A GI’s Story: Pfc. Willard H. Keeber’s WWII Military Service — PART 2

Continued from Part 1….

At 0530 on December 16, 1944, the German Army launched a daring offensive they called Watch on the Rhine throwing over 400,000 men and over 1,000 tanks at the Allied front line. The German Command knew they were losing the war – overextended on two fronts with the Allies on one side the Russians on the other. Watch on Rhine was a last ditch effort to gain a position of strength from which to try to negotiate an end to hostilities.

The German plan was for the German Infantry and Panzers (tanks) to quickly break through the Allied front line located just inside the German border with Belgium. Once through the Allied front line and in possession of the network of roads in this border area, the Panzers would make a fast run through Belgium seizing gasoline and supplies as they went. The ultimate goal was the capture of the port city of Antwerp within a short few days. This would split the Allied forces in half and disrupt Allied supply lines. However, timing was critical; any delay would greatly reduce any hope of success. Hitler didn’t think that success would win the war, but rather that the Allies would be forced to negotiate with him once he held Antwerp and he’d be able secure better terms of surrender for Germany.

The severe weather on the Schnee Eifel in early December 1944 was greatly in the Germany Army’s favor. Snow and cold in the region usually also caused low cloud cover and dense fog over this mountainous region. Hitler banked on this to prevent the only risk to the success of his plan: Allied Air forces. Airplanes dropping bombs on his Panzers and strafing his Infantry would mean unavoidable delays and a quick end to the offensive.

Months in advance of this offensive, Hitler began conscripting both older and younger men ages sixteen to sixty to fill in the divisions for this assault (including Josef Rausch the father-in-law of our guide, Doug Mitchell, at whose home in Grosslagenfled we stayed was drafted for the Wermacht at sixteen years old).

The US had only about 230,000 men posted on the front line, of which about 10,000 – 15,000 men were Golden Lions with each of the three Regiments (422nd, 423rd, 424th) containing between 1,000 – 2,000 men the rest being the support units attached to these Regiments.

The opening attack of Hitler’s Watch on Rhine began just before 0600 hours for Co G.

Floyd was jolted out of bed to the sound of a sustained barrage of artillery fire overhead, some bursting close by. As he tumbled out of the bunker he recalled the sky was lit up with a ghostly light making it very easy to see the entire surroundings. The Germans were using flares and spotlights directed at the low cloud cover to illuminate the area. As the sun rose and natural light replaced the artificial light reflecting off the clouds, Floyd remembered being able to see the German Infantry and Armor advancing toward the boys of Co G in their foxholes directly in front of the forest line extending behind them. He could hear the German officers shouting commands to the foot soldiers (the foxholes we visited are now just inside the tree line, but wood is a cash crop for German farmers and the tree line has moved over the intervening 70-plus years).

106/424/G frontline positions, outside Grosskampenberg, Germany
field in front of 106/424/G frontline position

Mortar fire was called for, and Floyd recalled he and Willie were laying down fire about 150 yards in front of their front line in the direction of the road from Grosskampenberg just in front of a column of troops heading in their direction. They continued to fire all morning with Floyd had to hustle back and forth between his foxhole and the Company HQ to get ammo. He recalls that a hot lunch was prepared that day, but few of the men had the time or appetite to eat.

mortar_m2_60mm_ranger_375
60 MM Mortar

Floyd recalled that German artillery fire was exploding in the treetops creating additional shrapnel that fell down over the area and German 16” shells created large craters.

Bill also recalled that the long artillery barrage knocked down many trees making the forest and roads impassable. Bill’s memory of events doesn’t match Floyd’s memoir, nor the facts as reported by the company records and company historians. Bill recalled that there were no ground attacks where he was posted.

Floyd mentions in his memoir that he carried mortar ammo and rifle ammo back from Company HQ, and passed it out while the shelling continued. The shelling prevented the German Infantry from further advance towards their positions for a little bit while the German dead and wounded lay in the field between the two forces.

Battle maps show that the Infantry that Co G was facing were from 62nd Volksgrenadier Division. A squad of German infantrymen made their way forward when the shelling paused, and got quite close to the G Co line before their advance was halted by the riflemen in the Company who pinned them down in the open field. Floyd recalls that a man in their unit spoke fluent German and managed to convince the German squad to surrender. Upon capture one German told them they’d never remain on the Schnee Eifel because overwhelming forces would crush them.

snowy battle pic
Riflemen in a foxhole

One member of Co G was a young nineteen year old from Kings County New York who was likely drafted into the military and inducted in NYC on 11/26/1943. His name was Aloysius Schepulein. In his military archive information he is listed as “not yet a citizen” and his nativity is listed as “Danzig or Germany”. In other words, he was a young immigrant from Germany, probably a green card holder who had been drafted and sent back to the country of his birth to fight for the country he lived in. We can’t positively know if Aloysius was the soldier Floyd refers to who spoke German so eloquently that he was able to convince the German infantrymen to surrender, but it’s certainly possible. If he did, he likely saved the lives of the squad of German infantrymen and some of the boys in G Co. Private Schepulein will appear again later in Willie’s story.

Floyd recalls that the action slowed down for a while late on December 16, 1944, allowing him and many others to return to his bunker and get some sleep. Sentries were posted and Floyd went back on duty at midnight on December 17, 1944. As he and another soldier headed back to the foxholes they decided that Floyd would return to “his” foxhole where the mortar was located in case a flare was needed. The other soldier took up a position not too far away.

Shortly after he reached his foxhole the night was filled with the sound of tanks advancing fast toward their positions. Rather than roll right over them, the tanks made a turn to bypass them and drove right by only about 100 yards away through the open fields between Co G at the very end of the front line positions of the 106th Infantry, 424th Division, and the men of the Bloody Bucket Division headquartered in Luxembourg whose line extended to Ouren Belgium about 6-7 km away from Grosskampenberg.

kingtiger01
German King Tiger Tank

Battle maps indicate that the 116th Panzer Division (Windhund or Greyhound Division) broke through the Allied front line in the area of Ouren. The 116th Panzer Div contained 26 Panzer IV, 43 Panthers and 25 Jagdpanzer IV tanks. The sound all those Panzers made as they drove through the fields taking over an hour to all pass by so close to the boys of G Co must have been both deafening and terrifying.

Battle_of_the_Bulge_5th
far upper R corner shows breakthrough at Grosskampenberg

After the tanks had passed by, a German 88 anti-aircraft/anti-tank shell burst overhead while Floyd was still on sentry duty. Unfortunately, the platoon sergeant soon discovered that the shell had burst directly over the position of the soldier Floyd went on duty with only a few hours earlier, killing him (hopefully) instantly. Floyd verbally recalled in 2010 when visiting the Company’s front line positions that Pfc. Donald Schultz was hunched over in his foxhole still holding his rifle when he was discovered dead, with his back ripped open from the blast of the 88.

Floyd recalled Schultz as a jovial, humorous, unmarried young man from Pennsylvania. He hadn’t got to know him well because, like Willie, Donald was a replacement who arrived to the 106th shortly before they shipped out to Europe.

Donald Shultz photos (2)
PFC Donald Schultz

We don’t know if Donald’s body was removed from his foxhole and sent back to the aid station with his rifle set aside in a bunker. Or if the heat of the battle meant he was left there in his foxhole here he died with his rifle still cradled in his arms. Nor do we know why he was in a foxhole with a rifle when he was assigned an MOS of Machine Gunner only a few months earlier in September. Perhaps it was expedient for him to be in a foxhole with a rifle when on sentry duty or perhaps the machine gun was also with him along with his rifle when he was killed. Donald Schultz’s rifle will be critically important to Willie’s story shortly.

Floyd recalls that throughout the day on December 17, 1944 Co G held its position despite continued fighting all day. Since the Panzers had already bypassed them we assume they were fighting the Infantrymen of 62nd Volksgrenadier Division (VGD) attacking from Grosskampenberg. He mentions that the foxhole he shared with Willie and the 60 mm mortar they manned never took a direct hit. But German 88 artillery shells (like the one that killed Schultz only a few hours earlier) were falling down over the Company and made moving around difficult. The low clouds and fog had grounded most air support, but occasionally an American P38 would fly overhead drawing fire from the 88’s and the men of G Co could quickly move about in the under ten seconds the Germans were distracted by the plane without worry they’d be killed by a shell.

p38
P-38

Floyd recalled in his memoir that several days later a G Co rifleman reported he’d seen someone up in the tree directly behind the mortar position he shared with Willie in the foxhole. The rifleman thought it was an American spotter, but when it was determined no US spotter had been positioned there, Floyd suspected it was a German soldier who’d infiltrated their lines or German citizen-sympathizer signaling information to the men of the 62nd VGD. Perhaps this was why the mortar position shared with Willie never suffered a direct hit from a German 88.

Co G Morning Reports make no mention of the action or the events of those early days of battle. On December 16, 1944 the reports make note of five men taken off the line and sent back to an Evacuation Hospital or Clearing Station. Of those five men, only two were listed as battle casualties; one lightly wounded on his face and the other seriously wounded in action. Of the three remaining men taken off duty, one had trench foot and the other two were sick.

Morning Report on December 17, 1944 takes one soldier off the line to the Evacuation Hospital for illness.

Morning Report on December 18, 1944 takes seventeen soldiers off the line to the Evac Hospital or a Clearing Station for treatment. Ten of the men were ill, six were lightly wounded in action, and one was seriously wounded in action.

It’s also interesting to note that Morning Reports give no location on the space provided for this information starting on December 11, 1944 – the day Co G arrived on the front line over Grosskampenberg. Such information will remain missing until Christmas Eve, December 24, 1944 when location is designated as “APO 443” – an Army Post Office number and clearly not an actual location. Morning Reports continue to use the APO 443 location designation until January 3, 1945 when locations begin again to be a town and country.

Floyd recalled that in the evening of December 18, 1944, at twilight combat had slowed down to only occasional gunfire. Late at night, a messenger let everyone know they were to pull back from their positions systematically leaving heavy weapons and ammo behind (including Floyd’s and Willie’s 60 mm Mortar). Floyd and Willie were in the very last squad of 11 men that pulled out alone in the dark that night.

Co G later discovered that the men of the Bloody Bucket Division to the Southeast of them in Luxembourg had already withdrawn leaving their Right flank even more open to the German advance. But since the space between the Bucket and the Lions was unpatrolled that the Germans has already driven a Panzer Division through it the night before this was not much more dangerous than it had been all along.

More importantly, unbeknownst to the 424th Division the Golden Lions of the 422nd and the 423rd Divisions were cut off and suffering immense battle casualties by the night of December 18, 1944. The Germans were advancing between the 424th Division and the 423rd Division (to the Left or Northeast of the 424th) with the 422nd occupying territory beyond and further to the Northeast. Eventually the 422nd and 423rd Divisions would be encircled by the Germans and would either be killed or forced to surrender by December 19, 1944. The captured Golden Lions of the 422nd and 423rd Divisions would be sent to German POW camps for the rest of the War. Kurt Vonnegut of the 422nd Infantry was one of those captured and his experiences in Dresden at Slaughterhouse 5 were made infamous in his novel by the same name.

American Prisoners of War
American POW’s

With the Germans working to encircle the 422nd and 423rd on the night of December 18, the 424th Division was in a pocket all by itself with no cover on either it’s Right or Left flank. However because the 116th Panzer Windhund Division had already passed them by there was only the Infantry of the 62nd VGD left for the 424th to contend with. But it appears the 424th was dangerously close to being surrounded and captured by the Germans along with the Golden Lions of the 422nd and 423rd Divisions.

Leaving behind their Mortar on the night of December 18, 1944 meant that Floyd and Willie were left with only their handguns as they made their way from their foxhole to the 2nd Battalion HQ. Keeber family lore has it that Willie was not too comfortable with that situation. He apparently picked up a German rifle intending to use it for protection during the withdrawal. German rifles would have been available either from a casualty in the field in front of his position – which was by now littered with German dead according to Floyd’s memoir – or from the weapons taken from the squad G Co captured on December 16, 1944. Either way someone in the squad told him that German rifles sounded different than American rifles when fired and might draw friendly fire. Willie discarded the German rifle. We know Willie had a US issued M1 in the days that followed (he was never again issued a replacement 60 mm Mortar for combat use), and we believe he picked up an American rifle that night. The only American Rifle that was not already in the hands of another soldier was the one belonging to Pfc Donald Schultz.

We can’t know if Donald’s body was still curled over his rifle in his foxhole protecting it from cold and damp, or if it had been left behind when Donald’s remains were removed. However, Donald is not listed as a battle casualty on any of the contemporaneous Morning Reports and will not appear on any Co report for nearly 2 weeks. Had Donald’s body been removed after he was killed, the Morning Report should have noted it along with the lists of men taken off the line for injury or simply being sick.

Assuming Donald was still in the foxhole where he died, Willie and Floyd would have had to pass his lifeless body on their way to Battalion HQ that night. Retreating through the dark forest alone with only 10 other GI’s and the German 62nd VGD advancing, Willie was scared enough to take Donald’s rifle leaving his body behind in the cold darkness as the living quickly made their retreat through the woods to at Battalion HQ two km away.

Retreat
Retreat

To be continued….

One comment

  1. Anne, the added detail you have gleaned from records since we were actually there is amazing. I’m so impressed. That trip we made was so emotional for me, so educational with what we learned while there – but your “story” incluiding so many details that really clarifies so much for me. BEING there was one of the major highights of my long life, but your detailed account counts pretty close! I always saw your dad as “my hero” from the day I met him until the present time, bu† having the details of what he endured to come home a positve-natured person determined to savor every day of the rest of his life, putting all those bad memories behind him to just move ahead in what he called his “real” life was another sort of heroism. Many men, after that war, were devastated and their lives ruined including one I dated in High School before the war. He was a cheerful, amusing fellow then bu† he came home an incurable alcoholic whose life was entirely ruined. The fact that your dad found no “easy” outs to escape from his memories, but sternly held them “in jail” in the back of his mind to live the good, productive, happy life he did was heroism of a different sort. He remains my hero and always will. Thank you for filling out †he skeleton of information we had from him, the somewhat enhanced story we learned at the battlefields to be a true account by scouring added records since our return is a gift to me and to your whole family – siblings, nieces and nephew, and perhaps to future generations of “family historians” who may also gain stronger backbones knowing of the heroism of their forbear. Thank you from the bottom of my heart! Love, Mom

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