CHAPTER IV   FIRST BRIDGEHEAD               [4] prev contents next

 

Whole volumes could be written on the epic roles played by troops in any given moment during this combat phase, but the events of which history is made were moving forward at an accelerated speed, giving a chronicle no time for pause. While doughboys were routing a bewildered enemy and engineers were planning their defeat of the river, another group of engineers added a further detail to the picture. Since, as a result of the first night's operations, all but one of the assault craft had been lost or destroyed, more boats were brought up on the 7th, including eight storm boats with fifty-five horsepower motors and six assault boats with twenty-two horsepower motors. While the doughboys in their positions across the river wondered how soon their buddies would join them, the engineers began to prepare at 1800 for the night's crossing.

On the night of the 7th, while the 1st Battalion had units and the battalion command group still south of the river, the original plan was altered. It was decided, before crossing the remainder of the 1st Battalion, to commit the 2d Battalion as support for the troops at grips with the enemy. Since one of the storm boats and four assault boats had already gone by the boards under enemy artillery and mortar concentrations, Company G set out at 2030 in the nine boats still useable. Four hours later, three platoons of Company G and a heavy machine gun platoon from Company H were across the river but again operations had to be suspended temporarily because of lack of boats.

By that time only one power boat remained, and it was employed in a renewed attempt to string a cable for the footbridge. The Sauer River, however, was not quite ready to be vanquished. Four times during the night cables were secured successfully to the opposite shore; in quick succession two were ripped out by careening boats swept down from the crossing site of the adjacent unit upstream, and two by capsized boatloads of men who, in an effort to keep from being swept downstream, threw their weight and their trust on guide ropes attached to the cable. The last straw as far as footbridge construction that night was concerned occurred after midnight when German artillery ignited a wooden house which burned brightly until daybreak, fully illuminating activity along the river.

More boats were procured . . .
One type or another . . .

The river had to be crossed, however, bridge or no bridge. By 0400 on the morning of the 8th, further elements of the 2d Battalion were ready to shove off in eighteen boats procured by the engineers. Two boats received direct hits before they were placed in the river. Two boats, riddled by artillery fragments, sank six feet from shore. Two were lost in the crossing. Twelve craft, each containing fifteen infantrymen, outlived the fierce firing and the raging river to reach enemy shore, but only one boat returned to the point of embarkation. The remainder of the 2d Battalion could do nothing but dodge lead and wait for more boats. By this time elements of the 76th's 301st Engineer Battalion also were engaged in the doughboy ferrying. At 0630, while the 91st Chemical Mortar Battalion in the face of stubborn winds attempted to screen the far bank with smoke, the remainder of the 1st Battalion undertook the crossing in newly arrived assault boats sufficient for this contingent. Heavy enemy mortar shell blastings sank the boat carrying the Company D mortars; all were lost, as well as many of the crew. The boat containing the battalion command group went down just before reaching the far bank, but the occupants swam to shore and dashed across the open field to the base of the escarpment, where Lt Col Mette organized the two battalions' scattered elements into a potent reinforcement party for our troops still holding the high ground.

All this while the drama of footbridging the stubborn Sauer was going on apace. The 301st Engineer Battalion began to tackle the construction problem on the 8th. One bridging attempt was made and failed when parts of a similar construction upstream, ripped apart by the current before completion, raced downriver and burst through the partially completed 301st structure. Undaunted, the engineers returned to the problem the following night, 9--10 February, and, despite casualties, after ten hours of patient, concentrated labor, saw the 76th doughboys go marching across the river.

First completed footbridge across the Sauer . . . .

Neither the division upstream nor the supporting engineers downstream had been able to complete their bridges. By 1830 on the 11th, the defeat of the Sauer was complete. The 282d Engineer Battalion, assisted by the 88th Heavy Pontoon Battalion, had constructed a treadway bridge spanning the 180 feet of river at Echternach, making possible the traffic of supply and evacuation vehicles and supporting weapons.

The 76th Signal Company men had to work fast. Their mission was to get a telephone line across the river, -- pronto. On the opposite bank the doughboys who had just fought their way onto German soil waited for the line that was to connect them with their CP. S/Sgt Thomas Barker, wire chief, and team members T/Sgt Howard Weber, Tec 5 Albert Plan, Pfc William D. Cox, and Pvt John D. Scheibel tried every trick in the book. One of the men crawled across on the pontoon bridge, the telephone wire tied to his leg. He got across but a few minutes later an 88 landed nearby and severed the wire. A couple of men swam the wire across, but on reaching the opposite bank found mines and barbed wire blocking their path. They shot the wire across the river with a bazooka. The Jerries blew that line out too. Headquarters kept calling for communication; the infantrymen across the river waited. The signal team again crawled the precious wire across the bridge, this time working under a smokescreen. As they proceeded they bung heavy iron weights at intervals on the wire, swinging it out to sink in the fifteen-foot river. Ten minutes later a floating mine exploded immediately above it but the line at the bottom of the river stayed in . . . . .

Prior to the bridging of the Sauer the supply problem had been a mammoth one. Troops embarked on the Siegfried Line penetration had crossed with as little burdensome equipment as possible. "We were getting pretty short of ammunition and food when Piper Cubs started dropping stuff to us," said S/Sgt Kenneth Williams. "The first bundles landed out in open fields under snipers' fire, but later they hit the edge of the woods where we were. It was swell work." Platoon leader 2d Lt Robert Seiter stated, "We had one-half of a K-ration per meal. Here's some water in my canteen that drained through the blanket over my foxhole. Tastes a little like dye but it's not bad. Our Halazone tablets purified it."

Chemical generators were set up . . . . .
Smoke screen covered activity along the river . . . . .

Radioed requests for supplies stipulated in order: dry socks, gun oil, cleaning patches. Supplies were dropped to the infantrymen from Division Artillery observation planes, and from P-47's, the latter fresh from bombing missions over Ernzen and Ferschweiler. K-rations, ammunition, extra clothing and equipment, and a radio reached the doughboys from the air. In boats and motor launches, and via the newly installed treadway bridge, additional supplies went across the river, handcarried up the 1500-yard slope, pushed up, cursed up, with pauses only when someone in front got a foot deep in the gluey mud and didn't have strength enough to pull against the suction. "About daylight we were given rations to carry to our company which was well up forward," said Pfc Joseph J. Sarpraicone. "The carrying party reached an open field and we got pinned down by machine gun fire. We had to drop the rations in order to take over. Then we couldn't retrieve them so that neither we nor our company had anything to eat for the next thirty-six hours." Pvt Don Lowell and members of his platoon were among the harried doughboys isolated on the high bluffs overlooking the Sauer. Their communication had been cut off and they were unable to receive supplies. When the Division liaison planes began to drop the food, ammo, and even blood plasma, many packets floated to land halfway between Yank and Jerry positions. Lowell's unhesitating action was typical of the devotion to duty which characterized the 76th Division's drive across Germany. Voluntarily he headed into no-man's land, crawling beneath concentrated enemy fire, salvaging supplies his comrades needed to hold their position.

Maj Gen M. S. Eddy, XII Corps Commander, visiting the division sector at Echternach, paused in his tour of inspection long enough to decorate an officer "for distinguishing himself by gallantry in action." It was the first combat medal awarded to a member of the 76th Division. The recipient was Maj (then Capt) Houston O. Dean, munitions officer of the 417th Infantry Regiment. Three times that one afternoon Maj Dean hat gone aloft in a defenseless Piper Cub, flirting with the death-spitting fire of enemy guns as he skimmed the tree-tops in order to drop ammunition, medical supplies and food to the isolated troops across the Sauer.

To the soldiers in the light of day the Siegfried Line seemed nothing short of overwhelming. They called the area "rats' nest." Figures showed the attacked sector with as many as forty pillboxes per square mile, one to every forty yards. In addition, each square mile contained no less than 100 other fortified positions, trenches, and the ever-present minefields. The emotional reaction of the doughboy observing the battleground from across the river excusably was, "Cripes, what a detail!" Once in enemy terrain, however, functioning with the analytical wariness of the fully trained soldier, filling the air with the exultant cry of "ONAWAY", he found the enemy positions vulnerable and the enemy something less than "supermen."

 


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