After leaving Saarlautern, the Division moved east and southeast in mid-March in the Saarland. Movements were done frequently by truck and tanks when possible, supported ahead by two task forces. Resistance was light as the task forces with armor rolled through villages in which most of the population that remained hung white bed sheets from windows. A path through the concrete dragon teeth of the anti-tank barrier, which stretched to each side for many miles, had been blown by engineers to allow easy passage for tanks with infantry aboard and other support vehicles. With that accomplished, continuous movement with armor or vehicles was interrupted sporadically, and mostly briefly, by small arms fire which required some minimal response from us. Anything more than that could be a difficult job. The tanks and trucks, if the latter were close, had to use winches to pull larger tree trunks felled across a road by explosive charges. Even more care had to be taken to locate, remove or explode safely booby traps which in many cases were within the tangle of branches and tree trunks. Other road blocks were more difficult to get around or through only because of the numeric strength of the defenders or their refusal to fade away or surrender or both. But on we went using whatever was required to take care of the problem.
After a series of easy road blocks and persistent but minor resistance while we moved along, the tanks, our M-4s (Sherman), pulled to the side of the road to check maps. This we did in about 1-5 minutes. About to move on aboard our tank we looked up at the sound of a vehicle motor as a staff car breezed by, moved about 40 feet ahead of the lead tank, and stopped on the side of the road. Our column started up again, came level with the staff car which had a plaque on the rear with some white stars. I saw that the lead tank, we were second, pulled away from us. We jerked forward. Looking ahead from where I sat near the turret, I saw an officer standing up in the rear energetically pumping his arm up and down in the get a move on sign. Lo and behold it was General Patton in shiny helmet, tight jacket, and THE pistol. He couldn’t stay away from the action. He kept his arm pumping as the column moved by. We didn’t slow down and passed the staff car as the General saluted, waved and pumped away as we rumbled by with grins and our own salutes. After all, we were Patton’s boys, weren’t we? 30 minutes later, with Patton well behind, we stopped well short of one mean looking road block. The trees had been felled in an unusually strong defensive pattern, interlocked. I and maybe 11 other men jumped from my tank and the lead tank to the road, scattered, spread out even more into the ditches, while two started to advance quickly down the road.
There was one shot from one German rifle.
Seemed to come from behind the barrier itself.
To get our attention ?
Hey, we want to surrender ?
Hell no !
One of our boys fell to the road, on his back, without a sound. His helmet off, he lay there quietly, no movement, brown hair ruffled. I still see that. He didn’t know what hit him because the round went in just below his helmet on the bridge of his nose. More of our troops jumped down and took cover behind our and the lead tank. Another tank moved up beside us. I think another 10 men took cover as we had. We split up, our two groups opened fire on the entire width of the barrier from the road, but mostly from the ditches. Lots of bullets were cracking around just over our heads. We also began to get a lot of rifle fire from what I thought was to the sides and maybe back of the road block. I saw one of my squad hunker down in the ditch with an arm or shoulder wound. Two of our guys hit the barrier hard with bazookas, two rounds each. Fire from the road block slowed. The two lead tanks moved up side by side so that both had a straight shot at the road block using shell and machine gun fire. That did the trick. No further casualties for us. The German casualties, dead and wounded, were spread around behind and at the sides of the downed trees. We left them there with two men from our force after we had completely cleared the road block for those who would come behind us.
This action was typical for us for about a week as we hit road blocks one after another or came under scattered not well aimed rifle fire from fields or forest cover along the road. All these latter not so eager heroes it turned out, were elderly men in their 50s or 60s with white arm bands, black letters reading Volksturm. There was no need for us to stop. They would be taken care of one way or another by troops behind us. We had been told those who appeared after a shot in the air probably were alerting us they wanted to surrender. A shot was not necessarily the safest way to do that even with a white piece of cloth in the air. There was one of these shots in the air affairs about three kilometers down the road from a group spread out on the grass near the road. One of those sad looking fellas sat there with his rifle pointing up into the sky well over our heads. He was the one we thought most likely to have fired that shot to make us stop, The Lieutenant didn’t like that this guy was sitting with a bunch of others. What the hell were they up to? Were we setting ourselves up to be targets? We jumped off with the Lieutenant, rounded all of them up into a tight box. Looked to be about 48 of them or so. The count we had of the ones still here turned out to be 26. Ok, maybe 20 or so probably faded away into the trees to fight another day or run away. I didn’t really care. We left these 25 lined up beside the road with a detached guard of two from our column.
Another 15 minutes down the road I saw a church on the right, white, red tile roof. Some women and men milling around in front. With rifles in hand we herded them into the Church, found more of same plus children mostly in the aisles, pointed to the pews while I shouted at full volume setzen sie sich (sit down). Down they went, good little Germans. The Lieutenant called out all you volks something people stand up. Nobody stood. Ok, what now. So much for an order. The Lieutenant motioned and I and maybe 10 other guys all about 20 years old walked slowly down the aisles from the back of the Church to the front, scowling fiercely, stopping often to eye ball men and even women in the pews. Not many looked up. Most looked scared. Some looked resigned to whatever. We frowned some more, shifting our rifles from one arm to the other. Here and there we pointed to men to stand up aufstehen!! Gestured with palms down to the real young ones, the real old men some of whom could barely stand anyway, and the women, to sit down. All right, now what. We walked back to the standing men, picked out a few more, those who seemed to have clothing that did not match what they wanted us to believe they were, and some wearing pants of a dirty gray color quite close to German army issue. Looked at boots. Saw some which looked army. Some military looking shirts and jackets. Most of these guys were without caps of any kind which we thought strange since many of the others had various colored non-military caps with visors. How many might we be missing? All? Some? How many? I and a couple of other Platoon Sergeants huddled with the Lieutenant. He decided and we agreed it made sense to pick out about 15 to 20 or so youngish to middle age guys or a bit older not dressed like farmers. We split up. Worked both sides of the aisles together, calling out men standing together or separately, not with women sitting beside them, who matched to some degree with somebody who had shed non-workmen type clothes along the way to the Church. Not scientific but good enough. These most likely would be the Prisoners of War of the men we first saw. We had 16 who possibly had melted away when we approached them near the road and who had scampered down to the Church, shedding arm bands and caps and maybe more. We did not look for documents. If any could prove to the MPs behind us they were not Volks guys, fine with me. Amidst tears and sobs we left the Church. We had spent a lot of time on a bunch of old timers who I thought should have been left to those behind us for checking out. I kind of liked this interlude in my war.
We moved on quickly, back on the tanks for another thirty minutes or so without any resistance. Probably 15-20 kilometers. Four of our Sherman tanks peeled off several miles to the right we heard, to guard our flank from a unit of Mark IV Panthers tanks. We saw a couple of small villages and farm buildings off to the right and left but went through none. A sign on the side of the road gave us the name of Ottweiler, the village or town we were approaching. Added was 12 Kilometers, the distance to Ottweiler. The tanks, with us perched aboard, maintained their speed. Not too far ahead we came to a better and wider road leading into the town maybe 300 meters away. Another larger sign with black letters on a white background said Juden Frei or (Free of Jews). We were not fired upon from outlying building. We infantry dismounted along the line of tanks and took temporary cover in the ditches on the side of the road. Down the road, a few white sheets hung from the windows of upper floors as a sign of We Surrender. Well, I said to myself, let’s find out. Maybe four tanks rolled on up the first street leading into the town, gun barrels searching for targets. Others following behind with troops aboard went on and turned up another street ahead of us. Our tanks took up positions on a small paved square giving them a four-point view down cross streets. No shots had been fired. We followed at a run which was more like a trot what with helmet, rifle, back pack, canteen and cartridge belt. We took cover near the entrance to the square.
It looked to me that we numbered maybe two platoons. Suddenly our area woke up. The lead tank used its machine guns to fire long bursts at a building down one street answering a long ripping of machine gun fire. A second tank moved up beside the first, firing at adjacent buildings. For good measure, the lead tank followed with a 75-MM shell sent to the house from which the first resistance had come. I thought that did it. It was our turn, the infantry that is, to get into this fight. It seemed that the white sheets didn’t mean very much. We moved slowly down the first block of houses starting the usual infantry sweep in which one file takes one side of the street, covering buildings on the other side of the street, while a second file does the same for the other side of the same street. So far, we were not fired upon and had seen nothing to worry about. We went down two blocks, in two man groups, to open doors of homes and shops with rifle butts to toss in hand grenades. Grenades were also tossed into windows both at street and sidewalk or basement level just to help make things safer while entering.
I went into a two-story building after tossing in a grenade.
Checked the ground floor.
Threw another up the stairs to a landing on the top floor.
Checked the ground floor again.
Nothing, but I saw I had missed a stairway around a corner leading down to what had to be a basement.
I decided to go down alone after thinking here we go without waiting for support. No grenade, a step at a time, rifle pointed down in front of me, boots too noisy. I came to a bend in the stairway, went around that to a landing of a sort which gave me a view of the whole basement. To my immediate left about 6 meters away was a table, and behind the table a German officer with a pistol on the table in front of him. I quickly raised my rifle and took aim. In I guess two seconds the officer raised one hand up, with palm outward toward to me which I took as take it easy and in another two seconds, with the other hand, slowly pushed the pistol to my edge of the table. He looked at me, slowly took his hand off the pistol, saying alles kaput (It’s all over). I said Jawohl, and gesturing with my rifle keep your hands up which he did. All right, take a prisoner 101- ended, with the fortunate aftermath of my first screw up of not tossing a grenade in from outside and then not doing the same thing before going down the stairs into the basement. We were both lucky. He could have been personally alles kaput and me too. Stupid but lucky. I went up the stairs with this guy ahead of me with his hands in the air and his pistol, a Walther P-38, in my cartridge belt. I turned him over to one of my guys to take back to a prisoner collection point in a cleared area but not before he said Hey Sarge, I see you got yourself a pistol. I said Get out. Get lost. My day had barely begun and I felt tired already.
With two others, I went up the street about a block while covered from troops across the street as I was covering them. I came to a large stone building on a corner. I was on one side. Its front faced the cross street out of my sight and that of my buddies covering all of us. I inched forward carefully to the end of my side of the building. I really needed to take a fast look around the corner before starting to clear the new cross street. I took off my helmet, went on my knees, and very slowly, with my cheek pressed to the building and exposing only a part of my head, took that look. I pulled back like a turtle into its shell saying to myself lucky bastard. Because there were three Germans in soft caps and capes about eight feet from me with their backs to the building’s wall. They had rifles with stick grenades, potato mashers, in their belts. They were looking up and across the street where somebody with a big white sheet was fiddling around an open window. I pulled two grenades from pocket loop holes in my field jacket. Holding the grenades tight, I pulled the pins, held them about three seconds, tossed them underhand gently around the corner of the building, pulled back. The grenades went off in rapid sequence. I looked around the corner again and saw two of them flat on their backs on the sidewalk. They looked pretty torn up and dead. The one in the gutter, near the street on his side, was sort of curled up. His jacket at the chest was bloody. So was his head. He was gurgling and kicking his legs or what was left of one of them. All three had SS flashes on the collars of their uniforms under their capes. They must have been from an SS Panzer Grenadier outfit. Where were the others I thought, but we had three fewer SS hard asses to deal with in Ottweiler.
I passed out a call for medics down the line, whatever good that might be, and gave the location. Hooked up with the boys across the street, busy with house clearing chores. A runner came trotting up to us with orders to move along quickly, join the 2nd Squad in clearing the street ahead to its junction with another street named Obertaal Strasse. Then move along that street to a square and stand fast. That we did without drawing fire, but did take cover in doorways while moving along. This affair was turning out to something like the one we dealt with on the slopes of Hill 310 back in November. The one where two young German soldiers popped up from a saddle in the ground in front of the three of us. These were the youngsters we had to pop with our M-1s. I remember that very well. With something like six bullets into the chests of the two, down they went without a sound not even a whimper. It was quick. I think the three SS guys in Ottweiler had a few seconds to hear and maybe see the grenades before they were hit.
Moving briskly but carefully after meeting up with the SS, I and a buddy saw we were near the door of a store with windows piled high with all sorts of canned food and many other stacks of surely good things we had not seen in many a month. Naturally we went in after checking for booby traps. The main room was empty except for a few chairs and a showcase with shelves and glass over the front. There they were. Platters of deli style food, fat little sausages, cheeses almost but not quite more than we could take in. Ate a few things with fingers first, and then with plates as we moved around the room circling like vultures over carrion in Africa. There were muttered words such as no pushing, give me a go at that pate. Any rye bread? Pickles? We stuffed a few cans of various meats and other edibles into our combat back packs. There was no upstairs, but there was another door leading off the store area. We took a fast look. Nothing. It was a kind of sitting room with several easy chairs and a dining table with six chairs. The table was set. Soup plates full, with steam still rising above them, were at each setting. Bread, butter, jam and cold meats were on the table. No sounds anywhere in or out of the store. Whoever had been there left in a hurry. We sat down, now four of us. I have no idea why or when two more had joined us uninvited. But they were in my squad. We ate, in fact gobbled, the food. The cream of mushroom soup was great. We ate and chewed and swallowed without thought or interruption. What a change from K and C Rations or any canned rations! Thinking we had been there long enough, I said with considerable reluctance On our way boys. With that we got up, went into the store area, snatched a couple of cupcake kind of things and went out the door munching as we went.
We had already stuffed our packs and could jam in nothing more. About 10 minutes later along came the Platoon Sergeant with his What the hell are you all doing standing around like a bunch of school boys between classes!! And where the hell have you been? I gave him the truth, that we had been clearing the area. But this had taken a lot of time because of the number of buildings and of course the time taken to check for booby traps. With that he said Great. Good job. Hope you found nothing to chew on like we say at home. Now let’s move out. And we did. As almost two squads still, we continued to the other side of the square, clearing the merging streets one after another. There was no resistance. Must have been a good 30-40 prisoners who came out of houses on their own without our having to do much except shout Out You Come. A sorry looking bunch with hands up scurried through the doors to the streets, milled around, lined up with shoves from us, and stayed there until MPs came to frisk them. With the arrival of the latter, off we went collecting more prisoners along the way. There were no SS troops among them. I asked two of them where the SS had gone. They just shrugged. Probably faded away to the outskirts of town, and from there joined their unit which must have been close. That was fine with us.
And thus ended the clearing of Ottweiler. I did not have a broad view then or now of other actions in other sections of the town. Our casualties were few. The town was pretty much abandoned by civilians and German troops before our arrival. The prisoner count was as I recall about 300. We joined up with our armor and trucks and took stock of anything more that needed to be done such as resupply of rations and ammunition and close study of maps of terrain and roads to chart our next move. That appeared to be the south, staying within Saarland, but in more hilly and forested areas than we had had after leaving Saarlautern. I thought, as I usually did at the end of it all here, that I had made it to another day.