Arthur C. Brown
MY LONGEST WEEK
This epistle Is not intended to be a historical journal. I do not propose the geographical and chronological presentation of events to be precisely accurate. However it is a true story.
I am compelled to Set down my recbllect1onif~r my own gratification. Although my experiences were not unusual for war time, the mobility and opportunity for observation afforded me as a unit commander, leant me considerable perspective. I feel that my account will invoke the curiosity of those interested in history and war
In 1983 the Ardennes part of Belgium where this action took place is not greatly different than it was 39 years ago when I was last there. The rugged terrain dropping steeply from hills to stream filled valleys is sparsely settled; small villages cling to the side of slopes. The Impression is that it will always be so. Much of what I see today along with memories shared between old buddies sheds light on the events of 1944. PARKERS CROSSROADS, or Baraque-de-Fraiture as it is officially named in Belgium was the site of a unique action within The Battle of the Bulge. I was the senior able-bodied officer at the crossroads on December 23, 1944, when we fell to overwhelming odds.
I was in command of B Battery, 589th Field Artillery.
PREPARATION FOR BATTLE
In 1941, I was finishing my second year after college with the B.F. Goodrich Company, when the winds of war were getting stronger. There was less talk about the war in Europe in Akron, Ohio, where I worked than I presume was heard on the east coast I was getting bored with the depression and the big company life on poverty wages.
The draft was coming anyway and the change sounded exciting; so like many an unmarried man of 23, I signed up for the army.
I entered the service from Bethel, Conn. where my parents had a county place. From there I went to Fort Devins, Mass. for assignment to a training post Several things happened to me immediately that gave a taste of things to come.
In the fall of 1941 when I entered the army service, Pearl Harbor had not yet been attacked. The peace time soldiers were still in control. Duke University and my white collar associates at the B.F. Goodrich Company had not exactly prepared me to live in an environment where the normal mode of expression was with four letter or one syllable words. The knife fights at the local Pub on Saturday night were also not in keeping with my previous experiences. The other novelty to which I must rapidly accustom myself was the caste system between officers and men.
At my first post of duty I encountered two officers with whom my acquaintance was more than passing. These encounters helped me realize that things had not changed as much as I was thinking. First Lt Ed Coon, a high school fraternity brother spotted me and came over with a warm renewal of our friendship. This made me feel better about myself and that the world of yesterday had not completely ended. Ed was one and the same as the famous All Southern Conference tackle from North Carolina State, "Ty-Coon". The other incident occurred when I found out that my first cousin Courtney Brown was at Fort Devins with his regiment, of which he was the Colonel commanding. He sent for me to come over and partake of the First Division officers mess. These two incidents of crossing the class boundary were not to be repeated again until I myself became an officer, but they helped me over a rough spot
At Fort Bragg, North Carolina where ‘they sent me for 13 weeks of basic training, the making of a soldier such as I was began. We trained for duty In the artillery on obsolete French 75’s and equally obsolete British Enfield rifles. But the basics were there to use when we were put on 105 mm howitzers and issued modem Garand M-1 rifles and carbines.
While in basic training two things happened of some significance. They made me a "jawbone" sergeant, which Is to say that I was given a temporary non-commission rank. The other was that I applied for and was accepted for Officer Candidates School. Now the latter was not all that great an accomplishment as there was a pressing need for officers and a college degree made one an automatic candidate.
After the 13 week training cycle at Fort Bragg, it was necessary for me to wait for
several months before the next class for officer candidates was to start at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. To fill in the time I applied for and got the job as a battery carpenter at Fort Bragg. The main thing that was needed was more space to sleep trainees; so my mornings were occupied with double decking bunks in the barracks. The afternoons were mainly occupied with catching up on sack’ time in an empty barracks while the new trainees were out on the drill field. This luxury was afforded me, as I did not have a regular schedule and I found out that no one was checking up on me. I have often wondered how the war was won given such dedication and industry!
Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Sill was where the real action. began The training schedule was very rigorous to say the least; surely this is where the expression ‘bone tired was created. The mathematics of artillery fire direction was fun for me, while field stripping a howitzer was easier for some guy that had more experience in mechanics than myself. At any rate, those of us who succeeded in graduating learned a lot in a short time but Pearl Harbor was behind us at this time and there was a real incentive to "move it".
Unlike the unpopular wars to come such as Vietnam and Korea, there was a great ground swell of patriotism felt in World War II. There were a few conscientious objectors, but by and large the whole country tried hard to do their part.
My first post of duty as a new Second Lieutenant was Camp Forrest, Tenn. The first two incidents that come to mind at this assignment taught me valuable lessons that would later stand me in good stead. One day my commanding officer directed me to go to the battery garage and see that the trucks were cleaned up.. I dutifully went and told the Sergeant to have the men dean the vehicles, and my job being completed left. Sometime later the Colonel who had checked up on the job and found it still undone asked me if I had followed his order. I said ‘yes sir’ thinking incorrectly that giving an order was all that was necessary to accomplish any given task. After a proper ‘lecture’ by this West Pointer, in which he accepted my error as an honest mistake instead of a lie, I learned the importance of inspection of results. The other incident had to do with ‘observed’ gunfire. A target was assigned to me upon which I was to direct the fire of a battery. When you are sweeping barren terrain at distance of several miles with field glasses, everything begins to look alike At this time I had not had sufficient practice to recognize this danger My fire was quickly and jubilantly paced on the target My joy was soon squashed when my Colonel again had an opportunity to increase my knowledge of target identification in no uncertain terms.
that I became a ‘good shot’. My
with myself directing fire, to give a
demonstration of American Artillery proficiency for Assistant Secretary of
War Patterson at Camp Atterbury,
Orders and change orders characterized the making of an armed force In wartime. An interesting example occurred at Camp Forest in which I became heavily involved. The powers that were in Washington in 1942 decided to ‘motorize’ the Eightieth Division. The tables of organization called for a Calvary squadron as part of such a divisional arrangement.
There were no Calvary officers trained and available to us, so artillery and other officers were selected to become instant Calvary officers. It fell my lot to not only be so selected, but assigned to become the commanding officer of the Light Tank Company
this Squadron. At 0600 hours the next day I found myself on the other side of the post with approximately 100 men lined up in front of me, my first command.
First there was the task of providing lunch at noon that day. On call several men stepped forward who were Interested In or experienced in cooking. Fortunately one was a sergeant.. .Would you believe that they put out a noon day meal of some consequence. Yankee ingenuity prevailed again as it would many times in winning the war.
The next task after the rest of the necessary housekeeping details had been tended Io, was the drawing of light tanks from the ordnance. Here again, on call some mechanically minded men were found and I was soon enjoying my first ride in a track laying vehicle. After learning the art of starting one of these monsters with a blank shotgun shell; I decided to vislt my fellow officers of the previous week in the artillery area. In those days we dressed in our pink dress uniforms on Sundays, which day it was. It wasn't long before we were off through the woods running over small trees and having a thrilling ride. All at once a swampy pond appeared in my path and without much thought I decided to go through this small pond. I hit the throttle and we ploughed into the muddy water which cascaded down through the open turret of the tank covering our dress uniforms with the dirty substance. This was the last time any one agreed to joy ride with me in a tank. Anyway, in six weeks the order to motorize was rescinded and the tanks were returned to ordinance and I went back to learning the art of an artilleryman.
At Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I was given command of Headquarters Battery, 589th Field Artillery Battalion, 106th Division. In this capacity you doubled as Communications Officer of the battalion. The latter was not a job to my liking, as you were on the Colonel’s staff and too dose for much independent action. Some wise superior detected this misfit, and had me transferred as commander of the center firing battery. This assignment was a lucky break for me, as the action was much to my wishes and aptitude.
Here on the scorched sands of Columbia, S.C. I found my true love. Vallie Vance Anderson and I were married on August 7, 1943. After only a short time together she was transferred to Fort Storey, Virginia, as a First Lieutenant in the Medical Dept., Physical Therapist. Shortly after that my outfit was ordered on the Tennessee maneuvers in the dead of winter where a candle inside a pup tent was a luxury. From Tenn., we were sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, for final training for battle.
In the fall of 1944, when the weather was suitably foul outdoors, orders came to leave Camp Atterbury, Indiana, and embark for England, destination the European Theater of Action. The discomfort of the journey by boat to Europe across the icy Atlantic Ocean, complete with German submarine escort, did not lessen upon disembarkation at Glouster, England. Here during the final flthng out for action the only ironic delusion of warmth to combat the icy stone barracks was three wool blankets and an open fireplace (the latter of lithe real value for heat).
With new and unfamiliar ordinance, and over half the men untrained, and none with any battle experience, we headed into the English Channel. Our commanders proceeded to leave us at anchor (on the hook as they say in the navy) for three days in a typical channel storm. The LST that carried us will capsize at more than 35 degrees roll, but no need to worry as we were only doing 34. To alleviate the boredom while at sea, I
got out the newly issued barber kit. The situation afforded some merriment trying to learn to cut each others’ hair on a rocking boat. At Rouen we finally disembarked to accept our first accommodation on the continent. We were left standing all night in the cold rain. To make matters worse, our rubber boots had not yet caught up with us.
My commander gave me and the other battery commanders a strip map with which to lead our truck convoys across France. However at one point I missed a turn and ended up several miles off the track. At this time we had also run out of MP’s to ask directions, and I had the feeling that we might miss the war. After retracing our route with some difficulty, the trucks got back on course.
Our mission was to replace the Second Division ‘gun for gun in the line of battle. This sector in the Ardennes of Belgium was supposed to be a quiet sector, ideal for training green troops. Little did we know that we had been placed dead center in what was to be one of the greatest pitched battles of all times.
The next few days were used in shaking down in snow up to our behinds. The Second Division whom we had now replaced took their homemade stoves out of the dugouts, and carried them off to their new positions. C’est Ia guerre. Our 106th boys were indebted to the men of the Second for some tips that they gave us on how to run a war. As an example, these veterans told us that you had to split your eight man gun crew into two parts. This maneuver allowed half of the men to rest while the other half manned the guns, thus permitting continuous service of the ‘pieces’ 24 hours a day. In training the situation of continuous action never occurred, and the training manuals did not bring up the technique. The manuals were probably written by people who also had had no combat experience.
From December 1 to 15, we proceeded to dig and settle in to fixed positions. Our infantry occupied the German Siegfried Line. As this fortification naturally faced away from Germany our troops had to face the wrong way for proper protection. As the 589th Field Artillery was on the extreme left of two Infantry Divisions with only a cavalry screen protecting our left flank, our outfit was extremely vulnerable. Our front was Hitler’s choice and Eisenhower’s Calculated Risk. We were untried troops, poorly trained, and with an impossible defensive position.
DECEMBER 16. 1944. THE FIRST DAY
On December 16, before dawn, we were rudely awakened by an intensive enemy artillery and mortar preparation falling In and about our positions. THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE WAS ON.....Buzz bombs overhead on their way west added to the din of battle. Little did we know that we were directly in the center of hundreds of thousands of enemy troops, outnumbered six to one at concentration points.
All day long we fired salvo after salvo until our guns boiled. Our Executive Officer, Ted Kiendl went out front of the battery to survey the situation. He was assisting In bring in our wounded. A German assault gun had the area in it's sights and was chopping up the wounded and dead with solid shot for the shock effect As Ted brought in a wounded soldier to a log lookout post, a round of German 88 hit the shelter, spraying his face and shoulder with pieces of log. I remember him coming back to the battery dugout shouting that Nothing could live out there. He was bleeding profusely, and the blood got all over some of the letters that we had been censoring. Ted was badly wounded and had to be evacuated, fortunately before the Germans got behind us and cut off the escape routes.
Having confiscated a German burp gun from my forward observer, Lt Casabry. I went forward to reconnoiter. The situation was very serious. Enemy tanks followed by infantry were coming straight at our gun position down the road from Auw. The Germans were in behind our infantry, having infiltrated from the exposed left flank. Lt Eric Wood had succeeded to command of A Battery as Capt Menke was captured In the first German assault...Wood and his men saved the day by knocking out and driving back the initial assault of enemy armor upon which they could "direct lay" their guns.
As I remember, B Battery guns were defiladed and could not bear directly on the targets, although one history book had us sighting tanks down our barrels. At any rate the enemy did withdraw from the initial assault giving me a chance to go forward. I remember seeing the body of one of our men severed from his head.’ This was my first exposure to the stark reality of war. My feelings were strangely detached as if in unbelief.
We were ordered to displace that night as the positions were obviously untenable for artillerymen.. .The move was to take all night.
DECEMBER 17th. THE SECOND DAY
All night we toiled to get our guns out of the snow and mud and onto the road for the retreat to our new gun positions. With the use of our four wheel drive vehicles and their winches some progress was being made. However it was not until the tracked cats of the 592nd’s 155 howitzers came over to help, that we were able to get the show on the road. A jeep slid off the access road into the gun position, and after several attempts to get it up, we finally abandoned it.
There was no time to tarry with the enemy building up In force and about to overrun us. It fell my lot to lead the battalion to the second gun position several miles to the rear. As enemy patrols were active in the area, I kept my 45 cal. pistol drawn. We made our way slowly down the road with the headlights blacked out. The fog was dense further impeding our visibility. As the parade started across the engineer cutoff log road German white phosphorus shells started falling around us. All four guns of my B battery and three guns from A battery got through. We pulled into the new gun positions about daybreak.
As the guns were being positioned by the gun sergeants, I exercised my executive privilege and started to unload my gear in small shack behind the guns. No sooner had I started to clean up and relax a little than machine gun fire was heard from the direction from which we had just arrived. That was the last that was to be seen by me of my footlocker and the good Zeiss field glasses that my father had given me the year before. All that came away from that position with me was the clothing and gear on my back, including GI field glasses and pistol.
The history books now reveal to me that the Germans were advancing toward us from Bleiaf on a road running roughly parallel to our retreat. Our gun position was just up the road from a fork where the two routes mentioned before joined. This is why the Germans appeared so quickly at the new gun position. I ordered my first sergeant and driver to take my jeep back to the point where we had turned into the gun position, and hold off the advancing enemy until we could get the men out and on the road to St. Vith. The quick decision to displace turned to be right for if we had not moved then the entire battery would have been cut off by the enemy that was moving in behind us from yet another route. Although the book states that Battalion gave us the order to move, I do not remember receiving any word at all from them but moved on my own initiative for the safety of my men. Those not schooled in the military must understand that artillerymen are ill equipped with automatic weapons, armored vehicles and trained in infantry assault tactics. Dead or captured artillerymen are of no use in fighting a war! With much spinning of wheels on the off-the-road terrain, the men just barely got our with their lives, let alone bring the guns that were hopelessly stuck in the snow and mud.
The last vehicle out of the second gun position waited for me on the road while I checked to make sure that all personnel were dear of the position. It was now obvious that the enemy was behind our Infantry In force and moving fast, there being little to stop them. Our 589th Field Artillery battalion was In direct support of the 422nd Infantry Regiment. History now confirms that the 422nd was bypassed on both sides.
When we set out for the village of Schonberg several miles to our rear we did not
realize the gravity of the situation. Although most of the trucks from A and B batteries got through this little town on their way back to St. Vith, by the time my truck got there the enemy was in the town and decided that no one else should pass. St. Vith represented a chance to regroup and fight again, as it was the site of the 106th Division forward headquarters, and way behind the original lines.
There was one straggler vehicle directly in front of me which I believe belonged to A Battery. This truck and our’s did not make it through Schonberg. Herein lies an unbelievable episode, but it did happen.
As our truck came roaring down the hill into Schonberg, shell fire was falling in and about the Our river bridge across which we must go to get to St. Vith. I assumed that this was friendly fire falling far short of the mark because at this time I did not know the enemy occupied the town. As we approached the bridge some black US artillery men were running towards us and waving wildly. I thought that they were just excited at the shell fire and decided in an instant to accelerate through the town and run the gauntlet. I fired my forty-five pistol in the air so that they would clear the road. We turned the corner into the village and as we passed the first house close to the road, a German tank was pulling out of the alley alongside the house. The tank was covered with hay, and could have slipped in under cover of darkness and been thus camouflaged as a hay stack. At any rate I still had my pistol drawn, and emptied the clip into the gun ports of this tank at this time only about 30 feet away. This no doubt startled the German gunner and delayed him from getting off a round from his tank gun until our vehicle was past him. His gun blast was so close that the canvas on the back of our truck bellied in.
As I looked up from this first scrape, I saw a truck on the road ahead of us that I believed was the last vehicle from A Battery containing Eric Wood. Just as we came in sight the vehicle was struck by a round from a German tank returning to Schoenberg on the road from St. Vith. I ordered the driver to stop the truck and we all jumped out into the roadside ditch. As we scattered, I ran up the hill behind a house with gunfire from small arms falling all around, and dove into a clump of bushes. After waiting for awhile, it was plain that no one was tracking me. Using some brush as camouflage, I slowly inched my way up the hilt to the cover of some woods. In the woods I found an abandoned American tent containing some dry clothing. At this point I put on two sets of long johns and other suitable gear for the occasion. My clothing had become drenched as I had been wallowing in the snow for some time.
It was about mid morning on the December 17th when I headed away from Schoenberg and northwest towards what I hoped would be more friendly terrain. Shortly my path led me to a wooded lane in which a German soldier was standing with his back to me. He was at a distance of abut 50 feet, a chancy shot with forty-five automatic pistol. Besides I did not have the stomach for killing another human, one on one. As the soldier continued to wave down the lane to a distant companion, and was unaware of my presence, I took the lines of least resistance and backed off and around. Besides, I was ill equipped to take on the enemy that were obviously all around me, a lone soldier in
Lt. Eric Wood from our A battery was apparently in this same area about the same time and was of a different mind than myself. According to accounts, Eric stayed and conducted a guerrilla war on the enemy, disrupting their supply lines and disposing of a number of enemy soldiers.
From the brush in the lane, I headed out in the dense woods and walked for about four hours. At the end of this time the surroundings looked strangely familiar. I had in fact circled and come right back to my starting point. Such a maneuver is fairly common in these circumstances, but when it happens to you it is a queer sensation. I set out again determined not to repeat such performance. That night was spent on a pile of brush to get off the cold wet ground. Artillery shells were falling around me all night long, not speaking very well for the marksmanship of whoever was doing the firing as there did not seem to be any targets in the area (unless you could so classify me). Being somewhat protected from the cold by a long coat, I slept fitfully until dawn.
DECEMBER 18th. THE THIRD DAY
Up and moving by daybreak, I followed a northwest course which was away from the sound of the fiercest firing, and hopefully back to Allied lines. About mid-morning I arrived at Born, several miles northwest of Schonberg. Encamped there behind a house in the village were the cooks for the 423rd Infantry. As they were not aware of the situation, it fell my lot to tell them the bad news: namely that their buddies were engaging the Germans on the hills before Auw, from whence the enemy was building up a head of steam to attack in force, and further that the 2nd battalion of their 423rd was surrounded.
Arming ourselves with Ml Garand rifles, we prepared to set out to regain our lines. As there were Germans on the road in front of the house, we made our way undetected to the west end of the village. There we entered a house to seek directions of the householders. Fortunately the people were friendly, and sent us on our way with some food and a bottle of wine.
Dodging enemy fire, we made our way across country in the direction of Stavelot-Trois Point. Sometime before noon our path crossed a highway bordered by a river on our near side. I now believe the river to have been the Recht. The spot is approximately four miles due south of Malmedy, where at about the same time the German General Pieper was massacring a large group of our compatriots. After driving off a jeep load of German soldiers with rifle fire, our only course was to ford the icy river water chest high. The current was swift and we had to pull a shorter soldier across, cussing him to make him mad so he would not give up. As we made our way up the hill on the other side of the river, the enemy was back with mortars. We managed to escape without injury. However, as I looked back on the single file strung out in order to present a minimum target, it was evident that we had lost a few stragglers somewhere. We were faced with the prospect of spending the night outdoors in soaked clothing in freezing weather. I elected to head for a dense woods where we built fires to dry out and warm our bodies. The prospect of freezing seemed at the time far worse than the possibility of being captured by enemy attracted to the lights. That night a small plane circled over us for awhile... It would be interesting to know what that pilot thought about someone down there breaking blackout discipline with the battle raging all about.
DECEMBER 19th. THE FOURTH DAY
Again we were up and moving west at daylight. Breakfast consisted of a 0 ration made of concentrated chocolate. Looking down from a hilltop with my fleld glasses, I saw a German soldier standing in the road. By now that distinctive helmet worn by the enemy had become commonplace and easily identifiable. As he was blocking our way, we opened fire on him with the desired results. He rapidly departed. We moved quickly across the road, and recent map studies lead me to believe that this was one of Pieper’s men on the road between Stavelot and Trois Point.
As we skirted the village of Trois Point we come upon a Belgian farmhouse. When we had surrounded the building, a middle aged farmer emerged angrily brandishing a pitchfork. His action of course bordered on the comical, as he was surrounded by six or seven of us armed with rifles. My only guess for his actions was that he was fed up with battles raging back and forth across his ancestral farm. At any rate it was now easy for me to step forward and offer my hand in th universal symbol of friendship with the armament all on my side. It was to follow that this man and his family turned out to be real friends.
While we were inside the farmhouse having our first hot meal in several days, members of the family and neighbors were outside scouting out the enemy and determining where they were located. As we were in fact still behind enemy lines, our host advised us to spend the night in his hayloft. In the barn enjoying the warmth that only a hayloft can give, we spent a night of fitful sleep, listening to the Germans milling around in the barnyard outside. It now appears that we had been moving west parallel to Kampfruppe Peiper. He and his troops were moving into the Allied rear in an armored spearhead, and we were moving off the roads on foot. The Germans never did get much further west than this point where we spent that last night behind their lines. However I had come approximately 25 miles to the rear from where our original position had been before the battle had started.
DECEMBER 20th. THE FIFTH DAY
Early in the morning our host farmer came for us at the barn. He agreed to lead us to the American lines. In gratitude I gave him my field glasses.
We set out single file, and abruptly came upon some German soldiers washing up at a nearby pond. They did not see us at first, as we hit the dirt in firing position. As soon as our presence was sensed by them, they ran off in the direction of their main force. Wishing to get back to our nearby lines without any further argument we quickly moved out without firing a shot.
After walking a mile or so across country, the Belgian farmer pointed to friendly lines, and carrying a white flag went in by himself to announce our arrival. The precaution of sending a single individual ahead was necessary as we were coming in from enemy territory and did not want to rely on our own soldiers mis-identifying us for Germans at that distance.
The American soldiers that received us back into our own lines immediately took us to Vielsalm at my request. This town was the rear headquarters of the 106th Division, and at this time was not in enemy hands. I quickly found the remnants of the 589th Field Artillery, refitted, and under orders from Major Parker headed out to Baraque-de-Fraiture. I declined the Major’s offer to retire for Rest and Recuperation, as by this time I was mad at what was being done to our side and itching to get back in the fight, now having a few chips stacked on my side.
Being the only firing battery commander to make it out of the first gun position of December 17, my assignment was to take charge of the three A battery guns at what has now been named Parker’s Crossroads. Our howitzers were trained down every road except to the northwest, which was then supposed to be the friendly rear. The unguarded road lead to Manhay, and it later turned out that this town was to be the scene of two battles. I took up position on the southwest corner with the road to the south leading to Houffalize, and the road to the southwest leading to Samree-Laroche. Now the words Baraque-de-Fraiture mean barracks in uncultivated countryside and believe me this countryside was bleak. Diagonally across from my station was located the Auberge-de-Carrefour (inn at the crossroads). Immediately before the action started M. & Mdme Lehaire were keeping the inn. They operated this public facility. A short distance down the road to Manhay was a ski slope that ran, down to the valley behind the inn. Although the snow was on the ground we did not have our skis with us and were otherwise engaged.
Majors Parker and Goldstein took up headquarters in some buildings along the road toward Regne-Vielsalm. The first attack came on December 20th, shortly after the guns had been emplaced, and this German attack came from the direction of Houffalize.
At this point I would like to give the reader an idea of the significance of Parker’s Crossroads. The road from Houffalize-Bastogne going to Liege is an important highway. The Germans had assigned two divisions to attack along the axis of this road, with the
ultimate objective of joining up with their own troops to the north in a concerted effort to sweep behind the Allied rear all the way to Amsterdam. One of the German Divisions was the crack 2 SS Panzer Division. Our several hundred men(110 from the 589th), were directly in the path of thousands Of Germans, and holding a road that they wanted very badly. With the mud and snow conditions off the highway, and the ruggedness of the country, the only way the enemy could move their armor (tanks etc.) was by road, and In particular the road that we were out In front defending.
The balance of the troops defending this-lonely piece of real estate came from remnants of other outfits that straggled by Fortuately some of the newcomers on our side had some fairly heavy armament such as half tracks with multiple fifty calibers, assault 105’s, tanks, and the like. Eventually, Lt Woodruff arrived with a platoon from the 82nd Airborne, and had one or more 30 cal. machine guns on the comer with me.
The fog was dense, so much so that we were not able to get any air support for lack of visibility. But at the same time this lack of observation worked to our advantage as I am sure the enemy was having trouble seeing us in order to lay down accurate fire.
Major Parker was ordered to withdraw from this untenable position, but he delayed doing so because he probably Sensed the importance of holding up the enemy at this point. Further, he did not want to leave the people from other outfits there by themselves (he did not give me a vote!). It wasn't long before we reached the time of no return, as we became surrounded.
At this point I had had virtually no sleep for four nights, and I had three more of the same ahead of me. In addition, We had little food or ammunition, and the intense cold was enough to make the straightest soldier crumble in the night air. The inside of the unheated farmhouse where we were in residence (If you could call it that) was a luxury. In addition, after the first day, we were not able to evacuate our wounded However the medics did get Major Parker out when he was wouned1 but Capt. Huxel who was with me lay Inside with a hole in his back
DECEMBER 21-23. THE LAST DAYS
Following are some personal recollections of the last days at Baraque-de-Fraiture. These episodes are not necessarily in chronological order, nor will I attempt to document the disposition of troops and the various German attacks. Several history books recite in detail the facts of Parker’s Crossroads as well as they were known at the time. My account is more the imagery and anecdotes describing the conditions.
At night out on the road that led to Bastogne we heard the enemy calling to each other as they approached our position. I ordered the men to hold their fire until the enemy was very close, as it was pitch black and we had no ammunition to waste. Finally I gave the order to fire, and our guns cut loose, led by the multiple 50 cals. on the half track in our perimeter. In the early dawn our medic went out and brought in those enemy fallen that were not able to escape the murderously close fire.
At one time, while I was moving around the position, a sergeant from another outfit and myself were standing in the road and looking north toward Manhay. From the woods that came right down to the crossroads at the northwest point came the terrifying sound of a German machine pistol (burp gun). These guns were called burp because of the high cyclical rate of fire, 1600 rounds per minute or so. The two of us dropped to the ground, and after the firing stopped only I got up. My companion was dead with a bullet hole between the eyes. I ran over to the howitzer covering that sector and we swept the woods with tree top fire to clean out the snipers. As no more was heard from this area for awhile, the mission must have been successful.
One of the men at the defense perimeter was hit in the face with a mortar blast. He had no distinguishable facial features.. .The brave medic that tended him told me that he was breathing easily and would live. However I found out years later from this same medic that the man mercifully passed on that night.
Up in the second story of the farmhouse where we were quartered I found an abandoned BAR rifle. The gun was so cold that the automatic parts would not function. While standing at a window for observation, a mortar shell came right through the slate roof about ten feet away from me. Miraculously, the fragments of the shell did not wound me, the roof having taken the brunt of the blow. The building around which we built our defense was a typical Belgian farmhouse.. .The livestock were quartered on the ground floor at one end, and some living quarters were on the other end. The building was made to stay, built out of field stone with a slate rood as mentioned before.
At one time a vehicle marked with the red cross of an ambulance came down the road from enemy territory. As this vehicle was out in front of the German assault troops and there were no wounded on that road at that time the scene did not make any sense to me. Suspecting a ruse, I ordered a light tank standing station there to fire. One direct hit demolished the vehicle, and I hope that this truck marked with a red cross was not on a legitimate mission. This incident illustrates well the fact that in the heat of battle there is little time to think, and you do what comes to mind on the spur of the moment.
After several days with our only source of nourishment, candy, even it began to burn as it went down. The unrelenting cold was intensified by the dampness on station at the
crossroads. Eventually, we became surrounded. There was no chance to evacuate our wounded. The situation was obviously terminal. However, nobody thought about surrender, as the enemy was enveloped In the winter snow-fog and presented no clear-cut front with which we could have dealt. Major Goldstein knew that it was imperative that the enemy be held up here as long as humanly possible, as we were protecting an exposed flank of the entire First Army, so an attempt was made to secure support. The Germans pre-empted an attempt at reinforcement by surrounding and overrunning the position.
end as evening
drew nigh on the 23rd, I came In and told Capt. Huxel that we had to get
out. The farmhouse where he lay wounded was
being blown down over our heads. All roads
were now held by the Germans, but the road north to Manhay would take us
towards out lines, and It was this way that l pointed to the men, when
telling them to leave.
As soon as l stepped out on the south side of the house, the enemy cut loose with a preparation of mortars and 88’s that shook the earth. I took shelter for a time first under a truck and then in a concrete ditch...On the road to Houffalize only a few feet away from me one of our light tanks or assault guns was on fire. My only thought for a while was the hope that the thing would not blowup and take me with IL
PRISONER OF WAR IN GERMANY
After walking a mile or two, we came to a field command
post. They had me empty my pockets in which my captain’s bars had been
placed. They allowed me to keep both my insignia of rank and my I.D.
card. My apprehensions of what they might do to me began to fade, as the
treatment afforded me as an officer captive was always good from here
After proceeding further on the road to the German rear, we finally came to a chateau that had been commandeered, probably as a division forward headquarters. We were probably at the medieval chateau at La Roche, although the Germans were not exactly orienting me as to the route of march. ‘To the contrary, they blindfolded me for a time. My captors took me up to their officers’ quarters where dinner was in progress, and allowed me to’ help myself. Nobody seemed to notice me and no one appeared to be standing guard. This treatment was a subtle method softening me up, and also an illustration of the respect in which the Germans held an officer. I wonder what treatment the allied army was giving the German officers under similar circumstances. My guess is that the German prisoners were not being mistreated, but neither were they being given this old world treatment.
After a leisurely meal (and the fare was good), an SS officer approached me and asked me to follow him. He not only spoke English, but with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. He later admitted to having been brought up on Long Island. The questioning by this intelligence officer was non-military; mostly political. He seemed particularly interested in President Roosevelt. The fellow had a sense of humor, as at a point he told me that I was not supposed to tell him something. It was difficult to stick to name, rank, and serial number replies as the interrogator was very disarming. The thrust of my replies to his questions was that our side had a strong will to defeat the Germans. At any rate, I was very ill informed as to what was going on around me and would not have been able to tell him anything valuable if he had tortured me. When the interview was ended, I was returned to the basement of the chateau where there was a large group of American prisoners spending the night.
The next day we marched some distance and our captors put us inside a building. My hands were very cold, and a guard helped open a tin of food they had furnished us. I remember cursing the can opener that came with the can as I could not figure out how such a small pied of metal could do the job. It was Christmas Eve and one of the guards with a soulful look on his face put up a tree in the house. It did not have any ornamentation of course, but we all had a better feeling about the Germans at this point. Our guards were a bunch of guys just like us doing their job, and obviously would have rather been home with their loved ones.
The next day was Christmas, 1944, and after the days march we were herded into a schoolhouse for the night. The building where we were staying was dose to the Luxembourg border as the textbooks were written in French. I was able to read a bit of that language, and I learned for the first time that the climate of the region was moderated by the Gulf Stream. It is hard for me to realize that the latitude in the area of Europe where the fighting was going on as about equal to the lower end of Hudson Bay, Canada, and If it were not for the Gulf Stream the life style of the inhabitants might be somewhat different.
My recollections of the trip to the prison camp at Limburg are hazy. We must have traveled about 125 miles, mostly on foot. The walking was much preferable to riding in a truck however. The one night that we were transported by truck I froze my feet. The prisoners were riding in the back of the truck which had a steel bed, and we did not have room to move around and stimulate circulation.. .1 spent the rest of the night at our destination with my shoes off trying to rub some circulation back in my feet. To this day, I can’t sit around even In the summer time without something on my feet to keep them from feeling numb.
But for the kindness of the German villagers in the country side through which we passed on the way to the Rhine river, we prisoners may not have survived the long march to Stalag 12A. In a small village near Mayen we were fed a very nutritious meal one night. I have since learned that the people in this area were in dire straits themselves at the time. The villagers place a huge iron kettle on the fire to prepare the best stew I can ever remember eating (no disrespect, Mom). Not having had any hot food for two weeks or so, indeed very little food at all, we all ate until we could eat no more. A remarkable thing happened to me while waiting for this repast. I walked into the village pub next door to where we were billeted, sat down and asked for a glass of wine. My request was honored and the villagers treated me as though I was a regular customer except of course I had no money with which to pay.
It was near the end of December that we arrived at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers at Coblenz. This German city with an estimated prewar population of 300,000 had been devastated by the allied bombing... I did not see a building standing! Dead bodies lay In the streets. Only a few survivors peered out of cellar windows. We hurried through the town on foot fearing the next wave of bombers, which mercifully did not arrive while we were there.
The bridge over the Rhine at Coblenz was still standing. We proceeded across on our way Limburg’s Stalag 12A prison camp where we had reservations for the winter. The last 20 odd miles to Limburg was getting rough on some of the Air corps pilots in our group of prisoners, as they had not had much conditioning for this type of march. One pilot developed cramps, and the guards were going to leave him by the roadside in the snow. I got him up piggyback and carried him the last several miles to the camp. (Later this man was to ignore me in prison camp, for what quirk of human nature I do not know).
I had foolishly abandoned my overcoat that had been given me by my German captors near the front. One day the sun shone brightly, and the extra weight while hiking seemed to be an unnecessary burden not demanded at this instant by the temperature. But the prison camp issued me another from their plentiful stock of American GI (General Issue).
After the initial assault I received upon my capture, at no time while I was a prisoner of war was I mistreated. We all, prisoners and guards alike, suffered from insufficient food.
In prison camp the officers were separated from the enlisted men. The compound next to us contained Russian soldiers. The Russians always seemed to have plenty of potatoes which they would trade for cigarettes. Among ourselves one time I saw a gold Parker pen traded for a few cigarettes.
The food situation gradually deteriorated over the next four months. One meal a day was always the rule, and this did not come until about 5 PM. At first the soup was made of potatoes and greens and laced with meat (I hesitate to venture a guess as to what kind of meat) In addition, each man had a half loaf of bread at the first. Gradually the meat disappeared from the soup and at the last we were down to one-tenth of a loaf of bread per day. Incidentally, the bread was not exactly fresh baked, as one loaf that I was eating in 1945 was date stamped 1939. The bread was extremely dry, about the consistently of sawdust, but therefore did not mold. From our barracks window we could see a dirt mound of potatoes, extremely large, which the prison authorities never-the-less invaded sparingly The thinking on their part was probably that wlth the deteriorating situation on the German side, there would not be much chance to replace the food supply, once it was exhausted.
The sanitation was probably the worst physical aspect of prison camp The stench of the out building designed for the purpose of receiving body waste was so overwhelming that it took a strong stomach to even go in. There was fortunately an option, which while being more primitive in concept, was less nauseating.
Everyone had body lice. There was a washroom with cold running water, which like everything was unheated. However I never actually saw anyone taking a bath under these conditions. Shaving was accomplished by holding a razor blade in your hand without a holder, soap, or mirror.
