Ask any veteran of the campaign in northwest Europe to identify his toughest single engagement, and you might expect him to say D-Day or some other day when his unit underwent a significant emotional experience. October 5 was such a day for Easy Company, 2d Battalion, 506th PIR. Ask the veteran to identify his toughest campaign and the choices are less diverse. For a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, the answer is simple: the Battle of the Bulge. The thirty days between our arrival at Bastogne and the conclusion of the regiment’s attack on Noville on January 17 marked the most intense period of combat for the 506th PIR in World War II. Bastogne was undoubtedly the toughest campaign in which the regiment participated during the entire war. After Bastogne, the war was all downhill. Rushed into the line northeast of Bastogne, the 506th conducted large-scale defensive and offensive operations daily for an entire month. Defensive operations characterized the battalion’s subsequent activities until January 1, 1945, when Sink’s paratroopers transitioned to a series of attacks, culminating in 2d Battalion’s offensive to seize the town of Noville, approximately ten miles northeast of Bastogne.
Immediately upon our arrival at Bastogne on December 19, 2d Battalion deployed into the line south of Foy as a part of the ring defense of Bastogne. Foy was a small village six miles northeast of Bastogne. Foy occupied the position in a valley to the south of which a hill sloped up to a very strong position some 300 to 400 yards in the rear. Initially Colonel Sink intended to hold Foy, but with the enemy in possession of high ground on three sides, such a position was untenable. The high ground to the south, however, offered a position from which we could dominate the approaches to Foy. Noville was situated four miles beyond Foy. Like Foy, Noville was the scene of intense enemy activity. The 101st Airborne Division’s other battalions were deployed to positions surrounding Bastogne. Initially 2d Battalion, 506th PIR, constituted the regimental reserve as 1st and 3d Battalions moved into line at Noville and Foy, respectively. The next day we replaced 3d Battalion on the front line. Our left was anchored to 3d Battalion beyond the Bastogne-Noville Road by interlocking fields of fire. Our right flank extended to the railroad station at Halt and was supposedly connected to the 501st PIR. As 2d Battalion moved forward in route column, we encountered a scene unlike anything we had seen in the war. The U.S. Army was in full retreat. As American soldiers streamed to the rear, their faces told us this was sheer panic. Soldiers had abandoned their weapons, their packs, their equipment, and their overcoats. Their sunken eyes reflected the “thousand-yard stare” of men frozen in fear. As we passed them, they hollered, “Run, run! They’ve got everything: tanks, planes, everything!” I am proud to say that I do not remember any of our men saying a single word in reply. We afforded them no recognition. We just kept walking toward the firefight that lay somewhere up ahead.
As we approached a slight shoulder in the road in front of Foy, the battalion deployed to clear the woods on the right side of the road. Somebody else had gone through the woods before we arrived and had fought a terrific battle. This section of the woods was literally covered with dead and dying men, German and American alike. Our men cleaned out a few pockets of enemy resistance and we were then ordered to establish a line of defense. We set up our forward positions just inside the woods, overlooking the plain southeast of Foy. The soldiers immediately prepared their foxholes and attempted to stay warm and catch a few hours sleep. I established battalion headquarters approximately seventy-five yards from the forward outposts. It is difficult to comprehend the confusion that characterized our first night at Bastogne. No one seemed to know where our boundaries lay, nor did anyone understand our precise mission. Since Colonel Strayer remained at regimental headquarters, I ordered Captain Nixon to locate Colonel Sink’s command post and to coordinate with Major Hester, the regimental operations officer, to ensure we had our orders correct. Over the next few weeks, Nixon made many trips back to regiment to keep us informed and to ensure we understood our orders and our boundaries with adjacent units. This system worked well and kept 2d Battalion out of a lot of trouble. Nix’s greatest contribution to the successful defense of Bastogne was serving as a liaison between battalion and regimental headquarters. No man contributed more to keeping the regiment together during the ensuing battle. Nixon performed exceeding well in interpreting regimental orders and coordinating operational support while I positioned myself close to the forward edge of the battle area.
To give you an idea how dedicated Nixon was to the 506th PIR, at Bastogne he had his name drawn from a hat in a lottery that would have given him a thirty-day leave to the United States. Nix refused the offer, saying he wanted to stay with the outfit on the line. How do you explain that kind of dedication? Such devotion is never discussed by the men, but it is never forgotten. At the time, the 506th PIR was very short of men and officers, especially good, proven officers.
An incident that occurred the following morning demonstrates the mass confusion that existed during those initial days at Bastogne. A heavy mist or fog from the night before hung over the woods and fields at dawn on the second day. I was standing in a field at the edge of the woods to the rear of the battalion command post. All was quiet and peaceful when suddenly to my left out of the woods walked a German soldier in his long winter overcoat. He didn’t carry a rifle or a pack, and he continued walking slowly toward the middle of the field. A couple of troopers next to me instinctively brought their rifles to their shoulders, but I signaled them to hold their fire. We watched in dismay as the soldier stopped, removed his overcoat, pulled down his pants, and relieved himself. After he finished, I hollered to him in my best German, Kommen sie hier! The soldier did as he was told and was immediately captured. All the poor fellow had in his pockets were a few pictures, trinkets, and the butt end of a loaf of stale black bread. To the best of my knowledge, he was the last German soldier to pass through our lines at Bastogne. Think of that: Here was a German soldier, who in the light of early dawn, got turned around in the woods, walked through our lines, past the company CP, and ended up behind the battalion command post. Nobody else penetrated our lines, but this kid just walked through it. That sure was some line of defense we had that first night! Now, think of the problem this lone soldier created for the poor German’s first sergeant. How did he carry this guy on his morning report?
For the next several days, we sent out reconnaissance and combat patrols. The Germans did the same. Life on the front line was horrific. The winter of 1944–1945 was the coldest in thirty years. Until the weather permitted aerial resupply, our men lacked proper equipment, winter clothing, and enough ammunition to hold the line. American artillery ammunition was especially in short supply. Our division placed an artillery piece on our left flank beside the Bastogne-Noville Road. We were told that the gunners were down to three rounds, and that those last rounds would be used for anti-tank purposes in case of an armored attack. Nor did we receive much tactical air support due to the inclement weather that limited the visibility of the pilots. When we did receive air support, it was just as likely to fall within our lines as the enemy’s. Not until December 23 did the first clear weather arrive and only then could the air force provide any tactical support. Until then, we were basically on our own. Being surrounded was nothing new for the 506th. At times we were outnumbered and surrounded on D-Day, outside Carentan, and at Eindhoven. At least in Bastogne we had the advantage of conducting an active defense. During the next three weeks we inflicted far more casualties than we incurred during the short period when we transitioned to the offensive at the end of the campaign. Had the enemy been able to organize their attacks and had their ranks been composed of seasoned veterans, they might have been able to penetrate our lines. Fortunately the Germans shifted their efforts to another part of the line during our first weeks at Bastogne.
Additional problems complicated our defense. Maintaining contact with the 501st PIR on our right flank remained a running problem. Sometimes we found their outposts; other times we failed to locate their forward positions. It appeared to me that our right flank was “in the air” and subject to envelopment if the enemy decided to attack our exposed flank. It was tough relying on another unit, even if they were paratroopers, to protect the right of our defensive line.
Sickness and trench foot remained recurring problems that reduced our rank and file. Fully one-third of our nonbattle casualties resulted from trench foot and frostbite. Some troopers attempted to remedy the situation by wrapping their feet with burlap sacks, but that merely exacerbated the problem. Trench foot results from extreme moisture and cold, which adversely affects the body’s circulation. The use of burlap only increased the moisture surrounding the foot, causing the skin to become so tender that it was impossible for soldiers to lace their boots. Tech/5 Eugene Roe, one of Easy Company’s medics, remembered the multiple cases of frostbite for the remainder of his life. The situation was so bad that Roe often took the morphine ampoules that every soldier carried and transferred the vials from dead soldiers to those who still manned the foxholes. Additionally, virtually every trooper suffered from some form of respiratory ailment, such as the soldier in 3d Battalion across the Bastogne-Noville Road from us. From a distance of about 150 yards, we could hear that poor fellow cough throughout the night. He had was giving away our position. After several nights, his coughing stopped. He had either died or his squad leader sent him back to Bastogne.
Getting hot chow to the men presented me with a wide array of challenges. It seems everybody can remember exactly what he ate for Christmas dinner while in the army. I cannot. The only memory I have about food was the night we had bean soup. In the field, officers are the last men to go through the chow line. Naturally, all the enlisted men think this is one of the best rules in the officer manual. Chowhounds can finish off a canteen cup of beans in quick order, and in the dark on Christmas night they easily slipped back into line for a second cup. I made a tactical error in that I allowed several soldiers to return to the chow line for seconds before going through the line myself. That night I was the last man to get to the can of beans—I received about a half-canteen cup of bean soup. My entire meal consisted of five white beans and a cup of cold broth. I guess that is why I remember the bean soup, and I suppose that’s why I’ve been trying to make up for that skimpy meal every Christmas since then.
Life on the front line defied description. The weather was bitterly cold and the ground was frozen solid. Digging foxholes was a job every trooper despised, but it was a necessary chore. Unfortunately, our motor movement to Bastogne had been so hurried that many soldiers lacked entrenching tools to dig textbook fighting positions. And the temperature was horribly cold. Cold is cold. You live in a foxhole. Your feet are wet and you’re wiggling your toes to keep them from freezing. It is difficult to concentrate on preparing textbook fighting positions. As I walked the line, I observed the lousy positions the men had constructed. These positions were accompanied by equally lousy fields of fire. But what could I do? It was impossible to push the line forward and we could not drop back to improve the situation. Improving the foxholes with overhead cover was another matter. We did not have very good axes to cut trees of sufficient size for protection. Second Lieutenant Ed Thomas, a replacement officer who joined us in Holland, devised his own solution. Ed possessed a devil-may-care smile and a sense of humor different than most officers. He also liked to put on a show to demonstrate his toughness. His solution to the lack of overhead cover was that each night he placed two or three German “stiffs” over the top of his foxhole.
As the weather further deteriorated, physical exhaustion combined with mental fatigue to produce an unusually high number of casualties now classified as combat exhaustion or battle fatigue. In Normandy I had witnessed lots of stress; some in Holland; but much more at Bastogne due to the cold, lack of sleep, and constant artillery bombardment. I’m not sure that anybody who lived through Bastogne hasn’t carried with him, in some hidden ways, the scars of fatigue. Perhaps, that is a factor that keeps 101st paratroopers bonded so unusually close. In virtually every case, the men had been on the front line for extended periods since D-Day. They were now completely exhausted. They had no hot food, little sleep, no rest, constant tension, and the pressure of combat. The worst time was night, when temperatures plummeted and fog covered the battlefield until mid to late morning. The uncertainly of what lay just yards ahead in the next tree line was sufficient to break ordinary men. Not surprisingly, the men became physically exhausted.
Physical exhaustion leads to mental exhaustion, which in turn, causes men to lose discipline. Loss of self-discipline then produces combat fatigue. Self-discipline keeps a soldier doing his job. Without it, he loses his pride and he loses the importance of self-respect in the eyes of his fellow soldiers. It is pride that keeps a soldier going and keeps him in the fight. This is what I feared I would lose—the loss of will to measure up to my men. After seeing others break down, you wondered who was next and you started taking a hard look at yourself. I often wondered why I didn’t break under the strain of combat. One factor undoubtedly lay in the fact that my battalion headquarters lay seventy-five yards behind the forward foxholes. No longer was I under enemy observation. Consequently, I was able to concentrate on my duties without fear of enemy small-arms fire. Another factor was undoubtedly my physical conditioning. I don’t think there was a man in that battalion who was in better physical shape than I was. My responsibility to ensure the safety of the soldiers also hardened me to cope with the daily stress of combat.
One last observation on combat fatigue: When you see a man break, he usually slams his helmet down and messes up his hair. I don’t know if it’s conscious or unconscious, but a soldier goes to his head and massages his head, shakes it, and then he’s gone. You can talk to him all you want, but he cannot hear you. When he reaches that point, the best thing for everybody is just to let him take a walk. Combat exhaustion occurs instantaneously. You don’t plan to become a combat fatigue casualty.
How do you prevent combat fatigue? You talk to your troops and make some excuse to pull a soldier off the front line. Of course, pulling a soldier off the front line increases the stress of those who remain, but it is a necessary tradeoff. I often asked a soldier whom I saw on the verge of a breakdown, “How about coming back with me to the CP to help out for a couple of days?” In this manner, you invent a reason for pulling a guy from the line without damaging his psyche. T/5 Joseph D. Liebgott was a case in point. Liebgott was a very good combat soldier who had proven himself in Normandy and Holland. At Bastogne, the stress began to catch up to “The Barber,” so I brought him back to my command post to be my runner for a few days, to let him rest up, to get away from the tension of being on the front. After a few days, he wanted to return to the line and join his buddies. Apparently he needed communication with his comrades more than he needed my company. The tension was still too much for him, so we sent him to division headquarters where he was assigned to the S-2 (intelligence) section to make use of his ability to speak German. This, in my judgment, was a huge mistake. Liebgott was Jewish and had an understandable hatred of Germans. He had also earned a reputation for demonstrating that hatred against prisoners, which created an entire new category of problems for Liebgott’s commanders.
Though Colonel Strayer technically remained in command of the battalion, I operated the tactical command post approximately seventy-five yards behind the front line. This location facilitated daily contact with the forward elements of the battalion. Strayer was an exceptionally competent officer, but he always needed someone at his side. He ensured battlefield success by surrounding himself with equally exceptionally talented officers. Strayer and I had little conversation during the battle. The circumstances surrounding his absence were consistent with his performance in Normandy. As commander, Strayer delegated decisions to his operations officers: first Hester, and then Nixon. When I became executive officer, nothing changed. Colonel Strayer’s express purpose in allowing me to direct combat operations was to give me the opportunity to operate a battalion in combat. Consequently, I automatically found myself making the tactical decisions. To find out what was required of 2d Battalion, Nixon traveled to regimental headquarters, then reported to me. He and I also took turns walking the line and checking on the men on a regular basis. Based on what we found, Nixon then ensured that we maintained the proper communications between regiment and the battalion. Since 2d Battalion was initially in defense, our task was not very complicated. Once we had established the main line of resistance, we merely maintained it.
My daily routine was to shave every morning and then to inspect the line. In retrospect, shaving in the bitter cold was pretty ridiculous, but the practice originated with one of my first meetings with Colonel Sink. At Toccoa, Sink had required us to shave every morning. He said, “You shave every morning for the men and if you want to shave every evening for the women, that is up to you. But I want you to set an example.” He was absolutely right. I remember one morning when we prepared our attack on Foy, I got up in the middle of the night to shave before getting something to eat. In the process, I cut myself up pretty badly. I must have looked like hell. When Colonel Sink arrived to check on us before the attack commenced, he took one look at me and had a huge smile on his face. I realized later that he was laughing at me for shaving on that bitterly cold morning. But that was one of the things I did to set an example for the men—shave in the morning and once in a while I would strip to the waist and give myself a “French wash”—a routine that also caught everyone’s attention. I did this for one reason and one reason only—to get the men’s attention and to let them know that I was going to be around for a while and that this wasn’t as bad as they thought it was going to be. Make the best of it.
Meanwhile 2d Battalion maintained their defensive positions and awaited yet another German attack. On the morning of December 24, the battalion received a small attack on our right flank, which we quickly repulsed. Later that morning the Germans aggressively patrolled our sector, but they withdrew after suffering four killed and four wounded. Christmas Day found 2d Battalion defending the line from the railroad underpass on the Foy Road-Bastogne-Bourcey Railroad to south of Foy. Enemy contact remained relatively light the following day due to breaks in cloud cover that permitted tactical air support to disrupt German patrols and troop concentrations. In spite of the sunshine, life in the forward foxholes remained extremely uncomfortable. After a week in the snow and cold, all the while being constantly probed by the enemy, 2d Battalion held firm and denied the enemy any tactical advantage that they otherwise might have gained had the Germans pressed their attacks more vigorously.
One might ask how the men maintained their morale and their defensive positions. They held because they were paratroopers and because Dog, Easy, and Fox Companies contained men who refused to abandon their buddies for the comfort of the rear echelon ranks. If all the men who had a legitimate reason to go back to the aid station at Bastogne had taken advantage of their position, there just would not have been a front line. Our forward positions would have been held by a series of outposts, not a main line of resistance. In recalling the tenacity of the American paratrooper, a number of soldiers immediately come to mind. I remember Don Malarkey trudging through the snow with blankets wrapped around his feet and legs in a futile attempt to ward off frostbite. After his buddy Sergeant Warren “Skip” Muck was killed by a direct hit by an artillery round on his foxhole, I offered to bring Malarkey back to the battalion command post for a couple days. He respectfully declined because he refused to leave his buddies in Easy Company.
First Sergeant Carwood Lipton was struck on the arm by shrapnel from a German 88. He had the medic bandage his wound and he stayed on the line. Later in February his commander and I recommended Lipton for a battlefield commission, which was immediately approved by Colonel Sink. Another noncommissioned officer, Staff Sergeant Steve Mihok from battalion headquarters company, was always first to volunteer. You always asked for volunteers before issuing the final orders. Mihok volunteered every night to go on a patrol. What a guy! If I live to be 100 years old, I’ll never forget that little trooper standing there with his tommy gun slung over his shoulder, dark circles under his eyes which told me just how dead tired he was, answering, “I’ll go.” He later earned two Bronze Stars—it should have been a dozen.
Sergeant Joe Toye was wounded four times: in Normandy, Holland, and twice at Bastogne. On January 2, Toye was hit by a piece of shrapnel from a bomb during a German air raid. His platoon sergeant then sent Toye to the aid station in Bastogne for medical treatment. Later that same day, I looked across the field to our left flank, and there was Joe Toye walking up the road and across the field, his arm in a sling, heading back to the front line. I walked out to meet him and asked, “Where are you going? You don’t have to go back to the line. Take a few days off.” Not Joe Toye. He informed me that he had met another lieutenant at the aid station who was suspected of shooting himself in the hand to escape front-line duty. Joe would have none of that. He was a squad leader and his place was on the line. War had become old to Sergeant Joe Toye, and he was good at it. The lives of his squad depended on his ability to master his craft. In a sense, Toye and his platoon sergeant Bill Guarnere had become what Ernie Pyle termed “senior partners in the institution of killing” and caring for their men. Rather than remain in the rear, Toye hitched a ride with Father John Maloney and returned to the front. Toye told me, “I want to go back with the fellows.” I knew he should not be on the line, but I so admired his devotion to his squad that I stepped aside. Sergeant Joe Toye was an American hero of the first order.
The next day Sergeants Toye and Guarnere were caught in an artillery barrage. They say that you never hear the shell that hits you. I’m not sure that’s true, but the closer they hit, the less time you have to hear them. In the artillery bombardment that struck Easy Company at Bastogne, Guarnere lost a leg and Toye’s right leg was so mangled that the doctors originally amputated it below the knee. Later, back in the States, they realized the knee was so badly damaged that he would never be able to use it again, so they amputated a second time, above the knee, at the England General Hospital in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
And then there was Corporal Walter Gordon, his head wrapped in a large towel, his helmet sitting on top. Walter sat on the edge of his foxhole behind his light machine gun. He looked like he was frozen stiff, blankly staring ahead at the woods. I remember walking by Gordon without any recognition from him. I stopped and looked back at him, and it suddenly struck me. “Damn! Gordon’s matured! He’s a man!” Walter was hit during the German attack at 0830 hours on Christmas Eve.
The grim determination that characterized the American paratrooper at Bastogne was not just confined to the enlisted ranks. Lieutenant Harry Welsh almost received his million-dollar wound while a group of us were standing around a fire at the battalion CP on Christmas Eve. We had decided to take a chance and start a fire in order to stay warm. Lo and behold, the Germans picked it up and fired a mortar round in our direction. I don’t know if they were lucky or not or whether they were just that good, but the shell exploded in the middle of our group. As I picked myself up from the ground and looked over to Welsh, I could see that look of terror on Harry’s face as he tore off his pants to see where he had been hit. He wasn’t castrated, but it was too close for comfort. Sometimes the difference between life and death was a matter of centimeters. Welsh was immediately evacuated and operated on in Luxembourg, Paris, and England. No sooner had the doctors removed the stitches, than Harry went AWOL and returned to 2d Battalion. After almost losing Welsh, the rest of us were scared to death. And that was Christmas Eve at Bastogne.
On December 22 the commander of German forces that had encircled Bastogne called upon Brigadier General Tony McAuliffe to surrender the 101st Airborne Division “to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation.” McAuliffe, a superb combat commander from the old army, was temporarily in command of the Screaming Eagles while General Taylor was in Washington, D.C., on official business. McAuliffe issued a monosyllabic reply: “Nuts!” to the enemy’s demand for unconditional and immediate surrender. For those of us along the main line of resistance, we took quiet pride in McAuliffe’s tough stance. I, for one, was happy that McAuliffe and not Taylor commanded the defense of Bastogne. While Taylor was always immaculately attired and had a regular retinue of aides and reporters in his wake, McAuliffe was a soldier’s soldier who understood ground combat at the grunt level. As such, McAuliffe commanded my utmost respect.
