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Stories

One Small Corner

 
 One Small Corner
 
(It is an excerpt of a thorough description of the 21st’s activities in the Battle of the Bulge.  We have excerpted the first day of their Bulge activities.  Rest assured, his complete story will be preserved and will rest where historians can refer to it in the future.) 
 
The beginning of our part of the Battle of the Bulge was the 29th of December 1944 near the town of Neufchateau, Belgium.  Our column of tanks and half-tracks as Combat Command “B” had been rolling north all day, where to and what for I had no idea.  The day was cold and windy.  There was a layer of snow blanketing the ground; here and there it had drifted.  We met many supply trucks on the road headed for the rear, their mission was accomplished.  I was particularly aware if the ambulances that we met, red lights flashing, passing to the rear. They were evacuating the wounded and this meant there must be fighting ahead.  Finally we passed artillery with their muzzles pointed skyward.  The guns would cough and spit and belch their flames and then relax.  First we passed the big boys, the long Toms, 240 mm and 155 mm Howitzers, and then closer to the front the standard army 105 mm pieces which backed up the line.  From this I realized that our time had come, the moment of truth had arrived. 
 
Late in the afternoon my Company pulled off the road to the left.  It was on a hill, which made an ideal place to bivouac.  The first thing I noticed was the wreckage of an airplane and two lifeless forms on the snow that resembled bodies.  The sight of dead bodies was something new to a 19 year old boy from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.  I was anxious and curious to have a closer look at them.  When I inspected the first body in the snow I knew should not have looked.  It was the body of a German fighter pilot.  His face was frozen and gray in color.  He had been lying there 36 hours or more and was frozen stiff.  His fingers were gray and rigid.  His legs were broken and doubled up under him. GI’s had already looted the corpse.  Someone had taken his fleece lined air corps boots and he lay in his stocking feet.  The pockets of his uniform had been pulled out and the contents removed.  I noticed the stump of a finger.  It had been cut off to get the ring he wore. 
 
That was enough.  I had seen more than I wanted to.  I walked away with a hollow sickening feeling in my stomach.  It was chow time but I didn’t have much of an appetite anymore. 
 
This was my first encounter with death.  It left a vivid impression on my young mind. All during that sleepless night I could see the face of that flyer before me.  In the days that followed I rubbed elbows with death many tines.  I saw my friends die and the strangeness of that phenomenon of death became blurred. 
 
As had become instinctive with us the company set up all around defense and prepared to bed down for the night.  We set up our machine gun outposts and dug slit trenches in the event of an air or artillery attack.  Other elements before us had dug foxholes and gun positions on this slope so that we had few holes to dig. 
 
Fortunately there was a straw stack in our area around which we made our beds.  I pulled some straw off the stack and laid my bedroll on it. I got some more straw to put over me.  That night was bright with a moon illuminating the snow.  While I took my turn as outpost guard, a German reconnaissance plane swooped low over our position.  The second time it came down some of our units arched machine gun tracers bullets in the direction of the sound but with no effect.  During the night our artillery kept up its harassing fire on the enemy positions.  They were firing on the enemy rear and the shell burst would illuminate the sky.  The firing was spasmodic during the night but the tempo increased toward morning. 
 
Early in the morning my platoon leader, Lt. Roy C.Stringfellow, came back from a meeting with the company commander, Capt. Elmore R. Fabrick, and brought information of the attack we were to make the next day.  I was lying awake in my bedroll and heard him give the details of the attack to the platoon sergeants and the squad sergeants.  One instruction of the lieutenant I could not forget: “There will be enemy artillery fire and plenty of it.  The Germans always advance their fire, so keep the men moving."  
 
At 4.30 a.m. I rolled my bedroll and took off for the kitchen truck.  After eating a hurried breakfast I came back to my half-track and got things ready to move out in the attack.  Our company was to follow "Baker" Company of the 22nd Tank Battalion.  The tanks were to pass on area at 6 a.m. For some unknown reason the tanks passed too early. Capt. Fabrick signaled for our platoon to take off down the road.  We hastily threw our equipment on the half-track and took off down the road.  There had been some delay after the last tank had passed and so our platoon lost contact with the tank column.  At the first intersection Lieutenant Stringfellow asked the battalion commander, Colonel James R. Hoffman, who was standing there, the direction the tanks had taken.  The colonel directed us down the wrong road. 
 
Our half-track was now in the lead heading an independent attack.  I noticed a few tanks peeking out behind some buildings as we went by.  And these I soon learned were our advance outposts.  The next thing I knew we were out in no man’s land and all hell was breaking loose.  The Krauts (nickname for the Germans) were preparing to make an attack of their own and their artillery was preparing the way.  When the Lieutenant realized we were on the wrong road, he brought our little column to a halt.  There we sat on the road while he was attempting to establish contact by radio with the rest of our column.  It was just beginning to get light, that gray sort of dawn.  The German shells were exploding only a short distance away, and I could hear the shrapnel whining through the air.  A farmhouse was smoldering in ruins beside our vehicle.  It gave me a very terrifying feeling to sit there in that vehicle and hear those shells land.  I knew that at any time one might hit our vehicle or burst in the trees overhead.  This was my first experience with the thought that I might die or be horribly wounded.  Even though I was scared I tried to make a few jokes out of it but the boys were in no mood for my humor.  We all sat huddled together in the half-track trying to make ourselves as small as possible and trying to keep our heads down below the quarter-inch armor plate that formed the sides of the half-track. 
 
In the meantime Lt. Stringfellow had gone back on foot to the last crossroads and discovered that we should have turned left there.  He came back to our vehicle and got our column turned around and started back.  Once we moved back I felt better.  As long as we were moving or doing something I had no time to be afraid, but when we stopped I felt helpless. 
 
The lines through which we were passing were held by another division.  They were very worried and concerned when they saw our vehicles withdraw.  I saw a line of infantry men bearing the insignia of the red keystone withdrawing across the railroad tracks.  I later learned that they were my own Pennsylvania 28th Division which had been gallantly trying to hold their line against the Germans onslaught.  They had been holding on, I learned, ever since the attack began.  Groups of these infantrymen were straggling down the road beside our vehicle.  They looked tired and weary, as if they didn't care anymore.  Their rifles were slung over their shoulders and a dark growth of beard was on their faces. 
 
The sight of these withdrawing men filled me with fear.  I expected to see German infantry coming across those tracks.  The fighting was coming closer and I wanted to be prepared.  I put a cartridge in the chamber of my rifle and kneeling on the seat I was ready to fire on any Germans that came over the rise formed by the railroad tracks. 
 
When we reached the crossroads again, the situation was in general confusion.  Vehicles were trying to go all ways at once.  Several Officers were trying to direct traffic and restore order from chaos.  The tension was increased by the sound of shells crashing in the trees on each side of the road.  We drove up a hill and found our tanks deployed in battle formation at the crest of the ridge.  My vehicle stopped at the top of the hill and then moved on about 20 yards.  I heard an explosion behind us and saw that a mortar shell had hit the second squad vehicle behind us when it pulled into our old position.  The vehicle was disabled and three men wounded.  These were our first casualties so far as I knew at the time.  They carried the wounded to a pit that the Germans had evacuated just before we came over the hill.  I later learned that several shells had hit the crossroads after we got through.  One shell had made a direct hit on the third platoon half-track, killing three and wounding several others. 
 
My position in the platoon was that of runner for Lt. Stringfellow.  I followed him around like a dog following his master.  The object of this was to keep one shell from injuring more than one or two men.  It was here I received my first lesson in German camouflage.  In a corner of a haystack the Germans had neatly concealed a machine gun.  They had dug out a corner of the stack and placed strands of straw in the fence.  You could walk right up to the gun and not notice it.  I was so intent on following the Lieutenant that I didn’t notice it as we walked by.  He pointed it out to me.  The Germans who had occupied this position had left only a few minutes before.  They had left the machine gun, ammunition, rifles and personal equipment lying around.  I remember that we were all “bobby trap” conscious from the lectures we had received on the subject.  Leonard Dricks got a long strand of fence wire and hooked it on the gun.  He backed off ten yards and jerked.  Much to my surprise it wasn’t “bobby trapped” in spite of all the lectures to the contrary. 
 
We waited on the hill for a short time until the arrival of Captain Fabrick.  He had taken the other part of the company which was not with us and gone down into the little town of Jodenville.  He came back all smiles telling about the nice little fight they had down here in the town. 
 
Very soon the battalion commander arrived and there was a conference among the officers.  It was decided that we would attack cross-country.  Our objective was a wooded area on a distant hill.  The tanks led the attack.  I remember seeing the light tanks scooting across the snow, bucking and tugging and kicking up cloud of snow.  The tanks were attacking in a skirmish line and our infantry half-tracks followed in dispersed formation at a distance of 100 yards.  I remember as we dashed down the hill seeing several of our General Sherman tanks burning on the plain below.  Our tanks were no match for the German low silhouette Tiger tanks with their “88” cannons.  The tanks that we were leading were already on the crest of the slope facing the woods that concealed the enemy guns.  The engagement was on.  Our tanks were blasting away and received fire.  We pulled up beside our tanks and dismounted.  We formed a skirmish line of infantry across the hill.  It was easy to see that our tanks were taking a beating.  All along the line tanks were beginning to burn.  The German anti-tanks guns and "88” pieces were well dug in and camouflaged.  We had failed to register preliminary artillery fire on the enemy position.  Our artillery only now was beginning to land a few shells into the woods.  As we lay in the snow Lt. Stringfellow gave the command to fix bayonets.  I think every man in the platoon had a little of that hysterical feeling of fear which will grip a new soldier.  The enemy must be close or why the order to fix bayonets.  I expected to see a wave of German infantry come charging over the slight rise in front of us.  All the time a few shells were coming in on us. A piece of shrapnel hit the half-track.  Our tanks were firing and being fired at.  At the time the privates were ignorant of the plan of attack. We did not know what we were to do.  I had only the faintest idea that the enemy fire was coming from the woods ahead.  I saw some of our shells land in those woods, which were about 500 yards in front.  I blame our officers for not acquainting us with the situation. 
 
I later learned we were to assault the woods with the tanks in support.  The Lieutenant must have decided that we were too far from our objective to make a direct foot assault, so he gave the order to mount up.  This order didn't take any coaxing.  We all piled into the vehicles.  With all the equipment in the “track" it didn't seem as if there was enough room.  Several of the boys in their haste sprawled across the knees of us who were sitting.  We were gripped with a fear that at any time one of those German anti-tank shells which were knocking out the tanks would hit our vehicle. 
 
It now became apparent that some of our tanks were pulling back, trying to take shelter behind the crest of the hill and screen themselves from the murderous fire.Our Lieutenant yelled to the tank major in the tank next to our track and asked him why the tanks were withdrawing.  The major didn't seem to know, Lt. Stringfellow gave another order to dismount and withdraw.  Then began a mad scramble down into the draw from which we had just come.  The drivers brought the vehicles as soon as they could turn them around.  We attempted to form a temporary defense line along a fence row, but when the vehicles came by we mounted up and returned to the town of Jodenville from where we had just come. 
 
At Jodenville the half-tracks were dispersed in a field behind the town and the men found what cover they could.  This was the end of our action for the first day. 
 
Source: Bulge Bugle February 2009

By John W. FAGUE

Company "B"

21st Armored Infantry Bn

11th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium