Bugle Boy of Company B
This account is written by William H. Barker, a member of Company B, 324th Engineer Combat Battalion, Headquarters and Service Platoon, 99th Infantry Division and Company B, First Engineer Combat Battalion, Headquarters and Service Platoon, 1st Infantry Division.
Part 1 — Background
My family lived in Gary IN, on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, one of the five and largest fresh water lakes on the North American continent. The city is a short distance southeast of the city of Chicago IL.
Gary is best known for its steel-making capacity. My father was a foreman in the power and fuel division of the U.S. Steel Company's Gary Works, then the largest steel plant in the world.
I was born in Gary along with two brothers and four sisters. My two older sisters, ages four and two, greeted me Nov. 6, 1925. Times were reasonably prosperous until the 1929 stock market crash brought a deep economic depression throughout the next 10 years in the U.S.
As each of four more siblings was born, we routinely did without and learned sharing. All nine of us lived in a two-bedroom, modest home in an area called Glen Park.
Small and large families made many sacrifices during the Great Depression. Appreciation for any small, yet extraordinary, luxury served me well especially when severely challenged during World War II. All of us attended the same elementary and high schools, walking more than a mile to school, church, and to our nearest public transportation. Functionally all of us had a joyful childhood, never deprived of basic needs.
The pursuit of athletic endeavors never occurred to me in high school, as my eyes did not work efficiently together, making playing athletic games difficult because of this vision. I always was a fielder in baseball since hitting the ball was usually a rare occasion.
Being too short for basketball or too skinny for football, I decided that band was my contribution to sports. Everyone wanted to play the coronet so I had to settle for the trombone. It could have been worse, such as the tuba or bass. Marching at sporting events, city parades, and other occasions was great fun during my last two years in high school.
Once America entered World War II, an ROTC (Reserved Officer's Training Corps) unit was formed for the boys in the high schools. I rose to lieutenant in the school ROTC unit in the fall of 1943 before graduating in February 1944.
During my last two years of high school, I was fortunate to have a part-time job on Saturdays, holiday periods, and summer recesses. My church youth leader owned Engineering Specialty Co. It was a wholesale supply business catering to the mechanical trades especially for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration appliances for businesses and homes. I did everything from cleaning, packaging, mailing, counter services, and filling freon and sulfur dioxide drums used in refrigeration. This was a lucky stroke since this experience got me assigned to the Combat Engineers instead of the infantry.
Upon graduation from high school, all able-bodied boys were required to join the military service. Again, my eyes played a role in my assignment to the Army ground forces rather than the Army Air Force. However, the demand for infantry soldiers was so great as to preclude real choices for most of the men in our high school class. The U.S. Navy was a choice; however, I never was that fond of water. On March 4, 1944, off we went to infantry basic training at Camp Wolters TX. The closest big cities were Dallas and Fort Worth. The camp was just outside Mineral Wells TX, about 60 miles west of Fort Worth. It was a hot, semi-desert like area. During the prewar era, the camp was someone's ranch for raising cattle. The camp also housed a prisoner of war enclosure populated for the most part with German nationals.
Part 2 — Infantry training, assignment as messenger
Basic training started at an easy pace for the first few days as film extras in uniform were needed for an Army film at a field location. The sight of the somewhat rocky, arid terrain of Camp Wolters TX, looked very forbidding after coming from a sandy dune-like environment at home in Gary IN, on the southern shores of Lake Michigan.
Much of Texas is semi-arid and I should have known better. The weather was usually hot; however, stormy, wet weather made life a little more bearable during March and April. Long hikes, rifle, bayonet, and anti-tank bazooka training reflected the dangers ahead. All were given opportunities to throw, fire, and learn how to care for infantry weapons and run obstacle courses. Throwing live hand grenades and bayonet training always made me extremely nervous. My Methodist background did not fit this scene often seeking reassurance in the able spiritual services offered by camp chapels and chaplains.
Trombone playing in the high school band and orchestra paid off about a third of the way through the infantry training cycle. A new class in the Army's messenger, bugle training cycle was just starting. Beginning another training cycle is not appealing; however, it offered special training in radio, Morse code, and map reading. Learning to play a bugle proficiently with its tiny mouthpiece was a very difficult task to me. The bugle has no valves. A triple tongue technique is needed on calls such as "Retreat" and "To the Colors," played at the end of each day as the flag is lowered on its staff. The bugle call, "To the Colors" requires respect similar to a band playing the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." While in camp at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., outdoor activity freezes to a stop, soldiers dismount from vehicles, and salute toward the flag as the "Stars and Stripes" is raised or lowered on its staff. It was nice to be in charge occasionally!
