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Three Enemies: Germans, Weather and Fear

Three Enemies: Germans, Weather and Fear

 

Late in the afternoon of December 16 one of the truck drivers from Trains Headquarters Company of the 9th Armored Division, having just returned from Eupen, Belgium stepped into our billet at 64 Rue de Mersch in Saeul, Luxembourg, and made the very quick announcement, "Something big is going on up north.  There is shelling from artillery all over the place.  I had to detour and go far west from my route to get back.  I don't know what is going on but it must be something big."

 

That was my first knowledge of what has come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.  Little did I not realize at the moment the great importance of what had been unleashed nor could I understand what the outcome would mean for the Allies and the American forces in particular.

 

I was not the only one that was in the dark, so was Major General John W. Leonard, Commanding the 9th Armored Division which was strung out over a distance of nearly seventy miles from near the border of Holland in the north and down to near Luxembourg City in the south.  In what was thought to be the quiet sector of the line and where various combat elements of the division were completing a period of combat indoctrination.

 

When the German offensive broke loose the majority of General Leonard's command was attached to some other division or some element of VIII Corps in a supporting role of some sort.General Leonard had to be the most frustrated Commander in Europe.  For two and a half years he had organized, shaped and trained the officers and men of the 9th Armored only to find himself out of contact and unable to exercise any control over his division as a single entity.  Thus he was confounded by events beyond his control at his headquarter in Mersch, Luxembourg.

 

Following a series of daily, even hourly, relocations my unit along with unidentified part of 9th Armored Division engineers, the 89th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron and various elements of support organization were positioned roughly from Arlon, and to the west along the axis of Etalle, St Marie, Tintigny and Florenville, all in Belgium.

 
My unit was the Reconnaissance Platoon of Trains Headquarters Company of 9th Armored Division.  Our equipment included an armored car with a 37mm gun and a single air cooled machine gun.  We had four Peeps, the armored term for a jeep, and a weapons carrier that was used to haul ammunition and spare ordinance.  This assemblage and crews came to rest in the town of Etalle, where we were told that it would be our job to try to stem the German attach if it were to try to go toward Reims, the location of SHAEF Headquarters or on toward Paris.
 

We were part of an improvised defense that comprised three Task Forces.  The first was identified as Task Force Halverson, I was told it was commanded by a Major Halverson of the 9th Armored Engineers.  It was on the right flank of the three forces.  The second was Task Force Fiore, so named for Lieutenant Colonel Fiore, Commander of the 89th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron.  It had its Command Post in Sainte Marie and held the center position of the provisional secondary line.  The third Task Force, (whose names in now lost in the fog of time) was located in the village of Tintigny, Belgium, of this hastily prepared but unused defense.  The front covered by these three task forces amounted to something between eight and ten miles on the southern edge of the Bulge.  It was matter of strong points at crossroads or at some elevation with a clear view of a section of critical road bed.

 

It is believed that these three provisional Task Forces were under the command of General John Leonard, who had established 9th Armored Division Headquarters at Etalle.

 

Task Force Halverson was given the responsibility and the authority to snag every straggler or American soldier that was separated from his unit and came into the town of Etalle.  Such individuals were impressed into the defense of various crossroads and strong points at strategic locations that could temporarily slow down a German column headed for Reims.  By buying time in such an event, Corps and Army commands would have the opportunity to further strengthen the situation.  All of this was the thinking before it was known that the German's objective was Antwerp.  In the course of about two and a half days, Task Force Halverson had approximately 700 troops in its command.  The most important qualifications were the color of the uniform, the shape of the helmet and any kind of weapon that fired American ammunition.

 

On about the 21st or 22nd December, 9th Armored Ordnance delivered two Cosmo line packed 105mm howitzers to Etalle.  It fell to the Reconnaissance Platoon to put these two pieces into firing order at once.  Fortunately the sun was shining but the weather was as cold as the proverbial witch's tit.  With a combination of gasoline, GI towels, bayonets and the cleaning brushes provided with these guns, we did fast work and before night fall had them ready for inspection.  The breeches would open without a hitch; we could elevate them easily to the fullest extent and traverse them smoothly.  The bores of these two guns were as clean as could be the sighting equipment was as clean as a whistle and aiming stakes were ready.  Suddenly we were ready to become artillerymen.

