134th Infantry Regiment Website
"All Hell Can't Stop Us"
Now, about the Moselle River crossing. I shall try to endeavor to be as free of intensity as I can be after 53 years. I oughta be rather free of it, but you've got to get excited about it to get a feel for it because there was great feelings. It's September the 10th, 1944 but at that particular time I didn't know the day of the week. I presume I knew it was September but I wouldn't bet my family farm on it. And certainly I didn't know it was Sunday, but I later learned that it was Sunday, September the 10th, 1944. The 2nd Battalion of the 134th Infantry Regiment was moving. We were moving across the rather open, rolling country, moving to take advantage of tree lines, fence rows and sunken roads. Concealment was a high priority. During the course of the day, we were under occasional artillery and mortar fire and long range machine gun fire. We suffered a few casualties.
We are just moving generally east. Late in the afternoon, four or five o'clock, we came up to the brow of an elevated cliff type terrain in the woods and lying in front and below us was the Moselle River, probably 500 to 700 yards away. We saw a bridge, a blacktop bituminous covered roadway, and this bridge crossed the river. I recall very clearly I was standing just four or five feet from the company commander whose name was Captain John Creech. Creech was a big six-foot, three or four, five-inch blonde-headed, blue-eyed Texan who went to school at Texas A&M. R.O.T.C. He was an Aggie and a top notch company commander and soldier. Captain Creech immediately got on his walkie-talkie and established contact with the battalion headquarters - somewhere in the immediate area but generally a little bit to the back somewhere - and he gave our location generally, explaining that there appeared to be a bridge that crossed the Moselle River several hundred yards in front of us and below us. There was an exchange of conversation back and forth and the conclusion of that series of conversations was that we would just hold up and the battalion would get back to us.
For the next maybe 30 minutes there was generally silence. There was little or no artillery activity of any sort; things were generally calm. Battalion came back on the radio and instructed Captain Creech and Company G and 2nd Battalion generally to hold up and that this situation was being referred to higher headquarters: to regiment and then - I have read since the war - to high military headquarters, maybe as high as SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, I believe it's pronounced "chef"). It was certainly a level that neither I nor even our company dealt with ordinarily. So in another 15 to 20 minutes, I'd judge, word came back that the plans were to dispatch our artillery to the far side of the mouth of the bridge crossing the river and into the bottom and cliff area on the other side. As the road wound its way down this bluff that we were standing on on one side of the river, the road was leading up to the top of the bluff on the far side upwards of half a mile to a mile distant.
So this barrage started timely at the given hour, 5:00 or 5:30 in the afternoon I would say, and lasted for 20 or 30 minutes. It was intense and unbelievably spectacular; we were looking out and down on it. The only thing that we were concerned about at the moment was that no short rounds would be involved because it was zooming right over our heads. So we'd hear it roaring in the background and then it would whistle as it started getting on the final trajectory and then we would hear a tremendous crack and boom. It was our battalion howitzer 105s and it was quite a show. They were kicking up a lot of stuff and when this occurred it was rather spectacular. This artillery was dropping just over the bridge. Some of them were close to the mouth of the bridge and some up into the higher level of bluff on the far side. And it was shifting. The whole battalion would be going one place and then the whole battalion would move to another place so it was shifting both horizontally and vertically. There was always a forward observer with the company or the battalion, and maybe two observers with the battalion. I can't recall that I was within view of the forward observer in this instance but on a few occasions I would look around and he would be lying a few feet right close to me. Anyway, this artillery preparation - as they called it - was finished and the order was that we were to hightail it - I think that maybe they used the word, something like that: "hightail" it - across that bridge. So the barrage was lifted.
We began to move the company and the battalion, but Company G is the only one I have specific knowledge of. We're all together there - the four platoons of the company - and we began to kind of like scramble down not an exceptionally steep bluff, but there were places where you held on to a little shrub or placed yourself in position so you wouldn't go skidding and falling too far. You'd have to watch your step. But at a lot of places it was kind of a gentle bluff with a little high precipice here and there. The total level from the river level might have been as much as a couple of hundred feet. So we scrambled down and got down on the roadway and then in single file began to approach the bridge. There was probably another platoon or so that was in front of us and these first soldiers of Company G got across with little or no casualties but by the time my platoon started there was a machine gun.
Enemy observers had begun to bear down on this situation. Of course they more or less had us under observation this whole approach, but particularly as we came down the cliff and got up on the roadway they probably had a clear vision of us. So when I ran across the bridge, there was a machine gun firing and there were casualties: people were dropping and right close to me. In front, I remember specifically that our Company G radio bearer (who had a larger field radio strapped to his back) was hit in line there as I passed by on a run. Of course we were running frantically across this bridge. He was lying on the bridge and there were other casualties so we were stepping over them.
I ran full force on the left-hand side of the bridge as near the bridge railing as I could get on this concrete bridge. I was hunched down, absolutely hunched down, running as fast as I could. And we would do it in bursts. One platoon at a time was trying to get across and was largely across before the next group of fellas would make the run. My squad was trying to move in single file but now there were people running and trying to dodge this machine gun. As I recall I stayed on the left side, but I know that the others jumped across the road and tried the other side. In any event, just before dark Company G and the bulk of the 2nd Battalion got across the bridge. Once across the bridge, my company was instructed to drop off to the left of the mouth of the bridge and the highway.
So, Company G of the 2nd Battalion - to make the story endurably short - got across the bridge, which must be about the length of the bridge here in Frankfort that's across the Kentucky River on so called Capitol Avenue: about 100 yards. So the battalion got across. I know either E or F Company were on the right-hand side of the road because there were two or three of those company fellas that mistakenly dropped over on our side and I recall that they attempted to time it so they could get run across the road between this machine gun fire. The battalion began to slowly move up to each shoulder off of the highway down to the relatively flat bottomland on each side. And as we began to do this, darkness had overtaken us. Darkness had fallen. And we moved up.
This was maybe a little later than 7:00 and we moved up on either side of the highway - this 2nd Battalion of the 134th Infantry Regiment - a goodly little distance, probably some 500 yards. So we had a bridgehead. And there were maybe even some platoons that were scattered out a little bit in the flat bottomland. This was just open country but there were trees, individual trees, standing all around here. There was a slow grinding halt to our movement and we began to hear the Germans talking up the highway, up the road as it elevated itself to get on top of the bluff. It was totally dark by then so you had to move slowly because of stumbling and falling if nothing else, because it was terribly dark that night. By that time also the German artillery was beginning to fire.
We're hearing the firing and the rounds are hitting on or near the bridge that was a few hundred yards now to our rear. And this continued on, this stalemated position that we occupied, for 30 minutes or an hour as I recall. Then the German artillery became more intense and heavy. They had this bridge under artillery fire, though it wasn't causing us too much trouble. At the moment it was not plaguing us, it was plaguing the few remaining guys that were still trying to cross; the Germans were seeing that we couldn't get any reinforcements across. When the artillery began to hit the bridge there was also a loud explosion or two that we heard and I've later read that the bridge was wired but for some reason was not detonated until our battalion got across. Maybe it was planned that way, maybe it wasn't.
In any event, the artillery and the loud explosion had blown out a section between piers on the bridge. The Germans began to move toward us and small arms fire began to be shot at us. And in short order, by ten or eleven o'clock, we were moving and pulling back. The whole battalion was pulling back down the edge of the highway at the bottom level on both sides. And in the course of the next hour or so we had pulled clear back to the river bank and the canal that ran right along with the river. It's 11:00 or later and it's pitch black. Midnight black. The German artillery began to slow down or be held up and the German infantry began a major attack. They were coming down the road and across the bottomland on either side of the highway right toward the river. We had slight protection from the river bank and as they got closer, we just opened up with all of our weapons.
The battalion on both sides of the road was firing at the approaching Germans. We were told to hold our fire until they got in there close; communication was easy because the whole battalion was kind of like packed in here. I don't know how far up and down the river we stretched but this was a rather compact situation and when they got within what we considered a safe distance, we opened up with our weapons. Of course this permitted the Germans then to pretty well determine to locate where we were because there was a rifle flash with every round that was fired out of each rifle barrel. So the Germans - their observers and the individuals themselves - could see exactly where we were and they knew the terrain better than we knew it. The assault was stopped at what I consider kind of the middle of the bottom area and then a great silence descended on this hectic scene, except for the Germans that we had hit. Some of them were hollering: I'm sure calling for their medics. The firing came pretty much down to zero with just a sporadic little bang now and then.
