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Follies of a Navy Chaplain

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Tanks for the Memories

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They were all young kids

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A Mile in Their Shoes

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2014, Aaron Elson

   

Tanks for the Memories

The online edition

2014, Aaron Elson

Chapter 14

Dillingen

    The next I heard about your father," Jule Braatz said in 1987, "was that he had come back in the battalion sometime in December."

    "We were across the Saar River. We were across without a bridge and we were floating stuff over. We were being supplied by, you might almost say porter service. In other words, the colonel of our battalion had gathered up Headquarters and Service Company people, and they would come down to the river, and they’d go across, and they would carry ammunition and rations and gasoline into town.

    "So your father must have come back to the battalion, and Colonel Randolph, who was just crazy — and I don’t mean that he was crazy in that sense, he was the bravest man I ever saw. He had no fear whatsoever. But a good commander, a great commander. He was very sincere. He thought of his men. But I don’t think he had any fear. He didn’t have to be where he was, but he was always around looking into the welfare of the different companies.

    "He told your father to take charge of this ammunition detail, or supply detail. I don’t know if he had been back to the battalion one day or two days. All I know is what I heard then, that he had led a supply unit over, and he got hit with a machine gun. They opened up on him from the pillboxes. I don’t think that he was with the battalion much more than two days’ total time.

    "Randolph always felt that we get the stuff up to the boys in the front, so I don’t think he’d have let your father sit around the battalion headquarters doing nothing for very long."

    That was the last I was to learn about my father’s experiences until the 1993 reunion in Orlando, Fla. Caesar Tucci, the battalion association president, had been a sergeant in D Company, and mentioned that he had a copy of his company log.

    The next day, I began skimming through the D Company log. I turned to the section on Dillingen, and there, under the entry for December 10, I encountered the following:

    "The 357th Inf. Regt. Had crossed the Saar River and had penetrated into the enemy lines. Their position was rather precarious due to enemy forces and pillboxes to their direct front and on both flanks. All their available manpower was needed to hold the ground they had.

    "Supplies were needed very badly, so 40 men were called from the Battalion to act as the carrying party. Ten men and one officer were chosen from the company and included 1st Lt. Hiatt, 1st Sgt. Thompson, Sgt. Kwiatkowski, Tec 5 Roderick, Pfc’s Sparks, Vincent, and Pvt’s Kittelson, W. Doyle, Murray, and McLesky.

    The carrying party left the Company area at 1830, proceeded to the C Company area near Buren, picked up the men from that Company, and parked at a chateau about a half-mile west of there. A guide was picked up and the party was marched to the river and to the rowboat stowed with the food, ammunition, and medical supplies needed by the Regiment.

    "Great care had to be exercised in making the crossing because of the nearness of the enemy, and the very swift current. The boats were rowed by our men because there was also a shortage of engineers. The supplies were unloaded on the beach, and the 40 men started carrying them to a large chateau located about one and a half miles west. The terrain between the two points was low and marshy, and was covered on the right flank by two German machine gun nests located in the outskirts of the town of Pachten.

    "Guided by the fire from the partially burning chateau and by following the railroad tracks for part of the way, the party reached the chateau and dumped the first load after being subjected to heavy searching mortar fire. The time was now about 2400.

    "The return trip was made without event except that the point was missed by about a half-mile to the left. A wet and heavy snow began to fall that made traveling conditions even worse. A group, consisting of Kwiatkowski, Sparks, Mallak, Kittelson, Roderick, Doyle, Murray, Vincent, and twelve others, formed a party to carry bundles of litters, two men for each bundle of litters. About eight minutes after the party left, Vincent reported back to the first sergeant after his partner was unable to continue from exhaustion. The balance of the men from the group reached the chateau with the litters.

    "An enemy pillbox had been captured several days before and was being used as a forward medical station. The position had become too hard to hold with the available forces and that section was forced to retreat. There were 25 litter patients in the pillbox that would have to be left behind to be captured by the Germans unless evacuated by forces other than the holding forces. The litter carrying group at the chateau was asked to, and agreed to, try to evacuate these patients.

    "Each man took a litter and, placed under the command of Lt. Elson [this was my father], they started toward the pillbox around 0300, taking cover advantage of trenches whenever possible. Heavy artillery, mortar and small arms fire was encountered all along the way.

    "While crossing a road, Lt. Elson was hit three times by small arms fire believed to come from our own troops [!!!!! exclamation points are the author’s]. The group was ordered to drop the litters and return to the chateau to check on our own firing and to wait until the enemy fire moderated. Again the group started for the pillbox, recovered the abandoned litters, and proceeded slowly onwards. Progress was very slow, due to the extreme darkness, thick woods, mud, rough terrain, and still heavy enemy mortar and artillery fire.

    "The pillbox was reached about 0700. The litters were loaded and the trip back started with the litter patients, about 40 wounded that were able to walk, the small group of medics, and the holding force that amounted to about 15 soldiers.

    "It was soon discovered that the group was heading in a slightly wrong direction and Pfc. Sparks volunteered to carry the Red Cross flag and try to lead the group back to the proper place. He hid his weapon in the folds of a blanket and set off on a new course, waving the flag as he went. Fortunately the Germans respected the flag and ceased small arms fire, but the men were still subjected to air and treeburst from artillery. A German machine gun nest was passed that had just been knocked out by the infantry. This next was passed on the way up to the pillbox, and must have been in operation at that time.

    "The chateau, or forward C.P. of the 357th Infantry, was reached with the 25 litter patients. The time was about 1030. This group was released, but had to remain at this C.P. until the river could be crossed under the cover of night."

Caesar Tucci

    Caesar Tucci, of Tonawanda, N.Y., was a sergeant in D Company

    Around the first of December, they requested volunteers to man gun positions on the Saar River to kind of make a fake for the Germans, to make them feel that we were coming across in strength. So there was a lot of firing to be built up, and I volunteered. They said this would be a mission of two or three days. So I went down and manned a .50-caliber machine gun at that position.

    We had .50-caliber machine guns and mortars that we set up inside the houses and various areas on the west side of the Saar River to fire across at the pillboxes of the Siegfried Line.

    I traveled light, because they said it would be two or three days. I didn’t even take shaving equipment.

    To get down to the firing position, we had to reach the top of a hill, and then the halftrack had to make a mad dash because it was exposed to direct fire from the Germans on the other side of the river. It was like going through a gantlet. They were firing at us, but we beat it, we got into the town, and then we were out of their view.

    We set up our headquarters in a brick apartment building. My partner and I sandbagged the machine gun in a German home on a porcelain kitchen table and had it fixed to shoot out the back window of the kitchen across the river.

    The fire missions would be announced to us on the radio. When we were told to start a fire mission, we would run across the street, put the back plate on the machine gun — we’d never leave the back plate there because German patrols would come through thhe town at night — and when they gave us the word to fire, everybody, mortars, .50-calibers, everything, they’d fire across that river, to give a real show of force. That would go on for four or five minutes, and the gun would get real hot, so that when the fire mission stopped, I had to reach out with an asbestos glove, take the barrel off, ram an oil patch through it right away, and then take the back plate off the machine gun and beat it across the street back into the building.

    That two-or three-day fire mission lasted two weeks. We were relieved from that position on my birthday, the 16th of December.

Jim Gifford

    When we got up to the Saar River, we took this little village, it wasn’t even a town. I went into a house there. I went downstairs in the cellar, and there was a pile of coal there. I saw something sticking out of the coal and I kicked it, and these people had put a lot of their private things there — an accordion, and their silverware and stuff which meant nothing to us but the accordion did, because we had a guy, Snuffy Fuller, who was a lieutenant in my outfit who could play the accordion, so I pulled it out, and I told one of the guys, "Take it over and give it to Snuffy." So Snuffy kept that accordion, he used to play it a lot.

    Then I decided, well, this is a good chance to take a bath. So I started to heat some water up, and I filled the bathtub. The tub had a window alongside it, and you could look out through the garden, you could look down the slope all the way to the Saar River.

    Now I’m just settled in to take my bath and soak, when all of a sudden I see a shell burst down by the riverbank. When a shell goes off, you always watch to see where the next one’s coming. You walk these shells. We got so used to being hit with shells that we knew what they were gonna do. So I watch to see where the next one’s gonna hit. The next one hit closer to the house. Oh, shit, they’re coming this way. The next one came down right below that field. So I grabbed my nose and slid down into the water. The next thing, "Boom!" Right in the garden. Knocked the goddamn window frame and the glass and everything out.

    When the smoke cleared, I came up out of the water. The goddamn window was gone, and the glass and the frame and everything was in the water with me.

    The next shell — I’m still waiting to see where the next one’s going — went over the house and landed across the road. Then I got up out of the tub and that was it. That was my bath. I made sure I didn’t cut myself, and I dried myself off and got the hell dressed.

Bob "Big Andy" Anderson

    Sergeant Robert Anderson, of Prophetstown, Ill., was a tank driver in A Company

    I got my first Bronze Star in Dillingen. I was the first tank across. The engineers had laid down our bridge, and we were sitting on the bank waiting to go across, and they came back and said, "Now, when you go across, go slow." Well, you can imagine how it is with a 33-ton tank going across water. I was probably three-quarters of the way across when two German planes came in and started strafing across the river. And if you’ve ever seen a tank go at full speed, you ought to have seen me go across the river.

    We got all five tanks of our platoon across, but two of them got mired down out in the mud. We had cables that were 15 or 20 feet long. I hooked three of them together and dragged them back there in the mire, and then I went and got back in my tank, and I pulled the two tanks out. That’s what I got the Bronze Star for.

Forrest Dixon

    We were listening to the BBC on the night of the 16th, and we heard that the Germans had broken through with ten thousand men at Aachen or someplace. So Colonel Randolph called General Stillwell and said, "Is it true that just north of us they broke through with ten thousand men?" And Stillwell gets on the telephone and says, "It’s true all right, but it isn’t ten thousand men. It’s ten divisions."

    Then Colonel Randolph says, "What do we do?"

    "Sit."

    That was the night of the 16th. And I don’t think we got back across till the 20th or the 21st.

    At first, the engineers had put a bridge across, and it was covered by a smokescreen. And I’ll never forget, we put a tank destroyer platoon across the bridge. And the next group to go across was the first platoon of A Company, and Sergeant Bussell, who was my driver back when I was in D Company, yelled to me. I recognized him. I said, "Be careful." He was a good driver, but careless.

    One tank would be leaving the bridge, one tank in the middle, and one tank going on. And just about then, the wind changed direction, and the smokescreen cleared, and the bridge was wide open.

    I heard about three shots from the Germans, and all of a sudden, my God, right behind Bussell’s tank, the bridge was cut. I picked up the mike and I said, "Bussell, give her hell or you’ll drown!" And his tank started to sink. Then he gave her the gas, and he went across the rest of the river at a 45-degree angle. But he got across.

Jim Gifford

    The Bulge started on the 17th of December, when we were in Dillingen. We had just gotten across the Saar River, we had pontoon bridges, we got into Dillingen to start a beachhead there, and then all of a sudden, they were telling us to pull back. We didn’t know why. They were saying, "Pull out of Dillingen, get back across the river." And we were all pissed off. We had taken all this risk getting in there, and what the hell are you telling us to come back for? It’s ours, this town is ours. We didn’t know that there was this big Bulge rolling. So we started pulling all of our vehicles back.

    What we also didn’t know was that there was a whole German army out there in front of us. And they were ignoring us. They were going by us, but they had enough of their men that were also containing us and watching us, and they were going to wipe us right out. And we were so pissed, because it was quiet in Dillingen. We were getting small shell fire, but we took the town, and we were saying, "Hey, let’s go," but if we went much farther, we would have run right into that juggernaut.

Ed Spahr

    We kept one tank as an outpost. It was almost three-quarters of a mile outside of town, set up overlooking the Siegfried Line. We would take turns manning the tank in case the Germans would come back through there. We’d go back into town to eat, but always, night and day, there was a whole crew in the tank.

    To get to the tank, we had to cross a zigzag trench that the Germans had built. Well, one dayI was going up — we’d rotate people one at a time; we didn’t rotate the whole crew, so there would be one fresh man there all of the time — I was going up through this open field, and I thought I heard something going past, close to me, it just sounded like somebody snapped their fingers. I couldn’t figure out just what this was because you could see all around and I couldn’t see anything.

    The second or third time I heard this, it seemed like it was getting closer, something just snapping going past my head, and all at once I realized that somebody was shooting at me, because after I’d hear this snap, a second or two later I could hear a rifle crack. It wasn’t loud. It was way off. I’d say he was a thousand or more yards away, but he was shooting at me.

    When I realized this, I made a leap, rolled through the grass, I came to this trench, and I dropped down in it. I didn’t know which way I fell, or landed, and I didn’t know which direction to go in.

    The trench leaned a little bit towards the tank on one end and away from it on the other. So I thought, "Well, I’ll go down through these zigzags here a little ways one way, and then I’ll look out, and if I can’t see the tank I’ll go in the other direction." I should have been within sight of the tank. I was maybe 300 yards away from it.

    As I came around one of the zigs in the trench, I just happened to glance ahead of me and I saw a German soldier, sitting down, and he had a — we called them burp guns — he had a machine pistol laying across him. The first thing that came to my mind was that he had that gun aiming at me. I didn’t take time to check it out, whether the gun was really pointed at me or not. I had a Thompson submachine gun with the stock cut off, slung over my shoulder, and I had about a 15-round clip in it. We had 15- and 30-round clips, and I think I was carrying a 15-round clip because being in a tank it wasn’t so bulky, and I just swung around and I pulled the trigger on it, and I could see the dust flying out of his uniform, and I just emptied that clip.

    I stood still a little bit and didn’t move. I thought he should fall over. He never moved. I put another clip in, and I eased up to him. I kicked his foot. He never moved. Nothing moved. I discovered that he had probably been dead for two or three days or longer, he was stiff as a board. I have to laugh at myself . ... I’ve only told one or two guys about this, me shooting the hell out of a dead soldier.

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