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US Army

A Birthday ... of Sorts

A Birthday ... of Sorts

 
Sleep was impossible, regardless of how tired I was.  No shelter except a foxhole with two blankets.  I would half sleep for fear of falling into deep sleep and not wake up in the morning.  When I felt that I was going into a deep sleep, I would jerk myself to stay awake and lay in a half sleep waiting and hoping for daylight, so I could get up and stamp my feet so as to get the blood circulating.  It seemed that daylight never came.  To talk around before daylight you could be shot as an enemy infiltrator.
 
As company commander, I made it a practice to visit as many of my company members as possible, especially the new replacements.  I would ask them their names, where they were from, about their family, etc.  If they had no nickname, I would give them one, such as the state or city from which they came.  The replacements had no unit training and were lost when assigned to a company.  The only people they knew were the other replacements who came with them.The casualty rate among replacements was high.  The weather caused as many casualties or more, in the Battle of the Bulge, than the enemy.  Frost bite and high fever being the major causes.  The casualties caused by the enemy were usually the result of tree bursts.  Tree bursts were more deadly than ground bursts as you were showered from above with shrapnel that could enter your foxhole.
 
This practice of visiting the company members required trudging through the deep snow and was very tiring.  After a while I lost track of dates and days of the week.  One day was as bad as the rest.There appeared to be no relief in sight.
 
During the first one and a half weeks of January 1945, I had only two good nights of sleep.  Once I was called back to battalion commander’s tent which was heated.  The battalion commander had hot “C” rations which were the first that I had had in a week.  The meeting had been called regarding an attack the next morning.The staff and all company commanders were present.  During the meeting, I fell asleep and my company was to lead the attack.  The good colonel had me laid prone and let me sleep.  He then had to give my orders to Lieutenant Ivan, a very capable West Point graduate.  I don’t know how long I sleep, but I did miss the attack.
 
On or about the 10th, 11th or 12th of January, 1945 (my 30th birthday was 11 January, 1945), we had a bizarre incident.  I was limping along with Lieutenant Colonel Peale, the battalion commander, and his forward command post.T  here were six or seven in the group.  I know that one was his radio operator and orderly.  It was getting late in the afternoon.  We were tired and cold and I was walking like a zombie.  We hadn’t slept in a shelter for heaven knows how long, when we came to this little village seeking shelter.  However, the village was totally destroyed.  The house on the right as we entered the village was burned down to the first floor.  Somebody found a trap door that we thought would be a cellar.It turned out that it was a small root cellar and appeared to be filled with German bodies.  It was getting late so we decided to evict the Germans and take over their tomb.
 

This was not an easy task since the cellar ceiling was only five and a half or six foot high and about six foot square.  The men who entered the cellar to remove the bodies had to stand or step on them and had to work in a crouched position that is how tight it was.  The only light was that obtained from cigarette lighters.  The bodies were frozen stiff and as a result hard to maneuver up the ladder to the small trap door to get them out.  I noticed that there were no wounds or blood.  They were laid out in a row on the street, perpendicular to the house.  We managed to get six of them but the seventh one was very tall.  Being stiff and having the low cellar ceiling, try as we did we could not get him out.  It was suggested that we cut him in half but we had no axe.  Since it was getting very late, the body was laid face down against the earthen wall and used as a bench.  The bodies were those of German paratroopers as we had been fighting the German 5th Paratroop Division.

 
Now there six or seven of us, including Lieutenant Colonel Peale so well all got into the cellar sitting against the walls.  Two or three had no choice, because of the limited space and because we couldn’t get him out of the cellar, but to sit on the back and buttocks of the tall German.  A candle came out of nowhere and we proceeded to eat our “K” rations.
“K” rations come in a heavily waxed box, larger than a Cracker Jack box.  The wax on the box made excellent fuel.  The box contained a can the size of a small tuna fish can and this can contained either Spam or ham and scrambled eggs.  There were also some dry biscuits, coffee, toilet paper, cigarettes, matches and a marvelous can opener, small but efficient.  This can opener was a soldier’s friend and it was kept along with a spoon and dog tags as some of the most important items that you carried.  The inventor of this fold over miniature can opener should get a medal for this invention if he hasn’t already.  We used to joke that in a Cracker Jack box your prize was a tin whistle but in a “K” rations box your prize was a miniature can opener.
 
To heat water for our coffee, we used what little there was in our canteens.  Some went outside and filled their steel helmets with snow and melted the snow on the fire and the fire using the waxed “K” ration boxes for fuel.  To prolong the fire and also the light from it we used one box at a time.  After all the boxes were burned they produced some heat in the cellar.  The trap door was closed and it was cozy.  After the hot coffee and rations in my stomach, I began to feel comfortable and drowsy.  A heavy snow fell that night and sealed us in good. I was as comfortable as a bug in a rug.  I started dozing off and I am sure the others did the same.I was dreaming or having hallucinations.
 
Suddenly there was loud rapid fire out on the street.  Someone more awake or alert than I lifted the trap door to see.  When the trap door was lifted lots of snow fell in and there was a rush of cold fresh air which revived me.  The firing stopped and we had a better look, which was something that we had never expected.  The heavy snow during the night had covered the bodies of the dead Germans that we had laid out on the street.  The regimental commander, 101st Infantry Regiment, Colonel Scott with his body guards who were armed with Thompson sub-machine guns, had come looking for us.  The jeep he was riding in had run over the toes of the snow-covered German bodies and they began to pop up.
 
The body guards, fearing the colonel was being ambushed, began to fire rapidly at these bodies that had popped up.  Some of the fire went past the colonel’s ears.  This was more dangerous than the deal Germans.  The colonel was white as a ghost or the newly fallen snow.  He gave Colonel Peale hell for not giving the Germans a decent burial.  Hell, we just slept in their cellar tomb.
 
After this incident we were very busy and I had no time to reflect on it.  Later I started thinking about it and having flash backs and came to the conclusion that the arrival of Colonel Scott may have saved my life.  I could have been dying of carbon monoxide poisoning and asphyxiating myself in that root cellar which was probably the fate of the dead Germans that we found there before us.  They were probably in the cellar when the house burned down over their heads and asphyxiated them.  We could have just traded places with them and been the next victims.
 
The battle was going on at such a rapid pace and we were nearing our main objective, the city of Wiltz.  I forgot about the incident but, as I stated before, I’d get flash backs and I would think that maybe it was a dream or that my imagination was playing tricks on me.  Now that I have started writing my memoirs, I had to be sure.  I called the only surviving member, Colonel Peale, and asked him if it really happened.  He said, “You’re damned right it happened.  You were the crazy nut who suggested cutting the big one in half and the name of the village was Tarchamps.”  The village is so small that it is not on the maps.
 
Source: Bulge Bugle, May 1997
Captain Edward R. RADZWICH

"I" Company

101st Infantry Regiment

26th Infantry Division

Campaign

Battle of the Bulge, Belgium