Near St. Diè, France, Nov. 11, 1944 - Baptism of Fire
As it moved into position for its baptism of fire, the 103d Infantry Division initially reported to VI Corps commanded by Major General Edward H. Brooks, which, in turn, reported to Seventh Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Alexander M. Patch, which was part of 6th Army Group, commanded by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers.
On Nov. 11, 1944, elements of the 103d Infantry Division relieved elements of the 3d Infantry Division in the vicinity of St. Diè, France. No more military exercises. --- This was the real thing.
The irony of this date, the 26th anniversary of the armistice of World War I, "The War to End All Wars", was not lost on us.
In typical Army fashion, the Cactus Division which had been trained in the steaming swamps of Louisiana and on the hot arid plains of Texas was going to get its first taste of battle in the snowy Vosges Mountains. It was no comfort whatsoever to learn that no army had ever successfully fought its way through the Vosges.
A quartermaster supply truck rolled into the area. When the driver left it unguarded, we scrambled inside for a look. It turned out to be filled, not with extra rations or ammo, as expected, but crate after crate of condoms. The obvious question was, "Where in the world would any of us get the opportunity to use those?" The veteran infantrymen from the 3d Division said, "Don't worry about it. You will get to use them. Grab a handful. You are going to need them," and stuffed their jacket pockets with them. The 103d Division Doughs did indeed find an immediate use for them. They rolled them over the muzzles of their M-1 rifles, their carbines and their machine guns to keep the rain out of the barrels. The first shot simply blew them away. A latex condom turned out to be the best available protection for one's weapon. It still is.
It did not take long for the 103d GIs to discover that condoms also made great waterproof containers for cigarettes, matches, a few sheets of toilet paper, and any other small items we had to protect.
In preparation for our sojourn overseas we had been lectured rather strenuously about German booby traps of all kinds. That first week, as we moved into the mountains, a few of us wandered around to appraise the area, and there, leaning against a tree was a German bed roll with a P-38 pistol on top, in a handsome leather holster. We all stood a respectful distance away from it, lusting for the P-38 but leery of a booby trap.
Among our little Radio group was a cocky Texan , Arby Curtis, who wore his helmet at a jaunty angle. Arby, with Alamo in his blood, finally sneered at our timidity, walked right up to the bedroll and took the P-38 --- AND NOTHING HAPPENED! --- except he now had a P-38, and he let everybody know it.
The radio teams were now official. T/3 Norval "Bud" Hennum, a former railroad telegrapher from Kennedy, Minnesota was our crew chief. The other member of the team was T/5 Seymour Fader from Brooklyn, N.Y. I, of course, was still a private as were most of the other "Coolies" assigned to other radio teams.
Other radio teams were assigned to Division Headquarters, the 409th Infantry Regiment, the 410th Infantry Regiment, and other units.
Our team were assigned, in the Division Command Net, to Headquarters, 411th Infantry Regiment.
Headquarters,---- that had a nice safe ring to it.
The 411th Infantry Regimental Commander was Colonel Donovan P. Yeuell, --- a soldier's soldier, regular army, a veteran of WW I and, as we were soon to learn, a rugged no-nonsense hands-on commander.
Colonel Donovan P. Yeuell
During the night of Nov. 15th the 411th Regimental Command Post (CP) was set up in a lumber mill near Rougeville. We parked our radio truck well out of the way of traffic in and out of the CP but as the sky began to lighten at dawn, it became obvious that the Germans, who had artillery dug in along the mountain ridges in front of us, would have a clear view of us when it got a little lighter.
Bud Hennum, our crew chief, went in search of a more sheltered location. He returned in a few minutes with word that he had found a good spot between two buildings, just room enough for our truck. I started the engine but before I could get in gear, there was a heavy explosion and pieces of a vehicle flew over the tops of the buildings that we were going to park between. Our first choice for a parking place had been anticipated by the Krauts and they had mined it. Someone else had beaten us to that "good spot" and had paid heavily for the privilege.
We couldn't stay where we were so Bud went in search of another spot and returned shortly with a second choice. It was not very well protected from enemy fire but the truck would be hard to see from the ridge occupied by the Germans. I stepped on the starter and experienced déjà vu. This time a wheel of a vehicle and a man were thrown up higher than the building by the thunderous explosion.
Bud said, "Maybe we had better stay right here," and the whole team agreed.
In about an hour, a column of tanks came down the road past the CP.
It was preceded by engineers with mine sweepers. They swung their mine detectors back and forth and moved cautiously into our area.
They pulled several mines out of the ground around our truck. The tracks of our wheels in the mud ran right between them. When we pulled off out of everybody's way, we apparently pulled too far off and got into an area that had not been cleared of mines. This was our first but it would not be our only close call with mines.
After some preliminary maneuvering to get into position for attack, the 103d went into action at 0900 (9:00 a.m.) Nov. 16, 1944.
The 103d Division's first objective was St. Diè, the city where cartographers first identified America on a map in honor of Amerrigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer.
A heavy artillery barrage preceded the attack across the Taintrux River. As the battle intensified around St. Diè we eventually got our truck out of sight behind a manure pile and that seemed to provide adequate concealment but the adjacent barn attracted an occasional mortar round and sustained a fair amount of damage.
The cannon company of one of the regiments had emplaced its howitzers part way up the mountain at the edge of the forest to our rear. They opened up with the characteristic "BLAT!" sound that 105mm howitzers made and fired two or three missions before the Germans found them. The answering artillery fire hit in the trees above and behind the cannon company positions. There was no escape from the tree burst shrapnel. It was frightening and there were casualties.
It became clear that the kind of foxhole we had dug on the rolling plains of Texas were worthless in the trees. Here, foxholes had to be covered with several layers of logs to provide adequate protection.
While we were parked behind the manure pile we noticed that the mortar fire had exposed a large supply of lumber in the barn. Some of the boards were just the right length to attach to the bows supporting the canvas on our truck. Between mortar rounds, we stripped off the canvas and nailed the boards to the bows and covered our new wooden roof back up with the canvas. This was the start of a continuing project to winterize the working area in the back of the truck and make it as comfortable as possible ---- our new home away from home.
Despite the occasional incoming mortar rounds, I was too grungy to go any longer without washing up. I removed the liner from my helmet, filled the steel "pot" with water from a nearby pump, and prepared to wash up as best I could with ice cold water. I took off my Vacheron watch, hung it from an overhead branch, and set about the task at hand. I was squatting in front of my helmet, naked from the waist up. The next mortar round was close causing me to flatten on the ground, jamming my head into my helmet pot, forgetting that it was full of water that was now both icy and soapy. After wiping off the dirt and soapy water and drying myself, I looked around for my watch. It was still hanging from the branch where I had left it but a small fragment from the mortar shell had struck it and there were springs and badly damaged watch parts hanging out where the crystal had once been.
Obviously, I would never be able to tell my mother what really happened to that watch and was distracted for the rest of the day trying to come up with a plausible story to tell when I finally returned home, sans Vacheron.
Time was important to us as operators of a radio in the Division Command Net. We had to check into the net at specific times and each message bore a distinctive date-time group that was important in decoding the message so Bud requisitioned radium-dial military wrist watches for the entire team.
The dials of those watches had large numerals, hand-painted on with a glowing paint made from a radium salt. The hands were also large and similarly painted. Those watches not only glowed in the dark, they glowed visibly, even in daylight. At night while outside the truck, I always made certain that the sleeve of my combat jacket covered the watch. It could be seen at a considerable distance and I did not want a sniper to spot it.
Colonel Donovan P. Yeuell the 411th Regimental Commander was not a rear-echelon commander. He usually set up the regimental advance CP at the advance CP of one of his battalions. This in turn was usually with the CP of one of the infantry companies. Col. Yeuell liked to be close to the action in order to assess the situation and make prompt first-hand decisions so the place to look for him was the 411th Regimental Advance CP or some place forward of that.
Among the first German strong points attacked by the 411th Infantry Regiment was Saucy su Meurthe. It was 22 November 1944. Able Company was attacking across a field. Kraut machine guns had taken a deadly toll. Eight men from Able Company lay dead on the field and others were wounded. One of those killed, we would learn later, was Bayard "BD" Dodge, A well-liked ASTPer from our unit in Denton, Texas.
Two other ASTPers from Denton, Tom Kane (an ASTP phys-ed basketball teammate) and Bob Enterline, (one of my ASTP roommates), both in C (Charlie) Company, 1st Machine Gun Section, were called up to give covering fire. Tom was gunner and Bob was assistant gunner and ammo handler.
In a fierce machine gun battle, they expended three boxes of ammunition until the Kraut machine guns no longer answered their fire. Tom Kane was awarded the bronze star for bravery for his actions that day. However, it takes two men to operate a machine gun, and while only one medal was awarded, there is no doubt in my mind that Bob Enterline deserved one as well. Bob earned one later for action near Rothbach.
In ten days time, the 411th Infantry Regiment attacked through Saucy su Meurthe and Combrimont, passed quickly through the 409th's sector at Frapelle and Provencheres and, in a rapid advance, attacked Steige and Maisonsgoutte. During that time we saw our first dead German soldiers. The first one was on the first day of combat. He had been lying in the rain and all of the blood had been washed away. He was pale and waxy looking, like a figure in a museum, and was lying across the path between our truck and the Regimental CP. We had to step over him to get there but did not attempt to move him out of the path for fear that he had been booby trapped. In time we would see hundreds of dead Germans but got used to it.
Killing people is what warfare is all about.
It is an ugly business.
Roosevelt's Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1944
Mail call was always a high point of any day in the Army, but when you are part of a three-man team isolated from your parent unit for weeks on end, your mail often piled up somewhere and you got very hungry for word from home. Eventually, someone would find us and deliver our mail in a big bundle. Bud Hennum's wife wrote to him faithfully every day and it seemed like he always got a bucket full. Seymour Fader spent a lot of time writing letters and received a lot, too, but nothing to match Bud's. I was not much of a letter writer so I did not expect much in return and my expectations were realized. I usually received just a few letters that I read over and over again, forgetting the war for a moment and savoring this contact with another reality.
President Roosevelt had, for some obscure reason, changed Thanksgiving Day to the Thursday preceeding the traditional holiday. Roosevelt's Thanksgiving had been hell and it had gone by without a hot meal. We had just finished off our tasty K-Ration dinner when a messenger arrived from the Signal Company carrying, among other things, our accumulated mail. It consisted of a handful of mail, mostly Bud's, and a package, about a foot square and eight inches deep, addressed to me.
Night fall was bearing down on us and since we had not yet installed lights in the back of our truck, I set the package on the bench inside and we stood outside in the cold reading every word of our letters in the fast-fading light. Then we piled back into the truck to get warm. Bud turned his flashlight toward my package and he and Seymour asked, in unison, "Aren't you going to open it?"
I picked it up and slowly examined it. Usually, packages from the States arrived in terrible condition, looking like the losers in an argument with a steam roller or a Sherman tank. This package was clean and did not have a single ding or dent on it. The brown paper wrapping was not torn or scarred in any way.
"No, not now. It's probably a Christmas present. I think I will save it 'til then."
They would not accept that and refused to let up until I opened the parcel.
I cut the string which had been wrapped around it several times in both directions. Bud held his flashlight on it. The batteries were dying but it was still light enough to see what I was doing. Eventually, I got the paper off revealing a sturdy corrugated cardboard box and inside, wrapped in waxed paper was one of my beloved Aunt Callie's devil's food cakes. Aunt Callie made the best devil's food cakes in the world, dark dark moist chocolate cake covered with her secret white icing, crusty on the outside and creamy on the inside. The crust of the icing did not have a single crack in it. We momentarily pondered the miracle that brought this to us unscathed. I sliced it down the middle with my combat knife and then divided the cake into six equal pieces.
Our Thanksgiving dinner was salvaged after all. We each grabbed a slice and bit off large chunks.
"YUK! PFFFFT!", We spit the cake all over one another.
Seymour got out his flashlight, which had fresher batteries, and we took a good look at the cake. Inside that pristine white icing was a solid mass of green mold. His light also picked up a card on the floor of the truck that must have fallen out when I unpacked the cake. It was a birthday card signed by the whole family.
A BIRTHDAY card?
My birthday was in July. This cake had, incredibly, been delayed more than a month in getting to Camp Howze and had then followed me to Camp Shanks, N.Y., from there to Marseille, and from there, eventually, to the front. It had been in transit for about five months without the icing even cracking.
We cleaned up the truck and tossed the cake into the ditch.
This disappointment was
nothing compared to the delayed surprise this Thanksgiving still held in
store for me.
Maisonsgoutte, France, November 25, 1944
By November 25th, the 411th Infantry Regiment had captured Maisonsgoutte. Col. Donovan P. Yeuell was personally credited with the capture of two prisoners as he accompanied the lead infantry platoon into the town.
In fast moving situations like this, our radio was Col. Yeuell's only contact with Division Headquarters. Wherever he went, we went, and it was becoming clear that he would spend a lot of time in dangerous places. --------- So much for the nice, comfortable, safe sound of assignment to 411th Regimental Headquarters.
Colonel Yeuell's 411th advance Command Post (CP) moved into a building facing the German positions. The building entrance was at street level, but the building was dug into the mountainside and extended out to the rear so the ground floor in front was the second story in the rear. The rear exit was a story lower. There was an outhouse behind the building.
The CP was at street level, and our radio crew had found a place to sleep in the rear of the same floor.
At dawn, 411th infantrymen who had slept in most of the other buildings in town had fallen out into the street and were preparing to move out against the Krauts. Then all hell broke loose. The CP came under heavy enemy artillery fire that threatened to destroy it. The very first round landed outside the CP building directly under the heavily shuttered downstairs windows in the rear of the building. Some shrapnel came up through the floor between our sleeping bags but no one was wounded thanks to the stone construction of the building and the heavy wood beams and floors.
Shrapnel also came up through the heavy shutters on our level and dropped a lot of ceiling plaster all over us.
A second and third round came in very close to the point of impact of the first and then rounds came in all up and down the street. The infantrymen were caught by surprise and there were more than fifty casualties within a few yards of the CP.
An emergency Battalion Aid Station was quickly set up in one room of the CP at street level.
Someone risked a look out
through the shutters and shouted, " Hey, there are wounded down there."
I ran down the stairs to the lower level at the rear of the building and
saw an unconscious GI lying on the ground. I crawled out to him and dragged
him back inside. There was no visible sign of a wound. As soon as I got
him inside the building I got my shoulder under him and carried him up
to street level where the aid station was being set up.
When I went out for him I thought that I heard someone else crying for help so I went back down to the rear exit. There was another infantryman crouched inside the door. He said that he was looking for his buddy who had brought a German prisoner down to the outhouse and had not returned with him. I told them that his buddy was wounded but that I had gotten him up to the battalion aid station.
The first artillery shell that had wounded his buddy had hit directly behind the outhouse and had blown the German prisoner out of it. He was sitting on the ground crying, "Mama, Mama." The infantryman and I ran out to get him. The other GI grabbed his shoulder and I grabbed his feet. He was seriously wounded and one of his legs pulled right out of his pants. We managed to get him into the building and up to the aid station but he didn't make it. He was too severely injured. The American soldier that I brought in did survive. His wounds were serious, too, but they got to them quickly enough to save his life.
A 411th infantryman, a private named Edward Holt, acted on his own initiative to locate the enemy artillery battery. He got so close that he had to call in fire from our artillery right on his own position in order to knock out the German artillery. For his heroic actions he received the Distinguished Service Cross.
After the artillery was neutralized, the 411th's attack continued toward the Rhine Plain but the fighting through the Vosges mountains was difficult with the Germans blocking the roads with mines, abatis (trees felled across the road in a chevron pattern), heavy logs sunk into the ground, and booby traps to discourage removal of the obstacles. Whenever a column was held up by one of the obstacles, an "88", Germany's most versatile artillery piece, was usually positioned to lay down harassing fire into the trees alongside the road. There was no place to hide from tree bursts.
In this situation, I invented a new kind of foxhole. Caught in the open without my entrenching tool, I clawed a horizontal foxhole straight into the side of the mountain using only my mess kit and my fingernails ----and I dug it in record time. The dirt that came out of the hole was piled up in front of the entrance to provide some protection but I doubt that it would have helped much. A few heavy logs would have been better but I did not have either the time or the inclination to cut down a tree using only my dull mess kit knife.
Le Howald, France -- Friendly Fire
The 411th slugged its way slowly through a succession of small villages ---- St.Martin, Le Howald, Andlau, and Eichoffen.
Again, Colonel Donovan P. Yeuell, the 411th Regimental commander, was right up there with them and wherever he went, we went. One night, his advance CP was set up in a building near Le Howald.
Every radio truck carried a reel of "Spiral-4 cable." We had no idea what it was intended for but we quickly found a good use for it. We rigged up a way to run this cable out to a safe place like the cellar of a building and used the several insulated conductors in the cable to listen to our receiver, turn the transmitter on and off, and key messages over the transmitter, all by remote control.
We had a heavy duty battery on the truck to handle the radio gear as well as the electrical equipment of the truck, lights, ignition, etc., but we had to be careful not to run the battery down. This meant that in situations where remote control was definitely called for, we still had to go out to the truck periodically and run the engine for a while to recharge the battery. The other side of the coin was that we could not just let our engine run indefinitely without risking running out of gas at an inopportune time or overheating the engine.
Even though it was a quiet night, we had arranged the remote control mode of operation. I checked my watch and noted that it was time to recharge the battery so I went outside and started the engine. I set it for a fast idle and was just jumping back down to the ground when an artillery shell landed in the field about a hundred yards away. Another round came in, much closer than the first, and I wasted no time getting back to the CP.
The building was like a fortress with massive stone walls and heavy wooden doors about four inches thick hanging from huge wrought iron strap hinges. The window shutters were similarly constructed. I hit the door going full speed expecting it to swing open, but at the sound of the first shell, someone had barred it from the inside, apparently thinking that it would provide better protection that way. The windows had also been barred.
I crawled around from door to door and window to window trying to get inside but everything was locked tight and the sound of my hammering at the doors and windows was apparently masked by the ever increasing sound of the incoming artillery barrage. There were no ditches --- no place to hide. I was out there all alone and that was the scariest part.
With my face in the mud, I crawled back to the truck and slithered underneath the engine block thinking that it might provide a small measure of protection from an air burst. The engine was still running and I got a scorched spot on the shoulder of my combat jacket from the exhaust pipe. At the time, I did not even think about the gasoline. With 20/20 hindsight, it does not seem like a very good idea to hide under a truck during a barrage.
It often happens that the first round of incoming fire knocks out wire communication but, luckily, in this case it did not. Col. Yeuell got on the phone and called for counter fire and the barrage abruptly ceased. It turned out that it was "friendly" fire.
One of the cannon companies was firing a mission by map coordinates and due to someone's goof had their 105mm howitzers aimed in exactly the opposite direction from their intended target.
In spite of the intensity of the barrage, most of the shells landed in an open field. There were no casualties although some trucks were damaged, but still serviceable. Our truck was not damaged at all.
Then the 411th took a small city, Barr.
What a wonderful night I
had in Barr. I had a warm bath in a tub and slept in a clean feather bed.
This would be the only time, for the duration of combat that I would have
such luxurious accommodations.
A Potpourri of Ups and Downs
On November 29th, at Itterswiller, my ASTP reveille adversary, Stuart Friedman, was seriously wounded by an incoming 88 shell and lost a leg. ASTP classmate, Carl Christensen, was killed in the same action. The following day, Sid Kantor, another ASTPer who, as a medic, played a major role in getting Friedman back to an aid station was captured when the Germans overran the aid station in a counter attack.
As time went by we made our radio truck a more livable place, in one town we ripped the doors off of a tall wooden cabinet to eventually close in the rear of the truck. For now, though, we tossed them into the back of the truck for later installation. we also scrounged a seat from a German Kubelwagen (their equivalent to our jeep) for the on-duty operator's comfort.
We installed a set of shelves over the radio set for the Signal Operating Instructions (SOI), our M-209 Converter (the device used to encode messages sent back to Division HQ and decode incoming messages), message pads, and other miscellaneous stuff. Each shelf had a deep lip on it to keep the contents from slipping out while we were traveling.
Thermite grenades were taped over the radio set and over the shelf where we kept the SOI and M-209 converter. If capture was imminent, by pulling the pins on those incendiary grenades we could reduce it all to ashes in a matter of seconds.
There was also a thermite grenade taped to the steering column to disable the vehicle by melting the column. It made us sweat a bit to know that that grenade was right over the driver's crotch, specifically, my crotch, and I made certain that the halves of the cotter pin were spread wide open to prevent anyone from accidentally pulling that pin.
The NCO in charge of the Construction Section, Master Sergeant Lovell Collins, together with one of the Construction Section wire crews had taken over a basement of a three story building as their living space. It only had two doors and small windows at the street level so they assumed that it would provide adequate protection from German fire.
The only commode in the
building was down there in the basement. Suddenly the crew heard a loud
crash. Down the hall, past the stored potatoes and salted down fresh eggs,
and going full speed ahead, was Marvin Ellis with his pants around his
ankles. The Krauts had put an 88 through the window and shattered the commode
he was sitting on. The shell did not explode, but the commode did, ---
and Ellis thought he might!
Before anyone could ask him what happened, Ellis was tearing down the street as fast as he could go (considering the constraint imposed upon him by his pants).
Warfare seems to make it rain and there was lots of that, and lots of deep gooey mud to go with it. Tanks and trucks slid all over the muddy roads. Often there was white tape stretched along the shoulders and warning signs on stakes driven into the mud, "MINES SWEPT TO DITCHES." The German warning signs "MINEN!", black with white lettering and a white skull and cross bones, also grabbed our attention.
There were numerous badly damaged vehicles upside down along side the road to emphasize the point and those was all the warning I needed to drive carefully.
Near Gundershaffen, Charles Struwe,
a well liked Signal Company Message Center messenger, was carrying dispatches
from one headquarters to another. His vehicle hit one of those mines.
He was blown up through the canvas over his head and clear of his vehicle, sustaining only minor injuries. Some nicknamed him "Lucky" but I don't think the nickname stuck for very long.
Between two of the small villages, we were following Col. Yeuell's jeep. Off to our right, about a hundred feet down a side road, we passed an American tank that had taken a direct hit from German artillery. There were many GIs, more than a dozen of them, lying very still all around the tank. They had all been killed by the shell. It was one of the saddest sights of my life --- so many young men who would never have a chance to live out their normal lives. We had already grown insensitive to the sight of dead Germans but never hardened to the sight of dead American comrades.
There were mortar rounds dropping in the field directly ahead of us as the 411th infantry attacked across the field toward the Germans dug in on the other side. We caught some machine gun fire but it was way off the mark.
Col. Yeuell had the top and windshield down on his jeep but we lumbered along behind him with our canvas in place, as it had to be to protect our radio set. Unfortunately, it made us a much better target.
The road made a sharp right
hand turn and Yeuell's jeep dropped down behind a hedge row. His jeep was
no longer in enemy view but our big rectangular canvas was quite visible.
A German machine gunner made us his own personal target. Fortunately, he
did not give us enough lead. The guys in the back had rolled up the rear
canvas and dropped the tail gate to the level position so they could get
out in a hurry. They were lying on their bellies on the bed of the truck,
as low as they could get, as the machine gun chewed up the dirt in the
side of the hill behind us. The gunner would fire a long burst tracking
toward us from the rear but stopped just before any of the rounds hit the
Eventually, the cut for the road got deeper and we were no longer visible to the enemy. We were about to enter a small village when Col. Yeuell's jeep stopped. There were several vehicles stopped ahead of him blocking the way. Col. Yeuell got out of his jeep and went up to see what was holding us up. Bud Hennum, our crew chief, also went for a look. He came back and reported that the Krauts had blown the bridge across a narrow but deep and swiftly flowing stream. It was impassable. Engineers were already working on it but we would be there for a while.
We were still down in the deep cut so I got out from behind the wheel and checked out my M-3 grease gun. I had two magazines taped back to back. I had never fired it in anger but, this close to the enemy, it did not seem like enough, especially if they counter attacked. I crawled into the back of the truck to get a canvas bag containing about twenty extra magazines.
I hung the bag's carrying strap around my neck and stepped out onto the tail gate of the truck. I accidentally tilted the bag so all of the magazines started slipping out and down into the mud. I dove for them trying to catch as many as possible and heard the loud "spang" of a ricochet off the wall behind me followed instantly by the crack of a rifle.
A sniper, in the attic of
a building that had been bypassed by the infantry as they advanced across
the field, had me in his sights, but when I dove for the magazines, his
round had passed harmlessly over my head.
This particular sniper had given the infantry a lot of trouble. He had hit several GIs and no one knew where the shots were coming from. Snipers usually use "flashless" powder. This time, he goofed. Someone saw the flash and put a "bazooka" round into the attic. That was the last we heard from that sniper.
I surveyed the mess that I had on my hands. Every muddy magazine had to be disassembled and cleaned and every round of .45 caliber ammunition had to be carefully wiped off and reloaded into the magazines to prevent a jam at an inopportune time.
Ordinarily, I would have
done a lot of bitching and moaning about a chore like that, but not this
time. These M-3 submachine gun magazines were special. They had saved my
Struthof Concentration Camp
A bit northwest of Barr, elements of the 103d Division overran Struthof. To my knowledge, it was the only German Concentration Camp located in France. Struthof was set up specifically to deal with the French resistance fighters who were very strong in this area. The Germans evacuated the camp just before our arrival and shipped all of the prisoners to Dachau so we had no idea, at that time, of the unspeakable horrors inflicted on those brave man and their families in this camp. We only found out later. Some of the prisoners were shipped from Dachau to its subsidiary camps located around the city of Landsberg where we would eventually learn first hand of the atrocities of which the Germans were capable.
Epfig and Ebersheim, France
After Barr, the 411th continued to attack. The Division objective was to capture the city of Selestat that straddled the main road from Strasbourg to Colmar. This road was the principal supply route of the German army to its troops in the Colmar Pocket, an area around the French city of Colmar. The presence of a large German force in this pocket on the west side of the Rhine posed a threat to the entire right flank of the American and French forces driving northward toward the German main line of defense, The Siegfried Line.
It was expected that the Germans would fight tenaciously to keep us from cutting this vital supply line to the Colmar Pocket.
The 411th fought through stubborn resistance at Epfig. During that battle we were in a cellar in Epfig when an infantry replacement in the same cellar started crying uncontrollably. I tried to comfort him. He was not a coward. It was clear that he was neither physically nor psychologically equipped to be a soldier. He was a little boy in a man's uniform and through some horrible mistake had slipped through the screening that should have determined that he could never be a combat soldier. Eventually, the Medics got him out of there and hopefully, he was not treated as a malingering gold brick. I ran into a few of those in the army but this guy wasn't one of them.
Just as Selestat straddled the main supply route from Strasbourg to Colmar, Ebersheim straddled the same road north of Selestat so its capture would shut the main supply route to Selestat as well. In bitter fighting, the 411th pushed the Krauts house by house out of Ebersheim and Col. Yeuell had us right in the middle of it again. The Germans mounted several counter attacks and all the while had Ebersheim under intense mortar fire. I was operating the radio and Bud Hennum was driving. He pulled the truck close up against an iron gate and said that he and Seymour Fader were going to locate the CP and try to find a safer spot for the truck, close enough to the CP to run in our remote control cable. While I was alone in the back of the truck, some GI pulled up in a jeep right next to our truck and ran for cover as the mortar barrage intensified.
Another jeep pulled up behind us. Finding the road blocked, the driver started blowing his horn. I lifted the rear canvas and the driver yelled at me to move up a little so he could get through. He kept blowing his horn and yelling, "Hurry up! I'm gonna get killed out here!"
I jumped down, climbed into the driver's seat, pulled forward just enough for him to get through, and then climbed back into the rear of the truck. I had just settled back into the Kubelwagen seat when there was an ear shattering explosion. I looked at the rear canvas and it was riddled with holes. I shook my head to clear the cobwebs and saw a piece of shrapnel embedded in the wood of the shelf directly behind my head. For a moment it seemed like it could not have gotten there without passing right through my head so I yanked off my helmet and checked to see if there were holes through it. There were none. It was a totally irrational act to check my helmet like that but sometimes we do strange things. Obviously, I had heard something just before the mortar shell hit and had instinctively ducked but I have no recollection of doing that.
The mortar shell had smashed into the bottom of the iron gate and demolished it.
It had to have come from a direction that would have caused it to land right in my lap if I had not moved the truck. The gate was set back slightly from the corner of the building to which it was attached. The stone building absorbed most of the shrapnel coming in my direction.
About fifty yards to the rear of our truck, a jeep parked on the opposite side of the street had all four tires flattened and the radiator ruined by the shell. If I ever find the driver who blew his horn at me until I moved, I just might kiss him. There is no doubt that I owe him my life.
Fader came back and found me still shaken from the near miss. They had found the CP and there was a courtyard surrounded by a high stone wall behind it. He guided me into it and ducked back into the CP.
As usual, Col. Yeuell had his advance CP set up facing the Kraut positions, on the top floor of the building. We were in the room directly behind the main CP. Our roll of Spiral-4 cable would not reach so we would have to operate the radio while actually sitting in the truck. A mortar round came down right on the sill of one of the windows in the CP and bounced into the room. It was a dud. Someone in the CP picked it up carefully (it was hot) and dropped it out the window into the courtyard but it hit the ground without exploding.
Wire teams had gotten telephone lines into the CP but the heavy mortar fire had taken them out. As quickly as the wire teams repaired or replaced the lines they were taken out again. It happened over and over so it was radio or nothing. Yeuell's message center gave us a long encoded message to send back to Division HQ.
In situations like this we took turns. This time, it was my turn to go to the truck. One mortar was zeroed in on the court yard. Luckily, the Germans were so methodical that if they were laying in one round every two minutes, you could set your watch by it and that was precisely what this mortar was doing.
I hid inside the door and waited watching my sweep second hand. A round came in and I started watching the time. Simultaneously, I raced for the truck, established communication and started sending the message. When it was one minute and fifty seconds since the last round, I sent "AS," the shortcut used by Morse code operators for "wait", and dove out the back of the truck. At two minutes, exactly, I was face down in the dirt and the next mortar round exploded.
I climbed back into the truck and continued sending the message. At three minutes and fifty seconds after the starting round, I sent "AS" again and dove out of the truck. Again the round came in right on time. I again scrambled back into the truck and continued sending the message but soon realized that I had lost track of my starting time. I quickly sent "AS" and grabbed the bow under the canvas and swung out. While hanging there exposed, the next round came in and I felt a sharp sting across the back of my left wrist. There were only a few more code groups to send so I swung back in and sent them, closed out the transmission, and hit the dirt again. After the next round, I ran back into the CP and it was someone else's turn. The "wound" from the mortar fragment was just a minor scratch. I put some sulfa powder and a small bandage from my first aid kit on it and in a couple of days it had healed. It was not worth reporting.
A German prisoner was brought into the CP for interrogation. He claimed to know nothing about the location of the mortars. After lengthy questioning, a guard took the prisoner out to the courtyard to think about it some more and found a safe place for himself. After the third or fourth mortar round came in, the prisoner was ready to tell us everything. He did and the mortars were soon neutralized.
Selestat was going to be
difficult to capture but it would not take the entire division to do it.
A special task force was organized for the job, but the 411th was not designated
to take part. The 411th troops in Ebersheim were relieved by French troops,
actually Senegalese, in red fezzes, from Africa, they all carried sharp
curved dirks and had deep scar designs cut into their faces and must have
been frightening to the Krauts who had to fight them. They frightened me
---- and they were on our side.
Redeployment for the Attack on
the Siegfried Line,
December 5, 1944
There was a new task now for the 103d Division, so once on the Rhine Plain, on December 5th, we turned north toward the Siegfried line and the roads, through territory already cleared by other divisions, filled with long convoys of 103d Division vehicles.
At one point during this redeployment, it seemed like, in one thunderous explosion, the whole top blew off of one of the mountains. In Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, the explanation was that some Germans were buttoned up in a medieval castle that American forces had bypassed. The German troops had mortars set up in the central courtyard and were lobbing harassing rounds in all directions around the castle. The walls of the castle were twelve to fifteen feet thick and our artillery could not make a dent in it. A half track that had been badly damaged was loaded with as much explosive as it would hold and was directed, unmanned toward the castle. When it was snug up against the castle wall, it was detonated and blew a hole about ten feet in diameter in the wall. Stunned Krauts poured out of the hole and the mortars were neutralized.
We were among the first troops to arrive at the new 103d Division assembly area near Gougenheim, southwest of Haguenau. This gave us some extra time to change our stinking socks, to get cleaned up, to grease our truck, and do some more work on making the radio operating area of our truck more comfortable.
Our crew pulled out the wooden cabinet doors that we had scrounged earlier and installed them sloping down from the last canvas supporting bow of the truck to the rear edge of the leveled tail gate. In this mode of installation they were a perfect fit. These doors were arranged to open outward so we could exit in a hurry. We provided an overhead light in the operating area, interlocked with the doors to automatically go out when the doors were opened to maintain blackout conditions.
The benches along each side
of the closed-in area were just wide enough to sit on but it was impossible
to sleep on them. We soon fixed that. We found two heavy plywood boards
about three inches wider than the benches and they made all the difference
in the world. We could now sleep on them without rolling off onto the floor
every time we tried to change position. It was tight but there was now
room enough for two to sleep on the benches while the operator on duty
sat in our scrounged Kubelwagen jeep seat.
We had a hot meal, pancakes, for a change, and some of our radio team and about a dozen other GIs were sitting around in a room on the second floor of a building drinking coffee and shooting the breeze.
It was a long room with a single window at one end and a door that opened into the room at the other. The last GI in had closed the door and was leaning back against it. Suddenly the window disintegrated and we all saw a Messerschmidt ME-109 flying straight at us with all guns blazing. Everyone rushed for the door but since it opened inward, we all just piled up against the guy leaning against it.
We collapsed in a heap on the floor and everyone was digging to get himself on the bottom of the pile. It only took two or three seconds for the plane to pass overhead. Only one round had come through the window and it had not hit anyone. After that first round, the rest apparently passed harmlessly over the top of the building.
We had hot coffee all over us. Someone started to laugh and we all joined in. One guy said "Boy, did you guys look silly, all trying to get down under the pile." Another answered, "How would you know? You were on the bottom the whole time and couldn't see anything." Finally, someone said, "Well, it was funny but how about getting that damned door open, and leaving it open, just in case that joker comes around again."
We did --- but he didn't.
That day a mess truck arrived with GI pots containing our Thanksgiving Dinner, chicken ala king. They had been trying to catch up with us ever since Thanksgiving (more than a week ago) and our dinner had been in those pots all that time -------- but they didn't tell us that.
Within minutes, I was hit with the "GIs" and they were not to end until late April, 1945.
About that time, I realized that the scratch that I had received from the mortar fragment was on my left wrist and I am left handed. What if it had been a more serious, but not necessarily life threatening, wound? Or, what if I simply sprained my left wrist or broke my arm? I might still have been able to function in all respects except my primary one, sending Morse code when the situation demanded.
I decided to provide us with some insurance in the event of an injury to my left hand or arm.
The telegraph key that we used for code transmissions was attached to a wide metal clip that clamped on the thigh just above the knee. By resting our wrists on our upper thigh we could transmit effectively even while in motion over bumpy terrain.
At every opportunity, I clamped the key on my right knee and practiced code with my right hand. After a month or so I was equally competent left or right handed. Thereafter, I used my right hand for transmission about as often as I used my left but the situation never arose in which I had to do it.
The Attack Toward the Siegfried Line
During the night of December 7-8th the 103d Division relieved elements of the 45th and 79th Divisions along the Zintzel River. An hour before dawn on December 9th, a coordinated barrage of field artillery, cannon company fire, 60mm mortars, 81mm mortars, tanks and tank destroyers opened up on the positions that we were about to attack. Many of the 81mm mortars were throwing in white phosphorous shells. They gave the barrage the look of a July 4th fireworks display but its purpose was deadly. It was a terrifying sight, far more frightening in the dark than the contrived firepower demonstration we had seen back at Camp Howze. It significantly softened up the defenses on the Kraut side of the Zintzel River but they still fought stubbornly for Griesbach. Movement was slow at first but then we advanced more rapidly through Eberbach and Woerth.
The Maginot Line
It was in this area that we ran into one of the most expensive mistakes ever made. Before the start of World War II, the French built a wall of underground fortresses along its border with Germany to defend against the Germans of they should ever attack France. At ground level there were heavy concrete bunkers, pillboxes protecting machine guns and artillery pieces. These were all exposed on hill tops to intimidate the Germans and had clear and overlapping fields of fire with barbed wire strung in front of them. These fortifications were all interconnected by tunnels with electric trains to permit rapid movement of troops from one place to another. There were underground sleeping quarters, bath rooms, kitchens, ---- everything needed to make life comfortable for the French soldiers and miserable for the Germans if they should be foolhardy enough to make a head-on attack against these fortifications called the Maginot Line.
The Germans were not that foolhardy. They simply attacked around the end of the line through Holland and Belgium and flew over the Maginot Line dropping thousands of paratroopers behind the line in France.
This new kind of warfare in which fast armored columns raced around the flanks of defenses and paratroops were dropped behind prepared defensive positions was called blitzkrieg, or "lightning war," it was invented and named by the Germans and significantly changed the way that wars on the ground would be fought.
The guns of the Maginot Line could not be turned around to fire the other way so the Maginot Line was useless. France had been easily defeated.
As the Cactus Division pressed forward, the Germans chose not to defend any of the Maginot Line fortifications for the same reason. Everything pointed the wrong way. They did however make good use of the fields of fire that the French had cleared in front of their bunkers. Our troops had to attack over open ground with no cover or concealment and it slowed our advance considerably when the attack had to carry across this kind of exposed terrain.
For a while, the Krauts seemed to be fighting just a holding action to permit them to fall back in an orderly fashion to previously prepared defensive positions along the border. On their side of the border lay the fortifications that Germany had built to protect against an attack from French soil. It was called the Siegfried Line and its concept was quite different from that of the Maginot Line.