Frequently at night the air raid sirens would sound. They started down the valley (of the Lahn River) from the Rhine in the vicinity of Coblenz. I can hear them now getting nearer and nearer as one little village after the other took up he cry. Then pretty soon we would hear the drone of the bombers and the clatter of anti-aircraft guns as the planes came towards us. Limburg was a prime target, and the rail yards in the bulls eye were just below the prison camp to the east.
One night a stray bomb or two came into the prison camp grounds. We all hit the deck and got under the cots Some were wounded and killed the the barracks next to us We do not know if the friendly bombers were aware of our proximity to the rail yards, but I’m sure that this would not have stopped them. If you don’t want to get shot at by your own men, do not get captured. C’est La Guerre’.
It is true that I can steep under almost any conditions. To keep the pangs of hunger from being so painful I took to napping late in the afternoon while we were waiting for the guards to bring the day’s chow. When I heard a stir in the crowd it would be time to wake up and get my share.
As the winter wore off and the sun shone bright enough to take off our clothing outdoors, we engaged in the sport of squashing lice. These unwelcome guests did not really depart until we were repatriated and went through the delousing baths and had a fresh change of clothes.
When the Allied armies had first crossed the bridge at Remagen, the authorities at Stalag 12-A prepared to move us deeper into Germany. It was bitter cold, and they gave us some straw to load in the open slatted cattle cars of the railroad. This enhancement was supposed to keep us from freezing. As we were putting the straw in the cars an air raid started. Most of the men and the guards took to the surrounding hillsides. For some reason I decided that I would take my chances with the bombs rather than freeze and continued to load the hay in the car to which I was assigned. At the last moment, I had a change of heart and took off running toward the nearest hill. The blast of a 500 pound bomb impeded my progress blowing me into the air about ten feet. I jumped up and continued to run until I caught up with another prisoner. He locked at me and his eyes opened wide in horror. Only then did I realize that there was a hole in my jacket and the blood was oozing out of my chest A bomb fragment had struck me in the right lung.
The guards took me back to the prlson camp. A German doctor looked at me and shock his head. He gave me the only treatment that I assume was available The treatment consisted of a band-aid over the opening and one shot each of penicillin and morphine. They told me that these medicines were the last in camp. That night the pain was excruciating. However I was still better off than the man in the bed next to me. He did not survive the night .
My lung was collapsed and an American doctor prisoner advised me to lie as still as possible for a week or so until the lung re-inflated. The only thing that saved me from infection was the continuous cold in which 1 am convinced no germs could live. The fragment was to stay in my chest until 1958. At that later date about of pneumonia required removal of this foreign object in my bronchial tube to stop the hemorrhaging and allow drainage. The army has me classified as 20% disabled, but except for occasional discomfort, I have always been able to do pretty much as I wanted physically. At any rate this incident may have shortened the war for me as the Germans were not able to move me further into the fatherland.
Finally the prison camp at Limburg became no longer tenable. The Allied armies were across the Rhine River in force at Remagen, and moving swiftly towards Limburg and points east.
The order came down for everybody capable of moving or being moved to evacuate. There were some that were too weak or sick to leave. A marching transport of about 1,000 prisoners was assembled. We were loaded on trains, again with the officers in a separate box car. It was getting up towards the end of April and mercifully the weather was moderating.
After a day or so of backing and filling, mostly at night to avoid the bombers, we were left standing in daylight on an elevated ridge. This was a perfect target for strafing, as the planes could come in level. It was not long until some American P-39’s and P-41’s took advantage of this sitting duck. The air force obviously did not know that the train contained only American prisoners (a few English). We were locked in the cars, and on the first pass by the aircraft, our guards took to the ditches alongside the tracks.
A Captain, Medical Corps, and myself watched with fascination the incoming planes through cracks in the boxcar, while our comrades hit the floor. I did not see how the floor on an elevated car would serve as much protection against strafing or bombing. As it turned out, the car next to us was strafed with multiple 50 calibers of Which the American Mustangs mounted four in the wings. The car looked like a sieve on later examination. The carnage In this car was terrible. At this point a brave guard came back and opened up the officers’ car and we spread down the tracks opening car doors and releasing our men.
As the planes came over again. I dove in the furrow of a nearby ploughed field with bullets splattering in the freshly tilled soil all around me. At this point I suggested that we form the letters P 0 W with the prisoners. This came fairly naturally to me, being a former Drum Major of the Duke University band. The tactics of spelling out our identity with human backs was successful. The planes wiggled their wings in recognition and left us to deal with our wounded. We had absolutely no medical facilities and the doctor did what he could under the circumstances.
After the strafing experience, th. guards decided to park the train in a tunnel. We were in there for over three days without water; that was better than the alternative of being bombed. Finally movement by train was abandoned. As the senior American officer, I was instructed by the German officer in charge of the prisoners to form my men up into 100 man units with an American officer in charge of each contingent, and move out.
I called all of the officers forward (mostly second lieutenants) and told them to each take 100 men and line out. When the group was ready we paused and sang "Onward Christian Soldiers". On the road one man was too weak to go on. I ordered four men to carry him on a blanket stretcher and exhorted them not to abandon him or he would perish. We took off and marched some time before coming to a halt for a rest. I overheard a German guard saying that Allied armor was bypassing us the the north. The guards acting like they had been drinking. Apparently they knew that the end was not far for them selves. After we had started to move again I got to thinking about the opportunity to escape now Before thinking any further, I boldly stepped out to the side of the column to call all the American officers forward to the head of the line to meet me. As I guessed, the guards watched without interfering. None of them spoke enough English to understand what I was saying. I informed the officers of the situation and for them to pass the word to the men to slip quietly into the surrounding woods as the opportunity presented itself.
That evening we marched into a small village An English chaplain who been a prisoner for four years and myself went into the adjoining house and the villager fixed us a huge platter of bacon and eggs. This was the first hen fruit to reach my stomach in nearly six months My degistive tract was so shrunken and out of order that the solid rich food made me violently ill.
Several of us hid in a barn loft, and as the prisoner transport was slowly breaking up, apparently we were not missed. I went down into a nearby public building which to my surprise was occupied by regular German soldiers. As I burst in on them, I was so startled that I offered one of them an American cigarette. This action disarmed him so that he allowed me to beat a hasty retreat. The next day I set out by myself walking and remember seeing one of our former guards with a very depressed look on his face, bicycling his way home.
