Books – Feature Stories
Stanley Frank's article in the November ninth issue of the Saturday Evening Post “THE GLORIOUS COLLAPSE OF THE 106TH” gave the Seventh Armored Division Association apoplexy. They flooded the Post with diatribes on the subject. The title was a peculiar one in that it wasn't Stanley Frank's selection. He favored the title “THE 106TH NEITHER WON NOR LOST THE WAR”. It is certainly true that the Seventh Armored Division had a tremendous part in St. Vith. They were mentioned twice in the article. But there is no reason to believe that they should be played up any more than they were. Army and Corps Artillery played a large part in St. Vith defense but they weren't even mentioned. It was simply the story of the 106th and no other unit. In the February 15th issue of the Saturday Evening Post in the “Letters to the Editor”, was a letter from the Seventh Armored Division Association which wasn't quite so choleric. It's reprinted below:
“DEFENSE OF ST. VITH: The members of the association have read with great interest ”THE GLORIOUS COLLAPSE OF THE 106TH", by Stanley Frank (Nov. 9) . . . We applaud Mr. Frank's remarks (about) the valor of the 106th Division, but we feel that any reference to the defense of St. Vith which omits all mention of the Seventh Armored Division is an injustice to its 1,165 members . . . who were killed, wounded or otherwise lost (at) this Belgian road center during the Battle of the Bulge. . . December 16, 1944 — the day on which Rundstedt launched his offensive through the Ardennes region — found the 7th Armored in 9th Army Reserve (near) Rimberg, Germany. Late that day urgent orders arrived . . . to speed some seventy miles southward to the assistance of the 106th Division, then in the St. Vith area and undergoing attack. . . . The move was complicated by collisions with German advance guards. Nevertheless, leading elements of the 7th Armored arrived at St. Vith during the early afternoon of December seventeenth.
The situation at St. Vith had become extremely critical. Von Rundstedt's forces, had engulfed the 422d and 423d Regimental Combat teams of the 106th. They were still fighting, but surrounded and no longer able to influence the situation. The arrival of the 7th Armored enabled a defensive position to be built up east of St. Vith in time to throw back early the next morning the first of many attacks. . . . Later that day — December eighteenth the 7th assumed responsibility for the defense of the town. . . . Not many hours later, it had assumed responsibility for the defense of the major portion of the general area. . . . The defense of the St. Vith area was concluded on December Twenty‑third when Field Marshal Montgomery ordered the withdrawal of the troops. . . . The importance of this epic stand . . . is evidenced by the message that General Eisenhower sent to Maj. Gen. Robert W. Hasbrouck, commander of the 7th Armored: “The magnificent job that you are doing is having a great beneficial effect on our whole situation. I am personally grateful to you and wish you would let all of your people know that if they continue to carry out their mission with the splendid spirit they have so far shown, they will have deserved well of their country.” . . . We of the 7th Armored . . . received invaluable assistance (at St. Vith) from other brave units, the 168th Combat Engineer Battalion, 275th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 965th Field Artillery Battalion, 112th Regimental Combat Team (28th Division) as well as . . . the 424th Regimental Combat Team (106th Division) and Combat Command B, 9th Armored Division. (Signed) Joseph A. Reddy, Jr., Gen. Mgr., 7th Armored Div. Ass'n, Libertyville, Illinois.
My Lost Division
By John Hillard Dunn
(editors note ..This story, a reprint from Yank Magazine (1946) appeared in the 1953 edition of the 106th Infantry Division Association's “THE LION'S TALE.” An edition devoted to reviewing CUB stories going back to 1945... CUB Review editor 1991)
Two years ago the new, green troops moved in. The Nazis struck them suddenly. This is the untold story of the 106th and what happened to it.
As I remember it, I was trying to sleep in the ruins of a German farmhouse. It was December, cold and snowing. Squirming about in my sleeping bag, I felt reassured by the three‑foot thickness of the wall against which I rested my shivering spine. Sometime in the night, buzz bombs began their cement‑mixer noise overhead. I thought that there were more than there had been the night before and I felt sorry for the quartermaster corps back in Antwerp which I imagined to be on the receiving end. Later I learned the bombs were dropping on our division headquarters in St. Vith, Belgium, a matter of eighteen miles to our rear.
Those buzz bombs were the heralds of a German offensive ‑ the last great Nazi push. For this was the night of December 15, 1944, and Von Runstedt's historic “Bulge” was about to begin.
Our division ‑ the 106th ‑ was newly‑arrived in the line. We had relieved the Second Division on December 12, moving into what, a Second Division veteran told me with a perfectly straight face, was a “rest area.” Actually, it was a salient; a dagger plunged into the West Wall along the Belgium‑Germany frontier near the Luxembourg corner.
We were an odds‑and‑ends division green as the pine forests that surrounded us; somebody in our 81‑MM mortar platoon wanted to know, “Why the hell is it thundering in December?” Our laughter was hollow when somebody informed him that those were big guns, and German guns at that.
I never did any fighting with my mortar squad; perhaps it was just as well, as I had never even seen a mortar fired before I went into combat. Not that I was unusual. Half of our platoon hadn't, including at least two corporals whose form 20's said they were gunners.
The September afternoon at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, when I joined Company H of the 423rd Regiment, I was instructed to report to my squad leader. I walked up to him in the barracks and said: “Private Dunn reporting.” And with my face growing red, I added, “I think I ought to tell you, Sergeant, that I don't know a damned thing about an 81‑MM mortar.”
He turned to me and replied, “Don't worry, Mac, You ain't got a thing on me. I don't either. I been a mess sergeant in Fort Benning for ten years.”
Shortly after the 106th began relieving the Second in the Bulge, our regiment found that it needed combat MP's. My company commander sent me to regiment as one of them. This was two days before the Germans opened up.
My first duty as a combat MP convinced me that this was no goldbrick job. I had a chance to scan the detailed maps and for the first time got an idea of our salient. Lafe, a Southern lad, took a long look and said: “Damned if we ain't got Germans on both sides of us.”
That remark was underlined for me when I was assigned to traffic duty at a road intersection. This was December 13. The 2nd Division man who had been there greeted me: “Welcome to our Purple Heart Corner.” He then explained briefly: “The Heinie artillery has this intersection zeroed in. It ain't under direct observation but they drop 'em in here every once in awhile.”
He wasn't kidding. For two days I ducked artillery shells at the intersection. Then came the night of December 15 and the farmhouse with the thick walls. The increase in buzz bombs was not the only significant omen; if we had been veterans, we might have realized that Jerry was getting very bold, that he had too many patrols running around. Already by that afternoon he was playing all kinds of hell with our communications. By nightfall, even at regiment we could sense his presence.
I was shaken out of my sack and the shelter of thick walls around midnight to relieve Outpost No. 8. The man remarked: “Somebody's getting trigger‑happy around here.”
Someone was. A bullet whistled through the dark night over the lonely shed in which I took my post. I could have sworn it came from Outpost No. 7. So I asked into our open circuit phone: “No. 7, what the hell are you shooting at?”
“I ain't shooting at nuttin. It must be No. 6 on my left.”
“Blow it out your......” No. 6 barked.
“It's probably headquarters company huntin' pigs,” No. 9 butted in.
The real explanation came later from a captured German: “We were told that we had a green American division,” he said. “We were sent in to disrupt communications and to confuse. So we fired at buildings or anything we could spot in the dark.”
The cold and weird night, punctuated by small arms fire, wore on. Came the dawn of Saturday the 16th, and from my post I could hear a deep thunder. But the rain that followed was steel.
Yet nobody realized on the morning of the 16th that the Germans had begun a monster offensive. Not that we didn't try to guess at what they were doing. In spite of the initial terror, the men around me argued as strongly about German tactics as they had recently debated the American League pennant race. We thought that Fritz was merely taking advantage of our inexperience to run a sortie and in a few hours would return to his comfortable pillboxes and dugouts that overlooked ours from the main ridge of the Schnee Eifel.
But then they told us we couldn't move our fifty prisoners back to division, and we wondered why.
The vortex of a tornado is a vacuum. And that is where we were ‑ in the center of a storm of armor and artillery roaring into the Ardennes. Already we were bypassed by the onrushing German tanks, and I for one certainly didn't know it, nor would I have believed it had anyone told me.
Towards evening, wounded were reaching our area. I had a chance to talk to a man from Cannon Company. His was the story of a forlorn, desperate little action in the German town of Bleialf, southwest of regiment headquarters and to the rear of our right flank.
“So you wanta know what the hell Cannon Company is doing ‑ fighting in Bleialf” he said as he rubbed the bandage on his right leg. “The god‑damned Heinie infantry takes Bleialf in a surprise move. Our rifle companies are too damned busy to do anything about it. Besides, Cannon's run out of ammunition for the guns by now anyway.”
He stopped to light a cigarette.
“Understand, I ain't beefin', but hell, village fighting with carbines and damned few grenades ain't no picnic. What the hell, though, somebody's got to try to take the damned town back. Ain't no other way of getting to division at St. Vith.”
That explained, I realized, why division headquarters couldn't take our prisoners. We were cut off.
“We take her back,” the GI went on. “Don't ask me how. They don't let us keep it long. They come back with artillery fire, and then mortars and then infantry. There's Cannon guys left back there but they ain't movin'.”
He lit another cigarette from his butt. “That's how it is, Mac. But where the hell do we go from here?”
I wondered too. As the white of the snowy hillsides turned to a dirty grey in the evening twilight and then into formless darkness, I ate my last American meal for four months. My K‑ration had Camels in it.
That night the crucial situation was reflected in our prisoners. Cowed and obedient for two days, they were getting cocky and talkative. Huddled together in a cold barn, they would erupt into conversation against orders. And it wasn't until Angie fired a burst from his grease gun between the legs of a particularly obnoxious Nordic blond that they shut up.
There was a strange quiet Sunday morning the 17th. No rolling thunder of a dawn barrage. A false and temporary optimism.... from the west we heard planes.
A couple of former Air Force men were overjoyed, and not above rubbing it in that the planes were coming to our rescue. Then we saw that the P‑47's were dumping their loads a long way to our rear. Now we knew that somewhere back there the German spearhead was grinding along. But the P‑47's gave us hope that we might be able to break through and reach whatever American forces lay to the west.
Clouds gathered swiftly, and a steady, soaking rain was falling by noon, turning knee‑deep snow into ankle‑deep mud. Those former Air Force smart alecks didn't have to tell us that ceiling was zero and that the P‑47 fliers whose luck hadn't run out were back swigging coffee some place in France.
Rumors were thicker than rain clouds that afternoon, and as we wallowed about in mud, moving aimlessly from one place to another, we heard that an armored division was battering its way through to us, and that we could expect to see Georgie Patton racing around the corner any minute.
By evening the magnitude of the German effort was more apparent. Gis with “rear echelon” patches on their shoulders ‑ and a hunted look in their eyes ‑ begin showing up and offering us the clothes off their backs if we would trade an M‑1 for a .45 caliber pistol.
Sunday night is still a nightmare. We holed up in a pine woods, putting our still present prisoners in a three‑sided wooden stockade. Two men were assigned to guard them in four‑hour reliefs. Another newly‑made MP and I had a relief to midnight. As we stood there in the drenching rain, he talked almost hysterically of his wife and four children. He's cracking, I thought. Now and then a prisoner wisecracked in German.
It was necessary for me to leave the stockade to check on our relief. As I returned to the stockade, I could hear muttering and moaning in the darkness. I thought one of the Heinies was sick. But when I drew up to the tall pine that I had used to mark our position, I realized that the moans were from my companion.
He was on his knees in the snow. His hands were raised and he was crying and praying in a loud, piercing wail. What he had done with his weapon, I don't know. The Heinie prisoners were stirring and jabbering. I had to do it. I swung with my fist as hard as I could on my kneeling buddy.
Monday the 18th a magic word spread through our bewildered, but still hopeful ranks ‑ Schönberg. This is a tiny town on the Belgian border. We heard that our 424th ‑ the regiment in reserve ‑ was still holding Schönberg and that there was an escape path from it to the main American forces. So Monday night we sloshed around in a cold rain. Towards dawn we were concentrated on a twisting mountain road that led to Schönberg. But here occurred one of those freaks of battle. Somehow, “Recon” had overlooked a demolished bridge across a narrow mountain run ‑ hardly more than a ditch but deep enough and full enough to stop even a jeep. Our escape to Schönberg was off.
At daybreak of Tuesday the 19th, the 423rd's vehicles were lined up, bumper to bumper alone this narrow road. I lay on the side of the ridge, and in the open, A few of us were still guarding the German prisoners. There was a sharp, brisk crack. And I remember asking no one in particular. “Do they know what they're shooting at?” An ex‑ artillery man just grunted. But when the second report split the air, his face turned a light shade of chartreuse and he yelped, “Them ain't 105's, Mac.” He scrambled to his feet and dashed into a clump of pine saplings. I lay still, quite unable to believe that the third crack was from an 88 and that tree tops were exploding in the woods across the ravine.
I followed the Heinie prisoners into a fire ditch instead of chasing my ex‑artillery friend into the pines.
By this time, the earth was shaking and the air screaming. The shells came on and on. We were fish in a wide‑open barrel, After a lifetime somebody started shaking me by the shoulder. He started laughing hysterically and asked me in a strangely high voice, “You jerk, can't you hear how quiet it is? Get up. We've surrendered: ”Down at the bottom of the draw, I came acrose a truck driver, shoving a tracer bullet into his M‑1 chamber and backing off to the rear of his truck. Just as he took a bead on the gasoline tank, a young officer, his face drained to a light yellow, barked: “Stop that, you god‑damned fool. You want to get us killed?”
The truck driver and I both gulped and said nothing. But the driver did not lower his M‑1.
The officer swung his own carbine.
“Fire into that tank and I'll shoot you,” he said nervously.
The truck driver lowered his M‑1.
The officer held his carbine to his shoulder, and went on, nervously trying to restrain the shrillness of his voice, “The Heinies can see us. And if we start blowing up this equipment, they'll open up on us again, sure as hell.”
The driver dropped the M‑1. His face was white and his hands fumbled for a cigarette. He tried to spit at the officer's feet, but his mouth was too dry.
This wasn't typical of all our officers; a lot of them died with empty 45's.
Slowly we assembled. Our German prisoners now took over. One of them offered to lead us to the German headquarters. And we took off up the other side of the draw. I fell into step with a Staff Sergeant. He told me that he had been captured Friday night, had escaped and been recaptured Sunday night, only to make his second escape. “It's a wonder the Heinies don't shoot me, I'm such a nuisance,” he said and grinned.
The words had hardly left his lips when I heard the crack of an 88. Up ahead, as though in slow motion, men tumbled to the ground and there was a horrible scream. Till the day I die, I shall shiver when I remember that I took another step before diving for a rut. I'll never know if this firing was an accident ‑ certainly they didn't annihilate us ‑ but not so long ago a German colonel was executed for the massacre of American prisoners at the same time and only a few miles away at the Belgian town of Malmedy.
It was not until the next day that we knew that our division, as a fighting unit, had been wiped out. All Tuesday night prisoners from the 422nd and the 423rd streamed into the village of Bleialf until it seemed there were thousands there. Subsequently Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson broke all precedent by announcing in January that the 106th Division had suffered 8,663 casualties between December 16th and 21st.
We expected our division General to join us in the Bleialf pig pen any minute. He didn't, but two of his regimental commanders, and a lot of other brass did.
Early in the morning of Wednesday the 20th, we were started on a march to Gerolstein. Along the way I met the buddy I had slugged. He didn't say anything, but he gave me half of his D‑bar and then moved on up the column.
The Heinies told us that it would take only a few hours. It took eighteen hours and the distance covered was 42 kilometers. Because they had no place to confine us at Gerolstein, the Heinies forced us to stand in the cold mud of the road all night. Late Thursday afternoon December 21, we were finally fed, a bag of hard crackers and cheese; eight men to a twelve‑ounce can of what smelled like limburger and tasted as if it had been made in a sewer.
Thursday evening, we were herded into “40 et 8" cars ‑ sixty men to a car. The most recent passengers had been horses and nobody had cleaned out after them.
We received no more food nor water for two days ‑ until our train laid over in Limburg. We also had something else that night, Saturday the 23rd ‑ a visit from the RAF. sweating out a night bombing locked up in a box car is no way to enjoy the holiday season, I assure you. The RAF did enough damage to the Limburg railroad yards to hold up our train for another 24 hours, but the bombs missed the train. Eight GI's were killed and twenty wounded in another car because they didn't believe a warning that the Heinie machine guns would open up if they tried to break out during the bombing.
Sunday night was Christmas Eve and we waited ‑ not for Santa Claus, but for the RAF. Limburg wasn't on the schedule, though, and as the weary hours wore on, we took to singing all the Christmas carols and hymns we could remember.
The next morning we were on our way again and after a few hours reached Bad Orb, Germany, where 1,800 of us from the 106th and 1,400 from the 28th Division were to stay 106 days before our liberation by the Seventh Army in April.
As we marched into Stalag IX‑B on a bright, clear Christmas afternoon, somebody recalled the common nickname of the 106th ‑ the Hungry and Sick. And a soft‑voiced Southerner, who was given to leading the hymns and to chewing the tobacco from our soggy butts, said with a disarming solemnity: “Well, I reckon we can always say the Hungry and Sick was the first American division to cross the Rhine.”
106th Division Operations From German Point of View
Extracts from a book ‑ “The Fatal Decisions,” published by William Sloan Associates, New York 1956.
Part 6 ‑ The Ardennes by General Hasso Von Manteuffel, Commanding Fifth Panzer Army. (Note The right flank of this army attacked the 106th Division).
Pages 270‑271 The Cutting Off of the Schnee Eifel and the Battle of St. Vith.
“The left wing of the LXVIth Army Corps was noticeably slower in its advance into the Eifel. This endangered our plan for rapidly sealing off the Schnee‑Eifel. This, however, was the essential preliminary to the next stage of our advance which was to be through Schönberg to St. Vith. St. Vith, the center of a considerable road work, was as important a point on this sector as was Bastogne on the Army's left flank.
“The events of the day (16 Dec) in the area of the Army's right hand corps was disappointing. The corps failed to keep up with the time schedule I had laid down for its advance. I hoped the time lost could be made up by continuation of the attack after dark. I therefore spent the night of December 16/17 with the staff of the 18th People's Grenadier Division, which held the key to the operations on this part of the front. Thanks to the energy of the division commander, this division succeeded in capturing Schönberg on the morning of the 17th. This success seemed to show that the corps could now make up the time lost: the events of the day however, did not realize this hope.
“Despite and excellent performance on the part of the troops and the officers of all ranks, the infantry corps was incapable of carrying out the attack with the necessary violence and within the time limit that would insure cooperation with the Army's two panzer corps. Nor could it quickly capture the vital road junction of St. Vith, which was a pivot in the enemy's defensive position, and which it was essential that we seize for the sake of the operations by the left wing of the Sixth Panzer Army.
“The enemy forces threatened with encirclement in the Schnee Eifel attacked westward, straight across the advance of the corps' left hand battle group. This held the Corps up and it failed to capture St. Vith on the 17th.” submitted by Gen. McMahon
St. Vith Reviewed
Sending the enclosed for use in the next CUB. This was given to me attached to a book regarding St. Vith, autographed by General Bruce Clarke of the 7th Armored. As this was written in August, 1964, it has not previously appeared in any book, hence an exclusive for us.
Appraisal Of The U. S. Army During The Battle Of The Ardennes 1944‑45
Even the former enemy highly appreciates the valor of U. S. Army troops committed at Bastogne and at St. Vith in eastern Belgium during the Ardennes Offensive of 1944‑45. From the German point of view, and in my own opinion, these engagements were conducted in a manner equal to the best performances of the U. S. armed forces in theaters of operations other than the European. The devotion of the American soldiers and their courageous defense of St. Vith introduced the final phase of the defeat of the German Army in western Europe; the subsequent American counteroffensive brought about the ultimate defeat of these German forces in the West. Not only the weapons played the decisive role here, but also the rank‑and‑file, the commanders, the non‑commissioned officers and the soldiers of all branches with their unshakable trust in their military leaders to whom they felt close and who, in turn, had a feeling of true camaraderie for their troops. Once again proof was brought that the war of weapons plays a subordinate, supporting role, and that the center of gravity lies in other spheres, namely those of politics, economics and psychology. Moral factors are all‑decisive, for battles are won in the hearts of men‑St. Vith being a striking example! Therefore, the dramatic weeks of December 1944 occupy an important role when the history of the U. S. Army in World War II is being written.
The courage of the men and the command of the troops‑especially of Combat Command B of the 7th Armored Division in action around St. Vith was, from the German viewpoint, of the highest order.
‑Hasso Von Manteuffel Notes:
General Von Manteuffel has agreed at several joint press conferences that for the German Counter‑offensive of December 1944 to be successful at least three things had to happen:
a. The German attack had to be a surprise
b. The weather to be such as to prevent strikes by allied aircraft on the German columns coming through the Ardennes.
c. The progress of the German main effort through and beyond St. Vith must be rapid and not delayed.
Requirements a. and b. were met. Requirement c. was not met because of the defensive and delaying action of the 7th Armored Division and attached troops in the St. Vith area from 17 December to 23 December 1944.
His time table called for the capture of St. Vith by 1800 hours on 17 December. He did not capture it until the night of the 21st of December and did not control the St. Vith area until 23rd December when Combat C. “B” withdrew on order.
On 22 September 1964, at a press conference in Watertown, New York, General Von Manteuffel stated, “On the evening of 24 December 1944 I recommended to Hitler's Adjutant that the German Army give up the attack and returned to the West Wall.” He stated that the reason for this recommendation was due to the time lost by his 5th Panzer Army in the St. Vith area. Hitler did not accept Von Manteuffel's recommendation.
Golden Lions in Battle of the Ardennes
In the Christmas issue of the CUB Doug Coffey, COGL, who has contributed so much of his time and talents as Memorial chairman, supplied an article‑"Appraisal of the U. S. Army During the Battle of the Ardennes, 1944‑ 45."
The appraisal was made by General Hasso Von Manteuffel, commanding the German Fifth Panzer Army which attacked the 106th Division on 16 December 1944. General Manteuffel contributed a study on The Ardennes in a book titled “Fatal Decisions” published in 1956 by William Sloan Associates. Here are some extracts pertaining to the attack of his army on the front of the 106th Division:
“The left wing of the LXVIth Army Corps was noticeably slower in its advance into the Eifel. This endangered our plans for rapidly sealing off the Schnee‑Eifel.” . . . “This, however, was the essential preliminary to the next stage of our advance, which was to be through Schönberg to St. Vith. This city, the center of a considerable road network, was as important a point on this sector as was Bastogne on the army's left flank.” . . .
“I spent the night of December 16/17 with the staff of the 18th People's Grenadier Division which held the key to the operations on this part of the front. Thanks to the energy of the divisional commander, this division succeeded in capturing Schönberg on the morning of the 17th . . .”. “It could not quickly capture the vital road junction of St. Vith, which was a pivot in the enemy's defensive position, and which it was essential that we seize for the sake of operations of the Sixth SS Panzer Army.” The enemy forces threatened with encirclement in the Schnee‑Eifel attacked westwards, straight across the line of advance of the corps' left‑hand Battle Group. THIS HELD THE CORPS UP AND IT FAILED TO CAPTURE ST. VITH ON THE 17th." (Caps are mine.... edit 1965)
General Von Manteuffel is referring to the fighting that day of the 423rd Infantry and its attached Co. B, 81st Engr. Bn. and Troop B, 18th Cavalry Squadron. This is covered in the Division History “Lion in the Way” under the heading, “The Second Red Day ‑ 423rd Infantry.”
Book List (stories of 106th and Bulge)
This is not to be considered a “Book Review,” just a listing of known books. Other books written since this issue was published were added by the CUB Review editor, 1991.
The Last 100 Days ‑ John Toland
Bantam Books, New York
Battle of the Bulge ‑ Robert Merriman
Ballantine Books, New York
Battle for the Rhine
R.H. Thompson (British oriented)
Ballantine Books, New York
Decision at St. Vith ‑ Charles Whiting
Ballantine Books, New York
The End of the War ‑ Charles Whiting
Ballantine Books, New York
BATTLE ‑ The Story of the Bulge ‑ John Toland
A Signet Book published by the New American Library of World Literature, New York
Battle of the Bulge ‑ John Toland
Random House, New York
Patton ‑ Ladislas Farage
Dell Publishing, New York
The Bitter Woods ‑ John Eisenhower
Ace Publishing Corp, New York
A Time for Trumpets
The untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge
Charles B. MacDonald
William Morrow, New York
St. Vith, Lion in the Way
The 106th Infantry in World War II known as our Division History written by Colonel R. Ernest Dupuy
Reprinted by the Battery Press, Nashville, Tenn.
The Ardennes ‑ Battle of the Bulge
one of a series of four U.S. Army in World War II 744 pages, maps, photos, well written U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C. 20402
A short history of each combat unit WW II
Zenger Publishing Co., Washington D.C. 20015
Scholars in the Foxholes ‑ Louis Keefer
The U.S. Army Specialized Training Program in WWII.
McFarland & Company
The Silent Snow ‑ Brig Gen Oliver Patton (Ret.)
ormer member 423/F
A novel, paperback published by Signet
Before the Veterans Die (excellent poems)
Dale Carver, 424 Hq A&P Platoon Leader
742 Druid Circle, Baton Rouge, LA 70808
Many of Dale's poems have appeared in The CUB since 1988.
The Lion's Share ‑ a novel by Donald J. Young 422/I
Avranches Press, Aptos, CA 95003
Fiction ‑ Young for whatever reason ‑ uses a fictitious Division, the 506th Infantry, to tell the story of the Bulge and the experiences of 9,000 prisoners, related from his first‑hand personal viewpoint.
Dan Bied 422/A
121 Holiday Terrace, West Burlington, IA 52655
Dan also has an un‑published manuscript “Hell on Earth”<R>A “self‑publisher” he contributes currently to The CUB
The Ardennes (from TRIO)
by Dan Bied Jan‑Feb‑Mar 1978
(Editors note ‑ Dan was a member of “A” Company, 422d Infantry Regiment. An Association member, he lives in West Burlington, Iowa. This story “The Ardennes” is one of three stories in Dan's self‑Published book, “TRIO.” Like other stories, I could have placed this in “Unit History” or “Individual History.” — a great story ... CUB Review editor.)
Up Front Again
During my ups, downs and lateral moves since 1944, memories of the Battle of the Bulge ‑ in which I played an unnoticed role ‑ have consumed an inordinate share of my thoughts.
At times, when my preoccupations annoy friends or puzzle my wife, I am thinking back involuntarily about some event along Germany's Schnee Eifel ... the demoralizing, brutal forced march through the Ardennes to the foul‑smelling boxcars at Limburg ... the way my feet turned black and blue from a combination of dirt and frozen flesh ... diving into ditches to save my skin ... the fear of impending death when US bombs fell on us in Koblenz ... the hunger pangs and dizziness after days on end without food ... and feverishly saying my prayers.
While my experience was no cakewalk it was an assortment of minimal lumps compared with what happened to the GI's who suffered in a permanent, or total, way. Jim Davis, a 37‑year‑old fellow POW from Kentucky, lost his toes ‑ perhaps his feet later on ‑ to the snow and ice encountered in our dugouts up front in the Siegfried Line. A medic from Brooklyn ‑ everybody called him Nose ‑ was blown to bits by a point‑blank shot from an 88. My buddy from Northern Michigan's mining tundra, Joe Zematis, was shot to death in a stalag when, in typical fashion, he lipped off to a Nazi guard.
To remember the Battle of the Bulge many times daily for 33 years has not been a conscious effort to stimulate self‑pity ... certainly not a pretense to pose as a battlefield hero, which I was not.
It was and is a proud feeling, though, to have served ‑ after volunteering for rifle company duty ‑ with a bunch of farmers, teachers, salesmen, mechanics and other “citizen soldiers” who became combat infantrymen under fire. The men of the 106th Infantry Division including my outfit, Company A of the 422nd Regiment ‑ did more than 99% of their countrymen, in deeds not words, to maintain freedom for generations unborn.
By recalling the Bulge, and the Golden Lion outfit's pivotal role in it, I am actually saying impromptu prayers to God for survival ... mine and the USA'S. There were dozens of times when, just by being there when the chips were down, I could have cashed mine in ... or lost an arm, a leg or my eyesight. Thanks to heroic GI's such as Golden Lion mortarman Harry Arvanis, whom I did not meet until 1977, the Free World's cause didn't go down the tube.
I always knew I would go back to the Ardennes, out of simple curiosity embroidered with nostalgia, to poke around a few days ‑ no longer than that ‑ in the once angry forest labeled so correctly by Ike's son, John S. D. Eisenhower, as “The Bitter Woods.” In that cruel winter of 194445 few of us knew, or cared, where the borders between Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany began and stopped ... it was No Man's Land.
Finally, Millie and I made the trip. By coincidence, the afternoon Icelandic's DC‑8 landed at the Luxembourg‑Findel Airport was 24 April 1977 ... 32 years to the day after my liberation along the Elbe River in what is now Eastern Germany.
Gazing down on the green, brown and tan farmlands near Luxembourg City it was obvious that at least one thing hadn't changed: it was still impossible to tell where the war‑scarred borders began and stopped. It was like trying to pinpoint Iowa, Wisconsin or Illinois while flying over Prairie du Chien. But from above 500‑year‑old Luxembourg City, the American Military Cemetery holding the bodies of General George S. Patton and more than 5,000 other war heroes loomed as an inspiring reminder of the price paid for every square meter of the crazy‑quilt European turf.
We had stopped at Iceland and flew over the Outer Hebrides and Scotland enroute to Luxembourg. So we were in a cosmopolitan mood as we brushed elbows with Europeans, Africans and Asiatics in the passport and customs lines. In a few minutes we had our rented car, a tan Opel Ascona, and drove downtown to the Alfa Hotel which, incidentally, served as General Omar N. Bradley's overnight “command post” on 15 December 1944.
The older portion of Luxembourg City, with narrow streets running at bizarre angles, confused us no end. But we found the hotel at Place de Gare in a half‑hour or so. Our first impressions, oddly enough, included a dozen or so well‑dressed women drinking Henri Funck beer in the Grand Hotel tap room across from the aged, greenroofed railroad depot . . . and the pigeons which were thick enough, it seemed, to flap their wings in unison and carry the towering terminal away.
That night, I studied several maps ‑ ala General Bradley ‑ for the next morning's drive to Bastogne over a new (to me) multi‑laned highway General Patton's Third Army would have loved. It was a dark, chilly day complete with a depressing drizzle as we headed toward the town which became a symbol for American courage under fire in the winter of 1944‑45.
“This is Army weather,” I told Millie as we entered Bastogne and drove to McAuliffe Square, named for General Anthony C. McAuliffe, commander of the 101st Airborne Division who, when ordered by the Nazis to surrender, replied: “Nuts!”
We parked in the historic square, took pictures of the town's war‑torn Sherman tank and General McAuliffe's bust, bought some souvenirs and had coffee in a clean, very quiet cafe.
The 106th Division was not identified with the epic Bastogne stand to the extent some other units were, but it seemed obligatory to spend some time there on our reminiscing trip. There are few reminders of the 1944‑45 siege . . . some weathered pillboxes and pock‑marked walls. The residents of Bastogne are more apt to talk‑up their cured hams or prolific crops than dwell on the heroics and bloodshed of a generation ago. It seemed pointless to linger in Bastogne. But it was a distinct thrill to be there, equivalent to seeing Gettysburg or Bunker Hill. We noticed many new, attractive shops and slate‑roofed homes and ‑ conceding that then was then and now is now ‑ drove a mile to the Bastogne Historical Center and Mardasson American Memorial.
More than anything else at Bastogne, we were impressed by the American Memorial which symbolizes all the units, including the 106th Division, participating in what author John Toland termed “the greatest pitched battle ever fought by the United States, its only major struggle in the dead of winter.”
From the American Memorial, on a knoll overlooking tranquil Bastogne, we walked to the modern, slabsided Historical Center. We spent some time browsing the dioramas with life‑size figures of US Generals, Nazi officers and GI's in authentic uniforms. Equipment, including Jeeps and bazookas along with Schmeiser machine pistols and Mauser rifles, are on display near an arena with lighted war maps that is sound‑tracked to relate the battle's advances, stalemates and retreats. The museum also features an excellent movie comprised of American and German combat footage which was authentic enough ‑ thanks to skillful sound effects ‑ to make me feel the Bulge was being relieved, not merely revisited. “Once was enough,” I said. “Let's go.”
It was still a nasty day ‑ “Army weather” ‑ as we headed toward St. Vith, a Belgian town that served as the Golden Lion Division's headquarters.
At Houffalize we had steaks and chocolate sundaes at a place called the Cafe Friture. There was a jukebox, a pinball machine, a small bar and tidy restrooms in the basement which, very likely, provided cover as well as relief 33 years ago. But there was nothing to suggest that Houffalize, 12 miles north of Bastogne, was where our First and Third Armies joined forces as the German thrust finally fizzled‑out on 17 January 1945.
No one in the Cafe Friture cared if we were from the USA or the Canary Islands. There was typical chatter among the Belgian tipplers at the bar, unaffected by our arrival and departure. The only distraction came when a little girl in a pink coat entered her parent's cafe eating an ice cream pie from a pastry shop across the street. Houffalize was almost a ghost town the day we ate there. Within an hour we were back on the road and the onetime hot spot on the SHAEF war maps continued to cool it in mid‑day slumber.
Heading toward St. Vith ‑ where 563 of 596 homes were destroyed by shellfire ‑ we passed a modern roadside cabaret called the Los Angeles Cafe, and slowed down to 30 for a hamlet named Beho. Then, for the first time since early December of 1944, 1 found myself eyeballing the community our commander, General Alan W. Jones, had called his shots from as the stubborn defense lines around it frustrated the German attackers.
St. Vith, a key intersection that was battered to a pulp just before Christmas of 1944, showed no battle scars we could discern as we drove its streets and strolled its sidewalks for several hours. There are memorials to both the 106th and 2nd Divisions in St. Vith. There are also modern banks, some impressive gift shops, a store selling Levi pants and other amenities anyone should expect in a civilized town in the late seventies.
The community's landmark church has been rebuilt ... smoke poured from the stacks at a small factory at the south edge of town . . . a young man and teen‑age girl, doing their best in fractured English, helped direct us toward Schönberg ‑ a village too small to rate mention on the yellow road signs pointing toward Aachen, Prüm ... and infamous Malmedy.
Schönberg, seven miles east of St. Vith, was the town our regiment was attempting to capture when our commander ordered us to surrender on 19 December 1944. Since I didn't get to see Schönberg then, I didn't know what to expect this trip. As it turned out, its whereabouts were almost as elusive in peace as in war.
Finally, we happened on a rusty Schönberg sign indicating it to be ten round‑about kilometers (about six miles) away on a secondary road barely wide enough for our petite Opel. Near the town, on a bridge over a stream known as the Our River, we noticed a young teacher on a nature tour with 20 or so students ... grandchildren, quite likely, of the Schönberg residents who could remember the 422nd's aborted assault on the fourth day of Adolph Hitler's “Operation Christrose.”
Schönberg, the epitome of a do‑nothing country town, has a sleepy‑looking cafe, a post‑war church, a few dozen rather decent homes ... little else in the way of inhabitable structures. We were there 30 minutes as the storm clouds churned and saw no one other than a farmer tinkering in his barn. World War 2, I had been reminded again, is history now ... it happened a long, long time ago.
We criss‑crossed the baffling side roads an hour before heading back toward busy Luxembourg City but saw no evidence of the Siegfried Line dugouts the 106th occupied a week before the Nazis kicked‑off their desperate attack. I remembered a prewar song, “It's So Peaceful In the Country,” as the Opel, straining to scale the hills to Wiltz and Clervaux, took us back to the depot pigeons, the beer drinkers in the Grand Hotel tap room, the Alfa Hotel's sluggish lift, and the late afternoon traffic snarl along the Avenue de la Liberte at its intersection with the Place de Gare.
Revisiting the Ardennes and environs was not the traumatic experience it would have been 20 years earlier. But before falling asleep that night at the Alfa Hotel I recalled my buddies Ed Brewer of West Virginia, Bob (Corumando) LaTournes of Connecticut, Snuffy Singler of St. Louis, Big Ike Wolfgang of Wisconsin and the Windy City's Jim Robbins ‑ and retold myself that, on behalf of Uncle Sam's Army, we had given it all we had.
Back to Germany
Brute power is not an Opel Ascona's most notable trait.
This fact came to light the morning we headed north from Luxembourg City to Germany over the roads I had trudged as a POW. The car wheezed a bit on the hills we encountered enroute to Echternach, but things smoothed‑out as expertise was mustered in gear‑shifting techniques.
One of the highlights along the route ‑ mostly rural country reminiscent of the area around Dubuque ‑ was the town of Prüm a few miles inside Deutschland. This gingerbread community had been pulverized just before our rag tag column of POW's marched through it. I still remember the smoke, flame and debris.
Prüm is an attractive place again, identified by the twin‑spired church that can be seen for miles as the winding hills lead toward the stone‑surfaced square. The church apparently survived the 1944 pounding . . . or, perhaps, a skillful reconstruction job was done to recreate its 18th century look.
Millie and I had coffee at the Konditovei Cafe, parking across the street in front of a meter which, we learned, would not accept Belgian francs. Walking near the town square ‑ where nothing seemed to remind me of that “Dark December” of 1944 ‑ we window‑shopped the kind of stores we would expect in any thriving US community. Prüm looked the way it probably did in November of '44 ‑ and for many decades prior to world War 2 ‑ before the German and US howitzers exchanged salvos in the Ardennes Campaign.
That pink‑walled church with two steeples seemed familiar after I looked at it longer ... or did it?
I remembered the chaos and rubble as we marched through Prüm, no doubt about that. But flower gardens, inviting cafes and a Kodak shop ‑ all signs of Western German prosperity and pride ‑ have changed the face of things somewhat in 33 years ... though today's Germany is actually a blend of old and new.
We returned to the Opel ‑ no parking ticket, thank goodness ‑ and departed Prüm, an impressive place where the cafe owner and his waitress cheerfully thanked us ‑ “danke shon” ‑ as we left. We chugged back up the hill (in low gear) to the smooth, rolling highway that leads to Koblenz via Gerolstein, Dockweiler‑Dreis and Mayen ... the way I knew it did.
Except for the occasional aroma from a road‑hogging manure wagon, the air was clean and ‑ unlike 1944 ‑the only disturbing sounds were the now and then roars from passing motorcycles and dairy trucks.
Gerolstein, recalled only vaguely from my teen‑age past, appears to be the hub for the processing of farm products now. We stopped at a modern filling station to take pictures of a road sign, then headed on toward the adjoining villages ‑ Dockweiler and Dreis ‑ whose names have popped in and out of my mind almost daily since Christmas of 1944 ... when I spent the night in Dockweiler, or perhaps it was Dreis, in an unheated barracks that had once been used by panzer trainees.
In Dreis, a hamlet just north of Dockweiler, heavy equipment operators were excavating for a sewer under a narrow highway lined by homes that appear to be 150 or more years old. The railroad station, recalled from that bitterly cold night in 1944, looks exactly as it did then except for the paint that has chipped away from its sign during 32 winters of peace.
In Mayen, the golden brown castle still stands high and mighty as it did centuries before Hitler's blitzkrieg tangent. The high school sports arena I remembered for some reason over the years is still standing, too, on a hill at the city's western outskirts. It was here that Nazi officers photographed us with their Leica's as we marched into Germany as “kreigsgefangenes.” I remember the jeers from the crowds lining the road: “Ja, Ja,” they chanted. “Ja, Ja ... going to Berlin?”
We exited Mayen by an ageless road that circles around the huge castle ‑ a sight I recalled vividly ‑ and headed to Koblenz, a city of 110,000 at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers which was the seat of kings, bishops and patrician burghers more than 700 years ago.
Except for the landmark spires dating back to the 12th century, Koblenz ‑ with its bustling boulevards and neons ‑ has assumed a modern but undistinguished look in recent years. After 30 minutes of probing the business district in aimless fashion we parked in a supermarket lot.
Then we strolled past some beautiful boulevard tulips to an inviting oasis called the Heinrich Baumann Cafe. We were impressed by the determination of our waitress, handling eight tables single‑handed (her right wrist was in a cast) and managing to cope with the language impasse as we self‑consciously fumbled with our menus. We settled for sausage on buns, a glass of warm milk and a cold Coke. For dessert, we bought a bag of warm cookies (no cellophaned Twinkles in Germany) on our way out to the crowded sidewalk.
We paused along the Rhine long enough to take pictures of barges gliding south toward Strasbourg and Basel, then headed back toward Mayen via the Moselle. On this highway we could see but hardly believe the miles of perpendicular tiers of vineyards that appeared to be months away from becoming wine. Somehow, we found ourselves on the Koln (Cologne) autobahn and, after some 40 miles of super roadway, exited by the “ausfhart” to the same towns ‑ Dockweiler‑Dreis, Gerolstein and Prüm ‑ we had visited earlier the same day.
By mid‑afternoon, they seemed to be making progress on the sewer job at Dreis. “Ja, Ja,” an aged, red‑faced farmer said as he watched the stalled cars waiting for the end‑loader to move far enough to let the traffic pass. The old man, leaning patiently on his stick fence in a sidewalk superintendent's role, didn't mention Berlin. He can remember the Battle of the Bulge too, I told myself ... one of many rigors he has survived the past eight decades as Panther and Sherman tanks, Honda cycles and Caterpillar tractors have rumbled past the farmlands his great‑grandparents probably tilled.
Back in Luxembourg City, after a 255‑mile drive, we dined at Wimpy's on the Avenue de la Liberte where the menu allowed us the nostalgic luxury of juicy hamburgers and thick chocolate shakes. We did more boulevarding. .. peeking inside the dismal El Paso Bar featuring “Texas folk singers” later that night ‑ and inspecting the goods in the souvenir shops and a self service liquor store.
On the sidewalk near a joint called the Chicago Bar, a lanky kid with sideburns was trying to put the make on a busty girl who, even without the oomph created by her tight red sweater, would have been quite a dish. I looked back as we headed toward the Alfa Hotel ... he didn't score.
Next morning, the Opel's four lungs panted again as we pulled up the steep hotel garage driveway ... from the garage where, most likely, General Bradley's sedan was parked the night he learned of the unexpected German lunge toward Antwerp and Liege.
As we drove through the jammed one‑way streets, where men were delivering Chiquita bananas to a store and carting Mousel beer kegs away from the El Paso Bar, I got to thinking again about that memorable winter in the Siegfried Line..... carrying ammo for Big Ike Wolfgang's BAR..... eyeing the V‑1 buzz bombs with trepidation as they headed toward Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square . . . Harry Arvanis, the ex‑football player and boxer from East Moline who earned the Silver Star and other medals near St. Vith . . . Sergeant Carlos D. Weber's accurate prophecy that our first taste of combat would “scare the shit” out of us ...
“The light's green,” Millie had to remind me as we made the right turn onto the Avenue de la Liberte across from the pigeon‑infested Place de Gare to head south toward Switzerland.
“Pardon me,” I responded. I was saying my prayers.
The 106th Infantry Division was decimated twice. It was dismantled by the US Army itself after Tennessee maneuvers in March of 1944 as 6,000 of its 13,275 trained men were “drafted out” for duty as replacements overseas. That December, in the Battle of the Bulge, its casualties ‑ dead, wounded, captured and missing totaled more than 8,500 of the some 14,000 GI's in its ranks.
After basic training at Camp Wolters, Texas, I joined the 106th in June of 1944 as a rifleman (MOS 745) at Camp Atterbury near Indianapolis. I could have gone to Fort Benning, Georgia, for advanced training as a radio technician. But there was a war on (Normandy had just been invaded) and I was a hyped‑up, impetuous teenager ... I wanted to be where the action was. “All those dots and dashes are getting on my nerves,” I told a friend, the late Russ Zachmeyer, on a Burlington visit enroute to Indiana via Fort Meade, Maryland. “I'll take my chances in a rifle company ... I'd rather get a leg shot off than go out of my gourd.”
The first guy I met at Camp Atterbury, as I arrived wearing a store‑bought overseas cap with light blue infantry braid, was Sergeant James Todd. Sergeant Todd, a rugged but soft‑spoken man from the hills of Tennessee, was my squad leader from that point on. When I met him, though, he was on KP duty in the battalion mess hall. An infantry outfit really has to be decimated, one way or another, when the non‑coms are pulling KP.
“Here,” Todd said, “put this (an apron) on and get to work over there.”
“Over there” proved to be a mountain of greasy dishes and pans that looked as though they had been stacking up since the Golden Lion Division was authorized by the War Department in November of 1942.
In my first several weeks with Company A of the 422nd Regiment ‑ we liked to refer to ourselves as “a combat team” ‑ I did so much KP work that, as the depleted ranks were being filled with new arrivals, most everyone assumed I was one of the cooks. We already had two good cooks, a Jew named Abe Gordon from New York and a Chinaman from 'Frisco named Kai Jeong. “I'm a rifleman,” I insisted as the incoming chowhounds filed through the line. “This is just a temporary assignment,” I added while pouring gravy on their dessert, “until General Marshall finds a spot for me at SHAEF.”
The 106th wasn't a spit and polish outfit in Indiana. We did a lot of hard work, including 20‑milers with full field packs in 90‑degree heat. But there was little emphasis on asinine garrison protocol because, after all, we were going overseas ‑ hopefully Europe, not the South Pacific ‑ to fight, not parade.
While I was no more than average in any respect except in foot blisters and gross weight ‑ it turned out that I was one of the few GI's with an infantry background as the 106th was, numerically at least, brought to combat strength in July and August of '44. Some of our sergeants were washed‑out Air Corps men who kept their stripes after, to their dismay, being transferred to infantry jobs. Other new arrivals were from transportation and quartermaster units. One of our new riflemen was shipped to Atterbury from a barrage balloon outfit ... another was bitter because he had been denied his ambition to attend West Point. “My congressman let me down,” he lamented several times.
There was time to relax after the exhausting marches and, in GI tradition, I drank Budweiser profusely when I had money and loafed around the Company A day room, shooting pool or reading girlie magazines, when I was broke ‑ which was usually.
Abe Gordon and Kai Jeong were top‑notch performers as Army cooks go, but didn't know sickum about their M‑1 rifles. So I volunteered to keep their weapons clean in case our company commander, Captain Bertram C. Finch, pulled a sneaky inspection to detect any presence of grass growing in our gun bolts. In return, Abe and Kai treated me to steaks (beef not goat) and watermelon when I infiltrated the mess hall after‑hours. If I have gained the occasional reputation of a “con man” over the years, it all started that summer in the land of James Whitcomb Riley when I got double rations while cleaning two extra rifles once or twice a month.
We learned some French in Indiana that summer ... the word “bivouac,” mentioned repeatedly, still sticks in my mind. In jest, we called the 106th “the bag lunch division.” One of the songs we sang while hiking up and down the hard roads referred to General and Mrs. Jones. “Who does your laundry? . . . Bivouac Jones and his wife!”
Some of the older guys extended me some valuable counseling as we got ready to assume an APO mailing address. Sergeant Carlos D. Weber, a haughty Puerto Rican from New York, had already earned a Silver Star with the First Division in North Africa. He was disliked by a lot of the men in Company A, for one reason or another, but he taught me a lot about the maintenance of weapons. “If your rifle ever freezes‑up in cold weather,” Weber advised, “piss on it and it'll work.” This was excellent advice for a rifleman who, in a few months, would be knee‑deep in German snow.
They actually taught us a lot of basics at Atterbury which, in fact, I had already learned at Camp Wolters: “Always keep your messkit clean ... never cross an open field . . . your rifle is the best friend you'll ever have, including your mother . . . never stuff anything that doesn't belong there in your gas mask bag ... always keep an extra pair of dry sox ... those babes on the street corners will give you the clap.”
They also gave us a cram course in digging foxholes with our puny entrenching tools. I always goofed‑off on this chore which, I thought, was as pointless as practicing the art of probing minefields on our knees with bayonets. “If I ever need to dig myself a foxhole,” I told my pal Ed Brewer, “I won't need any blueprints, you can depend on that.”
Things droned on in the steamy Indiana bushlands ... August, September and early October skipped by and most of us were ready for it when the order finally came to pull‑out.
My mother and dad drove to Atterbury to see me a few days before we boarded the troop train that took us to Camp Myles Standish, a staging area near Cape Cod.
Dad had to fix a flat tire on his '41 Chrysler on the way to Indiana, a trip they were able to make thanks to some extra gas stamps provided by “the wealthy South Hill oil baron,” Heinie Rump.
After they went to bed in an Army guest house I went to Indianapolis and got so drunk I had to vomit in a bus station restroom.
The next morning, as my folks headed back to Iowa, I must have looked like I had just been washed ashore on Omaha Beach.
My eyes were red and, almost certainly, there was still booze on my breath.
Dad had preached some sermons to me on excessive drinking in my high school years.
He skipped it that morning, though, when we said our goodbyes outside the Company A barracks everything considered, I was old enough to drink.
Mud and Rain
“No one who participated in that comfortless trek will ever forget it,” Colonel R. Ernest Dupuy wrote in our unit history, “St. Vith ‑ Lion In the Way.”
He was so right.
It was a miserable trip, on foot and in open trucks, from the battered dock at La Havre, France, where we landed on 6 December 1944, to the sea of mud near Rouen where we pitched tents ‑ with some difficulty and marked time until moving into the Ardennes.
We had crossed the English Channel from Southhampton on a British passenger ship, then went ashore "D‑Day plus six months," somebody quipped ‑ on unsteady LCI's. On the punishing walk up the long, steep hill out of La Havre (a couple of our officers fell out on this one) we carried everything ‑ full fieldpacks, rifles, extra ammo, gas masks, bayonets, steel helmets, trench knives, grenades ‑ except our barracks bags. We slept in a field without tents the first night, I think, then headed across France in trucks to the tent city where the authentic European gumbo added a dash of advance misery to the ordeal we would be facing up front . . . without overshoes.
Most of what I remember about those four days in the mud and rain is the mud and rain. I do recall some tasty pork chops our mess sergeant ‑ who, oddly enough, had operated a cafe in civilian life ‑ won in a card game with his cronies from Companies B, C and D. I shared my tent with a wiry little guy from West Virginia, Junior Dorsey, who was one of our scouts. We both snored, but had little else, except our wet butts, in common. He reminded me about the marches I had fallen‑out on in the hot Indiana sun. “I was saving my strength,” I assured him. That was about the extent of our snappy repartee.
One morning our battalion commander, Colonel Thomas Kent, was delivering a pep talk when his remarks were interrupted by the roar of 50 or more C‑47's pulling gliders overhead. Colonel Kent, a former paratrooper and therefore not a glider enthusiast, tried in vain to outshout them and gave up in despair. When the upstart planes and gliders finally disappeared, he shook his fist at them and resumed his oration. “Those glider‑riding sons of bitches,” as he called them, had disrupted the most important, and last, speech Colonel Kent ever made.
The morning we left France for the front, in a freezing drizzle, I was given a special assignment to carry our platoon's radio which, we hoped, might pull in Glenn Miller's Air Force Band if we could find a wall socket in the Siegfried Line. “You just volunteered to carry this,” Sergeant Richard McKee from Indiana said as he entrusted me with the cumbersome (on top of everything else) receiver. “Guard it with your life!”
Our trucks, affiliated with the “White Ball Express,” started pulling out one by one. They were nearly filled as, with the radio in one hand and my barracks bag in the other, I sloshed through the ice and mud from truck to truck looking ‑ somewhat reluctantly ‑ for one to ride in. This went on a half hour and finally, in profound disgust, I threw my bag into a ditch (still clinging to the radio and my rifle) and mulled the consequences of just standing there as the rest of my outfit went off to war.
Just then, somebody said there was room up ahead in a truck. I had strayed a hundred yards or more from my bag ‑ loaded with such treasures as bitter chocolate Dbars and my dry sox ‑ and started back after it.
As I turned, I was stunned to see none other than our commander, Colonel Kent, walking toward me ‑erectly, with long strides ‑ with his carbine over one shoulder and my bag hanging from the other.
“Here you are soldier,” Colonel Kent said as he handed me my bag.
Sheepishly, I climbed into the truck and we headed where the action was ... up front.
Man for Man
We were so many shivering needles and the world was a mammoth haystack.
That was the consensus in our air‑cooled truck on 10 December 1944 as we rumbled through Luxembourg and Belgium ‑ where housewives were sweeping snow from their doorsteps ‑ toward the German Ardennes.
Our world, such as it was, focused on the stinging soreness in our half‑frozen feet and our burning rearends. If any memorable conversation flowed, I don't recall it. I thought about my friends back home Walker Cox, Donna Willard, Dawson Brown, Milton Frazier and Johnny Rolf ‑ and how my parents, whose older son had been killed in a plane crash in 1943, were doing at their drug store on South Hill. Along with others I bitched about the disgusting fact that we didn't have any overshoes. We blamed Captain Finch (who did have overshoes) but the real culprit, most likely, was a Quartermaster officer who screwed‑up back in the states. With cold feet, I consoled myself, there was less time to feel sorry about my sore tailbone.
In Paris that day, SHAEF ‑ General Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters ‑ announced that “First Army veterans drove to within 2‑1/2 miles of the Roer River citadel of Duren (25 miles north of the 106th's position) and advanced 1‑1/2 miles along the Aachen‑Cologne superhighway to Merken, 17 miles inside Germany and the deepest point of US conquest.
“Even as Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges' shock troops in fresh snowfall fought back toward the flooded Roer on a 10‑mile front,” the AP reported to the folks back home, “the skies were filled with 1,600 US heavy bombers and 800 escorting fighters striking vital points on German railroads leading to the front.
“All along the First Army front the Germans were giving ground and apparently fighting only screening actions while moving the bulk of their forces beyond the Roer.
“Street fighting raged in at least five villages near Duren (something the 106th could look forward to in March, we thought) and 11 enemy counterattacks were launched in the Duren area the past two days ... in one of them, 85 Germans made a charge shouting 'Heil Hitler.' Every one of the Nazis was killed.”
Back in our 2 1/2‑ton truck we began to sense the war in the faces of the old women and men as our convoy moved through the gloomy forests around Houffalize, Malmedy and St. Vith. If we went through Bastogne, I don't recall it, Bastogne was just another village as we moved on, jammed like sardines in a can, under the Schnee Eifel's ominous slate‑gray skies.
‑Numb, soaked, frozen ‑ no change of warm clothing available, for their barracks bags (in some cases) had not caught up with them ‑ the 106th tumbled from their trucks and took over 'man for man and gun for gun,"' Colonel Dupuy wrote in our history. “Wisecracks flew as the men of the 2nd Division touted the `rest camp' the 106th was coming into. The officers, too, assured the newcomers of their good fortune as they hurriedly turned over schedules of fire, schedules of patrol ... so the 106th men went fumbling out into the snow and muck, stumbling in water‑soaked foot gear. The forests were eerie; over there somewhere was the enemy. He made himself known by occasional small arms fire, occasional bursts of 'screaming meemies,' the mortar shells that sound as if they are right on top of you even if they're a quarter‑mile away.”
The temperature was down to freezing by the time we arrived on the scene. My feet were just about driving me crazy ... I would have given just about anything ‑ even my Benny Goodman collection back home ‑ for some dry sox. By this time I had lost track of names of places and dates. I had been separated from my friends in our platoon during the ride. We laid down in the snow the night we got to the Ardennes, rolled into our shelterhalves and tried to sleep. It drizzled all night. I almost wished I was dead. In the distance we could see and hear the flashes and thunder of artillery fire that heralded our arrival.
Our log hut fortifications up front ‑ where we finally arrived the next morning ‑ were actually better than I had expected. Nothing like the Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis, or even a barracks at Camp Atterbury, but reasonably dry and warm compared with the trenches or foxholes I had feared.
Thirty‑three years later I still remember the sound of the first “screaming meemies” we heard. They made me think of a shovel being scraped inside a rusty barrel with the volume magnified a thousand‑fold. The Nazi “nebelwerfer” was a psychological weapon that could kill.
Even more vividly I remember the stares on the faces of the gaunt, dead‑tired 2nd Division infantrymen who marched out of their positions ‑ originally built by the Germans as defensive posts ‑ as we succeeded them 'man for man, gun for gun."
The 2nd Division, a battle‑hardened outfit, had earned a rest before taking another crack at the German infantry digging in west of the Rhine for a last‑ditch defense of their homeland. The GI's I recall walking up the hill as we walked down it had glazed eyes ‑ like zombies, I thought to myself ‑ as they turned the “rest camp” over to the 106th.
On arrival in our dugout ‑ dubbed Hut 234 ‑ I still had my M‑1, of course, but the rest of my gear in the bag had been lost. . . somewhere near where I had disgustedly thrown Sergeant McKee's radio into the ditch. Later in the day the bag arrived from somewhere and, reunited with my friends, we had our first decent meal ‑ spaghetti served from marmite cans ‑ in three days. Captain Finch, who had his good side, had told our cooks they would be issued rifles if they didn't concoct some tasty meals.
Our platoon, for some reason, was dug‑in a half‑mile or so forward of the remainder of Company A. “We're an outpost,” Sergeant Todd told us without elaboration. There were six of us in the hut which, fortunately, had a log‑burning stove. There was my BAR gunner, Big Ike Wolfgang... Isaac Lucero from New Mexico ... Junior Dorsey... George (Lippy) Meminger from Chicago ... Sergeant Todd and myself.
Compared with the bushed 2nd Division riflemen we were reasonably fresh, but unlike them we hadn't received our baptism of fire.
Everything in front of us was German territory, we had been told by a 2nd Division non‑coms: “If anything moves over there, give 'em a blast.”
General Jones, back at St. Vith, was uneasy about the 106th's vulnerable position along an unusually long 27 mile front. There were too many defense points for the Nazis in the villages and valleys, and his troops were open to attack from all sides and above ... but Generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Courtney H. Hodges, the First Army commander, had insisted that the 106th's finger‑like position sticking into the Siegfried Line would be a valuable bridgehead when Germany was invaded en masse.
My thoughts, and those of the guys with me, were concerned more with creature comforts ‑ our two meals a day, warm blankets and dry sox ‑ than with strategy.
We would be moving into Germany in a couple of months, we figured, and until then things would be status quo.
“You're right where you belong,” my buddy Jim Robbins told Lippy Meminger, who hardly ever talked, one day. “It's all quiet on the Western Front.”
One Man's War
Meanwhile, the 424th Regiment ‑ including East Moline's Pfc. Harry V. Arvanis ‑ was going about its chores south of the 422nd in a defensive position behind the Siegfried Line.
Arvanis, a self‑confessed “cocky kid back then,” was 22 years old and ‑ as a calloused Golden Glover ‑ ready to mix it up with the Germans when he dug in with Company K. The 424th was in what Colonel Dupuy described as “a position well adapted for an elastic defense (but its) principal fault was that it had the Our River in its rear. It was an inherited position for which neither blame nor praise belongs to the 106th Division.”
Originally a gung‑ho paratrooper, Arvanis had volunteered for jump duty in hopes of seeing action by the time of the D‑Day invasion on 6 June 1944. His intentions were derailed, though, when he suffered leg fractures in a practice jump with the 11th Airborne Division at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. The 11th sailed to the Pacific before Arvanis was ship‑shape and he found himself with the 106th at Camp Atterbury in July.
“I was a well trained soldier,” Arvanis said recently, “but I didn't have any outfit ... I was just the cookie they were looking for in the 106th.”
Arvanis, along with most of us in the 106th, had crossed the Atlantic on the Aquitania, a British fourstacker, in eight days without convoy protection.
On the train through Scotland to England, Arvanis whose head was shaved in Mohawk style ‑ gave the natives in the railroad stations, from the Firth of the Clyde to Chipping Norton in the Midlands, an unexpected thrill by sticking his sun‑tanned head out the window and yelling “warhoops” to blow off steam.
“I was a little bit ornery,” Arvanis recalled. “Actually, I didn't give a darn about anything then and did anything I wanted to do. I scared some of those Scotchmen half to death. If anybody gave me any kind of a dare, I'd do it ... I could care less about the result.”
In his first days on the line in the Ardennes, Arvanis fought monotony by cleaning his rifle, washing his sox, honing his trench knife ... and reading some of the daily letters his wife, Alfreda, had written since he entered service in 1942 at Camp Polk, Louisiana. Harry and Alfreda still joke about the fact that they met in a Moline cemetery in their early high school days. “We had to meet somewhere,” Harry laughed in later years. “She's the only women I ever dated in my life.”
Arvanis ‑ who makes no bones about being a pushy" guy ‑ took it upon himself to go on patrols for Company K while the unit sat back in anticipation of a spring offensive.
“I used to go out by myself through the German minefields to check the position of their tanks and artillery and report back to my CO so he could tell what I found out to the battalion commander,” Arvanis related. “I got to where I was going out every evening. I always carried a knife because guns made too much noise. If I had to kill a man, I'd get some of his clothing so I could wear it. I was able to speak a little German and would sneak into their chowlines. I can remember leaning back against a half‑track or tank and soaking up all I could from their conversations while eating their potatoes and sauerkraut.
“It got to the point that some of their cooks probably knew my face,” Arvanis went on. “I didn't like their kraut at first, but after I got used to it the stuff tasted OK.
“Then I'd sneak back to our lines,” he said, “and tell the Old Man all about it. I was his (the CO's) fair‑haired boy. With my information, we could pinpoint their convoys and equipment . . .”
Arvanis ‑ known as “The Greek” to men in his outfit was, he recalled three decades later, “full of piss and vinegar ... there's no way I'd do any of those things now.
“Hand grenades and guns were Mickey Mouse stuff for charging the enemy lines,” he said with a grin. “I was on intelligence missions, behind enemy lines with my knife, and I relished every minute of it.
“I was a one‑man show,” Arvanis asserted. “The CO told the other guys never to mess with The Greek.”
One monotonous day when Arvanis had some time on his hands, he killed a hog near St. Vith and slaughtered it. “I'd been born and raised on a farm,” he explained, “so it wasn't anything new for me to cut‑up a hog.
“Our men ate some of it,” Arvanis chuckled, “then the Germans came and pushed us off the hill we were occupying . . . then we took the hill back later on and found out the Germans had eaten some of our hog. They ate from the right side of it and we ate from the left. The enemy got hungry, too, but we finally got the last bite.”
Arvanis was returning from a patrol “15 miles deep” into German territory one day when he heard German gunfire. “I knew it was the Germans,” he said. “Their guns went pop‑pop‑pop . . . ours went bang‑bang‑bang ... their ammo was lighter than ours and their guns fired faster.”
Two French officers and an enlisted man were in a ditch, Arvanis recollected. “They had taken the wrong turn in their reconnaissance car and wound‑up in the German lines,” he said. “They were pinned down by German machine guns and were on the verge of getting killed. I worked myself down the knoll and came up behind three Germans and killed them in their machine gun nest ...
“I yelled at the Frenchmen that it was OK for them to get out of the ditch,” Arvanis continued, “but they thought I was a German and that I'd kill them.
“I didn't know any French ‑ not even any dirty words so I showed them my dog tags to prove I was an American. One of the Frenchmen kissed me on both of my cheeks. He took my name and number off the tags ... later on I got one of those French medals.
The medal ‑ a Croix de Guerre avec Etoile de Bronze now in the Arvanis family's trophy case ‑ was handed to Harry by his CO. “What,” he asked, “have you been up to now, Greek?”
“I had forgotten about the incident until the medal arrived,” Arvanis said, tongue in cheek. “The CO told me the medal would make a nice addition to my grab bag.”
Looking back on his combat experiences, Arvanis said one of his assets was that he could walk without making any undue noise. “I weighed 220 then,” he said. “but I was actually light as a feather on my feet. No one could hear me coming. Don't ask me why. Some things just come naturally to a guy, but of course my Army training helped.”
While most GI's in the 106th were armed with M‑1 rifles, Pfc. Harry Arvanis eventually equipped himself with a Thompson submachine gun salvaged from a burned‑out US tank. “I could clean all the parts with my eyes closed,” he said. “I had four ammunition clips welded together for fast action ... that way I had 120 or so 45‑caliber bullets. I'd thrown my rifle away by this time. I wanted the Thompson for close work. I knew a lot of bullets would fly from a machine gun in house to house attacks.”
Company K, Arvanis recalled, captured a German two‑man “weasel” used to transport ammunition. “The rig only weighed about 300 pounds,” he remembered, “and we had a lot of fun driving it up and down the hills around St. Vith. I turned it over once, but nobody got hurt. We weren't ready to go into action right at that time ... we wanted to let out steam and I was the ringleader.
“Most all of us were carefree back then,” Arvanis remarked. “Then ‑ during the Bulge and afterwards all of our cockiness turned into revenge and hate ... that really made men out of us.
“I got to where I enjoyed getting a German on the end of my knife and watching him squirm. I was doing exactly what the SS men had done to our guys. I saw what those savages had done, and I really enjoyed pouring it on them in return.
“I had actually tasted blood before the big breakthrough came. Later on, we became a fighting machine. We had to destroy the enemy and we actually enjoyed it.
“I'd had the training,” Arvanis said while leafing through his dogeared scrapbooks in the spring of 1977, “and I was a cocky guy.
“My leadership ‑ if I really had any ‑ came to me as the fighting went on.
“We had to do it to the enemy just like they'd been doing it to us.
“I did my job well and I have no regrets.”
In the days preceding the desperate German assault the 422nd and 423rd Regiments were, despite a deceptive calm, in a precarious spot along the Siegfried Line.
“It should be noted,” Colonel Dupuy pointed out, “that both the 422nd and 423rd Regiments actually occupied old German positions, the exact coordinates and dispositions of which were, of course, known to the enemy down to the nearest yard. These positions were not chosen by the 106th Division; they were inherited. Why the 2nd Division or VIII Corps, for that matter, had allowed this potentially dangerous gamble is not known. One suspects that the winter cold and the 'quiet' aspect of the area had engendered carelessness.”
In and around Hut 234 the living was easy, considering the potential for violence, through 15 December 1944.
One night I could have sworn on a stack of Bibles or a pile of C ration cans ‑ that Germans were infiltrating the barbed wire within 50 feet of our hut. I was looking for my chance to be a hero. Company A's guns hadn't blazed in anger and the more I looked the more I was certain that men were crawling through the snow on their bellies within grenade‑lobbing distance of where I was standing, first on one foot and then on the other. Finally, I pulled the pin from a grenade, held it in my right hand ‑ firmly ‑ and crept on my knees ‑ carefully ‑ toward the point where I was surer than ever the Germans were sneaking through. I looked, crept, looked some more ... but didn't see a thing. The next morning there were no tracks in the snow to indicate anything like I was dead certain I had seen. Anyone can see anything he wants to see, I concluded, if he looks long and hard enough.
One morning, we spotted some movement on a hill to the south of us which, we assumed, was by Nazi troops. So we gave 'em a blast. We emptied several M‑1 clips in their direction ‑ over a thousand yards away ‑ and Big Ike ripped‑off a clip with his automatic rifle. Later in the day, we got the message: “Knock it off,” Lieutenant Karl Luck told us. “That's K Company of our own outfit (the 422nd, not the Company K Harry Arvanis served in) over there. They were pinned down all morning . . . they couldn't even take a crap.”
It was almost impossible to avoid firing at the V‑1 buzz bombs as they passed over the Siegfried Line several times a day. They chugged slowly at low altitudes, orange flame shooting from their tails ... tantalizing targets for a 50‑caliber machine gun, even for an M‑1. But we knew the V‑I's were loaded with TNT, or something like it, and if we shot one down it would, likely as not, land on a strategic target ... perhaps Hut 234, or our platoon's fresh air toilet.
Sergeant Weber, a very wise man, stayed out of sight while the rest of us walked around like we were girl watching on Boston's notorious Scollay Square ... VD Junction. “It's only a matter of time,” Weber said, recalling the shellfire in North Africa when he won his Silver Star for firing a rifle grenade into the driver's vision slit on a Nazi armored car.
One afternoon, as about 20 of us were standing in line to get our chow ‑ most likely scrambled eggs, muscular coffee and Jello with gravy on it ‑ three artillery shells tore through the treetops ‑ “wham, wham, wham” within 50 yards of where we were standing. In the movies, Dana Andrews or Regis Toomey would have shouted “incoming mail!” In real life, we hit the snow after the tree limbs and evergreen sprigs were starting to drift down on us. Miraculously, no one was hurt. “I told you so,” Sergeant Weber said as he peered from his dugout, flashed a cat‑like grin, then disappeared back into his hole.
One day I got a letter from my mother ‑ incoming mail of an enlightening variety. “I was sorry to have to tell you about what happened to Milton Frazier,” she wrote. I hadn't received her earlier letter. But I knew Milton, one of my very best friends, had a motorcycle and I assumed ‑ correctly, I was to learn six months later ‑ he had been killed on it back home.
During the nights preceding the German attack we heard rumbling noises to the east which, we guessed, was German equipment being moved up for an attack. Our suspicions were relayed to Captain Finch and, presumably, to Colonel Kent and our regimental commander, Colonel George L. Descheneaux ... hopefully to General Hodges and, maybe, to Ike himself back in Paris.
The morning before the panzers lunged through our lines a German straggler, in broad daylight, came up a draw between the thickets of trees that hid our positions.
Joe Zematis, an excellent shot with the BAR, took a crack at him and knocked him down. The German got up, waved an arm in our direction. From about 200 yards away we could hear him . . . “komrade, komrade.”
Zematis fired again, hit him again, then ‑ realizing he had scored Company A's first kill ‑ let his BAR drop against a woodpile beside him.
“Hit him again,” one of our officers said. Joe resumed his fire. Minutes later, a couple of guys went out and dragged the body back near our dugouts.
“He was just a kid,” Joe told me later. “Only about 14 ... he didn't even have any hair on his balls.”
One Day Closer
In far‑off Burlington, a light snow fell on Friday night, 15 December 1944, as shoppers ‑ protected by an OPA umbrella over the price of Christmas trees ‑ did their thing along Jefferson Street.
The movie fare included Eddie Bracken and Ella Raines in “Hail the Conquering Hero” at the Palace with Ida Lupino and Paul Henried at the Avon in “Strangers In the Night” . . . Ace Ockert and Don Pease were elated about their City League bowling scores, 579 and 590 respectively, at Oliva's on South Main ... Captain Ray K. Sheldon, a veteran of 50 combat missions as pilot of a B‑24 Liberator, and his wife, Harriet, were packing to depart Catfish Bend for Sheldon's new assignment in California . . . fireman Midge Davis was patrolling the business district to warn such merchants as Ray Sutter and Walter Peterson against accumulation of yule season waste paper . . . Red Cross women, led by Martha Niehaus, were putting the finishing touches on 600 kit bags for servicemen.
On the war front, the Siegfried Line was being shelled at perhaps its weakest points," the AP reported in The Burlington Hawk‑Eye Gazette. “The Germans said American artillery was cratering Karlsruhe (125 miles southeast of Hut 234) and American divisions charged to within two miles of Wissembourg, a natural invasion gateway to Bavaria and a key to the flat German land between the Schnee Eifel (Snow Mountains) Range and the Bienwald Forest ... already plagued by shortages of ammunition and tires, American forces on the Western Front are now confronted with a problem obtaining trained infantry replacements . . . the Germans were disclosed to have thrown a new device into the war mysterious silvery balls which float in the air, possibly a new anti‑aircraft defense instrument or new weapon.”
At the austere outpost commanded by Sergeant James Todd of Tennessee things were as they had been monotonous, cold and edgy. The six GI's, including Todd himself, took turns on their miserable two‑hour stints with nothing to look forward to except a reciprocal four hours to sleep, if they could, on hard‑slabbed bunks in their smoke‑filled hut. No one was required to shave or salute, but any other advantages to being up front were, in retrospect, non‑existent.
Ominously, the German's big guns started to pound away in an up tempo beat late that night along the “Ghost Front” from Echternach to Monschau as 75,000 American troops felt, if nothing else, a day closer to Christmas.
“Over trails and roads matted with straw to muffle the noise,” John Toland wrote a quarter‑century later, “250,000 Germans, 1,900 pieces of heavy artillery and 970 tanks and assault guns were slowly moving west to their final attack positions ... within six hours 'Christrose,' the greatest and most deceptive attack ever launched on the Western Front, would begin.”
The Real Thing
Presumably, the German commanders were synchronizing their watches and polishing their monocles as we rolled in our bunks, stood guard or patrolled.
The Battle of the Bulge was launched at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, 16 December 1944, along the foggy 85‑mile front as enemy artillery shells, mortar rounds and rockets roared, thundered and hissed. The ground shook and fir trees quivered as, with the advantage of total surprise and first‑hand knowledge of the Ardennes terrain, panzer and infantry units clanked and sloshed toward Hitler's “Deutschland uber alles” goal.
Fourteen‑inch shells, fired from railway guns, battered the 106th's positions ‑ rocking divisional headquarters at St. Vith. “When they begin to drop 14‑inch shells it's the real thing,” General Jones said in a post‑war summary of the battle. His thinly‑drawn Golden Lion Division (normal procedure calls for a division to hold five miles, not 27) was under an eruption of shellfire so intense that, at some of the pivotal cross‑roads, Mps directed traffic while lying prone in the snow and mud.
By 6:15 the shelling stopped a while so the gun barrels could cool ... vague figures in white snow suits filtered through the trees, the clatter of Panther and Tiger tank treads reverberated on the roads as US troops, stunned at first, started to fight back.
Although the deafening barrage had lifted elsewhere, the little Belgian road center of St. Vith ‑ which had been passed through by German infantry in 1914 and again by Nazi panzers in 1940 ‑ remained under siege. Waves of Volksgrenadiers, spearheaded by armor, smashed against the 106th's lines in a desperate bid for an early, decisive breakthrough. They were stopped. A second attack was thrown against St. Vith's defenders and again they held. Nazis threw in wave after wave of fresh troops, replacing their losses. There were no replacements for the 106th. The men in and around St. Vith dug deeper and fought with everything they had. German bodies piled up, often at the very rim of the defenders' foxholes ... still the Nazis came.
“We realized they were all around us,” Harry Arvanis said in recalling 16 December 1944. “We were told not to trust anyone, even the man next to us if we didn't know for certain who he was. There was fear at first. Courage came to me later as I experienced a step each day, the next day and the day after that."
Arvanis is of the Greek Orthodox faith, but he eagerly attended services by a Catholic chaplain when, as the barrage mounted, the men in Company K of the 424th assembled to, as Arvanis remembers it, “pray alike to the same God.”
It was around zero, but Arvanis took his helmet off long enough to pray ‑ holding a gun in his other hand during the two‑minute ceremony.
“An hour later,” Arvanis said, “the priest was blown away ... but he got us as close to the Lord as possible while we stood there shivering in the cold under the trees. I knew half the platoon (15 of 30 men) would be blown away before the day was over ... the Lord must have told him to get us boys prepared.”
As the day went on the attacks mounted in fury. Hundreds of fanatical Germans rushed straight toward the American lines, only to be mowed down or driven back by a hail of steel. Others came on and met the same fate. Finally, under pressure of overwhelming numbers the 14th Cavalry Group was forced to withdraw on the 106th's northern flank, giving the Germans their first wedge in the unit's front. Enemy tanks and infantry hammered away in increasing numbers, trying to surround the 422nd. In the meantime, a second tank‑led assault bored in relentlessly on the 423rd and 424th . . . the 424th pulled back around St. Vith, tightening its lines. Cooks, clerks, truck drivers and mechanics shouldered weapons and took to the foxholes.
“During the afternoon of 16th December 1944,” John Eisenhower wrote, “the commanding officer of the 422nd Regiment (Colonel Descheneaux) sent a task force to try to recapture Auw and cut off the Germans attacking to the south. The task force started out in a snowstorm and made contact with the Germans near Auw, at which point it received orders to return to protect the regimental command post, now threatened by Nazi infantry advancing along the draw from the east ... thus the 106th Division, like the 99th on the north, gave very little ground in the areas occupied by its combat troops on 16 December ... that evening the intelligence section of the 106th wrote: 'The enemy is capable of pinching off the Schnee Eifel area at any time.'
What happened in the encircled 422nd's sector that first day of the battle was as jumbled as the terrain itself. “It can be told only as the doughboys and artillerymen fought it,” Colonel Dupuy related. “They fought it piecemeal . . . to put it briefly, the 422nd was engulfed by the German advance sweeping wide around its northern flank. Its center (including the First Battalion) and southern flanks were irritated only by sporadic diversionary prickings.”
One of the sporadic diversionary prickings killed Colonel Kent when two German shells hit his command post. But our company a needle in a haystack, the eye in a hurricane ‑ somehow managed to have the war fought around it.
Golden Lion heroes in their battle debut included Lieutenant William V. Shakespeare, a former Notre Dame football star, who bagged a panzer captain near St. Vith while the German was carrying a map case full of battle plans ... an unidentified lieutenant who, survivors said, walked eight miles while breathing through a hole in his back the size of a fist, until he died ... another GI who according to witnesses, had an eye blown out and dumped sulfa powder into the empty socket so he could go on fighting.
We had marched out of our positions at mid‑morning after being told flatly to “pack up and get moving.” While we had no inkling of how devastating the German attack actually was, we knew there was “beaucoup” trouble ahead for Company A which, with some 185 men, was the total sphere of the ETO as far as we were concerned. General Eisenhower and Bivouac Jones were responsible for calling the shots at their stratospheric levels. We were destined for head‑on combat with German infantry and tanks no doubt about that ‑ and our only motivations were to keep moving, kill the enemy and stay alive doing it.
Walking back up the long hill, near where I had jettisoned Sergeant McKee's radio, I sorted the priorities in my mind. The ditches were strewn with gas masks so I discarded mine. I also threw away my long, cumbersome overcoat because flexibility meant more than keeping warm. What good would a brass‑buttoned overcoat do if I got bogged down to the point I couldn't run, duck or crawl under a barbed wire fence?
Surprisingly, some of the guys were already dumping some of their extra ammo. I kept all of mine, including the heavy belt of clips for Big Ike's BAR and an extra ammo bag around my neck, and a canteen of water.
Typically, no one bothered to tell us if we were advancing or retreating. With what General Eisenhower called “20‑20 hindsight,” it is safe to assume we were in Colonel Descheneaux's plan to assault the village of Auw, some 12 miles east (toward the German attackers) of St. Vith. We kept slogging through the snow and mud, peering into the dense green‑black trees ahead for the Germans we knew we would confront in a matter of time.
One particular jazz number kept running through my mind as we trudged through the snow which, we hoped, wasn't hiding any treacherous land mines. “Put away the guns and put the bombs on the shelf,” one‑arm trumpeter Wingy Manone's 1941 song went. “Stop that war, them cats is killin' themselves!”
Around mid‑afternoon, we defied a Very important Rule stressed by an Indian instructor, Lieutenant Hyber, at Camp Welters. To my astonishment, we crossed an open field rather than skirt around it so the trees could afford us some cover.
Right then ‑ “wham, wham, wham” ‑ the incoming mail from Deutschland arrived. Three artillery rounds, maybe more, shrieked in and detonated up ahead. I did a belly‑flop into the slush and, with the clods still peppering us, was amazed ‑ and profoundly thankful ‑ to realize I still had matched sets of feet, legs, arms and hands.
We picked ourselves up and ran for all we were worth to the comparative safety of a forest 50 yards to our right. “Thank God they all made it,” Captain Finch, propped against a tree stump and breathing hard, said. “I don't know how all those men got across that field alive.” Actually, no one had even been hurt. The three shells or whatever number there was ‑ amounted to our baptism of fire. Somebody up there was looking out for us down in the bitter woods.
That night, we flopped down in exhausted condition somewhere between the Siegfried Line and St. Vith. As best we could, we dug into the turf which, to make the digging that much tougher, was one‑half frozen dirt and 50% tree roots. They had taught me to dig in Texas loam and Indiana's hard ground but no one ‑ not even Lieutenant Hyber ‑ had briefed me on hacking through Ardennes tree roots with a flimsy, portable shovel. Someone ‑ either Jim Robbins, a breezy Shell Oil salesman from Chicago, or Commando LaTournes, who vowed he would rip the Germans to shreds ‑ speculated on the obvious need for better entrenching devices. “During the next war when we're marching through the Himalayas in Tibet,” he quipped, “I'm going to be the only guy in my outfit with an automatic foxhole digger ... just pull the pin and 'poof I'll have a hole five feet deep.” “Yeah,” somebody chipped in, “with Rita Hayworth in it and a portable bed.”
After we had relaxed for the evening ‑ with the rumble of nearby artillery to drown‑out Junior Dorsey's snoring ‑ a machine gunner got to talking about a letter he had received from the states a few days earlier.
“You guys won't believe this,” he said, “but my buddy back home says the rationing boards are tightening the screws ... they've really got it tough back there.”
The letter (which I saw with my own eyes the next day) was so absurd it triggered a round of good‑natured jeers about getting “T‑S cards punched,” etc.
The Battle of the Bulge, as it was to be labeled later on, was one day old.
Company A was still able to take nourishment ... but there wasn't anything to eat.
With the battle in its second day, Company K of the 424th Regiment, including Pfc. Harry Arvanis, held firm in its original position at the southeast edge of smoldering St. Vith.
The Greek's heroics on 17 December 1944 were chronicled by the 106th Division's public information staff ... verified by Colonel Dupuy in “St. Vith ‑ Lion In The Way” . . . and retold for mass consumption by Stanley Frank in the 9 November 1946 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.
“Firing 80 rounds of mortar shells by holding the mortar tube between his legs, out‑shooting three German riflemen at close range with only a pistol, and killing a fourth by accurately throwing the empty pistol at him are some of the daring feats of Pfc. Harry Arvanis,” a news item issued by the Golden Lion Division related. “For his heroism, he has been awarded the Silver Star by the Commanding General of the 106th.
“Pfc. Arvanis earned the coveted award for gallantry in action on 17 December 1944. During the early stages of the Battle of the Bulge, Pfc. Arvanis, with two assistants, was coolly manning a mortar in the face of a heavy German barrage. Enemy shellfire damaged the base of his weapon, but he resolutely continued firing by wedging the mortar tube between his legs and holding it with both hands.
“Twelve Nazi infantrymen appeared and attacked the mortar position. Firing furiously, rising to his feet after each shot to observe the effects of his improvised hand sighting, Pfc. Arvanis shot an estimated 80 rounds from the damaged mortar. Despite the fact that his position was in full view of the advancing enemy, Arvanis fired with such telling effect that he put eight of the enemy out of action.
“As the attackers neared his position, Pfc. Arvanis had his mortar pointing nearly straight into the air so his last shells dropped within 25 yards of his own position. As the four remaining Germans rose to their feet to charge his position, the gallant defender drew his service pistol and emptied it into the face of the advancing steel.
“Arvanis killed two of the four, his assistant shot one, and the fourth German was on the mortar emplacement, bayonet gleaming. Pfc. Arvanis threw a clean strike at the remaining enemy with his empty gun ‑ the German was killed by the impact of the heavy pistol on his forehead.
“The attack having been stopped cold, the three Americans withdrew, for they were without a single round of ammunition for any of their weapons.”
As the heroics of Harry Arvanis unfolded ‑ at daybreak, he recalls it, “around 7 a.m.” ‑ his regiment was being forced to withdraw closer to St. Vith ... and the knot was being drawn more tightly on the 422nd and 423rd.
The Nazis had inflicted savage losses on the 106th and had made significant penetrations ‑ but not deep enough.
“Nothing much stood between the Germans and the Meuse River,” Stanley Frank wrote in The Saturday Evening Post. “Nothing except a few thousand frightened kids who refused to break ground under a sheer weight calculated to beat them into the ground.”
In his book, “Battle: The Story of the Bulge,” John Toland pointed out that “the surrounded troops of the 106th Division on the Schnee Eifel were more confused than concerned that afternoon. So far, except for the men on the flanks, they'd seen little action.
“Colonel George Descheneaux, Jr., commander of the 422nd and one of the youngest regimental commanders in the US Army, knew little more than his men Ever since the first hours of the offensive, communications with Division Headquarters had been sparse.”
A couple of years after the war, when I was still sharp on details, I jotted down all I could remember about my experiences.
“For almost two days we kept on the move,” I wrote in reference to 16 and 17 December 1944, “trying to rejoin the main elements of the 422nd.
“Somebody was taking a hell of a beating in this battle, but not us.
“General Hodges' First Army struck back at advancing columns of infantry and armor in Belgium and Luxembourg today,” the AP reported on 18 December 1944, “in a fierce battle which may prove to be one of the most decisive of the war.
“The Allied command accepted the challenge of Field Marshal Karl Rudolph Gerd von Runstedt who was attempting his greatest counter‑offensive,” the news report added. “The situation at the front was extremely fluid and Supreme Headquarters (at Paris) decided upon a strict blackout of detailed information.”
Our outfit, still confused and adrift from the battle's storm center, spent 18 December 1944 in a dense wooded area where, somehow or other, Company A became split into two parts.
It was Monday, but not wash day. “We laid down in the snow and tried to sleep,” I wrote in post‑war notes. “I couldn't sleep. There were machine guns firing around us but not right at us. The suspense, knowing we or some Germans would very possibly be dead in minutes or hours, was indescribable ... praying helped.”
In “The Bitter Woods,” John Eisenhower noted that “the 422nd and 423rd, without aerial resupply or relief, had decided to fight their way back to the west. It would be hard: the 106th front, as General Jones has since pointed out, extended over a distance nearly as great as that from Baltimore to Washington. Coordinated action between the surrounded units would be difficult to achieve. But the effort would be made, battalion by battalion, if necessary.”
By noon of 18 December 1944, the battle for St. Vith was raging full‑tilt and Seventh Armored units ‑arriving later than expected ‑ showed‑up to help rescue the encircled Schnee Eifel troops. Simultaneously, German tanks and infantry added to the slam‑bang proceedings by attacking a village only a mile north of the St. Vith crossroads.
Minutes before noon, Toland wrote, “Descheneaux's regiment had started moving northwest. Kitchen trucks were destroyed, weapons too heavy to carry were abandoned. On the ground lay strewn the personal and military possessions of a regiment. The distance to travel to the new assembly area was only three miles but it was over rough, hilly country. The men, dragged down by weapons and ammunition, slogged through mud, up slippery hills, and through dense forests. It was hot work and soon the trail was littered with overcoats. Descheneaux personally led the regiment, he was the point.”
I recall Colonel Descheneaux, a stocky man wearing a gray field jacket and carrying a .45 sidearm. I had already shed my overcoat, but discarded my sleeping bag during the “hot work” on the assumption that I would either be dead or sleeping in a captured house by nightfall ... I was wrong on both counts.
The target of our advance, I learned later, was the village of Schönberg ‑ the sleepy hamlet Millie and I visited on 26 April 1977.
“The 422nd had taken a pretty heavy pounding for two days,” Colonel Dupuy mentioned, “but at least its elements had been dug in under some protection. Now they were floundering in the open over terrain unknown to most of them. The regiment took it in stride, the men generally in good humor. All knew that the 422nd had not given an inch of ground since the attack first started; it was leaving now only because Division had so ordered. All felt that a counterattack was coming to relieve them.”
That's exactly the way it was, with the added dimension of almost zero visibility due to ground fog plus the lack of food and water.
We felt ‑ at least I did ‑ absolutely certain that we would link‑up with a large body of men and, after some reorganization, would achieve some kind of success.
I might die or lose an arm or leg, but the possibility of being captured ‑ something that happened to parachuting airmen, but very rarely to infantry combatants hardly entered my mind.
If I slept at all the night of 18 December 1944, it was with the expectation that the next day would resolve our situation ... one way or the other.
End of the Line
Early on the morning of 19 December 1944 we hit the knee‑deep trail again.
No one seemed to know where we were going. Schönberg was never mentioned ‑ but we already had a fulltime job standing up straight without being shackled by such extraneous trivia as the plan of attack.
Up to this point I had helped carry the heavy BAR, a long‑barreled gun equipped with awkward bipods at its business end. This morning, Big Ike threw the bipods away ‑ they had nothing to do with firing the weapon and he assumed sole possession of the gun. Amos Robertson, my silent partner from West Virginia, and I toted the belts full of extra ammo but we wanted Big Ike, an expert, on the trigger when the showdown came.
Disoriented, our half of Company A came to an open ravine where, perhaps a thousand yards away, some men were digging in at the edge of a forest. They were friendly troops, our Cannon Company and some Battalion Headquarters personnel with radios. We moved in with them, adding some rifles and three 60‑millimeter mortars to their heavy caliber stuff. We dug in the best we could in the stubborn roots. Only a few of us still had entrenching tools and we passed them around. There was still no food.
Very vividly, I still recall some German prisoners in the back of a GI stake truck in the woods. They had been taken by our Cannon Company. We looked them over as though they were animals in a zoo. Some of their keepsakes, including pocket watches, had been taken from them by our troops. At the time, I thought this was improper. It might not have been morally wrong, considering our circumstance, but I had no stomach for a German soldier's billfold with a picture of his mother, wife or kids in it.
After we were entrenched, someone instructed a contingent of bewildered volunteers ‑ “you, you and you” ‑ to proceed to “an outpost position.” I had no idea what we were trying to outpost ‑ perhaps Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun were on a nearby picnic blanket, for all we knew ‑ but I went along. I carried nothing but my M‑1 and two kinds of ammunition. In the heat of impending battle, it seemed warm. I was excited . . . positive something big was going to happen.
About half way out, we paused in a gully to check signals. In a minute or two, we spotted some Germans in the nearby woods. I recall seeing a tan truck with an 88 artillery gun which, rather curiously, was pointed straight up.
I think it was Big Ike who yelled at the Germans, trying to get them to surrender. There was no response. We radioed back to the Cannon Company area for mortar fire and ‑ 'kerplunk, kerplunk kerplunk" three shots dropped into the woods on, or near, the Germans and their tan truck. It was just like Camp Wolters when Lieutenant Hyber showed us his training films. The mortar gunner, Company A's Sergeant Devine, had fired to (1) get the range and (2) for effect. We added some rifle and BAR fire to ice the cake.
Then we got a radio message to go back to the woods ‑ everybody was pulling out.
We returned on the double, looking back nervously over our shoulders toward where we had been firing. Shivers ran through me as, with our backs toward hostile positions, we headed toward what by now were flaming woods.
We all got back OK, with no shots fired at us by the Germans behind us, just as the last of the Cannon Company trucks were pulling out amid shellbursts, flying dirt and falling timbers. It was panic, pure and simple. It was no withdrawal ... we were scrambling to save our skins.
I jumped on a truck that was pulling an anti‑tank gun, most likely a 57‑millimeter, along with our platoon leader, Sergeant Hunter, who was a long‑time Army man but was getting his first taste of combat with the rest of us.
We rode several miles, backing up more than once after trucks had been destroyed by mines or artillery on the road ahead. Part of our confusion resulted, no doubt, from the fact that Germans disguised as American MP's were directing traffic sending our convoys into the laps of Nazi gunners.
We kept going a while longer then, in a village near Schönberg, all the trucks stopped. It was around 3 p.m., and an officer ‑ a major, I think ‑ was holding an improvised white flag. He told us to surrender and destroy our guns.
We were stunned. We were not under fire at the moment and couldn't understand why we were surrendering. Orders are orders, at Camp Wolters or Camp Atterbury or in the Ardennes at a nameless wide spot in the road I recall only for its gray stone buildings and abundant mud.
I started to slam my M‑1 against a truck, grabbing it by the barrel‑end the way some of the others were doing. At that moment a guy doing the same thing was shot in the stomach when his carbine discharged. I bent my gun barrel over a bumper, instead, as one of our medics ‑ not Nose, who was already dead tried to stop his bleeding.
We stood around a while, expecting paratroopers or a string of Sherman tanks to come to our rescue like in a horse opera. This can't be it, I thought to myself. Surely this wasn't the end of the line after all the training that began at Camp Wolters when, as an awkward draftee, I nearly fell down the barracks steps after lacing my leggings to their hooks on the inside of my legs.
I latched onto a blanket and a pound box of raisins that were in the mud. Soon there were dozens of Germans around us. One of them, even younger than I was, picked up one of our “grease gun” weapons and, with the barrel pointed our way, worked the bolt back and forth. Fortunately, there were no .45 slugs in the discarded weapon.
Our captors, mounting in number by now, told us to get rid of our helmets. With our hands on our heads still assuming we would be recaptured in a few days ‑ we marched to a churchyard on a hillside near Schönberg where, amid some tombstones, we spent the night.
“If you try to escape you will be shot,” a tall, angular SS officer said in precise, no nonsense English as we sat against the cemetery wall and shivered.
It was dark now. The Germans had searched us, rather casually, and took what they wanted.
Lippy Meminger, always a man of few words, was even more quiet than usual that night ‑ a stoic to the hilt ‑ as we coaxed warmth from my thin GI blanket.
“That guy (the SS man) means business,” I remarked in superfluous fashion. “I don't think any of us ought to try to escape.”
Lippy gave an affirmative nod then, somehow or other, summoned the nonchalance to fall asleep.
Over the Rhine
The war in Europe was over for me.
Everyone knows how it turned out with the heroic stand by the 101st Airborne and others at Bastogne and, eventually, the reorganization of the 106th which, among other chores, stood guard over 920,000 German POW's during an 11 week span.
Pfc. Harry Arvanis, after treatment of his burned hands at a hospital in France, rejoined Company K and fought, with his Thompson submachine gun, in the battle across the Rhineland that climaxed on V‑E Day, 8 May 1945, when the people who savored Nazi Germany's early victories over inadequate foes got exactly what they deserved ... humiliating defeat.
The war was over for me, but my battle for survival along with my surviving Company A buddies and thousands of anonymous GI's ‑ was just beginning.
About 7 in the morning of 20 December 1944 ‑ as the fierce battle continued at St. Vith ‑ we started marching toward the Rhine which, in later years, I jokingly bragged that I had crossed “before General Eisenhower or Patton got there.”
Our extreme hunger was exceeded only by our thirst. We ate snow, which was plentiful, and I nibbled sparingly on my precious raisins as, along the way, we met horsedrawn German guns and soup kitchens heading toward the battle.
There seemed to be five dead Germans for every dead American in the fields east of Schönberg. This added to the bewilderment of why we had been ordered to surrender. Many of us were extremely bitter about Colonel Descheneaux's decision but we, of course, were not exposed to “the big picture.” Descheneaux had decided to “pack in,” I read after the war, “to save as many lives as I can ... I don't give a damn if I'm court martialed.”
On the road near Schönberg there were dozens of bodies of GI's killed a day or so earlier. They were still in their long overcoats and were frozen grotesquely where they had died. Only their shoes, valuable to the Germans, were missing.
We marched through Prüm, a sizable town that had been pounded by First Army artillery shortly before our arrival. I still remember a twin‑spired church standing amid the rubble and the fact that we were getting our licks from Ole Man Winter as the days and nights went by.
One night Jim Robbins and I crouched under my blanket along the side of a road and tried to sleep. I let him roll‑up in the blanket for several hours.
Then we marched to Gerolstein where the Germans gave us some cheese and crackers that, in our condition, were better than a restaurant meal of prime rib and strawberry shortcake.
Time became a blur. We kept marching after some of the POW's were loaded on railcars which, we learned later, were strafed by our own P‑51 Mustangs.
I wasn't paying attention to minutes, hours or days. It didn't mean a lot to realize it was Christmas Eve because, inside war‑torn Germany with no one to help us, we knew there wouldn't be any Santa Claus.
Eggs for Christmas
We took a 24‑hour break at Dockweiler‑Dreis waiting to board boxcars, as some of the POW's did, or continue the trek.
We spent that day ‑ 25 December 1944 ‑ alternately cheering, running, shaking and praying.
The cheers were for the Allied bombers, the first to lay their deadly eggs on enemy territory since the German breakthrough began nine days earlier. Planes crossed the skies at all altitudes that day between their bases in England and the fluid ‑ but solidifying ‑ battle lines along Germany's borders with Belgium and Luxembourg. The order was out: “Put up everything we've got ‑ even an ironing board if it'll fly.”
We ran, after seeing the sun shine for the first time in more than a week, as the bombs from the Flying Fortresses and B‑25's ‑ perhaps from a few ironing boards, too ‑ began to explode in our midst.
We shook from a combination of fear, the sub‑zero cold and the impact from the 500 and thousand‑pounders landing so closely. As the bombs detonated around us on what looked like a German military concentration from above ‑ it appeared our luck had finally expired.
We prayed for obvious reasons, and most of us lived to pray our way through similar nerve‑racking suspense in the upcoming days, weeks and months. We prayed the airmen would get back to England alive. We wished we were up there with them, enroute back to air bases where there were warm beds and something to eat and drink.
Christmas dinner for the captured Golden Lion infantrymen ‑ plus an Air Force non‑com who was captured while visiting his brother, a dogface, up front consisted of hard tack (no excess of fattening calories) and something sweet and red that was presumed to be jelly or, perhaps, jam.
“It must be jelly,” Bob Fecht, a GI from Wisconsin, quipped from between his chattering teeth, “because jam don't shake like that.” It wasn't turkey and dressing like they were having on Burlington's South Hill, but it was something to eat. My raisin supply was long‑gone.
As the sun glowed more brightly later that day more bombs rained from our planes. As they exploded, several GI's in the panzer camp near the Dockweiler‑Dreis railroad depot were hurt and killed. There were screams and cries ... but most of us lucked‑out.
After the bombers disappeared we talked about our earlier Christmases ‑ ones highlighted by bicycles, ice skates, electric trains and sleds. Commando LaTournes, in particular, remembered Christmas in Connecticut "God's country" ‑ with his electric trains. One guy from Arizona said he enjoyed Christmas, too, but had never received an electric train on his Indian reservation ‑ or seen snow.
We talked about people ‑ Betty Grable's pin‑up poster of her in a white bathing suit, Bivouac Jones and his wife, Benny Goodman (whose rhythm number, “Henderson Stomp,” kept running through my mind) and the Nazis living it up in Berlin while, like Nero's Rome, much of Europe burned.
There was an occasional thrust at humor. “Ah,.' Commando LaTournes called out in a voice approximating newscaster Gabriel Heater, ”Adolph Hitler's a sorry man tonight .
Christmas Day, 1944, will always be remembered by the men who were at Dockweiler‑Dreis ... the ones who got on the boxcars there and the others, including myself, who resumed on foot the next day.
It was an extremely hilly route to Mayen ‑ as I was reminded last spring ‑ with its towering castle and the high school gym I remembered for some reason, and then to Koblenz.
At Koblenz, on or about 27 December 1944, we were ushered into a large building near a river, either the Rhine or the Moselle, as protection from the bitter cold. The structure, one of three standing side by side which were each as large as the Burlington auditorium, had windows but was not heated. But it was warm compared with being in a ditch and we were thankful to be in it.
The next day a tremendous bombing raid, lasting from mid‑morning to late afternoon, plastered the city.
I was never so scared, before or since. The big building we were in actually lifted and then settled back on its foundation each time the bombs fell near us. I huddled under my blanket for protection from the flying glass. Several times I was absolutely certain I was doomed. Ed Brewer felt the same way. There are, I can attest, no athiests in the foxholes ‑ or amid thunderous bombing attacks.
When we exited the building the next afternoon we saw that the identical structures on either side of us ‑ not occupied by GI's ‑ had suffered massive, direct hits. So had a warehouse across the street which, one of our guards said, had first been considered as the place for us to be billeted. The smashed‑flat warehouse had been ruled out, we were told, because it was already windowless from previous air raid damage.
As we marched out of Koblenz much of the city was in shambles and flames shot from gaping holes in the streets. German civilians shouted obscenities at us and shook their fists ... but they were too preoccupied with their own misery to do us harm.
The final stretch of our march was to Stalag 12‑A at Limburg ‑ more than a hundred miles along the up, down and winding roads from Schönberg.
We reached Limburg on New Year's Eve of 1944 or, possibly, the day before. We walked all night and the only thing that kept us going was the assumption that we would get something to eat. Some of the guys collapsed enroute. Others carried them as far as they could. Occasionally a shot rang out as, I assumed, a fallen POW was shot. The fear of being shot to death kept us moving, too.
We did get some carrot and cabbage soup at Limburg. Then we were given a delousing shower in a room which, when we first entered it, resembled the gas chambers used to exterminate the Jews and other “inferiors” despised by the Third Reich. It was a relieved feeling to walk out of that shower. Later, a doctor gave each of us some kind of shot in the chest.
The next morning ‑ 1 January 1945, 1 think ‑ in one of our most memorable experiences, squadrons of German FW‑190's took off at low altitudes over our tent to clash with US planes over the Western Front. The planes, with their big radial engines roaring, did barrel rolls only 50 or so feet above us, then shot skyward toward likely death. After this mass attack, we were to learn later, Hitler's vaunted Luftwaffe was “kaput.”
We boarded boxcars at Limburg for an odorous, depressing week‑long ride to Stalag 4B at Muhlberg ‑ 65 men to a locked car without toilets and nothing to eat or drink.
We spent two weeks at 4B before being shipped to a coal mine near Leipzig. At 4B, one of the GI's was caught stealing precious Red Cross food from another half‑starved American ... his well‑deserved fate was to be beaten to a pulp and then thrown into a pit filled with human excrement.
The Full Story
As the US Army recovered and fought back in the Ardennes, news analyst Cedric Foster commented as follows on his 2 January 1945 nationwide broadcast:
“Tonight for the first time there may be told the story which, in its dual aspects, is one of the most tragic and yet one of the most glorious episodes in the history of American arms ... the story of America's 106th Infantry Division.
“The American 106th Infantry Division was activated at Fort Jackson (South Carolina) in March of 1943. Major General Alan W. Jones, who commanded it at the time, told the 106th: 'You are brand new. You have no past history to live up to. You have no past sins to live down.'
“Tonight the 106th Infantry Division has a past history to live up to, but it still has no sins to live down. It fought gloriously and it fought heroically in the full flush of German power on the 16th of December. Two of its regiments were all but eliminated from the war. They were the 422nd and the 423rd. Three hundred men out of those two regiments were all who survived, most of the others are presumed to be prisoners of war.
“On the 11th of December, the 106th Division was in a sector of the front designated as 'quiet.' The division had not been in action. As a matter of fact the 106th Division had engaged in nothing more dangerous than a few night patrol skirmishes. Five days later ‑ on the 16th ‑ these men of the Golden Lion Division were struck by an avalanche of German steel and fire. The attack got underway just before six o'clock in the morning. In the battle that followed, the division suffered 8,643 casualties ... 416 were killed, 1,246 were wounded and 7,000 are missing.
“Censorship can now reveal that the 106th Division was spread in a manner described as 'pitifully thin' along a front of 27 miles. It was holding a sector along the Schnee Eifel ... the Eifel Forest which is just northeast of the frontier of Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany. This was in the general sector of the Belgian town of St. Vith . . . 12 miles southeast of Malmedy. The Germans first laid down an earth‑shaking artillery barrage. They directed this against the 106th positions which curved to the north from the center of the Eifel Woods ... positions which were held by the 14th Cavalry Group, an armored unit attached to the infantry. A field artillery battalion, which was also attached to the 106th, was the next target. In 35 minutes more than 100 rounds of German fire had landed squarely in the midst of this battalion. At six o'clock the Germans opened up on St. Vith itself. Civilians of St. Vith were all in their cellars. They were pro‑German and the Huns had told them by radio that the barrage was impending. When the barrage was over at two o'clock in the afternoon, the civilians came out.
Golden Lion Infantryman
“The 422nd and 423rd Regiments bore the brunt of the German fire. This fire was followed by German tanks and infantry. When dawn broke the next day, December 17, the Germans had two divisions in the line. They literally engulfed the two regiments and forced the 424th Regiment to retire. Yet these two regiments fought on. At half past three in the afternoon of the 19th of December radio communications with those two regiments was lost. The last word they had sent through was that they were in need of ammunition, water and food. The fog which blanketed the countryside made it impossible to send them supplies by air. Then they said: 'We are destroying our equipment.' After that came silence. Thus it is believed that most of these men are prisoners of war.
“St. Vith and divisional headquarters were protected for a time by the heroic fighting men of the 8 1st and the 168th Engineer Battalions under Lt. Col. Thomas Riggs of Huntington, West Virginia. They were outgunned and they were outmanned. Their weapons consisted of three tank destroyer guns and three 57‑millimeters. That was all. That was all except the raw courage which was theirs as they faced the foe. The 424th Regiment of the 106th had not been destroyed. This regiment was supported by a combat command team from the Ninth Armored Division and by the 112th Regiment of the 28th (Keystone) Division. It had other support, too. Back into the line of battle came the survivors ‑ 300 of them ‑ the survivors of the 422nd and 423rd Regiments ... and it was not until the 21st of December that the 106th went out of the line to reorganize. But on the 24th the emergency was so great that the valiant and broken remains were hurled into the line on the northern side of the German salient between Stavelot and Manhay.
“'If they only had a chance to fight ... to prove themselves.' Those words were spoken to me on the telephone from Rochester, New York, two weeks ago by Mrs. Leon Brown, the mother of a lad in the 106th Division.
“They did have a chance to fight and they did not fail.
“They fought magnificently in the greatest American battle of the war . their first battle with foe.
“The record they wrote is a shining example for all of the armed forces of the United States.”
A Promise Kept
Two years after the fact World War 2 was still news and the following event of 8 March 1947 rated coverage in papers from New York to Los Angeles. The article, written by George Shane, is reprinted by permission of The Des Moines Register and Tribune Co.:
DAVENPORT ‑ As the hours dragged along in World War 2, GI's made lots of resolutions and plans for the bright, new post‑war world that loomed ahead.
There were the captains to be punched in the nose, the foamy nut brown ale to be drank in merry wassail. There were the many, many other projects ‑ both sacred and profane.
But back home again it was a different story. Old friends had scattered and jobs and responsibilities interfered with poetic justice and consummation of great ideas for reunion.
So, heartening it should be, at least to many American GI's who starved in German prisoner of war camps to know that two fellow sufferers finally got together Saturday and did exactly what they had dreamed of doing while working as prisoners in a German coal mine.
“To eat everything on the menu” was the dream of Cpl. Robert Fecht, 23, Highland, Wis., and Pfc. Andy (Dan) Bied, 21, Burlington, as they worked in the coal mine at Sandersdorf, Germany.
The two of them had lost a total of 135 pounds in weight.
The meals provided by the Germans were consistently poor. The only change was that they tended to grow smaller. For breakfast when they got up at 5 a.m. there was nothing. Work in the mine began at 6 a.m.
At noon there was the unvaried bowl of green “kohla.” It resembled spinach, but was little less nutritious than grass.
For supper, there was the customary two small slices of bread. The bread, Bob and Dan were informed by the Germans, contained exactly 26% wood pulp ‑ and not a fraction more!
There wasn't much time for day‑dreaming when Dan and Bob drank their soupy lunch. But in the evening, as they munched away on the semi‑edible bread, they dreamed their dreams of the post‑war world.
This world always seemed to center in a typical American restaurant where meals, hamburgers, malted milks or hot fudge sundaes could be had.
In the dream, the two were seated at a table and a pretty waitress was bringing them great helpings of food. There were always several cups of coffee and the pie was a la mode.
The dream always took the same pattern, and as Fecht and Bied were eating their last little crumbs of the ersatz bread they would reaffirm their vows. Yes, after the war, back home, they would “eat everything on the menu.”
That dream remained with them the five months they worked in the mine.
Bob and Dan parted ways shortly after liberation but they kept in touch with each other. Both were discharged in November of 1945.
Dan went back to Burlington and took a drug store clerking job. Bob enrolled in the Palmer Chiropractic School at Davenport.
Saturday was the first day they could get together, and Dan drove up to Davenport for the reunion. It was the first time they had seen one another in civilian clothes. With the added weight, they hardly recognized each other.
The meal was scheduled for noon at Ted's Stop N'Eat at E. River Drive and Tremont Ave. Bob had told Ted Driskell, proprietor, about it.
Driskell thought it such a good idea that he said everything would be on the house. He even invited Mayor Arthur R. Kroppach of Davenport (a former Burlingtonian) to eat with the young GI's.
While steaks and chops were frying, Bob and Dan visited at the home two blocks away where Bob rooms. At noon, sharp, they arrived ready to eat.
Neither had had a bite of food since Friday afternoon and they had a moderate form of their old German coal mine hunger pangs.
Mayor Kroppach noted this and made no attempt to give a welcome speech or present a key to the city. He shook hands and sat down with the two veterans and the three began to eat.
All the food on the menu was there, on two tables pushed together.
They started with chili, then quickly swung over to steaks. Pork chops followed, then roast beef. There was salad, lettuce and carrots on the side.
There were cheeseburgers and hamburgers, a stack of three dozen by actual count. A platter of French fries helped to reinforce the main course. Lemon pie was waiting. Each also had a malted milk.
Mayor Kroppach, who had even gone without breakfast to get into the spirit of it all, stopped when he had finished his steak.
But Bob and Dan carried on. Actually each ate two roast beef dinners, and several hamburgers and cheeseburgers as well.
After 45 minutes of eating, the pair stopped for cigarettes. Then they were back to roast beef again, with mashed potatoes and gravy. Bob drank six cups of coffee, Dan had but four.
Dan, whose pre‑meal weight was 176 pounds, ate a little faster and a little more than Bob who weighed in at 140.
Dan ate his lemon pie, a la mode, first, and agreed that eating another would be a good idea. As he was finishing this, Bob finished his first piece of pie. Instead of pie for seconds on dessert, Bob settled for a hot fudge and marshmallow sundae.
Though the dessert, and the later cups of coffee, Dan and Bob fell to reminiscing. Yes, Ted's Stop N' Eat was just the kind of place they had dreamed about. Bob had picked it because he eats there regularly.
They talked a little about their time in the Army. Both were in the 106th (Golden Lion) Division and were captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Bob was with a heavy weapons unit. Dan was a rifleman.
They talked about the German guards at the coal mine and wished those old Volksturm men could see them now.
They talked about one real meal they had in Germany. It had seemed wonderful at the time, but nothing compared with this.
“That was when they had taken us out of the mine and were marching us east to prevent our liberation,” Bob said.
“Our guard was named Harry Engle. He was thin and middle‑aged. His wife was a Jew and in a concentration camp. Because of this he seemed to treat us better.
“We noticed he had canned meat in a suitcase. The pair of us stole a can and feasted on it. It was good beef. He raised a great fuss about it, but nothing was done. He could have shot us for it.”
They got by with nothing of this sort with plump Herr Wilhelm Gromann.
“He was the one who took our work party to the mine,” Dan said. “He was one of the worst. They made us work, or keep moving at least, but we dug as little coal as possible. If we complained about food, they said that was as good as they got to eat themselves. But we knew better.”
Full and happy, both Bob and Dan wished that burly Herr Gromann knew how well they had eaten now.
Of course they hadn't exactly “licked the platters clean,” but they had consumed an amazing quantity of food ‑ and neither had a trace of indigestion.
Bob and Dan are undecided whether the meal will be an annual affair.
Because they both are single and probably will remain that way for some time, future reunions also will be in restaurants, the kind they dreamed about in Stalag 4B and the Sandersdorf mine.
Most Survived It
I don't know what became of Big Ike Wolfgang, Jim Davis, Lippy Meminger, Snuffy Singler, Amos Robertson, Sergeant Todd, Junior Dorsey or Carlos D. Weber after the war. As far as I know, they survived it.
Lieutenant Karl Luck and at least a dozen other Company A men were killed in the Ardennes ... I assume that Captain Bertram C. Finch went back to newspaper work in South Carolina (if he didn't cross one too many open fields) ... while Kai Jeong and Abe Gordon likely resumed cooking in California and New York.
In 1948, General Jones ‑ who had suffered a heart attack during the St. Vith siege ‑ stressed that the attack on Schönberg was “a brilliantly executed move ... but it was too late, the door was closed by powerful German panzer forces. Without armor or air support, with but little artillery, ammunition running out and no resupply of food and water for four days, the 422nd and 423rd nevertheless fought through the day, until finally in late afternoon they were forced, by sheer weight of number and artillery, to submit to capture.”
Colonel Descheneaux, who contracted tuberculosis in a POW camp, retired shortly after the war. “We ran into a trap near Schönberg,” he wrote in 1946, “and by afternoon it became evident that the accomplishment of our mission was impossible. The paramount question became that of saving the lives of as many of the men as possible ... our situation was rendered hopeless by our great distance behind our lines, the weather, our ammunition supply and many other factors ... though my spirit revolted against such a decision, surrender seemed to be the only solution to avoid needless loss of life and further suffering.”
Five years after the war I met Jim Robbins for “a night on the town” in St. Louis. He paid me $20 he had borrowed in London and, as thanks for use of my blanket one night in Germany, treated me and my friend, Dawson Brown, to steaks in a nitty restaurant. In 1974, Jim was in Burlington on business and we had a few drinks at Pzazz!. He told me how our friend, Joe Zematis, had died.
In 1958, Ed Brewer drove out from West Virginia (I had visited him in 1947) and spent a week with the Bied family on South Hill. He is now retired from a production job and lives in Cumberland, Maryland.
In 1967, 1 drove to Rock Falls, Illinois, to visit with Bob Fecht and his family, including twin sons. Bob is a chiropractor in nearby Sterling and, except for some soreness in his feet, is doing OK.
One night a few years ago Commando La Tournes phoned from Connecticut (God's Country) and we talked an hour at his expense. If he has worked in recent years he kept the nature of his job a secret. To my knowledge he never did get around to dismembering any SS men, but his heart was in the right place.
I still exchange Christmas cards with Ed Brewer ... and also with Budge Hall, with whom I mined coal in Eastern Germany and visited 30 years later on Cape Cod where he and his wife, Anne, run a motel.
One weekend in 1976, 1 was skimming some old books and pamphlets about the 106th and ran across the name of Harry Arvanis several times ... the accounts of his heroics at St. Vith, the kind of courageous deed that finally did the Nazis in.
I wrote Harry a letter of introduction and told him Millie and I planned to go to the Ardennes in the spring so we could publish my long‑postponed book based on an “Ardennes Revisited” theme.
By incoming mail, the ex‑mortarman invited us to come up and see him sometime.
He's Still Cool
The afternoon we met Harry Arvanis he was on the phone talking about a fire that had accidentally spread from a neighbor's place and destroyed 1,200 valuable saplings ‑ future Christmas trees ‑ adjacent to the Hobby House Ceramics Shop.
His nerves were still cool, like they were on 17 December 1944. Although his weight has bulged some 40 pounds since the Ardennes battle he is not a man I'd test in a brawl.
“Baby,” Harry said, “it just doesn't pay to get excited This is a job for the insurance people to handle. If that doesn't straighten it out we'll just have to take it into court and settle it there.”
Arvanis, an outgoing man who gets acquainted without time‑wasting preliminaries, was in the business place he and Alfreda, assisted by family members, have operated since he quit working as a construction carpenter 18 years ago.
Harry is proud of the fact that he helped build a fine bridge across the Mississippi a few miles from East Moline. But he is even more proud of the ceramics firm which has “mushroomed” to the point that, in five years or less, Harry and Alfreda plan to let their offspring carry the load.
“Ceramics are beautiful therapy,” Arvanis told Suzanne Kridner when she interviewed him last winter for The Rock Island Argus, “and a hobby anyone from age four on up can do.”
Harry's biggest joy, The Argus reported, “is teaching ceramics students ‑ more than 200 come for weekly classes ‑ and helping his grandson, Corey, age five, with his projects.”
In a full‑page spread about the closely‑knit business operation on 13 March 1977, The Argus noted Harry's strong family ties which had roots in Greece. They extend to Sam Arvanis and his wife who help run the busy shop Harry and Alfreda's daughter, Sandra, who got the family interested in ceramics when she was a Brownie Scout ... sons Harry and John who, with their wives, help run the store at times ... and four grandchildren including Corey who, “gramps” is anxious to relate, won several ribbons in a ceramics show.
Across the front of his shop, located in an isolated area that would have been termed “an outpost” at St. Vith, Arvanis proudly displays a patriotic and religious mural which was done, in very expert fashion, by artist Charles Howell of Hampton, Illinois. Though the shop is several miles from the Quad‑Cities population center, the mural is seen by thousands of customers and others each year.
“He is an often‑decorated veteran of World War 2,” the article, mostly about contemporary events, stated. It quoted Arvanis as saying, with typical frankness, that during the Battle of the Bulge “I did quite a few bad things.” He then got closer to the Lord, Arvanis pointed out, and “it's like being born over again.”
“In 1946,” the Argus write‑up added, “Arvanis was honored as having the most medals (of any World War 2 serviceman) in the Quad‑Cities. His highest honor is the Silver Star. He also earned two Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in the Battle of the Bulge . . . and has three French decorations and a Belgian award.”
Harry and I talked face to face about 1944‑45 events for several hours, and later in phone calls, last spring.
“There's still some kind of reflection on the Bulge even to this day,” he said. “It's always rubbing off some way or another,” he added. “I see or hear something about it on TV or the radio, or one of my customers mentions it. Even after all of these years . . .”
The Bulge, Harry declared, is something he won't forget.
“It's always there,” he said as he showed me a shrapnel scar in his left wrist which, he mentioned, resembles a fish hook.
Harry Arvanis is not bitter about his long‑ago wartime ordeals. Nor is he cocky the way he was when he yelled at the skirted Scotchmen from a “forty and eight” railroad car in the fall of 1944.
The Bulge, we agreed, happened an awfully long time ago and, perhaps, should be confined now to the history books, military texts and Hollywood movies with actors shouting “incoming mail!”
It all happened 33 years ago in a different generation. Most of the key participants, such as Generals Eisenhower and Patton, are dead . . . so are many of the GI's who served under their command.
But for the survivors, “it's always there.”
In Retrospect ...
When we landed at Luxembourg City in April of '77 the first impressive, identifiable sight was the American cemetery at the nearby village of Hamm.
Before departing for the USA ‑ 1,250 auto and train miles later ‑ we paid two visits to the serene, beautiful grounds where 5,076 of our fighting men are buried.
We strolled the cemetery a while, not looking for any particular grave, and were impressed by the precise way the white crosses and Stars of David are arranged ‑ like sentinels who, in prayerful memory if not actual fact, are standing at parade rest.
We stopped at General Patton's grave, marked by a simple cross identical to the others, and spent some time in the cemetery chapel before returning our car to Findel Airport.
On the plane, we happened to be seated next to a prosperous young German businessman, whose father might have fought at Bastogne or Stalingrad, and a black pro basketball player from Texas ‑ as descriptive a pair as any movie director could have asked for to typify what World War 2 was all about.
As we winged toward idyllic Iceland and melting pot New York I tried, mostly in vain, to put the scrambled pieces that comprised the Battle of the Bulge together in my head.
After our release from the POW camp at Naumberg on the Elbe, I recalled, we were fearful we would be treated as though we had let our country down. “Forget it,” one of our GI liberators assured us. “You guys were heroes. You were in the big battle where the Germans got their butts whipped.” The reassurance was gratifying but lingering doubts, fueled by months of uncertainty, remained.
I remembered the time somewhere in Germany when an old woman risked her life by bringing two pies she had baked out to the hungry GI's marching past her home as “kriegsgefangenes.”
I remembered the 1946 article in which Stanley Frank wrote that “the 106th didn't win the war or even a battle ... it didn't lose a battle, either, and that's the big story that didn't make the headlines . . .”
German generals interviewed after the war said their offensive failed because of such key factors as “tougher resistance than expected of, in themselves, weak US troops, especially at St. Vith.”
General Hodges said “the grand job” done by Golden Lion troops “definitely upset von Runstedt's timetable.”
“The magnificent job” done by the 106th in and near St. Vith was lauded by General Eisenhower.
Field Marshall Montgomery, not always anxious to praise Americans, paid tribute to “the soldiers of the 106th (who) stuck it out and put up a fine performance.”
Still, lingering doubts remained . . . in 1945 and in 1977.
The memories drifted through my mind like the pine cones we had seen blowing across a churchyard near Schönberg a few days earlier. If memory serves correct, this was the churchyard where we huddled the night our war ended and our punishment of another sort began. At the time, I recalled in flight over Labrador, some of the men were convinced we were living through hell on earth.
A lot of good men, such as Colonel Thomas Kent and Private Joe Zematis, died in that long‑ago war.
It makes me ‑ and vets such as Harry Arvanis ‑ do a slow burn whenever half‑baked kids, and others old enough to know better, bitch about all that's “wrong” with the USA.
The older I get the more I appreciate General Eisenhower's suggestion on how to improve any undesirable situation.
“Deeds,” he advised, “not words.”
The Glorious Collapse of the 106th
By Stanley Frank
From the Saturday Evening Post November 8, 1946.
Printed with permission in the 106th Infantry Division Association publication, the “Lion's Tale,” of which 200 were printed in 1953.
The Saturday Evening Post performed a great service in telling the stories of many of the outstanding organizations which made the history of World War II.
Stanley Frank did much research in the National Archives of the War Department. He did interviews with former 106th Infantry members, and used the files maintained by the 106th Infantry Division Association. He was not a member of the Division, but that had no effect on the sincere understanding that he put forth in this story.
Since the original publication of this article, many letters have been written correcting and calling attention to errors that appear in the story. The attack on the town of Ennal has had its share of controversy. The omission of mention of the 7th Armored Division has been hotly discussed; and last but not least, the title of the story has not met with universal approval. The author's coverage of the “AGONY GRAPEVINE” omits the names of many who made the operation possible, but all realize that this was due to space limitations and was not intentional.
With all these comments about the story, it is reprinted here in its entirety, and we believe it is a stirring account of a fine organization.
“Five days off the boats, some of the youngest and greenest troops in the American Army were shoved into a “quiet” sector ‑ and at once virtually wiped out during the grimmest days of the Battle of the Bulge."
War is the stimulation of victory that sends you home with the swagger of survival, the dame you met in Paris and the cognac you liberated, the enduring satisfaction of having painfully paid a debt of allegiance to society free from that society's conventions and restraints ‑ for the last time, perhaps, in your life. War also is a dirty, despicable, degrading business, some‑ times attended by bitter, unredeemed defeat in a man's first action, leaving him to wonder for the rest of his days whether he was betrayed by circumstances or his courage. That was the side of war the 106th Infantry Division knew.
The 106th virtually was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge. Five days after it landed on the European continent and went into the line in a “quiet” sector of the Ardennes, the 106th caught the brunt of Von Rundstedt's counteroffensive mounted by three German armies. The first shots fired in anger heard by the green troops literally were the massive barrages that preceded the attack. No other American division in the war was hit by a greater concentration of enemy strength. None suffered such catastrophic casualties in a single brief engagement.
“Decimated,” the classic word used in relation with a military disaster, is a grim understatement of the 106th's losses. Two of its three regiments were isolated and liquidated three days after the Germans attacked on December 1944. By December twenty‑second, 70 per cent of the Division's combat effectives were dead, wounded, or captured. St. Vith, the enemy's key objective in the Schnee Eifel, was lost by the 106th, and yet the beaten, battered doughfoots achieved a brilliant feat of arms in their first fire fight.
The Battle of the Bulge will always be associated in the public imagination with the 101st Airborne's epic stand at Bastogne. Without the slightest depreciation of the 101st's performance, it can be stated that the 106th's holding action at St. Vith was equally vital. The main force of the German effort was contained in two tremendous lunges at Bastogne and St. Vith, commanding the only north‑south roads in the sector suitable for mechanized movement. Bastogne, some twenty miles west of St. Vith, was the target of a ponderous, roundhouse left swing. St. Vith, only twelve miles from the German jump off, was the objective of a shorter, sharper right hook. St. Vith fell on December twenty‑second ‑ five days late on Von Rundstedt's timetable.
Maybe the krauts would have been stopped even if St. Vith had been seized in the early hours of the attack, according to plan. The character of the American resistance at Monschau, Stavelot and elsewhere on the northern shoulder of the Bulge suggests as much, but sheer conjecture has a negligible value in war. The path to the war‑criminal trials is paved with the German and Japanese High Commands' false estimates of the Allies' capabilities. The point is that the painfully green 106th, mauled by four veteran divisions, stood and held until its position had lost all tactical importance, although every reasonable expectation lead the enemy to anticipate a quick, decisive penetration.
The 106th didn't win the war or even a battle. It didn't lose a battle either, and that's the big story that didn't make the headlines. For the 106th was a typical draft division and, without getting too sloppy about this, symbolized the courage and resourcefulness of American kids in a desperate situation. The highest numerical division in the Army, the 106th also had the lowest age average. It was the first outfit to get eighteen‑year‑old draftees. When it arrived overseas its average age was twenty‑two.
Even Monty Was Impressed
It did not have the tradition or geographical integration that charged some outfits with high morale. Any special “esprit de corps' it might have had was disrupted by the steady drain on it for replacements. In the month preceding embarkation 95 Per cent of its riflemen were assigned to other units. Its training in the States had been routine and its equipment was merely adequate. Everything went wrong in the Bulge. Maj. Gen. Alan W. Jones, its commander, suffered a heart attack induced by overwork and anxiety for the fate of his son, who had become a father the day before the attack struck and was with one of the isolated regiments. Division headquarters had no communications with Corps or the two surrounded regiments after December nineteenth. But the overrun 422nd and 423rd Regiments fought without food and water until their ammunition was exhausted, and the 424th, which escaped encirclement, came back with enough heart left to participate in counter‑attacks that reduced and flattened the Bulge.
“The American soldiers of the 106th Infantry Division stuck it out and out up a fine performance,” Field Marshal Montgomery ‑ not especially noted as a press agent for American performances ‑ said. “By Jove, they stuck it out, those chaps.”
Guarded reports that a new American division had been surrounded and faced annihilation began to trickle back to the States in the early dark hours of the Bulge. Security did not permit correspondents to identify the division, but families at home knew the men of the 106th had arrived recently in Europe and guessed theirs was the outfit in jeopardy. Lacking definite information from the War Department, the folks at home organized one of the most remarkable civilian volunteer agencies to appear during the war, the Agony Grapevine.
Conceived by Duward B. Frampton, a Pittsburgh lumberman, whose son was a corporal with the 422nd, the Agony Grapevine painstakingly set out to determine the fate of each unreported man in the division. In January, 1945, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson announced that 416 men of the 106th had been killed in the Bulge, 1246 were wounded and 7001 missing in action. Frampton and his helpers never abandoned hope that the missing men had been captured.
Frampton and volunteers who owned short‑wave radios began tireless vigils at their sets, listening to German propaganda broadcasts which each night released the names of American soldiers captured. A letter from California to New York, telling of Frampton's work, gave the Associated Press a lead to the story, which was circulated nationally. Letters, photographs, telegrams and offers of assistance deluged the Framptons. In Cleveland, Dr. and Mrs. C. R. Woods heard in roundabout fashion that an officer with another division had written his wife in Chicago saying he was pretty sure most of the 106th boys were prisoners. On the basis of such flimsy encouragement, another branch of the grapevine was nourished.
Every family Frampton could locate was asked to communicate with him as soon as it heard whether sons and husbands were PW's. Names trickled in from all parts of the country. It was tedious work but ceaseless sessions at the radio began to produce results. One night, alone, Frampton picked up the names of 125 PW's from the 106th. He distributed regularly circular letters to all families, listing the names, serial numbers, home addresses and next of kin of all newly reported prisoners, urging those who did not find the names they sought to continue praying. Eventually the majority of the missing men turned up alive and well. Six months after V‑E Day the 106th's M.I.A. list had been reduced from 7001 to 1023. In many instances the Agony Grapevine transmitted the good news to families long before the War Department came through with an official confirmation.
Historians will be fighting the Battle of the Bulge for years to come with specific attention to the surprise exploited by the Germans at such a heavy cost in lives to the 106th and three other American divisions, the 4th, 28th and 99th. An ironic footnote will remind future students of military science that the Schnee Eifel, a rugged terrain believed unsuitable for large‑scale offensive operations, was the German springboard on May 10, 1940, for the “Blitzkrieg” that conquered France in six weeks.
The 106th men who did all their fighting in the Bulge have not gone around in public blaming top brass incompetence for the krauts' sneak punch that caught them unprepared. They quietly read the analysis of the prebattle situation that General Eisenhower made in his official report: Since the shortage of combat troops made it impossible to maintain a strong line everywhere and carry through an attack being mounted in the north, the mountainous Schnee Eifel was the least likely sector for the enemy to launch a successful counterblow on a large scale.
The men are familiar with General Bradley's “calculated risk.” They have heard all the explanations and excuses, but the 106th knows only this: It was given absolutely no warning or indication that the Germans were preparing to attack.
“We relieved the Second Division, a damn good, battle‑wise outfit that had been in action since D Day,” General Jones says. “It had been in that sector for two months and it knew the score. The last thing General Robertson, commander of the Second, told me was: ”Take it easy. Those krauts won't attack if ordered “ The Second's artillery was dug in so deep that we traded them gun for gun. I wanted to make some revisions in the disposition of guns and ammunition dumps and, by a coincidence, I planned the changes for the morning of December sixteenth. Do you think I would have considered such measures had I known anything was cooking on the other side?”
Brig. Gen. Leo T. McMahon, Division artillery commander, has written in his official comments: “No advance warning was received of the impending German attack or any information of the enemy that would justify the conclusion that an attack was being mounted.”
Responsibility for St. Vith, a village on the Belgian frontier that had been German territory before the Treaty of Versailles, was assumed by the 106th on the night of December eleventh after a five‑day motor march across France, past cemeteries of American, British, Canadian, French and German dead from another war. The newcomers were so green and security was so relaxed that some vehicles arrived with headlights on and 2nd Division MP's didn't even bother to eat out the offenders, in the traditional fashion of Army watchdogs.
Loose mouthed civilian critics have accused the High Command of gross negligence in putting the raw 106th in the St. Vith sector. Throwing harpoons into the big brass always is a popular pastime, but there is no justification, except second‑guessing, to substantiate the charge. For ten weeks there had been only light patrol activity in the area. Both the Americans and Germans had been using the Schnee Eifel for identical purposes ‑ to rest battle‑weary divisions and to accustom new outfits to the sights and sounds of war. It was the safest spot along the entire western front at a time when there was such a desperate need for combat troops that SHAEF was combing the Services of Supply and Air Force ground crews for personnel to be converted into infantrymen. The 2nd Division veterans told the rookies they were getting a good deal. The 106th believed it until 5:40 A.M. on December 16 1944.
At that precise instant the 106th's twenty‑seven‑mile front ‑ the book calls for a division to hold five miles ‑ erupted convulsively. During the next eighty minutes thousands of rounds blasted the kids who never had heard ‑ much less been exposed to ‑ artillery fire. Shelling was so intense that MP's directed traffic lying prone in the mud. The full weight of the barrage was directed against the 589th Field Artillery, supporting the 422nd Regiment, to silence counter battery fire.
A half hour after all hell broke loose, the division had its first two heroes in Pfc. Thomas Graham, of Elmhurst, New York, and Lt. Eric Wood, Wayne, Pennsylvania. Graham, turret gunner of an armored car, delivered the wounded driver to the medics, and then drove the vehicle across exposed ground to reach a more effective firing position. Twice his gun jammed. Each time he calmly withdrew, then returned and, remaining upright in the turret, wiped out twenty invaders. Wood stood in the open, directing field pieces to the rear in the face of tank and small‑arms fire. He tried to run the gauntlet with the last gun. Graham and Wood did not live to receive their medals.
At seven o'clock a panzer and three “Volksgrenadier” divisions advanced in waves through the ghostly mist shrouding the dense woods and rolling valleys toward the 106th's positions. This movement has been described as the most auspicious start of a battle made by either side throughout the western campaign, The front was then an irregular line that recrossed the Belgian‑German border at several points, giving the Americans a series of salients into the Siegfried Line. Those projections were fine for observation posts and as potential jump‑offs for attacks. But when reverse technique was applied, they were vulnerable to encircling movements.
The left flank of the line was covered only by the 14th Cavalry Group, a light reconnaissance outfit that was not trained, equipped, or expected to fight defensively. The enemy made his first significant advance there, permitting him to throw a pincer to the south around the 422nd regiment. Simultaneously, he hacked a wedge between that regiment and the 423rd. By morning of December seventeenth, both regiments were surrounded on three sides. The 424th was forced to withdraw toward St. Vith.
The German had inflicted savage losses on the 106th and he had made important penetrations ‑ but not deep enough. He should have been in St. Vith that morning, swinging north up a good road leading to Liege, the 1st Army's communications center and supply base, before opposition could mass and block his path to Antwerp, the Allies huge port and the ultimate objective to his last‑ditch effort. Nothing much stood between‑ him and the Meuse River (the nearest American reserves were ninety miles away), Nothing except a few thousand frightened kids who refused to break under a sheer weight calculated to beat them into the ground.
T/5 Edward Withee, 81st Combat Engineers, of Torrington, Connecticut, volunteered to cover the withdrawal of his platoon, pinned down by four tanks. When last seen, Withee was returning fire with a submachine gun, the fire of 88's poured on him from point‑blank range of thirty yards. The platoon, which escaped without a casualty, assumed Withee was killed. But he turned up four months later in Eupen at a rest camp named in his honor as the Division's first winner of the D.S.C.
Large Lee Berwick, a captain from Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana, decided to throw a bluff comparable to his size when his thirty soldiers found a detachment of Germans holding a road junction. The krauts were in a building impregnable to the small arms Berwick had. He walked up to the house and demanded the surrender of the enemy to the “huge forces' behind him. The Germans took a look at the six‑foot‑two‑inch 220‑pound ”Amerikaner" brandishing a tommy‑gun, and out came 105 men and two officers, followed by seventeen captured doughfoots.
“That heinie leader sure was a mighty disgusted man after he'd been disarmed and my thirty guys showed themselves,” Berwick says with a reminiscent grin.
Not everybody was as lucky as Berwick. Lt. Albert Barnaby, of Metamora, Ohio, had his platoon dug in on a knoll overlooking the Siegfried Line when it was jumped by two battalions and five tanks. There was only one bazooka and a machine gun in the platoon to answer the tanks and a battery of 88's and, as the attack continued Barnaby's ammunition got dangerously low. To control his fire, he deliberately exposed himself to give the machine gun selected targets. Outnumbered thirty to one, the platoon held its ground for eight hours until reinforcements arrived. Barnaby then tried to make contact with the surrounded company command post. Instead of sending an enlisted man, he went himself. He never returned.
Von Rundstedt's orders, first captured by a 106th doughfoot from a battalion commander of the German 62nd Division, told General Jones the enemy's objectives, routes, and disposition of forces. By nightfall of the first day, Jones was convinced that his forward elements, exposed on a ridge of the Schnee Eifel, would be destroyed unless they were pulled back a few miles to stronger positions on the Our River. At 12:36 A.M., December seventeenth, Jones received a message from Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton, commanding the 8th Corps:
“Troops will be withdrawn from present positions only if position becomes completely untenable. In no event will enemy be allowed to penetrate west of the Our River, which will be held at all costs.”
“In plain military language,” Jones said laconically, “that means, stay till you're dead.”
So the green kids stayed where they were and fought to live. A shell damaged the mortar base manned by Pfc. Harry Arvannis, of Moline, Illinois. He fired his last fifty rounds holding the tube between his legs and aiming by hand. As the Germans continued to come, he was pointing the mortar straight up and dropping shells within twenty‑five yards of his own slit trench. Four krauts closed in with bayonets. He stopped three with his service pistol. Now the last one was lunging at him. Arvannis threw his four‑pound revolver at the German, hit him squarely between the eyes and killed him.
By evening of the second day it was obvious that the 422nd and 423rd Regiments were doomed. Only 300 of the 6000 men from those two units managed to escape to division headquarters or to the 424th, which was imperiled on its right flank by the collapse of the 28th Division, veterans of Normandy. Cpl. Willard Ropery of Havre, Montana, was the lead scout for twenty‑one men who fought though the enemy lines for seventy‑two hours to reach safety with little ammunition and four D‑ration chocolate bars among them.
The most appropriately named doughfoot in the Army Sgt. Wallace Rifleman, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, collected all the stragglers he could find and survived an interminable series of hand‑to‑hand fights to break out of the trap."I'll never forget the faces of two men who were cut off from their outfits and wandered around until we picked them up," says Cpl. Minturn T. Wright,III, West Hartford, Connecticut. “They couldn't talk coherently. They'd drop their heads in their hands in the middle of a sentence or stare off into space. They told of walking eight miles with a lieutenant who breathed through a hole in his back as big as a fist until he died. One of them had seen his best friend's foot blown off. Another man, they said, had his eye blown out and dumped sulfa powder into the empty socket and went on fighting.”
In the vast and terrible confusion, there was no front or rear. The front was wherever a man turned, the rear was over his shoulder. Men from the quartermaster companies drove ammunition trucks with one hand, holding carbines in the other. Cooks took chow to the foxholes and were given rifles. Company clerks set up covered‑wagon defenses around headquarters. The division band fought as riflemen. The 331st Medical Battalion, supposed to function only as a collecting station, operated without rest for seventy‑two hours as an emergency field hospital while isolated, and lost only six men of the wounded it treated.
Arrogance is not a characteristic of the 106th. The men who were in the Bulge freely concede they were saved from complete annihilation by Combat Command B of the 9th Armored Division, led by Brigadier General Hoge, who later seized the Remagen Bridge. Hoge's tanks rumbled into St. Vith just when the situation appeared hopeless.
“It was like a horse‑opera movie,”General Jones comments. “Those tanks wheeled into position in the public square just as German Tigers came over the brow of a hill to the east.”
All combat troops are pretty skeptical of decorations, knowing too well that too many acts of high valor go unrewarded because an officer did not happen to be around to file a report. But the 106th's soldiers, to a man, are unanimous in agreeing that Lt. Col. Thomas Riggs, of Huntington, West Virginia, was the outstanding hero of the Division.
Riggs, commanding a battalion of engineers, led the defense of St. Vith and N 23, the road leading north to Liege, for five days. He not only balked overwhelmingly superior forces but personally spearheaded a series of counterattacks to keep the enemy off balance. Among his other distinctions, Riggs was one of the few men who saw action on both fronts in Europe. Captured while leading a patrol a few hours before St. Vith fell, Riggs was marched 110 miles in bitter weather to a prison camp. During the ordeal, Riggs, a six‑foot‑three inch, 230‑pound former football star at Illinois, lost forty pounds. When he refused to give them any information, the Germans shipped him to a camp in Poland for such stubborn characters, but he escaped to the oncoming Russians. He fought with a Red tank army for ten days before he was evacuated to the rear. Eight weeks later he landed in Paris by way of Odessa, Port Said, Naples and Marseille. At Naples he spurned a chance to go home because he wanted the “satisfaction of finishing the war with an outfit that got the hell kicked out of it.”
By December eighteenth the immediate fall of St. Vith seemed certain, but the inevitable was forestalled for four more days. Radio communications were so bad that it took one hour to transmit one short message. Division headquarters, abandoning time consuming codes, was trying to reach the isolated regiments with messages marked triple urgent: “We must know where you are.” For four days Minturn Wright's radio team was the only contact the 424th Regiment had with the outside world. It transmitted at night from a truck sneaking up and down the roads to throw off enemy direction finders attempting to locate its beam. The last word from the 422nd was received on December nineteenth: “Send us ammunition,” Atrocious weather made it impossible to supply the surrounded men by planes ‑ visibility of less than 100 yards reduced air activity on December twentieth to twelve sorties, the lowest of the entire western campaign.
St. Vith finally fell to the Germans on December twenty‑second and the shattered remnants of the division withdrew through the 82nd Airborne to Vielsalm. The compounded nightmares of the six awful days and nights played queer tricks with a man's subconsciousness. Lt. Col. Herbert B. Livesey, Jr., of Mamaroneck, New York, threw himself on a pile of rags in a farmhouse and dreamed a beautiful girl was sobbing in his ear. He awoke to find a Red Cross girl, who had just heard her brother had been killed with the 424th, huddled on the floor and crying convulsively. Survivors saw the Stars and Stripes and learned for the first time the magnitude of the Germans' attack. They began to realize that they had been through one of the grimmest battles in military history. Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, 1st Army commander, wrote:
“No troops in the world, disposed as your division had to be, could have withstood the impact of the German attack, which had its greatest weight in your sector. Please tell these men for me what a grand job they did. By the delay they effected, they definitely upset Von Rundstedt's timetable.”
And yet the men of the 106th were disturbed by a small, secret voice of doubt that echoed through the corridors of their minds.
“The guys thought they had let the Army down and endangered every other outfit in the line by being driven back,” Wright explains. “All of us had read the stories from Anzio and we heard at Camp Atterbury in Indiana how bad the beaches were on D Day. We knew that no American soldiers had retreated since the Kasserine Pass, and we had a feeling we'd failed in our first test. I can just imagine how those poor devils who were captured felt. They probably thought the attack that hit them was the ordinary sort of thing that happened all the time and was handled without any trouble by other divisions.”
Remaining elements of the 106th saw hard action after the Bulge and acquitted themselves as well as any division in the line. Sixteen hours after being relieved by the 82nd Airborne, the 424th Regiment launched the first counterattack of the Bulge at Manhay, on the coldest Christmas Eve in the memory of the Belgians. Manhay was taken, but the 1st SS Panzer Division had to be kicked out twice before the battle went the other way. To the east.
In tandem with the 517th Parachute Regiment, the 424th hacked away through the Ardennes. The advances were slowed at Ennal. Two platoons of Company K (editors note.. this should read Company F) were having a tough time taking high ground. Brig. Gen, Herbert T. Perrin, acting commander of the division, went up with his doughfoots and led the attack. At the peak of furious house‑to‑house fighting, Perrin discovered his gun had fallen out of his shoulder holster while he was crawling through the mud and snow.
The division that was only a regiment was ordered to join with the troops of the 7th Armored to retake St. Vith on January 22, 1945.
Romantic reportage would have the men fired by an all‑consuming passion to avenge their retreat. To them it was just another dirty job. St. Vith fell to the 7th Armored and the remnants of the 106th the following day in a methodical, efficient mopping‑up operation.
After another month of hard, unspectacular fighting under Maj. Gen. Donald A. Stroh the 106th was out of the shooting war. It was sent to Brittany, where the lost regiments were reconstituted. The division was at full strength for the first time since the Bulge. Slated to relieve the forces containing strong German garrisons at St. Nazaire and Lorient, the 106th was sent racing across France on a more pleasant mission ‑ the biggest PW job in history. More than 910,000 German prisoners were processed by the division, the equivalent of nine German armies, fifteen times the total number of prisoners taken by the first A.E.F.
The war was over and now the guys who had fought from Normandy to the Elbe began to tell their tall tales. The 106th doughs again heard the small, secret whispers of doubt and lack of self‑justification. They knew they were one division that had not won the war, and they were given to private speculation whether they had almost lost it. They began to feel better about the whole thing, though, when fellows like Sgt. Roger Hunter, of Macon, Georgia, came back, telling of a strange and wonderful experience.
Hunter went to a rest camp wearing the 106th's Golden Lion shoulder patch, still new in the ETO. He was stopped by a soldier with the Red One of the famous 1st Division, which had spearheaded the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. The man from the 1st asked him what outfit he was from. Hunter told him.
“I want to shake your hand,” the man said.
Certainly the 106th has one distinction no other division of World War II enjoys, if that is the word. The doughs of the 106th got indoctrinated in the art of war faster than anybody else.
Cedric Foster — The Story of the 106th
DENVER — Funeral services were pending Thursday for Cedric Foster, a retired network news commentator who died Wednesday of leukemia. He was 74.
Foster was a news analyst for the Mutual Broadcasting System for more than 25 years and was known for his World War II broadcasts which began: “The news in Europe tonight ..”
The Story of America's 106th Infantry Division
Excerpt from a broadcast by CEDRIC FOSTER, News Analyst
TONIGHT for the first time, there may be told the story which, in its dual aspects, is one of the most tragic and yet one of the most glorious episodes in the history of American arms . . . the story of America's 106th Infantry Division.
Brand New Division
The American 106th Infantry Division was activated at Camp Jackson, Mississippi in March of 1943. Major General Alan W. Jones, who commanded it at the time . . . told the 106th Infantry Division . . . “You are brand new. You have no past history to live up to. You have no past sins to live down.” Tonight the 106th Infantry Division has a past history to live up to, but it still has no sins to live down. It fought gloriously and it fought heroically in the full flush of German power on the 16th of last December. Two of its regiments were all but eliminated from the war. They were the 422nd and the 423rd. Three hundred men out of those two regiments were all who survived most of the others are presumed to be prisoners of war.
German Artillery Barrage
On the 11th of December the 106th Division was in a sector of the front designated as “quiet.” The division had not been in action. As a matter of fact the 106th Division had engaged in nothing more dangerous than a few night patrol skirmishes. Five days later on the 16th these men of the Golden Lion Division were struck by an avalanche of German steel and fire. The attack got under way just before six o'clock in the morning. In the battle that followed, the division suffered eight thousand, six hundred sixty‑three casualties. 416 were killed, 1246 were wounded, 7,000 were missing.
Division Spread Thin
Censorship can now reveal that the 106th Division was spread in a manner described as “pitifully thin,” along a front of twenty seven miles. It was holding a sector along the Schnee Eifel . . . the Eifel Forest which is just northeast of the frontier of Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany. This was in the general sector of the Belgian town of Saint Vith . . . twelve miles southeast of Malmedy. The Germans first laid down an earth‑shaking artillery barrage. They directed this against the 106th positions which curved to the north from the center of the Eifel woods . . . positions which were held by the 14th Cavalry Group . . . an armored group attached to the infantry. A field artillery battalion, which was also attached to the 106th, was the next target. In thirty five minutes more than one hundred rounds of German fire had landed squarely in the midst of this battalion. At six o'clock the Germans opened up on Saint Vith itself. Civilians of Saint Vith were all in their cellars. They were pro‑German and the Huns had told them by radio that the barrage was impending. When the barrage was over at two o'clock in the afternoon, the civilians came out.
Tanks and Infantry Follow
The 422nd and 423rd Regiments bore the brunt of the German fire. This fire was followed by German tanks and infantry. When dawn broke the next day, December 17, the Germans had two divisions in the line. They literally engulfed these two regiments and they forced the 424th Regiment to retire. Yet these two regiments fought on. At half past three in the afternoon of the 18th of December . . . radio communications with those two regiments was lost. The last word that they sent through was that they were in need of ammunition and water and food. The fog which blanketed the countryside made it impossible to send them supplies by air. Then they said: “We are now destroying our equipment.” After that came silence. Thus it is believed that most of these men are prisoners of war.
Saint Vith and divisional headquarters were protected for a time by the heroic fighting men of the 81st and the 168th Engineer Battalions . . . under Lt. Col. Thomas Riggs of Huntington, West Virginia. They were outgunned and they were outmanned. Their weapons consisted of three tank destroyer guns and three 37‑millimeters. That was all. That was all except the raw courage which was theirs as they faced the foe.
The 424th Regiment of the 106th had not been destroyed. This regiment was supported by a combat command team from the Ninth Armored Division and by the 112th Regiment of the 28th, . . . the Keystone . . . Division. It had other support too. Back into the line of battle came the survivors. . . three hundred of them . . . the survivors of the 422nd and 423rd Regiments . . . and it was not until the 21st of December that the 106th went out of the line to reorganize. But on the 24th the emergency was so great that the valiant and broken remains were hurled into the line on the northern side of the German salient between Stavelot and Manhay.
“If only they had a chance to fight . . . to prove themselves.” Those words were spoken to me on the telephone from Rochester, New York, two weeks ago by Mrs. Leon Brown the mother of a lad in the 106th Division. They did have the chance to fight and they didn't fail. They fought magnificently in the greatest American battle of the war . . . their first battle with foe. The record they wrote is a shining example for all of the armed forces of the United States.
Pocket Booklet — Story of the 106th Inf. Div.
The following story is often referred to as the pocket edition (small booklet) of the History of the 106th, as prepared by “Stars & Stripes.” It was one of a series of G.I. stories published in 1945 of the Ground, Air, and Service Forces in the European Theater, issued by the Orientation Branch, Information and Education Services, Hq, TSFET. Major General Donald A. Stroh, commanding the 106th Infantry Division, lent his cooperation, and basic material was supplied by his staff.
The small booklet, THE STORY OF THE 106TH INFANTRY DIVISION, was distributed while the Division was still overseas. Many of the Division members, who did not return with the division, are probably not aware of its existence. It is no longer in print.
It appeared in the 1953 edition of “THE LION'S TALE,” a limited edition of only 200, we reprint this story here... CUB Review editor 1991)
The Story Of The 106th Infantry Division
Dec. 16, 1944: Springing from the bleak vastness of the Schnee Eifel with the speed of a coiled snake, Field Marshal von Rundstedt's desperate but mighty counter‑offensive struck toward Belgium and the Ardennes. Carefully hoarded Panther and Tiger tanks, followed by crack, battle‑tested infantry, launched the last‑chance gamble aimed at shattering the taut lines of the US First Army, seizing the cities of Liege and Antwerp and slashing through the Allied forces to the sea. The full force of this massive attack was thrown against the new, untried 106th Infantry Division which had gone into the front lines for the first time only five day previous. Two regiments, the 422nd and 423rd, with the 589th and 590th FA Bns., were cut off and surrounded by the sheer weight and power of the concentrated German hammer blows.
The 424th Regt. was driven back. The 106th Recon. Troops, 331st Medical Bn., and 81st Engr. Combat Bn. suffered heavy casualties. But, despite the vulnerable 27‑mile front which the division had to defend, despite inadequate reserves, supplies and lack of air support, the valiant men of the Lion Division took a tremendous toll of enemy shock troops, wrote a story in blood and courage to rank with the Alamo, Chateau Thierry, Pearl Harbor and Bataan.
They never quit. Said Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery
“The American soldiers of the...106th Infantry Division stuck it out and put up a fine performance. By Jove, they stuck it out, those chaps.”
At St. Vith, first objective of the German thrust, the 106th held on grimly at a time when every hour of resistance was vital to the Allied cause. The 106th doughs fought against superior forces, with pulverizing artillery battering them from all sides; it was men against tanks, guts against steel. Their heroism gained precious time for other units to regroup and strike back. In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the 106th showed the Germans and the world how American soldiers could fight ‑ and die.
When the terrific German onslaught was launched, the 106th had only been on the Continent 10 days. The men had made a three‑day road march from Limesy, France, to St. Vith, Belgium, in rain, cold and snow. In the five days they had been in the line there had been little rest.
They landed at LeHavre from England Dec. 6. Next day in the dim half‑light of dawn, troops piled into open trucks while a cold, drizzling rain fell. Some of the men laughed and made cracks about “Sunny France”, Others cursed the rain, the cold, and the fate that had sent them to battle‑scarred Europe. Still others said nothing.
In the clump of trees off to one side of the road stood what once had been a pretentious country chateau. It was decayed and rotten now. Bomb‑cratered ground and the shell of a fire‑gutted house gave evidence of what had passed. In a field across the road lay broken remains of an Allied bomber. It looked alone and dead, there was the feeling that someone ought to bury it. The scene was one of dreary foreboding.
Trucks roared over pitted, rough roads toward St. Vith, through towns and battered remnants of villages, past burned skeletons of tanks and trucks in roadside ditches, around battlefields of World War I. People came out to smile, wave and make the V sign with their fingers. The men smiled back and made the V sign, too.
As the long convoy wound through the mountains of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg, men saw the snow‑covered evergreens and thought of Christmas, only a short time off. Then they stopped thinking about that because they remembered where they were and why.
Arriving at St. Vith the night of Dec. 10, the division went into the line the next day. It relieved the veteran 2nd Inf.Div. in the Schnee‑Eifel, a wooded, snow‑covered ridge just northeast of Luxembourg.
This was a quiet sector along the Belgium‑Germany frontier. For 10 weeks there had been only light patrol activity, and the sector was assigned to the 106th so it could gain experience. The baptism of fire that was to come was the first action for the 106th. For many of its men it was the last.
Panzers Strike, 106th Sticks It Out!
Assigned to VIII Corps, the 106th took up positions in a slightly bulging arc along a forest‑crowned ridge of the Schnee‑Eifel approximately 12 miles east of St. Vith.
The northern flank was held by the 14th Cav. Gp., attached to the 106th. Next, in the eastern most part of the curve, the 422nd held the line. To the 422nd's right, swinging slightly to the southwest, was the 423rd and almost directly south was the 424th. Beyond the 424th, on the division's southern flank was the 28th Inf. Div. St. Vith was 106th HQ and the rear echelon was in Vielsalm, about 12 miles due west.
The little road center of St. Vith had seen war before. It was through St. Vith that the Nazi panzers rolled to Sedan in 1940; German infantry marched through it in 1914. But it never had figured as a battleground such as it was to become in this fateful December of 1944.
During the night of Dec. 15, front line units of the 106th noticed increased activity in the German positions.
At 0540 the enemy began to lay down a thunderous artillery barrage.
At first, fire was directed mainly against the northern flank sector of the 14th. Slowly the barrage crept southward, smashing strong points along the whole division front. Treetops snapped like toothpicks under murderous shell bursts. Doughs burrowed into their foxholes and fortifications, waited tensely for the attack which would follow.
The darkness was filled with bursts from medium and heavy field pieces plus railway artillery which had been shoved secretly into position. The explosions were deafening and grew into a terrifying hell of noise when Nazis started using their nebelwerfer “Screaming Meemies.”
Full weight of the barrage was brought to bear on the 589th FA Bn., supporting the 422nd. Hundreds of rounds blasted their positions in 35 minutes.
At 0700 the barrage lifted in the forward areas, although St. Vith remained under fire. Now came the attack. Waves of Volksgrenadiers, spearheaded by panzer units, smashed against the division's lines in a desperate try for a decisive, early breakthrough. They were stopped. A second attack was thrown against the division. Again, the 106th doughs held. Nazis threw in wave after wave of fresh troops, replacing their losses. There were no replacements for the 106th.
Lionmen settled to their grim business, dug deeper, fought with everything they had. German bodies piled up, often at the very rim of the defenders' foxholes. Still the Nazis came.
All during the day, the attacks mounted in fury. Hundreds of fanatical Germans rushed straight toward the American lines, only to be moved down or driven back by a hail of steel. Others came on, met the same fate. The deadly, careful fire of the stubborn defenders exacted a dreadful toll on the Wehrmacht.
Finally, under pressure of overwhelming numbers, the 14th Cav. Gp. was forced to withdraw on the north flank, giving the Germans their first wedge in the division front. Enemy tanks and infantry in increasing numbers hacked at the slowly widening gap in an effort to surround the 422nd.
In the meantime, a second tank‑led assault, supported by infantry and other panzers, hammered relentlessly at the 423rd and 424th. Early next morning, a wedge was driven between the two regiments. This southern German column then swung north to join the one that had broken through in the 14th's sector. The 422nd and 423rd were surrounded. The 424th pulled back to St. Vith.
The Nazis were headed for St. Vith. There, cooks and clerks, truck drivers and mechanics shouldered weapons and took to the foxholes. Hopelessly outnumbered and facing heavier firepower they dug in for a last ditch defense of the key road center. They were joined Dec. 17 by Combat Command B, 9th Armd. Div., and elements of the 7th Armd. Div.
Surrounded, the 422nd and 423rd fought on. Ammunition and food ran low. Appeals were radioed to have supplies flown in, but the soupy fog which covered the frozen country‑side made air transport impossible.
The two encircled regiments regrouped early Dec. 18 for a counter‑attack aimed at breaking out of the steel trap. This bold thrust was blocked by sheer weight of German numbers.
The valiant stand of the two fighting regiments inside the German lines was proving to be a serious obstacle to Nazi plans. It forced von Rundstedt to throw additional reserves into the drive to eliminate the surrounded Americans, enabled the remaining units and their reinforcements to prepare the heroic defense of St. Vith, delayed the attack schedule and prevented the early stages of the Battle of the Bulge from exploding into a complete German victory.
Low on ammunition, food gone, ranks depleted by three days and nights of ceaseless in‑fighting, the 422nd and 423rd battled on from their foxholes and old Siegfried Line bunkers. They fought the ever‑growing horde of panzers with bazookas, rifles and machine guns. One of their last radio messages was, “Can you get some ammunition through”
Then, no more was heard from the two encircled regiments except what news was brought back by small groups and individuals who escaped the trap. Many were known to have been killed. Many were missing. Many turned up later in German prison camps.
Lt. Gen, Courtney H. Hodges, First Army commander, said of the 106th's stand:
“No troops in the world, disposed as your division had to be, could have withstood the impact of the German attack which had its greatest weight in your sector. Please tell these men for me what a grand job they did. By the delay they effected, they definitely upset von Rundstedt's timetable.”
Germans kept probing toward St. Vith all during the night of Dec. 17‑18. Then, as daylight came, they renewed their furious and relentless attack. North of the town, 7th Armd. Div. elements were in position. To the south were the 424th and CCB 9th Armd. Div. Dug in along the highway to the east were Div HQ Defense Platoon, 81st Engr. Combat Bn., and the attached 168th Engr. Combat Bn.
A mighty see‑saw battle churned over the entire area during the next three days. Raging at the unexpected snag in their plans and aware that precious hours were being lost with every delay, the Nazis unleashed repeated fanatic attacks along the whole, thin perimeter of the defenders. Time and time again they were thrown back.
Wounded Lions Claw Nazi Juggernaut
Feats of individual gallantry and courage against lone odds were legend. Men alone and in little groups fought their way out of the surrounded units. For days, soldiers made their way back through enemy lines. Some fought with whatever outfits they found.
During the early hours of the Nazi assault, the 423rd I & R Platoon, under 1st Lt, Ivan H. Long, Pontiac, Mich., effectively held a road block. The Germans, learning at great cost that they could not smash through the block, went around. The platoon was faced with the alternative of surrendering or making a dash through enemy territory. The men were without overcoats or blankets. Among the 21 doughs were only four D‑ration chocolate bars. They had little ammunition. But they fought their way through the snow and gnawing cold to rejoin the division with every man safe.
Cpl. Willard Roper, Havre, Mont., led the group back as first scout. After 72 hours of clawing through enemy patrols, tank and machine gun positions, the exhausted and footsore men, some of whom lost their helmets, could still grin and fight.
One of the most noteworthy efforts at St. Vith was the leadership of Lt. Col. Thomas J. Riggs, Jr., Huntington, W. Va., commanding the 81st Engr. Combat Bn. Once a midshipman at the US Naval Academy, Col. Riggs first won fame as an All‑ American fullback at the University of Illinois.
On the morning of Dec. 17, Riggs took over the defense of the town. He disposed his limited forces, consisting of part of his own battalion: the Defense Platoon, 106th HQ Co., and elements of the 168th Engr., and waited for the coming blow. The wait was short. Soon a battalion of German infantry attacked behind Tiger tanks. Time after time more tanks and infantry tackled the engineer line, probing for a weak spot. During these attacks, Col. Riggs was in the center of the defense of St. Vith. Captured and marched across Germany, he escaped near the Polish border and made his way to the frontier. He was sheltered three days by civilians and then joined an advancing Red Army tank outfit. After fighting with it for several days, he was evacuated to Odessa and from there was taken to Marseilles. He rejoined the 81st in the spring when it was stationed near Rennes, France.
Ruthless concentrations of German artillery, armor and infantry were thrown against the 81st on the eastern approaches to St. Vith. In the meantime, the Headquarters Defense Platoon was making a heroic stand in an attempt to protect the CP.
Cpl. Lawrence B. Rogers, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Pfc. Floyd L. Black, Mt. Orab, Ohio, both members of the platoon, along with two men whose identity never was learned, successfully held a vital road junction against three Tiger tanks supported by infantry. With a machine gun, rocket launcher, two rifles and a carbine, the four‑man volunteer rear‑guard stopped the advancing force. They held the enemy at bay for two and a half hours, retreating only when their machine gun failed to function.
T/5 Edward S. Withee, Torrington, Conn., 81st Engr., volunteered for what seemed to be a suicidal mission. His platoon was pinned down in a house near Schönberg by four enemy tanks. All were doomed unless escape could be made while the enemy's attention was diverted.
Withee attacked the four tanks and the supporting infantry, armed only with a sub‑machine gun. His platoon withdrew safely. When last seen, Withee was pouring fire into German infantry. He was listed as missing in action until April when he turned up in a PW camp. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
There was a magnificent bluff of 220‑pound Capt. Lee Berwick, Johnson's Bayou, La., 424th. He talked 102 Germans and two officers into surrendering an almost impregnable position to a handful of men. He boldly strode to the very muzzle of enemy machine guns, and warned them of the “huge force” supporting him and ordered the senior officer to surrender. It worked.
As the relentless drive of the Nazi juggernaut ground in on the surrounded units, many men and small groups made desperate attempts to cut their way out. A number were killed or captured, but a few made it, Two who succeeded were 1st/Sgt Wallace G. Rifleman, Green Bay, Wis. and Capt. Edward H. Murray, Cabin Creek, W. Va., both of Co. G, 423rd.
With several others, the pair started for the American line, under cover of night. There was a bridge over the Our River guarded by three Germans ‑ by‑passed; guards in an enemy motor pool and radar station ‑ killed in a gun fight; German guards on a building ‑ silenced in hand to hand combat, two Germans, who rose from foxholes to try to bar their way ‑ liquidated. Encounters with an enemy tank, a German artillery crew, and a close escape from a heavily armed combat patrol sent out to track them down rounded out the adventure.
Sgt. Rifleman won the Silver Star for gallantry in action in a subsequent battle."
Enemy artillery fire on the second day of the attack damaged a mortar base manned by Pfc. Harry V. Arvannis, Moline, Illinois, 424th. He resumed fire, holding the tube between his legs and aiming by hand. After firing about 50 rounds, he saw a squad of Nazi infantrymen creeping toward his position.
Training the mortar on them, he shot his last 30 rounds of ammunition, killing or disabling eight of his attackers. The other four rose to their feet and lunged at him in a bayonet charge. Arvannis and his assistant gunner emptied their service pistols, stopping three of the four. The fourth was upon them, bayonet gleaming.
Pfc. Arvannis threw his four pound revolver at the German, hitting him squarely in the forehead and killing him instantly.
Heroes Upset Von Rundstedt Timetable
There are stories, too, of units that fought and served in the face of overwhelming odds; the 106th QM Co., 106th MP Platoon, 106th Signal Co., Division Band and 331st Medical Bn. Each received the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque.
Despite intense enemy artillery and small‑arms fire, the MP Platoon kept traffic flowing and performed other duties all during the German counter‑offensive.
At St. Vith, when shelling by the enemy was at its heaviest, the men at the traffic posts were forced to take a prone position, but they stuck to their posts and directed traffic. During this critical period, over 700 Pws were handled by the platoon. When St. Vith finally fell to the enemy, all remaining Pws were marched to Vielsalm under cover of darkness. This operation was accomplished without the loss of a prisoner.
Members of the platoon conducted ammunition trains over the routes which were under constant artillery fire. They helped “stragglers” to get back to their own units and into the fight. They reconnoitered roads, planned road blocks, crippled an enemy tank, destroyed an enemy staff car with its officer occupants.
The 106th QM Co., composed almost entirely of New England personnel, found itself partially surrounded at times, and had to depend on the ingenuity of its men to get the supplies through.
The ration shortage was becoming critical in Vielsalm, Dec. 19, due to the enemy advance and destruction of supply depots. Twelve QM trucks set out to find a depot still open. Rations and gasoline were located at Dinant, Belgium. For security, the trucks made the 35‑mile return trip in two serials. The first arrived in Vielsalm on the 20th. The second ran into a furious tank battle near St. Hubert, detoured, avoided destruction and got through to Vielsalm with all supplies intact.
As the fury of the battle mounted, maintenance of communications became literally a matter of life or death. Skill and courage of signalmen of the 106th Signal Co. and in the regiments kept the vital communication lines open whenever it was humanly possible.
Again and again through the whole division sector, trouble shooters made emergency repairs on lines severed by artillery fire. For signalmen, field splices under enemy small‑arms fire became almost commonplace. New lines frequently were laid through territory teeming with enemy patrols.
While the town of Schönberg was under heavy bombardment by the Germans, four men of the Signal unit stayed at their switchboard while the building in which they were located was blown down around them. A shell ripped off the rear of the structure. Another reduced the right side to rubble, and the roof collapsed as a third shell tore into the structure. Still the men stayed at their post.
A fourth shell landed behind the switchboard, wounding two of the operators. They destroyed the board and withdrew only when ordered to leave by a superior officer, after German infantry had entered the town in strength as the barrage lifted. These men were T/5 Seymour H. Zorn, New York City, T/5 James R. Leonard and Pfc. Donald A. Allen, both of Pittsburgh, and Pvt. Archie L. King, Muscatine, Ia.
Medics of the 106th also distinguished themselves in the bloody Ardennes. One was T/5 Marshall W. Walker, Tryon, N.C., who made repeated trips by jeep through German‑held territory near Winterspelt to evacuate 424th wounded.
Capt. Philip J. Antrim, Wichita Falls, Kan., 424th Battalion surgeon, found that deep snow, rough terrain, roving enemy patrols and the number of casualties prevented litter bearers from bringing wounded to his aid station fast enough. He packed equipment on his back, went forward to treat men where they had fallen. Capt. Antrim received the Bronze Star and was decorated for two other heroic deeds in the next five weeks.
Men of the 331st Medical Bn. also followed the “Service Above Self” motto. Collecting Co's. A, B, and C, supporting the 422nd, 423rd, and 424th, respectively, treated and evacuated the wounded so efficiently that Clearing Co. D had only six deaths among all wounded it treated in the Ardennes campaign. Co. D functioned for three days and nights as a field hospital in the Vielsalm area, although completely surrounded.
Two other units of the division won praise for a difficult job well done: the 806th Ord. Co., which worked under trying conditions, and the 106th Division Band, which fought as infantry in the defense of St. Vith. Dec. 19‑21, the 112th CT, 28th Inf. Div., on the 106th's right flank, was cut off from its own division. CT 112 was attached to the 106th Division, and with the 424th, held against German attacks south of St. Vith.
424th Lashes Back At Manhay
The fall of St. Vith became inevitable late Dec. 21. All units of the 106th and 7th Armd. withdrew to form a perimeter defense west of the town and east of the Salm River. These positions were held against renewed attacks next day.
Orders were received on the 22nd from XVIII Corps (Airborne) to withdraw farther to the west. The 82nd A/B Div. was moving into positions along the Salm River and a line running west from Salm Chateau. Elements of the 106th, the 7th and 9th Armd. Divs. were to move back to the northwest through new lines formed by the paratroopers.
Careful planning and leadership enabled the units to pull back under constant enemy infantry and tank attacks. The successful withdrawal across the two remaining routes over the Salm River was completed by night of the 23rd.
It was at the start of the withdrawal across the Salm that Maj. Gen. Alan W. Jones became a casualty and was evacuated to a hospital in Liege. Brig. Gen. Herbert T. Perrin, Asst CG, assumed command.
That night and the next day the weary, battle‑bruised survivors of the first week of the Ardennes breakthrough took their first respite from battle. Without blankets, with barely enough rations, and unable to light fires for warmth, they dug in on a windswept hill in the vicinity of Werbomont, Belgium.
Sixteen hours later, on the coldest Christmas Eve in the memory of the Belgians, the 424th launched the first counter‑attack of the Bulge at Manhay. This heavily fortified junction on the St. Vith‑Houffalize Highway was the northern pivot point of the German penetration into Belgium. It was to be another bloody battleground for the 106th.
en. Eisenhower wrote Gen. Perrin:
“The magnificent job you are doing is having a great beneficial effect on the situation. I am personally grateful to you and wish you would let all your personnel know that if they continue to carry out their mission with the splendid spirit they have so far shown, they will have deserved well of their country.”
Securing the main road to Manhay, 2nd Bn., 424th, crossed open ground to the edge of town under intense shelling. It pushed into town, then was forced to withdraw. Christmas Day, the battalion punched its way into town again and held on against furious resistance by the First SS Panzer Div. and Volksgrenadiers. Manhay was one of the significant turning points of the Ardennes battle. It, too, was a story of valor.
When Co. E's advance was halted by intense machine gun fire, S/Sgt. John F. Goedesik, Chicago, advanced alone with a 60 mm mortar and destroyed the enemy position with three rounds, permitting his company to advance.
Sgt. Richard J. Maslankowski, Chicago, cradled a .30 caliber light machine gun in his arms and advanced to wipe out an enemy machine gun nest. The gun jammed; he repaired it under fire, pressed on to kill the enemy gunners with his last burst of ammunition.
Capt. Glynn Salyers, Somerset, Ky, commanding Co. H, 424th, was wounded while leading his men across an open field. He refused medical attention until the objective was won and all his wounded men were cared for.
After Manhay, the 106th continued to hack away at the Bulge. The 517th Parachute Inf. Regt. was attached Jan. 11, and with the 424th, formed a tough battle‑tried fighting team. The two regiments attacked on the northern side of the Bulge, jumping off along the Ambleve River between Stavelot and Trois Point and along the Salm River to the south. Terrain was rugged ‑ barren ridges, heavily wood slopes, and deep gullies. The enemy was well dug in and had been ordered to hold at all costs.
But the men of the Lion Division had a score to settle. Determined, they smashed ahead., The attack on Jan. 13 drove the enemy from positions east of Henumont, and the infantry advance carried to Mohipre by late afternoon. The enemy made effective use of self‑propelled guns.
During an assault on the strongly defended town, sudden crossfire from a well‑concealed nest of machine guns halted Co. I., 424th, scattered men and mortally wounded Lt. Raymond S. Kautz, Raleigh, N. C., company commander, and mortar platoon leader, Lt. Robert A. Engstrom, Bayport, Minn. Although wounded himself, T/Sgt. Harold R. Johnson, Flint, Mich., assumed command of the company. He was hit twice more while rallying the men, preparing the renewal of the attack. He personally directed intense, accurate mortar and machine gun fire on enemy automatic weapons, eventually led the men to their objective.
When his platoon of Co. K, 424th, was pinned down by fire from an emplaced machine gun, S/Sgt. (then Pfc) George S. Vasquez, St. Paul, Minn., located the gun, went forward with his M‑1 and wiped out the Nazi position single handed.
Co. C, 424th, was held up by three enemy tanks, Robert Honaker, Scarbro, W. Va., led a bazooka team which destroyed one tank and repulsed the others. Honaker later earned a battlefield commission and a Silver Star.
The 106th pressed south and east. The 1st Bn., 424th, met serious opposition in front of Coulee where the enemy was dug in on strong and deep defensive lines. Fighting was fierce, losses were heavy. While the 424th attacked to the front, engaging the main strength of the defenders, the 517th swept around and cleared the town in a slam‑bang action before the enemy could recover and regroup.
After seizing all assigned objectives, the 106th was given the additional mission Jan. 15 of taking the town of Ennal and high ground to the east. Ennal was held by a strong force of Germans entrenched in houses bristling with automatic weapons.
Two platoons of Co. K, 424th, punched their way into Ennal but were pinned down by devastating enemy fire. Ennal had to be secured by night. Available forces were organized and, as darkness approached, the town was taken by assault and cleared. Gen. Perrin personally led the attack, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The 517th cut the road from Petit‑Thier to Poteau on the 16th and by nightfall was on the outskirts of Poteau. But the advance of the 30th and 75th Inf. Divs. pinched off the 106th. The division was then ordered to mop up by‑passed enemy troops in the area. On Jan. 22, Gen. Perrin issued the following:
“With the withdrawal of the 424th Inf. from the line on Jan. 18, the major portion of the elements of this division completed a period of 34 days of practically continuous close combat with the enemy. Our Artillery is still engaged. The events of that period are still fresh in your minds and in those of your men. The physical hardships endured, the constant exposure to rain, sleet, and snow in freezing temperatures, and on terrain over which it was once considered impossible to wage effective warfare, have, so far as I know, rarely, if ever, been demanded of soldiers of any nation. These twin enemies ‑ weather and terrain ‑ have been our greatest enemies and problems, for certainly, wherever we have met the German, we have found that in no sense are they our equal. You and your men have met those demands and overcome them by a stubbornness of will, a fixed tenacity of purpose, and a grim and determined aggressiveness of body and spirit. You have accomplished your missions, and no higher praise can ever be spoken of any military organizations.”
106th Has Record Of Valor And Honor
After a rest, the 424th CT joined the 7th Armd. Div. in the mission all Lionmen had been waiting for; to retake St. Vith.
The 424th struck southeast on Jan. 25 from a point just north of St. Vith with the objective of securing the main high‑way running through Amel to the northeast. A coordinated infantry‑tank attack dislodged a main enemy outpost at a road junction. By late afternoon, in the face of automatic weapons, 88mm guns and small arms fire, doughs cleared the town of Medell. The following morning Meyerode fell to the furiously attacking 106th. The 7th Armored then seized St. Vith while the 106th took Deidenberg and Born.
The 106th now was back at the line where it had first met the enemy. It had taken fierce punishment but had come back in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war ‑ a proud achievement for a division that had a history of less than two years.
Activated March 15, 1943, the 106th had trained thousands of men as replacements. At. Ft. Jackson, S.C., its first station, the division went through tough preliminary training, obstacle and infiltration courses, storming “Nazi villages”, and field problems.'
In Tennessee winter maneuvers of 1944, the division learned to fight in terrain and weather which resembled the rugged, cold Ardennes. Maneuvers over, the 106th moved to Camp Atterbury, Ind for seven months of advanced training. Its unit commanders were prepared for the trying days to come.
The 106th left the States in mid‑October, spent several week in the South Midlands of England, raced across France and Belgium into the line under the command of Maj. Gen. Jones.
Feb. 28, 1945, Maj. Gen. Donald A. Stroh now was in command of the division. Lionmen after a short rest, were back in the line on the south flank of First Army near the Belgian town of Hunnigen. For three weeks they had patrolled and probed the thickly‑sown mine fields to find a weak spot in the pillboxes, concrete gun emplacements, dragon's teeth and anti‑tank obstacles of the Siegfried Line.
Facing the 106th was a division identified as one which had been in the attack on St. Vith. With the memory of the breakthrough still vivid, Lionmen sought vengeance. They got it.
Co. C 424th, with combat engineers from Co. A, 81st Engr. Bn., knocked out a large, particularly troublesome Nazi pillbox. The team clawed its way under machine gun and rifle fire, over four rows of anti‑personnel mines and up to the very walls of the fort. Germans in foxholes outside the pillbox were killed or driven off. Fire from the embrasures was silenced by flame throwers, rifle grenades and bazookas.
Pvt. Dennis A. Wartigun, Kearny, N.J., Co. A, 81st, approached the eight‑foot thick walls and with a long pole, pushed a charge of TNT through an opening. The blast cracked the walls, blew open the door, killed three of the defenders. Doughs rushed in to capture nine other Germans who needed no further persuasion to surrender.
Slowly, methodically, pillboxes fell. A week later, the 106th was well on its way through the Siegfried Line heading toward the Rhine. Fighting on the southern flank of V corps and First Army, the 106th was in contact with Third Army to the south.
Led by 3rd Bn., 424th, Lionmen wrested Frauenkron from the enemy. Driving through fields of anti‑tank and anti‑personnel mines, the 424th crossed Lemert Creek, seized the towns of Berk, Kronenburg, and Baasem, as it advanced toward its objective along the Simmer River.
Other divisions of V Corps started to swing to the south‑east as the Siegfried Line was breached, pivoting on the 106th. Third Army continued to drive to the east, and the division was pinched out. After mopping‑up operations, the 106th was pulled back to Corps reserve and the 517th was relieved from 106th control.
Assigned to Fifteenth Army, the division moved to St. Quentin, France, late in March. After a brief stay, it moved to Rennes, France, where reinforcements were brought in and the 422nd and 423rd Regts., along with the 589th and 590th FA Bns., were re‑ constituted. For the first time since the division had gone into the line, it was up to full strength. A strenuous, tough training program was started for the reconstituted units at Rennes and later resumed at Coetquidan, France.
While at Rennes, 3rd Inf. Regt., 159th Inf. Regt., Aleutian veterans; and 401st and 627th FA Bns, were attached to the division. The 106th now was not only at full strength, it had a surplus — a far cry from the dark final days of December when the 424th and a few attached units were the division's only force. An impressive ceremony was held April 14 at the St. Jacques airfield near Rennes. Survivors of the original 106th regiments lost in the breakthrough presented their colors to the new members: the 422nd and 423rd.
While the division stood at “present arms” On the parade ground, commanders, with the old and new color guards armed with German rifles captured in the Battle of the Bulge, advanced to the center of the field where thee exchanged salutes. Colors and Guidons were then presented to the new color guard.
When the units reformed, the augmented division of five regiments and six artillery battalions passed in review before Gen. Stroh.
A similar ceremony on a smaller scale was held later in Germany by the 424th. During the hectic see‑saw battle in the early days of the Ardennes breakthrough, the regiment lost its colors. After V‑E day, a medic of the 2nd Inf. Div., then moving into Czechoslovakia, recovered the colors from a German prisoner and sent them back to the 106th. The Colors were presented again to the 424th in an impressive ceremony.
While in the Rennes area, the 106th constituted the reserve for the 66th Inf. Div. and French units containing the strong German garrisons on the coastal area of St. Nazaire and Lorient.
Plans were being made to relieve the 66th but orders came through for the division to return to Germany. Leaving the reconstituted units to complete their reorganization and training, the 424th, 3rd and 159th Regts., with other units, raced across France to corral the thousands of prisoners being taken in the final drive through Germany.
Spread out along both flanks of the Rhine from Holland to Switzerland, the 106th was reinforced to a strength of 40,000. Approximately 1,500,000 Pws passed through 106th cages.
It was a big job; receiving, screening, processing and discharging the hordes of former German soldiers. But it was a job the 106th relished; many of the Germans were the same ones whom they had battled in the Ardennes.
Meanwhile, the reconstituted units of the division moved from Coetquidan, to a training area near Mayen, Germany, named Camp Alan W. Jones for the former CG. They completed their training and were ready for action when Germany surrendered May 8, 1945.
Following the surrender of Japan, the 106th, now under the command of Brig. Gen, Francis E. Woolfley, was alerted to return to the States. The division had been through some of the hardest fighting in the European Theater. It had suffered huge losses. It had no record of blitzkrieg offensives or of mile‑devouring advances. But it had more than that. The 106th had a story of valor and honor, of men who had “stuck it out” against the most powerful force the Germans could muster and had lashed back with the courage of lions. Then men of the 106th could wear their insignia with pride.
Field Marshal von Runstedt's Story
A reprint of an article that appeared in the 1953 “LION's TALE.”
At last, after eight years, here is the German side of the vicious struggle in the Ardennes Forest — the account of the senior military leader of the Third Reich who executed Hitler's back‑to‑the‑wall offensive of 1944 — the frantic gamble to drive the Allies out of Europe.
by GUENTHER BLUMENTRITT General of the Infantry, Germany, Retired From “Collier's for January 3, 1953
At dawn on December 16, 1944, the Germans roared through the bleak Ardennes Forest. The Battle of the Bulge was on — a battle of seemingly impossibilities.
The western front that day was a wavy, north‑south line. In the uppermost reaches, were the British and Canadian armies, commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery. South of him was the U.S. Ninth Army. Farther down was General Patton's U.S. Third Army attacking the Saar Basin. And south of Patton was the U.S. Seventh Army. Smack in the middle of the front was the U.S. First Army, part of which was thinly stretched along the Ardennes sector. It was here that the Germans hit.
The attack itself was impossible — or so the Allies thought. Less than 24 hours before the battle began, Montgomery said the Germans were in such battered shape they “could not stage major offensive operations.” And Eisenhower said “we believed they (the Germans) could not be ready for a major assault.”
The place of the attack was impossible. It left Bradley dumfounded. “When anyone attacks . . . either he is out to destroy the hostile forces or he is going after a terrain objective . . . Neither objective could be attained in the Ardennes . . .”
Thus, the Germans struck, a surprise attack in timing, strength and site by Hitler's resurrected blitzkrieg forces. The First Army's 28th Division was caught unsuspecting and pulverized. Two raw regiments of the First Army's 106th Division met the same fate.
In other spots the First Army put up an almost impossible defense. The 4th Division and the V Corps of the First Army stood their ground and the Germans spilled into the narrow corridor westward toward Bastogne.
Caught unaware, severely crippled and hampered by lack of communications, the Allies fought back with seemingly impossible zeal. The German onslaught was like a torrent. But here and there little rocks of resistance poked up and refused to be swept along. Saint Vith held out for several vital days, but the real island of resistance was Bastogne. There Brigadier General A.C. McAuliffe was surrounded. The Germans sent an ultimatum — surrender or be annihilated.
“Nuts!” snarled McAuliffe.
Bastogne was never taken.
McAuliffe's impossible defense was matched by Patton's impossible drive to relieve the “battered bastards of Bastogne.” In 48 hours, Patton broke off his Saar attack and raced to Bastogne's aid. Bradley called it “one of the most astonishing feats of generalship” in World War II.
We stopped the Germans on Christmas Day. When it was over the Americans alone counted 56,000 men dead or wounded. The surprise of the German attack was largely responsible for the appallingly high number of casualties.
In the account that follows, we learn for the first time the German motives and the execution of the Battle of the Bulge — the struggles of the impossibilities — as Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt with one of his top commanders saw it — and fought it.
From Field Marshal Rundstedt ....
“Throughout my life, I have opposed much writing. I still hold to this principle. Only with time will truth emerge. As more and more professional soldiers write about the Battle of the Ardennes (the Bulge) it will be astonishing to note that propaganda has mistakenly established as fact several falsehoods about the battle.
At the urging of Collier's I have for the first time given my permission for the author to write this factual report. I have read the treatise and it coincides with my opinion of the events. Nothing can be beautified or excused. Unfortunately, all of us make mistakes.
Generalfeldmarschall Rundstedt's Story follows
It was December 12, 1944, at Adolf Hitler's new headquarters 100 miles behind the western front. German armies were hard pressed in both east and west. And when the we generals and high staff officers assembled in Hitler's mountainside retreat overlooking the Ziegenberg Valley, most of us had no inkling that we were about to receive orders to launch only four days later the last great German push in the west— the offensive Allied historians were to label “the Battle of the Bulge.”
Hitler still showed the effects of the nearly successful bombing attempt on his life the previous July 20th. He seemed near collapse. His shoulders drooped. His left arm shook as he walked to a card table. He sat down at the table with a grimace, as if it hurt.
His opening words to us were halting and weak. It was only after he had been speaking some minutes that he began to take on strength. He spoke for an hour, and the sense of what he said was:
“Germany, located in the center of Europe and surrounded on all sides, can prevent collapse not through defense, but only by attack. . . . We must break out of the fortress Germany by making a decisive attack from both sides of the Eifel mountains across the River Meuse on Antwerp. Thus there is a chance that we can strike the Allied troops in southern Holland and Belgium a decisive blow. Our main goal is to encircle the mass of English and the northern wing of the Americans in the area east of Aachen and north of the Albert Canal. The recapture of Antwerp is important, because this great port is the base of supply for the enemy.
“If this operation succeeds, the western front will be shortened, and we will be able to effect a saving in our forces. These new reserves can then be used for further operations in the west later.
“I want you to understand the importance of this decision. Every troop unit is to strike forward as swiftly as possible, without regard for its flanking units. It is necessary to show the enemy that we are not yet at the end of our resources, and that we still have the power to strike swift blows. I am sure of success, and this success will not be without effect on the British and American people.
“The attack will begin at 0630 hours on December 16th.”
As Hitler saw it, the offensive was to be a blitzkrieg all over again‑a lightning thrust against an outnumbered enemy, a move exploited by our overwhelming superiority in tanks.
For the attack, Hitler was going to make available crack units comprising 500,000 men — far more than the Americans had in this thinly held sector. He also was going to mass 1,000 tanks and tank destroyers against the 300 we believed the Americans had. In addition he was going to bring up batteries of rocket launchers never before used on the western front, and employ V‑1 guided missiles for the first time in a tactical operation.
Hitler had ordered to be collected and carefully trained a force of soldiers to operate in American uniforms behind the American lines. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering, chief of our air force, had promised 3,000 airplanes; actually he provided 800, the largest number he had mustered in one fleet since before the Allied invasion of Normandy the previous June.
Finally, the Fuehrer had moved up what without doubt he considered the greatest and most incomparable German weapon of all: himself. He had come from the eastern front only six days earlier to mastermind this critical operation.
With this impressive superiority of men and arms, Hitler believed the operation could not fail.
The atmosphere was tense as Hitler finished outlining the offensive to us. No one spoke. Field Marshal Karl Gerd von Rundstedt, commander in chief on the western front, looked pessimistic. Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of Army Group B, which was to lead the attack, appeared to be thinking furiously. But there was nothing any of us could do at this late date to persuade Hitler to alter his plans. The die had been cast.
The West has since named the Battle of the Ardennes the “Rundstedt Offensive.” It is an erroneous label. Hitler planned the operation against repeated opposition from his generals. Rundstedt not only did not take part in the original planning, but he opposed the move when he heard about it. Later he was to describe the operation in these terms: “It was a nonsensical operation, and the stupidest part of it was the setting of Antwerp as its target. Let alone try to reach Antwerp, we should hove got down on our knees and thanked God if we had reached as far as the Meuse."
Hitler had started planning the Ardennes offensive back in August, when the German western front was being battered by the Allied forces that poured onto the Continent after the June invasion.
As early as June, both Rundstedt and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had sent Hitler, then in his field headquarters in East Prussia, behind the eastern front, extraordinarily sharp criticisms of the situation in the west. These documents are today in the hands of the Western Powers.
But from East Prussia, Hitler could not form a real opinion of the situation in the west. He could not— nor did he wish to— believe that the weight of men and material from Britain and the United States was as overpowering as reported to him time and again. He could not imagine that the Allies had absolute air superiority in the west over the disappearing Luftwaffe.
Hitler Disparaged Allied Strength
He did not, or could not, form a picture of the abundance of the Western Powers in technical know‑how, munitions, material and fuel. He would not concede that division after division of the German army in the west had simply melted away, while the Allies had strong rested well‑trained divisions.
As a result, during the battles in the west after the Normandy invasion, the Fuehrer had busied himself entirely with the idea of a counteroffensive. Throughout the Germans fighting withdrawal of June, July and August, the commanders in the west had received urgent instructions from Hitler to undertake a new offensive. He hoped thereby to halt the Allied advance, and win time to make the disarmed “west wall” defensible.
In August, he apparently became convinced that the fighting west of Germany's western frontier was only a battle for time. He therefore changed his plans somewhat. He decided that his armies should pull back to the German frontier, where they could form a comparatively solid, short front.
Hitler thus hoped for a breathing spell, during which he could bring up new units from inside Germany. After that, he planned to launch a new offensive to seize the initiative lost since the invasion.
Hitler's plans, by a strange twist of fate, seemed to have been made more feasible by the Allies themselves. To the astonishment of the German military commanders in the west, the ferocity of the Allied attack slackened sharply during September. At that time, of course, the Germans didn't know why. They assumed there were differences of opinion among the Allies concerning the conduct of future operations, or perhaps difficulties in bringing up reinforcements. Or, they theorized, maybe the Allies thought new German units had been brought up along the “west wall.”
(Editor's Note: The real reason for the slackening of the Allied attack in September, 1944, was the fact that the Allied Armies, especially Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr's, American Third, had run to the extreme limits of their supply lines. They had to stop to let their supplies catch up with them.)
Field Marshal Model was Commander in Chief West as well as commander of Army Group B at this time. Rundstedt had been retired temporarily from the over‑all command in June by Hitler, who was irritated at Rundstedt's report following the Normandy invasion.
It was obviously impossible, in the critical situation at the front for Model to continue at the head of both a strategic command and a tactical one. So Lieutenant General Siegfried Westphal, Chief of Staff to C‑in‑C West, asked Hitler to reinstate Rundstedt. Hitler, after some indecision, said he would do so, provided Model agreed. The latter replied, “That is the best solution.”
Rundstedt came out of retirement in Bad Tolz, Bavaria, in September and returned to the Western Command.
Crumbling German Battle Lines
Rundstedt's first assumption on his return was that the Allies would gather their power for a strike through the center of the western front against Aachen, and to the northeast through the Ruhr toward Berlin. The German front was ragged and broken at many points. The condition of many divisions was serious. The “west wall bluff” as Rundstedt described it, was barely manned, and technically indefensible. On the west bank of the Rhine, there were no sizable German units. The eastern bank of the Rhine was neither fortified nor manned. The route to the Ruhr and through the north German plains to Berlin was‑for all practical purposes wide open. As the Germans saw it, the Schwerpunkt, or real strong point, was in northwest Germany, protecting the arms industry and the North Sea ports.
But the expected Allied break‑through did not come in September. Instead, the slackening of the Allied attack gave Hitler grist for his mill. Hitler's personal headquarters staff worked on plans for the Ardennes offensive, which was to be given the code word, “Watch on the Rhine,” all through August, September and October. Yet the military commanders in the west who were to carry out the campaign were told nothing of the preliminary work.
Instead Rundstedt was intent during this period on driving up his armies into a solid, comparatively short front, running generally from Antwerp, along the Albert Canal, past Aachen, Trier, Metz, Luneville, and west past Belfort to the Swiss frontier. He hoped his troops would have some rest and a chance to build fortifications during September and October. At the same time he planned to form all remaining Panzer units into a reserve which could be thrown into the line at whatever point the Allies chose to renew the attack.
But, Rundstedt told his staff all these purely military efforts were useless unless Germany's political leadership used the time gained to do some political tacking.
“In this situation,” he said, “The soldier can do nothing but buy time for the political leadership to negotiate. He can do nothing but preserve the military power as much as possible. “
Such talk was an open invitation to disaster for a German commander. Hitler was morbidly suspicious of all his generals. Every headquarters was honeycombed with his spies and informers. Usually, it was only in his own small sitting room that Rundstedt would speak freely to his intimates of the hopelessness of the situation.
On October 24th, Rundstedt's chief of staff, Westphal, and Model's chief of staff, General Hans Krebs, were called to Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. Both men were expecting promises of new troops to stop up the holes in the west. Instead they were instructed to sign special security oaths before the talks began. Then, for the first time, they were told of Hitler's plans for the Ardennes offensive.
The two chiefs of staff returned to their headquarters on October 26th and informed their commanders of the completely new situation.
As Westphal outlined Hitler's grandiose scheme, Rundstedt fingered his marshal's baton and expressed astonishment. Model also refused to believe the report of his chief of staff. But both Westphal and Krebs insisted that there was no chance of Hitler changing his mind.
Hitler did promise Rundstedt he would move in a new army group to strengthen Model's Army Group B, in the middle, for the attack.
And Hitler's order went on:
“Goal of the operation is to achieve a turnabout in the western campaign by annihilation of the enemy forces north of the line Antwerp‑Brussels‑Luxembourg. I am prepared to carry through the operation, taking into account the greatest possible risk, even if an enemy attack on either side of Metz and the expected strike for the Ruhr should lead to great losses of terrain and fortifications.”
Rundstedt was pleased at the prospect of reinforcements, but warned he could promise no results with the planned offensive.
“The last word hasn't been said,” he declared.
He pointed out that Antwerp could never be reached, and insisted there weren't enough troops at hand to secure the flanks for an operation extended this far. If an offensive were to be undertaken, he said, it must be tailored to fit the troops available.
Hitler wanted a big solution; his generals at the front more realistically counter‑proposed a small solution.
Both Rundstedt and Model sent communications to Hitler outlining their small solution. They had General Hasso von Manteuffel, commanding the Fifth Panzer Army, do the same. At Rundstedt's request, Colonel General Alfred Jodl, operations chief for the Wehrmacht General Staff, visited the field marshal's headquarters at Ziegenberg. There Rundstedt outlined his objections to the Fuehrer's plan, and then presented his own idea.
In the area east of Aachen, along the Roer in the Monschau‑Dueren‑Juelich area, and then west to Geilenkirchen, there were strong American and British units, estimated to total between 10 and 15 divisions, most of them from the U.S. Ninth Army and the U.S. First Army. Since these units had bulged out far to the east of the rest of the front, they were ripe for a pincers movement.
Rundstedt's plan was for the Fifth Panzer Army and the Sixth SS Panzer Army, plus units of the Seventh Army, to strike west toward Namur, on the River Meuse, where a defensive line would be established.
The Sixth SS Panzer Army would then turn right. Meanwhile, the Twelfth SS Corps, with two infantry divisions, one tank division and one grenadier (elite infantry) division, would march south from Geilenkirchen, with the western flank aimed at Maastricht, where it would link up with the Sixth SS Panzer Army fighting downriver from Liege. If successful, the maneuver would encircle the United States Ninth Army.
But all arguments were in vain. Hitler's answer to Rundstedt was contained in a brief message from Jodl:
“The Fuehrer has decided that the operation is in every detail unalterable.” Later Rundstedt's staff heard that Hitler was highly incensed when he heard of the field marshal's small solution; he charged his Western Command lacked daring and had turned defeatist.
Nor did Hitler change his plans in November, when the German Western Command had its hands full trying to ward off renewed Allied attacks, or when, late that month, the Allies broke through to the Rhine near Strasbourg.
Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny, who had acquired some fame as the rescuer of Mussolini in 1943 and of Admiral Nicholas Horthy of Hungau in 1944, entered the picture for the first time, so far as Rundstedt was concerned, in November. Twice that month he briefly visited the field marshal's headquarters. He explained, and this was confirmed by Rundstedt's superiors, that he was to head a special Panzer unit then being trained at Wahn, near Cologne. This unit was to sneak through a soft spot in the front and attempt to seize a bridgehead across the Meuse which could be exploited by regular troops coming up behind. Skorzeny's brigade was being established on Hitler's personal order.
Refused To Provide U. S. Uniforms
Rundstedt saw an order asking for English speaking soldiers to be assigned to Skorzeny. When Skorzeny also requested some captured American uniforms for his unit, Rundstedt flew into a rage. He would not provide any, and Skorzeny finally obtained the American uniforms elsewhere, mainly from prisoners of war who were held inside Germany.
In addition to Skorzeny's independent brigade, Rundstedt had these units available to throw into the big push:
Sixth SS Panzer Army: two SS Panzer corps of two SS Panzer divisions each, one infantry corps of two divisions, one paratrooper division and two grenadier divisions.
Fifth Panzer Army: one infantry corps of two divisions, and two Panzer corps totaling three Panzer and two infantry divisions. To this army, just before the offensive began, was added the Fuehrer's Escort Brigade.
Seventh Army: one infantry corps of one paratroop division and one infantry division, a second corps of two infantry divisions, and a third with two and one half infantry divisions.
The SS Panzer divisions each had between 15,000 and 18,000 men and about 100 armored vehicles. Army Panzer divisions also had 100 armored vehicles, but only between 11,000 and 13,000 men. Infantry divisions were between 8,000 and 10,000 men strong, while paratroop divisions had between 15,000 and 18,000 men.
This array gave the Germans an overwhelming, better than two‑to‑one superiority in man power and three‑to‑one superiority in tanks.
In numbers of men, the German units were relatively satisfactory. But all units had suffered severe losses of veterans, and many of the replacements were undertrained. In a number of units, the average age of the soldiers was higher than normal in line companies, and the numbers of Germans from outside the Reich was quite high. Morale was still good, but fighting ability varied seriously.
The food problem was not too bad. The main staple diet of the German army included soups, stews and goulashes, brought to front‑line fighting troops in huge canisters. The fare would not appeal to American soldiers, but German dietary habits differ from American even in peacetime.
Marshal Shared Scanty Meat Ration
Headquarters officers were rationed to one and a half ounces of meat per day. Rundstedt, a very light eater, often would cut off a tiny piece of his own ration for himself and pass the rest to one of his officers.
One of the greatest shortages was combat boots for the troops. Because of allocations to the bitterly cold Russian front, Germany's leather supply was almost exhausted. Rundstedt's supply officers argued for weeks before they got adequate issues of footwear for the snow‑covered Ardennes. There weren't enough artillery pieces for the offensive, and only two‑and‑one‑half initial issues of shells were available for those pieces we did have. Many artillery batteries were not mobile, or only half mobile.
The command had only 18,000 cubic meters of fuel on hand, although it estimated it needed 35,000; the rest was to be taken from Allied depots as they were overrun. The fuel ration for the offensive had been cut so drastically that the rocket batteries which had been scheduled to move forward with the attacking forces had to be largely abandoned at the jumping‑off point to give priority to tanks.
Rundstedt set up his headquarters for the Ardennes offensive in ancient Ziegenberg Castle, some 30 miles north of Frankfurt and across Ziegenberg Valley from Hitler's mountainside retreat. From the air, the castle looked deserted, a medieval ruin with only one tower still standing. What seemed like hunting lodges and farmhouses were scattered through the grounds, but in reality they were carefully camouflaged, doubly reinforced concrete buildings, connected by elaborate tunnels. The 12‑foot‑thick walls of the castle itself had been strengthened against modern bombing, and out of the stone cliffs beneath had been carved a series of deep shelters for the use of military planners.
Only after the Allies crossed the Rhine, months later, did they learn that this seemingly abandoned pile was the German command Post for the Battle of the Bulge. It was to this castle that the German generals, myself included, were summoned first on December 12th. We thought we had been asked to appear simply to celebrate the sixty‑ninth birthday of Rundstedt, Germany's senior soldier.
We found instead that we were to be taken across the valley to the retreat to which Hitler had shifted only six days earlier from East Prussia.
But before we were bundled into two herd‑riding busses for the drive across the valley, we were relieved of our weapons and were told to check even our brief cases with the castle guards. The security conditions were astonishing but explainable. After the bomb plot against Hitler's life the previous July 20th, some 1,500 generals, officers and noncommissioned officers had been executed for alleged participation in the conspiracy. The Fuehrer remained a very nervous man.
Ill feeling between Hitler and Rundstedt grew steadily from the moment the Fuehrer moved to Ziegenberg. The Fuehrer continually interfered in operations; some of the Rundstedt headquarters routine even had to be modified to suit him. Rundstedt and his staff members were summoned to confer with Hitler daily, an interruption which hardly pleased the busy Rundstedt.
Hitler liked to stay up most of the night, brooding and talking, and then sleep most of the morning, as a result, he required a special briefing after he had become thoroughly awake‑around four in the afternoon. He could then brood over the problems at night again in the hermit like seclusion of his aerie until, in the early hours of dawn, some flash of inspiration would seize him.
At first, Hitler tried to placate Rundstedt. He learned that the elderly general was in the habit of drinking a glass of vermouth just before he left for one of the Fuehrer's conferences. Hitler, although he personally abhorred alcohol, ordered a glass of the wine provided for the field marshal at his conference chair. But later, when the Ardennes offensive ground to a halt and Rundstedt's I‑told‑you‑so remarks became increasingly barbed, Hitler canceled the vermouth.
Rundstedt was to recall of Hitler's interference: “The pressure from behind was always far worse than the pressure in front. As Commander in Chief West my only authority was to change the Guard in front of my gate.”
After the Ardennes offensive began, the 4:00 p.m. briefing for Hitler and high‑ranking members of his personal staff usually was given by Westphal, Rundstedt's chief of staff, or by Lieutenant General Bodo Zimmerman, his west front operations officer.
These sessions with the Fuehrer were always so tense that both officers tried to avoid them when ever possible. One day in late December, when the tide had turned against our forces, Westphal decided that he couldn't take any more of Hitler's tantrums. He told Zimmerman: “I'm not going to brief today. You'll have to go.”A brief discussion followed, to be settled when Westphal declared: “Well, I'm just going to report sick, that's all.”
Zimmerman's assignment it was. Nervously he entered the briefing room, which had been carefully aired so that the Fuehrer would not be bothered by cigarette smoke. Zimmerman gave a brief report of the situation.
General Wanted Six More Divisions
Hitler glowered at the news, then read an optimistic field report from General Model. It said Model was “just at the point of splitting the allied lines,” and victory was assured ‑ if only he could have another six divisions.
All through the briefing, Reichsmarshal Goering had been sitting silently, occasionally studying brightly lacquered fingernails. (At earlier staff conferences. Goering had appeared not only with painted fingernails, but also with rouge and lip stick on his face.) Now, at Model's fantastic and improbable request for six divisions, Goering's chins quivered and he burst into uncontrollable laughter. His huge frame shook. The multitude of medals on his chest bounced. He slapped his thigh and shouted: “That's great! That's wonderful! Let's send the good Model sixteen divisions!”
Then, near hysteria, he collapsed over the map table, his long, dyed‑blond hair falling over his ears. At this exhibition, Hitler, too, started chuckling. The other officers, nervous and dead serious till then, picked up the cue and burst into laughter.
“I got out of there as fast as I could, and shook hands with Hitler while he was still laughing,” Zimmerman later recounted.
Rundstedt made one last attempt to sell Hitler his “small solution” idea just before the offensive started by suggesting that his plan be adopted at the beginning and, if it were highly successful, then the Western Command could simply keep moving forward to carry out Hitler's “big solution.” Hitler gruffly rejected the idea.
The field marshal next pointed out that while SS General Sepp Dietrich, commanding the Sixth SS Panzer Army, was an effective officer, his troops were ill trained and likely to run into plenty of trouble with the U.S. Ninth Army, facing them. He therefore suggested that the spearhead of the attack be shifted about 20 miles to the south, where the Fifth Panzer Army faced the U.S. First Army. Hitler would not hear of it.
The entire Ardennes offensive hinged on the weather‑rain, snow and fog were needed to pin down the massive Allied air force and give the attackers the added benefit of poor ground visibility. Had the weather been clear, Allied planes from their airfields in France, Belgium, Holland and Britain easily could have blocked most of the major roads during daylight and pinched off our tank spearheads.
Victory Hung On Weather Reports
All the far‑flung meteorological resources of the German armed forces had been carefully coordinated by top scientists in Berlin who knew that any mistake in this particular weather prophecy might literally mean their lives. For many days before the jump‑off, they meticulously collated reports from lonely outposts of arctic Norway, and from long‑range reconnaissance planes and submarines in the Atlantic.
Afterward it was revealed that the date for the attack had been in grave doubt for 24 hours while the scientists awaited one final report from a submarine in the Atlantic. After many anxious hours, word came from the submarine that a great storm front was moving east, and would hit the Ardennes about the middle of December.
Secrecy surrounded the entire operation almost until the zero hour. As I have said, most of us generals did not learn of the impending offensive until the December 12th conference with Hitler; major unit commanders were told of it only December 15th, and the staff of the operations chief for the Western Command was informed only at 0530 hours on December 16th, one hour before the attack began.
Troops had to be moved into the attack area three or four nights before the offensive began, but these movements were described as defensive. The sound of our moving vehicles was drowned out for the most part by planes hedgehopping along the front all night, telephone and radio discipline was excellent.
All staffs received new code names. A radio station was established at Cologne and broadcast repeated false reports to throw the Allies off the scent.
The offensive began on schedule December 16th. During the preceding night, a few small German units had infiltrated through the American front lines, a trick we had learned only too well from the Russians. Then there was a brief but heavy artillery barrage, followed by the ground attack all along the front.
As is always the case, our armies achieved some immediate success, but the German command was not satisfied. The initial attack had not taken as much ground as could have been expected from earlier battles. The comparatively weak enemy defended its position fiercely. By the third day,the American reserves, brought up from the rear, were making themselves felt. Of particular significance was the subsequent attack General Patton's tanks made on the German southern flank.
Nevertheless our attack moved westward, although much slower than we had hoped. And what Rundstedt had expected all along, happened. The Sixth SS Panzer Army's right wing was brought to a standstill by indirect pressure exerted to the north by the U.S. Ninth Army. Even the center of the Panzer army showed no great results, mainly because of the lack of training and because a number of mechanical faults developed in its equipment.
Above all, it had not been possible during the first three or four days even to reach the River Our, much less Liege. By the evening of December 18th, the entire operation had been placed in doubt because its success required a quick march to the Meuse. Now we could logically expect that General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Sir Bernard L. Montgomery would have time to move up reinforcements from their neighboring fronts, bring the German offensive to a halt, and open an attack on either German flank.
Just that happened. The weather, however, remained on our side. It was still rainy and foggy enough to keep Allied planes grounded, but not snowy or icy enough in the Eifel mountains to delay seriously German movements of supply.
Panzer Armies Make Slow Advance
By December 20th, the situation of our weak Seventh Army, guarding the southern flank of the Fifth Panzer Army, was worsening rapidly. However, the Fifth Panzer Army itself continued to advance slowly against the U.S. First Army until Christmas Eve. Some units managed to fight past either side of Bastogne and toward Dinant. But even these failed to reach the Meuse. Allied pressure on the Sixth SS Panzer Army's left in the Malmedy area was increasing.
British troops, along with the U.S. 2d Armored Division, were thrown against the point of the Fifth Panzer Army, and General Patton continued smashing at the southern flank toward Bastogne.
To top it all, the weather cleared so much on December 23d that Allied air forces were able to start flying. They laid down a blanket of bombs behind the German front which paralyzed the movement of the already inadequate supplies and reinforcements. That meant the end of the offensive. Then snow began falling, the temperature dropped, the few roads behind the German front iced over.
Rundstedt went to Hitler and suggested that, since the offensive was now hopeless, it be broken off, and the troops withdrawn as best they could to the positions from which they had started a week earlier. Hitler barely listened.
“Herr Field Marshal,” he said, “you don't understand these things. That's why I came here ‑ to help you!”
Here one must make particular mention of the heroic stand of the American troops at Bastogne, who fought on against German troops far out numbering them when their positions seemed hopeless. Bastogne will remain a glorious ideal for the American Army. Ironically, the same village had been the scene of a meeting between Hitler and Rundstedt in 1940, during the successful German blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries.
Bastogne was tactically important to both sides because it was a key road intersection. When it was surrounded by German troops, and the American commander, Brigadier General A. C. McAuliffe, was asked to surrender, his reply, as most Americans know, was, simply: “Nuts!”
This was transmitted to Rundstedt's HQ by Army Group B as “Quatsch!” (Bosh), the nearest German equivalent. The Wermacht interpreter apparently knew his American idiom.
Curiously enough, “Quatsch” was one of Rundstedt's favorite words; be used to spit it out when reading some particularly unreasonable instruction from above.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The German ultimatum demanding surrender of Bastogne under threat of “total annihilation” of its defenders was delivered to the Americans by German emissaries of Gen. Heinrich von Luttwitz, commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, under a white flag on December 22d. General McAuliffe's written one‑word reply was handed to the emissaries by Colonel (now Brigadier General Joseph H. Harper, then commander of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment. Unable to translate “Nuts!” immediately, the Germans asked Harper for a clarification and he replied “It means about the same as 'Go to Hell!' You understand that, don't you?” The Germans understood.)
On being told of the Bastogne commander's reply to the surrender demand, Rundstedt remarked to the intimates that he wished that outfit were fighting on his side.
Bastogne was defended by the American 10 Armored Division, later reinforced by the famous 101st Airborne Division. Their heroic achievement threw the entire German offensive out of step.
Division after division was sent in by the Germans in a futile attempt to drive the stubborn Americans from Bastogne. Before it was over, our Western Command had all of the following fighting for the village; the headquarters of the 39th Panzer Corps and the First SS Panzer Corps, the First SS Panzer Division, the Fuehrer Escort Brigade, the 340th Infantry Division and finally the Fifth Paratroop Division. Some of these units were brought over from the Sixth SS Panzer Army. That shows how hard the battle was. American tanks finally broke through the encircling German units and relieved the Bastogne garrison on December 26th.
Skorzeny's Brigade certainly played no decisive role in the Ardennes campaign. During the battle, Rundstedt and his staff viewed Skorzeny like someone just playing at war, because his movements had so little to do with the main operation.
Initially, Skorzeny apparently intended to strike in the direction of Liege, hoping to create confusion behind the Allied lines, and eventually to establish a bridge head across the Meuse near that key communications and road center. But two or three days before the offensive opened he shifted his troops south and aimed them at Saint‑Vith.
This was in the sector of the 66th Corps, Fifth Panzer Army. Promptly the 66th Corps commander, Lieutenant General Walter Lucht, got into a squabble with Skorzeny. Lucht had never heard of Skorzeny's “Operation Greif.” But the general staff instructed him to give Skorzeny free rein.
“Operation Greif” Is Ineffective
Skorzeny's men apparently did create some confusion with their American uniforms drawn over their Wermacht clothing, their fast‑moving jeeps, and the Molotov cocktails they threw against passing tanks. But they never reached their objectives, and after the first day of the offensive were widely dispersed. After that, Skorzeny drifted from one corps headquarters to another, trying to find out how the battle was going, and where he might be helpful. But no corps commander wanted anything to do with him, and he did not visit Western Command headquarters once the battle began.
To Americans, the Ardennes offensive inevitably brings to mind the incident at Malmedy, in which some 140 American prisoners were shot by SS men who after the war were tried by a U.S. war crimes court in Dachau.
Rundstedt first learned of the incident, which took place about the third day of the battle, through an Allied radio broadcast heard by his monitors.
He immediately asked Colonel Joachim Peiper, commanding a Panzer regiment in the First SS Division, for an explanation. Peiper ordered an investigation. He finally reported that the shooting appeared to have been in error.
The Americans, he said, had been captured near Saint‑Vith, and were being marched in the direction of Malmedy by an escort of only a handful of Germans. But they met a unit of the First SS Division hurrying toward the front. This unit opened fire, apparently in the belief that it was an advancing American unit. Peiper reported that the prisoner's German escort was killed by the SS fire, too.
The Ardennes offensive marked the first time guided missiles had been used in battle. V‑2s had been used against London, of course, and V‑1s were being used against Antwerp, but these were distant targets. Shortly after the invasion, our Western Command had suggested using the slow V‑1s against Allied troops. But Hitler rejected the idea because he feared the V‑1s, hard to direct, would hit his own troops. Later it was suggested they be used against Paris, but Rundstedt threw cold water on that plan.
By the time the Ardennes offensive opened, ambitious SS leaders had been given control of the V‑weapons, although Rundstedt had a small tactical V‑weapon command for a few weeks more.
The general staff ordered V‑1s aimed at Liege in connection with the Ardennes offensive; this instruction was carried out. They seemed to have little more than psychological effect, however. And, almost immediately, Western Command began receiving complaints from Eifel mountain villagers that many V‑1s were falling short or turning around and dropping on the villagers' property.
After Christmas Day, even Hitler realized that something had to be done quickly if anything at all were to be saved. Hitler ordered a new attack in Alsace.
But by now the Germans had lost the initiative. It also became clear that the German spearhead far out to the west was not going to receive the main Allied counterattack; instead the Americans and British were going to collapse our deep flanks. By early January, 1945, Bastogne was irretrievably lost to us and the whole battle became even more senseless.
It was then Hitler and Rundstedt had it out for the last time in the Fuehrer's headquarters at Ziegenberg. Rundstedt became so angry during this interview that he smashed his field marshal's baton across the conference table. Rundstedt's immediate staff prophesied that he would soon be removed, and the loss of the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine in early March gave Hitler the excuse he needed.
Even had the Germans reached and crossed the Meuse, it would have made little difference. With the ever‑threatening situation in the east, it would have been impossible to have maintained such an offensive in the west.
But suppose German troops had been brought in from Norway, the Balkans and Italy? The Allies would not have overlooked the movement of so many troops, and the element of surprise would have been gone. Allied troops on other fronts could also have been brought to the Ardennes. In addition, the Allies would still have had air superiority.
And even had tremendously reinforced German forces crossed the Meuse, it would not have changed the outcome of the war. The Allies might have taken some stiff losses, but they would have never been forced off the Continent. They had lots more troops in Britain and the U.S., and they had more time than we did. Sooner or later, Germany would have had to withdraw troops from the west to bolster the eastern front.
At most, Germany could only have won a little time; since the political leadership did not use this time intelligently, the whole Ardennes battle was nonsense.
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