The 99th Division Goes to War years ago
By Robert E. Humphrey
© Copyright 2003
In the early morning hours of Sept. 30, 1944, the 15,000 men of the 99th Infantry Division departed in six troop ships for the cold battlefields of Europe. Enlisted men endured primitive accommodations. Deep below the waterline, they were assigned to canvas bunks, five or six high, on racks 24 inches apart, while officers shared cabins on the upper decks. Space was so limited for enlisted men that gear was crammed into bunks and piled everywhere, making a quick exit impossible. In the event of a torpedo attack, they had little chance of reaching the lifeboats. Two meals a day were served to an almost continuous feeding line of GIs standing, gulping, and trying to keep their balance in rough seas. The food bordered on the inedible — green eggs or "scrambled eggs that tasted like burnt horsehair" for breakfast, and hot dogs, beans, boiled salt pork, boiled potatoes, and hash for the second meal. Consequently, "an awful lot of food was thrown overboard." Men resorted to purchasing candy at the PX or buying from the ship's crew, who, Joe Thimm K/395 said, "were very willing to sell sandwiches for an inflated price."
Tasteless chow wasn't the only problem. Many men became seasick. John McCoy F/393 recalled, "it was not uncommon for those who were seasick to lean over their bunks and puke down toward the floor. Of course, some of this would hit others in the lower bunks." The floors and stairwells turned slippery and smelly. Vomit clogged 10-foot long urinals, and urine sloshed over the sides and poured onto the floor. "If you weren't sick already," Roy Putnam L/393 remembered vividly, "you would be after you visited the latrine." The mixture of vomit, sweat (only cold sea water showers were available), engine oil, spoiled milk, and tobacco smoke transformed the lower decks into a steerage cruise from hell.
To escape the cramped, stifling quarters below, men spent as much time as allowed on deck where they wrote letters, played chess, and gambled almost nonstop. Some guys, according to Joe Thimm, wanted to read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" because "it had been banned in Boston and one of the characters used the word, "f — k." Others studied a book of French phrases distributed by the Army. Since no one told them about the division's destination, fantasies about meeting lovely French women no doubt spurred a newly acquired interest in the Romance language. At one point a German submarine scare sent everyone scurrying topside to watch the dropping of depth charges. For those not seasick, however, the days passed slowly, providing ample time to ponder what lay ahead. Most hoped the war would end before they reached the continent. Some speculated they might become occupation troops, for surely the Army wouldn't send so many talented enlisted men into harm's way. These hopes soon would be shattered.
In early October 1944, after 11 days, the ships mercifully arrived at various ports in Great Britain. When the SS Argentina docked at Southampton, Harry Arnold E/393, was disappointed no crowds or bands welcomed them. Bored, one of the soldiers blew up a condom and sailed it onto the dock. A British worker retrieved the condom, let the air out and pocketed it. Other GIs then contributed to the "rubber" mammon. "More condoms began to drift about, and more people arrived to claim them. Soon the air was filled with the white rubber globes, and everybody in the vicinity seemed to have a considered use for them, even the women." Apparently not just food was scarce in Britain.
The troops boarded British Railway cars that "seemed small and quaint" compared to American trains. On the way the men shouted out greetings to local citizens, but were largely ignored. Having learned that American soldiers meant the possibility of candy and gum ("any gum, chum?"), children approached troop trains wherever the opportunity presented itself. At one stop, Charles Roland 3/394, remembered, the kids swarmed over the fence and around the cars begging for sweets. One of the soldiers threw them a packet of "uneatable" K-ration crackers. "A pretty little girl about seven years old," looked down disdainfully at the ration and then at the soldier who tossed it. "Those f — king biscuits are useless," she shouted. Obviously she not only knew about Army prepackaged food but had learned its vernacular as well.
Quartered for three weeks in camps near Dorchester in southern England (35 miles west of Southampton), the division hiked (inevitably in pouring rain) through the lovely, green countryside, cleaned weapons, and participated in close-order drills. Some men received passes and visited English pubs in nearby towns where they drank warm beer and played darts. Those granted three-day passes rode trains to London where they took in historical sites and encountered Piccadilly Circus prostitutes, who often performed their services in alleyways standing up, an uncanny feat of human engineering. John Thornburg L/394 and a buddy "semi-seriously" propositioned two "Piccadilly Commandos" but were rejected with, "Sorry boys, only officers." Where better to suffer again from institutionalized inequality than in Britain, where social class determined privilege and pleasure?
Since the Army appeared in no hurry to send the division to the front, rumors persisted the 99th would be used as "a constabulary force to take over and run the occupied areas attired in white helmets and leggings." Other speculation involved more uninviting assignments, including an invasion of Norway as winter approached. Shortly before final orders arrived, Harry Arnold received a visit from his older brother, a major in the Medical Corps. Wilbur Arnold said he could "wrangle a transfer to the Medical Corps," where Harry might "spend the rest of the war in England." Harry declined the offer because he "wanted to go on with the boys."
In the predawn hours of Nov. 3, 1944, the division began departing for the Southampton docks. Having drawn a map showing the anticipated travel route for the First Battalion 394th, Jim Bishop knew their ultimate destination, hence at "evening chow my appetite was poor." The men wore the greenish-brown woolen uniforms (olive drabs or ODs as they were called), and long, heavy, wool overcoats, while lugging full field packs, duffel bags, and individual weapons. Around 1 a.m. the Headquarters Company 1/394 marched through the darkened cobblestone streets of Bridport. Despite the lateness of the hour, people stood in the doorways or leaned out from upstairs windows and softly offered words of encouragement, "Good luck, boys" and "God bless you all." From one of the upper windows "a gruff" voice sang out, "'give 'em 'ell, Yanks!'" Some of the guys flashed the familiar V for victory sign as "we moved quietly on our way." So began the greatest and most dangerous adventure of their lives.