Soon the point vehicle of an American outfit came along. It was a jeep load of three men, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons. They were way out in front of their main force scouting. They picked me up and we went into the village. There were some German soldiers milling about in what had now become no-mans-land, but they did not make any aggressive move towards us, even though they were also armed. We parked our vehicle and entered a tavern where some villagers were having their morning drinks. We lined the locals up against a wall at the point of a gun and proceeded to order beir (beer).
My liberators took me to a front field hospital where other prisoners were being processed. They had delousing baths and new clothes on a mass production basis. From there I was flown to a permanent hospital at Riems to recuperate. My diagnosis was malnutrition, with a weight loss down to approximately 115 pounds from my pre-prisoner weight of about 165. One of the few things I remember about the hospital was the amazement and behind back whispers of the others at the place watching me heap food on my plate.
In Paris I discovered that my orders were inadvertently
undated. This meant that I could have stayed in Paris indefinitely as
the guest of the United States government, lost so to speak. But after a
quick go at the cathedral of Notre Damus and a night at the Follies
Bergere (the latter tame by modern standards), I longed to get back to
my bride and the civilization of the USA.
After a short wait, my turn came up to board ship for home. Again there was to be a strange twist to my departure Another thousand man transport was formed of which I was again the senior American officer (still only 28 years old). Aboard ship of course the navy was in charge. There were approximately thirty officers junior to and reporting to me from the land forces being shipped home (mostly prisoners). I set up a roster for officer-of-the-watch to cover the whole trip to New York, careful to leave myself off the list. Therefore except for one incident I had nothing to do except enjoy the sea trip on the way home.
We sailed across the English channel to South Hampton and put in for supplies and more men. As we were tied up there the war in Europe came to an end (V. E. or Victory in Europe Day). We were not allowed to go ashore and celebrate but the attitude of the soldiers was one of war weariness and this did not seem to be a great hardship.
After several days at sea the rolling crap game in the hold got out of hand and fights broke out. I needed a side arm and descended into the hold where the bunks were stacked five high. The smell of seasickness was persuasive. The trouble was quickly allayed by a combination of volume, bluff and profanity.
Back in the states Vallie and I were quickly reunited and have lived happily on, even to our fortieth wedding anniversary with at present count of eleven in our immediate family, to the third generation.
My memories of the army and the war, relived in 1983 on my return to the battle fields and prison camp site are a part of my life. They were experiences that were not all pleasant, but have added to the fullness of life for me. To some extent my emotions are similar to the thoughts evoked by the old song it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at aIr.
I now know what the word hunger means, the numbing terror of being shot at has been mine, and the Importance of HAVING THE WILL TO LIVE is not a bunch or words. thank GOD that I did survive and was allowed to come back to lead a full, joyful (and times tearful) life.
RETURN TRIP TO THE BATTLEFIELD IN 1983
In 1983 the Belgian Ardennes are not greatly different
they were in 1944.
There are a few new houses and barns along the road from which one
accesses our first gun position. The roads are generally well
maintained, considering the few inhabitants that use them. It now
becomes more obvious to me why the Germans had to have these roads, not
even tanks could move through this country off the roads. This was
especially true in December when the snow was heavy upon the ground, and
tracked vehicles quickly churned the ground to mud and slush.
At Gerolstein, my first meal in a German village, I had a delightful luncheon of sliced ham, cheeses, and that good German black bread, all washed down with Pils (light) "beir". This selection made with the help of my pocket dictionary. I shared a table with a family from St. Vith, where the father spoke French. Our conversation bore out the fact that these people from Belgium being German speaking and right on the German border, are not quite as enthusiastic about Americans as the French speaking Belgians.
The Rhine was "hochwasser", and the river was at a thirty-five year record high. Many of the buildings near the water had their basements and first floors under water. And what was more unusual, no barges were moving up or down stream. As the very economic heart of the Rhine River Valley depends on the river barge traffic, this event was big to the locals. Further, there were no cruise boats moving either because of the danger from the swiftness of the current. Thus my plans to take an excursion from St. Goar past the famous Lorelei, etc. had to be canceled. Also, the river roads were closed, being under water in places, and I had to drive along the heights and run down the steep hills to get close to the river.
Avoiding the large cities, except for Bonn later in the trip, I really can’t say how much war damage is still visible in Coblenz. Limburg showed no evidence of the terrific bombing that the rail yards took when I was there in 1945.
On returning to Limburg on my 1983 trip, I was struck by the new hospital on a promontory overlooking the town. I could not help thinking how much I needed a facility like this in 1945 when I was hit. To my knowledge there was none such available to me then.
Limburg today is a pleasant little town, with the River Lahn running through its center. The old Romanesque cathedral was unscratched by the war, and is one of the most outstanding of its kind in Europe. As in many German towns, the railroad restaurant was excellent and the goose thigh and dark beer tasted good.
After many inquiries, I finally found a man who knew for certain the location of my former prison camp. In 1957, all the buildings had been demolished and the German army had built a post on the identical spot. The private on the gate, as with many young Europeans, spoke English, but would not let me on the post as I had no business there. I finally talked my way up to the post commander, who not only let me on the post, but furnished me with as sergeant escort.
The next order of business was to find the spot where I had been wounded just outside of the prison camp in the railroad marshalling yards. I did find the yards with many old trains rusting away there. The exact spot where the bomb and I had met was now under water. It seems that chalk had been found there, and the quarry had filled with water. So much for reminiscing.
One evening on the campus of the University of Bonn during the trip I talked for over an hour with a fourth year student who came from Mayen, Germany (in the area where we were so kindly treated). This young man was mature for his age, a historian, and a bit of a philosopher. He told that the Nazis requisitioned (took) from his grandfather in Mayen all of his livestock and reduced the local country populace to eating potatoes to exist. On one occasion, his grandfather hid a calf in a pit covered with straw to keep the inspector from Berling from taking it. A local priest who spoke out against the Nazi party in 1944 was taken to the prison camp at Daschau.
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