Christmas 1944 years ago
It is Christmas Eve. Just eight days earlier the Germans had unleashed the greatest counteroffensive of World War II, now known as the Battle of the Bulge. My unit, D Company, 1st Battalion, 395th Infantry Regiment, was part of the 395th Regimental Combat Team that had on Dec. 13, begun an offensive of our own — a drive through the Siegfried Line to secure the Ruhr Dams.
It was bitterly cold and everything was covered with a heavy blanket of snow. We had advanced several miles encountering moderate resistance from the fortified positions, never imagining that all hell was about to break loose.
We were a heavy weapons company and our squad was heavy machine gun, attached to A Company. Our mission was to fire cover for the riflemen advancing against the Kraut pillboxes.
Then that awful artillery barrage began early on the morning of Dec. 16, and all we could do was dig in and cover up the best we could.
When the order came to pull out it was a kind of shoot and run situation, for we were ordered to throw our .30-caliber machine gun onto a weapons carrier which promptly left, leaving all of us with only our sidearms — in my case a carbine rifle.
Let the truth be known, we were literally running for our lives, for as we underlings later found out, we had been cut off from the rest of our division and were partially surrounded. We were definitely in a forced march situation, in a run-and-shoot defense (not at all like a run-and-shoot offense in football), you know what I mean. However, we were successful in getting out and back to the relative safety of Elsenborn Ridge.
We were still undergoing the most fearsome artillery fire of the war and suffering numerous casualties from it. While we had by now, Dec. 24, prepared our gun position we still did not have our machine gun back in place — it would be another day before we would have it.
So, Lt. White authorized our squad to go into the town of Elsenborn to attend a Christmas Eve service and to spend the night in whatever shelter we could find. We gathered up our "fart sacks" and off we trudged through the heavy snow. Things had quieted down a little in our area except for the artillery fire and occasional strafing by ME-109s.
We got into Elsenborn a little before dark and located an abandoned house (the whole town had been evacuated for some time) that was still structurally sound. It was a combination storefront with kitchen and living area behind downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. All of the food items in the store area had been stripped before we arrived except for a barrel of rotten apples that could not be eaten, but gave off a mouth-watering aroma that made all of us, who had not eaten in about four days, even hungrier. A quick search of the area turned up no food, but there was a cow in the back shed and a rooster that was half-starved itself.
It was growing dark and the chaplain had summoned us to his quarters for the Christmas Eve service. It was a partially destroyed house that he had rigged an army blanket over the door as a blackout curtain and inside he had arranged a table at one end of the room for an altar and covered it with a white cloth of some kind. On it was one lone candle providing the only light in the room. There was no other furniture in the room, so everyone, about eight or 10 of us, just stood with our rifles slung over our shoulders and our helmets in our hands. Dirty, unshaven soldiers with heads bowed, solemnly waiting for any words of assurance that might be forthcoming.
Our regular chaplain had been killed on Dec. 14 by German artillery, so tonight our chaplain was a stranger to me and a Catholic. I am and have always been a Methodist, but at this time and place it mattered not what denomination we were. We were all Christians looking for the hand of God to guide us through this terrible ordeal. The service itself was brief for we were constantly interrupted by shells landing on the village. And so with God's blessing, we went back to our storehouse for the night.
Hunger was our first priority. We went out back to the cow shed to try to milk the cow, but she had not been milked in days and her udder was swollen and hard. An attempt at milking her produced nothing but a thick puss-like substance that made us all sick just to look at it.
The only option then was either to kill the cow and butcher it for meat, or the rooster. Time and lack of knowledge on how to butcher a cow made that option impractical — so look out rooster.
We found an old enamel chamber pot and cleaned it out as best we could and packed it full of snow. We built a big fire in the old cast iron stove in the kitchen area and began to melt snow for hot water. It was an easy job to catch the rooster as we enticed him to us with bits of rotten apple peel. The poor thing probably had not eaten for as long as we had. Anyway, one of the guys wrung the rooster's neck, plucked the feathers off, and cleaned him out as best he knew how. At that point in time, it was good enough.
The fire was good and hot and the water was boiling so into the pot he went. All of us were beginning to salivate, anticipating eating boiled chicken. All of a sudden we heard an airplane coming and just as swiftly, heavy machine gun fire began to hit our building.
