393d Infantry, 99th Infantry Division
[… I was huddled in my foxhole in the Buchholz Forest the night before the Battle of the Bulge started. Of course I had no idea that one of the most brutal battle of World War II was about to begin. Rather, I assumed that for me and my comrades in the 393rd Infantry Regiment, (99th Infantry Division), December 16, 1944, would be like all the rest. Endless combat preparations punctuated by patrols and attacks had been our daily routine since we had relieved the 9th Infantry Division along the Siegfried Line in November. Little did my platoon or I realize that the dawn of a new day would find us directly in the path of Sepp Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Army as it drove toward its objective of Anvers …]
During the night of December 15 1944, German company commanders gave their men the watchword which had come from the Fuehrer himself : Forward to and over the Meuse River!
The objective was Anvers
Hitler’s concept of the Big Solution had prevailed; the enemy was not to be beaten east of the Meuse but encircled by a turning movement beyond that river. The main effort would be made by Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Army on the north wing, with orders to cross the Meuse River on both sides of Liège, wheel north, and strike for the Albert Canal, fanning out the while to form a front extending from Maastricht to Anvers. Meanwhile the infantry divisions to the rear of the armored columns would form the north shoulder of the initial advance and a subsequent blocking position east of the Meuse River along the Vesdre River. Eventually, or so Hitler intended, the 15.Armee would advance to take a station protecting the 6.SS-Panzer-Army right and rear.
Manteuffel’s 5.Panzer-Army, initially acting as the center, had the mission of crossing the Meuse River to the south of the 6.-SS-Panzer-Army, but because the river angled away to the southwest might be expected to cross a few hours later than its armored partner on the right. Once across the Meuse, Manteuffel had the mission of preventing an allied counterattack against Dietrich’s left and rear by holding the line Anvers – Bruxelles – Namur – Dinant. The left wing of the offensive, composed of infantry and mechanized divisions belonging to Erich Brandenberger’s 7.Armee, had orders to push to the Meuse, unwinding a cordon of infantry and artillery facing south and southwest, thereafter anchoring the southern German flank on the angle formed by the Semois River and the Meuse River. Also, the Fuehrer had expressed the wish that the first segment of the 7.Armee cordon be pushed as far south as Luxembourg City if possible. What course operations were to take once Anvers was captured is none too clear. Indeed no detailed plans existed for this phase. There are numerous indications that the field commanders did not view the Big Solution too seriously but fixed their eyes on the seizure of the Meuse bridgeheads rather than on the capture of Anvers. Probably Hitler had good reason for the final admonition, on December 15, that the attack was not to begin the northward wheel until the Meuse was crossed.
Dietrich’s 6.SS-Panzer-Army, selected to make the main effort, had a distinct political complexion. Its armored divisions all belonged to the Waffen SS, its commander was an old party member, and when regular Wehrmacht officers were assigned to help in the attack preparations they were transferred to the SS rolls. Hitler’s early plans speak of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army, although on December 16, the army still did not bear the SS appellation in any official way, and it is clear that the 6 was accorded the responsibility and honor of the main effort simply because Hitler felt he could depend on the SS.
Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich had the appropriate political qualifications to ensure Hitler’s trust but, on his military record, hardly those meriting command of the main striking force in the great offensive. By profession a butcher, Dietrich had learned something of the soldier’s trade in World War I, rising to the rank of sergeant, a rank which attached to him perpetually in the minds of the aristocratic members of the German General Staff. He had accompanied Hitler on the march to the Feldherrnhalle in 1923 and by 1940 had risen to command the Adolf Hitler Division, raised from Hitler’s bodyguard regiment, in the western campaign. After gaining considerable reputation in Russia, Dietrich was brought to the west in 1944 and there commanded a corps in the great tank battle at Caen. He managed to hang onto his reputation during the subsequent retreats and finally was selected personally by Hitler to command the 6.SS-Panzer-Army. Uncouth, despised by most of the higher officer class, and with no great intelligence, Dietrich had a deserved reputation for bravery and was known as a tenacious and driving division and corps commander. Whether he could command an army remained to be proven.
The attack front assigned the 6.SS-Panzer-Army, the area between Monschau and Krewinkel, was narrower than that of its southern partner because terrain in this sector was poor at the breakthrough points and would not offer cross-country tank going until the Hohes Venn was passed. The initial assault wave consisted of one armored and one infantry corps.
On the south flank :
1.SS-Panzer-Korps (Generalleutnant der WSS Hermann Priess)
On the north flank :
LXVII Corps (General der Infanterie Otto Hitzfeld)
The doctrinal question as to whether tanks or infantry should take the lead, still moot in German military thinking after all the years of war, had been raised when Dietrich proposed to make the initial breakthrough with his 2 panzer divisions. He was overruled by Model, however, and the 3 infantry divisions were given the mission of punching a hole on either side of Udenbreth. Thereafter the infantry was to swing aside, moving northwest to block the 3 roads which led south from Verviers and onto the route the armor would be taking in its dash for Liège.
Hitzfeld’s corps had a less ambitious program : attack on either side of Monschau, get across the Mutzenich – Elsenborn road, then turn north and west to establish a hard flank on the line Simmerath – Eupen – Limbourg. All five of the 6.SS-Panzer infantry divisions ultimately would wind up, or so the plan read, forming a shoulder on an east-west line from Roetgen (north of Monschau) to Liège. Under this flank cover the armored divisions of the 1.SS-Panzer-Korps would roll west, followed by the second armored wave, the :
2.SS-Panzer-Korps (General der WSS Willi Bittrich)
Dietrich’s staff had selected five roads to carry the westward advance, the armor being assigned priority rights on the four southernmost. Actually it was expected that the 1.SS-Panzer-Division and the 12.SS-Panzer-Division would use only one road each. (These two routes ran through the 99th Infantry Division sector.) Although the planning principle as regards the armored divisions was to hold the reins loose and let them run as far and as fast as they could, the 6.SS-Panzer-Army did have a timetable :
1 day for penetration and breakout !
1 day to get the armor over the Hohes Venn !
Meuse River was to be reached by the evening of day 3 !
Crossings to be secured by Day 4 !
This army was relatively well equipped and trained. Most of its armor had been out of combat for some time and the horde of replacements had some degree of training in night movement and fighting. The 1.SS-Panzer-Division and 2.SS-Panzer-Division had not been loaded with Luftwaffe and over-age replacements as had the other divisions. The artillery complement of the 6.SS-Panzer-Army was very heavy, albeit limited in mobility by the paucity of self-propelled battalions. The four armored divisions had about 500 tanks and armored assault guns, including 90 Tigers (Mark VI). Lacking were two things which would markedly affect the operations of the entire 6.SS-Panzer-Army once battle was joined. There were few trained engineer companies and these had little power equipment. The infantry lacked their full complement of assault guns, a weapon on which the German rifle platoon had learned to lean in the assault; only the 3.Fallschirmjäger-Division was fully armed with this critical infantry weapon.
The 99th Infantry Division was a relatively green unit as far as combat goes, but we were well trained. Most of us had been with the division from its early days at Camp Van Dorn, Missouri, through advanced instruction at Camp Maxey, Texas. By the time we shipped out of Boston Harbor in September 1944, most of the division’s citizen soldiers had nearly two full years of training. And with the influx of men from the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) to replace some of our own men who had earlier been shipped out as replacements for the 85th and 88th Infantry divisions, we also had a solid contingent of bright young minds to complement our soldierly skills. I (Robert Walter) was a 22 year old technical sergeant with the 3rd Plat, L Co, 3rd Bn, 393d Infantry.
Army Units WW 2
One regular World War Two Infantry Division consisted mainly in 3 infantry regiments, 4 artillery battalions and the division’s trains and attached units. In 1944, the 99th Infantry Division consisted of :
393rd Infantry Regiment
394th Infantry Regiment
395th Infantry Regiment
HQs Battery Division Artillery
370th Field Artillery Battalion (105-MM)
371st Field Artillery Battalion (105-MM)
372nd Field Artillery Battalion (155-MM)
924th Dield Artillery Battalion (155-MM)
99th Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop Mecz
99th Signal Company
99th Quartermaster Company
799th Ordnance Light Maintenance Company
324th Medical Company
Composition of the Infantry Regiment
3 Infantry Battalions
Regimental Hqs & Hqs Company
Anti Tank Company
Composition of the Infantry Battalion
3 Rifles Companies
Battalion Hqs & Hqs Company
1 Heavy Weapons Company
D Company (Heavy Weapons Company)
H Company (Heavy Weapons Company)
M Company (Heavy Weapons Company)
Becoming a platoon sergeant wasn’t something I anticipated when I was drafted in 1942. I was a country boy and had always been backward in school, even though I was involved in athletics. Leadership didn’t seem like my gift, but the Army saw something in me and I advanced through the ranks rapidly. So, the 99th Infantry Division arrived in the British Isles in October 1944. Then on November 2, we boarded LSTs (Landing Ships Tank) for the trip across the Channel to Le Havre in France. It took three days for the whole division to unload, but given the need for reinforcements, some of our units set out as soon as they landed. By the end of the first week of November, the entire division had reassembled in Saint-Jean-Sart near Aubel in Belgium. It was here we saw our first buzz bomb go overhead and began to realize we were in a war. Our next stop was three miles east of the twins villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath and also about 45 miles southeast from Aubel, where my regiment relieved the 39th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division. We were now directly opposite the Siegfried Line.
When my lieutenant jumped down from our vehicle, he broke his ankle and was carried away. I never saw him again. With the manpower shortage all along the front at that time, no officer was reassigned to take his place. Suddenly, I found myself completely in charge of my platoon as we prepared to enter combat for the first time ! As soon as the relief was complete, we busied ourselves adding our own touches to the foxholes the 39th Infantry Regiment had left behind. The weather was noticeably colder and snowier at the front, and we wanted to make our positions as ready as possible for whatever lay ahead. While we settled in, the other regiments in the division made similar preparations. The 395th Infantry Regiment was to the north of us, taking over for the 102nd Cavalry Group, the 85th Cavalry Reconnaissance Group and elements of the 39th Infantry Regiment. The 394th Infantry Regiment moved to our south toward Wirtzfeld and relieved the 60th Infantry Regiment. By November 14, our division had responsibility for a front 22 miles long, five times what we should have had. Other divisions on either side of us were spread just as thin. Our new sector was comparatively quiet, but being green to combat, it was hardly relaxing for us. There was always sporadic rifle and artillery fire, and we took casualties almost daily. Our most exciting times occurred on the reconnaissance and combat patrols we ran between the International Highway, a north-south road near the Belgian-German border, and the first belt of the Siegfried Line. Some platoon leaders had trouble getting men to volunteer for these patrols, but I never did. I had a good group who trusted me, which made my job much easier.
On December 13, as part of a V Corps plan to capture the Roer River Dams, the 2nd Infantry Division with the 395th Infantry Regiment less his 3rd battalion but reinforced with the 2-393, launched an attack north of us. The 3-393, supported this assault by sweeping through Rath Hill while the 1-393, and the 394th Infantry Regiment staged demonstration attacks of their own farther to the south. Fortunately, our part of the mission went better than expected. By day’s end, we had captured the Crossroad in the International Highway (soon to be nicknamed – Purple Heart Crossroad) and cleared Rath Hill. We were digging foxholes to its west along the International Highway. Our defensive position consisted of L, I, K Companies in a line that ran from north to south. I Company nestled itself in to the north of an unpaved road that ran west from Hollerath, and intersected the International Highway at a point we soon began to call Purple Heart Corner. K Company was located south of this road.
For the next two days, we made the customary improvements to our positions and listened to the battle for the pillboxes that raged to our north. A few of our more optimistic members, bolstered by the good news we’d been getting in Stars & Stripes, predicted Germany was finished and that the war was as good as over. As we hunkered down in our holes on the night of December 15, the rest of us hoped this was true but those hopes were soon dashed.
At 0530, on the morning of December 16 1944, our quiet was interrupted by German artillery that began hammering positions around and behind us. For a few minutes we didn’t think much about the incoming rounds. We had already become familiar with the Germans’ habit of repeating their barrage patterns with clock like precision. At the same time each day, the pillbox periscopes would come up, the Germans would survey our positions, and then, all along our line, they would launch a few shells our way. After that, we wouldn’t hear from them until the next day. We’d taken to calling this our ‘daily allowance’ and figured they were finally breaking with tradition and getting things done a little early that morning.
As the tempo of the shelling picked up, it quickly became apparent that there was something different about this morning’s greeting. To begin with, we’d never experienced anything like it in terms of intensity. Second, it went on without letup for two hours. My platoon wasn’t being hit, but units around us were catching it good. We couldn’t figure out what the Germans were shooting at and concluded that they were trying to knock out our artillery. Suddenly, German infantry and armored struck with terrific force east of Krinkelt and spearheaded up the Losheim – Bullingen road (Losheimer Gap). The five battalions of ours holding that front caught this attack. It was being made by what turned out to be five or more German divisions, 2 volksgrenadier, 2 panzer and 1 or 2 SS divisions. While this took place on our middle and southern front, our northern front, held by our lone 3rd Battalion 395 and the 99th Recon Troop, was hit by a force estimated at a regiment of volksgrenadier reinforced by tanks. Our men stopped that force before it could get to their lines. In the area where our troops had been attacking into the Siegfried Line, the enemy went on the offensive and attacked with infantry and armor. He was stopped cold and our units continued to withdraw slowly and carefully. In the south it was a different story. With our right flank wide open and no troops available to plug the holes, the Germans kept probing farther and farther westward until they found a soft spot (the road running north from Honsfeld toward Bullingen.
Motorized German infantry and armor sped up that road to be stopped temporarily near Honsfeld by the action of C Company, 801-TDB which had taken up positions in that vicinity. A rear guard action ensued. That lone company, without infantry support and handicapped with towed guns, was soon pushed out of Honsfeld. Slowly it fell back toward Bullingen, taking up repeated delaying positions along that road and forcing the Germans to deploy to drive them out of position after position before falling back again and again. Meanwhile the enemy drove headlong into our lines across the Losheim – Bullingen road. He was determined to seize Losheimgraben, the name for the little group of buildings at that important crossroad. He dive-bombed and shelled the buildings, then threw in another force of infantrymen. It was stopped in its tracks. Exasperated by the stubborn defense these exhausted men of the 1st Battalion drew under small arms fire and tank attack. It had to abandon some of its vehicles while pulling through Krinkelt which was being heavily shelled.
Maj Gen Walter E. Lauer
CO 99th Infantry Division
The five battalions along the front center to south flank were :
1st Battalion, 393rd Infantry Regiment
3rd Battalion, 393rd Infantry Regiment
1st Battalion, 394th Infantry Regiment
2nd Battalion, 394th Infantry Regiment
3rd Battalion, 394th Infantry Regiment
At full strength each battalion had 825 men. A German division averaged 8000 men; roughly we had 4000 men and the Germans 40.000 men along that part of our front-about ten to one.
S/Sgt M. E. Gibel
Able Battery, 370th Field Artillery Battalion, Lakewood. Calif
When the barrage lifted, my 3rd platoon stayed low and on the alert. The main bombardment seemed to be over, but we still heard significant rifle and shellfire around us, even though we had not yet seen any German soldiers. We were confused and knew only that our quiet sector was no longer quiet. I could feel the growing weight of my responsibilities as platoon leader and hoped that my company commander, Capt Paul Fogelman, would radio to tell me what was going on. His call finally came, but it wasn’t what I expected.
Bob, some Germans have infiltrated our kitchen. Take your platoon and clean them out.
I assembled my men, and we started back for our company kitchen area, located roughly three city blocks behind us, carrying only the weapons and ammunition we needed for the job. Everything else we left in our foxholes. After all, we’d be coming back to our positions. Why carry stuff we couldn’t use ? Not yet halfway to our objective, we began running into Germans, a lot of them. Instead of simply hiking back to our kitchen, we ended up having to fight our way in. When we got there, I radioed Capt Fogelman about our situation.
Something’s wrong, sir ! There’s more Germans back here than there are in front of us !!!
We began clearing the kitchen area, and as we moved in, the Germans moved out. It seemed they were more interested in continuing west than in fighting us. Before long, we had the area secure except for one building that I wasn’t sure about. I asked one of my men to toss a grenade at it, but he couldn’t hit it. Several others also tried, but they had no better luck. Since I’d played a lot of ball, I decided to lead by example. Rising to my feet (we were all on the ground by this time), I ducked behind a tree, pulled the pin on a grenade, released its handle and heaved it toward the building. The grenade exploded as it was going over the roof. The noise inside must have been deafening. No one came out, so we decided the place was deserted.
At the same time about 30 feet away, a white flag rose out of the foxhole used by our kitchen crew. Its current occupants turned out to be three German soldiers with a machine gun. Why they didn’t shoot when I stood up, I’ll never know. We took those Germans prisoner, then took what cover we could in the area and waited for orders. By now the firing was coming from all directions. Being on your feet, even crouched, would have been suicide. In the woods all around us, we could hear the shouts of German troops as they headed west. They seemed unconcerned about the noise they were making. While we waited, Pvt Snow crawled up beside me. He was a quiet kid, a good soldier but obviously frightened.
‘Sergeant, can I stay near you?’ he asked. ‘You seem kind of lucky.’
‘Help yourself,’ I answered.
Snow moved in so close that we were actually up against each other as we lay side by side. After about 10 minutes, I asked Snow something. He didn’t respond, so I glanced over at him. A bullet had caught him between the eyes and he was gone. I had not even felt him twitch.
Masses of German infantry were now pouring through the area, and we could see we were hopelessly outnumbered, so I decided not to wait any longer for orders. We began withdrawing from the kitchen area. Now we experienced something you can only understand if you’ve been through it : the helplessness of being carried along by a battle. Sometimes no matter how well you’re trained, in the face of superior enemy forces, you can only react to what the enemy is doing. That’s what happened to my platoon. We were not really retreating but simply doing our best to stay out of the enemy’s way until we could figure out what was happening and what we should do about it. Dodging and praying, fighting only when necessary we looked for any friendly unit we could hook up with. Staying together was impossible. Some of my men were cut off while, at the same time, we picked up stragglers from other outfits. One of my squad leaders, S/Sgt Vernon McGarity, got separated and fought his own battle that resulted in his being wounded. Over the course of several days fighting, a number of courageous actions led to his being captured and, later, receiving the Medal of Honor, the only 99er to receive that award.
The ebb and flow of our withdrawal pushed us southeast, through I Company’s sector across the road from Hollerath, and into the area that was supposed to be under the control of K Company, but when we got there we were practically alone. The main German attack that morning had been pointed right at that company; all but one of the platoons had been wiped out. Understandably shaken by what they had endured, the survivors told us wild stories of German troops using their bayonets to slit open K Company men they found wearing German belt buckles. The news unsettled us and caused my little group to think. Several days earlier, my squad had come across a hollow tree packed with German money. Not being ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, we filled our pockets, thinking it would come in handy when we got to Germany. By this time I had also picked up a beautiful jeweled pin in Krinkelt. I was told that the pin was given to any Belgian woman who became pregnant by an SS trooper, as a way of recognizing her contribution to the ‘master race.’ Frightened of the fate that awaited us if we were captured with this booty, we all quickly emptied our pockets of any souvenirs.
Almost as soon as we had reached what remained of K Company, scores of German tanks began rolling in on the unpaved road from Hollerath. We couldn’t believe it. Everybody thought that road was impassable, and we figured it was mined as well. With nowhere to go and nothing at hand to fight this new menace, we hid in the woods beside the road and watched the procession go by. It took two days. From our vantage point we could see an endless stream of enemy vehicles passing us. After a while, the squeaking of the tank tracks really got to me. I was so close that, had I had one, I could have touched the armored giants with a fishing rod as they passed. Eventually, one of my riflemen took a shot at a panzer, but the next tank in line fired a shell in our direction as if to say, ‘Get the hell out of the way.’ Luckily he couldn’t get his barrel down low enough to do more than frighten us. All this time, we stayed hidden in the trees and bushes or burrowed down in the snow. Somehow we convinced ourselves that if we couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see us. I’m sure they knew we were there, but they were more interested in keeping to their schedule.
At some point on the 16th I had finally reestablished contact with L Company headquarters. Like us, they were surrounded. My commander had no orders for me other than to sit tight at our current location. Then he said something that made me realize how serious our situation was :
‘If you surrender, there will be no repercussions.’
I never shared this part of our conversation with my men. I didn’t want to surrender and was certain they didn’t either. Instead, I told them we were going to lie low and hold our fire until we could find a way out. I spent many anxious moments thinking :
‘What are we going to do ?’
Early on the December 18, Capt Fogelman radioed that a route back to our lines had been located. The company was going to attempt to pull back, and he wanted my platoon to conduct a delaying action while the rest of the company moved out. When the moment came, we gave covering fire as ordered while everyone else withdrew through a small valley to their rear. Soon after the pullout started, we heard mortar fire and everything else dropping into that valley. It was obvious the move hadn’t gone undetected. I gave the company an hour and then decided it was time for us to get out as well. Not far from where L Company withdrew was a low hill. I told my guys :
‘We aren’t trained this way, but you see that hill behind us ? Personally, I’m going over it. You can follow me, or, if you think you know a better way, you can take it. The main thing is to get out of here and back to our lines.’
Every soldier there went with me, and we withdrew without losing a man. Our escape was only a small victory. We were still well behind the front of the German advance and traveling cross-country through snow that was now 2 feet deep. To further increase our discomfort, it was snowing hard. The wind was blowing the flakes around so hard you could barely see. What was worse, we were not properly equipped for that type of weather. It was the most miserable hike of my military career. We had little choice but to continue on our way. As we slogged along we ran across American jeeps and artillery pieces that had been abandoned when the Germans attacked. To prevent their use by the enemy, we would take grenades and place them in the gun breech or engine compartment to ensure that our foes did not have any more of our own equipment to use against us than they already had. Fortunately we also found some outfit’s food dump– and I do mean dump. We hadn’t eaten for two days, and by now some of our fear had given way to hunger. Rummaging through the garbage, we ate whatever we could find, things that, only a few days before, others had seen fit to throw out. It was harrowing, but we finally reached L Company on the evening of the 18th near Krinkelt. Our assembly point was a clearing in a small wooded area. The Germans knew what we were up to and spent the entire night firing phosphorus shells into the woods, trying to light it up and turn us into targets.
The next day we stumbled across the last few yards of hostile territory to the new American defensive position, a boomerang-shape piece of high ground on the Elsenborn Ridge. Grateful to be reunited with comrades, we were told :
‘The only way you’re leaving here is on a litter !’
The position along the ridge was located on the northern shoulder of the German penetration and had become a collection point of sorts for units that had been shattered at the start of the enemy offensive. With so many troops from different units arriving in every kind of condition, organizing a coherent defense was a huge task, but one that occurred with surprising speed under the circumstances. It’s a good thing, too, because on Dec 20, the 6. SS Panzer Army made several all-out attacks trying to smash our lines and continue to Antwerp. Artillery, tanks, infantry, self-propelled guns, whatever they had, they threw at us. And they just kept coming, too, attacking at 0900, 1100 and 1730 that day. The firepower on both sides was unbelievable, growing so loud and vicious that at one point I and another soldier had to drag back one man who had gone berserk and was starting out after a tank with his rifle. Later, we called in artillery strikes on our own positions to knock out panzers that had closed to within 60 yards of our foxholes. Through it all, we managed to hold. The Germans made two more massed attempts on the 21st and 28th. Then the struggle for Elsenborn Ridge settled into a long-range affair, with the enemy in the woods to our east. The fight was far from over, German artillery now became our biggest problem. As bad as it was, however, at least we weren’t facing the mind-numbing fear of tanks and infantry bearing down on us. Layered defense, outposts and patrolling now became our routine. I’ve often said :
‘A guy can talk to someone who was only 200 yards away during the Battle of the Bulge, and his experience will be totally different.’
It was certainly that way along the Elsenborn Ridge. Every day, it seemed, I experienced something that amazed, amused or horrified me. On one occasion, one of my patrols came back with a German soldier it had captured. They brought him to me for interrogation. This fellow’s English was impeccable. He asked me what state I was from and I told him Ohio. Then he asked me what city in Ohio. ‘Fostoria,’ I said. ‘I know Fostoria well,’ he replied. It turned out that before the war he had attended the state university in Bowling Green, and was better acquainted with Fostoria than I was ! Another time, the members of a patrol I’d scheduled showed up driving a jeep they’d stolen from regimental headquarters. They were carrying white long johns, also pilfered, that they intended to wear over their uniforms to camouflage themselves against the snow. The thought of their ‘risque’ camouflage still amuses me.
Artillery strikes were a constant worry. My foxhole mate was our platoon messenger, Art Molter. One evening, as Molter was returning from our command post, a shell exploded beside our foxhole. Leaping out, I found him lying on the ground. He was alive, but the top of his head had been peeled back like a can lid, and I could see his brain ! Reacting with a combination of instinct and Army training, I flipped the top of his head back in place and called the medics. He survived. Equally terrible was the night I went forward to an outpost whose two-man crew wouldn’t answer my radio calls. I found them dead. They’d both been suffocated by their desert stove, a small warming device made by pouring gas into a C-ration can filled with sand and then lighting the fumes, when they failed to vent their foxhole properly. Early one morning, I noticed a small procession of people trudging along a fence row in the no man’s land between the Germans and us. Instead of an enemy patrol, it turned out to be a Catholic nun and several small children braving the danger, snow and freezing temperatures just to reach the safety of our lines. It was a deeply moving sight. As big as the Battle of the Bulge was, sometimes my corner of it seemed like old-home week. The third day after arriving on the Ridge, I glanced out of my foxhole just in time to see Les Lindower, a kid I knew from school, walking by. I had no idea Les was in Europe.
‘Hey, Les !’ I called
‘Where are you going ?’
‘Is that you, Bob ?’ he asked
‘What are you doing here ?’
‘The same thing you are,’ I answered
‘You’d better jump in.’
Les hopped into my foxhole and informed me that he was running wire for an artillery spotter and needed to find the front line.
‘You found it,’ I said, ‘and if you go any farther, you’ll be in German lines.’
Les decided he’d gone far enough. Later, I ran into another Fostoria native, Bob Kramb, who provided details on tragic news I’d received in a letter from my mother at Christmastime. My brother Paul, a member of the 3rd Armored Division, had been killed at Aachen on December 5 while trying to rescue another man. Bob had been in Aachen when Paul was killed and was able to tell me how he died. Somehow it helped to know what happened. By the end of January 1945, the southern shoulder of the Bulge, which now stretched almost to the Meuse River, had been flattened to a point where the Allied lines were once again nearly parallel. Beginning on January 30, the 99th went back on the offensive, and by February 3, through some strange act of war, my platoon found itself back in the kitchen area we’d been forced to abandon Dec 16. We were able to recover Private Snow’s frozen body. My war ended the night of February 11 when a jeep overloaded with men returning from a patrol crashed head-on into another jeep on the International Highway. I wound up with my legs pinned between both vehicles. Having survived some of the most intense combat of the Battle of the Bulge, I was now sidelined by an ordinary traffic accident. Wounded twice, Robert Walter never received the Purple Heart. His first wound went unreported and the second was due to the jeep accident. After recovering from his injuries, he returned to Ohio.