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US Army

My Recollections During Battle

 

My Recollections During Battle
 
The Hill - First Combat - I was a 19 year-old rifleman with the rank of PFC and as I remember it, our company was de­ployed along a road at the base of a hill that had open fields of frozen, furrowed ground.  At the top of the hill, in a wood, the Germans were dug in.  We were hidden from their view behind a snow-covered embankment several hundred yards down at the bottom of the hill.  It was bright and cold that Christmas Day of 1944, and we were poorly dressed for the weather, having been ordered to leave our overcoats in the rear.  Neither did we have enough ammunition -only three clips for our M1’s. 
 
While we waited there, suddenly a GI came running down the hill towards us.  He was one of the men of Company “K”, which had at­tempted to take the hill the day before, but had been repulsed by the enemy.  He had been lying there on the hill all night, wounded.  As he ran down the Germans started firing at him.  But, wounded as he was, he made it to our lines. 
 
I remember lying there with my nose inches away from the snow, fascinated by the glittering crystals reflecting the sun.  I had an overpowering desire to remain there and not move.  However, it wasn’t long before our company commander, Captain Stewart, gave the order to get up and charge the hill.  Unbeliev­ably, no one moved.  He repeated the order, blowing a whistle; still no one moved.  He then gave our platoon leader, Lieutenant Weber, a direct order to charge.  When Weber started up the hill, we all followed. 
 
As we ran up the hill the Germans were firing down at us.  The bullets from their machine guns were flying just a few inches off the ploughed ground.  While I was running, slipping and tripping over the frozen furrows, I was firing my M1 toward the top of the hill, not seeing any of the well-hidden enemy.  As I ran, I saw men in my squad to my right, dropping to the ground, one after the other.  By the time I reached the tree line at the top, I was the last one on the right flank.  I dropped to the ground.  (One of my buddies, Cal, was hit five times.  I didn’t see him again until after the war in the States.)  There was shouting and shots, and then the machine gun that had been firing at us was silenced.  We had taken the hill but lost thirty of our men, wounded or killed. 
 
Moving On - When we reached the woods at the top of the hill and had cleared the immediate area of Germans, we started to move through the snow-covered forest. We had no idea— at least not the enlisted men—where we were or where we were going. There were GI’s from other divisions coming through our lines.  Some were from a tank outfit, I believe the 3rd Ar­mored Division, that had lost their tanks to the Panzer division.  It seemed as if it was all confusion and no direction. 
 
At one point, where we stopped and were told to dig in, another GI and I spotted some soldiers digging on the other side of a large clearing.  We told the captain, who said he thought they were men from other outfit.  We learned the next morning, as they opened fire on us, that we had been watching the Germans.  Again, we got out of our foxholes and started to move through the forest in another direction. I never found out what happened at the position we left. 
 
Under Fire - We continued through fields and forest until we came to a wooded hill overlooking a small village.  We dug our foxholes on the side of the hill, each one large enough for two men.  Digging in the frozen ground in the forest floor with an entrenching tool (a small collapsible spade) was exhausting but necessary for survival.  Our positions on the side of the hill were being hit by German artillery fire.  One day during our stay on this hill, I got an attack of diarrhea.  I got out of the foxhole and leaned with my back against a tree.  Suddenly, enemy artillery fire started to explode in the trees.  A piece of shrapnel hit the other side of the tree I was leaning against from just about where my head was.  Holding my pants up with one hand, I dived into the foxhole.  Our artillery fire, going over us, was pounding the village every day and we were getting occasional German fire in return.  The open space around the farmhouses was strewn with dead farm animals. 
 
I was in a foxhole with another GI whose name I am not remember.  We took turns, supposedly one hour on duty standing in the hole, alert for possible enemy infiltrators, and one hour sleeping at the bottom of the hole.  The nights were moonless and very black.  We had to judge an hour without being able to consult a watch, since watches had radium dials that glowed and could betray our position.  Having been awakened twelve times during the night to stand watch, I realized that it was impossible to judge an hour’s time in total darkness.  We were constantly hungry, lack­ing sleep and cold.  All we had were thin combat jackets, sweat­ers, knit caps which we cut to cover our faces also, and knit gloves that were worn through at the fingers.  We had leggings and high shoes that were always wet, and no combat boots.  I got my first pair after the Bulge.  I felt miserable and barely able to stay awake.  However, falling asleep while on watch was a court-martial offense and could jeopardize our lives.
 
After we had been there a couple of days, one morning my foxhole buddy, who had been sleeping, awoke and said that he couldn’t move.  I called for the medics, who took him back to Company “HQ”.  As I heard later, the thermometer that they put in his mouth indicated that he was frozen.  I never saw him again, but I think he survived.
 
While we were there we were given “C” rations and “K” rations.  Hot food, although prepared in the rear, was not delivered to us because enemy fire deterred the jeeps from carrying it to our po­sitions.  Also, some of the better-tasting “C” rations never seemed to reach us either.  We suspected that a selection process was tak­ing place at the rear before delivery.  However, on New Year’s Eve, in total darkness, we got our Christmas dinner-turkey and cold mashed potatoes.  Food occupied my thoughts constantly: I savored every hard candy in the rations.
 
I wondered why we were in these positions for so many days and why we were shelling this small village.   It became apparent when our phosphorus artillery shells hit an ammunition dump that the enemy had stored there.   The explosions were like Fourth of July fireworks.  Yet, in spite of the pounding, another company of our men drove out Germans hiding in the destroyed build­ings.
 
Last Days on the Front - We left our positions on the side of the hill after five days and once again trudged through the forest.  By this time my feet were causing me pain with every step from irritations or blisters on my heels.  I bad lost weight, my gums were bleeding, I was cold and tired and I didn’t know how much longer I could continue.  As we came to a clearing in the forest, the sight and smell of burning tanks greeted us.  Bod­ies and body parts of GIs were sticking out of the snow.  Sud­denly enemy mortar fire exploded nearby as we were digging our foxholes.  We stopped digging and moved to another posi­tion as mortar fire came at us from another direction.  We really didn’t know where the enemy was, at least not the GIs digging into the frozen ground.  However, the foxholes were home for at least a couple of days.  I remember that I ate my “C” rations in my foxhole, surrounded by the dead and the abandoned tanks, and being numbed to the sight.
 
I walked to the company command post on a path through the snow, I believe to get rations.  On my way, I saw, among others, the body of a lieutenant from another outfit, completely decapi­tated.  Also, along the path, was a GI lying in the snow with an unexploded shell that seemed to have hit his leg.  He had a green­ish pallor and was apparently dead.  I had passed him a couple of times the day before.  On the second day on my trip to the CP, I was stunned to see him move and cry out for help.  I went to get help, and subsequently the medics carried him off to a collect­ing station.  I found out later that he had survived.  He was lucky to have been frozen in the snow, which probably kept him from bleeding to death.
 
My feet were becoming increasingly painful from the infections on my heels and from trench foot.  I was weak and exhausted from digging and walking.  I told our First Sergeant that I needed to go back to the medical collecting station. He made me prom­ise to return the next day (we were desperately short of men).  I got into a jeep that took me to the collecting station in the basement of a house.  They sat me on a chair and gave me hot coffee as a medic cut the laces from my cold, wet shoes.  The first warmth I had felt in weeks was in that basement, and I imme­diately fell asleep in the chair.  When I awoke I was being lifted into an ambulance on a litter.
 
My days on the front in the Battle of the Bulge had ended, but not my combat experience.  On January 3, 1945, I was started on my trip back to a general hospital in Paris, where the doctors de­termined that I would be sent back to a hospital in the UK.  Our Division reached St. Vith, I was told, with only seven men left of the original Company.  After a couple of months of recovery in England, I rejoined my Company three days before the Rhine River crossing.  There had been an almost complete replacement of the original Company by new men.
 
An Unlikely Santa Claus - I don’t remember when this in­cident occurred in the sequence of events. However, I will re­late it because it indicates the conditions that we lived through at the time, and because the incident is still vivid in my mind.  Our squad somehow was isolated from the rest of our platoon.  We were holed up in a Belgian farmhouse — the owners were not there, and we took turns on guard outside the building.  We were there for a while and no rations had been brought to us.  All of us were getting very hungry, with no apparent means of ac­quiring food.  To my amazement, our Sergeant said that I should go out and get food for the squad.  I thought he was joking, but he was serious and gave me an order to go.  I left the house and started down the road, confident that it was impossible for me to carry out the order.  I believed that the Sergeant himself didn’t think I would be successful.
 
I came to a farmhouse occupied by a Belgian family. I knocked on the door; a very poor-looking fanner answered.  In my remem­bered high school French I asked him, for food.  He looked at me as if I were demented, because they were in very bad shape themselves.  But, even knowing that it was futile, I had to make the attempt to carry out the order.  I resumed trudging down the road not knowing really where I was going.  Suddenly, I spotted an army truck parked, with some GIs lined up at the back of the truck.  I saw that it was a supply truck for the tankers, and that they were handing out rations for their men.  In desperation, I got on the line.  When my turn came at the back of the truck, I asked if I could get some food for my squad, thinking that I probably would be refused because the rations were for their outfit.  One of the men handing out the rations looked down at me and said, “Gee, fella.”  What he apparently saw was a sight unlike the ap­pearance of the tankers, more like Willie and Joe, the characters in Bill Mauldin’s cartoons.  My face exhibited weeks of beard growth and was almost black with dirt, my uniform torn and dirt-covered.  Without any questions, he handed me a ten-in-one box of rations and a large loaf of locally baked bread. 
 
I started back to my squad. When I opened the door, the men looked at me in near-disbelief at what I was carrying.  These ten-in-one rations, which were far better than the “C” or “K” rations, were never available to us at the front, because they were in a large box that could be carried only in a vehicle, and not by a foot soldier.  We had rations enough for all of us for one meal.  I don’t think Santa Claus would have been as welcome as I was with that one meal from the tankers. 
 
I Rejoin My Company on the Rhine River - It was a long trip back to my company from England.  It had been the policy to send troops, who were returning from hospital stays, to any front line outfit that needed replacements.  Many of those GIs who were sent to be these replacements went AWOL and sought out their original companies.  The Army eventually abandoned that policy and returned these men to their outfits.
 
I now had orders to return to the 290th Regiment and traveled by truck to various Replacement Depots through France. These places were transient stops for returning troops to have a place to eat, sleep and await the next truck to move you to your des­tination.  However, it was like shooting at a moving target.  No sooner did you get closer to your regiment than it had moved on to another front.  So, I kept being trucked from one Depot to another until I reached my company three days before the Rhine River crossing.  I rejoined the remaining few of my bud­dies who had survived the Bulge, and mostly new replacements.  After one of the most intense artillery bombardments over our positions to the other side of the river, we crossed over on a pontoon bridge put down by the Engineers.  We were now on our way, taking town after town through the Ruhr Valley in Ger­many.  One particular incident, though, that remains vivid my memory occurred when we were approaching the outskirts of a certain town.  When we got to a road we were suddenly fired upon from our rear.  It seems that another company, at some dis­tance behind us, had mistakenly thought we were Germans and started firing.  We ducked down in a ditch that ran alongside the road.  Then, what I thought was a remarkably brave move, our sergeant stood up and waved his arms at the men firing at us and yelled for them to stop.  Unbelievably, he was not shot and the firing at us ceased.  We were then able to move on.
 
We Liberate a Slave Labor Camp - After fighting our way through the Ruhr Valley, our company ended up in a city named Schwerte on the Ruhr River.  There we found a slave labor camp with several thousand Poles, Russians and Ital­ians who were made to work for the Germans in that area.  Now, with fewer than two hundred men in our company, we had to occupy and police a city of thirty-five thousand Germans and take care of a camp with thousands of slave laborers.  In addition, since the war was not yet over, we had to be on the alert for German snipers that might attempt a rearguard attack.  We took over the city’s courthouse and seat of government.   Therefore, we needed German-speaking GIs in order to com­municate with the officials and police of the city.  (By the way, it was a court martial offense to fraternize with the German popu­lation.)  We had two of our men who could speak German but we needed a third.  Since I understood Yiddish, which is in large part derived from German, I was made an interpreter.  I was en­sconced in an office near the entrance to the courthouse and I had the keys to the jail that was in the basement.  When curfew violators were brought in, I had to lock them up.  I also had to deal with relatives or wives that came to visit the prisoners.
 
On many occasions the German Police Chief would come to me at the office with a list of livestock that had been slaughtered on different farms, and carried away to the camp by the inmates the previous night.  He seemed outraged that these slave laborers would steal this food from the Germans.
 
Source: The Bulge Bugle May 2012

By Pfc Alfred MOSKOWITZ

 

"F" Company,

290th Infantry Regiment

75th Infantry Division

 

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium