By PFC Bernard F. Hillenbrand.

My first day in infantry combat was off Omaha Beach, France well after D-Day. As an infantry replacement I was disembarking from the Belgian troopship Leopoldville (which was sunk on Christmas Eve drowning several hundred soldiers). As I descended the rope ladder to our Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), my feet were inches above a Second Lieutenant. . With no warning a huge wave hit the landing craft and smashed it against the side of the ship crushing the officer to instant death. I was covered with his blood as in a last desperate move I successfully leaped into the descending LCI.

I joined Company G. of the 16th Regiment of the First Infantry Division (the Big Red One) in Namure, Belgium as we began our assault on Aachen, Germany. Our Division surrounded this historic city. Our 16th Regiment attacked g on the north side; our 26th Regiment drove through the center of town and my 18th Regiment attack to the south. My company captured Crucifix Hill the gateway for Germans to get reinforcements or to retreat. After several more days of fierce fighting the town surrendered and our division was sent into the Hurtgen Forest. This battle was a blood bath for both the Germans and for us. Once it's started it continued interrupted by the German breakthrough in the Battle of the Bulge and thus continued well after the Germans were driven back. It was the longest continuous infantry engagement of any American force in history.

My last battle I was an Infantry Rifleman and scout. My G Company of the 18th Regiment First Infantry Davison was advancing in the Hurtgen Forest near the village of Eisweiler, Germany. It was November 22, 1944. There was about three inches of snow. My major job as a scout in an attack was to lead the squad and frankly to draw enemy fire to assess German defenses. At times my job also was to maintain contact with American units to the right and to the left to be sure that we did not tangle and fire on each other. The forest was still dense but under almost constant artillery fire from both sides. The German units had time to dig deep defenses as this area was part of the support system of the famed Siegfried Line. This was the great barrier designed to protect the German home front.

The Germans were falling back upon their supply lines and we were moving farther away from ours. This put new strains upon our supplies of fuel and ammunition and all the necessities of war. These came from the United States, crossed the English Channel and were transferred by floating trucks called Ducks from Omaha Beach in France and shipped by Red Ball Express to the front.. Our morale was high. We were winning. German morale was low. They were now fighting for their survival and their hope lay in the belief that their secret weapons like the rockets, jet aircraft and super tanks would lead to victory. They also hoped that the allies would break up and join the Germans in fighting Russian communism.

My immediate concerns in my tiny part in a great war were to be an effective scout for my comrades and in the process to keep from getting killed. On that day we started at first light and were under constant artillery and motor fire. The greatest terror however was the presence of land mines. They were of two kinds. The large ones were designed to blow up tanks. The smaller ones were anti-personnel. They are designed to mostly inflict terrible wounds. The favorite of the Germans was the “Jumping Mine”. This was made of wood and designed to leap a few feet into the air before it exploded. It inflicted wood fragments that were difficult to detect on X-rays. They caused loss of arms and legs. However our greatest fear was the loss of manhood.

The simplest things in combat become major problems. For example, just moving in an attack, we were burdened with sixty or more pounds of weapons and ammunition. In addition we were in heavy woolen uniforms and back packs with food and blankets. It was freezing cold and yet with the slightest motion we were soaked wet with perspiration. Our feet and most of our bodies were constantly wet and our feet swollen.
Profound fear was constant. Strangely enough the great antidote for fear for me was my sense of duty to be a good soldier and proud member of my Division. My life depended on my comrades and their lives depended upon me. This can only be understood by those who have experienced combat. It is a bond that helps you keep your sanity.
There is another great factor for survival in infantry combat. It is profound fatigue. It becomes almost like a drug. It deadens your senses to the extent that you can do terrible things with ease; things that would be impossible were you rested. The Army clearly understood these from the get go. There is a mandatory training film called “Kill or Be Killed”. It is posted everywhere in the training camps but is not needed on the battle field.

