by Rob Dean, 9 March 2008
Reprinted with the generous permission of Rob Dean
The master story of the Battle of the Bulge is the German breakthrough that created the bulge in American lines and the U.S. fight to restore the original line. Not well known is the story of the U.S. infantry that held the northern flank. If not for the stand by three rifle companies, the bulge may have become a break. This study focuses on the defense of Hofen through the first-hand accounts of 12 soldiers who fought there, the combat reports of units in the field, the analyses of two infantry officers, and the detailed account of the battalion commander. This study also places that isolated battle in the context of the full Ardennes counteroffensive. Analysis of that research identifies four keys to American victory: (1) sound defensive tactics by battle commanders and their front-line units demonstrated high levels of unity, adaptability, and resilience that overcame bad strategic planning at the division level; (2) fortified key points strengthened a thinly held line after officers surveyed the terrain, identified the most vulnerable to attack, and concentrated machine guns and mortars in mutually supporting positions; (3) the battalion commander's order to meet every enemy movement with armed resistance proved valuable in confusing the enemy; and (4) a reserve unit was decisive in pushing back the Germans after they penetrated deep into the village on the final day of the battle. The first-hand accounts add depth to an understanding about how a small unit could hold a key point and how U.S. troops outnumbered five to one prevailed against the Germans' desperate, well planned assault. This project will contribute to future research on combat motivation, small-unit tactics, and defense of towns by infantry units. This study adds to a body of research that makes this point: On the front lines, quick reactions and quick minds made the difference makers.
Jeeps transfer casualty of 9th Infantry Division from Weasel to Jeep after soldier was brought from front lines near town of Hofen, Germany. E/. 39th Regt., 9th Inf. Div.
The food. Lou Pedrotti never got over the food in the army. Black-eyed peas. "Tasted like boiled hay," he said. Grits. "A tasteless pile of corn discards that even a sow would reject." Boiled okra. "Wallowing in its own goo." As his division wrapped up training at Camp Maxey in Texas and headed for Western Europe, reality hit Private Pedrotti in his gut. After all, Pedrotti grew up well off in Southern California, spent the first years of the war at pricey Occidental College in Los Angeles, got picked to continue his college education at the U.S. Army's expense, and arrived weeks before D-Day at Camp Maxey for combat training. The man who had grown up on his mother's fine Italian cooking, the man for whom campus mess-hall food fell far below his standards, finally confronted the reality that soon he would be eating K-rations and C-rations, the ready-to-eat foods at the front. Food was not really the issue. It was gut-check time, all right, but the issue was this: He and his buddies of the 99th Infantry Division were going to war, and were they ready? In November 1944, the 14,000 men of the division holding the northern sector of the Ardennes had every reason to wonder.
When Second Lieutenant Sam Lombardo joined the 99th Division that month, he found a fresh division situated on the edge of battle but unprepared for combat - reasons aplenty to fear that a crisis might lie ahead. He was there to lead a rifle platoon, having volunteered his five years as a soldier and two years as a stateside training officer for combat. On the northern tip of the line that cut through the Ardennes on the German-Belgian border, too few American soldiers had too much territory to cover. "The man in one foxhole could not see the man in the next one," Lombardo said. Scouts dug in way out front, up to a thousand yards beyond the main line of foxholes. The troops, enough to cover an eight- or nine-mile front, stretched instead across twenty-one miles. How could they hold the line? Lombardo could not believe the risky situation. The brass was overconfident, and the troops were green. "I just couldn't stop thinking that any German patrol wanting to come through could do it without any difficulties,'' he said. The army positioned to take the Germans' last-gasp counterpunch in December was not the same army that landed on D-Day in June. The rifle companies stretched thin along the Siegfried Line were replacement units heavily populated with older men called up from the reserves and with younger men once assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program, a college program established to train engineers, doctors, and linguists for postwar duty. The army broke up the ASTP in the spring, assigned most of the bookish soldiers to rifle companies, and readied them for the final assault on Germany. About 600 riflemen from three companies of the 395th Infantry Regiment took up positions on a 6,000-yard, north-south line that skirted the edge of the village of Hofen. As winter set in, the men and their frozen feet braced for the cold reality of combat.
The 99th was in the front row as America's citizen army faced its toughest test since Normandy. What was to become the Battle of the Bulge shaped up as a contest between the U.S. Army composed of men given to doubts and the German army made up of soldiers intoxicated by their commander's order to fight to the death. For Adolf Hitler, the counteroffensive was all or nothing, a bold stroke that, if not for the few men who defended and held the northern tip of the line, might have reinvigorated his army and prolonged the war. The situation, expressed most clearly through the answers to three questions, was this: In Hofen, could so few troops hold so much ground? Across the Ardennes, were 83,000 inexperienced U.S. soldiers a match for 200,000 Germans? What would be the consequences if they were not?
This paper argues that troop characteristics and command decisions added up to four keys to American victory. First, even green troops demonstrated the unity, adaptability, and resilience that exemplified the citizen army. Sound defensive tactics by battle commanders and their front-line units overcame bad strategic planning at the division level, where officers were caught flat-footed. As a result, the Allies held the northern shoulder and prevented the bulge from becoming a break. Second, the defense of Hofen proved that fortified key points strengthened a thinly held line. Officers surveyed the terrain, identified the spots most vulnerable to attack, concentrated machine guns and mortars in those positions, and placed those guns so that each nest could back up the next. Third, the battalion commander's order to meet every enemy movement with armed resistance was decisive. Fourth, a reserve unit was crucial in providing the firepower to push back the Germans after they penetrated deep into the village on the third and final day of the battle.
Moment of Truth, Moment of Doubt
The conditions, some the Americans could see and some they could not know, were tough - wet snow mixed with bitter cold, lack of preparation on their side, and a skillfully planned attack by the other side. Winter settled in a bit colder than normal that year in the thick forest of the border area, and almost every day brought a fresh layer of snow. Most days the temperature hovered slightly above zero, dipping into the minus range at night. When the ground warmed enough, a foot-and-half of earth turned to muck. Each night was a struggle against fatigue as well as the biting cold. By day, working in teams of two, they dug deeper and deeper into the hillside, so deep a normal-size guy could stand tall and still keep his head below ground level. The soldiers scrounged for scraps of wood, pieces of fallen timber, the rare chunk of concrete, the rarer-still sheet of flimsy metal - any poor man's building material that could put a roof on a trench dug out of the cold ground. "We boys from out West knew how to stay warm," Nebraskan Ed Trumble recalled. "[We] were constantly looking for straw to fill our foxholes and the city boys soon learned from us." The men arrived without waterproof boots. Before rubber overshoes arrived a few days later, the soldiers began feeling the first pains of frostbite or trenchfoot. Those supply problems were but a hint of greater challenges ahead.
US Infantry crossing a snowy field
At that moment of doubt for the Americans, the Germans were lining up to fight. Having been battered and pushed back in Italy, on the Russian front and in France, the German army regrouped along its western front and massed troops and tanks for a series of thrusts in a bold counteroffensive to seize momentum. The German plan in the Ardennes called for a blitz by three panzer divisions against American sectors on the northern end of the Allied line. Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt's infantry would then secure the break in the line, allowing the tanks to race through Allied positions. The advancing tanks were to capture Meuse River crossings and follow an open road to Brussels and Antwerp. Collapse of the Allied line would give the Nazis hope of regaining control of the swath of land stretching to the English Channel.
The Americans allowed themselves to get caught off guard. Generally, American military leaders were overconfident, believing that their success since D-Day was beating down the Germans physically and spiritually. On Thanksgiving, that uniquely American holiday, a traditional dinner of turkey, sweet potatoes, dressing, and cranberries gave a boost to the men and nourishment to the idea that the war would be over soon, and by early December, U.S. commanders still considered the Ardennes a calm place to break in two inexperienced divisions and to rest other battle-worn units. Overconfidence among officers and inexperience on the line were a bad mix, a combination made worse for the Americans by lousy planning and coordination.
The flip side of overconfidence was fear. The army of World War II was the army of a new era that allowed, even encouraged, soldiers to express their fears. Some having begun the war in safe reserve units and others having started out as the army's pampered college students, the men of the 99th braced for battle knowing very well that Hitler was not about to turn the continent back to the Allies without a fight. The fear of dying overcame some soldiers. A will to make it home alive drove others. There was one central fact in war: Victory would come only when the men of one nation's army could stand on the ground once occupied by the men of the opposing nation's army. Those men were infantry soldiers, and lots of foot soldiers had to die. For the men of the 99th who poked their chests against German lines than November, the previous six months had been hectic. National Guard units in Pennsylvania supplied the guts of the division's manpower. The 2,566 men who arrived from campuses to fill out the 14,000-man division had been college students in March, uprooted and thrown into infantry outfits on the fast track to Europe. When news came of the U.S. breakout in Normandy, the men of the 99th were wrapping up training at Camp Maxey, and fear would travel with them.
During a summer of training in the brutal heat and humidity of Texas, some trainees who feared they lacked the stuff to stay alive organized extra hours running the compass course and repeating drills in night map reading. At summer's end, the division headed cross-country by train to Boston harbor and weathered a rough Atlantic crossing and a rougher channel crossing. More fears surfaced. At the edge of Plymouth harbor, the last slip of American land pointed the ships toward Europe. Memories and worries rushed over the soldiers, as deep and vast as the Atlantic itself. Watching Boston melt into the horizon, a solitary soldier stood inside his thoughts at the rear of a ship. A second man approached, tears running down his cheeks, and said, "God just told me I won't be coming back." Once on the European mainland, the division sped across France and Belgium, and the mood grew increasingly serious and dark. The unit passed a huge cemetery - white crosses marking American graves as far as they could see. And grave diggers were busy excavating even more spaces. Finally in early November, ahead of supply lines, American units dug in, spread out along the border and waited for equipment to catch up. Hitler's heavily fortified western wall was formidable indeed, a 400-mile-long network of mines, barbed wire, concrete anti-tank blocks and steel-reinforced bunkers. Ed Trumble described the feeling of the men: "As we set up our pitiful shelterhalf two-man tents we could hear the constant rumble of exploding artillery a few miles away and after dark we could see the flashes of light in the night sky above the treeline. We were a miserable lot of apprehensive young men stumbling around in the dark eating ice-cold C rations and each of us absorbed in our own thoughts. To be with our buddies at such a time meant much to each of us." The men found no sure way to calm the kind of jitters that last. To some, the sound of the occasional rifle or machine-gun fire accentuated the eerie stillness and reminded them what lay ahead. For others, the best defense was a macabre sense of humor. With every blast of enemy artillery, one of Trumble's squad mates would yell, "We're going to get kissed again!"
Digging In at the Edge of Danger
Trumble was a rifleman with L Company, 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry Regiment, which formed a link in the J-shaped line that snaked along the east side of Hofen, a long, narrow village of about 100 houses stretching along a razorback ridge that ran north and south. The 3rd Battalion spread out among the trees, over the hills, and down the draws with I Company in the north, L Company to the south, and K Company in between. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel McClernand Butler, held one rifle platoon from L Company in reserve. About 1,000 yards north of Hofen was the town of Monschau, nearly hidden from the Hofen men because it sat deep in the Roer River gorge. The German-held village of Rohren was only 2,000 yards east of Hofen. Despite there being towns nearby, Hofen was isolated. Not only did it sit atop a ridge, but the town also had the Roer River to the west as a natural barrier to attack or escape. Vulnerable as it was, Hofen also was strategic as a position from which the Americans could guard key roads, intersections, and larger villages to the west and south.
Soldiers constructing a winterized hut near the front lines in the 99th Divisions' sector
The 3rd Battalion got its first dose of death within days of establishing a front-line position. When they pulled back from the border region, the German army created vast mine fields as part of its defense. The arrival of winter meant that by December those mines buried in the frozen earth were under a layer of snow as well. Division command assigned the 3rd Battalion to clear one of those mine fields. "We didn't know anything about clearing mines," Bill Bradford said of his inexperienced unit. The only technique they knew was crude and deadly. A soldier, wearing no protection, simply would bend over and stick his bayonet into the ground. If he hit nothing, he would step forward and do it again. If his bayonet hit a mine, a blast blew up in his face. "It was a slaughter," Bradford said. About ten men died in one day, and Butler decided that was enough and told the men to stop. The unfortunate experience was a test of Butler as well as the soldiers. He earned respect of the bright young men under his command, no small matter as it turned out. Soldiers expected a lot of their leaders, for they knew intuitively that survival depended on the quality of leadership and the ability of an officer to stay unemotional and clear-headed under fire. Historian Gerald Linderman said U.S. infantry soldiers in World War II formulated their test this way: "[T]he men insisted not only that officers who issued fateful orders know what it was to risk their own lives but that they give proof of their ability to lead and thus validate their claim to command."
Ending the mine-clearing carnage was a good move but only the first of several sound decisions by Butler that would pay off later. Once his men were in place to defend Hofen by the end of the day on November 10, Butler was ready to survey the whole strategic plan. He realized the battalion had few heavy weapons but the responsibility for a long, thin line. From their initial positions, mortars could not cover the front. Communications were inadequate. The battalion had no time to waste if it were to improve its position, and Butler used the next three weeks wisely. "I had time to move in, organize the battalion and issue orders before the fighting started," Butler said. The commander called a staff meeting on November 14 and pointed out that in addition to those deficiencies the battalion could expect little relief from nearby U.S. units in case of attack. The 3rd Battalion was on its own to hold its flanks. Butler ordered adjustments he felt were necessary if his men were to withstand a sustained attack. In place of the uniformly thin line, he installed a series of mutually supporting strong points, each consisting of at least a rifle squad and an automatic weapon. The strong points reinforced the flanks. While most of the strong points sat at the eastern edge of town, some occupied buildings inside the town. Butler drew up a fallback plan to relocate the strong points should an attack force his men to withdraw into Hofen. The addition of a large number of phones and radios improved communications. Soldiers cut down trees to block roads from the east and buried antitank mines along the major roads leading into Hofen. Three weeks of hard work improved the 3rd Battalion's position significantly. An infantry officer said:
Within the town itself a large number of buildings were prepared for defense, and gun emplacements were constructed in the streets but were no occupied. The general rule was that if the units on the front line were driven back they could carry on the fight in town. An emergency assembly area was selected in a covered position about a mile to the rear of town for use in the event the battalion was forced out of Hofen.
99th Infantry Division vehicles en route to the battle zone.
The battalion was better positioned but not necessarily better prepared. Replacement units like those of the 99th Division already had overcome a lot of criticism about preparedness. To Camp Maxey drill sergeants, the young soldiers were soft and the older ex-guardsmen were ignorant hillbillies. At the front, the same criticisms filtered back to the green units from battle-worn troops coming off the front lines. Further, the men read in Stars and Stripes that the brass called them green troops - or as one correspondent put it, "battle babies." The term rubbed some the wrong way with the implication that green troops could not fight. But it was true they had not experienced combat, or plenty of other things in life for that matter. The youngest among them were only nineteen. The men were not yet battle tested and, worse, the brass did not see that as an immediate concern.
The Army's posture of self-satisfaction led to a deadly failure to understand the German threat, to prepare for it, and, finally, to communicate it. Two days before the German attack, U.S. units took some Germans as prisoners, an indication of an increased enemy presence. Despite the signs of German movement, U.S. officers continued to dismiss the threat as nothing more than possible small, localized attacks. In truth, the Germans possessed detailed information about American positions and troop strength. The details came from the same daily reconnaissance flights the Americans dismissed as annoying but ineffective "bed-check Charlies." It turned out that while Germans were in the air gathering information they could use to attack places like Hofen, the Americans stayed grounded, blaming the very same weather conditions as too bad for flying. Even without help from the air, Major General Walter Lauer, commander of the 99th Division, and his fellow commanders worried about how thin the American lines were and how easily the Germans could penetrate. "However, until the German counteroffensive was well under way, the General and his staff felt that at the most, the only effort that the Germans could make would be a limited attack by one or two [battalions], or possibly a Regiment," according to an official record of the battle. "Further, that this would be merely a reaction to our attack. There was no suspicion of an enemy buildup."
The Ground Shook, the Attack Was On
At 5:25 on the morning of Saturday, December 16, the boom of 250 artillery and rocket shells shattered the black, frigid silence. "The ground we were in shook like a bowl of Jell-O from this assault, and all I could think of as I awoke was, "Yea, tho I walk through the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil," according to rifleman Thor Ronningen. The German attack caught the Americans by surprise. Beyond that, confusion reigned. The attacks cut off communications, isolating command posts and making it difficult for senior U.S. officers to get a quick assessment of the magnitude of the offensive. It was clear to the men in Hofen that their positions were in the crosshairs of German artillery and mortar units. The first thunderous blasts ripped through the town, wrecking buildings, severing phone lines, and setting off fires. Within a half hour of the bombardment, the night sky still was providing cover for attackers. But at that hour the German artillery needed more light to identify targets, so the Germans pointed searchlights into the sky and bounced the beam of light off the clouds to create artificial moonlight. The U.S. infantrymen turned the trick into their advantage. The artificial lighting created a glow on the horizon that served as backlighting for advancing German foot soldiers, and the silhouettes made for easy targets. Bill Bradford, situated at the southern tip of Hofen in L Company's most forward position, was asleep in a foxhole closest to the enemy line. The shooting shook Bradford and his foxhole mate awake, and their first sight that morning was a scary scene visible in the artificial moonlight. "A whole battalion was coming at just the two of us," Bradford said. "We high-tailed it back to the rest of the unit. We left everything but our rifles behind." At the same time, the Germans struck north of Bradford's position, too.
Six men from I Company occupied a large house, which served as a forward outpost. Two of the men stood guard while four others slept in the basement. The men rigged a bell to warn them should Germans approach. The bell startled Bob Crist and Bob Craft from their sleep, and the two best friends scrambled out of the basement, crawled across the kitchen, and climbed a ladder to the loft. Fire chased them back down to the kitchen. By then, the sun was coming up, and the Germans had advanced beyond the house to the American line behind Crist and Craft. The men decided they had to get out of there. "We jumped out the window into the hands of the Germans," Crist said. The Germans barked orders, but they did not know English and the Americans did not know German. The Germans and the two Americans faced each other in a momentary standoff, giving an American rifleman time to close in and open fire. "When he fired at the Germans, they forgot about us," Crist said. Prisoners no more, the two men fled back through the house directly into the sound of the sweetest words Crist and Craft ever heard. "Come on, fellows," a member of their outfit shouted. Crist and Craft had narrowly cheated death, had fallen into enemy hands, and had escaped to freedom. It all happened so fast; but, then, everything seemed to happen quickly in the chaos of that morning.
The 3rd Battalion regrouped in the confusion. The quick response on the front was not matched by the response at the division's command post. Lauer's officers were slow to act even after they learned the scope of the counteroffensive. Early on the first day of the battle, Americans captured a copy of the attack order from von Rundstedt to his troops. It said in part, "Everything is at stake. You bear in yourselves a holy duty to give everything." Even then, Lauer did not communicate to the front lines the breadth of the German attack. He was in denial or he did not know. Three hours into the attack, Lauer still believed the German offensive was isolated. Likewise, Major General Walter Robertson, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division, at first was unaware of a large-scale attack, but as the day wore on he grew concerned that the 99th might be in trouble. He went to Lauer's headquarters, and was appalled by what he found. Charles B. MacDonald, author of A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge, described what Robertson saw:
The living room of the house was in tumult, crowded with enlisted men and officers, everybody seemingly trying to talk at once, and at one side of the room the division commander himself, General Lauer, playing the piano - as was his wont in time of crisis.
"[B]ut Lauer insisted he had matters in hand. On the basis of the confusion at the command post, Robertson was inclined to think otherwise.
Some of the first German artillery blasts had badly damaged battalion headquarters in Hofen and killed many of the Americans on duty. The attackers were prepared to the point that they knew where they thought the American line was weakest. Waves of enemy infantrymen rushed into the gap between K and I companies and sped to get around I Company's left flank. The soldiers of the 3rd Battalion kept their composure and waited until the attackers were out in the open. The enemy got so close, an observer noted, that "in three known cases, bodies of Germans fell into the foxholes from which the men were firing." The network of strong points worked. Each one succeeded in giving cover and support to the next, preventing the Germans from isolating the small U.S. units. Instead, it was the Germans who took heavy losses. According to infantryman Bob Crist, "Dead German soldiers were everywhere, piled up where they fell and froze." From the U.S. perspective, "since the attack was generally centralized, it was possible to use 10 mortars per concentration and the effect was devastating," Captain Keith Fabianich, commander of K Company, said. "The German losses were terrific". [I]n the shell marked snow, lay the bodies of over 100 enemy dead and 41 prisoners of war who had fought their last battle." At thirty minutes past noon, the Germans tried again, setting their sights on a sunken road that would give them a free lane into several U.S. strongholds. The Americans stopped the assault, and the Germans withdrew.
While the 3rd Battalion held on in Hofen, Americans patched together enough of a communication system so that reports from surrounding positions were filtering back to the battalion. Scary news from Monschau said the Germans had broken through there. The village of Monschau sat in the valley just down the hill from Hofen. If Monschau were to fall, the Germans would have a clean shot at Hofen and the 3rd Battalion. But in Monschau, too, the Americans fought back and reclaimed the village, putting an end to that German threat. Between nightfall on the 16th and daybreak on the 17th, the 3rd Battalion experienced another long night, but the fear in the cold air made this one a night like no other. The Americans rested when they could as time dragged on, keeping their intense focus on surviving one hour at a time, all the while bracing for a new assault. "It was extremely cold," Butler said. "A man who got hit in the open could die within 15 minutes unless he got evacuated. "[I]t was a miserable time."  Three feet of snow buried everything, and some drifts were twelve-feet deep. On the second day, a Sunday, U.S. commanders were starting to piece together details from other points along the front. "You have to realize that the scope of what one man knows is going on extends to about only 4 or 6 feet on either side of him," Butler explained. It took a full day to catch on, but finally the Americans learned that the German attack was an all-out assault across the wide front.
The Bloodiest Day
The Germans, having failed to land a knockout blow the day before, spent the second day of the battle dancing along the line, like a prizefighter waiting for his opponent to drop the left hand. German patrols jabbed at the front lines, penetrating a few times with an assault just strong enough to keep the Americans on edge then falling back to their established line. After dark on that relatively uneventful day, one of those German patrols approached the position held by I Company. A Browning automatic rifle, commonly known as a BAR, was the infantryman's best friend. Thor Ronningen said:
We fired at them, but they took off down the road. We could not see what happened as they passed another position, but from the sounds knew that a real fight went on. We could hear our BAR go almost continually with sporadic firing from enemy weapons and also heard some grenades. The next day we could see what happened. George Nothwang had opened up on them with his BAR while two men with him loaded magazines for him as fast as they could. There were 19 dead Germans in the shallow ditch about 20 feet from George's gun. We could see in the snow where German grenades had gone off near George and he told us he did not even see or hear them in the frenzy of action.
The third day of the German offensive started early, and what followed was to be the bloodiest day in battalion history. Beginning their assault before 4 a.m., the Germans launched a vicious, precise strike on Hofen. A heavy aerial attack softened 3rd Battalion positions just enough to permit a force of Germans to break through, advancing as far as an American observation post. Ronningen, asleep in a potato cellar, awoke to the sound of someone trying to break through the door. "One fellow mounted a grenade launcher and a grenade on his M-1 and positioned himself immediately below the door, ready to fire if they got it open," Ronningen said. "He would have killed or injured the enemy, but the explosion probably would have killed us too. For some reason, the men outside gave up trying to open the door and we lived to fight another day."
At daylight, the Americans fought back, at times in hand-to-hand combat, and killed or captured the entire German platoon. The enemy retreated and regrouped as if tightening the tension on a loaded spring. They sprang another attack at 10 a.m. The German force of almost 800 drove a wedge 100 yards deep and 400 yards wide into the heart of Hofen, and about 100 Germans seized four stone houses. Again, the Americans fought back. Lieutenant Stanley Llewellyn and the five men from his squad were serving as forward observers. Occupying a three-story building in the heart of Hofen, the observers found themselves surrounded soon after the Germans attacked before 5:30 a.m. Llewellyn realized that if he were to lose that lookout, the Americans would lose their biggest advantage. He had to hold the position or risk losing the whole battle. As the Germans closed in, Llewellyn ordered artillery down on his own position. The men held their positions even in the face of fire from German automatic weapons. And they kept calling for artillery fire against the attacking Germans, even as the observers knew that the shelling would be right on top of their position. The lieutenant's report of the incident said: "Shells hit on and near the observation post blowing gaping holes in the roof and sides of the building, showering plaster, bricks and shrapnel on the men as they stayed at their posts and returned the small arms fire taking a high toll from the attackers, keeping the observation post from being taken."
12th Volksgrenadier troops strip boots and other equipment from the bodies of three dead U.S. soldiers at the crossroads at Honsfeld, west of Losheimergraben
Butler decided that was the time to call on the rifle platoon he had kept in reserve. As American artillery continued to pound away, anti-tank crews turned their heavy guns on the stone houses as well. The artillery, anti-tank, and mortar barrage was not enough to destroy the houses or force a German retreat, but the heavy fire provided cover for the reserve unit. The rifle platoon sealed the area against new German infiltrations, and Butler ordered the platoon to move in for a grenade attack. Meanwhile, the same platoon kept up the pressure with its rifles, taking down the Germans one by one with well placed shots through unobstructed windows. The Americans followed up with their grenades. In less than two hours, the Americans were able to overrun the buildings and take twenty-five German prisoners. Inside the stone houses, U.S. soldiers found the gruesome remains of about seventy-five Germans who had been shredded by anti-tank fire. Only after the shooting stopped did Butler realize that the American lines collapsed as units fell back on either side of the 3rd Battalion. "We were sticking out like a finger there," Butler said. Isolated and running low on ammunition, the resourcefulness of a platoon leader saved the day when he brought up a truck load of ammunition scrounged from an abandoned German ammo dump. "We stopped the tail end of that push with guns and ammunition taken off the German dead," Butler said.
After three days, the Germans' heavy assault on Hofen ended. From December 19 to December 24, the battle was reduced to a cat-and-mouse game in which the Germans would send out a raiding patrol and the Americans would force them back with mortar fire. "The battalion prepared for another full scale attack against the position but none developed," Fabianich said. Hitler's Ardennes offensive had failed. Hofen held. The Americans stopped the Germans in their snowy tracks at the mouth of the gap, where the leaders of the German army surveyed the chunk of forest separating their homeland from Belgium and France, figured it was the surest route to those neighboring countries, and found visions of conquest irresistible. Because the Battle of the Bulge was a series of small battles like Hofen, individual units failed at the time to see the significance of the overall battle and failed to see it as a signature moment of the history of World War II. In time, the men who saved Hofen came to know the big picture and to see their contribution with humility. As company commander Fabianich concluded, "It is reasonable to expect that the heroic defense of Hofen was insignificant when one considers the weight of the German counter-offensive but the men of the 3rd Battalion consider it the acme of their contributions to the winning of World War II." The 101st Airborne's hanging on at Bastogne, the massacre at Malmedy, the heroic stand at Lanzerath by the eighteen men of an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon; those became the lead stories from the Battle of the Bulge. The battle marked Germany's final, desperate kick before ultimate defeat. "[I]f we hadn't held, the 99th and 2nd Infantry divisions would have been outflanked and surrounded," Butler concluded. Only after six weeks of war along the border would the men who fought there come to understand that the battle was the last gasp of an army Hitler expected to fight to the last bullet. After the Bulge, American victory was only a matter of time.
Conclusion: The Mind of a Winner
Despite the outcome, at least some of the men on the front line felt that the senior officers had let them down in important ways and put them at risk by supplying only a feeble safety net. From the perspective of the dogface who stuck his nose in the middle of the action, the men of the 99th Division went to the front with tension in the ranks, with too little equipment, and with faulty intelligence. They found themselves dumped off in the woods under the most severe conditions, spread too thin over rough territory, and cut off from communication with command and other units. The result was a front line twenty-one miles long with big gaps between American positions. Once surprised by the German assault, the troops who were new to the front had to fight by common sense and instinct - and with fearlessness that came from the gut, not from training. The bottom line was they won. But victory came at a high price. Outnumbered five to one, the soldiers of the 99th inflicted casualties in the ratio of eighteen to one. The division lost more than one in five men, including 465 killed and 2,524 evacuated with wounds, injuries, fatigue, or trench foot. German losses were enormous. In the northern sector of the Bulge, those losses included more than 4,000 deaths and the destruction of sixty tanks and big guns.
The men who held Hofen had kept it together through the sort of hell that saw the German enemies advance to within nine feet of the 3rd Battalion's position, the sort of hell created in a firefight so ferocious the retreating Germans could not take time to gather their dead and wounded. The battalion earned a distinguished-unit citation. But to the men who survived, there was no glory. "That was a tough winter in Hofen," Ed Trumble matter-of-factly. "We spent many, many nights together in snowy foxholes and trudged many a mile together on night patrols. We saw many friends wounded and others die." It was not sentiment that beat the Germans; quick thinking and swift response were the stuff of victory.
The 3rd Battalion was cut from the great citizen army envisioned by General George Marshall, army chief of staff. The soldiers were smart, borderline insubordinate, and scared. On the issue of fear, the army of World War II was progressive. It taught soldiers that there was no shame in fear. They could control it, and in time it would ease. A training manual instructed: "If you say you're not scared, you'll be a cocky fool. Don't let anyone tell you you're a coward if you admit being scared." If acceptance of fear redefined manhood, so did the celebration of sharp minds. About half of the men who filled the ranks of the 3rd Battalion's rifle companies were former trainees of the Army Specialized Training Program, college education for bright soldiers. They may have been replacements, but they were not second string. They were high-quality replacements who proved adaptable and resilient, exactly the qualities it took to hold Hofen. According to battalion commander Butler, "Those young men were in good shape physically as well as mentally - most of them were being trained to be engineers, so they were pretty sharp." At a critical phase of the war, the U.S. Army tapped a reserve of young, fit, and smart soldiers while most of the exhausted armies of Europe were settling for replacements that were too old, young, or frail to be effective.
Butler gave the men what they needed in a commander. He had time to prepare for the German offensive and he used the three-week grace period to construct shelters from the cold, establish strong points, reposition mortars, and strengthen communications. Butler called off the deadly mine-clearing mission. He rode the Hofen perimeter every day in his jeep. He exposed himself to sniper fire. He won over the men. He was one ninety-day wonder - a National Guard officer sent to three months of command school - who had absorbed the lessons in tactics at Fort Benning and Fort Leavenworth, and the men caught on to that, too. In Hofen, Butler ordered the battalion to fire on every German patrol. To some officers, resistance aimed at non-threatening patrol was at least a waste or at worst a means to give away vital American positions. The decision to engage every patrol proved advantageous. The small-arms fire scattered the patrols, caused confusion, and kept the Germans from gaining information of concrete value. Butler's best move may have been his decision to hold a rifle platoon in reserve. During the Germans' final attempt to take Hofen, Butler called on the fifty men of the reserve platoon at the critical time to block and destroy the enemy's penetrating force.
While it was true that smart soldiers might not respect authority, might question tactics, or might not love the army, it was also true that assigning a soldier without smarts and skills to combat was like sentencing him to death. On the front lines, quick reactions and quick minds were the difference makers. The 3rd Battalion put a bunch of smart soldiers on the front lines, and Butler, the able commander, took advantage. He practiced to a T what the army high command preached.
From his Washington office in 1943, Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, the man in charge of building the Army Ground Forces, launched the Army Specialized Training Program with these words: "Intelligent men who have been trained to think and who can apply scientific knowledge to the everyday problems in combat are urgently needed in the leadership of our combat units." From one foxhole to another in the Ardennes, came a rallying cry of sorts in the form of a wise-crack, succinct and simple, that made Trumble and his buddies laugh out loud: "A bitching soldier is a happy soldier. Aren't we happy, Trumble" The distance was not as far as it seemed between the carefully chosen words of the general and the wisecrack of a dogface curled up in the mud. Both offered advice on how to build an army to win, on how to create an adaptable fighting force that held the line at Hofen against the odds.
About the AuthorRob Dean is a newspaper editor in Santa Fe, N.M. He is on track to earn a master of arts in military history from Norwich University in Vermont in June 2008. His primary interests are civil-military relations and World War II. He earned a B.A. in journalism and history-political science at the University of Montana.
. Robert E. Humphrey, "The Story of Lou Pedrotti is Shared with Readers," Checkerboard, http://www.99div.com (accessed May 1, 2006).
. Samuel Lombardo, O'er the Land of the Free (Shippensburg, Pa.: Beidel, 2000), 79.
. U.S. Army, Office of the Chief of Staff, Press Office, "Army Cuts Specialized Training Program," George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, General Materials, Lexington, Va.: George C. Marshall Research Library (February 18, 1944). Marshall memo on break up of ASTP.
. Samuel A. Stouffer and others, The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1949), 196; ; and Richard Bessel, Nazism and War (New York: Modern Library, 2004), 35-89.
. Lombardo, O'er the Land of the Free, 76-77; and Robert Crist, e-mail message to author, June 9, 2006.
. Ed Trumble, letter to Dale D. Dean, 1995.
. Keith P. Fabianich, "Operations of the 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry, 99th Infantry Division, prior to and during the German Counter-Offensive, 10 November - 24 December 1944 (Ardennes Campaign)," (Fort Benning, Ga.: Advanced Infantry Officers Class no. 1, U.S. Army Infantry School, 1948), 13-15.
. Stouffer, The American Soldier, 196.
. Ibid., 102.
. Charles P. Biggio, "Summary of the U.S. Army's ASTP - 1942-44," Checkerboard (January 1, 2006); and Peter R. Mansoor, The GI Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945 (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 38.
. Robert E. Humphrey, "The 99th Trains For War," Checkerboard (January 21, 2004), http://www.99div.com (accessed May 1, 2006).
. Lombardo, O'er the Land of the Free, 78.
. Fabianich, "Operations of the 3rd Battalion," 8.
. Bill Bradford, interview by author, June 16, 2005.
. Gerald F. Linderman, The World Within War: America's Combat Experience in World War II, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 204.
. McClernand Butler, interview by Matthew Cappellini, Military History, Weider History Group, June 1996.
. Charles J. Canella, "Defense of Small Towns and Villages by Infantry: The Defense of Boos, France, by a 'Groupe France', 7-8 June 1940; Defense of Schmidt, Germany, by the 3rd Battalion, 112th Infantry, 28th Division, 3-4 November 1944; Defense of Hofen, Germany, by the 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry, 99th Division, 10 November-18 December 1944; Defense of Butzdorf and Tettingen, Germany, by the 1st Battalion, 376th Infantry, 94th Division, 14-18 January 1945," (Fort Benning, Ga.: Advanced Infantry Officers Class no. 2, U.S. Army Infantry School, 1949), 41-43.
. Ibid., 42.
. U.S. Army, 99th Infantry Division, "The German Breakthrough (16 Dec 44-16 Jan 45)," Combat Reports, in 99th Infantry Division: The Bulge, edited by Thomas F. Pike, Pike Military Research reports (Washington, D.C.: Office of Adjutant General, declassified 1946), 5-6.
. Ibid., 13.
. Ibid., 13.
. Ibid., 3-4.
. Thor Ronningen, "Thor's War: Memoirs of a World War II Infantryman," Checkerboard, http://www.99div.com (accessed May 1, 2006).
. Robert Crist, e-mail message to author, June 8, 2006.
. U.S. Army, 99th Infantry Division, "Intelligence Notes on the Breakthrough (16-28 December 1944)," Combat Reports, in 99th Infantry Division: The Bulge, edited by Thomas F. Pike, Pike Military Research reports (Washington, D.C.: Office of Adjutant General, declassified 1946), 3.
. Charles B. MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge (New York: Perennial, 1985), 179.
. Ibid., 179-180.
. Canella, "Defense of Small Towns," 43.
. Ibid., 44.
. U.S. Army, 99th Infantry Division, 3rd Battalion, 395th Infantry Regiment, "Man Breakthrough (16 Dec 44-16 Jan 45," Combat Reports, in 99th Infantry Division: The Bulge, edited by Thomas F. Pike, Pike Military Research reports (Washington, D.C.: Office of Adjutant General, declassified 1946), 2.
. Canella, "Defense of Small Towns," 44.
. Crist, e-mail, June 9, 2006.
. Fabianich, "Operations of the 3rd Battalion," 17.
. Fabianich, "Operations of the 3rd Battalion," 18.
. Fabianich, "Operations of the 3rd Battalion," 18.
. Ibid., 19.
. U.S. Army, 99th Infantry Division, "Excerpt from Report of Lt. Llewellyn on the Action of the Forward Observation Party," Combat Reports, in 99th Infantry Division: The Bulge, edited by Thomas F. Pike, Pike Military Research reports (Washington, D.C.: Office of Adjutant General, declassified 1946), 1-2.
. Fabianich, "Operations of the 3rd Battalion," 20.
. Fabianich, "Operations of the 3rd Battalion," 21.
. Walter E. Lauer, Battle Babies: The Story of the 99th Infantry Division in World War II (Nashville, Tenn.: Battery Press, 1985).
. Stouffer, The American Soldier, 196.
. Fabianich, "Operations of the 3rd Battalion," 22.
. Essential Facts about the Army Specialized Training Program, Records of the Army Specialized Training Division, Office of the Director of Military Training, National Archives and Records Administration II, Modern Military Reference Branch, College Park, Maryland (1943), 2.
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Bradford, Bill. Interview by author, June 16, 2005.
Butler, McClernand. Interview by Matthew Cappellini, Military History. Weider History Group, June 1996.
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Crist, Robert. E-mail message to author. June 8, 2006.
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