DIARY ENTRY # 11
by Don R. Marsh
28 December 1944
Forzee-Mont Gauthier, Belgium
Winter extremes, late December 1944 - in less than sixty minutes, I went from the passionate embrace and warm bed of a young Belgian war widow to being sent back out into the subzero temperatures -- without being given a choice. In a cruel twist of fate one minute I was in a soldier's paradise and the next minute I was back in a white hell. What had begun as a romantic night turned into the coldest night I have ever spent in my lifetime. While the human body can readily adjust to radical changes of the elements, the human mind takes longer to rationalize unexpected reversals of circumstances beyond a person's control. But I am getting ahead of myself as I have to roll back the clock to 16 December 1944. At that time, we were holed up in Baseweiler, Germany, defending the Roer River sector of the Ninth Army.
The World War Two Ardennes Campaign, better known as the Battle of the Bulge, or The White Hell, to the GIs who fought in it, began at dawn on 16 December 1944; miles to our south in the Eiffel Mountains of the Ardennes Forest, Belgium. Our division, the US 2nd Armored Division, had been assigned to a defensive area on the west bank of the Roer River, north of Aachen, Germany, also known to historians as Aix-la-Chapelle, the ancient French gateway to the Rhine Province of Germany.
When the German blitzkrieg broke out of the mists and overran the thin line of green troops in the Ardennes Forest to our south, their ultimate goal was to capture the Belgium port city of Antwerp. If they had succeeded they would have cut our supply lines. In doing so, total chaos and turmoil would have ensued. The young inexperienced troops were quickly overwhelmed then surrendered in large numbers, were captured or killed in place for those who remained to fight; while others fled in panic abandoning equipment as they attempted to escape to the west and rear. Pandemonium had set in as they fled. While Eisenhower and Bradley's higher headquarters were slow to react, commanders in the First, Third and Ninth Armies had taken steps to begin alerting troops for a massive troop redeployment and movement to plug the widening holes in the line.
The 2nd Armored Division was placed on a one hour Standby alert. We were given orders to prepare to withdraw from our Ninth Army positions and assemble in a final destination area near Les Avins, Belgium, estimated 100 miles in total blackout maintaining radio silence. Upon arriving we would wait for new orders from General Omar Bradley. After a frustrating five day delay, the orders were sent on the night of 21 December 1944 to "mount up and move out" to begin the long cold night march. That was the exact moment our nightmare was to begin.
The crew, comprised of Larry Hull, Doug Donahue, John Yahne and Walter Hogan, huddled together among the reels of field wire under a tarpaulin in the back of my vehicle that had neither a windshield nor roof over the cab with only two canvas covered bucket seats for me, as the driver, and our crew chief, Bill Veno. Bill was wrapped from head to toe with what had been my German down comforter to ward off the cold freezing rain that had begun to fall as our column snaked out of town. Veno's incessant snoring became so loud that I finally punched him. He simply rolled over and continued snoring.
With the strict blackout of any type of vehicle illumination, all I could do was to stare straight head at the twin small red tails lights of Staff Sergeant Tom Speirs' radio half track and more or less function by rote. All the time trying to maintain the desired five yard interval between vehicles. Driving a stick shift vehicle meant frequent double clutching and shifting gears up and down repeatedly. My depth perception was critical and constantly being tested as I attempted to maintain the proper distance between our vehicles. The monotony and fatigue soon brought on a hypnotic effect as I began losing my concentration. The snoring of Bill Veno did not help matters and had a reversal effect on my determination to stay awake.
Somewhere in the darkness of the suburbs of Aachen, the convoy was into the accordion routine of stop, pause and go as other columns merged onto the main road headed south. Our sibling 3rd Armored Division, under the command of our former boss, Major General Maurice Rose, was now on this same road from Stolberg, Germany, enroute to meet the German SS Panzer Divisions wreaking havoc on the American defenders. I fought sleep without benefit of any conversation from the crew who remained fast asleep. Before long the wind driven ice cold rain turned into sleet. I hunched my shoulders to meet the back rim of my helmet to prevent the cold water from hitting the back of my neck. The time seemed to drag on as the column made our way in the pitch darkness guided by road guards at crossing points. Engines were kept running as we sat and waited, and waited endlessly it seemed. In one of these long delays, I dropped off to sleep. The next thing I knew was that our Headquarters Commandant, Captain W. W. Lawler, 41st Infantry, was shaking me awake and raising hell that my sleeping had caused the rest of the division behind me to be halted after the whole column in front of me had disappeared into the total darkness. Lawler had to back track in his jeep to find us and he was definitely one unhappy Captain and told me so, emphatically and explicitly! In between expletives, he made it perfectly clear that next time "my ass was grass" as the expression goes. Translated - you're going to an infantry unit. Threats of that nature always received my attention. Like everything else, in time, he got over it … and so did I. After we connected with the tail end of our column I had "lost", I stood up to stretch and found my overcoat ice covered and frozen in my sitting position.