During this training, we often functioned as a drum and bugle corps parading at the end of a day with other soldiers usually in formation. Parading provided relief from the constant drills, hikes, and field exercises. Temperatures often were over 105 degrees in Texas during the months of June through August. Most Sundays were free of training to attend chapel services and/or visit nearby Mineral Wells TX, a short bus ride from the camp. Often a pint of ice cream would be my treat most evenings and always on Sundays. A single private's pay of $40 per month allows for the purchase of a war bond of $18.75 sent home for my college education. Any additional pay, such as the $20 combat pay while in Europe bought another war bond for my savings. The post exchanges were great, always inexpensive, and often at nominal cost.
My messenger training cycle ended in mid-July 1944. After spending a 10-day furlough at home, I reported for duty at Camp Maxey TX, joining Company B, Headquarters and Service Platoon, 324th Engineer Combat Battalion of the 99th Infantry Division. The division had just returned from its maneuvers at Camp Van Dorn in the state of Mississippi. My part-time work during high school paid off as "engineering specialty company" got me out of an infantry regiment and into something more interesting.
My fellow headquarters platoon specialists included men trained to handle trucks, bulldozers, air-powered equipment, bangalore torpedoes, and other ordnance explosives. Their other functions included records, supply, motor pool mechanics, cooks, radio, carpenters, and command. During the 99th Division's 151 days in combat in Europe, this messenger-bugler assisted as "the man of the moment" when and wherever needed. Unhappily, I had to drag my useless plastic bugle in my duffel bag through the Ardennes, Rhineland, and central Europe campaigns.
The men of Company B's Headquarters Platoon were primarily mature men most of whom had families of their own. Our first sergeant was a combat veteran and career Army man. He reminded me of my father. Several men had previous business work experiences in supervision and responsibilities. Fortunately for me, their care and support made me feel as if I was part of their family. Having a mentor made the difference in combat.
Part 3 — England and the Continent to Belgium
Activity at Camp Maxey TX, during August 1944, included issuance of personal weapons, their testing and practice firing. Specialized tools and equipment including certain supplies for shipment overseas were packed in wooden crates. After boarding several troop trains, taking three separate circuitous routes, the division arrived in Boston MA, port of embarkation.
My particular train passed within a few miles of my home. At Camp Miles Standish, the division assembled, assigned transport ships, and sailed for England. With full gear including my rifle and duffel bag (with plastic bugle), my overseas journey began.
The Atlantic convoy sailed Sept. 29 and arrived Oct. 10, 1944, at Southampton, England. The size of the convoy, including several hundred ships of every description, was breathtaking! Warships patrolled constantly making my journey aboard the SS Argentina (a converted luxury liner) somewhat uneventful. Safety drills were constant. The food served twice daily came from existing English stores. Individual berths were in every usable space. In the Grand Ballroom, my berth stood only the sixth from the deck with many others much higher.
In England, the seashore area near Dorchester scattered the company into separate cabins used for tourists in peacetime. For the next month, my bugle skills were tested. Very few knew what most calls meant. They learned "mess call" very fast. Since my bugle skill was lacking, I often would climb down to the beach area practicing bugle calls, especially the end of day ritual.
Once the battalion was fully equipped with trucks, bulldozers, and air compressors and armed, we left England, embarking Nov. 6, 1944, from an LST on my 19th birthday. The English Channel was cold and rough, making meals impossible. Our LST landed on the beach at LeHavre, France, a segment of Omaha Beach used on the D-Day landing six months earlier. The port of LeHavre was visible to us. The damage to the harbor was so bad that it did not become operational for several more months.
Immediately our battalion set out by truck convoy on the famous "Red Eye Express" passing through northern France and into Belgium's Ardennes Forest area. The communication zone of the European Theater of Operations set up special truck routes for priority convoys. We rarely stopped except to relieve ourselves. The French and Belgian people would line the route and cheer us on as we went through villages and towns, sirens blaring. It was cold and wet until Nov. 7, when the rain changed to sleet, then snow. Snow and bad weather followed thereafter. Some say it was the worst winter experienced by them in several years.
The headquarters platoon of Company B, 324th Engineer Combat Battalion settled in a Belgian farmhouse with the ubiquitous attached barn sheltering cows. The stench and manure piles were new experiences for most of us. This building was the last house in Bullingen's southeast outskirts on the main road toward Hunningen. It overlooked cultivated fields with some forested areas off in the distance. The 99th Infantry Division assumed a 22-mile front on Nov. 10 from elements of the 9th and 60th Infantry Divisions (Hofen south to beyond Losheimergraben). Company B served in direct support of the 394th Infantry Regiment's area east of Losheimergraben.
From Nov. 10 to Dec. 15, 1944, the front was relatively quiet. The 99th Infantry Division probed the west wall with very limited German counter-attacks. The infantry sent out small patrols daily to detect what the enemy was planning. Usually information would come from captured prisoners. Most of these warnings were unbelievable or ignored by higher headquarters. Repairing and making new corduroy supply roads and fortifications kept the engineers busy. My tasks included every possible task for the company, often making several trips to various towns and depots for supplies such as gasoline, food, ammunition, tools, and clothing. Supply dumps of every sort were located at strategic areas for easy access near the major paved roads. During this 35-day period, my travels into Elsenborn, Butgenbach, Krinkelt-Rocherath, Hunningen, Verviers, Eupen, and Liege were lasting impressions of the Belgium people of the Ardennes.
Part 4 — Battle of the Bulge: A December surprise
On Dec. 16 my assignment was "kitchen police." At 4 a.m. I was assisting the cooks preparing our breakfast. The menu was pancakes, syrup, sausage, and coffee. Breakfast was all set up in the courtyard of our farmhouse ready to receive our company of 200 men.
Suddenly, at 5:25 a.m., along a 30-mile front we encountered an intense two-hour barrage of all caliber of artillery and mortar fire, which saturated the troops on the line. At first, we thought it was our artillery dueling with the enemy. Without breakfast, all personnel of Company B (cooks, drivers, specialists, etc.), with the exception of a handful of us, were immediately trucked northeast of Krinkelt to a place called Rath Hill. The 324th Engineer Combat Battalion (absent Company C) was now operating as an infantry battalion, taking orders from the regimental commander. Our headquarters company along with Company A joined us in the defense of Rath Hill.
Stripped of all arms, including our truck-mounted 30 and 50-caliber machine guns, the company's trucks and drivers rejoined my small group at Bullingen. At least we got breakfast while dodging the incoming artillery. Our refuge was the farmhouse cellar when needed. However, dug foxholes were ready if we had to defend ourselves. Our arms consisted of carbines and rifles with limited ammunition. All the good stuff, such as bazookas, explosives, and machine guns, were with the men defending Rath Hill.
Our 395th Regimental Combat Team, then attached to the 2nd Infantry Division, went on the offensive Dec. 13-15 toward the Roer River Dams. Although successful at penetrating the Siegfried Line and gaining its immediate objectives, the assault of the Sixth SS Panzer Army and the 15th German Army on the 99th Division's 22-mile front, the 2nd Infantry Division and our 395th Regimental Combat Team canceled its offensive and reverted to the defense of the north shoulder of the Bulge.
The Bulge was the result of enemy penetration further south directly west of the Schnee Eifel (the Eifel was the principal staging area for German forces before the Dec. 16 offensive). The Rath Hill defense by the combat engineers played an important advantage as the 395th Regimental Combat Team and 2nd Infantry Division needed the road network to get in its defensive position on the Elsenborn Ridge.
Company C of the 324th Combat Engineers rejoined our defense line at Rath Hill until all could safely take up their respective positions on the main Elsenborn Ridge line. During the initial three-day period of the German offensive, enemy losses exceeded 400 killed as a result of maniac charges against the engineer battalion's defenses. The northern shoulder of the Bulge at the Elsenborn Ridge held forcing the Germans southwesterly. With their timetable severely disrupted, the enemy abandoned the direct route to strike toward the Meuse River and on to Brussels and Antwerp with the Sixth SS Panzer Army on the right driving through to Liege and the Fifth Panzer Army thrusting toward Namur.
Meanwhile, my small group spent the night of Dec. 16 in the farmhouse at Bullingen. During the night, an enemy tank stopped at a road junction some 100 yards away from our farmhouse. They stopped, looked at the road signs, carried on a brief conversation, and proceeded directly on the Bullingen-Butgenbach highway. This roadway passed through the center of Bullingen in a northeasterly direction then veered westward toward Bugtenbach. After reporting the event, we took refuge in the farmhouse cellar remaining quiet since we lacked communications or firepower to resist. More tanks passed during the night as we met some of them the following morning, Dec. 17.
At daybreak we noticed enemy infantry crossing open fields near our farmhouse. With but a five-minute period, we were ordered to load everything on our several vehicles. Most trucks were hauling trailers. We tossed duffel bags of company personnel on anything that would hold them. My duffel bag, with my trusty plastic bugle and a watch given to me by my parents at my high school graduation, found its way onto one of our trailers. In the rush, my last trip was to the kitchen area. I selected a #10 tin can that had no markings. Lucky for me I tossed the can on the truck I occupied as we sped off in the direction of Butgenbach while under artillery fire and menaced by the approaching infantry. Our immediate task was to keep our vehicles and other valuable items from the enemy rather than attempt to defend Bullingen.
It was about 7 a.m. Dec. 17 when we sped out of Bullingen. After going about three miles toward Dombutgenbach, we encountered at least two Tiger tanks blocking our way on the Bullingen-Butgenbach highway. The narrow road circled around very hilly terrain with sharp curves, steep inclines, and embankments making a rapid turnaround almost impossible. On the right edge of the highway, matured trees hampered our maneuvers. Turning around was very tricky as most trucks were pulling trailers. The decision to dump all trailers by pushing them down the steep embankment eased our turnaround situation. Of course, I lost all my belongings (and bugle) as they were in my duffel bag and on one of the trailers. We ignored the snow and very cold weather since our column was constantly under fire. The curvature of the hill provided some shelter from parts of the hostile action. All trucks and jeeps made the turnaround and we sped off, this time in the direction of Bullingen.
