WITH THE ELEVENTH ARMORED DIVISION
IN THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE
A Retrospective Diary
William W. Fee
55th Armored Infantry Battalion (AIB)
Silver Spring, Md.
William W. Fee
(Posted by permission of the Author)
With the Eleventh Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge: A Retrospective Diary
William W. Fee
Nature of the work: A detailed account of the experiences of a
pfc (private first class) in a light machine gun squad of the
55th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 11th Armored Division in the Ardennes campaign in Belgium, December
History and organization of the 11th Armored Division: pp. 1-3
Moving from England through France to the battle area: pp. 3-11
In close support of attacks: pp. 12-13, 40-45
Attacking: pp. 13-21, 29-40
In defensive positions in the front line: pp. 22-23, 45-57
Rest periods: pp. 24-29, 57-68
Page nos. are in bold print. Paragraph nos. follow a point and
are in light print. "f" means "and the following paragraph."
Thus, 7.11f = p. 7, paragraph 11 and 12.
Leadership, good and bad: 8.4, 10.4, 19.2 & 7, 22.7-23.1, 24.3, 41.8-42.1, 44.2 & 5, 48.2, 56.5, 66.3, 67.2
Admirable comrades: 4.7, 6.1, 26.7, 41.5, 45.6, 51.4, 52.2 & 5f, 53.7-54.1, 54.7, 58.2
Kindness and selfishness: 15.4, 20.7, 29.1, 32.2, 40.1f, 41.5, 45.4, 50.2, 52.2, 53.6, 57.2, 60.5, 68.1
Fear: 11.6-12.3, 12.7-13.1, 17.1, 19.2-20.5, 32.4, 48.3f, 50.6-51.3, 67.7-68.3
Shell shock: 38.1
Bravery and cowardice: 19.4, 34.2f, 45.1 & 4, 53.4, 67.5
Discreditable conduct: 19.1, 22.4, 52.4, 63.5f
Religion: 6.6, 8.4f, 12.2, 17.4, 26.3, 36.5 & 7, 38.4, 45.1, 60.5, 66.4, 68.2
Winter cold: 22.6, 23.3, 29.6f, 32.5-7, 42.6
Exhaustion: 30.7, 42.4, 53.3 & 6f, 54.3, 57.2
Discouragement: 44.5, 48.6-50.1, 54.2
Humor, fun: 5.7, 7.2 & 5f, 8.1, 26.7, 28.4, 30.4, 46.6, 50.4, 51.6-52.1, 56.3, 62.3f, 63.7-64.3, 67.1 & 4
Replacements: 51.3, 57.4, 62.1, 64.6f, 66.1
French & Belgian civilians: 8.1f & 6, 9.6-10.5, 11.2-5, 12.3, 26.4, 28.2 & 5f, 54.2, 57.5 & 7, 58.3, 60.2-4, 62.7-63.6
During the summer of 1945 as a 20-year-old patient at the Army's Woodrow Wilson General Hospital at Staunton, Va. and the convalescent hospital at Camp Picket, Va., I wrote a detailed account of my experiences in the Ardennes campaign (the "Battle of the Bulge") and the Rhineland. The present transcription covers the period from mid-December 1944 through January 1945, roughly equivalent to the duration of the Ardennes campaign.
My "diary" was intended only for my own use and has served primarily as an aid to remembrance and reflection on the anniversary of certain critical dates. In recent years, however, I have had to consult it in order to answer questions from former comrades and from the families of those who fell or have died subsequently. Some have expressed the hope that the document might be made available to them, as have relatives of those who fought in the "Bulge" in other units.
The transcription largely copies the "diary," but editorial improvements have been made. Material not in the "diary" is enclosed in brackets (). Hearsay is distinguished from experience by being introduced by words such as "It was said." Geographical locations come from what I call "the battalion history," a 32-page typed document that I obtained in 1945, although the "diary" contains most of those names. Hand-drawn "maps" are from the "diary." A Michelin map follows the last page. Photographs were taken by me unless otherwise noted.
The "diary" reports, of course, only the experience of one person. It can be enriched greatly by the recollections of my former comrades who participated in the same events in different roles and situations. If we happen to disagree on certain facts, I would respond, "This is how I remembered it. It may be wrong. I am offering a source document, not a finished history."
* * * * *
The 11th Armored Division was formed in August 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana. After basic training and maneuvers in Louisiana it was located briefly at Camp Barkley, Texas in 1943. Later that year it moved to Camp Ibis, California and conducted maneuvers in the Mojave Desert. It came to Camp Cooke, California in February 1944.
A month later, I and hundreds of others joined the Division. During its first year we had been finishing high school or a year or two of college. After entering the Army in the summer of l943, my group of about 200 had had 13 weeks of Infantry basic training at Camp Roberts, California and then had studied basic engineering at the College (now University) of Puget Sound at Tacoma, Washington under the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). The program was intended to provide technically trained personnel for wartime service and the postwar reconstruction of Europe and Asia, but the Army's need for combat manpower resulted in the closing of most ASTP units early in l944. Almost all of my group, and men from other ASTP units, were assigned to vacancies in the three Armored Infantry battalions of the 11th.
After six months of training (and a furlough), my company left Camp Cooke on Sept. 12 and traveled (in Pullman sleeping cars) to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. On Sept. 27 we boarded the troopship Hermitage, the former Italian liner
Conte Biancamano, in New York. On Oct. 10 we disembarked at Southampton, England, took a train to Tisbury, near Salisbury in southcentral England, and then marched to Fonthill Gifford (or Fonthill Bishop), where we occupied Quonset huts by a lake in the delightful Wiltshire countryside. It was a lovely two-month interlude with little serious training and many enjoyable moments.
Ahead of the Division lay three campaigns: Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe. I was wounded near the conclusion of the second and never returned to active duty. Somehow the Division managed without me to sweep across Germany and into Austria and to be farther east than any other Allied unit when the European war ended. Greater public interest, however, and my strongest memories, relate to the "Bulge."
The Ardennes Campaign
On Dec. 16, 1944 the Germans launched a massive unexpected offensive that during the next two weeks punched a huge salient (or "Bulge") in the Allied lines in northern Luxembourg and the southeastern corner of Belgium. The 11th arrived in the battle area in time to help to stop the last German drive (Dec. 30 through Jan. 2), which attempted to
re-encircle Bastogne. Thereafter, the task was to drive the Germans back and close off the "Bulge." This was accomplished on Jan. 16, when elements of the 11th (part of Gen. Patton's Third Army) linked up with the First Army at Houffalize in Belgium.
The campaign is covered below in these sections:
The Journey to the Front Dec. 14-29 Pp. 3-11
Our First Engagement Dec. 30 - Jan. 2 Pp. 11-23
In Reserve Jan. 3-12 Pp. 24-29
Clearing the Woods Jan. 13-16 Pp. 29-45
Holding the Line Jan. 17-21 Pp. 45-57
A Good Rest Jan. 22 - Feb. 3 Pp. 57-68
* * * * *
The 11th Armored Division was commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles S. Kilburn. The Division had about 11,000 men, organized into three "combat commands," each with three battalions: one armored infantry, one tanks, and one self-propelled artillery. Our infantry battalions were called "armored" because we rode in steel-sided vehicles called halftracks (because they had wheels in front but tracks like a tank's in the back). My armored infantry battalion was part of the Reserve Command (CCR), led by Col. Virgil Bell. The other combat commands were called CCA and CCB.
The 55th Armored Infantry Battalion (AIB), with about 1,000 men, was commanded by Lt. Col. Frederick K. Hearn, assisted by Majors Hill Blalock (executive officer) and Charles R. Sandler. The adjutant was 1st Lt. James T. Kendall. Warrant Officer Philip Levine was an administrative officer. There may have been additional battalion officers.
Within the 55th AIB, I belonged to A Company (about 240 men). Its commander was Capt. Charles F. Houy. Lt. George B. Hughston was the executive officer and Angelo Magelli the first sergeant. The company had four platoons with 50-60 men. Three were rifle platoons. Their platoon leaders and platoon sergeants were:
1st: Lt. Eugene W. Been and Technical Sgt. (T/Sgt.) William Lennon;
2nd: Lt. Rufus Hensel and T/Sgt. Fred H. McClain;
3rd (mine): Lt. Philip Fagan and T/Sgt. John Cangley.
The 4th was a heavy weapons platoon led by Lt. Patrick F. Murphy and T/Sgt. William Basso. It had 57 mm guns, machine guns, and mortars.
A rifle platoon had five squads of 10-12 men. Three were rifle squads. In my 3rd platoon they were led by Staff Sgt. (S/Sgt.) William D. ("Danny") McNulty, John ("Jack") Morrison, and Oral Ramsay. S/Sgt. Paul Torok led the mortar squad. I was in the light (air-cooled) machine gun (MG) squad led by S/Sgt. Roland Tellefson. Other members of my squad when we left England were: Sgt. Frank Kissel (assistant squad leader), Charles Crouch (halftrack driver), Robert Sellers, Joseph Jackson (a Native American usually called "Chief" or "Wahoo," after a character in a comic strip), Conrad Rienstra, Logi Toups, Douglas Black, Robert Wederich, and James Pike. My buddy in the "Bulge" was Pike until he was wounded on Jan. 14, 1945, then Wederich. I am grateful that some of these men, and others named elsewhere, have remained loyal friends.
And now--the "diary."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
THE JOURNEY TO THE FRONT
December 14, 1944 (Thursday)
For several days we had been packing, preparing to leave England. Charlie Crouch had left on Tuesday, driving the halftrack. Douglas Black went with him. Now it was our turn.
We got up about 0200 [Army time was reckoned on a 24-hour basis, expressed in four digits] and assembled outside the orderly room. After a long wait we marched down to the motor pool, carrying our bedrolls [sleeping bags]. More waiting, and then we got into a 6x6 weapons carrier. It was thrilling, whizzing through Tisbury at such an hour. The headlights flashed against the drab stone houses and I thought of the contrast between them and our adventure: old vs. new, peaceful vs. exciting.
At Tisbury we got into a train. We got some sleep and arrived at Southampton about 0600. We piled our bedrolls on the station platform and made a long hike through the city, along a boulevard. We worked up a real sweat in our wool long underwear and wool OD [olive drab] dress uniforms.
We arrived at a big tent camp and spent the day there. [This was Camp C-19, according to the official list of the 55th AIB's command posts.] We had C rations for lunch and supper and they tasted pretty good. [A C ration consisted of two cans. One held meat and starch, such as pork and beans. The other contained crackers, a powdered drink, and sugar or candy. A K ration was a lighter meal: a box held a smaller can with cheese, meat, or scrambled eggs, plus crackers, etc. Soldiers carried these rations if they were uncertain where their next meal was coming from. Army kitchens might heat C rations if they were unable--or too lazy--to prepare a regular meal.]
In the afternoon George Fisher (Sgt. McNulty's squad), Walt Zoppi, and I went to a show: "Oklahoma." Zoppi and I had a long talk about his early days in the
91st Division. We were full of enthusiasm, but we hadn't had much sleep the night before, so we went to bed early.
December 15 (Friday)
We got up early, had hot C rations for breakfast, and marched down to the docks--a long way. We marched far out on a pier and waited in a large covered warehouse. The Red Cross served us coffee and doughnuts.
About 0900 we boarded a British transport [a Channel vessel, I suppose], the HMS Antenor. A British officer and the commander of the 21st AIB were in charge. We were assigned to seats at picnic-style tables. For food, we were given bread, butter, marmalade, and cheese. Also some soup and stew to go with them. We ate from the ship's metal bowls and plates--and didn't do a very good job of washing them.
George Fisher and I went on deck before we sailed. We met Henry Furgal and Jack Farina from our Camp Roberts basic training platoon, who were discussing novel ways of fixing C and K rations. Also Frank Bole, a fine fellow from Pittsburgh who was killed early in January. We scanned the harbor and saw about every kind of ship you could think of. I was astonished at the size of the LST's (Landing Ship, Tank)--they were larger than a freighter.
Our ship sailed about 1300, and we stayed on deck most of the time till dark because it was so exciting to look at the ships we passed by--and so hot below. George and I talked about everything under the sun, including the dirty Plymouth in which he had delivered groceries and the time the motor fell out of it.
We spent half of the evening waiting in line to get into the PX. George and I got some Limey pop, and it was lousy (though the Coke we'd gotten in England was good). We got to hear a broadcast of Glenn Miller's military dance band and George loved it. Then we spent a last few minutes on deck in the dark. The gently rocking boat and the flying spray added to the excitement as we pondered what adventures might lay ahead [with eager anticipation, not dread].
We went below to sleep and found that someone had stolen the space under the table that we had reserved earlier while the noncoms [noncommissioned officers (sergeants)] were arguing about who would sleep on the table. We were very angry, and George was ready to bop the culprit, in which case I would have "seconded the motion." But S/Sgt. Jack Morrison let us sleep with him, and we had a talk with him about the company's officers and noncoms. Jack knew everything about everybody. He was my ideal, next to my father.
December 16 (Saturday)
(The day the German Ardennes offensive started)
We got up about 0600. First Sgt. "Doc" Magelli asked me if I'd rolled up my bedroll. Tired of being assigned to work details because I was usually one of the first to be ready for the day's activities, I lied and said "No." "Good," he replied, "Leave your fatigue [work] uniform out. You're on detail." But the work I was assigned to was not as bad as the detail that Tom Cantrell and others were put on, carrying coal up to the deck. After a while, my partner and I figured out that we could get on deck and avoid additional work by taking up a garbage can to empty it.
As we pulled into the Cherbourg harbor we saw a low, gray stone wall that must have been a breakwater. Further on, we passed ships of all nationalities. Although we'd been overseas only two months, that old US ensign on the stern of merchant ships made us feel mighty good. We passed a hospital ship with so many men leaning on the side rail that I wondered if it would capsize.
Then we were ordered below deck to put on our stuff. I couldn't find my musette bag [pack] and was horrified because it contained the Colt .45 automatic pistol that my father had sent me at Camp Cooke and Capt. Houy had taken overseas for me. To make things worse, Houy came over and showed me the .45 that Lt. Hughston had acquired in exchange for a combat jacket at the Tidworth Ordinance Depot. We had a long conversation about .45s--while I was sweating blood over mine being lost.
Finally I found my musette bag. Some guy had taken it by mistake. We got off the ship onto a pier that was loaded with enormous stacks of C rations guarded by a GI with a carbine [small rifle]. Big "cattle trucks" pulled up and we loaded up in them. I was lucky enough to be at the side and could see blasted pillboxes [concrete fortifications] on the docks. We turned left and went down a broad street. Here and there were ruined houses all fallen in, sloppy GIs, and some French girls.
We had a hard pull up a steep hill and soon were out of town. The hills were steep but the scenery was good. Here and there were pillboxes, and everywhere were hedgerows. We passed little farms and tiny schools. At one house a man threw apples to us. [Hedgerows and apples were well-known features of the Normandy countryside.]
After a ride of about 25 km south from Cherbourg, we unloaded alongside the road in the vicinity of Bricquebec. There was a mad scramble for bedrolls and then Maj. Blalock came along and got things straightened out. After a tough hike in which many fell out, we came to our bivouac area, a pleasant field surrounded by hedgerows. Our halftracks were there, and we had a reunion with the drivers. Ercil Pennick was wearing a rubber jacket he had swiped from an LST. We pitched our pup tents in rows--it was the first time my buddy Jim Pike had ever pitched a tent! Then he had to dig a latrine.
The chow truck served supper in the dark. As we ate, we watched Bob Holets and Tony Matzie, the company armorers, loading belts of MG ammo by the headlights of their truck. That was an ominous sign, but it still was exciting! After we got back from chow, "Telly," our squad leader, told us what was up: We were headed for St. Nazaire and Lorient, on the coast, where a German garrison had never given up. We would go into the inactive front line that surrounded them and get a mild taste of what war was like--"indoctrination."
"Sack" started moaning and going through his act. [I enjoyed being with Phil ("Sad Sack") Vornoli (McNulty's squad) in the barracks at Camp Cooke and in Belgium. He was a faithful soldier and a big asset to our outfit. I and others remember him particularly for his way of expressing the exasperation we all felt about the frustrations of Army life. Everybody "griped," but nobody liked to hear others complain. Except "Sack." He had a way of sounding off that made others laugh with him and at him. His buddy Ray Nowicki often responded, "Don't tell me your troubles," and their routine helped to make life bearable.] I didn't feel so hot about it either. But we went to our tents full of excitement.
December 17 (Sunday)
We woke up to find it was raining like mad. Our rear tent peg had come out, the back part of the tent had partly collapsed, and some of our stuff had gotten wet. We put on our galoshes, as ordered, and sweated out the chow line in rain and mud. Then we went back and struck our tent, with the rain still coming down heavily. Everything was a sopped, muddy mess, and it was disgusting to roll it all together and cram it and us into the track. I felt terrible, but Wahoo was singing and whistling, making us all feel better. I couldn't understand how anybody could be so cheerful under such conditions.
We rode all day, taking time out at noon for a K ration. It rained at times and was very cloudy the rest of the time. We went through town after town, finally reached the airport at Rennes (the capital of Brittany), and drove down the concrete runways. We pitched our tent right by the track.
As we stood in the chow line, we discussed how long it might be until we'd be dodging bullets. I had a long talk with Wesley Paul, our platoon medic. Nearby, Lt. Hensel was washing up in his helmet with the boys in his platoon. (We washed in our helmets, heating the water on the squad's small gasoline stove.)
December 18 (Monday)
We got up early, took down our wet tent (not as wet as before), and had breakfast in the dark. As we were getting ready to leave, Sgt. Magelli came around and said, "Unload. We may be here as long as a week." [We didn't know about the German offensive and how it had thrown Allied planning into confusion.]
All day long it rained intermittently. In the morning I cleaned the .50 caliber MG that was mounted on the halftrack. In the afternoon, we were moved twice to nearby locations, and as we were pitching our tent I saw Gen. Kilburn by the tracks. As Jim and I finished putting up our tent, we noticed GIs with large pieces of beaverboard that they were going to sleep on. Lee Hens, (Sgt. Ramsay's squad) and I went after some. We went up a gravel field and through an orchard to the highway. There was a house full of bomb casings and another further on, full of MG ammo for airplanes. I got a wood slab from a bomb crate for me and a piece of tin for Jim. The word came around that we could write letters. After washing up, I wrote in the tent, by candle light.
December 19 (Tuesday)
It was very cold. As Jim and I huddled in the front seat of the track, he said that Father Galvin, the Catholic Chaplain, had said that we should regard the coming hardships as penance for our sins. We spent the morning straightening up the track. In the afternoon they tried to keep us busy with drill and PT (physical training--i.e., calisthenics) but I got out of it by cleaning the .50 caliber MG. That night we got the first news of the German breakthrough in "The Stars and Stripes" Army newspaper. I read it by the light of a track's headlight while Lt. Murphy shaved by the other.
December 20 (Wednesday)
In the morning we had PT and a class by Lt. Been on mine detection. At noon we got the word that we would move out the next morning. We still thought we
were going to St. Nazaire and Lorient. I noticed Tony Petrelli testing the radios. In the afternoon, T/Sgt. McClain gave a lecture on scouting and patrolling. I took pictures of Jim Pike, Ed Bergh, Lee Hens, and myself by our pup tents and then Lee and I went over to the houses and took pictures of each other there, wrapped in MG ammo and sitting on bomb casings.
December 21 (Thursday)
We left Rennes early in the morning. Wahoo always came piling in at the last moment, and this time we almost lost him. He always occupied one of the 2 rear seats so he could see everything. As we rode along he used to yell back to Pete Valdez, in S/Sgt. Torok's mortar squad which followed us, "Hey, Pedro." Pete would answer, "Whadaya want, Chief?" knowing that Wahoo would reply, "Nothin'. Just checkin' up on my list." When we stopped for a K ration at noon, Wahoo was so dirty that Pete yelled at him, "Hey, Chief, smile so I can see you." And so it went as we rolled along.
We stopped at Le Mans, almost halfway to Paris. We were in a dark, bushy area, and we had to use the squad's machete to clear spaces for our pup tents. We heard Lt. Fagan giving instructions to the squad leaders: This would be the last night without guard duty and the next-to-last night for fires. The .50 caliber MGs would be half loaded. We were issued armor-piercing rifle ammo and put mines on the rack on the outside of the halftrack. As usual, Magelli checked the guys in the chow line to be sure they were wearing a helmet and carrying a weapon. Connie Rienstra and Douglas Black illuminated their tent with the light that was connected to the track's battery by a long wire.
December 22 (Friday)
Again, we were on our way early. It was fun to watch the tracks behind us swing around a bend or a corner, one after the other, as we sailed along. We passed German 88 mm guns and American tanks and halftracks that had been knocked out. From time to time we passed Maj. Sandler, who was watching how things were going. We went as far as Rambouillet, 50 km southwest of Paris.
The field was wet, and for a while we considered sleeping in the track. But that would have imposed on Charlie Crouch, who had his hands full gassing up the track and looking after it. The boys tried to get fires going, but it took a lot of gasoline before the wood was dry enough to burn. Our platoon sergeant John Cangley would sneak up behind guys standing close to a fire, throw gasoline on it, and yell, "Whee! Feel the in' breeze!" He almost set "Sack" Vornoli and George Fisher on fire. The rain had us feeling low, and Cangley's pranks gave the observers something to laugh at. The victims did not find it funny.
As Jim Pike and I were in the chow line, Lt. Fagan called for our 3rd platoon to eat first, to strike our tents, and to go on guard duty--because German parachutists had been dropped nearby. We assembled in the dark. Telly, Jackson, Rienstra, Pike, and I were assigned to set up a MG at a road junction. The night was uneventful for us--but not for one of our squad leaders, we were told. He halted a Free French [Resistance] man on a bike, tried out some French, and looked down to see a pistol aimed at him across the handlebars. The biker asked, "Boche?" [German?] and our man pointed to his helmet as a way of answering. There was a lot of joking about who had actually halted whom.
December 23 (Saturday)
The weather was colder than it had been. Before we started out, we crowded around a fire. It needed wood, but nobody would go get it. Soon we were on our way. About 1000 we went thorough part of Paris, but not the city center. For hours we rumbled down broad brick streets lined by spacious old houses. Ed Bergh and some others had a humorous incident with an old Frenchman, trying to find a toilet. Jack Morrison's track conveniently broke down in Paris, so he got to see his brother and picked up a fur-lined flying jacket.
Out in the country again, we had a break about 1500 and stood on the side of a hill, watching a farmer working across from us. Two hours later we drove through Chateau-Thierry. Kids were playing on broad sidewalks with stucco houses in the background. We skirted Reims about 1900. We were told later that Ercil Pennick and Sgt. Ramsay, who stayed behind [in Reims, apparently], almost were strafed, and that the Germans strafed and bombed a truck company.
About 2200 we passed a white railing that looked like the entrance to a camp [Camp Sissonne, 40 km north of Reims and 20 km east of Laon]. We pulled up to a barbed wire fence, beyond which was a structure that was called a "flak [antiaircraft] tower." It looked like a windmill without arms. We dismounted and stood there shivering in the bitter cold, then struggled into a stucco or plaster barracks and found a room on the second floor. A pistol-packing paratrooper "caretaker" told us that the place had been strafed the night before, but it was good to be in a bed (double-decker) and under a roof.
December 24 (Sunday)
I had to get up at 0600 to watch for gasoline coming in. Coming back, I was almost run over by the 41st Tank Battalion, which was pulling out. We turned in our duffel bags and sewed blankets into our bedrolls. In the afternoon I wrote letters and Charlie Crouch played his guitar. In the evening (Christmas Eve) I went to church, but first I went down and retrieved my .45 pistol from Magelli, who had "borrowed" it. Some of our officers and noncoms were drunk, and I wanted to get the pistol back before somebody got shot.
The service was in a sort of school. A young First Lt., chaplain of the 575th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, preached a sermon. The Division Chaplain, a Lt. Col., was there. Henry Pope and Walt Zoppi went to the service too. Zoppi had been baptized in England on Dec. 10. Both men were killed 3 weeks later.
December 25 (Monday)
Magelli woke us early: "We're moving out!" We ate in a hurry and scrambled into the track. Wahoo and I sat high up on the two rear seats and froze as the frigid air rushed by. We passed refugees going the other way and tough-looking Free French. We went through many towns, and at every house and corner little groups of people waved to us. Many of the houses had been bombed and the people looked poor and ragged. I got a great satisfaction out of thinking that we had come over to rescue them. In one town, a French woman ran out with a pie for Sgt. Ramsay's track, just ahead of us.
By noon we had traveled about 70 km northeast and were at our destination: Mezieres, France, 15 km from the Belgian border. [In l962 Mézieres had 13,328 residents. In 1966 it was combined with four other towns to form Charleville Mézieres, with a population of about 50,000. Battalion headquarters were at Guignicourt-sur-Vences, 10 km to the southwest.] We parked the track halfway up a steep, wooded hill and started a fire in a little can of gasoline. Wahoo threw a lot of gas on the fire and almost ignited Telly. For lunch we had C rations, and as evening approached we climbed the hill almost to the top and set up our two MGs along a road.
Christmas dinner was not ready until about 2000. I stood guard at Telly's MG while the rest of his crew ate. They were late getting back, but there was plenty of turkey and fruit cocktail left when I got to the kitchen, at the bottom of the hill. In fact, they couldn't get rid of it all. My hands froze but it was a fine meal.
December 26 (Tuesday)
We just sat around all day, keeping our stuff in good shape. The next day there was talk of strafing during the night, but if so I slept through it. The story was that someone in B Co. fired a .50 caliber MG at "Bedcheck Charlie" [a German nuisance plane], who responded by strafing a small fire.
December 27 (Wednesday)
My feet were so cold that I warmed them by a fire in a can of gasoline, having taken off my galoshes, shoes, and socks. Down below, where Charlie and Parris slept on the canvas cover for the halftrack, they had a fire burning all day and we kept warm by it. We cleaned the .50 caliber MG, stretched the belts of MG ammo to loosen the cartridges a little, and bore-sighted the bazooka [a portable tube from which an antitank rocket was fired].
About 1700 Pike and I were alerted by Sgt. Harvey ("Red") Brancefield to be ready to go "on outpost." We ate our chow and sat on our bedrolls by the fire. We were assigned to S/Sgt. Duey Morgan's squad and rode in his track. We passed B Co., where we were almost fired on by an overzealous sentry who said we didn't give the password correctly. Lt. Murphy and Sgt. Bill Basso were in charge of the platoon's three roadblocks, and Ackley drove them around in a peep [jeep]. Pvt. Hyman Schulman had had some high school French and was interpreter. Pike and I manned a .30 caliber heavy [water-cooled] MG. He sat at the gun and I flagged down vehicles with my .45. We were told to shoot anybody with a 9th Armored Division patch because Germans were wearing them.
During our first tour of guard, the door of a house opened and a French woman invited us in for tea. I knew only a few words of French and tried to explain that we could not leave our post. Between tours, Schulman, Pike, and I went in. Lt. Murphy, Basso, Silverstein, Ackley, and Brancefield came in too and had coffee. With Schulman interpreting, we had a good time and stayed late.
We slept in a barn. I had only about 15 minutes' sleep before I had to go on guard again. It was very cold, and I kept walking to keep warm. Then a third tour, just before dawn.
December 28 (Thursday)
Slept most of the day. At night we went back to the roadblock and visited in the house when we were not on guard. I listened as Schulman spoke with the
family: mother, daughter, and grandfather. The mother, middle-aged, pale, and thin, did all the work, such as tending the fire in the stove and chopping wood for it with a scimitar-like axe. She said that her husband had been in a German prison camp and had been killed when the Americans bombed it. Schulman and I had brought her soap, which she had said she needed, matches, and D rations [dark chocolate bars]. She was very grateful, saying that they did not have enough to eat because they were not farmers. She had looked forward to the Americans' coming but then was disappointed when they shot up the town and had no food for them.
The grandfather, an old man with whiskers, had been a prisoner in the previous world war. He admired my .45, pointed it, and said "Boche." He asked about our religion and our jobs at home. He was surprised that these were the same work that Frenchmen did. He asked, "Capitalists?" because he thought that there had to be some among us. [When he went to light his pipe and started searching in the fire for a hot coal, Schulman handed him a strike-anywhere match. The old man thanked him, took out his pocket knife, and split the match in two, to get two uses from it. Then he pocketed the slivers, found a hot coal, and held it in his calloused fingers to light the pipe.]
[I wished very much that I could communicate with the grandfather and asked Schulman to inquire whether the old man could understand Latin, the only language I had studied in high school. "No" was the answer. Was I perhaps a priest?] The daughter then offered to teach me some French. She was 13 or 14, plump, but not bad-looking. When we came in, she was sitting up in the double bed in the corner, dressed for sleep in a heavy flannel nightgown, and she stayed there the whole time. It probably was the best way to keep warm.
During the lesson an officer came in. [Seeing Schulman engaged in conversation with the mother and me with the daughter, he grinned lasciviously and said, "I see what you guys are up to!"] He more or less demanded coffee, and none of us liked the way he was acting. [The mother said to Schulman, "He's not a nice man."] I was angry about this and soon left.
We didn't sleep in the barn because the farmer didn't want us there, saying we had trampled his unthreshed wheat. Frank Prioux, a French-speaking Cajun driver from Louisiana, found us a second-floor room in another farmhouse, over the barn. There was a considerable cow odor in the hall outside our room.
December 29 (Friday)
About 0300, as I was zipping up my bedroll for some sleep, Lt. Hughston roused us. We hurried to Morgan's track and rode back to the bivouac area in the woods. There, we got into our squad's track, drove about 50 yards, and then just sat there, sleeping, for 3 hours. ["Hurry up and wait" was the universal Army experience.] We had chow at 0600, moved another 50 yards, and again sat there for 3 hours. By 0900 we were hungry, so we started heating C rations, but we had to move out before they got warm.
We went through Sedan, where we saw rear echelon engineers working on a bridge and paratroopers from the 17th Airborne Division. It was a cold but clear and sunny day. (There was no snow on the ground.) As we rolled along, bombers flew overhead. They were too high to be seen, but there were vapor trails behind them, and tiny flashes of light when the sunlight reflected off their silver sides. Strips of tinsel lay in the fields--apparently they had been dropped by planes to fool the enemy's radar. Back at the bivouac area we had left, C-47s had flown low over us, perhaps carrying supplies to Bastogne.
The scenery was lovely, and it was exciting to see what seemed to be the typical French countryside: straight highways with a single row of tall trees in line along both sides of the road. But it was heartrending to see hundreds of refugees trudging back from the front, pulling their most essential belongings in small wagons or baby carriages. It all was "just like in the newsreels."
When we stopped in a town, civilians would crowd around. Once, some boys climbed onto the side rail of our track, and I showed them my .45 as a way of communicating with them. They called one of the boys "Polack." Was he a Polish refugee? Our men traded cigarettes, hard candy, and C rations for booze. In one town, a woman came along with a dozen bottles of wine in a cart and our squad took most of them. Often these things were simply given to us, especially closer to the front, and sometimes our men did the same. We were surprised to see one boy accept a cigarette, but he explained: "Pour Papa."
Some of our fellows could be aggressive. One, a Cajun, stopped a Frenchman on a bike and talked him out of the loaf of bread he was carrying, telling him we hadn't eaten in three days. It was the first time I'd seen "French bread": a long, round, thin loaf.
About 1700 we stopped in a village. In the village square stood a statue of a World War I French soldier that seemed too grandiose for its surroundings, especially some buildings that had been destroyed--in the German breakthrough of 1940, a man said. A woman was driving home loudly mooing cows.
About 2100 we were going through real forest country--the Ardennes Forest--and for the first time there was lots of snow on the ground. When I wasn't sleeping I was amazed at the high forests on both sides of the road. They were so dark and foreboding! Several ambulances came past us, heading for the rear. They seemed ghostly and didn't make us feel very good. We were all huddled together in the halftrack, cold and nervous.
About 2200 we reached Neufchateau, Belgium, a supply base. I got out of the track and stomped around, to warm up my feet. Then we drove a few miles out of town to a bivouac area [at Ebly, 8 km east of Neufchateau] where we dispersed. Crouch and Jackson put the halftrack cover on the snow, to sleep on it. Pike and I found a big wooden crate to sleep in and emptied the snow out of it. While we were scurrying around, a fighter plane began diving all around us and fired a couple of bursts with its MGs--I'd never heard such a rapid rate of fire. Our antiaircraft guys fired a few long bursts and he flew away. Pike and I took the first turn of guard duty and then slept soundly.
OUR FIRST ENGAGEMENT
December 30 (Saturday)
About 0500 Telly woke Jim and me and we had to go on guard duty again. We went a little ways down the hill from where we had slept and patrolled 100 yards along a path. In the distance I heard a lot of tanks moving up, the sound of their motors rising and falling.
When we came off guard duty, Telly told us, "The Division is attacking today. Go eat chow (powdered eggs) and I'll give you the details when you get back." Magelli was hustling the chow line along and everyone was excited. Artillery flashes lit up the sky, and tracers [MG bullets] sailed straight into the air. Someone said it was a method of signalling the artillery. It all had come so suddenly: the ambulances, the strafing, the lights and noises, and now the news that we were "in."
As I rolled up my bedroll after breakfast, Telly briefed us: CCA and CCB were to attack. We would follow behind, mounted, and possibly clean out resistance, but it was doubtful that we'd be needed that day. We mounted up and distributed hand grenades. We'd moved only a little ways when we halted in the road. Chaplain Galvin came up in his peep and said, "All Catholics ... (I don't remember the words) ... and the rest, please bow your heads." He said a prayer or blessing and moved on to the next track. I thought it was wonderful of him to do that, and we felt a lot better prepared for whatever was coming.
We drove past many farms where Belgians were working as if nothing unusual was going on. At one stop a farmer came running across a snowy field with a big pot of coffee. We didn't have much time, but he made sure we all got some. We drove through several villages, scared to death. Jim saw one of his old ASTP friends in the Reconnaissance Squadron directing traffic at a crossroads and called to him, bewildered, "Is this 'it?'"
We halted and took out the window glass so that Charlie wouldn't get cut by flying fragments if we were hit. We lowered the front shield that protected him, and from then on he had to peer through little slits as he drove. We went through tight places in the woods--so tight that we had to take our musette bags inside with us. We all huddled low, to keep below the steel sides.
About 1200 we halted, dismounted, and dispersed. We could hear a lot of artillery firing but nothing dropped nearby. We cooked a C ration on a heat tab and then loafed in the woods for several hours. About 1500 we saw Col. Hearn and Majs. Sandler and Blalock conferring, and when they finished we were told that we were going to help the 63rd AIB.
We mounted up and rode around in a broad flanking movement that didn't seem to get us very close to the front. But we could hear plenty of noise and see many clouds of smoke. It was a dreary day, with blackened areas in the snow where shells had burst. We could see lots of artillery with their dark camouflage nets which stood out against the snow. We also passed the 81st Medics' clearing station, where there were many ambulances and cans of water and the medics seemed to have plenty of business. We also drove by telephone linemen up on poles, checking communications. Many people lined the road we drove down, including some civilians.
About 1800 we pulled off the road [at Vaux-lez-Rosieres, 12 km northeast of Neufchateau, in an area where there were only farms]. Not knowing where we would sleep, we just stood around. Our hands and feet were numb, and snow was blowing in our faces. George Fisher, "Sack" Vornoli, and I stood together by a barbed wire fence, talking about what combat must be like. It was a strange, eery feeling to look out across the dark, snowy fields and see the foreboding sky with occasional flashes of light from the artillery--it was so deathly looking. I remembered that Gen. Kilburn had warned us that some night we would
wise up and realize that war is a serious business. We were all fearful [but there was no suggestion that we would not do our duty]. A grotesque touch was added when some GIs from the artillery told us they used dead Germans near them to urinate on.
Someone brought the news that we had a barn to sleep in, two fields away. Sgt. Frank Kissel, Bob Sellers, and I had the first turn of guard, but I went with the others to see where the barn was and to reserve sleeping space for the three of us. It was a strange experience for a city boy to enter the stable in the dark, without a light. The moment you came in, the warm odor of animals hit you in the face. You tried to avoid the cows about 2 feet away as you felt your way along the wall, searching for a ladder to the upper floor where hay was stored.
We had not eaten since mid-day, so I ate a few Graham crackers while on guard. When we got off, I brought Telly some crackers but he was too sleepy to wake up and eat them. Searching for our sleeping space, we found that Morrison's squad had come in while we were on guard and taken it. (Their halftrack had broken down and, following orders, they had burned it.) We managed to find space somewhere, though. Charlie Fetrow slept under the ladder leading to the loft, and he was afraid that someone would fall off of it and land on him.
December 31 (Sunday)
About 0600 I was awakened in the barn by Sgts. Kissel and Ramsay. We went to the halftrack and mounted up. Bob Sellers was missing, so Telly went back to the barn and found him still sleeping. He got him up and we all were ready to go when it was time to move out. As we rode along, Telly told us, "The 55th is attacking today, B and C Co. on line and A in reserve." No longer was there any doubt; this was "it"!
We drove several miles, dismounted beyond Magerotte, 10 km southwest of Bastogne, and dispersed around the track. We stayed dispersed, because we'd heard that a whole squad from the 63rd had been killed the day before because they were too slow in getting away from their track after it stopped. While Telly was at a squad leaders' meeting, we got out the equipment we'd have to carry. For us riflemen, that was two boxes of MG ammo.
We stood around for quite a while. Then Magelli got us hustling. We passed Col. Bell standing in the road, looking serious but capable. Pike said, "Let's hope he's on the ball." We headed up a small hill, then down a slight grade, across an open space and into a big belt of woods [Bois des Haies de Magery]. Those dark woods looked like death itself, so gloomy and deadly-looking.
Just inside the woods were empty German slit trenches, about 8" deep and 6' long, with the dirt thrown up in front of them. There were no signs of any fighting having occurred there. It was a strange feeling to be in the woods where there'd been Germans before.
We went straight through the woods, about 100 yards to the left of the road and parallel to it. The Germans had felled trees across the road about every ten feet, but a tank-dozer came up and easily pushed them aside. I felt at home in a way, because it seemed like an exercise at Camp Cooke. I stepped in Telly's footprints because I knew they'd be safe from mines.
|Part of the Bois
(Woods) des Haies de Magery, facing in the direction in which we
advanced on Dec 31. We went through the field and the woods to
the left and dug in on the hillside that can be seen between the
two patches of woods.
We passed a crashed P-47 in the woods, with a flyer's boot sitting beside the plane. At a crossroad in the woods, I heard Col. Hearn yell to the medics, whose peeps were coming along beside us, "Come on, get that peep up here! Couple men hurt!" Later I was told that Sgt. Isaac Murov had stepped on a Schuh mine and had his heel blown off. Jim Gibbons, it was said, was slightly wounded but was patched up and went on. These apparently were the first casualties. As we came to the end of the woods, Telly said, "I wonder how many mines I missed by an inch or two."
We halted at the edge of the woods, and soon came an order: "Dig shelter holes in the reverse slope of the hill in front of you." That we did. The holes were dispersed all over the hill, not in a defensive line. They were just for protection from shelling.
Earlier, I thought I had been clever in carrying a small pick-mattock instead of the regular small folding entrenching shovel. But the mattock was almost useless on frozen ground. It simply went "klunk," bounced off the surface, and sent bits of ice and frozen dirt up my sleeve and into my nose and mouth, without any noticeable effect on the ground. It was disheartening to see how much more progress the others were making with their little shovels. (The shovel was not very effective, but every bit of superiority counted.)
By the time I had made a hole that wouldn't have held a football, one of the guys had a foxhole dug that was big enough to protect him. I asked him if he would lend me his shovel. He refused, so I continued with the mattock and finally got the hole finished. I slumped in the bottom and chewed on one of the three "D" bars we had all been issued when we left England. The man who had refused me the loan of his shovel came over and asked for part of it. I gave him a piece and suggested that the next time he might consider sharing things. [But he almost never did.]
About 30 ragged German prisoners came down the road. Most were wearing field jackets and wool trousers. Some had a scarf tied over their cap and under their chin, to protect their ears from the cold. Some had white clothing: baggy pants, or a loose jacket with a hood like an Eskimo parka, or both. No two were dressed alike. Then a couple of shells landed in the woods behind us, sending up clouds of smoke and dirt. Our artillery sent back dozens of ours.
After a moment of rest, Telly said, "Let's go." [A Co., less the 1st platoon, had been ordered to support C Co. in the attack on the tiny village of Acul.] We crossed the road, and on the other side we moved up beyond a woods. There were tanks there [1st platoon of A Co., 22nd Tank Battalion, according to the battalion history], waiting to attack, and Col. Hearn, sweating over a map. We went ahead a little and sat in a ditch by the road.
Then we realized that the war was right there. Over the hill to our left front came back wounded men from C Co. Some were limping, unassisted; others had a buddy or a medic helping them. Then, down the road to our front, staggered a wounded man, all by himself, a good distance away. Every step he took seemed to be agony and a great effort. After every few, hesitant steps, he fell on his face in the snow. Then he'd struggle painfully to his feet and stagger on. We wanted to run out and help him, but we couldn't, because we knew our platoon would have to move out in a minute. We never found out who he was or what happened to him.
|The road down which C
Co. wounded returned from Acul, viewed from near where we waited
before moving to Acul, which lies beyond the left ridge.
|Acul, as it came into
view as we crossed the ridge.
McNulty's squad went by us first. George Fisher marched past, carrying his rifle stiffly at the "high port" position. His face was as white as snow as he muttered through clenched teeth, "Good luck, Bill." Lt. Kendall, who was nearby helping the medics, asked if I was OK. Did I look that bad?
As we neared the top of the hill we could see our tanks firing into Acul--five or so houses and barns--at the bottom of the hill. The buildings were all ablaze and huge flames leaped from them. A lot of men from C Co. were coming back up the hill--more of them coming back than us going down. Here and there was a medic looking after a man on the ground.
Partway down the hill was a barbed wire fence that Telly cut with his wire cutters. Halfway down, the forward motion paused and we all went flat in the snow. Soon three large shells hit, not close to me but Black claimed that they blew his helmet off.
[As we lay in the snow I recited to myself what my mother had asked me to regard as "our (her and my) psalm," the 90th. It began: O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home. It was late afternoon and I realized that right about then the 11:00 o'clock service was beginning in our church at home. I visualized my parents and my six brothers and sisters in their accustomed places in the family pew. It was a vision of another world.]
Then we moved on, and where the hill began to level off there was a semicircle of German foxholes, protecting the village. I peeked into the first one and saw a German, hunched over. All I could see was the back of his gray-green overcoat and the back of his helmet, with no sign of wounds. He didn't look dead to me and may have been faking, but I had no time to find out. I looked into several more holes and the Germans were all in the same position and condition. Apparently they had not been shooting back when they were killed (if they were dead). On my right, one boy wasn't taking any chances. At each foxhole, he'd point his rifle--bayonet and all--into the hole and let them have a couple shots.
Soon we were near the burning buildings. Flames were shooting up and you could hear them crackling, and the Germans inside yelling. Lt. Hughston seemed to have the situation well in hand. He passed one man who was staring at a "dead" German in a hole and yelled, "Shoot the !" Hughston then shouted for the 3rd platoon (mine) to pass the buildings and keep going till we got to a fence or hedge behind them and to take up a position there.
When I hit the ground, I saw a German pick and gas mask right in front of me and I realized that I was beside a German foxhole. My rifle was slung across my back because each hand was carrying a box of MG ammo, so I drew my .45 and peered cautiously into the hole. There was a German in the usual position and condition. I was going to get off a couple shots, but I didn't want to dirty my beloved pistol unless I had to. I asked a rifleman who'd fired his weapon to do the job.
|The farmhouse at Acul
that was the objective of the 3rd platoon.
The "diary" is not
clear whether we advanced to a fence or a hedge. The
"diary" and map place us behind the farmhouse. In 1958
the hedge slightly in front of the house (shown here) seemed to
be where we were.
The family (the daughter was only
a girl) was in the house during the battle.
The father pointed out tree scars
due to shot and shells.
As we lay there, Wesley Paul, our platoon medic, was next to me. I watched to the front in case of a counterattack. A few shots came from our rear, so McNulty's squad went to clean out the burning houses. Fisher was yelling in
German for the Germans to come out. (I was told later that they were afraid to surrender because one of their men had tried to and was machine-gunned by our tanks.) When one appeared at a 2nd-story window and was too scared to jump, McNulty's men raised their rifles and he jumped. He sprained his ankle, and someone said that he couldn't keep up on the way back and one our guys shot him. Soon other Germans came out to surrender.
Suddenly Lt. Hughston yelled, "Run! Take off! If anything gets in your way, drop it!" By his choice of words and the excited way in which he shouted them, he started a panic. I shouted that only a few should leave at a time. [So that the rest could provide covering fire if needed. In l997 Lee Hens told me that Hughston heard me and replied, "If anyone wants the Congressional medal, this is the place to do it."] But the guys all rushed off, bunched up together and leaving bazookas and ammo behind. [When it was clear that no one was going to stay with me, I joined them.] We went as fast as we could up the hill to the right (in the rearward direction in which we now were facing) of where we had come down. I wasn't scared at first, but the panic was contagious [and the exertion of running in snow, carrying full equipment and two boxes of ammo, increased the fright].
As I started up the hill I passed a couple large shell holes and beside them a dead GI, the first I'd seen. It had been jarring enough to see my first Germans, dead and alive, but the sight of the dead American was worse. This man was the same as I--the same rifle, the same field jacket, and especially the same hood [that precious hood, designed for protection against gas but the only thing that would keep your head and face warm]. "There, but for the grace of God, lay I."
Near the dead man was a wounded GI, his face blackened by the blast but alive. Bob Macartney had him by one arm and was yelling for someone to take the other arm so they could help him back. But everyone was passing him by. Because I had a box of ammo in each hand I could not help, but by then I was so scared that I felt that I would not have stopped to help if I could have. And that would have been cowardly.
As we struggled up the hill, a German frantically waving a white handkerchief jumped out of a foxhole right in front of me. I couldn't do anything with my hands full, so I got out of his way and let a rifleman guard him. One of Sgt. Torok's men was herding a dozen prisoners back, cursing them but not harming them, when a stream of tracers shot into their midst--coming from the German lines. One of their own MGs firing on them! The prisoners scattered instantly and hit the ground, and no one was hurt--a miracle.
More scared than ever, I ducked over to the left to get away from the prisoners. Then I had to get under a barbed wire fence, wiggling on my stomach in ice and ice water with a helmet, rifle, and ammo boxes getting in the way. And it increased the sense of panic to be slowed down. I abandoned one box.
On my way up the hill I noticed Jack Morrison, who was peacefully and calmly looking us over, trying to round up his squad. He seemed to be the only one who wasn't thinking of his own hide. Just before we came to a road at the top of the hill I passed Hens, who was in a shell hole with a rifle on one shoulder and a bazooka on the other. In the road stood S/Sgt. Joe Wisniewswki, coolly surveying the situation. I asked anxiously, "Why are we stopping here?" He answered contemptuously, "Ever hear of reorganization?"
But the company wasn't doing any reorganizing. We took off again, all bunched up. The noncoms yelled "Disperse," but we were all neck and neck to see who could clear out the fastest. We crossed the road to where the tanks had waited before the attack. Most of them had returned but three or four had been lost, including Col. Hearn's own tank. As we took off further to the rear, the tanks moved forward to protect us. But actually we were not being pursued; we had merely withdrawn because we didn't want to defend Acul.
We were told to return to the foxholes that we had dug in late morning on the reverse slope of the hill. I found a young C Co. man in mine. He said his company had been ordered to occupy our foxholes when they came back from Acul. I quietly persuaded him to leave it because I had dug it, but soon his burly squad leader confronted me menacingly, asking, "Did you make him get out of this hole?" Fortunately, at that moment our company was ordered to move out.
We crossed the road to our right at a point where a peep had been knocked out by a Teller mine, scattering C rations all over the place. We crossed another road and began to dig foxholes in a defensive line on the reverse slope of the hill. Most of us were in the open area just in front of a small strip of woods. It was just about dark, perhaps 1800 hours.
[As we dug, someone--George Fisher, I think--asked me grimly, "Has it occurred to you that we may be digging our own graves?"] George and Tony Sevich were sent forward as outposts on the ridge of the hill. They sent back word: "Five tanks coming!" Then, later, "Sorry--they were just trees."
[We dug individual foxholes that night, but before the night was over we were so lonely that we decided to dig two-man holes thereafter.] When my hole was half dug, one of our MGs sent a lot of lead in my direction but overhead. As I saw the tracers fly through the air I thought, "What a way to spend New Year's Eve!" The idea of civilians having a riotous time at home while we were out there didn't go down well.
Wren Morgan, the platoon runner, came by with K rations, the first food we'd had since noon the day before, other than a chocolate bar and a couple of crackers. The ration was cold but not frozen and it tasted great, even with dirty fingers. Sgt. Cangley came around, and as he passed my hole shells hit in the trees behind us. "Tree bursts!" he yelled. Then came our platoon leader, Lt. Fagan, with the order, "Everyone stay awake all night." I tried to, sitting on the "bowl" of my helmet and wearing the liner. But I'd doze off, wake up shivering, and dig to keep warm.
About midnight, Logi Toups said there was water in a little gully, back across the road. (The water in our canteens was frozen.) I went back and found Fagan, Cangley, Ercil Pennick, and Lee Hens. I was told that our company's worst casualties had been suffered by the heavy weapons platoon: Lt. Murphy was helping S/Sgt. Duey Morgan set up an antitank gun on the ridge of the hill to fire at Acul. The trail [back part of the gun carriage] was frozen together and as they pulled to spread it, a shell hit the shield. Lt. Murphy was mortally wounded but refused aid until his men were taken care of. Morgan, Hyman Silverstein (gunner), and S/Sgt. Joseph Gallatig, leader of a MG squad setting up nearby, were killed. Some privates in Morgan's squad were wounded.
The third platoon
in the engagement at Acul on Dec. 31.
The action moved
counterclockwise from the lower left:
-Foxholes dug on reverse slope of hill.
-Platoon moves to right front, waits near
-Platoon advances, crosses road where wounded
moves beyond farmhouse at Acul.
-Platoon retreats back to original foxholes.
-Platoon moves past blown-up peep and
pre-attack waiting place,
digs in in front of woods.
January 1, 1945 (Monday)
[Though we considered ourselves in the front line,] the tension was off. The halftracks came up and we were glad to see Charlie. We got some water, and we had K rations for all three meals. Now we could look around in daylight. In the strip of woods just behind us were several dead Germans in foxholes. The fellow in the first one looked to be in his twenties. His mess kit, looking like a binoculars case, and his gas mask were in the hole with him. He had been carrying a letter from his wife that Hens translated: Things were not going well at home. Their baby had died. She was sure he would come through OK. This showed there was plenty of tragedy on both sides.
His foxhole was well camouflaged in the woods. In front of his hole on the road were a US combat boot, the box from a first aid dressing, a bloody bandage, a helmet liner, and the safety lever from a grenade. It looked like an American had thrown a grenade, been shot in the leg, and been evacuated.
In the next hole was another German, and then two in the next one. Looking at them, I thought, "I don't want to end up like that." Also, "It took brave men to stay there and die, instead of running as we did [although we had been unnerved by the order to run]. My hat is off to them." I never hated the Germans; they were just like me, fighting for their life because they had to.
One of the guys (not in our platoon) wanted to salvage the US galoshes that a German had been wearing. He tugged and tugged, but they would not come off of the frozen feet. "I'm going to chop his legs off and thaw them by the fire," he declared. [He didn't, of course, but some of the company's men cut fingers from the German dead for the sake of their rings, I have been told by those who saw this done or the rings that were obtained in this manner.]
Quite a few planes went over. One P-47 had a duel with what must have been a German 88 gun. The plane would dive down with air bursts exploding all around it. It would fire short bursts with its extra-fast MGs, and release a bomb. As the plane leveled off, there would be a "C-rump" sound as the bomb went off. This happened half a dozen times, so there must have been several planes. It seemed to be a tie, since the planes were still flying at the end and the gun(s) were still firing. The Germans had "screaming meemies" [rockets] back there, too. We could hear the strange noises, but the rockets were not coming at us, so they were not terrifying.
About 1500 we prepared to move out and take a town, but we never did. At about 1700 the tracks pulled back for the night. I forgot to get a blanket and as a substitute used a couple of empty sandbags that I had found somewhere and had put in the bottom of my foxhole as a sort of carpet. I could get practically no sleep. My body didn't get too cold. [Under my overcoat or field jacket I wore two sets of wool long underwear, two wool OD shirts and trousers, and two wool sweaters (one from home).] But my feet!!! Several times I took off my shoes and galoshes and rubbed my feet with my hands to warm them up, but when back in the shoes they'd freeze again.
To try to keep them warm, I walked up and down the road back of us almost all night, along with Jim McNamara, driver of McNulty's halftrack which had to be there because of the radio in it. Lt. Fagan and Leonard Rosenberg, his radio man, slept in it and came out occasionally. Mac told me that a couple of hours earlier he'd seen some unidentified men coming over the hill in front of us
[from the direction of the German lines] and woke Fagan and told him. Fagan said, "Let me know if they get any closer" and went back to sleep.
We wondered when we'd be relieved. Mac said he'd heard that a battalion of an airborne division was bivouacked in the woods back of us and would relieve us in another day or two. He also said that an Air Corps pilot shot down in German territory had come back through our lines and reported that our artillery was so deadly that dead Germans were stacked up 5 feet high. (Our artillery had moved up close behind us and now and then fired over us. Occasionally the Germans would send one over, too.)
[One way to relieve the boredom of those long, bitter cold nights--and to get some liquid to drink (the water in our canteens was frozen)--was to melt the contents of a frozen can of "bore cleaner" (grapefruit juice) by holding it in the exhaust of a halftrack whose motor was being run to keep it from freezing up. Unfortunately, the extract and the water did not melt in the proper proportion, so we had to drink either water or pure, bitter extract.]
January 2 (Tuesday)
For breakfast we had 10-in-1 rations. [They came from a large carton that held sufficient canned food to feed 10 men for a day, with much more variety than C or K rations.] It was a treat to have hot cereal, bacon, Graham crackers, and butter. Half of the squad ate at a time, and I was in the first half.
Just as my half finished, I heard other squads yelling, "Counterattack!" We all dove for our foxholes and the other half of the squad never got to eat. My mess kit, overcoat, etc., were hastily thrown behind my foxhole. Len Rosenberg was in the hole to my left with the platoon walkie-talkie [portable radio] and gave us a play-by-play description of what was going on. He said something about tanks so I loaded the bazooka, pulled the safety pin in the rocket, and adjusted the range to the top of the hill, about 150 yards away. Sgt. McNulty, right behind me, was worried about the back-flash, but I told him I'd yell "Bazooka!" before I fired.
After about half an hour, Rosie gave us the true picture: There never was an attack. Tanks were seen near Acul and were shelled, setting a couple on fire, and the rest withdrew. Our artillery was throwing over more shells than I heard before or after. Down the line on our right, the 21st seemed to be having a rough time [judging by the noise]. The shells hit so soon after each other that it sounded like MGs going. There were big clouds of white smoke, so our side must have been throwing smoke or white phosphorous at them.
After the threat of an attack faded, the rest of the day passed uneventfully. The halftracks, which had pulled back when the counterattack was expected, returned. Sgt. Basso's and S/Sgt. Goldberg's 57 mm gun crew dug in just to my left. A track full of straw came up, so I could make my hole more comfortable. I melted some ice on the gas stove and washed. As evening approached, I got my bedroll from the track. We had so many men nearby that each of us had to stand guard for only a half-hour, but the rule was that we had to get out of our hole, lest we fall asleep. I had a wonderful night's sleep, with my overcoat on top of the bedroll and my half of our pup tent stretched across the top of the hole as a cover. It was so warm that I dreamed it was raining outside when Toups woke me for my turn at guard.
January 3 (Wednesday)
Word was passed around that we'd be relieved that day, so we got our stuff together. It was snowing. Morrison, Ramsay, Hens, and Bergh went on a patrol to Acul. I was told that a sniper fired at Pike and that Wahoo then sprayed the trees with his MG and out tumbled the sniper. At noon we ate in shifts, back where I'd dug my first hole on Dec. 31. The kitchen did a great job: chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, and doughnuts.
About that time, paratroopers from the 17th Airborne Division [2nd Battalion, 194th Glider Infantry Regiment, according to the battalion history] began to arrive in cattle trucks, like we rode in at Cherbourg. They looked like paratroopers all right: pants with many pockets, sheath knife strapped to lower leg, US flag on right sleeve. The riflemen wore pistol belts and carried their cartridges in bandoliers. Their MGs were A6 with bipod, like the Germans'. [They had not been in combat yet and their clothing and equipment looked new.] We regarded them as rookies, since we'd been at the front for four days.
Capt. Houy walked by, orienting their officers. (Earlier, I had passed him and Maj. Blalock on the road. I respected them so much that I couldn't help expressing my admiration by saluting. If it was the wrong thing, they never let on; they returned the salute vigorously.)
It took half an hour to get chains on the halftrack, and we griped about having to sit there as possible targets in the road. Finally we said, "Good luck!" to the paratroopers, as if we'd never be at the front again, and drove off. But we only went about a mile, back over the road toward Magerotte, to where we'd dismounted for the attack on Dec. 31. Telly said, "We can't get all the way to the rest camp tonight because the roads are filled with the 6th Armored Division moving up, so we'll stay here a while." The tracks were parked, dispersed, on the low hill by Magerotte to the right of the road as you faced the village. We stayed there until Jan. 12.
We had hot C rations for supper and then went to sleep. I slept in the open in the snow, with my tent half over my bedroll, staked down on the windward side.
January 4 (Thursday)
In the morning we got straightened up a little and at noon the kitchen started dishing out hot chow. (It was right beside our platoon, at the side of the road.) We got a wood fire going near the halftrack, fueled by the farmer's fence posts, and we weren't too cold. Throughout our stay we kept the fire going during the daytime and cooked K rations, even though we were getting hot meals from our kitchen, often with second and third helpings. Once we cooked a slab of beef that Jackson had cut from a portion of a cow that he had seen hanging in the 17th Airborne kitchen in Magerotte.
At dark we went into Magerotte and arranged to sleep in a barn. Our squad ate supper (pork chops and sauerkraut) early and then went on guard about 1900. The reason for the guard back of the front, we were told, was that now and then the Germans would run a suicide tank down a road. Two men from the 17th Airborne had a bazooka road block across the road from where a couple of us were posted and came over and got K rations from us. It was plenty cold.
Our deployment at
Magerotte, Jan. 3-12
Half of the squad was on duty at a time, with the other half sleeping in our track. While I was off duty, sitting in Frank Prioux's track, I heard someone almost shoot Pike when he didn't answer when challenged. When our squad was relieved by Morrison's, we went over to the kitchen and ate more pork chops.
[Until January 12, about all we did was eat hot chow at mealtime; sit around the fire and talk, cook, and eat more; stand guard at night; and sleep in the field or halftrack or in a barn in Magerotte. We wrote letters, and at one point we got out the rifle and helmet of one of the dead Germans and photographed each other with these souvenirs. A few events relieved the boredom:]
January 7 (Sunday)
A couple shells landed back of us, so I dug a foxhole. About 1500 a Lt. Col. Chaplain conducted a service. We stood in the snow for a sermon and then had Communion. I was glad I went.
January 8 (Monday)
A detail from the company including Telly and Black went to Acul to locate American bodies, but they were chased back by mortar fire before they could find any. A civilian funeral procession came down the road to the cemetery across the road from our company area. We didn't know whether the deceased was/were war casualties. Two of our men whistled at a girl in the procession.
January 9 (Tuesday)
Telly and Black were again chased from Acul by mortar fire while on "body detail." On one of these days I went to Acul with Morrison, Zoppi, Vornoli, and Autobe. We were to help rescue some tanks, but snow was coming down heavily and beat in our faces. Lt. Kendall told us to give up the mission.
This was an especially cold night, so we could only do one hour of guard duty at a time. During the hour off duty we huddled in the (covered) halftrack, kept the gas stove going, and made coffee, cocoa, and soup on it. On guard, Bob Wederich manned a MG and a bazooka near the side of the road near our tracks. (Across the road, the 17th Airborne had a dugout.) Pat Hanley and I walked up and down in the road, to keep warm. Over my gloves I was wearing a crude pair of mittens that I'd made from a blanket.
About midnight, Pete Valdez, sergeant of the guard, came from his track and asked me, "What time is it by your chronometer?" (Pete liked to use big words. So did whoever set the password and countersign. One night they were "Carteret-Proprietor," which was difficult for those who didn't know colonial history.) It was time for Sgt. Brancefield to take over as sergeant of the guard, so Pete wandered off to get him. Soon we saw a figure approaching in a GI overcoat and called to him, razzing him by using the foul nickname that Brancefield went by. He fell on the ice, and this increased the razzing. Hanley yelled, "Slide, Kelly, slide!" The figure stood up and asked, "How's it going, men?" It was Lt. Been! Hanley stammered around, explaining, while I stood behind him and laughed to myself. Lt. Been didn't say a word about the joshing; he knew it was not intended for him. He just asked if we were cold. [He was a splendid officer and man.]
from our bivouac area.
We got to sleep in a barn in the morning. But whenever we were warm, our feet, having been near-frozen, burned intensely and our hands somewhat less. [And our gloves did not protect our wrists, so that the skin on them was terribly chapped and looked like alligator hide.] All this made it hard to sleep.
January 10 (Wednesday)
Got a haircut from Tony Poszywak, the company barber. He was set up in the ground floor of the barn where we slept. A dozen nice cows were housed nearby, and the farmer who tended them was around often. He was tall and thin with rosy cheeks, and he wore a blue suit and leather puttees. It seems he always wanted hay from the loft whenever we were trying to sleep there.
January 11 (Thursday)
When I awoke, I was about the only one in the barn. A fellow near me was rolling up his bedroll, so I slapped him on the back and asked, "Where are all the boys?" It was Capt. Houy. Later, as I was standing in the mess kit rinse line and about to rinse mine, a guy stepped in front of me and rinsed his cup over and over and over. I was about to explode when I saw it was Capt. Houy again. "Wish he'd wear his bars," I thought.
As I came off guard that night and got into the halftrack to sleep, our artillery suddenly did a lot of firing. Charlie Crouch said later that Wahoo, who'd been asleep, thought German shells were landing and sprang out of his bedroll, overcoat on and carbine in hand, yelling, "What happened?" Charlie shook with laughter every time he told the story.
January 12 (Friday)
After guard, I went to view the frozen bodies of about eight civilians who I had been told were lying on the ground in a shed between two barns. They had been found by the 17th Airborne and sent back. There was a boy of about 10, whose face had been smashed in; an old man whose face was so flattened that his nose was away up in his forehead; a girl about 14, whose upper legs had been slashed; a farmer in his early twenties; and a couple of old women, like those we'd seen as refugees. Also a German soldier wearing suspenders over a sweater and no coat. I couldn't figure out what caused the faces of the civilians to look that way. It wasn't scary or gruesome, just terribly sad. It was clearer than ever that we had to do our job to stop such things.
I went to our barn to sleep and found one of our boys there. I went to the 17th Airborne kitchen and brought him scrambled eggs. He asked if I had seen the bodies and said, "I could sit on them and eat this egg sandwich."
About noon Magelli woke us, saying, "We're moving out." Jack Flynn called out, "Which way?" Magelli yelled, "Back," and we all said "Good!" Our track was having whitewash sprayed on it for camouflage as we piled into it.
Back at the company area, we had chow and straightened things up. We sat around the fire while the kitchen packed up. It took quite a while because the cooks upset their trailer several times. Finally we got under way, turning left [north] at Magerotte and passing Maj. Sandler. We drove a good ways and passed a lot of artillery. Some of the guns were self-propelled and others sat in the snow, but the men had nice shelters. They seemed safe in the woods,
looked nice and clean, and were eating from mess kits. I envied them, but I was glad they were there to help us. One of them tossed into our track a canteen full of hot coffee with a sock around it to help keep it warm.
We soon realized that we were headed for the front, not a rest camp. We bypassed Bastogne and halted a few miles beyond it. [In the vicinity of Hemroulle, 3 km northwest of Bastogne. This must have been an assembly area.] The Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon of Hq. Co. directed us [in the dark, I think] into a field with deep snow. There we dug in--for protection, not in a defensive line.
Pike and I dug a foxhole big enough for both of us. We tried to eat a C ration but all we could bite was the bread, because the cans of meat were frozen. So we put them under our field jackets, to thaw them for later. I took the first turn of guard while Jim slept. I had just finished, awakened him for his turn, and was zipping up my bedroll when Telly called out, "Let's go--moving out!"
How far we rode I don't know, because I dozed during the ride. [To the vicinity of Longchamps, 6 km north of Bastogne, says the battalion history.] We got very cold and miserable and looked forward to the track's stopping so we could get out and move around. We dismounted at the bottom of a hill and started to climb it. The hill was so steep that we could not have made it if there had not been a fence that we could grab and pull on to drag ourselves up.
Halfway up, we started to dig. Then we moved on, stopped, moved down a little, and dug some more. Then we moved again, and this time we just sat on our ammo boxes and waited. It was clear that no one knew what he was doing. The 2nd platoon was behind us and apparently in the wrong place.
CLEARING THE WOODS
January 13 (Saturday)
From 0100 to 0400 there was nothing to do but sit in the snow and freeze. I was too cold to move to warm up--even though we had disobeyed Col. Bell's order and worn our overcoats. I faced down the hill, with Pike on my left and Hens and Glen Loy on my right. From the direction of the Germans, a bright searchlight beamed over the hill, creating an eery feeling. The kitchen was supposed to be coming up with chicken, but it never got there.
Just before it began to dawn, Ramsay said, "We're going to move over the top of the hill to within hearing distance of the Germans and dig in." We got up the rest of the hill OK, moved forward to the military crest, and started to dig--frantically, because it was becoming light and we would be visible. We had found that our entrenching shovels were useless with ice--they just bounced off it--and that the best way to get through the ice was with a long-handle axe. Our squad had one, and now we made the maximum use of it: One man would swing it as hard and fast as he could, hand it to another, and flop exhausted to recover from the exertion. When a block of the 10-inch crust had been cut on the sides, we would pry it loose, lift it out like sod, and then dig the dirt with our small shovels--all this with the expectation, now that it was getting light, that shells would rain down on us at any moment. It was broad daylight by the time our hole was deep enough for safety. Pike got some straw for the bottom. We could get excellent observation from our hill. To our front at the bottom of the hill, a single row of trees protruded forward for about 100 yards. From there for about 150 yards it was level. Then a slight rise and then level ground for 50 yards. Then a slope where there was a large house with woods behind it. It was about 600 yards to the house. Just behind us a heavy .30 caliber MG squad from Hq. Co. dug in--nice and deep, so that only the muzzle of the gun was above ground.
[We had relieved the 502nd Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, says the battalion history, and our mission was to protect our Division's left flank and support an attack by the 63rd AIB.] A fairly heavy barrage of our 105 mm artillery started. They put a few shells in the snowy open places, but most in the woods behind the house. They bracketed the house but never hit it. Soon scouts from the 63rd began working their way up the protruding row of trees, then a whole company. The Hq. Co. MG squad opened up and sprayed the house. Sellers and Black let fly, too. Telly yelled at them not to waste ammo, but they'd found a box that we hadn't carried. Tracers showed that the Hq. Co. men were shooting through the windows of the house, and Wahoo claimed that he was doing the same. Someone said Germans ran out of the house and into the woods behind it, but I wasn't watching then.
I did notice a flash of light in the woods to our left front and told Wahoo about it, but he didn't think it was important. After sharing a D ration bar with Jim, I dozed a little.
Then shells began falling on our line. They landed some distance away at first and then moved very close to us. A piece of shrapnel tore up Zoppi's overcoat [but apparently did not hurt him], and Lt. Fagan yelled to him as a joke, "Gotta pay statement of charges for that!" (Twenty-four hours later, both men were dead.) I was told that Leon Bacowsky was killed in the shelling.
Soon we moved out, straight down the hill in front of us. I was surprised that we were not shelled. At the bottom of the hill, we went straight for a short distance and then turned left, so that the woods now on our right hid us from the Germans. A 63rd medic's peep went by and I thought, "This would be a nice convenient time to get a light wound that would get me out of here." Ahead of me was Lee Hens. He was carrying a bazooka, or maybe rockets for it, and was slowing down. I finally passed him, putting my hand on his shoulder as a sign of encouragement--we both were too exhausted to say a word.
After climbing a slight rise, we halted. Lt. Fagan had Bob Sellers fire a couple bursts at a house to our left. He had trouble with the bullets hitting the snow on a little rise in front of us, but he put a good many slugs into the house. Nobody seemed to be in there, so we decided this was a good place to dig in. A lot of artillery was being thrown around up front and there was a lot of smoke and noise--a terrific racket, a constant rumble. No shells were falling around us, but as usual I expected them to.
Luckily it was a plowed field and the big chunks of frozen ground could be broken loose with our shovels. But Pike and I were so weak that we could hardly swing a shovel or even aim it right. Several times we hit ourselves. To make it worse, Lt. Fagan wouldn't let us dig standing up, and digging sitting was more strenuous and less effective. We could keep going only bypanting "Gotta dig!" in time with the strokes, and sometimes we were so wildthat we just wallowed in the snow.
Supporting the 63rd AIB, Jan. 13
But somehow we got the hole dug and Jim again got straw. Just as we were ready to rest, the word was passed: "Stop digging. Move out!" So we picked up our stuff and moved on. (Our rifles were standing up because we had stuck the butts in the snow and it held them straight up.) We went to our right front and then through a gap in the woods to an open field. As we walked through the field, Lt. Been's platoon came by on our left, with him and his radio man in front. I thought, "It must be terrible to be in front all the time and to have to worry about 50 other guys as well as yourself." Col. Hearn's light tank went by and also A Co. of the 22nd Tank Battalion.
After crossing the open field, we came to where a road cut through the woods that encircled the field. We went through the woods, just to the left of the road, pushing aside the snowy boughs in front of us. We were alert for mines and watched for German foxholes but didn't see any. We came over to the road and waited a while. A platoon of tanks came up the road, churning up the snow. From the back of one of them, a tanker threw out C rations to the tired GIs.
We got moving again and passed elements of the 63rd. I asked George Ilse, who'd slept in the same room with me in ASTP, about our former roommate Dick Dufour, also of A-63. "Evacuated with frozen feet," was the answer, and "They got half of our platoon in that open space up front--killed a couple guys, wounded more, and chased us back. It was awful!" He was very excited, and it scared me stiff.
About 1800 we moved into the open space, which had many large shell holes, and Telly told Pike and me to dig in where a shell had hit, breaking through the frozen crust of the ground. As we dug, there suddenly came a "z-z-z-zoom" overhead. It must have been a shell from a German 88, not more than 5 feet off the ground, fired at a tank about 20 feet to our left. I was sitting digging but went flat and my hair stood on end. We sat up and started to dig like mad again. Then a second shell zoomed by and again we hugged the snow. We yelled to the tanks, "Move that thing!" The tankers started the motor and backed up and no more shots were heard.
When our hole was dug we went to a straw stack and got straw for the bottom. About 2300 we got C rations, the meat part again frozen, so we ate the bread. There was no formal guard set-up, so we tried to sleep. But even in my overcoat it was too cold. I'd dig for a few minutes to get warm, then doze for a few. My gloves were so muddy and gooey that I took them off and tried to sleep with my hands in my pockets. I wore the crude mittens that I'd made from a blanket and forgot about the gloves, which froze. To thaw them, I had to stick my freezing fingers in them and work them for hours.
Everything was frozen. I carried my canteen, a C ration meat can, and the .45 pistol under my overcoat or field jacket. Our entrenching shovel, which was made to fold up when not in use, froze in whatever position one had left it. I found that breathing on it would thaw the frozen parts. [Others accomplished the same purpose by urinating on the shovel.]
During the night I made several trips to the stack, hoping that straw around us might serve as a sort of blanket, but it didn't. Jim slept most of the night but it wasn't till early morning that I got any sleep, and then only an hour or so. I was told that the temperature was 8 below zero.
[The battalion history says that on the 13th the 55th bypassed Rouette and secured Fays and Fme de Menil, 2 km northwest of Longchamps. I never saw Fays, which maps show as a cluster of houses. I have no idea as to whether any of the isolated houses we saw were the Fme de Menil.]
January 14 (Sunday)
About 0500 Telly said we would attack soon. [The battalion history says that the 55th's task was to clear the Bois de Nom de Falize, 2 km north of Longchamps. A Co. would attack on the left, B Co. on the right, and C Co. would be in reserve.] Telly gave us C rations, but before we could eat them we had to go to the halftracks, which were in the woods to our right rear. Knowing that a rough day was in store and not wanting to be encumbered by our overcoats, we took them off and wore field jackets. We hurriedly ate our C rations and each of us took a couple of hand grenades.
Dismounted, we followed a road out of the woods, going in the direction our foxholes faced. We came to a crossroads and turned right. We went about l00 yards further to where a couple of tankers were trying to start a fire. I looked back and saw Maj. Blalock standing at the crossroads. Just then a shell hit to our right. We all hit the ground, right in the road, and Pike said, excitedly but not hysterically, "I'm hit." We all sounded off, "Medic! Medic!" I crawled to Jim and began to pull him off the road, where there was no cover. He said that hurt, so by grabbing his galoshes and twisting his legs I rolled him off the road and into a ditch that was full of loose snow.
I asked where he was hit and he said, "The gut." I saw that the pockets on one side of his field jacket were all ripped up, and I was squeamish about opening the jacket because of what I might see inside. I told him not to look and ripped open the jacket. There was not a mark; packets of C ration coffee and candy had stopped the shrapnel. (Another fragment that hit Sellers in the hip pocket was stopped by a can of C rations.) Jim said, "I know I'm hit somewhere. Try my wrist." Sure enough, his wrist was nicked, earning him a trip to the aid station. [He returned to the squad sometime after early March.]
A medic had come up to Jim and me within 30 seconds after the shell had hit, but I told him Jim was OK and to go on up to Telly, about 50 yards ahead. Telly had been hit below the knee and was in great pain. The medics brought up a peep and put him on a stretcher and onto the peep. As he left, he said to Sellers, "Don't forget this." As the peep passed me (with Jim in the front seat) I yelled, "So long, Telly!" He could reply only by feebly waving his hand. [Tellefson was hospitalized for a long time and never returned to the squad. After the war he was a funeral director in Edgerton, Wisconsin.]
Sgt. Frank Kissel was now in charge of the squad. We left Jim's rifle and box of ammo where he'd dropped them in the middle of the road and went on for about 100 yards, turned left into a woods, and passed some men from the 63rd who were resting. We came out of the woods, followed the same road a little ways, and then turned left off the road again, passing a peep that I noted was marked A-2. We went down a hill, where we passed Capt. Houy and his runners. He asked, "What peep is that back there?" and I told him, "A-2."
We went down the hill, turned left at the bottom, and went up a gully. Then we turned right and went up a snowy hill, moving near the middle of a long, rectangular field, going parallel to the sections of woods on both sides of us
in single file. Our 3rd platoon was the point. Our rifle squads were ahead of us and the mortar squad behind us.
When we got most of the way up the hill, a volley of shots and the ripping sound of a German MG burst out some distance ahead and we all hit the ground. The shooting continued, and Capt. Houy, who'd been up ahead, ran back along the column, crouched over. Later he ran forward and passed back orders: "First platoon come up on the left, 2nd on the right." Then, "Tell the assault gun [like a light tank] to come up." Then, "Send up a mortar observer." Pfc. Pete Valdez, acting leader of Torok's mortar squad, was about 5 feet behind me in the snow. He muttered to himself, "Nuts to sending someone! I'll go myself." And he did. That was the last I saw him. I was told that he went behind a small straw stack and was shot in the foot and that Dick Wrobleski, who took over the squad, went to his aid.
I decided to get out of the line of men. Leaving my box of ammo, I crawled about 20 feet to a small shell hole. I wanted to keep my head down, but I stuck it up and watched the woods for any movement. Then the assault gun came up and tossed a couple of shells into the woods, but when the Germans tossed a couple back the assault gun took off. Later, I was told, the crew tried to tell Capt. Houy that the woods were clear. They were yellow!
Now the Germans began to throw mortar shells at us, so we were told to get out of the open field. Our squad ran into the woods on our right and slowly worked its way up a path that wound around in the woods. When not moving, we lay flat because bullets were zipping around--though they were not close to us.
We were trying to work ahead to where we could put flanking fire on a German MG in the woods to the left of the field, but McNulty's squad needed help a little farther back in the left patch of woods, so we ran across the open space and into the woods and hit the ground. Later, George Fisher told me what had happened before we got there:
McNulty's squad--only six men: Mac, George, Vornoli, Jim Penix, Autobe, and Wren Morgan--didn't know what to expect when they entered the woods. Mac spotted the first German, tried to aim, but found his front sight full of snow. He coolly took his rifle down, blew the snow off, and shot the German. Quite a bit of shooting was done before most of the Germans pulled out. Mac's squad crept forward in the snow, and suddenly George looked up and saw a German head 2 feet away. The German said he wanted to surrender. George told him to stand up and when he did, one of his own men further back in the woods shot him through the shoulder.
When we got there, George was shouting "Steh' auf!" ("Stand up!") at this man, a sergeant. The sergeant hesitated and was yelling something back, but George kept hollering for him to stand up. Finally he did, slowly and unsteadily. In the hole with him was a kid, shot through the shoulder. In that sub-zero weather he was stripped to the waist except for a bandage over the wound and an overcoat tossed over his shoulders, like a cape. The sergeant was devoted to the young soldier and wanted to get him to the medics [but this was no time to take prisoners back]. The two of them, both shot, went back a little ways and sat down.
Our squad's sector in the Jan. 14 engagement
in the Bois de Nom de Falize
Then a third German staggered out of his hole, apparently wounded in the head since he had a bandage around his forehead. He couldn't walk straight and was
so far "out" that he lurched sideways into trees. I was lying on the ground and he almost fell on me. I pointed the way for him to go to join the others.
Then our squad set up its MGs in the German foxholes. There were not enough holes to go around because some had dead Germans in them who were too heavy for the boys to toss out, so I lay on the ground behind a tree. Shells came crashing down in the woods and some burst in the air above. Shrapnel ripped through the forest, and wood chips flew around. One shell hit the tree I was behind, and branches, pine needles, and clumps of snow fell on us. The smell of burnt powder filled the air.
I was watching for a counterattack when we got word to go back across the open space to the right section of woods. Fisher was ahead of me, herding prisoners in front of him, with one of their machine pistols slung across his back, the first I'd seen. (It was also the first time I saw the small one-shot German antitank rockets called Panzerfausts that were lying beside the foxholes in the woods.) The machine pistol had a curved magazine and a lot of metal work that gleamed when the sun shone on it as George crossed a narrow path in the woods [the left woods, I believe]. I thought, "What a convenient path!" but later it occurred to me that the Germans might have fired their MGs there.
Our squad crossed to an open space below the right patch of woods, where there was a tank and a conference of officers was going on. Wahoo started to dig in, in a shell hole in the open space below the tank, but I found an empty German hole at the edge of the woods.
Later we moved further into the woods and remained there a couple of hours. When shelling started, we plopped in the snow. When it stopped, we stood up and tried to dry off. The sun was out part of the time and I hung my gloves, canteen, and everything I could on the branches to thaw and dry off. Bob Wederich, my new buddy, and I did some talking, but mostly praying. Bob asked what I was going to do after the war. I knew he meant what vocation I would follow and was trying to take my mind off the war but I replied, "Lead a good, clean life!" Some of the guys found a German dugout with shovels, blankets, water, and a couple rifles.
While we were waiting, George Fisher came by with a prisoner, a medic who'd infiltrated our lines. I was told that Ramsay and Glen Loy had seen him first in a foxhole, just staring up at them. Loy asked what he should do and Ramsay said to shoot. Loy fired and missed--at a range of 4 feet. Fisher came up and questioned the prisoner. He said that his unit was made up of all kinds of men: marines, air corps, some SS. They had thought a regiment was coming at them. He pulled out a pocket watch, which George let him keep [contrary to the common practice of taking prisoners' watches]. The prisoner said a German mine-laying company was supposed to come into the area at 0200 that night.
Meanwhile the three rifle squads were having a tough time. About 1500 I heard Sgt. Lennon call out, "Anyone in the first platoon who can carry a gun--anyone who is in any condition to fight--let's go!" The tanks behind us gunned their motors and drove forward, their MGs going full blast. It sounded like the world was coming to an end, but the noise grew fainter as the tanks moved ahead. We were not ordered to take part in the attack and almost no infantry went with the tanks. All I could do was to lie in the snow, praying for our guys and crunching snow anxiously in my hands.
Site of the Jan. 14 engagement, Bois de Nom
de Falize 1995 photo by Lee Hens.
Used with his permission.
After the woods were cleaned out, our halftracks came up and evacuated the wounded. It took almost an hour to get them all out. A GI came staggering back by us, taking short, hesitant steps. Bob Sellers asked him, "What's the matter?" He stared blankly at Bob and muttered, "It seems I can't take it. I'm not good enough. They tell me I should go back to the medics." He continued on to the rear. (He was given duties in the company that kept him away from the front.)
In late afternoon a message came up: "Capt. Houy wants see Wederich and Fee." We went back to Houy's CP (command post). There, Platoon Sgt. Cangley told us to go to the right flank and find out where B Co. and C Co. were going to set up for the night. "And stay out of the open spaces!"
We took off at "high port." "Gosh," I thought, "a patrol, just like at Camp Roberts!" With Bob leading the way, we ran straight across the first open space, which was pocked with shell holes. Then we followed along the side of the woods for about 100 yards, then cut straight through the woods to the next open space. We crossed it on a run, too. In the next woods we found a path and decided to use it, figuring that it would be free of mines. The path took us left, in the direction of the Germans. It had been well traveled. We found German holes with machine pistols and big shovels in them, and even a couple of half-made dugouts. All along the path were wires, about chest-high, that looked like communication wires. I wasn't going to pull any, to find out.
Then we came to the edge of the woods, and only God kept us from crossing the open space at that point. Instead, we proceeded left, just inside the woods. Some distance ahead, we saw a barbed wire stretched across the field. On one of the stakes was a sign: "Achtung! Minen!" There were footprints behind the wire, so it was safe to cross the field there. If we had crossed earlier, we would have been in a minefield!
After entering the next woods we went to the right for a distance and then saw a bunch of GIs across the next open space. We crossed over and found they were from B Co. To get to them we had to get up a bank that was so slick that we needed help. There, in a dugout with German ammo lying around, we found a lieutenant with whom Bob exchanged info.
Returning to our company, we crossed the open space, then a patch of woods, and then in the open space we saw C Co. moving up. First were two scouts and then Lt. Johnson who was leading the company. (Capt. Riggs had been wounded.) Again, Bob exchanged info and we left.
A second later there was an explosion and the assault gun that was following the company stopped and all five of the crew bailed out. Lt. Leben, leader of the assault gun platoon, yelled, "It's only a mine!" Almost immediately there was another explosion and flames shot about 50 feet into the air. The crew, which had hit the ground, got up and ran into the woods.
Bob and I did the same. I thought that an 88 had hit the assault gun and, sure enough, air bursts were soon exploding over the C Co. infantry. Bob and I ran until we were exhausted. We tried to head for the CP, but we were just trying to get away. Before long it dawned on us that we were lost. We stood looking across an open space, seeing the sun setting and thinking about what it would be like to spend the night in one of the German holes.
The Wederich-Fee patrols, Bois de Nom de
Falize, Jan. 14
We crossed the space and ran into some of our tanks. The crews didn't know where our company was, but when Bob asked for K rations they generously gave us six--and asked what kind we wanted! A few shells were falling, and knowing how tanks attract fire, I was glad to move on.
We followed the edge of the woods and finally found A Co. and our CP. Bob reported to Cangley where B and C Co. were. Someone said that Grubbs had driven up a peep with a 5-gallon can of water, enough to provide one cup for each man. But when Bob and I got there the water was gone, partly because the guys who'd found the dugout had taken more than their share, filling their canteens and also a pan from the dugout. Grudgingly they gave us the water from the pan but would not share the blankets they'd found in the dugout--or space in the dugout. We had gotten more K rations from the peep and gave some to Wahoo and Connie Rienstra because they always were generous with us.
Bob and I dug in, and then he went somewhere. I sat out in the cold alone for a while and then crowded into the dugout. Morrison and Cangley were in there too. Though cramped, it was nice and warm, with a blanket over the door. We talked about what had happened that day. Among many others, Lt. Fagan was killed, and Lt. Hensel wounded. It was believed for a time that Charlie Fetrow had been killed, but he turned up safe. Charlie always said, "They gotta get up before breakfast to get me." [Morning reports for A Co. state that by Jan. 16, after all the casualties of the 14th had been tallied, the Company had 189 men left, compared with 240 on Jan. 2--attrition of 21%.]
Morrison's squad had been hit hardest, and Walt Zoppi and Henry Pope, scouts, were killed. Jack felt terrible about this but tried not to let on. [Before our company was in combat I had asked Jack to consider me in filling vacancies that might occur in his squad. In early January he told me he would be glad to have me, but I declined because I had become attached to the boys in the MG squad. Had I accepted, I might have been a scout on Jan. 14 or a member of Jack's patrol that was shot up and captured on Jan. 18.]
Cangley said we'd be moving up in a little while and there must be absolutely no noise or light, because the Germans would fire at a light. Soon we moved out. The mortar squad went first, because it would drop out first. On our way up we passed three American bodies in the snow. I thought they were tankers and it made me think of the men who'd given us the rations. Further up, we turned into a strip of woods and dug in there.
The word came up that a track had come up with bedrolls. I went back, got two, and talked with Clay Hutsell and Knowlton, who'd helped evacuate wounded that afternoon. Our hole was narrow and cramped, but we slept all night without interruption. (Sellers fell asleep on guard and slept through our turn, so he let us sleep on and awakened Rienstra.) It was said there was a lot of shelling that night, but I never heard a sound.
January 15 (Monday)
We had a K ration for breakfast, rolled up our bedrolls, and took them down to the tracks. Later there were hot C rations at the command halftrack, 400 yards back. Every trip I made from our foxholes to our track--and there were about six of them--I had to pass the three frozen bodies. One of the men had been carrying a MG and was wrapped around it. Another had a bandage on his leg just
above the knee and his helmet had been tossed a short distance away. Everybody stared at them each time we went by, as if they might change between trips.
For lunch I had a hot C ration--ham, eggs, and potatoes--which I ate with a trench knife I'd taken from one of the bodies. (I'd lost my spoon.) At the command track I got a pair of socks and a couple of heat tabs [wax-like small blocks that could be burned to cook a ration or provide light, although they gave off black smoke].
A group of prisoners went by at a distance. Someone yelled, "Turn a MG on them!" but of course nobody did. Three P-47s came over, strafing and bombing. They'd come down low, smoke would shoot out from the front of their wings, and then would come the noise of quick bursts from their .50 caliber MGs. The cartridge casings came whistling down on us, making a sound like when you blow across the top of one, and one missed me by a couple of feet.
About 1430 we moved out, heading to our right and going a couple miles. We dashed across the open spaces two at a time, but mostly we went through woods. I had a box of ammo and a big shovel and it was hard to manage a rifle too, so Jack Morrison took the shovel. Jack was always so calm and I admired that greatly. We could see tanks on our left, firing away.
Then we turned right and went up a long hill (in the woods). At the top was a German bivouac area--dozens of holes--and in one a sleeping German had been found. A GI was trying to find out from him if other Germans were around. There were also de luxe log cabins that would have been swell to sleep in. The place must have been a headquarters. All kinds of German equipment were lying around: helmets, packs, gas masks, and comforters. We were told not to touch them, but one moron was kicking every object he passed.
Then we turned left and soon came to a little villa at the top of a small hill with woods on one side but clear fields of fire on others and with barbed wire around it. It must have been a hunting lodge, turned into a little fort. It was all battered, and two American rifles were lying outside, evidence that two GIs had been wounded taking the place. Nearby was a roadblock between two trees, where a road went by.
Moving on, we passed through little open spaces in the woods. K and D rations were scattered around. At one halt, Lt. Hughston and Maj. Blalock came up the column. We stepped out of the path to let them go by, and they spoke to all the boys, cheering them up and calling each one by name! A couple of 17th Airborne medics also went by with a wounded man.
Then we started down a road through the woods. The woods were very dense, and it was getting dark. Word was passed: "Look carefully in the woods for Germans!" Then at the bottom of the hill it was whispered along: "Germans are in the woods on both sides of us." It probably was the earlier message, garbled by some fool. It didn't scare me; I thought, "With Maj. Blalock here, nothing
can go wrong." I gladly put my life in his hands. Seeing him running around in his tanker's jacket, with his map board and his .45 in his shoulder holster and wearing his oak leaves, bucked me up: "If he can do it, I can, too!"
After turning right at the bottom of the hill we were told the password and countersign: "Gyro-compass." We also were told to be on the look-out for a German radio. I felt sure I heard a radio in the woods, but perhaps it was only tank noises. We did everything to prevent noise--for example, we'd had bayonets on our rifles to keep the muzzle from dipping into the snow. Now we took the bayonets off, so they wouldn't rattle (and they scraped low branches, too). Everyone was forgetting the password, and I had to keep telling Fetrow what it was. At one point Capt. Houy asked me what it was and said he was glad someone knew it right. We were alerted that half a dozen Germans would be coming by and not to shoot at them, because they were prisoners. They came by, guarded by a wounded paratrooper.
Soon we turned left into a patch of woods and the company was scattered around in it. [The battalion history says that the battalion's objective was the high ground 4 km southeast of Bertogne and that the attack was halted 1000 yards south of the objective.] We were in a little patch that projected out into the snow, and near us were other projections. To our right front were some trees that some nut thought were German tanks. To our front on a hill there seemed to be several fires burning--like houses that had been shelled by tanks during the day and were still burning in spots. In the morning we found that they were the bright orange panels that were put on tanks, apparently to identify them as ours. Across the valley were woods and perhaps Germans in them. Ramsay said he could see Germans digging out there, but we didn't believe him.
We dug in on what was supposed to be the right flank. We were told we'd give supporting fire in the morning, so we wanted to be well dug in, in case the fire was returned. It was extra hard digging, because there were tree roots and rocks as well as the frozen crust. I was so groggy I couldn't stand up straight to drive the shovel in and kept falling over. Bob and I took turns digging, and at one point when I was resting, leaning my back against a fir tree, I put on clean socks.
January 16 (Tuesday)
We stood guard from midnight to 0300. One of us got pine branches for the bottom of our hole and sprinkled snow on the dirt we'd dug out. Our artillery and the Germans' were firing at each other a lot. A patrol from the 17th Airborne came through the patch on our right and Bob challenged them. This was one of my coldest nights, so we dug every now and then to keep warm. We also went to the back of the woods to get more pine branches, clumsily knocking snow from the trees all over us. Everyone we passed was asleep. We put the branches on top of us, hoping they'd provide some insulation, and huddled close together. About 0500 I dozed off. Thirty minutes later I heard someone say, "Bedrolls." I looked all around, but did not see any halftracks. Someone said to go back to the road, but only Col. Hearn was there.
It turned out that the track was in front of our woods and across a little valley with a stream running through it. The driver was Casimir ("Colonel") Wycech, a good friend from Camp Cooke. I got a bedroll and dashed back to Bob, and he got into it. I wrapped a blanket around me and slept for about
half an hour. Then Kissel woke us. I rolled up the bedroll and took it to Wycech's track, getting back to our area just as the squads were pulling out.
Leaving the woods, Jan. 16.
As we came out of the woods Lt. Hughston spoke to each man by name, to cheer us up. He asked if I still had my .45 (it was under my coat). I replied, "Yes, Sir," and he said, "I traded mine for a P-38." I said, "Sounds like a good deal." As I walked I ate a cheese K ration, thinking how much I hated K ration cheese, but that I needed to store up energy for what might happen that day.
(I never was hungry in combat.)
After crossing the first open space, we stopped in a woods. A platoon of tanks came by and almost ran us down. Then we got on a little road that ran alongside a bigger patch of woods. Whenever we stopped, we ducked into the woods for concealment. The woods had been badly shelled and were full of small craters and a few fallen trees. Perhaps this had been an observation post for the Germans. Some tanks came alongside and we didn't like that, because they might draw fire. We moved further into the woods and dug in on the forward edge.
In front of us was a gentle slope and at the bottom was a road that ran to Houffalize. [Not the main road from Bastogne to Houffalize but, as the battalion history says, the Bertogne-Compogne road which continues to Houffalize.] We all stared at the road, because we thought that was what we'd been aiming to cut for the last four days. Down at a little crossroads in the valley, where the small road we'd been on joined the main road, were three knocked-out US tanks. Across the road and on a hill was a good-sized town [Bertogne, I believe]. We were to fire on it, but it appeared to be unoccupied and to already have been taken.
I hung my rifle, pack, etc. on a fallen tree by my foxhole and lit a heat tab in it, to try to dry my gloves. A couple holes to my right, the boys had a small fire going. I sat around with them, warming my feet and making cocoa. Capt. Houy was sitting by a fire with the guys and asked me how my feet were. I lied and said, "Fine." A lot of dugouts were nearby and someone had found a German MG and leaned it against a tree. Now that we need not be so alert, relaxation led to my becoming very tired and discouraged.
Orders to move out came several times, but always there were delays. Finally about 1300 we moved down the slope, carrying ammo. At the main road the halftracks were waiting for us, ours last in line. There were many dead horses in the road, which the tracks had run over and neatly squashed. We threw our stuff in the track and climbed in. With Pike, Telly and Toups gone, there was more room than before. We all ate a C ration and at least one K ration too, and drank cup after cup of water from the five-gallon can--like camels trying to store up food and water--and soon we were well stuffed.
As we drove down the road [east, to near Mabompre, according to the battalion history], we could see terrific damage on all sides. At least every 100 yards was a knocked-out tank, in the ratio of two US to one German. Most of them were still smoking. You could see where the German tanks had been, waiting for the US tanks to sweep around a corner. Some of the German tanks were on the edge of woods, others behind a single tree--for concealment from the air, I supposed. The US tanks had been hit in the road and had been hauled off to the side, to let other vehicles pass. There were no large groups of prisoners, so I wondered if anybody had survived the tank battle. Guns were booming up ahead and it was plain that it was not far to the battle now going on.
After a few miles the track turned left off the road and into a field. As soon as it stopped we hopped out and started to dig. Bob and I dug individual holes so we wouldn't get in each other's way. Mortar shells were dropping all around and a couple of times when shells hit close to us we flopped partly on top of each other. Despite the shelling, "Doc" Magelli drove around in his peep, giving two Hershey bars to each man. That little show of downright "guts" cheered us all up. When we finished digging, I said to Bob, "It sure makes a Christian out of you, doesn't it?"
Other things were going on: A peep was rushing some German prisoners to the rear (for questioning)--a couple sitting on the hood, others in the seat. They wore white capes and pants. What I thought was a plane went over, its motor chugging and a big light coming from its exhaust. Frank Kissel said it was a "buzz bomb" (German V-1 rocket). Brad Herzog was getting straw at a stack and it caved in, buried him, and almost smothered him. But he was rescued. About this time two men left with frozen feet: Black from our squad and Bob Ilsley from Ramsay's. Wahoo was ordered to go but refused.
We arranged for guard, one hour at a time, and I went on about 2200. I just stood up in the hole and looked around. In the middle of the road sat a German King Tiger tank, too heavy to be moved. Vehicles had to detour around it, with much yelling and gunning of motors. When George Fisher was on guard, Col. Bell went by in his peep, driving himself.
I didn't have to take my second guard tour later, because one of the boys in another squad guarded for 6 straight hours, taking others' turns. We figured he did this to make up for a little trick he was said to have pulled on Jan. 14. The story was that when the company was having its worst time, a wounded man and a medic went by him. This man, it was said, got up and followed them back, even though he wasn't hurt. We understood that on a bad day a man could act in a way that he would not have acted in otherwise. And this fellow had done something to make up for it.
HOLDING THE LINE
January 17 (Wednesday)
I had a swell night's sleep and awoke almost too late for breakfast: French toast with marmalade and bread with peanut butter. I melted some snow and washed my hands, which were in such bad shape that the warm water made them sting. (My wrists were so painfully chapped that I dug with only one hand unless shells were landing around us.) Then we got into the track and drove off. I had taken my watch off to wash, and if Bob hadn't checked our holes before we left I would have left it behind.
We went a short distance [to near Cobru, halfway between Bastogne and Houffalize and just west of Noville, which would be the battalion headquarters], parked the track in a little strip of woods, and dug in. I enjoyed a K ration in the front seat of the track with Charlie Crouch, who heated the scrambled eggs on our gas stove. (Charlie was always doing nice things for people.) Kissel and Sellers started to cut logs to make a roof for their foxhole, Rienstra started a fire to make coffee, and I photographed Wahoo grinning as he looked over the side of the track.
About 1600 we mounted up and drove on. We passed many replacements on their way to the front, with bedrolls hanging from a rope over their shoulder. They were wearing overcoats (as we were), but they didn't look very warm. It was snowing and everything along the road had been shelled and looked crummy.
We pulled into Bourcy [4 km east of Noville], a ruined town that we thought would be a good place for a rest. But Cangley yelled, "Get out of the town! They've shelled it three times in the last hour." We ran up the street, over a bridge, and a little ways along a road that led into the country, to positions held by an element of the 17th Airborne that we were to relieve.
It took our noncoms a long time to figure out how to position us, so we stood around in the road and talked to some of the men of the 17th: a lieutenant in a stylish mackinaw and a few privates. They told us they had had heavy losses and had received no replacements. They said they still had to make an attack to clear out a woods 500 yards in front of us, but we did not see this happen. They simply left.
We set up a MG in a foxhole that looked down the road toward the country, but it wasn't clear where to put the rest of us. The 17th had fixed up dugouts with a roof of timber with dirt on top of it, and we went along the line, dropping off two or three men in each one. Kissel had put me with Ramsay's squad, and when all the dugouts had been filled Ed Bergh and I were left over. Ramsay pointed to a spot in the frozen ground and told us to dig there. We blew up and Ed went to Cangley, who said we each should get in a dugout where there already were two men. I got in with Danny McNulty and Jim Penix. The dugout was L-shaped, with one part of the L being steps to the ground level, 5 feet above. The other part was 4 by 7 feet and had a mattress.
Jim took the first tour of guard, 1900-2100, and I took the 2100-0100 shifts, 4 hours, to avoid having my sleep interrupted later to take a second 2-hour turn. A lot of shells came over, mostly German. Part of the time I stood on the steps and ducked down when I heard a shell coming. At other times I got out and walked around, stomping my feet to try to warm them, but then I had to dash and sometimes to dive for the steps. But no shells came close; they were headed for the town, behind us.
January 18 (Thursday)
When I finished guard, the chow came in, so I went up the line of holes to the road and walked toward the town. As I passed a hedge, a voice rang out in the dark: "What's the password?" I couldn't think of it, but I recognized Lt. Been's voice. (He was concealed behind the hedge.) I said, "It's Bill Fee, Lt. Been. I don't remember the password." He gave me a hint: "It's something to drink." Then it came to me: "Whiskey," and the countersign was "Bourbon." I went on, thinking how comical this was.
In the town, I could hear mess kits banging, so I had no trouble finding the chow. I got a clean mess kit from the track, had a good meal, and went back to the dugout. There, McNulty, whom I'd awakened as my relief before I went to chow, was asleep. I stood guard till 0200, and then got him up to go on duty. He said that I could sleep the rest of the night, but he was called to the CP to lead a patrol, so I had to stand more guard.
Our deployment at Bourcy, Jan. 17-20.
Jim and I were not too conscientious about guard after daylight came. Breakfast was late, so we ate a K ration. We tried to clean off the mud that had gotten on our equipment from the sides of the dugout that had gotten gooey because it was so warm in there.
Behind us was a house that stood out prominently. Cangley used the right front room as his CP, and furniture had been gathered there. There was a smoky stove, a couch, and two beds. Two squad leaders seemed to lie around there all the time, instead of being out in the field with their men. In the morning I went there and cleaned my rifle and my pistol. Then Lt. Hughston made some of us clear out, saying that not enough men were on guard. I was glad to leave, because a lot of shells were landing nearby and the windows were shaking badly.
I went back to the dugout with Jim. The noncoms had gotten water from a pump beside the house and put it on a fire to warm it to wash in. I decided to fix up our dugout with straw and went to a nearby stack. As I was pulling out sheaves, a few 88 shells burst forth from the woods, narrowly missing the stack. I tore for the hole, about 10 yards away, that one of my best friends and his buddy had dug for their bazooka post. I crawled in under the boards and found my friend sitting there alone.
I said, "Don't mind me, an 88 chased me in." He certainly didn't mind; he desperately needed company. He was shaking, and his face was white. His teeth were chattering, and he had difficulty talking. This happened to all of us at times, and he had been through more than most of us, especially a patrol the previous night. And then shelling in the town and now in the field.
He told me about the patrol: McNulty had been called to the CP and told to take a patrol along the railroad tracks to see if there were any Germans there. He chose Fisher, Sevich, Vornoli, and maybe a few others. They did everything by the numbers--no letters or other identifying evidence, wool caps instead of helmets, so as not to make noise, etc. They were very thorough and looked in every dugout they came across for half a mile, finding nothing.
I tried to cheer my friend up by saying I thought we'd be going to a rest camp. But he was bitterly disappointed by a package he'd gotten from home. "What do you think was in it?" he asked, shaking his head sadly. "Soap! Soap! A whole five pounds of soap!" It was both pathetic and comical, but I didn't dare laugh or smile. There were two peppermint sticks, and he gave me one.
"There's a swell item in the newspaper that was used for padding in the box," he went on. "It's a letter written by a GI in a rest camp." He read the story in a shaky voice, holding the paper in equally unsteady hands. The soldier told how he'd thought it would be impossible to ever be clean again, but now he was. "Gee," he said, brightening up, "this gives me hope! Do you think we'll ever get to a rest camp? Will we ever get clean again?"
I said I doubted we'd ever get clean again, but so did this man and he was wrong, so I must be wrong too. I doubted that anybody would get to a rest camp because this was such a crucial campaign, but surely we would get some rest soon. In fact we had to, given our casualties and the shape that we survivors were in. But despite my words we'd both lost all hope of ever being relieved.
Bourcy, photographed from the bridge over
the railroad tracks. The large house in the center
was the platoon command post. Our foxholes were in the field
between the house and the woods.
Every couple of minutes an 88 would zoom over into the town and we'd go flat against the dirt. Then we'd sit back up, look each other in the eye, make a face or shrug our shoulders, clear our throat, and try to go on talking. We both thought, "Look at all the casualties we've had. We can't go on forever. Sooner or later they'll get us too." I looked at the boards on the top of the hole and could imagine a shell landing right there.
When the shelling let up I went to the stack again, got some straw, and fixed up the dugout I'd been in before I barged in with my friend. Ramsay came from the house and told me I could go there and wash. I washed in the left front room--using my helmet as a washbowl--shaved, scrubbed my teeth, and put Mennen Brushless Shave Cream (from Connie Rienstra) on my hands and wrists. I got a V-mail form and went back to the dugout to write a quick letter to my family.
Then Jim left the dugout to wash, and I stood guard. Word came that B Co. was being attacked, so we should be on the alert, especially since German tanks were involved. Kissel came along and told me to move in with Wahoo and Connie, who manned a MG in the straw stack. I climbed in through the side where a piece of tin served as a door. Inside, it was warm and comfortable, since the only opening was a little observation hole in a piece of canvas that hung over the 6x12" opening in the stack for the MG. The dirt had been excavated only about 6", the rest of the space being hollowed out from the stack, with planks holding up the straw "ceiling." I thought it was a death trap.
Kissel came around with the password and said there was chow in town. Chief and Connie didn't want to leave what they thought was the security of their shelter and asked me to bring them back some C rations. Chow was cooked at the battalion CP at Noville, brought to Bourcy in Pennick's track, and served in a garage. A story was going around that when a shell fell nearby, Andy Chellios, a cook, dove into the grease pit and fell onto a dead German over whom they'd been serving food all day. We ate from dirty mess kits: Since there was no way to wash them, we just rubbed them with snow, which left some of the food to stick to the mess kit and freeze there. But nobody got sick.
The chow was great--it even included canned cherries! The bread was dirty, the weather was very cold, and shells fell nearby, but I still enjoyed the feast. I got the C rations and stopped at the platoon CP to heat them. I put them by the stove and listened to the guys BS-ing.
After a lot of joking about who had been most scared recently, the conversation drifted to the patrol that Col. Bell had ordered to see if a small town ahead was occupied. Jack Morrison was in charge and had with him Autobe, Pat Hanley, Jack Snyder, Len Rosenberg, Ed Bergh, [Bob Macartney, and Andrew Leonard, according to Ed in a recent conversation]. All day long our artillery had been silent because of our patrols. Now they wanted to fire but Jack's group had not returned and they hesitated if our men were still out there. And at 1700 S/Sgt. Clifford Geho's mortar squad was supposed to fire at a house it was believed Germans were in. We were worried about the patrol and had no idea where it might be. Other strange talk was going on, too: Someone thought the Germans had observers in the town, for which reason we used the side door to the house and not the front door. Ramsay said he'd cut German wires in the town.
Into this tense situation burst Bergh, yelling excitedly, "They got everybody but me!" We gave him a seat on the bed and a cigarette and told him to take
it easy. He calmed down and told us, "We went out along the railroad tracks where patrols had gone last night. About half a mile out, three burp guns opened up, one from a barn in front of us and one from each side. The patrol was surrounded and had to surrender after two men were killed and others were wounded. I was the get-away man, so my job was to get back to report what had happened. After I got a distance away I tried to fire with my grease gun [submachine gun] but it wouldn't fire. I was behind a tree and took off again. They saw me and fired at me. They put a slug through the heel of my galosh but only burned my foot. I kept on running and ran into a man from the 4th platoon who was standing on the railroad embankment."
Then a barrage of screaming meemies came our way and hit all around the house. Cangley burst in and yelled, "Hit the floor!" The CP was so crowded that I ran into the next room and flopped on the floor--into the slop the guys had thrown around when they'd washed there. The house shook, and I expected it to come tumbling down on my head. When the shelling stopped I ran to the dugout. I was embarrassed to tell Chief and Connie that I'd forgotten the C rations, but I gave them a couple of D chocolate bars. They didn't say anything.
As I was getting set for the night, one of the boys stuck his head into the stack and said, his voice trembling, "Somebody's gotta come out with me. My buddy is down at the CP and I'm all alone." I went with him and told him to go to sleep and I'd stand guard. He gathered up a couple blankets and went down into the dugout. I lay in the opening with my head sticking out. In the rear I saw Ramsay with men I didn't recognize and asked who they were. "Replacements." In the middle of a cold, snowy night they were being brought up and put into a foxhole, not knowing the men around them, just as Ernie Pyle wrote about in Italy! One of the replacements was Cpl. Solomon, from Vandergrift, Pa. He and another one got into the dugout and I went back to the stack.
There, Wahoo oriented Connie and me for the night. He spoke precisely and quietly, which meant that he was tense. (When he was relaxed, he rambled.) He explained everything, probably the first time anybody had done this: "If you see a German, use a carbine. It won't make as much of a noise or a flash. And hold it back in here, since that will muffle the sound. Don't fire the MG unless you have to. Keep your weapon where you can get at it immediately. Wake me if you are ever in doubt."
The three of us each took 2 hours of guard at a time. Chief wanted the shift that began an hour before dawn, because that was when an attack was most likely to occur. During my turn it snowed a lot. Nothing happened except that our artillery fired one round. It scored a direct hit on the barn to our front that Bergh said had housed a German MG. The barn went up in enormous flames and burned brilliantly for an hour. I sucked on D bars and thought how vulnerable our company was. Every half-hour I worked the bolt on the MG so that it wouldn't freeze up. (If it had frozen, a single shot would free the bolt.) When not on guard, we slept on our side, nestled together for warmth under a couple of blankets. When 88's came over we rolled onto our stomach, to lie flatter, and rolled back together when the shelling stopped.
January 19 (Friday)
Wahoo pulled a neat little trick--I think--to get me up for breakfast when I was too sleepy to care about eating. He told me, "I lost a glove somewhere in the blankets, so you'll have to get up so I can look." No glove was found,
and he wouldn't say whether it was a trick or not. But we had a lot of fun, kidding each other about it.
In the town, as I got a mess kit from the track, Charlie Crouch called to me from the cellar of the house next to it, "Hey, Fee, c'mon down here when you get your chow." Down there, "CD" was running a little "rest camp" for our squad, one of the kind things he always was doing. He provided us clean mess kits by washing the used ones in melted snow on the gas stove, and we reheated our food on the stove. We also dried our clothes there.
Charlie had a reserve supply of food, having found a l0-in-1 ration lying in the street and dragged it into the basement. A little while after he told me about this I was standing in the street and an officer and his driver pulled up and told me they'd lost their 10-in-1 ration. Had I seen it? No, I said, figuring the boys would kill me if I told them that we had it.
The houses were ruined. Not much of the upper stories remained. Strangely, a battered WWI French helmet was lying in what was left of a room in Charlie's house. Only the basements of most houses were usable. Charlie slept on the rubble in the cellar of his house along with Frank Prioux. A couple of Belgian men came down and talked to Frank. They said their homes were ruined by the shelling, and that American vandalism had damaged them too. I knew this was true of the house with Cangley's CP: Some of our guys were too lazy to go outside to go to the toilet, so they simply used the second floor.
I spent the morning in the cellar. A couple of times, shells fell outside. We shut the door, hit the floor, and sweated it out. In the early afternoon, Wahoo and I were in the stack together. I watched him carefully as he sat on a box of MG ammo and looked out intently over the terrain. His sharp eyes were focused on dots in the snow, far away--Germans walking around, he said. It dawned on me how diligent, as well as expert, a soldier he was. Others were loafing in the CP or Charlie's basement while he was on the job and on the ball. My feet had been bothering me greatly and I'd considered going to the medics. But here was Chief, with the worst feet of all, never complaining about them (or anything). I couldn't leave a guy like that. Even though I wasn't a superman, I could do a little to help.
[As a token of my affection, I "willed" Wahoo my .45 a few days before I was wounded, and he wore it to the end of the war. An indication of his feelings came in a letter of July 1945, written in response to my words of gratitude. "I sure wasn't no brave guy. I was just as scared as all the rest of the boys. But what I did know I told anybody that asked me. It wasn't too much, but sometimes it helped. You and Pike was my boys and I sure didn't want anything to happen to you two." Jackson died a few years after the war.]
Late in the afternoon, Fisher and Solomon moved in. We did some digging and put up more sandbags. Then we relaxed: We read an issue of "The Stars and Stripes" that mentioned the 11th, and we tried to remember the words to the theme song of the dance band leader Johnny Long, "A Shanty in Old Shantytown."
That night we had a double guard, and Fisher and I were on together. We talked about how great Wahoo was, and George filled me in on some of the events on January 14. We slept well in the stack, but it was crowded.
January 20 (Saturday)
We now took a shortcut to go back and forth to Bourcy. Instead of using the bridge over the railroad tracks, we crossed the tracks at the railroad station where the ground was level and walked up a ruined street to the kitchen. As we were drying our clothes in "CD"'s basement, Kissel said that CCA would attack the next morning. [We were CCR, but this suggested that we'd be involved.] That stopped everything. We all cursed, and Bob Sellers said, "My dad told me there'd be days like this, but he didn't tell me there'd be so many in a row."
Bob and I went back to the foxholes and straightened things up. Word came that we'd be moving out and that the final chow was being served in the town, so I ran to the kitchen and got my share from Jim Corns, a cook. I ran all the way back to the foxholes so that Wederich would have time to get his, and I ate my meal in the hole.
When we left the field to assemble in the town, I carried four boxes of MG ammo, in addition to all my gear. It was too much [for a nonathletic 19-year-old who stood 5'7" tall and weighed 130 pounds], and I soon discarded two of the boxes. Then I got lost in the town and wasted my energy going in the wrong direction. A GI in a light tank was willing to take one of the two remaining boxes, and I was able to make it to the halftrack carrying the last one. My feet were burning and I was so exhausted that I could only collapse in the front seat. But I recovered and was ready to go when we moved out on foot. [It must have been late in the afternoon or possibly already dark, because I remember this only as a night march.]
As we left Bourcy, I was grateful for the improved conditions we had had there but I recalled with disgust that we had gotten no help from the 602nd Tank Destroyer [like a tank, but with lighter armor] Battalion. They'd spent all of their time in the town, frantically digging, never coming out to help us. Wederich told me a German scout car came within 200 yards of him and all he could do was to look at it helplessly.
We started down the road to Boeur, but most of the march was through fields with 2 feet of snow. Snow was coming down heavily and it blew in our faces. We waded through drifts, slid down banks, and struggled up rises, for 8 or 9 miles. At the top of a rise by a woods I passed a GI from the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon and hardly noticed him because he was wearing a white cape. Ahead of us, flashes of light from exploding shells lit up the sky.
The exertion was terrible. One of the strongest men, carrying a MG [32 pounds], fell behind several times and eventually had to stop. He tossed the MG into a halftrack and stayed in a house. I couldn't have kept up if Tony Matzie hadn't carried my box of ammo part of the time. One way I kept going was to recite to myself the letters of the word H-o-u-f-f-a-l-i-z-e [the critically important town], forcing myself to take a step with each letter. Concentrating on the reciting kept my mind off my feet, which burned so much that they went numb. I'm sure that happened to others, too.
The other way I managed to keep going was to follow the example of Wahoo, just in front of me. As gunner, he was required only to carry the MG tripod. But he also toted a box of ammo and had a belt of ammo wrapped around his neck. Through the falling snow I could manage to make out that short, fat blob, and I forced myself to keep up with him. He never uttered a sound of pain or
anger, but you could tell he was suffering both by the way he slammed his box of ammo into the snow whenever we had a brief rest. The rests provided an opportunity to recover, but we were impatient to get to our destination and we cursed the brass who we thought didn't have any idea where they were going.
We passed several houses and a tiny village. The companies in front of us peeled off and began to dig in along the side of the road. After passing some more tiny villages we came to Boeur, 4 km northeast of Bourcy. We stopped briefly beside a church which blocked the blowing snow. I recognized "Sack" Vornoli and hoped to be amused if I could provoke one of his laments. I teased him, "Great life, isn't it, Phil?" but he was too discouraged to answer. A loud, gruff voice broke the silence, over by one of the houses: "The hell with them! You get in there and sleep!" It sounded like a sergeant was billeting his men for the night and the residents were objecting.
Soon we learned that Hq. Co. halftracks had driven into the town by road and all that walking had been unnecessary. We really fumed, but there wasn't much further to go. We went up a hill 3/4 of a mile beyond Boeur and were told to dig in for the night. It was then about midnight. Kissel and Wahoo went back in the woods to dig, but Sellers and Wederich and I dug out in the open. It was one of the most discouraging times. We pushed 2 feet of snow away and found the crust harder and deeper than any we'd encountered. Only Sellers had the strength to make the shovel stick.
Capt. Houy came up to us with a blanket thrown over his shoulders and started to talk to us. He told us we'd had to come the long way because a better route hadn't been found earlier. He said the halftracks would be up soon. He didn't think there were any Germans around, so we could put the tops on the tracks and get in them and get the stoves going. CCA would attack in the morning, but we probably wouldn't be needed. He said Gen. Kilburn promised to use his influence with the 8th Corps commander to get us a break and that we should be relieved soon.
Each squad was told to send a man into Boeur to guide its track to the squad. I went down with Ed Bergh, who'd taken over Morrison's squad after Jack was captured. I met DeYoung, who was driving his track up, having unhitched the 57 mm gun after it had hit a mine. He told me that a couple of tracks had hit mines under the snow but that Charlie was OK and would be along. Several tracks were parked in front of a house in which the drivers were sleeping. I got into Leo Gutche's track to keep warm and sat in the front seat. I wanted to stay alert, but I fell asleep.
The sound of motors woke me, and I ran out and found Charlie's track. He drove up the hill with me walking in front of it, trying to keep it on the road. As we neared the spot where our squad was digging I didn't know where they wanted it, so I ran to Sellers and asked him. As we were talking, Capt. Houy came up and asked, "Who's supposed to be guiding Crouch? He just hit a mine."
I ran down to the track as Charlie came stumbling out of the door. I asked if he was OK and he answered, "Yeah. Holy , it was a terrific explosion. It blew everything up off the floor and made a big flash and smoke inside." It would have been a big shock for Charlie, but he was always pleasant, and he wasn't upset or angry.
Our deployment outside Boeur, Jan. 21.
Sellers came down and we tried to get the track back on the road. But in maneuvering, the right front wheel set off a mine. It scattered dirt all over us but no one was hurt. We had to quit fooling with the vehicle because the right track was broken (although the drive mechanism was OK) and the right front tire was blown and the rim bent. We figured that these had been small mines and that a Teller mine would have killed Charlie.
January 21 (Sunday)
It was now about 0200. Since nothing more could be done, Charlie and I got in the front seat of the track, put a blanket over us, and tried to sleep. I couldn't get to sleep, but it was good to be there with "CD." Later, word came up that he could go back and sleep in a barn with the other drivers. As he left, he told me there were three D ration bars on the floor that I could have if I could find them in the dark. About 0400 Ed Bergh came in and joined me. It was said that John Slye had pneumonia and was to be evacuated but never was even though Lt. Hughston brought up a peep for that purpose. And that Danny McNulty went back to Boeur, saying he was sick.
I thought that our track would not be a safe place in daylight, since it was exposed on the top of a rise. As soon as it got light I got out and went up to a foxhole where George Fisher was just getting up. He was in a German hole that had been tunneled under as well as dug straight down. In a big hole nearby, Jim Penix was on guard and "Sack" Vornoli was half asleep with a blanket over his head. Jim was in good spirits; bad conditions never bothered him. "Sack" was the opposite, and he wasn't feeling so hot. We loved him like a brother, but we reserved the right to laugh at him--he really was a sight, half awake in that blanket! He cut loose with some of his choicest expressions, which only made us laugh more.
From our track, I got out the 10-in-1 ration that Charlie had found in Bourcy and distributed the K ration supper units to our squad and gave one to George. He and I heated the meat portions on a heat tab in his hole. I lay in the "tunnel" part and he sat in the "straight down" part. There were crackers and butter too, and it all tasted good. There was nothing doing, so we just loafed. I got my camera out of my pack on the halftrack and took pictures of George, the woods, and Boeur. [This film, like some others, apparently was lost.] There was no sign of CCA attacking, but there was a trail of smoke from the sky down to the ground, as if a plane had been shot down.
Capt. Houy came over to George and me, looking neat in a snappy field jacket, with compass as well as carbine and pistol belt. He said, "I'm sorry we had to do all that walking last night. Wait a minute till I get this friggin' map.... See--we had to walk 9 miles to come about 2. When we pulled out, the 41st Cavalry reported drifts of snow 4 feet deep, so we had to come the long way. Later they found a short path for the halftracks but we didn't know about it when we left." I asked him if he thought we'd go back to a rest camp. Only to Boeur, he thought. George and I were surprised that he came over and talked so informally with us. I guess we still expected that "Camp Roberts discipline." George was amused at his description of the map.
I was hungry, so I got a C ration from "Col." Wycech's command track. He said the news over the radio was good: CCA was ripping along and the Reconnaissance Squadron couldn't find any Germans. So it seemed that the campaign was almost over for us. I heated my C ration (hash) on a fire the boys had going back in
the woods and mixed the bitter lemonade that came with it. There were about a dozen German dugouts in the woods, 8 feet square and 2 feet deep. Sticks were heaped on top for a roof, and with the snow on top they looked like mounds. I found one that was empty except for a German jacket, soluble German coffee, and what seemed to have been a guard roster. George and I put straw in the bottom, got some blankets, and went to sleep about 1300.
About 1600 they woke us. We were relieved! We gathered up our stuff and walked down to Boeur. Sgt. Magelli directed us to a house and we found a room upstairs. I did not have my bedroll with me and didn't have the energy to go back to the track to get it, or even to care. I was so weak I thought I was going to be sick and might collapse at any moment. Wahoo went back to the track and got it for me. I sure appreciated that!
Chow was to be served in a couple of hours, bur we were too tired to wait for it. We unrolled our bedrolls, and they covered every square inch of the floor. I told the others, "If you have to get up, it's OK to step on my head, but if anyone steps on my feet I'll murder him." The drivers pulled guard, so we could sleep the whole night for the first time in weeks--16 straight hours, from 1600 to 0800.
A GOOD REST
January 22 (Monday)
I got up feeling like a million dollars and had three helpings of cereal and French toast for breakfast. In the house where we were quartered, part of the 2nd platoon occupied the parlor. Upstairs, McNulty's and Ramsay's squads were in a back room, except that Charlie Fetrow and two replacements were with our squad in a front room. One of the replacements was a wise guy who wasn't too popular. The other, a quiet fellow, was a good egg. (He was wounded by a mine in the Siegfried Line.)
The baby in the house had died, due to the severity of the winter and the privations of the war. The mother was grief-stricken and cried half of the time. She said she hoped God would accept her baby's life as a sacrifice in place of ours. The father, a little, old-looking man, went on with his work. Every so often neighbors would come in to pay their respects and the women would cry on each other's shoulder. The men just talked quietly.
In the morning I wrote a V-mail, heated water in my helmet on the gas stove, and washed. In "The Stars and Stripes" I read about the shoepacks [cold weather boots] we'd be getting, and that rear echelon units were being broken up to furnish replacements. I also read "YANK"--the issue with the GI on the cover with six Schmeisser machine pistols. Inside were good pictures the Germans had taken in the early days of the Bulge breakthrough.
In the afternoon I cleaned my rifle and pistol thoroughly. Then Bob Wederich and I gave the MG a good cleaning. We had good chow that night, including baked beans. Jensen brought the family some of the chow and they seemed to enjoy it. Downstairs by the light of a smoky GI heat tab (not like the smokeless heat tabs my father had sent me), he was talking the family's little daughter into eating the beans. There was good chicken noodle soup too, and I brought it back in my mess kit cup to enjoy in our room. When I found that Charlie Crouch had had no supper I gave it to him and went back and got more
for myself in Loy's cup. The food was too rich for many of the guys after eating C and K rations most of the time. Some of the boys were vomiting and others had "the GIs" (diarrhea).
When it got dark some of the men went downstairs to write letters, but Charlie and Bob Sellers and I stayed upstairs and went to bed early. But first we talked about how things had gone and especially how much we thought of Wahoo. Bob admired him because he knew so much that was useful. The Chief was "CD"'s favorite "because he never griped."
January 23 (Tuesday)
In the morning I wrote a long air mail letter home, putting in all that I'd been thinking of for the preceding month. After lunch we lined up in front of a barn, to be issued a pair of shoepacks, 2 pairs of big socks, and 2 felt liners, in exchange for our civilian galoshes. The line extended into the open area where the kitchen was. As we stood there I saw a very old woman and an old man carrying bundles of sticks into a wing of the barn. She barely hobbled along, her back bent under the heavy load. She did most of the carrying and all of the arranging of the bundles inside the barn.
We figured we'd be moving out soon, and when I saw Jim Gibbons down at "the trench" (outdoor latrine), he thought we'd be going back to Magerotte. We rounded up our stuff and went to our disabled track, which had been hauled to a lot across the street from the kitchen, to get our other possessions. To get there, we went through a narrow alley between two buildings. Lying around in the alley were German machine carbine ammo in paper boxes and propaganda leaflets of four types. One had a pin-up picture of the actress Angela Green with the message, "Longing for you!" On the other side was a skeleton and helmet with the words, "Waiting for you!"
Another leaflet said, "It's time for some common sense. Look, GI, you're having a tough time, lying there in your muddy foxhole and we're doing the same. It's all futile, so why don't you come over? Do you believe all those lies they tell you? Just look at the other side." On the reverse were views of prison camp life: a British officer, all slicked up, sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper and a group of men, all nice and clean, playing volleyball. It said, "This is what you'll be doing AND you know you'll come back safe to your loved ones."
A third leaflet quoted pronouncements by Allied leaders--Eisenhower, Marshall, FDR, Eden, Churchill--saying that the war would end in '42 or '43 and the comment: "It's easy for them to make statements like that, but it's guys like YOU that have to do the fighting. Are you getting a little discouraged?"
The fourth leaflet was entitled, "The Red Monster Reaches Out." It showed a big dragon, Russia, with claws reaching into Germany. A couple German soldiers were shown facing the dragon, while a couple others were on the Western Front, facing the other way. Over the Allied position in western Europe was a big question mark. The text said, "Why should we be fighting each other? The real danger is Russia. We're the same kind of people, yet you are fighting us when we are doing you a favor by fighting the arch-enemy."
We got our musette bags and bedrolls from our track and went over to Ramsay's track. He had room for us because of casualties. We pulled out about 1500.
A Company at Boeur, Jan. 21-23.
I sat with Glen Loy, and soon we had a blanket over our heads for protection from the cold and the heavy snow that was coming down. We went through Bastogne and noted that all of the windows were shattered. It seemed that every building was an aid station with a Red Cross flag on it and ambulances lined up in front. We were astonished--and angry--at the large number of rear echelon troops, after we'd been so thinly stretched at the front. And they were wearing the shoepacks we should have had. I was glad I'd not known all this when we were up front.
After a couple of hours we came to Magerotte. We pulled into a snowy field and dismounted. Nobody knew where we'd sleep, and we just stood around until Maj. Blalock came along and got things organized. A woman in one of the houses said something to McNulty about "Chambre." He knew that meant "room," so he went into her house and Kissel told us to follow.
The stucco house sat back a little ways from the street, and was attached to a large stone barn that was on the right as you faced the house. Inside the front door was a vestibule about 10 feet long and then another door that opened into the kitchen. As you entered the kitchen, to the left rear alongside the vestibule was a pantry with pots and pans and brooms. (The brooms weren't like our manufactured straw ones. They were made of twigs tied to a pole--the kind witches were supposed to ride.) On the right was a door to the parlor, which was occupied by some men from a tank destroyer outfit who were frying potatoes when we came in. They moved out the next morning, and Cangley used the parlor as a CP, with the squad leaders sleeping there. To the far right was a door to the barn.
Upstairs, you emerged from the stairs into an open space about 15 feet square that our squad occupied. Against the right wall was a bed that Sellers and Wederich slept in. (The rest of us slept on the floor.) On the other side of the wall was the family's room. McNulty's squad had a room to the rear. The place was a dream, and I thought, "If only it lasts!"
We had good chow from the company kitchen--wieners or sausages--and Connie Rienstra shared a fruit cake from home. We went right to bed, but I had to get up for guard. Each squad had to cover one tour, providing two men--one at the door of the house and one at the vehicles. I chose the vehicles and it wasn't bad. I walked around, praying: thanking God for bringing me through OK, praying for the folks at home, and asking that we get some good rest "if it's OK with you."
January 24 (Wednesday)
"CD" came in with the halftrack in the morning, and we cleaned it out. We must have had a couple hundred pounds of junk that we turned in to the supply room. A shell had burst over the track in Bourcy and ruined the dashboard and riddled our bedrolls and the seat cushions that held our spare clothes. Also, our bedrolls had gotten mixed up, so we divided up the least damaged ones. I got Telly's bedroll and Pike's extra clothes--which I sewed up to make them fully serviceable. We added some bazooka rockets and a couple of extra entrenching shovels and made sure we had a full supply of rations. The idea of getting ready to go again, being prepared to pull out at any moment, was a troubling thought.
A Company at Magerotte, Jan. 23-Feb. 4
As we finished cleaning up the track, Frank Kissel came up with our squad's first replacements, two good eggs from an antiaircraft outfit. Sammon was a fairly young blonde fellow from Texas. Solterro was a little older, a former
mine foreman from New Mexico. We regarded them as full-fledged members of the squad and made room for them in our space in the house instead of putting them in the barn, as most squads did. (That was no way to get to know them and to
develop "squad spirit.") Sammon was a sergeant and Solterro a corporal. They took off their stripes, as many replacements did, since they would be ordinary members of the squad.
That first day they were out being issued shoepacks, bedrolls, etc., so I cleaned the MG alone. At night "CD" moved the track up by the stone wall in front of the house and ran a wire from the battery through the window, so we could rig up a light by which we could read or write. I wrote a couple long air mails and went to bed. Sammon and Solterro took the squad's guard tour.
January 25 (Thursday)
Things began to get down to a system. We were awakened for breakfast by Wren Morgan, Cangley's runner, or by the man on guard. Often it would be too late, and there'd be a big storm about that. It was hard to get up but Wahoo would help, usually singling out Charlie Crouch. "Oh, CD," he would chant humorously, "Seedy, get up! Get up and pay for your bed!" Charlie would mutter "OK" and go back to sleep. Chief would babble on and whistle, eventually getting Charlie up and putting us all in a happy mood. Wahoo made the squad what it was. He was the morale builder, and we couldn't have gotten by without him.
Another of the Chief's accustomed ways was to buck the chow line and the mess kit washing line. He was so clever about it that it was fun to watch him. He'd either go up to someone toward the front of the line, start talking to him, and then slip in, or come from the side the line wasn't coming from and step in ahead of the man at the head of the line. He'd done this his entire time in the Army, and it was taken for granted. He was a colorful sight. Around his waist he wore a cloth belt that previously had held MG cartridges that he had replaced with carbine cartridges. On the belt he wore a sheath
knife he had made himself. It had a long, thin blade and a handle made of many rings of metal of different colors [Sometimes, unexpectedly Wahoo would throw the knife and make it stick in a wall.]
Magelli checked the chow line to be sure that each man was carrying a weapon and wearing a helmet. By wearing my .45 I didn't have to carry a rifle or carbine, but he told me to put a camouflage net on my helmet. We'd gotten rid of our nets because they got in the way when a helmet was used to wash in or for other purposes. The nets were useless as camouflage against snow, but they were required so that our helmets would not look like the Germans'. (Similarly, we were not to wear overcoats or fatigues, especially fatigue caps.) So we cut nets from the big net that covered the MG on the track.
The kitchen was not far from the house, so it was possible to take the meal "home" and enjoy it there. But it was simpler to lay our mess kits on the hood of a halftrack and stand and eat. Gloves got in the way, so we held our utensils in our fingers, which soon froze.
During the day we washed, cleaned our rifles, made cocoa, and loafed while the family went about its work. [The parents, I learned in l947 when I began a
correspondence that still continues, were M. and Mme. Ferdinand Rigaux-Martin. Their only child, Simone, was about 17. In 1958 I spent a weekend with Simone, her widowed mother, her husband Alphonse Grogna, and her children Batrice and Ferdinand. Alphonse died in 1962, and Simone married Joseph
???Grégoire. They live in the house we stayed in. Batrice and Ferdinand are professionals, married, parents, and live not far away.]
The mother was a nice old woman--not really old, but the hard life the parents lived made them look that way. She was the first person up in the morning, carrying a lighted lantern as she came out of the family's room or returned to it. She was friendly and would always have a word of greeting. [None of the family spoke English, but they usually could find a Cajun GI if they wanted to carry on a conversation.] We had less contact with the father and with a young man [an unrelated refugee] who looked about 19 and wore GI clothes. Their work seemed to keep the men out of the house.
We saw--or at least noticed--Simone the most. She was good-looking, energetic, and vivacious. She was always cheerful and cordial but kept going about her work. Some of the boys would yell, "Boots" at her as she went by, because she wore gum boots, and she would respond, "Oui, boots." Otherwise "Ou la la" or "Non compris." As far as I could see, the guys behaved themselves. About 1600 mail came in and we'd read and answer it before supper. Then came the fun part of the day--the evening. The light powered by our halftrack's battery made the open space where we slept a perfect meeting-place, with the bedrolls rolled up and out of the way. Several nights we made ice cream out of snow, vanilla extract, and milk that Connie and Loy, our two farmers, had snuck down and milked from the cows after the family had gone to bed. We made chocolate sauce from D bars--and then we had "the GIs" the next day. Sometimes we French-fried potatoes from the family's store room. And ate their apples while the potatoes were cooking.
Originally we had traded candy, cigarettes, and soap for this stuff. But some men decided they had been too generous, so they began to just take whatever provisions they wanted. Then one day the mother came out of the family room, outraged and saying that someone had gone into the room--the only place where the family had any privacy--and stolen what had been traded to them. I could not believe that anyone would do such a despicable thing, and after she left I was angered by her accusation. But one of the guys told me to cool off, since he had done exactly what she said.
There was more. Those with diarrhea couldn't always make it to "the trench" in time, so it was understood among us that a bucket in the attic could be used in emergencies. But some of the boys used it all the time. Soon the bucket was full and no one would empty it. The next time there was a need, someone used a container that was partly filled with oats. When the farmer next needed oats he got a horrible surprise.
Anyway, our evenings were the best times of my life to date. We traded stories about the humorous experiences of the last month, and everyone claimed that he had been more scared than anyone else. The best storytellers were Chief and Bob Sellers. Charlie would play his guitar and we'd all sing: "Just because you think you're so handsome, just because you think you're so hot; just because you think you've got something nobody else has got...." and "Down to the barnyard he staggered. He fell right at the door...." Roy Allement, a Cajun cook, would come up and sing: "When the postman delivered the letter, it filled her poor heart full of joy..."
The best entertainment was provided by Dick Wrobleski, from Scranton. First he would play his harmonica. Then he imitated a guy chewing tobacco and getting sick at his stomach. He seemed to have a rubber face that he could twist all around and almost turn inside out. And he could keep a straight face while the rest of us were howling. Tears rolled down our faces, and I could not keep my balance on the steel helmet on which I'd been sitting. We lay on the floor and shook with laughter till we ached. Those with diarrhea often had accidents. We pleaded with Dick to stop, but he wouldn't. He also had an imitation of a guy working up a sneeze. He put his face and his body through terrible contortions, and when the explosion finally came it sounded halfway between a sneeze and something else.
A card game would start about 2200. I wasn't interested, so I'd unroll my bedroll and go to sleep, thinking how nice it was to have a warm room, a floor under me, and a roof overhead.
January 26 (Friday)
At 1300 the company formed up in open ranks. Col. Hearn made a speech: "You men have done wonderfully and I'm proud of you. We're the only battalion that took every objective on time. The others may have had tougher objectives, but we still did our bit on time. We've beaten their best. I don't know what we'll do next, but I don't think it could be worse than what we've been through. Now let's get shaved up. They haven't got the Indian sign [a spell] on us."
Then he came along the ranks, awarding the Combat Infantryman Badge--but not to cooks, drivers, or support personnel unless they'd brought rations up, etc. Magelli walked backwards in front of him, feeding him badges. The Colonel shoved a badge into your left hand with his left hand, then you saluted and he returned the salute. Capt. Houy followed him, looking sharp with a .45 in a brand new holster. Houy was smiling at the assembly line way Hearn was doling out the badges. As the Colonel went down the line, he made a comment to almost every man: "Nice going!... We showed 'em.... I'm proud of you.... They got the Indian sign on you?... Let's get shaved up.... Let's get the junk out of those pockets. You got a musette bag for that." He asked Wahoo, "How many did you get, Jackson?" Chief was startled and replied, "I dunno." "Too many to count, huh?" "Yessir."
We got more replacements. Lester Sharp was a young husky with a deep voice and a hearty laugh. He was from near Klamath Falls, Oregon, Wahoo's neighborhood. His wife played the piano, so he knew a lot of Chief's pals. They became fast friends right away and it was clear that they'd be teaming up soon. Stewart went around with Sharp, but he was different--little and skinny, with a thin face and heavy beard. He was from Texas and worked in an aircraft factory. He had a wife and baby and never should have been there.
Todd was a rough guy. He'd been with the 3rd Armored in the States and had been bumming around replacement pools in England. Another replacement was a big guy who looked like a character from a Bill Mauldin cartoon. He never shaved and had a couple of teeth missing in front. Stewart said he didn't have enough sense to pour out of a boot. Another seemed to be a moron.
Our quarters at Magerotte
Mme. Rigaux-Martin, Alphonse, Ferdinand,
At night the platoon's replacements would gather in the kitchen and sing and talk, and the talk sounded dumb. One guy was a phony intellectual they called "Kelly" because his name was so long. He wanted to argue about such strange subjects that he was regarded as odd. But most of the replacements were good guys and asked good questions. They'd been told terrible stories, sometimes by our drivers, who'd not been up front much. We told the replacements not to worry, because it wasn't as bad as they'd been told.
January 27 (Saturday)
In the afternoon the company assembled and marched out to the field across from the cemetery where we'd lived, almost a month before. Gen. Kilburn came out in his peep, standing up in front. He was wearing a nifty sheepskin jacket and had his .45 in a shoulder holster. He made a fine speech but forgot to give us "At Ease," so we had to stand at attention all the way through it. He said we'd done a "magnificent" job and that the army commander (Patton) had been down to see him and to thank him personally.
Then he presented Silver Star medals to the brass and Maj. Sandler read the citations. Col. Bell got one, and we thought that was OK because he seemed to be a good, skillful leader. Col. Hearn got one too, and we approved of that because we thought he'd turned out pretty good. But we all shook our heads when Maj. Sandler got one for leading a patrol. [The battalion history says that Col. Hearn's and Maj. Sandler's awards were for gallantry in leading the night march of Jan. 20, but as far as we could tell the march was only a redeployment. According to the history, Maj. Blalock and Capt. Houy had been awarded the Bronze Star after the Dec. 31 engagement. I do not remember, nor did my "diary" note, any ceremonies involving us for the earlier awards].
January 28 (Sunday)
Went to church in the Magerotte schoolhouse. There was a map of "Belgique" on the wall. It was crowded, and lots of officers were there. Chaplain Olsson (Protestant) preached and we had Communion. When I got back, the boys were rearranging the halftrack. In the afternoon we had a shower in big tents. It was the first bath since we'd left England.
January 29 (Monday)
We went to Acul to test-fire our weapons. Our track got stalled and when we got there there wasn't much time left. So we rested our weapons on a fence and fired quickly at mounds of snow. Acul was ruined and a fresh blanket of snow lay over it. Not a soul was there and it looked deserted. I wondered if people would ever live there again.
January 30 (Tuesday)
I got a newspaper clipping from my father that told that the 11th had been in action. Everyone came up to read it, and you could tell that they were proud of our outfit. Wahoo took off in the halftrack and did a lot of practice firing with DeYoung's "grease gun." We were issued a set of gloves [mittens, probably] that had an inner and outer part and cloth wristlets. They would have been great earlier for warmth and skin protection, but they were too big to be useful when hands had to be put to use.
While we were sleeping at night, Loy got up in the dark and fell into the deep end of the stairwell. (It had no railing.) There was a crash and then his squeaky, cracked voice: "Well Gaw damn!" From then on, he was known as "The Paratrooper."
February 2 (Friday)
In the afternoon we practiced riding tanks. Maj. Blalock was in charge, and we all admired him as he stood on the hood of a halftrack in his tanker's combat jacket with spiffy mittens and his .45 in a shoulder holster. He told us that when the breakthrough came we'd ride tanks. We all had a ride. It was pretty smooth even though the driver went all over the place.
Then we ran an exercise in which the rifle squads rode on tanks and the MG and mortar squads followed in halftracks. Lee Hens rode by on a tank, rifle on one shoulder, bazooka on the other, and a telephone to his ear. (Part of the training was to communicate with tanks by phone.) The idea was for tanks to stop at the crest of a hill, where the rifle squads would dismount, disperse, and fire away. The tracks with MG and mortar squads would drive up to near the crest and the men would dismount and move up. The snow was melting and when the time came to dash out of the track Wahoo tripped and went flying into the slush.
February 3 (Saturday)
We had the old type of training schedule, to keep us busy. I was glad about that because I thought it meant we'd continue at Magerotte for a good while. PT was first, in an open field beside the kitchen. Everyone was lazy and didn't put much effort into it. Wahoo did even less. He was all dressed up in a clean outfit, wearing his Combat Infantryman Badge and even an ETO [European Theater of Operations] ribbon he'd gotten somewhere, and with a pipe in his pocket. He just stood there and laughed at us.
Soon it rained, so we went into a barn. Cangley read us a summary of the Division's activities for the last month. It was dull, but he put in a lot of his own comments. When it praised the work of tank destroyers at Bourcy, he said, "They were afraid to come out and fight." And when it said that the engineers cleared the road on the night march of Jan. 20, he said, "A Co.'s tracks cleared those mines." Then a medic gave a talk on first aid. It was pretty graphic and one replacement fainted and fell off a hay wagon. The class ended as he got first aid.
In the early afternoon we hiked out to the crossroads just before Acul. It was slushy and we all got splashed. Much of the snow had melted and the grass showed through. It, like the cows grazing in the fields, showed that life went on for those who survived. Nobody would know or care what had happened there except those who had been there.
In the late afternoon we had a class on the organization of an armored division. Then we got our mail. I felt great: a worthwhile day of training, lots of mail from home, a quiet Sunday coming up, with church, loafing, and writing letters. Then Wren Morgan came up and said, "Be loaded up and ready to move out at 0900 tomorrow." The bubble burst; everything turned black for me. I was too jittery to think about eating and gave the boys a can of boneless chicken from a Christmas package that I'd been saving for a special occasion.
I went over to the supply room to get a tent half and a blanket, but Feathers didn't have any. Ted Johnson, who drove the supply truck, gave me his own tent half, saying that he hoped he could sleep in the truck. "Old Man" Matusak gave me one of his two blankets. Such generosity from men who hardly knew me!
Bob Wederich and I were in the guard detail from 1900 to 2200. I was paired with a replacement to guard the vehicles. Stan Kaplan came across the field toward us and the replacement challenged him. Stan didn't know the password, but I knew his voice and told him it was OK to go on. I had chosen the early tour of guard because I wanted time to think about all that was on my mind: things to be taken care of before we left, and the coming ordeal. As usual, I prayed for the family and for strength in what lay ahead. I knew there was no point in asking that we not have to go up again; I prayed that it would all come out OK.
After guard, I talked with George Fisher and "Sack" Vornoli. George kidded me about being on the ball by having my pack ready, but we didn't kid for long, because we were anxious and very serious. "Sack" said, "Billy, I can't figure it out--using an armored division in the Siegfried Line" [a heavily fortified line of defense just inside the German border]. I said it looked like we'd continue to fight as foot infantry, as we had been doing. We decided that sleeping would be better than worrying, so we broke up and went to bed.
Harmon Senn came in with a big Nazi flag with a swastika on it. He said he'd gotten it from a fellow who'd found two in the Siegfried Line and sent the other one home. It occurred to me that the Siegfried Line would have nice pillboxes to sleep in. And so I turned in for the last time in the only "home" I had in Europe.
February 4 (Sunday)
We had early chow, cleaned up the house, and threw our trash out by the barn. (There was plenty of it.) Then we mounted up and drove away--destination: Germany. The Bulge experience was over.