Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Frank, Part IV: War

70th Infantry Division "Trailblazers"
shoulder sleeve insignia

After a five-hundred-mile journey in a freight car to Brumath from Marseilles, Frank and his company were cramped and tired, but the freedom to move about and the adrenalin rush from this new adventure made the orders to march to their new destination not so intolerable. Brumath had been blacked out, and those residents who remained hung French flags from their windows to show they were not German sympathizers. It was a quiet, cold, depressing place. The men left Brumath in their winter gear and full field packs and began their journey eastward in the cold, damp winter air. After passing through the first town draped similarly to Brumath in both flags and silence, and an hour later into the second, the men were dragging and faltering. The exhilaration of a new adventure was muted by the occasional appearance of steel helmets resting upon new white crosses along the roadside. After nearly ten miles and complete exhaustion, the men reached Bischwiller, France. They were rewarded with additional rations for their Christmas Dinner, 1944: one canned "Egg Unit" per man and one "Partial Dinner Unit."

It was in Bischwiller that Frank and the other men got their first ammo. As an infantryman, this is what Frank had trained for, and having a fully-loaded Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) gave him the thrill of realizing the days of endless tactical drills and dry runs were behind him, but apprehension and dread realizing these bullets were now distributed to kill men. The remaining two days in Bischwiller were filled with readying the men for combat, and on 27 December 1944 they received their first combat assignment: they were to move under the veil of darkness that night to relieve defensive elements of other divisions along the snow-covered banks of the Rhine River.

Tensions were rising in the Alsace area of France. The Germans occupied the east bank of the Rhine River, and they were well-ensconced along the Siegfried Line: a line of forts, bunkers and pillboxes built by Germany in the 1930s opposite the French Maginot Line. These defensive lines were built in response to the losses incurred in the First World War, but now were used to great advantage by the Germans along the river. It was also rumored that the Germans were amassing a significant amount of manpower in the area to crush the opposing armies on the Western Front in northeast France. The German offensive, called Operation Nordwind, had only one primary objective, as stated by Adolf Hitler himself on 28 December 1944:
"This attack has a very clear objective, namely the destruction of enemy forces. There is not a matter of prestige involved here. It is a matter of destroying and exterminating the enemy forces wherever we find them... It is more important, as I said before, to destroy his manpower."
Frank's regiment moved by motor to the west bank of the Rhine River on the night of 27 December 1944 with little fanfare. On the morning of the 28th, the German army could be seen directly across the river strolling amongst the concrete pillboxes. Although the men were warned of Germans crossing the river at night, often disguised as French nationals or American soldiers, there was little combat in these first few days. The temperatures were plummeting and snow was falling. Tensions were high and nerves were frazzled. Gunshot was exchanged intermittently across the river, but it was mostly a waiting game.

Although they were yet to be engaged in bloody combat, this was still the front lines, and this was war. Two Americans were seriously injured when they stepped on a land mine on 29 December 1944, and two men from Company I disappeared on the night of 1 January 1945, having been captured by German soldiers. On 30 December 1944, and again two days later, the men of Frank's infantry unit were ordered to relieve more and more troops being pulled from the banks of the Rhine and sent into active combat. By the beginning of 1945, they were responsible for maintaining the integrity of a 21-mile stretch of river bank. Men of all sections were on 24-hour duty. Fatigue, cold, anxiety and fear were exacerbated during the New Year by a violent outbreak of dysentery that incapacitated nearly every man in the regiment. Each day brought more worrisome news. The German forces were pushing heavily into the area and fear of armored attacks increased daily as the men fought to strengthen and fortify their positions.

And then it came. On 3 January 1945, the 274th regiment was to withdraw from the sector immediately and move toward La Petite Pierre to await further instructions. Frank and his fellow soldiers knew nothing about the Germans movements, and they worried that they were being encircled and cut off from any support. Tensions were high as the trucks arrived later that night, and they began their march to La Petite Pierre in a heavy steady snow.

Frank had his initiation to combat on the banks of the Rhine River, but it was time to leave defensive maneuvers behind, and think offensively. They were readying to meet the Germans head-on. In the forests. In the mountains. And in the snow.

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