It was November of 1944, and we had settled down to our long Winter Nap. Unfortunately it was a season of surprises. By then, of course, we felt were too hardened or too smart for any kind of surprise. Boy, we were wrong.
We passed through Melmedy then entered the woods to replace members of the 9th Division. We were walking up one side of the road, and they were coming down the other side. They had tired, gray faces and their staring eyes were eerily expressionless. There simply was no life in those eyes. Few words were exchanged, except for this one stubbly, thin faced guy who yelled at us, “You’ll be sorry,” in a tone of mocking, bitter resentment.
Going through a street through a village, it had been snowing. Now it was raining hard on our heads.
We returned to their former fox holes or bunkers that they had dug in the frozen soil. The sodden snow was very deep, especially where it had drifted to one side of the road. In the woods were, the snow fell almost every day. It was bleak, dreary, and thankless duty. The woods had a Germanic quality, trees planted in perfect rows except where an artillery shell had torn things up. There was no activity to be seen. If you gazed out, and after about a 1,000 yards the country rose in a gentle rise, but there was no one out there.
The snow kept falling. When I went to cross the road, I plunged into a snow bank up to my neck. I suddenly felt myself surrounded by colored lights, and got panicked and confused until my men helped me to climb out.
I don’t know if you’ve spent a lot of time in a bitter winter cold, but it’s tough as hell to endure. At the beginning, the snow was creaking under foot, and the icy air made us catch our breath. The inside of our nostrils stuck together, and the cold made our teeth ache. You never got used to it. We devised a lot of tricks. Field jackets were useless against a cutting wind, so we learned how to sew blankets into their inner linings. We learned how to wrap sheets of newspaper around our bodies as a buffer against the bitter wind. We would stuff newspapers into our socks and boots, to keep from getting trench foot, which you can catch easily if your feet are wet all the time. We learned how to heat pebbles in a tin can and dump them into our boots with our wet socks in order to dry both.
But when we started, we didn’t know any of that stuff; we simply knew that we were living in teeth-chattering cold.
We didn’t believe the rumors. The weather was still miserable, snow falling, the bitter cold, and it was at four in the morning of Dec. 16, when a hellish scene sprang to life around us as virtually hundreds of dazzling searchlights directed their glare into the American positions, and the artillery and the rocket launchers unleashed an unearthly fire such as we had never before experienced. The incredible whine of our own guns made clear we were firing directly at German forces in front of us. It was a terror-fraught attack, let me tell you. There were lights of all descriptions, lighting up the sky and the snowy ground. The lights pointed up into the sky and some were directed on our positions. They beamed from German trucks, tanks, and pillboxes. They caromed off the low hanging clouds to light up the roads and open fields. They were meant to scare us, but they also made the German stand out better, and we fired out at them, and some of them fell.
Then our hearts sank into our shoes.
We heard ominous sound of creaking tank treads. Of course those reports about a German build-up had been dutifully transmitted to division headquarters but were dismissed as unlikely because “the terrain was not suited for tanks.” Right. Except now we were hearing the mass movements of trucks, tanks, trucks and men. Conflagrations erupted near by, and we could hear piercing screams, the screams of death coming from those who had been hit.
We got a hurried radio message that said that the whole regiment was being hit by shells. We tried not to show it, of course, but panic began to set in, but we had to keep our heads down. We had to endure. The most dangerous thing came from the Krauts shelling the tops of the trees, and huge branches rained down and people were killed if they were out in the open, crapping.
We tried to radio for help, then we then tried to use the phone, but the wires were all down. We felt frantic: I mean, all systems of fight or flight were going full blast in us. Then, hardly able to believe our eyes, vague figures in white suits began to appear several hundreds of yards away. Initially, we in a shocked, stunned state. My unit had remained in place in the outskirts of Lanzereth, and we had earlier made contact with task force from the 14th Cav., and they had machine guns and anti tank guns to cover our right flank, but the task force were from a different corps which meant that communication was sketchy. Our biggest fear was that other units near us had been outflanked and had fled.
Suddenly our tank destroyers moved out. Just like that. No word. Not a word to us. They just left. A very abrupt exit to say the least. The walkie-talkie finally worked, and I contacted regiment to get instructions. A Col. Bridesworth told me to move some of my guys into Lanzereth to make sightings from a farm house a house that had been previously occupied by artillery observers. I realized that I was now basically commanding only a platoon of 23 guys, instead of a company of 120 men. Lt. Harris was missing, someone had said that he had taken a bullet; I realized we were not much of a company anymore. But the task was clear: we going to look for places to fight, a rock here, a depression there a ditch, a manure pile. You made use of anything you could, you see.
I looked assessingly over the men I was commanding for this mission, especially Sgt. Oakhurst. When I first met him he acted as if he had never heard of fear. Stories about him were plentiful. He was a big, burly guy. His hair was cropped short, and with his helmet off, he displayed a head shaped like an artillery shell. His head sort of sloped down into his huge shoulders, which also sloped down, which gave Oakhurst a look of bull-like strength. He was a nasty, boastful man who had a thin voice like a giggling chicken. But he was a bully. He would say things like, “I’ll jump up and down on the Kraut’s balls until they squirt like jelly,” and stuff like that. He carried a small bottle that he claimed contained real human eyeballs.