HISTORY OF "L" COMPANY
Contributed by Ralph Wyss; Unit:424 Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company "L"; Sergeant, Squad Leader, 2nd 60mm mortar squad, 4th platoon.
Joined 106th in May, 1944; Left 106th July, 1945 to go to USA and then to the Pacific. Got to USA but "the bomb" saved me from going to the Pacific.
From Atterbury to England
The story of this Company’s combat experiences begins at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, in 1944. This Company is Company "L", 424th Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, Organized at Fort Jackson, South Carolina in 1943. A veteran of maneuvers in South Carolina and Tennessee before coming to Indiana in March, 1944.
Training at Camp Atterbury reverted back to the previous years in South Carolina, as many men who had received the training were sent overseas as replacements, and others were sent in to round out their training as infantry soldiers.
In September,1944 the Division was alerted for overseas movement and final preparations were begun. Inspections, final issue of equipment and a million smaller details were the orders of the ensuing days. Finally all was made ready.
Company "L" left Camp Atterbury Wednesday morning October 11, 1944 and traveled by rail to a staging area in the eastern part of the United States, Camp Miles Standish, Mass. At CMS everything essential to a soldier, overseas, was carefully rechecked, the last puncture of the "harpoon" was endured, lectures were received on all phases of overseas movement from boat drill to subsistence in case of an emergency at sea.
When all was complete, everybody went to Boston on their last good binge before leaving the States. Then on October 20th, just eight days after arriving at CMS, everybody packed up, boarded the train again, and departed for the POE. On this train ride, however, the second-guessers were crossed up, for instead of going to Boston to sail, we back-tracked and made for New York City.
Plans called for us boarding the ship at night and sailing under cover of darkness, but a train wreck forced us to lay up at New Haven, Connecticut for about four hours, with the result that it was nearly daylight as we left the train at Hoboken, New Jersey and got on the Hoboken Ferry for the short trip across the Hudson River. It was daylight when the ferry bumped into the concrete pier on the New York side of the river, and we piled off for our first contact with the Red Cross, the coffee, doughnut, and candy bar dispensers, who had yet to miss a ship.
Loading began immediately after the Red Cross formality and a few minutes after the last man had struggled up the gangplank the big ship was cut loose from her moorings, pushed and pulled out into the river by tugs, pointed downstream and was turned loose. So began that voyage so well known to the millions who had made it before and during the war. Down the river past Manhattan's skyscrapers, the Bowery, past Brooklyn and into the harbor, out past the Statue of Liberty. Everybody crowded to the rail to catch a final glimpse of the old lady and on out to the open waters of the second largest pond in the world, the Atlantic.
Before continuing with the voyage of "L" Company across the Atlantic to England, let's pause a minute and catch a quick glimpse of its leaders, the men on whose shoulders largely rested the fate of the Company. Captain Ben Bartell of Staten Island, New York, who was a platoon leader in the original company at Fort Jackson and had worked his way up to the top, was the skipper, the Company Commander. Executive Officer was John J O'Brien, of Whitehall, New York, a red-headed, fighting Irishman. Leader of the first platoon was 2nd Lt: Robert H. Britton, New Jersey. 2nd Lt Orville H Bauer, Toledo, Ohio commanded the second platoon. The third Platoon's leader was Lt Edward G Penniman, of Lynn, Mass and the fourth platoon's leader was lst Lt Matthew C Beck, of Los Angeles, California.
First Sergeant of the Company was Gerald Schaaf of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Platoon Sergeants were Tech. Sgt. Steve Koval, Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Fabisiak, Tech. Sgt. Albert Barberi and Tech. Sgt. William Cornwell, heading the lst, 2d, 3d and 4th platoons, respectively. These were the main leaders of Company "L" as it headed towards Europe.
Our ship was the HMS Aquitania,
British owned and operated. Having seen service in World War I as a
troop transport, it was pressed into the same operation at the
outbreak of this conflict. Large and fast, the Aquitania sailed
alone, relying on its speed rather than the protection of a convoy
in the event of any hostile action.
Consequently, we made good time
going across. Life aboard ship was largely routine. Boat drills
took up a few hours each day and helped to break the monotony, as
did a USO camp show unit headed by Hollywood actress and singer
Irene Manning. Aside from those two features, however, there wasn't
a great deal to do except watch the water go by.
Naturally some of the boys got a little sea sick but on the whole the voyage was smooth and uneventful. Nevertheless, everyone was glad when, on the seventh day at sea, we were picked up by escort vessels of the Canadian Navy, and even more happy when we finally sighted land. Ireland and the Isle of Man on Saturday morning October 28, 1944. That same afternoon we steamed into the Firth of Clyde and dropped anchor off the town of Gourock, Scotland.
We stayed on board the Aquitania that night and on Sunday morning we debarked (disembarked) rode a ferry into Gourock, and boarded our first English train. Here again we came into contact with the Red Cross and the English version of coffee and doughnuts was just as good as that in New York. Shortly after noon our train pulled out and we settled back to enjoy our first glimpses of the Scottish and English countryside that we later came to know so well.
Our train took us through Glasgow, Edinburgh, then south along the North Sea to Hull, inland again to Newcastle where we stopped long enough to get coffee and muffins, then on to Banbury, and finally our destination, Chipping Norton, 21 miles northwest of Oxford and about 80 miles west of London.
We arrived at Chipping Norton, England about one o'clock in the morning, of Monday, October 30, and as we climbed the hill from the station to our billets, we were not very impressed. Our new homes, Nissen huts, made us feel a little better, although they were plenty cold that first night, and after a nights sleep and a good breakfast of powdered eggs, we were ready to see the town and meet our British allies.
Meet them we did, and for more than
a month we were both pestered and pleased with the children
way-laying us and following us wherever we went with cries of "Any
gum, chum?" "Chippy" was a representative English town, and very
few that were there will soon forget it. The pubs with their beer
and cider, the two theaters or cinemas, where, if you worked it
right, you could see four movies a week, the girls from the Women's
Land Army, the RAF fellows who didn't really appreciate our
intrusion and even got us blamed for a roadblock that they
constructed on Halloween.
Also the Good Luck Restaurant, the parties at the Town Hall, the mock battles as we simulated taking the Town Hall. The mock battles as we simulated taking the village, all of these and many more incidents are firmly imprinted in our minds. No, "Chippy" will not be soon forgotten.
Our time in Chipping Norton was not all play though. On the contrary, we went through some of the hardest training ever experienced by the Company, as the officers and non-coms worked to erase all the kinks of the ocean voyage and put the final polish on the men before going into combat.
There were problems encountered in the training, it was five miles from "Chippy" to the training area, it rained almost constantly, the terrain in the training area was one hill after another. But the mounting spirit and high morale of the entire Company brought us through in tip-top-shape. We were ready for anything the Germans could throw at us. Little did we know that they would throw the entire book and a few pages of their own writing.
Before leaving England a few changes were made in the officer personnel of the Company, as well as among the non-coms. Lieutenants Beck and Penniman were transferred and replaced by lst Lt Richard Sipe of Indianapolis, Indiana and lst Lt Woodrow Kramer respectively. Also S/Sgt Stanley Lovett was promoted to Tech. Sgt. and became Platoon Sergeant of the third platoon. Otherwise the Company was led by the same men mentioned above.
As the end of November rolled around it became a generally accepted fact that we would soon move to the continent and on December 1st we did pack up and leave Chipping Norton. Actually it was December 2nd, about l:00 in the morning (we always seem to move at night) as we boarded the train and headed south for the channel coast.
From England to The Front
At 5 AM we left the train at Southampton and we walked from the station to the dock. For nearly four hours we sat in a shed waiting to board the ship. Finally we pulled ourselves up to the gang plank then we were ushered into what seemed to be the lowest hold in the ship. Soon after we boarded the ship was cast off and we steamed to a point just outside the harbor where we lay at anchor for the rest of the day. Shortly after darkness we began the short trip across the channel and the next day found us lying at anchor off the coast of France.
Then, for four days we sat there waiting for the waters to calm down enough to allow landing craft to be brought alongside. Finally on December 6th the ship's officers steamed the vessel, the SS Monowai, into the harbor and unloading was begun immediately. The Company was loaded into LCI's shortly after dark, going down a steel ladder to get off the Monowai, taken into shore and marched away from the beach to await transportation.
This was LeHarve, France. As we marched up the streets we became increasingly aware of the power of the Air Corps. In the dock area nothing was left standing, not even a small wall. The further we got from the harbor the better the city was but the harbor area was definitely ruined. The Air Corps really did a good job there.
It began snowing as we sat on the piles of rubble waiting for the trucks, and the snow gradually changed to rain as time wore on. Conditions were not conducive to good sleeping, but plenty of snores floated up from the wreckage. It was nearly 2:00 in the morning when the trucks finally showed up (again we move at night) but nobody was sorry when we rolled out of LeHarve. They were too tired to be sorry.
After a two hour ride we piled off the trucks into driving rain storm at a rear assembly area near Yerville, France. We remained there just one day, but in that time we were issued overshoes, assigned to a Corps and an Army, the 8th Corps of the lst Army, and re-grouped into combat teams within the Division. On Friday, December 8, we again climbed on trucks and headed east toward the lst Army front in Germany.
Through northwestern France and
into Belgium the convoy rolled, and late on Saturday evening, the
9th of December, we arrived at a forward assembly area near St.
Vith, Belgium. This was some 15 miles behind the front lines. Here
in a portion of the Ardennes Forest, we bivouacked in the snow and
awaited orders to go on line. They were not long coming.
Reconnaissance parties went up the next day to look over our portion of the front. On Monday, December 11th, the advance party went up, including Lieutenant O'Brien; lst Sgt. Schaaf; the four platoon sergeants; the machine gun and mortar section sergeants, Staff Sgt. Francis Galipeau, of Bennington, Vermont and Staff Sgt. John Craft, of Isola, Mississippi; and one rifle squad from the first platoon, led by Staff Sgt. James Stanford, of San Francisco, California.
Then on Tuesday, Dec 12th, 1944, "L" Company, as a unit moved on line at Heckhuscheid, Germany, 10 miles southeast of St Vith, replacing "I" Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. All the days of training, all the hours of hard work, were now a thing of the past. This was what the training has been for. This was definitely "It."
On line before and after the breakthrough, life on the Siegfried Line for "L" Company would have surprised even the most veteran military observers. Certainly it was surprising to the men in the Company who were new to this sort of thing and had been taught to believe that the front lines were a point where all the misery in the world was consolidated. Far from it in this case. We moved from the forward assembly area where we slept in pup tents pitched in half a foot of snow to the front lines where each man had a low log "bunk" in a log bunker.
Most of the bunkers had a stove and were built for six to 12 men to live in comparative ease and comfort. Within a short distance of the bunkers were the foxholes, 30 cal machine gun and 60mm mortar positions, all of them deep enough for a man to stand in and all protecting the man from the air and tree bursts by means of log and dirt covers. The bunkers, beside the logs and dirt, were thoroughly sand bagged so that a person could sleep and rest securely, usually not hearing an exploding shell if it were right outside the bunker. Even a direct hit would have had little or no effect on a majority of the bunkers, so good was their construction.
A good place to sleep was not the only advantage of our front line position. Centrally located in the Company area was a mess hall, where the cooks turned out two hot meals a day. Because of the hilly terrain, the Company jeeps were able to bring food, supplies, and ammunition directly into the Company area. Movement by personnel, although naturally restricted by the constant danger of enemy shelling could nevertheless be done without fear of being seen by the enemy. Only one squad of the first platoon, who were in position on an open hill, were forced to keep from moving during the daytime.
This, then, was our first visit to the front and we took advantage of the situation to catch up on our sleep for the first time since leaving England. For two or three days everybody slept and made improvements on their bunkers and foxholes. Only slight enemy shelling at very infrequent intervals kept us from realizing that we were still running problems in the States.
The Company remained remarkably calm considering it was their first time on line, and there were very few cases of men hearing or seeing things that were largely the product of their imagination. A visitor would have believed that the Company had been on line since the landings in North Africa. One bunker scoffed at the idea of anything happening to such an extent that they rounded up a cow, milked it twice a day, and had almost enough milk for the whole Company.
For four days the only thing that disturbed our peace and quiet was an accidental fire in one of the bunkers that destroyed most of the equipment of the men. As it turned out, later, it didn't matter a great deal, for on the morning of Saturday, December 16th the peace and quiet came to an abrupt halt!
At 5 AM on that eventful morning things were just as quiet as they had been for the last four days, perhaps a little more so. At about 5:20 AM, however, the enemy opened up with a thunderous artillery barrage, featuring their multiple rocket guns which are known to the GIs as "screaming meemies." The sound of one sent chills up your spine, but fortunately their range was wrong and most of the barrage passed overhead.
Just as the barrage was lifted, two huge spotlights, apparently anti-aircraft search lights were lit directly in front of the first platoon, lighting up the entire terrain. The entire company was instantly alerted and waiting for anything that might turn up. First platoon men, peering into the lights, picked out huge groups of enemy soldiers advancing up the hills towards our positions. Though we were not aware of it, Von Rundstedt’s last ditch offensive was on.
Immediately a call was put into Battalion to bring down our own supporting artillery, but the enemy barrage had cut the communication wires. We were on our own, and the only form of artillery to be had was from the three Company "L" 60 mm mortars not designed to fill in totally for the artillery. Nevertheless, the crews swung into action and poured every bit of available ammunition into the advancing enemy.
Because of their position slightly in front of the rest of the Company, the first platoon was hit first. Holding their fire until almost overrun, these men, when they did open up, cut down the first waves of the enemy as if they were shooting ducks or clay pigeons. Enemy soldiers were literally stacked up in front of the foxholes.
The mortar fire also took a terrific toll. But the strength of the attacking forces was such that a sizable force soon opened up a breech in our lines and penetrated to the rear of the first platoon. Never faltering, these men fought the enemy off from all directions for nearly four hours until the reserve Company of the Battalion came to their aid.
It was about the time that the first platoon was cut off when leading waves of the enemy hit the third platoon and the right flank of the second platoon. Again the mortars played "merry hell" with the Germans but because of the size of the enemy forces great numbers succeeded in storming through to the very mouths of the foxholes. Here they were met by a withering hail of fire as the boys opened up with everything they had and once again the Germans were stacked up in front of our riflemen.
Despite this fire some Germans did succeed in breaking through and capturing our CP and forcing Captain Bartell, Lieutenant O'Brien and the rest of Company Headquarters personnel to move up to the second platoon CP to continue the fight. The speed with which the Germans closed on our Company CP is illustrated by the fact that Captain Bartell and Lieutenant O'Brien went out of the windows of the building as the Germans came in the door.
So desperate did the situation become that a vast number of the men sat in their foxholes and prayed for daylight to come so we could take the initiative and regain the ground we had lost. Yet not once did the men lose control of themselves, everyone remaining calm and full control of their faculties. Daylight came at about 7:00 a.m., just as the mortars were firing last rounds.
The three 60mm mortars of Sergeant John D. Zahn, Sergeant Ralph G. Wyss and Sergeant William A. McCartney in support of the first, second and third platoons, respectively, fired over 1000 rounds, including their supply of illuminating shells when they ran out of high explosive shells. Yet the three guns had not wasted their ammunition for between them they broke the back of the enemy attack at our positions. These gun crews then took up their rifles and joined the rifle platoons they had been supporting.
With the coming of daylight, action was immediately set into motion to retake our lost ground. An assault party, led by Lieutenant O'Brien, composed of members of the second platoon stormed from their positions and retook the Company CP, driving the enemy back into the open and directly into the line of fire of the light machine gun section. They promptly opened up the second time, again trapping the Germans trying to get away from the riflemen. Again it was a slaughter.
About the time the second platoon was retaking the CP troops of "I" Company appeared on the scene and swiftly went to work on any Germans they could find. Finding them was a fairly hard job because there were not many left who were capable of putting up more than a token resistance. All of the men in the Company were, nevertheless, very glad to see the men of "I" Company, for it meant that contact had once again been established with Battalion Headquarters, communications having been broken during the initial artillery barrage. The immediate area of the Company CP, having been cleared of the enemy, was used for holding all the prisoners the company rounded up and these were immediately taken to the rear as our leaders took stock of the situation.
The first platoon was still cut off, nothing having been heard from them since PFC John P. McManus, third platoon runner, had made his way to their positions shortly after the shooting began. The trip over was uneventful, Mac made his contact and started back to the third platoon when he noticed a group of enemy soldiers following him, evidently in the darkness and confusion of battle, thinking he was one of their leaders.
Putting on a burst of speed Mac fairly flew up the hill to his platoon, shouting to his buddies to hold their fire until he could get to their holes. In one last burst he dove into a foxhole and his comrades cut loose with a terrific hail of fire, wiping out every last member of Mac's "followers", foremost of whom fell not more than 25 yards from the platoon's lines.
The first platoon was in a bad way, but they stuck to their positions and dared the Heinies to come and get them. Several men of the right flank squad were overrun in the initial thrust and were taken prisoners. Fortunately they were not sent to the rear immediately and when "I" Company platoons came to their aid, about noon, all were released.
But the platoon had its ranks badly riddled, four of its members dead and eleven others seriously wounded. The dead were Staff Sergeant James G. "Buck" Stanford, PFC Milton Hess, PFC Paul Betthauser and PFC Winifred Williams. The wounded included Platoon Leader Lieutenant Britton, Platoon Sergeant T/Sgt. Koval and PFC William A. White, who never recovered from his wounds and died in a hospital after being evacuated.
This left the platoon in charge of Staff Sergeant Ralph J. Murphy, platoon guide, who was later awarded the Silver Star Medal for the manner in which he assumed command of the platoon. Later Lieutenant Penniman was placed in command of first platoon. He had remained with the company after being re-assigned from third platoon in England. The only other casualties in the company at this time was PFC Harry Arpagian of the third platoon, killed by enemy rifle fire when he was manning an outpost in front of our lines. Lieutenant O'Brien was slightly wounded in the hand.
That afternoon was almost like any other day that had been spent on the line. There was very little shelling on the part of the enemy in our sector, but to the north a big battle seemed to be taking place. The company spent the rest of the day preparing for another attack that seemed almost certain to come either that night or the next morning.
Ammunition supplies, totally depleted in some cases and nearly so in others, were replenished. Positions that had been wrecked were repaired. The first platoon had been pulled off line for the night and "I" Company manned their positions. Filling a gap between our left flank and Cannon Company, 800 yards away, with a platoon of "I" Company instead of one squad, as was the case. Morale, despite our losses, was never higher. If they came again we would really give them a welcome.
But they didn't come. As dawn of Sunday, the 17th, broke, the entire company waited, alert for anything that might happen, but nothing happened. So once again we went to work improving our positions. Through the day, as we worked on the area, the members of the Company talked over the previous morning's activities.
We were green and we knew it. But we also knew we had taken everything they had thrown at us and come back hollering for more. So we were a little proud of ourselves and a little cocky over what we had done. We figured we could stay right there all winter and dare the Germans to come and get us. But all of our dares were thrown to the winds that night when, shortly after dark, orders were given to destroy equipment and prepare to withdraw. Then about 6:30 p.m. orders came to pull out.
The plan for the withdrawal was for the Company to assemble to the rear of the CP and from there pull back to the Battalion CP, picking up further orders there. But when we got to Battalion, after getting caught in a "Screaming Meemie" barrage in the middle of an open field, there was no one in sight. Battalion had pulled out. Leaving us with no place to go and no ideas at all as to the situation confronting us.
One man knew the way back to Regiment. That one man was Tec 5 Vernon Mabe, Company Mail Clerk, who stepped into the breach and led us, without faltering, to the Regimental CP. When we got there the situation was identical to that at Battalion. All of the Regimental Headquarters personnel had taken off and the only ones left were the medics and they were ready to leave. So the Company fell in on the end of the line and off we went again. This time following a compass azimuth cross-country instead of following the muddy roads as we had done thus far. Before starting out, everyone was told the azimuth we would be following. A wiser move was never made because the column started spreading out and straggling before we had gone 500 yards.
But there was no time to stop as often as would have been necessary to keep the column closed up. Stragglers were cautioned to stay with the main column as well as they could but if they had to drop back to keep moving on the announced azimuth. Only God's guidance brought that column through safely. Shortly after midnight we staggered into the town of Burg-Reuland.
There we took our leave from the Medics and continued on to the Belgian town of Bracht, the Battalion assembly point. The company was hurting, for less than 70 men and only two officers, Lieutenants Sipe and Kramer got into Bracht that night. Everybody said a good prayer before they allowed their weary bodies to sleep on the cold floors of one of the few remaining houses in the town.
The next morning, Monday December 18, spirits were a lot higher. Prospects for eating were in sight, for "M" Company showed up with their Jeeps piled high with rations. True, it did not last long as it was split amongst the Battalion, but at least it was food. Spirits sagged a little when it was announced that we were going to form a defense line on the hill above town.
When we marched on the road to the positions and ran into most of the rest of the company including the other four officers, something got into everybody and before too long we were singing. It took more than we had seen to that date to chill our spirits, although the events of the previous night provided a series of horrors and thrills that will never be forgotten by anyone that was there.
All day we spent digging positions in a drizzling rain, and by nightfall most of them were ready for occupation. Just as darkness was falling, tragedy struck. It came in the form of a German artillery shell that lit in the third platoon area, killing PFC John Borah, one of the best liked men in the company, and caused injuries to two of his companions. This death taught a never to be forgotten lesson to everyone in the company. Borah had thrown away his steel helmet in the withdrawal and the shrapnel from the shell hit him in the head. Several of the fellows who had discarded their helmets started an anxious search to replace lost items.
The first night on the hill above Bracht was one longest nights in the winter for the boys in Company "L". By this time word had reached them that the other two regiments in the division had been or were being cut off and they all realized that our own positions were not that secure. Once, the night before, we had gotten out by the skin of our teeth. Now we saw prospects of having to do it again in the not too distant future. It was far from a pleasant picture.
Daylight arrived without any activity other than an occasional shelling. We breathed a little more freely. All that day, December 19th, we could see enemy material and supplies moving up on three sides of us. Yet, for some reason, very few could visualize the black days to come. Rumors that we would soon be relieved were commonplace. Little did we realize the real story and those few who suspected it were not saying anything about it.
The first night at Bracht the company's CP stayed up on the hill above town with the rest of the company. The next day they moved into a house on the outskirts of town. That was a move that very nearly was disastrous, but the house proved an ideal location from which the limited activities of the Company could be directed. Actions soon became routine. At night all members of the three rifle platoons were alert in their holes, constantly on the lookout for anything resembling an enemy soldier in the immediate area.
In the daytime, when the pressure was eased a little, Company headquarters and most of the fourth platoon, which had only one light machine gun left, and those of us assigned to stay at the CP went out and relieved the tired rifleman. No assault on our position was made by the enemy, although they did hit and break through the lst Battalion which was in position on our immediate left. Fortunately, those that got through were rounded up before they could do any damage to our already severely strained supply lines.
The only other scare at Bracht took place one evening just before dark when someone spread the word that enemy tanks had broken through and were coming into town from the rear. This resulted in a mad exodus from town on every available vehicle, while the men up on the hill remained in position, totally unaware of what was taking place. This unfortunate occurrence was quickly remedied by the consciences of those who had taken off. When they realized that their imaginations were running away with them they came back. Most of them with a very ashamed look on their faces.
The incident only served to put the spotlight on what was taking place in the men's minds. The situation of us being in a nearly cut off position, not really knowing where the enemy was, not knowing when the long-announced relief would put in an appearance, not really knowing anything that would benefit us in our plight, was beginning to wear on the men. There was just enough shelling by the Germans to let us know that they knew where we were.
The rest of the time, they left us to our thoughts of how the war was getting along without us. To top that, winter was just really beginning to set in and the nights were both long and unbearably cold. Nobody was a bit sorry when early in the morning of December 22nd word was sent down that we were again going to pull out. We had been in Bracht four days.
This time we moved back in broad daylight, it was a lot easier than the last time. At least you could see the man in front of you. A danger was present being on the road in daylight because there was a possibility that an enemy observer would spot us and send hot lead into our midst. Lady Luck stayed with us, however, and there were no incidents along the line. Later, we learned that the Germans cut off the road we were on, the last escape route from Bracht, only two hours after we had passed over it.
No one was thinking of that, though, as they trudged wearily along the muddy Belgian road. Instead, thoughts were directed along lines of relief, rest and re-organization. Particularly the latter, for we now knew what was happening to the other two infantry regiments and some other units of the division around St. Vith.
To say that we were mad at the Germans would be putting it something less than mild. Nearly everyone had plenty of buddies in these outfits. All we asked was couple of days respite and then we would show those rats that they had picked on the wrong bunch. But, first we wanted that respite. We weren't going to get it as soon as we wished.
Late in the afternoon, we came into the midst of the first American unit we had seen since moving up on the line on Dec 12th. It was an anti-aircraft outfit of the 7th Armored Division that we met some 15 miles behind Bracht. This was part of the relief that was supposed to be coming to our rescue five days earlier. Apparently some so-called big shot had changed his mind and hadn't bothered to tell us, the guys that were most concerned.
One interesting occurrence came from our meeting with the tankers. From them we got food, most of it stolen, the first real food we had since the beginning of the breakthrough. We also learned from them that it was a full-scale attempt of Von Rundstedt to break the assault of the lst Army, the fact that we had suspected for the past few days.
We also learned that we had gone as far as we were going, that day, towards France. Instead, we were going back to the front and bolster a weak spot in the line. So, as darkness fell, we picked up our weary bodies and started hiking to the town of Muldingen. It was nearly midnight when we got there. Besides being tired we were cold so the thought of spending the night in a barn on the outskirts of town appealed to everyone.
It was Heaven after spending the previous nights in fox holes. For some strange reason the company was in Battalion reserve, so we figured that we might get a night's sleep. That thought was rudely jolted, immediately, for it was announced that each platoon would take turns patrolling the roads leading into town. That was once when nobody tried to goof off, because walking patrol offered an opportunity to get warm. That barn was dry, but it was also the coldest the spot in Belgium that night.
While some of the men in company
walked their patrol others tried to keep as warm as possible in a
barn, Captain Bartell was at the Battalion CP in the center of town
trying to convince a Colonel of the 9th Armored Division that the
company was in no condition to make an attack the following
morning. We had very little small arms ammunition, one light
machine gun with a limited supply of ammo and no prospect for
getting any more, no bazookas and no spirit to advance at all.
The Colonel was stubborn, but the Captain was more so and the Germans helped out by breaking through just a short distance away. It was decided that we would set up a temporary defense line on the rear edge of town until the tankers got their vehicles out. We would then climb aboard these vehicles and stage a general withdrawal. That was the general plan. It would have worked well, except that the Germans had to stick their two cents worth in.
Just before dawn broke on Saturday, December 23rd we left the barn and marched back through the town taking up positions along a hedge row that ran perpendicular to the main road leading out-of-town. No attempt was made to dig in because we knew that we would pull out again in a short while. We hadn't been in position for more than 15 minutes when all hell broke loose in the village. Enemy soldiers had infiltrated following their breakthrough on the night before. In all probability they had watched us pull back from the town to set up our defense line on the edge of town.
The amount of fire laid down by the enemy weapons was so great that we knew that we could not hope to hold them off. By this time the greater part of our tanks had withdrawn from the village, so the word was immediately sent down to pull out. They didn't have to speak twice. In almost less time than it takes to tell about it the Company was back on the road with everything they could carry and were heading back to more secure positions.
For the first hour we walked, stopping only in the next village to issue the remaining rations (one K-ration to every two men), and then the Captain issued the order for everybody was to climb on any vehicle that was heading towards the rear. It was every man for himself!
The strategy was to pull back to
where other troops of the lst Army had dug in and were waiting for
the Germans. Our long march on the 22nd, coupled with the events of
the past week had left us in the condition where we would have
ridden an ox cart just to get a ride. The company took the
Captain's orders literally, climbing on jeeps, trucks, tanks, half
tracks, anything that was moving.
So began the great exodus, and it was nearly a week before the company was rounded up again. Some of the fellows never did get back to us, but most of them were safe. The biggest part of the company got on vehicles belonging to the Battalion or to the Regiment and ended up in the same general area. Nevertheless, that ride through Belgium was a ride the very few will ever forget. In the first place nobody knew exactly where we were going.
It was just a case of "Go" and when you think you are far enough back, stop! Everybody did just that. Nightfall found the company in the general vicinity of Houssanlage, on the northern side of the Bulge in the regimental assembly area. In a day of withdrawal we had pull back nearly 30 miles, yet the speed of the German offensive was so great that we were still less than 10 miles behind the front lines.
The night of the 23rd we spent in the woods near Houssanlage. There were only about 10 of us, since the rest of the company had not shown up as yet. We were all nearly frozen. Naturally, the night was interrupted by an alert warning of German paratroopers, but that happened every night, and the morning of December 24th, Christmas Eve, found us still freezing. But as a day wore on the sun came out, it warmed us just a little, some of the rest of the Company began to show up, and the Air Corps got its real chance to show what they could do, since the start of the German offensive.
Such a combination of circumstances buoyed our spirits quite a bit, especially the appearance of the bombers that started coming early in the morning and continued their parade across the sky all day, putting on a display of power that stopped the enemy in their tracks. We were one group of doughboys that had no quarrel with the "Wild Blue Yonder" boys that day. They were really great! But, let us get back to the company.
All day on Sunday, the 24th of December we spent absorbing sunlight, picking up a few clothes, the first we had received since our first withdrawal, marveling at the display of air power, and just wondering what was in store for us in the immediate future. The regiment as a whole was in pretty desperate straits, or at least we considered it as such. All day long a continuous line approached the medics with cases of trench foot and frozen feet.
As darkness fell the company found itself with approximately 50 men and three officers, Lieutenants Sipe, Kramer and Penniman. But the situation was such that every unit was needed on the front lines. Christmas Eve, when the spirit of Peace was supposed to rule the world, we were loaded on trucks and taken to a small town about five miles behind the lines. We spent the night there with our rest again interrupted by an alert for paratroopers and about noon on Christmas day we were taken to a small town along the road to Manhay where we intended to spend the night. But at 9:00 on the morning of Monday, December 25th we again moved.
This time on foot down the road to a woods overlooking the valley that contained the Belgian town of Manhay, which was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. It was 3:00 in the morning of Tuesday, the 26th before we got to where we thought we were supposed to be. In the process of getting there we lost Lieutenant Sipe and T/4 John J Gallagher, who had gone on reconnaissance to find our new locations. They went down the road towards town with a group of engineers and were never heard from again. That left us with just two officers.
Eventually we got into the woods where we joined up with the units of the second Battalion who had made an attempt to take Manhay on Christmas afternoon and nearly succeeded, being driven out only after our own artillery cut loose with a barrage that cut their men into pieces. Because of that they were forced to pull back to the woods where we found them. For the rest of the night we stayed with them, waking in the morning of December 26th to find ourselves being shelled by our own artillery again. Fortunately they quit before anyone was hurt.
It was noon before we were told what to do, and when the orders came we were in a mood for almost anything, mostly because during the morning of the day after Christmas, we received our first mail since leaving England. Our orders were to dig in where we were and that's just what we did. A further boost to morale was a gradual appearance of more of the company, including Captain Bartell, and Lieutenants O'Brien and Bauer. Also we picked up more weapons, machine guns and mortars, so we felt a little more like doing something again. We got a chance almost immediately.
As darkness fell a it was decided to move the second platoon and a part of the third plus one light machine gun down to the edge of town. That decision was carried out without incident, but no sooner had they got an down there the enemy artillery, evidently guessing what we were doing, lay down a barrage that continued most of the rest of the night. We were lucky in that no casualties were incurred, but there were plenty of close calls.
The next morning, December 27th, the rest of the fourth platoon moved down with the second platoon and set up their weapons while the remainder of the company stayed in position overlooking the town. The two platoons that were on line were the only representatives of the 3rd Battalion.
To say that Manhay was a nice place to be would be telling a lie that no man would ever forgive. A person never knew from one moment to the next whether he would ever see the company again. Most of this feeling could be traced to one cause, an 88mm gun that was in position on the hill back of town and could cover every inch of ground around our positions, except our exact location which was just down behind a small rise. The closest the enemy gunner could come to us was about 25 yards, but that was plenty close enough.
Anything coming down the road into town from our rear was a perfect target for this gun and for the better part of the day that German rat took full advantage of his position. It wasn't until four P-38's dive bombed him that he gave up and joined his ancestors. Then everybody breathed a heck of a lot easier and things quieted down a little. With that menace eliminated the 517th Airborne Regiment was able to move across in front of us to capture the rest of the town, forcing the Germans to start pulling back out of the Bulge.
But they didn't give up as easy as at last sentence sounded. As they pull out of Manhay, their artillery continued to pour shells into the town and the boys were plenty happy when Company "I" came up to relieve us just after dark on December 28th, the day we had our Christmas turkey. We pulled back up the road to Battalion and spent that night, the next day, and that night in the Battalion CP area.
Our first actual rest from combat in 12 days. But, we can still hear our artillery sending their almost continuous stream of steel at the retreating Germans, and we decided that we wouldn't be entirely satisfied until we got to a place where we couldn't even hear the artillery.
So our faces and spirits were considerably brightened when, on Saturday, December 30th the Battalion was relieved by a Regiment of the 75th Infantry Division, coming into action for the first time. As we piled into the trucks we threw plenty of comments at the "rookies". We figured that now we were pretty much veterans, having seen more actual combat in two weeks than most units did in months. It was a tired bunch that rode back to the small town of Fraiture, a small town southwest of Liege, Belgium.
Rest at Fraiture and Back on
Fraiture would have been a nice place to get a few days rest, under any circumstances, and in our condition it was doubly so. For the first time since leaving the Siegfried Line most of the fellows slept in beds and in a warm, dry room. Only a few of the houses we took over for our use had more than five or six fellows in them.
All of the civilians in the village took us right to their hearts and gave us everything they had that would make our stay a little comfortable. It was definitely one of the finest places we had been since going overseas. For the better part of six days we lay around and did absolutely nothing.
Bit by bit we were being re-supplied with clothing and equipment and each article we were given made life just a little more bearable. Arrangements were made to take the Company to Liege to take showers at one of the portable units run by the Quartermaster. All in all it was really a swell life we were leading.
We even heard a broadcast from a German radio station that the entire 106th Infantry Division was either killed, captured or lost in the Ardennes Forest. That statement was a gross exaggeration. But the Nazis had to have something to talk about and it only made us appreciate Fraiture that much more.
All good things must come to an end, however, and on Thursday, January 4, 1945, we were alerted and about 5:00 in the evening we climbed on trucks and headed back for the front. Driving on the icy roads with only black-out lights for illumination was, at best, difficult and it wasn't long before the convoy got split-up. Two of the trucks of the Company however arrived at Spa, our destination for the night, shortly before midnight. The rest arrived early in the morning.
We spent that night and until noon the next day, in Spa, a town that is world renown for its mineral baths. We were sleeping in a large hall that had been used as a hospital. About noon on the 5th we climbed on trucks and rode a short distance to La Reid, most of the Company housed in a large chateau outside of the town. The third platoon and the mortar section was in a group of farm houses a short distance down the road.
While we were in this location winter really struck eastern Belgium. It had been cold, sometime almost unbearably so, ever since the beginning of the breakthrough. But now snow added to the misery of all concerned. Fortunately, for now, we were not required to be out in the weather very often. The fellows were quite content to near nice warm fires and catch up on their letter writing. While we were here Lieutenant O'Brien, who had been acting Company Commander of "M" Company since December 26th, returned to "L" Company and again took up his duties as Executive Officer.
We stayed in the chateau until the afternoon of Monday, January 8, 1945, when we once again climbed on trucks and started for the front lines. We rode until 8:30 p.m. when the trucks got as far forward as they could go. Just outside Trois Ponts we detrucked and started walking, following the highway for nearly three miles and then crossing a river and continuing up the road on the other side.
About this time it started snowing and the rest of the march was accomplished in a driving storm more often than not was of blizzard proportions. The speed of the march was such, however, that despite the snow and freezing cold everybody was rolling in sweat when we reached the top of the hill where the Battalion was to be positioned. Once there we sat down in the snow and waited nearly an hour for the on-line companies to send guides to meet us and direct us to our positions.
Cold is a word that did not fill the bill that night. Eventually, however, someone did show up to direct us and we proceeded down the road to the town of Wanne, where we took up positions on the edge of town relieving "I" Company, 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. It was known as the "Keystone" Division and in peace time was the National Guard unit of the State of Pennsylvania. It had also been badly mauled in the German breakthrough.
In Wanne we found ourselves in a position that by this time was becoming monotonous, in that we were ahead of the rest of the front line. So for four days we sat in Wanne, spending most of our time preparing positions, which was a job in itself because of the completely frozen ground. Feeding off of what food we found in town, keeping out of the way of horses, cattle and sheep that roamed the place looking for food.
We were keeping an eye on the Germans across the way. Also doing frequent "recon" patrols that were sent by the Company into the area in front of us to determine the strength of the Germans. All reports seemed to indicate that most of the Germans were high-tailing for the comparative safety of the Siegfried Line.
So we didn't feel too bad when orders came down on the night of the 12th to prepare to jump off in the attack. For a change we were in Battalion reserve, following "I" Company and mopping up everything they might happen to bypass. So when they jumped off towards Hennamont on the morning of January 13th, we pulled out of Wanne and went down the hill to Wanneville, intending to follow "I" Company from there.
Hennamont was not what it was supposed to be, however, and the boys of "I" Company never got any further than the open field approaching the village. There they were met by a terrific hail of fire that resulted in the entire attack being held up. Company "I" suffered terrific losses, nearly being wiped-out.
When the word came back that they could no longer advance, it was decided that we would move through "I" Company along with tanks to wipe out the strong points. So we sat in the snow outside Wanneville waiting for the tanks to come up. They didn't put in an appearance until late in the afternoon and the attack had to be put off until the next morning.
During the night, however, plans were changed and just before daylight on January 14th we marched back up the road to Wanne, passing through town and moving out in another direction, coming up on the flank of "K" Company. On a hill overlooking Hennamont we stopped and dug in while waiting for further orders. As we dug we watched another unit come in from the rear of Hennamont and take the town without firing a shot. There were plenty of very mad boys when we saw that exhibition. No tanks ever came.
Shortly after noon orders came for the Company to jump off again, this time moving almost directly east toward the town of Coulee. Off we went, moving in a single file through two feet of snow and trying to keep in the woods as much as possible. All through the area that we moved was evidence of a very sudden withdrawal on the part of the Germans who were now in a position where they had to get back into Germany in a hurry or be cut off by the combined weights of two armies, each trying desperately to cut off the Bulge at its beginning.
In spots, however, they stood and fought as we were soon to find out. Coming up over a rise we found ourselves looking down into Coulee. Instead of going into the town, we swung down to the right of the place, leaving the taking of the town to the troops of the 517 Parachute Infantry whom we could hear fighting in the town as we struggled through the snow. We had to go slow, because by this time it was dark and we had no idea whatsoever to expect in the way of enemy resistance.
Slowly, however, we made our way eventually coming to a position in the rear of the village. There we stopped for the night, and after setting a perimeter defense we scraped away the snow and curled up in twos and threes to sweat out the rest of the night. Because of the intense cold it was almost impossible to sleep. Most of the night was spent cursing the Germans for ever starting the war and in longing for a nice warm place to sleep.
The morning of January 15th brought the real first batch of frozen feet, and a large group of men were evacuated to the rear. For the next few days it was a common sight to see someone from the company go trudging back towards the Aid station, most of them with a look of extreme pain on their faces. There were some terrible looking feet in the company in those days, mostly because there was no opportunity to dry your feet or change socks. War was definitely Hell at that time.
One other incident worth noting happened that first morning outside of Coulee. Several persons, including Capt. Bartel, Lieutenant O'Brien, Lieutenant Bauer, Lieutenant Scouras (who had joined the company at La Reid and commanded the first platoon) and Sgt. Schaaf had started to dig their foxholes more or less together. This act was interrupted rather abruptly by an enemy mortar shell that lit squarely in their midst, but which did not injure a person. Needless to say, that spurred the digging of the entire Company.
The first morning at Coulee found the Company in another one of the predicaments that it seemed to always get into. Our march of the previous night around the town had taken us clear through the German lines and we awoke on that cold January morning hearing shooting going on all around us, particularly to our rear. By mid afternoon, however, most of that was cleared up by the units on our right and left moving forward and partially straightening out the line. Periodically, however, enemy artillery and mortars shelled our positions and we suffered some casualties.
Our biggest enemy was still the cold, the men complaining more about that than it did about the entire German Army. The weather didn't change either in the next three days as we dug in and waited for our next orders. Orders that we hoped would get us into some warmer corner of Heaven. Such a thing wasn't in the cards. On the evening of January 17th we received orders to push forward and secure the flank of the 517th Parachute Battalion who were pushing as far as they could.
Instead of going straight forward,
we went back along the trail we had used coming up to the road
leading into Coulee, walk through the town and on up the road
looking for a guide from the Battalion who was supposed to direct us
to our new positions outside of town. Our march took us down three
different roads leading out of town before we found the right one.
With a long wait, in the snow, in each place while we tried to straighten ourselves out. It was in the early hours of the morning before we got the right location. We were a completely worn out group of men. The story was the same here as the men scraped away and attempted to catch a few minutes respite from weariness the cold, weariness from the fact that we had walked miles to move forward some 1500 yards.
The morning of January 18th was brightened a little by the cooks showing up with the first hot food we had in about a week. This was not the fault of the cooks. We simply hadn't been in the places that hot chow could be brought up. After chow, and for the next two days, the now familiar line of frozen feet cases started all over again. This time catching Capt Bartell and Lieutenant Kramer in its midst.
The company was now taken over by Lieutenant O'Brien and Lieutenant Bauer moved up to the position of executive officer. This setup lasted just a few hours, as Lieutenant Bauer came down with a severe attack of acute appendicitis and had to be evacuated. The company's strength was really taken a beating and no one was sorry when we were pinched out and pulled back to Trois Ponts, this move taking place on Saturday January 20th, 1945.
Trois Ponts, Deidenberg and
Trois Ponts, as the village, was like the famed "Deserted Village" that Oliver Goldsmith wrote about so many years ago. Located as it was on the northern flank of the salient that the German pushed out in a vain attempt to prolong the war, and because of its strategic importance as a road center, it proved to be an unsafe place for lingering civilians and they had left, bag and baggage. When the Battalion pulled in there on the morning of the 20th of January the war was still fairly close at hand, and none of the town's population had put in a reappearance.
So we had the town to ourselves during the three days we stayed. Our sojourn could not be called a rest, because facilities were not available. Rather, it was a brief respite from the biting cold that had enveloped that section of Belgium. As such our stay was fairly enjoyable. Every attempt was made by the higher ups to give us as much relaxation as possible, and time was pretty much our own. The biggest treats were the movies furnished by the Special Services. The first movies most of us have seen since leaving England.
Another treat was three continuous days of hot food. The cooks really did themselves proud. Aside from those two features however, there was not much to do and the biggest part of the time was spent catching up on some lost sleep, cleaning weapons and drawing more equipment from our harassed Supply Sergeant, Staff Sgt. Doug Ulrich. Considering the fact that he was forced to almost completely re-outfit the company after December 16th, Sgt. Ulrich did a wonderful job.
On January 23rd, after three days of loafing, we climbed on trucks and again headed back to the war. At this time "the Battle of the Bulge" was nearly over. St. Vith having been re-taken and the junction between the First and Third Armies having been affected near that now historic village. However, there still remained the official re-taking of the ground between St. Vith and the Siegfried Line, and it was towards that end that we were working.
This time our destination was Deidenburg, north of St Vith and only taken from the Germans the day before our arrival there. We pulled in about 3:00 in the afternoon walking at least three miles and relieving a supporting company of the 508th Parachute Infantry of the 82nd Airborne Division. Since the paratroopers did not pull back until dark, we had plenty of opportunity to shoot the bull with them and the party ended up with the owner of the house, whoever that might have been, donating fried chicken to the entire group. Of course we had to fry the chicken, but that did not detract one bit from its tastiness. And, when the troopers left, we had all the chickens to ourselves.
Such was the life in Deidenburg where, because we were in Battalion reserve, the only thing we did to aid the war effort was to do "recon" patrols and pull duty on the outposts setup in advance of the front lines. On the night in January 24th, however, the order came down to jump off the next morning. It was with sad hearts indeed that we said farewell to the remaining chickens.
Our objective in the attack was the town of Meyerode, a small road center almost on the German border. At 7:00 in the morning, January 25th, we moved out of the forward positions and started across the open fields with the most depleted Company that we had ever had. There was only one officer, Lieutenant O'Brien and the entire responsibility of running platoons fell on the platoon sergeants and the junior non-coms.
The first phase line was obtained without difficulty, the only resistant coming from a group of farm buildings that the third platoon stormed without mishap. Almost immediately, however, enemy shells begin the fall in our midst and we were forced to hold up until contact could be established with "I" Company, moving up on our left. This, however, was forced to the background, because of the shelling we were receiving, so we shoved off again for the second phase line.
Resuming our trek across the barren, snow covered fields we reached a crest of the hill which was a phase line and held up again to try to establish contact and inform the Battalion of our whereabouts. Almost immediately intense shelling was brought in on us by the enemy artillery, mortar and small arms. For the next two hours we lay in two feet of snow and sweated out the most terrific barrage ever experienced by this Company. Those farthest forward tried desperately to pick up the source of all the fire. It was as though they had us under direct observation.
As is always the case, in a situation such as this our radio communications failed and before it could be re-establish more casualties were inflicted on our already under strength personnel. No less than 15 men were wounded during this barrage, among them Tech. Sgt. Stan Lovett of the third platoon who had eight different wounds on his body, and only the super human work on the part of T/3 Bill Devlin, attached medic, kept things from being far worse than they already were.
Because of Lovett's wounds, the
third platoon was taken over by Staff Sgt. Clifton Ross, platoon
guide. Getting back to the company however, during a momentary lull
in the shelling, communication was established with the Battalion
and we were informed that we were too far to the right of our
objective. This they tell us after a third of our Company strength
has been wounded by enemy fire as all of the Company was forced to
lay for what seemed like days in the snow praying that the next
shell didn't get them.
To put on paper the stories of near misses and close escapes would result in something like "Gone with the Wind" or "Anthony Adverse." Every man in the Company flirted with death that day and those that came through unharmed did so by the skin of their teeth. And all because someone had started us off in the wrong direction. It seemed that it was such a terrible price to pay because somebody didn't take the time to figure out the strategy on our objective.
When word came that we were all off course we back tracked across those same grounds under hostile fire, all the way. Eventually we got back to the first phase line, a road running perpendicular to the root of attack. We edged up the road and eventually got to where we were supposed to have been. Moving east once again we closed up the gap that existed between us and Company "I" and took a position just below the crest of a hill looking down into the town of Meyerode, our objective. By this time, however, it was getting close to dark and it was decided to hold up where we were and continue the next morning.
That decision was made against the wishes of every enlisted man in the Battalion, who had no desire to spend all night lying right out in the open, since we had jumped off without any bedding at all, preferring to travel light. Orders were orders, though, and we moved into position and started to dig in. At this time Lieutenant O'Brien sent a patrol from the second platoon to reconnoiter the area to our front.
This patrol moved out and was promptly pinned down by enemy fire, resulting in the wounding of Staff Sgt. Ralph Duff, a squad leader, who was later awarded the Silver Star for his action on that patrol. Rescue was sent to the patrol immediately and the other men escaped injury. Things then settled down for the night, and the only other activity being an occasional shelling of our positions.
We were powerless to prevent this, because we were once again out of communication with our artillery. That night was a night of misery everyone being without shelter from the cold except for the relief they could get from their foxholes. Most of these were like ice boxes and most of the men spent the night walking around trying to keep warm.
Dawn finally broke on the 26th and with it we shoved off again towards our objective. Plans called for a direct assault on the town but Lt. O'Brien, knowing that such a move would be sheer suicide, led the Company around the hill instead of going straight over the crest. That this move was the wisest is evidenced by the fact that the Company was able to move in and take the town without firing a shot and our bag of prisoners, which outnumbered the company by about 2 to 1 was filled up at that part of town which covered the back side of one hill.
The Company strength at this time was about 57 enlisted men and one officer, and with that force we held Meyerode for three days, setting up outposts to warn us in the event of a counter-attack. Fortunately the attack never came, and in the evening of January 28th troops of the 505th Parachute Infantry of the 82nd Division moved through our lines and we were able to pull back.
Following our plan of attack we moved back to where we had initially jumped off, and just before 10:00 p.m. we boarded trucks and started back to a rest area. The ride lasted until nearly 1:00 in the morning during which time those that didn't have frozen feet most certainly got a case started. It was with some difficulty that we unlimbered our cold bodies and piled off the trucks to sponge off the hospitality of the people of Rotheux, Belgium. The "Battle of the Bulge" was over.
Rotheux and the Return to
Rotheux was another of those small Belgian towns that a great many GIs will have a lot of trouble forgetting once they get home. The hospitality of the Belgian people, especially those in small villages, is unequaled anywhere else in Europe and the people of Rotheux were no exception. All the members of the company were billeted in private homes, usually five or six to a house, and each one was treated like a king.
For a week we lived in splendor, and not all the time was spent in the usual routine of cleaning weapons, catching up on the mail and news from home, sleeping. A small training schedule came out but it wasn't followed very closely. Lt O'Brien and Lt. Bauer, who had returned from the hospital while we were here, were going on the idea that the men should have the rest that they so much needed and deserved. One thing out of the ordinary was the dance that we gave in the town hall. All the young maidens in the town acting as guests of honor. The fact that the roof leaked failed to dampen spirits in the least.
The biggest was drawback was that they all brought along everyone in the family. All in all, the party was a big success and most of the fellows went home happy. It was with deep regret that we left Rotheux on February 15th and entrained once again for the front lines.
The Company strength had risen considerably from the low that it reached at Meyerode, what with the return of several of the man who had been hospitalized and the assignment of replacements to the Company. Still, we were not near our original strength of men and officers, but we were strong enough considering some of the places we had been. Lt. O'Brien was still Company Commander and Lt. Bauer now a lst Lieutenant, was Executive Officer. That was the extent of our officers and enlisted person personnel.
Our move was made with out three of the platoon sergeants (all except S/Sgt. Murphy:) however, as those "Gentlemen" having gone off to visit the Mademoiselles in Paris. Our first stop after leaving Rotheux was an assembly area east of Malmedy. We pitched tents, dug in, and lived like frogs for two days. The reference is made to frogs because frogs live in the water and the rain that replaced the snow about this time forward we were to do the same.
On the morning of February 8th we moved forward to positions near the German village of Losheimergraben, where we fueled up. This was a new thrill, because, for the first time since going on line in December, the 3rd Battalion was in reserve. Life in a reserve area is a little bit worse, in one way, than it is on line if such a thing is possible. For one thing you are in closer touch with the higher brass, and we soon found ourselves policing up the area around our supposedly sacred domain, our foxholes.
There is still the ever-present enemy shelling and there are some new perils, such as vehicles. Not so on the front. But we weren't the ones to complain, and we soon adjusted ourselves to our new surroundings. Bit by bit the brass thought up things for us to do. First came the guarding of the three bridges in the area that the enemy might see fit to destroy. One of these was in the advance of the most forward positions of the front lines, so technically we were officially on the line again.
Of course they also had us doing "recon" patrols to the front of the "on line" units. Our foremost task in the area was the preparation of positions in the surrounding countryside. This was very nearly a full time job, and before finishing we had several different sets of positions available and ready in case of necessity. All this was mixed with frequent shellings, one strafing of the place by our and enemy planes and another quota of Paris passes, but we came through the whole thing in good shape.
We were a little weary of digging though when on February 25th, we moved forward and relieved Company G in positions in the area south of Neuhof. This was another part of the line and we were not required to do anything before the line was straightened out. This process took about ten days and during that time all we had to do was carry rations/ammo from battalion, on foot using back pack-boards. That was a two-hour job, although the distance was not over half a mile, because it involved climbing one of the steepest hills in western Germany and the entire line. The only other activity was patrolling to our immediate front.
On the 6th of March, being the ???? to move ??? single file ??? about to ???. One of the new officers was Lt. Walter D. McCluskey of Minneapolis, fourth platoon leader, he had been with ???, and the first toward bringing us back to full strength on officers. Sadly we spent most of the afternoon waiting and we moved off the hill the next day. The other patrol, led by Lt. Donald Herndon of Washington, D.C., who had also just joined us as the third platoon leader, went forward nearly two miles and didn't see a thing, so they returned to our lines.
Apparently there was not too much opposition in front of us, so when the next morning, March 7th, we moved forward about 500 yards to where we moved another 500 yards, taking up positions in front of the town of Berk and going into position along a road that ran perpendicular to our direction of attack. Before taking up our activities the next morning, let us return to the night of March 6th.
Shortly before noon on the 6th, a patrol led by Lt. Michael Harrison, another of the newly arrived platoon leaders who had charge of the 2nd Platoon (the 4th was Lt. Clyde A Wiler, of Highland Park, Michigan, who commanded the 1st Platoon), had gone out to reconnoiter the area near and around Berk. Not finding anything there, they had been ordered to go further east.
Finally they started back, only to discover that the daylight hours on the clock had run out and darkness was falling rapidly. As they neared our lines, the exact location of which was unknown to the patrol since we had moved during the day, they were instructed to use flashlight signals, Lt. O'Brien taking the chance that a small light would not be seen by enemy troops. All the men in the company and in the flanking companies were notified that they were out there and to keep a sharp lookout for them.
By this time it was pitch black, and the patrol was in a ticklish situation in that no one knew their exact location. So T/5 James McCabe Armorer-Articifer was instructed to fire flares from the top of the pillbox in which the CP was located. The patrol was able to spot these flares and they guided in on them. Then word came over the radio that they had stumbled into a German mine field, and that three men were wounded.
Instructing them to stay where they were, Lt. O'Brien had the patrol fire a volley from their weapons so that he could pick them up. In this way rescue parties were sent to their aid, and all were gotten out without further mishap. The three injured men were Lt. Harrison, who suffered two broken legs, Pfc. Walter Stone, who was lightly wounded and Pfc. David Hall, who was wounded in the stomach. All the wounded were evacuated immediately, but it was only the quick and accurate judgment of Lt. O'Brien that prevented the entire patrol from being wounded or killed.
The next day, March 8th, Lt. O'Brien, who had suffered nearly all winter with severely frozen feet, was promoted to Captain, a just reward for his actions all winter long, and was evacuated to the rear because of his feet. Lt. Bauer assumed command of the Company at this point, and was in charge as the Company moved past Berk.
That morning we began to prepare the new positions, and in a way were half ready to move forward again. Then, shortly after noon, word came down that we had been pinched out by units of the 3rd Army. For the time being our combat experiences were finished. This was at the time when the lst and 3rd Armies were striking swiftly toward the Rhine River, two days later it was announced that the 9th armored Division had seized a bridge across the Rhine at a point directly east of the part of the line that we were operating in.
Slightly more than a month later the 69th Division established contact with the Russians. The 69th, fresh from the States, had been on our left flank at Neuhof and Berk. In each of these two great achievements we felt a small bit of personal pride in that we had helped start them toward their ultimate goals by helping with training.
But we had things concerning our own well-being confronting us at this time, because we were now scheduled to return to France and have the Division re-organized around us. It was a wonderful feeling, because it meant that any future operations by the Division would not have to be carried through by our regiment alone. A great deal of weight was dropped from our shoulders.
For the next six days after being pinched out we stayed in our positions along the Siegfried Line, the traffic on the roads preventing us from pulling back immediately. During this wait passes and furloughs to various parts of the ETO were awarded to the Company, most of them being given to the men that had been in the Company the longest.
Also during this period more replacements were assigned to the outfit and some time was spent orienting them to the life of the combat infantryman. Mostly, however, the boys sat around in the various pillboxes that they called home at the time, and talked or slept.
Finally, on the morning of March 14th, the advance party left, and the next morning the Company pulled out. We rode in trucks back as far as the railhead, a distance of some fifteen or twenty miles. We were loaded into boxcars and that afternoon we started the long journey back to France.
In our initial trip across France and Belgium in December it had taken us only two days to come from LeHarve to St. Vith. Going back it took us nearly as long to make the trip that was 200 miles shorter. But it was a fairly pleasant journey and spirits were plenty good as we pulled into St. Quentin, France, a rail and road center 80 miles north of Paris.
St Quentin and Rennes
We were scheduled to stay in San Quentin only until a more permanent location could be arranged for us at another point. Consequently, our set up there was more less temporary. We were billeted on the second-story at what had been a textile mill, and if we had the yarn we could run the place because of machinery was all in place. Instead of sleeping on the floor however, as was usually the case, each man had a cot.
The training schedule, such as it was, was very easy. Actual training occupied the morning hours, with the entire afternoon being devoted to athletics. The bad feature of the place was that we had to get up each morning to stand reveille, something we hadn't done since leaving the States. There were more than enough good features to balance reveille, however.
Although the town was fairly well populated with GIs, there were plenty of bars and, for a while, plenty of beer. There was a good theater in the town that features some of the best movies put out by Hollywood (also some of the worst) and every now and then there was a stage show.
Along the athletic front, the boys took advantage of the situation to turn out one of the better teams in the Company's history losing only to "M" Company in the Battalion finals. By and large, that was the extent of our lives in San Quentin. Yet most the boys were plenty glad to leave when we pulled out on the 4th of April and headed for a training area at the base of the Brittany Peninsula.
The French railroad was again our
mode of transportation and the trip was again fairly enjoyable,
besides being a shorter ride then the ride to San Quentin. In the
evening of April 5th we pulled into the small Briton town of Gaer (St.Nazaire)
Here we climbed off the train and right onto trucks which
transported us about 5 miles out of town to a range that have been
set up for the training of Com Z troops being re-trained for the
We pitched pup tents on the rear of a bazooka range, and for the next week really took up training again in earnest. In that week we fired every weapon that the Infantry ever comes in contact with including rifles, pistols, carbines, machine guns, mortars, bazookas, etc. Considerable time was also spent on running problems. But the biggest thing that took place during our stay on arranged was the return of Capt. Bartell who had been back in England because of his feet and had been in the process of returning for over a month.
The only other changes in the administrative personnel of the Company during this period took place just before we left St. Quentin, and it shook the foundations of the unit. Cadre was taken from the 424th to reactivate the 422nd and the 423rd Infantry Regiments, and included First Sergeant Jerry Schaaf, who had come to the company in the original cadre from the 80th Division, and had been like a big brother to every man in the Company.
We really hated to see him go, as well as the others that left - Sgt Al Barbieri, S/Sgt Mike Mosher, S/Sgt John Craft and all the rest, most of whom had, come overseas with us. The job of First Sergeant was filled by Tech Sergeant Cliff Ross, Staff Sergeant Philip Langford replacing Ross as third platoon sergeant and Sergeant Wm. "Mac" McCartney replacing Craft as Mortar Section Leader.
Our stay on the range lasted eight days and we left early in the morning of Friday, April 13th, for St. Jacques airfield near Rennes, France. The first part of the trip was made in trucks, but about halfway there we piled out and made the rest of the journey on foot, getting to the airfield about the middle of the afternoon. This was the training area for the entire 106th Division, and we found ourselves in the company of the 3rd and 159th Infantry Regiments with their attached artillery, as well as the units that composed the original 106th Infantry Division.
A full Division parade, review and
re-activation ceremony was held at this air field as the 422nd and
423rd Infantry were officially re-activated into the 106th
Division. Our plans were to go into training for about a month and
then receive a new combat mission, most likely the German held
pockets along the Atlantic Coast of France that had been bypassed
and just contained soon after D-Day.
After a week of training plans were changed and we were alerted for another journey into Germany. We left St. Jacques on April 20th by train and traveled four days before reaching our destination. The town of Heidesheim, the small village situated just south of the Rhine and about 10 miles west Mainz.
"The World's Largest PW Camp"
In Heidesheim we lived in pup tents again, and a small training schedule was instituted to help fill the vacant hours. Most of the time, was spent playing softball, with each platoon participating in a company league and enormous sums being bet on each game. When we pulled out the second platoon had most of money. While at Heidesheim, more of the old boys returned to the company, among them Tech Sergeant Ben Fabisiak.
On April 28 we left Heidesheim and proceeded by truck to the town of Langenlonsheim, a village on the Nahe River about five north of Bad Krueznach and about 10 south of Bingen. At first we only "requisitioned" two houses from the civilians, but everybody was too crowded with that set up so we expanded with every platoon having a house to themselves.
Our mission in Langenlonsheim was to provide a guard for a temporary PW Camp about two miles from town. A short period of training was instituted to acquaint the men with their new job of screening and containing German POWs. Then the grind began. When we first went to work the enclosure was still being built, and the difficulties in guarding the inmates were many, especially at night.
Where we only had about 14,000
prisoners when we first took over the job, but train loads of the
rats came into the Bad Krueznach station day and night, and in a
short period the roster jumped to well over 100,000 men of which
many were displaced persons in the German army and about a thousand
German female "camp followers". Early on many POWs tried to escape
and were shot down by the guards. Bit by bit, however, the Compound
was built up until it was completed, split up into 23 separate cages
and a lighting system had been put in completely encircling the
outside fences. We're not sure, but we think that we had one of the
largest enclosures in Germany, the perimeter being nearly six
miles. It was really quite a place!
We are still in Langenlonsheim, still guarding prisoners, and still sweating out our return to the United States. The Company is not all like it was when we came overseas. Since being here the strength has been boosted to over 500 men to ease the guarding of the POWs. Not all like the days during the winter when we were lucky to have 50 men. There are quite a few men with us now that came over with us, but very few of them, only 30 or 35 have been with us all way.
Lots of the old boys are back in the States already. A couple has gone home with over 85 points, a few of you will never see the States again. All in all, those of us who have been through the works are glad to have been with the Company, and we really mean it when we say that Company L is, and always has been, the best damn company in the Regiment, and we defy anyone to tell us otherwise.
Added Observations in 2004 by
60 MM Mortar Squad Leader, 4th Platoon.
I have a copy of the "L" Company history "Cub" article, sent to me by Don Herndon (Don is mentioned in the original writing), and a copy of the original manuscript of this history so kindly sent to me just recently by Grayson Bishop.
Grayson, like many of us, was sent to "L" Company at Camp Atterbury and went through much of the action as a BAR man with the 3rd platoon before being appointed Communications Sergeant for the Company and later received a battlefield commission.
I thought it would be good to have a copy in my documents on my computer that would be easily copied for my children if and when they show an interest in where the old man was in WWII. Soooo, with my wife Margie doing the "keyboarding" while I pored over much-copied and some very darkened pages of the original writing with magnifying devices, we have put the above text on a computer file.
I, like several others, was present and with "L" Company from Camp Atterbury to Karlsruhe, Germany. Through all of the battles, the rear area assignments and cold, miserable times during and after the "Bulge", until sometime in July, 1945. Then I was ordered, along with many others in the Company. to Camp Lucky Strike, then Antwerp, Belgium and shipped to the States for preparation to participate in the planned invasion of Japan.
In this whole time I was absent from the Company only two times, one 2-day pass to Brussels around March 10th and again a 3-day pass to Paris sometime later after our front line duties were ended. I was one of the very few lucky ones in this Company that was never hospitalized for wounds or severely frozen feet.
Having said this I feel, to some small degree, qualified to add another "chapter" to the history of the Company. Here is some very general information about the Company activities and assignments after our duties in processing and guarding POWs near Langenlonsheim were ended.
The Company became part of the Army of Occupation as we were sent to Heidelberg. We replaced a French-Moroccan Army unit there as Germany was being divided up into different Zones of Occupation for each Allied Nation. The German civilians here were very glad to see the Americans come into their area. The French-Moroccans had been pretty tough on them.
"L" Company was in Heidelberg only a short time when it was moved to Karlsruhe for what may have been its last post as a unit. The Company did the duties assigned for several weeks when many of its members started being transferred to the "cigarette" camps for re-deployment to the States. The more fortunate ones were already in the States or on a ship on the Atlantic Ocean on August 6th, 1945 when a B-29, the Enola Gay, dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
Those that left the Company and not yet at a Port-of-Embarkation had their orders changed and were assigned to other units performing the many duties in the Army of Occupation and spent a longer time in the ETO but "the" bomb probably saved their lives and the lives of millions of other of those in the military of all nations.
The 106th Division returned to the States via the Port of New York on October 5th, 1945 to Camp Shanks, New York where it was de-activated on October 6th. 1945. It had a short but very rough life!
This history of "L" Company cannot begin to even "scratch the surface" of relating the many close calls, near-misses and other harrowing experiences of the individuals in this Company. Many more were wounded than can be accurately reported here, including the many men that fell victim to frozen feet and the suffering they experienced for years afterward. The latter mostly because the Army did not properly equip its troops in the ETO for a winter campaign.
It has been said that no one
experiences the daily grind of combat without being "wounded".
All of the men of "L" Company, 424th Infantry Regiment, 106th Division were heroes.
Page last revised
James D. West