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Battle of the Bulge, North Shoulder


Minnesota Legionnaire magazine

The popular notion of the Battle of the Bulge was that the crux of the battle was the 101st Airborne's heroic stand at Bastogne.

Historian Stephen Rusiecki said a different action, right at the beginning of the battle may have been more important: The defense of the little village and crossroads by the American 99th Division at Losheimergraben.

The North Shoulder of the Bulge was the subject of the December World War II Round Table at Fort Snelling History Center,

Rusiecki was joined by a group of veterans from the 99th Division and the 2nd Division who withstood the ferocious German assault on the northern part of the Bulge, often called the North Shoulder, in the first 48 hours of the battle.

Because the German attack was blunted, it forced the Germans to concentrate their action to the south and thus lose their main routes of hammering their "Ardennes Offensive" toward the key seaport of Antwerp.

Rusiecki first outlined the situation leading up to the battle, which began on Dec. 16, 1944. Adolf Hitler's defense of Germany was in a precarious position by late 1944, with the Americans and British pressing from the west and the Russians battering the Wehrmacht in the east.

If the Americans and British could be persuaded to sue for a separate peace, Hitler could concentrate his dwindling army against the Russians.

Once the battle was engaged, the Americans were able to put about 31 divisions into the fray, and the Germans about 26. Each side suffered about 100,000 casualties in the six-week battle.

The Battle of the Bulge had roughly three phases:

— Dec. 16-18, the rapid German advance with the Allies on their heels.

— Dec. 19-23, the Americans began to dig in and slow the advance.

— Dec. 24 on, with their airpower advantage restored by good weather and the rapid deployment of divisions from the south, the Americans began to repel the attack.

Rusiecki's theory is that Hitler's plan was to quickly break through at Losheimergraben and other places in the north and use various routes through the Ardennes to quickly reach the Meuse River.

The attack at Losheimergraben, however, was a failure. Four German regiments attacked the 394th Regiment of the 99th Division and were stopped cold.

Nearby, other American forces also were doing heroic duty. One platoon stood off a large German force to the south of Losheimergraben, and at nearby Buchholz Station, the American forces elevated their mortars to 89 degrees, nearly vertical, to stave off the Germans.

In Losheimergraben itself, what was left of the 394th took up positions in a cluster of customs' houses, and held out through the night. The next day, they were finally persuaded to surrender, although they were allowed to keep their cigarettes and personal items as part of the surrender details.

When the German commander came to the custom houses, he was told that the American survivors had gathered in the basements, and had pulled the pins on their grenades and thrown them away as they prepared for the final assault. The German colonel and others scrambled around in the dark until they found the pins and replaced them in the grenades.

The crossroads was surrendered at noon, but it had thrown off the Germans' fragile timetable and the attack on the North Shoulder was in jeopardy. "It's where the battle was won. Instead the Germans had to go south and fight on terrain they didn't want to fight on."

Both the 99th and the 2nd Division, which had been passing to the north to attack German dams, withdrew after the first day's fighting to Elsenborn Ridge, where they held off the Germans for many days.

Rusiecki has captured his study of the North Shoulder in "The Key to the Bulge: The Battle for Losheimergraben," a book that is used in the Army's War College.

The veterans on the panel had their own stories to tell.

Michael Matusko joined the Army in Springfield MA, and eventually ended up in Officers Candidate School at Ft. Benning GA. He landed on Normandy on D-Day plus one and fought in France.

At the time of the Battle of the Bulge, he was a lieutenant and company commander of D Company, 38th Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.

"We were on the Siegfried Line and my headquarters was in one of the bunkers. It was a good headquarters because we discovered three bottles of schnapps in the bunker."

The 106th Division replaced the 2nd in the middle of November, and the 2nd moved north, behind the 99th Division, and on about the 13th of December began to attack the Ruhr Dams.

Matusko said that one of his platoons, 35 men, were captured by the Germans, and while official records are silent on the matter, he is convinced the men were massacred.

"Only two guys survived, and one was badly wounded. One guy was 5-6 and the other guy was 6-2, and the 5-6 guy put him over his shoulder and carried him back to the rear. He came to my command post and he was covered with blood."

The rest of the company fought on for four days before withdrawing to Elsenborn Ridge. "They put plows on the tanks and tractors, and they plowed roads to the Elsenborn. There was snow up to our belly buttons."

Matusko said when his company got to the ridge, the foxholes had already been dug by the rear echelon troops, and they were very good.

"On the 29th, I gave my supply guy 10,000 francs of my own money and sent him to Liege to get some libations, some chocolate, and other treats. I told him not to come back until he spent every nickel.

"The guys were used to melting snow for something to drink, and we were able to give them a half bottle each of wine. We didn't have that many guys left by then, after losing that whole platoon."

Later that day, Matusko was in a house that was hit by German shelling, and he got shrapnel in his knee. "At first they wanted to cut the leg off, but the doctor said that if I did exactly what he said, I could save the leg." Matusko spent the next 12 weeks in England in a hospital.

He had earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars by this time, and the Army sent him home to Massachusetts. He stayed there for a time, but then headed to Winona, Minn., where his sweetheart lived.

"I told my folks when I came back I might be married. When I got to Winona, I asked her to marry me. I gave her 48 hours to give me her answer, because I didn't have much time. Even the Catholic Church let us get married without waiting."

Clarence "Swede" Ahlstrand was born in a log cabin near Schafer, Minn. He also landed on D-Day plus one, and earned the Bronze Star for his duty in Normandy.

He had been assigned to an Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon in the 23rd Infantry of the 2nd Division. He was a squad leader when the Battle of the Bulge began.

"I remember that one time the screaming mimis went right over our head, but there was fog that morning and we could see the muzzle blasts. We were able to report on the muzzle flashes from two different points, and they were able to triangulate their location.

"By the time the German shells landed, our artillery was firing back, and they knocked it out. At least they never bothered us again."

When the 2nd Division pulled off the line, Ahlstrand's unit was the last to leave. "We didn't know where we were going. After a couple of days, we realized the Germans were pretty serious. They were breaking through all over the place."

Ahlstrand and his men were assigned to mine two bridges at the foot of Elsenborn Ridge and to blow them up if the enemy tried to cross. They never did.

Howard "Howdog" Dahlgren was a sergeant, also in an I&R platoon, in the 395th Infantry of the 99th Division.

Dahlgren remembered a piece of equipment that proved pretty handy when the snow was piling up along the German border. "It was called a 'weasel' and it was the first snowmobile. We had snow up to our hips and so it was hard to move things around. The weasel could carry two stretchers, one above the other, or 100 gallons of gas. It wasn't sleek like the snowmobiles today, but it did the job."

He said the I&R platoons were usually held in reserve, meaning they generally had better sleeping arrangements and maybe better food at times. The downside was that their job was to sneak through the lines to get information for the intelligence officer. It was dangerous work.

"The situation was often very confused. It was hard to keep the communications wires open with the artillery hitting them. And it was so wet and cold that the radios usually didn't work."

Another problem for a while was that the GIs were supplementing their rations with venison. "They finally had to order people to stop shooting the deer. There were so many people shooting behind the lines, you didn't know if it was us or them."

Dahlgren said the key to staying warm was to keep your feet dry. "We didn't have good winter clothing, but we did have an extra pair of socks. We'd take off the pair we were wearing and put them inside our shirts next to our chest. That didn't feel too good, but it sure felt good when you put them back on and had warm feet."

Dahlgren said that of the original 24 men in his platoon, only two of them were left at the end of the war. "You'd go out with five men on a patrol, and four would come back. It was so dark, you didn't know if they'd been shot, got lost, or were captured. You just didn't know."

He remembered one patrol where he was told to go out to a certain area between a couple of trees and wait. "Men in the infantry tend to sleep every chance they got, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I could hear German voices all around me. I was pretty well camouflaged, so I just sat tight."

When the chance came, Dahlgren made his way back to his own lines by a different path.

At Elsenborn Ridge, part of the unit was assigned to a stone building. "I was sleeping badly, and in the middle of the night I just got up and moved my sleeping bag to the other side of the building. A few minutes later, a shell came in and blew up that part of the building I had just left.

"I guess God had other ideas for me."

Toward the end of the war, Dahlgren was in a jeep that had been reinforced with armor, so much so that the driver had to sit on a box to see where he was going. The jeep ventured a little too far toward German lines, and came upon a well-armed German position.

"We didn't know what to do. We were dead ducks. All we could do was to slowly turn around and slowly drive away. There was no armor on the back of the jeep. But no one fired a shot. I'll have to give credit to the Germans for saving our lives."

Richard King was a rifleman in the 394th Infantry of the 99th Division. He grew up in St. Paul and graduated from St. Thomas College in the spring of 1943 and was promptly inducted.

He arrived in Belgium about the 1st of November, and he could see the Siegfried Line from his foxhole. "And it was a pretty nice foxhole I inherited. It even had logs on the top. The forest was very nice with huge pine trees. In another setting, it would have been beautiful."

In the war setting, there were problems. For instance, the pine trees collected the snow and then dripped freezing water on the troops all day long, for days at a time.

On Thanksgiving, King heard they were going to get a turkey dinner. "We had to go a half mile back with our mess kit, and they filled it up with turkey and potatoes and dressing, the works. Then we had to walk a half mile back, and by the time I got to my foxhole, my mess kit was filled with ice. But I just stirred it up with a spoon and ate it."

On the 15th of December, King was sent back from the front line to a rest camp for three days. On the 16th, the Germans attacked.

"It was wonderful. A truck took us four miles back, and we got to take showers. It was the first time I'd had my clothes off in two months. When we came out of the showers, there were tables with new clothes. I took two pair of pants, one large and one small and wore them together."

That night he slept in a nice house in a nice bed with a warm stove nearby. It was heaven.

"Then the shelling began. I heard a noise out front of the house, and I looked out the second floor window and saw a bunch of soldiers. Then I realized they wee all German. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't do any fighting because I left my rifle in my foxhole."

King put on his new duds and went out the back door. There was the truck and driver who had dropped him off the day before. "It was one of the wildest rides of my life. We had to get around a lot of trucks going the opposite way. They were leaving the front. And the shelling was terrible."

When he got back to the front, the scenic beauty of the place was gone. "The trees were all down, and many of them were over the foxholes. I got out of the truck and began helping guys get out of their foxholes.

"I found my old foxhole and got into it. I figured this is where I was supposed to be. The Germans had gone through already, and now the tanks and trucks were going down the roads."

King got orders to withdraw to Elsenborn Ridge. "It took several days to get there, slipping and sliding all the way. I was just happy to be in my new clothes."

The company reorganized and set up positions on a hill in front of the ridge. They were attacked several times by the Germans, but held their ground.

Donald Jaquish was a scout on B Company, 23rd Infantry, 2nd Division. He was a replacement to the division on Dec. 28.

He had arrived at Havre on Dec. 24, and he remembers that the men burned gun powder to stay warm that night. On Christmas Day, he was on a French train, a 40/8, on his way to the battle. "It was packed in those trains. You slept with your head on your knees. Somebody got a fire going, and someone threw a can of beans on the fire without opening the top. So we all got a taste of beans when it blew up."

When he got near the front, the men were lined up and were told to count off one-two, one-two all the way down the line. The ones were sent to the 1st Division and the twos to the 2nd Division. "The Army had a simple way of solving problems."

When the replacement group got to the front, they came in one side of a little town, while the Germans were still in another part of town. The replacements had no weapons.

"They had boxes of rifles that still had cosmoline all over them. You've never seen rifles clean up so fast."

Jaquish wound up in Elsenborn, fending off German attacks. One thing he remembers is that you could take the lemon mix from the C-rations and mix it with snow to make ice cream.

The company came under intense machine gun fire at one point. "The theory was that if you get in between the bullets, you'll be OK. We lost a lot of guys. The only good thing was that we had rations for a full company, and we only had 56 guys left. You could eat pretty good."

As a scout, Jaquish was sent ahead of the troops as they advanced. He remembers being told to dig a foxhole, which he did. He had just finished, when the sergeant told him to advance again. When he had gone about 200 yards, he was told to halt and dig another foxhole.

"I looked back, and the guy behind me was moving into my first foxhole."

Jaquish also recalls that he liked to carry a lot of ammunition. "I'd have two bandoliers, one over each shoulder, and a BAR rifle belt around my waist. I'd have a rifle grenade on my leg. I only weighed 115 pounds, but I'd be carrying 26 pounds of gear."

Some of the information in this story came from a luncheon meeting with the Round Table participants the day of the Round Table.

The Round Table at Fort Snelling History Center is held the second Thursday of each month through May.