A GI’s Story: Pfc Willard H. Keeber’s Military Service – Part 6

February 1945 for the 424th Regiment was occupied by what Bill later called Cleanup Operations in Germany. Bill said these operations took place in France. However, the Morning Reports for G Co and After Action Reports for the 424th indicate they actually took place in Germany.

This is another indication that Bill (and likely many other veterans of WWII) blocked his memories of his time in Europe really well so he could move on with his life. Or perhaps it means that while he was on the ground in 19444-1945 he really wasn’t told where he was, where he was going, what he was going to be doing, or generally given any information about his role in the conflict such that the facts and locations were always opaque.

In early February the 106th was moved to Pronsfeld – all of about 11-12 km from Co G’s original front line position at Grosskampenberg. From there, they were moved to Frauenkron (about 39 km due north of Pronsfeld) on February 7, 1945, where they engaged in patrol activity along a front line there. In particular, the boys were dug in around the Losheimergraben crossroads (a border town on the Belgian side) about 5 km due east of Frauenkron. M1 was returned to G Co from the Replacement Depot after his discharge from the hospital in Liege on the same day the company was placed on the front in and around Losheimergraben – February 7, 1945.

The Allied Losheimergraben front line command posts were located in German bunkers. Supplies were difficult to get to the boys as the front line was accessible only over narrow and extremely muddy trails. Also, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines left behind by the retreating German army had to be cleared. The mines injured several soldiers during the month.

German anti-personnel mines came in a few varieties. The S-Mine, or Schrapnellmine was called the Bouncing Betty by the GI’s. When triggered, it launched out of the ground to about waist high and released a deadly payload of steel balls and scraps in all directions. It was 5″ tall and 4″ in diameter excluding its trigger. A steel rod sticking out of the top held the trigger and the fuse. The Shue Mine was TNT contained in a wooden box with a hinged lid that was triggered by pressure (like stepping on it) and detonated immediately.

Teller Mines were anti-tank mines shaped like a dinner plate and loaded with TNT with the added advantage of additional anti-tampering devices that would cause it to blow if a soldier tried to disable it. The Riegel mine was an anti-vehicle (truck, motorcycle, etc) mine. It was notoriously difficult to disarm as the wires often corroded making it sensitive to the touch.

The troops patrolled and kept contact with the German army in their bunkers on the other side of the front along the Siegfried Line. They reported back the locations of targets for their Artillery to take out. A daily barrage of harassing enemy artillery fire fell on the 424th throughout the month, concentrated at dawn and 1600 hours.

A regimental shower point was established by the Service Company in February also – a first for the 424th – and the boys were sent back in daily groups for hot showers and clean clothes. Movies were also shown daily. Apart from the patrols and “harassing” artillery barrages life was as comfortable as it was possible to be for a front line infantryman.

Men were sent to the 424th from the Replacement Depots to try to get the Regiment back up to strength. Morning Reports show all told about 109 new men joined G Co in time to help clear the area of mines, patrol out to the German emplacements on the other side of the front and deal with that harassing artillery fire twice a day. The boys of the 424th also recovered abandoned German and American equipment including tons of ammo, personnel equipment, and weapons were all turned in for redistribution or destruction.

On February 17, 1945, M1 got tonsillitis and went back to the Medical Clearing Station for treatment; he returned to G Co on February 21, 1945. On February 22, 1945, Floyd returned from treatment for frostbite after being sent to hospital for treatment January 29, 1945. On February 25, 1945, the 2nd Battalion – including G Co – was sent back from the front line positions for some rest.

Throughout February 1945, the boys were busy capturing or processing surrendering German soldiers. In total the 424th bagged 63 Germans captured and 78 killed. Many Germans just walked from their bunkers, across the front, to the American lines to surrender. The Germans soldiers told stories of low morale, lack of supplies, and no desire to fight. Fear of retaliation had kept many from surrendering sooner. Three Wehrmacht soldiers walked over to the 424th front line one morning and apologized for not surrendering the previous evening. They’d have been there sooner but heard there was to be a candy ration distributed to them with their morning chow. When it didn’t show up, these three called it quits, walked on over, and surrendered. Another group of surrendering Germans reported they were told their outfit would be relieved on “February 29th”; a date that would not arrive until the next Leap Year in 1948. They must have decided that was too long to wait for relief and called it quits. One German soldier even reported with disgust that Himmler had told the nation that the Reich had a source of gasoline distilled from water. Though it was not available to use in such cold weather, as it would freeze, the Reich would have plenty such gasoline in warmer weather. This soldier, however, was not fooled. “Ach”, this soldier was quoted as saying in the 424th After Action Report for the month. “The things they tell us. We wait and wait and nothing happens.”

On March 1, 1945, the 424th was ordered to occupy an area east of Loshimergraben by about 5-7 km near Berk, Germany. Their area extended to the Simmer River and was about 6 miles East to West and about 5500 yards wide from North to South.

They moved into the area on March 4, 1945, and quickly ascertained the German Army was in retreat before them. The 424th advanced and by the end of the day on March 7, 1945, had secured the area and been relieved and moved back to Berk in reserve but continued to patrol the vicinity.

The entire area was, of course, littered with mines on the roads, which had to be cleared so the troops could have freedom of movement in the event of a German counter-attack. Many more German soldiers were captured or surrendered, and some Russian POW’s used by the Germans for labor were liberated.

soviet labor

By the end of the day March 8, 1945, the 424th was bivouacked in the area of Berk for reorganization, rehabilitation, and training. They continued to patrol the area looking for German soldiers. German soldiers were abandoning their uniforms for civilian clothing in the hope of eluding capture by the Allies. This, of course, was a dangerous situation for the Allies as it was hard to know a civilian from a soldier and which soldiers had abandoned their uniform in disgust and just wanted to go home and which were trying to get to other, better manned and equipped units so they could continue to fight. The 424th continued to work to clear the roads of mines in their sector until March 14, when they were informed they were moving to France.

On March 15, 1945, the troops boarded trains and headed for St. Quentin France (about 330 km away as the crow flies). By rail, the trip nowadays would be 8-9 hours. Troops were transported in empty cargo cars.

The 106th remained at St. Quentin for reorganization and training until April 5, 1945. Their time there was devoted to small arms instruction and range firing during the morning hours, with the afternoons spent on mass athletics.

On April 6, 1945, the 424th was moved from St. Quentin to St. Nazaire by train – a 6-hour train ride today. At St. Nazaire the men spent more time on the firing range.

On April 19, 1945, the men departed St. Nazaire by train and truck convoy, taking two days to return to Germany. Based on their separate recollections, M1 was on a train, and Floyd was on a truck traveling via the autobahn.

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One of the few stories that Dad would tell about his War service was an event that happened on one of these train trips. He was not specific if it happened between Berk and St. Quentin, on the way to St. Nazaire, or on the way out of France back to Germany. He recalled that trains had stopped to allow the men a break to stretch their legs and answer the call of nature. They wandered around a rail station waiting to continue on their way and came across a stack of wooden casks. Someone decided to investigate what was in the casks and put a bullet into one. Raw red wine squirted out. All the fellas quickly emptied their canteens and refilled them with wine. Thinking they’d found a perfect way to pass the remaining time on the train, they even emptied the water buckets in the rail cars and filled those with the wine they’d liberated, too. Re-boarding the trains, they drank up the wine, congratulating themselves for being so smart as to ensure a large enough supply of the free wine to last the remainder of the trip. As the afternoon wore on and the boys got drunker and drunker, the rocking of the trains became nauseating. Dad said he doesn’t remember much about the rest of trip other than laying on his stomach, head hanging out the door of the train car while vomiting up all the wine he’d consumed – and looking up and down the train to see other heads hanging out of other cars all doing the exact same thing. Eventually, he passed out. When he awoke he realized that dumping ALL the water had not been such a smart plan as there was nothing to soothe his dry, hung-over mouth but more wine!

https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2016/06/28/german-land-mines-the-hidden-danger/

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