The following excerpt is from the book “The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of WWII’s Most Decorated Platoon” by Alex Kershaw (Da Capo Press, 2004). Also see the excerpt “The Last Sunset: Lanzareth — December 16, 1944.”
Ardennes Forest — December 16, 1944
In the early hours of December 16, 1944, beneath pines laden with snow, Sergeant Vinz Kuhlbach, a blond-haired twenty-five-year-old German soldier and veteran of Normandy and Monte Cassino, turned on his torchlight. In its bright stare, he could make out the frightened, sallow faces of some eighty men from the 1st Company, 9th Regiment, 3rd Fallschirmjaeger (Paratrooper) Division. Many of the young German paratroops shivered; others stamped their feet to fend off frostbite.
Kuhlbach’s company commander had earlier given him a sealed envelope. It contained one of the most important orders in the history of the Third Reich.
Kuhlbach opened the envelope and began to read aloud:1 “Regimental Order Number 54, dated 16 December 1944. The Daily Order of the Supreme Commander West. Soldiers, your hour has come! At this moment strong attack armies have started against the Anglo-Americans. I don’t need to tell you any more. You feel it yourselves. We gamble everything. You carry within you the holy obligation to give your all, to perform to the utmost, for our Fatherland and our Fuhrer!”
The order was from General Gerd von Runstedt, commander of all German troops in the West.
It was 5:30 a.m. Suddenly, the silence of the deep forest was broken by enormous explosions. The German paratroopers put their hands to their ears and looked up to see flashes of light on the horizon. Along an eighty-mile front, every big gun seemed to be firing nonstop. The sky looked as bright as day; the shelling was heaviest in the paratroopers’ sector, earmarked for attack by the Sixth Panzer Army under Sepp Dietrich.
The ghostly quiet of Creepy Corner was no more. “It had all been so peaceful as it can only be in the hills where the fir woods quietly whisper, here and there dropping some of their mantle of snow,” remembered a German artillery officer. “A few stars shone out of a black sky; a low cloud layer hovered in the west. And then . . . the mortars sang their eerie song and sent their cones of fire into the heavens. Thunder filled the air and the earth shook under the impact of the blows. At first I was dumb but then I couldn’t contain myself any longer. . . . I shouted and danced and laughed.”2
The I&R; platoon members dived to the bottom of their holes, hands over their ears. As shells rained down, most of them exploded in the treetops, shredding the forest and sending a hail of lethal wooden shards and hot metal flying in every direction.
Suddenly, the platoon’s command post on the hillside overlooking Lanzerath received a near-direct hit. Inside, Bouck crouched down. The barrage sounded as if it was rolling back and forth along the entire Siegfried Line. If this preceded a German counterattack, it would, as Kriz had feared, be no small skirmish.
Bouck tried to keep his nerve. It was easier for him than others. Alone among the terrified men on the hill, he had been under heavy artillery fire before. Back at Camp Maxey during a training exercise, he had been caught out in the open. He had been convinced that he would die, but somehow he had been able to sprint out of the firing zone uninjured.
Bouck now hoped that the platoon’s strengthened dugouts would be enough to protect them from the lethal tree bursts. Only a direct hit would kill him and his men. But as the minutes stretched into an hour, he and others began to wonder if the hellish shelling would ever cease. “We thought it would never end,” recalled one of his men. “There wasn’t much of a lull. It totally annihilated the trees in the area.”3
Five miles northwest of Lanzerath, at 394th regimental headquarters in Hunningen, Robert Lambert also waited, hands clasped over his ears, for the concentrated shelling to end. “It was not long before most of our forward telephone lines had been cut by shrapnel, rendering them inoperative,” he recalled. “From then on our contact with my fellow platoon members at Lanzerath was by radio.”4
As soon as the artillery barrage rolled past, Lambert sprinted up steps leading from a cellar beneath headquarters to the operations room. It was quickly flooded with reports of enemy action against the entire 99th Division’s front. The Germans were attacking in strength, opaque figures in snowsuits streaming through the misty woods to take the isolated outposts and line companies by surprise. In the 394th’s sector, the situation looked especially grave: Lambert knew the regiment was already thinly spread out, and there was no battalion in reserve to counterattack where the enemy broke through.5
The shelling continued for ninety minutes all along the Ghost Front. After an hour, it had become the heaviest continuous barrage suffered by the U.S. Army in Europe. One German major watched in awe as gunners bracketed sections of the American front and intensified their shelling. “The earth seemed to break open. A hurricane of iron and fire went down into the enemy positions with a deafening noise. We old soldiers had seen many a heavy barrage, but never before anything like this.”6
Such Germans had been assured that the green American defenders-the 99th and 106th-would be left so paralyzed by terror that they would either flee or fling up their hands at the sight of their first German paratroopers. Few would have the nerve to stand and fight. The typical Amerikaner in the Ardennes, as described by Nazi propaganda, was a gum-chewing, undisciplined half-breed with no stomach for real war.
In their dugout on the hillside above Lanzerath, Sergeant George Redmond and Private Louis Kalil sweated from fear, no longer feeling the cold. When they dared to glance through the firing slit at the front of the dugout, they could see Lanzerath and the surrounding countryside lit up as if by floodlights. “We knew it weren’t no little thing,” recalled Redmond. “But I figured if I’d gotten that far, I’d get the rest of the way. You only have to go when your time comes.”7
The shells just kept coming. At a 99th Division command post to the platoon’s rear, a staff officer who had been told the Germans had just two horse-drawn artillery pieces in the vicinity shouted, “Christ, they sure are working those two poor horses to death!”8
In his observation post in a stone house down in Lanzerath, forward artillery observer Sergeant Peter Gacki heard shells fall in the yard to the rear of the house. But the village suffered little other direct shelling. Gacki reasoned that the Germans, who had occupied the town since 1940, knew the village would not be hostile to their return and therefore didn’t want to “shoot it up.”9
Gacki’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Warren Springer, sheltering a few feet away, was now convinced that the local civilian he had handed over a few days before had indeed been a spy. Why had so few shells fallen on Lanzerath, except close to his artillery observation post?
Then there was silence. The barrage was over. It was 7:00 a.m.
Springer climbed the stone steps from the cellar of the observation house and went outside. To his surprise, he saw some of the fifty-five men belonging to the tank destroyer battalion, Task Force X. They were preparing to move out, having received orders to reform in the nearby town of Manderfeld.
“What’s going on?” Springer asked one of the men.
“The Germans are just down the road. You better get out of here in a hurry.”10
Without the tank destroyers, Lanzerath would be highly vulnerable to armored attack. Springer returned to his position and told his men that they were also going to leave the village but not the vicinity. They would move to a position where they could better direct fire on advancing Germans. Quickly, his men grabbed their bedrolls and loaded their equipment into a jeep.
One of the last tank destroyers to leave pointed to the I&R; platoon’s positions above the village. If Springer and his men were going to stay, that would be as good a place as any from which to direct their battery’s fire.
Springer already knew about the platoon’s position: it was, indeed, an excellent vantage point. He ordered his driver, Technician Fourth Class Willard Wibben, to take a trail leading up through woods toward what might be left of the position after the heavy shelling. The hillside and surrounding forest had been badly hit. The German 155mm guns had gouged holes the size of trucks, and the trees had been smashed to toothpicks. Much of the snow-covered pasture leading down to Lanzerath was black from cordite and the underlying soil that had been showered everywhere by explosions. Lieutenant Lyle Bouck’s first thought as he surveyed the devastation was whether any of his men had been wounded.
“Sergeant Slape!” he shouted.11
“Right here, sir,” replied Slape. “Keep it down, my ear drums are throbbing!”12
Slowly, other men emerged from their dugouts, dazed, pale-faced, cursing the Germans, some rubbing their ears. Slape called for a status report. Men from each hole shouted out. No one was hit; the platoon’s positions were intact, as was the jeep-mounted machine gun that had been least protected.
“What now?” asked Slape.
“For now, we’re going to stay put,” said Bouck. “I’ll check with headquarters.”13
Bouck tried to contact the 1st Battalion by telephone, but the wires had been cut so he called regimental headquarters in Hunningen and got First Lieutenant Edward Buenger, Kriz’s assistant, on the line.
“Do we have permission to withdraw?” Bouck asked Buegner. “We’re isolated.”
“The division has drawn strong fire across the whole front,” replied Buegner. “We don’t know what this amounts to.”
“So what are we supposed to do?” asked Bouck.
“Stay right there until we give you orders to do something different.”14
Bouck put the telephone down and told Slape they would stay until they received further orders. A few miles away, Sergeant Vinz Kuhlbach shouted for his men to advance: “Sturm!”15
Massive searchlights threw light up to the clouds, creating the effect of artificial moonlight. Many of Kuhlbach’s men were ex-Luftwaffe conscripts who had been transferred into the infantry with little training. They were armed with the new Schmeisser machine pistol and with rifle grenades, but very few had ever used these weapons in combat.
Kuhlbach and his men started out for Belgium and soon entered the village of Hergesberg. It was deserted. Then they crossed the Siegfried Line, headed toward Lanzerath. Alongside Kuhlbach’s company, there were more than five hundred men from the 9th Fallschirmjaeger Regiment, 3rd Fallschirmjaeger Division.16 Their mission was to clear Lanzerath and other villages of enemy resistance so that Kampfgruppe Peiper could storm through without delay.
Three of Bouck’s men, sent back to regimental headquarters in Hunningen before the German attack, were now determined to return to their comrades. Carlos Fernandez, Vic Adams, and Sam Oakley, the platoon’s main jeep driver, set off for Lanzerath. As they approached the front lines, they spotted a group of GIs lying prone on the right side of the road with their rifles pointing toward a wooded area on their left side.
“Get that jeep the hell out of here,” shouted one of the GIs. “There are Jerries across the road.”17
Oakley swerved as he turned the jeep around, sending the hot tins flying, put his foot down, and sped back to regimental headquarters in Hunningen, where Fernandez quickly reported to Colonel Riley. Riley was shocked that Germans had infiltrated so far so fast. “We hoped this was only a patrol action [by the Germans],” recalled Fernandez. “I feared very much for my buddies near Lanzerath.”18
At the S-2 office, Fernandez found Major Kriz and Robert Lambert frantically trying to assess the scale and extent of the German penetrations. Suddenly, a messenger from a 1st Battalion rifle company ran into the office and handed Lambert a captured German document. Lambert passed it to an expert interrogator of prisoners of war for immediate translation.19
The document was Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s order of the day-the same order that Vinz Kuhlbach had read to his men before dawn. It was clear that this was no small counterattack but an all-out offensive by the German Army, “whose objective was to split the Allied forces in two and drive all the way to the sea.”20
Lambert briefly wondered whether the document was fake. But it read and looked as if it were authentic. He passed it on to Kriz, who in turn informed Riley.*
Riley ordered all strategically placed units, including the I&R; platoon, to hold their positions. At all costs, the 394th must try to stall the German advance. It was particularly vital that the crucial Lanzerath road junction be held. If the platoon fell, the 99th’s right flank, already badly undermanned, would be in critical danger.21
It was shortly before 8:00 a.m. in Lanzerath. Above the village, Lieutenant Lyle Bouck peered through his binoculars to the south, expecting a ground attack. Suddenly there were sounds of explosions and a firefight to the north in Losheimergraben. Then Bouck heard engines revving. He spotted the tank destroyers of Task Force X speeding north to the road junction just outside the village. He watched as they turned left toward Honsfeld. They were leaving.
Bouck was furious. They had promised to contact him in the event of a German attack, and now it looked as if they were turning tail and abandoning the platoon.
“Gee,” said Private Bill James acidly, “if they can’t sign off on the phone, they might at least wave good-bye as they leave.”22
Bouck picked up his radio handset. Major Kriz answered.
“The tank destroyer unit has departed with no explanation,” said Bouck. “I heard firing to the north near the 1st Battalion. What should I do? Over.”
“Go down into that town and set up an observation post,” ordered Kriz. “The 1st Battalion is being hit very hard north of you. If something big is happening, we’ll need to see south of your position. Out.”23
Bouck called for Private James, Platoon Sergeant Slape, and Corporal John Creger. Creger and Slape would set up the observation post in the house abandoned by the tank destroyers. On their way to Lanzerath, they would try to locate where the wires that had connected their position with the house had been cut. Bouck would lead the patrol and then return with James.
Like Slape, Creger was a man of few words and utterly reliable. Bouck had often seen him with a smirk or smile on his face. Now he looked deadly serious as he followed Slape along the fence that cut across the field sloping toward Lanzerath.
The group soon found a break in a wire; they spliced it and then moved on, finding that other wires back to battalion and into Lanzerath had been broken.24 They were too badly damaged to fix, so the patrol continued down the slope and into Lanzerath.25
Back in their position above Lanzerath, the rest of the platoon waited nervously. They too had seen the tank destroyers leave and were concerned now that unless they withdrew they could be quickly overrun by even a small German force with tank support. They had not been trained to fight from a static position. Hopefully, when Bouck got back, he’d get orders to pull out.
Radio operator James Fort hunkered down in his dugout. As soon as the barrage had stopped, he had sprinted over from Bouck’s command post and begun to transmit on his SCR-284 radio mounted on a jeep a few yards to the rear of his dugout.26 With most of the land wires cut, Fort now knew the platoon fate could depend on his effective communication with Lambert and others back at regimental headquarters in Hunningen. For each radio message, he needed to use a special dedication code. Every reply had a matching code to avoid interception by German intelligence. Fort hoped the Germans had not broken the code and were not now reading his messages and sending back false orders. There was no way of being certain with radio communication that the Germans weren’t listening in on his every transmission.
Fort turned the radio’s dials. The loud blare of German martial music was suddenly on his normal frequency. The Germans were jamming his radio signals. He quickly switched to his smaller 393 radio set and began to tap out Morse code.27 Outside the dugout, the sky began to brighten. Dawn arrived on December 16 in the Ardennes at just after 8:00 a.m.
Down below in Lanzerath, Lieutenant Bouck and his patrol could now see clearly as they ran into the house at the northern edge of the village where the tank destroyers had been based.
Platoon Sergeant Slape prepared to unreel a new land line back to the position.
“I’m gonna check upstairs,” said Private James.28
Bouck followed James. In the first room they checked, a heavyset civilian in his late twenties was talking in German on a telephone.29
James jumped forward and stuck the barrel of his carbine in the man’s stomach.30
The man put his hands in the air, shaking with fear.
“Shall I let him have it?” James asked.
“No!” said Bouck.
There was nothing to be gained from shooting the civilian.
Bouck asked him what he was doing. Was he tipping off the Germans? The man had been standing by a window overlooking the town.
The man could not understand English.
“You’re right,” said Bouck. “He’s up to no good. But let him go. We don’t have room for prisoners.”31
He turned to the man. “Raus mit du!” (Out with you!).32
James stepped back and the man left in a hurry, passing Slape at the bottom of the stairs and then fleeing into the street.
“What was that all about?” Slape called up.
“Nothing, just a spy,” said Bouck.
“A spy. Are you kidding me?”
“Come upstairs. You and Creger put your observation post up here.”33
Bouck went over to a window, where the man had been standing, and looked outside. Sure enough, it was an excellent vantage point. The vital road entering Lanzerath from the southeast was clearly visible.
Bouck had perfect eyesight. In the far distance he suddenly saw German troops advancing toward the town.
The Germans’ helmets looked familiar. Bouck remembered seeing them in a training manual-these were paratroopers, among the best combat troops in Germany.
Bouck turned to Slape. “You and Creger stay here. Call the position and tell me what they’re doing. They could stop, keep going, head away from town. Let me know.”34
Bouck and James ran down the stairs and hurried back to the position, unraveling a communication wire as they went. Within minutes, word quickly passed from hole to hole that Germans, in the hundreds, were heading straight for them.
On the outskirts of Lanzerath, sixteen-year-old Adolf Schur watched as the Germans advanced. When the shelling had begun, he had taken refuge with his family in their cellar. As soon as it had lifted, he had scurried upstairs, eager to see what might happen. In the early morning light, he had then seen the tank destroyers leave, trailing their artillery guns. Adolf had begun to fear that the Germans were coming.35 Now his fears were being borne out.
Meanwhile, Private Creger walked over to a window in the house previously occupied by the tank destroyers and looked outside. There was at least a platoon of German paratroopers in the street below. They had their weapons slung-they obviously weren’t expecting to come across Americans. But surely they knew Lanzerath had until minutes ago been held by Americans. Had the Belgian spy tipped them off by phone when the tank destroyers abandoned their position?
Slape cranked up the platoon’s phone in its heavy leather case.
“The Germans-they’re here now.”
“Get the hell out of there!” said Bouck. “I’ll try to get some help down to you.”36
Bouck shouted to Robinson, McGehee, and Silvola in the forward-line foxhole: “Get across the road and see if you can help them.”37
The three men rushed down toward Lanzerath, but as they neared the road they saw Germans blocking their entry into the village. More soldiers were moving to their flanks. Soon they would be surrounded. They decided to head toward 1st Battalion headquarters at Losheimergraben, three miles away, and get reinforcements.
The men headed north, their boots crunching through the frozen snow pack. Minnesotan Jim Silvola carried a cumbersome Browning automatic rifle (BAR). Suddenly, they found themselves on the brink of the steep railroad cut that ran east-west to Buchholz Station through the forest surrounding Lanzerath. It was two hundred feet deep, in some places almost vertical. The nearby bridge had been blown up, so the men clambered down and then began to climb up the other side. Just then, they saw German troops down the railroad track. The Germans opened fire. Silvola and his buddies quickly took cover in pine trees growing along the railway cut.
The Germans were from the 27th Fusilier Regiment and were trying to outflank the 1st Battalion at Losheimergraben. Robinson watched as they approached in their camouflaged white ski suits. “The way they were walking up on us, pretty casual-like, I guess they thought we was dead,” he recalled. “We was hid pretty well in that pine thicket, playing the old Indian game.”38
The Germans opened fire. Robinson fired back with his M-1. Silvola let rip with the BAR, hitting at least one German. Then there was the fierce crackle of Schmeisser machine pistol fire and German light machine guns.
Robinson cried out in pain and fell to the ground. He had been badly hit in the right calf. Blood gushed into the white snow. Silvola blazed away with the BAR. Suddenly, there was searing pain around his shoulder. With a bullet in his upper arm, he continued to fire until he was out of ammunition. Then he dropped the gun, grunting in pain.
Corporal McGehee, the LSU linebacker, ran to his aid. The Germans screamed for them to surrender. McGehee put his hands in the air.
Robinson had eight sulfa tablets, issued to each man to delay infection before he could receive proper medical attention. He knew German soldiers were not issued sulfa: it was one of the first things they took from captured Americans. “You was supposed to take one a day, and drink a lot of water behind it,” he recalled. “I knew the Germans would take them from me first thing, so I took all eight tablets. There wasn’t no water, so I just ate a lot of snow.”39
The Germans approached carefully and then picked up the wounded men. One of the Germans told Robinson that he was American and had lived in Detroit until he was fifteen, when his parents moved back to the Fatherland. “There were others like him drafted in the German army but they weren’t really trusted too much,” recalled Robinson. “He told me that he wanted to go back to America, and that he was going to surrender as soon as he could get close enough to the American line.”40
Silvola, Robinson, and McGehee had been captured by Fusilier Regiment 27 of the 12th Volksgrenadier Division.41 By nightfall, they would join a column of hundreds of other dazed and wounded Americans from the 99th Division.
Meanwhile, back in Lanzerath, the Germans had begun to search houses in the village. Creger and Slape suddenly heard the sound of a jackboot against wood. The front door was being kicked in. Sergeant Slape ran upstairs to the attic. Creger only just had time to hide behind a door. A German pushed it open; Creger squeezed himself further into the small space between door and wall, took a hand grenade from his field jacket, pulled the pin, and readied his M-1.42
“I was thinking if they came in, we would all go to hell together,” recalled Creger.43
The door handle pushed into his ribs. Surely, he thought, the Germans could hear his heart thumping like a jackhammer. For agonizing seconds, he listened to the harsh, guttural curses of the Germans as they searched the room.
Bullets came through the attic roof above Slape’s head. From their position above the village, other members of the platoon had spotted the Germans entering the building and opened fire.44 The Germans immediately left the house.
Creger sighed with relief and slipped the pin back into the grenade.45 He and Slape then followed the Germans downstairs, left by a back door, sprinted to the nearest cover-a cowshed-and ducked down behind several cows.46
“I noticed a hay loft above the cows,” recalled Creger. “I grabbed the loft door and lifted myself enough to look into the loft, and spotted a German soldier searching the loft. I then eased myself down trying not to disturb the cows, then proceeded to crawl across the floor under a cow and left the back door [with Slape] running like hell across a field and after running for several hundred yards, I suddenly realized I was three-quarters of the way through a minefield. I then got out of the minefield and into the woods, paused to catch my breath, and then made a circle through the woods trying to [find] the road.”47
Slape and Creger reached the edge of the wooded area. “We then had to cross a field,” recalled Slape. “As we did so, we were fired on from our left but the range was either too great or the Germans couldn’t shoot because all we got was snow knocked in our faces.”48
Creger and Slape made it across the field but then ran into a patrol of Germans at the edge of another woods. Slape and Creger opened fire. “[We] eliminated them with no difficulty,” recalled Slape. “Three or four Germans with an automatic weapon.”49
Slape and Creger crunched on through the snow as fast as they could, getting closer to the road that separated them from their position.
