The Remembrances of:
Harold M. Simon
Into The Bulge
An Account by Harold M. Simon
We know now what the term "40 & 8" means. We rode from Yvetot in French box cars which stunk of rotten apples and hog dung and other smells of varying degrees of unpleasantness. Clearly marked on the outside of each car was this legend: "40 hommes - 8 cheveaux". Well, we had thirty men fully equipped, along with rations and thirty duffel bags which must have taken up room for at least half that number of men; we can sympathize with the vets of the old world war - - "40 'n' 8". War is hell! You may ask what condition our unit was in when we entered battle. Now I guess it's safe to tell just exactly how it was. (Written from the perspective of one or two months after the events described.)
We were moved up to within I don't know how many miles of the front in Belgium. We heard our first buzz bombs and walked for miles in our overshoes and full field packs. On the trip in the rail cars, I was sick from not being able to relax over the slit trench long enough to perform necessary duties. We finally were unloaded and got to the farm house where we were to be billeted for part of one night. Sleeping in the hayloft there was a luxury after the frozen damp field in France. The next day we spent lightening our packs as far as the high command would allow. We bid goodbye to our duffel bags. From here on in it was going to be "combat ready" for us all. That night we spent riding in trucks with 26 men in areas which held only 16 comfortably. It rained in the night, and I shared my raincoat with Eberspacher as I hoped to keep my rifle from rusting too much. We rode till late in the afternoon; and we disembarked, we were glad for the chance to stretch our legs. We complained all during the ride; we would have complained more if we would of had had to walk. We were ungrateful for the favor of being packed into cans. After getting our break, we climbed an almost perpendicular cliff face, and my squad was sent to the most remote part. Our two scouts were sent out to contact the enemy on our left. As soon as they were gone, the company was moved out so I was sent to call for the two scouts. I started to traverse the dense undercover in the direction in which we had sent them, calling at every other step for the wanderers. Once I was sure that I heard them, but when I called, the voices became silent, and I went around in a circle and was just about to give up the search, when I heard the voices again and raised my own one more time. At last they answered, they seemed to enjoy the joke they had played on me. Climbing down the hillside once more, we found the company resting comfortably alongside the road. We had just gotten ourselves in that same peaceful position when the order to move was given, and so we got up, too tired to do more than grunt our disgust. A short hike brought us to where we were soon climbing up a hillside. Right here might be an appropriate time to correct an entirely erroneous impression I had received from the geography books of my youth. Belgium is one of the so-called lowlands - Netherlands. That would lead one to believe that it, like its neighbor, Holland, is flat and water soaked - no mountains, hills, or such. That turned out to be only partially true. When I mentioned this observation to First Sgt. Ehni, he said, "That teaches us that one cannot learn geography from a textbook." In the next days we were to climb and be carried up and down more hills than Boston has beans.
As we clambered up the hill, we came finally to a plateau and dropped, Our legs well worn-out by this unaccustomed work. Soon our platoon was up and moving again; after climbing and sliding down another slope, we crossed a road and were sent out to defend the area behind us. The field chosen for the foxholes was covered with at least three inches of water, and some places these inches deepened to a foot. We got busy immediately, for we didn't know how far away our enemies were, and we were a little apprehensive. As assistant B.A.R. man, I helped Schmidt with the "baby's" position. We dug partially in the bank beside the road and were not at all surprised when we found water seeping into the hole soon after we started. We tried to make use of the engineering stunt (or principle) that water tends to seek its own level; i.e., we dug another hole in front of the main one, and since it was lower ground, all the water from our hole was supposed to seep out of ours into it. How that worked I shall soon show. Since the guard roster placed us on last, we gathered straw from one of the two round stacks at the end of the field, and soon we were bedded down for the night. It was cold - December 22 usually is - and so there wasn't much sleep to be had, but I did doze a little between the times that the guard would waken us. At 0100 Schmidt was awakened, and he stood up in the hole. As he did, the water poured out of his clothing. He looked such a bedraggled figure that we couldn't help but laugh about it in the morning when we had dried out some.
That night though, I rolled over, and it was all too soon that i was awakened for my shift. I got up and noted with not a little annoyance the ground had frosted and that my rifle, pack, gas mask, and ammo bags were all covered with powdery white frost and frozen stiff. Schmidt, now forsaking the water of the foxhole, went back across the road to a pile of branches which had been handily cut just previously. He got out his sleeping bag, and the rest of the night he spent in comparative comfort. When I went back to sleep at 0500, I unrolled my bag, and having procured more straw, I slept or tried to sleep on the hillside - that is, on the road bank next to the foxhole, but not in it. I was alright except that my feet slipped down into the mud, and to this day that sleeping bag must be stiff with the mud of that Belgian field, I imagine. We were up at eight the next morning; so we rolled our bedding, for as usual, no one knew how soon we might move out. We built a fire and had it going well when we were called to the company command post (C.P.) where we were supposed to get chow. We did - cold C-rations and vile green coffee. We swallowed as much of the coffee we could and then hurried back with the rations to where our fire would heat them enough to make them edible. I was fortunate enough to get meat and spaghetti, one of the newer types of C-rations. The contents of that can tasted fine in the crisp, cold morning. "Most anything tastes good, when you're hungry," my dad always says. We made some of the powdered coffee which comes with the C-ration. It tasted far better than what we had had before. We had to put out our fires though. "Airplanes might see our fires," our Platoon leader Dutch Maier said. Soon the skies overhead were filled with the drone of the heavy bombers and their escorts. Their vapor trails made white scratches in the china blue sky. We could see where they turned and started back from their targets. Soon the sky was filled with these trails, which finally converged in to one huge white lace cloud loop.
Later that day we walked around the hill and waited in line for hot chow, consisting of cold sauerkraut, cold salty corned beef hash, corn and green beans - really a weird combination. We then moved up the hill again, going the hard way. Our chagrin may be imagined, for we found that our tedious and fatiguing route of the night before had been unnecessary and that we could get to the CP more easily by going around the hill. we moved into the wood on the edge of the open clearing on the aforementioned plateau.
More hay for our beds, guard duty, all in an ordinary way. No sleeping while on guard; watch for Jerry paratroopers; get up at 0400; put on packs; etc., which are frozen despite the raincoat over them. This is Christmas Eve - December 24 - in the morning. We had mail the day before - two V-mails from Mom and one from Lo. Ma says she's glad I am so safe and secure - ha! ha! Now we make light packs putting our bedding into the roll. Schmidt and I are getting rid of all but the essentials. Even one of my ammo bags goes and in it my testament. I did salvage my medicine kit and rations, K, MIA1, one box - two hand grenades, and one rifle grenade although I have no launcher. We have some walk ahead of us, so Andy (Robble) informed us, but when we got there we're going to be a motored patrol. It turns out that we are going to ride the distance originally set for the hike. But we don't board the trucks until three or four hours after arising. We are only supposed to seat 27 men on one truck since it's a short ride, but we know that no ride is comfortable unless it's with only the right number of men on the seats - 12 or 14 with packs. We arrived and were bundled into the woods to begin our digging there. We have slit trenches well on the road to completion when we are told to stop digging and are moved back through a pine forest to where "I" Company is making ready for battle. Somber faced and quiet, they gather in little groups around their fires. They are having their last hot meal for some time; for some their last for eternity. Schmidt has found a well-dug slit trench, so I take over one which is right behind it. I dug in until I had half of a foxhole; then, since I had hit rock, I quit. Our canteens have to be broken into to get any water from them. The ice was that thick in them. After I stopped digging, I ate one of my K-rations and heated some lemon and orangeade over one of my hot-boxes (a wax enclosed in paper carton that burns for about an hour and a half.) This then was to be my Christmas Eve dinner - at the same time that the folks were having turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and all the rest of the trimmings for a swell dinner at home. Afterwards, the folks at home would open gifts to one another, and Grandma would be there too, looking rather piteous without Grandpa there too. This is the third year that Grandpas been absent from the Christmas proceedings. He use to find such pleasure in watching the kids! I tried not to dwell on those things and hurried to help Carl gather hay and straw from a stack not 50 yards away from where we were stationed. The war had been brought a little closer to us that day. Besides the preparation of "I" Company, we had seen an air battle between one of our P-38s and one of their planes. We watched aghast as flak exploded too near one of our planes.
We had just gotten our bed made with the straw and put a pile at the end of it to bury our feet in, when word came down that we had to put out a guard. I was to have the first shift from 1715 to 1815, but I first had time to read the Christmas story from Schmidt's Catholic testament. In a moment of weakness I had left mine with my roll that morning. We were moving up soon after and were now walking back down the road we had ridden up that morning. We were moving up to the front that night. We were told that we had only 4 to 6 miles to walk, and then we would be able to rest for the attack in the morning. Major Glezer, the Battalion Commander, disappeared - not too mysteriously - and so Major Baskin, his assistant, was leading us. We walked willingly enough, for it had already started to frost. We walked through a little village and continued until about 1920 when we got a break. Then it was discovered that Baskin's guide had taken us in the wrong direction. Not really wrong; we were almost on top of our objective too soon. So we about faced and went all the way back through the aforementioned village, which was quite far back. Our packs were getting heavier and heavier. The "lightweight" gas masks hung awkwardly and weighed more heavily at each step. My ammo bag had only two grenades, one hand and one rifle grenade in it along with my medical supplies. It is true that I was not an authorized medic, but experience on maneuvers taught me that medics are not always around when they are needed. We kept passing piles of hay and straw, and i kept thinking how nice it would be to burrow into one of these, get warm, and get some sleep. Even manure piles looked like heaven-sent (even if not Heaven-Scent) beds of clouds. Then, when we were stopped for a break, a jeep drove up and General Mickle, the 75th Division Commander, and one of his aides jumped out. The general lit into Maj. Baskin and wanted to know why we weren't at that spot hours before. "Man," he shouted, "don't you know that these men have fighting to do yet tonight and tommorrow night too? And here they haven't even eaten or rested at all. where's the Battalion Commander?" Baskin could not or would not say much; one doesn't make excuses to a general. We moved a little farther on and were issued some more ammo for the B.A.R. Then, apparently from nowhere a case of rations appeared in the first platoon. Soon some of us were eating, gulping down cold hash, beans, or stew furtively. Lt. Robble appeared now and so did Maj. Glezer. The latter, in order to pass the buck little started to chew Andy about his men eating. Andy showed up as a real sport though and tried to get us out of trouble. Then the general came up and asked Glezer, "Why weren't you with your men? Why are you just standing here when there's a battle to be fought? What good are your staff members? They are standing over there with their hands behind their backs rocking back and forth on their heels saying, 'It's too bad.' Let's see some action. That artillery barrage is just to cover your delay." The first platoon was drawn discreetly off the road and into a field where they continued their meal. Almost immediately we were called to start off the march to the place of attack. The first platoon was to be the support platoon, but we still led off. Co. Hq. fell in behind us. We walked some more - I had left my arctics with one of the cooks until such time as I might return for them. The Mess sgt. and the cooks had had a hot dinner ready for us since 1600 but had had no transportation to bring it up to us. so we went into combat with cold food or none. We followed a road for some time until the officers deemed it advisable to to go off through the woods. I can remember First Sgt. Ehni saying, as he passed along the line, "Dere's a dead Dutchman lying on da left side of der roadt. Don't touch him." If he had only known, he couldn't have said or done anything to make me want to touch him. I kept watching for this oddity and finally saw a figure lying there beside the road resting in his last, long sleep.
Almost as soon as we got off the road, we were separated from the rest of the platoon. Finally we found them and then began a series of ascents and descents of Belgian hills till our feet were ready to drop off. What made the going worse was a layer of thick hoarfrost on the leaves that covered the ground. Every step was a slip and slide. And if the ground didn't give way under our weight, the trees to which we clung to keep from going too rapidly gave so that we would go slipping and crashing down only to start over. One time we stopped behind a small embankment while Andy went up to have a look and coordinate with "L" Company on the attack. some of the fellows started to dig in, but my shovel was frozen so that I could only bang the dirt with it. several times we had bullets over our heads, but so long as they were over we didn't mind. We were already so tired that it was all we could do to keep our eyes open. Finally I propped my head into position where I could see out to the flank that the B.A.R. was supposed to protect. No effort or not much anyway in that. I kept calling to Schmidt to keep him awake and myself too. Our rest was only too short-lived. And we headed into more slippery woods.
At the summit of the first hill, we were favored with more ammo. At first I didn't want to take any, but I finally hung one bandolier around my neck, and we started to move again. We ran across a stream of wet, cold, running water which soaked my left foot, but I didn't feel it till much later. The water froze on my shoe and helped make my awkward ascents and descents more awkward. I lost part of my rifle sling already and my scarf, knitted by my mother's own hands, and my right glove too. I was about to lose my patience and kill myself on my own bayonet when we pulled up to the spot from which the attack was to start. Mortars were there, practicing target designations and finally getting some degree of accuracy. The 3rd squad (ours) was chosen to spearhead the attack for the first platoon, and, of course, the B.A.R. was picked to spearhead the third squad. Given the go signal, Carl and I dashed out of the hedge behind which we had been taking our cover and ran to the right a little. Our mortars were stilling laying in on the hill, and the forest toward which we were striving began to chatter with Jerry machine guns - far more rapidly than our own machine guns seemed to chatter. From then on it was a matter of get up and run for a short distance, then flop down when we felt that we had tempted fate enough for a second or two. Several times we had to wait until barbed wire could be cut so that we could streak through the opening. Thank God that there had not been enough time for the Germans to lay regular barbed wire defenses or our going would have been almost impossible. Certainly much more difficult. I had to keep calling for Schmidt because in the dark hours just before the sun comes up, I had a hard time telling where he was supposed to be going. And I was supposed to be with him. As it turned out, we stuck pretty closely together, we're up and down as one.
Continued on the next page
My 75th Division Dad
Copyright 2001, J. R. Puckett
Email: J. R. Puckett