1994 Return To Belgium
by Ralph Storm
After considering a European tour for a number of years, Muriel and I signed on for the Andy Ferrara tour scheduled for September, 1994. It was a never-to-be-forgotten trip. Unlike most tours which carry tourists into many countries, our tour group stayed in a Houffalize resort hotel for eleven nights. Each day we bussed into nearby cities for sightseeing. Looking through the 21st AIB B Co History, one finds the names of towns that were badly damaged in the Bulge, but have been completely rebuilt. Towns like Chenonge, Mande, and Noville. At Au Chene, B Co. was down to 159 EM and four officers. The Second Platoon was dissolved and the remaining men assigned to the First and Third Platoons. Snow and freezing weather brought on frostbite and pneumonia. By January 17 at Champs, B Co. had only 123 men and one officer, Captain Elmore Fabrick. Because of many battle casualties and much hardship, B Co. dwindled down to one big platoon. Fifty years is a long time, however, we 11th Armored people returning to Bastogne and Houffalize were treated as if we were part of me local family - in fact, better than family. At Houffalize we were taken in private cars to remote forest grave sites where the SS police, during the Bulge, had hidden their civilian murder victims. We were also taken on a tour of the Ardennes battlefields and were guided by Bulge historian Roger Marquet. Altogether, some 29 U.S. divisions fought in the Bulge and we needed someone to show us where and how the battles had been fought. Those who were in the Ardennes in 1944-45 may remember it as a wet, and snowy place. The Belgians still complain about their weather and keep umbrellas handy. In the newer homes today, skylights have been added to rooftops to bring in light. One Belgian told me that the skylights help people to dry their laundry. There were many interesting people at the ceremonies at Houffalize such as Theodore Pajluck, a survivor of the Baugnez (Malmedy) Massacre. We videotaped Andre Remain Neurisse of Bullingen as he told his story of how as a seven year old boy at Bastogne, he was wounded by shrapnel and was cared for by Army medics and later underwent surgery at an Army Evacuation Hospital in Sedan, France. Marie Lipstadt, who as a fourteen year old Brussels girl, was rescued from a German concentration camp at Darmstadt, Germany. In Houffalize we also met an ex-GI from Floyd County, KY, who met a Belgian girl in 1945, married her, settled down in Liege, and never came back to the states to live. He had been speaking French for the past 49 years and expressed some doubts about his ability to speak English again. He was quite fluent in English. On my "wish list” was a return to the tiny Luxembourg hamlet of Breidfeld (population 50) where B Company had been billeted briefly in February, 1945. At the concert in Houffalize we met M. and Mme. Jacoby-Reveau who offered to drive us to Breidfeld that afternoon. On the way to Breidfeid we stopped at monuments where incidents had occurred during the Bulge. At the western edge of Houffalize is a monument to an American MP who was killed on December 19, 1944. On the night of December 18, heavy military traffic passed through Houffalize. The entire 82nd Airborne passed through the village heading north toward Werbomont. After guiding the last American vehicles through Houffalize, three MPs in a jeep were ambushed by a German patrol, and two were killed. A few miles east of Houffalize, we stopped to view the ancient chateau at Tavigny. The Battle of the Bulge was made up of "little fights", hundreds of little fights. One fight occurred at Tavigny on December 18, where fifteen American tanks had raced to the village but were soon bogged down and under heavy German Bazooka fire. Ten tanks were knocked out, and on the next day tenants from the chateau helped to bury the bodies of eight American tankers. At the edge of Trois Vierges, Luxembourg, stood a sand colored German 88 MM anti-tank gun with a damaged muzzle. There is also a Holocaust monument to the 700 Grand Duchy Jews who were left in the Cinq-Fontaines monastery before deportation to Auschwitz. Only 38 survived. We were nearing Breidfeld but needed a guide, Marie Merkes-Dauna volunteered to take us there. Marie lives in Trois Vierges today, but lived in Breidfeld in 1945 when she was a 12 year old. We passed through Holler, where the 21st Infantry had its CP, and another kilometer east is Breidfeld. The hamlet looks much the same but now has a paved road and street lights. The tiny white church ad been freshly painted, and I found both the hay barn and the farmhouse where First Squad, Second Platoon had been billeted. Over a span of 49 years, I recalled the "Bed Check Charlies" and the V-1s that came at night. Also the rumble of guns and the pink flashed in the eastern night sky. Just east of Breidfeld is a crossroads where I stood guard duty on March 1, 1945 while elements of the 705th Tank Destroyer Bn passed through on their way to Germany. The 705th bivouacked at Sellerich that day, and at a point three kilometers from the front lines, an artillery shell screamed down striking the Bn. CP and instantly killing the Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Clifford Templeton. I wish to thank Williams Pagels, a former 705th member, for the information on Col. Templeton. B Company was alerted that day and next morning, March 2, our half-tracks rumbled into an assembly area, also at Aellerich, near Prum. The German artillery had an additional target, and they pummeled us for the next two days and nights Men from the 11th Armored who saw the wreckage of Houffalize in 1945 may remember it as one of the "Most destroyed" towns in Europe. Most of the damage was done by Allied bombing. During the Bulge Houffalize served as chokepoint. As Bulge historian Charles B. MacDonald put it. In peacetime a town with a nexus of roads has an advantage that often leads to growth. In wartime those same roads may pose a liability, for their existence makes the town a military objective. That is what happened in Houffalize in December, 1944. As the German offensive opened, the Americans would have liked to deny the roads, as they did at Bastogne, but they had no force to send before the Germans arrived. At that point the only way to deny those roads, which the Germans needed to funnel replacements and supplies westward, was to bomb the town and try to create a chokepoint; Houffalize paid the consequences with terrible destruction. Even when the Germans began to withdraw from the bulge they had created in American lines, it was still important to maintain the chokepoint in order to slow the withdrawal; and Allied aircraft imposed even greater destruction upon the hapless town." When the Bulge offensive began, VIII Corps at Bastogne could not send a single battalion to Houffalize. Instead, the American high command proceeded to set up dams at certain towns like St. Vith, Stavelot, Werbomont, Parker's Crossroads (Baraque de Fraiture) just north of Houffalize, and Bastogne. Some of the dams broke, others held. After the Nazi offensive had run its course, the Americans began to push the Germans back. And at Bastogne, as Army historian, S.L.A. Marshall, pointed out, the heaviest fighting developed after Bastogne had been relieved. That was where the 11th Armored entered the battle. The most memorable part of our tour to Belgium was the warmth and gratitude expressed to us by the people of Houffalize and Bastogne. As Ken Aran expressed it, "our localized reception was more like a family. It was an experience I shall always cherish." One of many examples of Belgian warmth for us veterans was the parade at Bastogne in which the not-so-young veterans marched the length of Bastogne's main street to the McAuliffe Square. As we march along down the Rue Savlon, many school children hurried out to grasp a veteran's hand and marched along before approving and politely applauding crowds that lined the sidewalks. There were not always enough veterans' hands to go around, but some children then clasped hands with kids who were already joined with veterans. A Belgian writer predicted that 1994 may be the last time in which American veterans would return to the Ardennes in large numbers. For Belgians in Houffalize and Bastogne, the events in September, 1994 were indeed a great time to be united again with les Americans. Many older Belgians today remember the Bulge and the wise cracking Gls who gave them chewing gum and candy when they were children. They also recall the graves at Henri-Chapelle in Belgium, Hamm, Luxembourg, and Margraten, Holland. And one Belgium said, "How can I ever be anti-American, after what they did for us."
REPLACEMENTS IN THE EUROPEAN THEATRE
By the end of 1944, nearly 350,000 troops had been killed, wounded or missing in the ETO. By V-E Day, there had been 135,000 dead—with per cent of these deaths in the Infantry Divisions.
Turnover rates were high in the sixty-one divisions that served in the ETO. Twenty divisions had personnel turnover rates of one hundred per cent or more, and five divisions had rates of more than 200 per cent. The Fourth, or Ivy Division, had a turnover rate of 252 percent. Infantry replacements came from a number of sources in order to reinforce the depleted Infantry units in combat. The more traditional way was to depend on new draftees being trained at Infantry Training Centers. By 1943, I8 year old high school graduates were being called up. By 1944, fathers were being drafted for the first time. At the same time, the Army Specialized Training Program was being tapped for foot soldiers. In February, 1944, the War Department announced that 110,000 ASTP men would be returned to duty with Army Ground Forces. Altogether thirty-five Infantry divisions received on average about 1,500 ASTP men. Air Cadet programs were also curtailed and some Infantry Divisions received as many as three thousand men from ASTP and Air Corps programs.
But there was a continuous shortage of replacement riflemen. In England and on the continent, commanders of rear echelon units were asked to contribute ten percent of their troops to the Replacement pool. In England, such men were sent to Tidworth for two weeks of refresher Infantry training before being shipped to the continent.
The movement of troops across the Atlantic was remarkably successful considering the number of U-boat sinkings in 1942 and 1943. As in World War I, the convoy system was used. Convoys of fifty to one hundred ships were assembled at east coast ports. Convoys would include freighters, tankers, troopships, plus the various anti-submarine vessels. In addition there were blimps, four engine bombers and planes from baby flat-tops.
Among troopships there were only a few sinkings. A number of fast liners such as the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth sailed without escort, back and forth between the Firth of Clyde in Scotland and New York. These ships relied on zigzagging and speeds of better than 25 knots to elude German U-boats. |
It was standard operating procedure for the Big Queens to pick up Royal Navy escort vessels when nearing the British Isles. It was on the night of October 1, 1942 when the Queen Mary, carrying fifteen thousand American troops was sixty miles west of Bloody Foreland, Northern Ireland. The Queen Mary had just picked up its escort ships, one of which was the light cruiser Curacao. As it happened that night the U-boat U-407 appeared on the scene with a "fair chance to shoot." Radar lookouts on the Curacao or Queen Mary saw the U-boat and gave the alarm. The Curacao skipper decided to cross his ship in front of the Queen Mary and run down the U-boat. The Curacao crossed into the path of the 81,000 ton Queen Mary which was doing twenty-six knots. According to historian Clay Blair, "the big liner struck Curacao amid ships and cut her clean in half." The Curacao sank within five minutes and 338 men perished.
I first heard this story on board the Queen Elizabeth in September, 1944. The British kept the mishap secret until the end of the war. A young Scottish ensign told this story to groups of attentive GIs on the big Queen as it zigzagged across the gray North Atlantic. After six days at sea, our ship was picked up by two Royal Navy corvettes as we approached the south coast of Ireland. Rounding the southeast corner of the Emerald Isle, our ship turned sharply to port side and raced north through the Irish Sea toward the Firth of Clyde. The Firth was blocked by a submarine net. As the Queen Elizabeth approached the Firth, a tugboat sailed into action, opening the great net allowing our ship to enter the Firth, then quickly towing the net back into place.
A British Army camp at Andover, England, was a port of embarkation for American and British troops sailing for the continent. The red brick barracks rooms contained wooden bunks, straw mattresses, and fireplaces. We carried anthracite coal in our steel helmets to keep our fireplace going. For washing, there were cold water faucets outside.
There was entertainment each night at a music hall. The performers were mostly female who sang, tap danced, and told jokes. At intermission time, beer was sold in the lobby. Both Brits and GIs gathered at the music hall each night. As we stood in line to buy tickets, we noticed that British recruits had unusually short haircuts—the backs of their heads appeared to have been shaved. Also, the Brits were careful not to waste tobacco. A cigarette half-smoked was extinguished and stashed behind the owner's ear. A British
soldier's pay was about one third of a GIs pay.
The U.S. Army did not explain why the replacements were ordered to have short haircuts before going into combat. Our company commander in Andover promised to inspect everyone in the morning we shipped out. Two cut-ups in our company decided to have some fan with the company commander. He had demanded short haircuts. These
two would comply with short haircuts—of a sort. The two cut-ups went to a local barber shop for "custom haircuts." One man emerged with a shaved head but with a Mohawk stripe, the other man had a proper haircut, but with a six inch bald moon on top. At inspection time, the CO carefully surveyed the two eight balls and silently gritting (his teeth. It was thought that medical officers may have been concerned with head lice.
On a cold, gray morning, we entrained for an hour train ride to Southhampton and its docks. We boarded the U.S. Navy transport Explorer, but because of heavy fog, could not sail until the following morning.
The voyage from Southampton to Cherbourg or LeHavre was used by hundreds of ships in the winter of 1944-45. Although known only to a few people, a German U-boat had sunk the troopship Leopoldville near Cherbourg, France on Christmas Eve, 1944. British and American high commands had immediately issued a disinformation story, claiming that a U-boat had sunk an American hospital ship. More than 800 GIs perished with the sinking of the Leopoldville. The U-boat, U-486, equipped with a snorkel, had lay on the bottom waiting for darkness on Christmas Eve. When the Leopoldville approached, the U-boat sent a torpedo crashing into the ship's starboard hold.
By dawn the next day, the fog had cleared and our Explorer was being escorted across the English Channel by two wooden mine sweepers towing a heavy hawser to pick up stray mines. By noon we were at the docks of LeHavre where we slung on our packs and duffel bags. We were marched through the streets of LeHavre to a well known Repple
Depple or tent camp. Before entering camp, there was a long, steep hill to climb. The road up the hill was cobble stoned. Years later a World War I veteran told me that he had stayed in the same camp in 1918, but at that time the road was a dirt road.
At the top of the long hill, we received an unofficial welcome to France. A middle aged French housewife stood by the roadside with a loaf of bread and carving knife. She offered bread to the passing GIs. A Lieutenant marching with us, suggested that the French had only limited food supplies, and discouraged the men from accepting the French woman's bread.
Our stay at LeHavre was brief. We were issued sleeping bags which seemed warmer that GI blankets. Also, before boarding the 40 et 8s for the trip to the front, we were issued several cases of K rations and a five gallon can of water. We slept on straw. Train service was slow as we frequently took sidetracks and waited for traffic to pass.
Movement was especially slow at night. After a second day on the road, we were told that the French train drivers had been warned by the Germans that there would be a death penalty for any French crew man that worked for the Allies. The French crews would take a train to about fifty miles from the front where a GI train crew took over.
On a dark night, our train jolted to a halt in a French city. We were ordered to dismount and form a "column of twos". We fumbled about in the darkness, unearthing our bags and duffle from the straw. Guides from the replacement camp led us through the dark cobble-stoned streets of Metz. At one point, one of the guides turned about and announced that we were passing the Third Army brothel.
At the camp we had orientation lectures and were issued M-l rifles and 96 rounds of ammunition—a "day's ration". The lecturers spoke on how to survive on the front. One officer reproduced the sound of a German burp gun. He stood before a microphone and ripped a sheet of canvas. Burp guns had a cyclic rate of 1500 rounds per minute or about three times as fast as the American equivalent. "And don't bunch up," the officer shouted to the assembled green troops. "The Krauts will hit you with mortars when you bunch up. Most of our casualties are from mortar fragments." The officer continued, "Right now, it's hard going on the front. Pillboxes, villages, and wooded hills. You have to know how to take cover in order to survive."
The troops were taught a single German phrase: "Kommen sie raus mit der handen hoch," or "Come on out with your hands up."
After our noon meal, we assembled with our duffle bags in a large courtyard, waiting for transport. It was a rare sunny afternoon. Before long we first heard the drone of many aircraft, then we watch a great flight of silver, four engine bombers pass overhead, leaving long white contrails behind to mark their passing.
When a Quartermaster truck convoy arrived, it was time to decide what outfit would get which troops. The Army was not particular about assigning troops, particularly the green ones. One First Army GI who went through the Liege camp, told how the men were lined up and told to count off: "One, two, one two," and so on. All the "ones" went to the
First Division, while the "twos" went to the Second. At Metz, all of the Third Army divisions were getting a share of the new troops. Those men whose surnames began A or B, went to the 4th Division, those with C or D, to the 5th Division, and so on. The S, T, and several others went to the 11th Armored.
Every third truck had a .50 cal. machine gun mounted over the cab. After the trucks, the assistant drivers removed the canvas covers from the machine guns, the engines were revved up, and we were on our way to the front. The machine guns were for antiaircraft use, but fortunately no Luftwaffe planes were encountered that day.
Not all of the Infantry replacements went into Infantry units. Belton Cooper in his book. Death Traps, told of the severe shortages of tank crews in the Third Armored Division. When an M-4 tank was hit by a German high velocity projectile, from one to three tankers were killed or wounded. Tank crews often fought on with incomplete crews. The tank would do without the bow gunner or even the main gunner—the tank commander would act as gunner in a three man crew. When no trained replacement tankers were available, raw Infantry troops were assigned to tank companies. These new men would be given one day or only a half day of training. Each man would be permitted to fire a round or two from the main gun. Beyond that the new tankers would receive on-the-job training in battle.