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A Few Men In Soldier Suits

July 2024
13min read

A down-to-earth story of the way in which the German thrust at the Bulge was halted

Few of the Americans in Paris at Christmas time, 1944, were at all alarmed over the sudden German breakthrough. The French, who are pessimists from experience, were scared and thought the Bodies were coming back, but Americans are never pessimists and they never seem to have had any experience. The SHAEF public relations division called off its Christmas party in a bored gesture toward the biggest and most disastrous battle of the war on the Western Front. There was a curfew on because the Army was trying to catch the German parachutists in American uniforms who were thought to have infiltrated Paris in a plot to capture General Elsenhower; on account of the curlew you had to have a pass to be out after eight o’clock, so for once there were hardly any Americans in Hie night dubs. (1 know beta use my friends and 1 had passes.)

None of us knew then that less than a week earlier the Germans had been out in die open with practically nothing between them and Liege, which was the nerve (enter of the whole western defense at that point. This Belgian city, everyone thought, was the objective of the great German lunge, directed, we believed, by Gerd von Rundstedt. As it turned out alter the war, von Rundstedt had no faith in the plan and was sulking in his tent: the operational commander was Kield Afarshal Walter Afodel; the real objective was not Liége but the River Meuse and the great cities of Antwerp and Brussels. Whatever the final objective, however, the Germans had broken into the open, with a clear field before them.

What stopped them was nothing but a few handfuls ol boys in soldier suits who had never up to that time fired a shot at (he enemy. They were engineers, antiaircraft, and things of that sort—strictly rear echelon —and there were squads and platoons of them where there ought to have been divisions and corps. Of course they blossomed out later with Silver Stars and Distinguished Service Grosses, which seemed to surprise and embarrass them no end. Perhaps heroes arc always like that before the varnish is dry.

As war correspondent for a monthly magazine Ï met some of them after the SHAKK powers decided it was safe to let females get out of Paris and up with the First Army, a month after the Bulge battle started. Ky this time they were back at their old jobs, working sawmills and building roads around Malmcdy and Spn, and they were billeted in fussy Kelgian houses with big flowers all over the wallpaper and all over the bathroom fixtures, which were invariably out of order.

They had been working sawmills and building roads early on December 17, when they were ordered to drop what they were doing and go out and stop the German Army.

The order was so startling that they figured at first it was probably “a dry run,” and they were half hoping it would be, half hoping it wouldn’t. They had had no training since basic, and that worried them. Of course they had no tanks, no artillery, no mortars, even. They had hardly anything, in fact, except mines and ba/ookas and what Colonel Pergrin called psychology.

Lieutenant Colonel David E. Pergrin commanded the agist Engineer Hattalion, which later received a unit diution “lui action in and around Afalmcdy, December iy-aO, KJU.” He was round-laced and wore glasses and looked like a youthful assistant professor. I drove around the ruins of Malmcdy with him in Uic dirty snow, and we visited Hic Trois Ponts crossroad a mile and a hall cast of town from which the fro/en bodies of 145, Americans, murdered by the SS on December 17, had been removed the day before 1 got there.

He said a company and a half of the at) ist had been running its sawmill near Malmcdy the morning of (he seventeenth, when a lieutenant who had been U]) Hie road brought back word that the Germans had broken through the ()()Ui Division at lîutgenbach. At almost the same moment they heard it from headquarters.

Colonel Pergrin ordered his men out to the east edge of town, where they tied little yellow packages of dynamite around some tree trunks which they felled across the road and set out some mines. This was known as a road block. With the road block in order, a sergeant and a private drove their jeep out a few miles, parked it, and looked over a hill. They counted 68 enemy vehicles coming toward them, yo of them tanks, before they concluded that enough was enough and got back to Malmcdy.

That was when everything in town started leaving —hospitals, ordnance units, all the rear-echelon odds and ends—in what would never be described as a panic-stricken (light because our side was engaged in it. At noontime the ?th Armored Division showed up and the %()ist felt much rosier, but the tank commander said: “Sorry, we’re ordered to St. Vith,” and they pulled out again. There was a replacement depot with $00 men in Malmcdy, and Colonel Pergrin tried to borrow some of them to put on his road blocks, but they too had business elsewhere.

About two thirty in the afternoon, alter everyone else had gone, he drove out himself to take a look-see eastwards. He had left his jeep and was walking along the high ground, trying to find a way to look over the Trois Ponts intersection, when he heard “an awful lot of noise” in the valley, and there ran and stumbled lour American soldiers, screaming. They were running away from the massacre of the 115 which had just taken place at the crossroad.

The 291st stuck in Malmcdy eight days and, as it turned out, nothing much happened except that they were bombed three days in succession by the American Air Force. The Germans kept throwing feelers at the road blocks in the shape of motorcycle and Volkswagen patrols and a couple of fairly stiff inlantry attacks, but the main pan/er lone bypassed Malmédy, having evidently concluded that the place was strongly defended. After a couple of days it was The 30th Division took over, and its CO greeted Pergrin with: “ What! Do you mean to say you’ve been sitting here with only 185 men? Why the hell didn’t you beat it?”

I asked Colonel Pergrin the same question, and that was when he said he guessed it was psychology. “What do you mean, psychology?” I pursued. It seemed that combat outfits moving up to the front had had a habit of yelling at the road-builders as they passed them: “You engineer so-and-sos! Why don’t you come on up there and fight?”

All through the first two days of the battle this Malmédy pattern kept repeating itself along the route of both panzer columns. The vanguard of the column that bypassed Malincdy went on to a place called Stavelot, where 25 more men of the stjist were sitting on another road block. They had just finished laying a “hasty minefield,” that is, scattering mines on top of the road, when three German tanks nosed along through the dark, which came in that weather about 4:30 P.M. The first tank was hailed by a boy named Goldstein from Brooklyn, who yelled “Halt!” because he thought it might be an American tank. It then ran over a mine and blew its treads off, which confused the oilier two tanks so that they turned around and went back. Goldstein and another private named Liparolla took after them in a jeep to see where they’d gone; they found out, and Liparolla was killed and Goldstein wounded. After thinking it over all night the tanks came back at Stavelot in the morning, but by that time some armored infantry was waiting for them.

The seemingly timid behavior of the panzers was due to their orders, which were to bypass opposition wherever encountered and keep on going, going, going toward the Meuse. But there was always opposition or the seeming of it. There were people like a Lieutenant Yeats of the 5ist Engineer Battalion, who had five trucks; and all one night he ran them up a hill with the lights showing and downhill again blacked out, so that they looked like a big convoy moving up. .And it was thanks to the 1581)1 Engineer Battalion that there ever was a siege of Bastogne and that General McAuliffe had a chance to say “Nuts!”

The southern prong of the panzers was approaching Bastogne on the morning of the seventeenth, when the ioist Airborne Infantry, which made that city immortal and vice versa, was still far away at a rest camp near Rheims. A movie called Saratoga Trunk, with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper, was showing at the rest camp—I saw it myself in Rheims a couple ol nights later—and when Gary came up behind Ingrid and jnit his arms around her while she was blushing her hair or at some such point, the lights were turned on and an officer said: “You men are on your way.”

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Sam Tabets, with Ii Company of the 1581!! Engineers, was ordered to chop down trees and lay mines and keep those tanks out of Bastogne until someone ol importance could get there. One of Sam’s boys was a mild-appearing red-headed farm youth from Centerville, Iowa, who received the Silver Star for knocking out a German machine gun singlehanded; he had also attempted to stand off five tanks with a bazooka but it wouldn’t go off. When I saw him his comment on all this was: “I never was much of a fellow to fight.”

I gathered that the rest of them weren’t either. On the night of December 18, B Company of the 1581!! was sitting on top of a road block, peering tensely into the dark, when the first German tank came rumbling and clanking along. It encountered Private Bernard Michin of Providence, Rhode Island, standing like a stone wall with a ba/ooka, a weapon which he had never fired in his life. No more had the rest of them. I he World War II ba/ooka, which looked like a sawed-off length of stovepipe and shot a weird projectile like a miniature V-a, was supposed to be good against tanks up to 150 yards, but Michin waited until his tank was only ten yards away before he fired. He wasn’t trying to be a hero; he simply didn’t want to hit an American tank by mistake.

The character of the ba/ooka, its violence and unpredictability, stood out impressively. Sometimes it didn’t go off at all; sometimes it worked both ways. Michin had forgotten to put on the dark glasses which were supposed to protect the ba/ooka-man’s eyes from the flash, and the tremendous explosion which finished the tank also seared his eyes so that he rolled into the ditch, temporarily blinded. It was eight hours before he regained his sight. I met him a month later in Huy, which was battalion headquarters by that time, and he was summoned in to meet me by a proud commanding officer and told his story for probably the fortieth time. Most of the others were still excited over their recent adventures and were reminiscent and fairly talkative, but Michin was a tall, sallow, spindly youth of the introverted or why-don’t-they-let-me-alone type. A general had pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on him a day or two before, and you could see that between generals and women reporters he was sick of the whole hero business.

He couldn’t remember how long he had lain in the ditch in great pain from his burned eyes. But Germany infantry were riding in with the tanks, and alter a while a German machine gun was firing toward him.

“I got kincla nervous,” he said. So he threw a hand grenade, guided only by the sound, and knocked out the machine gun and killed most of the crew.

What worried all these green soldiers the most was the danger of killing another American, a danger much more solid and awful to them than death at the hands of the Germans. The fighting those first few days of the Bulge battle was total confusion, what with fog and early darkness, no communications, Germans infiltrating everywhere—including those notso-mythical parachutists—and nobody knowing where his own or anybody else’s lines were. All this was rather prettily described in the SHAEF communiqués as “a fluid situation.” To us correspondents back in Paris the situation was being expounded daily in the briefing room at the Scribe Hotel, witli the aid of a wall map and a briefing officer. Afterward we went downstairs to the bar and drank champagne until lunch time and bellyached because the bar didn’t serve whisky.

The particular road block of the 1581!! which was defended by Private Michin and others was commanded by Lieutenant William O. Cotlmin, who, when he heard tanks moving through the pre-dawn darkness of December 18—and knowing that American tanks were also moving through that fog—stepped tip to the first one and got a good look to assure himself that it was a German Tiger. Then he called back to his men: “These are Germans.” Someone said in English: “Yes, ve are supermen,” and fired. Cochran. no superman but a quiet, bespectacled student from Carnegie Tech, filed back at the Hash and killed two ol them. This was the same tank that Michin knocked out a few seconds later. He had heard Cochran say it was German, but he wanted to be sure for himself.

This pan/er column, the southern one, was to have occupied Bastogne and then to have moved on tip to the main highway, to a junction with the northern column and so on to the Meuse. Hut because of multiplied incidents like the nervousness of Trivate Michin. it bent around Bastogne when it could have rolled on in. This was December 18, remember. At g r.M. on the nineteenth the ioist Airborne arrived to take up the defense of Bastogne which made history, and Lieu tenant Colonel Sam Tabets’ iRo bovs on the road block were relieved by two battalions of paratroopers and an engineer company, or some 1,700 men. Sam said his boys were not very pleased about it. They wanted to go on stalking tanks with bazookas.

The Germans wanted certain broad highways, but these little units delayed them just enough. Their southern column hesitated at Bastogne, which straddled the red line on the map that was the ArlonBastogne-Liége highway. Their main northern column never reached the highway. Even in Paris we heard how the nose of it rested four or five days at a place called Habiemont, just east of the vital red line; and in due course it was cut off and liquidated by our ground and air forces—the fog having lifted by that time.

But we were never told in Paris how the column came to grief because of three privates and a necklace mine.

These particular tanks belonged to the same SS panzer division which had reached the gates of MaImédy on December 17. They were splitting and fingering off, as their custom was, but on the night of December 18 part of them again fell afoul of the 29ist Engineer Battalion, which was stretched out over sixteen miles. In other words the agist was, at this point, manning another road block at Werbomont, which was just beyond Habiemont and commanded the crucial highway. And Pfc. John Rondenell and two companions were out in front of the road block with a necklace mine, which was a chain of five or six mines fastened together.

So at 10 P.M. when they heard tanks coming, Private Rondenell pulled his string of mines across the road and blew up the first tank. And this destruction of the lead vehicle of the enemy column—but now I quote from the citation bestowed on the 29 ist- “marked the definite stopping of the enemy advance on axis Bullingen-Waimes-Malmédy-Stavelot-La Gleize Stoumont-Chevron-Werbomont, later learned to be the route designated for the First SS Panzer Corps.”

I wanted to meet Rondenell, but he was no longer with the outfit by the time I got there; he was in the hospital. After they went back to road-building a section of Bailey bridge fell on him.

Following the night of December 18 the Allied Command recovered its poise, and from then on we had divisions where before there were only battalions and noncombat ones at that. The rollback started, and from there on the story is familiar. At the moment of the breakthrough the First Division was at Verviers, resting, its first time out of the lines since D-day. And it called off its Christmas dance but sent out the invitations to the “Belgique mademoiselles” anyway, with “Rain Check” stamped across the face. It moved up onto the north shoulder of the breakthrough gap at Waimes. The night of the eighteenth when First Army Headquarters was packing up to retreat out of Spa and was pretty gloomy—so a Ga officer there told me—First Division Ga called up and reported as follows: “We’re here, we’re set, all we want is four dozen sets of maps, and tomorrow we’ll start teaching those SS bastards the lesson of their lives.”

Anyone who remembers the First Division and its sense of destiny will realize that, in its own opinion, its arrival at the front marked the turning point of the war.

After that the sides of the thrust held firm, though the center kept pushing forward, and the fog lifted and the Air Corps got to work. On Christmas day some tanks barely reached the Meuse, but they were the last tongue of a spent lava flow. Why did the Germans miss their great opportunity? If they had known, even guessed, how little was out in front, no amount of psychology could have stopped them.

Stories floated around First Army Headquarters about the first two days and the small units who played Horatio at the bridge or the little boy with his finger in the dike. An ordnance detachment was repairing some tanks at Aywaille (pronounced EyeWally in American) far behind the lines, and when the Germans showed up the repairmen got into the tanks and drove out to meet them. Some antiaircraft batteries were borrowed from the gth Air Defense Command and tossed out to stem the oncoming tide. One of these batteries had not quite finished getting its go-millimeter gun into position beside a road when the first German tank appeared around a bend 300 yards away. One has often thought in reading about courage that it is a failure of the ordinary reflexes of the animal kingdom and the substitution of a much fancier set; these boys simply forgot to run away. Instead they sweated madly to finish setting up their gun, and by the time they saw the whites of that tank’s eyes they were ready to fire.

I didn’t have time to track down all the stories, but I caught up after a fashion with Battery C of the 143rd Antiaircraft Battalion and learned of the adventure of Privates Roland Seamon and Albert Darrago, which more than all the rest, it seems to me, illustrates the peculiar deadliness of innocence, even in war. Seamon was a tall, husky mountain boy from Shinnston, West Virginia; Darrago, his buddy, was from Maryland; and all they had done in the war up to now was to shiver in their gun pits near Liege and stare up at the empty sky, just in case. They had scarcely even seen an enemy aircraft, much less a real live kraut, except prisoners.

The night of the eighteenth and nineteenth, their battery was getting set up between La Gleize and Stoumont, under whistling small-arms fire, in the dark. All night they listened to the roar of motors and movement of vehicles going by on the road and learned to identify the German ones by the sound. It was foggy and cold and so intensely dark that when a German vehicle hit a mine and burned fiercely, it made only a dull glow through the fog.

There was a square brick house held by Americans at the crossroads, and in the early morning an infantry lieutenant came over to the AA gun pit and asked for volunteers to knock out a tank with bazookas. He said it was just sitting there, up the road. Neither Seamon nor Darrago had ever touched a bazooka, but they said they’d try. Upon reaching the house they were mildly surprised to find it full of infantrymen. Possibly the lieutenant had thought his own men were not expendable.

After showing them how the bazookas worked and explaining that it was no good to shoot at a Tiger except through the rear, he urged them to “go get the bastard.” They crawled off across a field, rifle and machine gun fire whistling and zipping all around them, looked through a hole in a hedge, and saw sitting there not one, but four, of the finest, fattest German tanks ever seen, two of them Tigers.

The two boy scouts held a whispered consultation and decided not to go back for help for what struck me at the time as a nice reason—they were afraid the tanks might get away. They each picked one of the mediums, whose broad rear ends were toward them, poked the bazooka snouts through the hedge, and fired. There was a satisfying double explosion, or as Seamon said, “the biggest goddam noise I ever heard in my life,” and both rear ends burst into flames. The boys crawled back across the field, under fire from several sources including the two Tigers, found the lieutenant in his nice, solid brick house and reported. His response had certain classic overtones. In effect it was: “Go back and tell those tanks they can’t intimidate me.” He directed them to go back and put in one more shot apiece to make sure of the kill.

With marked lack of enthusiasm but still obedient to orders, they again crawled across the field where they looked through the hedge and put two more rockets into the blazing tanks. They then crossed the field for the fourth time under fire from both sides and the rear, making the return without accident except that Seamon ripped his pants on some barbed wire.

Seamon and Darrago were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses. I have often wondered what the lieutenant got. He ought to have been a full colonel by V-E Day.

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