Crossing the Kyll
Lieutenant Spiller again got the tough assignment as what was left of 2nd platoon (approximately 18 men) was to join a completely different Division, the 5th. The objective now was very unusual. At a crossroads in a woods near the Kyll River I flopped to the ground and would have enjoyed a nap, (impossible) but it was more important to take off my helmet and use the "Victory Mail" stationery contained inside the liner. My helmet became my desk as I wrote Mom a note and I sat cross legged a long time doing this. So much to say and so little I could write to express myself. While sitting there I noticed two G.I.'s from the 5th Division. They were sitting together, separately. Their eyes had a rather blank look and conversation was minimal for either of them. I should have realized that they were replacements and had not been under a Baptism of fire as yet. I wish I would have talked to them about what to expect now, rather than as I did later.
Two of our guys in Second Platoon were buddies. They both were of Italian decent. Everyone liked them as they seemed to be a good team in combat and by now we had many battles behind us. It was a surprise to see both of them cower in fear and fold up under the stress of continuing as we prepared assault boats to use that night. My first reaction was, good riddance, because there was no desire to have them fold while fighting. Remembering back, these were two very good men who should not be ashamed. Also, it made me understand why it was so important that I didn't have buddies too close, like Lyman, Keller, or Kitchens may have become (three of the best!).
The Germans had withdrawn across the Kyll and controlled the high ground. Because we had crossed three rivers so far I could not imagine the high ground on the German side. It was indeed steep and rugged. Prisoners we had captured were convinced we would not be successful to follow this route. After dark we gathered at the banks of the Kyll river where engineers had brought up assault boats. I was assigned to the third one and hoped that the first two had started across ahead of us. No such luck. After hauling the heavy boats they were all placed in the water very quietly. The Kyll River was not too wide, but it was deep and ran fast. I took the opportunity to climb in first and going forward passed out all of the paddles. I wanted a clear field of fire and would have it sitting in the bow. These assault boats were made of steel with flat bottoms and straight sides. At home we would use a similar tray for mixing cement by hand. The boats were large enough for ten men. Last thing on board was a machine gun team. Now the crossing...paddling hard, the water was so swift we drifted something fierce. If we didn't make it, I was so heavy with ammo and grenades there wouldn't be a chance to survive. We hit the steep shore on the other side. No one wanted to get out per chance the bank was mined. I did, and lay down as others joined me. The machine gun was being unloaded and suddenly was lost in 20 ft. of water. The two men were without a weapon and I could hear them both cry tears. I'm convinced the 76th had better control. The Germans were inside a railroad tunnel. As soon as we tried to move across two sets of railroad tracks, they heard us. Firing their machine guns right down the tracks at low level made our crossing very difficult. One at a time we jumped up and ran across. Arriving at the other side, I discovered a 400 ft. cliff. The enemy machine guns were inside a tunnel for their protection. I was told to wait, as others, including Kitchens, were assigned to follow the cliff to a bridgehead and engage thc enemy. My group of about 30 (about one squad of 2nd Platoon plus eighteen 5th Division) were to spend all night climbing the cliff virtually straight up...400 ft.! Nothing of this magnitude had been tried before.
(At the Nonnandy Beach head the cliffs you've seen pictures of were 200 ft. high.)
I have no idea how this was accomplished, but by 7:00 a.m. we were near the top and had daylight. During the long night of climbing the cliff the enemy had tossed grenades down on us. (I learned to tell myself, to pretend, this wasn't happening). In the early morning hours the mortars and grenades ceased. Obviously, they were not aware we were detennined to climb up to them one foot at a time. No way could I have climbed this in the day time. As tired as we were, our second breath allowed us to attack a small town, called Auw, full of German paratroopers, most asleep. It was a rout for us as we came in on them and captured 200. Leaving approximately ten of our troops as guards, about twenty of us headed to the next town of Priest. The guys of the 5th Division disappointed me by setting up a machine gun at a crossroads before getting to Priest. This would serve no purpose but to demonstrate cowardice. So who needed them anyway? Eighteen of us using marching fire entered town and from a second story building bullets were singing all around. I found the target, then hesitated because it was a woman. Deciding I must fire, she dropped from sight and I went on to other places. Looking for new targets as I leaned against a brick wall of the first building we approached, I also tried to catch my breath. I would be safe for a short while and looked around to observe. We were now involved with a fewer number of 5th Division men. Actually we were two separate groups and 5th Division was messing up. Two of their men were standing like statues frozen in place with rifles at the ready and were out in the open. I blinked a couple of times and yelled for them to join me. Not until several of us called out expletives did they respond. Why was it becoming such a problem to be organized? 5th Division troops were slow and inept and causing us to fumble. By yelling back and forth I was made to understand that 5th Division had suffered a lot of losses and now we were with replacements from the Air Corps. By the next day I was satisfied they would be OK after a Baptism of fire.
This town was full of the enemy and it would be necessary to go into each house and business to clear it. A buddy jumped through a doorway as we had heard noises inside. I covered him and when the firing was over, sure enough there was one dead cow. I ran into a house and thought I was covered. Inside I saw what looked like a human head on the floor. It was an older man coming up through a trap door into a living room. He became very excited and tried to wrestle my rifle away. It was hard because, unless he quit, I would have to stop him, an old, frail, frightened man. Finally, a buddy did arrive to cover and I went to the trap door to capture two German troopers hiding in the cellar. During this time of house to house fighting the odds against us were high, to say the least. Lt. Spiller, using a long route around the cliff, joined us with more of 2nd Platoon and I became reassured. I didn't remember seeing Keller or Kitchens as,no doubt, they were still involved at the bridgehead. I want to rewrite this, but will continue by telling you it takes a while to think of Keller having been killed. I would not see Kitchens for the next 400 miles near Dresden.
Besides the fire fights, we captured about 50 of the German's best. Two of us guarded about 25 prisoners. I stood far enough away in order to be able to cover each prisoner should any of them rebel. My buddy, in 5th Division, motioned for them to empty their pockets. At first I thought they would be antagonized too much. Putting the contents on the ground in front of them was indeed an eye opener as each one had significant knives as well as family pictures. The prisoners straightened then became harder to control and I had to emphasize my intent by taking aim. My new found buddy allowed the prisoners to pick up their pictures only. As they did so he stepped behind several and gave them a kick in their rear. I would interrupt this if I could. One prisoner was wearing a pair of our combat boots, a risk he should not have taken. Separated from the others a short distance, I heard the shot that eliminated him. Contrary to our natural reaction, we had to demonstrate control with this level of intensity. The vile, contemptuous mentality of our enemy was imbedded so deep that total control is all they understood. In order to make these kinds of judgments you would have to experience being there. By God's grace I was restrained.
The prisoners were herded into the church in town. The bells rang just ahead of our arriving to signal the enemy that the capture of that town was complete. People and prisoners calmed in this place of refuge. Soon they would be transported to a cage (barbed wire fence) in the rear. Back on the street there was a lot of mopping up required. As I moved north I sensed excitement to my left on a side street. Moving in that direction it seemed the war ended briefly as a small country bakery was found. Loaves, muffins, cakes, cookies, all had exactly the same bland ingredients of flour and water. It was still a treat to chomp down on one.
The enemy began a counter attack with heavy artillery and those of us near the outskirts felt the impact. Lieutenant Spiller ordered us to dig a fox hole ( a defensive posture). I would have liked to have disobeyed. Our holes were dug ten feet apart and before any camouflage was possible, the 88's started to zero in on us. A round hit the hole next to mine and we lost a good soldier. I jumped out of my hole and took cover behind a brick wall. Our best defense would be an offense and this happened as soon as we got regrouped and organized.
From the area of the bridgehead across the Kyll and perhaps 3 to 4 miles by road to Priest, a few of our troops were joining us from 2nd Battalion, 304 Regiment, 76th Division. the first one I saw was Sweeny. He (being hyper) had been held back and was now hauling rations. Sweeny hurried to where I was and we popped open the carton of K-rations he was carrying (tin of cheese, pack of crackers, four hard candies). My area of town was cleared, almost. Funny, as I opened my ration, a five year old boy appeared from nowhere on the street. He was very happy to get the hard candies I gave him. Sweeny whipped out his 45 caliber handgun and asked, "Where is the line"? I pointed to an apartment type building that I had been in minutes earlier. I had entered and had no one to cover me. Running the length of the hall was done to fool the enemy. As I returned to the front of the building, I kicked in each of the paneled doors. The first one caused me to become unbalanced and my boot was rammed through a panel and hung me up. Becoming free of this I continued by ramming each door with the end of my rifle barrel protected by its flash hider tube.
(The flash hider tube was to protect my vision from the end of the barrel. The enemy always seemed aware of the flash.
As I remained outside to watch for any type of counter attack, Sweeny ran into the building. Soon, and very soon, his 45 fired random shots as he emptied his piece. Fearing the worst, I ran into the building and watched as Sweeny had his first prisoner. The German was wide eyed with hands behind his head. One of the rounds ricocheted around a room and landed protruding from his hard skull. I feel Sweeny deserved a medal as he reloaded.
Fear wasn't as much an enemy anymore, but fatigue and pressure to perform were. I learned that the most important thing I could do was to impart fear into the enemy. A natural inclination would be to be thorough and search everywhere for the enemy. It was more important to continue to push them off guard. To not let them know our numbers were perhaps less than theirs. The town was not completely cleared as a decision to press on to Speicher was made.
At this time my attitude was different and I felt a weakness in my body. It was difficult to be vigorous. As we readied to march out of town I carelessly stepped toward a German artillery round laying in the street. It was a dud but never-the-less could explode under pressure. This was not demonstrating the sanctity of my life. While standing ready to leave I closed my eyes and asked the Lord to help me. A picture came to my mind of an outstretched hand offering to lead me. It was then I realized that He would tell me when it's over and the victory is won. No need to tell you my strength returned quickly.
We contacted the enemy in a woods just outside of Priest and started to fight. An artillery barrage hit us with all tree bursts. I scraped out a hole and pushed my chest into it. The man next to me, our body's were touching, had his knee blown away. Another had his face full of shrapnel, the third was a shattered arm, and the forth was my squad leader. He had a large hole in his back. running back to town I got a few prisoners to tear down doors and we used them for stretchers. In a while all four were placed in a small farm house at the edge of town. The Grandmother and Mother in the home helped to care for them. Later, Lieutenant Spiller sent me to see the Colonel. This was hard for me to understand because we never had a Colonel on line before. Sure enough, in a nearby basement I found a Colonel who had set up a C.P. (Command Post) there. It was a casual visit as he asked if I would stay here with the wounded or if I wanted I could continue with him to Speicher. I thought long about this, then decided to stay with the wounded because I really did like my squad leader and the others. How can I describe how much I cared for this squad leader? I'm quite sure his wound was mortal and he would not recover. His leadership gained my respect and now was lost to me. This caused my mind to shut down and for these 50 years I cannot recall his name. I guess I share his wound. Each time - the many times I think of him how I wish I could share the joy of life with such a man.
The Colonel, I figured out, was from the 5th Division as our 76th Division high-ranking officers were older. The Colonel's last order to me was that the first vehicle across the Kyll was mine to take the wounded to the rear. What a feeling as I counted a total of only 6 men of the 2nd platoon leaving me alone with the wounded. That night I slept two hours in the kitchen leaning against the wall. Because the town had not been cleared I could be attacked at anytime. Taking off my field jacket, I found a long rip across the back. The farm mother watched. Her eyes became larger as I pulled off my sweater with a hole in it. Next, my shirt and undershirt, all had holes. I felt my back and found there was not a scratch. Before putting my clothes back on I used the kitchen sink to take a splash bath. It took micro minutes. A bedroom in the farm house was just off the kitchen and was kept darkened to help the wounded to rest. A girl of 14 or 15 lived here. She was so confused by war and hell that she went three times to her room to change her dress. Each time I gave her a glance of approval (please explain this to me!). Evening the second day the German soldiers still in town, no doubt assumed we were at Platoon strength and did not approach this northwest section. Instead they stayed hidden in cellars, etc. The farmer (Grandfather), stepped outside in back and sliced a chunk of pork from a carcass leaning against the building. No sanitation, no ice box, no hygiene. Soon a pot boiled on the stove and potatoes were added. As Grandma, Grandfather, Mother and Daughter sat at the table. I was taken unaware that I would be included at the head of the table. ("Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemy" 23rd Psalm). Seated, my head hung down so I could smell the aroma of fresh food. Without warning prayers were said by everyone simultaneously aloud and my reaction was to jump up. I was embarrassed and as I calmed it felt good to experience these people of faith. Conversation was not necessary and not possible anyway. As broth was being served to the wounded, I wondered, what will tomorrow bring?
By 8:00 a.m. I was antsy and restless, so I took off my ammo belt for the first time and had only one magazine in my rifle. I lightened myself so I would be able to run if need be. WaIking outside I headed for the middle of Priest. There I found a rubble pile and stood next to it. Looking east, a German squad of Infantry on patrol with 8 men were in combat formation and entering town. This was becoming my worst nightmare. There was no way to stop them. I could get two or three, but not all. Twenty rounds of ammo were not enough. Each man climbed over the rubble to find me on the other side. My legs were spread and dug in. My BAR aimed from the hip to take him out if need be. With our eyes only, the question was, today you die? At this time, with so many against me. was it to be final? Not one flinched, but proceeded ahead down the street. One fell in ranks behind the other, and by God's grace, I had 8 prisoners all with their backs to me in a single file. What should I do next? At first I started to march them to Auw. I had assumed the prisoners we had captured in Auw were still being held there, awaiting the 76th crossing the Kyll. Perhaps not. As we went through Priest and were leaving town I was unable to continue. The German squad had recognized my automatic rifle and knew I now could easily eliminate them. They were unaware as I left and returned to the four wounded. This amounted to me escorting them through Priest and rendering them harmless. My conscience did not allow me to shoot them in the back.
I often think about this happening and wonder, what if I didn't go to the center of Priest that morning? What would have happened if the German patrol entered into town and worked their way to the north end and instead have engaged in a fire fight with me? While writing this so many thoughts go through my mind but my first priority had to be care of our wounded. Jesus knows all about it.
Another day passed and it was interesting that because of the pressure of the unknown I didn't have much of an appetite. This was my third full day in Priest, one day fighting our way in and two days with the four wounded. At about noon time, the Rat Patrol showed up. It was a Jeep with three GI's and one manned a machine gun. They were part of our Cavalry and ran liaison between Company's, Battalions, etc. I greeted them on the street and they were shocked to see me alone. At this time I had a poor attitude regarding any Recon Troops. I felt they were slow to act and then reflected an attitude of cowboys. My opinion would change 100% in a short time. The first ones across the Kyll in a vehicle and, guess what, it was mine. Quite an argument started between us as they were refusing to cooperate even though I talked about the Colonel. My goal was to load up the wounded on doors, dismantle the machine gun, and let's take them out quickly. It was only a few miles to safety and a Field Hospital. The answer again was negative, so I stepped forward, shoved my B.A.R. in their faces and the three of them hoppcd to it. My intense anger must have shown through. The second vehicle got across the Kyll and drove up to me. It was an ugly thing of beauty; a first class ambulance. This made the Cavalry happy as we parted friends. I could never have imagined that on an occasion later I would join them. Saying goodbye to the farm family was accomplished with a glance. They had to know I was grateful for their help in this time of need.
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