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Captured in Hatten

Part 3

 © 2009, Glenn E. Schmidt

   Captain William Corson's speech

    (Note from Glenn Schmidt: This remarkable man became my company commander going over on the boat. Previous articles of mine tell of his courage under fire. I talked to him 6-24-95. He is doing well. He lost the sight of his right eye in combat action at Hatten 1-9-45.

June 17, 1995. Dear World War II Comrades:

    I trust you will excuse this joint letter rather than an individual message which I would have preferred.

    I will start at the right place – the beginning. Two months ago the program chairman of our local Kiwanis club asked me to give the talk at our meeting to commemorate the end of World War II. I soon realized this was quite a task. First, the talk had to be 30 minutes with very little plus or minus variation. As I started to work I soon had enough for over two hours and the pruning was started. Next was the need to fit the audience, business and professional men, many of whom were under 50 years of age, and a sizeable group of retired members, about half of them too young for WWII service. Added to this was my determination to tell them something they had not read in history books, and there was the need to hold their interest.

    I was rather pleased with the finished product and hope you will each enjoy reading it. None of the facts will be new, and I hope you agree with my selection – even the necessity of making many quotations shorter than I preferred. I took a bit of liberty here and there but tried to hold very close to the actual events.

    My major disappointment was in having to leave out a very critical episode, one of great importance to me. At dusk on Jan. 8 I sent a patrol, led by Lt. Heavey, to check the open area immediately east of Hatten. In a short time he was on the phone, describing in detail what they had observed as they lay buried in the heavily falling snow. There were two German vehicles just across the little stream, with five officers, evidently of considerable rank, looking at maps and studying the eastern side of Hatten. I immediately passed this information to Battalion, later adding more detail after the patrol returned. A little before midnight I had a call from the Battalion commanding officer informing me that he had sent a patrol to that area. They could find no vehicle tracks. Furthermore, he was tired of getting false patrol reports and wanted me and the patrol leader to report to him at 9:00 the next morning. As you all know I was a little too busy on Jan. 9 to carry out that order. Later there were many sleepless hours in Leipzig as I pondered what might have happened if some tank destroyer and artillery support had been alerted at the time this patrol did such a magnificent job.

    Now I have to bother you with another interesting episode – my talk was scheduled for June 8. I awoke that morning with considerable pain, and found I was unable to stand. Tibby immediately called one of my very close friends, a veteran of the 87th Division, who came over to get a copy of the speech and delivered it in my place. He did an excellent job as you can tell from the enclosed Kiwanis bulletin.

    I spent one week at the VA Medical Center in Asheville and am now home getting my strength back to normal. There were the usual tests but no definite conclusions.

I trust you will find this interesting – Tibby joins me in greeting to your families.

    Yours in The Rainbow, Bill Corson

    Thank you for the opportunity to speak as we pay our respect to those who fought for our country in many parts of the world.

    My talk today is based on information from those who participated in a small but very important part of World War II, and from publications dealing with this subject. By far the most valuable has been this book: "Winter Storm – War in northern Alsace, November 1944 to March 1945." The author, Lise Pommois, was a 7-year-old girl in southern France in 1945, and now teaches English in a French school. She has devoted all her spare time and resources to research this subject, including War Department records, attending veterans’ reunions and hundreds of personal contacts. I had the pleasure of a visit with her in Milwaukee in 1993.

    It is good to have a day of recognition for those who served in World War II, and to honor those who made the supreme sacrifice. As time passes it is unfortunate that many details fade from memory and only the big picture remains. We recall Pearl Harbor, Corregidor and Bataan, D-Day, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal and Hiroshima. Names like Eisenhower, MacArthur, Nimitz, Patch and Patton are given proper places of honor in our history books. But the important names were generally unknown 50 years ago and are forgotten today.

    I refer to the foot soldier, the artilleryman, the mine layer, the mechanic, the first aid man, the MP, the gunner aboard ship, those in the assault waves and many others. This list includes those from the lowest ranking enlisted man to the officers leading in combat. One writer has expressed it this way: "A battle is fought, and won or lost, by a team of men. Official records give the broader picture only; they do not keep the memory of all those individual acts of heroism which contribute to the final victory. The man who carries the ammunition is as important as the man who fires the gun."

    Today I want to tell you what one team of young men accomplished. Let me emphasize that this World War II story could be told dozens of times, but with different actors and scenery. Similar acts of heroism, valor, courage and devotion to country were repeated too many times.

    In 1943 the last three American Army Divisions, about 13,000 men in each, were activated and started training. One of these was the 42nd, the Rainbow Division which had gained fame in World War I when commanded by a young general named Douglas MacArthur. Training proceeded quite well from July until the following February. Suddenly, a large number of men were transferred to replacement units, needed to support the planned invasion of Europe. Training was interrupted as new men were added to the skeleton forces, delaying advanced exercises. Then came another interruption. Following D-Day there was an urgent need for front-line troops and the process was repeated, except a larger percentage of the soldiers were taken away. And the replacements were different, generally quite capable young men who had been working in Army offices or going to school.

    An interesting group came from the ASTP, or Army Specialized Training Program. In theory this was an excellent idea, giving the young soldiers an education and following with a commission as an officer. At one time over 133,000 were enrolled. However, in 1944 it was decided that the books should be replaced with rifles.

    Here is how one soldier described his experience: "After graduating from high school, just before my 18th birthday I became Army serial No. 13201259. I had it made … the program would graduate me in engineering with a commission in the Army engineers … I was assigned to Carnegie Tech … soon the word was passed around that the ASTP was to be discontinued … most of us were ordered to Infantry Basic Training in Tennessee. Then we were sent to the Rainbow Division at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. What we walked into was a review of the entire division and a pep talk by the Division Commander. That same evening we were issued our rifles. Mine was fairly worn out, and actually failed to operate when I was called upon to use it in combat. We never had a chance to function fire these rifles before going to the front lines."

    Now to return to my story – about the middle of September an order was issued in Washington, alerting the last three divisions in the U.S. to prepare for overseas duty. Due to the urgent need for front line troops, only the infantry regiments from each division would embark from Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, in early December. The Division Commander and staff, Artillery, Engineers and Ordnance would follow when ships were available.

    During the next few weeks battle training was forgotten as weapons had to be dismantled, packed for shipment and endless paperwork details handled.

    Following a train ride from Oklahoma to New Jersey, a few hours’ shopping in New York, and a Thanksgiving dinner, 9,000 apprehensive young men were loaded into a black sardine can named the SS General Black. The ocean trip was generally uneventful except for seasick soldiers in cramped quarters. However, one incident must be mentioned. A company commander was relieved of his command and replaced by a captain who had not trained one day with the men while in Oklahoma. This captain had spent 16 months on the division staff or attending schools for staff training. In no way could it be said that he was qualified to lead 180 young men into combat. I can make that statement very definitely since I was that captain.

    The first picture of the effects of war was when we sailed into the harbor at Marseilles, France, dodging sunken ships and looking at a scene of ruin. The men were given a taste of what was to come as they marched in a cold December rain to a muddy hilltop, our temporary home. Our ingenious soldiers learned rapidly – by the second night in France they knew that a package of cigarettes or some candy bars, placed under an overturned pail near a fence, would turn into a bottle of wine by morning. The fact that the bottle contained about half water did not bother them.

    What was ahead for these young men, anxious to get an unwelcome assignment completed? It was generally thought we would be in reserve, in a quiet area, waiting for the balance of our division to arrive. Then there might be a bit of excitement, the war would soon be over and we would go home. Unfortunately, in the Army, events do not always materialize as expected.

    I will try to give you a brief picture of the Allied military situation in Europe in December 1944. Only one word is needed: confusion. One soldier has written his evaluation of the situation: "Within a period of six or seven days, we moved six times, and we couldn’t see any sense in it. The whole deal looked like a waste of gasoline and a successful effort to keep us from having a night’s sleep. We had heard rumors that our lines were thing and this jockeying was being done by the Seventh Army in an attempt to confuse the Germans. If the enemy was as much confused as we were, we thought, it was a thoroughly successful maneuver."

    I might add that the officers knew little more than the GI. One morning my company moved to a barren, frozen hillside with orders to dig defensive positions covering an area about three times larger than we were capable of adequately defending. After four hours of chipping away at the frozen ground, we were told that this position would not be defended, so we moved to another frozen spot about ten miles away and started digging again.

    This was during the Battle of the Bulge, when Patton moved his army north to stop the Germans, leaving some big holes which had to be filled, or at least partially filled. All problems were not on the front lines. It has been said that Jan. 1, 1945 was perhaps the worst single day in General Eisenhower’s career in Europe. A surprise German air attack had destroyed over 200 planes on the ground; Field Marshal Montgomery was demanding that he be given complete command of Allied ground forces; an important battle was lost when a general ignored an order, and the arrogant French General De Gaulle was causing trouble and demanding an audience with Churchill, Roosevelt and Eisenhower.

    To add to the problems, Hitler was planning a new attack. After several meetings with his generals, a plan for an attack was formulated on December 28. Hitler closed the last conference with this statement: "The task set for the new offensive does not go beyond what is possible and can be achieved with our available forces. … We are committing eight divisions."

    An article titled "War’s Last Eruption" has been written by a scholar who devoted his life to an in-depth study of World War II. He summarizes this offensive in these words: "This German attack would result in terrible fighting during the worst winter in Europe in 20 years. A total of 295,000 French and 125,000 American troops were involved in the German operation Nordwind (North Wind) and the related battle in the Colmar Pocket. Losses were heavy. The battle cost the Americans alone more than 29,000 casualties, including 7,000 dead."

    Now we will take a look at how our young, poorly trained soldiers fought. One of the first battles was an attempt to drive the enemy out of a small town. After three days of fighting and taking heavy losses, the Americans had to withdraw. Here is part of an official after-action report: "So ended a tragic battle, one which unfortunately saw the participants come under their first baptism of fire. Despite the outcome, no discredit can be brought upon them, for they fought bravely against insurmountable obstacles. … The final result was undoubtedly due to the apparent lack of intelligence on the part of the Task Force as to the proper enemy strength and disposition. … The officers and men were given the impression they would encounter small enemy patrols. … They had absolutely no idea of the trouble they would run into. The obvious lack of sorely needed vital support to accompany the infantrymen, in the form of tanks, large guns and bazooka ammunition to counter the German armor, stemmed from erroneous G-2 information on the enemy situation." Please note, this is not an opinion written at a later date, but an official report made immediately after the battle.

    However, I would like to quote a statement by one of the participants: "It was a strikingly different 2nd Battalion from the one that had entered the Alsatian village a little more than three days before. Tattered uniforms, stained by mood and blood, covered the exhausted bodies of men who had lived a thousand lives – and deaths – in that short time. It was still impossible for them to believe the horrors they had witnessed – the men who had so recently walked beside tem now among the missing and dead. … Their overwhelming confidence had been abruptly jolted, and they began to wonder and to question. The morale of the troops was at the lowest level. …"

    This battalion was one of many small units into which the Rainbow Division was divided in January, small elements attached to or in support of various commands over about 90 miles of France, north of Strasbourg. On January 5, my battalion, the 1st Battalion, 242nd Infantry Regiment, relieved an experienced unit needed elsewhere, where the enemy was likely to attack. The green, inexperienced troops would occupy a small town named Hatten since the Germans had nothing more than small patrols in the area. At least that was the information given at a briefing, but someone forgot to tell the enemy.

    The scene changed rapidly – as one writer has expressed it: "All hell broke loose in Hatten at 5 a.m. on January 9." This proved to be the focal point of the attack Hitler had planned on December 28 – the capture of Hatten and the nearby village of Rittershoffen would enable the Germans to move west and control all of northern Alsace. This area had been under German control most of the time since the War of 1870.

    I will try to give you a picture of what happened with quotations from some of our soldiers:

    "The misery of the snow, mud, water, cold nights and frozen food will never be forgotten."

    "The snow had been falling all night and had obscured the advance until they were almost upon us. Shells screamed overhead and burst to the rear of us. The roar was deafening. Fire was coming from the tanks at very close range. Soon the snow churned, like sand in a box, by the shells landing all around us."

    "The enemy overran our positions, and we were forced to fight in small, dispersed groups in defense of the town. Our men fought from house to house, in spite of the fact that they had missed six straight meals, had little or no sleep, and were constantly afflicted by the severe cold."

    "There was not one round of artillery or tank destroyer ammunition fired in our support during the first 12 hours of fighting."

    "Even now a snowy day in January can trigger a flush of remembered sights, sounds and smells that I will carry with me forever, for on January 9, 1945, I lost most of my best friends – friendships that can only be forged in the crucible of war. … Yes, I left Hatten wounded and a prisoner – but a part of me was forever left behind on those snow-covered streets – streets covered with the bodies of my "amis." I was only 19 years old and did survive the stalag, wounds and horror. …"

    A report written by a Sergeant: "The captain arrived at our position in the afternoon, with orders to hold at all costs. We had little ammunition. While observing the front line the captain was seriously wounded by a direct artillery hit, Bill Smith standing next to him in the turret was blown to bits. … Then the ammunition was exhausted so I brought the men from the foxholes into the bunker. … Soon I heard men packing nitro starch into the vents, and the captain agreed that we should surrender. … Relieved of command, I experienced great fear, more so than at any time during combat."

    I might add that several of the men in the group which surrendered have been in close touch over the years, and all credit the sergeant with having saved their lives. Seven of us were together at a reunion in 1993, but the sergeant was not able to travel due to ill health. You may have gathered that I was the captain mentioned by the sergeant.

    Let me return for a moment to our first days in France. My only disciplinary problem was with a cook who could not get along with the mess sergeant. The solution came quickly when an order was issued by battalion for a detail of three men from each company to serve as a battalion command post guard. I told the first sergeant that the cook, Vito Bertoldo, was No. 1 on that detail. Good riddance, I thought.

    Imagine my surprise in August 1945 when at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, I picked up a copy of The Chicago Tribune and saw on the front page a picture of President Truman pinning the Congressional Medal of Honor on the former cook. Here is a short description of what he accomplished:

    "Bertoldo fired a machine gun, his rifle and threw hand grenades at the enemy, was a one man task force they could not defeat. When enemy elements broke through the front lines he secured a machine gun, set it up in the doorway of the command post, stopping one assault. Later he carried his gun into the street and forced the enemy to withdraw. A short time later the enemy launched a tank and infantry assault on his position. With the machine guns of the tanks blazing at him, Bertoldo opened fire on the infantrymen who were attempting to remove mines from the street and forced them to withdraw. A tank then came within 75 yards of the CP, fired into the building knocking Bertoldo across the room. Unhurt, he crawled back to his machine gun. The tank commander stood up in the turret of his tank to survey the damage and was promptly killed by Bertoldo. When it was decided to evacuate the headquarters, Bertoldo remained behind to cover the withdrawal.

    So much for the fighting. I will close with some general comments. A first lieutenant serving in the battalion headquarters, who later became a general in the Army, wrote: "It was the hottest place I have ever been in, and I hope I’ll never see another like it. We learned a lot from the experience which went a long way toward making our future operations a success."

    A German NCO who was captured praised the soldiers for their gallant stand: "We were amazed at the way your men fought. We always considered you could defeat us only if you had a tremendous amount of tanks and armor. We believed that if we met you on equal terms we would have no difficulty. At Hatten we had the armor and the artillery and the experienced men. Your men were inexperienced and lacked tanks and artillery support. Our officers said it was the best infantry defense they ever saw."

    One interesting comment is by a very experienced German officer, Col. Hans Von Luck, who fought with the German army on every front from Poland in 1939 to the Russian victory over the Germans in 1945. Von Luck commanded one of the tank units attacking Hatten and the nearby village of Rittershofen. In a book describing his World War II experiences he writes: "In those two villages, Hatten and Rittershofen, there now developed one of the hardest and most costly battles that ever raged on the Western front."

    The 1st Battalion was relieved on January 11, having staged a magnificent defense, but it had cost them dearly. At the beginning of the battle there were 33 officers and 748 enlisted men. Fifty-two hours later there were 11 officers and 253 enlisted men, the others having been killed, wounded or missing in action. It is interesting to note that exactly two-thirds of both officers and enlisted men were gone.

    In addition to the Congressional Medal of Honor for Bertoldo, there were many individual and unit awards. In my estimation the most important is the Distinguished Unit Citation awarded to our battalion. The following is a good summary of what happened when those poorly trained 19- and 20-year-old boys suddenly became men. The official citation reads: "On the morning of 9 January, the 1st Battalion was occupying a front of 4,000 yards when it was attacked by three regiments from the 21st and 25th German Panzer divisions, supported by heavy armor and artillery. Ordered to hold its position at all costs, the battalion withstood repeated onslaughts of enemy flame-throwing tanks, self-propelled guns and infantry. Time after time small detachments of the Battalion remained steadfast after their position had been overrun by hostile armor, in order to stop the foot soldiers that followed. Cooks, clerks and mail orderlies fought side by side, completely disregarding their personal safety. In spite of the loss of over 500 officers and men, the Battalion tenaciously held its position in the face of overwhelming odds for more than 52 hours until relieved, exacting a heavy toll of men and equipment from the enemy. The courage and devotion shown by the members of the 1st Battalion, 242nd Infantry Regiment, are worthy of emulation and exemplify the highest tradition of the Army of the United States."

    This battle proves a statement in one of my early quotations: "A battle is fought and won or lost by a team of men." I have told this story because I recall some of the details, and have learned of many incidents from other participants. And I repeat, similar battles, with different soldiers, took place all too often.

    A short epilogue – both armies fought until they were exhausted. On January 21 the Americans withdrew from the two villages with practically all units well under strength. The Germans were in the same condition and pulled back to the Rhine on January 25. No winner – no loser. The destroyed villages were turned over to the very few remaining civilians.

    If we are to properly commemorate the end of World War II we must dedicate ourselves to important admonitions in the Bible – "Love thy neighbor as thyself," and "He shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war nay more."

    William Corson, June 1995. Company Commander, A Company, 242nd Regiment, 42nd Division.

*On May 24, 1995, Glenn Schmidt wrote: "My wife and I recently returned from a reunion of former prisoners of war who were sent to Stalags IX A, IX B and Berga. This was their eighth reunion, although the first we were able to attend. It was there I met Morton Brooks, a C Company, 242nd Infantry man. … Morton was one of 350 men selected one Sunday night by the guards at Stalag IX B to be sent to Berga am Elster, a subcamp of Buchenwald. All Jewish men and those of Hebrew faith who could be identified were so starved, beaten and mistreated that only 86 of the total survived that I am aware of. Their story is well documented in Mitchell G. Bard’s book "Forgotten Victims."

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