Sunday, March 23, 2014

Frank, Part VI: Battle

The ruins of the church and rectory of Rothbach, France, 15 March 1945

By 6 January 1945, all battalions were in defensive positions along the mountain pass north of Rothbach, France. Frank Strukel and the rest of Company L were in position on high ground northwest of the pass facing Company I on the southeast. In the pre-dawn hours of 7 January 1945, the 45th Division sent secret orders for one reinforced rifle company from Company L to be sent to the east bank of Rothbach creek to block the escape of German troops who would be driven eastward by an attack launched by the 276th Infantry. Machine guns from Company M would support the advance. Frank was one of the rifleman chosen to be among the advancing company.

Before sunrise, the rifleman spread out and advanced forward across the snow and over the first hill. When they reached the bottom, they would regroup, spread out and do the same with the second. It was nearing 9:00 a.m. when they reached the top of the fourth hill having met no resistance. With clear visibility it would be easy to see the darkly clad German soldiers against the snowy white backdrop upon the rise of each hill, but the rush down each slope was done from tree to tree not knowing if small groups of the enemy were hiding in the tree line. Pfc. Gray and Pfc. Rocco DiGiogio, in the lead of the rifle company, made the first descent down the fourth hill. Pfc. Gray stepped around a large rock and directly into a German machine gun nest. Their eyes trained elsewhere, the German soldiers did not see him. Gray ducked quickly behind the rock and blindly tossed a grenade toward the unsuspecting German nest. It was a near hit, and the Germans were sent into a quick retreat, trailing blood behind them.

The battle had begun.

Immediately after the boom of the grenade subsided, German soldiers poured from the woods in full force from concealed fortifications. Deadly fire rained down upon the American soldiers. Frank and the other rifleman of Company L continued to push forward. Private Glenn C. Luker rushed forward to a rocky ledge and was met by German gunfire to the head. Sergeant Eugene B. Jackson rushed to Luker to offer assistance and slipped from the icy ledge, twisting his knee and rendering him prone, unprotected and useless. Private Kenneth M. Kirby stepped from behind a tree to return the enemy's gunfire. His rifle jammed, and he was shot in the thigh and left leg. All three men would survive.

The Germans were now in range to begin mortar fire. The soldiers were showered with shell fragments amidst the explosion of tree tops and branches. Pfc. Stanley Wrubel of Company L noted, "There's something about a tree burst that drains the nerve right out of a guy. You can always escape bullets if you're in a hole or behind a rock. But a tree burst sends shrapnel right down in the hole to get you. It's just like rain, only it's steel instead of water."

By 11:00 a.m. Frank was with Company L fighting in the valley beyond the fourth hill while the machine guns of Company M were in position on the slope behind them. The American machine gunners were hit hard by enemy fire as well. A return stream of enemy fire hit Sergeant Damon B. Taylor in the knee. When he fell to the ground Pfc. Harry S. Bannan took over Taylor's gun and was shot and killed by enemy fire. Lieutenant John D. Duffy grabbed the gun himself, got his hands on the trigger and was also killed immediately by gunfire to the head and neck. While tending the wounded men, Sergeant Theophilus Schnell was hit in the throat, and he too died right away. Taylor would be the only survivor.

Company L was edging forward, fighting for every inch of ground, but they were kept at bay by constant German machine gun fire. Lieutenant William Q. Smith took four of his men from his platoon and crept around the enemy's right flank in an attempt at taking out a machine gun nest from the rear. Discovered, the surprised and frightened German soldiers swung the machine gun around onto the man and opened fire. Sergeant John A. Chiapetta was killed outright. When Sergeant William J. Coyle fell to the ground and cried, "I'm hit---," the enemy sent another round of fire into his prone body.

As the afternoon wore on, Frank and the men of Company L were stalled by the persistent machine gun fire from the opposition. Second Lieutenant Thomas E. Burkett was leading the platoon that included Frank L. Strukel and James M. Hanson. Burkett decided to split the platoon into two squads. He sent Hanson and his men to go through the woods to another side of the hill to high ground to see if they could sight the machine gunners and take them out. As Hanson described it, "as we got to the top of the hill and looked down the other side we saw about thirty Germans dug in, including a machine gun position. Their backs were to us. We moved into a line of skirmishers as we had been taught and continued forward. When we were about twenty or thirty yards from the nearest German, one of them saw us and fired at us. We all started firing. We had caught them by surprise and were doing a lot of shooting. Soon, they all put down their rifles, stood up and put their arms up and threw their helmets away. They were our first prisoners of war."

Lieutenant Burkett had stayed behind and asked for volunteers to follow him along a different route to high ground to knock out more machine gun nests. Pfc. Gordon J. McDonald and Frank Strukel stepped forward to accompany him. They secured hand grenades and set forth. As soon as they hit a marked rise in ground, Burkett sustained a gunshot wound to the shoulder. He staggered, regained his balance, and called for Gordon and Frank to follow him forward. Burkett, McDonald and Strukel disappeared over the top of the hill.

As told by Lt. Colonel Wallace R. Cheves, "In a short time the blast of a machine gun was heard, followed by a quick burst from Strukel's BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] - the machine gun fired again... this time there were no answering shots."

"Several days later Burkett's body was found crumpled in the snow. No trace of the other two men [Strukel and McDonald] was ever discovered."


  1. This is a great series! I check almost every morning to see if a new entry has been posted.

    I may be getting ahead of "your" story, but it would be interesting if you could at least hint about some of your sources. For example, did you find some written memoirs from men in Frank's unit -- or possibly something like a unit history? Or did you find people and interview them?

    I realize you may be intending to eventually "circle back" to fill in details like this, as you have done in some of the earlier blog entries (such as when you expanded on the "one word" your grandfather said during the interview with your grandmother).

    Thanks for the effort to create such a compelling story.

    1. You're one step ahead of me! Wait for my next blog post. :)

  2. Ok, Michael, you have had me eagerly following all along. Now you have me on the edge of the chair. If Strukle was never found who is Frank??!??