It was bedlam — everybody jumping and diving for cover under or behind anything we could find. And then, total silence. We waited a few minutes and began to stir around again when here it comes again from the other direction, slamming those shells into our house, making us scramble for cover again. This time we waited a little longer, calling out to each other to see if anyone was hit. This time our airborne assailant was gone, but so was our supper.
While we were ducking and diving, all the water had boiled out of the pot and our rooster was burned black. It was totally ruined — no food tonight.
Meanwhile, someone had gone outside to relieve himself and came running back in shouting, "Hey, come look at this." We all ran outside and to our surprise, discovered why we were the target for the strafing attack. Sparks were flying out of the chimney at least 10 feet high, creating a beacon that could probably be seen for miles. Needless to say, we immediately doused the fire and killed any chance of a war mnight, much less a warm meal. The only thing to do then was to find a place to put out our bedrolls and get what rest we could.
I decided to go upstairs to sleep as did one other guy, whose name I didn't know or have long forgotten. I laid my sack out in one bedroom next to the chimney which still had some warmth in it from our fire downstairs. I was so hungry I couldn't sleep. I decided to poke around some more, so with my Zippo lighter for a lamp I discovered a narrow door that opened into a long narrow closet that was only wide enough for shelves down one side.
There were all kinds of old empty jars and bottles and rags, and then I spotted one jar that looked familiar. It was a quart-size mason-type jar — one of those with a glass top and the wire clip that folds over to hold the top on with a rubber gasket in between. I couldn't believe my eyes as I held my lighter closer I could see inside four big plump chicken drumsticks that had been baked and seasoned with pepper and preserved for the future.
I must have hollered or whooped or something because the other guy upstairs came charging into the room saying, "What's the matter?"
When I showed him the jar his eyes grew as big as mine. He said, "This has got to be a booby trap. The Krauts have occupied this village and they probably poisoned this jar of chicken."
By this time the other four guys from downstairs had heard the commotion and were standing around in disbelief. Some thought it might be poisoned and some did not. I said, "I don't know how much you guys know about preserving food, but if this jar fizzes when I pull the rubber ring out, I'm gonna eat this chicken."
They were saying, "Go ahead. Pull it. Pull it." So as all eyes were focused on this jar of chicken, I slowly pulled the rubber ring and heard the sweetest sound you could imagine. Psshh. It was well past midnight and it was now Christmas Day. Six guys divided up four delicious drumsticks and savored the greatest Christmas gift of all.
At daybreak, after about four hours of uninterrupted sleep, we rolled our sacks and headed back to the front line to resume our duties and the hardships that were yet to come. I don't remember anyone saying, "Merry Christmas," for it was anything but merry. We were given a box of K-rations for our only other food that day because the kitchen crews could not or would not come to where we were. I'm sure some GIs got fed that day, but we were not among them.
Our machine gun and ammo arrived and we immediately set up in a defensive position to ward off any further German assault. There was no direct frontal attack but the German artillery continued relentlessly and some strafing by ME-109s, all of which kept us pretty much confined to our foxhole positions.
The weather had cleared enough that planes could fly and while it allowed the Krauts a chance to attack us from the air, it also allowed our own Air Force to fly. When finally we saw our own bombers soaring across the sky, we were cheered that big help was on the way. We watched in wonder as a large formation went over and was drawing heavy anti-aircraft fire. One bomber was hit and began to fall, turning slowly and pitching into a dive.
We waited anxiously to see any parachutes, but none ever were seen. It was a lousy Christmas for that crew. The rest of the bomber formation did not waver, it continued on its course just as before and another plane moved up into the vacant spot left by the stricken bomber. We had to admire their grit to hold fast under such heavy fire. All I could think about was the possibility that the bomber could have carried one of my brothers who was a crew chief and waist gunner on a B-25 with the 8th Air Force based in England.
It was Christmas Day, 1944. The only presents we received were artillery shells from unseen German guns. The shelling seemed to increase as the days went on until the fiercest barrage of all came to our positions on Dec. 28. This was the day my present arrived in the form of an artillery shell blast that rendered me unconscious and fractured my spine — an injury that I bear the consequences of to this day. An injury that put me out of the war and into Army hospitals for the next eight months after which I was medically discharged with disability. If this sounds like complaining, let me assure you that it is not. I consider myself very lucky compared to so many who gave it all and gave it willingly for our country. God bless America.
R.H. Luke Brannon D/395
500 Garden Arbor Lane
Lexington SC 29072
Editor's Note: If anyone remembers any of these events, contact Brannon at the above address or call (803) 996-9271.