Glory in Retrospect
TRANSLATION: PASSER-BY REMEMBER THAT IN THESE WOODS WHICH CONSTITUTE THE ‘POCKET OF VERDENNE’ VIOLENTLY CONFRONTING EACH OTHER FROM DECEMBER 23rd TO THE 26th 1944 WERE THE 84th Inf. Div. AND THE 116th Pz. Div. HERE MORE THAN 2000 SOLDIERS LOST THEIR LIFE.
‘It is only in retrospect, or at a safe distance from the front that action seems dramatic. Engaged in an action, there is only room for fear and planning. Drama comes in retelling or remembering. If the soldier comes out safely, the experience of danger achieves luster and hue.’*
The action in the ‘Belgium Breakthrough' was the most talked of campaign that our Company experienced. Major James Johnston of our Regiment said, ‘I would never go through the fighting again, but I would not give up my experiences for the staff's payroll’. I too hope never again to experience war, but am glad for the memories.
Already, just three years after the action of this writing, I have forgotten many of the names of those who fought with me, and the deeds that those names should symbolize. For fear of forgetting more, I have written of the following experience as first gunner on a 30-caliber light machine gun in the 4th Platoon, ‘A’ Company, First Battalion, 334th Infantry Regiment, 84th Division.
No reader of the following will know exactly what combat is like unless he/she has experienced it. It is impossible to know the mental and physical strain through which combat is seen, and so the following cannot tell the reader what combat is like. It is a story for a story's sake, but for me it’s an aid to counteract that inevitable disease known as loss of memory.
This is the story of one engagement by one Company of infantrymen, covering only a small sector of a front that extended from north to south the whole length of Europe. This is the story of one action of many which in the aggregate were successful in repulsing Germany’s all out attack to drive a wedge across Belgium to the sea. The enemy had hoped to isolate the northern Allied troops from the larger number south of Belgium.
But the big picture will go down in history books. One can go there for broad information concerning the ‘Belgium Breakthrough’. The individual actions will never be recorded except by those men and women who experienced them. They are too numerous for history books and are unimportant except in that they might better remind us of the naked horror of war.
To tell of accurate detailed combat, any narrator is limited to a sector ranging from only two hundred to six hundred yards. This is as far as any man can see and distinguish action on the front. The solider is never sure of what is happening a short distance to the right or left of his position. Combat can best be described as a mass of confusion.
It was the day before Christmas of 1944.
In the previous month, we had fought in Holland and Germany, mainly in the Siegfried Line. Those had been slow moving days and nights. In that time we had moved forward about five miles. One month of daily attacks had cost our Company about one hundred and seventy five in dead or wounded of the original two hundred men that had left the United States as a combat team. But this is not a true measure of our casualties. Periodically we had gotten replacements and they were equally expendable. It didn’t take long to break in a new man on the front. After one of the artillery or mortar barrages that came intermittently throughout the day, and after one attack, the new man became an experienced veteran. ‘A’ Company of the first Battalion was a seasoned outfit.
Then one night a new outfit replaced us on the line. We thought we were being relieved for a twenty four hour rest that would take us behind the lines a few miles. Experience had accustomed us to one of these rests for roughly every seven days of fighting. These were the times when we could sleep, because there was no real sleep on the front. But this time we were disappointed. We were informed that the Germans had broken through the 1061h Division in Belgium, were gaining territory in a rout, and we were being thrown into the gap.
This was how it came about that on the morning before Christmas we were dug in on the outskirts of the small town of Marche in Belgium, on the northern flank of what was later to be known as the ‘Bulge’. Our position was beside a railroad track on the edge of the town. The snout of my machine gun stuck through a hedge that ran along the tracks. We could thus cover our front through the hedge and the flanks of our position down the tracks on both sides. We also had to be vigilant to our rear because the Germans were spread throughout the whole area. No definite front line had been established.
An incident that illustrates this point occurred after our arrival in a truck convoy. When we disembarked from the trucks, we were supposed to be well behind what we thought would be the front line. We started our march forward while the trucks that brought us turned back to retrace their route. We were later informed that they never reached safety. The whole convoy was captured. This convinced us that a ‘front line’ did not exist.
