Company I War Stories
HOLLAND -- THE MARK RIVER CROSSING AND BEYOND
By Frank Van Valkenburg
It was the 23rd of October 1944, when we relieved the British in the front lines. The movement was done during the daytime, I guess so that we would become somewhat familiar with the area by light. The next day we would see our first combat action against the Germans!
It began to dawn on us by now what our mission was here in Belgium and Holland. The British and Canadians had run out of steam in their race through France into Belgium, and needed a spark plug; new, green, untested, and ready for any thing. As the days went by and we got deeper and further into Holland, we had to watch our flanks, as the British on the one side and the Canadians on the other couldn't keep up with us.
A couple of days rest and we were on the move again. Our forced march training that we had so much of in t h e States was put to good use now. The next objective was a town by the name of Standaarbuiten, sitting astride a small river called the Mark. There was an important bridge here which was the main objective. The attempt to capture the bridge intact failed, as the Germans blew it up about the time the GI's got there. That meant we had to cross the river in boats. What a job to get across it! Another regiment had tried to cross it and capture the town, but had so much trouble the attempt was called off after one battalion had gotten over but couldn't sustain the attack. The Germans had killed and captured a goodly number of men. 0ur 413th was called on to help out, along with the other regiment, which hadn't been chewed up.
This meant that now the whole I04th Division was involved in taking the town. We were force- marched up to the line of departure for the attack, which was at night, probably a distance of ten miles. As we were waiting our turn to get into the boats, we lay against our side of the dikes for protection from the artillery and the bullets zapping through the air. When our turn came, we had to cross the dike, which exposed us to the enemy fire, slide down the other side, get into the boats to cross the river, get out of the boats, and slog through mushy ground, flat and exposed, over and across a canal about as big as the river, and climb another dike to get into the town. All this while being shot at by the Germans with small arms, machine guns, anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery. It's a wonder any of us survived. But survive we did, most of us anyway, and we got into the town and started to clean it out. The Germans were well dug in and it took a lot of rooting and house-to-house fighting to kill and capture them. We had a terrific artillery concentration on the town prior to our attack so some of the Germans were pretty well shell-shocked, and that helped. I captured one poor fellow who didn't know who he was or where he was. I had to make him lie on the ground for a whi1e until I could send him back to our rear. He vas so shell-shocked, I had to hold him down with my foot, to keep him quiet, so I could concentrate on what was going on a round me. We were all soaking wet from the canal we had to cross, so the rest of the night was pretty miserable. We didn't get any rest from this action. We were ordered to advance again, in the morning toward the next objective.
by Bob Nolan
Here is a footnote to Frank's story of the Mark River crossing. Lt.General Marshall Garth, USA Ret., (now deceased) used to tell this story to Art Decker whenever he saw him at one of our reunions. When Captain GARTH led L Company across the Mark River, after I & K Companies had already crossed, he came upon two soldiers lying on the ground, dead to the world. He quickly noticed that, far from being casualties, they were snoring up a storm. He kicked them awake and sent them on to join their company up ahead. This is what had happened. When I Company had stopped for a moment and all the soldiers had hit the ground two of them from the third platoon went right to sleep and were left behind when the company took off again. General Garth was first reminded of this story at the Williamsburg reunion in 1980 by one of the two " Kickees " and he seemed to think it one of the funniest war stories he had heard. 0ne of the Soldiers was Bill Stone; the other was Bob Nolan.
THE PILLBOXES OF VERLAUTENHEIDE
The story of Operation Queen as seen from various Headquarters levels.
by Bob Nolan
[The battle for the pillboxes of Verlautenheide is one of I Company's more fascinating operations. I thought it might be instructive to take a look at it as it was seen at various levels of command and battle. The time: November 16-17, 1944. The Place: Germany, The Siegfried Line near Aachen]
FIRST ARMY OFFENSIVE ON THE ROER PLAIN:
16 November: 12th Army Group: U.S. Ninth and First Armies open coordinated offensive to clear Roer Plain between the Wurm and the Roer. Combined air and ground effort is called Operation QUEEN. Air phase of QUEEN marks greatest close support effort yet made by Allied air forces, Br and U.S. strategic and tactical air forces joining in the assault on relatively small zone of attack and dropping 10,000 tons of bombs.... In U.S. First Army area, VII Corps opens attack of First Army at 1245, pushing toward Dueren and Cologne to secure Roer R crossings, with 104th Inf, 3rd Armd, lst Inf, and 4th Inf Divs from left to right. 104th Div makes [its] main effort... with 414th Inf, reinf by bn of 415th, driving toward the Donnerberg (Hill 287) and Eschweiler woods; enemy opposition from the commanding ground of the Donnerberg limits progress, but elements secure weak hold on Birkengang, suburb of Stolberg NW of the Donnerberg; rest of 104th [ read 413th Infantry, ed.]conducts limited actions to N without making appreciable headway. [Center for Military History, U. S. Army, The U.S. Army in World War II: Chronology 1941-1945]
VII CORPS LEADS THE WAY:
The High Command Plans for the Drive to the Rhine: At a meeting in Brussels with Bradley and Montgomery on October 18, 1944, General Eisenhower decided to give the Germans no respite, but to continue the Allied drive to the Rhine through the fall and winter, if necessary. The American First Army was directed to attack in early November with the object of establishing a bridgehead beyond the Rhine south of Cologne. On October 21, as Aachen fell, Bradley outlined his plan for attack by the First and Ninth Armies, with the First Army making the main effort. In turn Hodges advised me that the VII Corps would make the main effort of the First Army, for which I was to submit a plan. About the same time I had a telephone call from Bill Kean, Hodges, Chief of Staff, asking if I would like to have the I04th Division, commanded by Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, which had been helping the Canadian Army open Antwerp. I replied that I would be glad to have him. Allen had a reputation of being hard to handle and had been relieved of command of the 1st Division at the end of the Sicilian campaign. I had known him at the Infantry School as a ram-bunctious man but possessing great qualities of leadership. When relieved of his division he was reported to have sworn that he would make his new I04th Division the equal of the 1st. With a view to stimulating both divisions I placed the 104th in the line adjacent to the 1st.
The I04th increased VII Corps to four divisions, deployed on a twenty-mile front in order from the north: the I04th, 3rd Armored, 1st, and 4th Divisions, the latter having replaced the 9th Division. As approved by General Hodges, the VII Corps plan called for the I04th to seize the high ground east of Stolberg and clear the Eschweiler industrial area, which would open the way to the Roer plain.
The VII Corps November Attack: Bradley had arranged for a massive air bombardment along the front of the First and Ninth Armies (the latter, under General William H. Simpson, had moved up to the German border from the south of France) prior to the attack scheduled for November 5. Foul weather forced postponement until the sixteenth, by which time the ground attack found the German positions well dug in, thoroughly mined, and heavily supported by additional artillery....it took four days of heavy fighting before the 104th captured the high ground east of Stolberg.
[Lightning Joe: An Autobiography by General J. Lawton Collins]
THE 104TH (TIMBERWOLF) DIVISION IN THE ATTACK:
"Plans for the Division attack under VII Corps [on November 16, 1944] were completed. From left to right the VII Corps troops on the line consisted of the 413th Infantry and the 415th Infantry of the 104th Infantry Division, one combat command of the 3rd Armored Division, the 1st Infantry Division, the 4th Infantry Division, and the 4th Cavalry Group. The remainder of the 3rd Armored Division as in Corps reserve. The 30th Infantry Division, a part of XIX Corps (Ninth United States Army) was on the immediate left of our Division.
The VII Corps, in conjunction with the forces of the Ninth Army to the north, the other forces of the First Army and the Third Army on its right, would attack in the direction of Dueren and Cologne to penetrate the enemy's main defenses. This all-out assault would be preceded by a large-scale bombing by 2,400 United States and British bombers...The 413th Infantry...was to attack on the Division left and seize successive objectives to the northeast, including the many pillboxes, plus Rohe, Durwiz, Helrath, Putzlohn, Inden, and Lamersdorf. It was assigned the additional mission of protecting the Division left flank and maintaining contact with the 30th Infantry Division....At 0325 the G-3 at Division Headquarters received the following message from VII Corps: 'This is D-Day, H-Hour is 1245.'...At 1105 you heard the distant continuous thunder like Niagara Falls, very far away. It was the heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force and the Royal Air Force arriving on schedule from England...Promptly at 1245 the 414th, 413th and 415th Infantry Regiments launched their attacks....On D-Day, 16 November, simultaneously with the 414th and 415th Infantry Regiments, Colonel Waltz's Seagulls had launched their attack. The 2nd Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Nelson, was on the left and Colonel Bill Summers' 3rd Battalion was on the right....The infantry-artillery-engineer teams were effective in the assault, and after three hours of heavy fighting the 3rd Battalion had destroyed several pillboxes and had entered the town of Verlautenheide, completing an advance of 800 yards prior to nightfall." [Timberwolf Tracks]
413TH INFANTRY'S INTRODUCTION TO GERMANY:
16 November 1944: This day marked the initial engagement of the regiment in offensive combat in Germany. At 0320 word was received from Division that the air attack would begin at 1115 with H-Hour for our troops placed at 1245.... By 1245 the air strike was completed, and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions began their attacks.... I, K, and L companies began their assault on pillboxes 50, 51, and 52 at coordinates 89424560, 894458, and 891459 respectively, and L Company mopped up the north and of Verlautenheide (888456). During the advance, two tanks in support of I Company struck mines at 888453 destroying their tracks, thereby knocking them cut of action temporarily....At 1755 an assault platoon from I Company seized Pillbox 52, including 30 Prisoners. This a was the first pillbox taken by assault."
17 November 1944: After securing positions and reorganizing our units at the completion of yesterday's operations the regiment planned to continue the attack today in an effort to wipe out the pillbox areas to our front completely. The 3rd Battalion attacked at 0800, and, led by the assault platoon from I Company seized pillboxes at 89384555. By 0900, I Company mopped up houses in the vicinity of 891453.
THE THIRD BATTALION IN THE ATTACK:
On 16 November. at 1145, the "big push" in our sector was started. It was preceded by a huge artillery barrage and an air mission composed of some 2,500 planes. At 1245 our troops moved forward to clean out the area just to our front. Our greatest obstacles were,.of course, the pill boxes that had to be eliminated one by one. It was a slow and tedious task.
On one occasion a private from Company "I" asked permission of his Commanding officer to be allowed to accompany a PW officer to one of the pillboxes that was still holding out in an effort to induce the enemy therein to surrender without further firing. Permission was granted to the Enlisted Man and he made his mission accompanied by the PW officer. The enemy in the pill boxes were not permitted to surrender so the private and his captive returned to our Battalion area.
Then following day, in an excellent demonstration of a coordinated attack against fortified positions, the Battalion completed the mission of cleaning out the pill boxes to our front, the town of Verlautenheide, and moved forward to seize and occupy the intermediate Regimental objective.
This operation was highlighted by the close coordination between Infantry, Tank, and Artillery teams and the excellent work of the first platoon of Company I, led by Lt. Peter R. Branton. This platoon moved forward under covering screen of Artillery fire and supporting fire of our Tanks and Anti-Tank guns to neutralize and capture enemy pill boxes without the loss of a man.
[History, 3rd Battalion, 413th Infantry 15 October 1942 - August 1945]
[Don't go away: Now we come to the real fighting involved.Ed.]
THE PILLBOXES OF VERLAUTENHEIDE
"GI VAN": A SQUAD LEADER'S STORY
by Frank Van Valkenburg
Directly to our front were a series of the infamous German pillboxes. These were the heavily constructed, concrete reinforced, defensive positions that the Germans built along the Siegfried line. They were usually dug down into the ground about halfway, and the part sticking up was rounded like a mushroom so that bullets and projectiles would bounce off and not penetrate. There were firing apertures toward the front, and a door out the back leading to a trench that connected with the pillboxes on either side. They were built so their fields of fire would intersect, and they would be mutually supporting. They could be reinforced by virtue of the trenches behind them. The day of the attack was finally set for November 16th at 12:45, lunch time. No night attack this time. We were to get direct air support, as well as lots of artillery and direct fire from tanks and heavy weapons, I was going to lead the first squad, which would attack and try to take the first pillbox. If we were successful, the second and third squads would move on the two pillboxes on either side. Meanwhile, all up and down the line, the rest of the Division would be attacking in their sectors. What a feeling! There is no feeling like sweating out the preparations for an attack!! It is impossible to describe the sensations that go through a person's mind when you know you are going up against a proven enemy, who is well entrenched and is fighting on his own soil. The thought always comes, Will I make it this time? Or, Is my number coming up now? To say that I was nervous was putting it mildly. The fact that I was now a combat veteran, and had lived through several attacks before, helped immensely, but it was never easy.
