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 SIEGFRIED LINE
On January 15, the 345th Regiment again climbed on trucks and in freezing cold headed for the Duchy of Luxembourg along with the rest of the 87th Division to relieve the 4th Division, which had been on the southern shoulder of the Bulge. K Company occupied Berdorf near the west bank of the Sauer River. We managed to get into the basement of a partially destroyed house. It was a fairly quiet part of the Front and could almost pass for R&R (rest and recreation). The Germans were on the east bank of the river.
Occasionally, artillery fire passed overhead. The First Sergeant always wanted to know if it was ours or theirs. We always told him it was ours.
Several of us got one-day passes to Luxembourg City, Third Army Headquarters. It was said to be the only place in Europe where you could get apple pie and ice cream. It turned out to be true. The city appeared to be undamaged. As soon as we jumped off the truck, three of us set out in search of the rumored apple pie. We passed three Air Force officers. One turned and said, “Don’t you men salute?” We hadn’t saluted any officer for three months. We kept on walking. Luxembourg City was a pleasant respite. The residents spoke English, because it was a favorite vacation spot for the British before the war.
On January 26, our vacation ended as the 87th Division was relieved by the 76th Division. They would have to cross the Sauer River, and we began the long ride north to St. Vith.
After another cold, miserable ride in flat bed trucks through shattered Bastogne and Houffalize, we dismounted in knee-deep snow in a darkening St. Vith. We were crammed in with the 7th Armored and 82nd Airborne, but it would not be for long.
Several of us from K Company gathered in what might have been a German chow line. Frozen bodies of German soldiers lay scattered – gray logs, covered with snow. Once a fire was going, these gray dead were rolled near the fire for a seat. They were dead and they wouldn’t know.
At dawn next morning, we filed through town and into the hills. Our first casualty came from a Bouncing Betty mine. The trail following an open ridge was a beaten path through snow. Why was it tripped by the tenth man or twelfth man, and not the first man? A step different by inches from those before? Now we stepped carefully in the footsteps of the man ahead. Afterwards, walking safely into the late afternoon, we stopped in a woods overlooking a broad valley.
In deep, frozen ground, we could only hack out foxholes about two feet deep. We were supposed to sleep with our boots on. I couldn’t do that. I put my galoshes outside the hole. Mine had holes in the soles. I put my boots in my sleeping bag and my canteen in my armpit. If we had a night attack, I would have to fight in my socks. In the morning, as usual, I couldn’t put my boots in my galoshes until they were thawed by a fire.
We began to take sporadic artillery tree bursts. A platoon runner, who smoked a pipe and carried a can of Prince Albert in his hip pocket, came in to get a message for his platoon leader. A minute later, he was killed by a tree burst. It was so sudden. We had just watched him fill his pipe, puff on it, and set off through the woods.
We assembled in the woods and walked in two files down a road with ditches on either side. As expected, we were shelled. We dove for the ditches, but got up and ran downhill when one of the officers yelled at Sgt. Moulton to get the men moving. The road led into a large flat valley. We proceeded without incident to two large houses on the right and a small hill on the left, with the road curving around the hill.
Our lead platoon was fired on by a German anti-tank gun. We pulled back and asked for help. Soon a Sherman tank rumbled down the road. We yelled and tried to get the tankers’ attention. “There’s an anti-tank gun around the hill.” Maybe they couldn’t hear us. A single shot from the anti-tank gun disabled the tank. It erupted with black soldiers who ran back down the road. I later learned this was the 761st Tank Battalion, the subject of a book and TV show fifty years later. A second tank came down the road, but quickly went into reverse and disappeared when the crew from the first tank told them what happened. A patrol was then sent around the backside of the hill and disposed of the German anti-tank crew.
Twilight came and the advance was halted. We moved in to the first of two large buildings on the right side of the road. Darkness came and with it the coldness of January. Broken furniture fed a fire in the fireplace. One of our men stepping outside the front door jumped back as a burp gun ripped at him. Germans had sneaked into the second house. How to rout them out?
We had an FO (Forward Artillery Observer) with us, but his radio didn’t work. We came up with a simple, but insane scheme. We would shell the almost adjoining house. The FO gave me the coordinates. I forwarded them to Battalion Headquarters via the SCR 300 company radio, and shells – one at a time – started dropping on or near the German-occupied house. Minute adjustments were made, all by sound. No visual observation. It was dark. Step outside and you could be cut down. Firing continued through the night. Our house was never struck, due to the skill of the battalion artillery or just dumb luck. In the morning, the Germans were gone.
We formed up in a column of two – five yard intervals, one on each side of the road – around the curve, past the German anti-tank position, and forward. After several miles, we came on a horseshoe curve. We were getting deeper into the Ardennes, reclaiming the route of the German offense that drove through the 106th Division. The ravines on the right were a jumble of artillery and trucks pushed down by advancing Germans to clear the way.
We were sure German artillery would be registered on that curve. Sgt. Reuel Garber asked me to follow him as he searched for PFC Donald Blank. As we slabbed up a hillside toward a farmhouse, an 88 fired on us. Looking across the ravine to an open space on the wooded hills, we could see a German crew working the gun. Sgt. Garber was struck by shrapnel in his right hand. He was already missing his trigger finger. He gave me the SCR300 and ran downhill. I ran uphill toward the farmhouse. The Germans stopped firing. Why waste artillery on one man?
After reaching some abandoned chicken houses, I waited for the German battery to disappear and moved back down to the road. Sgt. Garber had been evacuated and the missing Donald Blank had been killed.
We continued for several more miles without meeting any resistance until we were relieved in the early afternoon by another company. Company K had been in the attack for 32 hours.
In the mid-afternoon we marched back to a cluster of houses to get some rest. We mounted the stairs of one promising house only to discover a tank crew already occupied it. We pointed our weapons at them and told them it was “our” house. — we had fought for it. The law of eminent domain prevailed and they left. Before entering the house, we had relieved them of a case of 10-in-1 rations strapped to the back of their tank.
In the early evening, as we emerged from the house, we saw a battery of our 105s setting up and starting to fire. We were gaining ground.
We left our commandeered house and snaked our way through the Schnee Eifel Hills of the Ardennes Forest against sporadic delaying action by the Germans. Snow and freezing rain and marching feet and trucks and tanks turned unpaved roads to a muddy morass. Fifteen miles and six days from St. Vith, K Company arrived at a hillside town named Kobscheid.
Dick Steck, George Covar and Milton Rein had dismantled a small pot-bellied stove. Each man carried a part. Arriving at the house to be occupied by Company Headquarters in Kobscheid, they left the stove parts outside and went inside to claim a sleeping spot. Ten minutes later, the unassembled stove had disappeared.
That night, three replacements arrived and waited in an unoccupied room to be assigned by Lt. McSpadden. One man walked over to a bazooka leaning in a corner and pulled the trigger. There was an explosion and we lost the three replacements.
The next day, February 6, would be the worst day of the war for me, K Company and the 3rd Battalion. Our objective was a crossroads important to the defense of the Siegfried Line. We moved out in the morning and began an advance through a cutover section of woods. Without warning, German 88s on our left flank opened up. We had been ambushed. Flat trajectory fire was so close that shells exploded before the report of the ’88’ was heard.
Steck and I dove into a small watercourse. Water trickled through our clothes. Shells were exploding and throwing dirt on us. You are never so alive as when you think you will be dead. I could see with intense clarity the moving water, blades of grass and the dirt sides of the watercourse. I was paralyzed. There had always been a chance to drop, run and find cover, or get away. My life was not in my control. I told God I would do anything for Him if he would save me.
Minutes went by. Then I heard George Covar calling, “Medic, medic.” There were no medics. I didn’t want to do anything but lie in that watercourse. Something had to be done. I crawled out on my stomach. Covar was lying on a slightly elevated foot path. Fire had either slackened or shifted. I lay beside him. A shell fragment had struck below his left knee and exited above his ankle. There was not much bleeding. I put sulfa powder on the wounds and taped on gauze pads. I urged him to get in the watercourse with Steck and me, but he refused. Covar was a small man, but a great chowhound. I remember one morning standing in line behind him, waiting for pancakes. We got three pancakes that morning instead of the usual two. Covar turned to me with glistening eyes and said, “When I think of all the times we only got two!”
Later, I don’t know how long, several of our tanks appeared to drive off the Germans. As they moved up through the clearing, I was afraid the nearest tank might run over Covar. I left the cover of the watercourse and ran to the tank, waving my arms to stop it. The hatch opened and a red-haired sergeant jumped down. We squatted on the lee side and I pointed out where Covar lay. The tank commander, calm and casual assured me they would stay clear of Covar.
Firing ceased and litter parties were making their way to the dead and wounded. Snipers in the woods ahead had taken a toll, as well as the 88s.
The litter bearers gave us a stretcher to carry Covar to the aid station. They were too short-handed to carry him. Steck and I soon found carrying a man on a stretcher, even if small, is a four-man job. We passed Otis Hebert. He was in a praying position on his knees, head on the ground but dead. We had to put the stretcher down every 100 feet or so. Our arms couldn’t take the dead weight. We finally reached the battalion aid station tent about a half mile away.
It was now late afternoon. We delivered Covar and were ready to leave. I would have been alright except a sergeant was brought in with his right arm missing. One of the aid men at the entrance said in a cheery voice, “Well, Sergeant, what’s your trouble today?” I went blank. I sat down outside the aid station. Steck left. I sat there all night. No one spoke to me. In the morning I got up and went back to my company.
Eighty men had been brought to the aid station that day.
The next day, we began to move out of the Kobscheid in preparation for an attack on the village of Nuendorf. Dense fog covered Kobscheid and the surrounding area. A field telephone had been left in an outpost foxhole. I was sent out to retrieve it. Following the phone wire, I found foxhole and phone. Suddenly the fog lifted. I was face-to-face with a cannon poking out of a pillbox. It took me a frozen moment to realize the pillbox was unmanned. As I walked away, I looked over my shoulder just to make sure.
In an infantry company, the communication section, part of company headquarters, is responsible not only for battalion and platoon radio contact, but also phone lines to platoon outposts. When K Co. starts to button up for the night and establish defensive outposts, we string the wire, usually on the ground, to the field phones. After this, we begin to dig our own foxholes and open C or K rations. Outposts check in every hour with headquarters during the night. If there is no answer, we go out alone to find out why. It could be a wire cut by an exploding shell, a German patrol that captured the two men in the outpost, or the men were asleep. In every instance, I found the men asleep.
We again walked through the now quiet fields and woods where yesterday so many had been killed or wounded. K Co. alongside L Co., with I Co. in reserve, approached the small town of Nuendorf. It was situated on steadily rising ground that culminated in a hilltop.
We were soon in a firefight on the outskirts of town. Lying in a ditch, we had to run across the road to a house that offered cover. Bullets were skipping off the paving. Dick Steck said “Let’s try it.” He was short, pudgy and un-soldierly looking, with a cherubic face and a whispery voice. A Christmas tree bird ornament was clipped to his lapel. He never seemed to show fear. We dashed across and made for a house. Gaining cover on the lee side, we tried to decide our next move. Suddenly a soldier from L Company came around the corner. L Company Commander, Captain Wall, had been hit by a sniper. Volunteers were needed as stretcher bearers to carry him to safety. A stand of woods about 100 yards to the rear represented safety. Steck and I looked at each other. Two days ago, we had carried Covar, a small man, about a half-mile to the aid station. Capt. Wall was a large man. It would be impossible for two men to carry him across open terrain exposed to enemy fire. It would take four men and luck. The decision did not have to be made. Another man from L Co. appeared and said the Captain had died. The town was taken after a day-long battle.
The previous night, a strong patrol from K Co., led by Lt. John Coleton, and the battalion Tiger Patrol had reconnoitered Nuendorf. They became engaged in a night fight. Part of Coleton’s second platoon and several members of the Tiger Patrol retreated to the local church. The Germans could not dislodge them. They finally brought up a self-propelled gun. Poking the barrel through the door entrance, they fired. Sgt. Billy Gray was hiding behind the altar. He was blown out of the back of the church. The men of the patrol hung on and escaped early in the morning.
Nuendorf and the adjoining town of Reuth formed a key location in the defense of the Siegfried Line. Reuth, about a mile to the east, was on higher ground. It enabled the Germans to view us and harass us with mortar and artillery fire, including Nebelwurfer rocket barrages.
K Co. Executive Officer Lt. John O’Reilly was killed by a mortar round as he stepped out of an occupied house.
Lt. Vladimir Giglevitch, “the mad Russian,” decided to do a little harassing himself. About 3 p.m. he would draft me as an assistant gunner. I would carry the tripod and he the 30 caliber light machine gun. We would ascend a small hill above the town, assemble the weapon and fire several long bursts into Reuth. Then dismantling the weapon, we would race downhill to safety. Within minutes, enemy artillery would drop a few rounds on the hill. We always did this about the same time. I don’t know why they didn’t lay in a round or two as we set up.
One night a sergeant, whose name I have forgotten, and I were sent on a two-man patrol. We were to go into Reuth and look around. We started to work our way alongside the connecting road in a drainage ditch, crouching below the road on the right side. About halfway, I got spooked. I told the sergeant I was going back and did. Shortly after, he came back. We reported the town was still occupied.
Early one evening, we assembled in the main street to be relieved by another company. Mortar fire began to rain down. We scattered back to the houses. As darkness fell, it started to rain. The Germans mounted an attack and tried to infiltrate the town, attacking the eastern edge.
Sgt. Joe Bodis, who had taken over as communications leader, and PFC Clarence Young, both replacements from the Army Air Corps, and I took turns guarding the doorway to the company headquarters house, which opened on an alleyway. Trouble was, Clarence had a bad cough, which would give away our position. We had a burp gunner who was lurking at the back corner of the house. We also had our weapons platoon runner dashing across the alley and through the house with instructions for a mortar crew set up in a bomb crater on the other side of the house. I decided to go upstairs and drop a grenade at the back corner of the house if the German was still there.
The second floor was a floor only. The walls were gone – the result of allied bombing or shelling. It was raining steadily. Flares were going up to illuminate the attacking enemy forces. I waited for about five minutes. I decided not to drop the grenade in case the weapons platoon runner suddenly showed up.
I went back downstairs and we continued our vigil. I asked Clarence to go to another part of the house since he couldn’t stop coughing. The attack ended when the Germans failed to penetrate the town in force. K Co. had put up a relentless defense, killing a number of the enemy.
On March 3, after three weeks in Nuendorf, K Company finally moved out. Reuth had been taken by L Company and the Germans were retreating toward the Rhine all along the Third Army front.
Barracks bags were brought up as we occupied Reuth. I and two other men were assigned to guard the barracks bags until K Company came to a halt in pursuit of the fleeing enemy, along with the rest of the 87th Division.
We looked back at Nuendorf – at where we had been. From Reuth, you could see any movements we had made.