My Dad's War

My Dad's War

Nancy A. Neff, daughter of William S. "Bill" NEFF, G Company, 23rd Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division

 

My father’s name is William S. Neff.  He was 21 years old when he fought in Belgium in the autumn and winter of 1944 to 1945.

            This last summer I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Belgium and see the places where my Dad fought in the Battle of the Bulge, as the Americans call the Battle of the Ardennes. 

            The original plan was for my father also to come on the trip, but he fell in April and did not entirely recover: we waited too long to plan his return to Belgium.  In preparing for the trip, and afterwards as I continue to read about the battle and about combat soldiers in World War II, I have asked questions and heard more from my Dad about his experiences. This is the story of what I have learned from him and what I saw on my trip. 

 

            I am very proud of my Dad—I think that will come through as I tell his story.  He himself, however, has been almost dismissive about his service, saying that “we were just a bunch of guys with a job to do”.  When I was growing up, he didn’t talk about the war, although I knew he frequently had horrible nightmares.  It was only after I had been an adult for years, and had read some about the war, that he started to tell me about his experiences. Even now he minimizes what he went through: much of what I’ve learned about the worst parts has come only from his answers to direct questions that arise from my reading or even, based on my reading about the details of combat, just conclusions that I can draw from what he has still not talked about.

 

            First I want to tell you some stories that date from before the Battle of the Ardennes, so you will know my Dad a little.

            He wanted to enlist in the US Navy, but knew that he would be turned down because of his bad eyesight, so he sat in the waiting room at the enlistment office and had other men each memorize a line of the eye-chart for him.  After he had the entire chart memorized, he put his glasses in his pocket, went in to the exam, and confidently “read” the eye-chart.  The doctor was quiet a minute, then asked him to do it again, and my Dad recited the eye-chart again.  Then the doctor told him “Wherever you have your glasses, get them out, put them on, and don’t ever try a stunt like this again.”  The doctor had flipped the chart to another page.

 

            So my Dad went into the US Army. He had a moment’s hope when the doctors in the medical exam exclaimed over how flat his feet were, but no—he was going into the Infantry.  In basic training, during maneuvers, he fell, damaged one knee badly and broke his foot.  He was in the hospital when his unit left without him and he had to go through basic training again to complete it.  The second time he had some additional duties, including teaching some of the less educated recruits to read.  One of the memories that always makes my Dad emotional is that of several students who worked particularly hard and thanked my Dad for taking the time and interest in them:  they made my Dad feel he was really making a difference in someone’s life.

            Another story from basic training also says something about my Dad’s personality, plus his sense of humor since this is one story he tells proudly.  He doesn’t remember now what he had said or done, but the sergeant called him out of ranks to reprimand him.  After a thorough tongue lashing, the sergeant yelled at him “If bullshit was music, Neff, you’d be a brass band!  NOW GET BACK IN RANKS!”  He says he had a terrible struggle not to laugh.

 

            My Dad scored very high on the Army’s equivalent of an IQ test, so he was given the choice (and had to decide within minutes) between officers candidate school or a college program, the Army Special Training Program, where soldiers were being trained to be engineers and other technical specialists, all with officer rank.  He chose to go into the college program, and spent six months studying engineering at the University of Connecticut.  However in 1944, after the Normandy invasion, the program was closed and all the participants were sent into the General Infantry as privates. My Dad says that they were so angry that all the Army had to do was point them in the right direction—at the Germans—and let them go!

            Back in the Infantry, he was selected in September 1944 for the honor of being one of four American soldiers forming a special guard for Winston Churchill as he returned from a trip to the United States to England on the S.S. Queen Mary.  He was alone with Churchill for hours at times, but a silent guard of course.  The ship was escorted by warships and aircraft, and went at top speed: the entire crossing was made in just 4½ days.

           

            When I saw my Dad’s medals and insignia, I noticed that one of them was a series of small bars and was told they are for marksmanship.  During training, he reached the level of “Expert Marksman” (the highest rank) with the rifle (M-1 Garand), 60 mm mortar, BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), 30-caliber light machine gun, and carbine. When he was sent overseas, he had been assigned to the mortar, a role which he did not like because the mortars were heavy, the mortar rounds were heavy, and the men firing them were favorite targets for the Germans.  However, this assignment was to change:  when his unit was landing at Normandy in October 1944, the box holding all the men’s records was dropped over the side into the sea.  As the records were being reconstructed, the men were asked what their assignments were, and my Dad answered “rifleman”.  It still wasn’t a safe assignment, of course, but it was better than carrying and firing a mortar.

 

            The group of soldiers he was with was taken through France to St.-Vith, which was then a replacement depot for men coming in to replace casualties on the front lines.  My Dad joined the 2nd Infantry Division, the “Indian Head Division”, which had already seen a lot of action, 23rd Regiment, Company G.  During my trip to Belgium, C.R.I.B.A.’s representatives, Denise Oger and Anne Marie Noël-Simon, took me to a couple of monuments honoring the 2nd Division, in St.-Vith and in Krinkelt. The one in St.-Vith is particularly handsome—a smooth square column with the Indian Head badge engraved on it.

 

 

Fighting in Belgium in the late fall of 1944 was cold and wet.  It was a constant struggle to get dry, to keep the foxholes from filling with water, and to stay warm.  One of my Dad’s stories is about a time he was digging a slit trench under mortar fire. He had propped his backpack up on the edge of the trench as some limited protection from the mortar shells landing nearby. While he was digging, a mortar shell came in directly at him. He threw himself down in the trench just as the shell landed on the other side of the pack, throwing dirt over him and destroying his pack. The shell was close enough that he sat up and reached over to pick up a still-hot piece of the shell, but what he seems to remember with most regret was that the destruction of his pack included the destruction of his spare socks, and that it was weeks before he got dry socks again.

            The lack of dry socks was indeed a serious problem: one of the major causes of non-combat casualties in Europe in 1944-45 was trench foot, caused by ones feet being cold and wet for days and weeks at a time. My father was taken out of the front lines and hospitalized with trench foot in November 1944.  The treatment is to dry out and gradually warm the feet—watching to see if they turn pink, in which case the soldier went back to active duty, or black, in which case toes or even the entire foot would be amputated.  In my Dad’s case, after a couple of weeks, his feet turned pink.  He was released from the hospital and sent off by himself, told to find his unit and rejoin them at the front, showing the trust the US Army had in the faithfulness of their citizen-soldiers.

 

            In the fall of 1944, the 2nd Division fought their way into Germany, up to the Siegfried Line.  Anne Marie and Denise took me to see the Siegfried Line as it is today—massive, dark, moss-covered pyramids of concrete in rows in the darkness of a forest, or disintegrating lumps along the edge of a field. They are eerie and quiet. My father found the photos I showed him very strange, because he remembered the rows of sharp-edged white “dragons’ teeth”, with cleared land extending for a distance on either side, a dangerous and exposed place. Much has changed since he was at the Siegfried Line nearly 70 years ago.

My Dad’s unit stayed a few nights in Heckusheid, Germany, then he was billeted intermittently for several weeks in Hemmeres, moving back and forth every few days between Hemmeres and the front a few miles to the east. I was able to visit Hemmeres and also nearby where the front lines had been. 

            One of C.R.I.B.A.’s contacts is an American, an ex-Marine living in Germany, named Doug Mitchell, who is particularly interested in the history of the 106th Infantry Division, which replaced the 2nd Division in that area in December.  Because it was a “man-for-man” replacement, the locations of my Dad’s unit would have been the same as the corresponding unit in the 106th.  Therefore Doug was able to take us along the roads over which my Dad marched from his billet in Hemmeres to the front lines, and even to the patch of woods in which my Dad’s company, G Company, was dug in.  Foxholes, although now shallow, are still visible in the woods.  One of the photos I took was looking out of the woods to the east from one of the foxholes.  When he saw that photo, my Dad said that it was exactly how it had looked to a rifleman in his foxhole. 

           

            Hemmeres is still a very small village, with no more than twenty houses along a single road winding from the river and border with Belgium, towards the east into Germany.  When we were there, Doug, Denise, Anne Marie, and I walked the length of the village, taking photos and videos along the way.  Later when he was looking at the photos, my Dad recognized the house in which he had been billeted. It is opposite a long L-shaped building that he says housed many soldiers, and was where the food left over from the soldiers’ meals was distributed to the villagers.  My father remembered that one of the women living in the house where he was staying was named Suzanne; Doug’s wife’s great-aunt Sanni was that woman!  Behind the house in the fields the US Army had heavy artillery positioned, which fired regularly throughout the day and night, shaking the house.

 

            After the 106th US Infantry Division replaced the 2nd in Germany, most of the 2nd ID went north to mount an attack on the Roer Dams in Germany, northeast of Monschau. The Americans went up the road north out of Krinkelt-Rocherath to the Wahlersheid crossroads, on the border, where they met the Germans. The fighting at the Wahlersheid crossroads was rough, lasting for several days. The Americans had just taken the crossroads and were starting to advance into Germany, when the Germans began their attack into the Ardennes.  The beginning of the von Rundstedt offensive on 16 December 1944 was a massive artillery barrage lasting for over an hour. My Dad has described the intense noise, literally deafening, and I had thought I understood what he was saying, from experiencing fireworks for example.  However there is a room in the museum Baugnez ’44 that simulates what it was like in one of the artillery attacks—it is unimaginable and would have been terrifying with shells coming in as well.

            In the northern Ardennes, the 1st SS Panzer Corps attacked with the 3rd Parachute Division, the 12th and 277th Volks-Grenadier Divisions, and the 1st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions. The objective of the 277th Volks-Grenadier and 12th SS Panzer Division was the small twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath. It became critical for the Americans to hold the villages long enough for the 99th US Infantry Division, and then the 2nd ID, to get back to Elsenborn ridge where they could dig into a strong defensive position. Holding Krinkelt-Rocherath against the Germans fell to the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division, plus several rifle platoons from the 2nd Battalion, including my father’s platoon.

            The fighting in Krinkelt-Rocherath was fierce house-to-house fighting, confused and disorganized. Casualty rates were high—my Dad’s platoon lost over half its men in just three days of fighting. (American casualty rates over the entire war in Europe were high, up to 252% for the 4th Infantry Division.  My father’s division, the 2nd, had a loss of 184%) Neither side was taking prisoners. Ammunition ran low, and it was impossible to get more as the fighting raged on.  In my Dad’s squad, they came down to just a handful of rounds, which they divided evenly among themselves, giving my father the remainder because of his marksmanship skills. These bare facts are as much as my Dad will say about the fighting there, but photographs from the time show the destruction of the twin villages, from shelling but also from the tank rounds. Even the church was so badly damaged that, after the war, it was torn down and rebuilt. When I visited the villages, the only trace of the war left was a mobile water tank being used at a construction site, and the monuments to the 2nd and 99thUS Infantry Divisions.

The strategic importance of the 2nd Infantry Division’s stand in Krinkelt-Rocherath is emphasized by a quote from a letter from General Courtney Hodges (commander of the First United States Army) to General Walter M. Robertson (commander of the 2nd Infantry Division):  “What the 2nd Infantry Division has done in the last four days will live forever in the history of the United States Army.” [1]  My Dad was only one of several hundred men fighting there, but those men held the towns long enough for the 99th and the 2nd Infantry Divisions to dig in on Elsenborn Ridge.

 

            From everything I have read about the Battle of the Bulge, I have concluded that the Americans’ stand on Elsenborn Ridge was of great importance, perhaps deciding not only the outcome of the Battle but perhaps the outcome of the entire war in Europe. The goal of the Germans was to cut through to Antwerp, dividing the Allies, with the English to the north and the Americans to the south. Hitler expected that the English would be willing to agree to peace to prevent the invasion of England, and then at that point, he thought, the Americans would sign a peace treaty as well. This would have left the Germans in control of Belgium and with nothing stopping them from retaking France. The sequence of maps I saw in The Battle of the Ardennes Museum in La Roche en Ardennes shows the progression of German troops into Belgium, around to the south of Elsenborn Ridge. However, by being forced to take a more southerly route, the German advance was slowed and they began to run low on fuel and supplies. They never reached the Meuse, much less Antwerp.

Of eight US Army Divisions from the European Theater recommended by General Eisenhower for citations after the war, the 2nd Infantry Division was one, for their stand on Elsenborn Ridge. Two quotes from the commanding general of the 5th Panzer Army (General der Panzertruppe), Baron Hasso von Manteuffel, attest to the importance of the northern shoulder of the Bulge [2]:

 

The Battle of the ‘Bulge’ was not fought solely in Bastogne. Here in the northern sector of the Ardennes, elements of tragedy, heroism and self-sacrifice exerted a great influence upon the result of German intentions.

 

A second quote from General Manteuffel, about why the Germans lost the Battle of the Ardennes, is dramatically more succinct:

 

We failed because our right flank near Monschau ran its head against a wall.

My Dad was part of that wall.

 

            One of the high points of my trip to Belgium was visiting Camp d’Elsenborn. Anne Marie had arranged for Regimental Sergeant-Major Fery to take us through the museum at the Camp, and then out onto the artillery range to Elsenborn Ridge. The museum is fascinating and very well done, with much material on the history of the Camp as well as on the Battle of the Bulge. Even more exciting for me was to go out onto Elsenborn Ridge itself, and see the American foxholes still visible, although shallow now that their roofs have fallen in. We then went down to the foot of the ridge and into the forest where a sign-posted walk, the Hasselpath, winds among the German foxholes.  Metal fragments from shells and other debris continue to come up through the soil, 69 years after the fighting. It is very sobering to see the scars on the land still visible, and to think of all those young men on both sides who were wounded and killed there.

 

Attention in most books is paid disproportionately to the last two weeks of December, during which the Germans advanced into Belgium, almost to the Meuse.  However, intense fighting continued after the Germans were stopped, through January as the Americans pushed the Germans back, out of Belgium and back behind the Siegfried Line [3]:

 

That month was a horror for American troops. In January, 1945, the US Army suffered more battle casualties—over 39,000—than in any other month in the fight for northwest Europe. [4]

 

A veteran, Paul Fussell, notes the reason and quotes another veteran about the fighting:

 

Because it was cleaning up an unforgivable mess instead of taking new territory and destroying new opposition, the details were not so well publicized. But the ruinous old horrors were still going on. Of the fighting in this month, an infantryman says, “People didn’t crumple and fall like they did in the Hollywood movies. They were tossed in the air and their blood splattered everywhere. And a lot of people found themselves covered in the blood and flesh of their friends, and that’s a pretty tough thing for anybody to handle,” especially a teenage boy replacement who once thought himself safe in the ASTP [the Army Specialized Training Program that my father was in].” [5]

 

            The harsh weather also continued through January—my Dad’s hands and feet are still cold all the time because of the circulatory damage from frostbite. In their foxholes they would lie curled into a ball with their hands in their armpits to keep their hands from freezing.

 

Fussell explains:

As General Bradley himself confessed, “When the rains came in November with a blast of wintry air, our troops were ill-prepared for winter-time campaigning.” In September, expecting the war to end before freezing weather, Bradley “had deliberately by-passed shipments of winter clothing in favor of ammunition and gasoline.” The result was the incapacitation of about 45,000 combat troops,… [5]

 

            In the dark of the pine forests, the cracking of the trees in the extreme cold sounded like rifle shots. My father says the dark at times was absolute: when there was no moon he literally could not see his hand before his face. When he was in far forward positions, they could often hear the Germans talking just yards away, and when there had been a little light in the night, the next morning would find footprints of German patrols among their foxholes. One night in a foxhole, another soldier was so frightened that he continually wanted to hold on to my father and kept talking, making too much noise. My father finally got the man to be quiet and sit back-to-back with him so my father could have his rifle at the ready while still reassuring the other soldier.

 

            There was frequently a struggle to find enough to eat because of the difficulty the Army had in supplying the troops at the front. My Dad went without food several times, for the longest time three days in the cold and the fighting.

 

            During the fiercest fighting, the Graves Registration Corps would be days behind the front lines. I asked my father about the bodies and he said that they would collect the American dead and lay them in empty foxholes as the fighting moved on. I have read about the terrible way men died in the shelling, from grenades, and from mines, but I have been reluctant to ask my father directly about that, for fear of triggering his nightmares.  It is false to think of war as glorious, given the way men died:

 

The damage that weapons could inflict on the human body was varied and sometimes spectacular. Veterans remembered—and sometimes dreamed of, years after the war—bodies literally torn to pieces, of intestines hung on trees like Christmas festoons.” [6]

            The closest my Dad will get to talking about these horrors is to acknowledge that the majority of casualties he saw were from shell fragments, which would have ripped bodies to shreds.

 

            Every two to three weeks, a soldier would get leave to go to the rear, to get a shower and some rest. My Dad got leave to go to St.-Vith while Marlene Dietrich was there with the USO, and he had to decide between seeing her versus sleeping on a cot with real sheets and a blanket, in the quiet away from the shelling. He was so very tired from the fighting that he chose to sleep, but to this day he is wistful that he lost the chance to see Marlene Dietrich.

 

            In addition to Krinkelt-Rocherath and Elsenborn Ridge, an area I wanted to see was identified in the U.S. Army’s after-action reports as “Crossroads 68”.  It took some time to track down, but I found out that this was the crossroads of Rue du Werhe and Voie des Allemands in Thirimont, southeast of Malmedy. Near these crossroads, a battalion of the 30th Division had been trying for several days to take a farmhouse from a group of SS soldiers and officers. My father’s company, G Company, was diverted to aid that battalion. In the fighting on 15 January 1945 for that farmhouse, my father was shot by an SS officer from a second-story window. The fighting was actually described in some detail in the After-Action Reports of the 23rd Infantry Regiment:

 

Meanwhile, G Company moved to the right and prepared to take Crossroads 68, which had withstood repeated attacks for two days from a battalion of the 30th Division.  When one platoon became pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire, Captain John M. Stephens, Jr., commanding Company G, moved two tanks supporting his company forward to within 100 yards of the Crossroads.  While they acted as a base of fire, he moved two rifle platoons up from the northwest in a flanking movement, then assaulted the area with both tanks pouring a heavy volume of fire into the three houses in the area.

The action was a complete success and the Crossroads was secured by shortly before noon.  A total of 37 prisoners were taken and at least half that many Germans were killed.

 

            My father was in one of the two rifle platoons. Capt. Stephens had them spread out in a line across the field. While giving orders to the tanks into a radio in one hand, and holding a pistol in the other hand, he led the riflemen in an old-fashioned charge across the snow-covered field.  My Dad was shot by the SS officer as they were taking the farmhouse at the end of the charge. The force of the shot spun him around, flinging him into the snow with his good arm pinned underneath him and his heavy pack on top of him. The SS officer then pulled the pin from a grenade and tossed the grenade into the snow next to my Dad. Unable to get up, he curled up, trying to get his helmet between his head and the grenade, but after a moment my father realized that it had been a little while and he started counting… The grenade was a dud.

 

            Anne Marie did a wonderful job of sleuthing, and tracked down the farmhouse where all this took place. We talked with the family who lives there now, the son and grandchildren of the family that lived there during the war.  The son was born after the war, but his older sister, who had been a girl of sixteen in 1944, still lived nearby.  Marie Lecoque welcomed us and spent the afternoon describing what the war had been like for her and her family.

 

            My father’s wound was bad enough to take him out of the fighting:  the bullet entered his right arm near his shoulder, traveled down the length of the bone, shattering it, and lodged in his elbow. The wound didn’t bleed much on the outside and that, together with all the gear and clothing, led the medic to not believe at first that he was hit.  The internal damage was severe, however, and his hand soon filled with blood so that his swollen fingers looked like dark, thick sausages. In spite of the damage, he still shepherded some prisoners back across the fields and helped with the interrogation before going off to the aid station. He was soon sent to a field hospital, then a hospital in Liège where he stayed for a week or so, then a hospital in England where he stayed for several weeks.  He was in hospitals in Europe and in the US for several months total. When I was growing up, I knew he had been shot, but didn’t know until I was an adult that he had had pain in his arm and a crushing sensation in his right hand ever since the war—he never complained or even mentioned it. I found out about the pain in his arm and hand accidentally, years after leaving home. It has only been in the last few years that belated physical therapy reduced the pain dramatically and enabled him to stretch out his arm straight. However, one of the books I have been reading emphasized that, once in combat, the only end to the fighting for the infantryman was an end to the war, which was still far off, or being wounded, captured, or killed—despite the severity of his wound, my father was lucky.

 

            Another thing I did not know about until recently, and that I learned of only by accident, is that my Dad was awarded a Bronze star.

 

He also received the Combat Infantryman Badge, the design of which I saw engraved on the memorial at Camp d’Elsenborn to represent the Americans who fought there. On my trip to Belgium I received two more items for my Dad to commemorate his service—a Certificate of Appreciation from C.R.I.B.A., and a plaque from Camp d’Elsenborn. I framed the Certificate and both are hanging on the wall of his apartment in Ohio. He was very moved at receiving them, and still shakes his head in amazement that people would be expressing gratitude for what he did, as one of so many men, so many decades ago.

 

[1]  Quoted in Robertson, Walter M., 1946.  The Combat History of the Second Infantry Division in World War II.  Department of the U.S. Army.

 

[2]  Quoted in Cavanagh, William C. C., 1985.  Krinkelt-Rocherath: The Battle for the Twin Villages.  Christopher Publishing House.

 

[3]  Cole, Hugh M., 1965.  The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge. Department of the U.S. Army, Military History.

 

[4]  Miller, Donald L. and Henry Steele Commager, 2001. The Story of World War II. Simon and Schuster.

 

[5]  Fussell, Paul, 2003. The Boys’ Crusade: the American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945. Random House, Inc.

 

[6]  Cowdrey, Albert E., 1994. Fighting for Life: American Military Medicine in World War II.  Simon and Schuster.