Thursday, November 5, 2020

The Quick and the Dead


1Lt Nate Paddock was on his way to the battalion aid station, a much diminished Charlie Company had come back down from the hill. The hill the men were calling "Bloody Hill." It put Paddock in mind of some Civil War battle when he recalled stories of the places like the Sunken Lane at Antietam or the Bloody Angle at Gettysburg. Places where men fought at point blank range and slaughtered each other in large numbers.

It was on a smaller scale for Charlie Company's section of the Hürtgen Forest, but it was bloody and the fight had been going on for days. He felt as though Charlie Company's back was finally broken. The men were demoralized and sullen. The fight had been that hard, as far as he knew, he and Herman Jacobsen of Weapons Platoon were the only officers left in the company.

1Lt Gus Chambers had been hit in both legs that morning, 1Lt Kent Jackson was dead, run over by one of the tanks they had been supporting (his platoon sergeant, SSgt Billy Brooks, had been killed at the same time by the same tank), and 2Lt Morgan Childreth had been hit by German machine gun fire and died on the spot.

Paddock wondered what the final toll would be, he did know that the company, as far as rifle strength, was barely the strength of a single platoon. Weapons Platoon was in good shape, but they weren't useful beyond performing a supporting role. No maneuver element in a Weapons Platoon.

As Paddock approached the medical tent, he saw the battalion commander sitting outside the tent, helmet at his feet, elbows on his knees, staring at nothing. As Paddock walked up, Captain Josephson looked up.

"It's your company now Nate, all eighty-six of 'em. 1Sgt Morton will be out shortly, he's with Gus at the moment." As he said that, Paddock could tell that the captain was struggling to control his emotions.

For some odd reason, a feeling of dread came over Paddock as he asked, "How is 1Lt Chambers, Sir?"

Josephson looked at Paddock for a long moment, "He's dead Nate. The doctor couldn't do a damned thing to save him. He was hit in both legs, the guys didn't know that an artery had been nicked. When they got down here, it opened up, they tried, they really tried, but he bled out before the doc could save him."

"Ah, shit." Paddock felt his knees go weak. To cover that momentary lapse, he pulled his cigarettes from his field jacket pocket and offered one to Captain Josephson.

"Thanks Nate. This whole business is terrible. If we'd waited one more day, we might have had some artillery support, real artillery, not just mortars, 105s and maybe even 155s from Corps. But those have been tied up supporting the 'main effort' as the staffers at division call it. F**king Bloody Hill was just a 'side show,' a diversion. F**k!" Josephson screamed that last word at the sky.

Hauptmann Jürgen von Lüttwitz was conscious, though he had a massive headache and his head was swathed in a rather large bandage.

"Captain, I see you're still among the living." The battalion surgeon had been checking up on von Lüttwitz and was somewhat amazed that the man was conscious. He had a minor skull fracture, numerous cuts and bruises, and looked as if he'd been dragged down a gravel road by a team of runaway horses.

"Yes doctor, my head hurts, but otherwise I feel all right. Why the bandage?" von Lüttwitz asked that as he gingerly touched the wrapping around his head. When the doctor explained to him about the fractured skull, von Lüttwitz remembered the explosion of the Ami tank round which had dropped a rather sizable branch on his head. He realized then that had he not been wearing his helmet, he'd probably be dead.

Unteroffizier Manfred Sauer came into the aid station, looking around, he spotted his captain almost immediately.

"Manfred, you old hound. I see you survived." The doctor looked at Sauer and tapped his watch, meaning 'not too long.' Sauer understood, the captain looked like death warmed over.

"Who do you think carried your carcass down that hill Herr Hauptman?"

Von Lüttwitz saw that Sauer had a piece of paper, with what looked like names on it. "What's the butcher's bill, Manfred?"

"Sir, out of the entire company, we have forty-one men still capable of duty in the field. If we count you that is."

"Which you must, it will take more than a cracked dome to keep me out of the fight!" Von Lüttwitz surprised Sauer with his vehemence.

"Well, we're being pulled back into reserve, seems they're rebuilding the division. Again."

"I see, well, give it to me straight, who did we lose?"

Sauer read off the names, each one seemed to be a blow to the young captain. When he got to the end of the list, Sauer said, "There are two names not on this list Herr Hauptmann. Both men were killed in action. I wanted to talk with you before submitting this list officially."

Von Lüttwitz looked puzzled, but said, "Go ahead Manfred, what are you playing at?"

"Nothing Sir, but Hauptfeldwebel Schmitz, the Spieß, was wounded again while manning his machine gun position."

"What, I ordered him down the hill, his wounds were serious!"

"I know Sir, but he refused to be evacuated. During the last Ami attack, he was wounded by splinters from a tree burst. He could barely lift his left arm after that, then while trying to shift into a position where he could fire the gun with one arm, he took a rifle bullet to the head."

Von Lüttwitz was stunned, he hadn't particularly liked the man, but he had to admit that he was a fighter. "Who else Manfred, who else?"

"Vorwald, Sir."

Von Lüttwitz sat back and stared into the distance. "How?"

"Grenadier Vorwald led a counterattack which drove back a very serious infantry assault supported by tank fire. After driving the enemy back, he tried to throw a grenade at an American command group. They shot him down in the act of throwing the grenade. The grenade, and Vorwald, fell back into the trench. The resulting explosion wounded one man and killed another."

Von Lüttwitz cleared his throat and said, "Leutnant..."

Sauer looked at the man he had crossed France with, "Sir?"

"Leutnant Vorwald was killed in action serving the Fatherland. I shall write a letter to his grandfather, who is still on active duty at Zossen."

"What about his father?" Sauer asked, sensing that he knew the answer, just not the specifics.

"Killed in action in North Africa."


Von Lüttwitz reached for his overcoat, digging in one of the pockets, he pulled out the epaulettes that he'd torn from Vorwald's tunic the night Vorwald had failed in his duty. "Make sure these get reattached to Vorwald's tunic. I am restoring him, posthumously, to his previous rank. He died a hero."

"Very well, Herr Hauptmann. I shall see to it."

Sgt Mac Peterson was standing in his turret, helping to guide PFC Louis Clark, the driver of "Tennessee Whiskey," back down the trail. His Sherman was the only survivor of a platoon of four Shermans. For now he had been ordered to attach himself to the survivors of the recently deceased MSgt Sal Morton's command. That company had come up the trail with ten tanks. One had broken down halfway up, three more, including Morton's, had been knocked out in the fight atop Bloody Hill, one by a Panzerfaust, the other two by a German Panther which had come out of nowhere, or so it had seemed.

Now there were five of that company left, a fifth tank had hit a mine during the withdrawal and had been abandoned in place by its crew, after they had booby trapped it of course, Peterson thought to himself.

So he was once again part of a full strength platoon, made up of the remnants of two companies of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Armored, 3rd Armored Division.

He prayed hard that they would not be sent back up there. "No place for tanks," he muttered. His gunner overheard him and said, "Amen to that Mac, amen to that."

As Peterson looked to the heavens, it began to snow...

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  1. It was good that Vorwald got his bars back. I wasn't sure he should have lost them in the first place, but that's a tough call to second guess. Discipline must be not just measured, but consistent, as well. Even if sometimes it seems overly harsh.

    1. At that point in the war the Germans were beginning to take some really harsh disciplinary measures. In some units Vorwald would have been court-martialed. In 1945 the odds are pretty good that he would have been executed out of hand. Von Lüttwitz may have over-reacted, but there is a lot of stress on that hill.

    2. Or sent to the penal battalions - think finding mines by being driven before the good troops type of thing. Some of the things the penal 'troops' did, digging graves and carrying very rotten and decomposed bodies, carrying ammunition, stuff like that, well, being shot directly was probably better.

      Though, in a penal unit, one could rise back up out of penal status... if you survived.

    3. Very true. Penal battalions were not where you wanted to be, ever.

  2. Once again, great writing Sarge!
    You are capturing the humanity of men and the grinding dreary horror of war simultaneously.
    Thanks for setting this in the Hurtgen, a somewhat "non-strategic" sector that few know. Unless there is a personal connection, even few "students" such as myself know much about it.
    Boat Guy

    1. Without the personal connection of my great-uncle having fought there, I probably wouldn't have taken as much of an interest in the battle. After the dash across France it was a sobering reminder (along with Arnhem) that the Germans still had a lot of fight in them.

    2. And that the Germans fought a lot harder on their own land.

    3. As we learned. Good scene in Fury mentioned that.

      "Why won't they quit?"

      "Would you, if someone was invading your home?"

  3. Quite the roller coaster ride, when you get to the end the screaming and the white-knuckles are memories but they're still lurking in the background. Damm fine prose Sarge.........:)

  4. It's hard when you take a breather after a very serious issue. Full weight begins to bear down... "The Butcher's Bill." Exactly...
    I remember working in the rain with no protection, cold rain is horrible, snow is weird... pretty and miserable... engaging story Sarge, very good.

    1. I remember long miserable days in the rain working outside. Warm rain is annoying, cold rain is, as you say, horrible.

      Snow, pretty AND miserable, depending. (I'm from Vermont and I used to ski, so I have kind of a love/hate relationship with snow.)

    2. Cold rain is just soul-sucking. Snow is at least somewhat dry-ish. But snow-rain, where it's snowing and raining? That will just kill you. Encountered that one year when packing the van after a vacation. On top of the van, strapping stuff on and packing stuff in, big cold drops splashing my back, snowflakes coming around to land on my front. Took me 30 minutes, basically all the hot water available, to get feeling back in my hands and feet and back and front and my nose...

    3. ... damn near got the frostbite!

  5. And the Forest waits for its next meal...

    Snow.. Cold rain... Mud... Frozen mud... Can things get any poopier? (That was NOT a challenge!)

    Captain Josephson sounds like a lot of commanders in the Pacific, on Guadalcanal and later Iwo or Saipan. Send the men forward while stuck in the rear, watch almost nothing come back whole, and find out all that death was for naught. That breaks a man. And the Captain is already still partially broken from losing his family. Stuff like that can turn a good man bad. Make an active man just stop. Make a smart man dumb.

    As to our good German fellows, hopefully they'll be pulled back far enough they'll winter away from the front lines. But considering what happens in Spring 45, away from the front lines may not be exactly safe.

    Great story.

    Still at the Grandbaby's or are you back home with the cats?

    1. Thanks Beans.

      I'm back at the main HQ since last week, heading out again next week. Life on the road...

    2. As the ancient Celts sang, "On the Wode again. Just got back on the Wode again..."

  6. Are you sure that the surgeon addressing Von Luttwitz would address him as "captain" instead of "Hauptmann"?
    Great as always.

    Are we getting toward November 1944? Any absentee voting going on among the troops? Was there enthusiasm for continuing with a leader responsible for so many casualties, or some anti-war/war weary sentiment? I don't know.
    John Blackshoe

    1. As regards the "Captain" versus "Hauptmann," I could go either way on that. I went with "Captain" as I didn't want the doc saying "Herr Hauptmann."

      We are in November 1944 in the story. How the troops felt about the leadership on the home front is interesting but not something I'll be writing about. All politics is abhorrent to me right now.

  7. Of all of your descriptions of death, the tank death sounded the worst. Especially if it was your own side.


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Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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