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Hurtgen Forest

 

T/SGT Chris Christensen

         Co C 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment

         82nd Airborne Division

                                   Hurtgen Forest

        

         After about 50 plus day’s of fighting in the horrible weather of the Bulge we had finally

         shoved Jerry back to his original line of departure of Dec 16. Here we would be entering

         the dreaded Seigfried Line and into Germany itself where we would be relieved and

         trucked back to the town of Salm Chateau, Belgium, where for the next couple of days

         we would be cleaning our equipment and ourselves which was in deplorable condition

         Also for the first time while in combat we got a few replacements In my platoon, I think

         I received about 6 or 8 men. These were a welcome addition, but you also knew the

         higher brass had something else in mind for you.

        

         Sure enough on Feb 7th we loaded on trucks and moved over to what I now know

         as the Hurtgen Forest. This to us appeared to be a continuation of the bulge, but

         was actually on the German Belgium border and a part of the Rhineland

         Campaign

        

         This move went painfully slow and we did not arrive at our destination until late

         afternoon After unloading, we started down this trail into the forest. We had

         only gone a short distance when we stop and get the order to halt and dig in.

         This was as far as we would be going today. As usual, we would set up a

         defense for the night and I started checking to make sure this is being done All

         this is taking time and when I finally get dug in it is dark. After finishing. I lay

         down in this shallow trench and stretch out. I could not have been in there but a

         few moments before I catch a whiff of this horrible odor. There is no mistaking

         this smell I have dug in on a decaying corpse. Needless to say I was the one to

         vacate the hole. The rest of this sleepless night I spent sitting on the ground

         leaning against a tree I do remember while digging the lower end of the trench it

         was much easier going I had probable disturbed the earth there and this was

         where the gases were coming from

        

         As soon as it gets light the next morning we move out. While proceeding down

         this trail you notice most of the snow has melted and you are now plowing

         through a muddy mess. About now you can see you are entering an area where

         some terrific fighting had taken place. First indication of this is when you begin to

         notice the shell holes plus the havoc the artillery has done to the trees. These in

         places look as if someone has taken a giant scythe and mowed them down.

        

         Proceeding further down the trail things are beginning to get progressively worse

         The trees I mentioned being cut down with a scythe, here you can say they have

         been destroyed with a vengeance. Most have been blown to ribbons. Also

         scattered among this debris were countless bodies or parts of. By their shoulder

         patch The Red Keystone” you knew they were remnants of the 28th Inf. Div. The

         sickening part was they had laid there all winter covered in a blanket of snow

                 

         Just a short distance further in, we come to what had been an aid station. No

         way can I describe this in detail. Hundreds of bodies stacked like cordwood

         along with heaps of amputated arms and legs.

        

         Many of the bodies were still laying on litters. These were probably being

         attended to when Jerry unleashed this massive artillery barrage wiping out this

         aid station. By the amount of shell holes and destruction centered in this one

         area, you can be assured this was no accident, also he must have had direct

         observation. Some of these bodies were just beginning to appear through the

         melting snow and a more gruesome sight you wouldn’t believe.

        

         On this trail until now we have been enclosed in the forest on both sides All at

         once you approach a break in the trees on the left side. Here you get a good

         view of the valley floor below which is loaded with wrecks of burnt out U.S. tanks.

         I would say there were well over a hundred in this small area. You can’t say a

         tank battle had taken place here as I did not see one destroyed Kraut panzer

         tank. The Krauts were probable setting back with their 88’s and artillery and

         annihilated them. About all of these tanks had burned, so it would be safe to

         assume the charred bodies of the crews were still inside.

        

         On Feb 9th we reach the village of Schmidt. What I really saw was just a pile of

         rubble. The town had been flattened. Here a terrific battle must of have taken

         place. There were bodies strewn everywhere. Some of these, tanks had run

         over and flattened. Charred bodies hanging out of turrets where the crews had

         tried to bail out of these burning hulls. You could see a arm or leg laying around,

         but no body it had been attached to. Had some wild animal been dragging this

         off to feast on later? You would shake your head and wonder is this

         Armageddon? Has the civilized world gone mad?

        

         Passing through Schmidt, the regiment continues on to its final objective, the

         ground overlooking the Roer River.

        

         At the same time the 78th Div. has moved up on our flank while proceeding on

         down to the Schwammenauel Dam. Their objective is to capture the dam and

         the power house works intact. This was not to be. The Germans while

         withdrawing, had destroyed all the control valves, thus releasing the water and

         flooding the valley.

        

         My questions are, was all this for naught? Was all this just to satisfy some top

         brasses ego? The useless slaughter of lives, not one thing was accomplished.

         Will any of this go down in history and how will it be described? Our supreme

         commander, Eisenhower, in his “Crusade in Europe” devotes two full sentences

         to this campaign. For the men who fought and died here, I would imagine they

         would view it a little different. Why couldn’t this action be abandoned? Was it

         that the U.S. high brass prestige was at stake? This 50 square miles costing

         30,000 dead and wounded, equates out to 600 Gl’s per square mile. Mighty

         costly real estate.

        

         A short time back I came upon a book about the Hurtgen Forest which answered

         a lot ot questions that had bothered me for years. This book “The Battle of

         Hurtgen Forest by Charles Whiting” writes about 30,000 American Gl’s being

         killed or wounded in this longest battle that should not have been fought. He

         explains where from Sept 44 to Feb 45 eight U.S. Infantry and two U.S. Armored

         Divisions were thrown into the Green hell of the Hurtgens 50 square miles of

         thick wooded hills loaded with Germans. This forest the Gl’s called the “Death

         Factory.” Briefly what I have learned I will attempt to pass on.

        

         This whole brain child can be contributed to Gen. Joe Collins, commander of the

         VII Corp 1st Army. After convincing his Army Commander, Gen. Hodges that

         his right flank needed to be secured, he was given permission to send in a

         reconnaissance. This would soon develop into a large scale attack.

        

         On Sept 13th the 9th Infantry Division was given the honor of starting this fiasco.

         When they were relieved, their casualties were enormous. For a gain of exactly

         3000 yards on a three mile front, the 9th had suffered 3,836 casualties. This

         meant that a man had been killed or wounded for every square yard of German

         soil gained. Whiting writes that in reality this was not the true figure as the top

         brass was cooking the books. The 60th lnf. Reg., for example, had suffered an

         almost 100% turnover in combat personnel, a truly appalling figure.

        

         The next Division to enter this Death Factory was the 28th Inf Div. with one

         combat command from the 5th Armored Div. attached. Their line of attack was

         the same as the ill-fated 9th Starting with Germeter, Vossenack across the Kall

         River Gorge and finally to Schmidt. There was one difference, part of the attack

         would be up the Kall trail which was virtually a cart track. Here the 28th losses

         were 6,184 casualties or about 45% of the division strength. The rifle companies

         suffered the worst, with about a 90% casualty rate.

        

         The same would continue every couple of weeks, a new division being

         committed and being chewed up. The casualty rate was becoming alarming.

         About now the top brass has changed it’s objective. The protection of Collins

         flank probably does not justify the amount of losses that were being sustained

         The objective now is the Schwammenauel Dam. This dam controls the Roer

         River flood waters. Until now, none of this has been mentioned.

        

         The top brass by now are getting desperate, a general has been relieved of his

         command, as are Colonels and on down the line. Replacements are steadily

         being shoved into combat. It was said if one of these lasted three days, he would

         be considered a veteran.

                

         What I can’t understand is a campaign of this magnitude and so little being

         written about it. Both historian and writer Stephan Ambrose, as well as the noted

         Charles MacDonald calls the whole operation both stupid and ill-advised.

         General Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division said, Quote: For us the

         Hurtgen was one of the most costly, most unproductive and most ill-advised

         battles our army has ever fought. Incidentally, he was the only general who

         protested this waste.

        

         On Feb 19th, we were relieved by the 9th lnf. Div. and returned to Suippes,

         France. This would be the last of the winter war for the 505.

        

         What I had witnessed there in the Hurtgen would leave a lasting impression.

         This place must have been the closest to hell one could get without entering the

         gates, but what I can’t understand is how these divisions left their fallen troops

         behind. This is completely unacceptable.

        

         W.T. Christensen

         11-7 Silverwood Circle

         Annapolis, Md 21403

         410-268-4105

 
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