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J.R. McIlroy shares his story

McIlroy shares his story

McIlroy shares his story

     As a member of the 99th Infantry Division I saw continuous action during the period of December 1944-January 1945, all from the vantage point of the front line. This means from personal experience I can tell you only what I could see or hear from a close range.

     I was an enlisted man - second squad, 4th Platoon, F Company, 393rd Regiment, 99th Infantry Division. I was assigned to the 99th Division in March 1944, along with 3,200 others from the Army ASTP program. Most of this ASTP group had basic training in the summer of 1943; after passing tests they were sent back to college. In February 1944, this program was terminated and a large percent of us were placed in rifle platoons - most of the time eight to each 12-man squad. This meant that during the Bulge a big part of the fighting was done by boys 18 to 20 years old.

     After joining the 99th we were given combat training from March until we moved on Sept. 10, to Camp Miles Standish. After a few days there we boarded a very crowded ship, SS Argentina. The bunks were narrow and only two poor meals were served each day. You had to stand in line for hours so we skipped several meals and made out on candy bars.

     We arrived in Southampton on Oct. 10 and took a train to Dorchester. Our home for less than four weeks was very near Piddlehinton. The first thing we had to do there was to take our mattress covers and fill them with wet straw. Our first meal was heated C-rations. This short stay was uneventful - five-mile hikes each morning in the rain. A few passes to nearby towns were issued.

     We moved from England about Nov. 5 (by way of LaHavre, France), spending four days near Aubel, Belgium, and then moved on line Nov. 10. We replaced a company from the 39th Regiment, 9th Division man for man, foxhole for foxhole. These log-covered foxholes were not near each other - in fact, more like outposts. Although these positions had logs over the top they did not protect us from melting snow or rain. It was snowing the day we moved on line (little did we know that was to be the case for the next 90 days). Our position faced east overlooking the International Highway - Germany and its pillboxes and dragon teeth on the other side. For the next 30 days there was very little close-up combat. We went across to Germany on patrols and exchanged mortar fire but no attacks from either side.

     We had moved and located north to another holding position when on Dec. 11 we pulled back to about one mile north of Krinkelt. On Dec. 13 we of the 2nd Battalion stacked our duffel bags (these were never seen again) and moved out to the northwest. As I found out later we were going with the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 395th Reg. and most of the 2nd Division and other attached units on a push to take the Roer River Dams. This movement was all uphill - many dropped out. There was a light snow that morning but other than the steep climb what bothered us was the wet snow dropping off the trees.

     At that time I was the first scout, BAR man, and acting squad leader. Our BAR man (Shuman) was sent back from concussion after a direct hit on a foxhole. The first scout (Mussey) made sick call with trench foot. Our squad leader (Rhineheart) was older and not in good shape. He could not keep up - in fact, he told me to take over the squad - he could not do the job.

     Late on the 13th, after reaching the top, we began to hear mortar fire up ahead about where E Company was located. We stopped and began digging foxholes. About the time we got a foot dug in the hard, frozen ground, we were ordered to move up and dig in again until dark. We slept by just lying on the cold ground.

     The next day, the 14th, they told us BAR men, Hillenbrand, Jordan, and myself to go to the front and fire at the German pillbox on our right. At this time a flame thrower team slipped up the ravine to our right and were supposed to take out the pillbox. It failed to ignite.

     The next day they tried the same thing only they went with a bangalore torpedo - with the same result - no fire.

     By the 16th my F Company had not moved past these pillboxes. I found out later that a few of the others had taken theirs and were past the pillbox line. On the 16th, we were in the same positions. We could hear all kinds of noises - the sound of war - artillery, rifle fire, etc., but we never encountered a single German. As luck would have it, we were in a position where the Germans did not attack. This was a location where the terrain was so bad that tanks could not have moved - in fact, it was so bad the Germans had not even built dragon teeth at this location.

     Early on the 17th we were told to hold in place, that something was going on. About noon, Col. Ernest Peters, our battalion commander, made the announcement that the Germans were breaking through and we were to leave anything we could not carry easily and get back to the Hasselpath Trail. I think all our wounded got out. I'm not sure if we got Sgt. Rhodes' body out. He was our first killed. About the middle of the afternoon we reached the trail. After moving east a little way we took a break on the side of the road by a big bulldozer that had lost its tread.

     At that time I was told to lead us east into the forest until we encountered the Germans. We knew the Germans were near, spent bullets sailing over our heads and rifle fire was near. We moved out and advanced probably 500 yards - I was leading, followed by the second scout, Alvin Swisher. When we moved over a hill we would wave the company on. After going over two hills safely we started down the third when I noticed several Germans coming around a bend. They had seen me first and they fired before I could move. Their shot hit my BAR and I promptly hit the ground. Alvin, not finding a place to get behind, lay across me and fired at the Germans. In just a second he was shot just between the eyes. I lay there a little while with bullets hitting my pack. At that time some of my group began firing at the Germans and they took cover - during this time I shed my pack and ran up the hill with the Germans firing at me all the way. Alvin's body was recovered after the Bulge and he is now buried in Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery.

     We were told to hold at all costs - that the Germans were advancing and that the 2nd Division on our left would be trapped if the road behind us was not held open. We held in place that night and on the 18th we moved a little further south. After digging-in we soon encountered opposition. German troops were trying to advance but we repulsed all attacks that day. About dark that night, the 18th, we were told that we had held long enough and we started pulling back.

     At this time we had several wounded and five killed. All the rest of us were very tired - the lack of sleep and food was beginning to get to us. Just before midnight we reached Elsenborn Ridge (or near there) and was told that they had made a mistake and for us to turn around and go back to our old positions.

     I was in the lead again, this time carrying a rifle. As a precaution those of us up front had fixed our bayonets. We were not lucky this time - the Germans were in our foxholes. We soon took our holes back after a short bayonet fight. A few years ago I read in an after-battle report that we had killed seven at that time. I think our only casualty was Lusk who was bayoneted through his hand. I can't remember who was with me except Lusk and Oxcien. Paul Vescovo said he was behind us and witnessed this - in fact, he said he shot two after the balance ran.

     We held this position all day the 19th. We had some opposition but our main problem was friendly artillery fire. We had some of this fire from American tanks or anti-tank guns but a lot of this came from the artillery of the 2nd Division.

     Lt. General (ret.) Herren Maples told me a few years ago that they fired on us knowing we were there. He said he was a major at the time and twice refused this mission - telling his commanding officer that there were still Americans in the location. He finally received a direct order - they said they knew we were there but they would kill more Germans than Americans. He said this had bothered him for 50 years. The tree bursts were deadly.

     Late that night we did pull back. I'm sure we were surrounded but in the dark you could not tell one side from the other. There was some snow on the ground and the moon came out at times. We could see Krinkelt burning and hear cows bawling. It was so cold that when we lay down to rest, our boots would freeze to the ground. Those of us who were left were not in good shape. To tell you how close we were to the enemy I came out wearing hobnailed boots, with a P-38 strapped to my side, and carrying a German burp gun.

     About 2 a.m. Dec. 20 we did reach friendly troops on Elsenborn Ridge. We probably were the last organized troops to pull back. We pulled back near the town of Elsenborn. After receiving more ammunition, two or three meals, and a little sleep, we moved back down to replace I/394. This location was a hot spot. It was the furthest right of all 99th positions.

     We started at the north of the road from Wirtzfeld to Elsenborn, the 2nd Division was on the other side. Our F Company CP was in a cistern about 50 yards back of our front line foxholes. We had an outpost about 50 yards in front. This position was held and occupied by us from Dec. 22, 1944 to Jan. 30, 1945, when we went on attack. Our biggest problem while holding was German artillery. The whole Elsenborn Ridge looked like a checkerboard. The landscape was black and white from the artillery craters. We lost several men from direct hits on their holes.

     Our second biggest problem was weather. It snowed most days and the temperature was near zero for several nights. We did not have proper winter clothing - we just put on all we had - long underwear, winter issue pants, shirt, sweater, scarf, field jacket, gloves, and a wool cap under our helmet liner and helmets. We had a blanket or two and a light canvas sleeping bag. Our foxhole was covered by our tent or shelter halves, but no logs for the top. Our GI overcoat was not proper for combat. It would get wet and heavy and freeze. If we had one we would put it down to absorb the moisture. If you saw a man with an overcoat he was a replacement or from the rear. For several days one man stayed awake in each foxhole day and night, two hours up, two hours down. We tried to sleep in the daytime. You needed someone with you in each hole just to get the body heat.

     One of the dreaded assignments was night patrol. Most all were to bring back prisoners. Not all of these were successful. One night about 20 of us went out with Lt. Joe Kagen and we did capture one prisoner. He was in an outpost and we almost fell into his hole. I don't think he was going to give an alarm or maybe he was asleep. He was about as scared as I would have been. When we got him back he was giving out more than his name, rank, and serial number.

     One of the prettiest sights we observed from the Elsenborn Ridge position was late on the 23rd or 24th of December. The weather had cleared and it looked like all the Allied Air Force came out. The sky was filled with planes and vapor trails all over. Some P-38s and Mustangs strafed the German lines down below us. This was the first help we had from our Air Force since the Bulge started, but there had been German planes strafing us several times.

     Christmas 1944 was just another day. We were cold and hungry just like all the days. We had K-rations for breakfast, C-rations for lunch. After dark the cooks sent down canisters of turkey and all the trimmings (cold), but we ate it all anyway.

     The last attack we had on Elsenborn Ridge came early on Dec. 28. I was in our outpost with Lloyd Peterson. As usual we had fog. When the fog lifted just a little, all I could see was German troops going up the draw to my left front. The German troops had full packs and some horse-drawn equipment. They looked and acted like they were not told that we were holding this position - they looked like they were going on a field trip. I fired into them and about the same time our artillery unleashed a heavy barrage on them. We must have had a forward observer call in about the same time that I spotted them. A few of the Germans got close enough to get in a firefight but they soon withdrew. This fight was mostly an artillery battle. The Germans had a bad day; they were just slaughtered. That night you could hear the wounded calling for water or calling for their mother. I'm sure many of the wounded froze to death that night.

     The weather really turned bad in January with snow almost every day. We received many replacements during this month. Most of these were not well-trained. A lot of these came directly from ground troops of the Air Force. Some of these did not even know how to load or fire their rifles. A lot of these men came and went so fast that we never had time to get acquainted.

     My last day of combat and probably the last day of the Bulge was Jan. 30, 1945. We were to take back what small amount of ground we gave up during the first few days of the battle. We luckily did not have much to take back, but luck was not with us when and how we had to take this ground.

     We pitched off early, 2 or 3 a.m., in the worst snowstorm of the winter. The snow was knee deep and in drifts it was waist deep. About daylight we found ourselves still not at our first objective, the nearby forest. E Company from my 2nd Battalion was ahead of us and were caught in the open and were just getting wiped out. The Germans were in the woods and there was about 100 yards of clearing before we could reach their position. The Germans had crossfire on us and they were well protected with an open field of fire. After E Company failed I was told to take my squad and lead the way for our F Company. We advanced about 50 yards before they opened up on us. With no room in the deep snow to maneuver, all we could do was go to the ground. Each time we tried to move they fired on us. All of us, wounded or not, had to lie there until dark. When I tried to pull back I found I had no feeling in my legs. I was partially frozen and in great pain. I crawled back and was evacuated by sled, then by a weasel. My wound was not bad but I was almost frozen to death. I had gangrene and pneumonia and spent seven months in Army hospitals before being discharged in early September 1945, then I went back to college that same month.

J.R. McIlroy

PO Box 98

Celina TX 75009