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Diary of a World War II VeteranRetired Army Maj. Herman Force, AA’55 (R), BA’56 (T-H), MA’62 (T-H), was a military policeman in the elite 10th Armored Division during World War II. These excerpts from his diary chronicle his division’s grueling actions as well as the emotions of the front lines.
The Three Fs of CombatThe question has often been asked, “What was it like in combat?” The three “Fs” come to mind: fatigue, frustration and fear! Fatigue from lack of sleep because it was almost impossible to find a comfortable place to sleep. Add to this the enemy harassment and interdiction fire, every half hour all night long. By doing this, the enemy hoped to disrupt our rest and be lucky enough to hit a gasoline truck or ammunition truck. Now and then they did.
Only three or four hours of sleep a night eventually drained one’s stamina. For me, it also caused severe headaches.
Then there was frustration. Imagine that everything you do is stymied
by mud, snow, fog, wind, rain, freezing cold or intense heat. Then add
the lack of sleep plus very few hot meals. Meals generally were catch-as-catch-can,
seldom more than twice a day with “K” rations in-between. Along with all
of this, the physical daily effort to load, unload and carry cases of rifle
and machine-gun ammunition, five-gallon cans of gasoline, five-gallon jugs
of water, drums of oil, lubricants and thousands of rounds of artillery
and mortar shells was exhausting. Every action plus incoming fire added
to our frustration.
December 1944, Metz, FranceThe ancient city of Metz is situated on a flat plain with a small stream running through the town. Surrounding Metz are six, 60-foot steep granite hills. Over the centuries, these hills had been fortified, and no army had ever overcome the six forts.
Fort Driant was the largest and toughest of the six. It was the German headquarters and nerve center where artillery from all six was directed. The telephone lines to the other forts had been buried deep underground to avoid destruction. With such a high observation post, an approaching enemy could be spotted miles away. [A critical location] Fort Driant was therefore singled out for attack. Two infantry divisions were to hit it from the front, and our 10th Armored Division was to encircle it and come up from the rear. Preceding the ground action, our Army Air Force tactical wing strafed and bombed the fort. Its bombs greatly helped the ground forces as the 14-foot thick walls of Fort Driant were breached in several places. Our heavy air attack also killed and wounded many defenders, but this action did not make it a “pushover” because the fort was strongly defended.
If you have never experienced being near the heavy artillery (such as a 240-mm howitzer) when they fire, you have missed quite a sight. I recall, as a lad, a neighbor telling me that he had been in the A.E.F. [American Expeditionary Force] in France during World War I. Even though he was in the supply section several miles back, he claimed that he could sit outside at night and read a newspaper from the light of heavy gun flashes. I really didn’t believe him, but on this night outside Fort Driant, I saw it was possible. When those heavies fired, a brilliant hang-fire flared at their muzzles for several seconds. When shells exploded “over there,” their burst also had a very bright hang-fire … the entire “front” was as bright as day.
Immediately our armored columns sped up and began to launch the attack, and the Nazi defenders opened up on us as well. Two things forcefully struck me. First, there were those 14-foot thick walls of this fort. Each succeeding “owner” had added to them. You could clearly see the original rock formation from which this defensive position had been dug or blasted. The original rock walls were about four feet thick. Next was a layer of brick and mortar about six feet thick and, last was the most recent layer of four feet of steel-reinforced concrete, which had been added by the Germans.
The second thing I noticed was that the defenders had killed their artillery horses and had cut steaks from those animals and eaten them to sustain themselves. These Germans had no choice because our division had cut off all their supplies, and they were forced to eat what was available.
This was the first time an army had successfully attacked and captured Fort Driant and the other five fortified hills.
The “Siegfried Line”The Germans had built in 1939 a switch position on their western wall or, as we called it, the Siegfried Line. The ends of this “base” were anchored at the Saar and the Moselle rivers. The “line” itself consisted of the longest, deepest tank trap I have ever seen, measuring 17 miles long, 40 feet deep and about 40 feet wide.
In front [was] barbed-wire concertina, which also stretched 17 miles. In between the wire and dragon’s teeth were buried camouflaged Teller tank mines. Ahead of the wire were antipersonnel mines called “shoe box mines” and “Bouncing Bets,” so named for their characteristic of springing up 14 inches and exploding at knee level, destroying the legs of enemy soldiers. These nasty little devils were set off by a soldier barely touching their camouflaged trip wire.
Behind all of this was the Nazi’s main line of defense consisting of pillboxes with interlocking fire and gun emplacements. These pillboxes and gun emplacements were constructed of reinforced concrete and steel. All together, this switch position, as well as the rest of the German West Wall or Siegfried Line, was considered a very formidable defense work. Its camouflage was especially effective and was augmented by four years of undisturbed growth of natural vines and vegetation.
Having discovered the antipersonnel minefields, we simply ran several heavy tanks back and forth over the mined area, exploding the shoe boxes under them harmlessly. Of course, the Nazi defenders pelted our tanks with heavy fire, giving away their gun emplacements and enabling our tanks and artillery to zero in immediately on their defenses.
Our engineers and infantry cut the barbed wire and pulled sections of wire out to allow access for forward movement of our infantry and tanks. Because of the heavy machine-gun fire and mortar fire over the minefields, our infantry would fall back, taking cover, and the engineers went through gaps in the wire to remove the Teller mines. If there had been no fire from the enemy, mine detectors would have been used. Because of incoming heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, our men lay flat against the earth and inched slowly forward, shoulder to shoulder, using bayonets or hunting knives to push into the ground and locate the mines. When one was found, a charge was laid above it, and everyone pulled back, allowing the mine to be blown. Afterward, a line of men then moved forward again to locate more mines.
In addition to enemy fire, there was another danger. Teller mines were set off by a wire spider attached to a detonator. If an engineer shoved his knife into the ground with too much force and hit one of these spiders, that could also detonate a mine, lethal to that man and usually soldiers near him as well.
After our men had pushed partway through various minefields, our division was ordered out of the Saar-Moselle Triangle and sent north by Gen. George Patton to strike the southern flank of [German Field Marshal Kurt] Von Rundstedt’s attack on Bastogne.
The Defense of Bastogne[The following account describes the defense of Bastogne, Belgium, which the Germans targeted during the Battle of the Bulge.] Bastogne was critical to German needs because it was a highway and rail center needed to move supplies west and then north to support their armies. During the afternoon of 20 December 1944, a German patrol picked up the mayor of Bastogne. He was immediately hauled before the Fifth Panzer Army Commander, Gen. H. Monteuffel, who asked him how much American armor was in the Bastogne area. Since the honorable mayor wanted the Allies to win, he looked the German commander directly in the eye and lied to him, stating there were 10 armored divisions in Bastogne!
Miracle of miracles, the general believed him … From this point on, Monteuffel became very cautious. After Bastogne was encircled at 1100 hours on December 21, Monteuffel would launch an attack in one sector. Our “Fire Brigade” would go out and drive the enemy back. Then he would try in another sector. Once again our “Fire Brigade” did its job. It never occurred to the Germans to attack in two areas simultaneously. If they had, Bastogne would have fallen.
DachauFor some time our Army Intelligence Branch (G-2) had been reporting data and terrible stories told by survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Our 10th Armored Division’s drive toward the Bavarian border with Austria carried us 10 miles south of the German town of Dachau. Our Seventh Army’s 42nd Infantry Division has just cleared the town and freed the inmates about four hours before we arrived.
We saw with our own eyes where one regiment had stacked rifles and became “orderlies” to try and save or help the unfortunate inmates. We saw two warehouses filled to overflow, one with shoes of every kind and size from babies’ to large men’s and women’s; the other with women’s dresses, men’s and boy’s and children’s clothing. Both of these warehouses were so full that windows and doors had burst open and the contents had cascaded onto the ground.
We also saw the open pits with their iron grates where men and women were forced to kneel with their hands tied. Those pits and grates were still red with blood from the previous night’s executions. We saw dead and naked bodies piled like corded wood. We saw the “showers” where no water had ever flowed through the pipes — only poison gas. We also saw the crematorium or ovens. We saw piles of ashes and partially loaded box cars of those ashes ready for shipment to German farmers for use as fertilizer.
The worst of all were the “living skeletons,” starved almost to death. I talked to one of them, a young German Jew, 25 years old. He was so weak that he could only shuffle along slowly. He had lost 40 percent of his weight and could not stand up straight. He was severely bent over, spoke slowly and intermittently paused to catch his breath as he confirmed everything. My heart bled for all of them … I returned to our division that day badly shaken and, justifiably, greatly angered.
In spite of all that the 42nd Infantry Division and other agencies could do, most of these “living skeletons” died. We tried to give them our army rations but this only made them nauseated because the food was too rich and greasy for their state of health. Armed search parties were sent out and brought back all the milk and eggs needed. Unfortunately, a day or two had been lost in the process and so most of these survivors passed away. Ironically, on the opposite side of town there was a vitamin factory.
So that the German citizens of Dachau would fully understand the terrible thing that had happened in these camps, all were given a conducted tour of them. Most of these Germans knew something about the camps’ existence but never viewed them nor admitted any knowledge of their existence. After their “tour,” the Dachau mayor and his wife returned home and hanged themselves.
When the men of the 42nd Infantry first broke open the gates of this concentration camp and realized the situation, they reacted with intense anger against the Nazi guards, who had already thrown down their weapons and quietly surrendered. The 42nd’s soldiers began to shoot and beat them with their rifle barrels. This did not stop until their commanding general stepped between the guards and his own troops and ordered them to stop, telling them if they did not, “they would be no better than those bastard Nazi guards.” With this direct order, his men ceased their attack.
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