Historical Highlights of the
89th Chemical Mortar Battalion
continued from page 1
Chapter 4 - The Rhine Crossing
The period from March 11 to March 27, 1945, was the most eventful in the whole war for the Battalion.
Preliminary instructions from the 79th Division brought about the move to Nuth on the morning of March 11, from the recently conquered enemy territory back into a land of friends. It was immediately apparent, as the companies drove in, that this was no ordinary rest area, for this little town had not been injured by war. It looked something like home.
While Col Yanka and Major Lentz were making their formal visits in Division Headquarters, the men went about the job of settling down and creating a home. Each company was billeted in different areas of town, and "home," essentially a shelter, took the form of private homes, schoolhouses, beer halls and railroad stations. Battalion Headquarters was housed in a massive Catholic home for the aged, and headquarters personnel soon became accustomed to the presence and customs of the nuns who operated it.
Initial duties consisted of cleaning equipment, washing clothes, and getting comfortable. The practice of procurement as in Germany could no longer be repeated, and the absence of "a mattress man" was so acute that Baker Company went to the extremes of sending a convoy back into Bruggen for such luxuries. At once, the business of making friends was in full force, and it was anything but difficult to do. In fact, the Dutch were so insistently friendly and generous that many men found it difficult to accept all of the proffered hospitality.
In the afternoon of the 11th, the company commanders reported in to their respective regimental headquarters and, there, first got an inkling of the job ahead of them. Able was attached to the 313th Regiment, Baker to the 314th, and Charlie to the 315th. With the information they elicited, plus the "big picture" carried back by Col Yanka and Major Lentz, the general situation became clear.
The Ninth Army, in conjunction with the British Second Army, was to force a crossing of the Rhine River at an early but unspecified date. The 79th Division and the 30th Division were to be the assault divisions of the Ninth Army, with the 79th crossing on the right flank. The 89th Chemical Mortar Battalion was to act in direct support of the 79th Division.
That was the plan in all its simplicity. Cross the Rhine. It was an operation long accepted as a foregone conclusion. Yet the mortar men, still wet behind the ears, figuratively speaking, were awed at the scope of the operation the biggest river crossing ever attempted, and the 89th would be right in the thick of it.
On the 13th, Mr. Juster and his personnel section departed from the Battalion to join the division rear area at Bucholtz, Holland, and that was the last seen of the typewriter warriors for a month to come.
Planning for the coming operation descended to the company level now as each individual company commander went over in detail with the respective regimental commanders the part his company was to play.
On March 13, Edwin N. Van Bibber, CO of the 313th Infantry Regiment, took members of his staff, battalion commanders, and commanders of attached units, which included Captain Westbrook, forward on reconnaissance. The site selected for the crossing was Orsoy, Germany, a small town somewhat northwest of Hamborn, the closest Ruhr industrial area. Here the terrain was moderately favorable for a river crossing, but the routes of approach into the town were quite open and under excellent observation from the enemy in his factory buildings across the river.
The town itself had a population of about 1,000 which was evacuated in the period March 12-15 and, as in all towns, it afforded several good mortar positions, most of which has been zeroed in by Jerry artillery. In front of the town and next to the river was a 20-foot dike which sloped up to a 5-10 foot thickness at the top, but north of the town it curved away from the river. In the lowland between stood a large three-story factory, a natural OP, which American unites used only when necessary and which the Germans never shelled, strangely enough.
After getting an idea of the terrain on both sides of the river, the reconnaissance party returned and was briefed on the job the following day
The 315th, commanded by Col Andrew J. Schriver, was slated to make the assault to the north, with the crossing to come somewhat southeast of the farm community, Michplatz, consisting of several brick farm buildings clustered together 200 yards from the river. Here, too, the country was flat, and the enemy had excellent observation of all routes of approach from several large houses on his side of the river. An extension of the dike at Ordoy ran between Mitchplatz and the river.
On the enemy side of the river, a marshy, level flat land bulged out toward the American side for perhaps a thousand yards from a dike of approximately the same proportions as the one on the western side of the river. At a point almost directly opposite Milchplatz, the river wound back almost into the dike. Beyond the dike at a distance of about 1,000 yards was a railroad embankment. To the south, opposite Orsoy, was the entrance to a large commercial canal, connecting the Ruhr cities with the river. Beyond the railroad embankment were several mill towns, hidden to the American observers, beyond which rose a gently sloping hill.
The battle plan of 79th Division called for the 313th Infantry to cross on the right and swing south, protecting the right flank of the attack, and then to gradually move south until it had cleared the area to the canal which it was to aggressively hold. The 315th was to cross on the left, advance and seize the high ground beyond Dinslaken. The 314th, commanded by Colonel Robinson, was to remain in reserve in order to either give assistance if one of the assault regiments had trouble or to move between them and exploit the crossing.
And in this grandiose plan, what part was the chemical mortar battalion to play? Its part was three-fold in the initial operation: to fire HE and WP prearranged fires in the artillery preparation; to fire prearranged concentrations in the initial phases of the assault; and at daylight to screen the right flank of the attack, along the canal, in order to prevent observation and possible counterattack. All companies were to assist in the first two phases while Able Company bore the brunt of the screen.
That was the situation as it presented itself on the 14th of March. When was D-Day? That was still a secret. Plans for the assault had been worked on for weeks and even months; flood experts from the United States had been watching the river and tabulating data. When they indicated a favorable time and preparations had been completed, the attack would be unleashed.
Meantime there was work to be done. Instruction and demonstrations in the methods of river crossing in the naval landing craft were attended. Planning and coordination in the job of the mortars and the mechanics of crossing the river progressed daily. Platoon and company firing techniques were brushed up. Supply procedures were worked out.
On the 15th, Captain Westbrook and Major Cameron returned to Osroy for further reconnaissance and to select mortar positions. On the 16th, Captain Landback and Lt Linton reconnoitered mortar positions at Milchplatz, and for Battalion headquarters an advance CP and assembly area at Vluyn. On the 17th, the companies were issued weasels for training, and it became a common sight to see the little tracked vehicles roaring over the muddy roads near Nuth.
Up until this time, Baker Company had no definite assignment for the preparation to the assault, but on the 16th, at a conference at Division Headquarters, a tentative plan calling the division of Baker's platoons to help support the other companies in the preparatory fire was made that was eventually carried out. Acting on this tentative information, Captain Esser contacted Captain Landback and Captain Westbrook to begin coordinating the details of the proposed attachment. Further efforts to establish the exact role of Baker Company in the initial phases failed on the 17th an 18th. Meantime, Able and Charlie Companies went forward with their preparations and instructed Lt Feeks, Battalion ammunition officer, to have approximately ten thousand rounds of ammunition available for each of their positions for the D-Day firing. The ration was to be approximately 50-50, but later calculations upped the percentage of WP for Able Company.
On Sunday morning, Col Yanka briefed all officers on the complete operation. Later in the day, instructions were received to have two platoons of Baker Company support Charlie Company and one platoon support Able Company on D-Day. In line with these orders, Captain Esser assigned the third platoon of Baker to Capt Westbrook and the first and second to Capt Landback. On the following morning Capt Westbrook took Lt Kilby into Orsoy on reconnaissance, while Capt Esser arranged to assist Captain Landback in handling the five-platoon company at Milchplatz.
Since the transfer of over twenty-thousand rounds of ammunition prepared for firing into the gun positions was such a tremendous job, large details of men were sent to Nieukirk, the Army Supply Point, to check and prepare the ammo on Tuesday. These men remained at Nieukirk until the job had been finished. Headquarters ammunition sections had been broken down as follows:
Able Company - S/Sgt McClennand and section.
Baker Company - S/Sgt Harold A. Berkowitz and section.
Charlie Company S/Sgt Herndon A. Johns and section.
Both Charlie and Able Companies kept details of about forty men working continuously checking fuzes and safeties on every round that was to go into the trucks bound for the gun positions. As a result of their efforts, not one man was injured from defective ammunition in the form of barrel bursts.
From Tuesday, March 20, the operations broke down from a battalion effort into two distinct phases, one at Orsoy and one at Milchplatz. First to go into active participation was Able Company.
All during the day of the 20th, Able Company was busy loading equipment, storing excess baggage and readying themselves to move out that night with the 313th Infantry. At 2000, the convoy pulled out, traveling in two march units and at a very slow rate of speed. Sometime after midnight the bivouac area near Neukerchenfeld was reached, where Lt Wells and a quartering party had made arrangements.
At the same time, Lt Lawler took a survey party composed of S/Sgt Gilbert McNeeley, Sgt Eugene Wittrock and Cpl Niles Hoff into Orsoy and surveyed the mortar positions in order to tie them into one fire plan. Throughout the entire three hours, the little group was under continuous observation and intermittent fire but the mission was completed.
During the daylight hours of the 21st, the men rested while Captain Westbrook further checked on ammunition and attended a conference on targets. Movement of the ammunition promised to be a touchy problem, for the units of the 75th Division in Orsoy would not permit hauling to begin until the night of the 21st, and the projected crossing was scheduled for the early morning hours of the 24th, allowing but two nights for actually moving in ammunition.
Under the cover of darkness of the 21st, Able Company moved into its pre-located positions and also brought in about 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Since the mortar positions were in and around the town, the shelter provided by buildings afforded them cover and concealment during daylight, and work was carried on all through the following day setting up and digging in the guns. Behind the very average exterior, front line position, men were working during the day, but the approach of vehicles was strictly limited. Some counter-artillery fire was experienced each day, and one corner in particular came to be known as Purple Heart Corner.
At night, however, the picture changed. Tank Destroyers rumbled in to emplace their 76-mm TD's in revetments in the dike. Infantry and artillery observers thronged in to get the lay of the land. Convoys of ammunition trucks rolled through the shell-pocket streets to disgorge their loads and return for more.
After dark on the 22nd, the third platoon of Baker Company moved into position and about 5,000 additional rounds of ammunition came in. On the next day, the 23rd, based on the final target assignments given Capt Westbrook by Col Safford on the 22nd, the date for each concentration was computed and concentrations assigned to the various platoons. Down at each platoon, ammunition was drawn to correspond with each assigned concentration and a final check of the shells was made.
Beginning at 1200, each of the four platoons registered on targets across the river, the registration being with 15 rounds of HE and each platoon firing one half an hour after the preceding one. Following registration, each gun position was checked, and the men were released to get some rest until the beginning of the operation. All of the guns were either dug in and camouflaged or emplaced behind buildings and parapetted, with a variety of material ranging from sacks of flour to an old tank truck used for the parapets. The communications were kept busy repairing the complicated system of wires that were continually being cut by enemy fire and friendly vehicles.
Able Company was ready. Meantime in Charlie and Baker Companies...
On March 20, Charlie Company was preparing to move north with the 315th that night while Baker Company had one more day to remain in Nuth. Captain Esser, Lt Johnson and Lt Parker reconnoitered the Milchplatz area and selected mortar positions for the Baker Company platoons, a choice that was difficult for both companies since German observation of the area was good. The recon party was fired on by mortars three different times.
That night Charlie Company pulled out in convoy along with the 315th Infantry and arrived at their assembly area southeast of Linfort at 0500 the next morning. Traffic on the roads was heavy, since all of the units destined to participate in the crossing were moving up at the same time, and in the blackout driving several weasels collided but no one was injured.
The next day was one spent in preparation for a full night's activity. Baker Company packed and prepared to move; details from Baker and Charlie Company moved up near Milchplatz so as to be able to go in under the cover of darkness and prepare mortar positions. The ammunition details worked hard in order to have enough rounds prepared so that the trucks could move full loads that night.
All had been quiet on the front around Milchplatz for more than two weeks. The 75th Division was holding the line, and the only activity had been occasional firing and light patrol action. Several patrols from the 75th returned with valuable information on the battery positions of Jerry artillery, and one night a German patrol which drifted across the river on a boat had been captured and divulged the fact that a strong raiding party was coming across the river the next night to capture Allied prisoners to get information.
By day the area was quiet and movement and activity were kept to a sleepy-looking minimum. No vehicles were allowed past the infantry battalion command post in Bundberg Eversael, and the reconnaissance parties walked out to the Fox company command post at Milchplatz.
At night, though, the place became a beehive of activity. Tank Destroyers dug revetments in the banks of the dike for their TD's as at Orsoy. Infantry mortar men emplaced 60-mm and 81-mm mortars. A few anti-tank guns were dug into place for harassing fire on observation posts during the day. Artillery observers dug in deep pits and set up BC scopes. And the engineers rolled heavy trucks, graders, and caterpillars along the narrow roads, improving them for heavy traffic that would use them. Ammo trucks kept up a steady stream along the roads.
Sgt James Goodwin at Charlie Company, with the assistance of the attached Headquarters ammo section, moved four thousand rounds of 4.2 ammunition into the position and spotted it in one of the few cellars in the area and in dumps near the guns positions. That same night Baker Company moved up from Nuth to its assembly area in Vluyn-Busch, a large pine forest.
Before dawn came again, all was quiet. To the enemy observers, this area was merely another section of a quiet front. Only in the CP's and ammunition dumps was there any activity while most of the men slept, preparing for the full night's work ahead.
That night the final conference briefing all commanders on the coming operation was held while once more the infantry, the artillery and the engineers went to work. The mortar men improved their positions, dug emplacements for their 50 cal. machine guns and brought 5,600 more rounds of ammunition in. Lt Jack Hagan, Sgt Edward Bynon, Cpl John Thorpe, Cpl Arthur Amling, T/5 Glen Harvey, T/5 Walter Hartfield and T/5 Joe Ferguson were returning from a survey party about ten o'clock in two jeeps when an ammunition truck from another outfit crashed head-on into the lead jeep. Harvey and Bynon were pretty seriously injured and turned over to an E-VAC hospital while the others received only minor injuries.
By now, all troops had been informed that Saturday, the 24th, was D-Day, and the greater part of the 23rd was taken up in last minute preparations. All platoons registered in the afternoon with desultory fire to lead the enemy to believe that the fire was nothing more than harassing fire.
Along the entire Army front, from near the river to four and five miles back, the massed battalions of artillery were dug in and camouflaged. The ammunition stood ready, the data on the concentrations was being completed. The infantry bivouacked in assembly areas near the river, ready to move up under the cover of darkness. Operation Flash-point was about to begin.
Meantime Battalion Headquarters had remained at Nuth until the 22nd when it moved by infiltration into Vluyn. The Battalion staff had been busy all week working to coordinate supply and ammunition arrangements with the Division. As finally determined, each company settled slightly different procedures with its respective regiment but, in general, once the river had been crossed, the regiments were to be responsible for supply until such time as headquarters company had crossed and could once more be responsible.
Baker Company was further handicapped by a strict priority set up on the order of vehicles to cross the river that deprived it of half its organic transportation for the first day after the crossing.
By midnight of the 23rd, all platoons were ready to fire their concentrations which required more than a round per minute per gun. In the absolute quiet that preceded the attack, the tension mounted and was relieved only when the 30th Division to the left began its artillery preparation at 0100.
At H-1, or two o'clock on the morning of March 24, the artillery supporting the 79th Division began its part in the largest artillery preparation in the entire annals of warfare. From the rear echelons of massive corps artillery to the front-line banging of 4.2's, ammunition was being passed furiously as thousands of gun muzzles belched flame and smoke; the roaring concussions were heard twenty miles to the rear. For an hour the barrage went on, plastering every nerve point in the German defense. Enough shells were fired in that hour to put one burst in every square foot of the opposite shores of the Rhine which was to be stormed by the infantry.
Able Company, on the division right flank, fired more than 4,000 rounds of high explosive shells in the sixty minutes preceding H-hour. The tremendous preparatory fire was lifted at 0300 and then concentrated across the river while the crossing was being made.
Charlie Company and the two Baker platoons in and around Milchplatz also began firing at H-1. Approximately 2,400 rounds were expended on road junctions, cross roads, observation posts, machine guns positions, artillery emplacements, and strong points.
At Orsoy, the beginning of the firing began the longest mission ever fired by a company in the 89th Chemical Mortar Battalion. The initial preparation lasted for about one hour in which each platoon fired about 500 rounds, predominantly HE. At H-Hour, the guns shifted to pre-arranged concentrations designed to support the advance of the infantry, which was now crossing the river in assault boats, and these concentrations were fired until H plus 75.
Two forward observer teams from Able Company crossed with the assaulting battalions: Lt Charles E. Miller, Sgt Gerald Haecker and Cpl Adam F. Mocksay in one, and Lt William L. Sharpe, Cpl Francis A. Sommers and Cpl Dale P. Cromwell, in the other. Though they were supposed to call for fire on targets of opportunity, the darkness and the confusion prevented them from picking up suitable targets.
Following the scheduled fire, the third platoon of Baker Company was relieved and remained in position with equipment packed, alert until such time as they were instructed to move.
During the night and morning, counter battery fire was fairly heavy. Communications lines were broken several times in the night, and Cpl Thad Vreeland of Baker Company distinguished himself by darting out in the midst of a mortar barrage to repair a line over which vital firing data was passing. Later in the morning a shell landed near the factory in which the third platoon of Baker was waiting, and a fragment freakishly came into the cellar and ripped through Cpl Kenneth Lizer's scalp. He was evacuated.
By 0630, all guns in Able Company were transferred to cover the line to be screened, and the company commenced the screen at that time. Enemy small arms and observed artillery fire was harassing the infantry from this flank and continued to do so whenever a gap appeared in the screen. To initiate the screen a 15-round volley was fired followed by continuous fire at 15 seconds interval, which was further cut until the average for the day was one per minute per gun.
The forward observers called in several targets during the day at which time the FDC would relieve one gun to fire the mission. In addition the FOs were checking the screen. Both Lt Sharpe and Lt Miller were forced to expose themselves time and again in order to get the required observation, and they and their parties received Bronze Stars for their part in the day's operations.
Because of the unusual amount of firing which was being done, a great many problems came up during the course of the day. Several positions collapsed and had to be re-dug because of the poor soil, and breakage on the mortars was high because of the high rate of fire.
On regimental order, a reconnaissance party led by Capt Westbrook went across the river to find positions to move into, but it was decided to remain in Ordoy for the following day and continue firing the screen from the same positions. The recon party was pinned down by enemy fire much of the time and was delayed by having to take three prisoners from a house.
Back in Orsoy, an observation post was manned in one of the houses on the waterfront under Sgt Dave Cunniff. In the early stages of the firing the OP became the target for enemy fire and the men in the post spent a hectic night trying to line the walls of the room with sandbags.
During the afternoon, Lt Joseph Lawler, Capt Niles Hoff, and Cpl Richard Coleman were on reconnaissance when their jeep, driven by Hoff, struck a shell hole and Lt Lawler and Coleman were thrown out and injured. This necessitated their evacuation and Lt Repschleger took over the third platoon.
Firing of the screen was suspended at 1930 and the men were given an opportunity to rest. For the balance of the night, the Bn ammo train hauled more WP into the positions in preparation for the next day's firing.
O the following day, the tactical situation demanded that the screen be resumed at 0600, and it was continued, as on D-Day, until 1930. Based on experience gained the first day, Capt Westbrook recommended to division artillery that the length of the screen be reduced to 2,800 yards, because the platoons firing up to 4,000 yards were having a high breakage rate on barrels and base plates and the guns were becoming imbedded in the soil after about 40 round, necessitating re-emplacement. This recommendation was accepted.
For the men, March was not as fatiguing as the previous day, although the physical strain remained great. Throughout the day, intermittent counter-battery fire was received in the positions, and several humorous incidents were to be observed, such as one small foxhole disgorging Cpl Ziegenfuss, Sgt Powell, Sgt McNeeley and Lt Pedigo after a close "88" came in; and McNeeley trying to butcher a calf during the firing to feed the third platoon.
During the day, Capt Westbrook selected positions in the vicinity of Overbruch into which the company was to move during the night in order to be able to continue the screen the next day. "March Order" brought a mad scramble in the company to get together the equipment for the crossing. The company neared the river about midnight in the midst of a Luftwaffe strafing attack on the bridge site. Flak put out by the anti-aircraft brought down two of the night raiders, and the pyrotechnic rain of tracers kept them at a distance while Able was moving across the river.
Navy landing craft took the vehicles and equipment across the swiftly-moving river, but landings on the other side were hazardous as some of the boats landed at an angle in the darkness. A third platoon jeep driven by Cpl Ziegenfuss was completely wrecked and had to be abandoned. Despite the confusion of the crossing and the distracting Jerry planes, the company re-assembled and made its way into Overbruch, where positions were occupied in time to begin the screen again the next morning.
But, in order to fire the screen, enough ammunition had to be on hand to insure continuous firing, and the ammunition was over in Orsoy. Since most of the active personnel were concerned with the actual move of the platoons, Capt Westbrook charged Lt LeRoy E. Chaffee to pick up a detail from supply and the kitchens to help move 1,500 rounds of HE and WP from Orsoy into Overbruch in time for the next day's firings.
As finally assembled, the detail consisted of S/Sgt James Hesselgrave, the supply sergeant, T/4 James H. Henson, mechanic, T/4 David H.Long, T/4 Paul L. Huck, T/5 Russell R. Castleman and PFC Charles E. Wagner, cooks, and T/5 Elroy C. Nenn, a truck driver. These men loaded the ammunition into DUKW's, and in two round trips across the river into Overbruck under enemy observation and artillery fire, completed the mission. The smoke screen, which was so fundamental to the success of the operations of the 313th Infantry, was resumed on schedule on the morning of March 26.
The screen fired on the 26th was destined to be the last required as the 313th reached the banks of the canal and took up strong defensive positions, thus anchoring firmly the right side of the Ninth Army bridgehead across the Rhine River. Additional HE missions were fired on calls from the forward observers, these teams being the same ones that had crossed on the 24th.
This was closed the role of Able Company in the crossing of the Rhine.
During the three-day period, March 24-26, Able Company maintained a screen varying in length from 2,800 to 4,000 yards during all of the daylight hours. Total ammunition expenditure on the screen was 14,938 rounds of WP and 810 rounds of FS. Together with the HE missions fired during this time, the expenditure for the entire three day period was 19,378 rounds, a record for the Battalion, and one of the notable achievements by a chemical mortar company in the European Theater of Operations.
For its part in the Rhine crossing, Able Company, plus the attached platoon of Baker Company, received a commendation from Col Edwin N. Van Bibber, CO of the 313th Infantry Regiment.
As the scheduled fire for Charlie and Baker Company began in Mitchplatz at H-Hour on D-Day, all went well. All of the platoons were firing at a rate of four or five rounds per minute and, for the first twenty minutes, no enemy counter-battery fire was received. About 0255, enemy artillery fire began to fall in the vicinity of the company FDC and the second platoon of Baker Company, positions within 150 yards of each other.
The Company CP and FDC were located in the basement of a strongly built home, but the room was hardly big enough for the number of personnel required. Immediately behind this building was another farmhouse in which an infantry company from the 75th Division was concentrated. In the yard behind this building, the guns of the second platoon of Baker Company were dug in, while the ammunition for the platoon was stored in three brick sheds. Of the approximately 1,000 rounds in the position, 800 was dug into the ground while the remainder was at the gun positions for firing.
When the counter-battery fire began to concentrate around this position, all gun crews were reduced to a minimum to lessen possible injury. At 0235 the rounds began to hit the roof of the house in which the infantry company was located, and then came over the house to hit directly on the No. 4 gun emplacement. Sgt John R. Watts, squad leader and at the moment actively firing the gun, was mortally wounded. The rest of the quad, Cpl Harold Barnhart, T/5 Edward Bryant and PFC Horace Shaffer, were less seriously injured.
The first hit set fire to the powder on some shells being made ready to fire as well as some straw in the attic of the shed immediately behind the gun, and the intensity of the counter fire prevented platoon personnel from attacking the fire instantly. Twelve hits of large caliber were scored in the next two minutes.
Lt Alfred N. Johnson, platoon leader, immediately sized up the situation and realized that within a matter of minutes the fire would set off the ammunition and eventually set off the large stock of dug-in ammunition. Accordingly, he immediately ordered the position evacuated. Under the leadership of Lt Alan S. Michaels, the platoon executive, and S/Sgt James Mickle, the majority of the men successfully reached the fields to the rear of the position and took cover.
In the meantime, T/5 James A. Stewart, aid man with the platoon, was working over Cpl Barnhart who had been the first injured and, with PFC Francis A. Pierce, he carried Cpl Barnhart through the artillery and mortar fire to an infantry aid station in Bundberg Eversael, one mile to the rear. At the same time, Cpl Donnell E. Kaufman, communications corporal for the platoon, went to the burning gun position, picked up Sergeant Watts and carried him around the building to the Company CP where Captain Esser and T/4 Huckletubbe, aid man for C Company, helped him carry the unconscious boy inside. Both Cpl Kaufman and T/5 Stewart were awarded the Silver Star for their action as the mortar fire they braved was intense.
When the platoon had occupied the position, the vehicles had been scattered over as wide an area as the position permitted, and only three were within one hundred yards of the guns. One of these belonged to Cpl Henry E. Meador and PFC Henry A. Deranleau of the third squad, and they braved the impeding explosion of their own ammunition to drive the vehicle out of the vicinity and later found cover in the CP.
Lt Johnson personally assured himself that all personnel were out of the platoon position before he himself took cover in the FDC. Thus in a period of five minutes after the shells began to hit, the position was evacuated without further injury. At 0240, the ammunition which had first caught fire exploded, and from that time until 1700, the fire and exploding 4.2 ammunition made it almost impossible for anyone to move in a vicinity of 150 yards from the position.
Sergeant Watts was given as much aid as was humanly possible, but he had given too much and died in fifteen minutes without having regained consciousness. He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.
In the meantime, the other platoons were not having any particular trouble, though the second of Charlie and the first of Baker were emplaced in the dike itself, and the muzzle flashes from their guns could easily be seen from the other side of the river.
At this time, communications with the regiment were severed and lines to all platoons, except the third of Charlie and the first of Baker, went out. Immediately, while the wire men were attempting to trace the breaks in the line, Sgt George Melrose, Charlie communications sergeant, aided by T/4 Allan E. Goldey and T/4 John D. Smith, went outside to the jeep parked behind a small building and began unpacking the radio. The first radio unpacked, the SCR-610, failed to contact anyone, so the SCR-284 was brought out. In getting these radios they were exposed not only to the Jerry fire but also to the 1,000 rounds of unexploded ammunition in the smoldering position to the rear.
Contact was made with regimental headquarters through the 284, and it was found that fires had been lifted properly. Contact was kept with the platoons through use of the SCR-300.
The remaining four platoons fired their scheduled concentrations from H-Hour to H plus one, and the final total of ammunition fired in support of the 315th Infantry in the two hours was 3,760 HE and 240 WP.
After 0300, the fire spread to the farmhouse in which the infantry had been housed, but which had been evacuated to the Charlie FDC. At about 0315, a tremendous explosion of 4.2 ammunition occurred which completely destroyed the buildings in which the ammunition had been stored and buried the equipment and much of the still unexploded ammo. Two Baker company vehicles were completely destroyed as well as six other vehicles belonging to the infantry and engineers, which were parked too near. In addition small arms and hand grenades stored in the farmhouse soon caught fire and added to the hazard of being in the open.
The work done by the linemen from the platoons in face of this storm of destruction was highly commendable, for all lines were checked and back in operation by 0600. Among those men who received commendation for their work on policing the wire that night were Cpl Hugh V. Smith and Pvt Lewis O. May of the first platoon of Baker Company, Cpl Keith M. Brubaker, PFC Morris Pike, Roy Erickson and PFC Albert J. Mayer of the third platoon of Charlie Company, and PFC Woodrow W. Yeary, PFC Larry A. Clark and PFC Donald O. Hornstein of the second platoon of Charlie Company.
As dawn began to break, the fire in the now-destroyed platoon position died down and the burning buildings no longer offered any danger to the building where the FDC was housed. Members of the second platoon of Baker Company began to filter in from the field and it was quickly decided to send them back to the rear under Lt Johnson to re-equip. A report was made by phone to Battalion Headquarters and measures taken to insure rapid re-equipping. More of the men ended up at Lt Parker's position on the dike, and these too were instructed to report to the rear. By 1000, it was ascertained that no more casualties had been incurred, and most of the men were on their way back for a rest.
Reports from the forward observers, Lt Kanasky and Lt McDowell, indicated that good progress was being made but only two missions were called for. Sporadic artillery fire continued to fall, but it was now directed on the engineers who were attempting to start a bridge across the river.
About 1100, Captain Landback received instructions to cross the river and make a foot reconnaissance, and he departed immediately. Soon after, the infantry had made such good progress in the attack that the remaining platoon of Baker Company was relieved from attachment to Charlie Company, and both companies prepared to cross the river.
All during the afternoon, Charlie Company was in the process of moving across the Rhine in naval landing craft with the platoons crossing in order: first, second, third. The first and second platoons immediately went into position but did not fire, and on the morning of the 25th both platoons displaced forward to the eastern outskirts of Dinslaken, and though they fired very little they were under heavy artillery fire all day. A total of five missions were fired.
PFC Theodore Mollinedo, a linesman from the company communications section, was killed as he was repairing a break in the wire at a crossroad. At the first platoon gun position Cpl Tom Bittner was wounded seriously in the leg by shrapnel, and Pvt Morris Pike of the third platoon was also wounded by flying fragments of brick when an "88" dud smashed into the building beside him.
All that day the bridgehead and Banks of the Rhine were being shelled and strafed as traffic to the eastern bank increased. Ammunition was being supplied for Charlie Company by DUKWs shuttling across the river under the command of Sgt James O. Goodwin, the company ammunition sergeant. On one of these trips, Sgt Goodwin was warned on the west bank that the river crossing was under heavy fire, and that all traffic had been ceased temporarily until the full force of the barrage was spent. After determining that there were actually no orders against crossing, Sgt Goodwin called for volunteers from his crew and went ahead to cross, knowing that ammunition would be essential if a counter-attack developed. A particularly heavy concentration came in just then, and he and his six men, Jeremiah Lyons, Kenneth D. Bleau, George J. Robinson, Charles R. Marll, Henry M. Bedwell and Patrick Nolan, men of the headquarters ammunition section, abandoned the truck for the comparative safety of a nearby slit trench. When they climbed out after the barrage, they found that their "duck" had several torn holes in the flotation tanks. Despite the condition of the vehicle, they crossed the river under the fire, delivered their ammunition, and returned for more. In all, they made thirty trips during the day. Sgt Goodwin was awarded the Silver Star, and all of his men the Bronze Star, for the courage and tenacity of purpose displayed.
By nightfall on the 25th, the 315th Infantry had reached all of its objectives and they were passed through by the 35th Division and shifted to clear the Emscher Canal to the 313th Infantry. On the 26th, Charlie Company moved behind the regiment and took up positions at Waldhuck but did not begin firing.
The following day was also quiet with but two missions fired, although the platoons were under fairly heavy artillery firing the day. PFC Arthur Davis provided the principal excitement by capturing a wounded German soldier who had hidden from the infantry.
After Baker Company had reverted to the control of the 314th; Captain Esser proceeded to contact the regiment and received immediate orders for the first and third platoons to cross the river. Forward observers, Lt Duncan and Lt Connell, were already across with the infantry which had just been committed to capture a factory and small village south of Dinslaken.
The first platoon crossed in the early afternoon and went into support of the first battalion at once, while the third platoon crossed at 1830 and was held at Walsum overnight, moving up early the next morning at Averbuck, where the platoons reverted to company control.
On the night of the 24th, the first platoon was strafed by fighter planes but suffered nothing more serious than three flat tires. At 0200 the morning of the 25th, Lt Parker moved his platoon into Averbruck, and the men were forced to clear the area of dead Germans before they could go into position.
On the 25th, the first platoon was not called upon to fire, but the third platoon actively supported the second battalion in its attempt to cross the highway leading from Dinslaken to Sterkrade. Lt Raymond J. Kirby, with PFC John Bruce as radio operator, was forward observer for the platoon and was forward with the company commander of the assault company. Suddenly enemy machine guns and mortar fire held up advance of the company and pinned it down on the edge of an open space 1,200 yards in length. The infantry company commander advanced through enemy life on reconnaissance with Lt Kilby. Once across the area, Lt Kilby called for a smoke screen, which effectively blocked enemy observation and enabled the company to advance and hold the position.
In the morning, the second platoon and the rest of the company headquarters crossed the river, and all of the platoons received the vehicles they had left behind for the actual crossing.
Before dawn on the 26th, the first platoon moved into position in the forward part of Heisfeld, while the second and third platoons took up positions in the southern part of town. Rapid advances by the first battalion, which was attacking directly east, forced the first platoon to move once again in mid-morning, but at no time were they called upon to fire. The other two platoons supported the attack to the southeast, firing several missions during the day on enemy machine gun nests and troop concentrations.
At dusk that night, Lt Duncan, observing the third platoon, was with the company commander of Co. F, when a counter-attack began to develop out of the woods one hundred yards in front of his observation post. He quickly called for a concentration of WP and HE that hit the Jerries as they came out of the woods and routed them, breaking up the attack. A few minutes later another concentration eliminated a machine gun which was preventing the GI's from consolidating their position.
During the time that the companies were following up the infantry closely incident to the crossing and expanding the bridgehead, battalion headquarters was kept in the rear areas. After moving to Vluyn on March 22, Cartwheel had no supply or tactical functions until March 27.
During the whole period, Col Yanka and Major Lenz kept in close touch with the companies and division headquarters. For the actual crossing, Col Yanka joined Capt Westbrook and Able Company on the 23rd and remained with Able Company until the 26th. At the same time Major Lentz joined Charlie Company, leaving them at noon on the 24th to speed the re-equipping of the second platoon of Baker Company.
From the moment that the information concerning the loss of 75% of the equipment of the platoon reached the CP at Vluyn, Major Cameron, with the assistance of Capt Murray and Lt Harvey, worked on nothing else, and by nightfall on the 24th the equipment had been drawn and issued. Lt Johnson effected quick reorganization of the platoon, shifting Cpl Measor over to take command of the fourth squad, and moving veteran gunners into the vacant assistant squad leaders' posts. Of the entire 41 men in the platoon, only two were so shell-shocked that they could not return to action on the following day.
All of the battalion ammunition sections crossed the river with the companies to which they were attached and did very commendable jobs. The signal section, under Lt George R. Krsek and T/Sgt LaRouche, kept in constant with the companies and effected immediate replacement of damaged signal items, which were many.
On March 26, the Battalion CP, with the exception of the kitchen and motor pool, moved into Overbruch and resumed responsibility for supply functions.
By the night of the 26th, the 79th Division had made secure its bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Rhine River, and on the 27th, it directed its attack to the south with the Emscher Canal as its ultimate objective, while the 35th Division pressed the attack to the east.
In support of the assault over the Rhine and the securing of the bridgehead, the 89th Chemical Mortar Battalion fired approximately 25,000 rounds with very positive results. Casualties during these three-day operations consisted of two men killed and ten men wounded.
Chapter 5 - Drive to the Emscher Canal
The 27th day of March found the entire battalion, with the exception of Headquarters Rear, on the east side of the Rhine in close support of the 79th spearhead which was supplying the northern tong of the pincers on the Ruhr.
When the rear party crossed the river via pontoon bridge, they located at Overbruck just a few hundred yards behind Able Company's positions near Hosterbruck. Since Baker Company was at Hiesfield and Charlie in the same general area, the service sections were in a good position to supply all the firing companies quickly and efficiently.
Supporting fire missions of their respective regiments kept all companies busy during the day. Following the 313th, Able Company moved its platoons forward one at a time. At 1230, the first platoon opened up from their new positions, and the second platoon began to fire on enemy strong points an hour later. At 1945 that evening, the third platoon fired intensively for fifteen minutes, expending 170 rounds of HE on enemy positions.
On march 28th, Brigadier General Hugh W. Rowan, Chief Chemical Officer and Colonel A.T. Brice, Corps Chemical Officer, visited the Battalion on an inspection tour. The officers, who were highly impressed by the work the Battalion was doing, found Able Company preparing to move from Hosterbruck at 1300.
Immediately after the advance parties left in search of new positions, orders were received from XVI Corps Headquarters attaching Able Company to the 137 Infantry of the 35th Division at 2400 that night.
Capt Westbrook organized a reconnaissance party to report to the 137th CP and, while trying to locate the post, his jeep, containing Sgt Zipprodt, Sgt Martin, PFC Smetana, Tec/5 Smeltzer and himself, came under heavy artillery fire. Two rounds landed precariously close, but a few holes in the jeep and a scratch on PFC Smetana's cheek were the only instances of damage.
At the regimental CP, which, due to the fast moving situation, was far behind advance rifle companies, the captain learned that the platoons of his company would be attached to the three battalions of the 137th in direct support while the headquarters platoon would stay close to the infantry regimental headquarters.
The company was summoned from Overbruck to the new CP at Brink, the same town in which the 137th CP was located. On arrival, platoon leaders were given their assignments. Each platoon was to support the corresponding infantry battalion and, as soon as they were ready, the three officers led their men forward to report to their battalion CPs.
The entire communications system of the mortars became quite confused in the fast forward action. Early on the morning of the 29th, Captain Westbrook contacted the regimental S-3 to find the location of his mortar platoons. He then visited each platoon, and with the platoon leaders, decided to have each firing unit lay phone lines to the nearest infantry switchboard, this forming a loose liaison with his own CP.
The 137th Infantry employed its 4.2 mortars differently that had been experienced by the 89th before. The mortar platoons were attached directly to the heavy weapons company in each battalion, and sometimes their fire was directed by their own observers and sometimes by the 81mm observers. Many of the targets the chemical mortars fired upon were those that could have been handled equally successfully by the smaller weapons, but this was explained by the regimental commander who said that ammunition was not rationed for the chemical mortars while it was for the 81s.
Lt Miller received the first platoon's opening fire mission early in the morning. At 0230 the platoon, from positions in Schramm, fired on the German autobahn at troops out of range of the infantry's heavy weapons, which were offering unexpectedly stiff resistance. After an hour and fifteen minutes of sweating out the mortar barrage, the Jerries finally evacuated their position, allowing the mortar men to get a little sleep for the rest of the night. The only other first platoon activity during the day was a smoke screen in the afternoon and few area targets later in the day.
The second platoon, after it had spent the night chasing the Jerries from the factories and houses of Boer Bohmes, was ordered to advance early in the morning through the same village to be in a position to support the initial thrusts on the industrially important city of Gladbeck. Several missions had to be fired during the advance when concentrations of Krauts momentarily checked the doughboys. When the platoon moved into Gladbeck on the heel of infantry and tanks, they intended to stay on wheels until necessary to fire, but almost immediately they were called on to eradicate sniper fire, which was holding up the advance.
The platoon was so near the advance elements that houses fifty yards to the left of the gun positions had to be cleared before the mortars could fire. The target, a refinery, was set afire with the initial round of WP from the No. 2 gun, and immediately after completion of that mission the guns fired for effect on a barracks containing enemy troops.
Operations had to be suspended momentarily until a 75mm gun could be brought up to fire point blank on a machine gun which had been keeping the platoon inactive.
Between the hours of 0900 and 1130, the guns fired a smoke screen to cover the advancing troops, but after that they were quiet for the rest of the day. Stone porches of the houses in that sector afforded invaluable cover and protection, and they were generally accredited as the reason for the absence of casualties in the intense operations of the day.
The third platoon followed the Third Infantry Battalion into a wooded area on the approaches of Gladbeck; there they set up their mortars beside a dairy farm. They fired several smoke screens through the day but, due to the fast advance of the doughs, the mortars were generally inactive.
The following day the company CP moved up to Gladbeck, while the firing platoons advanced deeper into the heart of the city and even beyond it. The first platoon had entered the town of Lochtskemper during the night despite the presence of much small arms and machine gun fire. While numerous blazes were still licking at the town, the platoon fired on Jerries in a brickyard east of Bottrop. They later fired on several enemy-occupied houses in Horst, and at 1900 they moved into the latter town on the heels of the infantry.
The second platoon moved into the center of Gladbeck, but did not emplace their guns until 1500 that afternoon when they set up in a school yard just before the area was warmed up by a few armor piercing shells which hit the platoon billets; however, there were no casualties. At 2100, the guns opened up on enemy strong points in Bottrop. Enemy mortar positions, railroad yards and a Jerry supply train were all hit and damaged considerably. Cpl Sweeney brought in a German prisoner the same night, a feat that was still something of a novelty to the mortar men.
After moving to the other side of Gladbeck to an abandoned mine occupied by wounded Jerries, the platoon scored several more hits on enemy mortar emplacements.
For the second successive day the third platoon did little firing. At 0500 they fired one mission from their position at Ney on an enemy-controlled crossroad. The rest of the day was spent moving up through Gladbeck and eventually settling down northwest of Gelsenkirchen.
On the 31st of March, the 137th had reached the banks of the Neu Emscher canal, and the Able Company CP had moved forward to Buer Becharusen. All the platoons had spent a busy day moving twice and firing on enemy strong points between hops.
Easter Sunday and April Fool's Day was just another day of work for the mortars. The command post had to move twice to keep up with the advance of the firing platoons that were swiftly approaching the banks of the canal. Both the first and the second platoons had fired smoke screens and concentrations on troops during the day, and by nightfall they were prepared to defend the north bank of the canal in case of counter-attack.
The third platoon appeared to be a little more fortunate when it moved into a factory in Recklinghausen. After spending the night harassing the Jerries, the daylight hours were spent hunting treasures. Lt Lawler utilized his knowledge of German to talk the factory guards out of seven pistols, and also 30 cases of fine liquor, which came in quite handy.
Units of the 35th Division had by that time pulled up to the canal and they began to merely hold their line and at the same time get a few days of rest. The mortars of Able company were all laid in for defensive fire in the vicinity of Recklinghausen, and various targets of opportunity were fired.
On April 2, the first platoon harassed an enemy OP and also provided a screen for infantry patrols which had passed beyond the canal. The second platoon fired four missions, the most important being a railroad gun position and a railroad junction on the opposite side of the canal; both targets were taken care of effectively. A screen for the infantry and concentrations on enemy troops were also fired by the third platoon.
But on the following day the entire front was quiet. The second platoon set fire to a group of wooden barracks, and the third platoon laid a few concentrations on opportunity targets, but the majority of the time was spent cleaning equipment which had been neglected so many days.
On April 4, Able Company made the newsreels, as Signal Corps cameramen filmed some of their fire missions. Most of the firing that day and the following was done by the second platoon who fired on a factory, houses and gun emplacements. The third platoon laid a few concentrations on targets of opportunity, and Lt Lawler, across the canal on patrol, returned with three prisoners.
The only casualty of the period was S/Sgt McNeeley when he fell from one floor to another in a bomb-shattered building, fracturing his skull and breaking both his arms.
While Able Company was supporting one regiment of the 35th Division, Baker and Charlie Companies remained with their regiments of the 79th.
Baker Company, following the spearheading 314th, spent a busy four days from March 27 to 30. The first platoon was inactive, but the second fired in support of company I of the 314th. The infantry had been pinned down by intense small arms and machine gun fire coming from the ridge upon which the town of Hiesfield was located and, while Lt Michaels and his radio operator, Cpl Durham, were registering the platoon on the ridge, Capt Jackson, CO of I company, moved to a new position. Lt Michaels and Cpl Durham were pinned down by more flat trajectory fire but they finally managed to locate the captain via radio. They then directed fire on a self-propelled 88, which was soon silenced. Since the gun had been an effective threat to the infantry advancing into the town, and since their action had been instrumental in removing the danger, Lt Michaels and Cpl Durham were cited and later awarded the Bronze Star.
The third platoon, emplaced but a few hundred yards from the second, did no firing during the day because the regiment had to bypass a Jerry strong point on the right hand side of the sector, and supporting weapons could not be used.
The bypassed area caused excitement in Cartwheel Baker later in the day. After Col Robinson had informed Capt Esser that the pocket had been wiped out, Capt Esser, accompanied by Lt Connell and PFC Milton Harig, went into the disputed area to locate mortar positions. They were suddenly startled to see tanks open up and destroy a house 300 yards ahead while the infantry poured out of the woods 500 yards behind. Then it was wiped out.
The first platoon and company CP moved into this area that night but were harassed all night by enemy sniper and machine gun fire. PFC Lawrence Ziegler winged one of the snipers who was captured next morning. It was in this No-Man's Land that Sgt Haldt and Sgt LaRouche ventured for information on ammunition, as related below.
When General Rowan and his party visited the Battalion, he was served at Baker Company rear; his meal was disturbed at one point by three incoming shells, none of which landed close enough to do any damage. After dinner he moved forward and located the CP two miles south of Hiesfield where the company was supporting a drive across the autobahn toward Sterkrade on the Neu Emscher canal.
In their only action of the day, the first platoon fired on two area targets, expending a total of 77 rounds of WP and 73 of HE.
For the second platoon, Lt Michaels and Cpl Hardy made a reconnaissance and chose gun positions in the town of Heisfeld, on the ridge from which so much resistance had been encountered the previous day. The platoon was moved near the position at about 0600 and, because machine gun fire was still raking the area, the platoon vehicles were dispatched to the position at five-minute intervals. The first squad's vehicle, first into the position, was caught by machine gun fire but the only damage was the loss of a button on Sgt Chamberlain's jacket. Beyond that, the emplacement continued smoothly and without mishap.
A considerable amount of ammunition was expended that day, most of it being directed by Lt Ellis on a synthetic oil plant, the results being the most dramatic of the campaign. Several storage tanks were hit, and the resulting fires burned fiercely and illuminated the area for several days. Late in the afternoon of the day a few enemy artillery and mortar shells began to land in front of the guns, but appropriate security measures were taken and there were no casualties.
Baker Company's third platoon, located at Hingmanshof, was in direct support of the first battalion, which was to drive through the town of Dunkelschlag, across the autobahn and through the third battalion in an effort to take Sterkrade.
At Dunkelschlag Lt Kilby was relieved from his FO position by Lt Connel and PFC L.O. May, Lt Duncan and PFC Cort going to the first battalion. Shortly after the autobahn had been crossed, stiff resistance was met and an enemy mortar barrage pinned everyone down.
While discussing immediate plans of the attack, Lt Connell stood between PFC May and the infantry CO, but when the barrage landed, PFC May and the infantryman were both wounded, and Lt Connell did not receive a scratch.
On the night of the 27th, T/Sgt LaRouche and T/Sgt Haldt of Headquarters were sent from the Battalion CP at Overbruck to pick up the ammunition expenditure report at Baker Company. There followed one of the wildest experience of which any man in the 89th can boast.
At 2130 the pair started out. After getting lost several times in Dinslaken, they reached the company's rear CP near Hiesfield, only to learn that they would have to go to the forward post for the information. Upon arrival there they were directed to the platoon gun positions where they would be sure to find out exactly how many rounds had been shot up.
The first platoon report was secured without any trouble, as was the second platoon's, except for the difficulty of searching the men out of the scores of houses in the vicinity; but it was not so easy to find the third platoon in Hingmanshof, a town which was still party occupied by the Jerries. On one of the darkened streets they were challenged by a concealed sentry, and on answering hot, which they thought to be the password, they received no reply. They breathed easier when the sentinel, instead of blowing their heads off, questioned them and told them that the password was not hot, but good. He then informed the two that the third platoon was in the vicinity but he did not know where. He also warned them to be careful, as he had been fired upon by small arms in the last half hour. So with a few additional gray hairs, some doubt and much anxiety, they continued their search.
The gun positions were eventually located, but again the CP could not be found. After stumbling around the darkened streets for some time, they decided that they had better commence a retrograde movement before the enemy was forced to waste any ammunition on them needlessly. The report would be just as valuable if figured by higher mathematics than it would have been from first hand information.
On the return trip, they were warned about a stretch of woods which seemed to be full of small arms fire, but the trip proved uneventful until an approaching tank suddenly loomed out of the darkness twenty feet ahead of them. After they managed to elude the treads of the monster, they made their way back to battalion headquarters peacefully, with a concrete and comprehensive understanding of the value of an ammunition report.
March 29th saw Baker Company moving into the approaches of Sterkrade. The firing platoons left the company behind at Huhne Heide and moved forward, firing little, but advancing in leaps and bounds. While the first platoon was moving southeast of Waldteich, the second was entering Sterkrade at 0700. During the day they worked their way through the city to the canal and, in order to be ready in case the need for defensive fire arose, the guns were leap frogged into positions. Lt Michaels and Lt Hindin each took charge of two guns, but since they were in a large city, the infantry had little need for supporting fire, so the platoon gave all their attention to advancing too.
The third platoon had a little more trouble when it moved into the city. Soon after their entry into Sterkrade, they were stopped by an artillery barrage, and by nightfall they had only moved a block. Their only offensive action of the day had been concentrations on two enemy machine gun emplacements with excellent results.
The following day the city was cleared out, all the platoons moved in deeper, and the company CP was brought up in proximity to them. After they had dug in, the guns opened up on every target that was available on the other side of the canals.
South of Sterkrade there flowed two canals. The main stream, the Rhine Herne, lay south of the smaller one, the Neu Emscher, and between these two was a dike or an island, which was wide at some points and narrow at others. The infantry had pushed the Jerries off this strip of land, and spanning the Neu Emscher with footbridges, they used it for their forward outposts.
The area was also an ideal location for good observation, and Lt Connel accordingly appropriated a convenient soccer stadium, from which he directed the fire of the first platoon. Their first target for the 30th was a moving train; and after the mortars had finished with it, the railroad could have entered it in the lost column. All the targets weren't so inviting, but the rest of the day was spent firing at activities in trenches and dugouts.
Lt Ellis, with K company of the 314th, directed the fire of the second platoon on a wooded area in support of the completion of the infantry's advance to the banks of the Rhine Herne. So completely did the mortars devastate the area that the infantry had little or no trouble in reaching the canal that afternoon.
After the OP had moved forward through to the banks of the canal, an infantry sergeant pointed out several appetizing targets to Lt Ellis. Although consistently harassed by sniper fire, the FO continued to fire the second platoon until dark, causing much havoc and confusion among troop concentrations and emplacements south of the canal.
The first battalion was unopposed for the remainder of their advance to the canal, and the third platoon of Baker Company moved up to the banks where they registered for defensive fire.
Meanwhile Charlie Company was at the heels of the 315th Infantry which was paralleling the drive of the 314th on the right. On the 27th of March the regiment was still meeting comparatively tough resistance, and Charlie Company was too busy dodging enemy shells to do much firing during the day. The first and third platoons each completed one mission successfully, but the real hero of the day was second platoon mechanic Arthur Davis, who brought in a prisoner of war.
On the following day, the company opened up, however, and let fly at any target which presented itself. Lt Ulanovski, FO with the infantry, which had already reached the Rhine Herne west of Sterkrade, fired the mortars at burp guns, machine guns, houses and a large variety of targets. The CO of the 315th expressed his pleasure for the work done by the mortars during the day.
The company moved to Biefang on the 29th, and the third platoon advanced to within 800 yards of the enemy lines to be able to fire on a strong point of anti-aircraft guns and 88s. Telling concentrations were fired by the first platoon just after midnight and by the first and third platoons at 0600 when the infantry jumped off to take the point.
Lt McDowell and Sgt Greenwood, FOs, shunned the aid of busy infantrymen when they wiped out two enemy machine gun nests with their small arms fire. Between them they accounted for three Krauts.
Early on the morning of the 30th, the first and the third platoons fired on two defensive lines near Conrodis and Westriedhof. For the second platoon, Lt Cartledge and Sgt Bynon directed fire on an enemy OP, using WP and HE at irregular intervals to keep the Jerries too worried to observe. Other targets of the day were enemy vehicles and crossroads; 210 rounds of HE and 46 of WP were used on these.
The next day all guns were set up for defensive fire, as the 315th too stopped pushing and was content to hold its ground.
Battalion headquarters remained at Overbruck until Easter Sunday when it moved into Sterkrade not far from Baker Company. Through March 29th, the supply section continued to bring equipment over the Rhine. With the firing platoons of the three companies so widely spread and so far in advance of headquarters, it was difficult to keep them supplied with ammunition, and at times the shortage became acute.
The following day the shower unit was set up at Overbruck. Under the supervision of Tec/5 Orin H. Hutchcraft and PFC Paul Whitfield, clean clothes could be received in place of dirty ones, and the companies sent small parties of men back to clean up whenever they were able.
On the 31st, Lt Krsek took a party forward to Bottrop to set up an advance communications center. A deserted SS Corps headquarters, complete with electricity, electric ventilation, and Jerry signal equipment was picked as the center. The place turned out to be a hot spot and it was shelled sporadically, but that didn't prevent Tec/4 Howard from establishing a complete photographic laboratory in his spare time.
On the morning of Easter Sunday, Major Cameron took a party forward in a search for a new CP. The coordinates given them proved to be a bomb-wracked town with an insufficient number of houses for even the civilian population, and the party moved back to Overbruck and then to Sterkrade. In the latter city a number of large, comfortable apartment houses were chosen, and Major Cameron and Lt Winters returned to Overbruck to lead the company up.
The detail which was left to un-house the civilians had a rough time since it was Easter and the Germans used this to play on the sympathy of the men; however, they were still unhoused.
Capt Murray had considerable trouble bringing in the convoy of heavy trucks that night as the roads leading up to the CP were then under heavy artillery fire. The men who had been at Bottrop at the advance communications center joined the battalion the same night.
The battalion, with the exception of Able Company, remained in or around Sterkrade for almost a week supplying defensive fire for the holding line of the 79th Division. The week, for most of the men, was one of relaxation, general cleaning, souvenir trips (until the Military Government moved in) and a little firing now and then.
From the 1st to the 5th of April Baker and Charlie Companies sat in their positions and popped away at gun emplacements, houses and any other targets that could be seen from the OP's between the two canals. Whenever possible the men were sent back to wash the grime of battle from their backs.
Battalion headquarters remained at Sterkrade for this period, arranging shower schedules, showing movies and taking advantage of the lull to replenish and repair the battered equipment of the companies.
On the 3rd of April, Charlie Company moved to Bottrop where they again set up defensively and fired on targets of opportunity, notable among which was a self-propelled gun which they succeeded in knocking out of action.
Baker Company limbered up their guns and fired a number of missions on the 4th. The first platoon fired on four area targets, the second did considerable damage to a bridge across the canal, and the third obtained good results from fire on enemy burp guns and 20mm gun emplacements.
On the 5th, while Baker Company was virtually inactive, Charlie Company was requested to lay down supporting fire on enemy locations, which had been revealed by POWs. The first platoon laid heavy concentrations of HE and WP on that target, and the second platoon knocked out three Jerry heavy machine guns which were bringing withering fire to bear on forward infantry elements.
While it was at Sterkrade, the battalion received General Dwight D. Eisenhower's order of the day for the 4th of April. Directed to the troops of the First and Ninth Armies, it stated: "The encirclement of the Ruhr by a wide pincer movement has cut off the whole of Army Group ‘B' and parts of Army Group ‘H', thus forming a large pocket of enemy troops whose fate is sealed and who are ripe for annihilation. The most vital industrial area is denied to the German war potential. The magnificent feat of arms will bring the war more rapidly to a close. It will long be remembered in history as an outstanding battle - The Battle of the Ruhr."
Chapter 6 - Drive through the Ruhr
On Friday, April 6, the period of comparative inactivity and welcome rest drew to a close as Baker and Charlie companies began preparations for the next push of the 79th, the crossing of the Rhine-Herne Canal. The date for assault had been set for early morning hours of the 7th, so at 1100 Friday, Charlie Company, in support of the 315th Infantry, moved east to Karnap, and a few hours later Baker Company occupied a row of apartment houses in Horst. Later in the afternoon Battalion Headquarters followed the two companies and set up its CP at Boy, northwest of Charlie Company's positions.
While the other companies were getting set up for the night of intensive fire, Able Company remained at Recklinghausen in support of the 137th Infantry of the 35th Division. In their only major action of the day, the first platoon scored three hits on enemy heavy machine gun emplacement southeast of Horst. Both the gun and the crew were completely destroyed. During the night, the second platoon kept up interdictory fire in anticipation of enemy patrol action, but the Jerries seemed to be watching and waiting, too.
The interval of quiet lasted all through the morning although, on the right, the 313th and 315th Infantries were storming and securing their bridgeheads on the south bank of the Rhine-Herne at the cost of considerable casualties. Finally, on the front of the 137th, the enemy opened up with a counter-attack Saturday night. In an effort to stem the advancing forces, the four guns of the second platoon laid down a tremendous barrage of HE. The platoon as a whole fired 426 rounds in 15 minutes, and the first squad fired its allotment of 120 shells in 12 minutes. Cpl Frances Taylor, gunner in the fourth squad, fired 30 rounds in approximately one minute in an attempt to make up for time lost on a misfire.
The same day, Lt Archer, platoon executive of the first, was appointed liaison officer, and Lt Repschleger took over his post. The next day, the latter was transferred to Charlie Company leaving the job vacant again.
The first platoon moved closer to the canal on Sunday in order to increase its target area, but in the only missions of the day the second platoon fired on snipers located in a tunnel, and the third platoon helped to wipe out an enemy strong point located in a cemetery.
The social highlight for the day was a fashion review staged by Cpl Paul Prentiss, and Cpl William (Wild Bill) Robertson, commo chief. Robertson sported the latest in theater dress of top hat and tails, and Prentiss offered a preview of official naval regalia. His resplendent admiral's uniform was viewed with much disfavor by the remainder of Hitler's people.
While Able company was enjoying the privileges of a quiet front, the other two firing companies were keeping the mortar barrels hot smoking the canal and helping the 79th expand its foothold.
After they had moved into temporary positions in the northern section of Horst, Capt Esser and the platoon leaders of Baker Company reconnoitered possible gun positions close to the canal. Lt Parker selected a courtyard in the rear of a beer hall, and the second platoon moved into a wrecked mine across the street; the top of the mine tower served as an OP. The third platoon set up in Horst, but soon moved into the east end of Karnap. All the platoons registered their guns and waited for the signal to start their barrage.
The mission of the 313th Infantry was to cross the canal and drive south to the Ruhr River.
At 2100, Captain Esser was called back to the 310th Artillery FDC and assigned preparatory fire missions with the two-fold purpose of starting fires and blasting strong points. Since these missions were to begin at 2400, there was not much time to get ready, and ammunition had to be prepared in total darkness. The second and third platoons were placed in direct support of the assault battalion, with the first platoon in general reserve.
Lt Ellis, liaison officer, was in the forward regimental CP in a factory on the island between the Emscher and the Rhine-Herne and, at 2200, he sent instructions for the concentrations to be fired before the regiment jumped off in the morning. Ammunition was hauled and prepared in the darkness, and the bearers worked feverishly to have it ready in time.
Preparatory fire commenced at 0100 on Saturday morning and lasted till 0345. For miles around sleepers were awakened by the first reports of the terrific barrage, which slackened only when the infantry jumped off at 0300. Big John Slattery kept the second platoon guns going almost single-handedly by carrying ammunition, as many as seven rounds at a time.
Shortly after they started firing, Baker Company called for two ammunition trucks from Battalion headquarters to replenish their waning supply. Accordingly, Sgt Paul Kersch, PFC Roberts, PFC Watson Lynch, PFC Oscar Gobble and S/Sgt Sanders delivered the trucks at the forward CP, after waiting out an intense shelling that the gun positions were being subjected to.
Since all roads in the vicinity were being shelled sporadically, arrangements were made for the men to spend the remainder of the night at the company's rear CP and return to headquarters for more ammunition the following morning.
After wandering around the streets of Horst for the better part of the night and stopping the trucks whenever the shells came too close, the men came upon a familiar street which they followed back to Hq CP at Boy.
Lt Michaels and Cpl Durham were in the OP party of the first battalion when it moved across the canals. The party advanced south from the bank to a slag pile near a factory. Here they were stopped and dispersed by heavy tracer machine gun fire which caused them to scatter and reassemble later. Pinned down and without any protection other than carbines and pistols, the party remained motionless till well into the morning when the situation eased enough for an adequate CP to be chosen.
The second battalion and their attached third platoon of Baker Company ran into stiff opposition at their crossing site at Karnap. The assault troops crossed the Emscher Canal on foot bridges and the Rhine-Herne in assault boats. For 1,000 yards past the canal the going was easy, but there they ran into serious trouble. Machine gun and sniper fire was extremely troublesome, and no one seemed to be able to locate their hiding places.
At the same time Fox Company of the 313th suffered heavy casualties when they ran into a concentration of SS men and paratroopers in a nearby factory. As observation was impossible, no assistance could be given until tank destroyers crossed the canals on long-delayed bridges about noon the next day.
On the north side of the canals, the engineers were having their troubles too. In trying to construct a bridge, they suffered heavily, losing almost an entire company. As a last resort, all civilians were evacuated from the north bank of the canal and constructions advanced more satisfactorily.
Counter-battery fire hampered the third platoon throughout the day. No casualties were suffered and only one incident worthy of mention occurred. One of the German shells suddenly and completely removed the roof of a house behind the gun positions. Through the resultant opening could be seen an old, gray-headed man popping up to a sitting position in his bed on the second floor. When he saw that he no longer had a roof over his head he became very perturbed and proceeded to tell everyone, but to no avail.
In an effort to ease the situation for the hard-pressed infantry, the mortars finally laid down four rolling smoke screens. These barriers more than served their purpose as they enabled the second battalion to forge ahead of its flanking units and, when they entered the outskirts of Hagemannshof, they were two thousand yards ahead of the battalions on either side of them.
At 1500, the engineers requested a smoke screen and, at 1515, under the direction of Lt Ellis, two guns from the first platoon and two from the second built a 1,000 yard screen which they continued for the rest of the daylight hours.
This request for the initial screen commenced what eventually became an immense operation taxing Battalion headquarters ammunition to the fullest extent to keep the companies supplied with WP. At 2230 the strain on transportation was alleviated somewhat by the acquisition of 12 trucks from the 79th Division Quartermaster. These trucks were ordered to the Army Supply Point at Dilken, Germany to pick up ammunition.
The ammunition trucks of Baker and Charlie Companies waited impatiently for the arrival of loaded trucks. The situation became serious when, late in the afternoon, the first platoon of Baker Company ran out of ammunition. Fortunately a truck arrived from the ASP and WP was unloaded at the gun positions of the platoon two minutes after the last round had been fired.
The extensive screening operations were also destructive to mortar parts as well as to the enemy. When a call came in for vitally needed parts, T/Sgt Woods and PFC Kidder drove nine hours in blackout to Krefeld, Germany to secure the items.
By the morning of the 8th, the Battalion had a supply of WP on hand that wasn't exhausted for the remainder of the battle of the Ruhr.
Charlie Company did very little firing previous to their screening mission on the 7th. By 1000 on the night of the 6th all platoons were registered by Lt Henry Linton. During the registration of the first platoon, an enemy vehicle parked on the crossroads, which was serving as the base point. Lt Linton immediately called for fire and the vehicle was destroyed by a direct hit. Col Schriver, regimental CO, of the 315th who was witnessing the registration, expressed his delight at the results. The only other firing of the evening was done by the third platoon, which concentrated on four enemy 120mm mortars that had been located by the third battalion.
Early in the morning, the 315th Infantry attacked and established a foothold across the canal. A bridge was erected but it was immediately knocked out, and it was thought that observation for the fire on the bridge was coming from large factories and tall buildings occupied by the enemy on the right flank of the regiment. Charlie company was assigned to the task of interdictory fire on these suspected OP's so that the reserve regiment, the 314th, could move across with armor and break out of the bridgehead.
But before this mission could be accomplished it was necessary for the mortars to screen the area so that the engineers could erect another bridge. The screen was built at 1340 on a front of 2,000 yards by the first and the second platoons, leaving the third platoon free to fire on call from the units across the canal. The screen was so effective that it not only offered concealment for the construction and traffic on the bridge during the rest of the daylight hours, but it also burned to the ground two groups of enemy barracks, generating a hasty retreat from the area. When the chaos of the enemy troops was noted, the third squad of the first platoon was ordered to exploit the opportunity. The other three guns of the platoon were ordered opened up to cover the vacancy left by the number three gun while Sgt Kress's squad fired concentrations of HE on the confused enemy troops.
The next morning Baker and Charlie companies stood ready to repeat their screens of the previous day, but a heavy fog blanketed the area and very little WP was necessary to conceal the operations. The first platoon of Baker company fired on screen at 1100, while the other two platoons fired on targets of opportunity and at 0900, Captain Esser, Lt Duncan, Pvt Rogers and Sgt Eblen were ferried across the canal in their jeep and reconnoitered forward for positions into which the third platoon, the first motorized unit scheduled to cross, could move. Pvt Rogers was left on the south bank of the canal with his vehicle to act as a guide, while the rest of the party returned on foot and then prepared to move across the canal.
While the platoons of Charlie Company were preparing to cross, Capt Charles Landback, Lt Ralph Wance, S/Sgt Bill Towns, S/Sgt Lew Gillespie and Sgt Edward Bynon made a foot reconnaissance for mortar positions south of the canal. They were constantly harassed on the other side by sporadic small arms fire. While searching for a likely spot to set up the mortars, Sgt Towns was fired on by a sniper. The sergeant immediately located the offender, a civilian, in a window and killed the German with one shot of his M-1.
The platoons moved across the canal about noon and set up in Barkerferheide, where Lt McDowell, as FO, immediately registered the guns. During the afternoon, the 315th Cannon Company requested fire on an enemy anti-tank gun which they could not reach with their own guns. The second platoon took care of the weapon with 12 rounds of HE. Observers stated that the gun flew into the air twice when the shells hit it.
At 2000, the first platoon moved well forward to be in position to support the first battalion of the 315th when it jumped off the following morning. Since their salient was very narrow, a wrong turn meant running into enemy positions. To guard against this possibility Lt Wance walked ahead of the jeeps checking his map at every cross-road. The platoon arrived at its position at 0130 and prepared to fire. Cpl Jack Thorpe was dispatched for more ammunition and he returned at 0600 in time for the morning's firing.
Two hours after the first platoon moved forward, the second platoon was detached from the company to form part of Task Force X under the command of Lt Bennett Harvey.
The first motorized unit across the canal was the third platoon of Baker company which moved over at 0945 with the second battalion of the 313th and went into position at Katernburg. After they had set up, they fired a screen 1,000 yards in front of the infantry, increasing the range as the infantry advanced until the battalion had crossed the high ground west of Schonnebeck. Later in the day, the assault troops ran into severe 20mm and anti-aircraft fire but, when the third platoon knocked three of the guns out of action, the enemy became confused and the position was overrun resulting in the capture of 14 more guns. The battalion advanced as far as Kray and remained overnight.
The first and second platoons of Baker Company, with the exception of the solitary smoking mission, spent the forenoon quietly, and late in the afternoon they crossed the canal and moved into Ottenkamphoff, but there was no firing to be done. The canal bridge was receiving sporadic 155mm enemy fire, but no casualties were suffered.
While reconnoitering for a company CP late in the afternoon, Lt Harvey, together with Pvt Rhodes and Pvt Taylor, were following the regimental wire team vehicle until Lt Harvey's intuition told him that something was wrong and he turned back. The infantry vehicle was found later that night, blown to bits.
At 2036, Battalion headquarters received orders from division to detach one platoon from Baker and one platoon from Charlie companies for the purposes of forming a provisional task force to support the 314th Infantry. Because of Able Company's attachment to the 35th Division, the 314th had heretofore been without any heavy mortar support in the present operation. By giving them support of the provisional force, the two original firing companies were broken up into three units of two platoons each, one for each of the three infantry regiments.
It was decided that Task Force X would be made up of a first platoon (third platoon of Baker) and a second platoon (second platoon of Charlie). Lt Harvey was relieved from his duties as company executive officer of Baker Company and given command of the provisional force and S/Sgt Laney from Battalion headquarters became acting first sergeant.
Early Monday morning, April 9th, the first platoon of X company moved into Kray in direct support of the first battalion of the 134th Infantry. Lt Kilby reported to the battalion commander, Lt Col Kihan, and was ordered to move his platoon into position at Kray. After receiving some sniper fire, the platoon succeeded in entrenching only to receive orders to move again, this time to Schonnebeck.
The second platoon was placed in support of the third battalion of the 314th. They also moved up into position, but no missions were called for.
The mission of the 314th was to drive straight south to the Ruhr river. Both mortar platoons spent the next day firing at targets of opportunity. From prepared positions in Kray, the first platoon fired on bunkers, anti-aircraft gun positions, armored vehicles and tanks. Then the platoon moved farther east to Stalleicken where they fired on an enemy-held woods and a road junction that was handling a large volume of vehicular traffic. The second platoon, firing from Stalleicken, laid concentrations on a road junction and a large building housing enemy personnel. Both HE and WP were used in this mission and results of the barrage was a heartwarming fire.
On the 11th, the first battalion jumped off east moving up the north bank of the Ruhr. At 1100 they ran into a strong point of pillboxes and concrete emplacements in the vicinity of Roneburg. An hour-long barrage had to be laid on the point, after which the infantry advanced and took it with considerable casualties. Our mortar fire accounted for four machine gun nests.
The second platoon moved several times during the day in order to be in position to fire for the third battalion, but no missions were called for and they dug in at Linderdalhausen for the night.
X company CP, which had moved into Steele from Ising the previous day, took part in a small but consuming riot Thursday. Lt Harvey, Sgt Watson and T/5 Wagner finally had to resort to small arms fire to control the German civilians and Polish refugees who were having their differences. Because of the decadent condition of their trigger fingers, the three produced no casualties.
The first platoon fired on numerous targets during the day. These included crossroads, anti-aircraft gun emplacements, a railroad junction and a heavily wooded area. Two guns went out of action during the day's firing and had to be taken to battalion headquarters for repair.
During the day, the second platoon fired on 12 targets and most gratifying results were scored on a motor pool and a large cement factory housing enemy troops.
The next day, the first platoon fired on an enemy tank, an enemy OP, a ferryboat, an enemy motor pool, and horse drawn artillery in the vicinity of Altendorf. The second platoon was inactive.
Sgts. Jerry D. Sloan, Manuel Villa and PFC Frank Robinson of the first platoon spent the day working on a safe that had intrigued them. They busily engaged themselves with armor piercing shells, picks, axes, and anything else they could lay their hands on and, after breaking their backs with their honest labors for the better part of several hours, they were eventually rewarded. The safe flew open and the loot was rotten peanuts and German ration coupons.
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