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US Army

Bitter December

 

Bitter December
 
December 15, 1944
On the night of December 15th, we stopped and dug in by a firebreak with my squad as sort of an outpost.  I dug in with Pvt Bill Horn.  At dawn I saw a small pillbox 100 feet to the right, and I went to check it out.  Going down the stairs I heard a noise and I peeked around a wall with a grenade in hand, and saw Platoon Sergeant Vaughn peeking at me; he was checking also!  I talked to Vaughn and returned to the foxhole.  Pvt Stanley Gawronski yelled to me, "Sergeant, I just saw some Germans run across the firebreak about 40 yards ahead."  I said, "Why didn't you shoot?  "He said, "Well, really I couldn't see too good and besides I didn't want them to know we were here."  I said, "That sounds O.K." 
 
By now it was daylight.Bill Horn, next to me in the hole, (good looking young man, thin moustache) said, "Want a cracker, Joe?"  (He had a K-ration open.)  I said, "Yeah, I'll pay you back."  I took it and heard a bullet hit Bill in the head.  His head fell on my shoulder, blood ran onto my shoulder.  He was staring at me and his mouth was opening and closing fast like a fish out of water with a slight gurgle.  I felt his pulse; it was quivering and then stopped.  I yelled to the other guys, "Bill just got shot.He's dead.  Keep your head down!" (Sniper shot Bill instead of me because he was a little taller and the sniper saw him better, I believe.)  Then someone yelled, "Pull back.  We're pulling out."  (I reported where Bill was to the first sergeant and swore he was dead on a death form that he had me fill out and sign.) 
 
We pulled back in broad daylight, about seven or eight miles from Rocherath in Belgium under artillery fire.  I hit the ground near a German foxhole, afraid to get in it as it may be booby trapped.  A machine gun burst over me, tearing black bark off trees, exposing the white wood underneath, causing me to dive in the foxhole anyway. 
 
We walked into Krinkelt at dark with German tanks on the horizon firing point blank at us.  (We could see them on account of light from the burning buildings.)  We were walking along the road in a ditch two feet deep filled with water.  The wounded were falling on the road and into the ditch.  We had orders to help no one.Leave them for the medics.  Keep moving.  The dead or wounded that fell on the road were mashed by trucks, tanks and jeeps, bumper to bumper trying to escape. 
 
I saw men smashed flat as a pancake.  You could see outlines of helmets through bodies twice a normal size, smashed flat.I had to stare at some for awhile to figure out that it was once a human being.  Some animals in a burning barn across the road were crying and it sounded like the crying of human babies. 
 
At a crossroad someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "What outfit, son?"  I said, Charlie Company, 38th Regiment, 2nd Division."  I saw two stars on his helmet, but I knew from pictures that he was General Walter Robertson, our Division Commander.  He said, "Down this road to the left about two blocks to a brown brick house on the end."  I said, "Yes, Sir," called to my squad and took off.  I heard later that he was all over the area trying to build up a good strong line and gather up stragglers.
 
I got into the brick house just as a German tank shot an 88 shell above the door; killing one G.I. (the money from his wallet was shredded.)  The Germans were calling, "Hey, Charlie Company," but we had orders long ago never to answer as they only wanted to locate you.Although 99th Division and 106th Division G.I.'s who were shot up badly kept coming through our lines for days and yelling to us (especially wounded), we wouldn't answer till we positively identified them. 
 
I turned one tank destroyer crew in for not obeying my order to come over and knock out a German tank a block from us.  We called them yellow and other things.  They said, "Couldn't move til Lieutenant So and So came back."  I said, "But we need you right now."  At daylight I was sitting in the barn, back against the straw, with a guard at the door.  A sniper in the church across the street shot at the guard.  The bullet chipped the barn door and hit the straw next to my left ear.We fought all day and all night.  The sniper in the church finally took a shot at Colonel Mildren, battalion commanding officer.  We heard that he had a tank blow off the steeple. 
 
Three German tanks knocked out three of our tanks by the church which looked like a tank graveyard.  German artillery and Nebelwerfers (six barrel) rockets poured it on.  The night of the 17th, Captain Rollings had another guy and me hook anti-tank mines to telephone wires across the road in a ditch.  We hid in the cellar across the street.  If enemy tank came down the road we were to pull the wire and drag the mines onto the road in front of them.  None came. 
 
 
 German Tank destroyed at Krinkelt.
 
We heard about a massacre at Malmedy (really Baugnez by a tavern), 86 killed and 43 got away.  I walked within arm's reach of that Malmedy sign shown on pictures.  Lots of guys said, "No more prisoners," but I never could shoot one in cold blood.  In fact, I was awfully happy when they quit shooting and surrendered.  I noticed a lot of them had wedding rings on.  Some kneeled down and prayed.  One G.I. shot a German dragging a machine gun out of a clump of trees eight times in the back with his M-1.  Funny how he didn't ask him to surrender.  This German seemed to be prying in French as he died.  One prisoner, a wiry guy, stood ramrod straight and wouldn't talk.  This kind of gave me a slow burn, so I went to punch him, he ducked his head and I hit his steel helmet.  That taught me something, but I got his brand new Schmeisser Machine Pistol. 
 
The Germans had a gun with a cardboard barrel.  Laugh, but it's true!It was used to propel propaganda leaflets into our lines about 1-1/2 miles.T  heir M42 machine guns could fire 1500 RPM.  It scared holy hell out of us.  It was a vicious, wicked gun.  Just went BRRRRRUUPPPP.  We called it "Hitler's Saw."  Our air-cooled only fired 600 RPM.  A German tank coming at you with its cannon and machine guns going, damn near paralyzed you.  We liked to get box lunches out of knocked out Tiger Tanks.  The interiors of the Tigers were nice, like pure white porcelain.  They had five or six inches of hard nickel in front and were very hard to knock out.  Every 4th or 5th German carried about a 5 foot-1/2 inch hose.  We wondered why.  Then it dawned on me — it was to siphon gas from disabled vehicles; they were short of gas.  German artillery and machine gun fire was awful.  German tracers were yellow, ours, a reddish pink, looked pretty — but deadly — like fireflies at night. 
 
This was the coldest winter ever; it hit 27 below one night.  Woke up one morning with one foot of snow on us.  Son of a bitch, it was cold!  (About December 20.)  We found small Christmas trees in houses.  Germans had tinfoil from cigarette packs and bits of torn colored paper on them.  It made us sad.  The Germans yelled at us all the time to surrender, but we fought on.  I saw grown men cry, but no one laughed.  We all felt bad.  I cursed Hitler for the 1,000th time. 
 
About 3 a.m. December 18th our 155's knocked out a tank 150 yards from us in the second story of a building.  German tankers in short black jackets, four of them, ran just below us to a drop off, about a foot.  But we could see them good from above.  We called to them to give up.  They said, "Do you surrender, Yanks?"  BAR man next to me shot them.  The German soldier was a son of a bitch to fight.  You hardly ever got a good shot at one and he really perseveres.  But he seems to have an uncanny ability to know or estimate correctly when the jig was up and it's no use continuing to fight any longer (and judge it better or wiser to surrender). 
 
I saw a German with his upper half completely shot off!  I also saw a German lieutenant laying 150 feet from me for about four hours not moving.  I was sure he was dead.  I looked real hard, but I couldn't see any signs of breathing.  All of a sudden he jumped up with hands high shouting, "Kamerad, Kamerad, nicht scheissen!" and surrendered to us. 
 
I saw Captain Rolling's get shot in the legs, about the 18th.  Someone said legs.I thought it was about four M.G. slugs in the left arm.  He always had a small cigar in his mouth.  Whenever he thought the prisoners were too cocky or laughed at him, he put his gun down, donned leather gloves and beat them badly. (Mean, tough Texan.) 
 
He sent me on a suicide mission once to blow a hole in a wall with 20 lbs. of dynamite.  He covered me with an M.G. from a shell hole in the road (Remember, Capt.?)  I heard of a G.I. who jumped into a hole on top of another man who was going to shoot him, when the guy said, "God damn"  and then he knew he was a G.I.  Those two words saved his life.  
 
Germans were yelling "Marschiert schnell! Schnell!"  (Move quickly, quickly)   But we held.  We were dirty, muddy, unshaven, wet, tired, and frozen beyond belief.  I wish everyone could see us now!  When bullets came close to your head, they split the air so fast that air coming back together pops like a hard clap of hands (really pops; only ricochets will buzz or whine or whir.  So much for movie phoniness). 
 
On December 17th, rumor had it that we (2nd Division) were to hold Krinkelt and Rocherath.  While 99th remnants and some 2nd Division were to go back west to Elsenborn Ridge (1-3/4 miles) to start preparing us a new line, First Division was on the way to tie in on our right at Elsenborn Ridge. (Good News). 
 
At 7a.m. on the 18th, many tanks attacked us.  Infantry had crept up at night to the very edge of both towns.  We backed up 100 yards and our artillery smashed the tanks and our infantry drove back the Germans troops. 
 
On the 19th after wrecking all the usable guns and vehicles we could not take out, we retired to Elsenborn, being shelled all the way in the rain.  (After the war, I read that a German spotter with a motorcycle and radio in the woods directed that damn, accurate shellfire.  We lost over 1,000 men at the Battle of the Bulge.) 
 
I had a good hole on top of a ridge, good long field of fire.  Our 38th Regiment on the front line, another regiment behind us manning a second line of defense, and another regiment behind them for reserve.  Talk about power!  Most times there is only one regiment behind you.  With 1st Division on our right and 9th on the left, all of us veterans, we felt pretty good.  We had artillery almost hub to hub behind us for support.  Sixteen batteries of Division artillery (four were 155's), seven batteries of Corps artillery, (155's, 4.5 in., and 105's and 8 in.)  We also had 12 Regiments of 105 howitzers, 348 guns, tanks and T.D. guns (75 and 90mm), also one battery of 4.2 chemical mortars. (One helluva concentration when they all fired at once, as they did at Krinkelt and Rocherath.)  It was awesome.Both towns seemed to explode.  We really felt sorry for those Germans.  We called it a division Serenade as all those different sizes of shells made a different sound going through the air.  It sounded like a Musical Serenade. 
 
Behind my dugout on Elsenborn ridge was a fence row with trees about 10 feet high along it about 200 yards from me.  Our anti-tank guns were hidden there.  One day I was talking to a gun crew as we watched buzz bombs going toward Liege, Antwerp, Belgium and maybe to England.T  hey made a loud, brackish noise. (Oh yes, it was Christmas day.)  Four German planes started to bomb and strafe back by our artillery.  All of a sudden from the Southwest, a P-51 Mustang dove onto them and shot all four down in about three or four minutes.  We were amazed, of course. 
 
They flew over us once shooting.  We dove under an ammo jeep.  I heard a tinkling sound, looked up into the trees and saw .50 caliber shell casings from the P-51's guns trickling down through the tree branches.  I reached and grabbed one for a souvenir and it burned my hand.  It was still hot!I brought it home, but somehow it got lost, like my Iron Crosses and other souvenirs. 
 
I decided to build a larger dugout under the trees at the fence row, as an artillery shell caved in the right front of my old dugout.  The same barrage had one shell hit dead center on Barnett's hole 15 seconds after he ran to a buddy's hole on his left. (Real luck!) 
 
I had the new hole pretty deep when the new Commanding Officer Lieutenant Mode walked up.  He laughingly said, "If you go any deeper, I'll court martial you for desertion!"  One-half hour later I learned back to rest and was looking out and up through the trees over my hole.  I heard artillery coming and heard a tick and a branch wiggled above me as a shell whizzed over me and hit about 50 feet back.  Evidently the side of the shell scraped the branch.  If the nose would have hit it, it would have exploded right above me.  I started at the branch for five minutes (couldn't move).  Whew!! I still see all that and Elsenborn Ridge as plain as day. (We later heard that this was called "The Battle of the Bulge."
 
Source: Bulge Bugle February 1993
Sgt Joseph Jan KISS

"C"Company

38th Infantry Regiment

2nd Infantry Division

Campaign

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium