Harry Arnold's 'Easy Memories' continued
Ah, we’ve got three towns burning tonight!
Observant GI, viewing the horizon as he stretched his back from digging with his helmet near Krinkelt-Rocherath, Dec. 19
Though we were not aware of it at the time, our errant march of the afternoon and through most of the night was a result of what has been referred to later as a “false withdrawal.” It is alleged that 395 Regt. Hq. received a radio communication ordering the withdrawal of the regiment to the new positions being built on Elsenborn and the Elsenborn Ridge complex. It is not clear whether 2nd Bn. Remained under the command of the regiment at this time, or whether it had, in fact, reverted to 393 Infantry, the command from which it had been detached earlier. Be that as it may, the battalion was part of the false withdrawal. The word “alleged” is used because of controversy which developed almost immediately. 99th Division Headquarters disclaimed issuance of the order and communication, and ordered the immediate reoccupation of the positions. It has since been generally accepted that the message was perpetrated by German operatives seeking to disorganize the defense of the area. Curious, however, is the fact that the Germans were slow in taking advantage of a situation favorable to them which they had supposedly themselves created. Some 14 hours had transpired between the withdrawal and reoccupation of the positions, completed before dawn of Dec. 19. Some Germans were in the position on our return, but not in force, and were easily routed. This happy circumstance could have been otherwise – an alert enemy should have exploited the opening to our disadvantage. As it turned out, little harm or damage was done – the actual withdrawal to the Elsenborn line was accomplished the night of Dec. 19-20 as scheduled.
It should be emphasized that we were not driven from the Krinkelt area – the Germans did not take the area – it was abandoned in favor of a better defense line, and resulted from a tactical decision. Little advantage accrued to the Germans in their occupation of the abandoned areas. Those who occupied the released ground would, over the coming days and weeks, pay a grim and terrible rent on the property. American artillery would collect the bill.
In those early days of the German counter-offensive which was already being referred to as “The Bulge,” we received a considerable amount of our information through the grapevine. Bearing in mind the unreliable source, we were still able to sift the rumors for a fair idea of what was happening. We were aware the first day of a German attack in progress to our right, having been told officially of this, though details were scant. Our own movement and actions gave good indication of the gravity of the situation. Additionally, we were hearing many stories of German brutality and atrocities committed on American prisoners and Belgian civilians. Most of these were attributed to the Waffen SS units involved in the attack, though the Wehrmacht was not exempt. Obviously, we were unable to determine the veracity of such stories, and we suspended judgment accordingly but, at the same time, suspected and feared the worst. Indeed, the news services soon verified the more notorious of these stories. But what of the lesser known and smaller incidents referred to in rumor? Many of these were never substantiated and will forever remain obscure, and some were rumors, and nothing more. These categories apply, one or the other, to alleged events taking place in Krinkelt:
A 99th lieutenant surrendered himself and the remnants of his platoon in Krinkelt. The Germans lined the men against a wall and forced the lieutenant to give the firing order that sent his own men into oblivion, and then shot him in turn. The lieutenant, wounded but alive, was refused treatment by American medics and allowed to die for his indiscretion.
Two Belgian women appeared in a second story window, shooting and shouting vilifications at Americans in the street.
A Belgian boy was taking potshots at Americans from the cover of a building.
A Belgian man was killed at his transmitter in a loft.
We had, at the onset, deemed it prudent to assume that a percentage of people in the border area may be pro-German, particularly in view of much of the area having been German prior to World War I.
The line forms to the rear
Keep going, men – there’s coffee up ahead.
Engineer Major, standing along our route of march, and doing his bit by trying to keep up our morale – by lying
After a long, anxious, weary night we finally ended up at the same place we had started from the previous afternoon. We arrived just before dawn, and practically fell in our foxholes to get just enough sleep to increase the stupor of our senses. Some of the holes were occupied by sleeping Germans, and were quickly taken over by the former occupants. Fox Company, on our flank, didn’t completely clear their holes until after daylight. In that skirmish a German medic carrying a pistol was killed. It was considered a sort of retribution for Jordan’s death – the bullet that killed him had passed through the medical emblem on his helmet, and he carried no weapon.
We stayed put throughout the day, keeping the Germans at bay and enduring sporadic artillery and MG fire, but night saw us on the march again. A description of this march, except in detail, would pretty well parallel that of the night before – the slushy footing, the accordion effect on the column, the dark woods where we hung onto the pack of the man ahead to keep from being left behind, etc. After a pause in dark woods I heard Morelli far behind urging me to move out. When I yelled back for him to come on he discovered that he had been waiting for a tree to move. Again, at one point, we met the head of the column marching back by us. This time there were hoots, catcalls, and considerable anger and snickers. The column had taken a wrong turn, and was correcting. We had brought along the remainder of the canned food from the artillery kitchen. Morelli threw down a gallon can of pineapple because of the weight. Unknown to him, I picked the can p and kept it in my jacket until, miles later, Glass and I consumed most of the contents, playfully rejecting Morelli’s plea for some, then relenting.
The glow of burning towns and villages dotted the skyline southward, and there was the usual artillery, V-1 rockets, and Nebelwerfers flying about. MG and rifle, or small arms fire, was receding. We had not been told of the withdrawal scheme, but the receding small arms fire gave pause to wonder if we were being pulled out of the line – we dared not hope. We passed a major of engineers urging us onward to hot coffee ahead – but there was no coffee ahead, hot or otherwise.
Further evidence that we may be moving out of line was the marked decrease in black shell hole splotches in the snow. We passed a few men digging in along a line of trees. One, using his helmet as an entrenching tool, stood up and arched backward to ease tired back muscles. He surveyed the distance ahead in mock surprise.
“Ah,” he observed, “we’ve got three towns burning tonight.” His attitude contained a mixture of awe, bitterness, accomplishment, pride, and prophecy – all cloaked in a sort of ironic humor.
After more cross country slipping and sliding we came to another road, this one pristine white with no shell scars. Rumor in the column had it that we had just passed through the division defense line, and were now in friendly country. We waited here for a while before moving on. During the wait many of us curled up I the snow for some much needed sleep. We were getting good at catching short naps in appalling conditions.
We moved out again with a sense of better things to come and an unaccustomed vigor in our step. Our sense of well-being was justified, for we soon entered the town of Elsenborn, well behind the areas we had struggled for so recently. Our minds pictured sleeping the night in houses, on beds maybe – and with boots off!
A traditional description of soldiers in war – and I emphasize infantrymen here – is that they undergo long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of terror. In the past week we had had both in good measure. Our sense of well-being was accompanied with a sense of pride – we had survived where lesser men would have crumbled.
Dreams of houses and beds were soon dispelled, for this was the province of the rear area soldier. We were led through the dark streets, between houses where, here and there from ill-fitted blackout shades, shone slivers of cheer. Then there were no more houses and no more slivers of cheer – only more snow covered frozen ground – this was our province.
Some distance from the town we were halted on high ground that sloped gently toward a shallow valley ahead. With scant hours remaining before dawn, too tired and disgusted to bother with digging gin, we scraped the snow from the ground and, combining blankets among small groups, slept as best we could in the freezing cold. My last thought before troubled sleep was, nobody back here gives a damn – as long as they are safe and comfortable and warm, they don’t care …
Before closing out this period, it is well to consider what effects we may have exerted on the battle in our area over the preceding days of the German drive. Firstly, the Germans may have been deeply confused as to our numbers. By rambling to and fro over considerable territory and appearing in so many places, we certainly must have given the impression that the area was covered by far more troops than was the case. In which case German planning may have been inordinately colored by judgmental errors. One must remember also that we, in fact, comprised a formidable formation – we had not suffered high casualties as had the battalions east of Krinkelt and, thus, were a force to be reckoned with. We were reasonably intact and reasonably forewarned when we entered the defensive struggle. Our most severe deficiencies were in anti-tank weaponry and communications. Indeed, the Germans had their own problems as regards the area. Did they have enough panzers to spare for operations in the sector and, if so, did they feel that the ground would support heavy mechanized equipment? If not, then their alternative had to be massive infantry in attacks designed to encircle or roll us back. This capability they didn’t have – their infantry had already suffered high casualties in traversing the distance from the border to Krinkelt, and were now hard put to maintain pressure which had been within their power to exert a few days earlier. Such attacks, when mounted, would almost certainly result in grievous losses to them – as had been the case, and would be in future.
In talking about attacks and defenses, one must talk about perspective as well. It is easy and common for the mind’s eye to envision combatants slugging it out face to face and toe to toe – a Hollywood sweep of thousands grappling on camera. Truth is not so inventive – the great panoramic scene is falsehood. Truth is a small group of men in a corner of the view, almost isolated from the whole. They are infrequently able to see their comrades further along or even the enemy across the way. Psychological isolation is even more dramatic than physical isolation. The small group perceives itself alone, is concerned with the few square yards surrounding it. The individual is beset by questions forced by his isolation: Where the hell are the other platoons? Our mortars and MGs – where are they? And our artillery support? Has everybody gone the hell home? He thinks of the planes and tanks and guns churned out by the hundreds of thousands, and wonders why he can’t see some of that stuff when some Kraut bastard is chewing at his tail with a hot MG. Let me tell you about poverty – true poverty is to know all that stuff exists, and that you need some of it right now – and you haven’t got it …
Forget the panorama.
Battles are fought by small groups of desperate men against other small groups equally desperate.
An infantry company (except in drams) is always operating shorthanded, due to that hot MG they ran across yesterday, or that bunch of 88s that caught them in open ground this morning, or the patrol that came in short last night – besides, they never got replacements for the men they lost taking Hundheim last week. Let’s be generous, and say they are operating about 75 percent of TO strength on average. That’s 135 dogfaces. Most of the casualties were in the rifle platoons, and you’ve got 21 left per platoon. Third Platoon is furnishing patrols tonight, and 1st Platoon was the last one to get hit bad – so you will hit Hundheim early in the morning with 2nd Platoon with 1st Squad on point. You want the objective cleared by 0630, so you’re going to hit’em hard – walk those seen right in and gut the place! If it gets sticky, maybe you can get a fire mission, and bring in the other 14 men of the platoon. You suspect the poor bastards you plan to hit are in the same shape. Cut! Too small for wide angle lens!
A short respite
I hate the Germans. They are the reason I’m not home with my family right now.
Lt. Mann, rationalizing why we shouldn’t be fainthearted in killing Germans.
Dawn of Dec. 20 brought back real danger even though we were within friendly lines. We were on open ground in view of German observation. Also, with the withdrawal from the Krinkelt-Rocherath area to the Elsenborn area, Elsenborn became the new German focal point. There were few questions in our minds as to what that meant.
The beginning of the new day was less than heroic – the blankets of one group had been fouled during the night, and the men were angry and disgusted. Then it was learned that the company mess had no food. By mid-morning, Sam Visintine had scraped together enough D ration chocolate bars which, mixed with water and heated in cookers, came to a half cup of hot chocolate per man. In mid-afternoon enough C rations had become available for one per man. These were heated in boiling water in the same cookers by throwing the unopened cans in cold and fishing them out hot.
Second platoon was moved down the gentle slope and began digging in at the point where the reverse slope began. Here, the platoon would be a little less vulnerable to incoming shells than the other platoons located on the facing slope. The first German attacks on the new Elsenborn line were already in progress and, as we dug, we kept our eyes peeled for any Germans or tanks that may break through the defense line and head our way, though what we would have done if panzers had reached us is a moot question – no anti-tank guns were in evidence. Though we could not see our MLR or the enemy, we were told that the attacks had been repulsed with heavy loss to enemy infantry by our artillery. Infantry had not been able to move through the artillery fire, but a few panzers and SP guns came close to making a narrow penetration. These were finally turned back, several remaining out of action in the void between armies known as no man’s land.
Jim Bowers and I dug together, and as we dug it began snowing. By the time we had the hole ready there was a fresh new carpet of snow four inches deep. I wasn’t overly pleased at having to share a foxhole with him, since we had banged noggins earlier, and I wasn’t sure whether he was still a bit incensed about the clash. I didn’t find him to be an ogre – a bit reserved, perhaps – but that was my nature too. The result was that we communicated what was necessary, but little beyond that.