We got into position about 12 o'clock and waited for the planes to come over and drop their bombs. They did, and then the artillery started in. About 12:30 a tank came rumbling up by us and started firing point blank at the pillbox. Twelve forty five came and it was time to take off! With all the noise of the artillery firing and the tank shooting and the heavy weapons firing behind us, it was difficult to give commands that could be heard. So we pretty much used hand signals. I sent two men out first and followed behind with all my stuff. As we ran by the tank, we had to duck under the muzzle and swing out to the left a few yards to get out into the open and away from a building. As I was alongside the tank, they let go with a blast that deafened me. I banged against the building and back against the tank. I had to knock on the tank and tell the guys to hold up on their fire, and then continued out into the field. I couldn't make the radio work, and I couldn't hear anything anyway, so I threw it away. I was crouched down, half crawling and half running, dragging the 2x4 behind me, when a bullet or bullets whizzed by me and hit a man right behind me. I didn't think he was killed, just wounded, but I couldn't stop to find out. I let the aid man take care of him. One of the two men I had sent out ahead was hit before we got to the pillbox, and some of the others in the squad were spread out in the field and were firing cover for us. I don't know what happened to the other 2x4's with the dynamite charges, they were probably dropped off on the way. I made it to the pillbox and fired the thing off in the aperture, glad to get rid of it. I then ran around to the back of the pillbox and started hollering at the Germans to come out with their hands up!! It seemed like minutes before the door opened a crack, but it was only seconds. I could see an eyeball looking at me so I wiggled my gun and motioned for him to come out.
We had no idea how many were inside, so we were very surprised to count almost two dozen Germans in the one pillbox. They must have come in from the trenches when all the bombing and artillery started. The normal complement of a pillbox is about a squad of men, 10 to 12. We got them out, lined them up, searched them, and then sent them back to the company area.
By this time a lot of the firing had ceased and the artillery had lifted beyond us quite a bit. We had a man in our platoon, Joe Schallmoser, who spoke German well. The CO decided Joe should go the next pillbox with one of the German prisoners and try to talk them into surrendering also. Joe did, and they surrendered, so we didn't have to fight for that pillbox. That type of thing really made life a lot easier for us doughboys. By this time it was getting dark, so we into the pillbox and set up a guard around it for the night. We fully expected to be counterattacked that night or surely the next morning, but we were lucky, and night passed quietly. That was the first time I ate some captured food! The Germans left some black bread and strawberry jam, which we ate that night in pillbox, as the cooks couldn't get to us with their hot food. We also slept on bunks that the Germans had slept on the night before! I don't remember how many prisoners we took that day in total, but we made a good sized dent in the Siegfried line by taking the two pillboxes. And we did it with very light casualties!
[Taken from GI Van, Frank Van Valkenburg's memoirs of his Army experience in WWII. Ed.]
THE PILLBOXES OF VERLAUTENHEIDE
LITTLE JOE, THE PIED PIPER OF COMPANY I
by Joe Schallmoser's
After seven hours of bloody fighting, only the one pillbox on this side of the highway was captured. Out of a platoon of 36 men, 12 were dead and 8 wounded. We had never run into such a concentrated barrage of enemy fire. At nightfall, our badly shaken group that remained was ordered to consolidate around the captured pillbox and prepare to attack again in the morning. As I sat there watching, litter bearers picked up the bodies and filed past me in silent procession. My mind was asking, "why all this senseless killing - there's got to be another way." In my despair, a plan formed-a plan that at least might save a few lives in a war that had already taken such a heavy toll, I am German born and I can speak the language. If I can get to the other pillboxes and talk to the Germans - tell them how futile their position is - maybe I could talk them into surrendering, It was a remote chance, but I had to try. After much pleading and arguing with my captain [Capt. Johnston], and also getting regimental permission to stop shelling the enemy positions for two hours, I was ready to go, I had talked my captain into letting me bring our captured lieutenant from the first pillbox to help affect a surrender, if there were one. A captured medic was also brought along to aid their wounded.
The three of us, hand-in-hand, start stumbling our way towards the enemy. There is no moon, it is pitch black. Before long, the excitement gets to all of us. We stop to relieve ourselves in the middle of the battlefield, My God, I said to myself, just a few hours ago, we were trying to kill each other and now we were here together - like this! We continued over the broken, shell-pocked field. Here and there are muffled challenges, and quick, hushed replies from my German lieutenant, telling them to hold their fire. As we approach the pillbox, I trip over the body of a German soldier. The smell of death is everywhere. When we enter, I try to adjust to the dingy, smoky interior. I hear the mumbling and feel a sense of uneasiness in the German soldiers, as my presence is detected. I looked around and I saw the ghostly, anxious faces of the men, One face in particular seems to typify them all. It is a long, lean face, aged far beyond its 20-odd years. His sunken, piercing eyes suspiciously follow my every move. A twitching mouth and constant wetting of his lips give mute testimony of suffering. Hanging on my every word, he seems to want to cry out, 'We've caught our share of hell, let's call it quits'. But I know he would not.
The officer in charge, a lieutenant, has half of his face swathed in bandages. He listens politely, but he answers my surrender appeal with a futile shrug. He offers me a cup of "ersatz" coffee and a shot of schnapps. We drink to the end of the fighting and a world of peace again, He tells me that the only hope of affecting the surrender of the pillboxes is through the captain in the third pillbox. As we leave, the lieutenant shakes my hand and wishes me well. Only one hour remains, but now I have gotten over the jitters. The attitude of the officer I had just left seemed to bolster my spirits. I now have hopes of a quick and total surrender.
As soon as we reach the third pillbox, my hope turns to despair. There, standing in front of me, legs spread wide, hands on hips, is an immaculately dressed officer. Without even acknowledging me, he arrogantly berates my captured lieutenant for his audacity in bringing me, a private, to negotiate. Apparently, he had heard from the other pillbox about my mission. He finally turns to me and listens briefly. His answer is no. He asks if I would be kind enough to take my two prisoners with me, and if he could get additional time from our artillery shelling, to enable him to evacuate all his wounded. I assure him I will try, I arrange for a meeting somewhere in between our lines, after I have consulted with my captain. Our return trip seems endless. I am filled with a deep and bitter disappointment at my failure. Soon, fighting will begin again, and men, our own and the enemy's, would die. Since it was only a matter of time until we captured the pillboxes, it all seemed so senseless. Then, suddenly, as we approached our lines, I heard noises behind me. I whirled and flicked on my flashlight. There as far back as I could see, are Germans with their hands behind their beads, following me in single file. From them I hear angry muttering about the "verdamter licht" (damned light). I quickly flicked it off. "It's Little Joe!' I heard my friend Mike calling to the rest of the platoon. "He's bringing back the whole, damned German army," There were twenty-eight men in all. Among them was the lean-faced, young soldier who explained, "We talked over your terms of surrender among ourselves, we believed you, and decided to come with you." I could see the look of relief in his eyes. It was all over for them. It made me feel good.
After arranging for another cease-fire, I returned to the battlefield, and met with one of the Germans to tell him the news. We talked briefly, shook hands, and returned to our lines. At dawn, two hours later, the attack began again. We raced across the shell-pocked field expecting another murderous barrage of fire. But none came. The few Germans who were left behind had abandoned their pillboxes. Our objective was taken without another casualty.
[I believe Joe Schallmoser's story is taken from an article printed in a local Chicago neighborhood newspaper a number of years ago. Ed.]
THE PILLBOXES OF VERLAUTENHEIDE
THE PILLBOXES OF VERLAUTENHEIDE: ADDENDA
by Dave Williams (Company A, 329th Engineer battalion)
[In the June 1996 newsletter we described the battle for the pillboxes of Verlautenheide as it looked at various levels from Army down to the individual I Company soldier, specifically to Joe Schallmoser and to Frank Van Valkenburg. When he read the account in the newsletter, Dave Williams, Company A, 329 Engineers, was prompted to send to Pete Branton the story of his part in the pillbox battle. Dave spent so much time with I Company that he considers himself a part of our unit and we do too. Here then is a slightly edited (for space) version of his story to round out what we read before. Ed.]
On November 15, A Company 329th Engineers were called upon to help I Company of the 413th Infantry in an attack on three Siegfried Line pillboxes that guarded a highway near the town of Verlautenheide. Ray and I were selected. I was to carry a Bangalore torpedo, a six foot steel pipe filled with about 15 pounds of TNT. It could be used for clearing a path through mines or barbed wire. Ray was to carry a satchel chargeof ten pounds of TNT and a pole charge of twenty pounds of TNT. The satchel charge was to be used for blowing in the window of a pillbox and the pole charge was to be shoved inside the pillbox and set off. We all had fuses and blasting caps ready to use. Together, we six engineers had 18 feet of Bangalore torpedo (They could be hooked together and pushed out 18 feet if needed) and 90 pounds of TNT. We also added six more rifles to the infantry platoon and zero front line experience.
The next morning we all got ready to go. Everybody checked their ammunition and grenades. We were offered grenades, but we had so much to carry already we declined. The Bangalore torpedo weighed about 25 pounds
and Ray had 30 pounds of TNT. We were as ready as we would ever be. Then we waited. Finally in late afternoon we started. The first squad with two engineers placed second and third in line led the way. Then came the second squad with the same arrangement. Then the third squad with Ray behind the squad sergeant and me behind Ray with the rest of the squad following.
We made up a long line with about 5 to 10 feet between each of us. I can still see the dreary winter landscape with the sun low in the west through a slight overcast. We went out to the front of the house and down the street to the edge of town. There was a sloping road sideways down a slight hill. At the top of the hill there were three of our
tanks. There was fire from our machine guns and antitank weapons aimed at the pillboxes. We wound down that short hill and started going up a ditch at the left side of the road. As our squad started up the ditch, the tanks just above us started to fire. The muzzle blast almost knocked my helmet off.
We were to go some 800 yards along the road in that ditch to the pillbox which was the farthest back. We kept hearing the whiz of our tank shells going over our heads. A little more than half way there, German mortar shells started to fall around us. We hit the dirt in the bottom of that shallow ditch. I squeezed my face into the mud to get lower, trying at the same time to see Ray's shoes to know when to move. Mortar shells were bouncing all around us. Some guy behind me yelled, 'I'm hit." I squirmed around and saw him get up and start walking back. It was as
though he had called, "Time out, the game is over for me." As far as I know he walked back safely.
I kept thinking of the Bill Mauldin joke where Willie says, "I am keeping down, my buttons are holding me up." I had that feeling. The mortars kept coming in and still Ray didn't move. All of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain on the back of my right knee. I yelled, "I'm hit" and put my hand back to feel the blood. I pulled my hand back and it was just a little dirty, no blood. It still hurt, but not so much. I felt something hard and looked at it. My leg had been burned by a small piece of shrapnel. It had burned through two pairs of wool pants and a pair of long johns.
Suddenly a Sergeant came back and yelled, "Come on you guys, get out of there." That got us all moving. When we caught up with the group, the pillbox had been taken. A Lieutenant was calling out orders. "Jackson,
you and Benson take the prisoners back. Zamanski, you take our wounded back. First squad go into the pillbox, the rest of you guys spread out from here to the road and take cover. And hurry, they are going to counter-attack soon." Ray and I only had time to stumble towards a shell hole when all hell broke loose. The greenish yellow tracer of German machine gun fire was all over the place. Ray and I ended in the bottom of that hole hug-ging each other and saying, "Jesus Christ, right over our heads." They seemed to be picking on Ray and me but I guess they had more than one machine gun.
Suddenly there was a thud and a few chunks of soil rolled down and there was the infantry Lieutenant. He looked down at us and said, "You sure can't see much from down there, guys." He didn't wait. He dived over into the next hole. That was all he had to say to get us out of our panic. Ray and I climbed up to the edge of the hole and looked out. There was a line of trees and brush about 20 yards away. Machine gun and rifle fire was coming from all along that line. Our guys were not shooting. They were throwing hand grenades, and with some effect. It was almost pitch dark. I told Ray, "Don't shoot your rifle, they will just see where we are." I wanted my back protected so we dug a couple of fox holes in the side of the shell hole. We dug alternately, one guy watched while the other dug.
Then somebody was shouting something. It was, "Truce, don't fire, truce." "Hold your fire" echoed up and down our line. All shooting stopped. The Germans came out from the line of trees carrying stretchers to collect their wounded. They came through the dark wearing white vests with a big red cross front and back. They went right past our hole. As they struggled back with the wounded, they would stumble and start to fall in our hole. We would catch them and help them back up. It was only much later that I thought, "Here I am, classified limited-service, and I am in the front line close enough to touch the enemy." After the truce there was a shoot or two and then nothing. Ray and I settled in for a long cold night trying to alternate sleep-ing. We only had long johns, wool pants and shirts, cloth gloves and field jackets. It was November 17 and it was cold. Finally the dawn came. We were moving out again. We were close to the pillbox and the Lieutenant yelled, "Engineer." I looked at Ray. He wasn't about to move. I grabbed his charges and ran for the pillbox window. our guys quit shooting as I got near the window. I put the 10 pounds in the window, pulled the fuse, and ducked around the corner. It went off with a roar. I grabbed the pole charge, shoved it in the window, and pulled that fuse and jumped back around the corner. It went off and the back wooden door blew off and flew about 20 feet into the air. It was just like a practice session. Every thing worked perfectly. It was more of a practice session than I knew. The Pillbox was empty. The Germans had left during the night.
The Lieutenant yelled at me, "Hey, engineer, I want you to check this place for booby traps before you go." I went to the opening and looked down the stairs. It was a mess of rubble, ammunition, military gear, and it was dark. I said it was too dark to see anything. He pulled out a flash light and said, "I'll go with you." Down we went with that feeble flash light looking for trip wires or any disturbance in the chaos of rubble. It was not the best job of looking for booby traps I have ever done, but we went down all the way and would have set them off if they had been there. When we got to the bottom the Lieutenant yelled for the third squad to come down. We had made it. I was just asking the Lieutenant for permission to leave when a shell hit the pillbox. It sounded as though we were inside a drum. The lieutenant told me I might want to stay inside for a few minutes because the Germans have all these
forts zeroed in. About a dozen shells hit the pillbox, but did no damage, except to my nerves.
Finally it quieted down and I headed back for my outfit. I had no rifle so reached down and picked up a German one. It was a bolt action Mauser and it had shells in the chamber. It was a sunny day and I walked and jogged back on the road to the town we had started from. It was a quiet trip with no artillery going either way. As I got close to town I worried that some guy would see me with a German rifle and take a shot at me. I had been through too much to have that happen so I threw the rifle away. I climbed the small hill and walked into town. There waiting for
me was my platoon Lieutenant, Paul Seinert. He greeted me like a long lost son and then said, "Where the hell have you been? Ray has been back for over half an hour." It wouldn't be the last time that Lieutenant Seinert would be there to meet me.
When I got back to the squad some one asked me what was wrong with my pants. I looked and they were cut twice across the rump. Shrapnel from those mortar shells had cut the outer pair of pants, but not the inner pair. I almost didn't get low enough in that ditch. I had left the rifle that I had brought from Camp Carson stuck in the mud of Germany. When I asked our Supply Sgt. Jones for a new one, he was glad to give me a shiny, clean, new one. He said, "Anyone who loses a rifle the way you guys did, deserves a new one. It seems like the whole Company knew about our action with the infantry.
[After reading the pillbox stories in the June 1996 newsletter Pete Branton commented on the situation in two separate messages. They are both shown below. Ed]
I am very impressed with your well documented account of the pillbox assault, all echelons from Army Group to individual soldier. This was of special interest to me and I have found it most interesting to talk to various 1st Platoon members over the years and hear their different accounts. This was a somewhat unique operation for us for two main reasons. The most important one being that it was one of the few times we had an opportunity to really plan what we were about to do and make sure that each man understood the details. About two days before the attack, we pulled back from our original position to make our plans & get ready. I think this helped keep our casualties so low. The other unusual thing was that we were attached. to L Co., under Capt. Garth, for this operation.
We had lots of input from various sources & the key to our success was that the Germans had built an elevated road between pillboxes 52 & 51 and this shielded us from any fire from 50 or 51. We were able to move along the side of the road without being subject to any small arms fire from our right. We did have a lots of mortar & artillery fire directed at us when we were about half way to 52 & it was unbelievable that only Tony Kozak, my "Runner", was wounded. The next morning, I understood that lots of "Big Brass" was observing from the Regimental OP, we started our attack on 50 & 51, but we had no resistance. Our Regimental History does give us a pat-on-the-back in stating,"The assault on 50 went off just as the training manuals say one should - -". It amuses me that the 413th A/A Report states, "I, K, and L companies began their assault on pillboxes 50, 51 and 51 - ". As you know, it was only our one platoon, plus the few attached Engineers, that had been given the task of assaulting all three. Some Joker back in Regimental Rear, who wrote that, didn't know what was going on.
Further reference the pillbox saga, it is interesting that so many people have such different memories & obviously how distorted some of the facts have become (most likely including mine as well). I have no memory regarding Dave's incident with the Lt., but I was the only officer out there until Garth joined us early the next morning. Also you will notice that Joe makes reference to Capt. Pat Johnston, but Pat had no part in all of this as we were attached to Co. L for this entire exercise. Once things got settled down a bit, we ran a land-line back to Co. L for our telephone & when Joe suggested going with the German, we handled this with Garth & he cleared it with Summers & all up the line. Co. L had no further direct part except we passed through their positions for our "line-of-departure".
Co. M had a direct part in that their heavy machine guns (under Sgt. Gassaway) were put into position to give us coverage & to fire into the pillbox embrasure once the tanks had lifted their fire. Several people were involved in the planning including an important part by Hayden Bower. He had been to a special Corps of Engineers school dealing with attacking a fortified position. The basic plan was to try to use a large concentration of artillery to force all the Germans from their foxholes into the pillbox. Then with direct fire from the tanks into the embrasure, force them down into the lower level (living quarters) of the pill box. Once we got close, the tanks were to lift their fire from that pillbox, but then the Co. M machine guns were to direct their fire into the embrasure until we got even closer & then our BARs were to take up the fire until we got close enough for our satchel-charges & poll-charges to be into the embrasure. At this point, with some of our men now on the back side of the pillbox & firing at the rear door, I assume the Germans were almost as terrified as we were.
Both Frank Van Valkenburg & Dave Williams have the same memories reference to the loud noise of the tanks firing as we started out right beside one of the tanks.
THE BIG PICTURE (From US Army in WWII, The Siegfried Line Campaign)
presented by Bob Nolan
On 22 November, the 413th Infantry encountered one of the few instances during the battle of the Roer plain where high ground other than that occupied by towns or villages figured prominently in the enemy's defense.
The next objective facing the 413th Infantry was Puetzlohn, which occupies the western slope of a sharply discernible ridge line lying two miles west of the Inde River. Here the Germans would have to stand or else expose the entire valley of the Inde in the 104th Division's sector to damaging observation. To hold here, they counted not only upon defending Puetzlohn but upon denying a high point of the ridge south of Puetzlohn, Hill 154. To the south the new German line covered the
western periphery of Weisweiler; to the north, the town of Lohn across the U.S. I st army boundary in the sector of the 30th Division. Because the excavation of a strip mine blocked the direct route eastward from Duerwiss to Puetzlohn, the 413th Infantry again had to enter the 30th Division's sector to reach its objective.
Attacking early on 22 November, the regiment's leading battalion [3rd] scarcely had re-entered its own sector when savage fire from tanks or assault guns in Puetzlohn and from artillery fire caught the men in open fields west of the village. By working forward slowly under cover of artillery concentrations, the infantry at last gained the westernmost buildings, but even this advance was wiped out partially in late afternoon when flanking fire from 30th Division's sector forced a slight
withdrawal. Puetzlohn and the high ground about it were obviously going to be hard to crack. [Crack it we did and then moved on to Inden, where the Germans were as equally determined that we should not pass, but pass we did! Bob Nolan]
Thanksgiving eve--November 22, 1944
by Pete Branton
A dreadful, horrible day ... All who were there will never forget, as it was the worst day in the history of our company, a day on which we lost more men than on any other single day. It was a cold, rainy, muddy day and Company K was in trouble in trying to reach Putzlohn and we were trying to come to their aid (Our Regimental History gives a full description of that day in stating, "It had been raining and the mud was knee-deep, mud that soaked every stitch of clothing, and into every corner of the weapons.").
After the tanks that 1st platoon had been riding on were knocked out and as we got back into the village of Franhoven, our departure point, I was told to report to our battalion commander, LT. Col.. William Summers. Just as I arrived at the 3rd. Battalion CP, Col. Summers was out in the street talking to a GI from our company, and, speaking of the German tanks, asked if there were "two small tanks and one big one", and the GI responded, "No sir, Colonel, there were two big tanks and one GREAT, BIG 'UN!"
On a more serious note, it was at this time that I gained a special respect for Colonel Summers. As anyone who ever faced him will remember, he was a very intimidating person and scared me to death. He started asking me, in an unusually sympathetic way, about out experience with the tanks, when our Regimental Commander, Col. Welcome P. Waltz, called on the telephone and Col. Summers repeated what I had just told him. Then Col. Summers advised that Col. Waltz was ordering me to "take my platoon and stalk the German tanks with bazookas." And he, Col. Summers, asked if I thought we could do it. I told him that I didn't think so as much of the platoon was still scattered and I could only locate 9 of my men. At that, Col. Summers closed the subject by smashing his telephone against the stone wall and loudly declaring, "We have just lost communications with regiment!"
One further story about that day. When we got on the tanks, the tank commander told us that they would have to stop to fire, but for us not to get off. We had just gotten past the orchard at the edge of Franhoven when our tanks came under fire. Our tanks stopped to return fire, and this may have been a mistake as we were "sitting ducks." Off to our right front, at perhaps 600 or more yards was a BIG Tiger Royal tank in full silhouette, just like the ID Pictures we had seen in training (this is the only time I remember seeing a Tiger Royal in combat). When our tanks fired at this 'big boy", the tracer projectiles bounced off like rubber balls and only served to attract the full attention and that was enough to end our journey as the Tiger Royal picked off our tanks one by one. As we got back to the orchard, I remember seeing Pvt. Bracamonte, standing fully erect, firing his BAR from the hip, apparently attempting to give us covering fire.
Return To Company I, 413th Infantry
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