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US Army

10th Armored CCB Train

10th Armored CCB Train

Evades German Armored Column
 
Anyone who served in World War II no doubt has at least one major unforgettable experience which transcends all others.  For me this experience took place over a two day period in the Battle of the Bulge on December 21-22, 1944.
 
The Battle of the Bulge has been characterized by some as one of the biggest land battles in the history of warfare. Sir Winston Churchill described it as “the greatest American battle of the Second World War” and it will, I believe, always be considered as a great American victory.  To give much deserved credit to Combat Command “B” of the 10th Armored Division for saving the strategic transportation hub city of Bastogne, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, in command of the 101st Airborne Division while its Commanding General was temporarily away, stated that “without the sacrifices of the 10th Armored CCB, there would not have been a Bastogne to be defended.”
 
The basis for this comment was that it is well known that CCB of the 10th Armored Division arrived in Bastogne eight hours before the arrival of the 101st Airborne Division.  I personally remember well seeing their arrival on trucks that night.  By the time the 101st arrived on the scene CCB had already set up defense positions at the three primary road approaches to the City.  This opinion was confirmed to me personally by our guide, a member of the local Historical Committee, during my visit to Bastogne in December 2004 on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary Celebration of the Battle of the Bulge.  General McAuliffe was the author of the now famous “Nuts” response to the German demand that the City surrender.
 
Thirty three US Divisions with 840,000 men and 200,000 Germans in twenty-five divisions participated in this battle. US forces suffered approximately 90,000 casualties. German casualties were estimated to be between 81,000 and 103,000. The battle raged from December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945. (From “Ardennes-Alsace” by U. S. Center of Military History)
 
During this time I was serving as Company Commander of Service Company, 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, 10th Armored Division.  The bulk of our battalion was a part of Combat Command “B”, one of the three Combat Commands of an Armored Division.  On the night of December 16 our division was in the process of reorganizing after a holding action on the Siegfried Line when we were alerted to be prepared to move north where the Germans were about to launch a surprise attack along the Belgian/Luxembourg border with Germany.  Our entire 10th Armored Division traveled nearly 100 miles to the vicinity of Luxembourg City under blackout conditions during the night of December 16.
 
On December 17, 1944 CCB of the 10th Armored Division was separated from the rest of the Division and was ordered to proceed on the western side of Luxembourg City and bivouac there for the night.  The next morning it was to proceed to Bastogne to assist in the defense of this transportation hub city so vital to the success of the surprise German Blitz.
 
CCB was the first unit to arrive in Bastogne.  Late that evening Service Company of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, along with personnel supporting other companies, selected Institute Saint-Joseph, a Roman Catholic School to billet the troops.  The Headquarters for CCB, commanded by Colonel William L. Roberts was set up in Hotel Lebrun in the center of the city.  With combat defense teams in place at the three key approaches to the city, we felt that we were located in a relatively safe location with German forces headed in our direction.  During the next 2 or 3 days Service Company personnel carried out support services to the extent possible under the circumstances.  Constant sounds of gunfire gave notice that the German forces were closing in on the city.  Furthermore, the developing situation was such that a full encirclement was entirely possible.
 
Colonel Roberts was no doubt receiving frequent reports that such encirclement was developing.  So in the late afternoon of December 21 Colonel Roberts sent word for me to report to his headquarters immediately.  Upon arrival in the dimly lit basement of the Hotel,along with another trains officer, it was obvious that he was about to issue an urgent message.  I have distinct recollections of Colonel Roberts peering over those familiar looking horn rimmed glasses uttered these words, “Get those vehicles out of town before the Germans destroy or capture our supply vehicles.”   The tone of his voice left no doubt about the urgency of the situation.  We rushed back to our CP and spread the word for Service Company and all attached personnel to be prepared to leave immediately.  By the end of the day Bastogne was indeed totally surrounded.
 
In short order we had all 150 or so unarmed vehicles lined up ready to move out. While no destination was specified in the order to move out, simple logic would dictate that we would depart in a westerly direction.  We made a hasty map study of the road network in the area and chose a route that would lead us westward toward the town of Tillet.  Our ultimate destination for that night could have been altered if dictated by the ever changing situation.  Tillet was some 6 to 8 kilometers from Bastogne, which would give us ample time to arrive before dark and find shelter from the severe winter weather for over 200 men.  This turned out to be no problem as nearly all the residents had fled the scene with knowledge of the rapidly advancing Germans.
 
So far, all seemed to be going well.  Early the next morning Mess Sergeant Douglas Grogan from Texas and his kitchen staff had coffee ready with a hastily prepared breakfast. It was then time for us to ponder our next move.  The urgency of this decision was suddenly cast upon us when we heard the sounds of automatic weapons coming from different directions.  Here we were, charged with the task of saving 150 unarmed vehicles from falling into the hands of the enemy with no armor to protect them.  Aside from our side arms, carbines and rifles we had one armored car equipped with a 37 mm gun.
 
I called a hasty meeting with the other officers present.  We spread our map on the hood of my jeep to consider options available to us for a quick exit.  We concluded that we had perhaps three options.  Two kilometers or so to our west were cross roads one of which would take us toward the southwest through Libramont and on to the city of Neufchateau, far removed from the enemy where the vehicles and the men would be safe.  This route was clearly the option of choice.  The other two options would lead us directly to the main highway from Bastogne to Neufchateau but more to the southeast.  One of these routes passed through the town of Sibret and the other, more desirable, by way of the towns of Gerimont, Magerotte and Morhet.  Both would take us closer toward Bastogne, now completely surrounded.
 
Having heard gunfire to our north we thought it best to send a reconnaissance patrol west to the nearby cross roads before exposing our entire fleet of vehicles to potential danger.  The patrol was led by our armored vehicle.  We asked for volunteers to accompany Lieutenant Heeran and his jeep driver, Dwight Walker.  One of the two volunteers was to man a bazooka and the other to handlethe bazooka rounds.  When we asked for a bazooka volunteer Otto Nerad raised his hand and replied “I saw one once.”  So he became the man of this critical hour.
 
The patrol departed on its mission.  All went as planned.  There was a sigh of relief when they neared their destination and spotted American Vehicles; that is, until German occupants fired one shot that missed.  At the same time the jeep occupants jumped off and dispersed to return on foot to our location.  They all fled with the exception of “volunteer” Nerad, who had jammed his knee when he jumped off to set up his bazooka and driver Walker.  Dwight Walker did not want to leave Otto Nerad in his impaired condition, but he was quickly overruled when Otto assured him that he would follow as soon as he could.  But this was not to be. The pain lingered on so he crawled under low hanging branches of pine trees patiently waiting for American troops to come by.  More American vehicles did come by but again occupied by the enemy.  Otto was taken prisoner and for the next four months he was touring Germany from one prison camp to another.
 
Over the ensuing years I expressed many times to my wife Del my concern over the fate of our lone casualty that day.  This concern ended abruptly when in 1978 at our Hartford, Ct reunion someone came up to me asking if I remembered him.  I knew immediately it had to be Otto.  All of this is now history. We became good friends and attended reunions thereafter.
 
Back to our exit from Tillet. When plan A was aborted we hurriedly turned our attention to what we believed would then be our next best route of escape, the route through the towns of Gerimont, Magerotte and Morhet to the Bastogne/Neufchateau highway, our ultimate destination until we could rejoin CCB.
 
This leg of our journey was by no means without incident.  It was not unusual for stray vehicles, perhaps fleeing from the enemy, to join our caravan from side roads.  Mess Sergeant Grogan told me later that he stopped to let another truck pull out in front of his kitchen truck.  This newcomer was then hit by an incoming artillery shell destroying the vehicle and killing the assistant driver. Also, T/4 Walter Winship, driver of our M4 Tank Recovery Vehicle slowed to let a 6x6 truck pull in ahead of him.  That vehicle then turned a comer and was also hit by an artillery shell killing the driver.  Some of our group reported sighting enemy troops and vehicles a short distance off to the side of our column from whence the artillery firing must have come. 
 
The surrender demand delivered on December 22, 1944 to the American troops on the outer perimeter of now surrounded Bastogne listed the towns already “taken” by German units on December 22.   It reads in part that they had  “... reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre - Sibret – Tillet.   Libramont is in German Hands.”  We had considered two possible roads that would take us directly to Bastogne-Neufchateau highway, one from Tillet through Sibret and the other route from Tillet through Gerimont, Magerotte and Morhet.  Luckily, we chose the latter.  I say “luckily” because the German Surrender note infers that on December 22 German troops appeared to be moving in a northwesterly direction from Hompre to Sibret to Tillet (our point of departure that morning) while on a nearby parallel road, our column was moving to the southeast from Tillet through Morhet. 
 
So we finally made our way to Neufchateau where we found shelter from the frigid cold and snow for our men in a large church complex.  In spite of the harassment from enemy troops over the past two days all had remained calm.  Our losses had been minimal but could have been considerably worse. We felt that our mission had been accomplished. We had truly experienced the fluidity of the situation surrounding Bastogne as Les Nichols described it in his book “Impact” as follows: “No longer was this combat with the usual front and rear. Almost at the beginning the 101st Division’s hospital was captured and some of their trains were lost.  CCB’s trains were sent out on the 21st and  with great luck, these trains managed to evade the great trap.”  Call it “great luck” if you wish but add to the mix a generous portion of providential guidance.  As Technical Sergeant George B. Ridge of the maintenance section of Service Company expressed it later, “The only thing I can say was the good Lord was with us and brought us back.” 
 
At that particular point in time little did we realize how close we had come to a potential disaster.  Many years later it became quite clear that we had indeed narrowly averted a major catastrophe.  This conclusion was reached from information gleaned by reading accounts by different authors in books detailing the events of the Bastogne operation and through information gathered by discussions with members of the local Bastogne historical committee during my December 2004 visit to Bastogne for the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge; and by relating all of this newly acquired information to a map study of the respective routes taken by our column and by the German armored column proceeding in the opposite direction on the nearby parallel road.  The rapid advance of the Germans as well as towns captured is noted in the “Nuts” surrender demand note. 
 
Had we by chance taken the same route taken by the Germans we would have met head-on with no choice but to surrender?  Any attempt to defend ourselves and our unarmed vehicles would have been futile.  As to the fate of our personnel that is a scary thought.  In the highly publicized incident in the Malmedy area when the Germans did not want to bother with prisoners, the American prisoners were massacred on the spot.  We were truly blessed when you consider what might have been.  I have found it extremely difficult to erase this experience of December 1944 from my book of memories.  However, the reality of the presence of providential guidance throughout this entire experience will remain forever. 
 
Source: The Bulge Bugle May 2013
By Capt Warren C. SCHULZE

 

 

 

20th Armored Infantry Regiment

 

10th Division Division

 

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium