The Remembrances of:
Robert J. Keller ~ 289th, D Co., 1st Bn "Author Unknown" from "Into the Ardennes"
Robert J. Keller
3d Platoon C Co
1st Bn 289th Inf. Regt.
75th Infantry Division
24 25 26 Dec 44
Battle of the Bulge
The next night we were back on trucks and drove until daylight. I thought we had gone far enough to link up with the Russian Army. This time the stop was a small village. There was a battle going on ahead of us. It was about December 23rd, and the artillery was booming like thunder and increasing as more U.S. Artillery moved into position and opened up.
Lt. Woods gave me a BAR. I had not shot one much but I did not argue. It was heavy - about 18 pounds and I had to pack 250 rounds. There are 9 BAR's to a company - 4 of our BAR men were killed. I was willing to obey Lt. Woods.
The company stayed a few days looking for enemy paratroopers. None were found. The local civilians could speak either French or German. One almost got himself, killed when challenged - he answered first in French - then German.
News of the Malmedy Massacre soon reached us. Over 100 American prisoners were shot by S.S. Troopers. We had no idea what was going on in the battle.
The fog lifted and the sun came out. We could see U.S. bombers over head - so high they were specks trailing vapor. German planes were already engaging them. A U.S. P-38 fell and could not pull out - it hit about a mile from us - no parachute was seen. Several bombers were hit and went down. One damaged supply plane flew very low over us. There was damage to the wing. It had been hit while dropping supplies to the 101st Airborne Division surrounded at Bastogne.
We quit marching at dusk and our captain told us that the 290th Regiment was already in battle and was being chopped up by tiger tanks. The captain had lost his nerve and we knew it, but we still had Lt. Woods and Major Fluck. Back on the trucks, and the moonlight showed haystacks in a field. I wanted to burrow into one of those stacks and stay there. Colyer said he felt the same way.
Soon the trucks stopped. Suddenly there was a terrific blast right along the road. We thought the Germans were shelling us. Then I saw a 155 howitzer and the helmets of the crew. They were firing at the enemy. Off the trucks went the whole battalion and we moved out in front of the artillery. We dug in and tried to rest but the weather and fright prevented it.
At daylight a German plane flew over us. We ate cold rations then prepared to advance. Co. A was on our right and my platoon was to keep contact with them. The rest of Co. C was to follow on our left but I did not see them. A Co. moved out so we stayed with them for awhile. They moved further to the right so we waited in the woods for the rest of C Co. Sgt. Kuhl came up with two light machine guns but no one else came.
While looking for C Co. our scout saw a German. Neither one fired - both walked away. Sgt. Barnes and Contreras thought they saw the Company but walked into an ambush. Barnes was killed but Contreras escaped. A medic named Kys went up to help Barnes and he was shot but did get back to us. Lt. Woods deployed us and we crawled up toward Barnes. Sgt. Kuhl sent two machine gun crews to cover a fire break behind us. Sure enough two Germans tried to cross and were killed by our machine gunners. It was getting late in the day so we carried Kys out and finally contacted Co. C. The captain had the rest of the company protecting a chateau he was staying in.
The first day was a near disaster for the 3rd platoon. Sgt. Barnes was 22 years old and very well liked. His home was Virginia. Through a terrible error he was listed as missing in action for weeks. His mother wrote to Severance and asked what he knew about her son.
We dug in around the chateau and could feel the cold coming in. No blankets or hot food. We were told that Co. A had been badly mauled in a fire fight losing 50 men. It was Christmas Day but my thoughts were over what had happened.
The next morning we got hot food and the captain finally tried to lead his company. We walked for a few miles and linked up with A Co. They had not been shot up but had aggressively patrolled a wide front. One of their platoons ran into Germans and had wiped them out. There were American and German dead scattered about. Considering we were green troops, I knew we would not be routed.
Major Fluck was already with Co. A and Co. D was already on line with automatic weapons and 81 mm mortars.
After resting and eating we went further in to the woods with my platoon leading. A German machine gun fired and we hit the ground. I did not know where the gun was but one burst narrowly missed my feet. Lt. Wood was nearby and he told me to move ahead and cover our flank. At the same time Lt. Kihm started crawling and they shot him. A medic ran over to him and they did not shoot him. I quit moving because the gun was only shooting men who stirred. Most of us were firing back but I doubt if any Germans were hit. In fact, I think it was only one machine gun crew all along. It got nearly dark and we pulled back taking Lt. Kihm with us. Two of his men helped him. Another C Co. man had been killed and we could not take him out. Lt. Kihm recovered from his wounds.
We found out that our captain, executive officer, and 1st Sgt. had bugged out and left the company pinned down.
Major Fluck relieved the captain of his command and told the executive officer and Ist Sgt. to shape up. The major took command of C Co. temporarily and we spent hours digging in on a hill covered with small trees and brush. We finally got a little sleep - two men to a trench with always one awake.
It was a clear night and you could see about 50 feet. Nothing happened but little did we know that.
Hot chow came up in the morning along with the mail. We tried to relax and heard we would be a reserve company. We did not go anyplace. The orders were given to drop our overcoats and packs and move ahead. Second platoon first, then my platoon, and the rest of the company following. The Germans were waiting and opened up on 2nd platoon with machine gun fire frontally and both flanks. The 2nd platoon was shooting back but had to withdraw after about an hour. Lt. Stapler had taken command of C Co. earlier in the day and gave the order that 3rd platoon was to cover them. Lt. Woods went forward. My squad had not been engaged but we were down on our bellies to avoid getting hit. We worked our way back after the second platoon withdrew through us. I noticed at least a dozen 3rd platoon men did not come out and it was nearly dark.
Reports of killed and wounded were circulating. I worried about my friend, Hitchcock, but he came in after dark bringing a wounded man with him. Lt. Stapler was killed (I never knew what he looked like). There must have been 20 C Co., men killed plus wounded. Lt. Wood lost his life and I knew he was the best officer we would ever have.
We were well dug in but it was decided we would pull back a few hundred yards and defend there. B Co. came up on the line and I was wondering why we did not stay where we were. Sure enough, word was passed that we would return to our original line. The executive officer told Sgt. McClure that he would command 3rd platoon. I heard McClure tell Sgt. Mulliken he was now platoon sergeant. Mulliken said he wished he was the lowest private. The 2nd and 3rd platoons had fought well - the enemy was badly shot up too. AR BAR men in the 2nd platoon were killed.
A young man named Abraham Matza was given a Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for bravery. He stayed behind and covered his platoon with a BAR. Although wounded himself, he made it possible to get out our own wounded.
The battalion was now on the line. B Co. had been in reserve so they had to dig in on our left. It was nearly midnight but no hot food or water. I was sent over to -bring our platoon a jeep can of water. The can was there ... empty. About that time I heard our outposts challenging an enemy formation and then gunfire. I headed back to my trench and forgot about a drink of water. Klingensmith and I prepared for the worst. All 30 caliber ammo was loaded into 20 round magazines and grenades and trench knives placed where we could get them. I hoped the BAR would not jam. It was midnight and it would have been hard to free it up.
Not all our trenches were occupied. The afternoon battle had weakened us. Sgts. Meyers and Scharik were five yards to our left. Pvt. Siefert and Sgt. McCall were 20 yards to my right so I worried about the gap. The Germans were lining up to overrun us. They fired flares that took forever to go out. Instead of a charge they moved in short rushes. Hard to see them but when we heard them we opened up. I fired in short bursts and they shot back. The Germans had flashless gunpowder and that was their advantage. We could see them shoot but our guns would produce an illuminating light.
The battle went on until dawn. The men on my left were shooting and so was McCall. Klingensmith was busy reloading magazines. I was glad he did it right - one mistake could be the end. I dropped one magazine and bent down to get it. The firing had died down so I did not raise up.
A Kraut grenade exploded on the edge of our trench. I knew the thrower was close by and would probably try again. Sure enough, I saw a grenade fuse sputtering but that one just missed McCall. I sprayed the area and no more trouble. Klingensmith said we were running out of ammo so I had to yell for more. The Germans must have run short too because the firing died down.
Pvt. Siefert brought us a belt of ammo. I found out later that Sgt. Purcell and two men had gone over to Co. A for ammo under heavy fire. One man claimed he got pinned down, the other man got over to A Co. and they helped him get the ammo to us. Sgt. Purcell was captured and shot back in the woods.
During the lull a sergeant and his machine gun crew ordered Klingensmith and I to vacate our trench so they could set a gun in there. We refused so he and his crew started digging their own hole. A bold German charged them and he was killed. The sergeant was a good man but the battle must have unnerved him.
With dawn we saw that our gunfire had been effective. There were three cases where Germans had nearly got into our trenches before being killed. They did not get that close to me but there were bodies out in front of us.
Leonard Trottier, who was a sniper, and Corporal Matney were in a trench not far from us. After the fight I learned Matney had been killed and Trottier took bad head wounds there in the Ardennes Forest. Most of us thought he would die. But 25 years later he showed up at a 75th Division Reunion in California, badly crippled, walking with cane and leg braces, and mentally alert. Trottier told us that when the night battle started, he fired one clip, then decided he would save the rest until he could see something coming at him because he did not have as many rounds as Matney, who was shooting too. He said the first thing he knew, he heard a gun shoot and saw pale yellow blinking lights just a few feet from the trench he and Matney were in. Then he remembered the medics taking him out of the fire trench. The German had crawled up real close, fired a burst from a burp gun which killed Matney instantly while Trottier got it through he head. Somebody else knocked off the German, who was found laying there with his gun almost thrust into the foxhole. I did not even hear it happen though I was only 30 yards away. There were lots of Germans out there firing.
Co. B had not time to dig in when they were attacked. They gave no ground but the Germans found a gap and went into a town behind us. We could hear a battle going on there the next day. Another battalion drove the enemy out.
Hot food and mail came up the next day and there was no more attack. I had not written to Roseline but her letters came in. We had free cigarettes and I took up smoking - a habit I kept for the next twenty years. I was wondering if I would live out the day.
These Remembrances were taken from Robert Keller's Description of His WWII Experiences.
D Company 1st Bn 289th
75th lnfantry Division
Dec 24-28, 1944
Two days afterward, as we assembled for movement, graceful, bird-like P-38's skimmed through the sky. One seemed to waver and begun to fall in a slow winding spiral, silvery, fascinating, ever faster. "He will come out of it. He's got to ... God, straighten him out of it!" Behind the hill now ... "WHOOM!" And a billowy white cloud of smoke belied our prayers.
By this time bombers had begun to come over in stream after stream of perfect formations.
Perfect, but so helpless like a flock of geese banking into range of a hunter's shotgun. Black, vicious puffs of flak blossomed out nearer and nearer, feeling out the altitude. A bright crimson splash of flame in one formation, then another and another. The huge silvery birds began to drop with brightly flaming wreckage plunging earthward, Three parachutes snap out, only three. The empty spaces in the formation were closed up automatically and the mission went on. Later we learned that this was the biggest air armada ever to take to the skies, 5,500 planes in all, of which 400 failed to return.
On the long march, shortened by a helpful convoy of engineer trucks, each bearing bright orange and red identification panels, we moved toward the front lines. Planes overhead had been dropping anti-radar tin foil and even then some of the noncoms were heard to be seeking a detail to police it up.
In an open field in the middle of i small village, we spent the late part of the afternoon and evening writing. Several of us went to get water, and listened to the BBC news broadcast at a farmhouse. The patron showed us on his map exactly how close the enemy offensive was. Turning off the radio he was careful to turn the knob back to the German wave length, "In case the SS comes back and checks the house.."
For hours we tried to keep warm by burrowing into the recesses of our overcoats as we lay in small groups on the frozen ground and stared up at the stars. It was Christmas Eve 1944. Someone started to hum a few notes from a Christmas carol and broke off abruptly at "All is calm...peace on earth." He just stopped and grunted. We thought of how the folks of that American boy who had not been able to bail out of that P-38 would spend their Christmas, little knowing that their son was dead in Belgium. There in the bitter cold of a strange land we thought of the warmth of Yule holidays of previous years at home. With each tick of our wrist witches, Christmas and our commitment to combat was riding in closer and closer. Our Mutual prayer was that next year we might have that Christmas at home which we yearned for so deeply this weird Christmas Eve in Belgium.
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At 12:30am on December 25th, after a cold ride in open trucks and jeeps, we climbed a long, steep hill under a double load of ammunition, dumped everything in front of a sprawling barn and dropped exhaustedly inside to sleep. Guard duty was tense - one did not know what might be beyond the next fence. The "GI runs" only served to complicate matters.
It was a dawn attack for the battalion. The riflemen advanced 1000 yards to take the woods and high ground beyond Hazeille. The mortars gave immediate and unceasing support while the machine guns dug in around the town.
In the ensuing campaign, the mortars proved to be the battalion's best weapon. So accurate were they that S/Sgt Reel's call of "Count your men, Von Rundstedt!", became the motto of the platoon. Once the mortars fired fifteen yards in front of our own troops to effectively halt a counterattack. Also at one time the mortars dropped a shell into an enemy CP in a house and then for good measure dropped another shell in the nearby outhouse.
It was here in these first positions that Lt. Morton Shulman won everyone's admiration for his devotion to his position. Even during the long, dark, hours of the night, there was his rotund, bear-like figure, wide awake and erupting cheer and encouragement.
The men soon demonstrated that they needed no lessons in digging in. Now that the chips were down and the shells were whining in, everyone dug deep and fortified their holes with log roofs. "Foxhole digging" was no longer just a period for gold-bricking on a training schedule.
The machine guns had no days of boredom either. The second platoon held the defenses of the town, while the first platoon went down to the woods to take positions amid the riflemen. Pfc. Cochran proved that the machine gunners were alert by opening up on two "Krauts" advancing toward the gun position. The "Krauts", being pinned down, began to yell "Hey! It's only Spencer, Hoke and Ayers! We're just trying to lay a phone line!"
On Christmas day we had dined on "K" ration cheese, but the highly publicized Army Christmas dinner did not fail us and finally arrived at 9:00 on the evening of December 26th. Just in the middle of the serving a strange plane droned overhead, lower and lower through the moonlit fog. "Bed - Check Charlie", the regular German night observers was making his first social call. The chow line, cooks, drivers and all disappeared like leaves in the wind. But, it is hinted that gourmands like Styers, Bailey, and Lt. Gottshall profited by the unguarded chicken pot.
In later days, the accuracy of enemy shelling shook up everyone considerably. Recently vacated foxholes suffered direct hits; some of our men were among the daily wounded, and at promptly 2:00 every afternoon the Heines shelled the CP. 1st Sgt. McVay began to show evidence of this strain when he was caught trying to light a cigarette from the glow of his flashlight.
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A vivid memory are the woods of the Ardennes: a nightmare of soft, treacherous, white snow; of tall straight pines closely packed together in straight lines through the woods; of narrow, slippery paths winding away to various dugouts and foxholes; of "C" and "Ten in One" rations, or half warm chow laboriously brought all the way from town; of carrying parties moving the stacked, untouched rations, ammo, discarded belts, packs, bedrolls, and rifles - all left by the wounded; of making way for stretchers in the snow; of salvaging equipment of a gun knocked out the night before.
We had set up a perimeter of defense with the heavies spaced between the closely packed BAR's and riflemen. There were long nerve-wrecking night watches, as we tried to pierce the deceptive whiteness ahead, tensing as the wind rattled the tin cans hung on the barbed wire a few feet ahead.
Besides the terrors of the darkness and the extreme cold, we were fighting the SS and Volksgrenadier troops, some of Germany's best, desperately thrown into the Bulge in the mighty effort to retake Liege. Against two squads of these stood Pvt. Abe Matza of "C" Company who gave a display of bravery typical of the riflemen about us.
As the Boch machine gun squads advanced, the "C" Company BAR man opened fire and was in turn fired upon from another direction. Refusing to retreat with his squad, although wounded, he continued to fire his Browning Automatic Rifle until he received a bullet through the forehead. For his steadfastness to duty, Pvt. Abe Matza was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Days later his victims were still there, in the grotesque positions in which they had fallen. One riddled body, frozen stiff by the cold, remained in a kneeling position, head bowed as if in prayer.
Finally we overran the German positions and the deserted mine shaft that was their CP.
Into the Ardennes - 1st Battalion 289th Infantry
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Copyright 2001, J. R. Puckett
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