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The Battered Bastards of Bastogne
A Chronicle of the Defense of Bastogne December 19, 1944-January 17, 1945
By George E. Koskimaki
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 1994 George E. Koskimaki
All rights reserved.
Rear Base in England
Many replacements were on the way to the 101st Airborne Division as the fighting was winding down in Holland. The Division had suffered some 3,500 casualties (killed, wounded or injured and captured) during the 72-day campaign.
The experiences of PFC. Donald B. Straith are good examples of what life was like for the average replacement coming to the "Screaming Eagle" Division for the Bastogne operation. Straith had been on the high seas on board the Queen Mary headed for a European replacement pool. His shipment went ashore at Gourock, Scotland. From there they traveled by train to Newbury. Straith begins his story:
From there we went by truck to various small camps, at each of which a few of our group left us. When I was finally ordered out of the truck, I found that I was now part of the rear echelon of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. I had first seen the Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st back in Anniston and had hoped that I would eventually become a member of that division. Now, at last I had.
Our camp was located a mile east of the town of Hungerford on an estate called Denford Park. The officers were quartered in a manor house while the enlisted men's quarters, mess hall and recreation hall were in Quonset huts scattered among the trees along the driveway. These huts were wartime buildings that looked like half a corrugated cylinder laid on the ground with a door at each end. Assigned to one of the huts, I picked an empty bunk, the bottom of a crude double-decker made of 2 x 4 material and was dead to the world immediately after supper.
Training was rather laid back for the rear echelon people, some of whom had recently returned from extended recuperation periods in Army hospitals. PFC. Don Straith describes a bit of the routine as experienced by a new replacement:
Time passed slowly while the rear echelon waited to join the rest of the division which was still fighting in Holland. Because of almost constant rain, our officers—Lieutenant Tinsley (company commander), and Lts. Stanley and Stanfield, who had come over with us—couldn't carry on much training. We occasionally did calisthenics, hikes and long-distance runs, but when Lt. Stanley was in charge, he would run us past the first hedgerow outside camp, have us sit down on the far side out of sight and spend the next hour telling jokes.
PFC. Harry Sherrard had received extensive training at Fort Leonard Wood but he wasn't qualified yet for an assignment to the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion. He wrote:
I was rated as a demolitions or explosive specialist having completed special training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri before going to the 101st Airborne Division jump school in southern England. What my "MO" really meant is that I got to carry a lot of Composition 'C' or 'C-2' and a bazooka—which meant outpost duty when we were on the line.
1Lt. Joseph B. Scheiker had been assigned to the 101st Division at Mourmelon in November as the Holland operation came to a close. He was then sent back to England for a quick course in parachute training. He wrote:
I had to return to England to attend jump school. The school was closing as I arrived in Hungerford, England. We had five days of training and did all five jumps in one day to get our wings.
The Wounded and Injured Return
Having returned from a hospital stay in England, PFC. Ben Panzarella was sent back to the rear base near Reading to finish recuperating. He and a buddy went to town on pass and got into a fist fight with some replacements for the 101st. He wrote:
I remember still recuperating and getting into a fist fight with some replacements (101st yet) who still had the pre-combat swagger and since we didn't have jump boots or even a division insignia (we got uniforms from the hospital), they took us for S.O.S. troops and got a surprise when we didn't cower. The guy with me was named Ryan and he was recuperating from an appendectomy.
PFC. John C. Trowbridge had spent the better part of two months in a hospital for wounds to the right thigh received in the attack on the town of Schijndel in Holland. He had spent some time at the former training site at Hamstead Marshall. He had boarded a C-47 with several others for the flight to Mourmelon. He wrote:
It was on this flight to Mourmelon that I learned of Colonel Howard Johnson's death. I was devastated! I had lost a lot of friends in Normandy and Holland, but how could we go on without the Colonel!
PFC. James W. Flanagan had been wounded on the morning of September 18 near St. Oedenrode. After being treated in a local Dutch hospital run jointly by Dutch and American personnel, he was flown to England where he spent three months in treatment and recuperation. His story of the continuing saga follows:
Early in December I was still in the 61st General Hospital in jolly ole England. I was in the final stage of recuperation from shell fragments that I had received in Holland. I was getting around real good with lots of exercise and running. I was returned to duty and reported to the 101st Airborne Division rear echelon in the U.K. They were moving to France. I helped them load a C-47 with their files, etc. I climbed into a parachute and went to France with them.
1Lt. William McRae had been wounded on September 22 when he was shot down while observing enemy positions and movements near Veghel in Holland. He was captured by the enemy and liberated the following day by men of "D" Company of the 506th Parachute Regiment. McRae had been taken to England for medical treatment and hospitalization. Upon release from the hospital, he rejoined his comrades in France. He was flying a new observation plane across the English Channel. He wrote: "I was given a new aircraft (L-4 Piper Cub) and flew it to France where I rejoined my outfit at Mourmelon."
Having arrived at the base camp of the 101st as a replacement for one of the anticipated casualties for the Normandy invasion, 2Lt. Everett "Red" Andrews remembers that his assignment continued in England when the 101st Division went on its mission to Holland. He helped close out the rear base camp at a time when he got disturbing news from home. He wrote:
I stayed in base camp and cleaned unit areas for the return of the base to British engineers. Also closed out our PX account and a project as personal effects officer for some 275 casualties the 377th PFA suffered in Normandy.
The last mail call before departure for Mourmelon brought an unpleasant surprise for me. It had my "Dear John" letter in it.
Setting Up a New Base Camp
In preparation for a move to a base camp in France, several of the men were sent ahead to ready the facilities for the troops. One of those men was Cpl. James L. Evans of Division Artillery. He recalled:
In mid-November I was sent on an advance party to the new base camp in Mourmelon-le-Grand in France, probably because of my carpentry work before the war. I thought maybe my first sergeant liked me after that.
Sgt. Reggie Davies was another of the soldiers who left the rain and mud ahead of the troops. He wrote: "I left Holland three weeks before my unit with 1Lt. Charles Disney to help prepare the camp for the arrival of the troops."
After hospitalization for wounds and recuperation in England, PFC. Ben Panzarella arrived at Mourmelon before the troops got there from Holland. He remembers one of the assignments was covering POW work details as they went about making the camp presentable for the arriving troops. Panzarella recalled:
When we got to Mourmelon there were rear echelon troops (some not from the 101st) and 101st replacements in charge of the prisoner work details. Some of the troops who had not seen combat were downright cruel to the prisoners. There was a marked difference between how the combat vets and the replacements treated them.
Departure From Holland
Without a doubt, all the men of the 101st departing for Mourmelon were extremely anxious to get out from under two months of almost constant rain. During that time any foxhole dug in the saturated soil on the Island in Holland resulted in a mini-sized bathtub within a few minutes. Movement in daytime resulted in mortar or artillery barrages as the enemy had excellent observation from the high hills on the north side of the Rhine River. The positions had become more hazardous since the leaves had fallen from the trees and deciduous shrubs. The natural camouflage was gone.
As his battalion departed from the Island area in Holland after 72 days on the front line, PFC. William J. Stone reminisced on what the scene had been like when he arrived on the continent as a member of a forward ob server team attached to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment as contrasted to what it was like as they were departing. He wrote:
As we parachuted to earth in September, the skies were blue, the sun was shining, the countryside was shades of green; sturdy houses stood alongside the roads and the fields were carefully tended. There were many people about; some of them assisted us in gathering our equipment while others offered apples which were being harvested then.
Now, in November, as we rolled down the roads off the Island, the skies were overcast, it rained intermittently and the roads were covered with a few inches of water which were pushed aside by the wheels of the trucks forming bow waves as if we had wheeled boats. Much damage had been done to the country. Roofs and sides of buildings had been blown off leaving evidence of the life that had once taken place inside of them visible to all. The fields had been torn up by artillery fire and tracked vehicles and were now fields of mud. Fences had been knocked down, cows and horses were lying dead and bloated in the fields and most of the people had left.
Several of the men commented on their departure from Holland. Two of them remembered comrades who didn't make it and were left behind.
As a veteran of both the Normandy and Holland campaigns, Medic Robert W. Smith had ministered to the needs of the men in his company which had been badly decimated in the sand dunes of Eerde and hit hard again near the dike at Driel. He described what his company commander did for the men who were left behind:
When we were leaving Holland and getting out of artillery range, Capt. (Stanfield) Stach had us stop for a few minutes and say a prayer for those we left behind. He always seemed to be a very caring person.
Captain Willis P. McKee was sad to be leaving two of his close friends behind in Holland as both had been killed when an enemy bomb struck their vehicle at Nijmegen. He was responsible for closing out the area that had been occupied by his company.
Platoon sergeant Frank L. McClure, whose unit had suffered heavy casualties the first night in Holland, remembered the trip from the rain and mud of the Island this way:
The departure from Holland was cold, wet; bedraggled remnants of a once sharp platoon. The British lorry, carrying part of the 2nd Platoon, rolled down an embankment when the driver went to sleep sometime after we left the Island. Miraculously, no one was hurt in the melee of flying bodies and equipment. Sgt. (Bill) Foreman was unaccounted for.
Sgt. Foreman turned up dressed in mostly Canadian uniform and company commander, Captain Frank Gregg, was not pleased.
Arrival at Mourmelon
After having lived almost two months in water-logged conditions, a respite in dry quarters was much anticipated by the men. PFC. William J. Stone had this description of what the new situation was like for his group:
The former French Army post at Mourmelon was a welcome sight after the dreary trip from Holland. The barracks were a treat—the best quarters I had in the Army. Each sleeping room had been occupied by 12 French soldiers. However, we slept on double bunks and so had 24 men in each room. Almost all of the members of the Battery "B" detail section were able to sleep in one room. This was the first time since I joined the 321st in September of 1943 at Watcombe Farm that I had enjoyed indoor plumbing and so this was, indeed, a treat.
As we recovered from the shock of not having to go into the cold night air just to use the toilet facilities, we began recleaning our equipment and thinking about passes to Rheims, a nearby city.
On hand to greet the battle-weary veterans were comrades who had recovered from wounds in the earlier fighting in Normandy and Holland. They had been flown to France to help set up the new base camp.
PFC. John C. Trowbridge had learned of the death of his regimental commander, Colonel Johnson, on the flight to Mourmelon. Now he was to learn of the loss of more of his friends but was brightened by the presentation of a special gift from a friend. He recalled:
I was greeted by old friends with a great deal of glee, but when one by one, they listed the casualties, my happiness turned to sorrow. One machine gunner, Oscar Arndt, presented me with a beautiful P-38 luger.
After he returned to the rear base in England, from an extended hospital stay, PFC. James W. Flanagan helped the rear echelon load their files in a C-47 and flew with them to the new rear base in France. He was now back with his buddies in "C" Company of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. He wrote:
I reported back to the regiment—back to 2nd Platoon of "C" Company—home away from home. Not many of the old hands around—same old supply sergeant with his unbelievable memory. I checked in, checked out my bedding and duffle bag and back to 2nd Platoon with a lot of unfamiliar faces—a few Normandy vets.
Since I had been away since the middle of September I was asked "Why did you come back?" I probably could have gone home, but everything was going so well. The war was about over and I thought I might as well stay. I had not taken my convalescent leave from the hospital and they said I could take my leave to Paris.
S/Sgt. Michael Bokesch was with the Dutch underground for six weeks near Boxtel after his glider aborted its flight far short of the landing zone. By the time the British troops reached them, a group of 120 Allied airmen and airborne troops had been collected by the underground forces and were then able to return to their own units. His group had returned to the rear base in England and then had a plane ride to Mourmelon. Upon his arrival, Bokesch was shown a letter his company commander had just received:
Capt. Clifford Kjell, my C.O., had just received a letter from my cousin, 1Lt. A. Bokesch of the 29th Infantry Division, who assumed I was KIA and wanted the particulars of the event.
The new replacements for the casualties suffered in Holland began arriving on the scene. PFC. Don Straith provides an excellent description of how the men were parcelled out to the various units of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment:
Shortly after dark, we pulled into Camp de Mourmelon, a peacetime French Army post and, after dismounting from the trucks, we lined up along our regimental street. An officer counted us off a few at a time and, regardless of our classifications, assigned us to various companies. Being near one end of the line, I—a demolitionist—was with several troopers who went to Company 'A' as riflemen, while Danny, who was farther along, went to Company 'G'. When we reached our company area, a corporal approached us and asked if anyone was from the Detroit area. I and Bill Martin from Dearborn spoke up, whereupon the corporal announced, 'I'll take these two!' and then said, 'I'm Jerry Janes from Trenton and you're in the 3rd Platoon.'
As mentioned earlier, the 101st Airborne Division had suffered the loss of key commanders at the regimental and battalion levels and platoon leaders had to be replaced.
In his book, The Men of Bastogne, Fred McKenzie describes how the leadership and equipment had been sorely depleted during the extended period of fighting in Holland:
The Division had spent 72 days continuously on the line in Holland. A fourth of the paratroopers and gliderborne soldiers, including three of the four regimental commanders, were killed or wounded. Much of the equipment and large quantities of supplies were used up or lost and none had been replaced.
As indicated in the experiences of PFC. Don Straith, some of the new replacements arrived at Mourmelon after the troops returned from Holland. Officers were shifted to unfamiliar positions because they brought with them combat experience. Such was the background of 1Lt. Alfred Regenburg who had just arrived from England where he had recuperated from wounds. He recalled:
I had just arrived back in the base camp from England, having spent about three months in the hospital. I had been first lieutenant commanding the machine gun platoon of the 2nd Battalion Headquarters Company of the 327th Glider Regiment. I found that I had been promoted to executive officer of 'G' Company. I only had a speaking acquaintance with Capt. Hugh Evans, the company commander at the time, and the other officers, and very little familiarity with any of the noncoms and other enlisted men.
Excerpted from The Battered Bastards of Bastogne by George E. Koskimaki. Copyright © 1994 George E. Koskimaki. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsGlossary/U.S. Army Rankings
2. The Alert
3. The Trip to Bastogne
4. December 19
5. December 20
6. December 21
7. December 22
8. December 23
9. Christmas Eve
10. Christmas Day
11. The Siege Is Broken
12. December 27
13. Calm Before a Storm
14. December 31
15. January 2, 1945
16. January 3, 1945
17. January 4, 1945
18. A Respite
19. On the Offensive
20. Mopping Up