EDITOR’S NOTE: John Rarick sent the following story and a few other submissions to the Checkerboard a few months prior to his death. The others will run in future issues.
By 2 a.m. Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans, on their frontier with Belgium, started an unrelenting artillery fire with rockets called screaming meemies because of their frightening sounds in flight and 88s which hit the target at about the time one could hear the gun fire.
Every man was alerted and took his place in foxholes. We knew the Germans had something in mind for us. Their artillery fire was all directed over our heads to the rear echelon against our artillery, command locations and reserves. At that time we were in the noisiest but safest place on the American lines.
Against the snowy, white background about 100 yards to our front, we started seeing the forms of German soldiers lining up and running toward our positions. Their orders were being given by a flashlight-type instrument so that the orders were not drowned out by the noise.
As the artillery fire lessened, the wave of human beings started moving and walking forward toward our lines and we commenced to fire. The approaching numbers of enemy soldiers were so many it seemed one didn’t need to aim to hit a target. Just point your weapon and let go. I learned for the first time that tracer bullets in this close proximity were not needed. A round striking a man gave a flash.
Our fire exposed our positions and the Germans countered with mortars, machine guns and pistols. At the time I was a BAR man with an assistant on my right and a rifleman named Tony Macchi of New York on my left. We were built up in a diamond-like formation which formed a base of heavy fire. There were many bodies to our front and the onslaught seemed to separate and slide the attackers off to both sides rather than continue into our position. We were too busy out front to pay attention to our rear and flanks.
Young Tony Macchi was a new, raw recruit. He had never fired a weapon until brought to the front, where we were told to throw a tin can to our front and let him squeeze off a few rounds at it. I was probably the only one in the company who even knew his name.
He was in a hole about 10 to 15 feet to my left and slightly in front of my position. I remember hearing Tony yelling there was something moving to his left. I replied for him to shoot the SOB. That was his last utterance as a machine pistol was heard and Tony never spoke again.
Tony’s yell did alert me that the Germans had broken through our line and were now on our left flank as well as our rear. This posed a new threat since Germans to our rear could see us silhouetted against the open field ahead of us. Any time we were above or out of our hole we were a target. Every foxhole covered with a block house was now an easy target to find and Germans were using grenades to try to provoke firing and exposure by Americans.
Sometime before dawn, our American artillery must have learned that the Germans had overrun our lines and they presumed we were all dead or, if alive, in our foxholes. They started firing heavy stuff and laid it right on our lines. Not to our front, nor our rear, but right on top of our positions.
I was in my foxhole but the Germans were on the ground. By the time the eerie crimson dawn came there were no live Germans or other Americans to be seen or heard. The forest of giant trees was reduced to snags and logs. The once-white snow was black with the putrid smell of gunpowder from the artillery explosions.
I looked out and around and only could see bodies. My assistant squad leader’s body, Francis Beatle of New York, was stretch up against the side of his block house. The body of the squad leader Earl Swope of Pennsylvania lay behind the dugout. All of my squad who had been on the front line the night before lay dead. Nothing was moving and all only could be presumed dead. I could only surmise that the few Germans who had located my foxhole from my fire had been killed by the incoming artillery.
By this time I was wondering how long it would be before I was discovered still alive. There was a bloody trail to my front leading right up to my foxhole. I just knew I was a goner and I prayed that I would not be wounded or suffer a slow death. I wondered what it would be like to die. I prayed it would be quick. I lived a lifetime in minutes. I thought of home, my parents, my grandparents, my brothers; and I thought I’d never see them again. I was resigned that all was lost and felt it was just a matter of time. I waited and knew I would have to fire at any Germans I saw and that when I did I would reveal my position and the noise of my gun would attract sappers, as they were called, to finish me off. Sappers were those who mopped up, killed and finished off the wounded to stop suffering and end resistance.
I had been standing and stooping in my foxhole so long I was getting cramps in my knees and my feet were frozen. I knew I dared not get out of my hole or overly expose myself. I even hated to breathe, thinking my breath might show my location. I thought it was about 7 in the morning and so quiet. There were no birds or any noises.
