©2014, John M. Khoury
We now were on the front with our own piece of real estate to defend and from which we were to attack the enemy. The first order of combat is to find the enemy and to know his position and strength. That meant reconnaissance patrols -- a job we had been trained for in maneuvers when no one was shooting at us.
In the Vosges Mountains, the hills were covered with forests and visibility was always poor, especially because it rained every day. The first patrol to be sent out was led by a technical sergeant who was regarded as the toughest platoon sergeant in the company. He warned his men that no matter how tough maneuvers were in training at Fort Bragg, it would be hell and ten times worse when they went into combat. No noncom was more highly regarded than he was.
With a squad from his platoon, he led a night reconnaissance patrol from our line of foxholes toward the German line. They were to seek out the enemy positions, but not to engage in combat. That meant that they had to form the patrol with a point scout, followed by the leader of the patrol about 5 or 6 yards behind the point, and the rest of the squad spread out with flank guards.
It is not easy to find your way at night through no-man's-land with a compass and the fear that your enemy is waiting for you in a foxhole ready to kill you. You worry about making noise, because the snapping of a twig underfoot sounds like the falling of a tree in the cold, crisp night air. Those thoughts must have hit the sergeant as he set out, because he froze up shortly after leaving the American line and fell to sobbing and trembling. The patrol managed to reach enemy lines, where they received small arms fire, and return with the sergeant in tow. On l5 November 1944, he was sent back to an Army hospital on sick leave.
(On 11 December 1944, the sergeant returned to the company and on 14 December 1944 he went on sick leave again. On 16 December 1944, he reported back to the company and on 26 December 1944 he was reduced to private. His MOS was 745 rifleman but I believe he was assigned to the kitchen.)
I could not find it in my heart to condemn him, because he was given a responsibility greater than his ability to handle it. His bravado had been an act to bolster his courage, but fear shattered his facade. Yet every good soldier knows fear and does not let it stop him from doing his duty, which is keeping faith with his fellow soldiers. He cannot break the bond that unites soldiers in battle. Patriotic songs and speeches about love of country are not the cement that binds infantry dogfaces together. It is mutual survival and getting out alive.
Reconnaissance patrols, on foot, were assigned to the infantry riflemen and no other unit. It was the most disliked duty for a dogface. In daytime, it was somewhat easier to know what was ahead of you, but at night with only heavenly light to guide you, if there was any, it was nerve-wracking. All the time we were in the line, a patrol would be sent out almost every day. Fortunately, the job was shared on a rotating basis with nine rifle squads in the company. Machine gunners, mortarmen, cooks, supply men, and clerks never went on reconnaissance patrols. Our officers seldom led patrols.
The purpose was always to probe the enemy lines to see if he was still there and if he had changed in any way. Had he moved in additional troops or had he moved out to a different location? If an enemy soldier was captured and brought back with the patrol, that was a bonus, but that seldom happened. As we would try to sneak close to the enemy line, one of them would see us and open fire, which brought more enemy fire down on the patrol. When that happened, we would know where the enemy was and how much small arms fire power he had. The patrol would then scoot back to the safety of our front line.
Inviting the enemy to shoot at you so that you can find out his position is not something that a dogface GI ever gets used to. On one assignment, our squad leader was instructed by our captain to take his men on a patrol that was to follow a road shown on a map. Then he would cross railroad tracks, pass by another wooded area, and continue on for about a mile to another crossroads. At that point, the squad had to be alert for enemy forces.
As the eight of us moved out, we walked in the woods parallel to the road to give us cover. After about a quarter mile, we reached the railroad tracks, which ran through a clearing in the woods. To our left where the road crossed the railroad tracks, there was a small hut for a railroad guard who stopped traffic when a train arrived. There was smoke coming out of the chimney of the hut, which had windows that offered a clear view of the tracks in both directions. We moved one at a time across the tracks to the woods on the other side without any trouble. After another hundred yards, the woods ended and we stopped to look across the clearing. We saw some activity. It was the enemy digging in machine gun positions! We were quite sure that they saw us, but they did not open fire or pursue us. Since this was a reconnaissance patrol, we immediately turned around to return to our lines at a very brisk pace.
We came back to the railroad tracks and had to cross it one at a time. The first man crossed without incident. The second man was shot at from the railroad guard house, but was not hit. Each of us had to tear across in a crouch to make as small a target as possible. One man stopped in the middle of the tracks to retrieve his helmet, which had fallen off his head because he had not buckled his chin strap. Only one man was hit, but the bullet caromed off his ammunition belt and did not hurt him. Fortunately, these eight ducks in a shooting gallery got back to the company.
The sergeant reported to the captain that the Germans had dug into positions just beyond the railroad tracks and that they were infantry, with machine gun emplacements. When the captain heard this, he said, "There are no Krauts there! Our Army intelligence reports that they are way beyond those woods!" The bullet-torn ammunition belt was offered as proof. Nevertheless, another patrol was sent out to confirm our report. It was maddening when someone in the rear echelon thought he knew more than the man on the front line and because of his rank, gave orders that could cause unnecessary deaths.
(If you would like to order an autographed copy of "Love Company," please contact the author, John M. Khoury)