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"The first snow came.
How beautiful it was,
Falling so silently
All day long, all night long,
On roofs of the living,
On graves of dead."

John Greenleaf Whittier

XII

Winter in Northern Alsace

The passing of the old year marked the end of the relaxation and the end of our relief. New Years Day found the Seventh Army situation growing critical. Repeated crossings of the Rhine near Strasbourg by German patrols foreshadowed a larger bridgehead to come. Closer yet, the enemy was counterattacking in the Bitche area, and his alarming successes began to fill the news broadcasts. Following the truths came the fiction and with the fiction came the alarm. Powerful tank thrusts, air invasions, mass crossings of the Rhine, were reports confirmed for us by two disheartening facts: Headquarters, Seventh Army was pulling out of Saverne and moving to the rear, and more striking, the 141st Infantry was going back into the lines. plate13.gif (17569 bytes)
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At 0900, on the first day of 1945, we were placed on a three hour alert. Kitchens were loaded, ammunition set to roll, and early in the afternoon the order came for movement to Waldhambach, a little town too close to Bitche for comfort. The 3rd Battalion moved first, passed through Sarrebourg and reached the area of Montbronn just after dark. Because of the hurried commitment to stop the increasing enemy counterattacks, the entire route was a jam of trucks, tanks and artillery. For long stretches of icy roads convoys moved two abreast. Sarrebourg was a center of snarled traffic and confusion. Everyone who was moving back seemed unusually anxious to keep moving, and yet we were headed to meet what ever was the cause of this anxiety. Many of the bridges that we crossed were already covered with heavy charges to be ignited if and when the mounting counteroffensive got out of hand. It was not a very happy New Year.

The first mad night of the new assignment, which turned out to be that of assisting the 100th Division, was probably the worst of that particular mission. Little information, other than magnified rumors, ever reached the first to move in. The 3rd Battalion effected their relief on a wooded ridgeline overlooking Lemberg, a tiny hot-spot northeast of Montbronn. The 2nd Battalion moved into a defensive position in the vicinity of Goetzenbruck and St. Louis and the 1st Battalion outposted Montbronn where our Regimental Headquarters vied for the space of the 100th Division Command Post. By midnight the 141st Combat Team had closed into its new area . . . and into its old activity.

Those first days in the Bitche area were for many the worst of the war. The fact that the Germans were really on the offensive was fully substantiated. Snow lay deep on the hard frozen ground, and the ominous, non-directional sounds of armor echoed through the splintered woods and hollows. Dawn found the situation critical in many sectors. Probably hardest hit of all was surrounded I Company which had been ordered to hold a protruding portion of the Lemberg ridge. Our mission, we learned, was to protect the weak right flank of the 100th Division with whom we had no contact, and to stem an attack that had the impetus of a three day start. Even who we were fighting was a matter of doubt, for the treacherous Krauts were found to be using American tanks as well as dressing in American and British uniforms.

When three or four machine pistols are powdering the snow around your neck and 88's are chopping firewood overhead, you aren't too greatly concerned about such a general thing as straightening out a defense line, but that was actually our job. It was like trying to straighten five miles of twisted rail after a train wreck. Along our line there were gaps to be filled, isolated squads and platoons to save, tanks to be met, and terrorizing reports to be checked and dismissed as fables, or met with hurried strength if found to be true. It was evident that Jerry had his mind made up to go someplace, and though we might change his mind at noon, there was nothing to assure us that nightfall wouldn't find him with the same idea. As if this wasn't enough, we were now fighting in a section of France where many of its people were sympathetic with the Nazis. In one instance a wholesale plot to sabotage our defensive positions and routes of communication was uncovered. Curfews were set and strictly enforced. We could trust no one. The most haggard refugee might well be an enemy agent slipped through to scout our positions. In one case of deception a familiar artillery observation plane with unidentifiable markings flew over our lines for two straight days, and shellings, too accurate for coincidence, followed after each flight. Because of the necessary counterintelligence precautions, and because several different outfits, including some French, were represented in our sector, signs and countersigns became an important part of the operation.

By noon of the second day we were pretty well aware of what was up; and the prospects for heavy fighting were much too good. Company I, just north of Lemberg, had one platoon completely cut off, and enemy armor and infantry had worked into the area of a second. Further south around Goetzenbruck, attacks were coming from all directions. Our own tanks pulled back, leaving G Company to hold the neighboring village of Sarriensburg, while just to the south and west of these towns, F Company had gone into Meisenthal and was set up for expected attacks from the woods to the east. Also unneglected was E Company, the farthest unit of the 2nd Battalion to the north, which was receiving almost constant trouble from infiltrating Germans.

Company I, with one platoon of L Company, continued to hold, and the 1st Battalion, despite warm reception, had moved up between Inchenberg and Lemberg to a hill abreast of them. It was here that the leading squad of Company B, expecting to relieve elements of the 399th Infantry, found Germans occupying the dug-in positions. They were pinned down less than 50 yards from the enemy. When one or two hopeful Krauts stood up and beckoned them to surrender, the squad attacked and took over the emplacements.

Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion had turned the tables on the aggressive enemy with an attack east from the towns of Goetzenbruck and Sarriensburg. So unexpected was this uprising in the face of their offensive, the Germans became completely disorganized for a time and were never able to renew their attack in this sector. During this thrust, which regained several key points surrounding the towns, our Cannon Company rolled their M-7 persuaders within 100 yards of German forward positions and literally blasted them from the earth. There wasn't even so much as an enemy patrol around Goetzenbruck for four days following the encounter.

By the third day the line was slowly and painfully beginning to straighten, but in order to save our positions — and without too much imagination, probably Sarrebourg as well — a platoon had to be moved here, then there to meet the numerous threats, a small herd of Germans had to be cleaned out from behind the lines, and the abundant artillery had to be placed quickly and accurately. The Germans continued to pound at Lemberg. Two battalions were identified in front of our 2nd Battalion. Mouterhouse was the reported assembly area of armor. Yet with all these alarming indications the offensive subsided and reverted to the old familiar, "stagnant warfare".

Our total time in this area was just over three weeks, but practically all our casualties were suffered in the first four days of bitter defense.

Toward the middle of the month we were relieved by the 142nd Infantry, and instead of training we hacked away at the frozen earth preparing defensive positions just behind the active line — just in case. This done we resumed our place in the defense.

 

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