Remembering Uncommon Valor, NIght Patrol by Sam Ballinger
Night Patrol by
Samuel W. Ballinger, Company E, 328th IR, 26th ID
My story begins during the frigid, snowy days in early December 1944 when I was a 23 year old Corporal whose outfit was billeted in the University City of Metz in southeast France, which is about halfway between Luxembourg and the City of Nancy, also located in France. As a member of General Patton’s Third Army, 26th Infantry Division, 328th Regiment, Company E, my outfit was taking special training to crack through the German Siegfried Line. The famed 26th Division was called the Yankee Division was a very well respected battle-hardened Division.
On December 16,1944 about seventy-five (75) miles north of Metz the Germans launched a major surprise attack. The German strategy was to separate the Americans in the South and the other allied armies in the North. Their primary target was to take the busy allied supply port at Antwerp. This was, of course was Hitler’s last desperate attempt. The well-trained and heavily armed Panzer divisions advanced and created a Bulge in our lines as they had pushed their way to Bastogne, Belgium.
The 26th Infantry Division, Yankee Division, learned on the night of December 19 that it was going to take part in what future historians will probably describe as one of the most important strategic maneuvers of Gen George S. Patton Jr.’s Third U.S. Army. We moved from the area of Metz and the Saar basin to the virtually unprotected flank being opened by the new German counter-attack at the north around Bastogne and the Sure River. It was a lightning-like maneuver and we moved so quickly that we even took a truckload of German POWs. There simply wasn’t time to dispose of them through channels, before taking off.
The cloudy weather actually helped. If the Germans had air out, they would have slaughtered the long bumper- to- bumper troop movement. MPs kept the heavy traffic moving. The speed paid off. The Third Army reached its new assembly areas less than 24 hours later and went into action against the surprised Germans within the next two days. General Patton’s Third Army stopped the enemy advance and relieved the exhausted American Forces that were defending the critical crossroads at the besieged city of Bastogne. The 101st Airborne Division that defended the city was completely surrounded.
My outfit had arrived at an area between Arlon, Belgium and the small village of Eschdorf, Luxembourg. My little world so to speak was the foxhole of an infantryman. I recall how the engineers came to our assistance and set off quarter (1/4) lb. blocks of TNT to break open the ground so we could dig foxholes. My story took place near a small village called Eschdorf, Luxembourg where my outfit was located. Luxembourg is a small country situated just southeast of Belgium; it’s on the German border, only a dot on the map; but a memory in my heart that has haunted me for over sixty years.
On December 22th or 23rd two or three days before Christmas day, I was on a night patrol to locate the enemy. The Germans also had their own patrols. The night was dark, dreary and extremely cold. The frozen snow responded with a crunch as we worked their way through the midnight darkness. All patrols were supposed to be led by an officer, usually a Lieutenant; however, many officers had become casualties and replacements seldom arrived. The night patrol that horrendous night consisted of a Staff Sergeant, a Corporal, (Sam Ballinger), and a PFC, (Bill Elgrim). I had been in the front line for 68 straight days and had only known two Lieutenants in my Company E. The first one was killed when a sniper shot him, right in the Gold Bar on his helmet. The second just disappeared!
We proceeded to search for and locate the enemy, not to engage them. The frigid night cut through our clothing and our feet and hands were almost numb. The Ml rifle is heavy enough; but carrying It felt like a ton. Keeping our rifles and equipment quiet during the windy and swirling snow became an awesome problem. An occasional moonbeam threatened to reveal our omniscient presence; at times shadows were all around us adding to their fearsome experience. Whose shadows was the big question? We could only see silhouettes. Our overcoats, gloves and regular garrison army shoes and leggings barely did the job. We did not have the combat boots that many of the GI’s in the rear echelon had. At this point we had not been re-supplied. So on we went with poor equipment, only an Ml rifle and one hand grenade each.
As we carefully maneuvered through the evergreen trees, the thought of Christmas and a tree at home became embraced in my thoughts. It was quickly suppressed as the night sounds filled his brain. The frigid weather can do many things; it absolutely disgusted me. My feet and hands became so very cold. I knew that 1 had better shake the ’’I’ll be home for Christmas”, thoughts. Was my family thinking about me amid their Christmas decorations? Did he survive? Is he living in some bombed out city? Where is he?
After we had advanced beyond the evergreens, we went down and then up a steep ravine that had a frozen ditch at the bottom. That really tired us. We were only in out first thirty minutes of the patrol and we all felt the fatigue. We trudged on until we came to a narrow road that was lined with European type concrete utility poles. They served as our landmarks because everything was just all white or black. We were unable to make out any details or features. We only knew where we were by reading road signs; no one could tell us. After we followed the utility poles for about 45 minutes, we heard a loud vehicle approaching us from behind and coming around a curve in the road. Instinctively we dove into the roadside ditch and we were covered with snow, inside and out. We noticed the cross on the enemy half-track as it roared by.
We were not spotted. The ditch was deep and covered with wintered shrubs; they stopped our fall. After sometime, we finally got up and now we were really cold because the snow had fallen down our backs; but we had to continue. We shook with shivers from the cold and fear and checked our weapons. We realized that the enemy half-track was most probably on patrol the same as they.
When we got back onto the road and after a few more miles, we heard another vehicle approaching. Now there was no ditch to dive into so we ran as fast as we could through the heavy snow, across a small field and into the forest. This wasn’t a good night!
Wow, good heavens, it was like diving into a hornet s nest. All of a sudden it seemed like the whole damned German army was camped there. The sharp, snapping sounds of bullets started flying everywhere. We got separated and ran further into the woods, back toward our lines. As we ran, we stumbled and smashed into trees as the incessant fire continued. Wild enemy bullets and grenades snapped off the snow that covered the evergreen branches above our heads. While we were in the hollow, we knew that the Germans were cm both sides on us, with a ridge between us.
The firing continued. Bullets were whizzing by just over our heads. “I didn’t even have time to think that we had found the enemy and we had done our job”, he said. Having been separated from his Staff Sergeant and PFC Bill Elgrim, I finally came to an opening in ihc forest when I saw a dark form of a man with his rifle pointed in his direction. I quickly raised my rifle and it seems that the two of us were frozen in this position. We didn’t know if we were friend or toe. 1 finally noticed the outline of an American helmet and then called out “Elgrim”. An equally scared voice answered, “Ballinger” what a relief the sight of his rifle pointed at me, to this day often keeps me awake.
Apparently my Sergeant had run into the woods first. Most probably the Sergeant thought himself to be a bigger target. It’s only a guess; in any event he never appeared again. Our only conclusion was that the Sergeant was now among the missing in action. We never heard of him again. At this point, now we were all fired up with adrenalin. It’s strange how the body chemistry can cause a person to rise to an occasion. All of a sudden we felt warm; yet we still shivered. We trudged along the several miles back to our CP. Upon our arrival we were cold, relieved, hungry, exhausted and our feet were freezing. We now knew where the enemy was and our ranking officers could plan a strategy of attack or defend ourselves, the patrol had been a success!
Subsequent to receiving our reconnaissance information, the officers’ plan of attack was initiated. We did not rest long. The very next night we attacked the village of Eschdorf which was another almost fatal time for me in this Bulge Campaign. Later, the village of Bar-Le-Duc a few miles southeast of Metz became my new home. I was in an American Hospital with frozen feet.