Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Merode, The End of the Hürtgen Fight

The road to Merode, Germany

1st Lt. Nathan Paddock's hands were shaking, he struggled to light his cigarette, paused, took a deep breath, then finally got the thing lit. He took a long, deep drag then sighed. The last two days had been a living nightmare. His new uniform, issued only days before, was dirty and torn, his reinforced platoon of fifty-nine men had suffered terribly.

He didn't know the full cost just yet, his platoon sergeant, S/Sgt Stephen Hernandez, had gone missing in action during the platoon's initial attempt to relieve the two companies of the 26th Infantry's 2nd Battalion trapped in Merode. All attempts to fight their way into the village had been repulsed by fierce German resistance from the young paratroopers of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division.

Though composed for the most part of boys aged sixteen to nineteen, steeped in Nazi ideology but untested in combat, the 3d Fallschirmjäger Division, unbeknownst to the 26th Infantry and its parent division, the 1st, had moved into the line the night of 26 November.

This reconstituted German division had faced a storm of artillery fire in its baptism of fire. Many of the young paratroopers¹ had surrendered in the fighting around Hill 203 in front of the town of Langerwehe.

Since then, backed by strong artillery fire and a rumor of at least one Tiger tank, the young lads of the 3d Fallschirmjäger had fought like lions. There had been other attempts to break through to those two companies since, all had failed. The 26th's commander, Colonel Seitz, had even been offered a battalion of another regiment to try again. As many of the American radios had failed, he had no way of telling if any of his two companies still survived. The battalion S3 had put it succinctly, "What is in town may be annihilated by now." So Col. Seitz had rejected the offer, he had learned through bitter experience that one doesn't reinforce failure.

The 2nd Battalion had gone in with tank support, but the lead Sherman had been disabled, blocking the road. All attempts to clear the road had failed, whether through incompetence or a lack of a tank retriever, Paddock didn't know. His company had been in support of the 2nd's initial attack, when things had started to go south, Cpt. Palminteri had sent Paddock's platoon forward to try and discover a way into the town.

They had been met by machine gun and tank fire as soon as they approached the town. A German Panzer IV had moved up and had taken the platoon under fire, S/Sgt Hernandez had led the platoon's attached bazooka team, Cpl. Tim Jones and Pvt. Bob Wells, forward to deal with the enemy tank.

Paddock had watched as the first round from the bazooka had penetrated the skirt armor of the tank but didn't stop it. Then the tank had fired, when the smoke cleared, only Cpl. Jones and Hernandez were still standing. Jones' second round penetrated the enemy tank and blew it to Hell. At that point the kids in the village launched a fierce counterattack, cutting off Hernandez, Jones, and Wells.


Paddock took another drag on his cigarette, then threw it down into the dirt. He hated the things but they helped settle his nerves. His hands were no longer shaking. In his mind's eye he could still see those Kraut paratroopers coming out of the town, bayonets fixed and screaming like banshees.

Their attack had been accompanied by mortar fire and had kept the platoon's heads down for long enough for those kids to nearly close with the platoon. But Cpl. Judd Maxwell and his machine gun team of Pfc. Jim Weber, Pvt. Matt Smith, Pfc. Peter Werther, and Pvt. Steve Pacheco had stuck to their weapon. Their fire had torn the enemy counterattack apart. They had killed the enemy in droves, forcing the survivors back into the village.

But the cost had been high for that attack as well. Paddock had moved with his command team, minus Hernandez, over to Cpl. Maxwell's position, just as the German mortars started up again.

At the machine gun team's position the radio had died, the batteries were shot, when Pfc. John Myerson began to tell Paddock of that, a nearby explosion had destroyed the radio and knocked Myerson out cold. In the heat of the action, no one checked on him, he had a nasty cut on his cheek and a concussion, but he was okay. Just out of action for the moment. The same explosion though had killed Cpl. Jimmy Winston, the platoon guide, and Pfc. Herman Shapiro, one of the platoon messengers.

Paddock remembered yelling at Cpl. Maxwell, "You need anything Judd?"

"Yeah, L.T., a one way ticket back to the States!"

At that point a bullet had found Pvt. Matt Smith, the assistant gunner was killed instantly. Dragging him off the gun, Pfc. Pete Werther had jumped in to feed the belt to the gun. He'd been hit moments later. He had been bleeding badly from a wound in the upper chest. Doc Milbury had come out of nowhere and bandaged him up.

"Jesus Doc, be careful, you could get killed!" Maxwell had yelled at him.

Milbury checked Myerson, said, "He'll be okay!" then had vanished into the gloom of the oncoming night as quickly as he'd shown up. The rest of the action was a blur in Paddock's memory. Continuing mortar fire had caused a lot of casualties in the platoon, it wasn't until near midnight that the mortar fire had ceased. Paddock had had reports that of his three squads, one was missing entirely, Sgt. Greg Jenkins 2nd Squad had been seen in the flames of a burning building entering the town. Then nothing.

Both 1st and 3rd Squads had been hit hard as well, he knew that a lot of his boys were hit, but he didn't know the severity. That had been the 29th of November, on the 30th they had spent the day in the shallow fighting holes they'd managed to scrape into the mud, repulsing desultory German attacks from the town. Unable to move forward, unable to fall back, they had stayed in place, and more men fell.

As night fell on the 30th, a runner from Charlie Company had finally reached them.

"Skipper says to fall back L.T.!" Pvt. Albert Samson told Paddock as Pfc. Dylan Jackson, "Baby Doc" showed up with some men carrying stretchers to help evacuate the platoon's dead and wounded. The platoon's sniper team had showed up as the men were preparing to head back into the forest.

"L.T., we gotta get out of here. Me and Bear saw the Kraut's mustering at least two platoons in the town for another push." Pfc. Charlie Gammell reported after jumping into the position.

"Okay Charlie, we've been ordered to fall back, I'd call in arty to cover us, but the f**king radio is dead. Jesus, Bear are you okay?" Paddock saw that Pfc. Jackson "Bear" Hebert's field jacket was soaked in blood.

"It's just a scratch L.T., f**king bullet went right through. Hurts a bit, but I can still spot, I can still run, my legs are okay!"

Baby Doc Jackson checked Bear out, and bandaged a nasty looking wound on Hebert's side. "You've probably got cracked ribs, we need to get you back to the aid station!"

"Yup, when we're done here."

Paddock remembered that when he got back to the platoon's original CP, of his five basic duty privates, only two were still in the fight, Pvt. Will Jones and Pvt. Peter Romanov. Pvt. Jeff Chambers was dead, and Privates Jim Romano and Michael Johnson were wounded. Johnson badly, he'd been hit in the left arm below the elbow. Romanov had managed to stop the bleeding, but Johnson would lose the arm, that was clear.

Now here it was, December 1st and Paddock still didn't know how much of a platoon he had left. He hesitated, then pulled another cigarette from his field jacket, only then did he notice that the right sleeve was soaked in blood. He shuddered as he remembered that the blood had come from little Jimmy Winston, his platoon guide. He'd stood up to fire at the Germans in the town and had been hit in the head. Paddock had been showered with the man's blood.

Sgt. Jack Wilson cleared his throat, he had walked up unnoticed by Paddock. The lieutenant looked terrible, Wilson thought, probably felt worse, and Wilson, as the senior surviving NCO in the platoon had tallied the cost. Now he was the bearer of bad news, and he hated it. "L.T.?"

Paddock looked up, saw that Sgt, Wilson had a page from a notebook in his hand, "What's the butcher's bill, Jack?"

"Here it is Sir," he said as he handed the list to Paddock, who immediately noticed that it was a listing by squads.
Platoon HQ
Cpl. Jimmy Winston, KIA
Pfc. Herman Shapiro, KIA
Pvt. Jeff Chambers, KIA
Pfc. John Myerson, WIA
Pvt. Jim Romano, WIA
Pvt. Michael Johnson, WIA
Pfc. Jackson "Bear" Hebert, WIA
S/Sgt. Stephen Hernandez, MIA

Attached Bazooka Team
Cpl. Tim Jones, MIA
Private Bob Wells, WIA

Attached MG Team
Pvt. Matt Smith, KIA
Pfc. Peter Werther, WIA

Attached Engineers
Cpl. Rodolfo Garcia, KIA

1st Squad
Pfc. Dennis Adams, KIA
Pvt. Rocky Groves, KIA
Pvt. Ronald Harris, KIA
Pfc. Woodrow Simpson, WIA
Pvt. Brad Gonzales, WIA
Pfc. Joseph Welch, WIA
Pvt. Ben Campbell, WIA
Pvt. Anthony Lewis, WIA

2nd Squad
Sgt. Greg Jenkins, MIA
Pfc. Mike Cantwell, MIA
Pvt. Mark Rizzo, MIA
Pfc. Hector Lopez, MIA
Pvt. Frank Genovese, MIA
Pvt. John Kilpatrick, MIA
Cpl. Jake Johnston, MIA
Pvt. Henry McTeague, MIA
Pvt. Jesse Phillips, MIA
Pfc. Harry Mitchell, MIA
Pvt. Dave Hudson, MIA
Pfc. Adam Roberts, MIA

3rd Squad
Pvt. Leon McKinney, KIA
Pvt. Sydney Hogue, KIA
Cpl. Jim Holloway, WIA
Pfc. Homer Ginter, WIA
Pvt. Ken Buchanan, WIA
Pvt. Joe Gray, WIA
Pfc. Karl Taylor, WIA

Total of 40 Casualties
    10 KIA
    16 WIA
    14 MIA
"What!? All of 2nd Squad is missing? None of 'em made it back?" Paddock had had this reported to him, but he figured by now somebody should have made it out. Maybe they were laying low, holed up in a building waiting for the Army to move up and force the Krauts back, he didn't know.

He nearly vomited at the cost, of the fifty-nine men they went in with, ten were dead and sixteen were wounded, not to mention the 14 missing which could mean they were prisoners of the Germans, perhaps some of them at any rate. A lot of those missing could be dead or wounded. Forty men lost out of fifty-nine.

"Any news on S/Sgt Hernandez or Cpl. Jones?"

"Negative Sir. Bob Wells made it back to us during the confusion of the withdrawal. He says that Hernandez ordered him back, while he and Jones took the bazooka into town."

"How's Wells?"

"Million dollar wound L.T. he's headed home. The rest of the wounded are still at the aid station. I saw Myerson, he's got a big bandage on his noggin but he says he'll be back tomorrow at the latest. Dumb f**k was looking for radio batteries last I saw him."

"Okay, thanks Jack. I see your squad got hit pretty hard."

"Yessir, three dead, five wounded. Duck is going to be okay, a scratch really, I should get Gonzales and Welch back in a couple of days, minor wounds. Campbell and Lewis are going home," Wilson paused for a moment, then continued, "Campbell was blinded, permanently according to the battalion surgeon, Lewis will probably lose both legs."

"Damn it. All right, get with Stump. I want a couple of healthy guys to come with me into the village tonight. I want to find our guys." Paddock wasn't going anywhere until he knew the fate of his missing men. He had to know or he'd never forgive himself.

The 26th Infantry, which fought fully within the forest, lost more than any of the other regiments, 1,479 men, including 163 killed and 261 missing. These did not include non battle losses  attributable to combat exhaustion and the weather. For the 26th Infantry, at least, these must have been as severe as in regiments of other divisions which fought completely within the confines of the forest.²

For all practical purposes, the dread battle of the Huertgen Forest was over.³

Author's Note: Though it was the 2nd Battalion of the 26th Infantry which survived the debacle at Merode, I have taken the liberty of attaching Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion to the 2nd Battalion to further represent the harsh fighting in the Hürtgenwald in the fall of 1944.

Much of the above is based upon the accounts contained in Charles B. MacDonald's book The Siegfried Line Campaign (available here), published as part of the U.S. Army in World War II Series(available here). Especially Chapter XX. THE FINAL FIGHT TO BREAK OUT OF THE FOREST, Debacle at Merode, page 490 from MacDonald's book.

¹ These men were paratroopers in name only, except for a number of senior NCOs, few had any jump training. Many were transferred in from a number of Luftwaffe Field Divisions which had been made up of ground crewmen from the German Air Force who no longer had aircraft to maintain or service.
² Losses for the other two regiments of the 1st Infantry Division were as follows: 18th Infantry: 871, including 188 killed and 21 missing; 16th Infantry: 1,002 including, 156 killed and 63 missing. - MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, page 492 footnote
³ MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, page 492

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  1. Damn! They got chewed up and spit back out, in pieces! The worst of it isn't usually while you're in the grinder. Adrenalin keeps you cranked. The worst is when you come down from the rush, and wake up to the horror of the aftermath.

    1. Yup, too busy to get the shakes while it's going down, it's afterwards.

  2. Replies
    1. It was a horrifying battle, one which the Germans won. But they only delayed the inevitable.

  3. Reading this morn's missive is like getting slapped across the face......twice. Fingers crossed for the 2nd Squad and the Bazooka Team.

  4. I am with STxAR. It does sound horrifying.

    Money quote: "One doesn't reinforce failure". I am borrowing this.

    1. That's one of those maxims which should be taken to heart.

    2. sunk cost fallacy, and all that... See, AFG nowadays

    3. See AFG in damned near any century. We should have learned from the Brits and the Soviets.

  5. OPERATION QUEEN. She was the Queen of Death.

    1. [Chorus]
      She's a Killer Queen
      Gunpowder, gelatin
      Dynamite with a laser beam
      Guaranteed to blow your mind

      sorry could not resist...

  6. The kind of thing that wakes you up in your bed 50 years later soaked in sweat. My Great Uncle was a machinegunner and fought with Patton's Third Army. He was awarded a Bronze Star for covering a withdrawal. Talking to his wife after he passed, she told me she would wake up to find him, shaking and sweating behind that machinegun at least once a year for their entire lives together.

  7. I apologize in advance; I have no intention of being obnoxious. I hope, some time in the near future you re-visit Merode; it was a helluva battle and rather than just viewing it mostly through the L.T.'s eyes, I'd like to hear more of it from some of the grunts.
    I felt rushed. Again I apologize for what might be construed as, but certainly isn't meant as a negative comment.

    1. As the 1st Battalion of the 26th was not actually involved (historically) in the fighting in and around Merode, I didn't want to go into any great detail on the battle itself. So I had Paddock's platoon participate on the periphery of the battle. For the best account of the fighting in that area you should read this account from Charles B. MacDonald's book The Siegfried Line Campaign part of the Army's excellent series on WWII, which is available in its entirety here. This work (and all its constituent works) can be read online in HTML format or the individual works can be downloaded in PDF format. Well worth your time for the in depth history of the period. I use it a lot.

      I don't take your comment negatively boron, it's a good one and I get your desire for wanting more. In fact, I'm rather tickled that you'd like my take on the battle. So it might well be revisited at some point. Perhaps the sharing of a story from a buddy in the 2nd Battalion of the 26th, who did in fact do the fighting in and around Merode.

      Thanks for the input, a great suggestion.

    2. You can do that in the debrief of the 2nd squad members who make it out.

      Spin Drift

    3. An excellent idea. As they were on the periphery of things, they wouldn't know as much as the 2nd Battalion guys. But that could work.

  8. That was just... horrible.

    Scanning the casualty list was, well, like scanning the old casualty lists they used to print after battles and hang in the town square. No privacy to grieve, we all looking over each other's shoulder.


    Winter indeed has come.

    Surprised the men who survived that didn't try to burn the forest down.

  9. I won’t say that battle is largely forgotten but it always seems to take the backseat when talking about the European campaign.

    Just as the Falaise Pocket.

    I guess the battle of the bulge is coming up.

    My mother knew someone who fought in that

    They were grabbing cooks and giving them rifles

    Thanks for taking us along!

    I think the German paratroopers were an interesting lot. They were part of the Air Force

    My dad came back with a knife from the fallshirmjager. The blade was inside the handle and you just push the button and flipped the handle.

    1. Yes, the German paras belonged to the Luftwaffe.

  10. Here’s one I was just thinking of. If Britain had fallen before Pearl Harbor what would EurAsia look like?

    Do you think the Soviets could’ve beaten Hitler without a western front? Or would the Soviets have been beaten particularly without lend lease?

    How important do you think lend lease was to Soviet victory?

    1. Germany and the Soviet Union would have bled each other to death. The Soviet Union would have fractured into multiple pieces like now. Thing is though, the Germans could not have defeated Britain militarily. Britain would have fallen only if she had been betrayed by her politicians. Thank God for Sir Winston!

      Lend Lease was critical to Soviet victory, Detroit played a big role in motorizing the Red Army. Not to mention the food shipments and various other things. Without the West, Stalin would have been overthrown and they might have negotiated a separate peace like they did in the First World War.

    2. I wrote a blog piece some time ago on the importance of Edward VIII. The point I made was that without Wallis Simpson, the divorced American socialite that forced Edward to abdicate (he could not marry a divorced woman and remain King), that Britain may have capitulated to Hitler. Edward was a Nazi sympathizer, and after Dunkirk, Churchill was under tremendous pressure to capitulate to Hitler. I doubt that he could have prevailed with a King also urging the same.

      We in the West do not really focus on the Soviet loses in WW2 but in both St Petersburg and Moscow are mass graves - in Leningrad in a park is the mass grave of hundreds of thousands.

      There is an interesting program on Stalin (in a series) on Amazon and I didn't realize that right after Barbarossa commenced, Stalin was deathly afraid of being overthrown. It is then he adopted to his troops his terror campaign - that is, make them more afraid of the consequences of retreat than being killed by the Germans.

    3. History has many twists, it's what I love about it.

  11. ouch... The Nightmare Forest saved worst for last for hapless men of The Company.
    As for the Germans taking UK, that was just not going to happen, Germans just had no naval force to escort landings.
    Especially after the bloodbath of Norway when Germans for all intents and purposes lost half surface fleet.
    Soviets were even trickier with Stalin being basically not burdened by any internal dissent (he didnt know that initially but recovered fast), and Germans managing to turn highly friendly population into mortal ofes with their genocidal policies.
    Germans could have won in Russia only by treating locals fair and recruiting them to overthrow Bolsheviks.
    But for that they would have to be not Nazis. And then they would not invade for Lebensraum in the first place...

  12. For Those interested I just came across this interesting German production on the Hurtgen forest today.


  13. I was surprised to learn in the above documentary that the whole forest is maybe 10km long? And these modern-day reenactors - digging their own trenches - it is almost sacrilege to me and a disrespect to those who fought, and died - there.

    1. It's not all that big really.

      As to the reenacting, life goes on. I get it, but they do things differently over there.

      Did you know that the Belgians wanted to turn the battlefield of Waterloo over to developers? The UK stopped that, they probably paid most of the money to keep it as near as possible to what it was in 1815. But the Belgians rather ruined the battlefield when they put up the Lion Mound.

  14. Sgt, two items: Why did Paddock lead his command team to an emplacement known to the Germans, including the mortar teams?
    Where is Gentile?

    1. 1) How do you know the Germans knew where the emplacement was? The mortar fire was all over the area.

      2) Gentile was busy.


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