“Golden Lions” II

Lieutenant Ivan Long, center, talks to bedraggled members of his Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, 423rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division. Trapped by the sudden German assault on December 16, 1944, the platoon traveled over 18 miles back to American lines.

Lieutenant Alan Jones, Jr, son of the division’s commander, and Operations Officer of the regiment’s 1st Battalion, stared dumbly in disbelief – then guilt. Technical Sergeant Edward L. Bohde, a platoon leader with Company ‘L’ of the 422nd, remembered the day’s combat as Volksgrenadiers advanced with panzers. ‘We lay there, firing away as the tanks came closer and closer firing their 88’s in our midst. Then, above the roar of gunfire and commotion, I heard our Company Commander shout, “Stop firing, Stop firing!”, and saw him stand up with a white cloth tied to the end of his rifle, raised high above his head. I, though, continued to fire at the enemy, either because I was in a state of disbelief or because that was the way I was trained. Kill the enemy! A number of men around me continued to do the same until we heard another order, “Cease firing, Cease firing, You’re getting innocent men killed. At this last order I did stop firing my rifle and saw all of my comrades standing up with their hands held high above their heads.’

One of Descheneaux’s staff, Major William Cody Garlow, a grandson of ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, volunteered to fetch a German officer. Garlow fluttered a pair of white handkerchiefs and walked over to the Volksgrenadier artillery headquarters to arrange a ceasefire. In the wood line above the Schönberg–Andler road, thousands of GIs began destroying their weapons and equipment. A private fixed Descheneaux with a look of burning resentment, holding up his rifle. ‘I’ve carried this goddamn thing for months. I’ve never even fired it once in anger!’ he screamed as he broke it against a tree. Santoro, the medical sergeant, witnessed one lieutenant place his wristwatch on a rock and smash it, saying, ‘Those bastards don’t get this’. Major Garlow returned with a German Leutnant, but hadn’t the nerve to tell him of the thousands waiting to surrender. Garlow ‘represented 400–500 men’, he had stated. When the pair returned to Descheneaux, the German turned to Garlow. ‘Major, you told me you had only 400–500 men here, but … I understand,’ he said discreetly.

The Leutnant, who spoke French, and Descheneaux, a French Canadian, made the necessary arrangements. Corporal Wojtusik watched as the Germans approached his unit under the protection of a white banner. ‘We all saw that white flag and we thought they were surrendering to us,’ he recollected. ‘Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. They were there to let us know we were surrounded.’ John A. Swett, manning the regiment’s 81mm mortars, recalled being out of ammunition: ‘A loud speaker came up from the base of the hill, and a voice with no trace of German accent said, “Your officers have surrendered you. Come down off the hill and form up on the road”. This was repeated a number of times and the lack of firing of any kind indicated this was probably the end of the war for us. When the truth of the situation sunk in, I had the immediate job of taking my weapons apart and throwing their parts as far as I could into the forest. I could see troops already forming up on the road as I came down the hill.’ Tears streaming down his face, the colonel encouraged those who wished to try and filter through the lines to St Vith – and led the rest into humiliating captivity. On hand was a German Kriegsberichter camera crew who recorded several famous clips of helmeted American prisoners stumbling along the roadside and in the fields as panzers rolled past. The look of dejection on their faces was remarkable. This wasn’t how it was meant to be.

Sergeant John Kline recalled, ‘there were many wounded and dead in the ditches and fields as we were led out of the woods, and a German truck burning in the middle of the road. Behind the truck was an American infantryman lying in the middle of the road in his winter uniform, a heavy winter coat, ammo belt and canteen. He was lying on his back, as if he were resting. The body had no head or neck. It was as if somebody had sliced it off with a surgical instrument, leaving no sign of blood.’ Swett remembered the headless corpse too. For Taylor, the imagery was different. He would never forget the ‘German soldier sitting in a captured Jeep, not a day over sixteen. He had found a case of chocolate and had a bar in each hand. His mouth was smeared and he was eating with double time speed.’

The elation of the Wehrmacht, which for years had experienced only defeat, knew no bounds. Hitherto, all had been fed on Goebbels’ lies of successes. All of a sudden they were faced with the reality of victory rather than mere propaganda. With their own eyes they witnessed the impossible: the surrender and seeming collapse of many American units. Leutnant Behrman, an artillery officer attacking through the Schnee Eifel with the 18th Volksgrenadiers, recorded in his diary:

18 December: The infantry is before St Vith. The men hear the wildest rumours of success.

19 December: Endless columns of prisoners pass; at first about a hundred, then another group of about one thousand. Our car gets stuck on the road. I get out and walk. Generalfeldmarschall Model himself directs the traffic. (He’s a little, undistinguished-looking man with a monocle.) Now the thing is going. The roads are littered with destroyed American vehicles, cars and tanks. Another column of prisoners passes.

20 December: The American soldiers have shown little spirit for fighting. Most of them often said, ‘What do we want here? At home we can have everything much better’. That was the spirit of the common soldier. If their officers thought that way??? A rumour has been started that Eisenhower was taken prisoner. It will probably prove to be only a rumour.

21 December: Roads still clogged, but traffic continues. Vehicles are almost exclusively captured American equipment. It was a tremendous haul. St Vith has fallen.

The first moments of capture are shocking for any soldier. Tension and a sense of failure mingle. Though combat soldiers share the brotherhood and understanding of the front, both sides remain tense – one false or misinterpreted move can result in death. There are usually a few seconds after the hands or a white flag go up before the surrender gesture is registered and firing stops. Men can go down in those split seconds. An invisible line is then crossed from the moment a soldier might be legitimately killing a combatant, to committing a war crime in killing a prisoner. The tension is on both sides. Weapons are thrown down, often helmets too. Coleman Estes remembered, ‘we had to unbuckle our ammo belt holding our water bottle, medical package, gas mask, and everything down to our field jackets’.

It is a sober reflection that the further back a captive soldier travels from the front line, the more likely he is to be abused. PFC Jim Forsythe was with Company ‘A’ of the 424th Regiment, defending Winterspelt in the southern sector of the 106th’s front. His experience of the changing behaviour of his captors illustrates the point. They had been attacked by Leutnant Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s 164th Grenadier Regiment, high on their stimulants. On the 17th, Forsythe’s captain surrendered to the first German he saw (rather too enthusiastically, Forsythe felt). ‘The one who searched me was polite. The first thing he did was to take two cigarettes from a pack of four in my coat pocket. He put one in his mouth and one in my mouth, lit them, and put the remaining two in my pocket. He spoke good English and told me to put my arms down and that if I behaved I would not be harmed.’ A day later, however, the combat troops had moved on, leaving the POWs with many others, lying wounded or dead in a barn at Winterspelt. Other troops arrived to march them off to a POW camp, but before they left, ‘the Germans went around the downed Americans, probing with bayonets, and any that flinched or moved were shot in the head with pistols … simply because they could not walk and keep up with the other prisoners’.

Corporal Taylor was searched by a red-headed German youth, who ‘demanded the glasses I was wearing, which happened to be gold rimmed. He took them, broke the lenses, and crushed the frame into a wad which he dropped into a small canvas bag. It contained several pieces of gold, some of which were crowns still attached to teeth … He did the same to a second pair, then spotted my ring – a high school class ring. My fingers were swollen and the ring wouldn’t budge. He started to remedy that problem by whipping out a 6½ inch knife and motioning that he would cut off my finger. I shouted for an officer. That scared him, so he ran off and left me.’ He was lucky. When Pete House was escorted down the hill to the road by mostly teenage artillerymen, ‘we carried three wounded men with us. I don’t know how many dead or wounded were left in the woods. Of course we were searched. They let me keep my pocket knife, watch, and overshoes. Treated us good – but no food. Some of us were ordered to prepare their Flak guns for moving. One American refused saying that it was against the Geneva Convention. A German officer pulled his pistol and shot him in the head. That’s when I learned to forget the Geneva Convention.’

Far different was the case when II Battalion of the 293rd Volksgrenadier Regiment captured a group of 106th GIs on 20 December at Bleialf. In doing so, the grenadiers also freed some Germans who had earlier been taken prisoner. The Germans informed their liberators that they had been interrogated by ‘two Jewish-American soldiers from Berlin’, part of a six-man IPW (Interrogation of Prisoners of War) Team attached to the 106th. According to the documents of his trial, held on 20 April 1945, the German battalion commander, Hauptmann Kurt Bruns had the two GIs identified and, stating ‘The Jews have no right to live in Germany’, detailed Feldwebel Hoffmann to execute them immediately. On 13 February 1945 the remains of Staff Sergeant Kurt R. Jacobs and Technician 5th Grade Murray Zapler were discovered and identified outside Bleialf. Despite protestations that he was ‘only following orders’, the judge at his trial sentenced Bruns to hang.

After the surrender of Bataan in the Philippines to Japan on 9 April 1942, where 15,000 American and 60,000 Filipino troops were marched into captivity, this was the largest mass surrender of US troops since the civil war, and most prisoners of the 106th shared John Kline’s experience of being ‘walked in columns to Bleialf and herded into a church yard. It had turned dark and the temperature was dropping. Most of us were without overcoats. We had only our field jackets and our winter issue of olive drab uniforms with long johns. We had to sleep on the ground. I remember how nervous I was. I wondered what was going to happen to us when day break came.’

However, as Earl S. Parker, in Company ‘E’ of the 423rd, was marched back behind the panzers and self-propelled guns that had caused his regiment so much trouble, the old-fashioned nature of the Wehrmacht was revealed to him. He was ‘surprised to see horse-drawn artillery, supply wagons and field kitchens – even some officers on horseback’. Approximately 6,500 men went into captivity on 19 December, though word did not reach St Vith immediately of the surrender. By the 21st more were captured as isolated garrisons gave themselves up.

Others fought on. Several sub-units of the 18th Cavalry and 589th Artillery Battalion had separately battled their way into Schönberg, initially unaware it had been taken, or of the mass surrender taking place behind them. They came across rows of American 6 x 6 trucks lined up ahead of them and assumed the occupants to be GIs, but realised just in time from the shape of their helmets they were Germans. Some GIs backed off, others stayed to fight until they were faced with German tanks. These may have belonged to Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade, but King Tigers from the 506th Heavy Tank Battalion were also beginning to use the route from Manderfeld via Andler and Schönberg, to reinforce their advance to Vielsalm. They belonged to the Sixth Panzer Army, but had trundled over their boundary into Manteuffel’s territory in order to use the main road, more suitable for the massive Tiger IIs.

From one such panzer unit, Leutnant Rockhammer wrote home to his wife on 22 December, ‘You cannot imagine what glorious hours and days we are experiencing now. It looks as if the Americans cannot withstand our important push. Today we overtook a fleeing column and finished it. We overtook it by a back road through the woods, just like on manoeuvres, with sixty Panthers. And then came the endless convoy, filled to the brim with American soldiers. It was a glorious bloodbath, vengeance for our destroyed homeland. Our soldiers still have the old zip, advancing and smashing everything. The snow must turn red with American blood. Victory was never as close as it is now.’

All the GIs attacking Schönberg had eventually to abandon their vehicles and attempt to hike west towards St Vith and safety. Both Captain Arthur C. Brown and Lieutenant Eric Fisher Wood of the 589th Artillery shared similar experiences in Schönberg and escaped separately to the woods north-west of town. Brown and a small band of men were sheltered by a local farmer, Edmond Klein, near Stavelot. In his 1949 study of the 106th Division, Lion in the Way, Colonel Ernest Dupuy spent four pages describing the roving wolf-pack activities of Wood, who escaped into the trees just as the Germans were about to seize him and, possibly with other cut-off GIs, organised a guerrilla band which harassed German units from the woods around Meyerode. Charles Whiting in two of his books about the Bulge also wrote of Wood’s lonely six-week war against the Germans, and of the locals finding his body surrounded by seven dead Germans, whom he had despatched. Nearby lay the remains of PFC Lehman M. Wilson of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Their remains were discovered in early February 1945 with a date of death fixed at late January. It seems a perfect story, except that US official military records state Wood’s date of death as 17 December 1944 on the headstone bearing his name, in the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. A forester certainly met and sheltered an American fugitive at this time who answered to Wood’s description, but no concrete evidence has ever surfaced as to Wood’s activities, or demise. That his father, a general, later became a member of General Eisenhower’s staff was perhaps instrumental in giving this tale of a latter-day Robin Hood some ‘legs’, and Belgians insist that Wood was buried where he fell; a stone cross stands where the local community in Meyerode commemorate him. Probably we shall never know whether an American dragon-slayer lurked in these woods, though most would wish it to be true.

Post-war, Captain Alan Jones, Jr, the general’s son, penned a staff paper for the Infantry School at Fort Benning on the Schnee Eifel operation. Among many robust criticisms, he concluded the defeat was the result of ‘the combination of the weakest unit holding the least desirable defensive position, which controlled an important avenue of approach, and could have resulted only in success of the enemy’s attack’. The problem was exacerbated by the lack of reserves, as all three regiments were committed in line. Communications throughout the period, he wrote, ‘were erratic or non-existent’ and no schemes had been made during planning for alternate methods of contact.

Jones felt that, had aerial resupply drops been initiated, as they were for Bastogne, they ‘could have maintained the fighting strength of two surrounded infantry regiments and one field artillery battalion on the Schnee Eifel’. The two regimental staffs, he argued, should have made every effort to maintain the closest possible coordination, which they utterly failed to do. Lack of food and water (as Colonel Cavender had suggested) was no justification for organising the capitulation, he wrote, nor did he feel that a commander had the right to order his men to surrender in such circumstances. Finally, he insisted that a regimental command post should never be located next to the regimental aid post, for the sight of the 422nd’s casualties piling up on 19 December 1944 had obviously unnerved the already fraught Colonel Descheneaux. In short, Jones suggested, both senior officers had ‘lost the plot’.

The Germans were even more critical, Oberstleutnant Dietrich Moll, chief of staff of the 18th Volksgrenadiers, observing, ‘The 106th Division’s failure must largely be blamed on the lack of initiative of its officers, NCOs and General Jones. There had been no combat reconnaissance even before the [German 16 December] attack began,’ he asserted. ‘A surprising fact, considering that bad weather had prevented air reconnaissance. Pushing eastward from the Schnee Eifel positions, a combat patrol would undoubtedly have discovered some indication of our preparations. No American preparations had been made to block the Our valley or blow up the bridge at Schönberg … Once their rear communications had been cut off, units surrendered too easily. Even after German units had penetrated deep into their positions, there was no evidence of coordinated leadership, nor was there any attempt to launch a counter attack.’

But all was not in vain, for Manteuffel had expected to take St Vith on 17 December and the Golden Lions permanently damaged his precious timetable. It would take another week of brutal fighting before the Germans entered what would be the devastated remains. In 1970 Manteuffel wrote a letter to a retired 106th artillery officer, stating he could not understand why the division received so much criticism for the debacle of the Ardennes. As far as he was concerned, they held up an entire corps for four days, forcing many of his troops to manoeuvre north or south in their attempt to reach St Vith. That was a remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards, the baron felt, and worthy of great pride, not blame. By the war’s end the Golden Lions would have received the impressive tally of 325 Bronze Stars, sixty-four Silver Stars and one Distinguished Service Cross for their time in combat.

The little settlements that witnessed the hard fighting over 16–19 December 1944 have recovered and grown, to the extent that many of the 106th veterans I have met there display difficulty in orientating themselves. Builders in Bleialf still have to be careful with the legacy of unexploded wartime munitions – an earth-moving machine uncovered twenty large artillery shells in 2009 – all still assessed as lethal. Head north out of Bleialf and take a right at the first junction, to Auw. In 1944 this was called ‘Purple Heart Corner’, though some GIs dubbed it ‘88 Corner’. Either way, the nicknames indicated what would happen if a soldier lingered there.

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