Because of a steady rain and choppy Channel seas, the departure for the Continent was delayed 36 hours. Some men waited patiently in dockside sheds listening to drops pelting the metal roofs; others marked time on troop carriers. In poor lighting they played poker and shot craps; many wrote letters, an important way of staying connected to home and family thousands of lonesome miles away. Finally LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) and British coastal steamers began the 115-mile journey to the port of LeHavre, France. Except for a few "gung-ho" types, the men were nervous, unsure of what they might encounter, and as Harry Arnold commented, "in no particular hurry to mix it up with the Krauts."
If the soldiers expected to be greeted enthusiastically as liberators, they were in for a rude shock. Allied bombers had repeatedly attacked LeHavre, inflicting massive damage on the harbor and city. The sight of this destruction produced, according to Paul Weesner E/395, a "rather serious note" among his group. Harry Arnold observed buildings "cleaved apart with sections still standing, interiors exposed, with furniture, plumbing, and the usual trappings of civilized existence suspended over an abyss as though defying gravity." This was a foretaste of what they would witness on a larger scale in Germany, for modern warfare technology permitted combatants to level entire cities in a way that had previously been unknown. Several thousand LeHavre civilians had been killed and more than 35,000 left homeless. Consequently, as 99ers walked through the rubble, French dock workers cursed them. Jim Bishop didn't understand the reason for such unfriendliness, but "some of the guys shot them the finger." This enmity between 99ers and the French would persist during and after the war.
Proceeding several blocks, the troops met a long line of 2 1/2-ton trucks (the Army's prime mover) and jeeps that would carry them close to the front. One black driver leaned out of his truck and yelled at David Reagler I/394, "Whatch [sic] you all doin' here? You don't need to be here. Ain't no more Lufie Wafty [Luftwaffe] here." Reagler certainly would have preferred not to be there, needed or not. The men piled into the vehicles and began the long, miserable journey, bivouacking the first night near Rouen, France. Pitching tents (two "shelter halves" bound together) in an orchard while a chilly rain poured down, they discovered the lumps under their thin, olive drab sleeping bags and blankets were not rotten apples but cow pies. Curses about the weather, cow manure, and the smelly aroma could be heard in the encampment. "Cow shit! Goddamn cow shit! We're in the middle of a bunch of cow shit!" Then someone replied: "Welcome to France." When Bill McMurdie's Platoon A/394 returned to their tents after breakfast the next morning, they discovered French kids had stolen some equipment. For McMurdie and others this thievery seemed "a very thankless, low down deed after our armed forces had freed them from the Nazis."
The next morning the convoy resumed (in a staggered schedule) its 265-mile trek bound for fields, forests, and barns near Aubel, Belgium, a few miles from the front lines. Fourteen men, packed together on two benches running lengthwise, sat uncomfortably upright in each truck, while an officer or noncom rode with the driver. Rain continued to fall and then turned to sleet. The trucks with canvas tops provided some protection from the elements, but several vehicles were open, and everyone suffered from the damp cold. Traveling eastward the convoy passed buildings pockmarked with machine gun bullets, houses with roofs blown open, doors missing, shutters hanging loosely, and walls caved in. In one small village "every house and building had been set afire and all were completely gutted." Here and there they passed wrecked, burned German Army vehicles and tanks with "white Maltese crosses glistening in the rain," the wasted wreckage of war and "evidence of angry, deadly exchanges." As they came upon a huge American cemetery, Harry Arnold stared intently at white crosses "as far as we could see — and more graves were being dug in readiness" for new arrivals. "We were acutely aware that most of them would be filled with infantrymen. Each of us, no doubt, wondered if we were soon to occupy" the fresh holes. The mood grew somber.
French villages appeared deserted, and the few people they saw remained uninterested in the passing Army convoy. As John Baxter's K/393 truck crept through one town, they encountered an old Frenchman standing alone on an empty street corner. Travis Mathis leaned out the back of the truck and playfully asked in a Southern drawl, "Hey, Mister, how far are we from Okolona, Ark.?" But this moment of levity could not alleviate their disappointment at the indifferent reception by the French.
Once the convoy moved into Belgium, however, the reception changed. The Belgians cheered, waved, yelled "kill les Boche," flashed the victory sign, and presented the 99ers with bread, fruit, and wine. One elderly lady ran out with a pan and offered Bill Bray L/394 delicious, hot pea soup. The warmth and friendliness lifted everyone's spirits and showed people appreciated their arrival.
The Static Front
(Nov. 10-Dec. 16, 1944)
When the 99th Division arrived at its staging area, men heard muffled thunder and saw yellow fulmination of deadly artillery shells in the east. Nevertheless they were told this was a quiet, static sector and nothing would happen until spring. Just before they boarded trucks for the front, Francis Iglehart G/393, standing in cold, dreary rain, received a jovial letter from a "Vassar girl" with whom he was corresponding. She described an "outing in Greenwich Village with 4-F type dates where everybody had a simply wonderful time smoking their first joints." Precisely at that moment the contrast between his miserable situation and the enjoyment of those sitting out the war came crashing down on him. The letter reminded Iglehart that some men, perhaps using contrived excuses, were not making similar sacrifices.
The three regiments of the 99th were deployed along the front line, which snaked its way more than 20 miles by the Belgium-German border in a hilly area interspersed with streams and covered by a dense growth of fir trees. Although the distance was far too great for a single division to defend, Army Command assumed the difficult typography of the forested Ardennes and weakened German forces would prevent a serious threat to this "quiet" sector.
The division was placed opposite the so-called Siegfried Line, defensive barriers (three staggered defenses) composed of concrete anti-tank blocks (popularly known as dragon's teeth), steel-reinforced pillboxes, bunkers, barbed wire, and mines spaced along Germany's western border. Hitler believed this West Wall would protect his realm from any Allied incursion, for artillery, mortars, and machine guns were zeroed in on whoever tried to breach the line. While his maniacal assumption about the Wall's invincibility was grossly exaggerated, overcoming these reinforced positions sometimes proved a difficult undertaking.
The three Regiments were assigned different sections of the line. The 395th Regiment was to hold the north, with the 3rd Battalion stationed in the German village of Hofen. The 393rd Regiment was placed in the center, while the 394th occupied the southern segment near the village of Losheimergraben and the so-called Buchholz railroad station. Its sector alone stretched 6,500 yards or 3.6 miles of dense forest. Large gaps also existed because some companies were held in reserve behind the main line of resistance (MLR), so individual foxholes had to be placed widely apart from each other. John Rarick's squad (2nd Platoon, C/393) of 13 men covered two blocks on the east side of the International Highway where "the trees were so massive that it was dark in the daytime." When Sam Lombardo, a replacement platoon leader for I/394, arrived at the front, he noticed that foxholes were separated by 200 to 300 yards. When he asked the company commander about the excessive spacing, which would be "difficult to defend," Captain James Morris replied, "Forget what they taught you at Fort Benning. This is the way they told us to do it over here." Since the German forces were reeling from a series of defeats, virtually no one at U.S. Army Command thought it possible the enemy would attempt to penetrate the American front in the Ardennes. Consequently, establishing an indefensible line with an inadequate force seemed to be an efficient use of manpower. Army Command was, however, sadly mistaken and combat infantrymen suffered the devastating consequences.
It was cold and dark when the 3rd Battalion/395 replaced elements of the 5th Armored Division in Hofen. They arrived after a long, frigid trip in uncovered trucks. There were no flags and no crowds to cheer them on; in fact, the inhabitants had fled eastward or had been relocated by American authorities. George Neill L/395 said the "area gave many of us a feeling of foreboding" as they arrived in Hitler's Germany. When Paul Putty I/395 approached a foxhole, he encountered four GIs "who were in a great hurry to be relieved." They clambered out of their "dugout enclosure and quickly disappeared into the darkness. They neither said 'hello' or 'good-bye' — or gave us any clue as to the direction or distance of the enemy." Rather than alleviating anxiety, the 5th Armored troops left the 99ers apprehensive and unsure about what they might face.
Other battalions of the 99th replaced the battle-tested 9th Infantry Division, which had fought in the bloody, disastrous Huertgen Forest campaign but were recuperating and reorganizing in the Ardennes. Byron Reburn remembered L Company/394 "standing like harnessed draft horses, vapor rising from the irregular columns of young men, humbled by the penetrating cold, the impersonal discipline, and the gods of fate that put us there." Although happy to be replaced, the dirty, disheveled, and bearded 9th Division GIs expressed no gratitude to the clean-shaven 99ers; instead, John Mellin A/394 recalled, they taunted us by saying, "look at all those clean uniforms." Another group shouted derisively at Harry Arnold's company: "Is this what the War Department is using for soldiers?" Deriding the "green" newcomers gave them a sense of superiority and at the same time, put pressure on the 99ers to measure up to veteran outfits. Of course, this meant overcoming their fears both of the Germans and of the possibility they couldn't do the job. Radford Carroll E/393 confessed, "My biggest fear going into combat was that I would turn out to be a coward." The American ethos of masculinity, expressed in sports, movies, magazines, and in public discourse, held men up to tough standards; it included the requirement that "real" men endure physical and psychological pain, never show fear, and never back down from a challenge, especially one imposed by other males.
The 9th Division soldiers had dug foxholes covered with branches and logs, which offered protection from artillery shells that hit tall pines, sending deadly wood splinters and metal fragments downward. The 99ers proceeded to expand dugouts and erect log huts behind the line for warming and sleeping as they expected to spend the winter there. A foot of snow lay on the ground when the 99th took up positions along the International Highway on Belgium's eastern border. The white fields and snow-topped pines created a picturesque winter setting that produced fleeting moments of joy. Bill McMurdie wrote his parents describing an idyllic scene of "fir trees covered with snow from top to bottom like some Christmas card. It all seemed to be in a dream world and made the war sort of out of place." The contrast between beauty and destruction, peace and war, life and death, civilization and savagery would sometimes present itself in stark incongruity. But McMurdie could not linger, for German patrols lurked in those dark forests and living in cold, wet foxholes spoiled aesthetic pleasure.
With each passing winter day, the hours of daylight decreased (daylight began around 8:30 a.m. and night fell at 4 p.m.), which meant the long hours of darkness added to the gloomy chill and uncertain danger. Even though American forces had already experienced frigid conditions in mountainous Italy, the U.S. Command did not furnish the 99th and other divisions in Northern Europe with proper winter clothing. Neither the wool dress uniform nor the combat field jacket was heavy enough (let alone waterproof) to keep soldiers warm and dry. To compensate for this inadequacy, GIs put on as many layers of clothing as they could find, including several pairs of long johns and ODs. Nevertheless infantry soldiers suffered greatly from the cold, living in wet dugouts and shallow foxholes without heat. There was, according to Stewart Fischer K/395, "very little to do it except feel sorry for oneself." He learned "the contribution of the infantryman was not in heroic action but in existing under miserable living conditions."
The Army's wool overcoat proved burdensome, for it absorbed water, adding considerable weight to what a soldier already had to carry. Many soldiers abandoned them and some even discarded their bayonets. Another dangerous deficiency was the absence of white camouflage so soldiers could blend with the snow. Infantrymen tried to overcome this blunder by appropriating white tablecloths and sheets from abandoned Belgium and German homes, but there wasn't enough material for all riflemen.
