This is the story of my father’s, Pfc Willard H. Keeber, Mortar Gunner in the 106th Infantry Division, 424th Regiment, Co G (2nd Battalion) WWII Military Service.
The information used to write this story was pulled from a variety of sources: my father’s own recollections, the memoir of his Assistant Mortar Gunner Floyd Ragsdale, Co G. Morning Reports, After Action Reports for the 106th Infantry Division, Hospital Records, information and suppositions given to my mother and me verbally by Carl Wouters (a Belgian attorney and 106th Infantry Division Historian on the ground in Europe) and Douglas Mitchell (former US Marine and ex-pat living in Germany on the lands over which the Battle of the Bulge were fought) from a recent tour with my mother of the 106/424/G battlefields and meadows formerly occupied by the Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures in Germany.
Although my father was known as “Bill” after the War, he was known as “Willie” during basic training and during the early days of the Battle of the Bulge until he was given the nickname “M1” after being MIA in German territory for a few days during the battle.
After graduating from high school in June 1943 rather than wait to be drafted at age eighteen (his birthday was October 22nd), Willie volunteered for Army Specialized Training Reserve Program, designed to train him to be an officer on August 3, 1943. He hoped that ASTRP would give him more options in the military and allow him some small range of choices.
He entered the program at seventeen as a Reservist, with the intention that when he turned eighteen, he’d be inducted into the Army, go to basic training, and then return to a college campus in the ASTP (no longer in “reserve”) to take specialized training while still in the Army. The course options were Engineering, Medicine/Veterinary/Dental, or Foreign Languages. After his specialized training, he’d have the option to go to Officer Candidate School.
Not every young man had the chance to get into ASTP. Willie likely took the Army General Classification Test and an IQ test. He had to have scored at least a 110 to 115 on the AGCT to be eligible. It’s probable that he was tested while in High School.
After Pearl Harbor the ROTC program was suspended and many land-grant universities, which had the requirement in their constitution to provide “militia” training, were having trouble fulfilling this requirement. When the ASTRP and ASTP were started the universities were able to fulfill their constitutions and help the army with a steady flow of potential technicians and specialists. ASTP was said to be more demanding than West Point or the Naval Academy.
Willie was sent to University of Syracuse, a land grant University in Auburn NY in September 1943. He was happy about going to University of Syracuse. He recalled being housed off-campus, about 50 miles from main campus. Because of the dearth of physically fit men, all the ASTRP/ASTP fellas were pretty popular with the local girls with little competition from local men (as they were all either already gone in the military, too old, or ineligible for military service for some reason).
He attended University of Syracuse for one semester before turning eighteen in late-October, 1944. Willie’s DD-214 indicates that he took basic engineering for three months. He was inducted into the Army (transferring from the ASTRP to ASTP) and sent to Ft. Benning for Infantry Basic Training in January 1944. During training at Ft. Benning, Willie was told he would not be returning to University, but rather was being transferred to a combat infantry unit.
Bill recalled over 60 years later that it was the invasion of Africa that ended ASTP. However at the time, Army Generals were agitating with congress that more boots were desperately needed on the ground right away. The Generals thought ASTP forced a choice between enough men or specially trained men. Some estimated the shortage of men was over 300,000. The ASTP was an easy place to get more men quickly; so in February 1944 about 110,000 ASTP men were transferred to combat units eliminating about a third of the shortage of men.
Willie’s basic training at Ft. Benning didn’t include training on the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). He was held over with several others who missed out on this crucial training doing KP and MP duties at Ft. Benning until the next basic training course began. When the next course began, Willie and all the others who missed BAR training were sent to Camp McClellan, Alabama to retake the training – this time with the BAR included. Willie was treated for ingrown toenails and a boil in June and July 1944, at Ft. McClellan.
Willie and the others were made “Acting Private First Class” after BAR training at Camp McClellan was completed and spent the rest of that second training cycle as go-fer’s for the officers. They were returned to the rank of Private when the second round of basic was completed.
After that, in Bill’s recollection, a small group of the guys were sent to Fort Worth, Texas for “Advanced Infantry Training”. Willie was transferred from Ft. Worth to Camp Atterbury, Indiana. The 106th Infantry, 424th Regiment, Co G Morning Report for September 4, 1944 lists Pvt Willard Keeber, a rifleman, was transferred to the unit from the 104th Infantry Division at Howzie, Texas on August 30, 1944 along with three other guys – one of whom was Jack Heimenz, a soldier who will appear again later in this story (Howzie TX is about an hour drive from Ft. Worth, TX today – there doesn’t appear to have been an Army Training Base in Ft. Worth during WWII).
104th Infantry Division, known as the “Timberwolves”, trained in the Northwestern United States and set sail for the Western Front in Europe, on August 27, 1944. It is not clear if the 104th ID ever trained in Texas. Perhaps Willie was assigned to join the Timberwolves after his training at Ft. Worth but they left for Europe before he turned nineteen (soldiers under nineteen years old were not permitted in combat), so he ended up in the 106th. Whether that is fortunate or not is debatable, but the Timberwolves of the 104th Infantry Div immediately joined the Hurtgen Forest Battle upon arrival in Europe. This division saw a lot of action (and casualties) before the War ended including Aachen, Remagen Bridgehead, the Ruhr Pocket, and liberated a Concentration Camp at Nordhausen.
The 106th ID, known as the “Golden Lions”, was short of men before Willie was transferred in. Many of the many men of the Golden Lions over nineteen years old were sent to divisions that participated in the D-Day invasion. Bill recalled that the division was training replacements in a rather “helter-skelter” manner as the men arrived. Willie was one such replacement.
On September 15, 1944, Co G Morning Reports indicate that Willie’s Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) was changed from 745 (Rifleman) to 607 (Light Mortar Crew). Several Soldiers had their MOS changed that day: Floyd Ragsdale was changed from 675 (Messenger) to 504 (Ammunition Handler); Donald Schultz was changed from 521 (Basic Soldier) to 604 (Light Machine Gunner). Floyd and Donald will appear in this story later.
October 3, 1944 Co G Morning Reports indicate that Willie was promoted to Private First Class (PFC) along with 42 other soldiers including Jack Heimenz.
On October 7, 1944, the 106th began the transfer of men and material to Camp Myles Standish, Taunton, Massachusetts. On October 11, 1944, Co. G left Indiana by rail “destination unknown” according to the Morning Report. The men of Co G along with the rest of the 2nd Battalion (Companies E, F, G along with Co H which was heavy weapons; machine guns, heavy mortar 107 mm and up, and towed crew-based weapons including anti tank) and the entire 423rd Regiment boarded the Queen Elizabeth on October 17, 1944 bound for Scotland and arriving on Willie’s nineteenth birthday, October 22, 1944. The QE sailed alone without a convoy because she was fast enough to easily outrun the U-boats that were then terrorizing the Atlantic. The QE made land in Greenock Scotland, and 2 days later Co. G moved by rail to Adderbury England where training continued.
In Adderbury England, on December 1, 1944, Donald Schultz was promoted to the rank of Private First Class.
Co G. Morning Report for December 2, 1944: “Record of Events departed by rail this date (from Camp Adderbury) at 0630 hr for Southampton. Morale Excellent. Arrived Southampton England this date at 1115 hr. Departed UK base this date at 1500 hours by boat for Continent.” Wille and the rest of the boys of Co. G arrived at Le Harve, France at 6 pm on December 6, 1944. On December 7, 1944 at 0100 hr by truck travelling approximately 50 miles to bivouac in Yerville, France arriving at 0430 hr.
Bill later recalled the crossing between December 2, 1944 and arrival in France on December 6, 1944 was very, very rough and everyone was seasick. They got two meals a day; porridge and baguettes of French bread for breakfast and a greasy meal at dinner that was apparently no help with the seasickness. Their transport ship stood off shore in rough seas for three days and landed only when it calmed just enough to put into shore.
Floyd Ragsdale, Willie’s Assistant Mortar Gunner, recalled that a cargo net was used as a rope ladder to gain access to the landing craft. With both the transport boat and the landing craft bobbing up and down in the rough waters, the soldiers were forced to climb partway down the cargo net with all their gear and leap off onto the landing craft.
Floyd related that when reached the shore there were signs of the D-Day Invasion everywhere with sunken ships and debris everywhere. He also recalled he had the day to himself so perhaps he was on a transport ship that arrived on an earlier day. He recalled spending time with some American sailors on a sub-chaser and mentioned he envied the men the warmth and the plentiful food.
The next morning on December 8, 1944, Co. G left Yerville, France at 1130 hr and arrived in Phillipeville, Belgium at 2345 hr. Floyd remembers they got on the tucks as they departed in a cold wet rain to sarcastic cracks among the soldiers about “sunny France”. Years later, Bill recalled that they’d been near the area where Germany, France and Liechtenstein (Switzerland?) meet, however Morning Reports have them taking a more direct route; traveling directly Northeast from the French coast into Belgium after landing.
Continuing their trek across Europe, Co. G left Phillipeville by motor convoy at 1000 hr on December 9, 1944 and finally arrived at a bivouac area in Belgium near the German boarder at 1900 hr.
Floyd recalled as the convoy travelled across the countryside through the old villages of France and Belgium, civilians smiled and waved, flashing the V for Victory with their fingers as the convoy went by. He also recalled that the sound of artillery shells overhead in the cold air, and the sight of dead German soldiers by the roadside was a fast and unpleasant initiation into the horrors of war.
On December 11, 1944, Willie and the other GI’s of Co. G hiked from the bivouac area in Belgium into position above Grosskampenberg, Germany. They replaced the US 2nd Infantry Division man-for-man and gun-for-gun. This was expected to remain a quiet sector – a “ghost front” – where the Golden Lions could get some experience on patrols. It was expected they’d capture a few Germans and perhaps see some light action, but were mostly expected to settle into GI life, perhaps get “blooded” on duty, and prepare for a larger scale invasion of Germany planned for Spring 1945.
The normal front line a single division should be responsible to man was five to seven miles. The Golden Lions were thinly spread across a twenty-eight mile-long front. The 424th Regiment Co G was the outermost far edge on the very end of the very long 106th Infantry front line. The 423rd and 422nd Regiments were also thinly spread out to the North of this position on the Schnee Eifel (Snow Mountain).
Further Southwest of Co. G, the men of the 28th Infantry were posted in Luxemboug with their line extending into Belgium towards the area of Ouren. The 28th Infantry Division was with men from Pennsylvania during WWI and their insignia was a red keystone (a keystone is the symbol of the State). In WWII they arrived in France only a few weeks after D-Day and fought in the Invasion of France and Liberation of France and in the Hurtgen Forest. The 28th Infantry was given the nickname “the Bloody Bucket” by the Germans for their ferocious fighting during the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest. After being given replacements to refill the Division after their losses they were being given a break with the posting in Luxembourg. The uncovered area between the met of the Bloody Bucket and the Golden Lions was several kilometers. The men of the two companies would patrol towards each other meeting in the middle to give each other updates.
Co. G was just behind the Siegfried Line by perhaps 1000 yards according to Floyd’s memoir. He recalled that he and Willie swapped mortar plates with the men of the 2nd Infantry and immediately fired a successful test shot with no target corrections needed. Sixty-three years later, in his recollections, Bill incorrectly recalled that they’d replaced the 82nd Airborne.
Floyd recalled that seven men of Co G went on a night patrol on the night of December 12, 1944 probing into the small village to their right (Grosskampenberg was the only village to the right of their position). All seven men returned safely after properly giving the password “Danube” in response to the prompt “Blue” reported that all was quiet in the town and no enemy was observed.
The men stood guard in their foxholes in 4-hour shifts. Guard duty was isolating in the cold quiet. At night Floyd would think of Christmas, as colorful flares would light up the sky and the fields. The stars and the quiet and the snow made the area seem peaceful and almost sleepy.
Floyd reports that during nighttime guard duty on December 15, 1944, there were sounds of heavy truck or tank engines in the town below them reported by several soldiers on guard duty. There was seemingly no response from higher up the chain of command. Floyd came off his 4-hour guard shift at 0200 December 16, 1944 and recalled relief to be in the warm bunker where he could get some sleep before a planned troop inspection scheduled for 0600 just 4 hours hence. He recalled a nightmare as he drifted off to sleep that the Germans assaulted their positions, perhaps in response to the sounds he heard while in his foxhole.
To be continued…