'. I I I ; h 1 .
World War II ended in Europe May 8, 1945. The collapse of the
German war machine was rendered by the Allied Armies in a sweep through
Germany. During the final months of the war, I was a combat infantry-
man, a left rifleman in the Seventh Army, 63rd Division, 253rd Regiment,
First Battalion, Company C, Second Platoon.
Almost twenty years elapsed before I returned to Europe for reasons
associated with my profession as a biologist. For obscure reasons I was
obsessed by the need to retrace footsteps taken during a violent era. In
Germany I drove among the shadowy spruce forests whose deep boughs veiled
the edges as though seeking to contain forbidden knowledge. Stopping
beside the narrow road I stepped out and slowly pushed through the
blue-green needles into a cathedral of gloom. It was all too familiar
again, the evergreen scent, the deathly quiet, the muted sounds of steps
on the damp decay of the forest floor. The aura of a timeless atmosphere
closed about me provoking anxious memories of the distant past.
My eyes adjusted to the gloom and grim nostalgia was intensified by
the slothful motion of several bronze-hued slugs. Devoted to vegetative
pursuit among the dark needles, these impartial molluscans were constant
spectators to the endless violence of that awesome spring of 1945.
Suddenly the urge to leave the forest, to run, tore at my better
judgement but I quickly left before the harsh sounds of weapons became
too real. I knew now that I would never be entirely free.
A TASTE OF WAR
It was March 2, 1945 in Germany. The small villages clustered on
the Saar were deserted by their human inhabitants and barren of normal
daylight sounds. On the eastern fringe of Bubingen the white aspens
were etched in jagged harmony upon an overcast sky. Lonely puffs of
air were opposed only by bare twigs and the gray faces beneath steel
helmets. For among the remnants of winter a column of infantry clattered
itself along as a ragged centipede in search of its destiny. Oblivious
to the advent of spring the column in loose-woven cadence maintained a
steady eastward course. The GI's dug in around the village watched our
passage in curiosity but with no envy reflected in their eyes. The night
was spent in a house not far from Bubingen which served as the jumping
off point for the attack the following day.
Reconnaisance patrols had estimated with relative optimism that
the stone quarry was lightly held by a few Jerries armed with a mortar
and a machine gun or two. The quarry was located about two miles from
Bubingen on a hill known as le Birnberg.
Led by C Company the attack was to push off in the early afternoon,
to be exact at 1405 hours, 3 March 1945. We were to be supported by
D Company, a heavy weapons unit equipped with mortars, machine guns and
bazookas. A and B Companies were to be held in reserve.
We assembled our equipment for departure. In C Company each infantry-
man was dressed in olivedrab pants and shirt, an O.D. ETO battle jacket,
a green field jacket, and a pair of combat boots which came several inches
above the ankles. Equipment for a rifleman consisted of an M1 rifle, a
canvas cartridge belt containing 12 clips of 30 cal ball ammo at eight
rounds per clip, two fabric bandoliers each containing 15 extra clips
of ammo, which were worn over one shoulder and under the other, two or
more hand grenades, steel helmet, with helmet liner, a canteen, a first
aid kit attached to the cartridge belt, a box or two of K-rations and a
shovel. Fortunately, bayonets and gas masks were not considered essential
in the ETO by the troops. Although they were issued to the troops, they
were by and large disposed of in short order. Although it was early March
the Army had declared winter off limits but we each carried a blanket
hung over our cartridge belt. At the last minute I discovered that my
shovel was missing. This indispensable issue was designed to enable
the blade to fold back against the short handle for insertion into a
canvas case which hooked to our belts. In my naivete I rationalized it
as being one less item to carry.
A brief artillery barrage was laid on to soften up the defenses.
The hour had come. C Company moved out in twin files well spread out.
For many of us these were the first steps toward the unknown. In silent
apprehension I kept pace with my comrades on the approach to the quarry
a short distance ahead.
Suddenly the column halted, at least as suddenly as possible for a
body caught in the throes of harmonic motion. The column oscillated again
but the line ahead bulged to the left as a serpent might in avoiding
something. Arriving at the obstacle I was shocked to find that it was
a dead soldier, a German, lying on his side with his legs drawn up as
if in agony. A few belongings were scattered around his body. His dark
hair was powdered by dust and the waxen face was deep purple red in
places while deathly pale in others. It was speculated he died by mortar
The sight of death filled me with dread and sadness for the
miserable existence combat troops must endure. My mind had never
accepted the possibility that I would be engaged in warfare even
though at the moment we were fast approaching a definitive answer.
This unexpected event emphasized that it was not a remote possibility.
The war was not a figment ofimagination but a clammy reality.
I had been in the Army exactly six months and five days as we
jumped off in combat formation in No Man's Land towards the German
lines. The swift pace from civilian life to the infantry seemed to
verify the rumors of the desperate situation in the ETO in December
APPROACH TO THE FRONT
On August 30 1944, I was inducted into the U.S Army. By December
1944 the Belgian Bulge cast a dark anticipation among the raw infantry
recruits. Rumors of thousands of U.S. casualties caused by the German
push had leaked into Camp Hood, Texas. Our training was to be cut short
in this period of anxiety while the Air Force mustered quick flights in
B17's to the combat area. A critical shortage of infantry existed in
the ETO but late January 1945 found us leaving Camp Kilmer, N.J. in the
dead of night, on a troop train, heading north, in chill and gloom. The
station lights diffuse in icy dampness reflected from the black shiny
streets. At New York shuffling off the train wearing full packs we
emerged into a cavernous dock shed. A brass band, the eternal purveyor
of military ardor rewarded us as we were leaving clutching two Red Cross
doughnuts. One was baptized with crystalline sugar and the other plain
and delivered rightfully as a U.S. heritage along with Brazilian coffee.
Striving to maintain a universal image a Sergeant snarled at a list
of names. In single file we entered a vast opening in the side of a ship
which proved to be the Queen Elizabeth. The ship was crawling with 20,000
troops and the enlisted men went deep into the lower decks. The bunks,
four deep were captured in fatigue rooted in emotion and morning found us
at sea. The Statue of Liberty in perpetual salutation had silently ob-
served our passage and the bow rose and fell.
The bow rose and fell. The rest of the ship did other things. I
found breakfast was only possible while lying on the deck between the
mess tables peering at a collection of more fortunate boots. But at the
end I could arise and covet dinner as no lunch was available.
With little harassment from the Army the six days were spent
in aimless wandering over the ship. Decks were off limits at night
to avoid the match flares which could attract the U-boats whose
torpedos were unforgiving. A loud staccato from the top decks con-
firmed an anti-aircraft practice by the British crew whose dreams,
or nightmares, included the long range Dornier bomber. Rumor had it
that the paratroopers were assigned to KP duty to keep their wild
spirits contained. The last day at sea and the Queen sensed the homeland
by plunging and rolling. A paratrooper looked sadly at the metal food
containers skidding and bashing themselves on the long tables as if
longing for an end to his menial career.
When we awoke the last morning the ship was still. With curiosity
and excitement we rushed up on deck. We were at Guroc, Scotland, on the
mouth of the Clyde River with little boats puffing around the Queen. In
full pack again we debarked onto a smaller boat for the remainder of the
voyage. Awkwardly we squirmed into the hold one side of which was open
facing the stern. A row of glass ports along the hull dropped ever lower
as the boat was loading. With water almost up to the ports we were
grateful when the rumble of engines promised deliverance and we soon
put foot on the Empire.
Transferring to a train, we rode through the English blackout in
leather comfort and became a part of the night. On silent rails, in
the darkness, we crept secretively through a large city and each of us
were strangers without a name. I had become part of the war now. I
had to be. There was little choice. During the night we stopped at a
railway station. The British ladies handed each of us a fruit pie and a
meat pie. The pies were indestructable as the British and they will be
with me forever.
By morning Southhampton had been reached. We sat on our packs on
the quay and in the afternoon boarded a small freighter for a channel
crossing. We drank British -soft drinks, ate gray mashed potatoes and
tried to sleep among rusty chains without falling into the gaping hold.
With a startling clamor the anchor mangled its way down sometime in the
night and in the morning light the shuttered houses of Le Havre could
be seen in the mist.
Now that the captain could see where he was going or the tide was
right he maneuvered up to the dock. Finally taking leave of the little
vessel at dusk we marched about three miles in ever upward grade to
reach the summit crowned with tents. It was February and cold but along
the way the French threw open their windows, garbled into the night and
brought down bottles of sour apple cider.
The next afternoon, in reverse effort, we found ourselves going
down the hill between clusters and corridors of French lining the cobble-
stone streets. With calculated zeal I decided to distinguish myself
from the Mongolian hordes in olive drab. In a loud authoritative tone
I demanded of the nearest Frenchman, "ou est le .Boche?" He was instantly
impressed by my profound vocabulary and the depth of my knowledge of
history acquired during my youth by reading WW I novels in pulp magazines.
He fumbled a few words in answer and gesticulated to the east. With
little gratitude for this information, which was, to say the least,
anticipated, my enthusiasm for an eastern journey diminished even more.
The railway station came into view. A string of ancient French
compartment cars led by a steam locomotive blackened by soot sat empty
along the track. The engine panted and hissed as impatient steam escaped
only to condense in the cool air around the tinkling hot iron. Each
compartment had outside doors and two wooden benches. Nine of us were
assigned to each compartment. There was barely enough room for both
equipment and bodies and one had to sit on the floor. The engine
grappled with the rails and we slowly moved from the dark station as the
French waved bottles of sour vintage. The plaintive whistle from the
engine was a lonely sound and I glanced from one shadowed face to another.
Nine to a compartment and during the next three months one was said to have
been killed, one wounded and another a victim of battle shock. I never
knew the fate of the remaining five.
For four nights and three days we crept through France towards the
front on the border of Germany. Sad little war torn villages and barren
fields patched with snow passed before us and soon were accepted with
Although we stopped for brief periods the trip across France from
Le Havre to Bar-le-Duc seemed endless. An unbelievable amount of human
debris organic and inorganic in various degrees of putrefication lined
the roadbed at every stopping point. We lined up messkit in hand for
whatever the cook had to offer.
Stopping briefly at Amiens the GI's bailed out of the cramped
compartments. Several middle-aged women were waiting at the station for
a train. The GI's surrounded them and gaped in fascination. Bars of
soap were heaped upon them and just the sound of "merci" was rewarding.
"Danseuse vous" I said in my best continental Alabama style to one who
could have been my aunt. "Oui" she said. I choked up in admiration.
Not many of us had been so close to foreigners before except for some
yankees but they were beneath contempt anyway.
We engaged the train again and continued our sardine-like existence.
At one stop I wandered a short distance away to gaze at the edge of a
village. The engineer blew a casual peep on his whistle as the train
eased off and I had to run to catch it. Fortunately one of the compart-
ments had the window down and I clung to the outside in ever increasing
speed. Finally, after several miles I induced the occupants to pull me
in through the window. The enameled plaque by the window said "I1 est
dangereux pour les enfant d'ouvrir la fenetre quand le chemin de fer
est en marche"
Bar-le-Duc marked the terminal end of the great train ride. We
were taken to a structure which appeared to be an old French military
establishment. Without coercion new M-1 30 caliber rifles were issued
to all. Coated with a heavy grease called Cosmoline they had to be
dipped in a barrel of hot solvent to render them palatable. During the
few days at Bar-le-Duc we test fired and adjusted the sights on our new
rifles. It dawned on me that the Army may have a purpose behind these
About the middle of February we made another advance towards the
east. The destination was a small roadside community in France. The
inevitable church dominated the scene and diminished the scale of the
village. The massive stone walls had offered armored sanctuary'to
retreating and advancing troops as well as recourse from sin by the
The Commanders headquarters were in a small white washed house
surrounded by a garden. The war had obviously passed through the
village. Abandoned German artillery shells were scattered about and
20 mm anti-aircraft ammo was draped in strings over the garden fence.
We avoided annoying the resting ammo and concentrated on the capture of
a pullet or two witless enough to venture forth in daylight.
We had been absorbed into the Seventh Army as replacements for
the 63rd Infantry Division which bore an additional label as the Blood
and Fire Division. The news was verified by the distribution of emblems
embroidered with a suitable motif reflecting our capacity for terror.
These patches had to be sewn on the left shoulder of our jackets for
identification purposes or more likely to sustain a Division pride.
The nights in this village were spent in the hayloft of a barn.
Minor infantry exercises were conducted during the day. These included
short running dashes punctuated by hitting the ground, an act presumed
to make one an elusive target. Hand grenades were thrown in open
fields, while hugging the dirt before the explosion to reduce the
possibility of being hit by the fragments. On one occasion in the
fields, a loud droning drew our attention upwards. A huge armada of
B17's was going over streaming contrails which marked their passage
through the sky. Unbelievably a parachute appeared from one of the
planes and drifted down several miles away. We never learned whether
some airman had gone AWOL orwhether it was destined for navigation
purposes in some fashion. The magnitude of the war seemed overwhelming.
Thoughts of the future began to crowd my mind and weaken my hopeful
assumption that an approach to the front was far distant in time and
miles. I was unaware that the front was only a matter of a few miles
to the east.
One gloomy day we marched out into the fields. The gloom turned
into a steady drizzle and rain dribbled from our helmets in steady
streams. Blue-gray mud worked its way up our combat boots and descended
their crests to complete our soggy and miserable state. The Lieutenant
in an act of mercy sent a runner to headquarters to inquire as to the
possibility of returning to shelter. The runner soon panted up with a
reply to the message. The lieutenant scanned the contents and for a
moment was speechless. He muttered to us in an irrate tone, "Don't you
know there's a war on?" "Now" he said, "let's all yell together, SOME
SHIT." Spewing raindrops aside we yelled in unison at the top of our
lungs. It made us feel a hell of a lot better and soon we were laughing
as we yelled and slogged in the dreary muck.
The day came that we were assembled in the village to be addressed
by an information officer who stood above us on a stonewall. He was a
mine of optimism and bubbled with enthusiasm as he described recent
events on the front. We learned of the clever tactics employed by the
63rd Infantry Division in the Saar River crossing. By using a sound
truck playing recordings of truck movements, clanking tank treads
muffled by growling engines and other sounds of mass troop movements
the Germans were fooled into believing that a crossing was intended at
a certain sector. As the Germans rushed reinforcements to the sector
in danger, certain elements of the 63rd crossed at another point with
A GI interrupted to ask about the number that were killed. Cheer-
fully the answer was offered that casualties were very, very light, a
comment which infected the troops with skeptical muttering. It was
obvious that we were being prepared to join a combat unit psychologically
as well as tactically.
The night came that small open trucks whined in with slit eyes
emitting tiny shafts of blue light. A Sergeant ticked off names as
we clambered on clutching our M-1 rifles. Reverence if not love for
these weapons was expected by the Army from all assigned to their
transport. For we were merely vehicles locked in to the task of
delivering and operating them on appropriate occasions. As usual we
rode in ignorance of our destination which was Saarguemines, France.
Saarguemines had been a holding position for the 63rd Infantry Division
during the winter but as February approached a limited amount of probing
and advancing had begun. The darkened city was reached in a few hours
and we picked our way through the ghostly streets. Stopping at a tall
building we dismounted and climbed several flights of stairs to the
bare rooms assigned to us. By previous standards this was a luxury
hotel in which we might sit out the war in contentment. The following
day, February 27, without regard for our sentiments, we were transported
a short distance northwest to Kleinblittersdorf, Germany where the
253rd Infantry Regiment was scattered about in German houses. As we
jumped from the trucks a Sergeant was on hand to assign us to a unit.
A few of us were directed to a house about 1200 yards away occupied
by the 2nd platoon of "C" Company (Charlie Company).
The small number of us assigned to the 2nd platoon were accepted
by the group in a casual manner as though our stay was expected to be
brief. The Lieutenant carefully wrote our names in a little book. The
monthly beer ration had arrived and an atmosphere of boisterous joviality
prevailed among the "veterans." But a lighthearted attitude did not
change the tense expression reflected from an ashen pallor which oddly
was relieved by pink stains around the lips. The once respectable house
was-a shambles. Canned German fruit, mostly cherries and plums inter-
mingled with other strange potables had been opened and consumed to
various levels. Books were scattered on the floor amid crushed empty
K-ration boxes and pulverized remains of soda crackers. Back packs,
hand grenades, rifle grenades, ammunition boxes, fabric bandoliers of
30 cal ammo were strewn about the edges of the room. M-1 rifles,
carbines, Browning automatic rifles and a bazooka for destroying tanks
were casually stacked against the walls. Collapsible shovels, canteens,
canvas belts for 8-round clips of 30 cal ammo, steel helmets, and other
combat gear lay around in profusion. Mattresses long since having lost
their profession in the boudoir lay dejected on the floor rumpled by
The dry hollow cough of an American mortar reverberated through the
walls. The weapons platoon had concealed their piece just outside the
house and frequently directed a round of harassing fire towards the
German lines. The front lines were now within easy walking distance
down a narrow black road.
Periodically the field telephone would ring to the irritation of
the vets. The platoon member taking the calls was constantly besieged
by the others to tell the CQ at Headquarters Co. to "blow it out his
barracks bag" or the anatomical equivalent. The CQ, after a series of
these demands from the platoon level, threatened dire consequences.
The GIs took diabolical pleasure in recounting an incident which
involved one of the platoon a few days earlier. It seemed that the
bathroom located on a corner of the house was occupied by a GI. His
biological endeavor was short-lived, however, being quickly terminated
by a German 88 which ripped off a vast chunk of his sanctuary. In
tangled terror he stumbled out undamaged but bearing a tragic expression.
The first hour or two with the platoon was a strange experience.
The uppermost questions on my mind and probably the others, related
to the nature of combat but these were the last thoughts that one wanted
to pursue. Without adequate reason I judged it to be bad form or an
invasion of privacy to probe the mind of an infantryman. Or perhaps
I was reluctant to hear the truth. Nothing was demanded of us as we
lounged about and listened to the offhand remarks of the experienced
members of the platoon. It seemed by chance that I learned that C
Company was scheduled to move up to the lines that night. We had to
relieve another company in the Battalion holding a stationary front
two miles north at Bubingen on the Saar River. In preparation for the
move the new arrivals were questioned about their experience with the
B.A.R., a heavy cumbersome automatic weapon with a tripod on the nose
to steady it while firing. Adding to his burden a B.A.R. man wore a
vest-like bandolier stuffed with 20 round capacity ammo clips. In a
sticky situation a B.A.R. was indispensable but had the reputation of
attracting the attention of an undesirable crowd. I disclaimed any
theoretical or practical knowledge of a B.A.R. which was a wise
decision at a fighting weight of 125 pounds on 5'7" of questionable
reliance under fire.
After dark we filed out on the narrow black asphalt road which
weaved through open fields towards Bubingen. We were cautioned to
secure all equipment to avoid rattling, as a platoon or two of men
with a variety of gear clinking and knocking creates a considerable
din. The noise could attract the Jerries resulting in an ambush or
mortar fire. These seriously worded precautions were learned through
bitter experience. Shortly before we joined C Company, B Company had
sent out a patrol on a night mission. Evidently the Germans heard
them coming up a "draw." With shrewd efficiency they boxed in the
patrol at each end of the column. Having no alternatives in the face
of machine pistols the patrol threw down their weapons and surrendered.
Arriving in Bubingen around midnight we were dispersed among
certain houses in the town. A small number of us entered a darkened
house to which we had been directed. The opening scene was one which
could be conjured up from any B grade war movie. A dim lamp casting
vague shadows struggled to distinguish the room. Several gray faced
infantrymen were in various degrees of slumber or tinkering with their
gear. A windup phonograph was grinding out a vocal selection by a
German songstress. The tantalyzing lyric dealt with "eine kleine blunten
frau." I conjured up visions of Marlene Dietrich. Unfortunately, the
rewards of fantasy were few and abruptly distorted as a Sergeant
beckoned to us to prepare to move out.
Our portion of the front consisted of a row of foxholes oriented
at right angles to the Saar River on our left and Bubingen to our
right. The foxholes, dug into the open plain which ran along the river,
were several hundred yards from the houses we occupied at Bubingen.
The foxholes were utilized only at night to prevent the Germans
from patrolling the area or mounting an attack against the village
in darkness. Two infantrymen were assigned to each foxhole for a period
of three hours after which they were relieved for three hours sleep
before the next watch.
The two of us selected to be on watch together were both newcomers
to the front. Along with the others we were guided through the darkness
walking with crouched bodies towards our defenses. Each foxhole was
approached cautiously as unseen rifles were undoubtedly trained upon
us from the moment we were detected. Passwords were quietly exchanged
before the two GIs climbed out. In low silhouette they moved off and
we eased into the foxhole. Before leaving the Sergeant advised that
if anything appeared in front of us we., were to shoot as it could only
be the Jerries. By way of reassurance he added that a row of trip
flares were positioned up ahead which "will go off if anyone starts
in toward your position." He left and we were alone except for the
next foxhole about 50 yards away.
The foxholes were covered with logs for protection against mortar
fire. A narrow space was arranged between the logs and the ground
surface through which it was possible to peer out and to fire a rifle.
Our eyes searched the shallow valley along the river until the wall of
darkness was met. The late hour with a pale scum of moonlight created
companies of shifting shadows in the mist. A dark form was focused
upon. It changed shape slowly, stealthily. It skulked in small steps
but made little progress. My hands tightened on the M-1 and I turned
my head to view the object from the corner of my eyes. I gazed at other
shadows. They all behaved the same which brought little relief. Faint
sounds drifted from the Saar, their meaning magnified and distorted as
we crouched tense and wide-eyed in the dark earth.
Our heads jerked in unison as a small thud was followed by the
frothy hiss of a magnesium flare. Parachuting from an altitude of
several hundred feet the brilliant light from above cast an unearthly
glow on land. In my mind, without question, we were being overrun by
the Jerries. My first act was to duck below the surface of the foxhole
and await developments. The flare drifted down and extinguished itself
on the ground. With great daring I ventured a peek above the surface
level but nothing exceptional was seen or heard. The Sergeant
eventually came up to tell us that it was nothing. An animal had
probably tripped the flare.
By daylight we were again inside the house. A mobile kitchen was
in operation in a nearby house. I strolled over to the scene with
average passion and expectations. Collecting my rations from the
solemn cook I balanced a huge chunk of GI bread on my messkit. A
strip of open space prevailed between the kitchen and the liberated
house. Without sacrificing unduly I postponed dining until my return
which was being carefully negotiated with my burden. About midway in
my journey a sudden whistle merged into a sharp crack as a mortar
shell struck nearby. I was petrified in thought but galvanized into
instant action. Running in silent but dedicated leaps I tore down
the cellar of the house with my messkit. With jaded appetite I heard
a few more shells strike before calm reigned again. I ventured up the
cellar steps and found my experienced comrades unperturbed. In an
off hand way as to not arouse their suspicions, I inquired as to why
they too were not in the cellar. They rationalized that in the event
the house was hit with small mortars the roof or walls would protect
Several hundred yards from our house in the direction of the
front stood a large barn. Unexplainable sounds had been heard in
the barn the previous night which bore investigation. Our platoon
Sergeant organized a small combat group of three or four. He chose
the more experienced men and prepared for a potential fire fight.
I watched the preparations with rapt attention and curiosity. Full
eight round clips were inserted into M-l's or appropriate clips into
carbines. Grenades were adjusted for quick access. A metal handle
was secured to the top of the grenade by a cotter pin attached to a
wire ring. The popular European Theatre of Operations (ETO) technique
for carrying grenades consisted of hooking the metal handle in the
breast pocket of the fatigue- jacket. To throw a grenade the metal
handle was held against the grenade with one hand while the wire ring
is pulled with the other hand to remove the cotter pin. As soon as
the grenade was thrown the metal handle automatically sprung off
arming the grenade which exploded in a few seconds. Having possession
of two grenades made it difficult to escape the feeling that regardless
of the precautions taken in securing the cotter pins the possibility
existed that a pin might work itself loose. My two grenades were carried
in my jacket side pockets by preference. But there were constant
visions of struggling to remove an armed grenade from my pocket and get
it out of range in the few seconds before eternity. My fears were
not unfounded as subsequent events will testify.
The raid on the barn was an introduction to the technique of modern
warfare. I had anticipated that this combat team would take advantage
of the cover afforded by houses and miscellaneous obstructions in making
their approach. With weapons held at readiness they simply headed
directly for the objective. Nothing was found but it appeared to me
that an aggressive Kraut or two with suitable observation could have
eradicated a group walking boldly up to their position. It was
obvious now and even more so later that this war was not being fought
in lone frontierman-Indian style.
Bubingen was bounded on the northeast by a low range of hills.
Just before dusk a few GI's were watching the hills across No Man's
Land towards the enemy lines. Movement was detected about a mile
away on the crest of a hill whose sparse trees stood in stark outline
against the sky. Further observations with binoculars revealed a
group of Krauts marching in file silhouetted by the evening light.
There was great agitation to get the mortar boys to drop a few. Although
this event was of no immediate consequence it was the first view of the
enemy by the newcomers. Confirmation of the existence of a war and
opposing armies was no longer necessary.
The weeks passed in Bubingen, the nights of which were spent in
the foxholes, the days wandering into deserted bombed or shelled German
houses. Among the weapons carried by the idly meandering group was a
Thompson sub-machine gun. Opening the door to a shop we were confronted
by rows upon rows of multihued bottles. Tommy-gun nervously shuffled
his feet trying desperately not to erode his expression of disinterest.
Another brief moment passed before a shower of glass answered the rapid
beating of the 45. The smoke cleared revealing an enigmatic smile.
Tommy-gun had fulfilled his ambition.
Easing up the creaking staircase of a dismembered house I
noticed in an exposed cabinet a flask containing an amber liquid
having alcoholic potential. Returning to the platoon I disclosed my
find. Much animated viewing was pressed upon the flask contents
tempered by reflections that it might be poisoned. After considerable
speculation it was gingerly sampled as though poison gently imbibed
was harmless. "It's whiskey," gingerly said as all thoughts of
sabotage lost hold.
From mysterious higher echelons through nebulous channels an
order was received in Bubingen. Although couched in brittle Army
language it was translated at our level. We were destined to make a
push. Most of the platoon received the news in silent acceptance.
Two experienced members of the platoon glowing with elation discussed
the coming event as though it was their favorite pastime. Their
state of euphoria was unconvincingly based upon the desire to push now
and end the war sooner. They exuded an aura of excitement and possessed
ambitions incomprehensible to most of us. Individuals fascinated with
combat as a moth to a flame were not unknown.
Lingering thoughts of the lone dead German continued to haunt me
as we continued towards the quarry. In 1925 at the age of five my parents
took me along with them to the World War I movie "All Quiet on the Western
Front." In one scene American infantrymen were marching through a forest
while a German sniper took one after another but the troops pushed on
in formation. I could not escape this recurring vision as we moved
silently along in the open. Although we were within a few hundred feet
of the quarry it was quiet but a foreboding atmosphere clung over the
Company. Bits of optimism momentarily set aside grim thoughts. These
optimistic moments were born of the descriptions of combat at this point
in -the war provided by the experienced platoon members. Their brief
comments had pictured skirmishesin which there was a brief exchange
of fire with the Krauts who soon emerged with their hands overhead or
waving white objects in surrender yelling "Kamerad."
We entered a sparse wooded area and spread out in loose combat
formation. My squad had a full complement of twelve men. Among the
twelve men composing my squad I was the left rifleman.
The war erupted with shattering intensity as mortar fire probed
the forest. In quick succession the shrill whistles followed by sharp
explosions sprayed metal fragments among the squad. Our backpack
radioman fell a few yards from me, his left buttock almost torn away
while bits of canteen penetrated his wound. Another GI close by
dropped with a bad leg wound. Cries of "medic" were heard and the aid
man hurried up to extend the limit of his ability in medical practice.
The Germans had waited with patient experience until we entered the
woods before commencing fire. Tree bursts are particularly dangerous
as the shrapnel spreads downward increasing the probability of a hit.
Under mortar fire, we continued the approach to the edge of the
quarry which was within 300 yards. This tactic was interrupted by
the necessity to flatten ourselves on the forest floor as each incoming
mortar barrage occurred. Finally the mortar fire slacked off and we
were told to dig in. In blissful ignorance I had not attempted to
replace my purloined shovel. The only solution was to scrounge one
from my comrades who would soon be peering from their burrows.
The inactivity was brief and we rose to continue the assault on
the quarry. Our platoon officer, a 2nd Lieutenant, was a slight blond
individual with the usual gray pallor. Behind a pair of glasses
lurked a cool mind under the violent stress of combat. The Lieutenant
told me to stick with him to act as a runner in the event it was
necessary to communicate with others in the platoon or company.
We began to advance again towards the quarry which could be seen
among the trees. The quarry in general was composed of a complex of
huge ditches whose floors were large enough to serve as fair sized
roads. The slopes of the ditches were 20 to 30 feet high. In addition
large irregular shaped pits 30 to 40 feet deep with steep sides were
dispersed in the quarry area. The advance triggered the war again and
mortar fire commenced with increased intensity. For the first 50 or
100 yards I maintained close contact with the Lieutenant. Frequent
mortar fire dictated diving to the ground. Following one such maneuver
I finally opened my eyes and peered out beneath the rim of my helmet.
The Lieutenant had disappeared. A classic war had suddenly developed.
The incredibly rapid stutter of Jerry machine guns sprinkled with Mauser
rifle fire rose to a crescendo. Eight-eight mm artillery fire was pound-
ing the woods at the edge of the quarry. Unknown to us the 88's had
knocked out one or more of our tanks approaching the quarry from
There was chaos and shouting between the GI's as the whistling
and cracking explosions rained in. The interval between the quick rush
of air and the explosion seemed an eternity. In naive wonderment I
expected the armor and the aircraft to roar in at any moment. My
mouth had run dry and tingling fear possessed me. My helmet seemed
Immediately ahead of me some of the troops had gone over the
edge of a pit. Running down the slope and across the irregular bottom
they were pursued by mortar and small arms fire as they approached the
crest on the opposite side. The Germans were dug in on the crest but
the GI's had gained a foot hold on the slope leading up to it.
I crawled up to the edge of the quarry where sparse trees were
growing and joined a few prone GI's. They were from a mortar squad
that was awaiting an opportunity to penetrate the quarry. Lying near
the edge of the pit I could observe the far slope and the crest about
100 yards away. There was considerable rifle and machine gun fire
reverberating throughout the quarry but strangely enough the enemy could
not be seen. The GI's on the far slope were yelling and shouting back
and forth. Suddenly a German rose quickly from a foxhole on the crest
and threw a potato masher grenade which exploded near the GIs. From
my position I could see the German's helmet bobbing around as he crouched
in his foxhole. The close proximity of the German to the GI's led to
hesitancy on my part to take any action. I pointed out the German to
the GI next to me and he took my M-1 in favor of his carbine. As he
was aiming a hand grenade or a mortar shell explosion appeared within a
few feet of the German and I saw him jump up and hobble away.
The mortar crew that I had inadvertently joined decided to
penetrate the quarry to the left of the action immediately ahead of
us. Picking up several mortar shells in their coffee can shaped
cases I followed along in expectation of finding my lost platoon.
Shuffling down the steep slopes we entered the quarry along one of the
sunken roadways. Flanked by protecting banks we hurried forwards as
far as I was aware, to an unknown destination in the quarry. There
was'no immediate evidence that this segment of the quarry had been
taken and I expected every second to stumble into a hornet's net. An
answer to my thoughts arrived upon rounding a bend in the roadway. A
German soldier arrested in flight was lying face down in the dirt.
His coal scuttle helmet was tipped forward revealing a dark mat of
clotted blood where the back of his head had been shot off. But he
was not dead. Only primitive responses remained as he lay quivering,
making spasmodic shudders and uttering unintelligible sounds. We moved
on. The road ran in a gentle curve and restricted the view to a few
hundred feet. Within a few minutes a small structure appeared around
the bend. Parked beside the structure was an American ambulance and
another small truck or jeep which incredibly had found their way into
the melee. A Captain from the regimental aid station was present along
with other medics and a few GIs. I glanced at one side of the quarry
shed. With numbed emotions I accepted the sight of several dead GI's laid
out beside the dingy wall. During the brief pause at the aid station we
heard a single shot in the direction of the route we had just traversed.
A GI had found the wounded German and had ended his misery. This act
was abhorred by the GI's and raised questions about an individual with
the capacity for such a cold blooded act.
From the sounds drifting down the sunken roadway the action appeared
to be a short distance away. En route again we soon came upon a short
stocky Lieutenant, a red haired, red faced, bulldog jowled rooster of
a man. He was in an advanced state of furor while mopping the back of
his neck with a blood stained handkerchief. Swearing at the top of his
voice, his incandescent remarks included those sons-uh-bitches who
had creased his neck with a bullet or a mortar fragment. He admonished
us in gentle fashion to "Go get um." The few riflemen with him urged
him not to rush back into the fray with what obviously was a painful
Continuing along the roadway towards the site of the action I
became a spectator to an unrehearsed summing of the violence of war. I
might have watched this Dantesque scene with a strange detached manner
had it not been for a mortar barrage which stunned me back into reality.
I had to seek cover from the mortar fire and ran to the edge of
the slope for scant protection from at least one side. A GI, his
head and eyes swathed in a bright red stained bandage was lying near
the edge of the roadway.
Among the incoming shells a column of 15 or 20 disarmed Germans
appeared. Disheveled and sullen holding their gray clad arms overhead
or clasping them on top of their heads they were being herded along by
several wide-eyed excited GI's. The mortar fire added to the confusion
and the guards were shouting "schnell" and "Hande hoch" at the Germans
in an attempt to get away from the dangerous sector. A gigantic German
medic gravely led the column. A huge red cross adorned a white blood
stained smock hanging in loose folds the length of his body. There
was an unearthly quality, an aura of unreality condensed into this
brief span. This could not be 1945. I was witness to a medieval
religious pageant depicting a view through the gates of hell.
The mortar fire ceased. I continued along the curved road and
arrived at another small wooden shed. The snapping of rifle fire was
nearby. A Sergeant was trying to organize a small group of scattered
troops for insertion into the lines. In a loud voice he was harangu-
ing a GI, a reluctant transfer from the Air Force ground personnel
during the Belgian Bulge. The Sergeant was wasting his breath on the
converted airman. He had lost his weapon and hiding his head against
the shed he sobbed. As the tears streamed from his eyes, crying that
he was sick, I turned away, not in disgust but in sympathy. A few
members of a machine gun crew had returned to the shed to obtain 30
cal ammo packed in dark green cans. The cans had metal handles to
facilitate their transport but the gunners could not carry enough alone.
Two of us volunteered to go with the machine gun crew members. The
Sergeant gave me the nod and I picked up two cans of ammo. Dark fell
as we wound through the quarry to a position on the perimeter overlooking
a large open plain and a distant woods. An irregular shaped depression
with steep banks was at our backs. The machine gun was set up to
traverse the plain if a counter attack developed during the night.
We began to dig in. It was now dark but I still did not have a
shovel. A well-meaning person had given me a pair of snug fitting tan
leather gloves before I left the States. Protected by the gloves I dug
the best foxhole I could in the stubborn soil with my hands. Fatigue
and fear possessed me inducing chills and shivering every few minutes.
Good tactics required that an outpost be established in front of our
position to provide advance warning of an attack. The outpost consisted
of digging a foxhole about a hundred yards in front of the machine gun
position. I borrowed a shovel from one of the eight or nine GIs who would
occupy the "rear" and helped my comrade in digging the hole. We were
isolated in No Man's Land and the sounds of digging seemed amplified.
The scraping of the shovels grated our nerves which were tuned to expect
retaliation in some form. Due to the shortage of men we had to occupy the
I sat alone in the eerie foxhole.. There was intermittent firing in
the distance along the perimeter of the quarry. Five hundred yards away
B Company in constant anxiety born of darkness kept flares burning in the
sky. Far from the quarry powerful search lights were beamed by the
U.S. Army upon the cloud cover which seemed ever present. The artificial
moonlight reflected from the clouds and cast a weird glow, a balmy film
over the terrain.
An outpost was designed for a sacrificial lamb. In the ghostly
light a squad of Germans approach.'.Have they seen you? You desperately
crank the field phone, your only companion and whisper in it. A potato
masher answers your question and you claw your way out of the foxhole
as a machine pistol scrapes out a 1000 rounds in seconds. The machine
gun position comes to life fast and a furious exchange occurs for two
minutes before silence descends. Dawn creeps in with veiled face. One
Texan and an Alabamian cautiously approach the outpost. Your helmet
lies askew and your eyes look vacantly over a blood spilled mouth into
their grim faces. They examine your dogtags and find the medics.
In actuality it was nerve tingling, not pleasant by any means but
strangely exhilerating as I huddled alone among the shadows of No Man's Land.
Thoughts of "All Quiet on the Western Front" revived again. A celluloid
Lew Ayres crawling in the night through a shell pocked battlefield to
rescue a wounded comrade had made a profound impression on me. Secure
in my early years naivete it was comforting to know that these things
could never happen again to anyone.
I was out on the point only a short while before one of the squad
crept up to the outpost. It was always a tense moment when someone
appeared out of the gloom even though they came from the direction of
Adequate defenses demanded the use of barbed wire called concertina
which was fastened together at certain points in the coil. When stretched
upon the ground it presented a united obstacle which could enmesh anyone
trying to penetrate the sector. I had been retrieved from the outpost to
aid in this defense project. To obtain a supply that night five or six
of us picked our way through the quarry to the sunken road along which
I had journeyed in the afternoon. Upon locating the concertina each of
us hoisted a roll to our shoulders and staggered off. The wire cut into
my neck and the pendulous M-l in tandem with bandoliers of ammo threatened
to entangle me as I struggled up the steep slopes in returning to our
position. Parachute flares from B Company periodically interrupted our
ordeal as they drifted over No Man's Land. The harsh glaring light
forced us to freeze to avoid showing movement on the bare horizon. The
concertina was laid out on the plain in front of us aided by the priceless
light from B Company.
The long night ended in a gray overcast dawn. The Germans had been
pushed to the extreme of the quarry. Three or four of the riflemen were
ordered to move out along the crest from the machine gun position and dig
in. We dug into the sloping bank just beneath the top of the ridge. The
slope leveled off about 20 feet below my position and then further pitched
off into a 15 or 20 foot depression. The day was broken by small arms fire
from the edge of the quarry. A group of GIs passed nearby intent upon
their destination. Suddenly a lot of shouting and commotion erupted as
they flushed out two Germans from a tiny knot of slender trees and bushes.
They had managed to conceal themselves during the conflict and confusion
the day before.
I sat in my foxhole alone at the extreme end of the line extending
from the machine gun position. The idleness was not boring. I was within
shouting distance of the next man but there was little to discuss at the
time. One or two of the riflemen were called by name to join a squad or
perhaps a larger unit. One gray face asked me to wish him luck. Neither
of us knew the objective of the patrol nor do I recall seeing him again.
The afternoon approached. An American officer and his companion
were picking their way along a footpath on a route to the machine gun
position. They had come up to reconnoiter the tactical situation. Our
hero surveyed the front with a pair of binoculars. Resplendent in his
trench coat and side arms he peered with optical pessimism at our lines
of foxholes. Gesticulating and bellowing he ordered our heads up and
alerted for an attack. Ebullience cannot go unnoticed and to our every-
lasting chagrin an 88 scoured in kissing the crest near his podium. The
Major accompanying the Commandant shouted, "Colonel, you shouldn't be up
here." With considerable surprise I watched the pair retreat as quickly
as possible from the scene. Two more scorching rounds aided the flight of
our tacticians and the war returned again to the lower echelons.
The shelling ceased. I rose in my foxhole and looked towards the
front as a matter of curiosity. A dead GI was lying in the grass a few
yards away. He was not a friend. There were no friends. As infantry
replacements, there had been no time to form bonds. I sat in my small
trench depressed. Periodically I looked over the ridge. The dead GI
had not moved. How soon would all of us join him? The infantry was a
death lottery. Only quirks of fate and chance separated the live from
The line of foxholes with helmets bobbing up periodically were
observed by the Germans. I heard a faint noise of rushing air and a thud
as something hit the level ground below. I gave it scant attention at the
moment. To relieve the monotony of sitting in the cramped dug out I
strode down the slope. A strange object caught my eye. It was a defective
mortar shell whose casing had split revealing a handful of bright
yellowish-orange explosive. Had this source of the mysterious whistle and
thud successfully exploded it could have sprayed me with shrapnel as the
dug out on the slope offered little protection from the rear.
Another night passed. The following day seemed quiet. The dead GI
had lain immune to the fine rain which swept over the plain of battle.
Several of us were selected to carry the body on a stretcher to the aid
station. He was a big guy. It was difficult getting down the slopes with
a semblance of dignity even with one man at each corner of the stretcher.
We were actors in a deadly play and each actor was aware that he might
play the final role.
On the fourth day the whole sector was peaceful. We were relieved
by another unit. As the fresh troops moved in we returned to a village.
I cannot recall whether we walked or rode trucks. I believe the village
may have been Bubingen but it was in an unfamiliar part of the village.
We were scattered about in houses in the village. We had to
exchange our clothes and certain equipment for new stuff. A huge pile
of bloody clothes and combat gear had been salvaged from the battle
field. The clothes and equipment would appear again in respectable
form to be passed out again. I was squeamish about wearing the clothes
of a man possibly dead. It seemed to imply a rehearsal for an inevitable
fate. It was a bad omen. It was easy to conjur up omens and to foster
superstitions. As an example, K-rations, the prevailing food for troops
during periods of combat, contained a couple of sticks of chewing gum.
I considered it to be tempting fate to throw away the wrappers. Care-
fully stowing them in my field jacket pocket I systematically collected
the wrappers. Once an accumulation had occurred it was permissible to
dispose of them all at once in an orderly fashion. The roots to this
fantasy touched upon the possibility that to indiscriminately discard
paper would leave traces leading to my discovery by the ingenious Krauts.
There was no lack of respect for their cunning.
The pause after the quarry battle led to endless discussions and
recounting of events. During the invasion of the quarry some of the
GIs were receiving heavy rifle and machine gun fire. Running as fast
as cumbersome equipment allowed they escaped by jumping blindly over the
edges of the crests. Fortunately the region in which they jumped did not
border a sheer precipice but, was reasonably sloped which broke their
plunge. One of them related that he didn't care what this other side of
the ridge held in store, it was jump or die for certain. This was all
described in animated elation now that the action was over.
The platoon Lieutenant, the Sergeant and some riflemen arrived at
a slope the crest of which was under heavy fire. A priceless decision
had to be made. The nerveless Lieutenant advised the Sergeant that they
had to "go over the top." The Sergeant, rightfully I expect, thought it
to be suicide. Unless it came to a direct order the Sergeant would not
go but if the Lieutenant still went he would accompany him. They decided
it would be folly and contemplated another course of action. As we
were being relieved at the quarry it was pointed out that the Lieutenant
had a bullet hole in his jacket. Grinning he shook his jacket and the
spent bullet fell out.
One of the members of the platoon refused to wear a helmet. His
head gear consisted of a navy blue stocking cap. Among those pinned down
on the slopes he became irritated and decided to wipe out the source of the
trouble. He rose to assault the Krauts and as his head appeared above the
crest he was dead in a split second from a rifle bullet between the eyes.
He sagged to his knees and remained in a crouched position until he was
taken away. He was one of the two that had looked forward to ending the
war by pushing.
Alone one GI tried to take a machine gun nest and died while another
was alleged to have blown off his own thumb with an M-1 to escape the
The following description of the battle of the quarry is taken verbatim
from Vol. II of the Seventh Army Report of Operations. "Under the command
of the 253rd Infantry, the main effort was being made by Company C, 253rd
Infantry and the 1st Battalion of the 255th Infantry, reinforced by elements
of the anti-tank company, 255th Infantry, and the medium tanks of Company A,
749th Tank Battalion. On the right flank of the advance was C Company 253rd
Infantry which was to seize the high hill known as the Birnberg, southeast
of the Hahnbusch. The Hahnbusch itself was to be assaulted by the 1st
Battalion of the 255th Infantry.
At 1405 hours on 3 March the attacking echelon moved out after the
861st Field Artillery Battalion had shelled the Birnberg for five minutes,
and Company A, 99th Chemical Battalion had smoked the Hahnbusch. As
supporting tanks emerged into open country, they were fired upon by
German anti-tank guns from the southern fringes of the Hahnbusch and from
a stone quarry on the Birnberg. Six tanks were knocked out; and the
remainder of the company drew back reorganized and moved into new positions
to set up a base of fire for'the infantry. Troops of the 1st Battalion of
the 255th Regiment were able to progress no further than had the tanks,
before the concentrated fire of the 88's and supporting automatic weapons
forced their withdrawal. Waiting until night, Company B made an attempt
to reach the Hahnbusch a little before midnight, but it was forced to
dig in some 200 or 250 yards south of the woods.
Meanwhile Company C of the 253rd Infantry had been attempting to
clear the stone quarry on the Birnberg from which intense fire was being
delivered on the 1st Battalion of the 255th Infantry. By 2100 hours when
the attack came to a temporary halt, the southern, lower half of the quarry
had been taken. When the attack was resumed on the next morning the quarry
was entirely cleared by 1155 hours; and defensive positions were organized
from which the attack of the Ist Battalion on the left could be supported
This description of the battle of Birnberg gives clues to the magnitude
of the war in that sector. But yet modern warfare is not conducted in the
fashion one might assume. Ten thousand gladiators do not mill around in a
tightly knit group on an open field flailing away with all descriptions of
fiendish weapons. Although a major conflict may develop between opposing
armies the battle resolves itself into a number of skirmishes among
smaller infantry units. With the exception of artillery fire it was
the small unheralded fire fights that were deadly.
Consider the young GI in my platoon who encountered a Kraut rifle-
man. He was about 19 and had also joined the platoon at Kleinblittersdorf.
With an absorbing intensity he related this episode to me. Unexpectedly,
coming face to face with the Kraut rifleman in the opening hour of the
quarry the Mauser spoke first but missed. The M-l cracked missing also.
The Kraut fired again and the GI replied. This time silence reigned as
the enemy fell but the GI was never sure whether he or someone else had
fired the fatal round.
It may be surprising to learn that the cryptically reported action on
Le Birnberg in the Seventh Army Report almost wiped out C Company. Although
statistics by rumor are bound to be inaccurate approximately 100 men were
in C Company when it attacked the quarry. Approximately 40 survived the
battle the remainder having been wounded or killed.
I wrote a letter full of gloom to my parents. The platoon censor did
not consider it to be good form. The Sergeant brought it back to me with
a bemused reprimand as though I had been caught with my hand in the cookie
VIEW OF SAARBRUECKEN
A day or two of unmilitary idleness ensued before we were assembled
and taken out to a nearby field studded infrequently with trees. The
occasion was a visit by a division general of some order of magnitude.
It was not the division general known as "Messkit Louie" (General Louis
Hibbs). He had acquired this title at a training camp in Mississippi
or Louisiana by his devotion to sanitation. It was not without merit
either. I was a member of a whole company in Texas which fell victim to
a rampaging diarrhea which struck as we were marching to and engaging in
rifle practice at the range.
We were dispersed in the field in combat style. The possibility
existed that we were under observation from.the Germans in the area and
the constant admonishment was "spread out one shell could get you all."
A General arrived drafting much smart footwork and saluting from officers
and Sergeants. We stood smartly at attention during the formalities but
were soon told "at ease." This was cause for adopting a defiant slouch
while watching the M-1 muzzles being randomly poised at our parts. There
was a certain lack of devotion to this activity thrust upon us. Neverthe-
less, the General had a reputation of being a good Joe. It's just that
Generals are by choice professionals in the game of war in which the pawns
were men. The General smiling and exuding a brand of military charm made
his initial bid with the remark "Doesn't this make you thirsty for Kraut
blood?" Morose and silent I thought that it didn't make me thirsty at
all, as a matter of fact just the opposite extreme.
The General or some General convinced of our thirst arranged for
C Company to relieve the troops occuppying Hahnbusch forest overlooking
Saarbruecken on the plains. We dug in at the edge of the forest immediately
behind the last row of trees. This line formed the immediate front in this
sector. Each foxhole had two GIs but we were cautioned not to follow the
usual practice of alternating sleep with a 2 or 3 hour watch. The warning
was emphasized by a report that a GI from the company we relieved had
been silently snatched at night by the Krauts. The night, however, proved
uneventful unless staring by the hour at diabolical shadows unstable in
size and position is an event worthy of consideration.
The following night an American artillery barrage began. The
grapevine rumored that 20 battalions of artillery were pounding the Siegfried
Line several miles northeast of our position. The artillery or a major
portion of it seemed to be firing over our heads. A constant stream of
large caliber shells shuffled along as the air bolted in low sustained
sighing. High velocity shells tore through the night sky with anguished
shrieks. It was a moaning bedlam, a Doppler infused cacophony from hell.
Each flight of steel was shortlived, terminating in muffled explosions
shrouded by massive red glows of lightning marching to and fro across
I crouched in my foxhole in the black earth in the dark forest below
the night sky. Some of the shells fuming by seemed scarcely higher than
the tree tops. The shelling seemed to persist for hours and in awe and
wonderment I gazed at the fires of hell in disbelief. Sleep was not
only impossible it was unthinkable as another reflection from the harsh
mirror of reality was being witnessed.
The night ended in the forest. With gloomy thoughts I came to
recognize it was March 17 by reading the Stars and Stripes to learn how
the war was going. It was strange to read about our battle in the quarry
which sounded so organized and remote from the actual event. I was now
25 years old and more concerned with the possibility of the next birthday.
There was no indication that the war in either Europe or the Pacific was
expected to end soon.
Word was distributed that my squad and perhaps another had been
chosen to reestablish an abandoned outpost about a half mile in front
of our position in the forest. As darkness fell the small group of
riflemen including our B.A.R. man assembled to depart. We were led by
someone who had been previously briefed as to the location. We dug in
among the scattered trees about 50 feet apart. A barbed wire or con-
certina barricade hung with tin cans to make noise stretched across part
of our front about 50 yards away. Alone in the pitch dark night I searched
the ground ahead with dilated eyes and taut nerves. The night progressed
with no alarm until the unmistakable rustling of infantry was heard
approaching. The noise was from the direction of our lines in the rear
but we had no reason to expect guests. From the darkness a shadowy column
of men emerged. Although they were now almost between the B.A.R. and me
they could not be identified. If they see us they might shoot instantaneously
and I took a chance and ejected a strained "halt." It occurred to me later
that the terseness and quality in my voice might have sounded German. The
column stopped dead still and I wanted a password. The answer in English
was satisfactory. At least it wasn't a grenade. They apparently were
headed for some sector in the vicinity to dig in and were either lost or
unaware of our existence.
We were on a high hill in the vicinity of Fechingen overlooking an
open plain which terminated at Saarbruecken. Of this fact, however, we
were ignorant being imprisoned by the night. In the distance on our
left a violent small arms fight erupted. The canvas tearing staccato
of German burp guns entwined with the formal thumping of GI machine guns
cackled a symphony of death in the early morning darkness. The forest
twinkled with fiery tracers burning in mad arcs or deflecting from the
trees in frantic darts.
Obviously the approaches to Saarbruecken were being contested.
Jus.t before dawn something jingled the cans on the concertina, perhaps
purposely to entise us to reveal our positions. We held tight and
Still sitting out on the point the next day we were attracted to
the sounds of aircraft engines. Our position on the hill enabled us to
observe Saarbruecken across the open plains. A dozen aircraft which
appeared to be P-47 Thunderbolts hovered motionless in the distance over
Saarbruecken. Their capacity to move was soon apparent. One at a time
their gigantic Pratt and Whitney radial engines opened up for a steep but
short dive to drop a heavy bomb before pulling out and climbing to rejoin
the squadron. The sound of the explosions could be faintly heard as
each plane made at least one or two drops. Throughout their attack
black ragged puffs of anti-aircraft fire appeared among the planes but
they appeared to have escaped serious damage.
Not far from our position a lonely house nestled against a patch
of woods. Our invincible lines of communication directed us to check out
the house and proceed to another sector east of our position. Little
cover was available between us and the house. We carried out the approach
in military fashion, running a few yards, hitting the ground, peering out
from under the steel helmet which invariably had snapped downward to
obscure your vision followed by another erratic advance. If the
Schutzstaffel (SS) had been peeking through the shutters they would have
proceeded to pick us off like flies. Only optimistic intuition that the
house was not inhabited by the Nazi's triggered our theatrical charge.
We finally achieved an arrival at the back door. Small debate ensued
over the merits of tossing in a grenade first. Kicking the door open in
Humphrey Bogart style we awaited clues of sinister nature. Muzzle first
we 'entered the empty house but too conspicuously lying on the table was
a German machine pistol. We could not guess the reason for its being
abandoned as there was no obvious evidence of booby trapping but no one
touched it. Having conquered the house we were directed to an inn or
roadhouse situated on a road north of Fechingen. Again we were placed
in an advance position in foxholes along the shoulder of the road. The
road and a parallel railroad running on my left were located in a small
valley. Only about seven or eight of us were holding the road of which
I had the most forward point. I felt extremely exposed. In late afternoon
I heard a noise in front of me as though someone had dislodged some stones
along the railroad bed. Nothing could be seen but I was relieved to hear
the GI in the foxhole behind me yell to pull out and return to the inn. I
needed no prompting and ran crouching as fast as I could.
The inn was a sight to behold. A small number of GIs from another
outfit had taken over. Artillery had damaged the inn and consequently
the interior was a shambles in certain regions. Of course, being an inn
there was an abundance of china and multiple forms of glassware. Some of
the GIs took great pleasure in using an item once and tossing it from the
second floor of our hostelry to destruction in the courtyard below.
Eventually we were retrieved and made our way into Fechingen. The
platoon was living in a large German house adjacent to a small field.
We were not entirely free to wander around but were assembled periodically
to carry out minor maneuvers or physical exercises in the field. Le Birnberg
had been one of the German strong points defending the approaches to the
Siegfried Line. But we were ignorant of the fact that the division was
being honed to crack a certain sector of the line. The enemy evidently
was still in a position to observe our antics. During a few knee bends or
some such maneuver in the field we picked up the sound of incoming shells.
This required no special talent as the nerve wracking sounds, RURR AAH,
RURR AAH, RURR AAH, were "screaming meemies" a GI term for German
rockets. CRUMP, CRUMP, CRUMP quickly followed the grinding flight of
the shells as they hit a corner of the field. We scattered like October
quail in search of cover in the house but the shelling soon ceased.
A round of promotions in rank occurred for one reason or another as
a result of the quarry raid. I was promoted from private to private
first-class which brought an increase in pay but little change in morale.
Considering my education at the time, a B.S. degree in biology, I had
received the same basic training as premedical students. Although a little
additional training would have been necessary to become a combat medic there
was always a need for litter bearers. Either of these jobs were extremely
dangerous. The medics were always needed where the action was hottest and
this meant invariably being involved in sticky situations. However, I
preferred to be a non-combatant and proceeded to attempt a transfer to the
medics. The regimental headquarters of the 253rd Medical Detachment were
located about five miles from Fechingen at a spot known as 88 Corners. Un-
fortunately the collection of farm houses they had selected for the aid
station was under observation by the Krauts who made a direct hit on the
CP on one occasion.
I hitchhiked to the Medical Detachment but could not get any definitive
answers from any one as to the possibilities of transferring to their unit.
I hitchhiked back to our house to find that preparations were being made
to push off. Going up to the second floor of the house to collect my gear
I saw a strange face which was not a rarity. This new replacement had
a grenade hanging stylishly from his breast pocket. The cotter pin was
squeezed together to the point where it might easily have fallen out and
armed the grenade. I called his attention to it much to his amusement.
In the throes of his mirth he couldn't deduce that it was a possible
means for his demise and a few others.
THE SIEGFRIED LINE
We clambered onto open trucks in the early afternoon. There was
rarely any waiting enroute to the front and in convoy we wound along a
narrow black road leading in an easterly direction. The front had moved
to the Siegfried Line and certain elements of the 63rd Division were
already engaged in conflict with German troops in the fortifications.
An hour of grinding gears and general oscillation brought us within
sight of a small city named Ensheim. As we approached through the country-
side, artillery shells began to land in the fields bordering the road. We
entered the city and drove into the market place as shells began to land
among the buildings not far away. The trucks stopped and we dismounted
among the German civilians who were going about the usual business of
trying to exist. As the shells struck people began to panic and women
clutching children ran screaming in random directions, it appeared, to
The artillery soon stopped and we continued on foot to a few scattered
houses on the eastern outskirts of the city. We took over a house too small
to house the platoon. We were told to throw out all the obstructing
furniture. Tables, chifferobes and other miscellaneous pieces went
crashing through the doors to make room for the troops with their equip-
ment and to provide floor space for sleeping.
The open fields with little obscuring vegetation allowed us to see
the legendary Siegfried. In the evening light the belt of gleaming white
dragons teeth had a shimmering quality as it undulated through the rolling
Night fell. Strangely, the Siegfried seemed quiet. We were
ordered to make a night patrol in the vicinity for some unknown reason.
We went out and walked single file along a road. We saw nothing. Return-
ing along the road a GI near me suddenly exclaimed, "There's something
in the ditch." We were, of course, startled into crouching and snapping
up weapons. There was a shallow depression full of shadows on the side
of the road towards which we were all staring. No one could detect
anything but the boy insisted. Finally, someone advised him to "shoot
it, then." Upon this remark he took a step towards the ditch and fired
at his imagined enemy. In his state of mind he was of greater danger to
us than he was to the Germans. Our small column concluded the patrol
only to receive orders to go out for another. The nervous GI was placed
on guard duty outside the house rather than being compelled to take on
an additional patrol. I viewed the second return to the house with small
apprehension considering the sentry left behind but nothing overt happened
as we approached in the darkness.
As though it were a last minute idea the platoon was assembled in the
house to be briefed on a special assignment. Among the anticipated
problems in going through the Siegfried was the elimination of pill boxes
which were present in a variety of types and sizes. One solution consisted
of attaching a charge of TNT on the end of a long pole. A string connect-
ed a fuse in the charge to the operator who was at liberty to properly
detonate the TNT at the appropriate time by firmly pulling the string.
The appropriate time was designated as the interval immediately following
the insertion of the charge through a rifle or machine gun port. Having
successfully employed the device the operator and his associates could enter
the back door and evict the tenants reduced to one state or another.
In view of this abrupt entrance into an unrehearsed profession, the
Army was very democratic and requested volunteers before choosing amongst
us. I recall one volunteer. The laughing cavalier with the dangling
safety pin in his grenade had finally achieved some deserved attention.
These tactics so simply and cunningly contrived in theory, in
practice presumed several minor accomplishments. First the operator
must succeed in arriving alive although under fire from the pill box to
be assaulted as well as adjacent fortifications organized to provide over-
lapping fire lanes. Mine fields, stocked with Schuh mines, Bouncing Bettys,
artillery and mortar fire would provide other harassing obstacles to
completing the mission.
The awesome Siegfried complex facing us was so deliberately con-
trived and blatantly real in its contempt of invaders. Even in the absence
of its fire power it gave the impression of being a physically impenetrable
barrier. The very fact of its existence created the psychological effect
of being unconquerable.
The night was too short to remember but dawn on March 20 found us
prepared to march off pole charges and all to assault the Siegfried. The
battalion objective was the high ground in the vicinity of the village of
Ober Wurzbach. Our column progressed along a small dirt road leading to
the belt of dragon's teeth. On the way we observed the medics carrying
a wounded GI on a stretcher which had been hoisted up on their shoulders.
The wounded GI lying on his back, kept looking up, turning his head in the
direction he was being carried. He was babbling away in a loud hoarse
voice sounding a little hysterical. We gathered he had lost a foot to
a Schuh mine.
The Siegfried had been under an intense assault by the 254th
Regiment for several days. Consequently, without opposition we were
able to penetrate the western edge of dragon's teeth. The Company
stopped and set up a holding position among the massive concrete fangs
and anti-tank ditches. A limited amount of small arms fire was heard
to the east of our position but nothing on the scale I had anticipated.
I was selected to be a runner between our Company and any other adjacent
unit needing my services. I made a minor trip or two, saluting upon
departing on my mission of 50 to 100 yards and saluting upon transferring
my message. This was real independence and I hastened to make a career
of it. The company soon pulled out and I tagged along clambering down
and climbing out of concrete anti-tank barricades as we threaded our
way through the rows of dragon's teeth.
We climbed toward the ridge of a rolling hill past immense fortifications
placed strategically among the scattered spruce trees. Smaller buried
pill boxes having only the tops of their domed headsexposed in the earth,
glared with baleful concrete eyes fixed upon the dreaded West. The
Germans had abandoned this sector prior to our arrival apparently due to
pressure exerted upon other portions of the Siegfried. Our trek of a
mile or two brought us to the vicinity of Ober Wurzbach on the northern
edge of the Line.
Dispatched again by the CO I headed west with my message which had
me skirting the eastern edge of the Siegfried among the large but scattered
spruce trees. A small black top road ran parallel to my route. I heard
an explosion in the distance and within 15 or 20 minutes I came upon the
wreckage of a small tracked vehicle known as a Weasel. Several GIs were
crowded around a man lying on his back on the road near the smoking Weasel
which had struck a chain of land mines. These defenses had been organized
by our troops for protection in the event of an armored counterattack. The
GI who had survived the shoot out with the German in the quarry was dug in
on the hill along with the rest of his squad. Observing the approaching
vehicle he had in desperation run down the hill in an attempt to stop its
clattering progress to disaster. He was too late and the driver either
distracted or unable to stop in time plowed into the mines. There may have
been two victims but the one I observed appeared to have been beaten uniformly
over his body. His bruised face was swelled into a purple moon with puffy
eyes forced shut and no doubt his hearing was gone or reduced to hideous
static. He apparently was still alive.
Shortly before dusk, I arrived at the house from which my recent mission
had originated. It had been abandoned and my solution as an independent
command consisted of wandering into another village nearby. Although there
were a sizeable number of GIs milling around at random I couldn't find
the CO or any one else recognizable as a member of my Company. I selected
a house more or less at random. Inside a group of GIs were huddled around
a wooden keg of German beer which was contributing to a disorganized social
event. A German casket with questionable occupancy resided in the parlor
lending a somber air to the occasion. I went upstairs and in curiosity
opened a chest of drawers. There were several Nazi armbands, two of which
consisted of black swastikas on a white circle of felt attached to a red
cloth armband. The other two were very ornate having gold embroidered
swastikas with a sword-like motif which I was compelled to imagine as
being the ex-property of a Field Marshall or high party official. Much
to my dismay, I subsequently learned that the ornate type were worn by
sportsleaders. Pocketing the swastikas I also perceived a hunting knife
and quickly stuck it into the straps of my combat boot in current
swashbuckling GI style.
CROSSING THE RHINE
The troops were making preparations to pull out. I saw no other
course but to join them. Although they were not in my immediate outfit
they were part of the 63rd Division. I was offered the luxury of motorized
transport and jumped in the back of an open truck. Grinning inside at my
good fortune, I casually scanned the accompanying merchandise for a
comfortable seat during the advance further into Germany. My intrinsic
grin faded fast as I recognized a load of land mines and assorted ammo
dominating the truck bed. I selected an empty space and carefully sat
down as we pulled out into the night. We crept along using only the running
lights provided for black out driving. Sometime after midnight we arrived
at St. Ingbert. With some directions the driver winding through the
ghostly city pulled in and cut his engine among a group of trucks.
Climbing down we entered the now abandoned headquarters of the St.
Ingbert police. I slept the rest of the night on reams of official
papers which had been scattered in thick layers on the floor.
Morning came. I climbed back into the ammo truck and we drove
steadily northeast towards Homburg ten miles away. The shoulders of
the road through the open plains were lined with GIs trudging in single
file. It appeared that the sole objective of the war was the capture and
abduction of a mattress. Great numbers of them mud-streaked,resplendent
in virgin colors and memories were strapped to assorted vehicles, even
softening the steel turrets of growling tanks. A few of the infantrymen
were riding liberated horses while another group were trying to start a
German touring car found concealed in a small village. I felt a little
smug as I viewed the scene from my motorized vantage point. I was
almost afraid of finding my unit enroute and being shouted into rejoining
the slogging portion of the infantry.
By afternoon we were driving along a narrow road on the outskirts of
Homburg. The roadside was strewn with wrecked German wagons and dead
horses the result of a marauding armored column or strafing from the air.
The small road soon connected with a major highway. The scene on the
highway convinced me the war was ending. There was a sea of gray-green
uniforms marching along in parade fashion, ten or more abreast. The
stream of prisoners seemed almost endless.
Our destination was a large barracks complex, some portions of which
housed a large number of refugees or conscripted workers. By some
mysterious concert of Army effort my platoon had arrived at the same point
and my independent command terminated in Homburg.
Night again found us on the move with seven or eight infantrymen
festering a single jeep. We forded a shallow river with the jeep
fumbling and rocking on the irregular bottom A short trip ended at
Ludwigsthal where we engaged in infantry maneuvers for two days. The
order came to move again by trucks which brought us to Munchweiler
some 40 miles distance. Again we practiced infantry tactics this time
accompanied by tanks growling along beside or behind us as we attacked
an imaginary German Army among the rolling hills.
The front was moving east rapidly and on March 28 the 253rd was
on the move towards the Rhine. We paused at a small village which was
bordered by fields and forest. Our column must have been within range of
the German artillery as a salvo of shells landed in the nearby forest and
frightened a group of deer which bounded across the field. Another
village on our route was suspected of being held by the Germans. We
attacked slowly from a hillside on the outskirts of the village. My
route took me through the village cemetery. During a tactical pause
my eyes fell upon a grave marked by a Maltese cross, its inscription
reminding visitors that the man had "gefallen." The aura of death
seemed to pervade the land. The opposition proved to be nonexistent
or negligible and again on foot we took to the roads among the plains.
A signpost at a crossroads pointed to Worms but signs were not always
believed as it was a practice of the Germans to alter directions to
mislead the Americans. The sign served only as a clue to our location
as we were not aware of a definite destination anyway.
Coralled into trucks at some forgotten point in time we ground on
towards Rhein-Durkheim north of Worms where a bridge across the Rhine
had been constructed. We drove across the Rhine on a pontoon bridge.
A huge sign at the approach to the Rhein-Durkheim bridgehead was
topped with three stars and labeled the
"CROSS THE RHINE"
COURTESY 85th ENG'S
The trucks drove slowly over the floating span and I watched the
gentle tremors in the pontoons as we passed. The German bridge was
rubble at the edges of the river and only the towers and Roman arches on
the banks stood as sentinels to its memory.
We continued in convoy on an autobahn to an obscure point in the
forest. Night had fallen before the trucks cut their engines. The
sounds of heavy artillery rumbling with thunderstorm violence could
be detected in the distance. We descended from the truck beds to find
that our objective had to be reached on foot. Accompanied by some Medical
Detachment vehicles we proceeded along a trail through the forest in
single file. Trudging wearily in darkness with odds and ends of equip-
ment knawing rhythmically into my soul the sudden concussion of an
exploding grenade bounced along our column. Immediate prospects of an
ambush filtered through my mind. Instead it was a realization of my
suppressed fears of an accidental arming of a grenade. No doubt a
slight "ping" as the spring handle flew off clutched at the heart of the
victim. A short "pop" immediately followed as the grenade armed itself
but frantic efforts to.be rid of it were not seen in the darkness.
Seconds later the grenade exploded. An ambulance ground along to the
site and took him away but the darkness did not reveal the extent of
his injury. With slight pause over this incident we continued through
the Lorscher Wald east of Worms to a German barracks hidden among the
trees a few miles northeast of Mannheim. Inside I flopped on some
sacks of grain and remembered nothing until morning.
The following day in late afternoon, as though on call by some
practicing military genie, trucks were again available for our convenience.
In convoy we rode standing, sitting, crouching, or trying to lie in
crumpled bunches on the foot ridden floor boards. As usual the infantry
had but vague rumor of the objective but as cattle accepted our non-briefed
status with little comment. In general, the infantry was quite content
to allow time to tick by under any circumstances not immediately involv-
ing bloodshed. By night the faintly glowing convoy coiled its way
through several bleak villages. Not a living creature was in view. The
echos of combustion and gears along the narrow shuttered lanes were the
only sounds to be heard.
After about four hours of travel we arrived at the top of a hill
in the rolling countryside. By then it was a brilliant moonlight night
and the air was becoming cooler. The convoy suddenly stopped while
hasty consultations appeared to be taking place. Without further for-
malities the convoy reversed itself and sped off through the moonlight
retracing its ghostly trek from the German barracks. We hurried through
the villages with a hard clatter for the convoy had taken the wrong
route and blundered through the German lines. Only luck or a divine
protectorate saved us as we could have been wiped out by a squad of
Hitler Jugend or Volksturm having the mildest yen for a handful of
Iron Crosses. It would have been anti-climactic to gaze down the short
muzzle of a burp gun onto a fuzzy blond face inquiring "Nicht Kaugumme?"
By now it was about midnight and we fell gratefully from the flat
hard bed of the trucks to reenter the barracks. The fragments of night had
barely been pieced together in a fitful doze before we were roused and
herded back into the trucks. As dawn trembled into being we crept into
the outskirts of Mannheim and crossed the Neckar River. It was the
surrealist world of Max Ernst in his painting "Europe After the Rain, 1941."
Empty eyed hollow shells with tentacles of rusty steel stood lifeless
mile after mile among the tons of rubble. This was beyond hell. Hell
had to be organized to some degree to satisfactorily accommodate all the
types consigned to its jurisdiction. Mannheim was structural and
functional chaos and it is beyond one's imagination to understand how
man prevails through such violent ordeals. By 0700 we entered Heidelberg
and without pause continued eastward on a road paralleling the Neckar
River. Just outside of the city the convoy jerked to a halt. The MP's
controlling the road advised that No Man's Land was immediately ahead.
Returning to Heidelberg we delayed the war in order to eat breakfast in
a courtyard among the dark medieval buildings. We had canned sliced
bacon which appeared to have been boiled but it tasted good.
Fatigue had taken its toll after the many days and nights without
sufficient sleep. Nevertheless we soon assembled and proceeded in twin
files through the MP's on the eastern fringe of Heidelberg. A huge
castle high on a hillside seemed to sternly appraise our passage. It
contributed to an aura of mystery and the unknown which was a part of
our daily experience in Germany. The obscureness and unforeseen events
which composed the life of an infantryman were fascinating. Although
one was not conscious of being an immediate cog in the machine of
history, the drama unfolding in front of our eyes made a profound
impression. However, the fascination of being engaged in a supreme
adventure was very quickly lost when the first rounds of rifle or
heavy weapons fire shattered the silence. Then the dreadful doubts of
the future displaced all other emotions.
March 31 was an exceptionally beautiful morning. A carefully
spaced column of trees marched in file along the river to Neckargemund
six miles away. There was a Sunday outing aspect to our steady but
unenthusiastic pace. A hush prevailed on this early spring morning as
though the misty river and forest had taken a deep breath in anticipation
of some primitive cataclysm. Only the cautious pulsing of combat boots
and further back the muttering of a half track pulling an artillery
piece disturbed the silence. Otherwise the deathly quiet of the tranquil
scene created an air of expectancy as Neckargemund came into view across
a bend in the river. Perhaps a trumpet blown by an impartial master of
ceremonies will announce the resumption of the war between two nations.
But instead the tranquility was shattered by rifle fire from the village.
As the coliseum gates again swung open we scrambled for cover
behind the trees and other obstacles. The half track rumbled up, its
hind quarters clapping the road and squeaking like a battalion of rusty
Tin Woodmen. The crew jumped out of its slab sided cabin and trained their
.7 mm artillery piece on the town. The lanyard was pulled and the gun
bounced on its rubber tired cradle. The artillery pounded the roofs of
the houses cascading red tile at each explosion. The cannoneers were
ecstatic as it was only rarely that they found the opportunity to shoot
point blank and visualize the product of their art. With joyful diligence
they might have exhausted their supply of ammo at this pursuit. But
a German artillery shell funneled the river nearby and the progress of
the next few enemy rounds bore witness that they were getting the range
of the half track. This rightfully overstimulated our artillery command
and with much anxious shouting and animation they managed to hook up
their weapon which sniffed out a last derisive puff of vapor. Gunning
their flatfooted vehicle for all the speed it could muster they tore
out in the direction of Heidelberg.
The retreat of the half track failed to discourage the German
artillery. Instead it was focused upon the platoon which ran to a
railway for protection behind its embankments. The railway was blessed
with such topography only in a limited number of spots and I lumbered
down the track in search of a haven. Encumbered with bandoliers of ammo
swinging in pendulum fashion in front of me and a gas mask bag devoid
of gas mask but filled with drawing materials to sustain an interest in
art, my pace seemed agonizingly slow. After a few asynchronous swings
of assorted paraphernaia I abandoned the gas mask bag and its cultural
contents on the tracks. We gathered in small knots at several points
behind the embankment while the Lieutenant and the Sergeants assessed
the situation. The shelling persisted, the accuracy of the fire indicated
that our position could be observed. In addition a sharp bickering between
M-l's and Mausers resounded from the outer edges of the village as
the troops at the head of the column made contact with the Krauts.
The shelling, which threatened us with not only shrapnel but flying
chips of granite from the embankment, finally ceased. The decision was
made to approach the village from the wooded high ground which paralleled
the road and railway. These hills were populated and consequently we
found small roads which led us through clumps of houses. We stopped
briefly and took positions in a small barn adjacent to a house and kept
watch through open windows. Our presence had not gone unnoticed, as
the door from the house slowly opened and a slight blonde woman of about
40 years stepped cautiously out and walked in our direction. She spoke
to us in excellent English and it was obvious to me that she was an
educated, cultured woman. She commented that, "We are very sorry that all
is lost but we are grateful that the Americans come as friends and not as
enemies." She returned to her home a few steps from the barn. We
were a little nervous about her visit considering the possibility
of her revealing our meager strength to German soldiers hidden in the
house. In a short time, though she returned with a 7 or 8 year old
child and a pitcher of ersatz coffee. We gave some chocolate bars to
the child whose eyes spoke in silent eloquence for the unexpected
gift. Only one or two of the GI's would drink the coffee, the rest
of us for one reason or another did not wish to accept the kind offer.
By the time the dynamic second platoon had skulked its way along
the hillside through the forest to a point overlooking the village,
it had been half cleared. We were given the task of clearing some
houses and a hospital. A young man in civilian clothes was flushed out
of one house. He spoke English but gave us the impression of being in
a confused state of mind. There was a possibility that he was a German
soldier masquerading as a civilian and posing as slightly demented.
Over the objections of a doctor we searched a hospital and found a
few wounded GIs who had been captured at some point or another during
the war. They claimed to have been treated quite well by the Germans.
There was still a flurry of rifle fire occasionally and prisoners
were being taken. As night approached we took over a two story factory
building. The second story had a continuous row of windows which provided
good observation of our sector of Neckargemund. The heavy weapons platoon
occupying the factory with us dropped the snout of a machine gun out of
a window as the usual defensive measures of the night were taken.
Neckargemund had proven to be the site of a Wehrmacht liquor dump
and champagne seemed to be stowed all over town. I came into possession
of two magnums of warm champagne. Unfortunately on this occasion we
were short of K-rations or any other kinds of familiar U.S. rations.
I sat on the floor of our stronghold and as we contemplated our lack
of food cans of what appeared to be hash of some nature were passed
around. They may have been German but I gave it scant thought at the
moment. The German soldiers we captured always seemed to have rather
meager amounts of food in their possession and strange items to us. Often
they would have a bag of white meal suggesting a coarse flour or cornmeal
and a toothpaste tube of limburger or other cheese. On one occasion
small cans of fish from Nantes, France were found.
Opening the can of hash I found that its delicate flavor justified
opening a bottle of champagne. The cork flew out with a satisfying snort
and a gush of foam just as I'd seen it in those movies with the potted
paljns scattered about on a Saturday night in a playhouse in Bayou La
Batre, Alabama. Clutching the bottle around the neck with one grimy
hand I alternated hash with swallows of warm champagne. It required
more champagne than anticipated to maintain an acceptable level of
quality in the hash but after a half quart or more I only managed to
get sick. I fell asleep on the floor in between acts of keeping watch
through the window at the silent village continually changing under the
The Krauts evidently pulled out during the night as the village
was quiet in the morning. We continued our single file trek eastward
along the road by the Neckar River. The vehicles which accompanied
us or passed slowly by were heaped with straw-covered bottles and manned
by red-eyed drivers all wearing crooked smiles. Considering the possibility
of anothergourmet dinner I was reluctant to dispense with my remaining
bottle of champagne. Toting it by the neck it began to add significantly
to my overall burden. A few miles of this caused fatigue to transcend
greed and in spontaneous generosity I tossed it at a tanker clanking
by standing up in his turret. Unfortunately, my aim was bad and while the
tanker desperately grabbed at it his tank was christened in a shower of
With heavy foot and head we ambled along the route designated by
some supreme authority. The Neckar was gray as lead and at peace with
its earthen barriers. A faint clamor behind us transformed into a
column of clanking light tanks. They stopped and the infantry was instructed
to climb upon the steel shells. We clambered up like monkeys on a
tolerant elephant. I know what a 1936 Mississippi nigger must have
felt when offered the back end of a truck to ride into town. Only
so much humility could be expended however, as the possibility of hitting
a mine or being knighted by an 88 or numerous other forms of death had to
be considered. After an episode or two in which we had to abandon the
tanks and advance on foot to scout the area ahead our transportation
ended at Neckarwimmersbach, a village on a high bluff overlooking the
Neckar River and another village on the opposite side. It was late
afternoon when we took over a large house into which had been delivered
some U.S. rations called 10 in l's. It was only on the most odd occasions
that such rations were available to the dogfaces. Whether they were
normally intended for certain ranks or for the public on holidays was
never described to us in detail. GI food, in general, was excellent
which would only be admitted by certain of us living between 1926-1945.
The 10 in 1 rations were superb and strawberry jam diverted our minds
from fatigued bodies.
We were promptly ordered to dig in on a hillside looking up to
a forest. The house was nearby and we spent the night in periodic
watches in the foxholes. Still on the fringes of exhaustion the next
day we were directed back to the same road we had gratefully traversed
on tanks the day before. As hour by hour passed the equipment increased
in mass and volume, separated into small units, reunited again and
ravaged each segment of the body. Two bandoliers of 30 cal ammo hung
as some medieval torture device mocking every step in pendulous monotony.
A truck came slowly by pulling a trailer amid the dust. Quickly yanking
a bandolier from my neck I tossed it like a bolero into the trailer ration-
alizing that it would find its rightful place in the war eventually. The
Sergeant with a slightly sardonic remark advised me "That you may be
crying for that ammo if we run into the Jerries." Although spontaneously
contrived, my vengeful act nevertheless raised my spirits and lightened
my load. I still had about 200 rounds of 30 cal remaining to satisfy
my aggressive instincts.
RECROSSING THE NECKAR
As a giant amoeba might extend fluid tentacles the front was
moving rapidly engulfing Germany east of the Rhine. In order to keep
up with the advances of the fast moving armor the infantry had to have
motorized transport. The inevitable trucks appeared on April 2nd.
They were a mixed blessing. Trucks invariably meant trouble as they were
used to bring the infantry quickly to the site of the action. We were
transported to a quite large village named Hassmersheim and jumped from
the trucks onto a large street. The Neckar River meandered along
We took our gear and settled down on the sidewalk bordered by shops
of all descriptions. Neither shop clerks nor customers were in evidence.
From the direction of the river a lot of commotion erupted with shouting
and confusion. A giant of a young German soldier came running up the
street. His hobnailed boots were jackhammering the cobblestones and
he was petrified with fright. Holding his hands high, he ran wide-eyed
and open mouthed in fear. Undoubtedly he had been told by the GIs;
capturing him that he was to run towards the rear. His passage along
the street stimulated considerable deliberate yelling and shouting in
pseudo-German and English from the GIs. Turning his marathon into a
sporting event only confused the boy further and he finally had to be
coralled and placed in the right hands.
Night came and we assembled at the edge of the Neckar. The
village of Gundelsheim bordered by some factories lay a short distance
across the river. D Company (Cannon Company) occupied a few houses on
the edge of the town. Cannon Company was not equipped with the right
weapons to defend themselves against an attack by the German infantry.
Consequently we were assigned to guard duty with them for several
days. A collection of row boats were tethered to the river bank.
Upon a word from the ship's captain three or four of us clambered
aboard with all our gear. We shoved off in the darkness and the
captain hunched over the oars. We zigged and zagged our way across the
river and I kept wondering if it were possible to swim with all the Army
garb on if we capsized in midstream. It was a spooky but safe crossing
as the oars kept dipping in the inky water. We had no faith as to
what the far shores held. Upon landing we cautiously crawled up the
bank, went inland for a few steps and settled down in a ditch to await
the arrival of the remainder of the platoon and C Company.
We found our way to Cannon Company and our platoon was assigned
to a fine big house. The only major attack that occurred during this
period was upon a fantastic wine cellar which filled the basement of the
house. Strangely enough the proximity of bottle upon bottle of pink
champagne and various other wines did not result in an orgy of drinking
ith perhaps an exception or two of our platoon. Probably most of the
infantrymen found little to celebrate with the nagging thought in mind
that the morrow may be their last on earth.
The champagne and K ration honeymoon soon came to an end. The day
before, an artillery outfit had been kicked out of a nearby town by the
Germans. We were needed in some capacity to either retake the town if
the Germans were still in it or to defend it against another attack,
The magic lamp was rubbed by Divisional G-1, G-2, G-3, or G-4 undoubtedly
by request of S-2 or S-3 or vice versa and our faithful motorized slaves
fumed in and cut their hot tinkling engines at our luxurious spa.
Our platoon medic was a short squatty red haired Irishman named
Cullinane. He had not neglected the wine cellar during our vacation
with Cannon Company. Carrying an unreasonable reserve in his veins and
various other spaces, Cully strolled out to make an assault on the truck.
He was dressed in a field gray German officer's uniform. It was at least
four sizes too big. The smart flares on the trousers, intended to
reside a little above the knees of the original owner, found their resting
place far below that point of Cully's physique. His jacket shoulders
were expansive but his hands were lost in the vast reaches of the sleeves.
To complete his transition into the German Army a cap bearing a steep
forecastle and an abbreviated bill balanced on his ears. Only the lack
of a saber scar from pink mouth to red eye prevented the transformation to
a stern faced Teuton. This imitation offspring from the Junkers, producing
a sword, mounted a pile of gear and made it to the top of the cab. From
this platform he effected a gesticulating Adolf Hitler addressing the
masses at Nuremberg, tempered only by a droop in one sleeve which his arm
had failed to completely negotiate. Haranguing all in range with a
steady stream of hysterical sieg heils and pseudo-German diatribe, he
paused only to glare at a deserted prisoner of war camp with high barbed
wire fences. As we left the village behind he was eventually convinced
that some myopic GI might conceivably plug him and he reluctantly donned
his drab U.S. uniform.
The trucks approached the edge of the village of Ober Griesheim and
it was evident that a scrap had been in progress. Discarded clothes and
bloody bandages lay in the ditch beside the road. We dismounted and
started into the village which was still feebly in American hands. A
brief march brought us in view of three bodies lying quite close to
each other. They were dead German soldiers who because of their
posture in death appeared to have been caught unawares in the open by
our aircraft or a tank. Upon closer scrutiny one of the platoon
exclaimed that, "All three had been shot in the head!" We had rumors that
prisoners on occasions became liabilities and were deliberately shot.
Action of this murderous nature was presumably justified in the minds of
certain GIs under fast moving combat situations if no one was available
to transport prisoners to the rear.
As the platoon began to move into the village it began to take
rifle fire. We hugged the walls of buildings and made short dashes
from one point to another until we reached the southeast border of
From this position we overlooked a shallow open valley through which
the Jagst River coursed. Although no German could be seen sporadic
rifle fire continued from the direction of the river valley. Night
approached and we were told to take up positions in the house for the
night. A squad of GIs took over the second floor of a house overlooking
the valley. As usual without lights we spent the night with periodic
watches in the doorway on the first floor.
The night held no surprises. In the morning light I made a cup
of coffee from the K-ration packet and added some powdered milk which
became available by some mysterious logistic as it was not normally
issued. The addition of sugar made it a satisfying brew. The process
became a bit of a ceremony whenever the opportunity arose and it brought
strange small comfort to life distorted insanely in this era. Carefully
avoiding the window exposed to the river valley we whiled away the morning
hours. A piano was available and a young GI with a fondness for big cigars
played a few selections. I had a few pieces of charcoal and made a 4" X 5"
drawing of a view which overlooked a church with a tall steeple.
As our platoon was taking over Ober Griesheim on the previous
afternoon the other two rifle platoons and the heavy weapons platoon
in Company C were assaulting some high ground across the river a few
miles away. Unfortunately they found themselves in contact with the 17th
SS Panzer Grenadier Division. Unknown to us the three platoons had taken
a beating as we occupied the village and the stage had been set for a
showdown between the SS and several U.S. battalions.
Radio communications ordered us to pull out of our village and
join the remainder of the Company across the Jagst. It was afternoon
as we quickly assembled and moved out. We arrived at the Company's
position that night and dug in upon an open hillside.
While digging in our artillery was throwing a terrific low level
barrage over our heads into a forest about 1,000 yards in front of our
position. Strangely enough these screeching, hissing, moaning chunks of
metal overhead imparted a sense of security until a short round plowed
into the ground in front of my foxhole and between two others. The B.A.R.
man was highly incensed as mud erupted around him and splattered his
The light at dawn on April 8 revealed a tiny village named Kressbach
which lay a short distance ahead at the bottom of a shallow valley. The
valley was almost devoid of trees but a heavy forest, the Hardihauser
Wald, ran along one side several hundred yards from the village. The
forest had been the target of the artillerymen the night before.
There were no whistles blown to announce breakfast. We opened
K-rations on whim and I ate while glumly contemplating the pastoral
bit of terrain which lay ahead. We marked time organizing gear and
buckling up ammo belts before the inevitable word that a push was on
trickled down. The second platoon maintained loose contact on the
open field as several company commanders and platoon officers huddled in
knots discussing the pending attack. No doubt they were improvising
tactics within the limits of their authority to fit the unique problems
of the area. A first Lieutenant whom I judged to be the battalion
commander was in a highly agitated state of mind. I recognized him
as the officer who received the infamous message "Don't you know there's
a war on?" as we practiced infantry tactics in the rain behind the lines
in France. The Lieutenant was engaged in a bitter argument with the other
officers and he suddenly yelled at our platoon Lieutenant to "Get the
lead out." Our 2nd Lieutenant, a red-haired tall slender type, was fresh
out of infantry officers candidate school and with the exception of the
raid on Neckargemund had yet to face a bad skirmish. Our Lieutenant
now in a fever inspired by the battalion commander cranked up our
platoon and we jumped off.
The hillside was crawling with men in full combat gear. Trodding
slowly and methodically down the gentle slope towards the village and
forest we were completely exposed. The treeless plain offered no effective
cover unless we could reach the perimeter of the village. It seemed to
invite catastrophe to parade in full view of the Krauts. But not a sign
of enemy interest was forthcoming as we approached the road at the
bottom of the slope leading to the village. Two light tanks barbarically
contrived, tentacled and drab as mindless beetles grumbled along among
the advancing troops. The tank commander looked grim as he peered out
of the open hatch with a head set crackling in his ears. Upon arrival
at the road one group of GIs pushed into Kressbach but our platoon was
directed towards the heavy forest at the crest of a slope devoid of
trees. The two tanks were now in the lead by a few yards snooping along
the edge of the forest. This annoyed the Krauts and they opened up with
a blast of small arms fire from rifles, machine guns and burp guns. The
shrill singing of the automatic fire passing by offered little choice
of action. I hit the ground flattening myself as much as physically
possible on the open plain. We were spread out in a pattern ranging
from the forest edge to 50 yards away on the plain. The tankers were
firing their machine guns spasmodically and in short bursts as though
they weren't sure they had a target in sight. The Kraut firing picked
up and the boys at the forest edge were not doing well. One boy in my
squad was shot in the leg but managed to escape to the road and cover.
A B.A.R. man was shot in the hand and had to make a cautious retreat.
The knot in my stomach tightened and cold dry mouthed fear swept over
me as I realized we were pinned on the bare open plain.
A Chaplain had found occasion to hold an open air service during
the push across Germany. The troops stood in silent clumps facing the
Chaplain who stood on the back of a truck and spoke solemn words which
even in Swahili would have evoked somber reflection. Hovering at the
fringes I could not deny the desire for a life jacket in view of the
stormy seas ahead and I accepted the words that washed about me. Shortly
after the Chaplain finished the troops began to climb into trucks. As
the'loading progressed a shot rang out. A carbine had fired accidentally,
In a few moments a GI on the truck began to sag and a tall slender medic
smoking a cigar moved in.
Lying motionless on the plains I visualized the enemy maneuvering
cautiously in the forest and bringing their sights to bear. I waited
tensely for the soundless burst of fire which surely must come. I knew
but could not admit that the prospects of death were close at hand. But
human spirit survives on hope and the faith of a merciful hand was summoned.
God had to be here on these plains on this occasion. I hadn't annoyed
him much before except when I was young in South Alabama and put a dead
puff adder in the neighbor's mailbox. But some genuinely wicked person
observed that its serpentine body was coiled stiffly around a pound of
homemade butter delivered in wax paper and it made the biggest rural
route scandal ever suffered in Mobile County. But God, today you've
got to listen. Even though I misbehaved in Methodist Sunday Schoo,], I
did attend. I even saw and heard Billy Sunday, one of your closest
disciples, pleading and pumping his arms as he marched erratically
around his platform in your cause and I sang out of red books.
And then the artillery fire commenced. Searing the air in flight,
hissing as though in reflected anger the shells sought our range with
deafening thunder. One short and one long round split the earth about
thirty feet on either side of my position. The Germans took faith in
their philosophy that "God is on the side with the greatest artillery."
But the Almighty must have steadied the cannoneer's hand as he frantically
cranked in elevation and azimuth as the resulting craters arranged for our
salvation. Although we could have used a few more God, perhaps your G-2
(Intelligence Section) may be no better than ours. Wondering if two
shells ever struck the same point I chanced a low fast dash and tumbled
into a crater.
Fumes and wisps of smoke curled in the faint breeze and the smell
or cordite lingered in the earth. I lay in the depression waiting for
help from our artillery or adjacent infantry units or a signal to pull
out if possible. We seemed to be alone as orders were not forthcoming
from anyone above the level of Private. Being on a slope with the Krauts
on high ground I could not escape the sensation that our positions were
under scrutiny. As each moment crowded agonizingly into the past I
anticipated the shrill death song of automatic fire probing at my
shallow sunken altar.
The artillery barrage was not compatible with the tankers' concept
of warfare. Flogging their iron chariots they wheeled about throwing
clods of dirt from steel hooves as they passed the prostrate GIs. A
tanker yelled in passing that he "wouldn't stay up there even if they
After the tanks left there was a lull in the firing. No orders
were filtering about and I scurried like a mole to join three or four
GIs. They were in no hurry to advance the war beyond the borders of their
smouldering shell hole. A GI from my platoon worked his way along the
plain and crouched at the edge of the crater. He was encouraging an
assault on the woods. Otherwise we would be messing around here all
day rather than enjoying the glittering night life later on in Kressbach
or some other village. He was unconvincing and the shell hole was too
crowded. By more or less an independent decision we decided to make
a break down the open slope to the road embankment. We broke out
individually and by crouching as low as possible and running a zig zag
pattern we all made it. The Krauts failed to open fire during our
The platoon reassembled again and dug in at the edge of the
village near the road to which we had escaped earlier. Afternoon
arrived and by that time another plan of attack had been organized
by some brilliant military tactician. Kressbach nestled in a slight
depression formed by the junction of two large sloping plains. The
depression ran parallel with the edge of the forest occupied by the
Germans. The tactics required moving through the village and con-
tinuing along the depression as far as possible. Unfortunately, in
order to engage the enemy the nebulous cover of the depression had to
be abandoned to approach the forest over 200 yards of open terrain. In
effect a similar attack which had failed in the morning was to be repeated
at another sector of the forest.
Around 1400 the order to prepare for an attack came down. I had
removed most of my gear upon digging in and the platoon Sergeant was
riding me to hurry up as the jump off had begun. I knew what to expect.
It was not a push in which there was apt to be an anticlimax. The SS
were waiting irritable and nervous as rattlesnakes caught in a herd of
hogs. Trying to overcome a tingling weak sensation of hopelessness
and fear I hurriedly buckled on the remaining shrouds. The first and
third platoons of C Company led out, quickly moved through the village
and entered the draw or depression. The 2nd platoon followed and on this
occasion I was attached to a machine gun squad from the heavy weapons
platoon. The leading platoons had progressed about 500 yards up the draw
before the SS struck with automatic weapons, mortars and artillery. The
platoons had moved out far enough on the plains towards the forest to be
completely exposed. The young cigar smoking piano player and a Mexican
boy were killed. Our red-haired platoon officer took a burst of machine
gun fire which tore his arm and shoulder to shreds. His agonized plead-
ing for a medic was described later by someone at the scene. He was
helped back to the village by some miracle but I never learned his ultimate
During the course of this disaster my adopted squad began to receive
artillery fire on the road it was using to enter Kressbach. I ran to
the edge of the road to seek cover. Lying on one side I felt something
strike my knee and deduced that it must have been a spent shell fragment
falling from the sky. The shelling intensified as the Krauts tried
to cut off reinforcements from the village. We decided to run into
Kressbach to escape. One boy took a shell fragment in the leg and was
being helped into town amid sniper fire from the sector of the woods we
had assaulted earlier in the morning. I ran like hell on the road into
the village which was only a few hundred feet but it was though I
was watching a film at half speed. My legs simply could not conform
to my brain's ambition.
At the village we dodged into a house having a ground floor which
was essentially a cellar. It already harbored several GIs who had
sought shelter from the artillery. The gloom of the cellar was brightened
by a wooden keg of "apfel most." We manipulated the tap and drank the
tart liquid from a canteen cup. A window at eye level with the narrow
street overlooked a row of houses. The medical aid station was located
in a house immediately across the street from our cellar. A jeep bearing
two casualties on stretchers was parked nearby. I noted one of the medics
standing in the doorway to the aid station. As the sudden blast of a
mortar shell reverberated in the street between us the medic tumbled
backwards through the open doorway as'though he had been forcibly pushed.
An American tank had been brought into the village and parked in
a narrow space between two houses. Its cannon pointed in the direction
of the sector of the forest which we had approached earlier in the morn-
ing. The Germans spotted the tank and launched a Panzerfaust from the
edge of the forest. This weapon was about three or four feet long with
a dome-shaped head 8-10 inches in diameter. The dome of the giant
kitchen match rocket propelled itself in an arc for a relatively long
distance and struck the tank. The explosive head blew a hole through
the steel hull killing the tanker and severely burning one or two
more of the crew.
The mortar fire persisted making it folly to leave shelter and
reduced the chance of deliverance for those caught on the plains and
in the draw.
Clearly C Company was faced with a hideous tactical disadvantage.
It became quickly obvious to the survivors that their only hope lay
in escaping to the village. Unexpected bits of cover were available.
One GI from the 2nd platoon testified that a dead cow stopped slugs
thrown at him while another found haven behind a pile of turnips or
sugar beets. Luckily a tiny brook meandered down the draw towards
the village. By jumping into the shallow stream they were as well con-
cealed as possible. Observing the pathway of their retreat the Germans
pursued them with mortar fire along the stream bed. The last leg of
this tortuous route involved a stampede into a small building at the
edge of the village amidst a flurry of small arms fire.
Our platoon Sergeant was among those escaping along the stream.
He sat in his wet clothes in silence holding his head in his hands.
He had been in one battle too many and never again was able to return
to the front. Another Sergeant was sent to the rear for treatment of
"battle rattle" but subsequently returned to the front. Announcing
that he had a tooth problem he took off and was not heard of again
at least by the platoon.
Night was approaching and the question arose as to whether we
should defend the village with the remaining men or pull out. At dusk
we took up positions and I was alone overlooking the plains and forest
from the second floor of a house near the destroyed tank. But the
decision was made to return to the hill we had occupied the previous
night. In darkness we slipped out of the far side of the village and
returned to the foxholes on the hill.
The remainder of the night was broken only by the usual lonely
watch into the valley where all shadows were evil. We were only a
short distance from Heilbronn which was being strongly defended by the
Germans. The 17th SS formed the outer defenses along the Jagst and the
Kocher Rivers. The problem at Kressbach and the adjacent Hardihauser
Wald had not been resolved. Without question daylight would again
bring renewed violence until the Germans withdrew or died.
My mind seemed to have the capacity to refrain from morbid thoughts
of past action or experience. Perhaps this characteristic of brain
function was necessary among infantry men to avoid neuroses as a result
of intense emotional stress. But my mind began to search for some means
to avoid dwelling upon the days and weeks in the future. It was un-
bearable to focus on the advent of death and to visualize yourself
reduced to a gelatinous mass surrounded by a few scattered belongings on
the cool earth. Experience had shown that the intense fighting usually
persisted over a period of three or four days. I tried to force my
mind to leap ahead to a point in time five or six days later where I
would see myself alive and again in an atmosphere of relative peace.
This imagined state of existence might enable one to endure the most
terrifying episodes which were likely in the immediate future. This
flight into transcendentalism was of small comfort but it briefly
diverted my mind from the macabre.
In the morning light it appeared that an entire regiment now festered
the slopes. An attack was soon underway but C Company was temporarily
detained. As three battalions moved steadily towards Kressbach and the
forest an open jeep hummed in from the rear. On the passenger's side
stood a Major, 45 cal automatic strapped aggressively around his waist.
Squinting over the windshield in spirit at least, but slightly to the
rear, he affected an image of Patton riding his Sherman into battle.
The word got around that this Major devised the previous day's tactics.
We also heard that he was subsequently relieved of his command for that
For the third time Kressbach was invaded and the GIs were making
a degree of progress in the woods adjacent to the village. Around
1100 C Company was ordered to attack the edge of the forest which
projected towards our positions on the slopes. Upon entering the forest
we were to take a diagonal route which would bring us to another large
open space about one half mile away. We gained the edge of the forest and
cautiously moved along it for a short distance. A mutilated German
soldier whose blood caked corpse had acquired the colors induced by
violent forces lay near the trees among the leaves. This chilling
moment was quickly followed by a burst of rifle fire from the interior
of the forest. We hit the dirt and a few shots were returned. An
additional cycle or two of fire brought the realization that we
were locked in combat with B Company who had entered the forest during
the morning attack. After establishing friendly relations with our
allies we proceeded through the forest until the edge was again reached.
From this position another forest was visible about 350 yards distance.
We paused for a few moments in the shelter of the forest. While we
were invading our sector of the Hardihauser Wald G Company was penetrat-
ing the woods that we were now overlooking. As G Company progressed
they flushed out three Germans. Strangely enough the three chose to
run across the open terrain. Holding their hands overhead they ran
towards our position as if intending to surrender. As I watched their
flight G Company opened up with an automatic weapon and two crumpled
on the plain. The other managed the last 75 yards into our lines and
was taken prisoner. Advancing deeper into the forest our platoon soon
engaged in a brief firefight resulting in the surrender of two more
Germans. Returning to the edge of the forest we dug in overlooking
the plain of the two dead Germans.
The attempted escape by the Germans across the clearing and our
shadowy movements as we dug into the forest floor led G Company to
assume that an enemy strong point existed in that sector. Unexpectedly,
the piercing howl of an artillery shell was detected coming from the
direction of our own lines. The chilling sound ended moments later in
an earsplitting blast as the shell landed in our midst. Mystified at the
turn of events and alarmed we could hear the thump of an artillery
piece at our rear followed by the shriek and blood-curdling CRACK
as the shell dropped into the forest.
Our B.A.R. man had a wife and two children and his ambition in
life was to return to his family. In hopeful anticipation of fulfilling
his desire he was motivated to dig in promptly as deep as time and circum-
stances permitted. Unfortunately he was a large man and a lot of digging
was required for good protection. The initial round of shells slightly
wounded him in the back but he was undecided as to whether he should
run to the medics or stay in the cover of the foxhole. No doubt his
mind considered the fact that his "million dollar" wound might be his
ultimate salvation through a period of convalescence in the rear.
Perhaps the shell fragment came as a relief to him considering the
unknown which lay ahead. But someone close by advised him to wait out
the shelling before running to the medic. A few moments later another
thump in the distance terminated in a tree burst above his position.
Two or three GIs aware of his plight quickly huddled over his foxhole
only to pass the word that he had died of a massive wound in the back.
The shelling persisted concentrating on the sector of the forest
immediately adjacent to the clearing. A machine gunner had his foot
torn off and two others were wounded. Several of us were positioned
within 50 feet of the disaster point. Only a matter of seconds would
be required for the azimuth to be shifted a millimeter or two and the
artillery would be on us. Being shelled by our own artillery was too
much and we bailed out of our meager sanctuaries and ran through the
forest towards the rear. Unknown to us our radioman was frantically
trying to get the artillery to knock it off. Little progress had been
made in our flight from the artillery fire before we ran into an
equally frantic Lieutenant waving his arms in a motion calculated
to push us back into oblivion.
Yelling, "Go back, it's our own stuff" seemed strange logic under
the circumstances but we paused in our retreat. The radio communications
were successful and moments later the artillery ceased. When the
Commander of G Company learned of his error in directing artillery on
us they say he went into a spasm of depression.
We crept back and I sat dejected in the gray and ochre trench. A
slight movement was noticed in the dirt on the side of the pit. An
earthworm writhed and coiled its segmented body now abbreviated
through a stroke of my shovel. Striving to contain his primitive
organs but whipping the mutilated remainder in anguish it was yet
another symbol of the carnage of war. I quickly hid the worm with a
clod of dirt and had faith in the knowledge that regeneration of his
vital parts could occur.
The word soon arrived that our squad, now reduced to eight or
nine men, was destined to clear the woods ahead of us. With raw nerves
and low morale the tiny force lacking the support of a B.A.R. man,
prepared to move out. The remainder of the platoon set up a skirmish
line overlooking the route which we were to take through the forest.
Although many large trees composed the sector they were not so abundant
as to completely obliterate visibility. Our general route involved a
push straight in front of our skirmish line for approximately 200 yards
followed by a right turn for a few hundred yards. We jumped off in
pairs in a quite loose but organized formation. At times it was
impossible to see the remainder of the squad. Presumably if we made
no contact with the Krauts the rest of the platoon would follow or we
would return. The first two hundred yards were cautiously scouted alert
for trouble which had a consistent habit of appearing. Two of us had to
cross a narrow clearing which meant complete exposure but silence pre-
vailed. Advancing into a sparsely wooded area the squad reunited and
spread out in combat formation. At this point we turned right for the
second leg of our assault. Our minds began to ease a bit as the sector
appeared to be deserted.
In answer to our changing mood the forest suddenly became alive
with the harsh chuckling of an American machine gun firing from our
platoon skirmish line. The walkie-talkie rasped in our squad leader's
ear and he quickly got the message that we were being ambushed from the
rear. We got down fast trying to assess the situation and locate the
Germans. In my position as rifleman on one of the flanks I was closest
to the probable site of the ambush although the Germans were not in sight.
By incredible luck our rear guard had been able to see the Krauts through
the trees and had taken action with the machine gun and were also throw-
ing in mortar fire. By now a fire fight had erupted in all directions.
We began to run from tree to tree towards the direction of the ambush.
It soon ended as the Krauts dropped their weapons and threw up their
The squad moved up cautiously to find one moaning over a shot in
the stomach. A soldier about 17 years old had been shot in the leg but
another two Germans were uninjured. The fifth German was dead, slumped
with unintentional theatrics over a machine gun. The final image his
brain realized may have been the steel sights bearing upon the back of
one of our squad. But the image blurred and he embraced the cold
iron weapon in the last moments of life on a late afternoon.
The GI who had given us the rise up and smite the Krauts pep talk
when we were pinned down in shell holes the previous day was busily
searching the uninjured pair. Snatching a hunting knife from one of
them and partly feigning anger he threw it viciously towards a tree at
least 20 feet away. Whirling through the air, to his everlasting surprise
the knife point buried itself into the bark. But rather than blemish
his feat by exclamation he nodded his head at it to summarize his
capacity for terror to the SS. I commented on his talent and he was
overjoyed in having a witness to his performance.
A moment of reflection led to wonderment. The German machine gunner
now dead had his weapon directed towards the squad. The trigger needed
only to have been pulled which accompanied by rifle fire would have
destroyed our squad. Perhaps the Germans were waiting for us to bunch
up and improve the chances of quickly eradicating the squad. We must have
been within milliseconds of destruction before our machine gun fired and
and the warning came over the walkie-talkie.
We left the sector of the attempted ambush along with our prisoners.
Little thought was given to the disposal of the lonely dead German.
Visions arose of a steel helmet canted upon a hollow eyed skull pre-
siding eternally over a rust ridden weapon and a silent forest. But
the combat infantry were involved in their own immediate problems
and the retrieval of German dead depended upon information transmitted
to other Army units.
The squad had lost its B.A.R. man to the U.S. artillery but
had escaped complete annihilation for the third or fourth time in
two days. Simple mathematical calculations would reveal that the
probability of surviving becomes smaller as time continues.
The entire company reassembled in another sector of the forest
overlooking a sloping plain. There were a number of dead Germans
lying among the brown grass and leaves of the forest floor. Overhead,
split in blind force, a small tree gripped an artillery shell which
had failed to explode. The clearing was strewn with various items of
GI gear and clothes. We were apparently at the scene of the carnage
wreaked by the SS as C Company pushed up the draw the previous day.
The familiar muted sounds of shovels were heard as we began to
dig in. As two of us dug in together a Lieutenant strolled up. I
assumed he was on an inspection tour from some higher echelon, as he
squatted upon his G-2 haunches to question us. The GI digging with
me was also in my squad which had been ambushed that afternoon. He
kept digging but he was distraught and tears ran from his eyes as he
cried to the officer that "They ought to come up here and see what's
going on." The time for tears had at least temporarily gone by but
I felt my eyes water in sympathy. The act was not too difficult, we
had seen too much death that day with no promises for the morrow. The
Lieutenant made optimistic sounds but no one could offer a soothing
remedy to an infantryman. The night passed and the next day we remained
in the same sector. A ration of two bottles of beer were distributed
to each of us. As the warm foam gurgled we had to assess the virtues
of saving one for later. Later was always questionable. Rumors
circulated that Patton had claimed he could end the war in a week if
they'd give him enough trucks to pick up the dog tags on the way to
The pause in our war with the SS did not last long. The platoon
was tapped for a mission, a patrol of the type found in most war novels.
It was an operation usually expected of the I and R platoon (Intelligence
and Reconaissance) or at least we had never been asked to undertake a
task of this nature. Not far from the sector of our recent ambush
the village of Stein lay on the Kocher River about 1200 feet south of the
Hardihauser Wald. The patrol was assigned the task of entering Stein
am Kocher in the night and taking a prisoner for interrogation purposes.
G-2 coveted some details concerning the strength of the German forces
in the area.
Afternoon approached as we left our haven of the past two days.
The platoon pushed a furtive mile or two through the forest to a bluff
overlooking the village. Carefully creeping to the edge of the tree
line we scanned the village for signs of enemy soldiers or German
civilians. The village appeared deserted as no sign of life could be
detected. "Loose grenade pin" ever in need of attention swore he saw
movements of some kind on the near edge of the village. But neither the
Lieutenant nor the rest of us could verify his observations.
Pulling back several hundred yards into the forest we grimly
dug into the forest floor once again. The platoon was quickly briefed
in the strategy for the following raid. We were to wait until 0300 before
tiptoeing into the village. This tactic presumed that the Krauts would
be the sleepiest and least alert in early morning. Failing to find a
soldier at the edge of the village we were to penetrate further and snake
out'the first living organism in view. This meant in principle of course,
invading a house requesting the Burgermeister or his daughter or his nephew
to accompany us to G-2. After our nocturnal adventure had been underway
for an hour or two the artillery was scheduled to shower the village.
The resulting confusion was calculated to promote our escape with our
Minutes and hours ticked slowly by in the night as the eerie
patrol approached. The waiting added to the sense of impending
catastrophe grating on nerves already raw from recent experiences.
The raid seemed fraught with unlimited potential for disaster. I
conjured up the possibilities. We might be detected immediately upon
entering the village. If a fire fight broke out we could quickly
be split up. In the melee every moving figure detected in the darkness
might be a German. My plan, in the eventuality that the platoon ran into
serious difficulty, was to escape from the village, conceal myself in
the forest and return to our lines in the early dawn light.
By this time of year it would be a warm spring afternoon in
South Alabama. The dogwood and the titi blossoms would bring craving
to fish the meandering creeks for red-bellied bream and bass. To complement
the pain of nostalgia and my miserable thoughts a misty rain began. The
raindrops from the trees tapped a somber message on my steel helmet.
The pitch black forest became alive with the sounds which we were
forced to associate with the stealthy movements of men. Nostalgia
sharpened memory of another but sinister event which occurred around
1925 in Alabama.
Late one night our wooden telephone jangled its short and long
code. My father pressed the cone-shaped receiver to his ear and spoke
into the mouthpiece. Two miles north in the tiny town of Irvington
his G-2, a woman telephone operator, commanded a view of the moonlit
dirt road. She spoke softly into her'black transmitter. Two or
three Model T Fords or Chevys were headed south running with no lights.
My father had heard enough. Quickly pulling on his clothes he went
out the door with a .32 cal Smith and Wesson revolver. Taking a position
by the front steps, hiding in the shadows of a tangled Wisteria vine he
awaited the arrival of trouble.
Several days before we had opened our rural mailbox to find a
bottle of kerosene, a package of matches, and some fat pine kindling
wood. It was a warning to my father that the house would be burned
unless he gave up his attempts to get a cattle stock law passed. The
conflict arose from the ravages that herds of "piney woods" cattle
wreaked upon the Satsuma orange groves. Although the groves were
fenced the cattle could eventually find a weak spot and break through
cracking the limbs on the trees as they devoured the leaves and fruit.
In particular, we were plagued by a huge black bull who would come as
a lone wraith in the night and disappear before morning after gorging
himself in the grove. We had a cattle guard made of iron railroad
tracks spaced appropriately over a pit which in principle, cattle
would not attempt to cross. This proved to be no barrier to the
intrepid bull. A huge mule drawn wagon with iron wheels was placed
in front of the cattle guard but the bull pushed it aside and entered.
My father and our mulatto foreman, a World War I infantryman, sat up
at night with a Springfield Army rifle and the revolver but failed in
an attempt to kill the bull. Finally, he had to be tracked down by
horse and shot in the pine forest to prevent his onslaught on our only
My father awaited alone, no doubt with great apprehension, as
he did not intend to allow our wooden house to be torched. Although
no attempt was made by the cattlemen, a few days later the night brought
sounds of cattle ripping among the grove and shotguns in the night had
to drive them out. The cattlemen had cut the barbed wire fence between
every post for several hundred yards which allowed the cattle to enter.
Shortly after midnight the radio brought the reprieving message
that the patrol had been scrubbed. The platoon heaved an inaudible sigh
of relief. The 10th Armored Division was scheduled to rumble into Stein
am Kocher at 0200. It would hardly have been wise to be found skulking
on the streets in early morning darkness by an American tank column.
Leaving our sodden foxholes we struggled through the bleak wet forest
to make contact with a small patrol of GIs. The patrol was to lead us
for a mile or two to a new sector where the remainder of the Company had
dug in. The last hundred yards involved a frontal approach across a
plain to the area. I crouched as low as possible until we made contact
and exchanged pass words. Cleared through our own front we dug again
through the layers of damp earth. We remained in this sector of the
forest for several days overlooking a faintly rolling plain to the south.
Each of us had consumed about 45 boxes of K-rations during the
past 15 days. K-rations were generally eaten cold as the tactical
situation rarely allowed building fires. On occasions it was possible
to build a small fire using the wax impregnated K-ration box along with
some small twigs. Unopened cans of cheese or cheese with bacon were
placed on the fire until the ends of the can puffed outwards. In this
condition the can was opened and the molten fondue consumed on crackers.
Although I thought K-rations were really quite good it was a relief
to have the monotony broken by hot food which was brought into the forest
during the lull in activity as well as hot water which enabled us to
clean up a little bit.
Life in the forest was momentarily quiet and the time was received
with gratitude. Sitting in a foxhole with the damp forest floor little
below eye level the minor creatures of the earth held my attention.
A small convoy of bronze-hued slugs emerged from the leaves trailing
a silky sheen of mucous in passage. With periscopic lens they sensed
the light and finding nothing of concern within their limited molluscan
horizon sought refuge among the debris.