We would soon find out that the Siegfried Line would be a tough nut to crack. The Siegfried Line consisted of groups of camouflaged machine gun emplacements concealed in the mountainsides. There were usually three or more of such strong points laid out to provide protective fire for one another. The attacking force had to advance through trees and there were strategically placed artillery pieces to fire devastating tree bursts over the attacking forces. Unlike the Maginot Line, there was not just one main defensive line but layer after layer of hidden defensive strong points. As the Germans pulled back from one strong point to another, the area given up was heavily mined and booby trapped. the idea behind the Siegfried Line was that the attacking forces would eventually take such heavy losses that they would simply have to give up the attack and fall back.
It was now December 14, 1944. As we got closer to the German border, Jerry's defense began to stiffen. fighting on French soil was one thing but fighting on the soil of the Fatherland, Germany, was quite another.
The battle escalated in the 411th Infantry Regiment's zone in the area of Lembach and Wingen but one of the fiercest battles of the entire campaign, as far as the 103d Division was concerned, was about to take place in the last French town before the German border.
That town was Climbach.
We were in Wingen on the left flank of the 411th Infantry Regiment's zone as the battle for Climbach began. Col. Donovan Yeuell quickly moved his advance CP to a house on the side of a mountain looking straight up the valley toward Climbach where he could see the battle unfold and give prompt commands when the situation demanded it.
The attack on Climbach was a difficult problem. It was necessary to advance up open terrain. There was a road along one side of the path of advance but the Germans had zeroed in on every foot of the road and had done the same thing with the open terrain as well. They held all of the high ground and their artillery pieces were well protected and looking right down our throats.
A Negro tank destroyer (TD)
outfit, the 614th Tank Destroyers was deployed in a relatively exposed
position to keep the German artillery busy. It was a bloody battle in which
the 411th took heavy casualties. Relatively speaking, the 614th TDs suffered
even heavier casualties but they fought gallantly and earned a Presidential
Unit Citation for their efforts that day.
The house that Col. Yeuell had picked for his advance CP was in such a strategically perfect location, with a view of the entire valley up to Climbach, that I felt certain that it would draw artillery fire the moment the battle started but there were so many other inviting targets on the field that day that we did not draw a single round. It did not always work out that well.
The battle lasted all day but in the end, the Germans were driven out of Climbach and back toward their own border.
Col. Yeuell moved the 411th advance CP to Climbach. Here we caught heavy but periodic mortar fire. As usual, the Krauts could be counted on to fire on a precise time schedule and everyone ducked under cover just before each round came in, so there were no casualties.
I was talking to some of the GIs in the CP. There was a lot of jittery conversation. Everything anyone said was funny, or appeared to be. It seemed that there was almost continuous nervous laughter, but most of the laughter was just a release of pent-up tensions. A tanker told us about a Kraut who was out in the open, chasing a chicken with the obvious intention of cooking it for dinner. He was out of range of rifle and machine gun fire so the tanker decided to take a crack at him. He bore-sighted him, and quickly dropped in an HE round. It was close but the Kraut ignored it. The next round got him and the chicken, with feathers flying everywhere. It seemed funny at the time. When I relate, to people who have never been in combat, the occasional truly funny things that happened from time to time, they wonder how we could find anything funny about the war. I guess you had to be there.
On December 15, 1944 at 1305 (1:05 p.m.) 411th Infantry, I (Item) Company crossed the German border followed about five minutes later by L (Love) Company. These were the first American soldiers in the Seventh Army, in fact, in the entire 6th Army Group, to enter Germany.
In just one month from its initiation into combat, The 103d Infantry Division had proven its mettle and was now spearheading the drive of the 6th Army Group into Germany. In that short time we had earned a reputation as crack mountain troops and that reputation was being tested again in the Hardt Mountains.
The Heinies defended bitterly. The first of the Siegfried Line strong points was encountered on December 16th and little progress was made all day but the 411th held onto its foothold inside Germany. They pushed forward bit by bit paying for every bit with casualties.
On about December 17, 1944, Bobenthal fell to the 411th and Col. Yeuell moved his advance CP into the town. Needless to say the Krauts were most unhappy about our presence in the Fatherland and let us know by pounding Bobenthal with artillery.
Bud Hennum, our crew chief, had his helmet "pot" full of water sitting on a stump. He was trying to wash his face and hands and shave. The several artillery pieces firing into the town were apparently scattered about and while each was probably firing on a precise and predictable time table, they were not coordinated so Bud could not time the arrival of the next round. They were 88s so we couldn't hear them coming, anyway. The saying was, "If you hear an 88 round don't bother to duck. It missed you."
However, that advice was not taken seriously by Bud. He hit the dirt every time a round came in ----- and so did the rest of us. I don't think that he ever got his face washed while we were in Bobenthal.
The 409th Infantry Regiment also entered Germany near Wissembourg and found it slow going. By December 21st, the 409th and 411th Regiments had ground out German territory inch by inch as the capture of one layer of Siegfried Line strong points only revealed another. It was like peeling an onion ----- take off one layer and there is still a whole onion underneath.
It was beginning to look like we would have to slug it out for every inch. There would not be a quick breakthrough anywhere along the line. The 103d Division would pay dearly for every square foot of German soil it captured.
Start of the Battle of the Bulge
Meanwhile, on December 16th, German Field Marshal von Rundstedt had launched, in the Ardennes Forest to our northwest, a carefully planned armored counterattack employing hundreds of tanks supported by infantry in what would soon be called the "Battle of the Bulge."
We were too busy with our own little corner of the war to read the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes, but those behind the lines who saw the latest copies realized that this counterattack was becoming more serious by the minute. Troops were being moved northward to help contain and beat back the attack and others would have to be moved to take their places.
Division was to be withdrawn from the Siegfried Line and moved to the flank
of the Bulge to fight a holding action while the Bulge was contained and