What Happened December 19th to
Company b-423rd On the Schnee Eifel?

By Joe Salerno, then the 2nd Platoon Messenger

            Even those among us who were there have a hard time answering this question. Those of us who survived the climactic battle, mostly wounded, exhausted and battle-weary confined as POW’s had a different version of what happened to “Baker” Company because a few yards of separation between squads and platoons in a forest of pine trees and gullies changed the complexity of the moment.            

            Typical of rifle company soldiers, especially not yet combat hardened, we had no idea about troop disposition or deployment; other then location of our foxholes, platoon pillbox, company CP and that in two weeks we would rotate back to division reserve in time for Christmas. Many of us were nothing more than cadet-like soldiers in the ASTP at the University of Alabama less than a year before. Others had only completed their basic training weeks before finding themselves in a frontline foxhole. None of us had any idea that as we waved to Lt. Parker, a former company officer transferred to division headquarters, as we crossed the little bridge at Schonberg, that it was not only the single entry to but the only exit from the positions we were to soon occupy.

            We were aware that our division replaced the 2nd US Infantry Division unit for unit; gun for gun in the western side of the Siegfried Line on what we later learned was called the Schnee Eifel,[1] important to higher command because it was the initial intrusion into the German homeland by Allied Forces (taken in early fall by the 4th US Infantry Division). Our B-Company sector was on the western mountain slope of a mountain ridge confronting another higher ridge upon which was located Brandscheid, a hamlet-like town that featured a glistening church steeple. We occupied Siegfried line pillboxes on our hilltop with the enemy doing likewise on their slope. We were attacked on the 16th in what was to become known as the Battle of the Bulge; our Company held to its front but armor-led forces overwhelmed the divisional flanks, at Auw to the north and Blielf to the south. Two of the 106th regiments, the 422nd and ours (423rd) were completely surrounded. On the 18th we pulled back from our line positions into a perimeter and organized to counter-attack on the 19th through Schonberg with the mission to regroup with division at St. Vith. As I best recollect and according to military history accounts including MacDonald’s: A Time For Trumpets, B-Company was designated as 1st Battalion "point" to take and hold the Schonberg Bridge so that two regiments could regroup with division at St. Vith.  The mission failed. I was among the lucky ones…a survivor of what was historically recorded as the biggest battle of WWII.

            My combat experience was limited and comparatively routine. Oddly enough my baptism of fire came while I was defecating over a slit trench when suddenly the earth about me began to tremble and I realized I was in an exposed position with enemy shells coming in. I grabbed my rifle and without pulling my pants up made for our platoon pillbox jumping in headfirst. In a way, it served as a pressure-valve release because it provided a laugh at a most critical time when we became aware that this was for real, that “they” were out to kill us. Another noteworthy initial encounter occurred when Pfc. Gordon Pinney and I were bringing a case of grenades forward and while crossing a logging road an enemy sniper literally shot my helmet off; thankfully, with no harm to me other than “scared beyond description.” It wasn’t too long afterwards; that being shot at, existing under shellfire and bombing raids became matter-of-course, but always as stomach-knotting and apprehensive as waiting for the opening kickoff in a varsity football game.

            My weapon was the Garand M-1 semi-automatic rifle in which I qualified as a sharpshooter. Although I fired upon the enemy as situations required to the best of my knowledge, I hopefully doubt I killed anyone. At the time I was dissatisfied with myself, but now in older age, thankful if I did not kill another human being but distressed that I may have caused anguish to others and their families, even if they were enemy at the time. During the early hours before dawn on December 16th I had the mission of escorting our company commander from our platoon CP[2] to the Company CP. I had to guide him through about 400 yards of heavy pinewoods while under heavy enemy artillery bombardment. As we approached the Company CP, the perimeter guard challenged us.   Upon giving him the password we learned he had a grenade ready to throw and had discarded the pin. With him and us in a rather nervous/panic stage the captain ordered me to lead him to a safe area to release the grenade which is a difficult task in a heavily treed area while under intense incoming artillery. Nonetheless, I led him to a ravine and directed he roll rather than throw the grenade down the incline as we sought cover behind the dirt embankment. It turned out the grenade was a dud, but it was a very nerve wracking incident during the early hours of the battle, which ultimately would give me many more.

I had no idea during those predawn hours of December 16th while escorting Captain James D. Moore to his CP that the biggest battle of World War II was unfolding and I was to be a part of it[3]. It was our common misconception in the ranks that the Germans were beaten and that our combat time would be short-lived and that we’d become part of the Army of Occupation. How wrong we were. After returning to the platoon and the barrage let up I accompanied Lt. Sterling Garwood as he inspected our positions and later we with Sgt. “Red” Ussery traveled back to the Battalion Supply point to scrounge some extra ammo. After dark the lieutenant put together a small patrol of which I was a part, to bring a supply of ammo and food to the squad we had in our advanced pillbox. It was situated at the foot of the mountain covering the road to Brandscheid. Restocking had to be done at night because the approach was totally exposed to the enemy on the opposite hill. The experience was always scary because the intermittent flares from both sides completely illuminated the area and we had to remain perfectly still with each burst.  Any movement or noise would encourage enemy fire.

As yet we had no idea that the pre-dawn heavy artillery barrage of the previous day was actually an all out, Hitler inspired counter-attack. Around mid morning of the 17th an enemy infantry force attacked our unit front but upon coming under our firepower hastily withdrew. We were quite elated until suddenly the artillery observation team in line with us was ordered back and we received word that our flanks had been penetrated and we were surrounded. At the time we thought it was only our battalion and never realized both regiments were in the trap; however, not to worry because the 7th Armored Division was on its way to relieve us. In reality it was well over 60 miles away and of no immediate help for us. At the moment I was particularly happy because my cousin Packy was with the 7th Armored and confident they would get through and maybe I could spend Christmas with my first cousin. What I was unaware of was that Packy had been wounded in the battle for Metz and was already back in the states under treatment for paraplegia. After dark again the enemy began pounding us with artillery and mortar bombardment. The Germans infiltrated our sound power phone lines confusing our communications with Kraut-gibberish, which combined with the artillery damage to our phone lines limited our communications to what we messengers were able to hand deliver. It was a hectic night and I was completely exhausted.

Shortly after dawn on the 18th the lieutenant told me to grab a bunk at the back of the bunker and get some sleep. Seems as if as soon as I fell off to sleep Sergeant Ussery started shaking me awake. Sergeant or not I told him off informing that I had permission to sleep the morning away. He responded with, “Well you can sleep but the rest of us are pulling out!” It took a moment for his remark to penetrate, so I got up and looked out to see our platoon already formed to march out. I quickly grabbed my rifle and combat pack and joined the group, which was already on the move. Our company joined the main line of march as battalion reserve providing rear guard support. Per orders, one 2nd Platoon squad was left in the Brandscheid bunker to cover the rest of the units disengaging. I was positioned at the tale end of our platoon walking two abreast with “Snake” Owens. About a mile out the column stopped. At the time we were unaware that the lead company had come under attack. Garwood came and took both of us back about 50 yards to serve as rear-guard;17 to provide the alert if enemy forces came at us from the rear. In the meantime, he shared a password with us because he was going back to get the squad that had been left behind. However, the march soon resumed with T/Sgt.Bill Niemela at the helm of our platoon because Garwood had not yet returned and I was dispatched to the Company CP position. Our road march was sporadically interrupted as small arms fire broke out to the front of our elongated column on the very narrow country roads; although at times we did break out cross-country. In the meantime Garwood who had returned with the missing squad was ordered to take his platoon into the high wooded area to our left serving as flank guards for the column that had stopped for a rest period as early darkness set in. Within the hour Captain Moore dispatched me to have Garwood return with his platoon because we were to resume the march within minutes. However, I became a bit panicky being unable to locate the platoon. Time was running out so I hurried back to report, only to learn the platoon had already joined the line of march and I was to reposition myself with the platoon.

At one point we came to a “T” in the road with the column turning left. I was ordered together with about three others to set up a roadblock to interrupt any enemy approaching from the right. It felt like an eternity but in about 20 minutes Garwood sent word for us to rejoin the main body. For most of the night I moved between the platoon and company as the column eventually made it up a very steep hillside and we were disbursed into unit bivouac areas. I returned to the platoon when we were ordered to sack out for the night; no fires, cigarette lighting and no noise permitted other than whispers. By now most of us had discarded gas masks and packs, but wisely kept the entrenching tool and weapons. All we could do was lie on the cold ground and bunch up pine needles to serve as a pillow. It was really cold and uncomfortable even for teenagers.

Apparently I did fall asleep because I was awakened by the noise of guys starting to try digging foxholes for themselves. I did likewise, but what with tree roots and frozen ground it was an almost impossible task. A recently arrived private was next to me and he had discarded his entrenching tool with his pack during the uphill march and was getting a kick out of the rest of us trying to dig into the unyielding ground. But then it came, a continuing barrage of incoming artillery and he began to beg for the rest of us to loan him our tool. The Germans zeroed in on the digging noise and began an intense artillery barrage. The incoming 88s and tree bursts were drenching the area. Between bursts we’d alternate sharing our tool with the newcomer, but it was of little solace because the ground was frozen hard. All we could do was ball up into a fetal position and pray. It was during this barrage that our battalion commander was fatally wounded and our first sergeant went either heroic or hysteric. He began running around our area yelling, “I guess I don’t have to remind B Company men to put their helmets on now!”[4] It seemed as if the barrage would never stop, but it did and amid the horrific cries of pain, pleas to “Mom” and out-loud prayers we were ordered to move out. In those days, we were indoctrinated to leave our casualties behind for follow-up medics to care for. We were reassembled in an open area in the woods and I accompanied the company commander to a battalion escape plan briefing. We went into the attack plan formation to break out of the pocket and to rejoin division at St. Vith. From this point on due to the exigencies of the situation facts become disjointed.

To illustrate at a recent reunion the following reminisces were described: What with three separate first hand accounts, including mine of where Captain Moore[5] was that fateful morning as well as two accounts plus my own of where I was, it’s obvious, the erosion of time takes precedence. Kelly Parkinson, a Staff Sergeant squad leader at the time had me wounded by shrapnel and evacuated while he was next to Company Commander Moore and our Battalion S-3[6] Alan Jones Jr., while they were discussing surrendering the company because of the overwhelming enemy forces having surrounded the unit. In the same time frame then S/Sgt Dick Rigatti says he was with the Captain who had him scout the strength of confronting German forces. (I’m of the opinion that Dick’s squad was actually sent out as forward scouts for the main unit.) PFC Phil Cox recalls me being with him in another sector with Lt. Garwood, our Platoon Leader who during the lop-sided skirmish asked if I had a white handkerchief[7] and all I had was a khaki-colored. However, my recollection is that Garwood dispatched me to the Company Commander’s CP[8] as his communication link; that the S-3 gathered the Company CO’s and briefed as to breaking out by way of the Schonberg Bridge. B-Company then moved out with two platoons abreast, 2nd on the right in a column of squads with Moore’s CP between the platoons. I assumed Garwood had his moving CP between his lead squad and primary reserve squad; but his recollection was that the acting Battalion Commander severed him from the company and commandeered him to another mission. At the moment of impact as we approached Schonberg I was positioned between the company CP and “Snake” Owens who was the BAR man of S/Sgt Cassidy’s squad. I have no recall of anyone, including the captain surrendering the company. Just that as we stepped out of the tree line we saw what looked like a German anti-aircraft unit digging in to our front and they immediately opened up on us with direct fire …then tanks on the roadway to our right front did likewise. “Snake” and I dropped into a slight gully with Pvt. Ed Bradley and two guys from the adjacent platoon. Our return rifle fire was haphazard and useless as pandemonium took over what with the devastating incoming firepower and tree bursts. It was again an agony of pain and despair because we were on the exposed hillside subject to direct bombardment with no means of effective return firepower. Everyone in our little defilade was hit; the worse being a private from the other platoon whose leg was blown off above the knee and Bradley, whose rump ended up with another opening. When the firing finally ceased, burp-gun laden Germans were all over the roadway yelling at us, eyeball to eyeball, to come out to the road or be killed. And, in apparent shock we melted away as a fighting unit as one followed another with our hands interlocked behind our necks. As I recall Captain Moore at this time was to my immediate left and when a captor recognized his rank, he was quickly separated from us and whisked away. Off in another direction, remnants of another 2nd platoon squad led by PFC Dan Gilbert came face to face with a Tiger Tank and were ordered to halt by the tank commander when PFC Fontaine Forbes cut him down with point blank rifle fire and the squad escaped back into the woods. (They were captured later in the day and came together with me in a farmyard enclosure where the Germans had imprisoned their captives.) In all honesty I have no idea of how these events fell into place. It was a hectic time. In my subsequent talk with the then S-3, Alan Jones Jr., he indicates he was not with our company at the time or did he brief the CO’s, but for fifty-some years I would have sworn he briefed the company commanders before we went into the Schonberg attack. He later opined that in reviewing his files the incident may well have been as I recollected. Now I often wonder if I lived or dreamed these happenings. In any event, it matters not how these accounts dovetail one another; the important outcome is that it took the Germans four days to dislodge us when they planned on erasing us in one. Therefore, those of us who were there can take pride that the youthful 106th had a vital part in Hitler’s downfall, and its Company B-423rd Infantry was in the forefront.  Unbeknown to us at the time: In losing…we actually won.

[1] This was an isolated mountainous sector accessible only by one bridge across the River Our at Schonberg. Our commanding general immediately questioned the deployment order because of obvious threat for two regiments to be easily surrounded if attacked; however, higher command allowed for no revision. “No yielding of conquered German homeland territory.”

[2] Command Post

[3] Ardennes Campaign; the Battle of the Bulge 

[4] A constant complaint during training was that of troops taking off their helmets because of the weight and discomfort.

[5] Captain Moore passed away before this writing and therefore could provide no verifications.

[6] S-3, Plans & Training Officer.

[7] Something white would have been needed for a small unit surrender

[8] Commanding Officer

Page last revised 09/19/2016
James D. West