22 November, 2011

22 November 1944


438th AAA AW BN
APO 230 % Postmaster, N.Y.
22 November, 1944      1100
Hello Sweetheart –

Well I’m back again and ready for some more work. What with 2 letters to you – not Air Mail in the last 2 days and the V-mail, you’ll be short of mail for a short period, dear, but I’ll get going again tomorrow. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about – I’ve just returned from a 3-day pass in Belgium. It came as a surprise – and when the opportunity presented itself – I took it. It was a good change and I really relaxed – away from noise, etc.

Now I’m back and the work is really piled up for me. Therefore this short note, sweetheart, before I get started, because once I do – I’ll be busy all day. This may get out today. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and your Birthday, darling – and I’ll be missing you more than I can tell you. I love you dear and sure would like to be with you tomorrow – but enough of that –– for now. Will write more tomorrow

All my love


about PFC Bernard F. Hillenbrand

The following story was excerpted from an entry called "My Last Day in Combat" in the blog called The Hillenbrand Report, written and maintained by Bernie Hillenbrand, a Purple Heart combat infantry veteran who fought in the Battle of Aachen before entering the conflict in the Huertgen Forest.
My first day in infantry combat was off Omaha Beach, France well after D-Day. As an infantry replacement I was disembarking from the Belgian troopship Leopoldville. As I descended the rope ladder to our Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), my feet were inches above a Second Lieutenant. With no warning, a huge wave hit the landing craft and smashed it against the side of the ship crushing the officer to instant death. I was covered with his blood as in a desperate move I leaped into the LCI.

In my last battle I was an Infantry Rifleman and scout. My G Company of the 18th Regiment First Infantry Divison was advancing in the Huertgen Forest near the village of Eisweiler, Germany. It was November 22, 1944. There was about three inches of snow. My major job as a scout in an attack was to lead the squad and, frankly, to draw enemy fire to assess German defenses. At times my job also was to maintain contact with American units to the right and left to be sure that we did not tangle and fire on each other.

German Infantry Gun in Huertgen Forest
22 November 1944

The forest was still dense but under almost constant artillery fire from both sides. The German units had time to dig deep defenses as this area was part of the support system of the famed Siegfried Line. This was the great barrier designed to protect the German home front. The Germans were falling back upon their supply lines and we were moving farther away from ours. This put new strains upon our supplies of fuel and ammunition and all the necessities of war. Our morale was high. We were winning. German morale was low. They were now fighting for their survival.

My immediate concerns were to be an effective scout for my comrades to keep from getting killed. On that day we started at first light and were under constant artillery and motor fire. The greatest terror however was the presence of land mines, both the large ones designed to blow up tanks and the smaller ones designed to inflict terrible wounds. The favorite of the Germans was the “Jumping Mine”, made of wood and designed to leap a few feet into the air before it exploded. They inflicted wood fragments that were difficult to detect on X-rays and caused losses of arms and legs. Our greatest fear was the loss of manhood.

Profound fear was constant. Strangely enough the great antidote for fear for me was my sense of duty to be a good soldier and proud member of my Division. My life depended on my comrades and their lives depended upon me. This bond helps you keep your sanity. Another great factor for survival in infantry combat is profound fatigue. It becomes almost like a drug, deadening your senses to the extent that you can do terrible things with ease; things that would be impossible were you rested. “Kill or Be Killed” was posted everywhere in training camps but was not needed on the battle field.

We moved through the forest parallel to a narrow dirt road. We drew machine gun and mortar fire most of the day, losing many men. We also eliminated several fortified places took some prisoners and inflicted casualties. We suffered enormous casualties most of whom were brand new replacements. It seemed to me that this day would never end. Dark comes as a blessing to all infantry men. The forward motion comes to a halt. It is now time to dig a fox hole and cover it with wooded branches to afford some protection from the constant shelling.

Certain men become vital to your survival. They seem to know more about war than do you. They are leaders who you know have your best interest at heart. In war your salvation depends on obedience to orders. However, you have far more respect to a command when you admire the man who is giving it. My hero was Staff Sergeant Bodner. He was very private and I don’t even know his first name. We had come to the end of the winding forest road where it entered into a large open space. There was a bank about 12 feet high on one side of the road. Bodner asked me to help him lay two large anti-tank mines at the head of the road. The earth was frozen solid so we lay the mines on the surface and covered them with snow so that they would not be visible to approaching Panzers. The two of us then climbed to the top of the bank and together dug a shallow fox hole. Somehow we dug through the frozen ground and the roots of a tree. It was a terrible night. The artillery increased in intensity and the trees were cut down like wheat in the field. Our hole was down maybe three feet and we had a couple of limbs over the top.

The war finally caught up with Sergeant Bodner. At the height of one barrage he said he was going to cross over the road to the basement of a burned out barn. He was determined. I got on top of him and held him in our position until dawn. It was a struggle and Bodner started to break up. Somehow I kept him down but just at day light he won. He broke loose and jumped out and ran towards the barn. I opened a can of C ration and took one bite when I went black. I was unconscious. When I came to I was outside the fox hole and could see that it appeared to be a mortar hit. My first view was my left hand. It was swollen and looked more like a piece of meat than a hand. The snow was bright red and I realized that I had lost a lot of blood. I felt blood flowing from my shoulder and down my back.

It was obvious that the Germans had spotted our position and I had better move. I crawled back from the edge. There were more mortar rounds and continuous shelling. As I started back to the command post a replacement Lieutenant who I did not recognize took one look at me and asked it I could make it unaided to the aid station which he said had been established up the dirt road in the basement bottom of a burned out farm building. I told him I could. I started to move through the snow toward the road when another barrage started. There was a slight depression in the snow and I dove for it. Our runner Harry Kolasa stumbled in on top of me. At that instance a huge shell hit the tree above and huge pieces of steel hit Harry in the back and killed him instantly. I was covered with his blood and mine.

I next staggered to the road and followed in an old tank track, careful not to get out of the rut and hit a land mine. I had a separate fear that I might pass out in the snow and freeze to death. I managed to reach the aid station with great relief that once there my chances of survival were excellent. In the next 18 months I served temporary limited service in France and Germany to relieve our crowded hospitals. At the war's end I returned to surgeries and rehabilitation in Germany, Belgium, England and France and three American hospitals. My left hand was partially restored as were my other wounds. I was discharged June 14, 1946 after slightly over three years service.

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