Next morning the 88s ranging on us became more frequent, keeping us near our holes and limiting outside activity. A rare incident about mid-morning impressed us with the capricious nature of war. One of the 88s directed at us tore over our heads and hit near the foot of the slope occupied by 1st Platoon, but failed to explode. It ripped clots of earth from beneath the snow, bounced into the air, hit ground again, then settled into a series of skips and jumps as it traveled upslope directly toward a group of men who were standing about. That moment is frozen in memory, like stop action on film. The pause of memory sees the shell, gauges the angle of travel, the distance to be traveled, and sees the first reaction of the group of men ahead. They have determined that the shell is coming directly at them, and the group is split down the center – one portion in the act of moving right, the other left. The film of memory resumes speed, the men are moving, the shell is clumping along inexorably. One man cannot avoid the metal monster – man and shell cannot occupy the same point in space and time. The question becomes – will the thing explode at the moment of contact with human form? There is a scream. The man is down, holding his ankle – broken. The shell has not exploded. It is a dud. Who will believe the ridiculous story the man will tell years later?
Except for incoming artillery and the near constant spluttering of buzz bombs overhead, our short stay here was relatively uneventful. On the morning of Dec. 22 we moved back into line, relieving King Company of 3rd Bn., 393 Inf.
Elsenborn: The static front
Arnold, I don’t mind dying – I just hate being dead so damn long.
Crabb, 38-year-old replacement to 2nd Platoon, later transferred to Bn. Hq. SP Squad
As we moved into our new position in the Elsenborn line, German artillery gave us a taste of what we would endure in the following weeks, several times each day and night. It was a kind of welcome, really, for German observers could see that we were effecting a relief of the unit already in place there. Every gun within range of the position cut loose at the same time. Our periods of boredom were to be short, while our moments of terror became strung together like beads in a necklace. As the shells came screaming in, we tore for the nearest holes and dived in. The holes we dived in became the holes we set up housekeeping in, and whoever dived in with you became your foxhole buddy automatically. A fellow from Henderson or Hendersonville NC, jumped in with me. I refer to him as Henderson, since I don’t remember his name.
The terrific barrage pounded us brutally for some time, and all we could do was hang on by our fingernails and hope to survive. When the artillery finally died down we were able to take stock of our situation. We were on a forward slope facing directly on Krinkelt, which we could see well ahead, now held by Germans. In the distance to our right front we could see rooftops of a couple more villages. Our left front was obscured by near forest. To our immediate front, a line of trees paralleled our furthermost holes at the foot of the slope. In the folds of land between us and Krinkelt whole armies could be hidden from our sight. The land on our left fell gradually. At the low point three Sherman tanks sat on, I presume, the road from Elsenborn. Roads and such were obscured by heavy snowfall, and were unrecognizable at moderate distances. The tanks were some 500 yards away and covered with netting to confuse identity. Throughout the bitter, often sub-zero winter, fires burned under the tanks to keep tracks and engines from freezing up. Each day the engines were started and run to keep them ready. To my knowledge they never fired a shot while there, not even when we were catching pure hell from German tanks firing flat trajectory, high velocity shells.
For Henderson and me the barrage came very near being our last. Two shells exploded on the right edge of the hole, in line with each other, a yard apart – the edge of both shell holes being less than a foot from the edge of the foxhole. The gunner had fired the two shots from the same adjustment before elevating to walk the fire upslope or traversing right or left – excellent gunnery in anybody’s book.
Our hole was a compromise in that the lower half was uncovered, providing ample space for the two occupants to fire from, but leaving much to be desired in protection against direct hit by shellfire. The feature permitted snow and rain to fall on our lower bodies, and kept temperatures in the hole far lower than in covered holes. Each night he extreme temperature froze moisture out from the sides of the hole in hundreds of miniature horizontal ice stalactites. Depending on the temperature and moisture, the ice points would extend out for up to several inches. It was often necessary to break the ice off with our arms and elbows before we could sit upright after very cold nights. We often slept with our canteens tucked between our legs in the sleeping bags, otherwise the water was solid ice by morning. During the week or more of using the hole we threw our empty ration cans in the rearmost shell hole by the side of our hole. In one of the many shellings one shell hit the old shell hole and scattered pieces of ration cans in an arc around the back of our hole, chewing up low scrub that grew there. One of the reasons we had decided to remain in this hole was the theory that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. So much for that theory.
The hole five yards to our right remained under construction constantly, to the point that we feared the occupants were planning to desert. Dirt flew from the hole all through daylight hours. Rarely, a pair of eyes under a low-fitting helmet would peer hurriedly from the hole at the ever expanding mound of excavated dirt. The place must have been cavernous.
Two men using a hole seven yards to our right rear went to fill their supply can with water at the water hole one morning. Minutes after they left, a shell made a direct hit in the hole and destroyed all their equipment. They didn’t trust the lightning theory, and moved to a new location.
A hole five yards rearward of our hole was unoccupied, and served as a latrine during periods when it was unsafe above ground, which was all too often. On a quiet, cold morning before anyone was about, I exposed my tender area about seven yards from our hole, to the right front where there was no hole. By now we had heard thousands of shells coming in, and were able to identify those heading in our immediate direction. This I heard now, and there wasn’t time to pull up my pants. I ran, holding my pants half up, and dived headfirst in the open end of our hole, just as the shell exploded. Now there was a hole seven yards to our right front, precisely at the spot where I had squatted. Good shooting – or coincidence?
The hole three yards to our left was used for the battalion switchboard, and was an open top hole. The immediate area around the switchboard hole was inordinately hot, being a prime target for German artillery attempting to disrupt our communications net, so choosing to live in a nearby hole was unwise, as had been the choice of the log obstacle in the firebreak at Jaghutt. A direct hit on the switchboard a few days after Christmas killed several of the occupants and badly wounded others. One of the wounded and two stretcher men were killed on the way to the aid station by another shell. Sgt. Menzie and I heard about it at Sourbrodt, where we were spending a very fortunate 24-hour pass at Sam’s kitchen.
