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Experiences of an infantry squad

Battle of the Bulge

Experiences of an infantry squad

     "Of all the soldiers sent overseas during World War II, seven percent were combat infantrymen. Of all the casualties that occurred by the soldiers sent overseas during World War II, 70 percent were combat infantrymen.

     "The rifleman fights without promise of either reward or relief. Behind every river there's another hill — and behind that hill another river. After weeks or months in the line, only a wound can offer him the comfort of safety, shelter, and a bed.

     "Those who are left to fight, fight on, evading death, but knowing that with each day of evasion they have exhausted one more chance for survival. Sooner or later, unless victory comes, this chase must end on the litter or the grave."

General Omar Bradley

Commander 12th Arm. Group

European Theater of Operations

     As you read this account you must remember it is the story of one squad, 12 men, during the Battle of the bulge which took pace during the winter of 1944-45. The north shoulder (Elsenborn Ridge), according to Winston Churchill and other noted World War II historians, was the decisive area of the battle, and not Bastogne as everyone thinks of when talking about the Battle of the Bulge. If the north shoulder had not held, the German Army would have captured Liege, Belgium, and possibly Antwerp, thereby cutting off the American 1st and 9th Armies and the British 21st Army group and prolonging the war a considerable time.

     In order to get an idea of the intensity of the fighting in this area, there were six Congressional Medals of Honor awarded between Dec. 16-19, along with untold numbers of slightly lesser medals for valor.

     The 6th SS Panzer Army with five divisions attacking hit five battalions of the 99th Infantry Division early on the morning of Dec. 16 — about 40,000 men against 4,000. The 6th SS Panzer Army could not meet their goals of breaking through to capture Elsenborn Ridge and after four or five days of trying were pulled out and moved south to aid the 5th Panzer Army, who had broken through.

     In combat a rifleman knows only what is happening inhis immediate area and what goes on as close as 50 feet away he probably won't see or even care. The squad comes first, then the platoon and company.

     I was a member of the 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon, Company I, 394th Inf. Regt., 99th Infantry Division. I joined the division March 7, 1944, from an Army Specialized Training Progam unit at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville AR. We were at Camp Maxey TX, just north of Paris TX. There were 3,200 men from other ASTP units who joined the 99th Division at this time.

     Although all of us had at one time or another had our basic training in the Army we were again put through an intensie basic training to learn to do what an infantry division is supposed to do — make casualties of all enemy soldiers we come up against.

     The division left Camp Maxey at the end of August 1944, bound for Camp Miles Standish at Taunton MA, which was a pre-embarkation center for soldiers going to Europe and leaving from Boston MA.

     We boarded ship Sept. 29, 1944, in Boston Harbor. This ship was a liberty ship named "The Explorer." My company was assigned to be the guard company on the trip to England. We sailed in convoy across the north Atlantic and landed at Gourock, Scotland, 13 days after leaving Boston. We did have a submarine scare on the trip across but it was otherwise uneventful.

     At Gourock we boarded a train that took us through Glasgow and Edinburg south across England to Beaminster in southwest England. We stayed here about a week and moved to an area between Yoevil and Sherburne, still in southwest England. Hiking and such was about all the training we did here.

     Around the first of November 1944, we trucked to Southampton to board ships for the English Channel crossing to France. We landed at LeHarve (had to board landing barges to go ashore because the docks had been blown up by the Germans and large ships couldn't get that close to shore).

     We hiked through LeHarve that evening and boarded trucks for the ride across France and Belgium to an area around Aubel, Belgium. I belive our company bivouacked in an apple orchard at Wirtzfeld, Belgium, and lived in pup tents. The weather was et and cold and snowed while we were here.

     On Nov. 10 or 11 I Company hiked about seven kilometers to an area just north and east of Losheimergraben, Belgium, and relieved a company of the 60th Infantry, 9th Division. My squad and maybe the 1st Platoon was escorted across a valley and up the next hill to an outpost line. We were at this time inside Germany, the border was along a highway we called the International Highway, and we were probably a mile or so east of the highway. This was the beginning of a 91-day stay at the front.

     On the outpost line we had a line of foxholes (two-man holes) stretched for 250-300 yards and about 10 yards apart. We had one telephone line that connected us with the company behind us.

     The 99th Division line stretched for 22 miles from Hofen south to Lanzerath, mainly through dense forest. We covered an area about four or five times larger than a division should cover. There were very few roads or trails for re-supply and no one was close to another hole. There were large gaps between companies, battalions, and regiments.

     It was wet and cold and snowed some on the outpost line. This was a quiet sector of the front — we had no hard fighting but did a lot of patrolling. We lost some men to pneumonia and trenchfoot. We stayed here about a week and were relieved by 3rd Platoon.

     Bob Katy of 3rd Platoon killed the first German for our company while they were on outpost.

     Just prior to Thanksgiving, Lt. Comfort, our platoon leader took us out on a patrol to the front of the outpost line. We were to see if the Germans were still there. They were — and quite active. We lost one man when he stepped on a land mine. The day after this patrol John Fischer of 3rd Squad left to return to the states to attend West Point.

     Thanksgiving Day we received turkey and all the trimmings. It was cold, but still better than the C and K-rations we lived on. As I stated previously, there were few roads and trails in the area and it was difficult to get to us so we didn't get very many hot meals. Hot coffee was brought after dark quite often.

     While our living conditions were very primitive, we did have fairly well-covered and deep holes, no hard fighting, just frequent patrols, so we really weren't so bad off for being on the front lines.

     We were relieved around the first of December and moved to an area south of Losheimergraben on the very south flank of the division line. To our front, approximately 100 yards, was a blown bridge over a railroad cut. This road was the highway between Losheimergraben and Lanzerath, Belgium. A muddy trail on our left led back to Buchholz Station, which was our battalion headquarters. I received word that my oldest daughter had been born while we were in this place.

     We again had no hard fighting, but did frequent patrolling to contact the unit on our right at a distance of several miles. I did say we were spread pretty thin. We could see the town of Losheim to our front but were still in dense forest. This was the famed Losheim Gap through which Germany had invaded France and Belgium three times in the past — 1870, 1914, and 1940.

     We spent about a week in these positions and were then relieved by another company of our battalion. We moved back to Buchholz Station where we helped build cabins to live in. We thought we were in seventh heaven, hot food, warm fires, cabins, no patrolling, all the comforts the Ardennes could provide.

     We were supposedly in regimental and division reserve but being so thinly spread there was no one in front of us except Germans — we were guarding the south flank of the division.

     Don Heller (a member of 3rd Squad) burned his hand quite severely while tending the fire in one of the cabins and had to be evacuated to the hospital.

     Our good life came to an end Dec. 15, 1944. The 2nd Division and a combat team of our division were attacking through our center toward the Roer Dams. We were sent north and east of Krinkelt-Rochrath to be in support of this attack. We bivouacked in holes about three miles northeast of these towns.

     Early morning on Dec. 16 we received a very heavy artillery barrage but were again well dug-in and didn't suffer a great deal of damage — half a dozen wounded is all. That afternoon we were told to prepare to move to the front. Third Battalion., 393 Regiment had taken large losses of men and were being surrounded so we were supposed to take some of the pressure off them and retake some of the lost positions.

     We started over a forest trail before dark. Darkness arrived before we had gone very far. It was an eerie feeling walking up that trail because we had no idea what was going on or what we were supposed to do. After dark, in dense forest, we reached the 393rd Bn. Headquarters without much trouble. We could hear the Germans and could not figure why we had been allowed to get there without fighting. We found out why early the next morning.

     Dec. 17 the company started an attack to try and retake K Company 393rd positions that were lost the day before. We hadn't gone far when we bumped into the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitlerjugend) who were attacking to try to take Elsenborn and trap us. With the number of Germans and the tanks we could see we knew we were in a bad situation so broke off the attack and returned to the 393rd Headquarters position. Kmack was killed and Sgt. Rivers was wounded at this time.

     Sometime before noon a 393rd sergeant ordered a skirmish line to go up the hill and try again to stem the German tide. A Company I BAR man (I can't place a name to him) said to me, "Let's go too." So we did. I guess we knew we were surrounded and wanted to take another crack at the Germans before it was too late. We again couldn't do much good in stopping the Germans so again moved down the hill to the rest of the company. It was at this time that we learned we were to try and fight our way to the west.

     Later that afternoon, after passing through all kinds of artillery fire, mortar fire, tank fire, and small arms fire we passed through a company of the 2nd Division who had been placed in a blocking position across the trail behind us.

     Capt. Charles MacDonald was commander of this company and he states in both books, A Time for Trumpets and Company Commander that about 200 men passed through his company — the remnants of a battalion plus Company I. We had been 1,000 men the morning of the day before. We were very thankful that this company had been placed here because we knew that if they hadn't been there we probably wouldn't have gotten away to fight again.

     We spent the night of Dec. 17-18 on the reverse slope of a hill, dug slit trenches to just get below ground level. We did no fighting this night but could see to our left a hard fire fight going on. Tracer bullets, shells exploding, buildings burning. The noise alone was bad enough and on top of the terror and exhaustion we didn't have a very comfortable night.

     Dec. 18 we dug-in on the crest of a hill above a deep draw running east and west. We again were in a blocking position, hopefully to again stop the Germans. We had no idea the Germans had mounted a big offensive over a 60-mile wide area. We thought this was just a spoiler attack to try to stop our Roer Dam attacks. We were again pushed out of our positions and began moving in a northerly direction. We were moving along a hedgerow and were passing an abandoned halftrack when one of our P-47 planes came down on us and strafed.

     I got down under the halftrack, pack and all, but after the plane had passed I couldn't get out. Wayne Cleveland had to dig me out. Isn't it wonderful what you can do under stressful conditions?

     Snow was about knee deep on the hills and much deeper in the draws. I had on a pair of four-buckle overshoes and three or fair pairs of socks in order to keep my feet warm and dry. The overshoes were too small to fit over my shoes and I could not keep feet in condition with just the shoes.

     We finally met with G Company 395th Infantry on a trail north of Krinkelt and I had a chance to talk with a man who had stayed in the house that my wife and I had stayed in in Paris TX. Bradley was the name of the people owning this house. We received K-rations and directions to Elsenborn Ridge from them. We proceeded west and then south around Krinkelt and Rocherath and dug-in along a road from Wirtzfeld to Elsenborn. We had arrived on Elsenborn Ridge. This was destined to be the north shoulder of the Bulge battle.

     Behind our line about 50 yards was a steep wooded knoll with a water tower on top and behind this knoll was an anti-tank gun situated to fire down the road toward a bend. We expected the tank attacks most anytime as the 12th SS Panzer Division was trying to capture Elsenborn and its road network. We were under constant fire (artillery, mortar, screaming meemie rockets, and sniper fire) for the short time we were here. One man caught the pin of a grenade that was hanging on his jacket on a barb wire fence. The grenade exploded killing the man. We had several direct hits on holes by the artillery fire.

     F Company 393rd relieved us here and we moved back toward Elsenborn and next night moved to the extreme north flank of the division and rejoined our regiment.

     We in the 3rd Squad of 1st Platoon were located on the forward slope of the ridge, just under the crest. This was an open hill with nothing but small bushes dotting the hillside. My foxhole was the fifth hole from the extreme north end of the 394th Regiment line. The 9th Division was supposed to be on our left but we never saw them. As far as I know we never tried to contact them. The 395th 1st Bn. was behind us and I suppose it was left up to them to maintain contact.

     While we were situated on this open hillside the Germans were across the valley in the woods. We could not see them but anytime we moved it brought down some kind of fire.

     We weren't sure yet what was going on but knew that no matter what we weren't to move to the west again. This wasn't a reassuring thought. We received several replacements at this time to bring up our strength.

     Our assistant squad leader had experienced several close calls in the past few days (bandoleer shot off, holes suddenly appearing in clothes, etc.) and at this time went a little crazy. Every time he heard a shot or an artillery shell explode he would burst out crying and would not leave his hole for any reason. Combat fatigue it was called, nerves were shot. Wayne Cleveland took his place as assistant squad leader. Wayne had been the BAR man of the squad and when he was promoted the BAR was moved to my hole with my foxhole buddy becoming the BAR man. His name was Bill Woods.

     We had some attacks by the Germans still trying to break through and capture Elsenborn. None succeeded. Most of these attacks were broken up by our artillery fire. The artillery (wonderful artillery) saved our necks several times while we were on the ridge.

