Posted on August 23rd, 2016 by:

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War in the Forest

By Sgt. Mack Morriss

YANK Staff Correspondent

WITH THE 4TH INFANTRY IN HURTGEN FOREST, GERMANY—The firs are thick and there are 50 square miles of them standing dismal and dripping at the approaches to the Cologne plain. The bodies of the firs begin close to the ground so that each fir interlocks its body with another. At the height of a man standing, there is a solid mass of dark, impenetrable green. But at the height of a man crawling, there is room, and it is like a green cave, low-rooted and forbidding. And through this cave moved the infantry, to emerge cold and exhausted where the forest of Hurtgen came to a sudden end before Grosshau.

The infantry, free from the claustrophobia of the forest, went on, but behind them they left their dead, and the forest will stink with dead-ness long after the last body is removed. The forest will bear the scars of our advance long after our own scars have healed, and the infantry has scars that will never heal, perhaps.


Shoulder insignia of the 4th Infantry Division

For Hurtgen was agony, and there was no glory in it except for the glory of courageous men—the MP whose testicles were hit by shrapnel and who said, “OK, doc, I can take it”; the man who walked forward, firing tommy guns with both hands, until an arm was blown off and then kept on firing the tommy gun until he disappeared in a mortar burst.

Men of the 25th, 43rd and 37th Divisions would know Hurtgen—it was like New Georgia. Mud was deep, but it was yellow instead of black. Trees were as thick, but the branches were stemmed by brittle needles instead of broad jungle leaves. Hills were as steep and numerous but there were mines—S mines, wooden shoe mines, tellermines, box mines.

Foxholes were as miserable but they were covered because tree bursts are deadly and every barrage was a deluge of fragmentation from the tops of the neat little firs. Carrying parties were burdened with supplies on the narrow trails. Rain was constant but in Hurtgen it was cold, and on the line there was constant attack and a stubborn enemy.

For 21 days the division beat its slow way forward, and there were two mornings out of those 21 when the order was to reform and consolidate. Every other morning saw a jump-off advance, and the moment it stopped the infantry dug in and buttoned up because the artillery and mortars searched for men without cover and maimed them.


US Soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division cautiously advance in the Hurtgen Forest

There was counterattack, too, but in time the infantry welcomed it because then and only then the German came out of his hole and was a visible target, and the maddened infantry killed with grim satisfaction. But the infantry advanced with battle packs, and dug in and buttoned up, and then the artillery raked the line so that there were many times when the infantry’s rolls could not be brought up to them.

Rolls were brought to a certain point, but the infantry could not go back for them because to leave the shelter was insane. So the infantry slept as it fought—if it slept at all—without blankets, and the nights were long and wet and cold.

But the artillery was going two ways. The division support fire thundered into the forest and it was greater than the enemy fire coming in. A tired battalion commander spoke of our artillery. “It’s the biggest consolation we have,” he said. “No matter how much we’re getting, we know the Kraut is getting more.” So the infantry was not alone.


American tanks in the Hurtgen Forest

Tanks did the best they could when they could. In the beginning they shot up defended bunkers and dueled with hidden machine guns in the narrow firebreaks, and they waddled down into the open spaces so that the infantry could walk in their tracks and feel the comfort and safety from mines.  At the clearing before Grosshau they lunged forward, and some of them still dragged foliage of the forest on their hulls when they were knocked out.

One crew abandoned their tank, leaving behind all their equipment in the urgency of the escape. But they took with them the mascot rooster they had picked up at St. Lo.

The advance through Hurtgen was “like wading through the ocean,” said S-3 at the regiment. “You can walk in it all right, but water is all around you.”

There were pickets in the forest when two battalions CPs had been in operation for three days, and physical contact between them had been routine. Thirteen Germans and two anti-tank guns were discovered between them. The CPs were 800 yards apart. “Four thousand yards from the German lines,” said S-3, who had been one of the battalion commanders, “and we had to shoot Krauts in our own front yard. Our IPW team got its own prisoners to interrogate. The engineers bridged the creek, and before they could finish their work they found 12 Germans sitting on a hill 200 yards away, directing artillery fire on them by radio”. These things were part of Hurtgen, a green monument to the Wehrmacht’s defense and the First Army’s power.


GI’s of the 4th Infantry Division take a break during the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest.

At that, the monument is a bitter thing, a shattered thing. The Germans had four lines of defense in the forest, and one by one those lines were beaten down and the advance continued. This was for the 4th Division alone. There were other divisions and other lines. And these MLRs were prepared magnificently.

Hurtgen had its roads and firebreaks. The firebreaks were only wide enough to allow two jeeps to pass, and they were mined and interdicted by machine-gun fire. In one break there was a tellermine every eight paces for three miles. In another there were more than 500 mines in the narrow break. One stretch of road held 300 tellermines, each one with a pull device in addition to the regular detonator. There were 400 anti-tank mines in a three-mile area.

Hurtgen had its roads, and they were blocked. The Germans did well by his abatis, his roadblocks made from trees. Sometimes he felled 200 trees across the road, cutting them down so they interlocked as they fell. Then he mined and booby-trapped them. Finally he registered his artillery on them, and his mortars, and at the sound of clearing them he opened fire.


Medics carry a wounded GI to an aid station during a lull in the fierce fighting

The first two German MLRs were screened by barbed wire in concertina strands. The MLRs themselves were log-and-earth bunkers six feet underground and they were constructed carefully, and inside them were neat bunks built of forest wood, and the walls of the bunkers were paneled with wood. These sheltered the defenders. Outside the bunkers were the fighting positions.

The infantry went through Hurtgen’s mud and its splintered forest growth and its mines and its high explosives, mile after mile, slowly and at great cost. But it went through, with an average of perhaps 600 yards gained each day.

The men threw ropes around the logs of the roadblock and yanked the ropes to explode the mines and booby traps in the roadblocks, and then they shoved the trees aside to clear the way. The engineers on their hands and knees probed the earth with No. 8 wire to find and uncover non-metallic show mines and box mines which the Germans had planted by the thousands. A wire or bayonet was shoved into the ground at an angle in the hopes that it would touch the mines on their sides rather than on the tops, for they detonated at two or three pounds’ pressure. Scattered on the ground there were little round mines no larger than an ointment box, but still large enough to blow off a man’s foot.

At times, when there was a clearing, the engineers used another method to open a path. They looped primacord onto a rifle grenade and then fired the grenade. As it lobbed forward it carried with it a length of primacord, which was then touched off and exploded along the ground with enough force to set off or uncover any show mines or S mines hidden underground along its path. In other cases, when the area was known to be mined, it was subjected to an artillery concentration that blew up the mines by the force of the concussion. But there could be no certainty that every mine was blown, so the advance was costly, but the enemy suffered.


GI’s of the 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Division march into position in the Hurtgen Forest.

One regiment of the 4th Division claimed the destruction of five German regiments in meeting 19 days of constant attack. The German had been told the value of Hurtgen and had been ordered to fight to the last as perhaps never before. He did, and it was hell on him. How the German met our assault was recorded in the brief diary of a medic who was later taken prisoner, and because it is always good for the infantry to know what its enemy is thinking, the diary was published by the 4th Division. The medic refers to the infantry as “Ami,” colloquial for American. These are some excerpts:

“It’s Sunday. My God, today is Sunday. With dawn the edge of our forest received a barrage. The earth trembles. The concussion takes our breaths. Two wounded are brought to my hole, one with a torn-up arm, the other with both hands shot off. I am considering whether to cut off the rest of the arm. I’ll leave it on. How brave these two are. I hope to God that all this is not in vain. To our left machine guns begin to clatter—and there comes Ami.

“In broad waves you can see him across the field. Tanks all around him are firing wildly. Now the American artillery ceases and the tank guns are firing like mad. I can’t stick my head out of the hole—finally here are three German assault guns. With a few shots, we can see several tanks burning once again. Long smoke columns are rising toward heaven. The infantry rakes cover and the attack slows down—it’s stopped. It’s unbelievable that with this handful of men we hold out against such attacks.

“And now we go forward to counterattack. The captain is leading it himself. We can’t go far though. Our people are dropping like tired flies. We have got to go back and leave the whole number of our dead and wounded. Slowly the artillery begins its monotonous song again—drumming, drumming, drumming without let-up. If we only had the munitions and heavy weapons that the American has he would have gone to the devil a long time ago, but as it is, there is only a silent holding out to the last man.

“Our people are overtired. When Ami really attacks again he has got to break through. I can’t believe that this land can be held any longer. Many of our boys just run away and we can’t find them and we have to hold out with a small group, but we are going to fight.”


German soldiers captured during the fighting by the 9th Infantry Division

Then two days later came the final entry:

“Last night was pretty bad. We hardly got any sleep and in the morning the artillery is worse than ever. I can hardly stand it, and the planes are here again. Once more the quiet before the storm. Then suddenly tanks and then hordes of Amis are breaking out of the forest. Murderous fire meets them, but he doesn’t even take cover any more. We shoot until the barrels sizzle, and finally he is stopped again.

“We are glad and think the worst is past when suddenly he breaks through on our left. Hand grenades are bursting but we cannot hold them any longer. There are only a very few left, and here he is again. There are only five of us. We have got to go back. Already we can see brown figures through the trees. As they get to within 70 paces I turn around and walk away very calmly with my hands in my pockets. They are not even shooting at me, perhaps on account of the red cross on my back.

“On the road to Grosshau we take up a new position. We can hear tanks come closer, but Ami won’t follow through his gains anyway. He’s too cowardly for that.”

Perhaps this German who called the infantry cowardly and then surrendered to it will never hear the story of one 4th Division soldier in Hurtgen. He stepped on a mine and it blew off his foot. It was one of those wounds in which the arteries and veins are forced upward so they are in a manner sealed, and bleeding is not so profuse as it otherwise would be.

The man lay there, but wasn’t able to bandage his own wounds. The medics tried to reach him but were fired upon. One was hit, and the trees around the man were white with scars of the machine-gun bullets that kept the medics away. Finally—after 70 hours—they managed to reach him.

He was still conscious, and for the medics it was a blessing that he was conscious; and for the man himself it was a blessing. For during the darkness the Germans had moved up to the wounded man. They took his field jacket from him, and his cigarettes. They booby-trapped him by setting a charge under his back so that whoever lifted him would die. So the wounded man, knowing this, lay quietly on the charge and told the men who came to help him what the Germans had done. They cut the wires of the booby trap and carried him away.

The green monument of Hurtgen is a bitter thing.

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