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US Army

My Most Memorable Event in Battle of the Bulge

My Most Memorable Event in Battle of the Bulge
 
It was January 5, 1945, and the Battle of the Bulge still raged at its peak, three weeks after the German Army had smashed against the American Army in the Ardennes Forest.  2nd Lieutenant Allen G. Burrows, of LeRoy, N.Y., our platoon leader, led us along an icy, slippery road in the Ardennes.  Our 1st Platoon of Company "I", 333rd Infantry Regiment of the 84th Infantry Division, was on a combat patrol with the mission of attacking a machine-gun emplacement near the villages of Lamormenil and Freyneux, Belgium.
 

The memories of this fateful January 5th would dictate how I would live the rest of my life.  Our confrontation with the enemy machine-gun would be the first combat for many of us -- brand-new rookies to war -- our "Baptism of Fire."

 

Our patrol consisted of 18 enlisted men and Lieutenant Burrows.  We met another GI with his rifle aimed at the back of two enemy soldiers, marching them back to our rear.  As he took them in the direction we just came from I told myself, "Those Germans are getting out of the war just as we're about to get into it."

 

The ragged-looking prisoners had their hands up, clasped atop their billed caps.  "They sure don't look like the propaganda pictures I've seen of Hitler's 'Master Race,' "  I said to myself.  I mentally discounted them.  Only 18 years old and seven months out of Albia High School in Albia, Iowa, I still had some immature cockiness in me.  The two prisoners were the first enemy soldiers I had seen since joining the 84th Infantry Division as a replacement rifleman on Christmas Day, 1944.

 

I had never heard of the Ardennes Forest.  We were fighting in the Battle of the Bulge but I wouldn't learn it was called that until two weeks later, when I saw a copy of the Army newspaper, "The Stars and Stripes."  That's more than two friends -- Private Eddie Miller of Ames, Iowa, and Private Harold Moneypenny of Akron, Ohio, ever learned, for on this afternoon they were destined to die in the bloody snow of Belgium.  Eddie and I were inducted into the Army at Camp Dodge, Iowa, in June, 1944, along with many other Iowa high school graduates.  We became acquainted with Harold while traveling in the replacement pipeline.

 

When we were assigned to the 3rd Squad of the 1st Platoon, we were told to use the "buddy system" of picking a fellow soldier as a buddy and look out for each other.  We three became "buddies."  We snaked along the side of the slippery road a little farther.  Then Lieutenant Burrows led us into the tall fir trees of the Ardennes.  The dark forest swallowed us as if we were dwarfs.  The forest shielded us for a few more minutes.  Then we stepped out on the icy road again.

 
It was early afternoon. We stopped for a few minutes and I gazed out on an open expanse of snowfield.  The snow was newly fallen and crisp and shimmering white.  The land was as flat as a football field but larger.  Looking beyond the field I saw what appeared to be a farmhouse perhaps 200 yards away.  But hard on my right and a little way into the field about 100 yards away, I saw a pile of black dirt.  That, I thought, is the enemy machine-gun, dug into the frozen ground.  It had a good field of fire at anything coming up the road.  It had a beautiful shot at the snowfield but I never expected to be going into it.
 

The machine-gun was our objective and I expected Lieutenant Burrows to give us some directions as to how we would overpower it.  But all I heard was his terse, abrupt order -- "Fix bayonets and follow me into the field!"  His order hit me like a slap in the face! Surprised and shocked, I told myself, "He's crazy!"  That's not how they trained us at Camp Blanding, Florida, where I had taken infantry training in the blazing hot summer of 1944.  The officers and sergeants drummed into us, "Never-expose yourself until you have to.  And keep your head and ass down if you don't want-them shot!"

 

Now, I thought we might try to sneak up the ditches along the sides of the road, or use the forest we had just walked out of as cover to sneak up on the machine-gun crew.

 

"Hey, wait a minute, Lieutenant! Isn't there a better way we can do this?"  That's what I felt like shouting at Lieutenant Burrows.  But I was new to combat and a raw, green rookie at that.  The only rank lower than a buck private rifleman in the infantry is a prisoner in the stockade.  And that's where I might have been sent if I had tried to suggest a better plan.  I probably would have been court-martialed.  Click! Click! Click!" the cold, metallic sounds of our bayonets snapping onto our rifles broke the ominous, sickly silence in the snow. I clamped my mouth shut and shut off my feelings.  I "went on automatic," reacting like a robot -- totally without thought.

