A Few Men In Soldier Suits

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The character of the ba/ooka, its violence and unpredictability, stood out impressively. Sometimes it didn’t go off at all; sometimes it worked both ways. Michin had forgotten to put on the dark glasses which were supposed to protect the ba/ooka-man’s eyes from the flash, and the tremendous explosion which finished the tank also seared his eyes so that he rolled into the ditch, temporarily blinded. It was eight hours before he regained his sight. I met him a month later in Huy, which was battalion headquarters by that time, and he was summoned in to meet me by a proud commanding officer and told his story for probably the fortieth time. Most of the others were still excited over their recent adventures and were reminiscent and fairly talkative, but Michin was a tall, sallow, spindly youth of the introverted or why-don’t-they-let-me-alone type. A general had pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on him a day or two before, and you could see that between generals and women reporters he was sick of the whole hero business.

He couldn’t remember how long he had lain in the ditch in great pain from his burned eyes. But Germany infantry were riding in with the tanks, and alter a while a German machine gun was firing toward him.

“I got kincla nervous,” he said. So he threw a hand grenade, guided only by the sound, and knocked out the machine gun and killed most of the crew.

What worried all these green soldiers the most was the danger of killing another American, a danger much more solid and awful to them than death at the hands of the Germans. The fighting those first few days of the Bulge battle was total confusion, what with fog and early darkness, no communications, Germans infiltrating everywhere—including those notso-mythical parachutists—and nobody knowing where his own or anybody else’s lines were. All this was rather prettily described in the SHAEF communiqués as “a fluid situation.” To us correspondents back in Paris the situation was being expounded daily in the briefing room at the Scribe Hotel, witli the aid of a wall map and a briefing officer. Afterward we went downstairs to the bar and drank champagne until lunch time and bellyached because the bar didn’t serve whisky.

The particular road block of the 1581!! which was defended by Private Michin and others was commanded by Lieutenant William O. Cotlmin, who, when he heard tanks moving through the pre-dawn darkness of December 18—and knowing that American tanks were also moving through that fog—stepped tip to the first one and got a good look to assure himself that it was a German Tiger. Then he called back to his men: “These are Germans.” Someone said in English: “Yes, ve are supermen,” and fired. Cochran. no superman but a quiet, bespectacled student from Carnegie Tech, filed back at the Hash and killed two ol them. This was the same tank that Michin knocked out a few seconds later. He had heard Cochran say it was German, but he wanted to be sure for himself.

This pan/er column, the southern one, was to have occupied Bastogne and then to have moved on tip to the main highway, to a junction with the northern column and so on to the Meuse. Hut because of multiplied incidents like the nervousness of Trivate Michin. it bent around Bastogne when it could have rolled on in. This was December 18, remember. At g r.M. on the nineteenth the ioist Airborne arrived to take up the defense of Bastogne which made history, and Lieu tenant Colonel Sam Tabets’ iRo bovs on the road block were relieved by two battalions of paratroopers and an engineer company, or some 1,700 men. Sam said his boys were not very pleased about it. They wanted to go on stalking tanks with bazookas.

The Germans wanted certain broad highways, but these little units delayed them just enough. Their southern column hesitated at Bastogne, which straddled the red line on the map that was the ArlonBastogne-Liége highway. Their main northern column never reached the highway. Even in Paris we heard how the nose of it rested four or five days at a place called Habiemont, just east of the vital red line; and in due course it was cut off and liquidated by our ground and air forces—the fog having lifted by that time.

But we were never told in Paris how the column came to grief because of three privates and a necklace mine.

These particular tanks belonged to the same SS panzer division which had reached the gates of MaImédy on December 17. They were splitting and fingering off, as their custom was, but on the night of December 18 part of them again fell afoul of the 29ist Engineer Battalion, which was stretched out over sixteen miles. In other words the agist was, at this point, manning another road block at Werbomont, which was just beyond Habiemont and commanded the crucial highway. And Pfc. John Rondenell and two companions were out in front of the road block with a necklace mine, which was a chain of five or six mines fastened together.