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2014, Aaron Elson



9 Lives: An Oral History

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

cov-9lives.jpg (4837 bytes) "... an absolutely wonderful collection of WW2 Vets' stories! Aaron Elson has collected some of the most exciting and informative stories I have yet to read on the European Theater. This book is basically a group of mini-memoirs that range in scope from paratroops to tank personnel to frontline infantry. Each one tells his or her (yes women did serve!) own story in his or her own way but all of them are fascinating and will give you a different glimpse of how average americans saw the war. You will enjoy this one!"

--Amazon.com reviewer

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Chapter 1

Arnold Brown

Page 2

    Shortly after that was the Normandy breakout, and the armored forces were pursuing the Germans twenty to thirty miles a day. We in the infantry were trying to keep up. We were marching down the road, single file, on each side of the road, and here comes a jeep. My first sergeant said, “Do you know who that is?”

    I said, “No.”

    He said, “That’s General Patton!”

    I’d heard a lot about General Patton but I’d never met him. He got right even with G Company and said, “Driver, stop here.”

    I thought, “I don’t see how anything could be wrong.” My biggest responsibility at that time was keeping the stragglers moving. Mine was the rearmost company, so some of the stragglers were from other companies.

    General Patton got out of the jeep and said, “Who’s the blankety blank commanding officer of this blankety blank outfit?” You can fill in the blanks.

    At that time I was hoping the Germans would start shelling us so I could jump in a hole. And then I was thinking, if he relieves me of my command, with the experiences I’ve had, he’d be doing me a favor.

    I stepped out and reported to him and said, “I am, Sir.”

    He looked me over and made a few comments. Then he got back in the jeep and drove on. It was just his way of letting everybody know that he’s in charge of things and he’s up there. So I’m one of those who could brag about being chewed out by General Patton.

* * *

    In August, we had moved into a bivouac area, and they decided they would have a little break and pay the troops. They told me to go back to the division rear and pick up the payroll.

    By the time I got back to my company, it was late afternoon. I started paying off the troops. Most of them would take a few dollars, and they had a system where you could put some of the money back and send it to your family.

    I got through one platoon, and we got an emergency order. We’ve got to move right away. I had to stop paying off the troops and move into this other area. By the time we got there and got situated it was dark, and I could hear the Germans out in front of me. I could hear their vehicles and tanks running around. This was during the closing of the Falaise Gap. The Germans had broken through in one spot, and they wanted to plug the hole with us.

    During the night, I get orders that we’re going to make a daylight attack. What am I going to do with this payroll? I can picture me galloping across this field with a .45 pistol in one hand and the payroll in the other. I thought about it and thought about it. Finally, I turned this payroll over to my driver, who was a Pfc. He was a pretty reliable guy, and I told him, “Guard this with your life.”

    We launched this attack, and we came under mortar fire. A mortar round exploded nearby, and I felt something jerk my trousers below my knee. I jumped in a hole until the mortar barrage lifted, and when I started to move out, uh-oh, something’s wrong with that leg.

    I look down, and pull the britches leg up. There’s a piece of steel sticking in my left leg, just below the knee. So I took my first aid packet, and thought through my first aid training. The first thing I did was to sprinkle this sulfa powder around the wounded area. I put a bandage around it. Then I took my sulfa tablets and drank half a canteen of water.

    This thing’s got to come out of my leg before I can go any farther, so I call the executive officer over and put him in charge of the company going into this attack, and I go back to the aid station. On the way back, I run into a Mexican who was in my company. His right hand was shredded, and it looked like there was no meat on his fingers. He said he was throwing a hand grenade and it hit an apple tree and bounced back, and he picked it up to throw it again and it exploded.

    We had to cross an open field to get back to the aid station, and whenever we got into the field a German machine gun opened up on us. So we ducked down in this ditch. We lay there a little while, then we got up to move again, and the Germans opened up with that machine gun a second time.

    There was no way we could get across this field with that machine gun shooting at us. So we lay down again, and got up a third time, and the same thing. Now this Mexican takes his carbine in his left arm, and he’s up there looking for that machine gun.

    I told him, “Stay down here! There’s no reason to commit suicide.” So we lay there awhile longer. Of course, my company and the other elements of the battalion were moving forward with the attack, so the Germans must have gotten out of there. Eventually we got up, they didn’t shoot at us, and we got back to the battalion aid station.

    They had quite a few casualties there. The battalion surgeon looked at me. I wasn’t hurting and I wasn’t losing any blood, so he just put another bandage on top of the one that I had put on. Then he gave me six sulfa tablets and told me to drink half a canteen of water. I said, “I’ve already done that, Captain.”

    He said, “We’ve got to get it on the record.” So I took the six tablets. Then they sent me back to the regimental clearing station. Here again they had heavy casualties, and I’m waiting for them to treat everybody. Finally they looked at me, and all they did was give me six more sulfa tablets. The doctor at the battalion aid station had forgotten to put it on my tag -- you can understand in combat how they forget these things. I had to take the tablets, and by this time I was more concerned about overdosing on sulfa drugs than I was about my wound.

    I went back to the division collecting station. There they had hospital tents set up. Here again, they take care of the most seriously wounded first, including the Germans. I was the last one that they took into surgery.

    I was wounded at 9:30 in the morning and here it is midnight. When they removed the bandages from my leg and pulled that piece of steel out, blood squirted up. That hot steel had cut my artery and sealed it at the same time. You see what would have happened if they’d pulled that out any other place? This is the sort of luck I had all through this war.

    At the division collecting station, you saw all types of injuries. You saw tankers who had been burned, and they were bandaged up to the top of their head; all you could see was their eyes, just like a mummy. At midnight a Red Cross girl came around and lit a cigarette for them.

    From the division collecting station I was evacuated to England, and within two weeks I was back at the front line. All this time I was wondering what happened to that payroll.

    When I came back through the division rear, I went in to see the intelligence officer, and I kind of whispered to him, “What happened to that payroll?”

    “Ohhh,” he said, “We had a heck of a mess with that! We counted it up and $82 was missing. We started wondering whether to charge you or not.”

    I was getting ready to say, “You aren’t charging me for nothing! I couldn’t help that.”

    Then he said, “We had a little slush fund back here so we put in the $82.” But all I could figure out, the Pfc that I turned the bag over to - a Pfc got about $82 a month - he must have taken out his $82 and forgot to sign the payroll.

* * *

    After I came back, they assigned me to Company C of the 358th Regiment. And this company had the best non-commissioned officers. They had good morale. In other words, they’re combat-trained now; they know what they’re doing. And that helped boost my morale, too.

    I had a few skirmishes, but the next thing of importance was the period of time when they ran out of gas. [In September 1944, gasoline was diverted from Patton’s Third Army to Operation Market Garden in Holland.] We were in a bivouac area, and the rumor was that we were going to bed down for the winter and make a spring attack. I realized later that this was just a ploy to fool the enemy, but we were even cutting down logs and building log cabins and hauling straw in so it would be comfortable for the men. All the activity that was going on was just some patrolling by each side.

    While we’re going through all this, we get a message from the regiment: “All officers report to the division rear.” They had a sports arena back there and they got all of the officers in the entire division together. I thought, “They’re taking quite a chance. What if somebody dropped a bomb?” You can imagine how many officers were in that building. It has a stage up in front, and we’re all waiting to see what’s going to happen.

    The first thing, here comes old General Patton walking across the stage. He walks from one end of the stage to the other, then he walks back and stops. And he says, “Men, this is it!” I’m not going to quote all his curse words. He said, “We’re going to cross that damn Moselle River at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

    He said, “I want to tell you a little bit about the enemy over there. Now, in these fortress battalions, the Germans don’t have their best troops. Their armored forces, their crack troops, are back in reserve. Some of the fillers in these fortress battalions are old men.”

    He said, “Kill the sonofabitches.”

    He said, “Some of them have been slightly wounded in combat, or maybe they’ve got a crippled leg or one arm missing, but they can man those machine guns in these forts. Kill the sonofabitches.”

    Then he said, “There’s this business about taking prisoners. When you accept an enemy as a prisoner, and you’ve searched him and disarmed him and he’s in your possession, you treat him according to the Geneva Convention.

    “But there’s nothing that says you can’t shoot the sonofabitch before you’ve accepted him as a prisoner. Some of those snipers will take camouflage in a tree, and some of them are going to let you pass and are camouflaged behind you, and they’ll kill a few of your men. Then, when you locate his position, he wants to come out and surrender. Don’t accept that sonofabitch. Kill him.”

    The Moselle River was flooded at that time, and the ground was wet. We had to carry the assault boats from our covered position, to keep it secret from the Germans. I helped carry one of the boats; the terrain was rough, and my shoulder was black and blue for two or three weeks.

    When we got down to the river we had to plug in a large cable that was insulated and waterproof. We plugged that into our telephone line, and when we began to row across, as we’d roll this cable off from the rear of the boat, the current kept swinging us downstream. And these men weren’t skilled oarsmen to begin with. I said, “Throw that damn wire overboard!” When we got across we were 100 yards down from where the company was. It’s a good thing there was no enemy there. And it was a complete surprise because we had to wake the Germans up to tell them we were over there. So the strategy worked, but nobody had thought about how strong the current was.

    My mission in the Moselle crossing was to capture the little town of Bessehahn. The battalion was attacking Fort Koenigsmacher, and Bessehahn was where the battalion wanted to move everything into.

    A and B Companies made the attack on Fort Koenigsmacher, and they had so many casualties that they couldn’t go forward. So now they’re going to commit me, and also G Company on the other side.

    Prior to us making this crossing, they were doing away with the old cannon company. The regimental cannon company was artillery. Some of its officers were sent to the infantry. And they sent me an officer whose name was Lieutenant Gordon.

    The old infantry style is to attack with two platoons forward and one in support. So I put Lieutenant Gordon in charge of my support platoon until he could get his feet on the ground and get acquainted with his men.

    When they were getting ready to make this attack on Fort Koenigsmacher, I took all of the officers on a reconnaissance into the area that A and B Companies had already captured and occupied, to see what the situation was. When I got back and issued an attack order, Lieutenant Gordon was missing. I reported it to the battalion commander.

    We captured Fort Koenigsmacher and started setting up our defenses, because the Germans have a habit of trying to attack you before you get organized on your objective. Just as we got reorganized, I got a message to call the battalion commander.

    He said, “We located Lieutenant Gordon.” He claimed he was shellshocked. The battalion commander said, “Do you want me to send him back up there?”

    I said, “If you send the sonofabitch up here I’ll shoot him myself!”

    “Then I’d better not send him up there.”

    Now, while we were on that reconnaissance there were a few harassment artillery shells, but none of them hit close, so how could he have gotten shellshocked? I’ve seen men shellshocked. They’re just as likely to go forward as backward; they don’t know what they’re doing, and he knew what he was doing.

    Then they sent me a two-page questionnaire to fill out. The last question on it was: “Even though this officer is unqualified for combat, do you think he’s qualified for a rear area job in administration, supplies, or communication?”

    I said, “No.”

    They said, “If your answer is no, state why?

    ” I wrote, “In my opinion, the purpose of Army officers is to lead troops in combat. There’s only one test of that ability. If they fail that test, they do not deserve a commission in any capacity, period.”

    It turns out Lieutenant Gordon was some big shot’s son back in the States, so they assigned him to a rear area job. And I and all of the officers, whenever we’d go back to the rear and had to see him, he’d want to be friends, but we just gave him the cold shoulder.

    Some time later I was reading an article in Stars & Stripes. It was an article on how to fight the Germans in the city. I said, “This is very good. This is the way I’ve been coaching my troops.”

    Who do you think signed it? Lieutenant Gordon! You talk about wanting to go back there and shoot him myself, and all he knew about it was what I briefed the company when we were going across the river to take Bessehahn. Now today, he’s a veteran, with all privileges. Where’s the justice?

* * *

    Now I’m going to tell you about another incident that stands out very strongly in my m emory.

   The battalion commander called me back and said the division is organizing a special operation, and that they need one rifle company. He said they requested that the 358th Infantry Regiment supply the rifle company, and that the regiment called on our battalion to supply the company, and he said they specifically suggested that I take it.

    The mission was a guerrilla warfare type operation. They would assign me an objective behind the enemy lines, and my mission was to take this rifle company to that location, take that objective at night, and the division would attack - when I say division, I mean they would designate somebody from our battalion to attack - at daylight the next morning.

    I suppose that I was successful in these operations. If I had not been successful, I wouldn’t be able to tell the story.

    On one of those operations, so many unusual things occurred that I would like to present it in detail.

    My mission was to sneak through the German lines at night and occupy a piece of critical terrain that was overlooking a German village that sat behind the dragons’ teeth in the Siegfried Line. The battalion would attack at dawn to capture this town. I would be in a position where when they started their attack, I could fire into this town and also deny the Germans use of this critical terrain.

    Before I started out, they sent me a new artillery forward observer. I received a call from battalion, regiment and division telling me that this was this lieutenant’s first experience in combat and for me to look out for him, that he was a general’s son.

    To accomplish the mission I had to make a map reconnaissance during daylight, to be able to guide the company to its location. There was no road or trail to guide on, so I had to do it from the outlines of the vegetation, the trees, and the contour of the land.

    It so happened that this particular night was one of those nights that was so dark you literally could not see your hand before your face. And since I’m the only one who can get this company to that location, we proceed in one line, by holding hands. Now, can you picture 150 men lined up behind me holding each other’s hand?

    As we moved up through the first wooded area we had to go through, there were evergreens. If you’ve ever been around evergreens on a moonless night with no stars, can you realize how dark this is?

    As we were moving through this group of evergreen trees, we heard some Germans approaching our position. And by the sound of it, they were going to cross somewhere in this line of troops behind me.

    I cannot give orders. That would give our position away. All I could do was whisper to the man behind me to pass the word along to take care of these Germans wherever they crossed.

    A short while later I heard a few muffled rifle shots. These men had laid there in a prone position and let these Germans -- I don’t know if it was two or three of them -- walk right on top of them, and gut-shot them.

    These Germans were carrying some hot chow down to one of their security posts that we had bypassed. And the story the men told me was that the guys who shot those Germans sat there on their bodies and ate those hot sandwiches.

    Then we get up and move out again, and we come to the end of these evergreens. Now we have an open field to cross before we get into this high ground and wooded area that was our objective. From the edge of the wooded area it was clear down to the village, and we were to take a position along the front of the woods. But I looked and listened before I moved out from the cover of the evergreens. I realized that even though it’s dark, we could be silhouetted against the skyline. And I could hear a group of Germans talking in clump of bushes to my right front.

    I had to do something. So I called up two men with automatic rifles. I said, “Do you hear those Germans jabbering over there in that clump of bushes?”

    They said, “Yeah.”

    I said, “When we start across this open field, I want you to spray the bushes with automatic rifle fire.”

    Being in the service I knew, what do these Germans do? They’re going to do just like anyone would do. If somebody suddenly opened up on me, I’m going to hit the ground and head for cover. So these automatic rifles started spraying that clump of bushes and we moved across that open space to those other trees and they didn’t fire one round at us. And I said, “Look, we’re behind their lines. They don’t know whether this is one of their own units making a mistake or what.” So I begin to realize - I’ve been on two of these operations previously - that actually, this is a lot better behind their lines than it is attacking a fortified position when they’re waiting for you with their guns zeroed in, so if you don’t get too scared, in a way it can be fun.

    We got in position on the edge of those woods, on this high ground that sloped down into this village. All we’ve got to do now is sit there and wait.

    While we were waiting, a group of Germans left the village. It was only a small patrol but they were approaching our position. Now this is going to give us away before we want our presence to be known. So I have to do something.

    I called up three men that had rifle grenades and had them put phosphorous grenades on their rocket launchers. I put them in position and gave them the angle; my idea was that I would fire these phosphorous grenades where they would land behind this group that’s approaching us. This field had some grass growing, it would set that on fire, and that way we can see them and they can’t see us. And sure enough they walked right under this; the rifle grenades went up and exploded behind them. They didn’t shoot one round at us. Those that weren’t killed dashed back to the village.

    Now they know we’re here.

    Later on, there was a German straggler, or someone from the village who was worried about his friend. He’s coming up from the village, and as he’s approaching where we were in those woods, he was hollering for somebody by the name of “Heinie, Heinie, Heinie,” walking right into our laps. Here again, I can’t holler, I just know these men are trained; the first guy he comes to is either going to capture him or kill him. And lo and behold we had one recruit, this was his first day out, and if this wasn’t the one he approached. The recruit froze, and the German reached over and started pulling his pant leg, as if he thought it was another German and he was trying to shake him. Then the squad leader jumped up and hit that German over the head with his rifle butt and captured him.

    At daylight they started sniping at us, and the only one they hit was that German. He was laying there on the ground, and let me tell you where they shot him: right between the legs. I’d never heard anybody groan and moan like he did. There was nothing we could do except give him a shot of morphine, and one of the men said, “Don’t worry about it, your own men shot you.” That was very cruel. And he died.

    Now I get a call from battalion. They tell me they’re not going to launch this attack. I’m behind the enemy lines, my neck’s stuck out and they’re going to leave me there. And the reason was - after we got in position I could hear tanks and vehicles rolling around, and there was a big crowd of Germans in that village - they said intelligence had reported that position had been reinforced with a German armored division and we cannot take it. They said to stay up there and withdraw under cover of darkness.

    Well, this sounded good if the Germans would cooperate. But like I said, now they know we’re there. So they start firing 120-millimeter mortars. And we’re so close to them that we could hear the mortars popping out of their tubes. I sent a man to the right flank and another man to the left flank to shoot an azimuth, where they could hear the mortar rounds coming out of the tubes. They brought those azimuths back and I plotted them on a map, and it showed a bunch of gullies in that area. I figured that would be a good place to set those mortars up. Then I gave the location to this lieutenant -- the artillery forward observer I was supposed to look out for -- and he went up and established an observation post, and he observed the artillery fires and got them on those gullies. And the Germans stopped firing.

    There was a bunker - the Germans had those scattered all over - so we had the command post set up there, and the lieutenant came back down to the bunker, and we were just sweating it out now, hoping that they don’t bother us anymore so we can bug out when night gets here.

    Later on that afternoon, those mortars open up again, and I hear them popping out of the tube. They were coming from about the same place. So I told this lieutenant to refire that concentration. And all he needed to do - they had already zeroed in on that location, and we’d given it a number - all he had to do was call and say, “Fire concentration, 235,” and then go up to the observation post. Instead, he decides to go up to the O.P. and then call in the fire order. And on his way up, one of those mortar rounds landed between his legs. Can you imagine the shape he was in? I went up there, and one leg was thrown this way and the other one that way, and I talked to him. At that time, shock hadn’t set in yet.

    I said, “I’ll have a medic come up to take care of you.” But when the medic got up there, he was already dead.

    The Germans didn’t bother us after that. We fired that concentration, and the mortars stopped shooting.

    We waited until night, and they told us to bring all of our equipment and bring our casualties back. This lieutenant was 6 feet tall if he was an inch. He graduated with honors from college and got an appointment to West Point, his father’s a general, he’s general material, he needs to get this - we call it punching their ticket, combat experience - and then to get killed on his first day out, it’s embarrassing for me, but how can I stop this? It’s his time, that’s all there is to it. I’m around that area where the mortars were firing; why didn’t one of them fall between my legs? How do you understand these things? We had only two men killed, one Pfc and this lieutenant, and we had to carry them out. To this day I don’t remember the lieutenant’s name. General Patch lost a son in the war about that time and it could possibly have been General Patch’s son.

    When we got back to our lines, I was challenged, and I didn’t know the password. They took me all the way down to the battalion command post so they could identify that I wasn’t a German in an American uniform.

* * *

    In another one of those operations I went on, we were going in to take a village. Let me add that during these operations, Patton had the Germans on the run, and we were hitting so hard that they were never able to set up any good security or defensive positions.

    As we’re moving down on the village, the Germans are moving out. They were sending a towed antitank weapon into position to cover this withdrawal, and it was horse-drawn. They hadn’t put it in position by the time we arrived, so we knocked out this crew of that horse-drawn weapon and moved on in.

    Can you picture now men going into buildings to see if there’s Germans in them? It’s night, walking in a room and turning on a flashlight to see if anybody’s in there? They did this at one house - the squad leader went in there and informed me. He said when they went in this bedroom, there was a man and woman in bed, so he was getting ready to say, “Excuse me,” and he said the man was jumping up and he started putting his clothes on, and he’s putting on a German uniform. So they took him prisoner.

    Another of these missions was a daylight operation. In moving to our objective, we ran into a German security outpost, and we captured it. They didn’t have any communications, to even send word to the rear. So the Germans didn’t know that we were approaching.

    We were screening out through some woods. I’m approaching with two platoons following the scouts out, and when we reached the edge of the woods, I said, “Stop!” I wanted to observe before we proceeded across the open ground. I went forward, and with my field glasses I searched the first hundred yards back and forth. It must have been thousands of yards across this open space. And then I searched back another hundred yards, and so on until I looked way down to the end of of this rolling terrain where this other strip of woods were, and I saw a movement. We saw some Germans were leaving that patch of woods and approaching us. And if they stayed on this little trail that they were on, they’d come right up in front of these woods and turn right in front of us.

    I said, “This is an ideal ambush.” So I got busy. I put my two light machine guns in position first. I said, “I’m going to blow a whistle to start this. You start at the front of the column and search back, and you start at the rear of the column and search forward.” Then I placed some automatic rifles in position, because I knew as soon as we opened up, they’re going to hit the ground. And then I positioned my support platoon, and I had my mortars in position. And I said, “When I blow the whistle a second time, everybody cease fire.” The support platoon now will dash out with fixed bayonets and grab anybody that’s alive as a prisoner.”

    Now can you imagine these Germans walking along there, laughing, talking, and then all of this hits them at once? And this was in the winter, it’s snowing. When the platoon dashed out there, they said there wasn’t any fight left in the Germans, and they’re laying in the snow, praying.

    There was one man in that group who got away. He started running back across the field, and the machine guns were firing at him, you could see the tracers, and not one of them hit him. I felt bad about that; we let one of them get away. And then I thought, man, let him get back there and tell them what happened to the rest of them!

    But you don’t plan these things. You’re out there, and something’s occurring, you just do what you have enough training to do. They taught me when I received my tactical training that the worst thing you can do in combat is nothing, to do something, even if it’s wrong.

* * *

    We crossed the Saar River early in December of 1944. Our objective was Dillingen, Germany. We crossed it on assault boats. It was at nighttime. And in taking the first building that we approached, there’s a stairway outside the building, and this squad went up the stairs through that building. I heard somebody running down those steps just as hard as they could go, and I’m wondering what happened. I started stepping down the foot of the stairway. About that time I’m hit on the shoulder and there was a German running down there, and before I could get my gun up to get him he ran out through the dark.

    In this little suburb of Dillingen, I forget the name of it, there was a pillbox. I assigned one platoon to knock out this pillbox. They assaulted the pillbox and came under fire from a second pillbox. So I took my support platoon, and we maneuvered up through these buildings, and we got up into the second story of a building from which we could look across and down onto this pillbox.

    There was a German in a trench outside the pillbox with a rocket launcher. I had a man with an automatic rifle in the platoon, and I told him to get in the window and shoot the German. He shot at the German and missed.

    Now the German is swinging that rocket launcher around to fire into the room where we are. I didn’t have time to take any other action except to take him out myself. And I shot him with a .45 pistol. There was another German who shot back at me, because I felt the wind from that bullet as it went between my neck and right shoulder. And I had shot through a plate glass window, that’s about 70 yards. The effective range of a .45 pistol is 50 yards, so I had my guardian angel helping me there, although I was an expert pistol shot.

    When I felt that bullet go over my right shoulder, I turned around, and there’s a soldier dead behind me.

    In Dillingen, we cleared out these buildings on one side of a large railroad track. This railroad yard was two or three hundred yards wide. There was a German pillbox sitting right out in the middle of the railroad tracks, and the Germans occupied the buildings on the other side of the tracks. So we had a little wait here, since they hadn’t gotten the bridge across the Saar River, and the Army Times gave us a writeup as the longest bridgehead without getting any rations. We all laughed about that, and the reason was this: There was a meat packing company in this part of the town, and we were cutting off choice steaks and having steak and eggs three times a day.

    But eventually we were going to cross the railroad tracks to take the rest of the buildings. So I’m walking up and down the front line of my company trying to boost morale, like any commanding officer would be doing, and I come across a building which I thought would give me good observation into the German occupied part of the city.

    I went up two flights of stairs, and I said to myself it was a good observation post because there was an artillery team up there. There was a forward observer and a radio operator, and they were observing for targets in enemy territory.

    Just as I arrived at that position, I saw a vision.

    It was just like observing a wide angle TV screen. I can see these Germans, in their uniforms, with their distinctive steel helmets. They had a radio and it was letting out beams, and they were beaming in on my position, according to my vision. It was all in my mind. Nobody else could see this but me, but it was just as clear as watching a TV set. I saw them transmit this information to their fire direction center. I could see the German fire direction center communicating. I saw them send this fire mission out to one of their guns. I could see these Germans getting ready to fire that gun.

    I hesitated. I thought, “What should I do? Should I tell these men to move? If I tell them to move and nothing would happen, they’d think I was cracking up and I wouldn’t be effective as a commander.”

    When I hesitated, I felt something pushing me toward the stairway, just like wings, pushing me. When that occurred, I didn’t hesitate.

    When I got down off the last step, an artillery shell exploded in that room and killed both of those men.

    This was my evidence that I was going to survive this war, and that I did have a guardian angel.

* * *

    My first operation in the Battle of the Bulge was in the town of Niederwampach, in Luxembourg. A and B Companies had attacked Niederwampach and they were held up, so the battalion asked me to go around the left flank and attack from the rear.

    In an attack position such as this, I always attacked with two platoons forward and one in support, and my position is always in between and slightly to the rear of the two attacking platoons, so I can keep abreast of what’s going on and if I need to commit my support platoon, I’ll know where to do it.

    In approaching Niederwampach, the two platoons split up a little, so the village in my immediate front had not been cleared. I entered a building with my command group; when I say command group, that was just myself, my communications sergeant, the radio operator and my messenger.

    We entered the barn part of this building, and when I first entered, I turned around and started to say, “I don’t believe there’s anything in here.” There was a platform of hay on the right side; the platform was about waist high, and the hay was a little higher than that, and this hay started to move. So we squared off toward that hay with our weapons, and a German said, “Nicht schiessen! Nicht schiessen!” Which meant, “Don’t shoot.”

    I said, “Hande ho!” Put your hands up. So they put their hands up and came out and surrendered; there must have been ten or twelve Germans. There was another group of four or five men who came out from the stall behind us, and they surrendered. I heard a commotion over my head and I looked up and there’s a German descending from a rafter, and he had hand grenades around his waist belt; he came down and surrendered.

    I bring this out just to show you how lucky I was all through combat.

    Then I had my other platoons clear out the other buildings, and we captured Niederwampach. From Niederwampach, we were to go and take Oberwampach.

    Before we left, the battalion commander informed me that the situation was serious, but it wouldn’t become critical as long as we could prevent the Germans from widening the gaps in our lines. They were sending me into Oberwampach, which was on the shoulder of this breakthrough, with orders to hold it at all costs.

    In moving across the open fields to get to Oberwampach, we came under machine gun fire from a position on our right front. So I told the radio operator who’s carrying the SCR300 radio on piggyback right beside me to call for artillery fire to neutralize this machine gun fire. This radio operator now is shot through the head and falls dead at my feet while I’m on the transmitter making that message.

    Instead of getting artillery that time, one of the tanks that we had in support took care of the machine gun nest. Another man picked up the radio and we moved on into Oberwampach, which we took with very little resistance. It was about dusk, and before I got my security all arranged, a German halftrack towing a 120-millimeter mortar and a crew of 12 moved into our midst. We didn’t know it at the time, but they moved into one of the buildings. They didn’t know we were there and we didn’t know they had moved in until I sent my messenger back to one of my other platoons, and he went back to the building where this platoon had originally been. He opened the door, and the building was full of Germans.

    Two platoons were going into position, so I took my other platoon and gave them the mission of knocking out or capturing these Germans, and I told everybody in the company to keep their heads down because it looked like we were going to have a fight right in our midst.

    This platoon got in a semicircle around that building, and they opened up on it. They fired a few rifle grenades, and when the rocket launchers fired, one of these Germans put up a white flag. But only six of them surrendered. That’s what the Germans will do sometimes; some will surrender while the others get away. The other six escaped through the darkness when we stopped shooting.

    Well, these Germans are all 6-foot blonds, and they have Adolph Hitler shoulder patches. They were part of Hitler’s elite guard. In other words, up until this time they had been protecting Hitler’s headquarters, and this is the first time I guess that they had actually been committed to hard fighting.

    So we were literally fighting Hitler’s supermen. They all had the same blood type, so that if they had to have a transfusion, they didn’t have to check it out, they’d just take one man to another.

    I questioned them, and found out that they were part of an armored division that was moving into this area. Then I sent them to the rear.

    Based on that information, I asked the battalion commander to send me some more weapons to defend against an armor type attack. He sent me up a platoon of tanks and a platoon of tank destroyers, and I deployed them. And it’s a good thing, because the Germans launched an attack at 3:30 in the morning. If we hadn’t rushed up those tanks and tank destroyers, they would probably have overrun us the first night.

    This little knoll, the high ground on our right, gave us good observation of one of the Germans’ supply routes to the troops that surrounded Bastogne, and we were shooting up those vehicles. So they sent elements of a panzer division to knock us out. And we ended up in somewhere between a 36 and a 72 hour battle, night and day. When the Germans were not making a ground attack, they were bombarding us with artillery fire and direct tank fire.

    All of their attacks were at night except one. And this was their last attack. I’ll get into that in a moment. But when these battles were going on, two of my senior platoon sergeants came to me and said, “Captain, this is the roughest that we’ve ever experienced. We think we had better withdraw. If not, we’ll probably have to surrender.”

    And I had to tell them that we’re going to hold until the last man.

    I was no hero. Those were my orders. Knowing that at some time, if the Germans got these tanks into our position, we’re out of ammunition, and there’s nothing we could do to resist, I would surrender or tell the men to bug out. But I couldn’t tell these men that at that time.

    Now, these sergeants were brave. They’d fought the Germans longer than I had. They’d fought the Germans from Normandy through the French Maginot Line, the German Siegfried Line. So they were just stating the facts, and I agreed with them. But I had to do what my job was.

    We did hold. And rather than go into a lot of these operations up until the last attack, it was either on the 18th or the 19th of January, the Germans made their main effort to overcome us, and they made this attack in daylight hours.

    They hit my right flank where I had a platoon on this knoll with four tanks and I estimate a platoon of infantry. Coming across a big long rolling ridge to our front we could count 11 German tanks. There was infantry riding on the tanks. There was infantry in halftracks following over this ridge just as far as we could see, and they were shooting everything they had while they were moving in.

    I got on the telephone with the battalion commander, and I asked him to give me all the artillery fire he had available. He turned me over to the artillery liaison officer of the battalion, and he asked me to zero one gun in on this target.

    I had two observation posts set up, one in the right platoon and one in the left platoon, with wire communications to them, so through them we relayed information. We zeroed this one gun on this target, and the artillery officer said, “Fire for effect.”

    He had nine battalions - that’s 108 artillery pieces - that hit that target at one time.

    You never saw such a slaughter in all your life. These Germans turned around and withdrew. They didn’t make a tactful withdrawal, it was every tank and every man fleeing for his life. Nothing could have overcome that. It’s impossible. Some of my men were firing standing up, like shooting ducks in a pond, but they were so far away they’d be lucky if they hit anyone.

    The Germans didn’t fool with us anymore.

    One other incident took place that I think is of interest.

    I had my company command post in Oberwampach set up in the home of the Schilling family. When the Germans were shelling us, a five-year-old boy got excited and dashed out the front door, right into the impact area of the artillery. A 20-year-old soldier dashed out to rescue the little boy.

    They were both mortally wounded. The soldier asked someone to rub his left arm; he claimed it hurt him. I rubbed his arm, and he turned blue and died.

    The little boy died slowly in his mother’s arms, and to see this -- you read about these things -- but to see the grief this mother was going through of her son being killed by something she had no control over, it really brings some strong lessons to you.

    This soldier’s name was Sergeant Whitfield. I recommended him for a Distinguished Service Cross and he got it. Now he was a true hero. He gave his life trying not to defend his own life, but to rescue an innocent little boy, and truly he earned his decoration.

    After the battle, we picked up a German soldier who had been wounded. He had been shot in the leg with a .50-caliber bullet, and he laid out overnight in this freezing, subzero weather. Both of his arms and both of his legs were frozen stiff as a board. He begged us to shoot him.

    I couldn’t do it. I asked for a volunteer. Even if he survived, he’d have to have both arms and both legs amputated, and this could have been a mercy killing. But these battle hardened soldiers that had been fighting Germans a few minutes before would not volunteer. One soldier, out of sympathy for the suffering and bravery of this soldier, lit a cigarette and held it to his lips. Another soldier brought him a hot cup of coffee and held it so he could get coffee until we got the litter jeep up there and sent him to the rear.

    I’ve always been curious to know what happened to him, but I believe he would have died before they got him back to the aid station.

    After this battle, the division decoration section came down and they said that with what happened down there the men deserve some medals. They said, “We want to write you up for a DSC.”

    I said, “No. Every man in the outfit deserves it as much as and some of them more than I do,” and I was being honest about it. I wasn’t trying to collect medals. I was trying to save as many of these men as I could from getting killed in this terrible war. I don’t know whether I would have received it or not, but I wouldn’t even let them write it up. I told them about the experiences of this platoon on the right flank -- I had to withdraw them a couple times because the Germans wrestled that knoll from us and we retook it -- that there were some heroes up there and for them to check that out and see if they could find out who deserved it from that group.

    A couple of weeks later, the battalion commander informed me that there was to be an exchange of foreign decorations, and that a British Military Cross would be presented to one officer per infantry regiment, and that our regiment had asked that each battalion submit the names of two officers for their recommendations and their preferences. From among those names they chose me to receive the British Military Cross. I take this as the best compliment that I could have for my experiences during World War II.

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Contents           Jim Koerner

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