and moved into defensive positions along the Salm River with the rest of the battalion.
We suffered heavier-than-usual casualties in this action, but our stubborn stand forced the German forces to back off from Trois-Ponts and try to find another place to cross the river. E Company fought well under extremely tough circumstances. We learned later that we had faced a German armored battalion, and my guys fought them to a standstill with bazookas, mortars, and small-arms fire.
517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division
After arriving in the Ardennes on December 22, the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team was rushed to the northern part of the Bulge to join the 82nd Airborne and the rest of the XVIII Corps. The 517th's 1st Battalion joined the line at a break between the Belgian towns of Soy and Hotton where the Germans were readying themselves to exploit the gap and envelop the 82nd Airborne dug in along the Salm River. The 517th also was trying to open an escape route for four hundred GIs surrounded by the Germans. For his actions that day, Melvin Biddle, then a private, won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
We started up to the Bulge on December 21, 1944, and got to Soy the night of the twenty-second and pulled up right outside of town on trucks. As soon as we got off the trucks, the Germans started throwing artillery at us; they could have caught us on the trucks, which would have been a bad situation.
The captain came around and said: "I want you to come with me to headquarters." There was an officer at the headquarters in the basement, and the captain apparently told him we'd have to take the area between Soy and Hotton at any cost. They gave us seven tanks in the morning, and around 1000 hours we started out, and I was the lead. In about ten minutes, two tanks were hit. There was a German antitank gun down in the valley, and they were able to zero in on our tanks.
We had a fellow who'd just come into the outfit from the 82nd Airborne. When one of these tanks caught on fire, he went over and pulled the boys out. Shortly after he pulled the last man out, the 82nd guy got hit with a piece of shrapnel and killed. We felt so bad because he went through four combat jumps already and he didn't even have to come up here. We told him he could stay at the barracks as a baggage guard, but he insisted on coming with us.
We started out, and a rabbit jumped out in front of me. I followed that rabbit with my rifle, just like hunting, knocked the safety off my gun and followed it. I didn't fire, but I came dang near it. I turned around to the guy in back of me, who was so scared he couldn't laugh, he couldn't even smile, and I thought, "He is worse than I am."
We just went on and didn't see much for a while. We came up to a railroad track and three Germans by the brush adjacent to the railroad track, and they seemed to be looking down the track. I came up to them at an angle. The first guy never saw me and I stood there for a second and thought, "Should I shoot him or not shoot him?" I decided I better shoot him. My shot knocked him down, and he said Kamerad, which is their way of giving up. I felt kind of bad about shooting him; he was an older guy, probably thirty-five or forty-five years old, which was old to us nineteen-year-old guys. We sent him on back as a prisoner.
Just a few feet there was another [German]. I thought I shouldn't have shot the first guy so I won't shoot this one, but he tried to shoot me. He tried to get his rifle off. As he was trying to get his rifle off to fire at me, I shot him twice. He laid on the ground holding his stomach like it hurt, so a few minutes later I loosened his belt for him and he died. About another five to ten feet there was heavy underbrush and another German. He ran from me and I fired and hit him in the shoulder. He kept going, so I fired again, but he still kept going. I thought, "Boy, those other two just dropped, but this guy didn't."
A minute or so later everything broke loose -- machine gun fire and mortar fire. The lieutenant was laying next to me and he started to light a cigarette. There was a branch right next to his nose and a bullet clipped it off and he about fainted! He put his cigarette away.
As I moved forward, we were pinned down by machine gun and rifle fire. I saw a nest and pitched a few grenades in it, killing the crew. About twenty yards forward I ran into another nest and I threw a grenade at it and charged it, firing my rifle. Then the rest of the fire just seemed to stop. I don't know if they withdrew to another line or what, but they quit shooting at us.
I told the captain that it seemed like they quit firing, and he told me to go out there and see if I could see what outfit it was and what's out there. I went over to the road, it was the main road between Soy and Hotton, and we were coming from the north, I think. There was an intersection where I was going out to the road and I saw a vehicle or two that had some stars on it. I thought it was an American outfit, but I couldn't see how it could be with the Germans out there, but I could see the white stars. I got out near the road and three Germans came along; they were walking parallel to each other. One of them said "Ja," so I knew they were German. I went back and told the company commander that there were German troops even though I had seen a white star on a vehicle. He told me to take a couple of guys and capture a prisoner if we could.
Donald Haney was made second scout. He was an expert with a rifle and was an expert with a .45 pistol, also. He was real good. They told him to go with me to capture prisoners. A friend of mine, Bloom, who later got killed, said he'd go too; he just volunteered. He was a dedicated person, a dedicated soldier. He and I were friends, and he just kept telling me, "Take it easy, this war is going to last a long time and I want you to live through it."
We went up this road between Soy and Hotton, and there were [German] tanks, half-tracks and vehicles running up and down that road. The fellow who volunteered to go with me said, "I'll capture one of those fellows going up and down that road." He got to the road and said "Halt" so low I could hardly hear him. I don't think the German did either. He said "Halt!" again just like it was a police action or something. He fired at him and missed, and the German officer turned around and took out his pistol.
At this time it was getting dark and he couldn't see us, but I could see him. He had one of those pistols that had a bolt on it. He reached across with his left hand to cock that thing and put a round in the chamber. I stood there, looked at him, and I was so dumbfounded that Bloom had missed him. He turned around and fired at us a couple of times and missed us. He said, "Hey, Johnny!" He couldn't see us but he was trying to get us to say something so he could shoot at us. It was so crazy that I didn't shoot him. I'd been shooting people all day and here I am only ten or twelve feet from him and I know I can get him. He had on a coat that came all the way down to his ankles, one of those beautiful German coats, and a fancy officer's cap -- he was probably a general. I never found out who it was.
We started back to our outfit. I went the wrong way and ended up amongst the German line alone. I laid out there until about three or four in the morning. The Germans were walking past me. One would say Alt and another would say Acht -- that was their password for that night. I didn't think I could say Acht like they did, but I was going to say Acht if I had to confront them.
My hands were so cold I wasn't sure I would be able to fire my rifle. I determined I was going to put a finger through and pull on the thing if I had to. I laid out there, and all of a sudden they withdrew and went back towards Hotton. I lay there a little bit longer and heard our machine gun firing. It would go "burp -- burp -- burp" and theirs would fire back and go "unk." I could tell which was which, so I went over towards my outfit, and somebody over there said, "Is that you, Biddle?" And I said, "Yes," and they said, "Come on in." Most of them would have fired and wondered what that noise was. It was just amazing somebody called out.
We spent the rest of the night there, and one of our planes came over and shot down a German bomber, a JU-88. It burst in flames right across the road. The next morning the pilot and copilot were laying out there, deader than dead. They had black aviator clothes on, real nice, and each of them had a pistol.
We moved out again and I thought that would be the end of that [being in the lead] and they said, "Biddle, out front again." I was kind of shocked that they put me out front again. But that's the way it worked. We went just a little ways and there was a young German, about fourteen or fifteen years old, chained to a tree with a machine gun and a bunch of grenades. Everyone in back of me said, "Shoot him," and I said, "I don't think we need to, he's so scared he can't fire." We cut him loose and sent him back as a prisoner; he was so happy.
The captain said we need this platoon to move over there, to protect our left flank. I kind of edged to the left a little bit and went a few yards and saw a whole string of German soldiers coming across in front of me. I motioned everybody down and I started firing. They didn't come back up -- I thought they would. I told them to. I started shooting. I was about 100, 150 yards from the Germans. I fired at their helmets and I fired a couple clips at their rifles. When the first clip ejected it kind of scared me.
I was in a sitting position and just tall enough over the grass and underbrush to see the Germans clearly, so I just sat there shooting at them until they ran out of people. There was a squad or so that just marched across; they never fired. I could hear one popgun and I wondered if it was a soldier putting another out of his misery. I didn't go up and look at them; the other guys did. I was grateful because I would always have that on my mind. They said there were fourteen of them. I had gotten every one of them in the head, which was amazing to me.
We moved into Hotton, and the only other German I saw going in there was running. He had given up -- he had his hands up. I just walked up to him, didn't say anything, and he took his watch off and handed it to me. The guy who was guarding him said, "Why didn't you give that to me?"
That night we went to a little town that was four or five houses and we were put up in a farmer's house. The Belgian farmer cooked supper for us. There was roasted chicken cooked in butter and this dark Belgian bread -- it was terrific. While we were talking around the stove, the farmer looked at my pipe. I had a pipe that I'd chewed the wooden stem and it was coming apart. The farmer threw it in the fire and went over to his pipe case and gave me one of his. I wanted to keep it as a souvenir so bad and I lost the darn thing.
505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
On Christmas Eve 1944, the 82nd Airborne Division and 7th Armored Division were directed to withdraw from their positions in front of the Salm River and pull back to high ground between Trois-Ponts and Hotton. At the time, the airborne had been fending off three-plus SS panzer divisions. The order to "tidy up" the lines was issued by British Field Marshal Montgomery, who feared that the Germans could outflank the Allied lines and reach their objective of the Meuse River. The withdrawal was very difficult since it was at night and in woods that were swarming with eight hundred SS troops from Kampfgruppe Peiper, the same unit that had perpetrated the Malmédy massacre on U.S. troops. The SS troops were, ironically, also withdrawing. The 82nd was also facing the full weight of the powerful 1st SS Panzer Division. Robert Piper, in command of the 505th Regimental Intelligence Section (S-2) described the withdrawal, and witnessed an incident overlooked by history.
We went through a series there, on the way along the Salm River line, where you're in the woods and you move for twenty-four hours [and] then a regiment would pass through you that night. One regiment would come through us; then we'd go through them twenty-four hours later. But during that twenty-four hours you were there [in place], you had to be up and you had to walk around a tree. That's what you did because if you sat down, your tail was going to be frozen, your feet were going to be frozen, your butt was going to be frozen. (After the Bulge, I was evacuated to Liege and I was debating whether to cut my toes off because they had been so badly frostbitten.) It is pretty hard to describe. I think the average guy got pretty toughened, impersonal. After a while, I think, in retrospect, they were torn up pretty well when they really got to think about what they'd seen or done and experienced.
Combat is difficult to describe to someone that wasn't there. A man was alive today but, if he caught one, he was a vegetable the next day whether you liked it or not. It might have been your good friend. I had a very good friend standing next to me in Normandy, and a mortar round came in and capped him -- just took the front half of his head [off] and sent me flying. I was bleeding in both ears because I'd been knocked on my tail from a concussion, but I didn't get a scratch; I don't know why. This is fate, you see. If it's your time, it's your time. You have to become very fatalistic; you can't worry about yourself. The fact that somebody is shooting at you is not the point. The name of the game is, if you are an infantryman, you find the enemy, you close with them, and you destroy them. You don't sit back and debate what about this, what about that, what about something else. People don't understand that. After a while you just have to accept the fact that people get hit and people get hit badly. But a month later the medics put people back together, and I've seen this several times. In my thirty one years [of service] I've seen a lot of people badly shot up but the medics put them back together.
People don't realize it's not a matter of worrying about anything. You don't worry about anything. If it's your time it's your time. You don't even think about if it's your time. You don't think about it ever being your time, especially if you're a hard-charging guy, and you got no immediate family.
I think one of the most memorable things [in Belgium] was Christmas Eve along the Salm River line. We had twenty-some-odd German prisoners that we'd taken, and on Christmas Eve, the 505th, in their deployment, stuck out in the overall [line] of the German advance. So the name of the game was to withdraw. You cannot make a night withdrawal with enemies in a bitter-cold snow and bring these people back; I won't go on record and say it was another Malmédy massacre. But it was in fact another massacre that took place that you can't read about, you won't hear about.
It was a matter of not being able to comply with the order to withdraw and do it without losing your own people and bring back a bunch of enemy people. You can't do that; it is impossible to bring these people back in the dark, cold as it was, and the snow. No roads to speak of and you're coming back through the damn woods, so the name of the game was, you don't bring prisoners back. It's a sad commentary, and this was Christmas Eve, and we had to withdraw, and we had twenty-two to twenty-three [SS] prisoners. One of the German prisoners who was very well educated -- an officer that went to school in the United States and spoke English very well -- couldn't understand what was going on, he didn't understand the rationale. If the shoe had been on the other foot, you'd have said the same thing. To be just a statistic, that's just some of the fate of being in a wartime situation. It was right there and then, a matter of elimination. There were about eight or ten [American soldiers]. It was just doing a job and it was over.
There are very few of the people alive that are involved in the operation. I don't think there's many who ever talked about it. I don't talk about it lightly. I just think it's sort of a sad commentary, really. But, at the time, it was not a sad commentary. It was a matter of either you take some steps against the enemy or he was going to shoot you in the back. So you have a job to do and you can't afford to be a "jolly good fellow." Like a lot of American attitudes like being hale and hearty, chin up, school colors, and all the rest of this crap people put out, or about being cold-blooded; you just think about getting the job done. You got to go from A to B and, if there's something between A and B, you got to get rid of it. So the name of the game is, you go from A to B and you get very impersonal.
I think, in retrospect, you get very cold. I don't think cold-hearted is the right term. But you get impersonal. I think that is the best term to use. It doesn't mean a helluva whole lot. But to see some of your own people, good people -- zap, bang, and then they are gone. Good people you've trained with in the United States, you've gone to Africa and Sicily and Italy and England and Normandy and back to England and Holland and back to France, and you get committed to the Bulge in short notice -- I mean these are people you've known for, Christ, one and a half, two years. I'm talking about soldiers -- privates, and sergeants.
Division Headquarters, 101st Airborne Division
The town of Bastogne is strategically located at the center of the road network of the Ardennes and was referred to by the Germans as a "road octopus." The Allies recognized Bastogne's importance, and General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to hold the town at all costs. Their ability to do so earned them the first-ever Presidential Unit Citation awarded to an entire U.S. Army division. Harry Kinnard, then a lieutenant colonel and Division G-3 (planning officer), remembers here the German demand for surrender.
We got into Bastogne late on the night of December 18, 1944. We were not well-equipped, having just gotten out of combat in Holland. We were particularly short of winter clothing and footwear. On the twenty-first of December, we became completely surrounded by Germans and our field hospital was overrun by a German attack. We had put the hospital in what would normally have been a safe place, but no place is safe when you are completely surrounded. At this time, we were not able to receive air resupply because the weather was absolutely frightful. It was very, very cold and snowy. Visibility was often measured in yards. The citizens of Bastogne who gave us blankets and white linens that we used for camouflage offset our lack of winter gear.
While we were still surrounded, on the morning of December twenty-second, a German surrender party, consisting of two officers and two NCOs, and carrying a white flag, approached our perimeter in the area of our glider regiment, the 327th. The party was taken to a nearby platoon command post. While the enlisted men were detained, the officers were blindfolded and taken to the command post of the 327th, where they presented their surrender ultimatum. The ultimatum in essence said the 101st's position was hopeless, and that if we elected not to surrender, a lot of bad things would happen.
The following ultimatum was delivered on December 22, 1944:
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Our near the Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompré-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over, a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If the proposal should be rejected, one German artillery corps and six heavy A.A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after the two-hour term. All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
Signed: The German Commander.
Major Alvin Jones, the S-3, and Colonel Harper, the regimental commander, brought in the message to the division headquarters. They brought the message to Paul Danahy, the G-2, and me. My first reaction was that this was a German ruse designed to get our men out of their foxholes. But be that as it might, we agreed that we needed to take the message up the line.
We took it first to the acting chief of staff of the division, Lieutenant Colonel Ned Moore. With him, we took the message to the acting division commander, General Tony McAuliffe. Moore told General McAuliffe that we had a German surrender ultimatum. The general's first reaction was that the Germans wanted to surrender to us. Colonel Moore quickly disabused him of that notion and explained that the Germans demanded our surrender. When McAuliffe heard that he laughed and said: "Us surrender? Awe, nuts!"
McAuliffe realized that some sort of reply was in order. He pondered for a few minutes and then told the staff, "Well, I don't know what to tell them." He then asked the staff what they thought, and I spoke up, saying, "That first remark of yours would be hard to beat." McAuliffe said, "What do you mean?" I answered, "Sir, you said 'Nuts.'" All members of the staff enthusiastically agreed, and McAuliffe decided to send that one word, "Nuts!," back to the Germans. McAuliffe then wrote down: "To the German Commander, 'Nuts!' The American Commander."
McAuliffe then asked Colonel Harper to deliver the message to the Germans. Harper took the typed message back to the company command post where the two German officers were detained. He told the Germans that he had the American commander's reply. The German captain then asked, "Is it written or verbal?" Harper responded that it was written and added, "I will place it in your hand."
The German major then asked, "Is the reply negative or affirmative? If it is the latter, I will negotiate further."
At this time the Germans were acting in an arrogant and patronizing manner, and Harper, who was starting to lose his temper, responded, "The reply is decidedly not affirmative." He then added, "If you continue your foolish attack, your losses will be tremendous." Harper then put the German officers in a jeep and took them back to where the German enlisted men were detained. He said to the German captain, "If you don't know what 'Nuts' means, in plain English it is the same as 'Go to Hell.' I'll tell you something else: If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city."
The German major and captain saluted very stiffly. The captain said, "We will kill many Americans. This is war." Harper then responded, "On your way, bud." He then said, "And good luck to you." Harper later told me he always regretted wishing them good luck.
463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, Attached to the 101st Airborne Division
On Christmas Day, 1944, eighteen German tanks camouflaged with white paint followed by grenadiers clad in white ponchos penetrated the American line held by the 2nd Platoon of A Company of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment,7 their pincer-shaped attack falling on the small towns of Champs and Hemroulle. After several German tanks were knocked out by tank destroyers (TDs) and infantry wielding bazookas, the remaining tanks charged a position near the town of Hemroulle occupied by the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, nearly breaking into Bastogne. Joe Lyons, executive officer of B, or Baker Battery, recalls how the 463rd used pack howitzers -- weapons not designed for close-in fighting -- by bore-sighting their muzzles on the tanks.
A little after dawn on Christmas morning, we got a call from the officer of number-one gun in Baker Battery. He reported that tanks were visible about six hundred yards from his position. Baker Battery was equipped with six guns; however, we had only three guns that could shoot in that sector. The guns were numbered one through six, and guns numbered one through three were pointed towards the enemy tanks. According to the orders from headquarters, we had to have the guns shoot 360 degrees; just in case the Germans did break through, we could have guns covering any field of fire. On number-one gun was Sergeant D. B. Nickols, and the gunner was Joe Hibble. Hibble was a fine gunner. Sergeant Smith, or Smitty, as we called him, was over on number-two gun, and number-three gun was manned by Keller, one of our best gunners.
I was the executive officer of Baker Battery. At this point we didn't have much ammunition remaining. Our supply of shells consisted of a few armor-piercing, smoke, and phosphorous shells. Once the tanks came into view, we paused a bit to make absolutely sure they were German tanks. We waited for the sight of muzzle breaks and low silhouettes, both distinct features of German tanks. But once we saw the muzzle breaks there was no question about it, we knew we were facing German tanks.
Once the tanks were in range, I said to Joe Hibble, our gunner, "Joe, when you start firing, for God's sakes don't fire over." If you fire short, at least you get a ricochet shot. I was really wasting my time telling him that because he was such a good gunner; I knew he would instinctively do it. We waited maybe three or four minutes and then started to fire.
From my vantage point, I saw about four tanks. Some of the men who were in the other gun positions said there were a total of eight tanks. The first shots fired by Keller and Hibble got a direct hit on one tank, forcing the German crew to bail out of the turret of the burning tank. The second tank was hit with a phosphorous shell, and they were forced to bail out of that tank. The third tank was hit, but the motor was still running. The machine gun section that was guarding our flanks was able to capture the running tank. They also picked up about twenty or thirty prisoners.
Our machine gun section drove the captured tank near our positions. Meanwhile, the German prisoners were disarmed and marching behind the tank toward number-one gun. Sergeant Childress and Gus Hazard of the machine gun section were riding the tank and stopped in front of my position. At that point I said to them, "Get that tank out of our area, because if the skies ever clear they'll see the German tank and we'll catch hell from our own airplanes." I said, "Why don't you take them up to battalion." So they took the German prisoners and operational German tank up to battalion.
I remember the one German officer we captured, who spoke English, said to me, "Lieutenant, you're wasting your time all around the perimeter," and I said, "You're the prisoner, I'm not." So they took them all up to battalion. I would say the whole thing lasted fifteen or twenty minutes. This was the second time in the war that a pack howitzer knocked out tanks. The first time was at Biazza Ridge in Sicily.
505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
The Allied counteroffensive to push the Germans back into Germany began on January 3, 1945, and involved some of the most costly fighting of the war, conducted during the worst winter in fifty years. Leading the First Army's attack in the northern portion of the Bulge was the lightly armed 1st Battalion of the 505th. Joseph Tallett of C Company describes the first few days of the attack.
January 3 was the day we started our counterattack. We launched the attack near a wooden bridge that crossed a creek or river. I think it was some sort of creek that sprung off from the Salm River.
As we crossed the creek, there was a hill that stretched seventy yards to a wooded area, and it continued sloping up. The Germans started shelling us as we approached the bridge. I remember Gus Sanders got hit. That was his fourth Purple Heart. It was a leg wound, so we weren't that concerned.
As we went up this hill we came upon a crossroad. The Germans had four 88s [field artillery] that were zeroed in on the road. We subsequently captured the 88s; they were brand-new. They were firing at the crossroad in sequence, so what you did was wait for a pause in the sequence and you would dash across the crossroad up into the woods. When we moved forward in the woods we lost some people; we lost our assistant platoon leader, Robbins. He had been captured in Normandy and escaped. He could have gone home, since theoretically he had been a POW. He opted to stay with the regiment, and of course he died with the regiment. Two other men in my platoon charged the emplacement but were killed by a burst of machine gun bullets.
This wooded area was large and full of dense pine trees. Three or four hours later, when we finally got out of there, it looked like someone had taken a lawn mower and just mowed the trees down. All that was left were tree stumps. About another three hundred yards farther there was an open space, maybe one hundred yards long. That was the problem, the open space. The Germans had laced it with machine guns. [Our commanders] decided to wait before another assault on the machine guns. They decided to wait for the tanks to cross the river.
From where I was on the hill, I could see combat engineers working feverishly near the damaged bridge to repair it so the tanks could cross the river. It was really a hot area. The Germans were concentrating their artillery fire on the bridge. I was pinned down on the side of the hill but could see what was going on down by the bridge. General James M. Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne, was in water up to his chest assisting the combat engineers to get that bridge back together so the tanks could cross. That was a sight as far as leadership goes. You had to say this was a good place to be with men like Gavin. In any event, they did get the bridge back.
Meanwhile, A Company was flanking around the left, and tanks rolled across the repaired bridge.
I never harbored any hate for the Germans, but there were men in the platoon that did. This happened when we were on the side of the hill near the crossroads and prisoners were coming in. They [the Germans] were saying, "Me Polish." One of the troopers who spoke Polish, along with another man, would take them down lower on the hill, strip them of anything of value and then shoot them. I don't know how many they had done this to, it wasn't many, but it was enough. Ironically, one of these men was killed that day and the other was killed later in Germany. There was too much going on, and most people thought that they were taking them back to our lines. But how do you send people back when you're getting your tail shot off in the middle of a firefight?
In Holland I was in an outpost with one of these people, and oh, what a maniac! He was screaming at the Germans to attack so he could get some watches! He was kind of an outcast in the platoon. They wouldn't let him jump in Normandy. He came in by boat and I believe knocked out several machine gun nests. He killed Germans. I understand that he lost a brother in the Philippines, I don't know the time frame. We would have been better off if we kicked him out of the outfit.
The next day we pushed about half a mile and were on high ground. We came upon a valley that had two German tanks refueling. One of the tanks was on one end of the field and the other tank was on the other end of the field. They were pouring gas into their tanks from jerry cans. The tank destroyers [TDs] were right next to us and the lieutenant who commanded them said, "One HE [high-explosive shell] and one AP [armor-piercing shell]." Each TD picked a tank and fired two rounds and knocked them out. The HE got a few of the Germans that were standing outside.
About the same time B Company caught a German battalion in the woods. On either side of this pine woods were firebreaks [a clear path through a wooded area]. A and B companies moved men down either side of these firebreaks, squeezing the Germans in the middle. TDs moved along with them, using their .50s [.50-caliber machine guns mounted on the tanks]. It was a turkey shoot; the Germans didn't have a chance. We [C Company] were strung out in a moving skirmish line picking off anything that came out. Dozens of Germans came out of the woods and into our skirmish line. There was quite a bit a firing. I don't like to use this analogy, but it was like crushing roaches.
A group of four or five Germans came out and they were shot to hell. One of the Jewish guys in the platoon went out from the skirmish line and attacked the German wounded men. I couldn't believe it when I saw it happen. He went out with a trench knife and he tried to pick the eyes out of one of the Germans. Our sergeant saw what was going on and he ran out and I ran out behind him and disarmed the guy. This stuff kind of just happens in war.
Surprisingly, the Germans looked like they were on parade compared to us. Many of them had brand-new uniforms and black boots. If you had to decide who was winning the war by how you looked, we were losing because they looked like a million bucks; they really did. Many of the Germans in the woods survived, and that's why there was so many damn prisoners around that night. You could believe it if you saw it. At the time there had to be fifty Germans around trying to surrender. The wounded Germans were screaming and crying.
The next day as we were moving forward, I saw this trooper; I really can't describe it to you. His one side was bloody and his one arm was bandaged. His rifle was at the ready. As we came up and went by, he gave us a smile and I thought to myself, "If you could ever catch that picture." He looked so placid even under the dire situation. He wasn't wearing an overcoat, just a jump suit. Who would ever think that this guy was winning the war?
550th Infantry Airborne Battalion, Attached to the 17th Airborne Division
On the morning of January 4, 1945, the second day of the Allied counteroffensive in the southern part of the Bulge, the 550th Infantry Airborne Battalion, America's second airborne battalion, formed during the summer of 1941 in Panama, was attached to the 17th Airborne Division. The battalion, along with most of the 17th, was tasked with capturing and holding positions along the Bastogne-Marche highway known as Dead Man's Ridge, about twelve miles west of Bastogne itself. That night the Germans counter attacked in force along the ridge. Most of the 550th was in or around the small town of Renaumont, but poor communication with the 17th and a lack of flank protection by neighboring units doomed the independent battalion. Elements of the Führer Begleit Brigade, an independent German unit roughly half the size of a panzer division, surrounded Renaumont and hundreds of troops supported by assault guns overran the 550th defensive perimeter, killing or capturing most of the battalion. Ernest Machamer recalls that night.
The morning of the attack was bitter cold and the snow was nearly knee deep. As we neared Renaumont, we crossed an open field and were shelled by German artillery. While passing a rural home, we saw a family. I vividly remember it -- a man, his wife, and one or two children had been tied to a fence and shot by the Germans. The bodies were frozen stiff. Off to the side, two dead German soldiers were laying face down in the snow and several hogs were gnawing on their legs. Before we moved forward, we chased the hogs away from the bodies.
As we approached Renaumont, we were fired upon by snipers and my platoon leader was wounded and evacuated. I was placed in command of the platoon and moved the men into a gully to avoid the sniper fire. In order to establish exactly where sniper fire was coming from, I sent a volunteer about twenty-five yards behind a haystack. As he was about to reach the haystack, he took a bullet between the knee and hip, tearing the bone and muscle away. I took a medic with me and we ran to his aid dragging him behind the stack, where the medic applied a tourniquet. The sniper fired two or three more shots near us. The wounded man told me where the sniper was so I directed some of the men to lay a volley of fire into the top window of a house and that put an end to the sniper fire.
We moved through the town cautiously. A command post was established and we set up position between Renaumont and the road leading into the town. Not long after we set up, the Germans counterattacked. Germans dressed in American uniforms led the attack. When they started to fire, we reacted and fought them back across the road into the woods. The Germans mounted a second counterattack but we fought it off.
It was getting late in the day and we had several wounded men. Captain Morton took it upon himself to evacuate the wounded. Not being a line officer [having direct combat command], he volunteered for the job jokingly saying, "Only the good die young." So the wounded were lifted onto a jeep and taken to battalion aid station. On a return trip, Morton's jeep hit a Teller mine and he was killed. The jeep looked like a pretzel since the front and back wheels were practically joined together. Everybody loved this officer and morale sank like a rock among the men when we saw what happened.
By late afternoon B and C companies were repositioned to get ready for night perimeter defense around the town. My platoon was assigned the left flank of the perimeter. After digging in, a jeep drove up and stopped about twenty-five yards from my position. An officer and two men approached one of my men and ordered him out of his foxhole. He came to attention and words were exchanged. The officers then left. I went down to question the man about what had went on. He said that it was General Patton who chewed him out because he was unshaven, didn't know how to come to attention, his clothing was dirty, and about ten more things he found fault with.
Not long after nightfall, we could hear German tanks moving around the town. We knew that a night attack was imminent. Shortly afterward, the town was surrounded and German infantry started to move into the town. I had a runner named Roy Seltzer, who kept running messages from me to the command post in the center of the town. Gunfire and explosions echoed throughout the night. Finally the tanks broke through our defensive perimeter. We knew things were getting desperate.
I tried to contact the 194th Glider Infantry Regiment, which was supposed to be on our left flank, but got no response. By this time German machine gun fire was all around us. Seltzer came back for the last time and told me that some men were surrendering. I decided to get out of there with as many of my men as I could.
We went back along the edge of town and came upon a small group of men who I thought might be Germans, so I challenged them. One man said, "We're Americans with an engineering group." They had no weapons. I couldn't determine if they were our men or if they were Germans so I said, "Walk in front of us." As we left the town we moved over a hill and approached a fence. Someone about a hundred yards to our left was hollering, "A Company assemble over here!" Knowing that to be unlike any order previously issued by our officers, we continued on and attempted to get over the fence but several men were cut by machine gun fire.
About a mile from the town, we were challenged around daybreak. We were told to advance one at a time and be recognized. It was the 194th. We were fed and the walking wounded cared for. What was left of the 550th was formed into a company, ninety-seven men at first count that morning and more dribbled in later in the day. The final count was about two hundred men. We entered the Bulge with over six hundred men.
A few days passed and I was sent with a group to identify those who had given their lives. The town was filled with the battalion's dead and scores of frozen German corpses. The cellar of one of the buildings contained about twenty dead men from the 550th. None of them were carrying weapons. Some people speculated that they were the battalion's critically wounded that had been thrown in there by the Germans. One GI did not have his dog tags and nobody could identify him. I thought it looked like Roy Seltzer so I recorded it that way. Later during the Korean War, someone knocked on my door at home wearing a GI uniform. When I opened the door, it was Roy Seltzer -- not a ghost or an apparition but the real thing. He had been captured in the CP on the morning of January 5, 1945. He told me how his family received his insurance check and how elated they were when they discovered that he was still alive.
In retrospect, we did what was asked of us, while enduring long stretches on the fighting line, bitter cold, and frostbitten feet and fingers. Practically every day I remember the many who were captured and those who were wounded and killed. The most saddening part of reflecting upon this is that the 550th died at the end of that night.
551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division
Before the beginning of the twentieth century, machine guns and repeating rifles made bayonet attacks an obsolete tactic, but extraordinary circumstances such as lack of ammunition or fear of hitting friendly forces at times justified the bayonet's resurrection. On January 4, 1945, Lieutenant Dick Durkee ordered his men to "fix bayonets" and led one of the few bayonet charges in the European Theater of Operations in a field outside the small town of Dairomont. Doug Dillard, a communications sergeant with the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, describes the charge.
"Fix bayonets and charge!" That was the order that Lieutenant Durkee gave us as we charged across this field and wooded area into the German positions. It was a surprise to me, since we had never heard that order before. In retrospect, I can understand why he did it and can see the advantage in it. He did it in Korea, also. I'm sure it occurred to him that, "Hey, we can scare the hell out of these guys by fixing bayonets!" It may also boost the morale of our own troops. It had been a hell of a day. There was lots of activity and we lost a lot of men. People were pretty mad and fired up. You wanted to accomplish something.
When we heard him say, "Fix bayonets!" everybody charged like crazy. People were yelling and screaming as we moved toward the German positions. We could see the Germans' breath in the cold air and flashes from their two machine guns. As we approached the German positions, Durkee damn near knocked the head off the first German with the butt of his carbine. I can very clearly remember the first row of Germans that we encountered. There were seven or eight of them in a row in their foxholes and they'd been firing in another direction. I remember the Germans turning around, wearing their gray greatcoats and their helmets, trying to get out of their foxholes. As we came around, they didn't have time to get us in their sights; we were on top of them. [Durkee] went from one to the other, running up through that wooded area using the butt of his carbine and, of course, shooting, too.
It was kind of like a scene from a movie. People don't realize some of the scenes that really do happen. At the time, I was right behind Durkee when this happened, and I tried to fire my Thompson submachine gun, but the receiver and barrel was frozen so I couldn't fire it. As Durkee moved from one position to another, it was like he was going down a row of corn, eliminating it. There were six or eight Germans in those foxholes that he alone killed.
I remember looking at this surreal scene with these guys lying back in their foxholes; their breath was going back up in the air, vaporizing as the heat and warmth of their bodies evaporated. I can remember this as clear as [if] it happened yesterday. I helped him round up some of the men and got them under control. Everybody sort of came unglued and were bayoneting the dead German bodies. They just wanted to kill the Germans. The men just unleashed all of this fury that was pent-up inside. It was like the last thirty seconds of a basketball game. It lasted for about ten minutes.
551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division
On the morning of January 7, 1945, the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion was sent to take the small, fortified Belgian town of Rochelinval. The town was bristling with German machine gun nests and was defended by approximately five hundred Germans from the 183rd Regiment. Before the attack, the 551st had sustained a large number of combat casualties. The cold weather caused "trench foot." Minimal artillery support, a lack of armor (only one tank arrived after the attack started), and poor communication with supporting units made the attack tragically bloody. (The day before the battalion commander supposedly had tried to persuade higher-ups to call it off -- to no avail.)
A Company, led by Dick Durkee, consisted of fewer than fifty men and was assigned to make a diversionary attack on the town while B and C companies moved around the flank. Durkee was the only surviving officer -- and one of only seven surviving men -- from A Company. Miraculously, B and C companies took the town, though with heavy casualties.
Just before we launched the attack, Sergeant Hill told me that the attack was going to be a bloody fight and that a lot of men would never get out alive. I reconnoitered the area prior to the attack and realized how impossible the task would be. I expressed this to Lieutenant Booth, A Company commander, who agreed. However, we had our orders -- take the town. Our route of attack was a small country lane that had brush on both sides. Our jumping-off point was about 250 yards from the town.
When Lieutenant Booth gave the nod, we moved out. We had one squad, led by Sergeant Hill, go down the left side of the lane and one squad, led by Sergeant Courtney, go down on the right side of the lane. Lieutenant Dahl and I were in the lane behind the two scouts. Private Mowery was the first scout; he was hit in the stomach and once through the head. I immediately put my machine gun into action behind a tree stump. No sooner had we set up the machine gun than the Germans started firing on our left flank.
We were caught in crossfire. Sergeant Hill, seeing Mowery die, picked up his BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] and stood there firing two magazines at the Germans. He was wounded several times and finally killed. Following Hill's example, Lieutenant Booth tried to take out the machine gun that killed Hill but was cut down. Meanwhile, I became second scout and Dahl first scout and we continued moving toward the town. A bazooka man followed me.
Halfway up the slope of the hill, which was close to the outskirts of town, I fired the bazooka (the other man loaded), obliterating a machine gun nest. Meanwhile, a sniper was firing on us behind the corner of one of the buildings in town. I knew that I could lob a grenade at him if I had covering fire. So I told Dahl to fire on the sniper while I tossed the grenade. It came up short. Again, I asked Dahl to continue firing, but he was kneeling there with his eyes closed -- dead.
I still had the bazooka man with me and saw another man running up the hill. I recognized him as my runner, Pat Casanova. I yelled at him to bring up the rest of the men in a hurry. His answer is something I'll never forget: "Sir, they're all dead." I knew that this was it. After breaking off the attack I ordered the bazooka man to crawl back while I covered him. He started crawling back and then he got up and began to run for the woods. He got about three feet and was cut down by a hail of machine gun bullets.
I started crawling back and found the reason for Casanova's response. The bodies of the men were all over the place, in all kinds of positions. Some of the men were lying face up with sightless eyes, others face down, faces submerged in the snow. From my position, I could not be seen by the Germans, so I said a prayer to myself and got up and ran for the woods. I still don't understand how I survived that day.
506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division
By the middle of January, the Battle of the Bulge was winding down. The Allies' strategy was to pinch the Germans off from the north and south and link up in the middle of the Bulge at Houffalize. The companies that pursued the retreating Germans were decimated but expected to perform as full-strength units despite their casualties. Alex Andros describes his last day at the Battle of the Bulge near Houffalize.
On January 16, the battalion was ready to launch one of our last attacks. At the time we [H Company] had twenty-four men, I Company had fewer men than we did, and G Company was stronger, with about thirty men. So that's fifty-four, and I think I Company was less than twenty, and this was supposed to be a battalion [750 men]; hell, it didn't even make a company. When we first started out in Bastogne, we had ten officers and, I would say, about 130 enlisted. That last day, there were just two officers left and we had about twenty-four men. The battalion commander at the time was Major Patch. He said to me, "Hey, Andy, how do you think we ought to start out?" I said, "Major, let's just go single file and spread out and if they start getting fire then we can spread out," and that's how we went. It was sort of dumb. The idea was to try and form an attack with fifty men. Here are these troops, down to 20 percent of full strength, and you're attacking. It doesn't make sense. We were too dumb to protest -- we didn't know any better! When you think back on it as a mature person, it's hard to believe some of the things we did. That's the way it was -- unbelievable people -- no one questioned and no one bugged out.By that time, the Allies' strategy was to pinch the Germans off so they couldn't get back into Germany. I remember we crossed a main highway. We went north of Noville to a little town of Wicourt, near Houffalize. We went across this open field to the east of Noville. The Germans had pretty good positions on a wooded hill. One of my guys was killed going through the field. We went up there and overran the German positions in the woods. There were a few German wounded, quite a few dead, not by our fire but American artillery. It was getting late in the afternoon by the time we got there. We found this neat German dugout which we made our company command post. At that time I was company commander.
Willie Miller, my assistant, was in the CP with my platoon sergeant so I went out to the exit. Looking to the east, there was a valley between us and another wooded area, I'd say about five hundred yards. You could see the Germans retreating -- the tanks and self-propelled guns were moving. I was at the exit looking with my binoculars when all of a sudden I saw this blast. Maybe the binoculars had glinted in the sun (I don't know what drew their attention), but man they fired at me, they put three rounds in our position. I was hit by some tree-burst shrapnel.
That was the third time I got hit during the war. It was a tree burst, it went right through the top of my helmet and just slammed me to the ground. I was stunned, of course, and when I came to, I reached up and was bleeding pretty badly. I was scared as hell and I started yelling, "Medic! Medic!" -- but, hell, there was no medic around there. I finally got my senses back and I groped and found my way back to my CP. Old Willie Miller says, "Oh, Jesus, Andy, you're bleeding!" I said, "Yeah." But I had no pain, it was a head wound. He bandaged me up and some medics actually picked me up and took me down to a farmhouse that was turned into an aid station. It was a pretty big house. It was just loaded with smoke; guys were smoking. There were wounded Germans and wounded Americans. One thing I'll say, the medics treated everyone equally, be they Germans or be they Americans. What they did was look for the guys who were in really bad shape. They came and they checked me and said, "Lieutenant, you're okay. You'll be all right." They finally got me in an ambulance; it was dawn the next day and I went back to a hospital in France.
