by John Kline
Born in Indiana, 1925, graduating from a country high school in April 1943, I was inducted into the US Army. My Infantry Basic Training was completed at Camp Wheeler, Georgia after which I was then sent to the University of Alabama for the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). In March 1944 the Army Specialized Training Program was deactivated and Iwas sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, along with about 1,200 other ASTP students to join the 106th Infantry Division who was just coming off Tennessee Maneuvers. I was assigned to "M" Company, 423rd Infantry Regiment, Third Battalion - the heavy weapons company whose duties were to support Rifle Companies, I, K and L. The primary weapons of M Company were the 30 caliber water cooled machine gun and the 81mm mortar.
My first assignment was as a "Jeep" driver for the 2nd squad, 1st Platoon - a machine-gun squad (30 cal water-cooled). After a short time as Jeep driver, I requested to join the squad for which I drove. I was given the position of "second gunner." and shortly after that, I was made "firstgunner." Then, the new squad leader was sent to a replacement depot at which time I became acting squad leader. A few days before we embarked on the Queen Elizabeth to England, in October 1944, I was made Sergeant - machine gun squad leader. That was my rank and duty until I was captured in The Battle of the Bulge on 19 December 1944.
As a prisoner I walked a total of approximately 525 miles. One hundred and ten miles from the point of capture on the German-Belgium border to Stalag 12-A (German prison camp), Limburg, Germany. We never entered the camp, but were loaded into box-cars, 60 men to a box-car. They we traveled seven days, six nights in the 48 box-cars (originally built for 40 men or 8 horses) to Stalag 4-B, Muhlberg, Germany (on the Elbe River). Due to bombing raids and bad tracks, the trip was much longer than normal. We did not get out of the box-cars during the whole trip. The toilet facility for 60 men was a 5 gallon bucket. We were fed only three times during the trip. A slice of bread and a small, very small portion of cheese, water only twice. We used a can on a string to scoop snow from the tracks.
I spent one week in Stalag 4-B, Mühlberg, Germany. While there I turned age 20. I was shipped on an over-night box-car ride to Stalag 8-A, Görlitz, Germany, along with approximately 1,600 non-commissioned officers from the 28th and 106th Infantry Divisions. Görlitz is about 80 miles east of Dresden on the old Polish/Czech border. One month later on, Valentine's Day - February 14, 1945, we were evacuated from Stalag 8-A due to advancing Russian troops. This leg of my "POW Marching Experience" would take me 415 miles (in two months) west to Dresden, Jena, Gotha, then slightly northwest to Duderstad, then north to Braunschweig (Brunswick). After a couple of days in an old work camp in Braunschweig we were marched east. At that time I was so weak that I could not walk. I was put in a "sick-wagon" column, separated from the main columns. On April 12, 1945 we arrived at the town of Helmstedt, Germany. There we were housed in a Farben Industries ammunition plant infirmary. The next day at 10:30 a.m. we were liberated by the American Army. LIBERATION DAY was Friday April 13, 1945. I shall never forget that day.
Our Division had suffered a great defeat by the Germans and for years I was of the opinion that I had not done my duty for my country. I buried my experiences raised a family and tried to forget the war. In early 1987 I read a great book by Charles B. MacDonald entitled A Time for Trumpets: the Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge , William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. I realized that the blame for our defeat could not be placed at the feet of the ordinary soldier. I came out of my shell and decided to find some of my old comrades. This led me to the 106th Infantry Division Association. In September 1987 I attended my first reunion and talked with three of my old comrades, the first I had seen of them since December 1944.
The following story is from the "War Diary" of John Kline, a nineteen year old Squad Leader, Heavy Machine guns, 2nd squad, 1st Platoon, M Company, 423rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division.
We left the woods near St Vith for front line positions. Our destination was a defense line in the Ardennes forest atop the Schnee Eifel (Snow Mountain). The positions were 12 miles east of St. Vith and were in Germany.