As I looked forward from my position, I saw in the distance a young German soldier top the hill to my front. He had a Red Cross band on his arm and was carrying what appeared to be a medical bag or kit. As he made it down the hill, he appeared to be checking the bodies for wounded. I also noticed he was picking up rifles that lay along the way. I kept watching him, thinking all the while I couldn’t shoot a Red Cross medic. But what was I going to do if he spotted me and sounded an alarm? But then, if I fired on him the sound of my shot would certainly bring relief for him. Noise from American weapons was different from German fire.
As I continued to watch him, he must have had a premonition he was being watched. He suddenly looked up and straight at me and was startled that I had my weapon pointed right at him and had not fired. Instead of hitting the dirt or trying to escape, which even he must have known would have been futile, he walked right up to my hole saying something I didn’t understand in German. But he shouted “Hans holt!” By this time I was doing some serious reacting myself. My choice was to fire my weapon and blow him, a medic, away or face the ignominy of surrendering my weapon and being captured by an enemy Red Cross medic.
That German kid had guts. Apparently he figured that if I was going to shoot him I’d already have done so and killed him. He yelled something again and walked right up to my hole, grabbed my gun and offered me a hand as to help me up out of my foxhole. In seconds, as I was trying to get out of the foxhole, four or five soldiers in white snow suits appeared. All were shouting and yelling in German and pointing machine guns at me. They took my BAR weapon and strip-searched me for other weapons. In my shirt pocket I carried my Bible, a small pocket-sized New Testament with Psalms, which had given to me by the Reformed Church, my church at home in Goshen IN. They looked at it, decided it had no intelligence value and gave it back to me (I have it on my desk today). They ordered me to lie on the ground beside my foxhole while they checked the area, the squad bunkers and foxholes. All they found were dead bodies. They and I were the only live humans.
None of the Germans spoke English. They made their demands known by screaming and pulling off the gun bolts and pointing their weapons. They all were young, seemed well-trained and certainly weren’t of the mediocre unit we had been told that we faced to the front. They took particular pride in noting that I wore a Combat Infantryman Badge which was something new to them. They kept referring to me as a “Prima Soldotten” (a top soldier). A great catch to them.
To this day I have never understood why the Germans didn’t kill me. They were obviously on the offensive and wanted to keep moving forward. Prisoners only made for delay and confusion. To them I was excess baggage. There was no one about except for them. No one would ever have known if they had killed me. It has always troubled me as to why? Because I didn’t kill the medic? Because the medic was present and not just infantry? A witness? Anyway I have always considered Dec. 16 as my lucky day. I was spared my life and taken captive. I celebrate the day annually as a birthday. A day I was reborn. A second coming. A second chance at life. I never have stopped giving thanks. I used to think that I had been spared for some purpose or reason.
After their leader was satisfied he had cleared the area of any resistance and all other Americans were dead, they marched me to our right, down a footpath that had been created by our unit going to the platoon command post and for chow. After traveling 200 yards or so, we came to the command post of Lt. Nowland and Sgt. Gilliam of the 3rd Squad. They were all alive but captured. Their only casualty was my close friend, Erwin “Buddy” Blair of Wadena MN.
Blair, also a BAR man, had been ordered by Lt. Nowland to surrender but refused and continued firing. The Germans had leveled his position with potato mashers or hand grenades, killing Blair and seriously wounding his assistant, the boy from Lafayette LA, called Tish Hebert. Hebert was visibly seriously wounded in one shoulder with all flesh and muscle blown away leaving bare bone from his shoulder to his elbow. He was obviously in excruciating pain even though the medic Tom had given him a morphine shot.
The battle deaths records of our division list Erwin Blair, Earl Swope, Tony Macchi and Francis Beattle but do not mention Hebert. He must have been given medical treatment by the Germans and lived to come home. Although I have lived in Louisiana for more than 60 years, I have never been able to locate Tish Hebert, the energetic Cajun kid from Lafayette who was so popular with the girls in our drive through France and Belgium en route to the front.