Battle of Grand-Halleux (1)

Battle of Grand-Halleux (1)

S/Sgt Wheatley T. CHRISTENSEN †

20-22 December 1944

Whenever I think about World War II, the Battle of the Bulge is always foremost in my mind. Not because of any great battles I was in, but I just can't seem to shake my memory of being there. After 50 plus years, I still have a vivid recollection of Petit-Halleux and the horrible weather. Why I remember this area so well, I cannot answer. Maybe this is the reason I decided to write this narrative.

To beginning this story I will have to revert back to December 16, 1944. At that time I was in England having recently been released from a hospital. Many of us 505 troopers who had been wounded in Holland had been evacuated to there. We were no back in our rear echelon area awaiting transportation back to our units. The 505 Parachute Infantry had recently been releived in Holland and was now in Suippes, France being held in army reserve. About this time there was news of a German break through, but nobody gave it any serious thought.

Sunday afternoon on the 17th, I had gone into town and was in my favorite pub when a 505 officer comes in and said all passes had been canceled. We were to report back to camp as we were pulling out that night. That evening about 50 of us, plus about the same amount of rear echelon service troops were taken down to Southampton and loaded on a L.C.T. and from there over to France.

The days of the 18th and 19th were spent in transit over or waiting for transportation. On the 20th we were trucked down to Suippes only to find the 505 Regiment had pulled out a couple of days before. None of us had any equipment, so the rest of the day and into the night was spent being resupplied with the little supplies available.

The next day, the 21st, we boarded trucks and headed for god knows where or what as nobody knew anything. Much later we finnally arrived at our destination. I reported in to Company G where I was a S/Sgt in charge of the 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon. There I was told we were in Petit-Halleux (Belgium) on the Salm River. The 505 Regiment was holding a defensive position along the river and "G" Company was given this sector. We were also charged with guarding or at least delaying the enemy at Grand-Halleux across the river. The deployment of the company was one platoon across the river in Grand-Halleux, also an outpost further up the hill. To the right of Petit-Halleux was the 2nd Platoon and to the left of the town on the C.P. side was the 3rd Platoon in company reserve.

The 2nd Squad of the platoon was across the Salm river with the 1st Platoon. On taking over my squad, I found them dug in about a couple of hundred yards west of and running parallel to the railroad. Further back up the hill was the mortar squad position and just a little to the north was a machine gun section from 3rd Battalion Headquarters Company. I don't remember if this section was attached to us, but it was a welcome addition. I don't remember who our company was tied into on the sides. The rest of the day and that night was relatively still. Plenty of big guns firing in the distance, but nothing close. One thing I did notice, which I thought strange, was the number of civilians that were still around. Usually when something was brewing they would be long gone. Looking back, what choice did they have? There were no safe places to go. If memory serve me right, in our sector December 22nd was also another quiet day. Big guns in the distance. During the night small arms fire could be heard not to far off. (Note this date is contrary to what Al Langdon writes in his book "READY").

23-25 December 1944

On December 23rd, you could feel your turn was coming. The firing last night was much closer and heavier. Another thing some of the civilians were now moving out. That evening, shortly after dark everything was quiet and then in comes a few small caliber mortar shells. These fall harmlessly in and do no damage, as everyone is dug in, but it tells me two things, first he knows our position and second he has sent his calling card. About this time I leave my hole to alert my men and remind them not to fire until I give the signal. We have troops across the river.

Earlier in the day, I had given them all the information I had on their location. Things again got quiet and then some heavy firing in the vicinity of where our outpost was. When you heard only the German weapons, you could surmise the outpost had been over run. The firing then started to pick up as Jerry started down the hill and ran into the platoon which was across the river. We still hadn't opened up yet, as I still don't know the location of the troops. The fighting about now is getting very intense and I still an holding our fire. About this time there is a tremenous explosion and I knew the bridge had been blown. The one who hadn't made it back across the river by now, probably wouldn't. About this time Jerry makes his second and maybe third fatal mistake of the evening. They must of been all crowded together and were screaming to the top of their lungs while charging down the hill. By all this yelling, we knew their exact location. Darn near as good as seeing them. This was our cue to open up. When we opened up, I think everything started firing at the same time. I had never seen anything before or after, that could equal such a concentrated wall of fire that we laid down on them that evening. There was fire coming from support groups I wasn't even aware we had. After awhile the firing stopped almost as quickly as it had started. At this time there was a hush that fell over the valley that was real eerie. There wasn't a sound from either side for a few moments. When the silence was broken you could hear rhem screaming in pain, begging for help, moaning, pleading, some I even remember cussing us in english. We must have massacred them. I can't believe Jerry would make such stupid mistakes as he has made tonight.

Over the years, I have given this a lot of thought and the only solution I have come up with was, he thought he was facing some green troops and this would scare them into breaking and running. Shortly after the fighting had stopped, I was given orders to move my squad out of my present position and set up a defensive line between the railroad track and the river, running parallel in between. I had the men dig in about 50 foot apart and I stayed in the center whit my assistant down on the far end. We hadn't much more than got dug in, when our artillery start shelling. Luckily this doesn't last too long as I am not too sure we aren't getting as much as Jerry. Anyway, things quieted down for the rest of the night. You can still hear them on the other side of the river tending to their wounded and carting them out. A lot of vehicles traffic also. In this present position, it feels you can darn near reach out and touch them. To make things more eerie, there is now a fog beginning to settle in. I can't see much, but sound sure travels. All night long I am thinking about this exposed position and the trouble we will be in come day light, but I am sure we will be pulled out before then. As things start to get a little lighter, I begin to get concerned.

The Jerries on the hill at Grand-Halleux are going to be looking right down our throast. If not picking us off, he could at least keep us pinned down. The fog is beginning to lift and I realize it is now or never. I send word, passing it down the line from man to man for them to stay down. I am going to try and break out and get help. My hope is Jerry will get caught napping. My luck runs out just about two thirds the way from where there is some cover. One guy opens up on me, but his aim is off and I am able to jump in a hole with one of my men who is dug in there. I stay here in this position as long as I dare and I try to make it the rest of the way. Either luck was with me or he was a bad shot because I made it to cover without getting hit. Alex Jones in the next hole sees me make it out, so he tries the same stunt. He doesn't go ten steps before he is hit and is down. I crawl back as close as my cover allows and call out to him. Gzetting no response, I do not know if he is alive or dead. About this time I look over to the railroad enbankment and I see one of our medics "Chris Perry" standing on top holding a Red Cross flag. One man starts firing at him, but his aim is off and the bullets kick up dust at Chris's feet. He stands perfectly still and the guy quits firing. Chris then walks down off the enbankment and over to Jonesie. He rolls him over and patches him up. He then precedes to get Jonesie to his feet and helps him off the field into the house where the platoon C.P. is.

I can't believe this. I have never seen a more heroic act. Incidently, I doubt if Chris even got a pat on the back for this act. Another thing I can't believe is the Germans letting him get away with it. I suppose we let them get their wounded out the night before, so maybe they were returning the favor. About this time I made it up to the C.P. Everything is in an uproar. Colonel Keyser, the battalion commander is on his way. He no more than comes in, when he sees and understandsmy predicament. He will call in some smoke. I was told to go back and alert the men what to expect and to get ready. I hadn't much more then gotten back when I could hear the shells coming. It was a perfect drop. You couldn't have painted a better one. Any way, that was the night of the 23rd and morning of the 24th "Christmas Eve". From the time the smoke shells landed and until the time it took the men to vacate their positions, I think it would have broke a record.

After the last ardeal, we moved back to our original positions. Nobody slept last evening, so most of them are catching a few winks. For some reason I am looking across the way toward Grand-Halleux, when here come a priest, or at least somebody in one's garb walking nonchalantly down the road. This I can't believe, so I get my binoculars out and sure enough that's what it is. I am following him with the glasses as he continues on, when all at once he stops, turns and I can see he is talking to someone directly in front of him. This conversation goes on for at least five minutes, he then precedes along his way. I have seen everything now. ever so often I look over there, but the person he was talking to is well camouflaged and can't be seen. All day, there has been a rumor circulating that we are pulling back that night. This I do not pay much attention to. Anyway, this one proves true. The company is to pull out very quietly at midnight so as not to alert Jerry and move to a new position. In fact the whole regiment is pulling back. It seems the whole front in our area is over extended. A short time later I get called down to the C.P. and am given some special instructions. After darh I am to move my squad back to the position we had just gotten out of this A.M.

Furthermore, when the company moves out at midnight, we are to stay until 5 o'clock the next morning, acting as the rear-guard for the company. I was also briefed on where we were to meet up the next day. On returning to my squad, I got them all together and explained everything I knew, putting special emphasis on where the company would be and how to get there in case we became seperated. That evening about 8 o'clock or so, we resumed our positions down by the river for what we knew was going to be a long night. On schedule at midnight you could hear the company pulling out. I imediately changed things around. One man I pulled out of line and placed on the street in front of the house where the platoon C.P. was. I didn't want any surprises coming from that direction. I moved out in back of the C.P. From here I thought I could control things better. I knew in my mind if we got hit down here that I would pull them back to our old positions. There I thought we could hold them off for awhile at least. Down here we wouldn't last five minutes.

The company had been gone only an hour or so when I started hearing heavy firing from the direction they would be traveling. From the sound of things, this did not sound like an isolated pocket of the enemy either. This went on for awhile and then finally faded out. There was also big guns firing, which seems from every direction. My position remained quiet though, until about 3:00 A.M. when one of my men came up and told me he had just heard Jerry crossing the river just below him. On further questioning, he said it was only a small group, so I knew it could only be a reconnaissance patrol. This is I knew wouldn't give us any trouble unless they turned around and came back into the town from the other end and found it empty. I knew Jerry would then move in and occupy it. I hoped they would wait until after daylight, as we would be long gone.

The rest of the night proved uneventful. Promptly at 5 A.M. we vacated our positions and started out. I had already briefed the men to stay well spread out and we would be moving at a brisk pace, also we would stay on the road. Up until now, I don't remember any snow, but the weather is getting colder. It must have rained or hailed some time during the night because the road in places was icey. Along this route I felt at anytime we would be ambushed, but we did not see one German. It was sure a welcome relief when I pulled into where the company was now dug in. I reported into my Company Commander, Captain Isaacs and the first thing he said when he saw me was: "I didn't expect to see you again".

The Germans, the battalion had encountered last night, he thought I would run into this morning. "Pleasent thought". In this new position, we were dug in on the forward slope of a high hill. One of the things that stands out in my mind were the Buzz Bombs. I had seen them before, but never this many or so low. At times it seems they are barely clearing the top of the hill. Around this time, my platoon sergeant and very good friend, Andy Piriak was killed. He and I went back a long way. Like myself, he was one of the original group. There are very few of us left in the 505 anymore. After Andy's death, I take over his job as Platoon Sergeant.

On January 3rd, 1945, we go over on the offensive. The weather by this time is horrible. Snow is knee deep and bitter cold. Things can best be descibed as a nightmare and best be forgotten. Daily we are suffering many casualties, mostly weather related. On January 11th, we were relieved and trucked to Theux, where we moved inside for a well earned rest. At this time we were down to less than 50 percent strength. In the past, we had a lost more men killed, but no other place took quite the toll as the Ardennes. Maybe that is the reason I remember it so well.