The most grievous problem for the infantry was the lack of waterproof footwear. Initially many GIs wore World War I vintage shoes with khaki canvas leggings. Not only did the shoes fail to keep out the rain and snow, but also soggy leggings made certain that ankles and calves stayed damp and cold. The newer World War II combat boots included a leather cuff that replaced the leggings. Nevertheless, the boots leaked, so soldiers standing in water or moving through snow developed "frozen feet" and "trench foot," which cut off circulation and caused gangrene. Men were instructed to put on dry socks daily, but this was difficult to do regularly. Most men had two pairs of socks; while one pair was worn, the other was placed next to the skin so body heat would dry it. Nonetheless, John Mellin recounted, "Your feet were soon wet again anyway." General Lauer, who lived indoors, remained unsympathetic to the plight of his troops. He issued an order that trench foot was to be regarded "in the same category as a self-inflicted wound," which apparently could mean a court martial offense. Although some men did not attend to their feet, even the most conscientious soldiers could not protect themselves when they lived in mud and snow. The Army also issued rubber galoshes, but not in sufficient quantities or in large enough sizes to cover the leather boots. Some GIs who obtained overshoes discarded their boots and wore multiple pairs of socks with straw and rags stuffed in their galoshes. It made for tough walking but their feet stayed dry and warmer.
Food is vital for combat soldiers, especially when fighting in winter. Insufficient food reduces energy, causes sickness, increases suffering, and demoralizes the individual. Unlike divisional and regimental officer staffs who enjoyed sit-down, hot meals, the infantrymen of the 99th Division often did not receive adequate quantities of food. The best meals consisted of food prepared by cooks just behind the front or carried to them in insulated marmite containers. Nevertheless, when it rained or snowed, hot food, plopped into the metal mess kits, quickly turned cold and mushy.
The most common method of feeding the infantry platoons was with packaged and canned rations. K-rations consisted of Cracker Jacks-size boxes that held breakfast, lunch, and supper meals — each box was appropriately identified as "breakfast," "dinner," and "supper." The entrees (in tuna-sized cans) were respectively ham and concentrated eggs, cheese, and canned meat. A separate plastic bag contained four biscuits, hard candy, packets of instant coffee, a bouillon cube, four cigarettes, a pack of matches, and sheets of brown toilet paper. Light in weight, a soldier could carry a day's worth of "meals," and the waxed boxes were torn into small squares and burned to heat a cup of bouillon or coffee. K-rations represented one of many unpleasant shocks GIs faced overseas. David Reagler remembered his first K-ration breakfast. He found "the odor so repulsive" he couldn't eat it. Eventually he ate K-rations to survive but "never liked them" and found the food monotonous and awful.
A meal of C-rations included two medium-sized cans: one contained a greasy entree (ham and scrambled eggs, meat and vegetable hash, meat and beans). Stuart Kline P/099 thought the meat entrees "looked and smelled like dog food." Spaghetti and beans and wieners were favorites, but James Langford I/394 (and others) suspected these were seized by rear echelon soldiers "before they got as far forward as we were." The second, olive drab C-ration can held three biscuits, three pieces of candy, packs of instant coffee, sugar, salt and pepper, and brown toilet paper. The C-rations were heavy, so if the troops moved into an attack, the cans proved cumbersome, and in frigid weather the contents froze. If some heat could be generated, the C-ration entree could be eaten hot or at least warm. One possible advantage of these rations was fewer bowel movements, not insignificant when forced to straddle latrine trenches or use "cat holes" in rain, snow, and freezing wind.
Finally there was an emergency D-ration, a semisweet chocolate bar, packed full of calories, vitamins, and nutrients, but so hard that small slivers could best be chipped away with a knife. Each man also carried a metal canteen of water, a vital liquid purified with Halazone tablets that gave it an unpleasant taste. The water in canteens turned to ice in freezing temperatures, so men had to thaw them by using body heat. Finding potable water often proved a difficult and dangerous task even amidst the snow.
Besides his nine-pound M-1 rifle (one squad member toted the 22-pound Browning Automatic Rifle), an infantryman carried at least 19 clips of ammunition, two grenades, a 2.75-pound gray-green, steel helmet with plastic liner and knit cap, a first aid kit, a web belt with ammo pouches, back pack, poncho, sleeping bag, a "shelter half," pegs, a gas mask pouch filled with personal items, and a small entrenching tool that functioned as both a pick and a shovel. A human packhorse, the GI also was expected to dig his own shelter. If World War I in Western Europe was characterized by trench combat, World War II was fought from foxholes. When the front line remained stationary, a hole could be reused, but once on the move (or ordered to relocate) the combat soldier had to repeatedly scoop out a new, temporary home, a tedious, difficult task, especially in frozen ground.
These newly arrived combat soldiers had to contend with a series of shocks, both physical and psychological. Barracks and indoor facilities were replaced by foxholes and straddle trenches, mild weather by snow and freezing cold, security by danger, relaxation by anxiety, and hot food by cold rations. While training had toughened them, nothing prepared combat soldiers for the horrible conditions of that winter on the front line in the Ardennes.
Although the men were nervous and tense, the main line of resistance was mostly quiet and not at all what 99ers expected. When Howard Bowers D/394 arrived near Losheimergraben, it was dark, but the 9th Division men "we were replacing had built a bonfire and were running around shouting and yelling." The officers immediately ordered the fire to be extinguished. Bill Bray, who occupied ground farther south, was told by departing 9th Division soldiers: "'don't bother [the Germans] when you have to go on patrol and they won't bother you. Don't tell the officers as they know nothing of the agreement.'" For Bray, "this wasn't exactly war as I envisioned it." Since the officers were "not around," he and his squad decided to continue the noncombatant arrangement. When Bray was on outpost, he and his mates built a fire to keep warm, and the Germans did not attack them. One night two German soldiers (a young boy and an older man) walked in and surrendered. The Germans showed Bray and his mates a new carbine as they all sat around a campfire and communicated as best they could. "We gave them some of our rations and after an hour or so," two of the men took the prisoners back to headquarters. "This seemed like a strange kind of war" to Bray, for it contradicted the propaganda films and the combat training at Camp Maxey. Lathan Walker F/393 and his squad initially adopted a similar approach to the enemy, which any officer would have hotly condemned. On patrol they spotted some Germans, but "since they didn't shoot at us, we decided not to shoot at them." Their actions did not stem entirely from wanting to be prudent; they carried civilian strictures against killing to the front.
Stewart Fischer was pulling sentry duty one night at platoon headquarters in a Hofen farmhouse attic when someone came running toward him. He shouted for the figure to stop and in turn received a burst of automatic weapon fire. Fischer retaliated by firing his M-1 rifle four times and then heard moaning. When the Germans fired a flare, he spotted someone lying on the ground. He feared leaving the farmhouse because there might be more enemy soldiers in the area. The wounded German groaned repeatedly over the next few hours, but Fischer "was unable to do anything about helping him." After daylight he examined the soldier and discovered "two of his shots had hit the German, and he was dead." Rather than celebrating his accomplishment, Fischer felt guilty about not going to the wounded man's aid. "I was convinced that I had violated one of the 10 Commandments, and that I would be assigned to eternal damnation." His sense of guilt indicated that Army training and indoctrination had failed to root out Christian beliefs he had acquired at home and in church. The suffering of the German soldier had made it clear he was not simply a faceless enemy. While on patrol a few days later Fischer stepped on a mine and was badly wounded. Fischer concluded he had been punished for his transgression.
When Lou Pedrotti L/395 entered the "little German gingerbread town" of Hofen with its "quaint" cottages, "it didn't resemble the Nazi village we had fought for at Camp Maxey. Except for the V-1 rockets whizzing by overhead and the sound of gunfire, we could have been a crew on location from Universal Studios." Snowflakes, not noisy shells, were falling, so the scene was at once picturesque and "surreal." Harry Arnold, whose Company E/393 occupied the front lines a few miles south of Hofen, found the battlefield not what he had anticipated. "I had pictured it many times in my mind. I would have to crawl hundreds of yards under fire to relieve a man in the hole in ground churned up by the constant artillery fire, and bodies would be all over the place." Still, the Germans were out there, not far away, and after settling into his shallow hole, he and his buddy "spent hours constructing possible events in our minds and planning probable countermeasures." Arnold's nightmare scenario would come to pass, but not just yet.
In spite of the unexpected lack of fighting, initial nights in the Ardennes generated fear and uncertainty. Standing guard duty alone in a foxhole, Jack Prickett L/393 remembered, "seemed like a lifetime." Bill Lefevre A/395, whose Company was located a few miles south of Hofen, "strained to tell if noises in the dark were caused by animals or an enemy patrol." He held a "grenade in one hand, a rosary in the other." For those units in the forests, peering into the darkness caused GIs to imagine German soldiers (referred to as Krauts or Jerries) moving stealthily behind the trees. When snow dropped off pine branches or limbs cracked during breezy nights, the noise seemed to resemble hobnailed boots advancing toward American positions. John McCoy, who was "scared stiff," admitted he had trouble sleeping because of a constant, "urgent" need "to urinate." Yet when he tried to go, only a few drops were produced. After several weeks his body returned to a normal condition, and he could sleep. Fear never left, but the experienced soldier learned to function anyway.
Division headquarters ordered all units to send out day and night patrols into no man's land, both to gather intelligence and to season the "green" troops. Soldiers hated patrols because they were forced to leave the safety of foxholes and move into unfamiliar territory where the enemy operated. There were two types of patrols: the reconnaissance and the combat. The reconnaissance patrol involved a small (quieter) group of infantrymen whose mission was to gather intelligence about German strength and possibly capture an enemy soldier for information. The combat patrol was large (and therefore noisy), composed of 40 to 50 men, with the objective of killing the enemy in a deadly encounter. But the enemy also could kill.
A few men initially thought patrols would be exciting; Bill Bray admitted, "My buddy and I assumed it would be like playing cowboys and Indians." The boyish lure of mystery, danger, and adventure drew some GIs into the forests where adrenaline-pumping action might be found. On his first patrol Bray and others discovered a minefield and returned to convey the information. "They [battalion staff officers] didn't believe us. So they sent out a second patrol to make sure we weren't lying." On the second patrol, a sergeant tripped on a mine and was castrated. Bray became disillusioned with patrols, as it seemed they had risked their lives for intelligence no one heeded. Shortly thereafter, on Nov. 18, 1944, the 394th Infantry suffered its first death when a lieutenant was killed on a reconnaissance patrol. When Company Commander Allen Ferguson led a daylight, combat patrol to recover the lieutenant's body, he and Private First Class Clarence Robinson, Jr., were cut down by German machine gun fire. (Bray speculated they had moved too close to the German lines, so the "arrangement" broke down.) These deaths stunned L Company, though Charles Swann L/394 thought Ferguson had foolishly tried to prove how fearless he was. Bill Bray said Ferguson's death was "a shocker for me." He decided not to volunteer for any more patrols.
The death of Robinson, "a handsome youth of sweet disposition, and innocent of world events, who accepted his station in life without bitterness or rancor," saddened Byron Reburn. He last saw Robinson alive when he shouldered his machine gun and walked off with his comrades into the woods. The next time he saw Robinson was when they carried his body back to the platoon. Reburn wrote:
"He had not changed. There were no signs of mortal wounds or suffering. It appeared as though he had merely fallen asleep. Still handsome. Still a picture of youthful innocence. I looked on impassively. Some cursed. One or two threatened revenge. No one prayed."
Even extensive military training could not prepare soldiers for the death of American GIs, especially men they knew. Stanley Hancock A/394, an aggressive rifleman, came upon a dead American in the forest who "lay in the cold, snowy darkness of the Ardennes." To Hancock the "war was no longer a game; it was terrifyingly real." Before reaching the front, these young soldiers had repressed the possibility of their own death or that of friends. Most remained optimistic they would survive, a psychological defense allowing them to function under stressful circumstances. Seeing dead comrades brought not only sadness but the realization they could be next. At one point Jack Prickett told himself, "I am going to die in some unknown place in Belgium, and no one is going to know." It must have entered the conscious or subconscious of each soldier that he could perish alone thousands of miles from home, and his death would have no meaning except to other squad members and his family, who would receive an impersonal telegram from the Army. This "sobering" conclusion hit Bill McMurdie when, serving as first scout on a reconnaissance patrol near Losheim in the southeast corner of Belgium, he came upon a dead German soldier, "the first dead person" he had ever seen. "He looked so small and insignificant, even though his body was bloated from lying there for some days. I could not help but ask myself if each one of us was so small and so insignificant as this."
The individual soldier needed to feel that he counted and that others cared about him. Given the impersonal conditions of the Army and combat, a foxhole buddy and other squad members became extremely important; they could help you survive both physically and mentally. In many respects family members could not fill that role because they lived thousands of miles away. More importantly, only fellow soldiers, who endured the hard conditions in training and at the front, could understand. In becoming infantrymen each soldier had left civilian life to join a special fraternity, and for a time, they were closer to one another than to parents, siblings, perhaps even spouses.
Since most men preferred not to go on patrols, platoon sergeants picked "volunteers." There were exceptions to this unspoken coercion. The men of Company I/394 so respected platoon leader Lieutenant Sam Lombardo, they did not have to be selected. Like others, James Larkey trusted and admired Lombardo: "When Sam said he needed volunteers, I volunteered." Earle Slyder F/395 felt the same about First Lieutenant Earl Bennett: "He would say come along and follow me, and we did." Most infantrymen obeyed the request to go on patrol; a few would become ill and go back to the first aid station. Once a BAR man "accidentally" dropped his weapon in the mud just before a patrol, an act, which Bill Bray thought, should have merited a court martial. Jack Prickett recalled an instance when the platoon sergeant designated a replacement to be scout for a patrol. The replacement declined: "Hell no," he said. "You want to get me killed. You can shoot me right now, but I am not going." The other infantrymen were shocked and angry at this response; it was unheard of that someone directly refused an order. Prickett offered to lead but said to the replacement, "I'll take the point this time, but next time you will, or I will shoot you myself."
The time leading up to patrol duty produced anxiety, especially if there was a long waiting period before shoving off. Men would clean their weapons, sharpen knives, remove noise-producing equipment, including the second set of dog tags, and try to sleep. Ernest McDaniel F/393, who developed a close relationship with John McCoy, would give him a "ring and other personal belongings with the unspoken understanding that these would be sent to the family" if he didn't return. Once underway in daylight the riflemen visually scoured the landscape, looking intently for potential places of enemy ambush and at the same time picked out a tree or depression that might offer some protection if bullets suddenly cracked the silence. Nighttime generated even more fear because it was difficult to see and easy to become lost. Footsteps crunching the snow, coughs, and clanging equipment seemed amplified in the cold, quiet darkness. Because the Germans used mines and booby traps extensively, (vicious weapons almost impossible to detect) each step was fraught with the possibility of amputation or death. Returning to one's own line also brought considerable risk, for nervous comrades could and did fire by mistake.
Orders for patrols came from the command staffs safely situated several miles from the front. Consequently they were uninformed or chose to ignore the tactical difficulties patrols faced. Matthew Legler, commander of the First Battalion 393rd, was instructed to send out a patrol on a bright, moonlit night even though the dark-uniformed men would have to cross open, snow-covered fields. Legler attempted unsuccessfully to have the order rescinded; the patrol was attacked, and there were casualties as he predicted. Once, however, Frank Hoffman E/395 witnessed a scene in which company commander George Balach, a Native American, took off his 45-caliber pistol, laid it on a major's desk and told the battalion commander that he thought a patrol was unworkable. The battalion commander "backed down."
The men were never told the significance or importance of a mission. They assumed the command staffs had good reasons for their decisions, but that was not always the case. Unable to counterman orders, some patrol leaders decided, out of fear or good sense, to venture out a couple hundred yards, hunker down for an hour or so and then return. George Lehr F/393 went on such a patrol, going out a ways and then "we slunk back to our lines. Needless to say I was not about to complain." The same happened to John McCoy; "it was safer, but you felt like a heel." Joe Thimm had a similar experience. At Hofen he and others headed eastward toward German positions, but the incompetent squad leader announced that he had "lost" the map, and so they couldn't go farther; they returned much to the dismay of a couple guys. James Larkey went on a patrol led by an "old cadre sergeant." We moved out, "laid down in the snow, waited a while and then went back." Glad not to have encountered any Germans, Larkey nevertheless "thought it was disgraceful."
Even though the United States and Germany had fought in World War I and were at war again, no long-standing, nationalistic antagonism existed between the two countries. Except for Jewish soldiers, most 99ers harbored little animus toward Germans prior to combat. These GIs were upstanding guys who lacked a strong desire to kill. Once the shooting and shelling started, however, and they realized German soldiers were trying to kill them, animosity developed. The killing and wounding of fellow squad members and popular leaders generated anger and hate. Military training, combat, the mission, fear of being thought cowardly by others, and a desire to live provided the incentives for men to stay and fight.
There were other surprises at the front. At Camp Maxey friction had existed between the cadre (including the older, blue-collar enlisted men) and the younger college boys from the Army Specialized Training Program. During the course of the long training period, much of the antipathy dissipated. Both groups came to recognize merit in one another, though real cohesiveness did not form until they reached the front lines where danger and mutual dependence eroded educational and cultural barriers, at least at the lower levels of the military class system. When death threatened everyone's existence, steadiness and dependability counted, not rank or education. In combat, life was reduced to its simplest elements and, as David Reagler said, "our interests were the same: try to keep warm and dry, try not to get killed or wounded, and try to have something to eat and drink."
The Army assumed that company commanders were too valuable to be at the front, and they could better direct their platoons if they remained behind the lines, sending orders and gathering information by phone or runner. The men appreciated commissioned officers who visited the front, if only to check on their condition. Many enlisted men, however, complained they "never saw officers at the front."
The frequent turnover (for a variety of reasons) in company commanders and platoon leaders made it difficult for front line troops to feel connected to these officers. Consequently, the platoon sergeant and squad leader frequently became the most important figures to the men; they fought with and led line soldiers, sharing danger and deprivation. Replacement squad leaders rose from the ranks, and former ASTPers often became the new sergeants. Combat soldiers (non-coms and privates) sometimes felt they were on their own, almost isolated, without lieutenants and captains to lead them. Because the Army gave combat GIs few resources to deal with hardship and stress, these soldiers relied on one another to fulfill their responsibilities and yet cope with the threat of violent death, the possibility of crippling wounds, physical suffering, and exposure to incredible horrors.
Training in the U.S. was designed not only to prepare men for the rigors of combat, but to cull out officers and enlisted men unsuited for infantry fighting. During training, enlisted men obeyed officers because it was assumed they were knowledgeable. On the battlefield combat infantrymen learned firsthand who could lead and who could not. It shocked enlisted men that some officers collapsed (a few almost immediately) at the front; after all, they were expected to set an example. Some ineffective soldiers existed at every rank, but those who gave orders put lives in danger. No organization operates a foolproof system by which only the qualified are chosen, and the Army, especially with its inexperience and lack of time, certainly produced some leaders and enlisted men who could not deal with the pressures of infantry combat. But given the unusual conditions on the battlefield, where danger, death, stress, and unpredictability were commonplace, no training procedures could have simulated reality.
Some officers clearly lacked common sense or did not understand that the rules in training didn't apply to combat. The company commander of L/394 gave Byron Reburn "hell" after he returned from an outpost with a button unbuttoned. When Lt. Lawrence Moloney saw Howard Bowers D/394 heating water in his helmet, he warned Bowers the "heat would soften the steel, causing it to be less resistant to shrapnel and bullets." A few officers were excessively concerned about policing the battlefield. When newly-appointed Captain Stephen Plume K/393 came up to the front and saw discarded C-ration cans, he ordered the men "to clean up the cans because flies will be a menace by spring." When Regimental Commander Jean Scott visited the Siegfried Line, he yelled at Joseph Carnevale A/393 to have "the men pick up cigarette butts and C-ration cans."
Just before the 99th was relieved in early February, after three months on the front, General Lauer insisted that every man be clean-shaven when arriving in the rest area, even though it was cold and beards were stiff and hard. Lauer apparently wanted to impress the relieving 69th Division, but 99er uniforms hung in tatters, no one wore the same clothes, and they looked dirty and haggard. While pride in appearance can be motivating, unreasonable demands, especially given the circumstances, demonstrated a lack of sensitivity and revealed serious ignorance about conditions at the front.
Although military rank still counted, some leveling did occur and, as Robert Ortalda L/393 commented, "there wasn't much attention to formalities at the front." Saluting officers was discontinued because it would alert snipers as to the best targets. Lt. Herman Dickman K/393 told his 2nd Platoon, "Don't call me 'lieutenant' any more; just call me 'Dick'." Relationships became more informal, especially between sergeants and enlisted men, for they endured misery and danger together.
Regardless of rank, infantrymen came to believe their experiences and suffering earned them consideration. They respected those officers who shared their fate and demonstrated competence. In training, Charles Swann L/394 said, the cadre were "gung ho," and "we expected them to lead us." But "they didn't perform at that level" when we arrived in Europe. At the front, rank counted less and natural leadership counted more; or, as John Thornburg put it, "We needed leaders and didn't want to be led by assholes." Oakley Honey C/395 said that if you had a "weak lieutenant, you were not going to be gung ho. You were not willing to put your life on the line for someone who didn't know what he was doing." At Camp Maxey, Francis Chesnick's platoon A/395 endured petty harassment by the sergeant, "but after we got to the front, we didn't pay much attention to him." In training First Sergeant Donald Riddle called James Crafton K/393 "a yard bird," a derogatory term meaning an inept enlisted man. But when Riddle could not handle combat, Crafton secured some measure of satisfaction in telling the sergeant, "you get to go home; we yard birds are going to win the war."
Strategic planning came from the Allied Supreme Command and First Army staffs. Orders descended through the chain of command and at each level (corps, division, regiment, battalion, company) strategy was transformed into tactical planning by the respective staffs. The average soldier, who was not informed about overall or even limited plans and objectives, had no information with which to make judgments about these decisions. At each descending level, commanders had less freedom of choice. Generally this did not trouble the combat infantryman because he focused on the battlefield immediately around him, usually 100 yards or less. Nonetheless he could judge the competence of platoon leaders and company commanders. Did they seem to care about the men? Were they brave or reckless, putting men's lives at risk? Did they remain behind the lines in relative safety while the men endured bullets and shells? Did they lead by example or simply issue orders? Did they rely on rank rather than ability? Did they have common sense? This mattered the most to the average GI.
Because some commissioned officers were absent or proved to be inadequate, enlisted men fought petty harassment. Officers who cowered in foxholes and bunkers earned no respect, and enlisted men could and did resist "chicken shit" or unfair orders. When his platoon leader ordered a member of E/394 to dig his foxhole, the soldier replied, "You can dig your own damn foxhole." A similar situation happened to Leslie Miller and Jack Prickett. Lieutenant Neudecker told them to prepare a foxhole for him. Prickett replied: "Hell no. We are not going to dig you a f — king hole." Neudecker responded, "I am giving you a direct order." Miller said, "What are you going to do, send us off the front lines?" Just then, Captain Paul Fogelman, the company commander, walked by. Miller told the captain, "This asshole wants us to dig a foxhole for him." Fogelman replied, "Everyone digs his own foxhole." Prickett "admired Fogelman and would have done anything to keep him alive." Unfortunately Fogelman was subsequently wounded and replaced by Neudecker.
Receiving the Combat Infantry Badge (CIB, a blue rectangle with rifle and silver wreath) for fighting at the front was highly esteemed by soldiers. It separated the recipients, men who endured the greatest risk, from rear echelon troops serving in relative safety. Although they occupied the bottom ranks and received the lowest pay, infantrymen took pride in their ability to endure combat conditions. Some field grade officers (majors and above) wanted to demonstrate their masculinity by acquiring the CIB. Upon returning from a dangerous patrol, which earned Oakley Honey and others a Combat Infantry Badge, he noticed three senior officers, who had not gone on patrols, wearing the CIB. Oakley wondered, "Where did they earn their badge? These officers probably hadn't been beyond the MLR, let alone been fired upon."
Jack Prickett and Leslie Miller learned how one officer aimed to achieve this badge. A major armed with a rifle and sniper scope approached their foxhole and announced he wanted to use it to fire a few shots at a German pillbox. They told him he couldn't use their foxhole. Prickett said, "If you fire, in three minutes they'll mortar the hell of us." The major became indignant and said, "If I decide to, I'll fire." Prickett replied, "If you do, we're going to kick the shit out of you." Major stated hotly, "I'll have you court-martialed." Ignoring the threat, Miller asked: "So, what are you going to do?" The major left without firing a shot. Prickett knew "he was out there to shoot his rifle and testify he was in a gun battle in order to earn a Combat Infantry Badge."
The formal organization of the Army established a hierarchy of power, privilege, and status. The higher the rank, the more officers felt entitled to such advantages. Certainly this hierarchy had dominated life in training camp. But at the front, where combat infantrymen endured deprivation, stress, and the daily possibility of personal annihilation, soldiers aimed to reverse the structure, at least in terms of status. They believed those who suffered ought to be the most respected. As Mel Richmond A/394 put it: "Rear echelon types thought they were soldiers, but they weren't. We felt superior. We looked down on them. We had the Combat Infantry Badge."
Bronze and Silver stars, as well as the Distinguished Service Cross and Congressional Medal of Honor, were awarded for acts of bravery. Some men earned them and some did not; having high officer status certainly enhanced a soldier's chances of winning a medal. Division Commander General Walter Lauer spent little time near the front, although this was not unique among field-grade officers. In November he visited Hofen, Germany, and requested that Lt. Colonel McClernand Butler, commander of the 3rd Battalion/395, take him to the tallest building in the village in order to survey the defenses. But, when Lauer stepped before a window on the third floor of a house, Butler pointed to a bullet hole and told him a sniper had caused it. Lauer immediately spun away from the window and said, "Time to go." Butler never saw him again at the front. Nonetheless, Lauer received two Silver Stars.
While the weather was miserable, and daily life became boring and lonely, the 99ers adapted to the static situation as they took on the appearance of veteran soldiers. John Mellin noted, "During this period we were living and sleeping in the same clothes and spillage of food and the nasal drippings on our field jackets built up day by day; we not only smelled bad but looked bad." They hoped Germany would soon surrender so they could go home. After capturing some old men and young boys, they concluded the German Army was running out of manpower. A few combat soldiers were rotated back to rest areas where showers, cots, hot meals, coffee, and donuts from a Red Cross truck, and even entertainment were available. While far from ideal, life was tolerable except for the 35 dead (from Nov. 10 to Dec. 12), the wounded, and those hospitalized for frostbite, pneumonia, and trench foot, some 900 soldiers. The platoons that underwent training together in Texas were losing men, and over time, unit cohesiveness began to unravel. The harshest blow was coming, but they had no forewarning of the terrible bombshell that was going to strike.
In early December General Courtney Hodge, commander of the First Army, ordered General Walter Robertson to pull his experienced 2nd Infantry Division off Schnee Eifel farther south and proceed northward through the 99th's lines, penetrate the West Wall, and capture the Roer River dams, an objective the Huertgen Forest campaign had failed to attain. Three battalions of the 99th (1st and 2nd Battalions/395 and 2nd Battalion/393) would assist the 2nd Division by attacking on its right flank, an area of deep ravines, icy streams, steep, wooded hills, and pillboxes. The troops shoved off on Dec. 13 and came under heavy German mortar and artillery attacks in their first serious action. The shells rained down, according to Radford Carroll E/393, with "a shriek that has unbelievable power followed by the explosion that seems to drain the air from your body. The really scary part is there is nothing you do to protect yourself."
As Paul Weesner E/395 and his squad approached the reverse slope of a hill with German pillboxes, they came under attack, not by the Germans but by the 924th Field Artillery, which unloaded a 20-minute barrage. Since no one had dug any foxholes, "we had to lay on top of the ground and take it." A shell fragment struck Paul Sage in the stomach. Weesner held a compress over Sage's wound, but when he started "to vomit, his intestines began to come through the wound. I couldn't hold them in no matter how hard I tried." Weesner and Double E Hill fashioned a litter out of a coat and tree branches and carried Sage "through the woods, up and down hills, and across exposed ground" to safety. But their valiant effort came to naught. Sage died, and Weesner and the others became "battle wise the hard way."
The attempt by the 2nd and 99th Divisions to breach the West Wall weakened American defenses, which were overextended already, and aided Hitler's plan to attack U.S. forces in the Ardennes. Three days into the offensive the regimental combat team heard the distant rumble of heavy artillery to the south. They and the division staff assumed the Germans were merely retaliating for the incursion, and it was not to be taken too seriously. Unfortunately they could not have been more wrong.
Humphrey's address is 2244 Swarthmore Drive, Sacramento CA 95825. His e-mail address is Humphreyre@csus.edu.
Next: The 99th and the Battle of the Bulge.