The Final Patrols

Unbeknownst to the 101st Airborne Division, which was fighting for its very survival at Bastogne, on New Year’s Eve the Germans launched a diversionary attack in Alsace to divert Eisenhower’s attention from the Ardennes. Code-named Nordwind, the offensive ran up against Alexander Patch’s Seventh (U.S.) Army. Seventh Army had first landed in southern France in August 1944 and formed the southern terminus of Eisenhower’s broad front approach to the Rhine. Once Allied headquarters directed Patton northward to relieve Bastogne, Patch’s army extended its boundary to take over the portion of the line formerly held by Patton. The German attack initially made substantial headway, forcing Patch and his senior headquarters, Lieutenant General Jacob Devers’s VI Army Group, to request reinforcements. With no available reserves at his disposal, Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division. On January 19, Colonel Sink’s 506th PIR was moving to the rear when new orders directed them to conduct a road movement 160 miles to Alsace along the German-French border. The thought of stopping another enemy breakthrough left me thinking, “My God, don’t they have anybody else in this army to plug these gaps?”

The next day we boarded trucks and began the convoy over snow-covered, slippery highways. The route took us from Bastogne through Bellefontaine, Virton, Etain, Toul, Nancy, to Alsace. We arrived at Drulingen on January 22 and immediately were placed into a reserve position. This gave me the opportunity to write a short letter to my friend DeEtta Almon in the States in which I attempted to summarize the previous month’s fighting and respond to a series of questions that she had posed. Rereading her previous letters, I noticed that she had again expressed disappointment at my lack of correspondence. That was understandable, but circumstances had been beyond my control. None of us would ever forget this past Christmas and New Year’s Day. My friend said she was full of fight, so I responded in kind. I wrote, “If you want to fight, you might as well do it now while I don’t have much zip left because I am a fighting man when I am strong. I might as well fight the Germans, the army, and you at the same time instead of individually. I feel like I can take care of the whole bunch and still not knock myself out. At least I am not really worried about a fight from you for all you can throw are strong words and right now they don’t even faze me. The words just sort of bounce off.” It was my first letter since we had departed Mourmelon for Bastogne. I then compared her letter to a close artillery shell—I just hit the dirt when I heard it coming, waited until the shrapnel stopped singing overhead, then I went about my way. Having endured a month on the line in freezing temperatures, nothing fazed me now. As I told my friend, “Sometimes a piece of spent shrapnel hits you, might leave your leg or arm stiff and a little black and blue, but you’re not hurt enough to stop. So it goes in any kind of a fight. You get hit, sure, you are bound to; but that doesn’t mean you’re out or that you’re even hurt, unless you want to think so.” I still had a job to do.

From the perspective of sixty years, I am surprised how tired I was after the month at Bastogne. I added a footnote to my letter, in which I noted that between September 17, 1944 and January 22, 1945, I had jumped in Holland with the British 2d Army (73 days); been surrounded at Bastogne (30 days); and had been trucked to Alsace-Lorraine to stop the last German attack on January 1 (Norwind). This old war was mighty rough at times. For DeEtta to receive a letter written on January 22, 1945, she rated!

After several days in our initial encampment, 2d Battalion and the 506th PIR moved to Wilkersheim. Five days later the regiment returned to the line, taking over the villages Pfaffenoffen and Niedermodern. 2d Battalion remained in reserve at Grassendorf for the next two weeks. On early February the battalion moved to the forward edge of the battle area and established defensive positions along the Moder River. Since the Germans occupied the far bank, we conducted all our combat patrols under conditions of limited visibility. On February 4, Lieutenant Stapelfeld from Fox Company led a combat patrol across the river and ran into machine gun and mortar fire. In the process he lost one man killed and six men wounded. Life was still dangerous on the front and weather conditions remained abysmal. Fortunately the battalion received shoepacs, arctic socks, and felt insoles on February 4. How we could have used those items six weeks before at Bastogne!

