Excerpt from 'The Longest Winter'
By Alex Kershaw
Chapter 7: The Last Sunset
Lanzareth-December 16, 1944
At 4:03 p.m. precisely, at regimental headquarters in Hünningen, a radio operator received the last transmission from James Fort: "We are holding our position. Enemy strength 75. They are moving from Lanzerath west to railroad." The message had been sent at 3:50 p.m.
Above Lanzerath, Lyle Bouck passed the word that the platoon would soon withdraw on a signal of three short whistle blasts. Twenty yards away, Bill James finished removing the distributor cap from the last of the platoon's six jeeps. The Germans would not be able to make use of a single vehicle.
James clambered back into the dugout.
Bouck looked grave.
"What's wrong, sir?" asked James.
"When I blow the whistle, you go with the others. I'll stay."
"Like hell," said James, "you're coming with us or we all stay."
"Okay, you win," Bouck finally replied. "I'll go."
No one would be left behind. The platoon would leave as they had fought-together. But not until they had the cover of near darkness. There was perhaps time for one last attempt to get help. Bouck called for Corporal Sam Jenkins and Private First Class Preston. "Sam," Bouck told Jenkins. "You and Bob take off down the Buchholz Station road and go to regiment in Hünningen. See if you can find Major Kriz, get us reinforcements or orders to pull out. We can't hold much longer."
Jenkins and Preston quickly left their dugout. They had gone fifty yards when they looked back, only to see three mortars land smack on the top of their hole. They hurried on, following a logging trail that led to the position's rear.
Dusk settled quickly.
Down in Lanzerath, villagers could hear an incessant moaning as dozens of wounded paratroopers were laid out in homes converted into aid stations. Behind the Schur farmhouse, fifty yards to the west of the Café Scholzen, Sergeant Vinz Kuhlbach pleaded with 9th Fallschirmjaeger Regiment officers not to send his last few men to their deaths by attacking straight up the hill toward the Americans' foxholes. Surely it was time to outflank the American position? Several officers nodded their agreement.
Kuhlbach and fifty other paratroopers gathered in the backyard of Adolf Schur's house. In the growing darkness they moved into wooded areas leading to the platoon's right flank. There were precisely eight hours and five minutes of daylight that day. Sunset arrived at 4:35 p.m.
Lyle Bouck knew he had only a few minutes before nightfall. The men would benefit greatly from what was left of the light as they retreated through the deep forest to the rear of their position. Bouck prepared to blow his whistle.
At that moment, Germans were crawling into the rear of the position. Slape and Private Milosevich spotted several among the fir trees, their mottled uniforms blurring into the mist and dusk.
The two had resolved to fight to the very end. Slape was as "scared as hell" but still believed he would somehow live, even with the odds so heavily stacked against him and his men. "About dark, there were Germans all over the area, inside the perimeter," he recalled. "I told Milosevich, 'Let's get out of here,' and I started out of the bunker by the rear entrance and a German shot a hole in my field jacket (still no blood). He was about twenty yards to the left rear of the bunker. There were three of them. A grenade handled the situation nicely."
Slape dove back into his dugout where he and Milosevich started to fire their last M-1 rounds. With less than a handful of bullets between them, every shot counted.
"Krauts in the woods to the left!" someone shouted.
Then another of the platoon's last remaining men yelled that the Germans were also infiltrating from the right. Lyle Bouck saw three, perhaps four, figures. He pressed the trigger on his carbine, sprayed the silhouettes, ducked back down, and checked his gun. The two magazines he'd had
welded together were empty.
"Did you get anything?" asked James.
"I think so."
In his dugout at the center of the position, Private John Creger came under machine gun and mortar fire. As he fired back, he heard the puttputtputt of a V2 rocket. He looked up to see it pass over and crash into the woods behind him. To his surprise, it did not explode.
There was a lull in the firing. To Creger, it seemed as if the entire war had stopped momentarily. "I crawled out of the fox-hole to see what the hell was going on," he recalled. "I spotted this German soldier sneaking up behind us with a hand grenade, and when he saw me, he instinctively threw it at me. The only thing I could do was to hold my head on the ground. Luckily, the grenade was evidently a concussion one and failed to do much damage except for filling my eyes with dirt and rock. I then jumped back into my fox-hole."
In the nearest dugout to Creger's, radio operator James Fort peered into the darkness and saw gray figures infiltrating the position in all directions. "One of them fired a long burst from a burp gun," he recalled. "He hit the radio receiver-transmitter type SCR-284. That took care of destroying it before we surrendered."
Frantically, Fort removed the bolt from his M-1 and threw it into the snow to prevent the Germans from using it. All he could do now was detonate the grenades he had hung in surrounding trees.
As the Germans closed in, Fort pulled on several wires. The fragmentation grenades exploded all around, but still the Germans kept coming. Then Fort heard a German shout for him to come out of the dugout. It was all over.
Fort slithered out of the front of the dugout with his hands clasped behind his head. A young German paratrooper stood before him, quivering with fear and rage, his finger on the trigger of a burp gun. The German was shaking so much that Fort feared he would fire by accident. The German stepped forward and stuck the gun's muzzle against Fort's belt buckle.
"Kamerad?" he screamed.
"Kamerad," replied Fort.
"Raus, raus!" (Out, out!).
The German led Fort away.
In their dugout, Bouck and James could hear sporadic gunfire and Germans yelling.
Suddenly, the muzzle of a burp gun appeared through the rear exit to the dugout. Bouck instinctively pushed the barrel away from him. There was a huge roar. Brrrrp! Brrrrp! Brrrrp!
James felt himself "floating upward and backward" from the force of impact of the burp gun bullets. Then he slumped to the bottom of the dugout, littered with empty M-1 cartridges and shell casings. "Bill, you're hit!" cried Bouck.
A flashlight lit up the hole.
Bouck briefly saw James's face and winced. It looked like his head had been shot off.
"Mein Gott!" cried the German with the flashlight.
Perhaps ten seconds later, two Germans reached into the dugout, grabbed James's body, and pulled him out.
The Germans then yanked Bouck out. He saw James's body lying in the snow.
James had taken five or six rounds in the face at close range. He had lost an eye and most of his right jaw. Fragments of bone and bullet were lodged in his brain.
"Wer ist der Commandant?" (Who's the commander?), shouted Sergeant Vinz Kuhlbach.
Bouck raised his hand.
"Why your men still firing?" asked Kuhlbach.
"They aren't. They must be yours because we're out of ammunition."
A nearby German officer asked for Bouck's name, but before Bouck could answer a burst of fire hit the officer and then Bouck. They both fell to the ground beside James.
Bouck had been hit clean through his calf. He looked down at his leg. He was bleeding "like a stuck hog." He somehow managed to get a tourniquet on the leg.
Meanwhile, the Germans seized hole after hole.
Lieutenant Warren Springer and his two fellow forward artillery observers, Technician Fourth Class Willard Wibben and Sergeant Peter Gacki, had used every last magazine for their carbines. Springer had only a couple of bullets left in his Colt .45.
A German yelled into the back of the dugout: "Come out, or we throw grenade in!"
Springer climbed out, convinced that the Germans would soon shoot him and his men. But if he was going to go, he'd rather have a bullet in the back of the head than be maimed by a grenade.
To Springer's astonishment, his captors held their fire. "When I saw they weren't going to shoot I said in English and fractured German: 'Wo ist Dein Hauptmann? (Where is your captain?). We must take care of our wounded.' I repeated this several times, and one of the Germans who seemed to be the leader came forward and said in English, 'Be quiet-we are taking care of them.' He directed Gacki, Wibben, and me to help a wounded German, and at his command the soldiers around us motioned with their rifles and made it clear that we were to get going."
Private First Class Milosevich and Platoon Sergeant Slape watched as the Germans pulled other men from holes.
"Come out!" other Germans cried. "Hands up! Come out!"
Milosevich spotted a decorated German officer holding a Mauser pistol. He quickly had him in the sights of his M-1 rifle. There were still a couple of rounds in the magazine.
"I'll get a big medal for shooting this bastard."
But then something told him not to shoot. He had killed so many young Germans already that day.
Slape picked up his M-1.
"What you doing?" asked Milosevich.
"I'm gonna shoot the Germans!"
Milosevich grabbed the rifle from Slape.
"They'll kill us all. Don't."
Then the burly figure of a German paratrooper appeared in front of their dugout and pointed his burp gun at Slape.
"Go ahead and shoot you son-of-a-bitch," said Slape.
"I won't shoot," replied the German. "I'm a soldier."
Two more Germans pulled Slape out and began to pat him down. Slape had hidden a hand grenade in his pocket. One of the Germans quickly found it and threw it away.
At the far northern edge of the position, Private Louis Kalil and Sergeant George Redmond were also ordered out of their dugout at gunpoint. The Germans hauled them through the narrow slit at the front, and then Redmond was told to carry Kalil down the hill.
The German captors lined up the able-bodied survivors just inside the tree line and stripped the men of personal valuables and rations. Then several of the Germans raised their burp guns.
This was it. Now they were going to be executed.
Suddenly, a German officer rushed over.
"Nichts! Nichts!" he shouted.
The paratroopers lowered their guns a few inches. The platoon had been spared, for now at least.
A German sergeant walked over to where Bouck lay bleeding in the snow beside Bill James.
"Get up!" he shouted.
Bouck staggered to his feet. The German then ordered one of his comrades to help Bouck carry James down the hill.
Bouck went to James's side.
"You'll be all right, Bill," Bouck soothed. "I'll get you out of here."
"Raus mit du!" (Get moving!), cried a German.
Bouck and a German paratrooper lifted James to his feet and began to stumble down the field leading to Lanzerath. It was strewn with so many shell cases and pieces of shrapnel that the metal crunched under foot in the cordite-gray snow.
James briefly regained consciousness.
"Bouck, let's take them," he whispered, figuring they could use the German propping him up as a hostage. Then James heard the German cry out: "Ach, Meinen Kameraden!" (Ah, my friends!).
James saw the man's friends littering the hillside.
"My foot dragged over one of the bodies, face up, a blond kid, his eyes staring that blank stare, his lips parted," recalled James. "He had no visible mark on him. No blood. But he was dead. My thoughts went to the mothers of these boys and the worry they were enduring at the moment and the anguish they would suffer when they received the news that their sons were dead. Could I but tell these mothers that their boys died brave men-attacking. My heart was crying for these mothers and all humanity when suddenly I thought of my mother."
If Bouck made it through, he must get in touch with her.
"Bouck, Bouck," added James, "tell my mother when you get back that I love her and that I didn't suffer." Then he lost consciousness. Bouck noticed a German toting a burp gun following behind. They crossed the fence that bisected the hillside. It had been so badly damaged in the battle that they were able simply to step through a gap. Dead Germans were clumped against it.
The German with the burp gun stuck its muzzle in Bouck's stomach.
"St. Lo!" the German shouted. "St. Lo!"
"Nein! Nein!" grunted Bouck.
The German was referring to the fierce month-long battle for the strategically vital Norman town that summer. By July 11, 1944, when St. Lo finally fell, his 3rd Fallschirmjaeger Division had lost more than a third of its seventeen thousand men.
The German suddenly pulled the trigger.
Bouck heard it click.
"It's all over," he thought. "I'm dead. I don't even know it. How easy it is to die. It's not too bad."
Bouck saw the German's face, contorted by rage, a few inches from him and realized he was still alive.
It was now pitch dark. The German was even more incensed because his burp gun had failed. He picked up a rifle and stuck it in Bouck's back. "Oh, no," thought Bouck. "I'm gonna still get it."
But there was no click.
"Rausen!" (Get going!), shouted the German.
Bouck struggled to carry James down the hill, now thinking every step might be his last. Then they exited the field through a gate, walked along a road, and entered the Café Scholzen.
Inside, a single paraffin lantern provided light, casting a flickering shadow over a small bar, a cluster of old wooden chairs and tables, and a cuckoo clock mounted on a wall.
"Setz dich!" (Sit down!), ordered a German.
Bouck slumped down, exhausted, on a bench just inside the café, propping James up beside him.
Back at the position, the able-bodied survivors from the platoon were ordered to help carry the German dead and wounded off the hill. Lieutenant Warren Springer watched as the men began to pick up German bodies.
"Pick up that machine gun," a nearby German officer commanded.
"Nein! Ich bin ein Officier" (No! I'm an officer), said Springer.
The officer glared and then told one of his own men to pick up the machine gun. Springer would not retrieve weapons for able-bodied Germans but was willing to help with the wounded. "I had nothing against them once they'd been shot," he recalled.
Some of the platoon began to use their mackinaws as litters. It was back-breaking work given the quantity of German wounded and the distance-around two hundred yards-that they needed to be carried into the village.
James Fort grabbed one end of a mackinaw. Milosevich held the other end, and they began to lug two of the German wounded down the hill. Fort was so soon so exhausted that he felt close to collapsing. "Risto, I can't go another step. It's too heavy."
"On three, drop them," said Milosevich.
On three, they dropped the makeshift litter and collapsed in the snow. The wounded Germans screamed.
A German paratrooper rushed over.
"Up!" he ordered.
Milosevich and Fort got to their feet. As soon as the paratrooper had moved away, they dropped the litter again.
When Lieutenant Warren Springer reached the village, he was ordered into a room adjoining the Café Scholzen. A German officer stood waiting to interrogate him.
Springer calmly placed his gloves on a nearby table.
"I'm only going to tell you my name, rank and serial number."
"I'm not going to press you," replied the German in English. "I already know who you are. You're from the 371st Artillery Battalion."
Springer did not reply.
There was a long silence.
"How long do you think the war's going to last?" the officer finally asked. "Maybe three or four months."
The officer looked bored.
"You can go," he said, motioning for two of his men to take Springer away. Springer looked over the side-table. His gloves had disappeared.
"Hey! Meine Handschue, meine Handschue!"
The officer snapped at a couple of his men, and Springer's gloves reappeared. Springer was taken next door into the main café. As he entered, he saw Bill James seated on a bench beside Bouck. James had been patched up by German medics. Only one eye and his nose were visible through brown paper bandages, which the Germans used instead of gauze. Springer joined his men in one corner.
Sometime later, Lyle Bouck noticed blood seeping through his field jacket. He checked inside-a bullet had grazed his upper body. He looked down at his leg. The wound was not too severe: he had been able to hobble to the café from the position without the pain overwhelming him.
Outside, meanwhile, members of the platoon had been lined up against a wall. "Even though they [the Germans] were our enemies," recalled John Creger, "they showed their respect for our gallant stand against them. One said: 'Amerikaner is very good soldier.' . . . A German officer took my cigarettes and offered each of us one and then kept the rest of the pack."
One by one, Private Creger and his buddies were then brought into the café. Bouck watched as Sergeant George Redmond carried in a wounded man: as with James, only his nose and eye were visible because of the extensive bandaging.
Bouck suddenly realized it was Private Louis Kalil.
Sergeant Redmond laid him down on the floor. Others from the platoon walked over to check on him, wanting to know how bad the wound was. "I was just looking out of my right eye and that was it because the rest of my face was covered up," recalled Kalil. "They didn't realize how bad it was. Neither did I."
Kalil had still not been given any morphine. His embedded teeth caused him maddening pain. But he was glad to be alive, amazed that he had not been shot. Thank God their captors were not SS. They were in the hands of the German army. Perhaps that was why they had not been executed.
Then the Germans brought in Private Joseph McConnell. His field jacket had been cut away, and he had a bad gash in the shoulder. He was placed near some wounded German paratroopers. The café now seemed like a strange combination of a command post and an aid station. Bouck asked a German who looked like he had some authority if James could be allowed to lie down next to Louis Kalil. It was exhausting having to prop up James, whose blood was now soaking Bouck's shoulder, and James would be more comfortable if he was laid down. The German conferred with another officer and then agreed.
Private First Class Milosevich watched as James and the other wounded men from his platoon were placed together. It filled him with pride to watch his buddies endure their pain so stoically. "They were really hurt. Boy, they were hurt. James, at least three bullets in his face; Kalil, a grenade in his face; McConnell hit in the shoulders. But they never said a word. There was no crying. Downstairs, they had more German wounded, and they were screaming. The super race was screaming."
Bill James drifted in and out of consciousness. "Lying there bleeding all over the place, I thought I was dying. There was this clock hanging there going tick, tick, and every fifteen or thirty minutes the little gong would ring. The clock got into my brain. Whatever was left of my brain, the clock was working at it, trying to keep me focused on life."
Meanwhile, back at regimental headquarters in Hünningen, Robert Lambert and Lieutenant Edward Buegner, the last man to speak with Bouck before his radio went dead, were still trying to assess the extent of the German penetration in the 394th sector. They now held out little hope that the platoon had survived.
Artillery fire had rained down on the village most of the day. Although the command post was not hit, all the windows had been blown out. "By nightfall," recalled Buegner, "it was highly probable that Hünningen could be overrun by armored columns at any time. . . . Only one or two of us stayed on duty at a time in the S-2 office. Also, even while there we used tables to protect ourselves against shrapnel and falling debris in case our schoolhouse building did receive a direct hit. All others who could took shelter in basements. . . . Our situation was deemed sufficiently precarious to cause us to burn all valuable documents, papers, maps, and anything else which we thought might be of value to the enemy in case we were captured."
The S-2 office felt colder than a foxhole, with little protection from the gusts of frigid air blowing through the shattered windows. Lambert and Buegner knew that the regiment, and indeed the entire 99th Division, would have to withdraw very soon, perhaps several miles, and then prepare an organized resistance.
Earlier that evening, a battalion of infantry from the 2nd Division, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John M. Hightower, had been assigned to aid the 394th. Hightower and his men were now fighting valiantly, but their efforts were "too little and too late." The initial casualty reports coming into the Hünningen headquarters were appalling-hundreds of men had already been lost. There would be far more. The enemy forces now outnumbered the 394th by five to fifteen at different positions. And they were advancing with a fanatical zeal that the 99th's few veteran officers had never experienced before.
Lyle Bouck looked up at the cuckoo clock on the wall in the Café Scholzen where he was being held, a prisoner of the Reich. At midnight, he would be twenty-one-December 17 was his birthday. One thing was certain now: there would be no celebration. "Is there some way for us to get out of here?" thought Bouck. "If there is, should I try to escape?"
It was his duty as an officer to try to escape, but he also had to look after his men. James was still alive, though barely. He could not be abandoned. Bouck didn't know for sure how many others from his platoon were badly injured, but he certainly wasn't going to leave them now. Platoon Sergeant Bill Slape, facing Bouck, stood beside an unguarded door. Slape nodded toward it. Bouck realized that Slape wanted to make a run for it. Then a couple of Germans noticed Slape nodding. They quickly took him to another room.
With his hopes of escape dashed, Sergeant Slape thought about the day that was finally coming to a close. "Every man with us certainly earned an award for bravery and made a gallant contribution to the war," he would later write. "I have never seen men fight better or under greater odds than those men did that day."
Bouck meanwhile settled into a dazed, dreamlike state. Nothing felt quite real. His mind wandered, searching for meaning amongst all the craziness.59 Finally, it settled on his Aunt Mildred. Just before Bouck had joined the National Guard at age fourteen, she had asked to read his palm. "If you live past your twenty-first birthday, you're going to have a good life," his aunt had predicted.
It was almost midnight. Nearby, the pudgy commander of the 9th Fallschirmjaeger Regiment, Helmut von Hoffmann, dozed in a chair. As midnight approached at the Eagle's Nest, an excited Adolf Hitler discussed that day's advances with General Hermann Black, in charge of the German lines south of the Ardennes. Hitler told him that Sepp Dietrich had punched through the Losheim Gap. General von Manteuffel was making rapid progress toward Bastogne, and Jochen Peiper was all set to break through to the Meuse. And the weather was holding up perfectly-heavy cloud cover and fog would continue to ground the Allied planes.
"Black! Black!" said Hitler. "Everything has changed in the West!
Success-complete success-is now in our grasp!"
Excerpted from 'The Longest Winter,' 2004. Used by permission of Da Capo Press.