A name we would learn to remember, Schönberg, was 9 miles east of St Vith and 3 miles west of our positions. We were facing the German troops from emplacements on the East slopes [reverse slopes] of the German Siegfried Line, known as "The German West Wall." We took over positions held by the 2nd Infantry Division and exchanged much of our new equipment for their old. The exchange was to be made as quickly and quietly as possible. The 2nd Division was being transferred to Aachen to participate in an attack on the Roer Dam area. My machine gun position was a log bunker with field of fire obstructed by dense forest. Conditions were quiet. Excellent chow was served twice a day. Historians and military strategists, argue that the Schnee Eifel positions should never have been occupied. They say that it was impossible to launch an offensive from there. They argued that the positions presented no defense against an assault from the east. This the Germans proved, on Dec 16, as they cut off our positions by attacking around the north and south ends of the Schnee Eifel. They, the crystal gazers, were right. A static defense line was not the answer for a thinly spread force. Any penetration through our lines would result in disaster.
M Company, 423rd Regiment, was assigned positions along the front line to support the rifle companies. An Infantry heavy weapons company, like ours, is equipped with 81 mm mortars and water cooled 30 caliber machine guns. A rifle company, is equipped with automatic weapons and mortars, but they are 60 mm mortars and air cooled machine guns. Our duty is to support the various rifle companies of the 3rd Battalion, 423rd Regiment. They are, I, K and L Companies. Such was our deployment along the tree covered ridge atop the Schnee Eifel.
The Ardennes forest is, for the most part, heavily wooded. It is interlaced with many small logging trails, fire fighting lanes and streams. We slept in rough, but warm dugouts and enjoyed solid gun bunkers. Built by the 2nd Division, they were built of logs, with a log and earth roof. We completed our changeover with the 2nd Division as darkness came. We had no time to become acquainted with the territory around our new positions. Because of that, and since were fresh and inexperienced troops, our first night was unforgettable. We were facing, for the first time, an enemy that we only knew from newsreels and training films. It was a sleepless and anxiety filled night.
I can personally confirm that a snow covered tree stump will actually move. That is, if you stare at it long enough - and if you are a young, nineteen year old machine gun squad leader peering, into the darkness, towards the enemy through a slit in a machine gun bunker. Every sound is amplified, every bush could be an enemy crawling towards you. Your eyes grow bleary from staring into the darkness. You are happy when the relieve crew shows up. The next day, you take a good long look at the stump that moved during the night. You take note of all unusual objects, and then things start to settle down.
There were two gun emplacements (bunkers) for my machine gun squad. One was higher on the hill, and the other a couple of hundred yards down the slope. When we first moved in, our gun position was in the lower bunker. After the first night we were asked to move back up the slope, to the alternate bunker. For what reason, I don't know. We did appreciate the move, for the alternate bunker was much warmer and drier. As in the lower bunker, there were "trip lines" running from the bunker down into the forest and through the barbed wire. The lines were attached to hand grenades and flares that were placed in their shipping containers attached to the trees. If we detected movement in the area beyond the barbed wire we could pull a trip line. This would cause a grenade to explode, after it was pulled from its container. A flare could be ignited to light up the area in the same manner. Our field of fire was good, but very limited. The 2nd Division had cut down a lot of trees and cleaned out the brush. However, the forest still offered the enemy excellent cover.
I remember one day being convinced that I could see a vehicle, in the woods, several hundred yards down the hill. The contours of the hill and the thick forest were playing games with my imagination. When I looked at it from another vantage point, the illusion disappeared. There was one rifleman to the left of my bunker. He was entrenched in a log covered foxhole. According to members of the patrols, this rifleman was the last person between my machine gun emplacement and the 422nd Regiment. The 422nd Regiment was reported to be five miles across a valley. The two regiments sent alternate patrols across the unoccupied space each half hour. They reported very little German activity.
The first days passed without incident. The most excitement we had in my bunker area was when a nearby 50 caliber machine gun started blasting away. The gunner had become bored and decided to kill a deer. We left the bunker area twice daily to eat our meals in a mess tent. It was back of us, to the West, on the opposite side of the hill. To get to it we had to walk along a trail, through a clearing, and down the other side. The Germans had the clearing zeroed in. As we crossed the clearing, we had to be prepared to hit the ground in case they decided to harass us. The 2nd Division's squad leader that I relieved, said two men had been killed crossing the clearing a few days ago. Our daily trips to the mess tent were something to look forward too. The food was good and the Mess Sergeant seemed to be friendlier since we have moved up to the front lines. I did enjoy those meals, there were generous portions and we could chat with the others and get brought up to date on the local news.
