James D. Newton
DIE GRAUE TAGEN UND LANGE NACHTEN
We are in a bunker of the Siegfried Line. There are too many of us for the number of bunks, so I lie on the concrete floor rolled up in my blanket.
There is a refrigerator-room in this bunker, but electricity has been out for weeks and the odor of putrifying meat seeps out from under the door.
In my sleep I inhale the stench of meat and fumes from a wine bottle filled with gasoline that we use for light.
I awaken and run up the stairs to fresh night air, just barely in time before I puke.
Beeck, Germany will probably not show on any map the average person will ever see; it’s too small. There are nearby towns, or villages, like Prummern and Würm. All these are near Geilenkirchen which you may find on a good map. They are northeast of Aachen, Germany.
This battle area, along with the Hurtgen Forest to the southeast of Aachen, has been unofficially called the Fall Campaign by some military historians. The area , about 35 miles in length, reaches from the southern edge of the Hurtgen Forest north past Aachen to a point near Geilenkirchen. The battle developes at the German border and reaches a climax at the Roer River. Those who have taken time to record it describe the battle as the heaviest fighting of the European Theater of war.
The Siegfried Line in this area is actually two lines of fortifications; one several kilometers behind the first.
American lines in this area are the farthermost penetrations into German soil. In the south, VII Corps must get to the Roer dams because of their strategic use in later attacks across the river. In the north, are the plains that lead to Germany’s heartland; the Ruhr. The enemy has to stop advances and would prefer to push us out of the homeland. The Sixth S.S. Panzer Army, organizing for their attack in the Ardennes in December, have strengthened defenses in the north.
This Fall Campaign lacks the dash of the breakout from Normandy and the race across Europe. It will not be reported by the press to any great extent because advancing a few yards at a time is not exciting news and the ‘folks back home’ don’t want to hear bad battle statistics. The “Campaign” will be overshadowed in December by the Battle of the Bulge.
In the meantime, more Americans will be lost here, in the Fall Campaign, than in the “Bulge”. More men, in a similar time period and in a smaller, more compact battle area. The U.S. Army will not recognize it as a separate “battle”, only an appendage to the Rhineland Campaign.
A line, drawn roughly east from Aachen, separates the U.S. Ninth Army in the north from the U.S. First Army south of the line. Ninth Army and VII Corps of First Army have about fourteen divisions. VII Corps is losing men by the division inside the Hurtgen Forest trying to get to the Roer River dams. Ninth Army is ankle-deep in mud going against the pillboxes of the Siegfried Line. Replacements are arriving from the States in numbers of 65 to 80 thousand a month.
The divisions of VII Corps and Ninth Army, supporting combat engineers, tanks, tank destroyers, artillery and cavalry, have about 220.000 men committed to the battle. In little over two months, the time it takes to gain the Roer River, these units will lose 57.000 men killed and wounded. Another 70.000 will fall to fatigue, trench-foot and illnesses brought on by weather.
Less than one of every two line-soldiers who come here, to the Fall Campaign, can expect to come back out unscathed. Men of the 28th Infantry Division will nickname their red, Keystone shoulder insignia the “Bucket of Blood” after losing 6.000 men in the Hurtgen.
This then is the overall setting for that battle without an official title. The fighting takes place along a front of 30 miles. At the end, the line will have advanced 8 to 15 miles to the Roer River.
In the north, near Geilenkirchen, lies the little hamlet of Beeck. Beeck has no military significance of its own … it just happens to be in the way. And its a cold, wet and lonely way to die; dying in the mud.
Although we had been used dismounted since the end of September, 1944, we usually had our vehicles with us , or nearby. The bulk of Cavalry fire-power was on the vehicles. Personal weapons consisted mostly of 30 caliber carbines and a few 45 caliber sub-machine guns; both were intended for close-in protection of the vehicles. The carbine was a replacement weapon for the 45 caliber (semi) Automatic Pistol.
During our last stay in Heerlen, I happened to walk by an Ordnance repair unit. I saw a huge pile of M-1, Garand, Rifles that had been recovered from battle and asked an old Master Sergeant if I could trade for my carbine. He said, “Take all you want, but don’t leave the carbine.” I looked through the stack and eliminated those with obvious damage or blood ( you don’t want one that didn’t do the last guy much good ). I picked one that became part of my personal armory and told the rest of the men in the platoon when I returned so that now we were almost all equipped with the M-1’s and a little more confidence.
The army, in its wisdom, writes everything into manuals. One of these is the Table of Organization. By looking at this reference, a commander of a division, corps or army would logically assume that a Squadron of Cavalry – about 900 men, full-strength – should be able to relieve a battalion of Infantry.
What the T/O fails to explain is that only the Reconnaissance Troops will replace the battalion. The Assault Gun Troop and the Tank Company stay back for fire-support. That still wouldn’t be too bad; except that the 125th Cavalry Squadron didn’t have a B Troop – it had been permanently “attached” to First Army Headquarters and was located somewhere around Spa, Belgium. By the time B Troop, E Troop, F Company and Headquarters Troop are eliminated, only A and C Troops remain; or about 300 men, less Headquarters Platoon. Maybe 225 men will be available.
When we learned that we were to relieve a battalion of the 84th Infantry Division, we asked, “Who are they?” We hadn’t heard of the 84th Division. We would not only be working with a new division, we were leaving XIX Corps for the mission.
The Sage of the Red Horse, a short battle-history of the 113th Cavalry Group, states: “The Red Horse cavalrymen … next moved to Geilenkirchen area, taking over … under the 84th Infantry Division, a sector within the Siegfried Line.”
Hell On Wheels, combat history of the 2nd Armored Division, describes their withdrawal from an attack on November 18th, 1944: “The Germans had two regiments of infantry, along with supporting artillery, reconnaissance and armor near Beeck.”
Here, in front of Beeck, the line was in a valley. It was treeless farm land. There would be no moving about here without being seen. There would be no shelter from buildings, except the few in town occupied by the enemy. German artillery was positioned behind hills to the east; American artillery behind hills to the west.
The sun would not shine the whole time we were to be here. Its dull glow through rain clouds would come up behind the Germans in the morning and set behind us at night. The sixteen-hour nights would be filled with terror of incoming artillery that randomly searched for the holes to dispassionately kill or tear apart the men huddled at the bottom.
This valley looked like good, fertile growing land, but the last crop of sugarbeets lay unharvested. They had grown to maturity and now lay there, dumb and covered with mud for men to trip over and to detonate shells.
We had left Heerlen, Holland and our uniforms were freshly washed and pressed through the kindness of those people who befriended us. As usual, the men of platoons gathered together, and within the platoons men of their own sections gathered in even smaller groups and finally, two men who would share a hole reformed that bond, unspoken and undefinedable, that meant if one goes, we both go. And we’ve chosen each other to do it.
We sat in the driest places we could find behind the crest of high-ground and smoked or ate K-rations. As we sat or stood, waiting for nightfall, an infantry lieutenant came walking along the dirt road by himself.
It must be understood here that combat soldiers don’t like change. When you have been fighting alongside men of certain divisions or units, you get used to them. You may have petty differences between yourselves, but it’s like a family quarrel. Outsiders do not have the same intimacy.
The lieutenant, probably just trying to be friendly, stopped in front of us and said, “You look like a bunch of garrison soldiers.” He was referring to our neat appearance.
“Blow it out your ass!” Having been overseas less than a month, I don’t know if the lieutenant was prepared for the informality between enlisted men and officers; at least officers of less than major’s grade. He was good-natured about the incident though.
One of the men of the platoon, after studying the lieutenant’s shoulder patch; a white axehead stuck in a white log on a red field, asked, “What are you guys, a bunch of lumberjacks or something?” He replied, “No, this is the Railsplitter Division.” Somebody mumbled “Wood choppers.”
We asked him why we heard rifle-fire coming from his outfit when nothing was happening, but artillery fire. There didn’t seem to be any kind of attack taking place. The lieutenant looked a little embarrassed he explained the infantrymen were firing their M-1’s so they wouldn’t have to hear the incoming (German) artillery.
We didn’t say anything further, but we did look at each other. Was the artillery really that bad? Or were we going to be working with an infantry outfit that might break and run? The misgivings we had grew larger.
We didn’t know this division, and after working with the 29th and 30th Infantry Division, who we knew would fight, we weren’t too sure we might end up sitting in this valet all by ourselves. As it turned out, the 84th Division would prove itself here, and in a month, in the Battle of the Bulge.
We had heard the 84th had just recently arrived from the beaches. They couldn’t have been put into a worse place to get their first taste of combat. We would shortly find out why they feared the German artillery. We wouldn’t fire our weapons in the air, but we would cover our ears and cringe in the bottom of holes with the same fear.
We heard that artillery landing down in the valley from our position behind the crest of the hill. Incoming artillery has a psychological effect on top of whatever actual damage it does. The Germans had another weapon that increased the psychological effect beyond imagination. It was a rocket, appropriately nick-named, the Screaming Meemie.
The sound has been described in various ways. Many thought it sounded like a high-speed freight train. To me, it sounded like an eighteen-wheeled tractor-trailer with the brakes locked-up and all the tires screeching. The men of the 84th were getting more than their share of Screaming Meenies down in the valley.
We waited for nightfall and once in a while we watched the war from our position. We had theater seats. We saw a flight of P-47’s, the Air Corps’ heaviest fighter, carry out a dive-bombing mission on German positions about a mile away. A tank company attacked in the same area. The tanks looked like robots moving around in a seemingly impersonal way, as if there were not men inside their steel hides.
November was getting cold and rain fell regularly. We walked down into the valley after dark to relieve the infantrymen. The exchange was silent. It always was. There’s nothing to say, and you don’t want to make the enemy think he has to shell you. As you come up to a foxhole, the men in it get out and you drop into it. You, and the men you relieve are only shadows a little darker than the night.
The holes were well dug. They were deep; about five feet, giving plenty of shelter and you could see over the top when standing. With the added dimensions of six feet in length, and two and a half feet wide, they resemble a grave. Dirt from the hole has been piled at the forward end and the machine gun tripod is buried there with just the gun exposed.
Beside a blanket, rifle, ammunition and various parts of machine guns, which we had dismounted from our vehicles, we carried 5 gallon cans of water and plenty of K-rations. Because we were short-handed, and through habit, we “doubled-up” at night. With three or four men to a hole, we could get more sleep because there were more men to stand guard. Of course it left more gaps between holes. Before daybreak, the extra men would go back to their own holes.
The first night wasn’t too bad. An occasional round of artillery landed just to remind us they were still there. At first light, we found out just how nasty it was going to be. A barrage came in and worked its way back and forth along the line. We crouched in the bottoms of the holes, hoping there would be no direct hits. Between rounds we tried to look out of the hole to see if there was an attack coming. We quickly learned to look fast and otherwise keep our heads down because a sniper fired at anything above ground-level. We tested him frequently by sticking an empty K-ration carton over the muzzle of an M-1 and raising it above the hole. He never hit it, but didn’t miss the chance to take a shot at it.
This would be our lives for the next three weeks. All food – K-Rations only – and water had to be carried down from the rear supply point at night. There would be no water for the luxury of washing or shaving; only drinking.
Body functions had to be performed in empty K-Rations boxes during the day. At night, you could sneak out of the hole and take care of those things a short distance away – a very short distance away so you could jump back into the hole if artillery came in. A standing joke came of the K-Ration boxes; one man in the hole would ask the other if he believed in the ‘Buddy-system’. If the answer was affirmative, you asked him if he would hold the box for you.
Underwear and socks would have the last throughout our stay. I think they brought us each one extra pair of socks while we were there.
German artillery fire was intermittent during the first days, but frequent enough to disturb any sleep or regular rest. Their artillery was well zeroed-in and when they fired, it came in barrages of sixteen or twenty rounds at a time. mortars located within Beeck itself, supplemented the artillery. The mortar shells came in without sound until they detonated.
Shortly after dawn, if the weather allowed, American artillery spotter-planes would come over, looking for the German artillery positions. The German guns quieted down while the planes were in the air, but start up again as soon as they left. The little, single-engined, fabric-covered Piper Cubs were always welcome.
The days and nights spent outside of Beeck were continuous in memory. There were incidents, but not connected to any particular day. A couple remain because, even here in this place, where God seemed to have abandoned hope in mankind, there were subtle attemps at humor.
Soon after we arrived we heard a tank moving in Beeck. A tank attack was a frightening prospect because we had nothing to fight with. Nothing, except the one bazooka for which I had failed to qualify. The only other support we had was to call for artillery fire and we were so close to the town we would have to call for fire on our own positions if a tank moved toward us.
The platoon sergeant, upon hearing the tank, called, “Bazooka!” This was meant to call the bazooka-team to his position, but the team was too familiar with the sniper to get out of their hole. Instead, we saw the canvas bag containing the launcher and ammunition sail in a high arc toward the sergeant’s hole. Ganley said, “Well he’s got his bazooka, that’s what he hollered for.” The tank didn’t come out of town.
Popular songs of the time were paraphrased to meet the hopeless place. “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me” became, “Do Something ‘Till You Hear From Me.” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas, just you wait and see” became, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, nineteen fifty-three.
The first few days in a foxhole aren’t too bad, except for artillery and mortar fire, but then lethargy, or mindless sets in. That’s why troops should be moved out every few days. You think non-thoughts. The zombie mentality intensifies with every day that follows. Like animals in cages, you can’t think about confinement to the hole.
You stare at the five-foot excavation in the earth wondering if maybe someone else in history had been at this depth before the valley filled in with rich earth. Later, you don’t care. It’s a time of unconnected thoughts and disinterested observance of small things; roots of grass at the top of the hole and a pebble that had lain, buried since some geological change.
The town is straight ahead and you chance a peek at it – at the risk of the sniper who never sleeps. There’s not much to see and you duck your head down quickly.
Rarely you think of home because that was another time. There was nothing before the hole and probably nothing after. (There’s an eight hour time-difference; The people you used to know and love out on the West Coast are up now, eating breakfast going to work. Don’t think about me. I’ll try not to think about you this night).
It’s not too cold at the bottom of the hole. It must be near freezing on top. You’d like to sleep one night with your boots off, but if anything happens you would be barefoot in the mud.
You wonder if the machine gun will work if you need it. The canvas ammo belt’s wet and the lousy 30’s always jam away.
What ever happened to the moon and stars? The Krauts could be all the way up to the hole before you saw them. The wind blows over the top of the hole and rushes through the grass and dirt up there.
You can stare at the sky, but there is only an oblong view and that is obscured by rain clouds. You look at the man in the hole with you. He is dirty and needs a shave. And besides – he is staring too. The “thousand-yard-stare.”
There’s no mail coming down and home, and the people there, don’t exist anymore. This hole is the womb and the grave. There was nothing before and there will be nothing after.
You don’t write because there’s nothing you can put in words. (I’m sitting in a hole in front of a town you can’t find on a map waiting to be killed by some German artillerymen who won’t even know he hit me. I’m wet and cold and scared …)
One of us asks, but not really a question, “do you think we’ll get out of here?” The other replies, “this is it. Nobody’s coming out of here.”
A few more days and there’s no reason to talk to the only other human being in your world. Everything’s been said.
This day biggest decision, like yesterday’s and tomorrow’s is; which end of you body do you want sticking out of the little niche you’ve carved out at the forward end of the hole? Does it make any difference? Sleep head-in to keep the rain off your face. Why do your genitals always seem more vulnerable than the rest of your body?
It is the suppression of hum emotions that brings about the staring, thoughtless condition common to the foxhole. Certainly there is some physical exhaustion from sleepless nights and limited nutrition, but it is the sealing-up of love, hate, jealousy, anger, ambition; all things that give man drive under normal circumstances, that brings about ‘battle-fatigue’ after a prolonged period. The average soldier doesn’t succomb to that phenomenon when he is on his feet in the open.
I studied my hands today. They’re the only part of me I can see. I’m afraid of what I might see if I take my boots off. As light as my beard is, the whiskers have grown long enough to itch. Something itches on my forearms too. I haven’t had my shirt or field jacket off since we came to this hole. I don’t think I could get a comb through my hair. I can feel it twisted and matted under my helmet. My teeth are coated with something thick.
The hands. With their stumpy fingers. They’re the hands I touched and held you with. But that couldn’t be; I’ve never been anywhere, but in this hole. I began here and I’ll probably end here so there is – was – nothing before.
The hands are gray now; gray with mud, gray with cold. I rub them together to clean them. Flakes of mud fall off, but they’re still gray. Like the hands of the corpses. I look across the hole at Gerry’s hands. His are gray too.
We had tried to rig a shelter-half over the top of the hole during one of the first days, but there was no way to hold the sides in place and the weight of rain pulled it down. Most of the water drained into the earth, but the floor of the hole was mushy.
One day Ganley started cutting dirt away from one side of the hole at the bottom. I watched for a while and then gave him a hand. After a while he was digging while I rested. As I watched, a thought came to my mind. I asked, “Where you going?” He simply said, “Over to see the guys in the next hole.” It made sense to me.
We dug some more; only eighteen inches in, so far, and Ganley asked, “What if it caves-in half way through?” We stopped digging.
The day after our aborted tunnel there were three of us in the hole. Wigglesworth had moved in with us during the night. As we sat, cramped in the two-man hole, a German mortar round landed on the top, rear edge. The explosion, within three feet of any of us, was deafening. By reaction we all dove for the little cat at the side waiting, I guess, for the next one to come in with us. Survival instinct drove us all to the same place at the same time. We resumed our sitting positions and stared silently at the new cut in our hole. The German had set his mortar for too much range by six inches.
After being ‘dismounted’ in foxholes for the past two and a half months, we started getting a little touchy about the ten dollars a month extra, infantrymen were paid. On one of those dark, moonless nights, while three of us sat in the rain in the bottom of our hole, I said, “I sure would hate to be in the infantry.” There was momentary silence while the others thought it over and finally a reply came, “Yeah, the ten bucks a month ain’t worth it.”
A night came for Ganley and me and a third man to go back up the hill for rations and water. We walked through the beet field, up the slope to where a headquarters truck brought our supplies. It really was colder on top of the ground than it was in our holes.
The truck had just arrived and we asked the driver if there was any word of when we would be relieved. He said, “Haven’t heard a word, but they say the infantry battalions are coming out every three days. That sounded like the usual routine, but someone forgot about us, Maybe the infantry thought we were providing our own reliefs. A week after we arrived we got word to get ready; we were pullet out.
On thing about combat; it doesn’t take long to get ready. Just grab your rifle and muddy blankets and hope the relief gets there.
For the past month or two, relief had meant someplace like Sittard or Heerlen where we went to a coal mine and hung our clothing on hooks that you pulled to the high ceiling by chains while you went for a hot shower. A hot shower and a shave was going to feel so good; And a change of socks and underwear. When I get these socks and underwear off, I’m going to throw them away. Nothing could ever wash them clean again.
The relief came down to our positions after dark. They may have been infantry or our own A Troop, nobody asked. They were the relief and that was all that mattered.
Out of the holes now and we strung out, heading to the rear. Our legs had to accustom themselves to walking again after all the days being cramped in the holes.
Rain, which had fallen almost steadily since our arrival, now turned to sleet. The tiny ice-particles stung link needles against our faces. It hit our helmets, turned to water and ran down our necks. The driven ice saturated our pants, but it didn’t matter now; we were being relieved! In just a couple hours we would get rid of the constant dead-cold of neck and shoulders.
We stumbled across the mud-lake beet field and up the hill we had come down a week earlier. Trucks would be waiting behind the hill to take us to where we could get our bodies and minds functioning again.
We gained the top of the hill, six or eight hundred yards back of the foxholes we had just left. We were told there were bunkers here and to find them. A voice in the darkness asked, “What is this?” The reply; “This is our rest area.”
We looked, or felt around in the darkness, until we found the opening to a bunker. Six of us climbed down a ladder into the hole. We had no flashlights, so we lighted matches at the bottom to see. There were candles so we lit a couple of those for light.
We found we were in an underground bunker about ten feet square. It was a former German bunker and well constructed; if you had to find anything good about being there. The top of the hole had logs laid across and these were covered with the dirt taken from the hole. It was secure enough, but not really what we had n mind for a rest area.
Continual rains had saturated the dirt on top and was leaking through. We found shelter-halves and stretched them across the top bunks to carry the water away to the floor. There were two sets of bunks, four high. If this was it, we were going to make the best of it. We were just about to settle down for the night when the platoon sergeant stuck his head down through the opening and called my name, and one other. We were detailed to go for rations.
We climbed out of the bunker and found there were two more volunteers. The sleet was still driving down and we were still cold and wet from the walk up the hill. The platoon sergeant told us to follow on down the dirt road to a cross road were the rations would be waiting. His final words were. “Stay on the road. The beet field up here is mined.”
It was about midnight when we started and about One A.M. when we returned. We followed the road which we made out because it was just a little lighter than the rough surface of the beet fields. The supplies were waiting at the cross-road. There was water and C-Rations. The C’s would be a welcome change from the K’s.
Tow men carried the C-Rations in their wood boxes and two of us carried two five-gallon ‘jerry-cans’ of water. Two for balance. I led off on the return trip.
Walking in the reverse direction eliminated any advantage to see the road. The soother surface now looked like the surrounding fields. We sloshed through the mud until my foot slipped on a round, slippery object. A lager sugar beet. “Hold it! I’m in the beets.”
I fought to keep my balance and hold the cans in the air at the same time. Full five-gallon cans can set off a mine as well as a man.
The men behind me stopped where they were until the last man said he was still on the road. One at a time, last-man-first, we made our way back onto the road and carefully back to the bunkers.
We took our own share of C-Rations down into our bunker where we tore up the wood boxes and built a small fire to heat the cans and warm up from the little heat it gave off. Smoke collected inside the bunker because of the low weather-pressure, but we didn’t mind that inconvenience. The C-Rations tasted good after a week of cold K’s.
Artillery came in once or twice during the night. The Germans probably suspected there were interlopers in their old diggin’s. The noise was muffled down there and fear of a round coming through the small entrance was minimal. It was a time for rest.
We awoke early in the morning to more artillery. We heated more C-Rations and filled our stomachs. The C-Rations were still coming in the three standard items; Corned Beef Hash, Beef Stew and Pork and Beans. They weren’t to too bad heated and I could eat them cold, except the stew always had a film of grease across the top so I usually saved that for a meal other than breakfast.
After we ate – and the artillery let up – I ran across to another bunker which was more open than ours. Johnson was in that one so I went to talk to him.
We idled away most the day, but in the late afternoon an infantry outfit started by. We were behind the crest of the hill and it was safe to walk upright, except for the occasional round of artillery.
We sat watching all those infantrymen walking by. That was good news. With all these guys they won’t need a couple little troops of cavalry. We should be back in Holland before morning.
After the last man passed, I heard the platoon sergeant call, “Newton, MacDonall.” Mac and I went to see what he wanted. He said, “Get your rifles and report to the infantry colonel on the double.”
I went down into last night’s hole to get my gear. Most of us were still wearing high-top shoes and leggings. I couldn’t find the leggings so I just grabbed my rifle. Mac and I walked to the front of the infantry column.
We found a Lieutenant colonel. Wow, that’s pretty good. We’ve got a ‘light’ colonel all the way up here. He told us we were to lead his men back down to our old positions. It turned dark in a few minutes and we started down into the valley. When we arrived at the holes we told the colonel , “This is it.” He thanked us and we started to leave, but he stopped us and said, “One more thing. You men are familiar with the area and we have to know where the Germans are and if they’re still in town. Patrol out toward town and see what you can find out.” We knew what we would find, but you don’t argue with colonels – even lieutenant colonels.
We asked the colonel to please tell his men that we would be out in front so they wouldn’t get nervous and shoot us if we didn’t come back to the same place we left from. He gave orders to nearby men to pass the word along as we left. Mac and I crawled about thirty or forty yards out toward Beeck. The night was without any light so we knew the colonel couldn’t see us as we dropped into some kind of hole, or depression in the earth.
One of the concerns with a night patrol is that there is always the possibility that an enemy patrol may be coming in the opposite direction. It was silent and we could only hear our own breathing. Mac said, “We know where the Krauts are, don’t we?” I agreed that there was little possibility that the Germans had changed their minds about defending the town.
We lay in the hole about ten or fifteen minutes, long enough to impress the infantry colonel we were doing a thorough job, and crawled back to report our findings. He said, “Good work.” Mac and I were planning on a quick trip back up the hill, but as we started to leave the colonel told us we might as well stick around because our own outfit was on the way down.
There was one farm house on the edge of Beeck and we had been well to the left of it in our first position. Now we were closer to the house and found that our troop would be in holes just to the right of the house. Mac and I wandered around in the dark until we found our platoon. Everyone else had already ‘buddied-up” with two men to a hole. I couldn’t find Ganley; he was probably asleep already, so Mac and I found a hole for ourselves.
This hole was a little shallower than the one Gerry and I had been in, but it had a piece of wood, or tin covering part of it. We crawled in with the intention of getting some sleep. We decided to have a smoke first and whispered about getting out of here in the morning after the infantry attacked Beeck.
I never learned if it was coincidence, if the Germans planned an attack of their own or if they learned of the impending attack by the 84th Division, but before we could finish our cigarettes the world came apart.
There was no gradual build-up. Every artillery-piece the Germans had fired into our positions in front of town. Hundreds of simultaneous explosions tore up the ground around us. Shrapnel whistled away and toward us through the cold night air. The earth felt sudden noise and concussion battered us in the holes.
A barrage is supposed to stop some time, but this one didn’t. It increased. The various calibers of artillery each made its own explosive roar and its own shock in the earth. Once in a while, during a seconds respite, we could hear a gun firing from somewhere far behind the German’s line. It had to be a railroad gun firing about a twelve-inch shell.
When that one landed, it was a war all of its own. Even an occasional dud from the gun had an earthquake effect.
Any combat soldier knows that even during “routine” shelling the law of average dictates that someone has to get hit. Here at Beeck, the odds were running out fast.
It kept coming and adrenalin output reached maximum. Hearts raced to about two hundred beats a minute. Breathing was more rapid than during the most strenuous physical training.
The night became continuously lighted from flashes around us. We covered our ears to shut out the noise, but it didn’t help. The holes began to collapse from concussion. One of the holes completely collapsed and when the two men in it got out to find shelter they were fired at by an 88mm tank gun in town. We chain-smoked and prayed and threw dirt out of holes to keep from being buried.
Somewhere on a hill behind us, an artillery observer was trying to count the incoming rounds down in our position. The army does this to determine the number of guns the enemy has, and their size in a given sector.
The short combat history of the 113th Cavalry Group states: “For two days that squadron (125th and, in actuality, C Troop) was subjected to intense artillery shelling in this area (Beeck), receiving during one period of 6 or 7 hours, some 1.000 rounds of various calibers.”
The cold, wet misery of living in a hole was gone. Life became too precious and the hole was our refuge.
The shelling continued throughout the night. Outside the hole the darkness changed to a jumble of dancing shadows from the burning house and exploding shells. Living was taken one second at a time.
At 0600 Hours, the infantry attack began an German artillery lifted to adjust. We lay in the hole exhausted and panting from the night’s ordeal. McDonnell looked out of the hole and said, “I’m heading for the house.” It was a brief statement, but precise, because he was gone.
I lay in the hole a while longer and wondered what made him decide so quickly. I also realized that now, being alone in the hole, if more artillery came in and collapsed it, no one would know what happened to me. I got out and ran for the house. When I reached it, Mac was not there.
Mac’s disappearance was a mystery until after the war ended and he returned to the outfit. He knew something was wrong with himself that morning and made his way back for medical assistance. He ended up in a base hospital for treatment of internal hemorrhaging.
The house was no longer a house, but its rubble, collapsed and burning over the cellar. The cellar was now a command post and a major was relaying messages coming in over the radio to his colonel. I crawled past them and found a place against a wall.
There was a cleaning-rod in the cellar so I ran it through the bore of my rifle to knock some of the mud out. As I set the rod against the wall behind me, I looked over toward another wall to my right. An infantry lieutenant sat against that wall staring at me. I watched him for a while and realized he wasn’t staring at me, but through mw. He must have snapped during the night.
I felt embarrassed. Although we had lost most of Stateside “Military Courtesy and Discipline”, as taught in training, I felt as though I were intruding on the lieutenant’s private problem. Maybe officers should have their own place to go when they crack.
I found one of those little Coleman one-burner gasoline stoves in the cellar. I pumped it up and lighted the burner. I poured water from my canteen into my canteen-cup and added a couple packets of Nescafe from my jacket pocket and waited for the water to heat. Maybe a cup of coffee would help the lieutenant feel better too.
I looked back over at him. He still staring. Looked away again, I commiserated with him in my thoughts. Too bad, Lieutenant. You haven’t been in combat a month yet and you’ve gone over the edge. No medals for that. And no Purple Heart. You’re a casualty, but you have to bleed to get the Heart. What you’ve got doesn’t count with the army. But – last night was bad, if that’s any consolation. You were supposed to be a leader of men, but that’s down the drain now. If you were just a dog-soldier like me, you could be sitting here making the coffee. Well, the rest of us aren’t far behind so you maybe can lead us yet; to that place you’re staring at.
Before the Nescafe heated, an artillery shell landed outside the small cellar window. Rags and debris that had been stuffed into the blown-out window blew in and knocked over the stove an cup. I looked back to the lieutenant. He hadn’t moved during the explosion.
I sat, waiting to hear the word that we were relieved. The infantry major chattered away with the company commanders attacking the town. Fighting was heavy.
One of the company C.O.’s came on the radio and said he was being cut off by an enemy unit he described as, of company strength. His voice was near panic and I hoped to hear him say they would be Okay. Instead, he asked for help – and he wanted that help now!
The major told the captain to hold on and then put the colonel on the radio. The colonel told his captain that all his units were committed and he had nothing to send in. Then – and I knew what was coming – he said, “Wait a minute. I’ve got a squadron of cavalry I can send you.”
Under more placid conditions I might have smiled, or even laughed inwardly. The colonel’s cavalry “squadron” amounted to under-strength, tired, ill-equipped trop. A Troop was off with combat engineers blowing pill-boxes, B Troop was a million miles away guarding First Army Headquarters in Belgium and E Troop and F Company are behind the hills firing indirect-fire missions. How about three platoons, Colonel? Maybe 75 men, if you’re lucky. Not nine hundred.
We grouped-up around the house and then took off at a dead-run. Before reaching the town itself, we were caught in an orchard by incoming artillery. We all hit the dirt although trees cause ‘air-brusts’ and shrapnel comes straight down. Ordinarily shells that land in open ground throws its shrapnel up and forward of the impact point.
But, instinct made us dive for the earth, and as I landed, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I rolled over to find I had landed on a dud with its base sticking out of the ground. Duds rarely explode if the fuse in the nose didn’t work the first time, but it’s not a morale-booster to land on one. When the barrage lifted, we got up and continued running into town.
Beeck seemed to be about a block long with a single street, or road, running through it. As we ran, we kept looking for the next place to dive in another barrage came in. While I ran I noticed a few goats that somehow survived the night’s pounding. They apparently belonged to the town’s farmers. At a time like that, I can’t possibly explain why any thought, but survival, could enter anyone’s head, but when I saw the goats jumping up and down – completely goofy from last night’s concussion – I felt sorry for them. They had been caught up in man’s problems.
It took us only a few seconds to run through town and now we were leaving the other side. I jumped over a hole and while in mid-air, I saw a man sitting in the bottom. He was wearing the same G.I. helmet and field jacket that the rest of us wore. It flashed through my mind that we were running as fast as we could to help some infantry company and one of their own was sitting-out the war in this hole. As I landed on the other side, I turned to reach down and pull him out.
He looked like he was probably an American Indian. I shouted at him over the noise of battle, but he made no move. I grabbed him by the front of his field jacket to yank him out of his hole. The jacket was mud-splattered, but looked so new – it didn’t have the gray of wear and fading that most of ours did. When I pulled, his head rolled back and his jaw fell slack. His rifle slipped from his fingers and he stared from behind half-closed eyelids at rain clouds a thousand yards away. Sorry, Pal. I didn’t know.
We ran beyond any infantry we could see. Either the infantry company handled their own problem without our help or we had the wrong directions. We came into another orchard and were caught in another barrage. A section sergeant caught a piece of shrapnel that took his head off at the shoulders. We waited until the barrage let up and returned into town. We had no radio contact with the infantry or each other. All our radio’s were vehicle-mounted.
The Germans had retreated from town and were now in new positions on a low hill to our front, east of Beeck. Small arms fire was only sporadic now and the artillery had almost stopped. We found the sniper who had made our lives miserable for over a week. We knew it was him because his scoped rifle was nearby. His head had been blown off and impaled on a fence post. At least no one took credit for putting it there.
Since the fighting had been heavy and the Germans yielded first, higher authorities must have decided this would be a good time to talk them into surrendering. So far they had only fallen back to new positions.
First our artillery fired ‘propaganda’ shells at them. These were light-weight shells packed with “Safe Conduct” passes. On impact, they blow the passes out to be gathered by enemy soldiers. The pass insures the bearer one free trip to a prisoner-of-war camp, supposedly without getting shot while he came in. The passes, of course, were intended only for enemy troops. When one of our own men got hold of a pass and tried to surrender with the Germans it was not looked upon with amount of humor by our brass.
Next, a “Hog-caller” came down into Beeck. The hog-caller was a light tank with loudspeakers mounted. A German-speaking lieutenant spoke to the German soldiers on the hill before us and suggested they should all come down and eat C-Rations in a safe, dry place until the war was over. Or words to that effect.
The lieutenant next spoke in English to advise those of us within earshot of what he had offered the enemy and admonished us not to shoot those who came in with their hands raised. There sure are a lot of rules when the fighting stops.
As a final selling point, the lieutenant told the Germans the offer was good for one hour, after which they were going to receive a barrage of White-Phosphorus.
The average German combat soldier who had seen its effects, learned to respect white-phosphorus. For that matter, any American G.I. who had experienced a ‘near miss’ of white-phosphorus learned to respect it. The phosphorus, once ignited by impact, burns until it consumes itself. It burns indiscriminately; wood, metal, arms, legs, bellies and almost anything else it contacts. During daylight, it makes a spectacular display of white streamers following the burning particles. At night, the burning phosphorus erupts in a display of fireworks of high, fountains of white illumination. If Satan had a Fourth-of-July, he would use white-phosphorus to celebrate.
After the bitter fighting, counter-artillery, the anguish of the valley and a promise of the Devil’s firework, many German soldiers decided the war had gone on long enough for them. They gathered the safe conduct passes and started down the hill, a chilling thing happened that we could not at first believe nor understand. Some of them fell and rolled down the hillside. Seconds later we heard rifle an machine gun fire. They were being shot; not by Americans, but by their own troops.
We watched, fascinated by the scene. Some of the soldiers who where now closer to us than their own line ran faster, trying to dodge and weave, which is difficult with your hands behind your head. Others, who had no change of making it to the safety of our line, turned to go back and wait for the phosphorus. A few G.I.’s yelled at those who were still coming, “Hurry up – schnell!”
Rules, again. Somebody over there had some rules that said you don’t surrender. Our rules said if you’ve decided you’ve had enough you don’t get shot on purpose. Leave us alone and we’ll do our best to kill each other, but you don’t shoot your own.
When the first German reached our line we asked them who was shooting at them. They replied, “S.S.” These soldiers were regular army.
The last of that day was relatively quiet. Quiet being only an occasional round of artillery instead of hundreds. After nightfall, the platoon sergeant told me to go back to our ‘rest-area’ of two nights ago to lead A Troop down to our positions.
I started off by myself. The night was black again, but at least it wasn’t raining. I made my way through the single street which was littered with debris. As I stumbled along over bricks and mud, I stepped on something I immediately knew was a human body from the way muscle gave under my foot. I realized it had to be a dead man; nobody else would be lying in the road.
I stopped and stared until the body of a German soldier became clearer to my sight. I watched him for a while without hate or compassion, just curiosity. He was enemy-dead, but he was the only guy around.
I cupped my hands to light a cigarette and leaned against what was left of a picket fence. After a couple puffs, I asked, “Well, how does it feel to be out of it, Landsmann? Was it as bad getting killed as it is waiting to get killed?” I wanted to know, but he didn’t tell me.
What the hell am I doing? I’m talking to dead Krauts now. I’d better go find A Troop and get back down here so I can get some sleep. My butt’s dragging. It’s over forty hours now since I slept.
A Troop was waiting at the top of the hill when I got there and I led them back down to Beeck.
When I found the First Platoon again, everyone had ‘buddied-up’ in a hole., but I finally found Pete Petrone who didn’t have a partner yet. We dug a shallow hole alongside the road using the drainage ditch for added depth. We had only dug about six or eight inches down and I told Pete. “That’s enough. I’m too tired to dig any more.” There was a barn across the road behind us so we tore off a door and laid it over the hole with one side propped against the high mound across the ditch. We threw the small amount of dirt we had dug on top of the door.
Our position was now on the far side of Beeck from which we came in. We no sooner crawled in to our hole than the platoon sergeant called us to relieve on the machine gun. Two hours latter we crawled back into the hole to get some sleep, but German artillery started coming in again. We lay there awake until about 0600 Hours when we had to take another turn at the machine gun. An hour later we returned to the hole.
It was predestined that we were to get no sleep because another barrage came in as soon as we laid down. This time there was a tree-burst in the tree directly over us. Simultaneous with the explosion, I felt something hit my knee. It stung, then burned. “I think I’m hit.” Pete said, “Don’t you know?” “I’m not sure.” “Where?” “In my knee. Wait a minute.”
Pete and I both lying on our right sides because the hole was so small. As I started to reach down to the outside of my left knee I began to think. Is a wound numb at first before intense pain sets in? I don’t know – I’ve never been wounded.
When my hand finally reached the knee, I found a still-hot piece of shrapnel laying where it hit. It was about the size of a dime and about a quarter-inch thick. “It’s shrapnel.” “Are you hurt?” “No. I guess not.”
The fragment had almost expended its velocity going through the barn door and dirt. It hadn’t even broken the skin. A short time later the platoon was relieved and took shelter in the cellar of a concrete building.
We entered the building through a loading dock with an overhang. Our dead, infantry and cavalry, were laid out waiting for a safer time to be removed. There was no way to distinguish infantrymen from cavalrymen unless you recognized a face.
We sat around the walls of the cellar. No one spoke. Some managed to fall off to sleep. I was beyond sleep. We’ve been in this place so long now, you know there will be no relief. This is the place were, one-by-one, every soldier, friend and enemy, will come to be swallowed-up until there are no more combat soldiers. Then the rear-echelon soldiers of all the armies will pack up what’s left and go home. And the beets will grow to cover everything so that no one will ever know. The sugar beets will reclaim the earth.
In the relative safety of the cellar it caught up to me. The artillery, the sleepless nights, the cold, the wet, snapped the invisible tendril that binds body and mind together.
Like riding the high rim of the maelstrom, I felt myself sliding into the vortex and couldn’t help myself. In a matter of minutes I lost the ability to control my own emotions or come back. I made out Johnson across from me, I made my way over to him and whispered, “Something’s wrong with me.” I guess he could pretty-well tell that. The platoon sergeant told me to go back with the supply truck that night.
I walked away from Beeck that night with shame trying to invade the numbness of my brain – but not enough shame to turn me back. My conscience tried to prevail, but couldn’t.
If my mind had been capable of reasoning, I might have made excuses for myself. I had only three or four hours sleep in the last seventy-two. I had wandered into a mine field three nights ago. Last night I went back to lead A Troop down. That artillery barrage two nights ago would have been bad enough by itself.
But you broke, didn’t you? You broke.
The trail out of Beeck and through the beet fields was familiar now. And the hill up to the bunkers that were our rest area for one night. So was the dirt road to the supply-point.
I climbed into the truck when it arrived. The driver, after he unloaded supplies, didn’t ask me where or why I was going. I guess he didn’t have to. Even on the ride back I wanted to tell him to turn around and take me back, but I couldn’t.
It was late at night when we reached Squadron Headquarters in Holland. Most everyone was asleep. I found a couple blankets among the pile of gear that belonged to the men of the line-troops and laid down on the floor of a vacant room. Headquarters was billieted in another schoolhouse.
I lay awake through the night listening to the quiet, civilized sounds of the rear area. I was still awake when I heard the first sounds of men moving about; starting their work day. I went to look for the medics.
I found the medical section, but when I asked to see a doctor, a medic said they weren’t around and asked what he could do for me. He gave me a couple Blue Beetles, guaranteed to put me to sleep. They didn’t.
I wandered into a room where the movie, Song of Bernadette, was being projected onto a blank wall. The move only frustrated me and I went back to the medics. The doctors still weren’t there. Where could doctors of a combat unit be? They weren’t making house-calls in Beeck.
I slung my rifle from a shoulder and walked down the street. My mind wasn’t working too well, but I thought I should get some kind of help. I stood on a street corner of an intersection jammed with military traffic and watched passing vehicles. An Ambulance came toward me and I waited until I could read its bumper-markings; Second Armored Division – friends. They stopped when I flagged them down and gave me a ride to their medical unit.
A doctor came in to where I was sitting inside a hospital tent and asked what he could do for me. I tried to explain how I felt and suggested that what I really needed was some sleep. He said he could take care of that.
The doctor went into an attached tent and returned immediately. He asked, “What’s your outfit?”, expecting to hear one of the division’s units. I told him, “Hundred Twenty Fifth Cavalry.” He asked if we were working with the Second Armored Division right now. I explained we were attached to the 84th Infantry Division. He said he couldn’t help me. I don’t know if he believed me when I told him I couldn’t find our own doctors. I hitched another ride back to Squadron Headquarters.
I did get a hot meal that evening after supper I found one of the drivers starting his truck. I asked where he was going and he replied, “Taking rations up to the line.” I got in and rode back to Beeck.
As I walked back down to hell through the beet fields, I realized my insanity fir into the scheme. No one knew where I was and cared less as long as I didn’t bother them. Maybe I should have hitched a ride back to Liege; to the Hotel D’Angleterre. Or maybe back to the quiet, peaceful Melun, on the Seine. Or maybe all the way back to Normandy and drink Calvados; that would put me to sleep.
It was quiet all the way into town. When I found the First Platoon, someone asked, “How ya doing?” and everything started back to normal. I guess my trip to Holland had been just what I needed. I was so exhausted now, I couldn’t help but sleep. After a couple more days the word came down to, “Pack up, we’re moving out.”
We had been three weeks in this nightmare of a place, but we were actually being relieved. We were not the picture of victory, triumphant in battle. We walked through the darkness, each stumbling along behind the man ahead of him. We probably looked worse than the Germans who had surrendered a few days ago.
We came out encrusted with mud; camouflage netting on helmets, field jackets, boots, blankets, pants. Some men had their pants tucked into boot-tops. Others of us had cuffs hanging loose. The blankets dragged along the wet earth.
We all had three weeks growth of beard. Hair, faces and hands were grimy. Feet and legs would later be found to be filthy up to knees and arms up to the elbows. Ingrown hairs and chafed spots covered our bodies where clothing had confined those parts, along with the accumulated dirt, for all that time.
Our walk back was more of a stumbling procedure and toes dragged every once in a while. Most walked with knees and backs bent to get what seemed the least uncomfortable position. Our eyes stared at the ground, except to look up every so often to make sure you were following the man ahead.
We didn’t go back up through the beet fields, but along a dirt road which had run across the front of our positions when we first arrived. In the foxholes, we didn’t realize it was there although it was only twenty or thirty yards in front of us.
The road ran straight across the flat valley and then curved up the hill. We were strung out, every man making his own speed and keeping his thoughts to himself. As we neared the top of the hill a battery of 105mm howitzers fired in volley from just a few yards away. They had moved up after the capture of Beeck and no one expected the deafening blast. My breath caught, I swallowed hard and continued on. It was probably a fitting salute and anything less would have been an anti-climax.
On the night of November 22, 1944, C Troop, 125th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, entered the beet fields just west of Beeck, Germany with 135 Men. On the night of December 16, after the area had been secured, C Troop walked back out with 36 Troopers.
Surprisingly, the killing-in-action numbers were low. Casualties came from wounds, fatigue, trench-foot and respiratory problems. Most of these casualties returned to the Troop during the remainder of December and, along with replacements, brought the Troop back up to near full strength before we went to new positions on the Roer Rivers.
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