Dawn broke in the higher elevation and it was near zero or below as our tracked vehicles slid off the dangerous mountain passes holding up traffic until they were retrieved. The ice covered two lane serpentine secondary roads became a real challenge to maneuver in the tight "S" turns in both ascending and descending in the steep mountain range we were traversing. One of our 702nd Tank Destroyers locked his steel tracks, slid out of control and went over the side, end over end. Passing an isolated Catholic convent, miles from nowhere, the nuns came out bringing containers of scalding water to pass among us. In no time they had set up a small production line with one nun going back and forth with refills. Scurrying about in their head to toe black habits reminded me of penguins in a zoo. I recall Walter Hogan holding out his mess cup asking for seconds to warm his insides. We deeply appreciated their kindness. Hogan, now on his second or third cup was mumbling his gratitude and thanks to the nuns, who with smiles nodded their heads in acknowledgment without understanding a word he said, but they could read it in his face. By this time, this had been the only thing warm we had consumed in12 hours and the hot water was a welcome gift from these heaven sent angels of mercy.
During the whole trip no one spelled me behind the wheel and I drove it alone. Days and nights all ran together, as well as events in rapidly moving from place to place in that hectic week that followed as we met the spearhead of the German attack on December 22-23rd. This action stopped their deepest penetration of their offensive at Ciney in the famous Celles Pocket and blocked them from reaching the Meuse River at Dinant. The German 2nd Panzer Division was totally destroyed here.
The deep snow, thick pine forests with intensely frigid cold days and
especially the nights without let up were among the hardships I recall. Shelter
from the elements in the forests were impossible to find as we moved from one
hot spot to another being shuttled back and forth blocking the probing attacks
by the stymied Germans desperately seeking weak spots in our hurried defenses.
Tempers were short as I watched Vern Evans, a radio man; fight with another GI
who had placed his bedroll too close to the spot on the frozen ground Vern had
scraped out of the snow and had marked as his. Nerves became frazzled among
friends over minor differences. In addition to coping with the extreme weather,
lack of warm food also became a never ending problem for days on end.
After one fire fight in a thick pine grove, a two-man German machine gun outpost was knocked out. In checking it later we found the dead gunner and his assistant who had been holding the ammo belt and feeding the machinegun as the belt passed through his hands from the canister that they had become frozen to the ground in the lifelike prone positions. Many of these hated SS German soldiers killed in the Ardennes are buried in a German military cemetery at Bitburg, Germany, in the Eiffel. During his presidency, our then President Ronald Reagan went to this cemetery to pay his misguided respects to their fallen dead. I believed that it was a mistake then and I still do today. Instead, he should have traveled to the nearby Margraten American Military Cemetery in the Netherlands and to our American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg to pay respect to our own American fallen heroes who lie there.
Christmas Day found us in the vicinity of Rochefort and Humaine. It was just
another day in combat and one more cold day in the forest which the news
correspondents properly labeled "The White Hell" as it turned out to
be for all involved on both sides. We were attached to Lt. Col. Hugh R.
O'Farrell's Task Force "A" comprised of his 3rd Battalion of the 66th
Armored Regiment in taking Buissonville, Belgium. After springing an ambush on a
column of German tanks and destroying them, in the mop up I obtained my prized
souvenir German Walther pistol (in mint condition) from an officer who no longer
had a need for one.
On December 28th we were relieved by the British and moved to an assembly area near Forzee-Mont Gauthier, Belgium in preparation for the counterattack with the 84th Infantry Division on our flank with the objective being Houffalize to meet Patton's Third Army coming up from the south; in a pincer movement to seal off the Bulge. We ate our Christmas Dinner on December 29th. It was our first "hot" food since departing Germany a week earlier. Although the mashed potatoes and gravy congealed immediately upon reaching our metal mess kits in the out-of-doors weather, we devoured the turkey and holiday festive food. Our division was spread among the neighboring hamlets and small villages to find adequate winters quarters to obtain relief from the extreme cold temperatures.
Our wire crew found a small cottage with a lone single occupant, a young war widow in her mid to late thirties. Fortunately, my two years of French class in high school gave me the opportunity to converse with her, aided by her limited knowledge of English. However, my old French teacher, James Hancock, would have cringed had he heard my mangling of verbs, nouns, adjectives, modifiers, mixed metaphors and dangling participles. Yet, he may well have been proud of my ability to carry on a conversation with the young lady. She gave us full use of her house and also offered to heat and serve our ten-in-one rations, which we shared with her. I exchanged daily banter with her much to her amusement and what I assumed to be mutual pleasure.
It was in the evening of New Year's Eve, December 31st, while she was standing over the kitchen wood burning stove, with her back to me, that I came up behind her and kissed her on the neck; putting my arms around her waist in a calculated bold act of flirtation as old as time. She spun in my arms to face me with a smile that indicated that while surprised she was pleased and equally interested. My play for her worked and the game was on! She pressed her body against mine as we shared our first long lingering kiss. I was certain she could feel my erection. Words were translated and she readily agreed that I would share her bed that night.
The rest of the crew, while not understanding French, knew what I was up to had laid out their bedrolls in the other part of the house as she later led me upstairs to her bedroom. There she had placed two towel wrapped hot bricks at the foot of the bed for us as foot warmers under the down comforter. The lust was equal on both our parts as we quickly consummated the mad rush to passion. Having both reached satisfaction, at this point, I relaxed and had thoughts of going to sleep, only to hear her softly ask, "Encore?" Hell, yes, I wouldn't mind seconds, so we accommodated each other's mutual hot passions a second time.
In the interlude passage of time that lapsed before midnight, there was a tap on the bedroom door and I heard Bill Veno's voice say, "Marsh, Moll (Lieutenant. CCA Communications Officer) wants you down in the kitchen, now. Get a move on." At that moment as I drew on my clothes and carried my boots downstairs into the kitchen I knew full well that that was my last chance of amour and I would be out in the bitter cold once more. Lt. Moll said General Collier, our CO, wanted a new line connecting to the 84th Infantry Division before daylight and Moll would take three of us, Veno, Donahue and me, to put the line in; leaving Hogan, Hull and Yahne behind, for no apparent reason I could think of then or now. Later, Hull told me that as we went out the door he went up stairs! Being unable to speak any French he had a handicap until she said "Encore" and that he understood and willingly accommodated her wishes! Being foxhole buddies, Hull and I always shared whatever we had between us without any hesitation or qualms. Now, almost sixty years later, when we exchange phone calls, invariably one of us will say to the other, "Hey, encore!" and draw a hearty laugh from the other.
The three of us and Moll departed in two vehicles just before midnight. One was my ton and one half converted personnel carrier/wire vehicle and Veno's jeep. It was a brilliant moonlit night, clear and biting cold after the snow had stopped falling that night. We tied off a line from a new reel and started down a strange road leading to the coldest night I have ever spent in my lifetime.
Having been born and raised in the northern climate of the state of Wisconsin, I mistakenly believed that I could adjust to any type of cold weather; however, I never gave any consideration to these consequential extreme circumstances and exposure time. We had only proceeded two miles or so up the deserted road when we came upon what appeared to be an empty and abandoned chateau that was now windowless. All four of us dismounted and carrying our weapons went in to check it out where we found a half dozen infantrymen from some unidentified unit gathered around a pot bellied wood stove attempting to get warm for the night. They were not out on patrol, just there without explanation. I suspected they were deserters from some infantry unit. Suddenly, for what ever his reason that still remains a mystery, and without explanation, Lt. Moll decided to return to CCA Headquarters with the jeep after calling the CP on the new line we had run. He gave us instructions to continue putting the line in to the 84th Infantry Division as ordered by General Collier and turned the jeep around to head back to the CP. He had pulled rank and left us shorthanded while the other three men were sleeping back at the cottage when we could have used their help in what was to come. They say "Rank hath its privileges" and he sure exercised one of his!
With Veno and Doug walking behind, I drove mainly on the left shoulder of the
narrow road, hoping I would not strike a hidden mine. As I approached each rise
in the road to where I could peer over the crest, I knew full well anyone out
there could also see me. Then it would be too late, so the apprehension had my
adrenal glands in overdrive and my anal sphincter muscle tightened up a few
notches to boot. Rounding a blind curve, I was shocked to find a snow covered
German Panther tank with its long barrel pointed directly at my position in the
road. I totally froze expecting to see machinegun fire coming straight at me any
moment, but the silence was more than eerie, it literally scared the holy hell
out of me. Meanwhile, Veno and Doug are 25 yards behind me throwing the wire up
off the road for protection, unaware of my situation. When they caught up with
me, seeing I am at a dead stop, they came around to ask why when they too saw
the huge monster facing us. Either it was empty and abandoned or we were dead
ducks. Too late to run and no desire to go forward and check it out, after a
brief discussion, we agreed to drive up and see what fate had in store for us.
What a relief to learn that it was empty and probably knocked out by our fighter
attack planes previously.
Just past this point we reached a cluster of small deserted building at a cross roads intersection that would require an overhead bypass of the road. A tree on the left side of the road provided the only object to climb and tie the wire high enough off the ground to avoid being destroyed by any tracked vehicles on the road. The tree was a tough customer as they took turns failing to climb high enough to reach a branch to tie the line. By now they were both physically exhausted and lacked the strength to reach a branch. Time had taken its toll on me as well The long hours seated in one position in this zero temperature had nearly placed me in frostbite danger. Both my feet were numb and I had no feeling in my fingers and hands. I was in dire straits.
To make matters worse, I urgently needed to void my bladder and faced wetting my pants, which would only make matters much worse. My call for help was answered by my good friend, Doug Donahue, who offered to unbutton my overcoat, two pairs of wool trousers and my long handle underwear; to then delicately reach in with his cold fingers and expose my plumbing to where I emptied the fully extended bladder. A friend in need is a true friend indeed! After replacing the member and buttoning up my clothing for me, they both assisted me in walking about and flexing my hands to regain the feeling in both.
Now the three of us tackled the tree problem with Doug and I boasting Veno high enough to reach a branch and pull the line over it and making a tie-off at the base of the tree. Next was to cross the road and throw the line over the church steeple - easier said than done. Finally, after numerous repeated attempts they succeeded and made the splice, drew the line high and tight across the road and we continued on … punch drunk with exhaustion.
Other than that group of half dozen GIs at that chateau we never saw another living person all that night, but always had the feeling hidden eyes were following us at various times. Dawn brought us to the general area where we expected to find the 84th Infantry Division. And, did we ever! They probably heard us approaching from a mile away in the stillness of dawn from the noise of the wire reel turning on the back of my vehicle dispensing the wire. Suddenly, a voice coming from behind a large tree hollered "Halt." I stopped on a dime. The voice next said, "What's the pass word?" I answered, "How the fuck would I know?" The voice said, "Who the hell are you guys?" I told him we were the wire crew from Combat Command "A" of the US 2nd Armored Division and we're looking for your Division Command Post." They slowly came out from behind their trees with their fingers on the triggers of their M1 rifles, not taking any chances. They were wearing the red circle shoulder patch with a white silhouette of an axe imbedded in a log. Their nick name was "The Railsplitters." This was the place. After answering the "Who's Babe Ruth" type of questions, we were directed to where to find the CP.
We noticed that this road block had the trees on both sides of the curve in
the road ready to blow with blocks of TNT wired to the trees with short fuses.
We dropped the line at the CP switchboard and immediately headed for their mess
truck for hot coffee. Mission accomplished. Returning to the switchboard
afterwards and calling our CP, we learned that our Headquarters was now in the
process of moving to a new assembly location in preparation to launch the next
major attack the following day on January 2nd. Our all night work was for
naught. As the crow flies it was probably less than 5-6 miles from start to
finish, but due to the extreme circumstances and conditions it had taken us all
night for a line that would normally have taken but two hours. In reflection,
what transpired in that brief 24 hour period was an experience of life and among
the fortunes of war.
An edited and condensed version of this recollection previously appeared in the 2n Armored Division Association Bulletin in Issue #3 July-Sept 1981.
Publication or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited
without written permission from the author, Don R. Marsh. All right remain the
sole property of
The Marsh Family Trust.