| The trauma of warfare lies on the
survivors as well as on the loved ones of those who do not survive. Who
can cherish the thought of having ordered anyone, however inadvertantly
to his death?
The over-riding mission in the W.W. II mobilization period was training troops- imparting the basic skills and, by a form of regimentation, discipline to promote cohesiveness such that each man or unit could rely on those working alongside in working toward a common goal.
As an adjunct there was physical fitness to prepare for extended periods of exertion but most importantly was instilling a mental attitude for instinctive re-action to stressful situations- one that tolerated no intruding concern for consequences. True, it was Pavlovian in part but along with imparting a feeling of working for a just cause, there had to be an inner adjustment to the immbalance of hazard to death. The emotion of fear, and to a lesser extent, compassion had to be suppressed.
A most vivid example of such lack of inner adjustment came while fronting the well protected fortifications of the Siegfried Line on the German border.
It was January, 1945 and the initial thrust to the Ardennes Forest attack, leading to the Battle of the Bulge, had been blunted. They had retreated, however, into the forts of the Siegffied Line for a last Gotteramerdung- and a determined one it was.
Only a small measure of protection was afforded by the banks of the ravines leading to the swollen ice-laden river fronting the concrete emplacements. Intense mortar and artillery at every well-zeroed in approach route portended more hazard at the stream banks.
The Stygian darkness, the drizzle of icy rain and the treacherous footing of the stream beds, amidst the constant din of opposing weaponry was enough to test the valor of the most hardened of men.
And ours was a bunch of newly arrived recruits with scarcely 90 days in the service. The unexpected infantry losses characterized by the loss of almost a full-division at the initiation of the Bulge Battle had forced drastic manpower measures- and we were at the cutting edge.
The planned sequence of events for the night was to be: First: At dusk, clearing of mine fields and their impeding barbed wire from avenues of approach. Since under such conditions troops cannot be led over cliffs or open fields, such approaches were down the water courses. Secondly to lead the assault troops burdened by 10 to 12 man capacity assault boats through the minefields and down the ravines to the water's edge. Third, to put the carriers into the boats for rowing across to gain access to the far side gun emplacements. All was to be done with stealth and on a relatively broad front. It didn't quite work out that way.
The sudden thrust into strange surroundings, a lack of mental adjustment, the fear and sensed greater danger with each forward step took their toll. They knew that the boats being carried could only lead to worse to come.
After slipping and scratching a hand or an elbow on the jagged rocks of the stream bed, the immature troops, hardly more that boys, hugged Mother Earth's surface with moanful cries of "Mother, Mother". Most were put back on their feet and told to keep contributing to the load and to keep going. It was an ordeal keeping the groups, with some members inclined to wander, and their loads together.
The scene at the water's edge was one of chaos amidst stealth. Muffled roll-calls and orders were the only sounds as paddles were put into hands of the men to row across. Some boats were overturned in the loading process, others disappeared down the swirling stream and few got across.
All efforts to get a guide rope across the 300 feet of raging waters, were thwarted by its inability to withstand the force of the current.
The river bottom was being paved with discarded equipment and the bank with straggling men who were quickly rounded up, handed another rifle and re-loaded into another boat for a duplicated effort.
Such actions occurred at several sites with the effort intensified as dawn approached and the knowledge they would be exposed to even more deadly fire from the far side concrete bunkers.
This was the pattern for three nights. On the fourth a wire cable finally held and enough, though thoroughly drenched troops were put across to reduce the nearby forts with their inter-locking fires.
Thus a traumatic baptism of fire for a number of recruits and we who stayed on the banks suffered mental as well as physical wounds.
This is an optional page, which while furthur emphasizing the terror of the situation does not appreciably add to the narrative.
Some of the action may best be described by a young writer who was also there at the time and recorded it in the unit history.
There were times when one felt a more personal responsabilty for death's song.
In the early days of training for action there there was a dearth of visual aides to impress the required lessons for survival. The need for drafted blow-ups such that 20 rather than two or three could observe the processes of safety in clearing a mine field or first aide was apparent. Somehow there came to the attention of the responsible training officer the name and skills of a young draftee who could produce the sequential picturization of the limited texts available.
He was with some hesitancy removed from the training ranks and his talents applied to a broader purpose- preparing charts to teach others the necessary skills.
As changes would have it, the training officer went on to a differing position. The young artist continued as an assistant to his replacement who soon became the operations officer in combat.
A few weeks after the Bulge started, and with heavy infantry losses, there was a five percent levy on all non-infantry units to fill the riflemen's ranks.
Shortly after there was an inquiry: "Where is young F?? I haven't seen him for several days."
"Oh. We had to send him out on the levy for riflemen."
Two weeks later word was recieved that he had been killed in-action.
Needless to say, guilt lay on the one who had pulled him out of his basic training for what was thought to be a more essential purpose. Was it- but who would ever know what insights to survival were implanted into others by his visual education supplements?
Yet another guilt trip involved a newly arrived lieutenant.
Well into the War, with losses of platoon leaders running very high- a complete turn-over in the preceeding half year with few replacements, we welcomed a new member.
He was a recent graduate forester from one of our Western universities. It was sensed, that the potential for danger was too high for one of his spirit so he was directed to stay close to the headquarters for a few weeks to only observe and get acclimated.
The pressures for his services as a platoon leader built up quickly.
"Boss, Sir, I have only two of my authorized four Second Lieutenants. I am hurting. Why don't you let me have that one who is just hanging around?" So he was assigned out. A week later, in part because of a lack of orientation- and taking unnecessary risks, he was k.i.a.
At least, he was known and could be accounted for.
Others were not. On one river crossing, a fellow battalion commander, though of infantry informed that a few nights before, two lieutenants unexpectedly showed up, just assigned as replacements. With only an hour to go before the assault and all, planning having been made, there was a quick greeting and handshake with "You go to Company "C" and You to "A". We have a river crossing tonight. "Good Luck" They had no files, no paper, no nothing and were known only as "Tom" and "Joe" Neither were found after the assault, so presumed killed and so noted when their files caught up with the unit.
Just before gasoline became available to Patton's forces in November 1944, two new but more experienced Lieutenants arrived. Both had been withdrawn from instruction duties in the U.S. and were delighted at the opportunity to be able to say to their grandchildren "Oh, I did more than teach explosives at Fort Belvoirg I was with the Third Army in Europe."
One, physically very impressive, was indeed a leader in spirit as well as in body. While it was often difficult to motivate men to depart the security of a cellar to go to work on a contested bridge or mine field. Lieutenant B. had only to stand up and all his cohorts were alert and ready to go. On the site, they hovered around him, when otherwise not employed, like a bunch of bees protecting a Queen. His presence and direction and their knowledge of what needed to be done was enough to get it done.
It was an amazing lesson in the esoterica of leadership.
There were times when he felt he had to set the example. Thus at a minefield fronting the Siegfried he ventured too far, into a new type of booby trapped minefield and lost a foot. To our regret. he was never seen again.
Still another unpleasant memory involves the battalion commanders Jeep driver. New and more advanced radios had been issued with the first two connecting his vehicle with the communications truck.
A brief lull in the action prompted the Signal Officer to request a check of the system- he to make a recon in the commander's jeep.
He returned without the driver. His story; while scouting a possibly needed bridging site, he had dismounted and walked down a rocky trail to the river. On return he found his driver on the road with his upper body shattered. There had been a trip wired fougasse (head high hole filled with stones and explosives) which he had somehow missed but the driver had tripped as he surreptitiously followed the Captain.
The element of personal guilt was not lacking on another stream crossing into the same Siegfried Line. A long winter night was to provide concealment for two efforts in hope that one would succeed.
The first was bridging at a destroyed site and the other a heavy duty ferry a mile downstream on the same river. An assistant was charged with the latter.
Every attempt to work on the two sites was met unsparingly by fire from pill-boxes and supporting tanks on the far bank.
After the first friendly tank rolled across just before the morning fog lifted, the battalion commander settled down for some rest in a welcome straw pile of a nearby barn.
Soon came a medic with " Major Knight got hit a few minutes ago on the ferry site and is outside in the ambulance. Do you 'want to see him?"
"How bad and is he conscious"?
"Bad, a big chunk of his side is gone."
I thought of one of General Patton's admonitions'. When you are out there in that fox-hole and reach over to touch what was once the face of your best buddy, don't get morbid, get mad and get with it.
With regret the response was "EVACUATE HIM"
The sight of a dying personal friend, I feared, would evoke emotions, to include compassion, that were not conducive to carrying on our part of the war.