Sharpening A Spearhead . . .

Sharpening A Spearhead . . .


THE Battle of the Bulge was yet an open issue. Hitler's Wehrmacht retained a mighty punch, and the threat of von Rundstedt's desperate counter-thrusts still loomed. Here, in Belgium, the Allied armies on the Western Front were recovering from their first major reverse. In the icy grip of winter, they were fighting off an attempt by the enemy to prolong the war for months.
This was the situation when the regiment moved into 8th Corps reserve on January 22nd in the vicinity of Beausaint and Champlon. Less than a week before Royal Tigers had lumbered up and down these roads. Bloody Bastogne was only twelve miles away and German patrols were far from inactive. The 304th was in combat. As the troops deployed over chewed-up, icy roads into a dozen tiny Belgian villages--now ghost towns--they had their first glimpse of the 1945-style village fighting which was to become so characteristic of their own battle experience. Snowdrifts, covering fields and roads, mercifully veiled much of the debris of battle, but they could not hide the gaunt ruins of towns shattered by artillery fire and bombs, nor the wreckage of vehicles, tanks and equipment of the enemy.
All the "dry-runs" were now things of the past. The rehearsals were over. The curtain was going up. This--here in little Beausaint in Belgium--on January 22nd, 1945 was the true beginning in action for the regiment, the real Achtung!
Just a little distance from here, a matter of only a few kilometers, was the one-time vacation resort of Laroche. It was a still angrily smoldering heap of rubble and ruins. The valley in which it lay was quiet, ominously so. And across the river and across the valley lay the enemy--in retreat truly enough, but nonetheless determined to inflict whatever mortal blows he could.
Few realized how close this enemy was even when the order came down to set up observation posts and patrols or when a house-to-house search was made for enemy personnel. Flares were reported at night and the flashing of some lights which might or might not have been signals; there were even the sounds of some small arms fire not far from the Regimental CP. But, for most of the men, this was passed off as the work of some too eager, too trigger-happy GIs. The realization of war was not yet complete.
Regimental Headquarters established itself in the manor house in Beausaint. Billets of one sort or another were found in scattered sections throughout the village for all the allied units which now began their routine of traveling with the Command Post. Here for the first time, the 778th AAA set up its protective ring around the headquarters group. Here, the Security Platoon, drawn bodily from L Company, (and already having been formed back at Youville l'Abbaye, France) came into active being under the wing of T/Sgt. Jock Labelle.
Snow lay heavy in the fields and formed a slippery, treacherous surface for traffic and made narrow roads into still narrower lanes. The metal chains on vehicles provided a lonesome symphony swelling and then fading in the night. The regimental I & R platoon set up here the first of its long sequence of observation posts, this one overlooking Laroche and the far slopes of the valley. A Belgian boy, Odon by name, who was the younger son of the house where the platoon was billeted, had gone with them during the daylight reconnaissance and helped them pick the sites. He knew this country as the palm of his hand--and well he might. He had been, at sixteen, one of the small army of Belgian Maquisards who had so long tormented the Germans with their hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. Had he been a little older he too, like his brother, would have been one of that hardy troop, the Belgian regiment known as the Chasseurs des Ardennes. Had he been a little older yet he might also have had his other wish and gone along as a volunteer with the 304th Combat Team. Regretfully, because of this and other reasons, he had to be refused.
Beausaint also was the scene of the first roving, motorized patrols with their hourly reports: "Negative." 'Lights observed at 514--963 about 2100. Flashing on and off, ten second intervals." . . . "B-26 forced down; five flyers now in battalion aid station." . . . "Small arms fire, scattered, intermittent, reported approximately 1000 yards from 2nd battalion CP." Journals began to be kept, entries to be made; cross-checking between conflicting reports; and reports in turn to Division; and an endless mass of details, all appearing at first blush to be the piling of red-tape on red tape. Then, gradually, the system began to assume the semblance of a highly thorough and efficient mechanism, with all of the minutiae, all the details as important as the smallest cogs in a precision machine.


THE communications crews began to have their first real taste of what their work was cut out to be during the endless days and nights to follow: go out as a section of the advance party . . . set up the new switchboard . . . then begin weaving the strands of their so vital but so fragile spider's web from regiment to battalion and back . . . then a twenty-four-hour watch for breaks in the line . . . and if one came, out again to mend it, sometimes as many as eight or nine times from sun-up to sun-up . . . then, when everything was quiet and copacetic and you thought you could sit back . . . well, that was always the wrong thing to do because that was always the SOP time for the order, "Moving out!" . . . and the whole song and dance to go through again . . . rear CP . . . new CP . . . things were never truly quiet with these lads . . . life never could be completely simple! Here was where their motto first began to be implemented, the motto which was to carry them all through combat, regimental and battalion commo crews alike: Whether it be against the enemy, nature or any other known obstacle communications will be in and maintained!
Enemy patrols were coming through. There could now be no doubt about that. But they were spasmodic and scattered, a sort of a casual rear-guard action. Our own reaction was almost equally casual. Food, drink and heat were tacitly still more important, more easily grasped and understood to the rank and file than was war or the enemy. And on January 24th when the alert for another move came down, the comment most commonly heard was: "Just another hurry-up and wait!"



THE column began to move at 2200. An advance party had left some six hours earlier under the command of Lt. Col. Emery and, presumably, was already at its destination. Snow had fallen and the temperature was way down. Windshields developed stubborn glazings of ice and frost inside and out. For all practical purposes visibility was nil. The march order called for blackout with sixty-yard intervals and a ten mile-per-hour speed. Under the conditions this was a human impossibility and for long hours the convoy stretched and constricted like a grotesque, animated accordion. Maintenance trucks at the tail divided their time between dragging vehicles out of ditches or over the rough spots, ministering to flats and other mechanical ailments, and cursing and swearing. But little by little, the column crept and crawled along to destination, without benefit of the moon or any other guide than the sometimes seen and sometimes lost glow of a dim, red tail-light on the vehicle ahead.

The entire convoy did not all arrive, as planned, at the same time. But by 1900, 26 January, the regimental command post had been established in Boudeler, a still intact but deserted farm village in the eastern bulge of Luxembourg formed by the Sauer River. The following entries had been made in the regimental journal: "0130, 25 January, CT 304 cleared old area;" "1600, 25 January, 1st battalion in defensive positions in new sector with contact with units on its right and its left." "2320, 25 January, 2nd battalion in defensive positions in new sector with contact with units on its right and its left."
To take this out of cryptic language is to say simply that the regiment had moved up into the line and relieved the 324th Regiment of the 87th Division which had been occupying these same positions for the past ten days, having arrived there from their last field of action in southern Belgium with the reputation of being the captors of St. Hubert and other towns enroute.

"Front and Center"

THE 1st battalion went into the line at Dickweiler with the 2nd to its left flank at Osweiler, the 3rd battalion being in reserve at Berbourg. To the left flank of the entire regimental sector was the 417th Regiment of the 76th Division, facing the town of Echternach and the probable site of the river crossing which was the inevitable concomitant at this stage of the operations. To the north of these two towns was a two thousand yard stretch of woods and swamp. On the southern fringe of this area was a group of rude log shelters (it was actually christened Log City!) which had come to the troops as a heritage from the 324th and--it is to be suspected--had come to them in turn as an unwilling bequest from the hurriedly departing Germans. And on the northern fringe of these woods, nearest to the river, went the fox-holes, the dug-outs and the camouflage. All of the initial exploration of this territory and the setting up of the positions were done under cover of darkness. Now, all that was left was to sit back and wait for the dawn to break so that the men might see what they had come some forty-five hundred miles to see--the German foe firmly entrenched in his far-famed and wideflung Siegfried Line [Westwall - U.Koch], the bastion which these raw troops were supposed to storm and reduce as the prelude to final victory.
During the ten days that the regimental command post remained at Boudeler, life seemed again to fall into an easy, even strain. The snow began to melt and the ice to disappear from the roads. It actually grew possible to leave the chains off the vehicles --for a little while, at any rate, until they became necessary again to plough through the mud. Fox-holes and dug-outs became mired pools. The village itself was the last of its kind--civilians were permitted here for a limited period of time each day. At dawn they crept in and scattered away with equal timidity at nightfall. And as they went, one could almost imagine them leaving a prayer hanging like a frozen breath over the cattle and the houses and the livestock which stayed behind them. (And sometimes the prayer was answered; sometimes not!)



Mail - R.S.V.P.



DICKWEILER and Osweiler, however, were strictly deserted, with the exception, of the battalions and the German artillery. One reads in the journal, "CO 3rd Bn. reports receiving much fire from Hinkel. Requests to put fire on them." Both of these towns had already felt the devastating effects of artillery and the end for them was not yet. The "mail" continued to come in regularly. The comfort in this was that the "mail" went out with proportionately greater regularity. The 302nd Field Artillery had set up its "light housekeeping" in and around the little hamlet of Geyershof, about five kilometers to the southwest of Osweiler and their daily routine was begun and executed with such regularity that watches were set and checked by their salvos. CT 304's own well beloved Cannon Company, established slightly to the rear of the positions at Dickweiler and Osweiler, fired mission after mission upon request of their own forward observers and more and more frequently upon company and battalion request as well. Their boast is well worth noting at this point, that they were the first of the CT 304 to fire a round into Germany proper. And overhead, flying in a continuous zig-zag orbit, were the omnipresent Piper Cubs out of division. They could not be called merely a comfort to have around; they were far more than that. It was the same as knowing that there was a sleepless watch-dog roaming round and round outside one's house. And more and more the men began to be conscious of another safeguard provided for, them by these planes. Whenever they were overhead the enemy artillery invariable lessened--for obvious reasons--the chance of being observed from aloft was too great. Their only chance of remaining half-way concealed, while the Piper Cubs were over them and watching, was for the gun emplacements to withhold their fire.

Anti-Tank Company went about its appointed task, reconnoitering the regimental sector for vulnerable spots through which enemy mechanized attacks might come. The muzzles of company and battalion 57s pointed down narrow draws and covered open fields and roads, with gun crews on a twenty-four-hour alert for enemy tanks and vehicles.
Company A of the 301st Medical Battalion moved into Mompach, a little village of about the same size as Berbourg where the reserve battalion was stationed and appro
ximately four and one half kilometers to the northeast of that town and a little less than four kilometers due south of the static defense lines running through Dickweiler and Osweiler. Their introduction to combat was somewhat more prompt and to the point than was usually the case with this type of attached unit. To quote their own account:

next page: Sharpening A Spearhead . . . (continued)

previous page -- contents