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Maybe I should take a little time out here and explain the set-up of our outfit. We were not considered a division at this time, as our general and our artillery were still back in the States. They did not arrive until January. At this time we were operating as an independent regiment and as such, were assigned to another division.
The next morning, January 1st, we moved to the town of Philippsburg. No place in this world has a more terrible effect upon my memory than this town. It was a very small town of about 60 – 75 houses in the center of two big mountains and a main road ran through the center of it. An armored outfit had stopped a Jerries attack at the northern edge of town. From the dope we got, there was a reinforced German regiment plus armor making the attack. To make matters worse, the Germans were using S.S. troops and they are bad. There we were a green outfit against the best the Germans had to offer.
We no sooner had arrived in the town than an attack started. For the first day and night, we held our own and on the 2nd day, the attack died away. Our battalion had taken about 150 prisoners and killed about as many more. Our losses in killed and wounded were about half of these figures. Our company had not lost a single man killed or wounded - it was the rifle outfits that had taken the beating. On the night of the 2nd, we decided to move forward a little and occupy a house. It had been very miserable in the holes with snow all around and no fires. I slept in a bed that night – the first bed I had seen since leaving the states. It was also that night that we lost our first man. A Jerry 88 killed a man and wounded three while they were trying to dig a machine gun emplacement. You see Dad; our company is made up of mortars and machine guns. My platoon is the mortar platoon and in that platoon there are three sections of two mortars apiece. Early the next morning, my section, the 1st, was moved to a draw just to the left of the town, This was the luckiest break of my life as you will later see.
Well the 1st was to move to the far section of town and on the left flank. Maybe a small map will help you understand the situation better. My section was at the 2 dots at (D) and those dots represent mortars. Two rifle companies were dug in at points x and y but unfortunately there was an open gap of 1000 yards between the two where the main road goes between the hills. A few of our troops were in town with two headquarters at K and H. During the night of the 2nd, most of our lines of communication had been cut by German artillery from D to the rear. About 7 am on the morning of the 3rd, the Jerries cut loose with everything they had in the way of artillery. Just about every place on the map was being pounded. We were well dug-in by this time so did not have much to worry about – only of course, a direct hit - that would have killed everyone inside but we were keeping our fingers crossed that this would not happen. About 7:30, a message came over the phone running to our observation post on hill x. One staff sergeant and one P.F.C. were up there with the rifle company waiting to direct our fire, if needed. They reported seeing several Jerries cross the main road about 1000 yards to our front. About 10 minutes later, they reported a German tank in the same area and coming toward the town. This call was followed almost immediately by another stating that there were 4 tanks in all and that the lead tank was camouflaged white to make it blend in with the snow. Following the tanks were 100 – 200 foot troops that we later learned to be the dreaded SS troops.
Well our commanders had committed a serious blunder by leaving the 1000-yard gap and we were about to pay for it. The jerry tanks came down to the road crossing (B) and covered all three roads and surrounding area with machine gun and cannon fire. The main force of the enemy foot troops moved in along the road (c) and fanned out along the hill (G). The rest, with the exception of a few snipers who made their way to hill (f) infiltrated the town itself and got behind the rear most headquarters. Why they never came along road (D) is a mystery that has never been solved. If they had, I would not be writing this letter to you now – that is for certain.
By 10 o’clock that same morning, it was apparent to those of us still alive that the American cause was lost. Jerry machine gun fire and sniper fire was coming in from every direction. We had hoped that when we stopped firing at about 9 o’clock, that we were killing Jerries and not our own men. We stayed in our holes and watched the battle in town behind us - about half or more of the houses were on fire and shells were still pouring into the place. Until this time, I don’t think the Germans knew where we were. They had overrun our other four mortars on the right flank and probably thought they had gotten all the weapons. But our temporary heaven was short because a sniper opened fire with an automatic rifle from hill (F) to our rear. One of the first rounds hit the man next to me but wounded him only slightly and eventually, we put the sniper out of order. But the exchange of shots had given away our positions and the Germans started to shell us with 88 artillery. It was one of these shells that landed about 5 yards away that turned us over in our hole, knocked us around, took our helmets off, and dazed us for about two minutes. When we came to, I could not hear anything with my left ear.
It was then a case of staying put and being killed or captured or making a run for it off to the left. We decided after a few minutes to make a run for it. We had 14 men and one officer in the section and we were all ready to make the break. One S/Sgt. was still in the observation post but we could not contact him, as the wires had been blown out. We found out later that he was already dead by this point anyway. How we ever got through that hail of lead and over the hill to our left without losing anyone, no one will ever know – but we did. Once over the hill, we were out of range from enemy fire temporarily but we did not have any idea about which way to go. We did not know if the Germans would follow us and we had only the faintest idea of where the friendly troops on our left were.
There were just two things we knew for sure. First, we were behind enemy lines and second, we had to keep moving if we were to get back to our own troops. One of our questions was soon answered – the Jerries had seen us pull out and were following us. They had sent a tank around the hill to head us off. When we tried to cross a small valley, the tank opened up. God must have been with us on that trip because once again, we escaped without losing a man. Just what happened that day and the three days that followed, is rather hard to recall. We hid in holes most of the time where we just about froze to death. It was very cold with snow everywhere and we only had the clothes on our backs. The last food we had was on the second and that was some K ration. We were surprised by three Germans at one point, but were able to kill them before they could do any damage.
Finally, on the afternoon of the 6th we spotted some activity on a hill to our front. We sent a man forward to check and when he came back, he brought the best news we had ever heard – we had finally reached our own troops again. However, our joy was short lived. Instead of getting some rest and a box of K rations a piece, we got the order that we would have to go back to the front immediately with this outfit. The second battalion of our regiment had been hit hard too and was very short of men. So for another 3 or 4 days we went back to fighting with this battalion. I really don’t remember just how long it was – I hate to recall some of the awful sights I saw in those days and nights. I can’t recall having slept at all. There was snow everywhere and we had not been able to get any more clothes. One night in particular, I do remember a company commander crawled forward to do some observing. He was in a hole about 30 yards from me when an 88 mm shell hit him and blew him to pieces. It was on this same night that some Germans armed with automatic rifles came charging up the hill where we were dug in. How we managed to stop them I do not know but I did not care then because I had already decided that death would end all my troubles and I was looking forward to it.
On abut the 9th, we were finally pulled off the line and taken back to the rear where we were returned to our own company. It was only then that we learned the real story of what had happened and how many were lost. Our entire battalion had been cut off in town for three days. Just how many men were finally rescued - I don’t know and cannot find out anyway. On the third day our own 1st battalion launched an attack and relieved the situation. Our mortar platoon went into town on the 1st of January with the strength of 56 men and 4 officers. Besides the 13 men and 1 officer with whom I escaped with me, there was one man and one officer whom had escaped by other means. So from the original 4 officers, we had 2. We lost all six of our mortars worth about $2,000 a piece, two jeeps, and an enormous amount of clothing and ammunition.
Letters from the European Front - Terrible Scenes in Philippsburg - Continued from Previous Page
Note about the photos on this page - since no information was provided on the back of these photos, they have been randomly placed throughout this memoir.