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US Army

Bastogne

Bastogne
 
It must have been nearly morning when were awakened by booming voice of one of the “C” Company sergeant. “Fall out!” he shouted.  “We’re going back into combat.  The Germans broke through and are headed this way.”  John dressed quickly.  He had no winter clothing.  His raincoat was the warmest he had.  As they waited for the trucks, someone asked, “Where in the hell was going on?” An officer replied, “To a town called Bastogne, in Belgium, with orders to hold it at all costs.”
 
They rode all day, making the usual rest stops and into the next night in total blackout.  As they crossed into Belgium, they stopped at the town of Bouillon.  The weather was growing colder.  When the convoy stopped they could see the silhouettes of exhausted men.  They were retreating from whatever the 101st was headed.  As they moved on, every time the truck stopped, John and the others would hop off.  More retreating soldiers were willing to give up their ammunition to the paratroopers.  Eventually they approached Bastogne that was at a crossroads that the Germans need to control if they were to continue their advance toward Antwerp.  The 101st Airborne had arrived just in time.  There had been pitched engagements all around Bastogne the previous day, but the 101st Airborne kept the Germans out of Bastogne.
 
The next day news came that Company “I”, 3rd Battalion in the village of Wardin had been wiped out.  Only a handful made it back.  Another piece of bad news, Father Sampson was missing.  He had left Bastogne in a jeep with some wounded soldiers, but never returned.  At 7:00 PM the Germans attacked.  The paratroopers’ ammunition was limited so they only fired when they saw a German.  The fight went on for hours.  It was like the orchard battle in Holland, only much colder and even more desperate.  The attacks finally ceased at midnight.
 
The following morning it began to snow, something John was used to.  During the day some of the men went out on patrols.  As the day wore on, some guys returned wearing white bed sheets they had cut and stitched into makeshift ponchos…  An attack did come, but not the overwhelming assault they were expecting.  Given poor visibility, the Germans were close before John and the others could see them.  Company “C” machine guns and mortars quickly drove them back.
 
Days were now bitterly cold.  The simplest task was difficult.  Opening a can of “K” rations, re-tying a boot lace, or feeding rounds into a clip with numb hands could be infuriating difficult.  Water froze in canteens.  As the day wore on, news began to make its way up and down the lines.  Some of it was good.  The 4th Armored Division was fighting its way toward Bastogne.  Other news was not so cheerful.  They were completely surrounded.  Ammunition was running dangerously low.
 
Then the news that General Mc Auliffe had given the Germans the “Nuts” answer when he was asked to surrender, brightened the day.  The mood was lightened even further when they awoke on the morning of the 23rd December to a clear, frigid day.  Each of them knew, as soon as they saw the blue sky, that it was finally clear enough for Allied planes to reach Bastogne and resupply them. It wasn’t long before they heard the drone of American and British fighter planes.  John and the others cheered as the fighters swooped in, strafing and bombing German positions relentlessly.  Around 11:50 AM, they heard the low roar of hundreds of C-47 supply planes.  They came in low to drop the supplies and equipment that the 101st Airborne so desperately needed.  By nightfall they had the food and ammunition they had been waiting for.  Plus blankets that were most welcome.
 
The next day before Christmas, the equipment drops continued.  John heard that two sticks of Pathfinders had landed and set up radar beacons to guide the planes.  As supplies grew, so did their confidence…  Christmas Day, far from Rochester, John and a few buddies decorated a scrubby spruce with foil from their cigarette packs, lids from “K” rations, empty shell casing and anything that could brighten up the bleak landscape. 
 
The Germans tried to take advantage of the homesickness.  Sometime during the day of Christmas Eve, John heard the whine of incoming 88s.  They all would have dived for their foxholes and braced themselves for exploding shells.  Instead there was nothing.  All duds?  Then papers began sluicing down on them.  Propaganda fliers.  One had a picture of a little girl. “Daddy, I’m so afraid.”  Next to the picture was a note intended to make the men homesick: their families and sweethearts missed them; Christmas was a time to be with those people, not in a no-man’s land so far away from home!  “Man, have you thought about it.  What if you don’t come back … what of those loved ones?” the note ended.  “Well soldier, PEACE ON EARTH, GOODWILL TOWARD MEN … for where there’s a will, there’s a way … only 500 yards ahead and MERRY CHRISTMAS.” 
 
John was not quite homesick enough to surrender to the Germans.  The other paratroopers felt pretty much the same way.  That night John and Simmons were allowed to leave their foxhole and find someplace to warm up.  The men rotated like that regularly.  As they came to be town, smoke curled up from the chimney of one house.  The windows were dimly lighted.  And they could hear voice inside.  They opened the door.  The house was filled with Belgian civilians.  John and Simmons were certainly not the first soldiers who had come upon the house to escape the cold.  There were people in every room.  The fire in the hearth and warmth of bodies made the house luxuriously warm, at least compared to a cold foxhole.  John dozed off as he listened to the quiet chatter … The shriek and thump of distant artillery suddenly broke the quiet.  John knew the Germans were shelling Bastogne and then a booming crash.  The civilians cried out in fear.  The house next door had taken a direct hit. 
 
John and Simmons excused themselves and headed back to their cold foxhole that was safer than the warm house.  The shelling continued all night, Christmas Eve.  They were battling hypothermia as much as they were battling the Wehrmacht.  There were no major attacks on Christmas Eve.  December 27 arrived just like any other day.  Late in the day as John was pacing along the edge of the road, he heard a distant rumble.  At first he thought it was planes or the wind of a storm coming up, but then it turned into a steady thrum.  Soon a dark shape became visible on the road.  Tanks.  They were Sherman’s.  The lead tank stopped a hundred feet away.  A soldier up the road shouted, “Come out and be recognized!” 
 
A man’s head popped out of the turret.  “We’re 4th Armored” he shouted in return.  “The road’s mined.  We have to clear them.” The first soldier replied.  John saw a soldier, clearly an officer, climb out of the third tank.  The officer stopped by the foxhole where Simmons was having a cigarette.  “Soldier”, the officer barked, “What are you doing in that hole?” 
 
His face seemed familiar.  John saw that he had an ivory-handled revolver on each hip. “If you were here, Sir, you’d be digging”, Simmons replied.  “Bah!” The officer spat into the snow.  “If you guys keep moving, you don’t have to dig holes.”  He spun and stalked off.  “Do you know who that was?” John asked.  “No”, Simmons replied.  “That was Paton!” 
 
One night when John was on his stint, he saw some figures coming toward him out the woods, silently in the darkness.  He fired at the lead figure but he did not fall.  The figure continued coming toward him.  John fired again.  Then he felt a hand on his shoulder and spun around expecting a knife in his kidney, wondering how a German had gotten behind him.  It wasn’t a German.  It was his Lieutenant!  “What the hell is wrong, Cipolla?”  he asked.  It turned out John was firing at trees!  His lieutenant sent John back to Company Headquarters for the night, for a much needed rest.
 
Early in 1945 John was tabbed by his lieutenant to go out on a two-man morning patrol to check if there were Germans behind a hill who might be preparing to attack them.  He was given a young, green soldier who could barely speak English, named Cutarus.  For example, Joh had to explain what “going out on patrol” meant.  When John said he wanted Cutarus to stay “20 paces behind him”, the term pace had to be shown and explained fully.  John saw that Cutarus’s rifle had no clip in it.  “Cutarus, load your gun” John ordered.  As Curatus rumbled with his rifle when he took a clip from his belt, the rifle pointed at John’s chest.  John ended up giving Cutarus a short lecture on gun safety.
 
As the two approached a knoll, a shot rang out.  John instinctively dove to the ground, then a second, a third and a forth shot.  Then a thick German voice called out.  “Come out mit your hands up.”  Who the hell was shooting?  John could see a solitary figure at the top of the knoll.  A Fifth shot hit John’s right hand and spun him around.  John cradled his Thompson in the crook of his right arm, fingered the trigger with his left hand, took careful aim and fired several rounds.  After what seemed like several seconds, the German lowered his gun, bowed his head and topped face first into the snow.  As he hit, his helmet came off and rolled down the hill.
 
John realized the final shots by the German may have been meant for Cutarus.  He spun around hoping the kid hadn’t been hit.  Cutarus was standing at the far edge of the clearing.  John motioned for him to get down.  If there were more Germans over the hill, they certainly heard the shooting.  John crawled up the hill to the top and peered down.  There were four Tiger tanks and a long line of Germans, maybe more than a company, in line for an attack.  John had to get back to his lines immediately.
 
As he went down the hill, there was the dead German officer, Luger in hand.  John fumbled with his left hand to reach inside the German’s coat for his identification papers.  Then he pried the Luger loose and put it in his pocket.  He continued down the hill.  There was the German’s helmet in the snow.  John picket it up, went back up the hill to the dead German, lifted his head and put the helmet back on.  The officer was a young man with a blonde mustache, not a grizzled, bloodthirsty veteran.
 
John turned to race down the hill.  There was Cutarus sprawled in the snow at the far edge of the clearing.  Had he been hit?  John shook him.  Cutarus lifted his head out of the snow.  “Ya”  “Are you all right?”  “I not hit”.  As John began to brush the snow off Cutarus’s face, Cutarus grinned and spoke, “I like you See-polla”.  Then Cutarus saw saw John’s bloody right hand. “You got hit”.  A look of terror came over his face.  “You got hit”  “Yes I was hit in my right hand, but I will be all right”.
 
They could hear tank engines.  “Let’s get the hell out of here”.  They raced across the clearing to the woods.  John could hardly keep up with young Curatus who ran as fast as a deer.  John wondered what else he had misjudged about the kid.  They reached the outpost safely.  John warned the two men of the impending attack and then continued on to CQ where the lieutenant was waiting for him.  John handed the German’s identification papers to the lieutenant, who grunted in surprise. “He was a captain,”  John shook his head and glanced out into the woods, not as happy as he thought he would be about killing an officer.
 
A while later as John sat at a table in the field hospital while a medic pulled the bullet from his hand and carefully bandaged the wound, John realized that he was in a good mood for the first time in maybe almost a month.  He was finished, at least temporarily, with Bastogne, finished with the cold, the killing and the misery of foxholes.  He had a warm bed, hot meals and pretty nurses to look forward to.  Maybe the war would even end while he was laid up, and he could go home to Rochester.
 
Source: Bulge Bugle November 2012
By Pfc John J. CIPOLLA

"C" Co

501st Parachute Infantry Regt

101st Airborne Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium