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86th Chemical Mortar Battalion, Company "C"

86th Chemical Mortar Battalion, Company "C"

in the Battle of the Bulge

 
The Lieutenant and his radio operator left the CP of the 3rd Battalion, 38th Infantry, and took off through the woods in a hell of a hurry.  Although the gold bar on his collar was so new it hadn't begun to tarnish, the lieutenant had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
 
The Commanding Officer of the battalion said that the mission had to be fired, and fired fast.  The fate of the battalion depended on it; the fate of the regiment depended on it; and you could carry it on from there.  At this particular instant on 16 December, 1944, it looked like the whole damned war depended on it.
 

The colonel cursed vehemently when he was told that most of the artillery had pulled out, but when he saw that the lieutenant was still present, he grinned and said, “Hell, we've still got the 4.2's.  We'll lick the bastards anyway.”

 

So Lieutenant Raymond C. Lindsey and his radio operator, Pfc Cook took off through the woods by foot headed for their gun positions, Lindsey talking as he walked and giving firing data over his radio to the fire direction center.

 

Without an artillery barrage and seeking the element of surprise, the Germans had attacked with everything they had: tanks, halftracks, mortars, heavy artillery, and fanatic infantry.  The 2nd Infantry Division was in an offensive posture, attacking towards the important hub of Monschau, with the objective of controlling the important Schwammeanuel Dams and the Roer River.  The division caught much of the force of the German attack, now known as the Ardennes Offensive.  The elements of the 2nd Division held on and slowly drew back to more favorable defensive positions.

 

Withdrawal along the flank is a most difficult infantry maneuver, particularly under fierce German pressure.  But the 2nd Division had to salvage what it could of the men and equipment remaining after that first savage blow to gain time to maneuver from the attack mode and to prepare defenses.  Already the enemy was pressing closer.  Slightly more than 200 yards separated the two sides.  As Lieutenant Lindsey rushed back through the woods, he and Cook were giving the “C” Company fire direction center coordinates and orders to "fire like you've never fired before."

 

At the FDC, S/Sergeant Jack Feldman (soon to receive a battlefield commission) and Cpl. Marvin Zuidemna, went into action: "Fire Mission!"

 

The words rang out through the mortar positions, and the combat hardened men of Company “C” leaped from their slit trenches and dugouts, rushing to the gun positions.  Feldman and Zuidema, knowing the gravity of the situation also knew that now, if never before, their data must be correct.  Two hundred yards doesn't leave much of a margin for error.  But most of all, speed was essential so they computed their data and sent it to the guns without rechecking it; there wasn't a second to be wasted.  The data must be correct.

 

In a moment, the first volley was on its way.  Eight mortars coughed with monotonous regularity, spitting out 25 pounds of white phosphorus, and in less time than it takes to tell, a deadly burning screen of phosphorus enveloped the Panzer tanks and attacking infantry, blinding and searing.  The tank drivers lost their sense of direction and charged blindly into each other, off roads, into trees, into gullies, into men.  The infantry, caught in the same screen and flames, lost their will to continue the attack, beat at the flames, screamed and milled, vainly seeking cover.

 
To make the situation more interesting, the mortar men of Company “C” reached into their bag of tricks and pulled out high explosive shells, mixing them liberally with the white phosphorus.  The attack against the 38th Infantry Regiment slowed down considerably.
 
From 1430 hours and 1600 hours, the 4.2 mortar men laid out their murderous mixture of smoke, flame, and HE.  This allowed the infantry the breathing space they needed, moving back to stronger defensive positions.  Many of them tiled past the mortar positions, down the muddy road to the rear, and as they passed, they waved and shouted greetings: "Attaboy!" "Give 'em Hell!"
 
Other units too pulled out under the cover of the protective fire; the infantry, remaining artillery, smaller weapons squads, and finally the tanks left.  Company “C” remained in position, still firing until everyone else had pulled out.  Then, its job done, the commands were given "Cease firing" and "March Order," and it too began the process of moving out.
 
Dusk had begun to settle; before long the deep blackness of the winter night would be closing in on everything.  Still the mortar men did not hurry.  Methodically and meticulously, remaining ammunition, guns, food, water, gasoline and men, were loaded into jeeps and trailers and moved back on the quagmire road to a new position, already selected by the Company Commander, Captain Jack Dalton.
 
Under the cover of darkness, the company moved into new positions to the rear.  Guns were dug in, ammunition prepared, slit trenches and foxholes dug.  “C” Company was ready for the next German attack.  They did not have long to wait.
 
This time, early on the morning of the 18th, Lieutenant William T. French called the FDC with an urgent fire mission.  It was almost the same story as the previous day's.  The Germans had mounted a savage attack with panzers and infantry, amid were pouring tanks, men and supplies through a gap in the U.S. lines.  This lifeline had to be cut.  In a period of only 45 minutes, “C” Company's mortars threw out 400 rounds of deadly WP and HE and helped stop the Germans.
 
But the enemy quickly reorganized and kept pressing and later in the day it was apparent that “C” Company and the 2nd Division unit it supported would have to take up new defensive positions.
 

At 1300 hours a new mission was received from Lieutenant French: four coordinates, HE and WP, enemy tanks, troops, mobile guns, routes of approach.  Hold them off until the new defenses could be reached.  For four long hours the mortar men hurled round after round of smoke and explosives at the Germans.  Again, long files of U.S. infantry, smaller weapons, and tanks were moving on the muddy road to the rear of Company “C's” position.  In the meantime, Captain Dalton, Sergeant Feldman, and Corporal Joseph C. Venable, were reconnoitering for new mortar positions.  They found a good site in the little hamlet of Rocherath.

 

While they were in Rocherath, they were told of cut roads, the enemy between them and the gun positions, and a host of rumors depicting a grim situation.  Dalton realized there was no time to waste.  They headed back to the gun positions despite the stories, reaching it to find no one.  “C” Company had pulled out!

 

Left to right: LtsRay Lindsay, George Murray, Bill Greenville,

Capt Jack Dalton, Lts Fischgrund and Mike Tolmie (My 1945.)

 

The men, mortars, and jeeps and trailers were gone.  They searched the gun pits for some evidence of what had happened.  While thus occupied, out of the woods stepped Lieutenant Mike Tolmie, only recently presented with a battlefield commission.  Tolmie explained to his company commander that while in charge of the company, passing units were warning of the closeness of the enemy.  When the fire mission was completed, Tolmie gave: “March Order!" and directed the men to defensive positions nearby, to be held at all costs.  The company was still intact and ready to move on order.

 

So, in short order, the move to Rocherath was completed and the town became the focal point of the defense.  The company moved into a protected area which had a strong house for shelter.  Within minutes alter digging in the mortars, a German tank fired an armor piercing shell which passed completely through the house.  It missed Pfc Walter J. Henning, who was later killed in action, and Pfc Ed Jones, by inches, blowing them down a flight of stairs into the concrete cellar, without injury.

 

When the barrage subsided, Sergeant Bernard McDaniel was checking the mortar positions for damage.  Sergeant Feldman was doing the same.  When he saw McDaniel, he hollered, "What are you doing out here?!"  McDaniel stopped in his tracks framing a reply with his lips.  At that instant an enemy round hit exactly in the spot where McDaniel would have been had he not stopped to answer the question.  Luckily it was a dud but it showered both men with mud, ice, and snow and they made a swan dive through a window back into the house.

 

All that night the position was shelled.  Enemy tanks had moved much closer.  The rumble of their motors and tracks could be heard above the gunfire.  Just before daylight, the Germans mounted another attack.  By noon it was apparent that another move was imminent.  To gain time for the withdrawal, Lieutenant Lindsey again called for a protective curtain of fire, this time on two German tank locations.  For over an hour the men of Company “C” fired their mortars, traversing 180 degrees and down nearly to minimum range.

 

By dusk the town had to be evacuated.  Company “C's” mortars spoke in a final mission at the lowest range the company had ever fired, 780 yards, against panzer tanks.  Then came the order to move.  And Company “C”, for the third time in less than 3 days, got out safely.  The little unit moved to an assembly area near Butgenbach awaiting orders to a new firing position.

 
Nothing has been said thus far about the job of ammunition resupply.  For some reason, known only to history, tons of 4.2 mortar shells were located in a 1st Army ammo dump north of Malmedy.  Ably assisted by Headquarters, 86th Chemical Battalion Ammunition Section, under the most adverse conditions, including ice, snow, muddy roads, where there were roads, and enemy infiltrators, the company supply section maintained a steady flow of ammunition which allowed the company to carry out its critical mission.
 

A final note, the company mortars were at one time located in a well defiladed position near a dam, and were able to support both the 1st U.S. Division and the 2nd Division.  And support them they did superbly, for which it was awarded the Belgian Fourragere.  All of the officers excepting the “C” Company Commander and his Executive Officer were deployed as forward observers with defending units of the two divisions.  They included, in addition to those already mentioned, the following:

Lieutenant Morris Chertkov, Lieutenant William T. Greenville (a VBOB Past President), Lieutenant George L. Murray, Lieutenant Bliss Price and Lieutenant John C. Wall.

 

Most of all the men of “C” Company, the mortar crews, were valiant in this battle.  They are: Eugene E. Dozych, William Corcoran, C. Ferrand Cumpton, Benton Dillard, James L. Ferguson, Glen W. Forbes, Rolland H. Griffith, Stanley F. Guzik, Joseph Jindra, John J. Kellett, Walter C. Klingenmeyer, Leeward J. LeBeauf, John C. Kretz, Marvin P. Lemoine, Harold F. Nehmer, Joseph O'Donnell, Phillip Riccobono, Clarence D. Seamster, Elmer C. Wallace, James C. Whitaker, Fields V. White, Harold E. Wickman, Salvador J. Zanco, Edward J. Lane and Bernard McDaniel.

 
And, of course, the real heroes of Company “C” are the mortar men mentioned in this piece and those not mentioned because of the passage of time.  This, and all other battles that this unit was engaged in were successful because of outstanding teamwork--the hallmark of victory in battle.
 

Charles B. MacDonald wrote in his book, "A Time for Trumpets", "Between 13 and 19 December, 1944, the 2nd U.S. Division had penetrated a heavily fortified section of the West Wall, then executed an eight-mile daylight withdrawal while in close contact with the enemy and assumed defensive positions at the twin villages in another direction.  There they came immediately under heavy attack, held the villages for two days and nights while troops of the 99th Division streamed through, and then broke contact and withdrew to new positions on the “Elsenborn Ridge."  It was, as the division commander, General Robertson, noted, "a pretty good day's work for any division.  Leavenworth would say it couldn't be done, and I don't want to do it again."  He was not alone in this assessment, for the commander of the First Army, General Hodges, told Robertson: "What the 2nd Division has done...will live forever in the history of the United States Army."

 

What the 2nd Division had done was to block an attack by Sepp Dietrich's Sixth Panzer Army constituting the main effort -- the Schwerpunkt -- of Hitler's offensive.  That main effort had failed to get more than three to four miles beyond the German frontier and had failed to open three of the five routes assigned to the 1st SS Panzer Corps for the drive to the Meuse.

 

86th Chemical Mortar gun position

December 1944, Butgenbach, Belgium.

 

As a post script, special mention is made of the following: the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel (Brig Gen USAR) Wesley B. Hamilton and the oldest living general officer of the U.S. Army, Major (Col. USAR) James J. Doyle, his Executive Officer, the Adjutant, (LTC USAR Ret.) John B. Deasy, the Adjutant, John Sawka, also of battalion headquarters who led the ammunition detail night and day without rest to insure delivery of mortar rounds, and Raymond C. Sylvester, of Battalion Headquarters, who was responsible for keeping the trucks operational under most adverse conditions.

 

I enjoyed putting this piece together and give credit to an article prepared by the Public Relations Office, Headquarters, European Theatre of Operations, and to Charles MacDonald's outstanding book "A Time for Trumpets."  I dedicate it to the memory of Sergeant Walter J. Henning and Corporal Ralph Spaggio, members of Company “C” who made the supreme sacrifice in the Battle of the Bulge.

May they rest in peace.

 

The 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion (Motorized), Company “C”, supported three U.S. armies; five U.S. Army Corps; and 26 U.S. divisions.

 

Source:Bulge Bugle, May 2005

2Lt Harold L. FISCHGRUND

"C" Company

86th Chemical Mortar Battalion

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium