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
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
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
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
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.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO
(coming in late 2007 to 3AD.com)