Infantry Soldier: Holding the Line at the Battle of the Bulge

Infantry Soldier: Holding the Line at the Battle of the Bulge

by George W. Neill


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Infantry Soldier: Holding the Line at the Battle of the Bulge by George W. Neill

Infantry Soldier describes in harrowing detail the life of the men assigned to infantry rifle platoons during World War II. Few people realize the enormously disproportionate burden the men in these platoons carried: although only 6 percent of the U.S. Army in Europe. They suffered most of the casualties.

George W. Neill served with a rifle platoon in the 99th Infantry Division. Now a seasoned journalist, he takes the reader into the foxholes to reveal how combat infantrymen lived and survived, what they thought, and how they fought.

Beginning with basic training in Texas and Oklahoma, Neill moves to the front lines in Belgium and Germany. There he focuses on the role of his division in the Battle of the Bulge. The 99th, recruits bolstered by veterans of the 2nd Division, held the northern line of the bulge, preventing a German breakthrough and undermining their strategy. Using his wartime letters, his research in the United States and Europe, and hundreds of interviews, Neill chronicles his and his friends’ experiences—acts of horror and heroism on the front line.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806133805
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/28/2002
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,176,670
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

George W. Neill , who lives in northern California, is a retired newspaper editor.

Read an Excerpt

Infantry Soldier

Holding the Line at the Battle of the Bulge

By George W. Neill


Copyright © 2000 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-3380-5


The Beginning

MARCH 16–JULY 9, 1943

THE NEWS ARRIVED BY MAIL IN A BRIEF MIMEO-graphed, unsigned letter from the dean of students, University of California, Berkeley. It directed ninety of us in the U.S. Army's Enlisted Reserve Corps (ERC) to report for active duty.

At first glance, the letter hardly looked important—another bureaucratic exercise. Dated March 16, 1943, it told us to report on March 24, only eight days later. The meaning was clear: the army wanted to move from inactive to active duty most of the young, healthy manpower it held in reserve in institutions of higher education. The order ended months of uncertainty. I was nearing the end of my junior year as a major in American diplomatic history. In addition, as required by ERC, I participated in ROTC (infantry) and an intensive, daily, army-style physical fitness program that included running, swimming, and a demanding obstacle course. Al Regan, the university's track coach, served as our trainer.

For months, rumor after rumor had spread through the large campus about the imminent call-up of the ERC. Now the call-up was a fact. I was happy the suspense was over. Many others felt the same way. With so much uncertainty about when we would be called up, trying to concentrate on our studies had been impossible.

Our new adventure began as all ninety of us—mostly strangers—gathered in front of the university's Harmon Gymnasium. At this point we were a milling, quiet crowd of "boys," the term often used in those days to describe male college students. We ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-one years old. This gathering represented a rare breed in 1943. Only 25 percent of the total population of the nation twenty-five years of age and older had completed four years of high school, and only 5 percent had completed four years of college.

I was excited and nervous at the same time. I knew this was an historic moment for me. After a call of the roll, we moved by rapid transit train from Berkeley to San Francisco, then by railroad to the Presidio at Monterey, California. It was dusk as we marched up a hill into the hands of the Presidio's induction officers and noncoms (noncommissioned officers).

Since all of us had enlisted in the ERC during the summer of 1942, we were already in the army months before we arrived at the Presidio. (Turned down in Los Angeles by the draft in the spring of 1942 because of hemorrhoids, of all things, I volunteered to undergo a painful operation at the university's hospital so the army would accept me. Thus, I entered the army as a volunteer, not as a draftee.)

At Monterey, our days of freedom ended. We arrived with one weakness. Three or four in our group tended to be cocky. After all, they rationalized, we came from Cal, one of the nation's most respected universities. I think some expected the Presidio to roll out a red carpet. The army quickly discouraged such silly notions.

We ate our first army meal soon after our arrival. The cooks dished out generous, good-tasting portions—a promising beginning because food was very important to us. After dinner, our last vestige of civilian life began to disappear when noncoms ordered us to take off our civilian clothes; place them in a bag; write our home address on an attached label; and don the attire of an army private, including olive drab underwear. Each of us also received an army toilet kit that included a toothbrush, shaving brush, razor, and comb.

