A Few Men In Soldier Suits

PrintPrintEmailEmailFew of the Americans in Paris at Christmas time, 1944, were at all alarmed over the sudden German breakthrough. The French, who are pessimists from experience, were scared and thought the Bodies were coming back, but Americans are never pessimists and they never seem to have had any experience. The SHAEF public relations division called off its Christmas party in a bored gesture toward the biggest and most disastrous battle of the war on the Western Front. There was a curfew on because the Army was trying to catch the German parachutists in American uniforms who were thought to have infiltrated Paris in a plot to capture General Elsenhower; on account of the curlew you had to have a pass to be out after eight o’clock, so for once there were hardly any Americans in Hie night dubs. (1 know beta use my friends and 1 had passes.)

None of us knew then that less than a week earlier the Germans had been out in die open with practically nothing between them and Liege, which was the nerve (enter of the whole western defense at that point. This Belgian city, everyone thought, was the objective of the great German lunge, directed, we believed, by Gerd von Rundstedt. As it turned out alter the war, von Rundstedt had no faith in the plan and was sulking in his tent: the operational commander was Kield Afarshal Walter Afodel; the real objective was not Liége but the River Meuse and the great cities of Antwerp and Brussels. Whatever the final objective, however, the Germans had broken into the open, with a clear field before them.

What stopped them was nothing but a few handfuls ol boys in soldier suits who had never up to that time fired a shot at (he enemy. They were engineers, antiaircraft, and things of that sort—strictly rear echelon —and there were squads and platoons of them where there ought to have been divisions and corps. Of course they blossomed out later with Silver Stars and Distinguished Service Grosses, which seemed to surprise and embarrass them no end. Perhaps heroes arc always like that before the varnish is dry.

As war correspondent for a monthly magazine Ï met some of them after the SHAKK powers decided it was safe to let females get out of Paris and up with the First Army, a month after the Bulge battle started. Ky this time they were back at their old jobs, working sawmills and building roads around Malmcdy and Spn, and they were billeted in fussy Kelgian houses with big flowers all over the wallpaper and all over the bathroom fixtures, which were invariably out of order.

They had been working sawmills and building roads early on December 17, when they were ordered to drop what they were doing and go out and stop the German Army.

The order was so startling that they figured at first it was probably “a dry run,” and they were half hoping it would be, half hoping it wouldn’t. They had had no training since basic, and that worried them. Of course they had no tanks, no artillery, no mortars, even. They had hardly anything, in fact, except mines and ba/ookas and what Colonel Pergrin called psychology.

Lieutenant Colonel David E. Pergrin commanded the agist Engineer Hattalion, which later received a unit diution “lui action in and around Afalmcdy, December iy-aO, KJU.” He was round-laced and wore glasses and looked like a youthful assistant professor. I drove around the ruins of Malmcdy with him in Uic dirty snow, and we visited Hic Trois Ponts crossroad a mile and a hall cast of town from which the fro/en bodies of 145, Americans, murdered by the SS on December 17, had been removed the day before 1 got there.

He said a company and a half of the at) ist had been running its sawmill near Malmcdy the morning of (he seventeenth, when a lieutenant who had been U]) Hie road brought back word that the Germans had broken through the ()()Ui Division at lîutgenbach. At almost the same moment they heard it from headquarters.

Colonel Pergrin ordered his men out to the east edge of town, where they tied little yellow packages of dynamite around some tree trunks which they felled across the road and set out some mines. This was known as a road block. With the road block in order, a sergeant and a private drove their jeep out a few miles, parked it, and looked over a hill. They counted 68 enemy vehicles coming toward them, yo of them tanks, before they concluded that enough was enough and got back to Malmcdy.

That was when everything in town started leaving —hospitals, ordnance units, all the rear-echelon odds and ends—in what would never be described as a panic-stricken (light because our side was engaged in it. At noontime the ?th Armored Division showed up and the %()ist felt much rosier, but the tank commander said: “Sorry, we’re ordered to St. Vith,” and they pulled out again. There was a replacement depot with $00 men in Malmcdy, and Colonel Pergrin tried to borrow some of them to put on his road blocks, but they too had business elsewhere.