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Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nestby Stephen Ambrose
Chapter 9: The Island
Easy Company, like all units in the American airborne divisions, had been trained as a light infantry assault outfit, with the emphasis on quick movement, daring maneuvers, and small arms fire. It had been utilized in that way in Normandy and during the first ten days in Holland. From the beginning of October until almost the end of November 1944, however, it would be involved in static, trench warfare, more reminiscent of World War I than World War II.
The area in which it fought was a 5-kilometer-wide "island" that lay between the Lower Rhine on the north and the Waal River on the south. The cities of Arnhem, on the Lower Rhine, and Nijmegen, on the Waal, marked the eastern limit of the 101st's lines; the small towns of Opheusden on the Lower Rhine and Dodewaard on the Waal were the western limit. The Germans held the territory north of the Lower Rhine and west of the Opheusden-Dodewaard line.
The Island was a flat agricultural area, below sea level. Dikes that were 7 meters high and wide enough at the top for two-lane roads held back the flood waters. The sides of the dikes were sometimes steep, more often sloping so gradually as to make the dikes 200 or even 300 feet wide at the base. Crisscrossing the area were innumerable drainage ditches. Hills rose on the north side of the Lower Rhine, giving the Germans a distinct advantage in artillery spotting. They had apparently unlimited ammunition (the German industrial heartland was only 50 kilometers or so up the Rhine River), enough at any rate to enable them to fire 88s at single individuals caught out in the open. All movement on the island was by night; during daylight hours, men stayed in their foxholes, observation posts, or houses and barns. The fall weather in northwest Europe was, as usual, miserable: cold, humid, rainy, a fit setting for a World War I movie.
There were whole regiments of British artillery on the Island, firing in support of the 101st. This meant that Island battles were artillery duels in which the main role of the infantry was to be prepared to hurl back any assault by the German ground troops and to serve as forward artillery observers. Patrols went out every night, to scout and to maintain contact with the enemy. For the most part, however, Easy and the other companies in the 101st sat there and took it, just as their fathers had done in 1918. A man's inability to do anything about the artillery fire added to the widespread, overwhelming feeling of frustration.
But of course it was not 1918. On the Island, the men of Easy first saw jet airplanes in action. They watched vapors from the V-2s, the world's first medium-range ballistic missile, as they passed overhead on the way to London. Still, as had been true of soldiers on the Western Front in 1914-1917, they fought without tank support, as a tank was much too conspicuous a target on the Island.
The rations added to the sense that Easy was in a World War I movie rather than a real 1944 battle. The company drew its rations from the British, and they were awful. The British 14-in-1s, according to Corporal Gordon, "will support life, but not morale." Bully beef and heavy Yorkshire pudding were particularly hated, as was the oxtail soup, characterized as "grease with bones floating in it." Most men took to throwing everything in the 14-in-1s into a single large pot, adding whatever vegetables they could scrounge from the countryside, and making a sort of stew out of it. Fortunately there was fresh fruit in abundance, mainly apples and pears. Cows that desperately needed milking were relieved of the contents of their bulging udders, and that helped, but there was no coffee and the men quickly tired of tea.
Worst of all were the English cigarettes. Cpl. Rod Bain described them as "a small portion of tobacco and an ungodly amount of straw." Best of all was the daily British rum ration. Next best was finding German rations. The hard biscuits were like concrete, but the canned meat and tubes of Limburger cheese were tasty and nutritious.
As had been true of the villages of France on both sides of the line on the Western Front 1914-1918, the civilian residents of the Island were evacuated (and Holland is the most densely populated country on earth). This gave the men almost unlimited opportunities for looting, opportunities that were quickly seized. Webster wrote, "Civilians dwell under the misapprehension that only Germans and Russians go through drawers, closets, and chicken coops, whereas every G.I. of my acquaintance made a habit of so doing." Watches, clocks, jewelry, small (and large) pieces of furniture, and of course liquor quickly disappeared — that is, what was left, as the British had already stripped the area.
The Island was most like World War I in its stagnated front. Easy spent nearly two months there, in daily combat. It sent out almost 100 patrols. It repelled attacks. It fired an incredible amount of ammunition. It took casualties. But when it was finally relieved, it turned over to the relieving party front-line positions that had hardly moved one inch.
The company moved onto the Island on October 2, by truck, over the magnificent bridge at Nijmegen (still standing) that had been captured by the 82d on September 20 at 8:00 P.M. Once over the Waal, the trucks took the men some 15 kilometers, past dozens of camouflaged British artillery pieces, to the village of Zetten.
They arrived at night, to relieve the British 43d Division. The 506th regiment was taking over a stretch of front line that had been held by a full division. It was over 6 miles in length. The 2d Battalion of the 506th was on the right (east) end of the line, with Easy on the far right with the 501st PIR to its right. Easy had to cover almost 3 kilometers with only 130 men.
British soldiers met the company in Zetten and escorted the leading elements to their new positions. "What's it like up here?" Webster asked.
"It's a bloody rest position, mate," was the reply. The numerous craters from 105s and 88s looked fresh to Webster, who doubted that he was being given straight scoop. After a three-hour march, the patrol reached its destination, a clump of houses nestled beside a huge dike. The Lower Rhine was on the other side of the dike, with a kilometer or so of flat, soggy grazing land between it and the dike. The area was littered with dead animals, burned houses, and empty machine-gun belts and ammo boxes. This was no-man's-land.
To cover his assigned section of the front, Winters put the 2d and 3d platoons on the line, along the south side of the dike, with the 1 st platoon in reserve. He did not have sufficient troops to man the line properly, so he placed outposts along the dike at spots that he calculated were most likely enemy infiltration points. He kept in contact with the outposts by means of radio, wire, and contact patrols. He also sent three-man patrols to the river bank, to watch for enemy movement and to serve as forward artillery observers. He set up his CP at Randwijk.
At 0330, October 5, Winters sent Sgt. Art Yournan out on a patrol, with orders to occupy an outpost in a building near a windmill on the south bank of the dike. With Youman were Pvts. James Alley, Joe Lesniewski, Joe Liebgott, and Rod Strohl. The building was beside a north-south road that ran to a ferry crossing on the river to the north, back to the small village of Nijburg to the south.
When the patrol reached the road, Youman told Lesniewski to go to the top of the dike to look things over. When he reached the top, hugging the ground as he had been taught, Lesniewski saw an unexpected sight, the outline of a German machine-gun set up at the point where the road coming from the ferry crossed the dike. Behind it, in the dark, he could just make out a German preparing to throw a potato-masher grenade at Youman's patrol, down at the south base of the dike.
Simultaneously the other members of the patrol heard German voices on the north side of the dike. Liebgott, who was trailing, called out, "Is that you, Youman?"
The German threw the grenade as Lesniewski called out a warning. Other Germans pitched grenades of their own over the dike. Lesniewski got hit in the neck by shrapnel. Alley got blown to the ground by a blast of shrapnel that left thirty-two wounds in his left side, face, neck, and arm. Strohl and Liebgott took some minor wounds; Strohl's radio was blown away.
They had run into a full company of SS troops. It had come across the river by ferry earlier that night and was attempting to infiltrate south of the dike, to make a diversionary assault in support of a major attack the 363d Volksgrenadier Division was scheduled to launch at first light against the left flank of the 506th at Opheusden. Although the patrol did not know it, another SS company had crossed the dike and was on the loose behind American lines. Although division did not yet know it, the attack on 1st and 2d Battalions of the 506th was much more than just a local counterattack; the German objective was to clear the entire Island area of Allied troops.
After the skirmish with the first SS company, the E Company patrol fell back. It was a full kilometer to Winters' CP. "Come on, Alley," Strohl kept saying. "We've got to get our asses out of here."
"I'm coming, I'm coming," the limping Alley replied.
At 0420 Strohl got back to the CP to report the German penetration. Winters immediately organized a patrol, consisting of a squad and a half from the 1st platoon, which was in reserve, plus Sgt. Leo Boyle from HQ section with a radio.
Sergeant Talbert ran back to the barn where his men were sleeping. "Get up! Everybody out!" he shouted. "The Krauts have broken through! God damn you people, get out of those beds." Webster and the others shook themselves awake, grabbed their rifles, and moved out.
Winters and his fifteen-man patrol moved forward quickly, along the south side of the dike. As they approached the SS company, he could see tracer bullets flying off toward the south. The firing made no sense to him; he knew there was nothing down that way and guessed that the Germans must be nervous and confused. He decided to stop the patrol and make his own reconnaissance.
Leaving the patrol under Sergeant Boyle's command, he crawled to the top of the dike. On the other (north) side, he saw that there was a 1-meter deep ditch running parallel to the dike. It would provide some cover for an approach to the road. He returned to the patrol, ordered two men to stay where they were as rear and right flank protection, and took the remainder up and over the dike to the ditch on the north side. The group then moved forward cautiously down the ditch toward the road.
When he was 200 meters from the road, Winters stopped the patrol again and moved forward alone, to scout the situation. As he neared the road — which was raised a meter or so above the field — he could hear voices on the other side. Looking to his right, he could see German soldiers standing on top of the dike by the machine-gun position, silhouetted against the night sky. They were wearing long winter overcoats and the distinctive German steel helmets. Winters was about 25 meters from them, down in the drainage ditch. He thought to himself, This is just like the movie All Quiet on the Western Front.
He crawled back to the patrol, explained the situation, and gave his orders. "We must crawl up there with absolutely no noise, keep low, and hurry, we won't have the cover of night with us much longer."
The patrol got to within 40 meters of the machine-gun up on the dike. Winters went to each man and in a whisper assigned a target, either the riflemen or the machine-gun crew. Winters whispered to Christenson to set up his 30-caliber machine-gun and concentrate on the German MG 42. Behind Christenson, Sergeant Muck and PFC. Alex Penkala set up their 60 mm mortar.
Stepping back, Winters gave the order, "Ready, Aim, Fire!" in a low, calm, firing-range voice. Twelve rifles barked simultaneously. All seven German riflemen fell. Christenson's machine-gun opened up; he was using tracers and could see he was shooting too high, but as he depressed his fire Muck and Penkala dropped a mortar round smack on the German machine-gun. Sergeant Boyle was "astounded at the heavy, accurate fire that we delivered at the enemy." He later told Lipton he thought it was the best shooting he had ever seen.
The patrol began to receive some light rifle fire from across the road running from the dike to the ferry. Winters pulled it back down the ditch for about 200 meters, to a place where the ditch connected with another that ran perpendicular to it, from the dike to the river. Out of range of the Germans, he got on Boyle's radio and called back to Lieutenant Welsh.
"Send up the balance of the 1st platoon," he ordered, "and the section of light machine-guns from HQ Company attached to E Company."
As the patrol waited for the reinforcements, Sgt. William Dukeman stood up to shout at the men to spread out (as Gordon Carson, who recalled the incident, remarked, "The men will congregate in a minute"). Three Germans hiding in a culvert that ran under the road fired a rifle grenade. Dukeman gave a sigh and slumped forward. He was the only man hit; a chunk of steel went in his shoulder blade and came out through his heart, killing him. The survivors opened up with their rifles on the Germans in the culvert and killed them in return.
While waiting for the remainder of the platoon to come forward, Winters went out into the field between the two lines to be alone and to think things through. Three facts struck him: the enemy was behind a good solid roadway embankment, while his men were in a shallow ditch with no safe route for withdrawal; the enemy was in a good position to outflank the patrol to the right and catch it in the open field; there was nothing south of the bank to stop the Germans from moving down the road unmolested to the 2d Battalion CP at Hemmen. Under the circumstances, he decided he had no choice but to attack. It was now full daylight.
Returning to the patrol, he found that the reinforcements had arrived. Now he had some thirty men. He called Lts. Frank Reese and Thomas Peacock and Sgt. Floyd Talbert together and gave his orders: "Talbert, take the third squad to the right. Peacock, take the first squad to the left. I'll take the second squad right up the middle. Reese, put your machine-guns between our columns. I want a good covering fire until we reach that roadway. Then lift your fire and move up and join us." He told Talbert and Peacock to have their men fix bayonets.
As his subordinates went off to carry out his orders, Winters called the 2d squad together and explained the plan. Private Hoobler was standing right in front of him. When Winters said, "Fix bayonets," Hoobler took a big swallow. Winters could see his Adam's apple move up and down his throat. His adrenalin was flowing.
"My adrenalin was pumping too," Winters remembered. On his signal the machine-guns began laying a base of fire, and all three columns started to move as fast as they could across the 200 meters of level but spongy-soft field between them and the road, doing their best to keep low.
At this point, Winters had no firm idea on how many Germans were on the other side of the road running from the dike to the ferry, which was just high enough to block his view. Nor did the Germans know the Americans were coming; inexcusably, after losing their machine-gunners and riflemen in the first volley, they had failed to put an outpost on the road or up on the dike.
In the lead, Winters got to the road first. He leaped up on it. Right in front of him, only a few feet away, was a German sentry with his head down, ducking the incoming fire from Reese's machineguns. To his right, Winters could see out of the corner of his eye a solid mass of men, more than 100, packed together, lying down at the juncture of the dike and the road. They too had their heads down to duck under the machine-gun fire. They were all wearing their long winter overcoats and had their backpacks on. Every single one of them was facing the dike; he was behind them. They were only 15 meters away.
Winters wheeled and dropped back to the west side of the road, pulled the pin of a hand grenade, and lobbed it over toward the lone sentry. Simultaneously the sentry lobbed a potato masher back at him. The instant Winters threw his grenade he realized he had made a big mistake; he had forgotten to take off the band of tape around the handle of the grenade he kept there to avoid an accident.
Before the potato masher could go off, Winters jumped back up on the road. The sentry was hunched down, covering his head with his arms, waiting for Winters' grenade to go off. He was only 3 yards away. Winters shot him with his M-1 from the hip.
The shot startled the entire company. The SS troops started to rise and turn toward Winters, en masse. Winters pivoted to his right and fired into the solid mass.
Winters described what happened next: "The movements of the Germans seemed to be unreal to me. When they rose up, it seemed to be so slow, when they turned to look over their shoulders at me, it was in slow motion, when they started to raise their rifles to fire at me, it was in slow, slow motion. I emptied the first clip [eight rounds] and, still standing in the middle of the road, put in a second clip and, still shooting from the hip, emptied that clip into the mass."
Germans fell. Others began aiming their rifles at Winters. Others started running away from him. But all their movements were awkward, hampered by those long overcoats. He dropped back to the west side of the road. Looking to his right he could see Talbert running crouched over leading his column. It was still 10 meters from the road. Winters' own column, in the middle, was struggling through the field. Peacock's columm on the left was 20 meters short of the road, held up by some wires running across the field.
Winters put in a third clip and started popping up, taking a shot or two, then dropping back down. The Germans were running away as best they could when the other American columns reached the road.
"Fire at will," Winters called out.
It was a duck shoot. The Germans were fleeing. The Easy Company riflemen were shooting them unmolested. "I got one!" Webster heard Hoobler call out. "Damn, I got one!" According to Webster, "Hoobler was in his element; he ate this stuff up."
A bunch of Germans were cut off, hiding in some tall weeds. Christenson spotted them. "Anybody here speak German?" he called out. Webster came up. "Heraus!" he yelled. "Schnell! Hände hoch! Schnell! Schnell!" One by one, eleven Germans came out. Husky, hard-boiled, they claimed they were Poles. Christenson motioned them to the rear.
Webster went back to the road to get in on the shooting. A German turned to fire back. "What felt like a baseball bat slugged my right leg," Webster recalled, "spun me around, and knocked me down." All he could think to say was, "They got me!" which even then seemed to him "an inadequate and unimaginative cliché." (Like all writers, he was composing his description of the event as it happened.)
It was a clean wound. The bullet went in and out Webster's calf, hitting no bone. A million dollar wound. I got it made, he thought to himself. When medic Eugene Roe got to him, Webster had a big grin on his face. Roe patched the wound and told Webster to retire. Webster gave his bandoliers to Martin, "who was still very calm and unconcerned, the calmest, most fearless person I ever saw," and his grenades to Christenson. He kept his pistol and M-1 and began limping to the rear.
Winters could see more German soldiers about 100 yards away, pouring over the dike from the south side, the previously unnoticed SS company. They joined their retreating comrades in a dash to the east, away from the Easy Company fire. This made the target bigger. Lieutenant Reese had brought the machine-guns forward by this time; Private Cobb set his up and began putting long-distance fire on the routed German troops.
The surviving German troops reached a grove of trees, where there was another road leading to the river. As Winters observed, they swung left and began to follow that road to the river.
