Articles

How Ramsdail and the 314th's Third Battalion Bridged the Meurthe; River Fight One of the Div's Hottest

by PFC Raymond Hutchison, Lorraine Cross, 1944



The Allied bridgeheads across the Seine, the Rhine, and the Roer copped the headlines, and rightfully so. But take it from doughs of the Purvis (Third) Battalion of the 314th Infantry: Neither of those three major operations is in a class with the crossing of the Meurthe River near Frambois, France. That swift-flowing, muddy, curving little stream seemed custom-built for a defending force. And the defenders in this particular instance were a numerically superior bunch of of tough krauts who knew they were holding most of the aces.

The Third Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Ernest R. Purvis, of Norfolk, VA., cleared the tiny town of Frambois on the afternoon of September 20, and then pushed on to a high ridge overlooking the Meurthe. The vista below them was anything but inviting.

All bridges over the river had been destroyed. Terrain along the stream was flat, marshy, and barren of all cover. About 1000 yards beyond the river was a dense, wooded strip, the Foret de Mondon. Near a blown bridge directly below the Battalion was a concrete house surrounded by a stone wall. The canny krauts had laced this position with eigh emplaced machine gun positions and at least two tanks. Additional machine gun squads and snipers lined the river banks at every potential crossing site. More machine guns, mortar squads tanks and infantry were holed up in the forest in positions where they could keep the river under constant fire.

From the High Ground

Purvis and his staff spent most of a day watching kraut activity in the area below them, and pondering means of moving from the ridge to the river with literally no cover to shield the operation. In the late afternoon the quiet-spoken little Virginian sent a six-man patrol from K Company down for a look-see. It reached a point within 90 yards of the river before the machine guns opened up with a murderous concentration. It returned with confirmation of what everyone already knew: The krauts knew that the attackers were on the high ground, and they knew the fight would be brought to them.

At dusk Purvis personally headed a larger scouting party, consisting of one platoon of K Company and a platoon of tanks from Baker Company of the 749th Tank Bn, to the river bank. As this force neared a bridge site it was taken under concentrated small arms and tank fire. The probers held on and slugged it out until one of two kraut tanks was destroyed and another put out of action. But it too was forced to withdraw when the fierce enemy fire did not slacken.

Purvis was all set to try again, but orders came down from Regiment to hold the ridge during the night and, if possible, bridge the Meurthe in the morning.

By Dawn's Early Light

The attack kicked off just before dawn. The two attacking companies, K and L, reached the river bank in surprisingly short order. Captain Robert L. Pitts of Love Company (now Major Pitts, Bn Exec), sent a small patrol across the Meurthe to the right of a demolished bridge. It returned intact - a fact which indicated that the enemy was napping. But a second, larger patrol lont one officer and one enlisted man, and in an instant the heat was on the company, to remain that way for the rest of the day.

Crossing the Meurthe
Crossing the Meurthe

Meanwhile, Company K, to the left of the brige, made a reconnaissance for a place where it could cross via boats. An appropriate site was located and a crossing started in three rubber boats. Shortly after noon the entire company was on Far Shore and, during the afternoon, Captain Charles W. Erdmann's Item Company crossed in assault boats and on a makeshift brige of rubber boats.

While Love Company continued to swap small arms, automatic weapons and mortar fire with the enemy, King and Item Companies strove unsuccessfully to reach a road between the river and the woods. Their sole route of advance was covered by a system of cross-fire that could not be penetrated, and Purvis recognized immediately that it was senseless waste to continue at that time.

Slugfest

With their numbers greatly reduced as a result of the day's action, the attackers dug in along the north bank of the Meurthe in the left sector, with Love Company south of the river to the right of the bridge and George Company on the ridge overlooking the river and protecting the right flank. Another night was passed.

On the following morning, under a heavy artillery barrage, King and Love Companies moved forward the road as their objective. King was on its objective in nothing flat, and tangled almost immediately with a group of tank-supported infantrymen. Six krauts were liquidated in the initial skirmish, and the company dug in.

Love Company had tougher going. On the south side of the river it met with concentrated fire from tanks and machine guns emplaced around the concrete house between the road and the river. But the company held fast, and toughed it out.

Forward the Battalion

In the meanwhile, Item and King Companies were pushing forward along the Battalion's left flank toward the forest. In this advance they cleaned out three machine gun nests and a .20mm gun. They flushed a .75mm gun crew, killing four of the crew and forcing the gun's withdrawal. And they still had sufficient moxie to turn back the first of several tank-supported counterattacks.

Enemy armor in considerable force was reported in the left sector, and Second Battalion's Fox Company was sent across the river behind Item Company late in the morning to strengthen the left flank.

Throughout the morning Love Company had been sweating out a cross of the river without success. In one six-man patrol one man was killed and five wounded. The hail of machine gun fire that greeted every bridgehead attempt was just too damned strong to be bucked. Then a guy named Ramsdail crawled over to the CO and said he'd like to try the job alone, to find out just what was on the other side.

Enter Ramsdail

Claude Kenneth Ramsdail is about as big as a drink of bourbon, and twice as potent. Even before the Division left Uncle Sugar Able (USA), his name itself was a legend in Love Company. He had demonstrated many times that he was ever ready to fight, frolic, or run a foot race, and this was another one of those times.

Pvt (later (S/Sgt) Ramsdail was serving as a company runner. He told the company CO that he thought he could locate a ford, cross the river and determine the plan and extent of enemy defenses on Far Shore. The CO told him to go ahead. Before he started Ramsdail had a conference with the artillery observer and an attached tank destroyer crew. With them he doped out a set of hand signals, and the gist of his conversation was: "When you see me wig-wag, let 'em hav it."

By the time Ramsdail began his junket, the mist had lifted, and the enemy's observation was perfect. He crawled across completely open terrain for 200 solid yards while a quartet of enemy snipers dug furrows around his ears. En route he got off two snapshots with his M-1, and follow-up forces confirmed that he'd drilled two the snipers with fatal results. At the river's edge he stood up - to be taken under immediate fire by a camouflaged tank on the Far Shore. He wig-wagged the prearranged signals, and the first round from the TD knocked out the panzer. One of the emplaced machine guns took over, and another round of TD fire whistled down around the guy's ears. Then the machine gun shut up.

Ramsdail slipped into the stream, M-1 high over his head. He struggled through the swift current in tit-deep water, never knowing whether the next step would be his last. The tense watchers on Near Shore watched him reach the shallows across the river. They saw him stagger as two machine gun slugs from a point not 25 yards from his right took him through the hip and shoulder. They saw him as he dragged himself up the bank, emptying his M-1 into a machine gun nest. They watched him reload time after time and move from point to point, presaging his stops with a steady stream of fire from his faithful rifle. While a machine gun chattered hysterically, and slugs splashed all around him, he reentered the river and returned to the company OP with information that was destined to save, literally, hundreds of lives in the subsequent crossing.

The Finish

On the basis of Ramsdail's information, it was decided to move Love Company across in the wake of tanks. Lt. James Wood, commanding Baker Company of the Tank Bn, and Captain Pitts made an extensive reconnaissance on foot for a route through the marshy land in the company's sector and across the river. Early in the afternoon, two tanks made a crossing about 250 yards below the bridge. The first mired down in the ford, but it was retrieved in time to lead the attack in the Foret de Mondon.

Love Company crossed the Meurthe behind the tanks and built up a line north of the river. At the concrete house, which had caused them so much trouble, the doughs closed with fanatical krauts in hand to hand combat. Many were killed outright, but enough live ones were left to assure 27 prisoners. The company pushed on and, after much close fighting, reached the edge of the forest just after dark. That found the entire battalion on a solid line again.

In the early evening, Division engineers started work on a bridge which was completed early the following morning.

During the night, an enemy force moved into the woods on the right flank of Love Company, but some smartly placed mortar fire brok up the concentration, and the company was able to move into the forest proper the following afternoon.

The Meurthe River line had been broken, and the Division pressed on against a slowly withdrawing enemy into the hell that was Foret de Parroy.

All stories should have a happy ending, and this one is no exception. S/Sgt Claude K. Ramsdail now wears the DSC. If present plans are realized, that will be exchanged for a Congressional Medal of Honor. At last report, he was back in his home town of Dayton, Ohio, sweating out a discharge. But those who know Ramsdail - an old Army man from way back - say that a discharge will be a mere formality preceding another reenlistment. Some guys think that way.