The 99th and the Battle of the Bulge years ago
By Robert E. Humphrey
In the predawn hours of Dec. 16, 1944, Pfc. Howard Bowers slept in a log hut just behind the front lines that ran along the Germany-Belgium border. Before turning in he had cleaned up in eager anticipation of going to Honsfeld, Belgium, (a small town four miles to the west) the following day to watch actress/singer Marlene Dietrich perform in a USO show. Neither Bowers nor Dietrich would make that performance. At 5:30 a.m. German artillery shells and screeching rockets began crashing into the treetops surrounding Company D/394. Jerked awake, Bowers immediately "crawled under a bunk and laid face down on the dirt floor." The shelling continued for what seemed like two hours. "All the time," he recalled, "I was trying to bury myself deeper into the dirt floor, wishing I was in a foxhole and praying that it would come to an end." Unbeknownst to Bowers, those terrifying salvos signaled the beginning of a gigantic German offensive that would become known as the "Battle of the Bulge."
Bill McMurdie A/394 dozed in his sleeping bag in a hut near Losheimergraben in southeastern Belgium when the monster shelling began. "I shook and got jumpy as everything. Then I got so cold I thought that I was slowly becoming a chunk of ice. My heart raced like a steam engine as I tried to decide what to do. Should I get out of this sleeping bag and get into a foxhole or just stay where I am?" Finally around 7 a.m. the shelling stopped as suddenly as it had begun. McMurdie was uncertain what to do next. He came to the realization that artillery shells not only killed people, but paralyzed the survivors.
When artillery shells began hitting tree branches, Harold Piovesan L/394 decided he needed extraordinary help. He feared that soon one would strike the tree above him, and it "would be the end." Only one person could save him and that "was God." He pledged, "God, if you get me out of this, I'll serve you the rest of my life," and he would.
Maltie Anderson E/394 had just come off guard duty when the first shells exploded, sending steel and wood fragments sizzling through the air. The deafening explosions and "sickly, sweet smell of cordite" nearly overwhelmed him. Then the artillery barrage ceased, and Anderson and his squad waited nervously. Soon they spotted German soldiers trudging slowly across a field heavy with snow. As they fired at the approaching grenadiers, one GI screamed, "I killed 'em, I killed 'em, I killed 'em," not out of celebration but out of disbelief. Dead Germans lay scattered in the field.
John Thornburg's second platoon L/394 held a position in the southeast corner of Belgium when heavy enemy shelling erupted in his sector. Thornburg's small group of 34 men, not informed of L Company's pullout, tried desperately to find the others. They moved northward, eventually fighting a pitched battle with German troops, and some in the platoon were captured. On the third day they set out to reach a distant glow [Krinkelt burning] three miles away. At one point American howitzers shelled Thornburg and the remainder of the platoon as they crossed an open field. "Each shell sounded like a powerful diesel locomotive rushing directly at us and each blast stunned me for an instant, so I wasn't sure for the moment after, if I was alive." As another shell came crashing through the air, Thornburg thought, "the last one missed, but this one can't. Will I die instantly or will I have time to feel the shrapnel knifing through me?" He survived the shelling, but after five nerve-wracking days, they were captured. As the 17 American POWs marched to the east, Thornburg saw "an endless number of tanks in double rows, stalled, but with motors running." How, he thought, "could our side ever survive such massive power?"
On Friday Dec. 15, Richard King F/394 and a few others left by truck for Honsfeld to enjoy a three-day rest and also catch Marlene Dietrich in a pre-Christmas song and dance show scheduled for the next day. After spending four weeks in a frigid foxhole eating cold C rations, King couldn't have been happier about a return to civilization. Once in the rest area he had a "lukewarm shower" (his first since mid-October), put on a clean uniform (actually two pairs of olive drab pants), ate a "big, hot meal," and then went to bed upstairs in a house situated on a side street just off the main highway. Awakened just before dawn on Dec. 16 by a "serious" artillery barrage, he lingered in his cot until explosions in nearby houses prompted a hasty descent to the cellar. After an hour everything became quiet, so he concluded the worst was over and went in search of food. Unbeknownst to him, all leaves for combat soldiers had been canceled, and a truck had been sent to pick up GIs in Honsfeld and return them to the front. Somehow they had missed King. Then he learned that Miss Dietrich had inexplicably left without performing, but the USO show went on with entertainment provided by a four-piece band, which ironically played, "There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." Afterwards King enjoyed another hot meal ("all you could eat") and went to bed "starting to feel safe."
Before dawn the next morning King awoke to "shouting and noise in the street." He arose and looked out his second floor window where he barely discerned vehicles in motion; all at once he realized there were German trucks and troops in the main street less than a block away! He also heard the unmistakable, scary sound of tank treads clanking in the near distance. Gripped by fear, King ran down the stairs and then back up again several times, while trying frantically to figure out what he should do. He decided to leave. When he opened the front door, he saw a small U.S. Army weapons carrier right outside. The driver said he had orders to take him and other stragglers back to F Company. That unknown driver may have saved King's life, as Panzer SS troops captured the town and murdered more than 50 American soldiers after they had surrendered (In total, SS forces executed scores of captured Americans and many, unarmed Belgian civilians).
Then began "the wildest ride" of King's life. Driving eastward, they encountered more German trucks loaded with troops heading west toward Honsfeld. When they met enemy vehicles, the driver would simply "go down in the ditch and then into a field for a while to let the oncoming traffic go by." The enemy seemed to be in a great hurry and did not notice the U.S. Army truck moving in the opposite direction. King heard lots of shooting at Buchholz as they passed on the road just to the south of the railroad station. At daylight they neared F Company's position, which seemed strangely unfamiliar. "The tall pines near our foxholes were all broken and the tops were pointing down at the ground. There had been tremendous shelling, and I could not recognize where we were for a while. It looked so different since we had left only two days ago." It was different and not for the better.
At the northern end of the 99th's line, the 3rd Battalion 395th had constructed defensive positions in and around the German village of Hofen. Thor Ronnigen I/395 was asleep in his deep foxhole on the morning of Dec. 16. Since he and others felt the war "would be over soon, certainly by Christmas," the barrage that descended on their positions surprised and "terrified" them: "I woke up to a series of tremendous explosions" and the "ear-splitting scream" of rockets fired in salvos. "The ground
In a desperate attempt to stave off defeat in the west, Hitler ordered two armies, some 24 divisions (200,000 initially but eventually 500,000 men) and 1,400 tanks and assault guns to leave the West Wall or Siegfried defensive line and counterattack American positions along a 60-mile front. Sepp Dietrich's 6th Panzer Army, which included four panzer (tank) divisions with several hundred pieces of artillery, was assigned the task of breaking through the 99th's lines. Major efforts were launched in the middle against the First and Third Battalions of the 393rd Infantry and in the south (a five-mile opening called the Losheim Gap) against the 394th Infantry and the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon. As a result of faulty strategic planning, the 99th Division was heavily outnumbered in infantrymen, artillery, and tanks.
As the onslaught began, exploding shells severed most of the phone connections, leaving Division and Regimental commands cut off from the front with no clear picture of the situation. Nevertheless up and down the line, the 99ers, often in small groups, fought valiantly and were able to frustrate the German forces and their timetable. In some instances the Americans were completely isolated and, not receiving orders to withdraw, stayed and were killed, wounded, or captured. At this point, no one at any level, from GI to commanders, quite realized the magnitude of the German attack or the precariousness of the American position.
General Walter Robertson's 2nd Infantry Division was deeply engaged trying to break through the Siegfried Line in the north and capture the Roer River dams, which American Command feared the Germans might open to flood the northern plain. When reports reached him of large scale Germans attacks, Robertson became concerned and drove from Wirtzfeld to 99th Division Commander General Walter Lauer's headquarters at an imposing villa in Butgenbach, seven miles from the front. Robertson found the 99th's Division staff in chaos, with everyone talking at once, and no one seemingly in charge. General Lauer, who was playing the piano, assured Robertson everything was under control. Robertson didn't think so.
On Dec. 17, Robertson requested and received permission to halt the attack toward the dams and move his regiments south to defend the "twin villages" of Rocherath and Krinkelt against the 12th SS Panzer Division. The three Battalions of the 99th, which had advanced while guarding the southern flank of the 2nd Division's incursion, also were ordered to withdraw some distance but to protect the 2nd Division until it reached its new positions.
In the southeastern corner of Belgium, a tank-heavy task force (called Kampfgruppe Peiper after its aggressive commander, SS Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper) of the 1st SS Panzer Division, with almost 6,000 men and 72 medium tanks and assault guns, charged through the Losheim gap, overwhelmed resistance at Buchholz Station and headed west to capture Honsfeld and points beyond.
Jim Bishop 1/394 also was in Honsfeld for the USO performance when he and a small group of GIs were ordered to man a defensive perimeter at the town's edge. Sitting in a foxhole as night fell, he watched a long line of the 99th's trucks, jeeps, and other equipment coming from the front and going past their position: "It wasn't a pretty sight." Bishop was relieved at midnight and went to bed. Around 4:30 a.m. shouts in the street awakened him, and the voices were German, as were the tanks rumbling down the street. His "heart was pounding" as he woke up two other guys and told them the town was full of Germans. He quickly tried to pull on his overshoes but couldn't, so he gave up and headed for the back door of the building wearing combat boots. He plodded through snowy fields for nearly two miles and reached Regimental headquarters at Hunningen where he reported the enemy had captured Honsfeld. Other 99ers were less fortunate. Robert Gabriel A/394 and 60 GIs were captured, but luckily led away by German paratroopers and not the SS. Gabriel was glad to be alive but embittered because "they had not been given a chance to escape or defend themselves"; these GIs would suffer the next four months in German POW camps.
Despite heavy losses, the Germans penetrated the American front at several points. American units were trapped behind enemy lines but hidden by dense forests, which were simultaneously a source of protection and danger. Traveling at night and hiding during the day, mixed groups of GIs tried to find a way to either the 2nd Division at Rocherath or a hastily formed defense line east of Elsenborn, a village four miles northwest of Rocherath and Krinkelt. Many men were trapped for three sleepless days and nights with no food or water. Tension ran extremely high, for the Germans and artillery shells (including "friendly fire") seemed to be everywhere, killing Americans and Germans indiscriminately. Maltie Anderson remembered wearily stumbling in the dark, holding on to the soldier in front of him, while stepping on dead GIs.
Just before dark on Dec. 17, Howard Bowers and some 50 soldiers of the 1st Battalion 394th headed cross-country to Murringen (three miles west of the border), arriving there after midnight, Monday, Dec. 18, 1944. From there they walked north two miles to Krinkelt where they jumped aboard abandoned Division trucks and drove west to Wirtzfeld. Bowers learned that D Company's first platoon and B Company had been overrun and less than half of the First Battalion's men had escaped. Two columns of weary 99ers departed Wirtzfeld and trudged toward Elsenborn (three miles distant), passing 2nd Division soldiers who were moving in the opposite direction toward Krinkelt. Second Division GIs yelled "derogatory comments at us, asking why we were headed to the rear away from the battle, but I was too tired to care what they said."
On the way up a hill Bowers spotted an overturned kitchen truck. He picked up a can of tomatoes, opened it with a trench knife and shared the contents with a buddy. "Those few cold tomatoes and a D ration on Sunday were my only food in almost three days." At noon he reached the village of Elsenborn where he received a full meal at a field kitchen. He and others were then sent out to dig foxholes in front of a 155mm artillery battery that fired all night. Returning to Elsenborn in the morning he found a cellar and immediately collapsed. Soon, however, he was rousted out and loaded onto a jeep that joined a long line of bumper-to-bumper vehicles headed east. While sitting there, General Lauer and his staff suddenly appeared. "We were dirty, wet, cold, tired and headed back to the front, while the General looked like he was headed to the parade ground." Wearing an Eisenhower jacket, pink riding breeches, polished cavalry boots and a shining helmet with two stars in the front, Lauer gestured at the troops with a riding crop.
The three Battalions that had supported the 2nd Division's attack retreated two miles to new defensive positions just north of Rocherath, discarding equipment along the way. They were then ordered to walk west four miles to Elsenborn, but that turned out to be an incorrect order, and they were sent back to their foxholes near Rocherath. On Dec. 19, the Battalions were finally moved back to Elsenborn. Altogether the exhausted soldiers slogged some 15 miles, much of it through "freezing mud" as weariness, fear, and confusion dogged every step.
The 2nd Infantry Division and the 12th SS Panzer Division battled for control of the "twin villages." Tanks and assault guns blasted each other at close range. As John McCoy and F Company 393rd marched, "off to our right flank we could see the burning town of Krinkelt. We could hear the frightening sounds of tanks, the clank and squeak of the moving treads, and the roar of powerful engines." Fear and cold oppressed the retreating troops. Frederick Feigenoff L/394 felt "this couldn't be reality; it must be a nightmare." Harry Arnold E/393 and his platoon were "enveloped by the sights and sounds of contrived mayhem. The battle took on the aspects of a melee, a brawl peopled by madmen. Most eerie of all was the wail of a siren on a Tiger tank setting the tone and exemplifying the whole cataclysmic mess. A Dane's Inferno unglued."
When Rex Whitehead H/394 entered Krinkelt in the back of a truck at 3 a.m. on Dec. 18, 1944, he experienced "fear, confusion, and hopelessness." Buildings were burning, German and American machine guns were firing, and "tracers the size of footballs were flying up and down the streets." He expected to be killed or taken prisoner. At that moment he spotted a 2nd Division man standing guard and asked him what was going on. The GI calmly replied, "There is a Kraut tank group in town, but G Company [2nd Division] will chase them out." Whitehead could have "kissed the soldier, for with those words my confidence came back, and I felt there was a chance" of surviving.
It wasn't only the many tanks and swarms of German soldiers that unnerved the men; unit cohesion had almost disintegrated, especially in those companies that had been overrun. In training, in transit, and even during the first month on the battlefield, officers gave commands and assignments were carried out. Leaders seemed to be in control of intact platoons. With this onslaught, chaos had replaced order. Some men were killed, others wounded, even more were missing. No one knew what was happening; it seemed as if the Division was collapsing, and Rex Whitehead felt the "99th was the disgrace of the Army, for we were [leaving] without a fight." Harry Arnold echoed that sentiment: "We pulled back
The task for commanders was to reestablish cohesive units, wait for replacements and new equipment, and assert control over the companies. The men were tired and disoriented, but they would respond to directives and fight because they knew they must stop the German onslaught. One thing was clear to them; the war would not end by Christmas.
In earlier centuries European armies usually retired into winter quarters and awaited spring to resume fighting. In the 20th century armies remained engaged in battles during the dismal winter months. The First World War changed the nature of war because entire nations were engaged, fighting along front lines stretching hundreds of miles. The outcomes in WWI and WWII were not decided, as previously, by a single battle, but by continual combat in which millions of men slaughtered each other. Although the "Battle of the Bulge" represented a turning point, as it was Hitler's last, ambitious counterattack in the west, peace would not come from the German defeat in this encounter. The 99th Division fought in this gigantic war of attrition; it dug in, held its ground, and kept the Germans from breaking through on Elsenborn Ridge and at Hofen. But the war would go on.
Just to the east of Elsenborn lies a series of hills (cresting at 1,800 feet,) stretching roughly four miles long by two and one-half miles wide that dominate the surrounding area. Elsenborn Ridge (so named by the Americans) became an important defensive position because it consisted of exposed ground covered by grasses, bushes, and some hedgerows that offered 99ers, who occupied the high ground, good visibility and unobstructed fields of fire. The Ridge slopes gradually down some 100 feet, so if the Germans chose to attack, they would have to traverse a wide-open area and move up toward the defenders. The absence of evergreen trees denied the approaching enemy any cover, and the heavy snow, which over spread the hills, meant foot soldiers, assault guns, and tanks would face tough sledding to reach the American lines.
The 99th Division took up positions (eventually three defensive lines on the Ridge) with the Main Line of Resistance in the south, (3,000 yards from Elsenborn) stretching a mile and half east of a road running from Wirtzfeld to Elsenborn. The Germans wanted that road in their drive to the Meuse River. On the west side of the road the 2nd Infantry Division continued the line, followed in turn by the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. To the north was the 9th Infantry Division, and behind the four Divisions squatted a huge, murderous concentration of artillery that could and did throw massive destructive power on attacking forces.
Directly east and northeast of the 99th's foxholes stood, on slightly elevated land, a mixed forest of deciduous and evergreen trees that hid enemy soldiers and forward observers. The Germans could watch and shoot at the Americans with mortar and artillery fire (and some long-range rifle sniping) with impunity, and for nearly six weeks, any GI who ventured outside of a foxhole in daylight risked becoming a target. The most lethal and terrifying German weapon was the high-velocity, death-dealing 88mm cannon whose shells traveled faster than the speed of sound; hence, it could strike almost without warning. Because it was the most feared weapon of the German arsenal, American GIs tended to blame the 88mm cannon for all artillery shells that slammed into their positions.
Companies of the 393rd Infantry, the 324th Combat Engineer Battalion, and the 394th Infantry manned respectively the 99th's forward lines southeast and east of Elsenborn, with foxholes that ranged from a mile to 600 hundred yards distant from the Germans. Two Battalions of the 395th Infantry defended the areas northeast of the village. By the end of December, the Division had lost several thousand men (wounded, frozen feet, sickness, missing, and dead); in three days (Dec. 16, 17, and 18) 237 men in the Division had been killed — 105 soldiers of the 393rd died on the 17th. Many companies suffered a drastic reduction in strength. In the First Battalion 394th, which originally totaled 825 soldiers, only 260 officers and men remained. The 99th Division would never be the same; many of the original members who had trained at Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi and at Camp Maxey in Texas, made the miserable journey to Europe, and had spent a month together at the front, were gone. During the succeeding weeks and months replacements would trickle in, but the platoons would never again reach full strength, and it's doubtful that the rifle platoons, which suffered the most casualties, ever again achieved the same degree of cohesiveness.
The survivors of the 393rd and 394th Regiments barely had time to eat and catch a few hours of sleep in the village of Elsenborn before they were rushed out to the forward slope of the crest. On Dec. 20, heavy German artillery and rocket barrages hit the 99th throughout the day and into the night. Beginning in the early morning, assault guns, tanks, and infantry of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division launched three separate attacks over open ground from the direction of Krinkelt. American artillery, machine gunners, and riflemen beat back all three attacks, inflicting severe losses on the Germans whose wounded lay on the battlefield moaning and crying for help throughout the day and long into the night.
Though no one knew it then (and despite additional attempts on Dec. 21 and on Dec. 28), the 99th Division had ended German plans for a breakthrough on Elsenborn Ridge. The 1st Infantry Division also inflicted high casualties on the 12th SS Panzer Division near Butgenbach. Peiper, however, captured Bullingen and then headed west toward the Meuse River; on the way, his SS troops executed 86 American prisoners at Baugnez on Dec. 17. News of these killings, known as the Malmedy Massacre, reached the 99th Division on Elsenborn Ridge, providing added incentive to fight resolutely and to respond in kind.
Peiper penetrated 26 miles into Belgium, but on Dec. 23, out of ammunition and fuel, he gave up the fight, abandoned his few remaining tanks, and began the long walk back with only 800 men. While Panzer units of the Fifth Army advanced 60 miles, by Christmas Day the forward thrust had ground to a halt, and the next day, elements of the Third Army lifted the siege of Bastogne, an important road center the Germans had encircled. In the succeeding weeks, Allied forces would slowly reduce the Bulge and push the Germans out of Belgium and Luxembourg.
From the latter part of December 1944 to the end of January 1945, much of the 99th Division lived in holes like "animals," except they could not hibernate. The weather was bitterly cold with heavy snow, particularly after the 27th of December. Temperatures hovered in the 20s, even lower at night, and the denuded Ridge was exposed to fog, wind, and blowing snow. Overcast skies added to the gloominess of the days. January snowstorms turned into howling blizzards that made life miserable and barely survivable and, according to Bill Galegar G/395, "you wished you were back in the heat and humidity of Texas." The subfreezing temperatures, which caused additional manpower losses, had a "demoralizing effect on the soldiers that were left," and John McGilvray I/393 wondered if he might "never get off the Ridge." The failed German attacks and the deep snow created a frozen stalemate. Neither side could budge, so the combatants mainly concentrated on staying alive.
Because exposure during the day invited enemy shelling, 99ers were largely restricted to their foxholes. The nights were long and daylight passed all too quickly. Cliff McDaniel L/394 admitted his "morale would drop to zero, and I'd really felt low" as night approached. Heavy shelling during the month of December tapered off in January, but no one could relax because shells might be launched if the Germans detected movement. The snow did have benefits: it dampened the destructive impact of shells and camouflaged the defenders' foxholes. When Cliff Selwood B/394, a replacement, arrived on the Ridge in late December, he found the holes almost undetectable; "if you did not know where they were, you would never see [them], but think they were only mounds of dirt or irregularities in the land." Without the snow, the Ridge would have appeared as an ugly moonscape of black holes, so each fresh snowfall created, as Harry Arnold put it, "a deceptively placid [white] blanket" that hid the shell pits. Mother Nature attempted to cover up man's transgressions against her. Mornings men shoveled out the entrances to their foxholes. Snow would fly into the air here and there, and finally figures, like dark groundhogs, would pop up for air and a look around. A new day had begun.
The biggest challenge was to keep from freezing to death while living in frozen ground. "This was," Sam Lombardo I/394 commented, "our Valley Forge." David Reagler believed the "worse part was the filth, the hunger, the cold, and the life of living like an animal." Shivering constantly in the bitter cold, Bill Bray L/394 concluded, "there are worse things than death" and sometimes "you wished you would get shot so they would take you back to the hospital." It was difficult to sleep, "You would," according to Bray, "only doze, but you couldn't relax" because of the possibility of a new attack or an enemy patrol. Charles Swann L/394 and his foxhole buddy, who had no covering over their hole, would face each other and then lean on one another's shoulder to generate a little warmth.
Men appropriated doors, wood, branches, and fence posts to cover their foxholes, which not only afforded some protection from enemy shells, but also helped to keep out wind and snow. If a heavy snow fell during the night, the danger existed that men could be buried and suffocate — two men died this way. Limited by the length of their covering materials, foxholes tended to be narrow, about three feet for two men, five to six feet long, four to five feet deep, with a narrow opening for exiting and firing positions in front. The small size offered certain benefits — easier to dig and better to retain heat, but those subject to claustrophobia suffered. Regimental Commander Jean Scott, in a rare appearance at the front in mid-January, told Lieutenant Herring of G/393 those "boards have got to come off because I want 360-degree, all-around fighting positions. This position's a disgrace." After the Colonel departed, Herring uttered "a rare burst of profanity" about Scott and told the men to forget about removing the protective coverings.
In the succeeding days 99ers improved their foxholes by carving out earthen shelves on the sides and covering muddy bottoms with Army blankets, overcoats, and straw. Their bodies generated a certain amount of heat, which melted the permafrost inside foxholes. During the night the subfreezing temperatures produced dirty icicles that protruded from the sides. According to Jay Burke I/393, they would break them off in the morning and bury the tiny, dirty stalactites; otherwise, they feared, the discolored snow might reveal their position. The ability to devise in-the-field solutions distinguished the American GI. Time and again combat soldiers had to find clothing, shelter, heat, and food, and develop survival strategies to compensate for Army deficiencies. Since the Army failed to provide stoves, most men constructed tiny heaters by using two C-ration cans and gasoline taken from jeeps. By lighting a piece of cloth in gasoline-soaked dirt or in a canteen, the foxhole inhabitants produced a small, dirty flame that yielded a little heat and light. Unfortunately the gasoline threw off black smoke and soot that coated faces, hands, clothing, and lungs. Men complained of coughing up black particles for weeks afterwards. A German prisoner told Battalion Commander Robert Douglas he was surprised to be taken by black troops. Douglas insisted he had no black soldiers. The prisoner retorted, "Black men just captured me." When Douglas went to the forward line to discover how the German could be mistaken, he saw his sooty soldiers and sent them back to Verviers for showers. Yet even after much scrubbing with the Army's rough soap, it was not easy to remove the black layers.
In spite of primitive stoves and multi-layers of clothing, soldiers became sick or developed trench foot; one study estimated that 70 percent of WWII non-battle casualties during bad weather resulted from trench foot. If men went patrolling through deep snow or sat day and night in wet foxholes with little or no exercise, blood circulation stopped, and the feet began to die. In some cases soldiers could not tell how damaged their feet were because they had lost all feeling. When they took off their shoes, their feet swelled, and boots could not be put on again.
Lou Pedrotti L/395 developed "frozen feet" and was evacuated to a field hospital in Liege, Belgium, where he was placed on the floor of a huge warehouse along with 50 other men. Suddenly an officer appeared and his voice could be clearly heard: "Well, major, another set of amputees, eh?" A chorus of groans erupted as the men heard the terrifying news. But happily for Pedrotti, doctors were experimenting with a new treatment of letting the feet thaw out gradually in cold hospital wards. Though the outer skin turned black and dropped off, as did the dermis, leaving only red, raw flesh, his feet slowly healed. Other victims of trench foot and frozen feet were less fortunate, for they lost toes or feet.
When Jim Bishop 1/394 arrived at Elsenborn, after narrowly escaping Peiper's troops, he reported to Battalion headquarters. Colonel Robert Douglas, however, told Bishop that he had selected someone else to draw maps. Bishop was devastated and so emotionally upset he couldn't even ask Douglas why he had been relieved of his position. He figured that Douglas must have mistakenly assumed he had run off. What made it so painful was he respected Douglas and "felt personally responsible for his safety." Soon thereafter Bishop had to be taken off the line and sent to a hospital because his feet were in terrible shape. He was embarrassed by his condition and even blamed himself for contracting "frozen feet." Knowing his friends were fighting in the Bulge and seeing the badly wounded and horribly burned GIs in his hospital ward, he felt even guiltier, for "frozen feet" didn't merit a Purple Heart. Although he recovered physically, Bishop suffered psychological wounds that never healed.
Christmas Eve 1944 in Belgium was a cold, clear night. For the thousands of men scattered about the frozen, barren ground of Elsenborn Ridge, nothing reminded them of the holiday season. Because of their focus on staying alive, combat GIs tended not to reminisce too much about home and family. But at Christmas and Hanukkah it was difficult not to remember a decorated Christmas tree or a lighted menorah, home-cooked food, and family. The contrast between a former life and the present situation could not have been more palpable. Standing guard duty just after dark, Bill McMurdie "felt so lonesome," he almost cried. "I could see my Mom and Dad, sister Jean, and brother Jack getting into our car and going to church for the usual Christmas Eve children's service." The kids would be reciting the different parts of the Christmas story and then singing "Silent Night." McMurdie expressed what many GIs were thinking: "Why should I have to be in this God-forsaken place in Germany [sic], perhaps to be killed?" Thinking of home, Francis Chesnick A/395 wondered "if my family back home might be gazing at the moon at the same time." It was an imaginary way of "immediately" connecting with those he had left behind.
Paul Weesner E/395 and others attended an "impressive service" conducted by Chaplain Stephens who used the hood of a jeep for his altar. Wearing dirty, torn uniforms, their "Christmas best," they prayed and sang hymns beneath tall, snow-laded pines. "There are some things a person will never forget as long as he lives — this is one of them." Then they walked to new positions and only the crunching of the snow under their boots could be heard in the still night. They were compelled to dig fresh foxholes that were finished at midnight. "Everyone was feeling sort of blue and 'far away,' having to spend a Christmas Eve in such an undesirable way."
Despite the sacred meanings attached to Dec. 24, the Command decided there were no timeouts in this war. That night Eldon Engel L/394 and other squad members were dispatched on a reconnaissance patrol under the command of Sgt. Paul Johnston. The Sergeant led them out into a draw where the men lingered for about an hour and then proceeded back to their foxholes. Johnston explained he didn't want anyone killed on Christmas Eve, a decision that greatly pleased Engel.
Howard Bowers was "feeling melancholy and sad because it was my first Christmas away from home." Around midnight he heard the "sound of church bells coming from the German lines." This unexpected pealing, so out of place in the midst of war, conjured up thoughts of the family he missed. However homesick Bowers felt in that hour, he was "thankful to be alive."
Ernest McDaniel F/393 was standing a two-hour watch with his head out of the foxhole looking at the snow-covered fields before him. The sky was filled with twinkling stars, and the little town of Krinkelt with its church steeple and rooflines loomed in the distance. "In my mind, I could hear the words, 'Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Beneath thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.'" A lonely sentinel, McDaniel felt a kinship with those poor shepherds who tended to their flocks nearly 2,000 years ago — a sacred scene amidst the profanity of war.
Because it was dangerous on the Ridge, cooks set up their field kitchens some distance behind the lines. Before dawn or after dark, reserve companies could walk back to receive warm meals prepared by the cooks. Men in the first two lines of defense seldom ate hot meals except those they created by heating C rations. On occasion cooked food would be brought forward in insulated Marmite cans. Robert Waldrep E/393 recalled pancakes (with syrup but no butter) would be distributed; "they were cold by the time we got them, but nevertheless we were glad to get them because it sure beat K rations." Bill Bray's company mess sergeant would sometimes send up scrambled eggs and prunes mixed together, and "it tasted pretty good." Usually the men ate unheated food. Byron Reburn L/394 remembered wiping the accumulated debris from his mess kit spoon, opening a can of frozen C-ration stew and munching on the ice crystals "woven into the lard and meat; it was like eating greased ice."
The amount of food available varied from company to company. If squads were under strength, and many were, there might be extra rations, for allocations were based on full platoons. Bill McMurdie consumed five or six K rations a day, while Bill Bray and his platoon buddies were always hungry. Francis Iglehart fruitlessly dreamed of Hershey bars, mustard, pickles, jam, anchovy paste, and Liederbranz cheese. Packages from home, if and when they arrived, supplemented rations. The squad survivors consumed food sent to the wounded, the dead, and the missing who were no longer there. Soldiers wanted cookies and cakes (even if they arrived as pulverized crumbs) not only for the pleasure such goodies provided, but sweets interrupted the culinary monotony of Army rations. George Miller I/394, who received covered dates and other baked goods from home, consumed them right away because he "might not live long enough to enjoy them otherwise." Most importantly, packages and letters let the soldier know he was not forgotten, that "somebody cared" about him. Sharing treats also enhanced the bonding of foxhole buddies and squad members.
The desire to reconnect with civilization in the midst of war would assert itself, sometimes in odd ways. One morning Oakley Honey C/395 looked over at a soldier in the next foxhole. On the edge of his hole he had laid out a breakfast setting with white cloth, utensils and a plate, a coffee cup, and his little stove. "You would think he was at the Waldorf Astoria hotel" instead of a desolate hill in Belgium. All of sudden there was a "hell of an explosion" as a shell landed right on top of his breakfast, and a "black hole" replaced the setting. Honey concluded the soldier had been blasted to bits, but then a head with blackened face emerged from the foxhole. The GI had ducked in to retrieve salt and pepper and was saved, but the enemy had destroyed his small attempt to bring fine dining to the battlefield.
Haskell Wolff H/394 and Rex Whitehead had better luck. When the clerk dropped a mailbag into their foxhole, Wolff fished out packages from home: a three-month supply of the Arkansas Gazette, several five-pound packages of cheese, five pounds of anchovies, and some caviar. Shortly thereafter another GI came by to share a bottle of wine he had found. The three of them sat in a "dank foxhole, sipping wine and nibbling on cheese, caviar, and anchovies" on a Belgian winter day. What could be more surreal?
On Christmas Day the Army promised everyone a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. As in all matters, clothes, boots, sleeping bags, and food, there was no consistency or fairness — a few men received the best available while others went without. Only rear echelon troops had access to the most desirable equipment and hot food, usually to the detriment of those at the front. Bill Galegar enjoyed a hot turkey dinner with mashed potatoes, gravy, and cherry pie (with the food separated, not dumped together as usual), while Maltie Anderson's turkey dinner "froze before it hit the mess kit." Two guys delivered a "not quite ice cold drumstick" and white bread to Lionel Adda D/393 in his hole. Since their movement attracted German artillery shells, Adda would have preferred K rations and no explosions. Double E. Hill E/395 thought it remarkable that the Army provided him with a turkey leg, though he "would not have chosen dark meat." Jay Burke's dinner consisted of a piece of white turkey shoved between two slices of dry bread, but "it was the best Christmas dinner I ever had."
The Army's attempt to serve holiday fare, however meager, buoyed men's spirits. It reminded them of a far-away home that Bill Galegar feared he might never see again. The enemy observed the day by foregoing any shelling, and the snow sparkled in the sunshine, almost, Galegar observed, as if "angel dust had been sprinkled everywhere covering up the marks of war." Time seemed suspended, and the war was gone. As the afternoon lengthened and nightfall approached, he meditated on home, family, a girlfriend, and sadly "those who had not made it" for this Christmas.
George Moon I/394 had looked forward to eating a turkey dinner on Christmas Day. But he, George Miller, and four others were ordered to leave their foxholes at 11 a.m. and proceed about half a mile down the slope and dig a listening post at the edge of the forest where the enemy lay hidden. Since it was a bright, clear day, Moon reasoned they would make excellent target practice for the Germans. He tried to dissuade the assistant squad leader from undertaking this "suicidal" mission but to no avail. When the patrol reached some 200 yards from their objective, the Germans opened fired. Robert Heinz and Beryl Mercer were killed immediately while bullets struck Moon in the left calf and back. Neither wound was life threatening, but he dared not move for fear of attracting more German fire. He lay in the snow all afternoon and through most of the night because of a bright, full moon. Finally when the sky darkened, Moon yelled out, "Let's get out of here," several times to Heinz, his buddy. But there was no reply. He then crawled and stumbled up the slope toward the American lines where someone helped him to the battalion aid station. The wounds were not serious, but his hands and feet had become frostbitten. In the early morning a medic handed him a cold drumstick, a remnant of the Christmas dinner he had been promised.
Richard King and his close friend Al Busse weren't sure whether it was Christmas or not. They argued about it, and then yelled to the guys in the next foxhole who confirmed the date. King and Busse gave each other a chocolate D bar and then laughed at themselves. "I usually had a couple in my pocket," King said, "but the one he gave me, of course, tasted much better than my own. It was my best Christmas present that year — my only one."
Next to food, the most important sustenance for all soldiers was mail from home. Jacob Hayes F/393 affirmed, "If you received a letter from home, you read and reread its contents till you memorized them." Letters connected the GI to the world he had left, or as Ernest McDaniel put it, they represented "a slender thread that linked us to home." Soldiers hungered for news about family and community, thereby transporting them away from war and death. Husbands looked forward to letters from their wives. Jim Langford, who married an Arkansas "girl" while in the ASTP, said the letters "made you feel good, but if there weren't any, you would get down in the dumps." Letters from his wife Alice gave Robert Mitsch L/394 assurance that "someone cared" and a better future awaited him. Single men wrote to girlfriends, in some cases more than one. Al Boeger admitted expressions of "love entered more and more into these exchanges, and it helped to believe you were thought of, missed, and even loved by someone."
Because GIs did not want to upset their families and, since all enlisted men's letters were censored (on the unlikely premise that valuable intelligence could fall into the hands of the enemy), the folks at home had little comprehension of conditions at the front. One indication of this ignorance was the gifts sent to combat soldiers. John Vasa G/395 got a gallon can of popcorn (too heavy to carry and no way to pop the kernels), and a girlfriend thought he ought to have a photo of herself in a frame. Whether for Germans or deer, Francis Iglehart's maiden aunt thought a leather-bound book on shooting game would come in handy. Fielding Pope's F/395 mom sent him a yo-yo, and George Miller I/394 received a wooden flute from his girlfriend — both gifts, however, did provide some amusement. Don Gorsline F/393 opened a package from home hoping it would be full of cookies, but it turned out to be a pair of wooden shower sandals. Not every family was oblivious to the needs of the combat soldier on the front lines, for Jim Larkey I/394 received a bottle of "cough medicine." Since he didn't have a cough, he didn't taste the contents. When another soldier asked him if he had any cough medicine, Jim gave him the bottle from home. Later the GI returned in an inebriated state to Larkey's foxhole and asked, "Hey, any more cough medicine?" After smelling "his breath, I realized it wasn't cough medicine my folks sent me, and I missed out."
On Elsenborn Ridge obtaining even the most basic liquid, water, often proved a serious and dangerous undertaking. Harry Arnold and his platoon had to walk almost 400 yards through drifting snow to reach their water supply, a small stream that emerged briefly from the snow. The trips could be hazardous as enemy gunners attempted to destroy whoever was on water detail. Once Arnold and his foxhole buddy were returning with a five-gallon jerry can when a shell crashed very close to them, sending a fragment into the can six inches from the top with a resultant loss of water. Other soldiers relied on stuffing snow in their canteens and using body heat to melt the contents. Shell bursts could however saturate the water with the disagreeable taste of cordite.
The absence of streams and the difficulty in melting snow limited the use of water. Drinking water and using it to make coffee were the first priorities. Then came cleaning mess gear, followed by washing hands and face. So shaving, brushing one's teeth, and personal hygiene came last. Bill Galegar and his two foxhole mates would heat a small amount of water in a helmet, and then each would dip into the warm water with a handkerchief and scrub without soap.
As much as possible soldiers relieved themselves in the dark, usually in the open near their holes, having more important concerns than preserving a semblance of modesty. It was an enterprise a soldier needed to complete in a hurry, for cold wind could freeze exposed private body parts or in daylight attract the attention of German gunners. The sudden sound of approaching artillery shells sometimes caused men to hop quickly to the nearest hole with their drawers dragging. The more cautious soldiers stayed in their holes, urinated and defecated in ration containers, and threw the contents outside. Freezing temperatures kept the smells dormant, and new snow thankfully covered bodily waste. But, aware of a possible day of reckoning, Elden Hood told his foxhole buddy, David Reagler, "I sure hope we aren't around here when the snow melts."
Sitting in a foxhole for long nights and short days was particularly boring. Ernest McDaniel commented, "We were locked in the prisons of our limited existence with low levels of emotional response to our daily experience and depressed by the bleak outlook for the future." Information about German advances and American Army responses was sparse, so front line soldiers did not know the prognosis for the future. Their world had shrunk to a 1,000 yards or less of Elsenborn Ridge, and battlefields elsewhere hardly entered their minds. They focused on the present and the few men around them. They stood guard, slept, ate, wrote letters, read, and talked to each other about family, food, and women. Although Maltie Anderson and Cyrus Wells E/394 shared a foxhole and became friends, they never discussed future plans, for they did not want "to jinx" their chances of survival. Men concentrated on fighting the cold, finding something to eat, and watching for the enemy. Life had reverted to a primitive level, and except for the malfunctioning equipment, inadequate clothes, and canned rations, they could have been living in a pre-civilized age. There were a few compensations — no bills to pay, no jobs to go to, no classes to attend, no clocks to watch, no washing up before meals, no rooms to pick up, and no shaving. The losses were great: no hot food or warm beds, no security, no freedom, no music, no movies, no families, and no sex.
Usually each soldier had a partner or "foxhole buddy." The degree of compatibility and the amount of conversation varied. Living together and relying on one another for security and comfort under life-threatening circumstances created the possibility of a special bond. But incompatibility of personalities often worked against close friendships. John McCoy relates that "tempers became short and arguments were the order of any day." Then too, a tremendous turnover in manpower limited the opportunity to build long-term relationships. The 99th had an 85 percent replacement rate, which meant 12,000 new men joined the Division by war's end. So it was rare for a soldier to share a foxhole with the same "buddy" for an extended period of time. The ASTPers had replaced the departed Camp Van Dorn men, and newcomers replaced the Bulge veterans. By war's end only a tiny percentage of the original group remained — an infantry division fighting in winter conditions ravenously devoured men.