Willie later told me that the battalion commander got them together and, at the time he was the company commander, and he said, "How many men do you have? We're going to continue the attack." Old Willie chirped up and said, "Attack? Hell, I only got seventeen men left!" The next day the 101st was pulled out of Bastogne.
509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, Attached to the 82nd Airborne Division
By January 28, 1945, time had run out for the men in the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion -- the battle-hardened unit that first saw action in North Africa. During the battle, no airborne unit had suffered more casualties than the 509th. Arriving in the Bulge as a full-strength battalion of about seven hundred men, the 509th was reduced to only fifty-five men. Nevertheless, the order came down to attack and secure the high ground near St. Vith. The day after the final attack, as described below, the 509th, the unit that made America's first combat jump, was disbanded, and the survivors were sent to other units as replacements. Ken Shaker was the ranking officer who led the attack.
I would like to tell you about the last day of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Of the original seven hundred soldiers there was only about forty of us left. Battalion headquarters consisted of about ten or so men and was located in a house in a wooded area. I was in command of the men and Major Thomasik was the battalion commander. Major Thomasik and I reviewed a map, which showed the location of a hill down the road that our battalion was supposed to attack. After reviewing the map I told the major we would see what we could do (while thinking to myself that I did not want to go).
I moved the battalion down a narrow road that was wooded on both sides. I decided that there might be Germans out ahead of us so we would have to get off this road. I took the men off the road to the right in the woods. I decided to make a left turn and parallel the direction the road was going. This road contained a fire path where the woods were cut down.
My lead scout was in front and I was behind him about three or four yards. We started going across the fire path and a shell went over our heads and blew up right between the two of us. We dropped and the rest of the men followed us crawled on their bellies across the path. We turned left and stopped short of a clearing in the woods. In front of us was the hill we were to attack. It was clear of all vegetation and covered with snow up to the top, where it was wooded. To go up that hill under those circumstances would have been suicide; we would all be killed. Not only did we have to get up the hill, which had no cover, we had to go through snow that was maybe a foot or so deep. I was undecided on exactly how to organize an attack on this hill. I decided I would take one man with me, go off to the right, and see if there was a covered approach to the top of the hill. If a covered approach were found I would take the men up that way.
We were moving parallel to the edge of the clearing and had gone four hundred to six hundred yards when I saw a valley off to the right. There were four or five American tanks in that valley with a large group of American soldiers around them. The men, some infantry and some tankers, appeared to be fresh troops. I had fully intended to attack the hill until I saw these troops. When there are fresh troops available I was not going to attack that goddamn hill. I went a little bit further and saw a covered approach and decided to go back to the men.
Of the forty men we had left, four were replacements and one was a sergeant who looked very competent. I decided I would have the sergeant take a four-man patrol up the covered approach just to see if there was anything at the top of this hill. Up to this time we were not faced with any enemy fire. I went back to the men and told them about the patrol. Then I did something that I always regretted. I asked my radioman, Ed Wojick, if he would be willing to go along with the patrol. (I hated myself for making this decision because in hindsight I know that it was not that necessary.) I wanted to have radio contact with the patrol in case they ran into a problem. He said he would go, but his heart was not in it. I have always regretted that I did not change my mind.
Evidently, the patrol used the covered approach that I had found at the top of the hill. When they got into the woods they encountered a German machine gun position. They received some fire and they returned the fire. After this exchange some of the German soldiers in the machine gun position ran away and one surrendered and was taken prisoner by the patrol. Unfortunately, Wojick had been killed during the fire exchange. I spoke a few words of German to the prisoner, saying "How many men are on the hill?" and pointed to the top of the hill. He gritted his teeth and would not tell me. I took my pistol out and put it at his forehead and I asked him again. He was clenching his teeth but he still would not tell me anything. I told two of my men to take him back to battalion headquarters.
Meanwhile, from headquarters, Major Thomasik asked me if I was going to make the attack. I told him that I was getting into position and suggested that he come up here and see the position for himself. He did not come up and continued to ask me when I was going to attack. I continued to tell him I was getting into position. After seeing all those fresh troops and tanks I was never going to make an attack on that damn hill.
When the two men brought the prisoner back to battalion headquarters there happened to be an interrogation team there. They asked him the same question I had and he still refused to answer. They had him take his shoes and socks off and stand out in the cold; it was a bitter cold day. After about half an hour he decided to talk. He told them that there was a company of 160 Germans somewhere up in the hill. Finally around three or four in the afternoon we got word to go back to battalion headquarters because the attack had been called off.
Subsequently, I learned that this had been a departure point for a new attack and those fresh troops I had seen were in preparation for that attack. The reason we had been told to take the hill was that it was a line of departure for the new attack.
My battalion got on trucks and we went to a place called Trois-Ponts. On our third night there we were told that the 509th had been deactivated.
Copyright © 2001 by Patrick K. O'Donnell
Meet the Author
Bestselling author Patrick K. O’Donnell is a special operations historian who has written nine previous books: First SEALs; Beyond Valor, Into the Rising Sun; Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs; The Brenner Assignment; They Dared Return; We Were One (selected for the Marine Commandant’s Professional Reading List); Give Me Tomorrow; and Dog Company. The author is the recipient of numerous awards including the prestigious William E. Colby Award and the OSS Society’s John Waller Award. He has provided historical consultation for DreamWorks’s award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Fox News. He served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and is in demand as an expert speaker on WWII espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency on the modern battlefield. Over the past twenty years, O’Donnell has interviewed more than 4,000 veterans who fought in America’s wars from WWI to Afghanistan and specializes in “unearthing untold true stories that read like novels.” Visit him online at PatrickKODonnell.com.
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