The 90th Infantry Division and its attached 712th Tank Battalion were in the Rhine-Moselle Triangle just south of Coblenz. They had crossed the Moselle at Hatzenport under "artificial moonlight" -- giant searchlights bouncing off the clouds -- and were preparing to cross the Rhine at Mainz.
Waiting for them in the villages of Pfaffenheck and Udenhausen -- which, in a letter written decades later Sergeant Burl Rudd would call Edenhausen in referring to Billy Wolfe, who grew up in Edenburg, Va. -- elements of the German 6th SS Mountain Division North were digging in as best they could, setting up defenses in the houses, forest and fields for the attack they knew would be coming.
Pfaffenheck, Edenhausen and the surrounding area are picturesque, an area noted for the hunting in its forest. Even the principal road going through it has a picturesque name, the Hunzruck Hohenstrasse.
Estimates of the size of the German force vary wildly, from a few hundred men to six thousand. The German division spent two years fighting the Russians in Finland and then, when the Finns and Russians signed an armistice the Finns were under pressure to evict the German Lapland army. After marching 1,000 miles and leaving from the north of Finland, the 6th traveled by ship to the south of France, where they were deployed in Operation Northwind, a German counterattack in the Vosges Mountains that is sometimes referred to as the "other Battle of the Bulge." After fighting there, they were sent north to try and stop the unstoppable, and prevent the Allies from crossing the Rhine.
"If I were to be blind after today," Billy Wolfe wrote in a high school essay, "I would want to go off by myself in the mountain, climb to the highest cliff, and look out across the valley at the towns, farms and farmhouses."
It was an interesting assignment, because there was as much to see and love about the Shenandoah Valley, where Billy grew up thinning corn for spending money and picking up Indian arrowheads and Civil War bullets in the fields and among the black walnut trees, in an area as picturesque in its own way as that surrounding the Hunzruck Hohenstrasse where he would find himself with the Second Platoon of the 712th Tank Battalion's Company C, only a couple of years later.
"I would want to picture each native tree in my mind, the rough bark and the shapely green leaves," Billy wrote in the tenth- or eleventh-grade essay. In order to get to the one-room schoolhouse in nearby Palmyra, he often rowed across the north fork of the Shenandoah River and took a shortcut through the woods.
"I would want to see the squirrels running and leaping from one walnut tree to another, and the birds flying. I would like to see the deer run and jump swiftly and gracefully and leap across the fences, and lie in a tree that leans across the water and watch bass laying under the rocks and dart out after a fly.
"I would go through the house from one room to the other picturing each piece of furniture, every corner and everything, in my mind.
"I would like to see all my sisters, brother and parents together as we were, and picture each as they look for future reference.
"I would want to see all my friends and relatives so I would know what the person looked like when I would talk to them after being blind.
"I would want to go fishing and hunting and do the things I know I couldn't do after being blind."
Today is the 66th anniversary of the battle at Pfaffenheck, which Lieutenant Francis "Snuffy" Fuller said in a letter to Hubert Wolfe, written later in 1945, was his worst day in combat. Fuller, a Reserve officer from Buffalo, New York, who joined the battalion as a replacement in September, was a few years older than most of the men in his platoon.
Although I never met many of them, the second platoon of Company C had more than its share of rough and tumble, hard drinking characters. One of them, Wes Haines, "done imbibed him some" one day, according to Otha Martin, a tank commander in the platoon, and remarked that Fuller looked like Snuffy Smith in the comics, and the nickname stuck.
One story, for instance, that Paul Wannemacher, the battalion association president, likes to tell, is about the time I was listening to Jim Flowers relate the events on Hill 122. It was a story I'd heard him tell many times. Jim spoke with a slow, almost syrupy Texas drawl, and often he would pause or stretch out a couple of syllables while he searched his memory for a detail. Once, as he was trying to recollect a piece of the story he likely had told a thousand times, I corrected him on a minor detail, having heard him tell it many times. I thought I was doing him a favor. Jim locked me with a stare from under his bushy eyebrows and said, angrily, "Who's telling this story, me or you?"
But Paul's favorite story that he likes to tell about me is when I was talking with Otha Martin in the hospitality room at one of the battalion's "mini-reunions" which were held in Bradenton, Fla., every January. The Wolfe twins were at the very first reunion I attended, which was their first reunion as well, as a result of which while I was learning about the death of George Tarr, who was the lieutenant my father replaced, they meeting Lieutenant Fuller and other members of the platoon who served with their brother, and the veterans of C Company were reconstructing the battle at Pfaffenheck, in which Billy Wolfe was killed.
I forget who told me that Otha Martin, a burly rancher from Oklahoma who worked as a guard at Macalester State Prison after the war, had been at Pfaffenheck, but about twenty minutes into the conversation I asked him, "Do you remember Pfaffenheck?"
Paul Wannemacher was standing nearby and loves to recount Otha's reaction: He suddenly stopped and got a dead serious look on his face, and he said, or rather announced, "Pfaffenheck." Then he said, slowly and deliberately, "March 16th, 1945. I was there." And he proceeded to name each of the five crew members in all of the five tanks that took part in the battle that day. Subsequent research proved him to be off on only a couple of the names, despite the passage of more than 45 years.
Four members of the second platoon were killed in Pfaffenheck: Billy Wolfe, Jack Mantell, Russell Harris and Lloyd Hayward.
(More on the battle at Pfaffenheck will be in my next entry)