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Forging the Vosges

According to the operational maps, progress was unbearably slow during our first few weeks in the Vosges. Yet our tired, blistering feet and aching backs told us another story. For every precious mile that we advanced, countless miles were hiked on foot up and down the circuitous mountain trails. They were wearisome marches with heavy equipment through the dense forests and crag-covered mountains. Even when the enemy was not immediately to our front, there were always the Schu mines and the tree bursts. Casualties mounted. Platoon Sergeants and Squad Leaders appeared to be marked men and Privates rose to Sergeants almost overnight as they filled their places. The group of replacements that had come to us at Remiremont disappeared rapidly and our resources became low. We were weary and tired. Morale was ebbing. One topic hung on our lips: "When are we going to get a rest?" was the question in everyone's mind. Latrine rumor visited every foxhole and helped to sustain our morale with its optimistic reports on our long awaited relief. We carried mental calendars around with us and marked off our consecutive days of combat since the Riviera landings: 65, 66, 67 … wouldn't be long now. Still we fought on. Rumors persisted, but the relief never came.

Around Tendon, where the 3rd Battalion was attached to the 142nd Infantry, the enemy had laid down an almost impassable barrier of mine fields and well entrenched positions. Days of grueling fighting raged in this area as our casualties mounted from the dreaded tree bursts, mines and automatic small arms fire of a stubborn enemy that refused to budge. On the high forested ground northeast of St. Jean du Marche, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were equally occupied. The mines were the thickest and artillery the heaviest that had yet been encountered by us in France. Slowly the 1st and 2nd Battalions probed their way along the high ground towards Herpelmont, the 1st Battalion initially to the left of the 2nd. Stiff opposition was encountered by both units as the 1st Battalion was brought across the Houx-Herpelmont road in back of the 2nd Battalion and sent to the hill mass south of Herpelmont. Every inch of the way was difficult and heavy casualties were sustained as the men were seemingly getting nowhere. Yet gradually we advanced. On October 5th the 3rd Battalion was released from the 142nd Infantry. With three battalions in the attack, Herpelmont fell on the 8th, and we were half way to the Meurthe River. There seemed to be a plan to it after all. The long, arduous maneuvering marches up and down the circuitous mountain trails finally appeared to have had a purpose.

Then on October 23rd we went into the ForÍt Domaniale De Champ. The 1st Battalion went forward to take the high ridge and ground overlooking La Houssiere. Late that afternoon a strong enemy force worked its way in between the rifle companies and the battalion command post. That night a coded message from one of the rifle companies was radioed into Regimental Headquarters: "No rations, no water, no communications with Headquarters (battalion) ... four litter cases.," Vosges Area Map
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Up on top of the thickly wooded hill above La Houssiere 275 men were spread out in an area 300 to 350 yards, preparing positions. No one was making any noise. "We were quiet," a Red Battalion Squad Leader recounted afterwards "because the Germans were all around us. We were quiet because we were a 'Lost Battalion', and we didn't want Jerry to know it."

Soon all hell broke loose. Two full companies of Germans coming from all directions advanced on the 1st Battalion, the initial assault being followed by an immediate build-up. "Somehow we managed to beat them off'" recalled a replacement who had characteristically come into combat when the going was roughest. "You know what I kept thinking?" continued the rookie, "I kept thinking how wonderful it would be back on my farm in Kentucky, and that here was something that I could tell my two youngsters about when they grow up. Y'know something funny ... I wasn't scared ... honest I wasn't."

"But a lot of us were scared," remarked a medico who had come overseas with the outfit. "We old fellows knew what the score was. There's not much you can do when you're cut off like that, with only so much ammunition, with no water, no food. About all you can do is sweat it out."

Nevertheless, those of us who were isolated found lots of things to keep us occupied. "We pooled our rations," recounted an Able Company rifleman. "We collected everything from Coleman stoves to chewing gum. But our supplies didn't last long. Water soon became even more scarce than food. Fortunately we discovered a small pond near our area, but we couldn't get to it whenever we wanted to. You see, Jerry was using the same water hole." For some of us on the surrounded hill the days dragged and the nights never seemed to end. We dug our holes a little deeper and tried to improve our circular defense. Patrols were sent out to fight their way back to the rear; several never returned, none got through. Only one solitary workable radio remained in our possession. It was coddled and babied like a child, for it was our only unruptured communication artery. Coded messages were continually sent emphasizing the desperateness of our situation. Word was radioed back that help was on its way. We wondered when — or if — it would arrive.

Meanwhile those of us who had not met with the 1st Battalion's fate went out into the forested hills in an attempt to break through. We were joined by men from two battalions of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Americans of Japanese descent — brave, determined little men with slanting eyes who seemed almost anxious for a fight. "Man, they could fight!"' exclaimed a George Company wireman as his company was moving through the forest along their flank. "They didn't appear scared of anything; they just kept advancing' through the forest standing up and firing from the hip at anything that moved. They sure knew how to make our Tommy Gun talk!"

Determination and guts, however, were not enough. The Germans had a large force in well dug-in positions waiting for us. They had self-propelled guns firing into the trees from every direction and dense concentrations of mortar and artillery fire. If the shells didn't land in a particular patch of ground, that area was certain to be covered with impassable mine fields. Our first attempt to break through failed.

Those of us up on the hill overlooking La Houssiere tightened our belts and tried to carry on. We talked of countless things. "But food was our chief topic," said a Dog Company machine gunner. "We concocted in our minds fabulous dishes of T-Bone steaks, fried eggs and nice crisp bacon. Our wives' and mothers' favorite recipes were argued over. Once we spent a whole morning just talking about milk shakes ... thick and malty ones with double portions of ice cream." For five days those of us in the 1st Battalion starved. We tried to find food in the forest and to trap birds, but had very little luck. The shelling increased. Casualties mounted. Simple services were held for the dead and their graves jotted down for the GRO.*

Few of us talked about the casualties. We kept our thoughts to ourselves, wondering who would be next.

Over the radio coded messages continued to be sent, requests for medical supplies, rations, water and ammunition. Finally the artillery attempted to shoot supply filled shells to us. Their first efforts failed miserably. Then planes of the XII TAC were called upon. "To signal the planes we collected everything white we could find," explained a 1st Battalion wireman. "Linings from parkas and maps and even underwear were all stretched out in a long white strip. We bent the trunks of young trees and tied smoke grenades to them. Then when the planes came over we released the tree trunks and pulled the grenade pins, hoping that the smoke could be seen from above." The first air drops missed and the Germans enjoyed supplies intended for those of us on the hill. "We were just praying," remarked a Charlie Company Squad Leader. Finally on the afternoon of the fifth day the pilots and the artillerymen began to find their targets, and food, ammunition, medical supplies and radio batteries descended on us. The radio acknowledged their arrival. "Everything hitting on target ... tell the Artillery and Air Corps boys we love 'em!"

*Grave Registration Officer.

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