 

But, who were going to be the cannoneers?  The gunner in our Armored Car had a fundamental understanding of a 37mm gun, mostly with armor piercing ammunition.  The others in the platoon knew about .30 caliber ball and .50 caliber ammunition, plus a smattering of .45 caliber for Thompson subs and Grease Guns.  I knew about bore sighing from sniper school in the States.  So, that was it.  We decided that we would bore sight the guns at a tank at about 500 yards, fire, and pray.If we did not get the tank with the first shot, he would have the second shot and that would be that.  Night fall came before we could put the pieces in position for firing.  Someone announced that our chow truck had some hot "C"s so off we went for some supper.  When we got back, much to our chagrin, the field pieces had disappeared.

 
A part of the regular duty of the Reconnaissance Platoon during its time as part of Task Force Halverson was the patrolling to the outposts around Etalle and at the same time ferrying "warm" men to replace those that had been on outpost duty and were so cold they could barely move.  On one occasion, while picking up the cold men we found one that could not get out his hole.  His feet were frozen.
 

Our platoon was fortunate to be billeted in the local one room school house, right in the middle of town.  It was stucco and had double glass windows.Some one had put about two feet of straw on about half the tile floor.At the other end of the room there was a big pot belly stove about five feet tall.  There was a pile of coal in an adjacent corner, so as far as Bulge billets were concerned, there was nothing to be asked for beyond this very comfortable situation.

 

Having finished the last regular outpost patrol for the afternoon the Reconnaissance Platoon was assembled in the school house soaking up the heat from the stove and chewing variously on "D" bars or fruit bars from "K" rations.  For the moment, life was good.  Then a runner burst into the school room and shouted, "Reconnaissance Platoon, Mount Up.Extra gasoline and extra Bazooka ammunition!  Assemble at the CP at once.Every man with overcoats."  With that the runner disappeared.  In short order the platoon was assembled in the Company CP.  At the moment a General Officer was inside.  This was evidenced by the hooded Star Plate on the bumper of the automobile parked in front of the CP.

 

My Platoon Leader, Lieutenant Vernon Chance, followed by Sergeant Angelo Rinaldi, my platoon sergeant, and Sergeant Bill Smith, my section leader, went into the CP with the remainder of the Platoon waiting outside with the vehicles in the last glimmers of daylight and in the miserable cold.  The briefing seemed to take forever, maybe as much as thirty or forty minutes, but it was so cold miserably sitting in the wind and just waiting.

 

Sergeant Rinaldi and Smith came to the first vehicle and stopped while the members of all the crews gathered to learn the mission for tonight.  Soon it was apparent that the General Officer inside had received a report that there were six Tiger Tanks patrolling in force approximately six miles to our northwest.  Our mission was that of determining whether or not bridges across the Semois River were still passable and, if so, to determine if they had been mined by U.S. Forces.  Radio silence was to be maintained.  We were to stay at the maximum intervals, so if in the event of a hostile encounter, the greater interval would improve the possibility of one or more vehicles being able to make it out to bring back the report of the findings relative to the bridges.  If any German tanks are sighted, break off contact, determine the tanks location and return to the CP after we have accomplished the reconnaissance of the bridges.

 
With that instruction the patrol was off with the armored car in the lead.  We very quickly climbed out of the valley of the Semois River and broke on to a plateau approximately 150 feet above the river.  The high terrain was gently rolling agricultural land with big sweeping spreads of perhaps as much as fifty acres or more in the large fields.  The full moon and the snow covered landscape made it possible to see 500 yards as clear as day, but we could see nothing in the shadows.  The covering of loosely laid snow seemed to muffle the sound of our engines which suited our purpose perfectly.  After about twenty minutes, traveling at perhaps ten miles an hour a barn came into view.  Everything was clear where the moon light struck and we could make out details of the building with ease.  The barn was located at a ninety degree turn of the road and seemed to have a small plot of triangular shaped land right at the ninety degree bend in the road.  This small piece of ground was in a shadow cast by the barn.
 