     Our squad leader had some personal problems at this time and Wayne Cleveland took over his job. I became assistant squad leader at this time. This was around Jan. 1, 1945.

     Down the slope 150-200 yards toward the woods where the German line was located, there was an old underground bunker. You went down 10 or 12 steps and through a steel door to enter a small 6x8-foot room. Lt. Comfort decided this would make a good outpost so I, being one of three assistant squad leaders of 1st Platoon, had the dubious honor or privilege of taking two men out there for 12 of every 36 hours.

     On down the slope about 50 yards was a small clump of trees with a German outpost at the southern tip. We could hear them and I suppose they could hear us. This shows on an aerial photo of our company lines on Christmas Day 1944. We could not see them but they could see us very well. We could not go too far from the outpost during daylight hours because any movement during daylight brought down some kind of fire. We tried several times to capture prisoners-of-war from the German outpost but as they could see us coming, they left before we got there.

     We had no hard fighting after New Year's Day but constant patrolling and lots of incoming artillery fire and sniper fire. Both sides patrolled heavily and men were lost on both sides. It was very cold and snow was waist deep in places and being constantly in sight of the Germans led to some uncomfortable times during January 1945.

     On the night of Jan. 14-15, I had two men at the outpost and was on watch early in the morning, standing on the stairs just high enough so I could see toward the woods without exposing myself too much. At this time I saw a large number of men coming from my left rear — the direction of my squad's foxholes — toward the outpost. I had no knowledge of any patrol activity of ours so assumed it could be a German patrol although there had been no firing. I challenged them and someone replied to the effect that they were a patrol of L Company going out to get themselves killed. I answered that someone was going to be killed sooner than they expected if one of them didn't come over and identify themselves.

     Lt. Comfort came over to me and talked for a minute and settled me down. He said he didn't want much noise made so the Germans wouldn't know they were coming. I pointed out the German outpost that he knew was there and that the Germans already knew they were on the way. This patrol (a reinforced platoon of L Company with I Company's light machine gun section attached) of 60 men went on out through the small section of woods about 50 yards to my front and on up into the main wooded area where the German main line of defense was.

     They got into a hard firefight and very few men returned to our lines — 15 or 16 and most of them wounded. The I Company light machine gun section was lost. The rest were killed or captured.

     John Haisler, during the afternoon of the 15th, as men of this patrol were attempting to return to our lines, saw one of our men hit and fall. Haisler, along with the 1st Platoon medic, took off to bring him back. As Haisler bent over to pick the man up, a bullet hit the back of his helmet, went up between helmet and liner, and came out the front. The helmet flew about 20 feet back up the hill and John, with the wounded man, picked it up, put it on, and came back to the line of holes. He didn't realize what had happened until he had gotten back, turned the wounded man over to the medics, then looked at the helmet. He turned deathly white and sat in the snow when he realized how close death had come to him.

     We received several replacements about this time, one 42 years old and one 18 who didn't know how to load his rifle. Elsenborn Ridge was not a good place for this type of person. The new men really didn't know what sort of outfit they were joining.

     On the front lines, cooking our food, or just heating it was not an easy job. We would get an empty C-ration can, cut a slot on each side, fill it about half full of dirt, pour gasoline over the dirt, and light it. This was our stove for cooking and heat. Gasoline burns with a lot of greasy soot so all of us who had been around for awhile were covered with soot. Our faces, hands, and clothing were black and the replacements thought they were getting into a colored outfit.

     Gasoline was hard to find for us on the line so anyone driving a jeep near our lines would either carry their extra five gallons of gas with them or return to find it missing. None of us who had come onto the front in November had received a change of clothing or had a bath so we were not only black, but I don't imagine we smelled too good either.

     We received new men fairly often because of wounds, deaths, trenchfoot, or illness. The older fellows didn't really get to know the new men because most of the time they weren't around very long. After being in combat awhile, especially a good firefight, you either learned what to do or you were gone. The new men didn't know about combat conditions and Elsenborn Ridge at this time was not the ideal place to gain experience. We really didn't want to get to know the new men because they usually were gone so fast.

     The company sat on this open ridge throughout the month of January 1945. It was bitterly cold and there was lots of snow. It was the worst winter in many years in this area. We lived in holes in the ground with nothing to worry about except patrol activity — German and us, sniper fire every time we stuck our heads above ground, and if not snipers then artillery fire.

     About the first of February we moved into attack to finish flattening out the bulge. We had some casualties from mines and booby traps but no firefights, as the Germans had moved back into the Siegfried Line. We were pinched out in our attack by the 2nd and 9th Divisions who were attacking across our front. We moved back to our old positions on Elsenborn Ridge where we gathered up the dead from the Jan. 15 patrol. It was at this time we learned that Bob Ellis and Lt. Comfort had been killed.

     The next day we moved back to the village of Elsenborn and received replacements and a new lieutenant for our platoon. I don't remember his name because he wasn't around very long.

     We stayed in Elsenborn one day and moved up north and east of Losheim to relieve the 327th Glider Regiment of 82nd Airborne Division. Again, we were in dense forest and right in the middle of the Siegfried Line within shouting distance of the Germans (3rd Parachute Division). A lot of new growth of pine, six to eight feet high, was between us and the German line. When we walked into this area we carried three days' rations (K-rations) with us. We were there 11 days with steep hills, deep snow, no roads, and everything carried in by hand. We had trouble getting supplies and we did get hungry at times.

     One evening before dark, Wayne Cleveland, one other man, and myself went on a patrol to our left where we hoped G Company, 2nd Battalion was located. We found them but their supply situation was about the same as ours. As we returned to our area we heard quite a bit of shouting but no rifle fire. We rushed back to see what was wrong. My foxhole buddy was making all the noise and I asked him what was up. He said he had seen Germans to our front. I asked why he hadn't shot them instead of yelling and he replied, "I didn't think of that." Combat does funny things to people at times.

     We were relieved by the 424th Regiment of the 106th Division and moved back to Buchholz Station thereby ending our part of the Battle of the Bulge. We had been on the front, except for a few hours on Dec. 15, for a total of 91 days.

     Although combat is a very harrowing and unpleasant experience full of terror and exhaustion, some amusing things happen amid the bad. I guess the funny things are what helped us to retain our sanity through the bad times. Some of the funny things that I remember are:

     Elsenborn Ridge, Dec. 19 or 20: When the company finally got back to the ridge we were told to make our holes good and deep as we were not to move back again no matter what happened. Although we were exhausted most of us complied with the order except two (Jablonski and his foxhole buddy). They got down about knee deep and decided they were OK and laid down to rest while the rest of us dug. By dark we were in good shape, a man can dig pretty fast under certain conditions, and the Germans started shelling us. They shelled us intermittently all night and every time the shells started falling these two started digging. They had a pretty good hole by morning — not much sleep but a good hole.

     Another incident concerned these same two men. We were in our positions on the north flank of the division. Their hole was to my front and five or six yards to my left. Our holes were open across the front for firing purposes and some had a small opening to the rear to climb in and out.

     One sunny day (one of the few) we were out talking when the Germans spotted us and started shelling. I rolled through the opening of my hole to safety but these two jumped for the small opening at the back of their hole — as they hit the opening at the same time they got stuck and stayed there arguing all through the barrage wanting the other to get out and let the other in. These clowns did not receive a scratch during the war.

     A third incident concerned a German soldier. One morning before light (the snow was three or four feet deep) we heard a voice calling, "I give up. I give up," repeating it every couple of minutes. We didn't do anything but stay alert because the Germans were very good at playing dirty games. We finally spied a single German soldier coming toward our lines through the snow and doing the hollering. Someone fired at him. He appeared to be alone but we couldn't be sure yet. After he had been fired at he stopped and laughed crazily and yelled, "You missed me!" then came on again. This same thing happened three or four times until it got light enough and we brought him in. He was about 14 years old and so drunk he couldn't have stood up if it hadn't been for the snow. We talked about this for days.

     We had some bad experiences later in the war, crossing the Remagen Bridge the night of March 10-11, 1945, and crossing the Danube late in April. But I believe the period Dec. 16, 1944 to Feb. 11, 1945, was about as bad a time as anyone need experience.

Jim Langford

1700 Westwood

Springdale AR 72762