Replacements arrived at the front as individuals, not as members of a squad or a platoon. Peter Wolffe L/395, a late arrival to the 99th, commented that proceeding through the pipeline and joining a unit as an infantry replacement was "one of the most lonely experiences imaginable." Moving from a staging area in the States to a troopship loaded with other recruits, and then passing through a replacement depot in France, the newly trained GI, along with 25 other soldiers and their equipment, was crammed into a small, ancient railroad car for a long, nomadic journey to the front. Eventually reaching a rifle company and squad, the new man experienced the "trauma of combat for the first time, again among strangers."
Because the Army operated bureaucratically, it overlooked the importance of comradeship in enhancing morale and effectiveness. Replacements (in fact, all soldiers) were viewed as interchangeable parts that could be plugged into the war machine where needed. Some replacements had come into the Division during the stateside training period, others during the first month at the front. After the severe losses in December, large numbers of new men arrived, many quite young or old without much infantry training. Double E. Hill said there existed camaraderie among the veterans, and the "replacements were almost considered outsiders." The other veterans were "like brothers," Paul Jillson E/395 felt. "I was connected to some more closely than a brother. But it wasn't quite the same with the replacements." Cliff McDaniel L/394 commented, the replacements "had absolutely no opportunity to form comradely bonds with any old timers." The ties formed among 99ers during training and combat worked against the new men. Veteran soldiers felt connected to other squad members and did not want to embarrass themselves by avoiding their responsibilities to one another. Newcomers did not feel that same connectedness or pressure.
When a replacement came up, the new man was often placed with a veteran, which broke up existing relationships, and that was resented. The veteran GIs complained, according to Robert Ortalda L/393, about having "to baby sit the new guys." Jim Crafton K/393 felt "a bond" with those he had trained with, but "all of a sudden they were gone, and I spent the rest of the war with guys I didn't know as well." Because everyone had to stay in his foxhole, it was difficult to meet or to spend any time with one another on the Ridge. Jim Langford, whose squad covered some 50 yards on the MLR, said, "all we could do was holler back and forth to one another."
The veterans were of two minds about the new guys: they were pleased to receive additional help, but they were wary of them. Robert Waldrep "was glad to have someone else in the hole, but there wasn't a lot of getting acquainted." Most replacements were frightened, nervous, and uncertain about what to expect, though a few initially viewed combat as "a big game," which could also create problems. Francis Chesnick "felt sorry for them because it took a while to overcome fear, panic, and the unknown." Robert Mitsch said, "Imagine coming up to the front lines not knowing anyone and having to suffer the onslaughts of war." Unlike the trained veterans, who had a month to acclimate to combat and tough living conditions, many replacements had no adjustment time. Scores arrived directly from the States or came from the Army Air Corps, some with infantry training but others not, and there was no opportunity to train them. According to Byron Whitmarsh C/395, a few had never fired an M-1 and didn't know how to dig a foxhole. Sergeant Charles Swann, who served essentially as leader of the Second Platoon L/394, said the "new guys would get in their holes and not come out." David Reagler recalled leading some replacements up to the line. They were carrying all their equipment, and they were walking through snow. "Some of these men started throwing away their blankets or sleeping bags to lighten their loads. I told them they would regret doing so, but it did no good." Veteran soldiers would not have done that.
Because of their inexperience, replacements would, according to Francis Chesnick, "do stupid things — walk around exposed or stick their heads out of the foxhole and look around." John Vasa G/395 said the recruits would do "the damnedest things" — move around at night "when you could be shot by friendly fire" or light up a cigarette in the dark. Some were "super cautious," others "macho and reckless." One night Platoon Sergeant Ken Juhl L/393 put two replacements in a foxhole and told them to stay there. "The next morning they got out and both were killed." Lionel Adda received a new guy who kept repeating, "I want out of here. I will do anything to get out of here." Adda found his behavior demoralizing; fortunately he was sent away. A few resorted to self-inflicted wounds, which GIs viewed the "same as desertion." One night (the time when replacements could be brought up safely) Charles Swann placed two new guys in a hole together and in the early morning one of them shot himself in the foot. "We cursed him and then had to carry his heavy body all the way to the aid station." The next day the other replacement walked up to the aid station and shot himself too. Swann was furious. The newly-wounded guy asked, "Sarge, why are you mad at me? I saved you the trouble of carrying me up here."
Veteran soldiers didn't know what to expect of the new guys and had to learn who was trained and dependable, and who was not. Cliff Selwood and B.C. Henderson both felt welcomed, but then few veterans remained when they joined B/394 in late December and both were trained; however, replacement Jack Stevens C/395 "never felt accepted" by the veterans. The original guys believed replacements were killed and wounded at a faster rate than veteran soldiers, so it was best to avoid them. T.J. Cornett, platoon sergeant B/394, a late arrival at Camp Maxey, was concerned about the men under him ("it relieved some of my tension"), but it "bothered me when I lost men. You would be nice to them, but you didn't want to get too close to them." Jay Burke did not want to know replacements because they would "be here and then gone." Having already experienced the pain of losses, it was thought best not to become emotionally connected to the new guys. Burke admitted he and other veterans "should have taught them how to survive." Certainly it took a while to become combat savvy, to know when incoming artillery shells were going to hit and how close, but no amount of experience could protect any soldier from a shell that landed in his foxhole.
Francis Iglehart saw something of his former self when two 18-year-old replacements arrived exuding a "boyish enthusiasm and an eagerness to help." The veteran soldiers thought the new guys were pretty young, but in reality there was only a year or two difference in age. Iglehart realized that he and the other survivors, through "dumb, mule-like endurance and luck," had become the "old men" of G/393. Shared association through difficult circumstances caused them to have a "possessive" attitude toward their unit. Rank didn't matter for few of the platoon and squad leaders had even received stripes, but "seniority and expertise" earned them the respect of the newcomers.
In time, after a few patrols or a couple of weeks at the front, the replacements would be transformed into veterans. Cliff Selwood, a replacement, became squad leader after his sergeant stepped on a mine and lost a foot. New replacements who came in later thought Selwood was a seasoned combat soldier. "So you can see how quickly we had to learn and display what the real thing was as opposed, to mere training."
Whether veteran or newcomer, the destructive power of artillery shelling terrified everyone because the individual, even the most experienced soldier, was powerless to do anything but burrow in his hole and wait out the onslaught, never knowing whether the next shell would land in his foxhole. Of course, if caught in the open, chances of surviving were greatly diminished. Oakley Honey hated tank fire because "you had the impression that the enemy could see you." Artillery and mortar shelling occurred in two different forms: the barrage that saturated an area with sustained bombing, and the single shell that hit without warning, catching the combat soldier unaware. Both were killers.
When the heaviest bombardment occurred on the first day of the Bulge, Al Boeger C/393 "could not believe you could survive as the ground heaved and great gobs of earth, rock, and stuff came crashing down on you." The Dec. 21 attack, Cliff McDaniel reported, brought "a thunderous burst of shells" and the air was filled with 'the whizzing and zinging' of the shrapnel fragments." Some men broke under the strain. In one case it was American artillery firing short that caused Bill Bray's foxhole mate to break down. Suddenly in the middle of the barrage something landed right in Bray's foxhole. "I held my breath and waited for it to explode. Finally it moved, and it was a man who had gotten up out of his hole and was running around and fell into ours." After the shelling stopped, the two men crouched for two days "whimpering and facing each other with their knees drawn up and blankets over their heads. They had gone to the toilet so many times in their pants" that the stench was overpowering, and Bray asked they be taken back. Bray did not condemn the two men, for the "horror of that artillery would cause a breakdown in the best of us."
John McCoy and Ernest McDaniel learned about random violence that killed suddenly. One day they were asked to give up their foxhole to two newcomers. Unhappily they moved, digging throughout the day to create a new earthen dwelling for themselves. That night the replacements moved into their old hole. Neither McCoy nor McDaniel heard the shell arrive but it crashed into their old foxhole, killing one man and badly wounding the other. "Two replacements, one killed and one wounded, and we didn't even know their names." The near miss and the deadly blow happened by chance.
Death and mutilation could come suddenly from a variety of lethal sources: a single footstep could explode an anti-personnel mine, a burst from the rapid-firing M-42 machine gun could slice a man in two, a fighter plane (Allied or German) could swoop down out of the sky and strafe, or a sniper's bullet could catch the unsuspecting rifleman at an unlikely moment. While the experienced soldier tried to minimize his vulnerability, in truth, fate or luck (good and bad) played the most important part in determining what happened. Byron Reburn likened the fate of a combat infantryman to the journey of the steel ball in the old, mechanical pinball machine. The trigger was pulled, the ball shot out and then rolled downward, pulled by gravity and fate, bouncing off posts, momentarily landing in small holes, then falling into the re-load magazine. The combat soldier was also "propelled without volition or free will," not on a board but "onto the killing fields." His chance of escaping wounds and death was a "mathematical thing, a matter of permutations and combinations — not a good Las Vegas bet." Then the trigger was pulled again.
The prevailing hedge against death and wounds was prayer, which most men practiced. Bill McMurdie realized a combat soldier had to be alert at all times, but that was not enough: "The Lord has to keep you in His protective care, or you will just not make it." For five or six days Joe Waskiewicz A/393 felt he had an angel on his shoulder. "I knew nothing was going to happen to me even though shells were dropping all around me." Fred Verdecchio A/371 asked God "to get me out of this, and I promise I will be a better Christian." Robert Waldrep, whose faith grew stronger "than it ever had been," "put myself in His hands" and "whatever He had in store for me was okay by me." Even McMurdie's foxhole buddy, George Dudley A/394, began "praying like everything," though he confessed to McMurdie that he wondered, "if it will do any good." Prayer indicated the combat soldier's acute sense of helplessness and a recognition he required a higher power to save him. Despite the support of buddies and the Army's arsenal, in the end the individual was on his own. He needed to believe that an omnipotent God cared personally about him. Hopefully this God would prevent serious harm, but if death occurred, the believer would pass into Heaven. The soldier knew other GIs also were pleading for help, even those who were subsequently killed, nevertheless, praying offered an important psychological defense against war's irrational brutality.
Normally the infantry soldier envied and disparaged the Army Air Corps guys who flew bombers and fighters. Flyboys returned to the U.S. after 25 combat missions, while dogfaces had to fight until the war ended. After their missions flight crews could enjoy clean, warm beds, hot meals, and women, whereas the combat soldier lived in cold, muddy foxholes without cooked meals or the pleasures of female companionship. Yet, when the weather cleared finally on Dec. 23, the men on Elsenborn Ridge were elated, not only by the sun, but by the appearance of hundreds of American bombers headed for German targets. To Bill McMurdie "it sure was a beautiful sight to see thousands of planes flying over with the vapor trails marking where they had gone." John McCoy "knew someone was in for a bad time when they reached their target; we actually cheered them on as we looked." That morning Cliff McDaniel "became aware of an all-pervading, ominous, low-pitched rumbling noise that enveloped the whole world about us." When McDaniel and the others looked up, they saw "the skies full from horizon to horizon with masses" of bombers and fighter planes. "The complete beauty of this cannot be appreciated so much as by those who have actually seen it. It made us rejoice at being alive and proud to be Americans." The streams of bombers convinced Lathan Walker F/393 "we were going to win." Feelings of isolation moderated, and combat troops could take pleasure in American power and the revenge that would be inflicted on the enemy. On one occasion a few GIs personally doled out punishment. According to Jim Bussen, after a German fighter plane was hit, the pilot parachuted out and landed 100 yards from his squad. They ran over, "took his leather jacket, boots, and pants and left him standing there for two hours in the snow before they finally sent him back."
Bill Goss A/395 watched a British Spitfire pounce on and shoot down a German fighter. "Then the Spitfire went straight up, did some barrel rolls, came back, waved his wings and took off. It was great." Thor Ronnigen cheered when P-51s "swooped down over enemy lines to strafe or bomb them." Among the few pleasures of being a combat soldier was the opportunity to observe gigantic, deadly spectacles unfold, exciting scenes that no civilian was ever privy to. As Don Wallace L/394 said, "watching dogfights" and seeing "planes go down leaving smoke trails
Enlisted men and officers were permitted, on a rotating basis, to leave the front, usually back to Elsenborn but some traveled to Belgian cities (even Paris and London for a week) to enjoy a shower, hot food, a warm bed, and relief from the tension of the front. Most hadn't changed clothes or bathed since they departed from England in early November. When David Reagler was driven by jeep to Regimental Headquarters near Elsenborn ("I was always envious of anyone who got to ride places instead of walking there as I did"), he noticed a barbershop there. Since his hair was last clipped in England, he asked for a haircut but was turned down because his hair was filthy. Without the slightest sensitivity to conditions at the front or the infantryman's feelings, the barber told Reagler, "You're so dirty that you will ruin my instruments." When Lionel Adda reached Verviers, a city 20 miles northwest of Elsenborn, he showered and then, with his hair still wet, visited a Belgian barber for a haircut. Adda, who knew French, listened to the barber telling his shop mate, "this soldier must have working in a coal mine because his hair is full of soot particles." When Maltie Anderson approached two "attractive" Red Cross women, who were handing out coffee and doughnuts, one of them asked him tactlessly, "What do you do? Work in the coal mines?" So much for respecting the combat soldier and his plight, and their haughty attitude let him know they "were too high status for an enlisted man."
Harry Arnold and a few men from E Company rotated back for a 24-hour respite. They started out walking but then hitched a ride into Elsenborn aboard a weapons carrier. Arnold's spirits rose as the distance from the front increased. "I can't express how new, fresh, and wonderful it was to feel relatively danger free." He was amazed to see men walking about freely, "devoid of that gaunt, strained look common to the front." He had entered "alien country, a land beyond imagination." After a shower, a shave, new, oversized clothing, and hot food, he lay down to sleep but decided "it was foolish to sleep through such civilized pleasure, comfort, and freedom from fear." In the morning they hopped a jeep and returned to the mud, cold, and tension of life at the front.
Ernest McDaniel received permission to go back to Elsenborn and clean up. But when a jeep came by, he and another GI impulsively flagged it down and found themselves happily riding to Verviers. They did not ask the jeep to stop even though it meant they were absent without leave. In Verviers they found to their amazement that civilian life was "going on as usual." Men, women, and children were "scurrying about their business" as if no war existed. But McDaniel noticed people stared at them. He learned the reason when they looked into a storefront mirror and saw their appearance: "Faces totally black from the soot of our gasoline can lamps, clothes soiled and rumpled from two months of field living, and camouflage nets on our steel helmets caked with mud." They resembled coal miners coming off a double shift.
What also caught McDaniel's attention was the presence of color — "women with red coats and children with plaid scarves and blue hats" — all completely foreign, for he had been subsisting in a drab chiaroscuro world of gray, black, white, and olive brown. He had entered a rainbow world of "brightness and light." Color and the absence of color separated peace from war, life from death, and civilization from savagery. The presence of women, the embodiment of life and domesticity, also defined what was different about civilian society. When McDaniel entered a bakery, he "feasted his eyes on the wares." The pastries were quickly forgotten, however, when the "young [counter] girl took my hand and examined my high school ring closely. We said things to each other that neither of us understood, but my heart swelled at her touch." Women meant softness, peace, romance, love, sex, and the end of loneliness. Soon, however, McDaniel was en route back to the front and war. McDaniel's depression may have matched that of Rex Whitehead's, who enjoyed one night behind the lines. "The worst feeling I had during the war was when our truck took us back the next day. I wished I had never left [my foxhole]," for he had learned "what it meant to be warm and safe." Whitehead probably would have been even more disheartened had he been able to spend some time in that Verviers bakery.
During the month of January, storms continued to dump snow and accumulations piled up, which made walking even more difficult. Despite the lack of movement, no one was eager to go on the attack, for plowing through deep snow toward hidden enemy positions was difficult and risky. Nevertheless dreaded reconnaissance patrols were sent out to assess enemy strength and capture prisoners, but hardly anyone volunteered because dark uniforms against white snow lowered the chances for survival.
On Jan. 15, 1945, Regiment Headquarters 394th ordered two large, combat patrols (one from B Company and the other from L Company) to leave the Ridge and engage the enemy. Most patrols were reconnaissance missions to gather information, but combat patrols involved considerable danger. Moreover, these two questionable patrols were demonstrations designed to draw attention away from attacks farther to the north. Large numbers of combat soldiers would naturally attract the attention of the German troops hidden in the woods, so it was probable that American casualties would be high.
Charles Roland, S-3 for the 3rd Battalion 394th, passed the order on personally to Lt. John Comfort, a first-rate officer, who would lead the 50 men drawn from depleted squads of I and L Companies. "We both knew it was a patrol fraught with danger, but Comfort raised no objections." The men started off toward the German lines around 5 a.m. James Langford I/394, who had no knowledge of the patrol, was standing in an outpost some 200 yards in front of the company's foxholes. The moving figures caught his attention. He yelled out: "Halt, who goes there?" A prophetic voice came back to him. "It's only L Company going to get ourselves killed." Despite knowing the odds against them, they continued on the mission. Comfort walked over and spoke to Langford, who warned the Lieutenant, the "Germans will know you are coming." Comfort said nothing, rejoined the patrol, and led the men down the slope, across the frozen stream and then up an incline into the woods. They edged forward a couple hundred yards before a German machine gun fired at them. They knocked out the gun and captured three German prisoners. The patrol began to retreat but came "under intense enemy fire from three directions." They tried to call for smoke from the artillery but the radio, as often happened, wouldn't work. Except for Sgt. Bill Bray (who was wounded) and his squad, who were herding the German prisoners back to the American lines, the rest were captured or killed, including Lt. John Comfort, who had predicted his Company Commander would "get him killed one day." The rest of the Company, Jim Larkey recalled, were "furious, and talked about how stupid it was, wasteful of good men, and nothing was accomplished."
The B Company combat patrol, 30 men and an officer, also were ordered to seek out and fight the enemy. B.C. Henderson, newly arrived, became tense when he heard the plan. The patrol jumped off the Ridge at 4 a.m. and plowed a mile through knee-deep snow. After reaching the edge of the woods, they waited for American fighter planes to strafe the German positions. When it became light and no planes appeared, they moved into the woods. They had gone only a short distance when the Germans opened up on them; at the same time U.S. fighter planes began to strafe "the hell" out of the patrol. When they ran out of ammunition, the order was given to retreat. Henderson, who was hit in the arm, walked back toward the American lines while the Germans continued to fire at him. He ran as far as he could with German bullets kicking up snow all around him. "I would fall face down in the snow from exhaustion and the firing would stop, but as soon as a I could catch my breath, I would get up and run some more and the bullets would start kicking up the snow again." He made it, but only 13 members of the 31-man patrol returned and nine of them were wounded. These two patrols accomplished nothing and foreshadowed another ill-conceived military operation, the crossing of the Danube River that would also produce deadly results.
On Jan. 28, 1945, the 1st Infantry Division and the 82nd Airborne Division jumped off to retake territory lost on the northern shoulder during the Bulge. The next day the 2nd Infantry Division began its offensive, capturing Wirtzfeld and then swinging north through the twin villages. On Jan. 30, with virtually no artillery preparation, the 2nd Battalion 393rd began its assault (Harry Arnold called it a "death march") straight across the open fields in front of its foxholes. Although the departure time was 3 a.m., moving through thigh-deep snow slowed the progress, and the Battalion only reached a hedgerow in front of the woods just before daylight. The Germans opened up with withering rifle and machine gun fire, and E Company, according to Arnold, "was beginning to die, bleeding and freezing to death in two feet of snow in a remote field in an inconsequential action that would not rate mention on page three of a weekly newspaper." The men were pinned down, unable to move forward or find where the bullets were coming from, a constant problem in combat. One newly arrived replacement, a "short, fat boy" had been shot; he was alive but trapped in the open where no one could venture without the probability of being killed. The boy raised himself weakly on an elbow and uttered a faint, anguished cry for the survivors to come to his aid. Finally a tall, gangling medic "stalked upright onto the field with a deliberate pace and stride, giving the Germans ample chance" to see the red crosses on his helmet and armband. But 50 feet out a bullet narrowly missed the medic's head. With that shot the medic turned and jogged back to the tree line. The Germans had established, "for whatever reason," they would not allow anyone to rescue the wounded replacement, and his fate was sealed. He remained alive until mid-afternoon when his movements became less frequent. Long after the war, Harry Arnold was haunted by "the tragedy of that boy who died so senselessly and so alone within sight of our eyes."
Though the first attack had failed, a second was ordered. It fared no better, and the men spent the day crouched down behind a hedgerow. Even after it grew dark, E Company was not allowed to retreat and spent the night in a howling blizzard. Three Germans attempted to surrender but after the day's events, according to Radford Carroll, the men "were not in a civilized mood, and the Germans were killed where they stood." Before dawn, artillery support finally arrived as hundreds of shells rained down on the German positions. At daylight the Company walked into the woods and discovered the Germans had all fled, except the dead ones scattered amongst the trees. The Battalion continued pushing eastward for several days and then returned to the Ridge.
Company G/393 also participated in the attack, but, since Regimental Commander Jean Scott wanted a surprise attack, there would be no artillery preparation. Because the moon was full, Francis Iglehart, BAR gunner and assistant squad leader, believing they would "stand out like black bulls-eyes on a white background," raised objections with his squad leader. Sergeant Mike Kelly lost his temper, called him a "smart-ass college kid," and threatened to transfer him to another platoon where he would "become a rifleman among relative strangers, an internal exile shunned as a pariah." At 3 a.m. they filed down the moonlit plain and entered the woods where they ran into German machine gun fire and mortar rounds. A number of men were wounded, including Iglehart; a mortar shell fragment hit his leg with enough force that it seemed "a giant had kicked [him] in the left thigh with football cleats." Iglehart survived but several of his squad members did not. Thirty-four men of the 393rd Regiment lost their lives during the last two days of January.
On Jan. 31, the 2nd Battalion 394th launched an attack just to the north of the 393rd's engagement. They left in a swirling snowstorm and succeeded in crossing the open ground without resistance. But in the forest, forward progress was halted by enemy fire that pinned down E and F Companies. This commercial forest had been planted like an Iowa cornfield with rows of trees and 30-foot firebreaks in between the stands of pine. Richard King's squad was leading the way as point, and as they approached a firebreak, machine gun bullets "sounding like mad hornets" buzzed over their heads. King buried himself in the snow. His buddy Al Busse ran by him and out into the firebreak shouting, "Come on King, let's go." Those were his last words "as he stopped and sat down in the snow, which was above his knees." King yelled at him to get up and run into the trees but Busse couldn't hear him. Later, after G Company flanked the Germans and routed them, King went back to Busse. "He was still sitting there, and he still couldn't hear me. There was one small hole just under his right eye where the bullet had entered his brain. I had seen other dead and badly wounded men before, but that sight burned into my mind." Frightened and concerned about his "own survival," King did not pray then, but over the years said "many prayers" for "his friend" who, along with eight others of 394th died that bleak, winter day.
The attack ended a couple of days later, and the sleep-deprived men dragged themselves back to Elsenborn Ridge. A thaw had begun and melting snow filled the foxholes with ice water. Consequently, the men slept on the ground, but this time with fires burning. For the first time in 84 days the 99th was not in direct contact with the enemy. It seemed strange not to hear and worry about the noise and threat of incoming artillery shells. For six weeks this barren plateau had been occupied by thousands of men who endured bitter cold, shell fragment wounds, trench foot, and "an underlying dread that in due time death would find them." Leaving the Ridge hit George Miller "emotionally," a mixture of relief and joy, for he "had made it." Ernest McDaniel, one of the last to depart, scanned the empty rolling fields suddenly "devoid of movement or human activity." It was eerily peaceful, seemingly not the site of a great battle; except for those who fought there, it had no significance. Only they would not forget what happened on that isolated Ridge in Belgium during the winter of 1944-1945.
Next: "The 99th Goes on the Offensive."