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The Communique (Part I of III)

The Communique
 
Part I of III
 
Thank you to: Greg Urda
 
Many Americans, reading their morning newspapers on Monday, January 15, 1945 overlooked the small communiqué which merely stated, "American armored units by-passed Noville Belgium".  There were, perhaps, some few Americans who knew that it was Company "B", 41st Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division to which the communique referred.  If any of these people had sons, sweethearts, and loved ones in this valiant combat company they probably heaved a sigh of relief, and thought "at least it was quiet yesterday, and perhaps no one got hurt".
 
Communiques have a habit of being brief.  They do not reveal all the story.  They omit the bloody details because such news would be bad for home moral-- and we must keep the moral high at home.
 
 
The communique actually meant Company "B" engaged in battle around and inside Noville.  They fought, and lost.  They were unsuccessful in capturing the town so they by-passed it.  Here is what actually happened.
 
The battle for Noville
 
The battle for Noville was only a small segment in the over-all fight to close the bulge.  The objective of General Patton's Third Army was to drive North up the Bastogne road to Houffalize, Belgium, and there link up with the First Army driving south.  This would close the bulge and trap all German units to the west.  It was sound strategy, but the Germans were not neophytes at military science and tactics.  They readily recognized the strategy and were determined to prevent it.  They fought like men possessed.  They grudgingly contested every square foot of terrain, and took a frightening toll of American life and equipment in exchange for each American advance.
 
The story of Noville actually began after dark on the 13th.  The 41st Tank Battalion had just completed a few precious days in a rest area some two to three kilometers behind the front lines when orders came down to move out and assemble in an area near Foy, Belgium.  It was to be a short move which, according to plans, should be completed in an hour or so, affording the men the remainder of the night to rest and prepare for the ensuing fight.  It is odd, but in the army few things happen according to plan.  This maneuver was no exception.  It was winter and the roads were a sheet of ice, and Belgium roads were not conducive to the movement of heavy tanks.  The center of the roads were higher than the edges (an ingenious invention to allow water to run off) and a deep culvert had been dug along the sides.  As long as the tank straddled the center perfectly it could stay in the road, but the instant it got a little off center it slid off the road and into the culvert.  Then began the almost impossible task of pulling the tank back onto the road.  The short two and one-half kilometer trip became a nightmare of slipping and sliding, of cursing and back breaking toil.  Funny how such a formidable giant as a 32-ton tank becomes so helpless on an icy road--like a baby when it first attempts to walk.
 
It was already daylight when Company B finally pulled off the road and stopped in their assembly area.  A tired, cold, and wet conglomeration of flesh and bone.
 
"How about starting that stove and making some hot coffee, Abers?"  Sgt. Heady's voice was gruff.  "I have to check with the C.O."
 
Sgt. Heady was platoon sergeant of the 1st platoon.  He was a Texan, and perhaps loved the Army as much as anyone could under these trying circumstances.  He was short for a Texan, perhaps 5 feet 5, of average build and with cold, blue eyes that had a habit of seeing completely through a person when he looked at them.  He had made bitter enemies in the company during training days at Camp Cook, but in combat everyone wearing the same color uniform is your friend.  Personal hatreds had been postponed in order to deal first with the common enemy--mans salvation for man.
 
PFC Abers began fumbling with the stove, and soon had boiling water for coffee.  The gunner was busy checking his sights and stabilizer in preparation for the expected fight.  He was efficient and performed his duties like a veteran, although his combat experience totaled seven days.
 
"It seems like seven years", he thought, "Since we triumphantly drove the tanks through the streets of Paris amid the cheers and friendly greetings of the populace.  Ah, what a city--Paree.  The queen of them all.  Someday I'm going to return and really see that place.  I'll lie in the sun for hours along the bank of the Seine drinking wine and cognac, and just watching the girls walk by.  Girls, gads, I've forgotten what one feels like, or even looks like for that matter."
 
The driver finished filling the gas tanks and stood outside the turret looking toward the German lines.  His real name was Robert E. Lee Lawrence, but all his friends called him Lawrence.  He was a Southerner, and had spent his entire life, before enlisting in the army that is, on a small farm in Tennessee.  His actions were slow and seemingly awkward.  He was of even temperament and well liked by all the men of Company B, even though he was made the butt of many jokes.  During training days he was probably sent for more left handed tread splicers and automatic turret twisters than any tanker in the army.  But he never became angry; in fact he seemed to enjoy being fooled.  Perhaps it gave him a feeling of importance.  Important and necessary.  As if he were not available the joke would not go over and the fellows would be disappointed.
 
"Man, I'll bet there's a million of 'em just sitting over that hill waiting for us," Lawrence said; talking more to himself than to anyone in particular.
 
"Million of what?" asked the gunner.
 
"Germans, that's what--a whole million of ‘em.  And each one with a panzer-faust.  And I'll bet they're drawing straws right now to see who gets first shot at us.  Aim for the white star, Krauts."
 
Lawrence was referring to the large white star painted on the front and sides of the M4 tanks.  The purpose of this star, according to the Army Manual, was to identify the vehicle to friendly forces.  It may have served this purpose well, but it was also used as a target bull's-eye by German anti-tank gunners.
 
Lawrence continued, "Man, what a target. Thirty-two tons of stupid steel.  Nothing more than a damn match box.  I hate the tanks."
 
"Why don't you join the Infantry, then," asked Abers as he stuck his head out of his escape hatch.  "I'll tell you why you won’t join the Infantry.  Because you love the tanks, that's why.  Because you love every stinking tank in this stinking army, that's why.  Hell, you'd be lost without a gas pedal under your foot, you lousy cowboy."
 
"Don't be too sure, Abers," retorted the driver.  "Don't bet any money, 'cause just as soon as I see the old man I'm asking for a transfer to the Infantry.''
 
"You'd be scared to death in the Infantry with all those bullets flying around and you without three inches of steel in front to protect you," said Abers.
 
"Three inches of steel! A lot of protecting it does.  I've yet to see an 88 bounce off.  Give me the Infantry where you only have to worry about small arms," replied the driver.
 
The bow gunner returned from a short foraging expedition empty handed.  He was 19 years old, of slight build and blond hair.  "What's all that noise over the hill, Lawrence?" he asked the driver.
 
"Sounds like ack-ack and airplanes," replied Lawrence.  "Hope to Hell at least the planes are ours."
 
"Don't worry, Paley," chirped Abers, "either the planes or the guns are ours, that's for sure.  Either way we lose."
 
"Get the rations from the carrier, Joe. Abers has hot water.  We’ll try to grab a bite of breakfast," said the gunner.  The gunner had checked everything, and was satisfied with the results.
 
"What will it be today, Gents?" teased Joe as he passed out one box of "K" rations to each of the other three, "our selection is limited, but it is all Grade A Government Inspected."
 
"Yea, Grade "A" Government Inspected authentic dehydrated eggs, with Grade "A" Government Inspected pure Wisconsin cheese.  Home was never like this," answered the gunner.
 
"At least," said Joe, "our mess sergeant can’t ruin this meal."
 
"Hell, no," volunteered Abers, "some mess sergeant back in the States already ruined it, then put it in neat little packages and sent it to us. Special."
 
"I wonder what "K" ration means," asked Joe.
 
"I don't know exactly," answered Lawrence, "but I believe they kept inventing new rations and gave each one a different letter to identify it."
 
"Naw, that ain't right," stated Abers.  "K means kill.  It's the "K" rations they give you when they expect you to get killed.  Back home on maneuvers they fed us "C" rations.  That meant camp rations."
 
"It can't be that simple" said Joe, "nothing in the army is that simple."
 
"Whatayamean, nothing in the army is simple.  The whole army full of stinking simple guys."  Abers had an answer for everything.
 
"How about another cup of GI coffee, Abers?" asked the gunner.  "Boy, when I get out of the army I'll never drink another cup of coffee."
 
Me too, Abers," piped Joe.  "Save some of that Abers, just in case I get wounded.  It tastes so much like iodine I'm sure it will kill germs."
 
"You're the only germ it'll ever kill," retorted Abers.
 
"You know, Abers, for a man with an 8th grade education you actually talk stupid at times," replied Joe.
 
"Watch yourself, [BOG] don't you realize your life is in my hands? Why, I could get all you guys killed by not feeding ole Bessie.  Yes, when we meet those Tiger Tanks it's me and Bessie that says whether you guys live or die," said Abers.
 
"You may feed Bessie, Abers, but you don't tell her where to shoot, and that's what counts," Joe was becoming tired of this conversation.
 
"Don't need to tell her," replied Abers, "my Bessie is educated.  She smells out the Krauts-and never misses."
 
Sgt. Heady stepped on the rear bogey wheel and pulled himself up.  He had returned from his conversation with the C.O.  He was drinking a canteen cup of hot coffee.  The steam rising from the coffee quickly disappeared in the cold winter air.
 
"Turn 'em over," Heady said, "We're moving out."  There was a momentary scramble while everyone got to their respective places inside the tank.  Abers was automatically delegated to clean up the breakfast remains.
 
Foy
 
The company moved out in column and advanced about 400 yards across the drifting snow.  Each tank following in the tracks of the preceding tank.  They took up positions in line along the crest of a hill.  About ¼ mile ahead stood the remains of the small town of Foy.  Black smoke was rising from the center of town.  It was being fed by half a dozen fires that were burning uncontrolled.  The airplanes had disappeared, and as far as Co. B knew the Germans remained in the town.  It was now up to the tanks of Co. B to clear the enemy from Foy.
 
Baker Company was ready.  As ready as they ever would be.  Veterans all.  But then, everyone is a veteran after the first two minutes of combat.
 
The gunner kept slowly traversing the turret back and forth, back and forth, scanning the town to pick up any targets.  Nothing was moving in the town.  Sgt. Heady had his binoculars focused, and was peering intently at the burning houses.  No sign of the Germans.  Abers was fondly patting the machine gun. It was ready for action.  The 75 was loaded with HE and three additional rounds were in the ready rack at his feet.  No one spoke a word.  Five men, five pairs of eyes, straining through binoculars, sights, and periscopes at a doomed, seemingly deserted, burning town.
 
They remained in this position for nearly an hour.
 
"It is all so futile," thought the gunner.  "We sweat and strain, and fight and die. For what?  For democracy?  Ha, that's a laugh.  For the right to live the kind of life we want to live?  Don't be a dope.  They wouldn't even allow me to vote.  Too young to vote, but not too young to die.  It doesn't make sense.  It just doesn't make sense."
 
"I wonder where the Germans are hiding.  They certainly know we are here.  What are they waiting for?  All they have to do is shoot.  One shot and it's all over for us.  I hope it's a big one.  A big one that blows me into a million pieces.  I don't want to suffer.  God, I'm scared.  Can't seem to keep from shaking.  I'm cold and wet and tired.  When will this war ever end."
 
Sgt. Heady laid the binoculars on top of the turret and bent his head down inside the tank.  The strain was evident on his face.  "See anything?" he asked the gunner.  The gunner merely shook his head in the negative.  "Wish we weren't on radio silence," Sgt. Heady stated as he fumbled with the knobs on the radio.  "I hate this damn silence."
 
The flames in town continued to grow as one building after the other was fed into the unsaturated inferno.  The fire became a monster, destroying everything, sparing nothing, and forever seeking more food on which to thrive.
 
"The Germans must have retreated," offered Abers.  "They must have seen us and knew the jig was up.  When old Abers and Bessie comes on the scene all resistance disappears."
 
"It certainly looks that way," Sgt. Heady answered.  "If they were in that town we would have known about it before now.''  The radio finally broke the silence.  "Baker 1, this is King, over."  It was Major Koffman.  "King, this is Baker 1, over," the C.O. replied.  His voice sounded nervous.  He should be, this was his first time out leading a company in combat; and him a supply officer.  Oh, the unfairness of it all.
 
"Baker 1, move your horses to grids 542-321 according to plan 2, over."   Major Koffman was a civilian turned soldier like all the rest of us, but he was well acquainted with responsibility.  He wore the cloak of authority well.
 
"But, I don't understand, Sir,"  protested the C.O.  "To grids 542-321 Baker 1, over and out," came the crisp reply.
 
"Wilco," echoed the C.O. meekly.
 
War is not for the meek, or the weak at heart, but the meek fight and bleed and die.  Not because they want to; not because they enjoy it.  They do it because they cannot figure out an alternative.  And when they come face to face with the enemy they shoot--and hope to kill him before he kills them.  Why do they kill?  Not because they want to kill, but because they want to live.  They, too, realize that the only way to survive this lousy was war is to kill--.kill--kill.
 
Again the company moves out.  It is now almost twelve o'clock and not a shot has been fired.  Nevertheless, every man in the company knows a war is going on.  The strain and the fear, that is still with them.  True, they are still alive, but they have all died many times this day from fear alone.  They have died inside and are now only awaiting the fatal piece of steel to make the job complete, final, eternal.  Sweet dreams, love.
 
The tanks move slowly across the snow covered terrain in single file.  Although the maneuver is through friendly territory each gunner is alert and continually traverses the turret back and forth in 90° arcs.  Since the periscope limits his field of vision he must continually traverse in order to see what lies immediately to the flanks.  A good gunner is not taken by surprise.  And if taken by surprise he is no longer a good gunner--he is no longer a gunner.  He is no longer a living human being.  He reverts to dust.
 
"It's all so simple," thinks the gunner.  "We are all like a flock of sheep in the stock yards.  We eat and sleep and move around in our pens.  We have no place to go except to be slaughtered.  We are just passing time waiting for our turn to come--and it will come.  There is no escaping.  It will come.  It is all a matter of time--a matter of time and waiting."
 
The tanks pull into position along a tree line.  Again they are on the crest of a hill, just high enough for the gunner to see and shoot over the hill; just high enough to expose only the tank turret to enemy fire.  The smaller the target the more difficult it is for the enemy to hit them, and the greater the possibility of seeing the sun rise tomorrow.
 
Noville
 
Below the line of tanks lies the village of Noville.  Merely the skeleton of a town with walls standing, but few roofs.  It is obvious that the insides of the buildings are a mass of twisted timbers and debris. The Germans, as usual, are living in the cellars.  Funny how man seeks the comfort of earth's bosom for protection.  Dig deep you Krauts.  Crawl in your deep holes and sleep.  But don't sleep too soundly.  One can't sleep too soundly during a war.  Sound sleep leads to eternal sleep.
 
Across the valley from B Company another hill rises.  It is not as high as B Company's hill, and is covered with evergreens.  To the right, and extending halfway down the valley is another wooded area.
 
The right flank of B Company is guarded by two tanks.  They are facing the woods rather than the town of Noville.  The left flank and rear is guarded by the third platoon.  The stage is set.
 
Radio silence has been ordered and is strictly enforced.  Although the radio has been turned on all day the only sound that emitted from it was the brief conversation between Major Koffman and the C.O. at noon.
 
No activity can be detected in Noville.
 
"They should invent binoculars that could see through brick walls, see in cellars, and see through trees," remarked the gunner.
 
"They should invent binoculars that can spot Germans," replied Sgt. Heady.
 
"That's all, just spot Germans."
 
"What's the scoop, Sarge?" asked Abers.  "I mean the real scoop.  Hell, we've been sitting and looking all day.  My Bessie has been loaded since morning and not fired once.  What's the scoop?"
 
"To tell the truth," answered Heady, "I don't know.  That town down in the valley is Noville, our objective.  We are supposed to act as cover and support fire while our infantry battalion attacks the town.  I don't know where the infantry is, but they better hurry up before it gets dark.  If they don't ---------------."
 
Heady’s words were drowned out by the tanks on the right flank firing rapid fire machine gun bursts into the woods.  They were almost immediately joined by the tanks on the crest of the hill which were pulling around into position.  Lawrence cranked up and moved back a few feet down the hill, then swung around to the right.
 
The gunner could see the German infantry then.  They were using the woods as concealment in an effort to get close enough to engage B Company.  Fortunately, the right flank guard spotted them before they could perform their treachery.  It was difficult to determine the number of Germans in the woods, but from the scurrying, and movement the gunner estimated there was at least a platoon of them.
 
Most of the tanks were mixing up their fire, sending rounds of delayed HE into the woods, plus bursts of machine gun fire.  The 75 millimeter HE would hit the tree tops, drop and explode; shrapnel would then do the dirty work.  The Germans were caught in a devastating fire.  They could not fight back.  They could only try to escape and survive.  Their primary objective was survival.  Survival by digging in was useless.  The HE was bursting above ground, making a fox-hole or slit trench a grave.  Their only hope of escape was to get back deep in the woods and pray.  Pray that a stray bullet or piece of shrapnel would not find them.
 
The gunner was not aiming at any specific target.  He sprayed the woods with the machine gun in a systematic manner.  He could see the Germans dropping as his bullets tore into their bodies.  He fired, and fired, and fired until he could no longer see any dark green uniforms moving.  Then he stopped shooting, but kept traversing the turret back and forth just in case he might have missed one.
 
What makes a man wearing one color uniform kill a man wearing a different color uniform?  Is it anger?  Is it hate?  Is it lust for blood?  No, none of these.  How can you be angry, or hate a person you have never seen?  How can you lust for blood when the mere sight of it turns your stomach and nauseates you?
 
One man kills another because they are no longer men.  They have been transformed by fear and propaganda into animals, and, as animals they react accordingly.  They have reverted to primitive passions and become guided by their animal instincts and emotions rather than by reasoning.  Man’s mental development, that has evolved through thousands of years is whisked away in a few moments.  When he sees the enemy his feelings of "love thy brother" vanish and he becomes as the predator ready to pounce on the unsuspecting victim.  War is truly beastly--a game of survival of the fittest.
 
The engagement was of short duration.  Firing ceased almost as quickly as it had begun.  Most of the German infantrymen were lying dead or seriously wounded.  The snow on the ground between the trees had taken on a crimson color.
 
Two American jeeps drove up to the edge of the trees.  Four helmeted GI's dashed from the jeeps, and into the woods; the red crosses on their steel helmets plainly visible.  The mission of the tanks was over--the mission of the stretcher bearers was just beginning.
 
The tanks pulled back along the crest of the hill, and the job of waiting--of watching and waiting--continued as if never interrupted.
 
The gunner, tiring temporarily from his task, stuck his head out of the turret.  He was watching the corpsmen bring the wounded Germans out of the woods on the stretchers, tie the stretchers on the jeeps, and frantically drive off.  As one jeep left another drove up to get its load of bloody, wounded and maimed.
 
"Ah, those lucky Germans," he thought, "for them the war is over.  They will be taken back to the aid station, fed three hot meals a day, and nursed back to health by some luscious nurse.  That's the way I want it--a wound and the rest area.  Maybe a leg wound or in the arm.  Maybe even have a leg or arm amputated.  That would be better than sweating out the war.  That would be the end of the war for me, and I would still be alive.  It's not so bad to lose an arm or a leg--and the war would be over for me.  I could go back home.  No more fear; no more cold sleepless nights; no more war--and I could go home.  Oh, you lucky Germans."
 
The corpsmen were still busy evacuating the wounded Germans.  The gunner ducked back inside the tank, and again took up the vigil.  Still no sign of life in Noville.
 
War is primarily a game of waiting.  Some fighting, but mostly waiting.  The men of B Company were acclimated to this task, and like all good soldiers accepted it as just another undesirable characteristic of war.
 
At first, waiting gets on your nerves.  It builds up tension until you have the urge to jump out of the tank, and run headlong toward the Germans.  It gets so unbearable you resign yourself to prefer death to the quiet waiting.  Perhaps this is good.  Perhaps this makes dying easier.  And for most it is so painful to die.
 
End of part I of III
Cpl Wayne Van DYCKE

Company "B"

41st Tank Battalion

11th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium