The Long Walk Out
We had fought well in the Battle for Bastogne--and we had paid a terrible price in lives of our comrades. We had been called up out of beds at 2:30 a.m., 17 December 1944, in our camp at Mourmelon-le-Grand, France. There the 101st Airborne Division packed, readied for battle, and were on the road in 380 open cattle trucks heading for Bastogne, Belgium, that same day. This was the first time in American military history that an entire division had been alerted and on the move toward combat in a matter of hours. It usually takes several weeks to ready a combat division for such a maneuver.
Upon arriving in Bastogne the division immediately went into action, attacking outward in all directions against far superior enemy armored forces. The 101st Airborne Division, without air support, held nine fully armed German divisions at bay for eight days and nights in subzero weather. We were aided only by a couple of battalions of the 9th and 10th Armored Divisions, one platoon of TDs of the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion, and one battery of 155s manned by Negro artillerymen of the 969th Artillery Battalion. Ill armed, clothed, and fed, together we held Bastogne for eight freezing and grueling days. Patton's 4th Armored Division attacked at Assenfois, 26 December 1944, on our southern perimeter to breach the German lines surrounding us. We were then resupplied with weapons, ammunition, clothing, food, and a few new troop replacements.
Once we had received weapons, ammunition, food, and clothing we immediately went into an attack that lasted an additional twenty-two days and nights without a letup. After thirty continuous days of battle our assigned mission had been accomplished. We had not only stopped the Germans' advance, but we had driven them back to the original lines of their jump-off attack in what was to become known as "the Battle of the Bulge." It had all begun for us at 2:30 in the morning on 17 December 1944. The end came at 9:10 p.m. on 17 January 1945.
Our battle for Bastogne was over. We had won. Fresh troops and armor had finally moved up to replace us and relieve us of our burdens, and our tour of hell in the frozen Ardennes had come to an end. For the last twenty-four hours the war had moved steadily on without us and now seemed far away. We could scarcely hear the low rumble of artillery in the distance as the Allies pushed the battle lines ever closer to the German border. The Germans did not continue the fight to gain or hold. They did, however, fight with vigor and determination and gave way slowly, grudgingly, to buy time to extract their troops and war materiel out of the Ardennes and back to the soil of the Fatherland, where each German would have good reason to fight.
We bivouacked among our foxholes in a large snow-covered field alongside a macadam road as we awaited orders. Large warming fires were built without regard to telltale smoke that only the day before would have invited incoming enemy artillery.
A truck convoy moving slowly came into view, then stopped in place on the road when they saw us. Several drivers dismounted and walked to us to identify our group. Once they were satisfied as to our identity they returned to their trucks, drove them into our field, circling back to face toward the road, and stopped. Drivers and crews dismounted, crawled into the backs of the trucks, and began throwing barracks bags, without much care or regard, over the tailgate and sides of the truck into scattered piles on the ground. We were told that these were our barracks bags and that we could go through them to identify and retrieve our own.
As before, while we were in combat fighting for our lives, some rear echelon had slit our bags open with knives and had looted everything of value, even stealing the picture frames of loved ones. This left us with nothing more than empty or near empty bags. Our clothes, jump boots, uniforms, hard-won war souvenirs, and money had all been stolen. Troopers protested to the truck crews, some to the point of accusing the SOS (Service of Supply) men of looting and theft and threatening to beat some of them. The SOS men nervously denied any knowledge of the theft and wasted no time in completing the unloading of their trucks and getting the hell out of the area.
Most of us left our looted and cut bags where they lay on the ground, returning in disgust to our foxhole area. Men sat around the fires in the snow and on their helmets, and while some began heating K-ration food on their trench knives, others began pulling off their boots--some of them for the first time in weeks--to see what was left of their feet.
I sat on the cold ground and unlaced my boots. They came off with some difficulty. My socks, what was left of them, looked like crud-encrusted spats, no toes or heels left in them. My feet had turned white as snow. Large cracks in the skin laced deep around them, and my toes were swollen. I washed them with slushy snow that had partially melted by the heat of the fire. While I was massaging my feet gently to bring back the blood circulation and warmth, some skin rubbed off. I had expected worse than that. I dried them thoroughly and pulled on some almost clean socks found in my looted bag and replaced my now dry boots. Many of the men's feet were in bad shape. Later, some men's toes, feet, or fingers had to be amputated.
General Maxwell D. Taylor had sent out a directive that all troopers be clean shaven, cleaned up, and looking their best before morning. So it was that later that afternoon, while we were sitting around the fires shaving, taking helmet baths, massaging our feet, scraping crud from our clothes with trench knives, and digging through what was left of our pillaged barracks bags, the 17th Airborne Division came marching up the road. The 17th troopers were fresh faced, well fed, clean shaven, and wore neat, clean jumpsuits.
Then we looked at ourselves. We had done our best, but our clothes were still somewhat dirty and ragged and we were gaunt and hollow-eyed, like we had been put through the mill. But we were full of spirit and began yelling friendly jibes at the newcomers, as is the custom with men of brother outfits. They responded in kind.
Some of the 17th Airborne troopers called back that they were here to relieve us and we'd better not get too damned smart or they wouldn't do it. It was difficult to believe. We thought immediately of hot showers, clean, warm bunks, clean uniforms, back pay, beer, wine, and women. And with most of us, in that order.
In reality, it was the 11th Armored Division, who had had their baptism of fire in the latter part of this battle and had, in those last days of the battle for Bastogne, fought alongside us to the end, who now relieved the 101st this day, 17 January 1945. The newly arrived 17th Airborne Division now moving up would be relieving the 11th Armored Division within the next few days.
Later that afternoon, as daylight waned and the air grew colder, our officers formed us up on the road to move out. The order of march was 3d Battalion, 1st Battalion, HQ, and 2d Battalion last, being relieved at 9:10 p.m. Moving into battle in Bastogne one month earlier, our order of march had been 1st Battalion, 3d Battalion, HQ, and 2d Battalion.
We were supposed to ride back to France in the same-style semitrucks pulling open cattle trailers that had transported us to the front surrounding Bastogne. However, for some reason the motor transport division would not drive up to where we were. We would have to walk eight miles back to a monastery where the men of the motor transport sat waiting for us. Monastery may not be the correct term for the building we were to rendezvous at, but that is the way our orders read.
At convoy speed on icy roads the trip would have taken the trucks between fifteen and eighteen...