Near our position was an old railroad switch house. In it we had stored some precious food we had received in one of the very few Christmas packages that reached our Company. We hoped that on Christmas day we could split our watch into two sections and while one section stood guard, the other could enjoy rest and a good meal in the little brick switch house.
But this was never to be. On this same morning, and just after a particularly heavy incoming artillery barrage, a runner came to order us to move forward to clear a company of Germans out of the woods directly to our front. We were assured that we would return to this position as soon as the task was completed. So, we left our treasured food to rot in the switch house.
Upon arrival in this sector we had been ordered not to take any prisoners. They didn't say, ‘shoot any German who surrenders’, but of course there was no alternative. The Germans executed their prisoners because, were they to take those who surrendered or were wounded, they would not have any way to take care of them. We had the same problem. Our forces were spread thin. Few people back home were aware of, or could understand, the necessity of these tactics. When a prisoner was taken, often the officer or ‘non-com’ in charge would order that he be taken on a ‘short trip back’. The men thus assigned would take the prisoner back a couple of hundred yards, do what was expected of them, and be back with their unit with little time lost. I thank God that, because I was not a rifleman, I was never ordered to take a ‘short trip back’.
These were the conditions under which we moved forward to clear out the woods. At 5:00 PM, we entered the dense forest under heavy fire from the Germans within. As I ran forward, I would hit the ground periodically when the whiz of a bullet sounded too close, or a psychic urge befell me. Once I landed next to a clump of bushes only to have an enemy bullet clip off a branch not five inches from my head.
One of my short runs brought me to a wounded German lying on the ground. Because I carried the machine gun on my shoulder, my side-arm was a 45 caliber pistol. He saw me and frantically reached for a white handkerchief in a plea for mercy. He knew what he would do if our positions were reversed. We both know what I was supposed to do. I aimed the pistol at his head and he began to cry.
No matter how much hate I had gathered from seeing Germans kill cold bloodedly, I could not bring myself to shoot this young, good looking blond boy. I had made him suffer just by my threat. My hate consoled my conscience in this. I passed on, leaving him unguarded in our rear. To this day, I wonder about him. Did some other G.I. come across him lying there and do what I was supposed to have done?
Dusk found our mission accomplished and our Company dug in on the far edge of the woods we had cleared. This was the spot from which we attacked, leading to the most active, horror filled two days of our winter campaign in the ‘Bulge’.
Wib Theuerkauf confronted me as we rested in the five-foot-deep hole we had just completed. Wib had been my second gunner throughout my battle experience. We had become very close friends. A little to our right rear, hence slightly back in the woods, was the hole of Chuck Maneer and Gito Gatti, our ammunition bearers. To our left about fifty yards, I could see Howard Shore Ill putting the finishing touches on the hole that was to be the second machine gun's position. Ray Gould was his second gunner. On either side, between and behind our gun positions, were the riflemen's holes.
To our front was an open field extending about five hundred yards to a steep embankment and then a gentle hill. Far to the left we could see the roofs of the small Belgium town of Verdenne.
It was Christmas Eve and we could hear German troops celebrating in Verdenne. Sounds and songs carried well across the cold clear air. Wib and I, catching the spirit, built a shelter with a raincoat to shield the small flame from a wax block that was to heat coffee. Hot coffee had become the most cherished treat on the front. We took the rest of the contents of our ‘K’ rations and ate mechanically. We had become unbelievably tired of this repetitious diet but we knew that we must eat. The food was cold and tasteless. It was cold and dark except for the constant flashing explosions. The night that symbolizes hope for mankind seemed meaningless to me in 1944.
About three incoming mortar barrages after our supper, for this was one way of keeping time, our own artillery opened up on the German positions to our front. Thirty minutes of concentrated shelling was enough to lift us from our lethargy, to key us up to the mental and physical state needed for attack. We knew from experience that this was the reason for the barrage. It wasn't long before a runner Informed us that my machine gun was to go with the first rifle platoon, Shore's was to go with the second, and the third platoon was to be in reserve. Whether this attack was planned to take advantage of the German's obvious celebration and hence their possible laxness of guard, we never knew. Fighting men knew nothing of the thoughts of those who shaped their fate.
We waited. And we watched and listened for the unknown, for this was an opportune time for enemy patrols to operate within our lines. The screaming of invisible shells overhead with their ensuing explosions, together with anticipation of attack, put nerves on edge. Finally we moved forward, leaving the security of our foxholes. The usual confusion followed. In the many shadowy figures moving out of the woods, I could not find the first platoon. Nobody seemed to know where any individual or group was. We ran forward in utter ignorance of exactly where we were going or in whom we could trust. This was customary.
We were no longer fooled by a trick the Germans were fond of using. Now when we saw an enemy machine firing tracer bullets high above our heads, we knew that there were others firing invisible death at body level. We could only run and hope and be amused at the enemy's attempt at deception. When we were about half way across the field, German artillery added to the confusion and terror. Here only luck and periodic psychic urges to drop to the ground could save lives.
We had crossed the field and were climbing the hill. I doubt If any of our troops had fired their weapons. We could see nothing at which to fire. Now we were sure that the top of the hill was our destination. Due to bad timing, we gained that position before our own artillery had quit blasting it. Artillery gunners in the rear had no way of knowing that it was now their own troops they were shelling. It was estimated that our Company lost at least six men due to this error in timing.
When the runner had first instructed us that we were to attack, he had said that our mission was to retake a hill that had previously been held be another Company of our own Regiment. He assured us that we would find ready-dug fox holes. This would be the sign for us to stop moving forward. We found them. What the runner had failed to tell us was that most of the previous Company's troops had been caught and killed in their foxholes. We were sickened by the sight of the mangled bodies of two Gls in almost every hole.
We moved back about one hundred feet and started to dig new holes—from the prone position. We dug with the speed and energy that is somehow brought on by fear. The sometime feeble calls for aid men were becoming more frequent. About six inches below the surface we found shale rock, and while it was not solid, it did make digging almost impossible. The riflemen on our right had somehow managed to get a large pick ax and were digging with comparative ease. Wib and I dug until dawn and still our hole was only about a foot deep and six feet long. Wib's height was probably about six feet, two or three inches and I am six feet, six inches tall. It was decidedly uncomfortable but we were able to keep ourselves below the all-important ground level.
This is how we spent Christmas eve in 1944.
Christmas morning was beautiful. The air was clear and crisp. The sun penetrated our overcoats and uniforms. American bombers heading toward German cities and supply lines left high vapor trails across the sky. It was momentarily quiet.
After spending a night of cramped digging and constant shelling, the coming of Christmas and the hope that it signifies brought us from our holes. We walked around, stretching and talking to our buddies from the other holes. Stories of Christmas day in the other World War led us to wishful thinking. We longed for a lull, for a day of peace and safety. This was the frame of mind I was in when I made a trip to the open graves to our front. I had used my first aid packet on a wounded GI earlier and needed a replacement. It was the habit of our troops to spread out equipment on the perimeter of their holes. There was a wealth of unused equipment around the holes of the dead soldiers.
I had found an unused first aid packet and a warm blanket by the time I came to the third hole of my search. I had been purposely avoiding looking into the holes, for no matter how hardened you become to blood and gore, the sight of mutilated friends is always disturbing. And so my hair fairly stood on end when, out of the comer of my eye, I glimpsed movement in the hole I was standing over. Two bodies were there, one on top of the other. The head of the body on the bottom had turned and was watching me. He pulled himself up and asked, ‘What Company are you from?’ I replied and he asked, ‘Where is 'I' Company?’. Of course, most of ‘I’ Company was still there, but I replied, ‘They retreated two days ago.’ He pulled himself from under the other body and stood up. It was then that I noticed a clean bullet hole directly through the middle of his thigh. He did not mention it but instead complained of trench foot. I noticed that there were no empty ‘K’ ration boxes around the hole so I knew that he had not eaten in at least two days. Evidently he had lain there, under the body of the dead soldier, for the entire occupation of the area by the Germans. I surmised that he was out of his mind, probably from utter terror. The Germans had no doubt counted him as dead.
I must interrupt the telling of this little drama to point out that the town of Verdenne, on our left, had been taken by another Company of our infantry in the same previous night's general attack. When a town is captured, it usually takes several days to clear it of enemy troops. In this case the town was still swarming with Nazis, a fact that explains what followed.
The incident with the wounded (and probably crazy) GI had attracted the attention of Howard Shore Ill, a good friend and first gunner of our Company's other light machine gun. He was approaching us to see what was happening when a German armored car, escaping from Verdenne, made a run for German lines. As it sped directly across our front, its machine gun opened fire on us. I ‘hit the dirt'’ and saw Howard literally fly into the air. He let out a shriek of pain. I forgot my new acquaintance and ran up the hill to find that Howard had stopped a bullet in his leg. The slug appeared to have carried a piece of overcoat completely through his leg.
The shout for aid men went up. It seemed like it was the millionth time I had heard that ever disturbing call. Howard was very brave. He said, ‘Can't you make those fellows hurry; I don't mean to gripe but this damn thing hurts’. The aid men finally came and took him away on a stretcher. The demented soldier had followed me, completely oblivious of the hole in his own leg. I motioned him to follow the aid men as I made a dash for my foxhole.
I have pointed out the wounding of Howard Shore, not because it was all that unusual, but because he was one of my closest friends on the front. I have not seen him again to this day. This incident seemed to touch off a fuse to all the explosives available to the Nazis. It marked the beginning of one of the most hectic days of my combat experience. German artillery let loose full blast and in so doing, blasted the spirit of Christmas.
It became obvious that the purpose of the heavy enemy bombardment was to cover the retreat of armored vehicles and men from the town on our left. All Christmas day their artillery kept us down in our shallow trench. All that day, German cars and tanks made the dash, one by one, for their lines. Our anti-tank guns fired accurately at them as they crossed the open field to our front. Every time one was hit, the Germans in it would jump out and run for safety. My machine gun and the other gun, now fired by the second gunner Ray Gould, cut the enemy down as they ran. Only on this day did I ever find combat to be as pictured in the movies. We blazed away ruthlessly until the GI in the next hole, with an 0-3 rifle and telescopic sights, told us that that German was dead. I doubt that this action could be understood or accepted by persons not having combat experience. We had been conditioned to do these things without hesitation by over a month of constant fighting.
This was the way in which the day started, continued and ended. It was a bloody, seemingly endless day, our Christmas of 1944.
Night finally came and then refused to go away. Night on the front was worse than the day. There was no rest, no cessation of fire. In daylight you could see who was near you, at night you were never sure. Vigilance doubled.
Rifleman Moore, who had somehow gotten a pick ax and therefore had a deep hole, came over to see us. He told us that his partner had been wounded during the day and that he was leaving his hole to join another rifleman whose partner had been killed. We could have his deep hole. When there, I found that I could stand up and my body from the waist down was below ground level. It was like moving from the slums to the Taj Mahal.
Wib and I started our nightly vigil, one on guard while the other curled up in the bottom of the hole and covered himself with his raincoat to rest as best as possible. It was the usual night on the front except that it was the prelude to the first retreat our Company had ever made.
Just before sun-up when I was on guard, the front suddenly became very quiet. Quiet can also be disturbing. And yet I noticed nothing else unusual. At the end of my hour, I touched Wib's shoulder to indicate that it was his turn on watch. I had just gotten settled in the bottom of our hole when Wib's anxious voice whispered, ‘Phil’. I jumped up. It was just getting light and we could see many silent figures coming up the slope toward us. The Germans had timed their attack perfectly. They had come across the open field to our front in perfect cover of darkness and were now less than one hundred yards from us. I slammed our machine gun into full cock. This noise was enough to put all the surrounding Gls on alert. Hardly taking time to aim, I squeezed the trigger, spraying the approaching enemy troops with traversing fire.
All the Germans seemed to yell at once as they lurched forward on the run. Our riflemen opened up all around us as I continued to fire. The Germans quickly took what cover the prone position can give. They had machine guns too, as we immediately found out. Unfortunately, a machine gun is easy to spot by anyone in front of it because of the continuous muzzle flashes. I could see their machine guns; they could see mine. A duel developed. I fired and then ducked to avoid the full blast from all the German guns directly in front of us. I hoped (but now doubt) that the other machine gun and our supporting riflemen were joining me in the struggle.
Once when I was up, an enemy bullet pierced the ammunition box that was always placed on the left side of the gun and continued through the material of my overcoat shoulder. It didn't touch my body. On the next time up, Wib came up too. It was impossible for him to stay down and not know what was happening. A bullet passed through his steel helmet, through his wool knit cap underneath, and then out the back side of the helmet. When he took off his helmet to feel his head, I saw that the bullet had taken a shock of his hair and made it stick straight up out of the hole in the cap, but drew no blood.
Each passing minute brought new dangers. We had been so completely absorbed by our Intensive, close range fire fight, that we had failed to see German tanks emerge from the woods on the far side of the field in front of us. Three Tiger tanks were coming directly toward our exposed position. By the time we became aware of them, they were almost up to their own stopped infantry. We yelled frantically that enemy tanks were approaching. In retrospect, know that our pleas fell on no other ears. The depth of the whole Allied line was the depth of our few foxholes. Even if there had been someone behind us, our voices could not have been heard over the din of battle. We also knew that there was not a bazooka or any other weapon in our immediate vicinity that could take out a Tiger tank. We could not dwell on these thoughts. Only a steady stream of bullets could keep the enemy from overrunning our position.
As I found out later, Wib and I were the only remaining targets, since most of the Company had already retreated to the rear. It was well that we did not know this at the time.
We heard the sound of tanks to our rear and for a fleeting moment we thought that friendly tankers were coming to our rescue. But the noises stopped and we forgot about them.
I was firing when Wib came up to take his last look to see what was happening. A bullet hit him in the middle of his forehead. He simply slumped forward as a huge amount of blood gushed from his nose. I reached out foolishly for his wrist to feel his pulse. My hand was trembling too much. More importantly, I could not leave the gun unmanned for the space of two heartbeats, were there any heartbeats to feel. It was only wishful thinking that made me doubt that he was dead.
Now I was alone and for the first time, I was sure that I too was going to die. But I kept on firing, hoping to keep them off for just a little longer. By now the enemy tanks were very close and were firing their machine guns and their big guns directly at my position. There were three of them, one directly in front of me and one on either side. I noticed that I was nearing the end of my second box of ammunition. Wib had been there to help me reload the first time. This is one of the functions of the second gunner. I knew that it would take too long to reload alone. This would be the pause the Germans were looking for. This would be the end.
I was firing the last of my ammunition when I remember thinking that my head had surely been torn from my shoulders. I now know that a bullet had ricocheted off the left side of my machine gun, had broken up and smashed into the left side of my face. I know this because of the pieces they later took out of my head and now blind left eye (I still have the largest piece). But at that moment, I found myself on the bottom of the hole with my face in my hands. As I lifted my head, I saw that my wool gloves were saturated with blood. I yelled, ‘I'm hit and I can't fire anymore'. No one answered because I now know that there were no living Americans there to answer.
And then the miracle happened. I had probably been down only a few seconds. As I got up to look out, I saw an artillery shell hit directly between me and the tank nearest me. I believe it was our own artillery—thinking there were only Germans there. There was heavy smoke as a result of the explosion. I don’t know if it had been a smoke shell to cover our retreat, or maybe the shell hit the enemy tank. With hardly a thought, I scrambled out of the hole and ran for the rear as fast as my legs could carry me.
I ran right into another German tank. It was burning. The tanks we had previously heard and thought to be our own coming to help us, were actually German. I'm glad we didn't know this at that time, but it could not have been much worse.
I ran blindly over the hill and down the steep slope to the beginning of the open field we had crossed in our attack two nights before. Here I found two Gl's, one an aid man. In my mad dash retreat, I had completely forgotten about my wound, but the looks on the faces of these men when they saw me quickly reminded me of it. No doubt my condition looked worse than it actually was, because I had smeared blood over my entire face. The aid man sprinkled my face with sulfa and wrapped the bandage I had recently acquired around my head.
The Germans were coming up fast to the top of the hill above us. The field between us and safety was probably about five hundred yards of completely open ground except for a mound of dirt about half way across. We all ran at once and the German tanks on the hill opened fire on us. The fellow next to me went down but I could not help him. Stopping meant certain death. I remember seeing spurts of dirt rising up all around me. The situation was the same as on Christmas day, only now our roles were reversed. Somehow two of us reached the mound and crouched behind it. Then we wisely ran separately for the rest of the way to the safety of the woods into which the rest of our Company had retreated.
I don’t remember how long all of this took, or many of the details. So much happened in such rapid succession that clear thinking on it was impossible. Also, by this time my head was splitting and I could only think in blurred spasms. Aid men picked me up on a stretcher and carried me back on the road to many hospitals and recovery.
This was the end, the climax of my battle career. I have told of it as accurately as memory permits. These actions, along with others occurring in the area in those two days, might well have been characterized by American newsmen (if at all) as ‘local skirmishes’. A more detailed release might have suggested ‘a straightening of the lines, local attacks and minor retreat in some sectors’. This is no doubt how our commanders and the American public pictured our combat in those two days. But no soldier who fought on that deadly hill will ever forget the ferocity of the battle that I have attempted to describe here. Nor will we forget our comrades who died there.
Notes on Events Surrounding My Experience, 2010
When, in 1948, I wrote of my combat experience, my concern was to protect against memory loss of names and events. Now, 66 years later, my motivation is to provide an historical record for my descendants, those who will probably know little of their ancestors or of early twentieth century ‘battle line’ warfare. To aid in that, I add the following.
First–some events that led to this traumatic experience. When I graduated from Madison West High School in June of 1943, WW II was raging. I knew that I would be drafted, with an uncertain activation date. Instead, I enlisted in the ERC (Enlisted Reserve Corps) with a fixed activation date that would allow me to complete two semesters (summer and fall) at the University of Wisconsin. In January of 1944, I was sworn into the Army Air Corps (as it was then known) and had my basic training at Shepard Field Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, Texas. In May, orders were issued to the effect that the Air Corps designate a few men from each unit to be transferred to the 84th Infantry Division to fill its ranks prior to being shipped overseas. Our sergeant took the easy way out by having us draw straws to determine who would go. I drew the short straw and found myself on the way to A Company of the 84 Infantry Division at Camp Claiborne, near Alexandria, Louisiana. The day I reported for duty there, the Company Captain, took one look at me (and my size) and said, ‘There's our new machine gunner’.
With intensive training on the 30 Caliber light machine gun, including practical use on maneuvers in the swamps of Louisiana, I was well prepared when, in September, our Division traveled by train to the East coast, and then by ship (through Nazi submarine infested waters) to an English Army barracks in Winchester, England. In early November we were shipped to the continent, coming ashore at Omaha Beach (Normandy, France). From there, we were trucked east to the German Siegfried Line, just off Holland, where the foregoing account (Prelude) picks up the story.
Once wounded on December 26th, I was taken by stretcher to a first aid station. While doctors attended those with life threatening wounds inside a small tent, many of us laid for hours on stretchers on the ground outside. Still, I was happy to be there. Next I was trucked to a large tent hospital in Liege, Belgium where they did a preliminary operation. A few days later, I was trucked to a large hospital in downtown Paris (for about a week), then by train to the English Channel, and by Hospital ship to England. For the next two months I was hospitalized, first in a hospital where they extracted some of the pieces of the bullet from my head (not all, some remain) and closed the wound, and then in another specializing in eyes. Although they could do nothing to restore sight in my left eye, they did save the eye, for which I'm thankful. From there, as ‘limited service’, I was transferred (through a series of replacement depots) back to the Air Corps at an airfield not far from London. I had come full circle.
An interesting series of events occurred at that Air Corps base. There were a number of (‘limited service’) ex-infantry men assigned to this base, and the unhappy Master Sergeant in charge didn't know what to do with us. We had time on our hands and an inspection caught two of us lounging in our barracks room, which was in considerable disarray. The unhappy Master Sergeant took pleasure in giving us a week's KP (Kitchen Patrol). While cleaning frozen chickens, I was again ordered to the orderly room, where that same Master Sergeant informed me that orders had arrived awarding me the Silver Star (for the action described herein). He explained that Army regulations required that only a General could present this award, and that there was no General at the Field. He sent me back to KP. While still there, an order came down for all base personnel (including aircraft maintenance personnel and pilots who were still flying missions over Germany) to ‘fall out’ in ‘class A’ uniforms in front of one of the hangers. I was given no information, but had a bad feeling. Standing at attention, these hundreds of airmen watched as an airplane dropped out of the sky and taxied to a spot to our front where a microphone was placed. A General stepped out and ordered me to step forward. The General read the Silver Star citation, pinned the medal on me, saluted me, re-boarded his aircraft, and took off. I went back to KP (and frozen chickens) and the rest went back to war. The actual orders for this award (Wib included) and the medal itself (with others) are shown on the following pages. The officer who made the recommendation got the date and a few facts wrong, but remember that war is chaos.
A note about my rank. I entered combat as Pfc. (Private first class). My machine gun squad sergeant was killed in the first few days of combat. Our other machine gunner, ‘Tinny’ Epstein, (having seniority over me) got a field promotion to sergeant. When ‘Tinny’ left the front with trench foot a few weeks later, I got a battlefield promotion to sergeant but before it could be made official, I was wounded and the orders never caught up with me (through many hospitals, replacement—depots and Air Corps units). When shipped back to the States that fall, I was formally promoted to corporal (for reasons unknown), and then given a medical discharge.
A Final Thought
I've always had positive feelings about my experience in the service, with the only exception being the dark side of combat. The training taught me respect for authority and teamwork. My physical condition could not have been better—I never lacked for energy and had not so much as a sniffle during my forty days of living 24/7 in a hole in the ground, in rain and cold, and with very little sleep. I became buddies with men of greatly diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. During my Army days, I was on a fast maturation track. My mind is at peace in that when ‘the chips were down’, Wib and I stuck by our gun. That's what we were trained to do—to cover the troops, if retreat was necessary. I have always been proud of my service in the name of this great nation and freedom in the world.
The Battle Revisited
In October of 2010, ten of our family traveled to Europe to retrace my steps in 1944 as described in the foregoing account. In addition to Janie and me, there were David and his wife Marcie, their son Christopher and daughter Alison, Marcie's son Nathan and his wife, Keely, Jeff and Tom. Here's the gang, with the exception of Janie and me. If the bullet that got me at almost this exact spot had been an inch to my left, none of us would have been here, and some would never have existed.
Before telling of what we found on this highly successful trip, we may need some orientation as to the ‘where’. This rather crude map will help to locate that part of Germany in the Siegfried Line where I fought in the month ahead of this action, and that part of Belgium where the ‘Bulge’ occurred. Our action there took place on the northern edge of the salient, near Marche.
I'm standing on the approximate spot where Wib died and I was wounded. The German 1161 Panzer Division emerged from the woods on the left to attack and overrun this position.
After being wounded, I ran to the right, past a burning German tank, to the sharp drop off (below), from which you can see the open field across which I fled under fire, and the woods (and safety) beyond.
We long remember the price that our country, and those who fought there, paid to defeat the Nazis and free the Belgians living in this area. I was moved to see that the citizens of Marche and Verdenne have not forgotten either. The stone memorial (shown and interpreted at the front of this booklet) stands just outside Verdenne.
The Verdenne street (Rue) sign remembers in its small way.
Then too, the painted 841 insignia in the heart of Marche tells the story boldly.
I have no regrets, but for those who did not come back.
Phillip C. Stark, 1948
(with notes and photos from 2010)
*Perry S. Wolff, ‘Fortune Favored the Brave’, August 1945