Friday, March 15, 2013

Udenhausen (The Ides of March, Pfaffenheck, Part 1)

From left, Sgt. Byrl Rudd, Lt. Francis "Snuffy" Fuller and
Capt. Harlo J. "Jack" Sheppard at the dividing line between
Belgium and Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge.

   Today is the Ides of March. I doubt, however, that any members of the second platoon, C Company, 712th Tank Battalion, had either Julius Caesar or William Shakespeare on their minds on March 15, 1945, in the village of Udenhausen, Germany, in the picturesque Rhine-Moselle Triangle, although they were about to play a role in a tragedy of their own.
   Ironically, an officer in the battalion's A Company, Morse Johnson, would go on after the war to a distinguished career as an attorney and philanthropist, and would become a founder of the Oxford Shakespeare Society, an organization dedicated to the belief that Shakespeare didn't exist. But A Company was elsewhere on March 15, 1945, and there were few if any highbrow intellectuals in the second platoon, C Company.
   There was Otha Martin, a burly tank commander from Leguire, Oklahoma, who was asked by the company commander, Capt. Harlo J. "Jack" Sheppard, to fill in for a gunner in a different tank that day and the next. There was Bob Rossi, a skinny 19-year-old loader from Jersey City, New Jersey, who was on loan from the third platoon after his tank was knocked out on Feb. 8 in Habscheid, Germany, and he was awaiting a replacement; and two replacements of two weeks duration in the platoon -- Billy Wolfe, age 18, of Edinburg, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, and Jack Mantell, age I don't know, married with a wife and baby at home in Milwaukee, Wis. The platoon had been in combat since July 3, 1944, do the math, July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February, almost all of that time in near daily contact with the enemy, with the exception of about six weeks when General George S. Patton's vaunted 3rd Army was stalled at the Moselle River. There was Russell Loop, a farmer from Newman, Illinois, who was the gunner in the platoon leader's tank. The platoon leader was Lt. Francis "Snuffy" Fuller, who got his nickname when Wesley Haines, a member of the platoon who, according to Otha Martin, had "done imbibed him some," told Fuller, who was in his early thirties, that he looked "like Snuffy Smith in the comics." There was Russell Harris of Detroit, Michigan, a tank commander who joined the platoon after spending most of the war in a rear echelon position and hoped to get a promotion by getting some time in combat before the war ended, and Byrl Rudd, the platoon sergeant, a farmer from Ada, Oklahoma who'd been with the platoon through a succession of lieutenants. There was Wes Harrell, a tank driver from Stonewall, Oklahoma, who was nicknamed "Corporal Wac" because of the blousy uniform pants he liked to wear; and Koon Leong Moy, a loader from Boston who joined the platoon in September of 1944 in the same batch of replacements as Rossi. Moy quickly acquired the nickname "Chop Chop," and was sought after in vain by Sgt. Jim Warren, a tank commander in the third platoon, who wanted Moy to cook for him. Today that nickname would be interpreted as way politically incorrect, not to mention stereotypical, so imagine the response in the 1960s or '70s when Rossi was driving with his wife, Marie, through New York's Chinatown after visiting their daughter in New Jersey. Rossi thought he saw Moy crossing the street, and so he stopped his car, honked the horn, stuck his head out the window and yelled "Chop Chop! Chop Chop!" There was no response from the person he was calling to, but I can imagine he elicited a fair number of stares.
  There was Lloyd Heyward, another sergeant who joined the platoon as a replacement. Heyward was from Decker, Michigan, which is the town where Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols lived on a farm while they planned the Oklahoma City bombing; McVeigh was executed and Nichols is serving a life sentence. Coincidentally, Lambert Hiatt, an officer in the battalion's D Company, lived in Oklahoma City at the time of the bombing and felt his house shake when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was blown up on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people.
   There was Jack Green, a hard-drinking, rowdy tank commander who Don Knapp, a mild-mannered, sensitive tank commander, called the Mister Hyde to his own Doctor Jekyll. Green died shortly after the war of carbon monoxide poisoning when he was drinking in his car in North Carolina and fell asleep with the engine running. Knapp wasn't with the platoon on March 15, his place having been taken by Harris after the Battle of the Bulge. There was Guadalupe Valdivia, a Mexican-American, who was the assistant driver in the lieutenant's tank. And there was Carl Grey, the driver of Fuller's tank, who the lieutenant said reminded him of Li'l Abner.
   That puts Snuffy Smith and Li'l Abner in the platoon, but there was nothing comical about what was about to occur.
   Early in the morning of March 15, Bob Rossi was pulling guard duty in his tank in Udenhausen when he spotted some German soldiers emerging from the woods on the outskirts of town. He leaned down into the tank and whispered, according to Rossi, "Krauts! Krauts!" According to Otha Martin Rossi whispered "Heinies! Heinies!" Either way, Martin grabbed Rossi by the shoulders and yanked him into the turret, unintentionally slamming Rossi's head against the steel side of the tank. (Many years later, at a reunion, Rossi would tell Martin he thought Martin was trying to kill him. "I didn't have no problem with you," Martin said.)
   With Rossi out of the way, Martin grabbed his Thompson submachine gun, rose through the turret hatch, and began firing at a German in a floppy overcoat who was running toward his tank. "I buggered him up real bad," Martin would say at a battalion reunion in the early 1990s. "I don't know if he intended to throw a grenade or what."
   There was a brief firefight, but the Germans, who had no antitank guns -- a situation which would be greatly different 24 hours later in the neighboring village of Pfaffenheck -- retreated back into the woods. The Germans were from the 6th SS Mountain Division North, which spent much of the war fighting the Russians in Finland until the Finns signed an armistice with the Russians and ordered the Germans to leave the country. In order to do so they had to march 1,600 kilometers to the north, and then travel by ship to Denmark. Because they weren't proceeding fast enough on the march, the Finns, beside whom they'd been fighting for three years, attacked them from the rear and strafed them from the air, in order to prove to the Russians that they were serious about making the Germans leave. According to one of the veterans of the 11th Mountain Regiment, who would write a book about his experiences under a pseudonym, a battalion commander named Gunther Degen took his Finnish medals and left them nailed to a tree as the regiment proceeded north.
   According to Wikipedia, the division was supposed to take part in the Battle of the Bulge but didn't arrive in Denmark until Dec. 20, 1944, four days after the Bulge began. The division instead was sent to the Vosges mountains, where it took part in Operation Northwind, which broke out on New Year's Eve and is sometimes called the "other Battle of the Bulge."
   The division worked its way north, suffering significant attrition along the way, until it arrived in the vicinity of the cities of Trier and Koblenz and was told to buy time for other German units to escape across the Rhine. This is where it encountered the 90th Infantry Division and with it, the 712th Tank Battalion.
   After the second platoon helped the infantry secure the village of Udenhausen, it came under sporadic shelling, which caused the shingles to fall from the roofs of some of the houses. Jack Mantell, the recruit who'd been with the platoon for two weeks, was struck in the forehead by a falling shingle, but declined to go to an aid station for treatment, despite the sound advice of his more seasoned buddy Loop, who'd taken Mantell under his wing, to go back to the aid station and tell them that his head was killing him. Mantell and Loop had made one of those grim pacts so frequent in times of war: If Mantell were killed, Loop would visit his wife and child and tell them how he died, and if Loop were to be killed, Mantell would visit his parents and tell them how he died.
   Meanwhile, about two kilometers down the blacktop road, things were not going well for either side in the battle. A tank destroyer of the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion took a direct hit as it passed between two buildings in Pfaffenheck and burst into flames, killing all five of its crew members. Company K of the 358th Infantry Regiment was absorbing heavy casualties, while on the outskirts of town, the 11th Regiment of the 6th SS Mountain Division North was making a last stand at what would come to be known in the division's annals as the Schiebegeich Farm. It was there that Gunther Degen, the 28-year-old battalion commander who left his Finnish medals on a tree and who was a recipient of the Knight's Cross, was killed.

(Next: "Goering's Gifts")

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