"They won't fight on Christmas Eve, will they?"
My fifth day in the "Bulge" began at 0200 hours (2 a.m.) when I took my turn on a two-hour hitch of guard duty along the tree line. While on guard we stood outside our foxholes, making sure that the guard next to you, on both sides, can hear you. It was very dark, so we talked to keep posted.
"OK here in the second position, " I said. Both men answered me.
As I stood out in the open position, away from the tree branches, something brushed against my face. A paratrooper's heavy jump suit plus the big steel helmet keeps the weather at bay, and I was concentrating on my duty at hand, so it was a little while before I realized what it was.
It was cold, but we were used to living like this and didn't notice the cold that much. Not yet anyway. No one said anything for a long time about the fact that it was snowing. It was the second time for most of us in our whole army experience that we had seen snow.
About 0300 hours (3 a.m.) it came to me that the snow was really putting down. We could actually hear snowflakes falling!
I started the word that kept up until daylight. "Everything OK! Snowing up here in 2nd Platoon." All over the hillside could be heard a guard's call ending with, "Snowing here, too!"
What a beautiful sight was waiting for us when we woke up in the morning! We just stood around and gazed in awe. There must have been four or five inches of wet snow hanging on everything. Everywhere you looked it was white.
The whole First Battalion began marching off the hill, through the valley, winding slowly off in the distance heading for the far hill. It was black on white, with the battalion moving in single file. I was the last trooper to leave the hill, so I had time to sit and watch. Three companies of paratroopers--at least 500 of us--all moving in single file as if playing a game of follow-the-leader.
'C' Company moved into a wooded area on a hillside along a main road two miles east of Champs. My Second Squad and Holly's First Squad went to the far high side of this little woods and dug in as the outer defense for the night.
Just as it was growing dark in the Grosse Hez woods, we heard chow call from our company mess people. It was our first hot chow since landing in the Bulge five days earlier.
We sat on the edges of our foxhole eating our hot chow in this beautiful snow-draped woodland. We ate in silence as we listened to the Germans pound away at Bastogne from four sides.
I think it was Rennie Howard who said, "I don't know what you guys think, but I have a damned funny feeling we're stuck in here!"
"What the hell do you mean by that shit?" snorted Milligan.
"Damn it, can't you hear those 88's? said Howard.
"Hell yes! I can hear the sons-of-bitches! And I'm getting damned tired of it," Milligan shot back.
"Hear that?" Howard pointed his GI spoon toward the east. "Hear that? And that?" He moved his spoon to the north and then to the west. Then he pointed to the south as if queuing in the Germans. He waited, spoon in the air. No sound of guns in the south. Then we heard them. "There!" he said. "What did I tell you? Hell, men! We're surrounded!"
Nobody said a word after that. We all got up and checked foxholes. We had a long lonely night in a pitch dark woods to think about what Howard had said. As we tried to sleep we could hear the guns pounding away.
In the morning we were told to pack up our gear and prepare to move out as the Division's reserves. We moved without breakfast, not even a K-ration, to a place called Hemroulle about two miles west of Bastogne
. . . . .
(above text taken from Chapter 21, "How I Heard about the German Breakthrough")
Since it had become bitter cold for the first time in the Bulge, Sergeant Dewitt moved the 2nd Platoon into an old barn with a hayloft. We bedded down with the darkness, except for those who were on guard. We crawled up into the hayloft, got into our sleeping bags and covered ourselves with loose hay. I was never that warm again in the Bulge.
Bastogne was surrounded, and we sensed that trouble was about to break out here at Hemroulle. We knew that 'C' Company was overdue for action on the front lines. We lay there in the dark in the rickety barn, nobody asleep, just thinking.
Someone from that soft hayloft bed called out, "Sergeant Black! Are you asleep yet?"
"No, not yet!"
"When do you think we're going up?"
"Maybe tonight. Better get some sleep." I tried to sound calm.
"Sergeant Bird," somebody else called out. "Are you asleep yet? They won't fight on Christmas Eve, will they?" I don't remember Bird's answer.
