Monday, January 8, 2007

You Can't Get Much Closer Than This: Combat with Company H, 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division

You Can't Get Much Closer Than This: Combat with Company H, 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division by A.Z. Adkins, Jr. and Andrew Z. Adkins, III (2005) is a first hand story of an 81mm mortar section leader who fought his way across France, Belgium, and into Germany. Adkins kept a journal of his daily experiences which was the basis for this book.

Adkins was a cadet at The Citadel when WWII started. He graduated in 1943 and immediately went to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. He would miss D-Day, but landed on Normandy about 2 months later.

My Rating: Very Good (****). A self report by a participate who kept a journal during the war so the experiences were freshly recorded and not dulled by a lapse of time.

Some interesting themes or strategies that the offer wrote about include:

  • Training. ".. there were too many officer candidates ... the fact that the Army had too many second lieutenants made matters worse, because they could run you into the ground and weed out those who couldn't make it." (p. 6)
  • Was this the smartest thing to do? Some claim the weeding out process for officers and also enlisted men (since the draft board immediately rejected many candidates after physicals and basic training did another weeding out) made the US Military comparable with the well-trained German and Japanese military. However, the number of front line officers quickly became a problem when a severe shortage occurred as casualties occurred. Would it have been a better strategy to have soldiers repeat a program rather than flunk out? That way, a pipeline of trained personnel would have been available.

    "There were now only two of the original thirty-seven line officers left in my battalion. The others had been killed or wounded." (p. 92)

  • Weapon Logistics. "The 81mm mortar ... weighed about 135 pounds, and it was usually carried by two men. ... There were two types of rounds used in the mortar: a high explosive (HE) round, weighing between seven and ten pounds was used to destroy enemy antitank guns, automatic weapons, mortars, and personnel; and a smoke round to screen the movement of troops during an attack." (p. 9)
  • First line supervisors: Non-coms. "I learned quickly that a good Sergeant is worth his weight in gold." (p. 10)

    "... we had some good sergeants as platoon leaders, and a good sergeant is worth two lieutenants any day in the week." (p. 162)

  • Learning from those before you. "We invited officers from one of the nearby hospitals to visit with us and tell us about the types of fighting men we would soon come up against." (p. 12)
  • Poor leadership. "Colonel Murray was relieved as our battalion CO and Maj. Jim Hayes, the regimental S-2, was made our new battalion CO. It seems that Regiment had been dissatisfied with the way Colonel Murray had been running his battalion. I wondered how they came to that conclusion. I had never seen any of them while the fighting was going on. Colonel Don Cameron, our regimental CO, was also relieved. Over his vigorous protest to attack an objective with his depleted regiment, he had the guts to tell the commanding general, 'What in the hell do you want me to take it with? My bare hands?'" (p. 66)

    "While we were at the CP, the S-3 had the balls to report to Regiment that everything was okay in Sivry when he had just heard a minute before from Crone that the ammunition was almost gone." (p. 85)

    "I'll never know why we were ordered to take that damn town. What possible benefit could we have derived from taking Sivry, without also taking the strategic and commanding Mt. Toulon and Mt. St. Jean? I guess when you're looking at maps from a comfortable position several safe miles to the rear, things look entirely different." (p. 91)

    "The men hadn't been too impressed with Major Hayes. Sure, he was a West Pointer ... The way both of those attacks had been ordered was not only useless, but foolish. That left a bad taste in the men's mouths. Then too, Major Hayes sported the Silver Star for 'personally leading his troops during an attack on Sivry.' ... The men couldn't quite understand that." (p. 108)

    "Hayes was trying to impress the gentleman from Division. After the artillery had fired, he reported over the phone to Regiment that the rounds had been effective. The gentleman from Division eyed Major Hayes. 'What the hell do you mean the artillery fire was effective?' he asked. The major just stared back. 'Were you at the target? How do you know whether the rounds were effective--or not?' It did my heart good to see the West Pointer try and wriggle out of that one." (p. 160)

    "I thought it was better to leave the mortars in position; I could observe from the attacking companies and when we had gotten out far enough, then I could move the guns forward. I wanted to do that because I knew it would be almost impossible for my own men to carry that heavy equipment over such terrain. The colonel overruled my suggestion. None of us liked the attack plan, but there was little we could do about it." (p. 134)

    "When Max started out he ran into some Kraut tanks and armored cars. A number of his men were hurt and couldn't move without help. ... Jerry Sheehan called Regiment and asked for tanks. Regiment told him there were no Kraut tanks in our area. About that time the Kraut tanks threw in a few rounds. Regiment still wouldn't believe there were tanks in our area! I often wondered why those so-called staff members never came up to see for themselves when the going was a little rough." (p. 141) "The refusal pissed off Sheehan, who then asked for a fifteen-minute artillery preparation before his men went in. He was denied artillery with the excuse that his troops 'were too close to the objective and our artillery fire would fall on them.' I wondered why some people didn't come up and look for themselves instead of looking at a damn map!" (p. 144)

    "General Patton had done well for himself in choosing a CP. His headquarters was in a palace with long wide corridors and spacious rooms." (p. 166) Yet Patton's MPs would not let soldiers from the front line walk around in Luxembourg City for rest and relaxation without helmets and helmet liners.

    "[The regimental CO] was sitting in his jeep behind a house. ... I thought to myself, 'You old bastard, these men of yours have walked all the way from Utah Beach, and the walk wasn't easy, but you're too damn lazy to walk a mile to let them see that you're at least interested in what they are doing.'" (p. 192)

    "One of my mortar jeeps came speeding down the road with six men in it. The regimental CO barked, 'Didn't you know know there was an order out saying that only five men were to ride in a jeep?' 'Yes, Sir,' I replied, 'but we need those mortars up fast.' 'That makes no difference,' the CO snorted. 'Don't you ever let me catch you with more than five men on a jeep again.' 'Yes, Sir.' I said, thinking, Why is it that we never saw your sorry ass back in the Ardennes or the Moselle River, when it was so cold? You could really chew butt the way we were violating uniform regulations, wearing anything we could lay our hands on, while trying to keep from freezing to death." (p. 206)

  • Diversified staff. "Every American outfit has someone who can speak German (or any other language that needed to be spoken)." (p. 83)

  • Maintain law and order. "We were given the mission of maintaining law and order in the city [Weimar]. ... Company H was given the mission of patrolling the town with its machine gun jeeps. ... Looters were breaking into stores and taking food and clothing. German civilians were helping themselves. It's funny how Krauts will rob their brothers. We had a hard job trying to stop them." (p. 200)

    "Our destination was Burglesan, a farm town composed of about twelve buildings, three fourths of which were barns. Our job was to maintain law and order and patrol the place. The war was about over now, but we did not know just when it would fold up completely." (p. 207)

    "[I] was given the mission of furnishing 24-hour motorized patrols with radios throughout the city [Nuremberg]. ...Our job was to maintain law and order, enforce military law, prevent looting, and continue our training." (p. 208)

Some interesting items the author wrote about included:

  • "... the townspeople of Martincourt [France] ... with tear-stained eyes, they lined either side of the road and sang the French national anthem, L'Marseille, as we moved on." (p. 20)
  • In Alsace-Lorraine: "The people were different here than they had been in Normandy. ... Here they more or less took us for granted and were very cool toward us." (pp. 33-34)
  • "The prisoners he had captured were perfect specimens of manhood. They were SS troops--all hand-picked men. ... We tried to get them to tell us how many German troops were to our front, but they wouldn't say anything, not even when we ground burning cigarette butts into their necks." (p. 50)
  • "A German medic came out of the hedgerow. In addition to a red cross on his helmet, he had a white apron with a red cross on it tied around his body. Our boys let him get to his wounded. Instead of treating him, the bastard reached in his aid bag, drew out a grenade, and hurled it at us! Two of our men were hit; one of them was a medic. The rifleman next to me drilled the Kraut medic several times, making sure he didn't treat any more wounded." (p. 60)
  • "... a Kraut came out into the orchard across the railroad tracks with a white flag. ...The Kraut just stood there. Quite a number of Company F's men moved into the orchard to close in on the town. Without warning, the Krauts started cutting loose on Company F with machine guns, burp guns, and rifles. The son of a bitch with the white flag ran for cover." (p. 71)
  • "The artillery observer was really enjoying himself. Every time a barrage would land he slapped his leg and said, 'Hitler, count your children.'" (p. 87)
  • During the Battle of the Bulge: "The engineers helped us with our holes. We'd shoot a couple of rifle rounds into the frozen ground, then use explosives to get down into the earth." (p. 120)
  • "Kad and I tried our French on the Luxembourgers. They were very nice to us. They considered it an honor to have American soldiers stay in their homes." (p. 145)
  • "She told me that she thought she would be raped and that her mother and father, who were also there, would be murdered. That's what Hitler had taught the German youth about the Americans." (p. 174)
  • "On the way up we could not decide between ourselves whether we would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross or the Medal of Honor for capturing such a high-ranking officer. ... the major called his interpreter. ... The sergeant [interpreter] was laughing so hard he was wiping tears from his eyes. 'This is the chief of the fire department!'" (p. 187)
  • "They also took a few prisoners who told us that they had wanted to surrender, but their officers had shot several men who had tried to do so." (pp. 187-188)
  • "A woman up the street came running out of her house frantically pointed to her cellar. ... A Kraut was hiding there. The boys killed him. I guess the woman was afraid she'd be shot if she was caught harboring an enemy soldier. If so, she was right; we would have." (p. 193)
  • "Part of a squad from Company E had been caught in a house sitting out in the open. The circumstance was a bad one, and they had the choice of surrendering or being killed. They chose to surrender and came out with their hands up. Three of them had Lugers strapped to their belts; they had taken them from Kraut prisoners captured a few days earlier. Their SS captors didn't even question them. Instead, they put a bullet through each of their heads. ...These SS were part of the Hermann Goring Division. They were mean customers to deal with. We hadn't taken many SS prisoners, but we decided from now on that no SS troops would be taken alive." (p. 195)
  • "Lt. Mike Damkowitch ran into snipers and a Kraut killed one of his sergeants. The German ran out of ammunition and came out with his hands up. He took about two steps and had enough lead in him to make him weigh a ton. That was the dirtiest thing a Kraut could do: kill your men until he ran out of ammunition and then come out with a grin like it was all in fun and try to give himself up." (pp. 205-206)
  • "The civilians stopped us and told us that there was an SS trooper dressed in civilian clothes who was threatening to kill the civilians if they didn't fight the Americans. We found him cowering in a house. He wasn't so tough when there was someone there who could kick his ass." (p. 217)
  • "Fifteen thousand of them [Buchenwald inmates] had overpowered their SS guards at Buchenwald. They had taken their weapons and spread out to find and kill Krauts--particularly SS. Major Williams was a little skeptical. About that time, one of Company G's scouts brought up an SS soldier he had caught in the woods. The major pointed to the Kraut and told the Russians, 'Him SS.' One of the Russians said, 'Give him to me.' Then he kicked the SS man and told him to start running. The Russian took aim and let him have it. Before he had covered twenty yards he had more holes in him than a sieve." (pp. 197-198)
  • "Two of them [Russian concentration camp escapees] were infantry lieutenants who had been captured at Stalingrad. They wanted to stay with us and fight with the Americans until we met up with the Russians. When we got to Weimar, the major put them into GI uniforms. They were happy to take care of any SS troops for us. And they did." (p. 198)

    This contradicts the position of the author of "Behind Hitler's Lines" that paratrooper Joe Beyrle was the only soldier to fight for both the Russians and Americans on the Eastern and Western fronts.


Douglas W. Jacobson, Author of Night of Flames said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Douglas W. Jacobson, Author of Night of Flames said...

Nice blog Peter. As a student of history and WWII novelist, I appreciate your work. Keep up the good work. Best, Doug