The War Begins For Me – Chapter 3

The winter of 1944-45 was a bitter cold one and the plan of Hitler to make one final desperate push to divide the two armies of England and the US was designed to be a complete surprise.

The allies had won the battles of the hedge rows in the western coast of France, captured Paris and were closing in on the border of Germany.

Hitler’s plan was to strike toward the west and go thru Luxembourg and Belgium and disrupt the supply lines and surround the invaders.  None of the allied command expected an attack with armored divisions in the Ardennes forest.  The terrain didn’t seem to be fit for such a move.  With armor however, it you can attack and get the roads open, divide the enemy and attack from their rear it was a plan that might work.  It almost did.

The 106th infantry division was the first one to feel the awful power of the Wehrmacht.  The Germans had been saving for this attack for months and had assembled the very best they had left.  German engineers developed powerful weapons.  The Tiger tank was better than any we had.  It had speed and excellent armor and most of all carried the 88mm cannon.  The 88 was a very accurate cannon. It could fire armor piercing shells, anti aircraft shells which exploded in the air and filled it with flying bits of shrapnel and hi explosive shells which could blow up on contact so they had some weapons of war far superior to a American GI with an M1 Rifle. 

Couple their superiority and the bad weather which made our air cover unable to help us the first part of their attack went as planned.  The 106th division was virtually demolished in the first few hours of the attack.  Unfortunately for them, the Germans didn’t have enough food for themselves and they were not about to feed prisoners.  The Malmedy massacre was an example of man’s inhumanity to man.  The boys in the 106th were all transferred from the ASTP college programs.  They expected that if they surrendered they would be prisoners and would be thru fighting.  The Germans herded a group of the boys from the 106 later to be known as the hungry and sick division into a large open field and once they were there they had their own officers call them into formation.  Since their own officers were involved the guys lined up neatly and then the Germans opened fire with machine guns and killed everyone.  I don’t remember the number that were killed that day but it certainly made us be more trigger happy in the future.

The only obstacle to complete victory of the battle of the bulge was a town called Bastogne.  It was held by the 82nd Airborne division.  When the Germans had surrounded the town they sent a group of messengers to the town carrying big white banners. 

General McAuliffe was in charge and he allowed them to approach without shooting at them.

The messengers from the Germans asked to talk to the commander, and when they were asked what their demands were they told the men who were talking with them that they were to surrender or the Germans would destroy the town and everyone in it.  The story goes that when the message was taken to McAuliffe one of his aids yelled “Nuts”.  Upon hearing this McAuliffe said that is a good answer. so the word NUTS was put on a single sheet of paper and given to the Germans.

By that time the radio message had gotten to George Patton who turned his battle column around and headed for Bastogne.  The ensuing battle was one of the fiercest in the entire war.  The outcome was the turning back of the Wehrmacht.  That battle was just winding down when the train of the replacements carrying yours truly arrived not far from Bastogne. 

We were lined up and counted off and as a result of our number in the count there were 19 of us headed for Company C, 44th Armored Infantry battalion 6th armored division.  David Scott has my book about the history of the 6th Armored so I won’t attempt to recall the specific battles but tell the story thru the eyes of a private.

We were introduced to the first sergeant of Company C.  He welcomed us with many words of caution and three K rations boxes and told us that was our food for the next day. Then we counted off again and the number we used for our position in the count off was the number that placed us in the platoon and squad. There were three platoons in Company C and each platoon had 3 squads.  I wound up in Sergeant Haswell’s Squad.  Sergeant Haswell was a corporal at the time and was acting as sergeant because the sergeant had been wounded and sent to the rear.

There were 12 men in a squad and sometimes we got to ride in a half track.  Our instructions came from the Platoon leader who was a 2nd Lieutenant.  Lt. Oakes was new also because the last platoon leader had been killed in the drive to capture Bastogne.

To give you some kind of an idea of the terrible cost of this sort of military action let me talk about numbers.  When the 6th Armored landed at Le Harve, there were 256 men in company C.

When we met the Russians at Rochlitz on the Mulde River which is the border of Czechoslovakia, there were 13 of the original men still in the company.  The 19 replacements who came in with me had 6 of us still left.  Now they weren’t all killed, most were wounded severely enough to be taken out of action.

I had overshoes but two or three of the men who were with me came without overshoes.  When they asked Haswell about overshoes, his reply was to take them off a wounded or dead man.  The tone of his voice and the enormity of the statement made us realize we had arrived ready for combat.

We were headed on attack just after our arrival.  Attack meant going ahead on foot and then digging in.  The plan was to be in position in the morning to attack further.  Remember, we had had no beds or billets of any kind since we landed in France.  We had very few hot meals, we lived on K rations which were a balanced diet but not much bigger than a cracker jack box.  We were dog tired and near exhaustion and told to mach forward so we did. 

When we arrived at the battle line which had predetermined by probably the Battalion commander we were told to dig in.  It was well below zero.  The ground was frozen.

The trenching tool we had was a shovel that could be locked in either the straight or right angle position.  The way it was locked was a threaded knurled knob on the handle.  My locking knob was frozen and when I asked the guy next to me what to do about it, his reply was piss on it.  That thawed it out enough to be able to turn it into a pick position.

When you are trying to dig a hole in frozen earth, the first few hits will make a hole that is about the size of  a teaspoon.  When the bullets begin to fly overhead because the Germans knew we were there, the digging got faster.  I can tell you that it is possible to dig a hole in frozen ground big enough to get down in.

Once you get thru the frost it digs easier.  That hole in the ground was the hotel room for that night.  At least by the time you finished digging the hole you were warmed up.  The next hazard was freezing to death.  When you are tired, scared, exhausted, and asleep in below zero weather you get very very sleepy.  I am sure that when you freeze to death you aren’t suffering but just sleeping.  The thing we did to prevent one of us from freezing to death or being shot in the hole by  a German was to have one of us on guard all night.  When we counted off the number was the order of out turn on guard and usually 45 minutes was the shift.  Somebody would come and poke you wake you up and tell you it was your turn to stay awake and on guard for the next shift.  Once or twice I went to sleep and the guard was not kept the rest of that night.  I don’t know how often it happened, but if I confess, there were surely others who were as tired and sleepy as I was.

In a few weeks, or sometime in February we had proven that we had the firepower to push the Germans back.  Patton wanted to stop the confrontation, outflank the Wehrmacht and go behind them and cut off their supply.  Ike overruled and we were to slug it out and destroy the war machine where we were.

I cannot see how the Germans kept their men fighting, it surely must have looked hopeless to them but the toll to destroy the Attack force of General Rommel was a bloody mess.  The first time you see dead soldiers, it is a shock and revolting sight. 

It gets worse.

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