The soldiers of 2d Battalion and Easy Company spent Christmas on the front line. Headquarters distributed a message from General McAuliffe, in which he extolled the virtues of the 101st Airborne Division and reminded us that we had held the line against impossible odds and that our tenacious defense was making headlines in the United States. Colonel Sink also paid a personal visit to the battalion command post to give us an up-to-date report on the situation. We greatly appreciated that effort on his part.
Some of the men made an attempt to remember Christmas in their own way. Sergeant Bob Rader and Corporal Don Hoobler decided to man the forward outposts themselves rather than sending a couple of troopers or a squad to the forward positions. Hoobler and Rader, along with Shep Howell, had entered the army together and remained best friends. It was unconventional that two noncoms would man the same outpost, but their platoon sergeant approved this unorthodox arrangement considering the special circumstances. Hoobler and Rader then spent the next several hours whispering back and forth, talking about their families back home, what they were doing, and wondering if their families were going to church. Hoobler and Rader represented the best of Easy Company. On Christmas Eve, both risked their lives to give their comrades a little more peace. Regrettably, it was the last Christmas that they spent together. It wasn’t long after that night that Hoobler died from a wound inflicted by a Luger that he was carrying and accidentally fired, severing an artery in his leg. Hoobler had jumped with me in Normandy and his loss was deeply felt throughout Easy Company.
The siege of Bastogne was finally broken on the afternoon of December 26 when Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, commanding the 37th Tank Battalion of Patton’s Third Army, penetrated the German lines and marched into Bastogne. His arrival was a belated, albeit joyous, Christmas present. Behind Abrams was a large fleet of ambulances and supply vehicles. For the first time in a week, trucks rolled into Bastogne, bringing us food, ammunition, and other supplies. After unloading the supplies, the most critical of our wounded, including Easy Company’s Walter Gordon, were the first to be evacuated. By the end of the day on December 27, 652 wounded had been moved back by the 64th Medical Group to army hospitals. By December 28, the last stretcher case of trench foot and walking wounded reached the rear. This brought the total of American wounded to over 1,000 troopers.
Now that the encirclement of Bastogne had been broken, 2d Battalion expected to return to Mourmelon. It didn’t take too long before Allied headquarters dissuaded us of that notion. The Screaming Eagles would remain on the line and commence offensive operations at the first opportunity. A major component of the Allied attack would be the 101st Airborne Division’s push toward Foy and Noville. The division’s attack would be coordinated with a major offensive on the northern edge of the Bulge spearheaded by Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.
December 31 was relatively quiet, but at 0001 on January 1, both sides welcomed the new year with artillery and mortar fire. New Year’s Day brought the largest German air attack to date. Several hundred planes took part. It was in this attack that Joe Toye incurred his third wound. That same day, 2d Battalion, 506th PIR, received orders to attack and clear the Bois Jacques, the forested area that had served as home to Easy Company for the previous twelve days. Beyond the woods lay Foy, and beyond Foy lay the high ground in front of Noville. 2d Battalion attacked as part of a regimental advance on January 2 at 0930. Deep snow and thick woods impeded our advance and contact between the platoons and company was temporarily lost. Noncommissioned officers rapidly reestablished contact and the advance continued. The battalion encountered little resistance until we reached a line approximately 200 yards from the edge of the woods. Initial resistance was strong, but of short duration. By 1530 hours, 2d Battalion seized its objective. On January 3 we received orders to extend our front to cover 1st Battalion’s sector because 1st Battalion reverted to Division reserve. That day it began to snow, and it snowed every day for the next week. Simultaneously, enemy artillery and mortar fire was on the upswing.
It is difficult to describe the effects of an artillery bombardment to someone who has not experienced combat. If you live through it, you will never forget it, nor will you ever be the same. Artillery doesn’t only kill; it maims and tears the body apart, sending limbs in every direction. “Popeye” Wynn remembered that “we went through a couple of shellings that were earth-shattering.” When a soldier is subjected to a concentrated bombardment, he often finds himself bouncing on the ground from the force of the concussion. The big problem for a leader is keeping his wits and not freezing in fear—being able to think and, as soon as possible, talking to the men, and getting them to get up and think. The intensity of artillery fire over a protracted period has a dramatic impact on a unit in combat. Just as soon as the last round falls, as a leader you must begin circulating among the men. “Is everybody okay? Let’s get up. Let’s move. Keep your eyes open for an attack.” Get the men’s attention. And moving among your men—the very fact that they see you and they are talking to you—they know that you are there and it makes all the difference in the world to realize that they are not in this by themselves. Even if a soldier remains fixed on his own feelings and his own fear, and if his leader is moving among the men, the soldier realizes that his leader is sharing the same hardship he himself is experiencing. Then and only then will the soldier be able to move. That is exactly what occurred on the afternoon of January 3 when Easy Company readjusted its lines and moved under the last vestiges of daylight to their new positions.
Just as the company entered the woods, the Germans commenced fire with a heavily concentrated artillery bombardment. Caught in a murderous fire, the men scurried to whatever cover they could find. Many jumped into shell holes and their former foxholes before the first artillery rounds exploded above the trees. Some of the men were lucky; others, like Sergeant Joe Toye, were not as fortunate. As squad leader, Toye refused to take refuge until he ensured all his men were accounted for. He never heard the round that hit him. Shrapnel tore off his right leg and embedded itself in his stomach and arms. Yelling for help, he lay there writhing in the snow. Bill Guarnere, his platoon sergeant and best friend, heard him. Like Toye, Guarnere’s emotions were running extremely high. During a temporary lull in the shelling, Guarnere left the safety of his own foxhole and began pulling Toye to safety. Just then the shelling resumed. A shell burst above Guarnere and mangled his leg. The war was over for both Toye and Guarnere. Don Malarkey and Ed “Babe” Heffron helped pulled them off the line and assisted the medics in placing both in an ambulance. To this day, neither can talk about the experience.
As quickly as the bombardment started, it ended, but the damage was already severe. First Sergeant Lipton supervised the evacuation of the wounded and visited each trooper. No sooner than Lipton moved forward did Lieutenant Dike instruct him to take charge of the company while he (Dike) returned to headquarters. You can imagine the men’s feeling when they watched their commander walk off the line. For a company commander to abandon his men in the middle of an engagement when his men had already endured a number of casualties was inexcusable. No sooner had Dike left than the company lost another officer. Looking at Toye’s and Guarnere’s mangled legs, Lieutenant Buck Compton finally collapsed under the strain of combat. Taking off his helmet, he ran his fingers through his hair, dropped his helmet, and then, like Dike, he walked off the line. George Luz attempted to stop him, but to no avail. After months of combat and after seeing two of his closest friends horribly wounded, Buck had had enough. Within the span of several minutes, 2d Platoon had lost its most experienced squad leader, its platoon sergeant, and its platoon leader. Sergeants Guarnere and Toye were Toccoa men around whom the remainder of the platoon had rallied. And Compton had seen action with the company from D-Day, through Normandy and Holland, and now at Bastogne. Dike, of course, could be easily replaced, but the loss of so many key leaders severely affected the morale of my old company.
Easy Company was at the breaking point. Few units could sustain the number of casualties that Easy Company had suffered on January 3, particularly among its senior leadership. Its ranks were now at less than 50 percent capacity. The rest of 2d Battalion’s companies were equally weak. Had 1st Sergeant Lipton and the other Toccoa veterans not stepped into the breach, Easy Company would have disintegrated. Lipton assumed command of the company in all but name, even though two other officers were present. Other noncommissioned officers filled in the gaps—men like Pat Christenson and Don Malarkey, who had been privates in Normandy, corporals in Holland, and now sergeants at Bastogne. They remained the backbone of Easy Company. Our line was now dangerously thin, but on January 4, the 501st PIR, replaced us on the front line. Second Battalion assumed responsibility for 506th Regimental reserve.
Another odd memory of that night occurs to me. After sitting there for a while, I felt as though the foxhole was getting smaller. Then I noticed the ice frosting on the sides of the wall. So, I just stiffened my shoulders and rubbed along the sides, clearing off the frost.
The battlefront remained relatively quiet for the next week. Second Battalion patrolled the snow-covered woods to our front continuously. January 8 brought an extremely heavy snowstorm. Another heavy German artillery bombardment on the 506th’s positions on January 10 inflicted 126 casualties. Two days later, 2d Battalion attached one company to 3d Battalion for an assault to take Foy. I selected Easy Company to lead the attack. The night before the attack I sat in my foxhole, reading the Infantry Manual on Attack by candlelight. When I think of that—lugging an infantry manual to Bastogne—I should have taken a Hershey chocolate bar instead. I had that manual memorized, but this time that manual wasn’t advanced enough for the situation for which I was preparing. It just seemed too elementary. As I studied the manual, Sergeant Lipton arrived and asked to discuss a highly sensitive matter with me. Lipton expressed his concern that Lieutenant Dike was not up to the task to lead the following day’s assault. I listened intently, but I had little choice other than to acknowledge his concerns and to tell him that I would investigate the matter. I then decided that I would stand on the line of departure and observe the attack when it began the following morning.
At early dawn, I personally briefed Lieutenant Dike on the conduct of the attack. I then ordered 1st Lieutenant Frank Reis to place two sections of light machine guns on the edge of the woods facing Foy. The guns would provide covering fire as Easy Company moved through the snow across approximately 250 yards of open field to the outskirts of the village. Easy Company crossed the line of departure at 0900 and proceeded to cross the field. The covering fire worked to perfection, but each time the assistant gunner changed the belt, I held my breath through that brief lull of fire. The Germans fired only a few random rifle shots from an outpost on the west end of the village. It was tough going for the men through that snow in a skirmisher formation, but Dike maintained a good formation as the company moved at a decent pace. Then suddenly, Lieutenant Dike halted the company about seventy-five yards from the edge of Foy. Everybody hunkered down in the snow and stayed there for no apparent reason. I called Lieutenant Dike on the radio, but I received no response. The company was like a bunch of sitting ducks out there in the snow. Colonel Sink, who was observing the attack, turned and hollered, “What are you going to do, Winters?”
“I’m going!” I yelled and I grabbed my M-1 and moved out to take command of Easy Company in order to get them moving again. I had only taken a few steps when I decided that my job was to lead the battalion, not a company. I turned around and walked back and there was Lieutenant Ronald C. Speirs, a natural killer, standing in front of me.
“Speirs!” I said. “Take over that company and relieve Dike and take that attack on in.”
Why Speirs was standing next to me I had no idea. I just turned around and there he was. It was just a roll of the dice that he was standing there when I needed someone. I was glad it was Speirs. I respected him as a combat leader because he made good decisions in combat, though his decisions after the battle—off the line—were often flawed. On D-Day, Speirs and his men had disabled the fourth gun in the battery outside Brecourt Manor. Stories later circulated throughout 2d Battalion that Speirs possessed a “killer’s instinct” and that he had once shot one of his recalcitrant sergeants in Normandy on D+1. It was difficult to verify such a story, but the soldiers evidently believed it at face value. Naturally there was more to the story than initially met the eye. D Company had been fighting all night June 5–6, and all day on D-Day. The night of June 6 gave the men on outposts no more than two to three hours rest before starting the battle on June 7. D Company countermarched throughout the night as officers attempted to array the platoons in the proper alignment to cross the line of departure the following morning. The ensuing battle proved to be one of the most confused of the war. As the evening progressed, the tension of the upcoming battle, coupled with the fact that these men had been without rest since early morning on June 5, resulted in near exhaustion. A number of paratroopers and their leaders were actually sleepwalking and unable to comprehend orders. One observer noted that, “Officers and men had kept going too long and were now traveling on their nerve.”
In spite of what rumors prevailed concerning Lieutenant Speirs’s actions, what actually occurred that evening was D Company received orders to halt its attack toward Ste. Come du Mont in order for regimental headquarters to coordinate a rolling barrage in support of the ground assault. Regimental artillery had designated fifteen targets to be shelled in the vicinity of Ste. Come du Mont. To initiate the attack, regimental artillery fire was adjusted back toward American lines, before moving forward again in increments of 100 yards every four minutes. Colonel Strayer directed D Company to follow this “rolling barrage” toward the objective. Lieutenant Speirs then passed the word down the line to his squad leaders to hold their current position until the artillery fire was coordinated. One of his sergeants ignored the orders. Speirs repeated the order and the sergeant again refused to obey. Spears then shot the sergeant between the eyes. In doing so, Speirs probably saved the lives of the rest of the squad. To his credit, Speirs immediately reported the incident to his company commander, Captain Jerre S. Gross. Gross was killed the next day during the continued assault on Ste. Come du Mont, so the incident was not pursued. Certainly none of Speirs’s soldiers said anything to higher headquarters. I think the platoon members exercised sound judgment—they might have been next. Secondly, if anybody had taken it upon himself to return Speirs’s fire, he would have had to pay an unknown price. I credit the men with a good instinct for survival.
Other rumors centered on Speirs’s alleged killing of six German prisoners of war. My personal contact with Lieutenant Speirs after D-Day was somewhat limited until I relinquished command of Easy Company. As battalion executive officer, I knew each of the battalion’s officers and could analyze each leader’s strengths and weaknesses. My own assessment was that Lieutenant Speirs was one of the finest combat officers in 2d Battalion. His men respected him, but they also feared him because Speirs had clearly established the fact that he was a killer. He worked hard to earn a reputation as a killer and he often killed for shock value. The senior leadership of the battalion and regiment must have heard the allegations surrounding Speirs, but in their desperation to keep qualified officers who were not afraid of combat, they chose either to ignore or not to investigate the charges. When I first heard the stories, I was speechless. What he did in Normandy was unbelievable, inexcusable. In today’s army, Speirs would have been court-martialed and charged with atrocities, but we desperately needed bodies, officers who led by example and were not afraid to engage the enemy. Speirs fit the bill.
In any event, Speirs ran forward at the double quick as soon as I directed him to take command of the company. Confronting Lieutenant Dike by a haystack behind which the command group had sought refuge, Speirs seized command of the company. Dike offered no resistance. Lieutenant Speirs then sprinted across the front to locate I Company, which was on E Company’s flank. A German 88 opened up on him as he raced toward Foy. “Damn impressive,” was how Lipton later described Speir’s dash across the “no-man’s land” that separated the German and American lines. After coordinating with I Company, Speirs returned across the same field and led Easy Company into Foy. With support of Lieutenant Reis’s machine guns that were laying down an effective base of fire, Easy Company captured Foy in house-to-house fighting. By 1100 Nixon reported that Foy was secure. In the process of taking the town, Easy Company had captured twenty prisoners, while suffering one man killed and several wounded. Without Speirs’s intervention, however, the casualties would have been excessive.
In retrospect, what we had just witnessed during the attack on Foy was a classic case of combat fatigue at the worst possible time. We had observed indications of this earlier, but Dike had been sent to us as a favorite protégé of somebody from regimental headquarters. That evening Colonel Sink called for a meeting at regimental headquarters for all the principal parties involved in this attack. Lieutenant Colonel Strayer was present and Sink asked, “What are you going to do about Company E?”
Strayer turned to me and repeated the question, “What are you going to do about Company E, Winters?”
I gave no explanation, but just replied, “Relieve Lieutenant Dike and put Speirs in command.” That settled it. End of meeting. Colonel Sink immediately approved my recommendation. Speirs was now in command and would remain in command of Easy Company until the end of the war. Of the six officers who commanded Easy Company since its activation at Toccoa—Sobel, Meehan, myself, Heyliger, Dike, and now Speirs—“Sparky” Speirs commanded the company longer than any of his predecessors. In spite of his alleged misconduct, his contribution to the unit’s success cannot be underestimated. As far as Lieutenant Dike was concerned, he sure as hell did not return to my battalion. He just packed his bag and left. Later we discovered that he was transferred to regimental headquarters as an assistant operations officer.
One other memory of that day and that attack deserves special mention. It, too, left me in a foul mood. As the men were carrying the wounded back from Foy, I was suddenly aware of two photographers standing beside me, taking pictures of this detail. I was not sure where they came from or who they belonged to. I only know that I had never seen them before. When the casualty detail reached about twenty to twenty-five yards from the woods, well out of danger of any possible fire from Foy, one photographer put down his camera and dashed out to help carry one of the wounded soldiers. He grabbed the soldier in such a manner that he got as much blood on the sleeve and front of his new, clean, heavily fleeced jacket as possible. Then this photographer turned toward his buddy, who was still taking pictures, and put on a big act of being utterly exhausted as he struggled across those final yards to the woods. At that point, he immediately dropped out of the picture. What a phony! This just topped off my day for phonies.
The next day regiment directed 2d Battalion to continue the attack to seize the high ground around Noville. When word came down for this attack, it pissed me off. I could not believe that after what we had gone through and accomplished, after all the casualties we had suffered, that Colonel Sink was ordering us to lead another attack. H-Hour was scheduled for 1200. This was another point of not using good judgment by regiment or division command. Why would you send men across one and a half miles of wide-open fields to Recogne-Cobru-Noville, through snow almost knee-deep, in the middle of a bright sunny day? The Germans were sitting on the high ground with tanks concealed in hull-defilade under the cover of buildings. Why not attack in early morning, at the first light of day, so that we would have had the cover of darkness for at least part of the time?
That day I earned my pay. Before we crossed the line of departure, I recognized that our salvation just might be that there was a fairly deep shoulder in the terrain on the southwest side of Noville. If I sent the column straight for it, I could pick up more cover as we approached Noville. We were fortunate. The enemy did not have any strong points on the shoulder and the plan worked perfectly. I placed the entire battalion in single file to cut through the snow. It was a highly dangerous and not very tactical formation. As we approached Noville, 1st Battalion was about 400 yards to our left and slightly to the rear of our column. From time to time, I glanced over to see how they were doing. They were being cut up by direct fire from the German 88s from those tanks in Noville. The enemy fire was striking their line with devastating effect. Men were literally flying through the air. Years later in the movie Dr. Zhivago, I saw troops crossing snow-covered fields, being shot by cannons from the edge of the woods, and men flying through the air. Those scenes seemed very real to me; I could sure relate that experience with the attack on Noville.
We worked very hard getting across those fields and getting snuggled up to the underside of that shoulder by about 1530. By dark, I had worked the battalion around to a draw on the southeast corner of town. To do that, we advanced through fire from some machine guns in Noville that were covering the draw. To counter this fire, we set up a couple of light machine guns of our own. The Germans would fire; we would give them a return burst and at the same time, we sent a group of eight to ten men across the draw and a stream to the other side. It became a cat-and-mouse game. It took a lot of patience, but we accomplished it without any casualties. By dark, 2d Battalion was in position for the attack the next day. The night was the coldest night of my life and I think the same went for every other man in the outfit. We had worked hard all afternoon and we were dripping wet with sweat. After the sun went down, it grew bitterly cold. All we could do was shiver. At one point during the night, I attempted to rest on a little knoll of ground. In no time, I just shivered myself down that knoll to the bottom of the draw. I soon gave up trying to catch any sleep.
Without sharing this thought with anybody at the time, at one point I considered conducting a night attack rather than standing there all night freezing to death. For some reason I had the feeling that the Germans had pulled out. I quickly reconsidered my alternate plan, realizing that the chances were too great that we could end up shooting some of our own men in the dark. The next morning at first light, we jumped off the attack on Noville. Resistance was light. The enemy had evacuated Noville, leaving nothing more than a small rear guard to conduct a delaying action while the rest of the enemy retreated. We captured a few prisoners, among whom were two junior officers. Lieutenant Ed Thomas, my intelligence officer (S-2), tried to obtain some worthwhile information with no success. On January 16, 2d Battalion continued the attack and cleared the villages of Rachamps and Hardigny. This was our final attack in Belgium and marked an end to the major combat engagements of Easy Company and 2d Battalion, 506th PIR. Though we would routinely conduct combat patrols to establish contact with the enemy, never again would the battalion conduct large scale attacks against determined enemy resistance.
Apparently General Taylor was satisfied with our efforts. On the day following the capture of Noville, Taylor and members of his staff met with Brigadier General Gerry Higgins, his assistant division commander, and Colonel Sink to conduct an impromptu map reconnaissance adjacent to the Noville town hall to discuss future strategy. The next day the 17th Airborne Division relieved the 101st Airborne Division on the front line. Our division was ordered into Corps Reserve. The battle for Bastogne was finally over, but the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division had written the brightest chapter in its combat history. It had been a costly campaign, but the American army learned valuable lessons in conducting winter warfare. One of the most valuable lessons was the importance of keeping your ears tuned to the noises of the night. A skilled soldier can recognize the sound of feet breaking the crust of the snow and the implications of a motor turning over in the distance. Radio operators learned not to talk directly into the microphone because the voice’s condensation freezes the microphone and renders the radio inoperable. A light coat of oil on a weapon proved more effective than a thick layer of oil. The most important lesson lay in the reliance on common sense and field expediency, neither of which was covered in the elementary field manuals that addressed offensive and defensive operations.
I am not sure anyone who lived through Bastogne doesn’t carry the scars of that ferocious campaign. I was extremely proud that 2d Battalion’s lines were never broken. No enemy breakthrough or penetration occurred. Second Battalion held firm. Again, the performance of the American paratrooper in the war’s deadliest campaign was the factor that kept Easy Company troopers, and by extension the remainder of the division, bonded so unusually close.