A Few Men In Soldier Suits

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So at 10 P.M. when they heard tanks coming, Private Rondenell pulled his string of mines across the road and blew up the first tank. And this destruction of the lead vehicle of the enemy column—but now I quote from the citation bestowed on the 29 ist- “marked the definite stopping of the enemy advance on axis Bullingen-Waimes-Malmédy-Stavelot-La Gleize Stoumont-Chevron-Werbomont, later learned to be the route designated for the First SS Panzer Corps.”

I wanted to meet Rondenell, but he was no longer with the outfit by the time I got there; he was in the hospital. After they went back to road-building a section of Bailey bridge fell on him.

Following the night of December 18 the Allied Command recovered its poise, and from then on we had divisions where before there were only battalions and noncombat ones at that. The rollback started, and from there on the story is familiar. At the moment of the breakthrough the First Division was at Verviers, resting, its first time out of the lines since D-day. And it called off its Christmas dance but sent out the invitations to the “Belgique mademoiselles” anyway, with “Rain Check” stamped across the face. It moved up onto the north shoulder of the breakthrough gap at Waimes. The night of the eighteenth when First Army Headquarters was packing up to retreat out of Spa and was pretty gloomy—so a Ga officer there told me—First Division Ga called up and reported as follows: “We’re here, we’re set, all we want is four dozen sets of maps, and tomorrow we’ll start teaching those SS bastards the lesson of their lives.”

Anyone who remembers the First Division and its sense of destiny will realize that, in its own opinion, its arrival at the front marked the turning point of the war.

After that the sides of the thrust held firm, though the center kept pushing forward, and the fog lifted and the Air Corps got to work. On Christmas day some tanks barely reached the Meuse, but they were the last tongue of a spent lava flow. Why did the Germans miss their great opportunity? If they had known, even guessed, how little was out in front, no amount of psychology could have stopped them.

Stories floated around First Army Headquarters about the first two days and the small units who played Horatio at the bridge or the little boy with his finger in the dike. An ordnance detachment was repairing some tanks at Aywaille (pronounced EyeWally in American) far behind the lines, and when the Germans showed up the repairmen got into the tanks and drove out to meet them. Some antiaircraft batteries were borrowed from the gth Air Defense Command and tossed out to stem the oncoming tide. One of these batteries had not quite finished getting its go-millimeter gun into position beside a road when the first German tank appeared around a bend 300 yards away. One has often thought in reading about courage that it is a failure of the ordinary reflexes of the animal kingdom and the substitution of a much fancier set; these boys simply forgot to run away. Instead they sweated madly to finish setting up their gun, and by the time they saw the whites of that tank’s eyes they were ready to fire.

I didn’t have time to track down all the stories, but I caught up after a fashion with Battery C of the 143rd Antiaircraft Battalion and learned of the adventure of Privates Roland Seamon and Albert Darrago, which more than all the rest, it seems to me, illustrates the peculiar deadliness of innocence, even in war. Seamon was a tall, husky mountain boy from Shinnston, West Virginia; Darrago, his buddy, was from Maryland; and all they had done in the war up to now was to shiver in their gun pits near Liege and stare up at the empty sky, just in case. They had scarcely even seen an enemy aircraft, much less a real live kraut, except prisoners.

The night of the eighteenth and nineteenth, their battery was getting set up between La Gleize and Stoumont, under whistling small-arms fire, in the dark. All night they listened to the roar of motors and movement of vehicles going by on the road and learned to identify the German ones by the sound. It was foggy and cold and so intensely dark that when a German vehicle hit a mine and burned fiercely, it made only a dull glow through the fog.

There was a square brick house held by Americans at the crossroads, and in the early morning an infantry lieutenant came over to the AA gun pit and asked for volunteers to knock out a tank with bazookas. He said it was just sitting there, up the road. Neither Seamon nor Darrago had ever touched a bazooka, but they said they’d try. Upon reaching the house they were mildly surprised to find it full of infantrymen. Possibly the lieutenant had thought his own men were not expendable.

After showing them how the bazookas worked and explaining that it was no good to shoot at a Tiger except through the rear, he urged them to “go get the bastard.” They crawled off across a field, rifle and machine gun fire whistling and zipping all around them, looked through a hole in a hedge, and saw sitting there not one, but four, of the finest, fattest German tanks ever seen, two of them Tigers.