Winters got on the radio and called for artillery. British guns began pounding away at the main force of retreating Germans. Winters wanted to push down to the river on his road, to cut off the Germans at the river, but thirty-five men against the 150 or so surviving Germans was not good odds. He got on the radio again to ask 2d Battalion HQ for support. HQ promised to send a platoon from Fox Company.
Waiting for the reinforcements, Winters made a head count and reorganized. He had one man dead (Dukeman) and four wounded. Eleven Germans had surrendered. Liebgott, slightly wounded in the arm, was a walking casualty. Winters ordered him to take the prisoners back to the battalion CP and then get himself tended by Doc Neavles.
Then he remembered that Liebgott, a good combat soldier, had a reputation of "being very rough on prisoners." He also heard Liebgott respond to his order with the words, "Oh, Boy! I'll take care of them."
"There are eleven prisoners," Winters said, "and I want eleven prisoners turned over to battalion." Liebgott began to throw a tantrum. Winters dropped his M-1 to his hip, threw off the safety, pointed it at Liebgott, and said, "Leibgott, drop all your ammunition and empty your rifle." Liebgott swore and grumbled but did as he was ordered.
"Now," said Winters, "you can put one round in your rifle. If you drop a prisoner, the rest will jump you." Winters noticed a German officer who had been pacing back and forth, obviously nervous and concerned over Liebgott's exuberance when he first got the assignment. Evidently the officer understood English; when he heard Winters' further orders, he relaxed.
Liebgott brought all eleven prisoners back to battalion HQ. Winters knew that for certain, as he checked later that day with Nixon.
The ferry crossing the Germans had used to get over, and now would need to get back, was at the end of the road Easy Company was on. Winters wanted to get there before they did. When the platoon from Fox Company arrived, bringing more ammunition, Winters redistributed the ammo and then gave his orders. He set up a base of fire with half the sixty or so men under his command, then had the other half move forward 100 meters, stop and set up its own base of fire, and leapfrog the first group down the road. He intended to repeat this maneuver the full 600 or so meters to the river.
About 200 meters short of the river, Winters' unit reached some factory buildings. German artillery had started to work. The SS troops, desperate to get to the ferry, mounted a seventy-five-man attack on the right rear flank of the Americans. Winters realized he had overreached. It was time to withdraw to be able to fight another day. The unit leapfrogged in reverse back to the dike.
Just as the last men got over the dike, the Germans cut loose with a terrific concentration of artillery fire on the point where the road crossed the dike. They had it zeroed in perfectly. The airborne men scattered right and left, but not before suffering many casualties.
Winters grabbed the radio and called battalion HQ to ask for medics and ambulances. Doc Neavles came on and wanted to know how many casualties.
"Two baseball teams," Winters replied.
Neavles knew nothing about sports. He asked Winters to put it in clear language.
"Get the hell off the radio so I can get some more artillery support," Winters shouted back, "or we'll need enough for three baseball teams."
Just at that moment, Boyle "heard some mortars coming. You could tell they were gonna be close." Boyle wasn't moving too fast, as he was exhausted, a result of a less than complete recovery from his wound received in Normandy. "I pitched forward on the dike. A shell hit just behind me on the left and tore into my left leg from the hip to the knee and that was it. A terrible blow but no pain." Just before he lost consciousness, Winters tapped him on the shoulder and told him he would be taken care of.
Guarnere and Christianson cut his pants leg off and spinkled sulfa powder on the horrible wound (most of the flesh on Boyle's left thigh had been torn away). They gave him morphine and got stretcher bearers to carry him rearward.
Webster, alone, was trying to cross an open field to get to an aid station. He was crawling along a cow path, lower than he had ever gotten in training, crawling through mud and cow dung. He ripped his pants on barbed-wire fence. On the far side, he risked getting up and limping the last 100 yards to safety. A German observer saw him and called down some 88s. Three explosions, one on each side, one behind, made Webster feel "terrified and self-conscious." He managed to get out of the field before the 88 completed the bracket.
Some F Company men helped him to a road junction. Two medics with a jeep, coming back from the dike, picked him up, laid him across the engine hood, "and told me to relax. They said we would be going fast, because the man on the rear stretcher, Sergeant Boyle, was badly wounded and in need of immediate medical attention."
Altogether, the two platoons from Easy and Fox Companies took eighteen casualties from that artillery bombardment. None killed.
Winters set up strong points to cover the place where the road crossed the dike. Captain Nixon came up. "How's everything going?" he asked.
For the first time since the action began, Winters sat down. "Give me a drink of water," he said. As he reached for Nixon's canteen, he noticed that his hand was shaking. He was exhausted.
So was Christenson. He couldn't understand it, until he counted up. He realized that he had fired a total of fifty-seven clips of M-1 ammunition, 456 rounds. That night while trying to stay awake on outpost duty and trying to calm down after being so keyed up, Christenson pissed thirty-six times.
With thirty-five men, a platoon of Easy Company had routed two German companies of about 300 men. American casualties (including those from Fox Company) were one dead, twenty-two wounded. German casualties were fifty killed, eleven captured, about 100 wounded.
Later, Winters realized that he and his men had been "very, very lucky." In an analysis, he said the main reason for success was the poor quality of German leadership. The Germans had let the 1st squad get away with sitting in the field waiting for reinforcements. They had bunched up in one big mass, inexcusable in Winters' view. They had allowed two machine-guns to pin them down while the three columns of Easy ran 200 yards across the field in the bayonet charge. They had reacted much too slowly when Winters fired on them from the road. They failed to put together an organized base of fire when the shooting started.
Easy, by contrast, did almost everything right. Winters called this "the highlight of all E Company actions for the entire war, even better than D-Day, because it demonstrated Easy's overall superiority in every phase of infantry tactics: patrol, defense, attack under a base of fire, withdrawal, and, above all, superior marksmanship with rifles, machine gun, and mortar fire."
More can be said. For example, the physical fitness of the Easy men was a sine qua non. They put out more energy than a heavyweight boxer in a fifteen-round title match, way more; they put out more energy than a man would playing sixty minutes in three consecutive football games. Also notable was the company's communication system, with radio messages, runners, and hand signals being used effectively. The leapfrog advances and retreats put into play the training they had undergone at Toccoa and were carried out in textbook fashion. The evacuation of the wounded was likewise carried out with calm efficiency. The coordination with British artillery was outstanding.
So was Winters. He made one right decision after another, sometimes instinctively, sometimes after careful deliberation. The best was his decision that to attack was his only option. He provided not only brains but personal leadership. "Follow me" was his code. He personally killed more Germans and took more risks than anyone else.
But good as Easy Company of the 506th was, and there was no better light infantry company in the Army, there was nothing it could do about that terror of the battlefield, modern artillery. Easy had to cross the dike to get home. it could not stay in the open field and get pounded. But in crossing the dike, the company exposed itself to zeroed-in German artillery. A few minutes of total terror, and the company had taken more casualties than it had in its encounters with German riflemen by the hundreds earlier in the day.
"Artillery is a terrible thing," Webster said. "God, I hate it."
The Public Relations Office of the 101st Airborne Division gave the action extensive publicity, in typical wartime jargon: "Winters' order had to be, and was, for a bayonet attack. As a result of that brave order two companies of SS were heavily battered and forced to withdraw without getting an opportunity to start their attack which was scheduled to start at almost that very instant."
Insofar as the German 363d Volksgrenadier Division launched a major attack at Opheusden at dawn that day, against the left flank of the 506th, the small action at the dike may have been crucial. Had the German SS companies proceeded unmolested south of the dike, they would have hit regimental HQ at exactly the moment Colonel Sink had to concentrate his attention on Opheusden.
Sink was appreciative. He issued a General Order citing 1st platoon of Easy for gallantry in action. After describing the bayonet charge, he wrote: "By this daring act and skillful maneuver against a numerically superior force" the platoon "inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy" and turned back the enemy's attempt to attack battalion HQ from the rear.
A couple of days after the bayonet attack, Colonel Sink paid Winters a visit. "Do you think you can handle the battalion?" he asked, indicating that he was considering making Winters the X.O. of 2d Battalion. (Maj. Oliver Horton had been killed in battle of Opheusden on October 5.)
Winters, twenty-six and a half years old, a captain and company commander for only three months, gulped and replied, "Yes, sir. I know I can handle our battalion in the field. Combat doesn't worry me. It's the administration. I've never had administration."
"Don't worry," Sink assured him. "I'll take care of that part." On October 9, he made Winters the X.O. of 2d Battalion.
Winters' replacement as Easy Company commander failed to measure up. He came in from another battalion. Pvt. Ralph Stafford was scathing in his description: "He really screwed up. He not only didn't know what to do, he didn't care to learn. He stayed in bed, made no inspections and sent for more plums." He was shortly relieved.
Other replacement officers had also failed. Christenson said of one, "Indecision was his middle name.... In combat his mind became completely disoriented, and he froze. We, the N.C.O.s of the platoon, took over and got the job done; and never did he complain, for he realized his inability to command under pressure."
Webster wrote about a platoon leader in the Nuenen fight: "I never saw him in the fracas. He never came to the front. He failed to live up to his responsibilities; the old men in the platoon never forgave him. For an enlisted man to fail in a grave situation was bad, but for an officer, who was supposed to lead his men, it was inexcusable."
Malarkey related that in that fight, Guarnere "was giving hell to some officer who had his head buried in the sand, telling him he was supposed to be leading the platoon.... The same officer was later seen at an aid station shot through the hand, suspected of being self-inflicted."
A combination of new officers and men who had not been trained up to the standard of the original Currahee group, the rigors of constant pounding by artillery and the danger of night patrols was taking a toll on Easy. The conditions exacerbated the situation.
Paul Fussell has described the two stages of rationalization a combat soldier goes through — it can't happen to me, then it can happen to me, unless I'm more careful — followed by a stage of "accurate perception: it is going to happen to me, and only my not being there [on the front lines] is going to prevent it." Some men never get to the perception; for others, it comes almost at once. When it does come to a member of a rifle company in the front line, it is almost impossible to make him stay there and do his duty. His motivation has to be internal. Comradeship is by far the strongest motivator — not wanting to let his buddies down, in the positive sense, not wanting to appear a coward in front of the men he loves and respects above all others in the negative sense. Discipline won't do it, because discipline relies on punishment, and there is no punishment the army can inflict on a front-line soldier worse than putting him into the front line.
One reason for this is what Glenn Gray calls "the tyranny of the present" in a foxhole. The past and, more important, the future do not exist. He explains that there is "more time for thinking and more loneliness in foxholes at the front than in secure homes, and time is measured in other ways than by clocks and calendars." To the soldier under fire who has reached his limit, even the most horrible army jail looks appealing. What matters is living through the next minute.
Gray speculates that this is why soldiers will go to such extraordinary lengths to get souvenirs. At Brécourt Manor, Malarkey ran out into a field being raked by machine-gun fire to get what he thought was a Luger from a dead German. In Holland, on October 5, as Webster was limping back to the rear, in an open field under fire from a German 88, he spotted "a German camouflaged poncho, an ideal souvenir." He stopped to "scoop it up." Gray explains the phenomenon: "Primarily, souvenirs appeared to give the soldier some assurance of his future beyond the destructive environment of the present. They represented a promise that he might survive." It is almost impossible to think of anything but survival in a life-threatening situation, which accounts for the opposite phenomenon to souvenir-grabbing — the soldier's casual attitude toward his own possessions, his indifferent attitude toward money. "In campaigns of extreme hazard," Gray writes, "soldiers learn more often than civilians ever do that everything external is replaceable, while life is not."
What is not replaceable is the esteem of comrades, but to the replacement soldier, just arrived, there is no comradeship, so there is nothing to hold him to his post. Gray tells the story of a deserter he found in a woods in France in November 1944. The lad was from the Pennsylvania mountains, he was accustomed to camping out, he had been there a couple weeks and intended to stay until the war ended. "All the men I knew and trained with have been killed or transferred," the deserter explained. "I'm lonely....The shells seem to come closer all the time and I can't stand them." He begged Gray to leave him. Gray refused, said he would have to turn him in, but promised he would not be punished. The soldier said he knew that; he bitterly predicted "they" would simply put him back into the line again — which was exactly what happened when Gray brought him in.
At the front, not only spit-and-polish discipline breaks down. Orders can be ignored, as supervision is not exact where danger of death is present. "Old soldiers have learned by bitter experience to be independent and to make their own decisions," Webster wrote his parents shortly after he was wounded. "Once our lieutenant told my squad leader to take his eight men and knock out some anti-aircraft guns that were firing on a flight of gliders. Nine men with rifles fighting dual-purpose 88s and 40 mms! The sergeant said yes (censored). By using his own judgment he saved our lives in a situation where a new man would have rushed in blindly. This same lieutenant later ordered two scouts into a German position, but they, knowing better, got (censored)."
Veterans tried to help replacements, but they also took care not to learn their names, as they expected them to be gone shortly. It was not that the old hands had no sympathy for the recruits. "Our new members," Webster wrote his parents, "representatives of the 18-year-old draft, were so young and enthusiastic-looking it seemed a crime to send them into battle. We paratroopers get the best men in the army, but it's a hell of a fate for somebody who's never been away from home or high school to come here."
No man in Easy had been in combat before June 6, 1944, but by October all the men who took off from England on the evening of June 5 who were still alive in Holland had been through two combat jumps and two campaigns. Many of them had been wounded; some of the wounded had gone AWOL from the hospital to go to Holland. This was not because they had a love of combat, but because they knew if they did not go to war with Easy, they would be sent to war with strangers, as the only way out of combat for a rifleman in ETO was death or a wound serious enough to cost a limb. If they had to fight, they were determined it would be with their comrades.
Replacements could seldom reach this level of identification. Further, as the army was speeding up the training process to provide men for the battle, the replacements were not of the quality of the original Currahee men. At Veghal, Webster saw a replacement named Max "moaning and clutching his right hand."
"Help me! Help me! Somebody help me!"
"What's wrong? Shot anywhere else?"
"No, no. It hurts!"
"Why don't you get up and run?"
"He didn't feel like it. He was in shock so bad he just wanted to lie there and moan....It's a funny thing about shock. Some boys can have their foot blown off and come limping back to the aid station under their own power, while others, like Max, freeze up at the sight of blood and refuse to help themselves. They say that shock is largely physical, but it seems to me that one's mental attitude has a lot to do with it. Max wasn't aggressive, he wasn't hard, he wasn't well-trained."
That officers and men broke under the constant strain, tension, and vulnerability is not remarkable. What is remarkable is that so many did not break.
With Winters' replacement gone, 1st Lt. Fred "Moose" Heyliger took over the company. Heyliger was an OCS graduate who had led the HQ Company mortar platoon in Normandy (where he was promoted to 1st lieutenant) and Holland. He had been in E Company back in the States. From the first, Winters liked him immensely.
Heyliger was a good C.O. He visited the outposts at night. He went on patrols himself. He saw to the men as best could be done. Like the men in the foxholes, he never relaxed. The tension was always there. His company was spread much too thin to prevent German patrols from penetrating the line, and the dangerous possibility of another breakthrough of the size of that of October 5 was in his mind constantly. He bore up under the responsibility well, took the strain, did his duty.
"The British are masters of intrigue," according to Cpl. Walter Gordon. "I wouldn't necessarily want them on my flank for an assault on some target, but I sure would like to have them plan it, because they are very good at planning."
He was referring to "the Rescue," which took place at midnight, October 22-23. A week earlier, Col. O. Dobey (nicknamed "The Mad Colonel of Arnhem") of the British 1st Airborne Division, who had escaped from a German hospital after being made prisoner, had swum across the Rhine and contacted Colonel Sink. Dobey said there were 125 British troops, some ten Dutch resistance fighters who were being sought by the Germans, and five American pilots hiding out with the Dutch underground on the north side of the Lower Rhine. He wanted to get them back, and he needed help. Sink agreed to cooperate. As the crossing point was across from Easy's position, Sink volunterred Heyliger to lead the rescue patrol. Or, as Gordon put it, "We would furnish the personnel, the British would furnish the idea and, I suppose, the Band-Aids. A fair swap, by British standards."
Dobey was in contact with the Dutch underground on the far side via telephone (for some reason, the Germans had never cut those lines). He designated the night of October 22-23 for the operation. The American 81st AA-AT Battalion would fire tracers over the river with their Bofors guns to mark the spot where the Dutch would bring the men waiting to be rescued. To allay German suspicion, for several nights before the operation, the 81st fired tracers at midnight.
On the appointed night, Heyliger, Lts. Welsh and Edward Shames, and seventeen men selected by Heyliger followed engineer tape from the dike down to the river, where British canvas collapsible boats had been hidden the previous evening. It was, as usual, a murky night, with a drizzle adding to the obscurity. The shivering men edged the boats into the river. At midnight, the Bofors fired the tracers straight north. The Dutch underground blinked the V-for-Victory signal with red flashlights from the north bank. Easy began paddling as silently as possible across the river.
The men crossed with pounding hearts but without incident. They leaped out of the boats and moved forward. Gordon had the machine-gun on the left flank; he set it up and prepared to defend against attack. Cpl. Francis Mellett had the machine-gun on the right flank. Private Stafford was at the point for the column seeking contact with the Dutch underground, Heyliger immediately behind him.
Stafford moved forward stealthily. There was no firing, no illumination. This was enemy territory, completely unfamiliar to the Americans, and it was pitch black. "The absolute quiet was almost petrifying to me," Stafford remembered.
Stafford took another cautious step. A large bird flew up not more than a foot away from his face. "I am positive my heart stopped beating," Stafford recalled. "I flipped off the safety on my M-1 and was about to fire when Lt. Heyliger calmly said, 'Easy.'"
They continued on and shortly met the British troops. The first one Stafford saw "hugged me and gave me his red beret, which I still have." A British brigadier stepped forward and shook Heyliger's hand, saying he was the finest looking American officer he had ever seen.
Heyliger motioned for the British to move in column to the boats, urging them to keep silent. But they just could not. Pvt. Lester Hashey recalled one saying, "I never thought I'd be so glad to see a bloody Yank." Lieutenant Welsh, who was in charge down at the boats, grew exasperated with the Brits who kept calling out "God Bless you, Yank," and told them they would all get killed if they didn't shut up.
The British got into the boats; Heyliger pulled his men back in leapfrog fashion; soon everyone was ready to shove off. Gordon was the last one back, and in the trailing boat crossing the river. "There was a certain amount of excitement and urgency," he said, and he was certain the Germans would sink them all any moment. But they were never spotted. By 0130 the entire party were safely on the south bank and crossing no-man's-land on the way to the American front line behind the dike.
The next day Colonel Sink issued a citation for gallantry in action. He declared that "the courage and calmness shown by the covering force was a major factor in this successful execution. So well organized and executed was this undertaking that the enemy never knew an evacuation had taken place.
"All members of this covering force are commended for their aggression, spirit, prompt obedience of orders and devotion to duty. Their names appear below."
Gordon's name is there. When I suggested that he must be proud to have volunteered for and carried out so well such a hazardous operation, he said the only reason he went along was that Heyliger had selected him. "It was not a volunteer operation. I'm not saying I wouldn't have volunteered, I'm just saying I didn't volunteer."
On October 28, the 101st Division's area of responsibility was enlarged. The 506th shifted to the east on the river bank, just opposite Arnhem. Easy was in the line in the vicinity of the village of Driel, which put the company in the easternmost tip of the Allied advance toward Germany. It was replacing a British unit.
As the company moved into its new positions, Sergeant Lipton and battalion X.O. Winters talked with the British commander. He said they could see Germans moving around and digging in along the railroad track to the east. (Easy was still on the right flank of the 506th, at Driel; that put it at the point where the line bent at an acute angle, meaning one platoon faced north, another east, with the third in reserve.)
"Well, when you see them, why don't you fire on them?" Winters asked.
"Because when we fire on them, they just fire back."
Winters and Lipton looked at each other in disbelief. Easy always tried to keep the German heads down and on the defensive whenever it occupied the front line.
It did so at Driel and kept up active patrolling. The artillery continued to pound away. The Germans still had the advantage of holding the high ground north of the river, so movement by day was impossible. The platoons in the front line lived in foxholes. The rain was all but constant. No one ever got really dry. No shaves, no showers, no relaxation. A miserable existence.
To the rear, at the CPs and further back, conditions improved somewhat. Artillery was a problem, of course, but there was hot food and other compensations. The men listened to "Arnhem Annie," a German propaganda broadcaster, over the radio. Between American songs, she invited them to cross the river, surrender, and live in comfort until the war was over. The supply people were able to bring copies of Yank and Stars and Stripes to the men. The 101st's daily news sheet, The Kangaroo Khronicle, resumed publishing. The Germans dropped some leaflets, Why Fight for the Jews? The 506th P.O.W. Interrogation Team broadcast over a loudspeaker surrender invitations to the Germans.
The only effect of the propaganda, by both sides, was to bring a good laugh.
Winters was bored. Being X.O. "was a let down, a tremendous let down. The most fun I had in the army, the most satisfying thing I did was company commander. Being a junior officer was a tough job, taking it from both sides, from the men and from Captain Sobel. But as company commander, I was running my own little show. I was out front, making a lot of personal decisions on the spot that were important to the welfare of my company, getting a job done."
But as battalion X.O., "I was an administrator, not making any command decisions or such, just recommendations to the battalion commander, to the battalion S-2."
I suggested that some people would feel a sense of relief at the change.
"I didn't," Winters replied.
1st Lt. Harry Welsh's 2d platoon had the sector of the line facing east. His CP was in a barn some 50 meters west of the railroad tracks, where the Germans had their outposts. His platoon strength was down to two dozen men; even if he kept half of them on alert, that meant twelve men to cover a front of 1,500 meters. With a more than 200-meter gap between outposts, it was relatively easy for German patrols to penetrate the line after dark. They did so regularly, not with the purpose of mounting an attack — like the Allies, they had accepted the static situation and their lines were thinly held, too — but to make certain the Americans were not building up.
After his experiences on October 5, Winters was worried about the porous situation at the front. When he heard a member of the rescue mission of October 22-23 describe the penetration of German lines without being spotted as "fantastic," he snorted: "The Germans did the same thing to us. They got two companies across and we never fired a shot at them until they got up on the dike. So what's the big deal?"
Winters was also frustrated in his new job. He craved action and fretted over the German penetrations. On the afternoon of October 31, he called Heyliger on the telephone to suggest that that night the two of them make their own inspection of the outposts. Heyliger agreed. At 2100 hours that evening, Winters arrived at Easy's CP. Heyliger telephoned Welsh to let him know that he and Winters were on their way out to see him.
"As Moose and I proceeded down the path leading to Welsh's CP," Winters related, "we were walking shoulder to shoulder, as the path was only about six feet wide, slightly raised. There was a drop of about three feet into a drainage ditch on each side."
Out of the darkness came an order, "Halt!"
Heyliger was a calm, easygoing man, a C.O. who did not get excited unnecessarily. So when Winters felt him take an extra hard deep breath, he tensed. Winters figured Heyliger had forgotten the password.
Heyliger started to say "Moose," but before he got the word half out, blam, blam, blam — an M-1 spat three bullets out from a distance of 10 yards.
Heyliger dropped to the road with a moan. Winters dived into the ditch on the left side of the road. He feared they had run into a German patrol because the M-1 fire had been so rapid it could have been a German machine pistol. Then he heard footsteps running away.
Winters crawled back onto the path, grabbed Heyliger, and pulled him to the side. He had been hit in the right shoulder, a fairly clean wound, and in the left leg, a bad one — his calf looked like it had been blown away. Winters set to bandaging the leg.
A few minutes later Winters heard footsteps running his way. As he moved to grab his rifle, he heard Welsh calling in a low voice, "Moose? Dick?"
Welsh and two of his men helped bandage Heyliger. They gave him morphine shots and carried him back to the battalion CP. By then he had lost so much blood, and had had so many shots of morphine, he had a waxlike pallor that made Winters doubt he was going to make it.
He made it. Within a week he was back in a hospital in England. While there he was promoted to captain and given the British Military Cross for the rescue patrol. But for Heyliger, the war was over.
The soldier who shot Heyliger had been tense, frightened, unsure of himself. The incident broke him up. He was a veteran, not a recruit. Winters decided not to punish him. Soon thereafter he was eased out of the company.
On November 7, Heyliger wrote Winters from his hospital bed. "Dear Dick: Here I am laying flat on my back taking it easy. I want to thank you for taking care of me that night I got hit. It sure is a stupid way to get knocked off.
"I arrived here naked as a jay bird. Didn't have a thing. I know you have my wings and pistol, but I am sweating out the clothes in my bed roll and the rolls of film in my musette bag....
"Jesus, Dick, they put casts right over my wounds and it smells as if a cat shit in my bed. I can't get away from that stink. "Well, this is short, but my right arm is very weak. Remember me to all."
Heyliger's replacement as C.O. of Easy was 1st Lt. Norman S, Dike, Jr. He came over from Division HQ. Tall, slim, good looking, he was well educated and talked in a military tone of voice. He made a good impression.
Being X.O. put Winters into daily contact with Nixon, by now battalion S-3. They hardly could have been more different. Winters grew up in a middle-class home; Nixon's father was fabulously wealthy. Winters had not gotten out of Pennsylvania in his teenage years; Nixon had lived in various parts of Europe. Winters was a graduate of a small college; Nixon came from Yale. Winters never drank; Nixon was an alcoholic. But they were the closest of friends, because what they had in common was a dedication to the job at hand, and a remarkable ability to do that job. Every member of Easy interviewed for this book said Winters was the best combat commander he ever saw, while Nixon was the most brilliant staff officer he knew in the war.
"Nixon was a hard man to get out of the sack in the morning," according to Winters. One day in November, Winters wanted to get an early start. Nixon, as usual, could not be talked into getting up. Winters went to his bed, grabbed his feet while he was still in his sleeping bag, and threw them over his shoulder.
"Are you going to get up?"
"Go away, leave me alone."
Winters noticed that the water pitcher was half-full. Still holding Nixon's feet on his shoulder, he grabbed the pitcher and started pouring the contents on Nixon's face. Nixon opened his eyes. He was horrified. "No! No!" he begged. Too late, the contents were on their way. Only then did Winters realize that Nixon had not gone outside to piss away the liquor he had drunk, but used the water pitcher instead.
Nixon yelled and swore, then started laughing. The two officers decided to go into Nijmegen to investigate the rumor that hot showers were available for officers there.
The campaign dragged on. Increasing cold added to the misery of the daily rains. Finally, in late November, Canadian units began to replace the 101st. Easy's turn came on the night of November 24-25, when it pulled out of the line. In the morning, the men boarded trucks for the trip back to France for rest, refitting, receiving replacements, and a shower, which the enlisted men had not had in sixty-nine days.
Easy had jumped on September 17 with 154 officers and men. it came out of Holland with 98 officers and men. Lieutenants Brewer, Compton, Heyliger, and Charles Hudson had been wounded, along with forty-five enlisted men. The Easy men killed in action were William Dukeman, Jr., James Campbell, Vernon Menze, William Miller, James Miller, Robert Van Klinken. The company had taken sixty-five casualties in Normandy, so its total at the end of November was 120 (some of these men had been wounded in both campaigns), of whom not one was a prisoner of war.
As the trucks rolled back down Hell's Highway, the Dutch lined the roads to cheer their liberators. "September 17," they shouted, as the convoy moved through Nijmegen, Uden, Veghel, Eindhoven.
The men of Easy did not feel like conquering heroes. Sergeant Lipton summed it up: "Arnhem Annie said over the radio, 'You can listen to our music, but you can't walk in our streets.' She was right. We didn't get into Arnhem."
Copyright © 1992 by Stephen E. Ambrose
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