My First Day in Combat
A retired soldier recounts the fear and excitement of his first day of combat as a nineteen-year-old GI in November 1944--and how his desire for a souvenir almost turned that first day on the line into his last.
By Wyatt E. Barnese
We travel-worn replacements were adopted by F Company, 318th Regiment, Eightieth Infantry Division, on November 13, 1944. Our induction was without ceremony, as befitted such a routine event, for there had been several similar infusions of bewildered replacements in the period after the division's heavy losses during the Lorraine battles of October and early November. My own odyssey, that of a nineteen-year-old GI, had begun six weeks earlier on the quay in Greenock, Scotland, where I debarked from Queen Elizabeth along with fifteen thousand other American soldiers. We then entered the replacement system's sluice, which dumped its contents into the hungry divisions on the line.
As I traveled through the replacement pipeline, the few friends I had made during the crossing went to other units. I knew no one in the group who joined F Company, now in reserve building its strength in the village of Haute-Vigneulle in Lorraine. There were occasional shell bursts, but the unit was not seriously bothered by them. I was impressed by my warlike surroundings, though the veterans were unaffected. They had seen much worse and now luxuriated in the relative peace.
This idyll was about to end. On November 24, an officer told us that the next morning we would descend the south slope of a nearby valley and cross a small stream, destroying whatever enemy we encountered. We would then drive up the north slope and seize its crest. The two Maginot Line bunkers glaring down from that promontory, sited for all-around defense, need not trouble us, he said; artillery would deal with them. Difficulties were minimized, and the briefing ended.
The officer did not disclose the purpose of the drive. In any case, the men of F Company did not care. The immediate front, not high strategy, was our real concern, and we replacements worried most about how we would endure the utterly new experience that awaited us. Actually, it was a major effort, involving the whole of the Fifth and Eightieth Infantry divisions against the Falkenberg Stellung (Falkenberg Position), defended by the Thirty-sixth Volksgrenadier (People's Infantry) Division. The Thirty-sixth was understrength and not well-equipped, though it was augmented by a battalion or two from the 347th Infantry Division.
The Americans would attack with three infantry regiments, a tank battalion and two tank destroyer battalions in close support. A five-minute artillery bombardment would precede the operation.
Late that afternoon we were led to the top of the south slope and told to dig in just below the crest in two-man teams. Excavating the thick, clayish soil, soaked by weeks of rain, was an ordeal. The day soon became night. When my foxhole companion and I had to answer the call of nature, we slid out of our hole as best we could. A faint light suffused our surroundings, for the heavy cloud cover could not completely hide the full moon.
While we attended to our needs, there was a blinding flash and a shattering explosion. An enemy mortar had zeroed in on our position; its alert crew must have seen faint movement and dropped a ready shell into the barrel. It was almost a direct hit--all that saved us was that glutinous clay that had made our digging so difficult earlier in the day. The shell buried itself, exploded, and rained clumps of clay upon our prostrate forms. It was a narrow escape. A Hollywood war movie would have had us philosophizing at length over the meaning of this adventure in light of the experience we were to undergo the next day. Drenched and miserable, however, we exchanged scarcely a word as the two of us slithered back into our hole. We huddled in our watery shelter and awaited the dawn.
When it came, F Company assembled in the slowly gathering light and moved down the hill in a skirmish line. The rain had almost stopped, and the valley ahead could be seen through the trees. In the dimness, I could make out other companies on our right. As we moved forward, our shells were striking the north slope and its bunkers, but this activity and the closer sounds of machine guns and rifles went almost unheard by me. I was intent on keeping my place in the line and navigating the slippery slope with its brush and trees.
I did feel adequately equipped. I carried five or six eight-round clips for my M-1 rifle, a first-aid packet, a canteen, and a shovel on my cartridge belt. Slung over my shoulders were my gas mask and two bandoleers, each containing six additional clips of M-1 ammunition. In my raincoat pockets were one concussion grenade and two fragmentation grenades. My augmented combat pack, containing items of varying value, weighed thirty-five pounds or so. I was as prepared as possible for whatever destiny might demand.
We reached the valley bottom to find that the "small stream" the briefing officer had mentioned was not merely a simple bubbling brook. Rain swollen, the stream had become a swift torrent four or five feet deep. We lowered ourselves into it and gained the opposite bank. After we crossed the stream, the open fields of the valley floor, laced by barbed boundary fences, lay before us. The whole north slope, including the two German bunkers, was in sight.
Soon I saw my first enemy soldiers. On my right some twenty yards away, fifteen or twenty men in yellow raincoats moved about. The sight struck me as incredible. Here I was, trudging through a marshy field, climbing barbed-wire fences, drenched to the skin, trying to focus on all that was happening around me, and worrying about sticking to my unit, and then, suddenly, there was the enemy. But then I hesitated. Were they our own men who had unexpectedly gotten in front of us? The fear of firing on comrades was in my thoughts during my entire time on the front line; I could imagine nothing worse. Pushing aside my uncertainty, I fired at the left-most raincoat-clad soldier. He fell. Then, perhaps moved by the excitement of my first shot fired in anger, I fired four more rounds into his presumably lifeless body. The other soldiers in yellow were giving up. We moved on.
Continuing across the valley, I fired the three rounds left in my rifle at nothing in particular and inserted a fresh clip. Steady artillery fire hammered the two north-crest bunkers. Then their garrisons ran outside with white flags, and the shelling ceased. That was a relief; if the garrisons had fought seriously, we would have suffered heavily. Hugh Cole's The Lorraine Campaign notes that "these works were now in a poor state...[and] the Germans had little time to familiarize themselves with the Maginot system."
We climbed the north slope, bearing to the right of the bunkers. Cole quotes Generalmajor (Brig. Gen.) August Wellm, commander of the Thirty-sixth Volksgrenadier Division, as attributing its collapse to our artillery. Wellm mentioned "the coolness displayed by the American infantry, who advanced calmly through the thickest fire 'with their weapons at the ready and cigarettes dangling from their lips.'" My weapon was certainly ready like the riflemen he described, but I did not smoke.
A tank trap in the form of a deep trench now appeared across our front and slowed our advance. The sides had collapsed from the incessant rain, and the bottom was deep in mud. I got stuck in the glutinous mess and was rescued by a luckier comrade.
I then climbed the final slope to the crest. The advancing companies were mixed together, and I saw no one I recognized. I inspected one of the bunkers that had just surrendered. Its steel door was open, and the interior was dimly lighted by sunlight peaking through the door and the two firing embrasures. An enemy soldier had left a bread crust on a table. I was hungry, not having eaten since the day before, but the bread was hopelessly inedible.
We had also seized another bunker near a small forest, from which rifle fire could be heard--both ours and the enemy's (the flatter sound of the German Model 98k carbine was easy to recognize). A favorite status symbol of GIs was a captured German pistol. An officer's Walther P-38 was the pistol of choice, though any kind would do. With this hidden objective in mind, I moved down the wood line toward the sound of gunfire. Then a lieutenant shouted that the Germans in the woods who were firing at us were ready to surrender. Here was my chance.
I dashed into the woods followed by a few other souvenir hunters. About fifty yards in, I paused at a large tree and looked ahead. The enemy soldiers, now in view, were strangely diffident about giving up. From behind my tree I saw four Germans, heavily armed, in a small clearing forty feet away, unaware of my presence. Braced against the tree, I brought my rifle up to my shoulder and fired four fast rounds. They scattered instantly. I may have hit one, maybe two, though probably not fatally. A second later, I was alone again.
My four enemy targets had been in front of me. I now saw another man to my right, crouching and moving at right angles, also about forty feet away. He seemed unaware of my assault on his nearby friends just seconds before, but such is the fog of war, even on such a tiny scale. I fired two shots at him, and soundlessly he pitched forward. My second round had passed through him from right to left, almost certainly fatally. I now looked ahead. Here was something I could not identify, looking like someone in a strange pose. I soon realized it was a man kneeling, pointing his rifle at me! I stared for a second or two.
Suddenly, amid a deafening explosion, the tree that my left cheek was pressing against was torn, and a hail of splinters flew into my face. A bullet had hit the tree two inches from my left eye. I kicked my feet out behind me and fell. A grenade explosion followed and debris cascaded against my bowed helmet. Then came a long burst from an MG42 machine gun. I saw a tree to my right shredded by the fire. I was left alone; the enemy must have thought I had been killed.
I was now uncomfortably alert. The men who had followed me were not in sight. I peered around my protecting tree. Then I heard movement and voices coming from behind me. To my alarm two Germans strolled nonchalantly from my left rear, fifty feet away. They walked to my left, chatting away, their gas-mask canisters clanking steadily against their belts as they strolled. Obviously, I was well within the enemy position. Then, to my further alarm, I saw an enemy soldier in front of me carefully inserting twigs in his helmet netting. I could have shot him easily but at the cost of my own life, which I placed at a higher value than his. Soon, five crouching Germans, just behind the camouflager's position, advanced past my front. The enemy was attacking. Firing increased.
Much to my relief, the attack stalled, and I saw no further activity. However, worried about my left flank, I raised my rifle and pointed it around my tree in that direction. I also had another concern. I had fired four rounds into the group I had first met and two more at the man I had shot to my front. I should eject the two remaining rounds and insert a new clip, but this would involve loud clicks, which I could only muffle a bit. The distant firing was subdued by the forest, and it was deathly quiet in my lonely domain. I placed a clip upright on a leaf. I would fire my two remaining rounds and ram the clip home as fast as I could. I had done this quite often in training but never when my life depended on it.
Time passed. Suddenly, a single enemy soldier approached along a path traced earlier by two others. On coming abreast, where the path angled left, he turned and stared down at me. At his slightest move, I decided, I would fire. I could not miss; he was less than forty feet away. We stared at each other for some seconds. I cannot imagine what he was thinking. He may have thought I was a comrade, or perhaps I was dead or not human at all, for I was motionless and covered in mud. I will never know. He turned and disappeared.
It was a very close call. He may have noticed me after all; maybe he would call his friends to deal with me. After four hours of lying motionless, I eased out of my heavy pack and crawled over the intimidating open stretch of ground behind me to the sheltering trees, stood up, and returned to the American lines.
Within minutes of my escape our tanks had gotten behind the Germans and forced them to surrender. We headed into the woods while I regretted my pusillanimous retreat. If I had waited just a bit longer, I would have been in at the finish. I did get a pistol though, from a German noncom. It was not a P-38, but it would do.
The area was littered with German casualties. Policy declared that prisoners must cast off their helmets. I seized the helmet strap of a wounded German and tried to wrest it off. He groaned in pain. Then I saw a bullet hole in his helmet and what looked like blood and brains seeping out. He was seriously wounded and probably near death. I left him alone. A slightly wounded German was leaning against a tree. I pointed my rifle at him while, with genuine curiosity, I examined his attire and equipment. "Nicht schiessen" ("Don't shoot"), he pleaded and dissolved in tears. Another man had been shot in the genitals and was in great distress. I moved on. There were other scenes of equal misery to witness.
I later rejoined my unit. Escorted by tanks, we crossed an adjacent field toward more woods, at whose edge was another bunker. The tanks offered protection, and their treads compacted the sodden earth, making walking easier. The bunker was empty, but a tank fired at close range, blowing chunks of concrete from its face, exposing the reinforcing rods within. We bore right, to the north side of the forest and found two more bunkers, also unoccupied--fortunately, since the tanks had now left. The bunkers faced a barren field stretching to the brink of a cliff, whose ominous feature was an observation cupola. En route, I found myself walking with my platoon leader, ahead of our main body. If that cupola is manned, I said, we were in trouble even if we threw ourselves down. He had thought of that, too, but we had no choice.
I had another problem. Earlier, I had tried to open my rifle's bolt to replace the two remaining rounds with a full clip. It would not budge, even after grounding the butt and bringing my heel down hard on the handle. It had turned much colder, and all the mud and water coating my rifle had frozen. I was afraid it might explode if I fired.
At the cupola, we were atop yet another bunker set into the cliff and commanding the wide plain below. This bunker was also empty. I stuck my rifle muzzle into the observation port, turned my head and fired. The slug careened off the sides of the bunker. The bolt was safely freed.
We milled around the area. It was sunset, the skies had cleared, and there was a bitter wind. From the cliff's edge we could see far across the plain into Germany.
We withdrew to the forest edge and the two bunkers. In a belt before the bunkers stood a knee-high barbed-wire thicket, twenty feet deep and traversed by crooked paths. A tank barrier ten feet deep lay before the wire--rails set six feet below ground, probably in concrete, and extending four feet above ground. Before these obstacles lay a fifteen-foot open tract ending in a low ledge atop which began the plain that stretched to the cliff. We were to dig in against the ledge and await a counterattack.
Then came a creeping barrage of German 88mm artillery rounds. In wordless anxiety, we felt the shells coming closer. A shell fell almost on us, but there was no explosion; it was a dud. The barrage continued over us, then ceased. There was no counterattack. And with those last shells, my first day in combat ended.
My experiences that day, November 25, 1944, were quite humble, but they made a profound impression on me. Curiously, for decades afterward I rarely thought about them, although they loomed prominently in the back of my mind. Now, in my indolent retirement, the day has assumed a special place. It was so filled with events I could not have imagined that later combat experiences, quite stressful themselves, have receded from memory, though hardly forgotten.
The experiences of others on their first day of combat may well have been worse, but on my first day I stared death in the face more than once and behaved, I believe, with reasonable calmness and resolve. I am content with those thoughts.
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