James D. Newton
We are in Germany – just barely. Inside the border is the Siegfried Line, Germany’s attempt to stop any invaders. It has been sitting here waiting for us since 1938. We crossed the border from Holland, not too far north of the Belgian border. The nearest towns in Holland are Sittard, Heerlen and Maastricht.
Coincididental to our arrival at the border is the supply problem. Supplies are still coming from Cherbourg and Normandy. For every mile the armies advanced, supply trucks had to travel two. Thousands of 2 ½ ton trucks are racing day and night one one-way highways called the Red Ball, but gasoline for tanks is measured in gallons per mile; not miles per gallon.
Armies, corps and divisions are coming on line all along the front, from southern Holland to the Swiss border. We are the northernmost troops of First U.S. Army. North of us are the British Second and Canadian First Armies.
XIX (Nineteenth) Corps has ground to a stop for lack of gasoline, but gas has been taken from the 2nd Armored Division to put the 113th, Red Horse, Cavalry Group across the border. XIX Corps will be the first to breach the Siegfried Line and in mid-October will come under control of U.S. Ninth Army.
The Siegfried Line has been constructed along Germany’s borders with Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The Line is an uninterrupted series of reinforced concrete pill-boxes, each with guns covering at least two other pill-boxes. In front of these fortifications are the Dragon’s Teeth; multiple rows of concrete obstacles designed to stop tanks . . . and they do.
The Siegfried Line will be penetrated in the next two months, but only after combat engineers have laid ‘satchel-charges’ against them and foot soldiers have paid a high toll in lives and wounds.
Aachen, once the capitol of the Holy Roman Empire, will fall just to the south of our present positions. It will be encircled by the First, Big Red One, Infantry Division from the south and the Thirtieth, Old hickory, Infantry Division from XIX Corps in the north.
The next two to three months will see the heaviest American fighting in Europe here. Germany wants the Fatherland cleared of the invaders and will fight fiercly. As this battle ends, the Germans will launch their attack to cut off the northern corps of the First Army, all of Ninth Army, British Second and Canadian First Armies. It will become known at the Ardennes Campaign . . . or, the Battle of the Bulge.
Rain has fallen a few times in September and now, in October, it is becoming more frequent. The ground is beginning to soften and will become much worse. Fall is bringing mud. Tanks will slide off roads, wheeled vehicles will belly-out, helpless, in the mud. And then one of Europe’s most severe winters in years will settle in to add snow and ice to the problems.
German soldiers who manned the Siegfried were playing soccer between the bunkers when we first arrived. They didn’t realize we were already here. Nobody disturbed them more than necessary because the main body of the First Army was still three days behind.
We are spread thin along the border, There aren’t enough men to form a continuous line so we form strongpoints with a section at each location. We dug the armored cars into holes so that only the turret and gun are above ground. The army calls this “hull-defilade.”
Our first position is a house where we can sleep inside. The armored car is dug-in next to the house, its gun covering a dirt road. The German family that lived here has disappeared. Someone thought they had gone to stay with people in Holland, whose border is about a hundred yards behind us.
At night we drive a patrol to contact another platoon. We drive through the darkness without lights, hoping no enemy has infiltrated or set mines.
Two men are in the armored car at all times; one to act as gunner, the other to load the little 37mm gun. The Germans are consolidating their defenses and there is little action, but that can give you a false sense of security.
This false security is broken one night when a German combat-patrol comes in to one of our positions. Combat-patrols, unlike patrols sent out to gather information or capture prisoners, had a solitary function; trouble. They do not intend to take ground. They approach as close as possible without being detected and start shooting. After doing as much damage as possible, they withdraw. Defenders against a combat-patrol don’t know whether it’s just a patrol or an attack by a larger unit; it doesn’t matter because your sole function is to fight back the intruders.
The section this patrol hit was dug in next to a house, similar to us. The men being attacked fired back and finally drove the Germans off. After the shooting stopped the section found one man, a new man, under a bed. There is not much to say about a situation like that. None of us knows how he will react until faced with it. There is some initial anger because every man depends on the other. There is the knowledge that when adrenalin pumps you either fight of flee, but you can’t take any more chances and the man is usually transferred to less hazardous duty.
The section involved suffered no casualties and wounded at least one German who laid out in front of the section most of the night calling for his mother (Mutter) until he died.
A few days later a sergeant from another platoon was leading an artillery forward-observer to an observation point when he was struck by a sniper bullet inside his upper arm. The wound, though serious, needn’t have been fatal, but he ran back to get medical aid without first stopping the flow of blood. By the time he reached the medics he had lost too much blood and plasma was of no use.
One day a young boy, about twelve, came to the house we used for our strong-point. He spoke to us, but we naturally couldn’t understand him. We thought at first he was Dutch, but it was unlikely a Dutch boy would cross the German border. Schwarz came up and spoke to the boy in German. He was the son of the Germans whose home we were occupying and his parents were indeed staying with friends across the Dutch border. His talking was incessant and although the rest of us couldn’t understand him, his attitude was friendly.
While he spoke he looked out a rear window and spotted a rabbit. He jumped up and ran into the back yard, picking up a stick on the way. He chased the rabbit around and around the yard, trying to club it. The yard and most of the area around the house had been mined by combat engineers shortly after we moved in and now the kid was running through the mines. We were all shouting at him, but since he didn’t understand us he probably thought we encouraging him to catch the rabbit. He and the rabbit finally disappeared down the road unharmed. We lost some faith in mines.
On the left, or north side of this house ran the small, one-lane road leading directly to the bunkers of the Siegfried Line. Although not a main artery of transportation, it was still a usable road the Germans, or we, could use. We covered it with the puny 37mm gun.
Across the road was an apple orchard with its last crop hanging from the limbs. The orchard was also mined and booby-trapped. Booby-traps in wooded areas are fairly simple to construct. Regular fragmentation hand grenades are tied to the trees at about head-height. Wire, either taut or loose, is tied from another tree to the grenade pin-ring. The pin is squeezed together so that it can slip out easily. An intruder who walks into the taut wire, or snags a loose wire, has almost enough time to make peace with his Maker – if he has led an exemplary life. Because of erratic fragmentation a grenade is not always a sure-kill, but the explosion alerts defenders.
Fall rains came, gently, but steady. At night, in the armored car, we strained to hear any sound that didn’t belong. Raindrops are surprisingly loud at night when you are trying to pick up the sound of a twig breaking or a footstep in a mud puddle. Hearing was the only sense available in the moonless nights.
We all experienced the same nerve-testing wait as we heard foot steps in the dark. The first step started the adrenalin pumping and imagination taking over inadequacies of the senses. The first sound was followed by another and another. The man inside the car’s turret slowly and silently traverses the gun toward the orchard. The man with his head outside the turret holds a grenade with a finger through the pin-ring.
The “footsteps” continue in cadenced rhythm and the urge to shoot or lob the grenade becomes almost unbearable. After four or five “steps” the sound stops. Again the tension builds. Is it someone walking, who had stopped for a moment? After a few minutes you’re satisfied it was just another apple falling from a high limb, hitting one branch after another until it finally hit the earth. When someone can’t wait out the “steps” and shoots, there is panic from sleeping men, fumbling for weapons in the dark and running out of the house in stockinged feet.
Word is passed down that the 30th Infantry Division will attack with a battalion just to our immediate south. We are instructed to shoot harassing-fire at 0600 hours as a diversion. Johnson and I are scheduled in the car at that time.
Johnson, the radio operator in our sections car, has the gunners position. I take place to the right of the 37mm gun to load for him. At 0600 we open up. I throw rounds into the breech and Johnson enjoys traversing and elevating the gun to its highest to send the tine 37’s a couple miles inside Germany.
We trade off for a while; I shoot and Johnson loads. Ammunition is getting low in the ready-racks so I get out of the turret to fire the 50 caliber machine gun mounted over the turret while he loads for himself at a slower pace.
The mechanism of the machine gun is directly over the open turret of the car and links of the metal disintegrating belt fall into the turret. When I let up to cool the barrel, I hear Johnson screaming at me, the hot links of the belt have been falling down the neck of his field jacket.
Now I notice that something is falling one me. Small twigs hit me on the helmet and shoulders. I don’t know where they’re coming from until I finally realize the Germans are shooting back at us an the twigs are from an overhanging tree limb.
When we finish our fire-mission, our stint at guard duty is over so we go into the house for our relief. Everyone inside is flat against the floor. The German counter-fire has broken most of the windows and the walls are punctured from numerous rounds. We must have convinced at least a few Krauts with our diversionary fire. Our living quarters now has cross-draft ventilation, but we won’t be here long enough for that to be a problem.
At this time the Canadian First Army, the Second British Army and northern units of the First U.S. Army are consolidating positions along northern and eastern Holland. Since we are among the northernmost units of the First U.S. Army, we are relieved several times during our advance by British outfits.
The British soldier was as good as any and better than some. However, we noticed they seemed to be noisy and quite often arrived with their headlights on. It became our practice to be packed and ready to leave when we knew they were coming.
On one occasion we waited, all ready to go, except to back the armored cars out of their holes, and stood around an orchard having a smoke. It is a scientific fact that you can’t hear an artillery round before it hits near you because it’s traveling faster than sound. Maybe the first round passed overhead, but they all landed in a compact area. With the first sound, we dove for nearby holes. I jumped head-first into a hole as the shell detonated in the tree overhead. A limb about three of four inches in diameter came in after me. The hole filled with acrid, burnt powder.
We had probably been under observation and the Germans fired only one battery of four guns. The firing had stopped, but I couldn’t get out because of the tree limb. A couple men of the section pulled the limb out not quite expecting to see me in one piece.
On a gray, drizzling afternoon, soon after we had crossed into German territory, a man came walking into the platoon area. He was the usual non-descript G.I. He was a little shorter than I was. A little wider through the shoulders. His only really distinguishing feature was a “lantern-jaw”; not the beligerant-type, it just protruded a little.
The men who had been in the platoon from Normandy greeted him, asking how he was and if he was back in the “First” (platoon).
The Platoon Sergeant introduced him to me, “Newton, this is Ganley. Gerry was wounded in France and is just coming back from the hospital.”
We said, “Hi” to each other. There are no handshakes or smiles in line outfits. We would have to feel each other out before acceptance or rejection. The only thing we had in common at this instant was that we would both be in the same section. The First, or point , Section.
Within a few weeks the “point-driver” would refuse to drive point anymore and I would get the job. Gerry would be the third man in the jeep along with Dwight Zwer, the “Recon Sergeant”. Gerry and I would become partners in and out of combat. It’s just the way things work out.
After more units of XIX Corps came into line our relief’s became more frequent and we went to rest in Sittard, Holland. On our first visit there we parked the vehicles under trees of a city park and prepared to sleep on the grass. Late in the afternoon a Dutch civilian came over and offered some of us the use of his home across the street. The Dutch were genuinely friendly and the cleanest people in Europe.
We accepted his offer and went over to his house early. We brought a few cans of food to try to repay them for their hospitality. The man of the house, who had invited us, spoke perfect English and interpreted during the evening for his wife and elderly mother.
For the first time in my life I slept on a feather bed. The mattress and comforter were filled with feathers. It was a luxurious sensation to sink down with the comforter slowly settling over me. In the morning we awoke to find that three of the people had slept in chairs all night so that we could use their beds. It was acts of kindness like this that brought the Dutch close to American combat soldiers.
We returned to Sittard and latter to Heerlen for our rests and found all the Dutch were as gracious.
They washed our uniforms for us and performed other acts of kindness that were difficult to repay. We brought soap and whatever we could of food to try to show our appreciation.
One of our frequent moves to new positions inside Germany brought us to a town by the name of Isenbruch. Our position was actually in front of the town in what I can only describe as a “ditch”. The ditch, or ravine, was about two hundred yards forward of the ‘line’.
At the top, the ditch was about fifty feet across. There was an old board-and-batton shack we used to sleep. A 30 caliber machine gun was set up and the area in front of us had been mined and set with trip-flares. We brought up a jeep, under cover of darkness. We were going to be stuck here, relying on support from the rear because that was where everybody else was.
We had to make a trip back at night to pick up rations and mail. We used the jeep to save carrying the load. On one of these trips we had just loaded the jeep and were returning. The night was totally dark so I walked in front of the jeep to lead it. At one point we had to pass through a line of concertina barbed-wire. The wire was called concertina because it was coiled with one roll on top of two others. It was common practice to lace the wire with fragmentation hand grenades. The pins had been squeezed closed to slip out easily and a wire tied-off from the ring to another coil of wire. Anyone trying to flatten the wire, pulled the pin.
I walked in front of the jeep trying to silhouette the wire against the sky; only there was no sky.
As we approached the area where the wire should be, I suddenly felt a barb of the concertina catch on my pants. It caught and then let loose with a snap. Reasoning should have told me that the wire had pulled the pin from a grenade. I should have hit the ground and yelled, “grenade” for the sake of the man in the jeep. I did the worst thing possible; I froze. I stood there until the jeep ran into me with its front bumper. The driver was moving slowly and braked immediately. In a loud whisper he asked, “You okay?” Time had elapsed for the grenade to go off so I just told him we were through.
Another interesting experience came to pass while we were in these same positions. Every combat unit from squadron (battalion) to the highest commands has an “intelligence” section. It is known as “S-2” in units up to regiments and “G-2” in units commands by generals ranks. S-2 or G-2, is has the responsibility of collecting and disseminating information about the enemy; his strength, location, support and intent. With our usual opinion of anybody working behind the line we thought they spent their time collecting native artefacts and cultivating the acquaintance of local women. I don’t ever remember seeing them running patrols of their own in front of us.
Once in a while though, they had to justify their existence. Our A Troop had been in this place a few weeks before and had attacked the town ahead – with casualties. S-2, intelligence, probably with the aid of a defective crystal ball, decided that one of A Troops armored cars was still intact.
The captain assembled those of us ‘honored’ by being chosen for the assignment in Troop Headquarters. S-2 briefed us on the situation stating they had determined that an armored car could be salvaged and put back in service. When they were through, the captain told us he knew the car was worth $ 40,000 (1944 prices) , but that it wasn’t worth losing one man to him and not to take unnecessary chances getting it out. We sat around the walls of the room, not in the least enthusiastic and very suspicious of intelligence people.
We applied burnt cork to our faces, checked our weapons and walked outside, we were to carry a heavy chain capable of towing eight tons of armored car. Each man was to loop a circle of chain over his shoulder and the ten, or fifteen, of us thus ladened would walk down the hill and enter the town.
We hadn’t heard much activity from the Germans in the town. We could hear pigs snorting at times, but no firing or movement by the enemy. We felt sure they were still interested in the war though.
We each picked up our share of chain and hung it from a shoulder. We plodded along into the night trying to keep the chain on one shoulder and a rifle hung from the other. The noise of the chain swinging against itself sounded like church bells chiming under the circumstances.
The whole thing was getting ridiculous. Some of us began to laugh, others got mad at us. There was really no reason for the make-up or anything else. There were so many of us, walking upright to carry our share of chain, that we couldn’t use anything taught us in basic-training. There was no stealth or use of terrain features. We were simply walking down a hill with a hundred feet of heavy chain into a town last held by the enemy. My only thought was; could I drop the chain and hit the ground fast enough when the shooting started? If we made it as far as the armored car, I wouldn’t have blamed the man driving the tow truck if he headed for Paris.
As we entered the town itself, the patrol became even more ludicrous. We were walking over shale or slate roofing blown from the houses by artillery. Along with broken glass, we slipped and tried to recover our balance and made more noise.
The German soldiers, wherever they were, were either laughing so much they couldn’t shoot or they thought they were being attacked by some elite night-fighting unit. We didn’t receive one shot.
We found the armored car. It was not quite in tip-top condition. It had received several direct hits. Most of the tires were flat and the turret, with its 37mm gun intact, was laying on its side on the sidewalk. The car was only good for scrap-iron.
We walked back up the hill and found the waiting tow truck and gave him a few messages for S-2.
On a random visit to Troop Headquarters during this time, we saw a group of men gathered around a large cardboard box. We went over to see what had drawn their attention. Inside, the box was filled with condoms; what looked like thousands and thousands of them.
The sight drew a smile and even a few outright laughs from everyone. The last thing in the world we needed were condoms. We stood in awe of the quantity of the things. Someone asked a sergeant of Headquarters Platoon what he was going to do with them. “They’re for you guys. Take all you want.” Then came what would normally be a redundant question; “What are we going to do with them?”
Combat soldiers learn to scrounge and steel anything since almost anything can be put to some unintended use. These were free so we all took a handful.
It didn’t take long to find good use for them. The rubber divices were pulled over muzzles of M-1s, carbines, machine guns and even the 37mm guns on the armored cars. They kept water and dirt out of the bores and you could shoot through them without danger.
By unrolling the things and tying the ends together, they made an elastic ring. The rings were pulled over boots, then trouser cuffs were turned under the rings to ‘blouse’ over boot tops. I think every G.I. in Europe bloused his trousers that way by war’s end.
On one of our many moves during this period we outposted a village where the holes were located in back yards of houses. It was another one of those places where we weren’t quite sure where we were or exactly where the Germans were. Our stay there was quiet for the most part until a moonless night when we heard an airplane engine overhead.
We were familiar with American and British airplane engine sounds and this one was different. The sound came nearer and was obviously low. As it came directly over us, the plane dropped a series of parachute flares. We could only see the tail-section of the plane because the flares ignited behind it.
Military training told us never to look directly at a flare because it temporarily blinds the eyes and it takes a few seconds to recover from the brightness. This was an unusual occurrence though and I think most of us looked up out of curiousity.
While the flares decended, we heard the plane circle tightly and come back. Now we saw it was a two-engined bomber with black crosses painted on its wings. It came in at about three hundred feet, which seemed low for night-flying, and details of the underside were easily visible. Now, over our positions, it dropped hundreds of small “butterfly” bombs, so-called because hinged sides of the cylinders opened up in a wing effect. The tiny bombs exploded in front of our positions without any injuries to us. Some of these bombs were set, not to detonate on impact, but to lay there as anti-personnel mines.
We were now being relieved frequently for rest in Heerlen, Holland. Quarters were set up in a school house for this purpose. We usually spent two or three days in rest area, but this time ‘rest’ continued longer than we knew it should. The inevitable rumors started again – not good rumors. Meanwhile, days became shorter and rain more frequent.
The platoon sergeant came in one morning and, in what was to become habit for him, volunteered me to report to an officer out in the country. Two others had been volunteered with me. We took a jeep and drove to the location he gave us. We reported to the officer conducting a class and learned we were to be trained in use of the “Bazooka.” The bazooka, or more correctly the rocket-launcher, was an anti-tank weapon for use by infantry. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t a cavalry weapon. We hadn’t even trained with it in my Tank Destroyer basic training.
We watched men from other units get their instructions and they tried their best to hit an iron plate across a ravine. As our turn came, I aimed the bazooka at the plate and then raised it. Over. The officer said, “Good, you’re on line, but a little high.” My next shot went to the left, the third shot, low and the final shot to the right. The officer was disappointed in my failure. Everyone else had hit the plate at least once. He said, “I don’t think you’ve got the hang of it.” If I hadn’t had the “hang of it” I wouldn’t have missed all four times. We drove back to Heerlen after my two companions qualified with the bazooka to report that the sergeant now had two good bazooka-men, but that I had failed. Two out of three isn’t bad.
Whether based on fact or just on our bazooka training, a strong rumor circulated that we were scheduled to flank an attack by the 2nd Armored Division. The worst part of the rumor was that the 125th Cavalry would go in dismounted. Armored divisions have their own armored infantry, but if they were committed somewhere else, or if more dismounted protection was needed for the tanks it sounded entirely plausible that we could be used in that way. Our spirits dropped at the thought of being ‘dismounted’ cavalrymen.
The rumor specifically identified the town of Geilenkirchen. As it turned out we would become involved in the fight for Geilenkirchen, but not with the 2nd Armored Division.
We made several trips onto the line and back out again for rest. Fighting along the Siegfried had not yet reached its full ferocity. Allied units were still coming onto line and the Germans were trying to man the pill-boxes and reassemble units after retreating across France, Belgium and Holland.
On one of the days of rest in Sittard we were walking past Troop Headquarters when I heard someone call, “Hey, Newton, c’mon over here.” We walked over to where several men of Headquarters Platoon were standing and inspecting something. “You had radio training, didn’t you? What’s this thing?” I looked at what was obviously an army radio. “It looks like a regular 610 radio with a battery-pack. But what’s the thing sticking out the bottom?” “That’s what we want to know. It was just issued to us.”
I examined the radio. It was one of the radios O had trained with, except for a spike about three feet long protruding down from the battery-pack. The “spike” wasn’t intended to be stuck in the ground because it was made of hollow sheet metal – and besides, there wouldn’t be any reason for the radio to be held off the ground.
The spike narrowed down to a blunt point. We all stood there speculating on the intended use of this strange apparatus. This model radio was not designed to be hand-carried although it could be used as a unit, using the battery-pack. Normally, it was a vehicle-mounted radio using a vibrator-pack. I tried to think of what kind of vehicle would mount such a radio.
“Mount”, that was it. “I think I know what it is. The spike goes into a saddle-boot. This is a horse-cavalry radio.” The army had done it again. The radio went back to Signal Corps supply.
The attitude of war has changed now. The change was subtle, but as the weeks went by the realization that the war had stopped moving finally sets into your mind. The relative quiet of the first weeks after reaching the German border – and the Siegfried Line – is disappearing. The Germans have reorganized and are making a stand at their West Wall. Allied armies have consolidated the line and have replenished supplies of fuel and ammunition, but the war isn’t moving.
The fall weather has turned everything into mud, even once-paved roads. Fighting is becoming more intense and living conditions worse. Slowly, you begin to wonder how many trips you can make to the line; and back out again. You don’t talk about it. You don’t ask, “Why me?”, because it is you.
You leave the inhabited towns of Heerlen or Maastricht or whatever place was your rest area. You leave the rear-echelon soldiers who are bored with their jobs, but who have made friends in those towns whom they will visit tonight.
You pass a newly-erected sign; a professionally made sign. The sign states something about; WARNING (or DANGER) YOU ARE NOW ENTERING GERMANY. The sign goes on to explain that further travel in this direction is extremely hazardous.
Everyone looks at the new sign on this road we have been using for weeks. Someone asks, “Why did they put that sign up now? Is it more dangerous than it was a couple days ago?” “Aw, they just put it up to scare hell out of the replacements.” “I don’t know about the replacements, but it scares hell out of me.”
As you get closer to the line you may start seeing artillery emplacements. Maybe, way back, you will see the big eight-inch guns; guns so big they have to be put together with cranes when they go into position. Then there are the batteries of the 155’s; the “Long-Toms”. Even closer, you may see the 105’s and after you see the tanks and tank destroyers dug-in for extra fire support, you know you are almost home.
You are nearing the place for which all those factories and millions of workers are going twenty-four hours a day back in the States. The place for which thousands of ships are sailing in over-the-horizan convoys. The place for which each soldier here has about fifteen other soldiers working behind the line to keep him supplied and fed.
This is the place where all that blood donated back home is sent in the form of plasma. This is where all those extra mattress-covers are sent, but not to be used to cover mattresses. This is where they really use your dog-tags to identify you, your blood-type, your religion and your next-of-kin.
When you get close to the line, you usually don’t see anyone because friends and enemies are in their holes. Nobody moves above ground unless one side or the other is attacking. You usually relieve the outfit going into a rest at night.
If, by chance, you see the men you are relieving during daylight, you learn to look at them to see what it is going to be like from the way they walk and look. There’s no talking between you and them. If your eyes happen to meet, there might just be an almost imperceptible nod.
