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Chapter 6

After a long walk, we suddenly turned up the side of a hill, up a steep path keeping close to the top, but not on skyline. Now the shells came so close that we often ducked as they crashed into the valley below. The air was clear, and we could hear the shells come and go. When someone ducked, I ducked, as this was new for me. We walked up and up until my legs and thighs hurt so that I thought that I could not take another step. Yet I dared not drop behind as I didn't want to be separated from the others. I grabbed hold of small trees and pulled myself up foot by foot. Once in awhile the men would agitate for a break, and we would lie down on the ground for a few minutes. The constant disturbing thought was that if we were discovered there, it would be terrible, as there was no shelter on the top of the hills.

Suddenly someone missed the tough Sergeant Gutman. After much running around they found him lying on the ground exhausted. He had thrown his pack away and was in a bad condition. There were others who were in a bad way also which made me feel as if I had not done too badly. I was perturbed [though] because of the loss of both of my grenades.

We had been sent to relieve the 351st, which had taken the hill the day before. They started to move back as we arrived. We got to the top of a small hill and prepared to occupy the positions. The squad leader tried to place us in holes that had already been dug. Gilmore and I were told to dig ourselves a foxhole, but Gilmore objected furiously and there was quite an argument over this. We milled around in the dark until we found a half dug hole about 2 by 4 and 4 feet deep. The ground was so rocky that there was no digging that night. We decided to wait until morning and see what it was like. I found that one of the logs that I had stepped on during the night was the body of a German. I was not easily shocked anymore.

The best we could do was squat down in the foxhole. As we got settled down, we thought that it seemed pretty quiet and peaceful. Suddenly a terrific barrage of mortar shells hit all around us on the knob. Some of the shells threw dirt into our holes. Gilmore and I just crouched as low as possible and trembled. Once in awhile a shell would land into a hole so we wondered how good our chance was of not being hit. There would be a methodical barrage every hour for fifteen minutes. Each time there was nothing to do but huddle and wonder. We found that we could get down further as we put our knees between each other as we faced. There was no comfort and no rest despite all of our efforts. Then came the dawn and quiet and we were able to look around. Since this hill was under observation, we could not come out of our hole except to relieve ourselves. As soon as we got out, the shells would start flying, and we tumbled back in to sweat it out. We enlarged the hole by a few inches but it was much too small for two men.

October 19, 1944: On Mount Grande, the view wasn't very good. There were some heaps of dirt from the foxholes, boxes, cans, paper, ammo, equipment of all sorts. It looked like a dump. The worst part was the bodies of two dead Germans and one American. The Germans lay about twenty feet away from us but the GI lay about six feet from our hole. The gruesome corpse was there for us to see every time we looked out. Evidently he had been a machine gunner as the weapon was still there with the ammunition belt in it ready to fire. This hill had been under so much fire that the bodies could not be moved during the three weeks that we spent in that position. There was no place to go, so we had to stay in the same place.

One morning I was on detail to get some water below us, about 1/2 mile away at the battalion headquarters. It wasn't the distance but the fact that it was so steep that one had trouble trying to stand up. We waited until a barrage of mortars had stopped and then the group of us hurried down to the battalion. It was located in a small stone house in the valley. Filth, dirt, equipment, human waste, and dead sheep were all around the house. On the trail there were two dead GIs, one covered and the other in the open, with a rifle stuck into the ground beside them with his helmet on it. It was like a scene from the movies that I had seen at one time. There was a broken well near the house, and we drew the water using a helmet as a bucket to fill the canteens. A few of the men brought back cases of K rations. The kitchen from the rear sent mail and cake. I had so many canteens to carry that it was all I could do to get back up the hill.

On our way back, the mortars let loose again and we dove into the first holes available. I was happy to make the dash back to my hole after the barrage ended. Gilmore taught me how to heat a cup of water by burning the wax carton off the K rations. With this system it was possible to make a cup of coffee without smoke if we had the water.

We had plenty of time to get acquainted. I tried very hard to be nice to him. [We] talked ourselves out and then just crouched and thought of home, and [I] tried to visualize the mailman bringing a notice of my death to my folks. I would try to dream of the time when the war would be over and would at this point [have] given anything to be back with my folks and Evelyn. Even our dreams were interrupted by the methodical mortar barrages. I learned to hate the mortar. Men would have killed them without hesitation just to have them quiet.

A very distressing fact troubled me. The average wounded and dead for infantry units was 90%. I couldn't help but wonder how long we could keep whole. I did trust the Lord, but I didn't know whether it was meant for me to live or die. I knew it would be a shock for the folks to receive bad news. I was glad at this point that I wasn't married because it wouldn't be fair to Evelyn if I was killed or crippled. It was a terrible existence at best. Matlack had gone on patrol the first day and was captured; so the war was over for him the first day on the front. Then came the rains. It rained and rained. We put our shelter halves up, but there was no way to keep the water out of our hole. It ran down our necks and made us miserable. As we had no other water at times we drank the water from our shelter halves. Sometimes we were able to get the water and sometimes it just ran all over us. I laughed at our misery; but Gilmore would curse if he thought that it was my fault that he got wet. Whatever happened, he would blame it on me. Everyone was wrong but him.

On October 21, 1944, I was picked as one of twelve to go out on patrol in the evening. I had opened my big mouth and told Greg that I was able to understand German. I tried to get out of it but couldn't. We dressed lightly and carried no equipment but a rifle, two grenades, and bandolier of ammo. We went off silently in single file along a beaten trail. Suddenly a machine gun opened on us and we dropped for cover. They decided to get us to return; but at this time the mortars opened up on us and we ran as fast as possible to a house nearby. Right there I disproved the theory that I could run much faster when scared. The shells fell in a arc and we barely made it to the house and safety. We lay on the floor and waited for the barrage to cease. When it got quiet, we made our way back to our holes, which now seemed like home. This was my first and last patrol, and I didn't want to go on any more of them.

Since Gilmore was such a miserable character, they decided to leave him alone and they gave him no details. I had to go on outpost duty that same evening; which pleased him as it gave him the hole for himself. I had a terrible time trying to find the outpost; so the fellow with whom I was to be with came for me. Gilmore talked me into staying with Fulcher after our time was up. Fulcher and I stood guard in a small foxhole about 2 feet deep on the side of a hill overlooking a valley. There was no shelter of any kind in case of danger. The best we could do was sit on the edge of the muddy hole and listen. From our position we looked down into the valley about a thousand feet.

Somewhere below us the Germans were dug in; and so shells kept crashing into the valley all of the time. We could see and hear the explosions and wondered what if anything they were hitting. Fulcher carefully lit a cigarette. It worried me for him to take such a chance in such a place. I asked him how far away he thought that the Germans were. He said about a couple of thousand yards. After our first hour was over, we were relieved and we went back to his hole. Fulcher didn't think that we both could get into his narrow hole but because I wanted to please Gilmore, we made an effort to squeeze in. His hole was about 1 by 4 by 6 covered with a shelter half. We were very uncomfortable and could not turn; to make it worse it was muddy. We pulled the canvas over our heads and tried to make the best of it.

Then just as we tried to relax we heard the burst of a grenade, the firing of the BAR and a lot of shouting for the squad leader and for help. Just about fifteen minutes after we had left the outpost, three Jerries had crawled up the draw and were heard by York and his partner. The squad leader yelled for me to come. With difficulty I wormed my way out of the hole and ran toward the excitement.

There I found three very scared Germans pleading for their lives in German. I being the only one who could understand them, I reassured them that we didn't shoot prisoners. It was the funniest thing to see York cover them with his BAR, shaking so badly that he had no control over his weapon. Also his teeth chattered. At this point, I didn't know who was the most frightened. The German noncom tried to turn over his P38; but as he tried to reach for it, they made as if they were going to shoot. So here he was with his hands going up and down not knowing what to do. Finally someone took his weapon. Before we knew it, there were a dozen of us in a bunch; and with all of the noise that was made they surely must have heard us far away. It seemed that our men were more interested in souvenirs than in the prisoners.

One of the prisoners had been hit in the buttock by a grenade fragment and he was in much pain. Then a couple of us had to take them to the CO Camp. It was so slippery at times that the two Germans could not pull up the other man without help, so I would sit in the mud with my feet wrapped around a small tree and give them my hand. With much effort we got them to the top. As we went along in the dark we tripped into holes and over objects. The wounded man was groaning with pain at each jolt. I felt sorry for him. Finally we got to the command post, which was in a blacked-out house. There in the light of a lamp we saw the prisoners for the first time. They too were covered with mud from head to foot, and they looked very pathetic.

One of our officers spoke to them very harshly trying to find out whether there were others with them on this patrol. They were then put into a room to spend the night. In the morning we took them to the battalion command post, which was much further. Some places we had to just slide down embankments to get down. The wounded man was pale from his ordeal; but [we] had no medics and were unable to give them any attention. Seeing these three made me realize that these men were no different than us. We were all just doing our duty.

On October 25, 1944, after seven days in that horrible place, we withdrew hurriedly to a location near the battalion command post, which was located in a small house along the road. [We] were fairly comfortable here; but we had to make ourselves at home in foxholes along the bank of another road. We enjoyed some peace here as the shelling was very light. It rained very hard most of the time and we had a wet time of it. We took turns guarding the road in the darkness which was so dark that it was hard to identify anyone over ten feet away. Along this road, repair men were going all of the time adding new telephone wire to take the place of broken wire from the shells.

[I] had my first opportunity to write a letter since coming to the front. They brought us a change of long underwear and socks. There was also a well nearby which supplied us with all of our water.

The area around the house was filthy beyond description with rubbish, broken equipment, and human waste. There was a poor sheep with one leg shot off wandering around in its misery before a GI shot it. There was a family living in the stable part of the house in one stall. Here they lived in the most miserable conditions possible. About fifty GI's crowded into the same stable. It was dry in here but so crowded that everyone was miserable. Here I had my first look at the First Sergeant who the other fellows said was a coward and who would get conveniently sick whenever the outfit moved into a dangerous position. Sure enough, as we moved out on the 27th to another position, he got sick and had to go to the rear.

On the afternoon of October 27, we moved out to relieve another company that had taken a high point on Mount Grande. As we moved out, a tired, bedraggled, sad looking column of men moved into the place that we were vacating. They said that they had a rough time of it. The point that we were going to was only a couple of miles; but the mud was so deep and the hill so steep that we could only walk a few minutes before taking a break. Some of the places were so slippery that it was all we could do to keep up with the rest of the column. After what seemed like hours, we managed to reach a paved road. Now we took [up] our five yards’ interval and were ready for anything to happen. The road was littered with German and American weapons of all kinds.

The air was clear and dry; and we could tell the difference at once. Shells came in as we approached a little shot up village, and I dropped to the ground. It was like a scene from a movie. Guides came and led us to certain buildings. We dropped our packs and made ready to relieve some men on outpost duty. We walked down a road between road mines to another road on which we ran swiftly and silently to a group of holes that we were to occupy. Gilmore and I were put in the last group of holes about six hundred yards away from the house and about five hundred yards to the next outpost. So many times that night we were to make contact with them by running over a road littered with bloated oxen. The Germans were very near to us now. Gilmore and I [were] in one hole and McEwen and Greg, the assistant squad leader, [was] in the other.

Gilmore and I went out on the first contact patrol, and then McEwen and I went the second time. We found the men in the next outpost asleep and uninterested in the contact, so we didn't bother going anymore. We were glad to be in the safety of our holes. We were replaced before dawn; this group had to stay out there all day, and we had to stay out of sight in our houses. In our house, a dozen of us lay down on the straw on the floor and tried to get some rest. Some of the men heated up ten-in-ones, which is a better variety of canned rations. With the few utensils that we had, it took much time to heat this food, and it was served on cardboard. There were no sanitary conditions and no place to wash anything. Every so often the town was shelled, and it seemed that [the shells] just barely skimmed over the room in which we lay. We lay as flat as possible and wondered what would happen if our room was hit. During daylight hours we didn't dare come out or show where we were.

I was having diarrhea, and the only place to go was to a room reserved for this purpose; but to get to this room, one had to climb up a door to the second floor and then down to another. It wasn't something one wanted to do very often. I don't know whether it was worse sweating out the shellings and the inconvenience or being out in the outpost. Still we managed to get some rest between dawn and sunset.

About the third evening, on October 29, we ran to the outpost as usual. When it got real dark, I went out to get some water at a well. Things were quiet with only the constant whoosh of shells going over us into the valley below. Some of these burst, and some were duds. We were feeling in good spirits again. Then it happened: shot, flares, shouting, machine guns chattering. We could see tracers coming from the house. There was much confusion and shooting, and all we knew was that our positions were being attacked. As our hole was way out, we didn't know what was happening or going to happen. We held our weapons ready and shivered. Greg ordered us to stay put while he ran over to see what was going on. Gilmore wouldn't stand guard; but [he] put his blanket over his head and shook. McEwen and I took turns sticking our heads out trying to see the enemy.

Then the artillery shells started to fall all around us and we had the sinking feeling that we were surrounded by the Jerries. Shells hit around us so close that we were jarred around something awful. One of the Germans was hit, and he let out a terrible scream and cried for help until it became quiet. Besides our shells, there were the German screaming memeies which would come in our direction in a terrible way, frightening us so that we got down into our holes as deep as we could. During the couple of hours of the counterattack, our artillery sent out over five hundred shells, many of them coming too close for comfort. There were many duds; and I think [both] we and the Germans were glad that they didn't go off.

Dawn came and we were relieved and found out what had happened. A German paratroop unit had attacked with flame throwers and machine guns. Fortunately they were not able to get close enough before being heard. Greg and another man were captured and taken away by the Germans. A few of the men in the outposts were wounded. More men were wounded at the house when the Germans threw in a grenade. There were a few GIs and Germans killed. During the day a German sergeant gave himself up and provided some information as to the location of weapons and such. The German captain swore to take the town or die. Well, he died.

By the next day, October 30, things were quiet, but we were on constant alert. That evening we were relieved by another company and sent to the rear. This time, we only had to travel about a half a mile through deep mud to our new positions. There alongside a mountain on a road, we tried to find ourselves a hole. Gilmore and I found a hole 4 x 6 x 3 feet deep. We laid down, and tried to make ourselves comfortable as possible.

The next morning, we found that we were located in a shell shattered forest being shelled often and causing us to fear above all tree bursts. We put up our shelter halves and tried to make the hole as rain proof as possible. That night it rained, and the hole started to fill up, forcing me to bail the water out with my helmet every few minutes. As usual Gilmore was as mean as could be; but I tried to be amiable.

During the night a returned GI, Leo Fugluicg needed a place to stay. There seemed to be no other place for him to go but with us; so the three of us crowded into the small area. Gilmore stayed warm and dry in the center; but Fugluicg and I were wet from the water seeping into the sides. We could only lay sideways; when one turned the others also had to turn. Many times during the night I had to dash out on account of my GIs. It made it very bad because it disturbed the others. Gilmore would curse and bawl me out; but I just had to go.

As miserable as it was, it was better than being outside in the rain, dodging shells. After each miserable night, we were happy to see the sun and have our clothes dried out. Then we would get water from a flooded hole near us, add a halazone tablet to the canteen, and it would be ready to drink. After a few miserable nights, I managed to dig a drain for the water so I didn't have to bail anymore.

On November 3, a colonel brought us [the] good news that we were to be relieved by a British unit and we would go to the rear for a rest. At this point our weapons were covered with rust and mud; so he asked us to please clean our weapons. This was funny because back in the States, we would have been court marshalled for a lot less. He came back the next day and asked us to shave our 3 weeks growth of beard. It was painful; also we hardly recognized each other without the growth. It was surprising how each man's beard grew differently. So for the next few days we stood guard and dreamt of what it would be like to get away from this misery of mud and shells.

© John A. Matzko

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