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Combat Interviews, Battle of Hurtgen Forest

The Fight for the Hürtgen Forest

COMBAT INTERVIEWS

BATTLE OF HURTGEN FOREST

16 November - 3 December 1944

Battalion Aid Men, 1st Bn, 22d Inf., 4th Division 

Interviews with:

Lt. George Kozmetsky, Asst. Surgeon, 1st Bn.

T/3 Harry I. Fingerroth, 1st Bn. Aid Station

T/5 Joseph J. Thomas, aid man with B Co.

T/5 Wade H. Carpenter, aid man with B Co.

Vic. Gostingen, Germany, 20 December 1944
Interviewer: Capt. K. W. Hechler, 2d Info & Hist Sv. (VIII Corps)

The work of the aid men during the battle of Hurtgen Forest, and the operation of the battalion aid station, presented many difficulties, according to Lt. George Kozmetsky, Assistant Battalion Surgeon. The tangled and felled trees made vehicular traffic often impossible and hand carrying parties with litters advanced with difficulty.

Late in the afternoon of 16 November, when the companies had dug in on their objectives for the days, part of the medical detachment went forward to the foot of a steep slope to facilitate the evacuation of the wounded. A forward aid station was established at the foot of the slope, at (007389). White tapes were put up to the forward elements; walking wounded were directed to follow the white marking taps or the telephone wires down the hill side to the forward aid station. Casualties were taken by jeep from the point (0063825) to the point (005381), whence they were taken by ambulance to the collecting station at Zweifall.

There was little time to dig in at the forward aid station, which received the overs on mortar and artillery shells. Litter teams, including three from the collecting company to augment the regular number, worked during the evening, night and early morning evacuating casualties, the greater portion of which were sustained from shell fire.

On 17 November, after the jump-off, the task of the aid men


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increased in difficulty; the litter haul was 1000 yards in length, under constant fire, and evacuation was made from an area where there were many booby traps and mines. The shelling increased in intensity; Major Drake, the battalion commander, was killed and Capt. Neil Elzey, the battalion surgeon was wounded. It was not easy for the aid men to work -not only because of the heavy casualties but because of the nervous strain of the constant pounding.

For example, Pfc. Raymond L. Gill, a litter-bearer working with A Company, had been "an absolutely fearless man" up to 17 November, according to Lt. Kozmetsky. Yet on that day he cracked. He had gone out and been the leading man on infantry patrols, had become so attached to his company that he slept and ate with the A Company riflemen. On the 17th, he had carried out two men on his back and made his way back to the aid station when the shelling started getting more heavy. "They're killing my boys, they're killing my boys," he kept repeating. Finally he tried to get a hold of a gun to overcome the feeling of helplessness at inability to fight back against those who were "killing my boy," and had to be evacuated for combat exhaustion.

On 18 November, the aid station was moved about 100 yards south closer to the 2d Bn, where better protection was proved. During the period of the campaign, and especially during the early stages, some of the more serious casualties were not even tagged at the forward aid station, but were rushed back to other aid stations or to the rear for treat men. This was necessary in order to administer treatment under better conditions, and also to clear the battle area more quickly. This resulted in reducing the number of casualties listed on the 1st Bn.'s medical records,

The job of evacuating casualties was complicated somewhat on 19 November when one jeep was hit by a shell and the brakes went bad


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on a second. Both jeeps were returned within two days, however.

From the 20-22 November, the litter-bearers had a 2 ½-hour haul to evacuate each litter casualty, across steep, rocky slopes and the north-south stream. Conditions were improved somewhat on 24 November, when the battalion aid station was set up in a former German dugout 600 Yards beyond the bridge at (021384) which the Germans had been trying to knock out over since the engineers had constructed it. During these days, and the days following, evacuation was not as serious a problem because jeeps could be brought up to within several hundred yards of the front lines and the litter haul was rarely over 300 yard.

When C Company made its initial attack on the woods west of Grosshau, Pfc. William A. Reed, in charge of a litter team working with C Company, was badly injured by a piece of shrapnel which penetrated his helmet. He insisted he was not hurt, and made two additional 1000-yard litter hauls after having been hit, including the evacuation of Lt. Nathaniel K. Hellman, a C Company platoon leader. Only then was it discovered that Pfc. Reed had made the two litter hauls while suffering from a fractured skull. The hauls were made from points north of the Grosshau road back to the aid station at (036385).

After B Co. had cleared the woods west of Grosshau, it was possible to bring jeeps up for casualties as far as (040381) during the day, and after dark it was possible to jeep up as far as (043384). After the town of Groashauhad been taken, the forward aid station was moved up to a house at (055383).

On 26 November, T/5 Earl D. Bishop, aid man working with C Company, accompanied the company into the woods and during the attack Bishop took cover with a wounded man in a foxhole. He slept there for the night, but awoke in the morning to discover


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that his position was surrounded by enemy. He gave himself up and was put to work caring for American wounded. Shortly after he started to work, Bishop was ordered to assist a German medic in the evacuation of American wounded. He assisted in carrying five wounded men back the to American lines, from a point 10 feet from the inside of the woods, while both sides withheld their fire.

In crossing the open ground prior to attacking the woods east of Kleinhau, the 1st battalion suffered many casualties. To find them, a systematic combing of the open ground had to be made, under intense fire. After the companies had entered the woods, the litter haul was ever more difficult. Again, it was a 2 ½ -hour haul across open ground and back to the battalion aid station.

SOURCE: National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 407, Records of the U.S. Army Adjutant General's Office, World War II Records, Combat Interviews, 4th Infantry Division, Hürtgen Forest, Box 24021.


COMBAT INTERVIEWS

HURTGEN FOREST-Replacements and Non-Battle Casualties, 1st Bn., 22d Inf., 4Div

Interviews with:

Capt. Jennings Frye, S-1, 1st Battalion

Lt. George Kozmetsky, Asst. Surgeon, 1st Bn.

T/3 Harry I. Fingerroth, 1st Bn. Aid Station

Vic. Gostingen, Luxembourg, 20 December 1944; Interviews by Capt. K.W. Hechler, 2d Info & Hist Sv. (VIII Corps)

Replacement conditions were at their worst during the Hurtgen operation. It had been the custom to send up replacements to a company which had been pulled back into a reserve areas, but with all companies either committed or under intense artillery fire there was no such thing as a "quiet company" where the new men could be absorbed and acclimated in proper fashion. Large numbers had to be sent almost directly up to the fighting front-line troops.

The quality of the replacements received was better than average, according to Capt. Frye. However, very few had had previous combat experience. Some 25% of the men were reclassified cooks, clerks, drivers and others who had not seen line experience, while many had not served in the army over five or six month and had simply completed basic training and a little beyond; several had left the states as late as Hallowe'en and were fighting within three weeks.

Upon receiving a call from regimental services company, either the battalion S-1 or sergeant major proceeded to regiment where they assigned the men to companies. Efforts were made to keep men together in companies where they so requested, if possible. The men were sent in trucks from the regimental service company to the regimental CP, whence they walked to the battalion CP. At the battalion CP, where the company clerks stayed during combat, the sergeant major and the company clerks


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interviewed the men for the posts they could best fill on basis of their training or experience. A roster of the men and their qualifications was then sent forward with the men to the companies. 15 men in a group were walked to the battalion CP; from there five went to each company with a company guide. The replacements were ordered to dig in at the battalion CP, and did not go forward until the artillery had quieted down. The groups were kept down to five per company to avoid being wiped out by a few shells, to facilitate their more rapid assignment and absorption into the company, and to enable them to get into other men's foxholes if they did not have time to dig in. Generally, they were sent forward early enough in the day to give them time to dig in before dark.

Officer replacements were briefed on the tactical situation by the battalion executive officer at the battalion CP, given pointers on the general way the battalion was accustomed to operate during combat, and informed of the past record of the battalion and its standards of performance. The battalion commander then made the final assignment of the officers.

If a company was at fairly high strength of close to 100, the replacements assigned to that company were sometimes kept behind the front lines for a day or two and assigned to tasks such as assisting carrying parties to carry supplies, collecting dead, carrying litters, and odd jobs which would give them a little battle inoculation.

Of the non-battle casualties of the 1st Bn. (which constituted 17% of the total casualties), 9% were combat exhaustion, 4% trenchfoot, and 5% miscellaneous other diseases. There were 28 cases of trenchfoot in the 1st battalion, and 63 cases of combat exhaustion. The rain and sleet encountered throughout the forest campaign, the constant dampness and cold with which the men had to contend, their inability to dig deep and


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comfortable entrenchments because of the rocky rooted soil and almost constant (though slow) forward movement, the tendency to throw away overshoes which became heavy with mud, and lack of opportunity ever to get thoroughly dry all contributed to the trenchfoot cases. The combat exhaustion cases were not unusually high, according to Capt. Frye. A possible reason advanced by both Capt. Frye and Lt. Kozmetsky was that, with the high number of casualties suffered among the veterans in the battalion, the percentage of replacements was unusually high; newer replacements did not seem to be as subject to combat exhaustion as were the older men, many of whom had been on the verge of cracking in previous campaigns. The constant pounding suffered by the older men served to condition some and weaken others, but the latter seemed to be a more general rule.

It is unfortunate that figures do not exist on the relative number of combat exhaustion cases which occurred in reserve platoons or reserve companies which were subjected to the greatest volume of a artillery and mortar fire. Most of the men in the rifle companies agreed that it is far more trying on the nerves to sit motionless and try to get protection against artillery and mortar fire than it is to move forward in assault and be able to fire at where the enemy is known to be.

"The forest up there was a helluva eerie place to fight," said T/5 George Morgan (whose T/O position was armorer-artificer, but whose main duty was collecting bodies. "Show me a man who went through the battle of Hurtgen Forest and who says he never had a feeling of fear and I'll show you a liar. You can't get all of the dead because you can't find them, and they stay there to remind guys advancing to what might hit them. You can't get protection. You can't see. You can't get fields of fire. The trees are slashed like a scythe by artillery. Everything is tangled. You can scarcely walk. Everybody


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is cold and wet, and the mixture of cold rain and sleet keeps fal1ing. Then they jump off again and soon there is only a haldfu1 of the old men left."

Confronting these conditions, it is a wonder that the combat exhaustion figures were not higher, according to Lt. Kozmetsky. However, the number and good caliber of the replacements probably kept the percentage from being higher, in the opinion of Capt. Frye.

 

SOURCE:  National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 407, Records of the U.S. Army Adjutant General's Office, World War II Unit Records, 4th Infantry Division Combat Interviews, Hürtgen Forest, Box 20021.