Farther north, the "heroic defenders" had been unable to stop the enemy in Belgium. The Americans had now reached the western approaches to the great Ardennes Forest. It wouldn't be long now. The first weary columns of peasants fleeing from the west, heavily laden with the pathetic bits and pieces they had managed to rescue, began to pass through the border villages heading for the safety of the interior. Four years before, these "settlers," as they were called, had ventured proudly to the west behind the victorious German Army, to "colonize" the newly captured territories of East Belgium and Luxembourg.
There they had been given land and farms and told to put some new, Germanic spirit into the "border pack," make them realize they were of good German stock. Josef Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment, known thus on account of his small build and vitriolic tongue. The humble little people started to prepare for the invaders.
They cleaned out their J aucbewagen, those wooden tubs on wheels drawn by lazy oxen that they used to transport the human manure from their privies to dung their narrow fields. The GIs with a wry sense of humor would later call the creaking, malodorous devices "the honeydew wagons. Others sewed gold into the seams and lapels of their children's clothes—just in case they were separated when "it" happened.
Even the kids knew what "it" was. Everywhere they buried and prepared, laying in hoards of food: smoked sausage and ham, great stone jars of pickles and pickled eggs. They placed layer after layer of potatoes and carrots down in the cellars, each layer separated from the rest by fine white sand, and bundled up huge piles of crackling and brittle tobacco leaf that later would be sprayed with "Virginia odor," and deposited them in the barns for the shortages to come.
Indeed, it was as if they had been thrown back in time three centuries to the days of the Thirty Years' War, and the Protestant mercenaries from the north were about to descend upon their remote villages, once again plundering, pillaging, and raping as they came. On Sunday, September 10, all the bridges over the frontier rivers, the Sauer and the Our, were ordered blown.
The passages from nearby Belgium and Luxembourg had to be destroyed before the Amis reached them. Even as the defeated field-greys, lousy, weary, dejected, started to stream out of the Ardennes, the trails behind littered with their bloodstained feces for they all had the "thin shits," as they called it , the engineers began to blow the bridges spanning the frontier rivers. They did not even wait for the survivors of the beaten Army of France to cross. Their haste was too great. The Amis were almost there. Suddenly there was a tremendous crash from the other side of the border.
It was the first boom of the Ami cannon from Luxembourg. That first shot was followed moments later by a series of explosions, one after another, as they blew up the bridges the length of the River Sauer. American Jabos flew up and down the Sauer shooting up anything that they thought was a worthwhile target—soldiers, civilians, vehicles, cows. About two we were ordered into the cellars. They were going to blow up the bridge near us. Afterwards we went out to see the damage and to our surprise we saw that there was one span still standing on the Luxembourg side of the river, with half a dozen German soldiers standing on it, staring at us, wondering what to do next.
Not for long, though. Suddenly there was a rending sound and the rest of the bridge went thundering into the water, taking with it the screaming trapped soldiers. In the melodramatic fashion of the time in that cruel, jackbooted republic, he announced: "When the foe reaches the German positions in the West, he must be met with fanatical resistance.
The eyes of our children exhort us to resistance to the last breath, with every available means. Therefore, the Fiihrer has ordered the evacuation of the cities and villages located in the above-mentioned combat area. They had not anticipated that they would be forced to flee their homes for a second time. Five years before, at the outbreak of war, they had been ordered to evacuate the "Red Zone" and had spent months in the Protestant north, where they had felt unwelcome among people who did not share their religion or even understand their native dialect.
Now they were expected to do it once again. So it was that they prepared their "treks," as they called the refugee columns, as they had done back in September This time virtually all order and certainty had vanished. Everything was confusion and chaos. Despite their bombast and arrogance, the "golden pheasants" themselves were visibly nervous and inclined to overreact, throwing constant nervous glances at the wooded heights to the west from whence the invaders would come.
The thunder of the guns was getting ever nearer, and overhead a massive bomber force from the RAF droned threateningly, as Bomber Harris's men flew to launch yet another devastating raid on Darmstadt. Time was running out rapidly. Hurriedly the oxen were spanned. Carts were piled high with precious possessions, topped with mattresses or thick down quilts in a pathetic attempt to stop the bullets and shrapnel from the Jabos that might be theirs on the morrow.
It seemed as if the whole of the Eifel was disgorging a century's accumulation of anything on wheels: carts, coaches, funeral hearses, wheelbarrows, bikes, prams, and pushcarts. The frantic peasants, urged on by their brown-clad masters, prepared to flee before the invaders. I remember well how I burst into tears when my mother showed them to me just before we fled. They were the dread Amis, come to do. I didn't know what. But then I was frightened, awfully frightened. Now I know, of course, that on that Monday the world was about to change, not only my little world, but the world of everyone in Europe.
And then they were gone. The long, miserable, pathetic columns disappeared into the glowing darkness, the oxen and skinny-ribbed old nags straining under the loads. Behind them the peasants left the empty villages, so hastily abandoned. Like thieves in the night the handful of ragged, demoralized fieldgreys stole into the cottages and barns still warm from the animals, to wait, tense and expectant, for the Amis to come across the river. It was the second week of September The Americans had arrived!
Warner W. Holzinger that he'd better hurry if he wished to claim the credit of being the first enemy soldier to enter Germany since the time of Napoleon nearly a century and a half before. As the shadows started to race down the tight wooded valley of the River Our, Sergeant Holzinger decided to stick his neck out and take his little patrol across, where hours before year-old Hannalore Thomas-Weiss thought she had seen the Amis and had burst into tears. After a dry summer the water of the river was shallow and sluggish. Crouched in the cover of the trees on the Luxembourg bank, the four Americans and the French interpreter who made up the patrol could see the bottom of the Our quite easily.
Holzinger went in first and started to wade across, carbine held at the high port position. Their gazes were fixed apprehensively on the steep, heavily wooded slope on the German side. Nothing happened. All was silent save for the continuous rumble of the heavy guns of the barrage, the background music of total war.
Together they climbed out of the water and crossed the narrow winding road on the German side. Almost immediately they stumbled across the first bunker of the famed Siegfried Line, cunningly cut into the hillside to cover the bridge. It was empty. They were empty too, and had been so a long time, or so it seemed. Germany, or at least its frontier, had been abandoned to the invaders. The five tense young men venturing onto enemy soil for the first time finally struggled almost to the top of the hill to find yet another score of pillboxes of the Siegfried Line—all empty, with thick dust on the floor as if there had been no one inside them for years.
Around one some local farmer had built a chicken coop, which Holzinger thought had been there a considerable time. Now it was getting dark. Holzinger felt no desire to linger any longer in the middle of the Siegfried Line, empty though it was. He and the others stumbled down the height as the sun started to sink over the hill. Hastily, the little patrol splashed back across the Our and doubled back to their scout-car. Thirty minutes later an excited Holzinger was reporting what he had seen to Lieutenant Vipond. Into the Green Hell 11 news was hurrying up the "channels" to no less a person than Gen.
Courtney Hodges, the commander of the U. First Army, to which the 5th Armored Division belonged. That same night, Hodges's HQ issued a statement couched in the dry, unemotional prose of the Army. It read: "At hrs on 11 September, a patrol led by S. Holzinger crossed into Germany near the village of Stolzemburg, a few miles northeast of Vianden, Luxembourg. Staff Sergeant Holzinger had returned to the land of his forefathers as a conqueror to find the defenses abandoned. It seemed there was nothing to stop the Americans now.
That evening and the following morning, more and more outfits started to slip across the frontier between Trier and Aachen, entering a strangely quiet and seemingly undefended Germany. Lene Nellesen, who had a war-blinded husband and two small children, watched fearfully there as a big, black American armed with a tommy gun advanced upon her. In his robe, with the Host in one hand and a briefcase in the other, the frightened priest tried to tell the suspicious Amis that there were no German soldiers left in the village.
Their hard looks did not relax. Desperately the priest tried again in French. This time they understood. Indeed, two of them bent on one knee and crossed themselves in front of the Host. An officer pushed his way through the throng. He thrust out his hand at the priest and said, "Guten Tag, Herr Pfarrer. Later, big burly Tubby Barton, whose 4th Infantry Division would be decimated twice before the year was out, boasted that he had been the first Allied general to cross into the Third Reich during the war.
With him went his men of the ill-fated 22nd Infantry Regiment, closely followed by the soldiers of yet another infantry regiment that would be wiped out twice by the end of ; the th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Division. They brought back with them from the Third Reich peaked German caps, some marks, and a symbolic packet of German earth to show that they had been there.
Perhaps to this day it holds a place of pride in some suburban front parlor—if its possessor survived to take it home to the States. He reported, "I never expected to set foot on German soil so quietly. The first Germans we saw were an elderly couple standing on the roadside in front of the first house in the town. They looked at us without either a smile or a frown. Farther into the town people were at their garden gates. Every house flew a white flag.
Everybody carried something white—even if it was only a handkerchief in their hand. Some of them waved and smiled. A girl came running out of one house with a basin full of plums and reached up to the Americans in the turrets of their tanks. There were children dressed in their best clothes, waving handkerchiefs in one hand and clutching their toys in the other. The people looked well dressed, well fed, and certainly not either angry or afraid. Ernest Hemingway, working for Collier's, had been following the progress of Tubby Barton's 4th Infantry Division in particular, its 22nd Infantry Regiment ever since the fall of Paris.
As the regiment crossed the frontier, intent on its first encounter Into the Green Hell 13 with the Germans on their own soil, Papa Hemingway set about organizing a dinner for the regimental staff, as the heavy machine guns chattered frantically to the east. He shot the heads off a small flock of chickens with his.
Some time later Colonel Lanham, the commander of the 22nd Infantry, short, wiry, and something of a writer himself, and his three battalion commanders arrived to eat the first meal to be consumed on enemy soil. Supper of chicken, peas, fresh onions, carrots, salad, and preserved fruit and jelly for dessert.
All of us were as heady with the taste of victory as we were with the wine. It was a night to put aside the thought of the great Westtcall against which we would throw ourselves within the next forty-eight hours. We laughed and drank and told horrendous stories about each other. We all seemed for the moment like minor gods and Hemingway, presiding at the head of the table, might have been a fatherly Mars delighting in the happiness of his brood. Within weeks Col. Buck Lanham would be lamenting to a suddenly somber Papa Hemingway, "My magnificent command [has] virtually ceased to exist.
The name of the place? Der Hurtgenwald. But that was yet to come. Now, in the second week of September, the American Top Brass was jubilant. There was a problem, of course, occasioned by the rapidity of their great sweep across France into Germany. They had outrun their supplies. The order went out to the various forward units that for the time being, with the supplies being trucked two and three hundred miles from the Invasion beaches, they would have to ration gas and ammunition, even food.
Hurtgen Forest aug
Predictably, flamboyant General Patton, commanding the U. Third Army, ignored the order. Courtney Hodges, who commanded the U. First Army, a stolid plodding infantryman whose last taste of combat had been as an infantry captain in , was inclined to obey the Supreme Commander's order, but he had not reckoned with the fiery, restless temperament of one of his corps commanders, who everyone said behind his back ran the First Army.
This was Gen. Joe Collins, a dynamic year-old he looked ten years younger who had gained the nickname "Lightning Joe" by his flamboyant handling of the 25th "Lightning" Infantry Division in the Pacific, and who now commanded Hodges's VII Corps. He felt that the Germans were nearly defeated, and it would take only one last effort for the First Army to break through to Germany's last natural barrier, the River Rhine.
That second week of September, he wrote to his wife: "Somewhere in Germany! How is that for a heading? So far we have received no resistance from the civil population. In the first German town we occupied Rotgen the acting burgomaster told our Civil Affairs people that the Nazis had all fled, that the people who lived there were primarily interested in their homes, that we were there as a conquering army, and that they were ready to receive orders.
Many homes had white towels, undershirts, or pillowslips stuck on poles in the yards or hung from windows in token of submission. The Nazis had told the people we would burn their homes, though returning German soldiers had assured them that we would not. They are so relieved that we are not molesting them that 1 feel sure that this side of the Rhine, at least, we will have no real fears about guerrilla warfare behind us.
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Thus far we have had no sniping and no acts of sabotage Into the Green Hell 15 and I am hoping that no underground resistance will be attempted. The German Army west of the Rhine was defeated. So far Eisenhower's fears that, now that they were defending their own soil, a German underground resistance would spring up had not yet materialized. Why stop, then?
Keep on going toward the Rhine until the supplies of gas gave out. Only then would the First Army need to halt. Instead he suggested that the army commander should let the troops pass the fortifications around Aachen, the first major German city in the path of the First Army, and then pause so that fresh supplies could be brought up from the Normandy beaches. Wouldn't Hodges authorize a "reconnaissance in force," to commence on September 13, , which would breach the Siegfried Line before the Germans had time to put troops into the fortifications?
In the end, Hodges backed down. In spite of the supply difficulties, he told Collins to go ahead with his "reconnaissance in force," but warned him that if he ran into solid opposition and failed to achieve a "quick penetration," he was to halt and wait for further supplies. Collins gave him that Irish grin of his, but said nothing. He had his go-ahead. That was all that mattered.
Once he started his reconnaissance, he would soon develop it into a full-scale attack. But there was a problem. As a young officer Collins had not served in France in World War I, but he had read of the problem of the Argonne Forest that had menaced Black Jack Pershing's left flank during the great American offensive of September , exactly twenty-six years before.
Now he was to drive into the Reich with his 80,man-strong VII Corps, with a similar stretch of forest just over the border menacing his right flank. Starting some five miles south of Aachen, it was a collection of several woods extending fifty square miles within a triangle formed by the cities of Aachen, Duren, and Monschau. Unwittingly therefore, these tens of thousands of young Americans who would come to fight and die there would name a part of Germany, and the name would last long after they had been forgotten. From southwest to the northeast through the Forest two ridges point toward the Roer.
On the northern ridge lie the small townships of Hurtgen, Kleinhau, and Grosshau, with the ridge itself extending some two miles. The southern ridge extends from Lammersdorf to Schmidt, townships which were then completely unknown outside the area even to the Germans themselves. Between these two ridges is the deep gorge of the little, but fast-flowing, River Kail.
US Infantryman in World War II (3)
The terrain, tough enough already, had steep, wooded heights reaching up 1, feet and packed with firs and fast-flowing little streams racing through the tight valleys. But for the attacker, the Hurtgen Forest was made even more difficult by the German fortifications: concrete pillboxes and bunkers fronted by "dragon's teeth," with interlocking fields of fire, concrete stumps to stop the advance of tracked vehicles, and extensive minefields filled with the dreaded "Schu" mine, which couldn't be detected using the mine detectors of the time, and "bouncing Bettys," known more crudely by the troops who suffered them as "deballockers.
One survivor said many years later: "We called it a mine. The name was derived from your chance once you trod on it. If you hit it with your right foot, the rod flew up your right side. If you hit it with your left, you'd end up singing tenor! No one was ever able to figure out why, then or now. Into the Green Hell 17 For by sending troops into the forest, Collins lost the mobility and superiority that his tanks and aircraft had given him so far. Among the thick, tight rows of trees his fighter-bombers, Shermans, and artillery hardly made themselves felt, while the shelter afforded by the same woods and their network of bunkers lent strength to the at first irresolute defenders.