The day following Stapelfeld’s patrol, the 506th PIR relieved the 313th Infantry Regiment of the 79th Division, which had been holding Haguenau, a city of approximately 20,000 residents astride the Moder River. The width of the river varied from anywhere between 30 to 100 feet and contained a swift current that made crossing hazardous. To the rear of the town was a clear strip of fields for a distance of about one mile to the edge of the Forest de Haguenau. Colonel Sink deployed the regiment forward with 1st Battalion on the left, 2d Battalion on the right, and 3d Battalion in regimental reserve on the outskirts of town. By the time we relieved the 313th Infantry Regiment, the 79th Division was ready to leave the front. Combat had reduced its ranks to the point that they could no longer hold the line north of Haguenau. Having fought the German 21st Panzer Division from January 8 until January 21 in and around the village of Hatten, which was located just a few kilometers north of Haguenau, the 313th Regiment had broken off the engagement under cover of their artillery and withdrawn to the Moder River. Upon their withdrawal, Lieutenant Colonel Hans von Luck, a combat group commander in the 21st Panzer Division, celebrated his victory by playing Bach’s chorale “Nun danket alle Gott” on the organ of the local church. As the sound reverberated through the ruins of the church to the outside, many of his men and the local residents flocked into the battered church and knelt on the ground. In his memoirs, von Luck said his men were not ashamed of their tears. As a side note, von Luck and I returned to this church in 1991 and he once again played “Nun danket alle Gott” for the residents of Hatten. Von Luck’s capture of Hatten would be his last victory of the war. Within two weeks, his unit would be pulled from the line and redeployed to the Eastern Front in a futile attempt to halt a major Soviet offensive into the heart of Germany.

In mid-February General Maxwell Taylor adjusted the division front to ensure that all four regiments shared equally in the responsibility of frontline duty. Colonel Sink’s 506th Regiment posted one battalion on line, one in regimental reserve, and one in division reserve. The 2d Battalion remained in position along the Moder River with H Company attached. To fill the officer ranks, we received three replacement officers recently graduated from West Point. One of these officers was 2d Lieutenant Larry Fitzpatrick, West Point Class of June 1943, who was assigned to Fox Company. On the evening of February 15, F Company conducted a patrol across the river. Without my knowledge or authorization, Fitzpatrick, too gung-ho and eager to prove himself in combat, volunteered to go along. After the patrol crossed the river, they climbed the north bank, where Fitzpatrick stepped on a mine and was instantly killed. I had always tried personally to interview and get to know each replacement officer and as many men as possible. Fitzpatrick was killed before I had had a chance to meet him. I can’t remember or think of another instance where fate was so cruel to a replacement officer. Father John Maloney, who celebrated his last Mass, wrote Fitzpatrick’s parents and informed them that, “The whole company was sad and gloomy for the next couple of days. . . . Without exception he (Fitzpatrick) was the most universally liked officer in the regiment.” Fitzpatrick’s premature death was yet another senseless tragedy of war.

At this stage in the war, my battalion staff consisted of S-1 (personnel officer), Lieutenant Charles Bonning, and a S-4 (logistics officer), who seemed to have gotten himself lost about six weeks earlier while we were at Bastogne and who was still lost. In effect, I had no S- 2 (intelligence officer), no S-3 (operations officer), and no S-4. My rank was still captain and for the past month, I had been dealing with commanding officers who were lieutenant colonels when coordinating with the other battalion commanders. Coordination with officers who were far senior in rank left me at a distinct disadvantage. The one advantage I did possess was my close relationship with Captain Nixon, who was Colonel Sink’s operations officer. Nixon remained a close friend; however, when he needed a tough job done, he always came to 2d Battalion where he still had many good friends. Such was the case when he assigned 2d Battalion the mission of sending out a combat patrol to capture some prisoners.

Conducting a river crossing at night to capture prisoners is an extremely tough mission. How do you approach a soldier with a rifle, or a man behind a machine gun, who is in a defensive position and who has established clear fields of fire, and persuade him to come with you as your prisoner of war? Our target was a German outpost directly across the river from Easy Company. Due to my knowledge of Easy Company, the noncommissioned officer whom I suggested to lead the patrol was Sergeant Ken Mercier of 3d Platoon. I knew that Captain Speirs and the men would give me the support I needed to get the job accomplished. The plan was to cross the river upstream on Easy Company’s right flank, then, have the patrol sneak downstream on the German side of the river to the building where the enemy outpost was located in a cellar. This scheme of maneuver dictated that the patrol would be under the covering fire of E Company in the event of an emergency withdrawal. To accomplish the mission the patrol had to reach a point close enough to the outpost to lob a rifle grenade in the cellar window. Sergeant Mercier would take care of that job. The patrol would then charge to throw additional hand grenades in the cellar window. As soon as the grenades exploded, the patrol would move in to seize any prisoners while the Germans were still in a state of shock. Simultaneously, the patrol would plant and camouflage a satchel of explosives with a chemical fuse. Since I anticipated that the enemy would replace this outpost the next morning, I directed Mercier to set the delayed fuse to explode after ten hours. Sergeant Mercier would then blow a whistle to signal a withdrawal and to alert me in Easy Company’s command post to initiate extracting fires to cover the patrol’s withdrawal.

Every military operation, no matter how large or how small, has two components: a scheme of maneuver and a plan for fire support. To support Mercier’s patrol, every known or suspected German position was covered by designated rifle fire, artillery, and mortar fire from 81mm and 60mm mortars, which were all zeroed on designated targets. Fifty-caliber and .30-caliber machine guns also had prearranged targets. The patrol would be able to withdraw under a blanket of supporting fire with no fear whatsoever that any German would be foolish enough to raise his head over the top of his foxhole.

Accompanying the patrol was 2d Lieutenant Hank Jones, one of our recent replacements. Like the ill-fated Lieutenant Fitzpatrick, Jones was eager to prove himself in combat. Though he outranked Sergeant Mercier, Mercier led the patrol. Any time a replacement officer joined the battalion in combat, I talked directly to the noncommissioned officers. I expected them to provide the leadership and to get the job done. The replacement officer would always be present, but, in my eyes, he was strictly an observer during “crunch times.” In garrison, I respected the army chain of command and issued orders directly to the junior officer and expected him to complete the mission. But this was combat and I relied on my combat-hardened veterans to provide the necessary leadership. I considered it far too dangerous to place an unproven officer in command of a combat patrol when veteran noncoms were available. Consequently, Jones positioned himself in the rear of the patrol.

Due to Mercier’s exemplary leadership, the conduct of the patrol was textbook in its execution. To this day I can still, very clearly, see Sergeant Mercier reporting into battalion headquarters with two German prisoners, whom I immediately passed to regiment. Mercier was proud, still excited, and wore a big smile on his face. The bad news was that we had lost Private Eugene Jackson, a replacement who had joined the company in Holland. Jackson was mortally wounded by grenade shrapnel in the forehead as the patrol closed in on the enemy outpost. He died before the medics could evacuate him to the battalion aid station. His death was highly regrettable, but the success of any raid to capture live prisoners depended upon a quick, hard charge immediately after the explosion of the grenades. The loss of a soldier was the price you sometimes paid. The following morning, we were pleased to see the satchel charge detonate on schedule. We never knew if any Germans returned to the outpost before the detonation, nor did we care. (Lieutenant Jones was later killed in Germany when his jeep hit a mine.)

The next day Colonel Sink was so elated with the results of the patrol that he paid me a personal visit with his friend Colonel Joseph H. Harper of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. Sink’s visit was reminiscent of Normandy, when he had brought his colleague to company headquarters to hear how we had successfully silenced the battery at Brecourt Manor. Bob Sink was a magnificent commander, but this time he had had a little too much to drink and his order to dispatch another patrol to capture additional prisoners did not make sense. We had already captured sufficient prisoners for interrogation. A second patrol would only result in additional casualties for no apparent reason. Further exacerbating the situation was freshly fallen snow along the river that had quickly turned to ice during the day. If I followed Colonel Sink’s order, the enemy would have heard us coming a long way off.

What to do? I responded, “Yes sir,” and promptly ignored the order. To give the impression of compliance, however, I assembled the men in a building and told them we were not going to send out this patrol because I did not think it was feasible. I also informed them that my neck was in the noose if anyone ever said anything about it. With that the men lay down and caught some much-needed sleep as I took the radio and adjusted mortar and artillery fire on my supposed objective. On reflection I did exactly the right thing and I have never had any regrets. There was insufficient time for preparation, the field to our front was wide open, and I would have lost too many men for no purpose. I often wonder what I would have done had I been a career officer concerned about my own future. Would I have compromised my beliefs? The deliberate disobedience of a lawful order by my commanding officer presented an ethical dilemma of the first magnitude.

On February 20, 3d Battalion, 506th PIR, relieved 2d Battalion on the line. The battalion’s combat days were nearly over. Two weeks later, on March 8, I received my promotion to the rank of major. Privately, I was thrilled to join the field-grade ranks, but my daily schedule was so hectic, that I didn’t have much time to think about it. With Colonel Strayer spending the majority of his time at regimental headquarters, I continued serving as acting battalion commander. I didn’t expect the “acting” to last for long, but the job itself was pretty good. Regimental headquarters soon alerted us to return to Mourmelon. On the 23d, the 36th Division finally replaced the 101st Airborne Division on the Moder River line. Within two days we boarded a train and made the eighteen-hour ride to Mourmelon-le-Petit. Casualties in the 506th PIR during February totaled far less than at Bastogne, but they remained significant for this stage of the war. In all, the month’s combat had reduced the regiment’s ranks by forty-four men. Of this total, 2d Battalion had suffered nineteen killed and wounded. We didn’t realize it yet, but we all started walking with additional care, as if we had eyes in the backs of our heads, making sure we didn’t get knocked off. Personally I never felt that my number was up, but I did feel that I was no longer invincible. Sometimes it scared me to think back on what I had done over the previous months of combat. Our attacks at Brecourt and at the crossroads in Holland had cost me two of those nine lives that a paratrooper was supposed to have. Somehow I had survived. I think it was safe to say that after Haguenau, each man had a gut feeling, “By God, I believe I am going to make it! I just might survive the war.”

Prior to our departure from Alsace, I had the distinct privilege of presenting 1st Sergeant Carwood Lipton his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, while simultaneously awarding him a battlefield commission as 2d lieutenant. No man was more deserving than Lipton. He had fought at Brecourt and Carentan with conspicuous gallantry. He had also performed commendably as Easy Company’s senior noncommissioned officer since September. In Holland, at Bastogne, and at Haguenau, he was the glue that had held Easy Company together. Replacing Lipton as 1st Sergeant was Staff Sergeant Floyd Talbert, the noncom whom I have always felt was the best soldier in Easy Company. Both Lipton and Talbert were Toccoa men, two of the very few who still remained in Easy Company after three major campaigns.

Mourmelon seemed a pleasant reprieve after two months on the line, but there were drawbacks. Instead of being billeted in barracks, however, the men now lived in large, green, twelve-man tents. David Webster, a former Harvard English major and a Toccoa man who had rejoined the battalion just as we were loading the trucks on January 19 to go to Haguenau after recovering from his wounds in Holland, described the battalion’s living quarters as worse than Fayetteville, North Carolina, the town outside the gates of Fort Bragg. Regardless of his assessment, Mourmelon presented the battalion the opportunity to take warm showers, clean up, and take care of the personal hygiene that had been so lacking at Bastogne and Haguenau.

Other changes were in store as well. On March 7, the senior officers in the division attended a demonstration of a new baseball-type concussion grenade. Unfortunately, one of the grenades exploded prematurely and injured eleven observers, including General Gerry Higgins, one of the 101st Airborne Division’s assistant division commanders, and Colonel Harry W. O. Kinnard, the division operations officer. Their injuries created a snowball effect that led to a number of personnel changes within the 506th PIR. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Chase was elevated to division staff to replace the injured Kinnard. Replacing Chase as Sink’s executive officer was Lieutenant Colonel Strayer, who relinquished command of 2d Battalion. Now that Strayer had been transferred to regimental headquarters company, Colonel Sink made permanent my assignment as battalion commander. It sure was an honor to receive command of 2d Battalion, for it meant that I had come straight up from junior second lieutenant to commanding officer in the same battalion in a period of two and a half years. To the best of my knowledge I was the only officer in the 506th PIR to advance from platoon leader in Normandy to battalion commander. I liked the job and responsibility that accompanied the promotion. I figured that if someone of senior rank didn’t show up to take over and if my luck held, some day I might be a lieutenant colonel. But then again, I expected the war would be over within the next one hundred days. What my future held after that, I had no idea. In the interim I took the war one day at a time.

The remainder of March proved uneventful for 2d Battalion. From March until the end of the war, 2d Battalion sustained few battle casualties. As far as I can remember, Easy Company did not have another soldier either killed or wounded in action. With some time on my hands, I now selected my own staff. I appointed Captain Lloyd J. Cox as my executive officer; Captain Lewis Nixon joined the staff as operations officer; and Lieutenants Charles W. Bonning and Ralph D. Richey Jr. were assigned as battalion logistical officer and adjutant, respectively. Bonning was subsequently replaced by a Lieutenant Cowing. Harry Welsh served as my intelligence officer. Nixon’s return to battalion staff was the result of his repeated drunkenness. Colonel Sink recognized Nixon’s tactical brilliance, but he was fed up with his excessive drinking. One day Sink visited me and asked me point-blank, “Can you get along with Nixon?”

“Yes, sir, I can get along with him.”

“Can you get something out of him?”

Again I responded, “Yes, sir, we work together very well.”

“Would you like to have him back?”

“Yes, sir, I would.”

“You’ve got him.”

And that is how Nixon returned to battalion staff. From a personal perspective, it was nice being reunited with Nix. His reassignment to my staff created a domino effect on regimental staff. Colonel Sink now transferred Captain Salve Matheson to be his operations officer and backfilled Matheson with Captain Sobel. As regimental logistical officer, Sobel was now in close contact with the company that he had prepared for combat. Seeing so many of his old officers serving in positions of increased responsibility must have been bittersweet for Sobel. Former Easy Company officers now commanded two of the regiment’s three battalions (Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Hester now commanded 1st Battalion) and they occupied two key positions at regiment (S-3 and S-4), as well as two positions on my staff (S-2 and S-3). Historian Ambrose is correct in stating that “Sobel must have been doing something right back in the summer of ’42 at Toccoa.”

As we prepared for our next operation, for example, I could not help but be impressed by the professionalism demonstrated by many of the German prisoners in our midst. After working at the Mourmelon hospital all day, the prisoners marched back to their stockade at dusk. As they passed their American captors, the prisoners sang their marching songs with the pride and vigor only found in units that had bonded in combat. It was absolutely beautiful. I always looked forward to that time of day and made it a point to stop and listen to a defeated foe still united in comradeship. Amid the chaos and butchery of war, I told myself that I would always remember this beautiful moment. By God, these men were soldiers! Though I despised what the Nazi regime represented, I clearly recognized that unit pride transcended nationality and political systems.

Recently promoted General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the 101st Airborne Division on March 15 and decorated the Screaming Eagles with the Presidential Unit Citation for action in the defense of Bastogne. In congratulating the division, Ike noted that it was a “great personal honor” to acknowledge the bravery and heroism of the American paratrooper. He wished us good luck and asked for God’s blessing as the war drew to a close. Amid much pomp and circumstance, General Taylor proudly received the award in an elaborate ceremony. At Taylor’s side as his senior aide stood none other than Lieutenant Norman Dike, Easy Company’s former commander. His presence hardly detracted from the ceremony since this was the first time in the history of the army that a full division had received this prestigious award. War Department regulations established the criteria that a unit was to receive the Presidential Unit Citation only if it had distinguished itself by conspicuous battle action of a character that would merit the award to an individual of the Distinguished Service Cross, the army’s second-highest award for valor. Ike’s normal policy was to limit unit citations to the smaller formations except in most unusual circumstances. Prior to his departure from the European Theater of Operations at the conclusion of the war, however, Eisenhower reconsidered his position and wrote General George C. Marshall that “the Army esprit de corps centers around a division much more than it does any other echelon. Consequently, the citation of particular battalions within a division does not mean as much to the soldier as a commendation to the division itself.” After the war, Eisenhower also recommended eight other divisions for the Presidential Unit Citation, but the 101st Airborne Division was the only one of four airborne divisions cited in the European Theater.

A week prior to the Supreme Commander’s visit, General Omar Bradley telephoned Eisenhower that General John Millikin’s III Corps had captured an intact bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen. Eisenhower exploited the opportunity and quickly established a bridgehead over Germany’s last natural barrier. As the remainder of the Allied Expeditionary Force advanced to the Rhine, General George S. Patton, using the leading elements of the U.S. 5thInfantry Division, pushed his 3d U.S. Army across the Rhine near the small town of Oppenheim, midway between Worms and Mainz on the evening of March 22. The next evening, March 23, Field Marshal Montgomery launched Operation Varsity, a massive attack across the Rhine at Wesel with his entire 2d British Army. Though Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps, of which the 101st Airborne Division was an integral part, had originally been slated to participate in the offensive, changes in the troop list resulted in William (Bud) Miley’s 17th Airborne Division being the only American airborne division participating in Montgomery’s highly touted offensive. The 101st was allowed to send observers, so I dispatched Captain Lewis Nixon.

Fortunately, for Nixon, he was assigned to be jumpmaster of his aircraft. As he approached the drop zone, his plane was struck by heavy antiaircraft fire. Nixon and three other men made it out of the plane, but the rest were lost when the plane crashed. Nix remained with the 17th Airborne Division for one night and was then returned to 2d Battalion at Mourmelon on a special plane. Nix’s brush with death left him visibly shaken, particularly when at this stage in the war, no one intentionally put himself in danger now that victory was at hand. Captain Nixon found his usual retreat in alcohol that evening, but I was glad to see him safe. On a side note, Nixon’s jump with the 17th Airborne Division qualified him as one of two men in the 506th PIR eligible to wear three stars on his jump wings: Normandy, Holland, and Operation Varsity. The other trooper was a pathfinder by the name of Wright who had served in Easy Company at Toccoa.

Rumors abounded within the United States as to what the now-famous Screaming Eagles were doing. One day after Varsity had bridged the Rhine River, we heard on the radio that the 101st Airborne Division had also jumped east of the Rhine. Mighty interesting! Wish they would have told me, so I could have taken the battalion along for the show.

As we waited for word on our next combat mission, battalion duties kept me busy. I corresponded with my friend DeEtta Almon in the States and expressed my concerns and my observations of how the war had changed a young man from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who had enlisted in the summer of 1941 to rid himself of a military commitment in as rapid a time as possible. In a photograph I had sent home, she noted that my hair was darker and that my forehead was wrinkled by “worry muscles.” I responded somewhat caustically that my hair was darker because I hadn’t had an opportunity to wash it but a couple times a year. As to the worry muscles covering my face, the longer this war continued, the deeper they would grow “for I now had over 600 individual worries plus myself when I got time to think about my future.” Nor did I have much tolerance for garrison soldiers who had not served in combat or soldiers who bragged about their wartime exploits to impress women. When DeEtta informed me that she had met a trooper from a rival regiment, my sarcasm reached new heights of intolerance. I wrote that, “It must have been interesting to hear what the lad had to say about what the paratroopers must go through. Terrible, I imagine. I’ll just bet that they run him to death . . . did he tell you about the time he killed three Germans with his bare hands? Or about the time he received a letter from his girl and he was so inspired that he went out and killed ten more of those dirty old krauts?” I guarantee I had heard all the stories.

I certainly didn’t feel like writing anymore. I couldn’t explain why, but the only emotion that I could arouse were feelings of anger and after staying mad all day and half the night, I was just plain tired. Mad at what? Just about everything, for just about everything was done wrong or it wasn’t done perfectly. Since nothing but perfection was acceptable, I stayed mad. What struck me most was how damn tired I became by the end of each day and how difficult it was to concentrate. I now had people asking me questions about weapons, targets, harassing fire, grazing fire, chow, transportation, and base of fire. It never ended. I had no time to consider a person’s feelings or devotion to the point, or incidental matters. Combat required that my thoughts and feelings remain hard, cold, indifferent, and effective. As to any tender thoughts I might have possessed before the war, I had left them behind in the marshalling area in England. There was no room for trivialities. I did, occasionally, think about death. Sure, I thought long and hard about the paratroopers who had paid the ultimate price, but there was no time to mourn them. Whether on the front line or in a rear area, I refused to lower my guard. Commanding a battalion required every ounce of energy that remained—no time to let up now that the war was drawing to a close.

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