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Col. William Castille
Combat Command "B", S-2
Published in 3AD Association Newsletter - August, 1987


Samuel Mason Hogan was a small town Texan who grew up hunting, fishing and riding horses. After two years at a local junior college he obtained an appointment at West Point and finished with the class of 1938. His symbol became the Lone Star Flag of Texas and he prominently displayed it on his vehicle. I was a tank battalion commander. No one has written novels about battalion commanders. We were not one of a group of soldiers which had its philosopher, its woman chaser, its tough noncom, its hero and its coward -- like Mailer and others have described. We seldom spent days eye-ball to eye-ball with the enemy soldier.

Our problems were different Although we were often shot at, we seldom had an opportunity to shoot back. We were almost never told that we personally must move forward into enemy fire or back away from it. We had to decide for ourselves when it was necessary and, as we got shot at more and more and began to feel that we were beating the law of averages, it became harder and harder to determine it was necessary. Sometimes of course the Germans decided for us. This is the story of one of those times.

The battalion had been committed at the tail end of First Army's November 44 offensive. By 13 December the least optimistic objective of closing on the Roer River had been accomplished with heavy losses. Going to Cologne was forgotten for the time, and the battalion was pulled back to rest and refit. Turkey was beginning to arrive and we had visions of a relatively quiet Christmas. The Germans had other plans. Their attack was launched on 16 December and, as more and more of the division was moved south and committed, our Christmas dreams faded. The dreams disappeared on 19 December. A little less than on- third of the division which General Rose had remaining under his control was ordered to move to the vicinity of HOTTON-LE GRAND PRE to cover the deployment of VII Corps.

The battalion started moving a little before dark. The roads were icy and there was fog in spots. The only light was the eerie flicker of buzz bomb exhausts as they roared through the night to Liege and other supply points. Beyond AYWAILLE the route was a bit vague since probably even the German high command did not know where their leading elements were. Certainly we didn't. Already, we were getting rumors of Germans in American MP uniforms directing our columns astray. It was a wild, nervous, and sleepless night. We were all relieved and felt the worst was behind when we closed in to the vicinity of HOTTON in the early morning of 20 December.

To cover the deployment of VII Corps, General Rose held out a small reserve and established three similar task forces from the combat elements of the division. My force consisted of my battalion headquarters, including the reconnaissance assault gun and Hq. 3rd Bn. 33d Armored Regiment; G Co., 33d Armored Regiment, consisting of 8 medium tanks (the other 7 having been lost to enemy action on the Roer River front and two accidents on the road march to HOTTON); A Co., plus one platoon from C Co., 83rd Reconnaissance Bn. and A Battery 54th Field Artillery Bn., plus a section from the 486th Anti-aircraft Artillery Bn.

My friends Bill Orr and Matt Kane commanded the other two task forces. For control, reports and coordination we were put under Mike Yeomans, the commander of the 83rd Rcn. Bn. Our orders were to advance in zone, destroying all enemy encountered and secure the road from MANHAY to HOUFFALIZE. My task force was on the right and was to move generally along the OURTHE RIVER. Bill Orr was in the center and Matt Kane on the left. The information of the enemy given to us was zero. This was only a little less than usual. However, the information of friendly troops given to us was also zero and this was quite a bit less than usual.

We moved out at 1220 hours, and to our great surprise it turned out to be a road march. No enemy. We reached LAROCHE for our line of departure and could hardly believe our eyes when we saw that the town was securely held by the Trains of the 7th Armored Division. Trains are composed of Medics, Maintenance, and other service elements and are usually found considerably to the rear in a combat zone. They were in contact with the Germans on one side of town and were eagerly awaiting orders to withdraw.

The commanding officer of the Trains was dubious of his ability to continue to hold the town. Since it was definitely in our interest to have a supply route open to the rear, I attached my Assault Gun Platoon (tanks mounting 105mm Howitzers) to the Trains to assist them. The Recon Company leading the task force passed on through LAROCHE and a mile or so beyond where the German opened up on the lead vehicle from a roadblock sited in their usual professional manner. It was in a steep valley so there was no way to get around it, and once they got the lead vehicle burning there was no way to attack it frontally. We had several wounded, the artillery man was killed and our advance stopped. I reported to Mike Yeomans by radio that we could not advance further on our route and got orders to coil off the road for the night and to report back to the headquarters for orders the next morning at 0845 hours.

We put battalion headquarters in LAROCHE and spent a night amid the rations cigarettes, trailers and other impediments left behind by the support units which had left LAROCHE apparently on the first news of the German attack. All of us loaded up with extra rations and cigarettes. I got up early the next morning, had some coffee and got ready to take off. My driver, Private Gast, reported that the jeep radio had been left on the night before and the battery was down. He had it towed to get it started.

The whole situation had been so confused and unusual that instead of setting out alone to see Mike Yeomans as I would normally have done, I told the executive Officer, Major W. Stewart Walker, to assume command until my return and took along Major Travis M. Brown, Bn. S-3, and Lieutenant Clark V. Worrell, the leader of the Bn. Rcn. Platoon, in the latter's jeep. In addition to my driver Gast, my orderly, D'Orio, was in my jeep with me. Since we were short on time and expected to return to LAROCHE, we left our bed rolls at the Command Post. Clark Worrell lead off and I followed. At the edge of town we were stopped by a guard who said if we had to go down this road he advised speed since the Germans on the bluff above were rolling hand grenades down on passing vehicles. We had to go, so we went fast. No grenades.

We were relieved to get clear of the town and rolled along at a good rate for four or five miles. I was wondering idly to myself what steel-tracked vehicles had scarred up the road in turning around the night before, when I looked up to see Worrell's jeep halt, facing a jeep and two halftracks with about twenty soldiers standing in the road eating K rations. Two of the soldiers wore American overcoats but the rest were very obviously German. The vehicles were American. By the time the picture clicked into focus, we were stopped about a yard behind Worrell's jeep which in turn was about ten yards from the strangers.

Worrell whispered something and, by the time I had stepped out of my jeep to hear better, I knew he had said "They're Germans, Colonel!" I told Gast to turn around and as he gunned the jeep to the rear with me in hot pursuit, the Germans dropped their K rations and ran to their guns. I was wearing fleeced-lined RAF flying boots which were ideal for riding in a jeep or a tank but very poor for running or walking. Gast backed off the road to turn around and stalled the jeep. It wouldn't start for the battery was still down. I ran down the road stumbling and falling with the Germans shooting at a range which was varying rapidly from thirty to around one hundred yards when I went off the road to my left where some trees and bushes gave some cover.

While catching my breath, Gast, D'Orio, and Worrell arrived. A few seconds later we took off across the field to where a sudden drop would give us both cover and distance from the Germans. Just as we went down the drop, the Germans let go a few rounds of machine gun fire far over our heads. It sped us up a little. Their pursuit was so slow that they must have been afraid of ambush where we went off the road, or they stopped to loot the jeeps. The latter seems more probably since both jeeps were loaded with rations and cigarettes. Mine contained several fruit cakes which had arrived in Christmas packages. It may have taken some time also for the Germans to decide for sure that we were not part of the swindle of Germans wearing the American uniforms.

We made it to the edge of the woods along a stream bed and stopped to catch our breath. We were all coughing from our exertions and from the colds we had most of the winter. Worrell thought his driver had gotten out of the opposite side of the road from us. We went deeper into the woods along the stream and stopped to rest and decide what to do. It is demoralizing to find the enemy between you and your next higher headquarters and particularly so when he is using your uniform and equipment. I finally decided we would continue cross country and under cover to try to get around the Germans and go to HOTTON as Mike Yeomans had directed.

The going was rough when about an hour before sundown we heard a loud explosion to our left rear and streams of tracer bullets flew over head from both our front and our rear. The bank of the stream was steep enough to give some protection and we crawled a short distance to what appeared to be the head of the stream. About dark the shooting stopped without either side moving appreciably. Thereafter, we could hear voices not too far away and, although we could not make out the words, it sounded like English. I was almost certain I recognized the voice of "Seafood" Garton, one of our artillery battalion commanders, but before I decided to call to him, a jeep pulled away and I heard the voice no more.

About that time a soldier started digging a fox hole on the bank above us. As we whispered in debate to call out or not to call out, a voice said," Fritz", our digger answered "Ja", the voice questioned "Was hast du da?" Friend Fritz replied "Ich habe Panzerfaust." So we knew for sure which side was which. Our efforts to strangle our tickling cough became more frantic. The looks the current cougher got were deadly since his cough always sounded louder than yours.

As it got darker and we hadn't been heard, we got slightly bolder. A whispered conference resulted in the decision to leave our noisy helmets and slip back down the stream bed at 30 seconds intervals. We were to reassemble after we got out of hearing of the German position. Gast, D'Orio and I got together again but a long wait failed to produce either Brown or Worrell. We found out later that they had blundered across the road in front of the Germans and after two or three wild and hectic days made their way back to our lines. The three of us moved deeper into the woods after our wait and finally stretched out, covering ourselves as best as we could with my trench coat, and went to sleep. Only an occasional shell passing over disturbed our rest.

At daylight I decided we should head back where we had left the battalion, keeping in the woods as much as possible. After about thirty minutes of walking, Gast, who was in the lead, reported that he had almost bumped into another soldier in American uniform, who had taken off without saying a word. Then, I thought Gast was mistaken or joking, but it later turned out that there were several American soldiers in the woods. Some even stayed there until after the Germans withdrew. Occasional handouts from the Belgians kept them going. After another thirty minutes we came out in a clearing on the nose of a hill. Below us to our right front we saw several self-propelled 105mm artillery pieces. I decided they were probably friendly and we started down to them, still staying under cover. When the woods stopped, there was a small village and the people in the first house said there were Americans in the town, which was called MARCOURAY. Sure enough, there were my own troops. Walker said they had seen us on the nose of the hill and started to shoot at us with a tank gun about the time we disappeared.

Walker brought me up to date on the happenings of the previous twenty-four hours. A sergeant, who had been going back for medical supplies and was about a mile behind us when we bumped the Germans, had picked up Worrell's driver and returned to the battalion with word of what had happened to us. Walker had informed Mike Yeomans and later had received orders to fight his way back. The load explosion we had heard the evening before was from a Panzerfaust knocking out the lead tank. The resultant fighting had shown the road to be blocked and the edges mined. During the night, both sides had remained in place and exchanged a few founds.

Our orders still were to fight our way out. We were very vulnerable in our spread out position and could not get by the roadblock. I decided to assemble the troops in MARCOURAY. A check showed we had a few more wounded but no one killed. There was plenty of ammunition and food but only about a third of a tank of gasoline for the M-4 (Sherman) tanks. This was plenty to get us the distance back to our lines, but it did not allow for much fighting or maneuvering on the way.

I decided to sit tight at MARCOURAY for the time being. It was an ideal little village for defense, a group of thirty or forty stone houses with fields of fire clear, except for occasional hedges along the edges of fields or roads. I told Ted Cardon, who had taken over Brown's job as S-3, to organize the troops to defend the village.

Before all the troops were in position, Shorty Wright, the reconnaissance sgt., had noticed German vehicles on the road across the river from us. We had a regular turkey-shoot knocking out several trucks and jeeps. One of the knocked out jeeps apparently had a map or something of value in it because the Germans kept trying to get something out of it. Every time they would approach it we would lay in a round of tank fire. Later, one of our artillery pieces was laid in with the jeep as a base point and an occasional round kept the jeep clear until dark. Even then, we lobbed one in now and then for luck. The combination of moon and light snow enabled us to shoot up several German patrols which probed at us during the night.

The next morning I stepped out of the door of the house we were using as a Command Post, just in time to see two eight-wheeled German Armored Cars loaded with troops roll by. This is a shattering experience before breakfast. I jumped back in the house, alerted the tank at the far end of the town by radio and started trying to find out what had happened to the tank the cars had passed as they came in. It turned out the tank commander hadn't checked his guns that morning and, as he started to lay on the lead car and traverse, he discovered that the water had condensed on his turret race and frozen during the night. No traverse. The cars passed by him and a German emptied a burp gun against the side of the tank. It's a wonder my language didn't thaw his turret ring.

As the German cars passed out of the village, the tank there shot both of them and the soldiers on top scattered in all directions. Cardon grabbed an M-l (rifle), with Shorty Wright bird-dogging by pointing out Germans as they crawled along hedge rows or into hay stacks, and picked off several of them. Four or five Germans were lying head to foot in the ditch along side of the road. Before any one could stop him, a lieutenant from the Reconnaissance Co. had pulled his .45 and shot two of them in the back of the head. As he was standing over the third German prior to shooting, the second one, who had only been creased, got up. The lieutenant was disarmed and the remaining Germans made prisoners. During the rest of the day, we shot up some more vehicles across the river, and adjusted friendly artillery on Germans troops whenever we could get it. The artillery also shot in some plasma and bandages, but the range was so great that firing charge pulverized the contents of the shells.

Probably the rare availability of friendly artillery should have tipped us off to the fact that all was not well with the division, but we were optimists. We knew the division was fighting its way up to us. By this time we were under the command of Colonel Bobbie Howze, who seemed to have control of all the 3rd Armored troops in the area, plus, as well as we could judge from radio traffic, several paratrooper units and other strangers. Whenever things got a little boring we would ask higher headquarters for a situation report. For two days the answer always came back, "Wait". Finally a message came in to the effect that two paratroop companies were fighting from HOTTON toward SOY and two were fighting from SOY toward HOTTON, to clear the road. Since this road had been our original line of departure, it wasn't encouraging.

Also about this time a tank commander from H Co., which had been with Bill Orr, came in out of the woods. His tank with others had been overrun (near DOCHAMPS) and he had taken to the bushes. I found I could reach H Co. on my tank radio but their news was not so good. Although not surrounded, they were only about a mile and a half in advance of our original starting line and had just made a successful though limited attack with the company command tank and the bulldozer tank, all that remained of the company tanks. A considerable number of tankers who had lost their tanks were fighting along side as infantry.

That night we again shot up some German patrols and the day before Christmas dawned cold and clear. About noon the tank on the roadblock to the north of town, the same one whose turret had frozen, reported the approach of a German jeep with a white flag. I told them to blindfold the German, tour him around enough to confuse him, and bring him to the CP. Again hope rose. Maybe things were bad for the Germans too.


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