As we approached we were challenged from the dark shadow cast by the barn and we gave the expected countersign.  When it became apparent that it was an American, our wide interval between vehicles went to hell.  Everybody wanted to know what was going on.  We soon learned it was a soldier from 9th Armored Engineers.  He was manning a 57mm anti tank gun, but was not very happy with his fire power.  He explained that earlier in the day he had shot a German tank in the rear with his 57, all that happened was that the "Kraut wiggled hi ass at me and kept on going."  The engineer was not looking for a fight that night.

 

Our patrol continued on the plateau and after a bit the column slowed to about 5 miles an hour due to the extra chilling factor that came from driving with wind shields down.  The snow covered fields made a beautiful sight in the moonlight but that did nothing for us as we continued to patrol beyond the third and fourth hour, finally coming to the first of three bridges that we were to check.  It was distinct relief to see that we were the first vehicles to make tracks over the bridge since the snow had fallen.

 

My preparation for the patrol included summer underwear, long Johns, OD uniform, wool knit sweater, field jacket and overcoat with a pair of overshoes (my only pair while in the army) that I had picked up in an aid station about the second day of the battle.  Add to that a wool scarf and gloves.  It was as though the cold was made of needles that pierced my uniform and shot straight to the marrow of my bones.

 

Finally, I put on my rubber raincoat in the attempt to keep a little bit of warmth in my body.  All the while I wiggled my toes to keep circulation up.  Driving away from the first bridge I was suddenly filled with a grand upsurge of euphoria.  It would begin in my abdomen and rise up through my chest and then into my head.  I felt it was such a wonderful and beautiful world.  Then I realized that something was happening that should not be happening and I would shake myself and say, "What's wrong with you man, it is not a wonderful world.  You are out here looking for a bunch of German tanks.  Wake yourself up and come to reality."  Then I would beat myself with my fists in the attempt to make my blood flow faster.

 

The hallucinations continued for numerous episodes over the next hour or so.  Each new episode became a bit more euphoric and considerably more difficult to suppress.

 

We returned to the CP at about 02:00 hours.  To my happiness, the Platoon Sergeant and my Section Leader went to give the report of the patrol and sent the rest of us to the school house.  Maybe six or eight soldiers were asleep on the straw and there was plenty of room for more.  I wanted to warm up a bit before I hit the straw, so I proceeded to make myself a cup of hot chocolate.  The water in my canteen was frozen hard.Fortunately there was water in a can near the stove, so I filled my canteen cup and emptied a pack of hot chocolate mix into the water and proceeded to heat it with the glowing bed of coals that shone out from the open door of the stove.  The shortcoming to this procedure was that I was holding my cup with my right hand with my four fingers gripping the handle.  I was so cold that I got a first degree burn on my fingers before I realized how hot the radiant heat from the coals really was.  Nonetheless, the water did get warm and I had my hot chocolate.  My fingers remained sore for several days.

 

A few hour later, the outpost patrols began again.  By Christmas Day we had moved to another house and we found some Christmas tree decorations. Some enterprising soul went and got a tree and the festivities began.We secured a case of ten-in-one rations and we began to supplement with various "Cs" and "Ks".  I discovered a butcher shop that had a show case full of small steaks about 4 or 5 ounces each and I bought all that I had money to pay for.  I went to our new billet and showed my find and immediately raised enough money to get enough steaks for each of us to have two a piece.

 

It made for a great Christmas dinner.  It was the only meal in my two and a half years in the army that I had a seated meal with our company officer.

 

One thing about being a Pfc, a scout and machine gunner, in any military organization, is that one is not consulted very often about the grand plan.  That was my case.  I am not sure what took place in the other Task Forces.  As a matter of fact I was unaware of the existence of the other two until I discovered them while doing some research in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

 

But I do recall that we left Task Force Halverson about January 6th, 1945, when Division Headquarters and certain others units were moved to the south in France in the general vicinity of Metz.  The division received new equipment and armaments and the ranks of the combat units were refilled first with officers and men had been hospitalized and were returned to their units plus a big contingent of men that came thought the Replacement Depot System.

 

In looking back, I have to thank God for having pulled me out of the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion and for placing me in Trains Headquarters.  The 52nd suffered casualties of killed, captured or wounded to the extent of 74% of its enlisted complement and 28% of its commissioned ranks with those losses taking place in the relatively short period of the Battle of the Bulge.

 

Source:Bulge Bugle, November 2008

Pfc Thomas R CHAMBERS

Train HQ Company

9th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium