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US Army

Just few days in the Bulge

Just Few Days in the Bulge

 
In retrospect the Battle of the Bulge is viewed as a glorious victory for the American army while in reality it happened because of a monumental failure on our part to correctly interpret a massive German buildup and to take appropriate steps to meet it.  As a result many thousands of Americans lost their lives and many more ended in German prison stalags.  I was in the latter group.
 
On 16th of December 1944 the 101st Airborne Division was in a rest camp near Reims, France, having just returned from a long bitter campaign in Holland.  Before that it had fought in Normandy from D-Day until the end of July.  In both campaigns it had about 50% casualties.  When we got word that there had been a breakthrough in the Ardennes, we were hurriedly packed on open-bodied trucks and rushed with headlights blazing in the middle of the night to Bastogne, Belgium.  1st Battalion, 401st Glider Infantry Regiment was led by Colonel Ray C. Allen, a feisty Texan from Marshall.  We were put in a defense line west of the city in the vicinity of Mande St Etienne on a salient which no friendly support on either flank.  We set up roadblocks on the St Hubert Highway about two miles from Bastogne.  “C” Company was commanded by Captain Preston Towns, and was about 40% under strength because replacements for those lost in Holland hadn’t reached us yet.  Three of the platoons were led by noncoms like me.  At the time I was a Staff Sergeant and had led the 3rd Platoon since 8th October when 1st Lieutenant Howard Kohl had been killed.
 
The weather was cloudy and cool when we arrived in Belgium but took a turn for the worse on the 20th December when it became bitter cold and began to snow.  By the following morning over six inches was on the ground and our fox holes were like refrigerators.  The actions of our weapons froze as did the turrets on the TD’s and tanks with us and couldn’t be rotated until they were thawed.
 
The Germans cut the road behind us during the night of the 21st December, isolating us from the rest of the division.  I received orders on the morning of the 22nd December to take out the enemy roadblock and was given a tank from the 10th Armored Division to help.  I sent a squad of men down each side of the main road, covering them with the fire power of the tank’s 75 and 50 caliber guns and enfilading fire from a MG and my 1st squad on the left flank.  The Germans didn’t know what hit them.  The fight was short and violent and when it was over twelve Germans lay dead and twenty-five more our prisoners.  Sergeant Jerry Hanss, 3rd squad leader, was the only casualty, a bullet wound in the calf.  We settled back in the frozen confines of our fox holes, waiting for the next move of the enemy.  It came the following day.
 
2nd Platoon held a roadblock farther west on the same road.  It was led by S/Sergeant Grayson Davis.  At dawn enemy tanks and infantry in snow suits struck with a vengeance.  The rattle of small arms fire, the explosion of mortar shells and the sharp crack of tank guns echoed over the snowy fields when I got the order from Captain Towns to take two of my squads and support 2nd Platoon.  We had to cross a couple of large snow-covered fields to get there and went as fast as we could, burdened by our equipment and the deep snow.  On the way we were met by 1st Lieutenant Robert Wagner, who left his 1st Platoon on his own volition to help us.  His men were dug in in a corpse of trees on 2nd Platoon’s left flank.  The race to reach 2nd Platoon was a disaster.  Wagner and two of his men and me with two of mine were the only ones to reach a large house directly behind 2nd Platoon’s main line of resistance.  The house stood on the east side of the raised highway on a hill which sloped down toward 2nd Platoon’s fox holes.  Behind the house and to a side was an inclined courtyard.  A tank destroyer from the 705th TD Battalion, commanded by S/Sgt Chester Sakwinsky, would rise to the top of the incline, take a shot at the enemy tanks, and then retreat before a barrage of enemy shells could hit it.  The enemy tanks had done much damage to the position.
 
Many of the men manning the line were killed or wounded during the battle and a tank and TD were knocked out.  A group of medics from our battalion aid station managed to reach us and set up in the basement of the big house.  Our efforts to retrieve the wounded were fruitless because the enemy infantry fired on anyone who moved.  Several of our wounded lay screaming in pain and, when we tried to bring them in, were met by barrage of small arms fire.
 
2nd Lieutenant Gwynn had gotten a battlefield commission on the 22nd of December.  He was in command of the two TD’s with 2nd Platoon.  He called Wagner and me for a conference beside the aid station about four in the afternoon when the situation began to look desperate.  Shells had been dropping in the area all day.  We ignored most because by their sound we could tell whether or not they would be close.  The one which hit us we didn’t hear until it was too late; it was an 81mm mortar shell.  We were bowled over like struck ten pins.  Medics rushed from the aid station and got us inside.  Gwynn was the worse hit, peppered all over with shrapnel shards.  Wagner had a piece in the foot and I in the chest and right wrist.  We were treated and put on the floor with other wounded.  Even though I was given morphine the pain in my arm was agonizing.
 

Wagner left the id station near dark in an effort to see what was happening on our front as the gunfire was sporadic at best.  He saw the line of resistance had crumbled and men were trying to withdraw any way they could because they were out of ammunition.  He did his best to rally them but before he could the Germans sensed our predicament and attacked with renewed vigor.  Wagner was cut off from us and could not get back to tell us to make a run for it.  In retrospect there was no way we could.  There were too many liter cases.

 

The aid station was saved from being destroyed by a German-speaking medic who shouted that all inside were wounded.  The Germans burst through the doors with machine pistols ready, angry because so many of their “kamraden kaput.”

 

The battalion withdrew that night on a line where it did not stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of the division.  However, on Christmas Day 18 enemy tanks supported by infantry of the 77th Grenadiers smashed through the battalion.  All the tanks were knocked out by guns of the 705th TD Battalion and the 463rd Parachute Field Artillery plus bazookas of our infantry.  All the enemy infantry were killed, wounded or captured.  By the time the siege of Bastogne ended what was left of the 401st hardly made up a good-sized company.

 
My combat career ended on 23rd of December 1944 but not the war.  Like many other POW’s, I was to endure strafing by our fighter lanes, bombing raids by our B-17’s, and harsh treatment and starvation on my way to North Germany to a prison stalag hospital at Bremervorde, near the port of Bremerhaven.  I was liberated by the British on 1st May 1945, fifty pounds underweight and with serious medical problems.  When the war ended in August I was bedridden at Walter Reed Medical Center, fighting a lung full of blood clots while listening to a wild celebration going on the other wards.  Good treatment saved my life.  Six months later I was well enough to be discharged, forever changed by The Battle of the Bulge.
 
Source: Bulge Bugle August 1990
T/Sgt Robert M. BOWEN

"C" Company

401st Glider Infantry Regiment

101st Airborne Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium