Bloody Huertgen: The Battle That Should Never Have Been Fought

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I made my way up the far side of the canyon. One had to be extremely careful because the trail had not been cleared of mines. I assumed that the woods were infested with them and hence did not even get near the edge of the trail. As we approached the top, all the debris evinced a bitter struggle. There were more bodies, an antitank gun or two, destroyed jeeps, and abandoned weapons. We emerged from the top of the trail into a wide clearing. A few miles away we could see the small German town of Kommerseheidt. So far, we had not been challenged by any Germans, but I knew they were supposed to be in Kommerseheidt and in the town of Schmidt, beyond. The sun was setting and I was anxious to get back to the other side of the valley before darkness. As evening descended over the canyon, it was an eerie scene, like something from a low level of Dante’s Inferno . To add to the horror, a plaintive human voice could be heard calling from the woods quite some distance away. We continued on down and up on the other side, reaching Vossenack in the darkness. During the night, troops were moved up to the town, and I went back down the trail with the leading battalion not long after daylight. I remember vividly the battalion stopping for a short break. A young soldier, a new replacement, was looking with horror at the dead. He began to turn pale, then green, and he was obviously about to vomit. I knew his state of mind: every young soldier, upon first entering combat, is horrified by the sight of bodies that have been abandoned. They always imagine themselves dead and neglected. I talked to him, calmed him a bit, and assured him that our outfit never abandoned its dead, that we always cared for and buried them. Soon the battalion continued down the trail and up on the other side. It attacked across the open land, seized Kommerscheidt and then Schmidt. The fighting was moderate to heavy, and after capturing Schmidt we continued to receive artillery fire.

 

It seemed obvious to me that the regiment could not be supplied across the Kail River canyon, certainly not if the enemy interfered or if artillery fire covered the trail. In addition, the trail was impassable for vehicles. A catastrophe must have occurred there in the fall of 1944. I could not understand why the bodies had not been removed and buried. Neither the corps nor the army headquarters could have been aware of the conditions in the canyon. Otherwise the corpses would have been interred and the disabled tanks recovered. As soon as I returned to the command post, I called the chief of staff of V Corps and explained the situation to him, emphasizing the need for an alternate supply route. There was a good one from Lammersdorf to Schmidt and that was under V Corps. He listened to my story, then laughed and asked, “Have you tried pack mules?” It made me furious. There is nothing that angers a combat soldier more than a higher headquarters staff officer belittling the problems of the combat infantryman. It is as old as soldiering.

 

The following morning I went to Lammersdorf to meet the commander of V Corps and the commander of the division whose headquarters was in that town. Obviously, the attack on Schmidt should have been made straight down the ridge from Lammersdorf. Lammersdorf and Schmidt are connected by a paved road, the terrain was a mixture of woods and open farm land—good tank country—and it would have been a much simpler tactical undertaking than crossing the Kail River. The question in my mind was how in the world did they ever get involved in attacking across the Kail River valley in the first place? Why not stick to the high ground, bypassing the Germans in the valley, and then go on to the Roer River? I raised this question with a corps staff officer present, but he brushed it aside. Apparently that was a “no-no” question, not to be talked about.

In the meantime I noticed that the corps commander and the commander of a new division were bent over a map. The corps commander occasionally drew a short line with a blue grease pencil. The line represented an infantry battalion, and he was suggesting to the division commander a tactical scheme by moving battalions about. I realized how remote they were from the reality of what it was like up where the battalions were. The thought crossed my mind that the disaster that had befallen the 28th Division may have been related to the lack of understanding in higher headquarters of what the actual situation in the Kail River valley was. That turned out to be true.