Next, our noncoms led us to a nearby two-story barracks and assigned us to steel-framed beds. A thin pad served as the mattress, and its cover served as the only sheet we had. We picked up two blankets and a pillow, and a corporal taught us how to make our beds—army-style. The army had a certain way of doing it and allowed no leeway for individuality. (More than fifty years later I still make beds that way.) Each barracks room had twenty beds, ten on each side. No privacy here. We had time to get a postcard at the Post Exchange (PX) and write a note home. Then showers and lights out. We slept in our new olive drab underwear—a T-shirt and briefs.

We awoke abruptly to the sound of a bugle playing reveille at what seemed an ungodly hour. It was still dark. In minutes, we dressed and raced outside for roll call. Then we returned to our barracks to make our beds and race to the latrine. The urinal was a long troughlike container. The toilets were lined up, out in the open, in the same room with the urinal and sinks. All bathroom activities were done in one room by eight to ten men at one time. I was surprised to find that we defecated out in the open room, with other men passing back and forth. Five or six of us sat on toilets simultaneously.

We had a busy schedule for the rest of the day, starting with a long questionnaire that sought detailed personal information. One question gave us an opportunity to list the branch of service we would prefer. "Infantry," I answered. That was the branch most of those with me wanted to avoid. I knew it was the toughest, most dangerous part of the army, and that is why I wanted it. The vigorous life would toughen me up physically, I thought, just as it had Theodore Roosevelt when he worked as a young man on a primitive ranch in North Dakota.

We stripped and lined up for a physical examination and shots. I learned that a "short arm" inspection consisted of a close-up look at one's genital area to determine the presence or absence of venereal disease. The fact that we all passed the physical was hardly surprising. To get into the ERC, we had already passed careful exams at Cal's hospital.

As buck privates, we had earned $1.67 for our first day in the army, which translated into $50.00 per month.

On our second day at the Presidio, the army attempted to determine our mental capabilities by giving us an IQ-type assessment called the AGCT (Army General Classification Test). It consisted of 150 multiple-choice questions with a forty-minute time limit. The tests were machine-graded and included three types of questions: block counting, matching synonyms, and simple arithmetic. The following is an example from the arithmetic portion: "Mike had 12 cigars. He bought 3 more and then smoked 6. How many did he have left?"

Our AGCT score had much to do with our army future. Taking the test was, in fact, our most important chore at the Presidio. Personnel officers would use the results to decide assignments. So it was crucial that we be in top form—plenty of sleep the night before and no headaches. Fortunately, I felt fine. When the exam was over, we lined up to get our hair shorn army-style—a severely short crewcut. Our civilian look disappeared.

I spent the remaining time in the PX and the service club, watching landing craft carrying troops from ships onto the sandy beaches at nearby Fort Ord. The infantry was training its men for beach invasions like the one the United States and Britain had launched five months earlier in North Africa.

Throughout the day, I kept singing under my breath a new song called "As Time Goes By," from the recently released Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Amazingly, it was released at the same time the North African campaign began. Many of us were obsessed with the song and could not get it out of our minds: "You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh...."

Among several other induction chores in the next four days, we picked up our two identical, newly-minted "dog tags"—metal identification plates attached to a short metal necklace. Information on the tags included our blood type (for blood transfusions), army serial number, religion ("P" for Protestant, "C" for Catholic, "H" for Hebrew or Jewish), first and last names, and a middle initial if we had a middle name or "NMI" (no middle initial) if we didn't have one. The "H" helped Germans spot U.S. Jewish soldiers they captured. My serial number was 19119300 (a number I knew better than my social security number more than fifty years later). The first number—"1"—disclosed that I enlisted (volunteered) for the army. The first number of draftees was "3." We wore both tags. In case of death, the army removed one for record keeping. The religious designation indicated the appropriate chaplain to provide last rites. The other tag remained with the body for identification at an army cemetery.

We waited anxiously for personnel officers to decide our fates, based on our physical condition, test scores, and which branch of service we preferred. Sometimes, influence helped. In a few cases, the personnel specialists considered requests for favorable assignments for certain soldiers whose parents knew "the right people," such as a general or an important politician or business mogul.

