Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tuffy's War: Part Four of Six

Tuffy’s War
(Part Four of Six)

Wally Lee Parker

… an opening thought …

“Tuffy’s War” tells the tale of two brothers — Alvin “Tuffy” Luhr and Orland Luhr — who exemplify all the qualities newsman Tom Brokaw intended when he characterized those who carried the burden of America’s struggle during World War II as our greatest generation.  Both brothers once called Clayton — a little town in the northeastern part of Washington State — their home.  One brother has gone on to live a long, productive life.  The other did not survive the war; resting ever since on a small, ancient hill just a few miles from his hometown — a hill overlooking the farm speckled sweep of the Little Spokane River Valley.  This is their story — presented in six parts as an oral history augmented by materials drawn from newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and a slew of private and government documents.

… regarding copyright …

This material was originally published by the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society.  It is under copyright to that organization and used here by permission.  Alterations of the original material have been made — including the addition of comments by Alan Berg.  Anyone wishing to reprint this blog version of “Tuffy’s War” will need to obtain permission from both the C/DPHS and the author, Wally Lee Parker, to cover the entire content as presented here.

Part Four
… the hell you can’t ...

               I left for the war from New York harbor on New Year’s Day, 1945.  Our ship was the Queen Mary.  Five days later we landed in Scotland.  It took two days to unload, after which we were transported by train down to England.  A few days after that we were packed into a landing craft headed to Le Havre, France.
               In France we were jammed into boxcars we called forty and eights, and sent north.  It was so cold we just about froze to death.  We ended up stealing stoves to try to get some heat into those boxcars.
               It was the middle of January when I got into the real war.”
               Tuffy’s new unit was part of Patton’s 3rd Army.  He was assigned to the 87th Infantry Division, 347th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company M.
               M was a ‘heavy-weapons’ company.  Among the company’s weapons were six 81-millimeter mortars and eight water-cooled .30 caliber machine guns.  Tuffy was placed in a machine gun squad.
               According to the army’s ‘Table of Organization’, each squad should have consisted of a machine gunner and his assistant — both armed with .45 caliber pistols as personal weapons, three ammunition bearers armed with M-1 rifles, one combination jeep driver/ammo bearer armed with a .30 caliber carbine and M8 grenade launcher, and a squad leader armed with a .30 caliber carbine and carrying an M7 grenade launcher.
               The M7 grenade launcher was designed to be used with the M-1 Garand rifle.  The M8 launcher attached to the barrel of the .30 caliber carbine.  Both weapons used the gas pressure produced by detonating ‘blank’ cartridges to propel especially designed grenades up to 400 yards — depending on the type of grenade.
               At full strength Company M would have had one-hundred and sixty men — one-hundred and fifty two enlisted, and eight commissioned officers.  The normal type of weapons — besides the mortars and water-cooled machine guns — would have been one .50 caliber machine gun (usually mounted on a jeep), six bazookas, and the usual compliment of M-1 Garand rifles, .30 caliber carbines, and .45 caliber automatic pistols.  For transportation the company would have had one three-quarter ton four wheel drive truck and nineteen jeeps.  Fourteen two-wheel trailers would have given the jeeps the necessary cargo capacity.  And each company had six walkie-talkies for radio communication.
               As with most things, how close reality came to the paperwork idea depended on circumstance, contingency, and necessity.
               Two machine gun squads would share a jeep.  The jeep would pull a trailer intended to haul their equipment and ammunition.  And each machine gun would eat a lot of ammunition.
               The full designation for what would eventually become Tuffy’s weapon was, in army-speak, “gun, machine, Browning, caliber .30, M1917A1.”  The weapon’s history began in World War I.  With ongoing improvements, it continued to be used throughout World War II, Korea, and, to a limited degree, Viet Nam.
               The machine gun was designed to be water cooled.  Its rate of fire was from 450 to 600 rounds a minute.  With a potential of ten shots a second, the need for cooling was obvious.  To push that many cartridges through the weapon, a fabric belt was hand drawn out of a 250 round ammunition canister and fed into the gun.

(U. S. Government Printing Office - WWII)

               The machine gun weighed a little over thirty-two pounds.  Seven pints of water or other fluid added another seven or so pounds.  Though transported as a separate unit, the quick-mount tripod added just over fifty more pounds.
               Each ammunition canister weighed about twenty pounds.  The rate of fire — which could theoretically empty two canisters a minute — and the weight of each ammunition canister indicated why three ammo carriers were specified for each gun.
               Tuffy was moving toward the front as General Patton was driving north in an effort to link up with the southern moving British and cut off the recent German counter-attack against the American army in Belgium.  That German counter-attack had begun on the 16th of December, 1944.  Officially called the Ardennes Salient, Americans recall the ensuing incursion as the Battle of the Bulge.
               On November 30th, 1944, while Tuffy was still in the states, the 37th Regiment landed in France.  The Regiment’s first engagement occurred on the 13th of December along the French and German border just south of Luxembourg.  On New Year’s Eve, the day before Tuffy left the United States, the 347th was informed it was to move north as part of the 3rd Army’s push against the German counter-offensive into Belgium.
               Although Tuffy doesn’t remember the exact date he entered combat, he does recall that the 347th had not yet made contact with the British.  That would likely place the date at least a few days before the 15th of January, 1945.  On the 12th of January the Regiment was in the vicinity of Saint-Hubert — a small town in the Luxembourg Provence of southern Belgium, which was originally part of Luxembourg until the region was annexed by Belgium in 1839.
               Tuffy explained, Naturally, as the newest replacement in my machine gun squad, I started out at the bottom — hauling ammo.  It was during my first few days that we ran into elements of the 82nd Airborne.  They hadn’t been expecting us, so at first they were shooting at us, and we were shooting back.  You could generally tell what kind of guns were shooting at you by the sound.  When the rifles sounded like M-1s and the machine guns like 30 calibers, that’s what convinced us we were up against other Americans.  We finally got through to them who we were, and the fighting stopped.
               Pushing north along the roads we had to take half hour turns, each of us, at rolling up our sleeves and pushing our arms into 18 inches of snow — feeling for booby traps — feeling for trip-wires strung across the road then tied to bombs.”
               Sources indicate that the winter of 1944-45 was uncommonly cold for northern Europe.  American GIs adapted themselves and their equipment to that fact in various ways.

January 13, 1945.  Members of the 347th Infantry Regiment
lining up for chow, La Roche, Belgium.
Tuffy joined the 347th within a few day of this photograph.
(Photo from the National Archive)

               Our machine gun was water cooled.  The army had how the cooling would work in combat all figured out.  We were supposed to carry a condensing can with the machine gun.  We’d fill the machine gun’s water jacket from the can.  Then we were supposed to set the can below the barrel of the machine gun.  At the bottom of the water jacket was a port for steam.  Heat from the barrel would boil the water, and the steam produced was supposed to exit this port.  We were to attach a rubber hose to the steam port, run the hose down into the condensing can, and capture the steam, condensing it back into water for reuse later.  That’s how the army said it was supposed to work.
               As with a lot the army said, there were a couple of problems.
               It was cold.  Escaping steam produced a nice plume that told everyone exactly where you were positioned.  And then, that tin can for catching condensation wasn’t only cumbersome, it also added a lot of noise when we were setting the gun up.  That could also tell the enemy exactly where we were.  And another thing is that the cooling water, if we weren’t firing the weapon, tended to freeze.
               We spent all night trying to figure out what the hell we could do.  We decided we couldn’t have those cans.  The army might figure that we did, but we didn’t — so we threw the damn cans away.  Then we dropped by the motor pool and stole enough antifreeze to fill the company’s water cooled machine guns with pure Prestone.
               In a war, you tend to get smart fast.
               There wasn’t much chance of overheating the guns.  The general rule was, once you opened fire, you needed to be out of that position and on the move in no more than five minutes.  It usually took about five minutes for the enemy to figure out where you were and start lobbing mortar rounds or calling up a Panzer or Tiger tank to take care of you.
               Packing ammo from where we’d dumped it to where we needed it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  One of my first experiences was when our machine gun was set up beside this road — off to the side and low enough down that the gunner could get some cover.  The gunner and his belt-feeder were pinned down by fire from German burp-guns.”
            Burp-guns were magazine fed sub-machineguns.  The 32-round magazine would zip through the gun so fast — about four seconds — that the usual method of firing was in very short burst.  The sound that technique of firing produced was what gave the weapon its name.
               I started across the road with a couple of cans of ammo when those guns cut loose.  I just rolled back into the ditch and waited for them to stop shooting.
               Pretty soon my gunner hollered — ‘Out of ammo!  Tuffy, get over here!’
               I can’t!
               An angry ‘the hell you can’t’ came back at me.
               I got up with my two cans of ammo and ran across the icy road.  The burp-guns cut loose.  Bullets were hitting in front of me, beside me, behind me.  There was no way any human being could have run through there and not got hit.  From the center of the road I slung those cans down on the ice and let them skid the rest of the way across and over the edge — to the machine gun.  Then I just rolled back into the ditch — and lay there, searching all over my body for wounds.  But I hadn’t been touched.
               “The old man was taking care of me that day.
               M company was a support unit, and very flexible.  We went everywhere quick.  When the infantry would run into opposition, they would call for mortars, bazookas, machine guns — whatever we had that could help.  Those parts of our company would move forward.
               Our machine gun squads would find a good position and fire over our infantry’s heads to clear things out — stuff like that.  On occasion we even used our 30 calibers to cut down trees so we could spot the enemy’s positions.  So we were always moving around in support of the other units.
            “I can’t remember where it was, or when — just someplace before we hit the Siegfried line.  Just someplace in all that snow.  We were trying to relieve some men but we didn’t get there until daylight.  We came on this big meadow.  There were dead all over the place.  It seemed like maybe a couple of thousand killed in that one battle.
               I don’t know why they would have gone out in the open like that — exposed themselves like that.  But the Germans just mowed them down, leaving bodies everywhere.  And a lot of the men were missing fingers.  Somebody had gone through and cut the rings off their dead hands — wedding bands and the like.
               We were sent forward to help these people.  Doubtless some of the people dead in the field had been sent in as relief before us.  Seeing that we couldn’t do anything to help was such a disappointment.  It was just a terrible thing.”
               On January 14th, elements of the 3rd Army came into contact with British and French forces coming from the north.  This was the final cut in the pincer movement intended to split the Bulge from German control.
               Just a few days after Tuffy had joined M Company, the Regiment was told to move into Luxembourg proper.  By the 17th of January the 347th was in position on the high bluffs overlooking the Saur River, just a few miles to the southeast of the town of Echternach.  Across the river was Germany’s Rhineland — and a well-entrenched enemy.

… an active defense ...

               General tactics defined two kinds of patrols sent behind enemy lines.  The reconnaissance patrol used stealth to gather information about enemy positions and such while trying to avoid engaging the enemy.  Fighting patrols also gathered information.  But their orders usually included acts of sabotage and otherwise engaging the enemy whenever it seemed prudent or necessary to do so.  Fighting patrols were called ‘tiger patrols’.
               From its position above the Saur River, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to send tiger patrols into German held territory — one of their objectives being to bring back prisoners for interrogation.  Sources suggest that an incident involving elements from the 3rd Battalion similar to the one Tuffy describes below occurred on the enemy side of the Saur River.  Since these tactics were common throughout the war, it’s difficult to say whether the Saur, or the tributary Our River several weeks later, was the actual location of Tuffy’s first tiger patrol.  However, there’s high confidence that the incident did occur before his unit crossed the Siegfried Line.
               Tuffy said, “I was order to take part in several nights’ worth of tiger patrols.  One of the men in our group spoke perfect German.  We rowed across the river, and moved inland until we made contact with the Germans.  Our German speaker was talking to the Germans, and everything seemed to be going okay until the Germans started getting itchy — maybe because only one of us was doing all the talking.  Anyway, someone in our group gave the signal to get the hell out of there.  We pulled the pins on a couple of hand grenades, threw them at the Germans, and beat our way toward the boat.
               “I don’t remember us having so much trouble on our second tiger patrol.  But the first one was a mess.  We really lucked out in getting back to our lines without further incident.
               Our German speaker made it to the end of the war with us.  He said his folks were German, and they had sent him to the United States when he was six or seven years old.  They saw what was going on at home and wanted to get him out of all that.  He ended up becoming an American citizen.
               After the war was officially over, and we were encamped in southeastern Germany, he asked the captain if he could go home.  Naturally the captain said, ‘Christ!  We all want to go home!’  Our German speaker said, ‘No.  My folks still live here — not too far away.  I just want to go see them — to make sure they’re okay.’  So the captain issued him a four day pass and a jeep — and he went to see his folks.”
               Under constant harassment by mortar and artillery from the German side of the river, the 347th stayed positioned on the deeply gullied ridges overlooking the river for the next five days.  They were then ordered to move north, along the Luxembourg side of the tributary Our River.  In constant scrimmages, the Regiment moved through small village after small village.  The Germans seemed to be in a fighting withdrawal toward the heavily fortified Siegfried Line.
               The beginning of February found the Regiment once more in Belgium — at Berterath.  Berterath is located in the pocket formed by the furthest eastward penetration of the Belgium border into Germany.  At this point the German provinces of Westphalia to the north and Rhineland Palatinate to the south intersect against the Belgian frontier.
               Having advanced this far, the 347th went into an ‘active defense’ mode.  The Regiment had been in constant combat for several weeks, and the men were exhausted.  Active defense didn’t translate out as rest.  The units were getting ready to advance against the Siegfried Line.  In preparation for the impending battle, a relentless series of probes were sent into enemy territory to gather intelligence on enemy strength and details of their fortifications and other defenses.
               Since the enemy was doing the same kind of probing into the American lines, it was a matter of each side remaining on constant guard.
               Tuffy recalls, “Having been built up with fill material until the grade was a little higher than the surrounding countryside, the road between Manderfeld and Berterath was pretty good.  We had some protection from incoming fire by positioning our machine guns in the ditch, just high enough that we could sweep our .30 calibers over the surface of the road.  I was on watch in the ditch when someone brought mail — brought me a bunch of letters.  In one of her letters, my wife had copied the words from a popular song.  I don’t remember which song.  But I do — just as clear as could be — remember getting that letter and reading it while sitting huddled in that ditch.”
               It appears that Tuffy had moved from hauling ammo to operating a .30 caliber machine gun in less than a month on the line.
               What Tuffy did not detail in our interviews was the casualty rate among the troops.  Historical sources indicated that it was high.  These sources state that the majority of combat injuries and deaths in the 347th Regiment were due to enemy artillery.  As the incoming shells exploded, they splashed the air with metal splinters — with shrapnel.  And accounts written by the men who were there state that incoming artillery was an expected part of life on the lines.
               Bullets, grenades, and mines took their toll as well.  Then there was the constant exposure to cold and damp as the army moved across frozen fields and through forest drowned beneath fresh snow.  All this misery was occasionally interrupted by a stretch of road that tanks and trucks had churned to a frozen crust over bottomless mud.
               Munitions and food intended for the men on the combat front were carried on the backs of supply troops.  Breaking ground or moving along footpaths through the otherwise inaccessible hills and deep woods, these men acted as a human conveyor belt.  Avoiding snipers, ambushes, and booby traps, these solders still had to contend with the injuries and exhaustion brought on by the rough terrain and bitter cold. 
               The idea of a front line where all the shooting was taking place was a nebulous concept.  For most of the men, the only safe place was thousands of miles away — at home.
               Of the approximately 190 enlisted or drafted known to have served in Company M of the 3rd Battalion, 14 were killed in action — with two more missing and assumed to have been killed.  53 received Purple Hearts.  Another 42 were lost from the Company through other causes — presumably through illness or non-combat injury.  All told over a third of the complement was in one manner or another considered casualties of war.  These rates were typical throughout the 347th Regiment.  Other units in other Regiments of the 87th Division fared much worse — and some were literally decimated.
               Among all this, the number of men who carried home unseen wounds most likely will never be fully appreciated.
               With matter of fact prose, Tuffy continued his narrative.  I also remember that the Germans were shooting those big railroad guns over the border.  Those shells were so massive they made an awful racket cutting through the air.  I don’t know where they were aimed — way back behind our lines someplace.
               During the Battle of the Bulge the Germans had been using troops in American uniforms to infiltrate our lines.  We were all as jumpy as hell.  It’d gotten to the point that if we were at all uncertain, the rule of the day was to shoot three times, and then yell ‘halt’.
               That might be a bit of an exaggeration — but we were worried.”    
               For the 347th, the push against the Siegfried Line began on February 277h.  The 3rd Battalion was held in reserve for the first day, and sent forward on the last day of the month — their target being Ormont, a small German village nestled among forested, snow covered hills at the southern end of a two layer deep stretch of the West Wall; the West Wall being what the Germans called the Siegfried Line.
               The western portion of this two layer stretch was built in 1939, and the second layer, the eastern portion, the year before.  Though largely abandoned when the war was going well for the Fatherland, when it became apparent in the summer of 1944 that the war would be coming all the way to the German border, the entire Siegfried Line was reactivated and reinforced.
               Having been built when materials and labor were more plentiful, the prewar fortifications were the strongest.  The first of these were the ‘Type 10’ bunkers, with concrete walls and ceilings poured five feet thick.  Intended for no more than a dozen men, these bunkers, like most bunkers, had forward facing firing ports called embrasures.
               Embrasures were an ancient military concept.  A small port or window just large enough to sight and shoot a projectile through faced the enemy.  But the walls leading to that small window flared wider as they moved back through the defensive wall.  This increase in side to side width allowed the defender to move his weapon side to side when aiming through the firing port.  And this allowed the defender to increase his field of fire over many lateral degrees without increasing his exposure to incoming projectiles.  The field of fire for each embrasure would overlap the field of fire from the neighboring embrasures, and the field of fire from each blockhouse would overlap the field of fire from the blockhouses of either side — especially important since any attacking infantry able to get sufficiently close to a pillbox would be out of sight to the defenders inside that pillbox.
               Blockhouses were placed along the most logical lines of penetration — placed at the entrances to mountain passes, in front of river fords, and laid like a wall across open farmland.  Since good access to the borders would also allow attackers to concentrate their heaviest and most effective weapons at these points, the most heavily armored and densest concentration of blockhouses, pillboxes, and other active and passive defenses were also laid down in such places.
               Much of the original weaponry and armor was stripped from the West Wall during the war and reinstalled along the Atlantic Wall to defend against the expected Allied invasion from England.  There was little opportunity to move this back to the Siegfried Line after the fall of the Atlantic Wall.
               The reactivation of the West Wall in 1944 included the building of a number of small, one man pillboxes — essentially lightly armored rifle emplacements.
               Frontal attacks against the Wall, such as the one Tuffy was preparing for, would have first encountered rows of anti-personnel barbed wire.  Next would have been rows of dragon’s teeth or other types of tank traps intended to raise and pinion tanks and other heavy vehicles on concrete pyramids or metal spikes.  Mines would have been liberally sprinkled throughout these areas to discourage infantry and small vehicles.  Fire from the emplacements rooted behind these barriers, and from artillery and mortar support yet behind that, would have made it difficult for army engineers to place explosive charges or otherwise attempt to remove these obstacles — but this is often exactly what the attacking troops had to do in order to allow the armored vehicles a chance to approach the fortified emplacements.
               Though some historians tend to view the West Wall as more of a propaganda tool than a serious defense, the expenditure of American soldiers needed to overwhelm it was in the multiple thousands.  After all the firepower that aircraft and artillery could drop, it still required GIs packing relatively light weapons to approach and clear the enemy from Siegfried Line — pillbox by pillbox.
               Contemporary reports state that the typical situation was one pillbox every 300 feet, both in width and depth of the line, providing a field of overlapping fire.  Mines were common, especially along the most obvious approaches to the pillboxes — likely meaning those blind areas not under direct observation from one or more of the other pillboxes.  Besides pressure mines — the ones that detonated when stepped on or run over — there were remote mines.  These were buried in strategic locations, linked to one of the blockhouses by wire, and detonated by an observer inside the blockhouse.
               Against this seemingly impenetrable array, the GI had his own arsenal of weapons and tactics.  One was to move forward across open ground in those moments of still deep yet lessening morning darkness, and then be waiting in good tactical positions as the day began.  Apparently the enclosed positions of the enemy made it difficult to see under those lighting conditions.  Another was to move forward in tight formation behind armored vehicles.  Once the infantry team had gotten to the pillbox, they used flame throwers, bazookas, and concentrated rifle fire at pillbox ports to suppress enemy fire.  Demolition charges could be placed against the structures.  Or, if heavy earthmoving machinery was available, it was sometimes expedient to bury the pillboxes, leaving the defenders inside.
               White phosphorus grenades were another weapon of choice for the attacking GIs.  Once a breach had been blown in a pillbox, the GIs never went in.  Rather, any surviving Germans were asked to surrender.  If such did not occur, white phosphorus and fire from flamethrowers was poured into the defensive position until surrender was achieved, or no defenders were left alive.
               This was the no man’s land Tuffy and his companions were expected to take.
               As we pushed against the Siegfried Line, we moved onto this meadow,” Tuffy continued.  It had been torn all to hell by artillery and bombs.  There was a pillbox nestled in a draw at the end of the meadow.  We flagged down a tank and talked the commander into going after the pillbox.  We followed behind until he was close in.  Once we were close enough, we ran around the tank and got up on top of the bunker.  And we threw hand grenades down the airshafts until the Germans gave up.
               With some of the pillboxes we captured, the Germans agreed to give up, but took their time coming out.  With the SS troopers, they’d keep stalling, and when they did come out they’d have their shoes polished up all bright and shiny and the like.  Well — let’s just say waiting didn’t make us any happier, so we weren’t very nice to the SS troops when they did come out.  Let’s just say not very nice and leave it at that.”

Crossing the Siegfried Line.
(Photo from the National Archive.)

               As March’s first week ground to a close, the Fatherland’s West Wall in the Ormont area was breached by the 347th Regiment.  And the entire Siegfried Line began crumbling beneath the hammer of the allied army.
               Now the mud being treaded under GI boots was the sacred earth of the Thousand Year Reich.  And for Company M, the worst of the war was yet to come.

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