As we approached Bullingen from the west, our convoy took the same northeasterly Bullingen-Krinkelt highway our trucks used the day before. Not certain what we would find, we stopped at the town of Wirtzfeld. Insane as this may seem, I patrolled a small bridge with but a few rounds of ammunition while the lieutenant sought instructions. When the convoy returned we rejoined my company defending Rath Hill northeast of Krinkelt-Rocherath area. After spending a few hours on the front lines with our engineer company on Dec. 17, our group and its vehicles assembled in an open hillside about 1,500 yards behind the engineers' defensive positions on Elsenborn Ridge. The engineer battalion abandoned Rath Hill and withdrew to its final defensive Elsenborn Ridge position once all elements of the 395th Regimental Combat Team and 2nd Infantry Division was in place to defend the north shoulder of the Bulge on Elsenborn Ridge. The 1st Infantry Division secured the right flank of the 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions and the town of Butgenbach. This placement completed the north shoulder defense line that thwarted the German campaign toward Antwerp.
The Christmas season of 1944 was unique for all of us. The cold and snow only added to the drama. The main assignment consisted of destroying the vehicles rendering them useless to the enemy should that be necessary. The vehicles and equipment were booby-trapped and explosives set except for a few jeeps for our get-away. The division chaplain's jeep was my assignment. The defense lines held. Life slipped into a routine quickly. Constant artillery firing was deafening. The nights were ablaze with flashes from these guns. We felt secure with all this activity. The cold, lack of sleep, frostbite, and army rations brought visions of past Christmases. A warm fire, great feasts, family, and singing in worship were dreams that kept our spirits high.
On Christmas Day I remembered I saved that #10 tin can of "something." After many searches I found the can and we held a ritual opening. To the amazement of all of us, it was a can of peanut butter! A great treat for all of us. It made good covering on the army K-ration biscuits or just eating from the can. A few did not like peanut butter, leaving more for the rest of us. It took awhile for supplies to catch up with our needs. The peanut butter caper paid off handsomely. It lasted to New Year's Day. We all pooled our money and bought spirits from local Belgian farmers. Most of these spirits went to the company on the front line.
The German threat and offensive to Antwerp ended when the U.S. Third Army under General George Patton broke through to Bastogne on Christmas Day. The January 1945, Allied offensive eliminated the Bulge and pressed ahead toward the Rhineland. During this period, the 99th Division remained in the Belgian Ardennes to be re-equipped, rested, and our engineer battalion resumed its normal function of support for its infantry regiments. We spent many more days building log huts and roadds for a rest area. According to our commanding general, Walter E. Lauer, the engineers lost more than 100 officers and men, about 15 percent of its normal strength. In my little group, we all stayed through the Battle of the Bulge, although suffering from frostbite, sleep deprivation, and hunger. At home little was reported about the north shoulder as it was classified a "secret" and not released until long after the battle. Luckily, I won a three-day pass to Paris, France, just before the 99th Infantry Division resumed its drive toward the Rhine River.
Part 5 — Battle of the Bulge in retrospect
Once I understood the enormity of the situation facing us on Dec. 16-17, the youthful, carefree, innocence of a 19-year-old Indiana lad disappeared. My life was forever changed. Rumors often circulated about the actions of other units. They meant little to me until faced with my own possible capture or destruction. Depending on others, if taken lightly, can put you in a bind. How did such a massive force assemble without being detected by the Allies? The intelligence gathering information we sent to higher headquarters was ignored because of their preconceived beliefs and overconfidence. Why would the enemy attack through such difficult terrain? History shows it often is the route of invaders.
The massive German force assembled in an area east of an area called Schnee Eifel. The 99th Infantry Division's 22-mile front and the 106th Infantry Division's 20-mile front faced the west wall in the beautiful Ardennes Forest. The offensive consisted of four German armies of approximately 500,000 men.
The 15th German Army had but three infantry division. The 6th SS Panzer Army had four panzer, one paratroop, and three infantry division. The 5th Panzer Army consisted of four panzer and four infantry division. Lastly, the 7th German Army had three infantry and a paratroop division. The simultaneous drives of the four German armies were launched on Dec. 16: The 15th drove toward Hofen-Monschau, the 99th Division's left flank with the 38th Infantry Division. The 6th SS Panzer Army drove toward Bullingen-Butgenbach, the 99th Division's right flank with the 106th Infantry Division. The 5th SS Panzer Army drove toward Bastogne, the right flank of the 106th Division and the left flank of the 28th Infantry Division. The 7th German Army drove toward Diekirch, Luxembourg, the right flank of the 28th Infantry Division and the left flank of the 4th Infantry Division.
The terrain, a hilly, forested area, was not suitable for tank warfare and the road network was at best insufficient for movement of any large force, especially in winter. The Germans gambled on bad weather and heavy cloud cover. The German effort was thwarted primarily because of the ingenuity of small groups of Americans acting on their own rather than any rigid command structure normal to the German army. The 6th SS Panzer Army maintained a preconceived plan and road assignment. It failed to exploit the exposed flank at Bullingen and Butgenbach until it was too late. German paratroopers dressed in American uniforms caused some trouble principally misdirecting vehicle traffic. Their presence just made us more suspicious and careful. Once the cloud cover disappeared, the sight of thousands of Allied planes in support was awe-inspiring and a determining factor in defeating the German plan. A more flexible option in the 1st SS Panzer Division's plan might have made a difference in the outcome. The tanks headed for Stavelot and Malmedy on a paved road instead of flanking the 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions' positions near Elsenborn.
After spending their last reserves in this aborted offensive, the Germans never were able to recover sufficient forces to defend their homeland in a two-front war. Eliminating the Nazi threat now was much easier and most were able to get back to civilian life by the end of 1945. Losses on both sides were horrific. Losses by the 99th Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge was estimated as replacements were included in the January 1945, count of those present. The original strength of the division was roughly 15,000 officers and men in November 1944. Late January 1945, count was close to 10,000. By far the greater casualties resulted from frostbite and trench foot. The infantry soldier took the hardest beating. German losses were much higher than American losses. The sanity of war always is in question.
The Belgium government twice awarded the 99th Infantry Division and attached units the Order of the Belgium Army with attribution of the Fourrageres 1940. The President of the United States awarded its Presidential Unit Citation to the 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry Regiment. All members of the division received a battle star for the Ardennes campaign.
Part 6 — Rhineland, Crossing the Rhine at Remagen
After being attached to the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 99th Infantry Division remained in the Belgian Ardennes for most of February 1945. Much of the time was spent policing the same positions we held on Dec. 16, 1944. The infantry concentrated on identifying usable equipment and retrieving records lost during the early days of the Bulge. The grimiest task was locating and identifying the dead, including enemy casualties. Company B of the 324th Combat Engineers' tasks were to clear mine fields and open the main roads. I repaired log fortifications or huts used as a rest area. Our return to the same areas such as Bullingen, Butgenbach, Krinkelt, and Rocherath were emotional for me after seeing the near total destruction.
The drive to the Rhine began early March 1. Attached to the 9th Armored Division, the reconstituted 395th Regimental Combat Team resumed their offensive to force the Erft Canal near Bergheim, whose gates stand astride the road to Cologne. Resistance was a rear guard action by the Germans as they intended to get as much of their army on the east bank of the Rhine before blowing all Rhine bridges. With bailey bridges spanning the Erft Canal, it was an easy matter to make our drive toward Cologne. We went so fast it seemed all I did was ride on a truck all day. Most of the time I did not know which direction I was traveling, as some of the trips had to do with going after supplies. Stopping for any length of time, we dug foxholes, which was a breeze! The fertile soil made digging easy but wasteful. We rarely used them since we were moving so fast. The infantry often encountered firefights and were sometimes under artillery and mortar fire. I avoided this handicap. By March 5, Company K of the 393rd Regiment captured Grimmlinghausen on the west bank of the Rhine. This company was the first infantry in the First U.S. Army to reach the river. The infantry screened all the towns we captured (searched for snipers, Nazis, and enemy soldiers). My company was busy with clearing roadblocks, enemy mines, torn roads and bridges. I usually went after supplies or chased them as they moved forward.
On March 8, 1945, the 99th Infantry Division got a priority on the roads and by March 10, the 394th Regimental Combat Team (including my Company B, 324th Combat Engineers) crossed the Ludendorff railroad bridge spanning the Rhine at Remagen. Elements of the 9th Armored Division had captured the bridge intact after a German unsuccessful attempt to destroy it. The railroad bridge, which was not meant for vehicle traffic, had gaping holes, was unsteady, and constantly under fire from any weapons the Germans had to throw at it. Sitting in the back of our supply truck, the going was excruciatingly slow. We were bumper to bumper, running into each other's vehicle as it was pitch black. It was a little like holding hands or steel to steel. A misstep or an enemy missile could have meant we would fall through the giant holes to the river. Enemy artillery or an occasional bomb added to the confusion. At least the drivers could see something in the flash. In retrospect, I could have walked over this span much faster and safer. The artillery flashes added to my discomfort as I could see the fast-moving river through these gaping holes in the twisted structure. A daytime trip might have been too much for my psyche.
The vehicle traffic backed up for miles on the bridge approach. The military police unit directing traffic to the bridge suffered many casualties at "Dead Man's Corner" since the Germans had pinpointed that spot in their attempt to stop the American Army from crossing the Ludendorff railroad bridge. The infantry had to cross so as to clear a bridgehead, in particular, the area around the steep hills that rose abruptly from the narrow east bank on which was crowded a highway and a railway. Once across the Rhine, I finally had a decent night's sleep despite the fact our command (radio) jeep outside my window was blown to bits because of a lucky artillery round. We were located much too close to the continuing bombardment of the Ludendorff Bridge. Normally, I would monitor this radio jeep while others were away. No one was hurt. Our regimental combat team worked southward on the east bank to clear the area between Remagen and Linz. Once the Corps of Engineers finished constructing two pontoon bridges (eastward and westward) across the Rhine River between Remagen and Linz, my truck supply route west of the river meant traveling on these pontoon bridges. The sensation of driving on an undulating road wanting to go downstream added to my anxiety. The enemy fanatically targeted these pontoon bridges until we cleared the nearby hills.
In the town of Remagen, an Army dentist found a fully-equipped dental office. He set up business and searched for patients. Of course, since I had no dental complaints, I was an easy target. The Army dentist found a cavity in two teeth and decided to pull them. Every time I felt the missing teeth with my tongue, I remember the event and can picture the dental office and street scene in Remagen.
The infantry regiments all met and turned back the many German counter-attacks successfully. In this steep, hilly terrain, German and American tank and infantry battles were numerous. This experience was strikingly similar to the terrain and battles of the Belgian Ardennes experienced by the 99th Infantry Division. All of us had to keep our eyes peeled for enemy tricks. The civilian population created "shirt tail alley." The German military ignored the local government as the local townsfolk hung white flags and bed sheets from their windows while the fighting was in progress. All the while the air war continued to knock out the Ludendorff Bridge and our pontoon bridges. General Lauer recalled "that the Germans used 98 planes (including jets), making 57 raids, on our bridges on March 14, 1945. All failed." During all this time, I kept making more supply trips by crossing the Rhine and returning. The enemy tried to blow the Ludendorff Bridge by sending a team of "gamm swimmers," an amphibious demolition team. Pushing floating TNT blocks downstream toward the bridges, they were discovered, machine gunned, and blown away the same day the Ludendorff Bridge collapsed into the river — March 17, 1945.
The First U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division, the first full infantry division to get across the Rhine, "upset the apple cart" of General Montgomery's detailed plan of a Rhine crossing in the north. Even General Patton's Third Army crossing was a lost cause. German soldiers were much more willing to "call it quits," surrendering in major numbers. The enemy was thrown off base since their forces concentrated for expected assaults elsewhere were not available in time to thwart our exploiting the bridgehead prize.
On March 17, the infantry units of the 99th Infantry Division reached the Wied River's high ground while my 394th Regimental Combat Team captured Honningen on the east bank of the Rhine. Our engineer battalion's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Justice R. Neale, waded into the Wied River in many places under fire to find suitable places for a quick crossing of the river. The Wied being breached, the division reached the German Autobahn (Cologne-Frankfort) on March 23, 1945, allowing the 7th Armored Division to exploit this highway prize. Between March 23-29, we moved so fast no one got any rest, much less sleep. Giessen was cleared and occupied and many Allied prisoners were given their freedom as we drove hard toward Giessen. I rarely dismounted from a truck. It seemed like we were going in circles. The road networks never seemed to go "as the crow flies." The release of slave laborers and prisoners merely added to the confusion, especially for local government and refugees crowding the roadways. I lost a pair of boots to one of these poor souls. He needed my shoes worse than I. I had another pair in my duffel bag. Confused refugees did not know that if they stayed in town, food and other immediate needs would be met. The infantry spent a lot of efforts rounding up these strays.
While in one of Giessen's plant offices, we were lucky to try a new Army ration. It came in one large box and was labeled "10-in-1" ration. Most were canned food for 10 men. We set the big table with dishes, silverware, napkins, and assorted trimmings found in this plant office. The specific menu is difficult to remember except for a big can of mixed fruit. Was that a treat! We had little chance to repeat this, as our movements were swift and 10-and-1 rations were hard to find.
Once we were out of the mountainous area, the advances were so fast we had to halt to let support units catch up. The infantry used every mobile method to advance, including bicycles, riding tanks, and piling on trucks. Organized resistance was rapidly becoming an exception. The artillery had days in which they did no firing. I had days in which I only rode a truck. On March 28, our mission changed in that we were to attack due north. We wheeled northward toward Ederstau See to encircle an entire German Army in the Ruhr Valley Pocket.
Part 7 — Ruhr Pocket, Central Europe
The mountainous topography of the Rhine River Valley played a role in the 99th Infantry Division selection at Remagen and for the drive to encircle the German Army in the Ruhr Pocket. Most of this terrain was similar to that found in the Ardennes where the Battle Babies honed their skills of fighting during the last German offensive of World War II. Of course, once we arrived in open rolling planes, the division's assignment was to deliver the coup de grace by driving northwest from Giessen along the Rhine's rugged, beautiful hills, ridges, and valleys. Our drive started April 5, 1945, ending in Iserlohn on the 16th. Again, it was my fate to ride, seemingly in circles, as there were few road networks going in our direction. All types of units, infantry, artillery, tank, and tank destroyers and engineers frequently encountered terrain over which we had to use our winches. Resistance was usually spotty, especially in isolated villages where die-hard SS soldiers made the civilian's life miserable and caused undue destruction to their homes. German prisoners were surrendering in droves, even from such units as the 130th Panzer Lehr Division that led the attack in the Ardennes. We always had to be on the lookout for the German white flag trick — sometimes they were phony.
My 324th Engineer Battalion was fully engaged on real engineering work, maintaining the divisional supply route, its water supply, building bridges, and at the same time destroying the many land mines and Panzer Fausts uncovered. This was part of the reason I seemed to be going in circles as I could recognize the scenery more than once. My driver did not talk much. However, it was just as well since I was better off not knowing. Company B often served together with other companies and often alone. Even separate platoons of the company were acting alone from time to time. During this drive, I often felt alone, since most were off doing their specialty. There was no need for a bugler, just a strong back. For a 150-pound high school kid, I was now weighing in at 168 pounds. The fault was in that fat contained in our Army rations. At least we were eating.
At Iserlohn the enemy resisted stoutly. However futile, Germans surrendered in droves including the commanding officer and staff of the 130th Panzer Lehr Division and three major generals. At Hemer, a German POW camp held 23,000 Allied prisoners, mostly Russians, Poles, and some Americans. This number of staring humanity was hard for us to control. General Lauer said it took an entire infantry battalion to maintain order. On April 16, 1945, forma resistance in the Ruhr Pocket ceased, pending arrangements for a formal German surrender. The German soldiers at Iserlohn were the last to surrender, not convinced the XLVII Panzer Corps and the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division had done so at noon that day. The total count of prisoners in this pocket topped 350,000!
The 99th Infantry Division's "motor march" through central Europe started at Iserlohn, through Schweinfurt, Bamberg, and ended in Furth-Nuremberg area, a 285-mile cross-country trek. A white card with the 99th checkerboard shield and a big black arrow was a familiar sight on the roads of Europe. Having joined the U.S. Third Army on April 18, 1945, the Battle Babies took over a 10-mile wide zone to drive southeast with its destination Salzburg, Austria. You can imagine that the bugler from Company B was tired of riding on his supply truck. However, that continued for the rest of the month. Most of our problems were blown bridges since few remained as we passed over the numerous rivers and canals toward the Danube. The terrain was different, no heavy woods or mountain fighting. Resisitance was principally around natural barriers like the many rivers in our path. Sometimes, it appears the enemy had disappeared until we arrived on the banks of the Danube. On April 26, a treadway bridge over the Altmuhl River was completed and used for heavy equipment. The infantry sailed in style using assault boats, rafts, and ferries (we had help from the 291st Engineer Battalion).
These river crossings gave all our engineers severe problems. As darkness hampered the work, we even resorted to using lights at night, the first time since arriving in the European Theater of Operations! The enemy usually knew where we were anyway. It apparently paid off since there were no casualties.
The "beautiful Blue Danube" was all hype! When I crossed, it was a muddy, dirty, yellow-colored, fast-flowing, smelly river. What "civilization" can do to a great poet and musician's imagination. At least our pontoon bridges kept me from getting any of this Bavarian sewer on my clothes. Some of our engineers had to wade into this mess. As our final drive through Europe was nearly over, we overran another German POW camp at Moosburg. Of those freed, we found many of our own 99th Infantry Division men and officers who had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Their tales of these freed men were not pleasant. Stories of their treatment and suffering during the last four months of the war in Europe brought tears to veteran Battle Babies. Landshut was the last major city to fall to the 99th. The division crossed the Isar River on May 1, before an order to "halt in place" came on May 2, 1945. Everyone uncovered their vehicle headlights and celebrated.
Our next task was the occupation and dealing with uncertainty. Since Japanese soldiers seemed to want to "die for the emperor," there always was a threat of being transferred to the Far East. Thankfully, as Washington decided on demobilization for most of us, we settled in policing our occupation area initially around Wurzburg. Our company stayed in Kitzengen. There was no need for a bugler. I spent a lot of time guarding SS prisoners clearing minefields and road debris, not to mention taking turns at kitchen police, guard duty, and going after supplies. The division's final "formal pass in review" at the Wurzburg airport on June 30, 1945, capped off its contribution during World War II.
The demobilization scheme centered on a "point system" initially requiring 86 points. Since my ASR was only 46, they transferred me to Company B, 1st Engineer Combat Battalion of the 1st infantry Division (as the bugler, of course). Conversely, the men with a high ASR score were transferred to the 99th Infantry Division. The 99th Infantry Division sailed for the U.S. in early September and was deactivated after discharging its members. It was hard saying goodbye to the men I grew to know since joining them in Texas a year earlier. My headquarters and service platoon casualties were light in comparison to other engineering units during my 184 days in combat. I was eternally thankful for this safe passage.
