Saturday, October 31, 2020

Nightmare in the Trees


Sgt Hernandez signaled a halt, then gestured for the two squads to deploy in line to either side of his position. Hernandez watched as the men moved through the forest, even the three rookies moved well, not stepping on anything which might make a noise. Wilson and Gentile were training them well, he expected that men would die this night, he harbored a vague hope that it would be mostly Germans doing the dying.

Sergeants Jack Wilson and Stump Gentile joined him after the men were deployed, Wilson spoke first. "Why are we stopping Steve?"

Although Sgt Hernandez hated being called "Steve," he was used to the easy-going way his adopted countrymen acted, and, after all, Sgt Wilson outranked him by time in grade and in the amount of time he'd been in this platoon, since D-Day as a matter of fact. "Ya know Jack, my original idea was to push out in front of the positions those guys are holding up at the end of this trail. If they think it's too dicey, maybe we'll just reinforce. But honestly, I don't think the Germans have all that much on top of this ridge."

Sgt Gentile spoke up, "Stephen, all it takes is to have an MG 42 lookin' down our throats. We also know that they have at least one assault gun."

Hernandez nodded, "I get that Stump, but we need to start fighting smart. Truth be told, I really want to try and flank these cabrónes. I think they're thin on the ground. We've been trying to hit them in the flank, but we didn't go deep enough. And if you ask me, tanks are no good in these trees."

"Tell ya what Steve, sorry, Stephen," Wilson had noticed that Hernandez always seemed to wince when you called him "Steve," so he addressed the man as Gentile had, "let me go on ahead and see where the 3rd Armored guys are at, I think we're close. If their boss says it's a good idea, then Hell yeah, let's swing around behind these guys and really kick 'em in the ass."

"Go, come back as soon as you can, it'll be dark in about two hours."


"Herr Hauptmann!" Oberfeldwebel Klaus-Peter Keller reported in to Hauptmann Jürgen von Lüttwitz, "my boys are back from the rear, they brought plenty of rations, tinned meat and bread, but there were no batteries to be had for the radio."

"Scheiße, very well Keller, now go see to..."

Keller interrupted his captain, "Sir, I brought back a map and a flare gun." Von Lüttwitz looked puzzled until Keller continued, "the map has three areas, one for green, one for red, and one for white. You fire a particular color flare, and the mortars will hit the appropriate area, based on the color."

"Provided, of course, that they can see the flares." Von Lüttwitz had to admire the simplicity of it, he would rather have had the radio, but this was better than nothing. "Danke Oberfeldwebel, would you see to the distribution of the rations? Obergefreiter Vogel will assist you. After all, he is the company cook, so I suppose this is right up his alley."

"Certainly Sir."

Von Lüttwitz started studying the map Keller had given him. He figured out which areas the Amis might approach on, the mortar battery leader was a sharp trooper, he had worked out the approaches simply by knowing von Lüttwitz's position and seeing the terrain as represented on the map. This just might work, even with this rain, he thought.


One of the men watching the trail signaled to SFC Pedley that someone was coming up the trail. From the patch on his field jacket, Pedley saw that it was a guy from the 26th. "Hey Sarge, you lost?"

Sgt Wilson chuckled and said, "I wish, you guys with the Third Herd?"

"That's us, where are the rest of you?"

"I've got two squads just down the hill, our tanks are held up maybe a mile down the track, one of 'em threw a track. Hey, I got a proposal for you guys."

"Well, let's get Sgt Peterson in on this, that's his tank just up a piece. He and I are running the show for now."

The two men went up to see Sgt Mac Peterson who was studying his map, he didn't look happy. He saw Pedley and another sergeant coming up to his tank so he said, "Bud, what's going on? I just got off the radio with MSgt Morton. Looks like they ain't gonna make it up here by tonight."

Pedley shook his head and said, "Shit. So Wilson, it is Wilson right? So what's your proposition?"

Wilson explained Hernandez's idea of trying to get behind the Krauts, Pedley was hesitant. "You do know that we have no idea what's up there right? We think we're on their right flank but I don't know if they have any listening posts farther out. And I'll bet the bastards have mined the place. The Krauts do love their mines."

Wilson was looking at his map, he shook his head, "I know Sarge, it all seems kinda harebrained now that I'm up here. I guess we'll just come on up and reinforce you guys, at least you'll have more rifles on your line."

Mac Peterson was looking off in the direction of the burnt out StuGs and Shermans, he almost seemed to be daydreaming.

"Mac, are you awake? Don't you have an opinion?" Pedley was slightly annoyed, maybe Mac's just tired, he thought. But Peterson shook his head.

"Nah, Bud, I'm okay, but I've got an idea." Climbing back onto his tank, he yelled down at his loader, "Jim, how much HE do we have left?"

After a few moments Pedley and Wilson could hear a muffled reply from inside the vehicle. Peterson told his loader, "Thanks" then he climbed back down with a grin on his face.

"So, if you guys were holed up in a trench at night, in these woods, and suddenly all sorts of tank high explosive rounds came screaming in, what would you do?"

Pedley answered, "Hell, I'd put my head down, I know that the tank can't see me, but..." The sergeant had this look on his face, almost like he'd just solved a puzzle. "It sure would be one Hell of a distraction wouldn't it?"

Wilson was watching all this, then he too saw the beauty of the thing. "So you guys lob HE at their position, while we sneak around the other side of the hill, that just might work. I like it, I think my sergeant will like it too. When do you want to start?"

Pedley looked at his watch then looked at Peterson, "Forty-five minutes sound about right?"

Peterson nodded and said, "It's getting dark in here already, it's still light further down the trail where it's a bit more open." Looking at Wilson he said, "That give you enough time to get back to your guys and explain the plan?"

"Yup, it does, and if my boss doesn't like it, that still gives us time to get up here and call the whole thing off. If we do, then we wait until the tanks come up."

Pedley looked at the two sergeants and said, "Let's do this."


Von Lüttwitz noticed that the men were starting to tuck into the rations Keller's men had brought up, he noted the time and the fact that the light would be starting to go soon. He called Feldwebel Dieter Pohl over to him.

"Dieter, pick three men, have them take as many canteens as they can carry, and go get us some water. It'll be dark soon enough, can you get there and back in under an hour?"

"Certainly Sir, we'll go now."


"Yes Sir, I'm going with the same men I took before, easier that way."

"All right, go. Do it quickly!"

"Jawohl!" Pohl nodded and headed off to collect his men, grabbing canteens from men as he went.

Now von Lüttwitz had time for a quick bite to eat. He sat back in the trench, he noticed that his hands were shaking. I wonder, he thought, when's the last time I had more than three hours of sleep in an entire day?

Sgt Hernandez had liked the idea, so now he was leading the men he had to the right of the trail. It was fairly steep and not all that easy to climb, but the men helped each other and soon they had reached what seemed to be the end of the ridge the Krauts were holding.

"Jack, take your boys to the right, Stump you take the left."

"Where you gonna be Stephen?" Wilson asked.

"I'll be just back of Stump's squad. Move slow, keep low. I expect that tank will start up any minute now. When it does, move faster. Be ready to go in shooting."

Sgt Wilson nodded and headed off to the right, he had his men just the other side of the crest of the ridge. Before Sgt Gentile moved he looked at Hernandez, "You do know that this could go completely to shit, right?"

"Would you rather charge straight into that damned assault gun?"

"Nope, I do not. Let's go."

Von Lüttwitz put his mess tin aside, he was almost not hungry anymore. He looked at his watch, it was starting to get dark now. Checking his watch, he thought it odd that it was getting dark just now. Must be the rain he thought. Then he realized, it wasn't raining anymore.

Opa Köhler came down the trench to talk with his captain. Von Lüttwitz looked up in surprise, "Opa, who's minding the store down your way?"

"Benfeldt. He's a good man, he's teaching Vorwald how to be an assistant gunner. He finds it amusing to teach a busted officer. No disrespect intended Herr Hauptmann." Köhler said that with a wry grin and a wink.

"Cheeky bastard."

"Yes Sir. Hey, is that snow?"

"What!?" von Lüttwitz looked hard into the gathering gloom, sure enough heavy wet flakes of snow were coming down.

Two seconds later, a 75 mm tank round streaked overhead and slammed into one of the tall pines roughly ten meters behind the trench. The explosion lit the surrounding area as if it were day.

Von Lüttwitz heard screaming and knew that at least one of his men was wounded, badly from the sound of it. Then more rounds came in, the sound of the explosions and the dazzling glare from the detonations were disorienting as Hell. Then he heard something else which made his blood run cold, rifle fire to his rear. American rifle fire.

Pvt Fred McArthur had stumbled into a German position held by two of Zumbach's engineers. As he fell into the foxhole he fired his weapon without even thinking, he had shot one man in the face. That men fell screaming, clutching his face, the other man jumped on McArthur and tried to wrestle the weapon away from him. He died when Sgt Gentile hit him in the back of the head with the butt of his Thompson, multiple times.

"Jesus Fred, what the Hell?" Gentile managed to say before a German MP 40 began to fire in their direction. Soon German tracers were lighting the air around them. "Fred, get a grenade out, don't fire your rifle."

Soon both McArthur and Gentile had thrown grenades in the direction from where the MP 40 had fired from, they heard the crump of the grenades going off, then a scream. They'd hit somebody.

Hernandez was down. He'd been hit in the lower abdomen on the right side. It hurt like Hell. He'd been just as surprised as McArthur when the firing had broken out. After he'd heard the two grenades go off, American grenades from the sound of them, all had gotten relatively quiet again. Though the tank rounds were still going in and over the German position, all small arms fire had ceased for the moment.

As he grappled with his kit to get his bandage out, he heard another explosion over to the right, where Wilson's squad should be. It sounded a lot like a Bouncing Betty. Then there were more screams, multiple wounded from the sounds of it.

"Shit, shit, shit. Ah Jesus, Sarge I'm f**king hit." PFC Jack Leonard was a mess. He had been hit by multiple steel balls from the mine which Virgil Kennedy had tripped. Kennedy had been thrown into the air, in pieces. One of his legs had been blown completely off. He wasn't moving. Leonard couldn't feel his legs and could only move one arm. "Mama!!" he screamed at the night.

PFC Howie Dickenson had been hit as well, one steel ball had glanced off the side of his helmet, knocking him out cold. A second ball had gone through his upper arm, breaking the bone before exiting the other side.

Sgt Jack Wilson knew he had to do something, and fast. He misinterpreted what was happening and thought that the squad had triggered an ambush. So he did the only thing which seemed to make sense to him, he bellowed, "First Squad, FIX BAYONETS!"

Moments later the survivors of 1st Squad charged up the ridge, scaring the Hell out of Gentile and his squad. But he saw instantly what Wilson was trying to do, so he yelled out, "Third Squad, SUPPRESSING FIRE." Then he opened up with his Thompson.

Unteroffizier Sepp Zumbach, commanding the small engineer detachment attached to von Lüttwitz's company stared in amazement at the men coming out of the darkness and the swirling snow. Who were these devils...

He died screaming as an American bayonet slammed into his chest. Only one of the engineers made it back to von Lüttwitz's trench line.

Feldwebel Dieter Pohl wondered what the Hell was going on back at the company position. Then it hit him, the f**king Americans were attacking. From multiple directions from the sound of it.

"Guys, leave the canteens, we need to help our guys, let's go!"

"Opa, what the Hell are you doing?!" von Lüttwitz saw Köhler loading a flare into the flare pistol, then he fired it. It was a white flare. Then he followed with a green flare, then a red flare. At that point it dawned on von Lüttwitz, with the Americans firing from the right flank and in their rear, Köhler was "telling" the mortarmen, "Fire it all, shoot everything."

That just might confuse the American attackers.

Pvt Jim Sherwood yelled over the tank's intercom that they'd fired the last HE round. "But Mac, I got a couple of Willy Peters left, fire 'em?"

Sgt Peterson barked back, "Shoot 'em both!"

When the first white phosphorus round came in, it hit high in a nearby tree. The explosion dazzled the German defenders, the burning material floated down into the trench and two men began screaming.

The second white phosphorus round was a dud.

The American attack died down shortly after midnight. They pulled back, dragging their wounded and their dead with them. The German survivors waited the remainder of the night, standing by their weapons, treating their own wounded and counting their own dead.

Von Lüttwitz had been wounded again, a splinter from a tree had carved a bloody swath across one cheek. The concussion from a nearby explosion had knocked him out cold for a time. He had regained consciousness to see Opa Köhler, bleeding from a wound to the leg, directing the defense and trying to keep the men's morale up by screaming filthy obscenities, in English, at their attackers.

When the sun came up, he had someone go to where Bielefeld's StuG was positioned. The man reported back that the StuG was abandoned and burning, he had no idea where the crew was. Von Lüttwitz had a sneaking suspicion that those men had destroyed their own vehicle and retreated in the confusion.

Unterfeldwebel Hasso Bielefeld stared sullenly at his captors. His crew, Gefreiter Sigismund Hecht, Panzerschütze Hans Stoecker, and Panzerschütze Wilfried Gober, sat nearby. Two of them had been wounded when the Americans had come out of the night and swarmed over his vehicle. At least they were being treated by an American Sani.

He felt humiliated. While he had been trying to figure out what the Americans had been up to, he couldn't understand just what the Ami tank had been firing at, he couldn't even see the muzzle flash of its gun, a small squad of American infantry had crept up and overwhelmed his men.

The final straw was when the Americans had set off an explosive in his StuG, detonating the onboard ammunition and destroying it. Bastards couldn't kill them in a fair fight, sneaking around in the dark like a bunch of red Indians, Bielefeld thought.

An American came over to him and grabbed him by the collar of his tunic, yanking him roughly to his feet, "Come on Fritz, war's over for you buddy." The four Germans were prodded down the trail at bayonet point. He noticed that the Amis were in a very ugly mood. When he saw the knocked out Shermans, he understood. He'd be angry as well. In fact, he was.

Bielefeld had an odd thought as the sun came up, the clouds having blown away overnight, the snow looked rather pretty on the hillside and in the trees.

Almost like a postcard.

Link to all of The Chant's fiction.


  1. That reminded me of the Platoon scene where US commander ordered napalm airstrike on own positions as they have been overrun by NVA...
    How many dead on both sides? The grisly tally keeps growing and growing...

  2. Confusion in the dark - it sure helps to have combat vets who can think on the spur of the moment. Both sides have them.

  3. Boy, feel a bit wrung out just reading an episode like this, tension gets ramped up fast. That first photo source lists the 4th ID casualties for the forest battle.....horrific.

    1. It took a while to get to sleep after writing this. Finished around 0100, a bit wrung out indeed.

  4. Gravy, that's a knife fight in the dark with one eye open. How do you deal with the tension? man....

    1. I don't know how the men who were in that fight kept their sanity. Many didn't.

    2. I read once that in a situation like that, men just go insane. Seriously, only an insane man can handle that situation. Most come back from the insanity. Some don't.

      Temporary suspension of sanity. Like running into a burning building to rescue someone. Or charging a gunman or knifewielder. Makes sense (temp insanity) to me.

    3. I think it was 'Marine at War', a book about action in the Pacific, that talked about Marines occasionally going solo into the jungle and spending time alone just to get their head screwed on halfway straight again, then re-joining their units.

    4. That's the way Berserkers fought. Always chilling..."Fix Bayonets" Just got really real. Or maybe stepping into the twilight zone...

    5. Beans - You have to be a bit nuts to fight like that. One's humanity goes out the window and 20,000 plus years of evolution kicks in.

    6. Frank - I can understand that, gives one time to depressurize.

  5. Hey Old AFSarge;

    Felt like I was there in the woods with them, That STU III crew is lucky they ain't dead, a lot of GI's confuse the Panzer uniform for the SS uniform and "accidents" happen.

    1. Assault gun crews wore field-gray tunics most of the time, they were considered to be part of the artillery arm.

      Lucky for them!

    2. Wasn't it field-grey tunics and black trowsers?

    3. Trousers were also field-gray, though no doubt one can find photos showing dark trousers. Officially the assault gun and Panzerjäger crews wore uniforms identical in cut to the Panzer crews, but in field-gray, not black.

  6. Aw, man, Hernandez... Dangit. Hopefully it's just a flesh wound as those hurt and burn like heck but are recoverable (rather than a sucking belly wound or something.)

    Good story. One of the things the Germans truly hated about Americans in both WWI and in WWII is we fought so... unprofessionally. Like sneaking way around and attacking rear units.

    The toll of wounded, missing and dead is just piling up. Who's gone now?

    Very tense story. Nightmare inducing. Glad I have all day to process it.

    1. First - kudos for referring to this as Calvinball yesterday. Making the rules up as you go along...
      And, the bloody mess keeps getting bloodier and messier.
      Hitting the enemy from behind - someone made a career out of that move.

    2. Beans - The next episode will count the cost to date. I'm not sure if it's over yet, both units are getting so worn down.

    3. Frank - Combat is very much like Calvinball, chaotic and the rules change from second to second. Because in reality, there are no rules.

    4. I thought the only rule in combat was to win. And to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

      My ex-husband told me one time when they were kids, Dad had told them that if they got into a fight, "to win the fight. If ya weren't cheating, ya weren't trying, and ya certainly weren't winning."

      That man raised 5 boys, all of whom were scrappers. The ones who are still alive range in age from 70-88. They are still tough scrappers you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley at night if you were on the wrong side of them. They are the nicest bunch of gentlemen you would ever want to meet. Just don't get on the wrong side of any of them.

    5. There is no such thing as a fair fight when one's survival is at stake.

    6. Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch is fond of saying, "Always cheat, always win!!" I think he got that attitude as a USMC corporal and then as an associate of Col. Jeff Cooper at Gunsite.

    7. Especially when winning means surviving.

  7. Outstanding storytelling, lost myself in the reading, kind of jarring to find yourself staring at a screen after "being there".
    Read a book on the Hurtgen forest combat early in my Navy days, and could not believe I'd not heard of it before. Hurtgen had Bulge beaten hands down from what I read. Again, thanks for the story. Anyone know any screenwriters? Hanks or Eastwood need to do this.

  8. Bouncing Bettys were nasty things - kind of an ancestor of the M18 Claymore
    Now I'm wondering about casualties from the booby trapped Kraut mines after their positions are overrun and the engineers come in to clean up...

  9. As I was reading the prelude to this installment, I thought what a revolution drones would’ve been.

    And while I know our Army and Marines have drones now I wonder what their defense to enemy drones are.

    This is the first time I’ve ever seen both sides humanized.

    I think most Germans who served were honorable although even the regular army had their rabid Nazis that helped the Einsatzgruppen in the east.

    But I think most were honorable. SS exempted.

    I know the Russians generally shot them on site. I wonder if it was our regular practice, too?

    Although towards the end of the war they were regular Germans drafted into SS units, like the father of a friend of mine with a Mercedes shop.

    The only thing that saved him from the Russians he did not have the tattoo.

    1. It was unusual for US units to execute prisoners from the Waffen SS. It happened, but nothing like on the Eastern Front.


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