An awful number of direct hits were made on foxholes all around our positions, guided by a macabre law of averages. Some holes suffered near hits in which cave-ins were caused, resulting in suffocation of the men in these holes. Most of the open top holes, of which there were few, and semi-open holes like ours, had shell fragments and splinters to enter quite frequently. Covered holes were better, of course, but even these were vulnerable to fragments entering the entryway, many casualties being caused in this fashion. My pack and mess kit were riddled one night. At another time the tip of the bore of my M-1 was pinched closed, rendering it useless, and I didn’t know when it happened. Fortunate for me I didn’t fire the rifle before I discovered the damage – pressure in the chamber would certainly have blown the receiver group all over the place. I had to get another rifle.
Distributing rations around the perimeter was another task which nobody wanted, for you were exposed to the artillery too long – the German gunners had no better sport than to follow a single man around with a battery of 88s. That was soon shelved for a better way in which individuals, at their choosing, dashed to the hole containing the day’s rations, then returned to his own hole when the opportunity afforded, between shell blasts.
Hardly a square yard of the area remained untouched by the sizzling and ripping 88, but the most nightly snows kept the moonscape under a deceptively placid blanket. If the deep snow was a curse, there also were benefits. Snow has a good dampening effect on blast and fragments, absorbing both like a friendly sponge. It was possible to avoid injury from a shell strike one yard away by lying prone in deep snow, as most of us could attest. We learned that a snow-covered hole is an insulated hole. Melted snow provided water when none other was available. Frigid temperatures, like snow, were neither all good, nor all bad. The same cold that killed unattended wounded by freezing, and froze weapons, noses, ears, hands and feet, could also mercifully slow blood loss and reduce perception of pain for the wounded. We all saw men unaware of minor wounds because of extreme cold. But unremitting snow and deep cold, first of all, is misery for the soldier trying to survive in the open. Some problems are irresolvable for infantry – which to deplore most, rain, snow, blow or heat – which to fear most, small arms fire or shell fire? In that winter before Elsenborn it was, indeed, hard to determine which condition was most brutal – weather conditions or German artillery. We had no choice, being blessed with the worst of both. As for the other conditions, it usually depended on which we were undergoing at the time.
A great danger which could not be avoided and which, I’m sure, caused many casualties was the freezing and howling wind and our attempts to mitigate it. Wind noise masked the sound of incoming artillery shells and, thus, slowed reaction time. To prevent frostbite we employed scarves or strips of blanket wrapped around our heads, muffling sound further and compounding the problem.
To reach our water supply we had to walk several hundred yards to our left rear to the road from Elsenborn, and a couple of hundred yards more beyond that. There a small stream emerged from under the snow, spilled downward a few inches into a small gully about two feet I diameter, then vanished under the snow once more. Every man who made the trip there for a supply of water, and that includes just about everybody, was made aware that German gunners didn’t intend for him to live through the trip. The gunners reveled in their shooting sport, and sharpened their skills by tracking each man the distance to and from the water hole, often expending a half dozen or more shells. The economics involved was terrible, even if a lucky shot got a man now and then the cost was prohibitive. Yet they persisted – there definitely was no shortage of shells among the enemy units opposing us. Description of one trip of many is sufficient.
Glass and I carried a jerry can to fill, and the trip was uneventful until we reached the road. A jeep was parked there and, since things were quiet, we stopped to talk with two or three men who were unloading the cargo. At that moment the shells of a battery of 88s came tearing in. I ducked half under the jeep, with Glass beside me. The others took off somewhere. The stuff was right on the road and awfully close, and the battery kept firing for several minutes, then all was quiet again. Badly shaken, for we should have been dead, we stood up by the jeep. It was one of those times when you are thankful for your good fortune, but can in no way account for it. The unloading crew appeared from somewhere – they had abandoned the jeep – and well they might, for they told us the cargo was a load of mortar bombs. It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what would have become of us had that stuff gone up – only a large hole in the ground would have marked the spot of our recent demise. But infantrymen learn to take such in stride – no big deal, close ones were a dime a dozen. SO we continued on to the water hole. As I bent to fill the can I heard it coming, one shell, and dead on target. I sprawled in the shallow gully with Glass on top. Wham! Dirt, water and snow covered us – but we were still unhurt. The shell blew in the right side of the gully bank. Halfway back, the gun picked us up again, and down we went in the soft snow. Wham! Right beside us, then two more as fast as loaders could slam the shells into the breech. Then quiet again – except for an ominous gurgle. The jerry can was holed six inches from the top by a fragment that could have taken an arm off. We were proud of our can – something of Mauldin’s “them what’s been shot at.”
The point need not be made that each man had similar close ones, dozens of times.
Once, when returning from the water hole, I was able to view the enemy under favorable conditions. The superman, master of the new order, sat on the rear seat of a jeep on the Elsenborn road. He had been brought in by a patrol. I stopped and got a good look at him. He was powerfully built, well fed, healthy and arrogant. He still wore his helmet, as well as a camouflage smock. A stubble of beard was the only indication of possible privation. His cold eyes locked on mine, and we stared at each other for a moment, careful not to display any facial expression. It being Christmas, I said to him in mild derision, “Santa Claus,” and walked on. His face and eyes gave not a flicker.
Some of our records and mail had been lost at Krinkelt in those hectic days, but some of our more recent mail was now catching up with us. Packages of candy, cake, cookies, etc., were most valued. Our rural mailman who served my home insisted that he could not accept packages addressed to me unless he could be shown a letter from me requesting specific items. In each of my letters home I included such requests to make sure plenty were always available. He dutifully crossed out each request as it was filled. Edibles were shared around the squad, each in turn. Henderson and I received packages from home this particular day, and we eagerly tore wrapping away from the contents. Suddenly he swore and threw the package in the hole – it contained a civilian tie, hair tonic, and similar items of doubtful usefulness. Later he received a box of frozen cornbread and, being a southern country boy, was greatly pleased.
Little fuel was available for heating canned rations, and we often ate the frozen C rations as best we could. The K rations were packed in a heavily waxed paper box which was, in turn, covered by another paper container. By burning the containers enough heat was provided to heat the contents reasonably. Usually the K variety was favored over the C, but both were rather unappetizing after weeks of much the same. Raw replacements were prone to apply too much heat too quickly without first puncturing a vent in the can, resulting in deformed and exploding cans. Sadly, the rations seldom provided enough bulk to satisfy the great maw of our stomachs.
A trickle of replacements was beginning to come in to help expand depleted ranks. The Army officially, but euphemistically, now referred to them as reinforcements – a sad attempt to ignore the obvious and to color morale.
Our life of forced privation, of traveling light, had a positive side – there was a certain exhilaration of freedom from encumbrance, extra baggage, hindering accoutrements, unneeded accumulations and attachments. A philosophy disdaining property was forming – a man needed to be free to move on impulse. There was a feeling of resolve that, should we survive the war, we would not again shackle ourselves so. But the old ways of wants and desires are deeply imbedded.
For some time we had been observing vapor trails that appeared from deep within Germany and that climbed rapidly in the high cold air at a steep angle, finally vanishing at great height. The trails probed upward like thin, misty fingers, then became zig-zag or curved as upper air currents played with them. What were the bastards up to now? The wraiths seemed ominous. We had not yet been told of the V-2 rockets that were bombarding Antwerp and London. Meanwhile, the V-1 buzz bombs were passing overhead day and night. It was not uncommon to see three, four or five in the air at one time. At night our sleeping minds gave but little recognition to the eerie sputtering engines. But when the sputtering stopped suddenly we knew the thing was going in, and we would await the tremendous explosion that always followed. Whether these were intentionally sent into our area, or were simple miscues, we never learned. We had none to drop in the immediate area, though a few went down in the area from Elsenborn to Liege or Verviers. It was a new manner of warfare in its infancy. Few people realize 40 years after the fact that the V bombs and rockets in those few months killed more civilians in England than died in the whole of the air raids and conventional bombing previous.
On clear days, air activity picked up over the front. P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers frequently plastered German sites in the Krinkelter Wald, and Typhoons worked the areas further north. The 47s employed a vertical attack, while the English planes used less severe angles, probably because the 47s had stout wings that could handle the heavy G forces of pull-up from steep angles. German flak seemed singularly ineffective against the strafing and bombing. One of our L-5 artillery spotter planes became over-confident one morning and flew too far toward Krinkelt. The blast of 88 flak by his tail convinced him to apply hard right rudder, with the stick in his stomach, and get the hell out of there. On such clear days huge bomber formations flew high into Germany, the boxes of stepped flights reaching from horizon to horizon, the sky traced with thousands of contrails, and the air vibrating to the growl of the big radial engines. Far beyond the German positions we could see the flak working the formations. Here and there, B-17s smoked and rolled from formation or began to break apart. Parachutes blossomed from some, none from others. Meanwhile, the thousands moved inexorably onward, ignoring the losses.
Awakening early one morning to the whine of aircraft nearby, I looked up to see silver fighters sweeping the area. I thought they were P-51 Mustangs until the wink of cannon and MG and flash of black crosses showed them to be Me-109s. They flew at very low level and came in at us from all angles as they raked us with their fire. We bounced from side to side in our holes, depending on what direction the fire was coming from at the moment. This was new to us, and we didn’t like it. After expending their ammunition on us, they left. They probably caused more fear than destruction. One of the Luftwaffe pilots was forced to bail out over a sector near us when his plane was damaged by ground fire. He elected to come down shooting. He didn’t make it.
On a bright sunny morning, a flight of fifteen B-17s droned toward the frontier on a line that would intersect the line well south of Krinkelt. As they approached the line they began a turn to left that would take them directly over Krinkelt. We watched, mystified – surely their intention was not to hit Krinkelt. What target of value to heavy bombers could be there? Our feelings were mixed as we watched the bombs raining down on the village. The place was obscured for many minutes by a shroud of smoke, dust and debris – the air barely stirred by wind. The thunderclaps of explosions, an extended carrummph, rolled across to us as the flight wheeled right in a turn back toward the rear. After many minutes the pall began to drift away and clear. The town, looking somewhat more dusty, tired and shabby, was still there. The church steeple, holed by shell fire earlier, still stood, as did many house roofs.
A rotation system was begun which allowed a few men each day to spend 24 hours in the woods at Sourbrodt, back of Elsenborn. Though far to our rear, it wasn’t entirely risk free, as enemy counter battery fire ranged the area with big guns. On my lucky day we started out walking to Elsenborn, but got a ride on a weapons carrier after a mile or so. My spirits rose in proportion to the distance put behind. I can’t express how new, fresh and wonderful it was to feel relatively danger-free. In Elsenborn, snow was banked high beside the active streets, piled there by snow moving equipment to keep the roadways useable. A bewildering mass of communications wires hung heavily alongside the streets, almost touching the piled snow beneath. Men walked about freely and easily, faces devoid of that gaunt, strained look common to the front. This was alien country, a land beyond imagination. There were ample reminders however; we saw 4.2 chemical mortars, 155mm howitzers, 8-inch howitzers – the guns that provided our long range support.
We met at a house where we were to await transport to Sourbrodt. Coffee was constantly being brewed, and conversation and comradeship filled the small room – and the room was – warm! In a moment of humor, Sgt. Menzie put on a chaplain’s helmet and offered to take our TS slips under consideration. The chaplain, bareheaded, offered prayer and a quiet talk.
We loaded aboard open trucks for the journey to Sourbrodt, where Sam had his kitchen tent set up. We passed many of the guns that helped make our line east of Elsenborn virtually impervious to German assault. On reaching the camp we were assigned bunk space on fence wire beds in dugouts near Sam’s kitchen. Sam trotted out hot food for us, and we made pigs of ourselves, eating everything in sight. The opportunity to clean up weeks of accumulated grime was met with childlike exuberance. I shaved off my beard, but kept the mustache another week. In the mirror I saw an unfamiliar face – and couldn’t decide whether it was an improvement or not.
The opportunity to exchange filthy clothing for clean was, in my case, somewhat marred – I was issued size 38 pants to cover a 28 frame, a wool knit cap half the size of my head, a combat jacket four sizes roomy, and what in the hell happened to your web belt? Being a sly and resourceful infantryman (weren’t we all?) I accepted the lot. The pants were manageable when pulled over the two pairs of ODs I was already wearing, plus two pairs of long johns – I meant not to freeze. My 130 pounds looked more like 160 due to my accumulated insulation. That the whole mess was profoundly sealed with the sweat of many weeks I considered a plus to my envelope of insulation. One chooses one’s priorities – I had elected comfort over cleanliness, and considered myself a realist. My German rifle sling-belt served admirably in holding the stuff together.
Near the field kitchen stood a tree with short, narrow pieces of plank nailed to it to form a crude ladder. Hatchet marks scarred the tree bark alongside the ladder each few inches to a height of 30 feet. This was the Blake tree. The chaplain chopped a notch in the tree for each lie, half-truth or smutty story that Blake told in his presence.
Few of us slept that night – it was foolish to sleep through such civilized pleasure, comfort and freedom from fear. At 2 a.m. we went to raid the kitchen tent. Sam was dozing on a cot in the tent – about the only sleep he ever got, and that in fits and snatches. No man was more dedicated in his concern for the men. People drifted in at all hours, and Sam always climbed from the cot voluntarily to whip up something for them to eat. Mess sergeants are noted for vile tempers, since they get so little sleep, but Sam was always mild mannered and friendly. Before daylight in the bitter cold, and after night in the evenings, he loaded food filled urns on his jeep and made the hazardous dash down to the company line position. German artillery always made his trips memorable ones, but he never gave in to his fears. E Company often got warm food when the other companies were eating cold rations. It was one thing for us to be in foxholes with some insulation from cold and screaming shells, but quite another to be in a moving, open jeep plowing through the worst the Germans and the weather could offer. That Sam survived a few such trips stirs the imagination. That he survived the war is truly miraculous.
When we entered the tent we hoped to scrounge a few bites without disturbing Sam, but he would have none of it. He insisted on cooking pancakes and making coffee. Sixteen pancakes, more than a pint of syrup, almost a pint of marmalade, slabs of butter, and two canteen cups of coffee later I stumbled my way back to my bunk, with the dawn of another day near. I salute Sam Visintine, that compassionate, gentle man who cared so much. He was a rarity.
In the morning we were trucked back to Elsenborn, where we walked on up the road a mile or so before being picked up by a jeep carrying supplies. Within minutes I was back at my foxhole. The switchboard hole was shattered and sad and empty – it was impossible not to remember the times I had traded conversation and jokes with the men on duty at the switchboard.
It is important to the enemy to destroy or disrupt your communications net. Aside from attacking nerve centers, such as the switchboard hole, varying degrees of disruption was achieved by general shelling over a wide area. The constant shelling made it necessary for line crews to roam the area day and night repairing breaks. One sneaky, but effective, method to foul the net was for patrols to search out phone lines and short them out by pressing pins through the insulation. It was time consuming to search out and repair these. Some of the linemen solved the problem of having to climb out of the sack at all hours of night to search out line breaks. They simply split the light sleeping bags from foot to near center, and sewed in legs and added arms of the material. The outfits were comical looking, but effective. Like snails, they covered their routs without leaving bed behind.
It was intended that every soldier have a Christmas dinner of turkey, and considerable effort was expended to that end. Though the dinner was cold when it reached us, it was something different, and appreciated. I categorically deny that we became tired of, or fed up with, Spam. Spam was, of course, one of the war’s enduring jokes. It seems that outfits in some theaters of operation were fed the stuff constantly, but we seldom saw any, and more of it would have been most welcome. The constant in our diet was the pancake, not to be confused with the hotcake, since they were most often well on the way to being frozen when they reached us. Sam’s efforts and the heavy insulated food urns couldn’t compete with the time and bitter cold.
Our casualties in this period included Capt. Driscoll, who was wounded by shellfire. Lt. Roy Engelbretsen, the company exec, now took over as CO of the company. E Company was using up commanders at an alarming rate.
The terrible artillery bombardments continued, but we had no choice but to endure. To abandon the position because it was too hot was unthinkable. Our misery was mitigated by the massive attacks our own artillery mounted against our enemy ahead. We often sat on the rim of our holes and watched these barrages in progress. The rumble of the big guns behind us seemed to go on for hours sometimes as we watched thousands of shells arching overhead and pouring into the German positions at Krinkelt and the woods behind, as well as north of the town. A quick, keen eye could see and follow shells in flight to the impact point. Some of us could feel a twinge of empathy for the poor bastards on the receiving end of that hail of steel, HE (high explosive) and WP (white phosphorus). Large scale artillery attacks that continue for long periods of time can be utterly demoralizing, but there is another type that is worse, though quickly over – TOT. A Time On Target barrage simply means that every gun within a specified target’s range is trained on that one target. The firing of individual guns along the line is timed so that every shell from all guns will impact the target at the same instant. The muttering of far-away guns begins first, followed by the nearer guns adding to their voices. The phalanx of shells of many caliber sweeps speedily toward the chosen target. The sight and sound of their arrival on target is unforgettable and devastating. In an instant there is the flash and smoke and violence and hell of the combined explosives, and a wall of sound rolls across the intervening land to smash at your ears. IT is impressive to the viewer, uncomprehendingly violent to the recipient.
Our compassion and pride and awe extended to the airmen on their missions deep into Germany through the FW 190, Me-109 and flak attacks. We understood their peril – the winter air at 25,000 feet can freeze a man into a popsicle or deprive him of life-giving oxygen, wind whipped high octane fuel fed flame can reduce human bodies to cinders, the high G forces in a doomed and gyrating bomber make escapes improbable. But there was envy, too. All infantry envy those divorced from the cold and mud and stink of the battlefield. Most of all they envied the airmen the hot food, the clean sheets, the little English towns with their cinemas, women and other accouterments of civilized life – for, to survive a mission meant returning to that. Reward is a yardstick which measures justification for one’s acts and efforts. For infantry, little reward existed, and his battles, relentless, were not punctuated with encounters with civilization daily. For an infantryman to see a bit of civilization he, most often, rode a stretcher to it. The “million dollar wound” meant exactly that. After surviving several weeks of combat, the infantryman finds it hard to justify his future chances by what is implied by the “law of averages” – he knows he has become part of an inexorable “process of elimination” – there are two paths out for him, to be wounded or to die.
Somebody or something managed to convince S-2 that a gas attack was imminent one night. New gas masks were hurriedly distributed – tossed into each hole as the carriers searched us out in the night and determined the number of men in each hole. The masks came pre-frozen, the material so stiff that it was impossible to put the things on, much less to be able to make it comply with the contours of the face to prevent gas seepage. The old standby came to the rescue – we stuffed the masks in our pants between our legs. After an hour they were soft and compliant and ready for use. Fortunately, the need never arose. I dreamed that night of gray ash falling on us from the sky and suffocating us.
Sometime during those early days in front of Elsenborn, Carey returned to the company. After being left behind at Krinkelt when we moved out for our attack toward the Roer Dams, he had attached himself to a 2nd Division unit and remained with them until the Elsenborn front stabilized. IT was our understanding that his family assumed him MIA during that period. Now, of course, he was returned to active status.
The end of December 1944 came, and we were sitting rather comfortably in our defensive position before Elsenborn. German attempts to roll over us had failed, due largely to our heavy artillery concentrations on their attacking columns. Some of the attacking formations were turned back by the fierce shelling before their lead elements could cross the space between opposing forces enough to initiate close infantry action. This happy circumstance did not exempt us from the continuing and punishing artillery, though the intensity and frequency of the shelling moderated over the coming weeks. We were able to note the increase of dud shells falling among us, though a shell that comes tearing in, followed by silence, as a certain effect on nerves. Engineers, using mine detectors, sought out the duds one by one and exploded them harmlessly; warning everyone to stay down with the cry, “Fire in the hole!” Hundreds of the things most certainly were never found and rendered impotent.
Much of the enemy force that had made numerous attempts to dislodge us were withdrawn from our front and shifted southwest where deep penetrations justified their use in exploitation attempts. It seemed that the time and setting was favorable for us to launch attacks south and southeast to cut into the base of the penetrations with the view of isolating the spearheads further west. Unaccountably, this was not done. General Montgomery, who had been assigned control of our units north of the penetrations, seemed content to sit tight, creating, to my mind, a missed opportunity. It is probable that many of us are alive today because of this sit-tight decision, for we would have encountered some rather fierce fighting in terrible conditions in such a drive into the base of the “Bulge.”
My friends – and you are my friends – I stand behind you, because I cannot stand in front of you. I hate war. My wife, Eleanor, hates war. Falla hates war. So I am sending you to war, so you can hate war, also.
Arnold, mimicking President Roosevelt
Easy was ordered to take up new positions a couple of hundred yards further right. We just picked up and moved, and that was that. Henderson and I were the cow’s tail, arriving at the new position after everybody else. Only two holes remained when we arrived. Both were located some distance forward of the rest of the platoon, so we took over the one closest to the platoon. The remaining hole, a few yards to the left front of our hole, became the platoon OP. A voice powered phone was strung to the OP hole from Company Hq. Unlike the half covered hole we had just left, our new hole was fully covered, including the L shaped entry-grenade basket. It had the usual failing – the entry was only large enough for one man to fight from. We set about converting the new hole to our own requirements. With blankets being in ample supply now, we lined the damp floor and walls with them, and hung another in the entrance to keep in light and keep out cold and wind and snow.
If we thought we had been exposed to the worst of winter in Belgium, January brought in the real thing. Blizzards began sweeping over us almost nightly, driving snow into our holes, filling entryways, and covering the protective line of concertina wire to our front. Each morning we took turns digging through the snow that filled the entry, a half hour task. Then Bowers would have us pulling the concertina wire from the snow, and resetting it. Though our hole was well constructed, covered and tight, many nights were so cold that we could only shiver through to the dawn. Two foxhole stoves didn’t moderate the sub-freezing conditions in the hole significantly. One of these consisted of a C ration can half filled with gasoline saturated dirt. The other was a small neck bottle of gasoline with a cloth wick. These provided a little light and an exaggerated sense of comfort, but mostly they provided enough soot to make us look like Africans, and coated our nasal passages and mucous linings black. I spent a particularly cold and miserable night in the hole alone when Henderson stayed the night with a friend in George Company.
The distance from our new hole to the water hole was a couple of hundred yards longer than from our old position, and Jerry still liked to spend a few rounds of 88mm when you made the trip. Just the sight of a single man basking on the rim of his hole was enough to cause Jerry to test his shootin’ iron. On our way back from the water hole one day, we observed H Company men picking up K rathions from a stack of them. We sauntered over to the stack of wooden crates as if we owned the lot, and hoisted a crate each to our shoulders. No one noticed as we walked confidently away with our loot. We learned later that a search was underway for stolen rations. What to do? The answer was too simple to work, but it was the only idea we could come up with – we stored both crates in the entryway of our hole, placing them as steps. We smudged them enough that they looked well worn. Lt. Mann checked all the holes in the platoon. When he checked ours, he stood on the boxes and swept his flashlight around the dark hole, and declared us not guilty. I didn’t agonize about the deception. After all, hadn’t Capt. Miller warned us that he would not tolerate stealing in his company, but that he recognized theft from another company in the interest of his men as legitimate? I remembered that little grin and the twinkle in his eyes that accompanied his admonition. So be it – our deception was honorable.
One other deception of ours was less than honorable, and was unfair to Lt. Mann. Col. Pete (Peters) chewed us out one day because of our filthy rifles, and promised to report us to our platoon leader. Our plan was immediately set in motion – we quickly field stripped and cleaned one rifle, and had just reassembled it when Lt. Mann arrived. “Pass out your rifles for inspection,” he called. The clean rifle was passed out to him, and I watched as he checked it thoroughly to his satisfaction. “Now the other one!” I handed the clean rifle into the hole and Henderson made rummaging sounds again before passing the same rifle back out. Mann checked it again, thoroughly. “I can see nothing wrong with these rifles,” he declared, “and I’m going to tell the colonel so.” I would have liked to have seen the confrontation with Peters.
Two men manned the OP, and the 24-hour duty wasn’t too bad, just boring. The field phone, tied in with Company HQ and the two other platoon OP holes, provided enough chatter to reduce the monotony during daylight and early evening hours, but in the wee hours it was often impossible to raise anybody. You may whistle, scream or shout into the mouthpiece, but the only sound in the earpiece would be complacent snoring. In some of the night blizzards, a German division could walk by within a foot of where you stood in the hole, and you could neither see nor hear them – so you would duck in and out of the hole to keep from freezing. On the worst night of all, Sgt. Harbeck called.
“You boys got your heads out of that hole?”
“Yeah,” holding the mouthpiece up into wind. “You hear that wind, don’t you?”
“OK, you guys keep your eyes open. If I were the Germans I’d attack on a night like this!”
“I reckon you would, at that.”
“Aw, nothing – we’re watching.”
“OK and be sure to check in every half hour.”
But when you tried to check in, there was only the sound of snores. Under the tanks far to our left the fires burned, and I wondered if they had guards out in the blizzard, even though the fires would not be visible from three feet away. Then I wondered if, all along the line, everybody was hoping somebody else had guards out.
A battalion OP was established a few hundred yards ahead of our MLR (main line of resistance) in a shallow depression, probably a road, but impossible to tell because of the deep snow that covered and hid everything. The chance that a man would pull duty there more than once was rare – but once was enough. When our turn came, Bowers led us out – there were four of us. It must have taken near an hour struggling in the deep snow before we reached the site. There was a large hole, but we preferred to stand. If we were hit we would have more chance of escaping this way, than from the hole. We were not here to fight a pitched battle – we were to report any attack suspicions, and get the hell out. Of course, the chances of a remote OP surviving a determined attack were remote. Essentially, the demise of such an OP, along with the hole attending that demise, would serve to warn those along the line. In the black night we talked little, and only in low voices. We spent most of the time stamping our feet, slapping our toes together, and flapping our arms about our bodies to keep some circulation going. A field phone serving the OP went dead, as determined by fate, leaving us voiceless and totally isolated in hostile ground, with a blizzard beginning to blow.
At about 2100 hours we heard sounds of men and crunching snow behind us. We trained our rifles as a patrol of white-clad men appeared. Our challenge brought the proper response, and the patrol of 10 men and one dog joined us for a few exchanges of conversation, before moving on along their intended route. The patrol was from G Company, and they would not be returning our way – they were to return through Fox Company. The dog, happy to be along, could cause problems, so we kept him with us when the patrol left.
Things were uneventful until about midnight, and then several burp guns screamed out a few yards ahead of us. We fell to the ground and remained silent, waiting for the Germans to show themselves. Return fire was probably what the Germans hoped for, so they could pinpoint our position. They were possibly aware of an American OP in the area, and wished to find and eliminate it – or they were doing a hell of a job convincing their superiors to the rear that they were doing a bang-up job. When no response was forthcoming, they moved on to our right, pausing now and then to blast away with their burp guns. It seemed normal procedure for roving patrols to parallel our lines, firing now and then as they traversed our front. Whatever the reason, it seemed ineffective. They seldom caused damage or return fire. The Germans were willing to expend large amounts of ammo for little gain.
As the night wore on, the blizzard increased to full force with high wind driving the heavy snow. It was obvious that our relief could never find us, even should they choose to make the attempt. Obvious also was the fact that we could serve no useful purpose by remaining here in blizzard conditions. Yet we stayed and waited for our relief, stamping our feet and beating our hands against our shoulders and ribs. The time for our relief long past, we still peered into the driving snow with utter futility, growing colder and colder.
With communications gone, and no hope of relief venturing out, and with dawn approaching, we finally set out to find our lines. My sense of direction, or lack of it, warned that we were probably marching about behind German positions. Our facial muscles were frozen as we stumbled along, maintaining physical contact by holding on to each other – it was not possible to see the back of the man ahead of you. Frost rimmed our nostrils, mouths and eyes. Eyelids, half closed against the driving snow, seemed to freeze in position. After an interminable length of time (God, would the Germans be surprised when dawn came and found that we had penetrated half way to Berlin!) one of the men fell into a hole. Climbing back out, he announced the impossible – he had fallen into the E Company HQ hole. From there we knew the general bearings to our individual holes. Having expected something like this, I had driven a stake by the entrance to our hole. I didn’t find the stake, but I fell in the entrance to the hole. Next morning I found the top of the stake below the surface of the snow. More good luck – the dog decided to spend the rest of the morning with us. With the warmth of the dog radiating between us we fell quickly asleep. When we awoke in mid-morning the dog had left. A three-dog night had been made tolerable by only one.
Batson, a fellow inmate of Blanding I&R, was in Fox Company to our right. I hadn’t seen him in moths, so I walked over to Fox and looked him up. He told me of a lieutenant purporting to be from Division HQ checking out eh morale and supply situation of the line troops, asking about food, ammo and equipment, etc. After talking for a few minutes, he wanted to visit their OP. After talking to the OP crew, he wandered out ahead, getting the lay of the land. When he went beyond the point the OP crew deemed fairly safe, they called to warn him, at which point he leaped a nearby fence row to lower ground ahead, and vanished from sight. One of Skorzeny’s finest, no doubt.
Lt. Donald Ross, Weapons Platoon leader, led a patrol out one night. When they located a German MG position, Ross had a phone spooled out to him, waited till dawn through the cold night, and called his mortars down on the position. The E Company mortar section (we called them our E Company artillery) fired their 60mm bombs at the target. The men of the patrol swear that the first bomb hit the gunner square on his helmet. End of MG and crew.
Lt. Mann was scheduled to lead a reinforced 2nd Platoon combat patrol to Krinkelt to draw enemy attention from a 7th Corps attack south of us. Our assigned task, to shoot up Germans, vehicles and equipment in the Krinkelt environs, was more suited to a battalion or regimental effort. But we were game.
To get a complete copy of Harry Arnold’s “Easy Memories,” write to J.R. McIlroy, PO Box 98, Celina TX 75009. Limited quantities are available for the next 30 days.