This is an unusual diary for me. It’s primarily about my Uncle’s experience in WWII. He served as an infantry soldier in the US Army during the period which encompassed the Battle of the Bulge. He’s never talked to us about his experience until I received this draft memoir which my Aunt is helping him write.
Though his war was over a half-century ago, his experiences struck me as probably not that different from the war time experiences of those who are serving now. In any event, I felt it worthwhile to share his report of his time fighting in what many of us who were younger have always been told was the “Good War.” For me this was an eye opener into the true cost of any war. I hope you will agree with me that, even though it isn’t directly analogous to our current war, the story he has to tell is worth repeating here.
More after the fold . . .
My Uncle begins with references to reports he received of the official battlefield history of his unit. I’ve left the reports in a normal font, and italicized those portions of the text which reflect his own observations and recollections:
In May of 2003 I sent for and received copies of morning reports for December 1944 and January and February 1945 for my company, Company I of the 290th Regiment of the 75th Division, United States Army. I expected the reports to provide a day-by-day account of what was happening and thus to supplement my flagging memory.
Unfortunately, the recorder’s use of an odd kind of shorthand consisting of abbreviations lacking vowels makes the daily activities difficult to determine. Some of the abbreviated words I have deciphered, but others are beyond my expertise. I believe that I have the correct interpretation for the following:
dy = duty
fr = from
ltr = letter
dtd = detached
Tfrd = transferred
Gr = grade
What is helpful in the reports is that on December 1st our location is noted as Camp Nottage, Wales, and our roster includes 187 men.
The December 2nd report is revealing in that it states that we have been alerted for departure. The report is signed [name withheld]. Then a line is drawn through the departure phrase, accompanied by the initials REJ.
Reports for the next week read as follows:
December 3: No change (Apparently the alert was not for immediate departure.)
December 4: Two men are reported AWOL.
December 5: Received two privates from a replacement depot, raising our ranks to 189.
December 6: Two men to hospital in Cardiff.
December 7: No change
December 8: 5 men to hospital, diagnosis unknown (Possibly it was the flu.)
The December 10th report (handwritten and barely legible) indicates that we are moving, so perhaps the alert was the real thing. The following reports, also handwritten, yield the following information:
December 11: Left Camp Nottage, Wales. Arrived at Porthcawll, Wales, at 0021 and boarded train. Arrived at Southampton, England, at 0630. Boarded SS Mangwia at 1200. Morale high; weather good.
December 12: No change. Aboard SSMangwia .
Life aboard the British ship was unremarkable except that the food was not edible by American standards. Fortunately, there was a canteen on board that sold cookies and other snacks.
December 13: Arrived at LeHavre, France, at 2030. Distance traveled by water 150 miles; morale high; weather fair.
At LeHavre we climbed down rope ladders into landing craft that deposited us on the beach.
December 14: Red Horse Assembly Area. Departed from LeHavre, France, via truck convoy at 0100. Arrived at Red Horse at 0430. Distance traveled by convoy 45 miles. Weather cold.
LeHavre was a rubble pile; and as we departed, the natives threw rocks at us. The Germans had evacuated LeHavre three days before the Americans bombed it to the ground.
December 15: Location North 45 degrees. 4 min. 0 sec.; E 0 degrees 45 min. 0 sec.
6 men left in hospital in Cardiff, Wales. (The only name I recognize is [name withheld].) Down to 182.
December 16-18: Same location
The morning reports for December 16 through 18 contain little information, but I remember that rain fell almost constantly. Red Horse Assembly Area was an open field where we pitched our pup tents on either side of a company street. The foot traffic on the street, which was a plowed field, together with the rain, created a pool of mud that actually began to flow with the slope of the terrain. Some of us collected straw from the local farmer, who was in the process of threshing his grain with an electric-motor-driven machine about half the size of a car. One report seems to place us near Freville, France. Beginning on December 18 the reports are signed by [name withheld]. No hint is given as to what happened to Captain [name withheld].
December 19: En route to Hoeselt, Belgium. Departed bivouac area by motor convoy for railhead at 1225. Arrived at Yvetot, France, 1320. Boarded train and departed for Belgium at 1515. Weather foggy and cold.
The rail cars we boarded were the 40 and 8 variety from W.W.I. The 40 and 8 designation indicated a capacity of either 40 men or 8 horses.
Battle of the Bulge
December 20: Crossed French border into Belgium at 0930. Arr. Tongern, Belgium, and detrained at 2200. Weather cold and foggy. Rocket bombs passed overhead intermittently.
The December 20th report is an understatement and inaccurate. We actually made it to Hoeselt, Belgium. The city was already in German hands, and the French engineer hastily backed out to Tongern in a hail of small-arms gunfire. We walked back to Hoeselt, our objective, the next day.
December 21: Arrived Hoeselt, Belgium, by foot at 0120. Weather cold and foggy. Distance traveled by foot approx. 5 miles.
December 22: No change. Location: Mean, Belgium.
December 23: [Name withheld] appointed Staff Sgt.
December 24: Location: Septor, Belgium
During this period we were approaching one little town after another, expecting to find Germans. We encountered no German troops, and on at least one occasion we found American MP’s directing traffic, causing my Pennsylvania Polish ammunition carrier to comment, “Just another dry run.”
December 25: Location: Werpin, Belgium. Lieutenant [name withheld] wounded and hospitalized. 2 other officers and 9 enlisted men MIA (actually they were dead). Ranks down to 173.
Finally on Christmas Day, as we approached the little crossroads of Werpin, we made contact. My friend [Name withheld] remembers crossing a bridge going into the town on which a GI from another unit was holding two German prisoners. Don says that the GI told one of the Germans to jump off the bridge to the rocks 50 feet below. The German refused, so the GI shot him and kicked the body off the bridge. Then the GI ordered the other German to jump, and he did. This incident was our first interchange with a unit that had been under attack for some time. Later that day we received word from that outfit to quit sending them German prisoners, because they were just killing them.
My recollection is that the bridge was already down when we got there, and we crossed the stream and scrambled up to the road. Houses were on one side of the road, the creek on the other. As we got up onto the road, we came under German machinegun fire but from a considerable distance. Once across the road, we were out of the field of fire and could proceed up the wooded hill that was our objective. Three tanks on the road gave us covering fire, but their shells bursting in the trees on the hill sounded like firecrackers and were not very reassuring. For concealment, we went through a barn and out a back door, where the battalion commander patted each man on the back as we went through. Three days later, he was relieved and hospitalized with combat fatigue. The stress of sending men to their deaths was too much for him.
As we moved up the hill in skirmish formation, the woods became more dense. Sergeant [Name withheld] was on my left, moving forward determinedly. A wounded German was coming down the hill, supported by a buddy. They were both very young, and I hope they weren’t turned over to that unit behind us that were killing prisoners.
We could hear bullets snapping around us, but other than the two prisoners, I didn’t see any Germans until we crested the hill and I saw a group running away in the distance. The range was fairly long; but firing several rounds at the departing runners, I could see my tracer bullets flying among them. They all went down, either because I hit them or for cover. I don’t know which, and I don’t want to know.
On that Christmas Day Company I, First Platoon, was very hard hit. My good friend [name withheld] was on my right and a buddy named [name withheld] was next to him. Both were killed, and I could hear Lieutenant [name withheld] calling for his mother. Sergeant Bay was also killed, but not before he apparently wiped out a major position of a German machinegun unit that was probably responsible for our casualties.
My impression was that casualties were much worse than the report indicated. It appeared to me that only about a dozen of us were left, and I was the ranking soldier as a Pfc. I gathered up the survivors, and we continued along the ridge; but the Germans had left. We came upon one German body; and I ordered a young private to “stick it” with his bayonet, an action we had been trained to do to be sure that the person was dead. The boy was reluctant to do so but followed my order, and the resulting crunch suggested that the man had been dead for some time.
I had the feeling that I should go back and retrieve the $200 I knew [name withheld] was carrying and send it to his mother, for I was afraid it would never find its way back to her otherwise. But exhaustion overtook us, and we stopped and slept where we fell.
December 26: 8 more casualties reported. Company ranks down to 165.
The next morning a captain found us and directed us to go back down the hill and to connect up with our outfit. He warned us that we would see a lot of dead guys on the way. He was right. L Company had been making a frontal assault across an open field at the base of the hill we were to take and had suffered terrible casualties.
Moving through their positions was an almost otherworldly experience, like visiting a wax museum and viewing subjects frozen in time. One particular tableau is with me to this day. The morning was bright and sunny, with a slight breeze. As we filed past one group of bodies, we could see that one GI with a head injury was lying on his back, propped against a log, and that a medic bending over him had started to bandage the wound when he too was hit. The ends of the bandage were streaming out in the breeze.
During the next few days our company dug in along the ridge line we had secured on the crest of a hill under trees looking out over an open field. Engineers came and stretched barbed wire in front of our positions, and artillery units–some said as many as 20 battalions–moved up to support us. The Germans attempted one attack but were decimated by a tremendous barrage.
Just before the attack, I was working on improving my foxhole, which at the time was about waist deep. I had placed my cartridge belt, trench knife, and canteen on the rim above and in front of the foxhole. Suddenly a shell landed 50 yards out to my right.
I crouched in my hole as 3 more shells exploded almost simultaneously right above me. I looked up to see that the trees had been blasted away; and where I had been in shade, sunlight now streamed into my hole. The handle of my trench knife had been severed, and my helmet was split from the top to the bottom rim.
January 1: 9 men missing in action. Count is 176.
The morning reports at this point become very confused, often with no totals given.
January 2: Received 17 replacements. 7 more names deleted.
January 3: Four more names deleted. 2nd Lt. arrives from replacement depot. 7 more in hospital and dropped from list.
January 4: Two more found in hospital and dropped from duty. Count is 146.
January 6: One listed missing in action. Location: Werpin/Durbuy, Belgium
January 7: Location: Parenteau, Belgium.
January 8: Present for duty: 98 plus 4 officers. Total 164. (Apparently men are being carried on the books until their disposition is confirmed.)
Adding 17 replacements to our original complement of 189 yields a total of 206, yet only 102 men were reporting for duty at this point. We had already lost half of our men.
January 9: Location: Laid Prangeleux, Belgium. 10 more men designated MIA or in hospital. 16 more men received from a replacement depot.
January 10: Three men to hospital. Division departed 1745 from Laid Prangeleux to Erria, Belgium, via truck. Arrived 2230. Weather cold. Morale fair. Roster shows 147.
This trip to Erria was our first break since engaging in battle. We each got a hot shower for three minutes, and I remember the water running over my head and over my eyes as being black for most of the three minutes. We saw a frivolous movie, which oddly enough was a great morale booster. It was somehow comforting to think that nonsense could still go on. I met a fellow who I heard had been killed, and he said he had heard that I had been killed. I took this occasion to write a letter home, expressing appreciation for my family.
January 12: Twenty-three more names removed from roster.
January 13: Sixteen replacements received, 1 Pvt. dropped.
January 14: [Name withheld] to 618th Med. clearing company. 1 other man sent to 102 Evac. Hospital.
I didn’t know [Name withheld] at the time, but we met in Chalons, France, after the war and played some table tennis. I visited him at his home on Cape May in 2003 and gave him a copy of these morning reports. He, a talented artist, presented me with one of his paintings. We have never discussed our individual hospitalizations, but I think both of us suffered from battle fatigue.
January 15: Location: Goronne, Belgium. One man sent to hospital, 3 men AWOL.
(This entry is the first indication of the desperation of the troops. Since we were behind the lines in a rest area, the hospitalization may have been for a self-inflicted wound. The AWOLs are self-explanatory.) Left Erria, Belgium 0610 by motor movement. Arrived Goronne, Belgium, 0830. Got the men quartered. Remainder of time spent working on individual weapons and equipment. Distance traveled: 8 miles, Weather cold. Morale of troops good.
One might question the assessment of morale with men going AWOL. I ran into [Name withheld] during the break. He was very depressed and was killed a few days later.
January 16: Capt. [name withheld] arrives from a replacement depot and immediately assumes command. (He may have been an early casualty, since he never signs a morning report.) Three second lieutenants also arrive.
It is now apparent to me that morning reports were often prepared at some later time and were primarily to record changes in personnel. Little to nothing is recorded about action, and locations given are suspect. When the [Name withheld] inquired into [Name withheld] death, all they could be told was “killed in action.” The January 25th report lists him as killed January 20. He was actually killed on the 18th.
January 20: Fourteen men transferred to various hospitals. Nine killed in action.
You would think an action (which actually occurred on the 18th) where there were 23 casualties would have warranted some record being made that would provide loved ones with more detail than “killed in action.”
A Battalion History, by [name withheld], is more revealing and more accurate about what was occurring during that month of January. For example:
Jan. 9, 1945…At 0300Jerry started shelling the Bn defense area. Troops were inadequately dug in. (The night was so dark it was impossible to see the ground in which one was digging even from a height of 6 inches. Snow covered the earth and the ground was extremely hard. Roots in the ground made the tough job of digging even harder.) Few of the troops had any overhead cover to protect them from tree bursts. The enemy shelling had a disastrous effect. Many were wounded and some killed. There was no way of evacuating the wounded. The only road that could have been used by the ambulances was jammed tightly with tanks of the Second Armored Division, which was preparing for a dawn attack on the La Roche Highway, 1500 yards in front of the Bn’s position on the hill. At dawn the Second Armored pushed off in the attack and ambulances came up to evacuate the wounded. At 0900 the Bn received orders to go into the attack of the La Roche Highway. The Bn formed and moved out. Word from regiment was received by Bn C.O. ordering the Bn to withdraw to a rest area. The Bn pulled back, marched one mile to an assembly area, and entrucked. The motor convoy reached the town of Erria the same evening. Troops were immediately billeted and hit the hay. This was the first rest for the Bn in 19 days of combat.
Another quotation covers events about which I will shortly explain my role:
I, L, and B Companies advanced toward the Farme De Flamandes, attacking through the woods. Night came early and the attacking force dug in for the night. The three companies prepared to jump off in a continuation of the attack at 0800 the following morning.
At 0700, as the three companies were preparing for the 0800 attack, the enemy counterattacked with several tanks and infantry support. The severe cold of the previous evening had frozen Bazookas, BAR’s and LMG’s, rendering them useless. I company knocked out one tank with the only Bazooka that would operate. All three companies sustained heavy casualties and were forced to withdraw. Casualties of the day were extremely high. There were not enough front-line troops in the Bn to form one complete rifle company. (NOTE–Just before the Bn reached the Farme-De-Flamandes, the Bn. C. O. was evacuated because of exhaustion and exposure.)
On the night of January 17th, as the company was digging in for the night, I and another soldier were ordered to go out on sentry duty about 100 yards down the road. I borrowed an M1 rifle because my Browning Automatic Rifle was too cumbersome for sentry duty.
My partner and I found a perfect spot at the side of the road: a huge pine tree with snow-laden limbs that formed a tepee-like shelter in which we could conceal ourselves. We had just settled in when we saw a column of German soldiers coming down the road.
When the Germans were abreast of our position, my companion shouted, “Halt!” In the cold night air, his voice must have appeared to be coming from somewhere else, for the German soldiers immediately riddled the opposite side of the road with gunfire.
The German commander then sent a scout forward on the road; and the scout returned shortly, probably to report the discovery of our troops digging in for the night. The commander next ordered his men to deploy in a skirmish line perpendicular to the road.
Two soldiers flopped down in the snow about ten yards from our concealment. Why they did not seek the relative comfort of our pine tree and discover us is a mystery for which I will be forever grateful. Whether I could have defended myself is dubious. I no longer had a sidearm, since my trench knife had never been replaced; and I did not know whether my borrowed M1 had a shell in its chamber.
My partner and I spent a long night whispering possible strategies to each other as we watched the Germans talk among themselves and light up cigarettes. We also wondered what was happening back in our lines. Hadn’t they heard the shots being fired?
We were supposed to be relieved in two hours, but no relief showed up all night. All we could do was wait. The Germans were so close that we did not even dare urinate for fear of discovery.
Finally the sky began to lighten, and we saw a patrol from our lines coming down the road. I knew that the Germans would see our patrol in the next instant, so I leaped out, shouting, “Get out of here! There are Germans all around.” My partner and I rushed toward the approaching Americans. Another mystery is why neither they nor the Germans shot us.
We all made it back to our lines, and I reported the German position to the captain. I also had questions: “Didn’t you hear the gunfire? Why were we not relieved?” The captain gave me no answers. Everyone was half frozen and half asleep.
About that time a shot rang out, followed by a call for a medic. We heard another shot, a groan, and another call, “They got the medic.” We were facing some tough customers, and they had an advantage over us in that they were dressed in white camouflage uniforms. On the other hand our khaki uniforms contrasted with the snow to make us perfect targets.
I learned in the next instant never to presume that things are so bad that they can’t get worse. The sound of sixteen-cylinder motors starting up curdled our blood. It meant that somehow the Germans had brought in tanks during the night without our hearing them. Probably heavy snowfall had muffled the sound.
The young soldier with whom I was sharing a foxhole had an antitank grenade and a grenade launcher on his M1. He also had the blank cartridge needed to launch the grenade. An antitank grenade launched from an M1 is only 6 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. The probability of its being able to knock out a German tank is slim; but it was what we had and the tank was coming. My companion was probably a recent replacement, and he was more than happy to turn his weapon over to me.
To fire the missile, we had to load the blank; and to load the blank we had to eject the clip already in the rifle. I flicked the catch, but the clip refused to move. An M1’s clip is automatically ejected when the last shell is fired, so I feverishly dug out each cartridge by hand until they were all out. Still the clip wouldn’t eject.
By now the company was in full retreat, and I joined the others running pell-mell through the woods. Something told me to veer to my right. The next moment the lead tank opened fire with its machine gun, and the man to my immediate left went down with both legs shot away. For a short while he continued to move on his hands.
[Break in narrative]
Based on the somewhat suspect morning reports, I calculate that at this point we had lost 180 men wounded or killed and even with replacements we were down to 70 men.
By now all of my friends and most of my acquaintances had been killed or wounded. When we received orders to move, often a shot would ring out; and another case of a self- inflicted wound would shortly be reported. Many saw this drastic measure as the only way out. Those who tried it hoped for a wound serious enough to get them evacuated but not serious enough to be life threatening. One of my friends shot himself in the foot. Unfortunately his weapon was a 45 caliber pistol, and the discharge effectively severed his foot.
We were no longer a “band of brothers” but an assembly of strangers. Some of the replacement troops didn’t last long enough to get on the roster. Some died in their foxholes for no apparent reason. In the extreme cold a thin layer of frost covered everything. Body heat would dispel it, so when we came upon a soldier covered with frost in a foxhole, we knew he was a goner.
Some additional personal incidents:
At one point we had accumulated roughly 20 prisoners, and the captain asked for a volunteer to take them back to the rear to be turned over to MP’s. I immediately volunteered as a way to avoid the action for a while. At first the captain said OK but then reversed himself because he didn’t want to lose the fire power of my Browning Automatic Rifle. When I explained loudly that the weapon didn’t work, he agreed to let me go. As I herded the prisoners to the rear, some still in possession of their side arms, I wondered if any of them had understood my exchange with the captain.
Many Germans spoke excellent English, but one of them didn’t know enough to keep his mouth shut and began to taunt us, saying that he would be back in the states before we would. One of the guys simply stated, “No you won’t” and shot him dead.
When we got down to 70 men, our advances in a skirmish line put us some 20 yards or more apart. One day as we were moving across an open field, the snapping sound of bullets going by meant that I was under automatic weapons fire. Apparently my frequent prayers for survival were being heard: how else to explain the bomb crater that appeared right next to me in this open field? I dived into it, burying the barrel of the Browning Automatic Rifle into the soft dirt. Every time I moved, more shots came in; so I stayed put and began to remove the flash hider on the end of the barrel to clear the weapon. Presently I looked up and saw one of the new officers in a trench coat standing on the rim of the crater. I expected that he would draw fire, but apparently the enemy had pulled back. The officer proceeded to read me the riot act for getting my weapon fouled. I felt like I was experiencing the first day of training back in the States. I suspect that the officer had just recently come from stateside training. He lasted another half hour before getting shot in the stomach at the next crossroads.
That same morning Pvt. [Name withheld], a Hispanic who was always being sent out on point, got his hands shot up and came walking back by me with a big grin on his face. I congratulated him on having a ticket home. He was the last person I knew from the original company.
January 24: Three EM dy to hosp, 375Med.Bn (NEC S1) remaining 23 Jan 45.
I was one of the three men listed. I suspect the letters designate exhaustion and indicate that the person is expected to return to duty. I have little recollection of the hospital or how I got there. I do remember being on a train when the division was being transferred to the Colmar pocket and hearing the medical orderly at one point say, “[Name withheld] blow your nose.” I must have been not much more that a zombie not to know when to blow my nose.
I do remember going back to duty but not being very responsive. At one point I was ordered out on patrol but did not answer the call. I was later told that I was found standing in line staring ahead uncomprehendingly. The officer said, “This man is not fit for combat.”
February 3: I am listed as returning to the 375th Med Bn.
February 4: I am listed as being returned to duty but transferred in grade to the service company.
My days as a combat soldier were over.