After five days, we received our shipping orders. The largest part of the Berkeley group, including me, was assigned to the infantry. We were to depart the following day on a troop train going to Camp Wolters, Mineral Wells, Texas, the largest all-infantry replacement training center in the United States. We were scheduled for a three-month infantry basic training program. That didn't bother me, since I had asked for it. However, the news of infantry assignment upset many of my new friends. Others actually received assignments to branches they requested, such as artillery, engineers, and Signal Corps. For the most part, they had gone farther in math and physics than the rest of us. We departed by troop train late in the afternoon, bound for Texas. Many were excited because this was their first long-distance train trip. We stopped the next morning in Los Angeles, where we picked up additional cars of recruits. Approximately forty of the draftees were blacks.

When our train reached Texas, it stopped. A new conductor, a Texan, came aboard and declared: "Negroes in Texas do not ride in the same railroad passenger car with whites." Most of the Californians on the train were stunned. When the blacks were segregated, the train proceeded. Fifty years later at a reunion of my UC-Berkeley army group, Jack Dowell added this comment: "There was a great deal of unhappiness among the Californians. We did not find this segregation order at all pleasant. Amazingly, the African Americans accepted it. They were unhappy, but they knew what was coming. If we had been on a civilian train, it would have been easier to accept."

When our train stopped in El Paso's railroad station to pick up food for lunch, we received two more shocks. There were two rest rooms for men, one labeled "White" and one labeled "Colored." Another surprise: drinking fountains labeled "For Colored Only" and "For Whites Only."

My good friend, Craig Armstrong (a member of our Berkeley group), told me the priorities for serving food. "After the whites had been provided for, they started bringing food aboard for the Negroes. Unfortunately," he added, "they quickly ran out of food." The train pulled out with most of the now-segregated California blacks getting nothing to eat! Our introduction to Texas drove home to us the practice of segregation in the South. Seeing something in person made a far bigger impact than reading about it.

Finally, on April 1, our train moved slowly on a spur line that led into Camp Wolters. The noncoms in charge of our cars yelled, "Gather your belongings and form on the platform next to this car. Camp Wolters cadre will take over." After sitting up for two nights without much sleep, we looked like what we were—a bedraggled bunch of raw recruits.

Noncommissioned officers separated us into three groups—blacks, white draftees, and the ERC group, also all-white. Then they separated the ERC group into platoons. I was now part of the 1st Platoon, C Company, 52nd Battalion. A corporal named Gerwiner looked at us with disgust and marched us off to our new home amid the mass of new two-story barracks that made up Camp Wolters. They looked almost exactly like those at Monterey.

Ten bare, steel-framed single beds, each with a footlocker in front of it, lined both sides of the long rectangular wood-floored room. Our second corporal, Corporal Whitmore, called out bed assignments. We picked up a thin pad, a mattress cover, a blanket, and a pillow. Whitmore showed us how Camp Wolters wanted beds made. It was the same as at the Presidio of Monterey. He added one new wrinkle: "Make the blanket so tight that when I drop a quarter on it, the quarter will bounce."

We ate dinner in the mess hall, checked out the PX, and returned to our barracks before lights out. Someone on our floor had a radio. He turned the dial from bottom to top, and virtually every station was playing country music.

Next morning, lights went on at 6:10 A.M. One of our two corporals walked through our big room yelling the same crude message we heard at Monterey: "Drop your cocks and grab your socks!" He added another colorful order: "Let's move it, you bastards!" We lined up for roll call and daily calisthenics (including twenty-five fast push-ups) and met our platoon leader for the next three months, Lieutenant Shoup. He led us through a series of about seven other brisk exercises. Shoup was about twenty-four or twenty-five years of age and looked the part of the "gentleman" that officers are supposed to be. He made a good impression. Although decidedly aloof, Shoup still appeared pleasant and friendly, quite a contrast to our noncommissioned officers. He informed us that we would be taking basic infantry training with specialization in front-line radio and telephone communications.

After breakfast, we showered and shaved. Three or four of my group were not ready on time for our big chore of the day—to pick up basic infantry equipment. Our two corporal drill instructors went into apoplexy. They snarled, yelled, and threatened us with everything short of a firing squad. Such viciousness over such a small thing really bothered me. Both corporals and Sergeant Sekulovitch, our platoon sergeant, appeared dedicated to making us fear them. Their tactics certainly had the desired effect on me.

