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Stories

Bugle Boy of Company "B" A December surprise!

Bugle Boy of Company "B"

A December surprise!

 
On December 16 my assignment was "kitchen police."  At 4 a.m. I was assisting the cooks preparing our breakfast.  The menu was pancakes, syrup, sausage, and coffee. Breakfast was all set up in the courtyard of our farmhouse ready to receive our company of 200 men.  Suddenly, at 5:25 a.m., along a 30-mile front we encountered an intense two-hour barrage of all caliber of artillery and mortar fire, which saturated the troops on the line.  At first, we thought it was our artillery dueling with the enemy.  Without breakfast, all personnel of Company "B" (cooks, drivers, specialists, etc.), with the exception of a handful of us, were immediately trucked northeast of Krinkelt to a place called Rath Hill.  The 324th Engineer Combat Battalion (absent Company "C") is now operating as an infantry battalion taking orders from the regimental commander.  Our headquarters Company along with Company "A" joined us in the defense of Rath Hill.  Stripped of all arms including our truck-mounted 30 and 50 caliber machine guns, the company's trucks and drivers rejoined my small group at Bullingen.  At least we got breakfast while dodging the incoming artillery.  Our refuge is the farmhouse cellar when needed; however, dug foxholes were ready if we had to defend ourselves.  Our arms consisted of carbines and rifles with limited ammunition.  All the good stuff, such as bazooka, explosives and machine guns, are with the men defending Rath Hill.
 
On December 13 to 15, our 395th Regimental Combat Team, then attached to the 2nd Infantry Division, went on the offensive toward the Roer River Dams.  Although successful at penetrating the Siegfried Line and gaining its immediate objectives, the assault of the SS Sixth Panzer Army and the Fifteenth German Army on the 99th Division's 22-mile front, the 2nd Infantry Division and our 395th Regimental Combat Team canceled its offensive and reverted to the defense of the Bulge north shoulder.
 
The Bulge is the result of enemy penetration further south directly west of the Schnee Eifel (the Eifel was the principal staging area for German forces before the December 16 offensive).  The Rath Hill defense by the combat engineers played an important advantage as the 395th Regimental Combat Team and 2nd Infantry Division needed the road network to get in its defensive position on the Elsenborn Ridge. Company "C" of the 324th Combat Engineers rejoined our defense line at Rath Hill until all could safely take up their respective positions on the main Elsenborn Ridge line.  During the initial three-day period of the German offensive, enemy losses exceeded 400 killed as a result of maniac charges against the engineer battalion's defenses.  The northern shoulder of the Bulge at the Elsenborn Ridge held forcing the Germans southwesterly.  With their timetable severely disrupted, the enemy abandoned the direct route to strike toward the Meuse River and on to Brussels and Antwerp with the Sixth SS Panzer Army on the right driving through to Liege and the Fifth Panzer Army thrusting toward Namur.
 
Meanwhile, my small group spent the night of December 16 in the farmhouse at Bullingen.  During the night, an enemy tank stopped at a road junction some 100 yards away from our farmhouse.  They stopped, looked at the road signs carried on a brief conversation and proceeded directly on the Bullingen-Butgenbach highway.  This roadway passed through the center of Bullingen in a northeasterly direction then veered westward toward Bugtenbach.  After reporting the event we took refuge in the farmhouse cellar remaining quiet since we lacked communications or firepower to resist.  More tanks passed during the night as we met some of them the following morning, December 17.  At daybreak, we noticed enemy infantry crossing open fields near our farmhouse. With but a five-minute period, we were ordered to load everything on our several vehicles.  Most trucks are hauling trailers.  We tossed duffel bags of company personnel on anything that would hold them.  My duffel bag, with my trusty plastic bugle and a watch given to me by my parents at my high school graduation, found its way onto one of our trailers.  In the rush, my last trip was to the kitchen area.  I selected a #10 tin can that had no markings.  Lucky for me, I tossed the can on the truck I occupied as we sped off in the direction of Butgenbach while under artillery fire and menaced by the approaching infantry.  Our immediate task was to keep our vehicles and other valuable items from the enemy rather than attempt to defend Bullingen.
 
It was about 7 a.m. when we sped out of Bullingen On December 17.  After going about three miles toward Dombutgenbach, we encountered at least two Tiger tanks blocking our way on the Bullingen-Butgenbach highway.  The narrow road circled around very hilly terrain with sharp curves, steep inclines and embankments making a rapid turnaround almost impossible.  On the right edge of the highway, matured trees hampered our maneuvers.  Turning around was very tricky as most trucks were pulling trailers.  The decision to dump all trailers by pushing them down the steep embankment eased our turnaround situation.   Of course, I lost all my belongings (and bugle) as they were in my duffel bag and on one of the trailers.  We ignored the snow and very cold weather since our column was constantly under fire.  The curvature of the hill provided some shelter from parts of the hostile action.  All trucks and jeeps made the turnaround and we sped off this time in the direction of Bullingen.
 
As we approached Bullingen from the west our convoy took the same northeasterly Bullingen-Krinkelt highway our trucks used the day before.  Not certain what we would find, we stopped at the town of Wirtzfeld.  Insane as this may seem, I patrolled a small bridge with but a few rounds of ammunition while the lieutenant seeks instructions.  When the convoy returned, we rejoin my company defending Rath Hill northeast of Krinkelt-Rocherath area.  After spending a few hours on the front lines with our engineer company on December 17, our group and its vehicles assemble in on open hillside about 1,500 yards behind the engineers' defensive positions on Elsenborn Ridge.  The engineer battalion abandoned Rath Hill and withdrew to its final defensive Elsenborn Ridge position once all elements of the 395th Regimental Combat Team and 2nd Infantry Division was in place to defend the north shoulder of the Bulge on Elsenborn Ridge.  The 1st Infantry Division secured the right flank of the 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions and the town of Butgenbach.  This placement completed the north shoulder defense line that thwarted the German campaign toward Antwerp.
 
The Christmas season of 1944 was unique for all of us.  The cold and snow only added to the drama.  The main assignment consisted of destroying the vehicles rendering them useless to the enemy should that be necessary.  The vehicles and equipment are booby-trapped and explosives set except for a few jeeps for our get-a-way.  The division chaplain's jeep was my assignment.  The defense lines held.  Life slipped into a routine quickly.  Constant artillery firing was deafening.  The nights were ablaze with flashes from these guns.  We feel secure with all this activity.  The cold, lack of sleep, frost bite, and army rations brought visions of past Christmases.  A warm fire, great feasts, family and singing in worship are dreams that kept our spirits high.
 
On Christmas Day, I remembered I saved that #10 tin can of "something." After many searches, I found the can and we held a ritual opening.  To all of our amazement, it was a can of peanut butter!  A great treat for all of us.  It makes good covering on the army K-ration biscuits or for eating just from the can.  A few did not like peanut butter leaving more for the rest of us.  It took a while for supplies to catch up with our needs.  The peanut butter caper paid off handsomely.  It lasted to New Year's Day.  We all pooled our money and bought spirits from local Belgian farmers.  Most of these spirits went to our company on the front line.
 
The German threat and offensive to Antwerp ended when the U.S. Third Army under General George Patton broke through to Bastogne on Christmas Day.
 
In January 1945, Allied offensive eliminated the Bulge and pressed ahead toward the Rhineland.  During this period, the 99th Division remained in the Belgian Ardennes to be re-equipped, rested, and our engineer battalion resumed its normal function of support for its infantry regiments.  We spent many more days building log huts and roads for a rest area.
 
According to our Commanding General Walter E. Lauer, the engineers lost over 100 officers and men, about 15 percent of its normal strength.  In my little group, we all stayed throughout the Battle of the Bulge, although suffering from frostbite, sleep and hunger.  At home, little was reported about the north shoulder as it was classified a "secret" and not released until long after the battle. Luckily, I won a three-day pass to Paris, France, just before the 99th Infantry Division resumed its drive toward the Rhine River.
 
Once I understood the enormity of the situation facing us on December 16 and 17 of 1944, the youthful, carefree, innocence of a 19-year-old Indiana lad disappeared; my life was forever changed.
 
Rumors often circulated about other units' actions; they meant little to me until faced with my own possible capture or destruction.  Depending on others, if taken lightly, can put you in a bind.  How did such a massive force assemble without being detected by the Allies?  The intelligence gathering information we sent to higher headquarters is ignored because of their preconceived beliefs and overconfidence.  Why would the enemy attack through such difficult terrain?  History shows it often is the route of invaders.
 
Source: Bulge Bugle November 2003

By William H. BARKER

Dead May 14, 2011

Company "B"

324th Combat Engineer Battalion

99th Infantry Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium