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Reflections Of A Combat Infantryman
By Ralph Storm
B Company, 21st Armored Infantry Battalion
The Fight at the Blown Railway Underpass
at Buchenburen, Germany, on March 17, 1945
The 21st Armored Infantry After Action Report has the following for the event: "moved out at 1000 to cross Moselle River at Bullay and pass through 89th Infantry Division. Moved on to vicinity of Lauzenhausen. Resistance consisted of small arms and automatic weapons fire. Held up by blown under-pass at Buchenburen. B Co. 21st AIB was ordered to secure a bridgehead across the blown underpass and ran into accurate and heavy 20 mm. Flak fire."
B Company, accompanied by tanks, reached the underpass in the late afternoon. The troops dismounted and first platoon was ordered to take the left flank, second platoon the right flank. Our first squad descended into a man-made ditch, crossed a railway track and advanced toward a single house to flush out any Germans who might have been there. Acting as scout, I fired a clip of M-1 ammunition at the house as our squad moved in. All had been quiet. Next, a German 20 mm gun began firing at our 4th platoon men who were crossing the damaged bridge. The cannon shells were bursting at waist-high level on the bridge site, each burst sending out a dazzling display of red-hot shrapnel. We directed our attention toward the house which we entered, searching for German soldiers. There were none-only an elderly couple, two younger women, and several toddlers were inside. Once our squad inside, German machine guns to the east began a duel with our tankersí machine guns to the west. It was scary and particularly noisy to be caught between two sets of thundering machine guns. The young women shrieked and screamed. A little girl wrapped her arms around my leg and screamed at the top of her voice. We herded the civilians into the cellar. None were harmed as the machine gunners, both American and Germans, were considerate, and did not fire into the house. Our squad survived intact and dug in outside for the night.
Shelby Keeton, of Monticello, KY, also recalled this fight. Shelby wrote, "It was late in the afternoon. Captain Fabrick was on a much deserved leave and 1st Sergeant, John Blackburn, was directing things. The Lieutenants all coordinated action through 1st Sgt. Blackburn."
"When we got to the blown bridge, the 1st platoon on the left and second on right, all at once it seemed, all hell cut loose. There were several wounded and some killed, never knew how many. It seemed like a lot was around my feet. I had several scratches from shrapnel on my legs and body. Several holes in my clothes but none in my body. Surely my guardian angel must have been watching over me."
"On the right side was a steep ditch and at the bottom was a railroad track. When the firing from the 20 mm aircraft guns started, I felt the safest place for me was in the ditch, and into it I went not realizing it was so steep and far down. Anyway;, it seemed like twenty feet or more. I went down head first. We stayed there all night."
Morris Chaklai of Rye Brook, New York, was wounded at the underpass. Morris wrote: " I joined the 11th as a replacement about January 11, 1945, having left New York on the Queen Mary on New Years Day, landed near Glasgow, and entrained there for Southampton, crossed the Channel on an LST, landed at Eteretat (near Le Havre)-Camp Pall Mall, I believe, entrained on a 40 and 8 for a couple of days and arrived in Belgium, spent a day or so in a replacement camp and then to the 21 AIB, B Co. I think it was the 1st platoon. The squad leaderís name was Mazzeli. He came from Boston. Iíve forgotten the assistant squad leaderís name; it was also an Italian name. He had a sniperís rifle. Both good men. Both were wounded in the succeeding few weeks, the assistant at the Kyll river."
"After the drive to the Rhine we were billeted in the town of Mayen. I recall we saw the dogfights over the Ludendorf Bridge at Remagan during that time. After a couple of days (more or less) we mounted up on our half-tracks and drove up the north side of the Moselle where I liberated several bottles of wine from one of the cellars dug into the hill, crossed to the other side on a pontoon bridge and proceeded inland. After some riding (I do not recall how long), the column came to a halt and we were ordered to dismount."
"Up to this time there were no shooting incidents, just a quiet ride in the country. I do remember that the column halted for awhile before we crossed the river. Itís possible there was some action up ahead of which we were unaware."
"We were led up the left side of the road until we came to the blown trestle over a railroad track, went down across the tracks and up the other side. Memory seems to indicate that there was a road we had to cross, just the other side; there was some nervousness about a possible German machine gun firing down it. But we got across and proceeded straight ahead, our platoon along the left side, another platoon (2nd?) on the right side. My guess is we got no further than 50 yards when the firing started. It came from straight ahead of us, down the road. I seem to think the road up ahead took a right turn and that the gun was in the woods at the bend."
"The shrapnel, apparently from a 20 mm. Antiaircraft gun hit me in the face, ear, lip, and chipped a tooth. Everyone hit the ground. Luckily, there was a drainage ditch along the road. I have no idea why the Krauts didnít shoot up and down the ditch. Somebody could correct me on this, but I do not recall that there was any further shooting. Maybe they were so scared they picked up their gun and took off. After all, they could probably see the tanks facing down that road."
"My first concern incidentally was whether my face was still intact; I stuck my tongue into my cheek and was relieved to find it was still there."
"So we all crawled back, nervously re-crossed the road and slid down the embankment to the tracks. Somebody said the lead GI had been killed. There was a guy with a wound in the leg, which I bandaged while we waited-a superficial wound. After some time, I and the other wounded were transported to an aid station (how far back I no longer recall), then by ambulance to the hospital in Trier."
"It was a long and bumpy ride. I do remember that the ambulance had a particularly hard ride, very little in the way of springs and I was most distressed by the effect it had on a couple of seriously wounded stretcher cases. I remember feeling bitter that they werenít cared for in a more suitable manner. One I believe died en route."
" I donít know the route we took to Trier. It is on the Moselle. Is it possible we did not have to cross the river? I donít remember the ambulance having windows, and there was no conversation during our ride."
"As for the hospital experience; My ear was sewn up in a large operating room with several operations going on simultaneously. Since I had local anesthesia, I watched another procedure going on a few yards away. The surgeon extracted a piece of steel about 3/8 inches long and gave it to me."
"The dentist tried to convince me that I had hit my mouth on the asphalt. He was a jerk, who wouldnít believe me when I told him I had full control of my senses a the time and that I certainly did not hit the pavement. He kept insisting that I was probably in some state of shock and didnít recall. I finally gave up talking to him. As he worked on my tooth a small bead of steel dislodged. I caught it in my hand and showed it to him, and asked him if it looked like asphalt."
"As I wrote previously, the name Lausenhausen sticks in my mind as being the location on some record I once had, either of the site of the wound, or perhaps the site of the field hospital."
Jim Bolin of LaGrange, Indiana, suffered a severe leg wound at the Buchenburen fight. Jimís 4th platoon was caught advancing on the road and bridge when the 20 mm. Gun opened up Jim was knocked down and after night fell, was unable to evacuate himself. While he was down in the ditch, Jim could hear the Germans talking at the roadblock. Later he heard a German engine start up and a vehicle drove away. Finally, near midnight, a 4th platoon Sgt. came and carried Jim back to the medics. Placed on board an ambulance, Jim recalled a delay in getting across the Moselle on the pontoon bridge. Bridge traffic priorities were held by east bound vehicles, those going to the front, and medical vehicles had to wait their turn to use the one treadway bridge resting on rubber pontoons. Jimís leg wound was so severe that eventually he was transported back to the states where his leg was amputated.
Another man wounded at the bridge was Joe Thomerson of Glasgow, KY. Joe had joined B Company as a replacement on March 1 and did not know many of the platoon members. When the 20 mm. Gun opened up, Joe was struck in the hip by a shell burst and was knocked down. Joe hugged the ground for some time until he heard one of the men calling to him: "Come on, you can make it." Joe crawled back to the ditch where the medics were applying first aid. Joe was evacuated to the hospital system and never made it back to the outfit.
After darkness fell, the area was fairly quiet with only the sound of shovels digging slit trenches. Several hours after sundown, mortar shells fell among our vehicles to the rear. Later, from our first squad positions, we could hear the pounding of feet--- someone was running into our lines. Next we heard excited voices, in English and German. Shelby Keeton recalled this incident: "Two Germans came up to where we were dug in that night at the underpass. I donít think they planned on surrendering. I took a beautiful knife in in a scabbard from one of them, and one of our fellows, Thomas A. Hames, wanted it to send to his father. I gave it to him."
By sunrise, an engineer company had quietly pushed a treadway span over the damaged bridge and we mounted our halftracks. As we approached the German road block, there was more shooting and more casualties. Shelby recalled seeing about "six or eight of the AA guns. Glad they werenít manned at the time."
The fight at Bucherburen involved a carefully prepared German ambush. The German Army had been at war for nearly six years and they tended to do things by the book. At the bridge site there were a few German casualties, but since the attacking force invariably suffers more, B Company paid a higher price. There was a butcherís bill, and according to the 21st Armored Infantry Battalionís After Action Report, "our losses were four enlisted men killed and thirteen wounded, as a result of accurate and heavy 20 mm. Fire."
As a postscript to the story of the busted-bridge fight, writer Jean Ziegler has pin pointed where the 20 mm. Anti-aircraft guns came from. These guns were manufactured in Oerlikon, a suburb of Zurich, Switzerland. Beginning in the summer of 1940, some sixty per cent of Swiss munitions were shipped to Nazi Germany. By day, Swiss munitions trains steamed up to the German-Swiss border and after sundown, German locomotives were hooked on, and the trains rolled into Germany from the bomb-proof factories in Switzerland, which was reputedly, a neutral nation. It was estimated by Ziegler, that without Swiss arms, the war on the western front would not have lasted beyond the summer of 1944. The Swiss arms were paid for with gold that the Nazis had stolen from Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, and elsewhere, in addition to the life savings of concentration camp victims.
The gun manufacturer in Oerlikon was Emil Buhrle, a German immigrant from Wurttemberg, Germany. Between 1939 and 1945, his declared annual income rose from 6.8 million to 56 million Swiss francs, and his personal assets, after tax, from 8.5 to 170 million francs. Oerlikon'í best selling weapon was the 20 mm. anti-aircraft gun that earned the high praise from Hitler for the large number of Allied aircraft it shot down.
I would appreciate hearing from men who were at the busted bridge fight. Infantry, tankers, engineers, medics, and any others. I welcome your stories about this incident.
Sergeant Glen Warfield
In June 1999, Muriel and I paid a visit to Glen Warfield, Second Platoon Sergeant. Warfield resides near North Powder, Oregon in a beautiful valley flanked to the north by snow covered peaks of the Blue Mountains. This valley is known for its herds of cattle. Each year, herds of as many as five hundred head, are driven through the village by drovers on horseback and three- wheeled vehicles. In late June, the cattle men were still waiting for sufficient grass to grow in the high country before starting the annual drive.
Glen Warfield served as platoon sergeant and platoon leader in B Company from the first days at Chenogne until VE day in Austria. I asked Glen how he had kept his feet warm in the Bulge. Glen said he had been raised in the Oregon hills and knew what to do in cold and snow. "I threw away my GI shoes, then cut strips of wool blanket and stuffed them into my galoshes." He said that about fifty percent of the company became casualties and had to be evacuated. This included five lieutenants from the second platoon. Glen was the oldest man in the platoon and to many of the men he was a role model and father figure.
Warfare involves confusion, uncertainty, and close calls. Warfield experienced one of many close calls one night while leading an attack in the Siegfried line near Heckhuscheid, Germany. This was an area captured by the Second Infantry Division the previous October, and described by historian Charles MacDonald in his book, Company Commander. Shelby Keeton, of 3rd squad, recalls this Siegfried line incident:
"On February 4, 1945, we moved up to a town in Germany, Heckhuscheid, which was heavily damaged. I believe it was very early in the morning of the 6th at between two and four a.m., we moved out attacking the Siegfried line to capture some bunkers. One could hardly see anything and we had to keep close to the man in front of us. Going down the road we were to take a road to the right. However, Warfield failed to see the last man of the third squad and continued going straight ahead. Warfield soon came in contact with a German soldier. Warfield asked if this was the third squad. The German whirled on him with his rifle pointed at him. At which time, Sgt. Karl Bauder grabbed the rifle, pulling it away from Warfield. The German fired the rifle killing Sgt. Bauder instantly. Warfield gave the German a horizontal butt stroke with his rifle and the German went away whimpering. Very shortly after this, we were fired upon by two or three machine guns from which we sought protection by going into a ditch. The ditch where I went in was full of snow and water so I was completely soaked. Next we went through a minefield and took the bunkers. Then we dug in and stayed there until about the 9th of February and were relieved. For my part, not being able to change to dry clothes and almost freezing due to being wet and a cold drizzle all the time, I finally developed pneumonia and was evacuated to a hospital in the city of Luxembourg.
All in all I had the privilege to be a part of one of the worldís greatest armies and be associated with some of the finest men one could ever hope to be with anywhere."
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