Author, “Once Upon a Time in War”
After crossing the Rhine River at Remagen, George Company/395 advanced up rugged, tree-covered hills as the 99th Division moved eastward toward the Wied River. At 6:30 a.m. on March 15, 1945, the company departed in darkness and heavy fog with orders to proceed toward Ginsterhahn in support of the Third Battalion’s attack. Company Commander Harold Hill became lost but decided to push ahead and came upon the tiny village of Hähnen, which happened to be a regimental command post. After eight rounds of artillery crashed into the town, Lt. Hill ordered the 1st and 2nd platoons to attack across 100 yards of open ground.
Platoon leader Lt. Daniel Juraschek and radioman John Vasa headed for the village. As they turned into the street, a German soldier fired a machine pistol, hitting Juraschek in the leg and sending a bullet into Vasa’s walkie-talkie. They took cover behind a rabbit hutch and a pile of logs. Juraschek hollered at Vasa to tell Hill what had happened. Since the radio was useless, Vasa hurried back on foot and relayed the information to Lt. Hill. (Spotting Vasa without his radio, the company communications sergeant chewed him out for abandoning government property.)
Hill asked Vasa to lead the rest of the company command group into the town. Although this was a dangerous situation, Vasa had “no concept of fear. You act almost instinctively as you were trained and are on high alert.” After the danger had passed, Vasa felt relief but also anxiety because he had little confidence in the platoon sergeant’s ability to lead the platoon.
The quick assault caught the enemy by surprise, and scores of Germans were captured and killed with minimal losses. The company had, however, inadvertently placed itself behind enemy forces, and the Germans turned and attempted to take the village. Initially a single Mark V tank lumbered toward the company. Watching it approach, William Galegar commented, “If you have never faced one of those monsters armed with a rifle and hand grenades, then you don’t know what fear is.” Robert Terry, who always carried his bazooka fully assembled, waited until the tank turned its turret away from him and blasted a rocket into its left side. The tank emitted a puff of black smoke and ground to a halt. The three wounded tankers scrambled out and were captured by Terry and others. The other enemy tanks thought better of attacking the village and withdrew.
The next day the 1st Platoon butchered and roasted a couple of baby pigs and a cow. In the afternoon, civilians returned to their village only to discover the livestock losses and the remaining, distressed cows bellowing loudly. One visibly upset, older woman berated Vasa and the others for what they had done. Perceiving the cows were suffering from a lack of water, she proceeded to pump water from a well into a trough. She would pump and then run and hug one of the cows, then run back and pump some more, all the while scolding them in German. Vasa felt sorry for the woman and the villagers who found their homes burned to the ground. He thought to himself, “War is hell.”
The company remained in Hähnen that night eating potatoes and drinking war wine they found in a cellar. Vasa commented, “The wine must have been powerful stuff because I don’t remember drinking it.” The next evening the company shoved off toward another village on high ground above the Wied River. It would not be the last village to be taken or the last river to be crossed.