The Mortars of High Dawn

by Kenneth Goosman

These historical notes of the 91st Chemical Mortar Battalion were written in 1996 at the time of the unit's 51st reunion.

Over 50 years have come and gone since the last roar of our fire missions faded into muffled echoes of our past. We remember the endless effort of pushing ourselves physically and emotionally beyond measurable limits, just to sustain those roaring fire missions.

Our battalion of 4.2 inch chemical mortars, code named "High Dawn," was a member of XII Corps, the spearhead of Patton's Third Army. We held a unique distinction in the fact that we were the only 4.2 inch chemical mortars in all of XII Corps. It was this distinction that caused us to be involved in most every combat operation within XII Corps.

Our code name, "High Dawn," always seemed to suggest that we were a secret covert operation. It cast a certain aura over our battalion, hinting that something special was going on. On several occasions we did fire into virgin areas and purposely leave the safety pins in some of the shells for the Germans to identify and perhaps believe that some new 4.2 inch chemical mortar battalion was located in the area.

We were to understand that because the night-time firing of our mortars produced a bright distinctive muzzle flash, we seldom if ever would be involved in any night-time fire missions. Hence, only after "High Dawn." However, the awakening to the stark reality of combat changed our mode of operations considerably. Although not wishing to brag, we were just damn good. Once our infantry realized the full potential of our mortars, the demand for our supporting fire missions was unending. Bettendorf Luxembourg, where General Patton is reputed to have swam the Saver River as an inspiration to his troops, was a good example. For almost two weeks, one of our platoons fired from the same position while attached to the 4th Infantry Div, the 80th Infantry Div, the 4th Armored Div, and back to the 80th Inf Div, in that order. It was a case of "to hell with the muzzle flash" and thereafter our night-time fire missions often were as busy as those during the day.

While attached to such memorable combat divisions as the 4th Armored, 11th Armored, 4th Infantry, 5th Infantry, 35th Infantry, 76th Infantry, 80th Infantry and 90th Infantry, we helped in our own special way to make the spearhead of Patton's Third Army a bit more successful.

On a clear beautiful morning, Christmas 1944, our convoy was winding its way through the snow-covered hills of Luxembourg. Without warning, an American P47 fighter plane, skimming just above the tall pine forest, was dipping its wings from side to side as it burst over our heads. As it roared by, we instinctively thrust our fists skyward, screaming "Go get 'em." Seconds later, this same P47 fighter plane circled behind us, then strafed and blew up the last vehicle in our convoy. Someone in our midst, speaking with choking words, muttered "Merry Christmas."

Digging in was second nature to us, especially after experiencing a barrage of German screaming meemies or 88s landing in our midst. While digging in, the long-handled axe that came buckled to each jeep made the hard-frozen dirt fly like wood chips. A quarter-pound block of TNT with a pull fuse helped to loosen the hard-frozen crust on top of our mortar pits.

Always the lack of sleep, trying desperately to keep warm in zero-degree weather, and always numb with exhaustion. The unbelievable misery of living in frozen fox holes, sticking your head above ground only to be met with sharp ice crystals that were driven by the relentless wind.

The endless fire missions, firing and being fired upon. Being overrun and joining our infantry when things were getting out of hand. Always the whine of artillery, theirs and ours.

When our fire missions were the most urgent and our rate of fire most rapid, we, on several occasions, applied snow- or water-soaked burlap to our hot mortar barrels. This kept the powder rings on the shells from igniting before reaching the bottom of the barrel.

It was almost routine to be in the middle of a fire mission and be subjected to counter-battery fire. It was one thing to be physically struggling to manhandle the mortars and their 25-pound shells, and something else when you are hugging the ground to avoid the deadly burst of incoming shells. It was asking to give all you could give.

We stood toe-to-toe with our mortars and answered our enemy with whatever was necessary. Our fire power was overwhelming. With just one platoon of mortars, the usual request for "fire for effect" would place 300 pounds of high explosives on our target. We fired white phosphorus shells mixed with our high explosives which completely enveloped our enemy. Men exposed to searing phosphorus burns, suffocation and being blinded were helpless to retaliate in any effective way.

At the most grueling period of our combat, we found ourselves playing Russian roulette with our own mortar shells. For no apparent reason, some of our own mortar shells would explode in the mortar barrel, each time resulting in dead and wounded. This new deadly experience placed a terrible burden on all the mortar squads. Thank God, it mysteriously ended with the same abruptness that it had arrived.

The long moonless nights of winter made artificial moonlight a welcome addition to our innovative ideas. Bouncing powerful searchlight beams off the low-hanging clouds increased our night vision tremendously, thus allowing much more freedom of movement. However, it seemed to promote the dilemma that, if we could better see the enemy, might he also better see us?

Traveling by jeep with chains on all four wheels always seemed to double the possibility of detonating a mine. The damned mines were everywhere, and never where you thought they would be. A quick thaw in the weather and it wasn't unusual to have a vehicle detonate a mine on a road that had been cleared of mines. Traveling a road which we knew was probably mined was like rubbing salt into a wound, especially when this very road was under continuous fire from German 88s.

Keeping the phones working was a top priority. Laying wire along a road that we weren't sure had been cleared of mines made the task a dangerous one. Tramping beyond the road berm into the drainage ditches and tying off the wire from harm's way could always prove to be fatal.

None of us could ever forget the bloody river crossings, like the Sauer and Our rivers which formed the German/Luxembourg border. We fired hours on end, shells by the tons, only to sometimes receive the discouraging news that the crossing had been met with failure and all assault boats were lost. The infantry could do little but regroup and try again at another time. If the infantryman survived the crossing, he stepped off three assault boat on the far side only to face the massive fire power pouring down from the hidden concrete pill boxes from above. Flooded rivers with mines and barbed wire crowding their banks like overgrown brier patches, laved with German 88s and machine guns, made progress almost impossible.

We were quick to learn that the brightly colored air-to-ground identification panels that we so carefully displayed each day, weren't a guarantee that we wouldn't be attacked by our own Air Corps.

At the close of the Battle of the Bulge and still out of breath, we found ourselves helping our infantry punch holes in the famous Siegfried Line. With the huge concrete bunkers positioned to overlap each other with fields of cross fire, attacking them was absolute suicide. By isolating individual bunkers with our smoke screens, the infantry could blow them up, one at a time. Each time a shift in the wind cleared out our smoke screens, the infantry came under withering fire.

The severity of the resistance from the many pill boxes of the Siegfried Line is evident in the fact that all companies were still firing from their original H-hour positions almost incessantly for three days. A total of 24 screens, maintained for 30 minutes to 9 hours, expended by the end of the period 9,194 WP and 500 FS shells, a total of almost 1,215 tons. The 76th Infantry Div, with our Company C in direct support, cleared some 200 pill boxes from its sector of the Siegfried Line.

The Rhine River was much larger than any we had yet encountered. Recalling the heavily defended Sauer and Our rivers, and the many days that our artillery pounded the German defense, and the many failed attempts we made to cross them, we knew the Rhine crossing was going to be hell. Unlike previous river crossings, the element of surprise was in our favor. Arriving at midday on the western bank of the Rhine, we immediately prepared to cross that very night. And cross we did. Some of our platoons were subjected to some heavy artillery fire, and the German Air Force was out in large numbers, but all-in-all we crossed as the British would say "in good order." That is, if you discount the heavy counter-attacks and having our mortar pits overrun and used as German machine gun emplacements.

"Following orders even if it kills me" seemed to be the order of the day for the Frankfurt am Main police department. The night our mortars helped the 5th Div capture Frankfurt was a strange one. At daylight the next morning, almost every street corner was littered with the bodies of dead policemen. The chief of police had ordered his entire police department to be visible on the streets and keep civilians in their homes for their protection. Decorated police uniforms with their shiny brass buttons was their downfall. In the confusion of the night street fighting, the infantry mistook the highly visible police to be German officers and shot more than a few of them.

Remember the many German soldiers, the ones that changes to civilian clothes to escape us? When we looked at their hands for signs of blisters or calluses, they would say "Arbeiter, Arbeiter, nicht Soldat." So many of them flashed pictures of relatives supposedly living in Philadelphia that one of the most knowledgeable members of our group estimated that more than half of the German army had a brother living in Philadelphia.

It was in the Bavarian town of Eggin that we discovered the shameful atrocities committed by the Germans. A slave labor camp quickly abandoned by the German guards reeked with sickness and death. Those poor unfortunate inmates who weren't able to survive were considered sub-human and their lifeless bodies dumped on open ground by the hundreds. Truly a dark day in the history of mankind.

During 117 days of continuous day and night combat, the many times our fire missions helped determine the difference between the infantry's success or failure filled us with a deep burning pride. Yes, we were a cocky bunch but we earned the right to be.

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