- Chapter 1 -
THE BATTLE AT MONCEL
he following letter describes one battle in which the casualty rate was representative enough to explain the figures I have just mentioned. Stephen Ambrose personally put a copy of this letter in the Eisenhower collection at the University of New Orleans.
January 16, 1945
Now that I am on the way home, I can tell you about some of the battles in which G Company engaged without causing you to worry about my safety. Lest you be concerned about censorship, let me begin by assuring you that what is described in such detail here took place many months ago, and hundreds of miles from where our troops are now, so security regulations no longer apply.
The 79th Division has been involved in three campaigns, those of Normandy, France, and Germany. The campaign in Normandy was terminated when our troops made a breakthrough in the latter part of July and fanned out to the West across the Brest Peninsular and to the East across France. The next series of actions were known as the French Campaign, which terminated when our Armies first entered Germany. The German Campaign is still in progress. The fight for Moncel, described here, was part of the French Campaign and took place in September when we were in General Patton's Third Army, involved in gradually driving the Germans out of the Northeastern part of France.
Moncel is a small village of perhaps twenty-five houses, but it was significant as the dominating point on the flank of the larger Division objective, which was the important city of Luneville. We expected to have to fight for the place, but after we had "jumped off" in what we thought was an attack, word came through our portable radio that the 1st Battalion had already moved in from another direction. So it was just a matter of walking across a series of fields, making a precarious river crossing on a partially blown up bridge and taking up a defensive position. An extended artillery barrage came over as we did this, but the Germans had no point of observation, and most of their rounds fell harmlessly in a neighboring field. A shift of two hundred yards in their fire direction would have dropped the shells right on us.
Setting up a defense for the town was a simple proposition. We tied in with the 2nd Battalion on the right and with E Company on the left, spreading our men along a railroad track where a high embankment offered protection. I was the weapons' platoon leader at the time, and put our machine guns along the main line of resistance and the three mortars in a position to the rear of the embankment where they could fire over the heads of the riflemen.
A few prisoners had been taken in town, but a large force of the Germans had retired to a wooded area about four hundred yards away. An enemy tank, partially concealed in the woods, fired at us with its machine guns, killing a G Company boy. One of our Sergeants spotted it and pointed out the silhouette and gun flashes to the commander of a Tank Destroyer. We heard the Tank Destroyer officer exclaim, "Yeah, I see the son of a bitch; let's get him." He eased his tank up the embankment, moving slowly to avoid the necessity of gunning his motor and giving away the position by noise, until the turret and gun were above the top. Then he opened fire.
My Filipino runner and I were close by watching the proceedings, as the high-velocity gun of the Tank Destroyer blasted away with incredible noise, and the officer yelled corrections to his gunner. Louis, the runner, was shouting out, "Geeve eet to heem" and cheering for our team, but our interest in remaining there diminished when we heard a new, very loud noise and saw the corner of a house not twelve yards behind us absolutely disintegrate and fall to the ground in rubble and dust. The German tank was firing back with its 88, the most dreaded of the enemy weapons. The shell which destroyed the building passed between the Tank Destroyer and us. An infinitesimal change in the tank's aiming device would have landed it on us. Or if it had hit on the embankment rather than passing over, it would have exploded and sent jagged pieces of steel shrapnel in all directions, including ours. It was a close escape.
Louis and I took off, but we got tangled up in some fallen telephone wires and fell down. We got up, started to run again and fell once more. It was a regular Keystone comedy act, but was only amusing in retrospect. The G.I.'s won the duel. We inspected the German tank several days later and found the turret blown off.
Far down the railroad track we could see another German tank, its gun pointed at us, beyond the range of the Tank Destroyer gun. Beyond that, as it grew dusk, we could see tracers flying back and forth.
Another regiment was making a river crossing, and suffering heavily in the process. The Germans let them put two companies across unopposed, to trap them, then blasted the bridge-head and the men with everything they had, and it was only after considerable loss of men and hard fighting that they were able to push ahead.
I started to dig a hole for protection in which I would have slept for the night, but the ground was very hard, and it seemed like too much work. So, I rationalized myself into feeling justified in going back to sleep at the company command post, which was in a house, thinking that I could return immediately should action start, but also realizing that I would not have a hole dug for protection. I was glad of my decision later. The 1st Sergeant made an excellent bed for us on the floor of a house from which the inhabitants had long since departed for safer quarters. He appropriated down quilts for the purpose, and we slept more warmly and comfortably than we had for weeks. Of greater importance, I found out the next morning that during the night an enemy shell landed four yards from where I had planned to sleep and blew up an E Company mortar. As a German 88 shell had a reputed killing radius of 17 yards, it is very doubtful that I would have survived an explosion of jagged steel shrapnel that close. One American soldier said the 88 made more Christians than Peter and Paul put together.
The dreaded German 88 gun on a destroyed tank
We expected a Jerry counterattack, and we were right. The troops opposing us were a Panzer outfit, and they never gave anything up without a hell of a fight and they always tried to take back whatever they might have lost. Morning arrived and with it German artillery, more accurate than that of the previous evening. Their machine guns and rifles opened up also, and we knew the attack had begun when we heard the distinctive crack caused by the air vacuum of bullets passing by our ears. Soon there was so much noise you could only talk by yelling in each other's ears, as shells came in and shells went out, and small arms rattled everywhere. Every man wore that hard, tense look which came from the grim knowledge that this might be the attack in which the Germans would overrun our positions.
It was a foggy morning which was to our disadvantage because it prevented us from using our superior and more active artillery effectively, the observation being practically nil. Furthermore, it allowed the enemy rifleman and tanks to get right up on us before we could fire our rifles with any accuracy.
Because of lack of observation our mortars were useless, and the machine gunners knew how to handle their positions themselves. So the Captain told me to go to the command post, which was a house in the town perhaps seventy-five yards from the embankment, and handle the phone system.
One of our platoons was in a group of buildings which extended on the other side of the railroad track, separated from the rest of the troops by a short but exposed area. Their position was not far enough away to be considered an outpost, but the very fact that it was part of the main line of defense made it all the more precarious, because it had to be held at all cost and could not be abandoned in case of superior attack as an outpost could. We had a sound power telephone communicating with Lt. Taylor, the leader of this platoon, and it was my job to relay artillery fire orders from him through the battalion telephone system. Also, I passed on information concerning the situation in our section, and in turn found out what was known at battalion and at the other company command posts. One of the first things Lt. Taylor said when I got on the phone was, "They've come so close, we could spit on them, if we could see 'em. The boys are shooting plenty, though, and we can hear 'em screaming." I could hear the boys "shooting plenty" through the phone system.
Lt. Taylor called for artillery fire. He couldn't see more than a few feet, but he guessed from the direction of the German attack that they were approaching down a neck of woods which he had observed the previous afternoon. I worked out the coordinates from the aerial photographic map we had in the command post allowing for a safety factor. These were relayed to the artillery fire direction center, and pretty soon the first shell hit. I could hear over the phone as it was fired by the artillery, then as it passed overhead, and then as it exploded at its destination. It sounded to Taylor to be too far to the right and too far away, so he gave a correction. After eight or ten preliminary rounds, during which he made the proper adjustments, he called for a barrage. We could hear the rounds sizzling overhead and crashing out to the front.
As an aside, artillery was supposed to be directed by a forward observer officer from their troops. I only saw such an officer once. We infantry officers had not been taught in training to direct artillery fire, but we learned on the job and got very good at it as can be observed from Lt. Taylor's success.
"That's swell. Let's have some more," Taylor said, and the artillery boys complied with the relayed request. Then he shifted the fire to the right and then to the right some more for further barrages. Whether that particular shoot was effective or not we did not know, but after two days of such firing, the ground to the front was littered with enemy dead when we eventually did take it, and later, when 37 prisoners came tumbling out of one house, the first thing one of them said was, "Amerikaner artillerie nix gut."
A runner came to say that German tanks were approaching our left platoon; they could hear the rumble indicating they were close, but they could see nothing. My mortar section sergeant grabbed a bazooka and crawled forward. A tank came into view not more than twenty-five yards from our position, but before he could fire, a neighboring regimental anti-tank gun blasted it to pieces and burned up the crew. Another tank was knocked out a hundred yards away, and two or three more on the left flank. Altogether we knocked out seven, which is a good morning's work for a regiment.
Suddenly, I could hear Lt. Taylor yelling "Jesus Christ, they're behind us."
"How do you know they're behind you."
"I can hear burp-guns, and the bullets are coming this way." (A "burp-gun" is the name given with GI humor to the very effective German machine gun which was fired in bursts.)
I told the Captain about the situation and then relayed orders, "The Captain says that E Company and the rest of G would take care of any Jerries that get to your rear. Stick to your guns and beat off any attack to the front." Taylor said that, of course, he'd stick to his guns, but he wasn't at all happy about the situation.
Enemy artillery continued to plow up the fields, batter the buildings, and explode in the streets around us. During one of the barrages, a man in my platoon went out of his mind. We were all pretty jumpy from an extended period in the lines, but the final strain which was too much for his sanity was a letter which told of his brother's being killed in the South Pacific. While artillery was landing all around, he jumped out of his hole and started running in circles screaming. The platoon sergeant tackled him and held him down until the shelling temporarily ceased; then he was taken back to the aid station.
Taylor called for more artillery. The tempo of the battle was increasing as our own machine guns fired more steadily, and Jerry's return fire increased proportionately. The climax came when a very matter of fact sounding voice reported over the battalion system that the enemy had cut us off from the rest of the Division. A force, something larger than a platoon, had been put on the flank to maintain contact between us and the main troops of the Division, but they had been annihilated by the enemy and the contact severed. They fought hard, using a walled graveyard as a defensive position, but the attack was too strong, and several of our boys were killed and about twenty captured. Further information came to the effect that the enemy had crossed the river to our rear, and as the fog cleared, we realized that we might find ourselves surrounded.
With the return of visibility, I gave the phone to the 1st Sgt. and went forward to establish a mortar observation post. I passed several Frenchmen who had issued forth from their cellars to put out fires which enemy shells had started in the town. An antiquated hand pump was in operation, and also a bucket brigade. But the fire, usually the center of attraction in any town, was a minor show that day. Men wearing helmets and carrying ammunition passed men wearing berets and carrying water buckets, and neither paid any attention to the other.
My mortar section sergeant and I unreeled telephone wire as we went which would allow us to communicate from a forward observation post to the mortars in the rear. We sought the protection of the embankment as we worked our way to an appropriate place from which to advance. We lay there for a few minutes, getting our bearings, then sprang up and dashed forward across the open area. A stream of bullets cut through the air somewhere near us, but neither of us was hit, and we gained the protection of a house. We arrived in time for another enemy thrust at our position and found ourselves in the midst of sweating riflemen, yelling sergeants, and an active fire fight. Jumping from doorway to doorway, crawling behind a low stone wall, and still unreeling telephone wire, we made our way to the forward-most house of the group. The second story window of this house made an admirable observation post, giving a clear view of all the ground to the front. The first thing we saw was a pile of dead Nazis lying in unnatural positions, perhaps forty yards away. We unreeled our wire up the stairs, attached the phone and established contact with the mortar crew to our rear.
Several days later after the enemy departed I looked back from two German machine gun emplacements and found that the window of the house and the door through which we walked in and out were in plain sight. Why they did not blast our position during the two days we were there, I do not know; I later asked a prisoner, but got no satisfactory answer. A tank did throw a couple of 88 armor piercing shells into a water tank twenty yards away, but that did little harm beside increasing our pulse and blood pressure.
The more the fog cleared, the less firing there was, until finally only a few sporadic shots were heard. It became clear that the German attack had failed. A line of burnt tanks and corpses marked how far it had progressed, and though it was close at points, except for the break on the flank, where our men were captured, there had not been any other penetration. The Germans, realizing their failure, had withdrawn from across the river and removed the threat to the rear. Immediately after it became clear that the enemy had not been successful, the order came for us to attack!
All of G Company was to move into the forward section of houses preparatory to the "jump off". While waiting for H hour, when we would move out in the attack, I had an artillery shoot. Some Germans were spotted on the edge of a long stretch of woods to the right front and I called for artillery to be laid down along the edge of the trees. It was a difficult problem to adjust, because the woods ran at an oblique angle in relation to my position, and therefore, each gun of the battery had to fire at a different range. Undoubtedly, I wasted some rounds in the adjustment, but it was a satisfying sight eventually to see the barrage land just right and blast the enemy position. I asked for a concentration number so we could shoot the barrage again which we did several times.
H hour came; the men spread out in an extended formation and started out across the fields to our front. As they advanced, the sergeant and I searched for targets on which to drop shells as we directed the mortars to the rear. The G.I.'s got half way across the field when burp guns seemed to open up from everywhere. It was the Germans' turn to do the real damage. Our boys tried to return the fire and continue to advance - the captain kept yelling "Keep moving" over the walkie-talkie to the platoon leader out there - but their movement was easily picked up in the open field, and they only had rifles and a couple of automatic rifles with which to fire back, whereas the Jerries had several machine guns in good camouflaged positions. They pinned the G.I.'s there, and holding them with small arms fire, threw in artillery as well.
The sergeant and I detected a German gun from its muzzle flash, and the sergeant gave the command over the phone to the mortar crew, "l,000 yards, azimuth 172, 1 round." The first round was short, but very little off as far as deflection was concerned. After two more corrections, a shell hit right beside the Jerry hole and three men got up and ran to the rear. The sergeant gave an immediate order and dropped shells at 25 yard intervals farther back in the woods, in the direction in which the men were running. We found a corpse there later.
When it became clear that the riflemen could not advance against the superior fire, and that, if they remained where they were, they would be annihilated by artillery, they began to come back. Running in short dashes, or crawling along the ground, each man reached safety the best way he could. Some never made it. It was not until much later that a sergeant dragging a wounded man returned.
The captain was not there at the time, so I was called to the radio to take orders from the battalion commander who told me to relay orders to attack again. The captain had tried before me, and I tried again, to explain to him that the enemy had superior fire power and better positions, and that unless we had a coordinated attack with plenty of well-directed artillery or considerable support on our flanks, we could not take our objective. A frontal assault would not work. But he said, from his safe command post in the rear, he would court martial me and every other officer in the company if his order was not obeyed, so it was my painful duty to order the men out again.
This time the G.I.'s advanced down a line of trees, the same ones the Germans had used that morning, in the hope of keeping their movements concealed. But Jerry was ready and must have opened up with five machine guns right down the length of the woods. The results were fatal, and it was clear the attack had been a mistake. A lieutenant, perhaps the best junior officer in the battalion, was killed, as well as others. The G.I.'s executed a "strategic withdrawal", pouring out of the woods at a dead run to the rear.
This letter has become much longer than I had intended, for it was not my purpose to get into the endless series of attacks which followed the repulse of the Germans at Moncel. Suffice it to say that we took our next objective, and a great many more after that. On that particular occasion, the plan which worked was put into effect the next day. Our battalion indulged in "Chinese fireworks", that is, threw a lot of distracting fire at the enemy in an effort to pin him down, but more importantly to make him think we were making an attack. Actually, with the help of a great deal of artillery, a battalion on our right made the attack, which was very successful. They even captured a tank with the motor still running and the radio turned on. This battalion set up a defensive position. We moved through them into the attack again, swung to the left and achieved our original objective.
The outstanding thing about the attack, that I recall, was that an artillery shell, one of our own "shorts", exploded close to me. We were in a wooded area where the trees muffled the sound of incoming shells, and we did not hear them in time to hit the ground. Standing as we were made us vulnerable. The shell which hit close to me threw dirt in my eyes, but, incredibly no shrapnel. Pvt. Pitts, from Palmetto, Georgia, had an equally narrow escape. A six inch piece of jagged steel shrapnel, its force almost entirely spent by ricocheting around the trees, tore through his clothes and lay warm on his stomach without breaking the skin.
My fine, trusted Sgt. Papadakos was lying on his back propped up on his elbows. "Lieutenant," he said, "I can't move my legs." Some men turned him over. There was a gaping hole in his back. His spine had been severed.
We left Sgt. Papadakos there. We had to. The attack had to go on. Our expectation was that he would be found by the medical corpsmen who followed our attacks, and sometimes mixed in them, and who found the wounded by their cries of "Medic! Medic!" Sgt. Papadakos later died.
Despite constant replacements, Company G was far from full strength before arriving at Moncel. Taking into account the killed and wounded, the 20 men captured and the man who went out of his mind, we lost over a quarter of the remaining company in the engagement at Moncel. The Germans lost far more than we did, which was consistently the case.
We moved out for a series of similar experiences in France and Belgium.