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My dad was an MP attached to the 28th division — the old PA National Guard. In November 1944, his MP platoon was responsible for directing traffic on what GIs called “Skyline Drive.” The route ran more or less north/south through Luxembourg and Belgium along the front line between the US and German Armies. It was called Skyline Drive because it ran along the crest of ridges and reminded GIs of the roadway along the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia and West Virginia.
The 28th division occupied this section of the front in the Ardennes Forest. It was considered a “quiet” sector and the 28th was supposed to be resting and absorbing replacements after their hard fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. Each regiment of the 28th occupied a stretch of front that would ordinarily be occupied by a full division. As a result, there was no continuous front.
During the day, the 28th occupied an outpost line on the east side of Skyline Drive. After dark, the troops were withdrawn to the west side of Skyline Drive and the roadway became a no-mans-land owned by no one, with patrols of both Armies crossing this way and that. That being the state of affairs, the MPs could expect contact with Germans at any time during the morning. Instead of sidearms and nightsticks, they carried regular infantry weapons. And It’s a good thing they did.
The morning of December 16 was foggy and misty with visibility down to 200 yards max. My dad’s MP section was up and moving in the pre-dawn hours … getting ready to meet the day, dressing, shaving, and gearing up. That’s when the German machine-gun fire began. No one outside the farm building they occupied made it. My dad said he was shaving. He had the shaving mirror attached to a post of the post-and-beam barn. Machine gun rounds peppered the building but he was spared by the thick beam he was standing behind.
The surviving Americans boiled out of the farm building … heading for the nearby woods. This began an hour-long game of hide-and-seek between American GIs and German paratroopers. There were long periods of walking and hiding punctuated by short, fierce, terrifying firefights as each group sought the other in the mist and fog.
At one point, the Americans had a few German prisoners; the Americans were divided about what to do. Some wanted to execute the Germans, but it was agreed that, with Germans all around, shooting the prisoner was too noisy. And no one volunteered to kill them quietly with a knife or bayonet. So they were bound and gagged and left in an out-building.
Eventually, the scratch group of MPs hooked up with an infantry company screening a battery of the 109th field artillery battalion — our hometown National Guard outfit. My dad said he really had no idea how bad things really were until then. They reported to the company CO. He was visibly relieved to have eight additional guys with carbines. My Dad says they tried to explain that they needed to report back to their division commander in Clervaux. The Company CO said, “No. You two guys are in this hole. You two guys are in that hole. You two guys are in that hole over there.”
They spent the rest of the long morning defending the guns of 109th. The artillerymen had the fuses, range, and elevation set to “zero” and were shooting right over the heads of the infantrymen defending their positions. But the guns were not overrun. In the afternoon, the artillery was ordered to displace and the infantry CO released the MPs to go about their business. They headed for division HQ in Clervaux.
They made it back to the 28th HQ in just in time for the order that everybody — “and I mean everybody, every swinging d—k, clerks, typists, cooks, supply officers, everybody who could hold a rifle” — to form up and defend the town. They got some coffee and a fresh load of ammunition and headed back out to the line. They spent the rest of the day and night desperately trying to keep the Germans out of Clervaux. To no avail. On the 17th, they displaced again to the town of St. Vith.
My Dad always had kind words to say about airborne troops. The 101st Airborne is the unit most remembered — made famous by their defense of Bastogne. But the 82nd was detailed to the defense of St. Vith. My Dad and the remnants of the 28th Infantry, 7th Armored, and 9th Armored divisions gathered into the horseshoe defense were never so happy as to see the trucks containing the 82nd Airborne arriving in St Vith. They considered themselves saved. Between then and December 22, they wrestled the northern prong of the German offensive to a halt. They had the advantage of position. They could, and did, trade a kilometer or two or three for time. It worked.
In a 1965 analysis of the attack on St. Vith, German General Hasso von Manteuffel said:
It is the war of the small men, the outpost commanders, the section commanders, the company commanders; those were the decisive people here, who were responsible for success or failure, victory or defeat. We depended upon their courage; they could not afford to get confused, and had to act according to their own decisions, until the higher command was again in a position to take over. I believe I can say, and I have the right to make this judgment, that the Germans did this admirably well, at the same time however, I am also convinced this was the case with the American forces, who after all succeeded in upsetting the entire time schedule, not only of the attacking unit in St. Vith, but also of the 5th and 6th Panzer Armies. That is a fact which cannot be denied.
Thanks to you, Dad, and to all the others who did then what I doubt we’d be able to do today.Published in