CHAPTER VI   KILOMETERS EAST                   [1] prev contents next

 

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CHAPTER VI

KILOMETERS EAST


The calendar said 4 March. The night was dark, so dark it was impossible to distinguish the figure of the man in front of you. Slowly, stealthily, the 304th 3d Battalion infantrymen under command of Lt Col Arnold T. Barber slunk down the mountainside to the edge of the woods. They hugged the darkness, waiting while a platoon of 301st engineers under 2d Lt Paul F. Schaefer, working on a narrow shelf of land along the river bank, labored over a footbridge.

The Kyll River. The banks of its gorge rise to an abrupt height of 750 feet from the water's edge. Heavily forested with spruce, lacerated by earthwork positions and trenches, a few alert Germans easily could hold off an attacking party. Occasional draws separating the otherwise perpendicular cliffs were the only avenues of approach to the defended summit. These afforded no hand grips; the gravel rock yielded to the foot like sand. Atop this lofty bastion the Germans sat smug and secure.

On the morning of 3 March Maj Gen Schmidt had issued field order number six to his command. Combat Team 304 had been directed to cross the river in its zone of action, to establish a bridgehead from which the division would continue its drive to the eventual Third Army objective, the Rhine River. "H" hour was set at 2400 the same day, giving subordinate units limited time for reconnaissance and planning, but also preventing the enemy from completely consolidating a strong defense and organizing any sizable counterattacking element. For the enemy was trying desperately to regroup and reinforce both the 212th and 560th Divisions as a defense against the Kyll advances. Regiments and battalions were being consolidated frantically into Kampf Gruppes (Battle Groups) and German commanders were pressing into their ranks any and all German soldiers they could find within reach, whether they belonged to those units or not. Even a third enemy division, the 352d Volksgrenadier, was hastily regrouped and rushed from a sector north of Bitburg to help stem the Kyll challenge, a further testimonial to the powerful impression the 76th Division had made on the enemy.

The Germans in lofty Hosten, however, were not afraid. On the 3d, a four-man German reconnaissance patrol studying the west bank of the Kyll for likely nazi artillery targets had been captured by alert 304th Infantry outpost sentries. The interrogator at regimental headquarters found the prisoners ready to talk freely. The leader of the patrol felt certain the Americans would not be able to attack across the Kyll River; it had taken him many hours to make the westward crossing and it would be much more difficult to scale the east bank. The man felt sure of himself, of the situation, and indulgingly answered all questions of the intelligence examiners. Patrolling efforts were doubled. Intelligence sections submitted vital threads of information to unit commanders. The enemy was in for a tremendous surprise.

Patrolling efforts doubled . .
Assault units were preparing surprise . .

Before continuing the story of the 304th men nervously waiting for the completed footbridge at the river's edge, let us pause long enough to study the division deployment at the time. The 304th Infantry was working out of vicinities of Hofweiler, Ittel-Kyll and Kordel, with the attached support of Company B, 702d Tank Battalion and Company C of the 91st Chemical Mortar Battalion. The 417th Infantry had reorganized units in its area and prepared to momentarily move on division order. The 3d Battalion 385th Infantry, with one troop of the 2d Cavalry Group, was prepared to take screening positions on the river bank in support of the crossing, while the regiment's 1st and 2d Battalions moved to Meckel and Esslingen where a new Task Force ONAWAY was being formed. This mobile striking force, created to exploit east from the pending bridgehead, was composed of 17th Armored Group Headquarters and Headquarters Company; 702d Tank Battalion; two battalions of the 385th Infantry, motorized; 355th FA Battalion; Company B, 301st Engineer Battalion; Company B, 808th TD Battalion; 76th Reconnaissance Troop; Battery B, 778th AAA Automatic Weapons Battalion minus one platoon; one radio team of the 76th Signal Company; a Detachment from the 76th Military Police Platoon- the 76th Division's Air Support Party and Ground Liaison Officer; a detachment of the 301st Medical Battalion; and a team of prisoner-of-war interrogators.

To establish the bridgehead, two Kyll crossing sites had been selected west and southeast of Hosten. The mission once again put ONAWAY troops in the position of undertaking one of military annal's most difficult maneuvers, -- crossing a river at night against imposing terrain and a well entrenched enemy. The southern site held an additional obstacle in that the precipitous approach to the river made the furnishing of assault boats practically impossible. Instead, with the aid of 1st Lt Donald J. Katz, Executive Officer of Company I who chose the crossing site, the 2d Platoon of the 301st Engineer Battalion's Company A was led down the tilted west bank with complete bridging equipment to build the footbridge on the narrow shelf of land along the bank.

Moving out to undertake one of military annal's
most difficult maneuvers . . . .

Now the engineers were ready. Capt Don R. Hickman, commanding Company I, glanced at his wristwatch for the hundredth time. Promptly at midnight he signaled with his hand-the completed bridge was pushed out and across the water. At the same time the guns of all four battalions of 76th Division Artillery belched lightning and thunder into the silence of the night from firing positions thousands of yards north and south of the crossing sites. The artillery volley, repeated at three minute intervals, served a dual mission: first, the enemy was alerted in areas distant from the actual points of action, and second, the cannon fire helped cover any unusual noises the troops might make during the river crossings. Now the bridge was securely anchored across the river. Led by T/Sgt Frank Mucedola, the third platoon dashed across the span and secured the right flank; 2d Lt Richard J. Keefe and the second platoon, making the east bank, fanned out to the left. The remainder of the battalion pushed through the protective wings, moving quickly, quietly, alert for a reception from the towering heights. But Jerry was quiet, seemingly oblivious to the Yank advance.

Every 304th doughboy who had gone through the 1944 winter maneuvers at Watersmeet, Michigan, almost one year ago to the day, thought back to the cold, gray morning they set out to "attack" the "Red" forces. Temperature below zero; snow was waist high; they had eaten only one meal in twenty-four hours. But that was training. Things might have been worse: they could have been going into the real thing against the actual enemy. The battalion had advanced from the north so swiftly and quietly that the attack had been a complete surprise. They had found machine guns unattended on outposts, a bridge unguarded, many of the unsuspecting "enemy" still sound asleep in their bedsacks. But that was only a maneuver. That wasn't the real thing . . . . .

 


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