I went overseas as a BAR man with the 76th infantry Division, 417th regiment, Company L. Of all of the actions in which we took part, two are indelibly etched in my memory. The first is our assault crossing of the Sauer River and the second is the action which resulted in my capture.
We had just finished up in the Bulge when we were trucked south to Echternach, Luxembourg. This city is on the bank of the Sauer River which separates Luxembourg from Germany. The Siegfried Line starts just across the river so we faced not only crossing a swift flowing river at flood tide, but also the ferocious defense provided by camouflaged pill boxes and fortresses.
We met flat-bed trucks about a mile west of the river. These trucks carried wooden scow-like boats that were stacked on the trucks, one nested into the other. Each squad carried its own clumsy, heavy boat to the edge of the river cliff.
By this time it was dusk and we could barely see the river which was several hundred yards below us. But we could see the opposing German cliff which loomed even higher above the river. I suppose this was supposed to be a surprise assault, but we started receiving artillery fire even before we started our descent, which turned out to be a terrible fiasco.
Our company, and I suppose, other companies to either side, started down but didn't get very far before boats broke loose, banging into trees, with guys run over by boats, crushed into trees by boats, screams, star shells (flares) turning dusk into day. It was a scene out of Dante. Many were wounded.
By this time I was officially the assistant squad leader, but since the squad leader had just shot himself (S.I.W.), the boat was mine. Somehow, my squad got to the water's edge with only bumps and bruises but now we're faced with crossing this river, under fire, with flares that made us feel naked, and with no one who knew anything about boats. I saw that the river was moving fast from left to right. The boat came equipped with six oars so I put four on the left side and two on the right to somehow keep the boat from being turned to the right and heading down stream.
We shoved off and paddled through a hellish scene. Boats went by us overturned, guys in the water yelling. German 20 MM automatic weapons rounds flying everywhere (and exploding on contact).
I could see that we were moving much faster to the right than forward but our boat front was pretty much pointed towards the far shore.
As we got closer I saw that there were bushes in the water close to shore and I told the two guys in front of the boat to grab them and hold on. One held on but the other jumped over the front to pull us in. Sadly, these bushes turned out to be tree tops, and I had my first casualty of the action - The river was at flood stage.
The boats were so dispersed that only our boat and one other (from another company) were close when we landed. As is usual, we had been given no plan or other instructions so we were on our own.
Enemy fire was heavy and now included small arms fire. I could barely make out a draw to our left and I had my squad to go in that direction. We had no more casualties until we hit mines about halfway up the draw. One of my guys was beyond help and several were hit but remained ambulatory. The mine explosions told Jerry where we were which resulted in our being pinned down for quite some time.
We eventually reached the crest of the cliff, found a position with some defilade and stayed there for the balance of the night. At dawn we found other elements of our company and prepared to deal with the Siegfried Line.
For the first few days our company attacked pill boxes during daylight hours -with heavy casualties, too heavy to continue in this fashion. We had crossed the river with full platoons which were now decimated. The pill boxes and fortresses had connecting and cross fires. We were hit by everything the enemy had and from multiple directions.
We were forced to hold up during the day and try to advance at night. This worked much better and we fought our way to the Prum River but casualties continued to take their toll and our Battalion was finally relieved because there were too few of us left to be an effective force. At the end of the action the entire platoon numbered eleven men. Our regiment received a presidential citation for this action. (see copy enclosed).
A month or so later, we were dug in on a ridge line, having pushed Jerry and company off the same ridge line the previous night with only desultory fire and no casualties in my squad.
Word came down that we were moving to another sector, and indeed another company from our battalion came to replace us.
We slogged along a couple miles to the south and then turned east on a road that ran through a valley with high hills on each side. Pretty soon we came upon some blown up jeeps and a few half trucks from the 10th Armored Division, and we all smelled trouble.
L Company dug in on a wood line to the left of the road. Facing us about 500 yards down the hill was a town that turned out to be Schmitten. There was no defilade between the wood line and the first house so I was amazed when L Company was told to "march fire" down the hill and into the town. I told my squad to handle the rifle fire but hit the ground as soon as the first MG42 opened up - and then to get back to the wood line as best they could. Needless to say, the attack never really got off the ground, but still L Company took a number of casualties.
By now anybody with half a mind should have known by the 10th armored vehicles and the intensity of the fire when we tried to "march fire", that the enemy was sizeable and stubborn. It turned out that it was an SS battalion fighting an organized retreat while inflicting as many casualties as they could.
Nevertheless, the second platoon of L Company, my platoon, was told to circle around Schmitten through the hills and take the town on the same road, beyond Schmitten, which turned out to be Dorfweil.
Two noisy tanks were sent with us so the element of surprise was gone. But still we took Dorfweil with light casualties because the town was lightly defended and being used principally for their casualties and supplies.
By the time I got my second squad dug in on the right side of the road on the approaches to town it was pitch dark. Another squad was on the other side of the road and the third squad was in the buildings behind us. About one hour later, all hell broke loose. A couple of light artillery pieces opened up, beyond rifle range, and the hills both left and right poured small arms fire down at us.
We started taking casualties right away so I pulled my squad into the house directly behind us as did the squad on the other side of the road. From that point on, it was a wild melee of shooting from windows, jumping fences into the next yard - at one point, my assistant squad leader and I were lying on the steps leading to a basement and firing at shadows appearing over the fence. I particularly remember that position for a couple of reasons. First, a grenade landed between us, exploded, blew us out of the stairwell but otherwise did no damage to us. It was evidently a concussion grenade. And secondly, I remember believing that I hit a couple of heads coming over the fence on my left and sadly it turned out that one of them was our own medic. I found this out after we were captured and we were told to pick up the bodies, both theirs and ours.
I kept my squad together as best I could. Seven of us and four or five from other squads ended up in the last house on our side of the road. Some of this group were wounded and four of my guys didn't make it to the last house. In any event, they surrounded the house and told us to come out, which we did.
When they got us all out of the houses, they lined us up against a wall. This was shortly after Malmedy and I was ready to bolt if that guy nursing the MG42 started looking serious. But the moment passed and we were marched east under guard for several hours. From that day, we could hear the firing a little west of us but whenever it got closer, we were marched to the next town east.
After almost two weeks of this, someone forgot to tell our guards to move us. Incoming artillery fire drove our guards, only four of them inside the building with us, so we made quiet plans to jump them when small arms fire indicated that our troops closed in. We accomplished this, took our guards prisoner and got back to our own lines.
Here are three names of those captured with me.
Timothy Gleason -Atlanta, Georgia
Charles Albert -Queens, New York
Andrew Rochina -Canaisie, New York
Our lieutenant was a raw replacement and was not a factor in this incident.
The two tanks were also captured, one was completely disabled and the other was taken over and used by the SS troops.
It goes without saying that I was extremely lucky, receiving only scratches from enemy fire several times, easily patched up by the company medic.
However, after my discharge I immediately began to lose a lot of weight and have stomach pain which I toughed out for some months before turning myself into Hines Veteran Hospital where over a period of some weeks with many tests, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. I attributed this to the sudden absence of danger after living through it daily for such a long period of time.
James Richard Knight
Lemont, Illinois 60439