AS I REMEMBER…
A World War II Journal
By Jack E. Oliver, U. S. Army #37514852
“Bravery is the capability to perform properly, even when you are scared half to death.”
- General Omar N. Bradley
Published February 2010
Revised September 2015
Printed by Richman Graphics Services, Centralia, Missouri
Jack E. Oliver
The Hürtgen Forest
We loaded onto 2 ½ ton trucks and rode north for about six hours. I found out later from division
records that the six-hour trip spanned only 30 miles. Early on the morning of November 7th, we arrived at a location 660 yards West of Germeter, Germany before daylight in an area of approximately 50 square miles along the east side of the Belgian-German border called the Hürtgen Forest. The towns of Hürtgen and Germeter, Germany lay nearby. At that time our company headcount was about 170 men. We had suffered a low number of casualties the previous two weeks and many who had been wounded had rejoined the unit.
We were actually over-strength for a change. After reaching our destination at about 4:00 am, we dismounted. It was still dark and it was difficult to organize. I recall Sergeant Parker asking, “Where’s Olie?” Sergeant Parker was like an old mother hen, checking on her young.
We were to take up the positions of the 28th Division’s 109th Regiment. The 12th Regiment then came under the command of the 28th Division. We were told to leave our mortars behind and take possession of those of the 109th Regiment in position.
On the way to our new positions, we passed members of the 109th Regiment coming back to the rear area. I spoke to one of them and he just stared through me. These guys had had the hell beaten out of them.
I learned most of what I know now about my time with the 4th Infantry Division from the histories of the units involved. I certainly didn’t know this much at the time. It might surprise the general public that the “grunts” and other enlisted men in combat were grossly uninformed about their location and purpose. The lower in the food chain you were, the less informed you were. I don’t think they wanted to keep us in the dark on purpose, but information security was vital, in case any of us were captured. Orders were passed down from the top, and by the time they got down to the foot soldier, all he was told was his overall objective. In Normandy, our strategic objective was Saint Lo, France. In the Hürtgen Forest, our strategic objective was Cologne, Germany.
The Supreme Allied Command chose the most direct route (through Hürtgen Forest) on its intended path to control of the Roer and Rhine River dams. The generals were afraid that the retreating Germans would destroy the dams, flooding the river valleys and delaying the Allied advance into Germany. But the strategy of entering the Hürtgen Forest was flawed, because it enabled the smaller and retreating German Army to gain the tactical advantage afforded by the terrain and by their well dug-in positions.
The Germans wanted to maintain control of Hürtgen Forest, for beyond it a few miles to the
northeast lay the “autobahn”, a very modern highway to Cologne. The Germans knew that the loss of Hürtgen Forest would pave the way for the eventual fall of Cologne to the Allies.
The Battle of Hurtgen was started on the basis of a plan that was grossly, even criminally stupid. It was fought under conditions as bad as American soldiers ever had to face, even including the Wilderness and the Meuse-Argonne. Sgt. George Morgan of the 4th Division described it: “The forest was a helluva eerie place to fight. You cannot get protection. You cannot see. You cannot get fields of fire. Artillery slashes the trees like a scythe. Everything is tangled. You can scarcely walk. Everybody is cold and wet, and the mixture of cold rain and sleet keeps falling. They jump off again, and soon there is only a handful of the old men left.” (Citizen Soldier by Stephen Ambrose)
The battle in Hürtgen Forest would later be described in Life Magazine as one of the bloodiest
battles of WWII. The magazine devoted several pages to pictures and an article, “Hürtgen Death Factory.” General Jim Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division and other respected generals later said that Hürtgen Forest was one of the most costly and ill-advised decisions of the entire war. Even a former German general spoke of the American battle strategy in a belittling manner. As it turned out, the Allies needed only to have diverted their attack to the south, bypassing the Forest, to avoid the costly loss of American lives. The 9th, 28th and 4th Divisions suffered the loss 70% of their men, all to satisfy the ego of “Lightning Joe” Collins, commander of the VII Corps. But Generals Eisenhower and Bradley also signed off on the strategy. During the battle from September 16th 1944 to February 10th 1945, the U. S. Army sustained 33,000 casualties, a figure later questioned by researchers. Some put the actual figure at over 50,000.
Once in position inside the Forest, we were subjected to intense shelling day and night by German artillery. Prior to the arrival of American troops, the Germans had entrenched themselves and had zeroed in their artillery on areas where they anticipated we would be. The deadly effectiveness of their artillery was improved by “tree bursts.” When a German shell detonated by hitting the treetops, it would spray shrapnel and pieces of wood over a wider area than if it had hit the ground. Even a foxhole offered little protection. “Hugging a tree” afforded more protection than diving into a foxhole.
After a short time in the Forest, casualties robbed us of some of our non-commissioned officers. It was here that Sergeant Parker “got it.” He was a great non-com who was always concerned for the welfare of his men. So many of our non-commissioned officers and junior commissioned officers “got it” that soon Nestor and I were offered promotions to corporal and squad leader, but we both declined. An ammo bearer, John McFall, accepted the promotion. He was killed a couple of days later.
The most effective weapon that our division possessed, given the terrain and heavy forestation, was the 81-millimeter mortar, used by the heavy weapons company from Battalion. The 60-millimeter mortars, such as the one Nestor and I operated, were completely ineffective.
I did not see any German soldiers while we were in the Hürtgen Forest, but their artillery fire was unceasing and had a devastating psychological effect on us. It was disheartening, frustrating and fatiguing to be shelled day and night over the course of many days and nights without the opportunity to fight back or to escape the unending explosions.
One time, Nestor, I and the rest of my platoon took refuge in a dugout located near a saw mill. The Germans had dug it and had covered it with heavy timbers during their construction of Hitler’s vaunted Siegfried Line, a supposedly impenetrable defensive wall. As I recall, it was about 20 feet by 20 feet and about eight feet deep.
During the day, the Forest’s trees blocked out most of the day light. As a result, there was darkness and little, if any color. Inside the dugout was complete darkness except for an occasional match or a lit can of Sterno that we used for heating our rations. This constant pall added to the sense of hopelessness.
There was no sunlight, and most of the time it either rained or snowed. The ground was muddy
all of the time and you couldn’t get dry or warm. We were always wet, always cold, and thanks to the German artillery, constantly awake or semi-conscious. Nearly all of us suffered from frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot.
Sleep deprivation and exhaustion soon led to many “non-battle” casualties. For example, my squad leader, Corporal Elliott accidentally discharged his M-1 rifle when a piece of wire became entangled in his legging and his rifle’s trigger. The bullet practically tore off his left arm at just below his elbow. I remember our platoon leader, Lieutenant Graham, telling him that if anyone questioned whether his wound was an accident or self-inflicted, to contact him. Luckily, no one else was injured during that incident.
You couldn’t see the enemy, you couldn’t kill the enemy, you couldn’t advance to another location, and you couldn’t retreat. You just had to stay put, take a pasting, and watch your buddies being killed or wounded.
Many of our casualties in Hürtgen Forest were from “combat exhaustion.” This condition is similar in all people, but the outward symptoms can vary from man to man. Some developed very strange behavior. Some would ignore their training or simply forget things and would unnecessarily expose themselves to danger. Others simply reacted slowly to danger, becoming almost like robots.
Combat exhaustion has nothing whatsoever to do with fear. It is the mind’s eventual reaction to the prolonged and sustained combat stress with no decompression or detoxification. In fact, the most commonly exhibited symptom of combat exhaustion is an irrational behavior, and an inability or unwillingness to recognize threats to one’s own personal safety. In any case, once a man became afflicted with combat exhaustion, he was of no value as a combat soldier.
There was a feeling of despair among the members of my platoon. I really wonder if anyone there thought there was much chance of our getting out of the Forest alive. I, for one, didn’t think so. It seems that everything that happened or was about to happen was grim.
I cannot proceed further with this journal without venting my frustration with the U.S. High Commands. The blame for the mismanagement of the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, must be placed squarely on the shoulders of Lt. General Courtney Hodges who insisted on battling thru the forest, rather than going around it and Generals Bradley and Eisenhower for approval of his plan.
Many young men were senselessly doomed to their deaths as a result of the poor tactics of the Military High Command. The American Divisions needed only to have diverted their attacks South of the Forest.
I would hope that Stephen Speilberg, Ron Howard or some else will tell the true story of Hurtgen from the view point of the soldier at Company level. The actions of the top Commanders should be exposed and not glossed over as has been done.