On a bitter cold night a group of thirty American soldiers huddled together near the crest of a hill in an open field overlooking the Our River Valley in Belgium. They were the battered, bloodied and beaten remnants of several elements of the 3rd Bn., 424th Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division. It was the 10th day of the German Army's gigantic all-out counter offensive in the Ardennes Mountains on the German – Belgium border. History records it as the Battle of the Bulge.
Our division was one of three spread over an 80 mile wide front facing the German Siegfried Line – an area normally covered by six to eight Divisions. Before dawn on 16 December 1944 the Germans launched the attack across our front with 38 Divisions.
Surrounded, cut off and almost out of ammunition we had been forced to leave the defensive positions we had held outside St.Vith, a vital communications center critical to the German advance toward Antwerp. As darkness approached I left our assembly area with thirty-nine men and headed West with only a compass azimuth to our next assembly area. Hopefully it would be behind friendly lines when we got there. During the last ten days of confusion and chaos we were never sure just where friend or foe was located. We seemed to have been fighting in all directions. Fortunately our group had three German prisoners from the parachute regiment that had us surrounded. Two of the POWs carried the third on a makeshift litter. We offered them freedom if they got us through the enemy lines in the forest to the West. They were happy to oblige. The alternative was not very appealing, since both sides had stopped taking prisoners.
For hours we struggled through knee deep snow drifts, forest tangles and over the hills of the Ardennes Mountains. About midnight we staggered to a halt, all totally exhausted after ten days of little slip, frequent change of position, almost constant shelling and less than one meal a day. The last I remembered eating was two half rotten potatoes and two half rotten apples found in a cellar two days ago. Most of the trek had been in silence except for the gasping for icy air that scorched our throats and lungs. But now there were grumbles about quitting, giving up, surrendering!? "At least we'd get something to eat," some were saying. "We can get out of this miserable cold," said others. "At least we won't get shot at any more."
About that time my buddy next to me said, "What are you mumbling about, Sgt. Mac?"
Suddenly I realized I had been talking to myself out loud. "Oh, I'm just repeating some lines from a poem my Dad taught me as a boy…. If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are done and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says hold on."
There's more to it, but that is what I was thinking. "What's the rest of it," he and a couple other asked.
"The poem is "IF" by Rudyard Kipling. Remembering it has helped me get through a lot of "stuff" in the army." This is what I recited from memory…
"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not by tired by wainting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet Triumph and Disaster
And treatthose two impostors just the same;
If you can hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watched the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and buld'em up with worn out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your lose;
If you can forceyou heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which soy to them "Hold On!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep you virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' woth of distance run,
Yours is the earth and everything that's in it,
And which is more - you'll be a Man, My Son.
I choked when I finished. There was total silence. Then I heard a sob. Slowly I struggled to my feet using my rifle as a cane., thankful that I had not flopped down on my belly or back because I would never have been able to get up. With as much resolve as I could muster, I announced, "I am going on. You can follow me, or stay and give up. It's up to you".
I knew deep down that it was useless to order, beg, threaten or cajole the men into moving. The will had to come from inside each one. Twelve others struggled to their feet, leaving about eight or nine on the hill. The balance of the original thirty-nine had dropped out along the way. We never saw any of them again.
We staggered on slipping, sliding and falling down the mountain to the valley floor, too spent to talk or even curse. A few committed the unpardonable sin for a soldier – abandoning his weapon and equipment. Just before dawn we were challenged by a dug-in and camouflaged American outpost on the edge of a woods. "What's the password?" "We don't know. We've been cut off for ten days."
"Like hell – you Kraut bastards aren't going to pull that one on us again!' And with that they called in a heavy mortar barrage right on top of us. We were totally exposed and helpless. "Get out of here,"
I screamed and made a dash past the outpost and into the woods behind. Four others made it. Where the energy came from I'll never know. As we plunged deeper into the woods we came to a small road. "Which way do we go, Sgt. Mac?" they all babbled.
I couldn't think. I was in a state of shock at hearing their voices. I thought back to the remark from the outpost about 'Krauts pulling something on them.' Then I recalled an earlier encounter at a crossroads where German soldiers in American Military Police uniforms snarled up traffic in all directions, then fired a flare high in the air calling in a devastating enemy artillery barrage. It was Operation Greif in action. (Small groups of English speaking German soldiers in American uniforms, specially trained to infiltrate American lines to sabotage, disrupt communications, create confusion, provide intelligence and assassinate high ranking officers.) Then I looked at the four men with me: Pfc Poiteau – French accent, Pfc Pelogrino – Italian accent, Pfc DiSilvia – Mexican accent, and Cpl Haensler – German born and raised. "Listen to me, you guys! You've all got accents, so for Christ's' Sake keep your mouths shut and let me do the talking when we meet any GIs!"
All replied, "OK Sgt., Mac. We'll keep quiet."
With that we headed up the road through the woods hoping to run into friendly troops. Just as it was getting light enough to see a hundred feet or so we spotted a group of GIs coming down the road towards us. Soon we could see their helmets; the leader had a big white cross on the front of his – a Chaplain; the others had big round white circles with red crosses on the side – Medics. . . all non-combatants and unarmed. "We're safe, we're safe!" my four men began babbling, again.
With that the chaplain drew his trench knife and thrust it into my belly screaming, "You dirty rotten butchers! I'm going to kill all of you!" Somehow, I managed to get out, "For God's Sake, Chaplain, give us a chance to prove who we are. We've been cut off for days. We don't know where we are or what is going on. I beg you to give us a chance."
Something got through to him. He withdrew the knife and ordered the medics to disarm and escort us under guard to the assembly area. They turned us over to the Officer in Charge who turned out to be Captain Lee Berwick, S3, 3rd Bn., 424th Infantry. He looked at me and said, "I know Sgt Barrick. He worked for me in the States. As a matter of fact I recommended him for OCS (Officer Candidate School). Glad to see you made it, Sgt. Take your men and get some dry clothes, food and rest. You all look like you could stand some."
Then he added wryly, "Merry Christmas." Unbeknownst to us, we had come through on Christmas Eve. We had lost all concept of time and place so completely were we absorbed in stopping the enemy staying alive during the chaos and confusion of the raging battle for days and night that seemed like months.
Suddenly, we noticed the chaplain slumped down in the corner of the room sobbing uncontrollably. "What have I done? What have I done?" he muttered as the enormity of what he had contemplated struck him – A Man of God.
The next day I heard at the Medical Aid Station that he had been escorted to the rear, a battle casualty, apparently suffering a mental breakdown or Battle Fatigue as it is known clinically.
As we left the HQ to get dry clothes and some much needed food and rest, the Medic Sergeant told me that the chaplain and litter team had been out all night picking up wounded. He had come across four GIs with their hands tied behind their backs and then the four tied together back-to-back.
A Kraut had put a hand grenade on their bound hands and pulled the pin. They were slaughtered like animals. The Chaplain had good reason the be mad as hell, to witness such a barbarous act, especially on Christmas Eve. I have felt sorry for him all these years wondering if he recovered from the trauma.
|Thomas "Mac" BARRICK Colonel US, retired|
424th Infantry Regiment
106th Infantry Division
Battle of the Bulge Belgium