Reflections of a Combat Infantryman
A Soldier’s Story of C Company, 134th Infantry, 35th Division
By James G. Graff
The next day we moved back to Marvie, the town where C Co. had jumped off on January 4 when they were really ass-holed in the woods. Paratroopers of the 101st had held this town during the siege of Bastogne. There were wrecked gliders and C-47s in the fields that were used supply the 101st when they were surrounded. A P-47 was making strafing and bombing runs northeast of here. There was a knocked-out Kraut tank up by the church, a GI jeep and a 6x6 truck knocked out by a bomb; and the barn they were next to contained several cows and chickens in their nests, killed by concussion and frozen solid.
We found a half of beef hanging in a tree. We ate it and then killed another and left it for the next outfit. Most of the civilians were gone and what livestock was left was wandering looking for food and water.
Today I believe Steinhaufel rejoined the 3rd platoon. He had been wounded at Habkirchen. Also a deserter by the name of Smith from Sandoval, Illinois rejoined us. He had run off several times before and Storm told him not to try it again or it would be too bad. When we fell out the next morning he was gone. They caught him a few days later and he was court-martialed. These kind of cases were not unusual we were to find out. Many men would do anything to get out of the front line. I have already told of a self-inflicted wound (I was to witness two more such cases, one by a man, Grestbauer, that went overseas with us). Desertion was also very common although some men came back in a day or two of their own free will.
Next morning we moved out and were to join elements of the 6th Armored Div. in pushing east. As we moved into Arloncourt we saw fifteen knocked-out tanks and a field of dead GIs. One man had a 300 radio on his back with four or five bullet holes in it. These tanks had been knocked out earlier in the campaign, but three 6th Armored tanks were burning when we came up and a half-track with wounded and burned tankers were being pulled out. It looked to me as if the Krauts had shot a lot of livestock on pulling out. We ate dinner where three dead cows lay in the street and the blood wasn’t frozen yet. It kinda pissed my off, just to kill them for the hell of it. A dead Kraut was under the steps and Schaeffer (Nathaniel, Philadelphia) got sick and couldn’t eat.
Moved out into the woods and found a wounded GI on a stretcher and another limping back hollering, “I got a million dollar wound and I am going to the rear.” They had been hit by their own artillery. Again and again we would encounter our own artillery or tank fire and on a couple of occasions would be bombed by our own planes.
We dug in for the night next to some armored infantry. We got some hot chow up, but they only had K rations. That is one trouble with the armored. They never have a kitchen up and maybe it was just the fault of their officers. One thing about the 134th Inf. was that we got hot chow whenever possible and also bed rolls. We were not burdened down with mess gear and blankets like some outfits. I have helped hand carry chow and bed rolls for a much as a mile but it sure beats cold Ks and no blankets because you had thrown them away.
That evening a Kraut tank refueled just a few hundred yards from us right out in the open. We had two Sherman tanks, but they wanted us to try some 60 mm mortar fire on them. Lt. Chappel said nothing doing. If they wouldn’t fight them with tanks, he’d play hell exposing his men to tank fire just to satisfy our tankers. Although a lot of the guys won’t agree with me, this was the first of many times I saw Chappel stand up for his men, refusing to attack or commit them unless they were properly supported. A far cry from some previous company commanders the C Company has had.
Next morning we moved out to cut a highway east of us. As we moved into the woods near a big house, a German tank (maybe the one we had seen the evening before) opened up on us. There was one of our supporting tanks near us and I guess that the Kraut was really aiming for him, as he was using AP (armor piercing ammunition) rather than HE (high explosive). About three or four rounds were wild and high, the only casualty being a couple of trees. The tank crew jumped in their vehicle as they had been standing outside although the engine was running. The backed around and opened up with their coaxial machine gun and then “Bang,” their 75 mm fired and they hit the Kraut first shot. He caught fire after the third round and we didn’t see anybody get out.
Sgt. Landrum had a prayer he read to the third platoon before jumping off and one after the day had ended. This prayer service was known to a lot of the attached units (such as the heavy machine gunners of D Company). We all knelt in the snow, uncovered with bowed heads while Bob read the prayer, PFC Boyce was a scout one day and missed the service. He was wounded in the head later on that same day and afterwards I heard him say the reason he got hit was because he missed the service.
Soon we had come under German tank fire and were digging in. Our medic (Youngs) who had joined us a day before didn’t have a shovel and about then a shell landed in a tree among us. Kittleson (Lisbon, Illinois) was killed and Boyce, Iacovone, Blankenship, Hammonds, Locke, Hoff and one more were wounded. These men, with the exception of Boyce, were all men who had come overseas with me. These were our first casualties. Storm’s overcoat hanging in a tree was riddled. We were under German tank fire and tank fire, if you have never faced it, is like nothing you have ever saw or heard. It was zip-bang, high velocity and no time to duck because you didn’t hear them until the shells were over you.
Again we were digging in and when we heard tanks moving. A small road was near us and a tank was coming down it, the turret turned towards us, and I thought – this is it. I noticed it was an American and it kept going, but to this day I think it was one of ours that the Krauts had captured. Evidently they didn’t see us. By evening we were on the highway. Saw a couple of Krauts down the highway but they were out of range. This, the 17th of January, was our first day of actual combat --- the day of the first battle casualties. I happened to notice that the aerial on the radio was clipped short, cut by a piece of shrapnel. I didn’t like that and made up my mind to rid of this job as soon as possible. The medic and I dug in together, helped carry bedrolls and night chow (coffee and roast beef sandwiches) for almost a mile. While Storm and I were standing drinking coffee, someone walked past and Storm remarked, “Looked like he had on Kraut mess gear.” In a couple of minutes someone hollered, “We got a prisoner.” He had walked through two platoons of infantry and a section of heavy machine guns but didn’t say anything until challenged. He could have killed a half dozen, including me, but his intention was to surrender; such was the German mind. We picked up a prisoner earlier who had hid out and followed a telephone line in and he said, “Three years in the army and hadn’t made corporal yet, so thought I would surrender.”
We were next moved back to Michamps, a little town, and I believe we walked all the way. This town was practically destroyed. The third platoon took over a house with a second story and roof shot off. It had a 105 mm dud in the kitchen and we stayed here for several days and it was still there when we left. Only two rooms were habitable. As I was hunting for some hay or straw to sleep on, I came across a house-barn combination, which the Krauts had used for an aid station. The Red Cross flag was still flying. As I opened a small shed I noticed a blanket covering something. I pulled it back and there lay a dead German who was dressed in GI pants and blue knit socks. His hair was long and black and he had died of a massive head wound. His German dogtag was still around his neck. Possibly he was a member of one of the units dressed and equipped with American equipment that had spearheaded some of the German attacks in the Ardennes.
Another bizarre incident occurred while we were in Michamps. One day a jeep pulled up in front of the company CP. Three men in it threw out a dead GI and threw an overcoat over him. We didn’t know who they were and the dead soldier was still there when we pulled out.
As the rest of the 35th Div. had been moved back to Alsace-Lorraine, we of the 134th had been attached to the 6th Armored and were to replace their armored infantry who had been pretty well used up. We even had half-tracks.
While here we had a stove with a fire pot no bigger than your hat, so someone had to stay up all night to fire it. Schaeffer got sick, and being too lazy to go outside, shit in the corner of the room we were sleeping in. It also housed Kelso’s (Texas) equipment.
While at Michamps, Kusch, one of the fellows that came in with us, was evacuated with frost bite and medics told him he would loose some toes. Kitchens (Kentucky) and a Mexican boy left soon after we joined C Co. with frostbite and Lawrence left later in the month. Also there were several others that I can’t remember ----- many had their feet frozen on our boxcar and truck rides up to the front.
We moved out in Sixth Armored half-tracks and then dismounted and walked while they went back and let some other companies ride. The tankers were setting all haystacks on fire with tracers because German tanks had a nasty habit of hiding in them. On this march Sanborn (Sgt., New Hampshire) was taken with one of his coughing spells. He got down on all fours and spit blood. I believe he is in a bad way. We got into some houses. We were now in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Storm threw one old lady out her bed and slept in it. We got a bunch of replacements and I got rid of the radio. Tom Sawyer (Minnesota) had taken it after he had come in with us. I now was a member of the third squad of the third platoon. I was to remain here for the rest of my time in C Co. except for a couple of short hitches. I now took over the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). Its former owner, Burr (Charles, Pennsylvania) had been evacuated with frozen feet. The BAR weighed 18 lbs. without the bipod, 20 with. We carried it without. I also had 13 magazines (20 rounds per), each weighing one lb., so I was burdened down with 31 lbs. of equipment; to which you add one bandolier of extra ammo, 48 rounds and six hand grenades, entrenching tool, trench knife, canteen, first aid packet. You didn’t have much room for personal things. I threw away my gas mask (fitted with eyeglasses) and carried two K rations, razor, toothpaste, shaving brush, shaving crème, writing paper and a pair of wire cutters in the gas mask carrier. These were combined with our clothes: pair of short underwear, pair of long johns, pair of fatigues, pair of wool O.D.s, sweater, field jacket and overcoat plus wool knit cap and helmet liner, combat boots and felt-top overshoes. No wonder small arms cut down a lot of men. With all the snow, clothes and equipment you didn’t move too fast. Armored divisions had blanket lined overalls, which would have been a lot better. You can imagine the amount of exposure we were subject to. Wet snow, wading streams, sleeping in foxholes, not being able to take off your shoes for long periods and no chance to wash your feet or change your socks. No water to drink --- only coffee. We stood guard when dug in – one hour on and one off – fatigue doesn’t help. Through it all hardly anyone had a cold, but I carried a jar of Vick’s.
S/Sgt. Sanborn was the squad leader and Sgt. Loos (Ohio) was the assistant. As the new replacements were standing out in the street, Lt. Chappel, the company commander was talking to them. He was a fairly well built man with a small mustache. He told the new men which company they were in and they should call him “Chappy” because he was a rebel himself. The Lt. had made Sgts. Storm and Thibeault shave off their goat-whiskers (goatees) but let them wear a mustache.
Our squad got some replacements out of this group. One (Sokolowski, Stephen, New York) I was to have as an assistant BAR man. I asked him if he knew anything about the weapon and he answered, “I don’t even know how to load my rifle.” He was a product of the Army’s replacement system as a so-called “retrained rifleman.” He had been a truck mechanic in an anti-aircraft outfit in the States. The Army had many men reclassified and sent them overseas as replacements. The Army brass felt that just because they were in the Army, the infantry could use them. In reality, the infantryman was a highly specialized and trained individual. We had many weapons to master, plus the training to make you a combat soldier. Men like Sokolowski were next to worthless as an infantryman and many of these re-trainees were to become casualties in the next couple of days as a result of it.
Another group of men joined us this day. They were casuals (wounded who had been returned to their own units – a good practice). One was S/Sgt. Maurice File (St. Louis, Missouri). This man had been wounded five times and was to be hit again tomorrow morning.
That evening Sgt. Baker (John C., Richmond, Missouri) and I had some water heating on a stove when we observed one of the replacements using it. Bake hollered “What the hell do you think you are doing?” and this man turned around addressed us, “I am Lt. Larrieu (Richard G.) and I am going to shave.”
Baker said, “I don’t give a damn if you are a lieutenant, you ain’t going to use our water. Put it back.” To me this was quite a switch from stateside. I was to learn that officers didn’t rate the same treatment overseas as stateside.
Next morning we moved out on half-tracks and soon it came evident we were about to enter combat again. We met a jeep with a German prisoner perched on the hood and a wounded tanker with a bandage around his eyes seated in the passenger side.
We dismounted in a small cluster of houses. Several German prisoners were standing there and they had a German corpse on a child’s wooden sled. He was one of the tallest corpses I had ever seen.
We moved out up the road with the tanks and seen we deployed to the left of the road towards a woods. We had been informed that A Co. was to flush the woods and we were to flank it. As we walked across the knee-deep snow swept fields we were greeted by heavy small arms fire. As I went to the ground I heard the medic (Youngs) holler, “Help me Graff, he’s hit.” I turned and ran back – my new assistant was laying face down in the snow. I rolled him over and we thought he was dead, but, all of a sudden, his eyes blinked for he had only fainted.
I then ran up a little knoll and lay down by Sgt. Baker. He was holding up a leg and trying to get a bullet through it (a million dollar wound). I opened fire on the woods, but the BAR would only fire one round at a time for the ejector wouldn’t work. I fired the whole magazine (20 rounds) and dug every single cartridge out with my pocketknife. I would not be much help to our men pinned down by the fire from the woods. Finally, the fire slackened and we moved into a finger of the woods. It then became apparent we had suffered considerable loss. Jones (John Paul, Ohio), who was Lt. Chappel’s radio man, was killed. He had gone overseas with us. Sgt. Patrick (Charles H. South Carolina) had also been killed along with some of the new men. Some had been wounded including Sgt. File (the most wounded man in the 35th Div.)
I took the BAR and busted it on a tree and Landrum got me a rifle off one of the casualties. A sergeant in another platoon was down in a shell-hole crying and his platoon sergeant had to kick him out to get him moving. He deserted a few weeks later and we never did find our what happened to him. They began to reorganize and I was sent to the weapons platoon as an ammo carrier for a machine gun.
As we were digging in that afternoon, an incident occurred that was one of the tragedies of war. On January 4, C Co. had been almost wiped out with many men having been killed or captured. We had just learned the day before that six of them that were captured had been found shot to death by a small arms bullet in the head or heart. The order had come down that if we caught anyone out of the 1st SS (Adolph Hitler Panzer Div.) to not take any prisoners.
As we were watching a ridge three Germans appeared. One had on his helmet and another had his arm in a sling. These men had been shooting at us just a couple of hours ago. Some hollered, “Kill the bastards!” Everyone opened fire and two fell but one jumped into a foxhole or hellhole. Gerstbauer, one of the fellows who went over with me, jumped up and ran up the hill and emptied his rifle in the Kraut and all the time the German was screaming, “Kamrad!” (German for comrade, which they always hollered when surrendering) until he was killed. Bad business, but in such conditions men’s feelings and senses are sometimes dulled.