The Indian Heads, and Friends, in the Twin Villages – 18 December 1944 Part I

1bfcf759c85f08513e0aed39d280b062

ADN-ZB/Archiv II.Weltkrieg 1939-45 An der Front im belgisch-luxemburgischen Raum w‰hrend der Ardennenoffensive, Ende Dezember 1944. Auf einem Sch¸tzenpanzerwagen erwarten Kriegsfreiwillige einer Kampfgruppe der faschistischen deutschen Werhrmacht den Einsatzbefehl. (Gˆttert)

Over the next thirty-six hours, a chaotic, hellish free-for-all within the villages. In the remains of what had been two quaint farm towns, the Germans found themselves enmeshed in a bitter block-to-block struggle that approximated urban combat. By and large, their attacks were violent but uncoordinated. They threw men and machines into the villages haphazardly, where they engaged in close-range death matches with their American adversaries.

To be sure, the conditions and terrain made it difficult for the German attackers to retain any semblance of organization. Most of the roads that went through Krinkelt and Rocherath were not paved. Vehicles, snow, and mud turned them into pulpy quagmires for the tanks of both sides. Houses were built from sturdy masonry. When artillery and tank shells hit these structures, roof shingles, bricks, and stones emptied rubble into the narrow streets, creating impromptu roadblocks. Some houses were intact, albeit with jagged holes in their roofs or walls where shells had penetrated the masonry. The presence of farm animals added to the chaos. Many were trapped in burning barns. Sometimes, the Germans, in an attempt to cover their assaults, herded animals into the streets. In the memory of one American, “cows lay dead all over the roads.” Another soldier, from the 99th Division—many retreating stragglers from this outfit fought alongside their Indian Head comrades in the villages—never forgot the sight of “flickering flames illuminating a pen of abandoned bleating sheep. I was struck by the biblical innocence of the sheep and the violence of war.”

The most prominent landmark in the twin villages was the battered Krinkelt church, located within the confluence of several roads. With a spire that towered over the landscape, the imposing stone church attracted artillery observers and vehicles alike. Truly, the fighting represented the full fury of industrial-age ground combat, but in a small-town setting. Tanks and tank destroyers yielded a bloody harvest. Yet, all too often the deadliest weapon in this environment was men with bazookas in their hands.

Using houses and rubble for cover, bazooka teams roamed this ruptured landscape, taking on tanks like modern-day duelists. Private Daniel Franklin, a rifleman in the 38th Infantry, was near the house that served as his company’s command post when he heard that enemy tanks had overrun an adjacent platoon. Two of his buddies turned to him and asked if he had ever been close to a Tiger tank. In World War II, American soldiers tended to refer to every German tank as a “Tiger.” In fact, bona fide Mark VI Tigers were fairly rare (a fortunate circumstance for the Allied war effort). More commonly, the GIs faced Mark IV medium tanks and Mark V Panthers. The surviving accounts of Krinkelt and Rocherath claim encounters with all three models, most notably plenty of Tigers. Franklin and the other two soldiers saw the enemy tank—which they believed was a Tiger—unleash a shell that tore through the attic of the command post. “We went around the building with a bazooka and hit the tank dead center in the rear.” Nor were they the only ones in their unit to do so. “Lt. Bloomfield . . . and Sgt. Frank Little of N.C. [North Carolina] knocked out 2 tanks. They [the tanks] were all over us. Platoons were mixed. Radio operators were carrying bazookas. Lt. Richard Blankennagel . . . kept his platoon busy killing the Germans getting out of the tanks.”

A couple blocks away, in another house, Private First Class Kenneth Myers’s ears were assaulted by the overpowering explosions of enemy tank shells slamming into the building. “Bazooka men of all kinds moved to the windows and doors, firing right into the tanks of the enemy.” Amid the racket, he could hear the screams of “soldiers and buddies with a half an arm or leg torn off, yelling for medics.” Some were lying outside, in fields or along the roads. Some had been mercilessly crushed by the enemy tanks but were somehow alive “with half of their body left.” Myers saw two German machine gunners and shot them to death.

Elsewhere, Private Hugh Burger, the man in I Company, 23rd Infantry, who had killed an enemy soldier by stabbing him to death in the Krinkelter Wald, was now standing next to the second-floor window of a house, manning a machine gun with his buddy Private First Class Willie Hagan. They watched as an enemy tank cautiously rolled forward. The two made for an odd but synergistic pair—the sort of impromptu team that infantry combat often produces. Hagan was an irreverent career soldier in his thirties. To the eighteen-year-old, Bible-reading Burger, Hagan seemed impossibly old to be in combat. Hagan was on the gun and Burger was his loader.

All at once, a shell from a U.S. tank destroyer pierced the armor of the German tank, setting it afire. In the next moment, five German soldiers came into view alongside the burning tank. As their sergeant paused to give orders, Hagan opened fire. “I thought he would surely burn the barrel up before he stopped firing, but not a Kraut got up,” Burger later wrote. Hagan turned to Burger and, in an almost clinical tone, said: “I got every one of the sonofabitches.” They had also alerted any other Germans in the vicinity to their presence, so they decided to displace to the ground floor of the house. This was a smart tactic for any machine-gun team in this environment and, in this case, it probably saved their lives. “We were making our way down when a tank fired into the wall knocking it out, upsetting our machine gun and showering us with chips of bricks.” This was the only shot, though, and they made it downstairs.

Later, the tank pulled into the house’s backyard and sat there, its engine idling menacingly. The crew inside was probably searching for targets. Hagan and Burger found a bazooka and some ammunition. The sight for the bazooka was gone but the weapon still worked. Hagan loaded. Burger snapped off a shot. “The projectile hit the ground and skipped over the tank.” Having missed so badly, Private First Class Burger felt like running away. His confidence was down. He was terrified of the tank’s retaliation. Before he could run, though, Hagan tapped him on the shoulder, indicating he had loaded another round into the bazooka. In that nanosecond, Burger’s attitude changed. Instead of panicking, he forgot his natural fear because of Hagan’s quiet, unspoken determination. If Hagan could keep fighting, then so can I, Burger figured. It was a classic example of the unspoken strength that infantry soldiers drew from one another under the most harrowing of circumstances. Burger aimed, fired, and scored a direct hit. “Hot metal sprayed like a cutting torch.” Filled with the exhilaration that often overtook men in the immediate aftermath of such an impersonal kill, Hagan jumped up and roared: “You got him! You knocked hell out of the sonofabitch!”

This exhilaration soon gave way to horror. A hatch opened on the burning tank and a badly wounded crewman jumped out, collapsed, and lay writhing in the street. One of his hands was blown off and his face looked “like fresh ground meat.” Hagan and Burger carried him into the house, put him on a cot, and tried to help him. The man was delirious and terrified. He kept screaming at the top of his lungs. Neither of the Americans spoke any German. For all they knew, the man was calling to his comrades to come get him. The wounded crewman simply would not shut up. What had started out as a mission of mercy turned into yet another moment of self-preservation. “He will bring every Kraut here in town in here on us,” Hagan said. “If I stop that noise, you won’t ever tell, will you, Burger?” The eighteen-year-old promised he would not. Hagan killed the man (in later years, Burger could not bring himself to say how his friend carried out the grisly business). In the shattered house, Burger hung his head to pray. The two men never spoke of this incident again. But, for Burger, the close-quarters killing brought back haunting memories of his own experience in the forest, when he had stabbed a young German to death. “Shooting a man from a distance is different [from] using a knife. I washed my hands over and over but I could still smell his blood.”

A few blocks away from Burger, Sergeant John Savard, a Minnesotan, was also playing a cat-and-mouse game with the German tanks. He stepped out the door of one house and “found myself looking almost down the gun barrel of a Mark IV tank. I dived back inside and down the cellar as part of the building exploded. A bazooka team knocked out the tank and we killed the crew as they emerged.”

In the attic of another house, Staff Sergeant Merrill Huntzinger, a machine-gun squad leader, was fighting as a rifleman alongside one of his section leaders, a man named Eddie. The two men were spread out on either side of the attic. Both had a panoramic view of the streets that led to the house. About fifty yards away, they saw dozens of German soldiers, augmented by a tank, apparently waiting to attack. Sergeant Huntzinger heard the tank engine start up. “Then the tank hatch opened. Someone stood up, took a quick look around, threw out an empty . . . shell casing, and I popped him. Then I opened up on crew members who were outside the tank.” Huntzinger ran over to Eddie’s position and saw him “dropping Germans left and right.” The sergeant was worried that the Germans now knew their position and suggested they vacate the attic. “The hell with ’em,” Eddie replied, “keep killing the bastards.” Staff Sergeant Huntzinger could have ordered Eddie to leave but, like Private First Class Burger in the other house, he was emboldened by his partner.

No sooner did this thought flash through Huntzinger’s mind than a tank shell hit the roof of the attic, close to Eddie’s perch. The explosion staggered Huntzinger, making him feel “like my head was the size of a pumpkin. My ears were ringing, my head was thumping, my forehead and face felt like it had been sandblasted.” The attic was enveloped in thick dusty smoke. Eddie lay unconscious. As Staff Sergeant Huntzinger tried to revive him, another shell exploded, knocking the sergeant down, giving him a bloody nose. With an act of sheer will, he picked himself up and rushed to the window he had manned a moment earlier. “Germans were kneeling outside our building directly beneath me.” He aimed his rifle and fired. “It was like shooting fish in a barrel.” This rifle fire, in addition to a well-placed grenade, prevented the German soldiers from assaulting Huntzinger’s shattered house. A moment later, he heard a massive explosion as an American tank destroyer scored a direct hit on the German tank, setting it afire. By now, Eddie was barely conscious and moaning that he could not see. “He was seeping blood from several spots on his face and fluid was seeping from his eyeballs.” Sergeant Huntzinger got Eddie out of the attic, to the medics, but Eddie’s sight was gone forever.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply