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
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