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In Ardennes: Green division balks German guns, trickery

Philadelphia Inquirer War Correspondent, 1945

This story was sent by Mike Poole of Chula Vista CA. It was first published as part of a series in the Feb. 5, 1945, Philadelphia Inquirer.

In many respects the 99th Infantry Division was green to the blitzkrieg and the icy terrain of the Ardennes. With the pleasant memory of Louisiana and Texas training maneuvers freshly in mind, it was like the French in the Maginot Line in 1940. It hadn’t been a bad war thus far, and they didn’t mind.

Arriving in October 1944, they found the front line assignment fairly easy – a few patrols, occasionally a pillbox job, some desultory artillery and replies in kind, and the necessity of accommodating themselves to foxhole living in freezing temperatures. Their former commander, General Courtney H. Hodges, in 1943 hadn’t mentioned that the Ardennes would be cold, or what Schnee Eifel would be like. Gen. Hodges, now their Army CO, had them in a “quiet sector.”

Perhaps that was why it came as such a shock when Field Marshal von Rundstedt smashed with everything he had that morning of Dec. 16.

An officer of the 99th later wrote: “It seemed a good place to break us in. The terrain was easy to defend and the enemy’s forces were light. Our foxholes and defensive posts were rather widely spaced – there wasn’t any reason to hold the line heavily.” In that last statement, Marshal von Rundstedt soon proved him wrong.

The Germans came in the foggy darkness that Saturday morning, with tanks and panzer grenadiers and the fanatical SS troops firing everything they had. The 99th’s outposts were overrun. Reeling under the artillery barrage and the tank fire, the well-schooled doughboys with their checkerboard patch - the division originally was planned as an all-Pennsylvania unit but was never organized as such, although its insignia is from the coat of arms of the city of Philadelphia – realized this was far worse than maneuvers.

Moreover, the Germans seemed or to come where they were weakest, notably between their right flank and elements of the equally inexperienced 106th Infantry.

Marshall von Rundstedt’s plan was adroit. He would shear between these neophytes and wrap them up with infantry as his Panzer spearheads struck west. The armor would engage the expected reinforcements of veteran troops, but the breakthrough was assured against such baby outfits, and just to make sure, paratroops would drop along the highway to Eupen to cut communications with the Roer River line and open the way to outflank the whole First Army. The way to Liege was easy.

But first they had to move the 99th. Against the 393rd Regiment the Germans came four times, each time with increasing fury. They failed. Finally C Company was surrounded. Lieutenant Harry Parker of Johnson VT, led an emergency group of cooks and engineers and KPs to relieve the trapped unit, but the enemy’s artillery drove them from their trucks and pinned them down in the woods.

“Hell, we might as well get killed moving forward as lying here,” Lt. Parker ordered as, with fixed bayonets, they charged through the Huns and dug in with the remnants of Company C. then the fight began in earnest.

Crack German ski troops slithered through the firs, but the doughboys waited until they clustered, then mowed them down with crisscross machine gun fire, leaving half of the company dead on the snow. Then the Volksgrenadiers charged, but they got the same greeting until survivors, with empty guns, surrendered.

“They walked in like they were doped,” 99th soldiers reported, but nevertheless they couldn’t fight through. By darkness of the 16th, all availables of the 99th were on the line and the German attacks veered south.

Later that night, however, they heard motors. The Panzers had come from the rear.

Nobody knew how or where, but there they were, rumbling through rest-area towns and circling for Camp Elsenborn – long held by American troops – trying to do what the infantry had failed to do frontally.

Everyone – and that meant all – grabbed rifles and started shooting or digging. A staff sergeant, Elmer Keener of Sanger CA, an office clerk left behind when the battle began, started firing at Mark IVs with his rifle and kept popping until a couple of other forgotten lads found a bazooka and knocked out three of the tanks.

The Nazis seemed about to win, however; their end run moving to join paratroops scattered just north, and in so doing, cutting off four battalions of the 99th. That’s when First Army headquarters began worrying, for our shoulder at Monschau was threatened and nobody had word from the new division. There were rumors that the whole outfit had been captured. Instead it was fighting inside the circle.

The Germans used every truck – English speaking Wehrmachters in GI uniforms, our own vehicles manned by Huns, stolen credentials and passwords – nobody could trust anyone. Major Matt Legler of New York City, with his battalion, fought into town toward the German lines, found it occupied, and fought back to his own lines. Two days later, without overcoats or field jackets and with the wounded carried by gloveless GIs, his battalion reported to headquarters and returned to the line of duty.

The engineers were terrific. Led by Lt. Col. Justice R. Neale of Oberlin KS, two companies fighting as infantry smashed 16 self-propelled assault guns, killed 400 Jerries, built a road and with caterpillars, pulled out regimental vehicles.

Last modified Oct. 21, 2010

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