And the voices of the Germans were clear. Some of them were screaming from pain and agony. Others appeared to be giving orders or calling out names. It was all German out here in front of us and we aren't saying anything. We were not dug in because we didn't have time. We were just behind the river in whatever little fold we could find in the ground, to the extent that many of our boys' legs - including my own - were literally in the water. We were just peeping over the river bank enough to fire our weapons. So this existed for some 30 minutes and here they came again.
At this point maybe an hour total has elapsed so they just did what we often did: reorganized and probably some additional reserve company or something came up. So here they came again. The same thing, with no mortar preparation or anything, just small arms. Our artillery is not firing either; that part of it's over. Our company commander was on the radio trying to get some but things were very chaotic. Our battalion commander was wounded; I've read since the war that he got across the bridge a time or two but went back and got wounded on our so-called side of the river and was in a culvert being attended to. So Captain Creech couldn't establish contact with anybody. And of course Creech was demanding anti-tank support and artillery and reinforcements.
Now this second time this is what I vividly remember and I've talked to enough people to know that substantially my analysis is correct. They were stopped; the infantry was stopped a second time, and I'm sure with heavy casualties. I'm firing an M1 but we didn't even see them coming towards us; we were just firing wherever we could hear them and knew that to get to us they had to come from that direction. I think this was maybe a company or maybe a whole battalion across the way. And then quietness permeated the environment again. From the time they had started firing during this second assault until this silence was maybe 20 minutes, 30 minutes at most. And they were doing a lot of hollering, talking among themselves out here. It sounded as though they were almost doing a roll call, a voice here and a voice there. I don't speak German and didn't understand it but that's what the appearance was of something similar to that going on. This was not a new experience for us, hearing the voices. At night especially we heard German voices enough that we knew what they were doing.
What we called things like this aren't politically correct anymore but we didn't have good names for the Germans. Largely we'd call them "krauts," but sometimes Creech, sometimes Captain Creech would call them much more. Captain John Creech, I don't know if he's still living or not: he survived the war but got terribly wounded. Captain Creech would not hit the ground until the very last second from intense machine gun and small arms fire or artillery or anything. He would oftentimes stand hunkered and would protect himself with putting his chin under his left shoulder. He'd just raise his left arm and kind of duck his chin behind it and yell, "you goddamned son of a bitches. You're so close and yet so far. We can't get to you." That kind of conversation was frequent.
Anyway, the Germans were stopped. There was quietness again and artillery was let loose on the bridge again and it began to hit among us. I was probably 100 yards or so from the mouth of the bridge downstream, which would be to the left as you face crossing the bridge on the north of the bridge. All the Germans began to hit us with artillery and then pretty soon that lifted again. Then, kind of like up the road maybe quarter of a mile up toward the top of the bluff, we heard motors crank up. Bad news. And I remember Creech especially was back on the radio announcing that armor was approaching and that we either had to have some help or we were gonna be in deep trouble immediately. But he got no response. We couldn't get a response.
So the tanks didn't crank up their motors until after this second infantry attack. When that was over, some company commander or some German lieutenant with a radio must have got back to them that "we can't handle this." So within ten minutes, we heard the motors starting and the motors just existed, maybe warming the motors up or whatever they were doing. Then the slow, inexorable movement of the tanks down the highway. And I'm thinking, "this is gonna get us all." I had a sensation of being somewhat frantic, but more deeply I felt an almost certain impending doom, meaning death. When I heard the tanks that night with no light and I heard them loud and clear, I knew they were certainly less than a mile away. When the tanks started to approach (and I represent the sensation of everybody here, not just me), it was one of the most demoralizing and frightening experiences that you can imagine because we knew what was about to happen. Man against tank. Now I had two years of infantry training in the army - largely at Camp Wolters, Texas - and they did a lot to attempt to instill in individual infantrymen his ability to fight a tank. But it wasn't convincing. The army may think that they did a good job but believe me they never convinced anybody in training. And when you're faced with them, believe me, there's no sensation that if I do this or that I've got somewhat of a fighting chance. You have a sensation that there's no chance at all and folks, there isn't. The firepower, the awesome destructive force of a tank overwhelms everything in the immediate vicinity: the noise, the power, the awesome appearance of this monster, crushing trees out in front. And big things; running through buildings. A building that appears to resist or a structure that would maybe pose some obstacle to the tank itself, they'll turn loose a shell and those guns on those tanks will go through any kind of a normal structure and explode it. And they'll do this time after time and whirl around and twist to fire in any direction.
So within ten minutes after the first motor was heard, the Germans began to throw flares up that literally would light the whole countryside up. And we could see some dead or wounded Germans out here in this open bottomland in front of us, maybe a half dozen as close as 200 feet away. Of course when the flare would go out before the next one would come on it might be a minute or three minutes or something where darkness was with us again. And the darkness was worse because you were kind of blinded almost. It went from sudden bright light to total darkness. The tanks began to get closer to us; they were just coming down the road.
As the tanks approached, I saw three tanks. I have understood that there were probably as many as seven tanks involved in this but I only saw three and they were all higher up on the roadway. There was a tank operating over in the flat bottomland too but I never saw it. This is on our side of the road, the north side. I presume that the same applied over just 40 feet across the roadway on the other side. The tanks moved slowly and were firing artillery and firing their guns, both the shell weapon and their machine guns. And everybody held firm until the lead tank got within I'd say 25 yards at most, maybe closer than that. It was up on the highway here and we could see it very visibly when the flare was in effect. Then it stopped and the shelling from the tank really turned loose right in my midst as well as the machine gunning.
See, they knew where we were then. At that juncture, I heard Creech scream very loudly "every man for himself," and I had never heard that before. So the flare went down, disappeared, and the tank moved closer to the mouth of the bridge and to where I was. He was within 100 feet up on the bank, up on the highway. And I was down here at river level along with the whole company. The height of the terrain above the water was not over two feet. It was very low: you'd splash in the water maybe with your left foot and your right foot would hit on fairly solid ground. And our guys were lined up shoulder to shoulder on that little bank thinking we had some security or cover. A lot of those guys were killed; I think they probably fell back into the canal and disappeared in the water.
I can't tell whether the tank was able to hit close to me or not, though artillery of some sort was hitting close enough that it literally almost jarred me and a boy by the name of Sergeant Hoover that I was lying right next to. We were behind the bank just a little bit and the shell hit close enough into the soil here in front of us that it knocked us momentarily in the edge of the water even more. So when this happened, Creech had screamed "every man for himself," which was repeated by a number of people, all hollering out on their own, "everybody for themselves," or something to that effect. Since July, I'd been with Creech and knew that Creech had never even remotely thought about this every man for himself business. Meaning, you know, that the jig is up when every man is for himself. It's a bad situation.
At this juncture, Hoover - Sergeant Hoover from Pennsylvania, who spoke and understood German - began to holler "comrade." By this time German infantry were on the highway, up milling around the tank; they'd moved this last 25 yards or something right with the tank. And so here these German soldiers were around about the tank and Hoover began to scream "comrade," and both of us started to kind of like scramble up the bank trying to surrender. By that time there were boys - American soldiers - in the water trying to swim. Others were hollering "comrade," meaning they were surrendering all round about.
At that second, I was the same way Hoover was. Hoover had some sort of a handkerchief or cloth, it wasn't white but he was waving it in one hand. I had a hand up, maybe both hands, as I kind of pulled myself up the bank and I attempted to give up. I wish I could explain all the feelings and sensations I had, but here's what I think. I think all these questions pop through your mind like "how in the hell did I get in this predicament," "what's going on here," "what did any of us here do to deserve this." But that's preliminary to the final minutes and crunch of a shell landing or a bullet whistling by your ear, or these tanks being right on top of us. At that juncture, some way or the other, survival and instinct - even surviving - give up. Because I started up the bank and up the sloping of the fill on which the highway itself was built and I was giving up. So that was a survival instinct. Survival determined I give up. The fight had gone and I was still alive and I was surrendering. And I was scared to death.
Then the flare just lit up everything again and the two or three Germans that were right up here were not over 12, 15 feet above me. They had their weapons but they weren't shooting at me. So when the flare came on, I saw them and then I saw that if I ran I could jump in the water like I was hearing other boys do and I just made this spontaneous move. There was no thought: I decided to escape if I could. The tank is maybe ten yards from me at that point, so I could almost reach out and touch him but one of the most dangerous situations in combat is the attempt of an enemy or you or your own crowd attempting to surrender and I knew it well from prior experiences. And so that's maybe why I elected to take this chance and run maybe 50 feet or less away from the tank down the river bank and then dive in the water.
I had not lost my capacity to make a split second decision between going on up here a few more feet with my hands up and the Germans surrounding me - and maybe getting mowed down any split second by some German infantrymen or having this tank machine gun whip around a little bit right on me - or taking this terrible chance of ducking here and jumping in the river. And there was no rational thing except my instinct to survive. That's all. So with that knowledge - and I had that knowledge more than that thought - I elected to get away from these Germans and the German tank. I was conscious that some other guys were doing this too. Some of them had jumped in right there beside of me. My friend Hoover was speaking German and that afforded a split second reprieve more or less and I picked that up. So I started with him, then I had this instinct to get down the river bank just a few feet, maybe 20 feet, maybe 50 feet. I don't know. It was just right there.
I had made up my mind and I could only do one thing. So I ran, stooped as best I could, maybe 50 feet and I wasn't looking back. I took my field jacket off while I was running and I was just enough above the water that I was taking advantage of some cover, though it was probably a false sensation on my part of having any real protection. I got my steel helmet off also but I kept my helmet liner and held it in my hand. I needed to get my leggings off because I knew that they would drown you so I got one legging off but I was having trouble with the other so I stopped, hunkered down just under as much bank as I could, long enough to get that second legging off. I'd already thrown my rifle in the water as I'd largely spent if not totally spent my bandoliers of ammunition; I did that before Hoover and I started with our hands up. So once the second legging was off, I just jumped and just dove in the water. All this happened within a few seconds. You know, maybe thirty seconds. I'd say less than a minute.
Now believe me, at that time it was fear total. It's total fear but that don't render you helpless. I don't think every individual is subject to being scared out of their wits; I never lost sight of reality. I could move and most people can, I feel. But I have seen a boy, when we were under an artillery attack or something, that hit the ground and then he was not touched and he was mentally alright except he couldn't physically get up. He was locked up stiff as a board. But I was not like that nor were many of these people. I don't know if none of those kinds of people existed here at the Moselle crossing, I can't say that. But most of us could move even though the moment called for max fear. This was one of my worst moments for being afraid, but I was in combat from July to mid-November and I'd had a lot of close calls.
I was being so cautious and that might have protected me a little. Well, that and the German infantry that was up there was probably becoming distracted by these "Hoovers" that made it up and were actually standing in front of them with their hands out: the guys that were surrendering. So the machine gun and the German infantry missed me, in my opinion, because they were distracted by the prisoners. They just failed to see me or they would've mowed me down of course. There was just so much going on; we're talking about on both sides of the roadway there. That's not to say I thought about all of this when I made my decision to flee. I wasn't doing anything rational; it was just instinct to survive.
So I jumped in the water and for the first half of my swim the German tank machine guns (especially on the lead tank) extracted a terrible toll on us fellas that were attempting to swim. As I'm swimming across, the flares continued and I'm seeing guys getting hit in the water. I was frantically trying to keep from drowning and hoping I didn't get mowed down with machine gun fire. There were other American boys screaming in the water. Some were drowning, having been hit and this machine gun just ripping them apart up and down. But they missed me, the tank and the lead tank machine gun.
The first thing I had to get across, and the thing that saved my life by getting across, was a canal. Now the canal bank was what we were really behind during the earlier engagement and it runs along parallel with the river. There's some rapids in the Moselle right here and - like our canal in Louisville around the bypass and the waterfalls waterfalls there in the Ohio River - this is a canal around these rapids in the Moselle river. This canal is, I'd say, probably 50, 75 feet wide. And that's what I crossed first. So, you see, the bridge itself crosses both the river and the canal, this one structure. When I ran along this dirt embankment and jumped in that water, I had to swim across this canal and it was deep, very deep. I wasn't really diving under; I was just swimming the best I could because I had all these clothes on. I'm a fair swimmer, just a fair swimmer. But before I could reach the bank, I just couldn't keep my head above the water. I was having a terrible struggle from fatigue and probably fear. So the thing that saved me was that I was able at one juncture to get my chest on this helmet liner a little bit and it helped a little bit. Finally the last few yards I couldn't get my chest back on it and I even lost it but there was an overhanging willow tree with a limb that I caught. That saved my life because I would've drowned right there within feet of the bank but I couldn't make it any farther and that limb saved my life. I'd say the limb was ten feet out and I caught it and pulled myself up the bank maybe 20 feet and I just collapsed in some tall weeds.
It seems to me now, reflecting back, that the battle stopped probably 30 minutes after I got across the canal. But even while I was crossing there was still a lot of heavy fire, particularly the machine gun on the lead tank. There was no American firing; it was all over; we were out; we'd been zapped. It's my impression that (as I did) there was a great throwing of weapons in the canal by many guys as they attempted to surrender or escape. Because we didn't want to leave them; we didn't want to make them available for the Germans. So I think that was a common thing that occurred because we were all standing there, lying practically in the water itself and we just threw our weapons. We were using what little bank there was for cover; the whole company was kind of lined up like a bunch of birds on a worm, almost shoulder to shoulder.
OK. So now I'm between the canal and the river and you see we really didn't know at that point - not until the flares came up did we know - that it was this canal plus the river. So I stayed there and that's where I spent two hours or more before dawn, in tall weeds. There are lots of different noises. There's tank engines running and I'm hearing these seven tanks in different places up and down the highway. I'm hearing no American fire; it's totally ceased. I hear machine guns sporadically, just bursts; the German infantry is only participating a little at this point. I distinctly heard one burp gun making its music. But the tank machine guns had stopped firing as I'm in the bushes now and hearing all of this. Then eventually things began to subside and I'm hearing German voices, no Americans at all. I never heard an American voice. I'm hearing hollering: controlling and assembling the prisoners. And I could still hear people suffering on the battlefield and screaming. Certainly some Germans and probably Americans too. There are different kinds of screams: some high-pitched, some low, some shrill, some mournful. Some of them kind of in the last throw because I'm sure that they suffered substantial casualties.
I did not know that the bridge had been totally blown out so I was terribly concerned because I thought that they could've come pouring back across the bridge and counterattack and get the ones that escaped. Or maybe this might represent a major counterattack. There's a lot of things going on in that time. I've got thinking time. I'm suffering from the elements and suffering from the knowledge that my friends have been killed. I know that they're gone. And I'm suffering from fear because I'm still scared that I'm not gonna get out. I'm laying in the tall weeds and I'm cold and shivering and have been traumatized to the max. And the German firing continues.
Within 30 minutes I hear the tanks moving back and the firing becomes more sporadic until eventually the battlefield becomes completely silent. And I kind of realize that I'm still alive. I felt like I had survived but while I was there in the tall weeds and it was still dark, I didn't know whether I was the only survivor. That's running through my mind. It just made the whole nightmarish experience more devastating, more awesome. So I kept this terrible burden and terrible sense of foreboding that while I was still alive I didn't have a great deal of hope of still escaping. There were no Germans talking, no Americans, no nothing. Of course, many Americans had been killed. The ones that did survive and were captured had been taken up the road.
It's total silence. You see, there's no traffic. You hear no traffic on any highway, you don't hear German Percheron horses, you don't hear American Jeeps. You don't hear anything. You hear silence. Total silence. And, of course, I'm miserable because I'm cold and I'm demoralized because I've lost friends and I'm scared. But I don't think I was doing any praying; I don't believe you could pray much under these circumstances. I'm not given to that. I'm not inclined that way. But, you know, there are no atheists in foxholes and I think that's true. On the other hand, that doesn't remove the innate doubts of the human mind. I've had friends that were prayerful. They took a prayerful approach and they were mowed down. So I don’t think you pray feeling that that insulates you in any way.
I was not praying and I did not go to sleep. I was lying flat curled up kind of in the fetal position, I guess: shivering. I remember violent shivers. I mean just shaking, 'cause I was frozen. I think the shivering kind of like consumed my mind to tell you the truth. The experience that I just endured, plus being physically totally drained, plus being cold, wet, and sopped on this chilly September night. It was misery compounded with the experience I had just endured. My teeth were chattering and I was shaking. I remember biting my teeth together to keep from chattering. If I'd been inclined to moan or done anything to make a noise, you see, I was afraid the Germans would hear. I was not out of machine gun range; I just went as far as I could. I had concealment and a little water between me but I was still in firing range, even small arms impact zone. Now when this action first started, I didn't know and none of us knew that this canal and the river were separated because we had crossed the bridge. But there were two bodies of water here: the canal is where the battle itself took place and then maybe 200, 300 feet right behind the canal is the river itself.
It's dark, about 1:00 in the morning. Of course, nights get cool in France in September and I was drenched from head to toe. So I spent two more hours (two and half, three at most) before dawn just in violent shivers. The next morning, as far as I knew, it appeared I was the only person on the planet; there was nothing and when dawn came there was just a few birds chirping around. Just at dawn I very quietly eased over to the river bank and I picked out a spot just below where these rapids were where the water was relatively calm. I heard an odd noise and I thought I heard a voice so I froze momentarily and laid down on the ground. The sun was not up and I was still totally, totally, totally wet and totally weak. Totally cold. Totally stressed. I'd been zapped every way you can be zapped, emotionally and physically. I hadn't eaten food recently. See, everything was disastrous, every way you figure it. But I heard kind of talk and I laid there just a minute and here came two GIs down the river looking for a place to cross: survivors. Well, I can't tell you how uplifting that was, though they were in one of the other companies and I didn't know them.
We weren't sure that the Germans were not in the area so we talked about it and we probably waited 30 minutes to see if we could hear anything that posed a threat to us. And it was total silence: the Germans and Americans had gone. During this time, we all talked about all the same things I have just talked about. We rehashed what happened to us and each of us explained that our best friends were either drowned or killed or were attempting to give up when we hit the water. So I think we all felt like there was opportunity now to exist and to survive and we wanted to face the effort now of trying to complete the survival.
So the three of us crossed the stream and we did it by swimming one at a time because we were all in the same boat and we didn't know if any of us could. We thought we had escaped the German tanks but we thought we might drown trying to finish off the task. There were some big rocks so I made my way across those rocks as far as I could, then took off my shirt and undershirt. Then I took off my shoes and tied them together and just looped the strings around my neck and I jumped in the water and I swam probably 50, 60, less than 100 feet. We were below the rapids, just below the rapids, and the water was fairly calm so all three of us made it. Not until I ran into these two similarly-misfortuned individuals and we got across the river did I have a sense of euphoria and I think the other two guys did too. It was kind of exhilarating in a wild sort of way. All the sudden I realized that life is there and has a value and that I have escaped. I have left the depths of hell here and there's nothing happening right now. So the three of us then, we just sat down. This was 45 minutes after daylight and we sat down and we talked about "here we are."
After a short time, we elected to go in the direction from which we thought we had come the day before, staying in wood lines and woods and fence lines so that we would not attract German fire. We spaced ourselves probably 20 feet apart or more and stayed strictly in the woodland edge of woods. Even across the bottom, we found a tree line leading up on a little small spring branch so when we got to that branch, we had a little cover. And that's the way we got across the bottomland. We didn't feel like we were exposed so we began to feel like we were human again and that we were gonna survive. And we all talked about this sensation that we felt like that we were gonna survive this. We even had a slight feeling of some exhilaration at this point as we began to leave the river and the canal and the site where disaster had struck. We did not glance back in the daylight to see the battlefield. We couldn't because we were on the other side of the canal and in woods. The 200 feet separating the canal and the river were rather heavy wooded just like it would be here: tall weeds, bushes and large trees.
Along about noontime, one o'clock, we ran into an American unit that had heard of the terrible debacle and they put us on a Jeep and took us to the post of the regimental commander, Miltonberger, which was a hole about ten feet square and about fifteen feet deep covered heavy with logs and brush and dirt. And he had us come down the steps into this hold and wanted to know exactly what happened from our standpoint. We gave him our report, which is substantially what I just described. So, this is a stand-out occasion because it probably represented the largest number of casualties in one action that the 35th Division suffered during the war. I'm sure it did. And the percentage of killed, captured and wounded is astronomically high. It was kind of a lost battalion. This is a special war event: the crossing of the Moselle by the 2nd Battalion, 134th Infantry Regiment, 35th Division. It's unique in the severity and the ferociousness of the battle itself and also the destruction. I mean, we lost a battalion and that is a major disaster. It's a rare thing that you have a situation like Custer where there's nothing left in the history of the world. This is not exactly comparable but it's an indication that there's similarities; it's a historical event. A battalion had probably as many as 800 soldiers. The battalion lost roughly 600 of the 800 soldiers, killed, wounded, captured or missing. The battalion was decimated. As the regimental commander - in a letter that I received from him - said: it was beyond its capacity to function.
The next day, replacements began to be brought up. Now, we were in a woods, just this mere handful of us that survived. It was September the 12th and it was dry; it quit raining. And it was reasonably bright so the trucks that brought these replacements up within 500 feet of where I had my foxhole dug on a back one-lane kind of dug-in road. Of course dust was stirred up and kicked up by these trucks and there were at least a half a dozen of these trucks bringing replacements for the whole battalion. And don't you know the German artillery spotted us, spotted that dust rising. Because, see, we weren't maybe more than a mile away from the river or less. And by gosh they turned an intense artillery barrage just in the immediate area of where this dust stopped rising and there were boys that were killed and wounded that hadn't gotten off the truck. Just a few days ago (or maybe ten days, two weeks) they had been in the States and then they were wounded or killed getting off of the truck. That happened. The ironies of war are unbelievable. That demoralized us and it demoralized the replacements too. I think that expression was used, you know: "we can’t escape; this thing is with us."
So that's pretty much my story. I will say that on September the 7th, of 1997 (three days shy of 53 years it was) the French at this little village (Flavigny) just about a mile from the bridge across the Moselle erected a most beautiful monument right at the edge of the highway and at the mouth of the bridge that we entered to run across. It is a most impressive monument dedicated to the 2nd Battalion of the 134th Infantry Regiment and especially, of course, to the dead and missing. I was there for the dedication and it was a very elaborate affair. And I'll have to say that I spent a very traumatic ten minutes when I first got to the bridge because I lost a great number of close buddies. There are little tears coming up in my eyes right now because it's still there and very much with me.
Flavigny is a little town that's some ten to fifteen miles south of Nancy and maybe as big as Springfield: about 2,000 people. And on my trip there, I had a visit with a great number of these people and they had documented accounts that they found dead American GIs for two weeks up and down the river, the canal, and in the woodland area. It's vividly described by probably a dozen Flavigny citizens who were young folks at the time.
I've also had extensive conversation through mail with these people and there are two or three letters from two or three now elderly women, one of whom said she was twelve years old and had hid out as the French did, trying to survive. You see, they went through the same thing: they were scared to death too. They spent much time in basements and some of them were sent as far away as Marseille. The French did lots of things to survive the war themselves.
So this young lass was 12 years old and a week or ten days after the battle they were trying to get back to normalcy. As the French were prone to do, they would buy all their bread daily from a bakery and she had to come down the road by the bridge. She couldn't get across the bridge because it'd been blown out but she didn't have to. She took a path that was close to the canal and she found two dead GIs. It was very traumatizing to her and she's written about it and I must have three or four accounts similar to that.
Memorial at Flavigny, France
From left to right: Paul J. Dwyer (134th - HQ Company), Edward A. Farris (134th - G Company) and Fred Roecker (General Roecker's son)
Thanks to Nicholas Tuma from the Nebraska National Guard Museum for this interview