I relished our holding position and languished in the peaceful
aura of boredom. A sudden ripple of activity among the GIs brought the
realization that we were still on German real estate. A shaft of forest
extended for about a 1000 feet at right angles to our position. Two
Germans had strolled out of the tip of the shaft and were standing
around completely exposed apparently ignorant of our presence. A
machine gun was trained on them and the deliberate spaced barking was
heard as the gunner started firing. Startled, the Krauts dodged for
the forest but one of them appeared to fall. We had assumed that the
resistance of the 17th SS had been broken and the presence of these
soldiers was puzzling. With the exception of the appearance of the
Germans our sector of the front had been peaceful. But the quiet inter-
lude was broken by an unusual event during this mid-April period in the
war. The still air suddenly bore a faint but strange sound which
rapidly grew in volume as it approached our position. I ever so quickly
concluded by the sound that it was an incoming artillery shell or a
rocket equal in size to a freight car. Poised on my knees in the fox-
hole I was instantly ready to sink to its depth but in curiosity tinged
with fear of the unknown I peered over the edge of the foxhole waiting
for the roar to dictate its course and target area. Suddenly a dirty-
yellow ochre aircraft leaped into view as it crossed the obstructing
shaft of forest. Hugging the ground the German pilot skirted the edge
of the trees immediately in front of our position. Paralleling the
edge of the woods for about 2000 yards he pulled up in a sharp climb to
avoid another strip of forest. The machine gunner was disappointed that
he was not ready to rake the plane as it flew by.
A large farm complex, probably Hosselinshof, loomed up about a
mile away across the open terrain. It was suspected of being infested
by the SS which would eventually mean trouble. Night came and our
artillery opened up to plaster the area for an hour or two with phosphorus
shells. As each shell exploded a giant cascade of brilliant pink sparks
showered the night sky calculated to inflict fire on the farm and burns on
The next morning the fourth of July spectacle was followed by a
push across the plains and a raid on the deserted remains of the farm.
Moving in a southeasterly direction we passed through a small village
and captured two Germans. Leaving the village aboard jeeps which were
awash with GIs we motored through the countryside but finally dismounted
as we approached another village in the night. By midnight we walked
into a small farm village and took over a house for a few hours sleep,
interrupted of course, by the necessity of pulling guard duty at the
door. The number of beds were limited but I learned quickly that there
was a low priority on baby cribs throughout our sweep across Germany,
I had the tactical advantage of being 5'7" which could be adapted to
a crib even though the sides were guarded by vertical iron or brass
rods. Upon tiring of the fetal position, relief could be found by
sticking my boots through the rods although I worried about getting
disengaged in the event of an attack.
The houses were still occupied by German civilians mostly women.
We struck up a working relationship with the women which seemed satis-
factory to all. We provided rations to them in exchange for cooking
some of their local foodstuffs. We had an unending craving for their
fresh eggs provided by chickens who functioned in blissful ignorance
of political matters. One of the good-natured German women held a giant
disc of black home-made bread. I must have eyed it longingly as she
placed it against an equally heroic bosom and cut the loaf in reckless
abandon. The bread seemed to form an unspoken bond between us which
was intolerant of nationalistic barriers.
CUT OFF IN THE LOWENSTEIN HILLS
In the vicinity of Eschelbach we poked along a narrow road in
the open countryside. Progressing towards an obscure destination the
platoon left the road and started across an open field. Another platoon
or two were advancing ahead of us when the subtle whisper of incoming
mortar shells were heard. The shadow of a second before a whisper
ended in a vicious crack ignited our reflexes to seek cover. Several
mortar blasts spewing shrapnel landed among the advance group wounding
one GI in the knee who hobbled off the field hanging to another GI for
support. After we scattered the fire soon ended and we focused our march
towards a group of heavily wooded hills which appeared to be around
1500 feet at the summits. Climbing the hills with full infantry equip-
ment was tiring for the rifle platoons but it soon became a tortuous
affair for the heavy weapons platoon struggling up the steep incline.
Without the aid of their jeeps they had to shoulder cumbersome .30 cal
machine guns and mortars along with cases of bulky ammo,
By afternoon we occupied the crest of one of the wooded hills
among a grove of large but scattered trees. The edge of the crest
pitched off steeply into a more densely wooded area. Pausing on top
of the hill we were told to dig in. Presumably we were waiting for
further orders which would direct us to other objectives in the hills.
We were digging in pairs and as we struggled with the tiny shovels
at the two foot level a Lieutenant casually observed that we had an
excellent field of fire or some similar tactical phrase. As the words
barely escaped his lips a long stream of burp gun fire ripped through
the still mountain air with electrifying suddeness. The Lieutenant
dodged behind a tree. My partner discovered our shallow fox hole and
fell in on his stomach. As a co-owner of the dug out I dropped in on
his back. The precise direction of the fire could not be quickly
determined but it appeared to come from the pitch-off region. All
was quiet following the burst of fire. A few of the infantry further
removed from the precipice made a cautious approach down a slope towards
the dense foliage. As though he had rehearsed the act, a German soon came
out of the brush with his hands overhead. His companions probably had
left him as a rear guard a task that he undoubtedly didn't cherish.
Hoping to justify himself with his distant comrades he got off a
terrifying but innocent string of bullets and then waited to be embraced
by the U.S. Army.
By late afternoon after gradually climbing through the wooded
slopes we approached the summit of a hill. A small trail wandered through
the forest a short distance beneath the crest of the hill. On the trail
above us, unaware of our presence a German soldier approached pulling a
small four-wheeled wooden wagon. He was allowed to come closer and
closer as we lay waiting. Finally a yell advised him to "Hande hoch"
and some nervous trigger finger fired a shot for emphasis. Throwing up
his hands he was taken prisoner and the usual poking, prodding, muttering
and behavior borne of curiosity inflicted the GIs.
The lone shot from the M-1 had the misfortune of stirring up a
hornet's nest. From the dense woods at the summit a sprinkling of
rifle fire broke out. As the Company advanced up the slope the firing
intensified. Not a German was in sight from my position as the platoon
leader exhorted us to move up to the summit. The sputtering of rifles
persisted as a few of the GIs reached the thick underbrush. In the
ensuing fire the Krauts began to recede in the dusk. Pushing through
the thicket we shortly came upon a flat open space cluttered with fallen
dead trees and low underbrush. The approaching darkness brought a halt
to the pursuit and we dug in at the edge of the thicket overlooking
the dismal clutter through which the Krauts had escaped. Alone on
this occasion I peered through the gloom and the sparse screen of
small trees which separated me from the open terrain.
The platoon leader brought over the wagon pulling German to
be guarded during the night. He was a giant but gave the impression
of being a pacified one. I had to have him sit in front of my foxhole
with his back to me. My last K-ration was broken open. It included
a small package of crackers. I offered half of them to my prisoner
who solemnly in strange words made known his gratitude. Our water
supply consisted of one canteen apiece which had been severely diminished
during the warm April climb through the hills.
The long night had begun. I dared not sleep with a prisoner in
my keep as well as the possibility of an attack. The quiet German
forest gave no hint that we were in fact surrounded and cut off on the
small mountain. The cool night air descended among the shadows and
the chill crept into our foxholes. A little after midnight a terrorized
scream pierced the air behind us. There was an urgent sense of the
fear of violence borne in this voice. On the trail of the scream a
grenade exploded. Morning brought word of the episode in the night.
A German detecting a foxhole occupied by a medic had tossed a potato
masher at it. The medic quickly reacting when the grenade arrived
threw it back at the German and killed him.
Without rations and sufficient H20 we prepared to continue the
push through the hills. There was no evidence of Germans blocking
the path in front of us. Hasty explanation of the plan to push out
into the open terrain was given to us by the platoon leader. Someone
collected my prisoner and took him further towards the rear out of the
assault area. We moved the first few steps towards the edge of the
clearing. These were extremely tense moments. Rifles were checked,
positioned at a slightly above horizontal angle and held slightly away
from the body to facilitate fast pointing. Extremely alert with fore-
finger on the trigger or ready to jam the safety forward at the inside
front of the trigger guard we pushed out into the open. In a low
crouch or erect depending upon one's philosophical state of mind, we
emerged from the forest edge. Almost instantaneously we were met with
a blast of rifle fire from the unseen German infantry. Most of us
dashed back to the tree line from which we had made so little progress.
No one was hit with the exception of a GI who had a hole shot in his
helmet. He was pinned down behind a log and intermittent firing made
it dangerous for him to move or expose himself by trying to escape. Had
it not been so pathetic his reactions would have been amusing. Lying
but a few paces from sanctuary his views of the tactical mishap led to
a tirade delivered in an agonizing southern drawl. Each word deliberately
manufactured and reluctantly liberated scathed the Germans for messing
up his helmet and he couldn't rightfully fight without decent headgear.
The firing lulled and he made a rolling scramble back to our lines and
got away clean.
The morning went by and no further course of action was taken,
One of the GIs on the heels of the Krauts as they were chased out of
the woods the day before was in a state of minor excitement. He had
hoped to retrieve a pistol which had been dropped by a fleeing German
officer but our foray into the clearing had been quickly terminated.
He was agitated by the thoughts of the prize and decided to go after
it. Crawling along on his stomach he moved out into No Man's Land
among the logs and other debris. He was gone but a few minutes before
returning with a relieved expression and a Waltham automatic.
Afternoon approached and we were now in a sticky situation without
rations or water while trapped in an inaccessible area. We stood in our
foxholes looking out at the front or at least a few of us were looking.
Suddenly, without warning, four or five soldiers appeared about 100
yards away headed towards my squad's sector in the woods. The gray-
green uniforms were unmistakable and the Krauts carried weapons. Many
of the German soldiers were captured wearing only the billed woolen
caps as though they had deliberately abandoned their helmets. But a
black steel helmet danced in the light on the leader's head which
instantly impressed me that this was to be no social call. It was un-
believable that they were marching deliberately up to our lines. They
must not have realized exactly where we were positioned.
I glanced towards the next foxhole at a GI who was doing idle
nothings. Quietly getting his attention I pointed to the incoming
enemy. The squad gradually was alerted and we watched increduously
as they continued to move steadily towards an unknown objective. A
few hasty whispers and hand signals were exchangedwhich I interpreted
as a decision to let them walk right up to us. This action assumed
that we would have the choice of offering them immediate surrender
or instant death. Or the signals may have intended that they be
allowed to come close enough so that no one would miss. An unexpected
event occurred which prevented the exact intent of the squad from being
We waited tensely as black helmet came on and a gray shadowed
featureless face became visible. Unknown to us another German combat
patrol had stumbled into our lines several hundred yards away and
startled a preoccupied machine gunner. Quickly recovering from his
lethargy he drew a .45 cal automatic and shot a German Colonel. This
single shot unexpectedly triggered the war in our sector and one or
more of the Germans fell among the obstacles in front of us. Another
German chose to run parallel to our lines in an attempt to escape in
a nearby woods. As though in mock reflex I threw up my rifle and
started tracking the German. As the sights filled with gray-green
my mind was cluttered with indecision. The small trees scattered at
the edge of our lines finally interfered but there was a greater obstacle
which I could not overcome in those brief seconds of monitoring life
The quiet afternoon wore on. Evening was approaching when we
heard a faint cry from the debris in front. Almost concealed, a gray-
green clad figure lay among the clutter of dead sticks and tangled
weeds. As small surges of strength possessed him he slowly raised his
arm in weak motions of distress. We dared not venture beyond our
cover as the clearing still held promise of sudden death.
Some of the GIs shouted, "Komen sie hier" and our prisoner was
asked to call to him. The wounded German crawled agonizingly towards
our position and with a great effort staggered to his feet. Each
feeble step forward jeopardized his balance as he staggered the 50
yards to our lines. The weeping moans and drunken gait of this ghastly
blood soaked human burned into my senses. The cast off relic from an
earthly hell was helped the final few yards by his comrade, who ventured
out at no small risk into the clearing. It was incredible that the
German lying a few feet from me babbling in agony was alive. Rips
and tears riddled his blood-clotted clothes and gaping purple tinged
wounds leered their gruesome bloody.smiles. The combat medic came
to see him. There was little he could do except perhaps bandage and
give the German morphine. He was moved further into the forest and I
never learned whether he lived or died.
From the direction of the hill slope behind us a single shot
rang out making a hollow echo in the hills. It seemed to be of no
real significance at the moment. An hour or two later several GIs
weaved their way through the woods carrying a stretcher bearing the
Company Commander. Our Captain had gone back down the mountain in
search of water. At some point in the journey he was shot through
the hips by a sniper and was in serious condition.
Eventually a canteen of debris laden water was brought around.
Transferring a portion of it into my canteen, I put a Halazone tablet
into it and drank. At least we had water but we had been without rations
since the previous night. As dusk faded into night we dined on pessimism
By intuition or radio communications by our walkie-talkie,
battalion headquarters had become aware of our extremely precarious
position. Two GIs from our Company attempted to thread their way
back to battalion headquarters through the dark in the hills but found
that we were surrounded. Battalion organized a small convoy consisting
of an armored vehicle, either a tank or half track, a jeep and an
ambulance. Creeping up the mountain trail towards our position they
were soon captured. Subsequently rumor had it that they were taking
bets back at battalion as to whether we could break out or not.
The night passed slowly. I imagined or actually heard a cuckoo
bird from afar through the deathly quiet in the forest. I could stay
awake no longer and slept with a blanket wrapped around me to keep out
the cold and loose dirt from trickling down my neck. I awoke from a
dream incompatible with lost battalions to find that I was still alive
but in dread of morning. Morning brought the word that the Captain
had died during the night. We had but one choice which was to attempt
another break out. Needless to say we were not bothered with preparing
breakfast but readied ourselves to jump off again. A forest surrounded
the large clearing towards which we had devoted our attention for the
past 36 hours. Rather than attack through the clearing again the decision
was made to stay in the forest. We pulled out of our dense thicket and
turned at right angles to enter a tall evergreen forest with little
underbrush. A few shafts of light entered the forest giving it the
atmosphere of a gloomy cathedral. Looking ahead through the haze of
early morning I saw a German putting on his pack and begin trotting
away among the trees. Someone fired a shot but to no avail other than to
alert the rest of the German Army that we were on the move.
The last attempt to escape from the Lowenstein Hills was thankfully
unopposed. The Germans had pulled out leaving a small wooden-wheeled
artillery piece concealed in the underbrush. For several hours we
pushed through a variety of thickets and forests finally arriving at a
slope which overlooked a village in the valley. Unexpectedly a supply
of rations had been brought up the mountain at the point we intended to
descend. The cans of cold C-Rations were quickly distributed. The
beef stew was opened frantically and lay exposed in all its varigated
beauty. Gelatinous gravy coated pale brown chunks of potatoes, faded
carrots, other organic detritus and remnants of a once proud cut of stew
meat. It was consumed in an orgy of glutinous passion and for a brief
moment I was grateful to the U.S. Army.
Continuing down the mountain slopes we stopped at the edge of the
village of Heuholz beside an armored division. Whether the armor was,
responsible for the Germans pulling out of the mountain to avoid being
trapped may never be known. Lounging around their mud besmirched iron
monsters the tankers described sorties to the east in which they had
been strafed by German jets on one occasion.
The village had a stream running through it. We washed and
cavorted in the oasis as though we had stumbled upon it in a desert.
I drank the water against my better judgement but microbes seemed remote
enemies in the Spring of 1945.
THE LAST KILOMETERS
Nightfall found us parcelled out among some houses and other
odd structures. In sheer exhaustion I fell asleep on the floor of
a bare room. Around midnight, despite intense fatigue from the siege
on the mountain top, we were ordered to prepare to move out. In a
bit of a trance I climbed aboard an open truck and was borne off into
the night. Morning light found the platoon replenished with .30 cal
ammo and grenades shuffling along a small road. There was an occasional
house among the open fields and forests bordering the road. The Lieu-
tenant at the head of the column held up his hand signaling us to stop.
Using binoculars he peered into a field at two or three soldiers lying
100 yards away. They didn't move. They couldn't move. "They're GIs,"
We moved on and marched through most of the day until Neunkirchen
came into view a mile away across a bare field. According to rumor a
large number of Germans held the village. We dug in for the night with
the expectation of pushing off at 0300 to arrive at first light and
rout the Germans.
In the dim morning light spread out in combat formation we
approached the village across the open field. This always seemed to
be an invitation to disaster in itself but the village was deserted.
Our advance continued as two elongated files of infantrymen on each
shoulder of a narrow road. Our ears were constantly turned in
expectation of menacing sounds. A small increase in the noise caused
by the wind was sufficient to stimulate a fast crouch in expectation