CHAPTER III   INTO THE LINE                           [1] prev contents next

 

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CHAPTER III

INTO THE LINE


When the 76th moved up to the line in that frigid, snow-swept January, the division swung in on the southern shoulder of the now inverted Bulge. There were harassing elements of the enemy still roving on this side of the Sauer River at the time, but ONAWAY was chiefly concerned with defense. The krauts were occasionally aggressive but their ears were promptly whacked down, and by the time an offensive was opened by the "First Sons" there were no enemy troops west of the river.

Beside the 76th, on the left, stood the 4th Infantry Division that had stoutly resisted the portion of Rundstedt's drive flung against it. On the right of ONAWAY was the 2d Cavalry Group -- no horses this war, but a lot of mechanized equipment manned by Yanks who later were to do their part in making life miserable for nazi remnants down around Trier.

The 76th relieved the 87th Infantry Division. As the Golden Acorn boys trooped or rode wearily rearward through the snowdrifts, passing ONAWAY as it moved up to the front, they greeted the newcomers to "the line" raucously but, withal, good naturedly and with distinct relief. "You poor devils," they shouted, "You don't know what you're getting into up there. You'll learn."

Relief of forward elements of the 87th was effected 26 January, and the 364th FA Battalion wheeled its 155 MM howitzers into position by midmorning of the 27th to complete the job of putting the 76th where it was calculated to do the most good to the general American effort on the western front. Back at Corps they must have wondered about the 76th. You never could tell about these new outfits being chucked into the line. They were such a gamble. But wasn't it all more or less a gamble?

Rundstedt had just gambled; by his own admission he had staked all. The uneasy moments he had given Allied leaders and newcomers to the line were a painfully fresh memory, but he was getting the socks licked off him in a relatively short while. The Bulge was ballooning in the opposite direction now. The krauts knew as well as the Allies that it was only a question of time until "the Yanks are coming."

When the 76th moved up, everybody was on trial from stars down to bare sleeves. There across the frozen fields and the snow-covered hills and the swift-flowing Sauer River rose the mountainous slopes of Germany. In them, for the most part well concealed, lay the enemy. The war was no longer something in the offing, it was right here in the making. Plenty in the making, too. The seasoning would have to be swift. That was the Siegfried Line. It would have to be cracked, broken, mopped-up and left behind, if Germany were to be beaten.

Somewhere across those snow-covered hills
lay the enemy . . .

First, however, Intelligence had to know more than already was known about the enemy dispositions, not only across the river but on this side where sniping remnants of the men who drove the Bulge still lingered like wasps. As strength gathered -- the 691st TD Battalion, for instance, was relieved from the 87th and attached to the 76th, -- ONAWAY deployed into waiting positions confronting Hitler's West Wall and pushed forth reconnaissance feelers. Headquarters

buzzed with activity that smacked now of the real thing rather than simulation. Maps, intelligence reports, patrol findings, aerial observation, everything that goes into battle preparation made it a twenty-four-hour day every day.

Night patrols took up their dangerous, arduous undertakings as soon as the regiments were in position, the 417th on the left, 304th in the center, 385th on the right. Gradually, hour by hour, the former clerks, teachers, mechanics, filling station operators, salesmen, students and drug store cowboys -- myriad particles of a precious but now far away civilian world -- floated beyond the outer bounds of reality into that state of suspense known as the front line where the enemy did its best so that you could die for your country.

In the rigors of winter campaigning against the enemy, his gunfire, his traps of explosives, his watchful presence, ONAWAY patrols donned all protective garb available. Some wore leggings over their combat boots and under their galoshes. The extra leg and foot gear afforded some protection in the event of contact with schu mines. Snow suits helped provide a degree of anonymity against the countryside of dirty white. Arm bands were sometimes worn to forestall fire from friendly troops on the lookout for kraut patrols.

The weatherman was no ally in the work of patrolling. Sometimes you beat him, sometimes you didn't. On the night of 1--2 February a patrol under 1st Lt Leland C. Schmidt set out to obtain "all possible information of the strength and disposition of enemy troops on the eastern side of the Sauer river, location of pillboxes and guns and any other military fortifications." At the point where the infantrymen waded across the stream, its depth was four and one-half feet, width about sixty.

"I led the way over," said Lt Schmidt. "The last man to leave shore covered us. As we approached the other side we observed an enemy patrol of five or six soldiers moving toward us. I felt sure they'd been tipped off by the two Germans in a listening post we'd slipped by earlier. It would have been impossible for us to emerge from the river without being observed, so we kept as low as possible. The water was like ice. The only sound we could hear was the chattering of our teeth. From our position we could see a pillbox on the hillside to our right front, and a light kept flickering on and off like a signal. We remained motionless in that frigid water for about fifteen minutes while the Germans patrolled the area. Then we realized we'd soon freeze and waded back across the river. When we bit the woods again we jumped up and down and slapped one another in an effort to thaw out. Then we started to run. We sure huddled around the fire when we got to the company CP."

Patrols kept moving out at all hours of the day and night . . .

Mines were a nightmare of worry, not lessened by the fact that the earth was blanketed with snow. There was the 304th Infantry's Tiger Patrol, a selected group of two officers and twenty-five enlisted men led by 1st Lt Edmund S. McCarron. Trained by Lt Col Guy Emery, West Pointer and Regimental Executive Officer, the Tigers were intended to perform special regimental reconnaissance missions. Two missions had been successfully accomplished by the time the patrol was assigned to reconnoiter Steinheim, a hamlet then occupied intermittently by sniping krauts.

On 2 February, after an extensive briefing, the patrol set out. Col Emery accompanied the Tigers as an observer and with a view to later conducting a critique. It was one minute past midnight when the men filed off through the snow, Lt McCarron leading, the colonel about the eighth man back. A wintry wind lashed the faces of the infantrymen as they trudged quietly off in the darkness, following a devious route that had Steinheim at its end.

A dangerous job . . . . . . . . .
Removing schu mines . . . . . .

"I wonder," mused Tec 5 James Daglish, "if the folks back home know what they're reading when the newspapers say: 'No new advance along this front. However, some small patrol activity has been reported.' "

Perhaps 1500 yards had been covered when an explosion halted everyone in his tracks. Pvt Delbert L. Pendleton had stepped on a schu mine in an uncharted field. He lay badly wounded. Lt McCarron, some fifty yards past the spot, retraced his steps carefully in the pitch black to assist the wounded man. There was another blast. The lieutenant fell near the trip wire his foot had caught.

Col Emery immediately moved forward to reorganize the patrol. Directing 1st Lt William K. Clark to arrange for medical attention, and ordering the rest of the patrol to keep clear of the minefield, the colonel went in to help the two wounded men. With the help of T/Sgt Charles K. Dunlap he improvised a stretcher of two rifles and a couple of field jackets and succeeded in removing the lieutenant. Meanwhile, Lt Clark, having dispatched 1st Sgt Robert R. Fisher to a Company E outpost phone, approached to within eight feet of the wounded men when he was halted by order of the colonel. As Col Emery turned toward Lt Clark there was another explosion and the senior officer lay on the darkening snow. Sgt Dunlap, beside him, suffered fractures and lacerations but managed to withdraw from the minefield. Lt Clark assigned T/Sgt Fred V. Clutter the double mission of assisting Dunlap to the rear and returning with medical aid.

To protect the wounded as well as possible from the numbing cold, patrol. members removed their jackets and Pfc Beverly G. Parker moved in cautiously among the hidden mines to wrap the jackets about the figures sprawled helplessly in the snow. The wind rose and cut cruelly at both wounded and rescuers. Jackets were blown loose, and Pfc Parker again entered the field. He rearranged the coverings and sought to withdraw, but on his way out another mine went off and Parker became a casualty, too. Tec 4 Earl A. Wessner and Pfc Nicholas Hnath assisted him the rest of the way out. Orders were given at 0500 that no one else attempt to enter the minefield until arrival of the medics.

Back at the aid station, 1st Lt Arthur G. Bock Jr. had received the call from Sgt Dunlap. Leaving only a skeleton crew at the station, Lt Bock set out at once for the scene of the disaster to the patrol. On the way he recruited a few infantrymen as litter bearers and arrived at the minefield at 0515. To the wounded, time had lost all significance; there was only a vast void of pain and cold. To the rescuers, time was essential., pressure intense. It was known that a German patrol was operating in the vicinity; daylight soon would bring the entire part y under enemy observation. Treating their first battle cases, the medics worked like veterans. Lt McCarron and Pfc Parker, eased by morphine shots, were evacuated. Pfc Hnath and Pfc Paul J. W. Jones entered the mined area with a litter to bring out Col Emery. When they found him too heavy, Hnath withdrew to guide in Sgt Warren D. Graybill. Returning, Hnath tripped a wire and was seriously injured in the ensuing blast. Thrown four feet into the air by the explosion, he fell in between two other trip wires. Graybill was lacerated and temporarily blinded. While Lt Bock came forward to lead him out, Tec 4 Cyril M. Duska applied a tourniquet to Hnath.

 


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