If you are the ones being relieved, you can tell a lot by looking at the relief column. Those who have made the trip before stare at the ground – thinking their own thoughts.
The replacements are obvious. They’re usually clean-shaven and wear clean uniforms. Once in a while you see a kid feigning bravery (Humility, Kid. You learn humility quick up here.) Another may be unable to hide all the doubts he has about himself (Take it easy, Kid. You’ll be surprised at what you’ve got inside you). You look away from the replacement so he won’t think you’re reassuring him and you don’t want to scare him any more than he is already.
The replacements still wear, or carry, all the gear the army issued to them. They haven’t learned to throw most of it away. Carry your M-1 ammunition in bandoleers over your shoulder. Fill the ammo pouches on the web belt with cigarettes. Keep your canteen-cup and spoon; they’re all you need to eat with. Use one of those heavy plastic bags in the K-rations to keep things important to you dry. You can carry enough stuff in your field jacket pockets to keep you alive for a week.
Always keep those little packets of toilet paper you get in the K’s. They’re the best thing in the box; your Cracker Jack prize. And keep a couple of those little humpty-hump can openers too. And throw away those letters from home – the ones from your girl or Mom or your wife. Make the break with civilization.
You’re in the real world now. You don’t have to salute or be polite or laugh at anyone’s jokes. You don’t have to try to impress anyone. The only people up here to impress are the Krauts. If you can impress them, you’re doing okay.
About the only order you’ll hear up here is. “Move out!” When you hear that, it’s too late to worry any more. Everything is real up here. You’re alive – or dead. You’ll never find anything again as real as this.
Routinely, at this time, we spend three or four days on the line and return to Holland for a rest period. On one of our return trips to Holland we are directed to a rest facility that someone says belongs to the 30th Infantry Division. After we parked our vehicles in a large enclosed area an officer in charge of the place tells us we are here to “rest”, that we are not to service our vehicles or weapons or do anything else that might be considered work.
We had arrived before dusk and after a hot meal we wondered around Kerkrade, but there was not much to do or see. When we returned to the rest area, which was a large building with canvas cots to sleep on, we wrote letters or talked. We were to enjoy this respite for two or three days. That’s what we were told.
At Three A.M. the next morning we were awakened and told to mount up. We were going back to the line. Our questions about the promise of a prolonged rest and hot meals went unanswered. Instead, the men of the recon platoons were ordered to mount trucks for the trip.
We mounted the trucks and rode through the night. After an hour or more we arrived at some unfamiliar place. Everything is unfamiliar at night. The questions started; “Where are we?” “We’re filling a gap in the line.” “Where are the Krauts?” “Where’s the line?” No answer.
We set up machine gun positions without digging holes. The Germans must be in the opposite direction from which we arrived. That’s good enough, shoot at anything that moves in that direction.
On this particular night I had the feeling that there was a town in the distance; a town with all its lights on an the light reflected from the clouds. Of course that was impossible since Europe had been in darkness for years, but I felt all was well with the world. The light was only the moon breaking through rain clouds.
I refer here and elsewhere to “the line.” The line is the exclusive property of combat soldiers; ours and theirs. It is the only thing, beside fear, that you share with the enemy. The line is so exclusive that you and he try to kill one another for its possession. As badly as you want it – nobody else does. The “line” is never called anything else by the men who serve there. There is no other line. Only the press and the uninitiated call it the front-line.
Relatively few soldiers, even of infantry divisions, serve on the line. When you take away all the service, supply and support personnel, about three thousand men of a fourteen thousand man division go into the holes.
The line occurred in static warfare, not in mobile situations. The line could be hundreds of miles long, as it was in Europe, 1944, but it was as deep as a Man’s shoe-size, if he was standing, or the length of his body as he hugged the earth.
There were a few soldiers to the rear of the line who could be killed or wounded by an artillery shell or aerial bomb. This was the way of life for the line-soldier, magnified by thousands, but he had the added distinguishable fate of being the target of enemy riflemen and machine gunners. He caught grenade fragments in his body, stepped on mines that jumped out of the ground and exploded at genital-height. He sat in foxholes until his feet swelled and turned black with trench-foot from the cold and dampness. He lived in mud and snow and developed respiratory diseases. He lived too scared, too numb for too long a time and lost himself inside his brain with battle-fatigue.
He ate C and K Rations and only enjoyed a hot meal during rest-periods. Occasionally he got a shower in an outdoor shower unit. Afterward, he was given a clean, hand-me-down uniform. He was, in fact, an essential hobo who had to be cared for or someone would have to replace him – and nobody wanted to be the one who replaced him. If he was lucky to stay alive long enough, he might meet another hobo he could talk to.
His weapon was with him always. It was the one thing left in the world he could count on. It was constantly alongside him. He could reach out and grasp it from a sound sleep. It hung from his shoulder while he relieved himself. It nestled between his knees while he spooned C Rations into his mouth. When the letter expected from home wasn’t there, his weapon was. When the world had abandoned him, his rifle gave him comfort. Its heft reassured him during the long nights. He clung to it with the last of his strength as life ran out. And finally, it kept vigil with him while war for the living moved on.
Although he had been selected to die, and he certainly had been, the combat soldier was not bottom-of-the-barrel cannon fodder. He was intelligent – I served with men of I.Q.’s up to 161. Sometimes well educated. Somewhere there were people he loved. Somewhere there were people who loved him. When you looked at him, those things didn’t come to mind.
He accumulated dirt evenly; layer upon layer. Sometimes his eyelids showed lighter where he had wiped away matter from the corners of his eyes with the knuckle of a forefinger.
The foxhole soldier accepted his own kind and was, in turn, accepted. He did not accept those whose lot in the army left them out of the holes – those were the ‘rear-echelon’. They were tolerated, but not accepted, they performed the necessary jobs to keep the gigantic machine running, but the machine’s sole purpose was to feed, supply, support and bury the men in the holes. If there were no one in the holes – the rest of the army wouldn’t be needed.
The clannish acceptance of one foxhole soldier for another was grudgingly given. And reluctantly received. The bond was never put into words because both the donor and the receiver knew terms of the foxhole-contract.
As more time was spent in the holes, the closer ‘rear-echelon’ applied to those in the rear. It was no longer the men still in Normandy, or hauling supplies, or sorting mail in Paris; it was the men in your own outfit whose jobs kept them a few miles, or a few hundred yards back.
The disdain for those to the rear reached its own almost comedic, climax in our own platoon upon outposting a town in Germany. Our mortar section had always been in the holes with the rest of us because the small 60mm mortar’s range was usually too short for the positions we were in. In this particular town it was decided to take advantage of the weapon.
A man in the platoon noticed the mortar crew pack their weapon and start down the street. He asked, “Where the hell you guys going?” A mortarman replied, “They want us to set up on the other side of the block.” That meant they would be two or three hundred feet behind us. The man who first asked said, “Go ahead, you rear-echelon bastards.”
In November, 1944, an attack against the Geilenkirchen area of Germany was launched using, for the first and last time of the war, an Anglo-American force of division strengths.
On the southernmost flank of the British Second Army, the 43rd British Infantry Division would attack in concert with the 84th U.S. Infantry Division on the northernmost flank of the United States Ninth Army. The 43rd was a veteran British combat division. The 84th U.S. Division was to see its first combat.
It may be questioned why a green division, just arrived from the States, would be blooded under these circumstances and in an area so fiercely engaged.
Probably nobody under the grade of colonel was aware of the arrangement or of the bitterness of the fighting to take place. It made no significant difference though, to the soldiers in companies, platoons and squads. Always , they fought their own private wars in an area confined to what they could see ahead of them.
For other unknown reasons, the U.S. 84th Infantry Division was reinforced by the 125th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron; if the addition of less than 600 men can be termed “reinforcing” a 14.000 man division. Of the 600, about 250 would be available for the foxholes.
The orders, attaching the squadron to the 84th Division, had to come from no lower headquarters than Ninth U.S. Army since it involved our transfer from XIX Corps to the 84th which was serving with XXX British Corps.
The assault for Geilenkirchen involved, among others, a very small town, or hamlet, by the name of Beeck.
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