Unit History of the
86th Chemical Mortar Battalion
23 February 1943 to 6 November 1946
This history was provided by Gregory K. Brown, son of Fred C. Brown who served in Company C of the battalion.
Fred Brown's stories as told to his son are quoted at the end of the official history.
Tales from Dad
To the officers and men of the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion who paid the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country and who in such great measure contributed to the glory and fame of this organization, this book is dedicated.
To the loved ones of these, our comrades, we extend our deepest sympathy in the loss of those so dear to them. We, too, share in this great loss. We shall never forget their sacrifice.
To the readers of these pages of history of gallant men, we remind each of the great obligation to those who gave their lives that this nation might continue to live; charging each with the duty of making everlastingly sure that the peace is won and kept, just as decisively as the fighting was won by force of arms.
To those of our ranks who remain, we individually rededicate our lives to the service of God and country, continuing "steadfast, immovable" in this great service.
All Things A Beginning
Everyone knows of the infantry and the air corps, the tankers and the engineers, the quartermaster and ordnance. And they "know" all about chemical warfare. They picture us playing with test tubes in white laboratories, a thousand miles behind the lines, discovering new war gases and atomic bombs.
Some within the Chemical Warfare Service do bring new methods of warfare from their labs, but most of us are ordinary soldiers - very like the infantry and all other troops who fight on the ground, for keeps.
Originally, our mortar was designed fir firing chemical shells. Then one day someone discovered that you could fire a TNT-filled shell from the same muzzle, and that one day you said goodbye forever to clean labs and pretty colored chemicals, and became a soldier.
So, we toted a 4.2" mortar from the beaches of France to the heart of fortress Germany. We went where the infantry had to go, a few times arriving before they did. Our ways of life were alike: some wariness by day, some fear by night, some boredom and despair. And some died in the fight, just as the infantrymen.
Neither for the glory or the medals, the press releases or the newsreels, but with a vague consciousness we sensed that we had to be part of this mighty juggernaut that was crushing the Nazis. Beneath our bluster and disdain of flighty words, we were proud of being soldiers. We originated a favorite maxim that we used as a "wise crack" all over Europe: "Don't fool with the fighting troops!"
Yet there are few - soldiers and civilians alike - who know what a 4.2' chemical mortar is and what it can do. Here is the answer, and it has nothing to do with chemicals or chemists except in a very abstract way. This is the historical account of a fighting odyssey, the simple facts of where and with whom we fought.
Everyone knows of the infantry and the engineers. This is about mortar men, who also fought a war.
The 86th Chemical Battalion, Motorized, came into being 23 February 1943 when a cadre was formed from the 1st Separate Chemical Company, and station complement personnel declared physically fit for combat. Arriving at Camp Swift, Texas, on 15 May 1943, the cadre immediately undertook preparations for the new-born battalion, and then proceeded in a training program designed to prepare the battalion for close-in support of infantry, the type of missions to be met under combat conditions.
The original battalion commander was Major Richard C. Tanner. On 25 March 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Wesley B. Hamilton assumed command of the 88th and successfully guided its destinies through the Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe campaigns.
Upon completing its short but intensive training program, the battalion departed by rail from Camp Swift on 11 April 1944 for the POE, Camp Shanks, New York. After a hurried three days and nights, the unit left Camp Shanks and boarded the New Amsterdam, a former Dutch luxury liner now converted to transporting troops. The New Amsterdam sailed from New York harbor on 18 April 1944.
A week later, after an uneventful crossing of the Atlantic, the ship anchored at th scenic port of Greenock, Scotland. It was a pleasure to sight land again, if only because it meant a promise of relief from the crowded shipboard conditions and the not-too-appetizing food.
The train which was waiting at the dock took us south into England. By the 27th of April the entire battalion was billeted in private homes of English families located in the village of Port Sunlight, Cheshire. During our two-month visit, we took full advantage of the opportunity and privilege to become really acquainted with our English hosts. The sincerity of the hospitality so graciously offered us, the many little things that made us feel at home, the friendships that developed, will not be soon forgotten.
There was an important job to be done; the unit had to be completely equipped and motorized. Although the time for additional training was short, each company was able to get in one day of firing on the range of Ruabon, Wales, as well as some small arms firing.
The battalion left Port Sunlight on the morning of June 25th and arrived at Stonehenge late at night. At 0300 hours on the 25th, the unit was ordered to proceed to the marshaling area at Southampton immediately.
The battalion sailed for France on the 29th. Early in the afternoon, the convoy ran into a mine field and six ships hit mines. The vessel on which Company B had sailed was so severely damaged that personnel were transferred in mid-channel to another boat and returned to the United Kingdom. The other ships reached Omaha Beach, Normandy, without further incident.
29 June to 1 August 1944
Units supported: 90th Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne Division, 8th Infantry Division, and 83rd Infantry Division.
Immediately upon landing, the battalion, attached to the Eighth Corps, went into combat. During this period, the battalion fired more than 11,500 rounds of mortar ammunition in close support of five different divisions and thus assisted materially which finally resulted in the breakthrough of Avranches by the armor.
On 6 July 1944, all companies underwent a reorganization for the purpose of enabling of platoon T/O strength to be rotated to battalion rear echelon for rest whenever possible. This move was necessary in order to keep men physically fit and equipment in good condition.
Northern France Campaign
25 July to 14 September 1944
St Malo - Dinard - Cap Frehal - Tennes, 1 to 17 August 1944
Units supported: 79th Infantry Division, 8th Infantry Division, and 82nd Infantry Division.
During this period the battalion fired a total of 7,844 rounds of mortar ammunition in support of the infantry troops and contributed to the ultimate capture of St. Malo and Cap Frehal. Two officers and two enlisted men of the battalion were in the party of American officials who took the surrender of Colonel von Auloch at the Citadel of St. Malo.
19 August to 19 September 1944
Units supported: 8th Infantry Division, 29th Infantry Division, and 2nd Ranger Battalion.
Firing a total of 47,561 rounds of mortar ammunition during the period August 24th to September 19th, the actual dates of the Brest Crozon peninsula fighting, this battalion supplied an extremely high volume of accurate close-in support fire, and contributed materially to the fall of Brest and the capture of the Crozon peninsula. It was here that German prisoners of war nicknamed our WP shell "Whispering Death."
23 September to 22 October 1944
Units supported: 35th Infantry Division, 80th Infantry Division, 4th Armored Division, 26th Infantry Division, and 6th Armored Division.
Following the battle of Fortress Brest, the battalion was moved to Dombasle, France, under XII Corps. Immediately upon arrival, the mortars were set in position facing the enemy along a line running south from Metz to Luneville,
16 September 1944 to 25 January 1945
(Germany 26 October to 17 December 1944)
Units supported: 28th Infantry Division, 78th Infantry Division, 2nd Infantry Division, 99th Infantry Division, and 8th Infantry Division.
On the 26th of October, the battalion received word to proceed to Arlon, Belgium. Before the unit was committed here, orders were received sending the battalion to the 28th Infantry Division, V Corps sector, at Rott, Germany. Here it supported the 28th and its successor in the line, the 8th Infantry Division, in the battle of the Hurtgen Forest. This was the only time in the history of the battalion that the unit was committed to the support of just one division. For heroic work in conjunction with the attack on the town of Schmidt and surrounding high ground which protected the network of dams, the battalion received a commendation from the commanding general of the 28th Infantry Division.
After setting up headquarters in Rott, Germany, it was decided to establish a rest camp, thereby enabling a rotation plan of rest for war-weary men. The town of Dolhain, across the boundary in Belgium, was selected. Daily movies and USO entertainment wewre features that always gave the fighting men a respite, a rest well deserved, for this was the period of our hardest and dirtiest fighting. On December 1st, the battalion completed its 150th day of combat and fired the 100,000th round of ammunition.
Battle of the Ardennes
17 December 1944 to 16 February 1945
Units supported: 78th Infantry Division, 8th Infantry Division, 2nd Infantry Division, 99th Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Division, 30th Infantry Division, 75th Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and 7th Armored Division.
During the Battle of the Ardennes, the battalion proved its capabilities and fighting qualities, assisting in holding the enemy from penetrating our left flank. Time after time, desperate forces of Nazi tanks and fanatical infantry rolled toward our lines. Each time our mortars belched their "Whispering Song of Death." White phosphorus blinded and burned the Nazis, tank drivers lost their sense of direction and charged crazily into trees, off roads into ditches, into men, and into each other. German foot troops became panicky and vainly sought cover. Finally the enemy offensive lost momentum and began retreating.
In this period the battalion was in support of two corps and, at one time, two armies. At one time, the unit supported the V and VII corps, later the XVIIII Corps of the Ninth Army and the V Corps of the First Army. Later, the battalion, under the First Army, supported the V Corps and the XVIII Airborne Corps. After the enemy's all-out drive had been stopped, the battalion was relieved for reorganization and was redesignated the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion with a Hq Company and three weapons companies.
25 January to 21 March 1945
Units supported: 28th Infantry Division, 2nd Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division, 78th Infantry Division, and 104th Infantry Division.
Immediately after reorganization, the battalion supported the V Corps in the final assault on the Roer River defenses and the advance to the Rhine. When the Remagen bridgehead was established, two companies, A and B, were attached to the VII Corps to assist in holding and expanding the bridgehead while preparations for the final breakthrough were being made. As we moved across the Rhineland, battalion headquarters was set up in Kalterherberg, Munstereifel and Ahrweiler.
Central Europe Campaign
22 March to 9 May 1945
Units supported: 69th Infantry Division, 9th Armored Division, and 3rd TD Group.
During this period, units of the battalion assisted in closing the Ruhr pocket, while the remainder helped in the drive across Germany. Battalion headquarters displaced several times to keep abreast of the rapidly advancing elements, passing through Neuwied, Weilburg, Trysa, and Wolfhagen. Battalion headquarters finally found billets in the city of Naumberg.
Company A was supporting the 69th Infantry Division when that unit made the initial contact with elements of the Russian infantry, thereby severing Germany in half and virtually concluding the war.
Since April 7th, the entire battalion had been back under V Corps control. On April 28th, all companies were relieved from the line and on May 1st the entire battalion moved to Eschenbach, Germany, assuming a novel phase in its varied experience - that of security guard, protecting installations and enemy material. It was here that we celebrated V-E Day. Our last move took us across the border in Czechoslavakia to Bischofteinitz in the German Sudetenland.
Leaving Czechoslavakia on June 13, 1945, the battalion went by motor convoy to Camp Lucky Strike, France. We sailed from Le Havre on July 1st, headed for home, 30-day furloughs, and then the Pacific. V-J Day intervened and when the battalion reassembled at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, it was to "sweat out" discharges instead of an invasion of Japan.
From the time the battalion entered combat on June 29th, 1944, until cessation of hostilities in Europe on May 9th, 1945, the unit expended a total of 152,257 rounds of HE and WP ammunition, and was in combat 315 days in the 11 months of actual combat on the continent. The battalion had been attached to the following armies and corps and been in support of the listed divisions.
Armies: First, Third, Ninth
Corps: III, V, VII, VIII, XII, XVIII, XIX
Divisions: 1st Inf, 2nd Inf, 4th Inf, 4th Armd, 6th Armd, 7th Armd, 8th Inf, 9th Inf, 9th Armd, 26th Inf, 29th Inf, 30th Inf, 35th Inf, 69th Inf, 75th Inf, 78th Inf, 89th Inf, 82nd AB, 83rd Inf, 90th Inf, 99th Inf, 104th Inf, 106th Inf, 2nd Ranger Bn, 102nd Cavalry Group.
To us of Headquarters Company, there is one night that stands as a salient against our background of training and the test of that training. Tracing an equal distance of time to the activation of the 86th as it did to the final end of the war, this passive, cold English night severed the way of life for fifty eight men. "Perhaps in no other way, except for the quiet apprehension that accompanied it, did this early morning of the 28th of June 1944 differ from any other English night." This we could have said if a motorcycle hadn't crashed through the typically cool mist of 3:00am bearing a messenger and message we had long expected. The perennial whistles blew and strident commands pierced the dark until the confusion and noise quickly changed into an orderly convoy. Thus we left Stonehenge, England, the blackout lights of our vehicles casting warning glances in the direction of the enemy and resting soft shadows upon a land we had learned to love. We were off to war.
Driving slowly towards Southampton, our marshaling area, we thought of our two-month stay in the picturesque town of Port Sunlight. We thought of how unreal the incident had been, how ridiculous it would have seemed if a GI had told us, "When I was in England, I lived in a private home, had tea every night at ten o'clock and was a special hero to a bunch of people who would just as soon have given me the keys to their home than see me live in a place that didn't have their tea on time." But, my gosh, these things had happened to us, they were real, true, just as real and true as the fact of their termination.
The morning light and the first vehicle of the convoy entered Southampton together. A hot meal, the distribution of small arms ammunition and our assignment of sleeping quarters on the docks of Southampton completed the day. In the huge steel-girdered construction that was our home for the night we found box cars, boards, sacks of flour and straw which we were told were our sleeping facilities. The preparations for night completed, we sat in small groups and watched the rain blow in the open doors while kindly English dock-workers enthusiastically told of air raids. Slowly, the night, the stories and the rain passed into the next day. Quickly we boarded the U.S.S. Goethals. The English shore moved lazily toward the horizon, and the striking difference between its impassive stare at our disappearing ship and the warmth and technicolor beauty of the Scottish Firth as it appeared upon our arrival in Europe seemed like a sad and final farewell.
Just as a ghost story is always better read late at night with all the lights out except the one with the heavy dark lampshade, so were the six fast, thunderous explosions that interrupted our remorseful thoughts more keenly felt. The sensation during those few minutes of spasmodic bursts of noise and water was much like the feeling one experiences half way down the highest drop on a roller coaster: tense, expectant, anxiously awaiting the end, not without a little of the thrill of imminent danger. Six ships forming a perfect circle around us were hit and the faces of our seamen reflected thoughts different from their boasts of the peaceful channel crossings to tell the next boatload. Evening's silent curtain descended upon the U.S.S. Goethals while the ship slowly moved into an unnamed harbor on the coast of the Cherbourg peninsula.
Early the next morning, as a burning sun threw its light on the sand and into the sea, ships of all sizes and shapes performed a thousand different tasks preparatory to landing. Everything seemed confused and disorganized, but the speed and surety of the landings testified to the fact that we were witnesses to a huge and carefully laid plan. Watching the intricate and awkward looking apparatus that was loading our trucks and equipment into LSTs that looked incapable of containing anything but a small car or two was a pleasant diversion from the strain of the past few days,
Fortunately our landing wasn't one of those hell bent dives for cover and advance that movie realists love to picture as the only way of getting onto a beach. Fortunate, because though our motor pool made all the complicated preparations for the waterproofing of our vehicles, the movement orders received at Stonehenge followed those preparations by only a few hours and the trucks had to be put together non-waterproof. The jaws of the LSTs opened and we rolled onto the beach and into the assembly area.
A French town doesn't gain its only distinction from quaint construction or pastoral atmosphere. There is a definite odor that accompanies a French dwelling; at least there was in the early months of the European campaign. The odor was that of a combination of fresh milk, farm animals, clean air, destruction and death. It was neither obnoxious or pleasant. To us it was just a part of France that will remain as long as the memory of France itself, just as the recollection of a pretty girl brings to mind a certain song or color. It was this peculiar odor and the complete devastation that made the strongest impression upon us. Poverty and ruin were the stage settings for our opening night. "Opening" is the most clearly descriptive adjective for our first night in combat. Noise that had the power of material force and angry flame that tore the dark into a pattern of light and shadow defiantly shouted to the world, "This is war, this is power!" The giant strength of man's destructive ingenuity was awe inspiring but the futility and childish application of this great power made a deep and ironic impression upon us.
It was here, at Nehou, that we began collecting those rarities of character and personality: little children. Intermingled in the pathos that accompanied the war, French, and later Belgian, children were always wandering timidly around our trucks or tents. It was a welcome contrast to see an incongruously-dressed group of kids listening with wide-eyed attention to animated stories, or accepting with awkward grace candy or chocolate ration. Until we entered in Germany, they were either standing at our side, watching us shave, or in some way inflicting a small part of their emotions, thoughts, or troubles into the lives of those who took the time to know them. This was a part of our experience in war that wasn't wholly unappreciated or without amusement and pleasure.
At Nehou, the 'pool' system of ammunition supply was initiated. A pool of ammo trucks and drivers serviced the companies upon requests for ammunition bt telephone. This was particularly difficult because many of the trips had to be made at night and the drivers had to find their companies in a war-torn countryside where the beginning and end of a town may be but a few yards apart and where a bridge that stood yesterday doesn't stand today, so that a map can be appallingly misleading. Despite this disheartening difficulty, ammunition had to reach the companies when they asked for it. Despite the many flat tires that were an every-day occurrence, and the imminent danger of mines whose reality was proven more than once to some of the drivers, the ammunition did reach the companies.
Many of the events that occurred between 1 July 1944, the day of our landing, and our entry into the Brest peninsula have made history, but none of them will be remembered by us as long as an eventful night we spent on the palatial grounds of Chateau Chamcey. Chateau Chamcey was the ostentatious home of the mayor of Chamcey. Surrounded by a woods of giant trees and well-maintained lawns, the only suggestion that war had touched Chamcey was the few broken windows the chateau sustained and an occasional horse-drawn ammunition cart abandoned by the Germans. Having arrived toward the end of afternoon, it was dark by the time we had set up the battalion command post and organized the company. There had been no time to dig foxholes and the men had already taken advantage of the opportunity to sleep, when the soft, heavy drone of enemy bombers reached us.
It is strange how fast those weak-sounding German planes can approach. Shortly after the first intimation that enemy planes were near, the first bomb screamed its death-laden message to earth. Distance, we learned, could not be judged by sound, for the dive of each plane seemed directly overhead and we were sure the whine of each bomb would terminate in our area. The Germans returned three times that night and dropped a lonely flare on the last flight. Our area was on a slight hill and fringed by a thin circle of trees. It was above an edge of these trees the flare descended. Slowly and faithfully it dropped, throwing a pale white light that turned our area into a fairyland of grotesque shadows and contrasting whites. It was these shadows the Germans were watching, patiently waiting for some movement that would indicate a bivouac of troops. Everyone followed the earthward descent of that flare but, as it drew near the fringe of trees, a silent wind moved it slowly into the adjacent area.
Despite the many horrible aspects of war, there invariably occur humorous incidents. This night spent at the Chateau set the stage for just such an incident. We knew the battalion adjutant had had previous theatrical experience but we did not know he possessed the ability to distinguish between good and bad wines. Somewhere along the trip across France, the adjutant, through his knowledge of French, had become the recipient of two bottles of cognac whose quality he had intended to determine. However, the opportunity failed to present itself until the night of Chateau Champcey. Shortly before the enemy aircraft arrived, the adjutant had begun to test the cognac but, since both bottles were of almost equal quality, discrimination between the two became increasingly difficult. By the time the planes arrived and the night was in full swing, the adjutant had become so completely absorbed in his task that he paid little attention to anything else. Soon after the flare had settled and the enemy had departed, the adjutant had completed his task. Perhaps it was just a product of highly strung nerves that prompted some of the members of Hq Co to insist that they had seen a long-legged figure striding through the moonlit woods of Chateau Champcey and mumbling passages from "Hamlet" and "The Face on the Bar Room Floor."
At the headquarters position a few miles from Brest, France, the personnel and battalion headquarters section enjoyed a comparative rest while the ammunition section experienced its most difficult tasks still laboring under the pool system of ammunition supply. The CWS ammunition dump was located approximately 120 miles away in the vicinity of Dinan. Because of the rapidly advancing American lines, the supply dump couldn't move up fast enough to facilitate supply to the battalion. Consequently, it became necessary for our group of eight drivers and four ammo handlers to move the ammunition dump servicing the battalion in addition to supplying the companies with white phosphorous and high explosive shells. The trip to Dinan would have been interesting if the threat of strafing hadn't materialized too often and if the drivers weren't compelled to drive over the speed limit in order to make the trip on schedule.
It must have been an impressive sight to the French peasants who stood timidly in their doorways to see a convoy of eight trucks roar through a little town whose cobblestone streets had previously echoed only the warm and friendly sound of horses hoofs. Though technical manuals permitted only 2,400 rounds of ammunition to be carried by eight trucks, the furious race of ammunition to the front necessitated overloading the trucks by 800 rounds. Establishing the ASP [Ammunition Supply Point] at a town closer to the front and assigning two trucks, two drivers and an ammo handler to each company solved most of the difficulties in ammunition supply.
We left our bivouac near Londonzan in the Brest peninsula on 24 September 1944 and made the 607 mile trip to Dombasle, France, in six days. Stretching across a brilliant white highway, the138 vehicles that formed our convoy gave one a feeling of pride in the power and self-sufficiency of our battalion. A large reception hall centered in a beautiful grounds served as our headquarters for 25 days. We ate in a band shell that faced the side of the hall, and established a kitchen in a garage a few yards away. The only inconvenience at Dombasle was experienced by the communications section who had to maintain 24-hour-a-day contact with the letter companies. At this time, we had only two radio operators, which meant one would have to stay with the radio 24 hours while the other slept. This system proved more effective than 12-hour shifts, though 25 days of operation with no rest was a grueling task. Nights at Dombasle were cold and, inside the lonely weapons carrier that served as a communications truck, the single radio operator had to warm himself by means of a small blowtorch. For this man, keeping an effective watch for news or a call for help might carry the responsibility of men's lives. Belgium was a relief.
Belgium derived her most appeal from the fact that she had ice cream. We hadn't tasted such a delicacy in several months. As soon as we arrived at the old hospital we were to occupy, one of our company who could speak a very little German contacted a Belgian who had the same ability, but in a lesser degree of proficiency. Our interpreter thumbed through his small dictionary for the word, "ice cream" and found the German equivalent whose literal translation meant "eating ice." Having acknowledged complete understanding of our desire, the kind Belgian swiftly departed for the "eating ice" shop. We were particularly enthusiastic because he had described a cake of ice cream a yard in length and six inches in width and breadth which he claimed would cost us only seven francs. We waited about ten minutes for his return and then we saw him coming slowly up the street, bending under a rectangular object of the measurements he had described. This unorthodox form of ice cream puzzled us but our enthusiasm was much too great for our logic. When he reached us, his face beaming with pleasure at accomplishment, we saw that he had taken the German equivalent for ice cream literally and had brought us a massive rock of solid ice.
This wasn't our first disappointment in Belgium, for our planned two-week stay in Arlon was interrupted by movement orders received 48 hours after our arrival. Again the motor pool was caught off balance. In those first two days they had unloaded and established a working area for the planned two-week stay. How they repacked and assembled in convoy in time for the move into Germany is one of those things that are done and not explained.
The road was slippery and treacherous. The winding and unfamiliar horse cart path that penetrated into Germany was fogged by a cold mist that dimmed our blackout lights and intensified the ominous atmosphere that followed our careful move into the enemy's country. We pushed into a dark woods that was blanketed with cold, gray snow. We arrived late at night and had just attempted digging foxholes in the frozen ground when the thunderous crash of nearby heavy artillery blasted the silence like a terrified scream in a lonely cemetery. The incessant pounding of guns jammed close together beat a like rhythm with the sleet and rain that had begun to seep through the shelter halves to soak our blankets. The few days spent in the Hurtgen Forest were days of cold and nights of flak and anti-aircraft shells that hummed through the branches of stately trees. The personnel section had cut down two pine trees and trimmed the branches. These they mounted on ammunition boxes and propped up their field desks on the structure. Though it wasn't humorous, it often occasioned a smile to see them at the seemingly futile task of attempting to type on machines that were just as stiff an cold as their fingers. However, reports that had to reach higher headquarters with no excuse for delay compelled them to accomplish an apparently impossible task.
We moved back into Belgium from the Hurtgen Forest (actually the Staats Forest, Rotgen) on 6 November 1944. It was immediately apparent that work was almost impossible under the present conditions but so many units were crowded into the small area of occupied Germany that it was impossible to find any type of shelter until November 6. We occupied a wool laundry in the town of Dolhain and remained there until 4 March 1945. On 17 February 1945, the organization was redesignated the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion, and under the new table of organization our company increased in strength to 145 enlisted men and five officers. In the long stay at Dolhain, we became quite accustomed to the continual drone of buzz bombs overhead. We were in the direct line of flight of these new pilotless planes and even the warning halt of the thumping engines became an expected and natural event. At Dolhain a system of rotation of letter company troops was initiated. Half of the battalion would use the battalion rear area as a rest area while the other half remained at the front. A change in personnel occurred every four days. This caused our kitchen a lot of trouble because they were only equipped and manned to feed 150 men, while under the new system they had to feed over 300 men. It was a common sight to see the kitchen crew working until midnight and arising at 5:00am in order to prepare food for the incoming troops.
Bad winter weather and long supply lines made the function of the supply section much more difficult. Hard work and long hours on their part kept our stomachs full, our bodies warm, and the mortars firing, but the distribution of rations, equipment and clothing only comprised part of the supply section's work. The constant repair of mortars added to the trouble of maintaining an efficient flow of supplies. A section within supply was organized to maintain contact with chemical maintenance and depot companies, and ordnance companies. What the curious Belgians thought was a new kind of tank wasonly a dusty jeep bulging with mortar barrels, baseplates and standards. Through this service, the fear of being caught without enough mortars to successfully support or repel an attack never became prominent.
During the Battle of the Bulge, German tank columns penetrated to Malmedy, some 29 miles southwest of us. Another pincers column had advanced to within the same distance northwest of Dolhain. A day prior to the attack, German parachutists landed in and about our vicinity and we had to conduct a thorough search of all homes and grounds in our area. Though the result was fruitless, the experience was nonetheless interesting.
In the 41 days that followed our departure from Dolhain, we moved through the German towns of Kalterherberg, Munstereifer, Ahrweiler, Neuwied, Weilburg, Trysa, Wolfagen, Hann-Munden, and Weissensee, covering a distance of 379 miles and crossing the Rhine between Ahrweiler and Neuwied. At our next stop, Naumberg, we saw the concentration camp Lager Buchenwald, located near Weimar, about 30 miles from Naumberg. The first of May, 1945, saw us 134 miles from Naumberg in the Bavarian town of Eschenbach. Here, on May 9, we received the news of the German surrender. Seventy-five miles away on May 18 we were in the Bohemian Sudetenland town of Bischofteinitz. It was a town founded in custom and folklore that had long lost a date of origin but never its customs. One such custom provides the material for an interesting story.
It had been remarked occasionally that an inexplicable, weird, groan would accompany the toll of the church bell at night. One warm, moonlit night in Bischofteinitz, a German-speaking corporal of the guard was making an inspection a few minutes before midnight, and listening to a guard who was telling him this strange story of a prolonged moan that sung out with the toll of the church bell. The church was located about 50 yards from the guard post and a pale moon cast soft light on the church tower and on the cobblestone street below. The heavy silence that guarded the night seemed to throb and echo along the winding streets, and the and the hollow, slow ring of the church bell as it struck midnight pierced the night with a cold, melodious sound. Then, immediately following the ring, came the deep-voiced moan from the tower. For the two men on guard, that night seemed electric as the corporal shouted, "What's the trouble?" and then a little softer, a little slower, "Repeat it!" The moan repeated itself and then left the little town of Bischofteinitz bathed in the deep silence of before. Not being to understand the sluggish dialect of the ghost voice, the corporal inquired about town the next day for the answer to this mystery. It was simple and rational. It was a custom in this old world town to employ an old man in the church to announce the time of day every night between 11:00pm and 5:00am. This he would do in the form of this song poem (with English translations in parentheses).
Liebe leute last euch sagen, (Dear people let us tell you
Unsere Uhr hat elf geschlagen. (Our clock has struck eleven)
Die liebe Frau in Himmel d'roben, (The Holy Lady in Heaven)
Last unsere Uhr elf schlogen. (Lets our clock strike eleven)
Simply and without supernatural connections, a custom in a town existing in customs.
From the date of our arrival in Bischofteinitz, we expected to make our last move in Europe, and the motor pool prepared for the inevitable return trip. The job of servicing the worn vehicles for the long trip ahead was immense, but the motor pool finished the task in time for our departure from the Sudetenland on June 12. We traveled 735 miles and arrived at Camp Lucky Strike, St. Valery, France, on June 16.
As the S.S. Sea Pike left Le Havre on July 1, we looked back upon the thinning silhouette of France and felt that same loss of something gained on a foreign land. In the secret hours of night nine days later, we saw the timid lamps of a New York port throw wrinkled patterns of pale light across the friendly waters that patiently awaited the joyous awaking of the S.S. Sea Pike.
On 25 June 1945, the battalion and the detachment moved to a marshaling area near the famous stone monuments at Stonehenge. During our brief stay there, the aid station was set up once more. It was our last practice before the real thing. Before dawn on June29, the order came to move down to Southampton. There, after a night in a warehouse listening to the rain drum on the roof and the sea, and thinking and wondering about the future, we boarded a liberty ship.
The next morning, we joined a convoy outside Southampton harbor and sailed for France. On the way several ships struck mines, and Company B had to return to England, having lost all its equipment. It was then that we lost our first "medic." He was slightly wounded in the mine explosion and never returned to the detachment. That night we lay off the beaches, listening to German planes and experiencing our first feeling of being in the war.
The following morning we transferred our equipment to landing craft and next found ourselves on the bloody Utah beachhead which only two weeks previously had been a battle ground. That day our detachment separated into four groups, one group going with each company. Those first days in Normandy were fearful ones and the battalion suffered its first casualties and fatalities early in the game. The aid men put all the skill and knowledge they had gained from months of training to treating the wounded in the midst of severe shelling, disregarding their own safety.
The fighting was bitter and the men lived through days that were like nightmares, but our troops pushed on into France, leaving fallen comrades but surging forth relentlessly. The battalion aud station was set up at each bivouac area. Aid men came in from the front for medical supplies and bringing Emergency Medical tags, made out after each individual injury, with recorded data showing eligibility for Purple Heart awards, which were made by the battalion commander. The aid station stayed with battalion headquarters some miles from the front, thus severe battle casualties were not brought to us. Infantry aid stations treated our badly wounded before evacuating them to hospitals.
After the St. Lo breakthrough, we moved into Brittany, to Brest, where we bivouacked for six weeks while that stronghold was being battered into submission. The medical officer made trips to the various companies, inspecting kitchens, latrines etc. as well as holding physical inspections. He interrogated the men at the front as to their opinions on how to ameliorate the food situation, sanitation etc. It was at Brest that the first award of the Bronze Star medal in the battalion was presented to a member of the detachment for valor in treating the wounded under fire.
After the fall of Brest, the detachment drove all the way across France to Dombasle, on the outskirts of Nancy. Our mortar companies were fighting with XII Corps troops of the Third Army, and for long periods we did not see the aid men, for they were so far in advance of battalion headquarters. At this time, the aid station was in the basement of a school, and the aid men, who rotated or took turns at the front, had a warm shelter to return to for rest after grueling days at the front.
The next move, in October 1944, took us into the Roetgen Forest, Germany, just across the Belgian border, where we set up in a dense pine forest. Here there was no shelter for the men to come back to, but getting out of the lines was relief enough. Moving to Dolhain, Belgium, we lived in a wool dying factory for four months, from November 1944 to March 1945. The glass roof on this structure afforded fine views of the buzz bombs hurtling overhead day and night, leaving us rather nervous. The owner of the factory had his furnaces put into operation, and we were most thankful for the warmth during the cold winter months. Here the aid men had a real shelter to return to during rest periods, where they could bathe, sleep and keep warm after living in the snow during the battle of the Hurtgen Forest and the Belgian Bulge.
It was during our stay in Dolhain that the battalion underwent reorganization and acquired a new T/O [Table of Organization], giving the detachment a MAC [Medical Administrative Corps] officer. Also, since there were to be only three companies instead of four, four aid men could be assigned to each company instead of only three, giving the men longer periods in the rest area. The new system, inaugurated by the battalion surgeon, was called "8 in and 4 out" (eight days rest followed by four days in the field). This system saved the men from complete loss of hope, or so they said.
From Dolhain we moved, in March 1945, back into Germany, traveling rapidly from one capitulated town to the next. We sped across the Rhine, northeast toward Kassel, and then we swerved sharply south toward Leipzig. The companies and the aid men were always miles ahead, and we had to work to keep anywhere near them. Our most palatial aid station was located in Naumburg, near Leipzig, where we had a whole house to ourselves. We had bathrooms, electricity, hot water, furnace heat and all the things we'd been without for so long.
Again we moved south, this time into Bavaria, to the village of Eschenbach, near Bayreuth. While we were here, the war finally came to its spectacular finish. At this time, the companies were relieved from their attachments to divisions, and the men spent the days patrolling the woods in search of renegade bands of Nazis and SS troops, as well as doing security work in the various towns in the vicinity. On 18 May 1945, the battalion moved to Bischofteinitz, Sudentenland, in order to be nearer to corps headquarters so that they could inspect our equipment and records and prepare for the return trip to America and home. Here the men were able to relax a little, with the job of fighting well done and behind them.
Foreword: Space limitations prevent the mention in the narrative of all the heroic infantry divisions Company A has supported, the naming of many towns and villages bright in your minds, and the recital of incidents that recall many things to you. However, in a general way this is the "path of glory" you have traveled and for which you fought. Your memory will fill in the gaps.
This is a saga of fighting men who won battles and lost lives, who inched their way forward toward total victory and paid a bitter price. These little men,these happy few, this band of brothers, are a small part of mankind's struggle for freedom and this is their history, a word and ink retelling of the sweat and blood that wins wars.
I - "Afraid of Fear, and More..."
June 6, 1944 - A date to remember, for on that day the hopes and fears of a free world were at stake. Then began the titanic encounters that called for soldiers, more men and more guns each day. On D+25, Co A, 86th Cml Mortar Bn, docked in the man-made harbor at "Utah" beach head, surrounded by the floating hulks of other ships that never reached the shore. Silent ships, in themselves a sad story of life and death on the sandy shores of France.
The next morning, Co A's vehicles, men and equipment drove from the LSTs onto the crowded beaches, heading one way, toward the noise of the artillery and the whining whistle of death. The company moved immediately into firing position near the French town of Francquetot, some seven miles from the initial coastal landings, and was ordered in support of the 358th and 359th regiments of the 90th Infantry Division. The infantry's attack was scheduled for early morning and, at 0530 the 3rd of July, Co A was "up and at 'em" firing the initial mortar barrage that preceded the doughboys' push. All through the day, the mortar crews labored as they never had before, opening a pathway for the hard fighting troops.
For days the attack continued and, on the Fourth of July, one battalion stalled, stopped by two enemy rifle companies and twelve machine guns. Co A began a fireworks show of its own with over 900 high explosive (HE) shells fired into the enemy's strong points. An eye-witness report on the effectiveness of the barrage said, "Machine guns and rifles were blasted all over the place, and you couldn't begin to count the dead Krauts." But the best gauge of the mortar fire was the speed of the infantry battalion's advance: half a mile in half an hour.
By July 6, the 359th Infantry Regiment had fought its way to the crest of Hill 122, a vitally strategic mass of high ground that overlooked the enemy's positions in the Forest de Mont Castre. The first and second platoons took up positions on the reverse slope of the hill using a ravine and field for their mortars. Our attacking infantry were just in front of us, too close for complacency on our part, waiting, tense and quiet, for the enemy counter-attack they knew was coming. The mortar crews fired several urgent missions into the wooded area on the forward slope where the enemy seemed to be massing.
What happened next is anyone's guess, part of the uncertainty that results when the action is fast and a soldier is too busy fighting for his life to prepare an accurate report for the historians. This much is certain: the two companies of infantry that had been in front of the mortar men had withdrawn to a stronger defensive position on the road behind the mortar crews.
Between 2200 and 2300 hours that night, an enemy combat patrol armed with automatic weapons began an attack, coming down the slope of the hill screaming and firing into the mortar positions, punctuating the darkness with staccato bursts from their "burp" guns. Completely unprepared for the assault and the unaccountable swiftness with which the enemy penetrated what was though to be the infantry's line, Co A's mortars fired without ceasing until the enemy was well within the mortar's minimum range and could no longer be fired upon. A machine gun crew was ordered to remain and the company was withdrawn into a secondary mortar position where they could continue to fight.
Despite the returned automatic fire, the Germans succeeded in reaching the mortar defilade and capturing three men and setting fire to a jeep and trailer. In the light of the fire, Co A's 50-caliber machine gunners spotted the Germans and their prisoners and opened fire, enabling the prisoners to escape during the confusion. That night the two men of Co A held their ground, spraying the area with machine gun slugs and preventing the enemy from even reaching the infantry's first line of defense.
The next morning, the mortar company was again firing its weapons from the base of Hill 122, participating in one of the most fierce encounters of the war. This day there was no withdrawal and the engagement was fought to its tragic end, victorious but with 17 casualties that one day alone. On July 10, 19 badly needed replacements arrived to help in the hedgerow fighting that raged from field to field with pitifully small gains. That same day, four of those replacements had been wounded and one killed. The only way to learn in Normandy was "the hard way." Four days later, the company assisted the 90th Inf Div's attack on enemy positions south of the Sevres River in the Perier sector.
The action was intense and rugged, a human kind of hell infested with every evil known to man, but it was purposeful with a definite goal. At last it came: Operation Cobra was ready. On July 26, over 3,000 American aircraft bombed and strafed the enemy lines between St. Lo and southwest to Perier. Immediately following the air raid, infantry units launched a forceful attack from the Perier sector, breaking through the enemy fortifications, routing his troops, dashing with alacrity past Avranches into the Brittany peninsula and eastward toward the center of France.
Thought the enemy infantry was being hit hard, the Luftwaffe had not heard of the invincibility of the Americans. Coming from Avranches through St. James, the convoy of mortar men ran a gauntlet of enemy air attacks and strafing that only impressed on us more the horrors the enemy must have gone through with our more concentrated air attack on them. Co A traveled the "Break-through" withthe 79th Inf Div, then was relieved and attached to the 83rd Inf Div for the siege of St. Malo, the enemy's bastion bordering the sea.
II - "Let Us Then be Up and Doing..."
At the town of La Costerdars, France, Co A joined the 83rd Inf Div in fighting for the enemy-held towns that barred the road to St. Malo. From August 4 to 10, the company moved through these towns: Fort de Chateauneuf, Parame, La Neuette and Les Martette. On August 7, there began the officially documented engagement of 4.2" mortars vs tanks and self-propelled artillery pieces. Three enemy tanks had succeeded in piercing our lines and were located by Co A's forward observer who called for mortar fire. The shells were "on target," scoring direct hits on a tank and knocking it out, scaring off the other tankers and killing the crew of the self-propelled gun. The next day, Co A's guns scored a direct hit on an enemy mortar, resulting in the white-flag surrender of its crew. This was the German's nasty week.
Two days later, the second platoon was attached to another regiment of the 83rd Inf Div, attacking at Dinard, and moved into the vicinity of Pleslin, not far from Ville Aube, where they were joined by the remainder of the company on the 12th. On August16, the company was reassigned to the St. Malo sector for the assault on the Citadel. The fight for St. Malo had been an unrelenting struggle that neither gave or expected quarter. Frontal storming of the Citadel was to no avail. Our infantrymen had been on top but could not enter. Protected by 50 feet of concrete, the Germans thought themselves relatively safe in their medieval fortress, and the mad colonel had promised Hitler it would not fall. But there was an Achilles Heel in the impregnable fort: the modern air-conditioning system upon which they depended for air. The mortar men went to work with white phosphorous (WP) shells, landing projectiles with "the Devil's smoke" in front of the air ducts. On August 17, the "impossible to take" Citadel, with its underground rooms that never heard the bombing and the strafing, surrenderedto the attacking force. Col. Von Aulock, the German commander, was very unhappy, charging the use of WP was "inhumane" and admitting it had forced capitulation/
III - "The Silent Ships Go On... to Havens under the Hill..."
The initial attack on the German submarine base at Brest began at 1300 hours, August 25, with Co A firing in support of the 116th Regiment of the 26th Inf Div from a position near Dreves, north of St. Renan. On the 28th, Co A was in its usual form. To support an attack by the 116th at 1200 hours, the mortar men successfully took up positions at least 500 yards ahead of the infantry lines (chronicled in the battalion's report to the CG, Third Army). While in the Brest area, the company was attached to the 2nd Ranger Bn that, with elements of the 29th Inf Div, was grouped into Task Force Sugar for the taking of the town of La Conquet, west of Brest. The German-held coastal defenses were equipped wit heavy artillery, including a a 16" artillery piece with a 360 degree traverse.
While in support of Task Force Sugar, the company became accustomed to the train-like roar of the shells of the 16" gun as they chugged over us, scattering deadly fragments into the mortar positions. In return, the enemy took an unmerciful pounding from the 4.2s. Within a 24-hour period, the mortar men sent 1,800 rounds of HE and WP into enemy positions. PW reports told us that the fear-crazed German troops had dubbed the mortar "Whispering Death," a tribute to the swift and silent 4.2 shell.
Targets at Brest were abundant: machine gun positions, anti-aircraft emplacements, crossroads, enemy command posts, mortar installations, fuel depots, and various targets of opportunity. In rounds expended in harassing the enemy, the Brest campaign has no equal. In the 25 days of action on the Brest peninsula, the battalion fired 48,000 rounds of ammunition, 18,000 by Co A alone.
IV - "Onward, Onward... Into the Valley ofDeath..."
Leaving Brest on September 24, the entire battalion drove to Neufchateau, France, and from there was assigned by XII Corps to billets in a modern schoolhouse in Dombasle, France, with Co A in corps reserve from September 30 to October 7. On the last named date, the company moved to the vicinity of Ajoncourt to support an attack by the 6th Armored Div whose objective was the clearing of the enemy from the area south of the Seille River to establish a new MLR (Main Line of Resistance), preparatory to the storming of Metz. Five days later, the company was released and attached to the 4th Armored Div and moved to Juvrecourt, where on October 15 the 26th Inf Div arrived for its baptism of combat, and Co A remained to "give a hand."
The 26th had come to combat short-handed. The infantry was ready but the division artillery was unable to move into position. Co A was detailed the firing missions that would ordinarily have been fired by the artillery. The schedule of fire was heavy and the crews were busy helping the 26th out of jams and neutralizing resistance. On September 16, a patrol of the then "rookie" 26th was intercepted by enemy machine gunners, and 4.2 mortar fire on the machine gun enabled the patrol to withdraw to safety. The next day the company fired upon and put out of action an enemy sekf-propelled artillery piece located at a crossroads entering the Bois de Moncourt. The "Yankee Division" was sold on the mortar men.
V - "Beyond This Place of Wrath and Tears"
On October 26, the battalion left in convoy from Dombasle and proceeded through Nancy, Toul, Etain, Longuyon and Longwy to the Caserne Callemeyne at Arlon, Belgium, where Co A was to have a two-week rest. But two days later, the company was ordered into position ten miles south of Aachen to support the 28th Inf Div in an attack on Schmidt, the key town in control of the Schwammanual Dam which governed the tide of the Roer River. The company was placed in a very exposed position on the division's right flank, protected only by cavalry reconnaissance elements. Here began the long winter in the Hurtgen Forest, scene of heart-breaking bitter battles where our troops see-sawed in and out of Schmidt. The town was ours by day and the Germans by night, and the inches gained in one attack were forfeited with the first counter-attack.
For almost seven weeks the company remained in the same position, mortars dug in behind a demolished pillbox that had originally been part of the Siegfried line. The news commentators spoke glibly of the "fallacy" of the German static, cement-built defense, but the soldiers thought otherwise. The inescapable truth was that the Siegfried Line, 30 miles in depth, though under-manned andwith less fire power than usual, was proving the most formidable obstacle ever to face the American dough boy. Gains were almost imperceptible. To everyone on the ground it seemed that we were doomed forever in the mud and foxholes the Germans had left behind. The mortar crews dug in for the winter, constructing log structures over squad-size foxholes, and stringing telephone lines between squad holes. By 1800 hours, darkness was already settled over the Hurtgen, but it was too early for sleeping; although the muscles were willing, the spirit was not. Candles and improvised gasoline-fed lanterns provided illumination in the blacked-out holes, and by night until sleep time the soldiers played cards, wrote letters, or just shot the breeze. Neither the Germans or the Americans gained ground. The targets remained the same and within range. Ammunition expenditures were high but we learned that though it was simpler to take ground with more support, you did not make any headway at all with mortar fire alone.
It requires courage, fortitude and endurance to remain in the Hurtgen. But 20 days after arrival, the 28th Inf Div commended the battalion for "untiring and unselfish devotion to duty." So it was Thanksgiving dinner in the forest, with a seeping sleety drizzle to flavor the turkey. Infantry divisions came and went - the 28th, the 8th, the 78th - but Co A remained to hold the ground, to continue the fire, to pound its head against a stone wall of resistance.
Finally, on December 12, Co A was attached to the 309th Regiment of the 78th Inf Div and, under cover of darkness, moved to Paustenbach, Germany, arriving there before the infantry to discover the line, which was scattered from hell to breakfast, being held by two or three platoons of the 102nd Cavalry. The infantrymen arrived in the morning. It was an important assignment, for in this sector four days later, the enemy launched his most powerful counter-offensive of the war: the Battle of the Bulge.
VI - "Our Heads Were Bloody, But Unbowed"
In the V Corps sector from north to south were the 8th Div on the left flank, the 99th Div on the right flank, and the 78th Div and 2nd Div in between. Corps boundaries were the extreme right flank of the First Army, adjoining the left flank of Third Army's VIII Corps. The enemy punched with the ferocity and brilliance that had marked his first "blitzkrieg" into western Europe, slicing between the American First Army's V Corps and Third Army's VIII Corps. His initial successes were the result of fortuitous circumstances and masterly planning. V Corps' 99th Div and VIII Corps' 106th Div, side by side in line, were both newcomers to battle and had moved into the line just a few days before. Neither unit had sufficient combat experience to stop an offensive of this intensity. Enemy armor pierced VIII Corps' lines and slashed into V Corps sector, turning V Corps' right flank and creating a corridor between the two.
Elements of the 2nd Ranger Bn moved in to aid the 78th in repulsing the German's hourly offensive attempts in this area. The entire position was in danger of being inundated by the Nazi hordes. Two Panzer divisions were known to be roaming in front of the 78th searching for a weak spot. It was a critical moment and, for consecutive days and nights, the company's mortars were never silent. Observation of a draw upon which Co A had fired incessantly revealed German dead piled three deep, and that was no isolated instance.
The enemy never did succeed in piercing, or even achieving moderate success, in the V Corps front held by the 78th Div. The infantrymen, supported by the mortar men, held fast and this action was later commended by the corp commander, On December 23, the main danger passed, Co A was relieved from its attachment and reassigned to participate in the retaking of ground that had been lost in other sectors.
On Christmas Day, 1944, two platoons left the battalion billets to support the 1st Inf Div, a delicious "K ration" being the Yule dinner. Shortly after arrival and before they could fire a round, the company was placed under control of the XVIII Airborne Corps for duties with the 30th Inf Div. Near the pre-war Belgian resort of Cascades de Coo, between Spa and Stavelot, the mortar crews found the ideal mortar position sandwiched between two mountains. It was mathematically impossible for the enemy to shell the company in that position.
But, the safety was of short duration. Some days later, the mortars were ordered east of Malmedy, Belgium, for the drive to regain St. Vith, Belgium. The border territory between Belgium and Germany was "hot" as few places were. One night Nazi tankers succeeded in digging in their tanks with only the muzzle of the .88 above ground. They were virtually unassailable; artillery and mortar fire could not do any damage.
As the mortars fired their night missions, the tankers located the guns and soon made continued mortar fire an exceedingly hazardous occupation. The mortar fire continued all night, and the tank fire did the same. But the morning count for the enemy was no hits and plenty of errors. Moving with the infantry in the snow-blanketed fields outside of Malmedy, the company was witness to the recovery of over 100 dead American soldiers who had surrendered to the enemy. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, they had expected the same humane treatment that the American Army extended to German prisoners of war. Instead, they were made to stand in ranks while German tanks filed down the road firing machine gun slugs into the unarmed, defenseless troops. It was a degrading and despicable testimony to the nature of the enemy.
VII - "He maketh Me to Lie Down in Green Pastures..."
By January 26, the last of the Bulge was cleaned and Co A returned to battalion control. On the 29th, the mortar men were back in the field, doing business in the same old stand, with the 9th Inf Div, east of Hafen. Thus was winter at its worst, when only an axe would dent the frozen ground and five minutes in the open beside a mortar was enough to freeze a brass monkey. They did their best to fight the enemy and the weather. A house at any cost was the rule, but most of the nights were spent in foxholes with the hard soil for a mattress and the silent snow for a blanket. That is, if you weren't too busy fighting, you could sleep.
The company was beginning its eighth month of continuous combat without an official rest period, and this combined with strenuous battle and rigorous weather was beginning to tell a tale in the mounting total of men evacuated with combat fatigue. The need for winter clothing remained. As wounded men were brought into the aid station and their boots and clothing removed, it was quickly claimed by other soldiers. In 1945, America had a second Valley Forge, and this was no place for the "summer soldier and the sunshine patriot."
On February 3rd, the company was attached to the 78th Inf Div, engaged in taking Schmidt. The objective was the strategic Schwammanual Dam which controlled the rise and fall of the waters on the Roer River. Further north, the American Ninth Army had been poised since mid-October 1944 for a crossing of the Roer but dared not risk the operation for fear of the river being flooded and the soldiers being isolated from their supplies and supporting troops. The battle for the dam was not a lengthy struggle this time, and shortly the mortar men were only 800 yards from the objective, waiting for the final attack. On February 13, the company was released from its mission, its objective taken.
VIII - "By All Means, Take Some Time to be Alone..."
For purposes of reorganization of the battalion, all companies were placed in reserve and assembled in Dolhain, Belgium, for the first authorized rest since landing in France. Enlisted men of Co D were assimilated into Co A and became integrated with the "old" men. The company remained in the rest area until March 1, on which date they joined the 28th Inf Div outside of Hofen for the initial attacks leading to the First and Ninth Armies crossing the Roer River at Gemund, Germany.
One week later the Roer had been bridged and the spectacular, unexpected taking of the Ludendorf bridge had been accomplished on March 6. By the 15th, Co A was east of the Rhine, supporting the 1st Inf Div from Himberg, Germany, 300 yards southwest of the autobahn. The convoy crossing of the Rhine had not been uneventful. As the vehicles reached the east bank and a place of cover beneath a cement railroad trestle, some 50 battalions of anti-aircraft artillery opened fire on an approaching enemy plane. The bomb the plane dropped landed some 300 yards from the bridge, inflicting casualties but none within CoA.
The enemy resisted with fanatical fury, using every possible weapon he could muster. The effort and proportions of the east-Rhine battles were reminiscent of the early days of Normandy. Not a single terrain feature was undefended, and every natural obstacle was used to its fullest military advantage against the attackers.
At Sand, Germany, one platoon sustained three casualties - one killed, two seriously wounded - within a five-minute period, and two days later the same platoon suffered four more casualties - two killed, two seriously wounded. There is no consolation for the death of our comrades in arms, but we know now that this was the final crucible from which came total victory.
IX - "Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth"
No one will ever forget how his blood, pounding excitedly, raced through his veins as he heard the news that his outfit had helped to tear a hole through the enemy's resistance and enabled the armor to clank through for what could easily become a major victory. The 1st Div, with Co A attached, had blasted a way to Uckerath, Germany, and the tankers column of tanks moved swiftly on to "holy German soil." This was it!
The infantry and mortar men followed the tanks and watched with undisguised hope as they went deeper and deeper into the enemy's homeland. Remember how heart sang to see tanks detach from the column to make junction with other tanks to form a "pocket" of the Krauts trapped in between. Still in the leading elements spearheading into Germany, Co A was attached to the 69th Inf Div, and they raced together to close a trap at Paderborn and another at Kassel. Task Force Z, of which Co A was a part, raced closer and closer to the heart of Germany.
On April 15, Co A fired missions on enemy barracks and emplacements in Kriechau, Germany, causing huge blazes and heavy casualties. The company was credited with forcing the surrender of 400 enemy soldiers and 32 artillery pieces, the infamous "88s", and bringing about the fall, in more ways than one, of the town. From Kriechau, Co A fought its way to Leipzig, Germany, with the 272nd Regiment of the 69th Inf Div. The last mission to be fired in the European Theater by Co A was a mortar fire upon the German town of Eilenburg, which capitulated on April 25, 1945. In 315 days of combat, the 86th CMB had fired 160,000 mortar shells. Of this total, 55,445 had been fired by Co A.
X - "All Things Come Home with the Evening Tide"
Between May 3 and 18, the mortar crews served as security guards in enemy installations that had been captured, and on the 18th were relieved by other units and reported Ronsperg, Czechoslovakia. Finally, on June 13, 1945, the 86th CMB moved in convoy to Camp Lucky Strike, adjacent to Le Havre, France. On July 1, a year to the day of our landing in France, we embarked for home on the U.S.S. Sea Pike. So those who had marched breast forward, never doubting clouds would break, who knew they fell but to rise again, were at last home. Older than their years perhaps, but brave hearts, each and every one.
Yet there are corners of many foreign shores that are forever American, for there are our dead. They are of our flesh and our spirit, part of the glory that shines in the midst of tears. These went with songs to the battle. They were young, straight of limb, steady and courageous to the end against odds uncounted. They fell with their faces to the foe. "No more for them life's stormy conflicts, neither victory or defeat, or time's dark events charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky."
But where our profound hopes are, in the innermost recesses of our own hearts, these men are known, as the stars are known to the night. And as the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, to the end they remain.
Combat Units Supported
The company supported 12 infantry divisions, 3 armored divisions, 2 task forces, and 1 ranger battalion.
1st Infantry Division - East of Rhine River
8th Infantry Division - Hurtgen Forest
9th Infantry Division - Hofen, Germany
26th Infantry Division - Nancy-Metz sector
28th Infantry Division - Hurtgen Forest, drive to Roer River
29th Infantry Division - Brest campaign
30th Infantry Division - Battle of the Bulge
69th Infantry Division - The last breakthrough
78th Infantry Division - Hurtgen Forest, Schmidt, Battle of the Bulge
79th Infantry Division - Perier sector
83rd Infantry Division - St. Malo and Dinard
90th Infantry Division - Normandy
4th Armored Division - Nancy-Metz sector
6th Armored Division - Nancy-Metz sector
7th Armored Division - St. Vith, Belgium
Task Force Sugar - Brest campaign
Task Force Z - The G.I. tour of Germany
2nd Ranger Battalion - Brest campaign
Party crash attempt: When the 69th Inf Div joined forces with the Russians, Co A was eight miles from the junction point. Two men from Co A tried to attach themselves for the party, but MPs asked for their invitation.
Killed In Action
They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We shall remember them.
PFC Alfred J. Antul - 3 January 1945, near Stavelot, Belgium. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Pvt Thomas N. Balcerek - 26 November 1944, in the Hurtgen Forest, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Sgt Walter A. Carter - 13 December 1944, at Lammersdorf, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Cpl Frank J. Duralja - 24 Mar 1945, at Dahlhausen, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Pvt Earl W. Eagle - 10 July 1944, at Lithaire, France. Interred in St. Mere Eglise Cemetery No. 2, France.
Cpl Troy O. Edwards - 22 March 1945, at Sand, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
1st Lt Wayne M. Matchett - 2 November 1944, in the Hurtgen Forest, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Pvt Manus J. McLaughlin - 24 March 1945, at Dahlhausen, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Cpl Frank L. Reed - 8 July 1944, in Normandy, France. Interred in St. Mere Eglise Cemetery No. 2, France.
V-E Day found the men of Co B, 86th CMB, in the small town of Hirschau, Germany, which is approximately 30 kilometers from the better known town of Amberg. We had been occupying two such villages, and our main duty was to pick up all German soldiers who had donned civilian clothes, soldiers who had hoped they would be passed over in the resulting confusion coincident with the complete Wehrmacht capitulation.
To us, V-E Day was just another day away from home, and it brought thoughts of a new theater of war much closer. We heard of gay celebrations and much drinking and making merry by so-called "rear echelon commandos," but although no mention was made of it, you could feel that most of the men in Baker Company (Co B) were thinking of their many buddies who were not with them to share in the peace and quiet that V-E Day had brought. Little Mike, Lolly, Mauck, Ollie, and good old Hinch who had been with us all the way through basic and the greater portion of our combat days in Europe, Killer Kane, Campbell (Little Patton the 2nd), Ed Levinson, and many others no longer with us but never forgotten in our thoughts.
Yes, it was an eager bunch of Joes that awaited the good ship, the James A. Farrell on June 29, 1944. We had come from a most enjoyable and hospitable town named Sunlight, about 10 miles outside Liverpool, and now at long last we were headed for France to do battle with the "unconquerable" German, for whom we had been preparing for many long months. We had faith in our particular weapon, the 4.2" heavy mortar, and there was nothing but praise from all theaters as to the effectiveness of its fire. We were green, yes, but every soldier must have felt as we did. This was it, and if the other Joes could take it we were damn sure we could. We boarded ship in the early evening and, after taking our place in the convoy of ships headed for Cherbourg, we began our zig-zag course through the sub-infested waters of the English Channel.
Our trip was without excitement until we reached a spot approximately seven miles from the coast of the Cherbourg peninsula, where the stark realization of the horrors of total war thrust themselves upon us in the form of a mine or torpedo. To this day, the official verdict is still undetermined, whether it was one way or the other, but officially or otherwise, something hit us and we were committed to action before we even knew it. It was this first encounter with disaster that proved the caliber of men we had in Baker Company. Their immediate reactions were more than a commander could have hoped for. In no time at all, officers and men were working like madmen with complete disregard for their own personal safety clearing the rapidly filling hold of men who otherwise would have been trapped and surely drowned in te mass of rubble and debris which had once been materials of war. To try to describe the scene and the actions which took place is humanly impossible, for, to fully appreciate the grim reality of war, one must personally experience the workings of the brain and the weighing of one's own personal feelings as compared to thoughts that regardless of how much you value your life, there is a job to be done. It should be sufficient to say that our casualties numbered 35, including one man missing, little Mike Babaryka, a favorite with all the men.
For a time, it appeared that soon most of us would be swimming in the choppy seas of the English Channel, but fortunately that never happened. An American LST took aboard all survivors of the sinking James A. Farrell. Thus we found ourselves on the way to England, badly in need of equipment and men. We landed in Portland, England, and were taken to the Citadel, a fortress overlooking the harbor. Here we received a fine meal, clean clothes, and the opportunity to shower and shave.
From the Citadel we traveled by truck to Beurnemouth where we worked feverishly to prepare ourselves for another attempt at crossing the channel. In the unbelievable short time of two weeks, we were again fully equipped and on our way for a second time to join our parent unit which had successfully landed with the same convoy in which we had sailed. This time the trip was without incident except for air activity over Omaha Beach the night we landed. The drone of enemy planes, the steady bark of the ack-ack, the multi-colored tracers that zoomed across the sky like fireworks - all these against a background of the slow, running tide and the bleak Normandy coast with its ghastly ruins impressed upon our minds a vivid picture that was to never leave us. Thus we went ashore, and in very short order, we found ourselves driving over the shell-torn, battle-weary roads of Normandy on our way to the town occupied by our battalion.
We stayed one day and night with the battalion, and the next afternoon found us committed to action with the 83rd Div in the vicinity of La Haye du Puits, on the Normandy peninsula. Our very first position was a rather warm one, for after firing our first mission, our area began to receive small-arms and machine gun fire and one platoon leader decided that it was about time for us to start a retrograde movement. All the units which had been in front of us, were now barreling down the road past our position going in the wrong direction. We also found it necessary to "partir" but, after the situation again stabilized itself, we returned to our foxholes and then began our long series of attachments, reassignments, and our long journey.
The huge breakthrough at St. Lo will be memorable because of the beautiful sight of thousands of bombers during their saturation bombing of the fixed German defenses in and around St. Lo. As a result, the American tanks could at last stretch out their tracks in the direction of Berlin. We raced down the Normandy peninsula with the infantry trying to overtake the fast fleeing Krauts. At Avaranches we were told that our battalion had been assigned to the task force which was headed for the impenetrable fortress of Brest.
Our trip across the Brittany peninsula was a glorious one. In every little village and hamlet, the liberated French would shower us with roses, wine, cider, champagne and apples. Our first mission on the peninsula was against the fortress of St. Malo. After placing a murderous fire of white phosphorus on the installations for a week, the fortress commander capitulated with the remark that: "The enemy will continue to use the deadly white phosphorus against which we cannot possibly hold out." Here, in the handwriting of the fanatical Nazi, Colonel Von Auloch, was visible proof of the effectiveness of our "goon gun."
After the fall of the Citadel at St. Malo, we were assigned to help reduce the resistance in and around the Brittany town of Dinard and, in a very short order, our mission was accomplished and we were enroute again headed for Brest. We were attached to the 8th Div for this particular job. The brass hats had it all figured out, whereby General Remcke, the fortress commander, would certainly surrender his entire garrison after a three day barrage from artillery, mortars and fighter bombers. Apparently somebody forgot to tell Remcke what the plan was, for five weeks later we were still battling our way inch by inch against the most stubborn resistance we had yet encountered.
During this engagement, we came in contact with prepared German mine defenses, and the very well known 88s, along with the very appropriately named "screaming mimies," shells from a huge trench mortar having a terrific concussion effect. The Krauts used them extensively to cause casualties in areas where troops were well dug in and flying shrapnel could not reach them. The sound of the projectile in flight, resembling the sound of a shearing piece of sheet metal, was not a pleasant one to hear.
We began to feel that Brest would still be holding out long after the Germans on the Siegried Line had surrendered, for it was while we were engaged at Brest that we heard the Siegried Line had been penetrated and that slow progress was being made into the Reich. We began to feel that we were banging our heads against a stone wall, for the Kraut positions were being taken only after a high cost of life on both sides of the line.
Finally, the complete surrender came, and we had visions of a long rest, perhaps passes to large cities, etc., but that is all they were, just "visions" that never materialized. We rejoined the battalion and after a week of preparations set out on a 600-mile motor march, and at the end of the march we found ourselves under the command of "Old Blood and Guts" Patton, the most bombastic, lovable American general in the ETO. His specialty was tank warfare, and it meant a new kind of warfare for our mortars.
We went into action with the 35th Inf Div in the vicinity of Nancy, and participated in the battle of Gramercy Forest. In this vicinity the company received an exceptionally severe shelling. It was the very first time that every man in the company from cooks to mortarmen was subjected to artillery barrages. It had been the policy of the company to establish a rear area in a comparatively safe place for the purpose of giving the men on the line a place to rest up for a few days because the company had never been pulled out of the line for a rest period, after an engagement, such as the infantry enjoys. We were committed to combat two days after landing in France, and the battalion commander realized the necessity for such a policy, for it would have been humanly impossible to maintain an effective fighting force for such a long period of time if the men were not given the opportunity to rest up and relax after a given number of days on the front line.
The area for such a place was reconnoitered and the entire company was moved into it. The next day, the platoons were to occupy gun positions in support of the 35th Inf Div. We all considered the area a safe one and as a result we bedded down for the night without digging holes. At exactly ten o'clock, the first shell came screaming in and, luckily for us, it was short of its mark. It gave us a few seconds to duck into whatever cover was available. Evidently the Krauts used the few seconds to make whatever corrections were necessary to get on the target, for the next shell hit directly in the middle of the 3rd platoon area. For the next 20 minutes, we went through indescribable hell-like tortures. When the shelling subsided, we counted two dead and 17 wounded, vehicles damaged beyond repair, and the mental attitude of the entire company at its lowest ebb since we had been in combat.
We moved from the area immediately and occupied an alternate rest area, and it was here that the company commander made the wise decision of wasting no time in getting the remnants of the company together and going into the line the very next morning in support of the infantry division of our attachment. Again the company displayed its recuperative powers, for this 'incident' also was overshadowed by the knowledge that we still had a job to do and a bigger score to settle, for one of the boys who had been killed was Bob Boyington, a nice kid from Louisiana.
We began to get hardened to the tribulations of war, and we all had a more grim perspective of what we were up against. It was during this campaign that we fired numerous smoke screens for advancing infantry. On several occasions, we worked hand in hand with division artillery using the well known Cub liaison planes as observers for our firing.
The weather conditions were far from favorable. It was the time of the year for rain, mud and more rain. The mud made tough going for the tankers, and a small knowledge of our particular weapon is all that is needed to appreciate the work that the boys did on the guns in order to keep them firing. Mortars were fired without locking forks, standards, covered with three feet of mud, and on one occasion one particular mortar 'rode' back at least 15 feet from where the squad leader had first laid it in. Yet, under these trying conditions the men were fully aware of how important it was to maintain the devastating fire the mortars were laying down around the Kraut's ears and, they all performed miracles, successfully completing every mission assigned to them by the infantry commander.
At that time, the First Army was occupying the headlines, for its progress was increasingly speeding up, whereas the thrust by the Third Army, sorely in need of supplies and materials as a result of its lightening-like dash across France and the resulting lengthening of supply lines, was slowly being arrested. We fought with the Third Army up until October, when word came that we had been assigned to the First Army, and once again we prepared for a long motor march to join the First Army, which at that time was inside the Siegfried Line preparing for the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, the bloodiest, most miserable battle in the history of warfare.
We entered the German town of Roetgen, and then began one of the worst campaigns the company could ever hope to be in. We were attached to the 28th Inf Div, called the "Bloody Bucket", and we went into positions inside the Hurtgen Forest in a valley which later on was to be named Purple Heart Valley as a result of so many casualties suffered there. The forest had been completely mined and booby-trapped, and the engineers did a wonderful job clearing the territory the infantry was to cover.
The prime mission of the division we were supporting was to go through the entire forest and occupy the town of Schmidt, a well defended town commadning the approach to the series of dams controlling the flood waters which ran into the industrial Ruhr valley. H-hour came, and we proceeded to lay down a rolling barrage of HE shells, softening up the enemy defenses. For the first ten minutes, everything was going fine, and the infantry was prepared to go over the hill of the valley we were in, when the enemy let loose with everything he had. Our attack was halted by the tremendous amount of artillery, and it was then that we were aware of how big a job it was going to be to oust him from his dug-in positions and reach our objectives.
Not long after this attack, the weather decided to take up the fight against us, and we began to live through heavy snowfalls and extreme cold. The guns remained in the one gun position for a solid month, and somehow the company managed to hold together throughout everything that came up. We saw the 28th Div go, the 8th Div come in, stay for about three weeks and then be relieved by the 78th Div. As usual, when the divisions were relieved, we remained where we were, and took the new consignment with a shrug of the shoulders, for we knew we were there to stay. The 8th Div finally knifed its way out of the forest and instead of this action turning the tide in our favor, it completely exposed us to enemy observation and densely mined flat terrain.
We set up our guns in the town of Hurtgen outside the forest and once more the company was ordered to move out of the town into a small defilade approximately 800 yards from the front line by the infantry commander. At 0300, the third platoon took off in a column of jeeps and started down the road toward the new position. The leading jeep and the one immediately behind it passed over a certain spot without anything happening, but the third jeep hit what is called a German box mine, and all its occupants were blown into the air and off the road. Immediately after the explosion, the Germans began laying a barrage on the area and once again the men were subjected to a group shelling which took its toll.
This incident also displayed the courage of the men in B Company, for after working under shell fire on a mined road, they successfully evacuated the wounded men to aid stations and after a quick check, we found that four men had been killed, and thirteen injured. The ne killed were Mauck, Olson, Kane, and Homa, boys we had known since basic training, and we took their loss rather hard. The morale of the company was again on its last legs, for the company commander had completely broken under the terrific strain forced upon him.
With the loss of our company commander, 17 men out of action, the squads working with one or two men on each gun, and the war still on, drastic steps had to be taken immediately in order to keep the company in the line. It was at about this time that Von Rundstedt launched his historic dash through the American lines and the Battle of the Bulge was on. His strategy was to make a thrust toward Luxembourg and, after drawing the American forces down into the area of the thrust, he had planned to swing hinge like to the north to hit the First Army salient and cut it by capturing Roetgen, which would put us in an extremely unpleasant position.
However, he had run into a little more than he expected when he began to feel out the northern flank and decided that he could more easily keep on going due west and sever the American supply lines which were greatly extended at that time, and by this action isolate the First Army an its troops in Germany. We were not at all surprised when a re-attachment came down and we were sent out of the Hurtgen Forest down into Belgium in support of the paratroopers of the well-known 82nd Airborne Div. They were to hammer at the northern flank of Von Rundstedt's salient and cut t in two by meeting up with the Third Army which was hammering at the southern flank.
Fighting with these paratroopers was indeed a new experience, for their very actions inspired a "can't be beaten" attitude, and the ease with which they handled all their objectives was something we had not seen since we worked with the 13th Regiment of the 8th Inf Div at Brest. Each day the guns moved forward, and the gun crews knew that each move forward was taking them that much closer to home.
Maj Gen 'Slim Jim' Gavin paid us a visit one day at one of the gun positions and it was easy to see why he had the admiration and respect of every man in the division. Like Eisenhower, Gen Gavin takes a personal interest in the lowest Joes in the Army, and he can make the lowest private feel at ease in spite of the fact that he is face to face with a major general. He offered helpful and constructive criticism of the gun position and complimented the company on its fine work.
It wasn't too long after his visit that we were given 20 paratroopers to supplement the losses we had sustained in the Hurtgen Forest, and they came in mighty handy, for we still had the elements opposing us in our operation of the mortars as well as opposition from the enemy. The cold and snow were very severe, and the gun positions were of necessity out in the open because the Ardennes Forest is rather dense, and there are very few houses and villages that troops can live in.
We stayed with the 82nd Division until they were relieved by the 75th Inf Div, a 'green' outfit, and again as usual we just stayed where we were and started working with them. For a green outfit, they functioned very efficiently and Von Rundstedt's salient was being reduced day by day. Our fighting took us across the Salm River and into the town of Vielsalm, and by this time Von Rundstedt's bulge had all but disappeared and we began to sweat out a new assignment.
The new assignment was not long in coming and we found ourselves with the 9th Inf Div battling our way up to the Roer River, about seven miles south of Schmidt, the town which had been taken in almost four months of fighting in the First Army sector. This particular campaign was one of movement, for we were being shunted from one regiment to another and then back again to the first regiment, and each shunt meant moving into the new regimental sector. After Schmidt had been taken by elements of the 7th Div, plans were laid for the crossing of the Roer River. The crossing of the Roer became headline news. This meant that the Allies now had complete control of the Schwammaneur dams. It was our good fortune to see the main dam and all its huge abutments.
The Germans then began to disintegrate, and we again had a chase on our hands, for we made a lightning-like dash from the roer River to the banks of the Rhine in support of the 2nd Inf Div. The sight of the Rhine River and the Remagen railroad bridge, which had been captured intact by the 9th Armored Div, was a wonderful one. We began to realize that organized German resistance was rapidly crumbling and it was just a question of time now until the surrender terms were accepted.
The collapse of the railroad bridge held up progress quite a bit, and once again the engineers showed their prowess by constructing the huge pontoon bridges necessary to insure te flow of men and materials to the fighting front which by this time was on the other side of Hitler's Autobahn. B Company made it possible to cut this vital supply road by screening the advancing infantry with WP. Our next assignment saw us containing the Krauts sealed up in the Ruhr pocket of upwards of 200,000 troops. We remained on the east bank of the Rhine in the vicinity of Seigburg on the Seig River, a position governing the southern escape route which was now closed to the besieged Krauts in the Ruhr pocket. We remained here for approximately three weeks when a new assignment with the 104th Div came through.
After a long motor march, we found ourselves in another rather shaky position. We were on the tip of the finger that was trying to close up the Ruhr pocket, making a junction with the Canadians who were coming down from the north. There was very little action during this period, and after a couple of weeks in this region, we received another assignment which was to be the most interesting one we had.
We were attached to the 9th Armored Div that had established the first bridgehead across the Rhine, joining them at Mulhausen. Their objectives were to be at a junction with the Russian Army, if possible, and to secure all the ground west of the Elbe River, which runs approximately north and south through the center of Germany. Our spot on the river would place us southeast of Berlin, and naturally we were anxious to get rolling, for the end was at last in sight. We started out with Combat Command B clearing all the towns which lay in out path, and it was practically a non-stop flight across the flat land which characterizes the center of Germany.
Even on this last leg of the war, the company was to have another 'incident' and it came about very unexpectedly. We were in the armored column in the vicinity of Bilzingsleben and parked on the road leading into the town. The time was about 5:00pm and the brilliant sun was to our backs and we were feeling rather good when, from out of the sun came four ME-109s with a perfect target of a long line of vehicles. They came in unannounced and undisturbed, for the anti-aircraft units were caught napping and they offered no resistance to the planes until after they were well started on their strafing and bombing mission.
For some reason or other the planes concentrated on B Company's string of vehicles and every bomb that hit landed on the road where we were parked. It was really terrifying, for the sound of a bomb screaming down is a sound never to be forgotten. Once again we added up the damage done, and we found that good old Hinchy had been killed instantly when a bomb struck his truck under which he had sought cover. Seven other men had been seriously wounded, and after they were taken care of, we again took off with the grim reminder that the war was still very much on, regardless of what the home papers might be saying.
Three days later found us east of Leipzig, in the small town of Wolpen, where we were to fire our mortars for the last time. After shelling Eilenburg for several days, we were once more relieved for another assignment. A long motor march over the Reichsautobahn and we found ourselves in southern Germany, acting as police troops. Here we went to work cleaning the woods of Wehrmacht stragglers who had banded together constituting a serious threat to our over-extended supply lines. This was something new for Baker Company, but it proved its adaptability by over-running a Wehrmacht bivouac area, thus greatly lessening guerrilla activities in this sector.
We seemed destined never to stay very long in any one place. Once again it was that familiar cry, "March Order," that sent us on our way to Hirschau. Thus it was that V-E Day found us in Hirschau and wondering what would happen next. We had been in combat 300 days; we had supported 28 different divisions, 8 corps and 3 armies. We all hoped to be in the Army of Occupation, but deep within us we knew that we were destined for the Pacific.
From Hirschau we moved in battalion convoy to a town in Czechoslovakia called Bischofteinitz, and after staying there for about three weeks, we were finally alerted for a long trip through Germany and into France where we were told we would embark for home and 30 day leaves in the States. You can imagine what a thrill it was to think that after 15 months overseas we were at last going hometo see our loved ones. Thoughts of the Pacific were thrust aside, for the combat man learns to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself.
Our staging area was Camp Lucky Strike, that large tent city located near Le Havre. The convoy from Bischofteinitz to Le Havre was long and wearisome, but our spirits were high with thoughts of home. Nothing could daunt us. We stayed in Camp Lucky Strike for two weeks, but it seemed at least four times that long, so eager were we to get started toward home. At long last, that day of departure arrived. There never was or will be a happier band of men than B Company on that occasion, although the weather did not share our enthusiasm. A driving rain soaked everyone to the skin; but even that failed to dampen our spirits. With light hearts, we boarded the S.S. Sea Pike, homeward bound.
A calm voyage under sunny skies, eight carefree days and we docked at New York. Home at last! From New York we traveled by train to Camp Kilmer where we were separated into groups according to the location of the re-deployment centers nearest our homes. Then came those glorious furloughs, 30 days which ended too soon. While we were enjoying this respite from war, the Pacific forces were carrying total destruction to the shores of Japan. The atomic bomb forced the Japanese government to sue for peace and thus it was that while we were returning to our station, Camp Campbell, Kentucky, the war officially came to an end.
This great news brought forth a tangled mixture of emotions: relief, happiness and sadness. We were relieved to know that there would be no more combat for us; we were happy with the thought that now we could go home and stay; but it was with sadness that we thought of our friends who were not with us to celebrate this great day.
Now the sage of B Company is coming to an end. With each departure of a high point veteran goes a little bit of that glorious past which has marked this organization's history. Soon there will be nothing left but these words to commemorate the brilliant traditions of Baker Company, 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion.
Killed In Action
Cpl Mike Babaryka - 29 June 1944, in the English Channel. Interred in England.
PFC Robert R. Boyington - 30 September 1944, near Laitre, France. Interred in United States Military Cemetery No. 1, Andilly, France.
S/Sgt James J. Campbell - 5 September 1944, near Brest, France. Interred in France.
Pvt Lolly A. D'Augereaux - 5 September 1944, near Brest, France. Interred in France.
Sgt Gerald D. Hinchy - 5 November 1944, in Germany. Interred in Breuna Cemetery No. 1, Holland.
PFC John P. Homa - 9 December 1944, in Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
PFC Charles A. Kane - 8 December 1944, in Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
S/Sgt Edward N. Levinson - 17 November 1944, in Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Pvt Robert J. Manton - 17 September 1944, near Kerualan, France. Interred in France.
Sgt James R. Mauck - 8 December 1944, in Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Cpl Paul E. Olson - 8 December 1944, in Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
T/5 William A. Seiber - 30 September 1944, near Laitre, France. Interred in United States Military Cemetery No. 1, Andilly, France.
C Company landed on Utah Beach on the shores of France at about 2300 hours, 29 June 1944. It was a hectic, confused, chaotic situation that might have reminded the layman of Babylon, Babel and Dante's Inferno on a single stage. The beach buzzed, roared and swarmed with activity. Tanks, half-tracks, and armored cars churned huge ruts in the sand. Jeeps followed the ruts until they could take off on other tangents. Amphibious vehicles, "ducks", wallowed through the water, waddled on to land, laid their eggs of war cargo and waddled back into the water again.
Our jeeps followed military police directions, road signs, and blind instinct to a rendezvous point. Some jeeps didn't quite make it on time, so we sat and waited. Dawn brought them in, tired, and a little jumpy. They received a baptism of fire on the beach from enemy planes which flitted about in the glare of anti-aircraft searchlights until their wings were singed and they fluttered earthward.
On July 3rd, after bivouacking near St. Jaque De Nehou, we fired our first combat mission. At the time we were attached in general support to the 314th Infantry Regiment of the 79th Division. The objective was Hill 121, a huge bald slope with the enemy well entrenched. The 314th hammered away at it and we helped. The platoons were split, and the first platoon moved out to encircle the hill and support the initial attack. Our first missions were successful and seemed to have started a habit and pattern that was followed closely during the next 314 days in combat.
That night we held a sector of the line as front line troops and experienced the qualms of the inexperienced soldier with all the attendant visions of enemy patrols and snipers. Omnipresent danger was supplied by trigger-happy, nervous boys who saw an enemy spy in every fluttering leaf. On July 6, the company settled down to real work by firing five different smoke screens on and around the town of La Haye du Puits. Excellent results: the town fell, figuratively and literally.
On July 7, C Company learned about war the hard way and paid the price exacted of all warriors. It was in La Gossiliniere. The second platoon had moved forward to an orchard near Montguarden to fire a special screening mission. The first platoon fired from its position near La Gossiliniere. The second platoon had just finished its mission when a number of German 88s, the most vicious gun Jerry had, opened up on them from a perfect vantage point. The enemy observation was unimpaired by an terrain feature and the orchard soon became a death trap sprung to the tune of hot, singing steel. To add to the damage, the first platoon moved into the same orchard . We dug frantically, burrowed into the giant hedgerows that were at times a protection and at others a danger, listened helplessly to the cries for "Medic" and waited for the fire to lift. When it did lift, we changed position and counted noses. There were a few missing and the effect of that news was sobering. Some of us lost or enthusiasm for war. Orhers felt a little more like veterans but all of us knew we had stopped playing for marbles.
The next few days were spent in intermittent firing. We had almost settled down to accept the static condition when we found an opportunity to reply in kind for that bad day. On July 14 we returned the compliment to Jerry by killing 80 and effecting the capture of 40 gray-green boys when we fired into an orchard near Le Russeau.
The next period of note we spent in a constant moving and firing routine that threatened to become monotonous. We moved through many towns but that is not indicative of distance in France. French towns earn their names if they have a chapel, a crossroad and a couple of houses. Sometimes a wayside shrine substitutes for the chapel, and a dilapidated barn may replace the houses. But they are towns nonetheless and named, mapped and chartered.
Very soon the light jabbing and hooking changed to our first real knockout blow: The Breakthrough! We went through and kept going. The Boche was rocking on the ropes and we weren't giving him time to recover. The speed of advance did little to deter us from exercising the age old prerogative of the soldier, exploration of conquered territory, nor did it interfere with the boys' innate tendency to indulge in the little pleasures the countryside afforded. We discovered the liquid known as Calvados, a powerful French home-brew that we suspected Hitler of using later on to power his buzz bombs. Some of the fellows, remembering their first drinks, still believe the atom bomb is an inferior imitation of the energy sealed in a liter of Calvados. Some others enjoyed it after developing leather throats and asbestos stomachs. The addicts - no names here, please - could find the stuff no matter how well the thrifty peasants hid it.
At Dol de Bretagne on August 4, the towns people welcomed us with all the laughter and gaiety of which the French are capable masters. There was an air of festivity in the town and a constant drone of broken French and busted English trying to strike a happy medium. But languages never presented too great a difficulty. If we wished, we could get along very well with a few phrases and plenty of pantomime.
On August 8, we moved into the Dinan sector. The former resort and bathing place was practically untouched by the war, and it too was in a state of fiesta. The huge, picturesque, stone causeways which connected the hills surrounding the town afforded an excellent view that we spent lots of time admiring.
On August 13, the first platoon was committed again and we moved forward to a new position. Here again occurred one of the inexplicable tricks of war. In moving the 12 platoon vehicles, we passed over a large mine at a crossroad and not one vehicle caused the mine to detonate. At another time, a sneeze might have been sufficient.
On August 17, the company was attached to the 329th Inf Rgmt of the 83rd Inf Div and committed to support the attack on the Citadel at St. Malo. The Citadel, an almost impregnable fortress of modern design, presented an unusual and difficult firing problem. The enemy was firmly ensconced in underground tunnels behind the thick stone walls. Some tunnels were sixty feet deep with facilities for withstanding a long siege. The "Mad Colonel" von Aulock, commander of the German garrison, had been ordered by his boss, Der Feuhrer, to hold out. And the colonel was obeying orders. It might have been a long, tedious job had not someone discovered a way to smoke the rats out of their holes and into the open.
The ventilating shafts that supplied fresh air to the garrison below were the key to the problem. So we started a continuous fir of one round per minute for 24 hours, landing each round just in front of the air ducts. Whenever the big fans sucked air into the tunnels they also sucked white phosphorus fumes down. We imagine it got mighty uncomfortable down there. Von Aulock later complained that the use of WP was inhumane. A clear case of the kettle calling the pot black. The Citadel surrendered and another strong point was marked off Hitler's inventory of the "thousand year Reich."
Then came our next big job, the battle for Brest. It was the walled city and port that harbored Hitler's submarine fleet. We traveled 125 miles onto the Brittany peninsula while other forces took off eastward on the drive to Paris. We were attached to the 2nd Inf Div, an outfit with which we were to do a lot of work later on in the campaigns. Here we encountered another Hitler ultimatum. He said, "Hold the city!" We argued the matter and won. It was at Brest that we perfected the split company technique. The first platoon supported the 9th Inf Rgmt, and the second platoon did the same for the 23rd Inf Rgmt. It meant spreading ourselves a bit thin but we compensated for the spread by working harder and faster. It was at Brest that the company fired the most rounds for any single mission. It was also at Brest that an objective was taken largely because of the intense artillery and mortar fire laid down.
At Brest we found respite from the monotony of GI food by dressing up the Ten-In-One ration so that even the creator of the packaged nourishment could have failed to recognize his brainchild. There was an unlimited supply of fried potatoes coming from a frying pan manhandled by one of the boys who earned the nickname of Potato Joe for his efforts, and incidentally earned the undying gratitude of every fried potato fiend in the outfit.
As the action at Brest continued, the boys grew restless. The following incident indicates our restiveness and also the fact that we were really hardened veterans and maybe a little careless. In one position we were set up in a large grassy field about the size of a football gridiron. It was inevitable that we would soon yield to the temptation. And we did. The Captain walked onto the field one day and discovered two complete teams in formation on the field. The signals were punctuated by gunfire and, when one came close, everybody hit the dirt and the play was called off. The Captain rubbed his eyes, tried to decide whether he was in command of a bunch of screwballs or whether to get on the wagon. He did neither, but broke the game off short and sent us back to our holes a little chagrined but a little happier.
As did all other points, Brest fell with a crash of mortar, masonry and dress swords. The commander escaped to the Crozon peninsula but was picked up soon afterward. The job was cleaned up and we were ready for new fields to conquer. On September 25, we were ordered to Neufchateau, so we shook ourselves down and took off. It was quite a trip. We saw France from the seat of a jeep (highly recommended for the full view) and vibrated our merry way past bevies of gals at each crossroad. The French gave freely of their cider and cognac and we became very proficient at snaggling a bottle while doing thirty miles an hour. Some of the near-sighted boys had difficulty distinguishing the curved bottle from the curved femmes and tried snaggling them also. Of course we paid off in chocolate, cigarettes and gum, but our supply was exhausted before our thirst was quenched. Sort of one-sided Lend-Lease, we thought.
Some of the towns we were feted in were Morlaix, Lesneven, St. Brieuc, Rennes, Laval, and Orleans. Our destination was an assembly area in the Bois Anciotta. There we were told of our attachment to the 80th Inf Div to support an attack on Mt. Toulon and Mt. St. Jean Delincourt. The towns of Sivry and Serrierres were included in the objective area. Here we fired what might be termed our most successful screening mission. Mt. Toulon was a large, cone-shaped peak commanding all the territory around it. It presented a difficult task. The 80th decided to attack it with a frontal assault and a flanking movement right and left. The left movement was to pass through Serrierres and then right through Sivry.
The frontal assault, like all such maneuvers, demanded the most screening. The attack was set for 0600, and our orders were that the top and most of the slope fronting us was to be obscured. At best it was a difficult job. The top was a mile from the base. The valleys were filled with tricky air currents that could not be predetermined. We started firing on schedule and a perfect ring of smoke mushroomed round the summit. We dropped the range a bit, traversed the mortars, and soon a curtain of smoke lay like a barrier between the enemy and our advancing infantry.
The wind, fickle most of the time, helped us by staying away; and soon the valley looked like it had experienced a very heavy snowfall. The smoke shifted gently back and forth. From under came the sound of battle. It was strange to hear all the familiar noises and see nothing. At 0651, just 20 minutes after we had started to fire, word came that we had won the objective. The word came from the top of Mt. Toulon! Twenty-one minutes to wipe a mountain out of the way!
One week later, C Company probably became the only 4.2 unit to be officially credited with the destruction of a plane in combat. The circumstances were extraordinary; they would have to be. The plane, one of our own Cub Grasshoppers, made a forced landing behind enemy lines. It sustained no damage and it looked for awhile that the Boche had captured an unusual prize. That is, it looked that way until C Company received orders to destroy the plane with mortar fire and keep it from being used against us. So we did. After a few rounds were fired, the plane was tail-less, propeller-less, wing-less, and therefore worthless.
Luxembourg - Belgium - Germany
The campaigns of Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany proved to be a far more severe test of our ability, efficiency and combat effectiveness. Not that previous campaigns had been fun but now we encountered the worst enemy of the foot soldier: weather. Weather that refused rest, ruined sleep, and made working an ordeal. No war is easy, no war is a lark, but war against both men and weather becomes a hellish torment and exacts a double toll and demands greater stamina, endurance and patience. It was through this type of weather that C Company proved its soldiering strength, took its greatest toll of the enemy, and made its greatest contributions toward the winning of the war in Europe.
Our first firing position in really inclement weather was near Germeter, Germany. We were under division control of the 28th, the division that was to write its name in blood on the snow-covered floor of the Hurtgen forest. Veterans of both wars agree that Hurtgen ranks number one in ferocity, treachery and casualties among the great battles of history. The forest is an impenetrable stand of tall pines growing so close together that their interlocking branches form a solid roof through which the sun, moon and stars can barely filter. In winter, this roof catches and holds most of the snow. When the temperature rises it falls as icy slush. The floor of the forest becomes a muddy morass which hides paths, roots, vines and stump, a condition not conducive to swift and comfortable travel.
A full company of men could hide between trees within a 50 yard area and often did. The enemy knew the forest like a well-read book. They shelled our areas continuously with all the artillery they could muster. The shells were doubly dangerous because of tree bursts which filled the air with shrapnel, flying splinters and falling trees. The Hurtgen forest lay at the entrance to the key territory around the important Schwammanuer Dam system, and the Boche were just as determined to hold it as we were to take it. It meant hard, bitter fighting where inches were as important as miles had once been.
On November 1, C Company screened the town of Schmidt. That town was to become a symbol. It changed hands almost daily and we fired on it, at it, and around it a number of times before it fell and stayed fallen. November 10 ushered in another dark period of intense enemy fire and heavy resistance. In one area we encountered more than 500 large caliber artillery shells landing near us during a three day period. The men were never closer to each other as is illustrated by the incident of the crowded foxhole. One day, while we were firing a mission, Heinie opened up with all he had. We made for our holes and discovered that inside one hole, built originally for four men, we had managed to accommodate over a dozen.
And then came the Bulge. That particular period in the history of war will probably be the most talked of campaign of all time. For velocity, ferocity and horror, there is probably no equal. Most of our memories are a little hazy on exactly what happened, so we quote from a report submitted immediately after we returned from the trap near Rocherath, Belgium. This report was submitted to battalion headquarters after C Company had returned from assisting the 2nd Div in holding the 'hot corner' of the Bulge. During that period the company was completely cut off from other units and the daily report was submitted after we safely returned to Dolhain, Belgium. Here is the report:
Company C Ammunition Report for Period 12-14 to 12-19 Inclusive
"The real report of the past four days firing cannot be given in just a series of figures and map coordinates; nor can it be told in the language usually reserved for such records. Since entering this theater of action, Company C has never been a part of, nor has it experienced, such a critical situation as arose during those hectic days. Never has the morale, efficiency, resourcefulness and discipline of the company been put to such a grueling test. And never have these qualities come through with such flying colors as they did through this ordeal.
"And an ordeal it was. The situation, as is now common knowledge, was definitely termed critical by even the most optimistic observers. In our experience, it was unparalleled and unanticipated. Units to which C Company had been subordinated suddenly became dependent on C Company for security and fire. The danger in which all units found themselves could be minimized greatly by C Company's action if the proper action was taken at the proper time.
"And the proper action was taken; taken to the extent that it was responsible for evacuating complete units, halting enemy advances, protecting our troop movements, replacing heavier artillery, supplying the only fire in many concentrations, accounting for heavy casualties among enemy personnel and material, maintaining communication for and with isolated units and general support of the whole sector. C Company mortar men exposed themselves to capture or death to lay a curtain of fire so that other units might be withdrawn. This fire, as noted later, for responsible for holding up the enemy advances until other units could move into safer positions.
"There can be no question as to the voluntary character of this work. It was the initiative of both officers and men, the morale and discipline and the enthusiastic will to win that was responsible for the maintenance of ammunition supply, food, water and generally unexcelled accuracy in firing."
The report continues to tell of the details involved in each mission. It is sufficient to state that C Company came out of the Bulge with all men safe and sound. On December 24, C Company initiated a new phase for mortar men, supporting two divisions from the same position at the same time. It was at Berg, the site of a large dam, and the divisions supported were the 1st and 2nd Infantry. The day after moving into Berg we had a typical Army and therefore a typical American Christmas dinner with turkey and all the trimmings. It is not peculiar or strange that the same adaptability the American soldier had to strange conditions and places also served him well when it came to celebrating American holidays no matter where he was ot what he was doing. Soon after Christmas, as follows everywhere, came New Years Eve. And we celebrated at midnight in the time-honored custom of making a lot of noise. Of course, we combined pleasure and business by shooting off our guns in the general direction of the enemy.
Soon after we left Berg, we discovered what we had been missing by digging holes when the action slowed. Quite by accident we found that German homes afforded warmer, more comfortable, if not the greatest degree of safety when we needed shelter. From then our address could have been found in the village directory. In one of these houses the company became godfather to a new babe almost born in a cellar of the command post. Fortunately the prospective mother was evacuated before it became necessary to turn her over to the gentle ministrations of soldiers. It is still a question as to how she would have survived under those circumstances because we did have many experienced fathers, all of whom wanted to help.
On December 28, C Company made a triumphal entry into the town of Rockerath, the latest position held during the Bulge. No fanfare or bugles greeted us, just the ruin, stink and debris of war lay in mute evidence to the bloody battle fought there.
February 5, in our record, is the next notable day. It was then that the second platoon moved into the town of Ruhrberg in support of the 78th Div. The town lay on a tip of land jutting out into a large lake. The lake was surrounded by high hills upon which Jerry had a forbidding array of artillery pieces. We felt very much like Goliath with no privacy and lots of exposure until we started firing. The quad leaders were, for the first time, able to adjust their own fire. The range was only 700 yards and the targets could be seen clearly from the guns.
On February 8, we again fired on the town of Schmidt and this time made it stick. Schmidt ceased to exist as an inhabitable place and we believe the Heinies would do better to move the site of the town and start building instead of trying to salvage anything in the original place.
Things started to ease up a little in March with improved weather and a faster running enemy. We hit the west bank of the Rhine River. There, attached to the 2nd Div again, we were with old friends in the right neighborhood. We had an observation post that was the last word in luxury. It was located in the penthouse of the Rhine Hotel in Brohl. Our instruments rested on mahogany tables. We sat on overstuffed furniture. The room was policed regularly by the hotel employees. A far cry from foxholes and mud. It was here that the company rear discovered a new design for living in combat. They set up in the Sprudel Works where one of Germany's nationally known soft drinks is manufactured. Of course, GI ingenuity found ways to improve and strengthen the drink. In addition, they acquired a stable of riding horses, a German staff car and assorted motorcycles. Ten men in the car, three men on a horse, and two men on a motorcycle were common sights.
Early in March we crossed the Rhine over the now-famous Victory Bridge, and started on our tour of the autobahns Hitler had built to facilitate the movement of his own war machines. Not the project turned upon him like a Frankenstein monster and those same roads were writing the doom of Germany. We fired a little after crossing the Rhine, but our last important mission was capturing the huge synthetic rubber factory at Leuna. We had no idea we had captured it when we moved in before dawn one morning until the infantry came through looking for Germans and discovered us. We were both very much surprised.
We were at Colditz when the link up with the Russians was made at Tourga. That was the beginning of the end which found us guarding a huge concentration of poison gas shells Jerry had neither time or courage to use.
May 8 . . . V-E Day . . . The End . . . Finis, and we had it. This is the story of C Company of the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion. A futile attempt to condense a year of living and dying into capsule form. It is impossible to tell even a small part of that year, for no man's memory or vision is sufficient to encompass all. We have told the things that stuck in our memory and some of the things that are recorded in official records. What we have not told is the way the tempo of life speeds up and becomes kaleidoscopic as events crowd one another so swiftly that the mind forgets. Snow the tempo has slowed. We have time for retrospect, time for thought, time for planning, time that will erase the unpleasantness of the past few years, that will dull the memory and lull us into complacency. There lies our next battle: the fight against the forces that will take advantage of our forgetfulness to repeat this war. How shall we fight it? How... ?
The real history of C Company is told in the names of those who are no longer with us, those who lie on foreign soil, those whose names now appear In Memoriam when they wanted so much to come home alive. But they are now more than names. They are the symbols of why we fought. They were the men who gave their lives for the ideals to which they were born in order that those ideals may become the birthright of all men. They were the host that answered a nation's call as America will always answer when that call is heard. To those men, farewell and a promise that this time memory will not be short, and the survivors not short-sighted.
Killed In Action
T/5 Armon E. Duval - 7 July 1944, in Normandy, France. Interred in Cambridge American Military Cemetery, England.
PFC John W. Hughes - 7 July 1944, in Normandy, France. Interred in England.
PFC Edward L. McKahan - 7 July 1944, in Normandy, France. Interred in Blosville Cemetery, France.
Cpl Chester F. Tenhagen - 9 July 1944, in Normandy, France. Interred in Normandy, France.
PFC Walter J. Henning - 12 January 1945, at Berg, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle No. 1, Belgium.
Cpl Ralph Spaggio - 7 February 1945, in Germany. Interred in U.S. Military Cemetery, Margraten, Holland.
One quiet evening some three weeks after D-Day, D Company found itself in Normandy. Rain fell intermittently in the shrub-covered defile, and the men tried to make their slit trenches as dry and comfortable as possible, wondering what war would be like.
Friendly paratroopers of the crack 82nd Airborne visited, gave advice and told some of their stories, and left as darkness fell. Gone were the garrison days of Camp Swift, the rush through Camp Shanks, the ocean crossing, and the comparatively comfortable and enjoyable stay at Port Sunlight. Even the Channel crossing seemed remote. No more training and practice, this was the real thing.
The morning of the third, the first mission came. A few shells were dropped down the barrels, and a fierce and accurate enemy barrage came crashing back. One direct hit ignited propellant charges in a flash of red flame. Three men were killed and six were wounded. A bad start, but the fire mission was completed. A new position was reconnoitered, and the company started to move, but by this time the attack had progressed so well that orders came to displace forward, and the heavy mortar carts were loaded and dragged through Varenquebec and along a road not yet cleared of mines to the new position on Hill 131. The mortars were dug in, and work commenced on an alternate position, when word came to move again.
Another long haul was made, still without transportation, and more pits and slit trenches had to be dug. The unaccustomed strain and exertion were beginning to tell. The fourth of July was a good day. From fine positions back of hedgerows a large number of rounds were fired in support of an attack on Hill 121. Nothing came back, and spirits began to rise, until evening when another move was ordered. The carts had to be dragged all the long miles back to where the jeeps had been left. Towards daybreak of the fifth, the weary convoy pulled into the company rear area, where it was hoped there might be a day or two of rest. The company had been relieved from the 82nd.
A short hour or two after bedding down, tents were struck and the company moved out to support the new and green 90th Div in the vicinity of St. Jores. Before getting properly dug in, the second platoon received a mission and commenced firing. Again, the Krauts answered with uncannily accurate fire, and the platoon was driven from the field, carrying with them one wounded man. Later in the dau, a small detail returned to the position to retrieve the mortars.
St. Jores had been bitterly contested, changing hands several times. The night of the same day, the fifth, D Company established a position in a small ravine in front of the town to help inits defenses. The mortar positions were crowded and the ground was swampy, but there was a measure of protection from enemy fire. The next day, mortars were fired almost continuously. The men were utterly exhausted from hard work and tension; positions had to be re-dug constantly; and there was excessive breakage of parts; but somehow the guns were kept firing.
On the seventh, the company pulled back, then returned to the same place to help repel an enemy counter attack. During the eighth also the Jerries exerted heavy pressure, and the gun crews were kept busy. On the ninth, the company was relieved from the 90th Div, but hopes of any rest were dispelled by immediate attachment to the 8th Div. During the reconnaissance for a position, the second platoon lost it platoon leader (killed outright), platoon sergeant (fatally wounded), and a lineman (seriously wounded). Finally, gun positions were established.
This ended the first week of combat. The going had been very tough. One officer and three enlisted men had been killed in action, and eleven men had been wounded, one of whom died later. The physical state of the rest of the command was very low, due chiefly to the necessity for pulling the mortars on carts for long distances, many moves, much digging, little sleep. The supply of rations, water and ammunition was just beginning to be smoothed out.
From July 9 to 26, D Company participated in the slow, grueling, bitter hedgerow warfare. Things settled down to a routine. From the vicinity of La Haye du Puits through tiny battered stone villages to Battiere, the mortars were set up in the small Normandy fields and orchards behind hedgerows. Jeeps and trailers were used and the physical work reduced. Supply and liaison became efficient. Fresh reinforcements were received. Casualties were fewer, although on July 16 the platoon leader of the first platoon was missing in action while moving forward of the lines to observe.
Finally, after several postponements, came the breakthrough. Following a terrific aerial bombardment by heavy planes, the enemy lines disintegrated. Advances in the past had been a few thousand yards. Now, they were long motor marches. Instead of passing a few dead cows, roads were littered with abandoned enemy equipment and vehicles. Contact was lost, and it became unnecessary to set up the guns or dig in. After rolling through Coutances, Granville and Avranches, the company came to a halt outside Rennes on August 6 to wait for a possible enemy attempt to break out of the Brittany peninsula.
On August 15, a small enemy force trapped on Cap Frehel surrendered quickly after chemical mortars and other arms fired short missions to display their strength. On August 24, the company moved into position just north of Gouesnou in preparation for the VIII Corps attack on Brest the next day. With Allied armor slashing eastward through France, and after the easy victory at Cap Frehel, it seemed certain that Brest would capitulate in a matter of days.
No one was prepared for the stubborn, fierce resistance that prolonged the battle four long weeks. It was September 3 before the 8th Div had been able to advance far enough to permit D Company to displace beyond Gouesnou. Finally, after several moves and heavy firing, the immense walls of the fortress of Brest were within range, and a heavy smoke screen was laid down to cover infantrymen advancing toward them. It was decided, however, not to attempt to scale the walls at this time, and on the 14th the company moved down to the Crozon peninsula south of Brest as part of the 8th Div task force. After initially strong resistance, the peninsula was cleared.
The battle of Brest had been very difficult. However, in spite of active enemy artillery, D Company had come through with comparatively few casualties. A total of over 5,000 rounds of HE had been fired, and 6,000 rounds of WP. On one day, 1,700 rounds were fired, including 750 rounds by one platoon in 45 minutes. The targets were many and varied: troop concentrations, ammo dumps, enemy artillery, smoke screens and the barracks at Pontanezen. A captured PW, himself seriously burned, testified to the effectiveness of 4.2 WP shells.
On September 24, the battalion started a five-day motor march across France. Few will forget the enthusiastic crowds of French men, women and children who lined the streets of every village, throwing flowers and vegetables into the jeeps, shouting "Vive l'Amerique! Vive l'Amerique!" French and American flags everywhere, and the people were in a holiday mood. For them, the war was practically over.
The men of the 86th, however, were soon to find that the war was far from over. D Company was attached to General Patton's famed 4th Armored Division, and on the last day of the month moved into position near Juvrecourt, to the east of Nancy. Conditions were far different from what the company was accustomed to: there were no fields with thick protecting hedgerows; this terrain was open and rolling. Furthermore, the situation was static, the company's positions were in a small bulge in the lines, with Jerry on three sides.
The attitude of the civilians was not clear. Word came that some were working back and forth through the lines. With the armored forces deployed around their vehicles rather than in the infantryman's more continuous front line, this seems very possible. Whether or not spies were actually operating, it is certain that the mortar positions received some very heavy and accurate barrages. During one night-barrage, a shell struck the roof of a barn where half the first platoon was sleeping, injuring one man seriously ans seven men lightly.
However, the company gave better than it received: the towns of Bezanges-le-Petit, Moyenvic, and Xanray were hit heavily and fired with WP, an ammunition dump in Moyenvic was blown up, and an enemy column outside Xanray dispersed. On October 12, shortly after the 4th Armored was relieved by the 26th Inf Div, A Company replaced D Company, and D Company returned to the rear area in Dombasie for its first official rest.
The name Vossenack will remind any D Company man of the unit's roughest assignment. A small village in the Hurtgen forest, Vossenack lay in the Siegfried Line on the approaches to the vital dams governing the level of the lower Roer River. Enemy resistance was fierce in the extreme. Lines of supply were long over difficult forest roads. The dense growth of pines seriously limited the choice of mortar positions, and the weather had turned cold and wet.
The first site selected on October 30 was in a deep ravine which afforded excellent protection, but very poor ground for the mortars. This was some 800 yards west of Germeter. Guns and ammunition had to ba carried by hand down a precipitous slope and, for the first platoon, part way up the other side. Breakage of parts was excessive due to the wet and soggy ground. One location would support the guns for only a very limited number of rounds, necessitating frequent re-digging.
On November 2, the 28th Div launched its attack on Schmidt. On November 3, D Company was to follow the 112th Regiment into Kommerscheidt and Schmidt, but the infantry was meeting savage resistance, and this was not possible. Attempting to enter Vossenack instead, the column came under strong sniper fire and was pinned down temporarily. Mortar fire held up part of the convoy for hours. Finally, both platoons moved into the ruined, smoldering village.
The attack was in a generally southerly direction, and both platoons selected positions in a small defile on the northern edge of Vossenack. Although there was little information of any sort, this appeared to be a good spot, and the vehicles were brought up and the men commenced to dig in.
There was a dense pine wood, presumably in friendly hands, to the rear and left of the first platoon's area, perhaps a hundred yards from number four gun. While the men were digging in, a burst of machine gun fire from this woods swept the area. Two men were hit; the rest dropped into the half-finished holes. Germans were in the woods to the rear and very close. The line of slit trenches was in plain view of the enemy, but it was impossible to find him in the woods, and mighty unhealthy even to look.
Meanwhile, the two injured men were in bad shape and could not get into their holes though lying beside them. Finally one man darted from his hole to an American tank that was mired some distance away, told the occupants to give supporting fire, ran back to his jeep and took out and set up a machine gun. With the help of this heroic action, it was possible to evacuate the wounded by jeep. It was later learned that neither man survived.
Later another machine gun was set up, but the situation was not bettered. Jerry was invisible in the woods, and continued to send over small arms fire and also was able to direct very accurate and very heavy mortar and artillery fire on the position. It was not until darkness fell that any movement was possible. Wire was then run to the company CP in the town, and the company commander held a meeting with the platoon leaders. The second platoon had also received intense mortar and artillery fire. It was decided to remain in position and set up the mortars on a defensive fire. This was done quietly in the dark.
All during the night, half the platoon remained awake and ready for an attack on the position. Next day, the fourth, the infantry was in dire straits and needed supporting fire badly. The first platoon was near the woods, was not able to fire, and the second platoon was undergoing such severe shelling that it could not fire either. For the first, and last, time, D Company had to decline a mission, and B Company substituted.
All during the fourth there was nothing to do but remain under cover in the holes. The friendly tank was salvaged, leaving no American forces in the area. It was hoped the woods would be cleared out, but word came that it was not intended to do so. One meal reached the position the previous evening, but during the fourth nothing could be brought up. The men were hungry, thirsty, cold and wet. Small arms fire continued from the woods at any sign of movement; several shots were directed at the radio antenna but missed. The wire had been shelled out.
A small force of American tanks appeared during the day, and fired blindly into the woods, but the only observable effect was enemy shelling of the tanks, which were uncomfortably close to the mortar position. The tanks soon left. After dark, another meeting was held. Orders were to remain in Vossenack, and there were no other positions available in the vicinity, so that meant sweating it out. The evening of the fifth, after another day under heavy shelling and without food or water, the company commander decided to send the vehicles to the rear. Too many were being damaged by the shelling.
One by one, the drivers moved their jeeps away as silently as possible. The night was cloudy and dark, no shots were fired. Then at last permission came to move the company. When the drivers returned, they were immediately sent away again to bring the jeeps back. Quietly the men loaded their mortars and themselves, and moved out. The last jeep with two machine guns pulled away just as the moon came out. Again the luck held, and the Krauts did not fire.
Next morning the company set up in the original position west of Germeter. The attack had collapsed, Jerry had reoccupied Vossenack with men and tanks, and D Company fired a mission into the same draw they had occupied the day before.
With food, sleep, and a new rotation plan the company soon regained its efficiency. It was now possible again to send out more shells than were received. Armistice Day and Thanksgiving were spent here. The familiar 8th Div replaced the 28th. Winter set in, with heavy snows. A deer was bagged in the area, and the company enjoyed several meals of venison. Over 3,000 rounds were fired, helping the infantry to hammer out small gains.
The night of November 30, the company moved forward into Vossenack again. This time two or three houses were occupied, and the guns set up nearby. This position proved little better than the former one. Vossenack was visible to the Jerries in Kommerscheidt who soon located the mortars and sent back heavy barrages. On December 3, enemy fire ignited abuilding where 4.2 ammunition was stored, and the flames exploded 80 rounds of WP and nine of HE. There being no practicable mortar position in or near Vossenack, the company again returned to the ravine in back of Germeter where effective fire was delivered until the end of the attachment on December 10.
On December 13, the company was in position north of Krinkelt, Belgium, ready to support the green 99th Div in its initial attack into Germany, in the Ardennes Forest. All went well until the Germans launched their full-scale counter-attack on December 16. The next day, after seeing other units falling back past the gun positions, orders came to destroy vehicles and mortars, and move back. However, an open route was reconnoitered, and all equipment was saved. The night was spent in front of Krinkelt with heavy artillery fire landing in the vicinity and continuous small arms fire immediately ahead.
The next day, after making several halts, a position was established in front of Elsenborn and a stand made. Several attacks were launched against this position, an especially heavy one with tanks coming the evening of December 20. All were repulsed, with help from the 4.2s, and the position was maintained through the winter until the German bulge collapsed. The company rear was not so fortunate. Its position in Krinkelt was overrun by the German attack. The entire personnel was missing in action with the exception of one mechanic. This man remained in a slit trench for 36 hours. He saw a German tank shell the house occupied by the others, and later heard German infantry attack it using hand grenades. When he finally escaped on foot, he saw several vehicles destroyed and the helmets of a number of men lying on the ground.
Months later, hope for these men was revived with word that several were prisoners of war. A happy sequel came towards the end of the war, in Naumberg, Germany. Two officers, walking by the admission tent of an American evacuation hospital, heard a familiar voice cry out. It was the former first sergeant. He had been released when Leizig was captured. He was suffering from malnutrition and had lost 80 pounds and was very weak, but safe at last. He stated that probably the other 13 men were also safe, as they had all been taken prisoners together.
On January 28, the company moved to the vicinity of Butgenach, Belgium, in support of the 2nd Div, occupying a position at the edge of a snow-covered pine forest. The Bulge had by this time been wiped out, and an American attack was progressing smoothly. On January 31, the company moved to Kinkelt; on February 2 to Schoneseiffen, Germany; on February 4 to the vicinity of Schleiden; and February 5 to a position north of Hellenthal, beyond which it was not desired to advance at this time.
On February 16, the company joined the rest of the battalion at the rear area in Dolhain, Belgium. The battalion was to be reorganized under a new T/O, which called for three instead of four mortar companies. It fell to the lot of D Company to be disbanded. The men were assembled for a final formation and addressed by the battalion commander, who commended them for the fine record they had established in over seven months of combat. Every member had a feeling of great pride in the company, and knew that it had played its part with courage, determination, and success.
The personnel of D Company were transferred in grade to Hq Co, A Co, B Co, and C Co, where they continued to serve with distinction in their new assignments throughout the following months of combat in the European Theater of Operations. These heroic members of D Company, with their wealth of experience in battle, strengthened their new units and continued to make the reputation of the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion unexcelled in the history of warfare.
Killed In Action
Sgt Otto Tucker - 3 July 1944, at Pont L'Abbe, France. Interred in Blosville Cemetery, France.
Cpl William S. Watson, Jr. - 3 July 1944, at Pont L'Abbe, France. Interred in Blosville Cemetery, France.
Pvt Louis H. Sins - 3 July 1944, at Pont L'Abbe, France. Interred in Blosville Cemetery, France.
S/Sgt Francis S. Zdrikowski - 9 July 1944, at Blandemour, France. Interred in Blosville Cemetery, France.
1st Lt Leo J. Mantlios - 9 July 1944, at Blandemour, France. Interred in Blosville Cemetery, France.
PFC William Heffner - 13 July 1944, at St. Symphorien le Valois, France. Interred in Blosville Cemetery, France.
1st Lt Dustin S. Glade - 19 July 1944, at Periers, France. Interred Marigny, France.
PFC Edward P. Flowers - 29 July 1944, at Servigny, France. Interred in France.
S/Sgt John Linwood - 11 August 1944, at Rennes, France. Interred in U.S. Military Cemetery, St. James, France.
Sgt Sherman C. Sutphin - 3 November 1944, at Richelskonl, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Cpl Cecil L. Bogan - 3 November 1944, at Richelskonl, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Pvt Patrick F. Caskey - 17 December 1944, at Elsenborn, Belgium. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Pvt William D. Carlson - 8 February 1945, at Hellenthal, Germany. Interred in Henri Chapelle Cemetery No. 1, Belgium.
Hq, 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion
Office of the Battalion Commander
Camp Campbell, Kentucky
6 November 1945
To: All Members of the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion
This battalion has made an enviable record, not only while stationed in the United States, and in Belgium, but in the long months of combat in Europe.
You served with three Armies, six Corps, and supported twenty-six divisions, with many changes between these units, throughout five campaigns in the European Theater, and with all missions successfully accomplished.
The history of this battalion contains many deeds of valor on the part of individual members of the organization, yet standing high is the record of the entire battalion of 672 officers and men, together wih all former members and reinforcements, who have performed all duties and tasks as a "team" in an unsurpassed manner.
We individually, and as a unit, pay tribute to our dead. That they shall not have died in vain, we assume the obligation of keeping this Nation strong and free for ourselves, our loved ones, and for those who follow after us.
To each and every one of you, I wish the greatest success and happiness. May God bless you.
W. B. Hamilton
Lt. Colonel, CWS
Stories from Cpl. Fred C. Brown, Company C, 86th CMB
as told to his son, Gregory K. Brown.
The Citadel at St. Malo was a castle that was held by the "Mad Colonel" Von Aulor and his German and Turkish soldiers encamped inside. It had thick stonewalls and was considered "impregnable." Unknown if the Turks were conscripts or POW's forced to fight. My father said they usually followed the German troops. You could tell because they littered the road with liquor bottles. Company C mortars lobbed white phosphorus shells on the Citadel to "smoke them out" without much success. The exhaust fans in the Citadel quickly removed the smoke. An American soldier digging a hole accidently discovered an underground power cable that supplied power for the exhaust fans. The cable was severed. The Mad Colonel and his troop surrendered. The gates to the castle opened and a jeep came out with the colonel and his top staff standing in the jeep in full dress uniform. Officers marched out in full dress, according to rank, then the enlisted men and then the rag-tag group of Turks.
The Hurtgen forest was one of the worst battles for company C. They were trapped in a valley as German 88 mm artillery fired in their location. American soldiers quickly learned the right way to dig a foxhole from the Germans, down and then sideways. This provided protection from overhead shrapnel. The shells hit the trees and exploded right over their foxholes. Then American artillery returned fire from the opposite side. Company C was stuck in the middle. It was difficult to return fire because the Germans quickly located them and returned fire from their high vantage point. Company C was pinned down for several days. No food, stuck in their foxholes with explosions going off over their heads. Some soldiers began to panic and jumped out of their foxholes and ran, which was against orders, and sure death. After five days. The German resistance was finally crushed.
Chemical weapons that could have been used in wartime, such as chloropicrin, phosgene, mustard gas and nerve gas were, fortunately, not widely used by the Germans against the Allies. The 86th CMB was trained in their use and ready to use protective equipment. The Germans had a large stockpile that was discovered near the end of the war. Hitler wisely decided not to go that route.
On one of the final days of the war, the men of Company C were taking rest in the warm sun. A soldier sat sunning himself without a shirt on an outcropping of boulders. He slumped over and fell to the ground. A stray bullet or flying shrapnel had killed him. There were no sounds of an explosion or gunshot. Just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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