 
As if I were part of a machine, I walked with the other men across the ditch and climbed the barbed wire fence.  I threw my left leg mechanically over the fence and onto the snowy ground on the other side of the fence.  Then I swung my right leg over.  My right pants leg caught on a barb of the top strand of wire, a few inches above the ankle.  I was stuck in a clumsy position.  I knew from growing up on an Iowa farm that I might get caught worse if I hurriedly jerked at my pants leg.  I calmly reached my right hand out and slid my pants leg free.
 

I put my right foot on the ground and strode briskly to catch up with the other men who had started walking toward the enemy machine-gun.  "Zing!" -- a bullet shot by my ear!  The reflexes I had learned in basic training took over my responses.  I dropped into the snow, crawled forward a couple of yards and got the machine-gunner in the sights of my rifle.  Some force that was greater than myself -- the instructors' voices at Camp Blanding -- told me that the most important thing to do now was to stay calm and hug the snowy ground tightly.

 

I fired eight times at the enemy machine-gunner.  I saw something move but I don't know whether I hit him or an assistant gunner.  I quickly shoved a new clip of ammunition in my rifle and fired four more times. Suddenly I realized the only sound I could hear besides the machine-gun was the loud "boom, boom, boom" of my rifle.

 
My rifle roared as loud as a cannon in the snowfield.  God, all the others must be dead, I thought.  What chance have I got, fighting a machine-gun with a rifle!  The machine-gun's bullets were digging huge, gaping black holes in the snow all around my head and shoulders.  How I escaped being hit by them is more than I'll ever know.  The machine-gun was dug into the ground and I was lying on top of the clean, white snow and wearing dark, dirty olive-drab clothing.
 

The bullets were slamming into the snow all around me -- just inches away!  I'd better play dead fast, I thought.  I dropped my rifle in the snow and played dead, letting my head and body go limp in the snow.  The German machine-gunner stopped shooting at me.  I laid as motionless as I could for about an hour in the cold of the January afternoon.

 

(It's true, I thought years later, when I read Sir Winston Churchill's statement that "There is no greater exhilaration than being shot at and missed."  Before the afternoon was over I was shot at and missed enough to last three lifetimes.  I felt almost invulnerable -- as if I couldn't be hit.)

 

I was lucky that I realized when I did that I apparently was the only man still alive and able to fire a rifle.  If I hadn't stopped shooting when I did, I couldn't have lasted very long with his withering fire concentrating right on me. (I learned later that a German machine-gun fired about 1,000 bullets a minute, compared to the American machine-gun's shooting only 350 bullets a minute.)

 

It was mid-afternoon and very cold, lying motionless on the snow.  But the cold didn't bother me as much as the thought that some of the men might be wounded and dying from exposure and lack of medical attention.  I don't recall hearing any of them call for help, though Calvin Bock, who was near me in the field, told me many years after the war that he heard them calling for help.  I still ask myself if my mind erased the memory of their cries as a means of wanting to wipe out such memories.

 

After lying still for an hour, I decided to try to sneak out of the field to get some help.  I think that human beings have an instinct to do this when they have witnessed a catastrophe.  Dragging my rifle with me, I inched along, crawling about three feet toward the fence.  As I did, I caught a glance of Calvin Bock near to me just on the right, moving in a crouch.  Suddenly the machine-gunner started firing and Calvin dropped out of sight.  (But he escaped without being hit and he made it safely back to our lines.)  I played dead and the machine-gunner stopped firing.

 

It was still daylight. I remained frozen in place for another hour.  I was so close to the fence -- it was only about three or four feet away -- that I thought I could sneak to it and roll under the bottom strand of barbed wire and into the ditch.  I sneaked all the way to the fence.  Suddenly a furious burst of bullets from the machine-gun sawed off a fence post inches from my face, spraying a fountain of wood chips right in front of my eyes.  The top of the post dangled on the strands of barbed wire and danced crazily back and forth and up and down.

 

I stopped immediately and the machine-gunner quit firing.  My head lay right next to the sawed-off post and my body was at an angle with the post.  I lay there about an hour, but I still thought that I could sneak away. If I rolled under the bottom strand of wire and into the ditch, I'd be out of the machine-gunner's line of fire.  I rolled into the ditch. I got up in a crouch, ready to sprint across the icy road and into the safety of the trees.  Suddenly an enemy burp-gunner shot at me from about 20 to 25 yards away, right out of the woods that I had planned to run into.  That surprised me. I didn't know the enemy was so close.

 
As soon as I heard the abrupt "barrupt" burst of bullets that gives the burp gun its name, I wheeled around and did a backward swan dive, pretending to be hit. I let my rifle fly into the air.  "This time," I told myself, "I'd better really play dead until it gets dark."  I lay as motionless as I could, my head hanging back on the road and my legs sprawled crazily in the ditch.
 
I laid still a long time. When I was satisfied that it was dark enough, I crouched up in the ditch, ready to sprint across the road.  Just then I thought that there might be some wounded men still alive in the field.  It's dark enough for me to go in and check on them, I thought.
 

I called out softly into the field, "Hey, is anybody alive in there."  One man answered. I hurried to him.  It was Private Albert Huber of Scranton, Pennsylvania, lying several feet in from the fence.  He was shot in his right leg.  He told me that Lieutenant Burrows and all the other men apparently were dead.  I started dragging Huber out of the field but being dragged hurt his wounded leg too much.  "Just go and tell the medics to come help me," he told me.  I sneaked out of the field without anymore trouble from the Germans.  I threaded my way through the trees for several minutes in what I thought was the direction we had originally come from.

 

Shortly I ran across two soldiers from my company.  I had no idea they were so close.  Company I was dug in there.  Perhaps the company had planned to attack the village just ahead after we wiped out the enemy machine-gun.  I don't know what the plan was.  I never was told.  I told the two men what had happened.  One said, "We saw everything that happened but we couldn't do anything about it."  At that I burst out crying, saying over and over, "You've got to get some medics for those guys up there.  You've got to get some medics."

 

The two men -- whose names I don't recall -- asked me about Lieutenant Burrows. "He's dead," I answered.  "He was up in front of the platoon." I told them that Huber said all the other men were dead.  I told the two soldiers that I had caught a glimpse of Calvin but that he dropped out of sight when the enemy machine-gunner began firing.

 

He and I were the only two men who escaped being killed or wounded.  The two men told me another GI escaped with a wound in his hand.  I learned later that this was Charles T. Tyson of Shamokin, Pennsylvania.

 

I sat down on the ground and warmed myself under a blanket that the Company I GIs gave me.  I think one of them gave me a hot cup of coffee.  I can't remember anything else from this night. It's a blank.

 

I slept in the old barn that the 1st Platoon was housed in.  Two and one-half squads had been assigned to the combat patrol the day before.  On the morning of January 6, Calvin and I and three or four men from the half of a squad that had had a different assignment the day before, were sent up to join the rest of the company.  Company I and the other companies in our battalion had smashed their way into the village that had been protected by the enemy machine-gun.

 

As we approached the snowfield that had been the scene of our disaster the day before, I turned my eyes away from the bloody field.  As I turned my eyes toward the fir trees, I saw a big pile of dead American soldiers.  Their bodies had been tossed together on the edge of the forest, like carelessly piled firewood.  My eyes landed right on the face of Moneypenny.  The sight of my friends' bodies lying there and the lifeless face of Harold Moneypenny, with its white eyes fully open and staring up at the tall trees, a black hole open where his mouth was, and his steel helmet still hanging back on his head, exposing his crew-cut hair, is burned indelibly into my memory.  The stubble on his unshaven cheeks was so black, the insane thought, "he needs a shave" popped into my mind.

 

"I could wind up on a pile like that in a minute from another stupid order like the one that put them there and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it," I thought.  We walked a short distance to the village.  It looked as if there had been a furious fight.  But it had been captured and there wasn't anything for us to do there.  We went back to our little barn and spent the night there.

 

The next morning we packed our gear, getting ready to go back into the snowy hills of the forest. Suddenly -- "ka-boom" -- a rifle discharged right by me.  I looked up and saw "Private X" hopping up and down muttering that he was shot in his foot.

 

I had learned to hate his big mouth on our long trip overseas. He constantly razzed another kid who was as skinny as I was. I ignored him and kept on packing my gear. Two men led him to the battalion aid station. In a few minutes the men of Company I began the hard climb through the heavy snow of the Ardennes Forest, where we soon would fight more Germans and our Company Commander, Captain James W. Mitchell, would be killed by a German machine-gun.

 
P.S.: Albert N. Huber, who had moved from Scranton to Newark, N.J., died suddenly of a massive stroke in 1972 aged 52.  Charles Tyson died several months ago (1989) aged 77.  Matt Miletich and his wife, Arlene, visited Calvin Bock and his wife, Ferne, at their farm in Roe, Arkansas, in 1982 while attending a Reunion of the 84th Division "Railsplitters Society" in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
 

Update: My wife and I, and our son, Steve, and three other relatives, visited the Belgium villages of Lamormenil and Freyneux in 1986, during a trip to Europe.  I probably wouldn't have been able to find this open field without the help of Bud Leinbaugh, who told me this incident occurred near Lamormenil and Freyneux, Belgium.  I'm 95% sure that we found the right place -- but not l00%.

 
Source: Battle of the Bulge 1995

Mathew MILETICH

"I" Company

333rd Infantry Regiment

84th Infantry Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium