Daniel R. Shine
Company L, 39th Infantry Battalion, 9th Infantry Division

Frozen hell

"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)

Near Salmchateau, Belgium
1500 hours January 14, 1945

A young soldier cautiously approached Item Company's line of snowy foxholes as the afternoon sky began to darken. To the men nearby he looked like a rookie; he was clearly timid about entering this place of death and destruction. His uniform was still almost spotless. No doubt he'd been eating hot "C" rations and sleeping under cover right up until now.

They observed him casually. A battle veteran could usually tell whether a new man would crack under fire, just by looking at him, and you didn't want a guy to crack up while he was sharing your foxhole. This particular guy had a baby face, and probably hadn't even started to shave yet. He couldn't be more than eighteen. The occasional German mortar shell that fell nearby made him jump.

From his foxhole, Sergeant Gilbert spoke to the new private and pointed to an open spot in the line of foxholes. The replacement turned and made his way to the appointed spot. He leaned his M-1 up against a tree, and took out his entrenching tool. In moments, he was chipping at the frozen surface of the Belgian soil.

Over the next twenty minutes, the sounds of chopping and digging filled the air. Twice as he dug, the replacement slipped and almost fell into his unfinished foxhole. The men watched silently as he glanced around and tried to regain his dignity.

Finally, his hole complete, the replacement grabbed his rifle, climbed in, and took his position on the line. No doubt he was trying to figure out what would happen next.

He probably never heard the fluttering sound of the approaching mortar shell, but the men around him did, and they ducked deeper into their foxholes. An abrupt explosion shook the ground and threw bits of something through the air; there were the sudden smells of burned cordite and singed flesh.

The soldiers looked in horror at the foxhole of the new replacement. Smoke billowed out of it, and pieces of bloody flesh were everywhere. Tattered bits of his uniform and a length of intestine hung from broken tree branches above the burned foxhole, and next to the tree lay a boot with part of a leg still in it.

That was it, thought Private Daniel R. "Bob" Shine as he sat in his foxhole watching the day turn into night. One minute you're alive and all in one piece; the next minute you're gone and nobody has even had the time to find out who you were. And God knows where your dog tags were blown to... Although he and the other men had seen this kind of thing happen before, nobody ever really got used to it. Night fell, and it began to snow, masking the frozen pieces of what had once been a man.

In the early morning hours Item Company assembled for their attack of Salmchateau. Today they would be facing elements of the 326th Volksgrenadiers and remnants of the 62nd Volksgrenadiers.

Shine was the bodyguard to Lieutenant Rocco Durante. He and the lieutenant led their platoon through the snowy predawn darkness and the day's first light. As it became fully light, they left the forest and followed a dirt road into the village. This was usually the moment when things began to happen, and as the second man in the advancing column, Shine was frightened. As was often said, "Any man who wasn't frightened at these moments would have to be insane".

They had almost reached a bridge leading into town, when there was a sharp "crack" to their right front, and the lieutenant went down. Shine, following him about three paces back, rolled Durante over and saw a bullet hole cutting the lieutenant's belt loop just to the right of the belt buckle. As he took the lieutenant's pants down, he saw the point of the bullet just breaking the skin near the lieutenant's groin. Evidently the bullet had ricocheted off of a bone.

To remain stationary in a spot such as this was to invite disaster. Shine and the others moved forward, and left the lieutenant for the medical corpsmen who would be following.

To the foot soldier of WWII, nothing was more reassuring than the feel of an M-1 rifle in his hands. It promised power and accuracy at the squeeze of a trigger. It also promised to be a heavy burden on a long march. The M-1 rifle weighed almost ten pounds--about twice the weight of an M-1 carbine. In the infantry, enlisted men carried the rifles and officers carried the carbines.

Behind Shine, Private Krizan eyed the M-1 carbine dropped by the lieutenant. Like most riflemen, his arms ached from carrying the heavy rifle; here was something more attractive. He picked up the carbine and resumed his advance. That was the last mistake he ever made.

There was another sharp "crack" from the high ground on their right, and Krizan went down and rolled over on his back. Shine looked back at Krizan; he lay there with a neat little bullet hole right between his glazed eyes. Beneath his head, a crimson stain began to spread in the white snow. The sniper, seeing a carbine in Krizan's grip had mistaken him for an officer, and killed him.

About this time Shine figured his number was coming up. He ran and caught up with the squad as they prepared to clear the first house on their side of the street. Private "Snuffy" Toth went into the front door, fragmentation grenade in hand with pin pulled, threw the grenade and turned to get out. As he turned, he slipped on the ceramic tile floor and fell. Before he could get up the grenade exploded. Snuffy staggered out the door and went down again. He was badly shaken up, and the squad left him behind for the medics as they advanced through the town from house to house, clearing them as they went. Most of the Germans had fled. There was no further sniper fire, but still some incoming artillery and a few pockets of resistance from the houses.

Late in the evening, they found three or four Germans holed up in a cellar at the far edge of town. One of them made a menacing move and the three Americans facing them fired at once. The result was devastating.

Item Company spearheaded the attack on Salmchateau and won the town, thus meeting their objective. Their ranks had been thinned that day by deaths, wounds and frostbite cases. Snuffy Toth was finished as a front line soldier; the explosion of his grenade had left him shell-shocked. He was eventually evacuated. Lieutenant Durante was also evacuated, and they didn't see him again.

Shine's squad spent the night billeted in the stucco and stone houses of Salmchateau, while outside, the dead of both armies froze into grotesque positions. And as the dead and the living slept, once again it began to snow...

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