|Letter to Elizabeth [11/16/1944]
G2 Sec. Hq. 12th Army Group
APO 655 c/o Postmaster
16 November 1944
This is another "circular" letter written for the record for you to do with what you will. It is written on my knee as I am enjoying recovering from a bit of grippe that is very popular here at the moment. I have really recovered, however, and spent a half day at work today.
This concerns the beginning of an attack that is now history but which for obvious reasons I cannot identify beyond "Somewhere at the Front". A really cold day with occasional squalls of snow from a turbulent sky found me with a senior officer and a driver approaching a section of the front. Bitterly cold, no top to the jeep and even its windshield down as a precaution against flying glass should a shell come too close. H hour has passed two hours earlier and the action should be well under way. The clouds are breaking a little which will be more than welcome; air support will be possible and this particular attack started only with the aid of surprise. There was no preparatory bombardment.
As we approach the front there is no change in appearance. Just a cold November country-side with a normal amount of military traffic on the roads, here and there a farmer is doing some late plowing. Suddenly from a woods near the road some artillery barks and a little smoke drifts up from the trees. Soon we begin to pass batteries of guns lined up in the fields with their ugly muzzles belching shells over the road at the Boches several miles away. We stuff our fingers in our ears as we pass to muffle the concussion. Time now to inquire our way pretty carefully since this is open warfare and it is not difficult to drive into trouble. With a general's star on the jeep no one will stop and warn us. They will assume we know what we are doing. We turn off the main road and start sliding through a churned up side road. There is war. Men, hundreds of men, in the wet woods huddled around little fires in the everlasting and futile task of trying to keep warm. Waiting, waiting, always waiting. Waiting this time to move up and into action. All night they have waited in the cold, the mud is caked on their feet and smeared on their battle dress. Cold, miserable and above all, waiting. Everything has been done that can be done and everything said that can be said. Now there is waiting; waiting to move up, waiting to attack, waiting perhaps for death but anything is better than more waiting.
The jeep twists and turns through the woods and finally comes on some buildings the Division Command Post the CP in the basement of one of them. In there it is wet and also cold as there is no heat. Duck-boards on the floor to keep you out of an inch of water but you don't notice the wet or the cold. The Division Commander stands before a battle map on which a flow of reports are being posted. All is tense, busy but calm. Telephones ring continuously; get answered as soon as anyone is free. An Intelligence Officer reports a message he is receiving: "19 prisoners a . Say half the regiment is Russians. No mines in but approach to is mined. That all? OK." An Operations Officer reports "patrol in trouble at X 0292 pillbox. Request artillery? OK. We'll lay it on". And so it goes. We pay our respects to the Commanding General and get directions to a favorable observation post. The fewer people at that place the better at the moment.
So back into the jeep, squirming and slipping through the woods. Artillery is now barking on all sides and overhead aircraft are beginning to drone. At one point the road is in the open and under observation by the enemy. At that point we kick the old jeep along at a brisk pace. At last we reach our destination, an old French fortification, built into the side of the hill. In we go and drive perhaps a quarter of a mile under the hill until the passage narrows too much for the jeep. Then we stumble along in perfect blackness and solitude through a maze of passages coming finally to a steep stairway around an elevator (not workable) and stumble up more than two hundred steps into a room full of men under flickering lights with telephones constantly jangling. Finally up a ladder still further to a little room that holds two men and four telephones. It is on the peak of the hill, heavily protected with concrete and three little windows give a view of the battle, Oh, General Maginot, when you built this you never expected a Boston investment counselor to be looking out watching American troops carry the war away from your beloved line that proved so futile in 1940!
But the view is not good enough for our purposes, so we climb down and climb the outside of the hill where we can lie below its crest and eat our lunch (K rations) and have a grand-stand seat to a moment in history. The weather has cleared and below us at the far side of a meadow winds a river which our boys assaulted and crossed in boats early in the morning. Nearly in front of us a smoke screen drifts across the river and we can see a bull-dozer at work, vehicles drawn up and men waiting. Across there must go a bridge to take over vital supplies, artillery and tanks to support the lads who have crossed and are pushing forward on the other side. Below and a half mile to our right is a little town of perhaps two hundred houses and just beyond it another smoke screen for another bridge. Behind us our guns become active every once and a while and slam heavily while over our heads shells whistle and crackle. Some we can spot where they hit. Now the double crack of an exploding Boche's shell. It has hit in the meadow forward of the village, --- a second ranging shot --- and the Boche is ready. Now they come! Shell after shell, into the village which is soon smoking from end to end. Damn: We know the village is full of American troops, waiting, waiting for the bridge that isn't ready. The Boche knows it also. Soon a little line of stretcher-bearers move to the rear from the back of the town. Men die just waiting in war.
Our own artillery growls and then bursts into a fury of firing seeking no doubt the enemy guns that are killing Americans in that little village. Overhead some L-5s (observation planes) wheel lazily directing the fire. It looks easy to float slowly there and watch. It is easy, --- and an easy way to die. Hated above all things by the enemy, the flimsy little planes are easy marks. No guns, no armor, no speed. Suddenly one stands on its nose and dives straight for the ground. Is it hit? No, it flattens out and slowly circles around and around the meadow below us scarcely thirty feet above the ground. He spotted a German fighter somewhere and dove to an altitude at which it is very difficult for a fast fighter to attack in a small field.
Now twenty or thirty fighter-bombers roar overhead and circle wide only to come back one by one [and] peel off to attack a woods on a hill across the river. One by one they swoop down. As each gets close you can see the tracers stream from it into the woods, then their bombs slant downwards and flames leap from the woods. Probably they also are after that artillery or a tough pill box. One hits something vital and huge flames shoot up. Men have died there also but not Americans.
Below us an endless thin line of men trudge up the road; men carrying stretchers and men, endlessly. All heading towards where the bridge should be but there is no bridge. Why, pourquoi, varum? We must find out, so off our hill, into the jeep and up to as near as we think it safe to take it. Then we join the line that is slipping, sliding, trudging and cursing, up to the bridge site. These men are not laughing. They are not in high spirits going into battle. They are cold, they are tired for they have been up most of the night waiting and it is now afternoon. Another cold, miserable and dangerous night lies ahead. They know they will cross a river. What lies beyond is unknown but the body of a dead German outstretched by the road --- some one has decently thrown a blanket over his face --- is a grim reminder. But there is no hesitation in these faces, there is no turning back. They move doggedly on, throwing curious glances at a General and a Lt. Colonel who slogg along in the mud with them.
One man nearly staggers under the weight of a bazooka and seems a little more tired than the rest. My general falls in step and asks him its weight --- "Pretty heavy, Sir". "How old are you soldier?" "Thirty-eight, sir." "You could get an easier job further back if you wished." "General, I got a job right here. I can keep up with the rest, Sir." And so he can. God help the Heinies in a tank that meet up with that man and his bazooka.
There is no bridge. It has raided for days. The peaceful stream has swollen into a rushing torrent and swept it away. The water is still rising. But the men are going across. In boats with big out-board motors that can't cope with the current and are swept down stream to make the far shore where they can.
They go across in imminent danger of capsizing in cold water, weighted down with rations, arms, hand grenades. They go across knowing there will be no supplies, no tanks, no artillery to help them, no blankets to cover them tonight. They go across for they know the men there need them. They go across --- cursing.
A shell from the Boche cracks close by. The Boche knows there are men waiting under the smoke screen in this little village also. Another cracks close by; two ranging shots. We have found out all we need to know and we had better leave. As one gains experience in war one learns there is no bravery in taking needless risk.
Yes, we can leave. Leave this spot of approaching danger. There is no necessity for us to cross that river tonight. A warm, dry bed awaits us. But here at this bridge site men will shiver in the mud and wait. Men will cross the river and wait, some will wait here. A few will not have long to wait.
One returns at least with his faith in the average American man reaffirmed. He is a man.