Carl Heintze's account of the battle of the Huertgen Forest
Company L, 39th Infantry Battalion, 9th Infantry Division
"Freedom: We cherish and abuse it. As Americans, we all enjoy our freedom, but relatively few
of us have been called upon to defend it with our bodies and our lives. Seldom do we stop to
think about the contributions and sacrifices of those Americans who have fought in past wars.
This, then, is intended to remind us of those unwarlike warriors who have fought under our nation's flag in the name of freedom. Further, it asks us to recall the contributions of those gentle infantrymen among them. Men like my dad." (-Dan Shine)
February 1, 1945
As the screaming artillery shells fell and exploded around them, a dozen GIs sprinted for the safety of the distant woods and their own lines. The deep snow sucked at their feet and caused them to slip as the bursting shells showered them with clods of frozen dirt. The German artillery seemed sure to annihilate them at any moment.
Private Daniel R. "Bob" Shine felt as though his lungs would burst. As radioman for the reconnaisance squad, he carried all of his normal fighting equipment, plus their SCR-300 shortwave radio, which was housed in a large backpack. In all, he was running with more than seventy pounds of equipment strapped to his body. Shine felt as if he couldn't run another step, but run he did. Run or be blown to bits in this open field outside the village of Appenwihr.
BOOM! One shell fell much closer than the rest, landing less than forty feet away. A running GI stumbled and fell. When he got back onto his feet, it was clear that the force of the explosion had rattled his head. The woods were getting closer now, but so were the explosions. Would they make it in time?
The Allied Forces had fought and won the Battle of the Bulge. It had taken them over a month to retake the ground they had lost to the Germans in those few days before Christmas, 1944. For the front line infantrymen, it had been a month of stark terror. Every soldier had vivid memories of comrades who had been killed in the effort. Memories of those who had died stoically, and those who had given up their lives in fits of terror while calling for their mothers and their God to save them. No matter what their rank or how they had died, death had brought them together as equals now, lying silent and numb beneath the fields of Belgium.
At the close of the Bulge, the survivors from the 75th Division had been loaded onto railroad boxcars. These were called "40 and 8s"--French boxcars left over from WWI. On the sides of the cars were signs saying in French, "40 men, 8 horses." The 40 and 8s were unventilated and unheated and they had no sanitary accomodations. But the GIs didn't care, for it was rumored that they were to be taken from the battle line and sent to the rear area for a much needed rest. This was not to be.
The steam locomotives had pulled the long troop trains south for two miserable days, and the infantrymen had then disembarked in eastern France, where the foothills of the Alps come together with the Vosges Mountains. There, the Germans had chosen to stand and fight in a corner of France known as the Colmar Pocket.
In the closing months of the war, Hitler had bolstered his shrinking armies by the use of 15 year old boys and 45 year old men as his Volkssturm troopers. They were generally not as effective as seasoned combat soldiers, and often surrendered or got themselves killed needlessly. The Germans in the Colmar Pocket however were regular army, members of the 305th Volksgrenadiers and the Wermacht's 198th Division. They were hardened veterans and well equipped. And they were still able to make the Americans pay dearly for every town they captured.
As the Americans had disembarked from the trains the realization hit them that they were merely trading one snow-covered battlefield for another. The previously hopeful mood of the troops quickly became somber and fearful.
Nonetheless, they'd immediately taken the towns of Holzwihr and Bishwihr, and in a coordinated attack, they'd captured the heavily defended town of Andolsheim. Still, there were more towns to be taken, and still the American infantry fought with wet and frozen feet. And through the long nights, they continued to sleep in foxholes hacked from the snowy ground.
Near-starvation was as life threatening as enemy fire at times. Recently, the GIs had been forced to steal their food in order to eat. It was a real challenge in the face of all this adversity to keep fighting an honorable fight and not become the animal that one's circumstances might dictate.
Before dawn the next morning, the Americans received the order to attack Appenwihr. Thankfully, their advance was preceeded by an artillery bombardment. Then the tanks moved in ahead of the foot soldiers, who carefully walked in the tracks of the tanks to avoid any waiting land mines.
Shine's squad was one of those chosen to lead the attack, and Shine, who was the lieutenant's bodyguard, was close to the very front of the action as the infantrymen headed out across the open field.
\"Infantry,\" he thought to himself. Literally, \"the children.\" That was exactly what Shine felt they resembled as they moved forward. Small, seemingly defenseless, yet hurling themselves relentlessly against a powerful, dug-in enemy. He could picture their advance as seen from a distance, tiny soldiers dwarfed by the forests and the surrounding mountains. Enemy fire was intensifying; they were getting close now . . .
CLANG! Shine's head was suddenly wrenched to one side, and he fell, not knowing whether he was alive, dead or dying. An intense ringing had begun in his ears, and suddenly his head and neck ached. Reaching up, he ran his fingers over his steel helmet, searching for the cause of his pain. On the left side, just above his ear, was the smooth entrance hole made by a bullet. Just above his other ear was the jagged exit hole of the same bullet. Through the pain and the dazedness of just having rerouted an enemy slug, Shine realized that he had once again been incredibly lucky. The bullet had traveled between his helmet and liner and exited the helmet without ever touching him.
Before the GI's attack of Appenwihr, the artillery supporting the German troops had been destroyed by American howitzers, directed in their efforts by brave artillery spotters flying single seater Piper Cubs. Without artillery support, the Germans were forced to retreat. But it was a slow, grudging, organized retreat, and in no way a rout. The Americans would continue to pay a high price for their real estate aquisitions.
At dusk Shine's platoon had dug a line of foxholes just outside of Appenwihr. The Germans had been pushed back to the next village, Hettenschlag.
Midnight. Another night, another town, another frozen foxhole. In this, the heart of the night, a man could be so terribly alone. Alone with the ghosts of those he had killed as they sought to kill him. Alone with memories of his home, his family, and above all, his girl. He smiled as he thought of Muriel in her white nurse's uniform, and contrasted it with his own uniform, which stank of sweat and mud and worse. He smiled again as he thought of his last shower, which was weeks ago. Hot water. And soap. How good it had felt! Their uniforms had been far beyond cleaning, so they were issued new wool trousers and tunics. Now those clothes too bore the stains of food and mud and gun oil.
Shine couldn't sleep. His stomach churned with the diarrhea that was plaguing most of the men. He thought of the taking of Andolsheim a few days before. During the fighting, his friend Joe Feeney had run up to him yelling, "Your coat's on fire!" There directly above his heart, a large piece of shrapnel had come to rest. Still hot from the explosion that had freed it, the steel shard had caused a smoldering in his overcoat before Shine had even noticed it. How was it that he had been spared from death or terrible injury so many times and in so many ways?
In the darkness, he removed his boots and wet socks and began to rub his feet as the GIs were instructed to do to prevent frostbite. Like every front line soldier, dead or alive, Shine had his second pair of socks hanging around his neck to dry. He removed them from his neck and put them and his wet boots back on. The wet socks were then hung around his neck, and the process continued. The army's leaky leather boots ensured perpetually wet feet for everyone, and Shine's feet had been bright red for weeks. Everyone knew that waterproof, insulated shoepacks were plentiful in the rear areas. Someday, maybe they'd be delivered to the guys who needed them the most. The numbers of frostbite evacuations and amputations had become epidemic.
In the frozen darkness, his mind whirled. He thought back to the night they'd spent billeted in a Belgian barn. They'd slept on a bed of hay that night; the barn was warmed by the bodies of the cows kept within it. One of the dogfaces had rolled over carelessly during the night and had set off one of his fragmentation grenades; luckily, he was the only one killed by it.
In his mind's eye, the face of Captain Applegate passed before him. Good old Captain Applegate, Commanding Officer of Company K. Shine, in Company I looked up to and respected Applegate, as did all the soldiers who knew him. Just that day, Shine had seen Applegate's jeep and driver parked in the rear area. "How's Applegate doing?" The driver gave him a funny look and jerked a thumb at the small G.I. blanket folded up in the back of the jeep. Wrapped in that blanket was all that remained of the captain, who was blasted into eternity that day by some distant German cannon.
And Shine thought of that backpack radio of his. That damned SCR-300 that attracted the attention of snipers everywhere. Snipers. He thought of the team of snipers that had briefly halted their attack of Appenwihr that day, until a bazooka team had blown up the church steeple in which they were sheltered. Shine had rejected repeated invitations to become a noncom, so they'd placed him alongside of the lieutenant, at the head of every charge, it seemed. And, he noticed, he was losing a lieutenant a month; this was not a healthy spot to be in.
A choice target, that's what he had become. At last Shine drifted off to sleep, haunted by the tormented image of himself in the crosshairs of a sniper's telescopic sights.
As the 75th completed the liberating of the villages surrounding Colmar, the French 1st Army took Colmar itself. Subsequently the combined American and French forces joined up in pushing the Germans back across the Rhine and on into Germany itself. From then on, the German would no longer fight on foreign soil; now he would fight for home and fatherland. No doubt this would strengthen his resolve, and he and his comrades could be expected to fight like demons from hell.
The men of the 75th prepared to board trucks taking them onward to some distant and unknown battlefield. All roads led to Berlin it seemed, and one of those roads would be theirs. The trucks would take them to a railroad siding where they would board troop trains headed north to the Netherlands.
February 9 was to be the 75th's last day in the Colmar Pocket. It was, by coincidence, the beginning of the warm spell that the GIs had been praying for. At last, their wet feet would be safe from the dreaded frostbite. As they prepared to depart for their next battle, several trucks suddenly roared up and were unloaded. The GIs stared, dumbfounded. At last they had what they no longer needed--the insulated, waterproof shoepacks!
For his months of service as the bodyguard to his platoon leader, and for his faithfulness to duty and for the extreme risks taken in combat, Shine earned a citation and later the Bronze Star for valor. In all, he served under four lieutenants. During that time three of them were killed or wounded.
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