I thought about home, about Christmas in the states, about Mom and Dad, about my best girl, my three brothers and my sister. Also, I thought about the very first Christmas, the barn, the hayloft, in a far-off time. What did it all mean?
One thing I didn't think about was of the 101st ever giving up, of losing here in Bastogne.
Maybe it was 2000 hours (8 p.m.) when someone came into the barn, yelled, "Santa Claus is here!" and passed out a box of cookies to each of us. They just might have been the best cookies I ever ate.
Sometime after that I fell asleep. What woke me up was the terrible shaking of our old barn and the noise of German bombs falling nearby. Some men went outside to have a look.
Our guards told us that the Germans had bombed Bastogne at midnight and that fires could be seen from outside our hayloft. We fell back asleep only to be awakened at 0330 hours (3:30 a.m.). This time there were orders: "Get ready to move up and back up our Regiment's front lines." Our 'C' Company was in a real dog fight with Jerry, and it looked like they needed help for sure.
We got ready in a hurry with few words. Everyone knew it was coming--the fighting. What upset me most was that Jerry wasn't going to take Christmas off!
We moved out onto the road out of Hemroulle at 0400 hours (4 a.m.). Our 'B' Company, which was also in reserve still and not yet on line, had moved ahead of us into the lead. They had been ordered to go to the very edge of Champs and await daylight before moving in to help 'A' Company hold the line. By now Jerry had broken through on the east side of them in the area of our second Battalion.
Our 'C' Company moved about halfway up the road. My 2nd Platoon, in close-order marching formation, held up on the road next to the farm house that was the command post of the 327th Glider Regiment.
It had taken us three hours, until 7 a.m., to move half a mile up the road. There we were halted and stood in full battle dress, loaded down with heavy ammo, machine guns, mortars and bazookas. We had our heavy overcoats on but still had not received winter boots, sweaters, hoods and other winter clothing. It was cold, and everything was covered with snow. We were jumpy.
While I was standing there with my fellow troopers, not seeing or knowing the meaning of what was going on, a dogfight took place in the black sky above. A German plane shot down one of our big planes. I saw it go down in flames just behind German lines. No one got out. But maybe it was dark, and I just couldn't see them jump. Damn the Germans! I'm cold! Let's move off this road! It's colder than hell! Start a fire. It's getting daylight anyway. Damn those Germans! I hope those bastards do see us and come on the run. 'C' Company hasn't fired a shot yet.
We moved off the road and into the courtyard of the farmhouse. About thirty troopers, the whole platoon at this point, moved in and started a fire to warm up by. Somebody started to heat up coffee. I took my time setting up my squad's machine gun at the corner of the courtyard gate. I faced it due west with a line of fire to the open field on top of a hill some eight hundred yards away. I told a gunner to keep an eye open and to take turns with the other gunners coming over to the fire.
It was just starting to get daylight when we moved off the road. I remarked to "Big" Holly that it was going to be a foggy Christmas morning. I realized my whole 2nd Platoon was standing around a fire in the center of someone else's command post. This battalion command post was leaving. We hadn't started the fire. They had; to burn maps and papers. I saw the colonel. He was leaving on foot for somewhere else.
At the command post of the 327th Glider Regiment's 3rd Battalion, the cry, "German tanks!" rang out. All hell broke loose.
The first thing you do when you're being fired at in battle is to look for the biggest gun you have. But as "Big" Holly and I reached the gate, my 30-caliber machine gun was flying though the air in pieces. The first round from a German tank had caught that gun as we stood on the cold road near Hemroulle.
Enemy tanks have a way of freezing men in their tracks. Eighteen of them topping the hill ahead was a devastating sight
. . . . .
(And so begins "Christmas In Bastogne" for Layton Black and the men of the 2nd Platoon )
Merry Christmas from Bastogne, 1944!
(Tanks on the move in the Ardennes Winter)
December 22nd--General McAuliffe's answer to the German request for surrender is short:
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