This story begins on December 4th, 1944. General Patton’s Third Army, including Jack Ammons’ 90th Infantry Division, had broken-out from the Normandy hedgerows in August and had dramatically raced across France, becoming bogged-down during the siege of the fortified city of Metz for the entire month of October. Third Army, which was much better suited to offensive spearheading that a defensive slugfest, now found itself entering Germany for the first time where they would again become locked-up with a fanatical enemy. We join the mortar section of Company C, 357th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division.
“I told you to git goin’ after them K rations!” barked Carlson. “Get ‘em yourself, you’re a three-striper! Earn your money for a change,” retorted Allison. “I earn my money just bein’ in the same room with a meathead like you. Git goin’ or I’ll send you down to the captain.” Allison picked himself up slowly from his blanket, threw his rifle over his shoulder and opened the door begrudgingly, looking back scornfully at the squad leader. “Send me to the captain. It don’t make no difference up here. What can the captain do - send me up to the front lines?” Since the Germans had stopped running, C Company had been in deep jeopardy much too much and every conversation conversation seemed to turn into an argument. We’d been hit hard at Mazieres les Metz, the Moselle River and in the Maginot Line fighting. Since we’d sneaked into Furweiler one ghoulish night, we’d been waiting for the whistle to blow on our biggest challenge crossing the Saar River into the Siegfried Line. Waiting in this town was no breather, either. The Germans knew what was coming and pasted us. Somebody counted two-hundred shells fall in our battalion area in less than 16 minutes. The “88’s” were after our building as much as anybody’s. We had the pleasant duty of firing mortar shells and flares over the river, sending the flares over at night to protect us against enemy patrols. The way the shells came careening-in after our flare shoots made it very obvious what they were after, but it was a near impossible task to direct-hit us at our location among a bunch if buildings. The mortar squad to our right front and toward the river got slammed-into several times. They even had their outhouse ripped-apart just as one of the gang was making one of those urgent trips to relieve himself. It scared him so badly, he said that he didn’t have a movement for three days. Their building was hit three or four times, too. The streets running by two sides of our building became pock-marked with shell craters. Shrapnel continued to slap against the side of our house and zip-through the glassless windows. The jeeps came into town only at night because of the certain shelling they would bring with them. But, coming after dark was rough, what with the many holes that were there, unseen by the jeep drivers.
We wondered what-in-the-world had happened to the civilians. When we stopped momentarily in the town beyond the hills, it felt peculiar to see - in one house - the table set, food on the table and half-eaten, and not a creature within miles of the place. It was an eerie feeling. We hadn’t seen a family setting like this since stateside, and it was just like something out of the past. It wasn’t, at all usual. The civilians just about always packed-up everything of any value and took it along with them. The strange truth was soon discovered. A column of white smoke was noticed coming from a mountainside. The rising vapors carried the scent of cooked food. We soon found an entrance and sure enough, there we saw the hundreds of missing townspeople. They had decided to hope-up and sweat it out. In spite of threats from the German soldiers, they saw fit to take to the mushroom caverns that were all along this hillside country. Three-thousand people from eight villages had moved into these caves. Seventeen-hundred men, women and children had crowded into this Siersburg Mountain, just to the right of our newly-acquired village. These grottos, used for centuries to grow succulent mushrooms, were jammed with people, animals and the stench propagated by the strange combination. It was a sorry thing to see, and something we wouldn’t ever forget - old ladies staring blankly into the gloom, the dampness sinking into the fiber of their already arthritic bones unclean dishes grimy blankets flung over gloppy sodden straw cows, horses and people staked-out side-by-side children romping in the cramped passageways. These and other unlikely sights were what we observed through the iron gate that covered the entranceway. The memory of the mixed aroma of manure and heavily-seasoned stew would linger long in the nostrils and minds of our patrol, but their predicament would seem like a picnic compared to the situation we were to find ourselves in during the ensuing two weeks.
Crossing the river
We moved out of Furweiler midway between darkness and dawn on December 6 - the time of night we’d most likely find the Heinies slumbering. We came quickly from the warm shelters to the dim outside outline of a graveyard. It appeared, in the dismalness to be gutted as badly as the town that it serviced. The line hesitated as we crowded-in closely to the dead, hiding behind the gravestones still standing. The river was just below and the boats were there. I was almost amazed to find the vessels there, the area had taken such a shellacking. When the 2nd platoon quietly reached the enemy side, the boats were returned by the engineers so that we could take our turn in the paddle wagons. The muddy shore was like quicksand and we had to fight our way out of it. We followed behind the rifle platoon. Orange tracers, as expected began to float through the heavy blackness toward our formations. Bullets started snapping a foot or two over our heads, but we kept on shuffling like puppets. I’d heard snaps a few hundred times before and I knew these things were dangerously close. The Germans were still not aware that the vast drab space in front of their network of pillboxes was filled with 357th Infantry men. We were fortunate that this was true - very fortunate. When we did hit the trees between the pillboxes, we moved quickly into positions and started digging like crazy to beat the counterattack that was sure to come. After finishing in near record time, including putting a solid branch and dirt roof over the indention, I whipped-out one of the two K rations I’d brought. As customary with me, I threw-away the unsavory biscuits of the breakfast ration. Little did I know that I wouldn’t see another ration for days, and that I’d b’ out on my hands and knees in the snow searching for some soggy biscuits.
The great awakening
Daylight brought the big noise of the first of myriad attacks we were to try and buffer. There was a Kraut town to our left and it was crawling with maniacal soldatens. We were to be without contact with our battalion, without food, without a reserve of ammunition, and were about to receive a real pasting. The Germans, on the other hand, had their own warm houses available to them. Their supply lines were intact. They knew every square inch of this sacred soil sacred because it was supposed to be the number one defensive spot of all-time. The burp guns made their overtures. Then, the Krauts tried to climb the hill, running from tree-to-tree, yelling and cursing at us. It was something we hadn’t experienced for a long time fanatics. I’d almost forgotten that the Germans were still capable of such actions. Somebody back there was giving some might good pep talks. We powdered them, shot them to pieces. They came-on. We killed more - some men killing five or six in one attack with just a rifle. It was one of the best defensive struggles we ever fought. We were magnificent, if such a word can be used to describe such a filthy affair. As the first day ended we were a beat bunch of guys, determined to stay alive, but not sure if we could. The first night we didn’t get a wink of sleep. Small-millimeter mortar shells erupted all about the company positions. We had been told to stay in our holes, no matter what. This we did. I managed somehow to fall asleep when Allison’s eyes caught sight of some running shadows close-by. “Ammons, Ammons wake up! There’s there’s Krauts out there!” “Uhh wha where? What’s a matter?” “Krauts! Germans! They’re out there. I can see’m movin’ around!” Then, we heard the accented voice out behind some trees calling to us, “GI’s, give up! GI’s - you’re surrounded! Give up!” “They’re yelling at us,” Allison quipped. “Trying to make us give-away our positions,” I responded. “Quiet.” “I’m gonna git outta here!” Allison was seldom reliable in such circumstances. “Don’t be nuts, you dumbass. Git down in here!” “H-here th-they come. What’ll we do?” “Don’t budge, just let ‘em go!” “Americans, get out!” yelled one. “You’re surrounded!” yelled another. “Shhh …” “They’re runnin’ this way, Ammons!” The Krauts traced the path right beside our hole. We followed them with our sights and when they were a few yards on-by, we opened fire. Kabam! Kabam! “Owuuu! Kamerad! Kamerad!” “One’s tryin’ to give-up, ain’t he?” Allison offered. “Let him yell. We can’t do nothin’ about it.” The riflemen up ahead were into it now. Their bullets came snapping through the branches. “The whole company is bein’ overrun by the Krauts! Oh, God, what’ll we do? What’ll happen to us now?” “We can’t do nothin’! We just gotta sit here and wait!” The crest of the hill became a crescendo of small-arms fire. Through the bullets we could hear shouting, first in English and then in German. It was our guys telling them to throw-down their guns. We found out in the morning that they had done pretty much as Allison and I - they stayed put and let the bullets fly. The Germans, having manipulated the hill must have felt like General Pickett’s men when they fought their way up Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. They had made it up the hill, but they sure hadn’t captured it. At daybreak, we told one frantic German to come up the hill and surrender. He’d gotten pinned-down by our rifle fire and was too frightened to move. So, when things simmered-down we made the capture. Had he any sense at all, he would have known that all he had to do was crawl back down the hill and he’d have been back in his own lines.
Casualties weren’t heavy yet. Our holes kept us secure from everything but a direct hit. That’s exactly what Lieutenant McKinsey’s hole got. Our platoon leader and his messenger, Andrew Nau were sitting in their dugout, sweating-out a shelling when an “88” projectile smashed-through their thatched roof and landed between them. It was a dud. That, in itself is incredible, but the shell hit Lieutenant McKinsey in the leg and laid it open. Another company man had a shell smack on the lip of his foxhole, throwing dirt over the top of him. He was almost smothered, but was dug-out before he suffocated. The next morning when I passed by his hole, I saw him pouring over his New Testament with deep interest. The Disciples never had anything worse that that happen to them. Not everybody was this fortunate. Some of our foxholes were occupied by our dead. When you dug a foxhole, you knew that you could very well be digging your own grave. Shrapnel, showering-down from the many tree bursts, took its toll. We had overzealous soldiers, too. Moneypenny, a mortar man-turned-sniper, lost patience with the Krauts and in a frenzy, launched a one-man, Sergeant York type of attack. He leaped out of the safety of his hole after some Krauts had been machine-gunning the heck out of his row of dugouts. Crazy with anger, he actually attacked them, but his effort had no storybook finish. He got cut-down. We got him out of there alive, but nobody ever heard whether he lived through it or not. As you may well-imagine, a lot of peculiar things happened, as in any combat, especially during night fighting where nobody knows where the heck anyone else is. The story went around that a German came over and woke-up one of our guys and told him it was his turn for guard. I made only one personal reconnaissance during this campaign. I didn’t go far. Large branches were strewn everywhere. I found that I had little to complain about compared to some of our other rifle platoons. The front slopes were catching a lot more garbage than we were. About half of the trees were knocked-down, and the rest were half ripped apart. Everyone had a half buggy-eyed look. The shelling started again and I made a mad dash for my foxhole.
One down, three to go
The 2nd Platoon got theirs. They were my former family during the first several months of combat. They had the worst spot in the whole European Theatre. They were the apex of the battalion, connecting it with the line of pillboxes facing the Saar River. The firefights were often and ferocious. We shivered as we listened to them holding-off the angry Germans. Then, according to the only survivor, Sergeant Fred Snyder wiggled his way out of some sort of a pillbox just as the Heinies overpowered them. His eyes were full of terror and his voice trembled as he tried to tell the captain what happened. Several attempts were made to get some riflemen down there, but they all ended in bloody failures. The officers were plenty upset. So were we, for that matter. We were about as scared as we were hungry. It was impossible to get supplies to us now.
Trouble with the plumbing
Allison and I had a special problem. Our hole, being where it was, seemed to screen us off from much of the shelling but we were taking-on water from three sides. We debated whether to dig another one, and we were still debating when the company decided to pull stakes. Our hole immediately became one of the major supply points in the platoon, much to our consternation. The guys were always asking for us to dip them up cupfulls of the muddy beverage. Trying to sleep without getting soaked was the worst thing. We dredged a ditch around the edge of the bottom of the hole and then the guy on guard duty had the job of keeping the ditch from overflowing while he was on-the-alert. Mind you, this was during cold of December.
New location, same neighbors
In a necessary move, the battalion decided to pull us back another hill - feeling we’d have a better chance of survival while closer to the rest of the 357th Regiment, The division was now fighting along the narrowest front of its history. In our new position we could see the smokescreen at the bridging site, and we could hear the isolated attacks on pillboxes behind us still in Jerry hands. It’s hard to remember anything good happening in the Saar bulge. Well, maybe seeing the P-47’s flying over again after a long period of them being grounded by foul weather. We hoped they’d be over in our section to harass our adversaries, but I’m told they were dropping medicine to our beleaguered sick and wounded back at Pachten Barracks. Allison and I had no more than started our new hole when we were summoned to company headquarters. We had been picked for a mission back to battalion headquarters. Why, I’ll never know. We were lowly mortar men of no consequence, we had thought.
Big mission for two screwballs
Our captain, who was later killed by mortars, gave us the scoop. “I want you to go directly to the head man, Major DePuy, tell him that we need about everything in the book,” he puffed. “We need some more men we haven’t enough K rations to feed even me.” “Also,” said the captain, “tell him we want ammo, oil, and rags for our guns, they’re going to pieces.” “We’re down to one-third the strength we had when we came across this pond and we’ve got men here right now that need medical attention, especially for trench foot,” he said. Then we shook hands with everybody and dashed down the hill. “Don’t forget anything that I told you guys, and be emphatic, ‘cause you guys know as well as I how much we need that stuff,” he told us. He explained to us there was a series of trenches that followed back into town. I didn’t like the idea, but we knew it was duty and when he pointed down the slope and said, “Go now and be back tonight,” I knew darn well it was our duty or else lose our Pfc. stripes. Oh, what a thought. So off we went through the mushy trenches dug by German laborers. Most of the way we did have this cover from the shells and rifle fire. There was mad fighting going on toward the river. Many pillboxes and forts were being rushed. At night, after the Germans were rutted out, they would make a desperate comeback and sometimes recapture what had been taken from them. I could hear the yelling of some of our boys cussing them out and demanding their surrender. Allison and I went as fast as we could through the slippery thoroughfares, stumbling and falling at times. There were dead Germans and GI’s lying sporadically along the way. It wasn’t at all safe. I know darn well that a couple snipers had us spotted. They fired at us whenever we had to rise above the safety of the trenches. We ran inside one of our forts until one batch of shells stopped and then went on into town. There we found the befuddled headquarters staff behind the buildings. In the next house’s cellar were some of our wounded waiting a chance to be taken back across the Saar. “Smoke pots” in the distance were sending masses of smoke across the site of the unsuccessful bridge territory.
Rags and oil
I told the Major everything that I had been told. He listened intently as we unfolded the sad story of our dilemma to him and his associates. He knew full well that we hadn’t risked our lives coming here just for the joy of it all. Also, he knew that it was fruitless for us to have come. “I’m sorry fellas that I can’t send those things you are asking for, but it’s impossible,” said Major DePuy. “We haven’t got a thing to offer. There are no more troops to be had, it’s hard getting K rations up, but we will as soon as possible,” spoke the officer. “We can give you some oil for the guns and we’ll drum up some old clothes around in these houses for cleaning your weapons,” said the Major, “but, that’s it for now.” Then he ordered two supply company men to go with us. “Major, I wonder if you’ve got a K ration for me and Allison, we haven’t had anything to eat for two days,” I said timidly. “Yeah, go in that house there and tell’m to give you one,” said the officer. It was the supply headquarters that he pointed to. They gave us a dinner ration. That’s the one with the cheese. Even that looked good. Two enlisted men of the supply department were to go with us back to Charley Company to help carry the rags and oil. They didn’t like the idea. They knew what it was like out that way. Allison and I went out back to a small building where there was a water pump and filled our canteens. We only had mud holes to draw from up at “Charley.” They didn’t give us one extra K ration to take with us. After taking one last look at the basements and all the protection they offered, we headed back into the pillbox country, with the hope we could get back to Charley in one piece. When we finished off our first “heat” at a pillbox, one of the two headquarters’ men “chickened-out” on us. He said he was sick or some other poor excuse for his cowardice. Towards supper time back in the U.S. and other civilized places, we stopped at another pillbox. We went inside and had a quick smoke. Allison claimed his legs had given out on him. He was well over the thirty-year mark, but in good condition, I thought, so I argued with him that he had to go on with us. He kept shaking his head that it was just no-go, and kept trying to stuff his rags in my fatigue blouse. I didn’t like the trip any more than he did, but someone had to get back up there. I felt terribly obligated to continue - after all, I had received orders directly from the captain, and I really felt important for one of the few times in my life. Greenlaw, the other Pfc., didn’t say much. So, when it quieted down outside, we once more jumped into the trenches and went on our way. It was two down, two to go, so to speak. Greenlaw and me against the barriers of war. A 2nd Battalion group was stationed at the next concrete emplacement. We got quite frustrated at what was going on there. A machine gun group rushed out and down the trenches along our route. “Hey, what’s going on up there?” I asked one of the boys. “A bunch of Heinies are attacking the next box up,” he told me. “You guys better stay here.” We were going to anyhow. Before things got settled down, it turned dark. There was no choice as to what we would do. We decided to stay for the night. “If you guys stay here, you’re going to take guard duty along with the rest of us,” said the Platoon Sergeant. There were no introductions necessary. We found ourselves a spot to lie down, and lay down. After loitering about the pillbox, we felt the tension that these boys were feeling. They were irritable and jumpy. The Sergeant had to take a few cusswords whenever he gave a necessary order. All in all, they seemed very much on their own, without further desire than to keep the Krauts from taking their dismal pillbox. Their dingy candle-lit pile of concrete was, in these parts, a luxury however, enjoyed, or should I say unenjoyed, by few. Our whole division was long ready for a rest, but there was none for now.
Who are you?
Well anyhow, Greenlaw and I were awakened before the dawn as we had asked to be. I wanted to get back to Charley as soon as possible because I felt we might catch hell for not getting back the eve before. Well, we crammed the rags back in our fatigue jackets the oil under one arm and our carbines clinched in the other. It never sprung up in my mind that I had forgotten the way back to Charley’s trench. We gaped for a moment to our left where stood the pillbox that had been under fire the night before, and moved on, up the hillside that the trench we were in followed. Half way up the slope, I could glimpse two human figures. At last, we had reached Charley, thought I. I walked nearer, Greenlaw following behind. One was standing behind the log and dirt covered roof, hung above the trench that we were in. The other body was squatted beneath the war roof. When we were up to them I asked the squatter, “Hey, is this “C” Company?” He answered in very groggy tones that I couldn’t understand. “Well where is the CP,” I slobbered. Again he mumbled with an accent. I kinda figured he was half asleep. Maybe he was. But with him not making much sense I asked him again, “Hey, where’s the CP?” Then he said “Nix kompanie”, or something of that sort. I thought perhaps it was Pancho Gonzales, a Mexican boy in our company rifle staff. It was still dismal dawn and I couldn’t make out too well what his features were. “Is that you, Pancho?” “Nix Pancho,” came his reply. By now, as you may have guessed, I was wising up. The guard behind my befuddling conversationalist kept his ground with rifle in hand. My mind began fumbling with the idea that these boys were Germans in the first degree. I reached with my hand to the rifle sitting across from the man I was trying so much to make sense with. Sure enough, it was the rough stock of a German rifle. With my can of oil still in my left arm, I raised my carbine and pointed it at his noggin. I was so dumb that I wasn’t sure of the understandable word in German that mean surrender. “Handahow!” I shrieked. I remembered somebody using such terminology. “Nix handahow,” said the slumped figure with a light voice. “Hey, these guys are Krauts!” I told Greenlaw. He was as dumbfounded as I. The fellow standing behind Kraut No. 1 may have not seen my raised carbine or else he decided to stand pat. Kraut No. 1 gave my carbine barrel a gently shove away from his head. I had no intention of firing at him. Why it was a good thing I didn’t will be explained shortly. No drastic move was made by either side. It was like a smoke break. Maybe we should have taken time off and exchanged brands. Instead, I gave Greenlaw a quick shove downhill and we were on our way. We had to follow the trench which made us visible to these Heinies for fifty feet or thereabouts. They didn’t raise a hand to stop us. The one kept standing at his post. The other sat quietly and watched us disappear from view. Later, I found that my carbine was without a shell in the firing chamber, and the rifle plugged with dirt from running through the muddy trenches. So, you think this didn’t make good sense, eh? Well, neither did the war we were fighting. Such an instance will never make the plot of a movie. It’s too true. It’s ridiculous. It’s humorous only by the fact that it happened, and it’s funnier to no one than me. We had to laugh about it when we thought back to it minutes later.
Back home again
For those so-called brave souls who might be wondering about my actions, allow me to tell you a little postlude to this fruitcake tale. We went into the pillbox at the base of the hill to get our bearings. Lieutenant McKinsey, my platoon leader who had been hit in the leg by a dud “88” shell up on the hill, was there, along with some other wounded. I told him what had just happened. In spite of his terrible agony, he got a terrific chuckle out of it. Then he told us what we wanted to know, where was Charley? “You guys took the wrong route,” he spoke. “Yeah, I know,” I said. I don’t think that my touring buddy, Greenlaw, ever fully knew what the hell was going on up there. He was even stupider than me. Well, this time we took the trench straight up from this pillbox and finished up where we belonged. I rushed to the captain and explained what all we had been through just to get him those damn rags and oil. He wasn’t surprised that we didn’t get anything else that we had ordered. He just wanted the battalion to know that we were still not completely annihilated. Communication was so bad that Charley Company could have been wiped out for a week before they would have gotten the word back to the bigger brass. I found my mortar buddies busy at the game we were playing. Down below them was the trench that I had waddled into by erroneous calculations. In the trench were Heinies. Maybe two of them were my two “friends.” Everybody was peeking over our trench at the busy bees crawling back and forth beneath. Whenever movement was spotted, someone fired away. FLAG WAVERS There wasn’t much time for casual observation. The Germans were already moving along the trench in front of us, trying to cut our legs out from under us again. “Krauts movin’ down the trench again!” Bam! Bam! Kabam! Kapow! The lead was flying again.
Buuuuuurp! Buuuuuurp! Machine pistols gave us ten bullets in return for each of our pulled out his badly shots. We got a bead on some of them making their way almost directly below us as they passed a shallow spot in the trench. I crowded-up to the corner of our trench (dug by Germans long before our crossing), and finding it already crowded with fellow sharpshooters, I became a spectator to a sniping spectacular. “Ow! - I’m hit! Oh, my hand! Dammit, it hurts awful!” The big, redheaded ammo carrier clumsily pulled out his already badly-soiled handkerchief and quickly wrapped his hand and wrist to keep the blood from getting all over him. He made no hesitation as to what his intention was. He took-off for the rear like there was beer back there for alcoholics and he was one of them. Sergeant Brown had something to say “That big sissy. He didn’t have any reason to bellow like that. He’s always tellin’ how tough he is and look at him. Them bigmouth guys is all alike.” “Big Red” went moaning down the hill and out of sight. I had to agree with Brown. This guy had been bragging about one thing or another for all the time he’d been with us, and now he was bellowing like a baby over his “million-dollar wound” (as GI’s called minor injuries). The fight went on without letup. It was a serious situation, too. If they got any amount of men past us by way of the trench below, they could threaten us from behind. “What’s that thing they’re wavin’?” “They’re wavin’ a Red Cross flag, looks like.” “Somebody hit, huh?” “Some trick, maybe.” “Hold fire a second.” “We’ll give you ein minuten, you bastards, that’s all!” The flagman, hearing the orders, waves his stick more vigorously. It was a large flag, about three-feet long and two-feet wide. “Soldatens - ein minuten is kaput. Rouse, mach schnell!” The flag waves frantically. “That’s all the time we’re gonna give ‘em fellas, let ‘em have it!” Kabam! Kabam! The flag falls on the edge of the trench, filled with 30-caliber holes.
The hard way
“Get your mortar set-up, Brown!” barked Sergeant Tynes. “Huh? You serious?” “We’ll stop those birds down there!” “We can’t fire that close!” “Wait and see.” Tynes was either experimenting or else he knew something more about mortars than we did. They always said he was the best mortar man in the European Theatre. By the time he got through adjusting the brace and kicking the legs almost onto the base plate, the barrel was aiming almost straight up. And, when the shell was dropped into the tube, it was the first time we’d put them in action since we had crossed the river. Chunk! - a shell erupted from the 60-millimeter barrel and sailed skyward. “Duck!” “Down!” Kawhaaaam! - it exploded on the lip of our trench, with dirt and stones slapping back to earth as we lay silent. “Anybody hurt?” “Don’t guess so.” “Yeah, tough luck, Sarge.” “Shudup!” “Kick the legs out just a hair.” “Like that?” “Yeah, that should do it. Fire two!” Chunk! - another shell vomited skyward. To us looking up at it in a state of frightened apprehension, the shell appeared to be right above us again. We ducked as it made its downward turn. Kaphoom! - it struck in the hollow, right beside the Heinie trench. “Fire! Fire! Fire!” Chunk! Chunk! Chunk! - the shells were dropped in rapid succession. Kaphoom! Kaphoom! Kaphoom! - two hit right by the trench and the third struck a tree branch and exploded a few feet above the German offensive team. The attack was no more. The Germans pulled-back and never threatened this particular section again.
The general picture was terrible. Our wounded had been down in the pillbox below for a couple days, some in critical condition, and with little chance of being taken back for a while. Our regimental history states that the 357th men were living on one-third K ration units for days. Regimental histories generally make things better than they were - they tend to go the other way for obvious reasons. In this case, I wish the history was right. We didn’t see any K rations for longer than that. C Company men had half a chocolate bar for one two-day period before things got bad. Trench-foot and severe frostbite cases were carried to their positions to help fend-off the desperate enemy. I heard the captain sorrowfully turn-down some pleas to get some of our men out of the line because they were in so much pain. He just couldn’t spare them. Our histories tell us we were outnumbered three-to-one. Our riflemen, no different than many others, were outnumbered at times by ten-to-one and even more. If you are in a hole and ten men are coming at you, aren’t you outnumbered ten-to-one? That happened plenty!
I removed the compound “C” from my pocket (I always carried some of this explosive with me for heating purposes), tore-off a little chunk from it and lit a match. I had learned long ago how easily and quickly I could heat something using the smelly glob. I had half a tiny packet of instant coffee and I was about to ceremoniously finish it off. My canteen cup was filled with water from the shell hole at the base of the hill, so I began. I knew I had to make this a “royal occasion.” Heaven only knew when I’d have more Nescafe. I stirred the crystalline liquid over the molten-orange flame. The water was beginning to color-up from the particles of coffee stuck in the wrinkles of the battered cup. I kept stirring with my one and only eating utensil, a huge spoon. Then, with a little prodding, into the tiny crevices the color changed gradually, ever so gradually from very light brown to light brown. “Hmm,” I thought, “I’ll just add a couple lumps of sugar and make it do.” It was a weak beverage I had that morning, but trying real hard, I could distinguish a slight coffee flavor. This meant that in the deep chill of evening, if I should live so long, I would still have one heart-warming cup of my favorite beverage to bolster me through the dark and sleepless night. LIGHTS OUT After sundown, the whole world grew dark. We lived in darkness for very good and obvious reasons. Cigarettes were never smoked openly beyond eventide, except under a blanket or deep inside our covered foxholes. There was another reason for the “smoking lamp” being out. Here, at the Saar we had a lot of firsts. This, for instance was the only time we were ever without a supply of cigarettes. I had often half-jokingly claimed that all the Germans had to do was to cut-off our supply of coffee and cigarettes, and the war would be theirs. The Saar would prove otherwise. We’d tasted their cigarettes and knew how rotten they were, and certainly their “Ersatz” coffee was even comparably worse. We weren’t willing to surrender into that prospect.
Bad all over
Things were difficult all along the 90th Division front. Tanks, although they couldn’t get to C Company, were roaming freely against our boys at Dillingen. They’d no more than capture a pillbox when a Kraut Mark IV might appear and blast it away from them again. There wasn’t a gun of any size on the Siegfried Line side of the river for the first three days. When they did arrive - the few that did - they had to be brought by ferry. The swollen river and heavy, accurate shelling had cause the “brass” to give-up on the idea of building a vehicle bridge. Many smoke pots were in constant use, but the shifting winds kept them from screening that area for very long at one time. Companies were disconnected and out-of-contact all too often. Regiments were separated. There was no contact with the 95th Division, which was fighting a slugging battle in Saarluten, to our right. Manure piles turned-out to be pillboxes. Every time companies attacked, they could expect two in return. The Boche were flinging the “kitchen sink” at us. This was the worst since Normandy’s Beaucoudray battle where we were nearly obliterated by a bunch of paratroopers. Let’s face it, the Saar bulge had turned into a desperate fight to exist. It was not the big offensive that would bust boldly through the German stronghold as Patton had dreamingly assumed during one of his truck-housetrailer map-pouring sessions. The Krauts had all but killed us dead.
A few rations were finally reaching us, the forced nature-lovers. Somebody smartened up enough to put the cooks and mailmen to work. They had them running rations and picking-up wounded. One of our cooks got wounded on one of these trips and from that time on, they sure overused him as an example of how many chances they had to take. We had already accepted the idea that the only way we’d leave this snow-soaked chunk of hell on earth would be toes-up. Therefore, it came as quite a jolt to me when Sergeant Tynes gave me the news . . . “Ammons, you know where the pillboxes are, don’t you?” “Yes, why?” “I’m sendin’ you back after the replacements.” Needless to say, I could have turned a complete flip, frostbite or not. Yet, it wasn’t quite wonderful. Night relief is darned difficult. If the Germans hear the commotion or happen to attack during the process - chaos! And, trying to maneuver these very somber zombies into position in the heavy dinginess in nerve-wracking, to say the least. At the proper hour, I staggered through the trenches once again until I came to what we referred-to as pillbox number two. An officer came up beside me in the darkness of the concrete chamber and made himself known. He made sure that I was the right man and quickly suggested that we get going. As I looked-around the room and saw those faces, I knew how they must have felt. They’d heard the death rattles of the many burp guns they’d heard the explosions and seen the splashes of light come and go ‘round like lightning bolts they knew what a rotten situation this whole bridgehead had turned-out to be. We moved out of the box and slogged through the slippery, shoulder-high indention. The officer was practically breathing down my neck with every step. We followed the mucky, snakelike furrow and when we reached a fork we made sure we turned right and started the climb that would bend into the C Company battle area. Far off to our left, miles away, the sound of a faint explosion caught our ears. Then a terrible whining sound began, growing quickly stronger and stronger. A railroad gun! I remembered that appalling sound too well from Metz. It came on, whining bigger and bigger - sounding almost like a huge express train roaring through the night sky. We ducked-down and clutched the muddy floor of the sloped trench. KAWHAAAAAAM! There were moans from the rear of the platoon, not from being hit, fortunately but from sudden shock, energy release and fright from the immense explosion. We had just experienced, as far as I’m concerned, the most frightening minute that the war has to offer. We picked ourselves up and continued our trek to the company.
I delivered the Lieutenant and his string of men to a Platoon Sergeant. Most of my platoon was already on its way back. I took-off with the last group. We scampered from pillbox to pillbox like they were steps leading to some heavenly place, until we reached our destination, Pachten. They directed us into a large building that was a German barracks a few days before. Whew - was it ever hot in there! The upper floors had been scorched to ashes by an artillery-caused fire. Yet, it was like a heated heaven to us. We needed heat more, perhaps than anybody in the whole world needed it at that moment. When the rest of the company arrived - what there was left of it - which would have been only about forty-percent of full complement - the walk to the river began. It was a somber, gray night but we could see it all the same, a pile of humans - both Germans and Americans - flung together like cordwood, alongside of a building. We made a last halt before crossing the Saar River, and hustled into some buildings being used for this purpose. It was there that we were told the startling news. Sergeant Carlson came back from a quickly conjured-up officer and non-com meeting with the “shocker.” “I might as well tell you guys that this ain’t no ordinary relief. The 90th Division and the whole Third Army, for that matter is pullin’ out of the Siegfried Line. We’re givin’ it back to the Krauts.” We couldn’t believe our ears. “And don’t none of you guys get tempted to call it a retreat. We held it long enough against them bastards to prove better than that. This shall be referred-to as a strategic withdrawal. We are going to disengage, if you please.” We digested the information with mixed emotions. We’d had so much “crap” thrown at us the last sixteen days that we were somewhat happy to get out of that slimy mud at any price. On the other hand, it’s a terrible thing to have to hand-back what we had fought so doggedly to hold onto it wasn’t right that our soldiers who were slumped on those snow-covered hills should become German property. “There’s a big reason why we’re doing this. We ain’t done too much good here, but to our right Patton was building-up for a big offensive. It’s all gotta be called off. Everything. The Krauts busted-through the First Army up north of here. It seems that Patton has been ordered to send some divisions up there to help out. That may include us a little later.” We left the houses and followed the white rag markers that directed us to the umbilical cord of the 90th Division, our one-and-only bridge across the Saar River. We trudged across the footbridge of the 3,000 knowing that the rest of the battle-weary group would do the same in the next few hours. Al the stuff jamming-up to our right got the same orders - pull out. Armored divisions wheeled-around. Infantry divisions climbed out of their slimy, dank foxholes, slung on their weather-soaked gear and moved quietly back. The delaying units, after stalling the Heinies magnificently, brought-up the rear. It was a strange and bewildering sight - something unparalleled in Third Army history. “Lucky Forward” handed it back to the Krauts. On December 22, 1944, the effort was over. General Patton had been forced to pull out on orders from higher-up, just like the orders we had received from him. And, in the end, it worked-out alright. The Germans were, as history confirms, stopped dead in their Ardennes push designed to cut the western front in two. The last big German offensive in the west was a total failure. It flopped because of divisions like ours doing a turnabout and getting into that zone in time to stop them, for we were soon on our way north to the Bastogne area. Not many people ever heard of the December Third Army bridgehead, but I feel that it’s a vital story worth telling. It’s another example of the chaos of war, an episode that I think deserves to be called “the lost bridgehead.” *Despite the personal anguish felt by Jack Ammons and his comrades, the fact that the entire Third Army was disengaged from the Saar battle and then quickly redirected in order to help relieve the units engaged hundred miles to the north was a tribute to the great foresight and acumen of General George Smith Patton.
Excerpted from the memoirof Pfc. Jack E. Ammons, 1961
Edited by Ron Ammons, 2020