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An Encounter in
By Daniel W. O'Brien
Company A, 56th Armored Engineer Battalion
Late in the afternoon of December
23, 1944, a soldier in American battle dress and armed
with a sub-machine gun appeared at a street
intersection in the village of Sissone, in northern
France. Villagers were worried and suspicious. Stories
had been circulating that German soldiers, dressed in
American uniforms, had penetrated allied lines, and
were terrorizing the countryside throughout rear areas.
Could one of these saboteurs now be in Sissone?
Only four months before, the Boche had been driven from northern France. Now, less than 100 miles to the northeast, in the forests of the Ardennes, they had counterattacked. They were advancing westward, somewhere between Bastogne and the river Meuse. Public information available to the villagers was scant, and official information was non-existent. Rumors were rampant. No one knew exactly where the Boche were. The villagers feared they could even now be approaching Sissone.
A group of village elders eyed the soldier furtively from the sidewalk across the intersection. Out of his earshot, and with much discussion and many gestures, they determined to identify the intruder as friend or foe. Only then could they decide his fate.
Recently arrived from England, units of the 11th Armored Division were assembling on December 18th at Rennes, France,. Well trained, but lacking battle experience, the 11th Armored had been assigned a mission to attack heavily fortified enemy pockets at St. Nazaire and Lorient on the French coast. At Rennes, that mission was abruptly canceled. Under new orders, the Division embarked on a motorized race across France and into what would soon become known as "The Battle of the Bulge."
An advance party consisting of about 50 men was selected from various units. Mounted on jeeps and weapons carriers, they preceded the Division on the line of march by several hours. It was their duty to reconnoiter the route, to identify and by pass trouble spots or obstacles, to select bivouac areas, and to serve as road guides. On the third day out, as a member of the advance party, I was detailed to direct Division columns through an intersection near the center of the village of Sissone. Dismounting from a weapons carrier, I waited alone on the main street. For the first hour, I drew many stares from passers-by. Some even retreated from my presence. Then, across the intersection, I observed a group of older Frenchmen, engrossed in animated conversation. At the time I did not realize that I was the subject of their intense dialogue.
As dusk fell, the street emptied, and for a few minutes I was alone. Then, a well groomed white haired lady approached. After bidding me "Bonsoir," she launched into a spirited conversation in French. Using my recently issued French language book, I protested "Je ne comprends pas," I do not understand.
The lady persisted. She continued speaking to me in French. I listened intently, attempting to understand her. I thought I could detect an English word or two interspersed with the French. Finally, I asked her, "Do you speak English?"
With an immediate facial _expression of relief, she answered "Yes." She then introduced herself. She was English, had married a Frenchman during World War I, and had since then resided in Sissone. She explained that the villagers feared I was a German spy in American uniform. She then turned to the empty street, and shouted loudly, "Il est Americain."
Almost immediately, the street filled with people. The village elders, who only a short time before were considering how they might dispose of me, now came forward to shake my hand. There were countless questions. "What are you doing in our village?," "Are there more American soldiers about?" "Will the Americans protect us from the Boche?" "Where are the Boche now?" "Is the village likely to be overrun?"
I attempted to answer the questions as best I could. I explained that soon many vehicles would come through the village. We were moving to stop the German advance. I did not know where the German army was (at that time, not even the those in the high command echelons knew the exact location). I did not think that the village would be overrun. We would do our best to make sure that didn't happen. It seemed strange. I had suddenly become a spokesman for the United States Army, if not for the entire Allied command.
The greatly relieved villagers brought me bread, cheese, and wine. In darkness, at about 8 p.m., our first units entered the village. The roar of an armored column is an awesome sound. To the people of Sissone, the mighty ground shaking crescendo was reassuring, and fears abated. As our tanks rumbled by, their sense of relief developed into an impromptu celebration. Through ear shattering noise of whining engines, I could hear proud villagers singing "The Marseillaise," and shouting "Viva Americains."
During a pause between columns, a Frenchman approached with a bowl of a delicious hot stew. While I savored his tasty gift, He stood beside me in the intersection, directing traffic for me with my flashlight baton. By 11 P.M., when the last units had passed, the village was dark and quiet. My Sissone encounter was over.
The Division assembled at Sissone Barracks, a few miles north of the village. The former French Army barracks had housed German Army units during the occupation. Most recently, the 82nd Airborne Division bivouacked there for R & R. Their rest and relaxation was rudely interrupted, and except for some remaining service troops, the 82nd was already deployed in the Battle of the Bulge.
At Sissone Barracks, the 11th Armored stripped for battle. All non-essential gear was placed in storage. By December 25th, the Division was deployed along the river Meuse, defending a thin line extending from Givet to Verdun in northern France. From there the Division advanced into Belgium, and on December 30th saw its first action in the Battle in the Bulge..