History shows "The Battle of the Bulge" started at 0530 on the morning of December 16, 1944. Because we were high atop the Schnee Eifel and out of the mainstream of the German Offensive, we were probably the last to know that it had been launched. I cannot remember any evidence or any sounds that would have indicated to us the size of the battle that was to take place. A battle that was to become one of the largest battles in the history of World War II. The 40 days that battle raged were the coldest and snowiest weather remembered in the Ardennes Forest area. More than one million men, 600,000 Americans and 500,000 Germans and 55,000 Englishmen fought in this battle. 32 American, 3 British and 29 German Divisions were in the battle before it ended. The Germans suffered 100,000 killed, wounded or captured. There were over 81,00 American casualties, including 23,554 captured and 19,000 killed. The British suffered 1,400 casualties and 200 killed. Each side lost 800 tanks and the Germans lost 1,000 aircraft. The Malmedy Massacre where nearly 90 American Soldiers were slaughtered was the worst atrocity, against the Americans, during the European Campaign.
My division, the 106th Infantry Division suffered 416 killed in action, 1,246 wounded and 7,001 men missing in action. Most of these casualties occurred within the first three days of battle when two of the three regiments were forced to surrender. In losses - the German Ardennes Offensive, later to become known as "The Battle of the Bulge," was the worst battle for the Americans in World War II.
Our company commander set up his headquarters in one of the enormous Siegfried Line bunkers. The bunker was not completely demolished, as they usually were. The underground rooms were intact and accessible. He had taken a room several flights down. The command bunker was on a crest of a hill. The firing apertures faced west towards Belgium, the backside towards the present German lines. There were steep slopes on either side, with signs and white caution tape warning of "Mine Fields." There was a pistol belt and canteen hanging in one of the trees on the slope. Apparently, some GI had wandered into the mine field.
German activity was reported along our front on the 17th (remember the Bulge started on the 16th). The commander called me back to the command post. He informed me that I should be prepared to move my gun to his area to protect the commandpost. While visiting with him, I noticed that he was very nervous. His 45 Colt pistol was on the table, ready for action. Our Master Sergeant who was also present, seemed equally concerned. Later I was to learn the reason for their anxiety. I suspect, in retrospect, that they had been made aware of the German breakthrough. Yet did not yet know the importance of the news.
While in the vicinity of the command post bunker, I watched a U.S. Army Air Corps P-47 Thunderbolt chase a German Messerschmitt (ME 109) through the sky. They passed directly in front of us. Our area being one of the highest on the Schnee Eifel, gave us a clear view of the surrounding valleys. The P-47 was about two hundred yards behind the ME-109 and was pouring machine gun fire into the German plane. They left our sight as they passed over the edge of the forest. We were told later, that the P-47 downed the German ME-109 in the valley.
As it turned out, my machine gun was not moved to the command post. During the night of the 17th we heard gunfire, small arms, mortars and artillery. We also could hear and see German rocket fire to the South. The German rocket launcher was five barreled and of large caliber. The rocket launcher is called a "Nebelwerfer." Due to their design, the rockets make a screaming sound as they fly through the air. Using high explosives, but not very accurate, they can be demoralizing if you are in their path of flight.
On the morning of the 18th I was instructed to report to the mess tent for a briefing. As I was walking to the tent I noticed two German prisoners being guarded by an American GI. They were setting under a tree near the mess tent. During the briefing we were told that the Germans had broken through our supply lines. This turned out to be true, however, we were not informed of how grave the situation was. The facts were ,as you will read later, that we were cut off from the rest of the division early in the morning of the 17th. The artillery and rockets that we had heard to the South, were sounds of the battle that was taking place at Bleialf, a small village on the road between Prüm and Schönberg. The 423rd Anti-Tank Company who had that defensive area had been thrown out of Bleialf on the 16th. They used all available troops in the area and pushed the Germans out of Bleialf, only to be overrun again on the morning of the 17th. They were overpowered by the tremendous numbers of German troops heading northwest up the Bleialf-Schönberg road. The Germans had closed the pincers behind us, at Schönberg. We were like a boulder protruding from the middle of a stream. This proved the military strategists to be correct. A mountain is not the place to be when you have no support.
But, I am getting ahead of my story....
We were told to eat a big breakfast because we were going to hit the road. We were ordered to head west and join with the rest of Regiment. Presumably to make our way to St. Vith. The cook made stacks and stacks of pancakes. We all ate like it was our last meal. Little did we know that this would be our last decent meal for the next four months. We then prepared to leave our positions taking only the bare necessity and as much ammunition as possible. Our personal gear was in our duffel bags, stacked near the mess tent. I had an old Kodak Autographic camera in my duffel bag. It had been given to me as a gift by a high school classmate. I always regretted the loss of that camera. One of my active hobbies after the war was "photography."
We left our Schnee Eifel positions, heading west towards Schönberg. I was in my squad jeep, with my driver and gunner. We were traveling between columns of troops that were afoot. At that time I was not familiar with the names of the villages or towns in the vicinity. In my studies after the war I read that we evacuated from the Schnee Eifel positions west through Halenfeld. Then took a right fork at Oberlascheid to Skyline Drive. Then near Radscheid a left then a right (northwest) onto a logging road leading into the woods overlooking Schönberg. (This special note added during my update of this diary March 1993...)
In 1987, I read a book written in 1985, A Time for Trumpets, by Charles B. MacDonald. He had written another book just after the war, Company Commander, which was about his infantry company that fought in the Bulge. He was the youngest company commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II. He had spent five years prior to publication researching the battle, traveling to the area and gaining information from many of the participants. His book explained in more detail what happened during the Battle of the Bulge and seemed to be written from the ordinary soldier's viewpoint. For whatever reason, this book turned me on. I began to think back, my mind searching for details of my personal experiences, and at the same time trying to remember the names of my buddies, who I seemed to have pushed out of my mind for all these years. Eventually, from April 1987 to this date, March 1993, I have located or accounted for 77 of my former buddies from "M" Company. Of this number 10 have passed away. One of those that I contacted early in my search - 1987 - was Colonel C.C. Cavender, the Regimental Commander of the 423rd Combat Infantry regiment, of which "M" Company was a part of. I was privileged to have the Colonel as my roommate at the 106th Infantry Division Association's 1990 Annual Reunion in Sacramento, California. At that time the Colonel was 92 years of age. We spent hours talking about his and the 423rd's part in the Battle of the Bulge...
Colonel C. C. Cavender told me that we, the 3rd Battalion of the 423rd Regiment were attempting to get to Radscheid to assist the 2nd Battalion of the 423rd Regiment. They were engaged in a fire-fight along the Bleialf-Schönberg road during their attempt to cut the road which had been taken by the Germans. He told me that originally the two regiments were to march south of Schönberg and make their way back to St Vith to join the rest of the division in a defense situation. Instead of assisting the 2nd Battalion Colonel Cavender received orders to move the 3rd battalion to the right of the 2nd battalion and head it toward Schönberg. The route was to be through the hilly woods, later identified as "Linscheid Hill" southeast of Schönberg, Belgium. According to orders, we were to cause utmost damage to the German troops there and continue to St. Vith.
Colonel Cavender, after the war, received much criticism for moving the 3rd battalion to the right around Puett. In a recent conversation, October 1989, with him, he said, "Those were the orders I received from General Jones." He then told me more about the battle at Bleialf. He formed a provisional battalion, the 423rd Anti-Tank Company plus a mixture of men from other units. This provisional battalion threw the Germans back on the 16th, only to be thrown overrun again on the 17th. After moving into the Schnee Eifel front line positions he, Colonel Cavender, inspected the whole area, including the area around Bleialf.
Accompanying him was his counterpart, Colonel Boos, the 2nd Division's Regimental Commander. Colonel Cavender expressed concern to him, to about the open corridor from Prüm to Schönberg. It was defended by a thin line of troops. He was concerned, as had been his 2nd Division counterpart, that in case of an attack there was a lack of secondary defense. His fears turned out to be true. When the Ardennes Offensive broke, the Germans poured around the Schnee Eifel from the South, through the Prüm Corridor. They then closed the pincers by joining with the Germans coming into Schönberg from the North along the Andler-Schönberg road. he asked what reserve or "backup" resources were available and Colonel Boss replied, "None."
In November of 1989 Colonel Cavender sent me two packets of his personal papers. These are mostly personal letters from 423rd Regiment friends and from a few of the division officers. He had explain, after the war, his reasons for his strategy during the first three days of the Bulge, and also explain the reason he surrendered his regiment on 19 December 1944. I have read and reread these papers, many which relate to what happened during that period. I can confirm that those facts I mention above are the same as his written notes and papers and his conversations with me on the telephone since 1987 as well as our personal visits in 1990 at the reunion in Sacramento.
It seems, at least to me and some of my buddies, that the Prüm Corridor, the area that the 423rd Anti-Tank Company was defending and the Losheim Gap, the area that the 14th Cavalry was defending, were left open for a purpose. Could that be true? Were we part of a calculated risk, or were we setup? It looks as if we will never know. I, personally, can only relate what we were told as we left the Schnee Eifel to march to the rear towards Schönberg Belgium (about three miles to the West). There we were to meet a combat team of an armored division in Schönberg, Belgium. Later, after getting underway, we were informed that the Germans had encircled us, and that we had orders to fight our way through Schönberg and try to reach St. Vith. In fact, he Germans did occupy Schönberg, the promised armor was not there.
After the war I learned that on the 16th of December 1944, part of the German 18th Volksgrenadier Division and the Fifth Panzer Army's Fuhrer Begleit Brigade [Tank Brigade] broke through the 14th Cavalry Group, who were on the left flank of our division (north of us on the north edge of the Schnee Eifel). The Germans drove through along the Andler-Schönberg road. They were in Schönberg on the 17th. We did not leave the Schnee Eifel until the 18th of December, 1944.
The 423rd Regiment's Anti-Tank company at Bleialf, on the South edge of the Schnee Eifel, had been overrun on the 16th by troops from the German 18th Volksgrenadier Division. A miscellaneous group of troops, including the remains of the Anti-Tank company had recaptured it. Then on the 17th the 18th Volksgrenadiers made a final plunge and once again broke through Bleialf. They were pushing towards Schönberg, a few miles to the Northwest. We were to see them hit our backside during the night of the 18th and 19th as we overlooked Schönberg from Linscheid Hill southeast of the town. Both German units, those from the North down the Andler-Schönberg road and the ones on the South on the Prüm-Schönberg road had converged on Schönberg. They had closed the pincers. By that action the 422nd Regiment, and my regiment,423rd Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division were trapped in the Ardennes forest southeast of Schönberg. Considering that, Captain Hardy, my company commander had reason to be nervous when they talked to me on the 17th, as he explained that I was to bring my gun crew back to his Command Post to guard it. He must have been aware of the seriousness of the situation as it developed, but did not reveal that to any of our personnel that I can learn. Whether he was aware or not will never be learned. He was killed on the morning of the 19th, when the battle opened up on the Schönberg Hill.
German units involved in the battle:
The 18th Volksgrenadier Division was formed in Denmark around the cadre of a Luftwaffe field division, with fill ins from the Navy. It was at full strength [17,000 men] and had two months experience, in defensive positions in the Eifel area. [The 106th Division was not at full strength. They probably were at less than 12,000 men. They had 5 days experience on the front line]. The Fuhrer Begleit Brigade, under control of General der Panzertruppen Hasso von Manteuffel, was built around a cadre of troops from Hitler's headquarters guard. It included a tank battalion from the Gross Deutschland Panzer Division (still on the Eastern Front). It was strongly reinforced with assault guns [large caliber guns mounted on tracks]. They were equipped with 88mm and 105mm pieces from the 460th Heavy Artillery Battalion.
It should also be noted that even though there were many young German troops and some fillers from other branches of service, the German unit commanders were veterans. The 106th Division commanders were, with a couple of exceptions, facing the enemy for the first time. The complete surprise of the attack, the overwhelming numbers of German troops and the static position of our two regiments atop the Schnee Eifel eventually led to our defeat and capture.
Our column did not come under fire until we were near our destination, a heavily wooded area (Linscheid Hill - Hill 546)southeast of Schönberg. As we approached the logging trail, near Radscheid, we were shelled by German 88's. My driver drove the jeep into the ditch on the right side of the road. A bazooka-man had hitched a ride on the jeep over the right rear wheel. As we hit the ditch, his weapon fell apart. The rocket fell out and landed in the mud along side of me, where I had fallen. Fortunately the bazooka rocket did not arm itself. As I picked myself up, I noticed a pair of German binoculars lying in the ditch. I picked them up and hung them around my neck. They were probably left there by German troops who had been patrolling in this area. I have often thought, "What if they had been booby trapped?"
A point where my memory fails is that I cannot remember what happened during the night of December 18. It would have been logical to set up defensive positions and sleep in shifts, which we probably did. However, my mind is completely blank about the events of that night. M Company men I have met in recent years, 1988 and 1989, tell me that we spent most of the night trying to get our jeeps out of the mud. The number of vehicles on the road and an unusually warm spell caused the fields to be very muddy. The weather turned much colder and stayed that way until after the end of January.
Battle positions: In early morning of the 19th I received orders to position my 30 cal water cooled machine gun in the edge of the woods overlooking Schönberg. I was high on a hill, overlooking a slope leading into a valley. I could see, about 1,000 yards to the Northwest, the house tops of Schönberg.
Company M, 423rd Regiment, my unit, was assigned to support L Company, a rifle company, who were preparing to enter Schönberg. They were advancing down the slope, attempting to enter Schönberg along the Bleialf-Schönberg road which was several hundred yards in front of my gun position, in the edge of the woods. The town and area was infested with Germans, but from my position I saw no sign of them. I saw little, except the roof tops of Schönberg ahead of us, and a few of our troops on the slope below us.
A rifle company to our rear, Company I, 423rd, were waiting on orders to proceed down the hill in support L Company. It was about 0900 when we were suddenly hit by very heavy artillery fire. It seemed that all hell had broken loose. The shells were exploding all around us, on the ground and in the trees. Men were screaming for Medics. I heard during the day that M Company's Commander, Captain Hardy, had been killed and the Executive Officer, Captain Wiegers was blinded by a tree burst. There was a terrible lot of confusion at that time. I thought to myself that the officers could be from one of the rifle companies. That was not so, our officers were hit by tree bursts. This turned out not to be all true - Captain Hardy was killed by the very first tree burst as the German shells landed in the woods around us. Captain Wiegers, although hit, was not blinded. I learned in 1988 that he rode a tank out of the officers camp, Oflag 13C, Hammelburg, during an attempted break-out. Read the book about Patton's raid on the Hammelberg Oflag, where he tried to rescue his son-in-law. The name of the book is Raid. Hammelberg was about 80 miles behind the existing front lines. Most of our officers ended up being held at Oflag 13C. After the aborted attempt by Patton to liberate the camp, the Germans put all the officers on the road, marching in the direction of Bavaria. Colonel Cavender, 423rd Regimental commander, was wounded on that march. He and others were caught in the target zone of hundreds of bombers. Cavender spent several months in the hospital as a result of his leg wounds.
During the day, Smitty, my gunner was injured in the leg by an artillery shell. I was hit on the backside of my right boot on the same burst. My right overshoe and combat boot were ripped. I sustained a small wound in the area of the right Achilles tendon. (In the excitement and trauma that followed, I did not realize I had been hit.)It was not serious enough to prevent me from walking and eventually healed. I learned later, after returning home, that Smitty had his leg amputated in a German hospital and had also suffered stomach wounds. His stomach wounds caused him to be unable to continue to work after 1963. He is one of the first men I discovered in 1987, after reading MacDonald's book that I mentioned earlier.
The first hostile artillery barrage, at 0900, was unbelievable in its magnitude. It seemed that every square yard of ground was being covered. The initial barrage slackened after forty-five minutes or an hour. I could hear men from "L" Company, on the slopes below, screaming for medics. Shortly after that the shelling started again. The woods were being raked throughout the day by a constant barrage of small arms and artillery fire. We were pinned down in the edge of the woods and could not move. I found some protection in a small trench, by a tree, as the shelling started. It must have been scooped out by one of the riflemen the night before. The front of the trench, pointing towards Schönberg, was deeper than the back. My feet stuck up above the ground. I suppose that was the reason I suffered a leg wound. At one point during the shelling, I heard a piece of metal hit the ground. It was a large jagged, hot, smoking piece of shrapnel, about eighteen inches long and four inches wide. It landed a foot or two from my head. After it cooled off I reached out and picked it up. I don't think is was a mortar or a 88mm shell. It might have been flak from an antiaircraft shell. I read in 1987, in MacDonald's book, that the Germans had many antiaircraft guns (88s and 128s) with them during their Ardennes Offensive. They were for protection in case the weather turned better. They knew for sure that the Allied air support would eventually come. The German antiaircraft gun is capable of being used to support ground troops. This is done by elevating the guns downward, and firing timed bursts or tree bursts into the trees that explode on contact. There is very little protection as the fragments rain down from above. They also had 20mm antiaircraft guns, mounted on quad mounts and half-tracks. They were fired into the tree tops, and sometimes at point blank range, causing severe damage to our troops. The tree bursts, exploding high in the trees, were hard to hide from. They caused many casualties. There is no doubt that they were used to our disadvantage.
The weather was overcast and foggy and did not turn to the better until December 21st or 22nd. The sky cleared and it got much colder, as we were then walking, as prisoners, back into Germany. When the weather did clear, the Germans had the opportunity to use those antiaircraft guns for their intended purpose, for there was much Allied air activity. There is no doubt that it was their fortune in having their antiaircraft battalions near Schönberg, as we approached it from the East. Those guns were a decisive factor in the outcome of the battle for that city. We had very little artillery support. I learned after the war that the 423rd's artillery support, the 590th Field Artillery to the rear, was overrun by the Germans troops that were fighting westward towards Schönberg along the Bleialf-Schönberg road.
On the Schönberg Hill, rifle companies, mortar and machine gun squads were being pinned down in the woods. In the confusion, caused by the demoralizing artillery fire, they were being separated from each other. The 422nd and 423rd Regiments lost track of each other. The day was going bad. There were no targets in view, at least from my point of view. The Germans were waiting for their artillery to neutralize us, before they moved. With the ravaging artillery fire, and no chance of counter artillery, we were literally sitting ducks. There was some action on the edges of the perimeter. From my position I could see two German tanks. They were scouting around the area, in the edge of the woods near Schönberg. One of them threw out a smoke grenade. I was not able to identify any German infantry troops, prior to being captured. I learned later that the tanks I saw were mopping up troops that were pinned down in the fields and road below. Most of the action occurred early in the fight, between the rifle companies below us and the Germans across the road. L Company, in trying to push into Schönberg, was caught in the ditches and fields. It was their men that I could see and that I could hear screaming for help. They were being ripped to pieces by the tremendous artillery barrages. Unfortunately our machine-guns, at least mine, was placed too far back of the infantry company as they attempted to get into Schönberg. Normally, we would have moved forward, but the same artillery that was destroying L Company was also hitting us. At the same time German troops coming up the road from Bleialf were hitting us from the rear. This trapped some of the reserve companies who were preparing to come forward to assist L Company.
One of those rifle companies was I Company, 423rd. In 1987 I acquired a list of the 106th Division members belonging to "The Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. I called one of the listed men, Harold Gene Songer of Danville, Illinois. (6/4/87) He as a former member of I Company, said, " Yes, I was in the woods - don't know exactly where. He sais, "I" Company was being slaughtered. A sniper was killing a lot of them. We had spotted the sniper, nearby, in a clump of bushes. The range was too short for the elevating mechanism. My squad leader (mortars) was trying to elevate the mortar, by holding it vertically. He was killed by a bullet in the temple. Another mortar man and I grabbed the mortar and dropped three shells in the area of the sniper, killing him. "Songer, like myself, was captured. He ended up at Stalag IV-A, Hohenstein, near Dresden".
From Norman Gruenzner's Postal History of American POWs: World War II, Korea, Vietnam [State College, Penn.: American Philatelic Society, 1979]. Stalag IV-A was located close to Hohenstein, near Dresden. The American camp population in December 1944 was 300. In February 1945 it reached 2,217. There were several work detachments, living in a variety of places. One group lived in Dresden. There were eleven British work detachments, but only three or four American work groups. The camp was closed in March 1945. Songer asked, " Were you in the prison train that was bombed on Christmas Eve?" My answer, "I was in a small barracks in Dockweiler, east of Pruem, on Christmas Eve. We were not put into box-cars until 30 December, at Limburg." That story follows.
The German troops advancing from the Southeast, along the Bleialf- Schönberg road were the ones who took over our artillery battalion. I remember throughout all the shelling watching a Tech Sergeant, I thought from one of our mortar platoons, walking and running through the woods giving orders. He was trying to get troops moving. The mortar, antiaircraft and artillery fire was fierce. Trees flying through the air, shell were bursting every where. I hope he made it. He was a very brave soldier, but was exposed to fierce, ravaging artillery fire. At one point, as I looked to the right along the edge of the woods, I saw six or eight ground bursts, probably 88's. They hit in a small area along the tree line where several soldiers were trying to find protection. One of those men was hurled through the air and his body was wrapped around a tree trunk several feet off the ground. There were continuous cries from the wounded screaming for Medics. The woods and open areas on the slope leading to the road, was littered with dead and wounded. Some time between 1600 (4 p.m.)and 1630 (4:30 p.m.)an American officer, accompanied by a German officer told us we were surrounded. He told us that we were cut off from the other battalion, the 422nd, and that our Regimental Commander, Colonel C. C. Cavender, was ordering us to surrender.
As the history of this battle shows, we were surrounded on all sides by German troops. They were heavily armed, with many mortars, antiaircraft guns, assault guns and artillery pieces. They were being reinforced by more and more troops from the Southeast and there would have been no possibility of reversing the battle situation. We disabled our weapons by breaking them on tree trunks or by taking them apart and throwing the parts in different directions. After that the Germans led us to a clearing in the forest and directed us to throw down our equipment. E.g.: ammo belts, packs, hand-grenades and trench-knifes. I quickly disposed of the German binoculars that I had found earlier. We were lead in a small column down to the Schönberg-Bleialf road in front of the rifle companies. There were Germans on one side of the road and Americans on the other. They had been facing each other, in a fierce fire fight, from ditch to ditch. There were many dead, both Americans and Germans. The wounded were still crying for help. As we approached the Schönberg road, it seemed that hundreds of Germans rose up out of the field.
There was a German truck burning in the middle of the road. Behind the truck was an American infantryman lying in the middle of the road. He was dressed like an officer, but with no insignia, as would be normal in combat. His was wearing his winter uniform, a heavy winter coat, ammo belt and canteen. He was lying on his back, as if he were resting. The body had no head or neck. It was as if somebody had sliced it off with a surgical instrument, leaving no sign of blood. All my life I have had flash backs of that scene and I still find it hard to believe. I always wonder how it happened. He was the only soldier, either American or German that I saw laying on the road. There were many wounded and dead in the ditches and fields as we were led out of the woods. The Germans then walked us in columns to Bleialf (recorded in my diary as "St. Beliath"), where they herded us into a church court yard. I probably recorded the church name by mistake. It had turned dark and the temperature was dropping. Most of us were without overcoats. We had only our field jackets and our winter issue of "Olive Drab" uniforms with long johns. I recall that I wore two pair of pants, my longjohns and my field jacket. We had to sleep on the ground. I remember how nervous I was. Every little sound was amplified. I wondered what was going to happen to us when day break came. We had nothing to eat since early morning, December 18th. (remember, the pancakes).
John Kline, Sergeant, US Army, "M" Company, 423rd Infantry Regiment, is the Editor of the 106th Infantry Division Association Quarterly Magazine. He has been active in the 106th Infantry Division Association since 1987, a group of 106th veterans, currently over 1,500 members.