Stories

The Action at Noville

William J. Stone Reprinted with permission from William J. Stone
Battery B, 321st Glider Field Artillery Battalion
101st Airborne Division

The Holland that we were leaving on the way to our new temporary base in Mormelon, France in late November of 1944 was quite different from the country in which we had arrived on September 17th. Our forward observer (FO) party, consisting of Second Lieutenant Francis Canham, Corporal Paul Gallant, Private John Braswell and I, had flown to Holland with the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Our unit, the 321st Glider Field Artillery Battalion, would be in direct support of the 506th during the upcoming Operation Market-Garden. As we parachuted to earth, the skies were blue, the sun was shining, the countryside was shades of green and brown, the fields were carefully tended and sturdy houses stood alongside the roads. There were many people about: and after we landed many of them assisted us in gathering our equipment while others offered apples which were being harvested then.

Now as the truck upon which we were riding rolled down the roads off the island, the skies were overcast, it rained intermittently and the roads were covered with a few inches of water. This was pushed aside by the wheels of the trucks forming bow waves as if we were riding on wheeled boats. Much damage had been done to the country. Roofs and sides of buildings had been blown off leaving evidence of the life that once had taken place within them visible to all. The fields had been torn up by artillery fire and tracked vehicles and were now fields of mud. Fences had been knocked down, cows and horses were lying dead and bloated in the fields and most of the people had left.

Much had changed and I thought of some of the events of the past few months on the way to Mormelon.

While we were still in England before the Normandy operation, Gallant and I had gone to parachute school along with First Lieutenant John Jordan. We three were members of Battery B of the 321st. Gallant had been wounded early on in Normandy and I had served with Jordan as a radio operator in his FO party.

In July when we returned from Normandy to Whatcombe Farms, our base camp in England, Jordan was assigned to the giddy heights of battalion headquarters as a liaison officer. He would be subsequently severely wounded at Bastogne. Replacements, among them Canham and Braswell, as well as the recovered Gallant were waiting for us. With Jordan?s departure the FO party of Canham, Gallant, Stone and Braswell was formed and worked together for much of the time in Holland.

The former French Army post at Mormelon was a welcome sight after the dreary trip from Holland. The barracks were a treat - the best quarters I had had in the Army. Each sleeping room had been occupied by 12 French soldiers. However, we slept on double bunks and so had 24 in a room. Almost all the members of our Detail Section were able to sleep in the same room. This was the first time since I had joined the 321st at Whatcombe Farms that I had enjoyed indoor plumbing and so this was, indeed, a treat.

After we recovered from the shock of not having to contest the cold December air just to use the toilet facilities, we began cleaning our equipment and thinking of passes to Rheims, a large nearby city. There was, of course, no word when passes would be available and so Wendell Byrne, Burton Carpenter, Paul Gallant and formed a group in order to keep a watch on the Battery B bulletin board. When the pass list was posted the person on watch was to put all our names on the list and so we were in the first group to go to Rheims. It seemed an enviable position at the time. I was later to change this assessment.

When we arrived in Rheims, shortly after noon on day of our passes, the shops and larger stores had merchandise displayed in their windows and we were anxious to buy gifts and send them home. The shops and store had merchandise displayed but they were closed and would not reopen until 3:00 P.M. We wanted to shop first and then relax in the cafes.. We had learned to work with what we had and so given the situation we reversed the order of events and took ourselves to the pleasures of the cafes. None of us had spent much time in cafes during the last six months and so we took full advantage of the opportunity for food and wine - too much advantage of the opportunity for wine. By the time the stores had reopened some of us were in no condition to go shopping. My friends dropped me at the American Red Cross where the lovely lady director allowed me to sleep on the couch in her office. My friends reclaimed me in time for the return trip to Mormelon. The trip to Rheims had, for me, been a washout.

We had no further opportunity to go to Rheims but we did visit nearby Mormelon, Mormelon le grande, that is. There were two Mormelons - le grand et le petit.. Mormelon le grand was a one-street village with a couple of cafes. These were certainly not cafes in the manner of the Rheims cafes but cafes never-the-less and we enjoyed their comfort on a time or two. The village had a few food stores but it was small despite its pretentious name. I could not imagine that Mormelon le petit could be any smaller. I was to find out that it not only could be, but was, smaller.

Canham was promoted to first lieutenant while we were at Mormelon. There must have been a rash of these promotions and a subsequent shortage of silver bars. One day we passed on the battery street and as I saluted I noticed that he had a silver bar on his cap and a gold bar on his shirt collar. I remarked that he had better get two silver bars as the second lieutenants would not know whether to salute him while the first lieutenants would not know whether to expect a salute from him. He smiled.

Since he had joined the battalion five months ago, Canham had won the respect of all, particularly those of us who worked closely with him in an FO party. He was the epitome of the person whose actions spoke much louder than did his words. However, when he spoke his words were worth hearing. Within our FO party everything, with one exception, was shared. Canham's responsibility was not shared. Except for a few very short breaks he maintained observation of the enemy area. Others might assist him but he was always there. On the march we shared the heavy load that an FO party carries, we shared the food, and his liquor ration. When we did not have telephone communication with our battalion, we had to maintain a radio watch and at night Canham took his turn at this. While the football season was just about over in the United States, it was about to begin in the 101st. Each major command fielded and so I reported for a tryout with the Division Artillery team. As we began our workouts I thought that I was in good physical condition. Physical condition had been stressed at the 101st Airborne Parachute School from which I had graduated in February 1994. However, living in the field for most of the intervening months had taken the edge of my physical condition. The coaches worked us harder than I had ever worked. At the end of each workout I was exhausted but felt wonderful. My exhaustion and euphoria - mostly the latter - came to a quick end.

On December 16th the Germans attacked through the Ardennes Forest in Belgium and had penetrated the thinly held lines of VIII Corps. The next morning we heard of the attack on the radio but did not give it much thought. We gave it more thought when, that evening, the division was alerted for movement to VIII Corps on the morning of the 18th. Some us thought that the attack would be quickly contained and that the 101st would be in reserve for a few days and then return to Mormelon. We had no idea of the magnitude of the German attack. On the previous day we had turned in our helmets to supply for repainting. We picked up our unpainted helmets and made other preparations for movement.

At the time our FO party consisted of Canham, Gallant and me. Gallant had been detailed to go forward with the battery quartering party. Shortly after he left Battery B was ordered to send an FO party to the 506th for the movement forward and subsequent combat. (The idea of being in reserve for a few days rapidly dissipated.) The 321st was to be in direct support of the 506th once again. Canham, Sergeant Bill Plummer, who had joined the Detail Section after having been a howitzer chief of section, and I, along with our jeep driver, Wendell Byrne, reported to the S3 of the 506th. He told us to join the 506th column and follow the chaplain forward. With our radio and other equipment it was crowded and uncomfortable in the jeep. I soon felt better when I saw the open semi-trailers in which the riflemen of the 506th were riding. Comfort is, indeed, relative.

It was a bone-chilling, all-day ride to the assembly area of the 506th outside of Bastogne. When we arrived that night we were sent to the 1st Battalion of that regiment in order to direct the fires of the 321st. The battalion sent us to one of its line companies with which we spent what was left of the night. Canham sent Byrne and the jeep back to the battery. (FO's did not ride when with the infantry of the 101st.) The company with which we were working was commanded by a captain who had arrived from the United States just one week ago. Throughout the action in Holland the company had been commanded by a first lieutenant who was now the executive officer. In two days the captain would be the battalion executive officer and the first lieutenant the company commander once again.

M8 armored car of the 101st Airborne Division in Noville, Belgium, 16 Jan 1945
M8 armored car of the 101st Airborne Division in Noville, Belgium, 16 Jan 1945

On the morning of the 19th we moved out with the 1st Battalion to Noville which we were to defend along with TEAM Desobry, CCB, 10th Armored Division, which had been defending the village since the previous evening. During the march we met soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division who were moving to the rear toward Bastogne. They told us that the Germans had fired at them using tanks captured from the 9th Armored Division. We began to understand just how serious the German attack was. Never-the-less we maintained the esprit and confidence typical of soldiers of the 101st.

Noville is seven kilometers northeast of Bastogne. Two and one half kilometers southwest of Noville is the hamlet of Foy. Noville lies in a saucer-like depression with high ground all around it except in the west. This made it difficult to defend against the German attack from the east as we did not have the high ground. Between Noville and Foy the ground slopped from east to west with the high ground on the east. Noville was critical because it contained the junction of roads important to the German movement westward. It was also important to the Germans because, if they choose, they could drive on Bastogne from the north along the axis of the Noville-Bastogne road. Our defense of Noville also gave the remainder of the 506th time to occupy and improve positions behind us to the south and to tie into the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment on the right flank of the 506th.

While talking with the officers of the company with which we were working, Canham learned that they had no ammunition for their car-bines. As artillerymen we were armed with carbines and had enough ammunition to share with them which we did. In addition, the riflemen did not have sufficient ammunition for their rifles and there was a shortage of hand grenades and rocket launcher projectiles. This was remedied somewhat just as we were entering Noville. The S4 of the 1st Battalion came riding up with a jeep trailer full of ammunition which he passed out to the riflemen as they entered the village late in the morning. The S4 of TEAM Desorby also managed to obtain ammunition which he distributed.

We stayed in Noville for a few hours but that afternoon we left and spent the night with another battalion of the 506th near Foy. To this day I do not understand why we were ordered to leave the 1st Battalion. Shortly after we left, it attacked out of Noville along with TEAM Desobry in an attempt to gain the high ground to the east. This attack was supported by the fires of the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion which was in direct support of the team. Regardless, the fires of the 321st would certainly have enhanced the possibility of success for the attack which did not achieve its objective.

Early on the morning of the 20th we were ordered to return to Noville and rejoin the 1st Battalion. The Germans were trying to take Noville by attacking from the east and northeast. When the initial effort failed, the enemy continued to attack Noville while attempting to by-pass the village to the north and south. The Germans moving around Noville to the north were meeting with more success than were their fellows moving south of the village. To the north, there were no American troops. To the south were the 501st and the 506th. The enemy was trying to slip between their forward lines and Noville in an attempt to surround Noville and the going was slow. Within our FO party we knew nothing of this. We knew only that we had to get fire on the enemy north of Noville. In order to accomplish this, Canham selected a stone barn on the northeastern outskirts of the village as our observation post. He and Plummer went to the second floor from which they could observe through an open window. I set the radio up at the other end of the barn just outside a door on the first floor and ran a wire to Canham and Plummer so that we could send fire missions to the Fire Direction Center (FDC) of the 321st in Savy.

At this time Noville was taking a beating. The Germans were pounding the village (and us) with everything they had. The piercing whistle of incoming projectiles followed by the sounds of their explo-sions assaulted our ears. Their blasts buffeted our bodies. The sharp, bitter smell of the exploded powder invaded our nostrils. Buildings were severely damaged. Wounded were walking or being carried to the battalion aid station. If the enemy could take the village quickly he would have freedom to continue his advance to the west, where he was ordered to seize crossings over the Meuse River, or a straight road into Bastogne provided that he could break through the other battalions of the 506th. Still, the riflemen of the 1st Battalion and the men of TEAM Desobry, aided by the fires of the 321st, held. For now, there was to be no road through Noville for the 2nd Panzer Division. The defense of Noville gave the other battalions of the 506th time to occupy and improve their positions astride the Bastogne - Noville Road just south of Foy.

Despite the vigorous German attack, from the narrow perspective of our FO party, the battle seemed to be going well when Plummer called me on the telephone and said that a tank shell had just hit alongside of the window from which Canham was observing and that Canham had been hit. I grabbed the platoon aid man and went upstairs. He said that Canham was dead. I reported this to our FDC which urged Plummer and me to remain in Noville. We, of course, had no intention of doing other than that and were a bit put off by the urging from FDC. Plummer took over from Canham and we continued to direct the fires of the 321st.

By 1:00 P.M. the 1st Battalion had lost contact with the head-quarters of the 506th and our FO party's radio was the only means of communication between the two. The liaison officer from the 321st at the headquarters of the 506th had a radio in the FDC net and he relayed messages from the 506th headquarters to our FO party. We then gave them to the commander of the 1st Battalion. It became obvious to the division commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAullife, that the 1st Battalion and TEAM Desobry, while they were holding, would soon be surrounded, and so he ordered Colonel Robert Sink, the commander of the 506th to withdraw them. At 1:15 P.M. the order for the withdrawal came down to us on the artillery radio and we relayed it to the commander of the 1st Battalion.

The German attack around the southern side of Noville was rapidly becoming more successful. Because of this, the Noville force was in danger of being cut off from the rest of the 506th and so there was little time to plan the withdrawal. Shortly after it began, we came under observation and direct artillery fire by the Germans on the high ground to the east. By this time we were traveling with the battalion commander. We told him that we could get artillery fire from the 321st on the enemy position. He told us to do it. (Note: I know that other measures were being taken at this time but I did not know of them and can not describe them here.) We sent the fire mission down and while the fire was on the way, the battalion commander ordered the battalion to leave the road and continue the withdrawal on the western side of the road which was low ground - so low that it was not visible to the enemy. The combination of fire from the 321st and the low ground enabled the 1st Battalion and TEAM Desobry to continue their withdrawal in order to fight another day.

There was considerable confusion once we moved off the road and control was lost. This was certainly undesirable but was not as bad as it might be inasmuch as we were no longer in contact with the enemy. Low ground is often wet and this our route was. By this time I was riding on a half-track of TEAM Desobry. The tracks on the rear of the vehicle drove the wheels in the front into the wet ground and we came to a halt. After we freed the vehicle, I decided that it would be better to proceed on foot and ended up south of Foy back on the road.

There was no clearly defined German front line and as I looked at the high ground to the east of the road, three German soldiers emerged from the woods 100 yards away. When they saw me they immediately surrendered. I searched them and took from them their military papers. I later gave these to Captain Joe Perkins, the S2 of the 321st. It took some time, but I finally found someone in the 506th who would take the prisoners from me. The troops of the 506th were busy people just then and few of them wanted to have prisoners on their hands.

As soon as I got rid of the prisoners I looked for our liaison officer from the 321st. I located Captain Ben Skinner, who had been our battery commander in England and Normandy. I told him what had happened and he told me to come with him while he spoke with the commander of the battalion of the 506th with which he was working. When he met the battalion commander Skinner asked him if it would be alright if Lieutenant Eugene Brooks of Battery A worked as an FO with the battalion. (Brooks, who had joined the battalion with Canham, would be wounded badly on the next day.) The battalion commander replied, "Sure. Brooks, Canham or any FO from the 321st is OK." Skinner told the battalion commander that Canham had been killed in Noville. He replied, "I knew he'd get it. He took too many chances."

I doubt that Canham would have agreed with that battalion commander's assessment. Canham did not take "too many chances." He was a skillful, well-trained officer who pushed the fight to the enemy at every opportunity. He never let up. His skill, his attitude toward his duty, and his ability to get along with others probably brought him to the attention of the commanders in the 506th and they saw this man, who performed his duty to the utmost, as one who, "took too many chances."

Plummer and I had not seen the last of Noville. The 321st continued in direct support of the 506th and we - each with different FO parties - were with the 2nd Battalion of that regiment when Noville was retaken several weeks later. Our artillery fire and the bombs of close air support aircraft had finished the job that the Germans had begun and not a building was left standing. Noville held bitter memories for me, and so on the following day I was happy to leave as the 506th continued its advance supported by the 321st and took Rachamps north of Noville.

In 1973 I returned to Noville with my son who was then serving in the United States Army in Germany. All of the buildings had been rebuilt using, for the most part, the rubble that remained as a result of the battles which had been fought there. In a few cases new bricks had been used and that was the case alongside the window where Canham had been hit. Those new bricks are like an ugly scar on that old stone barn. That scar, which marks the place where Canham died, may be ugly but it is a memorial to him and to all the courageous soldiers who died defending Noville.

Noville has returned to its place in the sun but that sun will never shine on Francis Canham or on the brave soldiers of the 1st Battalion and TEAM Desobry who had been killed in Noville. They were valiant men who gave their lives for a just cause. They are lost to us and we are the poorer for it.