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US Army

Foxholes and Christmas of long ago Remembered…

Foxholes and Christmas of long ago Remembered...

[The following article appeared in The Railsplitter

newsletter of the 84th Infantry Division.  It is an abbreviated

version of an account first written by Phillip Stark in 1948.]
 
It was Christmas Eve, 1944, and our Company held a position just west of the Belgium town of Verdenne.  As Wib Theuerkauf (my 2nd gunner on our 30 caliber light machine gun) and I sat huddled in our foxhole listening to the sounds of German soldiers singing and celebrating in the town, a runner informed us that we would be attacking at about midnight to take the hill 300 or 400 yards directly in front of us.  My machine gun squad was to go with the 1st rifle platoon and Howard Shore’s squad (the other machine gun) was to go with the 2nd Platoon. 
 
While the heavy pounding of the enemy by our artillery was still going on, we took off, running blindly (as usual) and trying to dodge the German machine gun tracers we could see, yet knowing there were others we couldn’t see.  We reached the top of the hill too soon and sustained casualties from our own artillery. 
 
We had been told that we would find fox holes at the top of the hill because the position had been previously occupied by our troops.  We found them but unfortunately there were dead GIs in each one.  So we moved back a bit and dug furiously for the safety that a hole can give. Because we immediately ran into shale rock, we dug till dawn and, even then, we were only just barely able to get my 6’6" frame below the surface (an then only in a tangled position). 
 
Christmas morning was beautiful, clear and crisp.  We persuaded ourselves that this day would be different, that war might be set aside in honor of the birth of the Prince of Peace.  And so I walked down to the holes of the dead GIs in front of us to pick up useful items strewn around their holes.  As I bent to pick up an unused aid packet, my hair literally stood on end -- I saw movement in the hole.  I hole been trying not to look at the mutilated bodies but here was what I thought was a dead body, turning his head to look up at me.  He must have been lying in that position ever since the Germans overran this position a couple of days before.  He pulled himself out from under another (really) dead body and asked me what outfit I was from.  He ignored the obvious hole in his leg and struggled out of the hole. I quickly knew that he was not wholly "with it." 
 
At this precise moment a German armored car, escaping from the town on our left, drove right across our front and opened fire on me and my new friend.  Howard Shore, who had been watching my little drama, was walking down to join me when he was hit in the leg (literally somersaulting him in the air).  When the aid man came to help Howard, I send the other wounded GI with him (still ignoring the hole in his leg). 
 
For the rest of the day the Germans blasted our position and the spirit of Christmas. Their purpose was clear-Germans retreating from Verdenne and crossing our front had to have cover.  As each German vehicle was hit by our anti-tank guns, the riders in it jumped out and ran for the woods far to our front. I fired (with tracers) till the rifleman in the next hole (with an rifle and telescopic sights) told me they were not moving.  It was a bloody Christmas for us in 1944. 
 
The only good news for us that day was that a rifleman nearby had somehow come across a pick ax and gave it to us so that we were able to penetrate the rock to the extent that we could kneel in our hole. 
 
Just before sun-up the next morning, at a time when the front had suddenly become very quiet. Wib (who was on guard) anxiously whispered "Phil."  It was just getting light and we could see many silent figures coming up the slope toward us.  They had traversed the field in front of us in total darkness and were not more than 100 yards away. I slammed my gun in full cock and opened fire, pinning them down quickly.
 
I had to fire and then duck to avoid the return fire that my muzzle flashes drew.  Once when I was up, a bullet pierced the ammunition box to the left of my gun and continued through the material of my overcoat shoulder, but didn’t touch me.  Wib could not keep down and as the duel continued, a bullet went through his helmet, his wool knit cap and out again, only pulling his hair out through the holes.
 
We had been so completely absorbed by our continual fire fight that we had failed to see three German tanks heading right for our hole. We yelled frantically that tanks were coming but there was probably nobody there to hear, our troops were either dead or had retreated.
 
We had no choice but to keep on firing, the enemy was too close and we would have been cut down in an instant had we attempted to run. We heard tank sounds to our rear and, for a fleeting moment, thought that friendly tanks were coming to our rescue.
 
I was firing when Wib came up to take his last look at what was happening.  A bullet hit him in the middle of the forehead.  I was now alone and knew that I too was going to die.  Wib had been there to help reload after the first "ammo" belt was gone, but now I was almost at the end of the second belt and I knew that it would take too long to reload alone.  If I stopped firing for only a moment, the enemy would overrun me.
 
I was firing the last of that second belt when I felt that my head had been tom from my shoulders. I now know that a bullet had ricocheted off the left side of my gun, had broken up and smashed into the left side of my face.  I found myself in the bottom of the hole, my head in bloodied hands.  This had to be the end. 
 
I lifted up to look out and saw an explosion on, or in front of, the middle tank.   It must have been our own artillery.  Whatever it was, it saved my life.  There was a lot of smoke and almost instinctively I scrambled out of the hole and ran for the rear, I ran right into a burning German tank-the tank we had heard and thought might be coming to save us. 
 
I continued to run almost blindly over the hill and found two GIs who bandaged my head.  Then we all took off across the open flat terrain toward the woods from which we had attacked on Christmas Eve.  By this time, the German tanks had reached the top of the hill and were firing at us as we ran. I believe that one of the other fellows was hit, but to stop was to die. 
 
Needless to say, I reached the woods and our troops.  My memory from here on is dim--my head was "splitting."  Aid men picked me up and sent me off to what proved to be six hospitals in two and one-half months and full recovery (except for my permanently blind left eye). I have always wondered what miracle, what twist of fate, allowed me to survive in face of such odds, when so many others died. 
 
Source: The Bulge Bugle February 2000

By Pfc Phillip C. STARK

 

"A" Company,

334th Infantry Regiment

84th Infantry Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium