I met Darrell Petty, of New Castle, Wyoming, at the 1997 reunion of the 90th Infantry Division in Omaha, Nebraska. My tape recorder must have missed the beginning of our conversation, but at the start we were talking about the division's crossing of the Moselle River in November of 1944. The river was at flood stage, and the infantry got across two or three days before the first tanks were able to cross on a bridge. The fighting was intense, and the infantry was at risk of being pushed back into the river when the tanks finally did get across.
From there the conversation turned to the division's second crossing of the Moselle, in March of 1945, under greatly different circumstances.
Darrell Petty, G Company, 358th Regiment, 90th Infantry Division
Omaha, Neb., Sept. 1997
Omaha, Neb., Sept. 1997
Aaron Elson: They got one platoon of tanks across the Moselle, just in time from what I understand.
Darrell Petty: Well, I’ll tell you. It was a lot different the second time I crossed it. I crossed on a bridge. But then we ran into quite a firefight on Hill 451.
Aaron Elson: Where was that?
Darrell Petty: We were supposed to be in reserve. F Company had pulled up on the line and we were in reserve, and we left, I can’t think of the name of that town, just right on the banks of the Moselle on the other side. We billeted in houses. We took over houses, we felt pretty secure by that time in the war. So we started marching up in reserve, and we could hear digging. We knew somebody was digging in, but we didn’t know who. And we went up a hill, a pretty damn steep hill, and a guy by the name of Gene Miller and I, we helped another guy up. His name was Prey. He was a private first class, and if I knew then what I know now he was having a heart attack. But we didn’t know it. He carried a little 536 radio. I was packing that, and they’re pretty heavy those little devils. And Miller was packing his M-1 rifle. We were lightening the load up for him as much as we could. And just the day before that we’d chopped his hair off, it had gotten long, it looked like the devil.
But anyhow, we got to the top of the hill, then we sat down for a break. We could still hear these guys digging in, whoever it was, and it turned out it was F Company. And we were just setting there, and about that time here comes a machine gun burst.
The Germans shoot white tracers, ours were orange, so we knew that it was definitely German. By the sound and by the tracers, they shot just about twice as fast as our Brownings did. And man, we whirled around and headed for cover. And this kid, this Pfc. Prey, he let out a groan and collapsed. We figured he was hit. We got over the hill and then hollered "Medic!" And a guy by the name of Doc Roberts, Thomas Roberts, a field medic but everybody called him Doc, he came up, and he and I crawled out there to Prey. We got ahold of him and dragged him back behind cover. And he was gone. And he had a classic look of a person with a heart attack, in his face, the coloration of his face. We tried to find where he was hit. We couldn’t find any blood. He didn’t have a bullet mark on him. He died of a heart attack. And we lost him. He was the only dead one. We had some wounded. And Lieutenant Colonel Cleveland A. Lyttle was leading us, he was the battalion commander, and he went right up that hill with us.
All we know is they said there were machine guns on the hill, well, that was standard. If we’d have known what was on it we probably wouldn’t have tried it. They pinned F Company down and they had killed 25 men in F Company and wounded some others. There were five companies of German SS, they were dug in, and they had 40 ground type machine guns on that hill. And F Company had just buggered into them. They weren’t supposed to be there, by all the reports there was nothing there. And Lyttle came up and he said, "We’ve got this hill to take, it’s got some machine guns on it, we’re gonna take it."
Okay. F Company’s pinned down. So, we called in artillery, everything they had, and boy, they were tossing them in there close to us. So we had to go down the hill, under trees. And we had to cross the valley, that’s where they pinned F Company down.
We went through F Company, and we headed up that hill. But when we got underneath that canopy where we could look up under there, man, it looked like an anthill. There were Germans running all over that hill. Well, hey, you couldn’t do anything but go forward. If we turned around and retreated, we’d have been just like F Company. So we just kept going, and they’d taught us use that march and fire, every time your right foot hit the ground, if you had a carbine you fired it, and we got good shooting from the hip. Heck, I could throw a small bucket out and fire when I throw it and hit it five, six times out of eight out of that M-1 Garrand. And that’s the way we went up that hill. And that colonel, he went up the hill with us. Our watches were all synchronized when the artillery was gonna stop, so we knew what time to hit the hill. And when we got to the top, we only took one German prisoner.
Aaron Elson: Just one?
Darrell Petty: One. He was a sergeant, spoke English, and he said, "You damned Americans are crazy. You don’t know how to fight a war." He said, "When you’re fired on with full automatic weapons you’re supposed to hit the ground and take cover. That other unit did and you guys didn’t. You just kept coming at us. We couldn’t get our heads up to shoot back straight." And it made "Army Hour," and was broadcast all over the free world.
Aaron Elson: You know, that’s what they told me. I’ve met some of the Germans who fought there, in one of the villages, and one who spoke English said the Americans didn’t know how to fight.
Darrell Petty: Oh yeah. He said we took war for sport, because we laughed at things. Sometimes it was either laugh or cry, so we laughed. And by golly, it’s an awful thing to say, but we shouldn’t take prisoners, because if you stand there guarding that prisoner you’re gonna get shot. And some, most of them tried to fight, but a few tried to surrender. You couldn’t stand there and guard him because you’re going to get shot. Plus we needed everybody up the hill. So you just had to do what you did.
Aaron Elson: The Germans on top of the hill, were they killed by the infantry or by the artillery?
Darrell Petty: Infantry. We took a kid by the name of Speaks, he had a B.A.R., and I had an M-1, and old Thomas [Doc Roberts] was like a squad leader. He was right up there on the front end of that thing with us, that medic, and by golly, we overran the CP, the command post up there, and a full German colonel came out of there and his cadre, and they were running and we opened up on them with a B.A.R. and that M-1 and it just folded them up. There was one still alive, and Roberts went down and was gonna try to help him, and I heard a Schmeisser bolt click and I hollered "Doc! Look out!" I looked up the hill and he was taking aim on old Doc, and Doc just fell down among the bodies and he sprayed him and he finished killing the German, but he didn’t get Doc. And about that time Speaks and I opened up on him, with the B.A.R. and the M-1.
He was gonna kill Doc, and Doc was trying to help a German, wounded. He killed the German, and Doc fell in behind the bodies and he didn’t get him. Then we nailed that guy. And my M-1 was so hot it wouldn’t quit firing, it was setting itself off. And on the way up, a kid by the name of Phyllis, in F Company...
Aaron Elson: Phillips?
Darrell Petty: Phyllis, just like a girl’s name, his last name was Phyllis. He was mad, and he jumped up, and he said, "I’m going with you!" He went through basic with us, this other kid and me.
Aaron Elson: He was from F Company?
Darrell Petty: Yes. And he shouldn’t have even went with us, but he did. And halfway up the hill I got a bunch of machine gun bullets through the pant leg, and they cut him down. And I thought my leg was gone, it felt like somebody knocked it off. I looked down, it was still working, it was okay. But if he hadn’t went with us, a kid out of Prescott, Arizona, by the name of Billy Bacon and I, we would have run out of ammunition halfway up the hill. We went back and got his ammunition and finished it up, and when it was done I had 18 rounds left. We split it, and I had 18 rounds left, and we were expecting a counterattack. We were setting there with dang little ammunition, but as it turned out, this German sergeant, he'd seen what was going on and he played dead, he smeared blood on his face and lay there. When we discovered he was alive, Lieutenant Kelso said "I want to talk to him," because old Sergeant Will was about to kill him. Lieutenant Kelso said, "I want to find out what they’re doing here." As it turned out, they were supposed to let us bypass them, and then they were going to hit us from the rear that night, and the 11th Panzer was going to hit us from the front. And when we found out, we called artillery in on where the 11th Panzer was gonna come in and we foiled the whole thing.
We were put in for a presidential unit citation for that. And it was on Army Hour, broadcast all over the free world. And I have the little article, I’ve got it at home, where it says Colonel Lyttle and G Company of 358 outmaneuvered and destroyed five companies of German SS, and I’ve had people look at me about those holes. I had seven holes in the pant legs. And my officers tried to figure out how they could miss my leg and make those holes. And I got a letter from a buddy that was there, he got married after we came home, and he said, "I sure would like to have you meet my wife. I’ve been telling her all about you and what we did over there." Then he said, "Well, not quite everything." But he said, "I even told her about the seven holes in your pant leg."
Aaron Elson: Now, the German sergeant that was captured, he had smeared blood on his face?
Darrell Petty: He'd seen what was happening. He saw we weren’t taking any prisoners, his comrade was dead, and he just got some blood and smeared it on his face.
Aaron Elson: Was he wounded at all?
Darrell Petty: Not touched. He just lay down and played dead.
Aaron Elson: And somebody was going to shoot him, and then who said that they wanted to talk to him?
Darrell Petty: Sergeant Will was gonna kill him, and Lieutenant Kelso, he was our executive officer, he hollered at him, "Will, don’t you kill him, I want to talk to him."
Aaron Elson: And after they talked to him, then what happened?
Darrell Petty: Then he went back to a prisoner of war compound. But, oh yeah, we called it Machine Gun Hill. We figured we were kind of justified in doing that. The official number is Hill 451.
(Coming soon: Darrell Petty, Part 2)
Read more interviews like this in "A Mile in Their Shoes," by Aaron Elson, available in our eBay store as well as at amazon.com (where you can order a "used" copy directly from the author at a discounted price). It is also available as an e-Book for Amazon's Kindle.
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