Meanwhile, Lyle Bouck and Private First Class Milosevich also ran toward the road, using thickets of young trees for cover. Suddenly, they spotted Slape and Creger in the woods on the other side of the road.
“Come on over!” called Bouck.50
Slape started across. German rifle fire and MG-42 bullets ricocheted all around him, and he fell.
“Christ, he’s hit,” thought Bouck.51
But Slape got up very fast and made it across. It was Creger’s turn. He made it unharmed.
“Ahhh, God,” cried Slape, clutching his chest. “Didn’t get shot-slipped on the ice, fell on my chest.”52
Slape had fractured his sternum and one of his ribs. He looked at his boot: the heel had been shot off.53
“What the hell are you doing here?” Slape panted.
“Got impatient waiting for you,” replied Bouck. “I sent Silvola, ÔPop’ and McGehee to find you. Where are they?”
“Haven’t seen ’em. We gotta get outta here.”
“We can ambush them,” said Milosevich. “I’ve got grenades.”
“No!” said Slape. “We’ll get killed.”54
“Let’s get out of here,” ordered Bouck.55
He took just a few minutes to get back to the position. Bouck rejoined Private Bill James in the command post. He picked up his binoculars and looked through the slit in the front of the dugout. There were yet more paratroopers in the distance, approaching Lanzerath.
“Where the hell did they jump?” thought Bouck.
He had heard no planes.
“Did they jump sharp [too soon] and land in the wrong place?”56
The Germans were soon within range. Bouck picked up his handset and called regimental headquarters again. Germans, perhaps as many as five hundred, were advancing on Lanzerath. He needed artillery support. Right away.
The voice on the other end of the line told Bouck he must be seeing things.
“Damn it!” Bouck shouted. “Don’t tell me what I can’t see! I have twenty-twenty vision. Bring down some artillery, all the artillery you can, on the road south of Lanzerath. There’s a Kraut column coming up from that direction.”57
Bouck waited anxiously, but the whine of “outgoing mail”-artillery support-never came. He and his men were outside of the 99th Division boundary, outside their own regimental boundary, and outside of the V Corps boundary. Artillery support was by now desperately needed all along the Ghost Front, and it was directed first to assigned areas within boundaries.
Bouck again called regimental headquarters. What was he to do? Stay or go?
“Stay!” Bouck was told.58 “You are to hold at all costs.”* From his house on the edge of town, sixteen-year-old Adolf Schur saw a line of German soldiers in mottled uniforms tramp into the village on either side of the road. Suddenly, several dropped out of the column and rushed into Adolf’s house, where they found some American rations that had been left by the tank destroyers. Adolf’s mother was saving them for Christmas. The Germans grabbed the boxes of rations and ran back to the column.59
Back in the platoon’s position, Lyle Bouck and his men watched, fingers on triggers, sweat beading on their brows, as the column marched forward. Bouck ordered the platoon to hold fire until he gave a hand signal. He could see at least 250 Germans now moving along the road. A small group passed by, directly in front of him.
“That’s got to be their point,” Bouck told James. “Let them go. I want to get the main body.”60
Bouck soon spotted an officer who looked like he was the Germans’ commander. Each man in the platoon chose a target. Platoon Sergeant Slape drew a bead on the officer.
Suddenly, a blond teenage girl, perhaps thirteen, came out of one of the houses. Private Bill James quickly had the girl in his sights, finger against the trigger, ready to squeeze, just as he had learned in basic training. But the girl reminded him of his two younger sisters back home in White Plains New York. He relaxed his finger.61
Bouck still held up his arm. He saw the girl point toward him. It looked as if she was alerting the Germans to the platoon’s presence. Bouck also hesitated-he didn’t want to get the girl killed. Then one of the Germans yelled something, and the column of paratroopers dove for the ditches on either side of the road.
“Open fire,” cried Bouck as he dropped his arm.62
The platoon managed to hit some of the Germans cowering in the ditches, but it was scant consolation: the chance for an ambush had been lost, and now the Germans knew their position.
Just then, a jeep pulled up behind Bouck’s dugout. Lieutenant Warren Springer and his three-man artillery unit jumped out. Could they help Bouck and his platoon?63 Bouck assigned Springer, Gacki, and Wibben to radio operator James Fort’s dugout.
Twigs, broken by German bullets, dropped off trees nearby. Gacki, Wibben, and Springer jumped into Fort’s hole. Their fellow artillery observer, Billy Queen, dove into Joseph McConnell’s dugout and readied his M-1.
Including Springer’s unit, Bouck now had just twenty-two men to fight off an enemy force that looked to be at least twenty times larger. Nothing he had learned at Fort Benning or in the previous weeks on patrol had prepared him to deal with such a hopeless situation. With one swift flanking movement led by experienced squad leaders, so many Germans would surely quickly seize the position and kill and wound most of the men under Bouck’s command.
It was around 10:30 a.m.
Milosevich gazed in disbelief as Germans entered the open pasture and then moved toward the fence bisecting it. “They advanced like they were out for a Sunday stroll,” he recalled. “I figured we were going to get it, so I was going to take all the Germans with me I could.”64
Bouck also watched in amazement as the Germans broke the first rule of combat: Do not attack-and never by walking upright in tight groups-a static position without simultaneous flanking movement and the heaviest possible covering fire.
“When the first guys [Germans] hit the fence,” ordered Bouck, “I’ll give the signal to fire.”65
The Germans kept coming, now firing from the hip, and then reached the fence.
“Let them have it,” cried Bouck.66
The platoon and the artillery observers opened fire. Bouck did not join in, concentrating instead on what the platoon’s next move should be.67 But a few feet away, Bill James aimed through the dugout’s slit and fired with superb accuracy, felling German after German, pausing only to slam another eight-round clip into his M-1.
James then sprinted under fire to the .50-caliber jeep-mounted machine gun and began to sweep the hillside. “I was only nineteen then and that was the hardest part of it,” he recalled. “Those kids coming up the hill were eighteen and nineteen, just like me. They charged swaggering, thinking it would be a lark, and suddenly my .50 caliber would tear them up. They were so close I could see their faces, and it was so painful I had to divorce the faces from the action, and fire just at movement.”68
In their dugout, two of the artillery observation party-Wibben and Gacki-fed M-1 clips to one of Bouck’s men as fast as they could. “[But he] kept running out of ammunition,” recalled Gacki. “In between what we were trying to do, we were loading clips for him. He emptied those clips as fast as we could load them.”69
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Warren Springer tried to direct his artillery battery’s fire by calling in coordinates over his jeep-mounted SCR-610 radio. Gingerly, he stuck his head out like a turtle, using the phone extension, and then ducked back in when he came under fire. Some shells landed near the road entering Lanzerath but did not stall the German advance.70
Then suddenly the jeep was hit, either by machine gun fire or mortar fragments, and knocked out of action. Springer heard glass breaking: the SCR-610 radio was destroyed. He would not be able to direct any more fire. With all land lines cut, the platoon’s only means of communication was now Bouck’s and Fort’s SCR-300 radios.71
Down below, on the outskirts of Lanzerath, German Private First Class Rudi Fruehbeisser, 9th Infantry, 3rd Fallschirmjaeger Division, watched the battle in horror.
“The 2nd Company carried out a storming attack on a small section of wood three hundred meters left of the road,” he recalled. “During the attack, platoon commander Sergeant Karl Quator and Corporal Fischer, as well as Privates Rench, Roth and Heube were killed. The platoon commander was wounded.”72
Through the slit of his dugout, Private Joseph McConnell suddenly saw one of Fruehbeisser’s comrades, armed with a burp gun, appear not far away. He opened up and the German fell. But so did McConnell, hit in the right shoulder.73
From their dugout forty yards away, Sergeant Slape and Private First Class Milosevich still fired constantly, only pausing to reload. It was one of the “most beautiful fields of fire” Slape had ever seen, “just wide open.” And the Germans were having to cross it to reach him.74
Suddenly, a bullet grazed Milosevich’s fingernail. He fired again. The Germans seemed crazed if not doped-they were surely out of their minds. Why else would they attack so suicidally? The Germans would dive to the ground as men all around them were picked off. Then an officer or sergeant would scream for them to get up and attack. As soon as they tried to move forward, Slape and Milosevich would cut them down again.75
Then everything went quiet.
The platoon tried to catch its breath. The firefight had lasted perhaps thirty seconds.76 Almost all of the attackers had been killed or wounded.
Lieutenant Lyle Bouck noticed that he was soaked with perspiration, although it was still well below freezing. He felt no tension now that the battle had begun. It was hard to believe that the Germans had not pounded the platoon’s position with artillery, mortar, or even machine gun fire. He looked down at the field below, dotted with corpses, body parts, and bloody patches: there was a “lot of human waste.”77 The carnage did not disturb him. They had stopped the Germans. They had done their duty and carried out their orders.
“Check your holes and see whether we have any wounded,” Bouck ordered Slape. “I’m going to take the right side. You take the left.”78
They moved along the holes. McConnell was the only casualty. A burp gun bullet was lodged in his upper chest. But he was conscious. He’d fight on. Besides, there were no medics around to patch him up and pull him off the line.
Just before 11:00 a.m., the Germans in Lanzerath prepared to attack again. From their barn, Adolf Schur, his brother Eric, and his father Christolf watched the Germans assemble. Christolf had been a drummer with the Wehrmacht in World War I. “Now,” he told his sons, “you can see what war is really like.”79
The Schurs watched the Germans attack up the hillside again.
The platoon again opened fire as the Germans got to the fence. This time, it was Private First Class Milosevich who let rip with the .50-caliber jeep-mounted machine gun. The armor-piercing bullets, employed by rear gunners on B-17s to bring down fighters, blew holes a foot wide in the German soldiers. But the .50 caliber’s field of fire was too narrow, and the gun was not easy to maneuver from its fixed position in the jeep. Milosevich tried to take it off its stand but burned his hand because it had become so hot. He wrapped a handkerchief over the burn and again picked up the gun so he could better traverse the pasture.
Suddenly, Milosevich saw a German paratrooper to his left only yards from Lyle Bouck’s dugout. He fired and the German fell.
The enemy fire suddenly became particularly fierce. Milosevich decided to make for his dugout. A German appeared a few yards away, wielding a “potato-masher” grenade. Milosevich let rip, cutting the German in two.80
Milosevich made it back to his dugout and began to fire again. He screamed for Slape, who dived into the dugout, bruising his ribs.
The Germans kept coming.
Slape took over on the .50-caliber machine gun.
“Shoot in bursts of three!” shouted Milosevich, knowing the gun would overheat and they would be out of ammunition if Slape kept firing away without pausing.
“I can’t!” shouted Slape. “There’s too many of them!”81
Slape continued to fire, hitting dozens of men with a sweeping arc. Milosevich saw the unwieldly gun start to pour off smoke. When he looked down the hillside, it seemed that they were outnumbered by at least a hundred to one, and the Germans just kept coming.82
In their dugout on the extreme right side of the position, Sam Jenkins and Robert Preston had by now run out of ammunition for their BAR and were using their M-1s. Jenkins couldn’t understand why the Germans were attacking again without artillery support. If they brought just one tank into play, they would all be quickly blown off the hill.83 He fired again and again, knowing it was vital to hit the Germans before they got close enough to throw a grenade through the hole’s firing slit.84
Nearby, Private Louis Kalil suddenly noticed that some of the Germans were fanning out and trying to infiltrate through the position’s flanks. A few feet from Kalil, Sergeant George Redmond was squinting through the sights of his M-1.
To the left of the dugout, a German paratrooper crawled along the rock-hard ground. He got to within thirty yards of Kalil and Redmond and then quickly aimed his rifle, loaded with a grenade, and fired. It was a superb shot. The grenade entered the dugout through its eighteen-inch slit and hit Kalil square in the jaw.85
But it did not explode. Instead, it knocked Kalil across the dugout to Redmond’s side. Kalil was half-stunned as he lay sprawled on the base of the dugout. Redmond dropped his rifle, grabbed some snow, and rubbed it in Kalil’s face. Blood gushed from Kalil’s jaw. The force of the impact had forced his lower teeth into the roof of his mouth, where several were now deeply embedded. His jaw was fractured in three places.
Redmond sprinkled sulfa powder on the wound and then pulled gauze out of both their first aid kits and started to wrap Kalil’s face. There was no morphine in the kits to kill the pain. Once the shock wore off, Kalil would be in agony.
“How bad is it?” asked Kalil.
“Oh, it’s not too bad, Louis,” said Redmond.
“But I’ve got blood all over myself. It can’t be very nice.”
“It’s not too bad.”
“Okay, I’ll take your word for it.”
Kalil knew Redmond was trying to make the wound sound a lot less severe than it really was. He could feel the teeth embedded in the roof of his mouth cutting into his tongue.86
The battle still raged. Small-arms fire sounded like radio static during an electrical storm, a constant ear-piercing crackle. Redmond’s fingers did not shake despite his fear as he wrapped the last of the gauze around Kalil’s jaw. He knew the Germans could penetrate their position any moment. If they were to stand a chance, they would need to return to firing as soon as possible.
Redmond tied the last gauze bandage and met Kalil’s gaze.
“Don’t worry about it,” reassured Redmond.
“If things get to where you can take off, then take off,” Kalil replied.
Redmond looked at Kalil fiercely.
“We’re staying here-together.”
Redmond grabbed his M-1 and began to fire. Kalil was now in terrible pain but did the same, aiming with the use of just one eye at the figures that still approached up the bloodied hillside. It was so cold in the dugout that Kalil could feel blood freezing to his face, stemming the flow from the wound. The damned cold had been good for one thing at least. In the desert, he would surely have bled to death.88
German Private First Class Rudi Fruehbeisser again watched the battle from the bottom of the hill near a farmhouse. He could see how his fellow paratroopers stood out in their mottled uniforms against the snow as they advanced on Bouck’s position and how they were methodically being picked off, one by one. An order was given for the third company of his outfit to attack. As it moved forward, Fruehbeisser saw one of its platoon commanders stumble and then fall to the ground. A paratrooper turned the fallen man over.
Nearby, two corporals were hit but not killed.
An M-1 shot cracked out.
Another man grasped his face and fell over, killed instantly.
There was another whip of a bullet through the air.
Finally, under such intense and accurate fire, the Germans fell back behind several farm buildings.
It was now around midday. From his dugout, Lieutenant Lyle Bouck suddenly saw a German lift a white flag into the air and walk up the hill. Bouck ordered his men to hold their fire. The German was asking for time to remove wounded from the hillside. Bouck shouted back that he would allow this.
For the next hour, German medics scrambled up the hill and removed their wounded. Meanwhile, more ammunition was distributed to the I&R; platoon, and Slape went to each dugout to check on the men and give them encouragement.
Milosevich watched the German medics work on the wounded. The German medics, who wore two armbands and large white body tabards that had a two-foot-square red cross on the front and back, were easily identifiable-more so than American medics, who wore just one armband that often became muddied. Around 2:00 p.m., the Germans prepared to attack again. Incredibly, it was another full-frontal advance but this time supported by some mortar and machine gun fire. The platoon opened fire again, and the Germans again fell in every direction.
Milosevich saw a medic apparently at work on a German soldier Milosevich knew must be dead because he had just “shot him full of holes.”90 The medic was about thirty yards away and kept looking up at Milosevich and Slape’s dugout. His lips moved constantly. Mortar fire started to land close to the dugout. Milosevich was sure the medic was directing it. Then the medic turned, and Milosevich spotted a pistol in his belt. Under the Geneva Convention, medics were not allowed to carry weapons.
Milosevich turned to Slape.
“Let me have the rifle. I want to shoot that son of a bitch.”91
Slape refused, saying there were too many other Germans in front of them. Milosevich explained about the medic-he was talking into a radio and directing the mortar fire.
“Why, that son of . . . ”92
Three shots rang out. The medic fell dead.93
A while later, during a brief respite in the firing, Milosevich found two bullet holes in his field jacket. Miraculously, he was unharmed.94 There were more Germans. He returned to firing with his carbine. It was sheer slaughter, as if he was shooting clay ducks back in California at an amusement park.
Slape again scrambled over to the .50-caliber machine gun and began to fire. Quickly, it again overheated95 and then began to fire rounds even when Slape wasn’t pressing the trigger. Suddenly, the gun fell silent.96 The barrel had finally burned out and was bent in a light arc.
The Germans continued to rush the hill, some firing from the hip. Many received single shots to heart or head, picked off at close range. Not one got past the barbed wire fence. Bodies were soon piled up behind it.97
Suddenly, artillery observer Billy Queen, standing beside Joseph McConnell in a dugout, cried out in pain and slumped to the ground. He began to groan, blood seeping from a serious stomach wound. There was nothing McConnell could do for him-he had no medical supplies. Queen began to lose consciousness. Within an hour he would be dead, his body starting to freeze.*
The third attack lasted only a few minutes.98 Then the Germans again fell back. It was now midafternoon and obvious to all the men that they could not hold out much longer. Most had only a few clips left for their M-1s. Bouck’s thoughts turned to how the platoon could abandon the position. He reached for the telephone to his SCR-300 radio and asked again for artillery support and fresh orders.
At regimental headquarters in Hunningen, Fernandez overheard Bouck talking on the radio to Lieutenant Buegner, Kriz’s assistant. Bouck said he was surrounded. Then he heard the sound of shooting in the background.
Bouck heard a huge crack beside his ear. A sniper’s bullet shot the telephone out of his hand. The radio was also hit. Bouck fell to the ground.99
In the dugout beside him, radio operator James Fort heard “tubes and everything breaking inside the radio.”100 He looked out of his hole to see Bouck sprawled in the snow beside a jeep.
At the other end of the line in Hunningen, Fernandez heard a hissing sound getting louder, and then “a sound right out of the movies . . . and suddenly the radio went dead.”101 Fernandez feared the worst-Bouck and the radio had been blown to pieces.102
But Bouck came to after a few seconds. Stunned, he shook himself and got up. Slowly, his hearing returned. The bullet that hit the receiver had exploded only an inch from his ear. He looked at the radio-it was completely destroyed.
Bouck’s last line of communication was lost. There would be no more orders. Every decision now would be his alone.
Bouck returned groggily to his dugout, determined to work out a way for the platoon to withdraw under cover of darkness.
But would they be able to hold out that long?
At regimental headquarters in Hunningen, Fernandez immediately reported the loss of communication to Major Kriz. As soon as was possible Kriz tried to organize a relief party, but it quickly became obvious that it would be impossible to reach Bouck and his men, given the scale and speed of the German attack. All along its front, the 394th was fighting desperately to hold similar positions.
Kriz soon had a greater concern than one platoon, a single battalion, or even a regiment. The entire 99th Division, some fifteen thousand men, was under serious threat. This was no spoiling counterattack to hinder the 99th’s attempts to penetrate to the Roer dams. Kriz had been right: the Germans had indeed been preparing for a truly massive attack. And now time was running out for the entire Checkerboard division, not just for Lyle Bouck.103
Five miles to Kriz’s east, on the outskirts of the border town of Losheim, Jochen Peiper, the most decorated SS tank commander of the Third Reich, watched his point tank advance. The Panther V suddenly detonated a land mine and was put out of action. Peiper fumed as engineers were called in and began to remove the mines blocking his advance. Ironically, they were not American mines-they had been laid by Germans retreating to the Siegfried Line in October.
Peiper was now hours behind schedule. He began again to advance cautiously. But five hundred meters west of Losheim there was another explosion as a second Panther V drove into another minefield. It was dark by the time the column started up again. Then, southeast of the village of Merlscheid, the column lost its first Panzer, again to a land mine.104 Driver Werner Sternebeck heard a detonation and then felt the tank jump and come to a standstill. He quickly abandoned it and jumped onto another tank, knowing Peiper would not tolerate a moment’s delay.105
Again, Peiper learned that the column would have to wait until yet more mines were cleared. If he lost any more time, he would have to consider sacrificing some half-tracks, using them to detonate mines so that the column could push ahead.
Peiper had been ordered to reach the Meuse within twenty-four hours. Yet here he was, ten hours after the barrage had started, only a few miles beyond the Siegfried Line. The 9th Parachute Regiment should have cleared a path to Honsfeld by now. But apparently they were still in Lanzerath. Vas in Himmel (What in hell) had held them up all day?
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