Three Stories in the Battle of the Bulge

(Arriving in France on December 9, 1944 at age 19 years, Thomas Krebs was bivouacked December 11 in Yvetot, France.)  We were totally unaware of a surprise German Army offensive on Dec. 16th.  They launched a massive breakthrough into the Ardennes Forest in Eastern Belgium, driving for Antwerp and hoping to split the Allied Forces. The 75th Division originally planned to join the 9th Army and was redirected to the First Army.  Time was a crucial factor.  We were loaded on trucks and traveled 250 miles to Belgium, arriving at a forward defense area in the vicinity of Biron Belgium. We spent the night of Dec. 23 and 24 there, billeted in a barn attached to a home.  Christmas Eve we marched into NY where the cooks had set up hot chow in large containers, along a bend in the road.  This was our first real meal in 3 days.  Just as I approached the beginning of the line, an officer rolled up in a Jeep and ordered the cooks to put it away.  We were moving out!

We were hurriedly assembled and told to move out immediately and that we were moving up to the front lines.  Everything seemed to be in a state of chaos.  I had no idea of where we were and had no maps to guide us.  After some semblance of order was restored, we move out a road (probably the Road from NY to Sur-Les-Hys).  It was dark and cold, we walked for an hour or more and were told to turn around, and apparently we were not in the right position for attack on a hill called LaRoumiere.  We could hear bursts of artillery fire and small arms fire off in the distance.  It seemed to take forever to get to our line of departure.  We moved down a steep slope and crossed a small stream.  Things continued to be disorganized and contact was lost between flanking Platoons.  Patrols were sent out to establish contact.  When contact was finally made, we regrouped in the tree line along a road that fronted on La Roumiere.

We began the attack at daybreak crossing the frozen snow-covered field.  As we got about 50 yards out, all hell broke loose and the Jerries laid down a field of fire with machine guns.  Bullets were flying everywhere, I kept moving forward and firing short bursts from my BAR.  I kept hitting the ground, firing, getting up again to advance.  I passed by several fallen comrades but could not stop to help because of the hail of fire.  I finally reached the tree line where there was some protection from the trees and brush.  I could not visibly locate the enemy as they were pretty well concealed.  I looked around to see where the rest of our platoon was and was shocked to see only one other GI who I’d never seen before.  We were all alone in this heavily wooded area with machine gun and small arms fire whizzing over our heads.  We kept on firing in the direction of their fire until our ammo ran out.  The Jerries began to drop in mortar shells around us.  We got out of there in a hurry.  Then we worked our way over to a small draw in the hillside where we found an officer (1st Lieutenant) badly wounded.  I did not recognize him but we struggled to get him to a safer location.  Sometime during this period, several machine gun bursts came in our direction and I got clipped in the neck.  Fortunately, no vital arteries were hit and it was just a flesh would.  We managed to drag the 1st Lieutenant down near to the road and found a medic who patched up the Lieutenant who was bleeding badly from a shoulder and leg wound.  The medic then pointed the way to the Battalion aid Station.  When I got to the Aid Station the doctor treated my neck wound and gave me sulfa drugs.  He also treated my feet, which were frost bitten.  While at the Aid Station, word was received that another successful attack on La Roumiere was made on the afternoon of Dec. 25th. They released me about noon on the 26th and I returned, along with several others, to my squad, which was now dug in at the crest of La Roumiere.  We remained in this defensive position for several days, driving off several German attacks trying to regain that ground.

The capture of LaRoumiere was a major victory for “L” Company and prevented further penetration of the German Army in its drive to split the allied forces.  “L” Co and “K” Co paid a very heavy price to secure this area.  Our losses were about 50 percent.  Our L Company lost our Company Commander and several non-com platoon and squad leaders.  After this battle, I was very happy to be alive.  Most people don’t understand what it’s like to be a soldier in the infantry rifle company.  With all the training, I was not prepared for this experience.  Nothing can prepare you for the reality of war.  Under hellish conditions it was a life-changing experience.  One I will never forget.”

(Thomas J. Krebs died in November 2012, after attending our special WW II Veterans party September 7, 2012.)

John Jamele was a radio operator in the headquarters section of the 7th Armored Division: “We were in Germany in early December 1944 when we received orders to move back to Belgium, which we did in three days.  The German offensive had started.  On Christmas Eve it was very cold and we linked up with the 75th Infantry Division.  There was not much sleeping then.” On December 16, 1944 The 7th Armored Division was transferred to U.S. First Army and ordered to St. Vith, Belgium, a critical road and rail center needed by the Germans to supply their offensive.  Over the course of almost a week, the 7th (along with elements of the 106th and 28th Infantry Divisions and 9th Armored Division) absorbed much of the weight of the German drive, throwing the German timetable into great disarray, before being forced to withdraw west of the Salm River on 23 December. The Division moved to the area of Manhay, Belgium, and by the end of December had cleared the town of the enemy. They were then relieved by the 75th Infantry Division. After a brief rest in January 1945, the Division returned to positions near St. Vith, attacked, and re-captured the town on 23 January 1945.

(John Jamele died May 25, 2011 with a memorial mass was held by Rev. Msgr George J. Ryan at St Anastasia Roman Catholic Church in Douglaston, NY, with military and NYFD firefighters as pallbearers.)

After the breakout from Normandy at the end of July 1944 and the landings in southern France on 15 August 1944, the Allies advanced toward Germany more quickly than anticipated. The speed of the Allied advance coupled with an initial lack of deep-water ports presented the Allies with enormous supply problems. The only deep-water port the Allies had captured was Cherbourg, near the original invasion beaches, but the Germans had thoroughly wrecked and mined the harbor before it could be taken. The Allies captured the port of Antwerp, Belgium, fully intact, in the first days of September, but it was not operational until 28 November. The limitations led to differences between General Dwight D. Eisenhower (the Supreme Allied Commander) and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery over whether Montgomery or American General Omar Bradley in the south would get priority access to supplies. Allied troops were fatigued by weeks of continuous combat, with supply lines stretched extremely thin. While the supply situation improved in October, the manpower situation was still critical. General Eisenhower chose the Ardennes region, held by the First United States Army, as an area that could be held by as few troops as possible. The Ardennes were chosen because of a lack of operational objectives for the Allies, terrain offering good defensive positioning, and the Germans were using the area to the east as a rest-and-refit area.

The Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945) was a major German offensive campaign launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the Western Front toward the end of World War II in Europe. The surprise attack caught the Allied forces completely off guard and became the costliest battle in terms of casualties for the United States, whose forces bore the brunt of the attack, during all of World War II. It also severely depleted Germany’s war-making resources. The Germans referred to it as Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”), while the French named it the Bataille des Ardennes (“Battle of the Ardennes”). The Allies called it the Ardennes Counteroffensive. The “Battle of the Bulge” was coined by the press to describe Allied front line bulging inward. The battle involved 610,000 American men, some 89,000 were casualties, including 19,000 killed, the bloodiest battle fought in World War II.

The German offensive was supported by several subordinate operations known as Unternehmen Bodenplatte, Greif, and Währung. Germany’s goal for these operations was to split the British and American Allied line in half, capture Antwerp, and then proceed to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, forcing the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis Powers’ favor. Once accomplished, Hitler could concentrate on the eastern theater of war. The offensive was planned with utmost secrecy, minimizing radio traffic and moving troops and equipment under cover of darkness. The Third U.S. Army’s intelligence staff predicted a major German offensive. Aircraft movement from the Russian Front and transport of forces by rail, both to the Ardennes, was noticed but not acted upon, per a report at the code-breaking center at Bletchley Park.

Near-complete surprise was achieved by a combination of Allied overconfidence, poor aerial reconnaissance, and heavily overcast weather conditions, which grounded the Allies’ superior air forces. Fierce resistance on the northern shoulder of the offensive around Elsenborn Ridge and in the south around Bastogne blocked German access to key roads. Both the 28th Infantry Division and the 110 Infantry Division were depleted as a fighting unit within two days.  The 82 Airborne Division, on reserve, was quickly moved to Werbomont to block the Kampfgrugge Peiper.  Combined with the paratroopers, they attacked the #2 Panzer Division whose mission was to seize fuel NW of Bastogne. The Germans then attacked Noville for fuel supplies, but were blocked by the M18 Hellcats of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, who used their 60 mph speed to get to a blocking position.  Improved weather conditions permitted air attacks on German forces and supply lines, which sealed the failure of the offensive. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were left severely depleted of men and equipment, as survivors retreated to the defenses of the Siegfried Line.

Tech Sergeant Henry I. Kogan was active in the field hospitals in the Battle of the Bulge.  Hank would sit in his son’s jewelry business in Van Aiken shopping strip and listen to my stories.  He would never speak personally of his WW II experiences, except to say that he kept his head down.  He often joked; when in preparation for his Honor Flight to the World War II Memorial in Arlington, VA, he was asked if he could walk 200 yards, he replied: “Certainly, just give me a couple of hours.”  Hank died on September 30, 2012, and is buried in Mt Olive Cemetery, Solon, Ohio.  (For Hank’s record see “Medical Support in the Battle of the Bulge” below.)

Medical Support in the Battle of the Bulge

VIII Corps, First U.S. Army, in the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge possessed an experienced medical support structure with the 64th Medical Group and its two separate medical battalions, the 169th Medical Battalion, acting as a corps medical battalion, three 400-bed semi-mobile evacuation hospitals (102d, 107th, and 110th), and one field hospital, the 42d. After completing operations with Ninth U.S. Army on the Brittany Peninsula in late September 1944, the VIII Corps moved to the area of southeastern Belgium, Luxembourg, and northeastern France. It remained when Headquarters, Ninth U.S. Army, transferred to First U.S. Army; the VIII Corps was again assigned on 22 October 1944.

Following the heavy fighting in the Hürtgen Forest under the V Corps, the 28th Infantry Division switched assignments with the VIII Corps’ 8th Infantry Division and moved into the quiet Ardennes sector in Luxembourg to recuperate and refit. Another switch brought to the corps the equally exhausted 4th Infantry Division, which replaced the 83d Infantry Division to the south of the 28th. In early December 1944, the VIII Corps added the recently arrived and green 106th Infantry Division, replacing the 2d Infantry Division and anchoring the link to the V Corps to the north, with the 28th in the middle and the 4th in the south tying in with the III Corps of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.’s Third U.S. Army. Armored support came from the 9th Armored Division, another untested division, which had one of its three combat commands (Combat Command B) temporarily on detached service with the V Corps as of early December. The 9th Armored Division’s remaining Combat Commands A and R (also called C) were located for general support behind the frontline infantry divisions, CC A in the south in the vicinity of Meysembourg, east of Mersch, Luxembourg, and CC R in the north in the area of Troisvierges and Asselborn, Luxembourg.

Col. Richard H. Eckhardt, MC, was the Surgeon, VIII Corps, located at Bastogne, Belgium, with the Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton and the corps headquarters after October 1944. The 64th Medical Group under Col. H. E. Zittel, MC, provided general medical support and evacuation services to the VIII Corps, First U.S. Army. The 580th Ambulance Company was charged with evacuating the 28th Infantry Division clearing sections at Wiltz, Clervaux, and Ettelbrück; Hospitalization Unit No. 1, 42d Field Hospital, at Wiltz; the 635th Medical Clearing Company (VIII Corps) at Troisvierges; and the 106th Infantry Division clearing station at St. Vith. The second ambulance company, the 581st, was charged with evacuating Hospitalization Unit No. 3 and 106th Infantry Division clearing station at St. Vith, Belgium; CC R, 9th Armored Division, at Asselborn; and the 107th Evcuation Hospital outside of Clervaux. The 419th Medical Collecting Company was attached to the 102d Evacuation Hospital at Ettelbrück providing ambulance and litter bearer support and operating prophylactic stations at Arlon and Bastogne, Belgum. The final element of the 240th Medical Battalion was the 42d Field Hospital whose headquarters was co-located with Hospitalization Unit No. 3 near St. Vith supporting the clearing station, Company D, 331st Medical Battalion, 106th Infantry Division. Each of the 42d Field Hospital’s units was augmented with special trauma surgical teams from the 3d Auxiliary Surgical Group (Third Aux). The auxiliary surgical group was composed of 64 hand-picked surgical teams, consisting of 2-3 surgeons, one anesthesiologist/anesthetist, 1-2 nurses, and 2-3 surgical technicians, which were dispatched to field hospitals to augment them during major combat operations to handle non-transportable casualties.

The VIII Corps’s extended frontline force Col. Eckhardt to disperse his resources along the front. Ambulance support and the 3d Hospitalization Unit, 42d Field Hospital, were at St. Vith in support of the clearing station of the 106th’s 331st Medical Battalion. Due to the 28th Infantry Division’s long frontage, its 103d Medical Battalion was split into an unusual configuration of three clearing station sections at Clervaux, Ettelbrück, and Wiltz, Luxembourg. The 1st Hospitalization Unit, 42d Field Hospital, was located in the girl’s boarding school in the Chateau in Wiltz, and the 581st Ambulance Company provided evacuation support to both the 103d Medical Battalion clearing section and the Hospitalization Unit No. 1. The 2d Hospitalization Unit, 42d Field Hospital, was located at Walferdange, Luxembourg, and supported the 4th Infantry Division.

John T. Greenwood, Ph.D., Office of The Surgeon General, U. S. Army