58th A.I.B - Co. 'C' - Personal Story
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  8. Travels in France

  France
  January, 1945

When we landed in Le Harve, the division was assigned to the 15th Army, which was a secret paper army. I suppose they were trying to fool the Germans but I doubt that it had much effect.

Our first assembly area after leaving Le Harve was in Rheims. It was located about 175 miles away to the southeast and it took us several days to arrive there. On one of the nights on the way we got to stay inside a French chateau. It was abandoned and had neither glass in the windows nor any feeling of warmth or life about it. Some houses, which have recently been lived in, still retain the feeling of being alive but the French chateau felt completely dead. It seemed to me that it was the coldest night of the trip for some reason - I remember being colder there inside the house than I had been outside on the other nights.

Jan. 7, 1945 - Gens. Bradley and Patton threaten to resign after a boastful Field Marshall Montgomery claims credit for defeating the Germans in the Bulge. The Allied offensive continues but is hampered by deep snowdrifts and subzero temperatures.

Rheims is one of the larger French cities. We bivouacked on the outskirts of town in a large open field. We arrived at Rheims around the 10th of January. It had started to snow sometime during our trip and everything was snow covered. I am sure it would have looked beautiful if you had been inside to enjoy it but it was colder than hell outside.

While we were in Rheims we heard that we were probably going to the Metz-Nancy area of France to take over some of the area that Patton's divisions left when they moved north to fight in the Bulge. The army thought that the Germans might be attempting another breakthrough in the Alsace area so we were detached from the 15th Army on January 11, 1945 and assigned to the Third Army under General George S. Patton, Jr. We were not too happy about that because Patton was called 'Old Blood and Guts' and not without reason. Long after the war historians decided that Patton was the best army commander in the American army but that was not too consoling while the fighting was going on. There was always some action going on around the Third Army.

Jan. 12, 1945 - A snowstorm ends the Germans' last attempt to take Bastogne. In Alsace, Wermacht units seize a beachhead across the Rhine River north of Strasbourg and threaten to cut off part of Gen. Patches' 7th Army.

We had our first taste of war while we were in Rheims. We saw our first German plane and had the first casualty in our company. The plane was just on a reconnaissance mission because it did nothing but fly around for a while before leaving but I heard that it dropped some bombs on another unit.

Our first casualty was a man in the third platoon. A Sgt. in another half-track in 'A' company was removing a .30 cal. machine gun from the mount and picked it up by the barrel and trigger housing. The ammunition belt had been removed but he had neglected to remove the last round from the chamber and he accidentally hit the trigger. The bullet hit two men who were standing in one of our half-tracks in the third platoon.

One man was hit in the head and the other one was hit in the stomach. The men were taken to a French hospital where the man hit in the stomach died the next day but the man hit in the head returned to duty later. We thought at the time that the man hit in the head would die. I do not think I ever heard what they did with the sergeant responsible. I did not know the man who died but many years later I found out from Lenny Justofin that the man was a very good friend of his and that he was was Charles B. Pickard from Iowa.

Jan. 16, 1945 - Adolph Hitler gives up on the Battle of the bulge and leaves his command post near Frankfurt-on-Main. He returns to the Berlin bunker where he will spend the last 105 days of his life.

We only stayed overnight at Rheims and then left for Pont-a-Mousson. It is a town about 100 miles southeast of Rheims. The Germans had made a drive toward Strasbourg and they were expected to continue towards Metz. The Eighth was ordered to move in that direction to counter this attack. Fortunately, the drive was halted before we were committed. That may have been because of the time it took us to get there over the icy roads.

There was a blinding snow and ice storm during the trip and we were lucky to get there at all. The tanks and half-tracks kept sliding off the road and had to be rescued and pulled back on so the march could continue. It is a wonder than any trees survived our trip because many of them kept our vehicles from going clear off the road and over the hill. One tank driver was killed when his tank slid off the road and the gun barrel hit him in the head when it hit a tree.

Jan. 20, 1945 - Gen. Patch's 7th Army ends its three-week retreat in Alsace and begins to attack the Germans in the Colmar pocket south of Strasbourg.

The cold was absolutely fierce during this period. We had to sit in the back of the half-tracks most of the time with our feet on the sheet metal plates of the floor. The boots did little if anything to keep our feet warm and some of the men got their feet severely frost bitten resulting in several cases of trench foot. The half-tracks were not heated and were open at the top so it was very hard to keep warm. The snow could drop in on our heads too. The half-tracks had canvas covers but I don't think I ever saw on of them on except in the motor pools in the States.

When we stopped for a break we would light a quick fire to help warm us up. If we couldn't get enough wood for a fire we would take a number ten can and fill it up about a third of the way with sand and then add gasoline. We punched a few holes just above the sand line for air and when we lit it, we had a right reasonable fire. It was easy to extinguish when we had to mount up - piss on the fires and mount up, as we said - but you had to be careful when you lit it.

While the division was in the Pont-a-Mousson area of France, my company was stationed in a small town called Eply. It was here that we saw our first dead German. We were walking down the street and saw a hand sticking up out of the snow. His body had been covered by snow after he was killed and had not been recovered yet. We were there for a couple of days and he was still there when we left.

We stayed in a farmers barn in Eply and I think it was the first time since reaching France that I got warm. There was a lot of straw in the barn so we could burrow into it in our sleeping bag and get pretty warm. One of the reasons our feet got so cold was because of the long time we were in the half-tracks. The floor of the half-tracks was sheet metal and we only got out once every hour or so depending when we stopped. It was a couple of days before my feet started feeling warm again. Even to this day they still feel clammy and cold and have poor circulation.

Around the 21st of Jan, the division was given its first combat assignment. The division was to send one combat command at a time for a two-day period to assist the 94th division. Combat Command A moved up to attack the towns of Sinz and Berg in support of the 94th Infantry Division. They were to be there for about two days as a kind of combat training but the fighting got much tougher than expected and they were in action for over a week.

The cold weather continued the whole time we were in France. During this period we picked up some three-buckle galoshes from someplace. I don't remember whether we had them all along or were issued them but they sure helped keep out the cold. We would leave our boots off, put on two pairs of socks and fill the galoshes with straw. This way we could keep our feet warm even if it did make walking a little awkward.

Jan. 26, 1945 - 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy wins the Medal of Honor near Holtzwiht, France by almost single-handedly defeating an attack by six German tanks and 250 infantrymen. Murphy, 20, has won 33 medals and citations in Sicily, Italy and France and become the Army's most decorated soldier.

During the day, we usually wore only our field jackets unless it was really cold. Thay way we could save the long, heavy overcoat for use at night when it got really cold. We also had an OD knit hat that we could wear under our helmet and gloves with a trigger finger slot for firing our rifles. It was hard to get your finger around the trigger with the safety on but was a hell of a lot safer. We also removed as much oil from the rifle as possible to keep the mechanism from freezing.

We would complain loud and long about having to use the green canvas field jackets that did little to keep out the cold, while the tankers had nice, warm, blanket lined jackets. Anytime some of the men got passes to Paris, they would come back wearing the canvas jackets which they took from the quartermaster supply men - by means fair or foul - who seemed to think they needed them more than we did.

One problem never addressed in the war movies is how you can keep even half way clean while all these other things are going on and the weather is near zero. When things were quiet enough we could usually at least try to get clean. We would strip to the waist and use a wash cloth to wash off as fast as possible before we froze something. We could build a fire pretty fast using gasoline and would heat the water in our helmet. The helmet got pretty hot in the fire but so did the water.

At night we could usually get fairly warm in our sleeping bags if we weren't on guard. The sleeping bags zipped up and I had three blankets in mine. I would fold them over and then fold under the feet end and stuff them down in the bag. When you slid down in the bag and zipped it up you could usually get pretty warm even when sleeping on the frozen ground. The only time it was bad was when we had a freezing rain then it was miserable.

Jan. 27,1945 - A convoy carrying Marines to Iwo Jima sails from Pearl Harbor. In Europe, the Russians liberate the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, Poland.

Standing guard at night in the cold could be hazardous to say the least. The temperature fell to near or below zero many nights and it was hard to keep warm even with the heavy overcoats that we had. One solution that we came up with was to stand guard in the half-track. We would light one of the small gasoline powered Coleman stoves that each squad had and put it on the floorboard. Then we would put a blanket around us and spread it out over the machine gun ring mount in the front of the half-track. This would hold in a lot of the heat and we could stay fairly warm. I suspect that this procedure was not looked upon kindly by the army brass but they were not there. Guard duty during this period was always tense because of the fear of German paratroopers or soldiers dressed as Americans moving through the area.

During the long march across France, we learned how to heat our rations in the engine compartment of the half-track. We couldn't always get served hot meals during marches because there was no way to prepare or serve them. Someone had made a mesh basket out of metal, which we hung in the engine compartment. We would punch a small hole in our ration cans and put them in the basket. They were nice and hot by time to eat. The only problem was if the hole was too small or if someone forgot to put one in his can. One of the cans blew up one time and the half-track driver was not happy with the effort it took to clean the mess out of the engine compartment.

Jan. 28, 1945 - The Battle of the Bulge ends with the Germans retreating to the West Wall, the pre-war border fortifications. The Bulge has cost the Allies 75,000 men, mostly Americans: the Germans 80,000. The 1st Army launches an attack in appalling weather. It is called off in three days.

I would have to give our mess personnel top honors for the way they performed during our long, cold marches. Our company mess sgt. was Lester Douris from Pennsylvania. Every time we would stop someplace his men would show up in a jeep or truck with a large 30-gallon pot of coffee, soup or hot chocolate, which they could serve quickly in our mess, cups. They usually had a lot of sandwiches too and we really appreciated this especially when the temperature was near zero and we couldn't heat our rations because when we were moving there wasn't time enough between stops. When we were moving at night, I have seen them show up at all hours with hot coffee and sandwiches. Sometimes we were asleep but it was worth getting awake for.

The units in CCA finally returned to the division area around the 28th of January. Each combat command of the division was to have had two or three days of combat training but when they were withdrawing, they were caught in the middle of a German counterattack and couldn't complete it for several days. By the time they returned the division had been assigned to the 9th Army and we were getting ready to move north.

Near the end of January and before we started our move north, division headquarters got a touch of friendly fire so to speak. A couple of British bombers collided on a bombing run and had to jettison their bombs which fell near to division headquarters which was located in Thiancourt, France. The British crews bailed out and were all right but the bombing gave the headquarters people a scare.

On the first of February, the division was relieved from duty with the Third Army and assigned to the Ninth Army under General Simpson. He was a good general, probably not quite as good as Patton but certainly without the flamboyance and controversy. I do not think history was as kind to him as it should have been because he was not a headline grabbing person. Another reason was that he worked for Gen. Montgomery, the British twit. We were fortunate not to get in on any more of the Battle of the Bulge than we did. The division had about 450 casualties during the time it was assigned to Gen. Patton.

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