Soldiers don't die

"A man dies only when he is forgotten"

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Winter in Hurtgen Forest

In November 1944, the 8th Infantry Division was sent into the Hurtgen Forest (Hurtgenwald) to relieve the devastated 28th Division, which had earned its morbid title of "The Bloody Bucket" This dark and dense pine forest was heavily defended by camouflaged Germans, who fired artillery shells at the tree trunks to create deadly flying splinters. The US infantrymen in their dark green uniforms were all too visible in the white snow. The temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero, the ground was blanketed in snowdrifts and so frozen solid that, according to veterans, the men had to chisel foxholes in the ice with bayonets or blast them open with hand grenades.  The things the men experienced were almost too terrible to imagine. It has been compared to the muddy mire of Passchendaele and the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge. Ammunition was running low, the men had only frozen K-rations to eat and they were not issued proper jackets and gloves to protect from the bone chilling cold.

There is of course no film record of this period in Mel's photo collection, but three pictures appear in the official regimental history published in 1946. It seems to have been glossed over because the US Army didn't want the world to know about its worst defeat.

The men here are on patrol in the snowy forest, a deceptively beautiful scenery. They are wearing 'snow capes' as an attempt at camouflage, which seem to be no more than bedsheets and offer no protection from icy winds.

Below is rare film footage showing a similar scene as pictured above.

This heavily loaded weapons carrier has slid on the ice and fallen into a ditch, despite chains on the tires. Most of the dangers of the forest were invisible in the deep snow.

A view of the ruined town of Hurtgen with a muddy street flooded by a thaw. The houses appear bombed out shells and there are downed power lines visible in the left of the picture.

This purposefully forgotten battle and the Ardennes campaign (Battle of the Bulge) are where Mel earned his Combat Infantry Badge as a BAR gunner, and supposedly was wounded in the arm. He either wasn't cited for a Purple Heart or he threw away his medal, of this I will never be sure. There is only a story that my great aunt told me and the scar that my grandpa never talked about.

40 years before I was born, this is where my grandfather was, in a place that was given names like the "Death Factory" and the "Green Hell." No wonder he never said a word about it.

The after-action reports and strategic documents from this campaign were classified as secret following the war. Only fifty years later did the tight-lipped veterans start to break their silence.