I was a member of K Company – 345th Regiment. I was in the Communications Section of Company Headquarters, carrying the SCR536 Handy Talky, relaying and receiving messages to and from the platoon leaders or carrying the SCR300, communicating with Battalion Headquarters. What follows are my experiences during this time. It may be totally different from the experiences of other surviving members of my company. You are generally only aware of what is happening in a radius of 100 feet or so. Some incidents I can remember as part of a chain of events. Other incidents are isolated and I can’t put them in context. I will try to contribute more as time and memory permit.
The 87th Division was pulled out of the Saar Basin on December 23. It was a cold, barren place with copses of woods concealing enemy machine gun emplacements and tanks, deadly for foot soldiers. We were positioned on the right flank of the Third Army. We were glad to go. It was rumored the Germans had broken through the American lines somewhere to the north. Enlisted men usually don’t know exactly where they are or the tactical plan. They know they are to go forward. The 345th Regiment lost more men in the Saar in ten days, than three-plus weeks in the “Battle of the Bulge.”
We climbed onto big flatbed stake-bodied trucks. You had to sit or lie down and cover up with a blanket. As a result of stress and lack of sanitation, everyone had diarrhea. Every time the trucks stopped, we bolted to the side of the road, pants down. After a long, cold, miserable ride, we arrived on the outskirts of Rheims. The 87th Division was SHAEF Reserve, the only organized force between the German advance and Paris. We had showers, a change of clothing, and were issued worn galoshes. We thought the men encountered at the showers were part of elite troops. They were Quartermaster personnel wearing new shoe pacs. Two days later, we mounted trucks again, this time canvas-covered 6x6’s and went north toward (we later learned) Bastogne. Another long, cold journey until we dismounted in woods in total darkness in deep snow and began a march toward Moircy in Belgium, some ten miles west of Bastogne, with the 11th Armored and later the 17th Airborne between us and Bastogne. Our left flank, to the west, was screened by the 41st Cavalry regiment.
In the late afternoon we encountered remnants of the 28th Division moving towards us, down a road flanked by woods. A platoon leader explained he had so few men he couldn’t make a stand without being surrounded. The Germans were following closely. Suddenly a P-47 Thunderbolt at treetop level dropped a bomb on the advancing enemy. Captain Dawe, who had lost his gloves and was now wearing asbestos mitts, from the mortar crew was in the midst of deploying the men. Lt. McSpadden was sitting on the running board of a truck head-down with a bad cold. The German advance had been stopped in our sector.
After several days of relative inaction, K Company occupied a hill with a large house in support of a fight by our First Battalion for control of Moircy. Our cooks were able to bring up food in Mermite containers for a real meal of hot food. Captain Dawe sent me to battalion headquarters on foot to pick up orders. When I returned the chow line was deserted. Where was everybody? Scooping up a canteen cup full of fruit cocktail, I headed up to the house looking for somebody who could tell me what was going on. It also was deserted. I looked out a window on the 2nd floor to a large, flat field bordered by woods on the far side. Emerging was a line of gray- uniformed enemy infantry. Shells began whistling overhead toward the advancing line. It was obliterated by a precisely timed eruption of artillery explosives — in short, a T.O.T. (time on target) by Division artillery. Another German advance was stopped.
Later, I talked to Doc Wooten, one of our medics who had been loaned to the First Battalion for the attack on Moircy, which then had been pulled out under a heavy counterattack. Some men never got the word. Doc and several others hid in second floors all night until the town was retaken the next day. Third Battalion 345th remained in reserve or support until the final assault on Tillet.
In the interim, we were moved around to defensive positions. One found us at a fog-bound crossroads. Company headquarters occupied a house. We knew not from where an attack might materialize. Across the road was our anti-tank support, a towed three-inch gun. After two days, the crew and gun left. If a German tank should appear out of the fog, we were defenseless. It was a tense situation. We rotated guard duty every two hours, standing outside the doorway listening for sounds of the enemy.
Officers were given a monthly ration of a bottle of scotch and one of gin. Capt. Dawe received his while we guarded the crossroads. From our sleeping quarters, we had to pass thru his office and bedroom. There stood the bottles on a table. After he enjoyed a party of one, he bedded down, sound asleep. As each man passed through the room, he took a small sip of either scotch or gin. In the morning, Capt. Dawe was slightly amazed he had drunk that much.
After unremitting fog, one day it dawned clear without a cloud. The U.S. Army Air Force put thousands of planes up. B-17s were followed by B-26s, by P-38s. The sky was filled with contrails. Dug in on a hillside, we stood up in our foxholes and cheered.
The division’s fiercest fighting over much of the three weeks’ engagements occurred at what became known as “The Bloody Crossroads.” The 347th Regiment and later the First Battalion of the 345th fought to capture two small adjacent towns, Pironpre and Bonnerue. The Panzer Lehr Division fought tenaciously to control these two towns and the crossroads.
The 761st Tank Battalion attached to our division attempted to support a drive to secure the crossroads. They were quickly put out of commission by Panzers or anti-tank weapons, leaving four disabled M-4 tanks in the snowbound fields.
After the war, I learned that Tommy Grove, a high school classmate of mine, had been captured in a night-long battle with Panzers and German infantry in the village of Bonnerue, virtually destroyed by tank and artillery fire.
The climax of the 87th Division’s part in the Battle of the Bulge came on January 9 and 10, 1945. Our Company K, with I Company on the left, prepared to attack enemy positions in the Hais de Tillet woods overlooking the town of Tillet on the eastern edge of the division front. Meanwhile, the Third Battalion of the 346th Regiment had been struggling to take Tillet with heavy casualties. In the close-in fighting, Sgt. Curtis Shoup was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.
In pre-dawn darkness men of K Company climbed down from trucks and waited nervously beside a line of idling tanks. We were sure they would draw artillery fire. It’s OK to follow tanks across open fields, but stay in the treadmarks.
We finally moved out through knee-deep snow into the woods. Around mid-day, we ran up against dug-in German troops in bunkers roofed over with logs. Continuous firing with little effect took place. In woods, my SCR 536 radio is useless. Capt. Dawe resorted to hand-written messages to platoon leaders. I floundered through the snow trying to locate platoon leaders. It looked like everybody was prone, but me. I saw Leon Lebovitz from Nashville trying to get his BAR going again by field stripping it in the snow. Then Lt. Thomas Burke leaped up to lead a charge by the 2nd Platoon. He was immediately brought down with a bullet to the head. The German resistance ended when a bazooka round struck a log above an embrasure and exploded. Firing ceased. German soldiers began climbing out ‘hand der hoch.’ Our other casualty besides Lt. Burke was PFC Romero. Capt. Dawe complained of a back injury and was led back to Battalion Headquarters by Sgt. John Coleton, who assumed the platoon leader’s position after Lt. Burke was killed (later awarded a battlefield commission) and Sgt. Melvin Brenner. Lt. McSpadden assumed command of K Company.
Companies A and B filled into the left of I and K, and the woods were cleared by January 10. Enemy resistance started to collapse. By January 11, they were trying to get back to Germany. Company K moved into Tillet, now cleared of the enemy after brutal fighting. It was our opportunity to get inside, thaw our frozen feet and get warm. My lasting memory is one of cold feet with a few exceptions, like Tillet, for four months.
Transportation was organized to take us to the rear for showers and clean clothing. Company Headquarters was first in line for the 6x6 trucks. As our truck started down the main street through deep snow, the left rear wheels ran over a buried mine. I was blown upwards to the bows supporting the canvas roof of the truck. I came down flat on the bed, the wind knocked out of me. I was dragged off the truck and, dazed, was stood on my feet. “My God, look at his back!” It was the first thing that registered. The medics began peeling off clothing. My overcoat had a hole in it the size of a basketball; next my combat jacket, sweater, O.D. wool shirt, winter undershirt and last, summer undershirt. With each layer, the hole was smaller. At the end, I stood with a trickle of blood running down my back. Our medic, Peter Lewanick, asked if I wanted to go to the aid station. No, I wanted to get a shower. Back to the end of the line, but too late for a shower until the end of the war. I still have a small scar. Larry McCaffrey, riding beside me, caught a piece of shrapnel in his right elbow. He was evacuated and later received a partial disability award.
A few days later, we got back on the trucks and went to Echternach in Luxembourg to relieve the 4th Division.