The climate the officers and noncommissioned officers established at Camp Wolters was the direct opposite of views expressed by General Eisenhower. He declared that "an Army fearful of its officers is never as good as one that trusts and confides in its leaders.... If men can naturally and without restraint talk to their officers, the products of their resourcefulness become available to all. Moreover, out of the habit grows mutual confidence, a feeling of partnership that is the essence of esprit de corps." It sounded as though our army had a split personality on important points of conduct.

"When we tell you to do something, you do it immediately and without hesitation," one corporal yelled. "You obey your superiors instantly, automatically. You don't question us. If you want to think differently, we'll knock that out of you in ways you won't like." Drill and what GIs called "chicken shit" concerning dress, haircuts, and inspections were all tools to turn independent-minded civilians into obedient troops.

Our noncoms became even tougher when they discovered that most of us came from colleges. They made it unmistakably clear they didn't like "college boys." They seemed to delight in wielding almost unlimited power over us. I decided we were at the mercy of sadists who hated us without really knowing anything about us, except that we went to college.

After the corporals cooled down, they marched us over to a supply room to pick up infantry tools and clothes. Each of us received a blanket, fatigues, a steel helmet and helmet liner, a shelter half and tent pegs to make half of a two-man pup tent, leggings, an entrenching tool (a small shovel to dig foxholes), a rifle belt, a bayonet, and a semiautomatic Ml Garand rifle (first manufactured in 1936).

At the 99th Infantry Division Association convention in 1993, much of our army equipment of 1943 was on display. I tried on the 2.75-pound steel helmet for the first time in forty-nine years and was surprised at how heavy it felt. I remembered the entrenching tool as small, but not as small as it really was. In actuality, it was only twenty-eight inches long. With this midget shovel, we were supposed to dig five-foot-deep foxholes, often in rocky, root-infested ground. I was also surprised at how much heavier the 11.25-pound rifle felt. A highly respected semiautomatic rifle, the Ml accepted a clip of eight 30-caliber bullets. Each squeeze of the trigger fired a bullet. It ejected the fired bullet casing by gas action and automatically inserted a new bullet into the firing chamber. (Rifles with these characteristics are now called "assault weapons.") The Ml clearly outgunned the German Mauser, the standard rifle in the German infantry. Noted for accuracy, the Mauser fired a clip of five 32-caliber bullets, three less than the Ml. Each time a bullet was fired, the German rifleman had to push the bolt back to eject a shell and then forward to insert a new bullet in the firing chamber.

When we returned to our barracks with our new equipment, we discovered that more ERC boys, many from City College of New York, had moved into the second floor. They tended to be aggressive, abrasive, loud, profane, extremely self-confident, fun loving, and very smart. The New Yorkers from upstate seemed more like the rest of us. Our noncoms especially disliked the New York City contingent.


Excerpted from Infantry Soldier by George W. Neill. Copyright © 2000 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Beginning,
2. A Brief Diversion,
3. From Boys to Men—In the Infantry,
4. To the Front,
5. End of the Line in the "Quiet" Ardennes,
6. Ominous Signs,
7. Battle of the Bulge: German Fury Hits U.S. Line,
8. Battle of the Bulge: Last Stand at Lanzerath,
9. Battle of the Bulge: A Lost Platoon,
10. Battle of the Bulge: Last German Parachute Jump,
11. Battle of the Bulge: A Day Too Long,
12. Road to the Rear,
13. Christmas Holidays, 1944,
14. A Time for Healing,
15. London, Again,
16. V-E Day—At Last,
17. Reflections,

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Infantry Soldier: Holding the Line at the Battle of the Bulge 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is recommended reading for anyone looking for a first person account of the Battle of the Bulge, or has an interest in front line experiences during WW II. Most of the book covers just a six week time period during the winter battle. It tells of friends lost, too many injured, and the hellish experience of being in a fox hole while artillery slams around you. Great reading, by one who was there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a former lieutenent in the 95th Infantry Division during WWII, I can say from experience that Neill is right on the mark. I found the book thoroughly enjoyable,accurate , informative and readable. A must for anyone interested in World War Two
Guest More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a first person recollection of World War II, not from the Generals point of view but from an infantryman, the men who really won the war. Mr. Neill's book is like reading a letter from a loved-one. Its very real and compelling. I had the honor of meeting Mr. Neil in person along with his lovely wife at a book signing in Sacramento recently. He has an important story to tell and again I highly recommend his book.