DIARY ENTRY #12
By Don R. Marsh
The brutal bone-chilling cold was not our ally -- nor theirs. At times we struggled through waist-deep snow or slid off the ice slick roads. Normal winter weather for the Ardennes Mountains of Belgium in January 1945.
The New Year 1945 greeted us with the most adverse weather conditions to dislodge the entrenched German salient. They were very tough opponents with desperate leaders, but with a flawed plan to reach the Belgium coast with their last Blitzkrieg. However, we stopped them cold - ice cold; but not without paying the price in both manpower and equipment. Their losses were greater than ours as it turned out.
The Twelfth Army's plan under General Bradley was to drive south and southeast to join up with General Patton's Third Army pushing up from the south. The junction city was Houffalize and our target point to close the gap of the Bulge. Bradley directed General "Lightning Joe" Collins' VII Corps, the best and the most experienced of his arsenal, consisting of the 2nd (Hell On Wheels) and the 3rd (Spearhead) Armored Divisions to lead the counter attack. These two heavy weight armored divisions were led by two of the most able and experienced veteran division commanders, Major General Ernest (Profane Ernie) Harmon and Major General Maurice Rose. Attacking abreast, we began the coordinated assault along with the 83rd and 84th Infantry Divisions, assigned to cover our flanks and mop-up resistance in the by-passed woods.
My unit, with Task Force O"Farrell (LTC Hugh O'Farrell, 3rd Bn, 66th AR) a part of Combat Command "A" crossed the MLR (Main Line of Resistance) in a blinding snow storm with limited visibility on January 3rd. Our initial objectives were two small villages of Trinal and Magoster. Very heavy fighting developed in the deep snow drifts, extreme cold and the wooded mountains with the enemy in their dug-in defensive positions. Our column had reached the high ground of a plateau where our tanks fanned out preparing to launch a follow-up attack after halting long enough for our artillery to work over several troublesome spots located by our FOs (Forward Observers) on the ground. Our air support left much to be desired due to the poor flying conditions.
During this pause I sat behind the wheel of my vehicle waiting, as was everyone else, for the word to "move out." In all probability at the time, I must have been reliving moments from my recent 48 hours pass to Paris the previous month and wishing I was still there, when I saw a jeep heading over my way. The driver stopped close to my left side and his lone passenger approached on foot. Moments before I had stood up on my seat to get a better view of where the rounds were landing from our guns. I guess this is when he noticed me there. He appeared to be old enough to be a field grade officer and wore a new type of a green parka with a hood and a fur lined collar that was attached. This was one I had never seen before. Definitely officer material. Ordinary GIs didn't get fur lined collars, not in those days unless you were a flyboy. I couldn't see his rank. He asked, "What's your name soldier?" My answer, "My name is Don R. Marsh, Sir." Him, "What's your rank?" Me, "I'm a Private (here we go again, O' well, easy come easy go), Sir." Him, ""Where's your hometown"" Me, "Racine, Wisconsin, Sir." Him, "What is it you are wearing?" Me, "(O' shit) A German motorcycle rider's two piece rain suit, Sir" Him, "Where did you get it?" Me, "From a German who didn't need it anymore, Sir." Him, "You don't have to 'sir' me, soldier. I am an Associated Press correspondent. My name is Wes Gallagher." Me, "Thank you, Sir." Him, "Good luck soldier." Me, "Thank you, Sir."
By January 15th, after continuous heavy fighting, Beffe Devanave, Dochamps, Samree (Colonel C. J. Mansfield, CO 66th Armored Regiment, was Killed In Action taking Samree), Wibrin and Achouffe had fallen along with many other small towns and villages in between. Then on January 16th, Combat Command "A" had taken the high ground overlooking Houffalize and at 0640 hours made contact with the 11th Armored Division of the 3rd Army. We had closed the door at last. Within a few weeks, I received a letter from my folks containing a front page newspaper article that had appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune News, dated January 5, 1945. The by line was from Erezee, Belgium, dated January 4th and written by Wes Gallagher. It reads:
By Wes Gallagher
Plowing head-on into the German army's most powerful battle positions, American troops of the First Army have smashed their way forward in the last two days in the most appalling conditions ever seen on the western front. Every inch of ground being won by these doughboys on Field Marshall Von Rundstedt's northern flank is being won by sheer guts and not on grand strategy. The doughboys and tanks advanced through a snow and sleet storm which turned the fighting in these mountains to a white hell. The Germans are making each town and hill a strong point and exact the maximum price for the capture before falling back. The price to Americans at times has been high … quite high.
All over the mountains and woods wet snow was falling. The roads were churned alleys of ice, snow and mud. Trucks, tank sand guns slide round like giraffes on roller skates. This division moved secretly in a night march to hit the Germans. It was one of the wildest marches in history. Thirty ton tanks went spinning down icy hills in circles, snapping telephone poles like blades of grass. Big guns slithered off the roads into gulleys. The slightest hill made the steel tracks of tanks churn helplessly. The division reached the jump-off point just in time to eat a cold breakfast and start moving again. It has been like that since the offensive started, only now the Germans are adding their own hazards to the weather in the shape of artillery barrages and mortar fire. "The Germans are using more artillery than we have seen before, "said LTC R.W. Jenna, "We can't get a Piper Cub off the ground and there is no chance of counter-battery fire. Our troops just have to take it." He added, "This snow and sleet does some queer things. Some of our GIs at first claimed the Germans were using some sort of new silent gun, but it was just these freak battle conditions that deadens the sound."
The German policy has been to hold some strategic ground and then hide anti-tank guns in the woods around a town, protecting its approaches and put up a furious battle for it. The anti-tank guys can't be seen by the tankers because of heavy snowfall, but the German gunners can see the tanks moving and cut loose, knocking them out. Once pushed out of town, the Germans plaster it with heavy artillery. An attack in one sector halted simply because our tanks could not get up an icy hill, although not a shot was fired. Doughboys are protecting the tanks after dark by digging shallow foxholes and sitting shivering in them throughout the night." There is nothing else the men can do except just take it and sleep in the snow, "said an officer.
The only man not concerned with the weather on this front today was Pvt. Don R. Marsh of Racine, Wisconsin, a member of a wire crew. He had on a captured German rubber rain suit running around happily in the slush while the rest of his soaked companions looked on enviously." End of news article
Post War Comment by Don R. Marsh:
No, I was not happy nor running around, but if Wes Gallagher thought so, who am I to argue?
A previously edited version of this article was published in the 3rd Armored Division Association Newsletter, dated March 1994.
Publication or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited without written permission from the author, Don R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of The Marsh Family Trust.