We moved through the forest parallel to a narrow dirt road. We drew machine gun and mortar fire most of the day. We lost many men. We also eliminated several fortified places took some prisoners and inflicted casualties. As the day progressed more and more of the trees were destroyed by artillery from both sides. Shells that burst in a tree are terrifying because the blast and shrapnel rain down on you. An open top fox hole is no protection. We suffered enormous casualties most of whom were brand new replacements. It seemed to me that this day would never end. Dark comes as a blessing to all infantry men. The forward motion comes to a halt. .It is now time to dig a fox hole and cover it with wooded branches to afford some protection from the constant shelling.
Certain men become vital to your survival. They seem to know more about war than
do you They are leaders who you know have your best interest at heart. In war your salvation depends on obedience to orders. However, you have far more respect to a comand when you admire the man who is giving it. My hero was Staff Sergeant Bodner. He was very private and I don’t even know his first name.
I do know that he landed with the First Infantry Division in North Africa. He was in the assault force in the invasion of Sicily and on D-Day in Normandy. He was very proud of our BIG RED ONE. He had been at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia and felt a profound sense of loss not so much that the division was overwhelmed by German tanks but that some of the soldiers ran in panic.

We had come to the end of the winding forest road where it entered into a large open space. There was a bank about 12 feet high on one side of the road. Bodner asked me to help him lay two large anti tank mines at the head of the road. The earth was frozen solid so we lay the mines on the surface and covered them with snow so that they would not be visible to approaching Panzers. The two of us then climbed to the top of the bank and together dug a shallow fox hole. Somehow we dug through the frozen ground and the roots of a tree. I carried a bag of six rifle antitank grenades. These were about six inches long and fired from my M1 rifle. It is fitted at the muzzle and requires disassembling the rifle and taking a rifle cartridge, removing the bullet and plugging the tip with soap. Once the rifle is fitted it cannot be fired as a rifle until it is refitted.

It was a terrible night. The artillery increased in intensity and the trees were cut down like wheat in the field. Our hole was down maybe three feet and we had a couple of limbs over the top. The war finally caught up with Sergeant Bodner. At the height of one barrage he said he was going to cross over the road to the basement of a burned out barn. He was determined. I got on top of him and held him in our position until dawn. It was a struggle and Bodner started to break up. Somehow I kept him down but just at day light he won. He broke loose and jumped out and ran towards the barn.

I opened a can of C ration and took one bite when I went black. I was unconscious. When I came to I was outside the fox hole and could see that it was appeared to be a mortar hit. My first view was my left hand. It was swollen and looked more like a piece of meat than a hand. The snow was bright red and I realized that I had lost a lot of blood. I felt blood flowing form my shoulder and down my back. It was obvious that the Germans had spotted our position and I had better move.

I crawled back from the edge. There were more mortar rounds and continuous shelling. As I started back to the command post a replacement the Lieutenant who I did not recognize took one look at me and asked it I could make it unaided to the aid station which he said had been established up the dirt road in the basement bottom of a burned out farm building. I told him I could. I started to move through the snow toward the road when another barrage started. There was slight depression in the snow and I dived for it. At that instance our runner Harry Kolasa came and stumbled in on top of me. At that instance a huge shell hit the tree above and huge pieces of steel hit Harry in the back and killed him instantly. I was covered with his blood and mine.

I next staggered to the road and followed in an old tank track careful not to get out to the rut and hit a land mine. I also had a separate fear that I might pass out in the snow and freeze to death.
I managed to reach the aid station with the great relief in my knowledge that once there my chances of survival were excellent. In the next 18 months I served temporarily as limited service in France and Germany to relive our crowded hospitals. At he wars ended I returned to rehabilitation. I had surgeries and rehabilitation in Germany, Belgium, England and France and three American hospitals. My left hand was partially restored as were my other wounds. I was discharged June 14 1946 after slightly over three years service.


[ add comment ] ( 6 views ) permalink

<< <Back | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Next> >>