Second world war stories are so interesting and fascinating. Just for the sheer reason that most of them portray the human spirit to overcome the obstacles and hardships. There are stories that may need a half century or more to age before being told, giving memories and bitterness a chance to fade and giving those involved, time to have passed into history. The story of the battle for the Huertgen Forest is one of those stories. Please read it, not necessarily to enjoy, but to honor to those whose sufferings were never properly recognized and whose patriotic deeds never celebrated. The Hürtgen Forest, south of ancient city of Aachen along the German- Belgium border, can best be described as a “weird and wild” place. The forest, even in daytime, has a somber appearance which was apt to cast gloom upon sensitive people. It was like a green cave, always dripping water, the firs interlocked their lower limbs so that everyone had to stoop, all the time. The forest floor, in almost perpetual darkness, was devoid of underbrush. Add to this gloom, a mixture of sleet, snow, rain, cold, fog and almost knee deep mud. This was to be setting for the most tragic battle of World War II.
After the war, German General Rolf van Gersdorff commented, “I have engaged in the long campaigns in Russia as well as other fronts and I believe the fighting in the Hürtgen was the heaviest I have ever witnessed.” Still, the Germans were delighted that the Americans wanted to throw their weight into an attack against dug-in troops in a forest where the American preponderance of artillery and command of the air would be of little value. Also, delighting the Germans was that the Hürtgen Forest was of little military value and, if lost to the Americans, could be flooded since the Germans held flood control dams above the level of the forest. It was a battle that the Germans really couldn’t loose.
When American troops who had fought in Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Holland, finally took the forest, they said they had never seen anything that could compare to this for the amount of shattered military equipment scattered throughout and the countless American bodies. They saw the 112th Regiment’s dead, still by their vehicles in the snow, telephones and maps intact in the bunker Command Post, on top of which a Tiger tank had squatted, shooting the Yanks as they emerged. They referred to this as death valley. What the British staff officer said after inspecting the Somme battlefield in France during the First World War could have very well applied here. He cried out, “My God: Did we really send men to fight in this?”
America was throwing her finest young men at the Germans. These youths had come from all sections of the country and from every major ethnic group except the African – American and the Japanese – American. Due to an Army policy in force at the time, these two groups did not participate in this battle. While thousands of German soldiers were executed for desertion, only one American soldier was executed for the same offense, remarkably demonstrating the patriotism and devotion to duty of this group.
The training these young men had gone through at State-side posts such as Fort Benning was rigorous physically but severely short on the tactical and leadership challenges that the junior officers would have to meet. British General Horrocks (one of the few generals, if not the only general to do so) made a surprise front line visit to the 84th division and described these young men as “an impressive product of American training methods which turned out division after division complete, fully equipped. The divisions were composed of splendid, very brave, tough young men.” But he thought it was too much to ask of green divisions to penetrate strong defense lines, and then stand up to counter attacks from first-class German divisions.
And he was disturbed by the failure of American division and corps commanders and their staffs to ever visit the front lines. He was greatly concerned to find that the men were not even getting hot meals brought up from the rear, in contrast to the forward divisions in the British line. He reported that not even battalion commanders were going to the front. Senior officers and staff didn’t know what they were ordering their rifle companies to do. They did their work from maps and over radios and telephones. And unlike the company and platoon leaders, who had to be replaced every few weeks at best, or every few days at worst, the staff officers took few casualties, so the same men stayed at the same job, doing it badly.
When Capt. John O’Grady of Ninth Army’s Historical Section visited the Forest in late November, he sent back a memorandum to Ninth Army: “On 23rd November the battalion was attacking a superior German force entrenched on an excellent position. The only thing that higher headquarters contributed to the debacle was pressure, and God only knows where the pressure started, perhaps Corps or perhaps Army. It had the effect of ordering men to die needlessly. Tactics and maneuver on battalion or regiment scale were conspicuous by their absence. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the plan might be wrong; but rather the indictment was placed on the small unit commanders and the men who were doing the fighting. The companies went into battle against the formidable Siegfried Line with hand grenades and rifle bullets against pillboxes. The 84th Division walked into the most touted defensive line in modern warfare without so much as the benefit of a briefing by combat officers.”
The battle began on September 19, 1944 when the 3rd Armored Division and the 9th Infantry Division moved into the forest. Six additional infantry divisions would be called upon only to emerge mauled, reduced to few in numbers and low in spirits. Two would come close to traversing the forest: The First Infantry Division along the northern edge, and the 78th Infantry, which eventually seized the dams as the Roer campaign closed. Statistics reveal that for every yard gained, the Forest claimed more lives than any other objective the Americans took in Europe.
The lieutenants and captains quickly learned that control of formations larger than platoons was nearly impossible. Troops more than a few feet apart couldn’t see each other. There were no clearings, only narrow firebreaks and trails. Maps were almost useless. When the Germans, secure in their bunkers, saw the GI’s coming forward, they called down pre sighted artillery fire, using shells with fuses designed to explode on contact with the treetops. When men drove to the ground for cover, as they had been trained to do, they exposed themselves to a rain of hot metal and fragmented wood. They learned that the only way to survive a shelling in the Hürtgen was to hug a tree. This way they exposed only their steel helmets to steel and fragments coming straight down from the top of the trees.
With air support and artillery almost useless, the GI’s were committed to a fight of mud and mines, carried out by infantry skirmish lines plunging ever deeper into the forest, with machine guns and light mortars their only support. For the GI’s, it was a calamity. In the September action, the 9th Infantry Division and 3rd Armored Division lost up to 80 percent of their front-line troops, and gained almost nothing. “Call it off” is what the GI’s wanted to tell the generals, but the generals shook their heads and said, “Attack.”
On November 2, the 28th Infantry Division took up the fight. The 28th was the Pennsylvania National Guard and was called the “Keystone Division” referring to their red keystone shoulder patch. So many of the Pennsylvania National Guard were to fall here that the Germans decided their name should be changed from the “Keystone Division” to the “Bloody Bucket Division,” since the keystone looked somewhat like a bucket. When the 28th tried to move forward, it was like walking into hell. From their bunkers, the Germans sent forth a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire and mortars. The GI’s were caught in thick minefields. Their attack stalled. For two weeks, the 28th kept attacking, as ordered. On November 5, division sent down orders to move tanks down a road called the Kall trail. But, as usual, no staff officer had gone forward to assess the situation in person, and in fact the “trail” was solid mud blocked by felled trees and disabled tanks. The attack led only to more heavy loss of life.
The 28th’s lieutenants kept leading. By November 13, all the officers in the rifle companies had been killed or wounded. As the 28th Infantry withdrew, Combat Reporter Ivan H. Peterman was witness and wrote the following report: “When survivors retired from the Hürtgen Forest today, they crouched in their vehicles, staring straight ahead. If there were heroics to recount, someone else had to talk. The men of this unit would not. Too many of their companions remained behind, too many were dead or missing. Too many were grievously wounded and shattered in nerves and spirit. If they never saw the Hürtgen Forest again it would suit them. If they never traveled in fragrant ravines, pitched another tent or hewed out a hut to ward off fragments and falling treetops, if they never saw a timbered slit trench, or smelled the tangy odor of burning cones and felt the springy needles underfoot, they wouldn’t care. They had enough. They hated the Forest and all it defended. They hated its roads and ridges. They hated its cold and dampness. They hated its lurking death and the constant feeling of unknown danger. Yes, they hated the Hürtgen Forest where the stately Douglas firs with their epaulets of snow, ranged like frosted grenadiers, close ordered on hillsides — immutable, impenetrable, defiant….”
Next, was the 4th Infantry Division’s turn and this seasoned outfit took possibly the worst losses of all. Between November 7 and December 3, the division lost over 7000 men, or about ten per company per day. “Replacements flowed in to compensate for the losses but the Hürtgen’s voracious appetite for casualties was greater than the army’s ability to provide new troops.” Lieutenant Wilson recorded his company’s losses at 167 percent for enlisted men. “We had started with a full company of about 162 men and had lost about 287.” Sgt. Mack Morris was there with the 4th and reported: “Hürtgen had its fire-breaks, only wide enough to allow two jeeps to pass, and they were mined and interdicted by machine-gun fire. There was a mine every eight paces for three miles. Hürtgen’s roads were blocked. The Germans cut roadblocks from trees. They cut them down so they interlocked as they fell. Then they mined and booby trapped them. Finally they registered their artillery on them, and the mortars, and at the sound of men clearing them, they opened fire.”
After the 4th Division was expended, the First Army put its 8th Infantry Division into the attack. On November 27, it closed in on the town of Hürtgen, the original objective of the offensive when it began in mid-September. Orders were given to Lt. Paul Boesch, Company G, 121st Infantry, to take the town. At dawn on November 28, Boesch put one of his lieutenants on the left side of the road leading to the town while he took to the other side. When he gave the signal, Company G charged. “It was sheer pandemonium,” he recalled. Once out of that damned forest, the men went mad with battle lust.
The 8th Division did not get far beyond the town before it was used up. A staff officer from regiment visited the front and reported, “The men of this battalion are physically exhausted. The spirit and will to fight are there; the ability to continue is gone. These men have been fighting without sleep for four days and last night had to lie unprotected from the weather in an open field. They are shivering with cold, and their hands are so numb that they have to help one another on with their equipment. I firmly believe that every man up here should be evacuated through medical channels.” Many had trench foot, all had colds or worse, plus diarrhea.
It was time to send in another division. The 2nd Ranger Battalion was brought in. It had fought on Omaha Beach on D-Day and fought costly battles in Normandy and although it had taken 100 percent casualties, the core of the force that Lt. Col. James E. Rudder had led ashore on June 6 was still there. The battalion was assigned to the 28th Division in the Hürtgen and moved into the line. It immediately took casualties from mines and artillery, then the men sat in foxholes and took a pounding.
On December 6, orders were given to attack Hill 400 (named after its height in meters). The First Army had thrown four divisions – Ranger companies A, B, C, D, E and F moved to the base of the hill under cover of darkness ready with fixed bayonets to charge at first light. Sgt. Bill Petty, who had distinguished himself on D-Day, recalled that “tension was building up to the explosion point.” At first light, he shouted, “Let’s go get the bastards!,” and firing from the hip, he led the Rangers as they charged. Sgt. Bud Potratz remembered hollering “Hi ho, Silver!” It was worse than D-Day but the Rangers had caught the Germans by surprise and although the Germans were good that day, they were not good enough!
When Sgt. Petty reached the top of the hill, he “found a situation of turmoil.” With another Ranger (named Anderson), he approached the main bunker and heard Germans inside. They pushed open the door and tossed in two grenades. Just as they were ready to rush in and spray the room with their BAR, a shell exploded a few feet away — the Germans were firing back on their own positions. The explosion blew Anderson into Petty’s arms. Anderson was dead, killed instantly by a big piece of shrapnel in his heart. Sgt. Petty had the unusual and very sad experience of having another Ranger named Anderson (brother of the Anderson who had just died in his arms) gets hit by German fire and had him die in his arms within the hour. The Germans were not going to give up the hill no matter what the cost. By 9:30, the first of five counterattacks that day began. They used machine guns, burp guns, rifles, and three potato masher grenades. Hand-to-hand fights developed on top of the hill often with bayonets.
German Field Marshal Model offered Iron Crosses and two weeks’ leave to any of his men who could retake the hill. The Germans threw in everything they had. On the American side, Ranger Lt. Lomell remembered, “we were outnumbered ten to one. We had no protection, continuous tons of shrapnel falling upon us, hundreds of rounds coming in.” At one point, Lt. Lomell saw his platoon sergeant, Ed Secor, “out of ammo and unarmed, seize two machine pistols from wounded Germans and in desperation charged a large German patrol, firing and screaming at them. His few remaining men rallied to the cause and together they drove the Germans back down the hill.” Lomell was a legend among the Rangers for what he did on D-Day, but in 1995 he commented, “June 6, 1944 was not my longest day. December 7th, 1944 was my longest and most miserable day on earth during my past 75 years.”
As Ranger numbers dwindled and ammunition began to run out, American artillery saved the day. Just after daylight, the Germans shelled the hill with such intensity that one explosion would cover the sound of the next approaching shell. But when the Germans attacked the hill with infantry, a combination of artillery and small arms fire of the rangers drove them back. Late on December 8, an infantry regiment and tank destroyer battalion relieved the surviving Rangers. The Rangers had suffered 90 percent casualties and once again would have to be replenished with very few of the originals alive to be part of the new Ranger Battalion.
A week and two days later, the Germans retook the hill and not until February 1945 would the Americans get it back. When the Americans took Hill 400 again, the campaign would come to a close but since the Americans did not have the dams upstream, the Forest for which they had paid such a high price would be worthless. The battle had lasted ninety days and involved nine American Divisions and their supporting units. More than 24,000 Americans lost their lives and there were another 9,000 casualties from trench foot, disease and combat exhaustion. So ended the battle for the Hürtgen Forest.
How and why so many wonderful young people were sacrificed and for what purpose poses an interesting question. It has been said that the battle for the Hürtgen Forest was based on a plan that was grossly, even criminally stupid. The blame for this catastrophe was a failure of the generals at the highest levels. The officers from the level of captain down to freshly commissioned lieutenants and enlisted men from sergeants down to the newest recruits performed and died with such courage that all Americans should be forever proud of them.