It was a fatal mistake, perhaps the greatest one made by the Americans in the eleven-month campaign in Europe. It was condoned by all the Top Brass, right up to Supreme Commander General Eisenhower himself, none of whom got within ten miles of the actual fighting in the dark, bloody maws of the Hurtgen Forest. It was a mistake compounded by the various divisional commanders, who really knew what was going on. They saw their divisions going into the forest to fight, on average, for two weeks before being pulled out of the line—decimated.
These divisional commanders lost half their men, yet not a single commanding general ever registered a protest. Dutifully and obediently they sent their handful of veterans and large numbers of callow replacements to an almost certain death if they were infantry without once objecting to the futility of the exercise. Week in, week out, month after month, the slaughter went on from right into It would become perhaps the greatest bloodletting in the history of the U. Yet in the final analysis, the six-month-long battle for what was to become known as the Green Hell of the Hurtgen did not affect the course of the war at all.
The slaughter of America's youth there was totally and absolutely unnecessary. As the commander of the 82nd Airborne, Gen. On a cold and hazy Wednesday morning, September 13, , they crossed into the Reich coming from the Belgian city of Eupen. The men were eager and confident, as befitted the soldiers of a veteran division that had fought in North Africa and Sicily since November Besides, the opposition was light, even nonexistent.
Within twenty-four hours they had penetrated through the outer defenses of the Siegfried Line to a depth of six miles. But on Friday the fifteenth, the resistance started to thicken. After capturing prisoners the previous day for a handful of casualties, the leading battalion of the 47th Regiment was attacked by a battalion of German infantry marching into battle in columns of three.
Staff Sergeant La Barr, in charge of a roadblock in the Forest, was the first to see the advancing men. In the poor dawn light he couldn't make them out, so he trained his carbine on the officer leading the column. Suddenly the German officer spotted the Americans. He grabbed for the machine pistol slung around his neck, but "that was the last time he reached for anything. The battle broke out almost immediately as the Germans rushed up tanks to support the surprised infantry. The Americans began to give ground in this their first battle on German soil.
A huge sixty-ton Tiger tank rumbled up to halt outside the cookhouse of the 47th Regiment. Even 18 Into the Green Hell 19 a cook couldn't miss at that range. The whole side of the Tiger caved in as the bazooka round struck the metal with a great ringing clang. The five-man crew of the tank staggered out dazed, and with faces blackened, only to be shot down mercilessly by Combs.
The men of his company reportedly sighed to a correspondent afterward, " W h a t a man. If he could only cook! The American soldier was more than a match for the German, they maintained, and when the chips were down, rearline personnel such as cooks, even sick men, would willingly join the battle. One such was an officer suffering from an acute attack of appendicitis when the German counterattack came. As the 9th's after-action report, which went through channels right to the First Army and then to the W a r Department in Washington itself, put it: "[the officer] was lying in a roadside ditch awaiting the arrival of the ambulance to evacuate him.
Several of the enemy passed over him, one even stepping on him and continuing on. He waited for the last one of the enemy patrol to approach and took him prisoner. When last seen, by Lt. Robert F. Hodges, he was hobbling down the road, bent double with pain, with his German prisoner in front of h i m. Sitting over their bacon and eggs at breakfast, they wanted news from the war front in Europe that was snappy and optimistic, and the Top Brass's PR men gave them exactly that. For months now American forces had been "sweeping, racing, storming forward at a great rate against shattered, battered, reeling enemy soldiers.
The public was amused. Surely the Krauts were scraping the bottom of the barrel now? The war would be over by Christmas. The men at the sharp end on that dark frontier, the poor bloody infantry, were not amused. As one of them commented to the Yank magazine reporter on the headline above, "I don't care if the guy behind that gun is a syphilitic prick who's a hundred years old—he's still sitting behind eight feet of concrete and he's still got enough fingers to press triggers and shoot bullets!
Roadblocks, pillboxes, and thick minefields held up the advance of the infantrymen down the narrow trails that led into the Forest, and there were persistent, bitter German counterattacks. As the divisional history of the 9th melodramatically put it, "German harassing patrols and heavy artillery backed the Nazi effort to eject the American invaders from the soil of Hitler's sacred Fatherland.
Blood flowed down the hills and ravines. Gains began to be measured not in miles, but in yards. On September 22, two days after Cardinal Francis J. Spellman had held the first communion service on German soil for the men of the 9th, the division's leading battalion suffered the most devastating barrage they had ever experienced. It was a massed concentration of seventeen mm howitzers, nine mm howitzers, many mm and 80mm mortars, as well as several huge mm rifles. For fifteen minutes the earth reeled and quaked as the startled, frightened, ashen-faced infantrymen cowered in their damp foxholes.
The soil and pebbles shot up to the gray sky in whirling black mushrooms, and the firs snapped like matchwood as great chunks of red-hot shrapnel cut through the air. Then, as abruptly as it had started the terrifying barrage ceased, leaving behind a loud echoing silence. Into the Green Hell 21 Not for long. In the trees, the whistles shrilled. There were hoarse exultant cries in German and the rattle of tank tracks. Then the Germans rushed to the attack—a whole regiment of them. Within the hour, the defenders' right flank was overrun as radio communications failed on all sides.
The battalion headquarters was threatened. The hard-pressed defenders appealed desperately right up to the divisional commander, General Craig, for help. He ordered the 60th Regiment's 3rd Battalion to stand by. Still the Germans pressed home their attack. For a while Staff Sergeant William D. Clark, though wounded in both legs, managed to hold them off. Another N C O , Sgt. Albert Moses, risked his life to make a yard dash to bring 1, rounds of badly needed ammunition back to his platoon.
Half an hour later he was killed trying to drag his wounded commander to safety under a hail of intense fire. A cannon company was overrun by the Germans and their howitzers captured. The situation was serious, and the artillerymen and some nearby engineers were forced to grab their rifles and fight as infantry. Craig threw in a counterattack: a complete tank battalion, the th, and self-propelled guns from the th Tank Destroyer Battalion. They went into action with a will and the Germans broke, the steam going out of their attack, though they continued to savagely shell the defenders.
That first counterattack seemed to symbolize the everhardening German resistance. Now, the American infantry and the combat engineers went into action using packs of dynamite or flamethrowers strapped to their backs as the only means of overcoming the pillboxes and strong points that were everywhere in the forest and along the mudbound trails. Time and time again the attacks bogged down when the infantry ran into mines, and the engineers risked their lives as they tried to clear them under machine-gun fire, crawling forward doggedly through the goo on their stomachs, prodding with their bayonets for the deadly little devices, which were so often booby-trapped.
Only then did it finally surrender: its occupants, smokebegrimed, totally deaf, shaking like leaves, staggered out to collapse with total shock in the mud. Pillbox fighting in the tight confines of the trees and trails was something new to the Americans. Even the engineers, as one of them, Cpl. Frederick Griffin, admitted at the time: " W e didn't know exactly how much demolition to use at first.
The first time we put twenty packs of tetratyl inside and let her go. She just went up into the air, turned a half flip and came down. After that we used less and less. When we were in a big hurry, we sometimes blew up only certain ones so that we'd break the chain and they couldn't cover each other even if the Krauts did get back.
Lots of these pillboxes weren't manned and we never knew which was which, especially if the infantry bypassed them. That bothered the hell out of us, because when we're loaded with tetratyl like that and a shell lands anywhere near us, there isn't enough left of us to make even a good memory. The engineers and the infantry were paying the bloody butcher's bill for the war in the Forest.
In both outfits, the 15th and their friends of the 9th Infantry, casualties started to mount, as German resistance thickened by the hour. When the casualties had become horrendous, worse than the Division had suffered in all its combat career in North Africa, Sicily, and France, it was decided at the top to give the 9th a rest.
The Hurtgen had beaten the brave young attackers on the first attempt to take the Forest. It wouldn't be the last time. One sergeant reported, "The forest will stink with deadness long after the last body is removed. The forest will bear the scars of our advance long after our scars have healed and the Infantry has scars that will never heal.
For here, shells didn't explode on the ground, with the deadly shrapnel erupting upward; instead, they exploded in the air on contact with the trees. The lethal "tree bursts" showered the men cowering below with red, gleaming, razor-sharp pieces of metal. Nor was it any use throwing yourself on the ground when tree bursts were exploding all around.
To do so only exposed more of the man's body surface to the lethal metal. Although it took a lot of nerve to do so, it was the only way to survive: During the bombardment the soldier had to stand upright, sheltered by a tree—and pray. Night movement was out of the question. Both sides had itchy trigger fingers, and often their positions were only separated from one another by a score of yards.
After darkness men shot first and challenged afterwards. The men of both sides cowered in their gravelike holes at night praying for the first ugly light of dawn to come, not daring to get out of their pits, carrying out their natural functions where they squatted. Better defiled than dead. To evacuate them at night was virtually suicide; even skilled, fit messengers took their lives in their hands during the hours of darkness. So they lay there in their misery and squalor in the mud and the makeshift bunker clearing-centers waiting for a favorable moment for evacuation.
Often they were never taken away and died where they lay. Six months after the 9th Infantry Division first went into the Forest, General Gavin of the 82nd Airborne came across "dozens of litter cases, the bodies long dead. Apparently, an aid station had been established near the creek and in the midst of the fighting it had been abandoned, many of the men dying on their stretchers. Now in the Hurtgen Forest a new illness made itself felt in great numbers for the first time, reaching almost epidemic proportions, attacking not only enlisted men and junior officers, but company, battalion, even regimental commanders.
Due to conditions in the Hurtgen, men were often cut off for hours, even days at a time, separated from their comrades by the terrain and the trees. The strain was considerable and for some people unbearable. As even the official history of the 9th Division, Eight Stars to Victory, admits: "With adverse weather conditions and the impossibility of continued and accurate artillery or air support, many soldiers felt as if they were fighting in the dark.
Each infantryman, moreover, was on his own. More than at any other time GIs and officers experienced the tension and strained nerves that make men victims of combat fatigue. Me and this buddy of mine were in the same hole with only a little brush on top and I remember I was actually bawling. We were both praying to the Lord over and over again to please stop the barrage. We were both shaking and shivering and crying and praying all at the same time.
It was our first barrage. Into the Green Hell 25 " W h e n it stopped both of us waited for a while and then we crept out of the hole and I never saw anything like it. All the trees were torn down and the hill was just full of holes. They hit everything—even the battalion aid station. Every officer got hit except one. Then they sent me back to my outfit. Everything was just as cold and slimy as it was before and the fog was so thick you couldn't see fifteen yards away. Soon as I got there, the Jerries started laying them on again. They started laying them all over the road and I tried to dig in and then I started shaking and crying again.
I couldn't hear anything. I don't remember exactly what happened, but I was walking down the road and I remember seeing this soldier crawling out of a tank with both arms shot off. I remember helping him, and then I don't remember anymore. I guess I must have gone off my n u t. But the day was not far off when Eisenhower would visit a field hospital and blow his top when he discovered that the patients it contained were all combat fatigue cases or men who had deliberately inflicted wounds upon themselves to avoid combat.
So the survivors of the 9th Infantry Division came out of the line—for a while.
Now it was almost winter, and the wooded ridges where they had fought and died were wreathed in a cold damp fog in the morning. In the valleys below, where they lived in the medieval half-timbered houses that huddled together as if fearful of what was soon to come, it rained: a cold, gray, persistent drizzle which turned the fields into quagmires and rutted the tracks so that they soon became impassable, unless they were constantly worked upon by the engineers. The smart ones found somewhere to get undercover: a barn, a cottage, a farmhouse smelling of boiled white cabbage, animal droppings, and human misery.
When the October sun shone fitfully at noon, weak and yellow, they'd take their shoes and socks off and wiggle their stiff frozen toes in the mild warmth. They lived for mail call and hot chow, sleeping much and trying to blot out the past and the dread future. They sweated out their turn for a hot shower a tent in the middle of a muddy field and stood in the blessed spray of water for as long as they were allowed, rubbing their skinny bodies with soap, trying to get the stink and weariness out of their limbs for at least a few minutes.
If there were no showers, then they returned to the methods of their childhoods during the Depression: a tin bath in front of one of the local potbellied stoves, with the squad lining up to take its turn until the water was cold, scummy, and gray. But whatever they did during that time "out of war," all of them knew, to the greenest rookie, that a new offensive in the Hurtgen Forest was about to start soon. The evidence was on all sides in the border villages where they rested. There was a flood of new men and equipment to replace the losses of September.
The tank support companies trundled up to be parked under camouflage in the mud-churned fields, and waited for the call to spit fire. The field hospitals, the medics, and row upon row of empty cots waited for the broken bodies to come. In the fall of , the veteran war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who, after two years on active service, would himself be killed in action before the war was over, wrote: "The Ninth is one of our best infantry divisions.
It had performed well at the siege of Cherbourg on the French coast and then played a key role in the breakout from the beachheads. It wasn't a flamboyant division that was always in the headlines. It had no real nickname like Hell on Wheels or the Bloody Bucket, no vainglorious titie conceived by an eager-beaver divisional PR man to bolster the morale of innocent, nervous cannon fodder. Even though the 9th Division was not well known, it. By the end it would be in battle a total of days and suffer 23, combat casualties, always gaining its objective—with one major exception. It never succeeded in achieving its objective in the Hurtgenwald.
In retrospect, one wonders why the difficulties experienced on the fringe of the Forest in September, coupled with the tremendous number of casualties, did not bring into question for the Top Brass the feasibility of the entire Hurtgen operation. Why was it that Gen.
Louis Craig, who had taken over command of the Division back in August , did not raise some objection to the new plan of attack proposed for his 9th Division? By now he already knew the immense difficulties facing any attacker in those dense, well-defended woods. General Craig was a middle-aged, somewhat heavy-set man with rather sad eyes who had seen active service in World War I but like so many of his contemporaries had seen none since. At the time of Pearl Harbor, as a lieutenant colonel he must have been contemplating a slippered retirement somewhere in the sun, somewhere it was cheap and he could afford to play a gentle round of golf in the afternoon.
Army, which in had not been much bigger than a wartime corps, started to expand at a tremendous rate. Craig, like the rest, abruptly found himself jumping up the ladder of promotion, commanding a battalion, a regiment, a division, responsible for the destinies of 15, young men who were half his age.
In four short years he was an officer whose activities were reported in major stateside newspapers and whose life-style had changed dramatically. Suddenly he and the rest from the Supreme Commander Eisenhower with his mistress down through the 5,strong headquarters, housed in a French chateau were conscious of their position, their rights, their public image.
They were the first commanders to fight a war against the background of "instant communication," surrounded by skilled, critical journalists and radio reporters who didn't mind flattering the egos of these hitherto obscure men, though they weren't impressed by them. Eisenhower himself wrote later: "The morale of the combat troops had always to be carefully watched.
The capacity of soldiers for absorbing punishment and enduring privations is almost inexhaustible so long as they believe they are getting a square deal. More than once he passed convoys of open trucks taking infantrymen up to the front, with the men huddled and frozen in back because no one had ordered the covers raised. He saw troops bivouacking in icy tents while their officers enjoyed warm substantial shelters nearby. His mail, too, was full of complaints from ordinary soldiers about their treatment.
On November 6, , Eisenhower wrote to all his subordinate commanders detailing some of these complaints, an endless catalogue of beefs: "officers'food is better. Yet, as we have seen, no protest was ever registered by Ike's generals who led the attacking soldiers. No one at the top ever seemed to realize exactly what kind of horror the average infantryman faced there. In his Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower mentions the battle only once, stating: "The weather was abominable and the German garrison was particularly stubborn, but Yankee doggedness won through.
Thereafter, whenever veterans of the American 4th, 9th, and 28th Divisions referred to hard fighting they did so in terms of comparison with the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest which they placed top of the list. Dutifully, the planners went ahead with their preparations for the next attack.
They decided that the initial objectives for the Division would be the villages of Germeter and Vossenack, with a southward drive over the high ground beyond the Germeter-Hurtgen road. The attack would continue through the Hurtgen Forest and have as its final aim the clearing and seizing of the Schmidt-Steckenborn ndge.
On paper and on the sand tables it all looked purposeful, planned for—"tidy," as the staff officers liked to boast in their farmhouses and chateaux well to the rear. Nothing was overlooked. It was impossible that anything could go wrong on "the day. If necessary, the 47th could supply the reserve in any emergency; but of course there would be no emergency. Nor had they calculated the problems that would occur when it came to supplying the two regiments in the Forest where each regimental sector had only one narrow trail, which could easily be cut off. Tanks would also be unable to support the infantry; there was no room for them to maneuver on the trails, and once the infantry succeeded in reaching the open ground, dominated by the next ridge held by the German infantry, they would not be able to move without tanks.
Above all, the planners had not taken into consideration that all control would be lost once the infantry entered the Forest. The firs in the Hurtgen were so thick that they interlocked. The advancing infantry would be faced with a solid mass of dark, impenetrable green. At the level of a crawling man there was room, so that it was as if the individual soldier were entering a dark green forbidding cave that immediately cut him off from his fellows.
In these caves regiments lost battalions and battalions lost companies. Even at the company level it would be difficult to maintain control. In the end it came down to squads of men fighting on their own, cut off in a claustrophobic green little world without support of tanks, aircraft, or artillery. There were thickets in the Forest where two battalion command posts operated for three days without knowing that thirteen Germans and two anti-tank guns were firing in between them!
The engineers bridged the creek and before they could finish their work they had 12 Germans sitting on a hill two hundred yards away directing artillery fire on them by radio. The planners, who would never be near the sharp end where the fighting took place without benefit of maps and sand tables, could not imagine it.
So the 9th went up once again. Laden like pack animals, faces flushed with the strain and bent under their loads, they slogged Into the Green Hell 31 through the ankle-deep mud with the heavy guns rumbling threateningly in the distance. It was raining as usual, and as they took over the battered positions now held by the 4th Cavalry Group, there was none of the usual coarse joking, Bronx cheers, and calls of "you'll be sorr-ee! Somewhere they had been told that October 2, , they could send in their votes to APO 9- The fighting men overseas could now post their ballot in the first wartime election, but most of them weren't interested in whether President Roosevelt, who had once solemnly promised that no "American boy" would ever go overseas to fight in World War II, was elected or not—their minds were elsewhere.
Their only duty this wet dreary day, with the German spandaus already hissing fire at a rate of 1, rounds per minute, was to survive. Democracy was just another fancy word used by the feather merchants back home who could not even begin to conceive the kind of life they led out here. Within twenty-four hours the relief was accomplished and they were dug in, the guns thundering, fitful evil red flames springing up on the horizon every now and again. As they waited in their holes each man was prey to his own doubts, fears, and little hopes. Their average age was between 19 and They were a cross section of American society from college boys to farmers.
Few of them were volunteers for the service, but most of them had answered the President's "greetings" willingly enough. Now all of them, the handful of veterans and the "wet mouths"t alike, felt that their country had abandoned them to a soulless military machine. Once again they were doomed to fight over impossible terrain for an unobtainable objective which, in the final analysis, had no strategic or tactical value whatsoever.
The actors were in place. The drama could begin. October 6, Fog shrouded the silent wooded heights of the Hurtgen. Up there were the Germans, but there was no sign of them among the dripping, somber firs. There was no indication that there were hundreds of young men in field-grey waiting in their earthen bunkers and concrete pillboxes. The Forest might well have been completely deserted. Down below all was activity as the minutes ticked by rapidly to H-hour. In front of the 9th's positions NCOs had spread the silken identification panels.
Now they and the assault infantry crouched in their holes expectantly, nerves ticking electrically, minds racing. All of them, veterans as well as "wet mouths," made some sort of preparation for what was soon to come. One had hung himself with extra bandoliers of ammunition. Another had placed a steel shaving mirror in his left breastpocket. He had heard of a guy in another outfit whose life had been saved in this manner when a slug had hit him.
Another soldier had filled his canteen with whiskey stolen from an officer's drink allowance. A few prayed—but not many. The tension began to mount swiftly. To the rear there was the rumble of tank tracks. In the sodden fields just behind the waiting infantry the artillerymen started to elevate their guns. More ambulances drove up and the medics got out to watch the infantry with curiosity, hands cupped around the glowing ends of their cigarettes. A jeep came bumping, bouncing, and skidding down the rutted trail, carrying a staff messenger bearing something for the forward battalion commanders.
In spite of the morning cold, the hands of the young men in the holes tensely D 32 Into the Green Hell 13 gripping their weapons started to grow sticky and wet with sweat. It was almost time now. With startling suddenness, as the sun began to burn off the fog, the massed Thunderbolts came zooming in at treetop level. The spirits of the infantry rose immediately as they flashed by, fat-bellied and squat, all gleaming silver.
Someone cheered silently. Then the planes were screaming down on the German positions. Dark black, lethal eggs started to tumble from their bellies in crazy profusion. In an instant all was noise, confusion, and sudden death. Time and time again the pilots of the Tactical Air Force roared in to drop their deadly load, diving steeply to pinpoint their targets, and then, while the gaping infantry held their breath, leveling out at the very last minute when a crash seemed inevitable.
The whole horizon was aflame with huge mushrooms of thick black smoke, flecked by bright red flame rising into the morning sky. Within thirty minutes seven squadrons of fighterbombers 84 planes had come zooming in to hit the Germans, who were taken completely by surprise. Now it was the turn of the waiting artillery. The entire weight of the 9th Division's guns, supported by three additional battalions of artillery, came into action.
The noise was ear-splitting, and it took the breath away from the awed infantrymen. They automatically opened their mouths to prevent their eardrums from shattering as the blast struck them across the face like a blow. For exactly three long minutes the artillery blasted away, while the infantry gasped and fought for breath.
There followed a five-minute silence as the echo reverberated around the circle of burning hills. Suddenly the guns opened up yet again, hoping to catch the surviving Krauts struggling out of their shattered, smoking pillboxes. For another two minutes the sweating artillerymen, ankle-deep in gleaming, smoking, yellow shell cases, blasted the German position. Then the whistles shrilled and the noncoms and officers yelled that old, old frightening order, "All right, men.
On your feet. Follow me! It was A. The great attack on the Hurtgen had commenced. Back in divisional headquarters General Craig's G-2 felt confidently that "should a major breakthrough occur, or should several penetrations occur, the enemy will begin a withdrawal to the Rhine River, abandoning his Siegfried Line. The Germans were waiting for the 9th. The men of the German nd Infantry Regiment and the th Fusilier Battalion thrust their weapons through the slits of their bunkers and pillboxes and waited for the Americans to come within range. They fired almost immediately on the advancing men, who were unprotected and exposed as they filtered through the firs in groups and who had broken into platoons and squads.
To the northeast the 39th Infantry's progress very quickly slowed to a snail's pace. The obstacle course of pillboxes, roadblocks, and tied-in field defenses were overwhelming and the infantry started to take heavy casualties. On all sides the cry went up: "Medics! Noncoms threatened and cajoled, officers pushed on desperately, taking with them those who were still prepared to fight.
But the attack was bogging down. It was little better in the 60th Infantry's sector. At first, the Go-Devils moved off at a good speed, but when the Regiment's 2nd Battalion was within one thousand yards of its objective it was struck by a hail of small arms fire and joined almost immediately by the obscene howl of the feared German multiple mortars. Great fingers of black smoke roared into the sky, followed the next instant by the baleful howling of the mortar shells.
Men fell screaming everywhere—bodies ripped apart by the huge shards of jagged metal. The Regiment's 1st Battalion fared little better. It ran into an extensively wired and mined area. Men ripped and tugged at the Into the Green Hell 35 barbed wire that dug into their uniforms and clothes, pulling themselves free in a frenzy of despair only to stumble onto the deadly prongs of the devilish devices buried just beneath the earth that shattered their ttt and turned their lower limbs into a pulp from which the blood oozed or spurted in a scarlet jet, the bones gleaming in the redness like polished ivory.
Meanwhile, the Regiment's 3rd Battalion was launching a diversionary attack to relieve the situation and to take the pressure off its two sister battalions where, in one company alone, the hard-pressed infantry had already suffered a staggering 50 percent casualty rate. But it, too, soon ran into severe opposition and bogged down with heavy casualties. As that terrible October 6 progressed, it was clear that the planners back at divisional headquarters had got it all wrong from the start.
Although the 9th's artillery fired five thousand rounds that day and the TAC Air Force flew fighter-bomber attacks all the while, these bombardments had little effect on the enemy dug deep in the earth or protected by concrete bunkers. From the start the battle had become an unsupported, infantry slogging match, man against man, machine gun and rifle against machine gun and rifle, with the advantage on the German side.
Impervious to artillery and aerial attacks themselves, the Germans could direct their fire on the attackers at will, spraying them with those deadly tree bursts, which in one battalion alone knocked out one hundred men, one eighth of its effectives, even before the real attack had started.
The confused battle started to die down that night and aid posts to the rear filled up rapidly with wounded men. Had the Germans blown the dams, they could have flooded a region far to the south, delaying American advances. Multiple divisions were sent in, only to be wrecked and replaced by still more divisions.
Air, artillery, and armor, all advantages of the Americans at this time were nullified because of the terrain, and the Germans were happy to delay the much stronger force using smaller numbers and good defensive positions. Show me a man who went through the battle You can't get all of the dead because you can't find them, and they stay there to remind the guys advancing as to what might hit them.
You can't get protection. You can't see Artillery slashes the trees like a scythe.
Related The Battle of Hurtgen Forest (West Wall Series)
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