December 10, 1944
We were taken by truck from Metz to within 10 or 12 miles of the front. One truck stalled in front of us just as General Patton pulled up behind us in a jeep. I was about 10 feet from the General and got a good look at him sitting there with his pearl handled 45’s. He couldn’t get by because the truck in front of us was blocking the road. Patton’s aide hollered at the driver to get the truck moving but the driver yelled back that he would burn out the clutch if he kept going so at that point Patton hollered back “Burn the son of a bitch out.” When the driver saw who it was he put it in gear and slid the truck into the ditch and the General went racing down the road.
It started to rain about 5:00 P.M. A little while later we overshot the bivouac area by about a half a mile so Haile, Hagerdom, DeFlavio and I bummed cold corned beef and jelly sandwiches off some units kitchen and slept on the floor of an adjacent house while the rest of the company were sleeping in a muddy, cold, and windswept field. We hiked back to join them around 4:00 in the morning and slept in a haystack for another hour. Later in the day we dumped all excess equipment such as gas masks and overcoats and started hiking towards the front. We rested by a 105 Artillery outfit and watched them fire for awhile before moving on.
We met boys of the 26th Division in every little village we went through and they were very glad to see us as they had only gained 64 miles in the past 73 days and they had really taken a beating. We reached a large open field by dusk. There were woods at the other end of the field and we thought the front line was just on the other side of the woods but we didn’t find out till later that the woods was about two miles deep. We lay in the field for about two hours and finally moved just into the woods where we were told to dig in but the ground was too hard and full of roots. We took a chance that the trees would protect us if we were shelled and we lucked out because we found out the next day that that area received a terrible shelling about three hours after we had left it and moved deeper into the woods. It was around midnight as we approached the other side of the woods and then we had to follow a wire attached to the trees as it was very dark and muddy and some of the fellows were slipping and falling into small gullies and ravines.
Suddenly shells started bursting up ahead and we could see the big flashes they made. We eventually met the guides from the 26th Division and they told us as much as they could about the situation in front of us. We found out we were about to engage the 11th Panzer Division and usually the panzer divisions were somewhat staffed by SS troopers. There were 28 men left in the company we were about to relieve out of the original 156 or so. They lost 51 men just the previous afternoon. We snuck across a small field and crept up to the holes we were to occupy. Edgar, Torres and I were the BAR team so we were together in a fairly large fox hole with a good field of fire for our automatic weapon.
As it started to get light we thought we could see movement out in front of our positions but we did not fire because we weren’t sure what was out there and in the half light at a few hundred yards our chances of hitting anything was not very good and we would give away our positions. A fire fight started on our left around 6:30 but we couldn’t see what was happening because a small rise of ground was in the way. We could hear tanks trying to move up to support us but the Germans were obviously trying to stop them. The 1st and 2nd platoons crawled up to our positions to join us in a daylight advance. “I” Company was in a patch of woods a little ways to our left. They bumped into several machine gun nests as soon as they started to move out. I learned later that Hughie Gorman, one of my basic training friends, was in the “I” Company advance and had been hit in the face in the very first moments of that fight. I never did learn how seriously he was wounded or if he survived at all.
At a signal we climbed out of our foxholes, lined up in a spread formation and started to advance over an open field. We could have just as easily gone down along the hedgerows and avoided some exposure and I mentioned that but we were told that orders were orders so we started out. We hadn’t gone fifty feet when the first 88 barrage hit. Their spotters could obviously see us coming. It was our first exposure to enemy fire and it was really something. They were high velocity shells and the noise they made as they came in was very scary. One of the first shells landed about a hundred feet to my right and I immediately heard several screams. I looked over and saw that Shadle, Phillips and Valesco were all down and wounded or dead. Tommy Langston, my squad leader, was lying in the mud about 20 feet in front of me and he looked back and gave me a big grin. I grinned back but I’m sure those grins were trying to cover up our true feelings at the moment. Tommy threw me a “K” ration which was going to be my breakfast when I would get time to eat it. Shortly we got up and advanced another 200 yards with more 88s coming in but fortunately causing very few casualties. We made it to a road in the middle of a large area of open farm land and dug in beside the road. Ahead of us the land sloped down and we could see the spires and rooftops of a little town called Obergailbach. Near where I was laying was a small stone marker about two feet high that had the word France on one side and Germany on the other so we knew that we were right on the border between the two countries
Late in the afternoon Bill Hundley and I crept up to check the scene of yesterday’s battle in which it was reported that 51 of the 26th Division boys were killed. It was shocking to find bodies everywhere we looked in a large radius. Heads, arms and legs had been ripped from many of the bodies and in a number of cases their intestines were strung out five or ten feet from their bodies. It was our first glimpse of the horrors or war and it shook us deeply. They had been blasted by terrible firepower. It’s hard to imagine how a battle could be so intense and violent. One young Lieutenant was sprawled face down in front of a small grotto of the Blessed Virgin. There was a big hole in his right side and someone had stuffed rags into it to try to stop the bleeding. I doubt if a medic could have saved any of them. It was a real disaster.
Hundley and I picked up some light machine guns and belts of ammunition to use in our foxholes that night. He went ahead of me and I stayed for a few minutes before heading back to our positions. Suddenly a German 88 opened up on me from a distance away. The first shell exploded about a hundred yards short of me so I started to run as fast as I could while still carrying the light machine gun and a few long belts of ammo around my neck. The next shell exploded about fifty yards short of me but the muddy ground absorbed a lot of the shrapnel and explosive effect. The next one was even closer so I dropped everything I was carrying and ran like hell. I got to an opening in a hedgerow, dove through the opening and dropped on the ground to my left. The next shell seemed to go right through the opening I had just vacated and exploded about 20 yards past me. Since they could no longer see me they quit wasting shells. I crawled back to where Leroy Edgar was and we dug in for the night. We alternated sleeping and guarding but managed to get a few hours sleep. I learned later that Spring he had been badly wounded the previous afternoon while I was dodging 88s. He was hit in several places and was in bad shape. I volunteered to sneak into Obergailbach on a night patrol with Swede Olson from Duluth and Johnny De Flavio but it was cancelled at the last minute.
In the morning we received orders to attack Obergailbach. We hurried across another open field under heavy artillery fire and curved down to high ground above the town. We hit a few rooftops with bazookas to keep the Germans nervous and moving if possible. The Germans controlled hill 360 on the other side of the town and had very good artillery observation, plus tanks up there firing their 88s at anything that moved. A shell exploded about 25 yards from me wounding Moser and killing Reingold and Rappaport. As Rappaport was dying he said “I wish my brother was here to help me.” His brother was a doctor back in the states. Reingold was hit in the spine by a very large piece of shrapnel and died immediately. We tried to stop Moser’s bleeding as much as possible and bundle him up with whatever clothing and tarps we could spare. It was quite cold and shock would set in fast if he was not kept warm and he laid there in the mud for a number of hours before the medics could get him out. Ralph Mistrot was also wounded by a mortar shell and a nice young kid named Heideman was killed moments later.
We edged down to the left end of the town and dug in on some elevated ground. Several 88s whistled right over my hole. One landed in Sgt. Castle’s hole killing him and two others that were in there with him. The 88s were coming from the German Tiger tanks on top of hill 360. I saw one tank hit by one of our l05’s but he just backed into the woods apparently not knocked out but I’m sure the driver had a headache. They were very rugged tanks. About 4:00 in the afternoon orders came down to bypass Obergailbach, rush across a 300 yard valley and attack hill 360 without artillery preparation. Only seven men of my squad are available for the attack. We reached the bottom of the hill okay and started up the hill firing from the hip. I was carrying the BAR and a lot of ammunition. We flushed out Germans as we went up the hill. They fired at us from their foxholes and other positions. Harbaugh got 3 Germans with his rifle and McKeever got 5 with grenades and hit a German Captain in the back of the head as the Captain was running away.
Teddy Novakowski ran out in front of us firing a light machine gun from the hip and killed several German riflemen. Enemy shells were coming in and that plus the mines our men were setting off made for a deadly situation. Tommy Langston got hit and as I was running past him I could see a huge bloody hole in the left side of his chest. Tommy had borrowed my little folding shovel a little earlier in the day but I didn’t want it bad enough to roll him over and take it off his belt. Olson (from Duluth), Canopy (an old Madison friend) and Noble were also killed at the base of the hill. Sgt. Cafasso was also hit bad and several cooks came up to carry him down the hill but a shell exploded near them killing and wounding some of the cooks and wounding Cafasso again.
I somehow got to the crest of the hill as it became dark. Sgt. Plants and I climbed into a rock pile. It was too dangerous to advance any further without more support as we were pretty sure the Germans were only about a hundred yards away in the woods at the top of the hill. Artillery was called in to shell the woods on the top of the hill but the shells came in a little short and burst very close to us. The concussions were so strong that Plants was bleeding from both his nose and ears and had to be taken down the hill. The shelling probably drove the Germans deeper into the woods and it was very quiet when the shelling stopped. Arthur Clemens crawled up to tell me that my buddy Leroy Edgar had been wounded, so while he relieved me I went down the hill to see him. He was hit in about 15 places in the lower back and legs. A medic had given him a shot of morphine so he was dopey and couldn’t say too much. I gave him a drink of water and bundled him up real good because it was very cold and shock could set in fast. I hated to leave him but I had to go back up to the rock pile to help out in case there was a counterattack. Lt. Stimson crawled up to my position and asked me how many of my squad were left and I told him I thought there were about four of us left in fighting shape. He told me that since Tommy had been killed I was the new squad leader. A few minutes later our 105’s started crashing in again. They were welcome protection but awfully hard on the nervous system. I spent the rest of the night in the rock pile, cold and weary.
Dawn came along with L Company, who were going to relieve us for a day so we could get some food and rest. They moved through us and attacked the woods at the top of the hill but caught hell in the process. They suffered quite a few casualties. We dropped back down to Obergailbach which the Germans had now abandoned and were given some coffee and crackers. The town was full of wounded, and shells were crashing in so there was no real rest.
Reuben Johnson of Proctor, Minnesota asked me to visit his folks if he was killed and gave me their address. I did the same with him as our home towns were only about 20 miles apart. One fellow was crying in a corner of the barn. I drank water out of a horse trough outside the barn because we had no water, and regretted it later.
We received orders around noon to swing around the left end of hill 360 and attack a town called Gersheim. We had to wade across a small stream before getting to the town and the water was very cold. Our feet were cold before we hit the stream but after the crossing they were wet and freezing as all we had were the fairly light combat boots. The new snow packs meant for the combat troops were being short stopped by every rear echelon outfit that could get their hands on them and none got through to us for a long time. We lost a number of soldiers to trench foot as a result.
By late afternoon we entered the edge of Gersheim without opposition. We moved into several buildings on the edge of town as it was getting dark. A soldier was crying hysterically and saying that he’d never get out of there alive. Haile, my platoon Sergeant, was ready to club him as such sights were bad for morale. It was a quiet, cold night and when dawn broke we found that the Germans had fled, so we headed for Walsheim, the next town. We dug in twice along the way before we reached the edge of town. Some of our tanks had appeared on the hills beside us and fired ahead into Walsheim to help keep the Germans on the run. The Germans put up some brief resistance but were not very effective and no one was hit. Our M-1’s were far superior to their bolt action rifles.
The second platoon went ahead to secure the far end of town and we set up defensive positions in several houses on the right side of the little village. The Germans were still on three sides of us. Several of our tanks arrived and parked right up against the house we were occupying and the one next door with just the barrels of their 90MM cannons sticking around the edges of the buildings. We really didn’t like them that close to us because they could easily attract fire from the German tanks with their deadly 88s.
A German Tiger tank spotted us from a distance away and blazed away with its 88. The first shell exploded just outside the basement window of our house and knocked both John Lee and myself to the floor. We had been standing by that window watching for the Germans. I thought John was killed but he got up cussing because the explosion had ruined the sandwich he was eating. I was okay, just shaken up pretty good. Things then quieted down for a while and Haile and Ladoucer caught a chicken and killed it for dinner. I had been getting sicker by the hour no doubt from drinking out of that horse trough the previous day so didn’t think I could have eaten any of the chicken anyway. They put the chicken and some potatoes in the oven of the wood burning stove and cranked up the fire. The house we were in had the main floor at street level but it was built on a sloping lot so most of the back basement wall was aboveground. The Germans saw the smoke coming out of the chimney and decided to ruin our dinner party. The first 88 they fired took out the back basement wall and the second one exploded in the basement ripping out the kitchen floor and dropping the stove and our chicken dinner into the basement. Fortunately no one was in the kitchen when the second shell hit.
The basement stairwell had a stone wall on both sides so when the first shell hit we had quickly moved onto the steps. The stairwell faced away from the exploding shells so while we were deafened, shocked, and scared by the explosions we didn’t get hit by the shrapnel flying around the basement. Juan Torres was sitting on the step below me and while the shells were exploding he dropped a glass jar of preserved cherries or plums on top of the steel helmet of the soldier sitting just below him. I didn’t know if he did it intentionally or not but when the red juice started running down the other fellows neck and shoulders he thought he had been hit and was bleeding. When he realized what had happened he was ready to kill Juan. The last shell also blew up the one holer indoor toilet in the corner of the basement so that mess added its distinctive flavor to the overall mess we were in.
It became dark a little while later and we had to send out a patrol to try to find out where the Germans were. It was my turn to take out the patrol but in the last hour or so I had become violently ill (intestinal), no doubt from drinking out of that horse trough. Johnny DeFlavio saw how sick I was and said he would take out my patrol and I could handle the next one. The four of them left but in about 20 or 30 minutes they came back through the front door carrying DeFlavio. They had been attacked just after leaving the edge of town and Johnny had been hit in the shoulder and had lost a lot of blood. I naturally wondered what would have happened to me if I had been healthy enough to lead the patrol.
Due to the patrol being attacked one half of my platoon went up to the north end of town to back up the defenses there. I stayed back with the other half. Around 11:00 that night the first battalion on our left flank was caught in a German bayonet attack. That was the only bayonet attack to ever occur in any of our areas during the war. They were not dug in or prepared for it and in the dark, confusion reined and the Germans inflicted many casualties on that battalion. We were rushed over to relieve them and they dropped back to take care of their wounded and reorganize. Thankfully the rest of the night was quiet although Lundgren received a bad leg wound when a mortar shell landed near us.
The next day was quiet in our sector with only a few artillery shells coming in. We could hear a good fight develop at the north end of town and I was told that one BAR man killed or wounded 18 Germans. Someone said they heard Lt. McAllister hollering “Flush the bastards out.” The next morning we moved back into Walsheim. Everybody seemed to be sick. Shells came in all day which kept us jumpy and undercover. George Gray was hit but not too seriously. One platoon slaughtered a cow. I was still quite sick and tried to sleep around the stove as much as possible but every once in awhile we had to head back to the basement as shells started coming too close. One shell took off a big part of the roof.
Early the next morning we were sent up to the northwest section of Walsheim. Arthur Clemens and I dug in on a small hill near the edge of some woods. We knew there were German tanks and riflemen in the woods several hundred yards away but with the strong artillery support plus tanks backing us up I don’t think they were too inclined to start an attack. Around 10:00 at night Lt. McAllister crawled up to our foxhole and told us to head back to town. Since no one was relieving us we wondered why we were giving up our positions. We found out in a little while that we were being pulled out to be rushed to Belgium to get into the Battle of the Bulge. A tank battalion met us at the south end of Walsheim and covered our withdrawal.
I imagine the Germans reoccupied the town by the next day and wondered what we were doing. It seemed a waste to go up there and lose a lot of good men and then withdraw but it was felt that stopping the Germans in Belgium was much more important at the moment. We hiked back to Obergailbach and rested for a few hours. We then hiked out of that valley and after about 2 or 3 hours reached a large farm where we were allowed to light fires and relax. We stayed there for a few hours and then hiked further down the road to where there were a lot of trucks waiting to take us to Belgium
Our advances had been no better than the 26th Division Battalion we had relieved. In a little less than a week we had advanced about 4 miles at a heavy cost in dead and wounded. We had inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans but that was little consolation when we saw how many of our friends were wounded and killed.
Looking back I wondered what my thoughts were on that cold December afternoon when after Hundley left me I stood alone in that field with so many dead American boys lying all around me.
Johnny DeFlavio was a good heavyweight boxer and feared no man but after he was wounded taking out my patrol that night he was never the same again. The doctors patched him up and sent him back to us in 3 or 4 months but he was very nervous and ended up injuring his leg and being evacuated again. I still wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t gotten so sick from drinking bad water and had been leading my patrol instead of Johnny. That little drink of water no doubt had and impact on both our lives.
The Regimental records indicate that we had 68 men killed in the Obergailbach and Hill 360 fighting and another 27 in the Walsheim area. The wounded were at least double those numbers and possibly higher and added to that would be the number of men who had to be evacuated due to trench foot, some of whom had to have toes or parts of their feet amputated. Spending so much time in a foxhole in that cold winter weather made it practically impossible to keep your feet dry or warm. I’m sure the Germans had the same problem but didn’t have the good medical back up we had to alleviate the situation.
I learned a bit later that the Germans had mined some of the rock piles on top of hill 360 which resulted in several soldiers being wounded and a few being killed. Thank God that the rock pile Sgt. Plants and I jumped into wasn’t mined or he and I might have also been wounded or killed
The Saar Valley was a real meat grinder. As every day began we knew that more of our friends would be wounded or killed and naturally we wondered if we would be among them. The longer you were exposed to battle the slimmer became your chances to survive intact. After roughly ten days our Company was probably down to half strength and I’m sure the other Companies were in the same condition.
Earlier I wrote about Hugh Gorman being hit in the face and not knowing if he had survived or not. Late in 1999, fifty five years after that date, I found a long article in the 87th Division magazine regarding Hugh’s lengthy recovery from his serious head wounds. He was in military hospitals for several years and ended up having 14 operations to replace part of his jaw bone and correct the scars on his face. I have had a number of phone conversations with him and we hope we can get together some day. In one of those conversations I asked him if while he was undergoing all his rehabilitation he ever thought he was lucky to be wounded, even though seriously, and to be out of the war. He didn’t hesitate for a second and said absolutely as far as he was concerned it was a million dollar wound and he considered himself one of the fortunate ones to be out of combat.