Meeting the German thrust, the 82nd Airborne Division turned the Nazis’ own guns against them and then went on to retake the village of Cheneaux

By Sgt. Ed Cunningham

YANK Staff Correspondent

Men of the 82nd Airborne Division are veterans of Sicily, Anzio, Normandy and Holland. For the first time in their history, they went into action by motor transport in this campaign. They attacked at 2200 Dec. 19 against the Nazi spearhead and took the high ground around Base Bodeaux. They pocketed elements of an SS Panzer division at Cheneux. The Division has beaten off numerous counterattacks by three enemy divisions, knocked out 20 armored vehicles, taken 200 prisoners, and killed an estimated 700 Germans.

82nd airborne division

Insignia of the 82nd Airborne Division.

WITH THE 82nd AIRBORNE DIVISION IN EASTERN BELGIUM—This battered Belgian village of Cheneux, with its narrow rubble-heaped streets and torn cold-looking houses and barns, is a far cry from the Champs Elysees and the war-forgetting warmth of Paris night clubs and bars—too damned far for the men of this infantry regiment who had held off on their 48-hour passes so they could spend part of the Christmas holidays in Paris.

Von Rundstedt’s counter-attack screwed up that deal, leaving the infantry Joes with nothing more than Paris rainchecks, redeemable once the Jerry drive had been rolled back. But the guys in this regiment have one consolation. They, in turn, screwed up a few of Von Rundstedt’s holiday plans—and they didn’t issue him any rainchecks either.

According to the German prisoners taken since the counter-attack started, Von Rundstedt had promised them Aachen and Antwerp for their Christmas stockings, with further promises of spending New Year’s eve in Paris. The Jerries who were headed for Paris were routed through Belgium That’s where they met up with the Yanks, who had had similar plans for toasting in 1945.

The meeting took place on the hilly road that leads down into this Belgian village. B Company of the First Battalion started out at 1500 to look over the town which was reported to be lightly held by the Germans. That was an optimistic estimate. When the Americans got within half a mile of the town they were promptly tied down by Jerry flakwagons which came out to greet them. Lacking artillery and tank destroyer support and armed only with M1s, light machineguns, flak grenades, and bazookas,  B Company was in no position to start trading punches. Regimental headquarters was notified of the situation, with an urgent request to send something to get the German flakwagons off B Company’s tail. Just about that time somebody hit on the idea of sending a previously captured Jerry halftrack, mounting a .77. in as a pinch-hitter until our own T-Ds and artillery arrived. A hurried call was sent out for five volunteers to man the German vehicle.

82nd airborne division

Depiction of one of the German Flakwagons encountered by men of the 82nd Airborne Division in Cheneaux, Belgium.

The first guy to stick out his neck was Pfc. Russel P. Snow of Burbank, Calif., a regimental clerk. Snow, a clerk for the Los Angeles board of education office before the Army got him, volunteered to drive the half-track, although he had never handled one before. Two members of the regiment’s 57mm. anti-tank squad, Pfc. Harold Kelly of Chicago, Ill., and Pfc. Harry Koprowski of Erie, Pa., offered to work the .77. Pvts. Thomas R. Holliday of Henderson, Ky., and Buland Hoover of Hobbs, N.M., two BAR men, volunteered to cover the driver and the .77 gunners.

After Kelly and Koprowski had been given a brief orientation on the operation of the .77—they had never fired one before—Snow drove the half-track onto the frost-hardened rutted road and went off to relieve the pressure on Company B. For three hours the Americans operated their one-vehicle armored patrol up and down the hilly road that led into the German-occupied village. Seven Jerry flakwagons mounting 20mm. guns, and several heavy machineguns were deployed around the edge of the village, well hidden by thick underbrush and a heavy ground fog that reduced visibility to 100 or 200 feet. Most of the time Kelly, who was at the sights of the .77. was firing almost blind aiming in the direction of the spot from which the 20mm. and machinegun tracers were coming. Once, however the men on the half-track saw a column of German infantrymen coming down the road toward B Company. Kelly raked their ranks with his .77, forcing them to abandon the attack. Another time Hoover, the BAR man, spotted a Jerry machinegun nest and silenced it.

Just before dusk, a blast from a 20mm. hit the brace of Kelly’s gun. He got several pieces of flak in his lower lip and chin. At that point, Snow, the guy who used to clerk for the board of education back in Los Angeles, started doubling the brass. He maneuvered his vehicle into position against the tracers coming from the enemy 20mm. or machinegun, then moved back to take Kelly’s place on the .77. A roaming German half-track got into Snow’s sights on the crossroads just outside of the village and went up in flames and there were two probables on machinegun nests but Snow couldn’t be certain because of the bad visibility.

Finally, with his ammunition almost gone and Kelly in need of medical attention, Snow turned the captured Nazi vehicle around and headed back to the CP to resume his regular duties as a regimental clerk.

82nd airborne division battle of the bulge

Men of the 82nd Airborne Division march past a knocked out German Stug IV assault gun during the Battle of the Bulge.

While Snow and Kelly were running interference for them, elements of B Company moved up for a closer look at the village. A lieutenant leading a squad on a wide swing around a German strongpoint was hit by sniper fire, leaving his outfit without either an officer or a noncom. Cpl. Curtis Aydelott, an S-2 section leader from Clarksville, Tenn., had joined up with the patrol squad when he was separated from his own outfit in the battle confusion. So Aydelott stepped in the lieutenant’s spot. Aydelott’s usual duties are not with a line company; he ordinarily goes on patrols or follows in after an attack to roll Germans for identification papers. He went along on this deal to bring back any Jerry prisoners but instead was thrown in a spot where he had to double as a line noncom.

Ordering a machinegunner to cover them, Aydelott and a bazooka man skirted a house on the edge of the village and flanked a flakwagon parked there. The GI with the bazooka opened up on the Jerry vehicle, setting it on fire, while Aydelott sprayed it with his tommygun. None of the five-man Nazi crew escaped.

Ayedelott’s helmet was shot off his head during the advance but he was uninjured. He got another helmet from a sergeant who had been shot in the chest. The sergeant told him he didn’t think he would be needing it again very soon.

After determining the strategy of the German occupying force, Lt. Col. Willard E. Harrison, the battalion commander of San Diego, Calif., ordered an attack on the town that night. The battalion kicked off at 2200, after a 10-minute artillery barrage with two T-Ds for support.

It had started to snow and a thick veil of white covered the huge fir trees which lined the hill road leading into town. B Company, advancing on the right side of the road, yelled over to C Company on its left: “The last ones in the town are chicken. Get the lead outta your tails, you guys.”

82nd airborne division battle of the bulge

A Bazookaman of the 82nd Airborne Division during the winter of 1944-45.

C Company made contact first, taking on a column of 100 German infantrymen who were supported by 19 flakwagons, several tanks, and an assault gun. The first wave was pinned down by murderous fire from Jerry advance machinegun emplacements. But then when our second wave came up, it overran the enemy position and wiped out both guns and crews. S/Sgt. Frank Dietrich of Detroit emptied his tommygun on a machinegun crew and when the last Jerry started to break and run for it, Dietrich threw the tommygun at him. The shock of being hit by the gun slowed up the fleeing German just long enough for another C Company man to finish him off with a BAR burst.

Meanwhile B Company had attacked the flakwagons with their bazookas and hand grenades mixed in with spine-freezing Texas cowboy yells and self-exhortations to “get those bastards.” One B Company man finished off a Jerry flakwagon gunner who wouldn’t surrender. The Kraut was injured but he still leaned over his gun, firing at the advancing Americans. Suddenly one tough battle-maddened GI made a direct break for the flakwagon, yelled “You German sonofabitch,” jumped up on the vehicle and stabbed the Jerry with a knife until he fell over dead. Another B Company man, a staff sergeant, had sneaked up on a flakwagon ready to throw a grenade inside when he was hit in the left arm and side by small arms fire. Unable to pull the pin, he called to another GI to do it for him. Then he turned and hurled the grenade into the flakwagon.

The battalion got into the first building on the outskirts of the town that night, set up their CP there and dug in. The Jerries launched a five-hour counterattack supported by flakwagons and a tank. The counterattack finally failed but only after the tank had hit the CP three times.

During the daylight hours the Yanks and Jerries traded punches at long range with nothing particularly startling save for the experience of S/Sgt. Edgar Lauritsen, a headquarters company operations sergeant from Limestone, Maine, and Pfc. Theodore Watson of New York, a Medic. While a German tank was shelling the CP, two jeep loads of soldiers in American uniforms—a captain and eight enlisted men—pulled up in front, got out and started walking around the other side of the building toward the German lines. Watson hollered to them that they were going too far but they ignored his warnings. That aroused the medic’s suspicious. He demanded to know what outfit they were from.

82nd airborne division battle of the bulge

Maj. General James Gavin, Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division meets with Maj. General Matthew Ridgeway in the Ardennes offensive.

“The Ninety-ninth,” said the captain, continuing his route.

Sgt. Lauritsen, who had just come out of the CP, caught the tone of the conversation, got suspicious himself , and shouted, “What outfit in the Ninety-ninth?”

“Headquarters,” was the captain’s slightly guttural reply as he continued walking toward enemy lines. The accented answer convinced Lauritsen. He hollered “Halt!” and when the eight American-uniformed strangers started running, Lauritsen opened up with his M1. The captain staggered, shot in the back, but his companions grabbed him and hurried him toward a steep embankment which led down into the woods.

The rest of the Americans in the CP, attracted by the firing, thought Lauritsen had gone flakhappy and was shooting Yanks. They were all set to drill Lauritsen himself when they realized what had happened. By that time the eight fugitives escaped into the woods, presumably making their way back to German lines.

But the payoff of the entire spy deal was the deception the same German captain pulled on an American captain back at the regimental CP just before he was spotted by Lauritsen and Watson. The two jeeps, loaded with the eight Germans who were wearing mud-splattered Americans mackinaws and carrying M1 rifles, stopped in front of the CP.

“Hey captain,” the German captain yelled to an American officer standing outside. “I’m from the—Division. Have you seen any of our tanks around here today?”

“Yeh,” the unsuspecting American answered.

“How many?”

“Oh, about four or five.”

“Good. Say, how far is it to such-and-such a place?”

“You can’t get down there. The bridge is out.”

“Thanks. By the way, how are things going around here?”

“Aw, they’re all screwed up.”

“Well, I’ve got a good piece of news for you,” The German said. “I just came up from corps where I heard Patton had driven a spearhead through the Jerry lines yesterday, captured 11,000 Krauts and 230 enemy vehicles.”

“Good,” replied the American officer, pulling out a pack and offering it to his visitor.

“Thanks, captain,” the English-speaking German in the American uniform called back as he started his jeep in the direction of the front lines, followed by the second jeep.

The American officer still insists his visitor spoke perfect English without an accent, used U.S. idioms, and slurred his suffixes like a born Now Yorker. He claims most anybody would have been taken in by the imposter.

Regardless of the information on the phony U.S. soldier carried back to the German lines, it didn’t do the Nazis who were here much good. That night the Third Battalion came up the valley and joined with elements of the First Battalion to clear the village. In so doing, they were credited with the destruction of one Mark IV tank and seven flakwagons. The regiment was also credited with the first town in this sector—and possibly along the entire front—to be retaken from the Germans by assault since Von Rundstedt’s offensive began.

For More about the 82nd Airborne Division Check Out:

The 82nd Airborne Division: A Photographic History Volume 1: Training, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio

All American, All the Way: The Combat History of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II

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