It’s funny the way some things stick in your memory while others fade away in the haze of age. While I remember little of many other events during my nine months in Western Europe in 1944 and ’45, the details of this patrol remain clear even after 60-some years.
This particular night remains such a vivid memory perhaps because it was such a harrowing experience, but at the same time it was almost comical – four guys wandering around in a snowstorm, uncertain about where they were, or where the enemy was. This story is not the stuff of Hollywood where all patrols were depicted as great feats of daring and, of course, the mission was always accomplished. I’ll bet what happened to us on patrol that snowy, cold night was much closer to what many GIs experienced.
This happened in early 1945. We were dug-in on the brow of a hill facing a valley. On the brow of the hill across the way was a German position. It had been snowing on and off all day, and there was about a foot on the ground and more where the wind had blown it into great drifts. It was now night, and the temperature had dropped to zero. The wind made it feel even colder.
Headquarters sent word that it wanted a patrol to scout out the German position. That task fell to us. Four of us prepped to go: myself, our patrol leader and two other guys whose names I forget. My job was to provide the heavy firepower, if needed, with my BAR. We put on our white camouflage garb, and I remember thinking as I wrapped a white strip of cloth around my BAR, what if the cloth were to catch fire if I had to do any heavy firing? I would have made a nice target! I knew how hot the breech of a BAR could get after I fired a few rounds at Camp Maxey and got a nasty burn between my thumb and forefinger when I reached down with one hand to pick up the gun. I guess every BAR guy had done that at least once.
We set out down the hill. Though mostly cloudy, visibility was quite good when the moon popped out and shone off the snow. Direction was no problem as all we had to do to hit the German line was go down one hill and back up another. At the bottom of the hill, there was a small stream that had frozen over, or at least it was until I got there. I was at the rear of the patrol and carrying 30-plus pounds of gun and ammo. When my turn came to cross the stream my left foot broke through the ice and cold water poured into my boot. Great!
I struggled out, and we stopped to take stock of the situation. I remember thinking how nice it would be to sit down, take off my boot, pour out the water, and put on a dry sock. A nice thought, but not really a good option when we were so close to the enemy line. I figured if I kept moving, I’d be OK. But as we moved forward up the hill, the wind picked up and started to swirl the falling snow, reducing visibility to near zero. We had to stop again. Huddled there in near-whiteout conditions, I could feel my foot getting colder and colder. Soon it was numb. I tried stomping my foot, but that didn’t help much. Whiteout conditions continued and I began to feel my whole lower leg starting to go numb.
Now I began to worry. I told the guys that pretty soon I was going to lose the use of my leg and would not be much help to the mission. Worse still, I’d probably need help just to get back to our position. To complicate matters, all our stops and starts had distorted our sense of distance. How far had we gone, and how close were we to the enemy position? A hundred yards? Fifty? Visibility was still terrible. Nothing was clear, and we had no idea what lay in front of us. Was that barbed wire ahead of us, or signal trip wires, or grenade trip wires/ The only way we’d find the enemy was to stumble over a machine gun or fall into one of their foxholes. It made no sense to continue, so at that point we made a unanimous decision – Abort!
Down the hill we went. As long as I kept moving, my leg didn’t get any worse. We crossed the stream again and trudged up the hill. As we got near the top we began to call out softly the password, praying that some trigger-happy GI wouldn’t mistake us for a German patrol. We found ourselves quite a way down the line from G Company. Someone pointed us in the right direction and soon we were home.
We removed our white gear and our leader bundled it up and left to report to the CP. Me, I dropped into my hole and quickly removed my boot and sock. My lower leg looked like a dead, white fish. I dried it off and rubbed it until it started to tingle and turn pink. I took my two dry socks off my shoulder and put them both on my bare foot. I wrung the water out of the wet sock and used it to mop out my boot. To keep the boot from freezing stiff by morning, I pulled it close to my body and wrapped myself in a blanket. My hole never felt so good. Soon, I dropped off to sleep.
Lewis Roosa G/395
204 Pheasant Run Dr.
Paoli PA 19301-2050