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Bob Withers
Recon. Co., 33rd AR, 3AD
Published in 3AD Association Newsletter - September, 2006
Year of writing unknown.


The "big picture" for this little story comes from SPEARHEAD IN THE WEST 1941-45 first edition, red cover, pages 219 thru 221.

Task Force Lovelady attached to the 30th Infantry Div. (Dec. 19, 1944 ) in action on the La Gleize road assisting in the capture of Stavelot -- "As the task force moved south they were met by an enemy convoy of several ammunition trucks, two 150mm towed guns and a 75mm field piece at the junction of the La Gleize / Stavelot highway. This convoy was destroyed and a block was established as ordered. The task force then continued south and reached a road junction near Trois Ponts where they intended to turn east towards Malmedy. Here they met enemy tank fire and lost the four leading tanks of the column. Since the enemy seemed to be concentrated in some strength between this point and Malmedy, Lovelady set up another roadblock here and left Major Stallings, his executive officer, in charge of this critical position."

So, that's the big picture from the book. Here is my 'little picture' within the big picture. This may be a lot about me, but how else can I tell it? This is how I remember it.

As our task force moved south on a small road paralleling the La Gleize highway, we were met and advised by a small group of local men that the Germans were using the La Gleize / Stavelot highway for a supply route. They led us along a paved road to a point intercepting the highway. Sure enough, our timing was, luckily, just right. As I and my squad stood with several of the natives, there on a knoll overlooking the road, we were watching a German convoy passing by. The Spearhead Book barely describes the whole convoy. We had no idea how much of it had already gone by and were already way up the road. No way could we resist the opportunity. Without waiting for backup from the task force coming in right behind us, we all opened fire -- six carbines, two 30 cal. peep-mounted machine guns ["peep" is an earlier term for jeep], all pumping gunfire into the German supply trucks. Out of the canvas covered truck beds came a small stream of enemy soldiers that we had rudely interrupted on their expected quiet ride back to the rear. They appeared to be unarmed and as they hit the road they scattered to the far side between the few houses there and disappeared down toward the river bank. A short description of the area would be a big help here.

Using the map on page 220 as a guide, it appears that the La Gleize / Stavelot highway would be better described as the Spa / La Gleize / Vielsalm highway running from north to south. It is intersected by the Bra / Stavelot / Malmedy road running generally north from Bra. That intersection must have been Trois Ponts, which is where we lost the four tanks and were stopped dead in our tracks and were ordered to stay and set up a road block. From the map you can see a railroad running alongside the La Gleize road . Not shown on the map is the raging, shallow, narrow, rock-strewn river that also paralleled the road on its east side with grassy green banks that sloped up into green forested hills on both sides of the river and road. The terrain strictly limited wheeled vehicles to the road.

At Trois Ponts the railroad and the highway had at sometime in the past crossed the river and continued on towards Veilsalm, except the bridges were now missing thanks obviously to a thorough bombing job by our air force. Just before the missing bridges, there was a road junction, a sharp left turn towards Stavelot. The highway tunnelled under the railroad by virtue of a rugged stone underpass. This is where we lost our four tanks as they emerged from the tunnel pursuing the enemy convoy and ran unsuspectedly into the German anti-tank guns.

So, there we stayed put for three days. At some time during that first day at Trois Ponts we were informed that a unit of the 81st Airborne Div. had occupied a village atop the hill across the river and looking right down on us, probably less than half a mile away. They had good news, they had artillery in place some distance to the rear and they offered us covering fire if needed in case the enemy was desperate enough to send infantry over the hill to overwhelm us and reopen the road for them.

The bad news was: in order to be effective they had to have a forward observer in position to well-observe, and therefore he had to be with us at Trois Ponts. Even worse, he had to be hard-wired, ie., by telephone and connected to his artillery. Radio communication was terrible due to the hilly terrain.

It was our turn again (Recon) to do something useful. Our scout section leader, 2nd Lt. "X" (name long forgotten) was ordered to take two peeps [jeeps], himself, me and our crews, go back the way we had come and find a way across the river to pick up the artillery observer and also set up the telephone line. It was by then probably late afternoon. All went well. We backtracked past the burnt out, shot-up convoy, past our entry point and found a perfectly good stone bridge spanning the river. The highway turned sharply left over the bridge and then sharp right to again follow the river. Right there on the far side was a another little village, just a few houses apparently deserted and fortunately for us, no convoy in sight. Over the bridge, we left the road, turned left and drove the river bank back to where we had come from, except across the river. There we found a nice wide trail thru the trees and leading up to the hilltop village occupied by the paratroopers and where we were to pick up the artillery observer. The observer, a captain, was waiting for us, and this is where I got much more personally involved. I got left behind.

The captain was alone and apparently anticipating a long stay, judging by the size of his backpack and bedroll. He immediately commandeered MY seat in MY peep. With hindsight, I afterwards realized, I was the logical one to leave behind, but at the time I sort of remember my reaction was -- "Holy---, not me! The plan was this: The observer would be transported back to Trois Ponts to set up his observation post. I would remain behind till some time after dark and then would guide a wire team down to the river bank. At a pre-arranged time we were to be visually contacted by a group from our task force on the banks of the river, except they would be on the other side about fifty yards away. Major Stallings was to be one of them. Supposedly, before his army career, he was a budding pro baseball player, a pitcher and his job on this night was to throw a stone attached to a light line across me river a la George Washington and the Potomac. Our job was to retrieve the line, attach the telephone wire and play it out as it was pulled across the river and on to the observer's telephone. That was the plan. It didnt work out quite like that!

Can you imagine the sinking feeling of loneliness that engulfed me as I stood there in that little town on the hill and watched my squad ride away without me, back home to Trois Ponts, which at that moment was the only home I knew, temporary as it might be. Anyway, the paratroopers treated me well, fed me and allowed me to nap indoors. No complaints, baby it was cold outside.

Sometime before our designated meeting hour I was awakened with a nudge from a GI boot and brought outside to meet my two companions for the night, two wire-men from the artillery company. They had with them a good sized reel of telephone wire, its outer end already tied in to the wire network connected back at the artillery battery. Compliments of the Airborne kitchen, we got acquainted over a cup of hot coffee before it was time to depart for our rendezvous with Major Stallings.

Anyone who might have been watching would never have been even minutely impressed with our little parade as we marched down the path to the river .... me in front, leading the way, armed to the hilt, my carbine slung over my shoulder and my .45, un-holstered, cocked and at the ready, just in case. The two wire-men, each carrying a .45 but holstered because they needed both hands to shoulder the steel pipe upon which the reel of telephone wire rotated, plying out the wire as we descended down the path through the woods. It was dark in there, just barely enough moonlight filtering thru the trees to guide us down. As we emerged from the dark pathway and on to the river bank, we were suddenly aware that this was a beautiful, clear, cold, bright, moonlit night and visibility was excellent, so much so it made us feel like a new actor must feel, spot-lighted, in fall view of a vast, unseen audience; in our case, not friendly! So, there we were, on the river bank at the appointed hour, right on plan except .... no one showed up on the other bank!

We yelled, we screamed to get attention, all in vain. The rushing river made far too much noise. We had to talk real loud just to hear ourselves. We waited, probably ten minutes. It seemed like an hour as we hunched down trying to be as un-noticeable as possible in the bright moonlight Still, no one showed up on the other bank. Enough's enough, we were ready to pack it in, call it off, get out of there.

Then, unexpectedly, across the river a back door opened on one of the houses and a sleepy GI stumbled out onto the deck, slouched up to the railing, zipped open his fly and proceeded to pee into the yard. We yelled, we screamed, we jumped up and down frantically waving our arms. He never even once looked our way. As he turned and started back toward his waiting, warm bedroll, one of my new companions grabbed my carbine and cursing like the true paratrooper he was, took aim at the retreating pee-er. I was too numb to even think about stopping this angry, needless killing, but I was wrong about him. It wasn't the GI he took out, it was a window pane, and it took a couple rounds to do it, but he got their attention. Our GI disappeared in a flash, well trained as he was. We retreated to the cover of the trees in case they got mad at us and started shooting back. Five minutes later, give or take a few, a small group had assembled on their side of the river. I never found out why they muffed the appointed hour but they were prepared with Major Stallings on hand with a ball of twine and a pre-selected missile. There was no shortage of rocks on that crazy river.

So it was time for the big heave. We couldn't hear each other, but they were only about fifty yards away and on this bright night we could clearly watch it all. More like an outfielder than a pitcher, Major Stallings, missile in hand, took several running steps forward to gain momentum and with a mighty heave launched the stone, trailing it's long umbilical cord on a high and swift flight towards us. It never made it -- falling into the river only a few yards short. Without that trailing cord it would have been an easy throw for the major but with that handicap it was impossible. They tried pulling the cord back, but the stone and cord quickly became entangled in the rocky river. Evidently, there was not enough cord left for another try, so that was the end of the mission .... but only temporarily.

My two companions again came to our rescue. One took off, up the path to the town. His buddy, using hand and body gestures, managed to get his message understood on the other side, that was to stay put, in place until his buddy returned. While we waited, he explained to me that they had done this sort of thing before. They had a grenade launcher, an old rifle, fitted at the muzzle with a cage to hold the grenade and fired by a blank shell. They had left it behind, in the town, being assured that the Major had everything under control, they assumed he had a grenade launcher, not knowing he planned to do it a la George Washington, so had left their's behind.

We sat there and looked at each other across the river. About fifteen minutes later the trooper was back, rifle in hand and a tin can full of neatly coiled, fine, strong line . In no time at all, those two were ready to launch the line attached to the dummy grenade. Everything was in place. With the barrel pointed out over the river, the trigger was tripped and with one sharp crack, away went the grenade, arching out over the river. No problem; it landed way up the bank and was quickly retrieved. On our side the line was cut and securely tied to the telephone wire, a nice smooth join -- no knots or protruding bumps that might snag on the rocks. It worked! We made it! On the other side, they hauled it all in, picked it up and disappeared again, doling out the wire as they went. Mission accomplished !!! .... but not over.

We three still had a journey ahead of us, to return to our bases. No problem for the other two, they had only to trek back up the hill. They hid the big, wooden wire reel in the trees and tried to make the telephone line as inconspicuous as possible in the grass. With all the cleanup details attended to, we stood there at the foot of the trail, shook hands and said goodbye. They disappeared! "Cripes!" (That's not what I really said to myself.) "Alone again!"

Back on stage, back in the spotlight .... how many times must an actor do this before it becomes non-threatening? I joined the wire reel in the trees and hid in the shadows. The plan was for my peep to come back for me and it did. I saw them depart, two peeps moving across the spaces between the houses. Did I mention, it was cold?! No problem staying warm while we were busy but alone in the shady wood it was frigid. To generate some heat I got moving, back up the river, inside the treeline and out of the moonlight where we had lingered far too long. It took a while, seemed like forever, but my pick-up did make it back to me. What a relief! I was heading back home to a house and warm blankets. Oh joy!, what a wonderful life .... in the Army and a war on and thinking of a temporary shelter as "home." My poor brain must have been truly running in low gear right then.

So, mission accomplished. Only a couple of gun shots, and they shouldn't count because we were only shooting at ourselves, no enemy encountered, no one even scratched. We were lucky, our timing excellent, for just the next day the German convoy was back and set up their own roadblock, trapping us in Trois Ponts for the next two days. Our forward observer never once had to order covering artillery fire, the enemy never once came over the hill, but all that should not diminish the deed. We did what was expected of us. Nuff said!

Our relief came in the form of infantry. Up the road they came, on both sides, in single file, made the turn under the railroad and kept right on going. Our roadblock mission was over.

So that's my not-so-little story within the big picture.

- Bob Withers

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