Company B, 1st Engineer Combat Battalion was billeted at a German ammunition dump about three miles outside Ansbach. It was labeled "Luftmunitionplaz or Markt Bergel," I am not sure which. However, the barracks-like facilities and barbed wire enclosure made it look like an Army installation. There were numerous underground bunkers with stored and unused munitions. It was ideal for a bugler's paradise. My plastic bugle came in handy as each small barracks were scattered with no heat or decent facilities for bathing or recreation. We had to create that. This was how I started my service with them. During the daylight hours, I would be guarding SS prisoners removing land mines from the many fields scattered in our occupation area. Once, an entire underground bunker blew up, breaking all the windows in the camp.
As more transfers occurred for demobilization, I moved into the record keeping function at company headquarters. I also was called upon to assist the division's Inspector General in straightening records for the 16th, 18th, and 26th Infantry Regiments. This allowed me to travel to various cities of the division. I learned how to calculate and use a mechanical calculator for "pay of the Army" for many units. Ultimately, I was transferred to our engineer battalion headquarters as a personnel sergeant. The movement of men in and out of the division often was a daunting task of record keeping. My days as a bugler were over.
While with the 1st Division, I had the opportunity to participate in the changes to the jailhouse adjacent to the War Crimes Tribunal Courthouse in Nuremberg. Although I saw no prisoners, all the accused Nazis were present while our unit was making these changes. We built a covered walkway to keep outside eyes from watching the movement from the jailhouse to the courtroom. We installed chicken wire to prevent any prisoner from jumping to his death from upper tiers. It was a defining moment for me.
In March 1946, we moved to Regensburg where the facilities were first class. The steam-heated buildings and great showering facilities made Army life bearable. On April 4, 1946, I was transferred to the 778th Anti-Aircraft Battalion for transport and discharge. I got the personnel sergeant's task, a small price to pay for liberty. We boarded the Fayetteville Victory at LeHavre, France, on April 21, and arrived in New York City on April 27. I was sent home to Gary on a bus on May 6, 1946.
Part 8 — Epilogue
After two years, two months, and two days as a member of the Army of the United States, the naïve urban Indiana boy from Gary rejoined his family a different man. Enrolling at Indiana University for its September 1946, term and pursuing a career in accounting, I graduated in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in accounting. Three summer terms helped make up for lost time. Promptly, I passed and qualified as a certified public accountant. My interests were in public accounting, particularly in the city of Chicago where I lived and found my life mate, Fern.
Traveling from client to client, city to city, is a sacrifice of home life. Over the years I joined private companies, doing the financial and accounting work. I retired in 1993. The several ventures included finance, food service, waste management, and franchising of home services. Today, I still cannot type or be much of a handyman. I was destined to be desk-bound. Perhaps that is why I rode all over Europe in the back of a truck!
As I write this brief summary of my World War II experiences, the U.S. reels in shock by a Sept. 11, 2001, assault on New York City. Similarly, my generation reeled in shock of the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. The irony does not escape the young of today that freedom is never free. Freedom is a work in progress. American cemeteries of Europe remind us that we owe a great debt to those who gave their lives so we can live in peace. Some of our pursuits are mindless and trivial. Others are not moral or have no apparent redeeming value. Significant advances and discoveries appear when people's freedoms do not infringe on others. The freedoms of religion, speech, of the written press, and of the right to assemble to express our grievances are possible in the democracy we now enjoy.
Lessons learned from my service in our Armed Forces center around the need for a team effort, the setting of goals, and the recognition that every member has a contribution regardless of his religion, ethnicity, skills, or learning. I experienced segregation at home and in the Army. However, our fighting 99th Infantry Division did have a full infantry battalion of black soldiers for which I am proud to honor as comrades in arms. None of us would have made it unless effectively supplied. Most of our black soldiers in Europe performed supply functions, to their dismay. It sounds like what I was doing so many times.
Another lesson was to be vigilant for deceptive practices or misleading information. The German Army was master at exploiting our presumed weak points. The way we treat people differs from pawns or tools in a struggle for domination. White flags or dead silence cause eerie moments of anxiety. The average GI Joe is cleverly efficient working in small, unsupervised teams without rigid command structure though most teams lack all the skills they need. Enemy deceptions usually fail.
Moving into the business world was not that much different. These lessons carry over, for me at least, the way we treat co-workers and customers. Wealth or position, fame and fortune are not the objective. All one's "stuff" becomes useless by events not under our control, such as when tragedy overtakes our lives. The pursuit of happiness is the means, not the objective, while seeking valued contributions.
History shows that all civilizations have followed this timetable: "The people go from change to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency to bondage." The fight for freedom must assure a sound fiscal policy. The German Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union are excellent examples to show that loose fiscal policies can result in their demise. Freedom is costly. We sometimes miss seeing it until someone has to shed his or her blood to defend it.