A GI’s Story: Pfc Willard H. Keeber’s WWII Military Service – Part 3

Floyd says that the German soldiers of the 62nd VGD somehow knew when the squad was leaving. They fired volleys of Screaming Meeme’s at them as they withdrew. Perhaps the spotter in the tree was responsible for the intelligence or perhaps it was unfortunate coincidence. As the Meeme’s fell ever closer to the squad they hit the ground and buried their faces in the turf and lay still as the five rockets landed from left to right, one after the other, closer and closer to the scared boys. Floyd describes relief as the rockets fell to their right and they were able to safely get up and move on until the next barrage started and they were forced to hit the dirt again.

Fortunately the entire squad arrived at HQ unharmed. Battalion HQ was at the edge of what is considered the Grosskampenberg region in what was then (and remains today) a horse farm. Floyd recalls they were sent to a dark bunker to rest with some others from Co G until further orders. However, our guide, Doug, and 106th Infantry historian, Carl, say that they were actually in the barn. Having been without rest in the non-stop battle for nearly 3 days, they all fell into a deep sleep.

2nd Battalion HQ Dackscheid, Germany
2nd Battalion HQ, Dackscheid, Germany (just outside Grosslagenberg) – the horse barn.

Floyd’s memoir provides the details for the rest of the night, as Bill’s recollections are still silent about the events of these first few days.

A few hours later Floyd recalled they were awakened by a soft, calm voice telling them to get out of the barn silently as the German infantry had infiltrated the area. They were to line up single-file and hold onto the coat belt of the soldier in front of each man, and move out with no talking.

Floyd had hold of the belt of the soldier in front of him and quietly waited in the deep darkness for the man in front of him to move out. The soldier behind him whispered the question, “Do you have hold of the man in front of you?” he responded in the affirmative. But then reached out and followed the arm of the soldier whose belt he was holding only to discover he was holding a fence post not a soldier’s belt! Floyd told him in disgust, “You have hold of a post.”

At this unwelcome news Willie flew off the handle and yelled at the post-holder, “You dumb S.O.B.!” The S.O.B. apparently took offense. While Willie and the other soldier were squaring off for a fight, their squad leader, who apparently never awakened with the rest, burst out of the barn shouting in confusion. The others jumped the squad leader to quiet him, effectively ending the impending confrontation between Willie and the post-holder. When they all stood up and dusted off, they realized there were only five of them left, alone in the dark woods outside the barn. The rest of the men and Battalion HQ staff had already left. Meanwhile, the woods were filling up with Germans and the men realized they were in grave danger of being shot or captured.

Winter soldiers

Without a map or any idea in what direction or where the Battalion was headed, they needed to move out quickly and it was imperative they head in the proper direction. A mistake would at best, land them in German POW Camp. At worst, they’d be dead. They spread out looking for footprints (fortunately it probably was not too difficult in the snowy conditions), and finding them, followed them deeper into the forest along a faint trail through the woods. However, soon they came to a fork in the trail, and in the deep darkness under the canopy of pine boughs, were forced to guess their direction from that point on. They passed a log home with lights in the windows and smoke coming from the chimney but quietly avoided it hoping the residents wouldn’t see or hear them. All night the five frightened men travelled through the forest, over hills and through steep valleys that traverse the area. Occasionally they would stop and confer in whispers when they were not sure of the way and freezing at any unfamiliar sound or movement.

Winter Soldiers

As day was breaking they silently bypassed another cabin and climbed yet another hill. As they headed toward the crest, they heard voices. Crouching down they tried to determine if they were approaching Americans or Germans but they were too far away to tell. Creeping forward they paused to listen. As they reached the crest the volume of the voices increased but they still couldn’t see anyone or decipher the language. Moving ahead cautiously, they peered over the crest of the hill and were able to make out the olive drab of US Army personnel. They had caught up to their own Regiment!

The 424th Regiment had pulled back into Belgium to the high hills between Burg-Reuland, Bracht and Maspelt. They were spread out across an area of approximately 3-4 km. Google Maps today indicates a hike from the barn at Battalion HQ to the location the 2nd Battalion was encamped at their fall back position is about 10 km (6 miles). Willie, Floyd, and the other three GI’s had managed to cover that distance alone through the deep, dark forest, without a map or even any idea where they were or where they were going in one very long sleepless night, all while avoiding capture by the Germans or injury.

It was not only the 424th Regiment, and it was not all of the 424th Regiment on that high ground in Belgium. Some soldiers from the 28th Infantry – The Bloody Bucket – who had occupied the area on the other side of the unoccupied fields between Willie’s front line position and Ouren in Luxembourg were there too. Separated from the main body of their own Division and Regiments, they were temporarily absorbed by the Golden Lions. Some other soldiers from the 424th had become separated – like Willie, Floyd and the other 3 soldiers the night before – but didn’t get back. Some ended up off further northwest, joined up with remnants of the 423rd and 422nd Regiments of the Golden Lions and ended up involved in various fights and battles or captured by Germans and sent to prison camps.

View from 2nd Bn position 12/19/44 above Berg Reuland
looking back from Berg-Reuland towards Germany, where 106/424 was encamped 12/19/1944.

All this is a good indication of the fluidity of the battleground, the disorganization in the early days of the battle, and the utter surprise the Germans successfully achieved. The German Command had managed all this while the Allies were (nearly unanimously) unaware men, money, and materiel was available for any attack, much less one of such large scale.

Co G Morning Report for December 19, 1944 again makes no mention of their location, but notes thirteen soldiers taken off assignment. Eight were battle casualties; seven were lightly wounded in action, the eighth was seriously wounded in action. Five were non-battle casualties sent off the front for treatment due to illness.

Maspelt, located directly South of St. Vith, became the junction point between the troops of the 424th with the refugee soldiers from the Bloody Bucket, and the 9th Armored Division along the new 2nd line of defense that was formed up starting on December 18 and 19, 1944. The 424th line extended south to just South of Berg-Reuland. These troops were the farthest Southern end (again) of the 2nd line positions for the defense of St. Vith, which extended 11 km (6.8 miles) directly north to the Northern-most end of the 424th positions at Maspelt.

The action around St. Vith was intense on December 19, 1944. The 422nd and 423rd Regiments were being cut off, surrounded and captured in what would later turn out to be historically large numbers.

During the night of December 19, 1944 or perhaps in the early morning hours of December 20, 1944, the 2nd Battalion of the 424th Regiment pulled out again ordered to head towards Commanster, Belgium about 12-15 km (7.5-9.3 mi) East and a little North of the encampment near Burg-Reuland; a hike of about 2-3 hours. In the dark confusion reigned. Several soldiers became separated from the rest in the dark that night. Yet again – for the second time in two days – Willie was one of them. Bill later recalled that perhaps eight to ten soldiers altogether himself included became separated and wandered around in woods together for what seemed like weeks.

Thommen Woods near Berg Reuland, Belgium
Thommen Woods near Berg Reuland, Belgium

The walking route from the encampment between Bracht and Maspelt toward Commanster requires one to pass through woods that matched Bill’s later recollection that it was deep and empty of houses.

Here is where Bill’s memoir briefly starts to get very slightly more specific. Remember though, Bill very rarely spoke of his Military experiences after the war. He clearly worked very hard to put the war behind him. By every metric he was very successful in this effort. He seemed to suffer no bad memories, flashbacks, or regrets.

It’s possible that he was so successful at burying any bad memories that he really did forget. It’s also possible that fear, lack of sleep, constant danger, and trauma day after day without respite contributed to his inaccurate memories so many years later. The perception of time is fluid and tricky under such conditions and can be imprinted on the mind in a scrambled way with only moments of clarity. Add to either of these possible explanations that dogface infantry men were not told anything about the bigger picture of their role in battle or the overall War. They rarely knew where they were going, or even where they were located at any given time. Willie probably just didn’t know a lot of facts. Unfortunately, the consequence was after so many years of silence about his wartime experiences and deliberately trying to forget them, when he did to tell his story for his family, his facts and timelines were no longer entirely accurate – if indeed they ever were.

During the time they were in the woods, the soldiers refrained from telling each other their real names. Bill explained in later years that none of them were at all sure they’d survive to be repatriated with the Allies. The young men thought if some didn’t survive, it might not be so painful if they didn’t know each other well. They used nicknames. Willie was given the nickname “M1”, because he was still carrying Pfc Donald Schultz’s rifle. Bill said in later years he was the only one in the group with a rifle. He clung to Donald’s M1 as “his ticket home” and never let any of the others hold it.

Frozen American Soldier

Weather conditions were cold, wet, and foggy every day from December 20 through December 22, 1944 with visibility under 100 yards. Bill recalled they ground was covered with light snow and daytime temps in the high 30’s to low 50’s and much colder at night. Through this, for each of these 3 days, the exhausted boys of the 2nd Battalion trudged. Their boots and feet were wet and cold and never dried out. But they couldn’t stop moving, or risk freezing to death.

Bill recalled they were all so exhausted at one point someone fell asleep walking and banged into a tree. After that they each kept a buddy close to prevent blundering into a tree or into some Germans. They never stopped for more than a few minutes at a time, and sleep was snatched either in these brief moments, or while walking. They never all got to rest at the same time for fear of falling asleep and freezing. The soldiers not actually resting just walked around the others in circles.

burned out tank
Disabled German Tank

Bill recalled in his memoir that at one point they came across a burned out US tank. He entered hoping for rations, which he found, along with a Zippo lighter; a high point for young Willie because he’d wanted one for a long time.

On December 23, 1944, the weather cleared and the Allied forces were able to take to the skies for air support of the Allied Ground Troops for the first time since December 16, 1944. Bill recalled that from dawn until after dark the sky was full of hundreds of American airplanes bombing German supply lines and positions. He remembered he saw the first jet he’d ever seen – a German plane – that day and didn’t know what it was. The boys whooped and hollered with joy till they were hoarse several times throughout the day as the US planes flew overhead. He remembered he began to feel some dawning of hope they might make it through alive.

12 23 1944 planes over head BoB

German jet
Messerschmitt Me 262 – world’s first operational jet fighter. (photographed at Wright Patterson Air Force Museum)

To be continued….

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