On the 7th of February, the 417th made the famous crossing of the river at Echternach, with the 385th assembled and re-organized nearby. Cannon company, 385th, took part in the great bombardment which preceded the river crossing. And from the 11th until the 17th, the Regiment itself crossed into Germany over the smoke-screened, artillery-zeroed bridge at Echternach. Then up the great cliffs by the muddy, rutted roads, and onto the plain on top. Col. Bragan, then Regimental commander, was the first man of the Regiment to cross the river into enemy territory. Relief of the scattered units of the 417th put the 385th on high ground between the Sauer and Prüm rivers, in that thickest portion of the Siegfried Line, facing 40 pillboxes to the square mile, trenches and minefields.
It was no fun. Pillboxes aren't any fun, and where there was one you could always count on a couple more lending a hand. And every acre of ground was a potential minefield, and often was. It was terrain without roads, and with little cover. Many open stretches to be crossed. It was Squads and Platoons in little battles. It was the rifleman against concrete and steel. Yes, the pillboxes and bunkers made swell billets for troops coming up in the rear, but in those days the riflemen out front weren't stopping for long in one place. There was always another hill to be taken, or another machine gun to be silenced. Grim business for green troops, but pillbox by pillbox, the Regiment inched forward, taking its objectives and doing the job well. And with a minimum of casualties.
Given the mission to destroy enemy pillboxes along the Prüm river from Prümzurley to Irrel, the Regiment succeeded brilliantly, and on the night of the 27th of February, Company "C" entered Irrel and found it deserted. Meanwhile, "A" Company, on high ground near the town, had captured the 'Katzenkopf' (Cat's Head) a huge pillbox extending three stories below the ground: a subterranean castle large enough to hold a thousand men, and complete with showers, a repair shop, and an automatic mortar capable of tossing 18 rounds into the air at the same time.
Two days later, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were designated part of a task force "Onaway", which was to spearhead the drive of the Division towards Koblenz. This was slowed down however, due to bad weather, tough terrain, and poor roads. After a short period, the Battalions were relieved, and the Regiment continued its advance, clearing out a pocket along the North bank of the Moselle. Here, the first German towns were captured: Prümzurley, Irrel, Welschbillig, Herforst, Landscheid, Olk, Binsfeld, Niederkeil, Kinderbeurn, Urzig, and others.
On the 19th, while in the vicinity of Urzig, the Regiment received "travel orders", and took off on a 56 mile motor march to the banks of the Rhine, crossing the Moselle at Hatzenport. Thus, on a sector from Boppard in the north to St. Goar in the South, 385th took up its share of the Watch on the Rhine.
For a week the watch was maintained, with Jerry's every movement under observation. And every move that Jerry made, meant something came crashing down on top of him. But withal, it was a quiet period and a sort of breather while the Army coiled itself tightly, massed itself, and made itself ready to leap forward mightily. Infantry Cannon found Long Toms sitting just over the hill. Front line dough's found heavy artillery in their back yards, an d Regimental Headquarters strangely nearby. And the roads on the West bank of the river were beginning to be crowded with boats and barges and bridge building materials. From its positions, 385th could see the final push in the making. It was all there to be seen. Unmistakably.
Meanwhile, here was a chance to rest a bit, relax a bit, lick wounds and get cleaned up a bit. Here was a chance to straighten things out. Perhaps the last chance. Patrols were out, as ever, exploring enemy defenses on the East bank of the river. They didn't find too much. And the weather was improving. That was something. When the sun shown, as it did more often now, it was warmer, and the tremendous flights of bombers high overhead glistened brilliantly in the intense blue sky. Spring was coming. Bombers, not bluebirds, but Spring none the less.
By the 26th everything was set, and on the left flank of the 385th, units of the 87th Division were to hit the river and establish a bridgehead. 3rd Battalion 385 was given the mission of establishing bridgehead security, and the show was on.
Against spotty resistance, the 87th forged a Bridgehead across the Rhine, and CT 385th followed closely behind, crossing on the night of the 27th of March.
Only the dark, swift-flowing waters, an icy blue-gray under artificial moonlight, with the cliffs on Jerry's side black and forbidding. It was a picturesque crossing site. There was little doubt about that. There was the swirling road running down into Boppard. There was Boppard itself, huddled against the river bank just above a place where the river made a sharp, looping curve. Boppard, with houses clinging to the cliff-sides, with the river itself contained in massive stone walls. On the far side, cliffs rose directly from the water's edge, except for a road along the river like a narrow ledge. The cliffs were covered with vineyards, and up river, was a sort of Castle, ghostly in the phony moon.
For the 385th. It was a crossing virtually without incident. It was anti-climactic. And the Rhine was just another river, a bit wider than those previous, but just another one to leave behind. With the way paved beforehand, the 385th rolled across, then up the river on the far side to St. Goarshausen, where the Regiment turned to the left up a narrow ravine, past the shattered remains of a little river-edge town, still smoking, and filling the night air with the pungent smell of burning.
But even though anti-climactic and hardly what had been anticipated, there was a certain sense of satisfaction in leaving the Rhine behind. For the river had long since become a symbol. On the Jerry side you were really getting into the heart of things. And even though the 385th crossed without a shot being fired, the letters written home now had a new slogan written a bit proudly on their bylines, "East of the Rhine".
No matter how you looked at it, you had to chalk one up for our side.
At 0300 on the 28th, the first Regimental CP opened on the east bank of the Rhine at Ruppertshofen, and later during the day moved to Holzhausen and Laufenselden. Meanwhile the armor was out in advance as it had been in the campaign along the Moselle, and in the period from the 28th of March until the 2nd of April, 385th did some mopping up through hilly, wooded terrain, dotted with towns.
On the 29th of March, 1066 Prisoners of War were taken, the largest haul up to that date. On the 30th and 31st, more towns were taken: Kamberg, Kratzenbach, Reidelbach, Niederlauken, Michelsbach, Willemsdorf, Eschbach, Altweilnau, Neuweilnau, Oberkauken, and Merzhausen. And on April 1st, the 1st Battalion on entering Fauerbach and Langenhain, found them already occupied by units of the Fifth Division. CT 385th, its mission accomplished, and its objectives taken, settled down and established security.
But not for long. On the 2nd of April, the Regiment was on the move once more, and along the superhighway at Alsdorf, instructions were received and the CT went into a new zone of action south of Kassel.
This was where the rat race began.
For the bleeding Wehrmacht was disintegrating now at a more accelerated speed. And the deeper the Allies bit into the Western Front, the faster the pace became. At Frielendorf, the 385th really climbed onto the bandwagon.
In Regimental Headquarters in the days that were to follow, there was a large, oblong shaped situation map, where the progress of the CT was charted. At the beginning of the final push, there were two lines drawn across the map of Germany, two lines almost parallel, deviating but slightly from a given latitude. They might almost have been drawn with a ruler. And between these two lines the Regiment advanced, much like a lawn-mower cutting a swath through an enormous lawn. Only this lawn had towns on it, and Krauts, and casualties, and death, and hundreds of PW's, and hundreds of liberated slaves, largely Russians and Poles, and hundreds of liberated Allied Prisoners of War, French, and Tommies and Yanks. And it was a mowing job which meant much hard work and many sleepless nights.
Each day as the race went on the Battalions would be given their missions, objectives would be designated and phase line-s decided upon. Then the Battalions would take off. (They were always taking off in those days.) One company to this town. One to that. And as the reports came in and the objectives were taken and the phase lines reached, they would be neatly eradicated from the map. And the parallel lines would be resultantly shortened. Thus it went.
And at the end of the lines there was Victory, for they led straight towards Chemnitz, where, having finally reached a pre-established restraining line, the Regiment hauled up short, the job accomplished.
It was no easy job. Just keeping everything moving at the required speed was a large headache. Every vehicle in the CT was pressed into double duty. Troops were shuttled, equipment was shuttled, and all serviceable Kraut vehicles were pressed into use. At one time Service Company looked like a Kraut unit on the road there were so many Kraut trucks and trailers in service. Training manuals and SOP's were thrown out of the window. If they said you will load six riflemen on a tank, they loaded six times that many. And there were stranger things happened than were dreamt of in any General's philosophy.
It was a period of good weather and that was a help. The days were often clear and warm and sunny, and in every direction and on every road great dust clouds marked the paths where the Army advanced.
It was a period where- hundreds of former slaves were liberated. And often, as the troops moved into the towns and villages, these liberated peoples would throng the roads, sometimes with appleblossoms in their arms to throw into the passing vehicles. The smiles and the appleblossoms and the kisses did one's heart good.
It was a period when there was an increase in enemy air activity. For a while there were enemy planes out every day. Not that they did much harm. Theirs was strictly a nuisance value: the last gasps of the dying Luftwaffe, and along the roads or in the towns, the Doughs would have good sport trying to pick them off with machine guns or M-1's. And they often succeeded. Those planes which weren't destroyed in the air were found destroyed on the ground. In particular, at an air base East of Altenburg, the Regiment came upon hundreds scattered through a large forest, and completely wrecked.
It was a period where the resistance was spotty and finally dwindled to nothing. But there was the little town of Helsa, where the 1st Battalion was held up by small arms, mortars, self-propelled guns and six enemy tanks. And there was Bad Sooden from which units of the 2nd Battalion were forced to withdraw. But Bad Sooden was re-captured the same day and Helsa was by-passed and later captured, and so it went: Dachwig, where "F" Company walked into a bit of trouble; and also Grossfahrner, where the Regimental CP was set up in the Castle Von Seebach, built in 1400 and occupied by one family ever since. It was the first time in its history that the Castle had been occupied by troops. It made a fair billet as billets went. And there were larger towns too, Droyssig, Altenburg and Eschwege, Waldenburg and Glauchau. All the fighting was in the towns. The towns controlled the roads, and in order to advance you had to have roads. Hence, the towns fell.
The days were very much alike. The 11th of April was a typical one. And for that day, the official Regimental Log read something like this:
"385 CP closed at Grossfahner, Germany, and opened at Stotternheim, Germany at 1700, then closed Stotternheim, Germany and opened at Eckstedt, Germany at 1830. 1st Bn continued attack in vicinity of Exleben and Kühnhausen at 0100 to East meeting enemy resistance on approaching Mittelhausen and Stotternheim. Towns of Mittelhausen and Stotternheim were cleared by 1st Bn at 0900 and Bn proceeded to clear towns of Schwerborn, Udestedt. Ollendorf, and Ballstedt in that order, Ballstedt being cleared at 1850. At 2000, 1st Bn reported taking towns of Hottelstedt, Ottmannshausen, Hickelheim, Kleinobringen, and Grossobringen. 2nd Bn attacked to East at 0100 clearing the towns of Riethnordhausen and Nöda at 1035. Stubborn enemy small arms fire was encountered. 2nd Bn continued attack clearing Alperstedt at 1330, Schwansee at 1450, Kleinrudestedt and Grossrudestedt at 1600. Dielsdorf, Markvippach and Eckstedt at 1830, Vippachedelhausen at 2000, and at 2215 Co E was in Neumark and Co F was in Berlstedt. During the night, 2nd Bn positions were bombed by two FW 190's, causing no damage. 3rd Bn moved from vicinity of Dachwig to follow up in trace of the 6th Armored Division and at 1905 reported its front line at Neumark. At 2115 3rd Bn reported Co I was in Buttelstedt, Co K in Rohrbach and Lententhal, and Co L in Neumark and Schwerstedt. 3rd Bn set up CP for the night in Buttelstedt. CT 385 continued attacking to East during the day, meeting with heavy enemy resistance until reaching Phase Line F about 1200, when 6th Armored Div passed through alter which enemy resistance was broken and negligible.
"During the day, 261 PW's captured. Morale: superior."
And the morale was superior in those days. And with a daily record such as that quoted, there was no reason why it should not have been. The end was drawing nearer.
White flags were fluttering from the houses of Germany. Sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths, handkerchiefs, towels, milady's unmentionables: anything that came to hand. From upstairs windows and down. Out came the flags and the troops moved in and on. When the flags failed to flutter, call in the artillery, call in the TD's, bring in the mortars, call up everything available and give 'em Hell. Some SS'ers, perhaps. stubbornly holding a small town, forcing the civilian population (unwillingly) to fight. So the artillery would get into position and the TD's would haul up in an open field nearby, and the town would be leveled.
Still no flags? Then level again what has already been leveled. And so on. Town after town. And the Krauts soon learned, and the little flags would be fluttering gaily in the distance long before the troops arrived.
So much for the rat race: following closely behind the charging 6th Armored, plunging into Central Germany at breakneck speed, leading all other Infantry Divisions on the Western front. From early April until the 17th when, for the first time, the Regiment went into Division reserve. But that day the Battalions were alerted for another move. 385th was passing into control of the VIII Corps, and was to take over positions then occupied by the 4th Armored along the Mulde River. Relief of the 4th was completed by 1800 of the 18th, with troops of the Regiment located in Glauchau, Gera, Altenburg, and Limbach.
On the 20th, the CP moved to Limbach.
On the 21st, the Regiment was electrified by the possibility of a link-up with Russian forces advancing from the East. On that date they were reported only 25 kilometers away. Now a kilometer isn't very far. Nor is 25 kilometers. In the days of the rat race we had come twice that distance in one day. Contact was believed imminent, and there was much excitement and considerable speculation. And from the defensive positions around Limbach strong patrols were sent out to the front. But no contact was made.
It was an odd situation. Just over the hill was the city of Chemnitz ripe to be taken. It would have been ours had we walked in. Daily from the city, civilians, and former slaves and German soldiers, all fleeing from the Russians in the East, squeezed through the lines. The pressure was so great they could not be stopped, and although orders were to keep all of them East of our lines, they trickled through. At one time there were hundreds sitting out in a sort of no man's land in front of 2nd Bn positions. But behind the restraining line the Regiment waited. There was little or no action. Towns were canvassed for Kraut soldiers and particularly for former SS men in hiding. Displaced persons, seeping through the lines, were collected and moved into groups.
And there were personal affairs to be taken care of. Here was the first real chance to wrap up the motley collections of junk gathered during the campaign. Soon the mail section was swamped. Great boxes of German weapons: guns, sabers, and knives, rolled in. And boxes with coin collections, and Nazi insignia. And boxes with great red and black and white Nazi Banners and flags. Each, with memories attached. Each, part of "Campaign Germany" in '45, to be pulled out years from now perhaps. To be shown to children or grandchildren. "Yes, back in '45 . ."
On the 22nd of April, the Division became part of the 1st Army, and there were red flares seen during the night, presumably fired by the Russians to the East. But still no contact.
On the 23rd, a lone German plane landed in Gera. Out stepped a German Tech Sgt. and his wife. He had flown from Berlin on a recon mission, had seen hundreds of Russian tanks, had flown back to Berlin, scooped up his wife, and here they were.
On the 24th, the CP moved from Limbach to Hohenstein, and daily the PW counts grew larger as the Wehrmacht retreated before the Russians, or came out from hiding behind the American lines.
On the 28th, Col. O. P. Bragan was transferred and Lt. Col. Peter W. Garland assumed command of the Regiment our 4th Wartime Regimental Commander.
A movie house was opened in Hohenstein, and every night there were movies for the men. A Red Cross Clubmobile toured the area with coffee and doughnuts. And training schedules were initiated. Clothes were washed and pressed. Campaign ribbons began to be worn. Combat Infantry badges were being polished. The Regiment began to look sharper every day. Things were rapidly heading towards Garrison Days.
And everyone sat rather calmly, waiting for VE.
May 1st, and as yet, on our front, no contact with the Russians.
Now, on other fronts, whole German Armies were surrendering. And the Soviets were in Berlin. It could be a matter of hours.
In front of the 385th, Chemnitz waited nervously. A plum ripe for the picking.
There was an artillery demonstration of a new type of fuze. The days were lazy and fretful. The War still went on. But there was little action.
And when finally the word came, and the news flashed around the Regiment May 6th-7th, "Hostilities to cease at 0001, May 9th," there was little celebration. It had been too long in coming. There had been too many false reports. Certainly there was shouting, and guns were shot, and everyone wore big triumphant smiles. But there was little hilarity. For there was still work to be done. The PW's continued to roll in. By the truckloads.
May 8th, and at 0755, Company "E" made first contact with the Russians. That morning the third platoon of the company halted an American built two and a half ton truck bearing the letters U.S.S.R. In the truck were a Russian Major, two soldiers and a woman. 1st Lt. Douglas Mandeville did the honors and learned that the Soviets were eight kilometers away. The Russian Major had been on a reconnaissance to locate our lines. He'd been successful. And he was overjoyed at coming upon the Americans. He wanted to trade pistols. Thus the junction was made on the 385th front. The gap was closed. The squeeze play finished. The Wehrmacht totally crushed between the two Armies.
VE Day, May 9th, was a training holiday.
Fighting days were over in the ETO. They had, in reality, been over for some time. It was only the Krauts who had failed to realize it. Only the SS struggling vainly to reform the broken ranks of the Wehrmacht. In reality, the War had been won on the beaches of Normandy and in the skies over France and Germany. It had been won in the break-thru at St. Lo and in the sweep across France. It had been won at Stalingrad and on the thousand mile drive of the Red Armies. It had been won at the bridge at Echternach and in the days' that followed when the Army crossed into the Fatherland through the shattered dragon's teeth. It had been won when the Army swiftly breached the Rhine, that most natural of all great defensive barriers. In their heart of hearts, the Doughs had known all this. There had been no doubt.
But if VE Day brought no sudden craze of jubilation to the victors, it did bring a quiet satisfaction. The men could look on their Regiment with pride. And they did. For coming green into battle, they had tackled the vaunted Siegfried Line and had crashed through for a first down to the Moselle. And they had done the tedious but necessary job of cleaning up behind the armor. It was some, times surprising how much the armor left behind. And in the great race across the flat, sunny, open farmland of Central Germany, over the rolling hills and across the plains dotted with villages and towns, they had been consistently in front of the pack. And when the end came, they had made the deepest penetration into the German Reich that was made on the Western front. Yes, there was cause indeed for satisfaction.
When VE came it was less than six months since the Regiment had left the port of Boston on a gray Thanksgiving Day. There had been a Thanksgiving dinner at the staging area, then a short train ride to the dock. There had been a few moments standing somewhat self-consciously drinking Red Cross coffee and eating Red Cross doughnuts. There had been the stagger up the steep gangplank burdened with the gear of War. Less than one month later the Regiment had been thrown into battle, and had made good.
Of memories there were many. Never to be forgotten were the snowy, cold, and uncomfortable days of France in January. Nor the interminable convoys into the battle zone. Nor the ruins of Belgium and Luxembourg. Nor the little town of Echternach, beside the swiftly flowing, swollen river with the forbidding, pillbox-studded cliffs overlooking the town. Nor the bridge at Echternach, and the all but impassable roads up the cliffs beyond. Nor the bitter fighting to the Prüm and across, to the Nims and across, to the Kyll and across and on down the Moselle valley. Nor would the first towns captured be forgotten. Nor first contact with the dull, apathetic German population, dazed and staggered by the magnitude of their disaster. Nor would the crossing of the Rhine be forgotten, uneventful as it was for the 385th. For at Boppard, the Regiment crossed a symbol, not a river. Nor would the rat race across Germany be forgotten: careening wildly from town to town, hauling up in the center of a small village to leap from tanks and trucks to clear out whatever needed clearing. Nor would one quickly forget the smiles of the liberated. There were the 500 French Officers released in Zechau Leesen, men staggered by the size and the speed and the power of the American Army as the endless convoys rolled by. Standing in bewilderment by the road, a young French Captain had said rather sadly, "In 1940, our tanks were much smaller. And in the whole of the French Army there were but sixty!" Yes, who could ever forget an armored column moving out, rumbling dustily by a given point for twelve hours, in a column eighteen miles long!
The fighting was done. Of occupation, the 385th had yet to learn. And it learned soon enough. After VE, the Regiment moved to the pleasant, fair-sized city of Zwickau; Here it spread out and assumed police duties, removed its steel helmets and relaxed a bit.
But as yet there was no real peace. No matter how jubilant the feelings of the victors when the surrender was signed; no matter how cocky the Doughs when the last Krauts lay down their arms; no matter how great the relief from the strain of Battle -- from the foxhole life and the mines and the mortars and the artillery; no matter how great the pleasure of freedom from days of tension and always uncertain tomorrow's; there was yet a little item which rankled.
The War in the ETO was over.
The 385th Infantry had done its part.
Arriving a bit late on the scene perhaps, it had none-the-less arrived at a strategic moment and the weight of its attack had been decisive.
The Regiment had accomplished all its missions.
The Regiment had taken all its objectives.
Yes, the War was over.
So shout your lungs out, doughboy there in the dusty, tattered battle-dress, with the M-1 still in your hands. Sing, you tired, foot-sore, weary GI.
Here is your long-sought-for Victory.
But not your release.
For the Doughs of the 385th had yet to sweat out the CBI.
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